Saturday, 9 August 2008

War, and Rumours of War

I remember saying to a friend after the second of two War Requiems at the Proms in quite short order (a heartbreakingly beautiful and emotionally draining, even at times terrifying, performance under Kurt Masur) that the way things were going, perhaps the BBC should make it an annual event.

Like the annual Beethoven Ninth. People, it seemed to me then, needed a reminder of what it is all like. What it does to people.

So I suppose there was a terrible inevitability in yet another war beginning almost while the RPO was playing Vaughan Williams’ “War Symphony”. If music could only affect politicians’ hearts as much as composers can affect their listeners’. If only they would listen to, and comprehend, either of those pieces. Then, perhaps, just perhaps, one day we may put an end to war?

Before the end of this season, who knows what other beasts will go slouching towards Bethlehem? Or, in words from another genre of music altogether, am I forever going to be crying despairingly “War? What is it good for?”

I shall need the uplift of many of the coming Proms programmes, now, I think. For I am of a generation that foolishly thought we could put an end to war. And yet I have known people who have died, and worse, been ‘disappeared’ in wars. I have known people who have been dispossessed and tortured in them and yet somehow have retained their humanity, have even been able to listen to the War Requiem.

I have even fought to save people from illegal imprisonment and subsequent murder in a civil war. And failed. But I am still proud of that hope I shared once with many others. It just seems such a long time ago, tonight. I once rang the 'Peace Bell' in Kyoto. Perhaps I should have tried to make it ring louder than I did.

(I think, perhaps, that what I feel was what was so lacking in tonight's Vaughan Williams Sixth. I had no patience, felt no commitment to listen to it to the end. Perhaps I'll return to it, listen to the repeat. But, then, perhaps I will play myself either the War Requiem or La Grande Messe des Morts instead.)

I heard, after I wrote this, an American 'thinktanker' saying "Russia is seeking 'regime change' in Georgia, which is clearly illegal under international law." Well, well. Fancy that. I laughed until I cried. Or the other way round. 
And to those readers who may want  to tell me music has nothing to do with politics, that has never really been true, from the Greek Chorus through the Norse Sagas and Anglo-Saxon epics, La Battaglia, Beethoven's Eroica (or Wellington's  Victory) to the Death of Klinghoffer, and the songs of  the Palestinian Intifada, now, has it?

Friday, 8 August 2008

Prom 30: Harlem TanzMuzik

I hope Michael Torke’s ‘Javelin’ is the last we’ll hear of the Olympics around here. Programmatic spun sugar soundtrack music with occasional podium fanfares. Agincourt from Henry V made pretty-pretty. It was timed at 8 minutes, or a bit more than 3000m, but seemed to take as long as a marathon. “The Ravel of his generation” the presenter called the composer. What generation would that be, I wonder? Not one I’ve so far belonged to, or would want to in whatever future I have left.

We might, the same presenter said, in a cloyingly sing-song tone have heard the influence of John Adams. We might, I’m damned if I could. Not even out of ‘The Chairman Dances’ which the BBC’s National Orchestra of Wales played with true Swing style, if not quite Adams’s. It had a foot-tapping joyfulness, if rather played on a single level, and even if it did get a little confused in places, it was truly enjoyable. And downright great fun.

In her interview, Han-na Chang displayed an unnervingly ‘New Age’, unsophisticated and somewhat confused conception of Bernstein’s ‘Three Meditations’, showing a total failure to grasp the difference between irony and sarcasm, and whatever role the emotion of ‘bitterness’ might have in either. That probably explains why despite the orchestra’s attempts to get in a little of the atmosphere of West Side Story or On The Town as Indian raga and her competent playing, all three failed to be emotionally convincing or inspiring. Clearly, the soloist and orchestra were just not on the same wavelength, which after that interview didn’t surprise me.

Bernstein got into Ellington’s Harlem, too. Or at least his ‘Prelude, Fugue and Riffs’ got into the first bars, along with a rather unnerving touch of Gershwin. This had to be Kristjan Jarvi, pushing it, surely. As must have been the few bars ‘tribute’ to ‘The Stripper’? It’s a long time since I last heard Harlem, but I don’t recall those being that marked.

As it did in the John Adams, it turned out that the BBCNOOW could swing very nicely indeed, but I have heard it, if not sounding quite so much pure Ellington as they did in places (which I really loved!) a little less derivative as it did at times. The soloists were superb, especially the five saxes, the percussionists tremendously vivacious. The band was really on a roll by the end. I think Ellington would have engaged the lot of them on the spot. Great fun, again.

The audience cheered and stamped—I’m not surprised—and were rewarded by a raucous encore with the band going absolutely wild. (To the extent I wish they’d been allowed to let their hair down like that earlier.) That was almost the best part of the concert.

(And then, someone in the R3 presenter's suite, who'd obviously been listening, decided to keep up the mood before the late-night jazz programme, which it made a trifle late starting, with an amazingly rollicking Rimsky Cappricio Espagnole for piano duo . . .it's on Linn CD—probably the only time I'll give a nod to hi-fi here!—but obviously you all probably missed it and it's worth a try.)

R3 (relay)

Prom 30: Michael Torke: Javelin; John Adams: The Chairman Dances; Bernstein: Three Meditations; Ellington: Harlem

I never, ever, want to hear that presenter (Geoffrey Smith?) again. He may not have meant to, but he sounded patronising, and none of us need to be reminded twice before and three times after short pieces, that a Prom concert is coming from the Albert Hall. I think, three weeks in and thirty concerts, we’ve all just about grasped that. Anyway, on radio, why does it matter? And each time, he was nearly overtaken by the conductor’s up beat before he’d finished talking, which, as you know, I hate. I didn't count the number of times he mentioned the bloody Olympics, but it was too many.

