Archive for February, 2010

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande


 CUOS Pelléas et Mélisande artwork by Anna Trench
CUOS Pelléas et Mélisande artwork by Anna Trench

Well tonight’s the night. My son and I are off to the opera again. This time it’s just a local one but I couldn’t be more excited. It’s the local students, the Cambridge University Opera Society (CUOS), putting on Debussy‘s Pelléas et Mélisande and we’re going to the opening night.

I’ve been doing some homework. There are three recordings available on Spotify:

  1. Eric Tappy, Gérard Souzay, Erna Spoorenberg, Orchestre De La Suisse Romande & Jean-Marie Auberson
  2. Frederica von Stade/José Van Dam/Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
  3. Roger Desormière/Choeurs Yvonne Gouverné/Orchestre Symphonique de Paris/Dame Maggie Teyte/Alfred Cortot/Mary Garden

CUOS Pelléas et Mélisande, Christopher Stark conducting
Christopher Stark conducting in rehearsal (from Facebook group)

We’ve seen the CUOS perform twice before, both last year. Firstly we saw them do Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and then Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Both were excellent, but The Turn of the Screw was particularly fine. We went down to see it done professionally at the ENO but the CUOS performance is still our favourite. No small part of that comes from the amazing work of the orchestra, so knowing that the conductor, Christopher Stark, is also conducting the Debussy tonight just adds to the antici … pation.

As an added bonus on the first and last nights there will be short talks given by Professor Robin Holloway and Dr Natasha Grigorian, Cambridge experts on Symbolism, 20th Century Opera and the work of Debussy and Maeterlinck. So we’ll be getting there early for the 19:00 talks’ start, touch wood it won’t be too dry for a 15 year old lad.

There’s also an interesting brief section on Pelléas et Mélisande in the book I’ve just finished, Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise. Here’s what Ross has to say about the opera (from page 47).

With the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, sketched in the early 1890s and then extensively revised before its 1902 premiere, Debussy created a new kind of drama, using Wagner as raw material. The text is by the Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, and, as Strauss would do in Salome, Debussy set Maeterlinck’s play word for word, following its riddling prose wherever it took him. The love triangle of Pelléas, his half brother Golaud, and the inscrutable wandering princess Mélisande moves towards a grim climax, but most of the action takes place offstage; the score places the listener in a liquid medium into which individual psychologies have been submerged. Debussy’s established resources—whole-tone scales, antique modes, attenuated melodies that rise from wavering intervals—conjure an atmosphere of wandering, waiting, yearning, trembling.

Later come glimpses of a beautiful country on the other side. When Pelléas and Mélisande finally confess their love for each other—"I love you," "I love you too," without accompaniment—the orchestra responds with a simple textbook progression moving from a tonic chord to its dominant seventh, except that in Debussy’s spectral scoring it sounds like the dawn of creation. A similar transfiguring simplicity overtakes the prelude to Act V, in which we discover that Mélisande has given birth to a child

Spectral scoring that sounds like the dawn of creation? No pressure then 😉

Josephine Stephenson (Yniold)
Josephine Stephenson (Yniold) in rehearsal (from Facebook group)


Pancake Day 2010


We did get pancakes, but I also took the opportunity to try a recipe from Oliver Peyton‘s cookbook from The National Gallery – Eccles Cakes. I was particularly eager to try after the Virgin Media Short-film they ran at the local arts cinema before A Single Man: Making The Difference

Slow blog posts


"Sloth" by Thowra_uk
"Sloth" by Thowra_uk on flickr

Perhaps the reason that I write so few blog posts is that I take sooooooooooooo long to write them! I must try some fast ones.

