Wednesday, 18 December 2013


Live cinema screening from Royal Opera House
Greenwich Picturehouse, London
18 December 2013

Pappano conducting the Prelude. Ends abruptly!  From here.

A intriguing, detailed approach to this masterpiece that may work better in a revival.

Child abuse can be avoided if both parents stop hurting each other and start over. I've no idea if that's true, but it has nothing to do with Parsifal, and director Stephen Langridge can't have intended that to be the main message of the evening. But his final scene was only the most disastrous example of bathos in this new production, though the good news is that he had many extremely interesting and good ideas, some of which I'll come to.

Parsifal's music is so beautiful that it's possible to enjoy the whole thing as a sort of enormous symphony with voices, and to neglect what is happening on stage, apart maybe from expecting some lovingly recreated medievalist and Christian images.

Comments overheard from my fellow audience members suggests that what they were doing, and the perfunctory introductory and interval discussions from Covent Garden didn't improve the situation.

But the meaning of this overwhelming work does matter. Clearly it is an exploration of the growth and nature of compassion, through the lens of a Christian myth. But a number of problems arise. I think the only serious problem is whether the piece is Christian at a deep level, or at any rate espouses an eccentric form of Christianity. Nietzsche thought so, and was disgusted.

He also claimed Wagner's characters were one step away from the hospital, and Langridge agrees in a literal sense. The set is that of a hospital in a forest, with Amfortas a suffering patient. Kundry is presented as if she ought to be a patient, suffering from hysteria. Indeed, this production plausibly makes Kundry the centre of the work.

That addresses another, less serious problem. The grail knights, usually presented favourably, are also criticised for mortifying their flesh. Kundry, presented superficially unfavourably, is shown to be at a different extreme, a sex addict. But is this really the other extreme from mortification? Is it so very bad? And is the work basically misogynist?

If anything, the production goes too far in rebutting all that. The grail knights are shocking. The grail is presented as a boy whom they bleed for their fuel. Meanwhile Kundry's problem is accurately shown to be one of uncontrollable mocking laughter, rather than hedonism. In the second act she is much less glamorous than the Flower Maidens, and seduces through her pitiable state.

All of this simplifies Wagner, but it's in the right direction. Unfortunately there are also a number of risible moments. It's fine to show the rejuvenated community as being open to women, but having Kundry and Amfortas leave the stage together implies they are about to start a new life together, an inane idea. I didn't understand the brief reappearance of the grail as a young man: this too seemed a wildly inappropriate joke.

A cinema screening requires many close ups of the acting singers. When the acting is as good as Angela Denoke's Kundry, this is wonderful. When it's as bad as Simon O'Neill's Parsifal, it's annoying or worse, comical. Some acting may work better in the theatre, such as Gerald Finley's Amfortas.

The acting overwhelmed the singing, for good or bad. I thought Denoke was underpowered, O'Neill indifferent and Finley probably excellent, but it was hard to tell. The other cast members were fine but in less important roles.

Antonio Pappano conducted so as to minimise any drama or tension in the score. If that wasn't as mutilating as it should have been, it is a testament to the production.


Barbican, London
17 December 2013

Countertenor Iestyn Davies in Handel's Eternal Source of Light Devine,. 
Not from the Messiah, but gives some sense of what Davies can do with decent accompaniment. From here.

A tedious performance wasting talented musicians.

This was the most anaemic Messiah I have encountered. That’s not necessarily because the forces were small, though in the Barbican it didn’t help.

It’s more that conductor Bernard Labadie adopted a deadening approach to tempi, and phrasing.

Handel, I feel, could have set the phone book in a pulse-quickening manner. In this work almost every aria, and every chorus, is exciting or memorable. Contemplating the refiner’s fire, or the wrongful sufferings of Christ, or the justice of the last judgement, brings out the best in the composer. Messiah also confirms that music can be dramatic even if there is no clear narrative, or characters.

On the plus side, the excellent diction from the soloists and chorus allowed us to recognise Jennens’ contribution in selecting some of the best verses from the King James’ Version of the Bible.

On the minus, I left wondering how Handel could have orchestrated the work so feebly. Perhaps this is the test of a decent performance. It should make us ignore the orchestration.

Slow tempi needn’t be a problem, but consistently smoothed-over phrasing certainly is. Every opportunity for contrast and vigour was missed, producing a single mush of beautiful, polite tones. The Hallelujah chorus lacked gusto, or even vulgarity, which would have been an acceptable substitute.

I suppose the many fans of countertenor Iestyn Davies would be happy, at least. His voice is beautiful, but that doesn’t in itself create drama, and in the event his arias only intensified the somnolescent effect.

The other singers also had ‘period instrument’ voices, ie no vibrato, which is a pity but it is not possible to blame them for the overall dreariness of the evening. Amazingly, the greatest aria in the work, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, worthy of Bach, was a failure,  and surely that does reflect badly on soprano Lydia Teuscher.

Unwisely, this was a full-length performance, lasting around 3 hours (with short interval). An endurance test.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Seagull

Etcetera Theatre, London
8 December 2013

Fiona Shaw and Iain Glen in Peter Stein's acclaimed production, seen at Edinburgh in 2003.
From here.

Enterprising but disappointing student performance of a demanding piece.

Performing Chekhov requires high ambition, despite his great popularity. This production, from students at University College London, was not a success, but some of the reasons for its failure are interesting.

His mature full-length works are ensemble tragedies, a form I think Chekhov pioneered and which hasn't been successfully imitated, so far as I know, despite his huge influence on subsequent dramatists.

We're used to ensembles in comedies and historical dramas, and suchlike. But tragedy would seem to require a focal point or two. Chekhov contrives to show us that everyone is suffering, and that everyone's suffering is equally worth our attention.

Of course, if he actually did that it would be a miracle. Clearly some characters matter more to us than others. But while experiencing the drama, rather than reflecting on it at leisure, I feel everyone matters.

That is, in a successful production. And I think The Seagull simply cannot be successfully performed by a group of young people, however talented.

Part of the author's skill is his realistic mix of ages, so that the older characters, with their sense of wasted years, provide repellent role models for the younger characters, who are nonetheless doomed to the same outcome, unless something drastic happens such as a suicide attempt.

Student productions can prove very effective in masking the age difficulty, but not here, where it is so important. The actors playing older characters are too obviously playing a part (this is not their fault of course). As a result, everyone seems merely bratty.

This drama contains plenty of comedy, and that works well here, but overall it is profoundly tragic, so that the central themes of this work are lost in the production.

Other factors only made matters worse. The text is abbreviated into one act, which only heighten the sense of hysterical youth. The charming animated backdrop, which ought to be a strength, sometimes depicts  childlike interpretations of what we are witnessing. This is a terrible mistake, unnecessarily patronising and strengthening the feeling of watching immature spirits. This surely cannot have been the concept behind this production?

Etcetera Theatre does nobody a favour by not producing even a list of cast and crew. It would be unfair to comment on particular acting anyway, given the straitjacket imposed from the start by attempting this work.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Carol recital

St Mary-at-Hill, London
5 December 2013

Warlock's Adam Lay Ybounden, in its more familiar choral version,.
The words are gratefully indistinct, even when sung by the Choir of King's College Cambridge. From here.

Making the words of carols audible only highlights the vulgarity of Christmas, with few exceptions.

