Tuesday 31 August 2021

Œdipe, Komische Oper, 29 August 2021

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Œdipe (Leigh Melrose), Jocaste (Karolina Gumos), Laïos (Christoph Späth)

Œdipe – Leigh Melrose
Tirésias – Jens Larsen
Créon – Joachum Goltz
High Priest – Vazgen Gazaryan
Night Watchman – Shavleg Armasi
Shepherd – Johannes Dunz
Laïos – Christoph Späth
Jocaste – Karolina Gumos
Sphinx – Katarina Bradić
Antigone – Mirka Wagner
Mérope – Susan Zarrabi

Evgeny Titov (director)
Rufus Didwiszus, Charlotte Spichalsky (set designs)
Eva Dessecker (costumes)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)

Choir of the Komische Oper Berlin (chorus director: David Cavelius)
Vocalconsort Berlin 
Children’s Choir of the Komische Oper Berlin (chorus director: Dagmar Fiebach)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin
Ainārs Rubikis (conductor)

Tirésias (Jens Larsen), Œdipe, Jocaste

Art returns in various ways. There is, nor should there be, no one-size-fits-all. In London, the Royal Opera, largely silent during the days of endless lockdown and occasional reprieve, lightened our darkness with a production of La clemenza di Tito about which, if we were brutally honest, we should have been less enthusiastic had it not appeared on the very first day of limited reopening for theatres; it followed that, however, with an outstanding Don Giovanni, showing that nothing, good, bad, or mediocre, should be taken for granted. The Komische Oper took a different path, as indeed have Berlin and Germany. This path, or better this first step, came later but needed no qualification, none whatsoever. Audience numbers are still limited, with a plan for increasing them as the season progresses, but otherwise this was absolutely the real thing. This new production of George Enescu’s Œdipe would have been a fine achievement at any time. Coming as the first full performance and staging, the first time a full orchestra had played in the pit, since the end of February 2020, it was little short of astounding. 


A strong sense of company, of music and theatre working together, has always been a hallmark of the Komische Oper and its mission; it dates back to Walter Felsenstein. In the circumstances, one might have expected that to suffer a little, but not at all. Ainārs Rubikis’s musical direction seemed entirely of a piece with Evgeny Titus’s direction of the stage action, as of course did the vocal and dramatic contributions of a fine cast. There were moments of great power—what it was to hear an orchestra of this size once more in the pit, in the theatre!—but also passages of unease, of solace, of somewhere liminal betwixt and between. These were balanced by a keen sense of where the drama was heading and, equally important, ability to communicate that sense in the dynamism that transforms musical structure into form. That would be nothing, of course, without excellence of playing from the Orchestra of the Komische Oper. Together again at last, the players sounded inspired, woodwind modal lyricism (Le tombeau de Couperin came to mind) as crucial to our interpretation of the tragic labyrinth as dread moments of expressionist cataclysm. A cut version of the work, given without an interval, will have had some lamenting what had been lost. As with the performance and staging more broadly, expressionism was favoured, though never exclusively, over classicism. There was, however, much to be gained by seeing and hearing this opera much as it might have been given in the spoken theatre, albeit with a searing intensity that could only come from music, revealing a greater kinship to works such as Salome or Elektra than I had hitherto imagined. Instead of a single day, though, this was a life taken to extremity.

Laïos, Jocaste, Mérope (Susan Zarrabi), Night Watchman (Shavleg Armasi)

Indeed, the spare, oppressive, in a word fateful set design (Rufus Didwiszus and Charlotte Spichalsky) might almost have been from a staging of Elektra. (Elektra productions, for whatever reason, tend to look strikingly similar.) That frames the action, but so does memory; indeed, inability to escape memory—fate itself, in at least one sense—is depicted and experienced both as frame and framed. Titov has Œdipe visit, witness his birth. Huddled, helpless in foetal position, Œdipe is granted the hopeless gift of understanding and consciously experiencing his fate, incapable of altering it, fully capable of sharing once more in its agony. That fate is not only his, but also the fate of a sick, traumatised society. Theban citizens act as a crowd, a sick crowd at that, from the outset, the plague to come as much an expression of something more fundamental. Titov wisely resists COVID-19 references. We know the day is coming when every third-rate director presents masks, respirators, video conferencing, and so on, but that is not here, not now. That will be a plague of its own. Instead, there is a suggestion that the plague proceeds from Œdipe’s own understanding that there is something wrong with the state of Thebes, appearances of health notwithstanding. That is not to say that it is imagined, but rather that it expresses something wrong, whether that something be social, political, psychological, or all of the above and more. No wonder, ultimately, that Œdipe elects no longer to see. The bloody state of his blindness in wilderness wandering is depicted with tragic horror. It leads to something akin to catharsis; perhaps that is what it is, for the single-mindedness of the dramatic trajectory at play is unquestionable. Blood and water are present at birth and throughout, culminating in cleansing and catharsis. In life and in death, this is elemental drama.


For that single-mindedness permitting of such duality we must also credit Leigh Melrose’s mesmerising performance in the title role. One felt, rather than merely observed, every twist and turn of the fatal screw, words, music, and gesture conceived and delivered in post-Wagnerian whole. Karolina Gumos’s Jocaste was finely sung and possessed of great stage presence; likewise Susan Zarrabi’s Mérope, Œdipe’s disturbing prior model for incestuous attraction. Company stalwart Jens Larsen offered a typically individual, world-weary performance of Tirésias. Shavleg Armasi’s Night Watchman and Katarina Bradić as the Sphinx gave noteworthy portrayals of their characters, words crystal clear and possessed of considerable dramatic import. All the cast worked together to provide something greater than the sum of its parts. So too considerable choral forces heard from above, to hear a combined chorus of that size in itself a treat. This was Berlin’s first new production of Œdipe since 1996, that Deutsche Oper staging last seen in 2004. Let us hope not only that this has a longer life, but that it offers a precedent for other such explorations. Szymanowski’s King Roger for instance, or some Henze. In the meantime, we should be grateful indeed for this.

