Tuesday, 17 October 2017

What Semyon Bychkov will bring to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

The news that Semyon Bychkov has been named new Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic has gone round the world, but what does the news portend ?  Jiří Bělohlávek's contract had been renewed to 2020. Though he had been ill for some time his sudden death was unexpected.  The Chief Conductor position is a figurehead who defines an orchestra's profile and artistic direction.

Conductor Chess is not a beauty contest but hard business sense.  In June, the  Prague press was abuzz with speculation. The orchestra's management were quoted as saying the choice would depend on "publiku, nahrávacím společnostem, zahraničním pořadatelům i k ministerstvu kultury".ie the public, recording companies, foreign organizations and The Ministry of Culture.

Among the contenders mentioned were Christoph Eschenbach, John Eliot Gardiner, Fabio Luisi, Kent Nagano, and Jaap van Zweden.  So they wanted big names.   Bychkov's a big name,  but his  advantage was that Decca recentoy recorded the firsts two discs of his Tchaikovsky Project with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague.  Bychkov's recorded with  the Vienna Phil, the Berliner Phil, the Concertgebouw Amsterdam  and otthers, and he's been doing Tchaikovsky nearly all his working life, so the Czech Phil are on to a winner.   Bychkov also conducted Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, which marked the opening of Smetana's Litomyšl Festival 2017,  Presumably Francesca's next on nthe recording schedule as it was part of Bychkov's  "Beloved Friends" Tchaikovsky Project tour around Europe. (Please read my piece about the Barbican concerts here)

"As is evidenced by everything that he undertakes", the orchestra's announcement states, "Bychkov's commitment to the Czech Philharmonic will be total. In addition to conducting the opening concerts of the season, six subscription weeks and two weeks of studio recordings, he will lead the Orchestra on tour, and at the major Czech festivals and concerts that are an important and integral part of the Orchestra's presence including Prague Spring, Dvořák's Prague and Smetana's Litomyšl."

Bychkov himself has said "The Czech Philharmonic is among the very few orchestras that have managed to preserve a unique identity. In a music world that is increasingly globalized and uniform, the Orchestra's noble tradition has retained authenticity of expression and sound, making it one of the world's artistic treasures. When the orchestra and Czech government asked me to succeed beloved Jiří Bělohlávek, I felt deeply honoured by the trust they were ready to place in me. There is no greater privilege for an artist than to become part of and lead an institution that shares the same values, the same commitment and the same devotion to the art of music."

So what of he orchestra's unique  heritage? One of Bělohlávek's great achievements was to remind the world that the Czech idiom has a distinctive flavour, deriving from the languages of the region.  Interpretation, too, is enhanced by knowing the history and culture.  Of course that doesn't mean you need to be Czech, but it's a good foundation.  Unusually, nearly all the musicians in the orchestra are native speakers, and they also serve the National Theatre, the nation's premiere opera house.  
Together with the news about Bychkov was the announcement of two Principal Guest Conductors, Jakub Hrůša and Tomáš Netopil.   Hrůša is exceptional, with such distinctive flair that he's destined to go a long way.  His Time Will Come !  He's outstanding because he brings intelligent insight into what he does.  Please read here about his programme based on the role of the Hussite Hymn in Bohemian history and music.   In London, we are fortunate that Hrůša is now Principal Guest with the Philharmonia Orchestra.  He's also Chief  of the  Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, with its great pedigree.  The Czech Philharmonic has a new Concertmaster, too, in  Josef Špaček, the youngest concertmaster in  the orchestra's history.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Jonas Kaufmann Tenor for the Ages the Hagiography

One giant selfie ! Jonas Kaufman Tenor for the Ages, hagiography not documentary. The Curse of Celebrity.  It's not JK's fault.  When marketing hype takes over, the artist becomes Commercial Product, his art incidental by-product.  Kaufmann truly is one of the greats. "A singer who thinks" as Antonio Pappano "with matinee idol presence". Absolutely. We're incredibly lucky to have JK, he's more than just a singer.  But this film, by John Bridcut, is  embarrassing, catering to a market that thrives on hype.  So, love JK, don't love the promo video.
True fans love the artist, and love the art. They don't bitch if he cancels even if they lose money because they understand voice and don't expect singers to deliver like machines.  They aren't obsessives who push themselves above all else,  it's not good for  mental health.  JK is so charismatic that his personality is magnetic, which is something to celebrate.  Nothing wrong with being sexy, either.  But knicker throwing is daft, and the media types who play it up are cynical manipulators, who care more for clicks than quality.
It was good to see the dressing rooms at the Royal Opera House again and recall the buzz that goes into making a production.  Antonio
Pappano's enthusiasm is always fun. And it was good to hear the clips of the Vienna Tosca where things might not have gone to plan.  JK is a genuine artists whose love for repertoire spurs him on to new challenges.  Taking JK to Aldeburgh struck me more as a thing than a serious attempt on JK's part to take on Peter Grimes. But who knows ? JK has the intelligence to realize that it's always prima the repertoire, and how it can be explored. Sadly not many get that  Please read my piece on  JK's Mahler Das Lied von der Erde. No-one is so expert that they know everything and don't need to learn.  But a lot of the script seemed geared towards the mantra that art can't be taken seriously.. 

 Thank goodness that the show was followed by real opera,  Verdi Otello at the Royal Opera House, good enough to convert anyone to the genre if they care enough to listen and pay attention.  Here is a link to the thoughtful review in Opera Today of the live performance. Please read and enjoy. The range lies low, so it suits JK well : If his interpretation wasn't macho, so what ?  Otello's a much more complex figure than macho man. Delicious singing !


Sunday, 15 October 2017

Hans Werner Henze Kammermusik 1958 Scharoun Ensemble


"....In lieblicher Bläue" .  Landmark new recordings of  Hans Werner Henze Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesänge  and Kammermusik 1958 from the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin, with Andrew Staples, Markus Weidmann, Jürgen Rock and Daniel Harding

A landmark recording because it reflects the Scharoun Ensemble's years iof experience with Henze and his music. Their relationship began in 1983, shortly after the ensemble was formed. Kammermusik 1958 is one of their signature pieces. "It  soon became clear" they write "that the composer's interpretation of Kammermusik 1958 was freer than the written score. Henze took some tempi more slowly, which resulted in more songful, indeed quite romantic music". This performance is outstanding, more assured and more idiomatic than the original recording made in November 1958 with Peter Pears and Julian Bream. Though Henze himself conducted that premiere, he was young, still very much in thrall to Britten, Pears and their cliquey circles.  As Henze developed, he became himself, finding the freer, more poetic approach this recording honours.  Obviously the first recording is part of the archive, but this new performance opens horizons: very much in the spirit of the poetry of Hölderlin's text and of Henze's mature work.  This performance  also uses Henze's 1963 revision of the score. 

Kammermusik 1958 is also a landmark because it represents a  period in which Henze made a creative breakthrough.  It connects to the sensuality of Undine and to the esoteric Being Beauteous, but also explores ideas which Henze would develop in later years.  The piece begins with a horn call, which is repeated more quietly, as if in response - a deliberate reference to Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Almost immediately, though, Henze breaks into new territory - long, shimmering lines that seem to stretch into endless space. The clarinet leads, like the call of a shepherd's flute sounding out over distance.

