July 2010


My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 2: Wagner (Die Meistersinger)

To tell the truth, I was unconvinced of the wisdom of spending 6+ hours in a hot tin can, listening to an unstaged concert performance of my least favourite* Wagner opera. However, it was really very enjoyable indeed. Yes, even Act 1, which has the potential to be deathly dull, but was in this case brightened immeasurably by Pogner, or rather by Brindley Sherratt’s special ability in making the most undramatic, static characters’ narratives implausibly gripping.

My other main reason attending this concert was, of course, to hear Bryn Terfel. I’ve enjoyed him in every opera I’ve heard him sing, but particularly in Wagner, and his Hans Sachs was really something special. In addition to some gorgeous singing, his inhabitation of the character brought out the humorous, mournful and contemplative aspects to perfection. Christopher Purves’s Beckmesser was also genuinely funny — a silly and pompous man but without the nastiness he is sometimes given.

The vocal (and physical) acting of the cast made this so much more than a standard declamatory concert performance, and in fact better to watch than at least one staged performance I’ve seen. Dare I say that I also found it helpful not to have surtitles? Knowing roughly what the characters are wittering on about but being spared the exact words left me free to give my full attention to the music; attention which it very much deserved.

(* Least favourite of the 8 I actually know – also including Ring, Tristan, Parsifal and Dutchman. Haven’t got to grips with Tannhäuser or Lohengrin yet.)

PROM 18: Dean, Mahler, Shostakovich

I found Brett Dean’s ‘Amphitheatre’ pleasant on the ear and atmospheric, but I have to say, I am having some trouble remembering any details about it afterwards. As for the selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, while Mahler’s music has been steadily growing on me since university, it’s a slow process, and I’ve made a lot more progress with the symphonies that I have with the songs. Some of them are quite definitely beautiful, but others are somewhat irritating, and those in between I find too short for me to really get a grip on. Nevertheless, Ekaterina Gubanova’s voice sounded gorgeous (right from the back of the circle), and she performed them with such charm and affinity for the music that it would have been impossible not to enjoy.

I have mixed feelings about the second half. Shostakovich 10 is one of my all-time favourites, and I know it very very well. On the positive side, I think this is such a wonderful symphony that it would have to be a poor performance indeed (which this obviously wasn’t) for me not to be moved; on the negative, I couldn’t help picking up various tiny errors that in most pieces I would probably miss. Also, as a result of having performed it a few times, I found myself unintentionally focusing even more attention than usual on the woodwind section, and in particular the piccolo. All clearly excellent players, the micro-section ensemble playing (e.g. the three flutes) was very good indeed, but the and gelling within and between the orchestral sections perhaps less so. In general, the faster, louder passages worked the best — for example, the frenzied second movement was stunning — whereas the sparser passages sometimes could have done with a little more nuance of colour and dynamic, in particular, daring to drop down to a real pianissimo (which only the clarinets really did).

In an aside note, this was a particularly bad concert for selfish, arrogant audience behaviour. There have been various debates in various forums on the old clapping-between-movements chestnut, and although I’m firmly on the side of showing appreciation at the end of a piece of music rather than in the middle of it, I can see why sometimes, after a brilliant cadenza or particularly exciting movement, applause might be spontaneous, and on rare occasions, even welcome. But how can anyone listen to the magical time-stopping piccolo solo that ends the first movement and hangs in the air, and then want to break up the brief pregnant silence before the second movement launches, by slapping their hands together? And if only the clapping was all… While I’m very much in favour of letting children experience orchestral music from an early age, for the sake of other audience members who have parted with their hard-earned cash to hear some music, it might be worth waiting until said child is capable of sitting quietly for more than five minutes at a time. And if Shostakovich had wished the quiet, contemplative moments of his symphony to include the chattering of some teenage girls, he probably would have written it into the score. Yes, I’m touchy about this. But I do think it’s both disrespectful to the musicians pouring their hearts out on stage, and selfish to assume that your conversation is important enough to be worth disturbing the listening experience of the people around you. Anyway, in this case the talkers were sitting right in front of me, so it was not difficult to lean over and politely request they keep their voices down during the music. And then tell them again, less politely. And then administer a quick kick to the seat when they started up yet again.

