Friday, 30 November 2012

Triple bill: Kenneth MacMillan

Royal Opera House, 27 November 2012
Requiem (1976), Richard Cragun. Photo © Leslie E. Spatt. From here.

Three ballets illustrating what can be done with dance, though camp is an unpleasant companion in each, whatever its other strengths and weaknesses.

This tribute to the Royal Ballet's former choreographer comprised Concerto, Las Hermanas and Requiem, the last itself a tribute to choreographer John Cranko.
The pieces were well chosen to show the range of modern choreography. The first was abstract and undramatic, the second dramatic and tragic, the third abstract yet dramatic and poignant.
Concerto, to Shostakovich's second piano concerto, seemed to me the least successful work, though this may have been due to being placed first in the bill. It stressed the delightful aspect of the concerto, with perky ensembles in bright colours, much leaping and prancing and some forced smiles from the straining dancers.
Choosing this concerto in the first place was a great idea, given its relentlessly tuneful nature. But the finale was taken much slower than it would have been in a normal concert, and while this is an understandable concession to dancing, the effect further reduced the presence of intoxicating dionysus in favour of serene apollo.
The piece also highlighted what seems a common problem with dancing to anything other than a minimilist score. There is at least one moment in the slow movement where the emotional involvement deepens, and this wasn't reflected by the dancing.
Emotional intensity was if anything a little overdone in Las Hermanas, a short tale of repression, lust, sibling rivalry and finally suicide. The dancing was extremely expressive, but the result was more hothouse melodrama than proper tragedy. I think this must be because the timeframe was so compressed. We didn't receive a full impression of each of the relevant characters.
A striking aspect of this work is its negative portrayal of men, or at least, the only male character, who is so priapic that at one point he rests on his haunches like a sexually frustrated ape. MacMillan is deft at portraying his obvious appeal to the sisters, but given his one-dimensional sexualised nature, without even courage, so that he runs when threatened by the aged mother, he is a weak point in the drama. Can these women really be so passionate over such a trivial figure?
I don't want to be too negative. If it is a weakness to portray the man as one-dimensional, this at least inverts the usual situation of the one-dimensional sexpot woman.
Requiem is clearly intended to be a Major Statement. Any audience member applauding during the scene changes was shushed by the conductor, ballet veteran Barry Wordsworth.
It's extremely impressive, though the effect on me ranged from mild disgust to sorrow, a range probably not intended by MacMillan, and certainly not by composer Faure, though his mass for the dead normally affects me in this way.
I suspect that having chosen this particular piece of music, there was little chance MacMillan could have effectively subverted its sentimental, candles-and-incense catholicism. He certainly tries, and the result is surprisingly moving, a series of tableaux representing the the masculine and feminine parts of a soul presumably passing into the afterlife, and its effect on the community they leave behind.
Camp was not wholly avoided: pastel lighting, noble expressions and, in particular the shuffling company at the very beginning. But the overall effect was the best interpretation of this music I've experienced.

The distancing, belittling effect of camp seemed close to the surface in each of these pieces, what with the bright prancing of Concerto, the impression of drag-queen hysteria in Las Hermanas, and the pastels of Requiem. On reflection, I don't feel any of these pieces needed a camp element for their efectivenesss, so conclude it is either intrinsic to MacMillan or to the current production of these works.

Performances were exceptional, and it would be unfair to single any out, though I can't resist praising Zenaida Yanowsky in Las Hermanas if only because of her elongated frame and her commitment to exploiting this oddity to the full in her interpretation. Inspired casting and brave acting.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein

Royal Collection (London), 2 November 2012 - 14 April 2012

Noli me Tangere, by Holbein.
From the Royal Collection.
The tensions of the reformation emerge as stronger influence on northern art than that of classical antiquity, with some profound, and some unpleasant consequences for the art itself.

Both words in the title of this wonderful and thought-provoking exhibition are problematic, the first for curatorial reasons, the second for more interesting ones.

