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A Tale Of Two Strauss’

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on July 25, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Review – Vier Letzte Lieder. Anne Schwanewilms, BBC Philharmonic & Juanjo Mena.
Review – Vier Letzte Lieder & Arabella, Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier (Excerpts). Anne Schwanewilms, Jutta Böhnert & Regina Richter, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln & Markus Stenz.

Last week I attended the BBC Philharmonic’s first BBC Prom in their run. The concert was Richard Strauss, Saarhio and Sibelius and included the Vier Letzte Lieder performed by Anne Schwanewilms.

I also recently and coincidentally purchased Ms Schwanewilms’ new recital disc of Richard Strauss that includes the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as scenes from three of his operas.

Ms Schwanewilm’s performance at the Proms has drawn a mixed reaction. It has been well documented that on the night she ‘fluffed’ a phrase in the third song, Beim Schlafengehen, and this seems to have been the focus – unfairly I believe – of almost every critique since.

She dropped an octave. Big deal.

People who condemned the whole performance based on that single transitory moment when everything didn’t quite fall into place do the entire performance an injustice.

I was there on the night and also watched the subsequent programme on BBC Four (Not on BBC Two I might add and another example of the BBC marginalizing classical music).

I admit that it was distracting in that single moment but the reality is that Ms Schwanewilms did more than recover and from beginning to end – from the opening phrase to Ist dies etwa der Tod – delivered a strong performance. Granted it has to be said that I did feel that the orchestra and Juanjo Mena were not always completely supportive in their playing. Indeed on the whole I felt that they took a while to warm up although their playing by Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony was back on track and had that Latin lilt that I had previously detected in Mena’s Mahler.

The challenge of singing the Vier Letzte Lieder in the monstrous cavern that is the Royal Albert Hall is that the songs lose much of their effect. As I have said before, the performance of these songs spans everything from the grand operatic gesture from the likes of Jessye Norman and Kirsten Flagstad to the more intimate performances as eschewed by everyone from Schwarzkopf to Te Kanawa.

For me Ms Schwanewilms’ performance at the Proms went even beyond intimacy to almost complete introspection. One critic referred to it as “glacial” but for me it was almost as if we were eavesdropping on a very personal and private moment at times.

Every phrase, every word was carefully placed and for the most part, her vocal control and manipulation of Strauss’ sweeping phrases was incredible. No more so that in the third song when she recovered and delivered a thrilling crescendo on Und die Seele unbewacht.

And after a cheeky smile shared with Mena, Ms Schwanewilms sailed into Im Abendrot and delivered a faultless performance that combined a great sense of musicianship with an inflection of the text that was masterful.

And the audience saw beyond the hiccup and applauded her performance both warmly and enthusiastically.

As an aside it was only when watching an interview with the singer during the BBC Four broadcast that I realized that Ms Schwanewilms was not in fact on top form on the night.

But if anyone wants further demonstration of her vocal abilities then listen to her new disc of the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as excerpts from Capriccio, Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier.

This is the second time – I believe – that she has recorded these songs. The first was with Mark Elder and the Halle and now she has recorded them with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz.

Here Ms Schwanewilms is on incredible form. While it is a studio recording, there is a vocal and orchestral sense of breadth and expansiveness that is missing from her live performance with the BBC Philharmonic and Mena and even from her performances with Elder.

Her voice is warm with a real sense of flexible strength throughout its range. And at the same time she displays an agility in terms of both dynamic range and vocal colour that is rare in today’s singers.

And as Ms Schwanewilms revels in the vocal lines written by Strauss as a valedictory homage to his favourite instrument, Stenz and the orchestra are always there right beside the soprano, intuitively following her phrasing as well as the light and shade in her voice.

And again – because Ms Schwanewilms is such an intelligent and thoughtful performer – it is never to the detriment of the words. Each word is carefully placed and coloured. Just listen to the closing bars of September for example, and even just the focus on Augen. Wondrous. And even more so as the horn soloist floats in afterwards.

And just as at the proms, Und die Seele unbewacht is an object lesson not only in vocal mastery but thoughtfulness as Ms Schwanewilms keeps the momentum going when most sopranos let the subsequent phrases lapse.

Im Abendrot is taken at a stately pace but not once is there any sense that Schwanewilms, the orchestra and Stenz are anything but in total control. And of course – and just as at the Proms – at Ist dies etwa der Tod singer and orchestra are faultless and – if I am not mistaken – Stenz slows the tempo ever so slightly to allow Ms Schwanewilms to place the final words with heartfelt emotion before leading the orchestra with great poise and warmth through the closing bars.

