Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: The Royal Opera House, 19 December 2011

Photo: Clive Barda
‘Just what kind of a piece is Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg?’ asks one of the programme essays. Graham Vick’s production, first seen in 1993 and revived on this occasion by Elaine Kidd, suggests it is an out-and-out comedy, and not a great deal more. Yet, among the gaudily colourful costumes, gallivanting apprentices and comedy codpieces, we lose track of what makes Meistersinger one of the composer’s greatest achievements. Its jokes are clunky, often hammered home—sometimes literally—with workmanlike determination; it’s in the humanity, wisdom and the awareness of the troublingly fluid relationship between rule and rebellion, the fine line between rebel and ruler, that the work’s greatness and longevity lie.

But where was all that? When Antonio Pappano launched into a slow account of the act-three prelude, whose world-weary melancholy presages Hans Sachs’s famous Wahn monologue, it came as a shock. In the preceding couple of hours there had been little sense that anything on stage should be taken terribly seriously. Pappano’s conducting had a lively forward momentum to it, but his cast, with only one native German speaker among them in Wolfgang Koch’s mellow, underpowered Sachs, struggled to get a lot of Wagner’s wordy, punning libretto across. There was often a sense of rush and an attendant untidiness; too rarely did Wagner’s glorious score soar.

Matters did improve a little in the third act, but the great orchestral swoon as Walter arrives in his finery was undermined by the fact that that finery made Simon O’Neill look more like Liberace than the liberator of German art. The Quintet was marred by the slight flatness of Emma Bell’s Eva and the piercing quality of O’Neill’s unsubtle tenor. The gradual sense of excitement as we are led by trump and drum to the Festwiese, meanwhile, was undercut by the staging: as Wagner’s score opened up into grand public ceremony, everything remained encased with the same chunky green frame that had confined the model Nuremberg of Act Two. The various guilds marched ludicrously around in circles, smirking like Dad’s Army on manoeuvres. Perhaps it was all designed to take us away from other Nuremberg associations; if it was, then Vick’s is a production that seems even more inadequate to deal with this work. And while there were enough good things in purely musical terms to provide a stirring conclusion to the evening, it all seemed rather two-dimensional.

Perhaps the production’s shortcomings were emphasised by a cast that fell a little short of what one might expect from Covent Garden. A lot of it was made up of veterans of the Royal Opera stage, some of whom sounded fresher than others. John Tomlinson’s Veit Pogner bellowed and flailed in customary fashion, imbuing the character—a personification of bürgerlich propriety—with an inappropriately fiery-eyed earnestness. Donald Maxwell sounded woolly at the top as Fritz Kothner, and Robert Lloyd blasted out the Nightwatchman’s brief lines—for technical reasons, one imagined, rather than interpretative ones.

Photo: Clive Barda
Most damaging to the drama, though, was Peter Coleman-Wright’s Beckmesser. Not only was the character drawn in the most broad, cartoonish manner, mincing about ineffectually, but Coleman-Wright didn’t really have the notes under his control. His top A at the end of the first scene of Act Three was an unacceptable falsetto compromise, and there was a lack of accuracy and security elsewhere. Relegating this problematic character to the realm of Christmas panto, meanwhile, fatally skewed the dramatic balance: as Christopher Wintle’s essay reminded us, Sachs and Beckmesser should not be so very different.

O’Neill’s Walter was secure and reliable, but hardly endearing. The acting was wooden and the singing short on grace and warmth. He seemed so concerned with maintaining a legato line that most of the words counted for little. Emma Bell’s Eva was charming but underwhelming, even if here—particularly in conjunction with Heather Shipp’s feisty Magdalene—there was some unusually detailed and imaginative acting. Toby Spence’s David, by contrast, was almost too vibrant a stage presence. The voice is bigger than we’re used to for the role, something which brought advantages and disadvantages: the sound was bright and engaging; he struggled to bring the necessary pernickety cleanliness to the wordier sections of Act One. Koch’s Hans Sachs, meanwhile, was a size smaller than we’re used to, and, as an inevitable result, he struggled to assert himself, and his words were often lost under the orchestral blanket. He’s youthful and rather likeable as the character, but, while this was a high-economy Sachs that lasted the course pretty well, one often wished for it to move up a gear.

Musically I’m sure this revival will settle down and tighten up, but I feel a slight jealousy for those with tickets to hear it when the Royal Opera hit the road to head for a performance in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on 11 January. The jury might be out on whether Bryn Terfel’s Sachs will improve on Koch’s, but the Welsh baritone can certainly command a stage. At that concert performance, though, the opera’s challenging ambiguity might be better able to shine through.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The European Union Baroque Orchestra at Spitalfields Music Winter Festival

Baroque music and the European Union, one might imagine, are not necessarily a match made in heaven. The idea of a battery of civil servants finding Beckmesserisch joy in the bureaucratic rules and regulations of baroque harmony and counterpoint is indeed a chilling one. But the European Union Baroque Orchestra is a marvellous band, and could not be further away from this, as I tried to communicate in this review of last Saturday's concert.

