Sunday 29 April 2018

Liner notes: a trip to the V&A

Isn't it great when an experience - concert, play, film, exhibition, you name it - takes you completely by surprise and blows you away? That happened to me this weekend when I went to see the exhibition 'Ocean Liners' at London's Victoria & Albert Museum - commonly known as the V&A.

For those of you unfamiliar with the V&A, it's in a kind of 'museum quarter', South Kensington, which is also home to our Natural History Museum and Science Museum. These latter two are solid family and tourist attractions, wielding dinosaurs, blue whales, machinery, and lots of buttons to press - arguably, between them, they're the main reason South Kensington can often look a bit like one of those dystopian horror films, where the children have killed all the adults and taken over the world.

Sitting alongside these two cauldrons of mayhem, the V&A is a little like the eccentric cousin who couldn't settle, wandered abroad for decades and come back with a whole load of interesting stuff to show and tell you. Self-branded as 'the world's leading museum of art and design', its broad remit allows it to lay before you the ways various peoples and places have chosen to present themselves - a kind of global image bank, covering anything from fashion to furniture, musical instruments to architecture.

'Ocean Liners' initially sounded a little niche to me. Mrs Specs, a student of old-world society and glamour, suggested we go and I was happy to accompany her - I knew that at the very least I could expect to see some superb examples of graphic design in the various posters and advertisements that would be on display. That sort of thing always, er, floats my boat.

Those stylish images are more or less the first thing you see on entering the exhibition. When we emerged, blinking, a couple of hours later, it was clear we'd been absolutely knocked for six, heads full of unforgettable imagery, dozens of top facts that we hadn't previously been aware of, and that all-important sense of wonder. You could add in a slightly chilly sense of imposter-nostalgia for an age that we didn't actually experience, and was of course, far, far from perfect.

Alive to potential social media enthusiasm, the V&A allows photography throughout the exhibition (except for a few fragile artworks which presumably could suffer if visitors started flashing at them)... so for the rest of this post I will try and say relatively little, and trust that the snaps I took will give you a sense of the show's scope and scale... an idea of how fascinating it turned out to be.

Rest assured, though, that these images are only a scratch - or perhaps a ripple - on the exhibition's surface. If you are from or around the area and can see this, please try and go - it's on until 17 June.


The size and grandeur of the great cruise ships was a key point of emphasis in their publicity material - not just in the posters, as you'd expect, but in other materials: like the illustrated booklet comparing the length of the Queen Mary to the world's tallest buildings.

(I was also pleased to see one of my favourite poster designs - which had, to my mind, a strikingly modern, abstract/symbolic feel - somehow echoed in a later, futurist painting. One point to flag - the poster was too high up for me to get a decent shot, so this is not my photo. In a moment of supreme cunning, I have captured the design from the - ahem - accompanying fridge magnet image.)

The exhibition also evokes the sheer vastness of the liners with some exquisite scale models...

...including this staggering cross-section (I hope the second shot will convey the level of detail - we could have looked at this for hours):

There are plenty of artistic representations of the luxury to be found on board - by the first-class passengers, at least - including the most well-appointed playroom I've ever come across (even Mr Punch - or someone similar - seems to be somewhat taken aback)!

(...take a closer look...)

The V&A's major exhibitions do their utmost to place you inside a space, give the experience three dimensions, and 'Ocean Liners' is no exception, with actual examples of panelling, décor, furniture and other features preserved from the ships. 

The largest room in the exhibition has an almost playful feel, bringing fashion and glamour to the fore - we go briefly 'on deck' in front of a projected ocean, and turn to find a 'virtual' representation of a long staircase down towards an imaginary ballroom dancefloor.


But the exhibition never loses sight of the social and historical environment through which these ships sailed. The rigid passenger hierarchy is clear from the Cunard poster showing how much of the vessel's space was accorded to each class, and later advertisements - as the age of cruise ships began to fade with the arrival of flight - reflect the way travel itself seemed to become more widespread, even democratic.

Finally, war casts its inescapable shadow over the water. As the liners were pressed into military service, they wore the striking 'dazzle' camouflage paint. The medal you can see below - depicting the sinking of the Lusitania - has the strange distinction of being used as propaganda by both Germany (claiming the ship was carrying out military duties) and then Britain (calling out the Germans for the attack on civilians).

I was perhaps most struck by these two exhibits - a Madonna & child and a Torah ark - displayed side by side, both from the Queen Mary. With Europe about to enter another period of darkness, many passengers seeking a new life - and safety - abroad were Jewish. As such, the liner housed both a chapel and synagogue. Given current world events at the time of writing, I think this diptych of inclusivity will haunt me for some days.

