Friday 28 November 2008


That’s the only word to describe the devastatingly simple end of Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, as Synge’s archetypal matron of loss Maurya finally takes on board the deaths of her six sons by naming them – ‘no man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied’ – and the hungry, unquiet sea roars against her last, becalmed major chords of acceptance: nature versus man in a final unanswered question.

Planned as the culmination of one intense hour in English National Opera's most unorthodox offering of the year, this took on the aspect of a perfect, calm memorial to Richard Hickox, who was due to conduct it (Edward Gardner did so, with tact and sensitivity). How Patricia Bardon, pictured above by Clive Barda with Leigh Melrose as the drowned Bartley and Kate Valentine as Cathleen, got through those lines without any break in the assured legato I don’t know, but this was a quietly authoritative performance from our finest contralto. Here she is again, very much centre stage.

What I hadn’t bargained for – I guess I should have read the papers, but I’m glad I hadn’t – was Fiona Shaw’s inspired prefacing of Riders with Sibelius’s Kalevala creation myth Luonnotar.

Suspended aloft in a long boat, as if viewed from above, the equally glorious Susan Gritton gave a no less searing interpretation as the air-spirit ocean-bound for seven centuries before her accidental act of creation. Her ideal lyric soprano now reaches out to a surprising richness, the taxing high laments pouring over us without the slightest hint of strain (there’s even a little in Soile Isokoski’s much-touted, BBC Music Magazine award-winning recording).

Birth, death, rebirth in aqueousness formed the cord between the two pieces, with minimal mood-music from John Woolrich, recorded snatches of Aran island song and the ongoing surge of Dorothy Cross’s superb video work. Sibelius's eight minutes of eternity are, for me, only mirrored in mastery by the end of VW's very internal opera, and the temperatures plummeted for much of it: the interest is in the mostly slate-grey orchestra, not – at least until the end – in the ungainly setting of Synge’s realistic dialogue. But you couldn’t fault Maurya’s daughters as sung by Kate Valentine and Claire Booth, and if Shaw’s staging asked for more febrile movement than the score implies, the bright rectangle of action flanked by cliffs and turbulent sea-pictures kept its focus. And it was totally satisfying to return full circle to the elemental rocking of Sibelius’s nature-mother, reappearing among the rocks in her pregnant state (though perhaps she should have walked calmly down centre stage, like the Lady from the Sea) while upside-down coffin-boats descended from the sky during Vaughan Williams’s epiphany.

PS - Just had an e-exchange with Ed Seckerson; we echo each other, though I guess he's happier with the whole of the VW as a work than I am. You can see Ed’s five-star Independent review here (for once they've pulled the stops out to get something in the paper double-quick; after all, there are only two performances left). As he added in our quick correspondence, 'where else in the world would you see an evening like this? We are lucky.' We are indeed.

Thursday 27 November 2008

At home with the Sixth

Jean and Aino Sibelius would, I hope, have been happy to invite you to listen in to Saturday morning's Building a Library on Radio 3, when I'm comparing all available versions of the Sixth Symphony (further details here - and don't forget the 'Listen Again' facility is also accessible for a week afterwards). I hope I captured a little of its essence a couple of entries earlier. And if that fanfare sounds like arrogance or outrageous self-advertising, for me (unless I'm deceiving myself) the pure yet paradoxically ambiguous masterpiece that is the Sixth comes first.

It's still too early to give any details of front-runners, but I'll hint that quite a few of the supposed classic versions should sound rather dreadful in the examples I've chosen, and that if certain contenders like Petri Sakari on Naxos and Lorin Maazel on Decca don't get a mention in the end product, it's not because I didn't listen to them nor start out with an example or two (I had 35 snippets before I began the painful whittling process).

Anyway, producer Kevin Bee said that the programme fulfils its essential brief - it makes you want to hear the work. I hope you love it as much as I still do.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Empty places

It hadn’t occurred to me when I took this picture, of the empty chairs and stands left after LSO players had followed my Prokofiev talk at St Luke’s on Sunday afternoon with a spirited performance of the tricky Quintet, that it might tie in with the current wave of loss both private and public. I certainly felt sad to hear of the untimely death of Richard Hickox. I won’t play false to memory by saying that I admired him hugely as a conductor, but he did a great deal for a vast swathe of repertoire. Without him we may not have got to hear the original version of Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony, nor (in concert) the Mozart/Strauss Idomeneo and the original Ariadne, both bringing Christine Brewer to the fore.

I may have found him wanting in music which required a strong rhythmic sense – let’s pass over the dances in his Covent Garden performances of Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, which were boorishly booed – but when he had a feeling for a certain spiritual inwardness in works he loved, the results could be very moving. So I’m very happy that I last saw him in action with Vaughan Williams' Pilgrim's Progress back in June. That semi-staged performance has already gone down as a one-in-a-thousand event, as it made me adore the work; how much more so will we treasure it now. I’m glad, though people mumbled at the time, that his eldest son got to sing a treble role, and that Mrs Hickox, Pamela Helen Stephen, was in it too.

My heart goes out to them and the two other young Hickoxes all the more because it was heartbreaking to have to look at Nell’s lovely children at the Glastonbury funeral service on Monday. I’ll freely admit that it wasn’t appropriate to have gone on not only to my class back in London that afternoon, but also to the Royal Opera Elektra. How could an (effectively) raving soprano battling against a 111-piece orchestra really have much an effect when I was haunted by the image of Nell’s young son Paddy playing ‘Love me tender’ on the guitar, supported by his teacher? What's more tragic-heroic, the bloody zenith of a family feud or a little boy courageously offering up a tribute to his dead mother under difficult circumstances?