Friday 27 August 2021

BBC Proms (8) - BBC SSO/Volkov - Lewis and Beethoven, 26 August 2021

Royal Albert Hall

George Lewis: Minds in Flux (world premiere)
Beethoven: Concert Aria: ‘Ah! perfido’ op.65
Beethoven: Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36

Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Damon Holzborn (computer software design/realisation)
Sound Intermedia
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov (conductor)

This year’s Proms premieres—those I have heard, anyway—have been a mixed bunch: professional enough, yet often safe to the point of anodyne, having one long instead for something decidedly ‘new’ from the repertoire, be it Haydn or Ligeti, Machaut or Schoenberg. George Lewis’s Minds in Flux, however, was the real thing: music with something to say, some point to it beyond fulfilling a commission, whether or not that ‘something’, that ‘point’, remains elusive to verbal expression. It was, dare I suggest, an Albert Hall work too, making full use of the notorious space and acoustic, not so as to be enslaved by it, but rather to create new space within and beyond it, by virtue—not unlike Stockhausen—of electronic means. From its opening, electronic sounds surrounding us, woodwind and their electronic shadows, progeny, Doppelgänger echoing across the hall like gulls, reference points proved but the starting point for music both familiar and unfamiliar. A Stravinsky-meets-jazz chorale, a song, a dance, a moment of rage, a moment of consolation: here was a sonic cornucopia always in flux, the product of minds in flux. If Mahler wanted a symphony to contain everything, a whole world, Lewis seemed to say: there are many more worlds; there are silenced voices too in our colonised world. Let us hear them; let us consider them. It was ominously inviting and invitingly ominous. Perhaps it referred, perhaps not; above all, it played and invited us, our minds and bodies, to play. Charles Ives, I fancied, might have understood this strikingly intelligent, strikingly democratic invitation.

Lucy Crowe joined the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov for Beethoven’s concert aria, ‘Ah! perfido’. It was an almost equally intense reading, dignified in its post-Mozartian, slightly neoclassical way, alert, like Lewis’s work and the performance we had heard of it, to musical shadows too. Strikingly sincere, Crowe showed us that any doubts we might have to the verse (Metastasian recitative, followed by an anonymous aria text) are our problem, or other performers’, not intrinsic. Well supported and, where appropriate, directed by Volkov, Crowe rightly took her time then, rightly, erupted. Here was Beethoven on a grand scale, with passages of moving intimacy both contrasted with and necessary to that scale. 

The Second Symphony followed, in a performance of many virtues, particularly during its second and fourth movements, yet one which never quite addressed that necessary Beethovenian question: what does this mean to us? Again, an answer need not, arguably cannot, be verbal, yet Beethoven’s humanism demands something. The introduction to the first movement was alert and detailed, characterised as elsewhere by fine playing from the BBC SSO. Volkov never quite pinned down a basic pulse, though, with the consequence that it sounded restless rather than expectant, a collection rather than a chain of ideas. The main ‘Allegro con brio’ was better: occasionally hard-driven, yet essentially permitted to speak for itself and all the better for it. If it lacked inevitability, that was more apparent in the ‘Larghetto’, heard also with a keen sense of the music’s sheer loveliness. There was darkness to its heart, too, speaking of and through dialectic necessity. The scherzo was again driven hard, distant rather than immediate. Its trio was well pointed, if slightly lacking in flow. Volkov captured very well the difficult balance at the onset of the finale between quirky incident and onward propulsion. If it was good natured, it had bite too.

Sunday 22 August 2021

BBC Proms (7) - Britten Sinfonia/Bates: Rameau, Bologne, and Mozart, 20 August 2021

Royal Albert Hall

Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie: ‘Bruit de tonnerre’, ‘Ritournelle’
Rameau: Dardanus: Tambourins I & II
Rameau: Castor et Pollux: ‘Tristes apprêts’
Joseph Bologne: Symphony no.2 in D major
Rameau: Dardanus: ‘Lieux funestes’
Rameau: Platée: ‘Orage’
Rameau: Les Indes galantes: Chaconne
Mozart: Requiem in D minor, KV 626

Samantha Clarke (soprano)
Claudia Huckle (contralto)
Nick Pritchard (tenor)
William Thomas (bass)

The National Youth Chamber Choir
Britten Sinfonia
David Bates (conductor)

A peculiar concert, this: much to enjoy and indeed savour in a first half of eighteenth-century French music, followed by, not to put too fine a point on it, the most bizarrely, downright perversely conducted performance of any sacred work by Mozart I have had the misfortune to hear. Let us begin, however, at the beginning, with selected extracts from operas by Rameau. That his stage works are not staples of our opera houses says everything about the latter—including their public—and nothing about the works’ intrinsic virtues.

Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau’s first opera, was represented by two orchestral movements. Thunder-clap and wind machine both evoked the eighteenth-century theatre and, in the very different setting of the Royal Albert Hall, underlined our distance from it. A vividly pictorial and dramatic string ‘Bruit de tonnerre’ was followed by a ritournelle written for the opera’s 1742 revival, Britten Sinfonia woodwind adding colour and counterpoint, and a proper sense of leading us somewhere, of connecting. What a joy it was already to hear Rameau from a decent-sized orchestra, in such enlightened performances. Likewise, with added percussion, in the first of the tambourins from Dardanus. If the second were a bit breathless, it would be churlish to complain too much. 'Tristes apprêts', Télaire’s celebrated air from Castor et Pollux once more brought bassoons to the forefront, in a particularly Baroque use of orchestral colour that readily crossed national and stylistic boundaries. (Think of Handel, Zelenka, even Bach…) A plaintive performance, splendidly slow, from soprano Samantha Clarke and conductor David Bates truly made the words’ point—and went beyond them.

Next up was the short D major Symphony by Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The Britten Sinfonia offered cultivated playing, which might have been richer of tone, but they were clearly acting under orders. (Why such puritanism for music of a decidedly non-puritanical age? Must we still labour under the yoke of sub-Stravinskian diktats concerning a certain, long since discredited brand of ‘authenticity’?) At least there was none of the exhibitionism fashionable among some self-declared ‘specialists’. If it would be silly to make excessive claims for this music, it is pleasant and has just enough in the way of playing with expectation to hold one’s attention. The ebullient finale, for instance, lacks symphonic direction but retains a nice line in incident, clearly enjoyed by players and audience alike.

Nick Pritchard joined the orchestra for 'Lieux funestes' from Dardanus. Unfazed by sometimes tricky tessitura, Pritchard shone in another gloriously unhurried account, tbasking in its moment. Rich bassoon-writing again made its mark; the orchestra in general seemed, not unreasonably, more committed to Rameau’s music than to Bologne’s. Harpsichordàwind machineàpizzicato strings: a vivid storm from Platée worked its magic nicely. Finally, for this half, the closing Chaconne from Les Indes galantes functioned rather as it does in Rameau’s opéra-ballet itself, culminating and closing. If a grander vision would not have gone entirely amiss, there was much to delight in colour and rhythmic detail.

After the interval, bassoons and other woodwind took up hints from much of that music and plunged us into the very different world of Mozart’s Requiem. The opening ‘Introitus’ had plenty of clues as to where Bates might lead us, though I could hardly have guessed at the extremity of his nullifying anti-vision. Although it was taken swiftly, lightly, and merely bar-to-bar—no real phrasing, let alone longer-term thinking—there was choral and orchestral detail to admire, though peculiar mannerisms from the violins already gave pause for thought: far more ‘period’ in the pejorative sense than anything we had heard from Rameau. The following ‘Kyrie’ was clear enough, I suppose, though rushed. Quite what Bates thought, or thought Mozart thought, of its tripartite invocation was anyone’s guess.