Sunday 22 April 2018

Accompanists now!

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest in all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.

In its February 2018 edition (the current issue as I write), Gramophone’s regular ‘Specialist’s Guide’ feature (where a writer recommends recordings sharing a particular theme, genre or style) focuses on ‘Unashamed accompanists’. This is a subject dear to my heart, and I’ve written before about the importance of the pianist in art song.

So I was pleased to see Tully Potter reference a number of contemporary accompanists in his beautifully appreciative introduction. However, all the actual recordings he chooses are, broadly speaking, ‘historical’ – ranging from Michael Raucheisen (born 1889) to spring chicken Graham Johnson, one of our justly-revered elder statemen of song, represented by a 1992 volume in his monumental survey of Schubert lieder for Hyperion Records.

I understand that Potter is a music archivist, which may explain the leaning towards older performances. As this is a knowledge gap for me, I’m looking forward to tracking his selections down. However, I can’t help but feel there’s a place for a companion piece which could point towards some more recent, excellent recordings – highlighting our current generation of accompanists and, hopefully, encouraging readers to go out and hear them live as well as buy the discs. Here’s my attempt at making this selection.

A bit of housekeeping:
  • As I hugely admire everyone I mention, the list is – both democratically and diplomatically – in alphabetical order.
  • I’ve included a Spotify playlist of tracks so that readers can hear the musicians without (at least initially!) breaking the bank. However, where some labels do not feature on Spotify, I’ve tried to ‘recommend around’ the issue, or simply mention some non-playlist recordings along the way. For example, Hyperion’s absence from Spotify had an impact on my choices for Julius Drake and Malcolm Martineau.
I hope you enjoy the recordings.

James Baillieu

‘Chanson Perpetuelle: French Chamber Songs’, with Katherine Broderick.

On this brilliant CD, JB is a superb match for KB’s richness, and in the Debussy I’ve included in the playlist, simply dances around the vocal part – there’s all the push and pull this song about the shore requires. The heft of the ocean and drops of the spray. In the past couple of years, JB has also featured on excellent releases from Benjamin Appl (his debut lieder CD) and Ben Johnson. I’ve also included a glorious track from the latter’s disc of English song, ‘I Heard You Singing’.

Iain Burnside

‘Rachmaninov: Songs’, with various singers – here Ekaterina Siurina.

Surely one of IB’s finest releases, this set of all Rachmaninov’s songs features young Russian singers – who are, understandably, hugely suited to the material, freshness and enthusiasm bursting out of the speakers. I’ve chosen two IB tracks for my playlist – the astonishing ‘Arion’, with the pianist negotiating a heroic series of sudden changes, twists and turns, plus a spectacular Respighi track from Rosa Feola’s debut CD.

Julius Drake

‘Songs by Schubert (Wigmore Hall Live)’, with Ian Bostridge.

One of the most purely exciting accompanists I’ve heard – and seen live. So often, I’ve heard his elemental basslines give the most distinctive, larger-than-life singers the uplift they need to raise the roof. But the necessary restraint is always there, too. The playlist includes this CD’s hell-for-leather version of ‘Auflosung’, as well as the humorous – yet light on its feet – rendition of ‘Fischerweise’ with Matthew Polenzani, also at Wigmore Hall.

Christopher Glynn

‘Percy Grainger: Folk Songs’, with Claire Booth.

Recently, CG has emerged as a strong advocate for the communicative power of English art song, with a recording of Donald Swann’s (non-Flanders) body of work for Hyperion, and this delightful CD with Claire Booth. Clearly a labour of love for both – who have apparently researched and performed Grainger’s music for years – the rapport and affinity for the material are joyously audible.

Gerold Huber

‘Nachtviolen’, with Christian Gerhaher.

It’s a tribute to GH – Gerhaher’s regular accompanist – that when the baritone received the Wigmore Medal, he remarked that if he could he would split the award in two, so he could give half of it to Huber. They have made many recordings together, but this relatively recent album captures their dynamic perfectly. Resisting any urge to over-sentimentalise, GH provides a gently rhythmic counterpart to the bruised beauty of Gerhaher’s voice.

Simon Lepper

‘Nights Not Spent Alone: Complete Works for Mezzo-Soprano by Jonathan Dove’, with Kitty Whately.

This pianist is relatively new to me, but the recordings I know find him surrounding huge voices with supreme agility and dexterity. His Schubert album with tenor Ilker Arcayurek is a superb listen but this set of contemporary compositions with Kitty Whately is a revelation, not least in the bravura performance of ‘The Siren’.

Susan Manoff

‘Neere’, with Veronique Gens.

