Saturday, 26 November 2016

Fantastic beasts – fantastic fun

If you’re considering taking children to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – be aware: “parents may be more concerned to find that a vaguely religious atmosphere surrounds one of the villains of the piece, anti-wizardry crusader Mary Lou Barebone”.

So cautions in its review of the latest film to feature JK Rowling’s expanding magical universe.

Since the character in question harks back to the Protestant fundamentalists of Salem, such a warning from a publication of US Catholic bishops illustrates an increasingly ecumenical attitude toward anything that might be seen as even remotely negative about religion per se.

Mind, since the US has seen copies of Rowling’s Harry Potter books burned by some religious extremists – the sort who even condemn Christian allegorist CS Lewis because he used fantasy and magic in his books – this review was tame stuff indeed.

Aimed at a slightly older audience than the Potter films, it is a delightful film.

Set in a superbly realised 1920s New York, it sees former Hogwarts pupil Newt Scamander arrive in the city with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts – despite such critters being verboten in the US.

So what’s he up to?

Before we find out the answer to that question, his tardis-like suitcase ends up accidentally in the hands of Jacob Kowalski – a factory worker who is desperate to escape his soul-destroying existence in favour of opening his own bakery – and Scamander’s troubles begin.

Matters don’t get any better when Tina Goldstein, a local Ministry Of Magic official, reports him to her superiors for a long list of magical crimes.

And all that’s without mentioning the presence of an unknown, destructive force that is wrecking havoc on the city.

It’s a satisfying complex enough plot with a number of themes running through it, from ecological concerns, to fear and intolerance of the ‘other’ and hints of far-right politics. The worlds of both the magical community and the no-majs (that’s ‘no-magics’ – Rowling’s American version of muggles) are flawed.

Past experiences mean Scamander is not particularly good with people, and this might make the character harder to empathise with, but when he’s with the beasts in his care that one sees him fully flower.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is well scripted and produced by Rowling, and directed by David Yates.

There are thoroughly enjoyable performances from Eddie Redmayne as Scamander, Katherine Waterson as Goldstein, Alison Sudol as her sister Queenie (a lovely take on the blonde bombshell/ditzy moll tropes), Dan Fogler as Kowalski, Colin Farrell as a high-ranking wizard (it’s a very still performance from Farrell and all the better for it), Carmen Ejogo as a the US magical community’s president and Ezra Miller as a young orphan living with the anti-magic fundamentalist mentioned at the top of this review.

It eschews sentimentality but has genuine heart – helped by the effects, which are extraordinary, and give the eponymous beasts real character.

And none of them more so than Niffler, a blue, kleptomaniac platypus-alike attracted to shiny things, who does just about manage to steal the whole show.

Throughly good fun and thank goodness they’re going to make more.

I saw the 3D version – and that was certainly worth it.

* And you can read the Catholic News review here.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The gig that cannot be reviewed

In keeping with the recent convention of this blog, it was always my intention to review a gig I attended earlier this week, but for reasons that will become clear, I cannot review the acts, since circumstances decreed it impossible.

The Other Half had discovered Nouvelle Vague some years ago – a French outfit that covers punk and new wave music in a bossa nova style (I shall assume you’ll all get the three-way pun involved).

When it emerged that they were playing a gig at The Forum in Kentish Town, we decided to give it a whirl.

The best thing about the evening was, as it turned out, a pint of proper ale in the Bull and Gate just a few steps away from the venue – and a very nice pub it is too. Though to be strictly fair, The Forum itself – a converted 1930s cinema – is a lovely building with fascinating decoration that uses Roman iconography.

Liset Alea kicked off the gig. One of the lead singers with Nouvelle Vague, she also appears as a support act on their tours.

A singer-songwriter, she played a guitar on stage and was accompanied by a lone musician playing both keyboard and percussion.

Now, I have very good hearing and perhaps it’s become more sensitive in recent years, because I could barely hear a word – I certainly couldn’t hear enough to understand a single individual song.

When she announced that she had just two songs left, I walked out and left the auditorium.

My hope was that the night’s main act would find the sound more balanced.

It was not to be.

Yes – I appreciate that this is ‘rock ‘n’ roll’, but that is not a synonym for ‘as loud as possible’.

The last gig I was at – I’m excluding Pink Martini as they’re not really ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ – was an intimate West End performance by 2 Tone ska band The Selector, and it did not have me wondering whether it would be my eyes or my ears that would bleed first.

Not only did I find myself miserably musing on such a question on Tuesday night at The Forum, I could feel the sound throbbing in my throat and ended up with a banging headache, even though we left early.

