Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre review **

Botticelli in the Fire

Hampstead Theatre, 20th November 2019

Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.

It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).

Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.

Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.

Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.

Pergolesi and Vivaldi: OAE at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Katherine Watson (soprano), Rowan Pierce (soprano), Zoe Brookshaw (soprano), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Choir of the Age of Enlightenment 

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 11th November 2019

  • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) – Stabat Mater
  • Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni (1671-1751) – Oboe Concerto in D minor, Op.9 No.2
  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) – Gloria RV 589

Last year a Pergolesi Stabat Mater with BUD from the AAM. This year the OAE take with MSBD and Katherine Watson (braving a cold) and Iestyn Davies in the soloist chairs. I’ve already banged on about Pergolesi before. This is his most famous work. Written just before his early death from TB. More than a hint of the comic opera about its style, which are, largely, his other, authenticated contributions to Baroque musical history, (I have a recording of some of his instrumental offerings). Though certainly not its serious religious subject, a C13 poem depicting Mary’s vigil at the foot of the Cross. Took the European musical world by storm and, on and off, has been a favourite ever since. Immediate, direct and very effective, it is impossible not to be carried along by the lean, melodic strings offset with deliberately nostalgic stile antico effects, (from the time before Monteverdi revolutionised Western music). These include prolonged cadences and delayed resolutions. Feel the pain. Lovely but a couple of times a year is enough for me.

Albinoni was a prolific composer, around 80 operas, 40 chamber cantatas, 60 concertos and 80 sonatas, and was, in his day, as popular as Corelli and Vivaldi. Though not quite as good IMHO. Then again he only really considered himself a violinist and, being a rich toff, didn’t have to work. SO we should applaud his industry. And, in the oboe concertos, he did come up with some of the finest music ever written for the instrument. His Op 9 set contains 4 for solo oboe and 4 for two oboes and this one, No 2 is considered the best of them. It kicks off with an elegant medium paced Allegro, follows with a sublime and generous slow movement, with an aching, bel canto solo line against a rocking string ripieno, (which MSBD was much taken with), and a bouncy, scurrying finale, which again gives the soloist plenty of opportunity to show off. And, when it comes to Baroque oboe, very few can match the OAE’s Katharina Spreckelsen.

Last live listen to Gloria was with MS and MSC at the Cadogan Hall with the ECO, so it has become something of a family affair, (even the SO and BD have grinned, and, to be fair, more than bore it, in the past. Famously AV wrote the Gloria for a full SATB choir. despite their being, at least officially, no blokes in the Ospedale della Pieta, bar carrot top himself. Which means they were drafted in, or perhaps, in the array of talents in the convent, there were females basses or at least voices low enough to take the parts, maybe with the whole pitched an octave higher. The contemporary audience would never have known, the young women being concealed behind a grills at the balconies where they performed. We had the OAE’s dedicated chamber choir, thankfully in full view, a scratch outfit of professionals perfectly matched to the OAE’s beefy sound. This I can listen to more than a couple of times a year.

Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque: Vivaldi at the Wigmore Hall review *****

Rachel Podger (violin), Brecon Baroque, Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord), Daniele Caminiti (lute)

Wigmore Hall, 1st July 2019

Antonio Vivaldi

  • Sonata a4 al Santo Sepolcro RV130
  • Concerto in G minor for strings RV157
  • Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro RV169
  • Concerto in D for lute and strings RV93
  • Concerto in D Op 3, No 9 RV230 (arr. for harpsichord after JS Bach’s solo transcription BWV972)
  • The Four Seasons Op 8, Nos 1 to 4

The Tourist adores the sound that Rachel Podger makes in the Baroque violin repertoire and especially in Bach, Vivaldi and Biber. Moreover, and feel free to snigger at the back, but he still gets a thrill when a specialist like RP, or one of the Italian maestros like Giuliano Carmignola or Fabio Bondi, lets rip on the Four Seasons. You can stick all that turgid Romantic nonsense where the sun don’t shine. This is real music. And if you are too snooty in your choice of classical repertoire to agree then more fool you. The Tourist yields to no man when it comes to the outer reaches of early 80’s post punk funk (and, as we speak, has a bit of Stockhausen ringing in his ears), but that doesn’t stop him from wigging out to the perfect pop of Benny and Bjorn’s SOS come party time.

Ms P has a rich, dark tone which gets you right in the gut. Her interpretation with her regular chums Brecon Baroque is a little less Flash Harry than the Italian peers, (though they certainly don’t hold back in the fast movements in Summer and Winter), which pays huge dividends in the super slow Largos in Spring and Winter. This was still exhilarating when it needed to be though. As confirmed by the Tourist’s regular Baroque crony MSBD. Big grins all round. For if there is one thing that singles RP and this ensemble out, apart from their sparkling musicianship, then it is that they look like they are having a ball on the stage. Which infects the audience. Even at the somewhat staid Wigmore.

