Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Coughing Debate

A woman was dying of consumption. We shouldn't have been looking, but it was gripping nonetheless. 'Cessarono. Gli spasmi del dolore. In me rinasce m'agita Insolito vigore! Ah! io ritorno a vivere.' And with those words Violetta breathed her last. Despite the hideous illness with which La traviata ends, last night's performance at the Royal Opera House was dominated by the sound of the audience's coughing. Like an empathetic bus-load of consumptives, the auditorium rang with the sound of hacking. And, more or less, it only occurred during the quiet bits (of which there are a lot in Act 3).

Although La traviata provides the most ironic instance of bronchial barking intruding on the music, it isn't the worst. The slow and steady Arabian Dance in The Nutcracker often prompts such spasms and I remember an awful instance during the final bars of an LSO Mahler 9. My friend, sitting next to me in the Barbican, railed loudly against the offending cougher during the applause. So, why do people cough during classical music?

The short answer is nerves or, more bluntly, a lack of concentration. They feel on edge. The silence and focus required by these performances has a bizarrely reverse effect. Attention is brought back on to uncertain members of the audience and they feel the need to act out. Bronchial emissions are the mid-performance equivalent of the entrance and curtain call applause. We somehow feel bereft when silenced by the very thing that has, supposedly, brought us in the first place.

Genuinely 'ill' responses, the winter cold or (heaven forbid) consumption, are incredibly few and far between. What dominates is the arid open-mouthed cough, without a hand or scarf or jumper placed in front of the mouth. It echoes (as one BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert programme used to tell us) at the same volume as a mezzo forte note on the horn. It's like adding a whole new level of orchestration to the work or, as in last night's performance, placing Violetta in a ward of hundreds of consumptives.

It's noticeable that where concentration is largely much better - at Wigmore Hall for instance - coughing is minimal. Although the inter-movement cough, alas also prevalent at Wigmore, is a particularly odd phenomenon, these sounds chime with the New Zealand-born musicologist Christopher Small's theories about audience behaviour. Like clapping, it allows us to fill the auditory space. Having been wowed (or bored) by what's been performed, we feel the need to make our own noise. Concert halls (and opera houses) seem to claim one-way conversation; audiences insist on two-way dialogue. Candidly, people just don't know where to stop. Clearly, nothing is sacred anymore.

But then concert halls and opera houses were built as social spaces and audiences rightly react to their environments in a fashion similar to the way they would in a restaurant or bar. They've paid for the privilege and want to react accordingly. But the coughing thing presents a particular challenge. For one, it's incredibly annoying and invades the space of other members of the audience. But not only do we have to try and hear 'above' it, we also need to address why people actually feel on edge or lack the concentration required by a 35-minute stretch of music. So, it's not why do people cough, but why do they go at all? As ever, it's about music education.

Ermonela Jaho as Violetta and Stephen Costello as Alfredo
In The Royal Opera's production of La traviata
Photograph © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Heroism Personified

Your head might explode in the final track of Slavic Heroes. Bombarded by treacly tones and the lush eroticism of Szymanowski's Król Roger, this is heady stuff indeed. But it's just one of many such treats on Mariusz Kwiecień's new recording. Recital discs can be hit and miss. Too heavily themed and they appear gimmicky. Without a clear subject, they are vague vehicles. Here language is the only link. But from the familiar passages of Eugene Onegin to rarities by Smetana, Moniuszko and Dvořák, Kwiecień shows that he is truly a voice to reckon with. 

For the first time, Harmonia Mundi has extended is production outfit to the UK. A surprising choice, then, to go to Poland. But if talent and quality are the only criteria, they have chosen well. The Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (under Łukasz Borowicz) provides a luscious soundscape. Given the weight and wealth of Kwiecień's voice, they are placed prominently in the mix. The sound is occasionally a little too velvety, as there's more steel in this music than the recording lets on.

But it's a tiny price to pay for the bounties it affords. After the anaemic anti-hero of ENO's recent Onegin, Kwiecień is sex personified. The sheer lyrical arrogance of his dismissal of Tatyana breaks your heart. And, as if playing the opera for real, his Act 3 aria is palpably neurotic. Yet he can just as easily turn his hand to the spirited aria from Moniuszko's Haunted Manor or the vast otherworldliness of Szymanowski. I cannot wait to hear Kwiecień performing these roles live. Click here to order a copy. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

18 Centuries of Wow

The new incarnations and offshoots of Tate and the Gulbenkian aside, most of us weren't alive when the major galleries of this world celebrated their 10th anniversaries. Great collections stand the test of time. Many tramp through their hallways, gawp at their splendours and amass their postcards in a desperate attempt to relive the experience. The Neue Galerie in New York is a little different. It opened in 2001 and has since made a massive impression on Museum Mile. Presenting cross-cultural exhibitions, cabaret, lectures and its own fantastic collection of fin-de-siècle art, it has become one of the go-to exhibition spaces in New York City in just a decade. The catalogue for its 10th Anniversary exhibition is a hefty testament to its ability to punch above its weight.

