Sunday 25 October 2009

Jenufa: mill wheel as fate

There it is in the very first bar of Janacek's Jenufa (Her Stepdaughter, as the 1955 vocal score I bought second-hand in Prague still calls it), the sound of the revolving mill wheel. Janacek went and checked it out, finding his own musical equivalent in the shape of a low xylophone, not a typical sonority for 1903/4 (Strauss two years later was still calling it a 'wood and straw instrument' for Salome, though of course Saint-Saens had got there several decades earlier with his rattling bones). And the mill wheel still revolves at Glyndebourne as ominously as it did back in the late 1980s when Nikolaus Lehnhoff's ageless and, for me, unsurpassed production first stunned us all. Here it is backstage, where we caught a glimpse of it on a whistlestop tour kindly organised for nine-year old Lucien and his mother Clare before the schools matinee of Falstaff.

It's something of a miracle how the latest Glyndebourne on Tour team manages to come up with a Jenufa revival offering as many resonances as Lehnhoff's previous line-ups, among the casts of yore the unforgettable Anja Silja as the Kostelnicka, Roberta Alexander and later Amanda Roocroft as Jenufas to make stones weep, Langridge as the febrile Laca. But it has. Perhaps I have a little foreknowledge from seeing the way Robin Ticciati worked with the covers the previous Sunday (see below). Anyway I'm convinced that much of the latest power comes from his close liaison with singers on text, meaning, pacing, nodal points of expression and above all the power of holding a silence. There were three such heart in mouth moments in the harrowing second act, and one to cap them all between the C major blaze to which the Kostelnicka goes to face judgment, leaving the maddened village lads to wreck her property, and the radiant, harp-rippling B flat initiating Jenufa's and Laca's final determination to face whatever the future holds together.

Ticciati's view is softer but not weaker than the rawness Mackerras has always brought to this score. He makes you hear passages in a completely different light: you understand not only the glow of love Jenufa emanates, but also the sensual power of Steva - for once a truly handsome chap and beautifully sung to boot by Brno born Pavel Cernoch, the drunken swagger of the first act (in the first of three GOT production photos by Alastair Muir)

yielding to the youthful fear of the Kostelnicka in the second.

There were also heart-stopping beauties in unexpected places, like the lovely little chorus in which the village girls lead the restrained but still fun-loving Jenufa in the last act. Ticciati's insistence on clear-sighted truth is awe-inspiringly matched by Anne Mason's Kostelnicka. Anja left indelible phrases behind, but Mason can find different qualities: more tenderness, generosity of spirit and, in her final speech, a core of emotional strength which made me sit up ramrod straight in my seat.

If Giselle Allen didn't pierce the heart in every gesture or phrase, her depiction of Jenufa's development and especially the laser-like focus shared by Peter Wedd's Laca in the final scene were just as impressive as the different characterisations of her predecessors. All the smaller roles were flawlessly delineated.

'It's an earthquake', promised the taxi-driver ferrying us back to Lewes Station the previous evening, to which I have to add a pat-on-the-back comment from a gentleman who'd been to the study day and brought four friends along to my condensed talk on Saturday because he'd been 'thunderstruck'. I think the kids at the special showing of Falstaff would mostly have said 'awesome' in response to Richard Jones's gag-laden and consistently resourceful evocation of 1940s Windsor (I can't wait to see his Annie Get Your Gun). Brownie points to Katie Tearle and her super team in the Education Department for making the afternoon work so well.

I'll be brief about this: it was just a marvel to hear the enthusiastic roars of youth, their minute-long applause at the laundry-basket antics long before the curtain came down, their attentiveness to the forest magic in which Elena Tsallagova produced the most perfect singing of the evening as a Nannetta who, for me, scored over Adriana Kucerova in the main season (I may just have heard the delightful AK on an off night). Here she is with her very good Fenton, Nicholas Phan, photographed by Bill Cooper.

As for the rest, well, the tricky ensembles need tightening and Jonathan Veira has everything going for him except that he isn't Christopher Purves, the Falstaff of the production's first showing. But he's charming, has pathos and knows how to work an audience.

There have been a few economies for the tour: the swan and the Eton schoolboys have gone. But I don't remember Mistress Quickly snatching a discreet kiss from a lady who turns out to be her lady at the end of the superb Windsor High Street scene. Lucien, ever unpredictable, especially liked that transitional tableau, though of course he had also been in ecstasies of delight anticipating Sir John's come-uppance in the casa Ford, inevitably the highlight of our earlier excursion to the Globe Merry Wives of Windsor (when it would have been the Page household, but I managed to dissuade Lucien from harking back to Shakespeare when he was earnestly trying to sort out his Alices, Megs and Nannettas in the synopsis).

Anyway we were fortunate that the rain held off for our walk across the ridge after a bookshop browse and a stop at the deservedly popular Bill's in Lewes. We were also lucky with a briefly sunkissed picnic followed by a stroll around the lake, now very much plunged in autumn after the late-summer feel of the previous Sunday.

What fun, too, to see the lawn turned into an endlessly reconfigured school playing field.

On Jenufa day the rain was seeping through the Ebert Room roof and only at half-time could we venture much outside. But the magic of Glyndebourne holds in any season.

