JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1751 Entries
Here's a gallery from last night's extraordinary opening of George Enescu's Oedipe at the Royal Opera House. It's not often that a "forgotten masterpiece" delivers its promise, but this one is a work apart.

Opening tableau. Photo: (c) Royal Opera House, by Clive Barda

Is there anything else like it? It's difficult to select anything other than partial comparisons. Its sound worlds travel from Debussian sinuousness to something between Grecian declamation and Schoenbergian sprechstimme at the climax; its intensity recalls that of Szymanowski's Krol Roger, which Covent Garden brought us last year, but there's little of that sensuality about Oedipe, which conquers us with powerful oration rather than seducing. Its harmonies and melodic blends are rooted in the scarlet earth of Romanian folk music; and its orchestration includes such a variety of creations that ring, glimmer, glow, hiss, slide and roar, used with a ceaseless wealth of invention by Enescu, that I don't know how they got them all in the pit - still, special plaudits must go to the virtuoso wind players who within this vast canvas function almost as a chamber group. The conductor Leo Hussain, when I interviewed him about this piece the other week, remarked that the final ten minutes are not only his favourite in this opera, but in any opera ever written. I can see and hear why.

Oedipus (Johan Reuter) meets the Sphinx (Marie-Nicole Lemieux). Photo: (c) Royal Opera House, by Clive Barda

To say that these roles stretch their singers would be almost laughable, since I can't recall hearing any baritone role that can even begin to match that of Oedipe. The opera has over two and a half hours of music and it is only in the first scene (when Oedipe is a baby) that Johan Reuter is not on stage at the centre of the action. And in the second half not only must he carry off the climactic scene after Oedipus blinds himself, but also the final redemption through Antigone's filial love, his self-acceptance and the recognition of innocence through lack of intent. It's a magnificent performance and Reuter is supported by a luxury cast: Sarah Connolly a regal and humane Jocaste, crumbling in agony as her infant is torn from her arms; Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the Sphinx - homed in a crashed WWII plane - has to make vocal sounds that even Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire never thought of. Sophie Bevan is a pure and devoted Antigone, Oedipe's favourite daughter, whose love saves him as much as anything else; and Sir John Tomlinson has the greatest power, the most terrifying presence and the most audible French diction of them all, as the prophet Tirésias. Splendid roles, too, for Alan Oke as the Shepherd and Claudia Huckle as Mérope, to name but a few.

Oedipus (Johan Reuter). Photo: (c) Royal Opera House, by Clive Barda
The production, originally from La Monnaie in Brussels, is by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, artistic directors of the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus - they will be back in the autumn to create a new production of Norma for the ROH. The red sludge element is apparently inspired by the devastating spillage in Hungary in 2010 - representing fate, for who can assert the existence of free will against chemical contamination? Yet it's not overstated; there are spectacular visual results, but one never feels bashed over the head with a "concept". It's an organic part of the opera's philosophical thrust, one that in the end belongs as much Enescu and his librettist Edmond Fleg as to Sophocles. The Sphinx asks not her original riddle that traces a human's life from four legs to two to three; instead, Fleg has her demand, "Who or what is greater than destiny?" The answer remains the same: mankind. We must transcend our fate and - red sludge apart - we can.
So the billion-pound question is: why is this opera not performed more often? Well, it's huge; people don't know it, so it's a risk; you need a world-class cast like this one; and perhaps it's simply that with a world premiere in 1936, when the world was on its way to hell, it was doomed to have to wait twenty years for resuscitation. And then there was the Iron Curtain to contend with. Enescu's musical language is organic to its own land much in the way that Bartók's is organic to Hungary, but it's one that was not enhanced by wide familiarity beyond; besides, come the 1950s, the dominance of serialism was squeezing out many alternative compositional approaches, which then remained underappreciated for several decades. In Romania Enescu is more than a national hero (I can scarcely believe the stats here for yesterday's preview piece), but blowing his trumpet abroad has never been easy. Perhaps that was the red sludge of fate. Or perhaps he was ahead of his time. Perhaps his time is now. 
Go and see this right away if you possibly can. Five more performances, ticket availability still quite good and prices not astronomical (you can get a very good seat for around £65 and top price is £85). All details and booking here.

Oedipus (Johan Reuter) walks away into the light. Photo: (c) Royal Opera House, by Clive Barda

4 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
George Enescu's only opera, his magnum opus Oedipe, opens at the ROH tonight for the first time ever. I adore Enescu and have a massive poster of him from the Enescu Festival in Bucharest above my piano. Wrote the following for the Indy...

