Stravinsky, Debussy and Shostakovich: LPO and Leif Ove Andsnes at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 18th April 2018

  • Stravinsky – Symphony in C,
  • Stravinsky – Tango arr. for orchestra
  • Debussy – Fantaisie for piano and orchestra
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 54

I am pretty confident that no-one reads the reviews of classical music concerts posted here, not should they, since I know so very little about the music I hear, and what I do learn is ruthlessly plagiarised. But if you do stumble across this “content” by accident it really helps if you like Igor Stravinsky and Dmitry Shostakovich. A combination of my taste and that of those responsible for programming in the finest London venues means there is a lot of these two fellas on show here. More than I had realised.

This was another instalment of the Stravinsky Changing Faces festival at the South Bank, this time from the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski’s baton rather than one of their guest conductors.

Before I get to this a shout out for the free concert in the Hall just before this from members of the LPO Foyle Future First programme. This has been created to nurture talented young musicians who aspire to a career in the orchestra. They kicked off with a bouncy rendition of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, then tackled some short pieces by Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Edison Denisov as well as Stravinsky’s own Epitaphium, a commemoration piece for flute, clarinet and harp, which acted as the inspiration for the other pieces which, in their turn, commemorate IS. The last piece was the more substantial Furst Igor, Strawinsky by Mauricio Kagel, drawn from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor and showcasing the dramatic singing talents of young bass Timothy Edlin, and some startling percussion effects.

I chanced upon this concert. On the basis of this I will endeavour to seek out any future offerings as should you if you are in the vicinity.

On to the main event. The Symphony in C was first performed in 1940 in Chicago conducted by IS himself. The first two movements, a Haydnesque shuffle with prominent oboe, here taken briskly, and a concertante with strings sandwiched by woodwind, were written in Paris, at the same tine as IS lost his daughter, first wife and mother. No grief on show though in this effervescent neo-classicism. The last two movements were composed after IS had moved to the US and comprise a scherzo with nods to IS’s early works and a slower conclusion focussed on woodwind. The trumpet of, I think, principal Paul Berniston, also got a good workout. Like everything Stravinsky wrote, the more times you listen to it the more you are astounded by how easy it all seemed to come to him, whatever form or style he was writing in, and however “academic” the music. This IMHO is about the best Neo-classical piece ever written.

The proceeding tango for chamber orchestra was originally a piano piece, as revealed by Leif Ove Andsnes later on in his encore. Even the stuff IS churned out for money, like this, is captivating, with strings, guitar, woodwinds and more brass than you might expect. Mr Andsnes is a confident fellow, I’ve heard him play a couple of times before, and have enjoyed his interpretations of Beethoven, the Nordics and Chopin, without being utterly convinced, I regard Debussy as a bit of an occupational hazard, as it often, as here, crops up in the programmes that appeal to me. All that swirling impressionism and general diddling about doesn’t really do it for me I am afraid. The piano being the chief instrumental purveyor of the diddling about tendency for composers so inclined, I wasn’t looking forward to this.

Once again my idiotic prejudices were confounded. The Fantaisie was written in 1890 as part of a prize young Claude secured but only the first movement was performed, leading CD to huffily withdraw it. Every time it was scheduled for performance thereafter, after revisions, he missed his deadlines, so that the original published score only appeared in 1919. The revisions were finally published in 1968. Leif OA has made a signature dish from this later version which is what we heard here. The first movement introduces the theme which turns up in the final allegro, there is a bit of the “exploratory” stuff which worries me but it settles into a tune by the end. The slow movement is grandly Romantic and in F sharp major. I shouldn’t like this but I did. Maybe I have a thing for this key. This moves into the the quicker, colourful finale which is underpinned by a repeated bass figure, and that, dear reader, is why I liked it. Probably because it doesn’t sound much like Debussy.

I don’t know how much rehearsal the orchestra got with the soloists. I am guessing it was limited since the programme implied we were getting the original 1919 version suggesting a bit of miscommunication. It didn’t matter. The more I hear the LPO with VJ at the helm the more I admire their unruffled ability to support, but never, overwhelm the soloist.

There is nothing diddly about Shostakovich’s 6th. After getting back in the Politburo’s good books with the 5th he went and upset the apple cart again with this bizarrely “unbalanced” though not “formalistic” symphony. 18 minutes or so of B minor largo slow movement with one of those never ending intros followed by a funeral march second theme, which is then repeated, but in a very subdued, passive way with solo flute from Juliette Bausor, ending with the briefest of recapitulation of the first themes. Then a scherzo, with trio accent, and strident climax, straight out of the DSCH copybook and a closing rondo, with contrasting waltz, that only needs a few clowns to gallop on stage to be complete and even has the enigmatic William Tell Overture which punctuates his last Symphony No 15. No fourth movement, all done in half an hour, audience always a bit taken aback, then relieved that it’s all over. And that’s the contingent, here thankfully large, who love this stuff. The best parties don’t go on too long. Who knows what it all means.