Like Henry Tate, who laid the foundations for the British gallery's vast collection, the Neue Galerie built its leading range of Austrian and German paintings around one man's vision. Ronald S. Lauder (the son of Estée) amassed his precious collection through years of seizing rare opportunities. One of his providers was a singularly brilliant dealer called Serge Sabarsky (honoured by the museum in the name of its glorious café). The rest is history. Klimts were bought for eye-widening sums and displayed with great panache in the Neue's chic 5th Avenue home.

For their 10th anniversary, the Neue Galerie has broadened that remit. They've been led from the top. Lauder's collection stretches some 16 centuries back before Klimt was even a twinkle in his mother's eye. Medieval art works, Old Masters, Armoury, Picassos and Post-War German painting all rub shoulders with the more familiar elements of the Neue Galerie collection. And until 2 April, you can see this all displayed in its galleries.

For those of us unable to travel to New York, Prestel has issued a 500-page tome in response. Not only is it good for upper body strength, but is a remarkable testament to one man's taste, wealth and generosity. Accompanied with essays by leading writers in all the fields of Lauder's taste - no mean feat - this is a great book. There's a sense of celebration that runs through the volume (and, no doubt, the exhibition). The single reason that a catalogue and exhibition as important as this one can exist is down to that one man's munificence.

As the Liechtenstein family closes the doors to its collection in Vienna (claiming lack of public interest) and tax payers' support becomes increasingly precarious we cannot take such big gestures for granted. And although it would be a terrible shame if the European subsidised model waned, Lauder and the Neue Galerie present a truly impressive version of the philanthropist's vision. Get to New York if you can but, if you can't, this 10th Anniversary catalogue is a veritable keepsake. Click here to order a copy.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

You cannot dream things lovelier

Michael Head is an unaffected composer. Eschewing the harmonic twists of Warlock and, thankfully, Vaughan Williams' modish modality, his songs offer heartfelt utterances from a cluttered century. The great achievement of Hyperion Records new release of 27 of his songs is that they are delivered with untrammelled sincerity. It is a rich and rare disc.

Head will never turns heads. He's a moderate conservative, with a varied taste in poetry and a ballad-like approach to form and sound. While his contemporaries went into the dark recesses of the English psyche, the younger Head preferred a more relaxed and melancholic vein. Roderick Williams is the perfect protagonist for his tales. His fond remembrance in 'Limehouse Reach' and the open appeal of 'Lean out of the window' are a genuine joy to behold.

While Head attempts a more astringent sound world in 'The Viper', it can feel somewhat ersatz when compared with Britten's contemporaneous work. But there's atmosphere aplenty in Catherine Wyn-Rogers' Three Songs of Venice. Her and Williams' ease of communication matches Head's style perfectly. Ailish Tynan is perhaps a little too skittish with occasional blurs in diction, though she too sings beautifully.

Throughout, none of the singers overstates their case and Christopher Glynn is the model of coherence and care at the piano. Collectively, they are great exponents for this handsome list of songs. From the parlando ease of the Margaret Rose poems 'Star Candles' and 'The little road to Bethlehem' to the bravado of 'Tewkesbury Road', this is a great testament to an unpresuming gem of a composer. Click here to order a copy.

In praise of the Hawelka

There are hundreds of Kaffehäuser, but for many the Café Leopold Hawelka (or just the Hawelka for short) has a special claim. It's been untrammelled by the snares of modernisation (though the recent addition of free WiFi is certainly a boon). Although immaculate, it wears its history on its slightly grimy sleeve. The posters that crowd the wall range from the bang up-to-date to the faded glories of the late 20th century. The telephone booth has the whiff of John Le Carré and the strong smell of Hausblend permeates across the dark space. All in all, atmosphere is everything at the Hawelka.

It was a great sadness, then, to hear on arriving in Vienna last week that Herr Hawelka had died. His 100 years of life witnessed everything from the collapse of the Empire, the attrition of the Great War, the establishment of a Republic, the rise of the Nazis, his own time in the Wehrmacht, the battle of Stalingrad and a return to a broken Vienna. Leopold had opened the café before the war, but it was only in 1945 that the place really hit is stride. Just a stone's throw from Stephansplatz, it would become the haunt of the disgruntled artist, the conductor, the playwright, the office worker and the tourist.

Sitting in the Hawelka last week, there was a sense of continued history, despite Leopold's absence. After the death of Frau Hawelka, Leopold began to take a slightly more back seat attitude to the café, though his presence on the morning shift (or in the photos on the walls) often belied a handover. You might be pushed to imagine that among the throngs of regulars are the geniuses of tomorrow, but there is something timeless about the great institution. As we sat there drinking another glass of Averna, Hawelka's legacy seemed primed to continue for a century after his death.

Click here to read an obituary of Leopold Hawelka (1911-2011) from the 30th December edition of the Daily Telegraph.