From this evolves the first song with its long, arching lines that rise expansively, accompanied by guitar.  The text is abstract, almost impressionistic in its evocation of colour and mood. ."In lieblicher Blue blühet mit dem metallenen Dache der Kirchtum."  Hölderlin in his tower, singing to the moon,  Andrew Staples and Jürgen Rock, eternal troubadours.   Hölderlin's poetry fascinates modern composers.This particular hymn has also been set by Wilhelm Killmayer and Julian Anderson (whose version will be heard  21/10/17 at the Barbican.)  Staples's singing is pristine, for "Reinheit aber ist auch Schönheit". Two Tentos for solo guitar frame the second song in which Henze sets another section of Hölderlin's hymn.  Innen aus verschiedenem entsteht, where the poet connects humble mankind with the vastness of the universe.   "als der Mensch, der heisset ein Bild der Gottheit". Rock's playing creates intimacy, cradling the song with protective warmth. It also recreates the flowing rhythms of Tento I which Henze titled "Du schönes Bächlein"   a reference to images in the text, which resurface in the third song, where the pace picks up.   Staples sings the phrase "Du schönes Bächlein" with minimal accompaniment, as if the poet were transfixed by a vision.

As the voice falls silent, the ensemble emerge in a short Sonata for the ensemble, brisk, turbulent figures that seem to have a life of their own.  "Möcht ich ein Komet sein?" Staples sings.  Key phrases like  "eine schöne Jungfrau" deliciously savoured. The final line "Myrten aber gibt es in Greichenland" shone with intense light, for this epitomizes Hölderlin's  concepts of beauty, from the ideals of antiquity far into the future.  For Henze, the guitar is more than a “Mediterranean" device. It connects to the lute of Orpheus and all that implied in classical mythology.  An inventive cadenza, where the strings dance and cor and bassoon moan, until strong chords in ensemble introduce the next song, "Wenn einer in den Spiegel siehet".  which flows  with great freedom, as if the clarity of the  mirror were drawing ideas into sharper focus.  The tento for guitar, which follows, is titled "Sohn Laios" which connects to the references to Oedipus in this and the final song, "Wie Bäche reißt des Ende von Etwas mich dahin".  Henze  creates a stream of consciousness, weaving text, music, ideas and images together in a stream that's at once elusive yet intriguing.  Hölderlin contemplates the destiny of suffering. "Leben ist Tod , und Tod ist auch ein Leben". Long, plaintive vocal lines,yet oddly  affirmative, merging into a beautiful wind melody, which might suggest ancient flutes. Horn, cor, bassoon and contrabass create mysterious atmosphere, lightened by strings. This last Epilogue, added by Henze in1963, is extraordinarily moving, very "inwards", true to Hölderlin and his visionary imagination.  In the notes, Jürgen Rock comments on the connections between the Oedipus legend and Henze's socio-political views and his work in music theatre.  In some ways, the Oedipus theme might also apply to other things in Henze's life,including his relationship to Britten. 

The Scharoun Ensemble Berlin paired this Henze Kammermusik 1958 with Henze's Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesänge  (183/1996) for Bassoon, Guitar and String Trio. Excellent choice, for these extend the idea of Arcadian "Shepherd" songs and fit well with Hölderlin.  These songs were premiered by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin in 1997, presumably with Henze himself in attendance.   

Friday, 13 October 2017

Oxford Lieder Festival - a Different Rosenkavalier

As part of the Oxford Lieder Festival's 2017 season, focusing on Mahler and his contemporaries, a very different Der Rosenkavalier, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenmnt, conducted by Thomas Kemp. Not Der Rosenkavalier the opera, as we know it, but a screening of the 1926 film by Robert Wiene, the director of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1921) and Genuine the Vampire (1920)  Tickets still, available, book here.

The film was made with the enthusiastic support of Richard Strauss himself, who appreciated the power of the new medium of cinema. The film was  first screened at the Dresden Opera House, where the opera itself had premiered fifteen years previously.  It wasn't an "opera movie" in any modern sense of the word, because it was made when movies were silent. In those days, films were accompanied by live performance, with music adapted to the action on screen. Obviously, the music for the opera would not fit. In any case, what would be the point in a silent movie?  Instead Strauss wrote a new soundtrack, based on an orchestra of 17 parts, which mixed extracts from the opera with snippets from other works  including Arabella, Burleske, Till Eulenspeigel and  Also sprach Zarathustra. He  threw in bits of Wagner and Johann Strauss for further effect. Strauss himself conducted the blend live while the movie screened.

The plot follows the novel from which Hugo von Hofmannsthal  derived the libretto, with extra scenes like the battlefield on which the Feldmarschall rides to victory and an opera bouffe in a small theatre, where the principals watch their dilemma being acted out.live while the movie is screened. How will today's opera snobs react?  Methinks they take themselves too seriously, because the "silent" Rosenkavalier is a heady cocktail of good film and fun. It captures the savage satire while dressing it up with visuals so frothy they border on excess. This in itself is a dig at the materialistic culture that values frills, yet turns fresh young women into commodities in a cynical marriage marketplace. Swoon at the wigs and acres of lace, but this is no costume drama.

The technical film values are very high, as one would expect from the director of Dr Caligari (full download here) and Genuine the Vampire (more here). Scenes are carefully planned so they seem like tableaux in some elegant object of art, designed to distract from the grubbiness around it.  The Marschallin's boudoir suffocates in luxury: one imagines that any man kept like this would lose his masculinity. For all her wealth, the lady isn't happy. She sighs and uses exaggerated gestures and poses: Wiene is satirizing popular theatrical excess. Baron Ochs wears embroidered silks but is a boor. He somersaults, arms and legs akimbo like a broken puppet. Later, when Octavian challenges him to a duel, he collapses  though he's barely been scratched. The camera pans closeup on his face and then his mouth, wide as a grotesque sculpture. We can almost hear the screaming.  

Lots more about this Rosenkavalier some years ago, and also, about Robert Wiene, other Weimar films and music, and of course Mahler and his contemporaries, who are my main thing. This is one of the most comprehensive sites on the internet -I am frequently borrowed from, to put it delicately. So check here first for many things.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Unique Santa Rosa Firestorm Photo

Photo copyright : Emily Wood
From the Tubbs Firestorm in Northern California, this photo above.  The fires are still raging. Embers are falling, swept by the wind, for many miles around.   The fragment above landed on a house very near Coffey Park which was flattened, block after block  Everyone's seen Coffey Park before and after on TV, but this photo is unpublished til now. Credit the photographer !  This is professional quality work.  Someone, somewhere, once had the book, which is now dust. But the fragment speaks.  Enlarge the text, identify the book and imagine who the owner might have been.  A reminder that not everything is up in smoke.  

Monday, 9 October 2017

Secret Lutosławski - Derwid Songs

Witold,Lutosławski Cabaret songs ! Derwid, Lutosławski's "concealed Portrait".  In the jpc.de sale, which often produces interesting things, I found this CD, originally recorded in a castle in Warsaw in 2004 but more recently re-released on Acte Préalable,  a leading label promoting Polish Music. I put it on without reading anything about it. Snare drums, bongos, tenor sax and piano ! 

Yes, "the" Witold Lutosławski  writing songs under the pseudonym Derwid for Polish radio between 1957 and 1963. A touch classier than commercial, pop, resembling the middle of the road  feelgood music that swept the world before  Rock and Roll and Teenage Rebellion.  The last vestiges of the old Lieder tradition, or dance band music, or even both  genres?   They aren't quite as sophisticated as semi-art songs  by poet/composers like Kosma and Prévert or Jacques Brel or Bob Dylan, but they are worth listening to.   Lutosławski's originals, written for voice and piano were apparently very simple, lending themselves to more elaborate orchestration. Orchestral versions were done for Polish Radio who recorded them with famous singers of the era.  This particular version, arranged by the pianist Krzysztof Herdzin translates them as semi-jazz with bluesy riffs -nothing too low down and dirty., because it wouldn't suit the period for which the songs were written.The singer, Mariusz Klimek, is classically trained and musically erudite, and  sings with fluidity and lyrical freedom, which I think suits the composer very well indeed. The songs come over with refreshing charm, the accompaniment adding a bit of exotic spice.   In Cold War Poland this might  have been plenty racy enough ! 