It still feels all too rare to see women as both singer and accompanist in recital duos. Having heard Gens and Manoff live, it’s easy to project a particularly close dynamic between them, but to me, they do seem to share a special empathy. On this marvellous disc of French song, SM avoids any sense of ‘laissez-faire’, playing with a shining, wilful clarity in support of Gens’s passionate delivery.

Malcolm Martineau

‘Portraits’, with Dorothea Roschmann.

A pianist who seems able to play ‘in character’ as effectively as the singers he accompanies. On this stunning recital album, the version of ‘Gretchen’ – where the piano represents the movement of the spinning wheel – sees his constantly alert approach capture the distracted yet intermittently purposeful work of the lovelorn heroine. To show how astonishingly expressive MM is in French song, I’ve included a live performance of a Debussy melodie with Christiane Karg in the playlist.

Joseph Middleton

‘Fleurs’, with Carolyn Sampson.

Winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 2016 Young Artist Award (when he was described as a ‘born collaborator’), JM combines ceaselessly versatile musicianship with a flair for programming. This leads him to create recordings with the wide-ranging appeal of ‘albums’ – and so prolific is he that I’ve included three tracks on the playlist. My top pick represents his ongoing partnership with soprano Carolyn Sampson, their first CD (from 2015) introducing her to art song with some brio, marshalling her reliably gorgeous tone to his dazzling array of accompaniment styles. He is also the backbone of song supergroup, the Myrthen Ensemble, whose double CD ‘Songs to the Moon’ is another piece of brilliant curation. Finally, his night-themed record with Ruby Hughes, ‘Nocturnal Variations’, was one of 2016’s finest discs.

Anna Tilbrook

‘Schubert: Schwanengesang / Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte’, with James Gilchrist.

Another duo who seem to represent a perfect match. I was lucky enough to experience total immersion when first introduced to AT’s playing, as she jointly helmed a full weekend of Schumann and Mendelssohn that also featured Gilchrist, with a guest appearance from Carolyn Sampson. Sadly, the ‘Robert Schumann: Song Cycles’ CD that followed is not on Spotify. Luckily, their Schubert discs are: this lovely song (the final one Schubert wrote) can be over-emotional, even over-prettified – but AT approaches it with poise and precision, every note a distinct chime.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Playing away: ENO outside the Coliseum

Since I last posted, there have been a few sticky moments on 'classical music' social media between critics, composers and performers. I believe there were valid points and genuine misunderstandings on all 'sides' (old hippy that I am) but of course, it all escalated into volleys of tweet-sized trauma. I don't really want to go into further specifics here... it's all out there, I suppose, if you want to find it but, trust me, you don't need to.

Inevitably, though, discussions came up about what a critic actually is (or should be) and does (or should do). I've thought about this a lot, if only because I've felt it important to be clear about what separates what I do - amateur blogging - from actual criticism.

I write with essentially 100% freedom, about what I decide to see and hear - allowing me, as a punter, to focus only on the events and artists I want to. For me personally, that means spending words and energy only on performances and shows I've liked and enjoyed. I feel that if I make a recommendation, there's a chance someone will pick up on it and find something new to investigate or enjoy. If I don't like a recording, performance or exhibition, well (a) who cares, and (b) what good would I achieve by saying so? It doesn't mean I have no critical faculties - I just get far more personal satisfaction out of explaining why I love certain music or art, and communicating that enthusiasm, than I do from slating something.

But critics - in a paid, professional capacity - must venture into darker places. As contributors to journals of record, they must go and see whatever is put on, whether it's something they're drawn to or not, and find a way of placing it in context, judging it fairly, giving praise where they feel it's due, while drawing out any problems or issues. Critics I admire do exactly this. They find a way to present any negative reaction they feel as constructive commentary, and avoid giving offence.

I mention all this because there is one certain area where I feel a little let down by (a few of) the pros: attacks on English National Opera ('ENO'). ENO has been beset by horrendous behind-the-scenes difficulties in recent years, and the management surely deserved all the brickbats it received over (among other things) the shameful treatment of the mighty Chorus, and the dispiritingly swift departure of Mark Wigglesworth, ENO's previous Music Director.

But there is now a new regime in place, and ENO is hopefully starting to pick up the pieces. New chief executive, new artistic director, new music director: all change, in other words. Of course, I can't say if in practical terms, things are getting better or worse for the performers working there - I wouldn't presume. The company is in the middle of a plan to build their productions back up over time, so the 'main season' at their home venue, London's Coliseum, still 'feels' a bit short.