Before the Four Seasons we were treated to the Easter religious piece, the Sonata and Sinfonia “al Santo Sepolcro” which may have been written in Venice or Vienna when AV visited in the late 1720s to drum up business. The Sonata has a slow movement introduction which builds from a bass line through too an exchange between the solo violin line and full ensemble. The subsequent Allegro alternates between two complementary themes in classic AV fashion. The Sinfonia is similarly just two movements but here the home key is B minor and AV explores a couple of chromatic twists in the contrapuntal Adagio and then in the Allegro which zeroes in on one, sinuous theme. The two pieces were separated by RV157, one of the Concertos written of strings and continuo without soloist. There are 60 or so of these (RV109 to 169), some of which are named as Sinfonia, which seem to have straddled performance in both saved and secular spaces. This one has repetition, imitation, dazzling figuration and syncopation, the full monty of AV’s virtuosity. The step-wise slow movement is captivating and the finale, made up of repeated semiquaver rushes in the bass line and upper lines is terrific.

Sicilian, (so its in the blood), Daniele Caminiti stepped up from theorbo continuo to lute soloist for the RV93 concerto which was probably written by AV for one Count Wrtby during a sojourn in Vienna and for the smaller soprano lute rather that the standard Baroque instrument. It was conceived as a chamber piece, with accompaniment from two violins and continuo, with each of the three movements divided into two repeated halves. It has a more stately feel against which the treble lines of the lute are set, largely down to the exquisite central Largo. This was also part of the programme from funky mandolinist Avi Avital concept with the Venice Baroque Orchestra at the back end of last yea in this very Hall.

Op 3 no 9 is one of seven AV concertos that JS Bach transcribed for harpsichord in 1713/14 when he worked in the Weimar Court. He made small changes to the right hand part and more generous detailing in the left hand part to thicken up AV’s loose textures. From this and the original BB, and especially the Polish harpsichordist Marcin Swiatkiewicz, (who plays on RP’s sublime Rosary Sonatas recording), have devised a harpsichord concerto, a form that AV himself eschewed. Like everything else on this lovely evening this was a perfectly balanced ensemble performance, the soloist a lucid, but never shouty, voice alongside the rest of BB.

RP’s next outing in her residency at the Wigmore are a bunch of Bach concertos which I will miss followed by a Sunday morning slot of the Bach Sonata and Partita No 1 which I most assuredly won’t.

The Talented Mr Ripley at the Vault Festival review ****

The Talented Mr Ripley

The Faction, Vault Festival, 14th March 2019

Having missed this on a couple of previous occasions the Tourist was delighted to see it pop up on the Vault listings and even more delighted that the SO deigned to come. Downfall or The Talented Mr Ripley. The SO’s two contenders for greatest film ever. Worrying you might think for her husband given the nature of the lead characters. Still I admit they are both excellent films, though mind you with, as a minimum, an annual retrospective chez Tourist, I don’t have much choice.

After our last Ripley related entertainment, the somewhat disappointing play Switzerland at the Ambassadors, we were pining for success. From reading reviews of the Faction’s original version of the play from 2015, at their adopted home of the New Diorama Theatre in Euston, I see that it ran to over 150 minutes, which suggests to me that Mark Leipacher’s adaptation may well have clung too closely to Patricia Highsmith’s book and/or film and may not have fully exploited the opportunities of theatre. You couldn’t say that now. Down to just 90 minutes, but with all the key scenes and narrative, of book mostly and not film, moreorless intact, (verified by the SO), this is, even as it slows down fractionally in the second half, an exciting and explosive drama which gets to the heart of Tom Ripley’s dark soul using the bare minimum in terms of ensemble, set and props. Having secured the stage rights from Ms Highsmith’s publishers Diogenes Verlag, Mark Leipacher, who directs, and the seven strong Faction company, have created a play which complements, though doesn’t quite match, Anthony Minghella’s film and the original novel. (I haven’t seen Purple Noon, Rene Clement’s 1960 cinematic take on the story starring Alain Delon, though I see the buffs prefer it).

From the start, back to audience and typing, “have you ever had the feeling you’re being followed”, Christopher’s Hughes’s Ripley, with his presentational asides to the audience, is the unhinged sociopath we know and love, albeit of the tigerrish variety. Making him English and having him bark out his lines takes a bit of adjustment initially but this exaggeration, which is mirrored, albeit less assertively, in Christopher York’s confident Dickie and Natasha Rickman’s wistful Marge, contributes to the energy of the adaptation and allows the audience to quickly get inside the dynamics of the trio.

I am not saying you need to know the story to follow the play but I can see that it would help. With just a raised white plinth, with gap in the centre, rapid on and off stage costume changes, some doubling, no exposition, jump scenes punctuated with cries of “cut/action” to reference the location changes and to re-run scenes, physicality, (every trick in the movement director’s handbook is on show here), it comes together to create a kaleidoscope of images which replay the story but in a very different way from the big budget, location led, close-up cuts, thriller genre and naturalistic acting of the film. We still want Ripley to get away with it but here he is a much bolder incarnation of “evil”, as in the book, trying to stay one step ahed of the game, in contrast to the more inscrutable filmic Matt Damon.

