Monday, 30 May 2016

Wigmore Hall 115th Birthday livestreams

The Wigmore Hall marks its 115th anniversary in grand fashion, - live streaming three concerts this week online.  Less than 500 people can fit into the exquisite Arts and Crafts building on Wigmore Street, but now everyone can tune in and catch some of the atmosphere.  Having watched last year's experimental broadcast, I think these concerts will be well worth experiencing  Enjoy the concerts online HERE on the Wigmore Hall website, or on medici tv (links below)

The concerts :

Schubert  31st May
Elisabeth Leonskaja performing Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major, Cuarteto Casals, and singers Sophie Bevan (soprano), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Henk Neven (baritone) and pianist James Baillieu performing Schubert’s finest Lieder.

JS and JC Bach 1st June
Arcangelo with  Jonathan Cohen,  Isabel Faust (violin), Rachel Brown (flute) and Anna Luise Richter (soprano)

The Jack Quartet 2nd June
The JACK Quartet brings together the old and the new, with a programme including fourteenth-century French Ars nova and Carlo Gesualdo’s madrigals, alongside UK premières of new work by Caroline Shaw and John Zorn.

Three major facets of the Wigmore Hall - Schubert, piano music  and song, Early music and baroque and chamber music, both modern and old.

Wolf Schlafendes Jesuskind

On 8th October 1888, from Unterach, outside Vienna, Hugo Wolf wrote to his friend and patron, Friedrich Eckhardt, about an exciting new project. A volume of songs to texts by Eduard Mörike! As usual with Wolf, once the floodgates of inspiration exploded there was no holding back. Wolf "scrawled at breakneck speed" (described by Frank Walker who saw the original letter). He'd written ten songs in 9 days.

"All these songs are truly shatteringly composed. Often enough the tears rolled down my cheeks as I wrote. They surpass in depth of conception all the other settings of  Mörike. I am working day and night. I  no longer know what rest is.....Ask the publisher of Mörike's poems for a portrait of the poet in his youth. . But be quick, be quick, be quick ! Mörike must appear before Christmas or I'll kill both you and myself".

Yet how radiant the song Schlafendes Jesuskind is, so gentle that it's difficult to sing, since the line should float, barely held up by breath.  Perhaps it isn't even a song for concert performance, but for private contemplation. I won't upload any recording as none of those on YouTube are good, even alas, Fischer-Dieskau. This song is best heard sotto voce, as if it flows from a state of unconscious rapture. Divine serenity, understated and pure. The poem was inspired by a painting by Francesco Albani (1578-1660) in which the painter shows the heavenly infant lying on a plank of wood which one day will be the Holy Cross, "dem Holz der Schmerzen".  Don't wake himu! Let him sleep, presumably oblivious.

Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind! am Boden,
Auf dem Holz der Schmerzen eingeschlafen,
Das der fromme Meister, sinnvoll spielend,
Deinen leichten Träumen unterlegte;
Blume du, noch in der Knospe dämmernd
Eingehüllt die Herrlichkeit des Vaters!

O wer sehen könnte, welche Bilder
Hinter dieser Stirne, diesen schwarzen
Wimpern sich in sanftem Wechsel malen!
[Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind!]

(Translation by Eric Sams on

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Hubert Parry and the Battle of Jutland

Commemorations this weekend for the Battle of Jutland, which took place 100 years ago this week.  The British navy seemed invincible, Admiral Jellicoe tipped to become the Nelson of his age.  The Dreadnoughts were the largest warships ever built, and the Battle of Jutland was the biggest  naval skirmish in European history. With the Army bogged down in the Somme, the Royal Navy was to claim spectacular victory.  Above, the warships sailing in neat, textbook formation., guns blazing. What went wrong ? So much had been invested in superstructure that simple, human procedures were overlooked.  Below decks, the men loading the guns had so little space to manoeuvre that they cut corners.  When the munitions stores ignited, the ships exploded and sank rapidly.  In the midst of war, the government had to maintain that Jutland was a victory. This week, the Royal Navy announced the building of vast new aircraft carriers that "will make enemies think twice about starting war". (more here)  But the very nature of warfare has changed, as the Russians discovered in Afghanistan, and the Americans in Vietnam.  We only need to follow the news. On the open seas, where there is no cover and no fallback position, it might not be a good idea to concentrate resources in one place.  On the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, should we reflect ?

