Thursday, 29 September 2016

And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents…

                                        When the oracle
(Thus by Apollo’s great divine seal’d up)
Shall the contents discover, something rare
Even then will rush to knowledge.
– Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale (III.i.18-27)

Sometimes you find music – or perhaps it finds you… – that rapidly develops an intense attraction, or a penetrating significance… and will not let go. It often comes out of the blue – although, in this (CD) case, the composers were familiar, and much loved (hence the disc’s acquisition); just not the individual pieces… – yet, bound “in chains of magic”, the melodies and harmonies immediately captivated me, melded with my soul. As did one of the most beautiful, unalloyed, expressive voices I have ever heard.

Such precipitous love at euphonious first bite is not an infrequent occurrence. However, typically, it will be a single work, or even just a single movement, that so grabs me. To light on a complete programme – one that is both “thought-provoking [and] infectious” – of such unfamiliar yet compulsive (and in this case, compulsively beautiful) music is a rare and fortuitous conjunction indeed. [And may go some way to explaining why this review takes as long to read as the music does to listen to. So why not grab the disc, and set it playing, whilst I walk you through this remarkable sequence of wonderments….]

The CD in question – a “Live performance recorded at the Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon on 29th May 2011” – is truly a marvel in and of itself. There is not a hint of audience interruption, nor even existence (until the surprising, and surprisingly subdued, final applause): not a cough, nor rustle of paper. This, I admit, is probably down to the engineers’ (Steve Swinden and Paul Arden-Taylor) magic; but I would also like to believe that it is because those present were so rapt (if not stunned) by the quality of both the music and its performance, that they simply did not breathe.

Those receive me, who quietly treat me…

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
– Shakespeare: The Tempest (III.ii.93-101)

The programme opens with Copland’s Quiet City – a tiny ten-minute miracle of orchestration: just cor anglais (Victoria Brawn), trumpet (Hugh Davies) and strings: almost the perfect Orchestra of the Swan combo (for yes, of course it is them…); and utilized so carefully and cleverly that the textures created draw you in and capture you like the most tantalizingly-spun web. You cannot resist.

I find it moving because I was the trumpeter in [Irwin Shaw’s original] play. The part was that of a kid wandering around New York, wanting to be a trumpet player like Bix Beiderbecke.

This is a nocturnal city suffused with translucent, never-quite-lifting dawn mist; and David Curtis and OOTS convey this impeccably (reminding me somewhat of Nielsen’s similarly evocative Helios Overture – even though that is written for a much larger, more dramatic, orchestral force) – taking me back (such is their power) to a solitary stroll through the centre of Chicago’s constructed canyons in the height of summer, on the way to catch one of the first trains of the day from Union Station, just as the sun’s light began to glisten from the windows of the tallest skyscrapers.

Copland was a city boy, born and raised in Brooklyn. His desire to speak for a larger America led him to compose music that convincingly portrayed settings outside his own experiences; the regional settings of Copland’s depictions include both city and country.

Hugh’s accented, hushed trumpet calls (ricocheting through empty streets) not only beckon us, but immediately inscribe the score with Copland’s signature. We may be in the built urban environment, but we are not far from the fields, streams and mountains of the same composer’s Appalachian Spring (which again harvests magic with only a handful of instruments). The music breathes (immediately inscribing the sound with David’s signature); and there are tender dynamics and interjections, conjuring a true spirit of place. (Such thoughtful intimacy truly is an OOTS trademark.) Victoria’s cor anglais so mimics the trumpet that the two ‘horns’ are almost interchangeable: both players are subtle as they make their exchanges, with the strings’ gentle support ebbing and flowing – albeit with occasional declamations that Shostakovich would have been proud of!

The sound builds gradually, though, and the opening section leads to a wonderful, almost bluesy (almost Porgy and Bessas rendered by Miles Davis) trumpet solo: “freely espressivo”, as Hugh temporarily parts the haze, and our gaze is drawn upwards to those mammoth, manmade blocks and spires.

The mood in the strings shifts slightly: as a calm, warming breeze feathers your upward-musing face. The trumpet’s and cor anglais’ conversation (mini fanfares, perhaps?) intensifies just a little; but a repeat of that tumbling brass solo leads to a lyrical passage in the violas and cellos that would be the envy of any contemporary English pastoral composer. This is, somehow, though, intensely American.

The violins and basses join in; the cor anglais sings through them; and those “mini fanfares” become the trumpet’s own: growing insistently until we reach a fortissimo, largamente climax – the strings now playing with all their gorgeous might: the textures, as they increasingly divide, growing richer and richer… until all that remains is a high, sustained, perfect piercing sigh from the trumpet (Hugh on magnificent form); the strings peeling away, below: the main theme mournfully fading, fading…

…until all we are left with now are the trumpet and cor anglais (again, such a wonderful choice of instruments: their tones, here, blending so seamlessly in a duet of friendship). I imagine David holding his finger to his lips, as the hushed strings, with beautiful control, fade from pp to ppp to pppp… – and yet the remaining violas, cellos and double-basses are still expected to steal away (their parts amazingly marked morendo…): which, of course, this being OOTS, they do perfectly, receding to naught – all whilst the trumpet repeats its opening muted call, distant, gently and ad libitum.

This is quietude beyond belief – and yet it has a real physical presence: as if it were cradling your soul, tenderly, gingerly. More hints of the opening – a pair of tiptoe pizzicatos from the strings – the cor anglais is left floating (to be joined by one half of the violas); and, once more, morendo, we are all alone in the friendly urban haze: stood stock still in awe.

From all the air enchants my eardrums…

The recording includes a performance of Barber’s Knoxville, a work about the power of memory, tinged with loss and great affection. In her essay on the work, April [Fredrick: the soloist, here] says: “A Death in the Family, by James Agee, for which ‘Knoxville’ was the opening essay, revolves around the death of James Agee’s father when he was six. Agee wrote frequently about his father, so much so, that his father’s death has been called ‘the pivot around which his life evolved’.
     “When Samuel Barber read ‘Knoxville’ he was struck firstly by the beauty of the text but also by the many similarities between his and Agee’s background. ‘The text’, he wrote to his uncle, ‘reminded me so much of summer evenings in West Chester, now very far away, and all of you are in it... I found out, after setting this, that Mr. Agee and I are the same age, and the year he described was 1915, when we were both five. You see, it expresses a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep...’.”
– SOMM Recordings: April Fredrick debut

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a work “for voice and orchestra” – and, because, again, of its minimal instrumentation, seems, even at first glance (and it is a beautiful score to simply stare at…), perfectly suited to the intimacy that OOTS so excel at. In many ways, it is the perfect complement to the Copland that precedes it: taking us away from dawn in the city centre to a late afternoon in the beautifully-neat, neatly-beautiful suburbs – specifically to the picket-fenced, smartly-trimmed sward of a particular home, on a particular date, untroubled by any external events (although not far away, in my mind, from the view of Christina Olson). It also, like Quiet City, begins with a Vaughan-Wiliamsish hush: as if the child (as so the conductor), “Her golden finger on her lip Wills silence” conspiringly, before beckoning you over, from your unwinding on the creaking deck, to hear the quiet description of the events which unfold before her. As with all such stories, it does not matter if this is real or imagined. For the child, the episode she recounts is as true, as solid, as the house itself.

Mine was a kindly, good upbringing, full of much love and happiness. But… I feel I have come to understand something quite intimate and fundamental, too, about Agee’s restlessness, his need to wander and return.
– April Fredrick (personal correspondence)

Sit her on your knee, or close, close by you – perhaps on the wooden steps down to that grand lawn – and do nothing but listen and understand; your chair still “rocking gently” as does the almost timid orchestral introduction. A warming bassoon solo from Phillip Brookes, interwoven with horn (David Garbutt) and clarinet (Sally Harrop), opens our ears and our eyes: you are that child, now: you see and hear as she does. And you realize her story has begun: as April’s pure, clear, celestial voice – infused with her “rural Wisconsin” upbringing; “the deeply Midwestern aspects of my being” – floats gently, gossamer-light, over the harp and strings. This melody is fresh – but, by some means, already familiar. It brings with it (as does that serene inflection) comfort and profound peace. And yet there is a hint of pleading: a desire for belief, perhaps; or a premonition of pain. (As Barber brought this beautiful music to life, his father’s health was failing; and this later chamber version is dedicated to his memory.) The flute (Diane Clark) – calling from the “birds’ hung havens” – reassures us, though; draws us deeper into enveloping nature. And the words – perhaps mundane when read, contextless – are given meaning: great meaning; greater depth; as David’s control of those subtle accompanists – letting each line also sing – begins to shape a realm of clarity and faith.