Given the effective economy of Frances Norburn’s design it was left to Chris Withers’ lighting and Max Pappenheim’s sound to assist in taking us from the NYC club where Ripley’s first meets Dickie’s anxious Dad, Herbert (Marcello Walton), through to fictional Italian resort, (I imagine the Neapolitan Riviera), the streets of San Remo, the ill fated boat trip, the Roman apartment, the alley where Ripley dumps the body of caustic Freddie (Vincent Jerome) after battering him to death, Venice, where Ripley, per the film, attaches himself to the guileless Peter (Jason Eddy), and finally to Greece, where Ripley now rich and ostensibly free of his crimes but forever tormented: “have you ever had the feeling you are being followed”. Vincent Jerome doubles as McCarron. the private detective Herbert sends to investigate his son’s disappearance, and Marcello Walton as Roverini, the Columbo-esque Italian policeman who is all but on to Ripley as he dodges across Italy. This just leaves Emma Jay Thomas who takes on the other female roles of Emily and Buffi.

All in all a fine addition to the Ripley industry and an excellent ensemble performance. I see The Faction has previous with even meatier fare. Hopefully there will be a chance to catch this at their Euston home in the not too distant future.

Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

Berberian Sound Studio

Donmar Warehouse, 14th March 2019

I sort of stumbled across Peter Strickland second full length film by accident. Always keep half an eye on what’s coming up on Film 4. Record anything that I recognise as requiring a watch, (on the basis of pretentious film buff recommendations), probably leave it unwatched for months and then likely dump it. Just occasionally though a bit of research and or plain old fashioned curiosity means I end up watching them before pressing delete. And so one rainy Sunday afternoon on went Berberian Sound Studio. The presence of Toby Jones helped but, five minutes in, laptop and phone were switched off and I sat, bewitched, for the next hour and a half. Have raved about it ever since whenever the chance comes up to raise it in conversation. Which, as those of you that may know it, isn’t really that often.

For the film is a critique, or maybe continuation, of the Italian giallo film genre. Giallo, to quote Wiki, is “a particular Italian thriller-horror genre that has mystery or detective elements and often contains slasher, crime fiction, psychological thriller, psychological horror, exploitation, sexploitation, and, less frequently, supernatural horror elements“. It reached its apogee in the 1970s and stems from the Italian for yellow, the colour of the paperback mystery novels popular in post-WWII Italy which provided th plots for many plots for many of the early cinematic examples.

Now, to be clear, these films wouldn’t be my cup of tea, though, to be fair, I haven’t tried. Mr Strickland’s film though takes the post-production studio for one of these films as the setting for a surreal mediation on the main character’s dislocation and eventual breakdown. Gilderoy has arrived at the studio to work on a film about horses. Or so he believes. He is a Foley artist whose work has come to the attention of the film’s director, Santini, through the soundtrack to a nature made in Gilderoy’s home county of Surrey, Dorking to be exact, where he lives with his Mum. Out of his depth, and plainly shocked by the nature of the film, Gilderoy nonetheless sets to work on mixing the sound effects for the film’s torture scenes and the voice-overs from session actresses, Silvia and Claudia. He is held captive by a mixture of professional pride, bullying by the film’s producer Francesco, failed attempts to get his expenses reimbursed, (it turns out the flight he came over on doesn’t exist), concern for the actresses and, maybe, fascination with the material. The language barrier, his own lack of worldliness and the material he is dealing with leave him increasingly disorientated and unhinged. A new actress arrives Elisa to replace Silvia who has been attacked by Santini. Gilderoy eventually goes full-on gaga mixing up reality and the film. The end.

Now I can’t pretend that there weren’t times when the film became a little frustrating and, well, just a bit weird but it is so atmospheric, so different and so fascinating that I have watched it again and, as with all good art, have occasion to think on it. Toby Jones is brilliant as Gilderoy, (as he is in pretty much anything he does – most recently on stage as Stanley in last year’s Birthday Party revival) ,as are the rest of the Italian, largely based in Britain, cast. The exposure of the mechanics of film-making, specifically the sound-track, composed in the film by Broadcast, the Foley effects and the voice effects from Hungarian performance artist Katalin Ladik is intriguing, especially the horror genre, and the theme of alienation, on many different levels, is intriguingly explored. Strickland himself was brought up in Reading but lives in Eastern Europe.

So how to put this on stage. Well clearly the first thing you need is a convert which is where Tom Scutt comes in. Mr Scutt is a top drawer designer, (Julie, Summer and Smoke, The Lady from the Sea, Woyzeck, Les Liasons Dangereuses, King Charles II, The Deep Blue Sea, Elegy, Constellations – and that’s just what the Tourist has seen), and Associate at the Donmar, but this is first directing gig. He has teamed up with Joel Horwood, (whose work I don’t know but who I see has previously focussed on pantos !!), to adapt BSS for the stage.

