Tuesday, 30 December 2014

At High Velocity

(Robin Ticciati cond. Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh)

Ticciati is one of those people whom it would be very easy not to like. Young, talented and successful. In the pre-concert discussion with a former tutor, he came across as thoughtful and pleasant. 

I was listening earlier in the day to Theodor Currentzis’s glittering but break-neck speed Cosi. To me an unutterable delight, but some will not like this shinkansen of recordings. All I’ve ever heard or read about them is that the particular listener loved it but others might not. This is relevant because a fellow concert-goer – actually a subscriber to the SCO suggested that people find Ticciati a bit too speedy, and that thus he seems superficial. This, to me, is a flawed premise as a ponderous performance hardly equates to depth and profundity. 

The first piece,Widmann's 'Liebeslied for eight instruments' was new to me, so I couldn’t say, but it didn’t appear hurried. The Schumann (Violin Concerto), did seem ever so slightly fast, but this seemed to accentuate the tenderness of the violin solo by Christian Tetzlaff. For the final piece, Haydn's 103rd, 'Drum Roll' the tempo was exactly right.

It made for an evening of thoughtful, diverse music, assembled into an effective and satisfying programme. 

Repeated in Glasgow the following evening. 

Bach for Christmas

Bach, Weinacht Oratorio (Ludus Baroque cond. Richard Neville-Towle, Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh)
Canongate Kirk is something of a barn; acoustically, it provides great clarity and projection, but the cool-if-clear sound leaves no room for error. The four soloists, choir(s) and musicians of Ludus Baroque had no trouble in an effortless Weinacht Oratorio. They only perform twice a year, but release some well-received recordings. This is a case of privileging quality over quantity. 

The star of the show was Joshua Ellicott: his Tenor was loud, and clear, and pure. With power and tenderness at once, he was head-and-shoulders ahead of the other strong soloists. Will Berger’s Baritone and Catherine Backbone’s Alto seemed to pale in comparison to Ellicott. Fflur Wyn, the delightful Woodbird from Opera North’s Siegfried last year, seemed to lack the power she had shown in Leeds Town Hall with an orchestra many times larger. However I suspect with all of this, the acoustics explain more, for two reasons. Firstly, Ellicott occupied a preferable central position, slightly elevated with the choir, or bang smack in the middle of the crossing. Secondly, there were no apparent technical weaknesses in the voices & the singing was beautiful. So perhaps the type of voice intersected with the architecture in an unfortunate way. This is not to say that they were anything other than sublime. The flip side would be to say that Ellicott might have been reined in; but to my mind that would have been a great tragedy indeed. The choir and orchestra seemed to include some fairly young players and singers, and they held their own. Throughout, you could hear each and every word. 

Dramaturgy was on the agenda in a way it often isn’t in church performances. Rooted firmly in the composition and early performance history of Nikolaikirche and Thomaskirch and their two choirs, the spatial was emphasized in only one church. As Richard Neville-Towle explained usefully at the start:  to the left, saints (usually known as principals); in the sanctuary, angels (the choir at large); to the right, mortals (a smaller subsection of the choir). This worked well, even if Ellicott seemed to have to move around a bit; as established his voice did not suffer for these exertions. 

One rarely mentions the programme in too much detail. Peter MSaill accompanied his translation with comments on each of the 64 numbers –these were surprisingly effective and would add to a first or a hundredth performance. 

By the sixth act, the emotional-religious intensity, and musical power, had reached their maximum, with very stirring final numbers. This moved me to a greater degree than any previous occasion.   The audience spontaneously held a moment of quiet so desperately needed by so often missing, before gradually losing sight of the decorum which tempers the cheers, bravos and the like.

Full cast:
Fflur Wyn soprano
Catherine Backhouse alto
Joshua Ellicott tenor
William Berger baritone

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Shadows falling darkly.

Tristan und Isolde (Royal Opera, Orchestra of ROH cond. Antonio Pappano)

