Tuesday 30 June 2009

'Italian' whips up a storm

It’s high time I scratched the surface of anniversary hero Mendelssohn. Earlier this year, I regretfully said no to being a panellist on a Radio 3 Mendelssohn Weekend special, if only because the nice researcher wrote ‘I hear you’re a Mendelssohn expert’, and I had to respond that I was nothing of the sort – as it turned out, few of the guests were - though I know what I like. I could certainly have rounded on certain pundits who dismiss our Felix as a second-ranker ('trained from infancy to be polite to the banking classes...a shortcoming that he never fully overcame', etc - I won't grace the rest with a link). Even if he’d died at the age of 17, having written those cracking string symphonies, the Octet and above all the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, he’d still have left us one of the greatest miracles in all music, a Shakespearean musical narrative suitable for all ages and tastes.

On Saturday, staying at friend Hen’s family home in north Oxford, I had a chance to broaden Mendelssohnian horizons a little. Lucky Oxford: Andras Schiff was in town, conducting and playing with a suitably downsized Philharmonia in the Sheldonian Theatre. I've never heard before the B minor String Symphony with which they began – an astonishingly mature lamentatory intro and sprightly allegro with a lyrical theme only Mendelssohn could have written. The Violin Concerto was a performance of merely competition-quality from the soloist, 18 year old Serge Zimmermann: well intoned after a dodgy start and muscly at times, but without the sweetness and smiles the work needs. Schiff’s own centre-stage playing in the Second Piano Concerto kept this charmer on the move, as he also does everything he conducts. He never goes for over-sentimentality but the sentiment was certainly there in amongst the sharp profiles. The D minor Concerto boasts another vivacious finale, and an even more striking link between the first two movements than the Violin Concerto.

Indeed, it struck me afresh that Mendelssohn at his best triumphs on all counts – structure (plenty of surprises when you least expect them), rhythmic energy, pleasing thematic shapes and a classically poised gift for orchestration (think of the flutes in the steady religious procession of the ‘Italian’ Symphony, the lower-strings-and-horn counterpoint added to the fiddling in the Violin Concerto's finale). As for the symphony as a whole, I can think of several Beethoven movements I’d sacrifice for any one of these four. More players onstage helped to fight against the rather airless acoustics of the Sheldonian, and I loved the valveless ‘period’ horns’ bite in the scherzo trio.

They added menace, too, to the saltarello, which was already rather scary since we glimpsed lightning through the Sheldonian's upper windows and heard distant rumbles of thunder (you can see how threatening the skies were in the above photo, taken during the interval). Whatever the shortcomings may be in terms of sound, isn’t it a special pleasure to be in a hall where plentiful natural light bathes the scene? I’m thinking, too, of Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall and London’s Cadogan Hall. The Sheldonian is a beautiful building, if stylistically a bit of a hotchpotch. Pevsner takes young Wren’s revolutionary classical exterior to task for its ‘immaturity’, and laments the un-rousing quality of Streeter’s painted ceiling. That's nicely complemented, though, by Sir T G Jackson’s 1876 organ case.

There – I got the name ‘Jackson’ in to the blog. Do you berate me for having kept mum about the late Michael? Apart from a certain vague sadness at the ‘too soon’ aspect, I don't have much to express: was charmed by the youngster’s ebullience in the Jackson Five, never really got to know the hits of his heyday (and some say I should), and after that, well, has there been much to it except good stuff to dance to as well as all the peripheral seediness? Other untimely deaths of those I never met that touched me more would have to be those of Princess Diana (yes, really, at least to start with), Derek Jarman, Freddie Mercury, the fabulously funny Linda Smith. I’m sure there are many others.

Glad, anyway, to be oblivious of the media feeding frenzy in the cloistered calm of Oxford. Framing our concert and a lazy afternoon on a north Oxford lawn catching up with Alan Hollinghurst were two of our now-ritual visits to Christ Church Cathedral evensongs. This choir has to be the best I’ve ever heard in the context of church services.

Saturday afternoon, before the heavens opened in tropical rainforest style, was mostly Anglo-Irish blowsiness: Stanford in C, stout and steaky as only the Christ Church choristers know how to make it in the Glorias, and Bairstow’s ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’, suitably brilliant for the shining of the pearly gates and fading to a ghostly quiet close.

Sunday introduced me to Tomkins’s Fifth Service – such fun when the choir prancingly delight in the putting-down of the mighty from their seat – and the anthem was Palestrina’s ‘Tu es Petrus’. Plenty of fine solos all round, and we were lucky to catch them before they disappear for the summer holidays.

Monday 29 June 2009

Countdown, about town

You have five days left to see Ruth's show in the 12 Star Gallery of the European Commission - and six days to listen online to my BBC Radio 3 Discovering Music on Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Since several folk have asked me, that American voice you hear at the beginning and then announcing his own performance is conductor David Robertson. Don't miss the R3 broadcast this Friday evening (3 July) of the BBCSO's last concert of the season with Belohlavek masterly in Mahler's Fifth and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras playing Haydn, extolled here. On Thursday you can also hear the previous concert, including another gem of a Queyras performance in the other Haydn concerto. Both events are remembered with special fondness by the players, though with the proviso that since they get through so much music, it's inevitable that they tend to recall recent happenings most vividly.

