Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Shibe stunner

Having experienced both the soft acoustic and loud electric of genius 26-year-old guitarist Sean Shibe's latest Delphian CD live in Anstruther, I wondered when I saw the back cover whether bunching the two different styles respectively together would make for as good a programme (he shared the concert, too, with clarinettist Julian Bliss).

Then I listened, and was convinced. The exquisite miniatures of the Scottish lute pieces fold outwards into MacMillan's From Galloway, ingeniously transcribed from the clarinet original,  and Motet 1 from Since it was the day of Preparation - first track to play anyone you want to convince about the rainbow hues of Shibe's acoustic-guitar mastery.

Reich's Electric Counterpoint glides us into the louder stuff. The composer's commendation on the back of the disc says it all more eloquently than I can. Then comes the stunner which virtually lifted me out of my seat in the East Neuk - on the cusp of bearability, though the earplugs we were given turned out not to be necessary - in the shape of Julia Wolfe's LAD. I've already written on how only an artist of Shibe's unique imagination could have thought to ask if he could adapt the original - for nine bagpipes, performed in the World Trade Centre - for himself live and recorded eight times. David Lang's Killer just about finishes us off.

So we move in - please note, not 'to', which writers are still declaring virtually daily - a crescendo, from introspection to exhilarating, violent exuberance. If only all solo CDs had anything like this thoughtfulness. It's a winner by any standards. Great photo-artwork, too, by the inimitable Kaupo Kikkas.

I interviewed our hero at the Frontline Club earlier this year; the results should appear on The Arts Desk two Saturdays hence, in tandem with Graham Rickson's review. I hope he loves the CD as much as I do.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Rake and Spades at the Frontline: do join us

Yes, that's the great Dame Felicity Lott as our Opera in Depth end-of-term lunch guest last term, before she went on to talk with her usual natural charm, wit and insight on Britten (we were covering A Midsummer Night's Dream over five Monday afternoons, using the Peter Hall Glyndebourne DVD in which she plays an appropriately tall Helena. Yesterday she was a very impressed onlooker at the celebrations of the great director's life). There are, incidentally, many more of us than you see in the Frontline club room shot above.

For the coming term, which starts next Monday, I'll be covering Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, two operas which climax in a crucial game of cards. Pikovaya Dama, to give it the proper Russian name (Pique Dame, incidentally, is nonsensical) will be staged at the Royal Opera in Stefan Herheim's Tchaikovskycentric production; having reviewed the DVD of its Dutch incarnation for the BBC Music Magazine, I can say you're in for a treat, a concept that's actually followed through, so let's forget that dramatically abysmal Pelléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne.

Vladimir Jurowski will conduct The Rake's Progress at the Royal Festival Hall (no idea yet how semi-staged it's going to be). He made such poignant and light-of-touch work of it at ENO years back, in a quirky production by Annabel Arden with a profoundly moving Bedlam scene. Back to the Garden of Eden below in the recent British Youth Orchestra production I found so effective: Pedro Ometto as Trulove, Samantha Clarke as Anne and Frederick Jones as Tom Rakewell (image by Bill Knight).

Meanwhile, a Rake extravaganza linked to the above has already taken some shape for our last class on 17 November. As the Frontline Club flummoxed me a couple of months ago by telling me that they regard the 'run-up to Christmas' as including the whole of November, when they hope to make more than the substantial amount I pay them for my weekly two hours, I've had to find other homes for the last three Mondays. Which, it now seems, will be St James's Church Sussex Gardens, with its avowedly fine audio-visual set-up - I'm going to check it out on Monday - and its new Steinway Boston Concert Grand.

The idea for the proposed event took shape quickly after I'd been to see the BYO Rake. FLott, as Madame la Patronne of BYO (as she is of the Poulenc Society), had recommended I go, and I'm glad I did. So she has agreed to preside, a lovely connection back to the famous Hockney-designed Glyndebourne Rake in which she sang the role of Anne Trulove, happily preserved on DVD (the Bedlam scene above with Leo Goerke). Samantha Clarke, already a world-class Anne, will, we hope, reprise the aria.

Nicky Spence - who sang Tom Rakewell for BYO a decade ago, pictured above - will join with his pianist partner Dylan Perez, and Susie Self, a hairy-chested Baba the Turk for Opera Factory back in the 1990s, has agreed to come along too.