Some of these songs are good enough to stand on their own, as concert pieces.  Warszawski dorozkarz (Warsaw Taxi Driver) (1958) is atmospheric, with long curving lines: perhaps the guy spends a lot of time waiting for custom, observing the world around him. But when he gets a fare, he connects with people and has to rush.  Another good song, Nie oczekuje dzis nikogo (I haven't been waiting for you today (1959) is subtly understated.  It seems casual, even nonchalant, but the voice drops to near whisper, as if the feelings therein are too private to voice aloud. No translations. The singer is so clear that Polish speakers will, get every nuance. The rest iof us have to be sensitive and guess.  And Z lat dziecinnych (Childhood Days) (1962) carefree but nostalgic.   See this site for more details and other recordings.  Definitely an addition to the repertoire. 

Unfinished Business: London Sinfonietta 50 years

"Thank goodness for the London Sinfonietta!" (as the London Sinfonietta quotes me on the front page of their website. True, indeed ! without the London Sinfonietta, music in this country would have been dull indeed. The London Sinfonietta were pioneers, much more than "just" an ensemble. They were a powerhouse of creative, innovative thinking, generating a sea change in musical thinking which continues to flourish today.  Thus Unfinished Business, marking the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the London Sinfonietta, which starts Wednesday 11th October at St John’s Smith Square, starts with Hans Werner Henze's iconic Voices. Henze  himself conducted it with the Sinfonietta on their 1978 recording, re-released a few years ago. Please read my summary here.
Henze was closely associated with the London Sinfonietta who played a lot of his music, composer and orchestra both defined by the events of 1968.  They hosted a major retrospective to mark his 75th birthday, which is when I  met him.  He was a lion, but kind hearted enough to be nice to a nobody like me.  Henze is dead, but not forgotten. Currently I'm enjoying a new recording of his Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesänge  and Kammermusik 1958 with Andrew Staples and the Sharoun Ensemble Berlin, conducted by Daniel Harding - it's wonderful, read more here.  This time round, David Atherton conducts Voices.  He's a Sinfonietta veteran too : the concert should be an almost historic occasion. 

Later in the season, Iannis Xenakis, Luciano Berio, Harrison Bitwistle, Gyorgy Ligeti, Wolfgang Rihm, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others, just a few of the numerous composers who have been associated with the ensemble from way back. The London Sinfonietta has a lot to be proud of !   A welcome return to its Glory Days, when it presented excellence with style and commitment.  For a while, it seemed that the ethos had changed. Governments promote the idea that orchestras should make education a priority but that's a political argument, not artistic logic.  If governments really cared about education they';d fund it in the first place, and let orchestras do what they do best., which is make music that inspires listeners to learn.   Excellence itself "is" education.  Please see a few of the numerous concerts and recordings I've covered over the years, including:
Beat Furrer FAMA 2016

Hans Abraham Schnee Simon Holt

George Benjamin Into the Little Hill

Stockhausen Trans und Harmonien

  and loads more ........click on composer names

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Bunny Girl Lin Dai

Lin Dai 林黛, forever young and cherished.

Lin Dai was loved because she was much more than an actress. She was a symbol of the hopes of her era. When she died, it was as though those dreams were shattered. Lin Dai's father was a powerful politician in Guangxi, a province with a tradition of fiercely independent reformist leaders. A very few year later, the demographic upheaval reversed, and millions fled the Communists.  Everyone was a refugee of some kind. A whole nation with subliminal psychic trauma. In the west, it's hard for people to understand.  Hong Kong boomed, thanks to the influx of people, money and expertise from the North, transforming the city from quiet bywater to metropolis.  Chinese cinema boomed, too, serving the worldwide diaspora. Lin Dai was an icon of the optimism of the time - progressive thinking, despite on-going struggle.  She was a "modern girl" but even more so, a girl whose freshness and innocence symbolized something even more eternal.  So when she died, aged only 29, it was as if the lights went out all over  the world.  Please read my piece Lin Dai Remembered here and also numerous other articles on Chinese cinema, culture, history etc. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Jörg Widmann Berlin Birmingham and Brahms, too

Jörg Widmann at the Staatsoper Berlin on Wednesday and at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Thursday.   In Berlin, Daniel Barenboim conducted Widmann's Zweites Labyrinth (2006) and in Birmingham Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted his Babylon Suite , based on Widmann's opera Babylon (2012), the suite premiered earlier this year by Daniel Harding at the Philharmonie, Paris.  Widmann was also the soloist in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in Birmingham. The man gets around ! Proof that new music fits in fine with the mainstream.

Widmann's Zweites Labyrinth für Orchestergruppen is the second in a series of three explorations where sound creates mazes.  In a labyrinth you find your way through by trial and error, picking up clues along the way.  Zweites Labyrrinth poses puzzles - inventive, cryptic sounds  which intrigue because you can't quite place them.  Two very different types of cimbalom (Hungarian and Ukrainian), an archaic guitar with a very wide body, a zither, and conventional instruments used in highly unorthodox ways to throw you off track.  The instruments with strings overlap with the instruments for wind, so even the "groups" interchange. .The guitar is beaten so the resonance in its body sings as if it were a primitive wind. The piccolos are tapped so sounds vibrate in curious patterns.  Confusing, yet very  rewarding, since the piece is constructed with the elegant symmetry of a good labyrinth.  Also delightful - the guitarist/zitherist looked like Helmut Lachenmann !  Also on the Berlin programme, Maurizio Pollini playing Schumann Piano Concerto A moll Op 54 and an extremely fine Debussy's Images for orchestra.  

 In contrast, Widmann's Babylon Suite which, distilling a much larger work, is necessarily more episodic, probably reflecting what happens in the opera.  Apparently, the opera deals with opulence and excess, and the defeat of an empire.  Thus the snatches of melody, half formed and decontructed, fragments salvaged from a greater whole.  Huge arcs in the orchestration like giant walls built of myriad cells, and delicate passages where solo winds sing, surrounded by a mist of strings.  Though there are "obvious" passages like a jaunty military band, Widmann's Babylon Siuite isn't pictorial so much as a collage of multiple impressions in profusion. Just like Babylon itself, before it imploded.  

Widmann is news, but the CBSO's Brahms Symphony no 1 was so good that it was headline, too.  A superb performance, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla , bringing out the richness in the piece. Almost inevitably Beethoven pops up whenever this symphony is discussed but it is distinctively Brahms.   Grandeur, yes, and certainly in this confident and expansive performance. But Brahmsian signatures, too, like the recurring melody and even the suggestion of chorale.  Schumann, too, hovers over  the piece with probably even more personal significance.  

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

How to kill Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann Szenen aus Goethes Faust  conducted by Daniel Barenboim,  marking the re-opening of theStaatsoper Berlin on the Unter den Linden, Berlin, after years of  renovation. Last time I was there, Hans Werner Henze was in the audience - how time flies ! This time, though, the performance was livestreamed on the Staatsoper Berlin website.   (Please see here about the Open air Beethoven 9 concert)  Schumann's Szenen aus Goethes Faust isn't an opera in the conventional sense, so choosing it to start an opera season was a brave choice indeed. Would the Staatsoper Berlin pull it off ?

Schumann';s works for music theatre don't get the respect they deserve because Schumann died young, eclipsed by Wagner and Verdi and by French Grand Opéra.   But if we approach Schumann on his own terms, and from the perspective of Mendelssohn, Weber and the Singspiele tradition, his work for the stage comes into its own.  What a great opportunity this would have been to present Schumann as man of the theatre in a distinctively German tradition.   Musically this was good - Barenboim, René Pape and Roman Trekel all in good form, with good support. But the production was a joke, and not a funny one. A Cataclysm of Corny Clichés !