In all the hurry to get something posted about the Proms Out+About day, I didn't have time to mention that I had to rush from the Addinall opening on Tuesday to the City Lit class featuring the BBC Symphony violas. Only connect: Ruth's a fine violist, many years ago played in the National Youth Orchestra and is now part of an erstwhile quartet, presently trio, in Edinburgh. So when she asked me the names of our BBC visitors, and I started with Carol Ella, it wasn't surprising to learn she knew her from St Mary's Music School, where Ruth recalled Carol as a real firebrand of an animateur, arranger and organiser, which isn't surprising, and Carol later remembered Ruth as a strict teacher very insistent on her practising, which is.

Well, it won't interest most of you reading this to know who was who at the show, so I'll just leave a couple of shots, one of Ruth - who will NOT look at the camera - beside the 'Fantasy Garden' we love so much

and another of a wall at the exhibition, so that if it's the sort of thing you like, then you'll be enticed, and if not, well, that's the subjective nature of art for you.

After her London airing, Ruth will be exhibiting at the Flat Cat Gallery, Lauder, from 16 July to 16 September.

Cycling to and from my Thursday engagement in London Bridge, I managed to catch two of the Out+About events. On my way, I dropped in to the Natural History Museum to catch a string trio from the orchestra - Anna Smith, Kate Read and Michael Atkinson - playing in front of an ancient bird.

Close to, they could only be overheard, but the sound projected well to the upper levels of the museum's Victorian splendour.

After I'd gone, they posed for the professional, Simon Jay Price, in front of the big diplodocus skeleton, a photo opportunity too good to pass by here.

At 7, the entire orchestra fitted easily into the vast space of the newish Westfield Shopping Centre, Shepherd's Bush. Having been steeped in the consumerist nightmare of the Glyndebourne Hansel and Gretel the previous evening - reviewing it on DVD I liked the energy of the whole even more than I had in the theatre last year - I was ill disposed to the Westfield's massive glitz, but the orchestra humanised it and the crowds who came to hear stayed for the whole concert instead of drifting.

And even above the Westfield, summer evening skies can take one's breath away.

Again, a high percentage of pops were appropriate, and the arrangements were good, providing virtuoso roles for that marvellous pianist Liz Burley, here a Harry Potter-ing celesta, and one of the world's great harpists, Sioned Williams. Both have visited the class, and we adore them.

But there was also gravitas in the shape of Handel's Dead March from Saul, its framing percussion tattoos thundering around the Westfield to alarm the security guards, and the lucky shoppers got - and listened attentively to - the whole of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Isn't this one of those rare pieces which satisfies on every level? It's scheduled as part of a free Family Prom on 26 July.

Which reminds me of another countdown - only 19 days to go before the biggest summer music festival in the world kicks off. For most of us, of course, it's business as usual, but there's always the hope that these much-publicised and streamlined concerts will lure casual listeners into the rest of the season. Children, especially, are now being targeted with 'hear what noise a hundred-piece band can make' instead of just 'let's make a piece with the tongs and the bones', worthy though that is. If we want an audience for tomorrow, getting kids to listen as well as to play is the sort of work we need - and the BBCSO is doing it in spades.

Thursday 25 June 2009

Violas at large

It's begun: the BBC Symphony Orchestra players are whizzing around town from one public venue to another in their now-annual Proms Out+About day, culminating in a free evening concert given by the entire band in the Westfield Centre. I well remember the event last year among the Elgin marbles of the British Museum.

One of the more unexpected groups you might catch is a viola quartet - there are several within that lively department. Last year, when my Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra course was running at Morley College, we had a visit from four ladies, playing everything from Telemann to a consummate arrangement of 'When I'm 64'. On Tuesday one of them, the indefatigable Carol Ella, brought three other distinguished players to the City Lit. Carol is second from the left in the above picture; the others are co-principal Caroline Harrison, who's given so many wonderful solos with the orchestra, Carolyn Scott and Mike Leaver. Plus the arm of an enthusiastic student.

As their programme today will be mostly pops, they gave us a preview and surprised us, among other things, with an artistic slant on the Harry Potter theme (sounding a bit like Prokofiev) and exuberant glissandi in Sousa's Liberty Bell March - not necessarily best left to this lot on the Out+About:

Witty and articulate, our quartet folk are a far cry from the viola butt of many a cruel joke - in fact I reckon viola-players generally are true individuals, even if they know how to work together as a team. For a start, they take their own coffee and percolators to counter the disgusting stuff at Maida Vale, and - perhaps more important, though not if you're a caffeine addict as I am - they're teaching other members of the orchestra their craft. I'll hurriedly leave off with a touching anecdote of the trombonist, soon to retire, who's learnt to play the viola in an amateur orchestra in his spare time so that he'll be able to continue and not feel uncomfortable among amateurs with 'his' instrument.

Now - know any good viola jokes? You don't? Well, there are reams here. Some, if unjust, made me laugh out loud ('what's the range of a viola? As far as you can kick it'), others, hmmm...

