Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Wagnerabend in Belgrave Square

They do these kind of events very well, the Germans, and returning to the ambassador's residence was bound to be a pleasure. Especially as the programme had been arranged by the organisers of the Wagner 200 events this year, Mark Eynon and top Wagner expert Barry Millington (my former editor at the BBC Music Magazine, also the one who was kind enough to kickstart my Prokofiev book, pictured above with Sue Bullock and her husband Richard Berkeley-Steele. Georg Boomgaarden, the genial German ambassador, is seen between two of the heads).

What kind of Wagner fare can you serve up in an intimate space? They managed a good mix. La (or should that be Die?) Bullock launched stylishly with top pianist Llŷr Williams in the Tannhäuser greeting, 'Dich, teure Halle'. Janice Watson sang two of the Wesendonck Lieder (actually the two I find least interesting, but they were well done all the same). Here are the four artists in one of two official photos; the shots of the trio at the top and of Sir John Tomlinson in conversation with Barry are mine.

The coup was to bring the Bullock-Berkeley-Steeles together in the Dawn Duet from Götterdämmerung. Williams somehow managed to conjure an orchestra in the sunrise, and in came the two, each standing naturally and lovingly while the other sang. I'd forgotten what point SB brings to the German text, all the better in a small room. She's a fabulous recitalist: her Crear Classics disc of the Wesendoncks, Britten's The Poet's Echo and Prokofiev's Five Akhmatova Poems with contrasting flavours of Strauss, Quilter and Rorem is outstanding (it was our Vocal/Choral disc of the month in the BBC Music Magazine's March 2007 issue) .

Apparently another CD of songs with Malcolm Martineau is due for release shortly; and she's to be heard in recital at the Wigmore on 22 March.

To round off the little homage, Williams made effortless work of the Tristan Liebestod in Liszt's insane transcription (all those tremolos!). Eynon gave a felicitous speech, and didn't need to sell the highlights of the forthcoming festival to me: I'll be going to Kings Place to hear Watson's song recital and Williams's presentation of Wagner piano pieces alongside other Liszt transcriptions.

That greatest Wotan of the 1990s, Sir John Tomlinson, was there in the audience at the ambassador's residence, wrapped up in the music; he'll be presenting a read-through of the entire Ring libretto in the British Library on 9 June (date now confirmed thanks to Barry's message below). Dame Gwyneth, alas, couldn't make it, though she'll be masterclassing as part of the festival; now there's a diva I want to meet. The programme of events so far confirmed is on the Wagner 200 website here. Millington and SJT discussing plans below.

The whole event was entirely genial; the ambassador (to the right of Berkeley-Steele, ie to his left, in the photo below) and his wife are very cultured folk - not always the case in that world - and J likes them very much indeed. Sue Bullock has always struck me as completely natural in person (we first met her at pianist Phillip Thomas's 50th birthday party). I managed to have a chat with RBS about Phyllida Lloyd's English National Opera production of Götterdämmerung in which he sang Siegfried: absolutely the best staging of that particular opera I've ever seen, even if I had my doubts about the others (good in parts). Ardent Wagnerians apparently felt the same - one went to see it six times - and we all lament the fact the cycle never had another chance.

Meanwhile, roll on the festivities in the round. My priority is to get to see Die Feen as done in concert by Chelsea Opera, though sadly a Sussex Das Liebesverbot later in the year has bitten the dust. Collectors can tick off a few gaps in the Wagner list, though to be honest there aren't that many worth bothering about.

The following Monday, the Italians held a parallel tribute to Verdi at their ambassador's very beautiful residence in Berkeley Square. This turned out to be an actor reading excerpts from Verdi's letters and memoirs translated by Gaia Servadio and Royal Opera chorus master Renato Balsadonna playing excerpts from Nabucco, La Traviata, Aida and Otello on the piano. Interesting enough, but we missed la voce cantata.


Susan Scheid said...

As I head toward Parsifal and my first Ring, I was particularly struck by this: "Phyllida Lloyd's English National Opera production of Götterdämmerung in which he sang Siegfried: absolutely the best staging of that particular opera I've ever seen, even if I had my doubts about the others (good in parts). Ardent Wagnerians apparently felt the same - one went to see it six times - and we all lament the fact the cycle never had another chance." Why is this sort of thing not recognized by the producers of Ring cycles, and why instead are new productions repeatedly mounted that are apparently not nearly as good? (I of course have in mind the Met's current production, which has come in for huge criticism.) Is it simply so massive an undertaking that no one, finally, can get it right?

David said...

Interesting question. The ones I treasure are those which had a unified vision and managed to say something about the human condition (on the evidence of what I've seen of Lepage's, he doesn't go deep at all).

Among them would be Chereau's Bayreuth centenary production - which it might be best to head to see at a cinema, as we can this spring, rather than sit through a second-rate staging; Kupfer, also at Bayreuth, a kind of template for use of the stage and achingly human; and, for the most part, Richard Jones's Royal Opera cycle, of which so little visual evidence remained (every Ring should at least be filmed).

Since then no-one in the big houses seems to have got it right. Bayreuth hasn't had a good 'un, or so I'm told, since Kupfer in the early 1990s; I would have gone if Lars von Trier and Wim Wenders hadn't backed down claiming it was 'so massive an undertaking'. And of course some productions never get past first base; I was sorry that Lyubimov's Royal Opera Ring stopped short at Rheingold, which as a box of incoherent-seeming tricks is the wrong opera to judge a cycle by.

I'm keen to catch Kasper Holten's Copenhagen edition now that I've seen and admired - very much in the minority - his Onegin. Apparently one to see is the Ring in a barn at Longborough in the English countryside. And pocket Rings elsewhere clearly have their virtues.