And what a very fine job the two of them have done. The adaptation stays close to the original story, with some changes in chronology, for most of the 90 minutes run time but wisely condenses the breakdown of Gilderoy at the end. This shifts the focus more directly to the relationship between him, Francesco and, eventually, Santini, (a confident debut from Luke Pasqualino), and the actresses, where the characters have been mixed up and changed a bit. Elena/Sara is played by Eugenia Caruso who actually played Claudia in the film and starred in Strickland’s next major film The Duke of Burgundy. Sylvia is played by Lara Rossi, (who I remember well from The Writer at the Almeida), Carla by Beatrice Scirocchi and vocal composer Lore Lixenberg takes on the Katalin Ladik part. All clear? Nope. Don’t worry. there is no confusion in the play. Well aside from in Gilderoy’s mind.

It also lays bare the process of creating the sound-track to the film with two on stage Foley artists in the form of the silent Massimo and Massimo, (Tom Espiner, who has form on this as the on-stage Foley for Simon McBurney’s Magic Flute of which more to follow on these very pages shortly), and Hemi Yeroham), brooding janitor Lorenzo (Sidney Kean) and the voice of Giovanni (Stefano Braschi). The distance between the process, squashing a melon say, and the intention, some unspeakable violence, of the sound is as sharp a metaphor for the illusion of theatre, or film, as you could imagine.

However the heart of play lies with the performance of Tom Brooke as Gilderoy. He initially cuts a more confident air than Toby Jones in the film, determined to show his skill, (which also allows us even more insight into the technological processes). However the constant harassment and worse by Francesco, Enzo Cilenti is superb here, and the entreaties from the women, are what push him over the edge, perhaps less than the content of the film. It feels more like he is lashing out rather than disintegrating as he goes round and round trying to create the “perfect” closing torture scene soundtrack. In the end he is complicit as we see him scare Carla into giving the perfect “real”scream . What is clever though is that large swathes of the dialogue between the Italian characters, except where Francesco intervenes ostensibly to help Gilderoy, are spoken in Italian. Leaving the audience, mostly, in the dark alongside our hero.

It also, of course, means that, in a story centred on sound, the sound design had to match the ambition of the adaptation. It did. Thanks to the go-to stage sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, alongside the aforementioned mentioned Tom Espiner’s Foley, (there is a lot of vegetable abuse here), and Lore Lixenberg’s vocals. Lee Curran as lighting designer, Sasha Milavic Davies (who is one of the best in her field methinks), projectionist Mogzi Bromley-Morgans and even the superb studio set of Anna Yates (with Tom Scutt’s input) all had to take a back seat to the brothers Ringham. Pound for pound I doubt you will ever see a more extraordinary manifestation of the technical craft of theatre-making.

Did it work as a play though? Yes definitely. The team has wisely not tried to go for broke with the more surreal visual conceits of the film and to offer more complexity in the relationships between characters, and, I think, to point up, by implication, the misogyny of genre and industry. The idea that creatives have some responsibility for the material they create also comes through even if the individual isolation of Gilderoy is less explicit. Santini’s twisted justification for the film to Gilderoy, and Gilderoy’s own disavowal of, I think, Elena, “I’m just a technician”, are key scenes in this regard.

There is suspense and direction in the story. There are even a couple of jump-scares. The play also expertly captures the slippery meta elision between play and film within a play, (I note that Jamie Lloyd captured the same vibe in his version of The Slight Ache in the Pinter season recently). To be fair it does sort of just end, there is no conclusion, but that is common to the film. I can see exactly why everyone here wanted to bring this project to life and I for one thoroughly enjoyed it. On the other hand if you weren’t familiar with the film, took a punt and are not nerded up by the technical aspects, then I could see this being a little frustrating.

Venice Baroque Orchestra and Avi Avital at Wigmore Hall review *****

Venice Baroque Orchestra, Avi Avital (mandolin)

Wigmore Hall, 22nd December 2018

  • Francesco Geminiani Concerto Grosso in D minor after Corelli’s ‘La Follia’ Op. 5 No. 12
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in D for lute and strings RV93
  • Vivaldi – Sinfonia in G RV146
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in A minor Op. 3 No. 6 RV356
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in D minor for strings RV127
  • Vivaldi – Mandolin Concerto in C RV425
  • Giovanni Paisiello – Mandolin Concerto in E flat
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in G minor for mandolin, strings and basso continuo ‘Summer’ from The Four Seasons RV315

Saturday before Christmas. Family loafing about in front of screens or head in a book. Not the Tourist though. Two plays down and on to hear one of the finest Baroque ensembles anywhere rock out with some kick-ass Vivaldi and a couple of his lesser known contemporaries. With one of the world’s finest mandolin player (mandolinist?), Israeli Avi Avital, as soloist.

