Sunday, 20 August 2017

Glorious Gurrelieder : Simon Rattle brings Schoenberg to the Proms

Prom 46, Schoenberg Gurrelieder with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon O'Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill, Peter Hoare, Christopher Purves and Thomas Quasthoff.  And three wonderful choirs - the CBSO Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus and Orfeó Català from Barcelona, with Chorus Master Simon Halsey, Rattle's close associate for 35 years.  No wonder tickets almost sold out as soon as they went on sale. Everyone in town seemed to be there. Thomas Quasthoff sat in the coffee shop, holding court with friends and fans. Simon Rattle got cheered when he came in  sight on the stage, still in street clothes, by Prommers who were already seated half an hour early. 

Gurrelieder is a spectacular so extravagant that, for maximum effect, it needs to be experienced in a performing space where the vast forces can let rip in all their glory.  Rattle has conducted it many times in many places,  but there's nothing like the Royal Albert Hall for sensational presence, so he was able to unleash the full forces of Gurrelieder without inhibition.  For Gurrelieder is meant to be overwhelming, Waldemar defies God, who wreaks cosmic vengeance. He and his men are doomed to spend eternity riding through the night in a hunt. The peasants (here a single symbolic figure) are terrified by the supernatural, but Klaus-Narr, being a Fool, can recognize the ghosts for what they are - cosmic forces, and the demonic power of Nature.

Gurrelieder starts with a rhapsodic prelude, string lines swelling and heaving, harps adding warmth, woodwinds delicate, naturalistic touches. The reference is probably Siegfried's Journey down the Rhine, for Waldemar is about to embark on a journey of destiny.  Like Siegfried, Waldemar spends his innocence hunting in the woods, where Tove is concealed.  Hence the Wood Dove, like the Wood Dove in Siegfried, an all-seeing avatar.  Dense forests, in Germanic culture, symbolize powerful, though sinister, primeval forces.  The subconscious, source of creativity and danger.   Gurrelieder is  song symphony of Wagnerian proportions.  Simon O'Neill, being a very experienced Wagnerian, brought dramatic authority to the role. Waldemar is no Tristan but a king who thinks he can throw curses at God. If anything, he's a Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail the seas forever.  O'Neill's Waldemar is an embattled soul, tormented and defiant, instinctively understanding the part.  Waldemar is not a Romantic Hero, but a man cursed, struggling against Fate. Thus the roles of Waldemar and Tove, though well written musically, aren't particularly well developed in  terms of psychological complexity.  For Schoenberg, they are figures in a landscape, who will become incorporated into Nature and nature legend around them.  Nonetheless, Eva-Maria Westbroek created Tove with great vocal depth,  and Karen Cargill sang the Wood Dove, a bird of darker portent than Siegfried's wood dove.

Schoenberg was only twenty-six when he wrote what was to become the First Part of Gurrelieder, but in the interim, he developed a highly original identity. In Part Two, the harps still sing, but the sweeping strings are broken by fearsome chords  which replicate the word "Herrgott! Herrgott!" which O'Neill sang with intense flourish.  Note the text, carefully.  Waldemar accepts his fate, but frames it as a creative destiny.   He chides God. "Das heisst Tyran, nicht Herrscher sein!". Like any earthly king, God needs Fools to keep him in order. Thus the significance of Klaus-Narr and of the Narrator, both figures who can see beyond events and guess significance.  In the years between the time Schoenberg began writing Gurrelieder and completing it, he developed a distinct creative identity. The true artist, as innovator, will often be alone, even vilified, but artistic integrity is paramount.  thus "Lass mich, Herr, die Kappe deines Hofnarrn tragen!".

The peasant (Christopher Purves) is horrified by the sight of Waldemar's Ghost Riders in the sky (complete with echoes of hunting horn).  His response is to hide, pray and bolt his door "noch Stahl und Stein, so kann mir nichts Böses zum Haus Herein!"  "Holla!" to all that.  The men's voices in the choirs sing a wild, rhythmic chorus, alternating explosive force with singing of hushed subtlety.  O'Neill sang Waldemar's "Mit Toves Stimme" so it rang out as an anthem: the  love that keeps Waldemar singing is like the inspiration an artists needs to create.

The music that introduces Klaus-Narr  is quirky but pointed, The Fool (Peter Hoare) is himself a ghost, serving his dead King in the same way that his king serves the God who doomed him.  Hoare let the lines curl round his tongue, spitting them out in line with the odd angular rhythms in the music. Waldemar will not be cowed.  Trumpets call, and hunting horns. Waldemar's still a huntsman and fighter who will  barge his way into Heaven. The huge chords in the orchestra return, but fade away, for dawn is about to break.  The Men's voices sang in dramatic hush as Waldemar's men sank back into the grave.  Rattle and the LSO created a haunting orchestral Prelude, settingb the tone for the entry of the Narrator (Thomas Quasthoff). Brooding somnolemce, eddies of quirky sound, like will o' the wisps illuminating darkness.   In many ways, the part is the heart and soul of the piece, for it's written as Sprechstimme, neither song nor speech, a device which Schoenberg was to make distinctively his own. This section is extraordinary, so unusual and so powerful that it leaves the listener stunned.  Quasthoff did the Narrator (and the Peasant) with Rattle in  Berlin in 2000.  Though he's long ceased singing, he can still act, and speak the part with a singer's ear for song.  It's quite a part. I will never forget hearing Hans Hotter do it way back in 1994, when he was already in his eighties.  And then the chorus exploded in that glorious "Seht die Sonne!"

This Prom was recorded for repeat online broadcast, and filmed for TV broadcast on September 3rd (BBC TV 4). 

Photo: Roger Thomas

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Inspirational Mahler Symphony no 2 Sakari Oramo BBC SO Prom

Prom 45 2017 - BBC SO, Sakari Oramo photo : BBC

Powerfully Inspired Mahler Symphony no 2 "The Resurrection", with Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO, soloists Elizabeth Watts and Elisabeth Kulman with the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Bach Choir,  Prom 45. Because we hear Oramo and the BBC SO so many times each year, we take them for granted.  But they are a formidably good band.  Yet here they surpassed even their normal high standards.  This was an extraordinarily moving Mahler 2. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Jiří Bělohlávek, the former Chief Conductor, who loved this orchestra and was loved by them in return.  Please read my piece Jiří Bělohlávek : a tribute to the innovator and to the man.  Bělohlávek last conducted the BBC SO a few weeks before his death, so this performance with Oramo felt unusually personal and sincere.  But it was also masterful, lively and spirited, with depth and insight, which is saying something,  since there are so many Mahler 2's around all the time, only the very finest, like this one, live on in the memory.
From the very first chords, it was clear that this would be nothing routine. The zing in the strings felt disturbing, even dangerous, for the symphony is a journey into unknown territory. Thus the ferocious tension, timpani, clashing cymbals and brass ablaze, alternating with long, keening string lines. reaching out into space.  Then into the funeral march with its steady tread, reminding us of humility. Life inevitably comes to an end, for all mankind, whatever their station.  But for a moment, we heard again the lyrical pastoral theme, like a distant memory.  This performance highlighted how the unrelenting march continued, quietly, in the background, despite the anguish around it.  Quiet, purposeful pizzicato, like footsteps, lead into savage brass climaxes, creating the sense of hard-won stages on a difficult ascent. It's interesting how Mahler contrasts powerful tutti with solo instruments: individuals clearly defined despite the overwhelming forces around them.  Yet again the march continued, the horns blowing eerily, full of incident and detail, but relentless, though the vigour with which Oramo marked the sudden, spiralling denouement showed such defiance that it felt as though the music was mocking death itself.
The Allegro maestoso harks back to happier times. It's warm hearted and human scaled (very Sakari Oramo). Delicate pizzicato footsteps and the ring of harps.  But repose doesn't last.  The third movement, marked 'In ruhig fließender Bewegung' flowed with vigorous expansiveness: no surprise that Luciano Berio used it in Sinfonia as a metaphor for life and for the continuation of creative imagination.  The BBC SO strings seemed to come alive : lissom playing, suggesting the fishes leaping out of water, their scales shining, unbothered by St Antonius's moralizing. "So there" shouted the timpani, for emphasis.  Again, Oramo marked the sudden denouement, from which sprang the anthem O Röschen rot!  Elisabeth Kullman's voice has a lovely, glowing timbre, well suited to expressing the light in Urlicht, for it is light that leads the soul onwards.
The brass fanfare was bright, too, but also sombre and quirky, almost like primeval instruments from ancient times.  Again the surging "footsteps", reinforced by lighter, dancing figures, before the fanfare returned.  The searching string chords, and wailing brass might suggest mourning, but they also mark the beginning of a new phase, as the march moved forward, purposefully. With a clatter of percussion and brass, and the crash of cymbals, the music rose to a glorious climax : woodwinds singing gleefully, the string lines expansive.  Have we reached a peak ? Again, Oramo highlighted the contrast between this glory and the massive, overpowering roll that follows, intense because it marks the Dies Irae, the Days of Wrath at the End of Time.  Now the march continued with tight but taut energy. Almost wild abandon, though the BBC SO players are far too good to lose momentum by not keeping together.  Yet again, the crescendi dissolved into pure, refined textures.   Penitent, reverent strokes of the harps, then the brass, from above and below, the latter earthier and more plaintive.  Two trumpets call out, stretching out into space, uniting Heaven and Earth. The woodwinds sang brightly, creating images of light and movement. 
The BBC Symphony Chorus and the Bach Choir  entered quietly, in hushed reverence. British choirs are astonishingly good, and we shouldn't take them for granted.  "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n Wirst du, Mein Staub,..."  Exceptionally lucid singing.  Trumpets called out, as if reaching beyond a horizon.  Just as the earthly and heavenly brass united,  Elisabeth Kulman and Elizabeth Watts sang together, the choruses encircling them like a halo of sound, joined later by high winds and strings.  Kulman sang "O Glaube" her voice resolute, "Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren! Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!"   Being born means struggle, but life is not in vain.  This resolution - resurrection -  is, it has been reached by inner strength and determination.  That's when an orchestra as good as the BBC SO shows its mettle. Its technical excellence inspired by intense, personal committment wrought miracles tonight.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Adventures in exotic worlds - Cédric Tiberghien, François-Xavier Roth Prom

