Showing posts with label Barbican. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barbican. Show all posts

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Wagner Evening #kaufmannresidency

Jonas Kaufmann in recital the other night. Photo: Alastair Muir/Barbican

State of being in the Discount Tent EC1 last night post-Walküre Act I: shaking a bit, hyperventilating slightly and maybe in need of a little lie-down, toast and a nice cup of camomile tea. But even the most soothing of brews doesn't cleanse that music from your system. Nothing new about saying Wagner is like a drug, but you can feel it physically in your bloodstream. It's a substance that burns you up from within via myriad points of white heat and you sense it endowing you with superhuman powers such as flight, or at least the ability to walk upside down on the ceiling. Coming down again is the difficult part.

We'll go back to that later, but first you probably want to know what the performance was like.

After opening with the Tristan und Isolde prelude, with Wagner's own concert ending (he tacks on the end of the Liebestod), Tony Pappano kept a tight rein and concentrated atmospheres in the orchestra for the Wesendonck Lieder, which Jonas Kaufmann - as far as we know, the only tenor singing them in this day and age - approached with every iota of the expertise he brought to his recital the other night. Colour, character, control, sophisticated phrasing, poised emotional content: this was a mesmerisingly beautiful interpretation, and one in which he somehow created the illusion, especially in the closing 'Träume', that he became the poetry - as if he had turned into Mathilde Wesendonck. Watching him return to his own self as the applause began was like witnessing some strange metamorphosis controlled by an invisible, internal Tarnhelm.

You'd think this demanding song cycle was enough for a singer who's recently returned after months off sick, but the second half was of course devoted to the whole of Act I of Die Walküre. A few things to consider at this point. First, Kaufmann's voice has always been about quality, not volume: never the biggest voice in the world, but simply the most beautiful and intelligent one. Also, when Bayreuth was designed for the Ring cycle, Wagner's idea was to keep the orchestra level down, with a sunken pit, so that the singers wouldn't have to yell to be heard. Last night, our Siegmund was flanked by two giant voices: as Sieglinde, Karita Mattila and as Hunding Erik Halfvarson. They stood where singers stand in concert performances: beside the conductor, at one with the orchestra. In that context Kaufmann's voice sounded like a gleaming gemstone within the entire diadem of sound-colours. But Mattila and Halfvarson (who of course hadn't sung the whole of the Wesendonck Lieder beforehand) put on the tiara and went surfing over the soundwaves.

Mattila, her tone full of complex, honeyed herbiness in the lower registers and rays of blinding sunlight at the top, seemed ecstatic, losing herself in the music and the role. Kaufmann's Siegmund was a bitter fighter on the run, filled with character and contained power, gradually regaining his passion for life and love and unleashing the full glory at full tilt when it was needed. Halfvarson proved a Hunding in whose house you'd be very afraid to stay, his towering stage presence and magnificent bass galvanising more acting contact than there had been hitherto. Pappano conducted like a man possessed, pacing the energy up to and beyond fever pitch; and one special hero is the LSO itself, but perhaps especially the cello section and its principal, Tim Hugh, who made incandescent gorgeousness out of his solos. The whole thing left even slightly-anxious-about-it people like me longing desperately for Rattle Hall to be built and give them a world-class acoustic with real shine and bloom... And yet the total effect, give or take these quibbles, was mind-blowing.

Heading back to the Tent I bumped into a friend and we said: "Great, so what time does Act II start?"

I'll never forget the first time I heard Die Walküre. I was 25 and working as assistant editor at Classical Music Magazine. Covent Garden was staging the Ring cycle and when my boss discovered I'd never seen it he said I must join him on his press tickets. I went with some trepidation; I had never even heard Act I of Die Walküre before, because I wasn't allowed Wagner, because HITLER. I remember coming out of the opera house in exactly the state above. Twenty-five years later and I know the piece really well, yet it still does that to me. Just imagine the first-timer impact.

So look. I have faced the Wagner-and-Hitler question again and again, and thought it through ad infinitum. The issue is difficult, it's painful, it's complex and for years I felt that avoiding this music was totally justified on historical grounds. Yet it has got to the point now where I could almost feel I was swindled. I was denied, then denied myself, this consciousness-altering musical marvel, this view from the summit of summits, because of Hitler. But that lets Hitler win. Now we must reclaim the music. The greatest music in the world - and this is some of it - should belong to us all. Nobody should be denied the experience of any form of great art because someone, somewhere, is telling them "this isn't for you".


Saturday, July 04, 2015

Honeymoon music-making, and a story about Brahms

Rattle (left), Zimerman (centre) and the LSO: a night to remember. Photo: Amy T. Zielinksi

The honeymoon is underway over at the Barbican: Sir Simon Rattle is here for his first concerts with the LSO since The Announcement a few months back. On Thursday night he kicked off this stint with his orchestra-to-be, offering a high-octane programme of Brahms and Dvorak.

