Wigmore Hall, LondonThe Pavel Haas produced outstanding solos in Britten's Second String Quartet and soul-searching in Shostakovich
Though the genre may not be the first one associates with Benjamin Britten, his three canonical string quartets comprise a distinguished contribution to the medium. The Second, composed after the 1945 premiere of Peter Grimes had brought him national acclaim, was written as a homage to Purcell, and first performed at a Wigmore Hall concert commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Baroque composer's death. Its finale in particular – a chaconne (or in Britten's revival of Purcell's old English spelling, a "chacony") – came over with tremendous power in this commanding performance by the Pavel Haas Quartet.
In his substantial final movement, Britten offers outstanding solo opportunities to all four players, seized here by violinists Veronika Jarušková and Marek Zwiebel, together with violist Pavel Nikl and cellist Peter Jarušek. Throughout the first half, attention was paramount to the specific characteristics of the varied textures involved not only in the Britten but also in Schubert's Quartettsatz.
The Schubert was memorable, too, for its confident sense of impetus in the individual instigation of new musical ideas, and the expressive gestures were instantly taken up by the other players. The result always registered as a genuine ensemble initiative.
After the interval, pianist Daniil Trifonov joined the quartet for Shostakovich's Piano Quintet of 1940, whose substantial emotional range was unfolded on an aptly grand and rhetorical scale. Here Trifonov's brilliant tone was regularly matched by his colleagues, who also entered into the dark, soul-searching intimacies at the work's heart in an approach that brought the entire group's music-making into perfect alignment.
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Singer is working with playwright Daniel MacIvor to create his second opera, inspired by the 1951 novel Memoirs of Hadrian• In pictures: Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna in Manchester• Prima Donna – review
Rufus Wainwright is composing an opera based on the life of Emperor Hadrian. Working with actor, director and playwright Daniel MacIvor – who will write the libretto – the singer will premiere his second original production with Toronto's Canadian Opera Company in 2018.
"You've got everything," Wainwright and MacIvor told the Globe and Mail. "A big chorus, lots of characters, the Nile … a love story … a political story … all the elements of traditional grand opera." It's also a tragic same-sex romance: Hadrian's lover Antinous drowned during the peak of their love-affair.
"The mystery of why Hadrian's remarkable love for Antinous – underlined by his bottomless grief – has not been celebrated widely as a model of eros points to a fear of same-sex love that has changed little from his age to ours," MacIvor told Canadian broadcaster CBC. "The deeper I delve into Hadrian's world and his time, the more parallels I see to how we live today."
Wainwright began composing the opera several years ago; a version of the overture was one of the last things he played for his mother, Kate McGarrigle, before her death in January 2010. He was inspired by the 1951 novel Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar. But Wainwright was also intimidated by the emotional scale of the emperor's story. "I wasn't confident enough then in my abilities to navigate all the emotional possibilities the opera demands," he said. "I needed to try something else first." Instead of moving forward with his Roman tragedy, the singer wrote a lighter opera called Prima Donna, premiering it at the Manchester international festival.
"Unlike Rufus, who breathes it in and out like air … opera is not a form I'm familiar with," MacIvor admitted. But the 51-year-old is one of Canada's most celebrated playwrights and directors; he was introduced to Wainwright via Atom Egoyan.
For Wainwright, the most important goal is "to bring back some of that grandeur of opera of the past".
"I think in our modern world, among younger audiences especially, there's a hunger for a sort of spectacle that the opera world thinks is no longer relevant," he said.
Prima Donna was written in French, but the new opera's libretto will be sung in English, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Opera Company told the New York Times, "perhaps with a little Latin".
Best known for the defensive wall he built across the northern limit of Roman Britain, Hadrian was emperor for 21 years. He died of natural causes in AD138, aged 62.