I think I own almost every recording available of the Vier Letzte Lieder. This recording by Ms Schwanewilms ranks in the top three.

I would happily recommend this disc on these four songs alone but Ms Schwanewilms performances in the excerpts from Arabella, Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier are just as exceptional and thrilling.

It can never be a simple matter for either performers singing excerpts or those listening to successfully engage emotionally in the music. But this isn’t the case here at all.

I have to admit that I am a late convert to Arabella. It escapes me exactly why as the music is glorious and in the hands of as great a performer as Ms Schwanewilms my love of this scene – Das war sehr gut, Mandryka – is raised even higher. Stenz and the orchestra open the scene with such warmth and grace while avoiding the sense of cloying emotion that often invades this scene. In fact there are moments of real menace in the orchestral introduction before Ms Schwanewilms’ hushed first entry. From thence it is a performance of great eloquence and musical stature. Demonstrating the depth of her talent, each phrase is beautifully and fluidly spun out without any hint of stress across the wide vocal range required. And while she may be penitent there is a steeliness that makes me think that Schwanewilms’ Arabella is not a total pushover.

In Capriccio the closing monologue of this opera is seen simply as an opportunity for ‘beautiful sound’ and as such often comes across as an awkward postscript to the entire opera. Not so for Schwanewilms and Stenz who find the right balance between the Countess’ introspection and the drama that is still unfolding. There is no sense of sentimentality here.

Listen for example as the Countess sings the aria that has been composed for her and how Stenz drives the music onwards immediately after at Ihre Liebe schlägt mir entgegen. It’s as if the Countess cannot even stop for breath as her emotions tumble out until those closing bars as she looks at her reflection. Then – and only then – does Stenz pull back once again to afford Ms Schwanewilms the space to give due care and attention to the words.

Whether the word or music finally prevail I cannot say. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Ms Schwanewilms has worked it out.

Finally, the closing trio from Der Rosenkavalier is – even in the music of Richard Strauss – in a league of its own. That it was performed at his funeral says it all really. Joined by Jutta Böhnert and Regina Richter even the slightly recessed sound at the very opening cannot distract. Again here Stenz goes for an expansiveness of tempo that allows the phrases to play out beautifully and each of the protagonists to be heard equally as their counterpoint unfolds. And singers, orchestra and conductor move inexorably through the crescendo as equal partners to the Marschallin’s final In Gottes Namen.

Brilliant and a suitably thrilling end to a hugely enjoyable recital disc that underlines the immense and intelligent musicianship of Anne Schwanewilms.

Even if you own more than one copy of the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as the other excerpts on this disc this is a recital not to be missed.

A definite “must have”.

Stream Of Pleasure

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Review – Götterdämmerung (Live stream, Bayerische Staatsoper, Sunday 15 July 2012)

Siegfried – Stephen Gould
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Gutrune – Anna Gabler
Hagen – Eric Halfvarson
Alberich – Wolfgang Koch
Waltraute – Michaela Schuster
Woglinde – Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde – Angela Brower
Norns -Jill Grove, Jamie Barton & Irmgard Vilsmaier

Director – Andreas Kriegenberg
Set Designs – Harald Thor
Costumes – Andrea Schraad
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger

Conductor – Kent Nagano

First of all plaudits and thanks to Bayerische Staatsoper and their sponsor BMW for the inspired and generous live stream of Kriegenberg’s production of Götterdämmerung. If only our own opera companies could find a similar sponsorship deal. Or that the BBC would put their greedy hands in their publicly-funded pockets and support a first-night initiative such as this after such massive investment in their web to the expense of others. Hardly likely – they can’t even manage to stream their own Proms.

But back to Munich and what a wonderful night. I was fortunate enough to see Nina Stemme in her first complete Ring Cycle in San Francisco. And while unfortunately Francesca Zambello & Donald Runnicles delivered an ultimately flawed production, Ms Stemme was magnificent in the role not only vocally – her voice being incredibly rich and multi-hued throughout her range – but also in terms of her characterisation despite Zambello’s poor attention to general attention to character detail in that Californian production.

And in my mind her performance and interpretation in Kriegenberg, even via broadband was magnificent and had grown in dimension.

Having not seen the three other operas in Kriegenberg’s cycle it’s difficult to make more than passing comment to the production. Yet it was obvious that this was a production that had been clearly thought out, lean with, it seemed to me, very little superfluous mannerism or PersonRegie affectation.