Some figures in the artistic world seem to have enough talent to fuel four ordinary beings. One such is the utterly remarkable George Enescu: composer, pianist, violinist, conductor and teacher, assuredly the most celebrated musician ever to have come out of Romania. His life is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, riven with personal tragedy, closing in exile. And his opera Oedipe, which he considered his masterpiece, is only now to be staged for the first time at the Royal Opera House, 80 years after its world premiere.
Enescu was born in 1881 in a Romanian village named Liveni, which has since been renamed after him. Aged three he was captivated by the sound of the violin and the folk music of his native land. He soon emerged as a child prodigy and at the tender age of seven was sent to study music in Vienna. Later he headed for the Paris Conservatoire, where he became a composition pupil of Jules Massenet and subsequently Gabriel Fauré; his Romanian Poem was performed at Paris’s Concerts Colonne when he was 17.
At first he divided his time between Paris and Bucharest. In the latter, the young musician became a favourite of Queen Elisabeth of Romania in her guise as the poet and patron Carmen Sylva, and he set some of her poems to music. In the former, his violin students numbered such then-budding stars as Yehudi Menuhin, Ida Haendel, Ivry Gitlis and Arthur Grumiaux. Menuhin declared: “To me, Enescu is the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician, and the most powerful influence someone has ever had over me.”
Enescu. Photo: http://festivalenescu.ro/en/george-enescu/
As for influences on Enescu, these were exceptionally varied. He was fortunate enough to be born into a turbulent time in musical creativity; composers everywhere were seeking a new individuality, often to free themselves from the overwhelming impact of Wagner. This was especially true in Paris, where Fauré encouraged his pupils to find musical voices that were uniquely their own.
Enescu was no exception. His music bears hints of Wagner, but also of Debussy and of the distinctive harmonic and rhythmic language of Romanian folk music; and his technical mastery of his instruments led him to challenge his performers mightily in that department. His compositions, including the Romanian Rhapsodies, giant symphonies and some intense, startlingly original chamber music and piano works, pack a punch with their ceaseless flow of ideas.
His magnum opus, though, was Oedipe, his sole opera: an ambitious, larger-than-life musical canvas that follows the life of Oedipus from birth through the Theban tragedy to a transcendent final death scene. It incorporates myriad styles: melodrama-like declamation rubs shoulders with almost filmic scene painting and shimmering impressionistic effects akin to Debussy. There’s even one note on the musical saw, representing the death of the Sphinx.
So where has Oedipe been all our lives? And where was it all of Enescu’s? It was as early as 1910 that the composer, mesmerised by a performance of Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus in Paris, conceived the idea of basing an opera on it. The first performance, though, did not take place until 1936.
Leo Hussain, the British conductor who makes his Royal Opera House debut with the work, suggests that this long creation period was a complex affair. “Partly it was a difficult piece for him to write because he knew he wanted it to be his masterpiece,” he says. The orchestration took nine years to perfect. “I get the impression it was written very fast, but finished very slowly, with Enescu refining, adding, taking away, and obsessing about it. And he was also a very busy man!”
This multifaceted and sometimes turbulent opera is dedicated to the equally multifaceted and turbulent love of Enescu’s life: Maria, Princess Cantacuzino via her first marriage. Her tale is laden with suggestions of mental instability, infidelity and, following an affair with the philosopher Nae Ionescu, a suicide attempt in which she poured acid on her own face. She and Enescu married, after a lengthy on-off relationship, the year after Oedipe’s premiere.
Ultimately Enescu was caught up in the violent tides of the 20th century’s progress; this may account for Oedipe’s wider neglect, since a premiere in 1936 was hardly ideal timing with World War II imminent. He spent the war years in Romania, but in 1946 left for Paris to escape the new communist regime. After suffering a stroke while conducting in London in 1950, he lived thereafter in the French capital, where he died in 1955. The story goes that Maria had to prevent Romanian secret agents from kidnapping his body to take to Bucharest as part of the country’s heritage.
Now it is time to see whether this astonishing work can establish itself here. And with a tried and tested production by Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco of the Catalan company La Fura dels Baus, and an all-star cast including Johan Reuter, Sir John Tomlinson and Sarah Connolly, to name but a few, it should have its best possible chance. “It’s a hard-hitting story, a huge challenge and a great night in the theatre,” Hussian declares. “I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”

Oedipe, Royal Opera House, from 23 May. Box office: 020 7304 4000
UPDATE: I went to the opening night and here's what it was like.

4 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
Last Sunday I got up at 4am to travel to Stansted Airport on the far north-east opposite end of not-really-London, thence to fly on our beloved institution of Ryanair to a wet, chilly, Sunday-sleepy Austrian town full of images of its most famous son, one WA Mozart, to meet one of the world's most famous mezzo-sopranos and hear her sing the role of Maria in West Side Story (different from that august town's more usual Maria, on the Sound of Music hillsides), accompanied by the Simon Bolivár Orchestra and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel: a dazzling show, full of verve and passion, all about "juvenile delinquency" in 1950s New York, attended chiefly by those who could afford tickets that make Glyndebourne look a snip at £300 (top price for Meistersinger).

