Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Farewell Proms, hello new season

The next time you see Jiri (and you shall pay, but not a lot), he'll be back with a stick in his hand rather than the recalcitrant 'Henry'. Chris Christodoulou's photo from That Last Night features Belohlavek and violinist Jennifer Pike as part of a hoovering quartet in Malcolm Arnold's Grand, Grand Overture. Along with David Attenborough and Stephen Hough, they were eventually shot by deerstalkers Martha Kearney, the rather more irritant Rory Bremner (who's written libretti but never heard of Villa-Lobos?), cheery Goldie and double-bassist-cum-presenter Chi-Chi Nwanoku - which in Attenborough's case, as Clive Anderson pointed out in one of his few rather restrained quips (I thought he did a good job), is a bit like shooting Mother Teresa.

Yes, mebbe the silliness is very British, but if you're going to do a flag-waving second half, you might as well start it off like this. And that underrated one-off Arnold works his usual wonders on an outrageously over the top big tune. Worth watching? Take it or leave it.

You'll have gathered it took me a week to wade through bits of the Last Night marathon. Although even that's all over now, immortal fragments are left behind on YouTube. I extolled La Connolly in the first half below, have to say that the Gershwin wasn't quite right but still, 'Rule, Britannia!' has never been delivered with that sort of panache, and it gave her a chance to flash about her Handelian ornamentation.

What a good figurehead for a brassy lady (in the orchestral sense) is Alison Balsom. Yes, she's a gorgeous blonde, no, she ain't anything like the trumpet's answer to That Jenkins Woman, thank God. They forced on us a bit of La Jenks murdering 'Una voce poco fa' in Hyde Park, and I think must deliberately have chosen the worst (worse still, though, was a wildly out of tune Chris De Burgh in Salford). No wonder oor Alison rejects the comparison with the busty Welsh one - and in any case, she's far more natural-looking in my opinion. While I could have taken or left the Villa-Lobos in the first half, I thought she did as good a job on the Piazzolla Libertango arrangement as she had on the Haydn.

I like this little film because it also spotlights a few of my new-found mates in the BBCSO, and shows you briefly what a superb first trombonist is Helen Vollam, still the best I've ever heard in Mahler 3. Vienna Phil, please take note.

There's a fantasy 'best Prom' line-up in my head from the ones I attended. I'm afraid it's three-quarters Ravel: let's have Esa-Pekka's Ma mere l'oye and Bolero to bookend, Martha's G major Concerto one side of the interval, with Scarlatti encore to boot. And then (or before), the kaleidoscopic Martinu Concerto for two pianos as performed by fluid Czechs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Nine-year old Lucien is still talking about it. Perhaps I could just about justify the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and Nott in Ligeti's Atmospheres to begin (and segue into Mother Goose?)

Can I have two encores? Jurowski conducting the LPO in the slow movement from Brahms One, followed by the Strauss polka so idiomatically inflected by Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Then I'll have the whole Crumb programme as my Late Nighter, and JEG's Bach cantatas for breakfast. Oh, and Mahler Ten too, please...now this is getting ridiculous, so stop right there.

Anyway, I don't doubt we are in for great treats when Jiri and the BBCSO get going again. Their first programme on 3 October is a corker - Mozart 29, Gerry Finley in Mahler Knaben Wunderhorn songs and the Musorgsky/Shostakovich Songs and Dances of Death, and Martinu's First as the beginning of Belohlavek's Martinu symphonies series. I'll be giving the pre-performance talk in the Barbican Centre's Fountain Room at 6, so do come early and say hello.

I'm deep in Martinu Four at the moment, dreaming it, too, in preparation for the Building a Library on 3 October which will be followed later by a Music Matters discussion (they finally decided it was OK to let me loose on Radio 3 twice in the same day). Not too many versions, most of them Czech though alas Kubelik has vanished (got to hear that). Listening around, I haven't heard a dud Martinu work yet, not at least from the late phase on which I'm concentrating - the Serenades, the Oboe Concerto, the later piano concertos, the lovely light Three Ricercars and the buoyant endgame of Estampes. What a master, so utterly unpredictable and himself; even when he brings up that Czech syncopated dance-mode for the umpteenth time, he never lets it stay still for long.

So what remains is finally to make the pilgrimage to the bell tower in Policka where Martinu was born.