Students for the term will have this as part of their package, but we hope others will come along too, to help us raise money for BYO. A unique event - put it in your diaries, and leave a message here with your contact details (I won't publish it) if you want to join us either for that or for the entire term.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Discovering Danco through Ansermet

Continuing to dig in to the huge discography (300 plus Suisse Romande recordings for Decca alone) of Ernest Ansermet long after the BBC Radio 3 discussion of his legacy - the edited version still to be heard for the next few days on the BBC iPlayer here starting at 53m27s - I ordered up five discs from the Australian-based Eloquence wing of Decca, not least to explore his few opera recordings. And here I came across a voice I only previously knew through the Josef Krips Don Giovanni and Erich Kleiber Figaro, Brussels-born Suzanne Danco. Her lyric soprano is not so light as ever to be dubbed 'soubrette' - she sang Ellen Orford at La Scala, Marie in Wozzeck and Mimi - but it's the personality in everything she sings that shines through.

Anyone, for instance, who gets annoyed with poor Mélisande - abused, Maeterlinck would have us assume, by her previous lord and master Bluebeard before Golaud discovers her lost in the forest - might find this characterisation stronger than usual. There's certainly nothing wan or wispy about it, and you hear the pain creep in when Debussy needs it. As for the whole of this 1952 Pelléas et Mélisande, I think this may be the most compelling version I've ever heard on CD - I wish I'd known it when I spent six Monday afternoons on the work for my Opera in Depth course.

The classic Désormière recording of over a decade earlier is also very speech-melody conscious, and there will possibly never be a better Pelléas than Jacques Jansen (Ansermet's Pierre Mollet is also excellent). But here the sound is so much better, and Ansermet, preferring a forward sense of movement throughout to 'burn off the mists' long before Boulez, makes his strings sigh with pain and love. You can more or less understand, with even just a little French, what's being sung about just by listening without a libretto. Quelle clarté! I'd still turn to some recent recordings for further beauty of orchestral texturing, but I simply don't want to listen to a non-French cast who doesn't understand every nuance.

It's curious to see Danco get top billing in Ansermet's recording of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges when in fact she sings not the role of the reactive child but the meltingly beautiful aria of the picture-book princess. Again, the pointillist detail of Ansermet's interpretation as captured in the bright old Decca recording is fabulous (even if the last chords of the Five O'Clock Foxtrot seem not to be fully scored) and here's Hugues Cuénod excelling, too, as old man Maths. Danco and her Golaud, Heinz Rehfuss, turn up in the aurally otiose L'Heure espagnole, too. But she's most bewitching in the Deux mélodies hébraïques - the first of which gives the strongest sense of the power she can unleash when necessary - and Shéhérazade. So full of charm and meaning, again, even if not as luxuriously upholstered as the classic version with Régine Crespin. Which I had quite forgotten is also an Ansermet/Suisse Romande special. Real gap in the library there - must correct.

On the same set there's the first of Ansermet's Boléros with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. a good couple of minutes more leisurely than his Suisse Romande version. I was glad to find out that his recording of Hérold's Zampa Overture is lurid with character, explaining why I was so obsessed with this piece as a child (I took out the Ace of Diamonds LP of French overtures at least twice from Sutton Library). And the Haydn revelation continues with renewed admiration for the mixed moods of Symphony No. 83 (the hen-peckings follow a dark start) and the charm of No. 84's finale (funny how the un-soubriquet-ed symphonies often seem to be overshadowed) in the set of 'Paris' Symphonies. The discoveries keep on giving.

On a very un-French footnote, I also confirmed for myself the total-classic status of this recording of Britten's first opera, operetta, musical, call it what you will. 

Having been disappointed with so much about the Wilton's mishandling of Paul Bunyan, despite some excellent casting, I came home, and confirmed the work's masterpiece status thanks to a cast under Philip Brunelle that puts it across with exemplary clarity (that word again, not so evocative in English).   

Monday, 10 September 2018

Norfolk churches walk: chchugging* again

14 churches in 14 miles on Saturday took us up to No. 204, St Bartholomew Hanworth, perhaps the most beautifully situated of all, though runner-up would be All Saints Bessingham, in the above picture of which you may just make out lunch being consumed (I carried the organ seat outside to sit opposite the other three on their bench).

An extensive chronicle just as in previous years - this is the one for 2017 - will appear in due course. Meanwhile, I should note the brasses of Felbrigg, the Seven Sacraments font of Gresham and the quirky bench-ends of Thurgarton, most pleasing of the interiors in its stripped-bare tending by the Churches Conservation Trust. Our related charity is the Norfolk Churches Trust; donations if you feel able, please, to Jeremy's JustGiving page here. Failing that, a kind word never goes amiss.

