Friday, 21 October 2016

Eunuch Shostakovich The Nose, Royal Opera House

In  DmitriyShostakovich The Nose at the Royal Opera House, London, it wasn't just Kovalov's nose that got cut.  This production was a mutilation, The Nose as Eunuch, the opera stripped of its vital, creative essence.  In Gogol's original story, Kovalov is a "collegiate assessor", a petty bureaucrat who passes judgement, based on surface values. His Nose, however, has other ideas and runs away, taking on a life of its own, more adventurously led than its supposed owner's.   The nose of a person's face defines their outward appearance.  Kovalov's nose shows him up for what he is, or isn't.  And, by extension, the whole social order.  The Nose is not comedy, it's savage satire. Miss that and miss its fundamental, pungent purpose. No excuses. Shostakovich is hardly an unknown composer. Moreover, The Nose,was created at a time of exceptional artistic freedom in the early years of the Revolution, when the Soviet dream represented ideals and progressive change. Futurism, expressionism, modernity, Eisenstein, Bulgakov, Mayakovsky.  Shostakovich was only 20 when the piece was written, still full of courage and hope. But even those who don't know the background have only to pay attention to the music to get it.

Shostakovich's score explodes with inventiveness and zany experiment.  It begins with a fanfare and the roll of drums, like Grand Opera, but opens onto mundane scenes in mundane lives.  David Pountney's translation respects the image of smell. Something's off , rotting perhaps, even though we can't see it.  Despite the exuberant scoring  deliberately more circus than High Art, The Nose parodies the rich tradition of Russian opera. There's relatively little singing, and what there is is shrill and distorted, closer to Sprechstimme than to aria.  Significantly, some of the best music for voice lies in the choruses, who represent the "ordinary" masses, and in the vignettes for subsidiary characters, all of them characterized with great gusto.  The Nose may also be the Royal Opera House's tribute to John Tomlinson, who will never sing again but can still hold an audience spellbound by his incisive acting in multiple roles, a good foil for Martin Winkler's Kovalov, whose  identity remains constant throughout proceedings. Part of this story is about Kovalov's supine personality, in contrast to the vivacious spontaneity of his Nose, who doesn't give a stuff about propriety and the right way to do things.  Winkler's a good singer, which made his performance piquant.  The innate authority in Winkler's voice suggested that there might, somehow, be depth in Kovalov, if only he wasn't so repressed.  The vignettes were also well performed : honours to the ever popular Wolfgang Ablingrer-Sperrhacke, but also to the sturdy regulars of the ROH company, without whom the ROH would not be what is is.  The choruses, needless to say, were superb.

The extremes in Shostakovich's score should also alert any listener to the true nature of the piece.  The famous Percussion interlude pounded violently: it might suggest Kovalov's approaching nightmare, or perhaps the tension the Nose feels as it's about to break way.  Words would be superfluous. This isn't "comfort listening". Ingo Metzmacher's conducting was idiomatic and utterly expressive. The angular, jagged edges in this music are absolutely part of the meaning of this opera, as are the bluesy distortions, especially in the brass, where the lines of convention are eroded. Horns  and trumpets blowing raspberries, just as The Nose treats Kovalov with jaunty irreverence.  Wonderful playing from the Royal Opera House orchestra, who sounded as though they were having a wonderful time, escaping, like The Nose, from standard repertoire.  Shostakovich's instrumentation is deliberately bizarre. Famously, he employed a Flexatone, a kind of whirring saw whose wailing timbre suits the craziness in the plot. He also uses a xylophone, a balalaika, a whistle and castanets, and weaves these in well with the rest of the orchestra. The high woodwinds, for example, chuckle and chatter in frantic staccato, the strings scream. This manic instrumentation reflects the plot, too, in its depiction of the variety and diversity of life beyond Kovalov's narrow horizons.

Wild as the music is, it would be a mistake to assume that undisciplined playing would be in order. Quite the contrary.  Metzmacher pulls the wildness together so the colours stay vivid, and the players operate in relationship to each other. Again, this precision reflects the dance element in the opera, so very much a fundamental to its meaning.  The Nose was created for the Mariinsky and its excellent corps de ballet.  Dancers can't do free for all, or they'd collapse in an unco-ordinated heap. The tightness of Metzmacher's conducting gave them firm support so they could do their artistic thing, knowing they could rely on the pulse in the orchestra. Absolutely fabulous choreography (Otto Pichler) and wonderfully executed dancing from the members of the Royal Ballet.  Who can forget the chorus line of high-kicking Noses. The Nose itself was Ilan Galkoff.  For me, the high point was the ensemble of Eunuchs, a flamboyant drag act.  I loved their physicality: the animal energy in those limbs expressing the freedom the Nose represents!

Wonderful performances all round: the Royal Opera House at its best.  The disappointment, though, was the banality of the staging,directed by Barry Kosky. Presenting Shostakovich, and especially The Nose as feelgood West End Song and Dance Act is a travesty, a total denial of everything the piece stands for.  Kosky is popular because he gives punters what they want, nice things to look at without engaging their minds.  Obviously there's a market for that, but it's a betrayal of The Nose and everything it stands for.  The Nose isn't specifically Russian or Soviet, though those elements are relevant, but its primary focus is on the way society operates through group think , based on shallow surface appearances.  So what do we get ? A Nose dedicated to unquestioning superficiality.  All those wonderful individual performances but built on the dead heart of a clueless concept.  Audiences  assume Regie means costumes, and updating, but what it really means is whether the visuals contribute to the expression of meaning. Kosky's The Nose is bad Regie because it ignores the basic ideas behind the opera, its music and its composer.  We live in times when artistic integrity doesn't count for much and mob populism rules.  So a lot more is at stake than just opera.  All directors have their signatures, just like conductors and singers make an individual stamp.  Kosky's reminds me of Tracey Emin's unmade bed.  Wildly popular, but who needs the whiff of stale emissions and sordid self obsession?  We've all "been there" but most of us grow up and  do other things. But the punters like it, so it must be art.  That is why, for me, Eunuch The Nose was a deal breaker.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

No and Not ! The Nose ! Shostakovich

Shostakovich The Nose at the Royal Opera House tonight, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, who is the reason why I want to go.  Please read my review HERE.  Metzmacher once did a series called "Who's afraid of modern music?" confronting the notion that modern music is somehow "difficult".  No ! and not The Nose ! A man wakes up to find his nose has disappeared. He's the kind of guy for whom appearance means status, but the nose has different ideas.  It takes on its own life, running around town as a civic official. But even that’s not clear – sometimes it’s a body in a stretchy white shroud, sometimes it’s a piece of droopy rubber, and sometimes it’s not visible at all, and only spoken about.The Nose is funny, but it's also farce. The libretto's based on Gogol.  Laughs, yes, but no smiles. Sharp teeth and eyes constantly alert for danger.  Metzmacher will give the music bite.