Apparently the ideal day trip is to set out from Brno, take in Smetana's birthplace and theatre, and head on to Policka. Couldn't deviate from Tommi and Martha's marvellous Austrian 'programme' back in August, so will have to try harder next time.

Incidentally, in case you're wondering why I've gone quiet on the opera front, I'm hugely looking forward to seeing Ligeti's Le grand macabre on its second outing at ENO. I'm giving the Royal Opera Don Carlo a miss this time as I didn't think much of Hytner's production in the first place, Kaufmann ain't my idea of an Italian tenor - though evidently he'd be better than Villazon on last showing - and Poplavskaya is still in place. I think I read that Anja Harteros, the real Verdian thing among sopranos, will sing Elisabetta in 2010, so that's the one I'm waiting for.


Simon Merton said...

to David Nice
a rather mundane question, but from a keen blogreader of yours. I read that you visit Zurich quite a lot. Do you find travelling there by Eurostar quite OK? I only ask because I have to attend a wedding in the Benedictine Church there in November, travelling from London, and am considering going by rail(I don't really like flying for many different reasons). Would you recommend Eurostar?
Simon Merton

David said...

Curiously, the two occasions we took Eurostar were marked by disaster. On the first, a vegetable train collided with ours outside Lausanne and it took us three more hours to get to Zurich. On the other our homeward journey took five hours longer because of damage following the New Year hurricane.

Otherwise, I'm sure Swiss efficiency rules! It's a long journey but you can break it in Paris, of course.

We have on the past two occasions flown British Airways at a rate less than it would have cost to get to Stansted and go from there - about £100, not bad and very, very easy.

If you don't know Zurich already, you'll be amazed by what an intriguing city it is under that pristine exterior (and of course the setting is beautiful - it was rated no. 1 city in the world for standard of living. It IS expensive, though).

JVaughan said...

I do not yet know any of Martinu's music, so must try to listen to your upcoming feature with interest. Does he follow in the footsteps of Janacek?

I do know that Sir Charles has recorded his _Greek_ _Passion_.

J. V.

Anonymous said...

Will be interested to see what you make of Le Grand Macabre. For me it was a depressingly empty experience. In fact I was so bored in the first half that I left in the interval... it really seems like a period piece that doesn't stand up to revival in an age where its satire has lost any sharpness it might have had. All those expletives and sexual references just came across as tiresome and puerile. The production itself is spectacular but hardly relevant.

Incidentally, I thought Don Carlo - I saw the second night - was better this time round. And I loved Bychkov's expansive, highly musical reading. I agree about Kaufmann, though: he was obviously (and understandably) saving his voice but lacks the ability - of the best Italians - to sing legato when not at full throttle. The fact that the timbre itself is not especially Italian (it reminds me, though, of Giuseppe Giacomini) is less of a problem for me. Furlanetto remains peerless; it's astonishing that Covent Garden has only just realised what a fantastic singer he is as he approaches the end of his career.

David said...

We'll see how the Big Mac has aged. Many of the purely musical ideas have stuck with me over the years and are still, I think, striking (especially towards the anticipated End of the World, but you'd left by then...)

JV, I reckon you should start near the end of Martinu with The Greek Passion - it has an incredible spirituality and seeming simplicity which work well in the right hands (and Sir Charles does it as well as anyone).

I'd say he often touches the heights of Janacek, but his sound is more mixed, less stark and he's very much his own man, especially in balancing tonal security with chromatic unease. The symphonies are a concentrated journey (five of them written at yearly intervals, at a crucial time of exile and war). You can't do better than splash out a very small amount on the, I think, Brilliant repackaging of Neeme Jarvi's Bamberg cycle. If you buy only one Martinu disc, it would have to be Belohlavek on Chandos who matches the eight minute Memorial to Lidice, the pre-War Requiem Field Mass and the Fourth Symphony.

I played some of the music last night to my BBCSO students and they were overwhelmed.

JVaughan said...

