Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Triumphant Triumphlied Brahms Prom 62 OAE

Brahms Triumphlied triumphed at the all-Brahms Prom 62 at the Royal Albert Hall,  London, with Marin Alsop, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, the Choir of the Enlightement and soloist Benjamin Appl. Brahms's Triumphlied (Op 55, 1872) was written to mark the first unification of Germany, and the defeat of France, which hitherto had dominated the European balance of power. The British weren't keen either, since the new nation competed with British industry, trade and naval control.  The 1914-1918  War was a direct result of this rivalry. Triumphlied wasn't ever going to be popular in such circumstances. But no nation has a monopoly on nationalism. Now perhaps we have the historical perspective to hear the piece in context and appreciate its merits.

The first unification of Germany marked the fulfilment of the Romantic dream of a nation no longer torn apart by hundreds of warring states. Significantly, Brahms chose his text from The Book of Revelation in the Bible, focusing on Chapter 19, where a vast multitude gather to celebrate a cosmic marriage (unity) . Hence the jubilant Allelujas and the punchy, optimistic rhythms. Brahms is celebrating hope after struggle. The different threads in the chorus and orchestra interweave, like garlands.Beautifully precise part singing.  In Revelation, a white horse appears in the skies,  with eyes of fire, bearing a horsemen who represents the King of Kings. Out of the tumult, the solo baritone's voice rises, clear and forceful. Despite his youth, Benjamin Appl already has a huge following. I've kept missing his appearance, but now I can hear why he has impressed so many. He doesn't have much to sing in Triumphlied, but he makes those moments ring out gloriously. Listen to him next at the Oxford Lieder Festival in October.

Brahms Alto Rhapsody (Op 53, 1869)  made an interesting contrast to the Triumphlied.  Here Brahms chose his text from an excerpt from Goethe Harzreise im Winter. The soloist, this time a mezzo soprano (Jamie Barton), is again surrounded by large orchestra and chorus, yet the mood is desolate. The solo part is much more dominant, moving slowly and purposefully over the forces behind her. Jamie Barton has one of those big voices that impress. She won the BBC Singer of the World in Cardiff and the Richard Tucker Prize more recently. She has a nice, rich voice but needs to work on her diction. The Alto Rhaspsody is one of the finest vehicles for resplendent mezzo and contralto voices. Kathleen Ferrier, Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker,  Brigitte Fassbender, and Alice Coote  (First Night of the Proms 2009) set almost impossibly high standards for any young singer. 

Framing the Triumphlied and the Alto Rhapsody were  the purely orchestral Academic Festival Overture and Brahms Symphony no 1 in C minor.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are a n excellent orchestra, and Brahms is a composer Marin Alsop usually does well.  Last year at the Proms, they did Brahms German Requiem together. Like the Triumphlied and the Alto Rhapsody, the German Requiem predicates on the singing. The non vocal [pieces in this prom didn't quite come alive,  but we should be glad for the Choir of the Enlightenment.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Tanglewood Mahler 8th Andris Nelsons - livestream

Now available on livestream here, Mahler Symphony no 8 at Tanglewood. Andris Nelsons conducts the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.  The set of soloists is so good that it will remembered for a long time: Erin Wall, Christine Goerke, Mihoko Fujimura, Jane Henschel, Klaus Florian Vogt, Matthias Goerne, Ain Aigner and Erin Morley.  Most of them are Mahler 8th veterans but Goerke, Goerne and Vogt stand out. This is seriously luxury casting. I think it's Goerke's role debut, but she's so good that she's bound to make it part of her repertoire.

Nelsons conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. No youth orchestra will ever have the finesse of a professional orchestra of seasoned players, but in the open air ambiance of Tanglewood, youth and freshness are an advantage. I loved watching the concert on video, seeing how intently the players were performig, and putting their hearts into what they were playing. As Claudio Abbado has said, music-making begins with love. If these young players love what they're doing, they are well on the way to becoming good musicians. The choruses, too, were "homegrown",  again not at all a disadvantage. Very few large choirs are fully professional, and what these singers may lack in polish they make up for with enthusiasm.  Twice, when I've heard Mahler 8th live, the performance came awry because some of the choruses drifted apart from the others and the conductor. This symphony is notoriously difficult to conduct so it's a credit to all that they listened to each other and to Nelsons.

