Tuesday 29 April 2008

Welcome to all the pleasures...

…which in my case meant a rather excessive Monday, the day before we left for Cyprus, embarking on the first of six two-hour sessions on my best-beloved Rosenkavalier with the City Lit students, followed by a hasty cycle over to the English-Speaking Union where I was addressing Glyndebourne regulars on Yevgeny Onegin (faced with the mock-rococo of this unfamiliar Mayfair establishment, I felt I was still in the world of 18th century Vienna). The Onegin event was to have been a conversation with Vladimir Jurowski, such knowledgeable and enthusiastic company for last year’s Betrothal in a Monastery study day as well as a Tate round table, but he’d double booked; we then expected the conductor of eight performances, Kirill Karabits, but on Friday he heard he was wanted down there at rehearsals until 6pm.

So I went it alone, but not too fearfully as I know and love the subject well. I think I covered most bases, sticking by and large to Tatyana in Act 1 though pointing out how her most heartfelt theme connects with others for the Nurse, Onegin, Lensky and finally the anthem for doomed love in the final scene. The examples I’d put on to CD all worked fine, but as a bonus I’d asked for ten minutes of DVD screening to show Yelena Prokina, Tatyana incarnate, in the Glyndebourne production on its first appearance. Somehow the sound was sabotaged, barely audible through interference, so the audience had to surmise the truthfulness of Prokina’s intense performance through visuals alone. Here she is in Graham Vick's Glyndebourne staging, as photographed by Mike Hoban:

A very friendly punter suggested I joined him and his partner for a drink while the sound engineer faced the firing squad (as he put it) and I found myself embroiled in the Boris Johnson fan club, who were not above taking pot shots at the Kinnocks and the EU (which I had to defend as best I could). Nice people, all the same, which shows one doesn't have to share political opinions to get along.

Also sheer delight have been the further revelations of Prokofiev’s Diaries Vol. 2, lucidly translated by Anthony Phillips.

I’d hitherto only skimmed the Russian text with my plodding grasp of the language. What will need to be revised in the biography? News on all his women, for a start, between Nina Meschcherskaya and Lina: the casual lays as well as the romantic liaison with Stella Adler and more details on ‘Frou-Frou’ Baranovskaya than I’d had access to when I wrote the book. The American stretch was always the least well documented, but it springs splendidly to life, especially in a flavoursome description of a Californian New Year’s Eve party. And the evocation of the Ballets Russes, the rehearsals and premiere of the Chicago Love for Three Oranges and a séance conducted by the barmy but brilliant Nina Koshetz, a truly great singer, are written up with first-class literary flair. These are diaries for anyone interested in the upheavals of the early 20th century, and certainly not just for music-lovers. Phillips’ annotations are a mine of useful and arcane information, and how splendid that there have been no abridgements. More details will have to wait until my review appears in the July BBC Music Magazine. In the meantime, roll on, Vol. 3.

Monday 28 April 2008

Happy Orthodox Easter

Apart from the well-sung London services, our Easter a month ago was something of a washout, so we were happy to partake of a real spring - just after the heatwave produced by the Hamsin wind had sent temperatures soaring to 39 degrees - in Cypriot Anoyira, where our middle-east-based friends Juliette and Rory have done up a house to perfection.

There are lots of Brits living in the village, but it was good to see so many Greek Cypriots turning out in force to celebrate Orthodox Easter. The services, accompanied by chant which sounds almost indistinguishable from the muezzin cries of Northern Nicosia, go on for hours, so we restless visitors turned up for the two big events - the Good Friday procession of the Epitaphios or flower-covered icon representing Christ's funeral bier around the nearby streets, and the lighting of candles to celebrate Easter on the turn between Saturday and Sunday. Here is the much-admired local papa, a wall-builder by trade, walking behind a group of standard-bearing children with his beautifully-bound Easter hymnal and accompanied by chanting village elders:

And here's the Midnight festival of light. First the candles are lit inside the church, following the 'Christos Anesti' - 'Aleithos Anesti' ('Christ is risen' - 'Truly he is risen'):

Then the priest comes to the west door of the church amid further 'Kyrie eleisons':

And the villagers in all their Easter finery stand around a table on which are placed the sacred icon and the book:

It's a wonderful occasion, though I preferred the Good Friday procession to the Easter merrymaking on account of the firecrackers let off by the local youth around the bonfire, on which they burn an effigy of Judas Iscariot.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Storm-tossed Sibelius

I’ve always wanted to know more about Sibelius’s most encyclopaedic masterpiece, his incidental music to a 1926 Copenhagen production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and its sea-change into something even richer in the two orchestral suites. So preparing a talk before the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert, with John Storgards conducting all the music of the suites re-ordered to coincide with an abridged version of the play, could only be a pleasure.

