Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican

Brexity Brexity Brexity Brexit. This might as well have been the revised title of this opera. That, or A Brexit Fantasia with Purcellian Interruptions. Or more prosaically, King Arthur and the Knights of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee.

King Arthur is an English semi-opera — that is, a combination of theatre and opera where the protagonists are actors and do not sing. As a result, little of the music makes explicit reference to the Arthurian legend, enabling director Daisy Evans to discard the story and in its place create a ‘debate piece’, as she called it, on contemporary British politics.

Her reasoning is thus: King Arthur is a symbol of Britishness; the nationalist sentiments in the opera cannot be convincingly sung by a modern singer in light of modern developments; therefore we need a production that probes and questions. Evans does this through an incoherent miscellany of poetry spoken in between the songs and music (which needless to say she has radically reordered). From the programme:

This production isn’t about King Arthur the legend, it’s about the idea of King Arthur and the values that he embodies. The full title of the original piece is King Arthur or The British Worthy, and what we’re exploring here is whether that really is the model of British worthiness we still want to stand up for.

These kinds of questions are invariably posed by people who already have a very firm answer, but wish to be sly about it. They can always pull a face and feign innocence, saying ‘what, I was only asking a question?!’

The opera began with the singers, dressed causally, descending into the hall like a flock of latecomers. Each singer wore a plastic rectangle hanging from their neck, either in red or blue. A sign to the left of the stage read ‘Leave & Remain’ (later signs included ‘men and women’, and the inevitable ‘us and them’). Narrator Ray Fearon took centre stage and began reciting a poem from Ali Smith’s post-Brexit book Autumn:

All across the country, people felt unsafe.
All across the country, people were laughing their heads off.
All across the country, people felt legitimised.

And so on. This was set up as call and response. Fearon would shout ‘All across the country’ and the singers would shout back ‘people felt legitimised’. The scene ended with Fearon reciting The Bloody Sire by Robinson Jeffers while the singers filmed him with their smartphones.

Later ‘highlights’ included the singers ripping up newspapers — fake news! — and a group of drunken (loutish?) men rowdily singing ‘Old England, Old England, And heigh for the honour of old England.’ One suspects this was meant to ridicule, or at least portray suspiciously, working class patriotism.

Then there was a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the triumphant song ‘Come if you dare’, neither of which one can object to in and of themselves, and the latter of which is one of my favourite songs to sing in the shower (‘Triumphant with spoils of our vanquished invaders!’) The interval came and I left. Fifty minutes of politicised and ‘modernised’ Purcell was already too much. So this is a sort of semi-review of a semi-opera, I guess.

The most annoying thing is that there was no reason for it to be so bad. Superb orchestra, superb cast, superb music, and superb story. But a spanner had to be thrown in the works because the director wanted the production to be relevant. Yet the Arthurian legend is one of the few remaining historic cultural bonds. Everyone knows about Excalibur or the Lady of the Lake. It’s not exactly an out-of-date of irrelevant story that needs to be overhauled in light of contemporary events. But obviously Ms Evans disagrees. She would rather substitute the rarity and wonder of an opera for the banality of politics.

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Paul O’Dette at Wigmore Hall

I only found it about it this morning, and impulsively I hopped onto the next train, just managing to get to London in time for this afternoon recital by the great American lutenist Paul O’Dette. The programme consisted entirely of English lute music, including O’Dette’s own arrangements of William Byrd’s keyboard music. It’s a fair representation of the music of the time, often called the ‘golden age’ of English lute music (approx. 1580-1620). Lots of dance music — almaines, pavans and galliards — and popular tunes, alongside Dowland’s two ‘Farewell’ fantasies. The programme is more or less the happier side of the lute, more dance than counterpoint, more extravagance than reflection. None of this is a dismissal of the music — a John Johnson pavan is generally as artful and interesting as a fantasie, though in different ways.