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Bartok in Glarnerland

Planning to take a few days away from Zurich in fresh mountain air, we decided on the relatively remote region of Glarnerland in Eastern Switzerland, and the plateau village resort of Braunwald; reachable by train and funicular in less than two hours, it's hardly what we would call out in the sticks, thanks to the efficiency of the integrated Swiss transport system, but it does avoid the international crowds which would have plagued another destination we toyed with, Engelberg - playground of Bollywood filmstars and brussel-sprouted coach trippers. What we didn't realise until we arrived, sweating in the heatwave twenty minutes up the hill from the Braunwald funicular stop, at Alexander's Todiblick Hotel, was that Bartok had been here too. For that knowledge, we have the Hungarian Ecumenical Choir of Zurich's plaque to thank, and not the hoteliers, who didn't seem to know anything about it. Before I go on to tell you about my minimal detective work finding out what, if anything, the great man composed here, let's consider the views he would have enjoyed - a 180 degree panorama of mountains, including higher peaks like the Todi and its confreres across the valley (at 3614m)... ...and the commanding genius of the locale, the Ortstock, to the right of the hotel. All this can be enjoyed without moving beyond your hotel balcony, though we were quickly off and further up to explore the Brummbach falls and the higher slopes. It was exciting to discover, once home, that Paul Sacher's commission for what was to become that most haunting of all Bartok's orchestral works, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, reached the composer on 27 June 1936 while he was still in Braunwald; he left for Budapest a few days later. But might he not have started work in Braunwald? I e-mailed Dr. Felix Mayer of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel and part of his response runs as follows: 'It's quite possible...that some preliminary sketches were made while Bartók was still in Braunwald. But we don't really know as the sketches and draft of Music for Strings [as the new piece is headed on the m/s reproduced below] are not dated. 'And there is another matter: the beginning of the original draft of the first movement may in fact have originated before Sacher's letter reached Bartók. That's only a hypothesis (based on the observation that the movement started out as a piece for strings alone and that the percussion parts were added later); but it does strengthen the suspicion that Bartók may very well have written some of the music that was used in Music for Strings during his summer vacation in Switzerland.' So this opening page of the manuscript, now available to peruse at leisure among the Sacher Stiftung's lavish facsimiles, could have been sketched in the Todiblick. Whatever the case, I like to think that the eerie desolation of the first and third movements chimes in with the 'Gewitter' we experienced on our next day in Braunwald, when the clouds rolling in prevented us from ascending the peaks and we made a lower-level hike to the secluded Oberblegisee (at 1422m). Just had enough time to eat our picnic, bask on the rocks, and admire the outlines of the Bachistock and Glarnisch before mist obliterated everything and the heavy rain began. Here, by this rock, I can almost hear the xylophone of the 'night-piece' like a stone dropping into the water and creating ripples on the still surface. Well, we had our vision. And of course the composers' worlds our Alpine sojourn most frequently evoked, as always, were those of Strauss's Alpensinfonie and Mahler's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. By the lake, we had all the Mahlerian accessories in an eerie context: cowbells - so poetic from afar, so nightmarish at cacophonous close quarters - a distant cuckoo and the forbidding shapes of the big mountains above. Equally, of course, Mahler's sunny side of nature came to mind in the flowery meadows and the wayfaring high spirits. I can't wait to return - even if we shan't be deserting our beloved Appennini where the food is better and the agriturismi rather cheaper than Swiss bed and board. One afterthought is bugging me: I'm sure I must have heard Sacher conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the 1980s when I was a student at Edinburgh University, but I can't for the life of me remember the programme. I know the SCO played the Bartok Divertimento several times, superbly, but would it have been with Sacher?

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Pre-opera lake bathing

There can't be many things more pleasurable than taking a dip al fresco before going on to see a show. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there's nothing finer than swimming in a lake, period - no mighty ocean fan I, since I like to go swimming with my glasses on, and I've been a bit nervous of big seas since a rogue wave turned me upside down in Kerala and sent my specs far out (a new pair were swiftly and cheaply supplied by Rose Opticians of Trivandrum).

So Zurich in a brief heatwave was the perfect place to be. How civilized to locate a city on a lake - seen above with the Opernhaus on the opposite bank - and how public-spirited to make sure that all the shore around it is open to the entire population in a series of finely-landscaped parks. A plunge off the Arboretum may not quite have matched the solitude of the waters and islands at the back of my Savonlinna hotel last year...

...but this was more sociable. Lottie Horsman, fairest chorene of the Zurich Opera and the mother of two of our goddaughters, joined us with neighbour and best friend Anne Glaskin - cakemaker supreme to assorted Zurich pastry-shops - and we swam before testing out Anne's latest high-choc-content brownies. If you doubt it, here's ocular proof - Lot in the foreground, and me swimming a short way out (along with the duck).

The 'sexy airs of summer' certainly seem to have unbuttoned Zurich's protestant work ethic, though I have to say that the gilded youth around the lake were mostly an international crowd. And I wonder if the kind of crimes of passion committed in the operas we then went to see would happen here.

Anyway, it was blood, sweat and high-quality casting in Zurich Opera's Cav 'n Pag. Not sure I would have sought this out had it not happened to coincide with our visit. Memories of Richard Jones's ENO Sicilian-zombie-village Cav and superlative 'Ding, Dong' of a Pagliacci were not likely to be eclipsed by Grischa Asagaroff's safe 1920s Sicily and 1950s circus. Colourful though the Pagliacci ring undeniably was, Leoncavallo's down-at-heel travelling players surely wouldn't have run to lavishly-attired acrobats and stilt-walkers.