Hansel with the class felt a bit more meaningful than Elektra, especially as we happened to be following the Richard Jones production as released on DVD by the Met in conjunction with EMI. Its scary-tender dream banquet, photographed here for the Met by Ken Howard, struck just the right note. NB Jones's musicality - the lids come off only at the very climax of Humperdinck's pantomime-ballet:

Gretel's little song in the wood as sung by the late, lamented Lucia Popp on CD was also bound to be more in tune with my mood than Susan Bullock’s spasmodic jubilation on the cluttered stage of Covent Garden.

You never know how you’re going to be taken by funeral services. The one for Simon’s mum was so bright and bittersweet, partly due to the presence of so many thespians; this, I think because of the kids, was fairly distressing throughout. Even so, the Tavener tied in well with a bagpiper heralding the coffin at the beginning, and his dulcet tones just made us laugh at the end in Ivesian melange with Monty Python’s ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ (hearing ‘life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it’ in the hallowed surroundings of St. John's did seem briefly hysterical). After I’d got through my tribute with difficulty, a headmaster from Cerne reminded us what a bloody-minded if inspirational teacher Nell had been. Simon played Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits unaccompanied on his flute, an odd parallel with my LSO talk the previous afternoon when I’d had the benefit of the orchestra's guest principal flautist Michael Cox representing various Prokofiev heroines (and a surprise sell-out of a book-signing turned poignant when two of the audience wanted ‘in memory’ inscriptions to, respectively, a Kenyan poet-husband and a violinist daughter who’d suffered from MS).

And, of course, we all roared out the Glastonbury anthem ‘Jerusalem’. Coincidentally, I can take you photographically from the thorn in the 15th century south chancel window of St John's… the birthplace of the author of ‘And did those feet…’, which I came across by chance arriving from Glastonbury back in Piccadilly Circus, and wandering the streets of Soho to pick up a score in Chappell’s before my class.

The angry poet, with his London ‘signs of weakness, signs of woe’, would not be too impressed by the state of William Blake House, erected I guess in the 1970s on the spot.

Anyhow, a word or two about Elektra. In my few objective moments I could tell that even on a normal day, I wouldn’t have been quite swept away by this curate’s egg of a show. I loathed Charles Edwards’ production first time around, when Anne Schwanewilms’ Chrysothemis was the only redeeming feature musically speaking. This time, though her top notes seemed to have lost something of their gleam from where I was sitting, she was surrounded by quality. Bullock has worked so hard on meaning and character that it seems a bit churlish to ask for laser-beam notes above the stave; but for anyone who'd heard Gwyneth, Behrens or even Marton hurl them out, this was bound to feel a little bit less than a superstar performance.

In any case Bullock, like everyone else, has to make so many calculated moves – Edwards, a designer first and foremost, and an imaginative one, has props, so everyone must use them – that the flow of psychological truth never has a chance. ‘Here I pick up the bust of Agamemnon and jig about a bit with it’, ‘here I post on the Bauhaus wall a picture of a missing child’ (to spell out to the audience Orest’s absence), ‘here I pick up the axe’ (premature to Strauss’s digging-music, and to laughter from the audience). And, later, there goes Aegisth a third time through the revolving doors with yet more blood on him and you realise why we had to have them in the first place, and there’s Orest raising his knife against Chrysothemis amid palace carnage; you half expect her to have to execute her last cries like the dying Countess Geschwitz in Lulu, though he spares her. Welch eines hundesfruehstuck, as one amusing Parterre poster put it. Elder’s conducting? Too heavy, for me – I remember Thielemann before his spoiling really making it sound like Strauss’s exaggerated ‘fairy music by Mendelssohn’. What a disappointment – and how difficult to dodge various ecstatic dignitaries afterwards as I forced myself to mumble ‘well, it didn't work for me, but maybe that’s my problem’.

I wanted to be more positive about the ENO Boris Godunov, which has had a rough ride in the press. Call me partisan, but I’d still say that Peter Rose’s Boris, seen above with his children in the Coronation Scene as portrayed by Clive Barda, represented the only world-class performance on stage; the artistry of the phrasing and the skill not to go too histrionically over the top in the hallucination might have passed a lot of punters by. Many raved about Sherratt’s Pimen, but it’s just a bass colour of the sort that many associate with the Russians. Slavic Peter wasn’t, and I didn’t find the death scene moving – but then I never have, not even with Gidon Saks.

So that may be Musorgsky's fault. Certainly you can lay at the composer’s door the way that one’s spirits, stirred by the two crowd scenes, slowly sink during the multiple narratives in the Chudov Monastery and the relentlessly unfunny tavern antics (especially sober at ENO this time). Interest and involvement are slowly rekindled in the ‘Palace Apartments’ Scene, but that would have been so much better if they’d played out the revised version throughout; this was, edition wise, as usual, an unsuccessful cut-and-paste. Tim Albery’s production has its moments, but I’m not sure you can quite reduce the needy populace to the level of a gulag group, and the jury is out on the big, claustrophobic barn which only opens up occasionally (and strikingly).