Schuman pointedly made it clear that he was setting scenes from Goethe's Faust as opposed to writing a piece which unfolds as dramatic narrative.  The son of a Leipzig bookseller assumed quite rightly that his audiences knew the story, just as Mendelssohn's audiences knew the Bible.  So  Schumann's Faust isn't like Boito's Mefistofeles or Gounod's Faust but a strange hybrid that owes much to oratorio.  Even Berlioz The Damnation of Faust holds together better as semi-opera.    Jürgen Flimm's production with designs by Markus Lüpertz is overkill.  It will appeal to those who think that opera exists to be looked at, without musical and emotional connection.  The Frock Coat and Crinoline crowd !  Barrie Kosky fans who are fooled by superficial appearances, and don't think beyond.

The stage is dominated by two tall figurs whose purpose is to add verticals to the generally flat horizontals.  Perhaps the figures represent Faust and Mephistofeles, or Good and Evil, but they don't contribute much.  At times, a hollow box appears on stage. These stage within a stage boxes are a good idea, which is why they pop up so often in the theatre. They focus attention on what's important, distancing the action from what is happening elsewhere. Here, though the biox is just a box, a toy theatre at best, which at least is a nod to early 19th century performance practice, which is valid enough.   But we've long outgrown painted flats but wooden acting was what we got here. No disrespect to the singers but to the direction. Stylized gestures and poses can be used effectively but here there didn't seem much purpose.   Gretchen (Elsa Dreisig) and Marthe (Katharina Kammerloher) are cliché maidens, the sprites and demons comic book caricature, the choirs nuns in cartoon wimples.

Goethe populates the Second Part with allegory : Doctor Marianus and Pater Profundis, for example, and the tale becomes metaphysical fantasy.  Thus it's perfectly natural for the singers to sing two "parts" but the parts aren't continuations of the drama that went on before.  The logic behind some of this staging might seem to grow from this duality, which Schumann  (and later Mahler) respected enough not to tamper with.  Translating it into visuals is tricky.  Pape and Trekel are shadowed by non-singing actors, again a stage device which can work fine sometimes, but here was confusing.  Pape and Trekel spend a lot of time changing costumes, which is OK, but not particularly necessary. Though the presence of choirs and multiple solo voices fills up the stage, too much busy-ness also distracts.  Stefan Herheim can get away with great detail, but his details are thought through and co-ordinated to meaning. Here we just had a lot of a lot.  Schumann's Szenen aus Goethes Faust is fascinating, even though London critics don't get it.  But I reckon this staging won't help much. Pity, since the singing was good and Barenboim conducted with great style.  I loved the dialogue - so important to full realization, especially Gretchen am Spinnrade, recited, as Goethe wrote it, delivered with poetic feeling.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Majestic Mahler 3 Salonen Philharmonia Royal Festival Hall

The Third Coming ! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall with Michelle DeYoung, the Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir.  It was live streamed worldwide, an indication of just how important this concert was, for it marks the Philharmonia's 34-year relationship with Salonen.  I  missed the first concert in 1983 when a very young Salonen substituted at a few days’ notice. The score was new to him, but he learned fast, easrning the respect of the orchestra. In 2007, he conducted Mahler 3 again to mark the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall and its then new season (see here). Shortly afterwards, I was at an airport with members of the orchestra, saying how much they enjoyed working with Salonen, though they didn't realize civilians were listening.  Orchestras are often a hard-bitten bunch, so that was praise indeed.

So I booked Salonen's third high profile M3 with the Philharmonia months in advance. (it goes without saying that these weren't the only M3's)  No regrets, even though it made a long commute on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  The atmosphere in the hall was mellow..  Sitting beside me was a gentleman of 90 who was a junior engineer working on the building of the Royal Festival Hall, nearly 70 years ago.  His eyes were shining, as he described the engineering innovations that went into the structure. State of the art, for the time. I didn't understand the technicalities, but what an honour it was to meet someone as enthusiastic as that.

A majestic introduction, establishing the key motives with intense impact. The horns blazed, timpani rolled, the trombones blasted, evoking the majesty of the mountains,  evoking the metaphysical mountain peaks to come.  Thus the power of Nature, or whatever, versus the individual, in the form of the orchestral leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay.  No messing about : Salonen led straight into the fray, rapid marching "footsteps" lit by bright figures in the smaller winds : the idea of setting forth on a brisk spring journey.  Danger lies ahead though, as the sharp attacks on percussion suggest, but the vigour of the ensemble playing suggested vigour and energy. And so the vast panorama opened up before our ears, the long lines in the horns suggesting distance. When the principal trombone, Byron Fulcher, entered, he made his instrument sound like a highly sophisticated Alpenhorn.  The first movement is long and in some hands it can turn to mush, but Salonen observed the structure carefully, so each transit marked a stage in the journey, moving purposefully forward.  Wonderful rushing "descents" the way you feel leaping downhill after scaling a peak.  Peak after peak, vistas stretching endlessly ahead.  This first movement is a work-out. At the end, Salonen drank what seemed to be a whole bottle of water.

The next two movements aren't a respite, but rather a way of looking at other vistas, perhaps from the past.  Memories of sun-drenched meadows and shepherds’ flutes perhaps, but still the pace is fleet. Exquisite playing, so beautiful that it felt painful to know it couldn't possibly last forever, probably the point Mahler was trying to make. A delightfully sassy Comodo, confident and brisk, like a cheeky Ländler becoming a joyful romp.  Pan rushes in, with merry anarchy. But why does Mahler add the posthorn call, deliberately heard from a distance ?  I love this passage because it makes you think.  The panorama here is something so vast, it's beyond earthly vision.

Michelle DeYoung, as magnificent as the mountains. Her voice was rich and moving, but visually. she embodies the majesty in the fourth movement. This does make a difference, because she's singing about Eternity, not merely the experience of man, and it helps when a singer can fill the auditorium with her presence. "Die Welt ist tief, und tiefer als der Tag gedacht".  Earth Mother here is absolutely of the essence.  Another moment which I wanted never to end.  This symphony is a rollercoaster between beauty and loss, despite its overall positive thrust.  Thus the juxtaposition of the eternal Erda and the fresh, young voices of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir an d the women of the Philharmonia Voices  - past and future,  struggle and rebirth.  Mahler's Fourth already looming into focus.  Or Das Lied von der Erde, for that matter.

A lustrous, shimmering final movement, the Philharmonia strings drawing their lines so they seemed to search out beyond earthly horizons.  Yet note the quiet tolling, as if a bell were being rung, marking the passage of time. Excellent balance between the different string sections, creating a rich mass of sound that seemed to vibrate like the very pulse of life.  Perhaps now the "individual" has reached a place beyond human comprehension. The violin soared, pure and clear, soloist leading the ensemble  still further onwards.  A hint of the "Alpine" melody and then crescendo after crescendo, echoing the structure of the First movement.  At the end, the purity of the flute, quiet pizzicato "footsteps" and the return of the trumpet, horn and trombone themes.  Structure matters so much in the interpretation of this symphony and Salonen has its measure.  MGM last moments, but in a good, spiritually rewarding way. 

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Mahler 4 with 3 Trebles - Gražinyte-Tyla CBSO

Mahler's Symphony no 4 concludes with "a child's view of Heaven". Not with a grandiose statement, but with a song about food! The child's so young and so innocent that his view of the world goes no further than what's for dinner. When its tummy's full, it will drift to sleep, satisfied, untroubled by the images of death all around.  So much for the idea that Mahler performance should be neurotic, selfish excess. Understand this movement and symphony and you have a key to understanding Mahler's work as a whole.  Last week, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla did M4 with three trebles from the Trinity Boys Choir with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra : an historic occasion so unique that it's a wonder that hardly anone paid attention.  Let's hope that the performance was recorded because hearing it might contribute a lot to how we hear Mahler and interpret his work.

