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 Rape of Lucretia at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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The Rape of Lucretia

Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 1st August 2018

The Rape of Lucretia is a story with a long historical and artistic pedigree. It lies at the heart of the creation legend of the founding of the Roman Republic in the late 500s BCE, was documented by Livy and Ovid, then St Augustine, appears in Dante, Chaucer and Lydgate, was the subject of a poem by Shakespeare, (and Lucretia was referenced in some of his plays), and was a staple of much Renaissance and later art, notably works by Titian, Veronese, Rembrandt, Dürer, Raphael, Botticelli, old Cranach and Artemisia Gentileschi. The worst of these, depicting the rape, are violently voyeuristic, the best examine Lucretia’s subsequent suicide whilst avoiding gory titillation. Check out Rembrandt’s two takes on the latter, (see one above), Veronese’s and, best of all, Artemisia Gentileschi’s.

The story has undergone a few variations through the ages but, in the events of the Britten opera here, essentially runs like this. Tarquinius, the son of the last king of Rome Tarquinius Superbus, is sent on a military errand where he meets up with Collatinus and Junius. They have a few beers, (or the Roman equivalent),  and get to discussing the chastity of the women of Rome. Junius goads Tarquinius into testing the virtue of Collatinus’s faithful wife Lucretia. Tarquinius rides to Collatinus’s house that night and the servants are obliged to let him in. He rapes Lucretia and leaves. Collatinus returns. He comforts her but she cannot bear the shame and commits suicide. Junius tries to atone for his involvement by sparking a rebellion against the King.

As you can see there are multiple perspectives for the creatives who take on this ugly story, and specifically this opera, to alight on. Ronald Duncan’s libretto, which in turn is based on the French play Le Viol de Lucrece by Andre Obey, uses the device of a Male and Female Chorus to frame the action and, incongruously to me, to tack on a Christian message, notably in the Epilogue, to the “pagan” tale. He also uses some pretty high-falutin’ and fancy language for both chorus and in the dialogue. It is easy to grasp what is going on but the florid text does sometimes get in the way a bit.

Fortunately though the genius of Mr Benjamin Britten is at hand. The Rape of Lucretia, like Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw which we recently saw in the superb production at the Open Air Theatre (The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****), is a chamber opera scored for just thirteen instruments. As usual it took me 15 minutes or so to adjust to BB’s astounding mix of tonality, effect and experimentation but, once the ears were fully up and running, this music was as dazzling as I remembered. It has been a fair few years since the last performance I saw, (can’t actually remember where),  and I can’t say it is a turntable regular Chez Tourist, but, no matter, I was mesmerised. The Orpheus Sinfonia under Music Director Peter Selwyn, (who provided piano recitative accompaniment), were well up to the task and it was thrilling to hear the score in such an intimate space. The Sinfonia was founded to give an opportunity for talented young musicians to pursue a career that, trust me, they are doing for love not money. On this showing there are some fine talents here.

How then to deal today with what is plainly a deeply unsettling story? Britten was drawn to it as yet another “corruption of innocence” parable, the theme of so many of his operas. Yet I am not convinced that, as with those other operas, he fully thought through the perils of the material he was dealing with. Director Julia Burbach though made the most of the “universal” message that Duncan and Britten devised. The modern dress Male and Female Chorus, (here tenor Nick Pritchard and soprano Natasha Jouhl), open the opera by explaining how Rome under the Etruscan King Tarquinius Superbus is fighting off the Greeks and how the city has fallen into depravity. A Christian message for sure but as, subsequently, the two singers voice the thoughts of the male and female protagonists and move the story on, “out of time” as in classical Greek tragedy, a device to “explain” the motives and psychology of the characters and to involve us, the audience, in the action.

Fealty to Duncan’s libretto maybe means the production cannot resonant quite as volubly as it might have wanted to current MeToo awareness. Even so the drunken toxic masculinity, the fear that grips Lucretia and her two servants on Tarquinius’s arrival, the rape itself and Lucretia, broken, arranging flowers the next morning, are immensely powerful scenes reflecting the music, the acting and the movement of the characters and chorus under Julia Burbach’s direction. Having the Male and Female Chorus move through, and even at some points shape, the action was a smart move which offered insight.

