The Elixir Of Love | Myths And Rituals | Kiss Me, Kate | Mariinsky Orchestra | Don Giovanni
Each autumn, Scottish Opera heads for the highlands and islands with a stripped-down production – an orchestra of just five players – of a well-known repertory piece. This time, it’s Donizetti’s perennial favourite, in a PG Wodehouse-inspired production directed by Oliver Platt.
Our series continues with Germany’s second largest city – where Brahms and Mendelssohn were born, Telemann and Mahler worked and the Beatles came of age
This week’s stop on our tour of Europe’s great musical centres is the northern German city of Hamburg, the country’s second largest, the eighth biggest in the EU and – Wikipedia tells me – the second biggest port in Europe.
Wikipedia is less useful when it comes to music: the entry for Hamburg leads with the fact that the German premiere of Cats took place there 30 years ago. But the city is also the birthplace of Johannes Brahms and where the Beatles cut their teeth between 1960 and 62. It is also big in heavy metal and hip-hop.
It was Conrad’s gateway to the heart of darkness, HG Wells envisaged Martians on its misty shores. Now artists from around the world are exploring the mysteries of the Thames Estuary
As you head west from the mouth of the Thames Estuary into London, the distinctive shape of the giant quay cranes at the London Gateway Port dominate the horizon. They are situated close to Stanford-le-Hope, the village where Joseph Conrad was living when he began writing Heart of Darkness (1899). The novella opens with a description of the estuary as the launching place of England’s great ships, where Sir Francis Drake sailed past on the Golden Hind, which was full of treasure, capturing the imperial ambitions of the nation: “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.” Further upriver, Conrad witnessed the immense energies of the docks: seeing London on the horizon, the world capital of industry and investment. In his great collection of autobiographical essays The Mirror of the Sea (1906) he describes the lower reaches in equally vivid terms, “spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth”.
Conrad’s estuary was a gateway, both into London and out to the heart of darkness and beyond. The mysterious atmosphere of the place he captures so well is also evident in HG Wells’ classic science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, where he imagines crowds of people fleeing a Martian invasion along the misty shoreline of Foulness. As they wait for a vessel to take them out to sea and safety, a Martian appears in the estuary, “advancing along the muddy coast” – then another, and another, “all stalking seaward”.
Haltli/Arditti Quartet/Trondheim Soloists(ECM)
The thread connecting these works by two of Denmark’s leading contemporary composers, Hans Abrahamsen and Bent Sørensen, is the accordion playing of Frode Haltli. Three of the pieces here were composed for Haltli; the fourth, Sørensen’s charming Sigrid’s Lullaby, was originally a piano piece and transfers comfortably enough to accordion. In It is Pain Flowing Down Slowly on a White Wall, which Sørensen wrote in 2010, the accordion’s fund of memories, both from tangos and from a half-remembered song that flits through the music, are woven into the disintegrating textures of the strings of the Trondheim Soloists, while an offstage solo violin adds a further layer of mystery.
In Abrahamsen’s solo-accordion Air, song, or rather multiple songs, are in the forefront of the music. Enchanted bundles of melody are separated by halting chordal sequences that eventually peter out inconsequentially, while in the Three Little Nocturnes, the accordion threads its hesitant, fractured lines, sometimes wistful, sometimes manic, through clouds of the Arditti Quartet’s harmonics, until they finally reach the world of glassy reflections inhabited by so much of Abrahamsen’s finest music.
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Netopil(Supraphon)
The best opera composers use their orchestras to tell the emotional stories that words can’t or won’t. Janácek was a master of this, but he didn’t write many passages for orchestra alone and so various conductors and musicologists have pilfered bits from his operas to be played as instrumental suites in concert. Even then, it’s no easy task, given that his vocal lines are so intertwined with his instruments: Janácek rhythms, especially, are all about the contours of everyday speech. This disc contains three hefty suites compiled from the operas Jenufa, Katya Kabanová and Fate; they’re medleys of big themes and interludes in which vocal parts are sometimes replaced by instruments (a trumpet in Jaroslav Smolka’s Suite from Katya, for example) and which are played by the Prague orchestra under Tomáš Netopil with weighty carefulness. I missed the nimbleness and acerbic chatter of my favourite Janácek interpreter (Mackerras), but there is detail and richness in the playing that feels very much at home.
