Friday, 3 July 2015

Goerne Pressler Wigmore Hall - Late Schumann in context


Matthias Goerne and Menahem Pressler at the Wigmore Hall, London, an intriguing recital on many levels. Goerne programmes are always imaginative, bringing out new perspectives, enhancing our appreciation of the depth and intelligence that makes Lieder such a rewarding experience. Menahem Pressler is extremely experienced as a soloist and chamber musician, but hasn't really ventured into song to the extent that other pianists, like Brendel, Eschenbach, Richter or Demus, for starters. He's not the first name that springs to mind as Lieder accompanist.  Therein lay the challenge! 

Goerne and Pressler walked onto the Wigmore Hall platform arm in arm, because Pressler, at 91 years of age, needs a bit of support to walk. But there was no mistaking the warmth of their relationship.  Although they'd planned to end their recital with Schumann Dichterliebe op 48, they made a last-minute decision to place it first, for reasons that became clear later. Dichterliebe was Schumann's gift of love to Clara, celebrating their marriage after years of opposition, which included civil litigation against her father. Hardly a "normal" courtship. It's hardly surprising that music poured out of Schumann in a torrent of excited ecstasy.  This Dichterliebe was decidedly individual.  The pace was brisk, the songs flowing into each other, highlighting the sudden, extreme swings of mood from one song to another. Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube felt almost manic. Goerne's voice is flexible enough that the words tumbled out effortlessly even though the pace suggested tongue twister: "Die kleine, die Feine, die Reine die Eine". On paper, Heine;'s poems are impressive, but Schumann's settings add a filter which is highly individual, and not comfortable. They are big "R" Romantic, rather than coy, little "r" romantic. There's a huge difference.

Goerne's Ich grolle nicht chilled the heart. "I bear no grudge" the text insists, but Goerne's growl in the word "grolle" grates with menace. The "s" and "z" sound in the phrase "und sahe die Schlang', die dir am Herzen frißt."  bit with venom. So many of the songs in this garland of love deal with grief and loss, the "dream" songs the most unsettling of all, with their intuitive grasp of subconscious forces.  Pressler's approach was unorthodox, but psychologically astute.  Most Lieder fans have heard so many Dichterliebes in the past that this very singular interpretation  was much more interesting than something safe or standard.

Picking up on the theme of dreams in Dichterliebe Pressler then played Schumann's Variations on a theme in E flat WoO 24, the Geister Variations" (1854)  Written a week before Schumannn tried to drown himself in the Rhine, the variations are based on a theme he had dreamed about, telling Clara that he'd heard it sung by angels, and telling a friend that it had been sent to him by Schubert.  One thinks of the half-forgotten dream in  Allnächtlich im Traume in Dichterliebe, with its phrase  "....und's Wort hab'ich vergessen". The sombre hymn-like mood reflects that of "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome" from Dichterliebe. Heine's text links the image of the Virgin Mary with the idea of the poet's lover. But Schumann's setting is inexplicably dark and ponderous, describing the waves of the river as ominous forces.  In the context of what was happening to Schumann when he wrote the Variations, the hypnotic pull of the waves in the song is chilling.

This theme of delusional grandeur also puts Schumann's op 89 (1850), settings of poems by Wilfried von der Neun,  "Wilfred of The Nine", meaning the nine muses, no less. This was the glorified pseudonym, allegedly adopted in his early youth by Friedrich Wilhelm Traugott Schöpff (1826-1916) who made a living as a pastor in rural Saxony. The poems are pretty banal, far lower than the standards Schumann would have revered in his prime. However, bad poetry is no bar, per se, to music. As Eric Sams wrote "the inward and elated moods of the previous year mingle blur together in the new chromatic style in the absence of diatonic contrasts and tensions a new principle is needed. Schumann accordingly invents and applies the principle of thematic change....It is as if he had acquired a new cunning and his mind had lost an old one."

Sams is the source to go for studying these songs, for he analyses them carefully, drawing connections in particular to Am leuchetenden Sommermorgen and Hör' ich ein Liedchen klingen in Dichterliebe.  Sams said "Schumann's memory is playing him tricks". By pairing these songs with the Geister Variations, Goerne and Pressler are making a powerful case for coming to terms with Schumann's later work. Texts like Es stürmet am Abendhimmel lend themselves to dramatic treatment but it would be wrong to suggest that they should be performed as faux Wagner. Schumann knew very well who Wagner was, but he had his own ideas about musical drama. which we need to respect if we are to fully appreciate his place in music history. Goerne and Pressler know their Schumann well enough to let us hear Schumann as Schumann, without distortion or special pleading.   These may not be Schumann's finest moments, but they're still authentic and personal.  Because this performance was so good, and so sensitive to Schumann's inner world, we could understand something, perhaps of what Schumann might have been going through in his long last illness. In Ins Freie, the poet cries out "Mir ist's so eng allüberall!"  He imagines he can escape "aus düstrer Mauern bangem Ring " through songs.  But the song ends with the same frustrated cry, which Goerne sang with heartfelt anguish, not play-acting histrionics, but sincere identification with the frustration Schumann might have felt as his mind closed in on him.