Valery Gergiev brought The Nose to London with the Mariinsky Theatre more than ten years ago, in a season of Shostakovich operas and ballets.  Those were early days when the Mariinsky was still refered to by its old Soviet name the Kirov, and not funded and supported as well as it is now.   The Mariinsky also did The Golden Years,which was heard no less than four times in different forms that same year. José Serebrier's recording was electrifying, the Mariinsky's live performance marred by poor staging.  At that same time London also saw productions of The Bright Stream and The Bolt, another of my favourites.  With at least three major productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in recent years, and the bizarre, unfinished Orango, which Salonen brought to maniac life  (read more HERE),  we haven't done badly. Besides, there's been so much 20th century Russian music and theatre in London  (The Gambler, A Dog's Heart, etc) that The Nose at the Royal Opera House should be a cinch.  I'm definitely not an admirer of Barrie Kosky, but hope that this new Nose will be up to scratch.

And back to memories of the Mariinsky Nose, the best of the crop that golden year 2006.  The Mariinsky Nose didn't rub away the very important political aspects of the piece, so even though the punch of the Russian text was lost on English speakers, the imagery was clear.  It cocked a snoot at bureaucracy and conformity.  When Kovalov tried to put an advertisement in the newspaper “lost and found” it’s refused on circuitous grounds.  Vignettes flew at a hectic pace: the bagel seller who gets raped, the twins, the old dowager announcing her own death to a bunch of twitching, neurotic spinsters : a panorama of crazy life . Nothing’s explained: logic means little in this fertile procession of observations. At the end a Prince on a stuffed camel proclaimed everything’s sorted, but by then we were in the heart of mayhem, complete with banners of newsprint proclaiming HOC and COH, which were wordplays on the Cyrillic for “nose”.

Like the Royal Opera House, the Mariinsky is also a ballet house.   Thus the Mariinsky Nose blew the dance sub themes up well. For example, numerous cab drivers whirl about in frantic circles, each with a fascinating passenger within, yet the maelstrom is executed with such precision that it suggested the clockwork order of a society controlled by expectations. When the cab drivers lifted people above their shoulders – the dancers at the fringe of the group didn't touch, but moved in tune with other bodies as if they were all one single organism. The nose was played by a superbly athletic dancer who could do backflips and twist round the singer who sang Kovalov. Effectively, a pas de deux, but the dancer obviously the master.  The point, exactly !

It was striking, too, how much the Mariinsky Nose owed to the Russian circus tradition. Of course there were clowns, but the real influence is deeper. Circus works because there’s so much happening, so fast, that the illusion is even more spectacular than what’s actually happening. Hence the highly coloured costumes, and the almost acrobatic physicality of the performers’ movements on stage. Even the massive metal tunnel (vaguely resembling a nose) created a vast new dimension to the set, further blurring the boundaries of linear perspective. At one point an angel vocalised wordlessly from the rafters, while a sinister dark angel flitted out from behind her. Circus extends the limits of what the human body can do – just as the errant nose amply demonstrates. Circus and opera both have the same goal: the creation of illusion.

Watch this space.  Friday I'll write up the new Shostakovich Nose. 

Monday, 17 October 2016

Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 2 Hansjörg Albrecht

Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs, Vol. 2, with Hansjörg Albrecht, this time conducting the Konzerthausorchester  Berlin, with soloists Camilla Nylund, Genia Kühmeier and Ricarda Merbeth, an excellent companion to the outstanding Braunfels Orchestral Songs vol 1  (reviewed here). Honours yet again to Oehms Classics who understand the importance of excellence. A composer as good, and as individual, as Walter Braunfels deserves nothing less.

Braunfels' Drei chinesiche Gesänge op 19 (1914) sets texts by Hans Bethge whose loose translations of Chinese poetry, Die chinesische Flöte (1907) had a huge influence, building on the mid-European fascination with the East, which dates back at least to Goethe.  The East represented an alien aesthetic, something possibly purer and more mysterious. Hence the appeal to Jugendstil tastes and the new century's quest for new ideas and forms of expression.  Braunfels's  songs are not specifically"oriental", but evoke an attractive ambiguity, as if the forms of 19th century tonality were being gradually evoked from within. Ein Jungling denkt an die Geliebte, in particular, seems to float in timeless space, evoking the moonlit night beside a pool where "ein feiner Windhauch küsst den blanken Speigel des Teiches" : a mood which Braunfels captures with great poise. The image will be familiar to anyone who knows Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde - the last line even refers to "der dunkeln Erde" - but Braunfels's treatment is very individual.  The high tessitura of Camilla Nylund's voice complements the long, searching lines for the strings. Extremely refined.  In Die Geliebte des Kreigers, dying diminuendos suggest the despair of the maiden as she thinks of her soldier, far away. The horns evoke the sound of a (European) battle and the rhythms the sound of galloping horses.  Somewhat reminiscent of Mahler, though the rest of the song is more turbulent, culminating in several climaxes, the final "dem mein Herz gehört!" a shout of anguish.

Braunfels' Romantisches Gesänge op 58 were completed by 1942, but some date back to 1918.  The first, Abendständchen, to a text by Clemens Brentano bears resemblance to the Bethge songs, but Der Kranke, to a text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, is altogether more individual.  In Ist der lebens Band mit scherz gelöset (Brentano) the searching woodwinds and sliding vocal ellipses are echt Braunfels.  Der Pilot (Eichendorff), with its rousing trumpet calls and choppy rhythms, is heroic, the second strophe swelling magnificently. "Liebe schwellet sanft die Segel" - the wind in the sails, propelling the boat forward.  Nylund emphasizes the word "Morgen!", which Braunfels marks with a short pause.

