JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
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I went along to the Barbican on Tuesday for the opening night of the Rattle/Berlin Sibelius cycle. My review is for The Independent and should be online there soon. I wanted to post it here before The London Residency comes to its close tomorrow...

Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon RattleBarbican, London, 10 January 2015
Jessica Duchen
The Barbican was heaving at the concrete seams as the Berliner Philharmoniker began its London residency, the promise of which has been engendering unprecedented heat. Divided between this hall and the Southbank Centre, it features Sir Simon Rattle at the helm of his German orchestra, widely termed the best in the world. The expectations of this orchestra are such that tickets for its Mahler Second Symphony at the weekend are rumoured to be changing hands for £200 a piece. Meanwhile Rattle’s mooted appointment as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra is still up in the air.
Opening their complete cycle of symphonies by Sibelius with the first two, Rattle and the Berliners proved at the peak of their powers: an orchestra of individual virtuosi playing as one, as if in supersized chamber music, with Rattle, conducting from memory, leading the way with an assurance that proved at every turn that the music is part of him and he of it.
Rattle has a long history with the Sibelius symphonies – he recorded them back in his years last century with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – and his interpretations have grown into something at once individual and universal. Here the progress of the composer's imaginative sophistication from the first to the second symphonies shone out: No.1, dating from 1900, aching in the shadow of Tchaikovsky; No.2 moving into new dramatic territories in which no step is safe, no illusion unquestioned, yet no lament unanswered by hope.
For some, Rattle’s interpretations might at first seem too rich, too warm; we imagine Sibelius as rugged and lonely, shivering through the Finnish winter. But his ability to pace the drama paid ample dividends: working in long lines and giant paragraphs, generating energy from small details that gradually rise to take over, striking just the right balance to cast new light over the precipices, the power of thought is made palpable with overwhelming intensity.
Above all, though, listening to this orchestra is an experience of astonishing sensuality, the aural equivalent of, for example, bathing in asses’ milk laced with rose petals while sipping the finest vintage Bordeaux and watching the Northern Lights at their most spectacular, topped by a meteor shower. If you thought an orchestra could not do that, be advised: it can.

This opulence of tone is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own, honed long ago under the baton of Herbert von Karajan; Rattle is in some ways åits custodian. But it is clear how much he will be leaving behind in Berlin when he departs, and equally clear what we would be missing if he does not ultimately accept that post with the LSO. Frankly we need Rattle here more than he needs us. If a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this is missed, if the UK’s only home-grown great maestro is allowed to slip through our fingers thanks to finance and mealy-mouthed politicians, it would be an act of criminal irresponsibility against the cultural life of the UK.
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Yesterday's bombshell about ENO arrived wrapped in rose-scented words just in time for Valentine's Day. Some people even fell for the good news story: £30m over two years from ACE, woo-hoo!

Oh dear. It turns out that this money is "special measures" (it's the original core funding that was in place anyway. plus £7m in transition funds, as we understand it). If the company doesn't shape up in a way that the Arts Council England approves, it could then lose all its government funding. And that, you could say, would probably mean tickets. The wrong sort of tickets.

The prospect of ENO vanishing from the planet is devastating for music lovers in London. Thinking of the finest operatic performances I've seen in the last few years, I'd have to point to many things that simply would not have taken place at Covent Garden. John Adams, Vaughan Williams, Terry Gilliam's Berliozes, Rosenkavalier staged by McVicar with Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, Sophie Bevan and Sir John Tomlinson, and that extraordinary, desperately underrated and undersold Martinu opera Julietta. Calixto Bieito. Peter Sellars. The list could go on. Not so much English National Opera, perhaps, as British International Opera. There have also been a few very big, very expensive mistakes - yet without a willingness to take risks, opera as an art form really would die. And London without all that adventure would be like...well, New York, without New York City Opera.