Paul O’Dette played the challenging show-off pieces with apparent ease. The last piece in the programme was Daniel Bacheler’s variations on ‘Monsieur’s Almaine’, a tour de force of tremolo playing and rapid passages. His playing of the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie (P3), a slow, chromatic and contrapuntal piece of incredible beauty, was less convincing. I felt it was too fast, for one, and just not as expressive as, say, Nigel North, who manages to get that warmth and purposeful expression O’Dette somewhat lacks. It probably didn’t help that the piece was repeatedly interrupted by one man’s prolific and unstifled coughing. (This same man, as well as the woman next to him, presumably his wife, was asleep for the first part of the concert, lightly snoring.)

A very pleasant lady next to me said she found the music soothing, which it indeed is, but I also gently pointed out to her that the pieces aren’t so soothing to play, not only because of difficulty, but also because of the remarkable dissonances in pieces like the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie. Though admittedly the lute might need a venue even smaller than Wigmore Hall to be at its most brilliant. I was about twelve rows back, and even there it was beginning to sound a bit distant, despite O’Dette’s loud (and occasionally harsh) playing.

O’Dette is also an excellent writer, so I was glad to see that he wrote his own programme notes. Particularly interesting was the few paragraphs on playing Byrd’s keyboard music on the lute, how much interpretative freedom lutenists gave themselves and some of the technical challenges.

An aside, at one point I saw O’Dette adjust his frets. Lute frets are not fixed; they are gut strings tied around the neck. You can change the intonation this way (the lute is a pre-equal temperament instrument). I have wondered whether lutenists adjust the frets for different pieces, especially for different keys — perhaps he was doing this?

Why is Beethoven’s Ninth so popular?

I’m generally omnivorous in my music tastes. And I try to approach the great works especially with total humility and little suspicion. But there’s one notable exception: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Recently I attended a performance of the symphony, which was met with ferocious applause and a stomping, standing ovation. I must have been one of the few who did not stand — and the only one who did so out of stubbornness, not age or disability. I wonder why the Ninth gets such a raucous reception? At first, one suspects politics. The concert was a conspicuously European-themed Proms concert: first was James MacMillan’s European Requiem (though not the Brexit piece many doubtless thought), then the Ninth. Dozens of little EU flags were waved, and several supersized flags were draped over the railing by Prommers.

But politics, if it matters at all, is a peripheral reason for why the work is so adored. (Nor is its modern appropriation as a universalist secular hymn why I dislike it.) Not long ago the Ninth was performed on every penultimate night of the Proms. It’s an exceptionally popular work, particularly with a Proms audience. And the sheer volume of the choral finale filling the vast space of the Albert Hall is admittedly impressive.

However, as Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford writes, ‘the Ninth has attained the kind of ubiquity that threatens to gut any artwork’. Think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Faure’s Pavane. And indeed it is the most popular part I dislike most: the interminable choral section blu-tacked onto the fourth movement. This pushes the symphony to way over an hour (was it the longest symphony to date?). Following what Wagner called a ‘horror fanfare’ and a bizarre recapitulation of the first three movements, the anticipated moment arrives. First the tune is played on the cellos and double basses, expanding out to the rest of the orchestra, then, after another ‘horror fanfare’, comes the elongated, almost Oratorio-length variation on the Ode to Joy theme.

Interestingly, this is what Verdi, a man who knew a thing or two about choral writing, had to say about the finale:

… Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, marvellous in the first three movements, [is] very badly set in the last. No one will ever approach the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as in the last movement. And supported by the authority of Beethoven, they will all shout: “That’s the way to do it…”

Quite a number of contemporary critics disliked the symphony. Many blamed its failings on — yep, you guessed it — Beethoven’s deafness. They found it too harmonically extreme, not sufficiently ‘beautiful’, or simply too long and trying. These critics weren’t in the majority. But as musicologist Nicholas Cook points out, had the symphony been written by Berlioz it would likely have been roundly rejected ‘as eccentric, wilful, and probably incompetent too’. (Berlioz of course loved the symphony.)