However before I got there, an errand to run. Tracking down specified cosmetics for BD and LD courtesy of Father Christmas. From Selfridges. On the Saturday before Christmas. I thought everyone did their shopping on-line now. And that retailers where watching sales plummet as the Great British public collectively sh*ts itself ahead of the March madness. Or that we had reached peak stuff.

Apparently not. I was scared. I am not much of a bricks and mortars man even on a quiet Tuesday morning. This though was positively Dantean, Especially when I got to the specified concession to discover that every woman in London under the age of 25 had come to the purchasing party. In trying to track down the appropriate shade of eye shadow I was man-handled, or should that be woman-jostled, on multiple occasions. Sensing my fear a patient sales assistant took pity on me and, in an instance, she briskly completed my elementary task. For the briefest of moments I was overtaken by an excess of Christmas spirit smiling at all those around me. Seeing fear on the faces of the throng, as they sized up the scruffy, fat, ageing weirdo grinning inanely at them, I then realised it was time to scarper. Out I waddled, weaving between the happy shoppers, scuttling along Oxford Street, round the corner, through the phalanx of black Range Rovers, (if you cannot, will not or you are proscribed from using public transport why on earth do you need to be carted around in these malevolent gas guzzlers), until finally reaching the comparative calm of Wigmore Street. Tempted to let out a cry of Freedom!!! Braveheart style but the Tourist realises that might unsettle the real tourists.

Two lessons dear reader. Financialised, neo-liberal capitalism edges ever closer to eating itself in an orgy of debt-filled consumerism and the Scrooge-like greying Tourist is now happier in the company of the genteel Wigmore Hall audience that the massed ranks of the crazed hit-polloi on a retail mission.

Though it turns out that the Wigmore Hall denizens are less genteel that you might imagine. For when Avi Avital came on the crowd when apeshit. OK maybe I exaggerate but ladies, and gentlemen, of a certain age definitely came out in a hot flush. For he is a good looking boy as you can see from the above, tousled-haired, tall, dark, handsome and when he gets going on his mandolin, channeling his inner rock god, it was as if Jimmy Page was back on stage at Madison Square Gardens circa 1973. OK minus the lighting rigs, dry ice, Catherine wheels, hummingbird jacket and Boeing jet round the back. Oh and he was sat on a chair somewhat curtailing the head-bang. Still there is no doubt he is a captivating performer who justified the delirious (by classical music audience standards) reaction.

Now the remaining (discovered) mandolin repertoire in the Western classical tradition, or at least that which the modern punters will pay to hear, is a little thin on the ground. (Though it is not a problem found in folk, especially, bluegrass, music). Which, perforce, limits the number of professional players. The lute, the precursor of the mandolin family, has a long and proud history in Renaissance and Baroque music, but the mandolin didn’t really take off as a solo instrument until the middle of the C18 when, most likely, the Neapolitan Vinaccia family came up with the eight stringed (in two courses) baby we know today. With strings of steel so the little fella could be heard, and then some, above the orchestra. The world has countless things of beauty to be grateful for from Italy. Not least most Western musical instruments.

Cue a burst of activity from Vivaldi and other Italian Baroque giants for the mandolin. But not much else. Beethoven had a fondness for the instrument, Mozart slipped it into Don Giovanni and a few other notables since have smuggled it into their opus list. There was a notable revival in Italy led by Rafaelle Calace in the mid C20 and the instrument has a fair following in Japanese classical music, I guess because of the sound similarity with the koto. I also see that Ligeti found a place for it in Le grande macabre: mind you he found a place for just about everything in that extraordinary masterpiece

All this means that adapting works originally scored for other instruments is par for the mandolin course. As here with Mr Avital’s own arrangement of Summer from The Four Seasons. (AA preceded this with a little patter about how he confused “Summer” with “Winter” when he was a nipper. OK so it wasn’t full on scathing Bill Hicks but it was worth a chuckle especially when you have shared that confusion).

Now I am guessing, that is if you care at all, that you either fall into the camp that believes, like the Tourist, that Vivaldi was a genius able to weave magic from short, simple repetitive musical ideas, or that he was a flashy journeyman who wrote the same arpeggio-laden riffs over and over again. Well Bach was with me even if Stravinsky wasn’t. To get the best out of AV though you need a specialist band that knows its stuff. The Venice Baroque Orchestra, along with the Concerto Italiano, Europa Galanta and Il Giardino Armonico is that band. Founder harpsichordist Andrea Marcon may have taken a back seat now but this ensemble still contains some of the very best Baroque specialists in Italy and a couple of jokers in lutenist Ivano Zanenghi and leader here, violinist Gianpiero Zanocco.

