Monday, 27 June 2016

Letter to my MP, Jim Fitzpatrick

Dear Jim,

As I write to you, the country is descending further and further into chaos, that chaos including a level of racial violence few of us thought we should ever see again on our streets. (How foolish we were, or at least how foolish I was!) Not a word of condemnation is uttered by those who voted for us to leave the European Union, which tells us much of what we need to know about them. The country threatens to drag the rest of Europe with us, and who knows how much else of the world?

And for what, so that Boris Johnson could realise his dream to lead the Conservative Party? A supreme careerist, he now clearly does not even want to leave the European Union; whatever Johnson might be, and I fear I lack the vocabulary to describe him, he is not a man of principle. Perhaps, then, there might lie a chink of light in that unquenched ambition. I am more inclined to place my faith in the twin wisdom of Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel. However, we should clearly accept help from wherever it comes at this point.  

It is for that reason that I write to ask you to do whatever you can as an MP to prevent further catastrophe. The advocates of ‘restoration’ of parliamentary sovereignty cannot have it both ways; if Parliament is sovereign, then the referendum cannot be anything other than advisory. Legal opinion, moreover, seems quite clear that the Prime Minister cannot issue a declaration under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without an Act of Parliament. (See, for instance, here:

As an academic, I know only too well how catastrophic departure from the EU would be for our universities. The Principal of my own institution, Royal Holloway, University of London, has been doing a good job in trying to calm nerves a little, but that, sadly, is all he can do at the moment.

As a Londoner, I know how catastrophic departure would be for this city; moreover, I see the terrible damage already being done to our open, inclusive city. London’s response to the referendum could hardly have been clearer. I know only too well the fears of EU residents concerning the future. Many of them are my close friends; many of them are my colleagues; many of them are my students.

As a constituent of yours, I also know only too well the dangers further violence could hold for Tower Hamlets. We have built something of which we can and should be proud here; we must do whatever we can to safeguard that and to go further.

As a European, I am fiercely proud of our continent’s common heritage: not in an exclusive sense, but as a recognition of who we are, of what we have done well, of what we might continue to do well, and, most importantly, of what we might do better. That will, quite simply, not be possible, should we leave. I could go on, but I am sure that you know all of that and more already.

I implore you then to do whatever you can. Your constituency, your city, your country, your continent, your world, and, yes, history will thank you for it. For once, such apparent hyperbole is not, remotely indicative of exaggeration.

Thank you very much for all you did during the referendum campaign; I can assure you that it has not gone unnoticed by this grateful constituent.

With very best wishes,


LSO/Rattle - Davies and Berlioz, 26 June 2016

Barbican Hall

Peter Maxwell Davies – The Hogboon (world premiere, LSO commission)
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, op.14

The Hogboon – Mark Stone
Magnus – Sebastian Exall
Mother – Katherine Broderick
Good Witch – Claudia Huckle
Earl of Orkney – Peter Auty
The Cat – Capucine Daumas
Princess – Lauren Lodge-Campbell
Bat – Lucas Pinto

Karen Gillingham (stage director)
Ruth Mariner (assistant stage director)
Rhiannon Newman-Brown (designer)
Sean Turner (associate designer)

LSO Discovery Choirs (chorus masters: David Lawrence and Lucy Griffiths)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus masters: Simon Halsey and Neil Ferris)
Guildhall School Singers
London Symphony Orchestra
Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Peter Maxwell Davies’s last major work, a children’s opera, The Hogboon, here received its world premiere. It may not be a musical masterpiece on the level of a Birtwistle opera; I doubt that anyone would make such a claim. That, however, is not really the point. It seems to me the very model of a community opera, offering a good story and good music both to amateurs, indeed to children, and to professionals; this was an opportunity and an experience many of those taking part are unlikely ever to forget. We need to do much more of this sort of thing, and who could set a better example than the LSO and Simon Rattle? Something for royalists too: the work is dedicated to the Queen on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday.

Each house in Davies’s beloved Orkney is said to have its own Hogboon, a familiar spirit who, in return for food and drink left out every night, tends to its family’s wellbeing. In this case, the Hogboon helps Magnus, seventh child of a seventh child, mocked as useless by his Six Elder Brothers, to defeat the Nuckleavee sea-monster, averting the threat of that monster breakfasting on six golden-tressed maidens and the daughter of the Earl of Orkney. How is that accomplished? By music and dance. As a reward, Magnus is betrothed to the Earl’s daughter, and the boy’s brothers receive those golden-tressed maidens in marriage. There is a social and environmental message: care for each other and for the world around us. It is lightly worn, and perhaps the more convincing for that. Give or take the odd unfortunate updated Tippettism in the composer’s own libretto – ‘Have we shown disrespect to your otherness?’ does not appear to be intended ironically – the story works well over the course of a little under an hour.

So does the score. Davies, needless to say marshals his forces well, offering them apt, challenging, yet eminently performable music. (Performances were certainly eminent on this occasion.) There is bold, large-scale orchestral and choral writing, tuneful solo vocal writing, nothing outstaying its welcome, with a wide variety of expressive means and plenty of variation. For instance, following the opening ‘Nucklavee!’ chorus, a beautifully written (and here, beautifully played) flute interlude leads into Magnus’s song by the peat fire of the heroic deeds to which he believes he will one day be called (and, of course, will). The melody is in many respects quite conventionally operatic; the excellent treble, Sebastian Exall, here and elsewhere took well his opportunity to shine. I am sure we shall hear more from him. Brass from the back of the hall herald the Hogboon’s arrival; there is some splendid post-Mahlerian band music when the players are joined by onstage wind. The Good Witch’s Cat is undoubtedly – well, catlike, her feline vocal and stage presence adding much to the fun of proceedings. Singing and dancing were all very well coordinated. There is even a non-singing role for a Bat, flying through the auditorium, here taken by young Lucas Pinto. And the final farewell – ‘And so goodbye. God bless you all. Goodbye.’ – proves both rousing and moving. Many congratulations to all concerned!

