Friday, 25 July 2014

Gergiev Janáček Glagolitic Mass Prom LSO

At  Prom 9 Valery Gergiev conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO are an excellent orchestra, whose musicians have worked together, and with Gergiev, for many years. Earlier in the week, Gergiev conducted the World Orchestra For Peace, made up of musicians from 75 different ensembles who meet roughly once a year. WOP publicity made much of the fact that many of them were principals in their own orchestras. But there is no way in the world  that 75 orchestra are going to be of the same quality, or have the same standards, even with a few really good musicians among them for strengthening, like the LSO leader.  With the WOP, Gergiev's job was to hold the unwieldy unit together, hoping at least for cohesion.  With the LSO, he can be an artist, with musicians he knows can be challenged to great things. What a difference a good orchestra makes!

If an orchestra is about musicianship, the LSO delivered, superbly. Barry Douglas was the soloist in Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor. Douglas played with verve, confident that the orchestra would support him. It must have been as much of a joy for Gergiev to conduct this as it was to listen to.

Janáček's Glagolitic Mass was, however, the main draw. The Royal Albert Hall is made for monumental works like this, allowing the performers to throw themselves into its spirit with all the force they can muster. In Czech tradition, thousands would gather at religious festivals to worship by singing together, with the fervour of communal affirmation. No ifs, buts or maybes in such circumstances. "Gospodi pomiluj gospodi pomiluj" the chorus repeat, whipped into delirious frenzy,. It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe with intensity. Perhaps that's why Janáček used an ancient Slavonic language no-one actually speaks and used it in a way that would drive scholars crazy. It's the ferocity of belief that matters. Janáček, an atheist who knew all about playing in churches, aimed for something quite specifically non-churchy. His passion for nature and the outdoors inspires the piece. "My cathedral ", he said, was “the enormous grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…...the scent of moist forests my incense”.

Wisely, Gergiev chose Paul Wingfield's reconstruction of the original version of the piece, which captures its audacious wildness in all its rough-hewn glory. This isn't nearly as well-known as the more conventional later version. It's shockingly modern, while also accessing the traditions of the Primitive Church. Pierre Boulez conducted it at the Proms in 2008 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, an  experience etched forever in my memory. The piece is almost as if Janáček's cathedral were being built in sound. Those powerful, pounding brasses, the upward, thrusting rhythms, cascading rivulets of sound sparkling like light through the giant trees in the forest, the chorus intoxicated by faith.

Janáček's Glagolitic Mass suits Gergiev's temperament, too. Boulez articulated the waving, angular cross-rhythms, showing the strength in Janáček's structure, from which firm base the excitement in the singing can emerge. Gergiev goes for a blunter approach, details more muted, but equally strong.. Possibly this way the piece connects more to pan-Slavic tradition and the Russian composers whom Janáček, would have been familiar with. Janáček was so fervently pro-Russian that he placed his beliefs above the welfare of his daughter. The photo shows the saints of the Slavonic Church revealing the gospels.

This interpretation suits the more lyrical passages in the music. The choruses and female soloists (Mlada Khudoley and Yulia Matochkina) produced beautiful sounds, like the "scent of the forest" the composer was referring to. Mikhail Vekua, the tenor, negotiated the extremes of the part nicely. Yuri Vorobiev sang the bass part.  Given the volume of sound around them, the soloists came over clearly. Strain isn't by any means inappropriate in this music given its quasi-savagery. Gergiev, though, adopts a sheen more in keeping with the neo-primitivism of Stravinsky, and the spirit of  much of Janáček's  other music. How I'd like to hear Gergiev conduct The Cunning Little Vixen It's a perfectly valid approach,  gentler on the voices, particularly the choruses, though the organ sounded oddly incongruous in context.  Thomas Trotter showed just how powerful the organ part can be, separate from the orchestra.  His Varhany sólo was extraordinarily explosive, yet dignified and controlled. Perhaps the organ is the voice of God, bursting through ? Or the voice of Janáček, the former church organist, who knew the spiritual power of abstract music.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Bartók Shostakovich Bělohlávek Prom 7