Charles Hubert Parry's The Chivalry of the Sea - a Naval Ode, was written for a concert on December 12th 1916, commemorating the 6,000 men who died on the night of 31st May and 1st June. The text, by Robert Bridges, is dedicated to Charles Fisher, a graduate of and don at Christ Church, Oxford, a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, who went down with HMS Invincible when it blew up. The photo below shows the Invincible as it sank, with Fisher and 1,025 men. We don't see the massive plume of smoke, captured in other photos. The ship is already part submerged.

Bridges' text might glorify sacrifice. But as Lewis Foreman has said, Parry was a born sailor, "never happier than when running before a prevailing wind", sailing in his small two-master even to Ireland.  A sailor knows the sea and has no illusions about its power.  Parry's Chivalry of  the Sea begins in the depths with a sonorous undertow from which the brighter "chivalry" theme emerges for a moment, soon dissipating like foam on waves, whose strong undercurrents emerge again in a long passage in the midst of the verse.  The orchestral surge continues behind the lines "Over the warring waters".  No question here who's really boss.

The second verse, in which Bridges describes the "staunch and valiant hearted" who eagerly rush to war, is set with conventional brightness,  bright and eager, but Parry repeats the word "war" three times to Bridges' single instance, lest we think the men are off on jolly jaunts.  In the final verse, Parry has the measure of the occasion. The "surging waves" in the orchestra return, and the mood is more doleful.   "in the storm of battle, fast-thundering upon the foe, ye add your kindred names  to the heroes of long ago, and mid the blasting wrack, in the glad sudden death  of the lie in your unvisited graves".   Although the choral setting is lush - the voice of the masses - Parry sets the word "sudden" with a chill. Perhaps he intuited the horror of Jutland. At least those blown to atoms at Jutland didn't suffer long.  But some of them were little more than children. Please read the comment below - Parry's godson was one of the only 6 survivors of The Invincible.  The young man's other godfather was Richard Wagner, no less !

Friday, 27 May 2016

Salonen, Stravinsky Tales Les Noces Renard

More superlative performances in Esa-Pekka Salonen's Stravinsky series with the Philharmonia Orchestra. This series is much more than a series of concerts. It reaffirms  Stravinsky's place as a man of the theatre.  So much of Stravinsky's early work was choreographed for the Ballets Russes, so it would have been too obvious to present works as "ballet" because they all are!  Instead, Salonen chooses, provocatively, to group works by underlying theme, reinforced where necessary with dancers, actors and visuals. This programme featured "Tales" – Renard (1916), Mavra (1922 ) and Les Noces (1923), works which emphasize Stravinsky as story teller, bringing together orchestra, dancers and singers to tell a tale.  

The story in Renard is universal, known in many languages and dating back to the early Middle Ages. The Fox is, literally, an "underdog", a wild creature who lives by his wits.  Thus Stravinsky's  jaunty, stabbing rhythms and repeated words, like "Kuda, kuda, kuda!" which lead to a more plaintive passage, not all that far away from pious plainchant: notice the voice sings alone, the winds and brass joining in only when the voice is in full flow. Then a drum roll and staccato woodwind.  "oh ho ho ho" the voices sing in quirky goosestep, pitted against cajoling, curving lines.  Perhaps Renard's descendants include Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, but Stravinsky's fox is more sinister.   The cimbalom adds mystery. A high voice sings  "Chut, chut, chut!". The lower voices shout "Oh ! oh ! Oh!". The Fox, with his waving legato,  wiggles away. The orchestra marches in quirky quickstep.  An energetic, idiomatic performance - nothing prettified.

