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


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.

My favourite classical concerts of 2017


Right I know it is a bit late in the day but I wanted to make a list of the concerts I enjoyed most from last year. So everything that got a 5* review based on my entirely subjective criteria is ordered below. Top is Sir Simon and the LSO with their Stravinsky ballets. Like it was going to be anything else.

Anyway no preamble. No waffle. Barely any punctuation. Part record, part boast. Comments welcome.

  • LSO, Simon Rattle – Stravinsky, The Firebird (original ballet), Petrushka (1947 version), The Rite of Spring – Barbican Hall – 24th September
  • Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals – Reich Tehillim, Drumming – Royal Festival Hall – 5th May
  • Isabelle Faust, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck – JS Bach Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 1067a, Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042, Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041, Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043, CPE Bach String Symphony in B Minor W 182/5 – Wigmore Hall – 29th June
  • Jack Quartet – Iannis Xenakis, Ergma for string quartet, Embellie for solo viola, Mikka ‘S’ for solo violin, Kottos for solo cello, Hunem-Iduhey for violin and cello, ST/4 –1, 080262 for string quartet – Wigmore Hall – 25th February
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Gerald Barry Chevaux de Frise, Beethoven Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major Eroica – Barbican Hall – 6th June 2017
  • Nederlands Kamerkoor,Peter Dijkstra – Sacred and Profane – Britten Hymn to St Cecilia, Gabriel Jackson Ave Regina caelorum, Berio Cries of London, Lars Johan Werle Orpheus, Canzone 126 di Francesca Petraraca, Britten Sacred and Profane – Cadogan Hall – 8th March
  • Tim Gill cello, Fali Pavri piano, Sound Intermedia – Webern 3 kleine Stücke, Op. 11, Messiaen ‘Louange à l’Éternite du Jesus Christ’ (‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’) from Quartet for the End of Time, Henze Serenade for solo cello, Arvo Pärt Fratres, Xenakis Kottos for solo cello, Jonathan Harvey Ricercare una melodia for solo cello and electronics, Thomas Ades ‘L’eaux’ from Lieux retrouvés, Anna Clyne Paint Box for cello and tape, Harrison Birtwistle Wie Eine Fuga from Bogenstrich – Kings Place – 6th May
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Mark Stone – Gerald Barry Beethoven, Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1 and 2 – Barbican Hall – 2nd June
  • Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth – Monteverdi Vespers 1610 – Barbican Hall – 23rd June
  • Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Murray Perahia – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Piano Concertos No 2 in B flat major and No 4 in G major – Barbican – 20th February
  • London Sinfonietta and students, Lucy Shaufer, Kings Place Choir – Luciano Berio, Lepi Yuro, E si fussi pisci, Duetti: Aldo, Naturale, Duetti: Various, Divertimento, Chamber Music, Sequenza II harp, Autre fois, Lied clarinet, Air, Berceuse for Gyorgy Kurtag, Sequenza I flute, Musica Leggera, O King – Kings Place – 4th November
  • Maurizio Pollini – Schoenberg 3 Pieces for piano, Op.11, 6 Little pieces for piano, Op.19, Beethoven, Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique), Piano Sonata in F sharp, Op.78 (à Thérèse), Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata) – RFH – 14th March
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry – Beethoven Septet Op 20, Piano Trio Op 70/2. Gerald Barry Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park – Milton Court Concert Hall – 30th May
  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman – Beethoven Piano Concerto No 4, Prokofiev Symphony No 5 – Barbican Hall – 24th November
  • Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime – Purcell Fantasia upon one note, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthew, A Purcell Garland, Helen Grime Into the Faded Air, A Cold Spring, Knussen Cantata, Ades Court Studies from The Tempest, Britten Sinfonietta, Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks – Milton Court Hall – 20th September


The Cardinall’s Musick at St John’s Square review ****

The Cardinall’s Musick // Andrew Marwood - London Wednesday 5

The Cardinall’s Musick, War and Peace

St John’s Smith Square, 19th November 2017

  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Ad Dominum cum tribularer
  • Benjamin Britten – Advance Democracy
  • James MacMillan – When you see the millions of the mouthless dead
  • Orlando Gibbons – O Lord in thy wrath
  • James MacMillan – A Child’s prayer
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for four voices
  • Philippe de Monte – Super flumina Babylonis
  • William Byrd – Quomodo cantabimus
  • James MacMillan – Emitte lucem tuam
  • Arvo Pärt – Da pacem
  • James MacMillan – Christus vincit
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for four voices
  • William Byrd – Peccavi super numerum

Sitting in Thomas Archer’s fine Baroque masterpiece church, rapt audience, listening to one of the UK’s finest ensemble interpreters of C16 and C17 British vocal music, here singing a diverse set of texts from composers past and present framed by extracts from William Byrd’s finest works, the Masses for four and five voices. And all to remember the fallen of past conflicts.

