Sunday, 23 January 2011

Hungarians in Charge

No correct answers to the first photo competition were received. Actually, no answers of any sort were received. Anyway, it’s too late now as I’ve moved on to the second round. As before, write in the Comments box the name of the composer you believe to be represented in the above picture and if you give an address, I will send a CD of my choice. The first photo reappears at the bottom of this blog, but you can’t enter it anymore. Or you can, but I won’t send you a prize. There have to be rules.

Knowing my love of church music, a reader at Morley College sends me this You Tube video which, she says, makes her feel very joyful.

A ticket for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s concert awaits me at the Royal Festival Hall so I pop along after Sunday lunch with the Vicar of Stoke Newington. The foyer is full of diplomats as the concert marks Hungary’s assumption of the Presidency of the European Union (EU) for the first time. They have been members for only a couple of years but their government is currently making a stink by announcing a rather un-European removal of press freedoms. The EU court is looking into the matter. Hungary promises to rescind the new laws if the EU asks it to.

Ivan Fischer conducts. He opens with Haydn who was born in Hungary and worked for a Hungarian boss, Nicholas Esterhazy. Fischer shapes Symphony No92 in G with clean lines, rhetorical pauses in the slow movement and a sense of pomposity in the horn-blast trio of the minuet. The skittering finale has the feel of a politely academic discourse, the strings breaking off for the winds to have their say. It was performed in Oxford in 1791 when Haydn received an honorary degree and so acquired its nickname.

This year is also the bicentenary of the birth of the Hungarian composer-pianist Franz Liszt, whose First Piano Concerto British pianist Stephen Hough now arrives to play. The Hungarians’ cup overflows. What a shame Liszt himself isn’t performing but he died in 1886. Hough is just as good actually and there is thunder at his first attack. His power is impressive and the precision and duration of his trills a wonder. The orchestra retires deferentially, but a wistful clarinet leans forward and, enamoured, offers a warm, silky phrase which Hough responds to like a reciprocating lover. The work is short and volcanic, the movements mere episodes. The second is a haughty scherzo, the piano rising, the strings admiring. The flute mimics the piano’s trill like a bird a mobile phone. The triangle has an important part and sits at the front before Fischer to add a prominent sparkly edge to certain chords. Coupled with Hough’s muscular punched octaves, this gives a rather camp effect like a weightlifter competing in a sequinned vest.

There are drinks in the interval and short speeches. The Charge d’Affaires reminds everyone that it is Liszt Week at King’s Place, London, from Wednesday. They are worried about empty seats, as London’s smart new venue is not proving easy to fill.

A small tree has grown in the middle of the stage when we return. Have we been absent so long? No, it’s a prop for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. It’s not a very good advert, however, as it’s sparse foliage is thirsty and some of it dead. The out-of-place triangle in the Liszt was only a foretaste, for now all the woodwind are scattered among the strings like discrete wildlife. The clarinet’s cuckoo in the second movement rises from the violas whose buzzing insect figure Fischer conducts as if swatting. The bassoon bobs among the cellos, Fischer indicating his entry with a put-down backhand which makes the audience chuckle. The smooth, sweltering horn lulls peace before the timpanist batters storm’s violence from his platform on a limb of the stage with only a pair of bleating trombones for company. Fischer commands all, but doesn’t quite find the slowing, homecoming finality in the last subdued chords of the Shepherd’s Song. 
Beethoven kissed Liszt when the child prodigy arrived in Vienna in the 1820s. He marked him out as the future. This was in a sense a demonstration of the parity granted in the naming of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was as if the stern, civilised Viennese were seeing in their Eastern cousins the earthy passions which they had lost or forgotten. Brahms’ wrote two dozen gaily exuberant Hungarian Dances, No21 of which Fischer conducted as a first encore. The orchestra then sang and played Johann Strauss’ Peasants’ Polka with only a slight sense of tongue-in-cheek irony.
It’s going to be fun having the Hungarians in control.

At English National Opera’s Opera Preview last Tuesday night, the singing close-up of the principals in the Balcony Bar actually puts me off wanting to attend. The footlights are there for a reason, I reason. One doesn’t want to get too close to the performers; it destroys the illusion on which theatre depends. One hears the breathing and the vocal mechanics, the heaving and the physical tics. One sees the grimacing. The sopranos seem heftier close-to and the tenors sweatier. 

Down in the Stalls Bar, there is a ‘speed dating’ exercise at which patrons chat up costumed singers at individual two-seater tables against the wall. As far as I can tell, it is all rather lame as the chat-up lines tend towards the ‘so what college did you attend?’ type and no one seems to be swapping phone numbers. It all adds to the tarted-up tawdriness of opera: they’re just show people underneath.

The poet Ian McMillan is on duty, He attracts only three people to his operatic poetry session in the Coliseum Room. Later he does a stint in the Stalls Bar with the speed-daters. He tells some Barnsley jokes and recites a poem, enjoining those in his immediate vicinity to speak a set response when the time comes. They do so. McMillan observes that it’s like being in church, and it is.

I bunk off home. For the record the imminent operas are  La Boheme with Alfie Boe (until Jan 27), Donizetti Lucrezia Borgia from Jan 31, Wagner Parsifal from Feb 16, G&S The Mikado from Feb 26, Monteverdi The Return of Ulysses from Mar 24, Berlioz The Damnation of Faust from May 6, Britten A Midsummer Night’s Dream from May19, Verdi Simon Bocanegra from Jun 8, and Nico Muhly Two Boys from Jun 24.

CD Kate Royal A Lesson in Love (EMI)

I receive Kate Royal’s latest CD A Lesson in Love. It has 29 songs in four groups -  Waiting, Meeting, Wedding and Betrayal. One piece stands out - Hugo Wolf’s setting of Eduard Moerike’s Erstes Liebeslied eines Maedchens (A Girl’s First Love Song), a notorious verse, which is either erotic or pornographic depending on your view, but either way, it’s an extraordinary invention for a nineteenth century Lutheran vicar. A young fisher-girl looks to see what she has caught. She’s a little frightened. Is it an eel or a snake? It rears up at her touch, filling her with both revulsion and lust. It penetrates her flesh and digs around deliciously. The German is more shockingly explicit than the English translation, which misses the humour conveyed by the crisply colloquial language. Royal, and perhaps Wolf, miss it too, she by her refined production, the composer by his urgent, unsmiling syncopations. Pianist Malocolm Martineau shadows all the singer's emotions and adds some of his own in sforzando attacks and legato phrasing.

Other songs are more successful. Royal gives a heartfelt account of Britten’s Waly Waly, Duparc’s Extase and Bolcom’s Waitin. Her tremulous tone is well used in Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, indeed the natural ache in her voice makes her an ideal Schubertian and there is nothing so tragic on the disc as his Du Liebst mich Nicht. The high-pitched songs like Debussy’s Apparition, Bridge’s Love went a-riding, Beach’s Ah Love or Strauss’ Hochzeitlich Lied are less successful as Royal cannot resist the temptation to explode with decibels this intimate form. 

No one turns up for the first choir rehearsal of term. Some boys jeer through the window from the Year 7 playground. Dean, a Year 8 dunce, is dismissive every time we pass each other in the corridor, with his rhetorical ‘is there choir today, Sir?’ followed by a convulsive sniggering and burial of face in hands. I hear that Glee is a popular TV programme featuring an American high school a capella choir so I probe for the students’ enthusiasm along these lines. ‘It’s gay!’ is the derisive view. Unfortunately, I cannot offer TV cameras like Gareth Malone.