Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House review ****

Royal 20 A.II, f.10

Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 26th May 2018

Here is an extract from an illuminated manuscript showing Eddy II getting a crown. Or more precisely a second crown. Not sure what that is all about but given he was by reputation a high maintenance sort of fella maybe two crowns makes sense.

George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp had a massive hit, (by contemporary opera standards), with their previous collaboration Written on Skin, which in terms of repeat performances has gone down better than BB’s Peter Grimes. Having finally seen it at the ROH in January last year I can report that it is pretty much as good as it is cracked up to be. GB is a superb dramatic composer for drama and, specifically, for the very particular prose that MC creates. I was not entirely persuaded by the only play of MC’s that I have see, The Treatment (The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre review ***), but I think he is growing on me.

This time round they have taken seven “events” in the life of the infamous Edward II, wisely leaving out his messy end, to tell the story of his relationships with lover Gaveston, wife Isabel and rival Mortimer. The two royal kids are thrown into the somewhat unusual household and we also see associated flunkeys and down trodden hoi polloi who were suffering under Eddy’s spendthrift ways. We begin with the banishment of Mortimer, then Isabel joining the plot to murder Gaveston after seeing the desitution of the people, Gaveston predicting the King’s future and then being seized, the King disowning Isabel after Gaveston’s death, Mortimer and Isabel setting up a rival court and grooming young Eddy (to be the III), the King’s abdication at Mortimer’s behest and finally the young Edward III seizing control from his Mummy.

As you might surmise the focus of MC’s story here is more on the “domestic” struggle between the “couples” and less on the conflict between King and nobles. The relationship between Mortimer and Isabel and Isabel and Edward II is given as much weight as that between Gaveston and the King. This, together with the truncated plot, makes it very different from its most obvious precursor, Marlowe’s Edward II, or, more precisely, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. Now I happen to believe Marlowe’s play is one of the finest ever written, comparable with Shakespeare’s History Plays. But it does go on a bit. If MC and GB had attempted to set the whole story as an opera I would still be sitting there two weeks later. So Kent, Warwick, the Spensers and all the other nobles. Canterbury and the bishops, Hainault, the Welsh, the sadists and various other hangers-on are absent. As are France, fighting, Kenilworth, scythes and pokers. The key themes in Marlowe’s play, his two fingers to his own contemporary society, namely homo-eroticism, religion and social status are downplayed, Isabella’s role and the passion between the four main protagonists are foregrounded.

Extracting these key episodes and, in some cases, manipulating them to allow GB to weave his marvellous score around them, was a classy move by MC. His libretto, as in pretty much all he writes, swings from the prosaically direct to the cryptically poetic. I mean this as a compliment but his writing is not florid but quite angular with intriguing turns of phrase and clear delineations between characters. I gather that once they have agreed the shape of the work, MC goes off and writes the whole thing, with minimal consultation, before handing it over to GB, who then slowly and patiently builds up the music from the “bottom up”. At least that is what is sounded like from the interview in the programme. But given how distinctive, dark and clever MC’s approach is I can see why it works. GB knows the “voice’ he will write around and, as in their prior collaborations, he knows his musical style, which has itself been through iteration, will fit the libretto.

The music is superb. The orchestration is immensely colourful but GB only uses large scale forces occasionally. Most of the time small clusters of instruments are used to create different moods in each of the seven scenes, notably from bass clarinet, bassoons and brass. The percussion section gets to play with all sorts of new toys. A cimbalom gets an frequent airing. There are probably motifs, patterns and structures within this but you will need to find that out from someone who knows what they are talking about. All I know is that music and drama were perfectly matched across the compact 90 minutes. I think the emotional extremes were more pronounced that in Written on Skin which had a more mythic feel. GB ratcheted up key points in the action by plunging us into dramatic silences. In Scene 3 when Edward and Gaveston private tryst is interrupted by Isabel, the kids and the courtiers and in Scene 2 when the people impinge on the Court a rich musical chaos is invoked. Harmony and counterpoint are wound up into a ball before collapsing.

The production, courtesy of the genius director Katie Mitchell, regular design collaborator Vicki Mortimer, lighting from James Farncombe and movement from Joseph Alford, reflected the enclosed and intimate nature of the drama. Each scene was set in a royal bedroom, which revolved to offer a different perspective. This included the “private” entertainment in Scene 3 with Eddy II and Gaveston and the mirroring “public” entertainment in Scene 7. The “people” were given an audience before Isabel in the bedroom in Scene 2 to air their grievances. Mortimer’s household and the King’s imprisonment at Berkeley are also presented in the confined, intimate setting of the bedroom. A massive fish-tank, which drains of water and therefore life through the scenes, is both visual treat and prominent symbol. There is a Francis Bacon style painting on the wall: that probably tells you all you need to know about the uncomfortable, existential aesthetic the production seeks to traverse. There are one or two predictable Katie Mitchell cliches, slow motion soft-shoe shuffles anyone, but the tableau are undeniably effective, When you are stuck up in the Gods, (you would be hard pressed to be further away from the stage than I was, me being such a tightwad), this matters. At this distance the Court becomes a dolls house, an interesting perspective in itself, so the “choreography” that the director brings to proceedings, matters more than the close up expressiveness of the singers.

The ROH orchestra was on top form. Mind you if you have the composer himself conducting then there is little room for error. This is not a chamber opera, GB’s sound world is too rich, but some of the textures require various players to push their technique which they certainly did. I can’t really tell you much about the skil of the cast, they all amaze me, but Barbara Hannigan, as she always does, was off the scale as Isabel, vocally and as an actor. Stephane Degout bought a petulant, entitled air to Edward II, Peter Hoare’s Mortimer was a mixture of ambition and pragmaticism. Gyula Orendt stood out as Gaveston in his scenes with the King, a mystic of sorts. Samuel Boden’s sweet high-tenor stepped up very effectively towards the end as the Boy King and Ocean Barrington-Cook, (well done Mum and Dad for the name), artfully portrayed the damage done to her and her brother by having to witness the turmoil, despite not having a voiced part (another clever idea from the creators). The children were, I suppose, the ultimate recipients of the “lessons in love and violence” that we the audience were also privy to. Though the production was smartly modern-dress there was no crass attempt to draw any lessons for our own times but the plot, MC’s libretto and GB’s music combined to underscore the tension between the private and the political for those that wield power across history.

My guess is that if I saw and heard this again, perhaps from a more advantaged position, it would merit 5*. A few punters trotted out at various junctures which intrigued me. This surely is as digestible as contemporary. “modernist” opera gets. The historical subject is not obscure, the plot direct, music is beautiful, the libretto intriguing, the staging is excellent and it is hard to imagine the performances being topped. (the vocal parts were largely written for exactly this cast). Not much in the way of tunes and no arias, but surely the most cursory of examination would have revealed this in advance. The dissonance is never uncomfortable and is rooted in chordal progression. And it is short so why not see it through.