New Composers: other, various, young

There were far more interesting new compositions than Chen Yi's by young composers, one at least only 16, on R3 between Proms 29 and 30. On the iPlayer, or the R3 'Listen Again' page, look for 'BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers Competition', an uninspired title if ever there was one. But definitely worth listening to from the ten minutes I caught.

Olympic Fireworks and Damp Squibs

I hadn’t intended to listen to Prom 29, for reasons that will shortly become obvious, but I cottoned on just in time that it would give me an opportunity both to let fly about a couple of other things, and, perhaps, keep this blog visible on Google searches amidst all the Olympics stuff. And this time I don’t care if I send enough tall poppies flying to set me up with a new career in the drugs trade.

I suppose commissioning a piece called “Olympic Fire” (there’s another one called “Javelin”, heaven help us, tonight—at least I presume that refers to the pointy thing people chuck about, rather than being an encomium to the Jowett) is the BBC’s attempt to create some kind of ‘relevance’ for the sportier types who might be tempted thereby to ditch the telly coverage of the four-yearly athletes’ drugstest in favour of a Prom or two. Sorry, I mean ‘sportsfest’. I think.

Which leads me to my first moan. Our ‘Unculture’ (whose name bears an uncanny resemblance to both the sharp implement and the vehicle) Minister, just before the Proms programming was made public, accused classical music (and the Proms, by implication, though later she denied it) of being “excluding” of various age groups and races. This, despite the wonderful Soweto Strings at last year’s Proms.

Classical music does not, any more than any other pursuit, “exclude” people. People exclude themselves. It’s something either you gain an interest in, hopefully with passion, or you don’t. I have never had any interest whatsoever in sport, although I was a passable sprinter in my early teens when I couldn’t avoid teachers bullying me onto the sports field. (I was never even that bothered about winning, even though I did sometimes, which, despite Baron de Coubertin, I gather is the main aim.) But I don’t feel ‘excluded’ from it. ‘Uninterested’ is the proper word. It’s just the amount of coverage it gets now on TV and radio and in the press makes me angry. And, come to think of it, ‘excluded’ but only in the sense I feel they feel I ought to be one of them.

I might as well complain to FIFA I am ‘excluded’ from football because they don’t play classical music at the interval, or whatever they call the space between the two halves. (Discounting Nessun Dorma, of course.) All this politician was doing, despite the hurt she caused, was trying to drum up a bit of coverage for a department that has, under her, collapsed even more into desuetude. And might have disappeared without trace, except that sport, god help us, is also under its umbrella. Catch the French (pre-Sarkozy, anyway, I wouldn’t be too sure now) doing that. But the side-effects are probably going to last for years.

The other reason for not intending to listen was Slatkin reappearing. I thoroughly disliked his tenancy (for in all honesty, that is all it amounted to) with the BBCSO, for reasons I won’t bore you with. A friend who was at his last concert with them told me she had never ever heard an audience apparently sound so relieved that the conductor of a major orchestra was departing. Privately, at home, I cheered. I would even have thrown 50p into his retirement fund collecting bucket, had there been one, to help pay the fare home. Preferably on a slow, uninsured-at-Lloyds, cargo boat.

(As Maggie Thatcher—who I also loathe, I might say, and not just for her ignorance of the arts, either— memorably said at her last appearance in the House of Commons, “I’m enjoying this!” I’d never have dared submit this for print; at least not in quite such unveiled terms.)

So, would Chen Yi's “Olympic Fire” have attracted any of the excluded sporty types, or was it just there as some kind of sop to its being Olympics year again, a futile PR attempt to get just one Prom concert a two-liner in the sport-obsessed media?

I doubt the first. Not unless they’d like a Pekin Opera version of Bernstein (or vice-versa) conducted as though it was a 100m sprint. I’m not sure who won, but I think it was a dead heat between the conductor and the RPO, with the composer falling out of the race very early on through injury. I hope. So I suspect PR. Which is why my review, too, is a two-liner. Despite the Proms audience who were obviously caught up in the mad rush. Of first-performance adrenalin only, I trust. I'd fail a drugs test at Door 8 of the Albert Hall if they ever bring them in; I have to take a morphia-derivative these days . . .

Olga Kern wore a red dress to the Albert Hall. To hide the blood? Slatkin came as "Flash Lenny." That's all, folks. Packed house (and you can take that which way you like) or not, the 'Rach & Pag' Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini was a comic strip performance.

(R3 Relay)

I did listen to the Vaughan Williams, but it's the interval piece on Dives and Lazarus, especially the woman folk singer in her 60's from forty years back, I'd choose to listen to again, and if it's on the BBC  listings anywhere, I suggest you do too.

How long does ephemera last?

Paul Daniel (late of ENO, that is; a magician in his way, of quite a different kind) wrote to a Proms blogger colleague recently. The substance is not relevant here, but he made one remark that has been niggling at me ever since:

“As performers we create the immediate, the temporary, and leave others the pleasure of picking over the results.”

Do you know, for all that’s been said to me before, I’m not sure it is entirely true? Admittedly, once upon a time I was rather shocked to find members of the orchestra, after what I thought was a stunning performance, heading for their hotel discussing anything but what they’d just amazed 6,000 people doing. It seemed more like factory workers going home from the car production line at Dagenham. A disappointingly industrial kind of outlook. But then, they do this every day. I would hear that concert just the once.