This is more lyrical (for want of a better word) than the Copland. (Barber himself was a wonderful singer; and understood exactly what was required to make the words – so meaningful to him – burst into musical life.) Time flows with the love of and for the child; and the instruments repeat and confirm her observations – David exploiting the work’s tenderness with real discernment and his habitual wisdom.

But it is that voice we must pay attention to – I want to say Heather Harper, such is the almost-mezzo evenness (even creaminess…): but this is Janet Baker as soprano… – painting pictures with each word, each note, each pertinent melisma. (April’s microscopic rubato and expression simply on the duplet of “quiet” is transcendent… – and captures in one word her persuasive, apparently guileless rendition: the enunciation of a rich sincerity. The technique is imperceptible. But the world she has brought you into – fingers compactly interlaced with yours – is as visible, as real, as anything ever has been; or could be.)

At figure 5, there is a sudden interjection from the strings. Other people are with us; and yet we are removed, separate – a world apart. The change of dynamic that accompanies this rises as a cooling breeze. The instruments seem to be chatting amongst themselves; and – for one moment – we are back in Copland’s cityscape (with hints of Gershwin, too). Our sphere is expanding to incorporate the sounds and movements around us; and April rejoins the conversation – yet describing, not partaking. She and the orchestra are a perfect match: the sound finely, remarkably balanced; yet there is more passion in her voice, now. Still clear and crystalline, she needs to be heard – especially when the pizzicato strings (little pointed demons) warn her, threaten her: “the bleak spark crackling and cursing above… like a small malignant spirit”.

The mood darkens – “Now is the night…” – as April soars above, gazing down, with affection, into the cosmos she inhabits. There are some wondrous, beautiful, sustained high notes – the pianissimo B‑flat of “one blue dew” remarkable in its subdued intensity. Seemingly without pausing for breath, she has the power to illustrate every syllable; to produce enlightenment with an individual sound.

Almost imperceptible strings – reminiscent, just, of that famous Adagio – set off on a short passage of similar extended tones, joined by woodwind and horns: the latter mournfully shadowing those dark words, as April’s storyline moves on once more. She is imparting her life in confidence. Any excitement is held back, though: there are only, yet, hints at the passions which lie beneath; the emotions which exist even in the kernel of such a small child.

This is music (as it must be) of the most personal kind (composed by a self-declared “small town kid”). Music from the heart, to the heart. And yet we are not intruding. We have been invited to share this vision. We are co-conspirators, if you will. In some ways, it is also music of precision. No note, no marking, no emphasis, is un-needed. But it is not sparse: just pellucid in its hints of atonality. It is music which suits David as much, of course, as it does OOTS. But it belongs to April. And her words are perfectly set, rhythmically: tiny jewels against a verdant backcloth.

What seems, therefore, like another rude interruption from the orchestra rapidly transforms into support: a growing fervour equalled, then surpassed, by that unalloyed voice… – which takes us from “lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night” high into the sky again. Her ardour is not quelled by the orchestra’s interrogations. She holds firm; and glides above them: a solitary white dove in the fading, shadowy firmament. There is lucidity and exactitude in that timbre; in the dynamics and articulation – but this does not mean the emotion has been quelled. Just the opposite. (A shattering realization.)

Now. Now I am an outsider. I feel sharply that I am intruding on the child’s innermost dreams and designs. This is music so intensely intimate that your perspective has been erased. Too late, you realize it is your soul that has been opened, exposed. Only such affect can explain the glorious pain; the tears flushing your face. You are, you were, that child. This is your story – a fragment of the universality of innocence that we all share… – and Barber digs keenly to its deepest foundations (using only the most delicate and sensuous of contrivances). He realizes his absolute ambition at the paramount Meno mosso at figure 22: “May God bless my people”. And April sings this with all the “intensity and deep feeling” that could ever exist in this world; as well as such piercing sadness. (Does this small child, troubled, even in her tiny corner of an infinite universe, already doubt that such a Being may exist? What has led her to this finite view…?)

I sing as one who does believe, but recognises that at the moment of the breaking of one’s world, in the crucible of grief and loss, even the strongest faith is pushed to the brink.
– April Fredrick (personal correspondence)

We may have remembered Barber for his way with strings and slow magic; but the ever-growing, pounding waves that now threaten to shatter our souls are as overwhelmingly glorious and heartrending as anything his contemporaries produced. (The nearest equivalent for me being the crushing climax of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.) His orchestral writing is at once beautiful, gentle, intelligent and penetrating – there are many liminal textures and lustrous filaments – something which is demonstrated perfectly at figure 24: where a radiant, almost pastoral – are we drifting away from those suburbs, now; or climbing higher, towards the stars…? – section (it is hard not to think of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, such is its power of invocation) emerges from the fortissimo turmoil, and leads us by the hand to the return of the main melody.

Close your eyes again; and almost touch the overwhelming presence of something ineffable. But just before you can grasp its significance, it fades. And then that regular warming rhythm from the harp (Sally Pryce) – Come prima, un poco mosso – that so entranced you at the beginning – returns. A heartbeat? The child’s heartbeat?

It is your heart: pulsing strongly with the compulsion to conclude the narrative before night (and its conceivable horror) falls heavily, and overwhelms. If, up to this moment, April’s confidence in you has been rewarded, is this the point at which her faith in humanity now wanes? Each note feels weighted with regret; mournful, almost – the orchestra reinforcing, emphasizing such complex sorrows. But April ascends once more. The zenith is all-too brief, though – “not now, not ever” – the fortissimo allargando collapsing, almost instantly crumbling, to a muted pianissimo, largamente, molto espressivo. Yet April remains above – stratospheric; resolutely quiet and sustained – before a gentle, comforting, waning modulation of the principal motif trembles from harp to oboe to horn, before finally passing beyond our knowledge. The woodwind climb to heaven, on angels’ breath.

Who is it that can tell me who I am?
– Shakespeare: King Lear (I.iv.134)

This is surely Barber’s masterpiece – and with an alluring, haunting melody at its heart that recurs both in the piece, and frequently in your mind, willingly, for many days after… – and should therefore be so much better known; more frequently played (especially as in this recording: such an honest, intelligent, compassionate reading from everyone involved – and infused with April’s individual experience and affection). I have to be candid, and say that I found it one of the most difficult musical works and renditions to review: not only because of its piercing beauty, but also the emotive reactions and sensations it continues to provoke in me. My habitual pile of scribbles took a long time to emerge: my pad, at first, left blank at the music’s undeniable impact. I had to stop, and take a long, deep breath of the fresh Warwickshire air… – such is its power.

You hear what I was trying to say, heard my heart as I sang… when I was pouring my whole heart, soul and craft into the intensity, honesty and lived reality of that moment.
– April Fredrick (personal correspondence)

I would so love to hear this performed live (but will have to wait until next March) – immersed in the electric thrill of that additional dimension… – and by these very forces: who obviously understand the work so much better than I. I fear, though, that my eyes would have to remain closed throughout; that, otherwise, I would be deprived of the child’s tender trust; or fail to grasp the direct connection which April creates, unhesitatingly, with the listener, as she shares her most personal thoughts, and hints at further mysteries. We lose so much beyond childhood. And this is where Barber’s power lies. He understood. His music tells us so.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
James Agee (1909‑1955)


All my people are larger bodies than mine…

If I had been there – and I so wish I had… – I would have needed the respite an interval provides after such intenseness: as I am sure would singer, conductor and orchestra…. But, in some small way, the first movement of Barber’s Capricorn Concerto (which is scored for flute (Diane Clark), oboe (Victoria Brawn), trumpet (Hugh Davies) and strings (leader, David Le Page): the same forces Bach uses for his second Brandenburg Concertosans solo violin) here serves a similar purpose. Its (somewhat atypical) introductory syncopation temporarily refreshes our hearts and minds: shaking us awake, and leading us back a little closer to our own realities….

