DSCH; Camerata RCO – review

“Bright dark, bright in the guided darkness.” Who wouldn’t want to pass that line on as their own? Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43, full of shadows, sleep and dreams, has an affinity with his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the mystery of man speaks more powerfully than the magic of a gentle fairy. When Benjamin Britten turned the play into a musical in 1960 for the reopening of Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall, he and his partner, Peter Pears, tweaked the text and introduced only six words (apparently) that were not Shakespeare’s own. Directors have found the opera’s hints of eroticism and deviance, setting it in an ink-splattered schoolroom, a country house nursery and cabaret-Berlin style with Thisbe turning reminiscent of her nipple tassels.

Garsington’s new stage, directed by Douglas Boyd and directed and designed by Netia Jones, has returned it to woodland. It revels in the bright darkness. Boyd and the Philharmonic Orchestra, playing superbly, kept the pace fast and flowing; it was hard to imagine that this work can, normally, sag. (Oh no, the rude machines. Oh no, the lost lovers. But not here.) The haunting clacks of the harp or xylophone, the flowing glissandos of the double bass and two harps, the lurching solo trombone: all of it always earrings, especially vivid.

The staging was stylish and minimal, with unobtrusive use of projections. Astrolabe, black disc moon, map of the night sky: the objects of this science emphasized disconnection. Oberon, the Fairy King (countertenor Iestyn Davies), dressed in a black suit, and his white-dressed queen, Tytania (soprano Lucy Crowe), were very cool; their mechanical intelligence. The real mechs, led by Richard Burkhard as Bottom, with James Way as a magical, deb-like Thisbe, offered warmth and humanity. They were also – red letter day – really funny.

The young lovers, dressed as 1960s sixth-formers, were remarkably interchangeable, impressive and vocally distinctive. Praise for all: Lysander (Caspar Singh), Hermia (Stephanie Wake-Edwards), Demetrius (James Newby) and Helena (Camilla Harris). The highlight of the stage was the two-dozen Garsington Opera Youth Company – children who came from local state schools and were trained from scratch to sing Britten’s difficult choral music. Rehearsals began in January. Few, if any, had even heard of Britten. It’s hard to imagine the transformative impact that music at this level – and the exposure to an attentive and polite audience – will have on their lives. It would undoubtedly be easier and cheaper to bring in one of London’s top children’s choirs at the last minute. Garsington did not add to this persuasive effect A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Enchant it if you like. He will be performing half-stage at the Proms on September 10.

In that same summer of 1960 when Britten’s A dream In the first place, his life changed significantly for his friend Dmitri Shostakovich – whom he knew from a distance, but did not meet in September of that year. Eventually the Russian composer discovered and joined the Communist party, and then quickly wrote his String Quartet No. 8, a work of grim intensity. His musical motto, based on the four notes associated with his name (he used German notation) called DSCH, runs through the five movements. The Finnish violinist-director Pekka Kuusisto explored his many performances through Shostakovich’s later career in a high-concept concert staged by the Irish Society Norwegian Chamber Orchestra entitled DSCH, directed by Katrine Sonstad and Mikkel Harder Munck-Hansen. With accordionist Bjarke Mogensen, the NCO gave two performances (I saw the first one) last weekend at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Who but the visionary Kuusisto could convince his distinctive musicians to move around the stage in total darkness, bending and swaying back and forth while playing instruments worth thousands of pounds. Walking while playing, in broad daylight, would be quite a challenge. Over 90 minutes they performed 19 musical excerpts from memory. Some players wore masks, others were covered in warrior marks. They were all dressed in a style that would pay homage to Samuel Beckett or Vivienne Westwood. Kuusisto threw long festivities and at one point walked across the stage masked, carrying a large bass drum. Projections of a landscape, a birch forest, a full moon conveyed ideas of isolation, without ever being literal Soviet. The centerpiece of the music was Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op 110a (arr. Barshai) from String Quartet No. 8. The end came too soon. This was one of the most unusual and innovative concerts of the year so far.

Whereas Shostakovich’s quartet was extended, at the Wigmore Hall Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, for large symphonic orchestra, reduced to 10 players, including piano and accordion. The virtuosic Camera RCO – members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam – played an arrangement by the Dutch conductor Rolf Verbeek. The effect of this was to look at an architect’s elevation drawing of a familiar building: every detail clear and outlined, lines of structure newly exposed, interesting, the scale not quite comprehensible. Broadcast live on Radio 3, it’s on BBC Sounds, but if you can crack the cryptic new playlists for lunchtime music, I’ll be very impressed.

Star ratings (out of five)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream ★★★★
Pekka Kuusisto & Norwegian Chamber Orchestra: DSCH ★★★★
Camera RCO ★★★★

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Garsington Opera, High Wycombe, until 19 July

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