Town Hall, Leeds
Opera North's so-called "austerity Ring" continues to astonish, nowhere more so, perhaps, than with Siegfried, sometimes dubbed the cycle's scherzo, and the opera in which interpretative and directorial inspiration has a habit of faltering.
Opera North's approach – pared-down semi-stagings that place the emphasis on narrative clarity and psychological insight – proves effective here. Director-designer Peter Mumford wisely leaves us to imagine those scenes that never quite work in a full realisation, such as the shattering of Mime's anvil, or Siegfried's fight with the dragon. Video projections of bloody water, fire and stone underpin the shifting moods without intruding. And even though Mumford never leaps on any ideological bandwagon, the work's politics are very much there: when Michael Druiett's Wotan and Jo Pohlheim's Alberich wrangle at the entrance to Neidhölle, they look just like the pair of shady capitalists Wagner surely intended them to be.
As on previous occasions, the musical standards are high. Exciting as always, conductor Richard Farnes has a matchless understanding of the relationship between speed, detail and span in Wagner. His Siegfried, meanwhile, is Mati Turi, whose bullyboy characterisation might not be to everyone's taste, but who has both the voice and the stamina for the role – and, unlike some Siegfrieds, produces some wonderfully introverted soft singing in the Forest Murmurs.
Druiett's Wanderer, authoritative and sympathetic, makes the perfect foil for Pohlheim, whose Alberich, in a sensational company debut, is among the finest of recent years. There's also a perfectly judged Mime – cute yet irritating – from Richard Roberts.
But when Turi finally wakens Annalena Persson's Brünnhilde, she turns out to be squally in her upper register, which makes the final duet a bit anticlimactic after all that has gone before.
• What have you been to see lately? Tell us about it on Twitter using #GdnGig
Originally this LSO date was to have been conducted by Colin Davis, the ensemble's president and former long-term principal conductor, but following his death in April, it turned into a memorial tribute by the orchestra with which he was most closely associated over his long career. Violinist Nikolaj Znaider, due to perform the Mendelssohn concerto under Davis, became both soloist and director of the replacement piece, Mozart's Third Concerto.
While Znaider's solo playing was as measured and stylish as usual, his direction of the orchestra could have done with the perceptive eye for detail of a master Mozartian such as Davis. His later conducting of Brahms' funerary Nänie, which the London Symphony Chorus flooded with resplendent tone, also took a while to cohere before rising steadily in an increasingly grand arc.
Opening the programme and recalling Davis's commitment to teaching young musicians, brass players from the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School delivered a rousing account of Strauss's Festmusik der Stadt Wien under Patrick Harrild, its shining fanfares emphasising that the concert was as much celebration as memorial.
Davis's son, Joseph Wolfe, conducted a blazing interpretation of Berlioz's Corsair overture, in which the LSO strings were at their silkiest, notably representing the composer whose reputation Davis did more than anyone to raise to its current height; and a piercingly tender interpretation of Elgar's Sospiri, a work Davis wanted to conduct but never got around to.
Yet the item that left the greatest impression was Beethoven's Symphony No 8 – the piece that inspired the teenage Davis to take up music as a profession – which the LSO's leader, Gordan Nikolitch, directed with the odd nod and a wink while seated. It took off instantly, and remained exhilaratingly airborne throughout.
My friend Robert Schuck, who has died of a heart attack aged 58, was a polymath with a deep interest in philosophy and music.
Educated at St Paul's school, London, and St Peter's College, Oxford, in 1977 Bob won a prestigious Italian government music scholarship to the Accademia Musicale Chigianna in Siena. He went on to study the clarinet with Alan Hacker and performed in the UK premieres of works by Luciano Berio and Michael Finnissy, broadcast on the BBC.
Although he was an outstanding clarinettist, he changed direction when he developed breathing difficulties. He qualified in Alexander technique (and became head of Alexander technique at the junior school of the Guildhall school of music and drama), did a music BA at King's College London in 1996, trained as a teacher and in music technology, and taught and examined woodwind, piano and theory. After studying the piano with Peter Gellhorn, he became an accompanist and repetiteur, assisting Sir Charles Mackerras at the reopening of the Prague Estates theatre in 1991.
He sang in a choir at the Royal Opera House, played with the Great Western Railway Band, collected woodwind instruments and trained as a piano tuner. He was humble and modest; he called himself a "craftsman".
