Thursday, 31 December 2015

End of the year

Concert-going for 2015 has drawn to a close, alas. Here are some personal highlights.

Finest opera. The extraordinary sounds produced by the OAE for Saul mark it out as special indeed. Purves and Davies were on absolute top form. Obviously an oratorio, but let's not be pedantic.
New opera. I came out of Between Worlds and felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach. Was it even an opera? As much as a soundscape as an opera. 
Exceptional recital: Gerhaher for detailed work: Joyce for astonishing range and maximum goosebumps.
Symphonic performance: Ashkenazy showed how spellbinding both Sibelius and the Philharmonia  can be: I hope 2016 will provide more evidence of this.

Chamber: it may have come late but Beethoven PC3 with the SCO was fiery, iridescent and unforgettable.  

Farewell to a crowd-pleaser: to Copley's Boheme - a charming production. Whatever will follow it? (The most recent number of Opera notes that Sonya Yoncheva and Michael Fabiano with Pappano next year; production by Richard Jones. Playing it safe, rather wisely).

Hello to a new one: Die Entführung aus dem Serail is likely to be long a crowd pleaser whenever it is revived.
Best concert performance of an opera, and overall winner by a country mile: the CBSO's Parsifal at Symphony Hall in May was nothing short of a transformative experience. The CBSO delivered a singularly powerful and thrilling performance which will be remembered for many years; all the more perfect for not being broadcast or repeated. Unfathomably good.

Highlights for 2016:
Joyce in Werther: any excuse for a bit of Joyce.
Iestyn Davies's revival of David in Saul (one night only - he is not listed yet on Barbican site, but Davies lists it on his. Not to be missed.)
Gerhaher in Tannhauser: that voice and all that brass.
ON Rings promise fine music and a provincial company really stepping up to the major league.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A seriously good Messiah (Dunedin/Messiah)

Handel, Messiah (Dunedin Consort cond. John Butt at the Queen's Hall).
Christmas didn't happen last year, as I didn't get to a Messiah. That implies a lack of effort, as there are lots of them. Yet the prospect of the Dunedin Consort was a particularly enticing one, especially in the clean acoustics of the Queen's Hall. Goosebumps remain from the wonderful hard /k/ on Counsellor.
The Dunedin ensemble was pared-back from what can often involve enormous choruses: twelve singers and modest band, yet not for a minute did I feel short-changed. Many of the singers visibly appeared to be having a whale of a time, and enjoying the work of the others  when not singing. In particular, a number were in rapt, astonished attention at their colleagues, not least at Brook, of whom more later. The band were fine indeed, and clipped along at a decent pace under John Butt.
Yet the Messiah is really about the voices, and a fine cast sang it here. Mhairi Lawson was clear but pure - glucose rather than honey. Beautiful lines like spun sugar, clear and that wonderful trick of making it seem effortless. Matthew Long seemed to rely a little on a vibrato effect to keep going, and this is not something I find all that appealing if truth be told. Mezzo Rowan Hellier singing Alto was fine too. She is mainly occupied in Salzburg presently, but I hope very much to see her feature more in the UK.

Yet by some way the towering performance of the evening was Matthew Brook's; I still have goosebumps from his jaw-dropping rendition of  'The Trumpet Shall Sound' which was supported by consistently fine trumpet solos/duets. Rather than the very deepest, rumbling sort of bass, this was a rounder, softer, fleshier tone which suited perfectly the venue and the arrangement.
Any previous attempts to displace the magnificent Pinnock recording from my library have failed. Even some quite good efforts (such as the Sixteen's) have been attempted. But I think there might be space for the Dunedin one. Over the evening I couldn't help but think about Fosse's suggestion in the novella Morgen und Abend that through music one might hear 'a little of what his God wants to tell him'. This was a seriously good performance. Quite why the hall wasn't packed out - there were even a few seats free in the stalls, is nothing less than a Christmas mystery. 
Conductor: John Butt
Matthew Brook
Matthew Long
Mhairi Lawson
Rowan Hellier

Full details here.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Beethoven's PC3 on fire (Beethoven PC3 and others/SCO)

Beethoven, CPE Bach and Mozart (Alexander Janiczek and Llŷr Williams dir. SCO/Queen's Hall)
It is hard to imagine a more delightful prospect than some CPE Bach, Mozart and Beethoven by a good chamber orchestra.

The evening started with CPE Bach. I can't really get enough of him. He  A luminous piece, like liquid gold; the flowing melodies one would expect. All of which  characterising the distinctive, attentive but intuitive style of the SCO. In this Alexander Janiczek sat as first violinist and led the orchestra from this point. They amount of eye contact sustained was impressive.

Next came two mozarts: both exquisite, Janiczek  took to centre as soloist. At the end of the first piece, the first violin was encouraged by her elbow to her feet; at the end of the second she firmly instructed Janiczek to take a bow. This reluctance seems to reflect the depth of the relationship at work here. 

After the interval, the birthday boy got the sort of treatment he deserves. This wasn't a perfect rendition but it is hard to imagine it being given more fire. Two directors (both Janiczek and pianist Llŷr Williams were at it) reflected the fact that it is bloody hard to play the piano and conduct from memory. was there are a note or two off? Possibly. But this is a small price to pay for the coherence of having soloist and director in one. The whole thing seemed to gel together, and perhaps Williams infected the SCO with enthusiasm. The amazing achievement was to hear PC3 for the first time. The freshness was astounding. When will I hear it again like that? Any time I like for the next weeks: it was on Radio 3 and is currently available on iplayer. Listen here.
Overall: magic

Alexander Janiczek -Director/leader
Llŷr Williams - Soloist/director

Symphony in E-flat, Wq183/2 (10’)
Violin Concerto No 1 in B-flat, K207 (21’)
Rondo Concertante in B-flat, K269 (07’)
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor (34')

Singing very high

I suppose most chaps wouldn't naturally try to sing all that high, but thank goodness Iestyn Davies was messing around one day. The Economist produces its Intelligent Life magazine - I've only ever seen it given away at train stations or airports, but the article is available here.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Second chance salon (ROH/Chénier)

If you feel slightly nauseous at the prospect of something called "Panic Saturday", whereby consumers are induced to expend even more money on Christmas gifts, then the perfect antidote is provided by the BBC's screening last night of Andrea Chénier. No this isn't the best opera, but it is likely one of the finest productions of it. For the next month here. I had forgotten, inter alia, just how splendid Željko Lučić was.
My notes on the production from January here.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Breaking it down (Glyndebourne Tour 2016)

I notice that the 2016 Glyndebourne Tour is offering only two productions: a revival of Don Giovanni, already seen at the festival twice (review) and on tour; a new production of Madama Butterfly. Poliuto (review) from the 2015 Festival will be on screen. The reason for this reduction isn't stated. It might be that the cost of Wagner means the subsidy from the Festival budget will be less. It is very sad to see this reduction. I can't imagine there is much opera in Stoke since that painful cut.
The third slot will be occupied by Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain, which '...will present a specially tailored event offering an accessible introduction to opera. Through a deconstruction of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the event will reveal opera’s power to convey intense human emotion.' I wonder if that really is a deconstruction  - and is taking the visceral and rendering it intellectual the best way to make things accessible. Breaking it down, surely, would be a better way to put it. And apt too.

Can you spare a few quid?

The Birmingham Opera Company is in the final days of a crowdfunder campaign to support its next production. With Arts Council matched funding at £1 for every £1.50, even a very modest donation will do very much good. This is a chance to support Vick's transformative vision for opera. The tickets are cheap as chips (well about the same as in the Royal Opera restaurant) when they come round, so think about it as paying the full price of your ticket. If they are new to you, see these links for a little more on mad opera evenings in a tent and an old factory courtesy of the Birmingham Opera Company. People from all ten districts come together for these wonderful productions. A young, diverse audience. I think few will not have their ideas about opera challenged by them.

If you have a few spare quid, do visit here if you can before 9:15 on Monday morning.

A Mixed programme (Philharmonia/DMH)

Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, Siberlius, Grieg (Joshua Weilerstein cond. Philharmonia, De Montfort Hall)

On 2nd December, the Philharmonia held their last DMH concert of the year with a mixed programme. The Bernstein was egotistical and derivative as one would expect: written in the 1930s this might have been noteworthy; yet it clearly borrows so much from Ives and Britten to name but two.
A pause ensued as one chap rearranged everything on the stage. Seriously embarrassing. It took an age. Had the weather been warmer, people might have squeezed in a little picnic outside. The DMH is slowly unravelling it seems. A new paintjob has to be paid for somehow. Or perhaps the Philharmonia only send one chap up north.
The Grieg PC, a favourite everywhere had moments of real beauty, but much of it seemed a bit turgid and underwhelming.
After the interval, a very decent account was offered of a relatively unknown Sibelius tone-poem. I think it is fair to say that the shortcomings which remained were of composition, not of the interpretation. There were some very fine moments in this (not the least of which was a fine flute solo. Spring was sorrowful much as Sibelius intended here.
Finally Tchaikovsky, perhaps the best piece and by some way the finest performance of the evening - the orchestra seemed in its element and the music flowed

Joshua Weilerstein conductor
Denis Kozhukhin piano

Full programme:
Bernstein, Symphonic Suite, On the Waterfront
Grieg, Piano Concerto
Sibelius, Spring Song
Tchaikovsky, Francesca da Rimini

Saturday treat: Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford

A special Saturday treat. This is an NPR performance from 2014 at a desk, for no obvious reason which I can discern. Regrettably the acoustics don't do much by way of favours for Iestyn Davies's sublime voice (wittering about this here), but it is great to hear him with Thomas Dunford (on his wonders here). I'd hazard that both are even more astonishing in the flesh.

It is always enjoyable often productive when two artists can join forces over a prolonged period. A little more singing and some discussion between the two may be found here.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The 'Morgen' after (ROH/Morgen)

Georg Friedrich Haas, Morgen und Abend (Michael Boder, cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House)

As second thump at Morgen und Abend on Saturday before the run finished, and I took the advice of a Guardian reviewer and concentrated on the score and how it reflected grief.

A few observations:
1) It isn't a difficult or even particularly demanding piece.
2) From the middle of the stalls you cannot see the large drums being banged, and it seems much more organic, intuitive; where you sit for this production will have a major impact.
3) I still don't like the unnecessary amplification of the actor at the beginning. Talking with an orchestra backdrop is music and it is unnecessary. If it was designed to reflect some separation from us the living (or possibly the dead as he came to meet us), then it was a regrettable gimmick and the sound and staging should do this. After two trips, I am still not entirely sure quite sure what is going on there.
4) I still didn't like having a bright light sung in my eyes.
5) The Guardian suggestion is spot-on for a second visit. Just as Bacon carefully captured the colours of grief in his paintings shortly after George Dyer's death, in pinks and purples, Haas has summoned up the equivalent sound world. In this the beauty lies.
6) A final question is this: is it even an opera?

‘In Memory of George Dyer
‘In Memory of George Dyer
I still haven't entirely made up my mind about it, but I am glad I had more time to figure it out.

Production finished but will be broadcast on Radio 3  on Saturday, 5th December at 18:30.

More detailed notes made after opening night here, including full cast.

Vintage revival (ON/Jenůfa)

Leoš Janáček, Jenůfa (Aleksandar Marković cond. Orchestra of Opera North, Nottingham Theatre Royal).

Image: Opera North
Doing Wagner is mega-expensive. A duff cycle risks ruin (such as that threatened by an unpopular Met one some years ago).  So Valkyrie horns must be drawn in if it is to be done. Glyndebourne are having only two new productions and four revivals to accommodate the Meistersinger in the summer. Opera North, by no means the most lavishly-funded of organisations, are doing complete Ring cycles next summer, on tour, as an addition to their full programme. So even if semi-staged, still an unfathomable trick.
On Wednesday, 17th November Opera North's revival of a vintage 1990s production of Jenůfa drew to a close in Nottingham. Certainly it looked of its period, but it was engaging and aesthetically pleasing. The stage was fairly uncluttered, and it to some degree it reminded me of Christof Loy. Strong geometric shapes, primary colours. A simple staging left space for a number of coups
This isn't light opera, and it required a number of singers with Wagnerian experience - viz sometime Valkyries Susan Bickley and Elizabeth Sikora.  Somehow Susan Bickley carried off Kostelnička that we felt some sympathy for what she had done, and for her the loudest ovation was reserved.Jenůfa (Ylva Kihlberg) was deeply impressive too. The whole thing was carried off to great effect.
One problem from the dress circle was that the orchestra was too loud and the signers struggled to make themselves heard, especially in the first act. These were usual seats, this is not a customary problem for ON there, so I can't quite fathom that one. It certainly detracted.

Overall: not an enjoyable evening, but an impressive one.

Cast & Creative Team

Jenůfa: Ylva Kihlberg
Kostelnička: Susan Bickley
Grandmother: Elizabeth Sikora
Števa Buryja: Daniel Norman
Laca Klemeň: David Butt Philip
Foreman: Dean Robinson
Karolka: Daisy Brown
Mayor: Jeremy Peaker
Mayor’s Wife: Claire Pascoe
Maid: Beth Mackay
Barena: Sarah Estill
Jano: Frankie Bounds
Conductor: Aleksandar Marković
Director and designer: Tom Cairns
Lighting Designer: Wolfgang Göbbel
Choreographer: Aletta Collins
English translation: Otakar Kraus & Edward Downes