Monday, 25 April 2016

Karita Mattila a knockout in Janáček

Leos Janáček: Jenůfa opera (1904)

Adriana Kohútková soprano, Jenufa
Karita Mattila soprano, Kostelnicka Buryjovka
Jaroslav Brezina tenor, Steva Buryja
Ales Briscein tenor, Laca Klemen
Svatopluk Sem baritone, Stárek (foreman)
Yvona Skvárová mezzo-soprano, Starenka Buryjovka (grandmother)
Lucie Silkenová mezzo-soprano, Karolka
Ludek Vele bass, Rychtár (mayor)
Jana Hrochová mezzo-soprano, Rychtárka (mayor's wife)
Marta Reichelová soprano, Jano
Katerina Jalovcová mezzo-soprano, Pastuchyna (herdswoman)
Katerina Kneziková soprano, Barena (servant girl)
Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno
Czech Philharmonic
Jirí Bélohlávek conductor

Royal Festival Hall, London, 18 April 2016

Leos Janacek
How well the music comes to life in these concert performances.  Janacek composed a vivid score for this dark tale of love, death and winter set in a Moravian village.  It is equal parts dramatic and lyrical and Behohlavek ensured both were given their due.  The Czech Philharmonic were in fine form projecting detail throughout and careful not to overwhelm the singers in the big moments. 

There was drama in the casting.  Adriana Kohutkova sang Jenufa, and excellently.  However at her side was one of the role's most famous exponents - Karita Mattila - but now singing the role of the Kostelnicka (step-mother).  Mattila was in full diva mode, not even acknowledging Kohutkova sitting next to her.  The central vocal quartet was completed by the strong voices of Jaroslav Brezina as the cynical Steva and the fine mix of yearning and discomfort of Ales Briscein's Laca.
Karita Mattila

In Act 1 the lyrical approach of the Czech's paid full dividends as the delightfully characterful writing came shining through.  In music in which idiomatic Czech language is essential, the Brno choir were ideal.

Mattila has a fabulous voice with a penetrating quality and a tone like stretched silk.   Presumably the role is still new to her as she was buried in the score at times.  But my goodness how she flattened the hall with the big Act 2 moments.  Having horribly drowned the child of Jenufa, she was totally compelling as the winter winds blew into the room, personal and moral anguish overwhelmed her and she felt the "icy hand of death, tearing at my heart".

Amid such emotion one forgave some irritations.  Non-existent or incomprehensible surtitles, and a curious reluctance for singers to relate to each other on even a basic level when the plot asked for it.  By the end Laca and Jenufa were finally making eye contact, as some happiness in the story was at last achieved.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Francois-Xavier Roth conducts Wagner, Berg, Mahler

Richard Wagner  Prelude to Act 1, Parsifal
Alban Berg  Seven Early Songs
Gustav Mahler  Symphony No. 5
London Symphony Orchestra
Camilla Tilling soprano
Francois-Xavier Roth conductor

Barbican Hall, London 21 January 2016


"After Romanticism" was the title of the concert, and certainly in the resonance-free acoustic of London's Barbican Hall, Parsifal had never sounded so abstract and modern.  Wagner's long musical lines of religious mysticism stepped abruptly into silence.  Not for the first time the excellence of the LSO strings was striking. 
Francois-Xavier Roth

Berg followed, the words vividly interpreted by soprano Camilla Tilling even if she rarely projected her voice far into the hall.  And then to Mahler after the interval.  Roth writes of this period of the end of the 19th and start of 20th centuries fascinating him and throughout this reading he seemed intent on emphasising the strangeness of Mahler's new sound world.  Written in 1901-2 this sprawling masterwork baffled contemporaries and Roth was inviting us back into that jarring first encounter.  

Organic dimensions were recessed and the sheer weirdness of the orchestration at for example the close of the second movement, was striking.  This is a personal favourite amongst Mahler's uneven symphonic output, but I found myself with sacrilegious thoughts.  Surely 10 minutes could be cut from the Scherzo and not be missed?  Does the finale really work, and doesn't it also carry a lot of fat?  

At the crucial adagietto, it was all a bit calculating for this love poem.  At the climax Roth's baton-less hands flailed at the air, part Stokowski, part claws.  It was a visual counterpart to a moment that wanted a more delicate approach. 