Schumann's Poems of Nikolaus Lenau op 90 (1850) were written in August 1850, barely three months after the von der Neun set, but are altogether more accomplished, since the poetry of Lenau (1802- August 22nd 1850) was on a level to bring out the best in a composer extraordinarily responsive to good literature. The poems Schumann set were  published in 1838, so Schumann would have known him as a contemporary and heard of the psychotic attack Lenau suffered in 1844, which led to his being incarcerated in an asylum for the rest of his short life. Promise, cut down too soon: rather uncomfortably close to Schumann's own situation.

Die Sennin  is beautifully lyrical,with lilting harmonies that evoke warm breezes and the freedom of nature. One can almost imagine cow bells. The girl sings so beautifully that even the Felsenseelen (the souls of mountain rocks) echo  her song. One day she'll be gone but her songs live on in the memory of the crags.   In Eisamkeit, silence hangs over a forest, Herz (the poet's) is alone.  Pressler plays the circular forms in the piano so they cradle Goerne's tenderly. "Deine Lieber Gott versteht"

Leaving Schumann's Requiem which rounds off Op. 90 off the programme  worked out well, as it concentrated attention on Dichterliebe and on its connections with the lesser-known late works, and on Schumann's inner life.  In any case, the text is not Lenau. Since the mid 19th century, we've learned more about mental illness and can be more understanding.  I wish, however, that Goerne and Pressler had done Lied eines Schmeid (Op 90)  A little horse never lets the blacksmith down. Its steady trudging rhythm may seem simple, but in its own charming way, it's a hymn for the faithful. To a horse! In its sincerity, it would have been a fitting coda to Goerne and Pressler's sensitive approach to Schumann's later years.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Guillaume Tell ROH - audience back Gesler, not Tell.


What kind of sadistic regime would force a man to shoot an apple off the head of his own child?  Terrorist tactics, which ISIS might adopt to silence opposition. Schiller and Rossini might want us to sympathize with the Swiss, but a sizeable part of tonight's audience at the Royal Opera House Guillaume Tell clearly sided more with Gesler and his politics of intimidation.  As if orchestrated on cue, vociferous booing and shouting erupted, followed by shouting,  which continued during the music. At one point someone shouted as William Tell was taking aim. Luckily, the apple was wired to explode. If Gerald Finley had been firing a real arrow, he might have flinched and poor Jemmywould have been killed. Perhaps the booing mob think that's funny. Let's have no illusions that booing has anything to do with art. A lot of these booers take pleasure in inflicting pain. 

Forcing a man to shoot an apple off a child's head is an act of grotesque cruelty. Yet these booers didn't seem to mind. What drew their ire was a short sequence in which a woman is bullied by drunken soldiers, who tear her clothes off. The scene lasts but a few seconds, but the booers must have been waiting for it all evening. But as we know from Boko Haram and ISIS, women get raped. That's what we should get upset about, not the depiction thereof. In any cse, the scene is not gratuitous, but follows in from many sequences  which show how savage Gesler's men can be. As a friend observed, a rustic dance in the midst of war would be silly. The antimodern crowd are always demanding "Trust the composer". So here are Rossini's stage directions :

"Gesler's men force the Swiss women to dance with them. The people show by their gestures their indignation at this violence. At the conclusion of the dance they all prostrate themselves before the
trophy. Some soldiers drag forward Tell and his son whom they have noticed still standing in the middle of the scene"
 

During the Overture, Jemmy (Sofia Fomina) is seen playing with toy soldiers. We see his face close up on a screen. he's completely caught up in his game. If only more adults still had such powers of imagination!  Jemmy picks up a comic book, "William Tell by Frederick Schiller". and gets engrossed.  Perhaps the booing mob would prefer a comic book production, where everything is simplified in simple outlines. Fortunately, director Damiano Michieletto has put more thought into this production than the comic book crowd could comprehend.  Using the dance sequences as dramatic narrative allows Michieletto to develop Jemmy into a fully fledged personality, every bit as much a hero as his Dad, only smaller.  At one stage, the boy mimics his Dad's every move, as kids do.  The villagers' community seems as close knit as extended family. This emphasized Jemmy's, youth and innocence, which makes the horror that descends on his family and community even more poignant. It helps that Sofia Fomina is a wonderful character soprano, a rare and special breed. She stays in role even through the curtain call.

