Thursday, 2 March 2017

Hack Attack



This might be the definition of niche – an occasional critic writing about a critic being defended by other critics – but if you’ve swum into these waters by choice, chances are that critics’ judgements are something with which you have some dealings. My mind still turns over the rights and wrongs of passing judgement on the work of far more talented people, though less these days than when I was writing regularly for International Record Review. I was careful, partly because I wanted to do the job well and partly because I didn’t really want to risk being mean. Just once, I submitted a review that had a really quite harsh line in it. I emailed the editor before it went to print, and she agreed. We took it out. The thing was, what I said wasn’t wrong, and I suspect the only reason I took out the offending sentence was because there’s a bit of me that doesn’t want to be disliked.

So, my natural filter meant I never received an angry response from a performer. My interest is piqued, though, when other people do. David Nice (a friend of this blog, I like to think) found his judgement labelled  “wrong-headed” and “stupid” in the comments on his Arts Desk review of Ryan Wigglesworth’s opera The Winter’s Tale, by celebrated tenor Mark Padmore. Padmore wasn’t even in the show; his tirade seems to have been prompted by singerly solidarity with the cast and crew of the opera. Thing is, David hadn’t even been that harsh. He gave the show 4 stars, for goodness sake. This is about as harsh as the review ever gets:

“The real test was going to be whether Wigglesworth could conjure a different world for Hermione's and Leontes's teenage daughter as Bohemian shepherdess and her wooing by a disguised Prince Florizel. He doesn't, in terms of musical language, even if the sounds are more ethereal. Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory (pictured below with the ENO Chorus) charm with very limited material; I suppose it's a mercy we don't get a "hey nonny nonny" divertissement, but this is where a popular, mood-sensitive composer like Joby Talbot, in his music for the Royal Ballet's fitfully very effective take on The Winter's Tale, can give us all the relief we need.”

Too much for Padmore, who railed:

“Having seen the dress rehearsal and the opening night and having talked with the cast who love and value this piece, I was hoping for a responsible and thoughtful review from a website whose purpose is presumably to celebrate and promote the arts. Unfortunately this has not happened and DN has chosen to display only his prejudice and debatable skill as a hatchet jobber. Perhaps I should expect no better from a critic who described me as a 'pipsqueak English Cathedral tenor' in a review of a concert I had not even sung in - but I do expect better.”

A few of things in that extract (from a longer comment, itself a response to a plea from fellow-Arts Desker Alexandra Coghlan for a little more below-the-line respect) catch my eye. There’s something rather odd about the idea that the backstage enthusiasm of the cast should inform the critic’s judgement – this attempt to move the critical goal posts rather reminds me of Melissa McCarthy’s deliciously deranged SNL Sean Spicer yelling “Print that – that’s your story!” There’s the even odder idea that celebrating the arts means never saying anything’s bad. And the second part reveals previous between these two. I’m sure I too would dislike receiving the appellation “pipsqueak”, but there’s no real context here and this kind of dirty laundry doesn’t address any of the perceived failings of the review at hand.

Now, I do have varying degrees of real-life and digital acquaintance with David Nice and his defenders Alexandra Coghlan and, further down the comments, Mark Valencia. The closest I’ve ever got to Mark Padmore was passing him on the stairs at a previous place of employment. I do feel closer to the chastised critic than the wounded artist, though I certainly appreciate the anguish a negative notice must cause a performer or even their friend. But I’m somewhat befuddled by the logic behind this kind of blistering attack on a critic who wasn’t even that negative anyway. Padmore’s display is rambling and splenetic when it could have been thoughtful and still robustly defensive of a work he clearly values. In the end, this is another example of what happens when an artiste responds with a rage on, and an important reminder that the mud you sling online usually ends up on your own face. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Joyful Noise: Belshazzar's Feast in Cardiff



More Bachtracking, as it were; this time in Cardiff with the BBCNOW:

"William Walton’s brief had been to compose a small choral work; it grew and grew by 1931 into Belshazzar's Feast, a piece about which nothing is small. Walton had nearly given up in the middle, but pressed on as the piece changed out of all recognition. Thomas Beecham, such a supporter of Delius, had quipped to the younger Walton: “as you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?” Brass players have appreciated the extra work ever since."