The difference is their ability to created complex harmonies, expansive dynamics and varied tempi from the apparently simple notes on the pages. Whilst, especially in the basso continuo, but also in the ripeno, tirelessly banging out thumping motoric rhythms. Vivaldi, and his Italian Baroque chums, may have worked to the principle that less is more when it comes to the length of their works but even so there is no let up, for player or listener, when the burn kicks in. Try it if you don’t believe me. Find a bog standard Four Seasons from 30 years ago churned out at a chugging medium pace by a modern orchestra that was probably rehearsing some interminable Bruckner that very afternoon, and compare it with the VBO’s “period everything” Sony recording with Giuliano Carmignola on the fiddle. See what I mean? The latter will blow your socks off, the former will likely see you popping the kettle on.

VIVALDI IS NOT BACKGROUND MUSIC AND SHOULD ON NO ACCOUNT BE PLAYED IN THE CAR. SLAP ON THE AFOREMENTIONED DISC. TURN IT UP VERRY LOUD. AND DANCE.

Giovanni Paisiello is primarily known for his operas including a setting of The Barber of Seville twenty odd years before Rossini seized his moment. He also banged out reams of scared music and a few keyboard concertos. His Mandolin Concerto was not signed but is generally accredited to him. AA really let fly here bouncing off his chair own a final flourish. Francesco Geminiani was one of the many Italian musicians who came to London in the first half of the C18 armed with an education from the master Corelli who served as the basis, with added string parts, for the Concerto grossi played here.

Vivaldi’s RV 425, the C major concerto written specifically for the mandolin, was probably the evening’s highlight. The strings, bar a few bars from the cello, play pizzicato throughout the final movement. Amazing. RV 93, pinched from the original lute, was another joy. RV 356, from L’estro armonico, was originally scored for violin so AA has substituted tremolos to replicate the long violin sustains. What a clever fellow. Of course this, as with the Winter, is always going to sound better on the violin but AA seems to me to make as good a case as is possible for his purloining.

Wonderful concert. Last entrant in my top 10 of the year. And as it turned out the highpoint before a somewhat fraught Christmas. Ho hum.

The Swingling Sixties: the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, The Swingles, London Philharmonic Choir

Royal Festival Hall, 8th December 2018

  • Elizabeth Atherton – soprano
  • Maria Ostroukhova – mezzo-soprano
  • Sam Furness – tenor
  • Joel Williams – tenor
  • Theodore Platt – baritone
  • Joshua Bloom – bass
  • Stravinsky – Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam)
  • Stravinsky – Threni
  • Stravinsky – Tango
  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia

I cannot describe how excited I was about this concert, and not just because it represented the final instalment of the year long Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey retrospective in which the London Philharmonic Orchestra (amongst others) has performed the vast majority of Stravinsky’s large scale orchestral and choral works, as well as many of the ballets at operas, at the South Bank. Here, in the final instalment, we were treated to a pair of his late “serial” works for orchestra, Variations, and for choir, Threni, as well as a few welcome surprises. Of course Stravinsky being Stravinsky this was not the miserable, astringent, intellectual fare of the Second Viennesers but an altogether more satisfying feast.

However the real reason for the Tourist’s frenzied anticipation, (OK maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration), was the performance of Berio’s masterpiece Sinfonia. The Tourist hopes to soldier on for a few more years yet and pack in a little more exploration and understanding, (though he feels he may have come close to mapping out the boundaries of what he “likes” and “dislikes”), but he is pretty sure that Sinfonia would be a shoe-in for his list of top ten greatest “classical” music works. Actually, just for fun and in festive spirit, here is the current state of play on that work in progress. In no particular order. Only one piece per composer. Oh and there are 14. Like I say a work in progress.

  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 7
  • Isaac Albeniz – Iberia
  • Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
  • Arvo Part – Fratres
  • Johann Sebastian Bach – Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
  • Benjamin Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Etudes
  • Claudio Monteverdi – Vespers
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphony No 41
  • Steve Reich – Drumming
  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 10
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
  • William Byrd – Mass For 5 Voices

I’ll think you will agree there is nothing intimidating here and, if I say so myself, it contains a fair smattering of “popular” hits. Romantic composers are conspicuous by their absence and, for those of a certain age, in the words of Snap!, Rhythm is a Dancer here. Hopefully though you can see the Tourist is not the type to show off with the obscure or arcane. So, dear reader, if you are “new” to classical music, I say why not take the plunge with a few of these pumping beats.

Anyway back to the business in hand. Sinfonia was originally written for The Swingle Singers, the forerunner of this evening’s revamped ensemble and frankly the only group capable of doing it justice, but Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO still had a lot of work to do to pull this off. I have said before that Mr Jurowski, on his day and in the right repertoire, is as good as any conductor I have ever heard, including Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Colin Davies, Mariss Jansons, Georg Solti and John Eliot Gardiner. Any absentees you spot reflects the fact I either haven’t heard them or don’t like them. I have never heard Riccardo Chailly conduct but know I should and that Kirill Petrenko, based on the Beethoven 7 with the BPO at the Proms in September, plainly knows what he is about. F*ck me was that good.