Adventures in exotic worlds ! A vibrant Prom, with François-Xavier Roth, Cédric Tiberghien, and Les Siècles, in an unusually stimulating programme of music by Saint-Saëns  Délibes, Lalo, and César Franck. The French fascination with exoticism wasn't mere decoration. By absorbing alien sounds and values, French composers were able to explore new ideas.  developing a genuinely original synthesis which would transform the French aesthetic. From the expansive worldview of Louis XIV to Rameau, to Debussy and beyond  -  limitless exploration of new horizons and ideas

The music of Saint-Saëns is currently enjoying a revival.  François-Xavier Roth is a Saint-Saëns specialist - his father is the organist Daniel Roth - so it was good to hear the overture from Saint-Saëns' opera La princess Jaune op 30 (1872).  In this opera, a young man called Kornélis is obsessed with things Japanese. He experiments with opium and is transported to a fantasy land with a "Yellow Princess". Although the piece is entirely western,  Saint-Saëns shows an awareness of alien form quite remarkable in that the opera was written only two years after the World Exposition at Paris sensationally brought Asia to the West.  Recently, Roth conducted Saint-Saëns Le timbre d'argent written at about the same time as La Princess Jaune. a joint production between  l'Opéra-Comique, Paris and Palazetto Bru-Zane. (please read more about Le timbre d'argent HERE).  From Délibes Lakmé,  not The Bell Song which is so famous that it's even used on TV ads, but some of the ballet music.  It's possible that Délibes had an inkling of what Indian wind instruments may have sounded like, for the flute solo is decidedly un-western.  It's significant, too, that this was written for dancers, giving a firm rhythmic structure to the piece.

Roth has conducted Saint-Saëns' Concerto for piano and orchestra no 5  (The "Eygptian"), numerous times with different orchestras, but hearing it here with Les Siècles and Cédric Tiberghien, also a passionate advocate of the piece, was a special occasion, made even more unique by the use of a period piano, an 1899 Bechstein, with a remarkably agile, almost bell-like voice. As Tiberghien says in the BBC Radio 3 rebroadcast, in this piece a modern concert grand would sound "ugly".  Certainly, this performance revealed the fragile beauty in the piece which is so  important to interpretation. Although it was written in Luxor, where the composer went on holiday, it is fundamentally an example of Belle Époque syncretism : Fantasy Egypt, not reality, an Egypt where the present is coloured by dreams of the past.  For men of Saint-Saëns' generation, European civilization was the height of progress, and that civilization encompassed the world.  Napoleon's conquest of Egypt differed from the British conquest of India, just as French and British colonialism followed different models.  The difference between French and British attitudes to colonialism affected music history : much more integration on many levels between the colonies and metropolitan France.

Ultimately, Saint-Saëns' Piano concerto no.5 is not picturesque, and not "light music" to be kitsched out with fake palms and camels. It's a work of  bold musical inventiveness and originality.  Tiberghien faced the fearsome technical challenges : arpeggios flew with faultless confidence and elegance, making the frequent changes of imagery flow naturally, like the Nile Delta, with its confluent tributaries, building up a panorama of great richness and detail.  Vaguely Arabic motifs blend into harmonies that are "modern" and European. Thundering passages suggest constant flux,with swirling diminuendos and passages of flamboyant brilliance. Nothing backward here, though the references may come from things remembered.

This is where the period piano and orchestra proved their value.  Saint-Saëns' Piano concerto no.5  isn't "about" Eygpt but about the experience of being in  place where you're only in temporary sojourn : tourists enjoying luxury, dreaming of a past that colours the present.   Hence the idea of fragility, so beautifully evoked in this lively yet delicate performance. The pyramids are evidence that even great pharoahs aren't immortal (except in legend). All too soon, the tourist will be gone,  notice the brisk, no nonsense ending!  Back to daily reality.Tiberghien   made the piano sing, almost like an Arabic string instrument, its plaintive voice much more in keeping with the flutes and other winds, and the horns and trumpets.  This piano wasn't a heavy-handed colonial barking orders at the natives, but one prepared to speak to the orchestra in terms of respect and familiarity.  A truly exquisite performance, spakling with light, but with great depths of insight. 

Tiberghien's encore solo was the Debussy Prelude for piano La Puerta del Vino L123/3, a reverie on Moorish Spain, nicely hushed and intimate.  Then, making the most of this unique combination of period piano and orchestra, the Prom continued with César Franck Les Djinns inspired by a poem by Victor Hugo about supernatural spirits in an Islamic fantasy.  Elaborate figures in the piano part, matched by inventiveness in the orchestral writing.  A strong sense of movement, the piano moving in and out from the orchestra, suggesting the sound of bells. Are the Djinns flying amongst clouds ? We use our imaginations and wonder.

Namouna (Suites Nos. 1 and 2) (1881) comes from Lalo's ballet based on a poem by Alfred de Musset.  More supernatural spirits in Near Eastern fantasy !  Here, Roth and Les Siècles demonstrated the variety of their instruments.  Each of the ten sections depicts a scene, coloured by different sounds. Three sets of percussion - the "bass" with large side drum, the "baritone" with  wider, flat drums and the "tenor" beating a tambour whose sound can be adjusted by tightening the strings that hold the leather to the wood.   Timpani are thrilling, but these very individualistic voices sing with a warmer, more subtle tone. Plus they don't blast away other instruments, At one point the sound of a triangle rang out loud and clear.  Then to the blockbuster : the Bacchanal from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila   so theatrically exotic and so famous that it's become synonymous with "oriental" music  in popular culture. What energy and what fun ! Ideally suited to Roth's sense of humour.

Roth's a born communicator, who has been known to sing to his audience! (read more here), and often speaks to them.    When the Orchestra of SWR Freiburg Baden Baden was on the point of being disbanded, Roth made an impassioned speech at the 2015 Proms  in support of his players and the orchestra's traditions. This time he spoke about this Proms programme and the way music can break down walls between cultures. And thus the encore, a French arrangement (by Felix Roth, son of the conductor) of Get Lucky a song about America by Daft Punk with castanets and maracas, sassy and breezy and full of fun.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Bubbling brew : Turnage Hibiki, Prom Ravel Debussy Kazushi Ono

Mark-Anthony Turnage Hibiki (2014) at the BBC Proms, with Kazushi Ono and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sally Matthews, Mihoko Fujimura, the New London Children's Choir and the Finchley Children's Music Group, preceded by Debussy and Ravel Piano Concerto in G major with Inon Barnatan, so beautifully played that even someone like me, more into voice and orchestra, could throroughly enjoy.