Despite that rhythmically challenging opening – which has an air of unrest, with its dark tones and hushed pauses (obviously written with David in mind!) – it is not long before we are on our way back to Knoxville, and the world those exquisite harmonies so beautifully conjure. Victoria’s fluid, mournful oboe solo – each measure a different duration – merges with Diane’s flute, then Hugh’s trumpet, to produce a short passage of melodic interplay that is both intensely ravishing and disquieting. As the lower strings enter – the swaying bar-lengths gradually evolving and mutating – it is hard not to feel perturbed. There is no comfort here – yet. We are not allowed to settle, to acclimatize: the consequence being not just uncertainty, but a troubling malaise of musical vertigo.

This is resiliently original, intriguing and alluring writing. Buoyant violins … – there is now no foundation, no solid ground on which to plant your feet; no surety… – are joined by the three wind soloists for a fleeting flash of subdued passion. (All I could see, looking at the score for the first time, was how difficult this must be to conduct and to play. And yet, as the discord continues to develop, with a change of key and rhythm, at last a kind of serenity emerges: as if we are beginning to settle; to acclimatize to this contradictory swell of irresolution – our bodies now steadfast on the deck of the small boat rocked by Barber’s discomfiting, but not menacing, waves. And yet Captain Curtis holds the helm steadfastly: his collegiate crew working with him in perfect concord.)

The string passage which follows is supremely exquisite – rich inweaved tapestries of sound amplifying, broadening, climbing (even the basses – all parts now marked with a treble clef – leaping towards the upper reaches of their range). But when Diane, Victoria and Hugh re-enter, Allegro – David carefully, craftily, holding the orchestra back for one small intake of breath… – not only does the time signature finally solidify; but we emerge into a new world: and one, I think, that Bach himself would recognize.

Slightly manic patterns characterize the continual interplay between wind and string sections – a concerto grosso, mid-twentieth-century-style. (Tippett and Britten immediately spring to mind. Dumbarton Oaks, anyone?) There are some sensational clashes and exclamations, coupled with swift dynamic variety: and the music now sounds consequently argumentative. And yet those involved are true partners: continually interrupting each other; completing each other’s sentences – circling each other as they do so… – and yet impassioned, certain in their beliefs and statements. The instrumentation is light, clear, airy: contrapuntal moments interspersing the perpetual motion. For all that, this is no merry dance. Always, always, we feel that, at any instant, the whole fabric of this emotive conversation could collapse.

Leaving the wind behind, the upper strings swell with confidence – crescendo molto – and, as they reach fortissimo, the cellos and double-basses thump out a percussive, low motif, which settles – as the outburst subsides – to a quiet, repeated, then prolonged, low F‑sharp.

This is the cue for the flute and oboe to return: quietly chatting between themselves; asserting their supremacy above distant sustained footings. But such resolution cannot, will not last. And it doesn’t. Softly, but with staccato menace, fading and more hesitant, the strings have their last unsatisfied mutter. And we are back to the oboe’s first plangent melody – this time sung gently, insistently, by the trumpet (Hugh’s subtle tones so reminiscent of Copland’s Quiet City – which is, perhaps, where we have been all along?). The restless strings, never satisfied, join in – although now they are again supportive and sympathetic. A last call from that pianissimo clarion; and the sound fades to naught.

But there is a final onslaught! Six sudden fortissimo bars of the first page’s leaping rhythms: wind joined by strings. And now we really are done! Such a superb, ingenious, almost sparkling way to complete the movement… – and, despite all the previous argumentative unrest, you just have to smile (even after a third hearing)!

The second, middle, tiny gem of an Allegretto begins so lightly – Diane’s oboe and Hugh’s trumpet accompanied by pizzicato strings (first violas, then cellos) – that you may be lulled into thinking that you are listening to the modern equivalent of a minuet or scherzo (despite many more shifting measures). Of course, it is not long – molto meno mosso, tranquillo – before we enter the realm of that most famous Adagio again. But, as seemingly with every single stave of this incredible work, you can never be certain how long such a mood will hold; how sustained any section can or will be – and, although this is immensely, intensely lyrical writing (the strings almost sighing with sadness, before the oboe mourns – for lost love?), it lasts just ten bars before the opening sprightliness returns.

Barber, it seems, is not just the master of profound emotion; but also has a finely-tuned sense of the sardonic (much more subtle than, say, Shostakovich’s sarcasm-powered jackhammers); a dry wit – his deadpan delivery never intimating (certainly not giving away) exactly what he really means; what his next statement might be. Thus we return to the opening motifs – somehow a little restrained, maybe less joyous – and we fade out to the strings descending to ghostly cello pizzicatos.

By now, we should expect that each bar, each rhythmic figure will be different from the last. But for just how long, you ask, can Barber sustain such inventiveness? The answer, it seems, is in perpetuity!

The last movement opens with the trumpet and strings pretending to finally have agreed just what a concerto grosso really should look, sound, feel, taste and smell like… – but why do I feel that Copland’s Rodeo is just around the corner?! Instead, we get hints of Gershwin (again) and (again) of Stravinsky; then a cheeky bird-like flute solo from Diane (not that far from Beethoven’s rolling pastures; or Prokofiev’s forest clearing) – with even cheekier oboe interruptions from Victoria – over a pianissimo, sul ponticello rocking accompaniment.

But, again, this will not stay. The repeated rhythm builds and climbs to a sforzando repeat of the movement’s emphatic first bars. This time, though, it is the strings who lightly chunter away – the density always in a state of flux until the wind trio rejoin in the same style. Then… an almighty, swift crescendo. And moreover, just as abruptly – piano – the oboe and violins (exchanging confidences once more) appearing to set out from what must be base camp, on the first ascent of their attempt to conquer the work’s final summit. However, of course, it is anything but!

The opening bars return again. Yet more insistently: over a pedal bass. Surely, such a device signifies that this is it? No. (We really should know better by now!)

The oboe and flute instead take us for a gentle walk, accompanied by pizzicato strides in the cellos and basses – but we’ve not gone more than a few paces before a gentle descending melody in the violins causes those lower strings to rumble; to hint at something new… – all the while below impossibly-long Mozartian notes in the wind.

What follows is goose-bumpingly, breath-takingly astonishing. Over an Andante, un poco mosso undulating cello and bass figure, the wind play a simple legato trio that, on paper, looks as if it has emerged from the special pen Barber reserves for his most transcendental string writing. This is a prolonged moment of clarity, of yet more crystalline beauty… – but, even when the instrumental rôles are so reversed, all one can do is marvel at the man’s unfailing instinct. These two pages, I believe, are amongst the most radiant he composed. We are back – only momentarily; but it is enough – in Knoxville again: holding that small child’s hand; as tiny, impending, infrequent droplets of rain scintillate in the darkening air….

A pause. A David Curtis proprietary deep breath.

Those launching chords stamp out their reappearance. We are returned to the world of classicism hinted at in the movement’s opening bars. Order – of a sort – is restored. And we are – triumphantly – truly finished!

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken

This is an infernally complex work; and yet the precision required – paralleled with a need to keep the music flowing: as it continually changes course, halts for a while; then cascades, twists, and repeats… – as well as an ability to simultaneously render the most poignant of beauteous moments with sincere, often raw emotion – is never lacking from OOTS’ exceptional rendition. David’s control is flawless; the balance of these small forces never once out of kilter. Changes of tempi and volume are handled with apparent ease; and, despite – or possibly because of – the never-ceasing fluctuations of mood and dynamic, the orchestra produces something utterly tight and cohesive; and, hence – despite its many fleeting shadows (sometimes leading to despair; sometimes demonic irony) – we are left with expansive joy in our hearts.

