Thursday, October 05, 2017

All hands on deck! London Piano Festival opens today

I'm going to be hanging out at Kings Place a lot over the next few days as the London Piano Festival swings into action tonight, led by the dastardly duo of Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva. Turning piano concerts into celebrations of the range, colour and full glory available to pianists, they've programmed a total feast and brought in some amazing artists to deliver it. Here's a piece I wrote originally for Kings Place's magazine to trail the festival. The full programme is online here.

When Kings Place opened the doors to its first London Piano Festival last year, some concertgoers may have been wondering where it had been all their lives. Piano festivals are oddly rare in the capital, despite the perennial popularity of the instrument and its almost limitless repertoire. The piano duo Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva decided to put that situation right – and sure enough, the 2016 festival went so well that now it is happening again.

Between 5 and 8 October Kings Place will resound with piano music: four solo recitals, a concert for children, an evening with Owen and Apekisheva, a grand two-piano marathon with six star pianists and finally jazz from Jason Rebello.

The range of music extends from a baroque recital performed by Lisa Smirnova to a new commission from the South African composer Kevin Volans, included in Melvyn Tan’s concert alongside Weber and Ravel. The children’s concert includes Poulenc’s L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant and an unusual arrangement for piano four-hands of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf - Simon Callow is the narrator. Nelson Goerner from Argentina offers high romanticism (Friday 6th, 7.30pm), and the Russian pianist Ilya Itin presents two sizeable sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninoff (Saturday 7th, 4pm).
Katya & Charles amid some silver birches
Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke
“We’re trying to focus not only on the biggest names, but on artists who are of the very highest calibre but rarely perform in Britain,” says Owen. “We are very keen to bring several of those musicians to reconnect with British audiences.” Lisa Smirnova and Ilya Itin are prime examples: “Lisa is someone I studied alongside in Moscow, with Anna Kantor, and I always admired her,” says Apekisheva. “She’s a very interesting, individual musician and she has a huge career in America and Europe, but not in the UK. Her Handel recording was wonderful and received fantastic reviews.”

Itin, who won first prize, the audience prize and the contemporary music prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1996, is now based in New York and combines performing with his role as a sought-after teacher. Apekisheva met him at Leeds and was bowled over by his musicianship: “Again he is an absolutely outstanding artist, but hasn’t played here for such a long time. We decided we must have him back.”

The repertoire is a combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. “There’s an underlying theme of Russia, coinciding with the anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917,” says Owen. “Katya and I are playing both the Rachmaninoff Suite No.2 and the Symphonic Dances for two pianos and we’re giving the world premiere of a new commission from Elena Langer, inspired by some Kandinsky paintings from 1917 which we hope to project onto the screen as we play.”

The Russian focus extends to a significant rarity: the Sonata No.2 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a close friend of Shostakovich’s whose music is currently enjoying a major revival of interest. Apekisheva learned it for the Brundibár Festival in Newcastle earlier this year: “I completely fell in love with the piece and very much want to play it again,” she says. “It’s very exciting music, but what a challenge to play!”

Ultimately, Owen and Apekisheva say, their aim for the festival is to create something special together that can be enjoyed by piano fans from far and wide. Both regard Kings Place as the perfect venue in which to realise their vision: “With all these wonderful spaces, there’s room for audiences to spread out, meet, talk and chat,” says Owen. “The vibe is informal and there are great places to eat and relax. We’re trying to build an audience who will trust our choices, a core audience of piano lovers. And, very importantly, we want people to have fun!”

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Michael Volle: How to keep your head in opera

Even if his characters sometimes lose their heads, the powerhouse German baritone Michael Volle has no intention of imitating them. You'll find he has strong shoulders, feet firmly on the ground and a velvet-lined juggernaut of a voice. I was lucky enough to hear him sing Hans Sachs in Meistersinger at Bayreuth this summer, and this season he is back at the Royal Opera House to sing Guy de Montfort in Verdi's Les vêpres sicilienne and, later, Jokanaan in Strauss's Salome. My interview with him earlier this year originally appeared in the Royal Opera House Magazine and I'm rerunning it below with their kind permission.

Volle as Montfort in Les vêpres siciliennes
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Michael Volle is very proud of his head. The one in the cupboard, that is. “Since 2008 in each Salome performance here, my head is used,” he declares, “because I did the first run with David McVicar.” When Strauss’s searing masterpiece is revived at the Royal Opera House later this season, Volle can reclaim his model cranium: he returns as Jokanaan, aka St John the Baptist, whose decapitation is the febrile princess’s revenge for her failure to seduce him.

For the leonine German baritone, 57, Jokanaan offers a challenge through sheer intensity. “In Strauss’s big, big lines, everything must be perfect. And you must be a prophet,” he says. “I would never have been able in the early years to sing Jokanaan, or the big Wagner roles: you need the experience, you need the breadth, you need to have been on stage playing a very strange character. He is in his madness, he is confronted with this strange young lady and her demands and he loses his security. It’s not a long role, but a very strong: you stay like a rock, but then it takes your energy, the fight with the unknown planet of this young woman.”

Jokanaan, the Flying Dutchman, Hans Sachs, Wotan: the roles that Volle sings are often larger than life, each in its own way, and Volle himself is a gigantic personality, somewhat resembling an imposing yet genial German version of Jack Nicholson. His voice, with its vast capabilities in both quality and magnitude, reflects that strength of presence, yet can also be as meltingly beautiful as it is dramatic. Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and Puccini could eat up all his time. Yet his lasting inspiration is something very different: Bach and Mozart.


The youngest of eight children of a priest, Volle grew up in Baden-Württemberg, near Stuttgart, steeped in first-rate church music. “In Stuttgart you could visit on one day six or seven church services with six or seven Bach cantatas, because it was part of religious life,” he recalls.

Because of that background, he insists, he cannot do without Mozart and Bach: “But the crazy thing is, nobody offers me Bach any more.” The expectation, he grumbles, is that a Wagner and Strauss voice cannot possibly suit those composers. “It’s ridiculous!” he expostulates. “I’m so fortunate that I did recently with the Akademie für Alte Musik in Berlin the three bass solo cantatas of Bach and we recorded them in concert. I do a lot of Bach because I need it. No Christmas time without a Christmas Oratorio; no Easter without a Passion.”

As for Mozart, he remarks with satisfaction that following a Wagner rescheduling last winter, he found he had the chance to sing one of his favourite roles, Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, in Paris, with his wife, Gabriela Scherer, also in the cast as the First Lady. “What could be better than that?” he beams.

Perhaps having half a million Youtube views could run a close second? Last year Volle was invited by an ear, nose and throat specialist in Stuttgart to be filmed singing inside an MRI scanner, which duly captured astounding images of the physical mechanism of singing. The video went viral (see above). “I don’t do social media, so I knew nothing about it,” he says. “Then my wife told me I’d become an internet sensation.” Wasn’t that a little alarming? “I would not get a job from the way I sang in that video,” he laughs, “but it was fun.”

It’s often said that Volle has had a “slow burn” career, a phrase which also makes him laugh, but is not far off the mark. “Boys always develop more slowly than girls!” he quips. “I only started to study aged 25 and in 1990 I had my first opera contract. I was on fire, wondering why some other people got roles... But 27 years later, I’m very happy it took all that time, because I had the chance to develop and grow up. I believe somehow in a ‘plan’ for your life – fate, if you like. For me it was perfect, because I was never forced to do anything that could have killed my voice. I was able to grow with the right parts at the right time, and I’m very grateful for that.”

As Montfort, with Bryan Hymel as Henri
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Covent Garden audiences might be forgiven for thinking, though, that Volle specialises in characters whose fate is distinctly darker: not least, he is reprising the role of Guy de Montfort in the forthcoming revival of Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes. The opera begins with Montfort as a soldier raping a dancer, who then bears his child – the opera’s hero, Henri. Later, as governor of Sicily, Montfort longs for his grown-up son to accept him, but ultimately he, along with the French occupiers of the island, comes to a sticky end.


As Montfort
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Montfort might not seem the easiest character to identify with, but one vital element of the role was uppermost in Volle’s mind when Stefan Herheim’s production was premiered in 2013. “My fourth child was born in 2012,” he says, “so I was very involved in being a father. This is a central conflict in Vêpres, between Montfort the elder statesman and Montfort the father. He wants to be a good father and he meets his child, who rejects him: this big scene at the end of the first act is very intense.

“I am happy that for the past 20-25 years opera singers have had to be actors too,” Volle adds. It so happens that his brother is an actor: “He says often that if you feel close to a role, it must touch you in some inward way. This is the gift of being an acting singer, or a singing actor: you can try to be somebody else, something quite different from your private life you are paid for it, and you can sing!” Volle gives a giant bellow of laughter: “This is an incredible profession – I love it.”


This summer one summit of Volle’s repertoire approached in a special form: he sang Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Barrie Kosky’s new production for Bayreuth [our interview took place before this, in the spring]. “For me Sachs is the one and only role that is above everything,” he says. “The singing is so difficult – but it is so wonderful, because you have not only to sing five characters, but to act them too. Sachs is the wise man, the jealous man, the artist, the shoemaker, the mastersinger, and this is incredible.” He was looking forward to working with Barrie Kosky for the first time, too: “He has incredibly good ideas and I think we will have a great time.” [Author's note: looked good to me.]

And having a good time, he reflects,  is vital. “I am glad to be at a level now at which I can say no to offerings,” Volle reflects. “This can be the least family-friendly job in the world, because if you do an opera you are away for weeks at a time. Family is everything, so I do sometimes say no. Singing so important to me, it is a part of me, but it could be over tomorrow. Then what do you have?”

Les Vêpres siciliennes opens at the Royal Opera House on 12 October. Michael Volle sings Montfort, Bryan Hymel reprises the role of Henri, Malin Byström and later in the run Rachele Stanisci perform Hélène, Erwin Schrott sings Procida and Maurizio Benini conducts. Booking here.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Aida at ENO: a pearl, an intractable oyster and an elephant in the house

Latonia Moore as Aida. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Here's my review of ENO's new production of Aida, for The Arts Desk. I've never particularly liked this opera and the staging really did not help. But Latonia Moore is truly wonderful. As for the elephant, it's the language, this translation especially. When 'shelter' rhymes with 'Delta', isn't it time to go back to Italian? Or at least commission a new and better version?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Russian around: Tchaikovsky goes to Victoria

I have to doff a respectful cap to writer-actor-musician Hershey Felder. To create a one-man show in which you personify a composer, tell his story, play his music and hold the stage all alone for 1hr 40mins takes not only talent and charisma but a few shedloads of damned hard work, and in Our Great Tchaikovsky - the multitalented Canadian performer's latest musical incarnation, following Gershwin, Bernstein, Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven - he does all of this with enormous aplomb, plus Russian accent.

The show, which is directed by Trevor Hay, has just opened at The Other Palace, a theatre I thought I'd not been to before. And I'd been wondering what happened to the St James Theatre. Turns out the latter was bought up by ALW's theatre company and has changed both its name and its aspect. A mission statement from Lloyd Webber in the programme explains that it's now a space for burgeoning, experimental music theatre of all kinds. And its atmosphere has undergone a sea-change. It's buzzing, and it attracted a good, strong audience of non-specialists to see Felder become Tchaikovsky, and I have to doff a cap to that as well, because getting general audiences along to shows about classical music is not a walk in the park.

About town...
Photo: Hershey Felder Presents
Nor was the performance, entirely. Felder, with vast flair, brings us Tchaikovsky's life history, with all its anguish, fear and hints of scandal, switching persona in a twink from the young-gay-about-town Pyotr Ilyich to his mentors and nemeses: a portly Balakirev, a whine-toned Nikolai Rubinstein. The setting evokes Tchaikovsky's home at Klin: wooden desk, samovar, rug, and a backdrop of birch-forest which soon comes to life thanks to clever digital animation. A portrait frame's images change according to where we are in the story: mother, Nadezhda von Meck, beloved nephew Bob and the famous scowl-eyed portrait of the composer himself all appear in due course. The background conjures a range of visual treats: animals in the forest, New York in the snow (The Nutcracker was thought out on its streets when our composer went there to open a new concert hall built by Mr Carnegie) and mountains transforming into a flight of swans as Swan Lake music accompanies some pertinent information about the Sochi Winter Olympics and the policy of the Russian government towards homosexuality since 2013.

Silver birches...
Photo: Hershey Felder Presents
The show is certainly aimed at an audience unfamiliar with Tchaikovsky's personal story and Felder has handled its thorny, uncomfortable aspects with admirable clarity: upfront about the mystery of his death, fairly explicit about the composer's affection for young boys, and even more so about the relevance of the unfortunate man's personal history to unwelcome developments in the present day. He's crammed in a lot. Most of the important pieces get at least a passing mention and considerable chunks of music are heard throughout, some recorded, more in the powerful hands of Felder at the piano, meshing words and music to the manner born.

The only thing is - and this might not bother everyone, but it bothers me because of my pianoy side - Felder is a smashing actor, but rather too smashing a pianist in not always the best sense. He can certainly play (back in the '80s he studied with Jerome Lowenthal, among others), but he has a slightly bombastic touch, and many were the moments when I wondered if there might have been another way to approach this theatre piece: namely, by collaborating with a second person who would serve as full-time pianist? This worked extremely effectively for Mikhail Rudy's adaptation of The Pianist, in which Rudy plays and an actor (I saw the splendid Peter Guinness) inhabits the script and the whole is bound together with excellent direction (if I remember right, as it was some years ago, it was Daniel Kramer). In Felder's one-person-does-all account, though, there's possibly a bit too much playing - and, crucially, it slows the pace of the story. One might lose 15 mins with judicious cuts, upping the tempo and introducing, potentially, some interesting interactions that would enable Felder to concentrate on the drama and deepen the complexity, the pain and the shocking elements (of which there could be many more) of the heartbreaking tale of Pyotr Ilyich.

Having so said, there are moments at which the juxtaposition of different pieces of music makes a dramatic point even better than the words. The contrast between what felt like an endless extract of the ghastly 1812 Overture (even Tchaikovsky hated it) and the simplest, tenderest piece from the Album for the Young proved in a few seconds that there's more genuine feeling in one phrase of the latter than in all the lurid crashes, booms and fireworks that went before.

Anyway, do go and see it. Now running to 22 October.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Farewell, Zuzana

Zuzana at home in Prague in September 2016, preparing for our interview...

News has just broken that Zuzana Ružičková, the great Czech harpsichordist, died peacefully today at the age of 90.

Devastated, but so glad that I went over to meet her when I did, about a year ago. Interviewing her was a joy, privilege and inspiration. It is also wonderful that Warner Classics released all her Bach recordings on CD at long last, to celebrate her big birthday last January. Here is my article about her for the JC.

Farewell, then, to the ultimate survivor. We were lucky to have her at all.