But that doesn’t mean that the performance, for all it might be a singularity, is going to be ephemeral in the way Paul Daniel’s remark seems to imply. Some concerts, some productions, are, of course.

I doubt very much whether many of the audience now remembers anything (or did even then for very long) about the stage productions I was once a humble ASM for. Goodness knows, I only have a hazy recollection of two of them, and that is probably only because I was a teenager with a crush on one of the actresses who was in one, and because the other was the first time I’d ever seen Godot live. I was given an afternoon off to see it from the front for a change . . .I was innocent then; it wasn't entirely generosity, or concern for my dramatic education. I was a bit more 'papering' for an undersold matinee, of course. And we didn't talk about it then in the pub either where we had our (after-hours, usually) break before striking the sets.

But some, for all that, do last in the memory; I’ve spoken to people who have been able to tell me in detail about Callas's performances at Covent Garden. I still have a vivid recollection of Tennstedt’s Prom Ninth: I wept over that, was convinced it was his swansong, the culmination of a life of unkind fragility, and sure enough, not long after, he did die. Whether there will be any of that calibre this season, it’s too early to say, but I am sure there will be one or two. And of course, there are some I've already almost forgotten.

While I agree that the performance on the night is temporary, is immediate, in that it will never be repeated—or at least we expect and hope not, though there are always ‘industrial production-line’ ones that are, played with all the individuality of interpretation of a West End musical score that has to sound the same every night, regardless of who’s playing the instruments—I can’t agree with the implication that it’s necessarily ephemeral. At least not in its effect.

(And of course, I wince rather at the implication I too am a vulture, even if a small one, though I’d agree that many music critics inhabit the same sort of locus. Can I be a carrion crow? At least they are handsomer.)

Photo by Kathy Chin

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Prom 27: Bananas, Belle Epoque, and Waterlilies

I think I can predict most reviewers' reactions* to this Prom's Bolero, that is, if any bother to do any more than dismiss it in a couple of lines. So I shall try to get my retaliation in first. Tonight's performance had much more substance than a mere ice lollipop handed out to the audience on a hot stifling evening to thank them for sitting (or standing) through the serious stuff.

It actually made, as these programmes sometimes (and sometimes very mischievously) do, connections (musical, I mean, not ideological) with what had gone before that you don’t expect: most obviously in a kind of temporal or epochal consanginuity with the Stravinsky, but also with Benjamin’s own piece which I'll write about later. His decision to follow the Pavane pour une infante defunte directly without a pause, which might have appeared whimsical, actually did make contextual sense.

Benjamin set that neatly in a pre-war decade, before the world lost both its innocence and its money for the first time, or so people once said, as it has again all too many times even in George Benjamin’s lifetime.

It was clear that he and the BBCSO were mentally and emotionally in France, and not even within sight of the Spanish border. There was nothing of Velasquez here; there was the delicate colouring of a Monet watercolour in the strings and the harp, backlit with flashes of the richer colouring and fleshiness of a Renoir nude in sometimes very darkly coloured strings.

This, you had the feeling, was une infante who had an inkling she was destined to become defunte later in that equally drug-riddled, psychologcally edgy era of the kind we think we’ve invented that was also the belle epoque—and was dancing away her last years of adolescence. It was a very stylish, beguiling, knowing, cleverly constructed performance.

And now forget (please, it’s about time we, or at least we the Brits did) that ice skating Bolero that’s blighted the poor orphaned thing again for the last umpteen years. Benjamin’s was well into the post war belle epoque this time, but with the crash impending any moment: no flossy evocation of prancing wasp-waisted, slim-hipped matadors, this was cigarette factory sex, bosoms, Josephine Baker and sultry dancing in skirts made of bananas.

At times it was so sensuous, thanks to the swaying smoky jazz cafe woodwinds with their clever touch of syncopation, you could have rolled cigars on its thighs. It was the jazz era hitting Paris—as interpreted by Gertrude Stein.

Robert Maycock of the Independent wrote in the notes “all that happens in Boléro, apart from the big harmonic surprise close to the end, is that a pulse continues unchanged, and alternating melodic lines return in changing orchestral colours. On another, Ravel lavished all his sophisticated skill on making a substantial, perfectly timed form out of these few dimensions. You just try making a crescendo build for 10 minutes.” Benjamin had no diffculty at all with that; he made it sound simple.

And it was tense, a tension that increased relentlessly almost bar by bar until its climax. And, probably, had they heard this performance, also that of both Alice B Toklas and Gertrude Stein.

But it was the jazz-influenced orchestral colours of both the woodwind and the brass that made it sound as though there was a lot more happening than usual; some of those melodic lines suddenly and unexpectedly growling threateningly and anguished out of the brass section like a very big Parisian Apache with a knife looming out of the back door of a subterannean club in a dark Parisian alleyway . . . There was a strong hint of that dark underbelly of the period that Cocteau lived in in that.

Someone, whose name I missed because I had my head in the fridge looking for some ice for my whisky, commented in the interval that George Benjamin has an impeccable sense of pace, and doesn’t he just. It must be the envy of a good many far more experienced conductors.

And that, if you want to get back to the way Ravel probably thought of it at the beginning before he practically obliged himself to disown it, is just what the Bolero must have as a base to lift it from the banal rigmarole it so often has become. No way would Ravel have made the complaint he did to Toscanini that it was too fast. The acceleration was perfection.

You can tell me I’m just a kid still, if you want, I don’t damn well care, but I found tears of sheer joy running down my cheeks listening to this Bolero, and I'm not at all surprised that both the audience and the conductor were wearing grins as broad as Josephine Baker's hips when the applause and cheers erupted.

