Friday, 30 May 2014

Birtwistle - Yan Tan Tethera, Barbican


Latest in the Barbican's Birtwistle at 80 celebration, Harrison Birtwistle's Yan Tan Tethera, from 1984. For a change titles like "A Mechanical Pastoral"  add to meaning. The piece is "pastoral", a rumination on folk traditions which date from before Christian times. Whatever period these shepherds may live in, they connect intimately with an ancient landscape. Yet Birtwistle's music is constructed with mathematical precision. Perhaps he's suggesting clocks, as he has done elsewhere, alluding to Time itself, operating on many different levels at once.  Geological layers, layers of language, repetitive layers and interconnections in the score.  Yan Tan Tethera is a maze in music, like the mysteries that might lie beneath the sarsen stones and prehistoric burial mounds.

The narrative is extremely simple. Just as in a medieval mystery play the characters are symbols, not characters in themselves but links to cosmic truths. In theatre history, the idea of psychological character development is very recent indeed.  Alan (Roderick Williams) comes from the northlands, Caleb Raven is a Wiltshire man, who pokes the ground, looking for buried treasure. "I wave to him but he never waves back" sings Williams. Caleb Raven (Omar Ebrahim) doesn't like immigrants. His name itself hints at Cain and Abel, his surname sinister and his abode the mound of Adam. Alan came south against his will, driven by the sound of an invisible piper who is also the Bad 'Un, ie, a Satanic figure (Daniel Norman). Alan starts off with two sheep, who multiply to a large flock: Alan's wife Hannah (Claire Booth) gives birth to twins who mysteriously multiply while Alan is imprisoned under the earth by Caleb Raven, jealous of his good fortune.

Mathematical puzzles in the music, too - diabolic triads and triplet, repeated patterns that vary in sequence.  Baldur Brönnimann, a new-music specialist, conducts with unsentimental lucidity. Waffle isn't Birtwistle's thing. (Shame about the poor unsigned programme notes.) The very title "Yan Tan Tethera" refers to archaic methods of counting and measurement. so accuracy is of the essence.The Britten Sinfonia and the Britten Sinfonia Voices responded well to Brönnimann's tight phrasing. "Pastoral" in Birtwistle's case doesn't mean dreamy, but earthy and gritty. John Lloyd Davies' semi-staging. employed the image of sarsens, standing on flat plains. Now they stand immobile, but once they were transported from far away. In a piece like this, "singing" doesn't mean elaborate coloratura, but solid pitch and down to earth diction. Roderick Williams is perhaps the best baritone in English repertoire in this country, and Omar Ebrahim the best for avant garde (though Williams sings a lot of new music). Together the pair were ideal counterparts, two opposing poles, like the landscape they occupy in the score. .More on Birtwistle on this site than most anywhere. please explore.
Photo (top): Roger Thomas

Opera HD - myths and facts

Audiences for opera broadcasts in the cinema are old. That's news? The survey has gone viral. But here's where genuine local knowledge comes in. The survey  was done by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Excellent music and drama students but not necessarily sophisticated pollsters. It was commissioned by English Touring Opera. ETO is a wonderful, innovative company but its business is touring, reaching places outside London, where people might not otherwise experience live opera at all. The ETO is unique, and serves an important public purpose.  But one can understand why they'd be interested in the impact of HD, when anyone can watch the Met, ROH, Salzburg and Munich. Personally I think ETO has a special place !

The story, however, has gone international, raising a lot of questions that don't have much to do with the survey at all. Some have even blamed the  Met's problems on HD. So it's a good time to separate fact from fabrication.  Opera has been filmed almost as early as the technology has been available. In the 1970's Rolf Liebermann at Hamburg pioneered the idea of opera created for film, which resulted in works of genius like Wozzeck and Die Freischütz which combined musical astuteness with visual imagination. Opera films were often broadcast on TV, some even written for TV, like Britten's Owen Wingrave. So why should HD be any different?

Watching live streams is fun, but fundamentally not all that different from watching a DVD. The art itself does not change. Directing an opera is completely different from directing a film: the skills are not usually compatible.  An opera director works through character and motivations: a film director chooses angles which best bring out the intention behind the production. In a good production live, there's often so much to take in at once that it's often easier to watch something through the eyes of a film director. Real opera devotees often catch both the live and filmed broadcast, because the slight shift of perspective adds to knowledge and thus to enjoyment.

Millions of people can watch filmed opera in cinemas and online, who might never otherwise be able to attend in person. What's so wrong with that? People get old and immobile but they should not be written off as human beings. Millions grew up with audio recordings and DVDs. Of course their experience counts, every bit as much as those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Being in a house is exciting, even when you attend many times a week, but the primary aim is opera as music and as art, not the frills, the popcorn or fancy new stilettos. As I've said many times before, there are numerous different audiences, each with different interests. So there's a case for tolerance and inclusivity.

Filming opera is expensive, so it's not a universal panacea, however tempting it might seem. Some smaller houses have been burned. However,the reality is that the potential market for opera is infinitely bigger than house capacity. The Royal Opera House enjoys 95% occupancy, so there's little room for growth in those terms.  Film is an essential part of the business model. In 2013, 675,000 people watched 415 performances in house. Since 2012, over three million have watched a much smaller number of operas in cinemas and online. Go figure. Glyndebourne is a much smaller house - usually packed out - but it's so good that it can do deals with newspapers to broadcast online.  Statistically it just doesn't add up that film bleeds live. Online audiences may not rush out for live tickets, but so what? They are paying attention.

The game changes all over again with digital broadcasting. On 20 May the ROH broadcast La Traviata live on its own youtube channel.  In cost terms, this is more effective than sharing profits with a cinema chain. In Europe, there are online channels that broadcast recent productions as well as old. Siemens pioneered digital screening technology and paid for 3 years of screenings from  Bayreuth.  How do companies make money? Some charge, which is fair enough. If we care for the arts we should be mature enough to realize you can't expect good things for free. But the returns are simply the amount raised by subscription.  The size of the online market shows that the demand for opera is greater than seat sales alone.  There's a huge potential audience out there who are interested enough to care and to learn. Much better such audiences than the kind of boors who think they "know" opera because they can shell out for pricey tickets. Gimmicks like fast food eateries don't help sales,. The South Bank shows how artistic purpose is lost when artistic vision is compromised.  Online and HD grow the audience through education.  When  the Berliner Philharmoniker began its digital concert hall, it became the world's "home" orchestra,. Competition can be good or bad, but raising standards is good for everyone.

LOTS more on film and opera on this site, please explore

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall, Schubert

"In this Schubert Liederabende — the second in Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake’s planned series of four recitals at the Wigmore Hall — dark, sombre worlds evoking the romantic turbulence of Death and the Maiden were only briefly alleviated by radiance and light."   Claire Seymour reviews  Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake's Schubert recital at the Wigmore Hall in Opera Today.  

Please take the time to read this - extremely erudite yet sensitive and perceptive writing :

"This haunting intimation of mortality at eventide was followed by just a single verse of the intimate ‘Ins stille Land’ (To the land of rest) which perfectly expressed the Sehnsucht that Schubert instructs. ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’ (Gravedigger’s longing) brought the first half to a close. Nicolaus Craigher de Jachelutta’s somewhat melodramatic poem describes a gravedigger increasingly seduced by the lure of the burial places he digs for others. But, while there was force and anger in Bostridge’s frustrated cries at the start, there was no undue exaggeration in the performer’s depiction of mental distress and decline. The weaving semiquavers of the second stanza were skilfully controlled, the mood first elegiac then more restless and exposed. Drake’s transition to the slower third stanza was eerie, an apt prelude to the mysterious, mournful unison which follows, the latter disturbed by the piano’s rustling ornaments. As the gravedigger’s energy gradually dissipated, Bostridge increasingly withdrew: indeed, so introspective was his longing for release — ‘O Heimat des Friedens,/ Der Seligen Land!’ (O homeland of peace, land of the blessed!) — that there was a rare rhythmic error which Drake subtly resolved. A remarkably hushed sense of heavenly yearning infused the arcing lines, the piano’s diminished harmonies suggesting an unearthly transmutation. Bostridge’s final cries had an uncanny, sweet lightness; the extreme registral contrasts of the piano postlude evoked the expanse between man and celestial realms."