The opening scene was Chereau-esque in its post-apocalyptic vision. Stunned people were rifling through postcards while being tested for what could only have been radiation and having their possessions removed in plastic bags by men in protective suits. The three Norns – like unseen spirits – walked among them handling a red ball of fine twine. The frailty of that twine seemed so suitable as it was wound around the shocked and numb people on the stage.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s opening scene was sent in the most basic of shacks. Simple planks of wood for walls held together by Kriegenberg’s posse of extras provided the backdrop as Brünnhilde finished painting symbols on her lover’s arms. 1950s starlet was my first impression of Stemme complete with fake blond hair and Siegfried in the more typical garb for Siegfried with an ever so slightly rustic appearance. I guess the symbols had some kind of significance in terms of being protective totems – only seeing Siegfried would confirm this – and thank you to @rossignol for pointing out Brünnhilde’s hair was in direct contrast to the Gods’ own white hair as witnessed earlier on the Norns and subsequently on Waltraute.

Indeed, the scene with Waltraute while not exuding the white-hot emotion of LePage’s production – which was only due to the immense talent and experience of Waltraud Meier – was an insightful moment. Clearly this Valkyrie was slowly descending into insanity as witnessed by her obsessive-compulsive actions and mannerism. Perhaps in realisation of what the future held in store for her and her brethren? The humanity and calm of Brünnhilde in contrast was startling.

Kriegenberg’s cadre then provided a gently modulating Rhine before, in an inspired touch, they morphed into Gibichungs – suited and booted City workers who inhabited the multi-level Gibichung Hall.

Kriegenberg’s “Gewinn” theme of vulgar richesse while obvious was cleverly done complete with rocking-horse-Euro. Gunther and Gutrune – with a mirror image inference of incest harking back to Siegmund and Sieglinde – were suitably brash and brassy in character while Hagen as sinister business associate was simply chilling.

Hagen’s scene with the chorus using mobile phones to take pictures of the happy and unhappy wedding couples reminded me of ENO’s own scene with its tourists. I can only imagine the mobile phone element was to reinforce the city slicker image but the multi-floor stage came into its own here in terms of providing impact.

I have to say the one oddity in the entire production was Brünnhilde’s entrance at this point. Why the paper bag on her head?

The rest of the opera worked well within this set and before Brünnhilde prepared to set the world alight the cast rushed around the set throwing around heaps of paper somewhat reminiscent of the chaos in a company before it is raided. And considering Germany seems to be riding the current economic recession better than most others it seemed as if Kriegenberg’s Gibichung Hall was suddenly a warning against the ultimate consequence of greed. Nice touch.

And in the closing moments not only did the Rhinemaidens appear carefully carrying the returned Rhinegold but – and most poignantly for me – Gutrune took centre stage. As the world imploded around her and Wagner’s magnificent redemption theme soared out from the orchestra, we saw Kriegenberg’s extras return to the stage and wrap themselves protectively around her.

As I have said without seeing the rest of the Cycle it’s difficult to really appreciate or understand Kriegenberg’s overall vision but even within the isolation of this Götterdämmerung his ideas were rich and for the most part seemed well thought out and intelligent.

And overlaid on this was some of the best singing I have heard in a long time. Ms Stemme led an incredibly strong cast from the front. She was in magnificent voice, strong and supple, richly hued and intelligent from her opening bars through to the end of the immolation scene. Never flagging I always feel that the hushed moment in the closing scene at Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott! is telling of a singer’s skills. And here Stemme did not disappoint, floating the phrases magically.

Her Siegfried, Stephen Gould was similarly magnificent. A clear and bright tenor, he had the rarely heard heft and stamina that saw him clear the final act with great aplomb. Again, to his closing scene he remained in complete control of his voice, displaying incredible technique and a musical intelligence as this Siegfried came to the realisation of his first love and final betrayal.

The Gibichungs of Iain Paterson and Anna Gabler were similarly strong in terms of character portrayal and singing ability. Indeed it was one of the best pairings I have seen and heard in a while. Paterson in particular was in fine voice. And the Hagen of Eric Halfvarson, while taking a little while to warm up was a perfect foil in terms of the richness of both his characterisation and singing.

And the three Norns and the Rhinemaidens were equally impressive with ensemble singing of the highest standard.

