Thomas Ades and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Ades, Kirill Gerstein (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 26th September 2018

  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Thomas Ades – In Seven Days (Concerto for piano and orchestra)
  • Witold Lutoslawski – Symphony No 3

Thomas Ades is a talented chap. As composer, conductor and performer he follows in the footsteps of some of the greats., and I for one think there is a lot more to come. Some of the most memorable classical music evenings I have enjoyed in the past few years have been graced by his presence.

So although his own piano concerto, and the Lutoslawski (there he is above), were pieces I knew only by reputation, this, the opening concert of the LPO 18/19 season, looked a good bet. And it certainly came up trumps. Mr Ades has a way with Stravinsky as you might expect, his own music was greatly enhanced by Kirill Gernstein as the soloist (of sorts), who showed his affinity with TA’s music in one of his mazurkas as encore, but it was actually the Lutoslawski symphony that turned out to be the highlight of the evening.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements marked another step in the ongoing Changing Faces retrospective of his music at the Sot Bank. It is trademark IS, sparkling brass, bubbling woodwind and pulsating strings, smoothed off spikiness if you will. Though for me the fact that the three movements were composed independently over time shows through, so it isn’t right at the top of his orchestral oeuvre. The Allegro overture first movement definitely has its moments, harking back to the early revolutionary ballet scores with prominent piano here played by John Alley. The second movement, marked Andante, is comprised of material originally intended for a film versions of the St Bernadette Soubirous, Our Lady of Lourdes, (she of the multiple visions and Catholic granny’s favourite) and has an innocent charm, with a couple of interruptions, and vocal harp line. The finale, con moto, is a lot more aggressive, reflecting its completion at the end of the war in 1945, with that motoric quality that inhabits IS’s music, at least until the final austere serial phase.

In Seven Days doesn’t muck about, taking as its inspiration the Creation. The religious one or maybe the real one. Hard to tell. It was originally performed alongside a video composition from TA’s then husband Tal Rosner. It certainly has a vivid, cinematic approach to go with the programme, think Ligeti in terms of mood if not structure. But it didn’t need any visual assistance. Tiny particles of sound combine, break-up, recombine, ever expanding as we move through the seven movements, out of Chaos through to Contemplation. It was originally scored for a smaller orchestra. Here TA had the freedom to really crank up the engine especially in percussion and brass. Eat your heart out Haydn and all the others who have also had a go at the greatest story ever told. God as scientist not mystic.

It is one of those fractal compositions, music made out of algorithms or rules, built on repetition, where the very small mimics the very large. Maths as music, or maybe the other way round. So it is in a state of constant flux but the thing with Ades is that he cleaves close enough to conventional tonality, and, the secret sauce (for me I now realise) that is rhythm, not to disappear out of sight into the impenetrable. I can’t say it all fell into place on this first hearing, but it “made sense” which is all I need to revisit. The more modern and contemporary classical music I encounter the clearer it is becoming to me what is needed to rule it in or out. I do seem to have a penchant for ever changing repetition in music with rhythm and harmony, not melody, as the hooks (as it were). Ades kicks off with extremes of pitch in the opening perpetuum mobile, (I know now these could be my favourite two words in Latin), led by strings. This breaks with a chorale and the piano kicks in leading the orchestra to further rising and falling repetitions, with some very snazzy percussion, to mark the second day. The third day is another variation starting in the bass and rising up before the glittering harmonies of day four. Days five and six are a linked fugue, sort of Bachian, with the piano appearing in the second. A calmer interlude and then back to the beginning.

Witold Lutoslawki’s third symphony is probably his most well known composition. WL’s first symphony came out in 1948 but he was, like any worthwhile composer behind the Iron Curtain, derided by the authorities for “formalism”, which as far as I can make out was anything that wasn’t rum-pum-pom patriotic. WL didn’t return to the symphony until 1965 by which time the world had changed politically and musically. He was a big fan of John Cage’s experiments in chance in music which he embraced as “aleatory counterpoint” in his work, including the second, and this, the third symphony. Never fear folks, it doesn’t mean some knotty, joyless, meandering. Just some passages where some of the orchestral players have a bit of fun as far as I could tell in this performance. (Actually what I have learnt about Cage, which isn’t much I fear, says to me he was a pretty jolly sort).