There are fascinating combinations in the original version, not least the haunting use of harmonium and a harp placed above the stage. But so symphonically at times does Sibelius engage his enlarged orchestra in the concert-hall transformation that the BBC and Storgards were probably right to go for that option – with one exception: once Prospero’s magic is broken, there should be no return to the music of the storm, as there is at the end of the first suite. Sibelius wrote a brief, austere and noble Epilogue for Helsinki in 1927, adapted from a 1904 orchestral piece called Cassazione; I played that at the talk, and I still think it should be how the music-drama ought to end.

It was possibly the most successful blend of actors and orchestra I’ve encountered in the concert hall, not least because instead of the usual spectacle of a famous thesp or two wheeled in for one rehearsal, only to find matching words and music harder than they thought, the BBC asked Di Trevis to direct a team of young actors fresh from drama school, and they seemed to have worked long and hard on this collaboration. The Prospero, Richard Goulding, was outstanding – used his voice superbly throughout several octaves, never tried to play the exiled duke as an old man, and remained vigorous and charismatic throughout. His is a name of which we shall be seeing and hearing much more. The Miranda, Sasha Higgins did her discovery-of-love scenes very charmingly and the rather more erratic but often quite compelling Benedict Hopper doubled Ariel and Caliban. Only the Ferdinand was disappointing. My friend Isabel, award-winning book abridger, thought the adaptation extremely skilful, even if it could have done with a few more tying up of plotlines at the end and a little less exposition at the beginning. Storgards is a marvellously incisive conductor, and characterised the miniatures as well as the more obviously bigger numbers.

I’ve been singing the hit tunes all weekend. But there ought to be plenty to please the modernists, too. Encountered an absurd friend-of-a-friend before the concert. ‘I shouldn’t be here’, she shrilled, ‘I hate Sibelius’. How strange, I said, I’d never met anyone who hated Sibelius before. ‘Oh, I know many who do. Too tuneful. I like dissonance. Have you seen The Minotaur? It’s had rave reviews.’ In a slightly chilly tone I said that I’d seen reviews which were less than raves, and told her there should be enough dissonance in some of Sibelius’s more outlandish numbers to please her. I wonder if she liked Brett Dean’s Ariel’s Music, a two movement clarinet concerto which could afford to condense its elegy and battle into a single action of half the length. It’s beautifully orchestrated, makes all the right gestures for the memorial piece it is – but where are the really strong ideas? As usual, Sibelius shows us what timeless creativity is all about.

Friday 18 April 2008

An audience with Sir Harry

Last-minute flurries by our man at the Garrick Club last week brought one of its most distinguished members, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, to talk and to table just before the premiere of The Minotaur. Here he is posing in front of Tim Shaw's minotaur sculpture outside the Royal Opera House, photo courtesy of Robbie Jack and the Royal Opera:

The Garrick’s formal event was a thoughtful, slightly sombre occasion, expertly and sympathetically chaired by Tom Service, who knows what he’s talking about and is especially good at filling in the audience on details the speakers might have taken for granted (who’s Pasiphae, for example). Much of the talk was about Lancashire vowels, enlivened by a question from club member Graham Clark, and about Sir Harry's northern neighbour and spiritual brother Sir John Tom (they were even born in the same nursing home). David Harsent, the poet-librettist sharing the platform, told us how Sir Harry had asked him to ‘go darker’ for certain lines of Ariadne, ‘which with Harry means very dark indeed’. 

My feelings on Birtwistle operas have been divided: bafflement remains over Gawain, which I duly experienced twice but bits of which I only enjoyed once the voices had been liberated from their labyrinth and replaced by instruments in the orchestral piece Gawain’s Journey. But I was drawn into the strange world of The Last Supper, from which I emerged reeling (yes, I know the libretto’s awkward, but the music overpowers it). I suspect my reaction when I go to see The Minotaur in May – pre-empting the chance of a second performance – will be much the same as Rupert Christiansen’s in the Telegraph, who found it 'enthralling, hypnotising - and unloveable'. Still, best to go with an open mind.