When Mr Jurowski sets up shop permanently in Berlin in a couple of years it will be a blow to London. As will the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen from the Philharmonia. I imagine there are plenty of people who couldn’t give a flying f*ck about the artistic leadership of London’s classical music ensembles and indeed the future direction of the South Bank but, trust me, culture, even when “highbrow”, really matters. I still have this uncomfortable feeling that olde England is now determined to plough on with making a right b*llocks of everything, from which our abiding advantage, our language, will not be sufficient to save us. We went down the toilet, geopolitically, for most of the Late Middle Ages until a few bright sparks in the C17 and beyond came up with the idea of combining capital, education and technology to travel round the world nicking land, stuff and people. We have been doing the same, that is falling back a little, for a few decades now. We still do many things well but only if we welcome innovation, capital and people. Thus changing who “we” are. Which “we” have always done. Cutting “ourselves” off is not, and has never been, an option.

Jesus what has got into me. Back to Vladimir and the LPO. He is a dab hand in just about anything Russian, and I include Stravinsky in that, but, over the past few years, he, and the orchestra have also sprung a fair few surprises. To which we can now add the Sinfonia. Berio composed the piece in 1968/69 to celebrate the 125th year of the New York Phil. Defiantly post-serial, (old Luciano had a few choice words to say about serial music even when embraced by Stravinsky), post-modern, (that being all the rage then as it still is now), forged in the white heat of the intellectual, and actual, revolutions of the late 1960s, (I realise this is not getting a bit w*anky), you might be forgiven for thinking that Sinfonia will be some arty-farty, hippy inflected guff that hasn’t aged well.

Especially when you start reading about its structure. Originally four movements, which Berio quickly expanded to five with a sort of coda that commented on the previous four, it begins with texts from Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Yep that Claude Levi-Strauss. Up there with those other Gallic sorts like Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and Barthes, and worst still those dubious German types like the Frankfurt School, who we Brits are rightly suspicious of. Drinking wine, smoking odd cigarettes, carrying copies of Das Kapital, and, worst of all, thinking and talking all day. Still they, and their descendants, will never infect the stout yeomanry of the English shires with their clever dick mumbo jumbo once we get shot of “Europe”.

Now C L-S had a theory that myths were structured in “musical” form, following either a fugal or a sonata construction. Nope me neither. Anyway apparently there were exceptions to the rule for myths about the origins of water and this is what Berio alighted on for Movement I. Which I guess means it has no form. It is a kind of slow threnody punctuated by all manner of bangs and wallops with the eight amplified voices chiming in with the text. Near the end a piano gets a look in leading a percussive Bugs Bunny scramble. It is a bit nuts. C L-S was baffled by where LB was coming from. So don’t despair if you are too.

But it kind of has a way of drawing you in. Berio saw a sinfonia in a very literal sense, from the ancient Greek, a “sounding together”. A layering of sound, instrumental and vocal, often cacophonous for sure but always individually textured. And most importantly searching for “a balance” which is what distinguishes it from the plink-plonk-fizz of much of the contemporary classical music that preceded it. Thus, in movement II, Berio takes one of his own chamber works O King, for five instruments and mezzo-soprano, and recasts it for the orchestra. It is a kind of lament based on two whole tone scales where the singers gradually build up the name of Martin Luther King. Instrumental and vocal whoops representing the vowels and consonants contrast with a shimmering orchestral backdrop.

All clear. On to Movement III then. “In ruling fliessener Bewegung”. In quiet flowing movement. The sub-title of the third movement scherzo of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. For this, cut-up and re-orchestrated, is what, famously, sits behind the movement. Alongside countless other snatches of classical music through history. Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith, Strauss, Berlioz, Stockhausen, Boulez and many, many more. And, because I guess it seemed to need it, fragments of Beckett’s The Unnameable are also sung, spoken and stuttered, alongside, behind or over the top of the music. There is also a bit of Joyce, some graffiti quotes, even Berio’s own diary entries.

It is a quite extraordinary experience, unnerving, hilarious, annoying, enigmatic and occasionally sublime, a history of music threaded through what might be someone’s personal history. At first it appears to be a mess, a collage with no structure or pattern. But hang on. Didn’t that musical quotation seem to echo the Mahler? And why did that phrase, which made me laugh out loud, jump out? Once again you are drawn in, looking for something, “keeping going” as Berio would have it, whilst all around “civilisation” is threatened by the forces of repression.

I know, I know. Now I sound like a right dick. And yes, just maybe it is a little bit still of its time, But it is just such a jaw-droopingly extraordinary sound-world, so rich, so un-musical yet so musical., that this must be forgiven. Movement IV returns to the tonality of the second movement with a quotation, again from Mahler’s Resurrection, setting up the voices to wander off into another, choral, world. Had enough of quotation? Berio hasn’t, as Movement V then packs in the mother of self-referencing, meta “analysis” of everything that has gone before. Your ears and brain will be processing the aural information, and telling you things, even if you don’t know how and why it is happening.