• In pictures: Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna in Manchester• Prima Donna – review
Queen Elizabeth Hall, LondonThe Hungarian composer György Kurtág showed emphatically why the Royal Philharmonic Society bestowed its gold medal on him
A plaster bust of Beethoven gazed from a pedestal at the back of the stage, his expression registering gruff approval as at the end of this concert the 87-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág joined the few presented with the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society – the organisation renowned for, among other things, commissioning Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. At least two fellow honorees – Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Uchida – were in the audience, and at least one of them was whooping approval.
The rest of the audience was also on its feet, responding to a programme that had demonstrated in a nutshell what there is to love most about Kurtág's music: its imagination, its rigorous concision, its unassuming lightness of touch.
In the first half, violinist Hiromi Kikuchi played Hipartita, which Kurtág wrote for her a decade ago. She played from pages spread out across 12 music stands, so there were no page turns, but sometimes she stopped between movements to adjust her instrument, as if to emphasise that this was not just one monologue but a series of eight separate atmospheres.
Then Kurtág and his wife Márta, companions of 67 years, were together at the piano for a succession of his tiny solos and duets. The instrument, an upright with its muting pedal fixed down, was wired up to tall amplifiers, so it sounded as if we were eavesdropping, hiding behind the sofa in the Kurtágs' living room.
The pieces were mainly from Jatekok, or Games, a huge collection for students that is ongoing – one of them, a right-hand-only study of tenderly shifting chords, dedicated to Márta, was brand new. Some of Kurtág's duets interlace the players' hands so that one person must stretch across the other in a game of musical Twister; in this familiar embrace, husband and wife played them with beautiful understatement. They included some of Kurtág's duet transcriptions of Bach which, often underpinned by bass lines chuntering quietly at the extreme bottom of the keyboard, sounded affectionate, quirky and wholly delightful.
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A contemporary critic slated its 'nightmarish hangover style', but Bruckner's last completed symphony contains music of sheer, breathtaking magnificence
Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony is the last he would complete. He never lived to finish his Ninth (although he came agonisingly close to completing the finale, music that's still shamefully little heard in concert halls), so the Eighth is the summation of his symphonic journey. And what a summit the Eighth is! Bruckner himself said when he finished the work's gigantic, revelatory finale: "Hallelujah!… The Finale is the most significant movement of my life." Themes from all of the work's huge movements sound together at the end of the symphony, a moment that burns with what Robert Simpsons calls a "blazing calm". It's the end point of a 75-minute (well, up to 100-minute, if you're conductor Sergiu Celibidache…) symphonic journey, and it's one of the most existentially thrilling experiences a symphony has ever created. Bruckner's achievement is to make you feel, when you get there, that the whole experience of the piece is contained and transfigured in this crowning coming-together of symphonic space and time, and that the work's sublime darknesses - like the terrifying abysses of dissonance in the first movement, the kind of music that conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler described as Bruckner's "battle of demons" - and its equally transcendent light, like the climax of the slow movement, are simultaneously vindicated and vanquished by the sheer, breathtaking magnificence of this music, the last symphonic coda that Bruckner would ever compose.
But Bruckner's journey to the work's first performance, by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1892, was as tortuous as the music is (sometimes) serene. He finished a first version of the piece in 1887, and sent it to the conductor Hermann Levi, "my artistic father", who had already conducted the seventh symphony with huge success in Munich. Levi rejected the piece, saying it was basically unperformable; Bruckner was wounded, but returned to the piece to effectively recompose it over the next few years. And instead of the weak-minded naif who never got over people's criticism - as Bruckner is sometimes described - his revision amounts to a much deeper act of recomposition than simply answering Levi's concerns. The first movement ended in 1887 with a major-key triumph; in 1892, the audience heard instead music that winds down in minor-key desolation with a repeated, exhausted, death-rattle of a sigh in the violas. Bruckner himself wrote about this desperate moment, the only time in his life that he composed a symphonic first movement that didn't end with a fanfare of fortissimo power: "this is how it is when one is on his deathbed, and opposite hangs a clock, which, while his life comes to its end, beats on ever steadily: tick, tock, tick, tock". The other movements were also subtly but profoundly recalibrated; the effect is an intensification and sharpening of focus of Bruckner's musical ideas.
