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?

Gerald Barry — Canada

There are only a handful of living composers whose new works I invariably feel I must hear. Off the top of my head this includes: Sofia Gubaidulina, Kalevi Aho, Arvo Part, James MacMillan — and the latest addition would be Gerald Barry.

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Gerald Barry

Gerald Barry’s music has the rather special quality of being challenging and mind-boggling while also being immediately accessible and, on the whole, rather merry. Even his most violent music makes me smile giddily.

Canada began its life unusually. Barry was in a Canadian airport, terribly stressed, and upon finally making it through security and to the bar, an idea came to him: a setting of Beethoven’s ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ in English, French and German, all with the original text or translation — except for one addition, the word ‘Canada’.

Canada is a short piece, hardly ten minutes long. It begins with an exclamation by tenor Allan Clayton, then frenzied orchestration, then sorts of musical exercises, until finally Clayton shushes the orchestra into silence.

Canada is ‘everyday and other’, Barry said in the interview broadcast in the interval. (It is worth listening to the entire interview, in which he demonstrates his remarkable ability to make the banal seem exciting.) Exemplifying this, one section sees Clayton singing musical exercises Barry wrote when he was nineteen. This is all set to one word (I’ll let you guess which one). The exercises keep repeating, and with each repeat sound sillier, to what sounded in the radio recording like much laughter from the Prommers. It is like when you keep saying certain words over and over again: the normal becomes unfamiliar and amusing. As I think I’ve said before, Barry’s music, like Beethoven’s, does a hell of a lot with very little. It’s economic, tightly-controlled, inspired music.

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Allan Clayton, tenor

The piece ends with a simple dialogue between Clayton and the orchestra. In it Clayton is Fidelio and the orchestra are the prisoners. Fidelio says ‘softly’ and the orchestra replies ‘Canada’, each time quieter than the last. Fidelio is teaching the orchestra how to be quiet and discreet.

At the end, the radio presenter told us that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (the conductor, and one to watch out for) burst out laughing and embraced Barry.

You can listen to the concert on the Radio 3 site for the next 30 days.

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.

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:

Sofia Gubaidulina Premiere and Scary Music

You know those times when you are made viscerally scared by a piece of music? I remember back when I was a big black metal fan, in my teenage years, I found the scariness of the music intoxicating. I’m not sure if the music is intrinsically scary. Certainly, if you listen to it very impassively, the music can sound silly — indeed, the line between what’s scary and what’s silly can be a faint one. But if you listen to black metal conscious of the dozens of church burnings, the numerous murders, the pseudo-ritualistic violent imagery, you’re likely to find the music at least a bit scary.

There is a Norweigan black metal ‘singer’, Gaahl, who infamously tortured a man in apparent ‘self-defence’ by first beating him, then collecting his blood in a cup. He did this while wearing a satanic garb and threatening to sacrifice him. The lenient Norwegian system gave him only a year in jail and a fine. This was far from the only offence he or his fellow band-members committed. In a 2004 show in Krakow a band Gaahl fronted, Gorgoroth, used nude models on crucifixes, some eighty litres of sheep blood, and sheep’s heads on stakes. These violated Polish laws against animal cruelty and religious offence. I’ll let you make your mind up whether it’s scary or silly, or both:

(He’s still a popular black metal figure today, and there’s an interesting, though somewhat over-the-top, half-four Vice documentary on him.)

Now, years later, that music has no hold on me, thank goodness. I have different values and different ears. What frightens me now is Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, whose work, for all the magnificence in it, has a sense of creeping darkness, and of constant battle. Her music is sublime, in the most religious sense — it’s scary because of the mystery in what it represents, and the intimidating musical language she uses to represent it. She is among the great twentieth-century Christian composers from the Soviet Union, from Arvo Part to Schnittke to Penderecki, whose faith was a profound and brave contrast to the totalitarian society in which they lived. Gubaidulina faced opposition from Tikhon Khrennikov, First Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, who labelled her an ‘undesirible’ composer for her aesthetic and religious qualities. Offertorium, the 1980 violin concerto which gave her worldwide recognition, had to be smuggled into the West for violinist Gidon Kremer to perform, himself unpopular with the regime for his refusal to return to the Soviet Union.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the news that a new work by Gubaidulina, her Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, Bayan and Orchestra, was premiered by the Boston Symphony. One of the odd things about Gubaidulina’s music is how can be borderline atonal in a way that sounds tonal. In this work, the opening notes on the cello are from the minor pentatonic scale. When she break with the scale, it’s by using a major third in a way that sounds faintly bluesy. After that you hear the signature chromatic ascents and descents of Gubaidulina’s music and the long glissandi — attempts to climb towards divinity, perhaps. There’s a terribly exciting bit at 18:19 (video below) on the bayan, a Russian accordion, that sounds like panicked breath exploding into a chromatic scream, with a long but frantic glissando descent. The main chromatic theme, heard frequently, is particularly memorable, perhaps owing to its easy symmetry — 1,2,3 ¦ 3,2,1 — although inverted and ornamented and contorted throughout. And with familiar arpeggios hovering above the dissonance, and familiar melodic leaps of tritones and fifths, the piece is much less incomprehensible than it ought to be. Perhaps this is the benefit of modernist music rooted in something more than abstraction. (Gubaidulina, however, identifies her music as ‘archaic’ not modernist.)

