Music: Even Rach 3 gets drowned in a tropical monsoon
Sunday 13 July 1997
Macau is to the Portuguese what Hong Kong was to Britain: a distant colony acquired in dubious circumstances, which the Chinese now want back. They get it in 1999. Meanwhile, the Portuguese colonial government is going through the now-familiar process of pre-handover manoevres - with events like the Vianna da Motta Competition commandeered to play their part.
Vianna da Motta was a distinguished Portuguese pianist whose name means nothing in Britain but lives on in mainland Europe as the last significant pupil of Liszt. The competition was founded in 1957 in Lisbon and has taken place there ever since, producing a respectable number of star first-prize winners, including Viktoria Postnikova and Artur Pizarro. But almost as often as not, there has been no first prize at all, because the standards are so tough. It demands a lot of repertory, covering solo recital work, chamber ensemble playing, and concerti with orchestra. The choice is limited. And this year's relocation to Macau coincided with the monsoon at its height: a time when Macau is a swirling mudbath lashed by storms so terrible that one round of this competition had to be abandoned in mid-course. It's a novel experience, straining to hear Rachmaninov's 3rd Concerto in full force.
The other problem with monsoon conditions is that they affect the mechanism of pianos, which is why the competition had shipped down from Hamburg a "tropicalised" Steinway, its soundboard minutely perforated to accommodate swelling. But the perforations also limit sound projection; and in the poor acoustic of the Macau auditorium, a converted sports hall, the Steinway was a handicap for the contestants who chose it in favour of the alternative, brighter and untropicalised Kawai.
Add the fact that the concerto finals orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony, had clearly been flown in for reasons of cultural diplomacy rather than artistic excellence (it was risibly bad), and you'll appreciate why the standard of playing in the finals was not dazzling. Any sense of legato or of line came at a premium. Personality barely surfaced. And had it been up to me - as opposed to the Governor of Macau - it would have been another year without a first prize.
That said, however, there were some things to savour, not least the Straussian elegance with which Rustem Hairudtinof, a Russian based in London, toned down the warhorse qualities of the Rachmaninov 3 (continued da capo the day after the big storm), and the stylish technical assurance with which a Portuguese pianist called Jill Lawson played Saint-Saens's Concerto No 2. It got her second prize. The first prize went to Tao Chang - a 25-year-old from what the competition announcer emphatically called "Hong Kong, China" - for a slow, deliberate but rich-in-tone performance of Rachmaninov 2. In diplomatic terms it couldn't have been better : Portugal comes second, China first. The Governor was beaming. But before you write the whole thing off as fixed, I should say that the result was reached by a 14-person jury whose voting was conducted purely by arithmetic, with no discussion. The result was fair. And my only regret was that there couldn't be a prize for the concerto finals conductor, a young Anglo- Chinese called Leon Gee. It's a thankless task to conduct competition concertos: all responsibility, no glory, even in the best of circumstances - which these definitetly weren't. But Gee drew blood from stones. He proved a sensitive, supportive, listening accompanist; and with the Shanghai Symphony in front of you, that's no mean feat.
By comparison, the pianist Paul Crossley had an easy time of it when he played one of his all-Ravel programmes at the Wardour Festival - a new event, only in its second year, based in the hidden treasure of gilded neo-classicism which is Sir John Soane's Catholic chapel at Wardour Castle, Wiltshire. The brainchild of an audio-equipment manufacturer who lives in part of the castle, Wardour is a small, feelgood event, bristling with enthusiasm and potential. To catch it in its infancy was fun; and apart from the hard pews, Soane's chapel accommodated Crossley's Ravel very comfortably, as it did the Schubert of the Angell Piano Trio the night before. But I was amazed by the number of people in the audience who told me afterwards that Ravel is not the sort of composer who can make a programme by himself: that he is too oblique/ refined/ emotionally small. I don't say I've never heard this complaint before; but here was Crossley playing Miroirs, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and above all, Gaspard de la Nuit. These are not pygmy pieces: they outscale the salon. And Crossley plays them with a substance, weight and range of colour that to my ears makes a programme as complete as any.
What didn't, alas, make a programme was the LSO's brave but beaten attempt to rescue an old failure of Leonard Bernstein's, the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, at the Barbican on Monday. Written with Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist of Camelot and My Fair Lady, in the mid-Seventies, it was always a piece with strong credentials but no sense of purpose: a historical pageant that aspires almost to the seriousness of Russian 19th-century tableau opera but ends up as a Broadway song-and-dance romp through the lives of the illustrious residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, aka the White House. As originally staged, it lasted four hours, drew contemptuous reviews, and joined the cultus of failed musicals which garner fame by never being done.
This adaptation for the Barbican used a new concert version of the score, filleted down to its essential (if that's the right word) scenes with a spoken narrative to fill the gaps - much as the LSO did years ago with its hugely successful concert version of Candide. But A White House Cantata, as the piece has been renamed, is not in that class. It smiles emptily, all teeth, no bite. Its efforts to absorb some substance, with upstairs- downstairs vignettes of the not-so-White House servants sketching in American black history, are token. And the score never touches the energy-level of Bernstein in full drive. At best, there are a couple of near-classic songs, and a final chorus that approaches (but no more) the lip-trembling nobility of Candide's "We'll make our garden grow". And it was well performed under Kent Nagano, with Nancy Gustafson as all the First Ladies, Thomas Young as the ever-present black servant, and (perversely) the German Dietrich Henschel singing all the Presidents with resonant conviction, even if his dialogue sounded straight from Mittel-Europe. With members of the Bernstein family in attendance and the composer's son narrating, it felt like an event. And for collectors of concept musicals it was, if nothing else, something to file between Kurt Weill's Love Life and Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. But that's all.
Anja Silja's devastating, ultra-chic Emilia Marty in the Glyndebourne Makropulos Case is filed in the annals of British opera as the performance of 1995; and it's back again, in a revival of Nikolaus Lehnhof's production which seems to me to play the piece more for laughs - although perhaps that's because I was so mesmerised last time by the kinetic brilliance of Tobias Hoheisel's literally time-travelling set that I missed the jokes. They certainly register now, and they make Silja's tantalising, truly ageless portrait of Emilia even more extraordinary: a foil to the intensity of a not-beautiful but awesome voice. Andrew Davis once again gets knife- edge sharpness from the LPO in Jancek's relentless ostinato underlay. The audience goes wild, and Glyndebourne notches up another triumph, second time around.
`The Makropulos Case': Glyndebourne (01273 813813), Mon & Sat.
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