So all should have been set for the greatest night of his life at the premiere. And while the Musikverein was full of the great and good, including Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Johann Strauss, and with Bruckner's partisan supporters out in force, the naysayers were there as well. Brahms thought of Bruckner's works as "symphonic boa-constrictors", and the critic Eduard Hanslick - who left before the symphony's finale - wrote grudgingly, "In each of the four movements, especially the first and third, some interesting passages, flashes of genius, shine through - if only the rest of it was not there! It is not impossible that the future belongs to this nightmarish hangover style - a future we therefore do not envy!" Just as well he didn't stay till the end, Bruckner thought; he would only have become "even angrier".
Today, Bruckner's Eighth should still be controversial. This is a piece that is attempting something so extraordinary that if you're not prepared to encounter its expressive demons, or to be shocked and awed by the places Bruckner's imagination takes you, then you're missing out on the essential experience of the symphony. If you think of Bruckner only as a creator of symphonic cathedrals of mindful - or mindless, according to taste - spiritual contemplation, who wields huge chunks of musical material around like an orchestral stone mason with implacable, monumental perfection, then you won't hear the profoundly disturbing drama of what he's really up to. That unsettling darkness is sounded right at the start of this symphony. Instead of setting out on a journey in which the outcome is certain, in which everything is its rightful place in the symphonic, tonal, and structural universe, Bruckner builds his grandest symphonic edifice on musical quicksand. The Eighth starts with an unstable tremor of a semitone in the violas, cellos, and basses, which turns into a snaking, searching, chromatic collection of fragments. It's not so much a theme as a series of atomic musical explorations, and all of them in the wrong key. This is a symphony 'in' C minor, and yet in the early stages of the first movement, that home key is confirmed more by how much Bruckner avoids it instead of how much he inhabits it. You can describe the progress of this whole opening movement in terms of sonata forms and second and third themes and the other trainspotting jargon of the symphonic rulebook, but that scarcely relates to the experience of living inside this music, which is what you will feel happens when you hear it. One special moment to listen out for: the cataclysm at the centre of the movement that results in one of the emptiest, most desolate musical landscapes Bruckner, or anyone else, ever conceived: a single flute that somehow survives the onslaught to play a remnant of the orchestral tutti over tolling, funereal tattoos in the trumpets and chromatic sighs in the basses.
All of this intensity invites a search for meaning. Bruckner's music is open to our imaginations, and he even suggested possible interpretations himself for the symphony. In a letter to the conductor Felix Weingartner, he said that the scherzo, which comes second in this symphony (the first time Bruckner places the scherzo before the slow movement in a symphony) is a portrait of the figure of "German Michael", a bucolic rustic from German folk tradition. The somnolent, radiant, harp-haloed trio section of the scherzo depicts Michael dreaming, Bruckner says.
The opening of the finale is inspired by the Cossacks, as the Russians had recently visited the Austrian Emperor, to whom the Eighth is dedicated; this movement also features 'the death march and then (brass) transfiguration. Bruckner doesn't talk about the slow movement, but the adagio, the third movement, is the huge, generous heart of the symphony; a consoling, palpitating dream in D flat major whose opening is the closest Bruckner ever came to an evocation of the erotic; yet that bodily experience is transfigured into a blindingly radiant climax that seems to speak for the universe rather than mere individual figures.
Or maybe that's just me: you will make up your own mind, because the power of this piece can't be limited by any single interpretation, whether that's Bruckner's words, or the vision a particular conductor has of this symphony. But as you listen to that awe-inspiring but intimate, visionary but coherent finale - whose drama again can't be explicated by the crude pigeonholes of musical rules and regulations; instead, its "form" is phenomenological, something you just have to experience - I think you should hear the darkness as much as the "blazing calm" of the coda. It's in its acceptance of doubt, darkness, and despair that this symphony achieves its real glory. Bruckner's Eighth is an act of enormous empathetic consolation because it's unafraid to confront and to recognise sublime terror and darkness as well as light, Just like him when he wrote the piece, you need to feel engaged in that "battle of demons" when you're listening. Enjoy - if that's the right word!