Which, of course, has gone. Operatic Manhattan now has only the Met. Comparisons are being drawn, even ones predicated as if this is not a bad thing. But it is a very bad thing. NYCO's closure appears to have been the result, as far as one can tell from here, of a gigantic f***-up and could conceivably have been avoided had things been handled differently earlier in the process.

Earlier in the process, as it happens, the ACE's chairman, Peter Bazalgette, was formerly the chairman of ENO. Since his move to the ACE, ENO has been targeted for bigger funding cuts than any other organisation still in the organisation's national 'portfolio'. According to the Guardian Bazalgette has reportedly not been participating in the ACE's discussions this week.

One hopes profoundly that in the two years' grace it's been so, er, kindly granted, the company can pull together and find means to survive. That what might look like cynical attempts to kill it off are not in fact that. That whatever's going on at the micro-level behind the scenes can be put to one side in favour of the macro-level bigger picture. That artistic vision can be respected on the one hand and financial prudence accepted on the other.

Since the resignation of the executive director, Henriette Götz, two weeks ago Anthony Whitworth-Jones, formerly of Glyndebourne and then Garsington, has been brought in to help. It is interesting to reflect that Glyndebourne and Garsington are both privately funded. JDCMB is a passionate believer in the principle of public funding for the arts, but if ENO has to be privatised, it would still be better than losing it altogether. Reduce it to middle-of-the-road potboiler productions - as some would like to - and there's really not much point having it at all; the good news is that neither Glyndebourne nor Garsington has ever resorted to that.

This looks to me like something one step from Shock Doctrine-style brinksmanship - it is certainly quacking like that particular duck - but let's keep fundamental ideas strong. This is a company with a big vision, a big theatre, an expensive art form and not a big budget under those circumstances. The ACE has got them over a barrel and something may have to give. Sacrifice real estate if necessary; find other pricing models and fundraising opportunities, by all means; but whatever happens, whoever leaves, don't jettison the principle of artistic vision that has kept ENO a truly international force. Let's keep ENO BIO.
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Sir Simon Rattle: only on his terms
Photo: c Sheila Rock/EMI Classics

Following a spectacular opening for his London Residency with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon has been speaking to BBC TV News. Yesterday, in an interview with the BBC's Will Gompertz, he declared: 
"I think it's clear that London and Munich are the two great cities in the world that don't have proper concert halls. The music lovers of London and of the country would deserve to have something where also the orchestras can flourish. 
"You have no idea how wonderful an orchestra like the London Symphony Orchestra can sound in a great concert hall. The Barbican is serviceable. But it's like when I've seen so many young violinists finally be handed a great violin - it's a whole other world."
He also drew a pertinent comparison between the general conditions and the generous rehearsal time he has with the Berliner Philharmoniker and the LSO's relentless schedule of performing and touring. 
"The kind of conditions a European orchestra has, which any orchestra would take for granted in Europe, are on the wildest edges of science fiction in our country, particularly in London. It's hard to explain to people just how hard and brutally these London orchestras work."
Will Gompertz asked him whether he was saying that if he can alter the conditions towards something a little closer to that of Berlin, then he would accept the LSO music director post, and if not, he wouldn't? 
"I think the conditions for the players are incredibly important," said Sir Simon, "because it's a matter of what actually people can achieve." 
Gompertz concluded that Rattle would come back to Britain - but only on his own terms. Which is pretty much what we thought. 
The sound of the Berlin orchestra in Sibelius's first two symphonies was so overwhelming, by the way, that I scarcely slept a wink that night. My review should be up at the Independent website soon.

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Quite a thrill from Amati today: the phenomenal Roby Lakatos, no less, is to give an exclusive performance in an intimate cabaret setting during the next Amati Exhibition, to be held at the Langham Hotel, on 29 March. Tickets are £24 and include a glass of bubbly. Please book SOON because numbers are strictly limited.