I read the relatively-short _Wikipedia_ article on Martinu, and was interested to read that some of that exile on which you touched was spent over here, where, in fact, he wrote those Symphonies! It would be further interesting to learn whether or not he set any English texts while here, given that he had trouble with the language at first along with other things. I admit to currently not knowing in what language the _Greek_ _Passion_ is set, and _MIGHT_ have been in error about a Mackerras recording since the one of which I recall having heard might be unofficial. And he left his homeland in the 20's, never to return, though there continued to be Czech elements in some of his work at least. Yet further, as other 20th-Century composers, including Prokofiev of course, did, he often employs a piano in his orchestra, though what I read implies that this could be more prominent than in other peoples' music. As with all more-recent music, I will be initially interested in his harmonic language, though it goes without saying that there must be other elements as well. I continue to await your feature next week with interest, and at least must sample the Chandos disc you recommended, along with the _Passion_ if it is indeed available officially and with sound clips.

Begging the pardon, if necessary, of any readers who already know their Martinu well,

J. V.

David said...

Indeed, JV, The Greek Passion is indeed in English. Julietta should be sung in Czech, though the last performance here was of the French version.

I'm in intriguing dialogue with Sharon Choa, editor of the Fourth Symphony score, about Martinu's use of the piano in the symphony. The original 1945 version has more for the piano, which you can hear on the Kubelik 1947 recording and a couple of others (including Jiri B's latest, I'm told, though I'm saving that until last). BM even leaves out the harp which you get in 1-3 and 5, so that the piano stands in even starker relief.

JVaughan said...

So the obviously-implied revision merely suppresses the piano to a degree?

And, since you mentioned the great Maestro Kubelik, and hoping I am not repeating myself, do you know Suk's _Asrael_ _Symphony_, which Sir Charles regards highly and wishes he could record? What little I heard of it on _CD_ _Review_ a couple or so weeks ago tends to confirm his description of Suk, at least in this work, as a Czech Mahler. If he is not to record it, I think I would go for the Kubelik were I to buy a performance of it.

J. V.

David said...

Yes. And yes, you should go for the Kubelik recording of the Asrael Symphony. I've heard it a couple of times in performance, and one was deeply moving. Rattle, I think, was the conductor. Not sure if he's done any Martinu.

JVaughan said...

I would not be surprised if he has, given his affinity for Janacek at least.

To indulge in a brief irrelevance if I may, _THANK_ _GOODNESS_ my air conditioners have been taken out, and we hopefully just had our last muggy day of the season! Yet overall we have had an unusually-_GLORIOUS_ September!

J. V.

p.s. Noting again your reference to Mr. Finley on the way here, he is a singer I also much admire.

David Damant said...

David Damant writes

I know, Mr Nice, that your life is music, but may I humbly suggest that there are one or two other dimensions which should influence a trip to the surroundings of Brno? Within 20 kms of the City there is the field of Austerlitz (now Slavkov) It was fought virtually in the park of the chateau which was the seat of the the Kaunitz family. That was where the great Kaunitz planned with Maria Theresa the destruction of Frederick the Great, the result being the Seven Years War and maybe the real establishment of the British Empire, and the room where Napoleon dictated peace after his victory
And just down the road there is Buchlovice, a splendid and ancient castle and nearby the beautiful classical chateau, all owned by the Berchtolds, including Leopold von Berchtold who sent the telegram of war from Vienna to Belgrade in 1914 and brought down on us the first world war. And there are peacocks - the Berchtold arms being or and sable, overall a peacock argent; this seems to break the rule of tincture ( one should not have a metal, silver, on another metal, gold), which may of course not apply on the Continent

David said...

I'll not fail to include these in my itinerary, should the opportunity arise, and shall consult you over further details, du Eulenspiegel Oesterreich du.

My favourite Czech schloss/garten to date is Lednice, just on the border, a subtropical jungle in midsummer.

David Damant said...

David Damant writes
Lednice is in my view a bit OTT but one could imagine living in Buchlovice ( search on the internet for that - there are some very good pictures). Slavkov is rather dull.... - the Kaunitz family died out between the wars and everything except a few items was transfered to Vienna ( by the Kinskys I think, though the state has refurnished the place to an extent). Whereas the Berchtolds had to run in 1944 and left everything. Really splendid - one can easily imagine a certain person as the Gutsherr.

David said...

Agreed, the mock Gothic of Lednice's castle is de trop, but it was the lush jungly garden I was thinking of. Admittedly we caught it on a late, humid summer evening on the way back to Vienna from Brno.