Showing posts with label BBC Symphony Orchestra. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BBC Symphony Orchestra. Show all posts

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The day after the day before

Jonas Kaufmann, Jochen Rieder, BBCSO.
Photo: Mark Allen/Barbican
It's possibly some measure of my current distraction - with libretto, deadlines, nephew's wedding the other day and an ongoing situation with a very sick cat - that I completely forgot Jonas Kaufmann was coming to London to do the Strauss Four Last Songs, until the Barbican press office sent me an email saying, in effect, '...but don't you want tickets?'. So after Meghan and Harry had walked up the aisle - and so, in Harrogate, had our nephew and his own American bride, and so, in Cambridge, had Guy Johnston and Ali Digby (huge congratulations to music's loveliest new couple!) - and the sun shone and the Rev Michael Curry had wowed a rather startled congregation with his reminder of the powers of love and fire, off we headed for the City to see what the tenor of this event would be like.

One question that always applies at such concerts is: what else goes into the programme? Kaufmann's friendly conductor, Jochen Rieder, wielded the BBC Symphony Orchestra baton over a selection including Elgar's In the South, the second symphonic interlude from Strauss's Intermezzo and, to open, a work that I frankly thought I would never hear played live: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Schauspiel Overture, written when he was 14. [Update: I am reminded that the CBSO did it a few years back and I missed it...] The drama in question has never been definitively identified: his adored Shakespeare is likely, and while The Tempest and The Winter's Tale have been suggested, Twelfth Night - as stated by his notorious critic father, Julius - is possibly the most convincing idea, given the bittersweet tone of the music, plus the mix of high spirits and big, generous tunes. But it's possible, too, that it's a non-specific concert overture and as such, it functions jolly nicely.

This Viennese gemütlichkeit, the expansive expression, the Klimt-like glistening of the orchestration, seemed to puzzle the Barbican every bit as much as the gospel choir inside St George's Chapel, Windsor, had earlier struck some churlish online wedding observers as "inappropriate". Of course, it wasn't - the bride is American and it represented her background. In the Barbican, Korngold was a Strauss disciple, so it was perfectly appropriate too. My dream is that one day the English will "get" Korngold. They still don't. It may be a long wait.

Kaufmann presented four Strauss songs in the first half - 'Ruhe, meine Seele', 'Freundliche Vision', 'Befreit' and 'Heimliche Aufforderung' - and the Four Last Songs in the second. I'm preoccupied with Lieder right now because I'm doing a comparative review of a certain song-cycle by Schumann and have been listening to dozens of recordings, day in and day out (Kaufmann has not recorded this cycle, so isn't in the survey). The ideal singer, in my personal view, blends tone, nuances of meaning and diction into one - it's amazing how often the balance between these elements is skewed. In this respect Kaufmann is an absolute master. What we heard last night, essentially, was a supremely intelligent, beautiful and detailed Lieder recital. But whether the orchestra bore responsibility (enough rehearsal? One wonders...), or the loud and muddy acoustic of the hall, or whatever, Kaufmann's tone - never huge in any case - blended into the textures rather than soaring above it.

You shouldn't go to a Kaufmann concert expecting ear-splitting volume, any more than you should go to his Otello expecting him suddenly to morph into Jon Vickers. He likes to sing softly. He goes for colour, nuance, text, intimacy - and these Strauss numbers are mostly not molto con belto-appropriate. Could any listener witness a fine performance of 'Befreit' and emerge unshredded? In this poem by Richard Dehmel, a man speaks to his dying wife of the joys they have experienced together and recognises the time ahead when she will be 'released' and he will see her only in his dreams. So, no, you cannot expect a singer to whack this out at high volume. You need some sensitivity from the orchestra. Or you need Helmut Deutsch at the piano instead.