It was one of those concerts that just leaves you thinking the world is maybe not such a bad place after all. They're official EU Cultural Ambassadors, and an EU flag stood rather forlornly at the back of the stage--flags rarely flourish indoors--reminding us of this. I toyed with various topical references in my review, but they all seemed a bit contrived. Suffice to say, though, this orchestra, with its international personnel clearly enjoying themselves so much, did make one want to believe in the utopian ideal of a harmonious Europe.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists at Cadogan Hall

Here's my review of last Wednesday's concert at the Cadogan Hall, part of the Moscow Soloists' 20th-anniversary tour. It takes in dates in an astonishing 80 cities, and apparently mixes and matches the soloists. I was interested here to get a chance to hear the soprano Dinara Alieva. Her biography--which both describes her as 'combin[ing] a distinctive voice together with an extraordinary physical beauty' and refers to her as a 'modest person'--is hardly immediately endearing, but it's an interesting voice, and she has undoubted glamour (and, on the evidence of this concert, an impressive collection of sparkly high heels). Apparently she's becoming something of a fixture in Vienna, and I'd very much like to hear her in a role on stage.

Here she is in Tatyana's Letter Scene (forced, like Amanda Echalaz at ENO into a bit of lying on the back half way through--do people really do this in real life? But at least there is a bed. And quite a big one at that). It seems as though she has a bit of a tendency to over-act from this, but that might well be the production's fault; that bed is hardly conducive to intimacy.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

London Contemporary Orchestra at the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival

Here's my review of last night's London Contemporary Orchestra concert.

Suckling's new concerto is due to be repeated, again with Agata Szymczewska, at one of the Southbank Sinfonia's Rush Hour series, at St John's, Waterloo on 24 May 2012. And here, for those that don't know it, is the opening section of Grisey's Vortex Temporum.

Concert Roundup: Philharmonia/Sokhiev; Philharmonia/Ashkenazy; LSO/Davis

I hope everyone will forgive a slightly rushed round-up of concerts from the last week--laptop 'issues' and a pile of marking prevented me from posting all week, and I was at the London Contemporary Orchestra's excellent concert at Shoreditch Church last night (I'll link to my Telegraph review when it goes up). Anyway, where to start? Last Sunday (4 December) was something of an indulgence: two concerts, two outstanding pianists in two favourite concertos. First was the Philharmonia's matinee--a programme of Berlioz's 'Le carnaval romain' Overture, Chopin's E-minor Concerto and Rachmaninov's Symphony No.2. There was nothing here to frighten the horses, and the kindly old lady next to me snoozed through the whole lot. She missed out, though, because the soloist in the Chopin, Evegeny Bezhanov, was outstanding. This appearance seemed to slip under the radar somewhat--the Sunday 3 pm slot is perhaps rather easy to overlook--but Bozhanov had caused something of a sensation at last year's Chopin Competition in Warsaw. 

He failed to win (Yulianna Avdeeva took the top prize, the first woman to do so since Martha Argerich), to the chagrin of a lot of the audience, apparently. According to his biography in the programme: 'I never thought I would witness piano playing of this quality again', exclaimed one old lady in Warsaw, 'I heard Lipatti, Horowitz, Michelangeli in concert -- Bozhanov is from the same planet'. John Allison, in his Telegraph review of the competition, described him at the 'most interesting of [the year's other laureates], but inclined towards grandstanding gestures'. This clip of him playing the finale of the E-minor suggests a little of that, as well as some rather heavy-handed playing. 

At the Festival Hall, however, his playing was a great deal more controlled, more impishly mercurial and elegant, less showily voiced. His platform manner, too, was less demonstrative. The technique was dazzling, but so was the imagination. He gave the Rondo's main theme even more sense of playful drive; he was very free with tempo throughout, but never--to me, at least--came across as indulgent. It seems, compared with earlier accounts of his playing, that he's settled down into a pianist to watch (and let's hope he continues to develop in this way, ignoring the siren song of cheap show-boating). The members of the Philharmonia and their conductor, Tugan Sokhiev, certainly needed to watch and listen closely to follow his subtle shifts, but they did so with evident relish. They also turned in a cracking account of the the Rachmaninov after the interval, in which Sokhiev balanced slush with drama to ensure one left feeling invigorated, not over-indulged.

There was more pianistic alchemy in the evening, with Mitsuko Uchida keeping the LSO similarly on their toes in Beethoven's G-major concerto. But while she danced and darted with her characteristic brilliance, the LSO  and conductor Colin Davis seemed a little more reluctant to keep up than Sokhiev and his players had been. Or at least they were on the Sunday concert; it sounds like Tuesday's repeat might have been better. (I'd found them gelling well in the third concerto a few weeks ago, too, if not exactly singing from the same hymn sheet). Haydn's Symphony No.98 was stately and elegant, although the addition of a harpsichord--there to tinkle in the final bars of the jolly finale, but plinking away throughout--made Davis's old-world ways in this repertoire suddenly seem more disturbingly anachronistic. As before, Haydn and Beethoven were coupled with Nielsen, here the Second Symphony, 'Four Temperaments'. And, again as before, Davis let the years fall away in a bright, lively account of the work. More Nielsen/Haydn/Beethoven to come this evening; I look forward to it.

