The Philharmonia- Gerhardt, Rouvali April 22nd 2017

Two or three years ago, there was a Philharmonia concert at DMH which featured a conductor quite new to me, a Finn by the name of Santuu-Matias Rouvali . When he almost danced his way onto the podium and waved at the audience, all the old prejudices associated with conductors of classical music rose to the surface. They are supposed to be at least middle aged, the older the better. This fellow looked hardly out of school. Instead of a studied stick technique, the baton carved out great arcs in the air and he actually seemed to be enjoying himself, as well he might having been handed one of the best orchestras in the world to conduct. In addition, he had the cheek to be playing one of the most blithe pieces of music in the repertoire, Bizet’s Symphony in C, which the great Sir Thomas Beecham had made his own with his unique ability to convert into the exquisite what some would think simply to be charming. Well, suffice it to say that the young man achieved precisely that and thus immediately put him onto my list of musicians worth listening to.

So, his return in an intriguing mainly English programme was much looked forward to. For other reasons it was a significant event since a fortnight before it had been announced that he, and another fine talent, the Czech Jakub Hrusa, had been appointed Principal Guest Conductors of the orchestra and this was his first concert in Leicester in that capacity.

In the event, right from the opening of Smetana’s Vltava the music making showed precisely why the appointment had been made. The woodwind music of the opening can just sound like a bit of woodwind twiddling before the famous tune emerges. Here in the DMH acoustic the conductor achieved a quite wonderful liquidness from the very start of the journey downstream. On the way the peasants danced , the water nymphs swam, the Rapids boiled to dramatic effect and the grandness of the river as it approached Prague had a fine majesty. In fact, the performance, instead of being merely a series of picturesque scenes, had an onward overall momentum which was highly impressive.

So far so good, but I wondered how the much more formidable challenge of Elgar’s great Cello Concerto would be met, performed by a German cellist and a Finnish conductor. Here again prejudice can get in the way. We used to complain that English music was not enough played abroad but could be very snooty about the results when foreigners actually took in on.

Well, many foreigners are beginning to do precisely that and the results can be compelling. In this case, I thought it to be one of the most moving performances of the work I have heard. A friend of mine likes to divide solo cellists into the romantics and the aristocrats. The German Alban Gerhardt is clearly of the latter group. The playing rarely sought to emote and yet every sudden turn of feeling, of which there are many in this immensely subtle work, seemed to be caught unerringly. The scherzo had a tremendous fizz to it and yet the apparently effortless beauty of soloist’s tone invested the reflective moments throughout the work and particularly at its end with a poignant dignity which was the very quintessence of Elgar at his greatest. Miracles of miracles, the accompaniment too seemed utterly in accord with this vision. A performance to treasure.

Lastly came Holst’s planetary exploration, once again a work indelibly connected with great conductors of the generation of Sir Adrian Boult, who conducted the first performance and whose way with the work somehow seemed the gold standard against which all was to be judged. I remember, for instance, in his performances the very effective steady build up of tension in Mars, The Bringer of War.  Rouvali on the other hand went a different route, taking it at a real allegro and with the massed brass of the Philharmonia in thrilling form this seemed equally right. I have never heard a more convincing depiction of the horror of 20c. battle. Indeed in every movement , with the orchestra on scintillating form, Rouvali revealed himself as a master of musical characterisation. Time and again he hit the target. Particularly memorable for this elderly fellow was Saturn, The bringer of old age in which Holst’s chilling landscape was memorably evoked culminating in the terrible jangling climax, which communicates for me all the pain experienced by many with growing old, only for the movement to end with what might be taken as stoical acceptance. One could go on. Mercury was indeed virtuosic like quicksilver and the strings in the famous tune in Jupiter were richly warm without the patriotic pomp and circumstance of the hymn tune it became which was so far from Holst’s vision. Indeed, as in the Smetana’s dancing peasants, the conductor made much of the rollicking folk element in this movement. By the end, I thought that like the Elgar it was hard to remember a more convincing performance of a much played piece. One thing is sure. The Philharmonia’s rapport with this conductor is something to marvel at and one can see precisely why he was offered the post of Principal Guest Conductor. Next season’s first concert will feature Jakob Hrusa so Leicester will have a unique opportunity to compare these two new stars in the orchestra’s firmament.

