Sunday, 20 August 2017

Michael Boyd's Debussy

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

Pelléas Jonathan McGovern
Mélisande Andrea Carroll
Golaud Paul Gay
Arkel Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Geneviève Susan Bickley
Yniold William Davies
Doctor Dingle Yandell
Shepherd Joseph Padfield

Conductor Jac van Steen
Philharmonia Orchestra
Director Michael Boyd

Garsington Opera Festival, 1 July 2017

Debussy's only completed opera is a special one, quite unlike anything else musically in the repertoire.  On an idyllic summer's evening at Garsington Opera on the Getty family estate it was the turn of director Michael Boyd to bring the symbolist opera to life.
Andrea Carroll as Melisande
The setting was an ornate old theatre, seemingly risen again from the bottom of the ocean. Boyd was inspired by old theatres he had seen in Detroit, left in a state of "gloomy, exquisite and overgrown decay".  So, perfect for Pelléas and it provided an inspired setting for a production which was otherwise refreshingly straightforward.

Jac van Steen was a steady hand for the wonderfully atmospheric score with its Debussian take on Mussorgsky and Wagner.  The orchestra had us all entranced, none more so than a woman nearby who spent the entire evening staring at the tympanist's every move.

Andrea Carroll was a very fine Melisande opposite Jonathan McGovern's solid Pelleas.  They were a youthful pairing with excellent support throughout the cast. The production's success was crowned as Acts Four and Five only increased in intensity, and lingered long in the memory.
Garsington Opera's temporary structure

Monday, 26 June 2017

Alexander Karpeyev in full bloom

Recital: "1917 The Final Flowering"

PROKOFIEV Vision Fugitives, Op. 22 Nos. 1, 3, 8-11, 14-15, 18-20
Sonate-Ballade, Op. 27
Prelude Op. 78 No. 1
Lullaby Op. 78 No. 2
Waltz Op. 61 No. 5
Reproche Op. 61 No. 6
Caprice Op. 61 No. 2
‘Nïne otpuschayeshi’ from All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (arr. Rachmaninov)
Etude-Tableux, Op. 39 No. 7
Three movements from Petrouchka (arr. Stravinsky)

Alexander Karpeyev, piano
Savile Club, London, 22 June 2017
2017 is of course the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution.  A seismic event in so many ways, Russian music was forever changed also. 
Alexander Karpeyev

Russian pianist Alexander Karpeyev here gave a fascinating and satisfying programme built around works from around 1917 by Russian emigres.  All left Russia before or straight after the revolution, and had greatly varying relationships with their homeland afterwards.  

Some like Rachmaninov never returned.  Others like Prokofiev and Medtner did, not that they got along once back in their homeland.  "His playing was good, if a bit boring", the prickly Prokofiev wrote in his diary after a Medtner recital.

No such problems on this night.  Karpeyev has a burgeoning reputation as an interpreter of the period and at a sweltering Savile Club it was not hard to hear why.  Karpeyev's magnificent technique combined with a powerful artistic vision of each piece.  Medtner's Sonate-Ballade benefited greatly from this kind of advocacy and reached an engulfing conclusion.  Karpeyev, amongst other things, is the Artistic Director of the International Medtner Festival.

Rachmaninov, and - a composer new to me - Grechaninov were broadly aligned in their lush late-romantic sound worlds.  Karpeyev strongly characterised each miniature.  A particularly magical moment was a rarely heard piano arrangement of Nyne otpuschayeshi from Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil.  In the original the conclusion requires "octavists", especially low bases customarily found in Russian choirs who sing one octave lower than the normal bass voice.  The piano also concluded deep in its lower registers.

After the pealing bells of Rachmaninov's Opus 39/7 Etude-Tableux, we were left with that most thrilling of 20th century piano showpieces - the Three Movements from Petrouchka.  Stravinsky never thought much of the piano, considering it essentially a percussion instrument.  But what an exercise in rhythm it is, with a stupefying set of technical hurdles for the performer to jump.  Karpeyev's performance was technically spectacular but also brought out its musicality, with transitions particularly beautifully handled.  It was an overwhelming musical experience and brought the audience most deservedly to their feet.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Don Giovanni goes cruising

Mozart: Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni      Ashley Riches
Leporello     John Savournin
Donna Anna      Lauren Fagan
Don Ottavio     Ben Johnson
Donna Elvira     Victoria Simmonds
Il Commendatore     Graeme Broadbent
Zerlina     Ellie Laugharne
Masetto     Ian Beadle

Dane Lam, conductor
Oliver Platt, director
Holland Park Chorus and Orchestra

Holland Park Opera, London, 16 June 2017

As so often at Opera Holland Park, this new production blew all the cobwebs away.  Naturalistic acting, increased contemporary recognition and originality to put many a major opera house production to shame.