Still, ENO hadn't quite cut the mustard with its tenors. Here Jose Cura took on both Turiddu and Canio (all production photos copyright Suzanne Schwiertz for the Opernhaus).

I was expecting the rather rough performing style I remember from the Royal Opera Fedora - didn't see the recent Fanciulla revival at Covent Garden - so was pleasantly surprised to hear Cura singing well within his means, a little careful with a fastish 'Vesti la giubba' and 'No, Pagliaccio non son', but letting rip in the last two minutes of the commedia and bringing tears to the eyes in Mascagni's 'Mamma, quel vino e generoso'.

He had excellent leading ladies. The Santuzza, Paoletta Marrocu, whom Lot's fellow chorus-singers remember as an outstanding Turandot and Lady Macbeth, also negotiated her phrases with musicianly care, but flashed danger at key points. I guess I'm so hooked on the Suliotis wildness that I expect the soprano to sacrifice her voice on the verismo altar of blood, but Marrocu did an excellent job. Ashagaroff actually staged the ex-lovers' confrontation rather sensitively, suggesting that Turiddu is still half-attached to his Santa, only to be scared away for good when she reveals her pregnancy.

I've long wanted to see Fiorenza Cedolins in action. Her Nedda was vocally a little blowsy, but that fitted with the characterisation, and she's a compelling stage animal - could have come straight out of Fellini. Her duet with Silvio, which usually has one wishing it were over soonest, was a real high-point, thanks too to barihunk Gabriel Bermudez; his piano singing was as convincing as his full-pelt Latin anguish.

Bermudez, who's been a house baritone in Zurich for a few years now, was a real discovery, and not merely in the looks department. And it was rather a relief to hear a youthful baritone after the sometimes ragged tones of Carlo Guelfi's Tonio.

The evening's real weakness, though, was the conducting of Stefano Ranzani. Some lovely sounds were to be heard from the youthful Zurich Opera Orchestra, especially the lower strings rumbling signals of distress in Cav and the subtler colours they found in Pag. Yet Ranzani rarely co-ordinated well with either the soloists or the chorus, and had a peculiar way of missing the right nodal point of Italianate climaxes. It should be a different matter if the man appointed Welser-Most's successor at Zurich, Daniele Gatti, ever takes on this double-bill there.

Afterwards we joined several ladies and a gentleman of the chorus for a drink with the friendly Cura, much brighter and more articulate than your average tenor. Singer, conductor, composer, newly-published photographer: what other strings can the ambitious Argentinian add to his bow? I'm glad he's in such good vocal health now, anyway. Here he is with Lottchen.

As for other music in Zurich, the city has just embarked on a big anniversary Mendelssohnfest, and Felix's sensitive features are to be seen on posters around town.

We could have caught a Reformation Symphony in the Tonhalle, but we'd only just come back from the mountains. And Sir Roger was the conductor, so I thought I might as well wait to see what Yannick Nezet-Seguin makes of it at the Proms.

Sunday 14 June 2009

Shcherbachenko lights the way - again

Yes, the Cardiff Singer of the World 2009 is Yekaterina* Shcherbachenko, shining with emotion in this very promptly-despatched photo by Brian Tarr. And it might seem excessive that this is the second time she's led here, too, but she's been rather a leitmotif of the week. You’ll know by now that she was my favourite because her Tchaikovsky Letter Scene in Round Two ended up being the most complete characterisation out of everything I saw: as I wrote then, she WAS Tatyana. But she didn’t, as I’d hoped, choose Prokofiev’s Natasha for the final: in fact she didn’t choose any of the Russian roles, in the diction of which she is so perfect, at all – only a Russian composer setting an English text, Stravinsky with Anne Trulove’s aria, a real gamble.

Yet she showed almost the same identification with the characters, seemed to warm to the public lovefest and gave a masterclass in the delivery of Liu’s ‘Signore, ascolta’ – I can’t recall seeing a performance of that aria which was as disciplined and varied as it was moving. Click to see a little slice of perfection back on the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World website.

Spot-on mezzodiva-commentator Susan Graham (great choice) pointed out that you could see Shcherbachenko bracing a little nervously for the top C at the end of ‘I go to him’, but she pulled it off in terms of dramatic expression. And as Mary King added, it's apt if there is a touch of anxiety in Anne’s determination. Yes, the language was a bit weird, as was the French for Gounod's Marguerite, but who cared when she communicated so much?

The runner-up? Yury Mynenko has a golden sound, the fast passages were more agile than I'd anticipated from the earlier ‘Parto, parto’ and it’s so good to hear a butch counter-tenor. Call me biased, but I'm still not sure how far can you go, and how much of the gamut you can run, in that rep.

Himmel, Tod und Wolkenbruch!** That mischievous doyenne La Cieca has unearthed a piece of filth, as she calls it - filthy not so much in the vocals as in the arrangement - in which Mynenko sings a (transposed) Queen of the Night aria 2 with throb-pop accompaniment (remember the RPO's 'Hooked on Classics'?). I'll link to it on our counter-tenor's audio page - just go down to the penultimate entry, where you can read 'Der Holle Rache' - in case you wish to correct it with some of Mynenko's more distinguished efforts.