I would assume that GB and MC will, in the fullness of time, have another crack at this opera lark given how good they are it but I wonder if they have exhausted for now the “Medieval”. Like Written on Skin there is something of the illuminated manuscript here, (see what I have done there), a jewel like morality tale, (without all the God stuff). Suits me but with this amount of goodwill, (this is a seven way co-production), surely they could get away with something genuinely of the moment next time.

 

Beethoven symphony cycle from Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican review *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor), Nicholas Hodges (piano), Joshua Bloom (bass)

Barbican Hall, 22nd and 24th May 2018

  • Beethoven – Symphony No 4 in B flat major Op 60
  • Gerard Barry – Piano Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 5 in C minor Op 67
  • Gerard Barry – The Conquest of Ireland
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 6 in F major Pastoral Op 68

The latest instalments of the Britten Sinfonia’s Beethoven cycle under the baron of Thomas Ades, (alongside the valuable accompanying survey of Gerard Barry large-scale compositions) ,was as superb os the two concerts last year. (Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****) (Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****). That Mr Ades, and his friend Mr Barry, adore the music of Beethoven was never in doubt. That Mr Ades understands it, and can conjure up performances of the symphony that are as good as any that I have ever heard, is what makes this cycle unmissable in my view. I urge you, no I beg you, to come along to the final concerts next year of the last three symphonies. The Hall was no more than half full which is near criminal. If Gustavo Dudamel and his well upholstered LA Phil can fill the house with a big, if not particularly insightful, version of the Choral Symphony, then the Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades deserve at least the same. If you hate all the bombast that others bring to Beethoven please look no further: conductor and orchestra have binned all that sickly vibrato, endless repeats, glum grandiosity, and started afresh.

If you can’t go then look out for the recording of the cycle which should appear,God and finance willing. This is how Beethoven should sound. The right orchestral forces, the right tempi, to my ears at least, every detail revealed, and every detail in exactly the right place. Strings never thick and slushy, woodwind given enough room to breathe, brass precise, timpani rock hard. It is the difference between the way you might see an Old Master, badly hung, in the wrong room, of some C19 artistic mausoleum, centuries of filth accumulated on varnish, cracked, colours faded,  and the way you might see the same work, restored rehung, with space and light aplenty, and notes which illuminate not patronise. The joy of rediscovery. The difference between a mediocre and a great performance in a concert hall is easily to tell even if you know nothing about the music. The audience will be still and silent. Sometimes though there is something more, a connection between music, performer and audience that fills the very air.

I felt this here. Or maybe it was just there were fewer people with more invested in the performance. Either way it was a triumph. The Fourth, like the Second last year, couldn’t be dismissed as a happy-go-lucky, lithe cousin of the muscular, growling, Eroica hero that they sandwich. The first movement, marked Adagio-Allegro vivace, is, for my money, one of the finest passages of music Beethoven ever wrote. The painful opening, the booming timpani and giant string chords which conclude it, the uneasy Adagio which follows punctuated by more big chords, the double repeated scherzo theme, a dance but with something lurking in the woodshed, and then the perpetuum mobile finale, which is almost too jolly. Indeed Beethoven scores it that way, a palpable sense of anxiety pervades the whole symphony. It needs a conductor alive to the Goth inside the symphony’s Pop, and its subtleties cannot contemplate too big a sound. Mr Ades is that man. The slow movement Adagio was, and I didn’t expect to use this word about these interpretations, sublime.

I get why 2, 4 and 8 are see as lightweights compared to 3, 5, 7 and 9, the keys, the structures, the moods, the context, but I think it is a shame to get caught up in this convention. The Fourth symphony in particular is as great as its more famous peers. So how would this conductor and the BS render the Fifth anew. Remember the Fifth, (once it got over the infamous disastrous first night, alongside the Sixth, and a whole bunch of other stuff), changed the face of Western art music. Composer, and the performer from now on could be Artists. Everything would be bigger. More emotional. More, well, Romantic. Audience and commentators were now at liberty to hear, think and write all manner of the over the top guff about “serious” music. For that we should probably throttle LvB but the Fifth is just so extraordinary, however many times you hear it, that we’ll permit him the excess.

I expected the BS and Thomas Ades to absolutely nail this and they did. Familiarity can breed contempt. Or it can, as here, promote shared understanding. Everyone on and off stage was able to revel in Beethoven’s astounding invention. If I ever hear a better interpretation I’ll be as a happy a man as I was here. The opening allegro, four notes, infinitely varied, needs no introduction, tee hee, it being the most famous introduction to a piece of music ever. I suppose some might tire of the repetition. Not me. Especially with no unnecessary repeat. The double variation of the Andante, which fits perfectly together ying and yang style, was ever so slightly less impressive but the Scherzo and the magnificent finale were glorious. As in the prior performances you hear everything, no detail is obscured, nothing is too loud or two soft. This means that, along with the “classical-modern” sound of the BS and the “right” calls on repeats that the architecture of Beethoven’s creation is fully revealed, from micro to macro scale.

With Mr Ades and the BS having nailed the detail, shape and rhythm of the symphonies to date, I wondered how they would cope with the Pastoral. Maybe this, with its plain programmatic elements, wrapped its more gentle cloak, expressing all that utopian, Arcadian, rural idyll fluff that art conjured up as a salve to assuage guilt about industrialisation and urbanisation, would be the symphony where Mr Ades’s precise, vigorous approach might come unstuck.

Nope. For choice this might have been marginally less exciting than the rest of the cycle, the precision and heightened differentiation between instruments robbing a little of the warmth from LvB’s narrative. I’ll take the trade though when it results, for example, in the most thrilling storm I have ever heard, double basses thrumming, timpani thwacking. It also means the opening Allegro, which can doodle on a bit, saw variety emerge from the repetition. Nature untroubled by Man. Messaien would have purred at the birdsong emerging from woodwind in the Andante. And, in the finale, we heard the relief of real shepherds, not a bunch of embarrassed house servants dolled up by their lords and masters. Most Romantic plastic art is as schmaltzy as the Neo-Classical flummery that proceeded it, but there is some which sees the world for what it is, not want artist and patron wanted it to be. And some of it, Constable, in his sketches and watercolours, and, in his own darker way, Goya, could eschew history, violent nature and dramatic landscape, and showed more of the working reality of rural life. This Pastoral was in a similar vein. I now this all sounds like a load of poncey bollocks, but hopefully you get the gist.