On Thursday the Philharmonia played host to another brilliant young soloist, the violinist Valeriy Sokolov. He's just signed for Virgin and released a disc of Tchaikovsky and Bartok concertos, and is clearly a very fine musician. Here's a bit of him playing Sibelius (with this concert's conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy), from a couple of years ago.

On this occasion his account of the Beethoven concerto was beautifully lyrical and understated, the technique  easy but never forced--he made light work of the double-stopped labyrinth of Kreisler's first-movement cadenza--and the basic sound gloriously sweet. Ashkenazy conducted cleanly but lovingly, and the Philharmonia's bassoons, in particular, helped bring out the score's special colours. Ashkenazy's way with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique after the interval was lithe, taut and thrilling. Conventional programming, perhaps, but this was a thoroughly enjoyable concert.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Pintscher, Beethoven and Bruckner: LPO/Jurowski with Lars Vogt (RFH)

Poor Vladimir Jurowski. The London Philharmonic's principal conductor probably had enough challenges in keeping this demanding programme together yesterday without having to deal with some unexpected audience participation. But he led his players in a deft, detailed account of Matthias Pintscher's seven-minute towards Osiris only to have his efforts, and those of an expanded LPO, greeted with a shout of 'what a load of rubbish!'. The rest of the audience's polite but shocked applause was then countered by further booing from the same man. It was a bizarre thing to witness, but I understand it is now something of a regular occurrence at LPO concerts -- I'd heard of a similar intrusion mid-way through Osmo Vanska's Bruckner 4 a couple of weeks ago, but wasn't there so cannot say if it was the same malcontent then as it was here. In her review of that concert, Erica Jeal noted that 'there's no way to heckle classical concerts without seeming weird', and so it proved here.

Yet it was an intervention that made me wonder a little about whether the non-committal politesse that can be an audience default at so many classical concerts is really any better. Certainly Jurowski, who apparently gave this heckler an ironic thumbs up, seemed more put out by the lukewarm applause drizzled half-heartedly between the movements of Bruckner's Symphony No.1 in the second half -- less an outbreak of spontaneous appreciation, I felt, than a nervy reaction to the music simply stopping. Jurowski scowled a bit between Adagio and Scherzo, but plumped effectively for a raised fist to command silence between Scherzo and Finale.

It reminded me of the endless debate -- invariably wheeled out in comment sections before every Proms season -- regarding an audience's right to express a reaction. One's right to shout out an immediate response rarely seems to be upheld (unsurprisingly so), yet wouldn't this come under the the same 'historical' justifications that are used to sanction applause between movements? They applauded between movements of Haydn symphonies in the eighteenth century, we are told; so, if a torrent of verbal abuse was good enough for the premiere of the Rite of the Spring, shouldn't it also be good enough for us? Applause between movements is promoted as the natural release of better-out-than-in enthusiasm, which is fair enough. But surely there's nothing worse than automatic applause as a kind of Pavlovan response to anything coming to end. I'm being polemical, of course, and generally subscribe (for what it's worth) to the view that one shouldn't behave in a way that might affect anyone else's enjoyment or ability to concentrate, but still...

As it happened, Jurowski's edge-of-the-seat Bruckner certainly deserved all the genuine enthusiasm that was reserved for the end. The First Symphony has a precarious position at the start of the composer's canon --preceded, of course, by the Studiensinfonie and No.0 'Die Nullte'. The composer himself called it 'das kecke Beserl'; 'an untranslatable phrase', Derek Watson tells us in his old Master Musicians Bruckner, '"the saucy little besom" being the nearest equivalent'. But Jurowski made a lot of sense out of it. He captured all its unexpected twists and turns brilliantly, and the LPO played out of their skins, making a sound at once luxurious and sinewy.

I found it difficult to make up my mind about the Pintscher. It was composed, the programme tells us, for the Berlin Philharmonic in 2005 as one of a handful of contemporary complements to Holst's Planets. He's since gone on to compose a full-scale Osiris, describing this shorter a work as a study for that. The skill on show was immense, with Pintscher marshalling a large orchestra -- with a great deal of divisi writing -- with an impressive ear for detail and texture. I'd be intrigued to hear the full work, though, to find out how he develops this promising material.

The programme was completed with Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto in a strangely overdetermined account that brimmed with nice details but fell short of a totally convincing interpretative whole. Pianist Lars Vogt and his conductor hadn't, it seemed, quite worked out what approach they were taking, with period touches (hard-sticked timps and natural trumpets) mixing with playing from Vogt that pushed at dynamic extremes but only really seemed to settle in the finale.

The LPO play another interesting programme at the RFH on Saturday: Julian Anderson's Fantasias, Mozart's Violin Concerto No.5 (with Janine Jansen) and the glorious, sprawling heart-on-sleeve-athon that is Tchaikovsky's 'Manfred' Symphony.