Northern, in this context, is necessarily a little limited, even when assumed to refer to Europe. There are no Scandinavian painters, nor any from countries in the north and east, such as Poland or Lithuania.

Of course, even the largest collection would have trouble representing all of these areas, and even within the geographic remit, some major artists are missing. I learnt from the detailed catalogue that the Prince Regent failed to buy Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait in 1818 so that none of that great pioneering oil painter can be found in this exhibition, though a short trip to the National Gallery rectified that, thankfully.

But was this a 'renaissance'? A comparison with Italian contemporaries is interesting, for south of the Alps painting, whether in oil or onto walls, was more sculptural, more obviously influenced by newly unearthed antique statues.

A kind of intense faith seems to have been a more important development in the north, and I don't see how this can easily be ascribed to rediscovering classical values. Humanism was a strong current, but it clashed with faith instead of complementing it, as in Italy. The curators provide details of the complicated political backdrop against which the humanists and the reformers clashed.

From the former tradition, Erasmus and Thomas More are represented through both multiple portraits and through their (printed) books. For Erasmus, tellingly, this is his edition of the Greek Testament, rather than his non-Christian works. Erasmus' enemy Luther is directly represented by his characteristically savage attack on Henry VIII of England, though his presence is implicit almost everywhere.

Faith emerges unexpectedly. Even when Cranach is painting (erotic) classical scenes in the best renaissance tradition, these turn out to be alternatives to biblical scenes, which were considered suspect by the reformers.

To take an example from the greatest art, Dürer's series of engarvings on the subject of the apocalypse, widely expected in 1500, can be compared with Botticelli's Mystic Nativity, happily nearby in the National Gallery. Both masterpieces are dramatic, but the first seems terrifyingly Christian, while the second is delightfully pagan.

Perhaps given these different concerns of artists in the north and south, the curators avoid any stereotypes about the supposedly one-way influence of art from Italy. Indeed, I learnt that Vasari and Condivi describe a young Michelangelo painting a scene based on a print by Schongauer, the artist who also influenced Dürer (see below).
The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Martin Schongauer.
From the British Museum.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Michelangelo.
From the Kimbell Art Museum.
Enough of the art history. What of the art itself? Much of it is great, some of it is mediocre, but as usual, the greater artists are improved when set in context.

For me, this was especially true of Holbein, whom I'd previously disliked. In addition to some beautiful portraits (beautiful because not especially true to life, I think, despite contemporary claims for their realism), there is a wonderful Noli me tangere.

It is profoundly spiritual, with verdant foliage seeming to sprout from the risen god, and radiance within the tomb. But it is also appropriately human, from the expressions of the angels to the eye contact between the principles. Best of all, the way the composition draws the eye to the expressive gestures of the man and woman.

Another National Gallery comparison came to mind: Titian's version of the same subject. At first, I preferred the greater torsion and drama of the earlier Italian work, but I now think the German painting is the more emotional piece, though with a more disturbing religious connotation, as the human woman is more distant from the god man.

These contrasts came to mind as a result of the cumulative impact of the exhibition, which leaves a powerful impression. With so much to ponder, I should have doubled the length of my visit.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Master

Aubin cinema, 23 November 2012

Teaser trailer from here.

A promising idea derailed by choosing to focus on the wrong lead character.

"If you can go through life without serving a master, any master, then come back and tell us about it, because you'd be the first person in history to discover how," says the master of the film's title, a US cult leader bearing a resemblance to the founder of scientology (here called The Cause). He is speaking to his difficult disciple Freddie, and it is mostly through Freddie's experiences that we approach the cult.

This is an ambitious film, exploring both the nature of cult and of leadership, or perhaps the ubiquity of master/slave relationships.

Clearly a central challenge must have been the casting of the master himself, and Philip Seymour Hoffman conveys the right amount of self-belief, furious when contradicted, charming when not. It's a charismatic portrayal, though I was unfavourably reminded of his performance in The Talented Mr Ripley, in which his character effortlessly conveyed the charm and self-confidence that can come with inherited wealth.

The most interesting parts of the story happen tangentially, and involve the master's apparently inexorable rise.

