Saturday 26 October 2013

Rising above the desert

'Desert' is probably the wrong word to describe early Minimalism: at the time it must have seemed more like a rainforest after the aridity of Darmstadt's iron rule. So in writing my Arts Desk review of the BBC Singers' and Endymion's reduced-forces version of Steve Reich's 1984 masterpiece The Desert Music, I fumbled for a compromise, 'savannah', in trying to describe the terrain from which it, and earlier (in 1980-1) John Adams's equally individual chorus-and-orchestra spectacular Harmonium, took off. Curiously, and incidentally, that same day I read a passage in Richard Mabey's bewitching Nature Cure where another of my heroes used the term 'savannah' for an image in a different context.

As ever, in trying to sum up what Minimalism was for the students in a 20-minute lecture-room whizz before the Milton Court concert began, and where these two composers departed from its basics, I found my Adams bible, Hallelujah Junction, indispensible. Mighty John is writing about the work in which he first found his voice, Phrygian Gates, having turned 30 by the time Mack McCray gave its premiere in 1977. Forgive me for reproducing such a large chunk of text, but it conveys everything I want to say, and more, from an insider-practitioner's perspective.

I had first heard Terry Riley's epochal In C while still living in Cambridge, probably in 1971. A friend, another composition student, invited me back to his flat with the promise of introducing me to something 'like you've never heard before.' And he was right. What he played for me was the famous Columbia Masterworks LP of the landmark piece that announced a new style in contemporary music. Terry's In C may have been to contemporary American music what Ginsberg's Howl or Kerouac's On the Road were to literature. With its insistent, unyielding high pulse on the high C of a piano and the sunny, upbeat fragments of melodies recirculating over and over in a loose polyphony, In C captured the congenial hippie spirit of the West Coast while at the same time proposing a new, slowly evolving approach to musical form. It was also marvelously provocative, giving an R. Crumb [who? I only know, and love, George*] middle finger to the crabbed, pedantic world of academic modernism.

I later heard more organized, more elegant versions of the Minimalist aesthetic when Steve Reich brought his ensemble to town in 1974. Their performance of Drumming revealed a different but equally novel take on pulsation as the guiding principle of the music - the main event, so to speak - but compared to In C, Reich's materials were more fastidiously organized and the gradual process of melodic, harmonic and timbral evolution more methodical. What also impressed me about Reich's music-making was that it was done at a high level of expertise and preparation. In contrast to the free, anarchic avant-garde happenings I'd been involved with, Reich's music used precision and balanced counterpoint to create a sound world that was carefully organized, musically engaging and sensually appealing.

...What appealed to me about these early works of Minimalism was that they did not deconstruct or obliterate the fundamental elements of musical discourse such as regular pulsation, tonal harmony or motivic repetition. Indeed they did the opposite: they embraced pulsation and repetition with an almost childlike glee. To me, it felt like the pleasure principle had been invited back into the listening experience.

And what of Glass? I have foresworn his company, which means that if I can avoid it I hope never to sit through one of his symphonies or operas again. Adams is brutally frank on the historical limitations.

...But much as they enchanted me, these Minimalist compositions felt like latter-day descendants of Baroque compositions from the 18th century. As musical organisms, the pieces were largely monolithic, their expressive worlds more often than not confined to a single affect. One spoke of trances or hypnotic states. That was both the brilliance of the style's originality and the conundrum of how to make it evolve into a language of greater subtlety...Much of his [Glass's] symphonic music, such as the 1996 'Heroes' Symphony, based on songs by David Bowie and Brian Eno, moves among simple, familiar harmonies in regular symmetrical units of two and four bars, while the orchestration, once established for a movement, remains more or less unchanged.  

Those are shortcomings you won't find in The Desert Music or Harmonium. Which is why I'm still startled when someone else labels Reich and Adams (pictured above, much more recently than Reich, by his superb photographer partner Deborah O'Grady) American Minimalists. I've just read an annoying interview in the latest BBC Music Magazine with John Tavener, who says he hates that 'school' on the whole: 'John Adams bores me to tears'. Tavener's longer rituals bore me to tears, as it happens. Adams bores me never, even if I respond to some works more enthusiastically than to others.

The Desert Music certainly isn't for trance states; as Reich says in an interview on the original LP, 'I actually prefer the music to be heard by somebody who's totally wide awake, hearing more than he or she usually does, rather than by someone who's just spaced out and receiving a lot of ephemeral impressions.' As the poetry of William Carlos Williams, a real revelation to me, has it as set in the fourth movement, 'I am wide/awake. The mind/is listening.' The below is a fine performance, even if the choir doesn't 'get' the text in the same way American or British forces seem to.