Herbert von Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: radiant and glorious, but opulently terrifying too.
Wilhelm Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: protean, ever-changing, symphonic molten lava. Bruckner as daemonic inspiration instead of cosmic consolation.
Staatskapelle Dresden/Eugen Jochum: Jochum's idiosyncratic interpretation, with a remorselessly swift first movement, gives a unique shape to his performance.
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache: on the face of it, Celibidache's glacial speeds are borderline bonkers - the slow movement alone lasts more than 35 minutes! But is there a performance that makes you feel space and time are dissolving into each other in the coda of the finale as much as this one? Stick with it and see what you reckon.
Georg Tintnter/National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland (1887 version): Tintner makes the case for the original conception of the Eighth: not so much another version as another symphony.
Wigmore Hall, LondonSchiff's performance of Bach's 'French' Suites and Overture was immaculate – a masterclass in exemplary taste
The period performance revolution has driven the practice of performing Bach's keyboard works on the piano into a tight corner [pdf], albeit a densely populated one. It's not less popular than before, but there's an increasing sense that the anachronism of presenting harpsichord and clavichord music on today's gigantic half-tonne Steinways must be offset by artistry that is both unimpeachable and revelatory.
András Schiff's recital of Bach's "French" keyboard works – the French Suites and the French Overture – was certainly unimpeachable. With more than two hours of immaculate music making, each phrase perfectly balanced, each transfer of melodic impetus faultlessly highlighted, each note perfectly weighted, struck and released, every moment a masterclass in the exercise of exemplary taste. The character of each dance was always evident – the little hop-skip of the Anglaise in the third suite, the runaway scurries of the fourth suite's courante – but never over-emphasised, with Schiff's use of expression also pared to the minimum, finding outlet only in the slightest holding back during the repeats, and in the faintest warming of the melodic fragments that occasionally untwine themselves from the inner parts – Bach's little reminders, as it were, to the players and listeners in his drawing room that a divine musician still keeps watch above. Even in the much grander French Overture, the bravura elements were neutralised, almost as if Schiff was afraid of letting anything as unholy as virtuosity stain the music's virtuous progress.
Was the evening revelatory? Not in the sense that applies to some pianists, who squeeze the material in ways that reveals something new. But it was revelatory in a more literal sense, with Schiff more curator than creator, presenting ancient gemstones that have long outlived their settings and holding them briefly to the light, before neatly wrapping them in velvet and returning them to the appropriate drawer in the cabinet.
Education and arts leaders discuss the value of music within the current economically-charged debate on UK education
Music has found itself increasingly central in the subject controversy surrounding higher education. Recent data showed the total number of Ucas entries to study music rose by 3.5% in the 2013 cycle, following significant increases in applications for medical-related sciences, mathematical sciences, computer sciences, engineering and economics. Yet numbers of prospective higher education applicants who studied music A-level fell last year by 7%.
Many music educators speak of feeling marginalised, with their subject excluded from the Ebacc and noticeably absent from the Stem grouping (science, technology, engineering and maths) – absent too from the Russell Group's approved list of 'facilitating subjects' (ones that will "keep a wide range of degree courses and career options open to you").
The value of studying music in higher education in the context of the economically-charged narrative on education provided the background to a recent roundtable discussion held at the Royal Academy of Music and involving senior figures from higher education, sixth-form education and the arts industry.
All participants in the roundtable agreed that studying music at higher education equips students with a spectrum of transferable skills that are of inestimable value in the workplace, but equally that higher education institutions need to do more to avoid music students being, in the words of one contributor, "justified entirely by their relevancy to non-music spheres".
Music education and cultural value
Contributing under the Chatham House rule, which allows comments to be reported without attribution, panel members began by disagreeing over the relationship between music education and cultural value. "We are beginning to look at the question of music education from the other end of the telescope, not so much in terms of what happens during the period of education, but afterwards," said one contributor.