Please come over to The Amati Magazine for full details of how to book. See you there!
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Yes, he can. Rolando Villazon, that is. Sing. "Oui - c'est moi - je reviens," says Werther to Charlotte on his entry in act III. Yup, it's him, he's back - the Rolandoness is out in force: the truest of true tenors, fervent and full of personality and relishing his high notes. If we didn't know what he'd been through for the sake of that voice, would we have guessed during this performance? I don't believe so. Just a couple of very small moments of fuzzy intonation, but of course that can also happen to singers who've not been through anything at all. The tenor has to carry this opera all the way - and he did.

If 'Rolando' sounds like the name of one of those impossibly convoluted Handel opera plots (the one about the footballer?), Werther itself is anything but. On the train into town earlier, the doughty Tomcat asked me to tell him the story. I did. "Oh," he said. "Is that it?" It is. And Massenet lets it unfold at a ploddy andante for perhaps 85% of the time, starting off with children practising Christmas carols, only to reveal that it's July. Given the utter marvel that is Goethe, it's hard to see how anyone could have made quite such a clunky libretto out of it. But perhaps we shouldn't put any degree of naffness past the French bourgeoisie of the late 19th century.

At its best, Werther glows, shudders and engulfs. At its worst, you see exactly what Faure, Debussy and co were up against when they wanted to do something a little different. This score could almost be Tchaikovsky having a seriously bad day. Massenet's most original touches are in the orchestra - reserving the harp for Werther and, for Charlotte's big act III aria, an obbligato saxophone. Naturally, 'Pourquoi me reveiller?' never fails. Tony Pappano gave the whole evening what shape, momentum and sympathy he could.

Benoit Jacquot's production doesn't do very much to help, but for Charles Edwards' gorgeous lighting, suggesting low, slanting sunlight and long, long shadows. Poor old Albert (Audun Iversen) has no personality to begin with - the director could at least have given him some. There must be some reason that Charlotte's beloved mum wanted her to marry him, surely? And with these designs, it's certainly not his dress sense. This is not Iversen's fault - he has a lovely voice. The kiddies tried, but could do better - why oh why did Massenet have to risk wrecking the tragic end with out-of-tune yells of "Noel, Noel, Noel!" offstage? (At least it really is Christmas by now.) The two drunks (Darren Jeffrey and Stuart Patterson) are good fun and as Sophie - the one excuse for some livelier, scherzoid writing from Massenet - Eri Nakamura nearly stole the show. One to watch, there.

Sophie Koch is a strong-toned, suitably priggish and trapped Charlotte; and Villazon gives his all, though his acting did not entirely convince. He stood, gesticulated and delivered - and deliver he did - yet never inhabited the character as much as I longed for him to. The same production, when it was webcast from Paris via Medici TV - also with Sophie Koch, but starring Kaufmann as Werther - reduced me to a gibbering wreck in the comfort of my own study.

A pit star, though: concertmaster Peter Manning, whose personal and charismatic 'golden age' tone in his plentiful solos was simply fabulous; it lifted the whole sound onto another level whenever he had the chance. And speaking of solo violins, a final observation - Korngold appears to have pinched one of the music's sweeter effects, the off-beat violin echo in the act I love duet. If I remember right, it's in The Sea Hawk.

Here's a trailer from the ROH in which Pappano and Villazon talk about the show.
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Sergei Polunin, "Take Me to Church" by Hozier, Directed by David LaChapelle from David LaChapelle Studio on Vimeo.

It seems not so long since I went into a Royal Opera House interview room to meet a 21-year-old Russian soloist who'd been described to me, memorably, as a "sweet boy". Er, right...next thing I knew he was talking about hankering to be part of a gang, and showing me his tiger-scratch tattoos. His name was Sergei Polunin.

He had itchy feet, and not only to dance. Sure enough, a few months later he walked out on the company and went back to Russia. Since then he's rarely in the news without controversy attached. He's ambitious, hungry, eats up experience, eats up life and its dark side - and here, in this astonishing solo, he feeds on our souls as he shows us, perhaps, his own. His classical technique is impeccable, but it's the raw emotional power with which he invests this piece that makes this perhaps the essence of 21st-century ballet and marks him out as a dance artist whose journey has perhaps only just begun.

'Take me to Church' is a song by Hozier and the fabulous filming is by David La Chapelle. Many thanks to Graham Spicer, 'Gramilano', for posting a link to it on Twitter.

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Royal Opera House, 5 February 2015. ****
(This is my review for The Independent, now online here.)

Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta, with the chorus of ghost sailors
Photo: Clive Barda

Before the opening night of Der fliegende Holländer some of the Royal Opera House Orchestra had already taken a soaking; apparently the patch of on-stage sea for act III found its way into the pit at the dress rehearsal. But Tim Albery’s Olivier Award-nominated staging, first seen in 2009, is an immersive and immersing experience, pulling you into its depths even if you don’t get splashed en route.
Like many of the most interesting Wagner productions, it is not overloaded with activity, but homes in on human interaction, within elemental shapes; the basic concave shell could be a sail, a wave, a ship’s belly, or the slope of the shore’s hillside. Dark, stark and strong, it is impressively lit by David Finn, with intriguing angles, sometimes harsh, sometimes beautiful, usually symbolic. There seems no need to interpret to excess. Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman comes across not as psychosis, but a genuine love; at the end, instead of throwing herself into the sea, the poor girl seems to die of grief. The mini model ship, though, sometimes feels like a prop too far.
There are two ways, very broadly speaking, to treat this opera. It can emphasise the influence of its musical roots, including Italian bel canto, Weber and Marschner (his Der Vampyr); or it can look forward to the composer’s mature masterpieces. It can be gothic horror with high emotion and great tunes; or a dusky foreshadowing of the philosophical drives that Wagner brought to bear on the Ring cycle and its companions. This account is the latter in no uncertain terms: Albery’s atmospheric staging and Andris Nelsons’s spacious conducting combine into a seriously grown-up angle.
Bryn Terfel’s Dutchman is so strongly characterised that the doomed seaman’s entire history seems visible at his first entrance, weary and burdened, dragging the ship’s rope around his shoulders; vocally he paces himself finely, saving the strongest for last as the dramatic tension peaks. As Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka is simply magnificent, with a warm and radiant voice that melts in its lower register and cuts higher up, and the ability to inhabit the role to heartbreaking effect. The central pair are more than superbly supported by Peter Rose as Senta’s father, Daland; tenor Michael König is a lyrical Erik; and in smaller roles the contributions of Ed Lyon as the Steersman and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mary were outstanding. One of the night’s biggest plaudits, though, goes to the chorus: the terrifying clash of the locals and the ghost ship’s crew in act III packs a massive punch.
Some elements perhaps still need to settle a little; on this opening night it was hard not to wonder whether Nelsons’ drawn-out tempi challenged sustaining power too much. The overture dragged surprisingly – not aided by the hypnotic waves of grey curtain rolling from left to right – but Nelsons’ skill as an accompanist with forensic control of line and texture allows the singers to shine without shouting, to be supported without ever being drowned.

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'Stars' by VOCES8 from VOCES8 on Vimeo.

There's such a thing as beauty in music. Actually there are many different things such as beauty in music. You can find it in the darkest, most terrifying concepts from Wagner and Mahler, in the electronic eleventh dimensions of Boulez, in the ambivalent, sexy purity of Fauré - and in the music of the young Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds, an increasingly sought-after voice in the spheres of contemporary choral music. He is writing a big choral piece to feature in his fellow countryman Andris Nelsons's farewell concerts with the CBSO in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, in June, and we want to be there.

In the meantime, a gorgeous piece of his called 'Stars' features in a new album from the ace vocal ensemble Voces8, entitled Lux. They have made a rather exquisite snowy dancer video to go with it. The closing word of the piece is 'Majesty' and the film apparently aims to evoke the sense of this word through the celebration of the human form. It's above. Enjoy.