I have seen Nagano conduct in Munich many times and as ever his was an intelligent and detailed performance bringing out both the grandeur of the score juxtaposed with the more chamber-like moments. And all with well judged tempi. And the orchestra under Maestro Nagano was stunning, producing a rich palette of sound that was discernable even via the live streaming.

Indeed even via iPad this was a stunning production both musically and directorially and I can only wonder what it must have been like in that square in Munich on the big screen let alone in the theatre itself.

Before Sunday evening I was minded to cancel my booking of the cycle in January, but now I am more determined that ever to see it complete – even if Nina Stemme is only singing Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung.

January 2013 cannot come soon enough.

Minors Major By The Manchester Ship Canal

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 15, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Review: Die Walküre, Opera North (Saturday 14 July 2012)

Siegmund – Erik Nelson Warner
Sieglinde – Alwyn Mellor
Hunding – Clive Bayley
Wotan – Béla Perencz
Brünnhilde – Annalena Persson
Fricka – Katarina Karnéus
Valkyries – Miriam Murphy, Katherine Broderick, Jennifer Johnston, Emma Carrington, Meeta Raval, Madeleine Shaw, Antonia Sotgiu & Catherine Hopper

Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging, Lighting & Projection Designer – Peter Mumford

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Perhaps my expectations were too high after a near perfect Das Rheingold, but Opera North’s return for Die Walküre at The Lowry on the banks of the Manchester ship Canal was not as satisfying. In fact, if truth be told it was more than a little disappointing both in the casting department and the overall sweep – or lack of it – from Richard Farnes.

And at the end of the evening, the two strongest and most memorable performances were actually those that are traditionally seen as minor characters – Hunding and Fricka.

I have most recently seen Clive Bayley as Daland in the ENO production of The Flying Dutchman and as I said at the time, his was an impressive, strongly characterised performance. And it was the same here. His Hunding was vocally rich and resonant, smooth and consistent throughout his range. And his diction was perfect. The way he sneered “Wölfling” summed up not only the way he viewed Siegmund but his very approach to life – brutal and arrogant.

And every time I see Die Walküre I am forced to reassess Fricka as a character. Twice before – in New York with the incredible human performance by Stephanie Blythe, and in Hamburg with the formidable wife of Wotan played by Lilli Paasikivi – I have seen Fricka portrayed not as an incidental character as she is so often considered by directors (and conductors) but as a pivotal role in the unfolding story.

And at The Lowry Theatre, Katarina Karnéus delivered an excellent performance. Unlike the other characters, from her first appearance she inhabited the stage, striding around her husband and before she exited stage left, sneering at Brünnhilde. And as she left, having secured her hollow victory – for had she not succeeded who knows how the Ring would have unfolded – that simple wave of her wrist said it all – Fricka was a woman of significance. And vocally, bar a few minor problems of intonation – which I have commented on before – it was a strong, characterised performance. Karnéus revelled in Fricka’s words and they were delivered with steely conviction.

Alwyn Mellor was similarly a strong Sieglinde. Her voice rode above the orchestra with ease and what it lacked perhaps in colour it made up for in richness. Her singing in the First and Second Acts was incredibly strong but by the final act she was clearly tired and her O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid! sounded a little tight. But I see from the programme that she is scheduled to sing Brünnhilde in Paris in 2013 and, if she can resolve her pacing, that would be worth seeing.

Siegmund sounded like a role just ever so slightly outside the reach of Erik Nelson Warner. While he was a pleasant voice – although again without much sense of colour or dynamic inflection – it felt that even the First Act was just a little beyond his stamina. However he did recover admirably in the Second Act. As with Ms Mellor, it might just be a question of pacing himself correctly.

But it is a shame that the two major characters were such a disappointment overall.

The Brünnhilde of Annalena Persson was ultimately flawed. This is – pace Wotan – the principle role in The Ring cycle and it requires a soprano not only with heft, but one who has an iron grip on their technique. Persson’s voice can clearly cut through an orchestra and while she has a strong lower and middle range, as she moved above the stave her voice became uneven, shrill and suffered significant and uncomfortable intonation problems. And this was compounded as she forced her volume. It was a shame because literally in her closing moments I thought I caught a glimpse of potentially an amazing Brünnhilde. But I think it is a role she should in future approach carefully and perhaps with more study.

Wotan is certainly as big a casting challenge as his daughter and in my opinion it isn’t a role that Béla Perencz. While it was clear – as outlined in the programme’s biography – that he has had belcanto training – his voice was quite Italianate and there was no faulting his sense of legato or vocal colouring – he didn’t have the stamina. By the final scenes of the act he was vocally exhausted and as well as having quite significant intonation problems personally I found his verismo inflections – at Leb’ wohl for example – almost too distracting at times. If he does attempt this role in the future – and perhaps after some careful consideration – I hope he will be more Nordic god and less Pagliacci.