The opening is anything but Minimalist-diatonic basic: in fact so much of the piece lives in a state of suspension, like Tristan und Isolde, or anxiety (specifically about the nuclear threat) that the hint of an F major resolution, still ambiguous, makes the ending especially luminous.

In that context, I proposed to my great blogging friend Susan Scheid over on Prufrock's Dilemma that we each give a list of 20th century works offering affirmative capability, even if that only comes at the end of the masterpiece in question, one per decade. Here are mine today (they could of course change tomorrow). The Desert Music slotted into the 1980s only by postponing Adams for the 1990s

1900s: Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. It was actually composed in 1899, but the Rosé Quartet and two players from the Vienna Philharmonic gave the original sextet premiere in 1902.

1910s: Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Especially apt since Salome and Elektra had preceded it.

1920s: tricky - Prokofiev's The Prodigal Son is suitable because of the beautiful homecoming, but Nielsen's Fifth Symphony is the greater work.

1930s Britten's Paul Bunyan. Such optimism, such a libretto (Auden). Having recently been faced with the possibility that several of the 'mature' operas, one especially, might not be as great as I thought they were, I love it the more.

1940s: should really be dividied into war and post-war years, but this is a celebration that manages to be rooted and iconoclastic at the same time: Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony with its crazy final blaze of a chord out-Scriabining Scriabin.

1950s: Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. That finale really is raucously celebratory, not hollow, I fancy, with the rampaging of the composer's personal signature. And Stalin really was dead, even if the composer had no great optimism about his successors.

1960s: Poulenc's Gloria. Hits the heights more surely than the earlier Stabat Mater, which I heard on Wednesday and found it eclipsed by Prokofiev's painfully beautiful Seventh Symphony.

1970s: Bernstein's Mass. I see I've gone to the New World for later 20th century optimism from this point on.

1980s: Reich's The Desert Music

1990s: Adams's El Niño. Cheating in quite the opposite way to my choice of Verklärte Nacht: I assume work began at least a couple of years before the Paris premiere in December 2000. Looking forward to hearing it shorn of its Peter Sellars production overload when Jurowski conducts it towards the end of The Rest is Noise festival.

*Howard Lane clarified below: 'R. Crumb is the signature of the cartoonist Robert Crumb of Fritz the Cat, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Mr Natural fame.'

UPDATE (28/10) Notice board for pre-performance talks I'm involved with this week - four on the trot:

Wednesday 30 October: talking to Michail (father of Vladimir) Jurowski in the Royal Festival Hall about his LPO performance of Schnittke's First Symphony. Sorry to hear that Sasha Ivashkin, who knew Schnittke well, has written and/or put together two marvellous books about him and interprets the great man's cello works as well as anyone, is ill and had to cancel his play-and-talk event: hence this different combination.

Thursday 31 October: Up to Birmingham for a talk before Sinaisky conducting the CBSO in Rachmaninov's The Bells.

Friday 1 November: prefacing the brilliant Belceas' Wigmore performance of quartets by Britten and Shostakovich.

Saturday 2 November: back to the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican to chat with Tristan Murail and say a bit about Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto and Mahler's First Symphony before Sakari Oramo's first official concert as the BBCSO's chief conductor.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Perceval contra Parzival

I'm glad I read two medieval romances in the 'wrong' historical order - Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival first, and then the unfinished work to which he was so much indebted, Chrétien de Troyes' Story of the Grail. Wagner must have known about the latter when he worked on his Parsifal, but he only rails against the former, chiefly in that key letter to Mathilde Wesendonck of 30 May 1859 where he bewails the hopelessness of defining Anfortas' agony - later he used the alternative 'Amfortas' and shifted the stress to the second syllable - in operatic terms.

He sees Wolfram as a kind of unholy fool who has 'understood absolutely nothing' about what he writes: 'he tacks one event on to the next, one adventure to another, links together the Grail motif with all manner of strange and curious episodes and images, gropes around and leaves any serious reader wondering whatever his intention can have been?' Surely to tell a good yarn, but to over-embroider it with -as I've already remarked in the first Parsifal instalment - the kind of silly chivalric names Cervantes spoofs in Don Quixote, to jump all around a very peculiarly mapped world and to weigh down Parzival with an over-long back history.

What a relief it was, then, to turn back a decade or so - we know Chrétien's version must have appeared shortly after the death of Henri the Liberal in 1181, when Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders became his patron, and before Philip's death on crusade in 1191 - and find a master storyteller who always gets straight to the point.