The ‘Sequenz’, though, left one in no doubt as to travesty this would continue to be. A ‘Dies irae’ that was merely fast, quite without terror, and a peremptory ‘Rex tremendae’ that suggested a King of dreadful majesty incongruously rushing for the bus, came either side of a considerably superior ‘Tuba mirum’, which at least gave us opportunity to hear each of the vocal soloists in turn. William Thomas’s dark, characterful bass proved especially welcome, his peculiar cadenza less so. He was not, alas, the only soloist to follow such dubious practice. If the ‘Recordare’ was predictably fast, voices were well balanced, responsive, and sincere. The orchestra, alas, went for naught, relegated to the status of an end-of-pier band. By the time we reached the ‘Confutatis’, it was less a matter of rushing for the bus as the vehicle freewheeling downhill, brakes having failed. Bizarre.

The decision suddenly to perform the ‘Lacrimosa’ at a reasonable tempo, welcome though it was, spoke in context more of sentimentality than anything more elevated. There was, to be fair, splendidly fruity woodwind playing and the National Youth Chamber Choir, at last permitted to sing freely, took its chance to shine too. The rest, alas, was more of the same: a ‘Domine Jesu’ live from the Tokyo Olympics, a ‘Hostias’ whose inconsequentiality ought truly to have shocked anyone attentive either to words or music, and so on. There was fine conversation between the soloists in the ‘Benedictus’, though ornamentation might again usefully have been eschewed. As for the bald, unqualified assertion in the programme that the movement was written by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, I can only suggest that the person concerned actually listen to its material—and then some of Süssmayr’s own church music. After a double-speed—well, almost—‘Agnus Dei’, nothing could have saved either this disposable Requiem, or the poor souls on whose behalf it was supposedly sung. Requiem for a fashion victim, as someone once said in a different context.

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival (3) – RUNE, 18 August 2021

Round Chapel, Hackney

Image: Jarno Leppanen/KA WA KEY

Kes’Cha’Au – Patricia Auchterlonie
Khye-Rell – Simone Ibbett-Brown

The MA – Ben Smith (musical director)
The VA – Siwan Rhys
The VAL’NAK’SHA – Joseph Havlat

The Waters – Ryan Appiah-Sarpong, Max Gershon, Shakeel Kimotho, Thomas Page

Gemma A. Williams, Jarno Leppanen (directors)
Ka Wa Wey (fashion)
Sid the Salmon (sculpture)

My final visit to this year’s Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival was also the final night of the festival. Alastair White’s RUNE was unquestionably my highlight, a worthy successor to WEAR, which I saw in 2018. (There have been others in between too.) Looking down from the balcony of Hackney’s Round Chapel, we saw and heard a reflection and dramatisation, both enigmatic and increasingly direct, of the journey of a young girl who, in a world in which history was forbidden, dared discover and tell her story and thereby to uncover the rune of the universe’s origin. Of course, no one, least of all our holidaying Foreign Secretary, could have predicted this would coincide with the terrible victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan; but that in itself heightened the importance not only of the message, if message there were—that, quite rightly, was left for us to ponder—but also of the very deeds of artistic creation and performance, runes of our own origins, existence, and, we hope, flourishing.

Image: Hannah Lovell

A beguiling sound-world of two female voices, soprano Patricia Auchterlonie and mezzo Simone Ibbett-Brown, and three pianos (the MA, VA, and VAL’NAK’SHA) rendered both strange and familiar what we knew. Drama lay as much in their interaction, glittering, lyrical, highly logical, yet capricious, and so much else, as in the words and scenic directions of White’s compelling libretto. A Prologue set the scene in terms of musical processes—and pitches, four of them eventually ceding their place to a fifth, and so on, as diminution of note values had our thoughts and responses gather pace. Mesmerising movement from Waters personified, their dress seemingly as integral to the whole as musical and verbal processes, helped create and order a visual framework, yet also bent our aural perception and understanding. The ‘transdimensional canals’ through which Kes’Cha’Au’s journey took her—and us—suggested a melding of physical and metaphysical, of quantum mechanics and spatial manifestation, and so much else: something, or some things, we consider to be art, history, culture, everything we consider both to impart value to our lives and yet also to defy notions of mere value. Symbols, ciphers, directions, whether verbal, visual, or in the half-lights and half-lives of piano and vocal reverberations, ‘traces of our passage’, propelled us on our way, perhaps to understand but certainly to wonder.

My immediate desire, upon reaching the end—or should that be the beginning?—was to wish to start again, to listen and re-listen, to watch and re-watch, in the light of tentative progress I had made. It was as if those numerical relationships that formed the walls of the universe itself had become sound, movement, and much else, as if the sounds that did likewise had become words, numbers, movement, and so on. Asking what came first was less beside the point than a question that never arose. Such, I think, was testament to the quality both of work and performance.

Image: Hannah Lovell

Thursday 19 August 2021

BBC Proms (6) – Connolly/BBC SO/Brabbins: Payne, Berlioz, and Beethoven, 13 August 2021

Royal Albert Hall

Anthony Payne: Spring’s Shining Wake
Berlioz: Les Nuits d’été, op.7
Beethoven: Symphony no.6 in F major, ‘Pastoral’, op.68

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

It was a lovely idea to open this concert, originally to be conducted by Andrew Davis, with a work by Anthony Payne, who died earlier this year. Spring’s Shining Wake is an interesting piece in conception, shadowing the course, as Payne put it, of Delius’s In a Summer Garden, without ever quoting from it. Opening with ‘an entirely personal and independent ground …, only very loosely related to the model, the work then proceeds to find equivalents in my vocabulary for every structural and textural move in the Delius.’ Such music—Delius and ‘other late-Romantic English composers’—had been very close to Payne in his youth; only then, in 1980-81, did he feel he had attained the detachment necessary to attempt such an experiment. For me, the soundworld seemed closer to Schoenberg than to Delius, though it could hardly be taken for either. In that respect, this might almost have been a tribute to the Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16: not only in harmony but in motivic writing too, albeit more strongly obbligato than Schoenberg’s opening, so-called ‘recitative’ movement. Dawn-like, moving into a fuller awakening in more Bergian climax, the work evoked fine playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whether its string bedrock or wind soloists. Martyn Brabbins’s direction seemed spot on too: never intrusive, yet guiding Payne’s score clearly, revealing it as a tone poem of unusual yet, in some sense, strangely familiar qualities. A telephone call—alas, not the last of the concert—offered an intriguing touch of audience participation.

