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.