LSO play Ravel and Mussorgsky at the Barbican review ***

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London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Barbican Hall, 3rd June 2018

  • Ravel – Rapsodie Espagnole
  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 3
  • Mussorgsky arranged Ravel – Pictures at an Exhibition

It has been a few years since I have heard Pictures at an Exhibition live, and I have thoroughly enjoyed Mr Noseda’s way with Shostakovich and Beethoven recently, so I reasoned now was the time to reacquaint myself. Moreover Mr Bronfman’s account of the PC 4 last year, admittedly under the exacting eye and ear of Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian RSO, was pleasurable enough if not earth-shattering (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review *****). And I thought it right to risk another chapter in my ongoing love/hate relationship with Ravel.

The Rapsodie espagnole is a pastiche, of sorts, of Spanish music, in contrast to the rather more rooted offerings of the likes of de Falla, Albeniz and Granados, though Ravel is not the only French composer to have been seduced by all that sultry dance. Indeed when this was composed, in 1907, Maurice was immersed in all things Iberian what with his opera L’heure espagnole and the songs of the Vocalise-Etude. And his particular favourite was that familiar habanera rhythm – which turned into, amongst other things, the cha cha cha we now today. Mind you his mum was Spanish and he was born just over the border in the Pyrenees so it was in the genes/memes.

This was Ravel’s breakthrough orchestra piece and actually pretty much his only full force work that didn’t start in another form or from the piano. Whilst it isn’t based on any specific Spanish melodies there is no doubting where you are. Ravel, of course, was the master of musical and emotional coloration. Yet he doesn’t always surprise. When he does, for me mainly in the chamber, piano and piano concerto works, he can dazzle. When he doesn’t, often as not for me in the vocal works, he can be just a bit too diddly to no purpose. Not as diddly as Debussy who mostly really tries my patience, but still a triumph of style over substance.

Overall, given the material, this was reasonably enjoyable though I wouldn’t seek it out. There is a distinct descending four note ostinato motif that recurs through three of the four sections, with the Habanera being the exception. This helps it all hang together. The LSO was on top of the score, of course, but Mr Noseda’s reading felt a little forced, but not unpleasantly so, until the final Feria where the band cut loose.

This spilled over into the Beethoven where the quiet string theme that opens the C minor concerto shuffled into, rather than glided into, the room to set up the extended orchestral intro of the Allegro. Last time round in Beethoven I felt Mr Bronfman’s precise, delicate playing meant he got a bit bullied by the orchestra. I feared a repeat. As it turned out he was given enough room to breathe and the LSO, especially in the woodwind and lower strings, was on top form, with the Largo the standout. I have heard more convincing overall interpretations, and a bit more whoosh in the Rondo, but this was satisfying enough.

Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, Vicious, Bonham, Curtis, Johnson, Buckley (x2), Cooke, Gaye, Coltrane, Parker, Parsons, Bolan, Tosh, Lynott, Nelson (PR). Some of my musical “heroes’ who died of unnatural causes, often with a fair bit more left to give, But if you want real rock’n’roll, nearly a century before any of these punters were doing their thing, then Modest Mussorgsky is your man. Obviously, like so many of the above, he was a f*cking idiot to waste his talent mashed up on booze, but, having chosen this course, and he did choose it seeking artistic freedom in this “bohemian┬álife”, he got properly stuck in. Which meant he failed to complete vast swathes of work and didn’t get much beyond the piano and a bunch of songs and the completed opera Boris Godunov. He was a rubbish musician barely caring or knowing about structure or texture but boy could he capture a mood. and in BG he basically captures the essence of Russia.

Anyway there he is above in close up, in Repin’s famous portrait from 1881, which appeared in the marvellous Russia and the Arts collection at the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago. He looks a bit rough for sure. Worse still when you realise he was just 42 and died a few weeks later.