Broadcast Alerts - May, June

Thanks again to Andrzej !

31 May 2014 Die Soldaten Bavarian State Opera, Munich Internet video streaming

1 June 2014 14.30 Les Contes d'Hoffmann Vienna Internet

3 June 2014 Ballet : Balanchine / Millepied Paris Cinema live

3 June 2014 Matisse Live from Tate Modern Tate Modern Cinema live

 6 June 2014 19.00 Donizetti Gala Genova Internet

 8 June 2014 16.30 Der Rosenkavalier Glyndebourne Cinema live

11 June 2014 19.15 Galakonzert der Semperoper Dresden (Harteros, Nylund, Stemme) Dresden TV Arte TV

12 June 2014 Così fan tutte Bologna Cinema live 12 June 2014 A Small Family Business NT Live Cinema live

14 June 2014 19.00 Il Barbiere di Siviglia Genova Internet

 17 June 2014 Benvenuto Cellini ENO Cinema live

17 June 2014 Traviata Paris Cinema live

24 June Manon Lescaut ROH

18 June 2013 18.30 Berlin Phil (Rattle) Berlin Cinema live

18 June 2013 19.00 Henry IV Part 2 RSC Cinema live

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Thrilling 2015, 2016 - Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Thrilling 2015 and 2016 for Garsington Opera at Wormsley, showing how it's maturing, and developing a unique niche in the British opera world. As the curtain goes up on Garsington Opera’s 25th anniversary season, Douglas Boyd, artistic director, has announced two major developments - partnerships with The Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre, Stratford, and the Philharmonia Orchestra, London.:.

For the first time Garsington Opera is working on a joint project with the RSC with performances at both Wormsley and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford. It will be a rare opportunity to see an abridged version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, under the creative guidance of Gregory Doran, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, illuminated with Mendelssohn’s enchanting incidental music, played and sung by the Garsington Opera Company and Orchestra, conducted by Douglas Boyd. RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran said "A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, so I am delighted to be able to stage this bespoke version incorporating speeches from the play along with Mendelssohn's gorgeous score. It was one of the first pieces of music I heard in childhood and inspired my lifelong love of Shakespeare. This is a very exciting new collaboration with Garsington Opera, and I hope will appeal to lovers of theatre and music alike."

Garsington Opera will  also form a partnership with one of the world’s great symphony orchestras, the Philharmonia Orchestra, initially for five years, which will enhance the artistic quality and reputation of the company. Garsington Opera is also committed to the Garsington Opera Orchestra, which will focus on baroque, classical, Italian and chamber works, whilst the Philharmonia Orchestra will enable larger-scale works to be performed. David Whelton, Philharmonia Orchestra Managing Director said: “Creative partnership is at the beating heart of the Philharmonia's artistic approach, and the opportunity for us to collaborate with one of the most forward-thinking opera festivals in the UK is tremendously exciting. We are absolutely delighted to be a part of Garsington Opera's future, and look forward immensely to working together with Douglas Boyd and the Garsington creative team to bring extraordinary new productions of the larger scale 19th and early 20th century repertoire to audiences at Wormsley."

This year's season starts with Fidelio on 6/6, Offenbach Vert-Vert on 7/6 and Janáček Cunning Little Vixen on 22/6. Almost sold out! So look ahead :

In 2015  Mozart’s Così fan tutti  conducted by Douglas Boyd and directed by John Fulljames, Britten’s Death in Venice conducted by Steuart Bedford, who conducted the world premiere in 1973,  directed by Paul Curran, and Strauss’ Intermezzo conductor Jac van Steen, director Bruno Ravella.

 In 2016, Douglas Boyd will conduct a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin directed by Sir Michael Boyd, David Parry conducts Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri directed by William Tuckett,  and Tobias Ringborn conducts Mozart’s Idomeneo with Tim Albery directing.

Garsington Opera at Wormsley fills an important niche. It's Britain's foremost Rossini house, having presented 12  Rossini opera since 1995.  Read about the ground-breaking new Rossini Maometto Secondo commemorative CD (new edition) here.  It's also an elegant Mozart house. The new developments suggest thrilling new possibilities. The season at Wormsley, includes a weekend commemorating the First World War with a celebrity recital by Steven Isserlis, masterclass with Ann Murray, tours of the world-famous Getty Library and a symposium Peace in our Time? led by James Naughtie with Oxford historian Professor Margaret MacMillan, writer Miranda Carter and Jeremy Paxman .

photo: Mike Hoban

Monday, 26 May 2014

Julian Anderson Thebans, ENO - BBC Broadcast

Julian Anderson Thebans, from the ENO, can be heard on BBC Radio 3 HERE. Anderson is  adventurous, but by no means difficult. His work is approachable and very "visual" so it was inevitable that he'd get around to writing opera,. I chose the photo above (c Tristam Kenton) because it gives an idea of the layers and colours in the music and the way the textures interweave. Pierre Audi is a director who knows how music operates. Anderson's background lies in the English choral tradition, which shows in the choruses and the vocal writing. We need composers like this.  Thebans is good music, good theatre and a breakthrough by a major British composer

The whole point of Greek tragedy is that it's stylized and undecorated. Effusive wordiness would be pointless: the characters are timeless avatars. Frank McGuiness's text is minimal, so it doesn't overwhelm the beauty of Anderson's music.  Sophocles's plays were not written to be staged together, although they all deal with the same subject. So the fact that Anderson places "the present" last after past and future is perfectly reasonable. The stories are so well known that they should be general knowledge - no special training in Greek needed. No-one would expect any composer to set them word for word.

When Oedipus dies, we know that the curse continues til it wipes out his children. Anderson knows his Greek classics better than his critics do. Audi is one of the great stage directors of outr time. Here the stage action follows the music extremely well, visually and in the movements of the singers.The chorus sings from the upper gallery, powerfully dramatic. You wouldn't want to be sitting up there, but that's OK, the opera would work well either in a smaller house or ne much larger.

The second act is so good that it could be done on its own. I'd certainly recommend this. Don't be put off by the subject - it's been reworked for 2,000-plus years. What a shame it is that when an interesting British opera by a British composer comes along it's met with determined incomprehension. The usual crowd of booers who attack anything the ENO does on principle are fools. PLEASE SEE MY REVIEW HERE.

Henry-Louis de La Grange - Happy 90th Birthday !

Happy Birthday to Henry-Louis de La Grange, who is 90 today. Professor de La Grange is the foremost Mahler scholar, whose work has done so much to increase our understanding of Mahler the composer and Mahler the man. These concepts go closely together. Quite frankly without Prof de La Grange and his library, the Médiathéque Musicale Mahler, we wouldn't know Mahler as we know him today. A bronze bust made by Anna Mahler adorns the entrance to the building. Within are priceless documents in strong rooms - original Mahler manuscripts and letters. The bust was presented to Prof de La Grange on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Legend has that it was carried home on the Métro!
For many of us Prof de La Grange is a mentor, an inspiration and a much cherished friend. So, Happy Birthday, dear Henry-Louis, and much love from me, and thousands more!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Poulenc Les mamelles de Tirésias, BBC SO, Barbican

Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites starts at the Royal Opera House this week. In complete contrast, Poulenc's  Les Mamelles de Tirésias, at the Barbican, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, with the BBC SO, BBC Singers and a good cast of soloists. Dialogues des Carmélites presents Poulenc, the Catholic, deeply spiritual and uncompromising. Les Mamelles de Tirésias presents Poulenc as insouciant satirist.  But beware! Poulenc set Guillaume Apollinaire so often that Apollinaire's zany, madcap idiom came naturally to him. Les Mamelles de Tirésias is funny, but it has an inner strength, almost as tough as Dialogues des Carmélites.
Tirésias comes from Zanzibar, not Zanzibar off the coast of Africa but a Zanzibar of the imagination, somewhere in the French Riviera, bright and breezy as a painting by Matisse.  But Apollinaire was writing under the shadow of the First World War and Poulenc during the German Occupation of France.The satire isn't mindless.