There is a lot of opportunity for pianissimo in the first movement, with most of the orchestra resting most of the time, and VJ and the LPO were keen to show what they could do. The extended second theme of the Largo was as close to eerie Shostakovichian, chair-pinning, perfection as you could ever want to hear,  and the closing presto faultless. Bish, bosh. It might still be on I Player if you’re interested.

Caroline, or Change at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

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Caroline, or Change

Hampstead Theatre, 18th April 2018

How many exceptions does it take before the rule is unproven?

I don’t, as a rule, like musicals, as I have oft repeated on these very pages. I absolutely adored this though. That might be because it isn’t your classic show tunes, jazz hands, fake emotion overload. It might be because Jeanine Tesori’s eclectic score ranges across the history of African-American music, (with help from Jewish American music, and plenty more besides), and reminds us how lost contemporary human culture would be without it. it might be because CoC is operatic in intent and form. It might be because it is through-composed with no awkward recitative exposition. It might be because it is formally inventive, what with its singing appliances, swinging moon (!), split level and revolving stage, courtesy of Fly Davies, and repeated metaphors. It might be because Tony Kushner is a playwright, and here book and lyric writer, of fierce intelligence, politically engaged, unafraid of tackling big issues, or incorporating his own, real, experiences into his work. It might be because Sharon D. Clarke is just about the most powerful actor to be seen anywhere on the British stage. There are moments in this where her entire body quivers under the weight of Black American history. And when she sings. OMG as the young’uns would have it. And she’s not the only one knocking it out the park. Abiona Omanua as Emmie runs her a pretty close second in her own way.

This production was praised to the skies on its original outing at Chichester. I believed the hype, but ummed and ahhed about booking for the Hampstead transfer, trying to rope in some chums. No takers, the SO didn’t bite, her aversion to musicals being ideologically sounder than mine, so I ended up taking the plunge on my tod. In the end it was probably more the urge to collect productions of Mr Kushner’s work that swung it rather than these reviews. At times I was engrossed by both Angels in America at the NT and IHO here at Hampstead even if, ten minutes later, I baulked at his indulgence. His translation of Mother Courage was also used in the so-so recent production of Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse. I can see why he likes Brecht.

Well I only need to have paid attention to the 5* reviews, and so should you now that this is transferring to the Playhouse Theatre, from late November through to early February next year. I strongly recommend you get tickets. And don’t skimp. It is rubbish upstairs in the Playhouse and you need to take in all the set. I also see that the prices for decent seats, whilst not cheap, are not eye-gougingly expensive.

Music first. Jeanine Tesori’s score is magnificent. I assume it was composed for the orchestral forces on show in this production, 11 strong, with Nigel Lilley conducting. They are certainly put through their paces with Haydnesque chamber passages, a Jewish klezmer dance, hymns and folk tunes wedded to gospel, blues, soul, jazz and spirituals. And still room for a couple of show-tunes. If this all sounds a bit rich, it isn’t. The rhythms are simple and infectious and the melodies and motifs clear and recognisable even to this untrained ear. Ms Tesori doesn’t waste a note. What is most extraordinary is how she renders Tony Kushner’s text so immediately musical, as, presumably, he doesn’t write that way. There is a good interview in the programme, as there always is, from Will Mortimer of the Hampstead Theatre, with TK and JT where they describe their creative process. They seem to like working together. There is also an article written by TK setting out the genesis of CoC and a helpful essay on domestic workers in the US from slavery through the civil rights movement to the present day The HT programmes are always excellent in this regard, with material directly relevant to the production and not too removed or abstract as can sometimes be the case.

Whilst all of the orchestra sounded terrific to me I would highlight the brass and woodwind contributions of Alice Lee and John Graham. Their instruments were always likely to get the lion’s share of the expressive lines, given Mr Kushner is unafraid of emotion, but they sure know how to deliver them. In total I counted 53 songs. Like I say there is no filler, but you can work out for yourselves that, across the couple of hours of performances this means nothing outstays its welcome, so we have dynamism to match the musical invention.