From 2010 onwards, he embarked on a project with the violinist Marianne Olyver, Postcards from Europe, dedicated to retrieving the music of the "lost" 20th-century composers who suffered war, exile and genocide. Together Bob and Marianne researched and performed rare works by Franz Schreker, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Erwin Schulhoff and Hans Gál.
Born in Hampstead, north London, to Jewish parents who had fled Prague in the 1930s, Robert grew up in a cultured, musical, multilingual environment. In many ways he was an outsider in conventional English life – he had to find exactly the right vocabulary, especially for abstract concepts, and had frequent run-ins with bureaucracy, especially educational. He was a displaced Mitteleuropean intellectual – and therein lay a great part of his charm.
He was an abstract thinker drawn to arcane philosophies, to alternative and holistic health systems. He studied Hebrew, the Kabbalah and Buddhism. He grew organic food. He helped organise Bates method workshops to improve eyesight, played for Rudolf Steiner Eurythmy performers, taught modal music using the Kodály system and worked in Gurdjieff groups for over 20 years. He struggled to cope with the compromise and cynicism that seemed – to him – part of English life.
"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible," he would say, "is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."
He is survived by his sister, Caroline, and a niece and nephew.
Aldeburgh festival Click here for our Audio slideshow
After Hamlet in Elsinore Castle and Tosca in Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo, we now have Benjamin Britten's best-known opera staged on the very beach where much of its action takes place. It was the composition of Peter Grimes that indelibly linked Britten's name with that of Aldeburgh, where he made his home for the remainder of his life, but until now the work had never been fully staged there; the town, indeed the whole county of Suffolk, has no hall large enough to accommodate it.
So in the year of Britten's centenary, the centrepiece of the Aldeburgh festival is its first ever production of Grimes, directed by Tim Albery on a set designed by Leslie Travers of dilapidated fishing boats and timbers built right at the water's edge on the town's shingle beach. The North Sea provides the backdrop to the performance, with the audience on temporary seating or sitting on the shingle itself.
It's a wonderfully potent setting for an opera whose every bar is permeated by the sea, and Albery stages it with immense skill, unobtrusively updating the action to the time of its composition during the second world war, with an opening fly-past by a 1944 Spitfire adding a bit more colour. Some elements in the story – Balstrode and Ned Keene helping Grimes land his boat in the first act, the villagers setting off to march to Grimes' hut in the second; Grimes setting off from the beach for the final time - acquire an extra layer of realism in such a visual context, and only occasionally does the the sheer scale of the staging blur the focus of the action more than in a theatre, putting a bit too much distance between the protagonists and the audience.
Small losses, though, and on the first night too there was just enough of a fresh breeze off the sea to keep everyone well wrapped up and the sense of a community engaged in a constant battle against the elements a very real one. Watching this Grimes on a balmy, windless summer evening, you felt, would never have seemed quite right.
The soloists inevitably are amplified, though realistically enough for the ear to quickly adjust, but with sand, salt and water being just about the worst things that musical instruments can encounter, the orchestra, conducted by Steuart Bedford was pre-recorded the previous week after the two concert performances of the opera that opened the festival. That wasn't always so satisfactory, a few details loomed far larger than they ever would in a live performance, but with Bedford conducting the singers from a small shelter at the front of the performing area, the ensemble between the live and recorded elements was astonishingly precise while the chorus too, recruited from Opera North and the Guildhall School and combining their unmiked live voices with pre-recordings, was hard to fault.
So too were the solo performances. Alan Oke seems to inhabit whatever role he plays with total assurance and credibility and his portrayal of Grimes is unambiguous: this is not the wronged outsider, a misunderstood dreamer, but an unremarkable-looking man profoundly at odds with himself, capable of terrifyingly violent mood swings. All the efforts of Giselle Allen's wonderfully sincere Ellen Orford to save him from himself seem doomed from the start, and Grimes needs no urging from David Kempster's Balstrode to sail out to sea and scuttle his boat in the final scene. The other characters make a marvellous gallery, from Gaynor Keeble's Auntie and Catherine Wyn-Rogers' Mrs Sedley to Charles Rice's Ned Keene and Robert Murray's Bob Boles; all human life really is there. It's a remarkable, and surely unrepeatable achievement.
Last week David Levene visited Aldeburgh to photograph rehearsals and preparations for the festival's ambitious staging of Britten's opera Peter Grimes on the beach where it is set.