The tag "Symphony of a Thousand" was invented by concert promoters , not by Mahler himself. Although vast forces have impact, musical considerations come above all else. Mahler himself said "“So far I have employed words and the human voice …….to express symphonically only with immense breadth......But here the voice is also an instrument…….used not only as sound, but as the bearer of poetic thoughts”. I've heard this symphony twice at the Royal Albert Hall, and once in a sports stadium nearly twice the size of the RAH.  What matters is how it is performed.   Numbers aren't as important as quality. The old saw "Never mind the quality, feel the width" applies. Here, the balance sounded right, so one might contemplate "poetic thoughts" without being overwhelmed.

On the live audio-only broadcast, the First Part and the Second Part were separated by an interval. I was quite shocked, since there isn't supposed to be an interval.  The silence between the parts is structurally important,  serving as a  limbo state  between the "earthly" aspects of the first part and the much more spiritual conclusion, limbo inn this case referring to the transit from death to afterlife in Christian liturgy, a sort of "clearing space" so things move on. The silence doesn't have to be defined, but it has to be palpable.  Significantly, there are no voices in the first part of the second part. Ideally we should listen and intuit our own "poetic thoughts". When Nelson's conducted  his legendary Mahler 8 in Birmingham in 2010, he conducted it without an interval  So why the interval at Tanglewood ?

What  I liked about this performance was its friendly atmosphere.  Again and again, the text refers to light, and to thoughts rising upwards, beyond the restraints and preoccupations of the temporal world.  When the Mater Gloriosa appears, way above the stage, she represents a higher level of existence, more luminous and humane. This  Tanglewood Mahler 8th bodes well for the future.

San Francisco Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas Mahler 1

From Juliet Williams in Edinburgh

The visit of the San Francisco Symphony under their principal chief conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, was one of the highlights of this year's Edinburgh Festival and part of a programming strand featuring American music and musicians.

In the opening performance, they showcased a work commissioned for the orchestra's centenary in 2012, John Adams' Absolute Jest. This work pays homage to Beethoven and in particular the late quartets, which are heavily quoted. However it creates a very new musical experience by having a string quartet – here the St Lawrence Quartet – performing with full symphony orchestra. No one player is a soloist in the conventional concerto sense, nor even in the way that the solo parts of a double concerto are distributed; the quartet is collectively one but a many-layered voice, which passes the melodic lead between the orchestra and itself as well as between its players. Hence the work looks forward as well as back; it creates a new musical experience in its form; it is modern in its sound world and it pays homage to one of classical music's most important figures. It is a very fitting piece for the orchestra's centenary. San Francisco Symphony have also recorded this piece.

This orchestra is to my mind heard at its best in minimalist works. It has a glistening, shimmery sound which is uplifting to the listener, hopeful and expansive. Whilst the Adams commission brought this out more than any other work on the programme, it was also brought to the fore in the expansive later sections of the second movement in Tchaikovsky's Fifth, which was performed to close the second Edinburgh concert.

The Adams commission was given context by the performance also of Beethoven's own work: here in Edinburgh, his fourth Piano Concerto in which Philadelphia-educated Yuja Wang was the flamboyant soloist; in the two-centre UK tour taken as a whole, the Eroica symphony too (Proms, Mon 31st August). Ms Wang was very popular with the Edinburgh audience, the Usher Hall was filled to capacity and she received rapturous applause. Her musicianship was further displayed in an excellent Queens Hall recital earlier in the week with Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. She joins the San Francisco Symphony again in London on August 31st, this time to play Bartok's Second Piano Concerto.
Perhaps the highlight of the entire visit, though, was the performance of Mahler Symphony no 1 – of which Michael Tilson Thomas is a noted interpreter – forming the second half of the first Edinburgh concert. It is to be repeated this evening (Sun 30th August) at the Proms, and is very well worth making the trip to hear. If you can't do that, it's broadcast live on Radio Three. The London performance will also include Boston-based pianist Jeremy Denk playing more of what he has described as 'bad boy pianism', the idiosyncratic Henry Cowell concerto.

No American programme would be complete without Ives, and his Decoration Day’ from 'New England Holidays' opened the second evening. The first of the two concerts was opened by a particularly enjoyable account of Schoenberg's Theme and Variations (Op 43b) – possibly the best live performance I've ever heard of this particular piece.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Shockingly modern - Sibelius Kullervo Oramo Prom 58

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op7, 1892) ?  There are many theories why he didn't allow it to be heard after its initial performance, though he referred to it fondly in private. Sakari Oramo considers Kullervo "a masterpiece", and, at Prom 58 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, conducted it with such conviction that there can be little doubt about its unique place in Sibelius's output, and indeed in music history. Kullervo is such a remarkable work, so shockingly original that Paavo Berglund revisited it fifteen years after his original recording,. Neeme Järvi brought yet more new insights. There have been many other  performances since, but Sakari Oramo creates an interpretation  of great depth and perceptiveness. 