Jiří Bělohlávek made a welcome return to the BBC Proms. Sakari Oramo is a good Chief Conductor of the BBCSO but Bělohlávek was unique. He conducted the BBC SO from 1995, becoming the first non-British Chief Conductor in 2006, and serving in that capacity until 2012. He then decided to concentrate on Prague. Our loss, for Bělohlávek was in a unique position to teach us repertoire we can't claim to know better than he.  He forged strong links between Czech musicians and Londoners, which remain. At the First Night of the Proms in 2011, he conducted  Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, to almost universal acclaim. Please read Mark Berry's review here.  Tonight, Valéry Gergiev will be conducting the piece, in Paul Wingfield's  less familair edition, so the performances will be very different.  When  Bělohlávek conducted The Last Night of the Proms in 2012, he was greeted warmly. He gave the traditional conductor speech, his command of the English language greatly improved. In the past, he'd struggled to read from a script. He ad-libbed comfortably, joked and led audience and performers like a seasoned Master of Ceremonies. Altogether a valediction, and well deserved.

At BBC Prom 7 at the Royal Albert Hall, we heard again what we'd missed. Bělohlávek's traverse of the long, slow first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony no 10 was purposefuL. This is a theme that can test an  audience's patience,  but Bělohlávek shaped its complex structure, showing how its themes unfold. The Allegro was suitably wild. Whether the section represents Stalin or not, this movement shakes up the order of the Moderato that came before. Jazzy influences sneak past. In the Soviet era, as in Nazi Germany, jazz meant subversion. When Bělohlávek conducted the DSCH themes, one could imagine the composer grinning sardonically. Bělohlávek's forte is his ability to suggest warmth and humanity,against all odds. Qualities sadly undervalued in this world.

This thoughtful reading of Shostakovich's 10th pulled the whole programme together. Shostakovich writes in different influences, breaking the monopoly of form. Earlier, we'd heard the.posthumous premiere of John Tavener's  Gnosis, dedicated to Sarah Connolly. The piece makes good use of the special qualities of her voice. Lovely legato, delicious to listen to, but the piece itself amounted to nothing much. At the end, a completely different melody comes in, a direct Mozart quotation, breaking the dreaminess, just as if a window had been opened to let in banal reality. A piece for the singer rather than the song.

Thank goodness for Bartók's Violin Concerto no 2, with Isabelle Faust. She's pretty much the most interesting person doing Bartók's two violin concertos. Indeed, in her hands, the pieces sing as true originals: she did intensive background work into their genesis, notation and interpretation. She's recorded them with Daniel Harding. Bělohlávek and Harding are completely different interpreters, but both bring insight. Faust wouldn't choose to work with them if she didn't understand how they'd work with her. Bartók weaves in themes and styles (even more so in the First concerto), negotiating the extreme technical challenges. What a a variety of techniques, superbly executed, and with exquisite poise.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Der Rosenkavalier BBC Prom 6


Glyndebourne's Der Rosenkavalier came to BBC Prom 6. I was at the premiere (read my review here), captivated by Lars Woldt's unusual but singularly perceptive Baron Ochs. What a pity the Baron Ochs of the media were more focused on whether Octavian was sexually attractive to them, "either as man or woman". Its not up to them. If Ochs is fooled, that's his problem.  (Read my analysis of the interpretation of the role HERE)

The first act of Der Rosenkavalier usually gets most attention because it's luscious. But Strauss satirizes convention and superficial appearances. In the final act, Baron Ochs is shown for the boor he is. It's Octravian who sets him up. At the very end of the opera, the Marschallin renounces her hopes and blesses the young lovers. Quite pointedly, Strauss suggests that wallowing in the past is not good. In the new lies the future.  After Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier might seem a stylistic step backwards, but don't be fooled. Strauss references Mozart but also throws in sly barbs at the Strausses of Vienna, who turned the Mozart ideal into banal pap. The famous tenor aria is cute, but it's commercial, a consumer product like new clothes and hairdos. Baron Ochs likes music, too, but the music he likes is barely above the level of pop.

