Jonas Kaufmann brought his baritonal, richly-nuanced, sensitively-deployed, sexily-wrapped tenor voice to the Royal Festival Hall on Monday. Alas, with a costermonger’s delicate touch, Raymond Gubbay hyped it up beyond endurance. His craving for a money-spinning formula marred what should have been a sensational concert. (more…)
This is, I think, the third of these Sondheim extravaganzas I’ve been to at Cadogan Hall, all of them centred on Maria Friedman. On this occasion she was joined by Graham Bickley, Daniel Evans and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with David Firman as musical director.
Tuesday and Wednesday evenings of this week were both spent at the Royal Festival Hall. The two evenings couldn’t have been more different.
First off was Renee Fleming and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Charles Dutoit whipping up the storms. To say it was Renee Fleming and the RPO is a bit of an exaggeration; as has been remarked elsewhere (see comment thread in particular), it was the RPO with a brief appearance by Fleming to lighten the mood. It was an oddly unbalanced concert to say the least.
For starters, it was a ‘sing the CD’ affair. Something to plug? Book the Festival Hall. With Fleming, Terfel, Gheorghiu, Netrebko and Hvorostovsky all passing through in the space of a few weeks, it rather feels that the resident orchestras are only required to really put their minds to what to do to fill in the gaps left by the record company managements. I may well be being unfair, and this may indeed be an exaggeration, but this concert left an unpleasant taste and I therefore feel that a bit of grumpiness is not out of place.
Two Romeo & Juliets – Prokofiev in the first half, Tchaikovsky in the second – were complemented by a few arias from Fleming’s Verismo disc (two by Leoncavallo, one each for Giordani and Puccini) and Eugene Onegin’s letter scene. It didn’t add up to a whole lot. Oh, and we had “one encore” (specifically announced in what felt like a ‘this is all you’re getting so make the most of it’ way): O mio babbino caro. We sat in the choir so admired the back of her gown and the back of her head. Sound wasn’t great, obviously, but what came across most vividly was the Manon Lescaut item (sola, perduta, abandonnata). The others seemed to trot by rather blandly. Sat within spitting distance of the brass and timpani (we restrained ourselves, obviously), the Prokofiev was an intermittently rumbustious affair.
Then Wednesday: the LPO tackled Wagner and Bruckner, with Petra Lang present to deliver a rich, fine Wesendonck Lieder, all led by Christoph Eschenbach. This was a much more satisfactory affair all round. Eschenbach was marvellous to watch, as he communicated the more expansive and climactic moments vividly. If bits of Wagner have to be wrenched free of their settings, then I’ll take the Tannhauser overture quite happily, especially when played (as here) in a way that really ratchets the tension in the build-up to that glorious full-on rendition of the Pilgrims’ Chorus over squiggly violin motifs (that’s a technical term, by the way). The Wesendonck Lieder were, as I say, rather wonderful. Having last seen/heard Petra Lang munching her way through already well-chewed scenery in the ROH’s Lohengrin, with full-on vocal dramatics, I wasn’t expecting so refined and controlled a performance. It was magnetic, with gorgeous tone throughout, and a rapt concentration that was held to the very end when Eschenbach took a good 10-15 seconds to drop his baton slowly in a silent Hall. Magic. And how very different from the atmosphere in the same hall the previous night.
I don’t understand Bruckner, and I think it will be a while before I do. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but bar a rather ropey performance of the 4th by the Oxford University Orchestra in my student days, I haven’t attended a live performance of a Bruckner symphony. One really needs to do the homework before going. I see a lot written about the ‘architecture’ of these symphonies, of the overall structure which must be related to the individual building blocks, such as is only possible by the great Brucknerian conductors. Well, if Bruckner’s 6th is architecture, I fear that I spent a lot of time admiring a couple of pediments, some window surrounds and a rather grand doorcase, but failed to get a full view of the edifice. Don’t get me wrong, though, I like the sound-world: I marvel at the glory of those climaxes that blaze forth as only Bruckner seems able to command; the elegance of the rhythms in the gentler passages is a joy; but overall, the stop-start-soft-loud-soft approach leaves me pleasantly, at times giddily, bewildered, in this case, most particularly in the last movement. Maybe as I get older I’ll understand…
I will also just remark on an individual in the choir – front row centre – who had the effrontery, pretty much from first bar of Wagner to last glorious climax of Bruckner, to repeatedly nod off and awaken, over and over again, in regular and distracting fashion, falling so far forward as to practically have his head on the rail in front of him, before bobbing back up again and then resuming his droop forward. After the third movement of Bruckner the people behind him had a word, the effect of which lasted all of about 10mins. Frankly, I was hoping that someone near by would pull out a sheet of cast iron, slip it between the pages of their programme and, under cover of a Bruckner brass chorale, give him a good stout crack across the back of the head. He certainly deserved it. A friend, who spent the first half in the choir behind the miscreant before moving elsewhere for the sake of his sanity, speculated that Eschenbach noticed the miscreant’s narcoleptic bobbing-about. Unforgiveable, and all credit to Eschenbach for not stopping and demanding his removal. I could discourse at great length on the irritations of audiences – and at some point will – but this seemed to me wilfully rude.