Moving on. You remember those nights out in the pub, with your mates, talking sh*te and putting the world to rights. Of course you don’t. You were hammered. But you do remember it was a bloody good night out and things might have got a bit raucous and out of hand. Argument and love. Well Gerard Barry’s Piano Concerto, here receiving its London premiere, is the musical equivalent of one of those nights. Nicholas Hodges was basically asked to man-handle, (at one point literally, playing with his forearms), the piano and to get into a scrap with the orchestra. As the punches swung it got funnier though 20 minutes was probably enough. Some of the piano passages were more conciliatory but only in the way a drunk bloke (the woodwind) tries to calm his even more drunk mate (the brass) down a bit. It ends with some childish tinkles. It isn’t in Romantic concerto form, played straight through with no obvious structure, it has two wind machines, (here not amplified as expected, a shame), there is no real interplay between orchestra and soloist, just opposition, it is abrasive, chromatic and gets pretty loud. I reckon Vivaldi might have come up with something like this if he were around today.

In short it is a piece of music by Gerard Barry. I am sure he is nothing like this is reality, and I am being borderline xenophobic, but I see him as the musical equivalent of Samuel Beckett, the very definition of cussed. I am going to have to find a way into recordings of his music, probably after this time next year, as it is just too funny and punk to ignore. Mr Hodges is an expert in this dynamic modernism, having recording and performed the likes of Birtwhistle, Rihm, Carter and, indeed, Thomas Ades himself.

Mind you if I thought the Piano Concerto was a bit in-yer-face bonkers I was in for an even bigger surprise with The Conquest of Ireland. This is set to a text from Expugnatio Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrinus translated by A. Scott and F.X. Martin. Cambrinus was a Welsh writer and cleric in the twelfth century who hooked up with the army which invaded Ireland. The piece is marked quaver = 192 which I gather is pretty enthusiastic but Mr Barry then marks it “frenetic” and “NOT SLOWER” just in case we missed it. The brave soloist, here Joshua Bloom, is nominally a bass but he gets up to all sorts of pyrotechnics as he sings/speaks/growls/squawks the entirely unmusical words. It is basically detailed descriptions, written in a somewhat pompous style, of the bearing and appearance of seven Welsh soldiers. There is just one short throw-away line which dismisses the native Irish as barbarians. Mr Barry has composed intense, passionate, exuberant music to contrast this prosaic prose (!). Bass clarinet, marimba, winds and brass in combination, percussion, all got a work out. It is sardonic, in the way that I now see that so much of Mr Barry’s music is, but it certainly provokes a reaction and makes you think.

Anyway back to the performers. The Britten Sinfonia are my favourite musical ensemble. The others I regularly get to see, the LSO, the LPO, London Sinfonietta, the AAM and the OAE, are all, of course, excellent, and there are international orchestras that can blow my socks off when they visit, but it is the BS which consistently educates and surprises me. And Thomas Ades, IMHO, is now the closest thing to the immortal Benjamin Britten, that I can think of. Composer, performer, conductor. Equally gifted.

Oh and a final plea. This time to the ROH or ENO. A Fidelio. With Thomas Ades conducting. And Simon McBurney directing. I’ll wait.

 

Christoph Sietzen and the Wave Quartet at the Concertgebouw review ****

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Christoph Sietzen, Wave Quartet (Bogdan Bacanu, Vladi Petrov, Emiko Uchiyama, Christoph Sietzen)

Het Concert-Gebouw, Recital Hall, 16th May 2018

  • Emmanuel Séjourné – Attraction for marimba, vibraphone and tape
  • Iannis Xenakis – Part B (from ‘Rebonds’) for percussion
  • J.S. Bach/Brahms – Chaconne (from Second Partita in D, BWV 1004) (arr. B. Bacanu) for marimba
  • Stewart Copeland – Sheriff of Luxembourg for marimba, percussion and tape
  • Ivan Boumans – The Cloth, op. 140 (encore) for percussion
  • Josh Groban – The Wandering Kind (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • J.S. Bach – Allegro (from Concerto in C, BWV 1061a) (arr. B. Bacanu) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – La muerte del ángel (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Oblivion (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Reentko Dirks – Danza non Danza (arr. The Wave Quartet) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Milonga del ángel (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Libertango (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Rodrigo Sanchez / Gabriela Quintero – Tamacun (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Rodrigo Sanchez / Gabriela Quintero – Juan Loco (arr. The Wave Quartet) (encore) for marimbas

OK so I confess I was a captive buyer for this. This was what was on in the Concertgebouw on the night I was there. There were a few other tourists in the same boat, and a healthy contingent of local Amsterdammers. Which, even in the smaller, though still resplendent recital hall, made up a full house. The recital hall, in full blown neo-classical style, is topped by a rotunda with the names of the Romantic greats immortalised, and some not-so-greats as well.

Anyway whilst I didn’t know the percussionist Christoph Sietzen, and the crack marimba team of which he is a member, the Wave Quartet, this programme intrigued. In particular the Xenakis, who is near the top of my further investigation list, the Bach and the Piazzolla. The programme consisted of the first five pieces for solo percussion with Mr Sietzen and then the pieces for the entire quartet, largely arranged by Ms Uchiyama. Bogdan Bacanu, who might just be the most accomplished marimba player ever, and certainly its greatest advocate, was a child prodigy and went on to teach the other three members, amongst others, in Linz and Salzburg I believe. He is also responsible for the Bach arrangements, which are completely faithful to the originals.

Remember there are a lot of works by Bach that weren’t necessarily written for specific instruments but its a fairly safe supposition that he didn’t have a percussion instrument in mind when he set down the pieces here. On the other hand the marimba, which is by some way the most expressive and dynamically sophisticated of the percussion stable, ranging across 4 or 5 octaves, even if its timbre is so particular, isn’t too far away from the harpsichord in terms of effect. It is, as we see here, becoming increasing popular in contemporary classical music and the technical proficiency of playing has come on in leaps and bounds in part thanks to Mr Bacanu.

The first piece was by Emmanuel Sejourne who is the pre-eminent composer for marimba and vibraphone and a world renowned player. It was originally written for violin and marimba but here Mr Sietzen substituted violin with a vibraphone. I have to say it was impressive though I might have preferred to here it later on once I had adjusted to the marimba sounds. Even so it is breathtaking to hear what is possible for these instruments.

Xenakis composed two pieces for solo percussion, this piece Rebonds, and Psappha. It isn’t much of a surprise given the composer’s mastery of rhythm and structure but it is genuinely mind-boggling in its complexity. There are two movements in Rebonds. Mr Sietzen only played Part B, a shame as I would love to have heard Part A as well. It is scored for two bongos, one tumba, one tom-tom, one bass drum and a set of five wood blocks or wooden slats. Xenakis leaves some decisions on the score to the performer, all part of the mathematics of his music, (remember he was architect, engineer and mathematician as well as composer and not averse to shunting the laws of physics into his work). Xenakis is so far beyond what I understand in music but, trust me, the intensity of the rhythms here, despite the abstraction, still provokes a basic, primal reaction which needs no maths degree. You will laugh at me, but if you have listened through a John Bonham drum solo in Moby Dick (Google it kids), you will understand, though this is way more sophisticated than Bonzo thrashing away.