One speaker argued that the relationship between music education and cultural value was not necessarily a direct one. "Many of those who add cultural value to the country do so because there is value here already. Our cultural value is increased by a critical mass coming from all over the world that wants to be part of our scene. The role musical education plays in cultural value, or to put it crudely, what we are yielding in terms of the economy, is probably diminishing rather than increasing."
This comment was contested by another member of the panel, who cited the increasing numbers of foreign students studying music at UK institutions, and anecdotal evidence from those who claimed that paying more to study in the UK was worth it for the extra value they gained from being educated here. Another pointed to the legally binding commitments made by government to promote musical participation in 2011-12 and, more recently, the National Plan for Music.
However, others around the table did acknowledge that UK institutions lacked the political backing enjoyed by their European peers or the financial clout of America, "only just paying the bills on the back of a British muddle of fees, poor endowment and a scratchy targeted allocation of HE [higher education] funding," as one panellist put it.
Instrumental or intrinsic?
The discussion over what skills music graduates hold, both on academic or vocational courses, was noticeably more one-sided. High-end ability in collaboration, analysis, work ethic, empathy, innovation and performing well under pressure were cited by numerous contributors as those that were de rigueur in any decent music student.
"The qualities one would aspire for in a work-force suitable to meet the challenges of today's economy are all those found in a music graduate," noted one commentator. "We need to disband this myth that musicians are self-perpetuating and just create more musicians," added another – top city firms, accountancy organisations and computing companies as among those who favour music graduates as potential employees.
There was growing frustration among the panel concerning both the role of higher education institutions in promoting music and the continued justification of musical study from a non-musical perspective. "It's time for music departments to wake up and promote more clearly their value and benefits," said one contributor. "The value of HE music itself has been clouded by the panic over school music. We don't sell music at HE by saying it will make you more literate, or better at maths. It has an innate value."
"People in music know what highly skilled music students can do, and what music adds to the lives of people, but we keep saying society does not understand," added another. "Why? Either because we can't articulate our own value, or because we refuse to engage with society."
Despite general consensus as to the inherent cultural-economic value of musical study, there was considerable discontent around the table about its accessibility. One speaker commented on the decreasing number of music students at top institutions coming from backgrounds other than "music specialist schools, private schools and a few enlightened LEAs".
Another bemoaned the lack of clarity from government regarding ring-fenced money for music hubs beyond 2015, pointing out the risk of increased private outsourcing, patchy regional provision and, ultimately, a situation in which only those with financial clout can access musical training to a standard that will enable them to pursue it to higher education.
In this context, the facilitating subjects of Russell Group universities came under scathing criticism from some commentators, who argued that there was disagreement over their significance among leading universities, misunderstanding by schools and hijacking by government in the latest round of league tables. This, two speakers concurred, was directing first generation students away from music at higher education by disconnecting the subject from a perspective on higher education dominated by tuition fees and employability.
A general note of warning was sounded by one about the impending loss of students from postgraduate study in the next five years as a result of financial pressures, and all agreed that higher education departments needed to do more to articulate the value of music in a public forum.
"We need to reconnect music with the world of ideas," one panelist concluded. "We can rein people into music through linking the ideas, science, film and literature that surround the context of musical creation. We must not regress into isolation, but rather communicate the obvious value of music."
Harry White, music and education journalist, chair
Prof Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, principal, Royal Academy of Music
Norman Lebrecht, novelist and cultural commentator
Gillian Moore, head of classical music, Southbank Centre
Chris Walters, head of teacher development, Trinity College London
Clive Williamson, pianist and professor of music, University of Surrey
Helen Diffenthal, assistant principal, Farnborough Sixth Form College
Lucinda Rumsey, senior admissions tutor, Mansfield College, University of Oxford
Eleanor Gussman, head of LSO Discovery
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Callas is an icon as much as she is a singer
Maria! No wonder Google want a bit of Callas-stardust for their latest doodle: there is no other singer of the 20th century, in any genre, who better embodies the tragedy, glory, and high-camp glamour of what everyone wants an opera singer to be more than Maria. And she is still the singer who the vast majority of wannabe opera stars and starlets secretly want to emulate.
