Sunday, October 19, 2014

A musical Frühlings erwachen ... New Zealand style.

Wedekind’s Frühlings erwachen is a ‘famous’ play.  ‘Famous’ in a Lady Chatterley’s Lover way. There’s nothing like some healthy banning and censoring to help a work to become ‘famous’. Personally, I don’t see anything censor-worthy in it, perhaps because I was borne into this world fifty-five years later than the play, and am of a reasonably unfettered turn of mind, but anyway, the play with its ‘naughty’ ‘forbidden’ subjects and ‘rude’ words made its name and fame at the turn of the century, became a subject for devoted study, and ultimately reached the apotheosis of being several times made into a musical. The most recent, American, version (Sheik/Sater) has done well.

I had never seen it, until today, when I headed to Christchurch’s Court Theatre to see the graduating NASDA students of 2014 play this version, and the wise ones predicted that I might not like it. I wonder why. The only reason that I would ‘dislike’ (or as theatricals say, ‘hate’) a show would be if it were incompetently written, directed, performed … and this was none of those.

So, has Frühlings erwachen made up into a satisfying musical? By and large, yes. I was uneasy through the first part of Act I, which seemed too naïve, too black-and-white … but when the best songs of the night (‘The Word of your body’ and the splendid ‘The Dark I know well’) arrived, one after the other, we moved into a different and much more warmly three-dimensional part of the show, which gave the performers much more into which to get their teeth. The last stages of the show verge on the melodramatic, but that is Wedekind’s fault. 19th century audiences, like today’s TV Midsomer Murders-watchers, were accustomed to piling up the bodies, and death by abortion was not so unusual …

The score, splendidly lavish in its use of ensembles, popped out its couple of stand-outs (writing this, next morning, they are the only two I really remember), and even if the lyrics included American slang which sat as uneasily with the Anglo-German text as the odd mix of male hairdos did with the period costumes, the best bits were grand.

Of course, it helps a text and a score hugely if they are well, aptly and even exceptionally performed. Which they were. In spite of the problems inherent in having a student cast playing mostly 14 year-olds and adults.

The central character of Melchior (age 14), was quite beautifully played by Josh Johnson. His acting was utterly believable and touching, his still developing singing voice brushed the falsetto notes of his last song amazingly sweetly, and he let rip with surprising steadiness and vigour on ‘Totally Fucked’. OK, he didn’t seem quite 14 ... but neither did anyone else. And it didn’t matter. It was just a splendid, heart-warming piece of musical-theatre. A winner.

His sweetheart, Wendla (age 14), was played by Emily Burns. I last saw Miss Burns playing (well) a Caribbean goddess with a belt number in Once on this Island. This was incomparably better. She invested the young girl with an enormous, real naivete and sweetness, without for a moment slipping into the ‘traditional ingenue’ manner, in a performance of truly lovely quality. Of course, a strong, warm and wide-ranging chest voice helps. But it was her drama that got to me: her cry as she was carried off by the abortionist was both horrible and memorable.

As I’ve already said, my favourite number in this show was ‘The Dark I know well’ and it got a magnificent performance from Becky Button (Martha) and Imogen Prossor (Ilse). Miss Button (another ex-Caribbean goddess) acted the role of the father-abused Martha with moving effect, and sang her part of the duet impeccably. And Miss Prossor … yes. A very big ‘yes’. Just occasionally a young performer leaps out to me. I can’t always pick the whole reason why, but anyhow Miss Prossor is one of these. In the old days, I would have taken her on as a client. She has ‘it’. She also has a rich, full mezzo-to-alto voice, which she uses perfectly, and her acting simply exudes the quality of warmth. She had impressed me greatly in the previous show, and I was delighted to see her confirm all the very-good that I had thought of her then. She was perfectly cast as the liberated Ilse.

Amongst the other boys, Adam Spedding played the screwed-up Moritz. I am not sure why he had an Uncle Tom’s Cabin Topsy hair-do; I found it terribly distracting. He looked like a misfit from the start, behaved liked a misfit ... perhaps this is how the role is written? But Moritz doesn’t come over as sympathetic, as the other youngsters do, he just comes over as screwed-up. 

Spedding sang and danced with grand energy, as did the other lads (I was irresistibly reminded of Half a Sixpence and ‘Money to burn!), and Zak Enayat and Olly Humphries had a very special moment in a homosexual reprise of ‘The Word of Your Body’.

Strangely, the young folk who played the adults of the piece somehow got nearer the ‘right’ age than those playing ‘down’. The women were impressively costumed and wigged -- Frau Gabor’s wig was superb, and Wendla’s mother’s abortion-night outfit made a fabulous black-hag picture – and the men? Well, Simon Watson played all eight of them, most efficiently and clearly.

NASDA, as usual, provided all the trappings for their students – 8 piece orchestra, clean unfussy direction and choreography (original or carbon-copied I know not, but it worked), a clever set (ditto) and excellent costumes. But I’m still a bit confused by the boys’ hair.