And for me the Valkyries were overly strident. The fact that they made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up wasn’t from an electrifying and compelling performance but rather that they seemed – almost to a part – to sing everything at the loudest volume all the time and with little vocal finesse.

After the loving and careful attention to detail from the cast of Das Rheingold I had to wonder if Dame Anne Evans was as involved as in this Die Walküre.

As for the staging, it was very basic even for a concert production. Unlike Das Rheingold, Peter Mumford didn’t seem to have developed anything other than the most basic ideas. The projections were for the most part uninspiring as was the lighting. And a small niggle, why ravens for the Valkyries? The ravens serve a different and unique role in Wagner’s Ring and they are definitely not designated as dead-warrior-carriers as far as I am aware.

So finally to Richard Farnes and the Orchestra of Opera North. As in Das Rheingold the playing of the orchestra was of an incredibly high standard. The strings were warm in that very European way, the woodwind were beautifully light and pointed and the brass suitably punchy.

Yet Farnes did not deliver a clear and cohesive performance and didn’t always pull out the orchestral colour and depth as he had in the first opera. The First Act was taken at quite a deliberate and measured pace. There is nothing wrong with that. Listen to Mark Elder’s recent recording for example. The Second Act was brisk enough with Farnes returning to a more measured tempo for the final Act. But personally it felt like Farnes was conducting a series of highlights with music in between. For example, in the First Act the closing section with all that wonderful music for Siegmund and Sieglinde seemed a little mechanical but more disappointingly, Wotan’s monologue in the Second Act seemed rushed and unarticulated with little attention to detail. Although I think for this Perencz must share some of the blame. And the closing scenes of the opera suffered too. Leb’Wohl was taken at what seemed an inordinate canter before Farnes slowed down the music to such an extent that the orchestra for the only time in the entire evening sounded messy at the cadences.

But when Farnes was in his stride the moments were glorious. The dialogue between Brünnhilde and Siegmund was both dramatic and otherworldly as it should be, and those moments with just Brünnhilde and the wind sections in the closing scenes were achingly poignant in terms of the colour and transparency he elicited from the orchestra. It was at those moments that you could glimpse Persson as Brünnhilde. Nowhere else.

After such a magnificent Das Rheingold perhaps it was inevitable that Die Walküre would disappoint. It’s a giant-sized leap from the opening opera of the quartet and I feel that this Die Walküre needs more work and attention to detail. I hope that this happens before Opera North perform the complete cycle – rumoured to be in 2015/2016 – but also earlier than that, before Farnes tackles Siegfried.

Katherine Jenkins? Just Say No.

In Classical Music, Opera on July 12, 2012 at 9:16 am

A number of things over the past few months have made my heart sink about the long-term commitment to and future of classical music in the UK.

Don’t get me wrong we have – despite cut after cut – a rich and varied performance culture. But it isn’t enough.

For example take Philip Henscher’s article in The Independent. The fact that classical music is studiously avoided or used for ‘riot control’ is the result of numerous factors. You cannot ignore – and I have witnessed first-hand myself – the fact that there is a serious lack of commitment within the education system with only a few and daring exceptions to the general rule. This is either because of a failure to integrate the subject within the syllabus effectively or with any sense of original thinking or because of resources. There’s also an added and unfortunate perceived social bias quite possibly because people perceive that it can only be nurtured in schools with the resources.

The net result is that the majority of people who enjoy classical music and attend classical concerts, operas and recitals are more aware than ever of the steady decline in both the appreciation of and audiences for the genre.

To counter this performing groups are trying anything and everything to draw in a new audience and increase their revenue. These are tough times and I applaud almost any attempt by arts organisations to make themselves more attractive to a younger demographic using modern marketing techniques despite some derisory and elitist comments from old school puritans. And I would like to think that ventures such as the late-night taster concerts at the Southbank by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the smart advertising of Covent Garden and the activity of smaller organisations who are doing similar things on a shoestring budget are attracting new audiences. But whether in enough volume is questionable.