I am not sure that any of this made the content of the story more palatable though and I can certainly understand why some may think this is an opera better left unstaged. I would suggest you see a production and decide for yourself though. This is not the only misogynistic opera: far from it. But when Lucretia, as here, is literally staring directly at you after the violence she suffers, it is impossible to ignore. And, when she dismisses Collatinus’s plea that Tarquinius’s action can be “forgotten”, the reason for her suicide is shifted from shame to anger.

The performances were uniformly excellent, particularly the two Chorus and contralto Bethan Langford as Lucretia. Bass Andrew Tipple was a deliberately vapid Collatinus, James Corrigan was a suitably odious Junius and a menacing Benjamin Lewis skilfully conveyed Tarquinius’s sickening importuning ahead of the rape. Claire Swale and Katherine Taylor-Jones both sang beautifully as Lucia and Bianca, Lucretia’s maid and nurse respectively. I am guessing that the performers had to take it down a notch or two in the Arcola space but what was lost in singing power was more than made up in clarity and immediacy.

The opera was staged as part of the Arcola’s Grimeborn festival which is not into its 11th year with 55 performances across 17 productions. For those of us who cannot face, or afford, the trip to Glyndebourne, where this opera was premiered in 1946, Grimeborn offers a bloody marvellous alternative. The small space means poncey C19 boring opera is off the agenda or the creative teams have to aggressively rethink it. New interpretations and new work abound. Chamber opera is in its element. Everything comes alive and acting, not vocal histrionics or regie-directorial setting, takes centre stage. All for around 20 quid a pop or less if you arm yourself with an Arcola Passport which is simply the second best gift to culture on the planet, after the Arcola AD Mehmet Ergen who should be knighted this minute.

 

 

The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****

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The Turn of the Screw

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, ENO, 29th June 2018

Benjamin Britten. The Turn of the Screw. Members of the ENO Orchestra conducted by up and coming talent Toby Purser. Timothy Sheader directing. A Soutra Gilmour set. At the Open Air Theatre. On a beautiful late June evening. In the company of the SO, (who loves her Henry James and surprised herself by enjoying Deborah Warner’s staging of Death in Venice in 2013 at the ENO), BUD and KCK. Of course I was going to love this.

One of the aims here was to extend young BUD’s operatic education beyond Mozart. As he remarked here, not a lot of tunes.. Not sure I agree but there is no doubt in my mind that Britten’s music became darker through time, cleverer, from an already very high base, more progressive and less conservative, whilst never embracing the fearsome avant-garde, and richer, even as textures got sparser. The tonality is tempered with lots of (lovely)  dissonance.

I think TTOTS occupies a key place in the development of all of Britten’s art. It was composed in 1954, just after Gloriana, and three years after Billy Budd. In the same year Britten composed his Canticle No III, Still Falls the Rain for tenor piano and, Britten’s favourite, horn. This is recognisably BB, like a trip-hop version of the Serenade Op 31, but this, and the Winter Words song cycle from 1953, seem more melancholic than the warmer equivalents before the war. Britten himself said that his music was forever changed by the WWII, as was true for pretty much all Western art, notably by a visit to Belsen, but I don’t think this really becomes apparent until the mid 1950’s.

Anyway TTOTS is definitely an example of the “less is more” BB where surface effect is toned down a little, (though not jettisoned entirely, there are plenty of ravishing musical ideas here), in the service of greater structural and emotional depth. And structurally this is a score of genius as a tightly wound serial “screw” theme and set of 15 variations built on a different semitone, opens each scene, ratcheting up the tension. So, you see BUD, there is a “tune”, you just hear it in a different way.

Which I think is why it is such an effective piece of musical theatre, an opinion with which BUD heartily conferred. TTOTS is apparently BB’s most performed opera. And probably the most performed opera in English. And, after your man Puccini, probably the most performed opera from the C20. Certainly the most performed of those operas written since the war. In part this reflects its chamber structure. With just 13 instrumentalists and a cast of 7, this is no big budget affair. As was intended. However I also think it reflects near perfect synthesis of story, libretto and music. All three offer a sufficient challenge to an audience but in no way is this intimidating. It always takes a bit of time to get swept up into a Britten opera, but swept up you will be, even if it isn’t the massive, warming, rush of Mozart.