Here's what Kaufmann said to me about the question of volume when I interviewed him a few years ago for BBC Music Magazine:

"I think you can touch the audience more with a soft sound than you can with any big note. I think you can impress people with big notes, but you can really move them and touch them with the soft ones. You need to have both. Even in the heavy Wagnerian repertory, no big note seems to be big if there isn’t a soft note as well. If everything is just shouted it’s not impressive – after five minutes you’re thinking 'we’ve heard that already'. When people are in misery, when people are suffering, you tell it with a soft voice – there are self-confessions and all these things, it doesn’t get shouted, it comes out naturally."


So, did the Four Last Songs work? In terms of pure artistry, of the mix of line and text and meaning, then yes, absolutely, with 'Im Abendrot' the finest of all: subtle, mystical, transformative. But can you get used to the sound of a baritonal tenor in these songs, instead of a soprano whose tone soars and slices through the textures? Kaufmann's didn't. He blended with the orchestra as if he were another instrument among them. In short, it was beautiful, it was a worthwhile experiment, but sopranos can probably rest assured they won't be losing these songs too often to their male rivals.

And one encore: 'Morgen', in which the orchestra was quiet enough and that soft, shining, intense Straussian beauty could reach everybody. Heaven at last.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A nuclear bomb in the Barbican



How do you set an atomic bomb to music? To attempt it, you have to think big. Over the centuries, the greatest composers have arguably stood or fallen by their willingness to tackle the giant topics of their time, sometimes those of all time. Bach set the Crucifixion. Beethoven tackled liberty and fraternity. Wagner portrayed the end of the world and its rebirth. In Dr Atomic, John Adams has depicted a night that changed history forever, building up to the test of a nuclear bomb at Los Alamos and, at the last moment, fusing this event with the use of the "gadget" (as some of the characters call it) a few weeks later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Adams, currently circumnavigating the world for his 70th birthday celebrations, has been in London this week recording the opera with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, finishing with a sort-of-semi-staged concert last night at the Barbican. Although the work was done at ENO when brand new, it isn't performed live often and the chance to be fully immersed in its terrifying world and boundary-crunching approach is not to be missed.

It's a dark, desperate piece that, in exploring an incident that changed humankind into a species capable of destroying its own world, plunges deep into the impulses of the soul - and manipulates our sense of time while doing so. We become intensely aware of the beauty and wonder of the world, the sensuality of it heightened by the poetry selected by Peter Sellars for the libretto, while intensifying the consciousness of horrifying imminent destruction.

John Adams. Photo: Vern Evans
The drama is in many ways inward, as Oppenheimer - at first seemingly transfixed by scientific data and the prospect of a "brilliant luminescence" - then becomes increasingly tortured and implicitly terrified by what he has created. In concert, the effect is in some ways more that of an oratorio than an opera: the settings of poems by John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser and others offer moments of reflection on love, death, sensuality and beauty, set to music that ebbs and flows in waves of shimmering, multifaceted, orchestral gorgeousness, the voices often soaring across the top in widespread extended phrases that reach both stratospheres and profundities of range, often in quick succession.

The personal interactions could be seen as the equivalent of recitatives and are mostly discussions between the men: General Groves bullies Frank Hubbard to predict good weather for the test even though dangerous storms are taking place, and engages in a lighter-hearted exchange with Oppenheimer about diet [dang! I thought Roxanna and I were the first team to put chocolate brownies into an opera, but no...]. Ensembles are few, though mesmerising when they occur - Wilson's dream of falling from the bomb tower is a case in point. Choruses are illustrative, sometimes devastating - the vision of Vishnu in particular - and the chorus's role is to contextualise, comment and evoke, but not especially to be a human presence.

The overarching time-drama of the whole edifice, though, is not so much Bachian as Wagnerian. The entire three-or-so hours of music is a build-up of tension to the final event. In short, we are waiting for a nuclear bomb to explode. At the end, it does.