Yet another cleverly programmed free lunchtime recital in a London church, scandalously under-attended. I haven’t seen anyone at these events who looks like they work in the capital’s financial district, so it’s sad that these great venues and concerts are inconveniently located for music-lovers.

The paradoxically austere intimacy of Wren’s church, lit by the midday sun, jarred with the traditional idea of a carol concert, but actually this wasn’t too traditional. For one thing, the words were clear.

Regarding the mismatch between words and music, carols represent an extreme version of all that is despicable and complacent in modern Christianity. The music of the worst example here, Cooke’s O Men from the Field, blithely ignores the understandable fear the poem states the shepherds felt when angels appeared and directed them to God’s incarnation. The Holly and the Ivy, also presented here, has one of the finest poems addressing what is supposed to be a mysterious fusion of joy and tragedy, but nothing of this is evident in Sharp’s famous but sentimental musical setting.

The problem is highlighted, but not solved, in two appealing carols by a contemporary composer, Thomas Hewitt Jones. Here the words struggle with the myth of the tragic incarnation, but the result is a victim of its own success: the repellent aspects of a god sacrificing his own son are out of synch with the rest of the carols. Perhaps they are better suited for Easter.

Two of the finest works here were settings of disturbing poems. Rubbra’s Rune of Hospitality sets a poem that treats Jesus as if he were the Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, disguising himself as a beggar to test his people’s charity. So generosity to the poor is linked firmly with self-interest. The other disturbing highlight was Warlock’s setting of the medieval Adam Lay Ybounden, an astonishing celebration of the redeeming power of sin that boldly reinforced the ‘acetic priest’ underpinnings of the religion.

Robert Smith, the pianist, is also an organist, so the concert contained two solo organ works by Buxtehude, and two songs accompanied on that instrument. Turning the necessity of having to move around into inventiveness, the seating plan allowed the audience to focus on the architecture, a very good idea given the visual dullness of a typical concert.

Tenor Charles MacDougall gave helpful synopses of the carols and why they were in this particular order; song texts were unnecessary given his clear diction.

Performance-wise, the only mistake in the programme was Adam’s rapturous O Holy Night (in English); otherwise the recital seemed ideally chosen to reveal the rottenness of this season.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Ravel's operas

Royal College of Music, London
4 December 2013

The opening of L'Enfant et les sortileges, from Glyndebourne in 1987. From here.

The important half of the evening was a complete triumph, and the lighter half didn't pall.

The ambition of the Royal College of Music is impressive. Ravel’s short operas pose enormous difficulties for production teams. L’Heure espagnole is a farce, the most difficult of theatrical genres; L’Enfant et les sortileges requires animated furniture and animals.

The farce wasn't funny, which is the same as to say it was a disaster, but that would be extremely unfair to everyone involved. It was pleasant enough and raised a smile occasionally, which is more than many musical comedies manage. And best of all it was brief, so didn't have time to become tedious.

Straight farce is difficult enough; musical farce, where the music and performers must match each other perfectly, seems impossible, though Mozart certainly managed it sometimes. The basic plot is a good one, revolving Feydeau-esque around sex, so that'll never become outdated.

I think one problem lies in the dialogue, which is apparently funnier in French than in translation. Another is that despite the sex, the work does rely upon national and class stereotypes that no longer work. But director James Bonas introduced his own faults. A fat old banker really does require at least grotesque makeup and a fat suit, humble though such visual jokes are. And the work is incredibly sexy. With such an attractive young cast, surely some sex appeal could have been possible?

The composer claimed to have created amusing music, which would indeed be pioneering, but I didn't notice it. In fact the music didn't seem especially distinctive, though it would have helped if conductor Michael Roswell had injected some sparkle into the orchestra. Perhaps on another night, he did.

Thankfully Ravel (and Roswell) was fully inspired for L'Enfant. The second scene, in the garden, is genuinely chilling, and contrasts with the daft humour of the first scene, as objects come to life.

I find it odd that the only great dramas I know of successfully depicting childhood are music dramas, specifically this one and Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel. Perhaps the added artificiality of opera makes these children, always played by adult women, believable.

Enchantment, yearning, fear, sex, violence, humour, pathos... it's all here in Colette's libretto, and Ravel enhances the text with some of his finest music, appealing and wonderfully direct. Of course, as with Humperdinck's work, this is intended for an audience that recalls childhood, rather than an audience of children. In both cases I suspect many audience members don't notice (or repress) the conclusion that these theatrical children are us, that we're not so far removed from the anxieties of childhood as we believe.

The creative team excelled themselves in bringing all this to life, and if anything oversold the moral by having most of the animals and objects wearing adult Edwardian clothing. But emphasising the social aspects of this masterpiece is not really a bad thing.

In both operas, the singing, and for the most part acting, was superb. If the farce was stillborn, I don't think this was a comment on the singing actors, who did their best to administer musical CPR.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and the Imagination

School of African and Oriental Studies, London
 11 October – 15 December 2013

Cyrus Cylinder, Babylon, 539-530 BCE. A statement of religious tolerance (relative). From here.

Fascinating if inevitably facile exploration of a religion mysterious to most of us. But get the catalogue.

The catalogue claims this is the first art exhibition devoted to Zoroastrianism in the UK. Part of its purpose, then, is also to inform us about the history and context of the religion, and I’ll address that before coming to the aesthetic value of the exhibition.

Before going, and especially before reading the enormously informative catalogue, I had thought Zoroastrianism was one of the first monotheistic religions, along with Judaism, though located in ancient Persia rather than in the Levant.

The actual archaeological picture appears to be more complex, as indeed it is with Judaism. Even without archaeology, references to gods in the texts and artworks are enough to make us question the monotheism, though Christian and Muslim saints might be seen the same way, and perhaps monotheism itself is a clay-footed idea.

It would seem we know very little about how ancient Persians (Iranians) worshipped, as they didn’t have a single canon, and that this canon was eventually imposed on the religion as a result of contact with Christians and Jews. Christian scriptures are of course relatively recent, but there is also controversy over the age of the Hebrew canon; probably Zoroastrianism’s canon is not much more recent than anyone’s, in the end.

Appropriately aware that even revered traditions can be invented, we can see, with our detachment, that the question ‘what do Zoroastrians believe?’ has different answers at different times. I find this bewildering, as it would be ridiculous to say this applied only to a relatively small Persian religion and not, say, to Islam or Christianity.

So, from purely an anthropological perspective, this exhibition is a success, though I would have preferred more comparisons with the claims of Zoroastrianism’s ‘sister’ monotheist religions.

Aesthetically it’s much more of a mixed bag. The curators are divided between giving us an insider’s view and presenting the orientalist view. So we see various European depictions of the religion, most obviously the ‘magician’ Zarathustra. All of this obscures the presentation of an authentically Zoroastrian art, if such exists.

But the vast scope of the exhibition also defeats the curators. Ancient Persian/Iranian art mixes with medieval art, through to the nineteenth century resurgence in Iran and India, through to modern-day practices, interestingly recreated.

I would have liked to see much more of the crucial period when Islam became ‘Persianised’ and what I assume to be the lasting and profound influence of the earlier religion on the later.

As it was, I came away with a single sobering thought. The Cyrus Cylinder is a testament to Ancient Persia’s religious tolerance. But it comes before the religion was codified and made ‘official’. And that occurred due to Christian influence.