Easy to see what the colourist Ravel, as many others have done subsequently, was smitten with MM’s big ideas and couldn’t resist the temptation to smooth off the rough edges. The original piano suite of Pictures at an Exhibition was inspired by a posthumous retrospective of the work of artist Victor Hartmann, MMs mate who died aged 39. Mind you MM’s musical images, as you might expect, went way beyond whatever Hartmann envisioned, but the concept of the exhibition, with the repeated Promenade being us the viewer, holds the whole thing together and adds an ironic, detached air to the bombast. On the piano it doesn’t entirely work but in Ravel’s hands something magical emerges. Ravel used Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition of the piano original so a few changes were made but you get the feeling that MM would have been happy with the result even if he may not have known how Ravel got there.

It might all be very familiar but it the right hands, and the LSO and Gianandrea were the right hands, it can still be thrilling. Bydio, Baba-Yage and the Great Gate of Kiev didn’t disappoint. Boom. If you are a classical virgin and want to find a way into live performance there is no better way. You won’t stay there as you move on, and you may end up thinking it is all a bit daft, but the hairs on the back of your neck will still stand on end whenever you return to it.

Rock’n’roll. Sort of.

 

 

Julie at the National Theatre review ***

Julie

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th June 2018

I am not sure if I like Strindberg’s play Miss Julie. The programme notes for this adaptation of the story by Polly Stenham explicitly deals with Strindberg’s rampant misogyny and class hatred. Whilst setting, plot and, to a certain extent, the bare bones of the text, afford plenty of scope for interpretation, at its heart this is an ugly story of a spoilt rich girl who gets legged over by a scheming manipulative uppity servant. She pays the ultimate price. In that respect it is no different from maybe 90% of operas ever written and a whole bunch of classic novels. Woman as victim.

Yet ….. There is normally always something to draw you in to the moral maze here whether the story, as so often, is transposed, as here, or played straight, in the Swedish midsummer of the late C19. Mr Strindberg, despite his rather brutal thinking, standard male fare in that age I suppose, was sharp enough to offer up multiple, and often conflicting, motives for his three characters, including Kristine, the household cook and Jean’s apparent intended, in his desire to define the “naturalistic” in drama. And apparently hating all your characters, and most of what they stand for, does inject buckets of passion into themes and dialogue. So it is no wonder that later dramatists keep returning to the work.

Polly Stenham (see above) is (in)famous for writing three plays about troubled posh kids, her debut written at just 19, That Face, followed by Tusk and No Quarter, then a shift in direction to her take of post colonial guilt in Hotel, and, most recently, the screenplay for Neon Demon. I haven’t seen any of them since they sounded like they, were primed to wind me up. She is posh, was brought up by her rich Dad, opened a gallery and lives in Highgate. You can see why she might want to take on Miss Julie. But some critics love her and director Jeremy Herrrin is a big advocate. So I figured, abandon your prejudice and see for yourself.

Well I have to say that her adaptation both works, and doesn’t work, but overall there is enough here to warrant a viewing. Ms Stenham not unreasonably relocates the action to present day London, specifically Hampstead Heath borders. Julie is having a party for her 33rd birthday. Businessman Dad is absent. Mum’s dead. Her sycophantic, fair weather friends, and Julie herself, are ingesting industrial quantities of drugs and booze. Downstairs in a vast state of the art, Wigmore Street showroom style kitchen, Kristina is tidying up and preparing food for the party.-goers. Julie pops in, looking for and getting, attention from Kristina, and, when he arrives, from Jean, who is the chauffeur waiting for Dad to call from the airport/meeting. Kristina and Jean are black, Julie is white and plainly “out of control”. The dichotomy between Jean, who sees this job as a step on the way to making it big, and Kristina, who is studying law, and the aimless, hedonistic Julie is well observed, and made more pointed through the prism of colour. I was reminded a little of Jamie Lloyd’s production of Genet’s The Maids which similarly drew attention to the uncomfortable way in which the very rich attempt to alleviate their own pain and loneliness by demanding friendship from their “servants” by pretending there is no economic gulf, or transactional relationship, between them.