Thérèse (Hélène Guilmette) is a tame married woman who suddenly decides to become a man. Her breasts turn into balloons, so up she floats and away. Red, white and blue, the colours of the tricolor, but patriotism this isn't. Everything's upside down.  Frenchwomen in the First and Second World War were urged to produce babies as some kind of National Service. Replacing cannon fodder perhaps? So when Thérèse says no and becomes General Tirésias and leads an Army, cheered by women, the poliiical undercurrent is pretty explicit.  Thérèse's husband (Jean-François Lapointe) cross-dresses and is groped by the kind of men who think that;'s what women are for. He hits on a plan to produce 40,000 babies. When the chous sings "Papa"  their voices are sharp, suggesting the crowing of a cock - another image of French Nationalism. and male chauvanism to boot.  "Silence!" sings the husband, but the chorus will not be suppressed. Oh well, says the husband, the kids can make careers in the arts - and in journalism, the art of manipulating words. Of course, the kids pop up fully formed, overnight. It's that easy! Poulenc even writes into Tirésias.s part a long vocalize that sounds vaguely Moorish - perhaps a reference to French imperial rule. Needless to say, the Establishment didn't like it at its premiere. Anti-militarist, and non-breeding Benjamin Britten did, and wrote an adaptation.

Very bright, zappy performances by Guilmette, Lapointe and a cast who understood why diction has to be sharp and tempi fast.  Ludovic Morlot livened up the BBC SO and the BBC Singers: they don't often get this intoxicating fare. The photo above comes from a 1917 performance of Apollinaire's play, showing the Cubist influence.

Before Poulenc, Fauré's Requiem, produced with great sweetness. Nice performance, but, knowing what was to come next, I couldn't quite take it at face value.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Youngest opera singer ?

This was sent to me by an opera singer who started singing when he was this age. It's going round the opera singer community, esp the ones with babies, who know it happens in their homes too. Enjoy the kid's improvisation at the end.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Royal Opera House 2012/13 financial appraisal

Some houses would go green with envy. The Royal Opera House has released its figures for the 2012/13 accounting year.  95% occupancy and 675,000 visitors over 415 performances!  Box Office receipts are slightly down from £39.2 million in 2012 to £37.2 million in 2013 (from 36% of income to 33%). Public funding remained at 24%, taking into account a drop of 1% in main initiative funding and a new 1% capital funding grant. Donations and sponsorship account for £24 million, up  from £22.6m the previous year.

Expenditure on performance, education and outreach remains at 62%. Spending on high quality performers, conductors, directors, chorus and support  means high quality product, which brings in sales. You don't get 95% attendance by accident. Net surplus was 0%, down from 1.4% previously, after 14 years of balances and surpluses.

With 95% attendance figures in the main house, growth potential comes from audiences outside London. Cinema broadcasts reached 215,000 people in the UK, and 131,000 in 40 other countries  Biggest hits were The Nutcracker (55,000 attendees in UK) and Tosca (28,000 on BP Big Screens). This refutes Sir John Tooley's claim that cinema broadcasts drain audiences away from live performance.  Broadcasts are now the way to reach people who can't come to London, but that doesn't mean they won't "ever" dream of coming, and many who go to live perfortmances go to the broadcasts as well   Even greater potential lies online. This week the Royal Opera House broadcast the current La Traviata live online via the website and via its own Youtube channel.The audience reach is unlimited, given that some operas on Youtube reach million figures. Although filming is expensive and high risk, distribution costs are lower. HD Broadcasts  won't really necessarily harm DVD sales if DVDs are used for ultra premium casts.

The ROH also gives figures for "Excellence" ie awards, critical acclaim) and three heads for "Education", "Reach" and "Nurture" which all involve ways of growing the audience and connecting with the wider communityMore details HERE.
photo: Elissa Rolle

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

For herds of Ochsen - Butch Hair Wax

Lucky tigers use Butch Hair Wax! Appearances are bluff. The Octavian Rosenkavalier Glyndebourne furore is NOT about bad reviews, which in themselves are no big deal. It's about BULLYING.  Even the gender dynamics is a side issue.  Are London music critics  any more musical than noblemen are noble?  These reviews were so lazy they weren't worth bothering about. But the self justifications are more revealing because they show how these minds work.  

No, a review isn't "the truth", it's opinion. There's a difference, except to those so arrogant that they think the world pivots around them. And any opinion is only valid insofar as it's well thought through.  Good writing involves analysis and respect for the art, and for others.

Baron Ochs comes from a feudal estate where his word is law. He abuses power because everyone assumes that's OK because it cannot be questioned.  Those who hold power by default rather than by ability fall back on tactics like demeaning and trivializing the damage they've done.  Which makes the damage even worse. Octavian and the Marschallin see through  Baron Ochs. Perhaps that's why these critics picked on Tara Erraught, though there was so much else to write about. In the real world, complacency rules: hence blind subservience to authority. If only life did imitate art and the values of Der Rosenkavalier were  taken seriously.

Please see my piece "Singers, looks and art  - who is Octavian?" about the many ways Octavian could be portrayed (not just one!)

Monday, 19 May 2014

Singers, looks and art - who is Octavian ?

Grand furore about Octavian  at Glyndebourne's Der Rosekavalier (read my review HERE).  At right, the first ever Octavian, Eva von der Osten, in 1911. Short, fat, dark and dumpy.  She got even more so as she grew older. Strauss thought she was fine. So what's  all the fuss about  now?  Strauss didn't describe what Octavian looked like. All we do know is that Octavian is young, enthusiastic and very horny, in the way young men who have just discovered sex are horny. Basically, Octavian's a puppy, the kind that will mount any leg available. So why NOT a bit of puppy fat ? It's totally in character.

How can anyone hear Der Rosenkavalier and not realize "Things don't have to be the way we think they should be?" Tara Erraught's got an interesting voice - bright and agile, with robust, solid depth. Erraught's a very good actress, who creates an ebullient Octavian, bursting with high spirits . Hers is a totally valid characterization, because we know from the score that Octavian's not averse to high jinks, cross-dressing and madcap japes. 
Kate Royal looks divinely beautiful, so even if she doesn't sing the role as perfectly as other Marschallins in the past, she's gorgeous to look at. Erraught's Octavian provides contrast. Who hasn't seen couples that look odd together.  Erraught and Teodora Gheorghiu's Sophie look right for each other, both naive and gawky. Which is precisely the point of Der Rosenkavalier. The Marschallin knows that Octavian is made for Sophie and not for her.It's not for us to decide otherwise.

Opera is theatre with singing. It is not enough that a singer looks good but can't sing or act.  Good singers can express emotions with their voices and gestures. And singers don't operate in a vacuum.  Richard Jones chose this cast well because they interact well together.  It's also not enough to sit through a performance without thinking how things relate to each other and  above all, WHY. But maybe that's too much like hard work.Never, ever judge an opera on the basis of still photos Passive listening is the curse of TV. It shouldn't apply to opera. The saddest thing about this furore is that so many people are rushing to judgement who don't know the performance, the production, the singers , the context or the background. Or the opera itself, for that matter. Erraught is young, but she has potential. It would be a crime if her career is derailed by the visually and musically illiterate.

Above another photo from the Dresden premiere, which shows that Octavian was about the same size as Sophie. Where do people get the idea that Octavian has to be tall? The Marschallin likes him because he's young and good in bed. Haha!  PS  Strauss was a man of the theatre who knew that opera is illusion. A woman in her 30's or more doesn't look like a teenage boy. Which says a lot about Baron Ochs and the Ochses of this world. Appearance isn't all!  Strauss could have written the part for a boy, bu he didn't.   