I took the opportunity to listen to Psappha. Amazing.

You will likely know the Bach Chaconne from the Violin Partita No 2 which Brahms amongst others transcribed for the piano left hand. (There is a YouTube performance by Danile Trifonov no less if you are interested and if you want the violin original please listen to Rachel Podger’s recording). I am not going to pretend that this marimba version matches that but it is still absolutely the same beautiful piece of music and shows astonishing virtuosity.

The Stewart Copeland piece, which was commissioned for Mr Sietzen, was a little less convincing by comparison to what else was on offer in this recital but was pleasant enough. Mr Copeland, for you youngsters who regard this as ancient history, was the drummer for popular English beat combo The Police in the 1980s, whose cod-reggae sound should never have worked, and never have been as popular, but it did, and it was. Mr Copeland has gone on to write film and game soundtracks and some classical compositions including this. Prior to the Police he was manager and drummer for Curved Air for those of you with an unhealthy interest in progressive jazz-rock. (Never ever get into conversation with me about Soft Machine).

After Mr Sietzen’s marvellous show of musical, and physical, prowess in the first half we might have expected something more sedate after the interval. No way Jose. (That being a reference to the Latin fuelled energy of the last few pieces). The Wave Quartet were decked out in bright red shirts, think Kraftwerk circa Man Machine without the black skinny ties and Fascist undertones.

There are many areas of music which are a complete mystery to me. I had never heard of Josh Groban before. Apparently he is a big noise though in the popera world. I can happily maintain my aloof indifference on the basis of this piece.

The second Bach piece is arranged from the first movement Allegro two harpsichord version of the Concerto BWV 1061 for the same instruments. So each of the four marimbas players with their two mallets (called knobs) in each hand is effectively one hand of the score. Given that the harpsichord notes can’t really sustain there is sound logic (literally) to transcribe to marimbas. It works, though I am not sure I would turn to this again in a hurry. I can’t deny Mr Bacanu’s dedication in adapting Bach in this way. I see the Wave Quartet have recorded the other harpsichord concerto arrangements with orchestra.

Astor Piazzolla was the genius Argentine who meshed the tango, the Baroque and jazz into a fresh and exciting musical world in the 1950s and 1960s. I can see exactly why the Wave Quartet would want to play these pieces. You will definitely know the Libertango. (I first heard in I’ve Seen That Face Before by Grace Jones). You will think you know the other pieces. The arrangements didn’t seem too complex which meant the Wave Quartet could pull of all sorts of flourishes. They were having a ball and so was the audience. The Reentko Dirks and Sanchez/Quintero pieces, originally for guitar, have similar heritage, with the final Juan Loco seeing young Vladi Petrov showing off on a simple beat box drum. Cheesy but undeniably joyous.

There you have it. A celebration of just what percussion can do and a salutary reminder not to get bogged down in serious classical music.

 

 

Ligeti in Wonderland at the South Bank review *****

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Ligeti in Wonderland

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, 11th, 12th and 13th May 2018

Pierre–Laurent Aimard (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Marie-Luise Neunecker (horn), Daniel Ciampollini (percussion)

  • Ligeti – Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes,
  • Ligeti – 3 pieces for 2 pianos (Monument, Selbstportrat, Bewegubg),
  • Ligeti – Trio for horn, violin and piano
  • Steve Reich – Clapping Music
  • Ligeti – Etude No 8 for piano and percussion
  • Conlon Nancarrrow – Piano Player studies Nos 4 & 9 arr. for 2 pianos
  • PL Aimard – Improvisation for 4 hands on Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes
  • PL Aimard – Improvisation for piano and percussion on Ligeti’s Etude no 4 (Fanfares)

Shizuku Tatsuno (cello), Katherine Yoon, Yume Fujise (violins), Tipwatooo Aramwittaya, Ilaria Macedonia (harpsichords), lantian Gu, Laura Faree Rozada. Joe Howson (Pianos)

  • Sonata for solo cello
  • Ballad and Dance for two violins
  • Continuum for solo harpsichord
  • Passacaglia Ungherese for solo harpsichord
  • Musica Ricercata for solo piano

Pierre–Laurent Aimard (piano)

  • Etudes Books 1,2 and 3

Pierre–Laurent Aimard (piano), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Marie-Luise Neunecker (horn), Nicholas Collon (conductor), Aurora Orchestra, Jane Mitchell (creative director), Ola Szmida (animations)

  • Chamber Concerto
  • Piano Concerto
  • Hamburgisches Konzert
  • Violin Concerto

Hello. The review starts down here. As you can see the Tourist, along with many others, similarly intrigued and maybe enraptured by the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, put in a shift enjoying this weekend of music dedicated to his music.

Not one second was wasted. Some of the pieces stood out, the Trio, the piano works especially the Etudes and the Violin Concerto, but overall this was a fantastic array of performances of this brilliant composer. Wonderland for sure.

Now it takes a few decades before the new in all art forms is appreciated. Classical music, even in its most saccharine form, is not going to be for everyone. Yet it seems pretty clear to me that Ligeti, ahead of the other big name Modernists who transformed Western art music in the middle of the last century, is the one most people would choose to listen to. There is innovation and extension in his sound world for sure, there is intellect aplenty and there is memorable structure, though not the mathematical -isms of his peers, but most of all there is a depth of expression that anyone, even this muppet, can grasp. Add to this rhythm, of sorts, power, humour by the bucketload, and it’s easy to see why he gets performed a fair bit more than his contemporaries. He wasn’t sniffy about minimalism and he embraced music from other cultures. If you want to dip your toe in the modern classical world then this is definitely where to start.

There is a grand, ambitious, searching quality to his music, audible even in these smaller scale chamber and solo works. More often than not the works teeter on the brink of chaos but always, one way or another, resolve so I think it is optimistic on the whole. And, importantly, as with Luciano Berio, (another favourite for me alongside Xenakis and Penderecki), the history of art music is not smothered or ignored.

Where, variously Romania, Hungary, Germany and Austria, when, the War, (only his mother survived the concentration camps from his Jewish family), the Cold War, the 50s, 60s and 70s, what, as he moved through electronic and the Cologne School, to “micropolyphony” and then “polyrhythm”, all tumble out of his music like an avant garde encyclopedia. Know all those sounds that inhabit movie and TV soundtracks, when the creatives what to think big, go cosmic or generally scare the pants off you. Ligeti kicked it off, when Kubrick nicked his grooves for 2001. Music as texture. He even looks the part.

One more thing before I end this wall of pretentious guff. He always knew when to stop. Twenty minutes tops, even for the concertos. Most works clock in under ten minutes. Even opera Le Grande Macabre is under two hours. Genius.