The original commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra came in 1972 but WL couldn’t find the format he wanted.  In 1981 he alighted on the toccata which sits at the centre of the piece. Another two years and the rest of the work was signed off and delivered. A short prologue precedes the first of the two main movements, the toccata which is divided into three parts, each getting progressively “faster” by stretching out the basic rhythms, and punctuated by slower “intermezzi”. Apparently the Beethovian opening, and oft returning, four note motto is comprised of E naturals. Good to know. Then comes a shorter, slower “movement”, a swirling theme with string offsets. The symphony ends with a rapid coda and tutti. It is played through and comes across as a building of momentum culminating in huge crescendoes which subside and then build again. There is certainly a cosmic dimension which echoes the Ades piece, and like In Seven Days it always stays the right side of the tonality gulf and features some breathtaking instrumentation.

I could imagine that the symphony, even with this structure marked out, could get fuzzy. Not in Mr Ades’s hands though. It is a big leap to compare this performance to his ongoing, and outstanding, Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican, but, because he doesn’t hang about tempo wise, and because he prizes textural clarity over pompous showiness, in both cases, the layers of music are revealed not muddled.

So a big evening marshalled by a big man. There was much to bind the music together in terms of ambition, structure and feel. It normally takes Vladimir Jurowski, and the right repertoire, to bring the very best out of the LPO. He wasn’t missed here.

 

 

Britten’s Spring Symphony from the LSO at the Barbican review ***

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LSO, LSO Chorus, Tiffin Choirs, Sir Simon Rattle, Philip Cobb (trumpet), Gabor Tarkovi (trumpet), Elizabeth Watts, (soprano) Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Barbican Hall, 17th September 2018

  • Harrison Birtwhistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII
  • Gustav Holst – Egdon Heath
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Dispelling the Fears
  • Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony

Now here was an object lesson in not doing one’s homework. Benjamin Britten’s music was my first introduction to the classical world and remains one of my all time fave composers, (mind you the list is pretty short). However, I am not persuaded by all of his work, including, I remembered just that tiniest bit too late, the Spring Symphony. So always check that the piece you think you are going to hear is exactly that at the time of booking and always, especially if it is a work of substance as here, listen to it before attending. Both rules ignored on this occasion in the most spectacularly cavalier fashion.

Still it was the LSO. Under the baton of Sir Simon with the LSO Chorus and the combined Tiffin Choirs, Girls’, Boys’ and Children’s. (BD sadly, saddled with tone deaf parents, was never a contender for the first of these crews). And, in the Spring Symphony, three excellent soloists, two of who I knew, Alice Coote and Elizabeth Watts, and one only by reputation, Allan Clayton. All the voices were superb, there are some tricky vocal pyrotechnics required in certain of the poetic settings, and the logistical challenges of getting everyone on stage (or just in front) were adroitly handled. At points the Barbican Hall stage was stuffed to the gills. Sir Simon really does need that bigger stage.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Russian emigre conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who had earlier sponsored BB’s breakthrough Peter Grimes. As so often, writing it took a lot out of BB, three years from start to finish, on and off. He originally intended to set Latin texts against a symphonic backdrop but, as was BB’s wont, he persuaded himself that English poetry would be bettered suited. When BB sets canonic English poetry on a smaller scale the results can be astonishing, Les Illuminations, the Serenade, the Nocturne, Phaedra and, I reckon, the Cantata misericordium. And obviously the War Requiem shows he was a dab hand with large scale forces. But the Spring Symphony doesn’t quite hang together IMHO, choruses and orchestra sometimes at odds with each other.

It is (just about) discernibly a symphonic structure, a la Mahler, the first part made up of five sections (Spenser, Nashe, Peele, Clare and Milton, with various ideas laid out, the second a slow movement with three settings (Herrick, Vaughan and Auden), the third a scherzo again with three poems (Barnfield, Peele and Blake) set to music and the rousing finale, setting Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Elizabethan paean to the month of May, London, to thee I do present. There is lots of invention, texture and tone throughout, BB avoids throwing the kitchen sink at everything, with many passages of light orchestration, and percussion, harp, certain woodwind and brass, especially trumpets, (a theme throughout the programme), all get a good look in. Since all the poems reference Spring, doh, there are plenty of Spring-ey tunes, but also some darker material; this was a message of hope in the aftermath of War but BB recognised not all was rosy in the European garden. It just isn’t an entirely satisfying whole for me.