Everyone from Anna Netrebko to Katherine Jenkins wants to channel a piece of Maria - whether that's actually in having the vocal chops to back up the bling, like Netrebko, or being a vocally empty simulacrum, a parodic performance of the superficial glitz of the Callas image without, alas, a scintilla of the operatic talent.
Callas is an icon, just as much as she is a singer; Google's doodle of her is only the latest logical stage in the posthumous performance of her life and legacy. She may have died in 1977, but every time you call to mind the whole phenomenon of opera, and the emotional extremes it ought to induce in all of us, it's Callas's uncompromising, ultimately-vocal-chord-killing commitment to emotional truth and intensity that you bring to mind. Viva Maria!
Do you find opera tedious? Do bits of Shakespeare send you to sleep? Well, you're not alone. David Hare, Julian Barnes and John Eliot Gardiner talk to John Crace about the importance of being bored
There's no hiding it. I find some passages of Wagner insufferably tedious. Take Parsifal, just opened at the Royal Opera House. Some of the music is sublime, but other bits invariably have me nodding off. I really wouldn't mind if I never saw another Flower Maiden again. Same with Tristan and Isolde. The Liebestod, the final aria, would be one of my Desert Island Discs, but there are long stretches of act two I'd happily cut. Nor is it just Wagner. I've struggled through Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito several times, but its longueurs remain. Likewise Shakespeare. Never again will I put myself through an uncut five hours of Hamlet – and I find many scenes from The Tempest all too resistible.
These works rank among the finest operas and plays ever written. They have stood the test of time. So how come large chunks of them leave me cold? Is it possible that moments of boredom are one of the components that makes these works great? Or is it a failure of my own critical faculties as an audience member, a failure by the singers and actors, or a failure on the part of the composer or playwright?
The conductor John Eliot Gardiner suggests it could be any one of the three, but the audience should not be too quick to blame themselves. "It is the job of the composer and the musicians to carry the audience with them," he says. "The greatest musical dramatists – Monteverdi, Purcell, Rameau, Mozart post-Idomeneo, Berlioz, Verdi post-Don Carlo and Janác?ek – are the ones whose compositions sag least. And even then, you may have to make judicious cuts, unless you have the singer power.
"With Wagner, audiences tend to fall into two camps. Those who bow and scrape with reverence, and the sceptics who feel there's a great deal of flatulence. I'm a sceptic. Friends have told me Parsifal is one of the greatest operas, but every time I've tried to listen to it, I've fallen asleep. I feel the same way about Tristan, too."
This doesn't mean that the music shouldn't make demands on you, he adds. It's just that every bar should count. "No one should feel obliged to defer to a musician's reputation. Opera doesn't need to be indulged. There are many works I struggle with: Der Rosenkavalier being one. It just feels too long, and I find myself wondering why all this inventive music is going on. It's like being fed too much cream and dessert. It rapidly becomes indigestible."
Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who recently got rave reviews for her interpretation of Agnes in George Benjamin's Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House, reckons Wagner makes different demands on his audience. "With many composers, you have to meet the music halfway," she says. "For Wagner, I've learned to be more passive. To let the music wash over me. Wagner is something that is done to you. Sometimes my mind does wander, but that's part of the creative process. I'm listening, but I'm thinking about other stuff."
Hmm. That sounds suspiciously close to nodding off. Or at least making allowances. "I'm a very forgiving person," she laughs. "Wagner did get carried away with his own self-importance. He needed a better editor, but he just couldn't kill his darlings. So I forgive him for his extra 20 minutes. I like the fact it's not perfect.'