This is also an exquisite work – at least the equal of many more famous and contemporary equivalents (say, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge…) – and David and OOTS not only meet its complex demands head-on, unfailingly; they demonstrate just why this wondrous rarity should be a more frequent component of any chamber orchestra’s repertoire. It is – to my mind – exhilarating and spine-tingling: both on the page and in performance. And it demonstrates (again) that Barber was amongst the greatest of composers: not afraid – unabashed, even – to negotiate his own courageous paths.

I do wonder if a lack of overt Americana – in this work, anyway (and when compared to Copland’s – and perhaps Gershwin’s… – frequent reliance on folk traditions and early jazz) – is at the root of such infrequency. However, surely such uniqueness should be relished…? All this enchanted writer can say is that Barber is obviously held – if these recordings are anything to go by (which I am sure they are) – in high esteem by these gifted players. And they demonstrate continuously, with a sure belief and rapport, why we should do so too.


A frailing of fire who breathes…

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall;
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour.
– Shakespeare: Twelfth Night (I.i.1-7)

The main programme ends with Copland’s Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson [pdf] – “arrangements for small orchestra” of two-thirds of an earlier song-cycle for soprano and piano. Dickinson is a lyricist I have a great deal of time, respect and love for – as, obviously, did the composer. (“Her poetry, written in isolation, was folklike, with irregular meters and stanzas and many unconventional devices.”) 

In many ways, his final choice of verse echoes many of the environmental and personal thoughts recounted in Barber’s Knoxville – and yet, as Robert Matthew-Walker states in the CD’s liner notes, the two works “are by no means similar”. Nevertheless, in many ways, this capricious, sometime tempestuous, but oft-delightful succession of songs unifies (and completes – in both senses) the whole evening: sublimely pushing, pulling and progressing concepts and moods from the previous works.

He wanted to give America a voice that was all her own…. In order to create this musical style… he incorporated American folksongs, jazz rhythms from the popular music of his day, and aggressive dissonances from the machine age and urban life that surrounded him…. Copland did give American music a voice, and more specifically, he gave a voice to an American. This American was a woman who was also creating an American style, but hers was in the world of poetry. That American was Emily Dickinson. In his song cycle… Aaron Copland combined Emily Dickinson’s poetry with his music in an extraordinary marriage of artistic genres….
     It is through Copland’s technique in employing meter, rhythm, and word painting that he was able to portray the beautiful poetry of Emily Dickinson in a way that seems truly appropriate to her style of expression. These compositional techniques proved to be exactly what the poetry called for. Every musical aspect of these songs – the specific note, meter, or the rhythm chosen – brings the words of Emily Dickinson alive for the listener, transforming the poetry into another plane of artistry. The Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson is a true reflection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that gives her words to audiences that would not have heard them otherwise.

I will not scrutinize or report so much musical detail here – the author of the above thesis (which I heartily recommend) is much more insightful than I could ever be. However, the virtuoso performances this brilliant, impressionistic series of miniature personal gems inspires are certainly worth documenting.

This… CD showcases the spectacular voice of American Soprano April Fredrick whose star is now firmly in the ascendant. SOMM first heard her in concert singing the songs of Ivor Gurney which she had studied closely as part of her MMus in Vocal Performance at the Royal Academy of Music. SOMM unhesitatingly recommended April to David Curtis, conductor of the Orchestra of the Swan who having heard her, enthusiastically engaged her for several of his concerts.
– SOMM Recordings: April Fredrick debut

Although the work utilizes a slightly larger chamber orchestra than the previous pieces as part of its expansive gambit, its opening immediately evokes the self-contained universe which their disparate worlds inhabit. Yet, quickly, we realize that we are immersed in the heart of a distant galaxy… – faintly visible in the night sky above the closing bars of Knoxville, perhaps; or fading from view in the dawn of Quiet City… – a galaxy still in the godlike throes of creation and destruction. This is, then, the most ‘modern’ – perhaps the most challenging – of the works on the CD. However, it is the perfect culmination of all that has gone before – a release of all those tangled, heartfelt emotions, which have, until now, never quite surfaced so blatantly. It is truly cathartic in its inward- and outward-facing magnificence.

Such convolution may, at first, appear counterintuitive. Dickinson’s lines are always crystalline with manifest meaning: but Copland’s percipient music courageously delves into their almost fathomless depths. April, too, is no circumspect traveller: and she willingly joins the composer in exploring these shadows – delivering, enunciating them so clearly that their profundity can never be obliterated. As a result, the words and their complex implications now shine more clearly – even in the songs’ most crepuscular moments.

This is not to say that April in any way minimizes the cumulative emotional impact of the poetry. Far from it: her lucidity, whether pianissimo or fortissimo, accentuates the penetrating strength of Dickinson’s narrations, representations, characterizations and proclamations – aided, of course, by Copland’s germane instrumentation, and David’s and OOTS’ devoted and consummate expression. These supportive forces thus endow the poems with even greater sensitivity and awareness: their deft transitions of dynamic and pace further intensifying each line’s significance and purpose.

And such contrasts of light and shade abound! Each and every song – while undoubtedly members of the same family… – has its own style and personality: Copland generating unique ambiences so apt that the poems begin to feel almost weakened without their allied musical energy. Both orchestra and soloist convey such mood changes without hesitation… – and yet we never quite lose sight of the songs’ interdependencies; their connections to the earlier works, with their parallel dispositions of sadness, pleading, subdued anger; their comparable evocations of nature; nor, above all, the humanity that is at their core. And, in the end, it is these similarities – conjoined with the interrogative reflections innate in each work and performance, as well as the authenticity of thought and sound – which resonate and linger.

April’s sustained notes – of which there are many; and at both ends of her range (the final low B‑flat in the opening Nature, the gentlest mother so tenderly intimate…) – are similarly startling in their richness and purity (even after the bravura and prowess of Knoxville…). This, though, is the voice of that innocent full-grown. And yet the adult she has become still retains a heart of absolute tenderness, longing and wonder… – best displayed, I think, in my favourite of the eight songs: Heart, we will forget him. This is a demonstration of soloist, conductor and players at their lyrical (almost atonal, even operatic, Mahlerian) best.

The last song, The Chariot – contrarily, the first to be composed by Copland – brings us full circle: pulling us back once again to that Quiet City. At its climax, the sun sets irrevocably “before a house” not dissimilar to Barber’s childhood home. And, as it should, the work ends with a seemingly immortal floating high note – aptly, the last syllable of “eternity”… – April never wavering in this pure expression of infinity: such is her talent, her skill, her extraordinary ability to convey meaning with one final held breath….

I often wonder what precise combination of factors make music ‘touch’ us, but I think it does require a certain courage and openness in the performers, along with a certain vulnerability which some performers are simply not willing to give. We all want to project the illusion of control, but yet to plumb the true depths of human emotion in the piece, I think sometimes we have to walk the edge of technique, which can make for slippery footing….
     The more I go on, the more I think that music is not about performance but about mutual offering and participation, that music is made in all senses of the word both by those who perform and those who witness it. The truly electrifying performances are perhaps where the collective attention and passion of the audience match that of the performers.
– April Fredrick (personal correspondence)


It has become that time of evening…

The recording itself concludes with what I presume was an encore: an exquisitely contemplative, but sultry, rendition of Gershwin’s Summertime. You can almost hold the humid evening heat in your hands; sense the sweat sucking your clothes to your skin; perceive the pungency of the working waterfront.

This is surely one of the greatest operatic arias (and lullabies) ever written; and April – even after the immense challenges of the preceding Copland (and that extraordinary final note…) – delivers all the intimate intensity it requires: not only placing us in Catfish Row, “standin’ by” Clara and her baby; but proclaiming a vision of innermost longing that may never be fulfilled. David and the Orchestra of the Swan are, once more, the perfect accomplices – staggering beauty, and that searing South Carolina sunset, explicit in every note.

