Summer Catch-up: Staying In…
It’s summertime and the livin’ is so easy that I just don’t feel like making the effort to get to much, so I’m finding that I prefer spending more time catching up with books, DVDs and CDs that have accumulated for the past months —and even some that have accumulated even longer—that I never got around to. Sipping a Pimm’s No 1 (usually indoors during a rain storm) and avoiding all the impossible summer tourist traffic where I live, I’ve come across some lovely surprises. (I’ll forego telling you about the duds.)
Liszt, Two Piano Concertos, Malédiction: Alexandre Kantorow, pianist;
Tapiola Sinfonietta; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, conductor BIS-2100
My fearless prediction is that Alexandre Kantorow, on the evidence of this fine recording, is a name you should notice now and always seek out. As I write this, he is still only 19 and continuing his studies with Frank Braley at the Paris Conservatoire; but he’s also being invited to make more and more appearances around Europe. His interpretations of Liszt, on his first concerto recording and his first for BIS, are a stunning collaboration between the soloist and the orchestra conducted by his father. Jean-Jacques Kantorow is a solo violinist as well and has recently picked up his fiddle again to make a recording of early French violin sonatas inspired, I gather, by his son’s tastes and talents. The playing on this disc is full of unexpected appoggiaturas and tempi, and a clarity of interpretation that’s remarkable for its freshness. Every moment of the playing feels just right! The somewhat unorthodox “concerto” Malédiction is quite fascinating and comes between the two better-known concerti. The booklet has excellent notes. Kantorow’s is a remarkable performance of three revised and finalised versions of piano concerti that Liszt originally wrote to show off his own virtuosity. Alexandre Kantorow certainly has the fingers for them, as one would expect; and, more importantly, he clearly has the feeling, too. The success of this disc transcends technique. I gather from people who’ve heard him live that Kantorow’s Brahms and Gershwin are just as brilliant and fresh as his Liszt. He’s a keen chamber music performer as well. Definitely a career to follow. I haven’t been this impressed by the Liszt concertos since I heard them played by Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sviatislav Richter as a very fortunate young man.
Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77; Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, Op35: Leonid Kogan, violinist; Boston Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux and the Paris Conservatory Concert Society Orchestra conducted by Constantin Silvestri, respectively. Recorded 1958 and 1959. Meloydia CD 10 02328
Speaking of Brahms, and of Russian musicians whom I was fortunate enough to hear long ago, Leonid Kogan’s early-ish performances of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concerti have been released on a Meloydia CD. Recorded while he was on tour in the West in 1958 and 1959 they are, of course, historic documents by now, commemorating a violinist who was somewhat overshadowed in his own day by his compatriot David Oistrakh. Kogan’s playing had a sweetness, lyricism and inward quality that are displayed in these performances with Pierre Monteux in Boston and Constantin Silvestri in Paris. Time and again there are nuances in the phrasing that startle your ears; but above all there is a focused integrity of emotional understanding and commitment that were hallmarks of Kogan’s captivating playing. The cadenzas are particularly brilliant and the slow movements are as sweetly played as I have ever heard them. Kogan was a very special performing artist on the violin and these performances are to be treasured. As Isaac Stern said, Leonid Kogan didn’t just pay the violin brilliantly, he created music on it as if it were being played for the first time. The technique is impeccable; but it’s always in the service of an emotional connection with the music that is offered with great generosity to the audience. It’s quite wonderful to have these two performances preserved on disc and available again. And Tchaikovsky’s Meditation is a real bonus. This is romantic playing of the first rank and great control in the true Russian romantic tradition.
Summer Catch-up: Going Out
Take note of the name Iqbal Khan! In his last gig as a director in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company he created a memorable production of Much Ado About Nothing set in India that was hilarious, yet exceptionally touching. His cast worked as a coherent ensemble with easy give and take and spoke the poetry . The characterizations were spot-on and all the nuances, humour and poignant dark side were strong. Now he’s done it again. He has directed one of the best versions of Othello that I’ve ever seen with his cast once more working together brilliantly; the poetry is always there, and veins of dark humour and wry social commentary lighten and enlighten the text. You will want and need to see everything that Iqbal Khan does from now on. Khan is a stalwart of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and I would travel to Birmingham to see his work.
In this new Othello, Ciaran Bagnall’s mono-set manages to reference the canals of Venice, a sumptuous palace, and a war-torn Cyprus as required. It also suggests the claustrophobia of the second half of the story by dropping immense drapes to enclose the palace’s space in which most of the action now takes place. The anachronisms in the design and in the costumes by Fotini Dimou make fascinating references to today without dragging the play out of its period; and the music by Akintayo Akinbode invokes a mood of Orientalism but also, in its rhythms, something like the drums of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones as Othello is driven towards murder.