Ono conducted the premiere of Turnage's Hibiki in Tokyo in December 2016 with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra of which he is Music Director.  Hibiki is a substantial work for large orchestra, two soloists and childrens' choir. According to the publishers Boosey & Hawkes, it "offers consolation after loss – whether from war, earthquake or tsunami". That's a tall order, almost impossible to fulfil.  Consolation is trivial band aid in the face of such extreme horror.   It's meaningless unless we reflect on the causes of catastrophe and resolve that such things should never, as far as possible, happen again.

Numerous Japanese writers, composers, film makers and artists have reflected on and examined the issues arising from war and nuclear annihilation.  Indeed, you probably can't be an East Asian  intellectual and not ponder 150 years of war and traumatic social change, not only in Japan but in China and the rest of Asia.  Masao Ohki's Hiroshima Symphony, written only 7 years after the bombs fell, is graphically descriptive (read more here) . Ikuma Dan's Hiroshima Symphony (1985) is even more sophisticated.  It's an important piece of world significance. Please read more here)

There's no reason why western composers shouldn't engage with these subjects. We're all part of humanity.  But it's difficult to approach specifically Japanese aspects without an understanding of the cultural, social and historical background.  Mark-Anthony Turnage is good on music with social conscience. Once I got over the shock value of Anna Nicole, I grew to love its insights into consumer-obsessed society and the degradation of those who buy into the scam. Read more HERE  But Anna Nicole is a western icon, and Turnage likes Americana. That doesn't necessarily mean he can't write about other cultures, but I'm not sure how to take Hibiki. Does it penetrate much beneath the surface? Is it enough to address the many long-term implications of Fukushima simply by repeating the name over and over? I'm no composer but I'd rather that the music itself spoke, not the words.  No disrespect to Turnage. Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem had so little to do with Japan that he really should not have compromised himself by taking the money.  It would probably take a Beethoven or Bach to write something truly transcendant. "Consolation" isn't enough.

Kazushi Ono did Turnage's Hibiki more than justice. From the BBC SO he drew some very committed playing. They don't do as much Turnage as they should and this is a bit more than typical Turnage, so all honours to them.  Hibiki unfolds over seven sections, like a postcard book..  But Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn't actually lead to Tohoku or the Tsunami or to Fukushima.  Natural disasters aren't man made or specific to any one country.  Nuclear power on its own isn't evil, it's misused and abused. As anyone who's ever watched Japanese movies should know.  See my piece on Godzilla and the Tsunami,  The seven parts together don't cohere. This weakens the impact of the whole and undercuts the claim that it's an act of consolation.  Wisely, Ono marked the breaks with long silences, so each section can be heard alone, without a thread.  Unfortunately, substantial parts of this year's Proms audiences are obsessed with clapping any chance they get. They don't care enough about music to pay attention and listen.

The first two sections are named after Iwate and Miyaga, two of the areas hit by the 2011 Tsunami.  Blocks of sound bubble in the first movement, in jerky ostinato with nice jazzy trumpet calls, high pitched winds and swathes of strings. Oddly cheerful! A long ominous wail marks the start of the second section, suggesting perhaps the flow of the waves rolling onto land. No-one will ever forget the footage caught on film or the frightening silence, broken only by crushing debris.  The timpani pound, brasses wail and the orchestra plays a long line of multiple fragments and layers.  Fearsome growls and the sound of a bell.   There certainly is scope for a piece in which music could translate the idea of multiple fragments and layers of density, flowing and churning in different sequence, but Turnage can't develop the concept in the space of a few minutes.

The third section "Running" represents a poem "Mother Burning" by Sou Sakon which describes the poet running from flames. But the mother, following behind, is engulfed.  Rapid fragments of words and sound, the two soloists singing lines that intersect rather than connect.  Turnage's thing for percussion and screaming brass is used to good effect, the vocal lines more choppily employed: but that's what happens when you're running for your life and can't take long breaths.  The childrens choirs sing an adaptation of a Japanese children's song similar to "Twinkle, twinkle Little Star" The English accents of the young singers, singing in Japanese, add a surreal touch, more poignant than if they were singing in a language they'd normally speak.  The melody is taken up by the mezzo, Mihoku Fujimura, a much welcome regular visitor to the UK.

Suntory Dance , the central movement, makes a striking diversion from the threnodies before and after.  It's also the best section, so good that it could act as a stand-alone concert piece.  Here, Turnage's facility for strong brass and percussion comes to the fore: quirky, wayward rhythms, angular blocks and more busy, bubbling figures from which the idea of "dance" might come.  I don't know why "Suntory", which is the name of the concert hall and of the company that financed it.  They manufacture alcoholic drinks, and one of their big brands is named Hibiki, "Japanese Harmony". The piece is so lively that it could be an  anthem for the company, used in encores and social occasions. So much for the BBC translation that Hibiki just means  "beautiful sound".

After this interlude, darkness returns. Brooding timpani and moaning brass, string lines shining with metallic edge. Lovely woodwind passages: Fujimura sings lines from texts from Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, a  Bunraku drama from 1703. It's such a classic that it's been adapted for cinema, its tale of doomed love a recurrent meme, though what connection this has to Hiroshima or to the Tsunami, I don't know.  Much has been made in the publicity material for Turnage's Hibiki about the Mahler connection, but frankly I cannot hear any resemblance to Das Lied von der Erde,.  But the real subject of Das Lied von der Erde is Mahler himself, and his metaphysics  The orientalism in that piece reflects the original poems Mahler used and adapted for his own purposes. And in any case, they weren't Japanese but Chinese.  No doubt much will be made of this in the media by those who don't really know Das Lied von der Erde.  Double-dose cultural appropriation.

The final section, for orchestra and children's voices, is swirling abstraction, the word "Fukushima" repeated, almost mechanically.  Turnage's Hibiki is good listening but it  doesn't really hold together. The parts are greater than the sum, aside from the vivacious Suntory Dance.   That's excellent, and parts 1, 2 and 4 work well together musically, but parts 3, 4 and6 are weak : No fault of the performers, though.  It's not nearly near the level of Turnage's Remembering : in memoriam Evan Scofield, a work of heartfelt sincerity. (Read more about that HERE)

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Mahler 10 Schubert Dausgaard BBC SSO Prom

Thomas Dausgaard (Credit: Thomas Grøndahl)
Thomas Dausgaard, new Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with two Unfinished symphonies, Schubert Symphony no 8 Unvollende, and Mahler Symphony no 10.  Uncompleted symphonies always fascinate because they open out tantalizing prospects.   This Prom was interesting because it focused on possibilities. Since we'll never know how the symphonies might have been completed, we listen differently, keeping things open-ended. 

Though neither Dausgaard nor the BBC SSO are new to the Proms, it was their first Prom together in this new season.  Interesting potential, there, too. Dausgaard's less of a showman than Runnicles was, closer, perhaps to Ilan Volkov who was (and is) a thinker, something to value in these times.
Unfinished symphonies help us focus on the music, and on the composer.  The curse of a review system is that performances are judged by the number of stars they get in a review, rather than by how such judgements are arrived at. We get locked into like/dislike instead of analyzing why we think the way we do.  Most performances have something to offer, pro and con: ultimately what counts is what we've learned from the experience.

Deryck Cooke's third performance version remains the standard because it reflects years of immersion in Mahler's work and creative processes. Everyone seems to want a shot at "completing" what would have been Mahler's Tenth symphony, but many aren't worth the effort.  Better, I think, to listen in depth to Cooke,  which brings out the inventiveness that makes Mahler so challenging. In a way this is a schizophrenic symphony,  the duality in the first movement contradicted in the second two. What it's not, though, is a death symphony.  If anything, it deals with light and transfiguration, as in nearly all the other symphonies.  When it was written, Mahler was about to embark on a new stage in his career, possibly even more radical than his past. This affects interpretation.  Where was Mahler heading, and what was he taking with him from the past?