Here we bypass Wolfram's first two chapters on the ludicrous Middle Eastern cavortings of Parzival's father Gahmuret, which will give the son a mottled half-brother, Feirefiz. With Chrétien we immediately enter the Welsh Waste Forest in Spring where Parzifal's mother - she has no name here, but becomes 'Herezloyde', 'Heart's Suffering', in Wolfram - brings him up in ignorance of the knightly code which killed his two brothers and broke his father's heart (this dad is not a fighter but an exiled noble).

Of course he meets five armed knights who seem to him like God and angels, has an amusing conversation at cross purposes with them and, enlightened, become adventure-bent.

If Chrétien hadn't got there first, you'd think his ironic comments about not wasting time on describing combats, tourneys and endless banquets were a reproach to Wolfram, who bores on about them at length (he's also obsessed with fine fabrics). In both, the code of mercy to conquered enemies and gallantry to damsels in distress or otherwise is a rather charming one bearing in mind the harsh world in which both narrators lived.

Curious that Wolfram should see the Grail as a kind of magic stone which feeds the hungry. Chrétien suggests it's a goblet of 'fine pure gold' set with costly precious stones, companion to a white lance from which a drop of blood flows. The significance of both we never learn, of course, since Chrétien presumably died before finishing his story. You curse the diversion of Gawain's adventures, well told though they are, without which Chrétien might have got to the point of Perceval's quest. As it is, we only enjoy a little further enlightenment from Perceval's hermit uncle between Gawain episodes before the main knight is lost from sight.

At the conclusion of our first five two-hour Opera in Focus classes on Parsifal at the City Lit, we've at last reached the end of Wagner's first act (Paul Joukowsky's design for the first Bayreuth production above). Three performances leapt out for the students and/or myself. First was the minute, snippeting Gurnemanz's narrative, we changed from René Pape for Gergiev to Hans Hotter, past his prime but still a voice like no other in the celebrated Knappersbusch 1962 Bayreuth classic. Second happened to be my own personal thrall to José van Dam, innately noble as Amfortas in agony for Barenboim. Third was when we watched the whole grail ceremony sequence in Hans Hollmann's Zurich production on DVD.

I chose this, after earlier scenes from Lehnhoff, for two reasons. Haitink is still the ideal Parsifal conductor for me, unhurried but completely natural. And I'd been so impressed with Michael Volle, surprising star of the Royal Opera Vêpres Siciliennes, that I wanted to see how he'd handle Amfortas. We were not disappointed. The production's simplicity is ideal, beautifully lit and still allowing for an astonishing image when the monolith 'grail' rises and Amfortas, behind it, extends his hands either side in a pool of brilliance to form a Christ on the cross image.

Hollmann speaks sense in a simple sentence: 'Wagner presents only possibilities - Parsifal can never be wholly fathomed by interpretation.' I don't see that the dodgy, proto-Nazi issue of the 'pure blood' need come into the picture at all so long as you focus on the human suffering symbolised by Amfortas's bleeding wound. Anyone who has tended a dying person or been seriously ill can understand that desperate need for transcendence in the midst of exteme pain. So far, so human. Next: more on the bells.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Mycomania 1: Göljådalen

'Mushroom mad' is perhaps too strong a term for it, but 'mycophilia' seemed to carry unfortunate connotations, so let's stick with the above. Which was stirred two years ago in the Tweed valley near our friends the Lambtons and specifically in the glorious arboretum-garden of Dawyck and its 'cryptogamic sanctuary'. This year it was rekindled in the valley through which the River Göljån flows in Sweden's Fulufjället National Partk - a very different landscape from our walk around the Njupeskär waterfall the previous day.

Special circumstances pertain here which mean that most likely - and I'll have to check this out with my New Best Friends in Kew's Fungarium - I was seeing some rather unusual specimens which like to grow on dead wood. What I learnt from Martyn Ainsworth in a revelatory fungal walk around Kew last Thursday was that we can take nothing for granted in the mushroom world. Innocent-looking types can be cannily imitated by the deadlier ones; not all mushrooms have a mutually beneficial relationship with plants, some kill them; species names can change and shift within a year. I'd never risk gathering mushrooms to eat, maybe with the exception of a few boletes and chanterelles.

Not that you'd ever eat the bracket variety, which were in the majority on our walk either side of the Göljån. How were these special conditions created? During 30-31 August 1997 Sweden's heaviest recorded rainfall - over 400 millimetres in a single day - soaked the eastern slopes of Mount Fulufjället and swelled the waters of the little and greater Göljån rivers to 500 times their usual flow. A wave six metres high swept through Göljådalen, uprooting 10,000 cubic metres of timber - mostly spruces 35 metres high and half a metre across.

As the information board put it:

The massive volume of water ploughed new channels through loose soil and on the slopes leading down to the Göljån river, caused numerous landslides that removed nearly all vegetation. Left behind in the forest landscapes was a wide swathe that resembled a newly excavated highway. But only a few years later, flowers, grasses and mosses began to return. 

