Friday, 1 August 2014

Strauss Choir and Elgar Symphony Petrenko Prom 19

A Strauss choral work and an Elgar symphony - Vassily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra shook things up with devastating impact at Prom 19.  Strauss's Festival Prelude was written for a grand occasion - the opening of a new concert hall in Vienna in 1913. It's a massive, no-holds-barred piece glorying in drama and excess, ideal for grand surroundings like the Royal Albert Hall  Strauss packs intense power concentrated in a relatively short piece. All those instruments have to make their mark - no room for messing about. Petrenko and his orchestra seemed electrified - taut, energetic tempi, perfect cohesion, every note making an impact. Such vibrant energy,  We know now what Strauss didn't know in 1913. The Hapsburgs  and the gilded magnificence they stood for would be deposed.  Vienna, once capital of a great  empire, would be become capital of a truncated rump. But for a moment, Petrenko made it come alive again. He made us feel the optimism, the bravado, the sense of limitless confidence. This piece is standard Proms fare, but I don't think Ive ever heard it conducted with so much intelligence or purpose.

This set the scene for  Strauss's Deutsche Motette, also from 1913. This piece is even more remarkable, technically, because Strauss does with voices what he does with orchestration. This is a choral piece that defies normal convention. The four basic blocks  of voice type are refined, so the piece operates in 16 parts, blending sounds in a wash of extreme subtlety. Strauss didn't have much time for oratorios and  choral tradition. In Deutsche Motette he redefines the rules. His text is based on Friedrich Rückert's poem Die Schöpfung ist zur Ruh' gegangen,,  (all creation is at rest). The poet describes a panoramic landscape, rendered still in the silence of the night. "Es will der Schlaf auch mich befangen,"  sleep as a form of suspended animation. The balance of voices is essential, for nothing must destabilize this hypnotic magic, lest the spell be broken. A metaphor, too, for the world of 1913, now lost forever.

Exceptionally beautiful singing. This piece is a tour de force requiring great co-operation between singers, though each voice must remain distinct.  Inger Dam-Jensen and Susanna Shakespeare sang the soprano parts, Tara Erraught the mezzo, Adrian Dwyer the tenor and Brindley Sherratt the bass, backed by the BBC Singers.  In a performance as good as this, it would be a bit unfair to pick out exceptional singing but Sherratt and Erraught stood out like stars in the firmament, their lower timbre reinforcing the mystical sensuality at the heart of the piece.

Inger Dam-Jensen was the soloist in Strauss Four Last Songs, also magical songs on the theme of sleep and death. Whoever planned this Prom programme knows their music. Nearly 40 years after the Deutsche Motette, perhaps Strauss was looking back on his life and the world he had known. Although we've all heard more ideal performances of these songs (and the maddeningly superficial Prom with Christine Brewer) , listening to Dam-Jensen with lingering memories of the Deutsche Motette made this a performance to remember fondly.

Liverpool, the Cinderella of British cities, has much to be proud of in Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.  They're a wonderful team. It's a shame we in London don't get to hear enough of them. They're developing a unique sound - vivid and rejuvenating   Petrenko loves Elgar, and hears in him a "Russian soul".  Elgar's Symphony no 2 sounds mysterious with Petrenko. Even the "windflower" motif breezes along elusively. There are many cryptic clues in Elgar's music, many of which will never be solved. Four-square performances may be more common, but Petrenko's approach in many ways gets closer to the magic behind the notes.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Three Choirs Festival - Reflections on 1914 Elgar Rasch


The Three Choirs Festival began more than 300 years ago. Perhaps it is the oldest music festival in the western world. The exact start date is unknown: members of the choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford  decided to join together and sing. That sense of community and cooperation, is very much a part of Christian tradition. As Jesus taught "Love they neighbour as thyself". If only people could live by that concept, whatever their faith.

Next week we mark the centenary of the day on which Britain declared war on Germany. Thus began a conflict that, arguably, continued until 1945. Would the cycle of attack and revenge have continued?  Instead of punitive reparations, the US introduced the Marshall Plan: victors supporting the welfare of the defeated.  Mutual humanity. Some - certainly not all - Britons might still relish foreign wars (on behalf of other states) but Germany has becomes a force for peace. In this spirit I salute (perhaps the wrong choice of word) the Three Choirs Festival for its concert tonight, Reflections on 1914.

"Spirit of England, go before us !" the soprano sings at the start of Edward Elgar's The Spirit of England. The melody echoes, gloriously,  in the solo violin, recurring and uniting the piece, its warmth suggesting sunny confidence. . Lawrence Binyon's poem "The Fourth of August", written in the heat of the moment, refers to the "grandeur of our fate". Binyon even equates war with Spring and regrowth. England  "fights the fraud that feeds desire on Lies, in lust to enslave or kill, The barren creed of blood and iron," The photo above shows officers of the Worcestershire Regiment posing before they're sent to the Front in 1914. How many would survive?

