Orchestra of the age of enlightenment

To die for: Grange Park Opera’s Tristan & Isolde reviewed

There are a lot of corpses on stage at the end of Charles Edwards’s production of Tristan & Isolde for Grange Park Opera. At this stage in the drama, directors tend to fade out the bloodbath, the better to focus on Isolde’s final dissolution into bliss. But as Michael Tanner argues, Tristan, like the Ring, offers no bearable solution to its central problem, however much the music – that great deceiver – might try to persuade us otherwise. You want art to tell you the truth? Wagner knew that you can’t handle the truth. He declared that in Tristan ‘from the first to the last, love shall for once find

Perfect English songs in fresh new colours: Roderick Williams sings Butterworth

Another week, another online concert; and since orchestral music seems likely to be confined to screens and stereos for a while longer, one might as well try and experience something new. But not too new — I’ve pretty much had it up to here with the present. The Hallé orchestra is currently streaming a collection of Shropshire Lad songs by George Butterworth, conducted by Sir Mark Elder and sung by the baritone Roderick Williams in orchestral versions of his own creation. That seems ideal: music by the most perfect of English classical songwriters, in fresh and unfamiliar new colours. And time spent with an artist as likeable and intelligent as

Why orchestras are sounding better than ever under social-distancing

Our college choirmaster had a trick that he liked to deploy when he sensed that we were phoning it in. He ordered us out of the choirstalls and positioned us at random all over the chapel. It was sadistic but effective. With nowhere to hide, there could be no quiet fudging of that awkward leap in ‘O Thou the Central Orb’, and no waiting until after a more confident neighbour had begun their note before scooping hastily (and hopefully unnoticeably) upwards to match their pitch. Every singer became a reluctant soloist. The result was usually either mutiny, or an immediate and dramatic improvement in tone, tuning and ensemble. Apply that

An overcooked blowout

Think back to when you were 12, and the sensation of re-opening your favourite book. (This is The Spectator; I’m assuming you were all bookish 12-year-olds.) The Silver Chair, perhaps, or The Phoenix and the Carpet — some fantastic alternative world, anyway, filled with characters who felt like old friends. The lumbering iron giants, powered by fire and water. The scary-funny vegetable-monster. The terrifying but magnificent queen, and her eerie batsqueak of sexual-ity. And of course, the bit where pillows turn magically into birds and flit about the room. This new project from the designer/director team Barbe & Doucet initially feels like being pulled into one of those beloved classics.

Prima le parole

‘I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,’ wrote Stravinsky in one of his more honest moments, and when it comes to humour the old fox had a point. Strip away words, visuals, parody and extra-musical associations (the flatulent bassoon; the raspberry-blowing trumpet) and Orpheus, unaided, doesn’t have much left in his comic armoury. Two concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall could almost have been test cases. Geoffrey Paterson conducted the London Sinfonietta in the UK première of No. 50 (The Garden) by Richard Ayres, a composer whose playful, surreal sensibility cheerfully jettisons any idea of music as an end in itself.

Mirror, mirror…

We increasingly accept the collision between life and art. Whether we’re puzzling over the real identity of Elena Ferrante, choosing our own adventure in Bandersnatch, or boycotting the latest Polanski film, we’re buying into culture that’s more mirror than window. But wasn’t it ever thus? It’s a case Barbara Strozzi would certainly argue. The most-published Italian composer of her age, a musician whose work could stand alongside Cavalli, Rossi, even Monteverdi, was caught throughout her career in the double-bind of biography. You have only to look at her famous portrait — gazing insolently out at the viewer, breast bared — to see the erotics of performance at work. But whether

Salon Strauss

An opera without singers, a Strauss orchestra of just 16, and an early music ensemble playing Mahler: welcome to the Oxford Lieder Festival, where familiar repertoire is getting a reboot this year thanks to some brilliantly ambitious programming. When it comes to classical music, we’re used to living in a bifurcated world. On the one hand, you have the contemporary ensembles: the orchestras, choirs and quartets performing pretty much everything from Mozart onwards. And on the other the early music groups, whose territory is everything that’s left — Bach, Byrd, Hildegard of Bingen. It’s only fairly recently, and thanks to groups such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment,