We first see him commanding a yacht. It emerges he has been loaned this by rich socialite acolytes. We don't see these again, but at a later point he is arrested and subsequently fined heavily for damaging the yacht and defrauding these friends. He is unfazed, and this is utterly convincing, as is the reference to past wives hounding him.

And despite his mysterious interest in Freddie, long after everyone else has given him up, he issues an ultimatum in their final scene: serve me or become my mortal enemy in a future life.

Such uncompromising self-aggrandizement, when spinning a vast fantasy, can be compelling, though perhaps more beneficial in creatives than in politicians or faith leaders.

These are not comparisons developed, or even suggested, in this film. Rather, it is part of the tradition of examining confidence tricksters or charlatans, for it is clear that The Cause is founded on hypnotic suggestion and paranoid science fiction.

It would be interesting to wonder what circumstances permit the success of one charlatan over another. Is there something about the society? It shocked me when we see The Cause opening a massive school in the UK. I'm sure part of my response was chauvanistic, but partly it was because this particular cult seemed peculiarly keyed to US culture; not that a similar cult mightn't work in the UK, but that it would probably need a different set of crazy tenets.

The film is silent about this wider cultural context, and this is a symptom of its biggest flaw. By choosing to centre the narrative on the shell-shocked malcontent Freddie, we necessarily lose wider contexts.

The Freddie focus has a more serious problem. It licenses the kind of showy 'from the outside' performance that mars many films aiming at Oscars. Joaquin Phoenix gives us a lip curling, inarticulately savage, shuffling, oversexed performance of such ugliness that it is amazing Freddie has even the modest success with women he is shown to enjoy.

This walking parade of tics capsizes the film. Paul Thomas Anderson both wrote and directed Freddie, so he must take the blame for ruining his own film.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress

English National Opera, 20 November 2012

An aria from the Pilgrim's Progress, details here.
A magnificent but disturbing work, constructively subverted by the production.
Much as I love the music of Vaughan Williams, I wonder what drew him so obssessively to Bunyan's allegory, given that he avoids most of the more appealing human aspects of that work in his adaptation for the stage, and in one vital respect stresses its least appealing aspect for a liberal audience, its puritanism.

Having the Pilgrim (Christian in the book) centrestage requires us always to recall that this is a morality tale, and that we are meant to be judging the joys of Vanity Fair as harshly as Bunyan thought we ought to. But this is simply not how we read the book, with its vital characters who only incidentally happen to have a didactic purpose.

Things would be much better if the composer had been able to breath erotic life into the music of Vanity Fair, or satanic glory into Appolyon. As it is, we are left with piety and landscapes, a kind of self-parody. The Pilgrim's Progress is not undramatic, as some people seem to think, but it is poor theatre and needs a lot of help to work.

It gets it here. Yoshi Oïda sets the imprisoned Bunyan's dream within the prison itself, so that the journey from this life to the next amounts to preparation for a public execution.

The grotesque conclusion might seem to completely undermine Vaughan Williams' incredibly beautiful and spiritual music, but instead the music transfigures what we see on stage. I would be interested to learn how a US death-penalty supporting christian evangelical might experience this production. I suspect they might approve, so that this drama is a powerful reflection of views diametrically opposed to my own.

For when presenting the slow attainment of this dubious grace by the Pilgrim, the music is overwhelmingly powerful, a mixture of introspection and rhapsody, and fully justifying the composer's belief this was his masterpiece.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins deserves the credit here, maintaining momentum and managing transitions masterfully. Acting and singing reach a very high standard.

A drama that exhalts humility and the spiritual life over the pleasures of the flesh, or even of affable sociability is hard to take, especially when the exhalting is quite so wonderful and the pleasures so meagre. English National Opera have shown how it can be done.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Seagull

Southwark Playhouse, 19 November 2012

Promo video, focussing on the seagull of the title.

A very strong production still cannot make me care about Chekhov's characters.