So what’s it about? It is the 1960s in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is hot and humid.. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American mother of four kids, Emmie, whose consciousness is being raised by the Civil Rights protests, Jackie and Joe (I am really sorry I don’t know which young actors where in the hotseat on the day of the performance I attended), and an elder son in the army. Caroline’s drunk, abusive husband is long gone. She works as maid to the Gellman family, Stuart Gellman, his second wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, and young Noah (based on Tony Kushner himself). We also get to meet Caroline’s friend Dotty Moffett, trying to “better herself” through night school, and the Gellman grandparents and Grandpa Stopnick, in various imagined scenes, and when they visit Louisiana from New York.

Oh and we are introduced to a singing washing machine, a dryer, a Supremes style trio representing the radio, a moon on a swing and a bus. As you do. These fantasy elements make perfect sense in the context of the story Kushner and Tesori are telling, and provide further contrasts to the already rich mix created by Ms Tesori’s music and by Mr Kushner’s sharp, poetic, lyrical, emotional, analytical, metaphysical and often very funny lyrics. One detail in particular, the illuminated red ring around Ako Mitchell’s neck, to simulate the dryer, but suggesting something way more horrific from America’s past, shows just how many ideas are at work here.

In 1963 self-absorbed Noah is 8, (sorry, as with the boys, I can’t be sure who played Noah), and prone to bothering Caroline, and lighting her cigarettes, as she launders in the Gellman house basement. Noah’s mum recently died of cancer and the relationship with step-mum is delicate. Stuart, still grieving, and Rose’s relationship isn’t perfect either. Caroline gets paid $30 a week. Rose offers her food rather than a raise, and later, condescendingly suggests she take the small change the family leave in their pockets, especially Noah. This idea of change, (both personal for Caroline, and politically for her family and community), and of the unequal economic relationship between the Gellmans and Caroline, of which they are all acutely conscious, is central to the drama, and presents an extraordinarily powerful metaphor.

The assassination of JFK, and his legacy, and the destruction of a statue of a Confederate soldier at the local Lake Charles courthouse, provide wider social and political context and, in the case of the latter, acute contemporary resonance, given, for example, the ugly events last year in Charlottesville. The politics ramps up before, during and after the Chanukah party in the first half of Act 2, which, for me, served up half an hour of the most vital theatre I have seen ever seen anywhere. The aftermath of the party, and an elusive $20 bill, prompts a bust up between Caroline and Noah and then some sort of spiritual epiphany for Caroline, culminating in the passionate song Lot’s Wife, which made me, and half the audience, quietly blu. Emmie though has the last, defiant, word.

Caroline is angry, sullen and resentful at the hand that life has dealt her, but her faith, her dignity, her conditioning and the stark fact that she needs to feed her family, means she cannot fight back. Emmie, from the next generation, can though. Mr Kushner points out in the programme how damaging the failure to resolve issues of race and poverty has been to the American politic, but he also offers a message than change is still possible.

The Hampstead stage is just about big enough to contain the set, though I gather it was more expansive at Chichester, but small enough to let us savour every line and note. I don’t think I missed a word and Michael Longhurst’s direction was exemplary (if you’ve see Amadeus at the National you’ll know what he’s about), ably assisted by Ann Yee’s intricate choreography.

In my own little fantasy world of reviews on this blog site I dole out stars like candy, largely because I get so excited with how much marvellous culture London offers that I really do feel like I am in the proverbial sweet shop. This though is a brook no argument 5* masterpiece.

The best thing I have seen this year. And I was perched up in the gods wishing I was much closer and had booked sooner.

You must see it.

 

The Country Wife at Southwark Playhouse review ***

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The Country Wife

Southwark Playhouse, 17th April 2018

I haven’t seen that many Restoration comedies. In fact if I take the list of notable examples of the genre offered up by Wiki I see it is a grand total of one, in the form of the NT’s Beaux Stratagem from 2015, directed by the versatile Simon Godwin. It was OK but I can’t say I was bowled over. Still anyone with the Tourist’s theatrical pretensions needs to master the form so he leapt at the chance to see this production of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife courtesy of Morphic Graffiti. Especially at the bargain basement price of a tenner. There is no cheaper, or often, better way to see theatre in London than through Southwark Playhouse’s Pay As You Go offer. All Londoners should be compulsorily enrolled for their own cultural good.