The first concert kicked off with the Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes. Yep there are 100 metronomes on stage set up with different beats. The performers skip on and set them off. Randomly. Of course it’s a joke, intended to explore the notion of chance in music (a la John Cage) but it becomes hypnotic, even a bit tuneful as patterns emerge from the chaos, and the gambler in me was desperate to have a punt on the last metronome clicking as it were. The survivor. An important concept for Ligeti given his personal history.

Pierre- Laurent Aimard was joined by regular collaborator Tamara Stefanovich for the two player piano pieces which preceded the Etudes. The first, Monument, sets up a cyclical rhythmic pattern which is then toppled with both players ending up at the very top of the keyboard. The second is an homage to minimalists Reich and Riley, fast scales and arpeggios with a backdrop of “silent” keys. This ends up in the bass. The third, Motion, is a canon, if you concentrate, which echoes the first piece.

The Trio is apparently an homage to Brahms. Search me. I suppose it does have a more Romantic structure than the polyrhythmic later Ligeti pieces. There is a sonata form opening, followed by a rapid ostinato with folky tunes wrapped around it, then a crooked march and a finale nicked from chords in Beethoven’s Les Adieux sonata. The main interest lies in the way the natural horn, with no keys and therefore lots of “out-of-tune” strange notes contrasts with the mannered piano, leaving the violin to hop between the two given its ability to produce natural harmonics. Since Ligeti dedicated his horn concerto (heard in the last concert) to Marie-Luise Neunecker, PL Aimard is the towering interpreter of Ligeti’s piano music and Pat Kop is my absolute favourite violinist in C20 music, there is no way this could have been bettered.

Then the fun started as PL Aimard and Daniel Ciampollini gave us a short rendition of Reich’s Clapping Music, (if you don’t know it the clue is in the title), which segued into Liget’s eighth Etude with Mr Ciampollini playing around it on his percussion kit, Nancarrow wrote his 49 Etudes for player piano because they were unplayable. Not so it seems, for these two particular studies, when four hands get involved. Then our percussionist interrupted on PL Aimard’s piano, and then both page turners, so all five were dinking out a version of the metronome piece that kicked things off. It was very droll though I admit you had to be there. Finally a dressed down version of Ligeti’s fourth etude.

Who knew classical music could be this much fun? OK maybe fun is stretching it but this whole performance emphasised the sharp humour which underpins Liget’s work as well as being a showcase for his rhythmic genius.

The next (free) concert was in the Purcell Room and involved students from the Royal College of Music. It mixed up some of the later solo Ligeti works with some from his early days in Romania and Hungary. As is always the case with RCM students the performance was at a very high level, better than many “professional” equivalents. Indeed this bunch already, largely, are on the circuit already. They all have jaw-droppingly impressive CV’s. I would single anyone out – they were all marvellous.

I heard the solo Cello sonata recently (Peter Wispelwey (cellist) at Kings Place review ****). It has been a nailed on cello classic since its premiere in 1979, though it was written in 1954. It was initially banned in Hungary by the “Composers Union”, a Stalinist censor. Two movements, a Dialogo, a conversation between a man and a woman, two ostinatos alternating between the upper and lower registers, and a Capriccio which has all sorts of thrilling extended techniques. (As an aside it would have been great to have recruited a cellist to the weekend cause to have a crack at the Cello Concerto with its bonkers high sustain at the end of the first movement).

The Ballad and Dance (1948) echoes Bartok with its loose transcriptions of Romanian folk songs. It is as easy to listen to as it sounds. Ligeti went on to explore Romanian folk songs in his Concert Romanesc (which sounds about as un-Modern and late C19 as it is possible to get).

Continuum was written for a two-manual harpsichord which can’t get up to much dynamically. The idea is that the notes are played so fast that the rhythm melts into a continuous blur. Almost to stasis. It looks and sounds like hard work to play but Tipwatooo Aramwittaya, (who appears to have medicine to fall back on if music and performance doesn’t pan out, which it will), was as cool as a cucumber. Like much of Ligeti the sounds are viscerally arresting but this is not mere novelty. Apparently it has been adapted for barrel organ to make it even simpler and even faster. The Passacaglia Ungherese, in contrast, is a repeated four bar descending ostinato intended to mimic the ground bass of the Baroque and was intended as a p*ss-take for his students, and those of us today, who love to keep moving to those Baroque grooves. It has some dancey counterpoints, obviously, and is marvellous. I need a recording.

The Musica Ricerta, like the Cello sonata, is a kind of experimental training work that Ligeti wrote in Hungary in the early 1950s away from the gaze of the censors. In each of the eleven pieces he places various restrictions on pitch, intervals and rhythms. they get sequentially more complicated as the number of pitch classes increases from the basic A in the first piece. Music for the brain for sure, but, as ever, Ligeti doesn’t skimp on the aesthetic. He loved sound you see.

This brings me neatly to the concert devoted to Ligeti’s 18 Etudes set across three books, started in 1985 and completed in 2001, his final work. All the influences on his “final late” period are there, central European folk music, Debussy, fractals, African cross-rhythms and Conlon Nancarrow. They are fiendishly difficult to play as Ligeti explores the entire range and possibility of the piano and piles layer upon layer of music. A fair few have a hectic, even aggressive quality, as they pile up into a rapid resolve but there are also poetic moments. There is a reason why M. Aimard is the pre-eminent performer of these pieces and the full house here was privileged to witness it. One of the best concerts I have ever attended.

The final concert expanded the player forces with the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon taking to the stage. The Chamber Concerto is a nailed on classic of the modern era, small-scale orchestra, 20 minutes in length, (no-one dares go further in new music, if only because it won’t get performed), and boundary-pushing. The opening movement has the instruments sliding around until they bash up against each other, then the winds sing out, before it all subsides. The second movements is a kind of mashed up Romantic fantasia which goes a bit awry, to be followed by a mechanical march, a clock factory under attack. The Presto finale is in a similar vein though ends perkily. If you ask me it is like a mini Rite of Spring, though as if some talented musicologist had discovered a partially burnt, muddled up copy of the score many years later. I am still trying to work it out.

The Piano Concerto is an even more uncompromising chap. Movements 1, 3 and 5, all quickest require the pianist to set the rhythms against which the orchestra adds snatches of melody. The second and fourth movements are more of a partnership. In the second the silly instruments, whistles and ocarinas, enter the chorale and in the fourth Ligeti sets up his head-spinning fractal structures. It is pretty quirky overall, sometimes confrontational, but immensely rich. I think it was the one piece over the weekend which really pushed the audience.