The idea here was setting the opera on a luxury cruise ship circa 1910Anyone who has seen Titanic will be familiar with the divisions between first class passengers and those on the lower decks.  This provided the platform for the class divisions that are so central to the plot: aristocrats versus peasants.  Time and again the search and costume change scenes came over as much more dramatically plausible than is normally the case.  It was smart acoustically also, projecting the voices most effectively in a difficult open air location.
Ashley Riches as Don Giovanni
Oliver Platt directed a lean version of the score, not always controlling the orchestra's volume to allow the voices to come across clearly.  One voice that needed no accommodation was Lauren Fagan's Donna Anna, providing the most arresting moments of the evening with her dramatic and thrilling grip on every note.  Ashley Riches and John Savournin were a well-matched pair as Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello.
Lauren Fagan's powerful Donna Anna
Leporello's Catalogue Aria
The Commmendatore was consigned to the cooler after his demise and arrived in full ghoulish form at the climactic dinner scene.  How good to see a genuinely horrible Commendatore instead of the rigid, powdery statue which is the norm.  At the conclusion Don Giovanni is not consigned to the flames but rushes over the ship railings to a watery death. 
Don Giovanni! I've come to dinner
At the very end there were some ill-advised recitative cuts.  Zerlina/Masseto, Don Ottavio/Donna Ana, Donna Elvira and Leporello received no chance to wrap up their plots.   The only genuine misstep in a most enjoyable and stimulating production of Mozart's eternal masterpiece.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960)

Iestyn Davies Oberon
Sophie Bevan Tytania
Jack Lansbury Puck
Clive Bayley Theseus
Leah-Marian Jones Hippolyta
Nick Pritchard Lysander
George Humphreys Demetrius
Clare Presland Hermia
Eleanor Dennis Helena
Matthew Rose Bottom
Andrew Shore Quince
Lawrence Wiliford Flute
Sion Goronwy Snug
Nicholas Sharratt Snout
Simon Butteriss Starveling
Elliot Harding-Smith Cobweb
Ewan Cacace, Angus Hampson Peaseblossom
Adam Warne Mustardseed
Noah Lucas Moth
Willis Christie, Lorenzo Facchini, Angus Foster, Nicholas Harding-Smith, Kevin Kurian, Charles Maloney-Charlton, Robert Peters, Matthew Wadey chorus of fairies

Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra
Netia Jones direction, design, projection
Ryan Wigglesworth

Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 11 June 2017, Aldeburgh

Benjamin Britten premiered his A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1960 and it has been consistently popular ever since.  After the re-opening of Snape Maltings in 1967 a new production was presented, and now Aldeburgh Festival was celebrating 50 years since this event.

Technology has moved on since the 60s and video projections are increasingly common in production design.  Netia Jones is making a name for herself, with imagery which are better synchronised with the action.  No drops were placed in a character's eye without a huge image of a substance being dropping into water on the wall to wall screens that were the backdrop to the stage.
Iestyn Davies mesmerising as Oberon
Ms Jones, production set the play in the Victorian age.  The visual style a homage to dreamy early Victorian photography.  The boy fairies were ghostly figures in sunglasses.  Tytania wore full Mrs Haversham cobwebby dresses.  Oberon a still and sinister apparition in powdered silver outfit. 

Netia Jones' approach of projecting imagery onto the screens created bewitching light and perspective effects at times.  But for much of the afternoon the projections from the front made the poor singers look like someone trying to give a talk with the powerpoint slides shining in their face.

Vocally this was an outstanding cast with no weak links.  Iestyn Davies was mesmerising throughout, physically and vocally, Sophie Bevan's soprano delightfully agile, and Matthew Rose's Bottom dominated the stage.  The Rustics were gently humorous and the four lovers made the best they could with roles that as written are quite impossible to make interesting.  Diction was a problem throughout, with the honourable exceptions of Davies and Clare Presland's Hermia.  Jack Lansbury had a tumbling good time as Puck.

Ryan Wigglesworth directed a finely nuanced reading.  The orchestra were magnificent, not least in the bewitching opening to Act 3.  Never has Britten sounded more like Arvo Paert.  A dream indeed.
Snape Maltings at interval

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Concentus Musicus Wien farewell the Brahmsaal

Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 59 in A Major "Fire"
Piano Concerto in D
Violin Concerto in C
Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor "Farewell"

Concentus Musicus Wien
Erich Hobarth, violin
Stefan Gottfried, piano

Musikverein Brahmsaal, Vienna, 28 May 2017.