Sarah Connolly joined the orchestra for a moving performance of Berlioz’s song-cycle Les Nuits d’été. ‘Villanelle’, the first song, proved aptly welcoming and sharply etched, Brabbins and Connolly providing plenty of space for solo instruments to speak. The nervous energy generated was not exactly allayed but rather transmuted in ‘Le Spectre de la rose’, its long melodic lines finely shaped by soloist and orchestra alike. There was something ineffably uncanny and poignant to the memories and sentiments of nostalgia evoked, providing not only a crucial connection to the songs to come but also to Payne’s Spring’s Shining Wake. ‘Sur les lagunes’ was gravely beautiful, a deeply Romantic vision that prepared the way for the sadness of ‘Ah! Comme elle était belle et comme je l’aimais! Je n’aimerai jamais une femme autant qu’elle.’ Taken slowly yet never ponderously, ‘Absence’ showed again that a certain lightness is often necessary to plumb Berlioz’s depths. The moonlight of ‘Au cimetière’ might almost have been our destination, and so it momentarily felt, before the invigorating sense of departure, of adventure, in the closing ‘L’Île inconnue,’ its spirit quickened by both voice and orchestra, often in tandem. This was a performance full of light and shade, whether in timbre or something more metaphysical.

Fresh, lively, detailed, the opening of the Pastoral Symphony promised much, somewhat in the line of Berlioz. Subtle inflections that told without disruption likewise spoke of an ability to balance competing demands. If the first movement turned out to be quite a brisk stroll, less imbued with metaphysical meaning than many great performances of the past, Brabbins guided it with intelligence and a welcome lack of self-indulgence. The ‘Scene by the Brook’ flowed nicely, in not dissimilar vein, though here I came to feel more urgently the lack of a propelling ‘voice’, Beethoven’s vision edged more closely toward conventional tone-painting. Its successor movement, swifter and lighter than usual, continued in like-minded fashion, though the Trio dug in more. Rustic within symphonic bounds, its lack of silly ‘effects’ was welcome. The Storm was somewhat well-behaved; I could not help but wish that a little more had been at stake, while admiring the scrupulous balance struck between pictorial and symphonic. Beethoven’s transition to the finale, though, was admirably, respectfully handled. If that final movement itself glowed and proceeded with intelligence, I was ultimately left asking what it had all meant. This is not of course the Fifth Symphony, but it still needs—at least for me—something more.

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Hänsel und Gretel, British Youth Opera, 12 August 2021

Holland Park Theatre

Mother – Hilary Cronin
Father – Jack Lee
Gretel – Ellie Neate
Hansel – Amy Holyland
Dew Fairy – Rosalind Dobson
Sandman – Eva Gheorgiu
Witch – Fiona Finsbury

Southbank Sinfonia
Stephen Higgins (musical director)
Max Pappenheim (arrangements, sound design)

Daisy Evans (director)
Loren Elstein (set and costume designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Not at all what I was expecting—and in many ways all the more moving for it. British Youth Opera, hosted by Opera Holland Park, presents a Hänsel und Gretel for our times. This was not, I hasten to add, a Hänsel replete with masks, ventilators, Microsoft Teams, and so on. I think we all fear these will be theatrical clichés soon to descend and slow to depart. Rather, preparation for performance, adjustments made, and what we see and hear on stage and through headphones resonate strongly with recent and current experience in and out of the theatre.

The work is reworked, as it were, so as not only to offer a lightly metatheatrical treatment, but also to enable ways of hearing especially, necessarily prevalent over the past eighteen months to shape, perhaps even to invade, our theatrical space. We begin in medias res, rather than with the Overture. Rehearsal for a traditional staging is under way, directed by an actor-ly woman who, suggestively, later plays the Witch. (Her chance at last to shine, or something more sinister?) Two children, Hannah and Gemma, commence a disruption of proceedings that offers both opportunity—the path to their surprise assumption of the central roles—but also apparent danger, let out into the world without their telephones, their parents both concerned and distracted. Daisy Evans, artistic director of Silent Opera, brings her experience to bear in having much of the earlier action play out on two aural levels: we set our headphones according to whether we wish to listen to the children’s or the adults’ perspective. In practice, we probably flit between the two—as with our eyes too, sometimes in harmony, sometimes not. It initially seemed surprising that this experiment did not continue, but coming together after estrangements of various kinds is surely the point here.

Likewise the counterpoint, for want of a better word, between a small live instrumental ensemble and a fuller recorded orchestra transformed in various unexpected ways by Max Pappenheim. Such tension and overlap tend, like a new English version of the libretto—perhaps it would be better to say of the story itself—both to enhance and estrange, like much recent experience. We make our way through, together, then, like Hänsel and Gretel—or Hannah and Gemma. Resourceful use is made of the stage, of earlier designs, of found objects, of electronic means, but above all of theatre itself. When it all comes together, we rediscover with true joy what we have been missing—yet perhaps also recognise ruefully what continues to be absent.

Amy Holyland and Ellie Neate made for a colourful central pair, charting vocally and scenically the theatrical transformation, far from linear, of Hannah and Gemma into Hänsel and Gretel. Hilary Cronin and Jack Lee, taking on a larger slice of the action than would generally be the case, shone similarly as their parents in accomplished musical and dramatic performance. One often had only to tilt one’s head to witness another, unsuspected layer to the action. Fiona Finsbury clearly had an excellent time in her roles, as did the rest of a cast which worked very well together. Coordination of scenic and musical elements by Daisy Evans and Stephen Higgins not only worked well, but combined to provide in itself heightened emotional response at what remains a time of deeply heightened emotions.

Wednesday 11 August 2021

BBC Proms (5) - Ferschtman/BBC PO/Storgårds: Byström, Sibelius, and Schumann, 10 August 2021

Royal Albert Hall

Britta Byström: Parallel Universes (world premiere)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47
Schumann: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, ‘Rhenish’, op.97

Liza Ferschtman (violin)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
John Storgårds (conductor)

Fine performances here from the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds, from violinist Liza Ferchtman too. If my enthusiasm was considerably stronger for the second half (rather less than half) of the concert than the first, that was on account of repertoire rather than performance.