Our host lured the Birtwistles to a Garrick supper afterwards. I sat on the left hand of the master, and learnt that he doesn’t allow too many other influences to clog up his singular vision. Said host told him I’d written a book on Prokofiev. ‘Don’t care much for Prokofiev. When you’ve got Musorgsky and Stravinsky, what’s the point?’ Though he did like some of the piano figuration in what he claimed was the Fourth Piano Concerto. ‘Oh, the one for left hand?’ ‘No. not left hand’. So we didn’t find out which one he meant. He admits to his operatic pantheon Pelleas, Boris and Janacek. Ades’s The Tempest and Adams’s Nixon in China he’d never heard a note of – so I had to protest when he tarred the latter with the minimalist brush. He remained very good humoured when a fellow guest quizzed him along the lines of ‘why don’t you write tunes that the man in the street can sing?’ – the reply, with a twinkle, was something along the lines of ‘why on earth should I?’ Anyway, it was an easy-going occasion, not at all daunting. And I was glad knowledgeable and enthusiastic Tom was able to join us, too.

Friends Anneli Halonen and Riikka Hakola, Finland's leading Traviata (her website is www.riikkahakola.net), made quite a day of it on Saturday, going to the final rehearsal of The Minotaur in the morning, which they found scary in the extreme, before joining us for Zurich Opera’s concert Rosenkavalier at the Royal Festival Hall. Persian attar of roses, which has lasted us well since we brought it back from Kashan in Iran (city of rose-oil and dyers, too - how Strauss and Hofmannsthal would have loved it), was made available to everyone we met. Welser-Most drew silky pianissimos from his orchestra, but remained as ever a bit short on temperament and breadth. Still our dear friend and mother of cherished goddaughters Lottie, over with the chorus for a handful of lines, told us he was in tears at the end. Star of the evening was veteran Alfred Muff as a relaxed, easy-going Ochs, so assured. Stemme’s Marschallin was commanding but had too much vibrato for the golden opening of the Trio, and it didn’t help to have the singers on a platform behind the orchestra. Still, what a joy to hear this inexhaustible score out in the open, as it were.

Saturday 12 April 2008

Spring prizes

Yes, I know, it’s been three long months since there was any life in this blog, but as spu-rring is here (as represented by my barely budding mulberry, still in exile on the south side of the square, and more colourful seasonal display beneath it)…

…and as the BBC Music Magazine awards were finally announced on Wednesday, let’s pick up where I left off. I didn’t have anything inspiring to say about such much-touted events as Salome – overrated except for Jordan’s fastidious conducting, the Narraboth and the Page (!) – and Gruberova. But on Tuesday I’d say I got my soul back. My loyal student, and intelligent patron of the arts, Gillian Frumkin, drew belatedly to my attention that the live-wire Jerusalem Quartet, whose first violinist Sasha Pavlovsky usually stays with her in London, were helping to launch Steven Isserlis’s Russian chamber music festival at the Wigmore. So I forsook the BBC Symphony Orchestra, being especially keen to hear the Jerusalems on the eve of their BBCMM award (for this:)

...and boy, was I delighted. Isserlis, clarinettist of the moment Martin Frost and a very imaginative, effortlessly virtuosic pianist new to me, Kirill Gerstein, kicked off with Glinka’s Trio pathetique – hardly great music, but how they cherished its Donizettian bel canto. But the real melodic heart of the matter came from the Jerusalems, in a performance of Borodin’s Second Quartet much meatier, if less silvery, than the familiar interpretation of the mighty Borodins. I heard things I’d never noticed before: the way the cellist leads the quartet into a magically distant key in the first movement recap, lovely touches from the viola and such a droll mock-serious dialogue before the finale bursts out laughing. ‘Moy lyubimy kvartet’, I told Sasha’s charming father in the interval, and it’s true – only Dvorak’s American Quartet has quite the same spirit of delight.