Dausgaard and the BBC SSO created an elegant Adagio, the shimmering opening strings enriched by a richer response.  The celli and basses were positioned in the centre of the orchestra, flanked by the winds, brass to one side, percussion on the other.  Interesting, since the lower strings are in many ways the heart of this movement, whatever it might mean. If the duality represents the composer and his "ewiger weiblicher" muse, the lower timbre might represent the composer himself.  The pace picks up and "scream chords" blazed.  The ending (harps, strings and high winds) was drawn out carefully, opening outwards, not closing in.

The brisk figure that opens the first Scherzo breaks tranquility still further. The strings attempt to recreate the poise of the Adagio but the horns blast it away. I'd like to hear Dausgaard take more risks, even making it more grotesque, for Weltlauf loosely translates as "world running", the world hurtling on its way, mocking the idea that things can never change.  Like Purgatory in theology, the Purgatorio is short but transitional.  On the title page of the second Scherzo, Mahler writes “The Devil is dancing it with me! Madness, seize me … destroy me! Let me forget that I exist, so that I cease to be.” But a careful observer will note that Mahler then adds “dass ich ver ….” (so that I ….) and trails off without completing the idea. It’s a preposition, but this whole work is a kind of preposition, open ended because it isn't complete.  Dausgaard made more of the dreamy waltz that circulates through this section, though, suggesting that the dialogue in the Adagio continues, though it has changed.   Mahler wrote of the Fireman's Funeral in the Finale.  "Only you [Alma] knows what it means".  So it means something, even if we'll never know exactly what.  Here the funeral march solidity wasn't strongly defined though the more delicate "footsteps" were nicely done, leading to the drumstrokes and brooding brass and woodwinds. The resolution that follows ascended slowly upwards, the strings shimmering, the horns calling as hunting horns do. Or the trumpets of angels.  Who knows?  But Mahler isn't standing still.

Every performance teaches you something about the music, and the perspectives from which  it is approached.   Dausgaard's good on detail, carefully building up textures. The piccolo could be heard, even surrounded by tubas, the flutes best of all.  He's less strong on destination.  I prefer more incisive M10's, with stronger forward thrust, where a sense of trauma intensifies the power of the Finale, but this performance was satisfying enough to make me hope for more from Dausgaard and the BBC SSO.

Listening to Mahler's Unfinished after Schubert's Unfinished was also rewarding. While Mahler left plenty for Cooke, Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers to work on, Schubert's manuscripts leave little trace of what might have been.  For all we know, Schubert might have  had other things to do.    The two movements are fairly similar. but we're left hanging.  Nonetheless, what  we do have is so lovely, it hardly matters.  But we cannot avoid the fact that Mahler had every intention of completing his manuscript, nor dismiss the substantial material he did leave behind.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Peer Gynt - naked Charlton Heston, aged 17

Long before Ben Hur, Charlton Heston as Peer Gynt ! Charlton Heston, aged 17, in the surprisingly sensitive film based on Ibsen and Grieg's Peer Gynt.  The film was made in the summer of 1941 as a school project  at New Trier High School in Willamette, where Heston was a student.  It was filmed in the woods in Illinois and Wisconsin, where thousands of Norwegian immigrated during bthe 19th and 20th century.  At one time, there were more Norwegian newspapers in that part of America than there were in Norway.  So the film doesn't need much in the way of sets, using the landscape as it was.  Real mountains, valleys and forests and rivers that can pass for fjords.

The actors were students, most of whom can't act, but look healthy and enthusiastic.  Kids then didn't do dope, TV or computers.  Their faces are so fresh, they don't look like they've ever worn makeup. Although the film is clumsily made, that very naivety suits the story much better than something more sophisticated.

It's also good that the film was shot without spoken dialogue.  The actors' mouths move, without sound, like in a silent movie. Even this is a plus, because it adds to the sense that the story exists in a strange, eternal world  outside time and place, where trolls live, and from which Peer can escape predicaments as if by magic.  The sound track, a recording of Grieg, was added after filming.  The recording quality is horrible, but I quite like the clumsiness because it fits the gaucheness of the film and the primeval nature of the story.  I have watched with the sound off, while playing a CD, but that doesn't work.

Enjoy the village wedding, and the march of the trolls, with their crude costumes and lumpy dancing.  The Bøygen though, was made for the movies. A disembodied head appears ,wobbling in front of dark curtains. He speaks - with an American accent !  Heston is, unquestionably, the star. After all, Peer Gynt lives only for himself ! The camera lingers lovingly on his face and body. He's often seen with his chest oiled up, his features lit so he resembles a  Greek God.  He's so beautiful that you can see why Peer is so much in love with himself. (Heston has a slight , ironic smile, he knows it's only a movie).  The crew were amateurs, too, though the director, who also wielded a camera, David Bradley went on to a proper career in Hollywood.  He was also one the cameramen : maybe we can tell, since some angles and frames are very inventive, while others are shot without much imagination.

Nice dressing up games in the Desert scenes, shot on a beach, the women in bikinis, the "Arabs" playing home made instruments.  No sound, of course, leave that to Grieg.  When sound does again intrude, it happens when Peer grows old and hears Solveig's Song (badly sung, in English).  Please also see my other pieces on Grieg and on Peer Gynt . HERE is a link to my description of the two main recordings of the incidental music with added text. Ole-Kristian Ruud and Guillaume Tournaire. Time for a new one, I hope.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Lise Davidsen Luonnotar steals whole Prom ! Storgårds BBCPO

At the BBC Proms, Lise Davidsen stole the show with a spectacular Sibelius Luonnotar. op 17 (1913). Luonnotar is a life force exploding with such intensity that its spirit seemed to spring from the depths of Sibelius's soul, materializing in his score.  At the time it was written, Sibelius was at a crossroads. With his Fourth Symphony he was reaching towards new horizons but hadn’t quite come to terms with their implications. He was approaching uncharted waters and the prospect was daunting. As before, he turned to the ur-source of Finnish mythology for inspiration.
Luonnotar was written for, and premiered by the great Finnish soprano Aino Ackté.  Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was another early champion. When she sang it in Helsinki in 1955, she was moved to say that it was the "best thing she had ever done in her life". There is a clip of this performance but sound quality is poor. Schwarzkopf had guts: until then, most sopranos steered clear of this piece unless they were Finnish (a beautiful language, but tricky to sing) and weren't bothered about the strikingly modern savagery in the part.

Lise Davidsen's Luonnotar was mightily impressive.  Her voice is magnificent, floating the strange modulations in the line with well-judged poise, projecting the keening forward lines so they seek out the furthest corners of space.   Voice as tsunami ! Her Luonnotar is very, very strong, for Luonnotar is the mother of creation itself, forged from struggle.  Davidsen is only 30, so she still has a way to go, but she could well be one of the really great voices of our time, a worthy successor to Söderström, Isokoski and Mattila.  Recently she astonished audiences at Glyndebourne with her Ariadne : definitely a singer to watch.

Luonnotar is the Spirit of Nature, Mother of the Seas, who existed before creation, floating alone in the universe before the worlds were made "in a solitude of ether". Descending to earth she swam in its primordial ocean for 700 years. Then a storm blows up and in torment, she calls to the god Ukko for help. Out of the Void, a duck flies,looking for a place to nest. Luonnotar takes pity and raises her knee above the waters so the duck can nest and lay her eggs. But when the eggs hatch they emit great heat and Luonnotar flinches. The eggs are flown upwards and shatter, but the fragments become the skies, the yolk sunlight, the egg white the moon, the mottled bits the stars. This was the creation myth of the Karelians who represented the ancient soul of the Finnish cultural identity
.The orchestra may play modern instruments and the soprano may wear an evening gown, but ideally they should convey the power of ancient, shamanistic incantation, as if by recreating by sound they are performing a ritual to release some kind of creative force. The Kalevala was sung in a unique metre, which shaped the runes and gave them character, so even if the words shifted from singer to singer, the impact would be similar. Sibelius does not replicate the metre though his phrases follow a peculiar, rhythmic phrasing that reflects runic chant. Instead we have Sibelius’s unique pulse. In my jogging days, I’d run listening to Night Ride and Sunrise, finding the swift, "driving" passages uncommonly close to heart and breathing rhythms. It felt very organic, as if the music sprang from deep within the body. This pulse underpins Luonnotar too, giving it a dynamism that propels it along. They contrast with the big swirling crescendos, walls of sonority, sometimes with glorious harp passages that evoke the swirling oceans.

