Recently in Performances
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
27 Mar 2014
Harrison Birtwistle, Elliott Carter, Wigmore Hall, London
Celebrating the 80th birthday of one of the UK's greatest composers (if not the greatest), this concert was an intriguing, and not always stimulating, mix. Birtwistle with Carter makes sense, but Birtwistle with Adams does not - or at least only within the remit of the concert series. The concert was actually entitled “Nash Inventions: American and British Masterworks, including an 80th Birthday Tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle” and was the final concert in the “Inventions” series.
So it was that Birtwistle bookended the evening. The first piece was his Fantasia upon all the notes (2012), commissioned by the present ensemble and premiered at the Wigmore Hall in March 2012. Scored for flute, clarinet, harp (the sound of the harp, although not omnipresent, was a Theseus-thread through the evening) and string quartet, the score breathed out a lyric expansiveness, its long lines fully honoured here and leading to a frenetic climax before the piece effectively disintegrated. The basis for the composition (“all the notes”) is the shifting scales of the harp, dependent on the pedals used. In this way, the harp, by no means soloistic, subtly guides the harmonic language of the piece. It was a fine example of the composer's subtle practices, and was beautifully and sensitively delivered here by members of the Nash Ensemble.
Carter and Birtwistle are of course linked by age as well as the complexities of their music (although the manifestations of those complexities are, of course, very different). There were two Carter pieces in the first half: Enchanted Preludes of 1988 and Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux of some 22 years previous. The first, Enchanted Preludes, is scored for flute and cello, here played by Philippa Davies and Adrian Brendel, respectively. It was a virtuoso performance of a sophisticated piece. Both players demonstrated superb control of their instruments in a piece that demonstrates, concisely, Carter's strengths of a consistent harmonic language and a superb ear for detail. If Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux for flute and clarinet (Davies again, this time with Richard Hosford on clarinet) was not quite as fine a piece, not as sure of itself, it nevertheless evinced a great sense of dialogue.
The Adams was the odd man out. Somehow Shaker Loops, in its chamber version for seven strings, felt rather roughly 'inserted' in deference to the American side of the concert series. It was a fabulous performance: perfectly graduated crescendi and a real sense of determination. But the piece felt over-long and frankly bloated, and was firmly compositionally outgunned by its companion pieces.
Elliott Carter's Mosaic of 2004 (for flute, oboe, clarinet, harp, string trio and double-bass) began the second half. The harp part is virtuosic but in the pre-concert talk Birtwistle had contrasted Carter's treatment of the instrument to his own: Carter does not let the instrument resonate (and therefore, by implication, be true to its own nature). The complex pedal work is impressive indeed as a performance act and one does have to wonder if this aspect is part of the piece's basis, just as the viola is asked to be contra-itself and be very forceful; very un-viola-like perhaps. It is an interesting piece, certainly, but it was overshadowed to no small extent by the piece that most people had surely come to hear, Birtwistle's recent The Moth Requiem (2012).
The BBC Singers were on absolute top form for the demands of this work, which sets a number of Latin names of butterflies interspersed into the poem “A Literalist” by Robin Blaser from his larger work The Moth Poem. The poem concerns a moth trapped in the body of a piano and which could be heard in contact with the strings. It is a lovely idea, and masterfully realised. The scoring is for 12 singers, 3 harps and alto flute. In fact Birtwistle uses the three harps as one “meta-instrument”, as he explained in his characteristically dry-witted pre-performance event. Birtwistle's years of experience enabled him to weave an intoxicating sonic tapestry. The fragmenting of texture and musical material in the work's final stages is impeccably timed. This is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Running through the concert was the sure direction of Nicholas Kok, whose clarity as a conductor was a model of its kind. A remarkable evening.