I also don’t wholly agree with Rupert Christiansen that cinema broadcasts will have a detrimental effect opera companies. Perhaps opera houses need to be more commercially savvy? The Met has had significant success commercialising its assets and Covent Garden needs to follow suit especially having invested in some pretty sophisticated studio equipment. And John Berry at ENO should ensure he isn’t left behind by dismissing the power of cinema and new technology and media completely. His recent comments sounded bitter rather than visionary. Perhaps that’s why he never got a second interview for the BBC job.

But even this level of activity cannot be and is not enough. And especially not in classical music. Galleries and museums are – in a sense – more fortunate in that they can and do command the attention of substantial corporate funding perhaps because greater footfall is seen as providing greater potential awareness per pound of investment by sponsors as well as the less elitist perception that these venues have. I don’t deny that some corporates support individual performing groups or organisations but not – I would imagine – on a scale that the British Museum, The National Gallery or the Victoria & Albert receive support.

So where does this leave us?

Well in my opinion it leaves us with the major record labels. And the BBC.

A few years ago an article in The Economist piqued my interest. A major record label announced that it would no longer be recording full-length operas any more as it wasn’t commercially viable. It seemed a sad state of affairs that this same label was willing to waste money and pour it down the throats and up the noses of countless less-than-talented pop groups with little or no return either on their music or the global marketing campaigns that launched their ill-fated careers. And a few years ago the same publication published some research that demonstrated that opera was good for growth. This was based on research conducted by Oliver Falck, Michael Fritsch and Stephan Heblich and they argued that for whatever reason the original opera houses were built, and regardless of the immediate socio-economic impact, the self same opera houses were still making an important contribution to the regional economy.

I realise that major record labels, faced with diminishing returns because of the advent of downloads and piracy as well as not an unfair amount of corporate greed, are governed by their bottom-line. But they are taking the fool’s way out.

They promote “easy listening” classical. Aural fodder. They package a man, a woman or a group in expensive clothes, drape them seductively on an album cover or a poster and sometimes give them suggestive names.

But forget one thing. Talent.

These people are talentless. Take away the microphone and the veneer and you have a bunch of people who are less than lacklustre.

Look at Katherine Jenkins. Look at Russell Watson. Look at Alfie Boe. Look at Opera Babes (Yes. ‘Babes’). Look at Amore. Millions of pounds spent marketing the bland and the untalented. But more sadly millions spent producing unchallenging, uninspiring music in the belief that the audience want mediocrity.

The truth is some of us don’t. We can spot the talented. And the talentless.

I don’t overtly object to the commercialisation of classical music within reason. For the most part the CD covers of the likes of Renée Fleming, Danielle de Niese and even Gergiev recognise the power of marketing but never negate the talent that lies within. Packaging is important and it has much more impact if, when someone listens, they actually hear real, natural talent.

But as companies are increasingly waking up to their social responsibilities, shouldn’t major record labels wake up to their cultural responsibilities?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the labels said to Katherine or Russell; to “Babes” Karen and Rebecca; to David, Monica, Peter or Victoria – “I’m sorry. The truth is you aren’t very good and we’re done screwing the public.” And instead invested the money in real artists with real talent?

If only.

Major labels must significantly invest in real talent. It should be less about the sex or an ‘X’ factor. The only factor that should matter – their ability.

In a few years time, Katherine Jenkins will be forgotten. In the harsh reality of today’s marketing and celebrity-obsessed society she will be too old to be of any use. She won’t look good on an album cover and because she – or anyone like her – hasn’t any talent, her profitability will fade as quickly as her looks.

All that money wasted.

But there are isolated instances that prove that there are some people in the ‘music business’ who are fighting a rearguard action.

John Elliott Gardiner defied expectations after Archiv pulled their support. He boldly embarked on the project on his own, launching his own label and has all but completed his spectacular Bach cantata cycle.

And other small labels are similarly setting the standard in terms of both vision and commitment. Marek Janowski is recording Wagner’s major operas on PentaTone to coincide with the composer’s centenary. This is an incredible feat that – as far as I am aware – is not being matched by any other label.

If truth be told, labels seem to be happy to hide to certain extent behind reissuing older – or as they refer to them – ‘classic’ recordings. That is not to say that these are not valuable. They are. But today’s classical music industry and audience cannot survive on reissues alone. Otherwise we run the risk of only ever harking back to yesteryear.

But while labels can hide behind – or below – their bottom line, what about the BBC?

I have already written about the travesty that was Maestro At The Opera. And it was a crying shame that BBC Young Musician was so badly treated.

And of course there are the Proms. But even those are marginalised.