The ususal description of what Chekhov is doing in his dramas, exploring love, jealousy, russian society and so on, seems to me entirely useless. It's as if critics thought either earnest Konstantin or charming Trigorin in this drama were his artistic surrogates, when I feel it is self-evident they are not.

Art need only describe problems, not solve them, says Chekhov in the epigraph of Anya Reiss' lightly updated translation. The power of Chekhov lies specifically in the way he describes our problems, specifically how we are to live, given that our desires are not harmonious with those of other people, or with the way the world works.

What strikes me as unique in Chekhov is his adaptation of the realistic novel to the stage. He forces us to empathise with each carefully articulated character, and finds ways to make ensembles emphasise their differences. For example, so long as the actors are fully in character, the scene with everyone watching Konstantin's bizarre play can become a microcosm of society, with everyone responding differently and illuminatingly.

This scene, and others, transcend the limitations of a realist novel and are utterly theatrical. Only the theatre offers us the possibility of choosing whom we watch, whereas a novelist (for example) is required to focus on one person at a time.

I imagine this is deceptively difficult to direct, for it requires both extracting magnificent performances and also ensuring that the arrangement of each scene is completely plausible. No one viewpoint or character should be highlighted above others; somehow Russell Bolam manages this feat unobtrusively.

The performances, while fine, would not draw tears from a stone. This is more the fault of Chekhov's composition; a scene involving a gun may heighten tension, but it also veers into melodrama. To maintain realism here both Konstantin and Nina must be prone to these hysterics, and working backwards, so must other characters, most obviously Arkadina.

At least Sasha Waddell's Arkadina does not dominate proceedings, however much the character might wish to. And Anthony Howell is a more appealing Trigorin than I've seen before. Such careful balancing brings out the full futility of the conclusion.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Are we nearly there yet?

Wilton's music hall, 16 November 2012

Image by Sophie Herxheimer. From Wilton's.

The concept of pilgrimage is stretched too far to be illuminating, but the approach is entrancing, if exploitative.

In this work exploring pilgrimages of  various types, all of the power, and many of the flaws, are intrinsic to the peculiar nature of this theatre piece, and how it was constructed. So I have to digress a little.

This is verbatim theatre, where the actors supposedly do not learn their parts but rather repeat snatches of recorded interviews from several people, hence presenting the voices of these people over the course of the event.

The effect is something like being present during the original interviews; non-actors being unlikely to be happy discussing their experiences in front of a group of complete strangers.

But only something like it. These are actors, after all, and the director / interviewer / editor is finally responsible for composing the work, and linking it to form an effective whole, which necessarily includes drama. So we end up with a theatre piece that is perhaps a little closer to reality than many others, but still noticeably an artefact.

Like reality tv, the thoughts and views of real people are enormously compelling, but also like reality tv, the presence of editing and of a focussing of attention introduces an element of exploitation that I don't experience with more conventional drama.

For example, comic elements are deftly interwoven with more serious narratives, but as some of this comedy comes from laughing at some of the characters rather than with them, it has an uncomfortable effect, despite this being part of the cruelty of most comedy.

The content of the work, four scenes depicting different stages of a pilgrimage, with many characters voicd by four actors, was extremely diffuse. The definition of a pilgrimage ended up being kin to a journey, something made explicit by one of the characters at the end of the piece. Did anything else unite these dozen tales? I didn't notice it.

Surely the most interesting aspect of medieval European pilgrimages is that they were undertaken at all, given their perils and demands, and by people who were otherwise unlikely to travel further than the nearest town during their lifetimes.

We all live in a very different environment, where travel is both easy and expected, and where we have at least seen photos from our destination. And all this is before we consider the respectability of unbelief, so that modern faith-based pilgrims are operating in a more secular environment than their ancestors.

Medieval pilgrimage is therefore still very mysterious, and an artwork might shed light on it, perhaps by drawing analogues with our ideas.

By extending the concept of pilgrimage to include intended journeys, or trips for self-enlightenment, Matthew Lloyd makes his work so vague as to defy interpretation. This isn't a weakness of verbatim theatre, but rather of the original concept.

