Saturday, 18 March 2017

Wining over Whining (Wine, Wine, Wine!)

In which I am perpetually 70% tipsy

One spectacular February night

There are days when I feel like the shit, in the big leagues and generally smug (more so than even usual). This boost of unwarranted confidence is normally accompanied by equally insufferable company, a good dose of charm and, invariably, a sleekly enticing bottle, its tinted glass promising layers of yummy secrets. You see, I have been in search of a new past-time of late and boy, I did not have to wait long. A series of plum coincidences fell into my lap almost immediately, all to do with one rather heady topic – wine.

I can already hear the collective groan from friends who have endured years of opera diatribes. Of course she has choose yet another completely masturbatory hobby. It is perhaps a deserved reputation, but allow me to present my case!

I have drunk wine flagrantly for many years. More precisely, I have quaffed torrid wine very quickly for more evenings than I can recall. Somewhere along the way, it stopped being a horrible drink designed to facilitate long evenings of shrieking in Camden town and became rather enjoyable in its own right. I began to drink it civilly at mealtimes, always with dinner and sometimes in the cheeky lunch in-between lectures (it is inadvisable to attend corporate insolvency completely sober). I started to choose my cheap bottles with care, fancying I could detect some imperceptible difference between the bottles lurking the second lowest shelf at Sainsbury’s (unlikely, for they were all complete plonk). 

Then came a series of new acquaintances who are absolutely wine mad. They are adult, clever, slick and totally have their shit together. Chief amongst them is a millionaire psycho with a cellar stuffed full of first growth clarets (I have often been exceedingly lucky with interesting friends and I fear I am not nearly titillating enough in return). I drank some exceptional bottles in this able company, including the full range of Ch. Margaux from 1980-89 and a dizzyingly scrummy vertical of ’85 left bank Premier Crus (the Latour won out). I gorged my way through the entire history of Maison Guigal, I got wankered exclusively on Krug, I spent an entire twelve hour period drinking nothing but  forty year old Barolo. Wine seemed cool. Wine seemed sexy. I wanted to be able to properly vocalise just why the ’86 Margaux was so majestic upon my palate (my initial note being the rather cheerful – hey, this tastes exactly like a Montecristo Edmundo cigar! Cue instant face-palming from two somms).

At first, I desired nothing more than to know my Pinot Noir from my Grenache so I wouldn’t appear such a prize plonker when surrounded by the symphonic ecstasy of sniffs and slurps that characterised so many gatherings. I reasoned that to both learn properly about wine and still gallivant to the opera on a weekly basis was too indulgent. Besides, I quite liked being able to stomach mediocre grapes without pulling a face. It was an unfortunate acquired taste of sorts, but also a wondrously cheap pastime.

But therein lay my fatal flaw – once you start learning about wine at all, you uncover the romance. And I am, unabashedly, a complete fool for romance. It was at one such informal dinner where I found myself chatting to a rather gorgeous gentleman. We talked, of course, about the drink, and I gave my usual spiel (Oh I’d terribly like to learn more about wine but it’s all rather overwhelming for a novice, blah blah).

He fixed me with such a terrible stare. “Learn?! Bah! You love, not learn. Here-“ and he pushed a glass of white bourgogne to my face “-take a good whiff of this.”

I obliged and as usual, could sense nothing but alcohol. But before I could fabricate some vague notes, he spoke again.

That’s the smell of my childhood.”

“You were bottle fed white burgundy? Quite an education.”

“You’re not far off. I was brought up on a vineyard in Gevrey.

Curiously, after all this time, and even after learning my grapes, I had never really thought about vines or vineyards or producers themselves.

Sounds an idyllic childhood.”

“It was. And that’s why Burgundy means the most to me. I don’t care whether its fashionable or not. I love that I can taste the geography, the history, the soil in the bottle. It is something that speaks to my very soul.


I did not know why, but I was touched. He hadn’t attempted to regale me with superior tasting notes, or why the nose was tapered with dollops of caramel. He gave me the story – and that’s sucked me in. We didn’t speak much beyond that (it was a large group and such was my enthralment that had we spoken at greater length, I would probably have asked him to marry me) but his words struck me deeply.

Wine can transport you to a time before your own. It is this kind of gloriously retrospective romance that I turn a total fool for. As vocalised by another wine fiend about my recent unexpected possession of a '61 Dom Perignon; "Think about what's happened to those grapes since!" You don't have to be able to pick out the precise minerality of the liquid (although it helps) to sense the garlanded history it encompasses.

I realised I had already unintentionally created little wine milestones of my own. There was a bottle of ’95 Lafite I was given at graduation, which I duly got jolly over with the giver without much knowledge of its prestige (a story that I now tell to bring a grimace to any wine lover’s face. This is what happens when you give fine wine to the uninitiated – they will just open it). There was also my first champagne (Pol and, unusually for a beginner, a vintage 2002 blanc de blancs). I had it again recently and the fresh wave of unripe green apple conjured images of giggly teenage afternoons.