There are also some practicalities with Wagner. Flying Dutchman and Das Rheingold aside, you're not going to get out of the opera house in much under five hours. Getting to Parsifal in time for a 5pm start after a full day's work, is putting even the most committed Wagnerphile's concentration to the test. Wagner himself would probably be horrified by the idea. He saw Parsifal as a sacred work and expected audiences to prepare accordingly. Modern opera houses have to be commercially pragmatic: they can't afford to only put Wagner on at the weekend, so compromises have to be made.
Seldom with the music, though. Directors of plays make free and easy with the scalpel. Whether it's because they feel even a little of Fortinbras is too much of a good thing, or they just think three hours is about all an audience can manage, Hamlet is almost always heavily cut. Opera directors tend to be much more sparing, omitting the odd aria here and there, but performers and audiences generally expect a work in full. The conductor Robin Ticciati walked out of a series of performances at the Zurich Opera after the dramaturg insisted on cutting all the Mozart recitative. Even the boring (or, to be kinder, treacherous) passages tend to stay, with Wagner generally being the least cut of all. Partly because it's extremely hard to cut an opera that has been composed through – and partly, one suspects, out of reverence.
"An audience must have the confidence to admit that there are structural inadequacies in the great works," says Jude Kelly, artistic director of London's Southbank Centre. "We've all had moments when we've dozed off. But there is also a sense that the best art is like life. Some of it is a bit dull, but you need the boring parts to appreciate the climaxes. Reaching the end of a Wagner opera is like climbing a mountain: part of the achievement is in the struggle to get there."
Boredom in the arts can also be something of a moving target. "What bores us changes with age," says novelist Julian Barnes. "When I started listening to classical music, I found slow movements boring. Now they're the movements I most look forward to, while I can doze off during a jaunty presto. Like many others, I think one of the most boring passages of opera is enclosed within the sublimest of contexts: the mocking of Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier. If only they could cut the scene down to, say, 90 seconds.
"I don't find any of Wagner boring, but Meistersinger could lose an hour without much loss. In literature, Don Quixote is a great novel, and a great, great novel if you skip some of the repetition. Jocosity dates, and quickly becomes boring: chunks of the middle of Ulysses could go."
Is boredom, then, one of the risks associated with great art? Perhaps even integral to it? Playwright David Hare thinks there may be some truth in the notion: "Someone, and it's too long since I studied literature to remember who, argued that it is a mark of the greatest – ie Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Dante – that they have long unreadable passages. Because they achieve greatly, they also fail greatly. Their achievements are beyond the rest of us, but so are their misfires."
Hare believes art works by contrast. "A film producer will often say to me, 'Why can't we have another fabulous scene like the one in the cafe?" The answer is, 'The scene in the cafe is great only because of the way we arrive at it. If we had a second scene in the cafe, it would be less great.
"Take the two best films I have seen this year. It does take 20 minutes to adjust yourself to Clio Bernard's The Sleeping Giant. It has a deliberately roundabout strategy that draws you in slowly – and then rewards you so thrillingly that you forget it took a little time. On the other hand, Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips goes about things slap-bang entertaining from the off and is slap-bang involving to the end, without let-up. Who's to say one is better than the other?"
It is almost inconceivable that Wagner would have entertained the possibility that his work could be boring. Mozart certainly would have had the humility to do so. He wanted to entertain: he cut huge slices of Idomeneo on the eve of its premiere in Munich because he realised it wasn't working. Wagner, one suspects, would have been more likely to blame an audience for failing to share his vision.
Or maybe they do share his vision. The novelist and Wagnerphile Philip Hensher believes boredom is part of the vision. "Boredom is a sincere emotion in Wagner," he says. "The last act of Tristan is fantastically boring, a boredom only relieved by the wonder of the ending. I am a great fan of boredom. When you get used to the path of the boring bits, you start to miss them if they aren't included. Parts of Parsifal are meant to be purgative.
"We do need to be careful how we judge boredom, though. At the time Parsifal was composed, 1882, few people would have expected to have heard a Wagner opera in its entirety more than a couple of times in their life. There were no recordings, and performances were infrequent. So audiences didn't have the same opportunity to become familiar with the boring bits as we do now. Having said that, there are some people nowadays who leave the theatre after the third act of Götterdämmerung saying it seemed far too short."