On the strength of this concert Concentus Musicus Wien remains in rude health, despite the absence of its legendary late music director Nikolaus Harnoncourt.  Its harpsichordist Stefan Gottfried is the current music director and the ensemble has great quality across the board.

This was well illustrated by the superb musicianship of both Mr Gottfried and Erich Hobarth, who stepped up from the ensemble to give their accounts of two well known Haydn concerti. Impeccable, expressive and (as one might expect) beautifully in-tune to the orchestra around them. 

The musical highlight was the Fire Symphony, surely one of Haydn's best.  Concentus Music attacked from the word go, the period strings' gutsy tone added to the taut drama as did the horns terse interjections.  The flow and fun of the finale was quite ideal.  Irresistable.
The Brahmsaal, Musikverein
For the final work, the Haydn Farewell Symphony was given. At the famous premiere, Haydn's Esterhazy orchestra each walked off stage as they concluded their parts in a protest at how long they were being kept from their families.  This bit of theatre was here repeated.

Before the performance, Mr Gottfried spoke.  Concentus Musicus had long felt that it should again be performing in the Great "Golden" Hall of the Musikverein.  Its next season would again be in the Goldener Saal, so here was their farewell to the more intimate Brahmsaal.  On the strength of this performance, richly deserved.
The Musikverein facade, Vienna

Monday, 15 May 2017

Respighi from the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia

Rossini: Overture, The Siege of Corinth
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1
Respighi: Fountains of Rome; Pines of Rome 
Orchestra of Santa Cecilia Rome
Sir Antonio Pappano conductor
Yuja Wang piano
Royal Festival Hall, London, 11 May 2017
Antonio Pappano's Santa Cecilia orchestra has been making its mark on the international scene in recent years, but the orchestra's history goes back over a century to 1908.  Its string sound is on the lean side but with plenty of texture; a natural platform for an outstanding set of woodwind soloists.  The repertoire was focused on Italy, with a Rossini overture to start (always welcome) and the better two of the Roman Tryptich of Respighi.  This orchestra has special claims to these pieces having premiered them both in the early twentieth century.  It is highly pictorial music, from its depictions of flowing water to the moods of dawn and dusk.  There was no doubting the sensitivity of Pappano's approach and the superb contributions of his woodwind.  For the ground-pounding conclusion with the Roman Legions marching in triumph into Rome, Pappano stationed the brass high around the hall for extra surround sound effect.  A cinematic touch for the music that launched a thousand movie soundtracks.
Antonio Pappano conducts the Santa Cecilia Orchestra

A wonderfully withdrawn Valse Triste of Sibelius led into Rossini concluding the evening with the second encore of the William Tell overture.

Earlier, Yuja Wang had displayed all her supersonic piano technique in the Tchaikovsky piano concerto.  Tchaikovsky wrote a notoriously episodic concerto, and Pappano and Wang did nothing to fix that particular problem.  All moments were given their full indulgence, whether rapt reflection or thunderous attack.  Anything resembling an onward musical flow was lost, from which the big loser was the conclusion of the first movement which was stripped of all majesty and became yet another moment of display.  As so often the second movement fared well and Wang was genuinely thrilling in the finale.  The encores were memorable: a very fine Schubert/Liszt Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, and then the jazzed up hyper-virtuoso version of Mozart's Rondo all Turca was a show stopper for which an inevitable ovation followed.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Santtu-Matias Rouvali on the rise

Smetana Vltava from Má Vlast
Elgar Cello Concerto
Holst The Planets

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conductor
Alban Gerhardt cello
Leicester University Chamber Choir
Leicester Bach Choir

23 April 2017, Royal Festival Hall, London
Santtu-Matias Rouvali

Santtu-Matias Rouvali was a new name for me, but most certainly one to watch.  The Finnish conductor is about to take up the directorship of the Gothenburg Symphony and here gave plenty of reasons to understand why.

He has a great shock of blond hair and a very demonstrative conducting style with arms high and expressive.  He has an excellent ear for orchestral balance and the evening was littered with fine interpetative moments which showed careful preparation.  One such was during the great tune from Jupiter in The Planets when he scaled back the strings to bring out a woodwind chorale.  Vltava also benefited from a genuine interpretative vision, sounding as fresh as the day of its premiere in Rouvali's hands.