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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 Aug 2014
Berio Sinfonia, Shostakovich, BBC Proms
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Petrenko did a reasonable job in Berio; however, I could not help but wonder how often he had conducted the work before. It was certainly a swift, driven reading, but that seemed to reflect a head more than usually stuck in the score (understandable, given the circumstances).The opening of the first movement was promising indeed: aethereal, its harmonies unmistakeably announcing an ‘Italian’ flavour - both Dallapiccola and Nono springing to mind - whatever the undoubted internationalism of Berio’s outlook. It is a great piece for the European Youth Orchestra, not only in terms of that ‘internationalism’ but also because, like Mahler (if only we could have had his music in the second half!) a large orchestra is employed, but sparingly, smaller ensembles drawn therefrom to wonderful, magical effect. It was a pity Petrenko drove so hard, but the movement recognisably remained itself.
The second movement came across almost as a ‘traditional’ slow movement, albeit again with sparing, almost soloistic use of the orchestra. An appropriately geological and river-like sense characterised the third movement. Mahler’s Second Symphony was the bedrock, of course, but I was also fascinated by the thoughts of memory and its tricks that the Rosenkavalier references provoked. If anything, Strauss and Hofmannsthal proved the more resonant on this occasion, though whether that was simply a matter of my frame of mind, or was in some sense owed to the performance, I am not sure. At any rate, the combination - and conflict - between the EUYO and London Voices made it seem, especially in the context of Petrenko’s once-again driven tempo, almost as though one were trapped within a human mind, and a witty one at that. Mathieu van Bellen offered an excellent violin solo. The typically varied vocal references included one to ‘Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony’, concluding with a ‘Thank you, Mr Petrenko’. Amplification perhaps seemed a bit heavy in the fourth movement, though perhaps it was more a matter of the acoustic; nevertheless Berio’s imagination continued to shine through. I wondered whether the final movement might have smiled a little more - no such problem with the voices - but all was present and correct, and often rather more than that.
As for Shostakovich: well, his apologists hail this symphony as a masterpiece, but an opportunity to hear it had the rest of us wish it had remain ‘withdrawn’, not on account of any dangerous ‘modernism’ - Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ truly was insane! - but because it is such a dull, frankly un-symphonic work. For the most part, Petrenko and the EUYO did all they did to convince, although string playing sometimes went awry. The first movement opened with Lady Macbeth-style Grand Guignol, perhaps more interesting than anything that followed. Precision and attack were impressive: there was a chilling mechanistic quality to the performance, but alas, the work ensured that returns diminished, Shostakovich’s threadbare invention rendered all too apparent after a while. The second movement is at least shorter, but from the outset, one felt, as so often with this composer, that one had heard it all before, and it still seemed too long.
Oft-drawn comparisons with Mahler seemed as incomprehensible as ever. They made a little more sense in the final movement - so long as one bore in mind Boulez’s observation that Shostakovich offers at best a ‘second pressing’ in olive oil terms - but surely nothing justified the lack of variegation and indeed the sheer tedium of this piece. Petrenko and the orchestra rendered the movement’s Largo opening nicely creepy. Various woodwind took the opportunity to shine within the confines of generally unrelieved lugubriousness. There could, however, be no papering over the formal cracks. How I longed for a little invention: Haydn, Webern, Mahler, Berio, just about anyone! Is it not about time that we abandoned puerile Cold War attitudes and considered whether this music is actually any good, rather than merely sympathising with the autobiography of an alleged ‘dissident’?