Just as we should beware of sugar, we should beware of too much sugar-coating in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss's music and von Hofmannsthal's text savage mindless convention. Richard Jones respects the composers's intention far more astutely than the Ochsen of this world would ever comprehend.

At the Proms, the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier was not staged. Lars Woldt was unwell, replaced by Franz Hawlata, who sang Ochs for Andris Nelsons in Birmingham last month,. I've loved Hawlata since he was a colleague of Jonas Kaufmann in the stable at the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich.  Hawlata's voice is more resonant than Woldt's, more closer to the ox-like heft with which the part is often done. Although I missed Woldt's snake-like wiliness, hearing Hawalata was compensation enough.

Strauss's fondness for sopranos at the height of their fame but almost, not quite, past their prime ensures that the Marschallin is usually cast for a Big Name, thus ensuring box office attention. But strictly speaking, between the first act and the final scenes, The Marschallin doesn't really have much to do, though what she does is pretty remarkable. Kate Royal is a perennial favourite ith the Glyndebourne crowd, and perfectly adequate, but shes not in the ranks of, say, Schwarzkopf, Isoskoski or divas in their class. Still, shes beautiful, whether in evening gown or nude suit, and sang with a nice wry touch, accessing the spirit of the opera with intelligence.

In many ways, Der Rosenkavalier predicates on Octavian, who may only be 17 but has all the nerve and verve of a teenager who's just discovered sex (and cross-dressing). Again, Strausss' music poses a conundrum. Octavian is an extremely demanding part, interpretively as well as vocally. No 17-year-old could do it. Much better that a singer approaches it with youthful exuberance. Tara Erraught brings genuine freshness to the part, singing with sprightly agility. I like the roundness in her timbre, which suits the part. So what if Strauss mentioned that he'd like Octavian to be "willowy". His music suggests otherwise. Anyone familiar with Strauss should expect cryptic clues and contradiction. Erraught is only 27, so she's still to reach her full potential. One day, I suspect, she'll very good indeed. Certainly she impresses German audiences, who know a thing or two. In Birmingham, Alice Coote sang the role: Erraught isn't quite up to Coote's standard, but she could well get there, and deserves respect from those who care about music.

I wish I had been to Birmingham to hear Andris Nelsons conduct Der Rosenkavalier with the CBSO.  Everyone I know who was there loved what he did. Robin Ticciati has only just started his tenure at Glyndebourne. The premere I attended was in fact his first formal day on the job, so to speak. I loved his work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He's also a Glyndebourne insider, a regular conductor of  Glyndebourne Touring Orchestra.  In Der Rosenkavalier , Strauss throws challenges at conductors, too, to test whether they can grasp the tough-minded irony beneath the frothy sugar frosting.  That takes a feel for originality and even quirkiness, which is why, for me, Carlos Kleiber takes the cake. Ticciati has potential but he needs more self confidence.

Louise Alder sang Sophie, more developed and richer  than Teodora Gheorghiu at Glyndebourne. Michael Krauss sang Faninal. Full cast list here. Sarah Fahie directed the Proms semi-staging. She directed movement in the Glyndebourne production, every gesture  expressing character. Definitely a director to watch out for.

photo : Tristram Kenton, courtesy Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Schubert Winterreise staged - Matthias Goerne


Schubert Winterreise with a difference! Matthias Goerne sang Schubert Winterreise with pianist Markus Hinterhäuser at the Aix en Provence Festival with a background of projected images designed by Sabine Theunissen, directed by William Kentridge. Not that there's much to direct. Goerne sings as he would normally, only occasionally turning to gaze at the scenery behind him. A perfectly valid approach, since the protagonist is acutely aware of his surroundings, even if he interprets them subjectively. Perhaps what happens is all in the protagonist's mind, but the richness of the imagery in the music and in the text suggests a typically Romantic interaction between Nature and inward emotion. A well-known baritone once told an audience to think of the "pictures" as Wegweiser, each song marking a distinctive, almost physical stage in the journey.