Rant over 🙂

PROM 21: Berlioz, Wagner

A bit of a mixture, this one. At some points it sounded sublime, at others, frankly, a bit ropey. Simon Rattle’s interpretation of the score and shaping of the music was superb, and there were a lot of lovely sounds coming from the OAE, particularly the warm, rounded    tone of the strings. However, Wagner’s woodwind writing can be tricky in terms of intonation, and unfortunately there were moments where this showed; in the brass, there was great enthusiasm, which sometimes incurred the sacrifice of accuracy. (These issues, interestingly, did not show up in the Berlioz at all.)

Of the singers, Franz-Josef Selig was a wonderful rich, dark King Mark, and the other highlight was Sarah Connolly’s Brangäne, with a particularly wonderful moment being her voice echoing down from the castle tower (i.e. Gallery). Violeta Urmana’s Isolde sometimes seemed underpowered — although I’m quite prepared to believe this was due to the vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic — and unfortunately, Ben Heppner appeared to be in some vocal distress at the upper end of the vocal range; however, they both pulled out all the stops for So sturben wir, the heart of the act, to great emotional effect.

PROM 35: Ligeti, Tchaikovsky, Langgaard, Sibelius

“Countless thorns: silence. My silence: the beating of my heart … Night.” So began tonight’s concert, with Ligeti’s setting of Sándor Weöres’s poem Ejszaka (Night). Introspective in feel, and with every word of the text described in the harmony and texture, it set the scene for what at times was quite an other-wordly evening of music. While this short piece and its companion, Reggel (Morning) show the young Ligeti exploring tone clusters and harmonic layering, they provided opportunity for the double choir to display a variety of tone colours, dynamic changes and rhythmic vocal effects.

As Night segued smoothly into Morning, so did Ligeti into Tchaikovsky. With only the tiniest of pauses, Thomas Dausgaard directed his attention from choir to orchestra, Henning Kraggerud appeared as if from nowhere, and before anyone had had time to even think of coughing, shuffling or clapping their hands, the concerto had started. This was more musically effective than one might have expected, perhaps due to the Ligeti ending on the notes D and A, and the violin concerto being in D major… [read more here]

PROM 41: Scriabin, Stravinsky

I nearly didn’t go to this concert. And that would have been a mistake, because it was absolutely wonderful. However, at some point during the afternoon it occurred to me: LSO – Gergiev – Firebird – er, what were you thinking? So after my meeting I jumped on the tube, legged it down to South Ken, and totally prommed it like it was the 1980s. By that I mean, up in the Gallery (with a cooling breeze and loads of personal space), lying down on the floor with my eyes shut (because I have no need to look at another orchestra – I see orchestras all the time and they usually look much the same), alone (because when I was a teen I knew even less people who shared my taste for 20th century orchestral music than I do now), and even with some chocolate and a detective novel for the interval. Great stuff.

And brilliant music, yes. I didn’t know a note of the Scriabin, so think perhaps I won’t even try to go into any descriptive detail – I just allowed myself to be swept away by it. Firebird, though, I know well – it was probably the first piece that really turned me on to Stravinsky, but also it’s one of the orchestral flute parts* I’ve spent the most hours practising, as it is bloody difficult. (Well, it was difficult for me – daresay it’s a piece of cake for Gareth Davies!) Anyway, this was a well-nigh perfect performance of it: that so-important precision of rhythm and ensemble, coupled with equally-important fire, energy and fluidity. Also, while it can be impressive when sections blend smoothly (e.g. at last week’s DNSO concert), for this kind of music, each of the instruments must have its own character that stands out from the rest, and this was very much the case here – and throughout the orchestra from top to bottom, too. However, deserving special mention… some absolutely stunning oboe playing from  Emanuel Abbühl** (and I’ve heard a lot of very good oboing in my time) and gorgeous molten lava firebird-ing from Gareth Davies, particularly in their Pas de Deux (ok, technically Ivan and the Firebird’s P de D). Sparks flying from Sharon Williams on pic,  contrabassoons like a bad tempered lion waking up after a heavy night at the oasis***, and if I go on I’ll end up listing the whole orchestra. LSO are ace, and so is Gergiev, and so is Stravinsky. And all for £5! It’s times like these I love London.

* Suite (1945 version) in a 2008 Whitehall concert

** Couldn’t see a damn thing from where I was, so assuming all woodwind soloists were as indicated in programme. Please let me know if inaccurate.

*** From the LSO’s entertaining and informative blog

PROM 43: Pärt (St John Passion)

Arvo Pärt began work on his setting of the St John Passion in 1980, the point at which, frustrated by the demands of Soviet officialdom, he finally left his native Estonia and moved his family to Austria. His original and distinctive mature compositional style, known as tintinnabuli, however, was by this time well established, and of which this piece is a prime example. Pärt said “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” Passio, of course, is not entirely monophonic, but the musical forces and their deployment are comparatively spare, with nothing extraneous.