With Die Gott minnende Seele op 53 (1935-6), we are firmly in Braunfels's characteristic territory, medievalism employed as disguise for dangerous modern thoughts, beating the Nazis at their own game. The poems are by Mechthilde von Magdeburg, a 13th century mystic. As so often in Braunfels, background matters.  Mechthilde's writings, collected together as Das fließende Licht der Gottheit, were controversial because she criticized the Church hierarchy practices that didn't tally with the purity of faith.  Had she lived 300 years later, she might have been a protestant, in every sense of the word.  For  Braunfels, living under the Third Reich, Mechthilde would have had more than mystical appeal.  She could have been a prototype for Jeanne d’Arc – Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna op. 57. Please read my piece on Braunfels Jeanne d' Arc HERE 

The magnificent introduction to Die Gott minnende Seele, with its haunting horn melody, prepares us for the dark richness of the vocal line to come. It feels like slipping through a time tunnel, for the text isn't poetry so much as prayer.  In the first song, the same phrase repeats with pointed variation "O du giessender Gott in deiner Gabe, O du fliessendern Gott in deiner Minne!", the pattern recreated in the orchestration.  Utter simplicity, yet great depth and sincerity.  Gradually the pace quickens: sudden flashes in strings suggesting rapture, then a quiet humble ending "ohne dich mag ich nicht sein".  An even lovelier melody sets the tone for the second song, where Genia Kühmeier sings the sprightly lines so they suggest excited palpitation.  The song ends with the melody, this time on low winds and brass.  There's something vernal and innocent in the "medievalism" in this cycle, where voice and orchestra interact, as if Mechthilde is singing to invisible voices: not a bad thing in a hostile world, and very Joan of Arc. When  Kühmeier sings "Herre, Herre, wo soll ich hinlegen?" her voice flutters and the flute answers. A duet between birds, another Braunfels signature.  This delicate fluttering is even more prominent in the last song Eia, fröliche Anshauung which begins with quasi-medieval pipes and develops into a merry dance. Mecthilde may be isolated, but she's happy.  This wonderful, tightly constructed song cycle is a miniature masterpiece.

From a nun to an Egyptian queen: Braunfels's Der Tod der Kleopatra op 59 (1944).  The harp suggests a lyre, and there are suggestions of bells but Braunfels know what's more important to Cleopatra: the man without whom she'd rather be dead. Braunfels marks this moment with an orchestral interlude, suggesting that Kleopatra is thinking about what really matters in life, not the trappings of wealth.  This song runs nearly 10 minutes but proceeds in carefully marked stages, the point at which Kleopatra takes hold of the snake also highlighted by the orchestra.
Back to Bethge with Braunfels' Vier Japanische Gesänge op. 62 (1944–45) based on Bethge's Von der Liebe süß’ und bittrer Frucht  In these songs, Braunfels doesn't even bother with fake japonisme, but treats each song on its own merits. Whatever the culture, human emotions remain the same.  All four songs are dramatic art pieces, the third, Trennung und Klage, particularly interesting, with the lovely dialogue between instruments in the orchestra, the strings suggesting night breezes "the Dämmerung den Mond". The singer here is Ricarda Merbeth.  It's worth noting that Bethge, despite his interest in exotic cultures died only in 1946 and was a contemporary of Braunfels.

On this second recording of Braunfels's Orchestral Songs, Hansjörg Albrecht conducts the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, which doesn't have an ancient pedigree like the Staatskappelle Weimar on the first recording, but does have Braunfels connections. The orchestra, set up by the DDR to counterbalance the Berliner Philharmoniker, was conducted for many years by Kurt Sanderling, like Braunfels no friend of the Nazis, and by Lothar Zagrosek whose recording of Braunfels Die Vögel is outstanding. Quite frankly, unless you know Zagrosek you don't know BraunfelsDDR musical traditions weren't as dominated by commercial pressure as in the west,  so they represent much deeper traditions.

In recent years there seems to have been an attempt to pigeonhole Braunfels as a "romantic" . When  his Berlioz Variations were done at the Proms. the most interesting variations were cut so the piece came over like Hollywood pap. That might please some audiences but it's unfaithful to what Braunfels really stands for.  In any case what passes for"romantic" bears no resemblance to Romanticism as the cultural revolution which reshaped European history and aesthetics.  Although Sensucht was a typical Romantic meme, Romanticism as a movement was progressive, radical and very political. Although the notes for this recording are more focused than in the previous volume, they are too concerned with fitting Braunfels into a category, which is not the author's fault since she clearly knows Braunfels and his music, but may be marketing imperative.  But what is so wrong with evaluating a composer on his own grounds, without having to force him into the straitjacket of categories? Why not listen to his music, as music, without preconditions?  Braunfels is a good composer because he was himself, whatever the Reich around him might have wanted.  The Nazis liked "romantic", backward-looking music, so re-branding Braunfels would be ironic. All the more we can thank Oehms Classics and Hansjörg Albrecht for bringing us Braunfels as Braunfels, revealing his true originality.

Please also see my other pieces on Braunfels and on music and culture of this period.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Superb Samson et Dalila Saint-Saëns Rachvelishvili Antonenko, Paris

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila op 47 (1877) with Anita Rachvelishvili and  Aleksandrs Antonenko,conducted by Philippe Jordan at the Opéra Nationale de Paris, in a new production by Damiano Michieletto: beautiful and very moving, but best of all, doing justice to the score by enriching the personalities of Samson and Delilah themselves. Saint-Saëns pared down the narrative,  safe in the knowledge that, since audiences would be sufficiently familiar with the biblical original, he could concentrate on the innate emotional drama within. Yes, there are exotic touches, like the pseudo-Levantine tambourine dance, but even that is a clue, since Dalila's performing for show. Her true feelings are hidden.  Instead,  Saint-Saëns wrote music which was in many ways ahead of his era, to the extent that Parisian audiences couldn't really appreciate its merits at first.  Although orientalism had been a part of the French aesthetic since Napoleon, the opera wasn't an immediate hit.  Despite his disavowal of Wagner, Saint-Saëns could hardly escape some influence.  In Samson et Dalila, we can detect Tristan und Isolde in the surging heroic motifs and grand doomed passions  The choruses are particularly rousing.