The actors were good, the music couldn't be heard over the noise of Wilton's regulars, and the setting (upper rooms at Wilton's decorated with some uninteresting art on the subject of pilgrimage) irrelevant.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Scenes from an Execution

National Theatre, 15 November 2012

Titian's Death of Acteon (National Gallery, London). 
Howard Barker's Galactia presumably conveys the same sickeningly real sense of violence as does late Titian.   

Dramatising challenging issues in aesthetics and morality, what really brings this drama to life is the powerfully romantic central character. A near-masterpiece.

The title is a pun. Nobody is executed, though the central character Galactia is imprisoned and understandably fears she will be eliminated, although the audience understands that the poor old Doge is merely going through the tiresome motions of punishing her.

Rather, it is a work of art that is being executed, and we witness scenes of this work in progress, a vast canvas depicting the Venetian victory at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.

Galactia, anachronistically a woman painter, creates a work of devastating realism, depicting the slaughter of the battle so violently that anyone viewing it is horrified by the brutality of warfare. Naturally, this upsets the commissioners, the civilised Doge and the Venetian state he represents.

So this is a drama of ideas, familiar from a tradition that includes Brecht and Shaw. Conflict emerges from people's different viewpoints and levels of power, and all views are treated sympathetically. The central character is a genius who challenges social, political and aesthetic conventions, in this case questioning the glory of war, or death generally (in the funeral scene). By doing so, she allows us all to examine how we live our lives.

Supposing, like me, you like this approach to drama, you will be delighted that Howard Barker has written something like this, as there seem to be too few contemporary authors in this tradition.

But something special sets this apart from the works of Edward Bond, the other dramatist with similar ambitions that comes to mind. Galactia is a magnificent, full-blooded creation.

Arrogant, violent, earthy, sensual and apololitical, she indeed blazes like a comet, as the Doge remarks. The reported physicality of her art is extremely plausible.

Among the many fine touches, the most original moment in the work is when she inadvertently annoys a cardinal by refusing to defend her painting, not out of contempt, as he suspects, but because she doesn't know how to. And she is right.

In displaying appropriate inarticulacy in the face of brute reality, the drama briefly touches upon what is otherwise its major weakness. A painting conveys its impact without words, or movement, and is therefore intractable to theatre.

But Barker is primarily concerned with what is 'behind the picture', as the cardinal puts it. We cannot see the art, we get only the discussion of its meaning, a discussion in which Galactia's voice is rightly only one among many. It's as if we are witnessing the battle several stages removed, but it feels as if that level of abstraction is where the most important decisions need to be taken.

Among actual paintings, perhaps Guernica is closest to what is being described, but the comic-grotesque aspects of that work do not convey what Galactia's painting is supposed to have done. I left the theatre wondering why nobody has painted such a scene, and what this says about us. For that reason alone, this is an important drama.

Nonetheless, there may be a problem with a work of art (this drama) that cannot show us what is supposedly a greater work of art (the painting), but can only tell us about it.

The cast were lively, and the direction adequate, but the only truly memorable aspect of the performance was Phoebe Nicholls' tightly controlled Rivera, the critic whose words transform what the painting communicates, deadening or celebrating it depending on viewpoint, but in any case highlighting the limitations of visual art.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Photography vs painting: 2 exhibitions

Seduced by Art
National Gallery, 31 October 2012 – 20 January 2012

Pace Gallery, 4 October – 17 November 2012

Irini II, photograph by Bettina von Zwehl.
Exhibitions trying to promote photographs over paintings only reveal the weaknesses in the former medium.

The National Gallery exhibition specifically attempts to display the influence of painting, specifically oil painting, on photographers. The private Pace Gallery only compares Mark Rothko’s paintings and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs, though as the Rothkos are from private collections and not for sale, I assume we are supposed to be concentrating on the photographs.

Primed by Brian Sewell’s ferocious attack on ‘Seduced by Art’, I didn’t have high expectations, but I left feeling the old curmudgeon had gone a little too far. That said, it is easy to think the curators were biased against photography from the outset – to be seduced by art implies photography is not itself art.