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Bagged by Baron Ochs Glyndebourne Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier opened Glyndebourne's 80th anniversary season, dedicated to the memory of George Christie, who created country house opera as we know it today. "My father loved Der Rosenkavalier", said Gus Christie."I think he would have liked this production", he added with a wink, "Though he would, as always, have had a lot to say about it". He's right. The more we care about an opera, the more we get from fresh perspectives. This 2014 Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier is provocative because it focuses on Baron Ochs and what he stands for. Richard Strauss polishes surfaces so glossy that we're dazzled, blinded to the sinister depths that lurk within. But think of meaning. The Marschallin lives in luxury, but she's not fooled. Like Sophie, she herself was traded in marriage like a consumer product. Baron Ochs symbolizes a system that places more value in crass commerce than on human values.  

The Marschallin, Kate Royal, appears in a nude suit, rising from her bath like Venus. It's audacious, but absolutely to the point. She's flaunting her wares. Her bedroom is invaded by merchants, each flogging some product. One is an Italian Singer (Andrej Dunaev). His song is sweet but banal. Strauss is sending up art calculated to please the marketplace. Baron Ochs (Lars Woldt) is right in. He's come to buy a bride, but he'll grope any woman available, even if the "woman" is a man.. Only when the Marschallin is alone can she be herself. As Kate Royal sings her last lines at the end of the First Act, the yellow and grey designer wrapping paper decor is transformed by light into silver and gold.

Octavian (Tara Erraught) presents the silver rose to Sophie (Teodora Gheorghiu).but the ritual goes wrong. They fall in love. The audience howled with laughter when the lovers locked foreheads and rocked together in unison, but the naivety contrasts well with the devious machinations going all round them.  Humour is a key into Richard Strauss. This Richard Jones production is lively but it contributes greatly to this Richard Strauss anniversary year because it shows how Strauss uses wit as a weapon against mindless conformity. Der Rosenkavalier isn't superficial,  it's satire. There's glamour, and romance, but it has a core of solid silver.

If there's a moral in Der Rosenkavalier, it might be "Things don't have to be the way we think they should be".  The Marschallin gives up her dream of love so Octavian and Sophie can have a future. She concocts a plot to expose Ochs for what he is: ox by name and nature. Ochs is lured to an inn so garish that anyone with real taste would be screaming to escape from it. Ochs's favourite song "Ohne mich" is a tune anyone can hum, but that doesn't make it good music. He's also easily fooled by fake peasant costumes. Och's knows what he likes, but that's the problem. He doesn't take any one else into consideration.  Lars Woldt's performance is outstanding, one of the sharpest Ochs I can remember offhand.  He's not a comic parody but all too believable. This type inhabits all walks of life, including the opera world. Woldt defines each word with precision, observing the changes in pitch with clear deliberation. Woldt acts well too, moving with animal agility. Ochs is not a buffoon but a man who gets his way by selfishness and cunning. That's why he's so dangerous. He knows how to use the system against those less ruthless.There aren't enough Marschallins around.

The words "Papa! Papa!" ring with shriill accusation. When Ochs is trapped, the stage fills with those whom he's harmed or could harm if he could. Strauss operas are often "busy" with numerous characters whose moment may not last long but who are integral to the plot. In this production, even non-verbal parts like Ochs's eldest son and the black servant are given "voices" that define their role perceptively. Ochs's son can never inherit, and the black servant can't dream of winning the Marschallin, but they deserve dignity, too.  Big on stage ensembles pose problems in  any staging. Here, Jones and his Movement Director Sarah Favie choreograph the interactions between those on stage and the sounds from the pit  with such detail that it feels that the score is literally coming to life.  Robin Ticciati's first performance in his new role was somewhat tentative in places, but in the last act everything came together, and the music shone in glorious savagery.

Given the many  Der Rosenkavalier productions of the past that have shaped our memories, performances are good all round. Kate Royal, a perennial house favourite, won great applause. She's so beautiful she seems almost too idealized for the part, but I liked the wry grit with which she sang her final benediction to Octavian and Sophie.Tara Erraught's Octavian was robustly acted with earthy glee. HERE IS MY MORE DETAILED TAKE ON ERRAUGHT'S INTELLIGENT OCTAVIAN. Jones developed Sophie with more personality than the part often receives, so Teodora Gheorghiu could sing it with charm.  Glyndebourne's budget doesn't run to megastars so lesser roles are often extremely well cast.  Michael Krauss's Faninal was extremely well presented - nice, firm singing and poise. Christopher Gillett and Helene Schneiderman sang Valzacchi and Annina with great character. Robert Wörle and Scott Conner sang The Innkeeper and the Police Commissioner. Even smaller parts were thought through carefully and presented with conviction. Richard Jones's style (with designs by Paul Steinberg and Nicky Gillibrand) isn't usually my taste, but his is a production filled with well thought out detail and definition. Ochs might not like it, but I and most of the Glyndebourne audience got it.

This review also appears in Opera Today

photos : Bill Cooper, courtesy Glyndebourne Festival  Opera

PS  In some scenes, Ochs is wearing typical traditional clothing worn in the countryside, even for the upper classes. It's not specific to Bavaria. It just shows he's provincial. Lerchenau is in the sticks - "Lerch" as in Lark. In modern parlance, he's a twit from Lark Rise!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Tomlinson triumphs - Harrison Birtwistle Gawain Barbican

John Tomlinson stole the show in Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain, at the Barbican, London. In  the Salzburg production last year, he wore a green slime costume (pictured at right) but this semi staging might have been even more impressive. We could see Tomlinson's every expression, and  relate to him not only as the Green Knight but as an  artist and human being.  His voice roared, growling with menace and portent: yet when he raised his eyebrows and opened his eyes wide, one could glimpse a strangely refined sensibility. "Who is it", this Green Knight, and how did he come to be? What are the more esoteric connections between the Green Knight and Gawain? Who is Sir Bertilak? Does he belong to Arthur's Court (since his wife hangs out there) or is he supernatural? How does he connect to the Green Knight, his next door neighbour in the forest?  And where is Gawain heading when he takes the First Step on his next journey?  All provocative questions, which can't be answered but must be asked - a choice that's "no choice". Everything connects, as in a tightly wrought  puzzle,  Tomlinson's insights into Birtwistle's world are unique: we're fortunate that the music will suit his voice long after he retires from other parts. Tomlinson's Green Knight is even more commanding now than it was 20 years ago. Those tricky long passages up and down the scale are difficult to sing, but are now enhanced by an overlay of Weltschmerz, that's quite endearing.

Like most people,  I learned Gawain from the old Elgar Howarth/Royal Opera House Orchestra recording from 1994, just re-issued by NMC Records (review here). Howarth is good - he premiered many Birtwistle operas , but Martyn Brabbins with the BBC SO are  even better. The complex layers and textures in Birtwistle's music shone, details illuminated to show their place in the whole, The  pace was electrifying, pulling inexorably forward, despite the murmurs of overwhelming doom. This conflict between opposing forces  reflects Bitwistles idiom - circular forms, ritualized processsions and progressions from which there's no escape. Gawain is hypnotized. Orchestra and voices are closely integrated. Morgan le Fay's lullaby is picked up first by the harp, its strings held tightly so when plucked it sounds like a manic lute, such as Orpheus might have strummed.  Brass and strings scream with clarity so intense that they might be expressing what the singers dare not articulate. The Turning of the Seasons has a stylized rhythm, like the rhythm of time, but Brabbins and the BBCSO  make it grandly processional. Hidden from view the BBC Singers sang the choruses, the sound beamed round the auditorium by Sounds Intemedia: a wonderfully theatrical effect,. Later, as Gawain returns tom the "real" world a quartet of flutes herald, a parody of trumpets, but also perhaps a reference to the Spring that is to come. Ingo Metzmacher conducted in Salzburg, Brabbins and Metzmacher are both specialists in contemporary music, so they can create Birtwistle's audacious blend of violence and - dare I say it - Romantic intrigue.

Leigh Melrose sang Gawain. Much as I love Francois le Roux, Melrose is  far more persuasive. Gawain starts out naive, so a bright, light timbre works fine for a while. On his journey to the Green Chapel, Gawain matures. Melrose's voice becomes more assertive. Indeed, he reveals Gawain as a younger version of the Green Knight himself. It isn't just that their music connects, but Melrose intuits the steel in Gawain's personality. He does't need religious incantations or magic armour. He's begun to find himself, while for Arthur and his Court, nothing has changed. "How will I live in this tyranny of virtue" sang Melrose with such resolve that you sense what he means by "I am the sudden guest, unwanted, raw, as winter weather, bringing news no-one wants to hear". Melrose isn't a bass so he can't sing The Green Knight, a tour de forces of the lower register, but he makes Gawain feel like a hero in that mould. (the photo shows Christopher Maltman in Salzburg).

Laura Aikin's Morgan Le Fay was more complex and subtle than Marie Angel for Howarth in 1994. There's a point to the shrillness Angel produced, as Morgan le Fay is dangerous. But she's not evil. Aikin brings out the sensuality in the part, suggesting that Morgan le Fay is an Earth spirit, a female version of the Green Knight.  Her lullaby was sweet and perverse, but sincere - how hard it must be to sing those ululations!  Perhaps Bishop Baldwin, chanting in Latin is a lesser, earth-bound copy, lulling peoiple to sleep with words they can't understand. William Towers, greatly underrated, sang the Bishop  far better than one would expect, given the limitations of the part. He's a counter tenor with a delicuously masculine bite to his voice, suggesting demons hidden behind angelic sounds.

Jennifer Johnston sang Lady de Hautdesert, as she did in Salzburg. Her rich mezzo colours the part so it feels both comfortinga nd seductive - all the more reason to respect Gawain for not giving in! Good balance between her voice and Aikin's. In their dialogues, their voices entwined, suggesting the dense undergrowth of a forest, where vines overlap each other, forming an impenetrable thicket. I closed my eyes better to listen to the way their voices overlapped. Did I see their eyes smile? I wasn't sleeping, just trapped in the wonders of their music.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts sang King Arthur, nice and solid. John Graham-Hall sang A Fool, bringing out the wisdom behind the mania. Rachel Nicholls sang Guinevere, Ivan Ludlow sang Agravain  and Robert Anthony Gardiner sang Ywain. How delicious those names are, a reminder of Birtwistle's zest for word play

John Lloyd Davies's semi staging was dramatic and to the point. No need for too much literalism. Gawain is myth, not history. The people sitting near John  Tomlinson when he went "hunting" as Bertilak must have had fun as he leaned off the stage, wielding his axe at them.

Top photo of John Tomlinson : BBC/Mark Allan, courtesy Barbican Centre

Lots more on this site about Birtwistle - more than anywhere else . Please explore.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Harrison Birtwistle - Gawain, NMC review

New from NMC, a reissue of the recording of Harrison Birtwistle's opera Gawain, being performed live at the Barbican tomorrow, part of the Birtwistle at 80 celebrations. HERE IS THE LINK TO MY REVIEW OF THE CONCERT.This was recorded live by BBC Radio 3 on 20 April 1994 at the Royal Opera House. Elgar Howarth conducted. Soloists included a very young Omar Ebrahim and John Tomlinson, like Birtwistle an Elder Statesmen of British music. Tomlinson is reprising the Green Knight again tomorrow, a role so suited to his voice and artistic persona that he's bound to be commanding, A friend heard him sing this at Salzburg last year, and admired him..

Twenty years later this recording feels like a glimpse into a distant past, which is rather appropriate, since the plot revolves around medieval myth, half-glimpsed through shadows. King Arthur (Arthur Greager) isn't a  merry man, though it's Christmas, which coincides with the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year, when sinister things happen. Morgan Le Fay (Marie Angel) and Lady de Hautdesert ( Anne Howells) chant a strangle duet, their voices overlapping, wavering up and down the scale., their voices underlined by an orchestra which seems at once to wail, shriek and murmur.  "The warp and the weft of innocence", the text perfectly describing the way Birtwistle's music operates.  Arthur wants dangerous thrills: long brass lines surge forwards, probing space.  Suddenly, silence, and Arthur asks, "" in an oddly conversational style. This interjection undercuts the complexity in the music but creates patterns of its own, for interjections recur throughout the opera, sometimes spoken, sometimes as the tolling of bells..

The Green Knight (John Tomlinson) arrives in the midst oif an amazing fugue of  screaming brass and percussion - the hooves of a horse from hell? The Green Knight is a figure from pre-Christian mythology, who connects to Earth spirits, renewal and death. Tomlinson intones his lines with gravity, growling along the lowest point of his register, then suddenly rising to its top, where even he strains, but the tension feels right. Magnificently theatrical. But what follows is even more powerfully written. When The Green Knight takes his leave, the Court is thrown into horrified confusion.The  "Turning of the Seasons" is pivotal. Wild cacophony, but meticulously delineated and measured - Birtwistle, a master of puzzles and mazes, doesn't do indiscipline.  Arthur cries, "it's nothing...nothing...nothing" repeating himself as if to nullify the horror. But perhaps he understand more than he realizes. "a game... an escapade, Christmas mummery, a raree show". Birtwistle relishes games and strategems, patterns in abstract sound. Winter turns to spring, to summer, to autumn and thus to winter, the music turning like a series of tableaux marking time and approaching fate. Wonderful choral singing, which lifts the action away from "characters" into something more primeval and universal.

Huge planes of sound open the Second Act. They're reminiscent of the beginning of the First Act, this time undercut by Morgan Le Fay's shrill, fluttering cries of alarm. She's Fata Morgana, a sorceress whose weapon is illusion. When Birtwistle describes Gawain's journey to destiny, she taunts and tantalizes. The lullaby she sings is poisoned. Lady Hautdesert tries to seduce Gawain, and her husband Bertilak hunts a boar. Seduction and bloodlust: talismanic references to "The Cross of Christ" seem powerless in this primordial struggle.Morgan Le Fay and Bertilak shape shift, creating confusion, as in a nightmare. Francois Le Roux sings Gawain, while Tomlinson sings both The Green Knight and Bertilak, suggesting complexities one can hardly grasp,. Eventually The Green Knight re-emerges. Instead of killing Gawain, he spares him because Gawain has faced himself. "I wanted fame, I loved myself too much, I'm guilty of cowardice, too". So Gawain returns to Camelot, a wiser man. Arthur and the court repeat the same old fomulae ("Who is it"). "Nothing has changed" sings Morgan Le Fay, "....except for dreams of fear and fame, except for lies.....". Birtwistle gives Morgan Le Fay a brilliant coda : the text may be opaque, but the music crackles and sparks. "Look in your mirror, you might see the the image of someone retreating before your face.Think only of dreams and promises..." The vocal line fragments into crazy angles as if a mirror were being smashed. Perhaps the "window" she refers to opens out into alternative reality, closed to fools like Arthur and Guinevere. .
Buy the recording here so the money goes direct to NMC, a not for profit organization that has done almost more than anyone else to promote the best of modern British music.  

More on Birtwistle on this site than anywhere else ! (see also Earth Dances and Theseus Games)

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Opera quest for novelty? Hardening the arteries of the soul

Is opera a quest for novelty? A depressing question, because it suggests a hardening of the arteries of the soul. Change is fundamental to civilization. Throughout history, people have been motivated to take risks and do better (or worse). The inescapable fact is that no-one can ever be a clone of anyone else, even in supposedly stagnant societies. In my father's last illness, he struggled to keep up with things. "Stop learning and you die" he said.

That's a philosophy that applies to all aspects of the human condition. Why should opera, one of the great art forms of the last 400 years, be exempt?  There are people who need to hate for the pleasure of hating. Resistance to change is a psychological trope, which manifests in many ways. The arts draw special venom from this crowd precisely because they're creative.  The very word "Regie" touches a  raw nerve because it's mistakenly associated with "regimentation".  But the arts by their very nature involve originality. .Mozart, Beethoven Schuberrt - all individualistic and inventive. Where do we draw the line on anything "new"?

The Anti League churn out the same objections all the time, all of which can be demolished by logic. "A  composer's intentions must be respected" for example. Composers aren't megalomaniac obsessives, though some listeners are. Or non-listeners which is often the case  with the anti crowd.  Nothing in the real world is simplistic. Indeed, respecting a composer's intentions involves engagement, not just doing what we think "should" be done. There is no such thing as non-interpretation  Even when we look at a score, we're connecting the marks on paper to each other. No two performances are ever identical, even with the same conductor, singers or orchestra. Good musicians live with scores, ever refining and developing their involvement. Directors are performers too, working towards enhancing the experience. The  notion that music doesn't change is nonsense. Why do we listen to recordings and collect multiple versions of the same piece? We aren't machines. We change, even if the CD doesn't,

The better the music, the greater the possibilities. What is so dangerous about learning something new even about something familiar?  The Anti League often whine "Why can't a director trust a composer?". That cliché can be turned right oin its head. Trust a good composer to have more ideas than any one person can  conceive.

Since there is no such thing as non-interpretation, every time we listen to something we're listening to how other people have engaged with, and learned from their connection with the score. Perhaps that's the crux of the hostility the anti-league have for opera (and most other things). You can hear them scream "What do you mean someone else's ideas?"  They don't allow any ideas other than their own,  yet see it as their divine mission to decide for everyone else. Why so much fear and hate? It must come from a deep source. But they are the losers. Minds that are closed aree closed to the very openness  that makes art so rewarding. 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Strauss Arabella Amsterdam

"It took the Netherlands Opera to make a believer out of me that the concept indeed had something substantial to offer." writes Jim Sohre of Strauss Arabella with the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam. "In the title role, the radiant Jacquelyn Wagner’s flawless account announced to the world that she owns the part for the foreseeable future. Ms. Wagner is an ideal Arabella, with a gleaming, warm soprano that has body and sheen in every register and at every volume....."No less remarkable was the (let me just say it) best-sung Mandryka I will ever likely hear. James Rutherford has a singularly beautiful instrument, manly, buzzing, robust, warm, substantial, and well, Terfel-ish."

"In a brilliant decision, the entire final conflict and confrontation scene was enclosed in that box, with characters almost literally bouncing off the boundaries liked caged animals. When the up left panel opened a crack to uncover a cramped group of eavesdroppers, it was as though a veil had been lifted on the characters’ psyches, suggesting a disturbing breach of privacy and decorum. Christof Loy has, on this occasion, found a consistency of approach, created telling stage pictures, nurtured detailed character interaction, and invested the whole affair with considerable wit and imagination." 

Read the full review HERE IN OPERA TODAY

Broadcast Alerts - end May

Thank you yet again to Andrzej!!

16 May 2014  Der Rosenkavalier Malmo Internet

20 May 2014 19.30 La Traviata ROH Big Screen Live

21 May 2014 ? Les Contes d'Hoffmann Madrid TV Mezzo TV

25 May 2014 17.30 Driving Miss Daisy: The Play Including Live Q&A with Angela Lansbury BFI Cinema Live in cinemas

25 May 2014 22.30 The Tsars Bride Berlin TV Arte

31 May 2014 Die Soldaten Munich Internet Bayerischetv stream

Monday, 12 May 2014

Birtwistle at 80 - Earth Dances, Theseus Games

The Barbican's major retrospective, Harrison Birtwistle at 80, starts with his opera Gawain. Gawain is echt Birtwistle. Just as the plot connects to ancient myth, Birtwistle's music operates on simultaneous layers. It's a good time to revisit Birtwistle's seminal Earth Dances (1985), conducted by Pierre Boulez.

Birtwistle said of Earth Dances that it is "like a giant labyrinth, whose formal units appear nearly identical, but wherever you are inside it, whichever corner you turn, there is some new aspect or perspective". The music has progressed from "foreground" and "background" shifts of emphasis to something more multi-dimensional. The title Earth Dances itself describes the music well. Comparisons have been made of this piece to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The ballet explored an ancient myth where maidens perform a dance in a circle of stones or megaliths. Just as Stravinsky combined different chords and twisted lines to describe the mysterious spells being cast, Birtwistle’s figures shift and change in mysterious, complex ways, as if he too were evoking, but in an abstract, impenetrable way, another Earth rite from an ancient mythic past. The composer said himself that he cast the material "in layers which could be compared to the strata in a rock face, such as on a cliff".

From the start, Birtwistle’s massive blocks of sound pile up, layer on layer, sudden flashes of percussion flashing light up through the darkness. The movement here is of vast tectonic plates, continents moving together, shaping continents. The movement is inexorable, almost linear – the action is within the densely textured units. Boulez conducts these forces with mastery. How difficult it must have been for the person playing those reverberating bass drums to hear the solo flute enter, or for the players to co-ordinate their separate parts without a conductor whose vision of the music is so vivid. Boulez keeps individual textures precise, despite the overall density of sound. Earth Dances is a favourite of many good conductors, but Boulez, to whom it was dedicated, brings tight clarity to this performance: a muddy, undisciplined reading would disintegrate into chaos. Ensemble Modern was augmented by key modern music specialists, to provide the vast forces. Virtuoso playing like this can't be compromised. I don't think there will be a budget version of this by some jobbing orchestra in a long, long time. 

In Theseus Games (conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Pierre-André Valade), two separate conductors participate, each conducting separate parts of the Ensemble even though the array of instrumentalists is smaller than the number required in Earth Dances. As with Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony, this reflects the way in which the composer deconstructs conventional form. It takes repeated listening to extricate the different ensembles, each playing at different tempi, intertwining and interweaving. This is like the Labyrinth into which Theseus enters, an adventurer into the Unknown. not knowing where it would lead, each twist seeming to open new vistas, which might suddenly and unexpectedly lead to confrontation with the Minotaur. What appears at first to be the "way" is contradicted by the other, alternate sound-world. A piece of music which so involves a listener in this way is inherently dramatic. Words would be extraneous. 

Eleven years ago, when I first head this combination of classic Birtwistle preoccupations  I wondered where the composer was heading next. The Labyrinth, where Theseus confronts the Minotaur?  Psychic powers ?  Sure enough, Birtwistle's next big hit was The Minotaur (2008) about which I've written extensively, and discussed with Philip Langridge and Andrew Watts who created the critical scene where the Oracle is consulted. In  Birtwistle's typically oblique way, the scene in which the whole opera pivots is concealed in a devious puzzle. There are parallels between Gawain and The Minotaur but I'll leave that til after Friday.

Please see my 30 or more other posts on Harrison Birtwistle. Part of the reason Julian Anderson's Thebans was badly received by some in the press was that they don't know Anderson's work. There is no excuse for anyone not to know who Birtwistle is.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Henry Wood's Jubilee RARE film

Recently released Pathé film footage of Sir Henry Wood conducting the BBC SO in Ralph Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music with 16 soloists The film was made during a recording session atb the Royal Albert Hall - see the engineers and their state of the art technology! Hear  how the announcer calls RVW "R Vaughan Williams" to avoid confusing listeners with "Ralph" or Rafe"

Saturday, 10 May 2014

BBC Proms 2014 top 10 picks

Still under construction, the Royal Albert Hall when it was being built on what was then open parkland. No dome! No roads! Is that Door 6 or Door 12?

Under construction, too, my plans for the 2014 BBC Proms season. Tickets go on sale next week, so get organized beforehand. Part of the reason the queues are long is that everyone logs on at once, creating a traffic jam. Often, it's easier to log on later unless you want a sure-fire best seller like Dr Who (not being done this year). Another reason is that some people log on then spend ages figuring out what to go for. Speeds things up no end if you plan ahead. My summary of the season is HERE.

These are my top ten picks for this year, the "essentials" for me, though I listen to at least 40 a year. Bookmark my site! Lots on interesting things on, which are worth catching.

First Night- 18/7 Elgar The Kingdom, read more HERE and HERE

Prom 6 22/7 Der Rosenkavalier - I'm going to Glyndebourne next week.

Prom 9  24/7 for the Glagolitic Mass which should suit Gergiev (avoid his other Prom)

Prom 17 29/7 (late)  William Christie Les Arts Flo Rameau Motets

Prom 19 31/7 Strauss and Elgar

Prom 28 7/8 Francesconi and Stravinsky Oedipus Rex, Oramo

Prom 47 12/8 Britten War Requiem, Andris Nelsons

Prom  57 29/8 Mahler 2, Harding

Prom 59  31/8 August Strauss Elektra - Goerke and Bychkov - wow!

Prom 73  11/9 Leipzig Gewandhaus Chailly Mahler 3

Friday, 9 May 2014

Giacinto Scelsi, the Hölderlin of New Music?

If Hölderlin had written music might he have written like Giacinto Scelsi (1905-88)?   Scelsi's music  and Hölderlin's poetry have a similar moonstruck quality. Both were artists for whom the term "from another planet" could have been devised. Scelsi's music is fragmentary and eclectic, but fascinates me because it opens out strange vistas one might not otherwise access, just as Alice in Wonderland follows a rabbit into a hole in a tree and discovers bizarre, alternative reality.

Scelsi, the great grandfather of microtonality, was born  into the Italian aristocracy. A cosmopolitan sophisticate, he hung out with Cocteau in Paris, and was received as an honoured guest at Buckingham Palace. Yet when he died died only 25 years ago, he was something of a mystery, a recluse who had spent most of his life in secure institutions. His music is as strange as his life was: bizarre, obsessive, and elusive. Assuming, of course that it was his music, since there are claims that it wasn't. Perhaps Scelsi is as kin to Ferdinand Pessoa as he is to Hölderlin?  Pessoa used many identities that corresponded with each other –  a precursor of the modern internet troll, though he was genuinely creative rather than destructive as trolls are.

At last a new book, in English, Music as Dream: Essays on Giacinto Scelsi. edited by Franco Sciannameo & Alessandra Carlotta Pellegrini. Please read the review here in Soundproof Room, one of the finest blogs on new music, for a detailed summary. Please also read this article the late Peter Graham Woolfe wrote in 1986, when Scelsi was still alive - very perceptive. More on Scelsi, Xenakis, Murail etc on this site, too, please explore.,

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Trail of MANY "missing" Mendelssohn songs

Big media coverage for a Mendelssohn song, The Heart of Man is Like a Mine, written in 1842. Because it was a private commission it was never published and remained in private hands. It's now being auctioned at Christie's  where it might fetch £15,000 - £25,000. Yet manuscripts like these aren't exactly rare. Imagine the media hysteria if some unknown work by Mozart or Schubert were found? When dodgy bits of "evidence" or  trivia about a composer come up, the world goes agog with frenzy. But a few years ago a trove of  46 "unknown" songs by Mendelssohn were unearthed, there was hardly a ripple in the press because the songs were found in  the Bodleian Library in Oxford, donated via his grandchildren, (of whom there were many). Some documents are more significant than others but some get money grabbing headlines.
Mendelssohn was so prolific that he simply didn't get around to cataloguing and publishing all he wrote. He was a workaholic, a genius in many fields. Apart from composing, he was a virtuoso pianist and violinist, a painter, an athlete, and a formidable organizer of orchestras and cultural events. He spent his gap year in the Scottish Highlands, in those days very remote and primitive. He died aged only 38, weakened by exhaustion. The "unknown" songs were scattered among his manuscripts, which have since themselves been scattered around the world. There's a big cache of Mendelssohn papers in the Bodleian Library in Oxford,  so that's where Eugene Asti, the pianist and music historian,  went to follow the trail of the "missing" songs.

Mendelssohn's penmanship was so clear that the manuscripts were easy to transcribe, even though the composer wrote quickly, with great fluency. Tracking down the poems was in most cases straightforward - Goethe, Holty, Uhland - but others proved more elusive since some were written by the composer himself, and in Fraktur, the old-style German script that most people can't read today. Mendelssohn's letters and papers provide background into how and when the songs were written, and for whom. Intriguingly, there are references to yet more unknown songs.

What's even more remarkable is how good some of these songs are. Nachtlied, from 1847, should take its place in any anthology of Eichendorff settings. Two lovely matching strophes blossom into swelling, soaring lines as the song describes a nightingale, greeting the dawn.

Altdeutsches Frühlingslied, also from the same period towards the end of Mendelssohn's life, is another masterpiece. The piano part is brooding, melancholy, figures repeating like circles, reflecting the despair that lies under the ostensibly cheerful text (Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld 1591-1635). Spring has returned after a hard winter, "everyone is happy, wallowing almost in pleasure" (wonderful idiomatic translation by Richard Stokes). But the protagonist quietly states Nur ich allein, Ich liede Pein. In the winter just past, someone very dear him was taken away. So much nonsense is written about Mendelssohn being "happy" and mindless. This song is further evidence how silly the myth is. Mendelssohn wasn't given to unseemly display, he didn't flaff about. But his emotions ran very deep indeed. The deeply felt intensity of the final verse breaks through the polite homilies to Spring, chilling the atmosphere. Mendelssohn's beloved sister Fanny had just passed away, but feelings as passionate as these spring from veryt deep sources in the composer's personality.

Part of the reason Mendelssohn songs don't grab the average listener at first is that they don't word paint the way we're used to. Goethe is famously supposed to have rejected Schubert's settings of his poems. There's no direct evidence he even saw them, but it fits in with ideas prevalent in Goethe's circles which considered noble ideas and text more important than musical invention. Mendelssohn was very much in Goethe's orbit. Goethe adored the young Mendelssohn, introducing him to composers he knew, like Zelter. So Mendelssohn is very much a part of that neo-classical sensibility, where people didn't do unseemly self-display. Nonetheless, Mendelssohn was far too original not to connect to the early Romantic mode. He just did it in a different, more self-effacing way. Mendelssohn songs are an important thread in song development: at times you can hear where Schumann and Brahms got their ideas from.

The Goethean mindset certainly doesn't preclude passion. Die Liebende schreibt, an 1830 setting of Goethe, is surprisingly erotic. The poet's so much in love that his whole being focuses on the idea of a letter from the beloved. Yet in his quietly observant way, Mendelssohn has picked up that the beloved does not actually respond. The composer puts his emphasis on the small phrase "Gib mir ein Zeichen", (give me a sign). The word Zeichen repeats, ever louder and more passionately, as if Mendelssohn is reminding us that it's been sent out in hope, and there might, conceivably, be no answer.

Lots of other beautiful songs, too, like Seltsam, Muter, geht es mir (1830 to Johannes Ludwig Casper). The young girl's thrilled by the physical sensation of being in love, like the rising of sap in spring. Mendelsson expresses her excitement with breathless, rollicking lines: you can almost feel the girl's heart beat faster and faster. The punchline's hilarious, the girl doesn't know why her mother knows about such things. This, incidentally, is a song discovered only in 2007 when the manuscript came up for sale, having been uncatalogued and in private hands for 150 years.  Asti's work is informed by his experience as a pianist, so his new edition of the "unknown" songs for Bärenreiter are specially valuable for practical performance. It's very detailed, lots of notes on critical decisions made and background material which will enrich interpretation. Serious Mendelssohn singers and painists need this work. HERE is a link to the edition on Bärenreiter's site.

The Oxford Lieder Festival brings treasures like this all the time, which is why it's such an important series for serious music people. Oxford Lieder was crucial in bringing the "lost" songs to public attention, hosting recitals of "premieres", where singers were accompanied by Eugene Asti himself. Some of these songs  were written for private performance, like Lied zum Geburtstage meines guten Vaters, which the 10-year-old Felix wrote for his father's birthday in 1819. His sister Fanny wrote a song too, it must have been quite some party.

Mendelssohn wrote many part songs because they suit performances where people sing and play for pleasure, not to display technique. In his understated way, Mendelssohn gets to the heart of why music is so much fun for ordinary people. The final song in this concert was Volkslied, a song where the whole ensemble could join together. Written in 1839, it was performed at the composer's funeral service a few years later. Different soloists sing different lines, but they unite in the full-throated final verse, Wenn Menschen auseinander gehn, so sagen sie : Auf Wiedersehen ! The last two words repeat again and again as if the composer can't bear to let them end. Yet the same notes appear throughout the song, in different guises, so if you hear the song again, it's haunted by "Auf Wiedersehen".