It was one of those prom endings that sends you away happier, or at least reassured, with life; even when, as with tonight’s other pieces either side of the interval, you have also felt the fingers of its traumas counting down your vertebrae and pausing ominously one handspan to the left, and wonder what it’s all really for. Even the weather gods must have felt something of all that; in the minutes after the concert ended the darkening violet London sky over Kensington was lit up with vivid flashes of lightning.

There is some Messaien, like some Boulez, I just cannot manage, try as I might, and believe me, I really have tried over the years. The orchestral L’Ascension is one I’ve had to give up on. It struck me that Benjamin was conducting it more as a pupil of Alexander Goehr than as a Messaien accolyte, but other than that I will leave it to Evan at PromsAmerica, Classical Iconoclast or Boulezian to give you a better insight than I can into how it went.

The Prommers (and the BBCSO through the season) have a few conductors they fall in love with and hug to their hearts. When you’re in the hall, the feeling is tangible even before the concert starts; and if you listen to the broadcast recording, you’ll sense it even in that, because George Benjamin is one of them. John Adams, any American readers might be surprised to hear, is another.

(I do hope I don’t get into Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner with my cigar-rolling metaphor or Gertrude Stein. . . If you don’t believe me about this, and I can tell already you probably don't, you still have six days to catch this Prom on the iPlayer. Listen to it all the way through, but ignore the couple of accidental squeaks from the horns in the Bolero—it was a hot, humid, muggy night and the stage lights would have been very hot on them by then, none of that good for horns—in one bar, they don’t matter.)

* My predictions don't always come true.  At least Andrew Clements in The Guardian didn't write it off, and nor did Neil Fisher in the Times, so  there's hope yet. . . My  crystal ball must have gone out of tune. I did use an A=440 tuning fork last time, didn't  I?

(R3 relay)

Prom 27: Ravel: Pavane pur une infante defunte, Bolero

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

A matter of presentation

I'd meant to comment on  this before, but forgot. Just to show I am capable of giving praise where it's due, I am very grateful to the R3 presenters this year for allowing us to appreciate a sensible amount of the audience applause before they interrupt after a piece has finished.

There have been innumerable episodes in the last couple of seasons where they have started talking almost before the conductor had lowered his arm, which is as infuriating listening at home as it is to hear some members of the audience's premature applause in the hall.

And, just as important, they are again paying attention to the conductor's and R3 producer's cue lights, so so far this year I haven't heard some idiot still finishing a (usually unimportant) sentence as the performance begins. Someone has finally realised there is enough ambient sound from the auditorium for us to recognise that the broadcast hasn't broken down. If we listeners can cope with four minutes of John Cage's silence, we can manage 10 or 20 seconds of Albert Hall's.

But I still have a gripe. Why should we be told, for instance, Caroline Widmann's 'emerald green dress' complemented 'her red hair'? The Albert Hall doesn't have a catwalk during the Proms season, at least not so far; and even though radio has no colours, do we need to know that? Since I have worked for a fashion magazine in my time (though not, obviously, as a concert reviewer) would you —or maybe the BBC would— like me to do a few fashion/couturier pieces in this blog while I'm at it?

Le Cirque du Son

The Stockhausen night, regrettably, was the other concert apart from the Glyndebourne that I couldn’t go to last week. Unfortunately, pain rather took over, too much for me to really be able to cope with two long concerts, even lying flat on my back in the Gallery, especially as I would have wanted to stay on for the Stimmung.

That meant, of course, that I couldn’t hear Cosmic Pulses in the ‘surround sound’ it obviouly required. Apparently at home we heard the “CD” version, whatever that was. I am entirely uncertain as to whether that was some previous recording or a different stereo mix-down. Or even whether it was recorded on the same day. Very annoying, as anything I write about it might not correspond at all with what I might have heard in the hall.

The presenter apologised for the BBC not being able to broadcast Surround Sound, although I know some years ago the BBC was certainly experimenting with recording it. Whether the experiment was abandoned (Dolby Labs licence fees have often proved a stumbling block) I don’t know, but maybe a surround sound version may just one day turn up on the cover of the BBC Music magazine? Yes, I do realise that it has the same commercial value, and probably even less popular appeal, as producing cloned Dodos for battery farming their eggs, but you never know.

There were two other minor irritations; I tend not to listen to the presentation pieces, but apart from that, I believe I heard the reason for playing Gruppen twice. I should say ‘half heard’. It sounded a little disingenuous, rather as though the idea might be “Since you didn’t like it the first time, we’ll play it again so you can not like it all over again.”* Rather like the EU Commission’s reaction to a “No” vote on a constitution, I thought. I might be doing the Albert Hall audience an injustice; though I thought the applause at first was tentative and uncertain, it did seem to become gradually more enthusiastic. I also know, however, from being there on these sort of occasions, enthusiasts like me can clap louder and harder if the others are jibbing a bit . . .

The other remark I found a little odd was an expression of surprise that Stockhausen included an electric guitar in an ensemble 50 years ago. If he’d been Carl Dolmetsch I might have accepted that, but for someone who was interested in sound manipulation, and was in his (late) twenties, I’d have been much more surprised if he hadn’t discovered the instrument by then. What different and isolated worlds some classical people live in—still—compared to the rest of us who were brought up with rock and roll and punk or even house, garage and rap as well as classical music. . .

And there, of course, is the great gulf fixed. Not being there, I couldn’t know how many fans of Brian Eno, Frank Zappa (post the Mothers, I mean) even Gary Numann, or that much more recent German group (whose name escapes me, yet again, but means something like ‘turning it all inside out and putting it together again’ **) might have turned up to either Stockhausen concert, but much as I would say they ought to be a natural constituency, somehow I bet they didn’t.