Here we wait in hope for what comes next once the cluttered, inept K Warner production finally bites the dust.

Anyway, you'll get fine singing, no doubt about that: Bryn, for one, is now the great Wagner bass-baritone of our age.

David Damant said...

Sue Bullock sang at the Garrick Club for the first time (of many) in 1987, on the recommendation of the late Bill Cole, the organist, together with his suggestions of Jean Rigby and Bonneventura Bottone.....not a bad bet on these three so soon was it? I saw Sue a bit later as Marguerite in Faust and after hearing her in the last act leaping around the notes I thought " This girl could do Brunhilde" - which of course has happened

The German Embassy in London is hung with vast pictures of our Hanoverian monarchs. The point is almost too well made. I tried to get the high command there to know about the Stewart pretenders, but they did not seem interested. In fact, the late Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk - the overwhelmingly top guy in the field of royal lineage - claimed that after the death of the Cardinal of York ( younger brother of the Young Pretender)the Stewart claimant was George III, so that Elizabeth II need not fear for her throne. The Stewart clan support the claim of the Duke of Bavaria, so in any case it is a German !!

Barry Millington said...

Great stuff. The Ring Reading will soon be advertised on the website but is currently in the brochure (p.4) under 9 June from 11am to 6pm. In addition to John Tom introducing the various scenes, we plan to have visuals (Rackham, Stassen, Makart and other 19th-century artists). William Relton has some great ideas, which will be discussed with the British Library next week. I think it's going to be quite an event.

David said...

David - I think I must have caught one of Sue Bullock's earliest professional engagements - singing the Four Last Songs with the City University Orchestra (no doubt the programme is buried somewhere so that I could check the date) How fresh and luminous she sounded then...Obviously if you sing Brunnhilde inter alia you sacrifice some of the beauty of sound, but one's never in doubt of her intelligent approach.

I was interested to see a statue of George III in Go(e)ttingen's most beautiful square.

Barry - thanks for that. It can hardly fail to be a(n) unique occasion.

Laurent said...

Well I have to say if I have a choice between Verdi or Wagner I choose Verdi immediately without hesitation.
The Ring thing is torture to me, I do not understand it.
Call me a Boetien.

David said...

Don't encourage D Damant, Laurent, he will be back to tell us that Wagner is intrinsically evil...Well, each to his/her own. I can say piously I love them both. If forced to choose between Don Carlo and Die Meistersinger, I couldn't.

Prompted by a student who said she loved the vocal lines in Schubert songs but couldn't bear the piano part, I asked the rest about their blind spots (mine is probably middle-period Beethoven). One claimed all of opera EXCEPT Wagner.

David Damant said...

Well Mr Nice sir you must remember that I am an intellectual who thinks in a Cartesian manner ( I really wish that the French would ! ) So my view on Wagner is based on wider premises than his music (nothing to do with anti-semitism incidentally). If Laurent or indeed anyone wishes to have my summary views I can be emailed ( if you allow this) on my special address - then your blog will not be cluttered up with my ramblings/insights

The difficulty with Verdi is that for most of the time he ( at his best) reflects the human predicament, but does not analyse it (Falstaff maybe, and some other small bits).

David said...

Sir David, never think that you 'clutter up' the blog with your eclectic insights - the joy of comments is that they can go on as long as they will simply as a bonus, not an interruption. And don't take offence - I was but joshing.

Nevertheless I rather liked someone coining the phrase 'cuckoo' for a fellow blogger who directs readers to his/her own blog to the exclusion of the matter at hand. No-one does this here, I hasten to add.

Howard Lane said...

Oh gosh! does politics belong in music? (much enjoying BBC4's Sound and Fury series, although an over-speedy whistle-stop tour of The Rest Is Noise, featuring Shostakovich and Ligeti among others in the second episode).

Playing Klingsor in the Met's current Parsifal is Yevgeny Nikitin, awarded the title of Honoured Artist of Russia in 2008 despite having a swastika tattooed on his chest, although it's now covered by a less controversial tattoo.

More controversially in our neck of the woods is the start time given by the Ritzy Cinema of its live Parsifal broadcast, and printed on the tickets, being an hour later than that of the actual performance. C queried this and was told it was quite correct. She persisted and they have now issued a correction. But had she not, can you imagine a horde of apopletic and mostly elderly Wagnerites besieging the cinema for causing them to miss the first hour of the performance? My!

David said...

I remember the Nikitin scandal. He clearly regrets having the tattoo done in his foolish youth...

As for the wrong start time, Wagnerians are the worst when it comes to being vocal. Expect castrating tools a la Klingsor to be applied to the unfortunate staff of the Ritzy. Enjoy, anyway.

wanderer said...

And I also hope you meet the Dame so we may too, vicariously.

That Chereau Ring I find (with a tech head partner, I am blessed with a big screen and very fine sound) the most profound and consistently moving experience that Susan, you just must access, somehow. As for Lepage, I amuse myself and bore others repeatedly like some bobbing up idiot puppet ever repeating that of course he is deep - deeply superficial.

Susan Bullock rocks Brünnhilde (lately Broomhilda, thank you Mr Tarantino) down under later this year. Monsieur le Husband is Loge, of course. It's wickedly expensive. She triumphed, really, as Lady M of M some years ago here. Fearless stuff. He was Sergei. What good fortune and planning that they organise themselves so.

The recital disc I must seek out.

David said...

Monsieur B (GMB) does Siegfried too, though it's a step too far. They are a very friendly couple, that's for sure.

I've not been a great fan of SB's Elektra, Marie and Brunnhilde - though streets ahead of your poor unfortunate Lisa Gasteen - but she's a top notch recitalist.