There’s an old clip of Birgitte Nillson singing the liebestod in concert. The rather prim and proper audience, buttoned-up seem to visible melt as the music, and the song, works its magic like one of Isolde’s mum’s potions. It shows her power as singer, and of Wagner’s music. Undoubtedly one of the great Isoldes, the effect even in this quality and extraction is terrifying. It gives something of a flavour of Nina Stemme in the superlative Tristan at the ROH.
Lefoy has pared back and stripped the whole thing to its core. A vaguely-maritime industrial-grey stage with floor at an angle; a rich, royal purple curtain divides this from a largely drawn sort of stripped neo-Classical dining room, reminiscent of an officer’s mess. All quite conservative in a way, andand successful In the dining-room the assembled candlesticks from the all-male dinner surround Isolde at one point; these are the day which prevents the night in which her love for Tristan can flourish only. Light and dark, night and day, life and death.
In this space, shadows fall. The psycho-sexual before Freud; sexual domination and physical threat; this is the opera and Loy lets it breathe and tell its stories.
There isn’t a weak link vocally. Some reviewers suggested Tomlinson is past his prime. Indeed he may have passed his apogee, but his presence and voice are remarkable. Sarah Connolly sings and acts a wonderful Brangäne; Paterson’s Kurenwal and Cooper’s Melot are fine too. All the singing is consummate and powerful. Without a doubt, Stemme is the Isolde of her generation, and Gould is almost certainly the Tristan of his; they make for a very fine pairing indeed.
The music, it goes without saying, under Pappano's labours, summoned great strength and power 
What this production tells us overall, I think, is that there are forces at work in the universe, and within our minds, which we cannot quite comprehend. Great powers that may bring all joy and all sorrow. The clarity with which this, and so much more, are told is the genius of this staging and performance.

Overall: The whole production, from start to finish is a terrifying showing of power. Perfectly sublime and perfectly beautiful at once. 

Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: Christof Loy
Sailor: Ed Lyon
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Brangäne: Sarah Connolly
Kurenwal: Iain Paterson
Tristan: Stephen Gould
Melot: Neal Cooper
King Marke: John Tomlinson
Shepherd: Graham Clark
Steersman: Yuriy Yurchuk

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The last time I saw Violetta

La Traviata (Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra cond. Jeremy Bines) 

The 2014 Glyndebourne Tour concluded in Stoke last night, with an undoubtedly lovely La Traviata. I am now entirely resolved that any flaws remaining are Verdi’s (just that the plot needs a bit of a twist really).
It was, of course, scaled back. A bit less slick. A smaller chandelier, maybe; a bit less Champagne for party guests; the large upholstered curving walls were of necessity simpler. Violetta’s bed was more of a couch; the garden shown at the back was in much less resplendent order. This was costume jewellery perhaps than precious gems.
Where at the Festival, Mark Elder and the LPO presented exquisite craftsmanship, on Tour, the noises from the pit were a bit less constrained, almost bombastic at time; at first this was disappointing, but in the third act in particular, it added emotion. It gave some warmth Indeed Act III packed an astonishing emotional punch. Violetta (Iriina Dubrovskaya). Musically Act I is pure joy, and alone worth the admission price. Violetta took a little while to warm up, but by the end of ‘Sempre Libre’, was really wonderful. Much of the audience seemed to have worse hacking coughs than the dying star. Perhaps this in sympathy. Oh and the silly voice over of the letter hard gone too. But then I wasn’t too sure that it was silly. I sort of missed it. 

I was more choked by the final scene this time, despite the fact that, understandably, Mumford’s lighting was much less effective.

The whole cast was strong, eveything was clearly worked-out. That's six-week rehearsals for you.

Overall: pretty impressive costume jewellery. 

Conductor: Jeremy Bines
Director: Tom Cairns
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford

Violetta Valéry: Irina Dubrovskaya
Alfredo Germont: Zach Borichevsky
Giorgio Germont: Evez Abdulla
Marchese D’Obigny: Benjamin Cahn
Baron Douphol: Eddie Wade
Flora Bervoix: Lauren Easton
Messenger: John-Mackenzie Lavansch
Flora’s Servant: Lukasz Karauda

Monday, 1 December 2014

Just showing off

Stella di Napol (Orchestra and Chorus of Lyon Opera, Riccardo Minasi cond.)

Joyce DiDonato’s photograph on the front of her recent collection of bel canto mezzo-soprano arias makes her look like the star she is, shimmering against a black sky. Each beautiful gem glitters in this immaculate studio recording. The precise and exquisitely timed of the O de X under Y show off DiDonato to perfection. Much like a good undertaker, you almost don’t notice them. To hear these beautiful songs, doing what bel canto does - display wonderful singing.

Exquisite and glittering, what could be more perfect to find in a Christmas stocking than this?
There isn’t a weak item on the disc. Nothing is under four minutes, and most are considerably longer. So it makes for a very satisfying affair. My favourite is probably the item from which the album takes its name- Pacini’s Stella di Napoli – from a scene in which the heroine bemoans her fate and lack of pity.  

It's worth the admission for Pari Dukovic's cover photograph alone