I sat alone in the dark, last night, eyes closed, listening to the programme again – for the umpteenth time – now all my verbal responses had been committed to paper; jettisoned from my mind. That each note was now familiar removed nothing of its freshness, nor my resultant awe. Every phrase, whether vocal or instrumental, captures yet more moving beauty – and its overwhelming, yet finally calming, emotion provided me with an oasis of irenic certainty in the midst of current challenges and irresolution.

As I wrote five thousand words ago: the combination of insight, love and skill invested in these performances “is a marvel in and of itself”. It is a long time since I have been so captivated, so enraptured by a series of previously unknown (to me) works; and I know such singularties of ravishing beauty are few and far between – and are therefore to be treasured. This perfection will therefore stay with me, physically and mentally, for a very long time….

But, oh, to hear these pieces draw breath again in concert with these great musicians….


I am extremely grateful to April Fredrick, for her kindness, honesty, and trust, but especially for sharing her deep insight; to all at OOTS, for their continuing support and inspiration, as well as the roll-call of this concert’s players and SoundCloud tracks; and, finally, for the provision of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives, which enabled and enriched my research into both Copland’s Quiet City and Barber’s Capricorn Concerto, through its generous online provision of Leonard Bernstein’s annotated conducting scores.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Super… – but nothing superfluous…

There have been so many of these nights: sat in front of a blank, glaring screen, struggling for words; wondering what will jog them into existence… – yet another peek at the scores; a further glance at the programme; a memory… of a phrase, a note, a gesture, a smile; a glass of wine, beer, or brandy… – a single malt…? Maybe even one of my semi-habitual strolls in the well-past-midnight air…? It’s not – as my poor loyal reader will know… – that I am short of them. The problem is nudging the ones I do have into some semblance of the right order: so that you see what I saw; heard what I heard; felt what I felt… and therefore understood what it was to be me: immersed in magic – once again – for a couple of hours, within the “wooden O” of Stratford ArtsHouse. I need your cheeks to burn with my tears; that sudden gasp to fill your lungs; your palms to sting from my nigh-endless applause; your throat to rasp from that involuntary “bravo”….

Of course, the temptation, many times – but not now; never now… – has simply been to shout – albeit using the limited medium of pixels… – how adverbally wonderful my evening was; throw in a couple of mild adjectival profanities, perhaps; and convey the evening’s greatness in the time-honoured tradition… before retiring to the warmed snugness of cotton and goose-down. But that would be to renege on my responsibility to every single one of those many I witnessed… – those doing great, ineffable, incredible, intangible things… – to surrender my duty of recording for posterity (whilst sat on mine) instead to the eventual whispers of those hallowed, now-dark, now-peaceful, resting timber walls.

But we will be ghosts when those secrets are willingly given up – dissipated by the four winds, to the four corners of the earth: flowing as the audience’s reports do in time and space… – our atoms (should we beat the cruel humour of mischievous chance) only then co-mingling with the waves of stardust that were brought into being, this entrancing night. And those time-stretched echoes will only faintly hint at their miraculous birth. They will no longer detail the how; explain the why. Only – only – that it was. That it was astonishing. Your greed to know; your willingness to listen to those susurrations – rustling like long-shattered autumn leaves… – would never, could never, be repaid.

So it is down – maybe up – to me: to take you back there… praying that enough of the enchantment that then girdled me has clung to the grooves, the pores of my very skin (as well as permanently meshed with my still-tingling synapses): and thus will creep out of my fingertips, essentially unbidden, on to the clacking keys, slowly filling the screen… but quickly – I hope – firing your imagination.

It was glaring at the programme notes, in the end: my eyes and mind finally beginning to focus…

…all three of this concert’s works [are] linked by their orchestration – the addition of oboes and horns to the Orchestra of the Swan’s core strings reinforcing our happy band’s quintessential translucent, intimate chamber feel…

…previous words thus locating me in a previous chair: wide-eyed, wet-cheeked, and slack-jawed; astonished only because I had expected to be astonished… just not quite this much. (There is obviously, therefore, no limit to the supply of astonishment. However much I witness… – and, of course I am intensely grateful… – there is always more to be delivered and consumed. Especially by these forces; and by their willing admirers.)

Some of this amazement is, I think, an indicator of the lofty heights at which the Orchestra of the Swan continue to soar (somewhere way, way above Mount Olympus). Initially, because – despite two previous reviews from me of flawless performances of Mozart’s 29th symphony, David had spent over thirty minutes at the beginning of the afternoon’s rehearsal finessing not only its ‘flow’, but a largish handful of particular, exquisite moments. Admittedly, the orchestra’s make-up was slightly different – with only twelve string players (surely the ideal number for this diaphanous work of creative genius); plus a brace each of those woodwind and brass… – but the balance (from where I was sat, at the back of the hall) was consummate from the first note.

Secondly: no matter how many times I see and hear them in action, they never cease to astonish me with their precision; and their responsiveness… – both to each other, and, of course, to David’s communicative smiles, nods, gestures, and trust. Not only that, of course: but, in performance, all those tiny, disparate details then gel to produce something, yes, utterly magical; and utterly fresh – almost spontaneous – in its affecting delivery; and, it appears, on this evidence, will do no matter how many times I experience it.

Somehow, the dynamics were crisper; their contrasts both more defined, and yet more subtle. The trademark translucency of texture was yet more lightly woven. The pauses, more natural…. I could go on. Just two highlights will have to suffice. One: a rising bass-line early in the first movement, and similar quavers in its closing bars. We all too often concentrate on the exposed soloists at the top of the score – a soaring flute; a piercing trumpet – but easily forget that any orchestra can only be as good as its foundations. And, tonight – and I am really sorry I did not catch the player’s name… – this was a marvellously perceptive, and obviously heartfelt (and way more than technically able) performance from the lone double-bass. She was – and I fear that, although astonishment may be infinite, my supply of the following word will quickly run dry… – perfect. Perfect to hear; perfect to watch; a perfect fit. And therefore – and for many more musical reasons – my orchestral player of the night. (It is another measure of OOTS, by the way, that Nick Stringfellow and Chris Allan, the two cellists, ensured that she was both welcomed into the family fold so readily; and then invited to move physically closer to them, so that they could play as a completely unified section.)

The other example is a little more difficult to pin down – but it happened in the Haydn symphony, after the interval, too: so I am certain I did not imagine it. As the jaunty Menuetto transitioned into its central Trio, somehow, more ‘space’ emerged. Not so much a slowing of tempo, or a loss of momentum: just that – even after an Andante which never feared to explore the limits of delicacy: extremely successfully and beautifully… – for a few bars, the levels of emotion soared; my heart was split open; and I experienced the most momentous tranquillity. And, during those few bars, I did not draw breath….

This was, somehow, a new feeling: not one generated by live music before – and certainly not in the middle of a supposed dance! It did, however, cause the final Allegro con spirito to glow with contrasted ecstasy: fireworks of explosive joy lobbed continuously into the musical stratosphere – quelled only by matching applause!

So, even with a work as justifiably popular as this one, I am sure its delivery will never wane. And no-one should, therefore, ever dare accuse David and the players of either resting on their hard-won laurels; or of simply churning out repeat – albeit top-notch – musical renderings. Every single OOTS performance begins – and every single time – with the building blocks of printed notes, dynamics and tempi; then the pencilled additions and emphases… – but ends gushing forth from that extraordinary well wherein each performer’s experiences; their beaming enjoyment of their work; their now-invisible skill (honed through thousands of hours of oft-lonely practice…) lie, enmeshed, waiting to be released by their generosity of spirit and openness of mind.

This “generosity” and “openness”, of course, swathes those who work with the orchestra, too. Other staff; volunteers; the audience; and, of course, the soloists. Last night, we were treated (a word which only conveys a fraction of one percent of the experience…) to another visit from this year’s Associate Artist, Laura van der Heijden.