The Overture begins with a faint suggestion of Hebrew horns, but soon  expands into more abstract sonorities, contrasted with an elusive high string melody. Samson (Aleksandrs Antonenko) sits alone. The chorus, still hidden, intone an ancient chant. On Samson hangs the survival of his nation: he's strong, but is he strong enough? As he looks at his hands, the grille behind him lifts and we see the Hebrews, calling for help.  "Arretez, O mes freres!" Antonenko sings forcefully, but he knows that salvation comes from God not man. The Governor of the Philistines, Abimélech (Nicolas Testé) declares the superiority of his own god. Samson strikes him dead and the High Priest (Egils Silins) orders a massacre. Bodies lie crumpled on the ground, yet the chorus continues singing solemn prayers. Samson, for all his strength, is gentle. With simple white linen, he covers the faces of the dying to protect their modesty and dignity. 

Meanwhile, Dalila (Anita Rachvelishvili) watches, unobserved from inside the Temple. This isn't in the stage directions, but is utterly true to the portayal of her character. She's moved by Samson's kindness.  Rachvelishvili sings lusciously, because it's her job to seduce. Nothing personal.  Even in the palace, surrounded by her handmaidens, she's an object to be pawed and fawned on, guarded by armed men, but  necessarily loved. She's a prisoner of her own situation, which is perhaps why she's touched by Samson's kindness to the dead.  An extremely sympathetic, finely nuanced characterization, for the music suggests  that she's a very complex personality.  Of course she's dangerous, as the Old Hebrew (Nicolas Cavillier) warns.  But she's no automaton. The richness in  Rachvelishvili's singing suggests opulence, yet tinged with half hidden sadness.  Magnificent leaps up the scale to demonstrate power, but  the voice resonates profoundly at the lowest point of her register, Dalila sings of Spring, but the orchestra reminds us of the fundamental chill around her.  In her retreat, Sorek, Dalila is surrounded with luxury, but the High Priest is clearly boss. Silin's body language suggests he's a manipulative abuser rather than a holy man. He paws her, too. Rachvelishvili sings along, but again the tense flurries in the orchestra suggest fear, the tightly controlled vibrato in her voice implying suppressed fear.  Whirring, menacing diminuendos in the orchestra evoke her mental state as she awaits her mission.

Blue shadows cover the golden hues in the bedroom : the "colours" of the Hebrew Chorus invading the Philistine sanctuary, as Samson enters.  There is a frisson, not only in the orchestra but in the way Antonenko and Rachvelishvili interact with each other.  Exceptionally detailed acting is important, because it amplifies meaning, and enhances what is being sung.  Good acting isn't exaggerated semaphore. One of the great benefits of modern opera staging and film is the way singers can extend the impact of their singing through fine detail. Tiny movements in the face and hands flow naturally from the emotion put into singing, placing much less pressure on singers than crude park and bark. In the love scene - for that is what it is - between Samson and Dalila, the music swoons tenderly, the diminuendos now evoke the fluttering of heartbeats. Intimacy not display. Nonetheless, Dalila has to do her duty. As the timpani crash, we hear the "cut" coming. When Rachvelishvili sings that last "Adieu" it's a scream of pain, not triumph.

In prison, Antonenko sings Samson's agony, his guilt increased by the sounds of the Hebrew chorus.  Dalila materializes, as if in a dream.  Bachvelishvili doesn't sing, but she moves to the swirling figures in the music, clearly as tortured with guilt as Samson is: a  daring touch on the part of director Michieletto, but extremely perceptive because it shines light on Dalila's personality, and colours the Bacchanale to follow. Now, the Philistines are celebrating; the orchestra breaks into heady rhythms. There are exotic "arabic" flavours but the palette here is much more sophisticated.  Langorous lines suggest drunken dancing - the lines suggest langorous, drunken waltz, cut by violent energetic angles. Plenty of colour, especially gold.  The High Priest throws money to the cheering crowd.  Bachvelishvili wears the golden wig the High Priest gives her, but stands aside, her face acting out what Dalila might be thinking: not pride but disgust.  Samson is beaten up by the mob.  The music gets wilder, then, in a flash, Rachvelishvili pushes through the mob to Antonenko, her face livid. The music changes, the beating stops.   Bachvelishvili dances but her body language suggests that her heart's not in it. Although there's a lot of wine being poured about, at the end  ravaged and guilt ridden, Rachvelishvili pours another fluid: petroleum.  Antonenko calls for God, and Pow! the stage goes up in flames, or rather lurid, sulphuric, blinding light.  A dazzling stroke of theatre!  No need to see columns crashing down.  The invisible God of the Hebrews has spoken.  In any case the music concludes so fiercely that there wouldn't be time.  Brilliant stagecraft from Michieletto, absolutely true to the spirit of  the music and to the meaning of the opera. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Boris Blacher, Manchuria and Flüchtlinge

Boris Blacher (1903-75), the highly influential composer, and father of Kolja Blacher the violinist, was born in Newchwang, now part of the city of Yingkou on the Gulf of Bohai, in Liaoning Province in China. He lived there until he was sixteen, remaining in Manchuria for three more years before going to Germany in 1922.  The photo at left is Blacher's passport photo taken when he left China.  Being a modernist, "degenerate" in  Nazi eyes, he couldn't teach, but continued to write. His opera Romeo und Julia dates from 1943.  After the war his career flourished. He knew Berthold Goldschmidt, his almost exact contemporary, and taught Aribert Reimann, Isang Yun, Kalevi Aho and many others. Blacher was one of the millions of Germans who lived outside Germany, some communities being established for hundreds of years throughout Eastern Europe. After 1918, and more severely after 1945, when borders were re-drawn, these communities were effectively stateless. Many were ethnic cleansed, millions became refugees. Not all that different from the upheavals that happened in the century of war that ripped China apart after the Opium Wars, when China was invaded by western military force, and Unequal Treaties were imposed which granted foreign powers exemption from Chinese law and granted exclusive rights over trade, a situation which ultimately led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese occupation, civil war and communism.  Hundreds of millions were dislocated over a long period. In the 1931-45 war alone tens of millions trekked from the coast to the Himalayas.  A century of chaos all over the world. 