Saturday, 30 November 2013


Royal Festival Hall
30 November 2013

For once, a non-shit trailer, from here.

The greatest historical drama?

More accurately, the film should be called Young Napoléon, because although it lasts five and a half hours, it only reached his invasion of Italy, as commander of the French armies, not yet even First Citizen. Mind-bogglingly, writer-director Abel Gance intended this as the first of six films covering the central character’s life.

The ambition and scale of all this is staggering. The nearest comparison is with Peter Jackson’s six films adapted from Tolkein. And like Jackson, Gance is passionately in love with the visceral possibilities of a mobile camera and with spectacular set-pieces.

This kind of thrillingly edited experience is what Hollywood does best, in which case Gance should be its patron saint.

The film has been criticised as being proto-fascist, and it clearly is, but it is no moreso than many other artworks, especially those in the Romantic tradition. The ‘strong leader’ model of government has proponents even today among even within the ‘enlightened’ development community. And if Napoléon’s life cannot be presented as Romantic, whose can?

Gance and his team aren’t crude propagandists. The battle sequences are brutal, surely influenced by the 1914-18 European war. His hero takes on the mantle of the French Revolution but significantly doesn’t promise not to betray it. From the first sequences of a snowfight, Napoléon is presented as a Lord of Misrule, who not only thrives in apparent chaos but delights in it.

Combined with a well-constructed misanthropy, these characteristics make him a hero for his cruel, tumultuous times. And the film conveys these times with a gusto that works more effectively than naturalism.

Truffaut excitedly claimed that every shot contributed to furthering the story, the experience, that nothing was wasted. That is an impossible claim, but I did feel that at least every scene made a contribution, and was conscious throughout of momentum. The characters are so well known, their fate so well known, that the film makes no pretence of surprise; yet the tension is sustained throughout.

The only comparison I can make is with Shakespeare's Henry V, where the audience knows the outcome, shares the author's misgivings, yet still gets carried away by the glory and excitement of war and of 'history' unfolding.

The cast is phenomenal; it's as if they stepped from the late eighteenth century. There is no weak link.

The other, very prominent, ingredient in the success of this experience is Carl Davis' live score, a thundering postmodern mashup of composers from the period, most especially Beethoven. It's more brilliant than that suggests, however, for Davis gives the hero a recurring Brucknerian theme that seamlessly blends with the souped-up Beethoven.

The score, then, is also a masterpiece, and it was a privilege to hear Davis himself conduct a faultless Philharmonia. I wasn't sure he synched it fully with the images, but climaxes are hard to time. Should they come at the very end of a scene, or run over a little? I assume Davis achieved what he intended by opting for the latter.

I think every other critic is right. This was an unmissably cinematic experience.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900

National Gallery, London
9 October 2013 –  12 January 2014

Gerstl, "Nude Self Portrait with Palette" (1908).
Leopold Museum, Vienna. From here.

A disappointing exhibition, though Richard Gerstl should get his own retrospective.

The curators of this exhibition appear to be following an old idea about ‘the modern’ along the lines of this is an Age of Anxiety. There may be something to this thesis, though we might also point at ‘the modern’ being a rebellion against oppression, or an attempt to live aesthetically satisfying lives. For the anxiety thesis, the link with Vienna during 1867-1918 is almost entirely a link to Freud, perhaps Mahler.

The curators argue that anxiety in Vienna was linked to the emerging bourgeoisie, a ‘new Viennese’ that looked back to ‘old Viennese’ bourgeois in an attempt to find an identity. And of course, Vienna during this time overflowed with ‘minority’ cultures, most notably an extremely important Jewish community, themselves all understandably anxious.

These socioeconomic anxieties, the curators claim, can be seen in the portraits commissioned by the bourgeoisie. Well, I didn’t notice it.

In fact, anxiety is not expressed in any of these paintings, except perhaps one remarkable defaced self-portrait by Richard Gerstl that ought to have been the highlight of the show. Unfortunately it was presented upside down, as he had reused the other side for a full portrait.

His other self-portrait exhibited (above) conveys the opposite of anxiety. Here, surely is a new Siegfried or Adam, and the intentional reference to Dürer suggests deserved arrogance rather than fear and trembling.

Death seems to have fascinated the nineteenth century Viennese (the waltz having a death wish built-in). But while characteristic, I’m not sure the deathmasks on display here, apparently collectibles at the time, illustrate any greater anxiety than stuffed animals did for the contemporary British. Morbid curiosity, yes.

Vienna in 1900 was an extraordinary city, hosting an astonishing culture, and it helped define whatever the modern is. But there are many facets to this, and the economic, class-based side is just one.

Improbable historical theses aside, what of the art here? It is fascinating to witness proto-expressionist portraits next to the more conventional, naturalistic portraits of the earlier, mid-century generation. The latter make their impression in a quieter manner, somehow, but are not less impressive overall.

Perhaps the difference between the late Romantics and the early moderns, in this show, is this greater discretion, minimising the drama of a portrait. Tastefulness has its shortcomings, and the later artists rejected it, though I am not convinced Schoenberg’s daubings here, self-consciously primitive, refute the careful work of the older generation as he imagined they did.

None of the portraits here are bad, except perhaps Schoenberg’s selfies. His approach varied though and his portraits of others are more interesting. Most of them are interesting, especially so in comparing different styles. And it’s good to discover Gerstl.

But it should have been much better.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Day of the Doctor

23 November 2013

The finale of the the seventh (new) series of Doctor Who, introducing by far the most interesting Doctor yet: played by John Hurt. 
From here.

A moving study of despair and its consequences almost gets lost amongst the regular high japes of the post-2005 Doctor Who.

The finest moment in this TV film (‘special episode’) came when former companion Rose told John Hurt’s Ninth Doctor that the familiar TARDIS sound meant hope to millions who had heard it, and that this included the Doctor himself. Given that the Ninth Doctor was about to activate a terrifying weapon of mass destruction in a moment of despair, the subsequent whirring, indicating the arrival of the TARDIS, achieved a tremendous sentimental impact.

If you don’t know anything about Doctor Who, I have no hope of explaining this film. But as usual with the series since its 2005 revival, the on-screen realisation belies the incredibly complicated backstory: those of us who know some of it are delighted, while those that don’t can enjoy the drama anyway, taking a lot of things as ‘given’.

This means adopting a frenetic pace, but when these episodes really succeed, they are able to convey something weightier too. Here, the emotional centre rested with the Ninth Doctor and Rose. Cleverly, writer Stephen Moffat connected this with the more viscerally exciting, but more juvenile strands devoted to the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors (both overwhelmingly popular) by implying that the trauma of the weapon’s use was so awful that it had effectively regressed the Doctor into a self-denying second childhood.

This idea transformed what might have been a purely backslapping experience (two of the actor who’ve played the Doctor onscreen together) into something more profound, about how we might view our future selves, or indeed how they might view us.

It’s a pity that the need to also be celebratory interfered with this angle. Nor did it help that the Ninth Doctor’s genocidal act was part of the already-complicated continuity that has been developed since 2005. The Time War, supposedly the ultimate war, between Daleks and Time Lords, needed to be depicted at last, and this was inevitably disappointing.