Another splendid example of cooperation was offered by the combined forces of the LSO and students from the Guildhall School, next door. What a wonderful luxury it was to hear the Symphonie fantastique with such large (and excellent) forces, just what Berlioz – for whatever this is worth – always ‘intended’. I counted, for instance, no fewer than twelve double bass players and six harpists: not bad at all for the Barbican. I wonder also whether the circumstances led Rattle to be less idiosyncratic than he has often shown himself to be in recent years. Whatever the reason, this was a far more satisfying performance than I have heard from him in quite some time. The LSO, with its long Berlioz tradition, above all with Colin Davis, but stretching back much further than that, sounded in its element; so did its young guests. Indeed, had I not known, I cannot imagine that I should have guessed this was a ‘combined’ orchestra at all. The fabled attack and precision of the LSO was matched note for note by its partner musicians.

The opening bars of the first movement sounded fragile and intense; indeed, string vibrato considerably more intense than one generally hears, and all the better for it. The introduction was moulded, yes, but not unreasonably so. Indeed, its moulding struck me almost as a musical equivalent to the composer’s unquestionably ‘interventionist’ Memoirs. This was probably a more ‘Romantic’, less ‘Classical’, account than one would have heard from Davis: an exciting new chapter beginning, perhaps? Yet, by the same token, there were times when Rattle would stand back and simply let the orchestra play: another excellent sign for the future. Insanity shone through, but it was not arbitrary: this was disciplined madness. The second movement really danced, with grace and menace: sometimes in turn, sometimes in contest. We heard the cornet solo for once too. The music glittered and was gay; it had splendid swing. And the power of the whirling vortex towards the close was quite something indeed!

I was struck by the extent to which the opening duetting in the ‘Scène aux champs’ was heard musically: this was counterpoint as well as the instantiation of a programme, indeed arguably more the former than the latter. There was dramatic, quasi-operatic tension, although the theatre remained, of course, a theatre of the mind. Beethoven’s precedent was clear: not just the Sixth Symphony but also the Ninth. For music of the music sounded akin to accompagnato or arioso; I began to wonder also about possible Gluckian precedents here. The eloquence to the great melody on the cellos was certainly such that it might have been a vocal solo of its own. Timpani rolls sounded as much symphonically anticipatory as ‘atmospheric’.

That near-verbal – and yet, by the same token, resolutely non-verbal – eloquence continued in the ‘March to the Scaffold’. It was not, though, at the expense of any martial quality; the two tendencies incited one another. Brass were as resplendent as one might have expected, but there was menace in their muffled tones too. The finale proved both catchy and grotesque, and not only from the superlative woodwind. The Dies irae music, whatever the composer’s ‘intentions’, sounded both chilling and, I think, witty. ‘Rollicking’ is perhaps an adjective too readily attached to ‘finale’, but here it seems inescapable. Exhilarating!


Sunday, 26 June 2016

Jackson/LaFollette/Melos Sinfonia/Zeffman - Dutilleux, Haydn, and Rimsky-Korsakov, 25 June 2016

Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s

Dutilleux – Sur le même accord
Haydn – Cello Concerto no.1 in C major, Hob.Viib:1
Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade, op.35

Martyn Jackson (violin)
Bartholomew LaFollette (cello)
Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)

Culture, education, young people, London: as victims of the present chaos go, it would have been difficult to find a better example than those playing at and in the audience for, this concert. The response was the best possible: defiant excellence. Many thanks then, to the Melos Sinfonia and Oliver Zeffman, for a light in the darkness at this catastrophic time in our country’s – and Europe’s – history.

I have begun to warm to Dutilleux’s music in his centenary year. It had not properly ‘spoken’ to me before, but Sur le même accord certainly did on this occasion. So named on account of the six-not chord introduced at the opening, which provides the material for what comes thereafter, Sur le même accord benefited greatly from ardent advocacy from Martyn Jackson and the orchestra. Jackson’s declamatory pizzicato opening presented a storyteller: almost as if he were telling us ‘Once upon a time…’. Premonitions of Rimsky-Korsakov already – or should that be echoes? Thinking of Russian composers, Prokofiev often came to mind, although so too, to a lesser extent, did Berg; there were definite post-war episodes, though, not least an almost Messiaen-like marimba intervention. Jackson’s richly seductive line sounded as first among equals, for not only were there several other splendid solos to enjoy (for instance, from clarinet and cello), but the work’s dealing, in Dutilleux’s words, ‘with the abstract relations within the orchestral universe’ came strongly to the fore.

There has never, so far as I can recall, been a time when warming to Haydn’s music proved a problem for me. This performance of the C major Cello Concerto, with Bartholomew LaFollette the outstanding soloist, reminded one of so many of the virtues of that great European. (Only a fool would ascribe to him ‘nationality’; alas, there are many fools around.) The first movement opened warmly; it was stylishly, meaningfully articulated, properly dynamic in its conception of form. That was even before the solo entry. LaFollette’s playing showed much the same characteristics. And what a splendid sense of line there was to be heard: gorgeous yet never self-regarding in tone, clean and clear. Crucially in Haydn, this was a performance to have one love the music – and indeed its composer. Civilisation seemed still to be with us, or at least near, the elegance of LaFollette’s playing, not least in the cadenza, putting me in mind – and no, I am not exaggerating – of Tortelier. Wonder of wonders, we heard an Adagio that was an Adagio. It sang beautifully, honestly; I almost wished our Scheherazade would start again. A slightly subdued opening to the finale had me wonder to start with. It proved, however, to have been a subtle trick, much in the spirit of the composer, for suddenly, without vulgarity, there came full orchestral sound and vigour. There was much play like that – and in many other ways. It made me listen – and what a joy it was here to listen.

