Monday, 14 May 2018

Class act: 'Lessons in Love and Violence' at the Royal Opera House

The 2012 opera 'Written on Skin' is a modern phenomenon. Already widely produced, with the Royal Opera House reviving it a mere four years after its first run there, its place in the repertoire seems assured. And no wonder: it's such a striking, original work - I feel sure that its stature will only grow further as the years pass.

'Written on Skin' was composed by George Benjamin, with words by Martin Crimp. (Crimp describes his contribution as 'text for music', rather than a libretto.) Although they had worked together before, it was their first full-length opera. Quite a debut.

Now, their new collaboration, 'Lessons in Love and Violence', is in its premiere run at Covent Garden. I could not have been more excited about seeing this, than if you'd wired me up to an excitement machine and turned it up to 'maximum excitement'. At the same time, I realised that I was a little concerned - how do you follow up something so well-received? Reproduce it, almost? Or 'reject' it and go to another extreme? A halfway-house?

In the end, I needn't have worried: I think their solution is clever, intriguing and masterful.

The source story is essentially the tale of Edward II - possibly most familiar as depicted in Christopher Marlowe's play (although I won't forget certain parts of Derek Jarman's film adaptation in a hurry). In Crimp's treatment, a number of key characters remain the same, but King and kingdom are unnamed, and the action is pared down with scalpel-like precision.

While society seems on the brink of collapse through war and poverty, the King lavishes endless riches and attention on his favourite - and lover - Gaveston. Isabel, the Queen, appears at first to tolerate - if not relish - the situation. The army supremo Mortimer tries to make the King see sense, but Gaveston manages to provoke Mortimer into seeming disloyal. The King promptly banishes Mortimer, setting in motion a chain reaction of horrific events where no character escapes the consequences of their actions.


(The brilliant production photos are by Stephen Cummiskey, copyright ROH. Here is Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as the King, and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston.)

The opera is so new, I'm actually reluctant to include specific 'spoilers'. If you don't know the story of old and resist reading the programme's synopsis beforehand, you'll reap the benefit in extra suspense.

The whole approach of 'Lessons', I think, is interesting in itself. The key creative team returns from the first production of 'Written on Skin': that is, as well as Benjamin and Crimp, we have the same director, Katie Mitchell, and set/costume designer, Vicki Mortimer. Covent Garden regulars will no doubt remember her 'split-screen' production of 'Lucia di Lammermoor' (with the stage divided in two, so you saw what the 'off-stage' characters were doing on one side, with the main events unfolding on the other). which along with 'Written on Skin' showed an interest in controlling and compartmentalising the vast space of the ROH stage. With 'Lessons' it's no different: this time, the space significantly reduced almost to a widescreen cinema screen size, emphasising the claustrophobic dead-ends the characters find themselves in. The compact staging also allows the main room, where we see most of the action play out, to 'move' between scenes, changing our view of what is - and isn't - 'on-screen'. You could also suggest that the casting of soprano Barbara Hannigan, who created the role of Agnès in 'WoS', is a further point of reference between the two - but more of that a bit later.

So.... why are we opera-goers (those of us in the UK / London, at any rate) being invited - dared, even - to deliberately compare 'Lessons' with 'WoS'? Is it meant to be a kind of sequel? Did 'getting the band back together' seem like a safe option? I think there's considerably more to it.

Obviously, I've no idea what they'll do next, but it seems to me there's a 'Benjamin and Crimp project'. I've always been drawn to authors, composers and artists that repeatedly explore ideas that matter to them in myriad different ways (off the top of my head: the novels of William Golding, the music of Philip Glass, the photographs of Andreas Gursky), and I wonder if we are seeing something similar develop here. It isn't just the themes they choose to explore - the relevance that distant, historical crimes can still have to our behaviour today; the turmoil of confused sexuality; the terrible, hereditary effects of abuse; what strength and weakness really are; what happens when the line separating life and art goes out of focus...

GB and MC also seem to be fashioning their own 'form' of opera. I think it's telling, in a genre that has traditionally venerated the composer over the librettist, that GB and MC are very much seen as a partnership. (I think - love 'em or loathe 'em - that you can see a similar relationship in recent years between John Adams and Peter Sellars, working towards a kind of impressionistic 'reportage' version of the genre that's entirely their own patch.) Benjamin's music and Crimp's words are so closely-linked that the score clings to the vocal lines like hands around a twisting rope, and the never-ending tense rumble of the orchestra (on terrific form) veers as much into sound design as any kind of conventional musical accompaniment. A brief example - as many of you will recall, often before going in to see a play or opera with some violence in it, you'll see a 'Warning! Act 1 contains a gunshot' sign, or similar, and sure enough, when the moment comes you get an almighty bang of a sound-effect. Although a gun is fired onstage in 'Lessons', the sound is made entirely within the orchestra itself. Elsewhere, as characters collapse or go off the rails, the score seems to 'break' along with them, like a coiled spring finally snapping. In another section, what I'll only refer to as the 'palm reading' music, for a matter of seconds, plays like a soundtrack might, forcing you into a state of terrible anticipation...