I enjoy wine, I realised. I like drinking it and I like the ritual that comes with it – cradling the Zalto, pulling it towards one so as not to disturb the surface, holding the bulb against the candle to see the pale orange rim of aged Pauillac, the initial inhale followed by the sudden flare of aroma that can issue with two brisk swirls, the gentle progression of ruby from glass to lips, where it rolls back and forth and side to side over the palate, puckering the inside cheek with austerity or a little tannic tingle. I like that it is an eminently social pastime, not nearly as taciturn as opera, and it is much more visceral.

That is not to say that wine is not pompous - the wine snob is still well and truly alive. I now understand (and repent) all the hours I have spent flamboyantly debating about opera, which is equally overbearing. And the vocabulary! This is where the masturbatory element of the profession truly comes out. I will perhaps one day agree that wines can taste like gunpowder or wet stones or a narrow waisted lady (genuinely, I read this in a reputable publication) but in the meantime, it is difficult not to scoff. I have gone past the point of no return when it comes to opera, but wine I hope to merely enjoy sedately, relaxedly and sociably. If I ever catch myself in a shouting match over the role of coloratura in Verdi the sanctity of the Loire, I will be aggrieved indeed.

Nevertheless, I am very blessed that several people are happy to point me through this soupy jargon, that they are glad to help my education. The past month or so has been unaccountably jolly, with  spontaneous L’Angelus-inspired marriage proposals to amused MWs in a delectable wine private members' club (seriously, I need to stop proposing when tipsy). And of course, as my oldest friends realise with dread, I have a terrible penchant for dragging as many people as possible down into whatever new rabbit hole I’ve unearthed. I can already hear excuses being made over London not to attend the latest Alsace tasting.

My happy initiation into (good) wine continues with a gift recently delivered from the millionaire psycho who seems happier than I that I have succumbed to the honest grape. It is a handsome case of Ch. Haut-Bailly 2009, by all accounts an admirable vintage, alongside a short note –

Wine to drink now.

Chin chin!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Die Meistersinger: Holten departs with soaring (and pointed) triumph

Holten & Co on opening night

It was the rapturous success of Kasper Holten's Copenhagen staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle that propelled him to the helm of Covent Garden in 2011. It is thus a neat and rather sardonic bookend that Wagner again provides his swan-song with the company, in the form of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, the classic exposition of living art triumphing over the academic. 

A bold farewell, it was rewarded and garlanded in every way that Hans Sachs - and indeed Wagner -  holds in high esteem.

Kunst! Wach! Liebe! This is Holten's Meistersinger in more ways than one; this is the twitch of the thread designed to draw all fractures from his short tenure to that orphic conclusion to which Hans Sachs also guides the blind, structured and obstinate. Music is the solace and the escape. Politics, tradition and the insular have no command here - here, we draw in broadstrokes, where power lords over finesse.

Terfel's Hans Sachs is a creation of immense control and beauty. More importantly, he is entirely human. Under Holten's direction, he does not embody the martyred wisdom many directors seem to interpret as divinely Schopenhauer. His renunciation of courting Eva is not as beatific as it is wry and Walther's song does not so much affirm his belief in kunst as it perplexes him. He too journeys to reject form and the apotheosis of reason through the three act behemoth; a realisation most delicately shaped by Terfel, who never mistakes pathos for sentiment. The famous Act 3 quintet, the emotional heart of Die Meistersinger, touches precisely because the conclusion is not glorious and inevitable. This Hans Sachs is no saint and his renunciation of wille to overcome madness (Wach! Wach!) is not so much an adherence to an overarching philosophy as it is an acquiescence to the system of things and exigencies of life. Rather than simply changing the two lovers and popular opinion, Holten places Sachs' own demons on the frontline, with the famous Act 2 brawl of tempered madness seemingly drawn out of his subconscious, with a cloven-hoofed Nightwatchman standing silently sentinel. Terfel's Sachs is a creature of the era as opposed to the wizened overlord, an interpretation which ties in with the maniacal dogma that colours Sachs' closing aria; a uniquely nationalist defence of German aesthetics.

Willis-Sorensen's Eva is also unpredictable. There is a pervading sense that she would accept the cobbler, and her love for Walther is neither final nor exact. This Eva doesn't undertake a transformation; or if she does, it is internalised. She is modern in the way Eva normally is not and her indignant departure at the end, renouncing Sachs' grand orchestration of events is entirely political and devoid of romantic sensibility.