All power to Ed Gardner, drawing incisive, heavy colours in the pit. He’s announced that he will take up Hickox’s baton for the three ENO performances of Riders to the Sea. Given the subject-matter, it’s probably going to be an emotional half-hour-plus. What a shame to end the Vaughan Williams celebrations in grief at yet another interpreter (Vernon Handley being the other) failing to crown his due commemoration.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Deserting Bruckner for Boris

Giltburg, that is, not Godunov (he comes later in the week). And no, it wasn't the twentysomething pianist's winning smile, as pictured above by Eric Richmond, which had me pedalling like fury from the Barbican to the Southbank after my pre-performance talk on Bruckner's Fifth Symphony last Wednesday. Giltburg is already an interpreter of astonishing maturity and total control over the weighty, glowing sound he draws from the keyboard. I was bowled over by his debut recital disc in a BBC Music Magazine review, and a couple of months back, he talked to me over the phone about his then-forthcoming Queen Elizabeth Hall recital (the result appeared in this interview-profile).

It was a daunting programme indeed, and he swept into Beethoven's Op. 111 right at the start with magisterial aplomb, holding a very attentive audience silent between movements. I've never heard the trills of the variations quite so metaphysical or transparent. His decision to move straight on to the same unearthly light in Scriabin's Fourth Sonata was vindicated, too - such flight, such hovering on the brink of silence.

The second half was rather massive too: again, a monumental curtainraiser in the shape of Rachmaninov's greatest Etude-Tableau (and for me, perhaps the most haunting solo piano piece ever), Op. 39 No. 7. After bathing in the depths of Melnikov and Hayroudinoff for the Building a Library earlier in the year, I found this rather more externalised, if powerful all the same. Schumann's Carnaval had plenty of light and shade, not quite enough of the kittenish spring I love in Rachmaninov's own recording. The encores were idiosyncratic: a floating wistfulness about Rachmaninov's transcription of the Kreisler Liebesfreud, a further Etude-Tableau I was hoping for, the one about Red Riding-Hood and the Wolf. Again, I've heard more playful accounts, but none more frightening or ferocious.

So was it worth leaving behind Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner Five? Impossible to say; by the end of my allotted forty-five minutes of talk I was hungrier than ever to hear what they'd make of that greatest of all finale solutions, the introduction of the noble chorale minutes into the upheavals. Well, I'll get to hear the performance on the broadcast. My crowd included several enthusiastic Brucknerites who seemed to think I'd passed the test, so I was happy with that.

Yet what dilemmas London musical life poses. I could also have heard that same night Jurowski in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Elektra and Boris G (time enough for those anon) or Andreas Haefliger, whose agent had been torn between him and Giltburg. Sometimes I forget which mode I'm in, as in the case of the Friday before last, when I whizzed into Broadcasting House for five packed minutes with Tom Service, talking about another BBCSO concert from weeks back which was being broadcast that evening and whizzed away again to hear Rozhdestvensky in Tchaikovsky (some wonderful touches there, but generally too laid-back an approach to compare with the earlier wonders of Jurowski and Jarvi. And the Second Piano Concerto, played with surprising sensitivity by Mrs Noddy Rozh, Viktoria Postnikova, does go on for ever, though its level of thematic invention is extraordinarily high).

Just as dizzying is what one can catch between venues. That evening, having chewed the cud with Tom about Pintscher's hyper-refined, over-detailed Rimbaud piece Pourquoi l'azur muet, I found myself in Regent Street, dazzled for once by the Xmas lights: no Disney tack this year, just nets of stars.

With the moon above or behind them, they tied in rather nicely with the Rimbaud settings we'd just been discussing. How about (and I'm going to be especially pretentious and not give a translation):

Pourquoi l'azur muet et l'espace insondable?
Pourquoi les astres d'or fourmillant comme un sable?
Et tous ces mondes-la, que l'ether vaste embrasse
Vibrent-ils aux accents d'une eternelle voix?

Or - in the 'Phrase' leading up to 'Antique', my favourite 'bit' of Britten's Les Illuminations, lines not set by Pintscher:

J'ai tendu...des chaines d'or d'etoile a etoile, et je danse.

OK, these are just the twinkling summons to sorely-needed Christmas consumerism, and always too early - I don't linger in shops playing seasonal music. But the city does shine in the November gloom. On another short journey, from Mansion House to the Barbican for the Prokofiev events, I came across the Lord Mayor's coach temporarily liberated from the Museum of London and sitting in a glass booth of the Guildhall prior to its annual excursion in the City parade.

No doubt it's now turned back in to a pumpkin, but what a treat just to stumble across en route. Tonight I'll be taking another curious journey from London Bridge to Maida Vale for the only one of the three Turkish music events I can make in the BBCSO's collaborations with Istanbul-based composer/player/teacher Michael Ellison and the traditional Turkish ensemble of Ali Tufekci.

These events are free - the link for further details you can't click above (but can here) takes you to the BBC Symphony website. On Tuesday Michael came to my Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra class with chief producer Ann McKay and fired us all up to hear more. He covered an enormous amount of ground, from folk and religious music to the four generations of classically-trained Turkish composers who have appeared on the scene since the 1920s, and his obvious enthusiasm was infectious. I think he and Ann were impressed by the students' lively questions, too, which ranged from observations on the similarities between this, Iranian and Cretan music to discussions about the Kurdish problem and the music being made by Turkish communities in Germany and whether there's any fusion going on (there is). I now have a long list of musicians and vocalists to go and hunt out on CD.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

RIP Nell and Naomi

Nell Harris (nee Martin), a close friend for over 25 years, died peacefully on Saturday afternoon. I took the above photo of a windswept Nell and her three lovely children - my goddaughter Rosie May on the right, Eliza and Paddy - in 2002 when they came to meet us at Lyme Regis at the end of one of our Coast Path hauls. Nell kept an astonishingly wise perspective during her years of illness. Sometimes she could be bleakly humorous, only occasionally angry or despairing. We had some wonderful times together even in the last few months, among them the family's trip to our Herefordshire retreat on the hottest weekend of the year, the importance of which neither Nell nor her husband Geoff ever left me in any doubt about, and the visit to Glastonbury in September - there should have been more - with our mutual friend (and Rosie's godmother) Eleanor.