As if the title were a self-fulfilling prophecy, most of the photographs are indeed poor art. This isn’t a case of good photographers being trumped by great painters, as it might easily have been: many of the paintings for comparison were also poor. But any of them had greater intrinsic interest than most of the photographs.

In contrast, at the Pace I felt that the curators did Sugimoto no service by inviting comparison with Rothko.

Overall, both exhibitions rest on a false premise: that photography and oil painting are simply two different forms of visual art, much as oil paintings might hang next to drawings.

This assumption seems fairest with still life, which celebrates the mere technique of the oil painter in depicting things. A good photographer can do the same. This seems to confirm John Berger’s  idea that advertising photos continue the oil painting tradition, in stressing the tangibility, and perhaps desirability, of objects.

But everwhere else, and even in the best painted still lifes, there is the critical difference of composition.

A painter, with whatever technique, be it watercolour, fresco or computer generated images, must choose what to include, and can change details as necessary.

A photograph is first of all a record of something. The photographer can control composition to some extent, but almost every line and contrast and the way these connect is given, and cannot be changed without massive intervention.

Even portraits, where photos have taken precedence over paint, are very different depending on the medium. A good photo portrait, like any photo, captures a moment. A painting must necessarily capture something different, and in the greatest portraits it seems to depict a context, or the inner life.

As you’d expect, this difference is clearest in the landscapes at the National, where even the trickiest modern efforts, digitally compiling a view, are nonetheless required to be a documentary. This is how the sky looked, or could look like.

Sugimoto supposedly photographs landscapes, but they are so treated as to make them effectively abstract slabs of dark or light. In this respect, I agree with the curators that he is aiming for something similar to Rothko, in whose hands landscapes became completely abstract, and the communicative aspect became intensely, almost too intensely, direct.

On its own, some of Sugimoto’s work is very effective. But despite apparent similarity with Rothko, the painter is much more powerful. Part of this is due to the irritating symmetry of the planes in the photographs compared to Rothko. But comparing the symmetrical Untitled, 1969 with the photos, I was struck by the differences in texture. Some of this is even captured in the comparison (a photo, so limited) offered by the Pace here.
The painting is composed. As we can see the brush strokes, we know it has been composed. That the artist wanted precisely this effect, at this point. I perceive the overwhelming effect of a Rothko being this sense of struggling to communicate. Sugimoto doesn't achieve this.
Some of the finest photos in Seduced by Art exploit this difference between the media. An image cheekily entitled ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, depicting various reproductions, and being itself one, is amusing. A photo of people looking at a painting in such a way that they merge with the painting’s scene, is an ingenious trompe l’oiel
National Gallery I, London 1989, by Thomas Struth. From Tate.
Another image arrestingly highlights the texture of Goya’s portrait of Wellington, while perhaps the finest are von Zwehl's two tiny portraits of a woman, where the lighting is so careful that for once it feels that a photo is ‘painting realistic’ rather than the other way round.
It’s a shame that Sugimoto’s photos weren’t displayed at the larger exhibition, as they would have illustrated that photography can indeed convey the same power as painting, in the hands of a serious, fine artist.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Bernstein conducts Stravinsky and Sibelius

ica classics

Excerpt from Sibelius symphony 5, from ica classics.

Though the performances on this dvd, of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Sibelius' Symphony 5, are both very good, that is not the best reason to watch it.

The best reason is the 'extra', 12 minutes of interviews with conductor Leonard Bernstein, discussing the works.

Bernstein was acclaimed for his music theatre, his orchestral works, his conducting and even for his piano playing, but it may be that his greatest achievement was as a musical educator. Perhaps that needs a caveat, as his writings are not the best place to experience this side of his achievement.

Certainly he was incredibly well-suited to television, attractive in both appearance and delivery. But the content seems to match the form. He could provide surprising insights concisely, without pretension, and in particular with such conviction that it is easy to believe, watching him, that these works must be experienced without delay.