Staged Winterreises are nothing new. There have been many, even danced versions  but this new staging, premiered in Vienna in June, is one of the best because it makes us consider whats happening in our own minds when we listen.  There's nothing wrong in principle with staging Winterreise. It's so powerful that it demands emotional engagement. There's no such thing as clinically sterile listening. We all respond, each in our own ways, some more expressively than others, but respond we must.

Theunissen's images follow a stream of consiousness that flows alongside the music in a kind of counterpoint. Sometimes we see obvious figures like Der Lindenbaum, and Die Krahe, but then they morph into something more personal and esoteric. It doesn't matter what the images mean in a literal way. The images are predominantly archaic, referencing early 19th century manuscripts and lithos of trees and Germanic architecture. We see figures of men and women glimpsed briefly, as if someone is remembering snatches of a past. These figures don't need to be from the protagonist's memory. The act of listening is in itelf creative. All of us have buried memories.  If we're thinking about the protagonist's feelings of lost love, why shouldn't fragments of our own pasts pop up in our imaginations? Everyone of us will make different connections, but Theunissen shows us the way sentient people process their feelings and use the submerged data in their psyches.

Stream-of-consciousness images can operate on many parallel levels. Theunissen incorporates images of war and desolation, also perfectly valid for a listener living in modern times.  Indeed, the darkness in Winterreise almost predicates on images of death.  The scent of the Linden Tree reputedly has narcotic powers.  "Komm her zu mir, Geselle, Hier find'st du deine Ruh'!"  The protagonist can't rest under the tree. In any case, in winter, he'd freeze.  We see Der Lindenbaum morph into the horrifying The Hanging by Jacques Caillot, made during the Thirty Years War. In 2014, we cannot forget the start of the Thirty Years War of the 20th century, which  ran on with pauses until 1945.  Despite the horrors, somehow the world survived, if only to descend into further conflicts outside Europe.

Deciduous trees in winter are bare, but they carry in themselves the promise of rejuvenation.  Thus the protagonist forces himself even further into the wilderness, following the tracks of animals until he at last connects with another wanderer.  Theunissen's trees thus add to the interpretation of Winterreise. Does the protagonist go mad, or die or hallucinate the Leiermann?  Or does he find some form of painful wisdom? Winterreise is powerful because it's open to many different interpretations, as is all good art.

Every time we hear a performance, or even think about it, we're developing and refining the way we understand the piece.You don't have to understand every single frame in this Winterreise, but  its worth respect. When we're listening, we're doing something persobnal. No-one will ever have exactly the same take on anything. Even when we listento recordings, we hearb things differently because we ourselves are not the same as we were last time round.  After 45 years and hundreds of different Winterreisen, I'm still learning from different perspectives and interpretations. Some Winterreise stagings are so,literal as to be hardly worth the effort . This one, however, enhances the work because it deals with the very nature of creativity that inspired Wilhelm Müller and Schubert, and hundreds of thousands of performers and audiences since their time.  Arte and Medici TV will soon be showing the Aix performance online. The live show, which has also been heard in Amsterdam and in Germany, will also be done at the Lincoln Center in the fall.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Gergiev World Orchestra for Peace Prom 4

In the aftermath of  MH 17, it's hard to think of any ally of Vladimir Putin as an ambassador for world peace.  On the other hand, because I genuinely believe in freedom of speech, I can't condemn him for having opinions on subjects he's bound to know more about than I do. Plus, the Gergiev/Putin connection means support for the arts in Russia.

In any case, the grandiose title "World Orchestra for Peace" wasn't Gergiev's idea.  The orchestra was created by Georg Solti. The concept was idealistic and attracted much celebrity support. Musically, however, the orchestra has performed only some 20 times since 1995, four of which were at the BBC Proms.  It's good that musicians can get together from all parts of the world but that doesn't mean musical consistency,especially with players from 75 different ensembles whose styles don't necessarily mesh.  The Lucerne Festival Orchetsra (founded 2003)  is a summertime special too, but altogether in a different league in musical terms because all the players are on the same level of expertise, and work together regularly. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (founded 1999) probably does more for world peace than any other orchestra because it focuses on a specific conflict zone, and gives young musicians opportunities they would never otrherwise encounter.