By what I can only call a happy coincidence - as I always feel slightly uneasy about that 'meant to be' stuff - I phoned Eleanor on her mobile on Saturday afternoon just when she was sitting with Nell in the hospice. We all thought - and I found this particularly hard to take - that Nell was unconscious, but she made her feelings felt by light pressures of the hand. Eleanor, who said it was an astonishing experience - 'like being at a birth'- asked her if she'd like me to say anything, and she signalled that she would, so I did - twice, through the receiver Eleanor held to her ear. She died a couple of hours later. Let me never curse the mobile phone again.

That weekend, I was steeped in scripting and selecting examples for the forthcoming Radio 3 Building a Library on Sibelius's Sixth Symphony for a Monday morning deadline. It was strange to intertwine this with phone reports of Nell's condition, but I couldn't have been listening to a more bracing or philosophic piece. I wouldn't call the end exactly positive - the pantheistic hymns of praise fade to a single note of infinity - but it all seems so organic and natural (in the best performances, that is). Curiously, it was a disc of the Sixth - the 'winner', as it turns out, of the programme, though that's on hold for a week and a half - which I took in to Charing Cross Hospital when I had a brain scan several years ago. Of course it was a wasted effort: the MRI machine made such a racket that the music being piped into the room was obliterated. But it's now, more than ever, a desert island piece of mine. I can hear Nell saying 'how wonderful' at this picture of old Jean sitting beneath the pines near his home of Ainola. I found it in an old book Anneli leant me on Ainola from the Finnish Embassy, and I'd never seen it before - though it really needs to be enlarged.

So much for northern timelessness. As for uncanny Glastonbury, the title of my slightly oblique blog entry, 'And did those feet...', will come into play at the funeral service when we sing 'Jerusalem' (in the words of which, as I wrote, Blake is plausibly believed to have been referring to Christ and his putative visit to Somerset with Joseph of Arimathea). Nell told me two months ago that the music she wanted was Tavener's The Protecting Veil, with its piercingly serene high line for cello (it's one of the few of that composer's works I actually love - the liturgies always seem like too pale an imitation of the real thing). Maybe there'll be some fado from Mariza, and Simon will play his flute.

As a perfect example of how to celebrate the person, the September memorial service at St. James Piccadilly for my 'student' Naomi Weaver stood very high on a long list. Six of us from different walks of her life made short tributes, Cathryn Pope sang twice with the expert accompaniment of the very fine organist, and the readings carefully selected from different parts of the Bible in which Naomi was so well steeped were beautifully read by her American friend Elizabeth Hart.

This photograph of Naomi in the early 1990s was kindly sent to me by her son Jonathan.

The sculpture is by Rembrandt Bugatti. One of the fascinating things we learnt about Naomi's multiple interests was the intensity of her collecting. Matthew Flowers, great Angela's son, told us of an expedition to New York to acquire a Patrick Heron where she made him walk with her twenty blocks in a snowstorm to get to the gallery first. Deborah Ashencaen spoke about Naomi's love and knowledge of Himalayan art.

As for music, I remember her as a quiet student who would always make her feelings known, gently but firmly. She was no slouch in standing up for much-maligned Lulu or Donna Anna, contributed a paper on the various Marys when we were 'doing' Parsifal, and always sent cards to me addressed to 'Prof. Nice'. When I told her I was no such thing, she replied, 'well, you are to me', and carried on regardless. The last card I had from her, a fortnight before her totally unexpected death, gave me the details of the travel firm with which she'd toured more or less independently around Uzbekistan. It was, again, a happy coincidence that I'd just had my longest ever conversation with her over tea, in which I learnt much more about her childhood in Rhodesia, her solitary travels around Africa and her most recent trip. How often we miss out on these opportunities - but it's wonderful when they happen.

Thursday 13 November 2008

All's well that ends well?

Would that it were so, that I might bask in the reflected glory of my fellows in Prokofiev studies. Earlier this year, in May, hopes ran high indeed when scholar Simon Morrison came to Goldsmiths to demonstrate so eloquently what Prokofiev's original thoughts on Romeo and Juliet might sound like (hopefully encapsulated as clearly as I could manage back in this blog entry).

When the Mark Morris Dance Group came to the Barbican last week, we did indeed get the promised happy end of the original 1935 score, in which following Friar Laurence's timely intervention, Juliet stirs in the nick of time and the lovers get to dance again in a fantasy-world of their own. Above is the perfectly photogenic pair I saw on Saturday night, Maile Okamura and Noah Vinson, as photographed for the Barbican Centre by Gene Schiavone. I guess Morris did as well as he could with that unlikely premise (which Simon thinks, perhaps debateably, is the result of Prokofiev's Christian Scientific beliefs in the best of all possible worlds). Otherwise, this choreographer can either rise to the heights of genius, as in the almost unbearable lightness of his exultant approach to Handel's L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato, or he can be horribly disappointing. And I'm afraid that I, and those around me, were disappointed by what he'd come up with for an alternative Romeo.

