Wednesday, 23 February 2011
Bells and farewells
Invited composer and Radio 3 presenter Robert Worby to talk to my BBCSO City Lit class last night - one of the few folk who can discuss really complicated things lucidly. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say he is to contemporary music what that real gent Brian Magee is to philosophy. The subject was something of a bete noire for me up to now, Brian Ferneyhough, prior to an 'immersion day' at the Barbican, and the students were gripped, though not perhaps entirely converted. If only the composer wrote as intelligibly about his head-music as Robert speaks. And just look at the crazy complexity of Ferneyhough's writing for string quartet.
One of the many dimensions touched upon was that of space, how RW's great inspirer Stockhausen especially distributes his forces. Robert spent quite a bit of time pointing out how we've been here before in most of the details, and in this case of course our man Berlioz was the pioneer (well, after Gabrieli, at any rate). In last Wednesday's electrifying performance of the Symphonie fantastique, the brilliant Yannick Nezet-Seguin paid special attention to the handful of spatial effects. So an oboe replied to the shepherd's cor anglais from a box high on the right side of the auditorium - not offstage, but ethereally hovering aloft, thus conjuring up a mountain landscape like this one in Verbier rather than the flat plains I've usually visualised in the Scene aux champs.
And the bells for the witches' sabbath were not only placed offstage left, with the doors spookily opening on an eerie white light, but doubled with a gong each for extra resonance. You can only see one of the gongs in the picture above, but here's percussionist Ignacio Molins demonstrating (he also rattled the military drum after the execution of the March to the Scaffold before leaving the platform for his final contribution). I heard the sound as if in the next room from the LPO office while waiting to go on for my talk, when in fact it was at least 30 yards away, and went to investigate. This is the result, all 21 seconds of it (mostly reverb).
The concert was a great event from the first, exquisite notes of Ravel's Sleeping Beauty to the last witchy stomp, drawing a roar from the crowd (Anna Caterina Antonacci's Cleopatra was riveting, too, though the double basses stole that particular show). My friend Edwina, whom I saw sitting some way away clapping her hands high above her head, said she thought it was the best concert she'd ever been to.
So we had to go back on Saturday to hear Yannick conduct Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, even though the Arts Desk's chokka music allocation meant it couldn't be written up there. The companion work, Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, was not a happy experience: YNS's lively, graceful conducting sat uneasily with the precious, effete playing of Stefan Jackiw and Richard Jongjae O'Neill (very weak viola sound from him). I could only think of Julian Rachlin and Lawrence Power at the Mackerras Memorial Concert, and wondered why the LPO hadn't settled for its excellent leader, Pieter Schoeman, and guest principal viola Tom Dunn.
No matter; we were there to hear how Sarah Connolly and Toby Spence fared in Mahler's most profound eastern philosophising. And the answer was, very well indeed. We know that our Toby's no heldentenor, but I beg to differ with the home Siegfried: in my view, he did ride the orchestra, acted out the feelings much more vividly than he used to and served the porcelain delicacy of the third song very well indeed (I well remember Jon Vickers crashing bear-like through that. Must have been with Rattle and Jessye Norman at the Proms. And I see, eeuch, Sir Si's forthcoming Birmingham Das Lied will be with the hardly up-to-the-Abschied Lady R, Magdalena Kozena).
La Connolly certainly pushed all the right buttons, found the right breath control and all the colours. And yet. There's still not the individual sound you got with Dame Janet, nor the sense of going deeper which nearly broke my heart when Christianne Stotijn - a mezzo with a much less secure technique - unfolded her meditational Farewell with Ivan Fischer and the Budapesters back in 2008. What really carried it all, for me, was YNS's marvellous sensitivity with every phrase, his cushioning of the singers, the sheer chamber-musical sweetness he got at the end of 'Von der Schoenheit'.
It was so nearly perfect, and yet I have to admit - a bit grudgingly, because I was cross with Tom Service among others for implying that British orchestras aren't as edge-of-seat exciting as their grandest continental counterparts (it's the conductor, Tom, always the conductor) - that in sound if not spirit the Berlin Phil under Rattle went just that bit further on Monday. In the wider scheme of things, I believe that Nezet-Seguin's care over every detail is bound up with just a bit more sweep and phrase-lifting than Rattle's micromanagement. But something had happened with the Mahler Fourth: I suggested in the Arts Desk review that he and the Berliners had learned a greater sense of playfulness, partly through recording that gorgeous Nutcracker. Here he is with some of his handsome players at the Barbican - two of the three leaders on the front desk. Both photos are by Mark Allan (and by the way, who was that infuriating unofficial photographer in pink whose clicks could be heard from rows back at the beginning of the Fourth Symphony's poco adagio?).
I left wishing I'd signed up for more of their four-day residency (couldn't make the Schubert last night because of the Ferneyhough class). And then it turned out that colleague Alexandra couldn't make tonight's Mahler 3 (plus interesting prefaces from Brahms and Wolf). So I jumped at that, and now I can't wait. Because, despite any perceived shortcomings, oor Simon does know his Mahler. And on Monday night, although I sat through the performances feeling rather objective, the words just came pouring out in the review and then I couldn't sleep, there was so much to process.