If I’m having trouble communicating just how “astonishing” OOTS are, then I do not even know how to begin to define or describe just how intensely special Laura is. It is as if she has been given a key that only she could possess: one which unlocks the voice of the instrument she cradles. That it produces such wonders, her actions, her reactions imply, is actually all down to the instrument. It is simply a matter of chance that she is the only one who knows and understands its secrets.

I also cannot compare her to anyone – because she is unlike anyone (certainly any musician) I have ever encountered. She is that rare wonderment: a true individual who is (or at least appears) sure of her own mind and abilities. They are what they are; and – to be exceedingly blunt – we are lucky to be on the same planet, never mind in the same room.

However, she is also incredibly ‘normal’ (however you wish to define that) – as are all great people, of course. From their perspective, they are just people. It is our perspective, our worship – and, of course, our “astonishment” – which anoints them with specialness. How they react to that is, perhaps, their true measure.

Anyway… tonight’s disarming weapon of choice was Haydn’s D major cello concerto: an intensely beautiful, lyrical work on the surface; an intensely technical and challenging one, below. Not that you could tell. (It’s not that she makes it look easy – it’s that she doesn’t make it look difficult. There is no look-at-me showmanship. Every single movement is dedicated to the production of music: filtered through the prism of her individuality – her mind, body and soul.)

The concerto demands the intimacy that the Mozart had established. Thus, David’s – and Laura’s – choice to sit her, as collegiate member, rather than isolated soloist, between conductor and leader, not only demonstrated that quality’s fulfilment (and to perfection); but paid dividends. This really is music that draws you in – willingly – especially as performed here… – it is true chamber music: with gossamer texture and pellucidity. And, thus, for the concerto’s duration (at least), the ArtsHouse continued to shrink around us, to envelop us. We were an audience of close friends, immersed in the world of our close musical peers, witnessing another – even greater – continuous sequence of miracles.

Laura’s playing is so fluid, so communicative, so vocal, that Haydn’s ravishing melodies – even when highly ornamented, as they are here; so utterly complex on the page… – float into the air: bathing you in a plangent joy. (I have no other words.) The frequent double-stopping, and flights from deep, earthy growls to pure, seraphic sonority, were expressed as naturally as breathing. Effort is visible only under close scrutiny – Laura’s ever-present thoughtful demeanour immersed in that glorious sound; engrossed in her hawk-eyed observance of David; and embedded in this miraculous instrument she embraces. And yet she and the orchestra are equals, without doubt.

During her first-movement cadenza – her own composition: perfectly demonstrating her unassailable technique; her stunning emotional connection with the space around her; her innate deep insight and joy… and perfectly harmonizing with the music that had gone before, as well as building the perfect bridge to the orchestra’s joyous conclusion – the world stopped on its axis. I believe that, if it could have – or had I the power to cause it to… – it would have reversed a little… just to hear this awe-inspiring and soul-penetrating exhibition of unalloyed stupefaction again.

But there was no need: despite its inherent “simplicity”, her (and the orchestra’s) transcendental ‘singing’ in the Adagio provoked enough tears for a lifetime. Tears of joy; tears of ocean-deep sadness; tears of disbelief… – her command so assured, but so very well hidden beneath her desire to communicate (and with this instrument that is now an integral part of her being) what this music means to her – so that it means this to you, too; that you experience and understand implicitly what every single note signifies.

Now, I was alone: an audience of one. Nothing visible but a blurred divinity; nothing audible but heaven. And, oh, the cadenza, here. An astonishing, strummed, extended moment of pure transcendence….

The tempo for the Rondo was perfectly judged. No rush through those immense scales. Just joy, and extended delight, in some of the most radiant music for cello and orchestra ever composed. We know it is such, because that is how Laura and OOTS perform it. Those deep, angry ascents, stopped thirds and octaves may furrow her brow momentarily: but the centre around all which this revolves is happiness – a satisfaction with the world as it is, in this small space, now… – and there is no better. Please, please never stop….

After the interval… – no, sorry, I really daren’t even attempt to write more about the concerto… – Grandad David asked some impossible questions; proved why he is the greatest Artistic Director the universe has ever known; sprinkled the orchestra with trust and fairy dust; and delivered… – yes, even after all that prior perfection… – a performance of Haydn’s utterly addictive ‘Mercury’ symphony with as much joy as it is possible for seventeen people to muster (with just another huge lump thrown in for luck)!

This was intimacy of a different kind. And I could rabbit on for hours about the cunning parallels that OOTS painted with the Mozart; how the Adagio – “a miniature chamber masterpiece” – opened the Bardic spigots again; how the universe expanded during the “more considered – and beautiful – Trio section”; how the last movement brought the house down. Twice.

That last word deserves an explanation, at least. Which is that there is a coda – of sorts – tacked on to the last movement: which, in rehearsal, David (incited by cellist Chris) proposed the orchestra (and some supposedly-gullible onlooker – that is, Yours Truly – even receiving an individual downbeat of the directorial baton…) should pretend did not exist: the preceding bars being delivered so emphatically as to raise an explosion of approbation from the audience… – whilst, of course, the orchestra carried on as if nothing of the sort had taken place.

And, of course, Papa Haydn’s false-ending joke worked wonders. And we all left the hall with one big smile spread all over our faces. Mine, though, masked an aching soul, and a hole in my heart you could drive a cello through. Don’t get me wrong: this is as happy as anyone can be. It will just take me an awfully long time to recover from such… from such perfection. And, of course, astonishment.

The perfect gentle opening of the Mozart makes the perfect gentle opening for a concert; and the answer to one of those “impossible questions” is that this is what ‘it’ looks like… – a thrilled group of people leaving a full house, heading into the freshening autumnal air; an orchestra plastered with glee; a soloist to match; music that breaks and mends hearts and minds; a glass of red wine; and a reviewer who knows he hasn’t a chance in heck of capturing and corralling the right words. (Of course, none of it would have happened without the swan….)

Sunday, 18 September 2016

It’s All Rover Now; or On The Town; or…

The Company – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to…” this writer not having an effing clue what to say; or where to start. I mean, first off: what to title my review? “The quaffing cavalier”? “Cavalier platitudes”? “Sex and the witty”? “Blade stunner”? “The Whores Whisperer…?” Seriously, with something this good, this addictiveDoctor Faustus addictive, indeed… – and yet its polar opposite… – I’ve run out of words before I’ve even begun. And I’ve already seen the damn’ thing twice…!

“What on earth is he talking about? Has he been at the sack again…?” Actually, no. I’m just stunned to blazes by yet another huge dose of it-could-only-be-in-the-Swan perfection: that is, The Rover, or The Banish’d Cavaliers (hence all those awful puns): by Aphra Behn; directed by Loveday Ingram – both of whom are on some stratospheric level of genius where only the likes of Maria Aberg and Erica Whyman float, plotting their next conquests. [In fact, whilst my feet, too, refuse to sink to floor level, can I please suggest an RSC season of Behn plays, directed by such goddesses…? Just a thought. (Of course in the Swan! What were you thinking?!)]

Alexandra Gilbreath (Angellica Bianca); Joseph Millson (Willmore) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

I am told that this is on many times over Christmas – and, on one level, it is the perfect pantomime: especially if you like your Santa all bare-chested and buff, and/or your fairies luscious and lewd. However, underneath all that distracting tinsel, there are some serious – and, it has to be said, gratefully, feminist – messages. (Although the text is not afraid to confront the horrific, deep and murky way women have been treated – by men, of course… – throughout history.) And, yes, this was written in the 70s – the 1670s… – which is why my admiration for Behn is so high.

Yet, even with all that… not one opportunity is missed to drop in big dollops of saucy silliness; with much gurning and ad-libbing from Joseph Millson, in the title role… – sometimes pushing his poor peers to the verge of corpsing: which, of course, just makes the whole thing funnier…! [I do wonder, though how the poor captioner – Ridanne Sheridan – will cope? Perhaps, like Don Quixote, “the whole thing” will have to be reined in…? (Which would be a crying shame.)] But what really makes this production so successful is that the whole shebang is held together with intelligent and mesmerizing directorial, musical and design consistency; superb acting from all involved; and a wonderful golden thread of seventeenth-century genius. There is not one lull; not one dull moment.