It wasn't quite as dire an evening as Michael Clark's Stravinsky project in the same theatre, and certainly improved in the first part of the third act. Still, there was nothing radical except for a desire to squeeze in a bit more of the Shakespearean story line - though usually when the music, especially in the little codas, is trying to focus on the characterisation - and no chance of rivalling the sumptuousness of the indestructible and now far from routine Kenneth MacMillan classic at the Royal Ballet. The Morris crowd scenes, according to J (and I can only concur), looked a bit like the valiant efforts of our friend Danni - formerly Danielle Sophia of the 'Tumbling Elsters' - and her fellow hoofers in the annual Poole showbiz revue. Which is not to belittle the latter, only to point out that they're amateurs in the best sense, and this lot are supposed to be professionals. I fear I can't bring myself to illustrate the Morris group in this, so let's have a comforting sideways view of how the Capulet ball ought really to look in the Royal Ballet production, courtesy of Dee Conway.

Yes, I know it's probably time for something new, but there's more vitality in a minute of that heart-in-mouth show than in the three long hours we spent at the Barbican. Occasionally Morris gives his company an interesting and graceful pattern to execute, but where were the testosterone of violent Verona or the panache of youthful high spirits? Maybe there was a point in having women play Mercutio and Tybalt - and Amber Darragh's prankster stood out as better than the rest, though that's not saying much - but surely less cliched gestures could have been found for such numbers as the Dance of the Knights.

Morris's steps frequently reach a standstill while the dancers look as if they're thinking what to improvise next. You need a lyric and dramatic sweep, and it reminded me how of how, in total contrast, Nureyev used to be criticised for 'overfilling' his choreographies. But that came out of being head over heels in love with the physical act of dancing, and on Saturday I could only hark back to having watched (as part of my DVD ballet batch for the BBC Music Magazine) Nureyev's Paris Opera Ballet Cinderella on Opus Arte, lavishly restored after his death with the wistful-lovely Agnes Letestu (such arms, such telling expressions - shouldn't dancers act intensely with their faces as well as their bodies? They certainly tend to now at the Royal Ballet). Given the relocation to Hollywood in the 1930s, there are Chaplin, Groucho, Fred-and-Ginger, Keystone Cops and even King Kong routines. Some ideas work, others don't, but it's all alive.

But back to Saturday. Compound Morris's often tentative, sketchy steps with the unhappy situation of the reduced pit orchestra confined to the shoebox under the stage - supposedly the LSO, though there were quite a few deps on Saturday night - and the tough set-pieces could only turn out to be damp squibs winning no applause. Conductor Stefan Asbury had an easier task making the more intimate music of Act Three glow, and briefly our lovers shone in the buff. But Morris really hasn't taken advantage of all the dance vocabulary which has accrued since Balanchine to give his Romeo and Juliet their own special eloquence and poetry, and this is probably the only 'balcony scene' where instead of being moved to tears I found that my mind was elsewhere.

Given that the bitty original ending was immeasurably improved in Prokofiev's tragic rewrite, that we only lose one dance which might be worth hearing and that the first version doesn't cut down on all the crowd-reprises of Act Two as I'd expected, this will surely turn out to have been a once-only outing. I'm glad Simon has put in all that work, especially so that we could hear where the music of the Fifth Symphony's scherzo fits in an improbable last-minute melee, but it would be a mistake to plead that 'this was what Prokofiev wanted'. First thoughts are rarely the best; revision makes perfect - equally true, in my opinion, of Musorgsky's Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and Sibelius's Fifth Symphony (though there's more interesting stuff in all of those Version Ones).

Anyway, I'm glad that the geniality of the Prokofiev Association's 25th anniversary party before the performance on Thursday wasn't immediately blunted by my experience of the ballet (which I saw two nights later). Many of the Prokofievs were there, though Sviatoslav had felt too unwell the day before he was due to travel. Here, at least, is his son, Serge Junior, who looks more like his grandfather than either Sviatoslav or the late and much-missed Oleg, and whose designer's eye gave us the splendid image of 25 Sergey Sergeyeviches on the invite. My beloved Noelle Mann, guiding force of the association, journal and archive for so many years, holds it aloft for inspection.

Simon, of course, was there, seen on the right with a distinguished Russian colleague, now based in Tel Aviv, who's also contributed invaluable research on the history of Prokofiev's Romeo, Nelly Kravetz.

Lady Joan Downes wanted me to take this photo from a distance of Sir Edward, who of course has given so many great Prokofiev performances over the years, in conversation with Anastasia Prokofiev, since Lady J remembered a similar encounter when Anastasia was but a toddler.

Finally, a bit of topical Obamiana sported at the reception by the vivacious Alice McVeigh, former cellist with the BBC Symphony and other orchestras, now focusing on motherhood but also continuing to wield a lively pen.

I subsequently got hold of Alice's little book on how to survive in orchestras, All Risks Musical, and found it painfully funny at times, if rather dispiriting. This may seem a little Pollyannaish, but I do believe from my experience with the BBC players that orchestral musicians are becoming less rather than more cynical.

Sunday culminated in a rather more profound musical experience, Britten's War Requiem in a Royal Albert Hall performance with Pappano conducting Royal Opera forces. I'd asked to be allowed to write the lengthy note in the programme because I wanted to analyze why this great masterpiece still stuns me if well performed (and I try not to hear it more than once every five years). That it did here was due partly to the weight and cut of a professional opera chorus, to Christine Brewer's aching musicality in the 'Lacrimosa' and to Hampson's dedicated projection of the Owen texts. Bostridge was more perfunctory, and wicked impersonations of his head-voice singing complete with inappropriate mid-range break have been going on here ever since, but at least he knows how and where to nuance. The Albert Hall blunted much of Pappano's finer focus, but it was a treat to hear the boys' choir ringing down from the gallery. My dear old friend Martin Zam, who died in his mid-nineties, always remembered this as an essential part of the War Requiem experience in such a singular venue.