29/10 The films of the Discovering Music on Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition are now up and running, linked as I write from the main Radio 3 webpage. They're supposed to be there in perpetuity, unlike the abridged radio version, which has already had its seven days of extended life. Ashley Wass's more substantial and hyper-poetic playing, of the Musorgsky miniatures 'Une larme' and 'Au village', comes in the background sequence, following my contextual blether which starts a couple of minutes in, and we pop up again towards the end of the 'analysis' film. My feelings about speaking spontaneously and then finding I'm up there indefinitely for all to see are ambivalent; of course I'd edit myself. But it could have been a lot worse.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

The only way is Up

What I suppose I mean is that there's no going back on the unsentimental presentation of human loss in this little masterpiece, issued - wonders will never cease - under the Disney aegis but made by the Pixar geniuses who brought you Monsters, Inc. Indeed, if we're talking about rank, I'd be tempted to slip this in just above that earlier jeu d'esprit and even alongside both Toy Stories.

In any case, Up is unique. The heroes are a grumpy old man and an annoying chubby child, with cute relief from an exotic bird and a talking dog. Within minutes, the narrative takes you through the senior hero's life, sensitively touching on his wife's loss of a child and later her death. Can you believe parents have complained about this? I echo Maurice Sendak's 'ya boo sucks' sentiments to similar cries of 'too scary' about the cinematic version of Where the Wild Things Are (even if I can't imagine that timeless work extending to a full length film). And I quote John Burningham on a private view of the film based on his book Granpa:

When the picture of the empty armchair came up on the screen a small voice in the front row asked 'Where's Granpa?' The adults each side of me reached for their handkerchiefs. The children, however, were able to accept the ending without tears.

Up, anyway, embraces a huge, far from facile optimism and great visual beauty. It does everything a great work of entertainment, dare I say of art to boot, ought to do: it makes you laugh, cry, reflect. And there are no cheesy songs; the musical score, except in the stock conflict sequences, is sensitive and sweet. I'm not sure if any of this was enhanced by the 3-D version we saw in Brixton's Ritzy Cinema; that was just an optional extra to an already dizzying experience.

So what was I doing watching Up at the pictures in the first place? I doubt if I'd ever have gone had it not been for the fact that I needed to meet friend Simon's partner Patricia, an actress of no small reputation, to get her to record three scenes from Timberlake Wertenbaker's adaptation of Jenufa, the Gabriela Preissova play which inspired Janacek's now much better-known opera (strictly speaking, the original title of both the play and the opera was Her Stepdaughter, which throws the emphasis on to the Kostlenicka, portrayed below by the wonderful Paola Dionisotti). What I thought of the first UK production, which cried out in vain for a West End transfer, is here. It looks from the Faber website as if you can still get hold of copies of the play.

Suffice it to say that Simon was taking daughter Evie and her friend Tanisha to see Up, and we tagged along, afterwards resorting to Simon's car down some noisy Brixton sidestreet trying to get the speeches right. The aftermath I hardly dare report on, other than to say that another Simon, the hard-working sound and vision man at Glyndebourne, is still trying to retrieve the information from a recalcitrant minidisk. I've had it with those machines; technician Simon is going to set me on the right path when next we meet.

So to another film with some resonance, the Flemish director Johan Grimonprez's singular take on a divided Alfred Hitchcock in Double Take.

Presented by the personable Jonathan Romney at the London Film Festival on Friday, this has fascinating things to say about the divided soul and the doppelganger - partly springing, it was later suggested, from the Belgian split/division between French and Flemish. The film makes a lot of the likeable man who was Hitchcock's official double, and all that is amusing, especially the play on Hitchcock's 'McGuffin' appearances in his own films.

I liked, too, the conversation with an older self taken from a Borges story. I was less convinced by the links to world events at the time, from Khrushchev's bizarre off-air spat with Nixon to the Cuban missile crisis and, ultimately, beyond. Still, this made a musical counterpoint and it did make me keen, in a nervous kind of way, to see The Birds again with fresh eyes.

Let's end with another fantasy of genius, Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick or Lonesome No More!

Surely this dystopian tragicomedy has the best back of jacket blurb ever, which I'll use to intrigue you:

Wilbur Swain and his twin sister Eliza are so hideous, helpless and vile in their infancy that their parents are forced to rear them in the seclusion of a nearby asteroid. But behind their idiotic facade, this monstrous pair possess a joint intelligence capable of outstripping the most advanced computers.

Now, as America collapses into anarchic decline, and pin-size Chinamen pollute the atmosphere, President Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain sits in the ruined remnants of the Empire State Building and tells the extraordinary story of his life and times.

Partly to prove to you that I've read beyond, can I quote my favourite of many excerptable passages? Wilbur tells us about the anti-loneliness ('Lonesome No More!') campaign which wins him the presidency:

I said that all the damaging excesses of Americans in the past were motivated by loneliness rather than a fondness for sin.

An old man crawled up to me afterwards and told me how he used to buy life insurance and mutual funds and household appliances and automobiles and so on, not because he liked them or needed them, but because the salesman seemed to promise to be his relative, and so on.

'I had no relatives and I needed relatives,' he said.

'Everybody does,' I said.

He told me how he had been a drunk for a while, trying to make relatives out of people in bars. 'The bartender would be kind of a father, you know - ' he said. 'And then all of a sudden it was closing time.'

To find out more about Wilbur's scheme for a network of relatives, and the concomitant reason for 'Daffodil-11', get your copy here. I'm only a salesman when I believe passionately in the 'product'. And I realise that 'I believe passionately' has become marketing jargon, but does that hijacking make it any the less valid?

Went the day well? I should say. This is my idea of a break after many hours writing a programme article on another weird tale, Bluebeard's Castle, for the English National Opera. So engrossed was I that when I finished I guessed it was lunchtime; it turned out to be 4.20. Strange sensation.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Red and Ellie go to Glyndebourne

Red went to hear Tristan* in late summer.