Sir Simon has always been a dab hand with BB, even from his days with the CBSO, though this was at the more portentious end of his interpretative spectrum. Still everyone really does seem to be having fun at the LSO and the Chorus now that he as at the helm. So maybe I need to cheer up, raise my game and work a bit harder on this particular piece.

The concert opened with a new brass fanfare from Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, a gift to Sir Simon. It was, literally a blast, with a laugh at the end from the sole tuba. This was followed by an excellent reading of Holst’s Egdon Heath. I have always liked Old Gustav’s second most famous orchestral piece after you know what, (which the BBCSO is trotting out soon accompanied by Prof Brian Cox – interesting). That heady mix of Englishness, Ravellian orchestration and a hint of Eastern mysticism draws you in but it takes a conductor of Sir Simon’s insight to really persuade. It is a bit scary, even from the off, with the growling double basses, I for one wouldn’t want to go anywhere near Hardy’s heath based on this music. An elusive string melody is set alongside a sad processional in the brass and some meandering oboe. It never really lands anywhere despite the echoes of a dance, a simple stepwise, siciliano, and it can appear to go on a bit. Not here though.

Dispelling the Fears written by Mark-Antony Turnage in 1995 creates an atmosphere of urban, rather than rural, unease, led by the two trumpets of the LSO’s principal Philip Cobb and the Berlin Philhamonic’s Gabor Tarkovi. The two played pretty close together for much of the piece, creating some stunning harmonies, especially lower down the register, against the usual MAT cloth of Stravinsky, jazz, a whiff of blues, some earlyish Schoenberg. It is quite furtive, never really breaking out, with constant dissonance emerging from clashing semi-tones. There are a few passages of relative peace but mostly it prods and pokes. Like most of MAT’s work it really works though you are not always initially sure why.

So there we go. The LSO and Sir Simon once again showing off the Best of British. With the slight caveat that this may not actually be the best of the best British composer (with apologies to Purcell and Byrd).

The Second Violinist at the Barbican review ***

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The Second Violinist

Barbican Theatre 7th September 2018

Ok so I bought a ticket here on a bit of a whim and because it garnered some awards on its premiere in Ireland. Now I know from past experience that the playwright Enda Walsh is not a man who likes to give audiences an easy night out. Disco Pigs is a belter of a play (and film) but, in trying to unravel the darker psychology and psychoses of the everyday, he sounds to me like the sort of dramatist who can be guilty of putting himself above the audience. All well and good if you like that kind of modern Expressionism but if it fails to connect what’s the point.

Still YOLO. What I hadn’t bargained for is just how good a composer Donnacha Dennehy is. This has all the trappings of a chamber opera. Except that there is a fair bit of spoken word, long periods of neither speech nor singing, though plenty to attract the eye and a main character who never opens his mouth. Which means the score has a lot of work to do and doesn’t always precisely articulate with the drama. But it is a fabulous score. Strains of post-minimalism (he studied with Louis Andriessen) with lots of sustained strings, micro-tonality galore, overtones, buckets of dramatic orchestration, hefty percussive rhythms, electronics, nods to Irish folk heritage, odd harmonies. As a rule of thumb if contemporary classical music grabs me by the throat on first listen for me there is something worth investigating. If there is no connection it can be safely discarded. No idea why or what lies behind that decision but this chap is definitely going to have to be listened to.