Not as you might think, due to lack of resources – after all, no resources are adequate to depict an apocalypse. But rather because this war requires an extreme design imagination. It ended up being people (and machines) with laser guns.

On the positive side, reintroducing Billie Piper’s Rose as the Ninth Doctor’s guardian angel was extremely effective, and was cleverly incorporated into the show’s continuity (she is the Bad Wolf, helping the Doctor when he needs it most… yes, the continuity is not beginner-friendly)

The later, yet younger, Doctors were as entertaining as expected, with much of the near-playground humour that has helped to make the series enormously successful. The usual god-in-the-machine ending felt as these things always do, that the pathos of the earlier scenes has been belittled rather than transcended.

Actually, the ending was more of a misfire than usual, because there seemed to be several endings, with one of them inserted to allow yet another past Doctor to appear. Well, these are the perils of a fiftieth anniversary episode.

But the hopeful sound of the TARDIS provided the genuine ending. And this is as it should be. For the 30+ continuous years of TV episodes, the sound and appearance of the TARDIS has been the only constant in every episode of the series. If you add in the audio stories from the ‘interregnum’ then the sound specifically is indeed is the only constant across 50 years.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Britten recital

Hall of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, London
21 November 2013

Britten's Canticle 1, performed by Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano). 
From here.

A full performance of Winter Words would have been welcome, but this recital admirably conveyed the range of Britten's songwriting.

The Britten centenary has been celebrated vigorously all year, and is now reaching a fever pitch of concerts, radio broadcasts, etc. Like Shostakovich, Britten was overrated during his lifetime by those who wanted music that acknowledged modernism while remaining fundamentally comfortable.

Now though, the conflict between modernists and traditionalists (romantics, neoclassicists) seems misguided, and we can admire the romantic Ralph Vaughan-Williams quite as much as the atonal Harrison Birtwhistle.

Britten retains a prominent place as a music dramatist, the greatest in English opera by a large margin (competing only with the Gershwins and Rogers & Hammerstein). That isn’t meant to be damning with faint praise: in the last century English-language is the most illustrious form of contemporary music drama.

This remarkable free concert highlighted another of the composer’s strengths – his songs. The centrepiece, selections from his Winter Words, made me wonder why more composer haven’t been influenced by Schubert’s Winter Journey. Perhaps they have; perhaps I only know of Britten’s homage because I am British. In any case, it’s a benign influence and the work retains the potency of its predecessor.

Britten’s first Canticle, setting the obscure Jacobean poet Francis Quarles’ My beloved is mine, and I am his, is a little unsettling. It is obviously a love song to Peter Pears, who sang it and many other works, but is it exhibitionist, or prurient? And if we consider it ahistorically, is it really any good? I‘m not sure. It felt overlong.

The rest of the programme comprised lighter works, including the ever-popular arrangements of Purcell and folksongs.

Tenor Nicholas Allen has an appealing voice, and of course seemed influenced by the recordings of Pears in this repertoire, which can’t sensibly be a criticism. Pianist and mastermind Gavin Roberts joined Allen in providing helpful explanations of the songs and choices.

Sunday, 17 November 2013


Royal Opera House, London
15 November 2013

Conductor Mark Elder's fascinating introduction to Wozzeck. From here.

Catastrophic mismatches manage to sink this astonishing masterpiece.

This is the second London production of this opera this year, presumably to celebrate the bicentenary of the remarkable Georg Büchner, author of the original drama, Woyzeck.

Berg’s music, and his adaptation as a whole, is so successful that it boggled the mind to realise the original drama is contemporary with Verdi and especially Wagner, and indeed written before either had achieved a mature style. However Büchner might have imagined his work set to music, it is certain he couldn’t have expected a post-Wagnerian, modernist idiom. Yet it works.

Or rather, it usually works. This production is a striking failure.

It’s as if there are three disconnected, even contradictory, planes attempting to intersect in the opera house. The direction/design, the acting and the music.

Director Keith Warner and the design team are most at fault. They make some terrible choices. The setting throughout is a laboratory, where Wozzeck (and maybe Andres) are experiments, so that the Captain becomes a closer associate of the Doctor than in the original drama / opera. This fatuous concept (konzept?) introduces a number of problems, most importantly how to handle the domestic scenes with Marie and her child.

Here, the domestic situation is in a corner of the stage, with an unclear relationship to the experiment. All this could simply be mistaken and misleading but not harmful: a reasonable effort to divine significance from this tawdry drama.

Much worse, Warner has Marie’s child onstage almost throughout, making the extremely heavy-handed observation that he is likely to grow up damaged. This point is hammered home in a final scene so sentimental I think even Puccini would have rejected it. Incredibly, it completely reverses the effect of both the original drama and of Berg’s own ending, where the child carries on playing oblivious to the deaths of his parents and the cruel taunts of his playmates.

Simon Keenlyside and Karita Mattila have beautiful voices and striking presence. They didn’t seem at all well suited to the staging. They belong to the expressionistic tradition, along with Berg himself, striking pained poses and not attempting to be naturalistic.

Arguably this is the correct approach for this opera, and would have worked well in an ‘authentic’ production, as the stills from the works’ premier suggest. But here it seemed exaggerated and jarring.

Musically, Mark Elder conducted in what is now the tradition with Berg, emphasising the beauty of the music. Again, this didn’t sit well with the drabness of the sets and the expressionism of the acting. His approach was measured, stately, giving something of the sense of a ceremony about the piece. It was enormously impressive, and built to some utterly shattering climaxes, as needed.

Overall, then, the effect was extremely peculiar, to the point of dullness, an emotion I don’t expect to experience here. A confusing, sentimental staging undermined by a religious approach to the music and a highly romantic approach to the acting.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Song recital: Verdi and Wagner

Hall of St Botolph without Bishopsgate
14 November 2013

Verdi's L'esule (the exile), sung by the great Carlo Bergonzi. From here.

A birthday celebration capturing the best of these composers.

Nationalism in Verdi and Wagner was the theme second and final free lunchtime Song in the City concert. If it was more interesting than the first concert, this may be due to my familiarity with the concert layout – dramatised readings from the composers interspersed between their songs, arranged thematically – or my mood on the day, rather than something intrinsic to the programme.

Each composer was active during the exciting period when their respective nations were born; both were patriots; and their operas have yielded nationalistic interpretations more than any other comparable great operas, save perhaps Mussorgsky’s. It’s easy to feel their songs must also reflect nationalism.

Yet from another perspective, neither composer was nationalistic. Wagner’s thoughts on art may link with his patriotism, but they are universal. Verdi’s ability to vividly express human passions would likewise seem to transcend parochialism. Most straightforwardly, both artists set their works in various countries; neither were dogmatic patriots.

Their songs reflect this, especially Wagner’s, whose early songs were often in French, including those with a patriotic ardour. He hated France so it is peculiar to hear Mary Queen of Scots lamenting leaving the country with such operatic histrionics. Was Wagner deliberately overdoing it in the style of Meyerbeer, or was that the only style he knew at the time? Did he share the poem’s sentiments, was he sending them up, or was he drawing a more general conclusion about exile, as Verdi does in his setting of a poem of that title?

Leaving aside these biographical reflections, encouraged by this programme, the song is more of a dramatic aria, though you wouldn’t guess it was by Wagner. It reminds me of an early Verdi piece, or of Elisabeth’s longing for France in Don Carlos, though not as good as that. But compared to the general tone of these composer’s songs, it’s welcome to hear something closer to their hearts ie drama.