My problem might be a prejudice against the grandiose. Seldom do musical forms become more humble with time; they often seem to metastasise. It then takes someone like Arvo Part to do the radical thing: go back to the beginning. When I hear the Ninth, I think to myself, Beethoven did the exiting, celebratory fourth movement much better in the Fifth Symphony and with far less.

Were I musically more competent, I’d be tempted to rewrite the fourth movement without the chorus. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to Beethoven’s true masterpiece: the Seventh Symphony. Riccardo Chailly conducting the Gewandhausorchester:

21st Century Theorbo Music

Matthew Wadsworth is a pretty amazing guy. Although blind, he’s nevertheless become a first-class lutenist, and even studied under Nigel North. There’s clearly a stubbornly ambitious streak in him. In addition to his lute playing, he’s trying to break the record for blind motorcycle jumping. An excellent little documentary was made of the whole process.

I saw him perform a couple of weeks ago — lute, that is. He is without a doubt a fine player with a profound understanding of the music he plays. I will say that there were a few wrongs notes and instances of string buzzes — enough to make one slightly uncomfortable. I found myself comparing him to the lutenist Thomas Dunford, who I also saw recently. Dunford can whizz through the fastest passages in a fairly carefree way. Wadsworth doesn’t even try to play that fast; he’s a more contemplative player, whether by choice or not. This actually made him very convincing on something like Robert Johnson’s Pavan in C Minor, which is a less florid and more intense piece. I wish he would do a whole album of Johnson because that and the two Almaynes were just superb — dare I say, they were even better than the versions Nigel North has recorded.

But surely the most interesting thing he played was a newly-written piece for the theorbo. It’s based on The Miller’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and written for Wadsworth by Welsh guitarist and composer Stephen Goss. The piece is structured sort of like a Baroque suite, but with a prologue and epilogue. Each movement is supposed to represent a character from the tale. Here’s Wadsworth performing the estampie; the character represented is John:

Wadsworth has since released an albumLate Night Lute, so I’ve had the chance to listen to give The Miller’s Tale another few listens today, now the novelty’s worn off. I’ve never read Chaucer, and my attempt to do so today ended in impatience with the Middle English language, I have to admit. But the music nonetheless appeals to me. It makes great use of those signature bass strings of the theorbo, and also quite interesting use of harmonics. The theorbo is a weirdly tuned instrument, so you have an unusual palette to paint with, and paint Goss does. The arpeggiated harmonics in the toccata are a good example of this, creating a truly unique effect, especially with those powerful bass strings. It does sound kind of otherwordly. In fact, much of the piece does, like something old but alien. The estampie above is perhaps a bit different, being more of a lively, rhythmic movement. But the rest are quite meditative, very much playing to Wadsworth’s apparent strengths. I wish we had more composers writing for this rich instrument. As far as I know, the only other example is James MacMillan, whose Since it was the day of preparation… begins with a beautiful theorbo solo.

Anyway. Very much recommend checking out Wadsworth’s new release, available on Spotify, Amazon, and all that. To sign off, here’s Wadsworth performing Robert Johnson’s Care Charming Sleep. It’s a very nice performance, but I’m starting to suspect that he might actually be more comfortable on the theorbo.

A New Beethoven Cycle

Yes, yet another Beethoven symphony cycle. But this one’s a real corker.

It’s a three-year project with Thomas Ades conducting the Britten Sinfonia, and with each concert pairing one or two Beethoven symphonies with a work by Irish composer Gerald Barry, whose music Ades has long been a champion of. Barry is most famously the man who made The Importance of Being Earnest, and more recently Alice in Wonderland, into operas.