Voices in similar registers blend and clash - the intimacies of the male lovers are expressed by two baritones as King and Gaveston, while further sexual tension is generated between Isabel (soprano) and Mortimer (tenor) - so every duet feels very 'close', narrow and intense. At times, it feels there is barely any room to breathe.

Along with Mitchell, Benjamin and Crimp have created a universe of sorts, which is characterised by a sense of the detached supernatural - 'Wos' had its angels struggling to make sense of the protagonists' impulses, 'Lessons' gives Gaveston an enigmatic aura that moves from his ability to manipulate the King into something even more dangerous. Mitchell and Mortimer (Vicki, not army chap) use certain devices - characters slow their movements down to freeze time, clothes and one's state of dress/undress take on symbolic significance - that echo the earlier opera, without re-playing it.

I rate both operas so highly that I honestly couldn't express a preference - especially after only one 'listen' to the new one. But there are plenty of ways where 'Lessons' arguably takes a great leap forward in the execution. For sure, it doesn't have a figure to touch the heart in the way that Agnès did in 'WoS'. However - it has bent a 'bigger' source (the relatively well-known source material) to its purpose; it's more relentlessly paced; and its plot is more ruthlessly logical - instead of self-sacrifice, the characters unwittingly engineer their own fates.

I will be fascinated to see these operas - I hope - in ten or twenty years' time, when each has gone down its own path and we perhaps see wildly different productions of each, by different creative teams. I feel that 'Lessons' as we now have it can certainly stand by itself - at the same time, I think knowing 'WoS' inevitably adds a few extra layers to the experience that it doesn't necessarily need, but which resonate nonetheless.


(Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Peter Hoare as Mortimer.)

I should add that for the first run, Benjamin wrote each role specifically for this superlative cast. Everyone involved is a compelling actor as well as singer. If I had to pick stand-outs, it would probably be the three leads. As ever, Barbara Hannigan's astonishingly fleet, utterly driven vocal characterisation is complemented by how physically fearless she is - in Isabel, there's initially self-control, a surface-level femme fatale in chic outfits, never without a drink or a smoke... but the steady falling-apart on the inside is all there in the increasingly loose body language and brittle gestures. Peter Hoare (Mortimer) has been one of my favourite singers for some years. (For his performances in ENO's 'Jenufa', 'The Queen of Spades' and 'Thebans', I would personally offer him the keys to the city.) His ability to sound both passionate and sinister marks him out as a truly distinctive voice and dynamic stage presence. Stéphane Degout finds vulnerability and tenderness in the deeply-flawed King, without ever losing sight of the steel the character must once have possessed.

There are a few performances left if you act quickly, with tickets still available for them all. (Click here for the 'Lessons' page on the ROH website.) I'm also really pleased to see that it's being filmed on a couple of nights... with luck, then, a DVD might follow.



Sunday, 13 May 2018

Intimate settings: Julia Kleiter, Christoph Prégardien & Julius Drake at Middle Temple Hall

This feature first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest on all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.

Although this concert took place some time ago now, Julius Drake has two more recitals lined up for 'Temple Song 2018' - with Angelika Kirchschlager on 24 July (performing Schubert's 'Winterreise') and Gerald Finley on 2 October (performing final songs by Brahms and Schubert). Click here for more information.

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Songs by Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn

Middle Temple Hall is an exciting, unconventional space for a song recital. Somehow austere and ornate all at once, it generates a self-contained, imposing atmosphere before a note is even played.

Its layout also gives many of the audience members a slightly different relationship to the performers. I think of most venues – especially other prominent chamber venues in London like Wigmore Hall or Milton Court – as having a ‘portrait’ shape: rows of seats roughly matching the width of the stage, stretching back a certain distance. Middle Temple Hall, when set up for concerts, is ‘landscape’. The artists take their positions at the centre of one of the long walls, and the listeners spread out to the sides. As a result, more of the audience than you might expect are close to the action – and closer to the sound.

This intimacy really does change everything. My companion and I managed to sit only a couple of rows back on the left side – as piano obsessives, we were delighted at the perfect keyboard sightline and the privileged view it gave us of Julius Drake’s performance. And for these emotional, highly-charged song choices, it was at times overwhelming to be only a few feet away from the singers, to feel their voices at a near-physical level.



And what voices. During the opening selection of Schubert songs, Julia Kleiter’s rich, versatile soprano ranged from a searching tenderness in ‘An den Mond’, to an arresting desperation at the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’. Christoph Prégardien must be one of the finest lieder singers of our age, able to convey warmth and clarity even when hitting the ground running in the very first song of the evening, ‘Wilkommen und Abschied’.