Tom Scutt’s set divides the luxury downstairs kitchen from the upstairs, equally tasteful, party rooms, and allows for an ensemble to show off their dancing skills against the backdrop of some thumping bass. It doesn’t hide the fact though that this is a drama of intimacy which is lost on the broad Lyttleton stage, especially when, post festivities, Jean and Julie get it on, in full-on expressive, writhing, mime fashion. It is all a bit silly, as was the unfortunate end of the caged bird here, Strindberg’s booming metaphor. Polly Sternham, wisely given the setting, has booted out many of the other crass metaphors, and also understandably downplayed Kristina’s religiosity.

Still the biggest problem for the production is in the transition from the shag to the aftermath of the shag. Easy to understand why Julie would want Jean and why Jean would want Julie. But, in this contemporary setting, it is more difficult to understand why they would go through all the fighting, metaphorical chest-beating, soul-searching and future-plotting that follows the consummation. Surely this Julie wouldn’t really give a f*ck after the f*ck, as it were, even if she could remember it. The whole fall from social grace thing doesn’t really stack up. And Jean’s “I’ve always fancied you from afar when I watched you in the garden”/”this is my economic stepping stone to escape” also rings a little hollow. The gap between them is vast, of course, in so many ways, but the shift from desire to “love/hate, I can’t live with or without you” is just too awkward. The psychological and societal do not collide in the way they should.

Even so …….. once you swallow this, or better still, if you know, and accept, that this is the base material on to which Ms Stenham has grafted her take, then the sight of Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean and, especially, Vanessa Kirby’s Julie, alternately tearing each other apart and then building each other up again, is undeniably captivating. Thalissa Teixeira, who is a magnetic stage presence to rival young Kirby (sooooo good in Robert Icke’s brilliant Vanya), shifts from supportive friend and partner to woman wronged with immense conviction. There is, in all three performances, a strong whiff of the Greek tragedy, not in the material, but in the heightened emotion, augmented by our groovy chorus. In Strindberg’s C19 world the suppressed emotions uncoil slowly. Here they are filling the stage from the off. And the end is suitably in-your-face – no final glimpse of a razor and curtain fall here. Shame. A hotel run by the three of them might have garnered some prize TripAdvisor reviews.

The text might have been a little less colourless, and a little more subtle in places, though I can see this might have jarred with the setting, but in the end, especially in the second half, (this breezes through in just over 80 minutes), I actually quite enjoyed this. Which, given I probably don’t like the play, even if some productions really work (Yael Farber’s Mies Julie being the lodestar crackling, as it did, with apartheid history), and that I wasn’t sure about the central relationship, suggests Ms Sternham and director Carrie Cracknell were on to something. It certainly feels like the audiences, based on the night I went, and the near packed-out houses, agree even if the critics were less forgiving.

I believe Ms Sternham is coming up to her 32nd birthday. Maybe just a quiet night in to celebrate I think..

 

 

The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre review ****

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The Moderate Soprano

Duke of York’s Theatre, 7th June 1018

There are a couple of weeks to go in the run of David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre. There are plenty of (discounted) tickets left. You could do a lot worse than seeing this if you are after a bit of last minute theatre action. It charts the relationship of eccentric millionaire type John Christie and his singer wife Audrey Mildmay, (and the bunch of pre WWII emigres from Central Europe who helped them), as they set out to create the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in, essentially, their back garden. So if a gentle, though still involving, tale of toffs ill-advisedly pursuing their opera dream appeals don’t hesitate. If not I’d understand but you would be missing a treat from one of out greatest living playwrights.

Roger Allam, complete with convincing bald pate courtesy of make-up, and preposterously high-waisted linen trousers, plays Captain John Christie a textbook British oddball who inherited the Glyndebourne estate but didn’t then loaf around Brideshead style, instead leading his troops from the front in WWI, teaching science at Eton and then poking his nose into to matters of Efficiency in the matter of Government in WWII. He loved the opera, specifically Wagner, (I gather some people do though it beats me why), making regular pilgrimages to Bayreuth. He eventually finds love, late in life, and marries English soprano singer Audrey Mildmay played by Nancy Caroll, after much persistent wooing.