As I said at the end of the show – and after a night to think on it – 7 out of ten for the show, 9 point something for the performance …  extremely glad to have seen it. And the young performers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bassooner or later ... the music has to (temporarily) end ..

Well, my season’s over. I’ve taken in my last concert for summer 2014. Of course, it was at the Piano Salon, which has now become our favourite concert venue … the routine is well established these days: walk up from Humboldthain to the river Panke, supper at the jolly Uferlos restaurant at 7pm, concert at 8.30 … home in the dark …

Tonight was a rather different concert. Berlin Counterpoint. A wind quintet with piano. Piano, flute, oboe, bassoon, horn and clarinet. I’m not sure that a horn is ‘wind’ but I guess you ‘wind’ it, in classical parlance, so fair enough. All new to me, a voyage of experience: but Poulenc was on the programme …

It was a delightful concert. We started with a sextet by Albert Roussel. How often do you hear Roussel? I can’t say I was excited by the work, but it was certainly pleasant, if a little muddy, and it gave me time to look around and get to know and watch the players.

The second item was much more vigorous and real fun. Arrangements of Romanian Dances, made by flautist Aaron Dan (of last year’s grand Trio Dan) for flute, bassoon, clarinet and piano. The second and third ones were terrific. Vivacious little Mr Dan (flute) dancing along on the top line like a pixilated flea, tall blonde Heidi easing out the most beautiful creamy sounds from her tall brown bassoon, Milos the replacement clarinettist ‘singing’ the tenor part gloriously, and Zeynep, driving the dance rhythms along from the piano with huge flair. Great stuff.

And then came Poulenc. Viola, the young oboeist, and Andrej, the horn joined in, and we had the Sextuor opus 100. I know it now. Splendid! Grand! What a piece. What a performance. I simply wallowed in it. The oboeist had a chance to blossom in this one, and suddenly produced some enormous tones, and I couldn’t see what the horn player was doing because he was hidden from my view by the clarinettist, but some more splendid sounds wound forth … each of the players was a personality, and yet a part of a well-soldered-together group … ideal.

How to follow that! The second half of the concert was devoted to an arrangement of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, made for the group by their regular clarinettist, Sacha Rattle. Well, I’m not a huge fan of the Enigma, even with all its fiddles intact, so, although it was well done and well played, for me it was a wee bit of an anti-climax after the thrills of the French piece, and the fun of the Romanian one.

But then, as an encore, we got Mr Rattle’s lively and colourful arrangement of de Falla’s ‘El Paño Moruno’. There is an art in choosing an encore. Something that summarises the concert and yet will send the audience out in a merry and appreciative mood. This was it! Although I couldn’t help thinking I’d have loved to have had the whole seven songs. And just a small slice of the Elgar. But that’s me.

So, another marvellous evening on the banks of the Panke … thank you Piano Salon, and I’ll be back as soon as I hit town next spring!

PS: Berlin Counterpoint’s new CD sits beside me. I know, I don’t have CDs. But it’s got the Poulenc on it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My CD of the year! or, Löwe hits the high spots

I don’t write about recordings. Well, not since the days when I penned my book Musical Theatre on Record, when listening to end-to-end LPs for nine months, and My Fair Lady discs, one after the other, for ten days, put me off records for so long, that even now – 15 years later -- I haven’t recovered.

And then, well, with one thing and another, music went out of my life.

Live music has now come cavalcading thoroughly back, but recordings? Paul has done his best. Tempted me with discs of Mendelssohn duets and viola music ... all my favourites … but it’s still a struggle. Maybe because my dear departed Ian (died 2006) was a famous record collector.

Fast forward to 2014. I still don’t really buy recordings. Except when Paul takes me to Dussmann, post-concert and a few beers, and then I often make the awful mistakes (eg the complete Handel oratorios). As always, most of my CD intake is in the way of gifts, usually from friends or young artists … I’m an honest man, and those ‘reviews’ are private.

Well, this year I’ve hit gold! First, I had the promising demo record of New Zealand singer Shaan Antunovic, and then….

Beginning of article proper.

In my very young days, there were three volumes of music, on the brought-from-Vienna piano, in our New-Zealandish house. Underneath the Austrian ceramic ‘death mask’ my mother always hated. Two of them were volumes of Schubert songs (which I gave away to a young singer, and have regretted it ever since, because he’ll never sing them), the third was Löwe. I tried. He was the more difficult to play and sing … ‘Prinz Eugen’ was good … but I hadn’t heard of him …

Dammit. Dad, why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t I persist. Why did I only play Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’ and not Löwe’s as well?

So, half a century on Löwe has come back into my life. On a friendly, gifted CD, modestly entitled ‘Carl Loewe Lieder & Balladen’.

I didn’t know the singer (I don't know any singers!), but I’d just heard the pianist. Five stars. So I actually played it. After a few beers. And then I had to play it again, next morning, to be sure that it wasn’t just the beers … and I was right, this CD is outstanding.