No mistaking Stravinsky's Mavra (1922) for a large-scale opera in the grand Rusian manner: it's a tightly scored chamber miniature, whose plot pokes fun at overblown sensibilities. A woman mourns– the cook can't keep the kitchen in order. The fact that the cook's dead seems a minor rritation in comparison.  The pace is fast, requiring deft touch and disciplined performance – no room here for approximation.  When the daughter sings, her lines are undercut by tuba and trombone, blowing raspberries.  She's no heroine, she wants a live-in boyfriend, not a cook. Although Mavra is a comedy, it's not funny.  Perfect diction, presented with aplomb, from the singers, from the Mariinsky Theatre .
in St Petersburg, 

Highlight of the programme, though, was Les Noces (1923) in the version for four pianos, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich, Nenad Lecic and Lorenzo Soulès.  Four pianos, centre stage! That alone provides a theatrical touch. In unison the four pianos beat out ferocious staccato, reminding us that the piano is a percussion instrument, prone to violence as well as to lyricism. In Les Noces, we can even hear vestiges of the Rite of S[ring where the virgin is married to the Earth Spirit.  Thus the bass voices, whose singing suggests the chant of Orthodox prayer, and the shrill near hysteria in the female chorus. Now the pianos become individual, wayward against the monolith of voices.  Seven years ago, Les Noces was performed at the Proms, but it was a tame affair. Here, the pianists, the singers and the orchestra gave it a powerful edge of savagery.  Driving cross-currents, vocal lines that suggest defiance, even violence.  Towards the end, female voices become assertive, while the male voices interject.  Maybe at this wedding the guests get carried away by drink and dance.  But Salonen and the Philharmonia demonstrate that, as so often in Stravinsky, the angular, jerky edges suggest something darker. The pianos play figures that sound like bells, but without melody. When they disintegrate into silence, you're left wondering "What does that really mean ?"

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Schütz Psalmen Davids Regensburg

Heinrich Schütz:  Psalmen Davids from Tage Alte Musik Regensburg   BR Klassik prresents highlights from the Regensburg Early Music Days festival, one of the major early music festivals. This is one of three broadcasts from the festival presented by BR Kl;assik, but Schütz is my thing.  Schütz  lived in Venice from 1609 to 1612, studying with Giovanni Gabrieli,  learning the "new music" of the era.  The Psalmen Davids are Schütz's Op 2, from 1619.  This is an important development because they adapt Venetian polyphony to a German setting. Schütz,  employed by the Protestant  Elector of Dresden,  used Martin Luther's translations of Latin texts. Although these are religious works, they're lively: shifting between different groups of singers and musicians.

In this performance, the Dresdner Kammerchor and Dresdner Barockorchester are conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann, The concert takes place in the Dreieinigkeitskirche (Holy Trinity) in Regensburg, which dates from 1622 - a few years later than the music - but it's very atmospheric.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Enescu Romanian Rhapsody - Stokowski speaks

George Enescu as a teenager playing for the Queen of Romania.   A remarkable life, a remarkable composer.  Essential reading : George Enescu : His Life and Music by Noel Malcolm, originally published in 1990 by Martin Anderson's Toccata Press and available via Boydell & Brewer .The book that got me hooked !  And below three clips. First Leopold Stokowski explaining and conducting Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody no 1 (1901) in Cologne in 1951; second, Sergiu Celibidache conducting it in 1978; and Enescu himself conducting it in Paris in 1951.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Enescu Oedipe, ROH : Visuals matching music

