Ramon Vargas, Wigmore Hall, London
Ramon Vargas got his big break when he stepped in for Pavarotti in Lucia di Lammermoor at the New York Met. Since then he has sung leading tenor roles by Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Gounod and Massenet in many of the most important opera houses of the world. Song recitals are another matter, as Vargas modestly explained at the Wigmore Hall last week. He admitted he was nervous – always a sure way of getting the audience on your side.
He needed to, after singing the 16 songs of Schumann's Dichterliebe in a way that was, quite frankly, superficial and uncertain. Reading the music while singing didn't help, nor did his poor pronunciation of German, with its lisped consonants. The colliding sounds before the final syllables of "Köpfchen" and "Perlentränentröpfchen" defeated him. Like Pavarotti, he has a built-in sob and throaty production that may be fine in Italian repertoire but sound vulgar in Schumann, and towards the end of the final song his tone quavered as if he were entertaining a sentimental salon audience. Behind such tawdry appeal, there was no intensity, and no sense of fluttering excitement, either, in "Die Rose, die Lilie". Nor did Mzia Bachtouridze do much with the important piano parts, which she played with pale caution.
Thankfully, Vargas devoted the second half of the programme to songs by his fellow Mexicans, Salvador Moreno and Manuel Ponce, and the Spaniard Fernando Obradors. People think Mexicans are always happy, smiling people, Vargas said; "But we can be melancholy, too," he revealed. And so it was in several of six lovely songs by Moreno, who died two years ago. Beautifully written for the voice, with interesting and delicate piano parts, they were the welcome discovery of the evening, and Vargas sounded at home in them, though he could, perhaps, have introduced more expressive shading in the Lullaby. His diminuendo on the final high note of the last song wasn't ideally controlled, either, as he seemed to change the character of his tone as if switching gear.
Four songs by Ponce, one of the founding fathers of classical music in Mexico, were ordinary salonish things that could have been written by anybody – even "Estrellita", the best-known. But six of the "Canciones clasicas españolas" by Obradors were nice examples of traditional Spanish styles. Surely, the flamenco flourishes of "Coplas de curro dulce" called for something a bit wilder than Vargas managed.
Four in Perspective, Purcell Room , London
Amid the bustle of the London Jazz Festival, the Purcell Room was the setting for a perfect evening of chamber jazz last week. Four in Perspective is in its own modest way a kind of supergroup, as all its members are leaders in their own right. But pianist Fred Hersch, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, singer Norma Winstone and percussionist Paul Clarvis are no grandstanders, and they were almost diffident in displaying their wares.
Much jazz smells strongly of the city, of its grit and funk. Hersch's compositions, which dominated the programme, leave behind the urban sprawl and head for the wide open North American countryside. Here there are cool landscapes, rushing waterfalls, horizons framed by mountains. His "Child's Song" contained strong influences of Aaron Copland, while other numbers reminded the listener of Dave Grusin – unsurprisingly, as like him these writers have often used the canvas of the great American outdoors to good effect.
Based around a pared-down kit the talented Paul Clarvis used an array of rattles and other bizarre-looking gew-gaws (one resembled a rat) to provide the scenery. His whistle and wind sounds at the beginning of "Blues for Matthew Shepard" showed the audience the true desolation of the Wyoming prairie where Shepard was tied to a fence by homophobic thugs and left to die. In other numbers Clarvis was adept at providing snatches of consistent rhythm, which let Hersch's compositions ebb and flow, rather than being restricted by an omnipresent beat. He was also fascinating to watch, smiling in a way that would be disconcerting if he came up to you on the street but was quite entertaining on stage.
Kenny Wheeler's distinctive tone (he often sounds as though he's squeezing marshmallows out of the bell of his trumpet) was the perfect foil for Norma Winstone's delicate voice. The two formed an unusual front line on several tunes, the vocal adding a lightness to the warm fuzziness of Wheeler's horn.
But the undoubted star of the evening was the versatile Hersch. Without him there would have been too much space in these arrangements, but his rolling chords, very much rooted in European harmonies, let everyone else float above or around him. He seemed to enjoy himself too, bouncing up and down on the piano stool, while his moustache (which could find useful employment as the working part of a brush and pan if it ever parted company from him) twitched. Those who think being modern means dissonant honks or borrowing the vocabulary of hip-hop would do well to take a lesson from Four in Perspective. This was jazz that fed the brain but still pleased the ear.
To be broadcast on the BBC World Service at 10.05pm on 1 Dec
LSO/Andsnes, The Barbican, London
Leif Ove Andsnes's "residency" at the Barbican will have won the Norwegian pianist many new friends. Thursday night's performance of the Rachmaninov Third Concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas should win him the freedom of the hall. Not since Horowitz... If it wasn't such a cliché, I'd complete the sentence. Certainly, this was as urgent, as thrilling, as sheerly inspirational a performance of the piece as I can remember hearing in the concert hall. A true one-off. Which is not to say Andsnes can't or won't do it again. He will. But it will be different again. Because the inquisitive nature of an artist this creative will even now be sniffing out the next revelation, rethinking this or that detail. He moves on.