From a hushed opening, the Allegro Moderato grew with ever increasing impatience, as if it were an Overture to an opera, for a quasi-opera this is. One cannot underestimate the impact of Wagner and his"forest murmurs", though even at this early stage in his career, Sibelius was iconoclastic, deliberately seeking a new sound world. Unlike Wagner who re-imagined Norse Legend, Sibelius heard living oral tradition at first hand. Kullervo comes alive with the rhythms of the Kalevala, with its strange, primitive pulse and shamanistic repetitions.  Hence the short, sharp intervals in the brass and winds, and the driving pizzicato in the strings, creating a sense of tense, ritualized movement. Even to our ears accustomed to Stravinsky, Bartók and Janáček, Kullervo still sounds raw and primeval. Yet it was written twenty-one years before The Rite of Spring.  

I've often wondered if Sibelius himself realized how daring Kullervo was and, being a worrier, pulled back, as he might have pulled back from the enormity of his conception for the Eighth? Once, Sibelius performance history presented the composer in sub-Tchaikovsky terms, which really doesn't do the composer justice.  Kullervo resets the balance so we can think ahead to the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies and their audacity and inventiveness  It is, unequivocally new and individual, the mark of a true genius.

In Kullervo, we can hear the origins of tone poems like Nightride into Sunrise and Lemminkäinen Suite. and reflect that the tone poems are much darker than mere portaits of Nature and myth.  Thus the lucid detail of Oramo's conductng, which emphasizes the sophistication that lies beneath the ostensible savagery in the piece. It's not simply folk tale for grand orchestra but an experimental approach to dynamics and relationships. The contrast between emotional extremes and the tight, staccato-like figures creates abstract narrative tension. Oramo makes the orchestra "sing" as if we're hearing Kullervo's nervous heartbeat, pulsating with frustration.

Kullervo is also a musical act of defiance, written as it was at a time when Finland was  resisting efforts by Russia to curb its freedoms. This adds context to the figure of Kullervo himself, a child born into suffering. One can appreciate Kullervo without knowing the Kalevala, but it does enhance meaning. Runes XXXI to XXXVI give Kullervo's background. He's cruelly mistreated by an uncle who stole his patrimony. He's tortured and sold into slavery. When he meets the maiden, he rapes her because he wants what she represents, yet, raised in cruelty, he doesn't have what we might call "social skills". Dreams of his long-lost mother have kept him going , so when he discovers that the woman he has violated is his sister, he suffers such guilt that he must offer his own life in appeasement.

Johanna Rusanen-Kartano sang Kullervo's sister. She's a very good dramatic soprano, with the intensity to remind us that the girl, too, has had a traumatic past, lost in the woods while hunting for berries. Her story is as tragic as her brother's.  Rusanen-Kartano's lines were  rapid-fire tongue twisters, delivered with absolute precison and bite. Later her lines curve sensuously,but even in these beautiful moments, she retained a mysterious quality as if the girl had been led into the forest by evil spirits, represented perhaps in the clarinets and pumping woodwind around her. Waltteri Torikka sang the baritone part. He didn't have quite the assurance of, say, Jorma Hynninen, but he can express the vulnerability that lurks behind Kullervo's brutishness. If his voice didn't project well, live, in the cavern that is the Royal Albert Hall it sounded better on broadcast.  There's potential in this voice.

In Kullervo, the choir (the Polytech Choir augmented by the men of the BBC Symphony Chorus) operate like a Greek Chorus commenting on proceedings and adding ballast to the orchestra. These choral parts are difficult, for the lines flow with little pause for breath, relentlessly moving the action forward. The Finnish language, too, poses problems. Every vowel sound must be articulated, and there are vowel sounds one after another in succession, cut across with stinging sibillants. "Kullervo, Kalevon poika, sinisukka äijön lapsi,". For the Polytech Choir from Helsinki, the lines flow seamlessly, yet are energized by high testosterone punchiness.  We can hear the fast-moving sleigh, complete with bells as it rushes "noilla Väinön kankahilla, ammoin raatuilla ahoilla". Yet these rhythms also suggest violence, the relentless course of fate, and lets face it a fairly explicit description of sex.  I was fascinated by the way the choir varied their emphases, dropped to whispers and rose to full volume,and the variety of subtle expression. 

We hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra all the time, so we take them for granted, and forget how good they really are. The Alla marcia (Kellervo goes to war) isn't difficult for players with these technical skills, but they played  with energy and vigour. Oramo marked the end of the battle with a long silence, soon the voices of the male choirs returned, ghost-like.  Muted large brass, tuba and trumpets muffled, bassoons sighing, clarinets.rising like smoke on a battlefield. While Kullervo begins characterized by hard, angular sounds, and breaking off painfully into silence, the final movement, Kullervo's Death, is an andante. The timpani were beaten in slow march, placed at a distance from the rest of the percussion, cradling the orchestra, perhaps, in the kind of embrace  Kullervo never knew. Sibelius  didn't set the last lines of Rune XXXV but he and his audiences would have known the moral with which the saga ends. It is a warning that children should not be abused or mistreated.  

Starting with a very good En Saga (Op 9, 1892 rev 1902), this was by far the most-focused and well performed Sibelius this season,  making up for a patchy, disappointing and over-rated symphonic cycle in earlier Proms. . 

This review also appears in Opera Today

Please read my other pieces on Sibelius and Kullervo (including the Ballet in Helsinki this spring).

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Prom 55 F X Roth SWR SO Boulez Ligeti Bartók

At Prom 55, François-Xavier Roth  conducted the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg in their first - and regrettably last - appearance at the Royal Albert Hall.  The orchestra is being disbanded, merged into the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. When bureaucrats win over musicianly excellence, even in Germany, it's a blow against art.  Those who stand by watching the BBC being dismantled, from within as well as from without, would do well to ponder. The SWR Symphony Orchestra isn't just another orchestra. It was founded by Hans Rosbaud in 1946, as a statement of faith in the renewal of Europe after the barbarism of the war years. Its demise is thus one of the many symptoms of the anti-intellectual, destructive fundamentalism that's sweeping the world over. .

At the end of this Prom, Roth stood in front of his musicians, declaring his appreciation for them, and for the tradition they represent. It was a gesture of defiance, yet tinged with sadness. Roth is going on to head the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, another of the less famous but distinctive orchestras that make German music great. I'm not sure what will happen to his players, who are individually infinitely better than some heard recently. The Prom was also a tribute to Pierre Boulez, whose conducting career was launched by Rosbaud, who summoned him to Baden-Baden. He's lived there ever since. When Roth conducted Baden-Baden's concert for Boulez this January, the presenters and audience looked visibly moved.

Nothing routine or sloppy in this Proms performance. Pierre Boulez "....explosante-fixe" (1985) scintillated because Roth and his orchestra respect the music enough to create it properly. With his background in baroque, Roth knows the connection between baroque and new music. Please read more here.  One of the hallmarks of the French aesthetic is lucid intelligence. Think Descartes, Moliere, Voltaire. Complex elaborations need clear basic foundations.  Debussy's swathes of subtle  colour sparkle because he understood the importance of clarity. It's no accident that Boulez was perhaps the finest Debussy interpreter of all.  

The original  "Mémoriale ...explosante-fixe" was written to honour Stravinsky, but the larger 1985 version also honours Debussy. The soloist is now surrounded by two other flautists and a small ensemble, so we can hear the purity at the soul of the piece. This is one of the relatively rare pieces where Boulez extends his palette with electronic effects, but these didn't come through as effectively as the "acoustic" playing, perhaps because I was sitting in the wrong place. Impressionist painting shines because colours are carefully defined by light, not muddied.  "....explosante-fixe" is impressionistic in that individual units are clear, the rainbow created by good players for sensitive listeners. Sophie Cherrier combined technical excellence with sophisticated élan. I thought of Pan, surrounded by purity, an image behind the original Mémoriale and in Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

The technical excellence of the SWR Symphony Orchestra made György Ligeti's Lontano shimmer, like "music from another planet".  Like Ligeti's Atmosphères, this reached mass audiences thanks to being "borrowed" for the movies. So nuts to the myth that audiences are hard wired not to cope with new music! I got hooked on Ligeti when I heard 2001: a space odyssey, hypnotized by the music, ignoring the movie. Lontano was premiered by the SWR SO, whose players remembered the importance Ligeti placed on precision. The textures are so complex that they benefit from the careful attention Roth and his orchestra gave to them.  Roth marked the invisible bars, showing how the music doesn't simply end when the players stop. The silence evaporates into the ever more rarified resonances of the imagination. 