So, two evenings, each very different: the later of the two the more enjoyable and, I have to say, appearing to possess considerably greater artistic integrity.
I’m supposed to be doing this as much for my benefit – to aid reflection – as for any reader. I seem to be losing momentum. Onwards… there are a good couple of events worthy of an update.
In the vain hope that anyone is following, we last parted just as Carmen was looming on the horizon. The production was the same reasonably picturesque but not terribly efficient affair it had been in previous incarnations. Horses and donkeys were paraded; people abseiled in and out of the hideout; hoards of children did their thing in Act 1; and people made a great play of stomping about all over the tables at Lilas Pastia’s (word to the wise: if eating there, don’t scoop up food that falls off your plate, you don’t know who was last tramping, dancing or gyrating on that very spot, and I don’t think Lilas Pastia has a hygiene certificate). Oh, and there was that naked-torso gymnast ostensibly there to entertain the crowds in Act 3, but also providing a pleasing diversion for us in our Balcony box…
I thought Alagna had more heft and body to his voice than I remember him having. I came away quite impressed. Maybe the hoo-ha with his wife has given him renewed vigour, but my recollections of him live are of a lighter voice. I agree with the various people that have characterised Elina Garança’s Carmen as rather too shiny and glossy. She did sound fabulous, and she must have been covered in bruises by the end of the run from being thrown on the floor so often in Act 3. And whilst that was a tribute to her engagement in the drama, I did miss that earthy, vulgar, gritty tang that an outstanding Carmen has. She was also unfortunate in that her predecessor (Anna Caterina Antonacci) could actually clack her own castanets, rather than passing up the honours to a man in a bow tie and DJ in the orchestra pit – I didn’t see his hips move once. None of the others made quite that much of an impression on me. I did so want to like Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Escamillio, but he was also a bit too mild-mannered, lacking that last ounce of heft which would have stood the character out from the crowd. Ah well, it was an enjoyable romp.
At the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday, a most curious confection was served up: Henk de Vlieger’s ‘Orchestral Adventure’ synthesised from the great orchestral moments of Wagner’s Ring. The concert started with an interesting (and hitherto unknown to me) Scriabin Piano Concerto, which I couldn’t quite take in and follow but it was nevertheless a marker to come back to. It sounded on first hearing like Rachmaninov shot through with lemon juice: rich, but with just a little more acid. I will return… Yevgeny Sudbin was the pianist and I won’t attempt to comment – it’s not my particular study so I wouldn’t add anything insightful. He played a Scriabin etude (so I’m told…) which was actually received with a stillness which I then realised had been missing from the concerto. Interesting.
The Ring, reduced to a succession of bleeding chunks sewn together like a Frankenstein creation, was rollicking good fun. It progressed, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes rather jarringly, from the Rhine, up to the Gods, down to Nibelheim, then back on up to Valhalla, skipped all of Act 1 of Walkure, flitted past the fight scene, then to the Ride and off to the magic fire, into idyllic Siegfried territory, via the dragon-slaying back to the fiery rock, thence a trip down the Rhine, off to the funeral and finally the great conflagration and vision of a new world. A delight from beginning to end. It would be so easy to be sniffy, but I can’t. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had fleeting images of various Ring productions in my mind (I tried to banish the Mariinsky debacle), but equally I could just sit back and revel in the music free of the (inevitable) distractions. A very worthy endeavour, and I am pleased to report being vindicated in that view by John Deathridge, whose pre-performance talk gave it a seal of approval, and invoked the shade of Wagner for a similar endorsement. Neeme Järvi injected drama into the Royal Philharmonic and, overlooking some slightly off horns at some very exposed moments, gave the piece an impressive outing.