Britten's final opera can seem a one-man show. The ageing writer Aschenbach is on stage almost throughout, has the lion's share of the singing and, in his reflections on art, is so clearly the voice of the ailing Britten that he cannot avoid being the focus of attention. Yet the glory of this unmissable ENO revival is that the honours are so obviously shared, and not even John Graham-Hall's remarkable Aschenbach manages to eclipse Edward Gardner's exemplary conducting, let alone Deborah Warner's compelling staging – worth the price of admission alone.
Warner has returned to stage her 2007 production, with Tom Pye's economical but fluid designs and Jean Kalman's atmospheric lighting combining to create an ever-changing set of memorable images, never more so than in the gondola scenes, for which Britten writes such simple yet sinister music. Kim Brandstrup's varied choreography, which centres on Sam Zaldivar's enigmatic Tadzio and gives the scenes on the beach their energy, is integral to the fluency of the whole conception, and Chloe Obolensky's belle époque costumes are pitch perfect without being overdone.
In an opera that is full of vignettes all deftly handled by Warner, Anna Dennis's strawberry seller and, in particular, Marcus Farnsworth's darkly menacing English clerk stand out. Tim Mead sings with honeyed allure as the Voice of Apollo, while Andrew Shore makes a wonderfully practised impact with each of his seven, highly distinctive character roles. Though there are no surtitles, one doesn't miss much.
In the end, Aschenbach obviously matters most. Some guardians of the Britten flame will find Graham-Hall insufficiently forbidding when compared with more obviously intellectual Aschenbachs, such as Peter Pears and Robert Tear, or Ian Bostridge in the 2007 performances, and he cannot summon their austere vocalism either. But Graham-Hall inhabits the role more convincingly than any of them. Aschenbach's disintegration is harrowingly believable, and Graham-Hall manages to sing the role with a refreshing naturalness that goes with his always fine acting. Death in Venice emerges anew, without some of the archness to which Britten and his librettists were so susceptible, yet with its rich layers of meaning fully intact.
• What have you been to see lately? Tell us about it on Twitter using #GdnReview
Linbury Studio, London
Acclaimed at its Los Angeles concert premiere in 2011, then at a Barbican concert performance in 2012 that led to it winning a Royal Philharmonic Society award, Gerald Barry's opera on Oscar Wilde's comedy receives its UK stage premiere in Ramin Gray's production. The result is an undoubted success, though perhaps an unlikely one, given the challenges of translating the verbal dexterity of its source into music.
In fact the piece triumphs because of its contradictions rather than despite them. Barry's word-setting frequently rides roughshod over the natural rhythmic stresses of the English language in a way that would fail him a music theory paper, but here emphasises the artificial thought-processes of Wilde's characters, as well as his own mannered treatment of them. Much of the musical material is childlike – if not childish – in its simplicity; yet the notorious sequence of 40 plates being smashed is an effect that loses none of its impact through being preposterously extended. Meanwhile, the orchestra – the Britten Sinfonia, crisply conducted by Tim Murray – occasionally takes off on excursions of its own that seem to have nothing to do with what precedes or succeeds them, detached from their dramatic context. Manically energetic, the result both subverts and celebrates Wilde's text, as well as the genre of opera.
With the ensemble on stage, a minimal use of props, and the characters in casual modern dress (though Alan Ewing's bass Lady Bracknell wears a matching gender-bending suit and tie), the staging highlights the gleefully absurdist approach of the score. The solo performances are uniformly strong, with Hilary Summers's majestic Miss Prism and Ida Falk Winland's stratospherically inclined Cecily outstanding among an excellent team.
Opera Holland Park, London; Snape Maltings, Suffolk
The prospect of Madama Butterfly may make you cringe, but a well-fashioned production can devastate. Every ounce of humanity at its worst is compressed into the opera's final minutes: betrayal, racism, sexism, suicide and, by today's standards, underage sex. These are only headlines. The full tale flickers with subtlety and shadows. Puccini is praised for tunes and sentiment. You don't hear so much about his sense of the zeitgeist, his canny grasp of psychology and the meticulous details of his musical invention.
When you experience Butterfly in the theatre, only the visceral impact matters. Opera Holland Park's new production packs a punch so hard it leaves you winded. Lavish theatricals, bigger names, a glossier orchestral finish, an absence of peacocks: all these needs can be satisfied in mainstream opera houses. Yet nothing guarantees the kind of emotional intensity found in this straightforward, well-sung staging, directed by Paul Higgins, designed by Neil Irish and conducted by Manlio Benzi.