Time to end authenticity

They say the first step towards recovery is admitting that you have a problem. So I’m staging an intervention and asking the BBC Proms to admit what they’ve known for some time: they have a big problem when it comes to early music. How to perform it, where to perform it, even who should perform it — these are all questions that, year after year, remain unsatisfactorily, inconsistently or superficially answered, and there’s little in this year’s programming to suggest that 2017 will be any different. Up until now the festival’s conversation about early music has been dominated by the red-herring question of venue. When the readers of Time Out

Death wish

Anyone who thinks they have experienced absolute boredom, or even doubts that such a state can exist, should go to Glyndebourne’s first offering of the season, Cavalli’s Hipermestra. The first two acts, played without any break, last for 130 minutes, the third for a mere hour. The audience broke into its normal rapturous applause at the end, no doubt to reassure itself that it still existed. This opera of the inordinately productive Cavalli has been revived only once since its first outing in 1658, and I can only hope that its present resurrection is temporary and its second death final. Arriving at Glyndebourne, we saw a couple of Arabian newlyweds

Bingeing on Bach

Coined in 1944, ‘completism’ is a modern term for a modern-day obsession. What began as a phenomenon of possession — whether of comic books, records or stamps — has evolved in the age of Spotify, Netflix and cloud computing. No activity defines current cultural trends better than binge-watching, completism taken to its logical extreme: art turned extreme sport. It’s an attitude that has found a natural home in the concert hall and opera house (what is Wagner’s Ring Cycle, after all, if not the original box set?) where length has long been fetishised and endurance accepted. But just as new media has changed the way we make art, so new

Saintly sins

They say that the devil gets all the best tunes, and on the basis of this week’s opera-going it would be hard to disagree. Performances by Cape Town Opera and Opera Rara turned their attention on two historical icons: South Africa’s anti-apartheid campaigner and president Nelson Mandela, and ancient Assyria’s murderous and would-be incestuous queen regent Semiramis. No prizes for guessing who came out on top. When it comes to art, evil takes it nearly every time. Who wouldn’t choose The Rake’s Progress over The Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Giovanni over Don Ottavio, sex over sanctity? For a good man, Nelson Mandela has inspired a lot of really, really bad art.

Welcome to Bedlam

Caius Gabriel Cibber’s statues of ‘Melancholy’ and ‘Raving Madness’, their eyes staring blindly into the void, petrified in torment, once posed on top of the gate to Bedlam. In 1739, when Handel’s dramatic oratorio Saul was first performed, you could pay a modest fee to pass beneath them and gawk at the living spectacles within, victims of ‘arbitrary passions’ including pride, lust and envy. In Barrie Kosky’s Glyndebourne staging of Saul, Cibber’s archetypes are animated and given voice by Christopher Purves as the king driven mad by ‘Envy! Eldest born of Hell!’ Saul was the second of Handel’s great studies of madness. But where Orlando (1733) proposes a cure, restoring

Orchestral infallibility

Watching the Berlin Philharmonic going into conclave to choose a successor to Simon Rattle — after countless hours of secret discussion they have chosen Kirill Petrenko — reminds one of little less than the election of a pope. In both cases the expectation is the same: the organisations are so iconic that they must continue into the future without a hitch and without question. Whatever sort of job they are doing, or have done, they have become too much a part of normal life to be abolished. Why is it that symphony orchestras of any standing are expected to survive indefinitely, where smaller musical organisations, though they may be just

Forget the Germans. It’s the French who made classical music what it is

The poor French. When we think of classical music, we always think of the Germans. It’s understandable. Instinctive. Ingrained. But unfair. We forget that most of the heavy lifting — most of the intrepid leaps forward in harmony, colour, rhythm and form — was done by the likes of Berlioz, Debussy and Boulez. The most completely forgotten of these Gallic explorers is Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), who died 250 years ago this year. His operatic output, begun when he was 50 and comprising 30 works, is an acquired taste. I remember the exact moment I fell for him. The exact notes in fact. It was the opening aria of his one-acter

Christopher Hogwood: the absolutist of early music

The death of Christopher Hogwood has deprived the world of the most successful exponent of early music there has ever been, or is ever likely to be. It has also reduced by one the quartet of conductors who have been called ‘the Class of ’73’, a term coined by Nick Wilson in a recent study of the early-music revolution of the 1970s and 80s. It refers to four groups that were founded in that year that are held to have changed the face of modern concert-giving: Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music; Trevor Pinnock and his English Concert; Andrew Parrott’s Taverner Choir; and my own Tallis Scholars. Of these