Luke Fredericks and Stewart Charlesworth are the brains behind Morphic Graffiti which they set up in 2012. I see that the majority of their well received work to date has been musicals, including a version of the problematic Rodgers and Hammerstein work Carousel at the Arcola. That would explain why this Country Wife has some absolutely marvellous song and dance routines between scenes. The entire cast dances its way through the intricate set changes to a backdrop of abridged jazz-swing versions of pop “classics”. The choreography is in keeping with the 1920s “Bright Young Things” setting, for that is the period Messrs Fredericks and Charlesworth have alighted on to shed new light on Wycherley’s original written in 1675. The idea is that the privileged Bohemians of 1920s London, with their drink and drug excesses, their music and fancy dress parties and their sexual licentiousness, had a lot in common with their, probably, frock and wig wearing ancestors in Charles II’s time. Apparently Charly 2 was notoriously potty-mouthed.

The Restoration saw  a reaction against the puritanism of the Protectorate. The theatre was restored, and frou-frou, baroque-y, Frenchiness was all the rage. Moliere, albeit hyped up, was the inspiration for the Restoration playwrights who satirised, albeit lovingly, etiquette, manners, class and sex. The Country Wife was at the more explicit end of the spectrum with its knob and fanny double entendres and it was banned from performance from 1753, as those miserable Georgians and Tories gained ascendance, until 1924.

Which circles back to the backdrop here. I can see that some of the characters here, the foppish dandy Sparkish, the roue Harry Horner, the horny cougar Lady Fidget and the eponymous country wife looking to widen her horizons as it were, Margery Pinchwife, might fit the Bright Young Things template. In contrast the cuckolds, Pinchwife and Sir Jasper Fidget are the older generation against which the young’uns rebel. But surely the Restoration, and these comedies which prick it, was a time a time of deception and hypocrisy. The look may have been flamboyant but there were presumably social mores which governed public behaviour, even if, in private, anything was up for grabs. In contrast those BYT’s revelled in their visible outrageousness and were flagrant self publicists, Made in Chelsea types but obviously not so dumb as fat Spence, toddler Jamie and Bonky. In short if Harry got horny in the 1920’s in this company, surely he would need no elaborate ruse to get his leg over.

I fear I maybe overthinking this but my point is I am not entirely sure the concept stacked up even if the look, especially Stewart Charlesworth’s set and costumes, movement, Heather Douglas, and sound, Neil Rigg, was appealing. Apparently Luke Fredericks took a few liberties with the text and cut his dramatis personae, I wouldn’t know, but it didn’t do any damage to the plot as far as I could make out. Mind you, even with plays I know well, I will always get familiar with the outline of the plot in advance. The SO thinks this is mad but I reckon if you have a rough idea of what is going on there is more joy to be had from performances, characters, insights, messages, spectacle and the like. And I am notoriously slow on the uptake.

In essence The Country Wife is a bunch of people looking for a shag, with randy Harry Horner, played rather too straight by Eddie Eyre, pretending he is impotent so he can get close to the ladies without arousing suspicion, Pinchwife’s young and “inexperienced” new, yokel wife Margery (a winning Nancy Sullivan) embracing all the City has to offer, and Harry’s droll chum Frank Harcourt (Leo Starr) nabbing the lovely Alithea (Siubhan Harrison) from under the nose of the camp chump Sparkish (Daniel Cane who sets out to, and succeeds, rather too obviously, in stealing the show). Mabel Clements caught the eye doubling up as knowing servant Lucy and vivacious Dainty Fidget, sister in law of Lady F, played by Sarah Lam who seemed to me to most embrace the tenor of the text. Richard Clews as the preposterously misogynistic Pinchwife, Sam Graham as Sir Jasper F and Joshua Hill as Harry’s other wing-man, Dorilant, completed the cast.

Now these plays are famous in part for offering the first proper meaty parts for women (no filth intended0, not dressed up boys, and for making stars of the actors and actresses who starred in them. You’ll have to pick you own way through the sexual politics, guided by the director, to decide if the women here have real agency, and how sympathetic Wycherley is to his three male archetypes, Horner’s libertine lad, Pinchwife’s brutal possessive or Harcourt’s upstanding hunk, but it does seem amenable to various interpretations. Most of all though it has to be funny I guess and this is where, maybe, this production, came a little unstuck. I can’t fault the pace, but what with so much to think about, including lighting from Sam Waddington which highlighted every aside to the audience, I didn’t think the lines were delivered with perhaps as much relish as they deserved.

The regular reader of this blog (hello!) will know that I claim not to like musicals. Based on the music and choreography, if not maybe the play itself, I will certainly look at for Morphic Graffiti’s forays into that genre. Especially if they reel out the proverbial row of tents. They look like they are good a that.