The BBC has a responsibility – and duty set by Parliament – to promote arts and culture. It doesn’t do too badly in terms of ancient history, literature or art. But in terms of classical music it is virtually non-existent and never consistent. It’s bite-sized and relegated to niche.

I read with interest an excellent blog at George’s Musings that included a response from the head of BBC Four as to why there wasn’t more opera on BBC Four. It was about the money. I am not asking for the classical equivalent of that arch example of vocal mediocrity The Voice that the BBC One audience rejected in spades are so much hype. I am not that naïve but couldn’t the BBC actually take a bold step and lead by example? And if they can spend £20 million for two years of The Voice then surely they can scrape a few more coins together for something of such much more value in the long-term?

I applaud the fact that they didn’t savage their own orchestras but isn’t the BBC meant to address market failure? With a new Director-General perhaps there might be a reappraisal of the BBC’s cultural responsibilities. But from what I gather it’s becoming more and more apparent that the new man at the top could prove to be nothing more than a bland cipher and puppet for Patten – more Simple George than Curious George. And definitely not Cultural George.

Sky Arts 1 AND 2 aren’t the solution but – André Rieu aside – they are doing a pretty good job. I just hope that now Murdoch is abandoning the UK he doesn’t throw it all to the dogs.

I am sure the BBC would argue that it “does enough”. They probably have a policy wonk in a room somewhere in their new shiny building at Regent Street that cost £1 billion who manipulates the figures to show an increase in some way or other.

But doing enough or – as what the case with Maestro At The Opera – missing the point completely, descending to the lowest common denominator and treating your audience like idiots is unacceptable.

The entire public deserves better.

Arts programming shouldn’t be a sop as the BBC once again does another deal on the back of a cigarette packet to secure the Charter. And considering the cultural vandalism of the current Government they should not be so sure that pulling a cultural ace out of the deck will have the desired effect.

They should be bold, step forward and demonstrate that they will not fulfil the minimum duty but exceed expectation.

Not a strand. Not a season. But wholesale investment in arts programming. Yes classical music. Yes opera. But also yes to programming in the broadest sense that addresses the current threat of a real cultural deficit. A long-term vision and commitment that will serve today’s audience and the licence fee paying audience of the future.

Because if the BBC addresses its own cultural deficit and lack of vision it can only lead others to follow their example.

My Raptur’d Soul

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on July 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Review – Arias For Guadagni
Iestyn Davies, Arcangelo & Jonathan Cohen

Guadagni was one of the most famous – or infamous – castrati of the Eighteenth Century and his career included close association with composers from Handel to Hasse and Gluck who’s Orfeo ed Euridice he championed.

After a shaky start his musical career blossomed and Charles Burney referred to him at least twice. In 1755 when he was in London he remarked on his “full and well-toned voice” and later when visiting Padua – where Guadagni later settled – he remarked that he was “for taste, expression, figure, and action … at the head of his profession”.

And these two descriptions could be similarly ascribed to Iestyn Davies. In the year that we are celebrating – even if it is in rather muted fashion – the centenary of the birth of Alfred Deller, the first great countertenor, it is only fitting that the Iestyn Davies’ talent is being fully recognised and his star is in the ascendant.

And among the numerous countertenors on the stage today it is refreshing that he hasn’t been subjugated by marketing but has focused on musicianship and intelligent performance.

That is not to say that his colleagues are not accomplished for the most part but in a sense Davies has more in common with Andreas Scholl’s scholarly and measured manner than his other European counterparts.

And the similarities in the timbre and the shape of their voices can’t be denied in my opinion. As well as seamless legato they both posses an evenness of tone throughout their range and a bell-like upper register without any sense of the harshness of their colleagues. There is something slightly more metallic and angular in the vocal timbres of a countertenor like Jaroussky or Cencic and to a certain extend Valer Barna-Sabadus but that is not to say that they are unattractive. They are simply the flip side of a vocal type that I do enjoy.

But Iestyn Davies is in an entirely different league. An intelligent performer, he has an incredible grasp of technique married with a faultless sense of interpretation.

I have seen and enjoyed Davies’ numerous stage performances over the years. Those that come most readily to mind are his performance as Creonte in Steffani’s Niobe at Covent Garden, a wonderful and poignant production, and his numerous roles for ENO including a beautiful performance in Mark Morris’ King Arthur, as Armindo in Partenope, and his magnificent Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And this recital disc, of arias written for the famous castrato Gaetano Guadagni, is simply brilliant and he is more than ably supported with a mix of gusto and delicacy by Jonathan Cohen and the players of Arcangelo.