Rimsky’s Scheherazade was our work for the second half. Zeffman was clearly in his element – although he had been no less in the first half. I was intrigued by the way this symphonic suite proved as much a study of ‘relations within the orchestral universe’ as the Dutilleux piece had; both, of course, benefited greatly from the excellence of Martyn Jackson on violin (now as leader). Its opening was formidable, the Melos Sinfonia’s brass more than a little ‘Russian’ in their vibrato. The response, needless to say, was silky and seductive. Subtle dynamic gradations, not in the least pedantic, proved as expressive as harmony and orchestration, Sinbad and Prince Kalender coming vividly to life. Glorious string sheen, even from a relatively small band, helped no end; much the same might be said for perky woodwind. There was exoticism, of course, but it always felt – indeed, was – directed. A keen sense of narrative, whether or no it might actually be put into words, was always present. Transformation of themes proved both a pictorial and an intellectual delight. If Liszt inevitably came to mind, so too did the future, of both Strauss and Stravinsky. There were symphonic correspondences; quite rightly, however, this remained a suite rather than failing as an aspirant symphony. For all its supposed renown, this is not a work we hear very often in the concert hall; I am not sure that I have ever done so before. There is all the more reason, then, to applaud so fine a performance as this.

Walker/Esfahani - Couperin, Quantz, Benda, Duphly, Rameau, and Philidor, 24 June 2016

Wigmore Hall

Couperin – Concert royal no.4 in E minor
Quantz – Two Capriccii
Franz Benda – Flute Sonata in E minor
Rameau – Pièces de clavecin en concerts: ‘Le Forqueray’
Jacques Duphly – Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin: ‘Le Forqueray’
Pierre Danican Philidor – Suite in E minor, op.1 no.5

Adam Walker (flute)
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

This was my first visit to the Wigmore Hall’s series of late (10 p.m.) Friday evening concerts; I am sure that it will not be my last. It is a wonderfully civilised time to hear music, and these were wonderfully civilised performances of wonderfully civilised music. Adam Walker and Mahan Esfahani left one wanting more – which is just as it should be.

The fourth of Couperin’s Concert royaux made for an arresting and varied opening work. Its Prélude offered impetus and leisure; what could be more Versailles-like? Harmonies and melodies alike proved generative, but above all juste. The Allemande proved a playful response (even, I am attempted to suggest, quasi-liturgically and with an ear to the Boulezian future, a playful répons). Yet, as one listened, many of the same qualities as those heard in the preceding dance were revealed. The first Courante likewise presented continued affinity and difference: very much the trick in a Baroque Suite (so very different from the world of sonata form). In that ‘French’ dance, and in its ‘Italian’ counterpart, variegation was very much the thing. Character without exaggeration was to be heard and experienced; we were made, or perhaps better, gently yet firmly led, to listen. Dynamic contrasts, terraced and otherwise, were always meaningful, always tending towards musical explication. The Sarabande, graceful, but certainly not in a merely generic way, had me visualise knowing glances between dancing partners. A keen Rigaudon and a Forlane (opening with Esfahani tapping the rhythm on the case of the harpsichord) of impeccable rhythmic, and thus melodic, impetus proved both charming and exploratory.

Two Quantz Capriccii for solo flute followed. Walker truly transformed what can easily sound like mere studies – in a way, that is precisely what they are – into music, beautifully phrased and shaped. Esfahani joined him once again for Franz Benda’s E minor Sonata (published in 1756). Again, juste was the word that came to mind in the first movement, ‘Largo, mà un poco andante’: not just in mood, not just concerning tempo, but also with respect to its status as chamber music in the truest rather than just the default sense. The second movement, ‘Arioso, un poco allegro’ proved both quickened and quickening. It was absorbing to follow its twists and turns, our musicians the surest of guides. More than that, it was fun. Rhythm and harmony likewise worked together in the final ‘Presto’, goading each other to the conclusion.

Esfahani had the stage to himself for two ‘Le Forqueray’ pieces, the first by Rameau, the second by Jacques Duphly. In the former, rhetoric ‘spoke’, without the exaggeration sometimes marring performances of such music as music. Rather to my surprise, although I greatly enjoyed the busy quality of that piece, I found that Duphly’s perhaps went deeper. Or at least its mood was more thoughtful (the piece, that is, for both performances were excellent). Rubato was well judged: enhancing, enticing.

Pierre Danican Philidor’s E minor Suite concluded proceedings. The variety of flute colours summoned up by Walker from his instrument was not the least of the joys of the Prélude. Likewise the colours from Esfahani’s harpsichord. The players took their time, and the performance was all the better for it. Much the same might be said of the ensuing Allemande, although its mood and its mode of eloquence were, of course, quite different. The Sarabande took my mind back to that of Couperin, as much on account of subtle difference as kinship. The give and take between musicians ensured considerable variety, without sacrifice to a strong sense of the whole. The final Gigue did just what a Gigue should. Far less hard-driven than one too all often hears, this was a musical delight to conclude an evening of similar yet different delights.


Saturday, 25 June 2016

Jenůfa, English National Opera, 23 June 2016

Images: Donald Cooper
Karolka (Soraya Mafi), Mayor's Wife (Natalie Herman), Jenůfa (Laura Wilde), Laca (Peter Hoare)


Grandmother Buryja – Valerie Reid
Kostelnička Buryja – Michaela Martens
Jenůfa – Laura Wilde
Laca Klemen – Peter Hoare
Števa Buryja – Nicky Spence
Foreman, Mayor – Graeme Danby
Jano – Sarah Labiner
Barena – Claire Mitcher
Mayor’s Wife – Natalie Herman
Karolka – Soraya Mafi
Neighbour – Morag Boyle
Villager – Claire Pendleton

David Alden (director)
Charles Edwards (set designer)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Claire Gaskin (choreography, revived by Maxine Braham)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Harris)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

This now seems as though it took place in another world – because it did. I nearly did not make it, waiting more than half an hour to change trains at Tower Hill, before desperately trying to find a cab to take me to the Coliseum. Yes, that monsoon rainfall that hit London – and, well, you know the rest… In some ways, it was fitting, if heartbreaking, that this outstanding demonstration of European internationalism should have opened on the night it did: the night when the forces of bigotry, those who would have stoned Jenůfa, took us where they did. I might have preferred to hear Jenůfa in Czech, but who cares? Although the words – excellently translated, insofar as I am competent to judge, a considerable ‘insofar’, although compared to my countrymen and, to a lesser extent, countrywomen… - sometimes sound in themselves a little odd in English, they and their meaning were powerfully, indeed viscerally conveyed. (I know that ‘visceral’ is a much overused word in such contexts, but here it certainly was the mot juste, or whatever ‘decent’ English phrase that fascist Farage would have us use.) Moreover, hearing the words in English certainly had the advantage for a non-Czech speaker – my fault, I know – of underlining when words, especially but not only when repeated, took on not only vocal but orchestral life of their own as speech rhythms (even if the speech rhythms were thus a bit peculiar!) That cavil-which-is-not-a-cavil will be really my only attempt at finding one, for this was magnificent, a reproach not only to xenophobes but to all those who have wished ENO ill, and who, in certain case, continue to do so.