Britta Byström’s Parallel Universes was another of this year’s Proms commissions. Where Augusta Read Thomas, two nights previously, had presented a ballet of proteins, reflecting in contemporary terms on the hall’s Albertine heritage of arts and sciences, Byström’s inspiration came from the cosmologist Max Tegmark’s conception of parallel universies, ‘in which we might encounter exact copies of ourselves’. Its four sections, or ‘levels’, corresponded to Tegmark’s four levels of ‘multiverses’. Her account in the programme of the techniques employed to transfer this conception into music whetted the appetite, yet I could not help but feel, at least on a first hearing, that the result was of generic, ‘soft modernist’ Proms commission music. At the first level, high-lying strings—one encounters them at the opening of many such a piece—did a little swarming. At the second, there was greater harmonic change and, to be fair, some genuinely beguiling sounds at what we might call its centre. And so it continued, over twelve minutes or so. There was nothing to frighten anyone away; it was skilfully put together, colourful within bounds, and yet…

On to Sibelius. Replacing Jennifer Pike, Liza Ferschtman gave a commanding performance of the Violin Concerto, ably supported by Storgårds and the BBC PO. Ferschtman’s opening silken tone developed into something richer and darker as required. Storgårds, visibly and audibly, knew just when to have the orchestra dig in to produce something extra, when to scale back, and much more. The first movement in particular benefited from a good sense of harmonic rhythm. It was on the grand scale, leading to a thrilling coda, though I confess to a lack of understanding on why the composer takes so long to get there as he does. Rapt intensity, not least from Ferschtman’s violin and the horns, characterised much of the slow movement, full orchestra responding in ardent fashion. There was no question of Ferschtman’s Romantic conception of the work and it was probably all the better for it. Razor-sharp in the finale, against a colourful and powerfully directed orchestra, Ferschtman clearly knew where she was going and how to get there. There were times, though, when I had to take her word for it.

Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony received a fresh performance, full of life and extremely well balanced. (Pay no heed to fashion victims who tell you Schumann’s orchestra must be small; it must be balanced.) Storgårds’s first movement was typical of the whole: flexible, directed, and with a keen ear for detail, structure in time becoming form. Beethovenian (motivic) and Mendelssohnian (textures, inner parts) tendencies were present, but Schumann’s sum was rightly very much more than any number of parts. The second and third movements flowed nicely in their own allied yet different ways. A strong sense of line guided unobtrusively in these legs of what it was tempting to consider as Schumann’s Rhine Journey. ‘Characteristic’ characteristics, if you will forgive the term, were present, not least wonderfully Mendelssohn-like longing in the third. One’s first encounter with Cologne Cathedral will surely always be special. Given that I had waited so long, seeing it only in early 2020, just prior to Götterdämmerung, there was something especially moving about the fourth movement’s musical re-encounter. It is not the Cathedral itself, of course, but music, and that proved luminous, well-paced, comprehending, and quietly, even not so quietly, magnificent. Thereafter, the final offered necessary release, shifting the immediacy of its predecessor to a powerful, moving memory. The vernal freshness of the first movement returned, if indeed it had ever truly gone away, but lightly transformed in the light of experience.

Tuesday 10 August 2021

BBC Proms (4) - Moser/Bournemouth SO/Karabits - Bates, Elgar, and Janáček, 9 August 2021

Royal Albert Hall

Mason Bates: Auditorium
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, op.95
Janáček: Taras Bulba

Johannes Moser (cello)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Kirill Karabits (conductor)

‘Welcome to tonight’s concert, given by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under its Chief Conductor Kirill Karabits,’ read the Proms programme, ‘in which they present music inspired by the past.’ To which it is difficult not to reply: I suppose so, but is not this category so broad as to verge on the meaningless? Elgar’s Cello Concerto is included because it allegedly offered ‘a last glimpse of the Edwardian era’ but also, more puzzlingly, ‘was … to be the composer’s last orchestral masterpiece’. It is not entirely clear how that fits at all. Here, anyway, were three fine performances of orchestral works: perhaps it is better to leave it at that.

First was Mason Bates’s Auditorium. I suspect if you liked this sort of thing, this was the sort of thing you would like. For me, I am afraid, it promised considerably more than it delivered, the promise being one of a musical haunting, that of the orchestra on stage by ‘a ghostly electronically processed recording of neo-Baroque music’ performed on period instruments. Different tuning sounds augured well, one interrupting the other. As for the rest, what the composer described as ‘a kind of musical Ouija board, in which musical riffs are traded’ by the two ensembles ‘across the void’  proved a damp, if loud, squib. Yes, there were dance rhythms old and new, but nothing sounded especially old, the recorded music for the most part sounding like film music for synthesiser. For once, at least balance problems regarding the harpsichord were obviated. At one point, things grew a little more frenzied; then they calmed down. That was about it, save for a return to tuning sounds and a bit of electronic noise.

If Elgar seemed like another world, ‘past’ or otherwise, that is doubtless because it was. Indeed, the opening bars sounded somewhat peculiar in the light of Auditorum, my ears partly expecting to hear a similar opposition between soloist and orchestra as between orchestra and recorded sound. I listened my way in through an unusually broad introduction, though, helped by the Bournemouth orchestra, Karabits, and of course cellist Johannes Moser. The first movement and indeed the performance as a whole sounded splendidly Romantic, with a broader sense of context than many ‘English’ performances permit. Tchaikovsky, for instance, loomed large, for this was undoubtedly in some senses quite a heart-on-sleeve performance. So accustomed have we become to the idea that this is a post-First World War elegy that it is instructive, and here was enjoyable, to hear another side to the coin. The intensity of Moser’s playing, however, defied such limited characterisation, as did Karabits’s thoughtful, collegial direction. Likewise in the scherzo, instrumental virtuosity entirely at the music’s service, excellent Bournemouth woodwind similarly making their mark. A deeply felt slow movement seemed to shape itself naturally, like a song. Though it did not seem to be taken quickly, quite the contrary, it was over far too quickly. The finale erupted from its conclusion, Moser really digging into his strings—and to his emotional reserves. This movement was both synthesis and final development, clearly born of a passionate commitment that ultimately unleashed Elgarian ghosts of Parsifal. For an encore, Moser and the cello section played Casals’s Song of the Birds.

Janáček’s Taras Bulba followed, its opening, organ, bells, and all, full of mystery, contrasts, and expectation. In ‘The Death of Andriy’ and beyond, Karabits communicated with ease how melodies and fragments—are the two here distinct?—combine in Janáček’s music to create a greater whole: as in the operas, yet perhaps not quite the same. Karabits skilfully kept the movement on the verge, never boiling over. It was full of incident: narrative, if you wished, but never reductive. The second and third movements emerged as if second and third acts to a wordless opera: a drama, at any rate. In the second, the sense of a new day soon turned darker; this was, after all, ‘The Death of Ostap’. Janáček’s narrative was sharply, humanly etched, as it was in ‘The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba’, never more so than in the affirmative glow of its close. As an intriguing encore, the orchestra gave the Overture to the Taras Bulba opera of Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. Tchaikovskian, at least to my untutored ears, it seemed very much in the mould of the old pot pourri overture. It clearly means something important to Karabits—‘very personal to me’—and excited orchestra and audience alike.

