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THE RING DISC Monte Stone's Interactive Guide to Wagner's Ring

THE RING DISC is a musical pointer to the developing educational possibilities of advanced computer technology. The advances in compression techniques have enabled presentation of the entire Ring des Nibelüngen, with a plethora or interactive CD-ROM extras, on a single disc. Until fairly recently, the elements packed into THE RING DISC would have required 14 CD-ROMs; now everything is on a single disc, with a DVD version is in preparation. Monte Stone chose for his project the historic 1960s Solti/Culshaw Decca recording, itself a landmark in state of the art LP recording. It is cast with the great Wagner singers of the time, and in smaller parts many famous singers of the future. Speedy navigation and sound quality (very satisfactory via my computer's Harman/Kardon speakers and subwoofer) are nicely balanced.

THE RING DISC starts automatically and works smoothly, with instantaneous switching between viewing options. The basic presentation has the score and bilingual text moving with the music the important motifs pointed out as you listen. To know more, you click on the motif and the music pauses whilst you read about it. The menu offers plot synopses, a list of motifs and character explanations, as well as the piano-vocal score and German libretto with English translation. Each Act's synopsis includes numerous links to the characters and leitmotifs appearing scene by scene. Expert Wagnerites will enjoy tracing the development of the motifs in their new contexts throughout all four operas. I hope Mr Stone will include the Decca cast list in his DVD, so that you can easily remind yourself who is singing at any moment. But beware of becoming hooked on The Ring and The Ring Disc. Monte Stone's creation, which can be pre-viewed at http://www.ringdisc.com and purchased for c.$100, is seriously addictive!

LIVE EVENTS - February 2003

Rossini String Sonata No 1; Mendelssohn String Symphony No 9; Britten Simple Symphony
Elgar Serenade; Puccini Crisantemi; Milford Meditation for Viola & Strings
Guildhall Strings Robert Salter (director, violin) Clare Finnimore (viola)
Blackheath Halls, 11.30 February 2 2003

This was a good, meaty programme for a Sunday morning, framed by juvenalia by Rossini, Mendelssohn and Britten. The Mendelssohn in C made a particularly happy impression heard live, with its original disposal of quartets of violins alone, followed by violas, cello and bass, in the slow movement. Elgar's Serenade is imperishable, however often heard, and Robin Milford's Meditation was a real discovery, to be included in a Hyperion CD in preparation. The inner Playful Pizzicato and Sentimental Sarabande of the Britten were more persuasive than the forced jollity of its outside movements.

Guildhall Strings was one of the first groups to 'stand and deliver', and this helps visibility and communication with the audience in halls such as Blackheath's Recital Room, which has a flat auditorium. Drawn originally from Guildhall School of Music and Drama students, the ensemble is now 21 years old and has retained many of its founder members. Fielding 11 players for this programme, they might have sounded better in the Great Hall downstairs, especially the Rossini, in which the first violins had a harsh tone which made one wonder whether gut E strings might have helped to mellow the sound?

Guildhall Strings have made a niche for themselves in early 20 C English music, with a well reviewed CDs of Armstrong Gibbs and Peacock Pie, a pleasing collection of concertinos for piano and strings (many of them composed for schools and the amateur orchestra movement) with attractive small works, notably those by Gordon Jacob, Madeleine Dring and Robin Milford, all crisply played by Martin Roscoe with the Guildhall Strings euphonious in support; Hyperion CDA67316.

Details of Guildhall Strings CDs:
"Peacock Pie"
Gordon JACOB Concertino for Piano and Strings (1954)
Armstrong GIBBS Peacock Pie (1933) Concertino Op.103 (1942)
Cyril ROOTHAM Miniature Suite (1921)
Robin MILFORD Concertino in E major (1955)
Madeleine DRING Festival Scherzo (1951)
Martin Roscoe (piano); Guildhall Strings/Robert Salter


Armstrong GIBBS Hyperion CDA67093
A CD of music by Robin MILFORD is in preparation

Stravinsky Chant du Rossignol
Benjamin Antara
Paul Edmund-Davies flute
Gareth Davies flute
John Alley keyboard
Catherine Edwards keyboard
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Mahler Das Lied von der Erde

LSO conducted by Kent Nagano
Robert Gambill tenor
Anne Sofie von Otter mezzo soprano

The Barbican, 7.30 2 February 2003

Stravinsky's Chant de Rossignol, with its opposition ofreal and mechanical nightingales, depends possibly too much on its complicated story, and I have preferred the broken-backed opera even though there is a gulf between the musical idiom of the first act and the others. Re-acquaintance with Benjamin's Ircam collaboration, Antara, was welcome for its conceptual originality and integration of sound heard outside the Pompidou Centre, especially his creation of idealized pan-pipes originally requiring the transportation of an enormous, unique research computer, nowadays mediated by electronic keyboards without fuss or undue expense. I attended one of the Nimbus recording sessions, and wrote at length about what has subsequently been termed George Benjamin's episode of 'flirtation' with electronics. He went back to normal instruments, pen and paper, and recently spoken about the strain of composing to an ideal which demands that every note can be accounted for and satisfy the composer before he is ready to deliver the score, usually close to the deadline.

Expectations were overturned in this concert. Kent Nagano gave full value to the orchestral marvels of Das Lied von der Erde , his approach not far away from Bruno Walter, whose first Vienna recording on 78s introduced me to this composer, to whom I remained hooked during the years to come, seeking out rare opportunities to hear his huge symphonies, one by one. Mahler's current popularity was impossible to envisage during those early post-war years. Richard Whitehouse, in a well attended introductory talk, talked about the chinoiserie which was espoused by Stravinsky and Mahler at a time of political turbulence in the far East. He disclosed an intriguing nugget of information about the premiere under Walter, when Das Lied was preceded by an English work, Dame Ethel Smythe's "Hey, nonny no"! There's something for programme devisers with a penchant for historical context to think about.

Nagano's flexible, but never idiosyncratic, tempi allowed the LSO wind soloists to give full expression to their marvellous solo spots. The problem however was the versatile and indeed musically omniverous Anne Sofie von Otter, surely not in best voice that evening. She sounded unsettled in Der Einsame, the voice tight and edgy, excessive vibrato tending to spoil the melodic line. Things went better in Von der Schonheit, especially when the handsome boys on horseback erupted onto the scene, and from seats near back stalls there was much to enjoy in Der Abschied; one felt that had there been a second performance planned, this might have risen to greatness. But hearing the BBC recording of the concert next night one was again troubled by von Otter's vibrato, more prominent on Radio 3 than in the hall, so perhaps Das Lied von der Erde just does not suit Anne-Sofie.

But the especial miracle of this performance, which would have been lost to radio listeners, was Robert Gambill's confident, intelligent and uncommonly relaxed account of the daunting tenor songs, which leave many a tenor red in the face and struggling to be heard over the welter of orchestral sound. Gambill projected with a fine, even somewhat baritonal tone yet scaled the heights with ease and neither seemed to strain, nor was ever disadvantaged without the help of microphones to adjust the balance, as is the common case on recordings. He covered the gamut from charm, depicting young people on green and white porcelain, to vehemence as the springtime drunkard and played lightly with the rhythms to convey the witty irony of the texts. If the voice is not overtaxed and holds its quality, Robert Gambill should be one of the great heldentenors of his generation.


© Peter Grahame Woolf