Newchwang was a Treaty Port created in 1858. In Blacher's time, Newchwang was a godforsaken little town on a river that froze up all winter. Sometimes the sea froze too. In summer, it's extremely hot, not at all an easy climate.  Bear this in mind when considering the film Flüchtlinge  (Refugees) made in 1933, based on a novel by Gerhard Menzel (1894-1965). Menzel was a Nazi so the nationalism in the film is tainted, even though the film itself isn't much more jingoistic than a lot that was happening at this early stage in the Reich.  The star, Hans Albers, the biggest star of his time, was not a party follower and in any case had a Jewish partner, who had to flee to Switzerland, though they reunited after the war.  The director was  Gustav Ucicky (1899-1961) the half-Czech illegitimate son of Gustav Klimt.

In any case. the situation the movie depicts was so extreme that it would have merited similarly nationalistic sentiment had it happened elsewhere.  The photo at right shows Newchwang a year after Blacher's birth.  Click to enlarge - it's very detailed. "Abandoned Newchwang", conquered by crack Russian troops, fighting Manchu bannerman. No contest.  The Russians had already seized northern Manchuria,  and had built a railway line through the province, to extract its mineral wealth.  Soon after, Russia and Japan went to war, and the devastation spread, culminating in huge naval battles and the siege of Port Arthur, itself the site of a massacre ten years before when the Japanese wiped out the Chinese population. Thus, the background to the Japanese invasion of China 25 years later and the War in the Pacific.  Matters were compounded with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, when millions of "White" (ie not Red) Russians fled across Siberia to Manchuria, from part of which the Japanese had evicted the Russians.

The film Flüchtlinge  begins in August 1928. Everyone's fleeing the return of the Russians - Chinese, Russians, Jews and Volga Deutsch, the German population on the Volga that the Reds wanted rid of. Some of the cast are East Asian of some sort : one of them speaks proper Mandarin and rattles off his German text as if he's memorized it off paper.  Yingkou (Newchwang) is mentioned specifically, but most are trying to get to Harbin, further north, where the Russian-built railway can take them away.  That was the city from which young Blacher left for Germany six years before, when this branch of the railway was run by Whites, Japanese and Chinese.

The refugees are caught in machine-gun fire, and some of the men are dragged away screaming by Bolshevik soldiers. They're also dying of thirst, so break the pipes on the trains to get the water that runs the steam engines. Without water, though, the trains won't run.  Hans Albers plays Arneth, who at first appears as a sadistic Englishman, but turns out to be a German, who felt betrayed by the 1918 revolution in Germany and by what happened after.  As many did. Whence Hitler.  Will Arneth betray the refugees or help them ? He chooses the latter.  Eventually the train gets going, though the tracks are twisted and a grain silo gets holed by grenades.  It would be easy to dismiss Flüchtlinge as propaganda, but such events did take place and to real people all over the world in some form or other.  Please also see my piece Art Song that became an Icon : On the Songhua River, which some might sneer at because it's communist, while  Flüchtlinge is early Nazi.  Incidentally, they're  both about the same part of Manchuria.  What matters isn't nationality but human beings, whether they are on "our side" or not. Did Blacher see these movies ? Chances are he would have known about Flüchtlinge through the China-returned German community. On the Songhua River was heavily promoted in East Berlin. and the DDR. Chances are he did. Did he realize he was seeing them through different perspectives ? 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Sex and Nuns : Hindemith Sancta Susanna

Paul Hindemith's opera Sancta Susanna still has the power to scandalize. Nearly 100 years after it was written, (January/February 1921) it's still a shocker in many ways. It's a psycho-drama, where the emotions of the protagonists are thrown into extreme focus, the music emphasizing psychic trauma.  Sancta Susanna bends musical form, pushing the borders of tonality, just as the narrative pushes the boundaries of convention. Sister Susanna is praying in a convent chapel, as nuns are supposed to do. But it's May, it's warm, and the open windows let in the perfume of lilac blossom.  Then, strange other sounds. "It's the organ" says Sister Klementia, and we do hear an organ  exhaling. But why is an organ being played at midnight ?

Hindemith's music is ambiguous. Though tonal, it's fundamentally untamed, like the breathing of a wild animal  that might turn savage if roused.  Which is very much what the opera is dealing with : the explosion of sub-conscious instinct in circumstances of repressive order. The Zeitgeist of the early 20th century, to which early psychology gave vocabulary, but which has, of course, existed since the beginning of mankind.  And thus we hear a melody on solo flute, as lovely and as lyrical as something the Greeks would have played in a mythical Arcadia.  Is it the voice of the Nightingale, another age-old symbol ?  Against this loveliness, angular blocks of sound and increasing dissonance.   John Fulljames's production, with designs by Johan Engels,  lets the music speak. The stage is dark - as in a chapel at midnight - crucial details spotlighted as if by moonlight. We see the crucifix towering above, shining white, as if it were porcelain, hard and impermeable, yet easily broken.  Below, the altar, a simple grey plinth that could be a tombstone as much as a table for offerings.  Or a bed.

For the sounds Susanna hears come from a young couple copulating outside a window.  Fulljames depicts this by using acrobats who hang, suspended from the ceiling, their bodies naked, yet held in by black straps.  Not bondage gear, but a reminder that society holds sexuality in check  through moral bonds and ropes. The acrobats move like dancers, writhing in frenzy.  I thought about Renaissance sculpture, where voluptuous bodies contort, yet are held frozen in stone.  Like statues of Jesus, whose agonies are not sexual, but stylized in art.  And nuns, who contemplate religious intensity but are restrained by vows of chastity. Sister  Susanna doesn't know what sex is, but she knows it has an effect on her.  What happens when a nun's love turns to physical lust ?  Naked bodies, blood and upturned eyes, the sensuality of flowers and incense, the singing of angels real or unreal : It's hardly surprising that some can get carried away. Sister Beate was entombed for her sin. That doesn't stop Sister Susana , who rips off her white garment, revealing a body built for the enjoyment of pleasure. She's covered in arcane writings and drawings, as if some ancient curse was embedded onto her skin.  Other nuns appear, in black shrouds like niqab.  they hold their hands up in horror, like denizens of a Greek tragedy. But they, too, have arcane inscriptions on their hands and faces.  Sister Susanna mounts the altar. She doesn't rip the loincloth off the image of Jesus, as the original stage instructions suggested.  Nor do we need to see a spider crawling over her - the ensemble of nuns move like a monstrous spider. It's enough that she lies with he legs apart as the statue on the crucifix miraculously, blasphemously, moves down towards her. 