Now as for the play/drama/libretto I am less sure. Martin (Aaron Monaghan), emerging from the pit, is a violinist currently rehearsing (badly) a chamber opera with an unhealthy interest in bad-boy Carlo Gesualdo, the Renaissance prince and composer who mastered dissonance (please listen) but was a bit unhinged to say the least. (there he is above). Martin is not a happy bunny it seems and there is plenty of evidence in his drinking, movement, his calls, game-playing and his digital footprint to show it. But he doesn’t show us directly. Instead we get a drunken night in from Matthew (Benedict Nelson), wife Hannah (Maire Flavin) and her friend Amy (Sharon Carty) who Matthew makes a move on. It doesn’t end well. Presumably this is an acting out of the events that got Martin into the pickle he is in. Or maybe they are the neighbours from hell that Martin really doesn’t need. At the end, in a wood, Martin meets Scarlett (Kimani Arthur) a Tinder chum. Oh and there is a chorus to vocalise some things and to shuffle across the stage.

Though frankly I didn’t really have a clue what was going on. For someone who was effectively a mime artist Aaron Monaghan, apart from some suspect writhing, caught Martin’s dissolution brilliantly. The three singers were crystal clear though their texts were prosaic. The set (Jamie Vartan), lighting (Adam Silverman), video (Jack Phelan) and sound (David Sheppard and Helen Atkinson), all seemed to have a lot to say. I just don’t really know what they were saying. If it was just the breakdown of a life then I suppose it delivered but since I couldn’t find a way in I couldn’t really care. Maybe Martin was looking for beauty in an ugly world, a creative mind that is constantly disappointing himself, (this seems to be what Enda Walsh is driving at in the programme), but any meaning was too impenetrable for me. Past, present and, maybe, future frustratingly elided.

Plenty to look at and a ravishing score but as a work of drama … hmmm. No matter. The score, which really did make the link back to Gesualdo, and the playing of Crash Ensemble under conductor Ryan McAdams alone was enough.

Greek at the Arcola Theatre review *****

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Greek

Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 13th August 2018

It is a shame Steven Berkoff’s plays don’t get performed more often. They do, like the stage, film and TV villains he has memorably played, (there he is above doing the menacing thing), sometimes lapse into “in yer face” cliche, but at their best they are thrilling theatre. The verse plays, notably East, West and Decadence, are the most exciting, and Greek, which transports Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex to East End London in the 1980s, was inspired. A few nips and tucks to make it fit but moreorless the same brilliant story. I love it, see here for the latest incarnation (Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****). Aristotle thought it was the greatest story ever told and he, being the cleverest bloke that ever lived, knew a thing or two.

More inspired still though was when young Essex lad. Mark-Anthony Turnage, just 28, announced himself to the world with an opera version of Berkoff’s already “musical” play. His mentor Hans Werner Henze suggested the Munich Biennale commission him, and Jonathan Moore helped him with the libretto and directed the premiere. And Mr Moore, no less, was back to direct this production. I was lucky enough to see the first revival in 1990 at the ENO and, I tell you, it blew my socks off. I knew it was possible for opera to be the best of art forms when I was a young’un but I had also been disappointed by some allegedly top notch productions of classics by the likes of Verdi, Puccini and, even, God forgive me, Wagner. I was bored witless by much of this nonsense. But Greek, as one of the first contemporary operas I saw, made me realise that it is the theatre that matters and not the singing. Not saying that when the singing, music and drama all come together I can’t be moved by “classic” opera, especially Mozart and Monteverdi, just that it is a lot easier when the stories stack up and mean something to me and the music isn’t just a bunch of whistling tunes all loosely stitched together.

Of course some buffs might not accept that Greek is an opera at all, more musical theatre in the manner of Brecht and Weill at their best. I see their point. Indeed M-AT, probably more to wind us all up, termed it an anti-opera. Anyway who cares. Greek was a punch in the gut and food for the brain first time round for sure. Mr Turnage, with his rock and jazz inflections, and his adoration of Stravinsky especially, and the likes of Britten and Berg, as well as teacher Oliver Knussen, knows how to compose for the theatre. I knew nothing about the source of his latest outing Coraline (Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****) so had no baggage and, whilst if might not be up to Greek and to his version of The Silver Tassie, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

No need to trot you through the story here in detail I assume. By having the lead, here named Eddie, living a life of frustration in Thatcher’s Britain, Berkoff and Turnage have a contemporary alternative for the plague afflicting Thebes. Mr Moore wisely sticks with the 1980s, no need to invoke “Austerity/Brexit” Britain, that would be crass, which designer Baska Wesolowska, through set and multiple costume changes, neatly evokes. Class relations, cultural impoverishment, addiction, the patriarchy, hopelessness are all revealed but never bog down the story.