Biped Ellie attended an autumnal study day on Janacek's Jenufa.

In case you think I've taken leave of my senses, this can pass as performance art - a homage to the vivacious Edwina Ashton, who came with me to Tristan and whose partner Kit sent Red along (he's really Mr. Red, but I am permitted to be on intimate terms). Edwina makes life-size animal costumes in the style of children's toys, dresses up in them and re-enacts the futility of life: a squirrel absently sifting nuts, a Sisyphean dung beetle struggling to push a ball upstairs, a mouse aimlessly sifting through a fashion magazine on the beach. These films have real pathos, believe me. In a forthcoming drawn animation, her first, she creates a 'bad tempered, removed and extremely precise elephant living in a crumbling hotel on the shores of a Swiss lake'. That would be Mr. Pantz, aka the Reverend Panticules and others, her own familiar. You can see she is as much of a one-off in her descriptions as in her art. Adorable Edna!

She took me to the Zoo Art Fair in Shoreditch last Friday, down a dark alley guarded by a luminous angel (the film grain is my attempt at art).

To be frank, I enjoyed the Dickensian warehouse stairs and rooms more than the video shows, but I liked the authenticity of the young people in Edna's quarters, in marked contrast to a lot of the fakery on display at Frieze (or so I'm told). Here she is by her little display, part of the Bristol Works/Projects 'pavilion'.

Anyway, while Ellie - manipulated up above by a bemused Amy Bere of the Glyndebourne Education Department - preferred the lake, I was very happy to be part of an amazing all-day event in the Ebert Room. This matched collaborating with the inspirational Vladimir Jurowski and Daniel Slater on Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery a couple of years ago. After me came moderator Julian Broughton, under the aegis of whose University of Sussex Community Engagement Centre the day took place. As a composer - in this case a re-composer - he gave us a vivid demonstration of how 'In tears' from Janacek's On an overgrown path would sound if conventionally shaped. Then, after an excellent early Christmas dinner in Nether Wallop, we re-convened with key members of the creative team working on the Glyndebourne Touring Opera revival of Jenufa.

We heard three covers, all of whom we were soon wanting to see in the complete opera. Miranda Keys sang Jenufa. She has a beautifully modulated lyric-dramatic soprano, heading towards the territory of Beethoven's Leonora, which she'll be singing in a few years' time. Miranda is an Aussie, and the funniest singer I've met. She could easily have a career in stand-up, and her earthy, no-nonsense approach to plot and characterisation never became arch or brittle thanks to a respect for the drama's searing essence. Then, between reducing us all to helpless laughter, she became the patiently suffering heroine at the drop of a hat.

With vivid support from pianist Duncan Williams and the occasional spur of the moment staging by assistant director Paul Higgins, the scenes worked upon were Jenufa's Act One reproaches to the feckless Steva, two very different exchanges with Laca, the man who's always loved her, and the opening of Act 2. The formidable Kostelnicka was Svetlana Sozdateleva, whose Lady in Waiting I well remember soaring in the ensemble of Verdi's Macbeth (she sang the mistress on tour). Chris Lemmings was Laca. He started off in the Glyndebourne chorus with J all those years ago, and by all accounts was a much better Caliban than Herr Bostridge in Ades's The Tempest. Here are all three after the session, Miranda on the left.

Like his colleagues, Chris seemed to understand the difficult Czech text perfectly - the covers had been engaged a mere three weeks ago, so that made it doubly impressive - though how transformed their phrases became after Robin Ticciati's suggestions. Young and loveable Maestro T is obviously another Pappano in the making, passionately involved with every line and able to grasp the essence of the language as Janacek reproduces it in speech melody. This is Ticciati's first Janacek, and he even had a coaching session with great Sir Charles, Janacek's earthly representative. I find it very moving to think of a major talent still in his twenties working with the octogenarian Mackerras. Continuity and tradition thrive.

Here's Robin clasping the precious full score.

He's clearly a collegial chap, taking the time to talk to a very independent-minded 18 year old who'd just finished her week at Glyndebourne on work experience and was heading to Cambridge next year after travelling (I enjoyed chatting with her on the journey back to London). And there were warm hugs before we took a taxi to Lewes Station. Don't miss the GTO performances of Jenufa, listed here and starting at Glyndebourne on Saturday afternoon, when I'll be talking again.

Well, the future is in many good hands as far as already first-rate conductors go; so much, as I keep saying, for the maestro myth. Alerted by the Isserlis sisters at a Diaghilev talk on Wednesday, I only just caught Yannnick Nezet-Seguin (photo by Marie-Reine Mattera, courtesy of the Southbank Centre)

in Haydn with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the QEH the following evening.

It was as bracing and novel in every phrase as his SCO Prom had been. 'Do hope you enjoyed Yannick as much as we did?' asked Annette Isserlis in a recent e-mail. Didn't I just. A hairsbreadth away from fussiness, his approach works because musicality pours out of everything he does, and he seems completely sincere. Quibbles first: why play the whole Trumpet Concerto on a period instrument? It's asking for trouble, and the admirable David Blackadder clearly got that more often than was comfortable for the listener. Why not demonstrate the wonderful open sound of the old trumpet in an excerpt and then turn to the reliable modern counterpart? Because this is the OAE, I suppose.