Read the rest over at Bachtrack.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Haruki Murakami and Mahler's Phantom Memoirs

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese novelist best known for his dreamily surreal books and his continued failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His friendship with conductor Seiji Ozawa has resulted in a new book, a series of conversations on music. An extract appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, and it left me scratching my head:

HM: Mahler says in his autobiography that being director of the Vienna State Opera was the top position in the musical world. In order to obtain that position, he went so far as to abandon his Jewish faith and convert to Christianity. He felt the position was worth making such a sacrifice. It occurs to me that you were in that very position until quite recently.

SO: He really said that, did he? Do you know how many years he was director of the State Opera?

HM: Ten years, I think.

Mahler’s autobiography, huh? A shelf full of Murakami books and an interest (in case you hadn’t noticed) in classical music will probably lead me to buy this book, but the lengthy extract on Mahler didn’t convince me that any real insight lay within. Particularly as Mahler never wrote an autobiography. 

Monday, 7 November 2016

Back Reviewing Concerts: Nicholas McGegan Conducts the Bournemouth Symphony

Nicholas McGegan © Steve J Sherman
Conductor Nicholas McGegan (Photo: Steve J Sherman)
I haven’t reviewed a concert in quite a while, so it was good to get back in the business, thanks to Bachtrack. Conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra certainly brought sensitivity and vitality to a collection of pieces by Shcubert, Mozart and Beethoven:

"At the other end of the programme, a rather more serious proposition in four movements: Schubert’s reasonably early but oh-so-mature Fifth Symphony. A product of Schubert’s 19th year, the Fifth demonstrates the charms of a composer who never seems to have suffered the stylistic growing pains of a man struggling for a mature voice. It was here that McGegan drew the best from the BSO, letting the music flow, bringing it to life by making the most of dynamic contrasts and pointed accents. He saw no need to tug at the tempi, and the orchestra responded with playing of considerable subtlety, a case in point being the hushed but nuanced sound of the strings giving space to the conversations of wind instruments as the first movement slipped from exposition to development."


Read the whole thing at Bachtrack.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Silent Film Epic Napoleon Finally to be Released on DVD and Blu Ray

 

I let out a little squeal of excitement when I saw that the BFI had announced a DVD/Blu Ray release of Abel Gance’s legendary (how many things so justify that word?) 1927 film Napoleon. It has popped up occasionally at the Royal Festival Hall, accompanied by a compilation score by Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Legal wrangling caused many film buffs to gloomily predict it would never be seen on DVD, but here it comes, this November.

The film’s epic proportions don’t stop at its duration. The 5 ½ hour running time is not its most startling dimension; rather, an incredible three-screen panoramic section makes it a very unusual visual spectacle. The extravagant demands imposed by the film on cinemas made it a real rarity for half a century, until film historian and restorer Kevin Brownlow brought it back to life, only to be faced with complicated legal issues that meant his version was not seen in the US until 2012. Brownlow’s version has been coupled with a score compiled from popular classics, replacing the original music by Arthur Honegger (there is a suite), which seems to have been lost in the 90 years since the film’s production.

These sorts of film restoration projects are not at all cheap to produce, so if you want to see this epic slice of cinema history, I’d suggest supporting the BFI by seeing one of their cinema screenings or buying a copy while it’s out there.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Neglected Film Composer: Influential, or Just Really Good?


There’s nothing more exciting, at least in my little corner of the world, than researching something few people have ever bothered to investigate. So it is with film composer Gottfried Huppertz, whose remarkable music brings zest and life to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. It amazes me that this music was virtually unknown until the score was revived around 15 years ago, finally putting Giorgio Moroder’s 80s synth pop soundtrack to bed. I’m more amazed, though, that people continue to produce new scores for the film, as though Huppertz’s were anything other than essential.

What frustrates when investigating Huppertz’s life, though, is the tissue of hyperbole and assumption that fills the gaps in what is actually known. Was he really an influence on those film composers, like Korngold and Waxman, who made their way from Europe to Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s? How would we know if he was? In the absence of real tangible connection between their music, or some testimony to the effect that Korngold et al heard and learned from the scores to Metropolis and Die Nibelungen, does this supposition just equate high-quality with influential? The road ahead will certainly involve distilling what is known from what is said, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it.

If you want a taste of Huppertz’s music for Metropolis, try the video above.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Why not follow this blog?