ENO Chorus

The (relatively few) reservations I had about David Alden’s production last time around in 2009 have either evaporated or, seemingly, been dealt with in revision. Perhaps it was as much a matter of the outstanding performances we saw on stage – although they were pretty good too in 2009. I am not entirely sure which, since it is always difficult, no impossible, to remember precisely what happened when, so shall not offer detailed comparisons. At any rate, the shift from Czech Hardy-land – I was put in mind of Boulez’s less-than-favourable description of earlier Janáček as ‘Dvořák in the country’, thereby exalting the late works to which he came to, well, late – to a more overtly, at least to us rootless cosmopolitans, vicious urban-ish setting, perhaps holding something in common with Christoph Marthaler’s Paris Katya Kabanova. The people are poor and they live in a small, ‘tight-knit’ community, with all the problems that brings: that is what is important, not whether we see lots of wheat sheaves or whatever. Indeed, a sense of the bucolic might be argued to distract from the tragedy at hand; that is certainly given no chance of happening here.

Grandmother Buryja (Valerie Reid), Jano (Sarah Labiner), Jenůfa

Charles Edwards’s brilliant designs, Jon Morrell’s costumes, Adam Silverman’s costumes, the choreography of Claire Gaskin, here revived by Maxine Braham: all these combine with Alden’s razor-sharp focus upon human tragedy to present something out of the normal (and that is before we even come to the music). Walls close in, the storm intervenes, worlds (visual) collide, often with the greatest physical menace. The Mayor’s Wife outfit and make-up are just as much part of the drama, as the terrifying rattling on the shutters of the Kostelnička’s house and the eventual smashing of the glass. Gesamtkunstwerk is a word so divested of meaning, historical or contemporary, that it is perhaps beyond salvation, but if salvation there might be – and there is precious little chance of that dramatically – this would offer unimpeachable witness. If I find some of the deviations from the naturalistic a little peculiar in themselves, they serve that greater purpose; indeed, when considering that, I recalled Alden’s brilliant ENO Peter Grimes. I was less troubled there by such matters, perhaps because I like the work ‘itself’ less; that, though, should not be the point, and the greater dramatic point of small-community, small-minded bigotry punches one in the gut just as it did in Britten’s opera. The advance of the chorus, the villagefolk gunning for their primitive, punitive, perverted ‘morality’ will long remain in the mind; so will the cowardly attempt at rescue of a broken Števa. Here, wall-hugging, often rightly derided, had justification, the desire both to escape and to self-incarcerate inescapably drawn to the fore.

Kostelnička (Michaela Martens)

I cannot recall hearing a finer performance from the ENO Orchestra. Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting – he must be brought back as Music Director, with a settlement for the company to match – was the most intense I can recall in this work, perhaps in any Janáček opera. It grabbed one by the throat, just like the work of a great conductor in Wozzeck, and never relinquished its grip. It was not all fierceness, though; the open, sympathetic, European humanity of Janáček’s score shone through all the more warmly in the context of such an agón. The pounding repeated chords at the second half registered all the more strongly for the turmoil both onstage and in the world outside; but they were the orchestra’s and Wigglesworth’s too. Biting, ferocious, generative: they were everything a musico-dramatic prelude should and must be. As the lights flickered in duet with the xylophone, a world internal and external shook. Wagner has no monopoly in operatic renewal of Attic tragedy: this was a communal and, yes, a political rite.

Jenůfa and Laca

That warm sympathy was equally apparent in Laura Wilde’s lovely account of the title role. This was no stock object of sympathy, of circumstance; we experienced her agonies, but as an agent too, albeit, like us, an agent constrained, (near-)destroyed by her ‘community’. Michaela Martens, almost the only returning member of the 2009 cast, again presented a woman of strength as well as goodness, that strength smashed to pieces – how broken she looked and behaved in the third act! – by what she had done. Vocally, she soared; dramatically, in the very best sense, she plummeted. Valerie Reid was similarly broken by that stage as Grandmother Buryja. She intrigued, as the finest performances of this curious role will: we knew that she and whatever mistakes she had made were fundamental to the tragedy unfolding, without ever quite knowing what they had been. We guessed, though, thus making us complicit with the chorus of terror. Its magnificent contribution throughout, beyond ‘visceral', if something can be so, was yet another standing rebuke to the encircling vultures: ironically so, given its members roles as just that.

Jenůfa and Števa (Nicky Spence)

Peter Hoare’s Laca took us on as moving a ‘journey’, with apologies for the cliché, as that of Jenůfa; youthful (in knowing excess?) silliness was transformed into diffident, difficult maturity. I was quite unprepared for the violence of Nicky Spence’s first-act Števa. Again, being rid of the bucolic doubtless helped, but what generally comes across as winning charm was here a brazen display of power from the start, somewhat tempered, eventually, by Jenůfa’s intervention towards the end of the act, but only somewhat. That rendered his ghost-like appearance and disappearance all the more terrifying in the final act. Sarah Labiner’s splendidly boyish Jano, Soraya Mafi’s spirited Karolka, Graeme Danby’s skilfully differentiated roles Natalie Herman’s nasty-piece-of-work Mayor’s Wife: they and all the rest contributed to a true company performance. Even in, particularly in, the direst of tragedy, we find our catharsis somehow.