Related: The forgotten women who helped build Waterloo Bridge
London’s first Waterloo Bridge opened in 1817: grey Cornish granite with handsome Doric columns lining the thoroughfare for good measure. When its foundations became too shaky during the second world war, a specialist construction workforce, predominantly made up of women, erected the new reinforced concrete span and it’s this social history that inspired composer/sound artist Claudia Molitor to “open up a space for the listener to reconnect with this beautiful architectural structure”. The Singing Bridge is musical psychogeography more than anything and is probably best experienced the way it was intended – on a headset in situ overlooking the bridge as part of this month’s Totally Thames festival. But it’s also proving gently evocative in my kitchen, with its sensitively layered watery location recordings, traffic noises and wonky, finespun, industrial-ish prepared piano sounds by Molitor, plus contributions from poet SJ Fowler, folk band Stick in the Wheel and drum/synth duo AK/DK.
Oliveros, Olsen Storesund, Dillan, Storesund(Atterklang)
Related: A guide to Pauline Oliveros's music
One of the great recurring traits in the music of Pauline Oliveros – the 84-year-old accordionist/improviser who in the 80s invented a “deep listening” practice to spur us into “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing” – is how she’s always a friend to her audience, always aware of how and where and why we might get something from a piece of improvisation. She’s also a restlessly alert collaborator, and this release from Norwegian label Atterklang brings her together with some of Norway’s most adventurous youngish-generation improvisers: vocalist Lisa Dillan, bass player Øyvind Storesund and pianist Else Olsen Storesund. It’s an album all about plants, seven tracks named after seven northerly flowers, with a delicate Saxifraga Cotyledon (filmy, tentative), a creepy devil’s-bit scabious (barbed, nasal), a stoic arctic starflower primrose (gorgeously mulchy sounds from Øyvind Storesund). In Calluna Vulgaris – purple heather – Oliveros’s accordion makes a hardy centrifugal point to skittish textural stuff from the others, but elsewhere she’s the one who instigates the flightiest directions of play.
Misogynistic? Dramatically unconvincing? Not at all. The key to understanding the universal truths of Mozart’s opera lie in these very contrivances, writes the director of a new Covent Garden production
It was with The Marriage of Figaro, the first of Mozart’s three momentous Da Ponte operas, that I began my career as an opera director, six years ago at Augsburg theatre in southern Germany. And it’s to another of his Da Ponte operas that I turn for my first production for the Royal Opera House, Così fan Tutte.
For me, the great quality of the Da Ponte operas (Figaro, first performed in 1786, Don Giovanni in 1787, and Così in 1790) lies in their ability to show us how we really are – mercilessly and yet affectionately at the same time. In their characters we encounter our own human weaknesses and the challenges we face. They can make us freeze in horror, or collapse in laughter. “Piu docile sono” says the Countess at the close of Figaro – “I am wiser”. She has learned something about herself and about others – and we have learned with her.
The controversial director’s fable about a woman told to sleep with other men by her paralysed husband is a work of extreme emotions – and now it comes complete with an orchestra, a chorus and heart-rending arias
The first major opera based on a film by Lars von Trier is set to debut this week, but don’t look for the famously provocative Danish director – and noted opera lover – to have a hand in the work itself.
With Breaking the Waves, composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek have adapted von Trier’s bleak 1996 fable set in an insular Calvinist community on the coast of Scotland. The work that introduced the director to the world at large, and a modern arthouse classic, it establishes themes that became constants in his later films – religious piety and obsessive love endured by a suffering heroine.
Sukanya, a Hindu tale named after the sitar great’s wife and completed by their daughter Anoushka, will be semi-staged at Leicester’s Curve with the LPO
The world premiere of Ravi Shankar’s only opera will be presented next May in a production at Leicester’s Curve theatre. The world-famous musician, first to bring Indian music to a global audience, began work on the composition in the final few years of his life, leaving the project almost finished at his death in December 2012. Days before what was to be his final surgery, Shankar outlined his vision for the complete opera to his longtime collaborator David Murphy, who, with the help of Shankar’s daughter Anoushka has since brought the opera to fruition.
Related: Ravi Shankar obituary
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