So what does Barry have to do with Beethoven? Well, first off Barry has written a remarkable musical setting of Beethoven’s ‘immortal beloved’ letter. This song, simply titled Beethoven, was paired with Symphonies 1 and 2. It is almost operatic in its scope, lasting nearly twenty minutes and spanning two-days, from 6 July to 7 July [ETA: that is, in 1812]. Starting with Beethoven gives the following two symphonies a stronger personality. Rather than suffering through a talk where we hear about Beethoven’s intemperate character and, yet again, his deafness, we are introduced to the man musically, by a setting of this peculiar letter. Barry’s Beethoven is stiff and detached, in contrast to sometimes angular and jumpy, but usually very beautiful music. The highlight is doubtless the end, when a chorale-like section begins and Beethoven tries to pour his heart out. An extract:

No one else can ever possess my heart – never – never – Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves. And yet my life in Vienna is now a wretched life -Your love makes me at once the happiest and unhappiest of men

But the delivery is so idiosyncratic. ‘Never’ is almost barked. ‘Oh God’ is exclaimed with anger. Yet the next line is sung almost monotone and in an unchanging quaver rhythm. This Beethoven is quite incapable of expressing emotions in a normal way. He then rushes the end of the letter so he can get to the post office in time, by which time the audience were wholly convinced by the work, touched even, and greeted it with a warm laugh and much applause.

Musically, melodic simplicity and surprise link Barry and Beethoven. Barry’s Alice opera, for instance, is full of fundamental musical elements (arpeggios, simple motifs) that have been made much more interesting than they ought to be. Just as Beethoven’s Eroica symphony opens with a major triad that, on paper, ought to be boring.

The Beethoven itself was taut and exciting, full of quick tempi and controlled explosions. It sounds like we won’t be in for the sluggish interpretation so many conductors give the seconds movements of Symphonies 3 and 7. And goodness, the Seventh Symphony will be an absolute blast!

I was not especially familiar with the first two symphonies, quite unfairly presuming them to be half-way points between Mozart and Haydn and what would, with Eroica, become the Beethoven we know. But the Beethoven of symphonies 3-9 is there in much more than embryonic form. At the end of the first movement of the Second Symphony, I was trying to rearrange my open mouth to utter a ‘wow’, but my neighbour beat me to it.

Rather than me trying uselessly to describe its content, have a listen. The BBC have a recording of the Barbican performance up online for 30 days: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rsr1q

Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony

What am I missing? I recently saw this live, and was extremely excited to do so. But half way through I realised I didn’t actually like it that much. It’s so lurid, so unusually irreverent for Messiaen. Most reviewers have raved about the performance and the work, except for Neil Fisher at The Times, who described Turangalîla as ‘stupefyingly dull, its 80-minute span leaving me less filled with cosmic energy than stifling some truly cosmic yawns.’ I don’t think it’s dull. I was thoroughly interested and engaged throughout; the work is filled with colour and complexity. It’s just too boisterous, too repetitive — and again, ‘lurid’ is the term that keeps coming to mind.

The concert opened with L’Ascension, which is a mesmerising piece. I knew it by the organ version, which has a different third movement. The third movement in the orchestral version is more Turangalîla-like than the other movements, beginning with a fanfare then it moves along hurriedly, and becomes almost dance-like towards the end when the tambourine gets going. But it’s somehow much less vulgar than Turangalîla, with splashes of majestic chords, no sensual extravagance and no pointless sliding up and down on the bleeding ondes Martenot.

The last movement of L’Ascension, which sounded like a sort of inversion of the first movement, was so beautiful. Constantly moving forward in unity, weaving through aching dissonances and surprising you, almost serendipitously, with such joyous harmonies. Going from that to Turangalîla was like wandering from church into a nightclub. Yet maybe this is what people what? The Bachtrack review began by saying this: ‘Messiaen’s L’Ascension came and went. It was fine, pleasant enough, nothing special. And then came Turangalîla.’ 

I’m not out to bash Turangalîla and proclaim it overrated. I think the first movement is an exciting start, the symphony has some nice lyricism in it and I want to like its wilder moments. But it’s just — ugh, I’m going to have to say it for a third time — so lurid! It doesn’t help, I suppose, that it must be one of the longest symphonies ever written. Though I had no problem enjoying his two-hour piano work, Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus.

Anyway, here it is, performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and conducted by Paavo Järvi, Turangalîla:

Are Classical Music Concerts Too Cheap?