The compact logjams teem with life, offering ideal conditions for fastidious lichens, fungi and insects, that have difficulty finding suitable habitats, since deadwood is often a scarce commodity in modern forests. Several bird species have acquired an abundant food supply, and the wren has found new dwelling places.

We saw no birds and hardly heard any during either of our walks, though on the drive back from Göljådalen a capercaille crossed the track. But we did encounter plenty of the 'fastidious lichens and fungi' once we'd enjoyed a delicious picnic on this rickety bridge (photo by Jamie; the Diplo-mate permits a distant shot, and that's Susannah on the right).

Most of the rocks either side of the river were covered in extraordinary red lichen

and much else on the miniature scale was competing for attention.

First of the polypores or bracket fungi appeared on dead wood across another bridge

and then we found plenty on upright spruces. I like to think this is Hoof Fungus or Tinderbracket (Fomes fomentarius), though would that account for its astonishing shade of blue?

Two gilled mushrooms on the ground: is this Macrolepiota konradii, with the gills forcing their way upwards on to the cap?

It's highly unlikely this glowing orange-red loner is Caesar's Mushroom, Amanita caesarea, so called because Julius and Claudius prized it so highly, since that tends to flourish in Mediterranean regions, but it's the nearest correspondent in my ever-confusing guide and I like the idea.

New life was springing up in clearings presumably forged by the tidal wave

and the devastation was much more apparent in the lower reaches.

Here, on a dead tree by a tributary, I spotted the three brackets in the top picture - they might be more Hoof Fungus but I hope they are the rarer (except in Scandinavia) Phellinus nigricans.

No mushroom in my book corresponds to one with a growth on top like this one

and finally we have, I reckon, the Blueing Bracket (Postia subcaesia), half-moons glowing in the half-light.

More brackets to come in the Kew ramble write-up, identified by our guide. Now to show this to a nice person in the Fungarium for comment and correction. 

20/10  Part of the detailed reply which arrived sharpish from Kew:  
If only we could identify fungi from photos it would make life much easier; however it is rarely possible. Increasingly, we need to see the fruit body from all angles, measure the spores, study the suites of microcharacters and even obtain a DNA sequence to be certain of an identification. I’m afraid it is just not possible to be authoritative about the fungi you saw from the photos alone, with the exception of Fomes fomentarius, and, as you suggest, the orange one won’t be Amanita caesarea. Postia subcaesia might be correct, but it is one element of a group of similar species that would require an in-depth study to resolve.

Sorry to be so unhelpful, but the sheer number of fungal species on the planet (millions) mean that photos alone are rarely enough.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Flittermousing around

Been flapping pipistrelle-like to chatter about town all week, from the Austrian Cultural Forum in Knightsbridge on Sunday to the City Lit Monday and Tuesday, the London Coliseum on Wednesday and Western House, BBC outpost behind Langham Place, on Friday. Plus Kew on Thursday not to talk but to be talked to by an enthusiastic mycologist on Thursday, but that's for another entry.

Not at all sure I would have gone to see Christopher Alden's largely slated production of Die Fledermaus at English National Opera had I not been included in the latest of Christopher Cook's tight little pre-performance packages before the show, turned as before into the podcast you can listen to here (second entry down). It was better than I'd anticipated, but still not as good as I would have liked. Yet again a heavy-hearted directorial hand sinks a maybe unstageable operetta gaiety.

I determined not to see it before I spoke, hoping to keep the door open on the possibility of something good stagewise after Richard Jones's self-confessed failure of an ENO predecessor and Harry Kupfer's lift-dominated Komische Oper production, which we left halfway through on my birthday back in 1996.

It all works beautifully on the recording which was my first boxed-set purchase in my early teens, Boskovsky's Vienna sparkler with a sardonic Falke from Fischer-Dieskau, Gedda's foppish Eisenstein, experienced Viennese bass buffo Walter Berry, the classy Anneliese Rothenberger's Rosalinde and - peerless, surely - Brigitte Fassbaender's dyke-of-delight Orlofsky. Plus all dialogue masterfully directed by Otto Schenk, whom we last saw in his cups as Lady Bracknell in Vienna's Leopoldstadt Theatre for an all-male production of Bunbury, oder wie wichtig ist es Ernst zu sein and who plays Frosch as a very convincing drunk on the recording.