Bernhard Kontarsky conducted the Orchestra de l'Opéra de Lyon. The soloists were Agnes Selma Weiland - Susanna,  and Magdalena Anna Hofmann - Klementia.  Hindemith's vocal lines are impressionistic, phrases cut off hardly completed, ominous rumbles and flights up the register which  are nothing now but were something in 1921/2.   Superlatively detailed acting helps a lot. Fulljames inspires the singers so their body language expresses what their words can barely articulate. Wonderful close ups, tiny gestures, for this is very much "inner drama".

Sancta Susanna  was one of a triptych of operas Hindemith write based on the plays of August Stamm (1878-1915)  the other two being Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen op. 12 (1921), and Das Nusch-Nuschi op. 20 (1921) . The common thread: a fascination with morbid psychopathology, ofetn with exotic, erotic connotations. Absolutely the Spirit of the Age,  manifesting in the paintings of the Munich Secession, in literature, film and music. Santa Susanna's cousins are Salome, Elektra, Ewartung, the operas of Franz Schreker and Rudi Stephan's bizarre Die ersten Menchen, which like Sancta Susanna premiered in Frankfort, but a year earlier.  Cinema can depict things that can't be done on stage. Thus the masterpiece movies of the early 1920's like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,   Der Vampyr and a host of other films some of which I've written about here (see the labels Weimar and movies silent)

Berio Sinfonia and Mahler Early Songs - Goerne.

A landmark new recording from Harmonia Mundi  of Luciano Berio's responses to Gustav Mahler, with Matthias Goerne, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Josep Pons, featuring  Berio's orchestrations of ten of Mahler's Early Songs with the Sinfonia, in which references to Mahler's Symphony no 2  provide, as Berio said "a generator of harmonic functions and the musical references they imply".

Berio describes the Sinfonia as an "internal monologue" which makes a "harmonic journey". It flows, like a river, sometimes in full flow, sometimes underground.  Mahler 2 is called the "Resurrection" because it's based on the idea that death isn't an end but a stage on a journey to eternal life.  In Sinfonia, there are quotes from at least 15 other composers, but specially significant  are references to Don, the first movement of Boulez's Pli selon Pli (which means fold upon fold, ie, endless layers and permutations).  Don means gift, so this is like a gift  from one composer to another. What has gone before shapes what is to come, but absolutely central is the idea that creativity never ends, but is reborn anew.  Stagnation is death. 

Berio's river in sound flows swiftly, bringing in its wake the streams and springs which have enriched it, adapting them and changing them, surging ever forwards towards the freedom of the ocean. It's filled with subtle references to many things: to Cythera, one of the cradles of Greek civilization and the home of the goddess of regeneration.  Sinfonia is truly a "symphony that contains the world" but it is by no means just collage.  Like a river it also symbolizes constant fertilization and renewal.

Every performance is unique.  This performance naturally names Pons as conductor, and Synergy Vocals by name, but is remarkably fresh and clean-sounding.  Nothing comes close to Boulez's recording, though Chailly and Eötvös are good challengers, but Pons sparkles. Over the years Synergy Vocals have done Sinfonia many times with different personnel, but present it with such a sense of wonder that it feels like new discovery. Which is what a good Sinfonia should be, bringing new detail to the surface, vibrantly dancing with energy like the fishes listening to the saint, but nonetheless going on in their individual ways. The BBCSO, for a band happy in the mainstream, sound like they're having a whale of a time being playful and contrary, for fun was very much part of the Berio mystique.  

"Down with Dogma!" another thread in Sinfonia is apt, since this recording places Sinfonia together with Berio's orchestrations of Mahler's songs for voice and piano.  Mahler himself worked from song to symphony, so, as Berio explained, "One of my aims was to use the orchestration as a respectful and loving instrument of investigation and transformation".  Berio's arrangements were premiered at the Mahler Musikwochen in Toblach where serious Mahler minds meet. The ten songs on this recording come from sets of  frühe Lieder Mahler wrote between 1880 and 1889, which Berio adapted in 1986/7. Thomas Hampson made the first recording in January 1992, with Berio himself conducting the Philharmonia, London.  Much as I love that recording, this new recording is even better. Although Goerne has not recorded much Mahler, Mahler has been central to his career. In 2000, he did a programme where the Early Songs and Des Knaben Wunderhorn were presented by theme, bringing out deeper ideas.  At other times, I've spotted him unobtrusively in concerts, listening with rapt attention.   Hampson's voice is elegant, even stately, but Goerne's more individualistic, which  suits the earthy irony in Wunderhorn.

All these texts come from Brentano and von Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Though the songs themselves were written fairly early in Mahler's career, without Wunderhorn, Mahler would not have developed as he did.  The texts may be folksy but the sentiments are sophisticated.  They're not quaint for quaintness's sake, but, like fairy tales, operate like miniature morality fables in a pre-industrial oral tradition.  Thus the sense of non-judgemental wonder Goerne brings to songs like Ablösung im Sommer, Goerne sings the words "Kuckuck ist tod!" with genuine alarm. Although the nightingale will take over, the death of a humble cuckoo is something to be sad about.  Berio's version of Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz is magnificent.  Goerne sings the first words alone, for the protagonist is alone, awaiting execution. then we hear the Alphorn, calling across a vast chasm. This dialogue matters, for this song is about freedom. Die Gedanken sind Frei. Please read my analysis of the song here.  The depth of Goerne's voice suggests strength, not fear, yet also wistfulness. The soldier doesn't want to die but at least he'll be free.  Listen, too, to the tenderness Goerne brings to Nicht Wiedersehen. The poem might seem trite, but when Goerne sings "Meine Herzeallerliebste Schatz", his voice soars, emboldened by the sincerity of genuine grief. 

Berio's orchestration brings out the dance in Hans und Grete, Big sweeping arcs evoke "Ringel, ringel Reih'n"., the force of Nature that pulls together the two timid lovers. Peasants they may be but their love is such that it deserves the full force of a big orchestra.  Ich ging mit Lust is also greatly enhanced, connecting to the way the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesell'n connect to Mahler's Symphony no 1.  Dark-hued baritones don't do delicate easily, but Goerne's touch emphasizes the spring-like freshness in the song, and the warmth of summer to come.  This gentleness flows naturally into Frühlingsmorgen.the words "Steh' auf" charming yet assertive.  In Phantasie, Goerne alternates the top of his timbre with darker depths: the fisher girl cast nets into the sea, but her heart is cold.  On this recording the set ends with Scheiden und Meiden.  The orchestration is richly generous. "Ade "! Ade!" Goerne sings, expansively. "Ja, scheiden und meiden tut weh", but that's the way of the world.  Even babies grow up and change. Moving on isn't a bad thing. An utterly brilliant entree to the world of the Sinfonia.

Goerne is singing very well at the moment : Grab tickets to his Mahler Das Lied von der Erde with Joseph Pons at the Royal Festival Hall on 16th October. They've been touring with this a while,  so it should be good. 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Bayerische Staatsoper Munich

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich:  so dark and disturbing that it makes uncomfortable viewing. But truly great works of art operate on many levels, the greater the piece the greater the possibilities.  It is a measure of Wagner's greatness that the ideas he dealt with nearly 150 years ago apply, almost frighteningly,  to the present.  This Meistersinger provokes more questions than it gives answers, exactly what we need at the present when assumptions about art, politics and society are in unprecedented flux.

Who are the Meistersingers? Wagner makes a point of describing them as distinct individuals, with different backgrounds, united more or less by their love for art.  All of them have other day jobs: art is something they choose to place their faith in.  Although Hans Sachs and Sixtus Beckmesser dominate, it is wise to consider the Meistersingers as a group of personalities resolving the inevitable conflicts of diversity through compromise.  Rules help them muddle through by providing a kind of framework in which to regulate their art. But the rules are, in fact, made up ad hoc.  Beckmesser is so obessesed with finding fault that he runs out of space on his marking slate.  He works himself into crazed frenzy. Reality is never quite so extreme.  Yet the Meistersingers, supposedly wise representatives of common sense, get caught up in Beckmesser's hysteria and hate.  How easily civilized society can disintegrate when demagogues take control! Were it not for Hans Sachs and the voice of reason, Walter von Stoltzing, and what he stands for, would have been driven out of Nuremberg forthwith. How easily society descends into mindless, repression and group think.  What kind of society cannot cope with change and must suppress new ideas?

The Meistersingers here are depicted as ordinary men, to whose credit have worked hard to make something of their craft. Ordinary men, who've meant well. They think they're in control, but are easily manipulated into forgetting the very fundamentals of art, that art should enhance life, and must, like Nature itself, constantly refresh. Hence the urban landscape.  Walter learned his art from the birds in the woodland, who are free. Birds don't survive in these grim conditions.  As Wagner clearly stated in his stage directions, angles in the Church are distorted. Something's askew. Eva (Emma Bell) participates in formulaic rituals but recognizes Walter (Robert Künzli) as a fellow free spirit right from the start.  The apprentices, being young, are also still untamed, but how is their energy directed.  Just as each of the Meistersingers is defined as a distinctive personality, this David (Benjamin Bruns) isn't a stereotype but a well-characterized combination of worthiness and weakness, not a youth but not yet an artist until the end.

In the First Act, the staging sets the personalities. In the Second, the staging focuses on the community. Sachs (Wolfgang Koch) operates out of a van marked "Schuhe".  It reminds us that Sachs is out in the open, in the night air. Is he a Wanderer, who sees all yet can't easily intervene?  There's no tree in this square, but a cherry picker crane that can be cranked up and down if needed, a stage idea that's more effective than it looks. Beckmesser can reach great heights, but by artificial means, reflecting the idea of an elder tree and its connotations of delusion.

The citizens of this Nuremberg live in anonymous housing blocks, as we'd see in any desolate city where conditions are hard, and expectations are limited.  These are the universal disenfranchised, the kind of people whose horizons are curtailed, and who make easy prey for populist demagogues that make them feel they are "taking control" when they are, in reality, being manipulated.   Given the events of 2016, and the rise of Pegida and other right-wing extremists, it would be easy to make connections with 1933, but David Bösch, the director, deliberately avoids easy answers. He makes us feel sympathy for these dislocated souls, despite the violence with which they express themselves. To counteract such evil we need to understand and analyze, though not condone. Thus Beckmesser gets beaten up, and savagely. Nothing scenic about this brutality. The Nightwatchman (Goran Jurić) is an ordinary German policeman, a symbol of order, but one who cannot reverse the insanity once it's been released. The mob bully him back into his squad car. They wield poles, like knights n the past would have wielded spears : the romance of the past revealed as petty crime.

Similarly, this Beckmesser (Martin Gantner) isn't a caricature, but is interpreted as a weak but opportunistic personality who assumes that playing the right games gets you ahead.  He's very nearly right. Were it not for Sachs, his gold lamé suit and string vest might make him a superstar in some eyes, though his instrument is minute.  Walter, in leathers, looks like a thug but is the true artist, rough edges and all.  David could go either way, meaning well but prone to fudging corners.   Wolfgang Koch's Sachs impressed: although he's grimy (as the real Sachs probably was), intelligence shines out of his eyes. His movements are sharp and he takes in all that's happening around him, as a good Sachs should.  Koch is so experienced that authoritative singing comes naturally to him: no need for exaggerated folksiness.  His "Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!" sounded genuinely perplexed, as if he were trying to make sense of what's going wrong, rather than just sighing in despair.  As he sang, his voice warmed with resolve.  Sachs can, and will, stand up for reason.