The last passages in the piece are brooding, strangely shaped phrases which again seem to reflect runic chanting, as if the magical incantation is building up to fulfilment. And indeed, when the creation of the stars is revealed, the orchestra explodes in a burst of ecstasy. The singer recounts the wonder, with joy and amazement: "Tähiksi taivaale, ne tähiksi taivaale". ("They became the stars in the heavens!"). I can just imagine a singer's eyes shining with excitement at this point - and with relief, too, that she’s survived! As Erik Tawaststjerna said, "the soprano line is built on the contrast between …the epic and narrative and the atmospheric and magical".

In his minimalist text, Sibelius doesn’t tell us that  in the Kalevala, Luonnotar goes on to carve out the oceans, bays and inlets and create the earth as we know it, or tell us that she became pregnant by the storm and gave birth later to the first man. But understanding this piece helps to understand Sibelius’s work and personality. Like the goddess, he was struggling with creative challenges and beset by self-doubt and worry. Perhaps through exploring the ancient symbolism of the Kalevala, he was able in some way to work out some ideas: in Luonnotar, I can hear echoes of the great blocks of sound and movement in the equally concise and to the point Seventh Symphony. The year after Luonnotar, Sibelius was to explore ocean imagery again in The Oceanides, whose Finnish title is Aallottaret, or "Spirit of the Waves", just as Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, tossed by waves. The Oceanides, written for a lucrative commission from the United States, is a more popular work, and beautiful, but doesn’t have quite the unconventional intensity and uniqueness of Luonnotar. One of the things that fascinates me about Sibelius is the way he envisions remarkable new territory, yet pulls back as if overwhelmed by the force of what lies ahead.

Prior to that stunning Luonnotar, John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestara in  the suite from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt (of which I've written HERE) and HERE where Davidsen sang Solveig's Song Under Storgårds, the BBCPO sounds thrillingly alive. In Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor op 129, their support for soloist Alban Gerhardt was superb, almost palpable, as if in symbiosis.  To conclude, Paul Hindemith Symphony "Mathis der Maler".  A garagantuan programme, pretty hard to pull off by any standards. I could write volumes but I'm all wrung out.     

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Elgar, Britten, Brian Elias Prom Wigglesworth BBC NOW

Toby Spence, Prom 32 photo : Chris Christoduolou, B|BC
 Four British composers, four different worlds : Britten, Brian Elias, Purcell and Elgar, Ryan Wigglesworth conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Choir, Prom 32 Royal Albert Hall.   Wigglesworth and BBC NOW delivered a very fine Elgar's Enigma Variations . The Variations are so interesting  that it would only be "news" if it were exceptionally stellar or not done well, so if I don't write much about this performance, it's because it was thoroughly satisfying though not "news". What was unusual about this Prom were the pieces around it.

Benjamin Britten's Ballad Of Heroes, Op 14, 1939  for example.  It' runs 15 minutes and is scored for (by Britten standards) a fairly large orchestra and choir, so doesn't get programmed other than in large-scale concerts where such forces are available.  Please read Paul Spicer's notes on Ballad of Heroes for Boosey &aHawkes HERE because they're comprehensive and by far the best, anywhere.   When I first heard the piece six years ago (Ilan Volkov BBCSO, Barbican) I didn't understand the piece but this time round it made much more sense.  The disparity between the poetry of W H Auden and the doggerel of Randall Swingler is a problem, but Britten uses it with a certain degree of irony.  Though the Spanish Civil War wasn't quite on the scale of 1914-1918, it was a modern political war, as opposed to a war between nations.  The International Brigades represented the idealism of the left versus the repression of Fascism.  Thus the contradictions in the piece provoke, just as the situation did. The piece is about a lot more than a conflict between pro and anti war.  It should be noted that the Spanish Civil War  ended in April 1939, with the triumph of the fascists and their Nazi allies.   The war is over ! This makes all the difference to interpretation.

 The Ballad of Heroes isn't a call to war, by any means, but a scream of frustrarion.  It's also contemporary with Britten's Violin Concerto op 15 (1938/9) expressing the composer's anguish about the fate of Europe. He needed to get away, in order to believe in his ideals. As it happened, his experiences in America made him realize that things there weren't actually that good. Some still sneer at Britten for going abroad. They don't realize what strength it took for him to come back to Britain and face what needed to be done.  Through his music, Britten showed that there are other ways to stand up to violence.  Six years ago, Toby Spence sang the tenor solo, as he did for this Prom : in the years between he personally has been through a few struggles, and has come out the stronger for it. Excellent performance ! (Please read my other pieces on Britten, on music about war and Ernst Busch)

Brian Elias's Cello Concerto, (2015) a BBC commission, received its world premiere with soloist Leonard Elschenbroich, replacing the dedicatee Natalie Clein at short notice.  It's a brooding piece making the most of the cello's dark timbre. Frantic bowing suggests movement and speed, through which rip whips of high-pitched winds and lively percussion.  Part way, the orchestra takes over, the cello biding its time with a growl, then returning to the fray.  Pounding brassy flourishes in the orchestra, not just from the brass.   I've written about Elias's Electra Mourns, Geranos and Meet Me in the Green Glen, released on CD through NMC Recordings in April. Read my review HERERyan Wigglesworth is himself a composer  and has always had a good feel for new music.
And from one of the earliest known British composers, Henry Purcell Jehova, quam multi suntm in an arrangement by Edward Elgar for choir, tenor (Toby Spence again) and bass (Henry Waddington) conducted by one of the best conductors of British choral music (and a stalwart of the Three Choirs Festival), Adrian Partington.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Berlioz Damnation of Faust JE Gardiner Prom

Berlioz The Damnation of Faust with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique, the Monteverdi Choir, the National Youth Choir of Scotland, the Trinity Boys Choir and soloists Michael Spyres,  Ann Hallenberg, Laurent Naouri and Ashley Riches.  Gardiner's Berlioz is of course not news to anyone, since he's been conducting Berlioz for decades and The Damnation of Faust many times, though his only commercially available recording dates back over  30 years. Thus the joy of hearing it afresh, with new forces at Prom 31. This was Berlioz revealed as a man ahead of his time - wonderfully fresh and alive.

Though Goethe's Faust is based on medieval legend, Faust, like Goethe himself, was a prototype of Modern Man, one of the first Romantic heroes, in the sense that he breaks the rules.  Significantly, Faust  rejects the values of society around him, obsessed by war and mindless destruction.   Berlioz's Faust is revolutionary, too, because the piece breaks conventions of genree.  Like Roméo et Juliette, (read more HERE) it's neither opera, nor symphony, and isn't strictly oratorio. It's not narrative but predicates on the idea that audiences know the original literary sources. And Symphonie fantastique's pretty unusual, too. Read more HERE (JEG  at the Proms 2015). 

In Faust's town, on the edge of the countryside, the locals are celebrating Easter. But they don't get the irony.  Jesus died for their sins, so they have no qualms about sinning again. With the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique, the archaic sound of horns and drums evokes a sense of endless time, as if we were hearing echoes of ancient battle, the past haunting the present.   This sense of Time, in Faust, is fundamental. Faust is an old man, who has spent a lifetime learning, in the belief that knowledge is something work seeking. But the world doesn't care, rattling (those fifes and drums) on its merry way to madness.  Berlioz emphasizes the time dimension, incorporating children's choruses to emphasize the contrast between youth and old age, knowledge and ignorance. Not that children are ignorant. Adults who scrap like kids are all too ignorant.  Thus the punchy briskness of the First Part : the world going merrily to hell, uncaring.

