No notes, no research – just some thoughts and observations.

Prom 9: Sibelius, Bartók, Janáček

What to say about this concert? None of the works are new or unrecorded, so description unnecessary; I don’t know any of the works well enough to make comparisons with other interpretations of them. So – the Sibelius Scènes historiques were pleasant, and while they did, as promised in the concert blurb “[reveal] the composer’s lighter side”, to be honest, I’m more interested in his darker (heavier?) side, and found the 7th Symphony more meaningful and musically engaging. In both, I found myself listening particularly to all the different timbres brought out by the scoring, as the focus shifted around the different sections of the orchestra. All of the sounds coming from the Hallé were simply so nice that I probably would have been quite happy listening to them play scale exercises. What I particularly appreciated about the flute section was the richness of sound in their low registers, and they way it projected such a distance without ever sounding the slightest bit forced. The whole orchestra, in fact, had a particularly close-up, intimate feel to it, which is some achievement when playing to a crowd of many thousands in a huge space.

Enjoyed Bartók’s 3rd piano concerto, performed with great lyricism and harmonic clarity by András Schiff; there seemed particularly close rapport between soloist and orchestra, particularly in the fast alternating sections in the last movement. Janáček’s Sinfonietta is simply a super piece, and was played brilliantly, with all the fizzing energy required, but pinpoint-accurate under Mark Elder’s light fingertip control of the invisible mixing desk. It’s the only one of the pieces that I’ve actually played (piccolo part), and I had an idiot grin on my face for quite a lot of it, especially the 3rd movement. Incidentally: Oo, trombones! Trombones are great!

On a side note, I’m used to having to put up with noise made by other members of the public coughing, eating, fiddling with their false teeth and talking (including, in this case, some imbecilic American man behind me asking what Schiff was playing for his encore WHILE he was playing it), but this is the first time I’ve been distracted by the noise of a ticking watch. Yes, the elderly woman sitting next to me was wearing a watch with an absurdly loud tick, that was clearly audible in the quieter sections of the music. Especially when she raised her hand to ear level, while looking through her binoculars. I noticed it during the first piece and in the first break, politely asked her if she would mind putting it in her handbag. She seemed astonished that I could hear it, and put it to her ear to see if she could (no), and then if her companion could (no), but was still happy to comply. This was fortunate, as having the equivalent of a metronome set permanently to 60 BPM going throughout would not have been conducive to an enjoyable performance.

Prom 33: Sibelius, Grieg, Nielsen

Sibelius and Nielsen are two composers who seem to divide orchestral musicians, or at least, the ones I know. I love them both, Sibelius for his timbres and tone colours, and Nielsen because he writes for woodwind with more love and understanding than almost anyone. The two symphonies tonight (Sibelius 6, Nielsen 4) were not ones I know best, but both showed well the talents of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. The Sibelius was particularly effective in its fine graduations of volume and texture. The Nielsen, on the other hand, required very sudden changes; the way the orchestra handled these gave me a mental image of being in a room with several doors opening and shutting in turn and then in combination, the other side of each having a completely different scene going on. Stand-out personnel were the battling timpanists (obviously), and the principal bassoon, who had an unusually soft-edged, slightly diffuse sound with languid vibrato, which was intriguing and enjoyable.

The other piece on the programme – the Grieg Am piano concerto, played by Alice Sara Ott – was one I know very well. At least, I’ve played in it enough times that I actually felt a kinaesthetic memory twitching in my fingertips in response to the 1st flute part – not all the way through, obviously, but at a few key moments, such as the lovely solo in the 3rd movement, which is one of my favourites. Cheese? Why yes it is, but it goes sailing above everything, the finest melted cheese topping (yeah, it’s not the best metaphor) with a last leap up to the top A and goosebumps all round. I found some of the tempi a little on the slow side (and got the impression that Ott did too, and was trying to push them on a bit, though couldn’t say for certain from such a distance) and the phrases joined into very long lines which could have done with a bit more definition, but that’s personal taste. I don’t seem to be very good at telling one pianist from another, because although I haven’t a word to say against Ott’s performance of the concerto, it sounded much the same (i.e. just as good) to my ears than every other time I’ve heard it. That is, apart from that time I did it in a church that hadn’t bothered to get their piano tuned properly, and one of the lower As was massively flat; A is kind of an important note in a concerto IN A MINOR, and the poor pianist kept trying to avoid it by transposing bits of the left hand either up or down the octave. Fortunately Ott did not have to do that. Neither did she make the mistake, as happened in the last performance of it that I played in, of wearing a brand new salmon-pink gown which turned out to be one of those fabrics that goes much darker when it gets wet, which in a sweltering hall resulted in massive sweat patches under each arm, mid-bosom, and, when she stood up to bow, arse too. Not that I suppose she would have cared, as long as all the music went well, and it did.

Audience noise rep0rt: One mobile phone, but an ‘old-fashioned telephone’ jingly sound which happened to be of the correct pitch to blend with the harmony of the music at that point. So, less annoying than a triangle…

Prom 66: Thierry Escaich (organ) plays Bach, Escaich, Reger, Franck, & Liszt

I like going to organ recitals once in a while. Don’t mind who’s playing what, just like having my bones rattled by the massive pipes. Preferably while lying flat on my back in the middle of the RAH Arena.