In retrospect it was pretty much a nailed on certainty that BB and Myfanwy Piper would alight on Henry James’s novella. BB, and his various librettists, always started with an artistic inspiration. Usually the story revolved around an “outsider” estranged from the society around him. There’s usually some sort of spiritual dimension. And, nailed on, there will be some sort of uneasy “corruption of the innocent” theme. TTOTS has all of the requisite elements in spades. Better than this though is the ambiguity embedded in the story. What really happened at Bly? What was, or is, the nature of the relationship between Miles and Flora, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? Who, and what, can we see? Who, and what, do the characters really see? After all only the Governess apparently sees the ghosts in HJ’s original. Is this all in the Governess’s mind then? How are we being manipulated? Strange to think then that the story came to HJ via none other than the future Archbishop of Canterbury in 1895.

Myfanwy Piper’s text reads like a poetic, musical impression of Henry James’s book but it picks its highpoint carefully. On to this BB’s score is perfectly stitched. In the book, told through the first person narrative of the Governess, it is up to you to imagine what happens. In my estimation, and those way smarter than me, its psychological depth and disturbing themes, take it beyond your bog standard gothic ghost story. In the innumerable film and TV versions, the ghosts can be made to seem like the extensions of everyday reality that HJ intended (I think), thanks to the trickery of the camera, but you all get one view, one take on the story. In a version for stage as here, (or notably The Innocents or the 2013 Almeida take), Quint and the Governess are undeniably corporeal, (any design team which could escape that mortal fact would get my money, no question), especially if they are going to sing, and the children are going to sing to them, and scenes unfold where the Governess is not present. So the mystery and ambivalence has to come from the music. And I cannot imagine anyone better than Britten at facilitating this.

But BB and MP take things a lot further. Take Miles’s famous Malo song that is repeated by the Governess at the end. Haunting for sure with viola, horn and harp. Malo in Latin could either mean “bad”, “to prefer” or an apple, symbol of innocence. “I would rather be… in an apple tree … than a naughty boy … in adversity”. The Latin words recited in the lesson prior to this contain all sorts of sexual references. Miles wanting “his own kind” and reflecting on his “queer life”. Mrs Gross’s line about Quint being “free with everyone” allowed to linger in the Regent’s Park air. Blimey. This is how the opera adds a new dimension contrasting the order and convention that the Governess clings to with the liberty that Quint offers whilst not seeking to mask the implication of abuse.

So, as you can see, I am a fan of this opera. What about the production then. Sandra Gilmour has imagined the remote country house of Bly as a large, dilapidated conservatory fronted by overgrown grass and a jetty leading to the “lake” and into the audience. It was amazing. Timothy Sheader, after a decade at Regents Park, now knows exactly how to use the unique space to best effect. TTOFTS was pushed out to an 8pm start to ensure sunset and early twilight matched the change in dramatic mood in the story and provided a perfect backdrop for lighting designer Jon Clark to show off his skills. Quint and Jessel make entrances from within the audience. Even the parakeets flew over on cue, “the birds fly home to these great trees”, at our performance. The debacle of last years Tale of Two Cities is entirely forgiven. The pacing was sublime and the musicianship top notch, especially, the viola of Rebecca Chambers, the clarinet of Barnaby Robson, the horn of John Thurgood and the harp of Alison Martin. Putting the orchestra inside the conservatory, behind a panel of ancient glass, thus lending them a ghostly quality, was a genius touch.

On this evening ENO Harewood Artists Elgan Llyr Thomas played Peter Quint with William Morgan taking the Prologue. Mr Thomas’s tenor voice is clear and direct, through the melismas especially, and fitted the space. I was a little less sure about his wig and beard combo. Anita Watson was a suitably unhinged Governess, for me she was convinced this was really happening, and Elin Pritchard a very disturbing, steampunky Miss Jessel. Janis Kelly, who has in her time played Flora. Miss Jessel and the Governess, now played a protective Mrs Gross. Daniel Alexander Sidhorn’s precociousness made for an arresting Miles though I have to say Elen Wilmer’s Flora was, for me, the more impressive voice. As an actor though Master Sidhorn is the real deal. Simultaneously vulnerable and malign.