It helps that Michael Spyres' voice is young sounding, agile enough to traverse the elaborate flights central to French style. Faust's old on the outside, but his mind is sharper than most.   Laurent Naouri is a superb Méphistophélès. In Berlioz, the devil is suave, a sophisticate who dissembles with elegance and charm.  Leave brutishness to bassos profundo in other operas, and other composers !  For their first trip together, Méphistophélès take Faust  to a tavern in Leipzig, where students carouse, drinking themselves to oblivion, instead of studying.  Berlioz writes deliberately crude rhythms, blurry lines for the chorus and flatulent passages for brass.  Period instruments are earthy and punchy, expressing humanity in a way more polished instruments can never quite achieve.  Gardiner and his players let us hear the drunks swaying, arm in arm from side to side.  Brander (Ashley Riches) sings of drunken rats and Méphistophélès's of fleas. Vermin, and vulgarity.  So much for "le fatras de la philosophie".
On the fields and woods by the Elbe, Gardiner's approach and the personality of his orchestra add to the sense of pristine simplicity. The music becomes vernal, suggesting open meadows and fresh  breezes.  Spyres singing sparkled, and the choruses of gnomes and sylphs were well parted, with almost hypnotic effect.  The ballet music was magic. Then everyone marches off merrily in search of the vision Marguerite.
Thus the martial fanfare with which Part 2 begins. For a moment we can luxuriate, such as when Spyres sang the lovely phrase "Que j'aime le silence". Again, Berlioz juggles concepts of time.  He doesn't state literally what happens in Marguerite's bedroom.  Instead Marguerite (Ann Hallenberg) sings the mock medieval song of the King of Thule.  Everlasting love, past, present and future.   The Minuet of the Will-o-the-Wisps was particularly vivid, the orchestra creating the sparkling but spikey angles in the music so they felt at once magical and sinister. I swear I could hear a triangle glisten.  For the love between Faust and Marguerite is, like a will-o-the wisp, but a momentary flicker of light.  Faust has to flee, but Hallenberg gets Marguerite's lovely Romanze "D'amour ardennte flamme",  deeper and more intense than the childlike song of the King of Thule. Here, the orchestral melody is specially poignant with antique instruments. Faust and  Méphistophélès  slug it out in a landscape of forests and mountain peaks: yet again, antique hunting horns evoke a sense of timeless struggle.The children's chorus "Sancta Maria!" in keeping with the mood.
From the horror of the Abyss, the even more Gothic Pandemonium with its demonic choruses.  Jagged angles and crashing fanfares.  Ominously marvellous singing from the men of the Monteverdi Choir, thus throwing the angelic choruses that follow into even higher relief.  Limpidly beautiful harps and strings, and the name "Marguerite" called as if from Heaven.   

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

National Youth Choir of Great Britain Prom : Walton Prokofiev Karabits

Kiril Karabits conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra  and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in a Prom featuring Beethoven, Richard Strauss and William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast but the gem was a miniature, Prokofiev's cantata Seven, they are Seven op 30. If Seven, They are Seven could ever be a "miniature", that is. Though it runs barely seven minutes it's so concentrated that once heard, it's never forgotten.  Valery Gergiev conducted it with the London Symphony Orchestra in March 2007, nearly lifting the roof off the Barbican Hall.  At the Royal Albert Hall, with its cavernous capacity and raised dome, it might be less of a bone shaker, but is still an experience.  An ideal vehicle for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain to let rip.

The text for Seven, they are Seven is taken from a Mesopotamian script describing the beginning of time, when seven demonic gods control creation.  Malevolent gods, and violent.  Since Prokofiev was writing in 1917, we can reasonably assume he wasn't writing about Tigris and Euphrates 5000 years ago, but about Russia at a time of upheaval.  A loud crash, followed by a scream in which the whole choir can indulge in force. The piece is written for tenor, but relatively few have the dark timbre and forceful projection to carry off its vocal extremes, pitted against a huge orchestra and choir. David Butt Philip  manages well, his voice carrying over the thumping ostinato behind him. One man against the forces of hell.  The choral line is equally dramatic: repeated lines, some thumping, others wildly angular, wavering like flames and winds.  Suddenly the volume drops. Cymbals crash, timpani rumble. Butt Philip sings sotto voce, intoning mysterious prayer.

From a rarity to a hardy perennial, William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. The setting is again ostensibly Babylon, but the real reason for including it in this Prom was to give the Choir another chance to shine.  And they did! The freshness of younger voices adds to the sense of excitement: Walton's score is quasi Hollywood, maximizing excess, with brass bands thrown into the heady mix.  Biblical as its context may be, it's hardly pious, but very much a piece of its time (1931) when the jazz age still prevailed and the Bright Young Things partied like there'd be no tomorrow,  Belshazzar's having a rave.  "Babylon was a great city" sang James Rutherford, enumerating the treasures: "...chariots, slaves and the souls of men". Singing with unbridled delight, the choir seemed to be having a good time.  "Praise thee !, Praise thee !"  But as we know, parties don't last forever.  Ominous sounds from the orchestra. The King sees a hand writing on the wall "Mene, mene tekel upharsim". The  "Hebrew" sound of trumpets. the choir emphasising the baritone's words with dramatic finality "Slain !" Slain!"  Then we're back to zany 30's celebration. "Hallelujah ! Hallelujah!" Flamboyant riffs give way to ecstatic swoons.  "And the Light of the Lord shall shine on us".  Yet more ecstatic Hallelujahs. "Make a joyful noise!"  The photo above, from the choir's 2016 Prom,  illustrates the vibe so well.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Khovanshchina Bychkov Mussorgsky Prom

Outstanding Modest Mussorgsky Khovanshchina with Semyon Bychkov at the Proms . Outstanding because Bychkov is brilliant, translating the music itself into drama. Khovanshchina isn't really opera. The libretto is confusing : you need to know what's "not" there to understand what it might be about.  It I s anti-historical, anti-narrative, adapting the past to comment on the present.  The singers sing parts which aren't characters so much as symbols.  Bychkov reveals Khovanshchina as a panorama exploring the Russian soul through music.  That glorious orchestration expresses the glory of the idea of Russia, an entity far greater than Tsars, streltskys and whoever might be competing for control.

Significantly, Khovanshchina is very much a work where grand choruses dominate: the people as enduring community, rather than individuals, who come and go.  Thus the expansive orchestral prelude with which the opera begins: lush strings, lyrical woodwinds. Though the first scene is set in Red Square in the seventeenth century, the countryside isn't far away. Without those fields and rivers, the people wouldn't prosper, there'd be no point in rebellions or suppressions. The crowd in Red Square boast and threaten. The music here moves back and forth in rhythmic patterns, impressive and dramatic, but leading nowhere.  The drama really starts when Emma (Anush Hovhannisyan)  enters, pursued by Andrei Khovansky (Christopher Ventris).  She's German, part of a large community who'd settled the Baltic for a thousand years. When boors beat up on women all the time, why use a German, not a Slav ?  Emma's not a historical figure, but she symbolizes something. Andrei Khovansky and his father Ivan (Ante Jerkunica) fight over Emma, who wants neither of them.  Luckily, she is saved by Marfa (Elena Maximova).. Marfa was once Andrei's fiancée.but is now an outsider, having joined the Old Believers. Think on that. Thus the First Act ends with religion, not war, with the tolling of huge, ominous bells, hushed, reverential choruses and the resounding calls of Dosifey (Ain Anger), leader of the Old Believers, whom the Tsar and powers that be would like to destroy.

In the Second and Third Acts, the soloists take the foreground.   The constant to and fro in the score evokes the turbulence of the plot.  The text fills in some of the background, but essentially the singers are acting out a wider drama of which  their roles are only a small part.  Intrigues and paranoia: everyone at cross-purposes, grabbing for power. Though heroic trumpets ring out round them, the Strelsky are grubby opportunists, and Golitsin (Vsevolod Grivnov ) princely by title, not by nature.   The choral lines swirl, whipped to frenzy by wildly rhythmic, yet angular orchestration.   Part folk dance, part military march.  Even among the Old Believers, there is dissent : Marfa is denounced by Susanna (Jennifer Rhys-Davies).  Thus Dosifey and Marfa represent the moral heart of the drama, the writing for their parts the strongest of all.  Among a good cast, Ain Anger and  Elena Maximova stand out out. Breathtaking singing, with fervour and committment.  Marfa's part is even better developed, with a greater emotional range.  Though the Old Believers are paternalistic regressives, Marfa symbolizes Mother Russia, their true soul.

For a while, though, Ivan Khovansky feels secure. In Act Four Mussorgsky writes exotic "Oriental" dances, but a mournful solo woodwind melody suggest the luxuries might come to an end.   Although Mussorgsky set out to write "Russian" opera in resistance to Wagner, the mournful melody could suggest (to Wagnerians, at least) the shepherd's flute in Tristan und Isolde.  The chorus sings of Khovansky as a "white swan". Perhaps the melody is his swan song.