Cecilia Bartoli as Maria 1 © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

A long sentence, that. Nevertheless, there's something magic about Cecilia Bartoli. Every time she began to sing I found myself in tears, and not only because I was knackered. It's possible to pick holes, if you want to: her vibrato is large and fast, she was performing the role from the sidelines as Maria's older self (Bartoli is 50 this year, Maria is 16) looking back at her memories while a younger actress played 'Maria 2' and a certain amount of disbelief had to be suspended, not least because Tony - the otherwise excellent tenor Norman Reinhardt - was not similarly doubled and looked more like Maria 2's dad. Bartoli was therefore obliged to sing duets and ensemble numbers from far-distant parts of George Tsypin's vast, multilevel set and it is much to her credit and Dudamel's that this was pulled off with seamless ensemble. In the end, she has a knack for letting her sound strike us straight in the gut, as if her entire heart is given in the voice, and it grabs and twists you and wrings you out, no matter what your mind says. If you go to this show, do not wear mascara.

Predictably the whole thing has been panned elsewhere, but musically that judgment would seem unfair. Yes, it's miked. It's a musical; it's supposed to be miked. Someone complained that the words were unintelligible, but I could hear everything clear as day; the New York 1950s street-speak, though, is more than a little dated and may seem as Martian to today's youth as the 2016 equivalent does to those who share a ball-park vintage with Maria 1. Meanwhile, all plaudits to the magnificent Karen Olivo as a smoky-voiced Anita, electric physicality from the boys in striking new choreography by Liam Steel, and the Sharks girls who nearly stole the whole show with their sizzling "America".

The company on stage. © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

Above all, the white-hot orchestra was the star of the day - they can probably play that "Mambo" standing on their heads by now, as it's become almost a signature piece for them, but Bernstein's score deserves luxury treatment (one can't help cringing when hearing it delivered by a tiny pit band in West End standard mode): drafting them in was one of Bartoli's most inspired ideas. She is the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival - a short, Maytime relation of the giant summer shebang - and for Shakespeare anniversary year she filled it with works inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Incidentally, Norman Reinhardt is not related to Max Reinhardt, the summer festival's founder.

Verdict: moved to tears despite a flawed concept. But what's the real problem with that concept?

The director Philip Wm. McKinley came up with the notion of two Marias after wondering what becomes of Maria after the show ends. Unlike Shakespeare's Juliet, she does not die, but delivers a blistering speech over Tony's body that proves the futility of this cycle of violence that has taught her how to hate. Unfortunately, according to this reimagining, what happened next is that she went on working in the wedding dress shop, became its manager, never married, never stopped missing Tony - and now throws herself under a train, after which her soul and his are reunited in the Felsenreitschüle stratospheres.

Oh, come on! Maria is way too clever and spirited for that. Has she learned nothing from losing Tony? Of course she has. She has learned that hatred is terrible and life is short. Instead of mouldering away, would she not be spurred to devote herself to stopping the violence she could not prevent as a young girl?

She mourns Tony, of course. But let's remember, she's only known him for two days. She saves hard, works nights and sets up a youth support centre on the Upper West Side. She goes into gangland and recruits those affected by violence and trains them to work with their own communities to stop the killing. She cares for the frightened, lost youngsters as she would for her own children. She has quite a voice, and she learns how to inspire people with the power of her orations. She galvanises New York with her charisma and determination. She is elected mayor of New York City. And then she becomes the first woman president of the USA, long before Hillary Clinton. "Somewhere" can become her great, idealistic, political anthem. "We'll find a new way of living" is her campaign slogan.

That would be our Maria. That could be our Cecilia, if she were given a chance.

Bartoli interview to follow in due course.

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story

Today at 12 noon musicians from the European Union Youth Orchestra and colleagues from all over the place are getting together on the Festival Terrace outside the Royal Festival Hall to play Beethoven's Ode to Joy as a symbol of their support for a sustainable future for the EUYO and indeed the future of European culture and cooperation. All musicians are invited to come along and join in.

And around Europe musicians will be doing this same thing at the same time. You can find SaveEUYO gatherings at:

• Central Station, Brussels
• Plaza di Atocha, Madrid
• Erlebnis Europa, Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
• Museumsplatz, Vienna
• Frederiksborggade 11, Copenhagen
• Paris - flashmob, location tbc

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
The online music portal primephonic, for which I've been writing several reviews a month since January, asked me to write a piece about my life in music journalism et al, and are offering readers a special 20 per cent discount on the recordings I've reviewed and on all other recordings of these particular composers and artists. Their speciality is high-quality sound.