It’s not my business to extol Löwe. He is one of the greatest of all Lieder composers. In my opinion, just about the greatest. What power, what drama, what melody … He set those same well-known words that so many C19th songwriters set, and oh! what he made of them! Well, comparisons are invidious, I guess … but just listen to what he did with the Erl King!

Actually, listen to it on this recording. There can’t be a better one. I don’t know the work of Roman Trekel, although I realise he is a well-known Kammersänger, but all I can say is, I think that he is the most stunning Lieder singer – especially for this type of song -- that I’ve ever heard. A mature, wide-ranging Verdi baritone crossed with the talents of a chansonnier. No! I’m not exaggerating. I’ve just listened to the whole disc yet again, to make sure I wasn’t deceiving myself. It’s a doozie! A triumph.

I’m not going to enumerate, track by track. It would sound like a great gush. Every single number is a joy (OK, Erlkönig is, of course, my favourite); and vocalist, pianist (Daniel Heide) and composer – with a little help from Goethe et al – have here made a recording which is my most liked of this year.

Maybe I have really do have to go back to listening to recorded music again.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Tale of Three Concerts, or the great, the not-so-bad and the ugly

Now that the exercise season is winding down, and my departure from Berlin is imminent, I felt it was time to top up my concert quotient for the year: somehow, we don’t seem to have taken in very many musical evenings since those fine evenings with the Quatuor Ebène and Mdlle Trommenschlager. Radialsystem seems to be devoting itself to weird programmes, the Spiegelsaal is closed … but our much-loved Piano Salon Christophori is open, and even giving vocal concerts, so we booked in for three evenings, this week. Three evenings very different, as it turned out, from one another, in interest, quality and performance.

The first was a concert by a Uzbekistani pianist whose name I forget. And, a week later, I'm afraid I’ve sort of forgotten the whole competent but rather unmagical concert. We chose it because the programme included Scriabin, some Schumann, but mainly the Schubert impromptus, which had been part of our lives for a week or three. One evening, I had tried to describe to Paul the last stages of my own pianistic career, and the piece of Chopin with which I had won my last-ever prize. He didn’t know it! Eventually, I managed to one-finger it out on the piano and a magic website identified it: Schubert’s A flat impromptu. So we had to go and hear it live! So, thank you for that, sir. And for an introduction to the wee Scriabin piece.

We were excited about the second one. The Copland songs, which Paul knows intimately and adores unconditionally, and the whole of the Charlotte Bray ‘Yellow Leaves’, of which Lea Trommenschlager had given us an interesting taste. It looked like a long programme, so I was a bit cross when it didn’t start till nearly 9pm. I was soon very, very much crosser. And Paul was ropable. Stiff with fury.
Copland was crucified. The pianist seemed to be sight-reading, the soprano was consequently terrified into unsure pitch, short breathing and just plain errors. Professionals (who charge 25 euros a ticket) just don’t present a work in such a state. Culpably under-learned and under-rehearsed. Even amateurs do better. Herewith a couple of students in the same work:

I don’t know if ‘Yellow Leaves’ was better. The composer hugged everyone, so I assume that most of her notes were played and sung. But it, too, was wracked with nerves and unsteadiness. And then, finally, we got to hear the young singer in her comfort zone: three beautiful songs of Faure, beautifully sung. If you are going to give what was, clearly, an ad hoc concert, stick to works you know. Even if the concert is sponsored by a composer’s agent. And don’t charge 25e a ticket. Your reputation will suffer, and so will that of everyone else concerned.

And if you don't know your music, don't insult us by bringing on the score ... even of 'Der Nussbaum'!

I cancelled the next night’s tickets. The Strauss etc songs promised had been sicked-off, and replaced by Alban Berg etc by a different singer. But just a minute! That singer was Stella Doufexis, whom we’d tried to see last year. Accompanied by Daniel Heide. We un-cancelled. And thank goodness we did. It was, by a street, the best concert of the three.

The lady is a stylish, intelligent, consummate Lieder singer, with an attractive mezzo voice. You knew you were going to be all right when she walked on. Svelte, unfussy dark dress, everything from great hair, to well-planned make-up, to a pair of can't-resist-em dangly earrings that brought your gaze to her face. The face where the stories of the songs were to be enacted. As they were.
The Berg was early Berg, so turned out to be neat and pleasant. The Debussy was deliciously sung, in such crystalline French that I assumed the lady was native French, the Schumann cycle was a total pleasure. And all sung with effortless accuracy (and just an occasional opening up of full, rich, mezzo forces) and accompanied by a real five-star accompanist …

Piano Salon, you are redeemed. I consider I have paid (happily) 50e for the Doufexis-Heide concert, and the other one was free. That makes me content. And we even bought the CD, and instead of going straight home (my invariable rule), stopped for a midnightish pernod on the Ufer.

You win some and you lose some!