The Hamburgisches Konzert, Horn Concerto, was written for Marie-Luise Neunecker and in honour of Hamburg where he lived for 30 years. It is written, in part, for natural horn and exploits the strange harmonies which can emerge from the pure overtones of that beast. Finding out what sounds can do is part of the modern classical world but Ligeti, even here, never forgot to ensure this was set in a profoundly musical context. There are seven short movements. The soloist shifts between natural and valved horns, the four horn players in the orchestra, (all fine players, Pip Eastop, James Pillai, Ursula Monberg and Hugh Sisley), accompany on natural horns, the orchestra, except in the fourth movement takes a back seat. Now there is no doubt that the horn sound is a beautiful, extraordinary and eerie thing, (listen to Britten’s Serenade for a more comfortable alternative), but, to be fair, it can’t get up to much. But what it can do is showcased in this concerto and Ms Neunecker is probably the best person on the planet to show us how.

Having said that it was the Violin Concerto that brought the house down. Pat Kop is a magnetic stage personality, as she skips about, every inch the gypsy fiddler, in bare feet. The work is meat and drink for her, she even chucked in her own, entirely sympathetic cadenza, roping in the lead violin of Alexandra Wood. But the Aurora Orchestra also rose to the occasion. There are all sorts of non-standard tunings at work here, in the brass, in the woodwinds, even in one violin and viola. And, of course, the soloist, if they know what they are about, can bounce around to exploit the strange harmonics as GL intended. There are five movements, all of which exploit the coincidences, but the clarity of the interplay makes these sound more chamber-like than its two concerto peers. And dear reader there are passages, like the Aria at the beginning of the second movement, that are not at all scary. I promise. It’s a masterpiece I reckon.

So there you have. Possibly the best composer of the latter half of the C20 shown off to stunning effect by musicians who clearly love his work. You could feel the buzz in the room/s. The Barbican, courtesy of the BBCSO, has a “Total Immersion” day devoted to Ligeti on 2nd March next year, which repeats some of these works but offers up some choral and larger scale orchestra works. Do go.

 

 

 

Icebreaker at Kings Place review ****

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Icebreaker: Velocity

Kings Place, 5th May 2018

  • Anna Meredith – Nautilus
  • Michael Gordon – Yo Shakespeare
  • Paul Whitty – nature is a language – can’t you read?
  • David Lang – Slow Movement
  • Louis Andriessen – De snelheid (‘Velocity’)

Boundaries. And their close, and troublesome cousins, borders. The bane of human existence. Setting them, seeing them, understanding them, crossing them. We have to set boundaries in what we do, what we learn, where we live, how we interact, how we identify to make sense of ourselves and those around us. Executive, legislature, judiciary create and police them. Arguments flow from them.

So I reckon, if you aren’t going to hurt anyone by doing so, transgressing boundaries every day, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep is good for you and good for humanity. No need to bother in your sleep. Your dreams and sub-conscious are already on the case.

That then is the only explanation I have for scuttling off to see Icebreaker perform at Kings Place. For this is music well beyond my normal boundaries. Icebreaker are an 11 piece contemporary music group founded by James Poke and John Godfrey in 1989. They combine guitars, electric strings, keyboards, pan-pipes, flutes, saxes, drums and various percussion; not your run of the mill instrumentation so no surprise that they have had a fair few pieces written especially for them. They aim to appeal to contemporary classical, rock and alternative music audience camps alike. There you go. Crossing boundaries. I have poked my nose into the first camp and like the perfume, I once lived in the second camp but left in the mid 1980s and don’t really know how the neighbourhood has changed since then and I have never visited the final camp and don’t really even know what they look like there.

I am guessing that Icebreaker are content to make their music and play to a select. but engaged, audience in appropriately sized venues. Good on ’em and good on whoever supports them. On the strength concert of this I will have to pay attention to them and the composers they showcased.

The concert was part of the year long Time Unwrapped Series at Kings Place which is examining the concept of time in music from all sort of angles. Many participants in the Series have argued that our perception of time is intimately bound up with music. Here were 5 pieces that were written in the last couple of decades, 3 for this very ensemble, which examine the concept of velocity in music, that is the rate of movement, think speed, compared to a fixed point of reference.

I had listened to the Louis Andriessen piece, called Velocity, de Snelhied in Dutch, before in its original form for three separate “orchestras” of unusual combinations, balanced through amplification. James Poke has arranged this for Icebreaker’s smaller forces retaining the structure. Mr Andriessen, there he is above, every inch the modern composer, is generally seen as a torchbearer for the minimalism that was kicked off in the US in the 1960s, and he was one of the key inspirations for the formation of Icebreaker. He was born into a family of composers and is a renowned teacher. The energy, pulse and rhythms of “classic” minimalism and jazz are audible in his music, as well as, who else, Stravinsky, but on top of this he lays big slabs of dissonant sound. It is really exciting stuff and he sounds like he had a lot of fun writing it. de Snelheid was a hit at the Proms given by the London Sinfonietta in 2012. A prom I missed because a) I am a dickhead and b) it was my birthday. Ligeti, Xenakis, Berio, Cage and Harvey in addition to Mr Andriessen were on the roster. Wow.

You would have thought I would have learnt my lesson. Oh no. Same thing last year when I missed the performance of Andriessen’s Workers Union, alongside pieces from the triumvirate of Bang on a Can composers, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang. Yes, dear reader, two of the very same composers who appeared in this programme. Small world, eh? Which it sort of is really, but it does seem that when composers such as Louis Andriessen are served up to a bigger and wider audience, of boundary breakers, positive surprise ensues, as at the Proms.

Now de Snelhied was apparently inspired when LA was driving with mates in Italy, listening to Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky and someone asks how fast they would have to go to go as fast as the music. Now this seemingly dumbass question is actually quite profound. Like LD saying the other day that she “couldn’t remember her first memory”. Whilst LD has a history of inadvertent hilarity, this actually points up that memory is constructed in the present and not “recorded” in our brains at the time of passing. Which is why it is fallible and plastic. Similarly LA realised that musical speed, like velocity itself, could only be measured, like velocity, by reference to a fixed point.

The piece kicks off with a steady pulse on two woodblocks around which the rest of the ensemble adds various repeated motifs. The woodblock pulse however speeds up at intervals, to close at 4x the pace it started out, (trust me this is very fast). This drags other instruments into accelerating except for one stubborn percussionist on bass drum and tom-toms who bashes out the same infrequent pulse throughout. The underlying chords too remain slow throughout. It is a weird aural sensation initially, but once you adjust to what is going on, you can hear what LA was up to; the tempo is not defined by the speed of the pulse but by the harmonic rhythm. I get it.

The other pieces similarly mess about with the notion of time, or more specifically, velocity in music. Anna Meredith’s Nautilus, here arranged for Icebreaker, introduces a slow strident drumbeat against a rising, skittery brass fanfare, both drawn from the electronic dance music which is Ms Meredith’s other vocation. By the end it becomes impossible to work out if this is a slow piece with a fast overlay or the other way round.

Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare divides the ensemble into three groups, one playing a basic semiquaver pulse, the other two playing respectively in 3:2 and 4:3 against this pulse. There is a beat of sorts in each group, but if you switch between them it gets a bit disorientating. Prof. Paul Whitty, (well named in this context as he is sort of taking the p*ss), has taken this very piece and “deconstructed it” by asking each player to take the notes on each of the pages of their scores and play them in order from highest to lowest. Three of the musicians also chuck in mp3 recordings, unsynchronised, which they may try to translate on their own instruments. The idea is that the timbre, note durations, dynamics and harmony remain the same as in Mr Gordon’s piece but in a disordered, ghostly way. I can grasp the idea but found it difficult to relate the two pieces but it was “fun” trying.

David Lang’s piece does exactly what it says on the tin, or should that be the can. It is 24 minutes of very, very slow note progression, which swirls about and feels very different depending on whether you try to focus your ears on the big picture architecture of the piece or the little details. It does test the patience, no doubt about that, but is it intriguing and has a kind of imposing grandeur. The compositional equivalent of a unified theory of everything, marrying the cosmic with the atomic. Try it.

So there you have it. Icebreaker took me to places I would never otherwise visit and I am very grateful to them for doing so. They delivered a thrilling performance, musically if not visually, as, with all the gubbins on stage, it look more like a studio jamming session than a “gig” despite a bit of coloured lighting. Icebreaker recorded the Gordon, Land and Andriessen pieces as long ago as 1994 so I think it is fair to say they know their way around them. Which is as well I think they are fiendishly difficult to pull off, not because of the notes or technique, but because the person right next to you is off playing something in a completely different time.

So take a tip from the Tourist. Break one of your self imposed cultural boundaries. Hate the theatre? Go and see King Lear, ideally in a language foreign to you. Love Mozart? Listen to some grindcore, though be wary of the lyrical extremes. Enjoy all that Tate Modern has to offer? Explore a cathedral. Canterbury, Ely or Wells would be my first choices. Ed Sheeran popping up too often on your Spotify? Try Neil Young. And so on.

What have you got to lose? Other than a couple of hours of your life. Being miserable. Still YOLO.

Bryce Dessner and the London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ***

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London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists, Galya Bisengalieva (violin), Rakhi Singh (violin), Robert Ames (viola), Oliver Coates (cello) – Bryce Dessner (electric guitar)

Queen Elizabeth Hall. 10th April 2018

  • Bryce Dessner – Aheym for string quartet
  • Mica Levi – You belong to me for string quartet
  • Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar and tape
  • Steve Reich – Different trains for string quartet and tape (with film from Bill Morrison)

I am pretty sure the last time I was in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was with a young BD and LD and the SO to see Slava’s Snow Show as a “Christmas Treat”. The SO booked the entertainment without, as is her wont, looking too closely at the details. Which is a shame as she has an aversion to clowns. Not a full blown psychic horror but enough to engender a vague sense of unease. Which is unfortunate as, for those that don’t know, Slava’s Snow Show involves clowns. A lot of clowns. On a journey. In Russian. Being the supportive family that we are we found the SO’s discomfort funnier that the show. We still do.

This was my first visit to the newly refurbished QEH and I can report an already handsome building is now even better looking. It looks like it will pursue a course of adventurous programming, which is marvellous, though I can’t pretend it is all to my taste.

This concert was though. Arse that I am I hadn’t recorded the details correctly in my foolproof diary system so I hadn’t realised Different Trains was on the menu and had no idea the evening would be graced by the presence of Mr Bryce Dessner. Now I am guessing this was in stark contrast to most of the audience, for whom, I assume, he was the main attraction. I do not know if the punters that can now be counted on to fill a hall showcasing minimalist classics have always been there, or whether they are new to the genre, but it doesn’t matter. The whole of arty. trendy, creative London turns up in droves now, (though not so much at venues without the social media presence of the Southbank)., which leaves me looking and feeling even more conscious of my shocking lack of style.

(Where did it all go wrong? I used to be a contender in the sartorial stakes and could oft be found propping up the bar at cutting edge London venues. Honestly. No longer. Now even the pensioner tribe at midweek theatrical matinees looks down on me. That it should come to this. Mind you, it’s all my fault. This too stolid flesh needs melting).

All this crossing of musical boundaries is immensely energising though, and, in some ways, it was minimalism that first brought together the the “high” art of classical music with the “popular” art of rock and pop. I would also contend that if it hadn’t been for “classical” composers in the 1950s and 1960s exploring what technology and music from other cultures had to offer, dance music would be much the poorer.

Anyway our man Mr Dessner stands astride the divide, as it were, with his well regarded minimal classical works and his day, or night, job as guitarist for The National. Now, as it happens, I like The National. No expert but I have a few of their albums and saw them support that dreadful old rocker Neil Young a few years ago in Hyde Park. Obviously I don’t mean Neil Young is dreadful. he is akin to a god in my eyes. What I can say though is that The National, along with the likes of Beach House, Death Grips, Eels, John Grant, The Knife, Metronomy and TV on the Radio, ensure that the non-classical section of my CD collection, (I know CDs, ho-ho-ho grandad), isn’t entirely made up of artists who are either older than me or dead. I also appreciate that this is hardly evidence of cutting edge musical taste, and is very white, but, I fear, so is your correspondent. And it also doesn’t mean that as far as I am concerned the best music made in the last few years has come from The Fall, (sadly no longer, why are we not still in a period of national mourning?) and Wire. Worse still, whilst writing this I am listening to Soft Machine. Could it be any worse?

Unsurprisingly Mr Dessner was terrific. I listened to Aheym for string quartet a couple of times before this and it is a worthy and apposite work to set alongside Steve Reich’s string quartet masterpiece. Written in 2009, early on in his catalogue, the title is Yiddish for “homeward” and is inspired by his granny’s stories about Eastern Europe and coming to America. There is a five beat jagged chordal rhythm that runs through the piece which is cut up and syncopated in various ways until a short solo cello line, with pizzicato breaks, takes us to a slower, murky fugal passage, above the cello rocking. This is repeated in a different way before the rhythm returns, with col legno bowing, some scratchy stuff, some very high harmonics and a bit of double stopping to round things off. It is not structurally complex but it is very arresting and every string effect on show was “enhanced” by the close microphones. I loved it though I don’t suppose it will pop up at the Wigmore any time soon.

Mica Levi’s work, written in 2016 for this very ensemble, takes the 1950s song of the title and zeroes in on scraps of music within it. There are three sections to be played in any order. Hannah, a kind of set of passacaglia variations with mad trilling, Jumping, sort of fugal with odd chords moving to tremolos over a cello grind, and Sun, with the higher strings sliding up over the cello drone. It is less interesting than it sounds. Again it was over-amplified for my liking.