The 12 recordings concerned are all interesting and/or rewarding in their own ways, and for me the pick of the bunch is probably Gil Shaham playing the Bartók Second and Prokofiev First Violin Concertos. Plus I got a tremendous Austro-Hungarian high from Johann Strauss's Die Zigeunerbaron. Anyway, here you go: you'll find the discount code on the page. Valid from tomorrow until 5.30pm on 24 Mayhttp://www.primephonic.com/news-jessica-duchen-life-in-music-journalism-plus
5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
The Shed, if you haven't met it yet, is my book blog at Unbound attached to the rapidly approaching Ghost Variations. It's the place to go for extras: insights into my processes and the characters, Youtube of their real selves playing, appetite-whetting (I hope) and so on.

Publication is scheduled for 1 September, but there's still a great deal to do... All posts at the Shed are emailed automatically to all the book's supporters and currently you can dip in and take a look even if you're not a patron. Later, though, there will be bonus material accessible only to those who are buying the book.

Currently we're doing an A-Z of the book in clumps of several at a time. You can find them here:

A is for Adila, B is for Bartók, C is for Caesar. Includes recording of Adila Fachiri and Ethel Hobday playing some Hubay.

D is for the Depression, E is for Erik Palmstierna, F is for (Alexander) Fachiri. With recording of Jelly d'Arányi and Adila Fachiri playing the slow movement of a Spohr violin duo which is completely stunning.

I'm continually amazed and deeply moved by their recordings - Adila, though less celebrated generally, plays just as wonderfully as Jelly, though very different in personality. The qualities they share - their perfection of intonation, their intensity of concentration, their purity of tone - really must be heard to be believed. If Ghost Variations has a greater purpose than telling a remarkable musical tale, it is to help keep alive the memory of these exceptional musicians, inspiration to so many composers.

The novel-concerts in association with the book are going to be a treat, certainly for me, Dave and Viv and hopefully for you as well. The programme is stuffed full of music associated with Jelly, her family and her musical circles: Ravel, Bartók, Brahms arr. Joachim, Mendelssohn, Schumann of course, and possibly a piece by FS Kelly. We have:

St Mary's Perivale - 7 September
Music at 22 Mansfield Street (chez Boas) - 4 October
Kensington & Chelsea Music Society at Leighton House, London W11 - 18 October
Barnes Music Society - date tbc, but most likely November

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
Quite a party. Photo: http://horizonteentdecken.de
OK, so you make your stage debut in Wagner's longest opera, then you go along to the first night party and start doing a spot of jazz? Only if you're Jonas, and you are. Here's the report: http://horizonteentdecken.de/der-meistersinger-jonas-kaufmann-als-crooner/

Reviews from Munich, and tweets by critics who were there, suggest that we who are due to see this later in the year (I'm heading for the last night of the BSO Festival on 31 July) are in for a musical treat, and that the modern-dress production works really well, give or take a predictable boo or two.

There's a video showing extracts at the Bayerische Staatsoper's magazine site:

And let's have a quick fix of the preview:

Closer to home, Glyndebourne's revival of the David McVicar production is about to open, on Saturday, starring Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs. Details and booking here.

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
At the WIPO conference in Geneva I took the opportunity to interview the organisation's director general, Australian lawyer Francis Gurry, about the challenges creative artists of all types face in today's global digital content market. Galloping technological change, collapsing incomes and a hideous climate of violence facilitated by anonymity are just a few of them. I asked him what we could do - if anything - to help redress the balance. And I have to say that if the head of the World Intellectual Property Organisation says that artists need to be more vociferous about their rights, it's probably time indeed that they were.

The full interview is now online at The Arts Desk. http://www.theartsdesk.com/interviews/digital-demands-time-artists-speak

(Meanwhile I've been away in Salzburg and missed what sounded like a simply glorious evening at the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, won by the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Do have a read of this piece by Chi-Chi Nwanoku about him.

I'll catch up when I can, but am currently off sick.)

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
The Philharmonia goes virtual...
Self-confessed technology junkie Esa-Pekka Salonen has brought the benefits of his digital enthusiasms to his orchestra, the Philharmonia. Ahead of their new series devoted lock, stock and much flaming percussion to Stravinsky, I had a wonderful chat with him and with the Philharmonia's head of digital, Luke Ritchie, about the composer and how the orchestra has been using adventurous technological projects to attract new audiences, from virtual reality to a very lively website with a specially filmed documentary. Out now at the Independent. 

Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals is at the RFH from tomorrow.
5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
It's Fauré's birthday. A good few years after I wrote his biography for the Phaidon 20th-Century Composers series, I love him more than ever and would dearly love to start that book all over again. Not the most practical idea at the moment, so instead, here is his own piano roll recording of his Nocturne No.7 in C sharp minor.

While piano rolls do have their limitations, in this case it's the closest we can get to the real thing. He made this in 1910.

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
51 - 60  | prev 2345678910 next