No open meadows in the final scene. Perhaps the Pegnitz no longer flows, or has been diverted underground.  We still see flags but these are flags of a more sinister kind. We're indoors, in a closed auditorium, cut off from the real world. On a hot Johannisnacht, the atmosphere would be stifling. And so, perhaps, a commentary on the nature of guilds and competition, of the channeling of diversity into an apparently cohesive celebration. "Brought to you by Pogner", a sign declares, for Pogner (Georg Zeppenfeld) was the agent who created the situation through which Eva was auctioned off to the highest bidder, bringing out the worst in Beckmesser, who might not otherwise have dared  to move. Pogner's white suit isn't as pure as it might seem.  The mob in the square covered the city walls in graffiti. Here, the "promoters" cover the meadow with commercial slogans.  Either way, defacement, and the defacement of culture as sacred mission.

The guilds come together in a show of  unity, but how much of this unity is real, and how much controlled by convention. Each guild flaunts its superiority. Listen to the music: "Streck'! Streck'! Streck'!" and "Beck! Beck! Beck!", violence channelled into ostensibly cheerful chorus. The Tailors hold up the tools of their trade: giant scissors which could cut a man in two, stained with blood.  In some shots the blades of the scissors appear above the tailor's heads as if they were the horns of the devil.  The Prize scene is a Prize Fight, but the wider scene suggests a kind of Party Rally, with the crowds cheering as if on cue. Alas, Nuremberg has yet to live down 1936, even though not all the good folk of the city were participants. But at least the memory serves to remind us how dangerous Party Rallies can be, when people can be manipulated into unthinking frenzy and violence. Even decent, ordinary people who let themselves be fooled by soundbites.  No wonder Walter doesn't want more of the same.  Beckmesser gets beaten yet again, and brutally, this time shooting himself.   Fortunately, though, Walter does win, and wins Eva, the two of them offering hope by renewal.  What Walter will learn from Sachs will determine the direction of Holy German Art.

How much have audiences learned from Wagner, and from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, though, I wonder ?  In the dark clouds gathering around us in 2016, have we learned  anything from history?  Can art save civilization? Or is human nature so venal that the ideals of enlightenment must be destroyed in a wave of ever-narrowing bigotry and the resurgence of fascist values?  In this production, the bust of Wagner comes in a box marked "fragile".  Fortunately in Munich, the cheers were louder than the boos, a cause for hope.  Kirill Petrenko conducted a very good cast even without a megastar like Jonas Kaufmann.  For that, I was glad, for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.   This production, directed by David Bösch, is finely detailed and will probably reveal its depths as time goes on. It's different, but its insights come from the opera itself.  It's not easy. But the issues it confronts are not easy and need to be confronted with courage and with Hans Sachs's fair minded common sense.  

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Toad and Verklärung - Elgar and the Toad

On 8th October 1916, Alice Elgar wrote in her diaries:

"Mr Blackwood.... met E coming up from Finchley Road with a toad in his pocket. E had bought it off some boys for 2p. He did not think it was happy with them. He put it in the garden and calls it Algernon...He puts his head out of the window and says "Do you think he will come out if I make a noise like a worm ?" Algernon invisible."

Lewis Foreman, in Oh my horses, Elgar and the First World War, quipped "The local press was unable to resist the story under the headline Toad and Verklärung'"

Friday, 7 October 2016

Carnival of Pianos Oxford Lieder Festival Schumann

This year's Oxford Lieder Festival is an immersion in Robert Schumann, but any intensive focus on Schumann would feature his music for piano, and his wife, Clara Schumann, one of the first celebrity pianists, and a pioneer in her own right.  Thus the "Carnival of Pianos" on  Friday, 14th October with all-day performances and talks, focusing on the music Schumann wrote before the Liederjahre of 1840.  Stuart Jackson, highly regarded and much loved, sings the earliest of Schumann's songs for voice and piano at the Holywell Music Room, followed by the piano works Schumann concentrated upon at this time in his career : the virtuosic Piano Sonata no 1, the Etudes symphoniques, the Kreisleriana,  Carneval, Faschingsschwank aus Wien, culminating in an evening recital at the Sheldonian Theatre with Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber in an all-Schumann programme.

Lots more : On 17th the Piano Quartet in E Flat with Sholto Kynoch, Festival Director, and the Gildas Quartet who will also be playing music for string quartet and voice on 20th October.  There's a special event, led by Natasha Loges, on Clara Schumann on 19th October, followed by a performance of Clara's only Piano Trio, paired with Robert's Piano Trio no 2 with The Phoenix Piano Trio.  In the evening, songs by both Robert and Clara on the "Clara Piano", an instrument bought from Clara herself in the 1860's and carefully preserved in Donegal ever since.  It was made by W Wieck, Clara's cousin, who had a business in Dresden.  It's being brought to Oxford to be played by David Owen Norris at the Holywell Music Room. The photo at right is Robert Schumann's piano in Zwickau.

Graham Johnson is giving two Study Days into Schumann, extending the focus bneyond Schumann himself, and into the composers and writers who so inspired him: Bach, Mendelssohn, Heine, Eichendorff, part of the canon now but relatively new in Schumann's time. This aspect of Schumann's work is important for it places what he did in context. Although nearly all Schumann's songs will be included in this year's Oxford Lieder festival, performed by great singers like Wolfgang Holzmair, Christoph Prégardien, Mark Stone, Juliane Banse, Benjamin Appl, Roderick Williams, Sarah Connolly, James Gilchrist,  Bo Skovhus, Mark Padmore and others,  there will be more esoteric fare, like the Der Rose Pilgerfahrt, the Pilgrimage of the Rose, (26/10) Schumann's cantata for full orchestra, heard here in the original scoring for piano and voices. There's also a talk on Schumann and opera, and another, with concert, on Schumann's late style, which is often under-rated.

The Oxford Lieder festival, now in its 15th year is unique in that it is far more than just a series of concerts. It's total immersion : detailed focus on the subject and its wider background: concerts complemented by talks, films, art exhibitioins, and this year a play.  Lieder is, as Mark Stone and Sholto Kynoch have often said, an art of the mind as well as of the ear. Read Mark Stone's interview on the differences between opera and Lieder HERE in Opera Today, and  Julius Drake also HERE in Opera Today.   Furthermore, a key tenet of the Oxford Lieder philosophy is its emphasis on performance experience, with its masterclasses and innovative performance workshops, young artist schemes and engagement with the singing public. Oxford Lieder represents the best. It's a beacon of excellence this country should cherish.