Here, Holten's staging achieves curious genius. The seed has been sown; Hans Sachs is unsaintly and Eva is unsure. Holten overcomes the barbed and problematic closing section by not appeasing at all - he revels in the extremity of the Meistersinger's national pride with macabre and glee that warns uncomfortably at the geopolitical reality of current times. In this production, Sachs' loving and guiding influence does not result in a happy German union. Rather, though touched by supreme song flouting the rigidity of academic reason, Sachs falters at the final barrier by choosing to channel this euphoria towards collective sentiment. What he achieves is hysteria, pride and arrogance to which Eva, the most modern of all constituents, blanches. She has also been touched the Meistersang and emerges changed - but, impervious to tradition, she understands at last the unfailing ways of the guild and man and chooses to flee. It is subtly done, but this addition is rather remarkable.

Vocally, the depth of the cast is staggering. Terfel's vocal ability remains unchallenged, but nearly stealing the plaudits is Kranzle's Beckmesser, that long abused creature. Surely absurd, even hateful, his song nevertheless retains majesty beneath its comic trills. Onstage, his presence is unmatched. But there is gravitas to every member of the guild and I have scarcely, if ever, heard a cast of this magnitude which is so equally matched and united in vocal fortitude. Another delectable surprise is the affinity Pappano seems to have suddenly developed for Wagnerian repertoire, in which he has rarely achieved such authority and wit as that eked out of the orchestra on Saturday evening. It is a monstrous task to pace the Act 3 just right, so the climatic quintet wrenches as excruciatingly as it did.

The only place where energy perhaps flagged was the odd gloom inspired by the set for Act 3, Scene 1, set backstage at the festival pageant. This setting did not conjoin easily with the abstract concept preceding it, a versatile mahogany set, oppressive and austere with occasional glimpses of art deco elegance (but might it be possible to reduce to clinking of cutlery during Act 1?) We do away with the church, the street outside Sachs' abode for this delirium inducing ode to rigour, with pleasing effect. No doubt, the traditionalists will rail and rage as the Guild themselves are wont to do (indeed, as I type, the first broadsheet review is out and predictably miffed) but if you read it as I do, and love it as I did, this tension is the lifeblood of Holten's greatest creation at Covent Garden to date.

Kasper, we shall be sorry to see you go!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Opolais Revels as Madama Butterfly

(Written March 2015)

Credit: ROH

On the opening night of the Royal Opera's Madama Butterfly, I entered the amphitheatre to find the occupants to my immediate right already in place - a dear elderly couple, aged ninety, dressed very smartly, hands folded atop their canes. After squeezing past, the gentleman immediately said; "Good evening. Have you seen the opera before?"

It soon transpired that he was quite the Puccini enthusiast, a lifelong devotee to the art of opera. It was with bright enthusiasm that he regaled recollected stories from decades ago, of starry sopranos and majestic nights.

"Puccini is, to the utmost, incomparable," he mused, with great sincerity. "When it is sung just right, everything just flows - a beautiful string of silver with no beginning and no end. From the first note of the love duet - just that one note alone! - I fall, completely."

"It seems to take so little for Puccini to create magic," I agreed, having recently been changed by an affecting Il Trittico

"Magic!" he cried. "Magic! Now there's the word."

His fervency seemed to set the tone for the evening. I had initially come with relatively low expectations. Madama Butterfly was the spectacle for the first opera I ever attended - at the age of seven in the local Caird Hall, with a company hailing from a rather obscure part of Eastern Europe. Being altogether too young, I was ecstatic when Cio-Cio san finally copped it. Since that first encounter, Butterfly has failed to become more endearing; I often find it a capricious creation. The plot is simple, and Puccini's orchestration at his luscious best - a real lesson in tranquility and inner strength, with a dash of humour thrown in at surprising points. Yet, the characters frustrate; Pinkerton's insincerity is all too evident from the outset, that it becomes almost impossible to identify with Butterfly's love - at points, you simply desire to shake her hard, when she descends into histrionics over such an unworthy idol. Played with the slightest wrong nuance, the entire heart of the tale - a heart crafted of resilience, belief and hope - is inextricably lost.

There is no such fear with the Royal Opera's cast. Opolais' Butterfly is, possibly, the finest performance at the Royal Opera House this season. A tall woman with a powerful voice, Opolais showed remarkable control to thin her tone, particularly in Act I, to convey the winsome child. The task of portraying a fifteen year old girl, from a culture of great reserve and tradition, has always been a difficult one. Opolais showed her vocal power last season as Manon Lescaut; this time, she gave a sustained smooth tone, as shimmering and as breakable as gossamer, that still carried great resonance along with its purity. Upon her first appearance onstage, and introducing herself to Sharpless, Opolais' Butterfly is unapologetic and guilelessly frank. She becomes an eccentric child, one who seems, with her spontaneity and brightly unquenchable spark, slightly removed from the world around her - a dreamer ascending to the 'house made of air' on the hilltop. Rather than a mere slip of a child, giddy for marriage and security, under Opolais' guidance she takes on new meaning. While some may think this approach lacks the power, it ought to be remembered that this isn't some great Italianate tale of woe and misfortune. Butterfly's charm lies not in her passion, but in her femininity. Puccini endows her with dozens of lilting passages, stark in their simplicity - merely one reedy voice soaring out alone. When she turns to Jagde's Pinkerton at the beginning of 'Vogliateme bene', and entreats him to 'love her a little' it was so saturated with need and adoration that it takes the breath away.

