Showing posts with label Delius. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Delius. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Progress for the Pilgrim



Last week Delius in Wexford, this week Vaughan Williams in London: last night, ENO gave RVW's The Pilgrim's Progress its first fully staged professional performance since 1951.

Like Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet, this is not just a remarkable opera, but a shamefully neglected masterpiece - and by one of "our own" in "das Land ohne Musik". Like the Delius, it is far from conventional; it doesn't do those things we tend to think opera ought to do, although there is no particularly logical reason for the artform to stick to them - in other words, it's light years away from La Traviata. Like the Delius, it is slow and gorgeous, mesmerising rather than melodramatic, exquisitely orchestrated, incantatory in its lines.

Unlike the Delius, though, its high points are its choral writing, its concise, well-chosen words - liberally peppered with extracts from the Psalms and spiced here and there with super-perceptive satire - and its deep, rich spirituality. While the story obviously is Christian, there's a universality to it - much enhanced by this fabulous production - that had me, and others, in tears several times. Vaughan Williams himself moved "from atheism into cheerful agnosticism", according to his second wife, Ursula. His faith, one senses, is music: "music in the home, music in the heart, music in the heavens..." as one particularly glorious passage says. He offers us a score containing a great-hearted warmth and wisdom that can bolster our inner strength in the same way that faith bolsters Pilgrim's. Read this excellent piece by conductor Martyn Brabbins on the opera's history.

Clever, brilliant, inspired ENO, putting this work on now. It's a parable for our times: the polarisation of spirituality versus materialism, and the destruction of the non-conformist who dares to speak his own truth against the corrupt rabble of Vanity Fair. The anguish of loneliness; the glow of beauty that attends support when it appears. And the final mortal terror of crossing over to the beyond.

Director Yoshi Oida offers a production of harsh beauty, simplicity and power. The setting is a prison and Pilgrim's inner journey - in essence, John Bunyan reflecting on his dream - takes him to the electric chair. The imagery is focused, the tableaux striking, the designs - set and videos by Tom Schenk, costumes by Sue Willmington - magnificent and imaginative, haunted by World War I, yet never heavy-handedly so. Apollyon, the ogre, is delivered via a piece of giant-scale puppetry that has to be seen to be believed. Magnificent performances by Roland Wood as John Bunyan/Pilgrim, Benedict Nelson as the umbrella-wielding Evangelist (and more), and vignettes throughout by a superlative cast culminating with Ann Murray herself as Madam Bubble, Mrs By-Ends and one of the three Celestial Voices. Brabbins and the orchestra - which has been possibly at its best ever through this year - give the score an account that is fervent yet balanced, translucent yet heady, drawing out the contrasts within the subtle progressions of emotion and letting RVW speak through with all his radiance.

Go see. Fast. There are only seven performances in total.

On the way home from the theatre yesterday, we heard the news that Elliott Carter has passed away at the age of 103. It's farewell to a remarkable man and creator of very different yet just as immortal music. May he reach the Pilgrim's Delectable Mountains and cross the deep river to peace.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday catch-up and Friday historical...

Busy patch. Here are some highlights of days past and the weekend ahead.

>> I was on BBC Radio 4's Front Row the other day, in discussion with Klaus Heymann, founder of Naxos Records, about the way the record industry has changed since the company launched 25 years ago. If you missed it, you can catch it on the BBC iPlayer until Tuesday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01h75d9#p00s959x

>> Pianist Anthony Hewitt, "The Olympianist", has set off on his big ride from Land's End to John O'Groats and was lucky enough to encounter a strong west tail wind to get things started. He made it from kick-off to Truro in three hours, with his trusty BeethoVan close behind. Follow his progress via his website here. He's already raised more than £4000 for his seven musical and sporting charities.

>> The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards ceremony was held on Tuesday night at the Dorchester. Highlights included a gold medal for Mitsuko Uchida, whose speech was as vivid and genuine as her playing. So was Gareth Malone's - as keynote speaker he was gloriously positive. We are representing the best music in the world, so let's celebrate that! He stopped short of getting us all to sing, though. Maurizio Pollini was Instrumentalist of the Year and Claudio Abbado scooped the Conductor prize. Cellist Olly Coates was selected as Young Artist, heading off extraordinary competition from a shortlist that also included Benjamin Grosvenor and Sophie Bevan. It was an extremely good night for ENO, which won the Opera award for its Eugene Onegin. With them was Toby Spence, who won Singer of the Year, a prize that incidentally was decided upon well before the distressing news reached anybody that he has been having treatment for thyroid cancer. He tells me he is on the mend, supported by a superb team of doctors and vocal coaches. And he was wearing some spectacular leopard-print shoes. A fine time was had by one and all. Full list of winners here. A Radio 3 broadcast is coming up on

>> I've just attended a special screening of John Bridcut's new documentary about Delius. It's fabulous. Exquisitely shot, full of insights and containing one or two considerable surprises - not least, some unfamiliar music that has no business being as neglected as it is. A few familiar faces on board, too (hello, Aarhus!). Don't miss it. It will be on BBC4 on 25 May.

>> My latest piece for The Spectator Arts Blog is about the unstoppable rise of the modern counter-tenor. I asked Iestyn Davies to explain to us how That Voice works. Read the whole thing here.

>> Tomorrow the LSO is giving a free concert in Trafalgar Square, complete with Valery Gergiev on the podium. Expect lots of Stravinsky, big screens and a London backdrop second to none. And the weather forecast says that, for once, it is NOT going to rain. Even Prince Charles will tell you so. Apparently he's always wanted to be a weatherman. Now his guest appearance on BBC Scotland has gone viral...

>> On Sunday Roxanna Panufnik has the world premiere of her new choral piece Love Endureth at Westminster Cathedral, during Vespers, 3.30pm. You don't have to be Catholic to go in. Here's an interview with her about this multi-faith project that I wrote a few weeks back - for the JC.

>> Apparently Roman Polanski is making a film about the Dreyfus Case. In the Guardian he comments: "one can show its absolute relevance to what is happening in today's world – the age-old spectacle of the witch hunt on a minority group, security paranoia, secret military tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, governmental cover-ups and a rabid press." (Quite.)

And so to Friday Historical. Tomorrow is Gabriel Fauré's birthday. Here is Samson François playing the Nocturne No.6 in D flat.