BBC Proms (3) - BBC NOW/Bancroft - Thomas, Ives, and Dvořák, 8 August 2021

Royal Albert Hall

Augusta Read Thomas: Dance Foldings (world premiere)
Ives: Orchestral Set no.1: Three Places in New England
Dvořák: Symphony no.9 in E minor, op.95, ‘From the New World’

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ryan Bancroft (conductor)

n excellent American-themed concert from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and its Californian Principal Conductor, Ryan Bancroft. It began, as is right, with a new work: Augusta Read Thomas’s Dance Foldings. For the 150th anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall, founded to promote the arts and sciences alike, the BBC has commissioned four new works to reflect the arts and sciences in our world. Dance Foldings is the first, Thomas taking as the starting point for her material ‘the metaphors, pairings, counterpoints, foldings, forms and images inspired by the biological “ballet” of proteins as they are being assembled and folded in or bodies’. As she observes, the animations one can view online of proteins folding can resemble assembly lines or ballets, both types strongly suggesting ‘musical possibilities’. The sense of ballet music, even without dancers, was strong from the opening: hard-edged, sharply rhythmic, ‘alive-from-the-inside’. The orchestra, including piano, suggested a post-Agon world, perhaps even some commonality with Henze, though it was Stravinsky who more frequently came to mind. There were rhythmic, melodic cells, but there was also, increasingly, mirroring, chain-like progression, and transformation, leading us through a musical maze that suggested something both spontaneous and yet, once done, set in stone (or, perhaps, an amino acid chain). Urgent, unquestionably forward-looking, and highly colourful, t were a work and performance both raucous and controlled, as if evoking a life-force more scientific than often one encounters in the concert hall.

Charles Ives’s First Orchestral Set, Three Places in New England, followed, an all too rare opportunity to hear Ives’s orchestral music in the concert hall. I would not say the misty opening of ‘“The St Gaudens” in Boston Common’ sounded more ‘modern’, but rather differently modern, its known/found melodies notwithstanding. In highly atmospheric, expertly shaped performance, it sounded like music of the clouds and/or music emerging from the clouds. Ligeti was not far beyond—or should that be behind? At any rate, Ives’s pioneering spirit was unquestionably, poetically present. ‘Putnam’s Camp’ was admirably clear, the riot of tunes heard against each other and gaining from that experience without losing their own identity. There was a fine sense of what I thought of as the programmatically spatial: this was music in some sense ‘about’ space, temporal space included, irrespective of the space in which it was performed, or at least not confined by that latter space. Still more mysterious at its heart, the movement seemed to explore the age-old dramatic dichotomy of private and public, as well as old and new, in ways that never ceased to surprise and to enliven. Enigmatic, liminal, ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ proved in its breadth as complex as its predecessor—so long as one listened. There was something ineffably human at its base or its far-away, aurally glimpsed hymn-book source, but there were no easy questions, let alone answers.

The New World Symphony opened similarly broadly, as if in keeping with social distancing on stage, yet with no lack of tension. Bancroft’s principal tempo for the ‘Allegro molto’ was, if anything, on the swift side, but not unreasonably so. He was flexible too, permitting keen woodwind plenty of opportunity to sing. There were some strikingly Wagnerian moments to this first movement: harmonically, but also in the way the cellos ‘spoke’. Grave brass and soft strings prepared the way for that melody in the ‘Largo’. It moved, without being harried; in short, again it sang. As did much else: not in one voice, but in many, more than the sum of their parts, not entirely unlike Ives’s music. Bancroft shaped the movement unobtrusively, comprehendingly, another nice touch being the nod to Mendelssohnian processional (the second movement of the Italian Symphony, as in the First Night’s Sibelius Second). Indeed, there was a strong sense of narrative: not necessarily programmatic, but not necessarily not either. A properly urgent scherzo, to which harmony was as crucial as rhythm (or melody) gave way, through somewhat disorienting transition, to a polished, lyrical, rhythmic trio. As for the finale, this may sound facile—perhaps it is—but it combined and culminated. Lyricism was just as crucial here as elsewhere. What a tremendous symphony this is, in quite a different league from any other by Dvořak; and so it sounded here.


Sunday 8 August 2021

Bevan/ASMF/Wigglesworth - Wigglesworth, Mozart, and Ravel, 6 August 2021

St Martin-in-the-Fields

Ryan Wigglesworth: Piano Concerto: ‘Notturno’

Mozart: Piano Concerto no.12 in A major, KV 414/385p
Ravel: Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
Mozart: Concert Aria: ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te … Non temer, amato bene’, KV 505

Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Ryan Wigglesworth (piano/conductor)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields

The ASMF’s concerts at the church in which it was born and from which it takes its name were rare musical beacons during the few occasions last autumn when performance and attendance at performance were possible. The two concerts I was able to attend—maximum audience of thirty, for reasons best known to whichever eminent statesman was then making such decisions—meant a great deal to me. Here stood another in that line, albeit in slightly brighter times. Ryan Wigglesworth joined the Academy as both pianist as conductor, with Sophie Bevan the soprano soloist for the last two items. 

First, though, we heard some of Wigglesworth’s own music, the ‘Notturno’ from his Piano Concerto. According to the composer, this movement, in which chamber orchestra is reduced to strings and harp, ‘is a kind of fantasia on a Polish folk song I first heard sung, movingly, around a late-night campfire’. That I only learned after the event, but heard, following a (relatively) long string introduction, a piano solo, clear and directed (combining well in retrospect with music by Mozart and Ravel), sometimes in dialogue with harp, which seemed to set up material for subsequent variation and development. There was, I felt, a sense of lament, or at least of bitter-sweet lyricism. Henze with an English accent was one thought that came to mind, though perhaps that said more about me than anyone or anything else. I should certainly be intrigued to hear the rest of the work.

Without a break, the players moved into the first of Mozart’s two A major Piano Concertos, no.12. Wigglesworth’s direction may have been on the brisk side by historical standards, but not really by those of our own time. Most important, it yielded. The ASMF offered, as is its wont, cultivated and variegated playing. There was to be heard from all fine, seemingly instinctive senses of line and fun, inextricably interlinked. The opera house was rightly an inspiration but form, quite rightly, was communicated as of the concert hall. This is a concerto readily underestimated, but it was not here. If, in the slow movement, I occasionally missed the cushion of a larger number of strings, I should stress ‘occasionally’. For there was no gainsaying the excellence of playing, nor this movement’s role as the emotional heart of the work. Songful yet ever-developing, it was sometimes blighted by a mysterious high-pitched electronic sound from somewhere in the building (I presume), yet was never obliterated. The finale was keenly responsive and endlessly surprising: the spirit of Haydn, perhaps, yet unquestionably directed by Mozart, whose cadenzas were employed with great imagination by Wigglesworth.