Gergiev can be maddening as a conductor but he's almost never boring.  When he conducts repertoire that resonates with his soul, he can reach heights of brilliance. When he's forced to conduct material he doesn't like so much, he can be infuriating. His Mahler, in particular, is notorious for being Gergiev, not Mahler. So when he conducted Mahler Symphony no 6 at Prom 4, he achieved the feat of making the piece lifeless. It wasn't nearly as dull as his 2010 Prom with this same orchestra (also Mahler) but the sense of dutiful earnestness hung heavy. How I yearned for Gergiev when he's inspired, even when he's demonic, with an orchestra prepared to take risks and let rip.

Earnestness and duty hung heavily on Roxanna Panufnik's Three Paths to Peace. The short work (12 minutes) attempts to plait together the sounds of Islam, Christianity and Judaism;  the result was worthy, but vague. How does peace come about? When people's hearts and minds are focussed on pragmatic ways of ending specific problems. Think about what's happening in Gaza. Pretty music isn''t going to make a shred of difference. I quite liked Gergiev's way with Strauss's Symphonic Fantasia on Die Frau ohne Schatten , but like so much else on this evening, it wasn't quite the real thing.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

China Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms



Hearing the China Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall made BBC Prom 2 something unique. Listening as "pure music" is largely irrelevant: its real significance was that it acknowledged where the future of classical music might lie. In the west, audiences may be perceived to be in decline, but in Asia, nearly every middle class family puts faith in what Germans call Bildung: improvement through cultivation. In China, being educated is a principle of faith, honed  and polished through  thousands of years of civilization.  Not everyone could aspire to be a scholar but even the poorest peasants  respected learning. Western classical music is relatively recent in world history terms, but it fits perfectly with the Chinese sensibility

Western classical music has much deeper roots in China  than the clichés  promoted by BBC presenters.  Even in the 19th century, Chinese audiences listened to western music, just as they took on board western literature and art.  By the turn of the last century, there were enough Chinese musicians in China that western-style conservatories could flourish in Shanghai and Beijing. It's bracing to realize that the Juilliard School was founded in the same period.  It's important to recognize the difference between British and French colonialism. Chinese intellectuals of all types flocked to Paris, where orientalisme was respected and where the natives were interested in foreign cultures. Chinese musicians could feel right at home listening to Debussy, Massenet and Ravel. Going abroad was a rite of passage. Even those who couldn't afford travel were active.  The photo left was taken in the 1920's in Shanghai at a famous art school. Notice how the students have included their life model in the picture, a wry  reference to Degas.

It's simply not true that western classical music didn't exist in China until after the Cultural Revolution. On the contrary, the Cultural Revolution happened in part because extremists like Mao and Jiang Qing wanted to destroy class division.  Unlike Zhou Enlai, who studied in Paris, and many of the artists the Red Guards attacked, Mao and Jiang weren't cosmopolitan and resented those who were. The "Russian" influence on Chinese music came after 1917, when Russian musicians fled to China. It stopped abruptly in 1957 with the Sino-Soviet Split. Best, then, to think of western music in China as a continuum, cruelly interrupted by a few aberrant years of turmoil.

For their BBC Proms debut, The China Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Long Yu chose a programme balancing reliable warhorses like Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky with more adventurous fare. Haochen Zhange made his Proms debut, with Lizt's First Piano Concerto. Zhang is only 28, but promising enough for one to hope to hear him play again, and soon. Then, Qigang Chen's Joie Eternelle, a BBC Commission for Alison Balsom, who has played it in Shanghai and Beijing. It's based loosely on a theme from The Peony Pavilion, the exqusite Kunqu opera. (Read more about the opera HERE),  It's interesting because a trumpet is used to  navigate lines which might flow more naturally for flute or even violin. Chen was Messiaen's last student. Perhaps the delicate water-colour aesthetic comes from Messiaen. Certainly the piece reminded me of early George Benjamin. Non-Chinese listeners would probably  enjoy the orientalisme colourings.  Perhaps the pressure of being at the Proms  held the orchestra back somewhat. For their encores, they livened up immeasurably. They let loose with a transcription of a folksong for erhu, and a brilliant set of variations on God Save the Queen. Hilarious, unidiomatic but full of verve. Conductor Long Yu has been described as "China's Gergiev". If that's a compliment, it's barbed.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