The Captain hatches a plan to build a small. 300 seater, opera house in the grounds of the estate, as you do. He recruits conductor Fritz Busch as Musical Director, (his brother was the founder of the legendary Busch Quartet), Professor Carl Ebert as Artistic Director and Rudolf Bing as Festival Director and overall marketing supremo. All three have escaped Nazi Germany, Bing, (whose extraordinary life is worthy of its own dramatisation), because he was a well-to-do Jew married to a Russian ballerina, Busch because his artistic freedom was curtailed (in savage fashion) by Nazi sympathisers, including his own orchestra at one point, and Ebert because of his voluble criticism of the regime. In a series of informal meetings between the five we learn, as does Christie who is initially sanguine about the changes in the Germany he admires, how the regime has attacked the culture it hates, how Christie’s arm is twisted such that Mozart, not Wagner, becomes the staple of the inaugural pre-war seasons for reasons of practicality and how Audrey becomes the glue that holds the whole project together (and gets to sing). Christie aim was to ring world class opera to Britain, previously accustomed to more amateurish fare, and to do this he turned to the best that Europe had to offer.

The most powerful scenes however, in large part thanks to the supreme skill of both Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam, are the flash forwards after the Christies have passed on the baton of running the Festival and as Audrey’s health progressively deteriorates. Audrey and their two kids were sent by Christie to the safety of Canada during the War but, unable to receive money from England, Audrey needed to sing to get by, which eventually led to a bust up with Busch when he refused to cast her in his Cosi at the Met, the shop where he, and Bing, had pitched up post Glyndebourne. They eventually made up and Busch returned to Sussex from 1950. It seems that Audrey was poorly throughout when she returned, often cancelling performances, but was still able to support Christie at Glyndebourne, help Bing set up the Edinburgh Festival, (yes that Edinburgh Festival), and sit on the Arts Council. What a trooper.

We see her near the end, having lost her sight despite surgery for high blood pressure, and the devotion and love between her and Christie pours out off the stage. I am a sucker for watching art portraying old people still plainly in love but I defy you not to be drawn in. Christie in turn is looked after, by faithful retainer Jane Smith (Jade Williams) after Nancy passes away. Lovely stuff.

I fear I may have given a bit too much of the story away but perhaps this means you can see why David Hare, who I assume loves the opera, was drawn to it. Now I have to admit that I would love to see Mr Hare rustle up one of those searing, state of the nation multi-character extravaganzas of old, much like his recent Collateral on the telly. On the other hand his more “domestic”, heir-to-Rattigan, ordinary-made-extraordinary dramas, of which this is a prime example, are just as satisfying. Jeremy Herrin, who has form with both writer and cast, directs with his usual flair, Bob Crowley’s new set opens up to reveal stunning interior and exterior representations of Glyndebourne itself, including Christie’s impressive organ, (no tittering at the back), ably assisted by Paule Constable’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound designs.

Paul Jesson as Busch, Anthony Calf as Ebert and, especially, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bing are all perfectly cast and tremendous foils for Mr Allam and Ms Carroll, who reprise their roles from the original Hampstead Theatre run. The comedy, which is wired in to Mr Hare’s text, is beautifully executed, to sweetly contrast with the pathos.

Now I ave never been, nor would I ever go, to Glyndebourne. For the same price as even a ticket upstairs at Glyndebourne I could get a couple of luxury visits to Covent Garden, and several years worth of fun from my normal high up perch, or three or four trips to the ENO. I don’t have an evening suit and would vehemently object to wearing one anyway. And I can’t be arsed to travel to Sussex with a bunch of braying toffs. Oh, and as I have said before, most of the classic canon in the world of opera, which is Glyndebourne’s meat and drink, is a dreadful bore. So I can assure you my enjoyment of this play has nothing to do with any great love of the institution despite the fact I am a shocking cutural snob. It is just a very pleasing presentation of a very interesting story, unafraid of its explicit Romanticism.