The final two acts showcased a Butterfly unlike any other I have seen before. I state the triumvirate again - resilience, belief and hope - that is the making of the finest Butterflies. It is too lofty an aim to treat it as a great paragon of love or devotion; he is a fool and she is blind (and only fifteen). But Puccini wins when this unsavoury setup ceases to matter. He triumphs in the strength of her gaze, tempered by resolution not shrill adoration; he lives on the wings of Opolais' indignation, not doubt, when she utters in that terrible way; 'Ah! m'ha scordata? / Ah! Has he forgotten me?'. Opolais reduces us to tears precisely because her Butterfly walks on the side of Triumph; buffered by eccentricity, led by perceived kindness, her supposed misfortune and abandonment does not burden her. And, for that reason, Puccini's orchestration thrives - it is freed from the forerunner of tragedy and the apotheosis of reason.

To all Butterflies who march dutifully to the drum of Melancholy; observe Opolais and understand that a girl who gave her heart to faith could not have lived thus!

Monday, 7 December 2015

Veritably Verismo: Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci

Simply put, Damiano Michieletto's new production of opera's most beloved double bill is superb. Set in a dusty and slightly impoverished South Italian town in the 1980s, Michieletto's set is 'verismo' in its truest sense; it accentuates the grittiness of Mascagni's score in particular and, amongst the unadorned and ungilded, the toxic cesspool of human emotions that forms the core of both operas is permitted to explode in the melodramatic and sensual way we have come to expect. I found myself recalling the vulgar, beautiful and wounded Italian youth 'Gino'* amongst the San Gimignano hills, untaught and untamed, driven only by brutish instinct. Michieletto's presentation has such an effect; the muted palette of greys and browns only serves to accentuate the wild lushness of the orchestration and the mounting delirium. The linking of the two operas through the production (with characters overlapping in both interludes) is not novel, but it is neatly and seamlessly incorporated, serving an interesting outlook on idiosyncratically human troubles. It is thus with no small degree of resentment that I think of opening night reports of boos from a section of audience who have not yet soothed their affronted feathers at Michieletto's Guillaume Tell. Not only does it show horrid disrespect to the artists currently onstage, it also belies the petty small-mindedness of a certain faction of the Covent Garden crowd who seem to desire the same tyrannical power as La Scala's loggionisti; how one could muster the energy to surface old grudges after such a sublime double bill is quite beyond my reckoning. As for Guillaume Tell itself, it suffices to say that I thought it the finest ensemble production and performance of the rather disappointing 2014/15 season. 

As Santuzza, Eva Maria Westbroek delivered what was unanimously declared as the performance of the evening. Although her range seems to now waiver towards mezzo, her Santuzza was delectable; at once indignant and wretched. Westbroek inhabited the role in a way that we have come to expect (her final act Maddalena was bright spot in an otherwise tepid Andrea Chenier) but vocally she has grown exponentially. Gone is the strain and harshness that used to envelope her phrases; here, she opens her voice to an alluringly bright tone that penetrates the deepest corners of the hall. As with the other characters of this goldfish bowl view of Italian life, Santuzza is virilely majestic in her impetuosity; Westbroek conveys this profoundly, in a particularly startling choreographed passage where the wax figure of the Virgin Mary, carried aloft a baying crowd in the Easter procession seemingly comes alive and berates Santuzza for her sins. 

Her Santuzza had a match in Elena Zilio's Mamma Lucia, a magpie figure of matronly affection. Aleksandres Antonenko's Turiddu gave an admirable effort but I perhaps question the limits of his capacity for verismo opera; his tone, while beguilingly in its own way, is not quite full and is at danger of being too self-restrained. With the effervescent Tony Pappano coaxing the best sounds out of the orchestra that I have for long time from the pit below, the audience long to be swept away by an indescribable plethora of bloody colours, to hear the roar from the stage coincide the rising tempers. As Turiddu, he fell slightly short of such euphoria. But ultimately, it mattered very little; being the jewel that it is, Cavalleria Rusticana is an easy charmer. It benefits from having no 'central' number such as Vesti la giubba - after which everything and anything appears necessarily anti-climatic. There is no wasted exchanges, no 'filler' moments; everything flows, simple yet riveting.