Although there must have been thousands of performances over the years, sopranos have dominated, with the exception of a few mezzos and even fewer trebles or boy sopranos.   Good practical reasons: the part poses challenges of technique and interpretation, and is substantial enough to require great stamina.  Adult singers - at least the good ones - can bring out the nuances of meaning and sing with the radiance the part requires. Even good child singers struggle, and a sensitive conductor has to hold the orchestra back so as not to overwhelm the kid.  But children's voices have a very special quality which could work very well indeed in terms of expressing the ideas behind the symphony.  So how to overcome the physical limitations of child singers ?  Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla's solution - three trebles, supporting each other  Brilliant idea ! The boys support each other so no-one is exposed for long, and together they form a stronger response to the orchestra.  Gražinyte-Tyla was a choral singer herself, so she understands the practicalities of performance.

Using trebles is much more than a question of liking boys.  Des Knaben Wunderhorn wasn't a book for children but it engages with an aesthetic where sophisticated concepts were dealt with in simple, direct terms.  Freud and Carl Jung would connect childhood experience to adult behaviour in psychology, and Bruno Bettelheim  would extend Jung's ideas on archetypes into the study of "The Uses of Enchantment". Des Knaben Wunderhorn, (the book) with its connections to folk wisdom and the private sphere, is thus much more subversive than one might assume

Trebles are part of the European choral tradition. For many, joining the Church was an escape from poverty and hardship. And thus to the Romantic era, when the stranglehold of Church and State on art was swept away by greater emphasis on individual expression. Even now, in Europe, being a treble can be a path to a good education. In Europe, talented kids win scholarships to schools with elite choirs, rather like footballers in the US  get into Ivy League universities. So I cannot agree that trebles are twee or kitsch. They stand for a very great tradition.  Some people are disturbed by the sweetness of their sound, but that says more about the insecurities of those who don't get the genre than about the genre itself.  All men were boys once, what's scary about that?

Then there's the inherent fragility of the voice type. No-one stays a treble forever, By the time a boy is mature enough to handle bigger parts, his voice might break at any time.  In the case of Mahler's Symphony no 4. that adds extra meaning.  The child who is singing is dead. Sunny as the symphony can be,  it's haunted by the spectre of death, of children and animals being led to slaughter.  Again and again, in Mahler's metaphysics, death is conquered by some more powerful force, be it nature or spirituality or the creative impulse.  For a while, in the 60's, Mahler interpretation was coloured by Alma's view of Mahler as grovelling neurotic, but now, thanks to Prof Henry-Louis de La Grange and to the music itself, we ought to know better.  The child in M4 stands for Mahler himself, full of wonder, and indeed for ourselves, especially in this cynical post-truth world.

There is no way trebles will ever become common practice. The CBSO used singers from the Trinity Boys Choir, one of the top choirs in this country.  In the past, singers from the Wiener Sängerknaben and the Tölzer Knabenchor have done the part : seriously elite, by no means the average church choir.  Even they have struggled, and they're the pinnacle.  A lot also has to do with the sensitivity of the conductor. It is not enough to stick a kid in front of an orchestra like a novelty. Both Bernstein's trebles didn't get the support they needed because they were added like extras on interpretations that didn't reach the subtle depths of the symphony.  Allan Bergius and Helmut Wittek sang some very beautiful passages but their singing wasn't integrated into the whole approach.  They weren't performing monkeys, they deserved better.  Anton Nanut's M4 with 11 year old Max Emanuel Cenčić on the other hand was more sensitively thought through, Nanut restraining the orchestra so the delicate purity of Cenčić's unusually high soprano felt extraordinarily moving.  That's what the symphony is really all about !  So those of us who couldn't get to Birmingham for Gražinyte-Tyla's CBSO Mahler 4 with the three trebles will have to keep dreaming of what might have been.
Please see my other posts on Mahler 4 plus loads more on Mahler and his period.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Berlin glows: Barenboim Beethoven Staatsoper livestream

Berlin, gleaming gold in the autumn evening sunshine - Daniel Barenboim Beethoven Symphony no 9 in the open air, on the Unter Den Linden, part of the Staatsoper für Alle festival,  a gala marking the re-opening of the Staatsoper building after seven years’ renovation and improvements. Thousands of people (close to 10,000?) packed in the length of the boulevard and perhaps in the squares beyond, all paying rapt attention to a superb performance.  Barenboim conducted the Staatsoper Orchestra with René Pape, Burkhard Fritz, Diana Damrau and  Okka von der Damerau.  Barenboim conducted stylishly, the orchestra, looking relaxed, responding with verve.   As always, excellence sells itself !  A happy crowd, kids and old folk, there for the music, looking slightly embarrassed when the cameras panned on them.  This is what "music education" should be - no silly gimmicks.  Sadly, I don't think this could be done in the UK.

How astonished Beethoven would have been. "Alle Menschen werden Bruder,Wo den sanfter Flugel weilt".  Hundreds of thousands listening in, all over the world, wonderful music, presented without hype.This was modern technology used to maximum advantage without overkill.  Even the filming was good - the cameras picked up on tiny details like the elderly couple resting against each other, and the handshake between two of the singers at the very end.

And of course, Berlin itself. Once a provincial backwater, transformed in the Age of Enlightenment by Frederick the Great and his ancestors and successors, who are laid to rest in the  Cathedral crypt in elegant but simple tombs : "the Prussian spirit" with its values of integrity, piety and dedication.   At the other end of the Unter den Linden, the Brandenburger Tor, with its grand columns and Quadriga above. The great grandson of the architect, a relative of Henning von Treskow who was executed by the Nazis, observed wryly that the horses in the statue were placed so their metaphorical droppings would land on the heads of rulers who lost touch with reality.  And so the Quadriga has witnessed the comings and goings of despots of all kinds.  Not far away, either, the university named after Alexander von Humboldt who pioneered modern geography and natural science, and the Museuminsel with its amazing collections: relics from Egypt and Assyria through to paintings of the Romantic era, all part of an audacious vision of a cosmopolitan world.   Had Victoria not married Albert, where would London be? The livestream  will be rebroadcast soon on arte.tv for 30 days. 

Friday, 29 September 2017

Nordic Innovation : Philharmonia Salonen Kuusisto

An adventurous start to the Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017-2018 season with an imaginative mini-festival "Nordic Music  Days" curated in part by Esa-Pekka Salonen.  For this opening concert, darkness fell on the Royal Festival Hall, and from the gloom the Arctic Lights of the Aurora Borealis glowed in vivid colours  above the orchestra.  A wonderful introduction to a very creative programme.  Salonen conducted Sibelius Symphonies no 6 and 7, and two works new to London audiences, Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Aeriality and Daniel Bjarnason 's Violin Concerto commissioned for the soloist Pekka Kuusisto.  
Every Finnish musician has Sibelius embedded into their psyche.  Father figures are wonderful things, but you need to become yourself, just as they did in their own time.  Thus when Salonen returned to conducting Sibelius in his late 30's, he could approach the master with fresh perspectives.  Salonen's Sibelius can be bracing, as original and as uncompromising as Sibelius was himself in his own time.  Salonen's Sibelius series at the Barbican, many years ago, was a shock to some, but like clear, pure Arctic air, it was extremely invigorating.  
Sibelius famously compared his Sixth symphony to "pure, cold water" as opposed to the fancy cocktails popular in the 1920's. It springs, as if from some deep  source of primal inspiration.  Here, it flowed freely, the Philharmonia capturing its unique modal harmonies. Thorvaldsdottir’s Aeriality (2011) might also connect to Nature. Figures bubbled up from depths, breaking into sparkling outbursts.  My partner commented "Jón Leifs", the Icelandic Sibelius, who turned landscape into music.
Pekka Kuusisto is one of Nature's originals, too. His love for music is so intense that he communicates enthusiasm not only through his playing but through his personality.  The first time I heard him, he looked like Puck, and his personality  radiated musicality.  He introduced Rautavaara's The Fiddlers with great insight, explaining the role of fiddlers in Finnish culture, and demonstrated techniques. Kuusisto is what music education should be. One Kuusisto is worth a thousand pretentious suits dumbing things down.  Kuusisto genuinely loves what he does and that's what shines through.  
Bjarnason's Violin Concerto is also quite unlike the average violin concerto.  Kuusisto bows odd angles as if settling into some kind of symbiotic bond with his instrument. A pattern gradually emerges, but what are we hearing?  Wailing sounds, whistling, like the exhalation of a wind instrument connected to strings and bow. The woodwinds were playing, but Kuusisto was singing along !  In his black jacket, not unlike the costumes medieval fiddlers used to wear, it seemed as though an ancient figure had materialized on the RFH platform.  The piece seems to move in stages, almost like a ritual, the violin taking on different identities.  At times, Kuusisto played oddly grotesque sounds which defy description, from which snatches of melody start to coalesce.   Sculpting music from rough wood, I thought. Very organic! Using different techniques, Kuusisto seemed to transform his instrument into other, more esoteric instruments.  Sometimes, perhaps we heard a  lute, sometimes a kantele.  I swear I heard an erhu at the end. Overall, the piece flowed extremely well, as if a world of stringed folk instruments were playing together in strange unity.  