In his maturity, Wagner applied his distinctive style to song through the Wesendonck poems, and we heard several of them here. They struck me as even more effective than in last week’s recital, perhaps because surrounded by greater contrast such as the earlier French aria-song.

It’s a matter of mood. The Wesendonck songs are closely related to Tristan & Isolde, and share that work’s suffused, elongated erotic tension. When contrasted with songs of longing, as last week, their remarkable mood doesn’t seem that original, and perhaps art songs had already achieved something of the subtlety that Wagner sought on stage.

When contrasted with ‘dramatic’ songs, ones appropriate for feelings of patriotism or exile, the achievement seems greater. Director (and pianist) Gavin Roberts, when programming, seems to have intended to point out this difference.

It’s especially interesting because some characteristic mature Verdi seems to be present in his songs here. L'esule is really a tenor aria from any of the operas up until Otello, and the effect was spectacular, even if it did suggest the great composer didn’t vary his approach to the tenor voice very much.

And the final drinking song, presented slightly awkwardly by all four singers, is also a classic Verdi theme, having little to do with nationalism, but what the hell.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Elizabeth I and Her People

National Portrait Gallery, London
10 October 2013  5 January 2014

Isaac Oliver's miniature self-portrait.

Elizabethan portraiture was provincial and shoddy, on this showing.

This small exhibition may appeal to specialists, but I am unsure even of that. It seems rather to be designed for the unwary, in a period when Elizabeth II seems everywhere, who may wish to explore the first Elizabethan age, which after all is often described as England’s Golden Age.

At the entrance of the exhibition is a huge painting everyone can see, even if you don’t pay to visit the rest (and I recommend you don’t). Elizabeth stands on a map of England. She is depicted with England literally underfoot.

A little historical awareness can moderate the brutality of this image (and the exhibition’s subtitle: Her People? In what way hers?). Her father, after all, was a much greater tyrant, the greatest in English history. She lived in an unusual time when the ‘prince’ almost too directly represented the state. Previously there had been states, but restricted for the most part to the more manageable size of a city. And there had been ‘national’ sovereigns, but these had more abstract significance, and the peasant or burgher probably didn’t identify with them personally.

In Elizabeth’s period, the sovereign and the people were linked, and of course we can add that the sovereign was expected to be a man, so that she presented an intrinsic image problem for the nascent nationalist tendency.

But this is an art exhibition, for the most part, and historical awareness can be misleading when judging the aesthetic quality of the exhibition.

It is unappealing, and while the curators might have managed a less ‘museum’ feel, I think they would be struggling with this material in any case. The portraits are almost entirely uninteresting, painted by hacks, even (or especially) those of the queen herself.

Only one portrait struck me as penetrating, of the wealthy Thomas Gresham, painted in Antwerp, apparently. I’m sure art historians would hate the crude idea that the English renaissance was well behind that in the Netherlands, but oh well, that is the unavoidable impression here.

It’s not that the English sitters wanted to be portrayed in such a stilted, false manner: Gresham is portrayed with severe formality, but he leaps off the wall in comparison to everyone else.

Many of the artists here are rightly anonymous. But a tedious trio appear throughout. Nicolas Hilliard appears to have been the most respected, though his ermine portrait of the queen looks pretty wretched, so that apparently we no longer believe he did more than suggest the composition. His miniatures are so bland it may have been a deliberate style, but a bad choice on this evidence.

In the case of Hans Eworth and Isaac Oliver, we can handily compare them directly as they painted the same subject, of Elizabeth and the three goddesses of Judgement of Paris fame. Both are dull allegories attempting to make the most use of a female sovereign, but Oliver’s looks terrible; at least Eworth seems competent at perspective and in generating an atmosphere.

Oliver was either a better miniaturist, or at least more in love with himself. His small self-portrait is the other really lively image in the exhibition. Eworth’s complementary portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk are also notable, for the almost surreal way in which the background seems an elaboration of the sitters’ clothing, so that their faces, surely the important part, seem irrelevant.

Part of the enduring appeal of the period is the clothing. We get a decent sample here, from gloves to a child’s mitten to a sailor’s uniform. We can see a variety of ruffs in the paintings: small, large, diaphanous. Not enough breeches, though.

If the exhibition is at all representative, it counters any claims this was truly a ‘golden age’. That is a worthwhile activity, though I am not sure one with which the curators would agree.

Reich concert

Royal Festival Hall, London
10 November 2013

A full performance of the Music for 18 Musicians. From here.

The appealing, popular yet mysterious offspring of dada. How does this work?

This was the second concert of two devoted to the masters of 1970s minimalism. For my observations on minimalism generally, read the first review.

Critics tend to prefer high-minded Steve Reich to the more commercial and popular Philip Glass, but if we’re comparing their central works during the 1970s ‘pure’ phase of minimalism, I’m not sure the difference is so great.

Music for 18 Musicians is no more audience-demanding as Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts, and the effect is similar. The visual aspect, with musicians wandering around to various instruments, is apparently intentional, and it helpfully provides interest during this intense work. But as with Glass’ music, all other aspects of the performance – melody, harmony, tone colour, volume, tempo – varies only gradually.

You could argue that the 18 musicians are more actively involved in this conductorless work than in Glass’, but the similarities with the more decentralised musicmaking of jazz don’t seem so very great. Each musician is effectively a repetitive cog in the machine.

Reich’s piece is much colder, more percussive than Glass’, more open about its Gamelan inspirations. It is also, like Music in Twelve Parts, somehow immune to criticism, at least to mine. I simply haven't heard them often enough to notice significant alterations, or even to have significant views on a performance.

All I can note is that I can't pay the same attention to this music as I can with say, a similarly long-spanned Bruckner symphony. 

Some short experimental pieces set the scene. Though slight, all were interesting, and made the links between minimalism and dada explicit.  That even ‘pure’ minimalism is popular, as heard in these two concerts, should not mislead us over its revolutionary approach to music.

Glass: Music in Twelve Parts

Royal Festival Hall, London
9 November 2013

The first of the twelve parts, lasting 10 minutes. You'll know if you're ready for the remaining 3 hours. 
From here.

How is such a long, repetitious piece of non-music so successful and deservedly popular?

I’m tempted to pass judgement on minimalism as a whole when I get to hear central works by two enormously influential still-living composers over one weekend, as part of a retrospective celebration on twentieth-century music.

Both composers (certainly Glass) claim they no longer compose in a minimalist idiom, which I take to mean that the 1970s form was the most concentrated, the purest, form.

Perhaps we should better think of a musical revolution, akin to that of atonalism 60 years earlier, or the neoclassical counter-revolution. Glass is quoted in the programme notes saying his music is not normal, not what people expect, and as a result they claim it is similar to hypnosis, religious ceremonies or other experiences that are not normal.

He has a point, but so does his audience. It is difficult to describe this music. It takes monotony to an extreme, but is not unpleasant, which is remarkable. Small variations maintain our interest, but the original theme is so brief, and the work is so extended, that the sounds become a kind of aural wallpaper, and it is impossible for me to invest all of my concentration, or even significant portions of it, to listening.