Along the way, we sense the shifting of history's tectonic plates - keening violins, shuddering double-basses, the inimitable threat from the bass clarinet, visionary swirls of harp, flashes of lightening from piccolo or trumpet, an extraordinary episode early in act II, brass-led, that builds upwards and outwards, transforming its harmonies continually like a passage Wagner forgot to write. And like the fall of Valhalla, like the death of Stravinsky's Chosen Maiden, the release of tension in the final cataclysm is a form of catharsis. In music, after all, these violent ends sometimes presage a renewal of hope. (Having so said, this opera is probably the scariest musical experience I've encountered since first hearing The Rite of Spring.)

Conducted by the composer himself, the BBC Symphony Orchestra played like people possessed, fully matched by the BBC Singers, sounding like an ensemble twice the actual size (they also put believable American twists into their diction). The soloists were pure gold: Gerald Finley, Adams's original, the powerful and vocally luminous Oppenheimer; Julia Bullock radiant and expressive as Kitty, relishing the sensual poetry of "fierce peace"; Jennifer Johnston a dark, aching Pasqualita. The subsidiary male roles were all characterful and persuasive: Brindley Sherratt a fine Teller, Andrew Staples touching as Wilson, Aubrey Allicock a General Groves one wouldn't want to come up against if one was a weather-forecaster, Marcus Farnsworth and Samuel Sakker excellent as Hubbard and Captain James Nolan.

Staging, handled sensitively by Kenneth Richardson, was necessarily limited as the orchestra is absolutely vast, with a heavy-duty, space-eating plethora of percussion; there's not much room to move, so most of the effect was achieved by costumes and lighting. But there's much that can be done with that: a blaze of red light as the explosion begins, the ensemble cover their eyes - then darkness. As the final recorded voice intones Japanese pleas for help, for water for the children, the orchestra switch off their lights one by one until nothing is left but a ground zero in the pitch-black soul of humanity itself.

One might have expected the standing ovation to continue for longer, but the impression was that much of the audience was seriously shaken up by the experience and probably wanted air, which was in short supply. But one overriding image? The bomb explodes; and the composer stands, measuring out the bars with his baton. Humanity can create the horrors of the atomic bomb. Humanity can also create the wonder of great music about giant topics. Adams has done so.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

BREAKING NEWS: New chief conductor for BBC Symphony Orchestra is...

...It's Sakari Oramo. Rumblings yesterday about "a Finn" have left little surprise about this. Want to see who's about to be announced when an appointment's in the offing? Check who's been working with the orchestra recently, matches the nationality in question and got great reviews. Oramo was in town for a Sibelius cycle with the BBCSO in the autumn and the critics glowed with many-starred write-ups.

This is seriously good news for orchestra and conductor alike. Look at Oramo's track record with the CBSO: the odds were stacked against him when he took over from Rattle, yet he brought in a batonprint all his own, championing much British music - including resuscitating, almost single-handedly, the reputation of the long-lost John Foulds. He is a lovely character and a terrific musician: a Finn in tune with Britain, British music (he won the Elgar Medal in 2008) and contemporary music, all important concerns with the BBCSO. Read more about it here.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bravissimo to Benjamin at the Prummm....

I don't think I'll ever forget hearing Benjamin Grosvenor's Proms debut last night. Especially his encore - of all things, a transcription by Cziffra of the Brahms Hungarian Dance No.5.

What is it with that lad? How does he do it? How does he know? Where does it all come from? I'm not usually a great subscriber to the notion of reincarnation, but if the soul of either Benno Moiseiwitsch or Ignaz Friedman decided to do a re-run in Britain about 19 years ago, it's very obvious where he landed. Just listen to this.



Alas, the rest of the concert didn't live up to its soloist, and I've said as much in today's Independent. The best - Benjamin - proved the enemy of the workaday. Honest to goodness, with the other major UK orchestras in their best-ever form from the Barbican and Festival Hall to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle, with hungry, ambitious conductors turning up the electric heat, workaday is just not good enough. It never occurred to me before that Janacek's Glagolitic Mass could be as boring as that. It shouldn't be. Janacek is portraying a marvellous dream of marrying Kamila Stosslova. We got Czech dumplings. I'm pleased to see that the Last Night of the Proms is being conducted by Ed Gardner. Wish he'd conducted opening night too.