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I had a wonderful interview with Bryn Terfel last week and it is in today's Independent, here. Bryn sings the lead in Der fliegende Holländer at Covent Garden, opening tonight.

Here are a few bonus bits of the interview.

Bryn on...Andris Nelsons (who conducts the Wagner tonight):

"The first time I met him was in Birmingham - and then I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra had snapped him up. He’s married to Kristine Opolais,of course, which will only make him an even better conductor of singers – but he can sing! Goodness gracious, you should hear his voice. He's a stunning bass-baritone and he loves to sing from the pit- and he laughs and winks at you. From what I hear, the orchestra loves him as well. Isn’t that a great formula already? Who knows where he’ll go?"

Bryn on...his foundation to help student musicians:

"Whatever I do concertwise now, the money I get for that goes to the foundation. I need to work a little bit harder, maybe, on getting people to invest some of their money into the youth of my chosen career, so I’ve given some nmoney to young Welsh singers, I’ve given some mopney to a young accordionist who's doing really well at the moment, Ksenija Sidorova, I gave her a little foundation money – I’m sure that any student coming out of college would like some help. So that’s something for the future. In the next 10 years I’m going to home in on my foundation. I started it because I heard from students that they were coming out of university with debts and that made me think that maybe they need the money now, while they’re still in college. So the money I’ve given to students, they’re in college now, spending it. And there’s no stipulation about what they can spend it on – they can buy shoes, a car, a dress – and these are things you need as a performer. I’ll never forget Sir Geraint Evans telling me: 'Buy a new suit.' And he was right. Because that generation, thety’d come to rehearsal in a three-piece suit! I’ll never forget who I got money from. Capital Radio gave me £500 once. The Kathleen Ferrier Scholarship I won was £5000 and that was really important for extra coaching and extra language coaching."
Bryn on...the great pianists:
"I’ll never forget going to hear Martha Argerich play with the young Verbier Symphony, full of kids under 25 years old. I sat there with Peter Gelb and he said 'It’ll be brilliant tonight.' I can guess a pianist will be brilliant by the names, but to hear piano music being played I need to study a little more, I think, on the difference between brilliant and mediocre, because I think they’re all fantastic. And Peter said that at the end of Horowitz’s career he was his agent and filmed him playing in Moscow for the last time. He said they didn’t want to film him from the front of the audience, so he had the camera on Horowitz from behind - and looking through into the audience, all these Russian people were sobbing. But he said Horowitz had said to him: 'Only one pianist will take over what I’ve started, and it’s Argerich'. So I was about to listen to this woman – I listen to a lot of Horowitz anyway on Youtube - his White House soirées with presidents are recorded on video. So that was one of the most exciting evenings I’d ever had, having heard that story."
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The late Christopher Hogwood's collection included 26 beautiful historic keyboard instruments, all of which are to go under the auctioneer's hammer in Bath at the Gardiner Houlgate Auction Rooms on 12 March. We can't help loving the verbal idea of Gardiner auctioning off Hogwood's stuff, but are not sure whether they are indeed related to that Gardiner.

Brodmann grand piano, 1815
The collection features early instruments from harpsichords to fortepianos to dummy keyboards and an organ or two, and stretches all the way from 1650 to 1952. One of the star items is this Joseph Johann Brodmann fortepiano from Vienna of 1815 - prime Beethoven territory - thought to have belonged to Weber and once in the collection of the soprano Emmy Destinn. It is estimated at £22-28,000.

Hass clavichord, 1761
One of the priciest instruments is a clavichord by Johann Adolph Hass from Hamburg, 1761. On this instrument Hogwood recorded five albums including works by the Bach family, Handel and Mozart. Likely price is thought to be around £30-40000. There are also several clavichords made in the early 20th century by Arnold Dolmetsch.

You can explore the catalogue online here. Viewings by appointment.

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