The LSO, let's face it, needs him. We need him, too. He offers a taste of the genuine passion that should be at the heart of musical experience, yet all too often isn't as others let its precedence falter under the competing weight, variously, of intellect (necessary, but in balance), power (less necessary), greed (not at all) and ego-building pretension (aagh...). Rattle is, for music, pioneer, evangelist and born leader; and while raising such high expectations for his forthcoming tenure at the LSO is obviously dangerous, it's hard not to notice that everyone is hoping he'll be the best thing that's happened to us in a good while.

The fact that he was able to bring Krystian Zimerman with him to play the Brahms D minor Concerto says much about his persuasive nature, since this titan of a pianist is, sadly, now among several greats who no longer willingly subject themselves on a regular basis to the many and varied iniquities of London.

Rattle in action. Photo: Creative Commons
Rattle conducts like a man in love with music and with life; and the orchestra responded to him like a purring cat experiencing sunshine and tuna fish. One almost expected it to roll on its collective back and let him stroke its tummy. The sheer sensual gorgeousness of sound he draws from them is light years away from Gergiev's heavy-duty ferocity; no less visceral, but with different intent, different texture - speaking to the heart as much as to the gut.

A second half of Dvorak tone-poems and a joyous, high-stepping Slavonic dance as encore was a surprising but refreshing choice of repertoire - something else we need from the LSO and Rattle is a healthy injection of unusual pieces - and when delivered with such narrative charm and all-giving warmth (y'know, Mrs Rattle is Czech), it convinces, lingering in the mind. And Zimerman's Brahms found conductor and soloist in more than exceptional accord.

When I interviewed Zimerman for the first time back in c1990, I quizzed him about that special intensity that seems to drive his playing. He commented that he likes to play on the very edge of what's possible. Sometimes it seems he goes beyond it. This Brahms was one such occasion - and how excellent to hear, once more, that white-hot quality that so compelled in the young pianist, and that remains intact and alight in his late fifties.

Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 is the creation of a very young composer; the first sketches date from 1854, when he was all of 21 and was considering writing a symphony, soon after Schumann's attempted suicide and incarceration in the Endenich mental hospital. Several permutations later, the drafts evolved into the D minor Concerto. Brahms once wrote to Clara Schumann that the Adagio was a "gentle portrait" of her - and the theme apparently sets the unheard words "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine", from the Requiem mass, in tribute to Schumann, who by then had died.

So far, so beautiful - but what about that last movement? Some approach it as an austere, Bachian-Beethovenian counterpoint exercise. Zimerman brought us a Hungarian dance. When have we ever heard it sound quite so alive and aflame?

It makes sense, too. Think about it. Variation 14 of the Brahms 'Handel Variations' is extremely similar to this movement's main theme in certain ways: a lively, staccato, syncopated number with strongly marked rhythms, trills flying around and a running semiquaver bassline; and it follows from the sultry variation 13, verbunkos style. The two variations make up a lassù and friss. You can almost feel Joseph Joachim, Brahms's close friend and Hungarian violinist par excellence, peering over his shoulder and picking up the tribute with a brusque nod of thanks. Perhaps it's not only youthfully exuberant; perhaps, complete with that pernickety fugue episode, it's a portrait of Joachim to complement the portrait of Clara? It would not have been the first such piece Brahms created, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Who does that leave for movement no.1? It's been said before that the opening plunges, with Schumann, into the Rhine. This music feels like a soul in existential crisis. As Zimerman and Rattle bounced ideas off each other, plumbing the extremities of the score, the anguish and struggle behind Brahms's conception shone out as vividly as if they'd poured descaler over its furred-up contours and brought it to life new-minted. Zimerman's moments of pianissimo playing at times seemed almost to shock the orchestra into matching him. The balance never faltered; Rattle's support let him fly up to the sun on wings that can take the heat.

Is this a sign of things we can look forward to when Rattle arrives in earnest? Bring it on.

Next summer Zimerman is scheduled to come back with him, too, this time for a spot of Beethoven.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Rattle's Sibelius...

I went along to the Barbican on Tuesday for the opening night of the Rattle/Berlin Sibelius cycle. My review is for The Independent and should be online there soon. I wanted to post it here before The London Residency comes to its close tomorrow...


*****

Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
Barbican, London, 10 January 2015

Jessica Duchen

The Barbican was heaving at the concrete seams as the Berliner Philharmoniker began its London residency, the promise of which has been engendering unprecedented heat. Divided between this hall and the Southbank Centre, it features Sir Simon Rattle at the helm of his German orchestra, widely termed the best in the world. The expectations of this orchestra are such that tickets for its Mahler Second Symphony at the weekend are rumoured to be changing hands for £200 a piece. Meanwhile Rattle’s mooted appointment as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra is still up in the air.

Opening their complete cycle of symphonies by Sibelius with the first two, Rattle and the Berliners proved at the peak of their powers: an orchestra of individual virtuosi playing as one, as if in supersized chamber music, with Rattle, conducting from memory, leading the way with an assurance that proved at every turn that the music is part of him and he of it.