The journey Andsnes has already taken with this piece is a measure of his development over only a few years. When he recorded the piece, he went in search of its soul, not its reputation. Its inwardness, not its theatricality, was what we remembered. But there was a price to be paid in spontaneity. Now, when that beautiful but unassuming first theme (Rachmaninov always claimed it "wrote itself") emerges from nowhere, it isn't just going somewhere, it's going there with some urgency. The stakes are immediately higher. Rachmaninov's demons are in pursuit. Each recapitulation of that theme suggests it has been changed, albeit imperceptively, by the momentous events surrounding it. It may attempt to sound laid-back in its pursuit of happiness, but an unexpected switch in the accompaniment to sneering stopped horns tells us otherwise. And when Andsnes hurls it out in fragments at the climax of the cadenza, it is with unforgettable defiance that he does so.
This was a performance characterised by extremes of temperature, its rashness as over-heated as its reflectiveness was super-cool, and its stillness offset by a volcanic brilliance. Andsnes scorned the technical difficulties and made the simplest gestures speak volumes. The reflective solo chord sequence just prior to the triumphant close was probably the most significant of the performance. A quiet victory.
Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony were astonishingly responsive collaborators, hand-in-glove through the most complex and subtle rubatos under pressure and in repose. The Rachmaninov sound was alive and well. Transparent but opulent, too, with strings and horns duly over-reaching themselves to lay a veneer of glamour over Rachmaninov's melancholic songfulness in the spectacular closing pages.
All Russian life (and death) was here. It was ironic hearing Rimsky-Korsakov's jolly marching version of the revolutionary song "Dubinushka" in the same programme as Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. Ironic because not only was irony a concept as little understood by Rimsky-Korsakov as it was by Shostakovich's Soviet masters, but also because tunes just like "Dubinushka" are derisively parodied in Shostakovich's "reply to just criticism". Tilson Thomas opted for the full-on, neon-lit, approach to the symphony, recognising that the slow movement is as close to Tchaikovsky as Shostakovich ever came and that homage and parody are never really too far apart in the emotional scheme of the piece. The dynamic and tonal range was dramatically wide, fierce unisons undercut by strange glacial pianissimi. Shostakovich's sad face seemed to glare out at us from his very own propaganda poster.
Here and Now Tour, Brighton Centre, Brighton
For the uninitiated, the Here and Now Tour is a chance for the pop stars of yesteryear to take a break from parenting, gardening, and various other middle-aged occupations and line their pockets in the run-up to Christmas. Not that I'm being cynical about it. That this motley bunch, which includes T'Pau, Kim Wilde and Paul Young, have managed to fill the country's biggest venues shows that the demand is out there. Well, it sure beats karaoke.
Happily, the artists know what's expected of them and wheel out the hits in all their sing-a-long glory. Some, however, are more glorious than others. The return of Curiosity Killed the Cat amounts to Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot slouching on to the stage and doing an unwitting impression of Ali G. His rendition of "Name and Number" simply reminded me why I never liked the band first time around. Go West are competent enough, playing "Call Me" and "The King of Wishful Thinking", but they never seem to really let themselves go.
Heaven 17 are one of the few bands on the bill who make you yearn for the old days. "We Don't Need That Fascist Groove Thang" takes you back to a time when pop songs had proper titles, while the house groove of "Penthouse and Pavement", more Nineties dance than Eighties pop, shows just how ahead of their time they were.
Kim Wilde, pop princess-turned-horticultural goddess, knows the value of nostalgia and has even fluffed up her hair for the occasion. As the compère announces, she hasn't been on stage for 10 years and, for the first couple of songs, it shows. "Chequered Love" is a bit stiff, and during "Cambodia" she sounds like she's singing "pneumonia". She warms up when she gets to "You Keep Me Hanging On," and even does that outstretched hands thing as if she has just fallen down a mine shaft and is clinging on for dear life. "Kids in America" is barely audible because of the crowd's hysterical singing, but it's brilliant anyway. I've only one complaint and that's that there isn't enough dry ice.
But what possessed them to put Paul Young at the top of the bill? It's clear from the outset that the audience's knowledge of his back catalogue is a little lacking. As the band plays the opening chords of "Stay for Good", the singer grins and says "Know what it is, yet?". Silence. Nobody does. Still, as he slides up and down the stage, leaps on to the speaker stack and does majorette-style tricks with the microphone, the ladies at the front lap it up. Some things will never change.
Fiona SturgesReuse content