I snapped the box cover and put the picture up when marking the death of Rothenberger at the age of 85, but no harm in repeating it here as I took it along as a kind of talisman to the talk. Of which more briefly later. The show? Well, Alden C, like his brother, is no stranger to nightmare scenarios - the schoolyard one applied to Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream perhaps the most successful 'rewrite' I've seen - and this was Rosalinde's as set up in the overture and controlled throughout by Dr Falke as Freud (Richard Burkhard, one of the better voices on display, pictured below in the first of Robert Workman's images).

A production should be clear in the telling and not need explaining, but the excellent cover Adele, Clare Eggington, and the Frosch, Austrian actor Jan Pohl, who joined us along with assistant conductor and repetiteur Murray Hipkin enriched our understanding by talking of the three eras: repressed 19th century, unconscious-released Freudian early 20th and totalitarian-nightmare 30s.

Problem? It ain't funny, really, ever. I laughed a bit at some of the wit in the translation by Stephen Lawless and Daniel Dooner, which is much better than many critics have declared (and infinitely better than Pountney's appalling, antique job for the Fidelio). Although I lost the will to live - maybe the point - soon into the party act, I did laugh nervously when Adele slapped Eisenstein about as she worked her way down the staircase with her Laughing Song.

Rhian Lois, though not exactly possessed of a voice you'd like to hear on a recording, is a fabulous musician, hits all the top notes - as had Clare in her two numbers for the talk - and holds her poise throughout. Not so Tom Randle's Eisenstein, who seems lost throughout - though at least shows us what good physical shape he's in when the errant husband strips off to mirror lover Alfred in the reconciliation. And Edgaras Montvidas probably gave the classiest singing of the evening running through a rep which featured, of course, Fidelio and Madama Butterfly, the operas surrounding this one at ENO. Suitably sexy, too, in an offbeat, parodied kinda way.

Poor Julia Sporsén, a fine Julietta last season, didn't do too well with Rosalinde's ought-to-be creamy upper register; surely she's a mezzo? Jennifer Holloway looked good as Orlofsky but had too many embarrassing manic-depressive routines. Even Andrew Shore didn't carry off his humour too successfully as transvestite prison governor Frank - pictured here with Holloway -

and the conducting from Eun Sim Kim was much zestier than I'd been led to believe but lacked the true Viennese lilt. As usual. Lovely wacky party costumes by Constance Hoffman,

especially striking when the entire group of decadents sits on a vast prison bench in the production's main twist, stripping away the curtains to show the bleak reality of 1930s Germany.

But did Alden really have to make Pohl do so many weird epileptic routines alongside the usual Nazi-officer cliches? Sorry: I really can't say you should go as I did in the case of the Fidelio, worth it in several coups which don't really happen here. And is there anything in the music which prompts the darkness? Possibly only in the Act 3 Melodrama for Frank's return to his prison; elsewhere not at all. In his little talk demo, Hipkin pointed out that when we first hear the plaintive oboe tune in the Overture, so beautifully decorated in its reprise, we have no idea it's the mock-sadness of Rosalinde in the Act One Trio. He also revealed to me how all three strains of Alfred's Drinking Song are popular 3/4 dances, from quasi-minuet with strong first beat to Ländler and the true Viennese sugariness in 'Glücklich ist, wer vergisst' (and this kind should always have a rush up to the second beat if I understand correctly).

One of many interesting points I dug out for my intro, based on very little deep knowledge of Strauss family history, comes from a rather academically jargonsome article in an excellent special edition of the Österreichische MUSIKZEITschrift by Professor Moritz Csáky, Chair of Austrian History at Graz University:

Some listeners in the already well-educated bourgeois audience were apparently able to recognize the concealed borrowing in the libretto of Die Fledermaus...from Baldasar Gracian's Oracolo manual, recently translated into German by Arthur Schopenhauer: 'Happy he who forgets what can no longer be changed'. As Hermann Bahr [Viennese playwright whom R Strauss originally asked to be the librettist for Intermezzo] and others have stressed, Schopenhauer's works enjoyed a secure place in every bourgeois library 'in which, under the pressure of fashion, every Viennese read Schopenhauer, but not without always listening to a waltz at the same time'.

Other strange but true facts:

Strauss was pulled into the Viennese operetta picture because Offenbach was getting so expensive. First wife Jetty drove him to it because stage works brought royalties and the dance music which all three Strauss brothers wrote for the court balls did not.

I knew he conducted the first ever public performance of a work by Tchaikovsky, the Characteristic Dances, at Pavlovsk in 1865, but not that he gave the Viennese premiere of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture.

How are these statistics? At Boston's International Peace Jubilee 20,000 singers, 10,000 orchestral musicians and 100 sub conductors tackled waltz arrangements with choral additions.