 

Event in May

 

On Saturday May 13th at 7.30 p.m and at the New Walk Museum the young pianist Martin James Bartlett makes his Leicester debut. Though I have yet to hear him, I suspect this is a concert not to be missed. A past winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, he is now being spoken of as one of the most exciting players of his generation. Indeed, I gather a week after the concert he flies off to America to take part in the final of the prestigious Van Cliburn competition. Consequently, there has been some adjustment to the original programme with the inclusion of a Beethoven sonata.

English Touring Opera- April 12th and 13th 2017

To quote the aged Captain Vere as he looks back at the end of Britten’s great  opera Billy Budd, ‘long ago now, years ago, centuries ago’ I was teaching in a Kent Boys Grammar school. This establishment took great pride that each year since 1911 their main school dramatic offering had been a G and S production. Received opinion then amongst many of those who thought themselves musically knowledgeable was that these operettas were ,as someone dismissively  put it, ‘ music for the unmusical’ and my Kentish experiences seemed fully to confirm that opinion. Hearing little boys stumbling through the female parts, watching a ‘production’ where, since it was still in copyright, the head of PE followed to the letter the D’Oyle Carte book ( this basically consisted of the cast standing around in semi –circles), watching members of staff doing their comic bit to an audience which hugged itself with delight at anticipation of each well known gag, listening to the awful orchestral  playing, all of this was for me an utterly dismaying experience. Worst of all was what I thought to be the ridiculously prissy view of sex and the thoroughly deplorable satire of older women who supposedly had lost their charms. Relishing Offenbach and Johann Strauss, I thought G and S exemplified everything that was dreadful about upper and middle class ‘Englishness’, a view I held until long after the copyright had lapsed.

Then the English National Opera started to mount G and S productions which I found revelatory, wonderfully played and sung, showing Sullivan’s music to be quite the equal of any in the world of operetta, the comedy produced and played with flair and with an absolutely straight face (which, of course, is the essence of successful satire and comedy). Finally the advent of surtitles revealed fully the wonder of Gilbert’s lyrics, in the rich tradition of Victorian surrealism to be found in such as Lewis Carroll.

ETO’s production of Patience, a work I had never seen staged until now, was up there with the best of them. From beginning to end it was a complete delight, obviously achieved after enormous attention to detail by the production staff and placed in a charmingly apt set in what I take to be William Morris green. (I noted that the conductor like myself attended the same Oxford college as the famous man!) Time and again such things as the Victorian invention of a medieval world that existed only in the imagination were skewered in all their absurdity.

It was immediately clear that movement had featured much in rehearsal. Quite recently, when discussing another operatic production, a friend and I remarked how well modern singers move. The stand and deliver days are well and truly over. It was a delight,for example, simply to watch Bunthorne dance around the stage with his quill pen held aloft. Conversely the scene in which the military attempt to imitate the aesthetes was divinely riotous as one saw limbs being stretched into poses soldiers were not meant to adopt.

Best of all was the person at the centre of all this topsy turvy world, the often bewildered down to earth maiden, Patience herself. She achieved something very difficult. She communicated perfectly by her understated movements, so contrasted against the exaggerated posing of the people around her, that she was the only person with any grasp on reality. She reminded me, perhaps as she was intended to, of Alice, indeed in Wonderland. Possibly the best joke of the evening was this apparently quite slight girl effortlessly carrying aloft a milk churn whose weight was far too much for the flower maidens even to move, and culminating in her doing a bit of stage re-arrangement by hoicking a large garden ornament to the back of the stage. Another treasurable moment was poor Lady Jane’s attachment to a double bass, reflecting the orchestration during her lament over her loss of allure. Besides being incongruously very funny, it also somehow created sympathy for the poor woman in what can otherwise be seen as a rather cruel moment in the piece, despite the loveliness of the music.

And the music was rendered very finely indeed by cast and orchestra. Right from overture the feather lightness and buoyancy of the orchestral playing made it clear that conductor Anthony Burke was intent on showing why he thought this score of the early 1880’s to be the finest to have been written in this country since the time of Handel in the first half of the 18c. It was often wonderfully more champagne than roast beef and beer, though in the military moments there was plenty of the latter. The chorus singing was splendid throughout. Bradley Travis and Ross Ramgobin as the two poets displayed fine but sharply differentiated baritone voices. These two artists surely have a great future. Conversely Andrew Slater’s assumption of Colonel Calverley was that of an immensely experienced singer, never putting a foot wrong in what are, thanks to Gilbert,  some very tricky operatic moments.