When the Austrians arrive this vernal purity is shattered. A vast uprooted tree dominates the stage. Perhaps it was uprooted in a storm or an avalanche, Nature's way of inflicting change.  Jagged, twisted branches and roots suggest cataclysmic trauma, yet,  as mountain folk know, uprooted trees  support a fertile ecosystem. The villagers will eventually triumph, the invaders will be repelled. The storm at sea scene in the final act is almost impossible to depict literally, so Michieletto and his designer, Paolo Fantin, come up with a brilliant imginary solution.  Jemmy, in his anguish, grabs the comic book to see how the story will end.  The cartoons are projected above the stage, so we can follow them as avidly as Jemmy does. For a moment, we too are back in the innocence of childhood. And so the village mothers bathe their children, cleaning away the pollution that Gesler's men have inflicted on their land.

House favourite Gerald Finley sang Guillaume Tell with depth.  John Osborn sang the fiendishly difficult part of Arnold, with the Asile héréditaire. Delicious singing, to match Pappano's passionate conducting.  If only I didn't have such vivid memories of Michael Volle and Bryan Hymel who sang the opera in Munich a year ago!  On the other hand the Munich production was awful, though it did try to engage with some of the underlying ideas, like gun violence. Malin Byström sang a good Mathilde. Sofia Fomina was an excellent Jemmy.  Eric Halfvarson sang Melcthal, Nicolas Courjal sang Gesler, and Michael Colvin sang Rodolphe, an extremely well-characterized performance which made a much bigger impact than the amount allocated to him in the score.  And as for Antomio Pappano?   As always, tops in this repertoire, to the manner born. 

PS Re the supposedly controversial scene. I'd wondered why one woman was singled out, instead of the group hiding under the tree.  Then I realized that seeing one woman focuses on her movements. In a strange way this was "choreographed" in the sense that the movements matched the music. For example, a little flurry in the woodwind, and one of the men grabs at her but pulls away. Thus the scene takes time because it respects the music. The actual moment of nudity is very brief indeed, and there's no actual sex. Rape isn't about sex, but about bullying. 


BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Guillaume Tell live from the Royal Opera House on 14 July 2015
Photos by Clive Barda, courtesy ROH

Monday, 29 June 2015

Rossini Guillaume Tell and Guglielmo Tell


 Rossini Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House, London. My review is HERE. Antonio Pappano conducts. He's sublime in Italian repertoire (even when it's in French) and this is one of his great favourites. Tonight he'll be conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra, so it will be good to hear how this compares with his other band the Orchestra dell'Accademia Santa Cecilia with whom he conducted the devastatingly good Guillaume Tell at the Proms in 2011.  Their recording is one of the must-hears although the sound quality is a bit flat.  (There are bootlegs of the Prom around, and no doubt of the Accademia Santa Cecilia's other performance.)  At the Royal Opera House, Pappano's using the same principals as he did before - John Osborn, Gerald Finley, Malin Byström. This will be the third different Guillaume Tells this year, which started with the truly amazing Bryan Hymel performance in Munich -- unimpressive production, alas).

William Tell is an icon because he was an ordinary rustic who stirred things up and beat off the Austrians. To this day, the Swiss do things their own way. Perhaps geography helps. You can't easily invade the Alps or subdue a peasantry that knows the mountains. For Schiller, Wilhelm Tell  showed how ordinary people could resist tyrants. For Rossini, too, perhaps. Part of Italy was ruled by Austria, so there was a limit as to how explicit he could be. What I enjoyed about Pappano's Proms performance was the sense of nature and wide open spaces. Antonio Pappano conducts with expansive brio, bright dynamics and sparkling tempi. Rossini is painting wild, untamed landscape into his music. Panoramic vistas, winds, storms on lakes, impenetrable forests and, again and again, the image of the sky, symbolizing freedom.

"William Tell, William Tell, gone from the land he loved so well, William Tell, William Tell, William TELL ! of Switzerland"." The first opera chorus most people have sung, even if they think it's the Lone Ranger. Aged 2, I got bit by a dog, for climbing on its back and pulling up his collar, shouting "Hi ho Silver !" Can't blame the dog. The things one does for art.

There's a lot more to William Tell than the Overture. It's interesting to think of the less well known Italian version, Gugliemo Tell. Here is a complete download with libretto http://www.operatoday.com/content/2009/05/rossini_gugliel.php  (alternate libretto link HERE) Guglielmo Tell, Rossini, live broadcast January 1954, RAI Rome.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Benjamin Aldeburgh London Sinfonietta Birtwistle Knussen

At Aldeburgh, George Benjamin, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Birtwistle, Knussen - a veritable roll call of big names in contemporary music in modern Britain.In some ways, it was a bit of history, too, since the three major British pieces are fairly early, but have connections with the London Sinfonietta.

