Thursday, 19 April 2012

Verdi's Rigoletto at the cinema

Photo: Johan Persson
As part of the Royal Opera House's continued series of cinema screenings, the latest on offer was a live transmission of Verdi's Rigoletto, and I went along to the Duke of York's cinema in Brighton to see it. There was a decent sized audience and quite a buzzing atmosphere, which gave an air of expectancy to proceedings. Before the opera, we were given a short behind the scenes documentary, and a synopsis from Tony Pappano. 

The opera began, and we quickly realised that there were no subtitles showing. I believe this was a problem in only some cinemas (the transmission was broadcast to 700 plus cinemas around the world). Not knowing Rigoletto at all well, my initial thoughts were that this would be a real problem. However, I actually found that it didn't get in the way of following the action at all - a testament to the acting performances, perhaps. I am sure that some of the subtleties of the libretto were lost on me, and it would definitely have been a different experience with the subtitles. But the removal of any distraction from the visual and aural experience actually made for greater immediacy and immersion in the emotions of the story. I am sure that there were some that were disappointed or unhappy about the lack of subtitles, but I have to say it certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment. 

Now to the performance. The atmosphere from curtain up was dark, decadent and sumptuous - the deep reds and browns are straight out of a Caravaggio painting.  The chorus delight in the debauchery, and we are treated to some full-fronted nudity - male and female - well this is a David McVicar production!  The darkness is carried right through the opera - the central set is consistently dark grey and brown, and virtually the only colour is deep red, perhaps prefiguring the bloody final scenes.

Photo: Alastair Muir
Dimitri Platanias as Rigoletto was captivating, and stole the show for me.  The role is a huge sing, and he maintained a commanding level of intensity, not even letting go in the curtain calls.  Vittorio Grigolo played the Duke as a lively, unstoppable rogue, with physical and vocal athleticism throughout, clearly enjoying the role.  Ekaterina Siurina as Gilda was convincing, showing great tenderness, and her cadenza duet with Grigolo was a masterclass in vocal control.  Christine Rice made the most of the relatively small role of Maddalena, and Matthew Rose was menacingly secure in the role of the assassin, Sparafucile.  Gianfranco Montresor as Monterone, who curses Rigoletto at the start of the opera for mocking him over the rape of his daughter (the aforementioned nudity), was perhaps less authoritative than he could be, but otherwise solid in the role.  I was particularly impressed by the acting throughout, including that of the chorus members.  One of the differences that a cinema screening brings is in the use of close-ups, and this can be quite testing for the less proficient opera actors, but not here. 

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner elicited precise yet rich playing from the orchestra in perhaps unexpected territory for the early music specialist.  In all, this is a great production, with some stunning performances - a great way to experience opera, and at a fraction of the usual price! 
Other reviews:
The Telegraph
The Independent
The Arts Desk

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Lutoslawski - Orchestral Works II

Following on from Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s (1913-1994) vocal works, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have turned their attention to his orchestral works.  The disc starts with his Symphonic Variations from 1938.  There are elements of Stravinsky here, but otherwise, this has a refreshingly individual voice, with very imaginative orchestration.  In the sparky, vigourous ending, I even heard elements of John Adams – a good sixty or seventy years prior!  This is followed by his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, composed in 1988 for Krystian Zimerman, and here performed deftly by Louis Lortie.  This work has yet to acquire a place in the core repertoire, but this disc should definitely aid its cause.  It is an exciting piece, full of bite and energy, yet with amazing subtlety and delicacy in places.  

Edward Gardner
In contrast to the Symphonic Variations, interestingly in a work composed towards the end of his life, you can hear the debt to much earlier pianist composers, such as Rachmaninov, Liszt and Chopin, yet there is still that distinctive Lutoslawskian voice too.  This is followed by the relatively well-known Variations of a Theme of Paganini – although it is mostly known in the original two piano version – again, precisely and engagingly performed here by Lortie.  The disc then ends with the Symphony No. 4, another late work from just a year before his death.  This is a much darker work, full of unsettling and rather eerie emotion.  Again there are the imaginative orchestral effects – strange slides for the violins, and great use of percussion and the piano.  Yet this is within an overarching architecturally structured one movement work that again demonstrates that Lutoslawski’s music has so much to say and deserves to be heard more.  Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra do him proud, and I look forward to more. 

Louis Lortie
Lutoslawski, Witold. Orchestral Works II. Louis Lortie, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner. 2012. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5098.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

International Baroque Players - Violin Concertos from Dresden, Pisendel and others

I was very fortunate to sing in a concert in the Brighton Early Music Festival 2011 with Emma Kirkby and the International Baroque Players, a chamber group of young musicians formed just two years prior.  I was blown away by their energy and enthusiasm, and their lively performances, and they have rapidly acquired a strong following.  