Anyway, I am a part of his natural constituency ever since I discovered Zenakis and branched out from him years and years ago; and I don’t think—going back to the pre-concert chatter, again—vague New Age bleatings about cosmic whirlings and spinnings are anything other than patronising about a composer (and why on earth still "challenging"?) who’s been around for more than half a century.

That was a long (only in hours, not in any other way!) and glorious Prom night. One of my favourites so far this Season.

And, since I am getting a bit behind with the reviews, in the meantime I recommend you to two other enthusiasts,
Classical Iconoclast and Boulezian.

*I remember Charles Groves conducting the BBCSO in Maxwell Davies’ cheeky ‘Foxtrot for Orchestra’ on a tour of Germany years ago. It was booed and hissed with a vehemence I thought only the La Scala audience was capable of. Wonderfully, Groves turned to the audience and said: “Since you liked it so much, we’ll play it again.” And did.

** I got there eventually, after being mentally bogged down with ‘Bauhaus’ and 'Einsatsgruppen’, and stuff, so I’m not quite brain dead yet: Einsturzende Neubauten is what I was after . . .

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The foggy, foggy dew

There is nothing, nothing, like one of the Proms' late-night vocal concerts to send you out into the night close on to midnight cheerful enough to withstand a half-hour wait (after you've just missed the night bus in Kensington Gore and ought to feel bloody about it)  pouring rain, getting home in the early hours, and leave you still capable of believing you'll enjoy getting up at seven in the morning.

I daresay some will whinge about the "Uncle Tom Cobley and all" aspect, or folkiness, of the programme for Prom 26, judging from some of the reactions to the 'Folk Day'. But if you are incapable of laughing helplessly at the Kings Singers' (or more properly Gordon Langford's) dramatisation of Widdecombe Fair, and wouldn't want to do a pretend Morris Dance, or get together with another five people on their way home to try your hand at it,  afterwards, all I can say is  you have no soul.

OK, yes, I was a folky once; complete with beard  (but not the sweater and I have never ever worn sandals and socks together) so you can say I'm biased. Or susceptible. But there was, as this Prom showed, an essence of a folk tradition that ran through Lassus. Poulenc, right through to the Victorians, sung without a single trace of nacreous sentimentality. And the purity of the McCabe piece was somehow perfectly appropriate after the early renaissance French songs. 

And at nearly midnight, how else could you end a long concert of fun, seriousness, solemnity and the rollicking humour of ordinary people's lives, spread over half a millennium except by a touching but still unsentimental 'The Long Day Closes' as an encore?

I have always loved these late night vocal programmes, so often with what turns out to be an unexpectedly appropriate and thought-inducing mix of what at first sight seems bizarre and mistaken, right from when they started. In those days, while the audience was large enough to have been respectable in a small hall, but was barely visible in a space meant for 6,000, we were all called down from our scattered places around the Albert Hall to be upgraded to the very comfy swivelling Business Class seats around the Arena. It's a bit different now . . .

If you missed it, or thought it was just another vainglorious programme not worth taking seriously, try it via the BBC's iPlayer, I urge you. And it's on BBC4 on the 1oth. I'll write it up fully shortly, when I've had chance to digest the America deserta properly.

And good lord—the Kings Singers have been doing this now for forty years? I hadn't realised they'd become an institution . . . Funny; they never sound like one . . .

(R3 Relay)

Prom 26, Kings Singers

Prom 25: Dutch Courage

I hadn’t intended to listen at all seriously to Prom 25, but put down my book within a few bars of the opening of the Brahms Violin Concerto. I am not keen on violinists who rise to prize-winning stardom and vociferous publicity before they reach puberty, but Julia Fischer must be in her mid-twenties now, and played the Brahms with elegant stylishness, and a superb sweet and rounded tone. I thought her phrasing was perfectly judged and the cadenza delightful.

And that was after a Dvorak 6 from the Netherlands Philharmonic under Yakov Kreizberg that was well-paced, technically very well-played, but not stong on interpretation, and one, while probably enjoyable in the hall, as these performances often are, was never going to count as one of my great long-lived Prom concert memories.

In a way, it was just that, by juxtaposition, that made Fischer’s performance particularly striking. Competent and obviously enthusiastic, a very well-drilled ensemble as the NPO obviously is in these pieces, nonetheless, Kreizberg produces a somewhat gruff impression, which threw Fischer’s violin strongly into the limelight against a rather industrial sounding accompaniment, so in lieu of hearing her with a world-class orchestra, I’ll reserve judgement on her interpretational abilities.

(The first piece was one of those things I always like at the Proms; something I'd never hear of otherwise and that does take a bit of courage to propose for a programme. Patriotic fun for the Dutch orchestra, but a sub-Straussian curiosity really is all the Wagenaar ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ Overture is. An overture to all the snortings, sneezings and trumpetings that probably emanated from M de Bergerac’s famous nose on occasion. Still, if anyone ever asks, I can at least say “Ah, yes. The Wagenaar Overture. I’ve heard that . . .” and now I can even pronounce the name properly. Do you think anyone will? I’m getting older; I can’t wait forever.)

There does seem to be an awful lot of young prize-winning violinists about these days, enough to form an entire orchestra section. If not two or three. Can we really support that many soloists? Shouldn't more youngsters be encouraged to take up other instruments? Who was the last 13 year old tuba player to get a dozen prizes?

(R3 Relay)

Among others, Fischer won an award from Gramophone.

Prom 25: Wagenaar; Dvorak Symphony No 6; Brahms Violin Concerto.