Intrigues are crushed.  We're back with the crowds in Red Square, but now the mood is foreboding, the choirs singing in fearful hush. Golitisin is marched into exile, his followers marched to their deaths.  Yet again, Dosifey is the spokesman who describes the action, in tones so sombre that you can imagine what's happening though you see nothing literal.  Trumpet  fanfares, thundering timpani: marches lead the rebels and to the scaffold. Or rather to immolation.  The choral lines stretch, as if fanned by flames and swirling smoke.  The brass and percussion explode.  The Tsar has triumphed.

So, too, must the Old Believers be annihilated.   The Final Act begins in gloom, long string lines suggesting desolation.  Dosifey's last sermon seeks solace in God : the orchestral colours around him shrouded, the choruses singing a solemn hymn.  The childrens' voices rise upwards, suggesting angels.  Though the percussion beats violent staccato, the choral line ascends, as if the Old believers were being lifted upwards by prayer.  Beautifully modulated singing, which seems to shimmer brightly against the darkness around it.  Although Mafra has saved Andrei, he still loves Emma, and she him. Mafra's love isn't tied to earthly things She and Andrei will die like "two candles in flames" for the glory of God, not alone, but with the community of Old Believers.  In the finale, the orchestra erupts, brasses blazing. The choruses sing, Mafra's voice soaring above. But heavy percussion pounds a funeral march, and suddenly - silence. 

Bychkov drew from the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing of ferocious richness: you';d think this was a Russian opera orchestra rather than our much-loved familiar London band.   Perhaps they were inspired, too, by the exceptionally vivid singing of the choruses, the BBC Singers supplemented by the Slovak Philharmonic Choir, and later the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School Schola Cantorum and the Tiffin Boys Choir.  Mussorgsky creates drama through the intensity of writing . By bringing this music so passionately alive, Bychov created drama from sound.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Ikuma Dan Hiroshima Symphony - the finest Hiroshima music of all

Ikura Dan's Symphony no 6 "Hiroshima" (1985). The photo above isn't Hiroshima, or Nagasaki, but a still from the movie The Last War (世界大戦争) (Toho, 1961) about an apocalypse in a Cold War future.  Frighteningly prescient now when trolls play power games with nuclear weapons for toys.  Ikura Dan (1924-2001) was an aristocrat from a wealthy samurai family.   His forebears were part of the Zaibatsu, who created the modern Japanese economy and banking system. His grandfather was Baron Takuma Dan, boss of the Mitsui Corporation, and Prime Minister of Japan.  Born into privilege, Ikuma Dan had all the advantages that his position offered him. He had a good education, both in Japanese and international culture. Yet he lived in times of unprecedented social change. When he was six, his grandfather was assassinated by right-wing extremists.  He lived through the wars against China, though he was not a combatant.  Like many Japanese intellectuals he had an affinity for Chinese culture. He died in Suzhou.

The western media thinks almost exclusively in English-language terms, blanking out the experience of other cultures and peoples.  It's not easy to learn about non-western cultures, but try we must, for the distorted imbalance of western media blinds us, trapping us in ignorance, bigotry and war.  Ikuma Dan is a good point from which to start. Many composers -- west as well as east -- wrote music for film, in order to make a living.  In any case, in Japan, cinema was an art form almost from the beginning, creating masterpieces of poetic power.   Even Godzilla is more than schlock! (read my Godzilla and the Tsunami HERE).  Being independently wealthy, Dan didn't write much for fiml, concentrating on orchestral music -- even symphonies -- opera, ballet and chamber music.

Shrill whirring marks the start of Dan's Hiroshima Symphony. Suddenly a blast, then silence and the eerie cry of a lone woodwind instrument. Swirling, turbulent figures ascend upwards. Tense, angular figures. Fierce ostinato, interspersed with themes where staccato notes  fly in flurries.  Long, sweeping lines in the strings, reaching out as if searching, yet also smothering the other layers in the music. Yet other textures emerge. The searching lines clear to reveal the high-pitched solo woodwind, calling into space. It's intriguing. A nohkan is a flute with a high tessitura that can range over two octaves and carry across a large performing space.   Dominant chords for strings, brass and winds in more or less unison return, but the lone woodwind struggles against them. Trumpets scream strident lines, marked by the thud of timpani. The strings soar ever upwards gradually breaking from the relentless ostinato.  A harp sounds, introducing a new motif, also soaring but more subtle.  Delicate hints of lyrical melody peak out from the gloom, and the woodwind reappears, now more confident, singing its strange melody. It's much more interesting than the orchestral lines with their very western timbre, which dominates for many measures.  Significantly, the nohkan was invented in the fifteenth century, long before the modern concert orchestra.   The nohkan will not be beaten. It screams, holding legato at a very high pitch, Very dramatic and highly original.  Not concertante in the least but a battle of wits between large forces and a wayward, elusive solo instrument  played with such intensity that it holds the orchestra at bay.  A descent into ominous semi-silence.

Zingy zig-zag figures fly fiercely as the second movement, an Allegro ritmico, begins. The pace is fleet, dizzying lines giving way to oddly dance-like snippets, broken by violent staccato. Pastiche "Japonisme" stepping rhythms and crashing cymbals alternate with trumpets and heavier plodding figures, possibly meant to sound borderline vulgar.  Tempi grow faster, almost to whirlwind. Suddenly, the  nohkan breaks through, the music now properly Japanese.   Imagine  a bird singing in a wilderness, or a stream trickling in the forest around a temple.  Frenzied figures return, hurtling on in new directions.  The orchestra  swells up again, highlighted with drums, trumpets, bells and crashing percussion. Something is changing, somehow.

The Andante, marked sostenuto e funebre, is an elegy. and particularly sophisticated. From a steady opening,  the woodwind returns, but now is joined by another even more "Japanese" woodwind, a hollow-toned instrument called a shinobue, used in ttraditional folk and ritual music.  At first this sings fitfully, in broken phrases, overwhelmed by the swirling forces in the orchestra.  Soon, though, it gathers force, as if inspired by the more dominant woodwind. Together they dialogue, pushing back the "shadows" in the orchestra. The hollow-voiced woodwind now sings more than brief snatches. Its melody is like an ancient Japanese folk tune, fragile, yet strong enough to assert itself against the orchestra around it.   It seems timeless.  Now the "voice" becomes human. A soprano replicates the lines of the woodwinds.  She sings long, searching lines like the lines of the strings earlier in the symphony.  the writing for brass is interesting, too - smokey and mysterious, no longer strident.  It's as if all the elements that had gone before were being combined and renewed . A crescendo builds up, and the orchestra swells up, singing   I don't know what this means, but the effect is inspiring. Hence the photo here of doves being released before the bombed building that is the memorial at Hiroshima.  Fluttering wings symbolize the triumph of hope over hate.  Perhaps, a new, more positive dawn is emerging, and it's beautiful.

Frankly, I don't know why Penderecki's Threnody gets so much publicity.  It's fame lies in its title, but that  title is bogus and exploitative.  It wasn't written "for the victims of Hiroshima", but was dreamed up for a premiere   As music, it's also not nearly as well written as Ohki and Dan's Hiroshima symphonies, which are sincere.  (Read more sbout Ohki HERE and HERE.)  Ikuma Dan';s Hiroshima is the real thing,  written by a composer who knew from personal experience what Hiroshima meant and how it connects to Japanese history and to world humanity. So let's give Ikuma Dan the honour he deserves.

If you like this, please read about Toru Takemitsu's Requiem HERE  and about Japanese art movies about war, like The Burmese Harp  HERE and  Kobayashi's three part saga The Human Condition HERE

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Handel Israel in Eygpt William Christie Prom

Handel's Israel in Egypt with William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, a performance space big enough to create the sense of occasion that made the oratorio a favourite with 19th century audiences.  The first recording, made at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1888 with 4000 voices, is hard to listen to, but even with modern technology one wonders what a chorus of thousands would have sounded like  in the circumstances.  Fortunately, modern performance practice emphasizes quality, not quantity. William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age oif Enlightenment are Handel specialists par excellence.  Even by their high standards this was wonderful. Period inspired practice highlights the music itself, illuminated and remade anew. This performance seemed to glow, the voices ringing pure and clean, the orchestra alert and alive.