 

 

 

Macbeth at the National Theatre review ***

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Macbeth

National Theatre Olivier, 14th April 2018

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more

This was frustrating. No way of hiding it. It promised so much. A Macbeth. With Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, both of whom, when furnished with optimal texts, directing and designs, are as good as it gets. Since we know the text cannot be at fault, though Macbeth productions do have a habit of disappointing, then we have to look to design and direction. It really pains me to say this, since I don’t think Rufus Norris’s stewardship of the NT is anything like as disappointing as some would have you believe, but here, as director, the ideas just don’t really work.

Most of the proper reviews have alighted on the cul de sac that is the design of Rae Smith. Now Ms Smith is a rare talent. I offer you St George and the Dragon, Girl From the North Country, This House, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, and, of course, War Horse in support of that contention, and that’s just what I know. Here though we have a backdrop of black plastic sheeting strips, like an explosion in a bin bag factory, which seems a very tentative way to solve the challenge offered by the Olivier stage. A steep ramp initially takes centre stage though this gets shunted to one side for most of the proceedings leaving a pair of ramshackle sheds to do most of the visual heavy lifting. It is pretty dark, though with harsh accents, courtesy of James Farncombe’s lighting design, and Dunsinane here put me in mind of nothing more than a camp of homeless people under some arches. There are some poles on which the witches have some fun later on, and which provide a foil to some back to front, shrunken head shenanigans, but generally this is not an insightful concept.

Nothing wrong with the idea, just maybe not in Macbeth, for, as the critics have indicated, this foul is foul visual starting point gives little room for the plot to develop. What exactly is it that Macbeth and the Lady are prepared to commit murder for? Untrammelled ambition and the pursuit of power over this rabble hardly seems worth it. Macbeth is dark, for sure, and gloomy certainly worked for the benchmark RSC Nunn/McKellen/Dench production from 1976, with its minimalist circle. This left everything to our imagination: in this latest NT production we are steered too aggressively towards a composite post apocalyptic dystopia and never get out.

The hackneyed Jarmanesque vision extends to Moritz Junge’s costumes. Back in the day, when the Tourist was a devoted Bunnymen fan, and camouflage gear and ripped jeans were de rigeur, he dressed like this. The witches are properly bonkers, weird sisters indeed, but their aesthetic is similarly post-punkish. This means the supernatural world is firmly tethered to the “real” world, which may respect contemporary Jacobean reality, (remember James I was an “expert” on witchcraft), but doesn’t help when it comes to ratcheting up the atmospherics. The visual brutality smothers the action as well with plenty of stage blood and fake beheadings. Personally I don’t have a problem with the visceral approach to Shakespearean violence but think it is better employed against a more minimalist design or potboilers like Titus Andronicus.

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other

The design distractions marred Paul Arditti’s soundscapes and Orlando Gough’s composition. As with the lighting, in isolation, this might have worked, but taken together with the look of the production, it was all just a bit too much. This left the cast with just too much to do to draw us into Shakespeare’s sinewy text, so fraught with development and repetition. Every word counts with Macbeth, even more so than the other tragedies, if the couple’s psychological horrors are to be fully realised. There were occasions when the bleak poetry captivated. Rory Kinnear and, especially here, Anne-Marie Duff are both too good as actors not to convince in many key scenes; when they plot the murder, in the immediate aftermath (a real sense of panic here), the Lady’s sleepwalking madness, her “unsex me here” soliloquy, Macbeth realising he has misinterpreted the prophecy.

Yet other scenes are less compelling, Macbeth’s “tomorrow” soliloquy, Banquo’s ghost, (drunken zombie and Lidl barbecue is not a winning formula), and the shock-horror apparitions. Mr Kinnear once again lays on the blokish estuarine, which worked so well for Iago, but which here gets distracting. I think he is an actor who shrinks just a little when the production has flaws, his Macheath on this stage and, as good as he was, his K in the Young Vic Trial, both revealed hesitations. It felt like that here at times. It is a shame as I think that in another Macbeth, shorn of all this overtly macho militarism, RK and AMD’s ability to show the couple’s brittle dissolution could have worked. The religiosity of the text, the childlessness, the notion of “evil” the inability to act, all get lost here.

Patrick O’Kane offered up a Macduff who contains his grief on hearing of the murders, which worked well, and Amaka Okafor impressed as a dignified Lady Macduff. Stephen Boxer, as is his wont, was perhaps a little too fruity as Duncan in this grimy world. On the other hand he has the measure of the language in contrast to Kevin Harvey’s Banquo and Parth Thakerar’s Malcolm who both chomped a bit at their lines. Trevor Fox’s comic Porter had plenty of stage time, though I am not entirely sure what point was being made by this, his warnings on “equivocations” were lost, and his look bore an uncanny resemblance to Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain from Mad Max, though this may been my unconscious reaction to the look of the play.