Accordingly, here's the war memorial in my old home 'village' of Banstead, which I saw again on a visit to the maternal earlier in the day. I well remember how we choristers used to freeze in our cassocks and surplices, Remembrance Sundays usually being rather colder back in the 1970s.

Just along from the memorial is the well, symbol of old Banstead.

And here's my alma mater church of All Saints, where choirmaster 'Uncle Dah', an inspirational force in many ways if a little dodgy in others, nurtured us all in some surprisingly fine musical experiences.

That gives me the final cue to thank all those who sponsored us on our Norfolk Churches Walk, for which we've finally assembled the money - a grand total of over £1,000.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Hoffmania and Gogoliana

So dolly Olympia is in pieces (forgive my own homage above with the celebrated Italian finger puppet), artiste Antonia has sung herself to death and courtesan Giulietta is damned for all eternity. In other words, I've finally laid Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann to rest after six two-hour sessions in my City Lit Opera in Focus course, and I have immeasurably more respect and love for the work than when I somewhat reluctantly embarked. We've seen and heard enough riffs and variations on Offenbach's unfinished masterpiece to know what we want now: as little as possible of the lengthy recitatives patched together by Guiraud and others, the dialogue kept to a minimum, the Giulietta act third rather than second, and so on.

The 'so on' embraces too many details to be rehashed here, but I wouldn't do without the glorious Nicklausse 'ode a la musique' in the Antonia act, which I first heard on Garanca's glowing arias disc, every bar of the original stuff for the Muse at the beginning and end (the part of the Muse/Nicklausse devolved from a mezzo to a soubrette soprano, so much of this disappeared at an early stage), the trio for Coppelius, Hoffmann and Nicklausse which sets the Olympia ball rolling nicely, and of course two major interpolations: the familiar replacement 'Diamond Aria' and the Sextet-or-Quartet drawn, like its parent Barcarolle, from the fairy-opera Die Rheinnixen.

No one production on DVD gets it all right, but we relished the contrasts between Dessay's asylum Olympia-as-Lucia from Lyon (a radical and mostly sharply-focused Louis Erlo production, though the Giulietta act is a mess) and Rancatore's inflateable sex-doll in the Carsen Paris show, Bryn as villain in the latter, and bits of the Powell-Pressburger extravaganza for the visual caprices (quite something to have Moira Shearer, Massine, Ashton, Helpmann and Ludmilla Tcherina all dancing in one film). It has its faults, and swathes are entertainingly dated, but I can see in parts why it had such a huge influence on Scorsese. Here's OTT Helpmann as bug-eyed Coppelius adjusting Shearer's Olympia in the movie's best episode. The denouement, with the doll ripped to bits and the head lying on the ground with the eyelids still blinking, is great cinema.

Schlesinger's Covent Garden production is stuffed full of entertaining detail, and the DVD stars the scarily committed Domingo - Villazon will be hard pressed to match him when the Royal Opera Hoffmann is revived shortly. I still love Bonynge's performing edition on CD, and Joanie swims in and out of focus as the four ladies; but the voice at its most opulent tells us that she should have headed more in the Strauss-Wagner direction in the 1970s. I well remember an evening at the Albery at the time of my seduction by the operatic Sutherland, when the not-then-Dame grimaced in disgust at the photo of her as pouty Giulietta - not really the Aussie housewife's scene. Here are her heroines all gathered together on the cover of the Decca set (with an older Domingo than the one who originally appeared in their company).

As well as finding the opera's dramaturgy a revelation - how I wish Richard Jones would deign to tackle it - I'm also head over heels in love with E T A (for Amadeus, changed out of hopeless Mozartliebe from W for Wilhelm) Hoffmann. I knew several of the tales which gave rise to Offenbach's fantasies, as well as of course to Delibes' Coppelia, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and Hindemith's Cardillac. But I hadn't until recently laid my hands on the story of the lost shadow (A New Year's Eve Adventure), a very entertaining historical novella on the pranks of artist-maverick Salvator Rosa (Signor Formica) nor - best of all - the unfinished meisterwerk, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr.

Murr, the talented pet whose penchant for the quill gets mixed up with the story of his owner's moody friend, Kapellmeister Kreisler, appeared thus in the first edition reproduced above, though I think I like the frontispiece for an 1855 text better.

I didn't expect to enjoy this dual biography quite so much, modelled as it is on a novel I've never been able to read from start to finish, Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The difference, I think, is that this tale is told with such warmth as well as humour, qualities I hadn't really appreciated in Hoffmann before: he's as much a classicist as a romantic. The Penguin translation by Anthea Bell is laugh-out-loud funny in its elegance. And of course Hoffmann's thorough knowledge of the music of his time, as a rather interesting composer (I need to hear more), makes the Kreisler passages especially intriguing. Three cheers for the tomcat of all tomcats and his immortal pal the poodle Ponto (I AM Ponto).

And now further east to the even more unsettling imagination of Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol, or rather the way in which his topsy-turvy legacy lives on in a parallel universe. According to the Moscow Times, ‘the Novgorod regional branch of the Investigative Committee in March opened a criminal case against a policeman for booking a woman on charges of public drunkenness "with the goal of improving his work statistics," according to an official statement. In fact, the woman, Irina Yevgrashova, had died at the age of 45 on Oct. 11, 2007, two days before she was charged, investigators said.’