Mahler's conducting of Die Fledermaus in 1897, his first year as chief conductor of the Vienna Hofoper, won a personal message of congratulations by the Waltz King, then celebrating 50 years of composing. Mahler thought Strauss waltzes brought 'large bills and small change' - unlike Brahms and Wagner, who both adored them - but in 1899 upbraided a tenor who sniffed at having to play the role of Eisenstein thus:

An operetta is simply a small and gay opera, and many classical works come under this heading. The fact that mediocre compositions have been given this title recently makes no difference. Johann Strauss II's work surpasses them in every way, notable in its excellent musical diction, and that is why the administration has not hesitated to include it in its repertoire.

I found what I believe to be many interesting connections, too, in the Sunday study day on 'Mahler and opera', starting with Suppé, whose Die schöne Galathee overture has a gorgeous waltz theme quoted, I believe, towards the end of Das Lied von der Erde's great 'Abschied'. It's very likely the young Mahler conducted the 'mythological operetta' in his first conducting post at the spa town of Hall in the summer of 1881, though we don't know the works he did conduct (the intendant had it in his repertoire). I didn't know Die Drei Pintos, Weber's very incomplete opera for which Mahler composed so much wonderful music; now I do and I want the old recording with Prey and the divine Lucia Popp.

I did know about Mahler's love for The Merry Widow and I had my own connections to make between Verdi, Wagner and the Eighth Symphony before moving on to Mahler's influence on Britten: the Fifth Symphony's second movement and Grimes's pre-storm monologues, the Tenth and the epilogue of Death in Venice.

Back to BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour and my heroine the great Dame Jenni Murray on Friday morning to talk about Verdi just after his 200th birthday. Amused to arrive at Western House among crowds battling for glimpses of Robbie Williams - who escaped out the back - and, can you believe (crowds, I mean), for David Jason, who was going into the studio next to mine. I got three bites of the cherry: on Elisabetta 'I Will Survive' de Valois in Don Carlo, a heroine I wanted to add to the mix; on the Merry Wives of Falstaff; and on the great sopranos in Verdi today (a huge gap of not-great-enough between Freni and now - well, listen: it's on this Friday edition. Jenni does a helpful review of the other Verdi slots of the week at 30m42s; Dr Jane Rutherford and I are introduced at c33m40s).

One of the fun spinoffs from appearing on this still much-loved programme, is getting surprise messages from erstwhile ones such as our beloved Linda Esther Gray, who e-mailed from Oklahoma where she's following in her tutor Eva Turner's footsteps as college voice tutor. More from her anon. I thought I'd sign off by doing what others did on the bicentenary birthday day proper, choosing a favourite slice of YouTube Verdi, but as the Abbado or Toscanini recordings of Falstaff Act 1 Scene 2 aren't there - and a fizzing ensemble seemed fairest - I'll have to pass on that one.

Just in case you missed the change up top, the podcast of the ENO Fledermaus pre-performance event chaired by Christopher Cook is now available to listen to here.

Monday 7 October 2013

The beauty of a rake

Jep Gambardella has reached the age of 65 and, though he may now prefer to talk to women rather than have sex with them, still loves a great party in the sybaritic high life of Rome. Increasingly, though, loss and mortality catch up with him. If the subject is a familiar one for a more elegiac kind of moviemaking, the way it's told by Paolo Sorrentino in La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) constantly surprises.

There's the stupendous cinematography, of course: scene after scene of stunning colour, composition and richness - when I was looking for images, I found myself fulminating about how many great situations were missing - beautifully fused with a heady mix of music (delighted to hear Arvo Pärt's 'My heart's in the Highlands'). But above all there's a finely shaded script which turns melancholy into humour. Much of this is carried by our Jep, the still handsome and versatile Toni Servillo who can change an expression at his big party, in a giddying sequence near the beginning of the film, from one of smug cock of the roost

to desolation.

Later his speech to an insecure, self-praising friend should become a cult scene of cinema. The other star of La Grande Bellezza is Rome itself, putting Sorrentino's work up there with Rossellini's Roma, città aperta and Fellini's La Strada, two of Pope Francis's favourites as I mentioned in the last post (Roma is a lesser, but intriguing, film which I haven't seen since student days, when I didn't quite know what to make of it). Of course I loved it that so many of the places I strode on my noon to evening walk the last time I was there feature: the streets, cloisters and gardens around Santa Sabina on the beloved Aventine, the miraculous false perspectives of Borromini's little passageway in the Palazzo Spada, the low-level walk along the Tiber's edge to the Castel Sant'Angelo. But they're never there as window dressing. The scene which really moved me to tears was when Jep and his sad-eyed new friend Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli)

are given a night tour of the great palaces by a man who has all the keys, thanks to his association with principesse. That truly is supernaturally beautiful.