By the way (22/6), several folk have asked why I didn't mention bass Jan Martinik as winner of the Song Prize - alas, I missed that final when it was broadcast and we were away in Switzerland when it was shown on BBC4. I'm sure the sometimes undue sensitivity he brought to the operatic rep (the Aleko-lite, for instance) would have suited Lieder better. So I look forward to hearing him in recital - and to his Filippo in, say, fifteen years' time.

Does it really matter who wins, though? How, for example, were the jury for the Tonys going to choose between Harriet Walter’s QE1 and Janet McTeer’s Mary Stuart (pictured below by Joan Marcus, courtesy of the super-efficient Boneau/Bryan-Brown Inc.) in the electrifying Donmar-in-New-York production of Schiller’s royal tussle?

Both were nominated for best actress; neither won, and since I haven’t seen the other ladies in their roles, I can’t say whether fairly or not. I do know that while McTeer’s Nora in A Doll’s House will remain one of my Top Theatre Performances of All Time – and it DID win a Tony several years back – she had a few mannerisms as Mary, at least in London, which might have inclined me to give the palm to Walter. Elizabeth in any case has a more difficult job winning sympathy at a late stage in the play.

Too often, we’re asked to compare incomparables, and never more so than in the Cardiff final. Each of the round winners seemed to me the only possible choice, and actually in terms of total communication, Shcherbachenko’s radiant and vulnerable trio of heroines clearly had the edge in the finale. But is it quite fair to judge between a 21-year old Italian tenor fresh from his studies (Giordano Luca, winner of the audience prize), who may not seem to grasp his own language very vividly but who has the tone and the money notes to be snapped up all over the world, and a Russian soprano of 32 with experience of singing Tatyana at the Bolshoy, the Vienna State Opera and in Paris? Well, it doesn’t matter: all five finalists have major careers assured where not already established. And Elina Garanca didn’t win several years back, but she’s one of the favoured few now.

More on awards (which makes me wince a bit, but at least I never had to sound off about the Classical Brits). I ought to have made a nod in the direction of my occasional master BBC Radio 3, winner of four ‘golds’ at the Sony Awards some time back. In terms of ‘UK Station of the Year’, yes, I know, it’s a question of rotating the honours – the fact that Classic FM won a few years back renders it pretty meaningless – but it does mean excellent publicity for a station that’s pulled out all the stops recently.

The ‘Music Special Award’ is rather more auspicious. I know my pal Stephen Johnson is over the moon that his Vaughan Williams journey ‘Valiant for Truth’ won over contenders such as Coldplay, and so he should be. Here he is on what might be a VW excursion but isn’t, at White Castle on the first stage of our Offa’s Dyke walk.

I’ll end with a couple of plugs before bowing out for a bit. The Discovering Music on Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony I recorded with David Robertson and the BBCSO finally goes out on BBC Radio 3 on 28 June, and adored Ruthie Addinall brings some of her paintings to the 12 Star Gallery for two weeks from 23 June, including this one.

*Sorry, BBC, again I insist on the 'y' being sounded. Who says 'Evtushenko' these days?
**The oath of the Acrobat in Berg's Lulu. In the ENO translation, it was rendered 'bugger, bugger, bugger it!', which resulted in an odd piece of censorship when I reviewed the Chandos set for R3's CD Review. I wanted to play Lulu's entrance in Act 2 Scene 2, but because this was morning air time, we had to come in a little later than I'd hoped and Robert Poulton's acrobatic curses went unheard...

Thursday 11 June 2009

Lyublyu tebya, Porgy

It’s Russian National Day today, and I’d like to say that my excuse for not going with the diplo-mate to have another nose around the Ambassador's Residence and its fine paintings tonight is because 'National Day' comes too close to the current Russian nationalism for comfort (though every nation has one). That isn’t the reason, but enough. I merely thought it was a good excuse to go back to a time when the Soviet cultural scene was rather international, what with the Khrushchev thaw and all.

This diversion was kicked off by the NYT obit of Boris Pokrovsky I linked to below telling us about his Porgy and Bess ‘which he staged in 1961 in a bootleg production in a Moscow basement, with a cast of drama students’. It wasn’t that daring, because Russian Porgimania had already kicked off in 1956 when an American company toured the Soviet Union. Truman Capote captured the strangeness of the tour brilliantly in The Muses Are Heard, one of his first major pieces of journalism. Hell, that's what I should have called this blog.

Incidentally, I haven't yet seen Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote - looked rather mannered in the trailer, but wasn't TC too? - but Toby Jones does an amazing job in the 'other' Truman film which appeared around the same time, Infamous.

My Porgy i Bess score is one of many I snapped up when Leningrad had just become St Petersburg again and second-hand printed music was very, very cheap. It dates from 1965 (isn't the period jacket a giveaway?). For any curious Russian speakers, ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin’’ is ‘Ya bogat lish nuzhdoyu’; ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ becomes ‘Prostite mne derzost moyu’ (‘Forgive my cheek’) and actually ‘I loves you, Porgy’ is simply ‘O, moy lyubimy’ rather than the non-fitting title I couldn’t resist using above. Wonder if it’s ‘Porgy, amore’ in Italian?