Pagliacci had more shortcomings; though they were widely casting issues. Carmen Giannattasio I unfortunately failed to warm to; her Nedda had a barren and desiccant quality, oscillating uncomfortably from vulnerable to cruel to wanton. The contrast with Westbroek before her was illustrative; neither characters are truly sympathetic, but we lived Santuzza's despair, whereas Nedda's  was disconnected. Antonenko gave a much improved turn as Canio; aside from slightly pre-empting his entries in vesti la giubba, there was a real maniacal edge to his performance and his final breakdown (no, Pagliaccio non son) was petrifyingly electric, laid bare on a converted gym hall stage. Tonio (Dimitri Platanias) was invigorating, if slightly unremarkable, and Dionysios Sourbis' Silvio was a pleasant surprise, adding weight and pathos to the role. 

Yet, there was much to admire in the staging, which was more adventurous than Cavalleria Rusticana. There was something perversely gripping about the school gym / village hall set up that seemed to grasp the bleakness of the drama. The faint ridiculousness that this great, sordid story is unravelling amidst monkey bars and school assembly rooms only accentuates the sense of voyeurism that pervades the opera, further knowingly directed at the end when Tonio, speaking to the real life, not stage, audience, declares with twisted triumph "the comedy is finished!" and we realise that it is in our faces that the lights are directed.  In the pit, Pappano continued his wonderful work, finding joy and voice in one of opera's most ravishing scores, truly embodying every ounce of Italianate blood within him. He, together with Michieletto and Westbroek, are the makings of these alluring new productions.

* E.M Foster's Where Angels Fear to Tread

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

New Russians: On the Cult of Trifonov and Discovering Kozhukhin

NB: Covers

Daniil Trifonov with the Philharmonia, conducted by Hrusa, 15/10/2015

"Here he comes - like a five year old boy!" was the jovial cry of the patron on my right, banging his hands together in frenzy. He had just spied Daniil Trifonov emerging onstage from our lavish second row seats.

Those around him smiled and chuckled in shared understanding at the good gentleman's exclamation, a mark of the initiated. Trifonov's somewhat gauche stage mannerisms are now well-known and, inexplicably, part of his immense charisma.

A mainstay of the international piano circuit since his resounding triumph at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky  Competition, Trifonov, aged only twenty-four, is a formidable force, as well as a walking paradox. His rise has been astronomical, garnering the kind of critical adulation and popular acclaim that is rarely seen in this age of musicians. Just over a year ago, in the September of last year,  I attended a solo piano recital at the Royal Festival Hall, lured by a 'platform seat' that would place me within five feet of performer. The programme informed me that the pianist was 'supreme young Russian, Daniil Trifonov', accompanied by a shot of an awkward looking boy and a list of competition accolades. Ah - another Russian virtuoso, I mused, unexpectant. I sat back and awaited the drama, the stoic confidence and - forgive me - the Bolshoi. 
Daniil Trifonov, Solo Recital, September 2014

Instead, I was humbled. There is something that immediately piques the attention about Trifonov; from his unchangingly awkward scurrying jog onstage, he defies categorisation. Seemingly so painfully aware of the crowd when bowing, he suddenly seems to forget us all upon connecting with the stool and transforms into music itself. Argerich famously described his playing as 'demonic', and I must insist that there is no term more fitting. On that evening, I sat transfixed as he brushed aside Rachmaninov's Chopin variations with fascinating depth and proceeded to unravel Liszt's devilish Transcendental Etudes with such purity of tone, rapture and deference that I was quite changed. That recital, performed to a half empty hall, remains the the finest concert I have ever attended.

It thus gave me great pleasure, upon entering the same hall on both the 8th and 15th of this month, to see it packed to the rafters, and most punters having travelled there with the sole purpose of seeing Trifonov, so unlike my clueless stumbling in a year prior. Had I not yet been initiated, I would never have gained entry.

The theme of his two week London residence was Rachmaninov. Very rarely have the composer's works been so articulately and imaginatively told of late. For instance, take his Russsian compatriot, Denis Matsuev, who two weeks ago and on the same stage presented Tchaikovsky's first concerto but whom I have also heard attempt Rachmaninov. Both pieces he dispatched with a compellingly haughty righteousness - a Russian playing the Russian - and industrially sound percussive technique, but all the delicacy of a grape. It is this bravado we have come to expect over the last decade or so, from the Matsuevs, Kissins and, more divisively, Pogorelics of the piano world.