But the symphonies came across as even more of a treasury of quirky invention than usual. There was real peasant earthiness in the Surprise's scherzo. All of the Military (100)was delirious delight. Tears of joy came to my eyes in the finale and in at least three places throughout No. 104. Heck, I've been going on too long so I'll ditch the details and leave you with a picture of YNS passing a glass of red wine to leader Margaret Faultless - what a shame we can't see her lovely smiling face - at the 'Night Shift' performance later that evening.

I'd have liked to stay and see how the young and trendy enjoy themselves with the new approach to classical music, but the earlier blockbuster was quite enough.

One final plug: the Discovering Music on Musorgsky's Pictures at an exhibition which I shared with Charles Hazlewood and Ashley Wass is coming up quicker than I anticipated, on Radio 3 this coming Sunday at 5pm. Don't know yet about the webcast film, which should be there in perpetuity once it appears.

*chiefly the Liebested. Sorry, I just thought of that one. Yet in fact I did meet a man who came to the Royal Opera for that alone. I know because we'd persuaded a friend to move into a seat which had been empty for two acts, and just before the third began, in he came. 'I only ever come for the Liebestod', he said. Right, at £100 plus a shot. He was duly rewarded by Gabriele Schnaut singing it nearly a tone flat.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Czechs in the USA

I like to think the hyper-brilliant finale of Martinu's Second Symphony is a soundtrack to the composer, pictured above with pianist pal Rudolf Firkusny on the left in Central Park, striding the streets of New York like Gershwin's American in Paris. Yes, it's a dazzling showpiece, at least in the last two movements, but there's introspection, too, in the slow-movement homage to Dvorak and Janacek. I find it incredibly moving and troubling the way the Bohemian/Moravian strain peters out. But Martinu was mindful of his fellow Czechs in Cleveland who commissioned the work, so he gave them a few good tunes to hum.

In a footnote to the 'MMMMM' entry, that distinguished polymath Colin Dunn expresses his surprise and relief to find that Jiri Belohlavek's performance of the Second with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Friday didn't come as an anticlimax to the First. Certainly it's lighter and briefer, but it does the D major joy thing like no other symphony. Indeed, I think I even prefer the radiant final chord to the noisier, looser tumult at the end of Mahler Five.

But shouldn't the symphony have come at the end of a long and daunting programme? Swapping it with a quick-witted and woodwind sharp Till Eulenspiegel would have given us depth as well as energy after the Adagio of Mahler 10 (and made sure that anyone caught out by the controversial 7pm 'live on Radio 3' start wouldn't have missed the most unusual component). I still don't understand conductors like Jiri who won't do the whole Cooke-fleshed-out adventure; Mahler's finale takes us much further than his first movement. Still, the BBCSO's Adagio was translucent and painstakingly lit up in its delicate final stages.

I must confess it was the only part of the evening where tiredness took over and I phased out of a few minutes early on. I'd done the pre performance talk and Ann McKay had been whisking me around the Barbican to sort out the BBC box chat with Petroc Trelawny. It made a big different to have the window wide open so we caught the full dazzle of the Martinu and the sheen of Strauss's Four Last Songs.

Some were less than overwhelmed by the delivery of Anne Schwanewilms (photographed above by Johanna Price). I can only say that I find her poised, silvery and sometimes deliberately slivery sound a beguiling alternative to the fuller bodied tone of Christine Brewer or Anja Harteros. All three are the great Strauss sopranos of our time, to which some would add a fourth, Soile Isokoski (and yet more a fifth, Renee Fleming, who can be fine when bad taste doesn't get in the way). Radio 3 listeners missed a visual treat as the statuesque Schwanewilms stood, a vision in purple, with total physical ease and radiated assurance. What a far cry from the angular, technique-defying antics of Bostridge, Kozena and Goerne.

Belohlavek seemed to be keeping the orchestra right down for his soprano; at times, that rarest of events in the Barbican acoustics, a genuine pianissimo, drew us right in to the magic. And we could take it for granted that Schwanewilms would phrase longer and bolder - and at some dangerously slow tempi - than most other interpreters. Full marks, too, to a hushed audience who held the silence. I always remember my English master at school, the adorable Lionel 'Tibby' Bircher, sighing 'lovely lady, lovely lady' over Desdemona, and I feel the same about muse Schwanewilms (who'll be singing Otello's long-suffering bride at the Barbican in December). Do catch her Marschallin on this DVD, which I went overboard about in the BBC Music Magazine. The production swims in and out of focus, but our Anne is alert to every nuance, and the camera loves her.

A quick reminder: you can hear the concert, complete with Petroc and I blethering away, on the Radio 3 iPlayer for the next two days. I'm cut off in mid interval flow - you'll then need to pick up Part Two for the Mahler Adagio and Strauss's Till.

BBC Symphony contrabassoonist and sometime third bassoon Clare Glenister returned to our course at the City Lit last night. Her painstakingly prepared theme was the bassoon as the comic of the orchestra, with Shakespeare at the core. Live, she played us Alan Ridout's Caliban and Ariel as well as Falstaff's sack-soaked solo in Elgar's marvellous symphonic poem. She'd spent all Saturday recording herself three times over in Granville Bantock's The Three Witches.

Next time we expect a Glenister x 4 rendition of Prokofiev's Scherzo humoristique. On which theme, Clare also played us an American spoof of Peter and the Wolf adapted for four bassoons. Bird, cat, duck, Peter, wolf and huntsmen are all...bassooons. Grandfather, who winds up the narrative muttering about Darwinian natural selection, is...a sopranino recorder.