Agreeing with Emma Simmond's Arts Desk review which inspired me to go see it, I found only one flaw: that at what turned out to be the three-quarter mark - and I hadn't checked how long the film was due to last - there seemed to be a failure of pace. Sure, it's a leisurely meditation, but J was also feeling a slight sense of ennui at that point too. It recovers as the centre of gravity moves from the profane to the sacred in the figure of a mysterious, hundred-and-something saintly nun: far-fetched only if you haven't succumbed to the stranger side (by which I don't mean the St Peter's experience) of Roman religiosity.

And in any case, what would you cut? It's all suffused with that grand beauty which our hero says has too often eluded him in a meandering existence. The original trailer, though of course I want it to show more, captures the two poles of the protagonist's existence rather well.

Glad we saw this in the cinema (in the company of a sparse and totally silent crowd). The other I wanted to go see, again courtesy of a five-star Arts Desk review, but which we've had to be content with borrowing from LoveFilm and watched last night, is Pablo Berger's Blancanieves, Spanish silent re-telling of the Snow White story set in the 1920s (and conceived before The Artist, which I still haven't seen).

What a magnificent piece of story-telling, again full of visual riches in every tableau (superb cinematography by Kiko de la Rica). There's a distancing here which prevents much emotional involvement, but it's flawless as a stylistic exercise with, again, stupendous performances, especially from Maribel Verdú as a truly wicked stepmother

and Macarena Garcia as the teethy-smiling lady toreador our Snow White, Carmen, becomes following a life-saving encounter with circus people. Plus a winning debut from a nine year old with no previous experience as the young Carmencita and an enormous, camera-friendly cockerel. No point in my cataloguing the riches and spoiling the surprises: see it, marvel at the aptness of Alfonso de Vilalloga's non-stop score and succumb to the enchantment.

To conclude, first a statistic which I hope will raise a gentle smile: did you know that six out of seven dwarfs aren't Happy? And I leave you with a 39-second trailer for Blancanieves, rapid images accompanied by a touch of theremin - for the evil one, of course - followed by flamenco 1920s style.

8/10 Still in the right area, here's my Arts Desk tribute to Patrice Chéreau, a fitfully great film-maker and an even greater opera director, who died yesterday of lung cancer at the too young age of 68. I have some catching up to do now on his filmography.

Friday 4 October 2013

Parsifal all autumn, Fidelio anew

So I am now leading my not-so-secret band of 30 acolytes at the City Lit through ten classes on what Mark Wigglesworth recently declared in an email to be 'the greatest opera by the greatest composer' (he has promised us a visit). Well, it depends what you want, but after three decades' acquaintance I'm certainly more open than I used to be to the possibility that Wagner's Parsifal is the most spiritual. And I had better keep liking it because in early December I record a Building a Library for Radio 3's CD Review on this of all works. Not my choice, and a very surprising offer, but under the circumstances - and soulfully primed by the incredible Proms performance - I can only rejoice.

Ask me if I still do by 14 December, the broadcast date. But I welcome the journey ahead, be it strewn with thorns as well as roses. With the third class looming next Monday, we've still only got to the end of the Prelude after so much setting up, so many glances back at Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Tristan. Preparing ahead to Gurnemanz's long opening narrative, I was surprised - using René Pape with Gergiev conducting Mariinsky forces in glorious sound - to discover that what had felt like the first ten minutes of the opera proper had lasted nearly half an hour.

The famous 'time becomes space' syndrome is largely due, I realised, to the special setting-up effect of the Prelude's vasts. I liked what I heard of the Mariinsky recording - past achievements of the increasingly alarming Ossetian are permitted here, live events are not - and of Marek Janowski's performance. But I stick unyieldingly, for sound and sense, to Bruno Walter's concert version with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It isn't on YouTube, and I know that background silence should really be an integral part of the experience, but I'm fascinated by Walter's 1927 version with the Royal Philharmonic, not least for the strings' extraordinary use of portamento.

Now we at last tackle the sources. My Penguin copy of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival is full of significant markers sticking out of the book, yet I have no memory of having read the whole. It's so funny and quaint and ungainly, reminding me why Cervantes made fun of such romances with their silly names and aims in one of my two favourite books of all time, War and Peace being the other (Pope Francis, whose demi-Tutuesque promise I must reflect in another post, also cites Don Quixote as his No. 1 and among films he loves La Strada, Roma, città aperta and The Leopard. No poker-faced prelate he).

I've also ordered up the Chrétien de Troyes version which inspired Wolfram, so bathing in chivalry will be obligatory from now on. As to interpretations of the opera, we've only just begun.