Julius Drake curates recitals regularly for the ‘Temple Song’ series, and this programme was expertly put together to bring out the best in all three musicians. I was surprised at first that the evening began with a Schubert ‘hits’ set of sorts, but it soon made perfect sense. Allowing the singers to take turns at appropriate points and pace themselves, the selection in fact highlighted JD’s virtuosity. I’ve described him in the past as one of the most purely exciting accompanists to catch live – and so it proved again, as we heard ‘Wilkommen…’, ‘Gretchen…’, ‘Versunken’ and ‘Der Musensohn’ carried off with such facility and flair, while never upsetting the balance between piano and voices.

The evening then built in intensity. The Schubert half of the programme was all Goethe settings, the final seven lieder a dramatic sequence combining the ‘Mignon’ and ‘Harper’ songs drawn from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjarhe. After the stand-alone choices, these mournful, moving laments had a devastating, cumulative effect until finally we heard, for the first time in the evening, the two voices together in one of only two song duets Schubert composed. A masterful change of mood, allowing us some welcome time to reflect during the interval.

Part 2 brought another change of approach. First, CP took centre stage to perform four settings of Heine by Schumann which were essentially rejected ‘out-takes’ from ‘Dichterliebe’. Then both signers sang Schumann duets. This pattern was repeated for Mendelssohn – however, JK took the solo section (again, based on Heine texts) before we heard more duets. While these songs had their fair share of heartbreak, this part of the concert was less concerned with lingering, brooding angst – instead giving us the joy of contrast between Schumann’s near-hyperactivity and Mendelssohn’s more stately reserve. CP and JK – who happen to be uncle and niece – looked and sounded especially comfortable when performing the duets, treating us to suitably special interpretations of lieder that one doesn’t get to hear as often as one would like. Their encore, a glorious version of Schubert’s other duet, the sublime ‘Licht und Liebe’, brought the evening full circle in the loveliest way imaginable.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Seasonal cheer: 2018/19 at ENO

It's no secret (well, not to anyone who regularly reads this blog, anyway) that I'm a card-carrying champion of English National Opera's endeavours - so their yearly season announcement is the one I look forward to the most.

This week, we heard what ENO has to offer during 2018-19 - and I'm genuinely excited by what's in store. Especially given the fact that it's still building back up to full strength (see posts and news stories over recent years, ad infinitum), it has pretty much everything I'd look for in a new season, from my punter's point of view. One of my favourite productions of all time is returning; there are pieces I have never seen at all; there's a brand new opera to look forward to; and at least one heroically 'out there' idea. Here's the line-up for the 'main season' at the Coliseum.
  • Strauss: 'Salome' - 28 September to 23 October 2018
  • Gershwin: 'Porgy and Bess' - 11 October to 17 November 2018
  • Donizetti: 'Lucia di Lammermoor' - 25 October to 5 December 2018
  • Britten: 'War Requiem' - 16 November to 7 December 2018
  • Puccini: 'La bohème' - 26 November 2018 to 22 February 2019
  • Glass: 'Akhnaten' - 11 February to 7 March 2019
  • Lehár: 'The Merry Widow' - 1 March to 13 April 2019
  • Mozart: 'The Magic Flute' - 14 March to 11 April 2019
  • Bell: 'Jack the Ripper - the Women of Whitechapel' - 30 March to 12 April 2019
In fact, it's difficult to decide what I'm most excited about.


When Phelim McDermott's production of 'Akhnaten' debuted in 2016, I really thought it was akin to perfection. Loving Glass's music helped, of course (I know he divides opinion). But ENO's Orchestra really have the measure of this composer, oiling its clockwork rhythms and injecting a soul into the machine. Up on stage, the ENO Chorus mastered not only the vocal demands but also intricate, tightly choreographed movement (juggling included!) that gave the score an extra dimension. With several of the cast returning - including the superb Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role - this promises to be unmissable a second time round. I'm going again. At least once. Ideally with everyone I've ever met.

Also worth mentioning the return of 'The Magic Flute' in the shape of Simon McBurney's brilliantly inventive production - and featuring the irresistible lead pairing of Lucy Crowe and Rupert Charlesworth.

'Salome' is a particularly intriguing prospect, kicking off a season that artistic director Daniel Kramer says will explore masculine/feminine relationships and question or interrogate the patriarchy. This new production will be directed by Adena Jacobs, renowned for theatrical work very much in line with the season's theme. Can't wait to see what she does with her terrifying lead character.

I am thrilled to have the chance to see 'Porgy and Bess' - I feel like I know and love almost all the songs (although in truth, I'm probably more familiar with the Miles Davis album than the original work). While I confess most of the cast are not known to me, ENO-watchers will no doubt jump at the chance to hear Latonia Moore again, after her superb performance as Aida last season. And it will be good to hear Americana enthusiast extraordinaire John Wilson - well-known for his show-tune revivals and extravaganzas at the Proms but, top tip, check out his Copland CDs on Chandos - conduct at ENO for the first time.

