Thursday, 27 December 2012

Christmas music

Let's face it, Christmas is never a time when we anticipate sitting down to listen to or watch a great deal of high quality musical entertainment. For those of us with family and friends around, there just isn't time and the presence of people tends to reduce things to the lowest common denominator. Broadcasters tend to reflect this with a rather peculiar mix of classical music on TV. This year we had a drama about a musical scam, the Ring in pieces on Radio 3, Swan Lake, La Cenerentola, the usual Nine Lessons and Carols and even some plainchant on prime time TV!

The joys of Victoria Wood's Loving Miss Hatto were not strictly musical, though the story was one of the most amazing to come out of the classical music world in recent years. The duplicity involved only coming to light because of technological advances meaning the music can be recognised. (I can still remember the discussion surrounding the attribution/re-attribution of a Dinu Lipatti concerto recording, requiring at first very keen ears from a reviewer and then the two recordings being played simultaneously on radio 3 to show they were identical). Wood created a striking drama which touchingly sought to explain the unexplainable.

On Christmas Eve we prepared our supper (fish of course, but done Chinese style), listening to the first couple of scene of Das Rheingold in BBC Radio 3's recording from this year's Covent Garden performances. They are, admirably, doing the whole Ring act by act, one act each day. Though quite how many people want to devote two hours or so to listening to Das Rheingold on Christmas Eve, I'm not sure.

We cooked our Christmas lunch (pan-roasted goose breast, with roast potatoes, roast vegetables and apple sauce) while listening to the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge, always a perfect way celebrating Christmas day.

Later we caught some of the Bolshoi's Swan Lake (in fact a recording from 2007). It was notable for Valery Gergiev's first venture into the pit for the ballet, which must have caused the dancers some pause; Gergiev does not strike one was a conductor who would modify tempos to suit the dancers' needs. I still remember a BBC TV studio recording of the Royal Ballet's production of Les Noces (music by Stravinsky, choreography by Nijinska) with Bernstein conducting and one of the dancers commenting that Bernstein's speeds for the work had been punishing in places. The other curiosity of the Bolshoi production is that it preserved the traditional, post-Revolutionary happy ending of the work. So no transformation scene, instead the prince pulls out one of Von Rothbart's feathers and the evil magician dies, the Swan princess is restored and all ends happily. Very, very odd for those of us brought up on the older ending (most UK performances derive from the Petipa/Ivanov choreography which was notated in Stepanov notation, the manuscripts brought to the west after the revolution by Nicholas Sergeyev, who mounted Swan Lake for Ninette de Valois and the Vic-Wells Ballet).

We did try to watch the production of Rossini's La Cenerentola from Turin, but ended up listening to it with the picture turned off. I'm not sure why there was the need to do the work live action in various glamorous venues, but frankly the acting didn't rise much above mugging and I was perfectly happy no to go to that ball.

In the evening we watched The Midwife Calls, not because it was of particular interest (and frankly I found some of the gynaecological depictions a little to graphic, even though Christmas is about birth), but because a friend of ours was one of the extra singers recruited to join the nuns in singing plainchant. Nice to find chant at the centre of a piece of prime-time drama for once!

Luckily father Christmas had bought me the Sixteen's recording of Handel's Samson (a lacunae in our collection) so we had plenty to listen to.

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