Tuesday 18 January 2011


Or rather, mania with Liszt attached. I wasn't expecting to be quite so stunned by the new DVD of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling; having seen Edward Watson as a rather pallid Romeo, I'd never imagined he'd be up to the mark of syphilitic, gun-toting, sado-masochistic Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (not telling you the true-to-life plot if you don't already know it). But that's the intriguing thing about dancers, as with singers, that some roles just fit them like a glove. I wish I'd understood this earlier in life.

Clearly 35 words on it in a BBC Music Magazine ballet round-up wasn't going to be enough, so I was lucky to have a chance, simultaneously, to write about Liszt and the use of his music in the ballet by John Lanchbery for the Royal Opera and Ballet website, readable here. I think the site looks good now as well as, let's hope, reading informatively and being well cross-referenced).

That fellow Jack, as Lanchbery's pals knew him, really was more of a great man than most people seem to have recognised. I adore his work on Tales of Beatrix Potter - which he came to the flat to talk about shortly before he died, tinkling away on the ivories of our on-loan Steinway Boudoir Grand to demonstrate - and La fille mal gardee. The Liszt potpourri is perhaps even more sensitive a selection. There are works already scored by Liszt, who God knows was not on the whole the greatest orchestrator, including the opening of A Faust Symphony which serves as brooding deathmotif throughout; but Lanchbery also does a pointedly weird job himself on some of the quirkier piano miniatures. Anyway, read all about it over there.

As for the latest cast to take up MacMillan's grim gauntlet, what an ensemble it is. All the ladies create a real sense of character - not just the scary-ambitious Mary Vetsera of Mara Galeazzi (pictured with Watson above in the first of two Royal Ballet production photos by Johan Persson, in a Pas so physical you fear her body might snap) and Sarah Lamb's calculating Marie Larisch but also the poignant ones, Iohna Loots as poor Princess Stephanie (dancing another weird Pas de deux with Watson's Rudolf below) and Cindy Jourdain's hot-and-cold Empress Mother. There's a dazzling, sexy cameo from Steven McRae, too, as royal cabbie Bratfisch. Otherwise the whole thing works against what I always thought the principle of ballet was, to froth up, instead stripping down to the skull beneath the skin. Very scary. I can't wait for it to come back into the Royal Ballet rep.

And of course it's the Liszt bicentenary, as if you could possibly have missed that already, as well as Hungary's controversial six-month EU presidency (it looks as if Sarkozy and Merkel may already have plied a restraining effect upon Hungary's truly awful new government). I have no regrets about missing the wonderful Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer on Sunday, simply because while no doubt that was a five-star occasion - my pal Ed Seckerson certainly loved it, and so did the diplo-mate - the duo of towering violinist Leonidas Kavakos and revelatory pianist Enrico Pace over at the Wigmore would have to merit five and a half. More anxious to hear a masterpiece not often played live, Prokofiev's First Violin Sonata, in such hands rather than the relatively known quantities on the BFO programme, I chose to write about the recital for The Arts Desk; I'm still reeling from it and thinking over especially the plains of heaven Kavakos and Pace trod in Schubert's C major Fantasy.

Anyway, there's plenty more Liszt on the horizon (all they had on offer at the Southbank was the First Piano Concerto, another dubious choice for Stephen Hough, but Fischer had already done several of the not-great tone poems as well as anyone could expect at the Barbican several years back). Mayerling has sent me back to some of the sources, not least the Harmonies du soir of the transcendental etudes which serves as a climactic Act 3 Pas de Deux. Bertrand in Paris was going through a Cziffra craze, some of which rubbed off on me, so here's the phenomenal Hungarian master surmounting a peak of pianistic art:

Before we go on to more Cziffra, a less overheated interlude - one of the many great works which wouldn't have fitted into the decadent, hothouse environment of Mayerling, Les jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este. This performance was recorded in 1928 by my personal favourite among Liszt interpreters, Claudio Arrau.

Cziffra leads me on to the opera we're spending seven or so weeks on at the City Lit, Wagner's Tannhauser. We're already having an intriguing time in the two Venusbergs of 1845 and 1861, so here's the Liszt transcription of the Overture from Tannhauser's second hymn of praise to Venus to the end:

And just as an ironic encore, since there's been so much talk of this since we discussed it at Susie and Michael's on 2 January, another overture transcription with a difference: Hindemith's Overture to The Flying Dutchman as Played at Sight by a Second-Rate Spa Orchestra at the Village Well at 7 O'Clock in the Morning.
A little of it goes a long way until it breaks out in a Strauss waltz, but what effects from a mere string quartet.


Willym said...

As always you send me running to my cd cabinet or classicsonline. I hadn't listened to La Fille Mal Garde in ages and had forgotten how delightful Lanchbery's arrangement is. Then of course I had to download the Beatrix Potter. You are a bad influence - thank heaven's for bad influences.

Miranda Hawkes said...

from Miranda Hawkes
apropos your comments about London restaurants some time ago, have you ever explored Fredericks in Camden Passage? I have been several times, not at my own expense, and I just find it excellent. The food is very good, the service attentive but never overbearing, and the atmosphere is calm and intimate without being sedate or stuffy. When my father became a bit "tired and emotional" on my fist visit, the staff were very professional and at ease in dealing with what could have been an embarrassing scene, without scolding poor Dad or making him feel bad. Well done, Fredericks!
Miranda Hawkes

David said...

Why yes, Miranda, though I haven't been for nearly 23 years - I can tell you that because it's where I took the future diplo-mate, at his request, on his birthday when I was trying so hard to woo him... On your recommendation I'll go back.

For calm and bright and airy - or, if were being pretentious, luxe, calme et volupte - I also recommend the upstairs of La Trouvaille, Newburgh Street off Carnaby Street, where we went for another friend's birthday on Saturday afternoon. A find indeed.

Will said...

"I always thought the principle of ballet was, to froth up"

Ah, but not when we come to the work of Ken Macmillan -- large-scale melodramas of sex, obsession and death, and I mean that in a very positive way. His version has ruined me for any other of Prokofiev's R&J, for example, at least so far. All the others have seemed tame and somehow decorative.

David said...

Well, MacMillan can be frothy too - I could have done without the otiose first two acts of Anastasia, though the third (set to Martinu 6 after Tchaikovsky) is superb. But, agreed, I haven't seen a Romeo to touch his, which I must have been to at least five times and seen at least that often on DVD, though the Kirov back-to-basics has its moments and I liked what Nureyev did with Act 3.

Ballet lovers say 'if you think Macmillan's good, you should see Cranko's', an omission I have yet to rectify.

Jessica said...

David, bravo for giving the fabulous Lanchbery the credit he deserves! His expert arrangements helped to change balletic history, a fact that is too rarely acknowledged. By the way, I've yet to trace the big, memorable Love theme in Mayerling (the one echoed tragically just after Rudolf shoots Mary) to any piece of Liszt and am wondering if it is Lanchbery's own pastiche idea - can you enlighten us at all?

David said...

Well, Jessica, he shoots her to the leitmotif of the pistol taken from the first movement of A Faust Symphony, then the last two Liszt 'musics' quoted are Heroide Funebre and Tasso. I think they're what you mean rather than the 'Harmonies du soir' used for the love-death pas de deux proper.

Glad another Lanchbery fan has come out of the woodwork!

David Damant said...

It is said - indeed, on dit only - that Queen Victoria did not care for Wagner as the music was so noisy. But when at a concert she heard the overture to Tannhauser she so much liked it that she asked for it to be played again, thus putting out the timing of the concert and the royal scheduling for the evening.