Mr Norris has made some cuts to the text, (notably for Malcolm and Macduff in England) excised Duncan’s other son Donalban, and asked his cast to err too much on the side of dramatic caution. In a production which prized the visual over the textural, Birnam Wood, the battle scenes, the apparitions, the witches truncated first appearance, all were underwhelming. A weird paradox indeed that a production that set out to impress the eye, in a played seeped in the supernatural, conjured so few memorable images to highlight text and action.

This may well work better in some of the smaller spaces which the production will tour at the end of this year and beginning of next. Macbeth is a play where proximity to the actors helps. That is maybe why the film versions, and I include the film of the 1976 RSC production, as well as the 2015 Justin Kurzel version, Polanski’s classic and Kurosawa’s Theatre of Blood, work so well: close-ups allow us to see deep inside the characters, in a way that this production, with this set in the Oliver space, could not emulate. The lo-fi design, redolent of theatres with much less money to play with, may come into its own. Despite my comments and the rather sharp reviews, this is still well worth seeing. It is Macbeth after all.

There is an essay in the programme which takes us through the many ways Macbeth has been adapted through the centuries. It references the classic Ninagawa production which shows that a robust, definitive vision can work for Macbeth (Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ****). But it also, just maybe in retropsect, reads as a bit of an apology.

Something wicked this way comes.

 

 

 

Bach: The Late Concertos from the Feinstein Ensemble at Kings Place review ****

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The Feinstein Ensemble, Catherine Mason, Miki Takahashi, Sarah Moffatt (violins), Robin Bigwood (harpsichord), Martin Feinstein (flute, director)

Kings Place, 13th April 2018

JS Bach

  • Triple Concerto in A minor for flute, violin & harpsichord BWV 1044
  • Concerto in D minor for violin (reconstructed from BWV 1052)
  • Concerto in F for harpsichord & two recorders BWV 1057
  • Concerto in D for three violins (reconstructed from BWV 1064)

More Bach. Once again in the company of MSBD. Can you listen to too much JSB. Of course not. Mind you, you would have to if you ever wanted to get through all that he composed. Good luck with all those cantatas, chorales, songs, preludes, fugues, suites and toccatas. I will keep chipping away at the works for keyboards but, if I am honest, I think the solo string works and the concertos are enough to keep me satisfied.

Here we get a quartet of slightly less often performed concertos, composed in his maturity, when JSB was directing performances at the Collegium Musicum. That’s when he wasn’t occupied with composing music for his day jobs at four Leipzig churches. Three of the works are triple concertos, one reconfigured for 3 violins as opposed to 3 harpsichords and one single concerto for violin which was superseded by the harpsichord.

The first piece the Concerto in A minor for flute, violin and harpsichord in fact started life as two separate organ works, and is configured for the same orchestra as the Fifth Brandenburg even down to just having the three soloists play in the middle, slow movement (based on the organ sonata BWV 527). Moreover the harpsichord gets its own cadenza. the outer movement material is drawn from the Prelude and Fugue for A minor for harpsichord BWV 894 from 1717, and it is a lot less bright in mood that the Fifth Brandenburg. The outer two movements, marked allegro and presto, are complex even by JSB standards and. together, turn this into his longest concerto work. This was a big noise for just nine period instruments.

The harpsichord concerto in D minor BWV 1052 probably started out as a violin concerto, as we hear it here, witness the string-crossing formations in the first movement. This is unusual for having all three movements in minor keys. JSB’s use of riternello is most marked here.

The Concerto in F for harpsichord and two recorders is a subtle reworking of the Fourth Brandenburg in G major, with the solo violin part cleverly rewritten for the harpsichord and with the two recorders really coming to the fore.

As with the solo violin concerto the triple violin concerto in D was lost and only survived in the later harpsichord form. This has been reconstructed for the violins based on alterations made to the surviving score and it is a spectacular tour de force. Some of JSB’s stuff for multiple harpsichords can induce ear confusion I admit but not this work.  Hearing the melody lines played on shared violins, (above an often shared bass line), makes the work so much clearer.

Martin Feinstein, and his squad of crack Baroque musicians, are regulars at this venue, and he assembled a series of programmes here, alongside this, to celebrate the regular “Bach Weekend”. I am no flute expert but I would say Mr Feinstein knows where he is at on the pipes and his performance, alongside I think Catherine Manson on violin and Robin Bigwood on harpsichord, was thrilling, after a couple of minutes to get in the zone. Ms Manson took the lead for the solo violin concerto, with Emily Bloom joining Mr Feinstein for the recorder concerto. Ms Manson was joined by Miki Takahashi and Sarah Moffatt for the triple violin which was probably the highlight for me, although the two recorders ran it close, largely because I know the tunes.

