Posted tagged ‘BBC Symphony Orchestra’

Martinů’s Juliette, BBC SO/Belohlávek

March 31, 2009

julietta_webTo the Barbican on Friday 27 March for a concert performance of Martinů’s opera Julietta, or rather ‘Juliette’, as it was given in Martinů’s own French (re-) translation – a slightly odd decision given that the conductor and some of the cast were Czech. Still, the effect of the French vocal declamation was to make the music more than usually reminiscent of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Comprehension was ensured thanks to my friend Paula Kennedy’s scrupulous surtitles – which she would have been just as happy to do from Czech!

Kenneth Richardson provided a slick and effective ‘semi-staging’; singers basically wore evening dress and sang from scores, but the action was spiced up with minimal costumes and props, carefully thought out entrances and exits, and subtle lighting. American tenor William Burden was the tireless protagonist, the hapless Michel, who finds himself adrift in a land where no one can remember anything.  Magdalena Kožená was the appropriately distant and mysterious Julietta, looking lovely and vaguely 1930s in a floral frock.

Great character roles from a large cast including Jean Rigby and Rosalind Plowright, Roderick Williams and (outstanding) Andreas Jäggi.

Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the BBC SO in coruscating form – amazing colours and atmosphere. What an extraordinary score! I remember it from ENO in the 1970s (and from my Supraphon LPs), and its hypnotic power remains undimmed. It struck me as an amazing achievement to have written a full-length opera which is uniquely in his own idiom and no one else’s: apart from the echoes of Pelléas and the fact that the spooky opening bars are reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Les noces, one almost never felt ‘Oh yes, that bit’s Puccini, or Verdi, or Richard Strauss…’ as one does with all too many 20th century operas (including Britten!).

Martinů wrote the opera in 1936-7, to a play by his friend the French surrealist Georges Neveux. Martinů is probably an acquired taste, but I love his music. It’s the 50th anniversary of his death, so we are fortunate in getting more of it this year than we usually do.

Great to see a packed hall and so many luminaries in the audience – including, I was happy to see, Chris Hogwood, hotfoot from conducting the dress rehearsal of Dido and Aeneas + Acis and Galatea at the Royal Opera House only a few hours earlier (yes it was a long day).  I reminded Chris that it was he who introduced me to Martinů all those years ago (39 actually) at Cambridge Tech

There’s a nice review here: http://thoroughlygood.wordpress.com/2009/03/28/juliette-bbcso-belohlavek-martinu/

picture: front cloth from a Czech production of the opera

Prom: Gürzenich Orchestra, Mahler 5 etc.

August 23, 2008
Angelika Kirchschlager

Angelika Kirchschlager

After the previous night’s Prom – when Jiři Bělohlávek drew a lovely light, fluffy sound from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák’s bouncy and witty Slavonic Dances, and Janáček’s beautiful but maddeningly unfocused little-known early opera Osud – what a contrast yesterday to hear the rich glowing sound of the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne under Markus Stenz.

Their weird back-to-front programme – Mahler 5, some Schubert songs, Beethoven’s Overture Leonore No. 3 – turned out to be a re-creation of the first performance of the Mahler in 1904 (I hadn’t realised it had been written for this orchestra).  Plus – to bring us up to date – a chunk of Stockhausen, which succeeded in driving a lot of the audience away after the Mahler (rumour has it that it was scheduled to be a separate late-night Prom, but perhaps the Powers That Be had thought no one at all would have turned up).  As it was, the Albert Hall was respectably full but not bursting.

From the first tutti, the Mahler had an authentically ‘European’ sound:  big, colourful and full of character, supported on the cushion of those gorgeous strings – especially a phalanx of eight double basses across the back of the platform, where they became the beating heart of the orchestra, always supporting, always making their presence felt even in the softest pianissimo (and all bowing ‘underhand’ in Continental fashion).

Varieties of orchestral layout are a continuing fasciation;  the oddity of this one was that the brass were ‘back to front’, with the trumpets on the outside and the trombones and tuba nearest the middle.  This had the bonus of placing the tuba next to contrabassoon and double basses – good idea.  If I am not mistaken, the second violins sat opposite the firsts in the Mahler, but the violas went there for the Beethoven.  (The Stockhausen had a weirdly random layout, not explained in the programme).

‘A symphony must be like the world – it should embrace everything’, said Gustav Mahler:  it could be claimed that Mahler’s Fifth is the greatest of his symphonies, and one of the greatest of all symphonies (and I’m not just saying that because of its terrific contrabassoon part!).  The Gürzenich Orchestra gave it all they’d got, which was indeed plenty, although both the first trumpet (in his opening fanfare) and the first horn (in his solos in the huge Scherzo) were not entirely accident-free – though they improved once they had got over their opening wobbles.  Yet somehow, despite tremendously characterised and colourful wind playing, the sound remained slightly one-dimensional and the performance didn’t ever quite take off.  When Markus Stenz reached the final bombastic peroration, it didn’t seem to have earned its place in the scheme of things.  And heaven knows what he thought he was beating at the beginning of the (admirably unsentimental) Adagietto.

Stockhausen’s Punkte was a kind of smudged pointillist canvas (more…)