'Porgy and Bess' requires a specially-assembled chorus - but obviously, I look forward especially to productions that make the most of ENO's own Chorus. Apparently, both these ensembles will join forces for the staging of Britten's 'War Requiem'. Britten, like Glass, is another composer for which ENO has a definite 'affinity' - and this is a signature project for the new creative team, with Kramer and music director Martyn Brabbins joining forces. (This is also the first season they have programmed together since their appointments.) Add to that the involvement of Wolfgang Tillmans - a photographer who, in my opinion, makes a great deal of startling, powerful work - plus soloists Emma Bell, David Butt Philip and Roderick Williams... it's a must.

(Also pleased to note that 'Lucia', 'Merry Widow' and 'Bohème' all feature Choral input! The first two will also lift the hearts of ENO regulars for featuring the wonderful Sarah Tynan in the lead roles: her recent star turns as Partenope and Rosina still linger happily in the memory.)

The same leadership team of Kramer and Brabbins are collaborating on Iain Bell's new opera focusing on the women living in fear for their lives during Jack the Ripper's reign of terror. We're promised a 'showcase for the entire ENO ensemble' (according to the season brochure), not to mention an incredible cast. Also good to see that this is a co-production with Opera North, another admirable company, and an alliance that could see new operas like this get an extended lease of life around the UK and hopefully a stronger push into the repertoire.

During the summer, ENO goes walkabout with two collaborations:
  • 'Dido', a new version of Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas' for teens upwards at the Unicorn Theatre from 11 May to 2 June 2019.
  • A production of Britten's 'Noye's Fludde' at the excellent Theatre Royal Stratford East, with local talent performing alongside the professionals!
If you're an ENO 'Solo' Friend (sounds a bit lonely, but there are lots of us), you can start booking from 8 May. Yikes, 'tis nearly upon us. Otherwise, booking opens to the general public from 22 May.

Here's a link straight to the ENO website - go take a look. I hope you will join me in seeing as much of the season as possible.


Sunday, 29 April 2018

Liner notes: a trip to the V&A

Isn't it great when an experience - concert, play, film, exhibition, you name it - takes you completely by surprise and blows you away? That happened to me this weekend when I went to see the exhibition 'Ocean Liners' at London's Victoria & Albert Museum - commonly known as the V&A.

For those of you unfamiliar with the V&A, it's in a kind of 'museum quarter', South Kensington, which is also home to our Natural History Museum and Science Museum. These latter two are solid family and tourist attractions, wielding dinosaurs, blue whales, machinery, and lots of buttons to press - arguably, between them, they're the main reason South Kensington can often look a bit like one of those dystopian horror films, where the children have killed all the adults and taken over the world.

Sitting alongside these two cauldrons of mayhem, the V&A is a little like the eccentric cousin who couldn't settle, wandered abroad for decades and come back with a whole load of interesting stuff to show and tell you. Self-branded as 'the world's leading museum of art and design', its broad remit allows it to lay before you the ways various peoples and places have chosen to present themselves - a kind of global image bank, covering anything from fashion to furniture, musical instruments to architecture.


'Ocean Liners' initially sounded a little niche to me. Mrs Specs, a student of old-world society and glamour, suggested we go and I was happy to accompany her - I knew that at the very least I could expect to see some superb examples of graphic design in the various posters and advertisements that would be on display. That sort of thing always, er, floats my boat.

Those stylish images are more or less the first thing you see on entering the exhibition. When we emerged, blinking, a couple of hours later, it was clear we'd been absolutely knocked for six, heads full of unforgettable imagery, dozens of top facts that we hadn't previously been aware of, and that all-important sense of wonder. You could add in a slightly chilly sense of imposter-nostalgia for an age that we didn't actually experience, and was of course, far, far from perfect.

Alive to potential social media enthusiasm, the V&A allows photography throughout the exhibition (except for a few fragile artworks which presumably could suffer if visitors started flashing at them)... so for the rest of this post I will try and say relatively little, and trust that the snaps I took will give you a sense of the show's scope and scale... an idea of how fascinating it turned out to be.

Rest assured, though, that these images are only a scratch - or perhaps a ripple - on the exhibition's surface. If you are from or around the area and can see this, please try and go - it's on until 17 June.

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The size and grandeur of the great cruise ships was a key point of emphasis in their publicity material - not just in the posters, as you'd expect, but in other materials: like the illustrated booklet comparing the length of the Queen Mary to the world's tallest buildings.



(I was also pleased to see one of my favourite poster designs - which had, to my mind, a strikingly modern, abstract/symbolic feel - somehow echoed in a later, futurist painting. One point to flag - the poster was too high up for me to get a decent shot, so this is not my photo. In a moment of supreme cunning, I have captured the design from the - ahem - accompanying fridge magnet image.)




The exhibition also evokes the sheer vastness of the liners with some exquisite scale models...



...including this staggering cross-section (I hope the second shot will convey the level of detail - we could have looked at this for hours):



There are plenty of artistic representations of the luxury to be found on board - by the first-class passengers, at least - including the most well-appointed playroom I've ever come across (even Mr Punch - or someone similar - seems to be somewhat taken aback)!




(...take a closer look...)




