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It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
10 May 2010
Modern English Song Alive and Well
London’s Wigmore Hall is one of the world’s great centres for art song. This recital, by Susan Bickley and Iain Burnside, specialists in the genre, showed that English language art song is alive and thriving.
Everyone’s heard Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, even if they don’t realize it. He wrote the music for the films, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Far from the Madding Crowd and Murder On the Orient Express . He embraces jazz, cabaret and show tunes enthusiastically, yet he studied with Pierre Boulez for two years. The four Dream Songs (1986) are to poems by Walter de la Mare, catching the poet’s delicate magic. “Elf-light, bat-light, touchwood-light
in a dream beguiling in a dream of wonders in a world far away”.
Susan Bickley and Iain Burnside have been working with Bennett for many years, so this performance hinted at much greater riches on offer.
Bennett, though, isn’t by any means the only English composer writing art song. There are many others less well known but very good indeed. Bickley and Burnside chose a small sample from the iconic NMC Songbook. NMC is an innovative, independent company, dedicated to promoting the best in modern British song. The NMC Songbook won the 2009 Gramophone award for Best Contemporary Recording. It’s a window on what’s happening in British music.Such a range of composers and styles! Diverse as the scene is, it’s definitely creative.
John White’sHouses and Gardens in the Heart of England sets the text of a tourist brochure. It’s hilarious, playing with the self consciously stunted Officialese. Bickley sings with mock solemnity, Burnside brings out the free flowing liveliness in the piano part. This song is so good it should be standard repertoire. Jeremy Dale Roberts (b 1934) Spoken to a Bronze Head is an elegiac contemplation of the passage of time, well paced and elegant. Julian Grant’s Know thy Kings and Queens is an exercise in downbeat humour, while in Brian Elias’s Meet me in the Green Glen, plangent lines recall plainchant. Richard Baker’s Lullaby pits jerky staccato piano against voice in brittle irony. Not a typical soothing lullaby : this baby fights back!
Bickley and Burnside have also recorded Ivor Gurney songs, so it was good to hear them perform a selection live. Gurney was quintessentially “English”, only really happy in his native Gloucestershire countryside, but bucolic he is not. There’s an edge in his work which is universal. Bickley performed the famous I will go with my father a-ploughing as if it were grand opera, but was more idiomatic in the other songs, such as the tender All Night under the Moon.
But what to make of By a Bierside, where, in the first strophe Gurney mourns the loss of life, then switches to a strange celebration of death “It is most grand to die”, emphasized by a huge arching line after momentary silence. Bickley’s voice soars triumphantly, but what kind of triumph does Gurney really mean ? Gurney’s more ambiguous than he seems.
Bickley and Burnside ended their concert on an upbeat note, with William Bolcom’s 3 Cabaret Songs (1977-85) Each song is a vivid vignette. Murray the Furrier comes alive in Bickley’s characterization. Amor is joyously camp, a cheerful parody showing that art song can, after all, get an edge on pop.