BBC First Night of the Proms 2014 Elgar The Kingdom

  
Sir Edward Elgar's The Kingdom, First Night of the BBC Proms 2014. A magnificent start to the season, particularly one which commemorates 1914, the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Elgar dreamed of writing a trilogy of oratorios examining the nature of Christianity as Jesus taught his followers, using the grand context of the Edwardian taste. In The Apostles, Jesus sets out his beliefs in simple, human terms. Judas doubts him and is confounded. In The Kingdom, the focus is more diffuse. The disciples are many and their story unfolds through a series of tableaux, impressive set pieces, but with less obvious human drama. The final, part would hase been titled The Last Judgement, when World and Time are destroyed and the faithful of all ages are raised from the dead, joining Jesus in Eternity. The sheer audacity of that vision may have stymied Elgar, much in the way that Sibelius's dreams for his eighth symphony inhibited realization. Fragments of The Last Judgement made their way into drafts for what was to be Elgar's third and final symphony, which we now know in Anthony Payne's performing version. There could be many reasons why Elgar didn't proceed, but he may well have intuited the contradiction between simple faith and extravagant gesture.

In his excellent programme notes, Stephen Johnson describes The Kingdom "as a kind of symphonic 'slow movement', a pause between two much more monumental pillars. It doesn't exist on its own out of context, and can't really be judged as a stand-alone. Elgar's creative output declined after the First World War. Since we know the wars that followed, listening to this piece is even more poignant. The Kingdom is a fragment of a confident but doomed past. I also like The Kingdom because, like The Apostles, it portrays Jesus and his followers are down-to-earth ordinary men and women encountering events normal comprehension. They're not pious saints but simple folk with fears and insecurities, saved by faith.
 
Andrew Davis conducted the Prelude with sober dignity. The disciples are starting a journey that continues 2000 years later. Davis's tempi were unhurried, with just enough liveliness to suggest the excitement of hopes to come. There are familiar themes from The Apostles here, and lyrical passages, which Davis conducted with particular finesse. I watched his hands sculpt curving shapes, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded well. Nice bright horns, seductive lower winds. The long pauses with which Davis marked the different parts of the piece serve a purpose, but tended to break the flow. However, Davis masterfully contrasted extreme of volume and relative quietness, giving dramatic structure. 

When the combined forces of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the BBC Symphony Chorus entered, the effect was splendid. This is what good choral singing should be: lush richness yet brightened by sharp, disciplined diction, individual sections clearly defined within the mass.  These Christians march forwards but don't lose themselves  to the multitude. Unsurprisngly, the chorus masters were two of the best in the genre: Adrian Partington (of Three Choirs fame) and Stephen Jackson. 

The soloists were Erin Wall (Mary the Virgin), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mary Magdalene), Andrew Staples (St John) and Christopher Purves (St Peter). All are extremely reliable, and well experienced in large choral repertoire, and they delivered well. Staples, however, was unusually  expressive. His firm, animated tenor seemed to shine from the dense textures in the music around him. The Kingdom unfolds like a procession of tableaux, each savoured at a measured pace, so Staples provided welcome individuality.

Interestingly, The Kingdom focuses on female figures. The contralto (Wyn-Rogers)  has lovely recitatives and the soprano (Erin Wall) has the glorious"The sun goeth down".  The female choruses have good music, too,  and were very brightly coloured and lively. Davis highlighted the relationship between solo voices and instruments, such as the dialogue between Wall and the First Violin, Stephen Bryant. The Kingdom is a showpiece, not because it's flamboyant but because it's restrained.  More a prolonged recitative than an aria, but without recvitatives to hold the drama together, where would we be ? It's better, in many ways, to start the BBC Proms season with something esoteric than with something crude. 