The V&A's major exhibitions do their utmost to place you inside a space, give the experience three dimensions, and 'Ocean Liners' is no exception, with actual examples of panelling, décor, furniture and other features preserved from the ships. 



The largest room in the exhibition has an almost playful feel, bringing fashion and glamour to the fore - we go briefly 'on deck' in front of a projected ocean, and turn to find a 'virtual' representation of a long staircase down towards an imaginary ballroom dancefloor.


 


But the exhibition never loses sight of the social and historical environment through which these ships sailed. The rigid passenger hierarchy is clear from the Cunard poster showing how much of the vessel's space was accorded to each class, and later advertisements - as the age of cruise ships began to fade with the arrival of flight - reflect the way travel itself seemed to become more widespread, even democratic.



Finally, war casts its inescapable shadow over the water. As the liners were pressed into military service, they wore the striking 'dazzle' camouflage paint. The medal you can see below - depicting the sinking of the Lusitania - has the strange distinction of being used as propaganda by both Germany (claiming the ship was carrying out military duties) and then Britain (calling out the Germans for the attack on civilians).




I was perhaps most struck by these two exhibits - a Madonna & child and a Torah ark - displayed side by side, both from the Queen Mary. With Europe about to enter another period of darkness, many passengers seeking a new life - and safety - abroad were Jewish. As such, the liner housed both a chapel and synagogue. Given current world events at the time of writing, I think this diptych of inclusivity will haunt me for some days.



Sunday, 22 April 2018

Accompanists now!

This feature first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest on all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.
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In its February 2018 edition (the current issue as I write), Gramophone’s regular ‘Specialist’s Guide’ feature (where a writer recommends recordings sharing a particular theme, genre or style) focuses on ‘Unashamed accompanists’. This is a subject dear to my heart, and I’ve written before about the importance of the pianist in art song.

So I was pleased to see Tully Potter reference a number of contemporary accompanists in his beautifully appreciative introduction. However, all the actual recordings he chooses are, broadly speaking, ‘historical’ – ranging from Michael Raucheisen (born 1889) to spring chicken Graham Johnson, one of our justly-revered elder statemen of song, represented by a 1992 volume in his monumental survey of Schubert lieder for Hyperion Records.

I understand that Potter is a music archivist, which may explain the leaning towards older performances. As this is a knowledge gap for me, I’m looking forward to tracking his selections down. However, I can’t help but feel there’s a place for a companion piece which could point towards some more recent, excellent recordings – highlighting our current generation of accompanists and, hopefully, encouraging readers to go out and hear them live as well as buy the discs. Here’s my attempt at making this selection.

A bit of housekeeping:
  • As I hugely admire everyone I mention, the list is – both democratically and diplomatically – in alphabetical order.
  • I’ve included a Spotify playlist of tracks so that readers can hear the musicians without (at least initially!) breaking the bank. However, where some labels do not feature on Spotify, I’ve tried to ‘recommend around’ the issue, or simply mention some non-playlist recordings along the way. For example, Hyperion’s absence from Spotify had an impact on my choices for Julius Drake and Malcolm Martineau.
I hope you enjoy the recordings.


James Baillieu

‘Chanson Perpetuelle: French Chamber Songs’, with Katherine Broderick.

On this brilliant CD, JB is a superb match for KB’s richness, and in the Debussy I’ve included in the playlist, simply dances around the vocal part – there’s all the push and pull this song about the shore requires. The heft of the ocean and drops of the spray. In the past couple of years, JB has also featured on excellent releases from Benjamin Appl (his debut lieder CD) and Ben Johnson. I’ve also included a glorious track from the latter’s disc of English song, ‘I Heard You Singing’.

Iain Burnside

‘Rachmaninov: Songs’, with various singers – here Ekaterina Siurina.

Surely one of IB’s finest releases, this set of all Rachmaninov’s songs features young Russian singers – who are, understandably, hugely suited to the material, freshness and enthusiasm bursting out of the speakers. I’ve chosen two IB tracks for my playlist – the astonishing ‘Arion’, with the pianist negotiating a heroic series of sudden changes, twists and turns, plus a spectacular Respighi track from Rosa Feola’s debut CD.

Julius Drake

‘Songs by Schubert (Wigmore Hall Live)’, with Ian Bostridge.

One of the most purely exciting accompanists I’ve heard – and seen live. So often, I’ve heard his elemental basslines give the most distinctive, larger-than-life singers the uplift they need to raise the roof. But the necessary restraint is always there, too. The playlist includes this CD’s hell-for-leather version of ‘Auflosung’, as well as the humorous – yet light on its feet – rendition of ‘Fischerweise’ with Matthew Polenzani, also at Wigmore Hall.

Christopher Glynn

‘Percy Grainger: Folk Songs’, with Claire Booth.

Recently, CG has emerged as a strong advocate for the communicative power of English art song, with a recording of Donald Swann’s (non-Flanders) body of work for Hyperion, and this delightful CD with Claire Booth. Clearly a labour of love for both – who have apparently researched and performed Grainger’s music for years – the rapport and affinity for the material are joyously audible.