After unhappy experiences with Calixto Bieito's productions of Don Giovanni and Un ballo in maschera at English National Operas, his Parsifal was not one I thought I wanted to see. But then last season's Carmen, for all its flaws, changed my mind. And in the same way his Fidelio is touched with genuine vision as it gathers weight.

Three things drove me to want to see the ENO takeover of the Bavarian State Opera production despite warnings: Ed Gardner's conducting, especially in the Leonore No. 3 Overture which I haven't heard live for so long, Emma Bell's Leonora and the intelligence that a string quartet descends in cages to play the slow movement from Beethoven's Op. 132 Quartet - shorn of the bouncy bits; no one ever seems to jump for genuine joy in Bieito's world - after 'O namenlose Freude'. All production photos for ENO by Tristram Kenton.

This last was more compelling that I'd anticipated - indeed, moving to tears as a symbol not just of the quiet intimacy between husband and wife which the noisy duet can't achieve but also of freedom in chains: physically the players are contained, but the incredible sounds the Heath Quartet achieve reach out as the music of the spheres. It's actually the first time I've ever wept in a late Beethoven quartet movement, and the intimacy of the couple who haven't been able to express themselves properly in song alone, at least while it holds, adds to the sense of painfully private emotion.

At first the variously lit glass and steel labyrinth of Rebecca Ringst's design seems like an overwhelming concept that dwarfs the singers. Bieito seems to have no idea what to do with the unwanted characters of Marzelline and Jaquino (poor Sarah Tynan is just left to despair all over the place, with, what is it, red lipstick or blood smeared around her mouth for no intelligible reason). James Cresswell's Rocco animates the space with a well-projected bass, Philip Horst deflates it again as a woofy, self-harming Pizarro. David Pountney's English translation is banal and sounds so old-fashioned.

Yet as usual in the work, if you've got a great Leonora, everything soars upwards from 'Abscheulicher!' onwards. Emma Bell has an odd technique, a rather hollow choral-mezzo-ish sound at times, a little like Kathryn Harries used to sound with a similar mixture of hits and frays in the totally different voice of the upper register, but she projects the text with such urgency that you're won over. At times it truly is heroic. And the Prisoners' Chorus works with the voices coming at you from all levels at the front of stage, Leonora distributing photographs of her disappeared husband. This I liked.

Everything comes down to ground level for the dungeon scene. The labyrinth flips to suggest that we're heading into the depths of the earth. Perhaps it was this that allegedly prompted Gardner to throw in the towel, only to be held to his contract (a ruckus confirmed by him, again allegedly, in a pre-performance talk). Maybe a compromise was reached, for the creaking happens before the Act 2 Prelude, not during it. Last night we had a second Florestan in the absence of Stuart Skelton (pictured here), Bryan Register, a bright but genuine heroic tenor who just made the ridiculously strenuous vision music. Lovely line in the trio; not much of an actor.

Still, it all flowed, despite inept attempts at applause. A weakness, Bieito's attempt to get the singers to declaim portions of eloquent texts by Borges and Cormac McCarthy when these would have been better amplified or video-projected, had dwindled; the music took over, Gardner always lucid and keenly springing. Leonora's acid attack on Pizarro got round the usual awkwardness of a too-long freeze at the trumpet call.

The 'Heilige Dankgesang' remained the höhepunkt for me: why can't we hear the Heath Quartet's Tippett/Bartok series in the UK? Nor was the ambiguous parade-ground scene the mess I'd read about: Roland Wood's Joker-Fernando had his moment, the open-ended suggestion of government-forged manacles of a different sort after supposed liberation worked well. The blank cards with 'free' scrawled on some of them offered a symmetry to the 'disappeared' photos of the First Act, just as the quiet of the quartet echoed the only still point of Act One, the celebrated chorus. This is the kind of joining-up I always love about a more consistent genius of the stage, Richard Jones.

How often have I seen this opera fail - at Covent Garden, here at ENO under Graham Vick - and yet Bieito really had something to say at times, and said it unforgettably. Kudos. And who knows,  I may end up enjoying the Christopher Alden Fledermaus more than expected, though I'm not going to see it until after my pre-performance chat with Christopher Cook next Wednesday; much as I love the froth on CD, at least the Boskovsky and Carlos Kleiber sets, it has NEVER worked on stage for me and I don't want to slam the prison door decisively shut before I speak.

STOP PRESS (5/10) or rather something that slipped my mind: I'm talking on Mahler and Opera tomorrow (Sunday 6 October) for the Gustav Mahler Society of the UK at the airy, attractive Austrian Cultural Forum in Knightsbridge, 11-4. I'm interesting myself in unexpected areas of the subject, so I hope I can communicate that. Full details on the Mahler Society website here.