Not me. Nor John Eliot Gardiner. "A musician should never undertake to perform a work he or she doesn't believe in completely," he says. "Which is why I've never conducted Wagner." But could he be tempted? "I never say never," he laughs. "But it would require a lot of self-questioning and study." Opera houses take note: this could be a Parsifal sceptics would pay good money to see.
Barbican, LondonMesmerising in the Schubert, the LSO were simply too loud for the singers in the Wagner
If ever there was a concert of two halves it was this one. At the start, Schubert's Unfinished symphony, the Ozymandias of the symphonic repertoire. Inscrutable, severe and contained, it was conducted with attentively sculpted cool by Daniel Harding, the orchestral sound restrained and rarely allowed to bloom or sing in the Viennese manner. A steadily grave tempo in the first movement became a little more yielding but still always fragile in the second, the London Symphony Orchestra at times achieving a mesmerising pianissimo stillness.
And then, after the stillness, frenzy. Wagner's Tristan und Isolde erupted into 19th-century musical history, and this concert performance of act two conveyed something of that revolutionary impact. There were several failings of execution, but absolutely no way of escaping the manic potency of a score that has all the wildness and extravagance the Schubert symphonic torso so carefully rejects.
And yet the Wagner did not really come off. The fundamental reason for this was that Harding let the LSO play too loudly. Because they are a great orchestra, the sound was thrilling. But the singers stood little chance in the face of the orchestral storms. It made for a powerful immediacy that was appropriately dramatic and elemental, but the relentlessness of the concert hall made it harder to focus on the deeper and darker interactions than in the theatre.
The LSO assembled an impressively strong international cast. Peter Seiffert's Tristan was splendid, singing with a consistent incisiveness and accuracy at the heart of the action that Iréne Theorin's Isolde could not match, exciting and weighty though she was. Christianne Stotijn's Brangäne was a more rounded and nuanced vocal portrayal, but it was the veteran Matti Salminen's nobly distressed King Marke who made the words tell more than anyone.
Royal Festival Hall, LondonWorks by Toru Takemitsu and Ligeti once again showed how 20th-century classical music didn't turn its back on the beautiful
One of the many beneficial effects of the Rest Is Noise festival, now entering its final weeks, is its undermining of the stubborn myth that musical modernism was entirely occupied making itchy-scratchy, plinkety-plonk music designed to batter its listeners into a state of submission. While 20th-century music, like all other arts, increasingly challenged and overturned traditional conceptions of the beautiful, that didn't mean that composers turned their back on it altogether.
That certainly wasn't the case for Toru Takemitsu, three of whose shimmering musical canvases formed the initial focus of this BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert. Green (November Steps III), Marginalia, and I Hear the Water Dreaming all take their cue from Debussy in assigning a structural role to orchestral colour. The musical ideas are introduced as "splashes" which ripple outwards into the texture, generating a momentum that ebbs and flows with an extraordinarily precise logic before tailing off in a wisp of vapour. Green was a particular joy to hear again, despite some sketchy playing from the strings, while in the performance of I Hear the Water Dreaming, the orchestra appearing almost to dance round the solo flute, superbly played by Adam Walker. A fourth work, the more boisterous San Francisco Polyphony, also came across well. The effectiveness of Takemitsu's techniques of blurring and smudging the music's surface were a real testament to Ilan Volkov's rigorous preparation and clarity in conducting.
The second half was given to Ligeti's violin concerto, with Ilya Gringolts making light work of the solo part and the (reduced) orchestra keeping step admirably with the strange stylistic and twists and turns, which at times resemble a kind of smoothed-over collage of gently colliding soundworlds. Considering Ligeti's increasing centrality to the story of postwar music, his music has been relatively under-represented during the year-long festival, so thank goodness it's done this well when it's done at all.
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