Gerold Huber

‘Nachtviolen’, with Christian Gerhaher.

It’s a tribute to GH – Gerhaher’s regular accompanist – that when the baritone received the Wigmore Medal, he remarked that if he could he would split the award in two, so he could give half of it to Huber. They have made many recordings together, but this relatively recent album captures their dynamic perfectly. Resisting any urge to over-sentimentalise, GH provides a gently rhythmic counterpart to the bruised beauty of Gerhaher’s voice.

Simon Lepper

‘Nights Not Spent Alone: Complete Works for Mezzo-Soprano by Jonathan Dove’, with Kitty Whately.

This pianist is relatively new to me, but the recordings I know find him surrounding huge voices with supreme agility and dexterity. His Schubert album with tenor Ilker Arcayurek is a superb listen but this set of contemporary compositions with Kitty Whately is a revelation, not least in the bravura performance of ‘The Siren’.

Susan Manoff

‘Neere’, with Veronique Gens.

It still feels all too rare to see women as both singer and accompanist in recital duos. Having heard Gens and Manoff live, it’s easy to project a particularly close dynamic between them, but to me, they do seem to share a special empathy. On this marvellous disc of French song, SM avoids any sense of ‘laissez-faire’, playing with a shining, wilful clarity in support of Gens’s passionate delivery.

Malcolm Martineau

‘Portraits’, with Dorothea Roschmann.

A pianist who seems able to play ‘in character’ as effectively as the singers he accompanies. On this stunning recital album, the version of ‘Gretchen’ – where the piano represents the movement of the spinning wheel – sees his constantly alert approach capture the distracted yet intermittently purposeful work of the lovelorn heroine. To show how astonishingly expressive MM is in French song, I’ve included a live performance of a Debussy melodie with Christiane Karg in the playlist.

Joseph Middleton

‘Fleurs’, with Carolyn Sampson.

Winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 2016 Young Artist Award (when he was described as a ‘born collaborator’), JM combines ceaselessly versatile musicianship with a flair for programming. This leads him to create recordings with the wide-ranging appeal of ‘albums’ – and so prolific is he that I’ve included three tracks on the playlist. My top pick represents his ongoing partnership with soprano Carolyn Sampson, their first CD (from 2015) introducing her to art song with some brio, marshalling her reliably gorgeous tone to his dazzling array of accompaniment styles. He is also the backbone of song supergroup, the Myrthen Ensemble, whose double CD ‘Songs to the Moon’ is another piece of brilliant curation. Finally, his night-themed record with Ruby Hughes, ‘Nocturnal Variations’, was one of 2016’s finest discs.

Anna Tilbrook

‘Schubert: Schwanengesang / Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte’, with James Gilchrist.

Another duo who seem to represent a perfect match. I was lucky enough to experience total immersion when first introduced to AT’s playing, as she jointly helmed a full weekend of Schumann and Mendelssohn that also featured Gilchrist, with a guest appearance from Carolyn Sampson. Sadly, the ‘Robert Schumann: Song Cycles’ CD that followed is not on Spotify. Luckily, their Schubert discs are: this lovely song (the final one Schubert wrote) can be over-emotional, even over-prettified – but AT approaches it with poise and precision, every note a distinct chime.



Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Playing away: ENO outside the Coliseum

Since I last posted, there have been a few sticky moments on 'classical music' social media between critics, composers and performers. I believe there were valid points and genuine misunderstandings on all 'sides' (old hippy that I am) but of course, it all escalated into volleys of tweet-sized trauma. I don't really want to go into further specifics here... it's all out there, I suppose, if you want to find it but, trust me, you don't need to.

Inevitably, though, discussions came up about what a critic actually is (or should be) and does (or should do). I've thought about this a lot, if only because I've felt it important to be clear about what separates what I do - amateur blogging - from actual criticism.

I write with essentially 100% freedom, about what I decide to see and hear - allowing me, as a punter, to focus only on the events and artists I want to. For me personally, that means spending words and energy only on performances and shows I've liked and enjoyed. I feel that if I make a recommendation, there's a chance someone will pick up on it and find something new to investigate or enjoy. If I don't like a recording, performance or exhibition, well (a) who cares, and (b) what good would I achieve by saying so? It doesn't mean I have no critical faculties - I just get far more personal satisfaction out of explaining why I love certain music or art, and communicating that enthusiasm, than I do from slating something.

But critics - in a paid, professional capacity - must venture into darker places. As contributors to journals of record, they must go and see whatever is put on, whether it's something they're drawn to or not, and find a way of placing it in context, judging it fairly, giving praise where they feel it's due, while drawing out any problems or issues. Critics I admire do exactly this. They find a way to present any negative reaction they feel as constructive commentary, and avoid giving offence.