Here, Glass massively increases the monotony by allowing only small variations along any of the axes usually ascribed to music: of melody, of harmony, of tone colour, of volume, of tempo. The impression is that everything occurs in a brilliant ‘light’ that endures almost forever, though each discrete part is around 15 or 20 minutes long.

We ought to be astonished this works at all, much less that it is popular. It connects with traditional Western ideas of music in only the most marginal manner, and from what I have heard, it connects no better with any other kind of music (in this, it differs from the music of Steve Reich).

If there is a connection at all, it is with one of Glass’ teacher, Nadia Boulanger, and through her the neoclassical tradition of Stravinsky. With so little variation possible, Glass needs to create a beautiful, transparent starting point, meaning that his tone colours and orchestration need to be absorbing. And they are.

This is an extremely demanding work, but the comparisons made during the concert, or in the programme, are entirely misleading. This is not anything like reading (or attending a performance of) the Mahabharata, the Ring Cycle, or even a Mahler symphony. Those are dramatic works, with a narrative. ‘Pure’ Glass was understandably narrative-phobic, and definitively anti-dramatic in this work.

Any performance by the composer’s own ensemble is going to be unimpeachable, especially as they have performed it many times before. The key aspect of a performance is how well the synthesisers blend with the other instruments: after decades of it, this group are experts.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Thor 2: The dark world

8 November 2013

Trailer. Tedious.

Drearily explosive, missing almost every chance at realising the myths.

The Thor films have a lot to live up to (it has always been clear this would be a sequence of sequels). Two long, nearly successive runs for creative teams on the comic book created a complicated, compelling reinvention of Norse mythology, incorporating significant doses of science fiction, though these were not presented as the ‘space gods’ (advanced aliens) that the films have opted for.

More importantly, the comics operated on a mythic scale, reaching a peak in the second run, that of writer/penciller Walt Simonson, that has proven hard or impossible to match in other comics, Sandman excepted.

We’re embarrassed by heroism, and superheroes are one of the areas where this concept can still be explored. The Thor comic book adopted a fairly naive, but effective, version. There was little of the anxieties of the much more popular Batman or X-Men comic franchises, which were also definitively rebooted in the 1980s.

A film, even a film series, cannot develop mythology in the same way as a many-year run on a comic book. But it should have been possible to  do it better than with these two films so far. The obvious model should have been the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, where miraculously Tolkein’s colossal, anally retentive mythmaking somehow comes across on screen.

The Thor films have tried something similar – they took part of the Rings lesson to heart, and have designed a convincing world. The level of detail would inspire awe, if we were allowed to see it.

Unfortunately, all of this design seems wasted by the action-film-making-by-numbers approach. Explosions, frenetic camerawork, plots that appear to have been severely cut so that they scarcely make sense, and a false threat that totally removes any tension.

Peter Jackson and team had a much more difficult task realising the threat of Sauron, yet managed it. Thor 2, like Thor 1, offers nothing memorable.

Actually that’s not quite true. As with Thor 1 and the Avengers, Loki is the standout star, thanks to Tom Hiddleston, who seems born to the role. And indeed, he captures most of the charismatic, ironic qualities of Simonson’s character (itself based, I think, on Wagner’s intellectual Loge).

If the inevitable third film could only slow down, limit the action to the very end, and invest more time in building both a sense of threat and the necessary heroism to counter that threat, then it could be a decent film. The actors are in place – almost everyone here is well-suited to their roles. The exception is Anthony Hopkins’ Odin, with the actor quite obviously too bored to care.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Roméo et Juliette

Barbican, London
6 November 2013

Olga Borodina singing the strophes from the first part of Berlioz' symphony. 
Conducted by Colin Davis rather than Valery Gergiev (as at the Barbican). From here.

An underrated  perhaps because unclassifiable – pinnacle of music drama receives another moving and profound interpretation.

Berlioz refused to make things easier for himself. Is this work meant to be judged as a representation of Shakespeare’s tragedy or is it an independent piece with aspects inspired by that drama? I think that is the correct way to think of the problem, for we can easily agree that it is a type of symphony and not a type of opera: it’s place is the concert hall, not the theatre.

David Cairns has been writing about Berlioz, and this work, almost everywhere for what must be decades now, and he has another go in the programme notes to this concert. But I think he still doesn’t address the right problem. He seems to want to justify the piece as a ‘pure’ symphony, but then what is going on in the penultimate section, Romeo alone at the tomb, if even Cairns needs to describe it in terms of Garrick’s mutilated Shakespeare? Can it stand alone within the context of the work, and nowhere else?

I’m probably making too much of this. Perhaps this is a hybrid, best understood sometimes in terms musical and sometimes in terms extra-musical. Thankfully it’s a dramatic masterpiece, regardless of classification. But I wonder if the tradition of playing the orchestral parts on their own doesn’t hint at a serious musical weakness when considering it as a ‘symphony’. We wouldn’t approve of playing one or several parts of Beethoven’s own Choral Symphony on their own. Then again, Wagner is often played out of context. Lapses in taste happen.

This is the second performance of this work I have heard recently: a blessing for which I am grateful. Valery Gergiev’s view of it corresponds to his view of everything – it is played with great ferocity and dynamic contrast. The start of the opening movement was so fast even the London Symphony Orchestra seemed to be gabbling.

Not everything was so hard-driven. The neoclassical choral simplicity of the fifth movement, starting the third part, came off well, though I didn’t feel the next two movements, the hardest to bring off, produced the right sense of troubled reconciliation emerging from conflict. Gergiev’s approach made the conflict extremely thrilling, but the lengthy aria-and-chorus that concludes the symphony needs to feel much less perfunctory.

At the centre of this titanic depiction of love and death, conflict and peace, is the wonderful Love Scene. It worked its effect, as it almost always does, but I regretted that the conductor maintained tension without providing suitable release.

The orchestra, double chorus and soloists were excellent, especially Olga Borodina’s dramatic performance of the strophes in the first part, quite unusually dramatic, but very appropriate.

Song recital: Verdi and Wagner

Hall of St Botolph without Bishopsgate
7 November 2013

Angela Gheorghiu singing Verdi's uncharacteristically light-hearted Stornello. From here

Minor works by great composers presented brilliantly. More, please.

This is the first of two extremely enterprising – and free! – lunchtime song recitals from Song in the City dedicated to these great musical dramatists, both born 200 years ago.

Focussing on their songs, rather than aria arrangements, displays integrity but also presents problems. Neither composer is at his best in the song form, which is more peculiar for Verdi than Wagner, whose orchestral mastery is a greater part of his appeal.

The theme of this concert was love and/or obsession, and stressed the similarities of these contemporaries. A series of dramatised readings from their letters helped, interspersed with the songs. In these readings, both composers emerged as an intense Romantic, with Wagner prone to poetic excess and Verdi crustier but still passionate.

Confirming that in their early years, neither had a distinctive voice, the songs were similar in verse and musical setting.

The first two songs even had the same verse, from Goethe’s Faust, Part One, Gretchen’s spinning song, set most memorably by the young Schubert, and perhaps set most effectively by Carl Loewe. Against such competition neither opera composer comes out well.

If this were a competition, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Verdi comes off worst, for Wagner wrote the Wesendonck Lieder at a point where he had achieved miracles within opera, far beyond Verdi’s ambition. Verdi’s songs, and most of Wagner's, are much earlier.