Not for one single second of the whole work does any of this feel like hard work. Quite the opposite. There is tension and resolution. It is uplifting even as it is disturbing. And very funny even as it mystifies. And I can’t imagine a better performance than here. I am listening to the recommended recording as I write. The Orchestre National de France under Pierre Boulez with the New Swingle Singers (including founder Ward Swingle himself). The LPO and current Swingles sounded better. And that from somewhere in the back stalls of the Festival Hall. Maybe it was the excitement of it being live but any way up it was tremendous. In the third movement especially the lilt of the Mahler scherzo really was there throughout but it never obscured the other musical phrases. Seating the Swingles behind the first row of strings, though still forcefully amplified, ensured they were both integrated with, and punchily counter-pointed, to the LPO. How so much detail was conjured from so much confusion was, literally, uncanny. I gather there are times when Vladimir Jurowski’s excessive precision can annoy some punters. Not me. And definitely not here.

And a shout out to the sound engineers at work for the performance. I can’t find a reference in the programme. Well done though. Unlike the BBC who managed to nonce up the Radio 3 recording.

So you will have to find another performance but give it a whirl if you can. half an hour of your life that you will never get back. But in a good way. A really, really, really good way.

What about the Stravinsky? Well the appetiser, the Variations in memory of Aldous Huxley who died on the same day that JFK was assassinated, is a twelve note tone row which is subject to a series of eleven mechanical “variations”, inversion, retrograde, and the like, with each variation made up of twelve orchestral parts and each having twelve beats in a metre. It was IS’s last orchestral score. Apparently Huxley himself would have had no truck with such serial musing but, coming in at just five minutes, it was interesting at the time if thereafter, forgettable, apart maybe from the astonishing 12 violin variation – like having Xenakis in da house.

The Threni however is an altogether more substantial affair, IS’s longest serial work, in three parts, each drawing on selected Latin verses from the Book of Lamentations, with the middle section by far the most substantial, It makes much use of sung Hebrew letters. There is no particular narrative, it not being intended for liturgy, and it wheels out a biggish orchestra, (including a sarrusophone and flugelhorn), six soloists and a hefty choir, though tutti are frugally used. It is serial in construction but, and this is where old Igor really shows his musical cunning, it doesn’t really sound like it. It is anchored in the more tonal elements of the twelve note row and regularly allows the dissonance to resolve in consonant highlights. The orchestral and choral textures are distinct and Stravinsky chucks in all manner of single tone chants and antiphonal exchanges such that, on occasion, it really does sound like the high polyphony of Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina, even if it plainly isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. It still has all the necessary austere, other-worldly “tunelessness” you might expect from a twelve tone choral work. It just isn’t ugly. Quite the reverse in many places. Full of drama and contrast. I am not saying you would want to chopping the veg or driving home for Christmas with this in the background, just that it is very different from what you might expect. It is not quite up to the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms from some 30 years earlier but is definitely up there with IS’s swan-song the Requiem Canticles.

IS drew inspiration from an earlier Lamentations of Jeremiah published in 1942 by Czech-Austrian composer Ernst Krenek which more explicitly used twelve tone technique combined with Renaissance modal counterpoint. (Don’t worry Krenek himself spent a couple of years aping Stravinsky’s neo-classicism before he became a disciple of Schoenberg). Whilst the first performance of Threni in Venice in 1958 went off well, the premiere in Paris a couple of months later was a right dog’s dinner with Stravinsky, who conducted, getting into a slanging match of recrimination with his bessie Robert Craft ,who was supposed to have prepared the orchestra, and Piere Boulez who drafted in the woefully under-rehearsed soloists. The chorus probably wasn’t best amused when presented with the original score which was, shall we say, scantily clad in the bar-line department. Mind you given the dynamic range that IS requests of the choir that might have been the least of their problems.

No such shenanigans with the LPO and Mr Jurowski who delivered a beautifully layered interpretation with the LPO chorus, split antiphonally, as persuasive as I had ever heard. In fact they made it look and sound easy which, as the paucity of live interpretations reminds us, it most certainly is not. I would point to Joshua Bloom and late replacement Sam Furness as the pick of the soloists, but then again then had more time to shine in the central passages.

Prior to the Sinfonia the Swingles served up a vocal arrangement of Stravinsky’s Tango, complete with beatbox, which I think improved on the orchestral and piano versions previously heard in this Series. And, after another a cappella treat in the form of the Piazzolla Libertango, the LPO encored with Stravinsky’s Circus Polka to send us on our way with a Yo Ho Ho.

Spare a thought though for Maxim Mikhailov the Russian bass, from a long line of Russian basses, who was booked for the Threni solo part and who sang in the Requiem Canticles here a few weeks ago. He died on 21st November. Seems like he was beaten up on a Moscow street. FFS.