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jenufa

Image by C Barda, borrowed from http://www.eno.org

In 2006 I wrote: “I’m slightly ashamed to admit I don’t actually have or really know any Janacek, but that is now going to change.” And did it change? My arse it did. But this time I mean it; I really do. What gorgeous music! Obviously I don’t have another production with which to compare it, but it seemed to me that conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen had a real feeling for the score, and brought out excellent playing from the orchestra, including some particularly nice solo string lines. The oboe and cor anglais were also stand-outs.

The production was updated somewhat, and costumes looking vaguely late 20th century, but the small-minded spitefulness and culture of casual alcoholism and abuse pervading the village was all too convincing. Amanda Roocroft was a searing Jenůfa, moving from a lively, romantic young woman at the start, to broken wreck spending most of her pregnancy hiding alone in a small room in her mother’s house, through grief and bereavement to a new strength and forgiveness at the end. Michaela Martens delivered a powerful performance as Kostelnička, torn between genuine love for her stepdaughter and nephew Laca, hatred for Števa and his offspring, religious mania, and an abject fear of scandal and her village’s disapproval. Although her act of murder is, at least to modern audiences, undoubtedly unforgivable, Martens was able to make the character’s actions understandable, and the subsequent mental breakdown believable.

Susan Gorton was another acting highlight, bringing some rare moments of humour to the smaller role of Grandmother Buryja. Unfortunately many of the other roles and chorus appeared to be competing for the prize of Ham of the Show, with a great deal of ‘angry’ stomping and fist clenching, ‘drunk’ staggering and bottle-waving, and some of the most unconvincing stage prostitutes I’ve seen for a while. There were two silly peasant dances – an operatic convention of which I am far from fond – but fortunately they were both short. Tom Randle (Števa) and Robert Brubaker (Laca) indulged in a fair amount of this during Act 1, but then raised their performances considerably for Acts 2 and 3. Števa appeared first as a standard unpleasant lout, drunk in charge of a motorbike and flirting with other women to wind up his girlfriend, but became truly despicable in his later careless abandonment of Jenůfa and their child. Laca actually succeeded in making the audience, like Jenůfa, eventually warm to him; not an easy task considering his early violence towards her.

Vocally, this was a strong ensemble without weak links. In Act 1 I found Martens’ voice harsh and strident, but this is not inappropriate for the character, and in in her Act 2 scenes at home with Jenůfa she was like a different singer completely (again, entirely appropriate for delineating Kostelnička’s public and private personae), with warmth and roundness of tone. The two women’s voices worked very well together, and Act 2 was essentially one long musical highlight. I was also very pleasantly surprised by Robert Brubaker, who I thought was straining for the top notes when I heard him in 2006. No straining tonight, just a rich and ringing sound, forceful without being forced, and that dark smoky tone I particularly like in tenors.

Must listen to more Janáček.
Must listen to more Janáček.
Etc.

In fact, I would like to buy a recording of this opera, and would appreciate readers’ suggestions, if anyone has any?

Image borrowed from www.eno.org

Image borrowed from http://www.eno.org

And after a brief spell with Wagner, back to operas which are entirely new to me…

I’m slightly ashamed to admit I don’t actually have or really know any Janacek (or even how to type the appropriate symbols to spell his name correctly), but that is now going to change. This music is lovely stuff, and was beautifully expressed by the ENO orchestra under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras. It’s quite fitting that the orchestra should have first mention this time, as although there was some fine singing, the role of the orchestra seemed to me to be particularly important in this work, and they had the best tunes too. Unsurprisingly, Mackerras and co. received extremely enthusiastic applause. It seems unfair to single out a single subsection, but the flute and piccolo solos stood out (to me) as particularly excellent.

The production was that rare thing – an opera set in the same historical period as was intended in the original, in this case the 1920s. The set was austere and in dark muted tones of greenish grey, as were the majority of costumes, which, at least in the case of the women, were also deliberately unflattering in cut. However, the overall impression was of sombre elegance.

I enjoyed Cheryl Barker as Salome last year, and was looking forward to seeing her again. Her singing was strong and clear, and her characterisation of the complex Emilia Marty convincing. (As in Salome, her sexy dancing was not convincing, but this is a minor quibble.) Elena Xanthoudakis was also a very pleasant surprise in the small role of Kristina. I don’t know quite what to make of Robert Brubaker’s performance (as Albert); I really quite liked his voice when singing in lower registers, and it had an interesting smoky quality to it, but to my ears he sounded like he was straining painfully at the top end. I’ve read other reviews which have actually mentioned how well he coped with the tessitura, so perhaps he was having an off night. I did quite definitely like John Wegner’s Baron Prus, though. (What a surprise – Silverfin likes the best whichever singer in the opera has the deepest voice…) I hope it was supposed to be comic when he was stripping off and lounging around in an ‘alluring’ manner in Act 2, becuase it certainly entertained me. It wouldn’t feel like the ENO without a man wandering around in his pants at some point in the show, but it added comedy value that he kept his socks on.

On the subject of comedy, the opera as a whole was certainly not, but I believe that having a comedic element or episode somewhere serves to throw the tragic whole into sharper relief. Probably the most moving part of the performance was the scene between Emilia and the aged and semi-senile Hauk-Sendorf, an ex-lover from one of her past incarnations sung with great expression and touching quality by Graham Clarke. The last scene, where Emilia confronts her own life and death, was also moving. At least, musically it was. Although the direction hadn’t particularly bothered me up until then, I found the ending clumsy and confused, particularly Emilia flapping around in a demented manner with her bit of paper, while Kristina sat sulking.

Overall, though, a great night, and I will certainly be looking out for Janacek’s other operas in the future.