Perhaps Elgar wasn't quite so belligerent. He sets the middle section (loosely based on Binyon's To Women, in a more reflective key, ushering in the final section "To the Fallen". Trumpets blare and a march-like rhythm emerges. "The enemies of England|" are still a threat. At last the meaning of death sinks in. The text comes from Binyon's most famous poem, To The Fallen. "We will remember them" repeats the soprano, her melody taken up by the chorus, and at times a melancholy cello. .Boadicea-like, the soprano's voice soars. even as the orchestra becomes hushed. "As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, To the end, to the end, they remain."

Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending  can mean many things but in this context, one might reflect on its melancholy. Something very beautiful is being glimpse, but through a haze of nostalgia. Perhaps when the violin soars upwards, we could be thinking of transcendence, deliverance, or timless release? Music doesn't exist just in notes but in our emotional response.

 Two of the greatest British composers, responding to a war that would change their world, and a youngish German composer who has travelled the world, reflecting on what went before him.  Torsten Rasch grew up in a tradition very close to the Three Choirs: he was a boy chorister with the Dresdener Kreuzchor, which produced Peter Schreier and Rudolf Mausberger (lots about them on this site too). Rasch's music embraces wider genres. He emigrated to Japan as a young man and has worked in theatre, film and multimedia.  Read more about him here.

Torsten Rasch's A Foreign Field is a Three Choirs commission, (in connection with Chemnitz Opera) continuing the Festival's support for new music in its core repertoire. "It's not a Requiem" says Rasch. He uses the British Evensong tradition to bring together English and German poems texts by poets who served on opposite sides in 1914-18 - Ivor Gurney, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl. Below a sample

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Rameau Motets Prom William Christie Les Arts Florissants

Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants  performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years. Even more significantly, this perfection was mixed with joy and humour. This was an  hommage to Rameau, whose 250th anniversary we celebrate, But for us in the audience, it was also an hommage to William Christie, who founded Les Arts Florissants in 1979. Christie and the generations of artists he has inspired  blend new scholarly research with musical intelligence.

In his lifetime, Rameau was something of a radical. Christie and modern baroque specialists present  Rameau as vibrant as it might have been when the music was still fresh.  Deus noster refugium (1713) (God is our refuge) begins in relatively conventional mode, suitable for decorous church performance. Then a wilder. almost dance-like mood takes over, ushered in by "footsteps"in the vocal line, where each syllable is deliberately defined. The voices sing with firm conviction, while the forces around them are in tumult. With a little imagination, we can hear, as Lindsay Kemp describes in his programme notes, "'mountains' cast into the sea (bursts of tremolos and rushing scales  in the strings, stoically resisted  by firmly regular crotchets  in the three solo voices; swelling waters (smooth but restless choral writing over forward-driving strings); and finally  streams that 'filled the city of God with joy' a gigue-like aria for soprano with solo violin".

Quam dilecta tabernacula (1713-15?) (How lovely is thy dwelling place) allows Rameau to write elaboate fugal patterns. Rameau, the master of technical form, also manages to evoke the beauty of the outdoors. The piece begins with very high soprano, accompanied by delicate winds : pastoral, sensual and mysteriously unearthly. The choruses introduce a livelier mood, which might suggest fecundity and vigorous growth. The soprano solo is balanced by a tenor solo, then later by baritone. Elegant design, reminiscent of baroque gardens, laid out in tight formation. When the soloists sing in ensemble, and later with full chorus, the voices entwine gracefully.

The version of In convertendo Dominus (Psalm 126, When the Lord turned again the Captivity of Zion)  only now exists in a revision made for Holy Week in 1751. The piece begins with a wonderful part for very high tenor, presaging the passion later French opera would have for the voice type. Do we owe Enée and  Robert le Diable to Rameau?  Reinoud Van Mechelen's voice rang nicely, joined by the other five soloists in merry, lilting chorus that suggests laughter. The bass Cyril Costanzo's art was enhanced by whip-like flourishes of brass and wind. Even lovelier,  the well decorated soprano passages, which lead into a  beautiful blending of solo voices and orchestra.  A pause: and then the exquisite chorus. "They that go out weeping....shall come back in exultation, carrying their sheaves with them.  Christie balances the voices so finely that one really hears "sheaves", united and golden.