Opera Holland Park's wide stage has been drawn in with plain, Japanese-style screens to suggest Butterfly's house. Apart from a sliding door at the rear, nothing in the set moves or changes. The look is traditional. Visual touchstones set the tone, from Pinkerton's American naval attire and Sharpless's three-piece suit to the stars and stripes draped to terrible effect – involving Butterfly's illegitimate child – just as the new world is about to behave ignobly towards the old.
The French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels, fragile but wiry in physique, powerful and communicative in voice, sang the title role. She looked striking in her white bridal kimono and moved gracefully, adorning the minimal designs. Her agitation in the orchestral intermezzo, as she waited for Pinkerton's ship to make its promised return, was almost unbearable. Joseph Wolverton relished his top notes and skilfully portrayed Pinkerton as the feckless dullard we know him to be. David Stephenson's Sharpless, well-intentioned but impatient, and Patricia Orr's Suzuki, fervent and troubled, led a strong cast.
Benzi and the City of London Sinfonia, even in this awkward, partly open-air acoustic, focused on the bold variety of Puccini's score. I must have heard the insistent drum beat as we head towards the final crisis many times. Never before has it sounded as menacing as here, as if continents were being split asunder. It's the kind of motif you expect to find in Shostakovich, depicting the advance of the Red Army and the destruction of Europe some half a century later. But this is Puccini in 1904, describing a broken heart.
The season had opened the previous week with Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci – Cav and Pag – that double dollop of bleak but tuneful Italian verismo which helped pave the way to Butterfly. The director Stephen Barlow had updated these 19th-century fin-de-siècle works to Sicily, 1944 and Calabria, 1974 respectively. Yannis Thavoris's sets used heaps of first wooden then blue plastic crates, hardly beautiful but giving a visual unity which was underlined by having Pag opening as if at the exact point where Cav left off – with a crowd surrounding a body.
This unevenly cast double bill had the bonus of Peter Auty pouring his soul out as Turiddu, then as Canio, paired with baritone Stephen Gadd as Alfio and Tonio. Auty's Vesti la giubba (On with the makeup), the famous tenor aria in which the smiling clown's tears sob through the falling lines of the music, floored this listener. The poor orchestra, conducted by Stuart Stratford, sounded cold. For that they had our empathy. But Julia Sporsén shone as the blowsy, kohl-eyed Nedda, who has offered her fading talents to every spiv and crook in small-town Calabria with tragic consequence. Her story is archetypal. She could have stepped out of the current plot line in Ambridge.
The 66th Aldeburgh festival – more of which next week – has its own cast of characters past and present, led by Britten, whose centenary falls this year. Another guiding light is the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, artistic director, with Colin Matthews as guest artistic associate. Bringing his European sensibilities to the programme, Aimard has ensured that the provincialism Britten himself dreaded has no place here. This may infuriate the locals but it reassures music-lovers in search of seriousness and quality.
Aimard delivered a spellbinding survey, Piano Century: 1913-2013, starting with two volatile Sarcasms by Prokofiev and ending with the mesmerising cloud trails of Ligeti's Automne à Varsovie, via Ives, Bartók, Marco Stroppa and George Benjamin. This marathon comprised more than two dozen works and 22 composers in all, each introduced by Aimard with flair and insight, and played dazzlingly.
Inevitably it all sounds a bit of a list, and really he needed several days rather than an exhausting three hours to make his points. Yet it remained fascinating as he demonstrated the hedonism of Debussy, the economy of Webern, the organisational powers of Stockhausen, the spectral colours of Tristan Murail and the layered, time-obsessed whirrs, ticks and tocks of Harrison Birtwistle's Harrison's Clocks No 2.
In unspoken elegy, the entirety felt like a homage to Elliott Carter (1908-2012) who died last November, and a legacy from whom supported this concert. Aimard played Carter's 90+, a quasi three-part invention, as well as Berceuse for Elliott by Colin Matthews, a simple lullaby rocking the much-loved centenarian towards eternity.
Cellist and Twitter composer Peter Gregson on the meeting ground between music and technology
Edinburgh-born Peter Gregson is a cellist, composer and founder of the Electric Creative Colab, a body that aims to foster collaborations between the arts and technology. Last year, working with composer and "sonic artist" Daniel Jones and the Britten Sinfonia, Gregson produced the Listening Machine, a piece of software that absorbed the tweets of 500 people around the country and turned it into a continuous stream of music. A debut album of acoustic and electric cello music, Terminal, was released in 2010. Later this year Gregson will start work on a new album and a film score.
You can compose music and you can code. Are the skills similar?