This review also appears in Opera Today. Each year I cover around 40 Proms, so please keeping coming back. Please also read my other posts on Elgar, on Three Choirs, The Apostles, Caractacus, The Dreeam of Gerontius, The Powicj  musiuc and so on.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Prelude to Elgar The Kingdom First Night of the Proms

Edward Elgar The Kingdom at the First Night of the BBC Proms, hot ticket in more ways than one. My review is HERE.  I shall brave the heat of the Royal Albert Hall and make the pilgrimage. As I predicted before this year's Proms were announced The Kingdom is an ideal blockbuster with which to start the Proms season. Oddly enough it was last heard at the Proms in 1999, though it's been done 8 times since 1930. Andrew Davis conducted the BBC SO  then - it will be interesting to hear him conduct it fifteen years later  The Kingdom is big, grand and appeals to those who like pomp and circumstance. Absolutely the stuff to capture national pride and what Teddy Roosevelt, Elgar's contemporary, called "Viggah". As long as they don't really listen. Once I was scolded by an "expert" who knew everything because he'd heard of "Elgar's two symphonies". Heard of, not heard, methinks.

But I love Elgar because I intuit something very different in his music, something much more complex, even more contradictory. Like Benjamin Britten, Elgar reveals himself once you get past the mask that's been imposed upon him by his public status.

The Kingdom is a counterpart of The Apostles, about which I've written HERE. In The Apostles, Jesus describes the Beatitudes to his followers.  In The Kingdom, Jesus's followers are moved at Pentecost by the image of a dove, reminding them of  his message "Lo,  I am with you always, even unto the end of the world". Ideally it would be nice to hear The Apostles and The Kingdom together but that would be a logistical nightmare, and wear everyone out, listeners as well as performers.  So I'm thrilled about hearing The Kingdom tonight and hearing The Apostles again at the Three Choirs Festival this year in Worcester, Elgar's birthplace. There will be lots oif Elgar-related excursions and activities, as well as music. It does help to get The Spirit of Elgar via The Spirit of England, in the form of the places Elgar knew and loved. Long ago, I used to traipse round the Malverns, in the footsteps of Elgar, Gurney, Howells and so on, getting a feel for the landscape that inspired them. . Maybe I'll do the circuit again in autumn with its mood of melancholy.

As a taster for tonight's The Kingdom at The Proms two historic recordings, the first Elgar himself, the second, Isobel Baillie singing "The Sun goeth down".

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Remembering Lin Dai

Fifty years ago today, Lin Dai 林黛 committed suicide. She was 29 years old, at the height of her career. Her death sent shock waves through Chinese communities all over the world. It's hard to overestimate the impact.  I can still recall the sense of utter disbelief when the news broke.  Lin Dai seemed to have everything going for her. Her movies were guaranteed box office hits, artistically as well as commercially top notch. She seemed to radiate happiness whatever she did. On camera, she seemed to glow. Even in private life she was vibrant and charming. Why did she want to die?  There had been a trivial family misunderstanding but nothing to suggest suicide. She was given a proper Catholic funeral, since the bishop ruled that her death wasn't intentional. To this day, fans flock to give their respects at her pink marble tombstone. After  her death, her husband kept their room exactly as she had left it, with her hair in her hairbrush and her lipsticks on the dressing table. When he died a few years ago, the room was preserved intact in a museum.

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, among them  General Bai Chongxi (白崇禧) hero of the anti-Japanese resistance. The Japanese invasion created one of the biggest population upheavals in modern history. Millions of Chinese moved as refugees to the distant  western provinces of Guangxi, Sichaun and Yunnan. Later, the demographic upheaval reversed, and millions fled the Communists. In many ways, Lin Dai represented Brave New China.  She was making a fresh start in a new region and in an industry which played an important role in the modernization of China. In her first movie, 翠翠 Singing under the Moon (1953) she plays a country orphan, devoted to her grandfather. People could identify with her fresh, youthful optimism.