Clare is an interesting and interested person, who participated in drama classes at the City Lit - Shakespeare's Nurse is a cornerstone of her rep - and is currently doing a degree course in which she hopes to perfect her Norwegian (brought about by a desire to read Ibsen in the original). She stayed for our Martinu chat, and wants us to point out to the management that the four-work programmes are killers for the players, and that less (ie three works) might be more. Many of us agreed, having stumbled from Martinu One in almost uncomfortable fatigue. These programmes look marvellous on paper and make for absorbing listening on Radio 3, but perhaps they're a bit much for orchestra and attentive audience alike.

And now it's time to put Martinu to bed for a few months (how long the interval befor Jiri returns for symphonies 3-6). In the meantime, I must turn my attention to Janacek's Jenufa for a Glyndebourne study day on Sunday (do come if there are places left - Robin Ticciati's also featuring, and singers will be performing bits of the opera with piano accompanument), and to Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle for an ENO programme note. All good but emotionally demanding stuff. And my previously announced intention to go for the happy and gentle was demolished by reading Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, one of the most devastating and upsetting novellas ever written.

It's essential reading that may have you viewing marital relations quite differently in the first fifty pages. Then, thanks to the device of the unreliable narrator, it becomes much more ambiguous and open-ended, as always with Tolstoy. And to think that all this hit the world before Freud and Ingmar Bergman.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

No mere dim sum

Sounds like they're making quite a meal out of Turandot at the English National Opera, though whether a splendid banquet of fresh horrors or just a bubble-and-squeak remains to be seen (by me, at least, not until mid-November). In the meantime, heading our tributes to several new productions in town this season, I've started the City Lit Opera in Focus course with Puccini's swansong, going on this term to Bluebeard's Castle and Cherevichki (of which more when the time comes). Above is a detail from the cover of my treasured first-edition vocal score, probably not worth anything (I bought it for £2 in Edinburgh's Westport Books back in the 1980s) because they were produced in the thousands.

It always takes me aback how much more there is to look at in a Puccini score than I ever remember. Here, before we even got to arias and interpretations, I had to deal with tritones, bi- or poly-tonality, polyrhythms, newcomers to the orchestra (those Chinese gongs, probably taken over from Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten) and, of course, the forerunners. So we spent the first class on Gozzi's 1762 'fiaba Cinese teatrale tragicoma'. There's a clear and vivid musical starting point with Weber's incidental music of 1809 and the funny little pentatonic march which Hindemith skewed and jazzed in his Symphonic Metamorphoses. Later, along came Busoni with music for Max Reinhardt's 1911 production starring Gertrude Eysoldt (whose Salome and Elektra inspired Strauss) as Turandot and Alexander Moissi as Calaf.

Quite why the little neoclassical opera Busoni made out of Turandot a few years after that doesn't get staged more often I don't understand. As I said to Vladimir Jurowski, it would surely be a hit at Glyndebourne. It's the opposite of Puccini's heated late romantic monument, dim sum indeed to the later lavishly stuffed pig's head, and much closer to Gozzi in spirit. It first turned up as part of a 'new commedia dell'arte' double bill in 1917.

Then, following Meyerhold's cue and the Gozzi-worship of his magazine The Love for Three Oranges, Vakhtangov staged his own adaptation of the play in Moscow in the early 1920s. That production was running in the Vakhtangov Theatre's rep in the 1970s, and may be still for aught I know; but I doubt if I'd have had the chance to see it had not Jurowski transferred to DVD an old video for our Glyndebourne study day on Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery. The whole thing is done with wit and esprit, backed up by an orchestra including ladies 'playing' comb-and-paper in various cabaret numbers, spoofs of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and so on. Pantalone, Tartaglia and Brighella, the clowns whom Puccini turns into Ping, Pang and Pong, very much dominate. The first two are pictured here.

Finally we came to Puccini's astounding score. I'll pass over the orchestral wonders and skip to the comparative listening we managed to do yesterday. For 'Signore, ascolta', with its pentatonic gift to be both simple and exquisite, we threaded together Callas in recital, Margaret Price, youngish Scotto and Mary Plazas for the final float. I wanted to show the class Shcherbachenko's winning performance at Cardiff, which I can do now thanks to YouTube. The sound quality is distorted, which is a shame, but you get the expressive message.

Then Calaf's response, 'Non piangere, Liu', came in rather more historic packaging: Charles Kullman, Joseph Schmidt, Aureliano Pertile - Toscanini's favourite tenor who could well have sung in the premiere, though he didn't - and Franco Corelli, whose final top B flat is the most thrilling and dangerous. Then we put together the whole sequence, the finale of Puccini's first-act four-movement symphony. And who else could it be but Caballe, Pavarotti, Ghiaurov and the LPO under Mehta? That Decca recording still, after all these years, strikes me as fairly unsurpassable, for all the passing quibbles one might have. It should be any newcomer's first opera set, surely. And we haven't even got to one of Sutherland's finest and most unexpected achievements.

The class burst into spontaneous cheering at the end. And all this was more apt than we knew, because yesterday, I subsequently learnt, great Luciano would have been 74. Was that the most sheerly beautiful-in-a-golden-way tenor voice ever?

Anyway, I'm very curious about Rupert Goold's ENO production. As the opera is hideously violent and not a little sadistic, I think the solutions could work. Though when told some weeks ago that it was set in a Chinese restaurant, we laughed incredulously. Well, never write off something until you've seen it carried through. For full picture width, I think you have to flip over to the YouTube setting.

Thought you might also like a potted video (made for the Rome showing) of La Fura dels Baus's Grand Macabre. This gives all the highlights of model Claudia's transmogrifications.