Thursday, 23 June 2016

Our day of reckoning


And so it is here. I doubt that these hasty scribblings will persuade, or even dissuade, anyone now; so, like much else over the past few weeks and months, consider it, if you will, a futile gesture or even an attempt at self-therapy. Today will be nerve-wracking; tonight will probably be worse still. We all remember the night of the last general election; having been out for dinner and somehow shielded myself from the results, I arrived at a party, to find instead a wake. The selfish, the bigoted, the merely provincial (nothing to do with where one lives: everything to do with a state of mind) triumphed then; ever since, we have suffered a wholesale assault upon what remains of the social fabric of this country, to make that of Margaret Thatcher, even that of the dread ‘Coalition’, seem almost social democratic in its qualities of reconciliation. This, however, is far more important still.
That vilest of selfishness has been on display again, not just from the outright xenophobes and racists, but from so-called socialists (people such as John Mann and, more sadly, Dennis Skinner) who, in their neo-Stalinist fantasy of ‘socialism in one country’, have shown how little they care for internationalism, and also of course from David Cameron’s unforgivable pursuit of ‘special status’. We do not want a ‘special status’; we hold no truck with philistine exceptionalism; we are European and that is all we want: no more, no less. There are good reasons, unanswerable reasons, to oppose what the European Union has become. They come almost entirely from the Left. The despicable treatment of Greece would have made anyone reconsider; yet, in that case, let us listen to Yanis Varoufakis, who considers it crucial for reform of the organisation that has treated us country so brutally that we participate. By ‘we’ I mean both this country and the Left. No one would deny the EU’s neo-liberalism; for us, however, it has long been almost the only brake we have upon still worse neo-liberalism at Westminster. The Social Chapter has long been almost the only protection – however weak – for British workers against the ever-increasing rightward drift of government (both Conservative and New Labour).
It was a grave mistake – born, of course, of NATO’s (the real enemy’s) attempts to weaken the EU, the UK as ever acting as US lapdog – to allow most of the Eastern European countries in so soon. That may yet prove fatal, but we must do what we can, not only to resist the outright fascism now prevailing in Poland and Hungary, not only to help the many good, civilised people within those countries (suffering still more quickly from the deadly embrace of neo-liberalism than we are), but also to rescue Europe from US imperialism, and to look towards an order that might one day also involve Russia. Russia, lest we forget, is European too; the antagonisms whipped up, not least by the EU as it stands, need to be dealt with – and it is difficult to see who can do that other than a reformed EU. NATO – the government will allow us no plebiscite on that membership – has persistently divided Europe; we need something to bring Europe and indeed the world together. As for the absurdity of wishing to be bound by the EU’s rules without having even the slightest say in making them: that is preposterous even by the standards of Michael ‘if you know something, you’re a Nazi’ Gove.
Yet above all, however naïve this might sound, however naïve this might be, the question is: do we wish to return to the 1950s, or rather 1930s, do we wish to start acting in a vaguely twenty-first-century fashion? Do we wish to banish war from Europe, by continuing to suppress nationalism, by continuing to cooperate, by continuing to build a common foreign policy (something that would, for instance, prevent the UK from ever again engaging in a murderous adventure such as Blair’s invasion of Iraq)? Do we wish to break down borders, to put a stop to this country’s embarrassing self-exclusion from the Schengen accords, to participate in a Europe in which travelling, whether in the shorter or longer term, from London to Paris is no greater a step than from Berlin to Munich, or indeed from Florence to Vienna? Do we value people because of who they are, what they do, what they might do in the event of our cooperation, or do we spit on them on account of their nationality, their gender, their sexual orientation, the colour of their skin? (Let us not forget that the Tory Right, let alone UKIP, wishes to do away with the ‘red tape’ that protects citizens against discrimination.) Do we welcome those who wish to make this country their home, who enrich our lives with their labour, their enthusiasm, their culture, or do we follow the lead of Gove, Mann, Nigel Farage, Frank Field, Boris Johnson, Paul Dacre, and the organs of Rupert Murdoch, in blaming ‘immigrants’ for our ills? Do we hold our ground against neo-liberalism, against the vicious far-Right press, or do we offer our final, abject capitulation? Do we want to be able to look our European friends in the eye? Or do we want to be the country that brought a deeply flawed project, which nevertheless offers our only realistic hope for something better, crashing to the ground?
Now, off to vote...

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Pop-up Opera, 21 June 2016

Images: Richard Lakos

Thames Tunnel Shaft, Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe

Rosina – Katie Slater
Count Almaviva – Ciarán O’Leary, Joseph Doody
Figaro – Leif Jone Ølberg
Bartolo – James Schouten
Basilio, Fiorello – Tom Asher
Berta – Emily Blanch

James Hurley (director)
Fiona Johnston, Kate McStraw, Clementine Lovell (producers)

Berrak Dyer (musical director, piano)

Having been ground down almost beyond endurance by the referendum ‘debate’, I was surprised and delighted to be picked up so splendidly by Pop-Up Opera’s Barber of Seville. The Thames Tunnel Shaft might not, on the face of it, have seemed an obvious venue for Rossini, but neither I, nor, I suspect, anyone else had any doubts, let alone complaints, once down the steps. The intimacy of the occasion more than compensated for any acoustical issues; my ears soon adjusted, and all that remained was to sit back and enjoy.

The performance was sung in Italian, with silent film-style titles projected on the wall (sometimes text and translation, sometimes translation, sometimes commentary, sometimes wittily and only vaguely ‘after’ the original). Soloists and piano (with a mercifully brief outing for deliberately-inappropriate synthesiser as Figaro’s guitar) well-nigh perfectly captured the often elusive essence of Rossini’s opera. In all but the best performances, it can readily seem over-extended, even tedious, the composer’s clever formulae all too quickly losing their sparkle. Not here; indeed, I am not sure I have witnessed a more committed performance. Berrak Dyer’s sterling work on the piano was such that I never missed the orchestra; indeed, in conjunction with those titles, the sound of the piano seemed especially apt. James Hurley’s stage direction and the work of a fine team of producers (see above) left nothing to be desired. Disguises were donned, simple props telling employed, but above all, it was the characters who came so vividly to life – both as opera buffa types, which is surely crucial here, but also with a degree of humanity that yet did not sentimentalise.