The Britten piece is packed with drama and I see nothing wrong with the pungent warning against Fascism in the text. As ever with the James MacMillan’s work the directness and invention wins you over but I have to say A child’s prayer, written in memory of the victims of Dunblane, pulls you right up with its repeated dirge of “Welcome”. Even by Part’s standards Da pacem is sparse but still so powerful. The biggest surprise of this excellent evening however was the Philippe de Monte motet which apparently stuck a chord with the nominally recusant Byrd. And the concluding five part Byrd motet, Peccavi super mumerum, which was new to me, left me pinned to my seat.

Don’t go through your life without William Byrd. I should probably stop there. So I will.

Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court review *****


Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime

This is Rattle, Milton Court Hall, 20th September 2017

  • Purcell – Fantasia Upon One Note
  • Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthews – A Purcell Garland
  • Helen Grime – Into the Faded Air
  • Oliver Knussen – Cantata
  • Helen Grime – A Cold Spring
  • Thomas Ades – Court Studies from “The Tempest”
  • Benjamin Britten – Sinfonietta
  • Igor Stravinsky – Dumbarton Oaks Concerto

Composer Helen Grime must be in seventh heaven having been chosen by Sir Simon Rattle to curate this concert and to open his first concert as Music Director of the LSO with her Fanfare. I had not heard any of her works before but on the strength of these two pieces, particularly the string sextet, Into the Faded Air, Sir Simon’s faith in her is more than justified. The other curators, Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades, drew their programmes from a similar creative wellspring, though Sir Harrison’s was suitably idiosyncratic, but Ms Grime’s offering held the most interest for me. The four composers span the decades of contemporary British classical music and show clear influences, one upon another. I note Helen Grime is also the resident composer at the Wigmore Hall.

The Purcell is, unsurprisingly, an imaginative piece, with one of the 5 parts held in middle C throughout (hello Terry Riley), allegedly so that Charles II could join in. A Purcell Garland was commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival in 1995 for his tercentenary, with three British masters arranging and invigorating Purcell fantasias for a mixed chamber group. Oliver Knussen’s fantasia directly echoes Purcell’s as the note playfully shifts around the ensemble, George Benjamin’s piece uses a celeste alongside clarinet and the two strings to create haunting textures and Colin Matthews takes an unfinished fantasia and extends it, mixing modern and baroque to great effect (this was my favourite sequence, Mr Matthews being especially adept with this instrumental combination).

We then had Helen Grime’s string sextet Into the Faded Air from 2007, made up of a short pair of opposing trios in the first movement, followed by a slow viola duet, a spiky, pizzicato driven third movement and a mournful chorale to conclude. Shades of Stravinsky certainly and Bartok for me. I really liked this piece.

I was less persuaded by Knussen’s “cantata” for solo oboe which has ten very short linked episodes searching for the high C resolution. Helen Grime’s A Cold Spring is another immediately appealing piece with a dance for a pair of clarinets, followed by an introspective horn “concerto”, and ending with a Stravinskian climax for the whole group. The Thomas Ades Studies take from material from his opera The Tempest and are scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. In just 8 minutes it sketches out the four shipwrecked aristos from the play and is brimful of energy and contrasts. Now I love Thomas Ades work as composer and performer and this was no exception.

Britten’s Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra from 1932 was his first numbered work, composed in just 3 weeks when he was a student at the RCM. I had forgotten just how clever this was – like a who’s who of composers from the previous three decades – but still recognisably his work. Whilst the first two movements have a pastoral, English feel about them to my ears, the final movement Tarantello bears the closest resemblance to Stravinsky. And Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat is where we ended. This was commissioned in 1939, just before Stravinsky fled to the US, for a certain Mrs Bliss, and blissful she must have been on receiving this. It takes Brandenburg 3 as a jumping off point and then frankly matches the genius of Bach. Igor Stravinsky. What a clever fellow. Still casting a long shadow over all art music today.

As usual the Britten Sinfonia, under their remarkable leader Jacqueline Shave, were on top form. They are utterly compelling under Thomas Ades in his ongoing Beethoven cycle (please try to see/hear this), but it is in contemporary music where they are without peers in this country. It is not easy to make this music immediately accessible, even to those of us laypeople that want to hear it, but the Britten Sinfonia do so effortlessly. Bravo.

