The trouble with burning the candle at both ends is that while you're out and about, you're not writing. Therefore JDCMB is a little bit late with what follows.
Leif Ove Andsnes gave the same programme twice at the Wigmore Hall last week; I attended on the second night (11 April). Not sure what's with Beethoven Op.101 this season, but this was the fourth time I've bumped into it since October; this time it joined a mixed programme including Beethoven's Op.54, Bartok's Suite Op 14, an all-too-rare rendition of Liszt's 'Pensées des morts' from the Harmonies poetiques et religieuses and Chopin's C minor Nocturne and Fourth Ballade.
Nevertheless, the C minor Nocturne, its melody shaped with microscopically precise
sensitivity and beauty, giving way to a mingling of chorale and octave
storms that sends the cantilena into a fever of overturned emotion, was perhaps the high point of the concert. A treat and a half to hear such playing at close quarters rather than in the huge RFH.
Sunken Garden, ENO's world premiere from Grawemeyer Award-winning composer Michel van der Aa, took over the Barbican Theatre for a week.
Opera in 3D? Korngold once said, when he went to Hollywood, that some day whole operas might be written for the big screen; and here it was, with knobs on; one such knob being 3D specs that can be worn over your normal specs (v useful). As a 21st-century way of conceiving a musical stage work, mingling live performance with pre-recorded film including holograms of several singers who do not appear in the flesh, but with which the on-stage singers must interact, it's a presentation that needs - and received - the slickest and cleverest of integration in performance.
Responses have ranged from "this is the future", downwards. Several concerns. First of all, this opera has much in common with many "traditional" operas in that its story is so convoluted, and the enunciation of the (amplified) singers so unclear (except for the excellent Roderick Williams) that it was next to impossible to work out what was actually going on. Themes of conscience, cot death, euthanasia, afterlife, Dr Who-like self-projections, mystical oneness with the planet (think parachuting - but why?) - all mingle in David Mitchell's imaginative yet overstuffed libretto. We enter the Sunken Garden - actually the Eden Project - through a door under a motorway and find ourselves in limbo with some lost souls and an evil, or not, mastermind, or... hmm.
While the music undoubtedly has its moments - such as some memorable effects achieved by layering repetitive snatches of film and matching soundtracks - the number one requirement for a successful opera is that the music should be the best bit; the words should provide the runway from which it can take off and fly. Perhaps Sunken Garden's chief problem is that it is so busy dazzling us with its special visual effects that the aural element begins, inadvertently, to take second place. It is all hugely inventive and ground-breaking, significant indeed for the future of opera, yet not wholly successful in its own right.
The following night, Rustem Hayroudinoff played at St John's Smith Square, in an evening that had a fraction of the audience yet twice the impact (at least for us pianophiles). Rarely do you see the entire listening assemblage jump to its feet at the final note. This one did. The Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No.1 is rarely performed - probably because it is too difficult. It's a Faust Symphony for one instrument and ten fingers, and there is more extraordinary music in a single bar of it than in certain entire evenings of...well, you get the idea.
Rachmaninov weaves the work from a range of symbolic leitmotifs for different aspects of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles (helpfully illustrated by Hayroudinoff in his spoken introduction). These pianistic textures would sound as complex on a 100-piece orchestra. As a feat of out-and-out virtuosity it is unremitting, indeed mind-boggling; but to deliver the wild flights of Rachmaninov's imagination with such colour, fidelity, rigour, fire and serious bedazzlement is a phenomenal achievement. Hayroudinoff's performance brought back to life the grand Chaliapin-inflected Russian style, with a depth of perspective in the voicing that was more convincingly 3D than anything we saw in that physically 3D opera.
If someone doesn't frogmarch him into a recording studio and insist that he records this gargantuan piece to add to his impressive roster of benchmark, award-shortlisted Rachmaninov discs, then those of us who were there last Saturday will simply have to throw tantrums until they do. Oh, and he also played some extremely fine Bach and Liszt - the small matter of the Second Partita and the Mephisto Waltz No.1 and more.
What price trouser-pressed perfection? What price technological novelty? All you need is one person, one instrument, music of genius and a performance infused with the fire of absolute inspiration, awareness and understanding. That is worth ten, probably a hundred, of anything else. That's what the musical experience is all about.
