Showing posts with label Berlin Philharmonic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Berlin Philharmonic. Show all posts

Sunday, September 07, 2014

St Matthew and St Mark?

It was one of the hottest tickets in town yesterday: the semi-staged performance at the Proms of the Bach St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle conducting, direction by Peter Sellars. Add to this the Berlin Radio Choir, singing from memory, an all-star cast and a packed Albert Hall that was ready for anything...

Well, almost anything. We were not quite ready for the utterly devastating performance that Mark Padmore gave as the Evangelist. In Sellars' concept - sometimes convincing, sometimes less so - the Evangelist carries everything, experiencing the emotions and traumas of each character, supporting them, leading them, suffering in their place. Christ - the astounding Christian Gerhaher - is a distant figure, seated above the orchestra and outside the action through the first half, then entirely off stage for his scant few phrases in the second. The Evangelist lives the drama and is its focal point. The beauty, nuancing, clarity and stillness of Padmore's voice would have been enough to carry the night on its own, but his every move magnetised us and convinced us that he felt every anguish, every burden and every lash. If the British music business had not already given him a virtual sainthood by repute, they certainly should now. (Gerhaher, of course, is just as magical, but has frustratingly little to sing.)

The staging has its ups and downs, many of them literal. A lot of rushing around is involved and sometimes one wished they'd keep still for a few minutes. Yet some extraordinary images unfolded that also enhanced the music at a profound level, notably through the interaction of the instrumental soloists with the singers, moments that carried a plethora of meanings. Sometimes the players seemed to represent the soul, the conscience or the better self; perhaps even God, or Bach in place of God? Magdalena Kozena sang 'Erbarme dich' kneeling at the feet of her violinist; Camilla Tilling in 'Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben' stood in close quartet with her oboists and flautist; Emmanuel Pahud, no less, beside her right shoulder. Tenor Topi Lehtipuu stretched up towards an unattainable oboist in the organ inset; bass Eric Owens appeared to pray for mercy before a vengeful virtuoso fiddler. 

Rattle's tempi were largely very brisk, sometimes too much so - occasionally I longed for an old-school influence to bring back a little more time for breath, contemplation and refulgence, since some of the intricate instrumental writing whooshed by to somewhat unsettling effect. But the magic was there all the same and the moments of stillness stood out all the better. The episode that brings the whole work together is (I feel) the final bass aria, 'Mache dich mein Herze rein' - here he understands, accepts and transcends all that has gone before. If that doesn't do its job, nothing does. It worked. 

My personal frustration with the staging is mostly due to the sonic impact, as it entails much clonking about and some directional echoes which are the fault of the RAH's acoustic, not the performers. Still, there's much to chew over: the presence, or lack of it, of Jesus himself (we might ask: is he real?), those intimate dialogues between singers and instrumentalists, that soul-searing performance by Padmore. 

Would less be more? We can feel the suffering in the music; we don't need to see it. The spiritual catharsis of this work, like Parsifal's, is perhaps better internalised if there is not too much to observe and assess: that process puts us outside ourselves, switches on our objective brain and mutes the intuitive, emotional plane that's necessary for the full cumulative effect to reach us. (Btw, I am not religious in any way, shape or form; yet perhaps that makes the spiritual dimensions of Bach and Wagner all the more meaningful.)

What seemed at the time a long, hot evening now haunts for its ineffable beauty, its deeply human quest for meaning and its all-consuming, tour-de-force performances. 

In the foyer I spotted the head of the LSO, who may or may not have been clutching a metaphorical butterfly net. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The trouble with sparkles

T'other day I was out shopping when the girl behind the counter, returning my credit card, handed me a gift of a Christmas cracker covered in sparkles. I think our neighbours must have got one too, because they put through our door a cracker joke that runs: "Which players can't you trust in an orchestra? The fiddlers."

The trouble with the sparkles is that they're fairy dust and they fall off. Next thing you know, they're on the kitchen floor, in the cat food, under the piano, on the train and, by now, probably all over the Royal Festival Hall.

And they've got into JDCMB. We all sometimes need to get our sparkle back, so here are five favourite bits of musical glitter and winter snow to light the long evenings, aided and abetted by some great dancing. And they're not all Russian. Don't forget that this Friday it's the Winter Solstice and time for the JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards!

Prokofiev: The Winter Fairy, from Cinderella - Frederick Ashton's choreography, with Zenaida Yanowsky



Schubert: Der Winterabend, sung by Werner Gura with pianist Christoph Berner. The gentler sparkle of moonlight on snowy stillness...




Tchaikovsky: The Silver Fairy variation from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty (look! No Nutcracker!). Danced by the Royal Ballet's Laura Morera.



Brahms: Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang. (Yes, there are sparkles in Brahms. Just listen to this...) Abbado conducts members of the Berlin Phil and the Swedish Radio Choir.



Rachmaninov: Suite No.2 for two pianos, second movement - Waltz. Alexander Goldenweiser and Grigory Ginzburg don't play it as fast as Argerich and Freire, but there's time to wallow in the glitter.







Thursday, August 04, 2011

Don't make such a cadenza of it....

Those were the words my dad used to trot out when I had a piano or violin exam and I got nervous. It seemed kind of unfair. You're shipped in to strut your scales in front of a glum stranger on a chilly day with no warm-up, to say nothing of the sight-reading, which was always an odd and unmusical piece written specifically to catch you out... Ugh. It was all right for Dad. He didn't have to play. "Don't make such a cadenza of it," he'd say. Or alternatively, "Don't make such a matzo-pudding..." I can't explain the matzo-pudding, having never eaten one, but the cadenza implication is clear: it's the musical equivalent of throwing one huge wobbly.

I couldn't help a nostalgic smile when it turned out that some high-profile appearances by Claudio Abbado and Helene Grimaud are now not going to happen because, allegedly, they have had a fallout over a cadenza. One of the happier side-effects is that in the opening concerts of the Lucerne Festival next week, Grimaud is being replaced by RADU LUPU, who is not the kind of guy you expect to catch as stand-in, but rather someone whose appearances you make damn sure you book for a year in advance. And I'm going to be there. I'm fond of Helene, but if I could choose any living pianist to hear play Brahms 1 in concert, it really would be Lupu.

The cadenza in question, though, is not for Brahms, but for a Mozart concerto. Apparently the pair had "artistic differences". Now, we've been trying to work out how a conductor and soloist could manage to fall out over a cadenza. Isn't this the moment at which the conductor stands back and lets the soloist do her own thing, whatever it may be? And given the scale of the concerts she's now missing - huge dates with ticket prices to match, and, one imagines, contractual obligations and appropriate fees - it must be a pretty awkward spat. Someone suggested to my colleague at the Indy that the pair "needed a break from each other".

Or...are they just making too much of a cadenza?

Still, if anyone's going to make a matzo-pudding about artistic differences, it would probably have to be in Mozart. Let's have a look at their different approaches.

Here's Grimaud playing some Mozart at Suntory Hall, Tokyo.



And now here is Maestro Abbado - who, if you remember, JDCMB readers voted "Greatest Living Conductor" in a poll a few years back - with the Berlin Phil in the Overture to Le nozze di Figaro.



Any thoughts?