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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Monday, May 14, 2018

Young Musicians All

Lauren Zhang plays Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto with the CBSO in the BBC Young Musician final
Photo: Greg Milner

Coinciding with yesterday's apparently stunning final of this year's BBC Young Musicians Competition, oboist Nicholas Daniel and a magnificent roster of fellow past winners - Nicky Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Natalie Clein, Guy Johnston and many more - have launched a plea for music lessons to be available free of charge to every primary school pupil in the country.

The BBC YMoY is 40 this year and has helped to inspire several generations of young people to love music and want to play it. This (along with so much else in the UK at present) is desperately under threat. 

Here's some of the letter:

"....despite some brilliant schemes, we are all deeply concerned that instrumental music learning is being left to decay in many British schools to the point that it could seriously damage the future of music here and jeopardise British music’s hard won worldwide reputation.
"Today, we are launching a campaign for every primary school child to be taught to play an instrument, at no cost to them or their families. It is crucial to restore music’s rightful place in children’s lives, not only with all the clear social and educational benefits, but showing them the joy of making and sharing music. We are especially concerned that this should be a universal right. This is an opportunity to show the world that we care about music’s future and its beneficial impact on our children.
"Musical life in the London Borough of Newham could be one example, with their excellent Every Child A Musician scheme. The programme gifts all of their primary school children a free instrument to keep and teaches them how to read and play music in weekly lessons. This at no cost to the children or their families.
"We believe that every child deserves to enjoy the benefits of Ecam and other excellent schemes, and their widespread adoption would alleviate many of our current concerns about the future of music in this country..."
Meanwhile 16-year-old pianist Lauren Zhang from Birmingham swept to victory at yesterday's final, playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.2. It's not a piece you expect to pitch up in a competition final - dark, intense, tragic, as well as phenomenally challenging in technical terms - and everyone I know who heard this performance was blown away. I managed to miss it and will catch it on the much-blessed iPlayer - you can too, here.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Observing Pauline Viardot

Last week I had a call from The Observer to ask me to stand in for their absent critics Fiona Maddocks and Stephen Pritchard, which was both a surprise and an honour.

It looked like a quiet patch at first - just too early for the premiere of Lessons in Love and Violence - but closer examination revealed two concerts that couldn't have been more 'up my street' if they'd tried. One was the shooting-star French soprano Sabine Devieilhe at the Wigmore lunchtime concert in a programme based around the salons of Pauline Viardot, who happens to be a long-standing obsession of mine. The other was billed as a TED Talk with music: Cambridge history professor Sir Christopher Clark joined Brett Dean and the City of London Sinfonia for an evening of Beethovenian exploration at the shiny new QEH. Due to circumstances beyond my control, it was my first trip there since the hall reopened - and gosh, it's good! (And it really does smell like a shoe shop.)


And here's one of my favourite Pauline Viardot songs, Die Sterne, sung in French by Isabel Pfefferkorn with cellist Romana Kaiser and pianist Anna Reichert. I think Viardot's songs are the equal of any in her salon, and a good bit better than some. Devieilhe sang the best-known number, Hai Luli, and one of the Chopin mazurka adaptations, Aime-moi - the latter is a bit of a masterclass in why it's best to write words first and music afterwards - but there's a wealth of fantastic music sitting there, waiting to be explored.




Sunday, May 06, 2018

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Truly Philharmonic

If you've been wondering where I am... My beloved cat Ricki has been desperately ill. He is just home after 10 days in vet hospital and we're feeding him a lot of fish to build up his strength. I've been preoccupied, sleepless and unmotivated for blogging. Meanwhile, though, the Royal Philharmonic Music Awards are coming up next week, and the wonderful Rosemary Johnson is stepping down as executive director. I was keen to offer a tribute to her, so can only send my profuse thanks to Jack Pepper, our youth correspondent, who has written what follows. (This is a longer version of a piece which has appeared in the BBC Music Magazine website.) JD

TRULY PHILHARMONIC
A tribute to Rosemary Johnson, by Jack Pepper
 


Starting out in the classical music world is never easy. Commissions lead to commissions, performances to further performances, but this relies on an initial opportunity to get you started. There is no flame without a spark. In December 2017, one very notable inspiration in classical music, someone who has sparked many a career – the Executive Director of the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS), Rosemary Johnson – announced that she will be standing down from her position.