While leafing through the vocal scores I bought back in the early 1990s, I couldn’t resist snapping two beautiful 19th century frontispieces – the one for Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride

and the three featured cards (‘troika, semyorkha, tuz’, inscribed around the border) capped by the Queen of Spades for Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama.

Crikey, I’m unimpressed by most of the Cardiff singers I’ve seen - which is by no means all - since Shcherbachenko. Serves me right for passing on the Russians tonight (AND missing out on Salonen's Mahler 7 at the RFH - how did that happen?). Is it unfair to say that, as in the world of the opera house, 80 per cent or more in this competition smacks of routine? Again, the winner of the round we saw on BBC4 was the obvious choice, Czech bass Jan Martinik. As voice-coach commentator Mary King rightly said, it was good that he used his rather light, baritonish young voice to draw us in rather than attempting to grab us by the throats. But who can forget 2007 winner Shen Yang in a much more spectacularly moving Aleko aria? That really did bring tears to the eyes.

Dreigroschenoper is being performed at the Barbican on Saturday night. I'd have gone for H K Gruber and the band, but...Ian Bostridge is Macheath. Ian Bostridge? Can you imagine a bigger mismatch? Emma Kirkby as Salome? Nein, danke.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

That was no dream - it's she!

Adapting words from Pushkin's famous letter, and following up yesterday's ecstatic footnote, I offer a photo of the latest Tatyana incarnate, Yekaterina Shcherbachenko, from the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition 2009 website. Oh, and slava Bogu, they're showing the complete Letter Scene - not just the half we got on BBC4 - here. I failed to mention below how fluently Lawrence Foster and the BBCNOW worked with her, and she with them - a real partnership; many folk may have overlooked conductor's and orchestra's role in her success.

Forget the GMTV woman last night who gushed that experiencing this, the evening's winning act, was like taking a warm bath with candles, after which she'd happily go to sleep; many of us were bouncing off the walls, just like Tchaikovsky's teenage heroine.

How is that so many Eastern European and Russian sopranos (Vishnevskaya, Benackova, Prokina, Gorchakova, Kovalevska, Anna Samuil, now Shcherbachenko) - and the odd westerner (Boylan and Roocroft, at least in the Pimlott production) - find so much truth in this music? It can only be that the composer identified completely with Tatyana's yearning.

Big question now is: what can Shcherbachenko sing in the final? Is she allowed to repeat this? Because nothing can go deeper in its effect. I see she's also sung Prokofiev's Natasha, Tatyana's offspring, at the Bolshoy; maybe she could give us 'What right have they?', Natasha's aria of longing for the absent Prince Andrey from War and Peace Scene Three. I'd love to see Shcherbachenko in the role: she'd surely be the most heartrending Natasha since Prokina. No, I haven't forgotten Netrebko: despite Hepburnesque looks and lively acting, she didn't sear my soul.

One polite request famously made by audition panels, 'did you bring any Mozart?', shouldn't be heard on Sunday, though.

11/6 Now seen the next round's obvious top choice, Yury Mynenko - big virile Ukrainian male soprano (rather than the usual counter-tenor). Robust, but on the evidence of the 'Parto, parto' runs, may not be agile enough for a lot of the rep he has to sing. Stands a real chance of winning, though, for various reasons.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

More sinned against than sinning

That’s increasingly how I feel about Wedekind’s and Berg’s Lulu (infinitely various icon of the silent screen Louise Brooks plays her above in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box). All too well acquainted with child slavery of various kinds, Lulu has grown up pawed over by men, most of them would-be-respectable middle-class and middle-aged. Little wonder if she's learned how to manipulate her innate sexual charms, and hardly surprising that she should be destroyed by the price set on those charms. L'argent fait tout. Maybe she’s a little more culpable than Nabokov’s equally misrepresented Lolita, a victim of wishful thinking on the part of pervy Humbert Humbert. Still, I reckon that, to adapt Shakespeare’s Othello, she is ‘not naturally vampish, but being wrought, perplex’d in the extreme’.

I’ve seen two operatic Lulus who were too old and too whorish: the fleshly Mrs. Gotz Friedrich, Karan Armstrong, when the Royal Opera first staged Cerha’s completion of Berg’s unfinished work, and Lisa Saffer in Richard Jones’s otherwise startling ENO production. I’ve also seen two who came close to the ideal: Christine Schafer for Graham Vick at Glyndebourne, and now Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz in Christof Loy’s new production at Covent Garden.

The publicity shot shows Eichenholz playing sultry; as Lulu, she is anything but. Very much at first the wide-eyed waif later to be remembered nostalgically by her doting Countess Geschwitz, she can seem drained and inert one moment, disturbingly playful the next. Her quicksilver coloratura is soft-grained, but she's just about capable of upping the volume and the intensity for the showgirl petulance which flares from time to time. She undergoes the change to society hostess convincingly, and looks suitably appalling as a London prostitute, still wearing the bow-tie and braces of the boy servant with whom she’s changed clothes in the previous scene.