I flinched when reading the title of this article over at the Future Symphony Institute: ‘In memory of David Modell, and a few things orchestras might learn from the NFL’. What could classical music have to do with American football? Moreover, I feared a certain business-minded approach to classical music, an artform most often ill-served by the free market. Attempts to market it in conventional advertising ways seems to end in sexy glamour or an eye-rolling informality or a ‘greatest hits’ approach.

Fortunately this article takes a different tact. The author recollects a conversation he had with ‘football legend’ David Modell:

Over the years, I would chat with Dave about the challenge we orchestras believe we faced: asking ourselves how we could manage to charge less for tickets. “That’s crazy,” Dave would say. “You have to make your product seem as valuable to people as possible. Even the folks with little money spring for NFL tickets and the team jerseys if that’s something they really want. What’s so hard to understand about that?”

At first this was annoying to read. Price gouging to enhance a product’s status always seems silly and pretentious. For instance, those who spout the virtues of Voss water over tap water or other bottled water should be wholly ridiculed for it. Anyway, the author continues:

It simply rubs an arts administrator with an egalitarian mindset the wrong way to try to push up prices. Yet, people from all economic strata in Baltimore do fork over the big bucks for Ravens games. The Ravens and the Orioles, with their legendary Camden Yards, are the best shows in town – aside from the BSO, of course. Not everyone attends every game or every concert. Some people don’t attend any, but those who do pony up gladly

Ah, well there’s to greater insult than to be lumped together with egalitarian arts administrators! The author wants to make a greater event of concerts, he has a

dream of redesigning our concert experience, changing it from a two-hour sit-down-listen-and-leave routine to a five-hour window during which people show up in time to eat, drink, and be merry, the orchestra playing not just a world-class concert but also the world-class host. In short, the concert hall would become a destination for atmosphere, music, and hospitality.

He clearly placing great emphasis on the social function of music, something classical music has arguably abdicated, happy to let pop music fill that role. Where I sympathise is that more expensive tickets may well breed a more dynamic concert life. By virtue of my youth, I get extraordinarily cheap tickets. So I have reason to be very grateful for the push towards concessions and cheap tickets. And even without concessions, you can see a world-class orchestra for a fraction of the price of a world-famous pop group. The trouble is, this can soften one’s inner critic. If I pay a fiver for a Barbican ticket, say, I won’t be let down and will probably not give it much thought. I’ve been to a couple of bad concerts, of course, but as the ticket prices were so low, I just shrugged them off.

I did exactly that for a recent semi-staged performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, part of the Southbank’s silly Belief and Beyond Belief concert series, which ruined the opera by interrupting the performance with naval-gazing on issues such as Saddam Hussein and Stalin, and the etymological root of the word ‘hope’. (This is not to mention the director’s decision to stage the first act as if it were a stage rehearsal.) Had I paid, say, £50 and not £10 I would probably have been utterly livid, rather than just disappointed. Would not the discourse around performances — and the quality and quantity of public music criticism — greatly improve, then, if prices were higher? I know if I’d paid £50 I would have written a full irritated review, whereas at £10 I thought ‘ah well’, and left it — but perhaps I’m unusual.

There is, for sure, a comparable effect when it comes to how we listen to albums. In the era when I and others had to buy albums, as a teenager rationed heavily by my pitiful allowance, each album would be listened to intently many times, each minute and each second given its due importance. Music streaming has further pushed the music to the background. And when searching for things to listen to, it can transform into a kind of speed dating, giving a recording no more than a minute to enchant you, or else it’s onto the next. The music costs practically nothing. We’ve discovered the utopia wherein free stuff really is free. Yet it isn’t that much of a utopia. You only get out what you put in, and in a population of musically illiterate freeloaders, we put in so little.

I’m not advocating a sharp price increase, if only because I cherish the ridiculously generous concessions I get. But as well as bankrupting orchestras, it may not be the best thing for the future of the artform. Maybe classical music needs the prestige that only money can buy?