There is a similarity. You start with something you want to see exist, to enable. And there are many ways to achieve that, all sorts of nuances to consider, lots of aesthetic choices to make in order to keep the process going. It's not simple problem-solving. There are all sorts of rabbit holes down which you can get lost for days and days...
You've worked to tighten the links between technology and the arts. What are the difficulties you've encountered?
Coding is an amazing, elaborate art form in itself. Funding mechanisms don't reflect that. They don't value the coder as an integral part of the creative output. It's assumed that coding is a pre-production, first-stage hurdle that's got to be dealt with – then the art can happen. I don't see that as the case. We value our artists' time and pretentiousness – let them disappear into the woods to create – but don't do the same for coders.
Why is that?
With drag-and-drop website creation, or adverts saying "Turn any website into a mobile app – ta da!", people assume everything is that simple and easy and quick and then get surprised when it takes three months. When we were making the Listening Machine last year it took us six full weeks of writing algorithms before we could start writing the music. There was no instant jazz-hands moment. You can't shoehorn the arts into the technology world, and you can't shoehorn the technology world into the arts sector. They need to be acknowledged as equal partners.
What were you trying to demonstrate with the Listening Machine?
I wanted to hear what a day sounded like. Dan and I took it from there. Twitter is dynamic, it's evolutionary, conversations evolve, they've got a pulse to them. You can visualise that – but what if you could listen to that dynamism evolve? We thought music had the capacity to do that.
Is technology making music easier to learn?
There's so much nuance and physicality to music – it's a human thing. I'm fortunate to work with some of the top people in these fields [of music-teaching technology] and I'm yet to see anything that does anything. Cello bows with accelerometers and gyrometers attached... The idea being that you make a piece of kit that for a couple of thousand dollars will teach someone how to hold a bow, play a bow, learn how to do good bow changing. I'm sitting there, and nobody else seemed to have seen the elephant in the room – that this cello bow, with all this stuff fitted on it, bore no relation to a real cello bow. As a professional cellist I was able to accommodate it. But the point that tool would be useful would be when you're four or five. And this thing was heavy. There's software that listens to what you play [and judges it] by looking for pitch tracking, but you can trick these things very easily. You can play with horrifically bad technique and make it think that you're doing it really well because it can only look out for a certain number of things. It's nowhere near as sophisticated as a person sitting looking at a pupil playing the violin. It's entirely possible – I've tried it – to make this technology think you're playing a beautiful scale but by using a piece of fruit to play your cello instead of a finger. I used an orange.
Isn't it democratising?
I see the geographic benefits, if you happen to live in remote Saskatchewan. You shouldn't be disadvantaged. But I'm yet to see something that makes me think technology is a replacement. I don't think [an equivalent to] a computer game has the ability to inspire a child in the same way an enthusiastic, patient teacher can. If a computer game gets too difficult, you put it down. But in music that's the point when the real learning starts. The notion of software democratising musical education leaves me cold. I get cold feelings when I see: "Log on to our website and learn to play the violin."
There's a rush to teach kids to code. Do we risk musical training being ignored as technology education comes to the fore?
It will be interesting in 10 or 15 years when a digitally native generation is devising the curriculum. I'd be fascinated to see if something is taken out of the curriculum to replace it with coding skills. But if you ask me the hypothetical: if you were to teach coding or music, which would it be, I would absolutely say music.
It's a holistic thing. It's team-building. It's about sharing. The best thing about music education is simply that it teaches you to think and listen in a sensitive way, and not jump to conclusions in exchange for instant gratification. Real life doesn't give you 10 points when you cross a bridge. And that is a super-important thing. If we game-ify an art form, we risk losing its most valuable facets.
Peter Gregson will talk about the future of musicianship at the Saturday morning session of FutureFest
Invernizzi, Güra, Finley, Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien, Concentus Musicus Wien/Harnoncourt(Sony)
This live recording of an extraordinary event last year marked the bicentenary of Vienna's historic Society of the Friends of Music. Huge numbers of players and singers packed the stage of Vienna's famous Musikverein for Handel's oratorio Alexander's Feast, in Mozart's orchestration, further arranged for the original 1812 occasion by Ignaz Franz von Mosel. The veteran Nikolaus Harnoncourt musters his huge forces with continual expressiveness, the choral singing is splendid, especially in the great Chaconne, and among the soloists Gerald Finley stands out for his magnificently eloquent Revenge, Timotheus cries. In one chorus even the audience joins in – including me.
"InstantEncore made launching a mobile app seem effortless."