Surprisingly, the gap between the songs of the young-ish Verdi and the fully mature Wagner are not as great as we might think. Although the selections of those Wesendonck lieder heard here were definitely the highlights, the Italian’s similarly evocative settings around night or longing were also very effective.

We're used to hearing the Wesendonck songs in their orchestral versions, mostly by Mottl, but employing Wagner's advances in orchestration. The piano-accompanied originals, then, are not as interesting, at least on this showing.

Ironically, the concert ended with a song that pianist and director Gavin Roberts called an Italian approach to love, rather than the heavy ‘Wagnerian’ themes that had gone before. Ironic, because both composers were extremely high-minded, and if anything Verdi was temperamentally more serious than Wagner. That he also managed a soubrettish song says less about him being Italian and more about his interest in depicting a wide range of types of people.

The performances, in this small pretty hall, were uniformly excellent, singers admirably scaling down to meet the acoustics.

Thursday, 31 October 2013


Canada Water Cultural Space, London
31 October 2013

The poster, from Scene Productions.
A towering dramatic masterpiece, both in text form and in this realisation.

Sometimes a small-scale, bootstrap production can be revelatory, can remind us of an aspect of theatre hardly possible with larger budgets and larger audiences. This was one of those productions. Everyone should see it.

Büchner was born 200 years ago, the same year as Wagner and Verdi, two of the pinnacles of High Romantic drama. Part of my respect for his achievement is therefore historical: how could a drama as expressionist, as proto-Brechtian as Woyzeck be written at this time, and indeed well before either of his great contemporaries reached maturity?

This is misleading: the work survives only in fragments, and is significantly incomplete. So we don’t know how the author might have wanted to present it as a finished product. We might be disappointed if we found a finished version somewhere.

All this historical information is secondary. More importantly, the drama we have now creates a powerful impact, and if the author can’t completely escape his time, so that we sympathise more with the two central characters than we are allowed to do in say Brecht, for me this is a great strength.

An important part of this impact is the ambiguity around the cause of the murder. Woyzeck has certainly been oppressed by those grotesque pillars of society, the captain and the doctor, but he is also shown to be a poetic critic of that society and possessing an acute conscience in spite of his claim to the contrary.

The painful impossibility of resolving Woyzeck’s guilt raises the work to tragedy, as we wonder whether a less callous society could prevent such crimes.

Due to its fragmentary nature, any performance of this work is an adaptation in a more extended sense than is typical with other works in the canon. Here, it is performed by three actors in around an hour without interval. This means some scenes are shortened, others necessarily dropped altogether, and there are seeming additions: inside the showman’s tent we get not only a man-turned horse but a man-turned-ape.

It succeeds, for this is a very physical, mime-influenced production. Perhaps it overstates the grotesque nature of the characters, but I can’t see that as a weakness in such an expressionist piece.

The director has unobjectionably updated the setting to the great European war of 1914-18, and has Andres die going over the top, a terror which plausibly adds to the trauma and isolation felt by Woyzeck. One of the finest scenes in this production is a simple puppet image of death looming over the character in his final descent into murderous judgement on Marie.

My only criticism is that I needed to root around Scene Production's website to work out the cast and creative team. I'll retain their anonymity by simply stating they were all magnificent.

Britten and Haydn quartets

Bishopsgate Hall, London
29 October 2013

Gresham Professor Roger Parker's lecture on Britten's third quartet. Given in August 2013. From here.

Two masterpieces played with burning conviction.

This concert was so good I have trouble accepting that it was free, provided presumably for City bankers on their lunchbreak. I noticed none of those, unsurprisingly, but I felt that the 45-minute, two-work concert needed no further justification: it worked perfectly.

No doubt it mattered that the two pieces were string quartets, a medium optimised for that convivial tension we associate with chamber music.

This programme might have been devised by the musicologist Hans Keller, combining his two enthusiasms, for Haydn’s quartets and for Britten’s music in general. Indeed Britten’s valedictory third quartet is dedicated to Keller.

Almost any Haydn quartet is a joy, giving the impression that, while we listen to them, we cannot imagine being anywhere else, or wanting to listen to anything else. Opus 54, number 2 doesn’t disappoint, though it is unusual in placing a heavy burden on the lead violinist. Here, her performance was as ecstatic as the composer must have desired.

The serious finale is also unusual, and Keller, perhaps swept away with enthusiasm, claimed that Haydn pre-empts Mahler and Tchaikovsky in ending a ‘symphonic’ piece with a slow movement. More reasonably he suggests that Haydn was introducing the ‘French overture’ style to his ‘symphonic’ quartets.

I wouldn’t deny the quartets are symphonic but the much later adoption of slow movement finales is surely better thought of as a response to the ‘finale problem’ composers faced after adopting Beethoven's model. If a slow movement is going to carry the whole gravity of a work, where can it be placed?

In this quartet, as everywhere else except his symphony 88, Haydn doesn’t aim for a profound, soul-searching slow movement. Which isn’t to say the slow finale isn’t both lovely and a beautiful surprise. So the work as a whole deserves to be placed with French overtures rather than, say, Mahler's symphonies.

Britten’s work justifies Keller’s enthusiasm, at least in this performance. It also has a sombre finale, in this case very clearly the emotional focus of the work. By the end of it I was very nearly in tears, not a reaction I typically associate with his music.

We’re very used to a narrative of Britten’s earlier warmer sounding style being pared down in the late 1950s, and though true, I hardly find his earlier works to be abundantly emotional or warm. His later astringency seems a natural consequence of the repressed approach found in almost everything he did, as if exuberance or even openness was vulgar.

It seems different in this quartet. The ascetic sound remains, but the associations with Death in Venice here seem to fulfil that earlier opera, rather than simply recycling its themes. The opera emerges as a weaker expression of the quartet, rather than the other way round.

It’s too easy to suggest that Britten found it easier to express emotions through pure music, without words getting in the way but that’s what I felt when listening to this piece. Clearly I need to listen to it further.

I clearly also need to listen to more performances by the Jubilee Quartet.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Recital: Haydn, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Fitkin piano works

Steinway Hall
23 October 2013

The Rach Bach partita transcription, played by Yoshio Hamano at this concert. 
The rest of the concert is also available from YouTube. From here.

Interesting recital bookended by classical and modern nearly-mechanical pianism, with a more expressive middle.

The small recital room in Steinway Hall – as with the equivalent in Chappell of Bond Street – ought to present a challenge to programming. Piano works intended for large concert halls are less suitable here.

For his selection, Yoshio Hamano chose promisingly intimate works by Haydn, Brahms and Bach/Rachmaninov though bucked the trend with what sounded like louder works by Graham Fitkin, a contemporary composer new to me.

Pellucid is the word for the performance of Haydn’s Andante and Variations, which was also, to my surprise, the work I enjoyed most here. I suppose this is the standard way of performing Haydn’s piano works, of making them exercises in controlled, abstract pianism derived from Glenn Gould. No doubt this misses the drama of this composer, but in any case the result was extremely charming.

Bach’s third solo violin partita, as adapted by Rachmaninov, is a curiosity. The most pressing question is why bother? The solo piano repertoire is vast; that of the violin much smaller; and if you want transcribed Bach in a romantic idiom, doesn’t Stokowski do a better job?