And with that little piece of profundity for a Sunday afternoon, I'm off to hear Jonas Kaufmann at the RFH.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Friday, September 28, 2012
First of all, it was Benjamin's big day [left]. Since the BBC has moved many of its TV operations, including the Breakfast news programme, to Salford - about 200 miles away from most of the action, eg. the government, a daft decision if ever there was one - he was up north at crack of dawn to appear there. Then whisked all the way back to London just in time to be catapulted onto live Radio 4, for which The World at One was able to cover the awards since the news of them was out early. Next, into the ballroom to accept two prizes, make a couple of speeches and play two party pieces [below], and receive the goodwill of the music industry, which was his by by bucketload.
Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß', over which our host quipped "I bet they do"... Live music too from the mesmerising violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, playing the Bartok Romanian Dances in authentic Romanian Gypsy style; and Granados from Leif Ove Andsnes, who was in town to play at the RFH and came in to collect the chamber music prize, awarded to him and Christian and Tanya Tetzlaff for their glorious recording of Schumann trios. [Above, he collects his award from Danni.]
There were touching moments aplenty. Think of the filmed interview with Murray Perahia, who scooped the new Piano Prize, proving yet again why genuine musicianship cannot be trumped by anything, ever; or the turbo-charged voice of Joseph Calleja, scooping Artist of the Year. Most moving of all, though, Vaclav Talich's granddaughter came in to accept the historical recording award on his behalf: his Smetana Ma Vlast, given in concert in 1939 two months after the Wehrmacht marched into Prague and featuring a moment in which the audience spontaneously broke into singing the national anthem. There's no other moment like it on disc, said Rob Cowan.
Priceless, too, was the announcement of Record of the Year, which went to the Baroque Vocal category for Schütz's Musikalische Exequien - from the Belgian choir Vox Luminis and its director Lionel Meunier. A towering figure (literally) with a blend of charm and modesty that captured everyone's hearts as he stood, overwhelmed, by the microphone [left], Lionel explained that the whole recording was organised in his kitchen and he could hardly believe he was going to go back to his choir the next day and say "We f***ing got Record of the Year!"
Plenty of time for chat, gossip and networking in between, natch: a chance to clink glasses with some and say "Better times ahead?" and others to say "Bravi", and others still to reflect on the growing parallels between two of our greatest tenors now, Calleja and Kaufmann (who pre-recorded a thank-you speech for the Fidelio recording with Abbado and Nina Stemme that took the opera prize) and, respectively, force-of-nature Pavarotti and deep-thinking, dark-toned Domingo.
Among my most interesting encounters was a discussion with a critic who'd come in from the pop culture world to see what it was all about. He was furious. Why? Because, he says, there's all this incredible music, yet it's somehow been sectioned off and the world at large never gets to hear it! The decision-makers in the British media don't include it as part of culture in general, and they should. It's been ghettoised. And not through any fault of its own - millions of people love it when they have the chance. Why keep it out of the mainstream with some cack-handed inverted snobbery that says the general public isn't capable of appreciating it?
One more Gramophone needle: here's the line-up of winners for the final group photo.
That's right, they're all blokes.
Violinist Isabelle Faust won the concerto category, to be fair-ish; Tanya Tetzlaff features in the chamber music, and Nina Stemme in Fidelio, but the latter scarcely got a mention while everyone was drooling over Jonas's speech and adulating Claudio Abbado who won the Lifetime Achievement award. The two women who collected awards did so on others' behalf: Talich's granddaughter and Perahia's wife.
Of course, there's a strong feeling that these awards are for musical achievement alone and gender balance shouldn't matter. In an ideal world, yes, fine. But this isn't one. Given the number of world-class female musicians on the circuit at present, how is it possible that only one-and-two-bits were among the winners of so many major awards?
I still have the feeling that to be fully recognised as a woman musician, you must work five times as hard as the men and look perfect as well. There's an unfortunate double-bind in the music industry: those charged with selling the artists via image doll up the women as sex symbols, only for a fair number of critics to succumb at once, consciously or otherwise, to the prejudice that "they're being sold on their looks, so they can't be any good". This isn't the way it ought to be.
I begrudge none of these marvellous male musicians their prizes: each and every one was fully deserved. Yet is it now time to introduce an alternative industry award, like the erstwhile-Orange Prize for Fiction, to boost the wider recognition of female classical musicians on the strength of their artistry, not their looks? Sad to say, but the answer is yes.