George Enescu Oedipe came at last to the Royal Opera House.  Oedipe is an astonishingly complex work, so rich and idiosyncratic that it defies category. We hear sounds that evoke the ancient past. like flutes and folk-like instruments which some identify as being Romanian, and sound that place the opera in the world of The Rite of Spring and Król Roger.  The orchestration is luscious yet elusive, embellished with unusual sounds like saxophone, wind sheet and whips.  Musically we are in  strange territory, as if suspended in time and place. Oedipus's psyche is unsettled, alienated from his surroundings, and so should we be, too, as we follow his journey. Yet Oedipe is hypnotizing, with its combination of beauty and foreboding. So many clues in this opera lie in abstract music. Will London audiences pay attention? 
This production, created by Alex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, was a sensation at La Monnaie in 2011.  The overture unfolds in darkness. Figures appear, lit in shades of earthy ochre against a black backdrop. The figures hold stylized poses, like ancient Greek pottery on a giant scale. Slowly, they move, as if called into life by the music.  Ollé is a director who understands the connection between music and visuals.  The First Act is stylized too, reflecting the  discipline of Greek tragedy.  Oedipus  the infant is a doll in every sense, a toy of Fate, to be passed around like an object.  When he grows up and learns about the curse he has to leave his adopted parents.  He loses his identity. In this production, he wanders through roadworks, where familiar routes are blocked off. Literally he's in no man's land. He can see Laius and his companions in the darkness because they wear high-visibility jackets. They belong  there, they know their way.  Oedipe doesn't.  He doesn't even know that the prophecy is fulfilled when they die. 

The music in this part of the opera is amazing. It's just as well that we can't see much on stage. We should be listening. We shouldn't complain but appreciate that Enescu is making us think, just as Oedipe finds his way.  Out of the shadows looms the Sphinx, here depicted as a war plane, rather aptly, since the Sphinx has wings and rains down death one those who get in the way.  Again, connect the music to the stage action. The plane is grounded, like the Sphinx, but as the music whirs, its engines springing into life.   Its voice comes from a figure disguised in goggles and uniform, suitably anonymous as Fate is. But what singing!  The part is demanding, and has to be delivered with authority. Fortunately, Marie-Nicole Lemieux who created it in Brussels, sings in London too.  As her music fades away, the orchestra emits a low drone, like the sound of giant wings, taking off into the air. Again, perceptive matching of music with action. Try staging that "realistically", especially in an opera that predicates on surreal non-reality.

As saviour of the Thebans, Oedipe gets to marry Jocasta. Strictly speaking he is the rightful heir but the irony is that the succession wasn't meant to be this way. Years later, Creon, Tiresias and the shepherd spill the beans. Perhaps Oedipe had an inkling all along. His part is vividly characterized in the musical line, wavering in indeterminate tones, immensely difficult to sing, especially as he's on for nearly two and a half hours. When Dietrich Henschel sang Oedipe in Brussels, his hard metallic timbre was absolutely ideal for the portrayal, since it reflected the idea of Fate as a machine, consuming those it traps.   Even the slight strain that ate into his voice as the evening wore on was perfect.  I'm not sure the part is really right for someone too ripe. When John Relyea sang it in Edinburgh in 2002, he was very young indeed, adding a good sense of tension.  Faced with the truth, Oedipe rips his eyes out.  The staging reflects "blindness", visual detail obliterated in strong washes of single colour. Again, follow the music when you can't see.  Oedipe has Antigone.  We have Leo Hussain, who also conducted in Brussels, and is masterful. 

When father and daughter reach Colonna, Oedipe knows he can escape no more and departs in a blaze of light. Reports of near-death experiences often mention tunnels of light. In Oedipe's case, however, the reference could also be to the birth canal whence Oedipe once came, and where he travelled back, incestuously. 

Enescu's Oedipe is a masterpiece but it's certainly not obscure.  It's hard to produce, requiring a baritone with stamina and personality, a large chorus and some very tricky stage effects.  So hopefully, London audiences will appreciate how lucky they are to get a chance to experience its full impact.  There are  several recordings from the late 1990's,  like José van Dam with Lawrence Foster in Monte Carlo, and Monte Pederson with Michael Gielen, recorded in Vienna, (originally staged in Berlin in 1996 by Götz Friedrich), followed by the concert performance at Edinburgh in 2000, with John Relyea with Cristian Mandeal, all recommended.