I took the point that students who hadn't seen the Big Mac before were confused, and wanted to hear the music better as they felt it was swamped by the stage business. Fair enough, but for those of us who already treasure the score, the ideas always seemed to serve Ligeti well. And I'm delighted it packed 'em in at the Coli; the last night was sold out.

Saturday 10 October 2009

Obama, Nobel, Lincoln, Copland

Yes, he has a long way to go. Sure, he's hedged around by inflexible self-interest groups and will be lucky if he pushes through a fraction of what he wants. But I do believe Obama genuinely wants it and I find it so dispiriting when I see American colleagues saying, oh, he's no different from a Republican leader.

The Nobel Peace Prize is one in the eye for all that. Look at this for some disparate reactions from around the world.

And why Lincoln? Because I was amazed to see the only footage apparently taken of Senator Obama, as he then was, participating in Copland's Lincoln Portrait with that admirable conductor William Eddins and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra back in 2005. The one-minute clip isn't of a high quality but it does catch some uncannily prescient text.

So the Prize, whatever its pros and cons, is an encouragement to Obama to stick to his guns and do more. You can reinforce the message by signing Avaaz's petition. This is a fine organisation capable of effecting real change, and it has already done so. So join the Rachmaninoff Society (pace my last entry) AND support Avaaz.

On a trivial note, look, too, at the fabric Sophie sent us from Mali, where most people are still Obama-crazy. We used it as a temporary curtain when the builders were doing their stuff. Barack and Michelle are back to front, but the neighbours in the mews would have got the full message.

Friday 9 October 2009

Rachmaninov: trios, duets, solos

They write Rachmaninoff according to the composer's preferred transliteration in the USA and Europe, I write Rachmaninov, but I couldn't get on better with the passionate souls of the Rachmaninoff Society. Some of these one-composer fan clubs - mentioning no names - are peppered with obsessives who always know best and can't string a sentence together about their chosen hero in their hand-typed journals, but the RS isn't like that at all. A Dutch duo runs the show, the amiable Wouter de Voogd and the wise, enthusiastic SVR scholar/performer Elger Niels who edits the beautifully produced biennial magazine The Bells, and there's a highly professional treasurer/publicist, Judicaelle Hammond.

The first of the above images I saw for the first time in the Feb 2008 edition of The Bells: there's Stravinsky's 'six-and-a-half-foot scowl' actually smiling with daughter Irina and doggie at the front door of his country house in Ivanovka, summer 1910. He's almost smiling again in the second picture, taken some years later in the company of his other daughter Tatyana.* Well, it's high time I tried to give a succinct account of the big Rachmaninov day at Chetham's School of Music, Manchester.

The audience was small but very involved so the guest of honour, French-American veteran virtuoso Francois-Joel Thiollier, was more than happy to give his all, and even, I'm told, a spontaneous farewell recital on the Sunday which I wasn't able to stay and hear. After engaging vividly with Elger's lecturing demo of Kreisler performances, and immediately pinpointing Viennese style, the lovable polymath enlightened us in two masterclasses. Elger took the first of the weekend's pictures, Wouter the one of Thiollier solus, and the rest are mine.

Thiollier's first masterclass was with Chets protege Niklas Duckworth, who plunged straight into the fiendish transcription of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream Scherzo. The famous audition cry of 'did you bring any Mozart?' was implied in Thiollier's first gentle request that Duckworth play something simpler to ease us in, but he didn't. But by the end of the hour his understandably nervous flight had eased into something fuller-toned, better phrased and airier.

There was then rather more on-the-level coaching of an already formidable professional 26-year old Ukrainian, Ivan Hovorun, who played the first movement of 'the Rach 3' with his charming and expressive mother Lyubov acting as first-class orchestra. Again we had more flashing virtuosity shaped into something more musical and, yes, sonorous (Thiollier has a whole cache of knowledge about Steinway pedals which would make an essay in itself). I was told he didn't mind me filming and using just a couple of portions. Forgive the sound, which in no way reflects the real sonority of the Steinways. The first clip is short and deals with making the second subject sing

while the second, four and a half minutes long, gives us the Hovoruns creating an impact in the development before getting even better results under Thiollier's vigilant guidance. This speaks for itself, I think.

An amazingly good Chets canteen lunch with the Thiolliers was followed by a recital from two more adorable people, Bulgarians Valentina Seferinova and Venera Bojkova, who style themselves the 'Piano Duo Va i Ve'. Their personalities are nicely contrasted, their presentation immediately draws the audience in, and I loved the first two of the three pieces they played by compatriot Pancho Vladigerov, Mar Dimitro Iyo and the Chant Op. 21 No. 2. I was rather surprised to find that Lyubov, sitting next to me, knew the latter and explained why it was so difficult. The Duo's touch was elegant and full, their tempi for Shostakovich and Rachmaninov perhaps a little more controversial. But how wonderful to know that there are forces for the good like this teaching and performing all over the UK. Here are the delightful ladies after their recital.

They came to my talk, lured, I think, by the Rachmaninov four-hand transcription of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty which I was able to illustrate (though not live - Va i Ve had given some thought to sight-reading excerpts for me, but were very hungry and tired by 5pm). I was followed by the Chairwoman of the Russian Rachmaninov Society, Tamara Parshina, who took me aback with her emphatic and very focused love of the composer. Here she is at breakfast the following morning with Elger (centre) and Wouter.

Finally Thiollier gave his 'keynote' recital, a devastatingly brilliant and sonorous but never flashy quartet of variations: Mendelssohn's Serieuses, Chopin's on a German national air, Herz's Premier Capriccio brillante which Verdi apparently played in his Milanese youth and the monumental Rachmaninov homage to Chopin (Op. 22, starting with colossal weight and impact).