This is the country which, having banned all mention of the words 'financial collapse' on its state-owned media, originally said it would not be heading for the international crisis summit in a hurry because ‘there is no crisis in Russia’ - essentially the same land which stalled attempts to hold the Paralympics in Moscow some years back because ‘we have no disabled people in Russia’.

Finally, still in the fantastical league, our good friend Stefania Pignatelli hit London again from her eyrie in Castel di Lama, Ascoli Piceno, with a breathtaking exhibition at the European Commission - 'As you want me' ('Come tu mi vuoi'). Designed with the help of two lovely guys whom we very happily hosted for four days, Roberto Bua and Joan Martos, it juxtaposes glamorous ladies in several contexts - fashion models in a Rousseau jungle...

...and Stefania's ancestors from the family archive alongside luxury fabrics designed to 'far bella' the lady of today. Here are Stefania and her vivacious mother Giulia beneath the wall of beauty.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

That dream come true

Last seen among the neatly manicured lawns and flowerbeds of Rhinebeck up the Hudson, August. Wish I was there in NY now.

If spirits really walk, then Martin Luther King is doing a backflip somewhere in Washington. But quite apart from that historic change of heart, when was there last a nobler or more sincere-seeming President than Barack Obama? If only he can honour all his election pledges. It's quite a list.

You can reinforce your hopes in those pledges, and leave a message in Washington, via this excellent campaigning site, Avaaz.

In the meantime, there was on another site, until today, a Washington scenario that ain't gonna happen, now or ever. I'm sad in a way that the inspired artists have done the decent thing and that you can no longer hear the wit and wisdom of La Palin (for it was she sitting at the desk until today), nor spin the globe to land in 'Somewherestan', nor click on all the other little jokes, like the exploding Alaskan wildlife behind the door and the 'nucular' trigger on the phone... Back in 2016, they say. Well, we'll see.

PS (Wednesday lunchtime): the flipside - projections for the result of the Californian bid to pass Proposition 8 (against gay 'marriages', ie full civil rights) suggest that the expected 52/48 pass will be the outcome of what one observer calls 'the heavy, and new, black voter turnout for Obama in California'. Obama himself is against unions 'not ordained by God'. It's never that simple, is it?

PPS (late Wednesday night): I'm confused. Obama is against gay 'marriage' but not against 'civil unions' - that's what we mean here by 'civil partnerships', right? So what's the difference? Blessing in church? Can someone clarify?

10 November: someone has - thank you, George (and thank you, Barack Obama). Do follow this link to Obama's TV interview with Civil Rights activists. Note especially that Obama states clearly he is ‘a strong supporter not of a weak version of civil unions but a strong version and ((of))... the rights which are conferred at the federal level to persons of a same sex union.' His line on religion: ‘I don’t think the Church should be making these determinations when it comes to legal rights as conferred by the state’ - although he adds that his church, the United Church of Christ, DOES support civil unions, and otherwise. discrimination is 'unacceptable...I’m going to fight hard to make sure those rights are available’.

16 November: thanks again to George, here's a clip which I don't want to lose sight of - a one-minute extract of Senator Obama in 2005 reciting Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bill Eddins. The words, as the blogger who provided the link pointed out, are of course prophetic.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Estonian of the Century

The 20th century, that is, towards the end of which (in 1998) the small but doughty homeland of Neeme Jarvi (one day I promise to sort out proper accents, umlauts et al on this site - he has, of course, two dots over his 'a' and the name is pronounced 'Nayma Yervi') chose him out of 25 contenders for the title. There he is above nine years before that on a momentous return to what was then still Soviet-occupied Estonia, receiving an honorary doctorate from Tallinn University at one of several unforgettable concerts I was lucky enough to witness. But he is certainly heading towards the 2010s in masterly shape, as his all too rare London visit this past week proved. OK, so he was to be heard depping for an indisposed Jansons with the Concertgebouw at the Barbican in June, but the Messiaen Turangalila I heard him conduct with rather hasty panache wasn’t his own choice of repertoire. This time, thanks to the canny organisation of Jurowski’s Revealing Tchaikovsky, it certainly was, with each of the two concerts culminating in long-term specialities that he alone can pull off these days – Taneyev’s Fourth Symphony and Kalinnikov’s First.

The style is still the man – passionately engaged but physically relaxed, with lots of genial shoulder conducting and friendly shrugging to the audience. I was so pleased to see him very much his old, crazy-about-music self backstage, courtesy of his wife Liilia, who greeted me after more than a decade with an exuberant 'I remember this man!' The picture supplied by the London Philharmonic of Neeme in his natty Nehru suit and hallmark blue hanky captures something of his character today.

Yet there's also an underlying iron discipline that allows him to take the orchestra (in this case an adoring LPO) anywhere he chooses. Of course, having already been somewhat infatuated with the Jurowski charisma it was a jolt to go back to another manner I know so well, and which can’t help but affect me with a warm nostalgia. I was a concert- and opera-hungry student in Edinburgh in the early 1980s when he galvanised the Scottish National Orchestra out of the torpor usually afflicting its sunset days with Sir Alexander Gibson. I interviewed him for the student newspaper, and have done many times since at every possible opportunity. I realise that then as now I must have seen him as a kind of surrogate for the musical father I never had (my own dear dad, who died when I was fifteen, claimed as the one and only piece of music he liked 'We are the Yeomen' from German's Merrie England ).