Please see also my review of the brilliant ROH Szymanowski Król Roger. HERE.  London will be a duller place without art, and without Kasper Holten. 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Stravinsky conducts Oedipus Rex live

"This is the BBC Third Programme. Tonight, in the Royal Festival Hall, Igor Stravinsky is to conduct  a performance of his oratorio Oedipus Rex. The narrator is Jean Cocteau, who wrote the text. This is the first time that Stravinsky and Cocteau have appeared together at a public concert in London. Here is the cast: Helmut Mecchert (Oedipus), Irma Colassi (Jocasta), Thomas Helmsley (Creon) Roger Stalman (Messenger), Duncan Robertson (Shepherd), Michael Langdon (Tiresias). with the BBC Mens Chors trained by Alan Melville, and the BBC Orchestra, leader Pail Beard.  Tonight the part of the Narrator is spoken by Jean Cocteau, in French"

Imagine that spoken with clipped uptight formality !  the concert took place on 8th November 1965. Thankfully, the broadcast tape was preserved and  can still be heard if you hunt around.  The male singers grew up in a time when Latin was an essential part of the school curriculum. so perhaps we're getting "public school accent" Latin, but it's consistent. Nothing "distanced" in this powerful performance, perhaps because it's so tight and disciplined.  Stravinsky conducted Oedipus Rex many times, including London in the 1920's and later in the 1960's,  but this is legendary.  The narration is pungent and punchy. No RADA gentility  here. The photo above was taken in rehearsal before the RFH concert. This is the tradition the BBC stands for. Long may it be preserved. If Murdoch and his "market forces" can't compete, it's too d--- bad.

Interpreting Meistersinger : Glyndebourne, Munich

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne. Is it unusual to start a new season with a revival ?  This production premiered on the exact date on which Wagner was born 200 years before.  Fortuitous timing, perhaps, but also a bright start to the 2011 season.  "Sunny but not shallow" I wrote at the time - read my original piece HERE

David McVicar set the production around the time of Wagner's birth, which was appropriate in the composer's anniversary year, but rather less relevant now.  On the plus side, early 19th century designs are easy on the eye.  Perhaps the popularity of this production stems from it being so genteel and non-challenging. But Die Meistersinger isn't about pretty scenery. On the contrary. It says, quite clearly that appearances deceive. The good guy is not the one in the smart black suit.  On the minus side, it gentrified 16th century Nuremburg,  obliterating the context of Reformation and revolt.  It didn't matter so much in 2011 because we were celebrating the start of the season, the production was fresh and it was different. Gerald Finley was a sophisticate, rather than earthy. Because he's a house favourite, it's perfectly reasonable to build a production around him.  There isn't and shouldn't be a "Hans Sachs type" but Finley's voice is on the genteel side, so his Sachs was never going to be gritty or pugnacious.  Hence his Sachs was an Early Romantic poet, from a time when poets were intellectuals, often aristocratic, almost all middle class.  They'd no more make a living fixing shoes than might a hero from Jane Austen. 

True, the Romantic period was a revolution, but the revolution Wagner wrought transformed the music of the past, even if it grew from Romantic values.  I enjoyed the 2011 premiere because Vladimir Jurowski conducted exceptionally well. The orchestra communicated what the set avoided.  There's no reason why Die Meistersinger shouldn't be sunny and gay, in the old sense of the word, because the Nuremburgers are celebrating the survival of their city and the renewalof art.  There is more in the opera, though.  The Meistersingers were happy enough to do as Beckmesser wanted and run Walter out of town, had Sachs not intervened.  Not for nothing, when darkness falls, the townsfolks crap. It's comic but not funny. A crowd can descend into a mob. The Night Watchman is a counterpart to Sachs, restoring sanity.  