Rattle has a long history with the Sibelius symphonies – he recorded them back in his years last century with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – and his interpretations have grown into something at once individual and universal. Here the progress of the composer's imaginative sophistication from the first to the second symphonies shone out: No.1, dating from 1900, aching in the shadow of Tchaikovsky; No.2 moving into new dramatic territories in which no step is safe, no illusion unquestioned, yet no lament unanswered by hope.

For some, Rattle’s interpretations might at first seem too rich, too warm; we imagine Sibelius as rugged and lonely, shivering through the Finnish winter. But his ability to pace the drama paid ample dividends: working in long lines and giant paragraphs, generating energy from small details that gradually rise to take over, striking just the right balance to cast new light over the precipices, the power of thought is made palpable with overwhelming intensity.

Above all, though, listening to this orchestra is an experience of astonishing sensuality, the aural equivalent of, for example, bathing in asses’ milk laced with rose petals while sipping the finest vintage Bordeaux and watching the Northern Lights at their most spectacular, topped by a meteor shower. If you thought an orchestra could not do that, be advised: it can.

This opulence of tone is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own, honed long ago under the baton of Herbert von Karajan; Rattle is in some ways åits custodian. But it is clear how much he will be leaving behind in Berlin when he departs, and equally clear what we would be missing if he does not ultimately accept that post with the LSO. Frankly we need Rattle here more than he needs us. If a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this is missed, if the UK’s only home-grown great maestro is allowed to slip through our fingers thanks to finance and mealy-mouthed politicians, it would be an act of criminal irresponsibility against the cultural life of the UK.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Glass. Not that Glass, though.


Last night I took a trip to London's newest concert hall: Milton Court, a 600-seat, wood-lined venue under the auspices of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, across the road from the Barbican Centre. I hung around to talk to people after the concert, then set off for home (I don't have a car, so only use public transport) at about 10.20pm...and somehow got deeply and hopelessly lost in an area to which I've been trotting regularly ever since the Barbican opened in, er, 1982.

It wasn't pleasant. There was nobody around except for one or two speeding (and occupied) taxis; the giant new blocks housing financial and legal institutions all look the same when deserted by night - glass, glass and more glass, alleviating the surrounding concrete but creating more of the same problem in a different style; and these great piles seem to shake up the GPS on the mobile phone, which didn't seem able to show me where I was or where I was going. I know the way to Moorgate, honest guv. Yet somehow I ended up at St Paul's Cathedral. It is magnificent at night with its floodlighting, but it wasn't where one wanted to be.

Location, location, location? London's concert halls occupy some funny places. The South Bank has transformed for the better this century, but it took a long while to reach the status it has now and make the most of its riverside setting (and even now there'll be trouble until they can sort out the refurbishment issues with the mayor, who it seems prefers to placate a handful of skateboarders rather than encourage access to a varied feast of cultural activities for several million people). The Barbican's location has always been awkward and unwelcoming, and Kings Place is cursed in terms of journey and surrounds, though it's terrific inside. The Wigmore Hall is the one venue that is central for all. It's an issue of practicality, of course, London's land and property prices being as they are; the idea of "regenerating" an area by building a new venue, too, is admirable, but I'm not convinced it has yet been proven to work. The biggest mistake of London's musical scene was the decision not to rebuild the Queen's Hall after the war. It was just north of Oxford Circus.

The hall at Milton Court, though, is in itself wonderful. There's a resemblance to the auditorium of Kings Place, but the acoustic is a little warmer, the space bigger and perhaps more versatile, and the wood darker. It was a great forum in which to cheer on Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe in a delicious programme of Mozart, Fauré, Ravel and Franck. The Guildhall used to have the dubious distinction of being housed in one of the nastiest buildings in which I've ever spent time - it was (and the old building remains) right over the Barbican's car park, fumes and all, and you can't see much beyond the concrete. The new place is an improvement beyond recognition.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Interval drinks: brewing a revolution?

The clever old Barbican has launched a free app with which you can order your interval drink in advance, from 48 hours earlier to 30 mins before the concert begins. More info here. And you can download it here. Well done, chaps. Fast may this spread.

It's not a minute too soon - we all know the score. You have a 20-minute interval. You spend 15 minutes of it queuing up, another 2-3 processing your drinks order (finding, pouring, paying), and then you have 2-3 mins to down the liquid before you go back into the hall (being a classical audience, you are expected not to take said drink in with you). Alternatively you might have arrived early to spend 15 mins queuing before the concert to order your interval drink. And you can't help wondering, having been to sensible places like Germany, why we can't do as they do and have a whole rack of ready-poured helpings of the most popular drinks - red & white wine, beer, orange juice and water - so that people can just pick one up and hand over the cash pdq, which would save person-hours, aggro and the usual headache of having to choose between a drink and a trip to the loo.

Speaking of which, please can someone invent an app to create faster access to the Ladies Room?