So a night of mixed results.  But Roth is clearly a conductor of strong ideas, and with the LSO strings on majestic form this night will linger in the mind.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Patricia Petibon lives it up at Wigmore Hall

Patricia Petibon soprano 
Susan Manoff piano

Recital: "La Belle Excentrique"

Songs and piano solos by: 
Reynaldo Hayn
Erik Satie
Manuel Rosenthal
Gabriel Faure
Francis Poulenc
Fernando J Obradors
Manuel de Falla
Joaquin Turina
Joseph Canteloube
Leonard Bernstein
George Gershwin
Agustín Lara

Wigmore Hall, London, 16 December 2015


A pianist wearing an elephant nose?  A soprano in a chef's hat and apron?  Rubber ducks, balls and assorted ridiculous paraphenalia pulled out of the piano and flung into the well-heeled Wigmore audience?  This was not an ordinary song recital.

Patricia Petibon
Patricia Petibon was making her Wigmore Hall debut with a highly original programme of turn of the 20th century music.  The range was enormous from deeply felt and exquisitely realised laments, to fiery Spanish showpieces, to the gloriously eccentric creations of Satie and Rosenthal.  This in itself was bewildering for the audience as the tone went from high art to farce with hardly a break between. 

Petibon has a very fine voice, able to ripple and flutter through treachorous texts and fill the room with glorious ringing tones.  To this she adds a highly expressive face and a marvellous sense of fun.   How many times do we hear and see the ironic creations of Erik Satie given straight-laced;  the humour po-faced; apart from a smirk at the end from the performer the demeanour little different from if it was a Hugo Wolf recital.

Petibon and her partner in crime Manoff would have none of this.   The culmination was in a fabulous performance of Leonard Bernstein's setting of La Bonne Cuisine - a cookery book totally not intended to be song lyrics.  Bernstein's setttings of Plum Pudding, Ox-tails and Rabbit were savoured, relished.  Was this a recital, or a student revue, or old fashioned cabaret?

Petibon is a true original and let's hope we see more of her in London.  Until then anyone unfamilar with her art could do no better than her wonderful performance on an Opus Arte DVD with Les Arts Florrisants in Rameau's Les Indes Galante.  

Friday, 10 July 2015

Prague Spring 2015 - Mahler Symphony No. 3

Mahler: Symphony No. 3

Czech Philharmonic

Jiří Bělohlávek, conductor

Smetana Hall, Prague, 22 May 2015 


The Prague Spring music festival is an institution in the Czech capital and it was a privilege to hear the resurgent Czech Philharmonic orchestra in the marvellously resonant Smetana Hall.  

The Smetana Hall in Prague
After the fall of communism the orchestra’s quality had dwindled, but Jiri Belohlavek has masterminded the turnaround in the fortunes of the Czech Phil since he took it over again in 20012.  It is of course famous for its Czech music – Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek  - but its qualities also well suited this night’s programme of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Jiří Bělohlávek

The mighty Third is written on a massive scale of 6 movements, with depictions of the natural and spiritual world at its core.  The creamy strings were a glory to listen to when they led the soaring melodies of the first and last movements. 

The primal nature of the eruptions in the first movement were also particularly arresting in this hall which has a wooden floor on the first floor up within the town hall complex.  The brass sound loomed up from the back of the orchestra and together with the percussion created a vibration that could be felt coming up through the legs of your seat.

Only the off-stage horn solo was not entirely achieved in the Scherzo.  The on-stage string sound was heavy and obscured the distant calls.  However Belohlavek’s interpretation was assured throughout, and very satisfying at its conclusion. 

Steinbach am Attersee, Austria where Mahler wrote some of the Third Symphony

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Brahms from Budapest

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Overture, The Magic Flute 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat, K.271 
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.1

Budapest Festival Orchestra 
Iván Fischer conductor 
Maria João Pires piano

Royal Festival Hall, London, 20 May 2015

Maria Joao Pires
This fantastic orchestra again brought an enormously cultured and intelligent programme to London’s Royal Festival Hall.

The opening Magic Flute overture of Mozart set the bar high.  The interpretation was detailed and well prepared.  Phrases were rounded with care, and sonorities were rich without losing the essential lightness of touch that this work requires.

With Maria Joao Pires as soloist in the Mozart 9th concerto there was never going to be a turn towards heaviness after the overture.  Pires draws you in, her simplicity of utterance feeling almost radical. In the chamber-like interplay between soloist and orchestra in the last movement Pires and Fisher were in their element; fine musicians, totally engaged in the score.  Her luminous encore from Schumann's Waldszenen rounded off her performance in true Pires fashion: eloquent, humble, haunting.