For that, of course, we have primarily to thank a highly talented cast of young sisters, all of whom I should more than happily see and hear again. Rossini’s technical demands held no fears for any of them, nor did the quicksilver stage action that must accompany, indeed incite, it. Katie Slater’s coloratura impressed greatly as Rosina; so did her knowing glances. Ciarán O’Leary, suffering from an allergy, nevertheless made the most of the first act as Almaviva, revealing a lovely tenor voice, and technique to match; having had to withdraw, he was ably succeeded by the similarly accomplished, eminently likeable Joseph Doody. James Schouten’s handsome baritone proved another joy to hear as Bartolo. Tom Asher – who, I have just noticed from the programme, hails from my home town of Rotherham, and is therefore necessarily a good thing – revealed excellent comic and musical talent as Basilio and Fiorello. Emily Blanch, long relegated to the sidelines in her role as Berta, nevertheless made the most of her aria, warmly received.

Figaro (Leif Jone Ølberg)

If I had to choose, though, my first prize would go to the outstanding Leif Jone Ølberg as Figaro. Ølberg inhabited the role at least as completely as any artist I have seen. His baritone voice is darkly attractive, seemingly effortlessly agile, capable of all manner of subtlety – and he can act. Such an energising presence would have melted even the sternest of hearts. If he were first among equals, though, that achievement would never have registered without so fine a sense of company from all concerned: on and off stage. The most heartening opera performances often to be found where you least expect them, even at the foot of a tunnel shaft.

For details of Pop-Up Opera’s nationwide tour, please visit their website here.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Murray Perahia - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, 20 June 2016

Barbican Hall

Haydn – Variations in F minor, Hob.XXII:6
Mozart – Piano Sonata no.8 in A minor, KV 310/300d
Brahms – Four Piano Pieces, op.119
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.29 in B-flat major, op.106, ‘Hammerklavier’)

There could be no doubting the seriousness of the programme, nor the seriousness of Murray Perahia’s purpose, for this Barbican recital. With respect to the first half – Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms – I confess to wondering whether two out of the three pieces might have been more digestible; it is not as if any of us would have thought Perahia was otherwise veering down the Lang Lang circus-act route. In the face of such pianism and musicianship, though, it would be churlish to complain about having been treated to a little more. There was only one movement concerning which I entertained serious reservations; I shall come to that in due course.

The opening bars of Haydn’s extraordinary F minor/major Variations – Alfred Brendel opened his final London recital with this very work – brought us that renowned limpid tone, dissolving to reveal a range of colours none but the greatest pianist could conjure forth. The first theme could be surprisingly forceful too, never inappropriately so; this is music that peers into the nineteenth century, and so it sounded. By contrast, the F major second theme seemed to look back (rather as Beethoven would in much of his early music), not unlike a trio. It was Mozart who came to mind in the pathos of the first variation. Chromaticism always helps in that respect, but if there were Mozartian tendencies, they sounded as the culmination of Haydn’s own career of writing for the piano; they never sounded imposed upon the music, nor did anything else in this recital. The strength of purpose in the second variation again hinted at Beethoven, without forsaking the composer at hand. Turning back to the major, a more carefree note was struck, but it was more a creation of carefreeness than anything more arbitrary; Perahia had thought about every note, so it seemed, without that tending towards pedantry. The return of the F minor theme sounded noble indeed, although I was a little unsure about the abruptness of the transition to the Coda and some ornamentation thereafter.

Mozart’s A minor Sonata followed, its first movement exposition forthright yet variegated; I should not have minded it yielding a little more, its driven quality perhaps pushing it, ironically, closer to Haydn than one might generally prefer. The repeat, however, was more yielding, more variegated, so that in retrospect, Perahia’s design seemed quite right. A terse development led to a still more intense recapitulation, the turn to the tonic minor evincing unforced tragic eloquence. The beauty of the pianist’s passagework throughout simply had to be heard to be believed. I have heard more charming accounts of the slow movement, but Perahia’s awe-inspiring sense of line, deepened surely by his Schenkerian studies, offered its own rewards. This was not a Mozart of Meissen china; nor should it have been. The complexity of the most vehement music in particular highlighted its closeness to Schoenberg, even if that were not Perahia’s intention. (I recall him once frankly admitting in an interview that he did not understand twelve-note music. I suspect he could play it very well anyway, if he wished.) The finale is always very difficult to bring off; here, one might have thought it the easiest thing in the world to have done so. Technical control is, of course, crucial, but also a willingness and ability to let meaning arise through the offices of the music rather than to impose an external narrative upon it. Again, Perahia’s command of line provided the finest of frames.

Brahms’s op.119 Pieces were perhaps darker still. The first’s opening phrase signalled that intervallic and colouristic concerns were as one. (I could not help but think of Webern.) Rhythm is equally important, especially at so strikingly slow a tempo as this – and in that respect too, Perahia’s understanding was unerring. The second piece sounded initially as a greater contrast than it was ultimately revealed to be. There were shades of agitation from the Brahms of old, but its ‘lateness’ was equally apparent. Exquisite craftsmanship and darkness of emotion were inseparable. Much the same might be said of the third Intermezzo; yet, if a dark dance, it nevertheless danced. The final Rhapsody had a terrible sense of fury barely repressed by iron control (compositional and performative). Organisation, vertical and horizontal, were almost frighteningly clear, making Schoenberg seem almost lackadaisical by comparison (well, perhaps not quite). There were a couple of brief, not very noticeable slips; in context, they came almost as a relief.

The second half was devoted to the Hammerklavier Sonata. (We are stuck with the silly nickname, I think, so there is no point in moaning about it too much.) Its opening movement was the one with which I had difficulties. It was fleet, lighter on its toes than one generally hears. There was great clarity in the fugal writing too. It all sounded a little skated over, though, at least to me; formal dynamism did not imprint itself as it would under, say, Pollini. Perhaps such a comparison is, however, more odious even than usual. Well-sprung rhythms in the Scherzo suggested it almost as a forerunner of the late Bagatelles. Until, that is, it went on another, more complex path, although even then… Perahia’s view intrigued and, in its way, convinced. A gravely beautiful slow movement could have had no one straining to find depth. There was, moreover, a Romantic grandeur to the lyricism flowering above: always founded upon harmony, though. That command of line was once again unerringly communicated: our thread through the labyrinth. If this were not so radical a way with the work as Pollini’s, then te music’s radicalism could hardly fail to shine through in any case. The strangeness of the opening bars to the finale registered without showmanship. As Beethoven’s material announced itself – and one felt that illusion, as opposed to Perahia announcing it – building blocks were assembled, but blocks that might ever be in danger of cracking under the strain. They did not, and I have heard performances in which they came closer, performances of considerably greater violence; the balance and/or dialectic can be conveyed in different ways and there is no reason to be dogmatic. That the way was always relatively clear did not, however, mean that Beethoven’s obstinacy was short-changed. Sometimes I wondered how Perahia could possibly be playing all those notes at once. I also wished, however vainly, to hear what he might make of the deconstruction of this monstrous work in Boulez’s Second Sonata.


