Deathless humour is a rarity. While Jane Austen, Shakespeare and maybe Chaucer can still make us laugh across the centuries, lesser masters struggle. WS Gilbert being, dare I say, a case in point.
His earliest surviving Sullivan collaboration, Trial by Jury, has been playing in the Studio Live season – which is ENO’s attempt to plug the gap in its financially straitened schedules with small, cheap shows that offer opportunities to newcomers. And Trial by Jury is undoubtedly a small, cheap piece, at barely 40 minutes running time. But it’s a monumental bore: a floundering confection about breach of promise (the Victorian jape of jilting your fiancée), which might bear some interest as a prototype for ideas that become the tropes of later, full-grown Gilbert and Sullivan, but otherwise falls desperately flat. And desperation is the tone of Matthew Monaghan’s production at the ENO rehearsal studios in West Hampstead.
Monaghan has talent but he struggles in a show that tries too hard to compensate for Gilbert’s dead jokes with an overload of action, ideas and contemporary updating (the aborted wedding reimagined as the kind of brash celebrity event that sells itself exclusively to Hello! magazine). It’s messy, and the promised opportunities for young participants aren’t altogether obvious, in a cast fronted by veterans like Richard Suart and Mark Richardson. But on the plus side Matthew Durkan shines as Counsel for the Plaintiff, as does Murray Hipkin’s brilliant piano playing. Better than the piece deserves.
Church organists will know and maybe love Max Reger – he composed great quantities of music for them and their choirs – now there is a documentary about his work, Maximum Reger. To the average listener outside German-speaking countries he’s a hazy figure, halfway between late romanticism and modernity, and “difficult”. A sort of Mahler but without the interesting neuroses and the aching tunes, or so you might think.
British organist and film-maker Will Fraser takes a different view and has produced an epic tribute to this (as he’d say) neglected giant of 19th/20th-century music in the form of what must be the longest biographical film ever made for a composer.
Stretched across six DVDs, it plays for 15 hours, incorporates encyclopaedic filmed performances – of chamber, organ and orchestral works – and ranks among the most extraordinary acts of pure devotion ever witnessed in the music industry. Selling at £85, it’s not cheap and may prove a white elephant. More positively, though, it may be just what’s needed to re-boot Reger’s reputation; and it should appeal to organists, given the time it spends showcasing celebrated German instruments. It is released by Fugue State Films.
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