I’d heard Jarvi once before my student days, by chance, at the Royal Festival Hall in 1980 with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – their first tour together and, it turned out, the point at which that particular love affair began and the contract was signed. This fun picture was taken of a younger Jarvi that year outside the orchestra’s splendid concert hall.

As for the 1980 London debut, I’d not heard much about these Swedes, and nothing about the newly-defected Estonian, whose name had just been wiped off his Russian recordings; I went because Soderstrom was singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The effect of that long-awaited favourite was blunted, I remember, by the jangling jewellery of my overdressed neighbour. But I was charmed by Alfven’s Midsummer Vigil, knocked for six by a fast-moving Sibelius Second and deeply moved by the first encore, the then little-known Arvo Part’s Cantus to the Memory of Benjamin Britten.

I read in the GSO’s 70th birthday homage to Jarvi that, according to one player, the love-in began when he did something totally unexpected with the final chord of the Sibelius at the RFH, and the startled orchestra went with him. There were many such moments in the SNO concerts, and one especially amazing one last Wednesday, two-thirds of the way through the finale of a stunning Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, in which the Oistrakhian Vadim Gluzman took the vivacissimo faster than I’ve ever heard it live, safe in the knowledge that Jarvi would keep the LPO on its toes. Encountering the violinist backstage - he'd come into the stalls to hear the Taneyev - I remarked that with a conductor like that, he was free to do anything, and he said, ‘that’s exactly it’. You should rush to hear anything this violinist does - he's a virtuoso of the first order, but with surprising sensitivities and a collegial attitude to his orchestral colleagues that you rarely see from someone of that league. I've only twice before heard such concerto-collaborations, both conducted by Sir Andrew Davis - one was with Silvia Marcovici in the Bartok Second Violin Concerto, the other more recently with James Ehnes flowing through the Elgar. This autumnal image of Gluzman was taken by John Kringas.

Anyway, the moment in question was when Jarvi quite unexpectedly gave the woodwind extra space second time round in their briefly reflective solos. It was so unexpectedly moving and introspective that for the first time ever in the Tchaikovsky finale tears came to my eyes, and the rest of the deliriously wonderful conclusion could only seem especially magical in the aftermath of that seemingly improvised passage.

The Rimsky-Korsakov suites which served as curtain-raisers to both concerts brought plenty of laughs - especially at an outrageous rit in the swaggering, hubristic wedding march of The Golden Cockerel. That gives me the pretext of introducing another Bilibin illustration to complement all those gorgeous images several entries down: this is Pushkin's mysterious Queen of Shemakha appearing before the defeated Tsar Dadon.

Yet, as if to prove that Rimsky's music is not all fairy-tale ornamentation, Jarvi also brought great depth and breadth to that lovely Tsar Saltan interlude depicting the unfortunate Tsarina at sea in a barrel with her fast-growing son. The Taneyev Fourth came across as interesting, lumberingly scored but fluent in its ideas; but the real revelation was Kalinnikov 1 on Saturday. I'd always thought it was little more than a sweet specimen with one truly distinctive tune in the first movement (commandeered, Jurowski told me, for Soviet propaganda). But Jarvi focused the symphony's high spirits, wrought a special magic in the nocturnal tickings of the harp and strings as a cor anglais weaves its spell in the slow movement and brought Kalinnikov's delightful organisation to an uncontrived head in the finale.

This was a performance that made you full of the joys of spring, even at 9.30pm on a cold, wet November day which had started with the wedding of our friends Bella and Georgios at which J sang Gluck, continuing with my talk in the OAE's Tchaikovsky study day, chaired by my eloquent pal Christopher Cook, a dazzling pre-performance performance of the vast and sometimes troubling Second String Quartet by the Petersburg-based Atrium Quartet and of course the bumper programme. After that I steeled myself to head for the Hampstead residence of a delightful couple (Cypriot and Athenian, with Italian and Finnish guests) at which the lavish meal turned into a bacchanal of silly hats and dancing to Ry Cooder, a rather unexpected end to the day. I won't embarrass my hosts or fellow-guests by exposing them here, but who's this arrowed Elvis?

But back to more serious matters. Jurowski was there at Jarvi's concert, excited by the possibility of bringing in Balakirev and Borodin to a Liszt festival in 2011. I should also squeeze in a mention for his mostly-ballet programme with the OAE on Friday. It started with deliciously pointed Delibes - the complete Coppelia and Sylvia next, please - followed by the perfect original Rococo Variations with a cellist I found rather pale but whom Jurowski liked for his restraint, Alexander Rudin. The second half began with the too-long airing of Adam's Giselle Act Two. Opening and final Pas de deux would have been enough here, because Adam lapses into the ballet equivalent of Donizetti at his most routine in the middle of the act. Even so, last week I reviewed the Royal Ballet DVD with those great actor-dancers Cojocaru, Kobborg and Nunez (as Myrthe), and had to acknowledge that the Petipa choreography is pretty perfect in Act Two.

Adam's music, however, supports but does not lead as do the scores of Delibes and Tchaikovsky, so it didn't work so well in concert despite a wonderful viola solo for the lovers' last dance together. Everyone, of course, woke up to the succinct high drama of Swan Lake Act Four, taken at a crackling pace. After that, there was to be another late-night performance of Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet for the young folk, at which a DJ was to remix Romeo. For this, the spirit was curious but the concerted-out flesh a little weak. Now, thank goodness, there's been a few days respite before the onslaught of Manfred tomorrow - but I wouldn't miss any of these events for the world.