We have lost an unforgettable teacher and one of Britain’s great critics

Tanner, the critic RICHARD BRATBY Michael Tanner (1935-2024), who died earlier this month, had such a vital mind and stood so far above the common run of music critics that it’s hard to believe he’s gone. For a philosopher to concern themself with the inner game of opera is not unknown (think of Friedrich Nietzsche and Roger Scruton). To do it as perceptively and as readably as Tanner is rarer. For two decades, starting in  1996, his weekly Spectator opera column offered as thorough and as stimulating an education in musical aesthetics as one could hope to receive; intellectual red meat served with forensic clarity and a mischievous, subversive smile.

On the evidence of their Siegfried, Regents Opera’s Ring will be well worth catching

It’s sometimes said that if Wagner were alive today he’d be making movies, but come on – really? A generation of Wagnerites has grown up for whom the first and definitive encounter with Der Ring des Nibelungen was on the small screen – in my case, the BBC’s early-eighties serialisation of the Bayreuth centenary production. What lingered was not the spectacle, but the intimacy: Donald McIntyre and Gwyneth Jones enveloped in darkness, reaching into each other’s souls. If you grew up with Wagner on TV and came of age, culturally speaking, around the time The Sopranos first aired, it seems obvious that the Ring isn’t some effects-laden Marvel blockbuster before

Irresistible: Hansel and Gretel, at the Royal Opera House, reviewed

Fun fact: Engelbert Humperdinck composed part of Wagner’s Parsifal. Shortly before the première, it was discovered that Wagner’s score didn’t allow time for a crucial scene change. The 27-year-old Humperdinck, then working as Wagner’s assistant, composed a few temporary bars to cover the gap and, rather to his own surprise, found that they met with the Master’s full approval: ‘Why not? It should work!’ It’s worth knowing partly because of the light it throws on the practical, collegial working methods of music’s favourite cartoon supervillain, and partly because it reaffirms the originality of Humperdinck’s own best-known opera, Hansel and Gretel. How many artists could have flown that close to Wagner’s

The Wagner uprising has left Putin isolated

Both Vladimir Putin and the mercenary Wagner Group have been dramatically weakened by yesterday’s attempted coup. Wagner’s nominal leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, goes into exile while his group will no doubt lose its privileged status. Putin, meanwhile, has been publicly and massively humiliated, a dangerous position for an autocrat. Firstly, Putin’s famed security forces proved completely helpless during a mutiny. Secondly, the mutineers – whom he called ‘traitors’ and promised to severely punish – will go unpunished. Putin had to make major concessions to bring an end to the coup, although what those concessions include is not yet clear. What is clear is that he was unable to crush the most

This failed coup will be just the beginning

Yevgeny Prigozhin has just exposed the full extent of Vladimir Putin’s weakness. In less than 24 hours, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group made extraordinary progress – taking control of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, the headquarters of the Southern Miliary District, and posing the most serious challenge to Putin’s leadership. The president did not look all-powerful, but unable to control Prigozhin as he said his 25,000 troops were willing to march on Moscow. Back on 9 May, when Prigozhin’s challenge to Vladimir Putin first became evident, I argued in The Spectator against the idea that Putin was ‘in charge’ of the situation. My analysis was based on

Prigozhin leaves Rostov

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, has left Rostov-on-Don and ended the armed insurrection against Vladimir Putin. After one of the most extraordinary days in Russian history, he said he marched within 125 miles of Moscow but said he decided to go no further to avoid bloodshed. Putin, who had ordered his army to crush Prigozhin and imprison his men, has agreed to drop all charges. After a Belarus-brokered peace deal, Prigozhin will self-exile in Minsk, according to the Kremlin. Footage emerged showing him being bid farewell by cheering crowds in Rostov and winding down his window to greet them. A few hours earlier, he released the

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

Slippery slope

Longborough Festival Opera, refuge for British Wagnerians fleeing unidiomatic musical performances and idiotically irrelevant and insulting productions, has rounded off its Wagner canon with its first Der fliegende Holländer. Next year a new production of the Ring begins, so presumably the small stage is considered inappropriate for the three Wagner dramas with indispensably large choruses. Not that Holländer can do without a chorus in Act Three, and very impressive it is in this production by Thomas Guthrie, but we only saw the townsfolk, and I think the Dutchman’s crew was pre-recorded, though perfectly synchronised. The conducting was, as always, in the sure and inspired hands of Anthony Negus, and the

The history of music – at breakneck speed

From Ladybird’s The Story of Music (a dinky 50 pages, generously illustrated) to Richard Taruskin’s five-volume epic The Oxford History of Western Music, the history of classical music has been sliced and stretched in print to fit every possible length, format and agenda. Andrew Gant’s Five Straight Lines joins the cluster of works jostling and elbowing at the midpoint of these extremes. The Oxford-based academic (whose previous books on carols and hymns have introduced us to a genial, approachable narrator, with a welcome glint in his eye), shouts no provocative argument or USP from his cover, makes no novel claims for his survey. This is, quite simply, a narrative of

40 per cent sublime, 60 per cent ridiculous: ENO’s The Valkyrie reviewed

It’s the final scene of The Valkyrie and Wotan is wearing cords. They’re a sensible choice for a hard-working deity: practical but with a certain retro flair. Slumbering under a red puffer jacket lies his daughter Brünnhilde, and as Wagner’s music yearns and flickers, the Lord of Ravens shuffles slowly around on all fours, methodically attaching the carabiners for the climactic flying effect. First one, then another. Then another. Four more to go! Possibly we’re not meant to be seeing this. Possibly it was meant to be obscured by the ‘large final fire effect’ that a slip in the programme tells us has been cut (‘despite extensive planning’) at the