Indeed Elen matched the elder Elin in look and movement creating a “bond” between Flora and Miss Jessel as disturbing in its way as that between Miles and Quint, an unexpected bonus. Mind you when Miles dons his purple shirt to match Quint’s and when he takes over from Quint on the piano, (young Sidhorn is either a mighty fine  pianist or an even better “piano mimer”), the audience was bolt upright in their collective seats. And, on top of all of this, Mr Sheader really messed with our heads with a provocatively erotic scene as the Governess, “lost in my labyrinth”, asleep, is joined silently by Quint and Miss Jessel, or more specifically her hair, with Flora’s symbolic dolly and with Miles’s symbolic jack-in-the-box. Oh and did I say Miss Jessel is pregnant here.

One final thing. It’s outside. Which means a little technology is required to keep the volume stable as it were for both ensemble and singers. Which meant every word, with a couple of exceptions when Anita Watson’s soprano heads off to the higher registers, was crystal clear. Didn’t stop me consulting the libretto on occasion but what it did mean is that, for maybe the first time ever, I could savour every word of the libretto, to set alongside this stunning score and this tremendous production. This is what theatre, and opera, should all be about.

 

 

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.

 

Laura van der Heijden and Petr Limonov at Wigmore Hall review ***

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Laura van der Heijden (cello), Petr Limonov (piano)

Wigmore Hall, 2nd April 2018

  • Britten – Cello Sonata in C major, Op 65
  • Shostakovich – Cello Sonata in D minor Op 40

21st December 1960. Britten and Shostakovich are sharing a box at the Festival Hall. That’s right the two greatest composers of the twentieth century, well maybe the two greatest after a chap called Stravinsky, are both in a box listening to Mstislav Rostropovich playing Dmitri’s First Cello Concerto. I’d like to have been there. Anyway Mstislav persuades Britten to compose a sonata just for him a year later which, at this concert, is set alongside Shostakovich’s own contribution to the form, written in 1934, as he broke away from his early, modernist days, and, unlike his Cello Concertos, not dedicated to Mr Rostropovich.

The admiration and regard that BB and DSCH had for each other is well known but their musical connections, beyond the broad commitment to tonality, is not always clear. Despite the time between these two works I was struck by how this comparison of the two sonatas pointed up their similarities.

Britten begins with a Dialogo, an exchange of single notes and short phrases between the two instruments, which eventually  reveals two themes, a choppy, pleading line for cello and a soothing rise and fall for piano, developed and recapitulated. Next a jerky scherzo, with cello entirely pizzicato, which keeps running off over the horizon. It could be Bartok, or course, but it could have just as easily come from a mid period DSCH quartet. The central Elegia similarly could have seeped out of one of those interminable Largos in any DSCH symphony. Simple but hugely effective. As for the Marcia which follows, well you might be forgiven for thinking this is a parody of a DSCH parody, as the cello troops haphazardly wobble off in entirely the wrong direction thanks to the incompetent piano general, ending up in no man’s land. Then the final Moto Perpetuo, a classic Britten device, but again redolent of DSCH’s chamber scherzos, if a bit more inventive, with a big tutti flourish at the end.

And guess what. The Shostakovich sonata’s final movement incorporates a very similar moto perpetuo. Let’s not get ahead of ourself though. DSCH begins with a restrained opening, with a tiny bit of irritation, that parlays into about the most lyrical second theme you could imagine from this prickliest of composers. Hard to believe this was written at a time when wife Nina had left him for a bit after he confessed to an affair. (I have often wondered what scientist Nina saw in this acidic, direct, conflicted, alcoholic, man-child obsessive. Beyond his musical genius of course. Still the SO is still with the Tourist, without even the defence of talent, so no accounting for taste).

Anyway there is no evidence of DSCH’s rebellious youth or the cacaphonies that got him deep in the shit with Joe Stalin a couple of years later. (Though remember it took a couple of years before the Politburo woke up to the fact that Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District was seditious formalism. That’s the problem with authoritarian artistic taste. It’s a bit backward).

Halfway in to this monster first movement, just as we might be tiring of DSCH’s impression of Brahms, he hits us with something more rhythmic and darker with cello pizzicato and some plodding from piano, which keeps recurring.

In the second movement we are back to familiar territory with a scherzo in the form of a brisk, marchy waltz. In the middle some fancy cello glissando and legato melody from piano, before the two reverse. Vintage DSCH. The slow movement is also recognisably DSCH though with a recurring squeaky cello motif like someone pretending to cry. It’s odd hearing DSCH do a kind of faux-Romantic sadness in contrast to those immense journeys of genuine human suffering elsewhere in his work.

Back to D minor in the last movement, where a rondo is alternated with contrasting episodes including the aforementioned moto perpetuo for piano. It’s not heroic, but nor is it sarcastic in tone, and for me is one of DSCH’s finest chamber music moments. It’s inventiveness echoes ….. one Benjamin Britten.

So, with the exception maybe of parts of the first movement in the Shostakovich sonata, two very fine pieces of music. I have recordings of the BB by, natch, Mr Rostropovich and BB himself, and the Shostakovich, a cheapo Naxos by Dmitry Yablonsky and Ekaterina Saranceva. There are both excellent and I fear, quite a bit more involving than the performances of Laura van der Heijden and Petr Limonov. These were considered and accurate but I think I may have been spoilt by the recordings. Anyway, given these are not always at the top of the recital agenda, I highly recommend seeking them out when they do appear, especially when together.

 

 

 

 

BBC Symphony Orchestra and Vilde Frang at the Barbican Hall review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Vilde Frang (violin)

Barbican Hall, 21st March 2018

  • Anna Clyne – This Midnight Hour
  • Benjamin Britten – Violin Concerto, Op 15
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 6 in F major “Pastoral”, Op 68

The Violin Concerto is one of those Britten pieces that takes a bit of time to get used to. It was written in 1939 so contains plenty of the youthful flashiness, and debts to Stravinsky, which characterise early BB, but with a more serious intent which reflects his admiration for Alban Berg, whose own Violin Concerto, was the last in a frustratingly thin oeuvre. BB attended the posthumous premiere of Berg’s masterpiece in 1936, in Barcelona in the shadow of the forthcoming Spanish Civil War, as well as two further performances later in the year. Understandably he was mightily impressed.

BB’s own concerto was premiered in New York in March 1940 by the Philharmonic under John Barbirolli, given that he and Peter Pears were stuck there following the outbreak of war. The British premiere was in April 1941 in BB’s absence. Despite BB’s revisions in 1950, 1954 and 1965, which brings a little more of the late Britten’s soundworld to the violin part, the piece has historically been more admired than loved, but it has developed a bit more of a following in recent years.

Which means that some of today’s finest violinists have taken up the BB VC cause. These include Janine Jansen who played the piece with the LSO last year under Semyon Bychkov in this hall last year. This is not a concerto full of showy virtuosity, the soloist works on the ideas with the orchestra, but it does require a formidable technique. Ms Jansen certainly has that but the performance overall was a bit more athletic and weighty than I might have liked (though maybe that was the influence of the Mahler on the bill).

In contrast Vilde Frang, who has also recently recorded the piece, seemed a little bit more delicate, most obviously in the pianissimo sections, and the double stopping, of which there is a surfeit in the Scherzo, more Baroqueish than Modernist. This lighter, though still enthralling touch, made the final coda, constructed in BB’s favourite Passacaglia form, even more irresolute. a good thing in my book. The first movement, in sonata form, opens with a little rumble on the timps, then the bassoon takes up the tune, and then the rest of the orchestra, returning to it ostinato through the movement, whilst the violin moves in and out with its uneasy, song-like lament. The second theme is also martial in intent; there is a link to Shostakovich, but with more elegance and less hectoring. This theme is taken up by the violin, not the orchestra, in the recapitulation which ends with an unsteady coda. The second movement scherzo is spiky and Prokofievian in feel, with a very sinister transition to a tutti before ending with a cadenza, based on the first movement tunes, in which Ms Frang excelled. The ground bass which underpins the variations in the final movement is a bit wobbly in terms of tone, at one point D major triumphs, ending with a simple chant, over which the violin dances around, never quite closing out.

