Hampstead theatre; Royal Festival Hall; St Olave Hart Street London
Water seems very much in vogue in chamber opera these days. It gradually seeped across the broad deck of the Linbury stage at the Royal Opera's Heart of Darkness last year, and now it's unavoidable at English National Opera's daring new production of Jakob Lenz at Hampstead theatre. There's so much of the stuff sloshing around that new star director Sam Brown took his deserved ovation last week in a pair of stout wellies.
Brown presents his cast with the most difficult set imaginable – a marshy swamp with two dangerously deep pools, all surrounded by tall reeds and everywhere wet, dank, muddy and slippery – a desolate place that serves as a perfect physical representation of the mental condition of poor Jakob Lenz, the troubled 18th-century poet and playwright. His failed attempt to drown himself was witnessed by the pastor Johann Friedrich Oberlin, who tried in vain to care for Lenz as he descended into madness. Oberlin wrote an account of those weeks which Georg Büchner fashioned into a short story, which in turn became the basis for Michael Fröhling's libretto for Wolfgang Rihm's 1978 opera.
In narrative terms very little happens but this 75-minute production is utterly gripping, such is the quality of direction, the mesmerising set, the English translation by Richard Stokes and the central performance of the brilliant baritone Andrew Shore. He has an exhausting evening; Rihm's uncompromising score makes great demands on the character and Brown makes even more, having him constantly on the move around Annemarie Woods's treacherous set and plunging him from top to toe in foul brown river water four times. You fear for his health by the time the piece closes on Friday, but his performance is a triumph; an epic piece of characterisation. It would be cheap to say he totally immerses himself in the role but I'm going to say it anyway.
Solid support comes from bass Jonathan Best as Oberlin and tenor Richard Roberts as Christoph Kaufmann, Lenz's friend, here portrayed as periwigged prig who simply can't bear to get his buckled shoes wet. Some hope in this show. A chorus of six are, in turn, Oberlin's devout parishioners and Lenz's imagined, tormenting voices. Alex Ingram conducts members of the excellent ENO orchestra with assurance and care. There are three more performances this week: go, for a truly extraordinary experience.
At an age when most men think of slowing down, Daniel Barenboim brought the Berlin Staatskapelle to the Festival Hall last week for his Bruckner project, conducting the monumental last three symphonies and playing a couple of Mozart piano concerti along the way – all from memory, all just months away from his 70th birthday.
On the first of three nights he played the Mozart C minor concerto, directing the orchestra with at times alarmingly extravagant gestures and playing what appeared to be his own improvised cadenzas. This was a supremely confident, relaxed reading of what must be Mozart's most beguiling concerto, its dark, brooding introduction so mysterious, the slow movement so sweet, the finale so playful. Barenboim chose a mischievous route through most of the piece, enjoying thematic banter with the orchestra's outstanding woodwind and trading sforzando punctuation marks with twinkling glee.
Pairing Mozart with Bruckner is a risky undertaking. Despite the programme notes trying to convince us that they both "combine a purity and serenity of vision", it's a tremendous gear change. Mozart is all elegant economy; no one would say that of Bruckner. Never mind, the length of the seventh symphony gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the fantastic sound that Barenboim draws from this orchestra, the depth of the string playing evident right from the opening cello and viola theme, the woodwind singing beatifically, the brass in full pomp.
And if there was a link between Mozart and Bruckner it was in Barenboim's expansive approach to both. He left his players plenty of room to enjoy their moments in the sun and, touchingly, shared his bouquet with them at the close as the audience roared its approval.
Why don't we hear more of Matthew Taylor's music? The Salieri Quartet gave us a tempting morsel at their lunchtime concert in the City of London last week when they played Taylor's Romanza, a movement from his sixth string quartet. They stormed through Malcolm Arnold's fabulously gritty second quartet, but it was the Taylor that stayed in the mind. Here is an original contemporary British composer saying new things within traditional forms; his quartets, concerti and symphonies deserve wider consideration, particularly the compelling second symphony, broadcast by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2009 but, criminally, not heard again. Encore, I say.
But praise be to the BBC for another action-packed Proms season this summer. Getting into the spirit of the Olympics, four British conductors will "pass the baton" on the first night: Martyn Brabbins, Mark Elder, Edward Gardner and Roger Norrington. Daniel Barenboim will be back with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, giving a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, culminating in the Ninth when the London Olympics open – the first time a non-BBC orchestra has been resident at the Proms. The Royal Opera will bring Berlioz's The Trojans; Glydebourne Figaro and John Adams will conduct his Nixon in China. Choral highlights include Elgar's Coronation Ode and The Apostles, Berlioz's Requiem, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Howells's Hymnus Paradisi, Handel's Judas Maccabaeus and Tippet's A Child of our Time. The season will see 17 new commissions, the biggest number in recent years, a further five world premieres and 14 other UK and London premieres.
Youth music gets a big platform this year with four youth orchestras from around the UK performing, as well as the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and Wales. Other UK and international youth ensembles include the Juilliard Orchestra and the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, created to bring together the best young performers from around the globe. The BBC Proms Youth Choir gives its inaugural performance, and – say cheese – Wallace and Gromit will be appearing with a new work commissioned from Wallace himself: My Concerto in Eee, lad.
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