There were some equally fine female voices in the cast. Valerie Reid as Lady Jane was in lovely voice for her moment of lament and a number of others could be mentioned. However, finally it was Lauren Zollezi in the title role who quite rightly drew the cheers. Her stage craft has already been mentioned, the way with minimum movement she could draw eyes to her but of course the voice was in the end the thing and here it was a delight, silvery and agile, beautifully phrased throughout. So all in all this was a real winner, the kind of thing which ETO regularly produces.

Mindful of their triumphant production of La Boheme a few years ago, I wondered whether Tosca ,their second offering this year, would be equally successful. Well, there were a number of riveting moments but also correspondingly aspects which missed their target by some margin. That this was so was certainly not down to the conductor nor to the singers in the roles of Tosca and Cavaradossi. It has over the years been a constant source of wonder how Michael Rosewell manages with small forces to produce the authentic Puccini sound. Occasionally, as at the end of Act 1, the orchestra couldn’t quite produce the flood of sound demanded but elsewhere I lost count of the moments where one heard orchestral felicities often lost in a more expansive setting.

Also, absolutely no allowances needed to be made for Paula Sides as Tosca. Was it my imagination that she looked remarkably like Callas? That also perhaps says something about the subtlety, power and beauty of her singing and acting. Time and again she seemed effortlessly alert to every turn in this character’s complex character, shading her voice where required to convey her vulnerability as well as being thrilling as the tigress. Her great Act 2 aria was completely of a piece with her assumption, conveying wonderfully a woman so bereft and defenceless as to bring tears to the eyes. At such moments, how can one believe that this opera was once described as a ‘shabby little shocker’? The penetration and completeness of this performance was somehow for me exemplified by the extraordinary and unforgettable way she ascended a steep ladder into the roof of the theatre, like a swift athlete making sure her pursuers would never catch her alive.

In many ways Alexander James Edwards as her lover matched her in ardour. His voice had the required Italianate ring and he was especially good in the opening act as he fenced with the woman he loved. In the final act he movingly played Cavaradossi as a broken man, at least sceptical about what Tosca was telling him. The supporting roles were also cast from strength. Aled Hall was a particularly spine chilling and malevolently watchful Spoletta as he went about Scarpia’s business.

All of this made two major failings in the production all the more of a pity. Over the years in which ETO has been visiting Leicester, I have admired the way Craig Smith has been an indefatigable part of their productions. I have never found his baritone particularly pleasing but he has always managed something of a dramatic presence on the stage and this year I note he is taking the role of Scarpia 25 times out of 31. That is devotion for you. Sadly, however, I found him quite miscast. Vocally his rather dry grey sound failed to find any of the black power mixed with velvet by which this the most feared man in Rome can most memorably be evoked. The great Scarpias can command and terrorise almost with the lift of an eyebrow. The first entry in Act 1 can establish that in a second. Here,alas, it suggested the character to be an almost manic figure who had somehow barged into the church. In Act 2, the more the singer was moved about the stage, the more there was a failure to find in the lovingly moulded musical phrase the snake like and sensual insinuation of a man in control, a man who enjoys playing with the victims on his hook.

The production contributed in no small measure to this problem. I was somewhat surprised to find that the designer was common to both productions, with the G and S so fit for purpose and Tosca so manifestly not. Only in last Act did the set achieve some sense of a particular space and that was by keeping the doomed couple downstage. Also, the upright girder at the back of the stage which Tosca ascended prior to her final plunge could perhaps have been seen fittingly as a guillotine . Elsewhere I could discern no meaningful symbolism in the stage picture of Meccano- like girders. In Act 1 the church altar, the focus of much of the action was only to be recognised by Angelotti picking up his clothing disguise from under a girder. Scarpia’s room was so divided by the set, there was so much disconcerting movement between the segments, that what should have been a concentration on the relentless turning of the screw was constantly interrupted. If that was not enough, each journey across the girders demanded a hop and a skip to navigate them. Nor was there any imaginative use of lighting. The one idea was to spotlight Tosca for her big aria, which really says it all.  I have enjoyed many so called ‘daring’ productions which have annoyed the conservative section of the operatic public but such productions have had one thing in common, the ability to translate the ‘concept’ into meaningful stage action. That too rarely happened here.

Never mind. Opera is a complex venture and one will never please all the people, all the time. Suffice to say that the visit as a whole reminded the Leicester public yet again what a force ETO is in the operatic life of this country. More power to its elbow.