Britten Sinfonia: Britten in America


"Nico Muhly, through the window of Kaffibarinn" by Roo Reynolds
"Nico Muhly, through the window of Kaffibarinn" by Roo Reynolds on flickr

During my violin lesson on Friday my teacher Gabrielle mentioned that she was off to see Pekka Kuusisto play with the Britten Sinfonia at West Road. Gabrielle’s great at discovering interesting players with vibrant technique, and remembering what she’d said about the last time she’d seen Pekka play with the Britten Sinfonia I was keen to go along, but pretty doubtful there’d be any tickets left. So I checked the the box office and the website, but it was too late – the few remaining tickets had been handed over to the venue. Given that Kate’s not a Britten fan I wasn’t hopeful, but the programme looked so amazing I was keen to try:

Purcell Fantasia VII in C minor
Purcell arr. Muhly Let the Night Perish (Job’s Curse)
Purcell Fantasia XIII in F ‘Upon one Note’
Tippett A Lament, from Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’
Britten Les Illuminations, Op. 18
Steve Reich Duet
Nico Muhly New work (World première tour)
John Adams Shaker Loops

To add to the excitement Pekka and Nico were down to do a pre-concert talk at 19:00. I knew that Nico’s pre-concert talks were liable to be entertaining from a blog post (or should I say blog rant) he wrote about naff questions at pre-concert talks:

It worked out well. We dropped tochter and her friends at Bella Italia and then wandered over to West Road and brought one of the few pairs of tickets left 🙂

The pre-concert talk was suitably amazing, Nico talked extensively about his responses to Britten and Reich and tried to get Pekka to reflect on the differences (and similarities) in his playing as he approaches the romantic repertoire he’s famed for and modern / contemporary pieces. I spent a (wonderful) week in Finland once, in Tampere, and one lasting memory is that the Finns aren’t big fans of small-talk. As a Quaker you’d think I’d be up for long silences but even I was challenged! Pekka’s impish wit was perfect for entertaining and informing us the audience, but a full answer to Nico’s interesting question would have been intriguing.

Andrew Bird's pedalsPekka and Nico were planning to do the pre-concert talk over a musical backing and were playing some violin loops through a Line 6 DL4, but a mixture of strange electrical interference and us oldies inability to distinguish talking from background noise. Shame though, it may have been a fun happening!

The concert itself was amazing – I’ve been spoilt by some great concerts over the last year but this was a cracker. The Purcell was beautiful, Pekka’s technique is flamboyant but the resulting sound is very delicate.

One aspect of Pekka’s playing that did make me smile was his bow hold – he olds the bow some way up the stick, not adjacent to the frog. Earlier in the day Gabrielle had been correcting my hold as it kept slipping up the stick, towards Pekka’s 😉

The Tippett was a revelation, not the architectural eclectic Tippett I’ve heard before. A touching little piece inspired by Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. I’m going to keep an eye out for performances of the whole of his Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’.

Next up was Britten’s Les Illuminations. I’ve heard several recordings of this (Spotify has a Pears/Britten one, along with other recordings) but I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it sounded live. Pekka and the Britten Sinfonia brought a haunting fragility to the playing that perfectly complimented Mark Padmore‘s expressive narrative tenor singing.

The second half started with an exciting performance of Reich’s Duet. How Pekka and Jacqueline Shave kept their line as what they were playing wove in and out of each other is a mystery. Beautiful and high energy stuff.

Nico Muhly‘s piece was great. It’s always exciting to hear the premier of a piece and this was so expertly written for Pekka, the Britten Sinfonia, and Mark Padmore that even Kate – not a fan of contemporary classical stuff – loved it. The programme really showed it off too, bringing out the Britten like evocative qualities and the Reichian energy. The end of the piece reminded me of Andrew Bird (the Line 6 box had put me in mind of him earlier) as it called for Pekka to play and to whistle.

If I had to criticise anything it would be the programming of Adams’ Shaker Loops. It’s a wonderful piece, and the string orchestra version gave us another opportunity to hear Pekka’s wonderful playing. But. After the Reich and the Muhly it would have been nice to have a greater change of scene – perhaps moving the Tippett to the end of the concert.

West Road was the first UK date for this concert (after performances across The Netherlands), but if you are near Dartington tonight, London’s Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday, Christ Church in Cockermouth on Tuesday, Southampton on Thursday, or Norwich on Friday, then do check it out.

"Pekka Kuusisto" by brittensinfonia
"Pekka Kuusisto" by brittensinfonia on flickr