From the hushed opening of O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless to the closing aria on the disc composed by Guadagni himself, Davies’ musicianship and simple enjoyment of the arias he sings is manifest. All combined with crystal diction effortless technique.

His Handel is unsurpassed. The purity and control of the vocal line combined with the dignity he imbues in the embellishments in the opening aria from Solomon sets the standard for the entire disc. And The Raptur’d Soul from Theodora has a true sense of rhythmic alertness in the triplet flourishes combined with real fluid legato. And – as I have said before – how refreshing not to have the da capo too heavily ornamented.

Yet, Can I Hear That Dulcet Lay, from The Choice of Hercules is exquisite and sadly so rarely heard and again plays to the strengths of Davies technique as he spins out the gentle coloratura with complete ease.

However the ‘Handel highlight’ of the disc is the magnificently martial Destructive War, Thy Name Is Known from Belshazzar. Davies flings out the divisions with abandon and is brilliantly supported by bright yet light playing from the players and in particularly the crisply articulated brass. Whole I thought Marie Nicole Lemieux was enjoyable this Iestyn Davies’ rendition is stellar.

Hasse is a countertenor’s dream and quite rightly as he wrote some of his most beautiful music for castrati. Like Barna-Sabadus he opts for a selection from Didone Abbandonata but not the same arias.

Ah, Che dissi! … Se Resto Sul Lido with its accompagnato and then unexpected slow opening vocal section is a real gallant gem with the tempo changes expertly handled by both singer and orchestra. And Davies never makes the short declamatory phrase sound clipped or snatched as might be expected. And again he avoids the temptation to over-ornament in the returning opening section.

The martial returns with Odi Colà La Frigia Tomba? … A Triofar Mi Chiama with its impressive horn playing and Lombardy snaps and also give ample opportunity to enjoy the breadth of Davies vocal range and especially the bell-like upper notes I referred to earlier.

Guadagni didn’t not only sing Handel roles when he was in London and Davies includes two arias by English composers. The first is from JC Smith’s The Fairies Say, Lovely Dream and the second is from Thomas Arne’s Alfred, Vengeance, Oh Come Inspire Me. The former aria is deceptively simple with its gentle and murmuring string writing below a vocal line that belies its simplicity and requires a strong and confident technique to deliver its sustained notes and high tessitura as well as the delicate roulades and trills. The Arne is almost a typical period ‘vengeance’ aria that Davies dispatches with the necessary vigour and bite. What makes it more notable is Arne’s use of unison between voice and orchestra as well as use of dramatic pauses.

It makes one wish that Davies and these players will consider a disc of arias by Handel’s English contemporaries and successors alone.

But if I had the tiniest reservations with the disc it is this – the inclusion of a symphony by CPE Bach. I am not convinced by the argument made in the sleeve note. Again don’t misunderstand me, I love CPE Bach’s symphonies and it is brilliantly played with real Emfndsamer-stil style, but that is exactly the problem. The narrative of the disc works for me in terms of Handel to Hasse to Handel’s contemporaries to finally Gluck. CPE Bach is literally world’s apart in terms of style and emotion.

But as I have said it is a small price to pay. And in some ways it serves to clean the palette in preparation for Davies’ Gluck.

From Telemaco comes Ah! Non Turbi Il Mio Riposo with its doleful oboe obbligato and hesitant phrasing. Davies captures the poignantly of this aria beautifully while maintaining the exposed legato vocal line.

The most startling thing about the opening bars of the arioso Che Puro Ciel! from Orfeo ed Euridice is how – for some reason – it reminded me of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I can only put this down to the wonderfully articulated playing of the orchestra. A real moment and this is heightened when Davies enters and there is no sense that the orchestra is in any muted below the singer. I don’t think I have heard this arioso performed with such clarity and beauty in a long time.

One review I read that said that Davies didn’t convincingly carry off the broad phrases in Orfeo. I don’t agree at all. If anything Davies elegant phrasing and attention to the words highlights the simplicity of Che Farò to greater effect.

The final aria of the recital, Pensa a sebarmi o cara, was written by Guadagni himself. To be honest after the gems that precede it his own aria – while clearly playing to his vocal abilities – is a pleasant enough example of galanterie but nothing more.

Yet it doesn’t detract from the overall impact of either the entire recital or Iestyn Davies’ talent.

This is a hugely enjoyable recital and one I return to often. I am looking forward to his performance at Wigmore Hall this November and in advance of that I heartily recommend this disc to everyone.

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