Joseph Millson (Willmore) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

All the fuss will undoubtedly be about Millson. He is rather wonderful (as I suspect he knows!); and looks like he’s just hunked off the set of The Musketeers – all overweening leather boots and pants, drop-pearl earring, drop-dead mussed shirt, shining blade, Jesus hair, and audience adoration. [Personally, I think he’s a dead-ringer for El capitán Alatriste… – although this verges towards the Carry On version… – the hero at the centre of my favourite set of historical novels: which also come with large chests(?!) of humour; much frantic (but intensely realistic) buckling of swashes; and swooning, and frequent feisty, upper-handed, women.] Talking of such: here’s my neat(?!) segue to the wonderful, wondrous Faye Castelow – who steals the show, from the Prologue onwards… – for me (and it’s a very close call: with, basically, everyone else on stage coming joint second…) the actor of the night.

If a young poet hit your humour right,
You judge him then out of revenge and spite;
So amongst men there are ridiculous elves,
Who monkeys hate for being too like themselves.

She and Millson are perfectly matched: foils of wit ever drawn; the snickety-snack of badinage morphing into twinkling chemistry and charisma – a quite magical (and immensely entertaining) thing to behold! And then there’s Patrick Robinson… – who your heart goes out to over and over again; and who is as constant as the rising sun; just as warm; just as welcome; and just as awe-inspiring, unique and perfect. If I weren’t swooning over Castelow, Robinson would have to be my object of (platonic) adoration! Mind you: Alexandra Gilbreath is also utterly (Gil)breath-taking: a décolletage worth dying in, for, er, whatever; and a voice more seductive than Eartha Kitt on steroids. You won’t find a quartet more swoonsome within a country mile!

And, yes, the boys appear to be in charge… – but isn’t it funny (in more ways than one) how it’s the girls who – pretty much (and with much prettiness) – end up getting what they want – and/or deserve….?

Frances McNamee (Florinda); Emma Noakes (Valeria); Faye Castelow (Hellena) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

So… as is rapidly becoming my wont, when encountering such an almost-flawless production – and what an annus mirabilis this has been for such… – I shall just work my way down the company (ahem), praising as I go.

Joe Allen is a captivating Stephano: his heart always in the right place, and never far from the centre of the action – even when in disguise. He may be Don Pedro’s servant: but it is clear from Allen’s actions that this is only in job title… – his affection is for, and his duty to, his lord’s sisters: “Madam, I must leave you; for if my master see me, I shall be hanged for being your conductor.”

Likewise, Sally Bankes, as Callis, the ungovernable sisters’ governor: warm, comforting charm (and a permanent smoulder for Hellena to cry on) evolving into a cocky cocktail of girlish delight – and a passing, withering look that brings the house down! “I have a youthful itch of going myself…” – and, boy, does Bankes scratch the heck out of it!

Ashley Campbell, as Philippo, mixes menace with boyish charm. Flitting lightly on and off stage, he has one of the best lines in the play: “Nay when I saw ’twas a substantial fool, I was mollified; but when you dote upon a serenading coxcomb, upon a face, fine clothes, and a lute, it makes me rage.” Get there early, by the way: as his voice fills the Swan with music (with the wonderful Danusia Samal) well before the house-lights dim – and you may end up held in his strapping arms… – a powerful tenor, with some stunning high notes: he adds atmosphere, throughout, and by the shed-load!

Faye Castelow (Hellena) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

But what to say about Castelow, as Hellena – the most spirited of those sisters? Wonderful in her debut for the RSC, during The Roaring Girls season – particularly in The Witch of Edmonton – here she lights up the stage. A tiny bundle of regulated electricity: her hypnotic eyes glisten and gleam; feelings flash across her face; and, whatever disguise she is in, she becomes it instantly – …and yet you never lose sight of the person behind the mask. This is my kind of ‘acting’ – inhabiting, not playing, a part – almost unbelievable believability. And, of course, however much she is in awe to the eponymous, ranging ‘rover’ – and Millson’s attempts to upstage her (well, upstage everyone, really…) – she is always the one in charge. Just so much talent… – and I can easily imagine her as Rosalind; or Lady Macbeth; Beatrice; or even Cleopatra. (Magical.)

Leander Deeny is also astonishing as Blunt: the typical Restoration comedy ‘gull’; and thus the most foolish of the four Brits – the moneyed sidekick to those cavaliers. Yet he grabs our sympathy right from the get-go, and never lets go. “Now, how like a morris-dancer I am equipped… she has made me as faithless as a physician, as un-charitable as a churchman, and as ill-natured as a poet.” His fallibility is utterly touching; and, at moments, quite moving. We therefore easily forgive his attempt at revenge on “all womankind hereafter!” [Despite – or may be because of – this, I have a problem with the speech impediment his character has been given; and especially the uncomfortable laughter it provokes. With an actor of Deeny’s talent, surely this ‘mocking-the-afflictedness’ is unnecessary? It’s certainly past its sell-by-date; and Deeny gains plenty of laughs above and beyond this annoying running gag, anyway. (This really is my only moan about the production, by the way.) ’Sheartlikins.]

Gilbreath, as high-class, expensive courtesan Angellica Bianca – as you will have guessed – is (when not losing it, as a result of Millson’s japery…) bewitching, ravishing and utterly authoritative. It is hard not to fall for her, er, charms. She switches from temptress, to haughty and vengeful dragoon, to lovelorn nymphet, with consummate(d) ease and emotional veracity. When she speaks – when she moves – it is almost impossible to take your eyes off her: she commands the stage, and everyone around her, with utter conviction. In some ways, she is the heart of the play – as well as at it… – and Gilbreath delivers a tour de force rendition.

There are so many of the cast that we don’t see enough of: just hints of the high levels of talent that always seem to populate the Swan… – Allen is one example (although he does some wonderful guitar juggling); and Chris Jack (thankfully, with a bigger part, in The Two Noble Kinsmen…) another. As “gallant” Sancho, he seems to always appear (and frequently behind a golden mask) just to move other people around, or on or off stage – although he delivers his lines, with that glorious voice, to seductive perfection: especially in the scene where Blunt gets his comedownance (and Jack gets to flex his pecs)!

Similarly, Lena Kaur, as Adriana (a role invented for this production) – …who, heartbreakingly, doesn’t even get anything to say! Utterly enchanting in Two Nobs, here we only really get to see her dance (extremely sensually) and pout (ditto) – …to great effect! (This is a large company, though… – with an equal number of men and women… – and yet everybody counts: the carnival scenes would be so much poorer, otherwise; and surrounding Angellica with such ‘accomplices’ speaks to her power and position in society; as well as her value….)

Patrick Knowles is superb as young Fred (as he was – again – in Kinsmen…). He may be the third cavalier; but he is obviously, at heart, a true “English gentleman” – always trying to do the right thing; and earning a lot of sympathy on the way, as he tries to keep up with his elders. He well deserves to win his girl: although you fear that he may have got more than he bargained for! “So, now do I stand like a dog, and have not a syllable to plead my own cause with….”

Leon Lopez as Biskey, Lucetta’s pimp (and therefore Campbell’s mute counterpart) – and, incidentally, the role Robinson played, thirty years ago, when the Swan opened – has only three mentions in the original text: and yet he haunts the production, always at Angellica’s beck and call; his piercing eyes always threatening, but with a smile to die for!

Allison McKenzie gives her luscious Scots accent a fantastic workout as Sally Bowles-bowler-hatted Moretta, Angellica’s ever-protective “woman” – and with as threatening and controlling a walking stick as you will ever see! Her almost continuous, almost androgynous, shock-of-Pris-golden-spiky-haired presence is both sexy and ominous; and the action pivots around her. Her disdain for Willmore is open, and creatively proclaimed – “He knows himself of old, I believe those breeches and he have been acquainted ever since he was beaten at Worcester.” – McKenzie delivering her lines with chilli-flavoured, tongue-rolling relish. (Crivens!)