Charged with Assault with a Deadly Toothbrush

Or Dame Ethel Smyth would have been, if she were still alive, very likely. This is what the London Times critic wrote about her Concerto for Horn and Violin (see my rather longer review below):

"Its grand gesturing and bandstand jocularity made one wish that Smyth had for once confined her championing of the female muse to the political arena."

And the same critic could write of those burgher-bellied, horse-hair padded Henry Wood orchestrations that "the Albert Hall thrilled yet again to his glorious magnification of the master" (Bach, of course) and "Rachmaninov's Prelude in C sharp minor . . .sounded, in the hands of the BBCSSO, like a soundtrack for the Kraken rising from the deep." True enough, I suppose: the Kraken was a monster that terrified seamen, much as that 'version' should have chased the denizens of the Albert Hall to seek refuge in the bars in horror.

News International paid for that summary of a rare concerto performance that probably took the soloists weeks to learn and rehearse . . .and which, apart from being superbly performed, was an original composition, whatever your view of its rank, not a re-rendering of another's.

Why, I wonder, do I and just a few others on the internet bother? Why concentrate hard and sweat over a bloody review for two hours, and go to bed at two in the morning, for nothing? And this is from a major music critic of the British national press. I think you can grasp why I lost any respect for its music criticism years ago.

What angers me even more, is that the same critics who make perfunctory, simplistic, and even mean-spirited judgements often seemingly for the sake of a cheap laugh, are the same people who deafeningly bewail the fact that fewer and fewer people show an interest in classical music, and classical record sales are declining.

Well, if they cannot engender some interest or enthusiasm themselves in a performance (and of something that has been recorded too, a CD that no-one who read that review would ever buy, reducing classical sales by yet another few dozen tenners) and constantly opine that most of what they hear is worthless anyway, how can that be a surprise?

(So I needn't hang around waiting for your call, then, Mr Times Music Editor? Sir?)

Prom 24: There is nothing like a Dame . . .

I am sure Ethel Smyth would not be turning in her grave so much as hurling lid, nails and shovelfuls of earth about in her eagerness to get at the mysogenist ‘music critic’ who wrote this —which I found on the internet: “She composed a rather anaemic Concerto for Horn, Violin and Orchestra in 1927 trying to imitate the lyrical Brahms . . .”

Tasmin Little, I’m sure too, would have something vocal to say about that nonsense. From the performance perspective rather than the feminist one, at least so I imagine, since last time I had a pint in the pub with her and her husband neither Mrs Pankhurst nor Germaine Greer happened to crop up in the conversation. (I can’t drop many names, so you’ll let me off, won’t you, this time?) Metaphorically, in Prom 24, she chained herself to the musical railings in full wholehearted support of Dame Ethel.

As far as ‘modern’ English composers go, especially female ones, Dame Ethel is perhaps a little too early for me; I haven’t really ventured further back than Elizabeth McConchy, and I can’t say I made much at all of listening to bits of The Wreckers years ago, but I regret, hearing this performance, not having paid more attention to her before the 150th anniversary of her birth.

I have always admired Tasmin Little’s ability to burrow into the essential heart of a piece and then to stretch its sinews and muscles until it snaps into resolute perfection, let alone her seemingly easy way of learning, and then championing in her playing, relatively obscure or underplayed compositions, though heaven knows, there’s a very tough self-discipline gained at the Menuhin school that underlies that. I only wish she appeared much more often at the Proms instead of all those teenybopper technically perfect, but emotionally absent, Suzuki school violinists we so often end up with.

Smyth, in her Concerto, Little is quoted as saying, after an initial hint at Brahms, "goes off into her own sound world” (to me, for tantalising moments, tangentially closer to Les Six and Honnegger rather than early twentieth century Austria or Germany). “The music is meaty and expansive, with attempts to do something radical.” Exactly what that radicalism is, is not so easy to describe, but Little and Richard Watkins played in such close companionship and created such tension, it was unmistakeably there. It is by no means just the pretty piece that Andrew Achenbach might like us to believe from his Prom notes.

The first movement, the Allegro moderato, introduces all the strands that then wind themselves as strongly as an anchor chain through the two following movements. Underneath snatches of haunting lyricism and dance-like passages from the violin, there is a brooding presence emphasised turn and turn about by violin and horn. Little created the initial tension in this movement with a harder tone than I expected from her, but one that set the scene perfectly for the Adagio.

This second movement is termed “Elegy (in memoriam)”, but for whom or for what, I have to admit I do not know. But in terms of Little's and Watkins’ performance, any biographical detail was rendered irrelevant. For all the springing dancelike melody in the middle, this again had a looming, almost threatening tone, before a return to an earlier theme from the first movement, a presence that inescapably reminded you of the Somme and the horrors of WW1, achieved with surprising complexity, and technical difficulty, in the passages between horn and violin. There was some inkling here of Vaughan Williams but with the iciness of the Sinfonia Antartica, not the pastoral mode.

And then the amazing allegro. Rolls of worrying timpani and hunting calls from the horn , not the cheery View Halloa of English huntsmen in pink coats, but transformed into miltary calls. Or the horn calls of men who hunt, if not other men, at the very least wolves or bears. Followed by a reiteration of the dance liketheme from earlier, in a saoring duet between horn and violin that was both almost vocal and dramatic, theatrical and operatic, tender and harsh, moderated by gentle, barely audible chords from the harp, until you can no longer be sure whether the horn or the violin is the real protagonist, and the last strains of dance and the final orchestral chords end the movement.