Ahed of the interval and before the main event Mr Dessner took to the stage with electric guitar for a performance of Electric Counterpoint. No rock’n’roll razzamatazz here. He looked like one of the stage managers despite having taking a bow earlier after Aheym. EC has one live guitar part, obviously, alongside twelve recorded guitar parts, two on bass. There are three movements, without breaks, the first an 8 part canon with the live guitar over the top and harmonic pulse from the other recorded guitars, the slow movement is similar but with 9 parts and, er, a slower theme, and the final part, again a canon, but with more tonal variation and rhythmic change. It is pure Reich and here the QEH acoustic, the amplification and, obviously, our rock god, really delivered.

Different Trains, commissioned, like Aheym, by the Kronos Quartet, and premiered in this very venue in 1988, is way more interesting than it sounds. The live string quartet is backed by three recorded versions of themselves. This creates the opportunity for 16 part counterpoint and, in line with the concept of the piece, means we listen to a “past we did not witness”. The tape line also includes lines of speech, from Reich’s governess and a train porter, as well as Holocaust victims, as well as “train” noises. The idea is to contrast Reich’s train journeys across America as a child with the horrific journeys made by Jewish children in Europe during the war. The accompanying film from Bill Morrison reinforces the contrast and is, at times, disturbing. The first movement is upbeat, the snatches of conversation brief, and the rhythmic patterns clear and harmonics tonal. The second second is slower and darker with frequent sustains, more harmonic dissonance, and with the train ambience increasing. The final movement takes the voices from the first time and melds them into the music.

I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the performance with the recordings sometimes overwhelming the live performers though I was perched right at the back. Oliver Coates’s cello playing was very fine, as I know from previous performances, and Galya Bisengalieva’s first violin sang, but the second violin and viola parts were a bit muddied. On the other hand having the film footage definitely enhanced the powerful meaning behind Steve’s Reich’s music. (I am assuming the age of the footage is what delivered the “blotchy effects”). The performers were standing and split two by two on stage which made for an antiphonal effect, in mind if not ear.

Even with the sound this was still a fine rendition of a modern masterpiece near Reich’s best. More of this at the QEH please. I promise to smarten up next time.

Oh, and no clowns please.

Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Coraline

Barbican Theatre, 7th April 2018

Was I the only person in the audience who knew nothing about Neil Gaiman’s 2003 cult children’s fantasy novella from whence came Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Coraline? It certainly felt like it. To be fair the provenance had dawned on me some time before the performance, but when I booked my perch it was the composer which drew me in not the subject. I guess if I had known more I might not have taken the plunge for fear of feeling a bit odd amongst this very youthful, in parts, audience. I am glad ignorance prevailed for I can report that this was a very fine entertainment indeed.

Music first. It isn’t MAT’s most inventive composition that is true though there are more than enough surprises to hold the attention of the musicophile. What it does do is fit Rory Mullarkey’s bracingly direct libretto, and Mr Gaiman’s pleasingly dark fable like the proverbial glove. It is through-composed, retaining MAT’s trademark spiky, jazzy, Stravinskian, often dissonant, tonality, with very little accommodation to its intended audience. Yet the musical ideas are plain enough even to the untutored ear (including mine). Our ageing actresses singing across the melody in their big number, their waltzes shifting to tangoes as we jump the house “divide”, the mouse orchestra, the close harmonies when ghosts are abroad and the way the Mother’s music darkens as we move from Good to Bad. Sian Edwards is an outstanding advocate of smaller scale new opera music, (she conducted the premiere of MAT’s debut opera Greek). The  Britten Sinfonia are about the best advocates of new music in this country. Put them together and the results are unsurprisingly sublime, bringing life to the score even when it flagged a touch. And Britten, whose Noye’s Fludde might be the best opera involving children because it, er, involves a lot of children, feels like he was an influence here.

Coraline, sung on this occasion by Robyn Allegra Parton, is a bolshie tween, who has just moved in to a new home with overbearing Mum, Kitty Whately, and kindly, inventor Dad, Alexander Robin Baker. The neighbours, Mr Bobo (Harry Nicoll), and the Misses Spink (Gillian Keith) and Forcible (Frances McCafferty), are a bit odd to say the least. The former directs a mouse orchestra and the latter were one time, fruity thespians. The front room of the flat has a door; Coraline walks through it to discover …. a mirror image of the room and parents with sown-up eyes, and another mother bent on evil. You can guess the rest even if you don’t know it. And even if you can’t guess there are plenty of people who could tell you.

If I am honest the couple of hours ex-interval running time could have been squeezed down to 90 minutes straight through, though I guess this might have tested the patience of some of the younger members of the audience. I have to say the youngsters were impeccably behaved throughout, reflecting the quality of what they were seeing and hearing, and putting to shame many an older audience what with their coughs, fidgeting, phone screens and snacking. Having just wrestled with a couple of excitable nephew/nieces the prior weekend I can appreciate just how well-behaved this audience was.

I can see why Rory Mullarkey felt the need to labour the story with excess exposition to ensure everyone knew where we were, but there was the odd time when the recitative might have been condensed. This too might have focussed the ear more on the best of MAT’s invention, and the fine stagecraft marshalled under Aletta Collin’s direction. The magic in particular was a tad underwhelming. On the other hand Giles Cadle’s claustrophobic revolving set, at the front of the otherwise blacked-out cavernous Barbican Theatre stage, was a marvel

The cast though was terrific, especially Robyn Allegra Parton as our heroine, who has a lot of singing to get through, and Kitty Whately as Bad Mum/Good Mum. Apparently Ms Whately had a bit of a sore throat for this performance. Only just about audible and it certainly did not inhibit her performance in any way. I recently saw her Sesto in Giulio Cesare, where she also stood out. Even with my ropey ears I heard most every line, which I can’t always claim is the case when the RSC treads the boards here.

Now this is a fair distance from Mr Turnage’s shocking breakthrough opera Greek, based on Stephen Berkhoff’s play, in turn drawn from Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex. To this day that remains one of the finest pieces of musical theatre I have ever witnessed, at the ENO in 1990. His last full length opera, Anna Nicole, wasn’t too kid friendly either. I have never seen The Silver Tassie, based on Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play, though there is a concert performance in the diary.

I see MAT has indicated he may call it a day on opera after some critical muppets have had a pop at the score for Coraline, berating its relative simplicity. That would be a great shame IMHO. There is no doubt the audience was thoroughly bowled over by MAT’s family opera, even if these critics, who presumably never were, or never had, kids, are too blinkered to appreciate its appeal.

I don’t doubt a fair few of these critics get off on the gross, uber-mensch, toddler fantasies of racist, anti-semite Richard Wagner. Hmmmm…..