London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall review ****


London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Alina Ibragimova (violin)

Prom 71, Royal Albert Hall, 6th September 2017

  • Igor Stravinsky – Funeral Song,
  • Igor Stravinsky – Song of the Volga Boatmen,
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Violin Concert No 1 in D Major
  • Benjamin Britten – Russian Funeral
  • Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No 11 in G Minor “the Year 1905”

What with one thing and another, but mostly my stupidity at missing the booking opening, I only made it to one RAH Prom this year and missed out on two or three that I really wanted to hear/see. Never mind BBC Radio 3 came to the rescue with their recordings. BTW I WILL PERSONALLY KICK SHIT OUT OF ANY POLITICIAN WHO HAS THE TEMERITY TO FUCK ABOUT WITH THE BBC. I can’t move quickly but I am a big lad so you don’t want to get in my way. Understood. Just joking. I think.

Moving swiftly on. The main reason for picking this Prom was the opportunity to hear the LPO with personal favourites Vladimir Jurowski (a man who seems to conduct with his shoulders and head as much as his hands and eyes, riveting from my choir perch), and the meticulous violinist Alina Ibragimova, having a crack at some hardcore C20 Russian repertoire. And specifically Shostakovich 11 which gets an outing now and then but not regularly enough to miss. Having said that I still can’t decide how much I like it.

Before the main event we had some early works from clever clogs Stravinsky. The score for Funeral Song, Op 5, was only recently rediscovered and is a memorial to teacher and mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. The latter’s influences are fairly clear, (we must thank N R-K for Stravinsky’s mastery of orchestral colours), but, for me,, the louder voice was Wagner, not a good thing to my ears. This was followed by Stravinsky’s arrangement of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, which is a rousing, if very short, ditty which served as the original Russian anthem post 1917 Revolution.

I don’t know if I will ever “get” Prokofiev. I have heard some convincing performances of his works recently, the Quintet and Martha Argerich playing the Piano Concerto No 3 (mind you I reckon Martha could leave you open mouthed in admiration playing Happy Birthday on the spoons). And the piano sonatas I remember seeing performed have been interesting. But there may be too many ideas in the music for me. My ears and brain crave repetition and structure. There is enough rhythm in Prokofiev but there is a lot of flitting about. So I may not be up to it. Still I will keep trying. This Violin Concerto created the same confusion for me. Ms Ibragimova puts line and detail into her performances and really convinces. There were passages of real interest, even when it all got a bit too lyrical, and there were such clever twists and one blinding fast passage, but once again it was just too “bitty”. Sorry. Moreover, whilst I was close enough to hear the violin clearly even with my ropey ears, I suspect the gallery punters might have been working a bit harder.

In contrast to Prokofiev Britten is dead easy for me to understand. Russian Funeral is the only piece he wrote for brass band and it is an open, Mahlerian march bookending a disquieting scherzo. The march is taken from a Russian funeral song (which appears again in the DSCH symphony), hence the title, and the whole thing reflects Britten’s anti-war stance. I loved it.

Now the main event. It is a heck of a slab. An unbroken hour, four movements, slow, faster, slow, fastish. It is based on four revolutionary songs and takes the events of the failed 1905 uprising. The programme is pretty clear, The Palace Square in winter as the revolutionaries march to petition the Tsar. The fighting starts, the Imperial Guard opens fire and the assembly is brutally quashed. We then mourn the thousand dead and finally look forward to when the proletariat will succeed in throwing off the yoke of their oppressors. Now there are some absolutely belting tunes in all of this, but it is a long, drawn out affair. This is one of the DSCH symphonies that drifts towards the cinematic which is fine except we have no pictures for the eyes so the ears get a bit of an overload. And the contrast between the icy despairing chords of the Adagios and the martial drumming of the Allegro movements is a bit overwrought. As ever with DSCH you can sometimes have too much of a good thing.

Having said that it certainly clears out the passages and conjures up an epic vision of the struggle. There isn’t very much of the sardonic or sarcastic audible here, or if there is, it is well hidden, so I can see why this went down a treat with the big boys in the Party when it was served up in 1957 as part of the 40 year celebrations. DSCH did make a few veiled comments pointing to what wad happened in 1956 in Hungary but it didn’t leap out. But then the old chap never did give much away. From the perspective of the centenary of the Revolution though it does feel a bit odd especially when you know what DSCH delvers when he nails it. Can’t fault the playing though and Mr Jurowski wisely gave as much room as was needed to the expansive phrases. No point rushing this edifice as it isn’t going to make much of a difference. And when needed he and the band turned it up to 11, indeed right at the end when the bells come in, we were treated to a 12 on the Tufnel scale.

When all is said and done, and despite the shortcomings, No 11 is still an extraordinary wall of sound and the LPO nailed it. Thanks lads and lasses.