This concerto, as it was performed on Monday night, did indeed possess an unexpected radicalism, emphasised by the tautness of the soloists’ phrasing and above all by the sheer tension they created between them. It spoke of a depth of concentration and commitment, of thoughtfulness and imagination that made this a thoroughly fascinating and absorbing, and even unexpectedly challenging piece. It is all too easy to imagine how in less committed hands it could end up as a rather flimsy sub-Brahmsian ‘English’ piece of fluff. (And how Dame Ethel the Suffragette would have growled at me for the implications of that phrase!) But after this, it cannot ever now be played so it sounds even palely "anaemic" (I hope) without arousing sheer derision.

The applause was enthusiastic, and deservedly so. My last note as I tried to absorb this superb performance was just “Wow!” I’m afraid Dame Ethel might not quite approve of that as a final judgement, but if she’s reading this somewhere, I hope she’ll forgive me. I’m likely to have enough problems in the afterlife without her going after me with the sharp end of a broken baton as well . . .

(R3 relay) Prom 24: Dame Ethel Smyth, Concerto for Horn and Violin

I'm probably angrier about this than either Tasmin Little or Richard Watkins will be; I know very well they get used to it and shrug it off, but it is just yet another clever-clogs piece of fatuity. And it's the kind of writing that used to mean I —as a reviewer well out of the mainstream—meant I had to constantly almost re-audition myself every time I met a  performer in case I turned out to be someone who would do that kind of thing. I'm amazed now I think about it that so many have treated me so well when they are up against this kind of thing.

Photo of Dame Ethel in, shall we say, "challenging" mood and fetching tam o'shanter, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph website.

Monday, 4 August 2008

A bum note . . .

Can I be the only one who is finding the Prom Notes on the Proms website all too often either too uninformative or just unhelpful? Or even sometimes simply casual and poorly researched? That trend was terribly obvious last year, but I had hoped it wouldn’t continue.

I had also hoped that casual proofreading might have been cured, too. I didn’t know that the famous altercation in Adrian Boult’s dressing room in 1930 was between him and a ghostly Ethel Smyth. She died in 1924, according to the BBC’s header, which also means she somehow transmitted her manuscript of the Horn and Violin Concerto posthumously, which would be really noteworthy.

And I do understand the pressures of writing to meet a midnight deadline, and of only having 300 or so words available, but I’m giving up on the English national newspaper Prom reviewers, who seem too often to be equally uninformative, or worse, uninformed. Or cannot actually write a succinct review in that many words instead of simply offering a broad-brush opinion.

A sign of the times, I suppose, that editors cannot spare even a full column for a Prom, or even classical music, review any more.

I reneged on my promise to myself, because I got curious, and checked out this. See what I mean? If I were Ms Smyth I know where I'd put that toothbrush . . .

Nil nisi bonum . . .

I know, I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but why did we have to listen to two of Henry Wood’s own pieces in Prom 24? He is dead and buried, and I thought his ‘re-arrangement’ of the Bach Toccato and Fugue in D minor had been too. Certainly, the BBC Scottish did a commendable job of pretending to be the Albert Hall organ, but I would have far rather heard it on that.

And the orchestration of Rachmaninov’s Prelude certainly belonged somewhere amongst the gloomier overgrown and forgotten mausoleums of Kensal Green Cemetery. It is a very heavy, ‘muggy’ arrangement. Unless, of course, Stefan Solyom and the BBCSSO had been affected by the muggy weather we’ve had here in London the last few days, and were oppressed by the threatening grey clouds that appeared by the interval.

I don’t want to sound too ungrateful, but we are grateful for HW’s institution, and we have celebrated its, and his, hundredths, before now, so I can only assume the Proms planners were relying on a rather tenuous linkage between him and Ethel Smyth as an excuse for some rather sloppy and questionable programming. We had far too much of that last year. Perhaps it was a leftover?

Mercifully, it was the Smyth Horn and Violin Concerto that made the programme memorable, with brilliant playing from Tasmin Little that I’ll be writing much more about shortly, I hope. I would have loved more, instead of the also rather heavy and muggy Rachmaninov 2.

The BBCSSO textures were too heavily Wood-influenced in the first movement, and it was obvious throughout the first and fourth movements that they, or Solyom, cannot do ‘lush’ and ‘rich’ which is what I assume they were aiming for. The second was lighter and tauter, and there were pleasant lighter lyrical touches in the third, let down by some leisurely patches that were too near somnambulance for my liking. Despite a suddenly vigorous conclusion, it was one of those Rachmaninov performances where the listener mentally reaches the end a good ten minutes before the orchestra does.

Note to planners: Proms audiences don't really need 'sweeties' to sugar the hour and a half around an unknown, or scarcely known piece. Or are you thinking a little too much of the international audience on the internet now?

Before anyone says anything, I can see I have poppy petals all over my jeans, and I won't forget to shake the seeds out of my trainers . . .But if you prefer indiscriminate gushing enthusiasm in all your reviews, you could desert me and go here . . .

(R3 Relay) Prom 24 Bach, orch. Henry Wood: Toccata and Fugue in D minor; Rachmaninov, orch. Henry Wood: Prelude in C sharp minor; Rachmaninov (orch. Rachmaninov): Symphony No 2 in E minor

Prom 18: A Blood-spattered Coronation

Il Coronazione di Poppeia

When Glyndebourne go to the Proms, it’s always a lively occasion. I’m sure half the celebratory anticipation is due to the simple fact over a thousand of us can get in for about a fiver, which wouldn’t even pay for the cheapest public transport to the opera house, let alone even a sandwich when you're there.