2013 marks the centenary of the Rite of Spring. It is usually seen as the first mainstream piece of modernist music, but for these 1966 concerts Bernstein pairs it with the more conventionally romantic Sibelius under the label 'symphonic twilight'.

Challenged about this in the interview, Bernstein demonstrates that the work employs the same foundations as the music of the symphonic tradition from Haydn to Mahler, as opposed, he feels, to the new foundations proposed by Schoenberg and other atonalists.

It's a thrilling idea, and totally convincing. Bernstin then provides practical proof through his performance with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). The LSO has a great pedigree in this piece, as I recall Colin Davis conducting it at the Barbican a few years ago, and found it having a physical effect on me, as if my heart might stop.

I suspect Bernstein's performance would have been equally visceral for the live audience, but this wasn't captured by BBC television, understandably. As usually happens with recorded performances of the Rite, its excitement is muted, though this performance banishes any thoughts that this isn't great music, should that still be required.

The pairing with Sibelius' fifth symphony is inspired, and confirms the romantic nature of the Rite. The performance was excellent, but the central transition in the first movement, or between the first and second continuous movements, if you prefer, didn't seem to work. On rehearing I might change my mind. 

Bernstein is much less articulate when interviewed about Sibelius than about the Rite, but he is surely correct when describing the symphonies as being at the end of the symphonic tradition rather than inspiring a whole new tradition.

This doesn't seem to do Sibelius enough justice. When I hear his works, they are so powerful that I am convinced that they are the greatest, most searching, most profound, of orchestral works. I marvel at how the symphonic structure, explored and developed by Beethoven, seems so well designed for making these arguments in sound.

I'd have liked to hear Bernstein discuss this mystery, and how Sibelius' unshowy concision seems so much more impressive, on reflection, than Bernstein's beloved Mahler. And also why, after all, Mahler remains popular and it's more likely that we would choose to listen to his music than to Sibelius.

To complain that an interviewer didn't ask my most pressing question is churlish. This disc gave pleasure from start to finish.

In fact, this dvd is something of a tribute to Humphrey Burton, who as a young executive producer arranged these performances, and conducted the interviews. Many years later he wrote a biography of Bernstein, and he provides historically interesting liner notes to this release.

Friday, 9 November 2012

2 piano recitals

Jeremy Denk. Brahms: Six piano pieces; Liszt: Petrarch sonnet; Liszt: Dante sonata; Wagner/Liszt: Liebestod; Schumann: Davidbündlertänze.
Wigmore Hall, 7 November 2012

Naufal Mukumi. Beethoven: Sonata op81 “Les Adieux”; Chopin: Scherzo #2; Debussy: l’Isle joyeuse; Verdi/Liszt: Rigoletto paraphrase; Balakirev: Islamey.
Chappell of Bond Street, 8 November 2012

Balakirev's Islamey, played by Simon Barere.

Two recitals inadvertently suggest that attempts at poetry in music fail if they don't also hold together as music.
These were two contrasting programmes of music from essentially the nineteenth century mainstream piano tradition. Both were enjoyable, but flawed, and I think this has something to do with the intrinsic value of the pieces but perhaps more importantly the art of concert programming.

Denk’s recital stressed the wistful, overtly poetic side of the romantic repertoire, while Mukumi focussed more on the technically demanding aspects. Denk gave lengthy, barnstorming Paganini variations as an encore, perhaps to illustrate that his fingers muscles were not deficient.

Given this difference in approach from the pianists, it is perhaps not surprising that the second concert would be flawed; whereas I expected the first to be a complete success. But this was not the case.

The late Brahms works combine intense feeling with a muted, introspective style. But they were not best showcased at the beginning of a concert.

I generally find Schumann impenetrable rather than charming, and the extramusical crutches he uses don't help me. A suite of dances must first of all work as a musical unit, then it may be possible to understand the use of alter-egos Florestan, Eusebius and David's Band.

A great contrast was offered just a few hours later at the start of the second concert, with Beethoven's sonata emerging as a well-structured piece, indeed argument, for which the poetic movement titles were unecessary, though evocative. Here was a genuine musical equivalent to the strict forms of all the best poetry.