I mention all this because there is one certain area where I feel a little let down by (a few of) the pros: attacks on English National Opera ('ENO'). ENO has been beset by horrendous behind-the-scenes difficulties in recent years, and the management surely deserved all the brickbats it received over (among other things) the shameful treatment of the mighty Chorus, and the dispiritingly swift departure of Mark Wigglesworth, ENO's previous Music Director.

But there is now a new regime in place, and ENO is hopefully starting to pick up the pieces. New chief executive, new artistic director, new music director: all change, in other words. Of course, I can't say if in practical terms, things are getting better or worse for the performers working there - I wouldn't presume. The company is in the middle of a plan to build their productions back up over time, so the 'main season' at their home venue, London's Coliseum, still 'feels' a bit short.

So I was a bit taken aback by a couple of pieces I've seen lately. I won't name names. But one critic recently published a sneery review of 'La traviata', yet still felt the need to devote a large chunk of the piece to an apocalyptic 'WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ENO?' epilogue, plunging the knife back into the wound. Well, what does it mean for ENO? What does the recent, absolutely amazing trio of productions, 'Satyagraha', 'Iolanthe' and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' mean for ENO? Wouldn't it have been better if the review had used its whole word count on the production? I also read another piece laying into the recent chief executive appointment, placing it in the context of historically 'ill-judged decisions' by the ENO board. This is about an employee who's been in post for about a fortnight. I don't care how naïve or old-fashioned I sound: I think it's a fairer approach to actually see how someone performs in a role before writing them off.

I'm not trying to say that everyone at ENO is utterly marvellous and incapable of a wrong thought or deed. But in my experience, as an audience member, the people on the stage and in the pit - the people I care about - actually are marvellous. They never give less than their best, even during times when we know they were going through some pretty heavy pressure and uncertainty. And in a brief period when some critics have found that their words have consequences, I wonder how often they consider the effect that this kind of writing might have on the ensemble, and that morale can be chipped away from without as well as within.

So - stepping down from my soapbox - I think it's worth turning our attention to some of the intriguing and appealing productions ENO is presenting over the summer months. Last year, for example, there was the magnificent ENO Studio Live double bill in the company's West Hampstead rehearsal studios: the Chorus taking two short operas by the scruff of the neck and mounting them almost as independent, guerrilla productions. It was glorious.


On offer this year (each one links to the booking page on ENO's website):

'Effigies of Wickedness' at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill - an evening of cabaret consisting of songs banned by the Nazis. (3 May to 2 June.)

ENO Studio Live (BACK! HURRAH!) with:
Handel's 'Acis and Galatea' at Lilian Baylis House, West Hampstead. (9 to 16 June.)
Britten's 'Paul Bunyan' at Wilton's Music Hall. (3 to 8 September.)

More Britten, namely 'The Turn of the Screw' at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. (22 to 30 June.)

And on home turf at the Coliseum, coming up fast, you can still support the company performing in the musical 'Chess', from 26 April to 2 June.

As things stand, I'm going to the ENO Studio Live productions, and we're taking my folks to see 'Chess'. If any of you are seeing these, or the two I can't get to, please report back!

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Dream states: ENO round-up

I confess I'm a little shame-faced while writing this post. Regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know that, given the time, I try and give plenty of space to English National Opera productions. Partly, this is because I always feel they're worth writing about, and partly because I'm a passionate (and I know that word is over-used these days, but so be it) supporter of the ENO chorus and orchestra. Whatever the trying circumstances behind the scenes - and there's been no shortage of coverage of that elsewhere - they remain an astonishingly accomplished company of musicians who always give of their best.

At my end, however, a combination of a really heavy time at work, combined with other posts nudging their way in - perhaps they arrived in my head more fully-formed) - has meant that three ENO visits have now gone by before I've managed to write a word about them. Still, I had such a great time at all of them, it would be wrong to simply let them pass by.

The three productions were:
  • 'Satyagraha', the Philip Glass opera surveying key episodes in the life of Gandhi;
  • 'Iolanthe', the manic Gilbert & Sullivan fairytale; and
  • 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Britten's operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy.
It was my first time seeing the Glass, which was in fact on its fourth run. I'm not surprised it keeps returning, and I'd be at the front of the queue for a ticket should it come back again. ENO seems to have a special affinity with PG's music, cemented with the breathtaking 'Akhnaten' production from 2016. Both stagings are collaborations with theatre troupe Improbable, who field a 'skills ensemble' covering all the bases between mime, movement, dance and acrobatics. The latest 'Satyagraha' also benefits from Karen Kamensek on the podium - steeped in Glass's music, after making her ENO debut with 'Akhnaten', and then conducting the brilliant realisation of Glass's album with Ravi Shankar, 'Passages' at the 2017 Proms.

I adore Glass, but at the same time, I accept that he is divisive: for everyone like me, who hears and rejoices in intricate cycles and patterns, there is someone else who finds him dull and repetitive. You can't always change the way you listen to something, so I'm not out to make converts. But I do feel that if one were to try and 'turn' a Glassphobic, the music must be brilliantly conducted - and this is what KK does. She keeps the orchestra motoring like absolute clockwork, while bringing alive every dynamic shift and nuance.


