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.


Anonymous said...

Greetings Again:

I also had mixed feelings about Mr. Hickox as a conductor, and was surprised to just learn of his death this morning, our Thanksgiving Day as you might know. Yet, as I think I wrote after your review of it, I will treasure his recording of _The_ _Pilgrim's_ _Progress_, and am tempted to possibly play it tomorrow, both in tribute and an admitted self-indulgence of sorts, it usually being now reserved for 11 June, the anniversary of my first hearing of this morality, via the Boult Recording, in a University of Maryland Library
in 1978. Two other favourite recordings from him which currently come to mind are of Holst operas, _Savitri_ and _The_ _Wandering_ _Scholar_. Whatever
mixed feelings I had about him as a conductor, I think he deserved a
knighthood, and regret he never received one. I met him when he conducted _Messiah_ with our National Symphony some years ago, and he was indeed kind to me.

If it is not now a sacrilege to take up something else as you did, I like Miss Bullock in the recent Chandos _Salome_, even with her somewhat-wobbly top to my ears, though the intonation somehow does not seem to suffer as a result.
I do not yet know this opera intimately, but this Salome wins the proverbial day for me through her characterization and musicianship! Apart from a little bit of a student production of _Ruddigore_ in which she was involved, I had not heard her before now, nor, so far as I can recall, any of the other unknowns in this cast. Yet I find them convincing as well, and you already know what I think of their conductor!

If I may now ask about something of which you did not write and did not find when visiting a few or so days ago, what do you think of the new Halle _Gerontius_ if you have heard it? Mr. Terfel is one of my favourite singers (Miss Gritton, a
Hickox and Mackerras favourite, is another if I have not already told you), but his vibrato gets a bit in the way for me during the Priest's section, though he may be more successful as the Angel of the Agony, both roles featuring his customary expressiveness and musicianship! I do not hear the strain some hear in Mr. Groves'
performance, though, at times, wish he wore his heart a bit more on his sleeve as it were, which I understand Elgar to have wanted. Yet I am re-thinking my attitude toward his performance to a degree since only certain parts of the
role go into really-intense emotionalism. Like everyone I have read thus far, I _REALLY_ like Miss Coote's Angel, it being on a par for me with Dame Janet's, though different. And, as one who is interested in historically-informed performance, she sings the downward portamenti in the "Angel's Farewell" which the singer(s) on the composer's own recordings sang. Further, we have
audible shifting from the Halle strings and first violins seated antiphonally from the seconds, again historically-informed! The choirs are _MARVELLOUS_ in my
opinion, and, yes, sound as if they were seated as Elgar wished, proceeding from sopranos on the left to basses on the right! This is the best modern recording of this work in my view, and, at _VERY_ most, is only second to
the justly-famous Barbirolli!

Hoping, as usual, that this finds you and your readers well, and wishing you a good Thanksgiving despite you not officially celebrating it with us (mine will have a customary-Anglophilic flavour, heresy though that might be on this American holiday),

J. V.

p.s. Though I may have heard
this work once or twice at most, I look forward to your upcoming Building_ _A__Library_ feature on Sibelius _6_. I thus far only have _2_, _4_ (not played since receiving this Toscanini version on Pristine Classical (I must try to remember to include it in my upcoming Sibelius birthday observance), though I have listened to other items on the disc, including the one for which I bought it, the most unusual account I have thus far heard of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro), _5 and _7_, the latter two with Sir Colin and the LSO and _2_ with that orchestra under Sir Charles, a performance I like better than
the _Gramophone_ critic did. I know and like the _Third_ a bit, and, if I go any further, that would probably be next.

Yet more, if you do not mind me asking, which Muti Tchaikovsky _5_ do you like better, Philharmonia or Philadelphia. I bought both, the Philadelphia as a download, but, were I to choose now, would probably go with Philharmonia.
Maybe I should go to the trouble of burning Philadelphia to a CD and then listen to them both on my CD player.

David said...

Good to hear from you again, JV. I also like the recent Salome-in-English, which I've reviewed in the latest (December) issue of the BBC Music Magazine. I think Sue Bullock presses all the right buttons, and I was mightily impressed by the way she handled the final scene, but it's all hard work and intense musicalitiy in the face of an instrument which I don't find that distinctive. The rest of the cast do well and the orchestra is velvety; your hero and mine brings out every detail.

From what I've heard of that Manchester Gerontius so far, I don't think Paul G is at all the right voice for Gerontius, which needs a Tristan with the full-pelt strength at the top (which PG doesn't have) as well as the sensitivity (which he does). More anon when I've heard fair Alice. Bryn is sounding a little worn these days, which is a shame as he's one of the greats, no doubt.

Muti's Philharmonia Fifth has always been a favourite of mine; to be honest, I think I've only heard the Philadelphia version once and it didn't make as much of an impact. Pappano's recent Fifth is very much the highlight of his Santa Cecilia set.

Hope you enjoy the Sixth on Saturday morning (probably too early for you, so you'll have to access 'Listen Again'). It is truly my Desert Island symphony, at least at the moment; it keeps me sane.