Sombre, regular drum rolls "raise the curtain" to the drama,f or Israel in Egypt is a drama, despite the Biblical context.  The choral writing in the First Part unfolds like a grand procession: note the phrases in the text, repeated in succession, suggesting massed forces. No need for a cast of thousands: Handel's already written panorama into his score.With the Choir of the Age of Enlightenmnet, we can hear the individual voices in the crowd. An important consideration, since much of the beauty of the piece depends on the blending of voices,and patterns in the musical line. When the chorus then explodes in uniso -  "Come ! Come!"-  the effect is highly charged.  When the clear, piping solo voice emerges from the tumult, it's extraordinarily moving. The voice is pure, yet vulnerable, like the young, isolated Joseph, perhaps, and the spirit of the people of Israel, in exile, yet uncowed.  When the chorus returns, a single horn is heard, unaccompanied. Again, the beauty and validity of period instrumentation.

If Part 1 is a deeply felt, personal Requiem, Parts 2 and 3 are, as William Christie says in the interval broadcast, "Hollywood. We're essentially creating a vast fresco of plagues, and also the extraordinary exit of the Jews from Egypt. So it's a travelogue, as big as anything Cecil B De Mille could have created."   The second part begins with a recitative, the tenor Jeremy Budd describing the new, brutal Pharaoh who "turned the waters into blood", that last word pronounced with theatrical emphasis.  Then the aria for counter tenor, Christopher Lowrey: "blotches and plagues, on all man and beast". Florid decorative lines, gruesome subject.   Zingy, zig zag lines from the strings, underpinned by timpani and brass, vividly evoking magnificent forces.  Another sudden switch: the choir sing in hushed tones.  Darkness falls on the land: high male voices contrast with low basses.  The zig zags become ostinato, the voices matching forcefully.  A soprano enters, strings dancing around her. This extended lyrical interlude suggests that, despite the violence surrounding, purity will triumph.  The parting of the waves of the Red Sea, no less, even now in the age of cinema and computer-aided design not an easy task to achieve,  And Handel does it with sound. Vigorous playing from the OAE, and technicolor singing, gently fading into serenity.

Israel has now escaped Egypt: Part 3 is celebration. "The Lord is my Saviour" sang  the sopranos (Zoë Brookshaw and Rowan Pierce), the first of a series of lovely set pieces followed by an extended  trio of male voices (Jeremy Budd, Dingle Yandell and Callum Thorpe). In the choral passages, the balance between male and female voices was particularly impressive, the temporary hush broken by blinding light of the second section, which then elides into finely parted cells where single voices intertwined, itself followed by an energetically rhythmic sequence in which each different voice group sings in unison, garlanded around each other.  Christopher Lowrey's solo aria stood out.  Passages decorated by flurries displaying technique need to be kept clear like this.  Part of the beauty of baroque style is fluidity and translucent clarity of line. The use or non-use of vibrato s in itself a red herring, seized upon by those who don't get the aesthetics of style.  Again, the waters of the sea part and the miracle is recalled in recitative, the striking song of the soprano and the heady excitement whipped up by choir and orchestra,  Gosh, I love the sound of period percussion, so earthy and "human".  And so Israel and Egypt ends as it begins, with drums: the three parts, each so distinctive, are inextricably united.

Rouge 1988 revisted, a study in time

Rouge 胭脂扣, one of the great films of the Cantonese cinema renaissance, much praised but also much misunderstood.  Rouge is remarkable, a meditation on timelessness and fluidity. The heroine slips out of one time period into another, literally haunting her old haunts.  To appreciate this film, it's almost essential to understand the background, and the language. The English translation skims the surface.  Non-Cantonese speakers are left wondering where's the kung fu pace and violence. But that's the whole point.  Rouge is poetry, like an ancient  classical tale. Like The Peony Pavilion, for example, that 16th century masterpiece where lovers defy death to be together. (Please read my work on The Peony Pavilion as kunqu opera.)  But how are western audiences to grasp this film without knowing the background? Or even the younger generation, intent on denying heritage?  Chinese film is every bit as good as European or Japanese cinema. So a film as full of cultural references as Rouge needs context, and historical background.

Rouge starts in a fancy tea house, such as existed in Shek Tong Sui, once the red-light district of Hong Kong.  It's not a brothel per se, though services are provided.  Essential reading, Virgil Ho's book :Understanding Canton : Rethinking popular culture in the Republican Period,  Even those familiar with the period will be taken aback by the period detail. Customers are called "Twelfth Master " or even "Seventeenth Master". Families were big then, and, as the heroine says later "daughters don't count".   In this situation, the terms mean something different.  Luxuriate in the period detail in the set and costumes -  proper furniture of the period, not "antique" at the time, though it would be now. Screens with panels of gaudy coloured glass remind us that this isn't a place where scholars hang out.  Oval mirrors add a touch of "westerness". showing how "modern" the clientele thought they were.  And the girls! Glittering like artificial butterflies,heavily made up in ornate cheong sams that nice girls wouldn't wear.

Ru Fa (Blossom), who's only just started working, falls for Twelfth Master.They romp about, smoking opium,which was legal in Hong Kong until 1947.  He has dreams of becoming an opera star, she has dreams of getting married.  Oddly enough, his mother (who has a past) is willing enough, but his Dad isn't keen.  The Chan's home, upper middle class, though not rich, is also shown in period detail. Homes like that still intact in the late 60's and 70's. So how are the lovers to stay together?

Cut to modern Hong Kong, in the 1980's. A newspaper office, desks piled up with hard copy - no computers then. Though this was reality when the film was made, only thirty years later "modern" has itself become antique.  The sections of the office are divided by low wooden panels.  Yuen Ting's working late. His long-term girlfriend Chu's gone home, having grabbed a gift he's given her - new shoes (hidden meaning). In walks an elegant woman who wants to place an ad in the newspaper to find someone.  She's like a vision,in ornate qipao, her face painted, her lips scarlet with old-fashioned rouge. Even stranger, she doesn't know about money and speaks in stilted, archaic style.  It turns out that he lives in Shek Tong Sui, so she follows him.  She asks strange questions about the area - where is a famous restaurant? Closed years ago, now a convenience store.  She likes Cantonese opera, mentioning long-dead stars she used to listen to.  She's never heard of Chan Po Chu, mega movie star of the 60's and 70's.  Then she mentions that she was 23 when she died.  She's a ghost!

Back in his apartment, everything is unfamiliar to her. He has a fridge, he drinks Coke ("foreign Wong Lo Kot", he explains. a famous brand oif herbal tea marketed since the 19th century.  Girlfriend Chu pops by. She gets a shock when she realizes Ru Fa doesn't wear a bra.   The two women are complete opposites, Ru Fa wan and miserable, Chu modern and down to earth.  She wears oversize jumpers to hide her figure, unlike Ru Fa, whose business was allure.

Ru Fa is searching for Twelfth Master,with whom she committed suicide fifty years before. They'd planned to meet on the Other Side,but he's nowhere to be found. So Yuan Ting and Chu use their journalism skills to track him down. They use land lines, not mobiles - another inadvertent antique touch, reminding us that what is now will not be a few short years along the line.  Eventually someone remembers the Chan family. Twelfth Master didn't die, which is why he can't be traced in the afterlife.  Yuan goes to a film set where a movie about the past is being made.  Twelfth Master is no star. He's a beggar, who pees on his shoes, his dreams of glory gone.  Ru Fa looks on him in disgust.  She hands him the rouge pot he gave her long ago, reminding him of their pact to be together.   He calls her name, in disbelief.  Out of the fog of his present, a glimpse of a long forgotten past. "Ru Fa !Ru Fa! Don't leave me!" he calls, but she's gone.  

The stars are Anita Mui (Ru Fa) and Leslie Cheung (Twelfth Master)   Fifteen years after Rouge was made, both were dead, within a few months of each other, she of cancer, he a suicide, which in itself is pretty ironic.  Watching the film now is a much creepier experience than when it was new. The film was directed by Stanley Kwan, based on a novel by Lilian Lee Pik-wa.  Yuan Ting was played by Alex Man Chi-leung and Chu by Emily Chu Bo-yee.  In another episode of time within time, connecting opera with the HK film industry, Patrick Tse Yin makes an appearance as a patron of the tea house. Another irony ! Tse Yin was a megastar, from the early 1950's. He didn't need to make cameos in his (relatively) old age, so his presence adds another touch of timelessness.