Anyway, those are my meagre thoughts on the piece. Well worth a listen:

Reinbert de Leeuw — Der Nächtlige Wanderer (‘The Night Wanderer’)

Review of Prom 26 concert with Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

The Night Wanderer is a huge nocturnal landscape, with an orchestra of over a hundred. There was even with a small ensemble camped up in the gallery, and a trumpet in one of the boxes. Half way through the work a man with a mallet twice his size started bashing a giant bit of wood. And earlier on there’s a magnificent antiphonal section where four players, on opposite sides of the stage, clapped their slapsticks noisily.

It was quite an experience, needless to say. An immersive, impressionistic symphonic poem that defies comparison. But it’s the kind of thing one can expect from a composer like Reinbert de Leeuw.

He seems to be a typical 60s era rebel, but the kind of equal opportunity rebel one can’t help but respecting, having taken on both the traditionalist and avant garde establishments. No doubt I have some philosophical differences with the chap, but I can’t help but be charmed, especially after reading this by cellist Zoe Martlew:

One of the original bad boys of Dutch new music in the 60s, Reinbert de Leeuw, along with fellow new mu rabble rouser Louis Andriessen initiated a now-famous riot at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam by setting off a bunch of clacking clockwork frogs and other percussive distractors during a concert of Mozart in an attempt to shake up the stultifying musical establishment of the time. Since then, de Leeuw has continued to stoke the flame of musical innovation as pianist, conductor, composer, programme planner and organiser of the highest calibre

I would have wanted to throttle him were I an audience member, but viewed from a good historical distance, I find it really quite amusing.

On top of all that, he’s done some excellent recordings of Erik Satie works alongside soprano Barbara Hannigan. In the late sixties he set up the Dutch Charles Ives Society and co-wrote a biography (sadly not translated) of the great man. Being an Ives partisan myself, I naturally admire him for that.

Anyway, onto the concert. The Night Wanderer is an odd work, based on an enigmatic poem of the same name. The poem is actually read out later in the work. In fact, recordings are used throughout, starting with the opening, faint sound of a barking dog. But the moment when the poem is read is undoubtedly the most effective. A deep, gravelly, whispering voice reads it slowly; the orchestra interrupt once with a screeching, powerful chord. Then after, the orchestra crescendo on these dissonant chords, playing to a steady, throbbing pulse.

But it ends unsatisfyingly, returning to quiet. It is, in a sense, an anticlimactic work. It hits louds moments, for sure, and moments like this imply climax even if it’s never realised. But this is why it’s such a frightening work, an ever weirder walk into the unknown. Anything could happen, even though it never quite does. The piece ends where it begins, with the distant sound of a dog barking.

Listening for a second time, today, via the Radio 3 recording, I found the piece no less tense. The recording is certainly not adequate — it is a challenge to convey the use of space in stereo — but I was surprised not to find the piece irritating on second listen. I somewhat expected to grow weary of the lack of clear direction, the very deliberate ambiguity. I didn’t. I was even surprised at how memorable some of the sections were, particularly a powerful rising violin melody.

(An aside, apparently the work used variation quotations, including by the likes of Galina Ustvolskaya. I suspect, though I may well be wrong, that I heard a partial quotation of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which is the ultimate statement of uncertainty and ambiguity.)

My hands want to type the word ‘masterpiece’, but being in that fertile stage, wherein one has only recently discovered a love for classical music, I am quite aware of how excitable I can be.

Praise must be given Oliver Knussen for his precise and confident conducting. I tremble to consider how challenging it must be to conduct a work like that, where you not only have a large orchestra in front of you but offstage musicians on the other end of the hall and recordings to play alongside. But Knussen was masterly, of course.

Both Knussen and de Leeuw strike me as wonderful characters too. Knussen with his wintry beard and flame-pattern walking stick (a closet House fan, perhaps?), and de Leeuw, a very slight man, with his floppy hair and drooping moustache.

The audience fuelled my misanthropy somewhat, though. I direct my ire particularly towards whoever started clapping before the piece ended.

But what a place to see it like the Albert Hall — and why on earth can’t there be more like this at the Proms?