*Church charity mugging - though since I can't doorstep you, think of it as a gentle prod.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Churches around the Dronne

Only a week to go now before our annual Norfolk Churches Walk, so time for a flashback to my first time in the Dordogne last month, a very happy one which let me see what all the fuss about this Herefordshire-on-steroids is all about. Said churches actually sit in different regions, but since the River Dronne is a natural boundary, let's stretch the geography a bit and make it the unifying factor. Unquestionably the two most spectacular are to be found in the perfect hill town of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne - the 11th century facade of the otherwise much-rebuilt St-Jacques pictured above, the town from the river below -

 but the smaller gems are all singular. Since I had to leave the Itinéraire Baroque Festival on the morning of its musical church-crawl - for a wedding in a very English church - I asked Gabriel Fysh, who'd volunteered to be our driver and cicerone, if we could ditch the planned excursion to Brantôme, fascinating though that place sounds, and explore more locally instead.

Not far from our base in Riberac, we stopped at Coutures. Astonishingly, I can find nothing at all online about the Romanesque church. Nor is there a single guide to the churches of the area, or leaflets inside the churches (30-plus served by the same priest), and three don't even get a mention in my Blue Guide. Even Gabriel had not gone to the exterior of the east end where there's a fascinating corbel table not unlike that of Kilpeck.

The inside is interesting, too, not least because it's possible to see where the original garrison-church stopped to accommodate the soldiers' quarters above. The vaults of several churches were added later in converting the building as a whole.

Next stop Saint-Martial-Viveyrol, with very photogenic sunflower fields on the outskirts. Gabriel, whose family has cultivated a large walnut grove adjacent to their house, sighed to say that the local farmers grow nothing other than sunflowers and maize in the summer; few are interested in going back to the more fruitful old ways.

Was St-Martial on the Chemin/Camino to Santiago? The scallop of St James on the font suggests as much.

Its domes are impressive - I'm assuming this wasn't a garrison like several of the others -

and there are some interesting heads on the capitals.

Outside it looks massy-proof

as does the church at Cherval,

the most imposing in its setting at the top of the hill. From below you can see more clearly the barracks above, which in this instance have not been converted.

Lusignac, the local for Gabriel's family, has the church with the most colourful interior design, as you can immediately see approaching via the wooden-roofed porch.

Major Virgin activity here

It's in another fine setting next to a curious castle

and a perfectly-situated tavern with a great view on to the surrounding landscape.

Then it was time to meet up with the other Fyshes and friends for a delicious dip in the river (the Vonnegut 'if this isn't nice, what is?' needed to be invoked)

before we parted company again and Gabriel dropped the remaining three of us in Aubeterre. Down by the Dronne I found more dragonflies and damselflies, even catching this one briefly settled.

 I had been a bit suspicious of the inaccurately-named 'monolithic church' of StJean - it's more accurately a cave church - and its (shock, horror!) admission charge,

but once inside, stunned by the scale of it, I could see why it would have been worth twice the entry fee. Hewn out of the rock by Benedictine monks in the 12th century, used for burials up to 1865 and then concealed by a rockfall until the 1950s, it's the largest subterranean (can one say interranean?) church in Europe.

Connections with the Crusades include the housing of relics from Jerusalem at various points of what even for the present-day visitor is something of an adventure. The Holy Sepulchre was the model for this Romanesque reliquary.

Twenty metres high, the nave adjoins a necropolis

and offers access to the gallery above (you are asked to keep silence, not so easy for visiting summer families, but then the place was hardly overrun).

After lunch on a terrace looking over to the other part of town, we sweltered even walking the short distance uphill, and keeping to the shade as we did so, to St-Jacques. The central portal of its Romanesque facade is certainly the most elaborate

but there are splendid zodiacal panels matching labours to the times of year above the left door.

Our festival base of St-Cybard, located in flatter territory but with a pleasing end-of-the-world feel to it,

 also boasts a fine doorway

and the carvings on its capitals feature many green men.

I got very overheated taking a short afternoon walk into La Tour-Blanche, chiefly to get a much-needed espresso, though poking around its ruined castle was worth it.

It gives one the creeps, not least because I'd just heard that the old couple who lived there until last year had burnt to death; it awaits a takeover, but in the meantime there traces of the recent life and also a fair bit of charring. Anyway, St-Cybard's setting is idyllic, especially in the evening.

The churchyard overlooks a valley with another church just visible among the trees on the opposite side.

On the first evening, the moon rising already seemed to promise orangey hints of the eclipse to come,

but it was hidden behind clouds on the night in question, even if that did include a spectacular sunset on the other side

and the wait did, as I showed in my most recent Pärnu blog, yield the first of my two summer hedgehogs. I left for Bordeaux airport in the rain which finally arrived the following morning well satisfied with the pleasures of this brief excursion.