The differences between “foundling” Eddy and his heavy drinking Mum and Dad, and Sister, are highlighted by their over the top, “gor-blimey, Eastender, chav, working class” dialogue (no arias here folks) and movements. Eddy is angry and frustrated with them so, after having his fortune told, understandably f*cks off to meet, then marry Wife/real Mum, after an ill-fated altercation with her first hubby in a caff. There’s a fair bit of cursing and violence and the still marvellous riot, Sphinx and “mad” scenes, where M-AT’s brilliantly percussive score is at its best. It is funny and aggressive by turns, is deliberately cartoonish, has some great tunes and musical, (and music-hall), echoes and it belts through the story. And there’s a twist as you might have guessed.

Edmund Danon was a perfect Eddy if you ask me. M-AT asks for a high baritone and that is what Mr Danon provides. Every word was clear as a bell and boy did he get round the Arcola space. As did baritone Richard Morrison as Dad (as well as the, in so many ways, unfortunate Cafe owner and the Police Chief). For choice I preferred the mezzo voice of Laura Woods as Wife, as well as sister Doreen, Sphinx I and Waitress I, over the purer soprano of Philippa Boyle as Mum, Sphinx II and Waitress II.

Greek is now a staple of the operatic circuit as it can reliably pull in younger punters to even the grandest of opera houses, (the ROH got on the bandwagon in 2011). Its physicality, irreverence, punky aesthetic and social commentary can appear a little quaint now, especially if it is “over-produced” in a big space. Which, once again shows why Grimeborn, and the Arcola, is the perfect setting for works like this. With the Kantanti Ensemble, founded by conductor Lee Reynolds to showcase the best young musicians in the South East, under the baton of Tim Anderson, by turns belting out, and reining in, the score, the toes of the audience at risk of crushing from the four performers bounding around the Arcola main stage, and with the original director in charge, this production stripped Greek back to where is should be. Another Grimeborn triumph.

I genuinely urge you to try and see this once in your life. Especially if you think opera is for w*ankers. You will be blown away without any need to reassess that, largely reasonable, preconception.

Cave at the Printworks review ****

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Cave

The Printworks, Surrey Quays, 23rd June 2018

Cave is the second collaboration between composer Tansy Davies and librettist Nick Drake. Their last work, Between Worlds, which took as its subject the Twin Towers on 9/11, was superb. It was an immensely moving and sensitive elegy which focussed on the last conversations with loved ones of just five victims trapped together on one floor watched over by a benign Shaman or spirit, superbly directed by Deborah Warner. The audience I saw it with was floored (even if a couple of jaded critics were a bit sniffy).

I have since heard a few of Ms Davies’s very fine works including the premiere of her Concerto for four horns, entitled Forest. She has a way of finding the right shape, sound or phrase to match the intent and mood of her music, without ever serving up the obvious or banal. There is a rhythmic underpinning which I think reflects her familiarity with popular music genres, especially funk and post-rock. Her music can be muscular, industrial if you will, but, equally, she is capable of great lyricism. In more recent commissions she has been afforded the opportunity to work at a larger scale, but there is still a chamber like intimacy to her work, even when it is belting out in full on forte. In short she has the gift, and, even if contemporary classical music isn’t your bag, in fact maybe especially if contemporary classical music isn’t you bag, I defy you not to hear it.

She is also pretty keen on conveying a message in her music. As is librettist Nick Drake. Cave is set in a world disfigured by ecological catastrophe. A man (Mark Padmore) stumbles into a cave. He probably nibbles on some crazy mushrooms. He remembers his daughter Hannah, played and sung by Elaine Mitchener, and, when young, played by Akilah Mantock at my performance. Her spirits fills the cave. That is pretty much the long and the short of it. There are seven scenes in total beginning with the entry of the audience into The Lost River which runs through the cave.