I’ve been informed since that some people take ear plugs to gigs. Which seems to me to be utterly daft.

And while that may dampen the sound somewhat, it does not address the issue of not being able to clearly hear lyrics or of every sound being so amplified that it ‘blurs’ around the edges.

So I’m sorry – there will be no review of Nouvelle Vague or Liset Alea. The sound levels were so uncomfortable and distracting that I actually cannot say whether they were good, bad or indifferent.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Schlesinger’s naughty but nice Hoffman bids farewell

Lush – and a little bit naughty
Les Contes d’Hoffman is one of those examples of opera as a lush, romantic, shambolic 19th-century nonsense that somehow – arguably, against all the odds – makes for an entirely enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Offenbach’s music is light as a feather – and full of twiddly bits: I cannot be alone in hearing it and being reminded of the comment from the emperor in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus of a piece of Mozart’s music as having “too many notes”.

That, of course, would put him in rather elevated company.

The French composer had only sketched the opera as a whole and orchestrated the prologue and first act before he died: it has been worked and reworked so many times since that it’s difficult to say what is the original – all of which can add to a sense of chaos.

Based on three stories by Prussian Romantic, ETA Hoffman, it uses a heavily-fictionalised version of Hoffman himself to give the tales some sort of cohesion.

Starting with a prelude in a tavern, a drunken Hoffman is moaning about his lack of luck in affairs off the heart.

Then come the three acts proper that give us the stories of his disastrous amors. We begin with the beautiful Olympia, who turns out to be an automaton – was I alone in musing as to whether this begat the scene in Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, when Potts and Truly Scrumptious dress up as dolls to distract the baron?

After the humiliation of being derided for falling for a doll, act two takes us to Venice, where Hoffman finds himself caught up in the sensual shenanigans of the courtesan, Giullietta, who agrees to steal his reflection for Dappertutto, a collector of human spirits.

As it all goes a tad Faustian – and part of what makes it so enjoyable is a darkness and sexiness – Hoffman once more realises that he’s the victim of infatuation.

In the third act, our protagonist tracks down a former love, Antonia, who has been hidden from him by her father, who fears that an affair would prove fatal.

Thomas Hampson as Dappertutto
Having inherited an angelic voice from her mother, but not knowing that every note she sings brings death ever closer, Antonia feels that the greatest expression of her love for Hoffman is through song.

Hoffman tries to make her promise not to sing any more, but the sinister Doctor Miracle, ostensibly a legitimate medical practitioner, uses magic to make her sing until she collapses and dies.

And then, in a epilogue, we find ourselves back in the tavern, where Hoffman’s close friend Nicklausse is revealed as the Muse, who actually only wants to win him for poetry and not love.

It’s all a reminder of just how wafer-thin opera can be on such a score – though that should never be taken as meaning that it has no value beyond being a sort of entertainment bonbon.

It does also serve to remind one just how great was the leap forward that Wagner took in terms of creating psychodramas where the music had to fit a real complexity of human emotion.

But this final revival of John Schlesinger’s 1980 production of Les Contes d’Hoffman is certainly fun. It’s all very lush with delightful sets and costumes – nothing here that attempts to foist some sort of contemporary philosophical idea onto it.

It scores in having Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo as Hoffman, who compensates for a lack of subtlety in approach by going at it as you might expect from a one-time a Formula 3 driver (until injury intervened) – an approach that also helps to soften the impact of making the would-be poet a rather unsympathetic figure at the start, possessed by bitterness rather than suggesting vulnerability.

So it bristles with energy and drive.

In some productions – you can, for example, find Joan Sutherland doing so on disc – one soprano has played all the three love interests, plus Stella the tavern singer.

Here, Sofia Fomina as Olympia takes the chance provided by Offenbach’s twiddly bits to display her own prodigious vocal talents, while Christine Rice as Giuletta and Sonya Yoncheva as Antonia also turn in admirable performances.

But special mention should go to Kate Lindsay for her Nicklausse/Muse – it’s a wonderful mezzo-soprano role – and to lyric baritone Thomas Hampson in four roles, but most enjoyably as the wonderfully pantomime villains, Dappertutto and Dr Miracle.

Musically, it could do with conductor Evelino Pidò lifting the tempo a tad in places, although in the entr’acte before the epilogue, when the orchestra gets to play the famous barcarolle, it is superbly judged and glorious in its lilting beauty.

So, another perfectly enjoyable evening at Covent Garden.

Les Contes d’Hoffman from the Royal Opera House is live in cinemas this Tuesday, 15 November, and plays in repertory until 3 December.