It's a mistake, I think, to expect  Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra to sound quaint and folksy. In 1940, the composer was looking back on his past well aware of what was happening in the Europe he'd left behind, and in the  right wing extremism in Hungary, whose government aligned itself with Hitler. At this Proms performance the SWR SO played it so well that they brought to the fore the atmosphere that Bartók might well  have intuited: the end of civilized culture.  This isn't a concerto for orchestra for nothing, since the interactions between the different parts of the orchestra suggest the importance of relationships and cross-connections.  Roth and the members of the SWR SO listen to each other: their starting point isn't their own playing but precision and attentiveness . Boulez conducted Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra many times.  Ten years have not dimmed the memory of him  conducting it at the Royal Festival Hall with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.. Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra by Serge Koussevitsky. As the present BSO embarks on a new future, they might do well to listen to Roth and the SWR SO.

Top and bottom photos: Roger Thomas

Kavakos, Yuja Wang Edinburgh Festival

From Juliet Williams in Edinburgh

Edinburgh had the honour today of a return visit from the virtuosic Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who so excelled in the Szymanowski second violin concerto in 2013 with the LSO under Gergiev – a truly electrifying performance. Today he played the three Brahms violin sonatas with pianist Yuja Wang in this morning's Queens Hall chamber recital (also broadcast live on BBC Radio Three and available via the iPlayer).

The consecutive playing of the sonatas displayed the progression of the composer's work in this form; the first being at times sunny in mood and at other times wistful; the second anticipating the arrival of a loved one; the third with more dramatic tension and on a larger scale, in four movements not three. All are warm and lyrical  and draw on extracts from the composer's songs. Kavakos is a remarkable performer and it was a delight to have the opportunity to see him live here again. He particularly excelled in the allegro amabile opening movement of the second sonata and in the adagio of the Third.

Ms Wang's talents came more fully to the fore later in the performance and most especially in their encore, the Brahms scherzo in C minor from the F-A-E sonata, where she displayed considerable panache and flare. Her playing was also showcased to advantage in the third, playful movement of the dramatic third sonata which closed the concert. She will join the San Francisco Symphony on Friday in Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, and I am looking forward to seeing her perform as a soloist. Further reports will follow here. They are also performing together at the Proms on Monday 31st August, this time in Bartok's 2ndpiano concerto. Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang have recorded these sonatas  by Brahms together on the Decca label. Today's performance can be heard again on the BBC iPlayer for thirty days.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Golijov, Edinburgh International Festival -

From Juliet Williams in Edinburgh

This 2011 work for string quartet by citizen of the world Osvaldo Golijov, entitled Quohelet, performed at the Edinburgh Festival by the St Lawrence String Quartet, is inspired by the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Best known for its third chapter:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.”

 This sense of duality pervades the work: stillness / movement; thought / action; slow / fast. Since the work's premiere, Golijov has switched the order of the quartet's two movements. The work now opens with the reflective slow movement. Just for fun, a Brazilian pop tune is inserted. The pulsing second movement which follows has been compared in the helpful introduction by first violinist Geoff Nuttall to riding a motorcycle. Again there is one track within the music which is characterised by the sense of movement whilst another element is like the mind being elsewhere whilst the body moves. The music comes to a sudden, almost abrupt end, the listener's attention left in suspense …...

Having listened to the movements in both orders (easily done using the BBC website), I think there are actually merits to each, and it is an intriguing experiment. The combination of Jewish themes and a sense of pulsing movement is remniscent at times of Steve Reich, such as Tehilim. There are also echoes of Golijov's earlier work, for Kronos, The Prayers and Dreams of Isaac the Blind.

The Stanford (California) - based St Lawrence String Quartet gave the premiere of this work in 2011, written for them in recognition of their achievement in the performance of an earlier companion piece, Yiddishbbuk, inspired by apocyphal psalms – recorded on EMI in 2002 and nominated for two Grammy awards.

They are also the dedicatees of Absolute Jest, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra  by John Adams to be performed on August 27 with the San Francisco Symphony at Edinburgh's Usher Hall. Their chamber recital included John Adams' first string quartet,and I intend to discuss the two works by Adams together later in the week. 