So I was a bit taken aback by a couple of pieces I've seen lately. I won't name names. But one critic recently published a sneery review of 'La traviata', yet still felt the need to devote a large chunk of the piece to an apocalyptic 'WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ENO?' epilogue, plunging the knife back into the wound. Well, what does it mean for ENO? What does the recent, absolutely amazing trio of productions, 'Satyagraha', 'Iolanthe' and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' mean for ENO? Wouldn't it have been better if the review had used its whole word count on the production? I also read another piece laying into the recent chief executive appointment, placing it in the context of historically 'ill-judged decisions' by the ENO board. This is about an employee who's been in post for about a fortnight. I don't care how naïve or old-fashioned I sound: I think it's a fairer approach to actually see how someone performs in a role before writing them off.

I'm not trying to say that everyone at ENO is utterly marvellous and incapable of a wrong thought or deed. But in my experience, as an audience member, the people on the stage and in the pit - the people I care about - actually are marvellous. They never give less than their best, even during times when we know they were going through some pretty heavy pressure and uncertainty. And in a brief period when some critics have found that their words have consequences, I wonder how often they consider the effect that this kind of writing might have on the ensemble, and that morale can be chipped away from without as well as within.

So - stepping down from my soapbox - I think it's worth turning our attention to some of the intriguing and appealing productions ENO is presenting over the summer months. Last year, for example, there was the magnificent ENO Studio Live double bill in the company's West Hampstead rehearsal studios: the Chorus taking two short operas by the scruff of the neck and mounting them almost as independent, guerrilla productions. It was glorious.

On offer this year (each one links to the booking page on ENO's website):

'Effigies of Wickedness' at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill - an evening of cabaret consisting of songs banned by the Nazis. (3 May to 2 June.)

ENO Studio Live (BACK! HURRAH!) with:
Handel's 'Acis and Galatea' at Lilian Baylis House, West Hampstead. (9 to 16 June.)
Britten's 'Paul Bunyan' at Wilton's Music Hall. (3 to 8 September.)

More Britten, namely 'The Turn of the Screw' at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. (22 to 30 June.)

And on home turf at the Coliseum, coming up fast, you can still support the company performing in the musical 'Chess', from 26 April to 2 June.

As things stand, I'm going to the ENO Studio Live productions, and we're taking my folks to see 'Chess'. If any of you are seeing these, or the two I can't get to, please report back!

Sunday 1 April 2018

Dream states: ENO round-up

I confess I'm a little shame-faced while writing this post. Regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know that, given the time, I try and give plenty of space to English National Opera productions. Partly, this is because I always feel they're worth writing about, and partly because I'm a passionate (and I know that word is over-used these days, but so be it) supporter of the ENO chorus and orchestra. Whatever the trying circumstances behind the scenes - and there's been no shortage of coverage of that elsewhere - they remain an astonishingly accomplished company of musicians who always give of their best.

At my end, however, a combination of a really heavy time at work, combined with other posts nudging their way in - perhaps they arrived in my head more fully-formed) - has meant that three ENO visits have now gone by before I've managed to write a word about them. Still, I had such a great time at all of them, it would be wrong to simply let them pass by.

The three productions were:
  • 'Satyagraha', the Philip Glass opera surveying key episodes in the life of Gandhi;
  • 'Iolanthe', the manic Gilbert & Sullivan fairytale; and
  • 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Britten's operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy.
It was my first time seeing the Glass, which was in fact on its fourth run. I'm not surprised it keeps returning, and I'd be at the front of the queue for a ticket should it come back again. ENO seems to have a special affinity with PG's music, cemented with the breathtaking 'Akhnaten' production from 2016. Both stagings are collaborations with theatre troupe Improbable, who field a 'skills ensemble' covering all the bases between mime, movement, dance and acrobatics. The latest 'Satyagraha' also benefits from Karen Kamensek on the podium - steeped in Glass's music, after making her ENO debut with 'Akhnaten', and then conducting the brilliant realisation of Glass's album with Ravi Shankar, 'Passages' at the 2017 Proms.

I adore Glass, but at the same time, I accept that he is divisive: for everyone like me, who hears and rejoices in intricate cycles and patterns, there is someone else who finds him dull and repetitive. You can't always change the way you listen to something, so I'm not out to make converts. But I do feel that if one were to try and 'turn' a Glassphobic, the music must be brilliantly conducted - and this is what KK does. She keeps the orchestra motoring like absolute clockwork, while bringing alive every dynamic shift and nuance.