There were only fifteen of us in the audience, but it was a choice assembly, including Ivan and Lyubov.

We stood without hesitation - and were rewarded with Scriabin's Nocturne for the left hand (which I recognised only because I'd picked up a tatty copy of the original Belyayev publication in Bristol's Amnesty bookshop). I'd have liked to stay on Sunday to hear Hovorun's recital and a demonstration by passionate Rachmaninoff Society trustee Dr. John Malpass of the latest attempt to 're-make' SVR's 78rpm recordings by Zenph Studios on a Steinway Model D Concert Grand (soon to be released on Sony Classical). After Sunday breakfast, though, I had to hop on the train back to London and finish the Martinu script. Anyway, warm congratulations to these enthusiasts for the vision to carry through so memorable a meeting of international musicians. Do join them; I've signed up for the next three years.

Caught a glimpse of another Ukrainian giant-in-the-making, Alexander Romanovsky, in a Wigmore lunchtime on my return from Cardiff. Like Thiollier, he didn't stint on his programme, and again variations were at the core. Brahms's two sets on the famous Paganini theme took the breath away - crisp, clear, and with the outlines of the theme always emerging through the latticework. I don't think much of Shostakovich's early Aphorisms - they sound like accomplished improvisations, and I wonder if they'd still be performed if they'd been composed by a lesser name. Prokofiev's Third Sonata is a different matter. Romanovsky stretched the limits of the tearaway possible in the coda, though he never bashed. Yet one more to watch. Photo by Hanya Chlala.

Since then, and all the Martinu and Musorgsky work, I've been dodging the big emotional battleships, including the Royal Opera Tristan - for me, nothing could follow the Glyndebourne experience so soon, however good Stemme might be, however challenging Loy's production - and the concert Wozzeck with Simon Keenlyside last night. I need gentle, happy music for a bit, but I'm not going to get it in at least part of tonight's BBCSO concert. I'll be in the box with Petroc Trelawny reacting to the bracing Martinu 2 - just as special as the other five, I reckon - Strauss's Four Last Songs with the divine Schwanewilms, Mahler 10 Adagio and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. Listen on Radio 3 at 7, and if you're coming to the concert, do try to make the talk at 6.

*These images weren't provided by the Society, but I hope the owners will deem this 'fair use' in the cause of SVR.

Wednesday 7 October 2009


Which signifies more Martinu, Mahler, Mozart and Musorgsky arr. Shostakovich in Belohlavek's BBC Symphony concert on Saturday, more Mozart with Mendelssohn from the Jerusalem Quartet on Sunday, and more Musorgsky arr. Ravel down in Cardiff Bay on Monday. I'll throw in poet Masefield as a postscript, too (guess this is going to be another long 'un, my apologies to Cressida and others who bemoan the excess of text - just enjoy the pictures). Above is Martinu's own image of himself as some sort of creature with a beak, adorning the three BIS recordings of his symphonies which included my Building a Library choice of the Fourth. I was going to announce that you can actually get all six for less than the price of two in a Brilliant Classics box for little over £8 on Amazon, but just as I was looking for the link, it seemed to have disappeared.

Saturday evening's concert programme, broadcast on Monday and available on iPlayer for the next four days, was even more cunningly planned than I'd thought - four times four movements, each in effect a symphony. Teenager Mozart's so personable and charming 29th marks a beginning of sorts to the symphonic adventure - Haydn was there already, of course - and Martinu's First represents one of the extreme directions the symphony could take in the 20th century. Jiri, although using more strings than I'd expected, kept the Mozart light and clear; the finale bristled with life.

Flavour of the year Gerald Finley (photographed above by Sim Canetty-Clarke) then gave us a vocal symphony of Mahler's intricately-scored songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. 'Das irdische Leben', a poverty-'Erlkonig' ballad, made a grim first movement. The scherzo, St Anthony's sermon to the fishes, would of course find its counterpart in the Second Symphony, so quirkily and freshly played with weird hiccoughs the other week by the LPO under Jurowski. While in the symphony 'Urlicht' follows, the slow movement here was that greatest of all the songs before the Ruckert Lieder, 'Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen', with its heartbreaking, heartbroken exchanges between the ghost-soldier and his girl. And the donkey-judged song competition between cuckoo and nightingale dominates the finale of the Fifth Symphony. So it was cleverly sequenced, performed with all Finley's slightly reined-in professionalism and perhaps more memorably etched by the pointillist orchestra (I've never heard such detail in these pieces).

It's a bit heretical of me to say I switch off in chunks of Musorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, especially as for some reason I seem to have become the BBC's Musorgsky Man. That unforgettable portrait of him by Repin, incidentally, tells only one, rather late story, though he was getting that way by the time he wrote his greatest song cycle. Anyway, fascinatingly though Shostakovich cordons off the orchestral sections in his orchestrations, I wonder whether the actual musical content always rises to the gist of the poems. But Death as Field Marshal was magnificent, Finley suddenly showing us that he can do the stentorian bass-baritone stuff. I still feel he isn't quite an artist on the edge; does the Canadian in him stand guard? Nevertheless, his was undeniably classy singing.

Martinu's symphony for Kousi (pictured with him above in another shot from the Martinu Centre in Policka) blew us all away. It was, no doubt, very loud and insistent in that way the Barbican always emphasises (play a piano and you get a mezzo-forte). But Belohlavek kept rhythmic energy sharp and clear, could have encored that supreme jazz-tango scherzo and sent us away exhilarated but exhausted. Gosh, Martinu does ask a lot of his listeners as well as his players.