And thus to Sibelius Symphony no 7, a work so audaciously original that Sibelius, always hard on himself, might have found difficult to surpass.  It is monumental: wild and craggy yet meticulously structured.  A good performance, spoiled as it reached its climax by mindless premature applause.  

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Pie in the sky, when you die

Long haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat,
They will answer with voices so sweet
You will eat, bye and bye, in that glorious land above the sky, way up high
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky.
When you die. 

Merrily we roll along

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Szymanowski Songs for tenor - We mgłach

Karol Szymanowski We mgłach (In the Mist)  Songs op 2. 5, 7, and 11 with Rafał Majzner  and  Katarzyna Rzeszutek  from Dux Recordings, in Poland, continuing their specialist series on Szymanowski which began with releases of his music for solo piano.   Majzner is a Szymanowski specialist. He has written extensively about tenor roles in Szymanowski's operas, roles which are often critically clues as to meaning.  Szymanowski's songs for soprano and

piano are very well known but his songs for tenor less so, making this

disc a must for anyone interested in this most unusual of composers. 

This recording is therefore a must for anyone into Szymanowski, but with one caveat : No texts, no translations.  Since the disc is aimed at Polish audiences, that's no big deal.  The rest of us need to do homework, but that's a good thing. English speakers are so insular that they need to make the effort to find out about Polish culture, history and intellectual life.  Some texts are available (ie Lieder.net). Although there aren't any good translations, in a way that's good because it means employing listening skills - understanding the emotional content, responding to the sound of words and the shape of phrases. Active listening, not passive, involving the mind.  That's the way to learn.  (Help greatly welcomed !). Perhaps Dux Recordings could put the texts up on their website ?

The four sets of songs on this recording date from 1900 to 1905, at a very early stage in Szymanowski's career, when he was still a student.  Significantly, all are also settings of living poets, contemporaries of the composer.  Szymanowski began Sześć pieśni (Six Songs), his op  2, aged only 18.  Although the composer was to make his name as a cosmopolitan sophisticate, these songs show that his roots in Polish culture went deep. The texts here were by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (1860-1940) . Przerwa-Tetmajer was both a nationalist and modernist, given that Secessionism and Symbolism were forces for renewal, all over Europe.   Each of these poems is brief, but the imagery is so concentrated that meaning is left deliberately elusive.  The first two songs, in a minor key, are autumnal, but the strong piano part suggests resolve. In both songs, the image of a woman who may no longer exist. With the third song,  We mgłach (In the Mist) the vocal line curves mysteriously, like the mists and streams in the evening cool.  What's happening ? "Bez dna, bez dna! bez granic!" sings Majzner, (No bottom, no bottom, without borders!).  In dreams, the poet hears mysterious voices calling . In the last song, Pielgrzym, the line rises, swelling with hope. "Gdziekolwiek zwrócę krok, wszędzie mi jedno, na północ pójdę, czyli na południe", (Everywhere I turn, from the north I will go south)   Immediately one thinks of the Persian Song of the Night in Szymanowski’s Symphony no 3 and in the Shepherd in the opera Król Roger whose singing changes the King's life. 

Szymanowski's Trzy fragmenty z poematów Jana Kasprowicza op 5 1902 (Three Fragments from Poems by Jan Kaprowicz) are epigrams, short and succint.  Majzner's delivery is elegant yet emotionally expressive.  I can't find translations, but the songs are intriguing.  Łabędź (The Swan) op 7 from 1904, to a poem by Tadeusz Berent, is intense : whatever this swan might be, it's not serene.  

Most intriguing of all, Cztery pieśni (Four Songs) op 11  (1904-5) to poems b y Tadeusz Micinski (1873 - 1918).  A long piano line moves purposefully forward. The vocal lines form patterns, words repeated with different variations.  Something obsessive ?. "Straszą mnie widma i tajemne zbrodnie" (I'm scared of ghosts and secret crimes ?)  Majzner's voice rises in heroic exclamation.  What are these references to Druids and Thermopylae ? In the second song, we are in an enchanted forest, like a child afraid of fairy tales.  The vocal line elides, the piano part seductively leading onwards.   Are we in the world of magical fantasy, tinged with menace, a theme that runs so often through Szymanowski's other work ?  The pace quickens, alert with anticipation, for the sounds are seductive and the imagery rich.  When we reach the final song, Rycz burzo, the rhythms roll in full flow. Turbulent storms, wildly churning figures in the piano.  `References To Prometheus and the mountains of Pelion.Heroic   singing from Majzner, almost a Heldentenor.  Defiance. But the piano rumbles ominously and the song ends, in hushed minor. "cichy, bezkresny niepojęty ból!" (quiet, endless, inconceivable pain)

Hopefully, Dux recordings will continue their saga through Szymanowski's songs and other works 

Please see my other pieces on Szymanowski by clicking on the labels below.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Quickening - songs by Robert Hugill

Quickening - Songs by Robert Hugill is now out on Navona Records.  Hugill sets texts by well known poets like Ivor Gurney, A E Housman and Christina Rossetti, but gives them new life. With lively young singers like Johnny Herford and Anna Huntley, this is a disc worth hearing, though it might take some tracking down as it's not on the commercial bigtime..

Full marks to Hugill for confronting the "dark secret" of A E Housman !  In Housman's time, same sex relationships were illegal. A man's life could be destroyed were he to openly love his fellow man except in religious terms.  To Housman's credit, he was honest enough to confront his feelings.  Housman has probably been set by more English composers than any other poet, but most skirt around what may have been closest to Housman's heart. Prejudices don't die. A few years ago I met a man who claimed to have set Housman's complete works, but went hysterical when I mentioned gay love.

Hugill, however, chooses four poems in which Housman makes veiled references about his unrequited love for Moses Jackson, and turns them into a cycle describing their relationship.  Hugill sets the line "He looked at me, he looked at me" with suppressed excitement, suggesting an intimacy which might lie behind an innocent gaze.  But Housman misread Jackson, who was so shocked that he left England, never to resume their friendship. Thus  the poem "He would not stay for me, and who could wonder?" is set with bitter brevity. "Because I loved you better than  it suits a man to say" is Housman's most explicit statement.  The piano part is deceptively lyrical at first. Then the poet imagines himself dead."The lad that loved you was one that kept his word."   The poem A.J.J. was dedicated to Jackson's brother, but the feelings therein could also apply to Jackson himself who also died young.  Hugill's setting of Housman's When summer's end is nighing (2016) written eight years after the Jacksdon cycle is a reflection on autumnal loss.