Although specialists in contemporary repertoire such as this,  in their tour to the Edinburgh Festival they included in the programme Saint Saen's late-written and rigorous First Quartet, and a very lovely account of the slow movement from Haydn's Op20 no1 as an encore. Their excellent performance in such more traditional repertoire showcases their versatility  and span of musical achievement. Their playing is characterised by energy and imagination.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Prom 53 Shostakovich Orango Salonen Bartók

For Prom 53, Esa-Pekka Salonen brought two works with which he's been closely associated :  Bartók  The Miraculous Mandarin and Shostakovich's "lost" opera Orango 

Since Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra have given many fine performances of The Miraculous Mandarin, (Op 19, Sz 73, 1924)  it was a given that this Proms outing would be good, but it exceeded expectations. Enlivened and emboldened by the manic craziness of the Orango that was to come, Salonen conducted with a wild freedom that lifted the inventiveness of  Bartók to levels that felt almost dangerous. The Miraculous Mandarin is  an audacious work, which horrified its first audiences, and was promptly suppressed, by Konrad Adenauer, then mayor of Cologne, no less. So the impassioned flair with which Salonen and the Philharmonia created this performance, bristling with menace and sexual violence, truly an "Infernal Dance". Sleazy trombones and clarinets, frantic, manic brass and percussion, low brass and winds exhaling strange sighs, suggesting a connection between orgasm and death? 

To bridge the gap between Bartók and Shostakovich, Mozart Piano Concerto no 24 in C minor K491, with David Fray as soloist. Mystery again, with a hint of something sensual, given the dark, rich orchestration, with pairs of  clarinets, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, in this context vaguely reminding me of the "stalking" clarinet duet - or duel - in the Miraculous Mandarin. A bit of Mozartean poise, preparing us for the grotesque of Orango to come?  

And so, at last, to the eagerly awaited Proms premiere of Shostakovich's Orango, which Salonen premiered in Los Angeles and also conducted at the Royal Festival Hall last year, and in Helsinki (in a  slightly different production).  The manuscript was discovered among the composer's papers in 2004. Only the Overture was completed, the rest of the opera existing only in piano score, now orchestrated in a performing version by Gerard McBurney. The piece was written to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Russian revolution, that grand experiment in social engineering. In the grand new era after the 1914-18 war, people placed their hopes in Science and Progress, however loopy the theories might be. Some believed, for example that injecting monkey glands would enhance human virility. Orango is a half-ape, half-human creature,  not so much the missing link  but a new hybrid. A metaphor for the Brave New World ? Shostakovich would also have been well aware of Mikhail Bulgakov's 1926 novel The Heart of a Dog, where scientists give a man the heart of a dog, but nature asserts itself, and the man reverts to dog.  Please read my review HERE of the brilliant ENO A Dog's Heart, created by Complicité and Simon McBurney (Gerard's brother). 

The Overture is patriotically upbeat, driving brass and mechanical rhythms suggesting triumphal march.  "We will dress the land (of free labourers) in the fabric of the Sun." Soviet realism in all its glory. The bass (Alexander Shagun) sings of the wonders of the new era, with its multi-megawatt power stations and infants who can dance. "No bedbugs in Moscow!"  The part is written as if the character were a ringmaster in a circus: Did Shostakovich know of Lulu, which Berg was still in the process of writing? A long semi-lyrical sequence follows, which would have been set for ballet. Shostakovich uses material from his ballet Bolt!, which I've written about HERE. It's rather worrying how dance fits  authoritarian form: people moving in regimented unison, their individuality suppressed. From dance to military displays and marches. Watch Ratmansky's choreography for Bolt! if you can. 

 "This music has grated in my ears for 15 years" sang Shagun, then, leaning towards the conductor,  asks him to "play something gentler, a lullaby". But no luck, the crowds want Orango, and bombastic noise. The trombones blew grotesque raspberries.. Orango (Ivan Novoselov) appears. "He can blow his nose, and play clapping games!" sang Shagun. But of course, he doesn't sing.  Foreigners come to admire the spectacle - another wry comment on the foreigners who admired Stalin at this period. If the plot is sketchy, that's because the opera wasn't finished. We have to make allowances. the music is crude, but then, the subject is crude, and it's possible that Shostakovich might not have got much further.  Orango is not, and can never be, much more than a fragment, but it's a tantalizing one. The plot, potentially, has more possibilities than Shostakovich's football ballet The Golden Age, though the music for The Golden Age is rather good, especially  in the highly recommended recording conducted by José Serebrier.  Orango isn't great art, but the world would be a gloomier place without it.