I think it is the uncertain tone, literally and metaphorically, that makes the BB VC seem like harder work than it actually is. Played like this though it is up there with the very best of BB’s works which require a full orchestra, the contemporary Sinfonia da Requiem and the War Requiem. It is a lot less knotty that the Cello Symphony that’s for sure. Having said that BB’s textures always work better for me in the pieces for smaller orchestras. I went back to the benchmark recording I have, the ECO under BB himself with Mark Lubotsky as soloist. Maybe I was just in a good mood at the concert but I reckon Ms Frang and Sakari Oramo gave them a pretty good run for their money, especially in the opening movement, which seemed to get to the point more quickly.

The BB VC was preceded by the London premiere of a 12 minute work written by Anna Clynne, British born now working in NYC. It was written for the Orchestre National d’Ille de France where she was resident composer. It is resolutely tonal and packs a hell of a punch. It is pretty sexy stuff too, as was her intention, based, as it is, on Baudelaire’s poe Harmonie du soir and one line from a poem by a chap called Jimenez about a nude lady running through the night. She packs a lot into the piece, kicking off with a rushing theme low down in the bass and cellos, moving to some sparkling woodwind, a slab of Brucknerian grandeur and then a Ravel like sharp waltz, before the whole thing seems to whirr around again. Apparently Ms Clyne notates her score with mood markings, intimate, melting, ominous, feverish, ferocious, aggressive, skittish, beautiful, eerie, which is easily comprehended. I have got much better at taking in contemporary compositions at the first, (and often only), outing, but this piece doesn’t require too much concentration, so immediate is its impact. Seems like the audience agreed judging by the reaction and deserved applause when Ms Clyne came out of the audience.

Which meant that, unusually, Beethoven took the back seat. Absolutely nothing wrong with Mr Oramo and the BBCSO’s take on the Pastoral but there wasn’t too much to get the pulse racing. The detail was there but the pacing was relaxed and the orchestra didn’t seem as engaged as when they are getting their teeth into unfamiliar repertoire or having to convince the big crowds at the Proms. Brooks babbled, birds sand, peasants partied, lambs gambolled, the storm came and went, but Mr Oramo didn’t seem to find the genuinely symphonic in the way others have. Still it’s Beethoven so pipe down Tourist and be happy with your lot.

 

 

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the ENO review *****

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

English National Opera, 4th March 2018

Out of a long list of wildly inappropriate events that I dragged BD along to when she was younger perhaps provocateur Christopher Alden’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this very house was the most egregious. Not because the 14 year old her wasn’t up to the task of taking some pleasure from Britten’s opera; she is a very clever young woman who makes me immensely proud, (as do the other two in the very unlikely event that they read this – “Dad, what exactly do you do with you day now you are no longer working”). No, it was because of the audacious sub-text of public school abuse which underpinned the production. Not that this wasn’t an interesting, and very valid, perspective, just that it maybe wasn’t quite the Dream we were expecting.

ENO has reverted then to the older, 1995, Robert Carsen production of AMND, last revived in 2004, to pull in the punters. Good for me because a) I haven’t seen it and b) it is brilliant. Now my regular reader will likely be aware that I struggle with a lot of opera. Monteverdi, some Baroque, Mozart and some C20, can work for me but it is by no means guaranteed. Contemporary opera is what usually really floats my boat. There is a special place for Britten though. This is because it is English, or more precisely was written in English, so I have half a chance of understanding the words with my dodgy ears and don’t have to flick eyes up and down to sur-titles. Moreover, there is a proper marriage between libretto and music. The music fits the words and the drama and not the other way round. Britten chose stories with real drama and assumed that all of his performers could act. This much is reiterated by the interview with Britten in the programme. I care about the voices but I am not smart enough to know just how good the singers really are. In contrast I can understand why an audience gets all juiced up when the Queen of the Night hits those F6’s in Der Holle Racht … but it doesn’t always make up for an unfunny Papageno, risible plot and all that crass symbolism.