Large portions of the text – those narrating the unfolding events – rested on the shoulders of the quartet of voices who together represented the Evangelist. Micaela Haslam (soprano) is familiar from her group Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich), has an impeccable record in performing and directing the work of contemporary composers, and her performance of Pärt was as perfectly-judged an interpretation as one would expect from an expert in the field… [read more here]

PROM 46: Mosolov, Pärt, Ravel, Scriabin

This concert was a little different from the others in that I didn’t know any of the pieces well, and the composers are not favourites of mine, but all in the I-should-probably-listen-to-more-of-their-stuff-as-I-might-quite-like-it category.

If you want to get an audience’s attention right from the start, Mosolov’s The Foundry is a good way to go about it. Great fun. My companion’s comment was “This piece should be played at every concert – it’s brilliant.” Me, I’m wondering about hire costs, and if I can get it onto the programme for one of the orchestras I play with?

Pärt is definitely a composer I’ve been meaning for a long time to investigate further, but although I very much enjoyed his St John Passion on Tuesday night, his 4th Symphony left me a little cold, although it had some lovely passages, and it seemed most of the audience were in raptures. Will give it another go on iPlayer, but I expect I’ll like it better when it’s complete, and he’s added all the brass and woodwind parts. Or perhaps he wrote them, but the printer ran out of ink halfway, and they thought because it was the UK premiere, nobody would know any better.*

I expect Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is one of the pieces familiar to everyone but me. Frankly, half the notes in the fast passages could have been wrong and I wouldn’t have known (although I’m assuming they weren’t), but it was, again, a lot of fun, and performed with great energy and a fair dollop of showmanship by Bavouzet. From our East Choir seats we had an excellent view of his left hand flying up and down, which was very entertaining, although perhaps made me listen to the music in quite a different way than I would have with no view. Thinking about it, I probably even listen differently to musicians if I’m watching them from the front or back: sitting behind an orchestra makes me feel like I’m a part of it, and with a conductor face-on I watch him or her too closely, catching myself filling my lungs on upbeats, etc., so it’s not unreasonable to suppose different parts of the brain might be activated by the different views. I also noticed for the first time how intricate Salonen’s hand and finger movements are when conducting – interesting, but I don’t necessarily want to be observing and analysing in this way at concerts.

My only prior relationship with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy was that I once had to sight-read the 1st flute part, and was concentrating too hard on the rather black pages to be thinking about whether I actually liked the work or not. Fortunately, it turns out I do like it. And despite my reservations about watching music being played rather than devoting myself entirely to the auditory experience,  it did also benefit from the visual spectacle of all the speed-blurred fingers and bows, a conductor practically dancing on the podium, and the will-they-won’t-they precarious wobbling of the giant tubular bells whenever the percussion chap gave them a wallop with the hammers (which was frequently and energetically). In fact, the Philharmonia percussion section were particularly impressive throughout the concert, with other stand-outs being the trumpet(s), horns, and cor anglais.

* I feel the need to point out that this is not meant seriously. In the interval, we were making tongue-in-cheek comments about members of the percussion section having an easy job, just hitting a big drum with a stick now and then while the string players had lots of different notes, and got a telling off from a nearby audience member who happened to be a percussionist, righteously indignant about any perceived dissing of his section.

In E16, near one of the outer ends of the Docklands Light Railway, is Great Eastern Quay, and a disused office block, where you are given an appointment card for a vaccination programme, a murky-looking drink, a white mask to cover most of your face (which must be worn At All Times), and a brief health-and-safety spiel. You are then left to your own devices. Welcome to the new collaboration piece between the ENO and Punchdrunk!

From this point, any two accounts of the evening will diverge. More of an art installation incorporating elements of live music and action than a traditional performance, audience members walk at their own pace and in their own route around very dimly-lit multiple spaces spread over three floors of the building, encountering musicians, dancers, and actors at various points. Performers — recognisable by their lack of masks — are constantly on the move, appearing in different places for different scenes, with little or no indication of what might happen when or where. The basic elements of Webster’s 1614 play are present: the young widowed Duchess, her secret lover, her corrupt brothers and their spy/assassin; however, any sense of narrative is fractured and distorted both temporally and spatially, and — crucially — incomplete, as it is, effectively, impossible for an individual audience member to see and hear everything. Rather unfortunately, given that this article is written by an opera fan for an opera publication, this particular audience member’s choice of route did not lead to very many of the main operatic scenes, and I missed some singers entirely!