Trifonov retains the pride and haughtiness of the modern Russian school, but marries it with humility. In his every touch is a conversation, a searching deference to the composer. He seeks guidance, he ponders the phrasing of every fleeting passage so deeply that he nearly always unearths, from deep within, something so wondrously imaginative it astounds. Such was the case, most clearly, with Rachmaninov's second concerto. Taken at a tempo a breath slower than most, Trifonov was unafraid to strike chords stridently, with a commandingly percussive ring, but also retreated and ebbed to a somewhat internal voice, convincingly poetic. The first movement rendered him unusually sombre, sat back straight, stripping back the layers of rolling melodies for a naturalistic and striking portrayal, commanding in its respect. The same pious offering to the composer was touchingly displayed in the second. Slow and measured, head up and eyes tightly shut, Trifonov seemed embroiled not with the sonorous theme, but a higher discourse. Yet, it is not mindlessly submissive nor onerously devout. His eccentric persona leaks through, sometimes at the expense of linear melody, culminating in some magnificent rubatos and a possessed third movement. The beast reared its fearsomely fascinating head as he hunched, channelling lewdly through the shoulders in the manner of the similarly wilful Gould, and he snatched at the strident chords with perverse glee, lifting his entire body off the stool. It was magnificent. It was Rachmaninov before his association with motion picture. It was grand, it was effacing, it was destined, all in one harrowingly ecstatic sob. Bravo indeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing to note of Trifonov's two concerts is that, once the last note has been triumphantly dispatched, he reverts immediately to that endearingly gauche young boy with the pale and pinched face. Yet, it is not the same. His audience have been touched; their eyes, both spring and wizened, hold a drop of the supreme rapture that is only now beginning to diffuse from him countenance. They are perplexed, but much gladder for it, even if their newfound icon seems to start from the piano bench, surprised by sudden reappearance of such frenzied crowds. He had not exhibited his world; we had trespassed in. 

The cult of Trifonov, I wager, is very real. What is truly extraordinary is that the artist at its heart constantly forgets that we are here.

Onwards. There is more good fortune to relay. As always, the good concerts seem to all arrive at once, making schedules fearsome to behold. On the Tuesday between the two Trifonov dates, sandwiched alongside a slightly grating appointment with Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, a bitter October day found an unlikely hero. 

That evening, the close of a very long day, saw the quiet and unassuming Denis Kozhukhin descend upon a dreary looking Westminster as the second item on this year's International Piano series. A name known to me only very distantly, I arrived chiefly to hear Liszt's crystalline Bénédiction and instead, uncovered glory.

I knew not what I expected from the cherubic blond pianist, but it was not a superior reading of Haydn. I have rarely heard Haydn more attractively presented, with the exact balance of gravity and light precociousness that found a comfortable home in the B minor sonata. There is the ardency of a student that surrounds Kozhukhin still, a sense of study and constant strive for betterment. But it is flattering on him; it casts a sincere filter over his fleet and crisp music, the nimbleness of his touch allowing an array of sympathetic nuance.

A whole other piece could be written on Kozhukhin's Liszt. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is perhaps the composor's most enlightened creation; dulcet, lingering and possessing a subdued introspection that escapes so many Liszt compositions. Kozhukhin's delivery was a myriad of compulsions, attracted not to overarching rapture, but the luxuriant contrast of sweeping ravishment, to the pensive and self-chastising. Underlying it was a supreme sense of calm surety; while not taken as stately slow as Arrau's famous reading, there was no haste marring the lyrical cry of the piu sostenuto quasi preludio, just as the subdued decline into the nothing was a resolute hum  that lingered in the chest, long after the evening had passed. In Kozhukhin, we found a pianist of most marvellous judgement and impeccable capability who, if things transpire as they ought, has great capacity to become a London favourite, for he is already one of mine. 

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Lamb and Muntagirov Convince with Youthful Lustre in Macmillan's 'Romeo & Juliet'

To see Vadim Muntagirov is reward enough; to have Natalia Osipova as his Juliet is cause for jubilation. In was in this fervour that I too entreated well-placed friends to find me a ticket - and find they did - only to have her injured (a broken foot of sorts, if the grapevine informs correctly) and to have Sarah Lamb to step into the breach.

Audiences may quibble back and forth as to the qualities of the Royal Ballet's principal roster; but having seen the two paired with sublime results in last year's Manon, I embraced the replacement cast with keen anticipation. 

To start with the obvious. Vadim Muntagirov is, unequivocally, a spectacularly convincing Romeo - that long enchanting, long abused character whose foppish and wavering tendencies so oft pose a terrible challenge. Muntagirov's interpretation is deceptively simple; one may think the sheer classicism of his lines, long extolled, can convey all worldly ardour without much concerted effort. From my perch in the stalls circle, close enough to see every facial shift, I witnessed the supreme commitment and inimitable devotion that Muntagirov emitted from every detail. On his refined limbs, Romeo assumed an earthy realism. Muntagirov has the immense and rare ability to emote as a boy; we watched no ballet, no masque, but the progress to love and despair of a very real youth. Act I, for Romeo, is a fiend - yet no exertion was betrayed. Starting from boyish rapport with Mercutio and Benvolio, this Romeo's movements contained a yearning and hope. Both his solo variations were dispatched with the utmost ease - and upon spying Juliet, any awareness of the audience seemed to vanish as love unfurled, his ever attitude declaring: youth eternal - youth triumphant! Upon wandering the Paul Hamlyn hall in search of acquaintances during the first interval, I heard the wonderfully perceptive comment; "The whole audience are dancing with him, aren't they?" Reader, such was the convincing quality of his spell that I felt the statement deeply.