So drama first, music second, voices third. BB was judicious in his choice of source material, whether it be Auden, Crabbe, Maupassant, James, Melville or Mann. And why not turn to the greatest of them all in Shakespeare. But where to cut AMND, to avoid creating a 5 hour extravaganza, and how to shape the music around an already musical text? This is where BB, and Peter Pears, who took full joint credit for the libretto with BB, is so clever. By cutting out all the arranged marriage preamble, with the insertion of just one new line, we jump straight to the forest with Oberon and Titania wrangling. We swiftly get to experience the three different, but interlinked, sound worlds that BB has created for fairies, humans and mechanicals. The chop does mean that when Theseus and Hippolyta finally pitch up it’s a bit of a jolt, but by then we have had so many musically signposted episodes it’s easy enough to apprehend. A little bit of nipping and tucking in the order of the episodes to match text to music does also make for some novel juxtapositions: cheeky BB and PP send the lovers to bed unmarried, for example. Anyhow it’s the Dream so most of the audience will be up to speed on the story..

As ever with BB there a lot of essentially simple musical ideas which mean a numpty like me can feel the structure even if I can’t break the language. These ideas are clothed in innovative execution though. The Balinese influences, the debt to Purcell and Ravel, a bit of unthreatening twelve note serialism, all are audible, for this is the opera where Britten meshes the orchestral coloration and technical precociousness of the early operas and orchestral works with the spare stripped back austerity of his last decade or so. That is why, to me, it always sounds strikingly fresh and approachable whilst still endlessly inventive. The repetitions tell us where we are, and who we are with, in the drama but also allow us to soak up those exquisite sonorities that BB excelled in producing.

Intelligent and beautiful music in the service of the drama, not just a parade of flashy tunes. Which is where director Mr Carsen comes in, or more exactly his assistant, Emmanuele Bastet who supervised this revival. If Will S has provided plot and poetry, BB a crystalline musical structure around it, then the director only has to respond with a few big, bold ideas, and, ta-dah, success. Which is what we have here thanks in large part to Michael Levine’s outstanding designs.. A giant sloping bed fills the stage. Emerald green (Oberon) and a nocturnal blue (Tytania) dominate with occasional flashes of crimson. The Trinity Boys Choir of fairies marches on and off in perfect unison. The mechanicals, look like what they are, and their props in Pyramis and Thisbe, strike the right note of amateurish craft. The humans virginal white is gradually besmirched before they appear, alongside King and Queen, in glittering gold. There is coup de theatre in the suspended beds. Backdrops and lighting follow the same sharp, uncluttered aesthetic. A sort of synthesis of symbolist, minimalist and colour-field art, or maybe child-like Expressionism. Whatever, it it spot on. Any AMND, whether opera or on stage, that gets too floaty and ethereal gets the thumbs down in my book. That is not what dreams are made of.

Our Puck here, in the form of actor Miltos Yerolemou, counterpoints the action with his actions as much as his words. He is a very funny clown, (note he last appeared on stage as the Fool in the Royal Exchange Lear with Don Warrington), with pratfalls and tumbles a plenty, but he is the glue which brings the fairy and human worlds, fleetingly, together. As well as the superb design it is the choreography which enthrals in this production, courtesy of none other than Matthew Bourne and updated here by Daisy May Kemp.

Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie stood out for me as Oberon, but that’s the way the opera is written, and because he is really, really good. The quartet of Hermia (Clare Presland), Lysander (David Webb), Helena (Eleanor Dennis) and Demetrius (Matthew Durkan) were well matched. The last three of these, along with our Tytania, soprano Soraya Mafi, and Theseus, Andri Bjorn Robertsson are all ENO home-grown talents, whose slight lack of projection was more than compensated by their movement and flair for the drama (and comedy). Joshua Bloom was perhaps an overly grandiloquent Bottom but that mattered less when unmasked/un-assed.

AMND doesn’t require a big orchestra which means ENO newcomer Alexander Snoddy, who is Director of the Nationaltheater Mannheim, could bring out all of BB’s eloquent phrasing and still keep the volume restrained enough to ensure the cast could all be clearly heard.

A perfect opera then based on a near perfect play near perfectly realised. At times like these I can accept, just, that opera trumps theatre as the greatest of art forms.