I think that may have been the first time I had heard the Mozart concerto in the flesh: testament to just how narrow the benighted ‘repertoire’ has become, even in the case of its most widely acknowledged geniuses (if we may still use the word). It was also the first time I had had opportunity to hear Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, save on record. Why do we not hear them constantly? Who knows? This, at any rate, was a performance to savour. Thinned down to a delectable chamber ensemble, the Academy offered opening string quartet harmonics that, whilst perfectly in keeping with Ravel’s style and language seemed to peer across to Schoenberg and perhaps even forward to Ligeti. Etched like waves, they prepared the way for the vocal line to sail. In the second part of this first song, ‘Soupir’, a French vision of Vienna emerged from the string quartet. And what harmonies there were to be heard, not least from voice against, or rather with, piano. ‘Placet futile’ sounded a little more operatic, even before the vocal entry. Inviting, sensuous, and knowing in its mock-innocence, such qualities were both added to and questioned by Bevan in a garden of distinctly sunnier delights than Pierrot lunaire, whose ghost unavoidably hovers here. The instrumental introduction to ‘Surgi de la croupe et du bond’ seemed to long for something beyond: temporally or geographically, maybe even both. The ‘Asie’ of Shéhérazade? It unfolded, pli selon pli.

Finally, Mozart’s ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te … Non temer, amato bene’, KV 505. The opening recitative was well handled by all, the following aria slightly static at first but increasingly dramatic as it progressed, so perhaps that was a deliberate strategy. It benefited from fuller-throttled operatic treatment than anything heard previously, not only from Bevan on superlative form, but from the Academy and Wigglesworth. Here, if only in concert, was a true successor to Idomeneo from the seria-deprived (though never quite, as is sometimes claimed, seria-starved) Vienna of Joseph II. It made for a resounding, resplendent culmination to a wonderful concert.

Saturday 7 August 2021

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival (2) – The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H. (world premiere), 5 August 2021

Cockpit Theatre

Mary Matthewson (Sarah Nicolls), Mary Frances Heaton (Red Gray)
Images: Claire Shovelton

Mary Frances Heaton (voice) – Red Gray
Mary Matthewson (inside out piano) – Sarah Nicolls
Overseer/Asylum Attendant – Katie Webster

Zoe Bouras (director)
Katie Webster (movement)
Kristina Jjelm (lighting)
Rosie Whiting (costumes)

A fascinating evening encountering The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H.: perhaps more a resourceful theatre piece with music than opera, though it had something of music theatre to it too. As with other instalments in Tête-à-Tête’s 2021 Opera Festival, though, we should not get bogged down with what ‘is’ or ‘is not’ an opera. Sometimes it matters, for instance when that question proves an intrinsic part of the work and its challenge, but that was not the case here.

Mary Frances Heaton, Overseer (Katie Webster)

Stitched-up-Theatre here presents the tale of Mary Frances Heaton, words and music formulated together by Red Gray and Sarah Nicolls, who also played respectively the title role and a fellow inmate, a second Mary, Matthewson. Mary Frances Heaton was arrested in 1837 for a breach of the peace, having insisted on payment from a clergyman for one of her lessons. She was sentenced to life imprisonment at Wakefield’s Pauper Lunatic Asylum and never saw the light of day again. Using words from medical reports and her own words, sewn into patients’ clothes and samplers she embroidered—also part of the designs—Gray and Nicholls have told and reimagined her story in a way that can hardly fail to elicit sympathy and outrage at the injustice, Katie Webster’s vicious roles as Overseer and Asylum Attendant speaking more broadly of societal attitudes towards both women and those judged to be ‘lunatics’, electric shocks to the pelvis included. Vocal style ranges from popular song to art song to something more operatic, moments of transition often particularly telling in performance.

On the ‘inside out piano’, her own invention, Nicolls offers music and performance ranging from conventional salon music to ‘prepared’ contemporary. All the time, the arresting image of her instrument contributes its own visual aesthetic and, perhaps, if one wishes, Foucauldian social commentary. There is more minimalist music using asylum cutlery and crockery, enabling responsorial sympathy and solidarity between the two Marys. And there is dramatic physicality in the movement of sheets, both figurative and more realistic. As we take our seats, there is introductory piano music by the nineteenth-century English pianist and composer, Kate Loder: a welcome opportunity to hear music clearly influenced by Chopin and other early Romantics. Had I realised what it was, I should probably have listened more keenly. That doubtless tells its own story.

This is Mary Frances Heaton’s story, of course: a tribute to her spirit and an indictment to the society that crushed it. We might have seen and heard things differently, had it been that of Mary Matthewson or someone from the authorities. But that is part of the point; other untold stories can be told too. This one, absorbing and sympathetic, is very well worth telling, seeing, and hearing.

Wednesday 4 August 2021

BBC Proms (2) - Baker: Bach and Baker, 1 August 2021

Royal Albert Hall

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552, ‘St Anne’
Martin Baker: Improvisation on Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552
Bach: Fantasia in G major, BWV 572 (‘Pièce d’orgue’)
Baker: Improvisation on Bach’s Fantasia in G major BWV 572
Bach: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
Baker: Improvisation on English Melodies

Martin Baker (organ)

Following a fine performance of the Poulenc Organ Concerto on the First Night of the Proms—and Nina Raine’s play Bach and Sons at the Bridge Theatre, on Saturday afternoon—Sunday morning brought a Proms organ recital from Martin Baker (replacing, for obvious reasons, the originally advertised Olivier Latry). The second largest organ in Britain, on which Bruckner gave a series of celebrated recitals (including improvisations) less than a month after its actual baptism, found itself in excellent hands for an engaging programme of Bach and Baker’s own improvisations. Organists are accustomed to adapting not only to entirely different instruments but to strikingly different buildings and acoustics, often far from ideal for either instrument or music. There was no sign of any such problem here. The music might have been conceived for this particular occasion—as, of course, some of it was.

First, though, we heard the great—in more than one sense—E-flat major Prelude and Fugue from the third volume of the Clavier-Übung. Double-dotting invoked Bach’s French inheritance, though there was nothing dogmatic to this or any other aspect of Baker’s approach. Instead, quite rightly, he took advantage of the instrument under his hands and feet, also remaining stylish throughout. Transitions between sections in the Prelude were well handled, balancing twin demands of continuity and impetus. Fugal devices were communicated with almost Mozartian élan. The Fugue itself was taken at a measured tempo, permitting growth without being hurried and imparting a sense of Trinitarian strength: the Rock of Ages, we might say. And yet, it still gathered pace for a delightfully bell-like, pealing culmination.