Aesthetically, Lamb is slight and girlish, enabling her to skitter along the stage in her first appearance in a manner most convincing of a young maiden. My past experiences with this dancer has conveyed the importance of her partner; with a natural poise that is sometimes perceived as slightly cold or unemotive, with the right partner, she blooms quite decadently. Muntagirov is such a catalyst, as is to be expected; Lamb is feminine and dreamy, not ardent and impulsive. It is natural that she would respond most becomingly in the arms of a Romeo embodying sincerity above all else. As evident in the stupendous balcony pas de deux, there can be no pairing in this run sweeter and as flush with first love as these two. 'Enraptured' is a term that ought not be used lightly - yet only upon the curtain's descending over the first Act did the audience seem to simultaneously, incandescently, exhale. 

Lamb individually has also grown exponentially. Her rejection of Nicol Edmond's Paris saw her come into her own; assertive, emotive and lined with a piercing quality I had not known her capable of. As she sat on the edge of her childhood bed, open and vulnerable to the world, sailing on the wings of the gritty Tchaikovsky score with an achingly potent combination of newfound steel and timidity that even Osipova cannot exude, we thought wildly of Juliet in that moment - here is a girl on the edge of something tremendous! 

Alas, it was only at the final tableau that the dreaded question that had thereto been impressively suppressed - what would Osipova have done? - bubbled to the fore. Such musings are inevitable in an audience so closely tied to the Russian's interests. The tragedy in the crypt wept for a sudden rush of impetuosity and blind grief that beckons the sacrifice of life. It was not to be. Lamb's outstanding feature is her sweetness and Muntagirov is a creature of day - the peculiar flush of adult sorrow lies further ahead this superlative artist's career, in the same way that he overflows with languid idealism as Lensky but should not yet attempt the complex Onegin. He is a prince amongst fairytales who has still more to learn of the human psychology. Romeo may have died in the tomb, but he died kindly, unobtrusively. It was the first and only sense in the entire performance that they were playing parts; thus, it stood out disconcertingly. Lamb too shunned wild outpourings of grief - but neither was her internalised resolution entirely convincing. That famous scream, when Juliet holds the still warm Romeo in her young arms, became a short broken cry and when she plunged the dagger into her abdomen, it was done with all the politeness of a schoolgirl - you wondered, in that moment, how such a docile creature could have been swept up in a tale of unshakeable passion. With the right nuance, perhaps within their next two performances, it may make for an evocative interpretation built on the same lines of youth - the purity of their enacted end embodying adolescents consumed and defeated by all too adult emotions - and indeed, their potential is bountiful. In spite of imperfections, the lasting impression of Lamb and Muntagirov is crystalline and unadulterated; a beauty so simple it almost appears unadorned but is in fact, in the lasting memory, the most heartfelt and tremendously moving kind. 

Across the company, there were equally engrossing performances. The Royal Ballet were deprived of Valentino Zucchetti's services for a large part of the previous season, and his return as Mercutio made that absence felt. Charming and dapper, thankfully without wandering too far into 'cheeky chappie' territory as most Mercutios are wont to do, he together with Hay were the fleetest and ablest of companions. Nimble and quick-footed, their sly disruptions to the Capulets were delightful to behold. Where Muntagirov excels in languor and finesse, Zucchetti ensures the trio remain tied to the heart of the company within the crowded marketplace scenes and his death at the hands of Tybalt was painful to watch in its excellent execution of human bravado and desperation.

Encompassing it all is the synergy between the company and Macmillan's most lauded creation. Though ostensibly remembered for its star-crossed lovers, Romeo & Juliet, in any medium, conveys profound messages of power and dignity. Upon this, we feasted royally; the haughtiness of the Capulet's masque, Christopher Saunders' prowling walk, Thiago Soares' mercurial Tybalt adding the effrontery so needed as the foil to the lovers' aching tenderness and the harlots' glee all served one purpose. It exemplified where the Royal Ballet most excel - not as mythical dryads, shades or even mindlessly jolly village folk. It is the study of human interaction, principally pride, that lends the production its appropriate gravitas, underscored by a Prokofiev orchestration that abandons lyricism for structure. In this, the company remains unrivalled.

Friday, 21 August 2015


One of my most unfailing friends in adolesence was a beautiful, sleek Yamaha upright; one that required a soft touch and had great aptitude for romantic repertoire. We bonded easily and became fast confidants; my first port in times of outrage and euphoria alike. I was never fond of following proscribed lessons; instead, I played what I pleased - sometimes Rachmaninov, perhaps Chopin, a sprinkling of Bendel, but always Debussy - and my friend always yielded without a note of reproach.