With Quickening, settings of six songs by Christina Rossetti, more melancholy brooding. Victorians got off on death. The mood is lightened by Rossetti's girlish femininity, so the poems are set for mezzo, viola and piano.  The Rossetti songs mark a welcome break from the gloominess that shrouds the texts on this disc, which Hugill respects rather too carefully. The cumulative effects can be offset by listening to the groups of songs at different stages. There are four songs set to texts by Ivor Gurney.  More unusually, Hugill sets three  poems by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, part of a Winter Journey which bears no relation with Winterreise, being a traverse through the times of a day in winter - Morning, Afternoon and Evening.   Williams's texts don't sing as naturally as Housman's do, and Afternoon is particularly wordy.  Normally respecting text closely is a good thing, but less so in this case.

Please see my review of  Hugill's  chamber opera When a Man Knows from 2011

Darwin depicted - Michael Stimpson Age of Wonder

Michael Stimpson Age of Wonders, new from Stone Records, with Maya Iwabuchi, Tom Poster and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Stuart Stratford.  Age of Wonders is a meditation on Charles Darwin, whose boundless thirst for knowledge led him to expand the boundaries of science. Darwin's epic discoveries changed the whole way we view the world.  Darwin's genius lay in his ability to synthesize knowledge  and develop theories based on empirical evidence.  Thus The Age of Wonders is a compendium of music and words, taken from Darwin's writings,  developed into an ambitious panorama which runs nearly 130 minutes. If the BBC still made music documentaries, it could be adapted for film, with visual images. Historic photographs and scenes shot in the present, perhaps the Galapagos, or the Natural History Museum. Intriguing possibilities, and truly in the spirit of Darwin's questing mind.

Age of Wonders begins with The Man who Walked with Henslow, a 20-minute reverie for violin and piano. John Stevens Henslow was a botanist and geologist, who, though a Churchman, believed in fact-based knowledge. He fired Darwin's taste for adventure, arranging his passage on HMS Beagle.  The violin poses questioning phrases, long lines that tantalize seductively. The piano answers, at first tentatively, in single chords, then leaping in excited figures, dancing with the violin.  Although Stimpson writes in his notes that it's based on early 19th century form, I'd venture not so, for the men involved were ahead of their time, and, in any case, swept away the certainties of the past. Darwin, inheritor of the spirit that inspired Goethe's scientific theories and the Romantic's explorations of the human soul.  In musical terms The Man who Walked with Henslow is very  modern though it uses conventional language, and is by the far the keynote piece, from which the rest of the material flows.  Very good it is, too, and would make a good stand alone. Superb playing by Maya Iwabuchi, well supported by Tom Poster.

From this evolves a String Quartet (The Beagle) in two movements, "Outbound" and "Inbound", which describe Darwin;'s journey on the Beagle. The first movement develops ideas from the earlier violin/piano piece, while the second describes a merry sailor's jig.  The section titled An Entangled Bank describes Darwin's home at Down House, Kent, and his work on the Origin of the Species, culminating in publication. Scored for string orchestra, it's brisk and busy, as was Darwin's life, no doubt.  From two instruments to quartet and at last to full orchestra with Transmutations, a four-movement development of previous material, now depicting what might be Darwin's  public life.
How one might depict the controversy into which Darwin was thrust for challenging the Bible, I don't know. Stimpson doesn't venture into dangerous waters, as Darwin did, but writes atmospheric figures that beg visual illustration.  He turns from music back to words with musical interludes. The late Robert Tear reads a passage from Darwin's autobiography.  Ruth Padel reads three of her poems on Darwin . At the end, Tear reads Sam Wilberforce's Lines written on Hearing that Professor Huxley had said that he did not care whether his grandfather was an Ape and Padel reads another of her poems, on Darwin's coffin.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Simon Rattle's Stravinsky Saga LSO Barbican

In one Herculean, heroic programme, Stravinsky's Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite of Spring, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London. Rattle  believes in what he does and he does it extremely well.  Rattle offers a vision of what the arts might be in Britain if policies were predicated not in dumbing down but smarting up. This is how classical music should be presented, with verve, imagination and flair.  And excellence, without which "education" in itself means nothing. 
Something of Gergiev's tortured genius rubbed off on the LSO, even if his visits were brief and unpredictable. Rattle's been conducting Stravinsky since his youth - many in the audience grew uo with his recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's also conducted a lot of Stravinsky with the Berliner Philharmoniker.  This saga of a programme was a test of stamina. Rattle and the LSO must have been exhausted by the end.  In two and a half hours we traversed the revolution that changed modern music, ballet and modern art forever.  This performance was more than a concert. It re-created the exhilaration that Stravinsky and his contemporaries might have felt in those brief years when the Ballets Russe ventured fearlessly into the new and thrilling.

The sense of occasion seemed to inspire the LSO, who were playing with greater pizzazz and animation than they've done in a long time.  A superb Firebird, in its true colours from 1910.  The Suite is all very well but this full version allows the legend to unfold properly, displaying its true glories.  All music for dance respects the human body, turning physical limitations into art.  In The Firebird, dance literally takes flight, for the Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature.  As orchestral music  The Firebird is liberated, the music flying free.  A wonderful sense of portent in this performance, low winds moaning, harps and strings sparkling.  The finesse of LSO musicianship : every detail defined with crystalline clarity. A virtual jewelbox come alive, colours shining like gems viewed through light. Yet Rattle's instinct for drama enhanced the underlying sadness in the piece: the Prince, like Kaschchey the Immortal, cannot remain unchanged. Thus the seductive oboes and cors anglais and the mournful bassoons.  In The Firebird, Stravinsky was also paying tribute to Rimsky-Korakov's Kaschchey The Immortal and even to The Legend of The Invisible City of Kitezh.  so the piece is haunted. Please read my piece Lost No More on the connections between Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. 

Stravinsky's Petrushka tells a story couched in folklore terms, but it's also an allegory of ritual magic. The puppets aren't masters of their fate. They act out a timeless show of love and loss. Thus the stylized sequences, ideally suited for choreography : decidedly non-symphonic.  Yet Petrushka also works in oddly concerto-like form, the Petrushka theme on different instruments interacting with the orchestral whole. Petrushka outfoxes the Magician and rises from the dead.  Rattle shaped the piece carefully, showing how the "fragmented" structure  works as a kind of ritual procession. From Stravinsky to Messiaen, more connections than one might expect.   Vivid "Russian" images evoked by the colours in the orchestra.

And, at last The Rite of Spring. The journey from Kaschchey to the Twentieth Century is reached, through an invocation of primeval earth magic. The future glimpsed through prehistory.  Rattle shaped the huge angular blocks of sound so they felt like shifting tectonic plates, the cymbals crashing like lava exploding from the core of the Earth.  Yet even more impressive the elusive "vernal" theme that rises, organically, like a miracle from the chaos.  Listen again on BBC Radio 3.

Please see my pieces on the other major concerts in the LSO's This is Rattle series at the Barbican :
National Treasures : British Composers  Elgar, Birtwistle, Ades, Knussen and Grimes 
Blazing Berlioz : the Damnation of Faust

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !

Max Emanuel Cenčić  (photo Anna Hoffmann)

Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !  And it's also the 35th anniversary of his first stage appearance, when he sang Der Hölle Rache kocht from Die Zauberflöte, aged only 6.  He went on to sing with the Wiener Sängerknaben, where he was a star soloist.  Aged 11 he was the boy soprano in Anton Nanut's cult classic Mahler Symphony no 4. (of which more below). I first heard him live when he was 17 - still a male soprano, his voice intact and unbroken, all the more moving because one knew it couldn't possibly remain so pure forever.  He was singing Schubert. The DOM pianist was salivating, which spoiled the performance.  But thanks to innate musicality, a good "instrument" and flawless technique, Cenčić remained a soprano by training his voice meticulously so it kept its freshness and agility.