The Printworks in Surrey Quays used to be where the Evening Standard was printed in the pre-digital era. It is a cavernous industrial space, as I discovered on my pre-prandial hike to the loo just ahead of the opening of the opera, which plays host to a variety of events, united in there “alternative” vibe. Perfect for this work. The audience was lined up along both sides of a very narrow, very long space in Mike Britton’s set, covered with, I think, wood bark. and with the seven members of the London Sinfonietta at one end and vast plastic hanging “doors” at the other. It was largely left to the marvellous lighting of Jack Knowles, who despite looking about 5 years old, has a massively impressive list of credits behind him, to conjure up the required magic, along with a sound design from, usual culprits, Sound Intermedia, as well as the electronics of Tansy Davies and Rolf Wallin.

Even with the principals moving up and down the space there were times when the “action” was a bit “laterally compromised”, especially for those of us pig-headed enough to go right along to the end where the ensemble was positioned. On the other hand this perch did afford a perfect insight into all the moving parts of the score, and, at one key point, the vocal pyrotechnics of Elaine Mitchener. She is not your opera mezzo diva. Thank goodness. Usually to be found in repertoire which is even more boundary-pushing than this, she has an extraordinary range of expression. I was spell-bound. For those of us who are regular listeners to Bach, Britten and Baroque, Mark Padmore needs no introduction at all. Here his singing was predictably exquisite. He also put in an acting shift as the Man plagued by his memories and a world that has literally fallen apart around him. I also suspect this won’t be the last I see of the precocious ten year old Akilah Mantock – no fear at all in what must have seemed a slightly odd role when she went to the audition.

Mr Drake’s other job is a poet. No kidding. The second scene, the Echoes, starts out with the Man hearing Hannah’s voice before he goes into an astonishing quasi aria describing his journey into the cave. This is when we see the connection that Ms Davies and Mr Drake intended to make to some of the very first human impacts on the earth. Apparently they went for a trip to have a peek at cave paintings in Niaux in the Pyrenees, which proved a crucial inspiration. I am not surprised, this is where art and nature recognisably first collided.

Scene three, the Cave of Birds, has the Man describing the onset of ecological catastrophe, and some sort of vision, scene four, The Mirror Cracks, is a “rave of agony” as the Man recalls losing Hannah, who “responds” by singing the last part of his “song” backwards. The Tree of Shadows starts with the Man and Hannah remembering a past holiday and then Hannah going a bit preachy as she describes how she wants to save the world from the havoc wrought by the generations which preceded her. A powerful instrumental interlude (with electronics I think) follows, The Storm, which then gives way to a lullaby shared by the two principals which shows off their superb singing. The final scene The River sees the man leaving the cave, presumably to die, but probably healed.

This is an epic myth, or more exactly a parable, and, in that, I was reminded of Britten’s Church Parables, which I don’t think were a direct inspiration, but, for me, have a similar vibe. The scoring is sparse, under the expert baton of Geoffrey Paterson, with most of the colour coming from the winds and brass, the clarinet/bass clarinet of Timothy Lines, contra bassoon of John Orford and horn of Michael Thompson, contrasted with the prominent harp of Helen Tunstall, set against a sort of continuo from Jonathan Morton’s violin and Enno Senft’s double bass. Elaine Mitchener gets to give a hefty whack to a drum at one point and, as I have said, electronics and some other sound effects (plenty of echo) play a major part. Overall you have no difficulty in musically distinguishing the scenes, there are some breathtaking sounds here and no little drama. I was not entirely convinced about the articulation between music, words and message but that probably says more about my pessimism than the creative talent on show here. It is certainly not the fault of director Lucy Bailey.

I don’t want to get more frightened of, and helpless about, the world around me as I get older, but it seems to be happening nonetheless. It certainly does feel like we humans are accelerating towards our inevitable extinction event despite the apparent gift of consciousness. Mother Earth will get over us I suppose. Anyway it is good that Tansy Davies and Nick Drake are not engulfed by this sort of negativity and prepared to make an ambitious stand of sorts in their art. It is also good that they are not cynical about all things “spiritual”. As this piece is sub-titled, courtesy of modern day environmental shaman and prodigious psychedelic drug-taker Terence McKenna, “Nature loves courage”.

At the end, Ms Davies was zipping by to thank the performers. I briefly thanked her. No doubt she thought I was a nutter so apologies but I felt compelled to offer up my appreciation. Thank you.

 

 

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

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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.