As with his Much Ado, Khan has put the text first. Everything grows from his deep engagement with Shakespeare. The press emphasized that this is an Othello with a black Iago (Lucian Msamati); and there was much fuss about how this would change some of the implications of a play usually played as the story of an outsider Black Man living in a tight White society. Certainly Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Eton-esque Cassio seems to confront and develop this idea; and there are moments of racist stupidity voiced by some of the characters that cause this Iago to stare in disbelief, rippling out to the audience in a thought-provoking and uncomfortable way.
That said, the casting is, to my mind, “blind”. Within seconds it does not matter that Iago is black. The colour of the skin is less important than the intensity and rightness of the characterizations; each actor in this production inhabits his or her character. Ultimately, the play rests on the credibility of the Othello. Hugh Quarshie, known in the UK for his leading role as a doctor in a weekly TV hospital serial, is startlingly plausible as Othello in all his aspects, loving not wisely but too well, not easily wrought but once moved wrought in the extreme. He starts as a powerful, martial yet diplomatic man, a man of seeming self-confidence aware that he is the best general of his age. The love he shares with Joanna Vanderham’s attractive Desdemona in the opening scene is strongly conveyed. But as Iago works on him, the insecurities and cracks begin to show and he is tormented into becoming a murderer.
Quarshie grows in stature as he grows in paranoia and madness; Desdemona conveys growing sadness and confusion; and Emilia moves more into the center of the action. Msamati is a brilliant Iago. The conclusion of the play is so immensely moving and powerfully staged. that the audience fell silent. Highest praise to the entire company but most of all to the director, Iqbal Khan. He has clearly thought through the weight and meaning of every line of the script and presents a unique, at times surprising, interpretation. My attention did not flag, ever.
At Stratford, Iqbal Khan may be the newer man in town to watch; but often the old- timers can be just as relevant and surprising. Trevor Nunn has created a truly intelligent production of Volpone that is extremely funny indeed in its observations of the corruption of a class-ridden, greedy, wealth-hungry society and also at moments both poignant and searing. It’s a masterful balancing act, and a darker look at this play than is usual; don’t expect the non-stop hilarity and sentimental satire of the stereotypes that are the common approach. These are present, but part of an unusually complex take. Although Nunn’s Volpone is rounded, droll, multi-layered and ultimately bitter, it also takes full advantage of all the japes and vaudevilles written into the text, and is shot through with a true commedia dell’arte atmosphere while being set in a contemporary world. (Yes, the update works.)
In Henry Goodman, Nunn has found his perfect Volpone. Goodman’s physicality is astonishing; you can read Volpone’s every thought and change of mood in his mobile face. Goodman is able to be outrageously clownish; he brings out the sardonic side regularly; cheeky and appealing as required, he does all the disguises and different voices and accents to perfection. His versatility and energy keep the audience’s attention and sympathy despite his being such a scoundrel; partly because he’s so adept and partly because the characters he’s gulling are so much more awful than he is (and so much more stupid—Volpone’s intelligence is pivotal in this interpretation) that you hope for his victory despite everything.
By contrast, Rhiannon Handy as Celia and Andy Apollo as Bonario are Volpone’s perfect foils: moral young things of integrity at the other end of the scale, confused innocents who are not cloying. Miles Richardson is outstanding as the prototype of the shifty and greedy lawyer, Voltore, especially when suffering his brief attack of conscience. Annette McLaughlin is wonderful as Lady Politic Would-Be, a modern day Kardashian clone in stilletto heels, the star of a live reality show followed everywhere by her attentive crew.
The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is extremely attractive in a post-modernist way. The one weak link seemed to be Orion Lee’s Mosca. But then, I realized that I had come into the theatre as one often does with preconceptions: in this case, of Mosca based on earlier productions I’d seen in which he is much more a co-conspirator of Volpone’s and also on the lookout for his main chance from very early on. Here he’s very much a servant and very aware of the class differences; only spotting his chance and getting up the nerve to pursue it fairly late in the proceedings. Once he does make up his mind, however, he is dangerous and immoveable. I do have a
couple of quibbles about Lee’s performance, but in the end the interpretation of Mosca is consistent with the rest of this strongly individual production.
Nunn’s approach to this production seems not to be to everyone’s taste; but for me it is a brilliant tribute to the wit and serious moral purpose of Ben Jonson and a worthy presentation of an exceptional play.