Sasha and cellist Kiril Zlotnikov bowed out to the Amazonian Baiba Skride and Isserlis for the Taneyev Piano Quintet. What a monster, at least in the gusty outer movements, and how convincingly they all rode the storms. I actually preferred the brighter worlds of the second and slow movements – the latter is Taneyev in most leonine mode, with a constantly descending passacaglia figure of striking dignity: utterly memorable. I wanted to hear it again immediately. And listening to the first and third quartets in the afternoon for the Music Mag, I was struck again by how full of feeling Taneyev is in chamber mode – a far cry from the misleading image of the dry-as-dust contrapuntalist, and from interminable works like the cantata At the Reading of a Psalm, after a performance of which by Pletnev (who for some reason loves it), Andrew Stewart and I rudely guffawed in the face of a colleague's ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a masterpiece!’

Andrew, I was glad to see, was one of the 150 or so guests on board the Silver Sturgeon for the third BBCMM awards. Other private faces in public places, Rob Cowan and Anthony Burton, joined me for a blissful ten minutes in the spring sunshine on the upper deck (cycling along the Victoria Embankment, I found myself humming the opening of Janacek’s Osud, which of course is about the guests at the spa resort basking in the sun). Only at the end did I catch up with two of my fellow jurists, Christopher Dingle and the delightful Berta Joncus. Chris said, and I agree, that if we’re asked to do it again in a few years’ time, we should insist on all the same heads getting together, so well did we get on. Alas, although the Jerusalems should have been there to receive their prize, squeezing in a short appearance between a six hour rehearsal for Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence (more of which anon), their taxi failed to meet the SS as it made a special mooring half way through the event. Anyway, I’m delighted they won the chamber award for their vitally re-imagined Shostakovich quartets, though I can now say that their appearance among the threesome was only thanks to the passionate pleading, bullying even, of two of us on the jury that they should be given a chance and a Kagel disc shunted to the Premiere Recording category (same thing happened with Rustem Hayroudinoff and the Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux, which made it thanks to the sidewards shift of David Fray’s dazzling Bach/Boulez programme).

As I guessed – and even the jury wasn’t allowed to know until the last minute – Mitsuko’s Beethoven Hammerklavier ran away with Disc of the Year. She made the most charming and vivacious speeches imaginable; filmed, alas, but you could feel her presence and I bet there wasn’t a single person present who didn’t fall in love with her on the spot. She talked amusingly about being built for Schubert and Mozart, but not Beethoven, and told us about her three pianos, one of whom was a real diva. Here she is with her award, as photographed by Mark Harrison for the magazine:

I was also delighted to see Maxim Vengerov there at the lunch. His equally charismatic personality triumphed over that dubious Tango Concerto in the DVD Documentary category (best of a not especially wonderful bunch). No stars graced my table, and I was in the faintly embarrassing position of being with the EMI folk when frankly I wouldn’t have chosen Martha Argerich’s Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 as the best orchestral disc (not naughty enough for me; though the Piano Quintet is a different matter – chamber material, though). I hope I made amends by telling David Groves in all sincerity that I’d rooted for Pappano’s Respighi disc. Of the other special guests, I only got to speak to Robert Carsen, there to receive the best DVD Performance award for his spare but harrowing and ultimately transfigurative production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, about which we were all unanimous. Even in the minute or so they screened of that most moving of all final operatic scenes, tears came to my eyes. As they did to Carsen’s in his acceptance speech; his mother had died three days before, and she specially loved the Carmelites.

Anyway, the Jerusalems’ day spent on Souvenir de Florence with Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis turned out to be more than worth it. As an enthusiastic American gentleman who accosted me in the Wigmore foyer afterwards put it, ‘that was beyond belief, wasn’t it?’ And it was. It’s such a tough piece, and I’d never appreciated quite how exhausting the Finnish-sounding third movement can be for the listener as well as the performers. It was good, too, to hear Jerusalem viola-player Amichai Grosz equal in the beauty of his solos to soaring Bell and subtle Isserlis. Another ingenious programme began with Arensky’s Second Quartet (for violin, viola and two cellos) in memory of Tchaikovsky: a personal and at times meltingly beautiful work. I hadn’t realised that the second movement formed the basis of his best known piece, the Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky for string orchestra. Rubinstein’s First Cello Sonata sounded commonplace by comparison – the main theme of the finale starts out as if it wouldn’t be out of place in a G&S patter song – but again Kirill Gerstein made light of a heavyweight piano part (you could tell that Rubinstein, like Taneyev, was a first-rate pianist). Pity I can’t hear the third concert in the series on Saturday – Rosenkavalier at the South Bank beckons – but I wouldn’t miss Bell, Isserlis and Mustonen in the Shostakovich Second Piano Trio on Monday for anything.