Their debut disc is an absolute joy, and focuses on violin concertos from Dresden, under the concertmaster Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755).  The musicians of the Dresden court were known and revered throughout Europe, and on the basis of the repertoire written for them, they must have been a highly talented ensemble.  The International Baroque Players’ leader, violinist Johannes Pramsohler, seems to have been responsible for researching the music performed here, most of which they have recorded for the first time.  There are concertos from the better known Handel (1685-1759), Telemann (1681-1767) and Fasch (1688-1758), as well as concertos from Pisendel himself, and one by Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729).  

The Handel work is in fact a Trio Sonata, arranged by Pisendel for chamber orchestra forces, so is another premiere.  The Telemann concerto, specifcally composed for Pisendel to perform, demonstrates what a virtuosic violinist he must have been, and he clearly inspired Telemann to write music more innovative and inspired than the bulk of his slightly workaday output, and the third movement, with the violin singing over a rippling accompaniment, is simply beautiful.  The Heinichen concerto has much in common with Vivaldi, but it is nevertheless a very enjoyable work, with plenty of opportunity for the violin to show off.  Pisendel’s own concerto finishes off the disc in an appropriately virtuosic and joyful fashion.  These players show without a shadow of a doubt how historically informed performance on original instruments can be performed with real spirit and energy – this CD is highly recommended, and if you can catch them live, even better – look out for them in BREMF 2012!

Pisendel, Johann Georg et al. Pisendel: Violin Concertos from Dresden, International Baroque Players, Johannes Pramsohler. 2012. Compact Disc. Raumklang RK3105. 

Bartók, Works for Violin and Piano, Volume 1

I reviewed James Ehnes' disc of Béla Bartók's (1881-1945) Concerto works for violin a few months ago. Now he's moved on to the works for violin and piano, and is joined by Andrew Armstrong on piano. Volume 1 includes the two Sonatas, two Rhapsodies and an early Andante movement. This pretty much covers the works for the two instruments together, so I suspect Volume 2 will be a mopping up exercise of obscure pieces - but perhaps I'm missing something. 

However, this first volume is a real delight. The two Rhapsodies (BB94a and BB96a) are shorter pieces than the Sonatas, and perhaps more accessible, designed to be show pieces for recital performance. A result, there is generally slightly less for the piano to do, as the main focus is virtuosity on the violin. They are more tonal, and more explicitly draw on Hungarian tunes, rhythms and idioms - yet Bartok also includes Romanian and even Ukranian themes.  The second in particular contains some particularly idiomatic writing, with strumming effects from the violin, and a rustic inspired dance towards the close.  Bartok wrote two endings to the first Rhapsody, one with a virtuosic flourish, which is most often heard, and a slightly less dramatic end which brings back some of the opening music before closing.  Ehnes has recorded both here, favouring the lighter ending.  It is however slightly fiddly to play the alternative ending following the first part, without programming your CD player, or listening on a computer.  Still, nice to have both versions.

Credit: Benjamin Ealovega
The first Sonata for Violin and Piano, BB84, dates from 1921.  Here, the music is much more complex, typically demonstrating how Bartok brought together the tonality of folk song roots with the atonality of the 'new' music of contemporaries such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky.  In fact it is actually the conflict between the two which creates the musical tension here.  If the instruments are in any key at all, then the piano is in C sharp minor, against a kind of C minor in the violin.  The tritone figures large, combined with a minor sixth on top, and this cluster recurs throughout the first movement.  The second movement begins with a long violin solo, quoting Beethoven's Op. 131 quartet, and when the piano comes in, it accompanies with much more tonal, harmonic and sombre chords.  The last movement is compared by Paul Griffiths in the CD notes to the chase in The Miraculous Mandarin, and it is definitely a frenetic dash  to the finishing line.  

The second Sonata for Violin and Piano, BB85, comes from just a year later.  It is shorter, and the overall feel for me is eerie and atmospheric.  In the first movement, the tritone is back again, but rather than being strident and forceful, as in the first Sonata, here it creates a more mysterious effect - reminiscent of its use in Britten's War Requiem (or is that just because it's in my head at the moment?).  Added to this, there is frequent use of glissandi, harmonics and unexpected double stopped chords in the violin.  The second movement starts with pizzicato from the violin, interjected by almost jazz like figurations in the piano part.  There is much more rhythmic interest here, with constant tempi changes, and dance-like passages.  This all feels like it will build to a dramatic finish, but in fact, following a final flourish from the violin, the music winds down, with the violin rising higher and higher.  The piece ends quietly with a massively spread C major triad - just two notes from the piano and the violin on a quiet top E.  

The final addition here is an early Andante (BB26b) from much earlier (1902).  It was written for one of the three Arányi sisters (as were the Sonatas for a different sister).  It is short, much lighter, and in a completely different sound world.  It's a salon piece, and is a pleasant miniature, but sits rather incongruously amongst the other works on display here.

Throughout the disc, Ehnes' playing is incisive, engaging and energetic, yet he manages to never become too caustic in the more astringent passages of this complex music.  Armstrong matches him brilliantly, and has the measure of when Bartok wants to highlight the conflict between the two instruments, and when the piano has more of a conventional accompanying role (as in parts of the Rhapsodies).