To find out more, visit

• I am now listening to Deccas 1986 recording, with Placid Domingo, Joan Sutherland, and LOrchestre de la Suisse Romande, under the baton of Richard Bonynge. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

Music to illuminate the darkening days

Its been a particularly pleasing month or so for listening to music, with some very good new albums available – and of course, theyre just hitting the marketplace at the right time for Christmas.

But while theres much lightness around – and how welcome is that in such uncertain times? – to start with, a very serious work.

Half a century on from the Aberfan disaster that killed 116 children and 28 adults, Welsh language TV channel S4C commissioned Karl Jenkins to write a piece for the anniversary.

A recording of the finished work, Cantata Memoria: for the children, was released in time for the anniversary itself on 21 October just gone.

A large-scale choral piece, including children’s choirs, it’s sung in Welsh, English and Latin – with phrases in other languages, that are aimed at giving the work a sense of meaning beyond the valleys.

The first part, Pitran, Patran – a Welsh-language reference to the sound of the rain – has the children in assembly, singing All Things Bright and Beautiful, while in the background the rumble of the impending disaster can be heard.

From this, the work moves to Then Silence:

In that black silence
Not a sound.

It is given voice by Bryn Terfel – a poignant, haunting cry of Wagnerian power.

Throughout, as Jenkins develops his themes, we hear the lightness of young voices, reworking of Welsh songs, schoolyard bragging and nods to the requiem mass.

It is a powerful work; profoundly moving and entirely appropriate.

Now available on Deutsche Grammophon.

A very large number of people in the UK will be familiar with Grieg’s Piano Concerto (he only wrote one) – or at least, they’ll have heard the first few bars, because they were key to the iconic Morecambe and Wise sketch with André ‘Preview’.

In Wonderland, Alice Sara Ott gives us a wonderful reading of the work: so light on the one hand, yet also so full of power and passion on the other. It is simply sublime, with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks giving excellent backing to the soloist.

It is, though, a brief entry in the history of concerti, and the rest of this disc contains various lyric pieces by the same composer. The playing remains consistently excellent throughout, but the music itself never reaches the heights of the concerto.

However, that alone makes it very much worth adding to a collection.

Available now on Deutsche Grammophon.

On very different note, Jonas Kaufmann has a new album out. Dolce Vita gives the great tenor the chance to enjoy an Italian sound, including that old classic, Volare.

It’s the sort of selection over which some purists might scoff – but set them to one side. This is Kaufmann and it’s a light delight. And I absolutely dare you not to love that Volare!

Now available on Sony Classical.

And so to something completely different – recorder virtuoso Lucie Horsch’s debut album, a selection of Vivaldi pieces, including four concertos.

The music has the familiar zip and lightness of Vivaldi and, still only 17, Horsch reminds us that the recorder is far, far more than that boring instrument many of us were forced to try at school.

She’s given excellent accompaniment here from her home city’s Amsterdam Vivaldi Players.

Lucie Horsch: Vivaldi is now available on Decca.

Daniil Trifonov has been hailed as the finest young pianist of our age. His latest recording – a two-disc selection of Liszt piano music, under the title Transcendental – gives us the 12-part Transcendental Etudes, the Two Concert Etudes, the Three Concert Etudes and the six Paganini Etudes.

Liszt, of course, demands virtuosity and it’s here by the bucketload, but Trifonov also brings a lightness of touch as well as firmness to his playing, and a beautiful sweep to this music.

Now available on Deutsche Grammophon.

Also providing a display of solo virtuosity is Albrecht Mayer, with Vocalise, a selection of pieces arranged for the oboe.

Ranging across four centuries, from Bach to Marcello, highlights include an exquisite reading of Debussy’s Claire de Lune, music that beautifully evokes the moonlight of the title.

An album of beautiful tone: now out on Deutsche Grammophon.

Not all my recent listening has been of such new recordings, though.

Having decided that there was a ludicrous gap in my collection in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, I took the time to check out Gramophone’s article on the best recordings available.

Now I love Suzie Templeton’s 2009 animated version of the piece, which has no narrator, but the Gramophone article was invaluable, since everybody and their aunt seems to have recorded it.

In the end, I opted for a recording that gives us very much an eccentric aunt as narrator in the wonderful Hermione Gingold, with exemplary playing from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Karl Böhm.

It is a delight, with Gingold providing an excellent storyteller.

Read the full Gramophone article here.

The recording also includes Carnival of Animals by Saint-Saëns – also with Gingold in fine form as narrator, relishing the easy rhyme of this piece.

All in all – pleasure.

Available on Deutsche Grammophon (although the price has increased by more than double since I got it: I presume it’s only available as an import).