Frances McNamee – as one would expect from her delightful performances in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Won – is deliciously skittish and sparkling as sister Florinda, the object of Captain Belvile’s love (and vice versa): a little bossy, perhaps – always “conjuring” people to do this and that… – but intensely charming! (What a coincidence that there are the same number of “cavaliers” as “sisters”. I wonder how that happened?!) Her constancy is constantly challenged: but McNamee demonstrates just how strong the character really is: growing in confidence throughout, and disarming us with that quizzical look and winning smile.

Patrick Robinson (Belvile); Joseph Millson (Willmore) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

And then there’s yer man Millson, as impudent Captain Willmore – the clue is in the name: he does… more and more, as the tale progresses… – ranging from bonkers to beatific and back with aplomb (in fact, several plombs)! His timing is faultless: every action played to the crowd convincing and calculated… – and yet everything he does flows like the richest Elvis-hipped treacle. Wherever he is on stage, your eyes will be there with him. However he behaves – and he is a scandalous scoundrel with a heart of… something; and eyes and hands that rove as much as he does… – you will forgive him. “Broke my vows! Why, where hast thou lived? Amongst the gods! For I never heard of mortal man That has not broke a thousand vows.” We know we are being played: but such is Millson’s power that we don’t give a fig! He is our master, and we his willing servants in adoration (and, quite possibly, lechery…)! This is a truly fantastic, knock-it-out-of-the-park performance. And he makes it look so darned simple. (Grr.) Yet there are real moments of profundity: where he delivers his lines, his pleads, his remorse, his desires, so clearly, so imploringly, that, for one fraction of a second, you suddenly understand the hard work and skill that lies behind… – but then it vanishes: and all we see is the swaggering, edible chunk of debauched virility, with sorcery in his eyes, and a mojo so magnetic that at least half the audience is leering, er, leaning in towards the stage. (Phwoar.)

Emma Noakes, as the not-quite-as-demure-as-she-first-appears-behind-those-glasses Valeria (the third of those cunning sisters), is a bundle of luminous joy and fizz: relishing every moment: “Well, methinks we have learnt this trade of gipsies as readily as if we had been bred upon the road to Loretto…”. [How do we know that “girls who wear glasses” will always thus turn from quiet and bookish prudes to such animated, arousing vamps…?!] Saucier than ketchup, and twice as tasty, she obviously relishes every single moment; gives her all; and is the life and the soul of the carnival!

And here’s to you, Mr Robinson… – be still, my beating heart… – just perfection as the infatuated, languishing Colonel Belvile: the sensible, noblest cavalier; led by his heart and sense of chivalry – “he’s a cormorant at whore and bacon”, declares Blunt, in anger, badly slandering the man. Again, you see that man, not the actor: so thorough, so secure, his possession of the role. He is the still, moral centre that will not give – no matter what mayhem surrounds him. And if Millson is the wide-ranging rover, then Robinson is the chiselled, wide-eyed, block-of-steel, steady-as-she-goes kernel of conviction. “I thought how right you guessed, all men are in love, or pretend to be so. – Come, let me go; I’m weary of this fooling.” (Glorious!)

I didn’t recognize Samal, at first: so thorough her transformation as Astrea (another cunningly made-up role): prowling the stage with her rich, earthy singing, before the show begins, luring unsuspecting men – last night, with surprisingly little success… – on to the stage for a song and dance. The shy, tragic Jailer’s Daughter, in Two Noble Kinsmen, here she is a delectable temptress, a ravishing heart-breaker: one of the circle of ‘gels’ that surrounds, and guards, Angellica. (Scrumptious.)

Gyuri Sarossy is ridiculously entrancing as blinking idiot, big brother Don Pedro: failing at every attempt to corral his sisters – “…go up to your devotion, you are not designed for the conversation of lovers.” – and yet succeeding in evoking as many laughs as Millson. Everyone knows just how far they can ham things up, and still get away with it – Sarossy and Jamie Wilkes perhaps the masters of this; although Millson isn’t that far behind (because, of course, he’s way out in front…)! He has some phenomenal costumes, too….

Eloise Secker, as Aminta (yup, made-up…), is sexy, glamorous… all the words indeed needed to describe someone firing with both barrels, and covered with colourful tattoos, flouncy skirts, patterned black stockings, etc., etc., etc.. A key part of Angellica’s ensemble of sirens, she dances as if her life depends on it: eyes twinkling dangerously; and with a smile as deadly as any Toledo.

Kellie Shirley, as Lucetta – “Hold, sir, put out the light, it may betray us else.” – luring poor Blunt to certain misery – is another darkly-(un)dressed femme fatale – and it’s no surprise that he, cough, falls for her charms: she lays it on, pitched absolutely perfectly, with a well-controlled trowel!

And, finally, there’s ‘guest star’ Wilkes, as the bare-chested, disarming (and disarmed) Don Antonio: every brief appearance magical, every move knowing and measured… – and usually side-splittingly hilarious! And yet he has nobility at his core – enough to match Robinson’s courtly Belvile… – “My rival, sir, Is one has all the virtues man can boast of.” Sadly – despite his habitual unbuttoned shirt – we do not see enough of him: so savour every luscious moment….

Leander Deeny (Blunt); Patrick Knowles (Frederick) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

There’s not enough room – now – to go into too much detail about the wonderful roll-call of creatives and musicians (who are nearly always on stage). Lez Brotherston’s set design is fantastical and magical (although I cannot see how it can be disassembled to fit in the Swan’s tiny lift or storage spaces); and the costumes (supervised by goodest witch Irene Bohan) – a mix of denim, suede and leather biker chic and Spanish conquistador – are of a fitting and consistently high quality. Tim Lutkin’s lighting is, er, spot-on perfect. Grant Olding’s Latin-American-flavoured music just raises the production to another level: gloriously catchy – and, combined with Fergus O’Hare’s superb sound, you can feel the South American carnaval sun on your back… – it is almost a character in itself: and a major one at that, guiding us through the various plotlines. (This is how incidental music should be!) The fights – as they always are when Terry King is in charge – are vicious, realistic (with some wonderful swordsmanship), and, where necessary, slapstick – choreography to, ahem, die for! (Talking of which, there are scenes where the movement is so frantic, the stage so fully occupied, that I do not know which book of dark spells Nichola Treherne has referenced: but it is a mighty powerful one!)

Kevin Waterman directs the shoulder-swaying soundtrack, whilst hitting and shaking various things; Adam Cross plays a conscious, mean saxophone; Nick Lean twangs his guitarra with glee; as does Phill Ward (who also hits things); Mat Heighway plucks his imperturbable bass with pizzazz… – but it is Andrew Stone-Fewings who, yet again, manages to (marginally) outshine this phantasmagorical bunch, by blowing his shiny horn with such celebratory attitude that he is my man of the night! (Cool.)

Faye Castelow (Hellena); Joseph Millson (Willmore) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

So, to conclude… – phew… – I suppose that if Doctor Faustus was the Swan’s highest-quality unremitting nightmare; then this really is its antithesis – a top-notch, fluorescent, explosive, seductive, delightful daydream of a fantasy. I can think of no stage that consistently (I’m ignoring Two Noble Kinsmen for the moment; until I’ve given it a second chance…) launches dramas at both ends of the emotional spectrum so consistently into the stratosphere. [Talking of which: the view from the front row of Gallery Two – for press night – turned out to be quite amazing: adding a conscious, in-a-theatre-but-still-my-disbelief-is-way-above-the-Avon feel to proceedings; as well as being weirdly comfortable; and proving, yet again, that the brick-lined acoustic needs no further amplification than my normal hearing-aid setting. (Wow.)] This theatre is a place that constantly captures my heart and mind…

Oh… – I’ve just worked out what to call my review…!

O Captain! My Captain!