Big Issue column 33


First published in The Big Issue, 6-12 April, 2014

JS Bach never wrote an opera, but he knew a thing or two about music drama. This time of year traditionally brings around a slew of Passion performances – the St John Passion and the later, longer St Matthew Passion. They are Bach’s most operatic works, with the vivid blow-by-blow of their storytelling, the gripping pace of their architecture and the ultra-anguished emotionality of their arias. Take your pick of excellent versions this year: I’d suggest the Britten Sinfonia for the John (Cambridge, 16 April; London, 18 April; Saffron Walden 19 April; Norwich 20 April), the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Thomas Zehetmair for the Matthew (Gateshead, 19 April) or the Dunedin Consort for both (Matthew in Glasgow, 12 April, and Edinburgh, 13 April; John in Perth, 16 April).

Incidentally, Dunedin’s director John Butt has interesting things to say about the structural difference between Bach’s two passions. “The John is honeycombed,” he explains, “with scenes that come in wheeling cycles. The Matthew is more like a series of stations of the cross.” Butt describes the John as “a carousel: you step into the drama and you don’t know where you’ll be thrown you off. You’re meant to come out of a performance of the John in the same state as you started but feeling more intense, whereas you’re meant to come out of the Matthew in a whole different state than when you began. You emerge as if for the first time.”

Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio play Under Milk Wood lilts to a musicality all of its own – just think of the loping, boozy rhythms of that magical opening paragraph: “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea”. Igor Stravinsky once wanted to write an opera with Thomas but the Welshman died before the project ever got off the ground. Now the composer John Metcalf has written a new opera based on Under Milk Wood in which he aims to “reflect musically the dysfunction of Thomas’s ‘town that went mad'”. It’s a chamber piece for eight singers who take on the various roles of Organ Morgan, Ocky Milkman, Nogood Boyo and the rest. A small instrumental ensemble includes a clarsach, an ancient string instrument called a crwth and plenty of foley sounds to bring the mythical village of Llareggub to life. Opens at the Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea, 3 April then tours Wales until April 15

The French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays with a big, shiny sound and bold gestures. His attack is flashy and fun, and his new recording of Prokofiev’s piano concertos with the BBC Philharmonic and conductor Gianandrea Noseda brings out all the glamour and pizazz in this very muscular, very quixotic music. The five concertos are roaming and disparate, bridging between the romance of old-world Russia and the bustling, industrial energy of the early 20th-century. Bavouzet blazes through it all with eyes wide open, lacing his bravado with sarcasm and his lyricism with melancholy. Noseda and the BBC Phil make for vigorous partners, full of surge and swagger, and my only complaint is that the strings are recorded a bit low and fuzzy in the mix: the star here is unequivocally Bavouzet. [CHANDOS 10802]

AND ANOTHER THING: The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and conductor François-Xavier Roth tackle two masterpieces of orchestral colour in their spring programme: Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Thomas Ades‘s shimmering Asyla. Liverpool, 17 April; Gateshead, 18 April; London, 19 April

GO TO: Mitsuko Uchida in recital. The great pianist performs late Schubert – the Piano Sonata in G, D894 – and Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli Variations. Bristol, 23 April