Likewise the Chopin and Debussy pieces seemed more effective in terms of emulating the experiences of reading (or hearing) poetry than anything in Denk's programme, with the exception of Liszt's Dante sonata.

On the other hand, in relegating bravura to an encore, Denk displayed greater self-confidence and confidence in his audience than Mukumi.

Perhaps Liszt could endow his Rigoletto pot-pouri with the peculiar combination of legato and savage drive that characterises Verdi, but in Mukumi's performance I was merely impressed with the pianist's dexterity. Likewise Islamey strikes me as the kind of showpiece that could come to life only under the very greatest pianists, such as Simon Barere. 

I can't judge the quality of playing of either pianist, except to note that Mukumi is apparently still an undergraduate, which struck me as ludicrous. It certainly isn't his fault that some of his pieces were inanimate: where an initial spark of creative genius exisited, he was magnificent.

Friday, 2 November 2012

King Lear

Almeida theatre, 1 November 2012

Jonathan Pryce's towering Lear. From Almeida.

A great cast make the most of the Almeida's site in this terrifying apocalyptic drama.

When reflecting with a suitable distance after a performance of King Lear, I confront a mystery. No theatrical experience can do justice to the text, as so much of it must rush over the audience in a torrential flood. So why is the experience so utterly shattering?

Bloodier, nastier tragedies have been written, some of them by the younger Shakespeare, and in general his period is a fine example of genuine renaissance, meaning the rebirth of the goriness and vitality of the Senecan tragedies of imperial Rome.

Some of these are powerful, but Lear is greater still, and the depiction of terrible loss of dignity is so human, so immediately communicative, that by the time of Lear’s final entrance bearing Cordelia’s body in his arms, somehow it is the final straw. A moment of redemption (Edmund) is cruelly engulfed by our foreknowledge that this will not bring justice; indeed that all notions of justice can (will? must?) fail against the hard rock of the world.

It is easy to see why centuries ago this drama was adapted to mitigate Shakespeare’s ending.

A minor blot appears in Michael Attenborough’s production during this final scene. Jonathan Pryce’s aptly larger-than-life king does not enter carrying his prone daughter in his arms; a burly soldier does this.

This is unrepresentative, for Pryce is otherwise a dominating presence, though his performance is marred by making Lear occasionally lapse into senility; I suppose this is intended to make us sympathise with what is a pressing problem for all of us, while making us understand Goneril and Regan a little better.

But what we gain in ambiguity we lose on the sense of injustice… the violence of the two daughters against the unwise father becomes less shocking if we suspect he needs the care home rather than the hunting ground.

Another misjudgement is the placement of the Fool’s bizarre prophecy. It’s hard to know what anyone is supposed to do with this, but my experience is that it should be our last sighting of this strange character. In this production he lingers on, finally leaving in disgust, discarding his cap – and therefore presumably is supposed to represent a sensitive audience member, who might very well leave before witnessing the final scenes of reconciliation then degradation.

As usual, the Fool’s banter with Lear is incomprehensible, and of course so is much of the drama – in reading, Edgar’s ironic self-abnegation comes across with much greater strength than can be shown in the theatre, where he must appear as another whacky character among the rest.

Of all Shakespeare dramas, this suffers most from phrases that cannot be understood; indeed whole scenes. It could be satirised as an old man getting naked and shouting in a storm, and the storm scene needs something inventive in order to work, as clearly we cannot be expected to follow the bellowings. Attenborough does well here, with a vivid image of the Fool hanging onto Lear.

The sparseness of the Almeida stage is also a major strength in this drama, in which one man’s collapse is also the collapse of an entire world.

This is the drama of mortality, and of the inevitable shame that comes with it. Lear’s futile rages against injustice, his changing impatient, insightful approach, are the rages we all experience if we genuinely contemplate our non-existence.

This production brought me viscerally close to that contemplation, and the fact that other productions, perhaps any production, would do the same, does not lessen its achievement.