It means the audience will forgive a lot. Particularly that Glyndebourne singers are never first rank, or, to be honest, even second, for example. But they always make up in infectious enthusiasm and commitment, and, what is still a rare sight in some places, they act. (They act with their voices, too . . .) That is presumably why the Glyndebourne Proms, for all they are described as “semi-staged” are now as near as dammit fully staged, just with fewer props and no stage sets or prosc arch.

I remember the first time they came to the Proms, when they were supposed to be doing a ‘concert performance’, but quite simply forgot not to move; so well before half-way through the first act they’d all lapsed into acting as though they were on the Glyndebourne stage, and some of them nearly fell off the platform onto the Arena audience.

So I would probably have been a little more enthusuastic if I’d watched rather than just listened, for all that latterly the Glyndebourne productions have come unnervingly close to a send up. I suspect this time there may well have been some fancy near-slapstick antics going on around the bathtub, judging from the occasional laughter. But then, live, it usually works.

But listening, I’m a little less forgiving, and I found there is quite a lot in both the Times and Guardian’s critics’ reviews of Poppeia at Glyndebourne I agree with; but there was rather more than just ‘ditzy bottom-waggling’ to Danielle de Niese’s Cleopatra in Julius Caesar in 2005. (A friend and I can still do our version of the wonderfully funny but also threatening ‘confrontational gavotte’ between her as Cleopatra and Sarah Connolly as Caesar.) I can’t help thinking someone here is trying to avoid mentioning that at least a little of the frisson she engendered might not have been just through her voice, but have been helped along by her being sexy enough to get away with being both braless and (I think) knickerless under a translucent gown. At least at the Albert Hall.

The singing this time was simply glorious, and, as I’ve come to expect from the Glyndebourne, intensely dramatic. There was the smell of menace, casual evil, threat, corruption and blood from the very beginning. None of which could have ben unfamiliar to Monteverdi in Venice. It was, after all, the Venetians who lived with the constant threat of anonymous denunciations slipped into the mouth of the lions, who invented the art of ‘disappearing’ people who later turned up strangled in the street with no explanation. And all the Italian city states had their own histories of devious, vicious, cruel, bloodthirsty, murderous and every now and then downright mad rulers who might occasionally have surprised Nero. All the Glyndebourne cast captured this sanguine emotionally charged atmosphere superbly. There were duets that were simply scary.

Contrary to one critic, I thought Danielle de Niese’s Poppeia was superbly coloured and rich, full of character, whether her register might be entirely historically accurate for a Montevedi opera or not. What can’t be was her somewhat melodramatic vibrato, something which cropped up elsewhere incongruously, vocal slippage which I can only think must be down to the musical director.

I am not so sure about Alice Coote’s Nero; another critic noted a certain shrillness, which I thought distractingly prevalent, and occasionally bitter, even strained at times, in this performance. There are other, and better, ways of implying neuroticism. Not that the Neumann mics the BBC uses help, it must be said. And among the ‘major’ characters, Tamara Mumford (Octavia) turned in a star performance, excellently nuanced, characterful again, with a splendid emotional range that almost had me in tears at times. Both she and Alice Coote must have had the Albert Hall audience gasping for breath at times, I’m sure.

What I cannot be forgiving about is the musical direction of Emmannuelle Haim. For all I would applaud using a minimal chamber-sized ensemble, for the life of me I could barely recognise any authentic Monteverdi, even allowing that the score has been ‘recreated’ anyway. Musically, the tempi were plodding and invariable, many passages merely repetitious with little attempt at variation. Much struck me as being played more as though it belonged to the early Cinquecento not the Seicento, while one dance tune was played more like a stately18th century gavotte than anything of its real era and a little jig cropped up more than once that was more Susato than anything from the near mid-1600’s Italy.

I am just not keen on French styles of ‘early music’ performance; they have practically stifled Handel’s oratorios and operas in France, to the extent very few there grasp our current enthusiasm for their revivals on this side of the Channel. We in Britain have been taught forms of playing much more various, daring, and, dare I say it, lively, even sometimes challenging, over the forty years or so since David Munrow and Alfred Deller. To be blunt, William Christie’s own Les Arts Florissants (with whom I discovered later, Haim spent a decade) seldom enthuses me with anything more than mildly academic appreciation, for all the success of the Handel in 2005 with the OAE, and Marc Minkowski’s egotistical revisionism of Rameau at last year’s Proms was one of the worst examples of pretentiousnous.

Haim, in this oeuvre, it seems to me, failed to come to terms with its possibilities and left it a fossil, as though she was unwilling to deviate any distance at all from the surviving bass line in terms of scoring, and certainly not in imagination. Her own harpsichord continuo was percussive, merely twiddly and barely more than decorative; a series of Grinling Gibbons carvings, with little to do with Venice.

I have heard the OAE play with vastly more engagement and panache, particularly with a Prom audience before them, than they showed for more than a very few sparse bars under her direction in Poppeia. It was the soloists who were left to carry the performance by default, and that, in Monteverdi, is just not enough to be entirely plausible. I don’t think I’ve ever been so unenthused by Monteverdi’s music. Perhaps, as she was hinting in an interview, she would do better with ‘authentic’ Mozart, though I doubt I shall want to listen to it.

(R3 Relay) Prom 18: Monteverdi, l'incoronazione di Poppeia, Glyndebourne Opera

(This is on the
iPlayer list, in two parts, rather widely separated for some odd reason. Sadly, there won't be an afternoon repeat, nor any video, which is really regrettable, presumably becasue of complications with royalties, residulas and contracts that would simply make it too expensive. Catch the audio while you can, if you didn't hear it the first time.)