House music: Flora Willson's watching and listening picks

Flora Willson
·3-min read

In the absence of live music in recent months, there’s been a not-so-quiet revolution in what we’ll all accept as “performance”: from musicians self-broadcasting at home (soprano Louise Alder’s virtuosic multi-tracked solo version of Britney Spears’ Toxic remains hard to beat) to online ensemble outings enabled by hours of behind-the-scenes techno wizardry, and decades of variable-quality archive footage.

The 2015 video of Ethel Smyth’s 1906 opera The Wreckers, now available from US opera festival Bard SummerScape is not, it must be said, a deluxe audiovisual experience. Singers come in and out of range of the on-stage mic and the camerawork is as hyperactive as the production is static. But it’s a rare opportunity to see Smyth’s three-acter: at its best, it sounds like the missing link between Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Britten’s Peter Grimes, its Cornish-villager characters impassioned if roughly hewn, its shifting musical seascapes finely delineated and startlingly ambitious.

It was nevertheless a relief to return to more polished content in a superbly produced world premiere on Radio 3, recorded by the BBC Philharmonic and Ilan Volkov just weeks before lockdown. Rounding off a programme of Bax, Rubbra and Vaughan Williams, Martin Suckling’s new orchestral work The Departed Landscape felt like the aural equivalent of a vigorous massage. Emerging from hard-edged shards of sound, its first movement revelled in sudden eruptions of new textures; the second in slowly shimmering chords, changing almost imperceptibly via minute shifts in balance within a general resonance and slipping in and out of “normal” tonality as if someone were twiddling a knob. This was music that left me wanting to step inside my radio for full immersion.

Of course, such immersion is already possible again elsewhere in Europe. A recent live stream from the Ravenna festival sees Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in a socially distanced outdoor concert, complete with socially distanced audience. It’s well worth watching for soprano Anna Prohaska’s performance in Britten’s Les Illuminations – with a seemingly effortless molten-gold tone, and a winning twinkle in the eye – though Fischer plays it safe with Haydn’s “London” Symphony seemingly on autopilot. The last of the Bavarian State Opera’s live streamed Monday concerts was more obviously tailored to current restrictions: spread across the opera house’s stage, its scaled-down forces under Kirill Petrenko excelled as a collective of soloists. Best of all was an intensely characterised performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, where the sheer tightness of the ensemble – against the odds in such a large space – was unexpectedly moving to behold.

That all but the most homemade of these have relied on vast reserves of unseen labour is a point driven home by Lynne Marsh’s film Tragedy: Opera North’s Production of La Traviata. As Verdi’s opera unfolds on stage, we see grimy backstage corridors and doors slamming; lighting cues are given, technical crew watch the cricket, singers gossip in the wings. It’s strangely compelling – but also a sobering reminder of how many livelihoods are at stake as the fate of the UK’s music industry hangs in the balance.

My pick for the week ahead

I’ll be watching Dancing at Dusk, a film of dancers from 14 African countries performing Pina Bausch’s choreography for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on a beach in Senegal (now available to rent for £5 from Sadler’s Wells). Wifi problems halted my initial attempt – Stravinsky’s score doesn’t need rhythmic interference – but the first 10 minutes were unforgettable.