In 1957, Lin Dai was signed by Shaw Brothers Studios, bigger and more ambitious than any other Chinese (and many western) film studios. Shaw Brothers put Lin Dai in high-budget historical extravaganzas. far more sophisticated than anything she'd done until that time. In Diau Charn (貂蟬) her big breakthrough, she played a heroine who united warring kingdoms.  The Kingdom and the Beauty (江山美人) beat all box office records. Lin Dai plays the peasant girl who steals the heart of an Emperor in disguise. It's one of the best Shaw Brothers movies of all time. It's a shame that the company that bought the rights to Shaw's catalogue hasn't done much to make them better known. The Kingdom and the Beauty is so good that it could easily find a p;lace in international cinema. Lin Dai also starred in Beyond the Great Wall and The Last Woman of Shang, both released after her death. In Beyond the Great Wall, she plays a heroine who goes into exile to save her lover the Emperor and her country. These movies aren't ponderous, stultified costume dramas because Lin Dai plays her roles as convincing human beings. The shot above shows her famous pout, followed by a slow sideways glance that often bursts into a smile.

Lin Dai also made an opera-based movie, Madam White Snake (1962), but her singing voice was untrained, better suited to more light-hearted musicals,  and cheerful comedies like Les Belles, Bachelors Beware and Cinderella and her little angels and Love Parade, with an unusual story line based on fashion shows, for which she designed the costumes.  She was a "modern girl". Lin Dai's vivacious charm makes these films sparkle, but they're much better than similar films from Hollywood.  She was also a serous dramatic actress. In The Blue and the Black Parts 1 and 2, released after her death, she plays a brave woman whose life is damaged by war.

But the movie that makes Lin Dai immortal has to be Love Without End (不了情, 1961). This is a version of La Traviata. The heroine even retreats to a remote island in her last illness, where she's tended by a Catholic priest. Lin Dai plays a virtuous nightclub singer whose beloved faces financial ruin. To save him, she agrees to go abroad with a rich man, but gives her virginity to the boyfriend first. He doesn't understand, and walks out on her in an extremely moving scene where he skulks along a back alley while she watches from above. Eventually, he finds out that she sacrificed herself for his sake, but when he tracks her down, it's too late. Like Violetta Valéry, she dies. If only this film were readily available outside Region 3. It's one of the most iconic movies of Hong Kong in  that period, describing the values of its time. The title song is so famous that it's seared forever in the memories of those who were there.  It's not actually her singing voice,  but it breaks the heart.
 
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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

FREE Herbert von Karajan - today only


Herbert von Karajan died 25 years ago today. He was Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1966 to 1989. The Berliner Philharmoniker website now contains a section dedicated to his memory. In the Digital Concert Hall "you will find recordings of the Unitel company from the sixties and seventies, including Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World”, a Brahms cycle, Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 3, 6, 7 and 9 and the documentary Karajan – The Second Life."

"On today’s anniversary, these films as well as the recording of the memorial concert for Herbert von Karajan which took place in Salzburg cathedral in the summer of 1999 with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Claudio Abbado, are available free of charge. Further films with Herbert von Karajan will be released in the Digital Concert Hall into next year. During this time we will also talk to musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker about their memories of Herbert von Karajan and these conversations will be made available as a documentary"  Read more here

Further recording s will be released in the next few weeks, Altogether they will create an excellent one-stop archive. If you're already registered, log in and watch for free. If you're not already registered, you can register and enjoy, too. But just for today. It's definitely worth signing up because you get access to all the Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, year round, and all those in the archive. So we have to pay to participate, but that's fair enough. The arts cost money. For a reasonable fee, you get the world's finest orchestra (arguably) right in your own room, wherever you might live. Politicians grumble that classical music doesn't breach the masses. That's not true. You can't measure audiences simply in terms of filling halls.

Many in my generation were conditioned to hate Karajan for his politics and his style, just as trolls today hold extreme views on contemporary conductors. I don't do bandwagons, as anyone who reads me regularly will know. I really came to Sibelius through Karajan's chilling, almost demonic interpretations. Pity Adorno kept his ears closed.