Five books Penguin will have to ban along with Jordan Peterson

This year Jordan Peterson, the cult Canadian psychologist, meat-eater and lifestyle guru, will tentatively edge back into the public spotlight, after spending time reportedly recovering from drug addiction in Russia. Readers may be familiar with Peterson’s self-help guide 12 Rules for Life, which sold over three million copies worldwide and topped the bestseller lists. So you would imagine that with the sequel out in March, most publishers would be clamouring to be the ones to sell it. But it appears that Penguin Random House, which managed to snag the rights, is now having the opposite problem. According to Vice News, its Canadian employees are in uproar about the company carrying

Neither Tristan nor Isolde quite convinced: Glyndebourne’s Tristan und Isolde reviewed

Glyndebourne is nothing if not honest. ‘In response to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions our 2021 performances of Tristan und Isolde will be presented as a concert staging, after the 2003 production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff’, says the programme, and what we get is not a full production but a compromise imposed by the peculiar circumstances of August 2021. The London Philharmonic Orchestra huddles on stage. Behind them the back wall glows and fades in washes of blue and pink; in front, a stepped apron extends over the redundant orchestra pit. The singers slip on and off from the wings or, in a basic but effective trick of lighting design, appear to

Slanging match: rein GOLD, by Elfriede Jelinek, reviewed

I’ve tried hard to think of someone I dislike enough to recommend this novel* to, but have failed. Elfriede Jelinek is Austria’s leading contemporary literary figure, and to open rein GOLD at random is to get the impression that she is the successor to Thomas Bernhard — page after page without a single paragraph indentation, a general ranting tone, maddening repetitiveness, and cult status. Just in case Jelinek’s is an unfamiliar name: she is an extremely neurotic person, a sufferer from many phobias — unable to travel to collect her Nobel Prize; a copious writer, many of her books having been translated into English among other languages; and, most significantly,

Michael Tanner remembers the greatest musical experience of his life

No surprise: the greatest musical experience of my life was Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1962. I thought at the time that I would never again be so moved by a performance of anything. I have kept an open mind ever since, and still it takes me no time or effort to answer the question. Obviously I can’t discuss here why I regard Parsifal as a supreme work, but even if I thought that Wagner had written greater ones, or that some other master composer had — in fact, I do think there are several works by four composers that are as great as Parsifal, though at that altitude rankings and

Roger Scruton: My 2019

  January My 2018 ended with a hate storm, in response to my appointment as chair of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. But the new year brings a lull, and I hope and pray that the Grand Inquisitor enthroned by social media will find another target. February The 27th is my 75th birthday, and as it happens the last Wednesday meet of foxhounds for the season. We host the meet and celebrate with our neighbours. Despite my wife Sophie’s protests, I maintain my resolve to give up hunting at 75, counting again the broken bones, sprains and muscular disorders acquired over 35 years in the saddle, or, rather,

Golden threads

When it comes to the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Mark Twain probably put it as well as anyone: ‘Out of darkness and distance and mystery soft rich notes rose upon the stillness, and from his grave the dead magician began to weave his spells about his disciples and steep their souls in his enchantments.’ As at Bayreuth, so in Dalston. At the start of Julia Burbach’s production for Grimeborn, a man stumbles into a back  alley and, rummaging through discarded boxes, finds a pair of headphones. And there it is: that deep, eternal E flat. Don’t some people say they can hear an all-pervading global hum? Wagner’s world is

Ring without the bling

At Longborough Festival Opera, Richard Wagner is on the roof. Literally: his statue stands on top of the little pink opera house, surveying the Evenlode valley from beneath a stone beret. He’s not alone, mind. A figure of Mozart looks up indignantly. On the other side of the pediment stands Verdi, arms folded, glowering huffily at the floor. But Wagner is on top: a permanent reminder that this is the company that took on the greatest musical-dramatic challenge in the operatic universe, and in 2013 staged a full production of Der Ring des Nibelungen in a converted barn. And next week, they’re going to start all over again. The 2019

Ring leader

‘On Brünnhilde’s rock I drew the breath that called your name; so swift was my journey here.’ It’s Act Two of Götterdämmerung. Siegfried, entoiled in evil beyond his comprehension, has unwittingly committed the betrayal that will tip the whole vast drama into its final collapse, and at this point Covent Garden’s Ring cycle really does feel like it’s swept by in a breath. True, Keith Warner’s 2007 production is looking creaky. But there’s still no mightier assertion of an opera company’s ambition than to stage all four music-dramas of Der Ring des Nibelungen in the space of a week; and no artistic experience remotely comparable to witnessing it. So, about

The problem with Siegfried

There’s one big problem with Wagner’s Siegfried, and the clue’s in the name. None of Wagner’s mature works hangs so completely upon a single individual. The character himself isn’t really the issue either, however troublesome he might superficially appear (a ‘randy overgrown schoolboy’, if you believe the misguided programme note for this Usher Hall performance). As so often, confusion falls away once you assume that Wagner — who, after all, wasn’t a complete amateur — knew what he was doing, and take Siegfried as the life-force his creator intended. Someone’s still got to sing the damn role, though, and that’s an Olympian challenge. ‘Most people have never heard a really

The last radical

A spectre haunted the first weekend of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Debussy Festival: the spectre of Richard Wagner. Debussy’s relationship with Wagner began with infatuation, and ended (as so often) in open rebellion. The young decadent who declared Parsifal ‘one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music’ later ranted that ‘30 million Boches cannot destroy French thought’ even while, tormented by cancer, he laboured to complete three late sonatas of near-infinite subtlety and grace. But there’s always the sense, as Debussy put it as early as 1890, that ‘I don’t see what can be done beyond Tristan’. So there it was: