Friday, 15 December 2017

Verdi Otello Bergen Philharmonic - Gardner Skelton Moore Lynch



Verdi Otello livestream from Norway with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Garner with a superb cast, led by Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, and Lester Lynch (full list here) and four choirs, the Bergen Philharmonic Chorus, the Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegiûm Mûsicûm Kor, the Bergen pikekor and Bergen guttekor (Children’s Choruses) with  chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede.   The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1765, just a few years after the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra : Scandinavian musical culture has very strong roots, and is thriving still.   Tucked away in the far north, Bergen may be a hidden treasure, but, as this performance proved, it's world class.

Otello is one of Stuart Skelton's signature roles.  He's matured into the part, singing with even morer depth and richness than before, negotiating the range fearlessly, for Otello is a hero who has  achieved great deeds.  Significantly though, a storm is brewing in the orchestra as he arrives in Cyprus in triumph.  Skelton sang that "Esulate" like a roar, like a lion pre-emting danger.  But what was most striking about Skelton's portrayal was its subtlety.  His Otello is a man who has confronted overwhelming obstacles all his life and has no delusions about apparent success.   When he does find the love he needed so much, his inner insecurities prove his undoing.  His tragedy is that he's a good man, destroyed by those more venal than himself.  "Fuggirmi io sol non so!"  After Otello has killed Desdemona, Skelton's singing is coloured by such sincerity that, despite the crime, Otello is, for his last moments alive, revealed in his true nobility.

Skelton's Otello proves that make-up has nothing to do with artistry.  We see the "real" face of Otello and feel his emotions direct.  Blacking-up has been anathema in Britain and most of Europe for decades, and it should be.  Blackface reinforces the idea that people are defined by outward    appearance  It may not have been racist in Shakepeare's time, but it is now. .Otello is an outsider, as is clear in the plot and in the music. No-one should need a caricature Darkie to understand the opera.  So Bergen deserves absolute respect for giving us a white Otello and a black Desdemona - people are people, and equal, whatever the colour of their skin.

Latonia Moore is beautiful, in every sense. Her voice is lustrously pure.  She creates Desdemona as a  halo that glows with spiritual light, which is much more to the point of the opera.  Desdemona  is an almost visionary personality who sees the innate goodness in Otello and who is prepared to sacrifice herself for love. A soul sister of Gilda and Violetta Valéry.  Moore is also sexy, suggesting Desdemona's love of life. The natural sensuality in her voice intensifies characterization, for Desdemona, like other Verdi heroines, isn't virginal though her moral strength elevates her saint-like self-denial.  In the first Act, Moore was surrounded by the children's choruses,  all of them looking, and sounding, angelic.  One young girl looked like she had stars in her eyes - no wonder she was looking at Moore with genuine fondness.  Though the staging was minimal, it serves to enhance Moore's artistry, Her dialogue with Hanna Hipp's Emilia was lucidly intimate. Curtains and bed linen don't create personality : good singing does. Incidentally Hanna Hipp sang Emilia at the Royal Opera House. I first heard her in student productions at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She's good.

I was looking forward to Lester Lynch's Iago, too, after his Lescaut in Baden-Baden, where he achieved a hugely impressive dynamic with Eva-Maria Westbroek. The pair interacted so well that  they really felt like brother and sister, sparring and flirting.  Manon wasn't the only rebel in that family.  As  Iago, Lynch generated similar energy, his voice curling with menace, key words darting forth with venom.  Yet again, there's no reason why Iago "has" to be any particular race. Scumballs lurk anywhere.

This Bergen Otello is hard-hitting and emotionally secure,the orchestra playing with vigorous élan. A clean "northern" Otello (staging by Peter Mumford) and no worse for that. Otello is universal. It's not Mediterranean, nor Italian, nor Shakespearean but human drama, for all times and places.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Powerful statement - Rattle Metamorphosen, Das Lied von der Erde


By pairing  Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (Simon O'Neill, Christian Gerhaher) with Strauss Metamorphosen, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra were making a truly powerful statement. The Barbican performance last night was no ordinary concert. This performance was extraordinary because it carried a message. Metamorphosen deals with annihilation, the symbolic death of civilisation. Das Lied von der Erde confronts annihilation but offers transcendance, through metamorphosis.  Whether Rattle realized or not, the Massacre of Nanking started on this day, 80 years ago, one incident in a century of horrors. Music doesn't exist in a vacuum. It can enhance our sensitivity to what happens around us.

In Metamorphosen, Strauss overturns the cliché that strings are necessarily "romantic". His strings operate together like a chorale, in which the voices are too numb to articulate except through abstract sound.  Hence the haunted sussurations, generating a haze of sound which both suggests and obscures meaning.  The bombing of German opera houses was, to Strauss, symptomatic of a much wider trauma : the scenes of past triumphs literally going up in smoke. Rattle and the LSO strings defined  the textures so well that the effect was almost claustrophobic : moments when the first violin rose above the density shone, illuminating the background.  Rattle also, suggests how "modern" the piece is, with its subtleties and its Night and Fog ambiguity.

Simon O'Neill and Christian Gerhaher were the soloists in Das Lied von der Erde, an interesting combination since their voices are so different, and a choice which also intensified meaning.  In performance, singers interact with each other, and with the orchestra, so a good choice of singers contributes to interpretation.

O'Neill is a Wagner tenor, capable of great force. He's also a singer who inhabits roles, bringing out the psychology of the characters he portrays. Wagner heroes aren't nice, or romantic, so the metallic quality in O'Neill's timbre works particularly well in suggesting inner conflict.  Some of his keynote roles are Siegmund and Tannhäuser, men who have experienced life to the full.  In Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde,  the tenor does not want to die, and struggles against Fate. Defiantly, he raises his Gold'nen Pokale to drink himself insensate. Even when O'Neill sang the word "Das Firmament" he laced it with poisoned irony. The harsh truth is that apes will howl on abandoned graves. In Chinese culture where heritage is sacred, this image is horrific : the Id consuming the Ego, barbarity annihilating civilization. When O'Neill sang the words "wild-gespenstische Gestalt", he spat them out with a savagery that showed how well he understood the context.

In complete contrast, Christian Gerhaher sang with serene smoothness,  which worked well with O'Neill's intensity. DasTrinklied vom Jammer der Erde and Der Abschied form two pillars, between which the protagonist reflects upon his life. The voices don't operate in dialogue, but suggest  different parts of the same persona, as does the mirror image of  the half  moon bridge reflected in the pond.  Gerhaher had been singing for years before he shot to international stardom in Tannhäuser with an astonishingly beautiful O du holdes Abendstern, still his signature role.  Wolfram represents purity, the Wartburg tradition where battles are fought by song. Wolfram's a paragon, Tannhäuser raddled and cursed, but Elisabeth chose the bad boy, who had lived.  Gerhaher is one of the finest Wolframs ever, but O'Neill, is an excellent Tannhäuser.  In so many ways, this Das Lied von der Erde could have been Tannhäuser the Rematch, a level of meaning that's essential to understanding.

Das Lied von der Erde represents a traverse from life to sublimated afterlife. The images in this song symphony are pretty, but doomed.  O'Neill established the right emotional tone, while Gerhaher's serenity acted a foil.  The images in the text are pretty, but pointed.   The young men will no longer prance on their horses as they did when young, the friends in the pavilion will part. Gerhaher's calm smoothness reminded me  of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, who salves troubled souls. Lotus blossoms dignify Kuan Yin in Chinese mythology. The roots grow in darkness and dirt, but the flowers grow towards the sun. The maidens pluck them because they are edible : a source of nutrition in every sense. Eventually the poet/protagonist is silenced, with only a bird (woodwind) as guide (like Siegfried).  Then in Der Abschied  the journey metamorphosed onto another level altogether.  Gerhaher's singing here was exquisite, well modulated and even paced, the last words "ewig...ewig...ewig" expressed with depth and richness.

This Rattle/LSO Das Lied von der Erde was also outstanding because Rattle understood its structural architecture.  The work is remarkably symmetric, dualities creating internal links within and between each section. The singers’ voices are paralleled by flute and oboe. The repeating refrain "Dunkel ist das Leben ist der Tod" connects to the much more esoteric "ewigs" with which the work ends.  Each song ends with an emphatic break, which Rattle clearly marks, for each song closes a door and moves on. In Der Abschied, there are multiple inner sections, interspersed with orchestral interludes which serve to mark transitions. Whatever is happening now is beyond the realm of words alone: like a kind of transition in which something is gradually distilled into a new plane of existence.  Think about the Purgatorio in what would have been Mahler's tenth. A pulse like a heartbeat throbs in the early songs,  which gradually resolves into the calm almost-breathing stillness in the end.  It may be fashionable in some quarters  to knock Rattle on principle because he's successful and famous, but that overlooks the fact that he has very strong musical instincts.  And the LSO plays for him as if divinely inspired.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Nanjing Massacre - 80 years on


On 13th December 1937 began the six weeks massacre of Nanjing (Nanking) in which as many as 300,000 Chinese were murdered. That doesn't take into account the many others injured, those who died later of wounds and other suffering, those traumatized, left orphaned, forced into exile.  And Nanjing was just one of many incidents in the 14 years of Japanese occupation. Consider and ponder.  

Monday, 11 December 2017

Sabine Devieilhe Mirages - exotic French orientalism

Mirages : visions of the exotic East, a selection of French opera arias and songs from Sabine Devieilhe, with Alexandre Tharaud and Les Siècles conducted by François-Xavier Roth, new from Erato.  A stunning Ou va la jeune hindou (Bell song) from Delibes Lakmé.  Devielhe's agile coloratura negotiates the challenges so gracefully that they seem almost effortless, flowing as fluidly as molten silver. The decorations sparkle - like bells - evoking emotions an innocent virgin cannot otherwise articulate. Lines float with a legato which seems inexhaustible, and dance with sensual rhythm.  The natural freshness in Devieilhe's voice  evokes Lakmé's purity without artifice. If Devieilhe is still quite young, that adds tender fragility to her portrayal. Listen also to the way the orchestra replicates exotic "oriental" sounds with western instruments. Les Siècles' background in period-inspired performance pays off handsomely.  Also included here are a good Viens, Malika (with Marianne Crebassa)  and Tu m'as donné le plus doux rêve

Celle qui vient est plus belle from Massenet Thaïs, and A vos jeux, mes amis from Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, indicating whee Devieilhe's career will develop.  Berlioz La Mort d'Ophélie , Debussy La Romance d'Ariel and Charles Koechlin's Le Voyage show she's also promising in song, where Devieilhe is accompanied by Alexandre Tharaud.  But  there are  other treasures, too.  One of the many reasons why Roth and Les Siècles are so extraordinary is because they know their music history and make intelligent, perceptive connections.  Thus they present, together,  La jour sous le soleil béni from Messager's Madame Chrysanthėme, a French Madama Butterfly with Mes longs cheveaux descendent from Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande, a thoughtful juxtaposition which brings out the contrast between two almost contemporary pieces.   

Still further reason to get this recording is that it includes Maurice Delage's Quatre Poėmes hindous.  Delage (1879-1961)  travelled  to India, Indo-China and Japan, absorbing non-western musical form.  Although there are several recordings of these songs, most aren't easy to come by except for Felicity Lott/Armin Jordan from 1995, so it's refreshing to hear Devieilhe with Roth and Les Siècles who are even more idiomatic than Jordan and the Kammerensemble de Paris.  What gives this performance the edge is the orchestral playing.  Les Siècles, with their extensive experience in Ravel and in unusual instruments, create the exotic sounds  of the East of Delage's imagination so well that the songs have an almost authentic "Indian" flavour, even the one titled Lahore which is in fact a setting of Heinrich Heine's Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam, also set by Grieg, Liszt,  Delius and Stenhammer.  In Delage's setting, cello, viola and harp are plucked like Indian string instruments, while the voice curls sensuously around. In the song Bénarès, we might think we hear tablas and Indian reeds, but we're actually hearing western instruments played by musicians who have endeavoured to understand what their Asian counterparts might do.  When western composwers discovered Asia, they opened new possibilities in western form.  From The East to Debiussy, to Stravinsky (whose Le Rossignol is also on this disc.  Modern and ancient, in symbiosis.  With Roth and Les Siècles: "The unexpected is always with us", to borrow a phrase from Luciano Berio, another Roth speciality. .

Sunday, 10 December 2017

"I am not pleased!" says Sibelius re the Guardian

"I am NOT pleased!" growls  Janne Sibelius
The Guardian questioned whether Sibelius was Finnish.  Rejoinder: does the Guardian do journalism, or clickbait?  For the past three months, London has enjoyed two superlative series - Sakari Oramo's Sibelius plus series with the BBC SO at the Barbican, and Esa-Pekka Salonen's Nordic Days with the Philharmonia (and others) at the South Bank.   At a stroke the Guardian has destroyed the goodwill generated by these concert series.  So much goodwill  (and knowledge) built up. Then, at a stroke, the Guardian messes up. The article's become an international incident, picked up in the Scandinavian press.  Thank goodness they don't think all Brits are as stupid as our newspapers.  The Guardian later changed the headline and the writer apparently apologized. But if the Guardian was serious about journalism they'd look into what gets written in the first place.

As many have said, three languages are spoken in Finland - Finnish, Swedish and Russian, and huge parts of Karelia are now under Russian rule.  National identity is never simple or rigidly fixed, except maybe to Brexiteers.  A basic knowledge of European history would not go astray. Dare we ask that anyone writing about Sibelius might know who he was and what he did?   Sibelius's music found a ready audience in Britain very early on. His popularity helped shape western opinion, creating international sympathy for a Finland even when Britain and Russia were linked.  In the past, Finland was too small to have had strategic value to the west, so popular international support made a lot of difference.   Effectively, Sibelius was the father of his nation, a symbol of Finnishness to the whole world.  Sibelius was Finalnd's secret weapon ! Doesn't that matter?

Snow

photo : Roger Thomas
The photo isn't fuzzy. It's snowing hard !

Friday, 8 December 2017

Salonen Sibelius Finnish independence Lemminkäinen Suite

Lemminkäinen and the Swan of Tuonela
 Celebrating Finnish Independence (and Jean Sibelius's birthday) at the South Bank, London, with Esa-Pekka Salonen, Vilde Frang and the Philharmonia Orchestra.  A very inspired performance, Salonen and the players no doubt responding to the sense of occasion.  The Royal Festival Hall  was illuminated in blue and white - the national colours of Finland - enhanced with gold, adding to the party atmosphere. The powerful brass motifs of Finlandia op 26 seemed to loom out of nowhere, at once ferocious and challenging, followed by timpani rolling like thunder. The woodwind theme with its heartfelt sincerity seemed at first fragile, but fragile things can grow strong : that's part of what Finlandia stands for.  Like a prayer, like an act of faith, the theme grew firmer until the brasses herald it with joy, and the percussion crashed round it. Though Finlandia is so well known as a stand alone,  it needs to be understood in the context of its origins in the Music for Press Celebrations op 25/26 which we heard yesterday. Please read more here.

Vilde Frang was the soloist in Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor op 47. This is another perennial, played by eminent masters. Frang is fragile looking, but her technique is strong. the freshness of her style brought out the sensitivity in the piece. The spirit of the hymn theme from Finlandia ! The freshness of Frang's style . Very moving.

But the highlight of this concert was an exceptionally vivid Sibelius Lemminkäinen Suite op.22.  This is an early work, from the period of Finlandia and shows the young Sibelius finding his voice, drawing on the past in order to move forward.  Given that Wagner drew on Norse/Icelandic legend for Der Ring des Niebelungen, it would have seemed logical to create a saga based on the Kalevala.  Like Kullervo op,7 1892, and indeed the Music for Press Celebrations, the Lemminkäinen Suite is a series of scena, effectively four tone poems on the adventures of Lemminkäinen, a figure in the Kalevala.  In the first section, Lemminkäinen.and the Maidens of .Saari, the hero is youthful. Sweeping themes suggest open horizons. Salonen emphasized the underlying rhythmic pulse, for the young Lemminkäinen represents physical vitality. That's why he seduces all the maidens on the island.  Brief, more cautious figures, like an animal stalking prey, give way to exuberant rhythms : the thrill of the chase. Good contrast between "male" thrusting motifs and "female" dances and a very well executed denouement.  

Most impressively, though, Salonen  understood Lemminkäinen. as "abstract" music - layers of movement, shifting textures, swift changes of pace. There's a whole lot more to  Lemminkäinen than folklore. Salonen's approach is more sophisticated, musically, and puts more emphasis on Sibelius as a composer who understood structure, form and orchestration.  In the two movements in Tuonela, these multi levels  create density : shimmering sounds of great richness,  broken by sharp contrasts. The music tells the story. The swan glides gracefully. The "arrow" flies. The cor anglais melody indicated that something survives, but huge blocks of sound suggested overwhelming forces, looming upwards then crashing down.  In death Lemminkäinen's body parts are scattered, but he's restored to life by his mother, who makes him whole again.   Thus Salonen brought out the way Sibelius's music mirrors the narrative. In Lemminkäinen's Return , the line is once again vigorous,  the many layers united.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Finland Awakes ! Sibelius and Oramo : Finnish Centenary Celebrations

Finland Awakes ! Sakari Oramo celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Finnish Independence with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London . What a sense of occasion !  A remarkable performance even by their usual high standards, so powerful and passionate that it will long be remembered.   Sibelius symbolizes Finland to the west. The popularity of his music, especially in Britain, ensured public support for Finland in its long struggle for freedom from Russia.  When the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe after 1945, that legacy kept Finland safe. Music as cultural, identity, shaping politics and history.

Sibelius's Press Celebrations Music was veiled protest. Ostensibly written as a fundraiser for press pensions, it struck a raw nerve at a point when the Russians were attempting to tighten control over Finland and its press. The painting at right, by Edvard (Eetu) Isto, is Hyökkäys (The Attack). (1899)  The girl represents Finlandia.  She's holding a book which contains the laws of Finland, The book wields off an attack by a two-headed eagle - the symbol of Russia.  Isto, born the same year as Sibelius,  was an artist who made paintings of nature and folkoric allegory, as did Sibelius's brother-in-law, Eero Järnefelt, and their friend, Akseli Gallen-Kallela. From paintings to music : Sibelius created the music as a series of "tableaux" depicting key events in Finnish history.  
The first tableau is Väinämöinen's Song, its mysteries evoking the primeval world of the Kalevala.  In the second tableau, the Finnish people are converted to Christianity, significantly western Christianity, not the Russian Orthodox Church. This is further affirmed by the third tableau, Duke John in the Castle at Turku. Horns and pipes connect medieval Finland to Sweden and a time of prosperity, which would be shattered in the Thirty Years War, the first true "world war" when Finland was occupied by Russia in the"Years of Hate" (1714-21). The painting below is Burnt Village (1879) by Albert Edelfeldt. The woman is trying to protect what's left of her family- their village is burning in the background.   The Great Hate tableau is disturbingly dramatic, and connects well with Finlandia, though Finlandia with its heartfelt optimism will always be more popular. 

Sibelius himself conducted the premiere in Helsinki on 4th November 1899. Over the years the work underwent numerous changes, the seventh movement "Finlandia Awakes!" becoming the now famous stand alone Finlandia op 26, which also exists in several versions.  The full score was restored, edited and recorded only in 1999, so this UK premiere wasn't as long overdue as might be supposed. This new performance with Oramo and the BBC SO was so vivid that it completely eclipsed the first recording : Oramo/BBCSO is the new benchmark.
Two Pieces op 77, (1914))  Cantique and Devotion in the version for cello and orchestra followed, featuring soloist Guy Johnston, The cello is more mournful, deeper than a violin.  In the context of Oramo's programme this was appropriate because these are fairly private works, as opposed to the public persona of the Music for Press Celebrations.  But the spirit of 1899 prevailed once again, with Sibelius's Symphony no 1 op 39 (1899-1900). Hearing the symphony after the tableaux highlights the stylistic breakthrough. It's as if Sibelius's soul was being liberated. The violin part - Sibelius's own instrument - flies free, then invigorates the orchestra with its exuberance. Here, the andante sounded particularly moving, reminding me of the "hands on heart" theme in Finlandia. . Individual figures  in the wind and strings were particularly beautiful, lighting the way for the grand surges  in larger ensemble.  Tempi speed up into whirlwind, then retreat, and the heartfelt motif returned, warm and confident.  The scherzo moved briskly, opening out to a clearing where individual instruments again took centre place.  A romp, wild but purposeful: An exhilarating way to celebrate a hundred years of nationhood and artistic progress.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Stockhausen Tierkreis Trans, London Sinfonietta, RFH

Stockhausen Trans from the 1973 film "Trans ,...und so weiter"

 Stockhausen Trans and Tierkreis (Zodiac) with the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Pascal Rophé. at the Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday.  Stockhausen is important because he reminds us what music might be. Throughout human history, music has always served an extra-musical function.  Stockhausen's creations are "total experience" on many levels.  Trans came to Stockhausen in a dream, full of portent, its meaning elusive.  Behind a curtain of gauze, the orchestra sits, facing the audience. They don't interact with each other or with the conductor, but reflect the audience mirror image.

The seating plan is significant, too - the musicians are lined up in rows, double basses at each end, in symmetry.  The vaguely grid arrangement develops diagonal patterns when the bows of violins are dragged as slowly as possible, the players’ arms held as rigidly as possible. It's as if the players are suspended in time, operating like machines calibrated by some invisible metronome.  What sounds do we hear ? The drone of bows, repetitive click clacks of percussion, a strange drone-like pulse. Perhaps we're in some infernal mechanism. One recurrent theme, the  movement of pods, similar to the shuttles in weaving loom.  The shuttles move in fixed formation, arranging disparate threads to form fabric, which can then again be transformed into other objects. The shuttles don't change, ever, but what they produce keeps changing. This idea of inanimate forces surfaces again in the image of a toy, a wooden drummer-boy. He clearly isn't real to us, but to children, he's an object of wonder.   Stockhausen's sounds hypnotize, freeing the mind from analysis. To "get" Stockhausen, it helps to think like a child, questioning, without rigid preconception.

Snippets of Ravel, Stravinsky and Schumann are woven into the piece, too, as familiar points of reference which disappear before they can quite be grasped. At various points individual musicians are drawn out of the mass : a trumpeter climbing a ladder in the background (the only visible non-string player), violinists who stand up and play weird disharmonies, and most memorably a music stand that’s wheeled on stage, causing a cellist to suddenly break ranks and play what’s on the stand. As the stand is removed, he tries to follow it to keep playing, When it’s gone he sinks back into the mass.  “All that rigid conformity, yet the unruly individual can’t be repressed !” said my ever perceptive companion in 2008.  Indeed, what the strings are playing are unnaturally slow extended figures, their functions seems almost more ritualistic than musical. The music wavers vertiginously : the musicians heads flop from side to side. They are automatons, collapsing like a pack of cards ! Suddenly all sound is sucked into nothingness, and the players are caught freeze frame for so long the wait itself becomes unsettling.

Trans is theatre, and surreal theatre at that. It is also concert and anti-concert.  The players are working "in concert" but the concert isn't what they do but how we in the outside perceive what they're doing. "Trans", as in transition, transference, etc. Stockhausen's conundrums are part of the total experience. Block out the mental puzzles and miss the point.  I don't know if the London Sinfonietta will be doing Trans twice in succession, as Stockhausen wished.   By now, we're used to his oddball quirks,  to get it first time round, but the idea of two Trans together reiterates the idea of things happening in interlocking patterns.   The first time I experienced Trans, it was done twice with Harmonien, also done twice. Half the audience ran out ! But the joke was on them. It's supposed to be mind bending.    Please read more here. 

The first time I heard Tierkreis (Zodiac), I hated it and groaned when Oliver Knussen gleefully turned to the audience and said "Let's hear it all over again !"  I still don't like Tierkreis because it's too obvious. Each sign is described in fairly straightforward form. Taurus, for example, roars like a bull.  But many people like Tierkreis for that very reason - it’s hilariously funny ! No surprise it's an Ollie favourite.  Enjoy !

Monday, 4 December 2017

Toivo Kuula - Finland Awakes !





Finnish composer Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) above, on his deathbed, dying from a bullet which hit him in the last days of the First War of Finnish Independence.  He was close to the battle front, but the shot hit him by accident as he was celebrating in a restaurant when a fight broke out nearby. The brightest hope of new Finnish music was silenced, long before his time.  Kuula was a close friend of Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947), and mixed in Finland's avant garde artistic circles, a younger and more radical set than hung out with Sibeliius and his mates. When Madetoja first set eyes on Kuula, he was impressed by his "air of self-confidence, of triumph about him that obviously reflected a fast-flowing emotional undercurrent - everything about him seemed to say: here is a man who knows what he wants and who has confidence in his own powers!"

Kuula’s views on music were liberal and unconventional, and he impressed the leading musicians of his time – Jean Sibelius took him on as one of his few pupils.

The early years of the twentieth century were a quantum leap of creativity in Finland.  The popularity of  Sibelius in the west earned Finland valuable support in the decades of war with Russia. Quite literally, Sibelius was the saviour of his country, his music a symbol of national identity.  While Sibelius and his contemporaries blazed the trail, others followed, responding to the same ideas that were galvanizing music, art and literature elsewhere in Europe.  Please see Suomen itsenäisyyden satavuotisjuhla, Finland's 100th Birthday Concert HERE and listen to the concert itself.
Kuula and his friends, like Madetoja could access a deep vein of nostalgia for a lost past, while writing music that reflected cosmopolitan European trends elsewhere : the influence of Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel and Scriabin, for example. Their music continues the Fennoman love of Finnish identity and of the the natural world which nurtured it. Their music deals with the passing of time, of things eternal and of change.They set the poems of contemporary poets, not just those of the past, and many of these, too, wrote in the European
mainstream of the time. For example, Eino Leino (1887-1926), a free thinker
and believer in free love, who lived a bohemian life in Rome with another
equally wild spirit, the poetess L. Onerva – who was later to marry Leevi Madetoja. Kuula wrote a lot of chamber music and, memorably music for choir, a great Finnish phenomenon,and was   particularly drawn to song during his marriage to the soprano Alma Silvantionen, with whom he toured Europe, playing as her accompanist.  Please also see my other pieces on early 20th century Finnish culture, including the film Anna-Liisa 1922. HERE

This fascinating conjunction of nostalgia and forward-thinking provides us with some beautifully evocative mood music. Syystunnelma (Autumn Moods), pictures the coming of winter – long and hard in Finland – and is based on a Leino poem. The poet spies a small flower by the roadside, which he protects by burying it under snow, like the memory of a lost love which must not wither.  Tuijotin tulehen kauan (Long gazed I into the Fire) was an early student work. The composer Armas Järnefelt, Sibelius’s brother-in-law, and Head of the Music Academy, was seen playing it admiringly. "This Kuula", he said "is some fellow!" How beautifully the piano evokes the dying embers of a fire and the poets increasing anxiety as he "sees" a maiden in the flames. The title alone of Kesäyö kirkomaalla (Summer Night in the churchyard) to a poem by another contemporary, Vieko Koskanniemi, evokes the romantic mystery in the song. The same poet’s text, set by Kuula as Epilogi refers to life sleeping hidden "in the womb of night" – the delicatepiano setting expresses implicitly more than the poem alone can say. Jääkukkia (Ice Flowers), another Koskanniemi poem, is a challenge for a good soprano – its exoticism is so highly perfumed that "the flower without any fragrance" is created by music alone. Purjein kuutamolla (Sailing in the Moonlight") exquisitely evokes twinkling stars, and the rippling of waters lit by moonbeams – and then the voice comes in with rhythm, and voice and piano continue together in a surprisingly impressionist manner that makes one wonder what Kuula might have achieved had fate not intervened.


Saturday, 2 December 2017

Finland 100th Birthday Gala Helsinki Suomen itsenäisyyden satavuotisjuhla


Suomen itsenäisyyden satavuotisjuhla - 100 years of Finnish Independence, celebrated in a grand gala with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (Helsingen kaupunginorkestri) conducted by Susanna Mälkki.The actual Independence Day is Wednesday, 6th December, but presumably all Finland will be partying then, with many events! So the big concert was Friday, now available for all online HERE. Wonderful programme - 100 years of Finnish music and literature. 

Sibelius, of course : Finlandia will no doubt be heard everywhere !  But here, his op 96B Autrefois for orchestra, |(1919) elegant and lyrical, evoking an idealized past. Since I don't speak Finnish, I didn't know what the speaker reciting passages from Finnish literature was saying, but he sounded passionate.  Then, three key figures in early Finnish modernism.  Ernest Pingoud (died 1942)  Profeeta, a dramatic tone poem which shares some Sibelian cragginess but is not easy to place, stylistically.  Rather better known, Väinö Raitio Fantasia estatica op 21 (1921) even more of a theatrical showpiece. Raitio (1890-1945) was even more of a modernist, clearly aware of Stravinsky and Scriabin - listen out for the plaintive bassoon and violin before the diaphanous ending, lit by harp and celeste.  Aare Merikanto's Intrada is a rousing piece, not as interesting in itself as Raitio's Fantasia, but worth hearing, given Merikanto's significance in modern Finnish repertoire. His father, Oskar Merikanto was a major figure too. After Kuningas Lear overture, Uuno Klami's colourful op 33 (1945)  came Aare Merikanto's Olympiafanfaari (Olympic Fanfare) (1939) a grand piece for a grand occasion. 
 In the second half of the concert, post-war Finnish masters, like Aukis Sallinen  Variations for Orchestra op, 8, (1963) an early work which already shows some characteristics of Sallinen's style.  Monumental forms, brightened by well defined detail, bubbling rhythms, angular shapes, a very"organic" feel.  Two readings from poets  Arto Melleri and Paavo Haavikko followed , so intriguing that it was maddening not to understand the language.  Then, Joonas Kokkonen Il paesaggio (1987)  brooding and mysterious.  In contrast, Jouni Kaipainen's Millennium Fanfare, big on brass and percussion, vivid shapes. strong forward thrust and energy.  The high point, Esa-Pekka Salonen's Helix (2005) : woodwinds, and contrabassoon rising above grumbling timpani, then brass and strings. A steady pulse, throbbing purposefully.  Double themes, wrapping around each other on different levels with many variations.   A lot is happening here, but with increasing liveliness.  the structure is disciplined. The pace speeds up and figures seem to reach outwards and upwards. Eventually the shapes shatter into multiple lines of inventiveness, faster and faster : the glory of life ! 

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra Mahler 6 livestream

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra with Chief Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali




The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra livestreamed Mahler Symphony no 6 last night, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.   What a surprise ! A very early version of the symphony, before the many amendments.  Three hammerblows !  A rare opportunity to hear the original version of the symphony, before Mahler's decision to drop the third after the first performance.  Sources close to Mahler suggested that the reason might have been superstition: the nickname "tragic" alluding to death.  I'm not so sure. To me the symphony sounds more sinister because we don't hear the third hammer blow though we know it ought to be there.  Instead, it haunts the symphony like an unseen threat : much more disturbing than a neat, conventional ending.  We'd possibly not notice if we didn't know, since the symphony works so well structurally, but it is good to remember and hear Mahler's first thoughts from time to time.  Since we didn't know that Gothenburg would spring this rarity,  no-one seems to have listened with an early version of the score. Not to worry. In any case, we hear Mahler 6 so often that it’s a good experience to hear something different.  The performance will hopefully be repeated on GSOplay, Gothenburg's own broadcast channel, available on their website HERE.   .

GSOplay is definitely worth following ! Although the livestreams  don't repeat, they are archived and appear on the website later, as is often the case.  Look at what they have to offer - a good Sibelius Kullervo with Gothenburg's new Chief,  Santtu-Matias Rouvali. They're doing the new, much tighter new edition premiered in Helsinki in 2015, a brilliant performance which the Helsinki Philharmonic broadcast, conducted by Sakari Oramo, a much more impassioned performance than when he did it with the BBCSO In London soon after, with the same soloists. (Read more here)    But I digress. Look also at what the Gotheburg Symphony is coming up  with soon : Shostakovich on Wednesday and a gala marking the centenary of Finnish Independence on Thursday 7th December - Sibelius 1, Rautavaara and Wennäkoski.  (click here)

Also interesting is that Gothenburg's livesteam was also picked up by Gramophone magazine, which ran a link.   Gramophone is of course closely linked to the gramophone industry, a term which sounds so outdated that it's almost exotic, and worth keeping as a historical record (deliberate pun !).  Once music was always live, and recording were souvenirs . With modern technology the balance can be restored again towards performance, with more emphasis on repertoire, as opposed to delivery.,   Through new technology, orchestras like Gothenburg Symphony can reach audiences far beyond their local area. Watching the livestream, I was heartened to read comments on the feed from all over the world - Latin America, Asia, the Middle East.  The world is not confined to "traditional" western markets.  Gothenburg travels, and has even played in Macau.  But touring is expensive.

Streaming gives orchestras greater artistic control. Supported by the Swedish government, Gothenburg can in turn support Swedish music, and thus the musical health of the country. A wise investment.    Performance  supports music education, and an educated public supports music. Note some of the repertoire Gothenburg can tackle which might not otherwise be done. 

Since orchestras play live anyway, it makes financial sense to stream live. There are costs, of course, but well-managed livestreams keep profits in house minimizing the middlemen.  Livestream isn't cheap, so the future may lie with unions of orchestras, sharing platforms and co-operating together, like Operavision.  Bergen and Gothenburg, together with Helsinki - all three pioneers in the new technology, would be a strong union.  More advance publicity wouldn't hurt, either.  Best of all, the balance would swing back towards live performance and variety of repertoire. There are audiences who don't actually like live music. Seriously, I've heard of people complaining about the shine of musicians’ shoes !  But music never has been something to be heard in sterile isolation, devoid of external influences. Part of the fun is human communication,  the way the players interact with the conductor, even subliminal details like the way individuals work with their instruments. Sure, it's a lot more to take in than audio only, but music was never meant not to be live.  New technology offers new possibilities : increasingly, the industry shifts towards orchestra-based distribution.

Jade Plant in Winter

photo : Roger Thomas

 Crassula ovata - Jade plant, or money plant, in winter. This particular plant was grown from a cutting from a plant that was a cutting 30 years ago, which was itself a cutting from a plant years older than that.   Multi multi generations ! One  of the originals had a trunk half a metre in diameter. So maybe it should be known as "Eternal" plant

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Sakari Oramo Sibelius 4 & 6, Anders Hillborg

Sakari Oramo, Lisa Batiashvili, Stockholm. (Harrison Parrott)

 Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO continued their current Barbican Sibelius series with Sibelius Symphonies no 4 and 6,  with Anders Hillborg's Violin Concerto no 2, with soloist Lisa Batiashvili.  Oramo conducted the world premiere last October with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.  These days, major premieres are often planned with numerous performances planned in advance, so the fact that the piece had been done ten times in 13 months means not a lot in itself.  But Hillborg's second Violin Concerto is exhilarating : definitely worth the exposure. 

The piece begins with a remarkable frenzy of fragmented sounds, dazzling brightly, then retreating into gentle murmur as the violin emerges with long, sensuous lines.  The introduction is heard again, in more sophisticated form, when Batiashvili plays a passage where the bow moves swiftly at high pitch.  Interesting things too, in the next development, where the orchestra defines percussive figures.  Batiashvili played a cadenza that seemed wild but disciplined at the same time. Oddly enough I imagined  ancient drummers seated on the earth supporting a dancer : artists from another time and place haunting the formality of a modern concert hall.  Then the piece really took off.  Traceries and intricate, inventive passions, counterpoint and symmetry : a very rich mix. Swathes of sound from Batiashvili's violin alternated with passages of fast paced virtuosity.  Eventually the piece reaches sublimation. The violin sings at top pitch, the lines growing longer and more mysterious. Towards the end the "ancient" rhythms return and the music hurtles forwards with an outburst of energy. The "drums" pound and the violin part swirls like a dervish, lines sliding and twirling. A finale that began suggesting elegy, but suddenly disappeared, like magic.

Oramo's choice of Sibelius's Sixth and Fourth Symphonies added context to Hillborg's second Violin Concerto.   After Sibelius's magnificent Symphony no 5, his Symphony no 6 in D minor op 104 (1923) comes as a bracing reparative. hence the famous analogy of fresh spring water as opposed to fancy cocktails.   While the vernal quality of Sibelius's Third symphony derives from Nature and the Finnish landscape, the purity of his Sixth Symphony connects to more abstract sources   Always  acutely aware of what was happening in the rest of Europe, Sibelius reacted by returning to a mode which had little obvious counterpart abroad.  In some ways, the Sixth is "about" music, finely distilled and unsullied. Hence the Dorian mode with its suggestions of ancient music, whether Finnish or otherwise, harking back to a kind of primeval consciousness.  The orchestration is simple - strings and woodwinds,  "allegro" in every sense.  Adapting the analogy of fresh water, the music flows freely, elements moving and combining like the passage of a stream bursting from a powerful source.  Depth builds up with darker sounds, setting the mood for the figure with which the second movement begins.  Purposeful rhythms, contrasts between expansive gestures and primal simplicity. The unusual combination of rolling timpani and woodwinds might also suggest inspiration from sources before modern time.  In the final movement, Oramo shaped the "reverential" theme on the strings so it felt like a heartfelt anthem. 

And so the programme ended by going backwards, so to speak, to Sibelius Symphony no 4 in A minor op 63,  to a point in the composer’s life when he was preoccupied with dark thoughts.  Like the Seveth Symphony, the Fourth is shockingly modern in the way it sets out ideas without sugar coating or excess.   The themes have a craggy, almost monumental quality ; Oramo sculpted the solidity so firmly that the cello and strings motif  seemed to rise like mists. Thunderous timpani, but fleeting, scurrying figures hurried towards the theme heralded by horn calls   What do those expansive gestures and the imagery of horns signify ? Are we in a clearing between emotional mountains ? Open textures contrast with tense, repeated moments. There's something feral here as if the music is finding its way like an untamed beast. Hence subdued tones, and searching lines.  In the final movement, the "mountains" loom upwards again, but the marking is Allegro.  The  motif for single violin suggests that small figures will not be crushed.  The rushing figures seemed brighter than before, lit by "bells" . Horns and winds together: not alone.  The last moments were like an anthem of defiance.

Hillborg, Batiashvili and Oramo at the premiere of Hillborg's Violin Concerto no 2 (Harrison Parrott)

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Andrè Schuen - Schumann Lieder and Ladin Song


Schumann Lieder with Andrè Schuen and Gerold Huber  Note accent grave, not  agui. He's not French but Ladin, from the Dolomites in South Tirol. Remember, because he's very promising indeed and we should be hearing a lot from him.  He's still only 33, but the richness and  depth in his lower register is quite splendid. Nice definition, too.  Nice looks, which will help on stage ! I missed his Wigmore Hall recital last year but now he features on a BR Klassik concert, recorded last week in Munich.   Schumann  12 Lieder nach Gedicten aus Justinius Kerner op 35 and Fünf Lieder,op. 40 to start the programme and Schumann 6 Gedichte und Requiem, op. 90 to end, framing five songs in Ladin, of which more later.

Though Schumann's Kerner Lieder are a true cycle, in the sense that they're more integrated as a whole than might at first appear, they also pose challenges. Right from the start, in  Lust der Strumnach,  Schuen launches into the storm-tossed turbulence. "Regen schauert, Stürme brausen", he sings, defiantly, the darkness in his timbre bringing out the darkness that lies at the heart of this cycle. Almost schizoid extremes of mood characterize the traverse, notes lie very high and very low. This turbulence even rumbles beneath Stirb'  Lieb’ und Freud”in which a man watches a novice transfixed by religious ecstasy. The tessitura suddenly peaks so high that some
singers scrape into falsetto; very few can manage the sudden tour de force transition with relative ease.  Schuen is strained, but nearly all singers are, too : nothing wrong with that in principle, since this represents a scream of anguish. The woman is renouncing the world, the man condemned to living death.  In
Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenes Freundes', the canon-like melody has a grandeur that raises it above a mere drinking song. It has an elegaic quality, suggesting an organ in a cathedral – linking back again to the mood of Stirb'   Lieb’ und Freud. Its long lines demand exceptional skill in phrasing, for it ponders the mystery of the relationship between the living and the dead, and along the way reflects the composer’s love of “Gold der deutschen Reben!”– at these lines there is a touching modulation which is sustained through the grandeur of “Auf diesen Glauben, Glas so hold!”A spider has wound its web round the long-dead man's wineglass.  Again, Schumann forces the singer's voice  way up his register. suggesting heights and distances the living cannot reach.  but Schuen carries it off very well.

The five songs in Schumann's Fünf Lieder, op 40 are a test of Schuen's dramatic skills.  The first two songs, Märzvielchen  and Muttertraum,  are relatively gentle, but the third, Der soldat, is sheer horror.    A man loves another more dearly than anyone else in the world, But what's happening ? His friend is being executed.  The beloved isn't a girl but a man: and we don't know the full circumstances.  Psychologically, this is a disturbing song, despite the steady march pace.  In comparison even Der Spielmann Op 40/4  might seem conventional since it connects to ancient traditions. The set ends with Verratene Liebe , which dances merrily, but describes cosmic betrayal. The stars steal the lovers’ kisses and throw them away. Freudians might detect sexual anxiety.

South Tirol was once ruled by Austria, and now by Italy. History has not been kind, and tensions still run high. All the more reason that those who know and love Ladin culture need to preserve and promote it.  There are variant dialects, blending German, Italian and Ladin heritage.  Knowing Macau, and having Romansch-speaking Swiss friends, I can relate to that !  Many outsiders know some famous figures of the region like Luis Trenker (see more HERE) and Max Tosi, but there are many other significant figures.  

In this recital, Schuen sang three songs by Felix Dapoz (b 1938), Ben dante mile steres, A la net and Alalt al oi.  The first is strophic, almost prayer-like. The second is altogether more upbeat, with a jaunty piano line  and recurring refrain "Viva, viva Liberté!".  Nos salvans by Jepele Frontull is tender and nicely paced, and Salüæ dal frostì by Lipo Verginer, art song with echoes of folk song.   Schuen’s sincerity and obvious love for these songs and what they stand for, warms them and makes them beautiful in their own way.  I can imagine Schuen doing good things with Hugo Wolf Italiensiches Liuederrbuch

Schuen and Huber followed the Ladin songs with Schumann Sechs Lieder op 90.  The first song, Lied eines Schmeides , has gentle but purposeful rocking rhythms which work well with the Ladin songs.  In Die Sennin, Schuen again reveals a gift for lyricism. "Schöne Sennin, noch einmal" he sings, brightly, but his voice dims sensitively for the critical lines "Wenn dich Liebe fortbewogen, Oder dich der Tod entzogen."  One day, the girl will be gone, but the mountains will remain, remembering her songs.  We're being prepared for the melancholy in Der schwere Abend . In the Requiem, though, Schumann turns to elegy. Schuen's voice rises carrying the long, heroic lines.  Rolling figures in the piano part, but firm resolve in the vocal line. 


Andrè Schuen - photo Guido Werner 2017 Kunstler Sekretariat am Gasteig

Sunday, 26 November 2017

London Sinfonietta Landmarks - Birtwistle Xenakis Matthews Rihm

Silbury Hill collage, from London Sinfonietta
 A great London Sinfonietta experience with Martyn Brabbins conducting Xenakis, Birtwistle, Wolfgang Rihm and Colin Matthews at St John's, Smith Square.  As the London Sinfonietta nears its 50th anniversary, it’s good to hear them presenting landmarks from their core repertoire.  Good music is always "Unfinished Business", revealing  more with each experience. Governments want to divest themselves of responsibility for education, forcing orchestras to change their focus. But excellence "is" education, and education doesn't just mean people who wouldn't normally listen to music.  Hopefully the London Sinfonietta will return to its pioneering roots and be proud of what they do.
Harrison Birtwistle's Silbury Air ( 1977/2003) is a case in point.  It's one of the great classics of the repertoire, inspired by Silbury Hill, a neolithic mound rising steeply above the flat plains of Wiltshire. In foggy conditions, it looms above the mist as if it were a strange alien entity.  It connects to other prehistoric land forms in the area, such as Avebury, Long Barrow and Stonehenge.  Building these  monuments may have taken millennia, constructed as they were without modern tools. Yet no-one knows who built them, or why.  "Unfinished Business", mysteries we may never solve.  Silbury Air is an evocation in musical form of many ideas Birtwistle has been developing over many years: layers of sound like geological strata, cells growing organically into denser blocks,  always moving.  Tiny percussive fragments (including harp and piano - Rolf Hind)  grew into a long seamless drone, with oboe, B flat clarinet and trombone.  Flurries of notes, building up patterns.  Temple blocks and metallic brass : lines swaying in characteristic Birtwistle waywardness.  Could we hear neolithic workmen hammering away ? And echoes of The Rite of Spring ? Textures thinned out : high strings and winds, surprisingly subdued, mysterious brass chords, percussion in various forms beating time.  Ticking sounds, too  - the passage of time - an elusive flute theme rising above.  Single harp chords. Hard to tell when sound merged into silence, but that, I think, is the point.

Organic growth, too, in Iannis Xenakis Thalleïn (1984)  The title means "sprouting"  Thus the sudden but sustained chord, exploding like a siren, high-pitched sounds rising upwards, rhythmic cells bubbling along. An exotic glissando that decelerated before rising up again - a tendril, unfurling and swaying. Further loops of sound (winds and brass), sparkling flurries and single notes plucked on piano and percussion.  The music moves through several distinct phases, ideas carried through and developed anew.  Dense textures alternated with stark staccato, evolving into florid glissando multitudes.  Percussion chords anchored wildly rhythmic figures.  Single chords along the keyboard danced with drums and strings.   Long wailing brass and  single chord percussion. The "siren" opening returned, in new form, with a strong brass line. Xenakis creates shapes with sound, shapes so inventive that they could be depicted in visual form.

As I listened to Xenakis, I thought of Boulez's many Notations,  reconfiguring and growing like a Mandelbrot, the very essence of life.  So it was good to hear Colin Matthews’ Contraflow (1992)  after Xenakis Thalleïn. Again, the idea of shapes spiralling and unfolding, with joyous proliferation.  It's "contraflow" in the sense of two forces meeting and merging. Colin Matthews is a major figure in British new music and very much a part of the London Sinfonietta heritage.

Since this concert was a sampler programme, we didn't get to hear the whole of Wolfgang Rihm's Chiffre-Zyklus (1982-6), which evolved from Chiffre I through a series of different instrumental groupings to form a traverse, though each section can be played individually.  Here, though, we heard Chiffres II (of X) subtitled "Silence to be Beaten" (1983). From near silence, a strident chord which breaks into zig zags, movement further propelled by rushing rhythms, capricious figures for winds and brass, alternating by piano beating time like a metronome.  Energetic blocks of sound which suddenly disappear into near-silence.  High-pitched sound, interrupted by thwacks of timpani. Further near silence, rumbling percussion, tense single keys crackling across the keyboard. The climax builds up in waves of varied detail.  A marching pace, led by brass calls. Gradually, the textures open out again: sighing winds, single notes on the piano, and silence returns.  What a ride!      

Mariss Jansons - what's the real scandal ?



"Women on the podium are not my cup of tea" said Mariss Jansons, and the media exploded in indignation.  Of course sexism is wrong. But should we rush to judgement and launch lynch mobs ?   My first reaction : check the facts.  Classic FM fans flames for fun, which might be why many serious music people have no time for Classic FM. 

The original interview was in the Telegraph, written to mark the Royal Philharmonic Society awarding the conductor its Gold Medal in recognition of 40 years in music. The article is utterly straightforward and wide ranging until the penultimate paragraph of a total of 14, in which Jansons is asked about "the biggest change in conducting, the rise of women conductors".  Firstly that's not the "biggest change". Secondly this is what Jansons actually said: "Hmm, well…” Jansons pulls an embarrassed face, knowing he’s about to say something deeply politically incorrect. “Well, I don’t want to give offence, and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”  (link here but it's behind a paywall)

Jansons is unwise but evil he is not.  There are thousands of more devious and manipulative men in this world who are infinitely worse. In the grand scheme of things, poverty, exploitation and denial of basic human rights destroy  the position of women in society.   The weaker the men, the more it seems they need to put others down to get ahead. Sexism isn't smart : it's the language of losers with too much to hide.

Jansons has now issued a statement via his orchestra  apologizing for the "undiplomatic, unnecessary and counterproductive for me to point out that I’m not yet accustomed to seeing women on the conducting platform. Every one of my female colleagues and every young woman wishing to become a conductor can be assured of my support, for we all work in pursuit of a common goal: to excite people for the art form we love so dearly – music.”  Full link HERE. 

Whatever the reasons for his original comments, what matters is what he does, not what he says.  Much more shame sticks to those who'd exploit the situation for publicity and profit.  Most women  are busy enough, and good enough, not  to need that.  It's not gender that makes a good conductor, it's talent.

And prejudice happens all the time. In every walk of life a women has to be extremely good to get recognized at all. And the better and more talented a woman is, the more jealousy and resentment. Same applies to men, too.  The universal troll syndrome where anyone good has to be put down because "we don't like experts".   Unfortunately, Jansons’ comments appeal to the sort of men who resent change : the tip of a huge and toxic garbage heap.   Tackle that underlying sexism,  and no-one will be a  "a cup of tea".  It's not easy, so don't get sidelined. At least Jansons is musician enough to recognize excellence when he hears it.  He's not entirely wrong, either, about pushing young conductors too fast too soon.  There are some who are "marketing product", but many are genuine naturals whose flair and energy should be encouraged.   Everyone on their own merits. 

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Hans Werner Henze : Orpheus Behind the Wire SWR Vokalensemble

Hans Werner Henze works for mixed voice and chamber orchestra with SWR Vokalensemble and Ensemble Modern, conducted by Marcus Creed. Welcome new recordings of important pieces like Lieder von einer Insel (1964), Orpheus Behind the Wire (1984) plus Fünf Madrigale (1947).  Calling these "choral" works is a misnomer, since Henze writes so well for vocal ensemble that the voices move as a unity and as individuals, like a parallel orchestra, voices interacting with instruments.
Such are the densities of vocal interaction in Orpheus Behind the Wire that Henze can dispense with orchestra altogether.  SATB form is stretched with such refinement that the voices are almost microparted, in 12 part a capella. The voices of the SWR Vokalensemble are so perfectly balanced that the singing seems to flow seamlessly,  the rich textures, enhanced with great depth. 

That sense of flowing movement is significant, for Orpheus Behind the Wire was created to be danced to.  Fluid movements, subtle changes which suggest constant evolution. This is music as Greek sculpture, form as clearly defined as muscles carved in marble, or the folds of garments on statues frozen mid-flow.  The progress across the five songs is formal, yet elegant and deliberate, as stylized as Greek art.  The text was written in 1978 by Edward Bond, and re-tells the story of Orpheus's journey to the Underworld in search of Eurydice with a modern twist : the idea of individuals caught up in situations beyond human control. Orpheus can never unite with Eurydice, but will forever remain alone and alienated from the world around him.  When Henze splits the four vocal groups into twelve individual voices, he unites meaning with musical form.

An otherworldy hum underpins the first song, What was hell like?, the vocal line shimmering on several levels. "No echo came from my music". The words “silence, silence" repeated like an echo spreading into empty distance.  Orpheus and Eurydice cannot travel together, but the physical death of one means the spiritual death of the other. Thus the long lines reaching out, but not connecting.  Undulating lines, where words are broken into particles and scattered, like dust in the wind, "silenced, silenced". This is deliberate irony.  The singing is pitch perfect and beautifully modulated but the sentences are hard to make out, for  this is the Underworld, where shadows deceive.  In Hades, meaning is shrouded. By breaking up the vocal line, Henze is using sound to capture the ambiguity. Like orpheus we must pay attention and feel our way.   Orpheus growsold, "more strings on this lyre than hairs on my head", but he is not free. Occasionally the men's voices dominate, but the mood is troubled.  At last, something stirs. "Pressed" the voices sing on an upbeat, "by the weight of the world".  Now tense, more anguished figures, a multiplicity of voices, their lines wavering in tumult.  The text draws hope that "somewhere the starving have taken bread/from those who argue the moral of guns/ in assemblies guarded by guns".  When the poor no longer shiver in rags, "Then I hear music of Orpheus, of Triumph ! of Freedom!". In the dense layers of texture, the exact words aren't easy to make out, but that might be for the reason that freedom is not yet at hand, meaning must remain occluded, secretive, literally "Behind the Wire".

In Lieder von einer Insel, Henze recalled his close friendship with Ingeborg Bachmann.  She wriote the poems in the summer of 1953, when the pair had escaped to Italy, symbol of the "golden South" celebrated by Goethe and so many other northerners before and since.   Bachmann's poems are sunlit, but haunted : "Schattenfrüchte fallen von der Wanden". Henze's setting is dominated by celli, trombone and double bass, long, keening lines that suggest darkness. The voices sing in unison, the range of timbres creating a rich lustre.  The double bass leads the celli into a solemn dance.  The central song, Einmal muss das Fest ja kommen, resembles a festive procession, led by trombone and portative, a small portable organ with connotations of the Middle Ages, extended by simple percussion.  The male and female voices separate, singing alternate lines, the vocal parts then alternating with instrumental. The effect of a medieval celebration. But what celebration ? perhaps a brief Carneval before a period of mourning. ?  "...die Krater nicht rühn!"    Henze sets the men’s voices in the fourth song almost as plainchant, the women's voice high and piping like choirboys. Whoever leaves the island cannot return unless rituals are performed. The mood is sinister : the trombone wails, the portative groans.  The final song is deceptively simple, though the images are apocalyptic. "es ist ein Strom unter der Erde, der sengt das Gebein". And we shall bear witness.  When Henze set Bachmann's poems, she still had ten years to live, but he knew the dreams they'd had were doomed.
Based on translations of early French poetry, Henze's Fünf Madrigales is a lively mix of mock medievalism and modernism. He was only 21, just emerging from a youth in which music had to conform to Nazi taste.  Although it's an early work, we can already hear Henze's distinctive personality in embryo.