(The Chorus in 'Satyagraha', photo by Donald Cooper)

For me, part of the power of Glass's music is that it uses its regularity to, in fact, play with time. Events can speed up, or stand still. As the sequences stretch out, you have time to appreciate the artistry of Improbable and director Phelim McDermott as endlessly inventive visual motifs fill the stage. McDermott explains the use of newspaper and corrugated iron as key materials linked with Gandhi's environment - the oppression of both opinion and poverty - but this is just the start. Giant puppets form an imposing crowd, while the silent 'icons' (the historical figures that provide a linked focal point for each act) are either still or move in slow motion against the 'normal' speed of the protagonists. The skills performers move with such precision that they can hold up scraps of newsprint to receive caption projections. And the meticulous score does not preclude cast and chorus injecting the sacred text of the libretto (adapted from the Bhagavada Gita) with real emotion - especially in the prayers of Toby Spence's superb Gandhi.

Gilbert & Sullivan offer something of a contrast - and if I was only covering these two performances, I'd have been tempted to call the post "Is there anything the ENO Chorus cannot do?" Productions ranging from the aforementioned 'Akhnaten' (where they trained up in some of the acrobatic movement and juggling skills used by Improbable) through the truly memorable ensembles of 'The Winter's Tale', 'Marnie', 'Jenufa', 'Pirates of Penzance' ... not to mention the fantastic ENO Studio Live 2017 double-header of 'The Day After' and 'Trial by Jury'... All of these point time and time again to their collective brilliance not only as singers but also physical actors - each able to present a fully-formed individual character amid the throng: forget any notion of a nebulous mass - these are always real people with real personalities.

Wittily dividing the chorus by gender into frisky fairies and pompous peers - due for a mass romantic collision course by the end of the evening - the action of 'Iolanthe' proved the perfect vehicle for their comic talents.


(Fairies meet peers, photo by Clive Barda)

Again benefiting from genre-specific expertise (as with Improbable for a visual approach to Glass), specialist farceur Cal McCrystal was hired to direct this new production. This resulted in a show that would have been laugh-out loud funny even if silent - highlights included the questionably harsh treatment of an inquisitive flamingo, tenor Ben Johnson's 'Tosca' moment (both balletic and bathetic, as he plummets in tragic mode from the top of a carriage), and the old-school slapstick of a pair of confused stagehands, trying valiantly to move sheep around the scenery but rendered blind by their - literally - all-over bodysuits. I'm actually going to refrain from singling out soloists from a cast who clearly understood that controlled chaos like this stands or falls on timing and teamwork: all involved seemed to radiate joy, singing gloriously with heart and humour, while gamely abandoning dignity in the service of comedy. I'm sure this one will be back as well.

Finally, no ENO Chorus, sadly, for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'... although this time, the small ensemble of fairies was Tiffin Boys Choir, smartly suited and booted as a rather more regimented and efficient team than 'Iolanthe's sprites. Britten's intimate, yet playful adaptation was given hauntingly surreal life by this Robert Carsen production (which dates back to 1991). As a concept, it's almost deceptively on the nose - the opening act is staged on a gigantic bed, immediately referencing the possibility that everything in the play is in fact a dream. But it's the stylised use of colour that clinches it: the blue back wall and green sheets are in fact sky and forest. Subsequent acts give us different perspectives on this essential idea, and I won't spoil the coup de theatre towards the end for anyone who might get the chance to see this in the future.

Colour is also used symbolically in the costumes to round out the characters. Oberon, clothed in green, is able to lay down completely camouflaged to the oblivious lovers around him. The lovers themselves, initially in splendid white, gradually lose layers of this apparel as the night goes on. As the forest strips them of their urbanity, green stains from the foliage appear and expand on the clothing they have left.


(Lovers in the forest - photo by Robert Workman)

Britten also uses the score for characterisation: I'd already read that the overall mood varies depending on who is currently in focus: ethereal for the fairies, more tender for the couples and folkish for the 'mechanicals'. But it was interesting to hear his treatment of individuals, too - Oberon is a countertenor role (played here by the commanding Christopher Ainslie), conveying both his authority and otherworldliness. The bass-baritone of Bottom gives him the 'lowliness' his name requires but with his aspirational-actor's agility to try to take on every other part as well - Joshua Bloom was endearingly bolshy in the role and pricked the character enough to show the vulnerability behind the self-promotion and misplaced confidence. The soprano playing Tytania (here a captivating Soraya Mafi) is enraptured into coloratura while besotted with Bottom. 

I'm looking forward to the rest of the season, but for me, so far, ENO has been on fire. All three of these evenings were set in a kind of paranormal, other universe from our standard reality; and all three did what all great entertainment, opera or otherwise, can achieve - transport me, rapt, into another, more heightened zone for a few precious hours. Bliss.

(All photos taken from the ENO website.)