If these Grand Motets weren't enough, Christie continued with so many encores that the  BBC schedule was thrown off kilter, and only one can be heard on rebroadcast. Haha! I thought, admiring Christie's sense of humour and bravado.  The photo above shows Christie having fun in fancy dress. Since I'd come for the music (and for Les Arts Flo) I was glad I could stay, and not worry about mundane things like missing the last bus. "Hahahahahaha " went the chorus in the excerpt from Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville's In exitu Israel (1753) on exactly the same subject.   A brilliant choice!  Just as in Rameaus In convertendo Dominus, the Hebrews are laughing because they've been freed. Rameau's laughter is more subtle, Mondonville's more crude, "crowd pleasing" to the point of being coarse.  Christie is making a point. Mondonville was more fashionable at the time, but as we know now, Rameau has had the last laugh.

Christie continued with an extract from Rameau's Castor et Pollux which was used with words of Kyrie Eléison for Rameau's funeral Mass. The opera and its successors meant a lot to the composer, and to Christie, who conducted Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne last year (read my review HERE). Christie is no fool. Respect his choices. He knows baroque style better than most, and chose as director Jonathan Kent, with whom he created the magnificent Glyndebourne Purcell The Fairy Queen. "If it's good enough for Bill Christie", my companion said, "It's good enough for me". At the interval at Glyndebourne we bumped into Christie himself, and told him. He beamed with delight, his eyes twinkling. "That's what I like", he grinned.

Christie and Les Arts Florissantes ended with a excerpt from Les Indes Galantes, their greatest hit, which revolutionized public perceptions of the genre.The baroque era was audacious, given to extravagant, crazy extremes. People embraced the new world outside Europe, and delighted in exotic fantasy. Po-faced literalism is an aberration of late 20th century culture, dominated by TV.  To really appreciate baroque style, it helps to understand the period. "You have to steep yourself in historical, performance practice", says Christie. "it has to become completely natural and spontaneous. If the public starts to become aware of the archaeological aspects, then we've failed. I think one of the reasons we've had success in Les Arts Florissants is because we've become completely instinctive". This fabulous Prom unleashed the joy, energy and wit in the style. Christie makes Rameau, and the spirit of his age, come alive.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra - China's oldest and biggest

The BBC Proms always feature orchestras from outside the UK. We've heard the Berliner Philharmoniker, he Wiener Philharmoniker, SWR  Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Concerto Copenhagen and many, many more. This year the focus is on orchestras from outside Europe.  The China Philharmonic Orchestra featured in the Second Night of the Proms. (reviewed here). Classical music audiences in Asia (in particular) are vast, and growing, so by including  less well known orchestras, the Proms connects to audiences in the countries the orchestras come from (Turkey, The Middle East etc)  All part of one huge world-wide family.

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra is the oldest orchestra in Asia. It was founded 1879. Shanghai was a prosperous, cosmopolitan city, so the orchestra soon became well established.  Details of the 2014-15 season have just been announced. If you're wondering why the photo above looks familiar, it was taken at the Philharmonie in Berlin  The SSO is international.

"What feels like to be the richest orchestra in an emerging second-richest country in the world? Ask Shanghai Symphony Orchestra." writes Rudolph Tang in Klassikom. "With 60 million RMB from the government subsidy and another 30 million from its board which comprises some of the biggest state businesses in Shanghai, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra engrosses over 100 million RMB (or USD 15 million) as its annual budget. The orchestra announced its probably the most ambitious season ever at the SSO’s new hall this afternoon. The 14-15 season of SSO in a comprehensive season integrates both the orchestra and the two halls that seat 1,500 in total."  Read the full article HERE.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Bayreuth Ring live broadcasts 2014

BR Klassik is again broadcasting live from Bayreuth.Very similar casts to last year. Coming up:

Die Walküre  - 5th August
Siegfried  - 12th August
Götterdämmerung  - 16th August 
Lohengrin  - 19th August 

All broadcasts are live. Start times all 1805 German time (5 pm GMT)  More details here.

Here's what I wrote about the performances last year . Two Rings in the space of weeks !Part of the reason Barenboim seems more vivid was because I was there live, sweltering in the heat.

Die Walküre (Petrenko Bayreuth) and Barenboim Prom
Siegfried (Petrenko Bayreuth) and Barenboim Prom
Götterdämmerung (Petrenko, Bayreuth) and Barenboim Prom
Lohengrin (Bayreuth 2011)

A Face in a Crowd

One hundred years ago today, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. From relatively small beginnings, thus was ignited the "Thirty Years War" of the 20th century. In Vienna, saccharinely rebranded the "City of Dreams", people gathered to cheer. The Face in the Crowd ? Adolf Hitler. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Schoenberg in London - WNO Moses und Aron

Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron at last returned to London. The Royal Opera House in fact gave the British premiere of the opera, in 1965.  In the present philistine artistic climate, would they dare value art over stupidity? We need the values of Moses und Aron more than ever.  Thank goodness ROH has sponsored the Welsh National Opera production, which itself dates from 2003. At least we in London get a chance to experience the opera live. House co-operations like this are a boon.
John Tomlinson sang Moses in the Met production eleven years ago. Moses, as the text tells us, is a man who doesn't express himself in words, so Tomlinson's powerful presence creates the right impact. Rainer Trost sang Aron, catching the true Sprechstimme cadences well. The opera is a dialectic between Moses and Aron, but the choruses provide ballast and background. Their music is wonderful. Sometimes they represent the voice of god, sometimes the voice of the people. I would have liked sharper, tighter diction but for non-German speakers this was good enough.  Good enough playing, with the WNO orchestra conducted by Lothar Koenigs. Although I hate it when people wail of any performance "It's not like the recording" in this case we have such a choice of outstanding recordings that if we compared like for like, this performance won't come near the top. But never mind. Just getting a chance to engage with Moses und Aron is a privilege.

Please read Mark Berry's review of Schoenberg Moses und Aron in Opera Today. It's the most detailed of all.

The original Stuttgart production looks a little dated now, but it's perfectly acceptable. Although the story comes from The Book of Exodus, when Schoenberg was writing in 1932 he may have been intuiting another kind of exodus. Moses believes in ideals that can't easily be put into words. Aron is his interpreter, much in the way a performer interprets what a composer sets onto paper. No need for tablets made of stone. Pocket scores will suffice.  And even these are meaningless unless the people engage with the content therein. But will the people care, or understand?  Will they prefer cheap thrills and easy answers? Yet, as Moses says, "Ich darf, und ich muss". He cannot compromise or lose his integrity.

There's plenty of nudity and sex in the libretto, but not in the production. The historical-reality crowd might prefer that, but the original directors  Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito,adhere to the spirit of that which cannot be expressed in direct images.  The People sit in what looks like a cinema, facing the audience in the auditorium, "watching" the golden calf in their imaginations, having vaguely impersonal orgies when they think they cant be observed. Much better this than gaudy special effects to distract from the moral power of the opera and the music. Indeed, the staging allows us to concentrate on the inner workings of the music. The naked women emerge vocally from the sprawl in the "theatre", their voices ringing out from the throng. So damn what if they're wearing anonymous clothes. Anyone with ears can pick them out clearly.  Moses und Aron is as much an opera about music as it is about faith.

The god of the Hebrews was austere, so holy that his name could not be spoken, whose presence could not be depicted in crass graven images. When Verdi Nabucco was staged last year at the Royal Opera House (read more here) some people went nuts because there wasn't enough gold and decoration. Surely such people must realize that the Hebrews chose the God of Moses, and not the graven images of Babylon? 

Glyndebourne comes to you

Glyndebourne Tour dedicates its 2014 season to visionary founder Sir George Christie. Glyndebourne Tour is to honour the artistic vision of its founder Sir George Christie by taking three world-class productions, two fresh from premières at Glyndebourne Festival, on the road this autumn. Sir George, who died in May, established the Tour in 1968 driven by an ambition to bring the highest-quality opera to as many people as possible and nurture talented singers from across the world at the start of their careers. Now in its 46th year, the Glyndebourne Tour is offering a rare opportunity to see two new productions direct from the internationally acclaimed Glyndebourne Festival, Verdi’s La traviata and Mozart’s La finta giardiniera.

 It''s not often that brand new productions hit the road so quickly, so this is good news, even though the  casts will be different. The new La Traviata is a safe enough choice though from what I've heard, the original cast was the draw, with all respect to the Tour cast. Good careers have been built from Glyndebourne Tour beginnings.

 The real attraction for me will be  La finta giardiniera.  Mozart's early  opera is relatively rare because it isn't a masterpiece but there's a lot more to it than, say, Bastien and Bastienne  On the other hand, the Glyndebourne production highlights its strengths and makes it good theatre, enhancing our understanding. Read Claire Seymour's perceptive review in Opera Today. I rushed to get tickets at Glyndebourne but it was sold out.  So I'm booking early for the Tour production. Has this Cinderella of Mozart's operas  found her prince? In Frederick Wake-Walker's thoughtful staging, La finta giardiniera.proves its strengths. The first night at Glyndebourne (5/12) is already sold out.
Also taking to the road is Jonathan Kent’s highly acclaimed 2006 production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.  Glyndebourne will also be screening  Melly Still’s playful family production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in selected cinemas. "Playful family production" is the right description. "Vixen de-fanged",  I called it at the premeiere (more HERE)  It does nothing for Janáček or for those who like the opera, but it's great for family outings. Disney, with rather good music. Two other special productions for primary school children and  families, Songs about us and Five Deaths and a Happy Ending. Glyndebourne's youth outreach is very high quality indeed, and has featured commissions from composers like Julian Phillips (The Yellow Sofa).

Moire details of Glyndebourne Tour's schedule here. 

photo : morebyless

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.

Claire Seymour's review is HERE IN OPERA TODAY