Dear Reader

Either through design or some really inexplicable miscalculation, this blog has been receiving a lot of page views (relatively speaking) for which I would like to thank you. But questions remain – oh the questions! – such as: How did you end up here? Did you like what you read? Might you come back again? And only YOU have the power to answer them, so don’t be shy about commenting, if you read something you like or something that prompts a reaction.

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Thanks.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

All At Sea in the Met's Tristan und Isolde

It is, as shown by all of social media, staggeringly easy to be cynical. As I sat in a West Country multiplex yesterday, though, I felt the snark lift from my eyes and, for a few minutes, basked in the pure technical wonder of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD screening. That I am able to pop along to my local(ish) cinema and watch a 5 hour Wagner opera live and as it happens is a marvellous, nay, miraculous thing.

Staying with the wondrous, the Met sent us a performance of Tristan und Isolde that will, when broadcast on the radio, surely be one for the ages. Nina Stemme gave a wild eyed and driven Isolde that never dipped in pure emotional and vocal projection. Stuart Skelton’s Tristan was hugely persuasive too, though a little caught in the shadow of Stemme’s brilliance. The other parts (and there really aren’t that many) were universally winning, particularly Rene Pape’s authoritative King Marke. The real man of the hour(s and hours) was Sir Simon Rattle, who has talked about the lucidity he discovered in the myriad of markings written in Mahler’s personal score of the opera. That special knowledge allowed heft and transparency into the music, but the sense of flow was all Rattle’s own – note the great aborted climax which rips the lovers from each other’s gaze as Marke discovers their treachery, half way through Act 2.

But oh, the rest. Tristan begins at sea, which allows for director Mariusz Trelinski’s modern naval setting. Longing, searching, navigating, whatever, is represented from the off by the circular sweep of a radar beam, which also looks like the safety curtain buffering while the set loads. Within the circle, the thrusting prow of a ship pounds the waves like a particularly wet nautical dream. Water and flame are motifs throughout, glimpsed first in flashbacks cut like an amateur homage to Andrei Tarkovsky, for whom they were recurrent and pleasingly baffling symbols. And a great churning projection of the sea reappears whenever things get, you know, a bit choppy. Trelinski seems really uninterested in representing or heightening the emotional state of the characters, setting Act 2 in a massive dingy cargo bay, with Tristan and Isolde bumping into what look like toxic compost bins as they paw at each other. And by Act 3, the visual ideas have dried up almost completely, save for a lighter-wielding 10-year old (some sort of health and safety violation, surely) and a brief episode in a ruined house.

And so while the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera and Sir Simon and a stellar cast carved out a flowing, yearning, exhausting Tristan, the staging returned me to cynicism. Some of what I saw I liked – the big black sun that hovers above the lovers is a really creepy and magnetic image – but if the cinema-inspired Trelisnki is drawing on the symbol-filled films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the images need to suggest an enticing but enigmatic logic in a way that they don’t here. Maybe it’s a production from which more would emerge with repeated viewing, but right now, I just want to hear it on the radio.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Youth of Today

When I started going to the Proms some 15 years ago, there seemed to be a gulf in quality between the playing of some of the regional British ensembles whose appearances were peppered throughout season and the big international orchestras who rolled in at the end. These days, I don’t hear such a gap, and I wonder if the standard of playing hasn’t improved across the board. I recently heard a segment from a recording made in the late 1980s that seemed to confirm this suspicion.

Around 30 years ago, Vladimir Ashkenazy began a series of Shostakovich recordings with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Fourth Symphony was an early entry in that series: it’s a beast and surely enough to give musicians sleepless nights, but some segments of the recording were so poorly played that I struggle to understand why it was ever issued. Indeed, when Decca collected Ashkenazy’s eventual cycle on CD about a decade ago, the original recording of the Fourth was replaced with a new one with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. (It’s only fair to say that I’ve heard the RPO’s playing match that of any of the world’s great orchestras, so perhaps unfamiliarity with the music or some other factor was to blame)

It is, then, something of a sign of the times that a remarkable youth orchestra, the Portland Youth Philharmonic, gives a really bracing performance on Youtube. There must have been some raised eyebrows when the orchestra programmed the piece, but it’s a great success – just listen to the frenzied fugue at 15:17. Gripping stuff.

Shostakovich - Symphony No 4
1st Movement


2nd Movement


3rd Movement