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Stéphane Degout Wigmore Hall

Wonderful Wigmore Hall recital with Stéphane Degout and Simon Lepper. Degout is one of the great names in French repertoire and in French baroque in particular. He sang Thésée  in the Glyndebourne Hippolyte et Aricie (read more here) and works with conductors like William Christie, Marc Minkowski, Emmanuelle Haïm and René Jacobs. He's also an outstanding Pelléas. Friends of mine admired his singing - and much more - as the "naked" Hamlet at La Monnaie. We were thrilled to hear him sing this wide-ranging programme.

Provocatively, Degout and Lepper began with Schubert Der Zwerg (D771, c 1822), usually the preserve of darkhued German baritones. Nearly sixty years ago, Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin shook the Lieder world with their unidiomatic but brilliant Schubert. Now, Degout and Lepper show how French style can bring out great insight.. Degout's higher, sharper timbre captured the eeriness in Carl Loewe's Edward (Op 1/1 1818)  sinisterly underlining the brutality in the poem.

The Wigmore Hall has been wise this year to feature the same group of songs in several different recitals, so we can hear how different artists approach them. In September Bryn Terfel sang  Schumann Belsazar op 57, 1840) (more here) , his huge voice emphasizing its vast panorama. Degout's Belsazar  emphasized the personal horror that befalls the King at the very moment of his triumph. Luca Pisaroni and Angelika Kirchschlager Franz Liszt's Die drei Zigeuner (S320, 1860), each with their own style. Degout's interpretation highlighted the sardonic wit at the heart of Lenau's poem, somewhat obscured by Liszt's preference for pianistic display. Lepper created Liszt's sounds of the fiddle and cimbalom, but Degout reminded us that the Gypsies don't care what the world thinks. "Wenn das Leben uns nachtet, wie man's verschläft, verraucht, vergeigt, und es dreimal verachtet" 

Degout connected this Liszt song with Kurt Weill Die Ballade vom entrunkenen Mädchen (1928), employing logic lost on those who don't really know the songs. The drowned girl putrefies. Even God forgets her. The gypsies are poor but they make the  most of what they have, while they can. For his encores, Degout chose Hugo Wolf Verborhgenheit and Francis Poulencs Hôtel. When life is tough, some gloomily philosophize.  "We French", said Degout with a sardonic grin, "We smoke". "Le soleil passe son bras par la fenêtre. Mais moi qui veux fumer pour faire des mirages", wrote Apollinaire, distilling vast cultural concepts in a few ironic words. 

Thus we were gently positioned to better appreciate the values of French song as an aesthetic subtly different from German Lieder. Degout sang Gabriel Fauré Automne (Op 18/5, 1870) , creating the melancholic mood so beautifully that the sudden crescendo on the last words "avaient oubliées!" intensified the sense of painful regret.  When Degout sang Fauré's L'horizon chimérique (Op 118, 1921) , I could hardly breathe lest I miss a moment. This was exquisite singing,,  each word elegantly shaped and coloured with intelligence, precision underlining the emotional freedom the ocean represents. Lepper's playing evoked he rhythm of turbulent waves. so Degout's voice seemed to soar. Agile, athletic phrasing bristling with energy, so the serenity of the moon in Diane, Séléné felt all the more tantalizing. "Et mon coeur, toujours las et toujours agité, Aspire vers la paix de ta nocturne flamme". Degout made each nuance count. When he sang "j'ai de grands départs inassouvis en moi", the delicate balance between emotion and restraint felt almost too much to bear. 

Degout followed Fauré with Liszt's Three Petrach Sonnets (S270/1 1842-6). Perhaps his grounding in baroque helps him sing Italian with a clarity one doesn't often here in these songs, but is in accord with the early music aesthetic of Petrarch's era. These songs can be done well in an Italianate fashion, but this showed how universal they can be. Lepper's playing was elegant, Degout's singing divine.

 photo : Julien Benhamou, IMG Artists

Sunday, 4 May 2014

ENO Thebans Julian Anderson scores for English opera

The English National Opera's Julian Anderson Thebans at the Coliseum, London, absolutely justifies the ENO's mission: opera, in English, and of national significance. Anderson is one of the most influential figures in modern British music. He's always written with a distinctively "visual" personality, translating concrete images into abstract music (Read my article Julian Anderson - visual composerThebans may be his first official foray into formal opera, but he's been heading towards it for years.

"Is this a contemporary opera?" asked someone in the audience. A good comment, since "isms" are irrelevant to art.  Greek tragedy is universal because it deals with concepts that transcend time and place. Its very power comes from abstraction.  Frank McGuinness's text distils the essence of the drama in a spartan (oops) way Anderson can tell the story through his music. Orchestrally, Thebans is so vivid that  I closed my eyes during the First Act to better absorb how the drama was being told by  the orchestra, and the interplay between orchestra and voices. Massive towers of sound suggest the relentless Fate that will destroy Oedipus and his issue. Pierre Audi's staging, with Tom Pye's designs,  reflects the music extremely well.  Strong horizontals against towering verticals giving form to the structure in the score. The choruses are very well blocked, their movements reflecting the movement, and the tension in the music. Towers filled with rock loom over the stage: Antigone, Oedipus's daughter, will be entombed alive in an insane, sterile parody of the womb of the Earth.

Edward Gardner conducts with savage but tightly controlled ferocity. Gardner chose Anderson's Symphony for his high-profile Barbican concert nearly ten years ago, tellingly combined with Walton's Symphony no 1.  He understands Anderson, and his place in British music. Gardner shows how Anderson's textures are created.  Gardner is wise to expand his portfolio and seek further challenges in orchestral repertoire. He could perhaps be the "British" conductor of choice, with a new, distictive approach.

The powerful blocks of sound that create such impact are not crude monoliths  but built up in  carefully delineated levels of density. Anderson knew Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. He knows how microtones operate. I also thought of Harrison Birtwistle, specifically  Earth Dances, where tectonic planes of sound are shaped by layers of smaller fragments.  Birtwistle's syyle is strikingly organic, as if it grows naturally from great depths. Audi's staging again reflects this musical concept. In the Second Act, The Future, lights shine through the towers of rock, highlighting the invisible gaps behind solid objects (probably styrofoam). The lights suggest fire, perhaps volcanic forces rising from the bowels of the planet. Antigone defies oppression. She is the "light" that leads Oedipus who has gouged out his eyes.

The Second Act, which tells her story, is exceptionally well written, worthy of being staged on its own as a stand-alone. A second interval after a 20 minute act would normally kill an opera, but in this case feels necessary: you need to escape the intensity. The writing for the choruses is also very good indeed. Anderson sings in choirs himself. Like Greek choruses, Anderson's chorus pronounce judgement. From way up at the top of the auditorium, the choruses explode, augmented either in numbers or electronically: the effect is overwhelming, yet the voice types are not muddled.

In this powerful Second Act, music and visuals glow black, white, indigo, red and gold. This intensifies the desolation at Colonus, the portal of Death. The music becomes sepulchral. At times I caught echoes of plainchant. The devastaion is all the more harrowing because we have just seen how the curse on Oedipus outlasts his death.

Roland Wood sang Oedipus. He has been unwell for some weeks, so we didn't hear him at full capacity, so all the more respect to him. I hope he doesn't harm his voice by pushing it for this premiere, important as it is. Julia Sporsén sang Antigone. Lyrical beauty doesn't necessarily come into this role, so Sporsén created the strength in the part well. Peter Hoare's Creon was superb, helped by the oddly sensual passages Anderson writes for the part. Creon's monolgue in Act Two is disturbingly enticing. Anderson also uses countertenor for good effect, so Christopher Ainslie singing connected to baroque style while also suggesting the surreal intervention of Theseus.  The whole Oedipal saga  circulates around Jocasta, though she's swiftly despatched fairly early on.  Anderson gives Susan Bickley a good aria, and Audi's costume designer Christof Hetzer further illuminates the past by dressing her - alone - in royal blue.