Loy’s Lulu is no easy ride, nor is it intended to be. Herbert Murauer’s design strips the set of all props except a chair, a semi-transparent screen behind which Lulu reluctantly acts out her cabaret, a gun, a handful of banknotes, a bunch of white roses (Geschwitz's) and a few costume changes. The stage picture is all blacks, whites and greys, sometimes with a harsh light making it even harder to watch, and liable to give you a headache in quite a different way from Anish Kapoor's throbbing and inappropriately claustrophobic mise en scene for Glyndebourne's Idomeneo, which did make me feel ill.

Expect no ‘sofa on which your father bled to death’ – ‘isn’t this where your father…’ reads the supertitle - no paper and pen for Schon to write what Lulu tells him, no film to accompany that gut-wrenching palindromic interlude which goes widdershins here

and no portrait of ‘Eva’ as Pierrot. This last is hauntingly substituted by a circle of white light, crucial at the end of the opera when Loy, like Jones (and Wedekind in one of his versions), spares Geschwitz Jack the Ripper’s knife and lets the only character with anything like a normal heart - yes, the lesbian - live on in the follow-spot.

Loy goes for what is certainly there in the piece, the weird mix between realism and fantasy. Corpses get up and walk off at the end of scenes, so it seems inevitable that the men who meet their end at Lulu’s hands should come back as themselves to be her London clients in the final scene. On the other hand, the ernst-Deutsch element diminishes the conversation-piece wit which can sometimes make me think I’m watching Strauss’s Capriccio and the bedroom farce element of all the would-be lovers hiding in Schon’s house is lost.

It worried me, too, from my close and comfortable seat, that the stark concentration on facial expression and body language might be lost on folk further away from the stage. The close-ups of a film could do it the world of good – just like Vick’s Glyndebourne production, which didn’t involve me in the theatre but came alive when we followed the DVD in six classes at the City Lit (the students loved it, by the way).

Schafer, the Lulu then, has a subtle, gamine beauty made for close-ups. So, I suspect, does Eichenholz. Alas, there's no chance of this Lulu reaching the Royal Opera's big screen...

As at Glyndebourne, the ensemble here is excellent, and that has as much to do with Loy’s intense work on relationships as it does with the musical preparation. A newly trim Jennifer Larmore graces Geschwitz with fashion-model looks and elegant phrases (only the last, big one of ‘Lulu, mein Engel’ is a bit much for her). And if ‘well you would, wouldn’t you’ is your response to my saying that freund Peter Rose’s Animal Trainer/Rodrigo is up there on the top rung with the ladies and Michael Volle’s riven Dr Schon, well, go hear for yourself. I reckon Peter’s the equal for Sprechstimme of Barbara Sukowa (so stunning in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire); listen out for the way he takes the voice up when he speak-sings of making Lulu ‘the most breath-taking female acrobat of our era’.

What of Pappano, seen here in this EMI photo by Sheila Rock?

As with Gardner for Grimes, he really ought to have first mention. His earlier way with Wozzeck led me to hope that this, too, would be Debussy-subtle and sensual as well as feral when necessary, and that’s the case. It never becomes over-lush; Pappano’s painstaking balances make sure that all the themes in their myriad forms peep through the jungle, the spider-web of sound, whatever you care to call it. The more I hear the score, the more I come away singing – especially one of Lulu’s most telling musical attributes, a neoclassical, dancy turn of phrase that pops up all over the place. Feel-good, however, it ain’t.

So how about some snaps of Herr Rose off duty, and in more than black and white, for light relief? Chez nous to eat, drink and play cards a couple of Sundays ago, he was mellow enough by the end of the evening to feign absorption in my copy of George Perle’s Lulu study…

…consented to play the Animal Trainer to the usually neglected domestic menagerie…

…and even gave his approval for these pictures to appear here. I hope he doesn’t change his mind. Good news: he’s down to play his first Falstaff in Seattle, no doubt on the strength of his Ochs, and well deserved.

'Like rich and gorgeous clothing on the body of a syphilitic whore’ was the appropriately Wedekindish image my other half applied to the 1943 German film epic Munchhausen.

Would we say that if we didn’t know that Goebbels allocated five million Reichsmarks to make this a showcase of German cinema, that the Venice where they filmed a sumptuous regatta was under Mussolini’s control, and that SS men were drafted in as extras for Catherine the Great’s banquet because they could be trusted not to run off with the invaluable Meissen taken from a top museum? Might we not, on the other hand, be a bit surprised by the soft-porn naked ladies in the harem scene?

Well, trying to take it on its own merits, I found it stodgy: there’s not an ounce of effortless wit and no charm in any of the characters. As with any high-budget film, no amount of fine costumes, special effects, top actors and lavish filming can conceal pedestrian direction. But it certainly adds an extra sense of Nero fiddling while Rome burns to think this was shot in the early 1940s. No point, though, in deducing a subtext in the bloodthirsty foreign characters or a redeeming, civilizing idyll in the Baron's implausible adventures. It is what it is, a fantastical fable, and, as such, in need of a lighter touch.

Yesterday was a dark one for Europe. Fellow music blogger Jessica Duchen quoted the whole of Yeats’s The Second Coming. Indeed, ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’. But I’m just a fraction more optimistic that the left will rally in a couple of years – it has to - and some balance may be restored (‘for nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent’). Can’t help but be angry with Labour, though, for never properly explaining why we're 'in Europe' to the British public.