Rosemary Johnson has led the commissioning organisation and music charity for 20 years, supporting over 100 young musicians annually through commissions, conducting schemes and bursaries. Rosie has overseen the incredible transformation of the Society from a small London-focused organisation into a nationwide community of music-lovers. 

It has become one of the pre-eminent forces for change in the classical world, not least through the annual RPS Music Awards, a ceremony that Rosie has placed at the forefront of the Society’s work. The Awards recognise the greatest achievements in live performance over the previous year, and Rosie’s determined and passionate leadership has ensured the accolades are among the most respected in the world. Since she took charge of the organisation in 1998, RPS Award winners have included pianists Stephen Hough and Maurizio Pollini, conductors Daniel Barenboim and Antonio Pappano, and singers Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams. The list of winners reads like a who’s-who of classical music, and Rosie has played an enormous part in creating this. Clearly much-loved by the industry, every professional musician I have come across has smiled at the mention of her name. Her legacy is the enhanced reputation and voice given to classical musicians, and what a legacy that is to leave. 

The RPS has been one of the great starting points in my musical career, co-commissioning a composition of mine with Classic FM for the station’s 25thbirthday. Without a platform, without momentum and without the motivation this all brings, it would be profoundly more difficult to launch a musical career. 

I remember feeling rather daunted when, at a photo shoot at Classic FM’s studios in London, I was informed that ‘the Executive Director of the Royal Philharmonic Society will be arriving shortly’. There’s something about the long job title, as well as an organisation with such an illustrious history, that suggested a level of distance. The word ‘Society’ so often seems to evoke a rather sober meeting of serious-minded traditionalists, talking about doing things whilst not doing them. 

But the RPS is far from this. Rosie was the greatest advert for classical music from the moment we met. Here was someone who was willing to take risks, try new ideas, and who always wanted young musicians to feel supported as they made their first steps into the profession. This genuine support of their musicians is made clear by one fact; I learnt with surprise that a member of the RPS team attends every premiere of their commissions. What better way to make a young composer feel appreciated?

In promoting the work of new voices, Rosie has kept to the greatest traditions of the RPS. Founded in 1813, it was originally intended to encourage instrumental concerts in London at a time when no permanent orchestras or chamber concerts existed in the capital. With five permanent home-based orchestras, 21st-century London is a global music hub. At the centre of the city’s classical music scene is the RPS. 

Commissioning new works has long been at the heart of the organisation. The Society famously commissioned Beethoven to compose his Symphony No. 9, as well as Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. Today, the RPS remains dedicated to the development of new composers, having commissioned 170 new pieces since 2000. Throughout the entire 20thcentury, the RPS commissioned just 16 new works.

Despite having a permanent staff that you could count on one hand alone, Rosie has given young musicians like me the opportunity to get our voices heard for the very first time. What some musical heavyweights would see as a risk, Rosie sees as an exciting opportunity. The classical world needs more people like her.

At a time when some question the future of classical music, Rosie is determined to make a difference. Where others comment on a situation, Rosie is busy getting stuck in. Perhaps most worthy of recognition is her deeply-held conviction that classical music deserves to be celebrated, that this is a genre we are right to feel proud of. This love of music is its greatest possible advert. It seems ironic that one of the key figures driving the RPS Awards has herself yet to be fully recognised. 

The RPS points out that the word ‘philharmonic’ describes a person or institution that is ‘music-loving’. With her extensive support of young musicians, her open-mindedness in considering new ideas, and her dedication to raising the profile of classical music, Rosie Johnson is undoubtedly ‘music-loving’. She is philharmonic in the greatest sense.