The thing with JSB, as with Beethoven, is that the perfect logic and structure of the music makes you feel like you have heard it before and you know what is coming next. As it happens,, with JSB plundering his own back catalogue in this concertos, it is quite possible you have heard it before, but that is not what I mean. The instantaneous emotional joy is interlinked to the sustained intellectual pleasure. I still don’t really know what I am listening to in purely musical terms, all that counterpoint, harmonic and motivic organisation. I am though extremely grateful to all those Bach scholars, starting off with that nice Mr Felix Mendelssohn, who have got us to where we are now.

And to JSB himself for knowing that all those notes could, together, make these sounds. No Bach, no tonal system. No Bach, no modern instruments. No Bach, no instrumental solos.  Well maybe not entirely true, but his was the great leap forward in Western music. So kids, when you are listening to whatever Spotify chucks at you, and moving to the beat, you have JSB to thank.

 

 

 

 

 

The Marriage of Figaro at the ENO review *****

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The Marriage of Figaro

English National Opera, 12th April 2018

It isn’t easy to think of a better opera than the Marriage of Figaro. And, as we culture vultures know, when opera works there is scarcely any entertainment to match it. It is just a shame that opera so rarely all comes together. It did here though making a perfect treat for BUD, and myself, as we continue to advance the young fella’s cultural education. One more Mozart to go, Cosi fan tutte, maybe the ROH revival next year, Britten now opening up, chuck in some Janacek after that and I’ll find a contemporary candidate which won’t scare him off.

It will be hard to match this though. Figaro may be the least daft and offensive of the classic Mozart operas but it still takes a wily director to render the sexual politics and dissection of class conflict entirely palatable to my modern eyes. Fiona Shaw certainly does this in her production, revived here for the second time with Peter Relton doing the honours. When I have something meaty to chew on in terms of message, to add to the comedy, and, of course, that divine, (might as well trot out the cliches), music, then there is nothing to do but sit back and enjoy. Singers who can act, constant movement through an imaginative. labyrinthine set from Peter McKintosh which intrigues and illuminates (and revolves, a lot!), and a concept which doesn’t overwhelm the story, but points up its darkest elements and is true to the Sevillian setting.

Now there is no doubt an army of opera bores who can tell me how much better it would be with top drawer international stars or a big name maestro in the pit. Piffle I say. What I like is an ensemble who can create a drama, rather than stepping off the plane, plonking themselves centre stage, screeching and then milking the applause. I was also more than satisfied with young Matthew Kofi Waldren’s handling of the ever exact ENO Orchestra. MKW is assistant to Martyn Brabbins and, in this uncluttered performance, was a more than capable deputy.

Even a musical numbnut like the Tourist can hear that Lucy Crowe, now graduated to the role of Countess, possesses a voice of exquisite power once she gets in the groove. When she comes in with that first aria hairs on backs of necks collectively stood on ends. Even when conspiring with Susanna to get back at the cocksure Count there was a tinge of heartache stiffened with revenge in her demeanour. Ashley Riches’s Count may not match her singing but he shows us a brutally direct aristo who is more confused than contrite when he gets his comeuppance. Thomas Oliemans may not be the most savvy of Figaros but he is perky enough. Rhian Lois as Susanna was the stand out for me though, as good as actor as I have seen on any stage, with a voice that needed no sur-titling. Katie Coventry’s Cherubino wasn’t annoying – that’s rare praise in my book.

Best of all though is getting to hear Jeremy Sams’s English translation of Da Ponte’s libretto in turn based on Beaumarchais’s play. The originals are exemplars of energy, suppleness and wit. Mr Sams’s verse matches them. It is often laugh out loud funny but still doesn’t blunt the sharper edges that puncture the mistaken identity and cupboard-hiding bromides. This is a comedy of cruelty not romance, as the Picasso-like bull skulls, (and minotaur allusions), the weapons, the confrontations, the barbs, the contracts, the tantrums, remind us. The cast, like the characters, relished turning the screw on each other. Remember this is a story where one woman (Marcellina) wouldn’t hesitate to use the law to catch her man (Figaro), a young boy (Cherubino) can’t keep his c*ck in his britches, the Countess agrees to feign adultery, she and her own fiance pimp out Susanna to the Count, a marriage (Marcellina and Bartolo) is agreed to legitimise an illegitimate child, Figaro is prepared to beat up his fiance on the basis of a lost pin and a bunch of blokes lurk beyond trees to watch the Count getting it on with Susanna. Nice eh.