And so to  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich, just down the road from Bayreuth and not far from Nuremburg. Presumably the locals have Die Meistersinger in their DNA, notwithstanding their ancestors' less than worshipful approach to Wagner himself.  Even if they don't, the opera is so familiar that it could be interpreted in a new way, yet still be true to the fundamentals.  Jonas Kaufmann is Munich's greatest asset, and even more popular than Finley is at Glyndebourne. I'm glad I listened to the premiere audio only, in order to get the musical logic behind the interpretation.  Kaufmann is simply head and shoulders above everyone else in the cast, though they are good, and probably better than the Glyndebourne cast.  He's just so good that he changes the balance of the opera.  Jacques Imbrailo did the same with the Glyndebounre  Billy Budd, singing so divinely that some forget that for Britten, the story actually revolves around Captain Vere's moral dilemma.  It's fine to adjust balances in this way because they allow a change of perspective.  Kaufmann's Walter was so good that no one could have mistaken him for an untrained newcomer.  The birds in the woods who taught Kaufmann's Walter must have been pretty amazing.  An interpretation placing more emphasis on Walter than on Sachs would be perfectly valid, if done well, because Walter is the future, as Sachs recognizes.  

Sachs was named after St John the Baptist, who laid the way for Jesus.  Johannisnacht is a Christian festival, but also has connections with prehistory and even the occult.  The tree in the town square, for example is a kind of fertility symbol, and young folk go courting at the fair.  "Holy German Art" was poisoned by Hitler, but it's not actually about Nazism.  The music isn't even demonic, just affirmative, so,playing it up for cheap,thrills is a cop out.  It's time to exorcise that ghost from the opera and from its interpretation. Holy German Art in Hans Sachs's time was an affirmation of native German values, as opposed to the Catholic Church, to the democratization of learning through the printed word.  Before Gutenberg, people didn't have books, and had to believe what they were told.   The real message of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg  is a lot more radical than some realize. 

Please also read Mills and Boon Wagner -Meistersinger at the Met  and  Stefan Herheim's perceptive Meistersinger, Salzburg and ENO Vindicated : Wagner's prescient warning. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Mahler early Songs orch. Berio, Matthias Goerne

Two of the three sets of  Mahler early songs, arranged by Luciano Berio, for baritone and orchestra, with Matthias Goerne, the BBC SO and conductor Josep Pons, HERE on BBC Radio 3.

The Mahler songs start 50 minutes into the broadcast. Berio's orchestrations are interesting, because they are "Berio" though they are absolutely faithful to the spirit of Mahler's original songs for piano. Mahler himself worked from piano song to symphonic movement. Berio's arrangements were premiered at the Mahler Musikwochen in Toblach where serious Mahler minds meet. The two sets on this broadcast are 5 frühe Lieder (1986),and 7 frühe Lieder(1987). Berio's 6 frühe Lieder dates from 2011, though the songs are even earlier, from 1880 to 1889. Thomas Hampson made the first recording in January 1992, with Berio himself conducting the Philharmonia, London. It's still the classic, but Goerne and Pons should be strong competition. Goerne has been singing Mahler for more than 20 years - long before Mahler became fashionable. He sang the Rückert-Lieder which is is a treasured collector's item, never commercially released. Goerne's Ich bin der Welt abhanden geworden is moving : a great Mahler enthusiast chose it for her funeral.

Goerne's fondness for Mahler's early songs goes way back. In 2000, he did an unusual programme at the Wigmore Hall, mixing the early songs with songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn The songs date from 1880 to 1896, but, by grouping them by theme, Goerne brought out the connections between them. The earliest songs were not based on Brentano and von Arnim, but they all convey a sense of wonder. Wo die Schone Trumpeten blasen was followed by Erinnerung and Phantasie came after Urlicht. Der Tambourgs'll preceded Zu Strassbourg auf der Schanz. Thematic connections, and a reaffirmation of the way Mahler's morphed from song to symphony. Sixteen years later, Goerne's voice has matured. These Mahler/Berio songs are very well done indeed. Recently, Goerne sang Das Lied von der Erde in Austria, also with Josep Pons, in the tenor/baritone version. Though Fischer-Dieskau sang it several times, it's still "off the beaten track". But I think Goerne would be interesting.