(The Chorus in 'Satyagraha', photo by Donald Cooper)

For me, part of the power of Glass's music is that it uses its regularity to, in fact, play with time. Events can speed up, or stand still. As the sequences stretch out, you have time to appreciate the artistry of Improbable and director Phelim McDermott as endlessly inventive visual motifs fill the stage. McDermott explains the use of newspaper and corrugated iron as key materials linked with Gandhi's environment - the oppression of both opinion and poverty - but this is just the start. Giant puppets form an imposing crowd, while the silent 'icons' (the historical figures that provide a linked focal point for each act) are either still or move in slow motion against the 'normal' speed of the protagonists. The skills performers move with such precision that they can hold up scraps of newsprint to receive caption projections. And the meticulous score does not preclude cast and chorus injecting the sacred text of the libretto (adapted from the Bhagavada Gita) with real emotion - especially in the prayers of Toby Spence's superb Gandhi.

Gilbert & Sullivan offer something of a contrast - and if I was only covering these two performances, I'd have been tempted to call the post "Is there anything the ENO Chorus cannot do?" Productions ranging from the aforementioned 'Akhnaten' (where they trained up in some of the acrobatic movement and juggling skills used by Improbable) through the truly memorable ensembles of 'The Winter's Tale', 'Marnie', 'Jenufa', 'Pirates of Penzance' ... not to mention the fantastic ENO Studio Live 2017 double-header of 'The Day After' and 'Trial by Jury'... All of these point time and time again to their collective brilliance not only as singers but also physical actors - each able to present a fully-formed individual character amid the throng: forget any notion of a nebulous mass - these are always real people with real personalities.

Wittily dividing the chorus by gender into frisky fairies and pompous peers - due for a mass romantic collision course by the end of the evening - the action of 'Iolanthe' proved the perfect vehicle for their comic talents.

(Fairies meet peers, photo by Clive Barda)

Again benefiting from genre-specific expertise (as with Improbable for a visual approach to Glass), specialist farceur Cal McCrystal was hired to direct this new production. This resulted in a show that would have been laugh-out loud funny even if silent - highlights included the questionably harsh treatment of an inquisitive flamingo, tenor Ben Johnson's 'Tosca' moment (both balletic and bathetic, as he plummets in tragic mode from the top of a carriage), and the old-school slapstick of a pair of confused stagehands, trying valiantly to move sheep around the scenery but rendered blind by their - literally - all-over bodysuits. I'm actually going to refrain from singling out soloists from a cast who clearly understood that controlled chaos like this stands or falls on timing and teamwork: all involved seemed to radiate joy, singing gloriously with heart and humour, while gamely abandoning dignity in the service of comedy. I'm sure this one will be back as well.

Finally, no ENO Chorus, sadly, for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'... although this time, the small ensemble of fairies was Tiffin Boys Choir, smartly suited and booted as a rather more regimented and efficient team than 'Iolanthe's sprites. Britten's intimate, yet playful adaptation was given hauntingly surreal life by this Robert Carsen production (which dates back to 1991). As a concept, it's almost deceptively on the nose - the opening act is staged on a gigantic bed, immediately referencing the possibility that everything in the play is in fact a dream. But it's the stylised use of colour that clinches it: the blue back wall and green sheets are in fact sky and forest. Subsequent acts give us different perspectives on this essential idea, and I won't spoil the coup de theatre towards the end for anyone who might get the chance to see this in the future.

Colour is also used symbolically in the costumes to round out the characters. Oberon, clothed in green, is able to lay down completely camouflaged to the oblivious lovers around him. The lovers themselves, initially in splendid white, gradually lose layers of this apparel as the night goes on. As the forest strips them of their urbanity, green stains from the foliage appear and expand on the clothing they have left.

(Lovers in the forest - photo by Robert Workman)

Britten also uses the score for characterisation: I'd already read that the overall mood varies depending on who is currently in focus: ethereal for the fairies, more tender for the couples and folkish for the 'mechanicals'. But it was interesting to hear his treatment of individuals, too - Oberon is a countertenor role (played here by the commanding Christopher Ainslie), conveying both his authority and otherworldliness. The bass-baritone of Bottom gives him the 'lowliness' his name requires but with his aspirational-actor's agility to try to take on every other part as well - Joshua Bloom was endearingly bolshy in the role and pricked the character enough to show the vulnerability behind the self-promotion and misplaced confidence. The soprano playing Tytania (here a captivating Soraya Mafi) is enraptured into coloratura while besotted with Bottom. 

I'm looking forward to the rest of the season, but for me, so far, ENO has been on fire. All three of these evenings were set in a kind of paranormal, other universe from our standard reality; and all three did what all great entertainment, opera or otherwise, can achieve - transport me, rapt, into another, more heightened zone for a few precious hours. Bliss.

(All photos taken from the ENO website.)