The parallels between Martinu and Mozart fusing childlike naivety with supreme sophistication were reinforced by the Jerusalems' Wigmore coffee morning concert (I'm sorry, but is offering a free glass of sherry likely to attract a younger audience?). Marco Borggreve took this photo of the four likeable lads.

When we reached the ineffably blithe 6/8 finale of the K589 (B flat) Quartet, I was reminded of the chirruping piano and harp who add their say to the first moment of repose in Martinu's finale (about 1hr40mins into the iPlayer broadcast, if you want to pinpoint it). Both composers tap into the inner child but never resort to faux-naivete. Mozart's slow movement, as J put it, reading my thoughts, was indeed 'like bathing in light', one idea pouring forth after another. And I must say that, much as I enjoyed the full-bloodedness of the Mendelssohn quartet which followed, Mozart carries the palm for giving each of the players lovely and personal things to do; Mendelssohn's writing is more orchestral, less individual. For me, the Jerusalems are right at the top of current string quartets for communication, compounding my awestruck ongoing admiration for Faust/Melnikov and the Rasumovskys.

Out of the great grey Babylon on Monday for the western wastes of Cardiff, not as yet one of my favourite cities, for a Radio 3 recording of Discovering Music.

As with Manchester, there's a heck of a lot going on, and if the revamped Cardiff Bay area, feeling as producer Chris Wines said even more desolate than an English seaside resort out of season, is a bit of a dog's dinner architecturally, the facade of the Wales Millennium Centre can hardly fail to impress. Don't ask me what the straw bales are doing in the foreground.

The texts, I was delighted to discover, are by Welsh poet laureate Gwyneth Lewis, whose Sunbathing in the Rain ('a cheerful book about depression') is a little masterpiece. The Welsh words mean 'creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration' and the English reads, simply, 'in these stones, horizons sing'.

It looks good from the side

and lit up at night, even if by the time I photographed it there was hardly anyone around to see it.

I also enjoyed encountering for the first time the BBC National Orchestra of Wales's new 350-seater Hoddinott Hall, exactly the kind of thing the BBCSO needs to replace Maida Vale.

Here I arrived at 4 to go through the paces of my 'guest appearance as Russian music expert' with Charles Hazlewood and pianist Ashley Wass. Ashley was playing not only snippets of Musorgsky's original piano Pictures at an Exhibition - look at the manuscript, hardly the slovenly work of an habitual drunk -

but also two late piano miniatures, 'Une larme' and 'Au village'. I'd written off the 'tear' as salon sentimentality; hearing Ashley play it so feelingly changed my opinion about it completely. As with Ilse Weber's Terezin songs interpreted by Anne Sofie von Otter, simplicity can be of the essence. 'Au village' was fascinating, too: it struck me on the spot that it's a harvest song, with solo and response followed by a dance in which there are several surprising bars of gypsy or Jewish music. Here's Ashley, of whom I want to hear much more, just before he rushed back to London:

Charles and the orchestra did a very characterful job on the Ravel orchestration, not exactly subtle, but very visual: they have a superb first flautist, who peeped masterfully in the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, and the tuba, sax and trumpet solos were all well taken. There's no end to what you can learn about Musorgsky and Pictures. Chris enlightened me with the idea that 'Bydlo' is related to the funeral march of Chopin's Second Piano Sonata. Here he is with Charles after a hard-working afternoon and evening.

And chatting to the very amiable as well as highly accomplished Polish first bassoonist, Jaroslaw Augustyniak, I was surprised to learn that 'bydlo', pronounced 'pidwo' and meaning 'cattle', was a derogatory term of 19th century Polish aristocracy towards peasants, still used by Stalin in the 20th. So the picture of hard labour becomes even more pertinent.

Well, I think we were all happy with the results, which will be up as a filmed webcast in perpetuity as well as a Radio Three broadcast in a couple of weeks' time (tbc). And I enjoyed a steak sandwich with Chris in one of the theme park cafes afterwards, the view

from my luxurious room in 'Cardiff's only five star hotel' - special rates, for those who complain that the BBC is throwing its money around (believe me, it wasn't, for my appearance, at any rate) - and a 9am stroll around the harbour before catching the bus back to Cardiff Central. Here are two brooding shots on a grey morning pierced by silver light from time to time:

And the Masefield? Well, what serendipity that only last week I'd remembered a fellow classics student at Edinburgh University who knew 'Cargoes' off by heart and used to recite it as a party piece. And what a sonorous paean it is, contrasting ancient poetry with modern prose. The reason it crops up is because on Cardiff's Mermaid Quay there are a series of sculptures inspired by what are perhaps Masefield's most celebrated lines after 'Sea fever'.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon* coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

I don't think Masefield allowed for the starlings on the dirty British coaster, though. And I'm still puzzled why the homage should be there in Cardiff Bay. While Ivor Novello was christened David Ifor Davies in the Welsh capital, and duly honoured with a rather homely monument alongside the Millennium Centre,

Masefield was born in gorgeous Ledbury - not far from the border, but that doesn't make him a Welshman. Maybe it was his time on the HMS Conway that gave him honorary Taffship.

So farewell to the Bay for now. Lucky Welsh to be imminently getting a Mariinsky double bill of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and The Nutcracker - I've provided the notes at an envious distance - as well as a Bryn and Valery double act.

*Forgot about that stanza, so didn't hunt it out among the sculptures to photograph it.