Idomeneo, Garsington Opera, 19 June 2016

Garsington Opera House, Wormsley Park

Ilia – Louise Alder
Idamante – Caitlin Hulcup
Elettra – Rebecca von Lipinski
Arbace – Timothy Robinson
Idomeneo – Toby Spence
High Priest – Robert Murray
Neptune – Nicholas Masters

Tim Albery (director)
Hannah Clark (designs)
Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)
Tim Claydon (movement)

Garsington Opera Chorus (chorus master: Susanna Stranders)
Garsington Opera Orchestra
Tobias Ringborg (conductor)

Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be. Even so fervent a Gluckian as I should happily admit that Mozart here goes beyond his great predecessor (and contemporary), perhaps not consistently, but Mozart is saddled with a vastly inferior libretto. In any case, that Gluckian musico-dramatic line is only one of the many facets of Idomeneo’s greatness. Its Salzburg luxuriance – yes, I know it was written for Munich; I refer here to the Salzburg Mozart as opposed to his Viennese successor – has its own extravagant rewards, even when the musico-dramatic focus is not quite so tightly disciplined as that of, say, Iphigénie en Tauride. Moreover, no Iphigenia is a match for Mozart’s Elettra. As for the orchestral and choral writing, it is surely a match for Don Giovanni; even its chromaticism, its masterly exploration of remote reaches of the tonal system, do not come so very far behind. And yet, even so fervent a devotee as I was only seeing the work in the theatre for the fourth time. Following the Vienna State Opera (2006), ENO (2010), and the Royal Opera (2014), here came Garsington Opera to the rescue.

For that, and indeed for much else, Garsington deserves a hearty vote of thanks. Musically, this was a strong performance, despite cuts that scarred the work more than I should have preferred. I can, to a certain extent, understand the temptation to make considerable cuts to the recitatives, although Mozart’s achievement here is surely not his least. To do so to the extent that the story does not quite hang together, though, is a disfigurement that seems to misunderstand the role of recitative, whether dry or accompanied, in eighteenth-century opera. One can probably fill in the gaps, but is that really the point? And unlike, say, Don Giovanni, which suffers greatly from use of the ridiculous composite of Prague and Vienna versions, this is a work for which superfluity, is part of the attraction: let us have as much of the rest as we can. I could not help but wonder whether certain arias were not present in order to facilitate a transformation of three acts into two. There will always be choices to be made, for there is no ideal ‘version’, but so far as this listener is concerned, the more one can hear, for the most part the better. The loss of the ballet music I mind more than once I did; once one realises how dramatic ballet can be, especially in the magnificent French tradition in which Idomeneo partly stands, there is no turning back. Martin Kušej’s tableau for Covent Garden is doubtless a one-off; as a visual, harrowing instantiation of regime change, it made its dramatic point to those willing to think. (Needless to say, that excluded most of the audience.) Still, we had what we had.

That is still more the case with a fine cast and chorus as here. The work of Susanna Stranders is training the Garsington Chorus had clearly been thorough and well directed; choral singing proved lithe and weighty, as required, very much in consonance with the kaleidoscope of colours offered by the excellent orchestra. In the title role, Toby Spence offered a typically thoughtful performance, quite different from any I have heard (and which I retain in my head), but that is no reason to criticise. Idomeneo’s torment was starkly apparent from the outset, visually and vocally, still more so as a broken man (and king) at the conclusion. I have heard no finer, no more moving Ilia than Louise Alder’s, taking its leave from words and music alike, and above all from the alchemic synthesis of the two. After a first aria shaky of intonation, Caitlin Hulcup’s Idamante proved equally impressive; indeed, so convincing was she as the prince that I initially thought I was hearing a countertenor. Rebecca von Lipinski’s Elettra was just the tour de force that one needs; if only the production (on which more anon) had helped give more context to her fury and equally to a humanity too often lost in performance, but not here. Timothy Robinson’s attentive Arbace, the perfect counsellor, had one miss more than usual his aria (not, even I should admit, Mozart at his greatest). Robert Murray’s relatively small role as the High Priest did not disappoint: a typically intelligent, intriguingly ambiguous performance. Even Neptune (who appears, rather convincingly, as a neo-Monteverdian apparition, rather than being mediated by an oracle) was convincingly brought to life by Nicholas Masters.

If Tobias Ringborg’s conducting had a few too many Harnoncourtisms for my taste, not least drastic, rhetorical gear changes in the Overture, then it was dramatic throughout. (I hasten to add that I have nothing whatsoever against tempo variation; but few Mozart conductors seem able to convince in that respect today, Daniel Barenboim, who has never conducted the work, an obvious exception.) Ringborg also proved somewhat of the interventionist school in his fortepiano (what is wrong with a modern piano?) continuo. Balanced against such irritants, there was no doubting the conductor’s living and breathing the music. His enthusiasm was infectious; the orchestra’s vivid response – perhaps a little vivid in the case of clattering (period?) timpani – was not the least of the evening’s special qualities.