My ‘prologue’ consisted of a series of small rooms to walk through, prepared with an extreme level of detail as the offices, labs and store rooms of a 20th century research facility. Focusing on the theme of lycanthropy (from which the historical Duchess’s brother, Duke Ferdinand, is thought to have suffered), neat desks with annotated psychological research papers gave way to test tubes, blood samples and patient charts for experimental medical treatments, and a cell with bloodied, heavily-scratched walls. Combined with a pre-recorded electro-industrial soundscape (like the live music, by Torsten Rasch), the overall effect was an increasingly sinister mood of unease, and a highlighting of key themes of madness, disturbed identity and sexuality, and imprisonment.

I quite literally stumbled into my first main scene, having been grabbed from behind and then shoved out of the way by an incoming Ferdinand (counter-tenor Andrew Watts), followed by his lascivious gaggle of courtiers (which might have been more surprising and/or alarming had my last Punchdrunk experience not involved my being chased around by a madman with a chainsaw). The scene also involved the Duchess (contralto Claudia Huckle), her dictatorial older brother the Cardinal (bass-baritone Freddie Tong), spy Daniel de Bosola (baritone Richard Burkhard), and around 20 musicians playing highly chromatic and rhythmically complex music which, nevertheless, had more than a tinge of the Jacobean court about it. As with the majority of the performance, I found the words almost completely unintelligible, but the characters and relationships were nevertheless clearly introduced and defined through the physical and vocal acting of the leads. An unusual choice to make the Duchess and twin brother Ferdinand a contralto and counter-tenor, it was particularly effective when they sang together, and when Watts was pitched high and Huckle low.

On the first floor, I found a church scene with a conductor in the pulpit and singers and woodwind players in the pews, with plenty of room to wander around or sit amongst them – in my case, placing myself admiringly between the flute and oboe, where I could soak up their beautiful tones while taking the opportunity to take a good look at their scores. I did, admittedly, wonder whether the many empty places and music stands were intended to be empty, or whether some of the musicians had just got lost in the dark when moving between scenes. In another area, the Duchess and her lover made stylised acrobatic love, accompanied by a large string section playing Berg-like harmonies from music which appeared to be floating in space. One particularly effective aspect of the music was the way the live acoustic sections merged in and out of the pre-recorded electronic soundscape at the beginning and end of scenes; another was the incorporation of Huckle’s voice in the recordings, deep, deliberately breathy and slightly distorted, inhabiting the rooms of her castle even when she herself was absent.

In addition to the main scenes, various other themes of power, imprisonment, and bestiality were played out in small integrative dramatic or danced scenes of varying relation to the central story. In a wire forest on the second floor, a solitary clarinettist played to a growling wolf-man, he running on all fours around and through the crowd (and at one point unwisely attempting to bite the ankle of an audience member who promptly hit him with her handbag). Elsewhere, a psychiatric nurse battled to restrain and medicate her violent patients, at least one of whom also seemed to think she was a wolf. At one point, three of the wolf-people appeared from the trees, and set upon a stark naked Ferdinand, although I couldn’t see quite what they were doing to him, or whether he was supposed to be enjoying it or not.

Very little of what I had seen and heard up to this point could really be traditionally described as opera. However, for the finale, the audience members were herded from wherever they had ended up into a large area with a raised platform in the centre and the whole orchestra assembling at one end. This final scene was, at least, of those that I saw, by far the most effective dramatically and musically. This was partly because of the glorious Wagnerian textures emerging in the vocal and orchestral writing, partly because the length of the scene and the fact that one heard it from start to finish allowed time to absorb more of the musical qualities, and partly because of simply being close to the wonderful, rich, vibrant singing of Richard Burkhard and Claudia Huckle in the heart-wrenching ending, where she accepts her death with dignity and earns the assassin’s respect.

I can in all honestly say that during the evening I was never bored for a second, which is not necessarily always the case in conventional theatrical performances. However, unlike in the more structured route through Punchdrunk’s 2009 production It Felt Like A Kiss, the knowledge that somewhere in the building there was potentially-wonderful live music happening, but that one was missing out on it (albeit while watching a naked counter-tenor being pursued by wolves) made for a rather frustrating game of operatic hide-and-seek. If there were any tickets left, I’d definitely go back and have another go, though.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]