Cenčić pioneered the modern Fach of male soprano, of whom there are now quite a few. In his 20's he retrained it again,to countertenor, opening up a much wider range of repertoire.  Now, aged 41, he's at the top of his profession, a megastar in the world of baroque, and perhaps the best Italianate countertenor in the business.  Cenčić's so good, and so charismatic, that he's pioneering the spread of that highly specialized genre. A true groundbreaker !   Congratulations, Max Cenčić, long may you reign !

Back to that Mahler 4  which remains unique to this day. Cenčić recorded it with Anton Nanut and the Ljubljana Radio Symphony back in 1991.  It was an interesting experience, since the final movement of the symphony, normally done by adult soprano, depicts a young child, singing in Heaven of the earthly delights of childhood.  I've written extensively about this symphony and its interpretation - please click on the label below.   In theory, why not cast a kid ?  But it's a difficult part and requires stamina, which is why it is almost always done by an adult. Cenčić struggles, and Nanut holds the orchestra back so it doesn't smother him. Doing M4 with a boy is thus a test, both of singer and of conductor, so it's pretty much given that it's almost impossible to pull off right.  Allowances have to be made. I love this performance because it sounds truly fragile and vulnerable,. The kid is dead, after all, and has suffered, which is why he gets excited about food.  For some people this vulnerability is distressing.  But that's why it's worth seeking out this performance.  We can focus on the sunniness of this symphony, but if we ignore the cruelty and irony behind it, we're missing out.   For that reason, I don't like  Bernstein's recording with a boy treble, because he sounds too "knowing", even a bit smug.  As far as I'ver been able to find out, Bernstein didn't give much in the way of musical justification.  No-one else has done so since, as far as I know.

But I would not dismiss the idea of a treble outright for that reason.    On 27th September, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is conducting Mahler 4 with a boy treble with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, part of a large and ambitious programme.  The British choral tradition is stronger than in  most countries, and  British trebles are its keynote. Kids win scholarships to posh schools and Oxbridge on the basis of their singing, like football players get to college in the US.  If a treble M4 is ever going to work, it needs an unusually good singer and a sensitive conductor.  The CBSO youth choir is way above average,so this sounds promising.  

Monday, 18 September 2017

Blazing Berlioz Damnation of Faust Simon Rattle Barbican


Blazing Berlioz The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girl's' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining.  An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.  If Simon Rattle can achieve such excellence in the cramped confines of the Barbican Hall, imagine how Britain's cultural life would be transformed if a world class concert hall with state of the art facilities were built.  The arts are central to the nation's economy and prestige. Britain cannot afford to slip.

As Rattle has said, the London Symphony Orchestra have the potential to do a lot more repertoire, given the chance. Berlioz The Damnation of Faust is an extravagant work. The stage was crowded with performers, and the volume projected into the shoebox that is the Barbican Hall  threatened at times to overwhelm.   On the BBC Radio 3 re broadcast and on medici.tv the sound balance might be better, but the live experience was intoxicating, despite the acoustic.  Wisely, Rattle held his forces back, emphasizing instead the intricate orchestration  and textures that make this piece so exciting.  It is a sprawling drama, whose theatrical effects are embedded in the music.  In Berlioz's time audiences didn't need literal realism. They paid attention to the music. This performance was so vivid that the Barbican Hall seemed transformed as if by magic, as Berlioz's music came alive.

Faust, the old scholar, watches peasants dancing in the countryside. "Tra la la , Haha ha!" sing the chorus.  It is Easter. Spring has come. Nature blossoms. Christ has risen.  Dare Faust dream of rejuvenation ?    Bryan Hymel sang Faust, the rich, ringing warmth in his voice bringing colour to the role. Hymel then injected chill fear."Hélas! doux chants du ciel, pourquoi dans sa poussière Réveiller le maudit?". Faust is no fool : he already senses the immensity of what is to come.
A Faust as strong as Hymel needs an equally singular Méphistophélès.  Christopher Purves provided an authoritative counterbalance.  The expressiveness in Hymel's voice contrasted with the authority in Purves's voice and his purposeful enunciation. The way Purves sang "Ô pure émotion!" showed how Méphistophélès had sized  Faust up.   A strong Brander, too, in Gabor Bretz.  Though the part isn't big, it's important, for Brander is to the students what Méphistophélès is to Faust. The chorus sang lines that swayed from side to side, as drinkers do.  But an undercurrent of violence runs through the merriment. Purves sings the Song of the Flea but the drunks think it's funny.   In the Voici des roses, Purves suggested the thoughtful side of Méphistophélès.'s character:  low winds and strings evoking melancholy.  The devil is dangerous because he understands human sensitivity, and uses that to manipulate.  Perhaps Méphistophélès. is a kind of Oberon, for Faust is lulled into a dream by a magical flute melody, later taken up by the strings, and the songs of gnomes and sylphs.  A magical scene which owes much to Mendelssohn.

For Faust, a reverie of love. For the students, mindless delusion as they march off to war. Hymel's  aria "Merci, doux crépuscule! " was a star turn, beautifully articulated, glowing with feeling. The phrase "Que j’aime ce silence," glowed beautifully, followed by a deeply felt "et comme je respire Un air pur!"  The orchestra responded in kind, with transparently delicate textures.  When Méphistophélès. butts in, a violin plucks a banal ditty, like a student with a lute. But Faust is made of far finer stff, as is Marguerite.  Karen Cargill sang the Song of the King of Thule .with sincerity.  The song is a paean to fidelity, loyalty so strong it defies death. Garlanded by viola and cellos, it's anothe moment of "silence" where Méphistophélès and the world cannot reach.

Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust owes as much to Shakespeatre as to Goethe. In the magical Evocation, fireflies dance, piccolos playing bright figures augmented by darker hued winds and strings. Textures as transparent as these need this kind of definition There was humour, too, in the trombones and tuba,  which not every orchestra can carry off as well as the LSO.  Purves curled his tongue around the final words, with the menace of a snake, for now Faust and Marguerite have their encounter.  Hymel's "Ange adoré"  glowed resplendently, and his cry "Marguerite est à moi!." scaled the heights.  But the world intrudes, After fast paced exchanges, the lovers are torn apart.  The cross currents between soloists, choirs and orchestra were very well defined.

Then, back to solitude. Cargill's Romance showed her at her finest. matched by evocative oboe accompaniment.  Although some incarnations of Faust emphasize the God/Devil angles in the legend, Berlioz was very much a Romantic, for whom Nature was an alternative diety. Thus the importance of the Invocation. Hymel sang the aria Nature immense, impénétrable et fière, with such fervour it seemed an act of faith.  But Fast is doomed.  Méphistophélès and Faust set off on horses that fly through the sky, defying the laws of Nature.   Wailing woodwinds, and a frenzied pace in the orchestra, tensely plucked pizzicato.  The children's voices screamed "Ah!" and the tubas wailed pounding staccato, Now, Méphistophélès has little need for formal language. "Hop ! Hop!" screamed Purves. My flesh creeped, thinking of the "Hop Hop" at the end of Wozzeck.  The men's chorus walked on stage, among the orchestra, singing their demonic chorus : skat lyrics before the term was invented, interspersed with machine-gun staccato.  Are the demons the students and soldiers?

"Hosana !" sang the  choirs at the back of the stage. Harps sggested angels, and the palpitating, ascending rhythms, the flapping of wings, or the image of water (as opposed to the fires of hell)   And then the children's choirs filed into the auditorium, illuminating the darkness with their high, pure voices.  Like a miracle !