I am afraid a ‘but’ is coming, and it relates to Tim Albery’s production. As with his Wagner productions for the Royal Opera House, Albery creates, insofar as I could discern, little beyond a string of clichés. The principal characters appear in stylised eighteenth-century dress, whilst the set designs and the chorus evoke a contemporary port. (Alas, I could not help but recall Katie Mitchell’s catastrophic ENO staging, its second act in an airport terminal – which I only later discovered had been a ferry terminal, as if that made all the difference.) There is almost always something one can do with such juxtaposition; I assumed Albery would at least do something with the large seafaring container, opened to reveal an eighteenth-century room. But no, that seems to be it: different dress, and opening and shutting of the container. It seems designed to flatter people who wanted to say they had seen something ‘modern’, without engaging with any of the possibilities of contemporary theatre, let alone presenting something as outré as a concept. The story ‘itself’ actually comes across quite strongly, despite the cuts, and that, I admit, is not an insignificant achievement. By the same token, though, it might as well have been entirely in eighteenth-century dress and in an eighteenth-century setting.


Monday, 20 June 2016

Jerusalem Quartet/Kam - Beethoven, Bartók, and Brahms, 17 June 2016

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – String Quartet no.6 in B-flat major, op.18 no.6
Bartók – String Quartet no.3
Brahms – Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op.115

Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)
Sharon Kam (clarinet)

This proved to be another excellent concert in the Jerusalem Quartet’s twentieth-anniversary celebrations. The final quartet from Beethoven’s op.18 set opened in immaculate, fizzing post-Haydn and post-Mozart style, judging so well the debts to both composers, as well as the undeniable originality of their challenger. The first movement’s exposition was possessed of great energy, its ‘repeat’ – something of a misnomer in a properly dynamic performance such as this – still more so. The second group thus sounded (both times) all the more contrasted, especially melting the second time around. Announcing the development’s opening phrase with Beethovenian brusqueness, the players nevertheless acknowledged once again the composer’s inheritance from Haydn – who, after all, could be a little terse himself – in several respects, not least motivic working. The recapitulation’s concision was striking; so was the reality that everything, even when, especially when, it seemed the same, had changed. The slow movement was as serene, as disturbing, as full of mystery as its counterpart in, say, a Mozart piano concerto, never more so than when it moved into the minor mode. This was, initially, the Beethoven of the operatic scena, a quality captured to near perfection here. With the return to the tonic, however, invention and joy were as ‘purely’ instrumental as one might imagine. Syncopations were relished in all their generative glory in the scherzo. The trio likewise hit just the right note: trying to relax, yet never quite being able to do so.

‘La Malincolia’ is Beethoven’s marking for the Adagio introduction to the finale. Its indubitably melancholic fragility looked forward, without exaggeration, to the world of the late quartets, not least in the rarity of the air it breathed. The passion characterising the music that ensued, in the Allegretto quasi Allegro, had an almost Schubertian quality to it, punctuated by the fondest of glances back to the music of Beethoven’s eighteenth-century precursors. Insistence, subtly marked out in performance, left one in no doubt that this was Beethoven. Likewise the musical interruptions, the strange turns the music took: perhaps born of, yet never reducible to, the example of Haydn. The players left one in no doubt of their consummate command of idiom and, dare I suggest, meaning.

Bartók has as good a claim as any to be the greatest of all successors to Beethoven in this genre. It would, at any rate, have been impossible to dissent from such a view in the light of this performance. The Prima parte of the Third Quartet opened in properly disconcerting fashion, at least for a few bars or so, followed by a slight thaw, followed by a glance back, or an intensification: so the music’s multiple dialectics began to develop. Lest that sound unduly abstract – I am not sure one can be unduly abstract in this of all Bartók’s quartets, but anyway – there was genuine anger to be heard too, then withdrawal. This was Bartók at his most radical, his greatest. Concision and mood swings suggested Beethoven’s example – perhaps even something of Webern too, although most likely qualities in common rather than ‘influence’. There was certainly no denying that every note counted: in itself, horizontally, and vertically.

The Seconda parte, quite properly, both emerged from and announced its difference from what had gone before. Something akin to tonality advanced a claim, all the more touching for the combination of strength of assertion and equivocal success. What could be more Beethovenian than the protean dynamism we heard here? The so-called Ricapitulazione della prima parte and Coda proved both questing and questioning, with a sadness all their own. Glassy, febrile passages almost suggested Ligeti, and yet they were thoroughly integrated with neo-Lisztian transformation of the ‘Hungarian’: another description that raises more questions than it answers. What music this is!

Sharon Kam joined the players for the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in the second half. The two violins of Alexander Pavlovksy and Sergei Bresler immediately announced a different world, of Viennese sweetness, melancholy, and melancholy in sweetness, with all the painful lateness and distance that are Brahms’s own. That distance was intensified by the entries of the other players, not least the parallel or successor announcement of what might be at stake by Ori Kam and Kyril Zlotnikov, on viola and cello. Kam entered, seemingly more a mediator than a ‘soloist’, or rather no ‘mere’ soloist. The motivic complexity of Brahms’s writing is inescapable here. (Why should anyone wish to escape it?) So too, however, was its good-natured quality – still, perhaps, grasping Mozart’s mantle. On the other hand, there were times when we sounded but a stone’s throw from Verklärte Nacht. There were to come some exquisite, yes soloistic, whisperings from the clarinet, especially in the development section of this first movement, whose optimistic exhaustion, if I may call it that, put me in mind of Mendelssohn. The recapitulation sounded more autumnal, yet also more intense, not least motivically: such is the dynamism of form, of developing variation. A well-nigh Beethovenian climax truly surprised and truly fulfilled, after which the players sang with the truest of melancholy.

The Adagio sounded ‘later’ still, which I think it probably is. Its exhaustion was nevertheless the setting for rare solo gems indeed (not just from the clarinet, by any means), in which ghosts of the Viennese past were to be encountered, even welcomed. Nevertheless, it was the clarinet which, rightly, emerged as first among equals, Kam’s arabesques both free and yet laden down with the accumulated weight of tradition that Brahms felt so keenly. Post-Beethovenian serenity vied with anticipations of Schoenberg: layer upon layer. The third movement, by way of relative contast, sounded summery (if still ‘late’ summery). Motivic integrity and fascination remained as great as ever; there was nothing comfortable to what we heard, underlying agitation suggestive again both of Beethoven and of Schoenberg. The finale sounded wonderfully ambivalent, ambiguous. Once more, every note counted, just as it had in the Bartók Quartet, but the sense of tragedy here was almost Mozartian, all the more poignant for knowing that it never quite would or could be.