The droit du seigneur that the Count will not relinquish may be the dramatic crux, but there is much more to Mozart/da Ponte’s plot, (even when it is shorn of the revolutionary monologue from Figaro berating the Count to be found in Beaumarchais). Fiona Shaw draws this out in ways that other, more frivolous, productions do not. Having the Countess walk out at the finale made sense. Men in positions of power haven’t changed much it seems so need to be reminded why then they are being w*nkers.

So a wonderful production of a wonderful opera. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask BUD.

 

 

Isle of Dogs film review ****

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Isle of Dogs, 12th April 2018

Many, many years ago, just after the London Docklands Development Corporation was set up in 1981 I had cause to visit the Isle of Dogs, the real one, as part of my academic studies. It was a desolate sh*thole then, with all due respect to the few residents still camped out there. I saw some stray dogs on my visit. I swear it.

It is much better now. Obviously. With all those towers, activity and people. Or is it? Was it better in its heyday as a docks, all misty-eyed, working class solidarity, shepherding the fruits of Empire. Or when it was first laid out built on capital from the evil of slavery, as so much of this country’s wealth was. I have no idea but it is interesting food for thought.

Anyway, f*ck all to do with Wes Anderson’s latest near masterpiece, unless of course old Wes was secretly slumming it with some creative chums in Limehouse at the time. I have enjoyed what I have seen of Mr Anderson’s films, namely The Royal Tenenbaums and Grand Budapest Hotel, admired them even more, but all that artifice, activity, trickery, and well, off-kilter-ness, makes it hard to connect emotionally. That is true to an extent here though the surface simplicity of the tale and the stop-motion makes it less arch than these predecessors. And that comes from someone who is not a dog person. Or a cat person. Or a goldfish person. Or a budgie person. Come to think of it I am not even a person person really.

Wes has collaborated here with literally hundreds of other creatives, (I stayed behind to watch all the credits roll up just to see, not my best ever idea), to deliver his spectacular stop-motion animation. Apparently a fair number of said creatives are based in Three Mills Studios, a short, (and very fine), walk down the River Lea and Limehouse Cut to the Isle of Dogs. One of the Three Mills is the House Mill which is reputedly the largest tidal mill in the world. I was fortunate enough to be shown around said mill, now maintained by a Trust and open on a Sunday, whilst out on a walk a couple of years ago. Once you get your head round how it works you see just how marvellous in is in its simplicity. Geeky I know but fascinating.

Back to Isle of Dogs (film). In addition to an army of artists, Mr Anderson has chucked the kitchen sink of plot devices at his story and employed some of Hollywood’s most discernible voices: Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johanssen, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinson, Harvey Keitel and, most memorably, Bryan Cranston as Chief. An orphan, an evil uncle, banishment, disenfranchisement, ecological collapse, plague, technology harnessed for dastardly purposes, rescue, trial by ordeal, redemption, there is a soupcon of everything, mixed together and gently simmered though still digestible for all ages.

There is some gentle homage to the great directors of Japanese cinema, straight and animated, (apparently Kurosawa make a film set on a rubbish heap), and the setting and collaboration is avowedly Japanese. The screenplay comes from Mr Anderson, Roman Coppola (again), Jason Schwartzman (again) and Kunichi Nomura, (who also voices Mayor Kobayashi). The dog’s barks are voiced in English, the Japanese language is only sporadically sub-titled.

I gather a whole load of guff has been written about the apparently dark forces of cultural appropriation here, given Mr Anderson’s range of Japanese stylisations . I see the argument but would not know where to start with marking out the cultural borders that would make such transgressions logical or credible. Who sets these boundaries, how and when? If this offends you will have a awful lot of shared cultural history to unravel and I, for one, would need to know how this separation was to be policed. This sort of thinking worries me.

As for the simple story of a boy and his dog, I loved it. The distancing effect which tarnishes Mr Anderson’s other films is disarmed making it much easier to root for the characters. The craft is admirable. It is a completely realised world but still doesn’t hide its cartoon roots. The score brings new definition to the word eclectic, extending well beyond the expected taiko drum rolls. It is visually funny but never tries too hard. Whilst I may not have laughed out loud at exactly the same time of the little’uns in the audience, the fact is we both laughed, ad that takes some skill. And the draughtsman in Mr Anderson can be given full rein, as his, and his collaborators’s, imaginations, range across background and foreground, to create striking scene after scene.

There is a lot here. However it works for you though, it will work for you. Don’t miss it.