Bozhe moy, I MUST add this footnote (Tuesday evening). All I caught of the Cardiff Singer of the World tonight was the last competitor, but that was enough. OK, so Yekaterina - I insist on the 'y', as I did for 'Yevgeny' - Shcherbachenko may have done a few funny things in a fairly classy 'Come scoglio', but she WAS Tatyana (what they let us see of the Letter Scene, anyway), just as Prokina was - but with better top notes. Utterly convincing as a lovelorn adolescent, but brings the experience of her 32 years. She could do the final scene, too. No surprise to learn she's singing the role for the Bolshoy. What a wonderful reward for an afternoon spent polishing notes on Tchaikovsky songs.

Sunday 7 June 2009


Idolised Yevgeny Kissin, seen here as captured in action by New York photographer Chris Lee (whose 2009 copyright this is), came to the Barbican on Friday. He brought with him a programme daunting even by his lofty standards. Inevitably I was keen to know how he’d rise to the emotional challenges of Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata, in my skewed view the greatest 20th century work of its kind. For an alternative take - Prokofiev as 'an eternal wunderkind whose attempts at maturation were overshadowed by his youthful facility', my foot - I don't know how much credence should be given to Steve Smith in the New York Times, reviewing the same programme (with one different encore) at Carnegie Hall. Anyway, I also wanted to hear Kissin live in Chopin, the composer with whom his lucid style has gone hand in glove since his precocious childhood.

There’s a golden-mean poise and clarity which makes him second to none in Chopin’s most aristocratic utterances. No-one who heard Kissin on Friday should forget his way with the fast-multiplying trill at the heart of the Polonaise-Fantaisie, the space given to articulate mazurka rhythms and the ease with which he persuaded us that the strange tailing-off of Op. 41 No. 4 was the only way it could end. He’s such a master of connecting a sequence that I wished he’d given us one complete set of Etudes rather than a selection from both. Still, the tone-colour of his technically flawless, stupendously even Op. 10 No. 2 was a little miracle, replicated in the G sharp minor Etude of Op. 25.

When it came to Chopin’s more tumultuous minor-key explosions, though, didn’t the transcendental technique work against a sense of struggle, of psychological effort? The eager audience applause between numbers suggested approval of Kissin's virtuosity rather than stunned submission to leonine combat. You couldn’t really accuse him of anything mechanical in his delivery, yet there sometimes seems to be just a fraction more of expressive urgency waiting to be unleashed. As a person, he still comes across as the slightly dazed child I interviewed in Colmar all those years ago, with mama in tow and a disconcerting habit of letting off internal squeaks between sentences.

I found the same dichotomy in the Prokofiev half. The three Romeo and Juliet pieces, later to be nicely balanced by three encores, were fluent exercises in dramatic contrast: Kissin began the recital audaciously with a crystalline performance of ‘Juliet the Young Girl’ worthy of Prokofiev’s own crisp but never too dry delivery as pianist. The Eighth Sonata would eventually cry out for the kind of soul-baring which Kissin seems reticent to provide, though it began hauntingly enough, retreating into timelessness as those mysterious distant bells sound before the whirlwind development. I liked the way the minuet’s bittersweet dreams, slow-gaited but with the most magically withdrawn playing in the descending chords of the second episode, followed on the heels of the first-movement tragedy. The last bars of the finale, its turn from implicit playfulness to violence rigorously charted, seemed to pose a challenge even to this pianist.

It was a fine and serious interpretation by any standards, but maybe I’m just hard to please because Richter in the Eighth happens to be a Desert Island Disc – the only Prokofiev I’d take with me if limited to the usual eight.

There are actually nine Richter Eighths to choose from, including a BBC Legends release of his London debut. It has slightly different virtues and comes with a Haydn Sonata, Prokofiev Second and a wider selection of the Visions fugitives. I felt privileged (no, really) to write the liner notes for this one.

Kissin’s recital was full of unforgettable details, but I don’t suppose I’ll look back on it as I do Richter’s Chichester Cathedral recital, including his Schubert of heavenly length, Prokofiev Fourth Sonata and a Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue by way of encore which tied in supernaturally with the striking of the cathedral bells.

The programme tells me that twenty years have passed since that greatest of all recital experiences. But I’m liable to get even more waffly over my favourite pianist than I have been about Kissin, so I’ll stop there.

Quick update: I see that Russia's longest-serving opera and theatre director Boris Pokrovsky has died at the age of 97. In later years his Bolshoy spectacles had come to seem a little ossified, but he certainly made some daring choices in Soviet times. I enjoyed his Moscow Chamber Theatre production of Shostakovich's The Nose when it came to the Brighton Festival, and he could still come up with a striking piece of iconoclasm, staging Schnittke's Life with an Idiot in Amsterdam (a baffling but intriguing premiere). I've not yet come across a UK press obit, so as with Maw the New York Times leads the way.

By the way, the Royal Opera's Lulu waits to be dressed here; her appearance will depend on whether they grant a few images. Materialise in some form, though, she will, and let me say right now that I found Christof Loy’s controversial minimalist production more challenging than alienating. More anon.