If one was to have any doubts about the exalted nature of the evening, it was the Brahms First Symphony that provided them.  Fisher and the Budapest players have a thoroughly considered view of this score.  Each phrase and detail was placed within an overall arc to the interpretation.  These are the kind of qualities you get from a Mariss Jansons or Krystian Zimerman also.  However there was a nagging suspicion that for all its sonic beauty and sculpted phrases and paragraphs, the last movement lacked a sense of abandonment when required.  Can surging excitement in music be so carefully prepared?

The encore was just wonderful.  The musicians put down their instruments and began to swap positions.  It then became clear the men and women were dividing into two halves standing around the conductor’s podium.  Fisher then directed the orchestra – now a choir – in an a capella Brahms motet.  The Budapest Festival Orchestra never fail to delight.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Ott's glorious Grandes études

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor Op. 31 No. 2 'The Tempest
Johann Sebastian Bach
Fantasia and Fugue in A minor BWV944 
Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV1004 V. Chaconne (arr. Ferruccio Busoni) 
Franz Liszt
Liebesträume, 3 notturnos S541, II & III
Grandes études de Paganini S141 

Alice Sara Ott, piano

23 April 2015, Wigmore Hall, London
Alice Sara Ott

A game of two halves.  In the first, Alice Sara Ott was a reasonably brittle performer.  She was at her best in the reflective, moonlit moments of the Beethoven Tempest Sonata, but her ability to shape a coherent whole was less evident.  This was most lacking in the Busoni arrangement for piano of Bach’s famous Chaconne originally written for violin, which was episodic and failed to maintain an underlying pulse or a genuine sense of culmination at its majestic conclusion.  This was her Wigmore Hall debut and she did not appear totally at ease.

What a transformation after the interval then.  Sara Ott’s Liszt was a marvellous thing. Her Liebestraume were very fine, but it was the Paganini Grand Etudes which stole the show.  She was totally assured, each delivered like a delicately drilled clock mechanism, the hands spinning, whirring and crossing.  And most importantly each was first and foremost musical.  It was the polar opposite of Khatia Buniatishvili’s Liszt-murder on the same platform last month.  The technical and the musical inseperable.  Indeed, as legendary piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus wrote:

"The word technique comes from the Greek word τέχνη meaning 'art'.  Any improvement of technique is an improvement of art itself and consequently helps to reveal the content, the hidden meaning; in other words it is the material, the real body of art."   

Amongst the technical challenges Sara Ott's unerring sense of fantasy remained, putting to shame many an expressionless performance of these works by other virtuosi, and revealing a whole world of art.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Argerich and Barenboim - a golden duo

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

Staatskapelle Berlin 
Daniel Barenboim conductor 
Martha Argerich piano

20 April 2015, Royal Festival Hall, London

A concert featuring Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim?  Who could resist?  And with Stephen Kovacevich in the audience there were at least three master pianists at the Royal Festival Hall on the night.  This concert was burdened with the highest expectations, but for those who had travelled from far and wide to attend there was to be no disappointment.

The Beethoven First Piano Concerto commenced with the most hushed of openings from the excellent Berlin Staatskapelle, before blooming into a wonderful tutti.  The golden string section rippling attractively without over-romanticisation.  This classical approach was taken up by Argerich and a totally engaging performance developed.  Martha Argerich is probably incapable of being dull.  The subtle variation and weighting of passages, the crystalline attack on notes and chords, were sublime.

And the musicianship needed to be of a top level. The interpretation was daringly broad, at times almost static, but saved by the massive artistic command of the musicians and the sheer delight of the musicality of the performance.  How exquisite to hear such interplay, the free flowing meeting of musical minds.

That the performance was met with an ovation was perhaps to be expected.  What followed was not.  Out came an extra piano stool and Barenboim and Argerich proceeded to give a thoroughly leisurely account of Schubert’s Rondo for piano 4 hands.  The two pianists sat close together at the piano across almost 10 minutes of golden melody.  Unforgettable.

The Berlin Staatskapelle rounded off the evening with a very fine account of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.  The concertmaster was the most relaxed of violin soloists depicting the Hero’s wife, and Barenboim coaxed a satisfying shape and sonority to the quasi-Wagnerian conclusion.