Perhaps Hamano wanted some baroque music, and it is perhaps more honest to play a Rach Bach than to pretend the German wrote for a piano. The performance was good, though it didn’t erase my recent memory of a performance of the original.

Between these relatively lightweight works came Brahms’ much more substantial Fantasien Op116. This ought to have been the recital’s centre of gravity but it didn't quite work. As I’m not fond of Brahms’ piano music (yet), I couldn’t say if this was inherent in the music, or a consequence of the performance.

Finally, two works by Fitkin, both in a post-minimalist idiom. From Yellow to Yellow is the shorter and more introspective, while Frenetic basically describes itself, though there are passages of subdued come-down. The latter, in particular, seemed incredibly demanding for the performer, but turned him into a machine, which is neither big nor clever. Both pieces were forgettable.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Recital: Britten songs

Bishopsgate Institute Great Hall
22 October 2013

Maureen Forrester singing the Charm of Lullabies.

A nocturnal song cycle was the highlight of this committed survey of the composer.

The City Music Society somehow arranges free lunchtime recitals of impressive quality. This one was devoted to Benjamin Britten’s songs, commemorating his upcoming hundredth birthday. It was a very useful survey of this aspect of the composer, conveying a good sense of his strengths and weaknesses.

Britten is startlingly parochial, which makes little sense, as he was drew upon non-Western influences as well as non-British ones. Yet he returned to say, Purcell, or folk songs (both illustrated here) not in the spirit of promoting them or making them relevant to a modern (international) audience, but rather in a much more personal manner, as if trying to make them part of his own oeuvre.

It's as if he were a musical version of architect John Nash, looking upon the design of Mughal buildings as a blueprint for the Brighton Pavilion. That's harsh on Britten, who does a much better job of creating something   that can be appreciated internationally from his musical tourism.

The composer's clear, chilly style is especially well-suited to folk songs. I’m not sure the warmer Purcell benefits from being adapted by Britten, but the folk songs certainly do.

The cabaret songs are only a modest success, no patch on Weill/Brecht or even Eisler/Brecht, despite the fame of some of Auden’s verse (Funeral Blues) and Britten’s music (Tell Me The Truth About Love). I doubt either artist felt more than temporarily comfortable in this idiom. Bitterness, sarcasm, lust, political anger – none of this is really present in these charming but slight works.

The greatest work in this concert was the Charm of Lullabies. Night's mystery suited Britten perfectly, and he produced several song cycle masterpieces on the subject, including this one.

The lasting impression is one of death and darkness, without a trace of sentimentality, though mixed enough with charm, in charisma and magical senses, to prevent the mood souring completely.

Anna Huntley has a powerful mezzo voice, projected with great force, which sometimes threatened to be too much for this venue. But a dramatic approach works well with these songs; Britten was a major opera composer after all.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Tell Me Lies

British Film Institute
20 October 2013

Trailer. From here.

Visceral examination of the Vietnam war protests in London, examining questions still very relevant today.

It’s difficult to review this film, because watching it was something of a theatrical event – it has long been unavailable, has been restored with the involvement of its director, Peter Brook, and the director and some of the surviving cast were present for this screening as part of the London Film Festival. At the end, Brook answered audience questions, an event in itself.

So it is hard, on reflection, to distinguish between my feelings about the film and my feelings overall about the experience. Brook was already a controversial, thrilling theatre director when in 1968 at the Royal Shakespeare Company he directed US (or ‘us’, it is an intentional pun), a drama, or perhaps a ‘theatrical happening’ about the Vietnam war. That subsequently became this equally innovative film, a semi-documentary as one character puts it.

That was 45 years ago, and Brook has gone on to increase his theatre guru status through his decades in Paris, pioneering minimalist world theatre and suchlike. So part of the screening experience was religious, an audience devoted to a man and his ideas rather than his actual output.

I’ll try to focus on his output here. The film’s subtitle tells us it is ‘about London’, and this is significant because although it addresses the Vietnam War, it does so through the perspectives of various Londoners, except for a ballad celebrating a US draft objector.

There are several songs in this piece, with Brechtian lyrics by Adrian Mitchell, and the overall style owes something to Brecht, though more, I think, to Brook’s own talent with actors. A small group of actors are present throughout, visiting different events in London (an anti-war poetry reading, marches, a Buddhist teacher, etc).

When they speak, we aren’t sure if they are inhabiting a role or telling us their direct feelings, and this ambiguity is both intentional and enormously powerful. When ‘real’ people, such as Kingsley Amis or Stokely Carmichael are speaking here, their certainty seems affected, and they are trying to win an argument, present forcefully their point of view. When the actors express their doubts and anxieties, they seem more authentic, which isn’t paradoxical, though it seems so.

This matters because the narrative of the film is that of trying to navigate in a world where almost unimaginable horrors are taking place, but these are taking place far away, and any individual’s ability to influence these events seems very small.

At times, the film goes too far in creating a sense of utter confusion. It contrasts our desire for strong heroic action with more practicable but ineffectual efforts. But as the Buddhist teacher says, when asked about monks burning themselves alive, there are more effective ways of helping people than such extreme actions. The film doesn’t really accept this, though in fairness it doesn’t suggest that the accumulation of smaller actions had no effect: and subsequent history is inspiring about this.

This is a work that tries to make us question ourselves, and it seems to me very effective. Yet it also has almost never been seen, so in the end I suppose this makes it a failure. The good news is it hasn’t dated much, so perhaps it will enjoy a potent afterlife when no longer linked to the still-developing myth of its creator.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Recital for solo violin and piano

Palau de la Música Catalana
17 October 2013

The venue, designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
From here.
A singing solo violin recital of precisely the right length, followed by a less impressive piano recital.

The solo violin repertoire is small, so it made sense for Sara Cubarsi i Fernández shared her concert with pianist Luis Arias; but I also tend to think lengthy solo recitals should be unusual, not the norm.

Here, both artists contrasted an early modernist work with something older, and both made sensible programming decisions. Bartók’s solo violin sonata is to my ears even more poetic than Bach’s third sonata, though less memorable and uplifting, justifying the decision to place Bach second, at the risk of offputting audience members unused to Bartók.

After the interval, Schumann’s peculiar Kreisleriania was followed by Prokofiev’s more bravura fifth piano sonata. But the highlight, for me, was the solo violin section.

The Bartók is wonderful, being both inventive and challenging in the right way, providing a jolt but sufficiently welcoming that any audience can warm to it. Perhaps Bach wasn’t placed second so as not to pose impossible ‘follow that’ expectations after all.

Bach’s work doesn’t seek to challenge the audience, except perhaps in endurance, for we’re not so used to full-sized solo violin pieces. It’s full sized in another way too, given the composer’s ability to give weight through fugal passages.

Between Bach’s time and Schumann’s, we apparently discovered sonata form, and an unprecedented opportunity to create thematically-derived musical structures. Not that I noticed this in Kreislerania, which may be my fault more than the fault of the pianist, though surely the composer must take more of the blame.

A sequence of meandering poetic fragments, sometimes interesting, mostly not; I am probably allergic to the composer, with the exception of his Fantasie. Prokofiev seems a finer composer for the piano, and underrated, or at least underperformed.

Both performers combined musicianship with the technical skill that we shockingly take for granted. But both were upstaged by the venue: it is hard for to compete with the astonishing profusion of visual delights in this hall.