The opening of Baker’s improvisation forsook such bright sounds for flutes, slightly muffled by comparison, taking up part of the Prelude’s opening theme for its own use. This proved a gateway for exploration of the instrument as much as anything else, drawing on other material from Bach’s work in something that began to resemble a post-Lisztian paraphrase on Bach. Like a fine continuo player, Baker led us skilfully from one aria to another, or rather from one Bach work to another. Indeed, one might almost have missed the beginning of the G major Fantasia, BWV 572, whose very different concerns seemed in turn to grow out of Baker’s improvisation. The Fantasia, a somewhat strange work to which I have never quite warmed, in turn suggested Bach the improviser and provoked a further instance of Baker’s own improvisational skills. Here, the French organ school seemed more in evidence, though never to be pinned down to direct ‘influence’. New colours and devices again showed off not only the instrument, but also the potentialities of Bach’s material to which all of us, whether as performers, listeners, or composers, respond so differently. The C minor Passacaglia afforded another fine encounter material and instrument (not to forget organist too). There arose a grand feeling of necessity and inevitability, even implacability such as surely influenced Brahms and twentieth-century successors too. This was a modern, syncretic Bach, his stature undeniable, with nothing to prove and everything to be gained.

It was followed by Baker’s final improvisation, ‘on English melodies’. For some reason, I had been expecting something more folk-like, but was soon disabused. Pomp and Circumstance references, from an opening fanfare onwards, reminded us of another aspect of the Proms. Bach’s previously heard E-flat Prelude and Fugue, known to Anglophones as the ‘St Anne’, on account of the fugue subject’s likeness to William Croft’s hymn tune (‘O God, our help in ages past’), was honoured once more, albeit at one remove, Baker taking Croft rather than Bach as his material. ‘Nimrod’ too was present in what took on the character of an aural parade, musical favourites passing by, sometimes returning (and combining). ‘Pivot’ chords both pivoted and sometimes piqued our attention by behaving otherwise. Plentiful reeds and mixtures led to a climactic contest between Elgar and Croft, in which collaboration rather than competition ultimately won out.

Sunday 1 August 2021

First Night of the Proms – Hyde/BBC SO/Stasevska: Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, MacMillan, and Sibelius, 30 July 2021

Royal Albert Hall

Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music
Poulenc: Organ Concerto in G minor
James MacMillan: When Soft Voices Die (world premiere)
Sibelius: Symphony no.2 in D major, op.43

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano)
Jess Dandy (contralto)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone)

BBC Singers (chorus-master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Dalia Stasevska (conductor)

Cards on the table. Poulenc aside, I have not previously been a great fan of the music of any of the composers featured in this year’s First Night of the Proms. It does one good, though, to test one’s preferences and prejudices; in any case, this was a moment of return for which I wanted, even needed, to be present, almost irrespective of repertoire. Last year saw a few Proms at the end of the season, albeit with no audience. I was not in London for the summer of 2019, so it was not far off three years since I had lest ventured to the Royal Albert Hall. This was a lovely concert for which to return.

And what piece could be more apt as an opener than Vaughan Williams’s Shakespearean hymn to music? (Whatever my ambivalence toward some of Vaughan Williams’s output, I have loved this piece since first hearing it as a schoolboy.) Its London pedigree—premiered here in 1938 by Sir Henry Wood, for whose diamond jubilee as a conductor it was composed—made the Serenade to Music all the more apt. This was a performance imbued with delight from its opening chords, Vaughan Williams’s orchestration and later vocal writing resounding perfectly through the hall’s challenging acoustic. Dalia Stasevska’s direction, untroubled by drab English tradition, drew from the BBC Symphony Orchestra sonorities and languor it was difficult not to think of as in the line of Ravel, with whom the composer had studied three decades earlier. Stasevska’s shaping of contours and climaxes was spot on, permitting words and above all music to speak and sing for themselves. Especially memorable (for me) were duetting arabesques between Elizabeth Llewellyn and leader Igor Yuzefovich; the deep summons of ‘affections dark as Erebus’ by Michael Mofidian; Jess Dandy’s contralto call, ‘Music! Hark!’; and the final choral echo of Llewellyn’s ‘sweet harmony’, bathed in sweet orchestral warmth. There were no weak links, though, in a magical performance.

Also written in 1938 was Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, here given an excellent performance by Daniel Hyde, the BBC SO and Stasevska. The splendour of its opening is quite different in nature, of course, yet offered another fine Albert Hall moment. Registration was always well chosen for score and instrument alike. Hyde rightly played his part straight, as did strings whose imploring sweetness seemed to prefigure Poulenc’s later sacred music and even the Dialogues des Carmélites. Wagnerian harmonies were soon put to decidedly anti-Wagnerian use, posing questions rather than answers, Poulenc’s mock-Bachian gestures relishing the fairground of barely suppressed desire. For there was serious questing at the heart of this performance, whatever the masks Poulenc cunningly employed, wit and poignancy two sides of the same coin.

Co-commissioned by the BBC and Help Musicians, When Soft Voices Die
ames MacMillan’s setting of two poems by Shelley, emerged as a workable companion piece for the Vaughan Williams Serenade, using as it does four soloists and orchestra (no chorus). Performances were as committed and variegated as elsewhere, Llewellyn recalling the virtues of her Puccini roles. As for the piece itself, there was craftsmanship in MacMillan’s setting and no denying his taste in verse. Nevertheless, conservatism aside—Vaughan Williams and Poulenc seemed almost avant-garde by comparison—the overall sense was of anonymous proficiency.

Finally Sibelius, with whose symphonies I have long struggled. I shall not bore you with that now, other than to say this was the first performance both to convince and move me. Perhaps it was simply the right time for this music to come knocking on the door, but surely it was more than that: testament to another fine performance, flexible yet directed. by the BBC SO and Stasevska. It was striking that, even to a long-term sceptic, the opening of the first movement seemed to speak as if an old friend. Balletic lightness of touch recalled Tchaikovsky and, beyond him, perhaps more surprisingly, the orchestral writing of Mendelssohn. Not that that precluded the ardent and majestic where required, quite the contrary. Soon I could only wonder what my problem with this music had been. Pizzicato cellos and double basses in the second movement both picked up from the first and contrasted with it. Mendelssohn again came to mind as a processional forerunner, this time the Italian Symphony, though of course the music developed very much in its own, again not un-Tchaikovskian way. At any rate, rhetoric in performance seemed designed to be understood in terms of such inheritance. I am not sure I quite appreciated the movement’s lengths, but that is doubtless my problem; after all, some others still feel that way about Schubert. A third movement full of nervous energy, woodwind in its trio a necessary contrast in many ways, prepared the way for a finale that combined strong senses both of expectation and culmination. We were nearly there, that is, but there was some way yet to go. Stasevska imparted a wondrous sense of inevitability and ultimately triumph to this final leg of the journey. I may not quite be a Sibelius (or Vaughan Williams) convert yet, but greater curiosity has certainly been piqued. Just please do not ask me to sit through The Lark Ascending