And to the present day. London has many distractions; but the greatest motivator (and source of stress) in recent years has been the quest for professional fulfilment. A legal degree was always a forerunner to a precursory  shadow who turns the corner always a pace or two ahead, of a quest whispering droll promises of metropolitan grandeur. I wrestle with the financial news, I undertake internships in glassy offices, I enjoy champagne parties in lounges suspended high above the City. Of those indulgences I have left by the wayside, I think (fleetingly): ah, the luxury of youthful fantasy! the exotic extravagance of musical ache! I believed, perhaps indolently, that such personal weaknesses are the mould of formative years and thus serve little purpose now. On one particular evening, goaded to play a few notes on a wondrously full-bodied grand during an ignoble reception, the droll beckoned and a jazzy, insincere but well received rendition of 'somewhere over the rainbow' was duly dispatched. There, was my smug thought, see - those years of tutelage are a means to the same end as well!

But the summer season has a disruptive quality. The City empties, universities wind down - the weather is even balmy. Forced to stay put by regretted commitments, I spend my days wandering listlessly and wishing for rain, disrupted every now and then by menial tasks, one of which is the arduous process of changing digs. Our new abode - an aesthetically pleasing and dignified townhouse conversion - has the added attribute of being near to St Pancras Station, a destination I often think of with  the greatest fondness; the building's colonnaded arches where the first thing I spied when, wide-eyed, the train arriving from Scotland terminated and we tumbled out coltishly into a new life. It was with the same sudden twist of nostalgia that, one warm evening, spurred by itching impulse, I walked  the small distance to the station, an hour before midnight.

A train had arrived just as I entered; people streamed past, some irate, some jovial, most wearied by travelling on a Friday eve. The shops lining the long corridors had closed for some time yet a few things remained; friendly round tables around which groups laughed, a perpetually open Starbucks and - most surprisingly - three pianos, lined just out of earshot of each other, facing north.

The first was empty when I approached, the black and yellowing keys friendly. Buoyed by a stab of loyalty, I chose to play. Yet, I found the first few notes embarrassing, like arthritic feet trying to remember a youthful jig. I heard phrases and melodies in my mind, but those dratted fingers that had fallen out of properly proficient practice - they refused to cooperate to the same accomplished level I had once been so securely capable. Aggrieved, I stopped after two stilted Mendelssohn pieces - only to notice three prone figures to my right. I turned to see three young men holding backpacks and listening with interest.

At once, I felt regretful, feeling the odd compulsion to explain myself. I was once much more proficient! I wanted to call. Apologetic, I raised my fingers to the keys once more - and they found, of their own accord, the low B flat octave that marked the beginning of the most treasured piece in my repertoire; a little known Debussy nocturne, a fearsomely complex piece I had not attempted in a year. That first silken octave note, no more than a low murmur, was transportive. At once, I was sixteen. Emboldened, I continued - it is an odd thing, muscle memory! My mind no longer held a perfect score, but the fingers continued unbidden. They knew, not only the notes, but the touch - the caress that is applied to the muted opening arpeggios, the interchange of phrase between passages. They needed no direction, no thought to mar a bittersweet reunion with a fickly abandoned friend. The body can sometimes identify needs more pertinently than the mind; something innate released at that moment, a breath after holding still underwater for so long. It was then I remembered dreams that are chased away by dawn - the feeling of painted wood beneath the very tips of the fingers, the medium of control snapping at anticipating wrists, the curl of the fourth and fifth digits. I mourned in penitence; how could I have left you so?

I continued to play for an hour or so as the last trains pulled in, occasionally stopping an eclectic crowd, some of who spoke to me: a businessman who, having missed his train, bought a sandwich and sat around the corner to listen; Chinese tourists who, awkwardly, pulled out their smartphones to film; a PhD student at the same university, on his way home for the weekend; a slightly inebriated but talented young businessman who insisted on playing the left hand to my right hand for the Pathetique sonata. Demonstrating the strange pull of music, some spoke of their own musical experiences, their affinity for certain composers; they wished to share, it seemed, to relate, to articulate certain feelings. But most memorable of all was a middle-aged, mullet bearing European migrant who, plopping on the bench next to me with an almighty groan, proceeded to pull out several very crumpled and smudged sheets papers, while listening to heavy rock blasting from his earphones. I paid him no heed at first, thinking he was rooting through his bag for some lost item. But after several pieces, and a return to the Debussy nocturne, he turned and said (in a thick, almost impenetrable, accent);

"That's Debussy, isn't it?"

I told him I was surprised he recognised the obscure piece.

"I like it," he said simply. "You play it particularly well."

It was only then that I realised that the extremely tattered pieces of paper he had been perusing was sheet music. I asked him if he wished to play.

"I come here often - I have no piano. I can wait."

And so he did. I finished fairly quickly after that, partly out of courtesy, and partly because it was now past midnight. We exchanged a few words - it transpired (or so I think, beneath that accent) he was a manual labourer of sorts, not having been in the country for very long.

He had deep lines on his countenance, but they softened when he played.