Harrison Birtwistle's  Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum ("a perpetual song of mechanical arcady") was a London Sinfonietta premiere, conducted by Birtwistle himself in 1978. Like a Klee painting, it's built from six basic "mechanisms" which fracture and regroup to form 22 blocks. Each is distinct, some punctuated by percussion, others by dark splats of brass. Each tableau is heralded by a high horn call.  Benjamin's precision allowed individual cells to be heard clearly, as if illuminated, creating an aura of perpetual motion. The piece sparkled, much like the way brushstrokes in an Impressionist  painting let light shine through.  The craggy, zig-zag rhythms sounded gloriously wayward, and the sudden ending bristled with a lively twist.

Benjamin loves Oliver Knussen's Songs without Voices (1991/2) . It's easy to hear why. The exquisite delicacy of these pieces lends itself well to Benjamin's refined sensibilities. Songs without voices?  Because they aren't tied to any specific text, other than the brief title, the listener is freed creatively to "hear" in the imagination. The listener becomes part of the creative process.  For me, the quiet stillness of Fantastico (Winter’s Foil)  suggest the pale light of winter and the way one's breath become visible in cold air. I've never seen open plains, but I could visualize the long outward reaching lines in Maestoso (Prairie Sunset) translated into long, horizontal vistas. In the third song Leggerio : The First Dandelion , I could hardly breathe for fear of shattering the stillness  One could read the original poems (Walt Whitman) but I think the pieces work better as more abstract conceptua, so every listener will have a different experience. In the final song,  Adagio: Elegaic Arabesques, the cor anglais leads, delineating elegant patterns.

George Benjamin's At First Light was premiered by the London Sinfonietta in 1992, with Simon Rattle conducting. The piece was inspired by JMW Turner's painting Norham Castle at Sunrise, an early modern "abstract" painting  Benjamin has said, "A solid object can be formed as a clearly defined punctuated musical phrase". A short, brisk opening dissipates into extended silence.A second movement full of incident - something's stirring! This unfolds into a final movement where long, continuous harmonies interweave.

This concert at the Britten Studio mirrored the concert Benjamin conducted at the Maltings, both ending with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whose Ravel Piano Concerto in G major in the earlier concert was the impassioned highlight of an oddly lacklustre evening, which began with a soggy Wagner Siegfried Idyll and included Benjamin's very early A Mind in Winter with Claire Booth as soloist. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra are very good indeed, so it was a relief to hear them back on form the next night with François-Xavier Roth. Read my review of that concert HERE. Tom Coult's Beautiful caged thing sounded like early Benjamin, too, but then he's young and a Benjamin pupil.  But it's good that new work by young artists gets heard at Aldeburgh. That was Britten's objective. Saed Haddad's In Contradiction for two cellos and ensemble was more engaging, contrasting ideas and blocks of sound in a tight, energetic structure. Haddad was a Benjamin pupil more than ten years ago, and has found his own, distinctive voice. If Aimard's Ravel was good, his Ligeti Piano Concerto was even better. He traversed its lively, zany high spirits with joyous delight. Aimard has performed most of the key modern works for piano, and knew most of the composers personally, including Ligeti. We are very lucky indeed to have him at Aldeburgh. 
It is set in three movements: in the short, opening one, superimposed fanfares burst into hazy, undefined textures. After a pause the extended second movement follows, itself subdivided into several contrasted sections, full of abrupt changes in mood and tension. The concluding movement arrives without a break, and progresses in a continuous, flowing line illuminated with ever more resonant harmonies. - See more at: http://www.fabermusic.com/repertoire/at-first-light-761#sthash.q7E7q1ka.dpuf
A ‘solid object’ can be formed as a punctuated, clearly defined musical phrase. This can be ‘melted’ into a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound. There can be all manner of transformations and interactions between these two ways of writing. Equally important, however, this piece is a contemplation of dawn, a celebration of the colours and noises of daybreak. - See more at: http://www.fabermusic.com/repertoire/at-first-light-761#sthash.q7E7q1ka.dpuf
A ‘solid object’ can be formed as a punctuated, clearly defined musical phrase. This can be ‘melted’ into a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound. There can be all manner of transformations and interactions between these two ways of writing. Equally important, however, this piece is a contemplation of dawn, a celebration of the colours and noises of daybreak. - See more at: http://www.fabermusic.com/repertoire/at-first-light-761#sthash.q7E7q1ka.dpuf
Elegiac Arabesques) Songs With
Elegiac Arabesques) Songs With

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Don't Change Your Husband

It's 1929. Chinese viIlagers carry vegetables to market, suspended on long poles, traditional style. They have to hurry to grab a good pitch. An old lady stumbles behind. Suddenly, she's hit by a fancy modern car, even though the road is empty. The owner, a smart young man in western clothes, coming home from an all-night bender, tells the driver to move on, regardless. A peasant helps the old lady up, commiserating: "The rich is always like that". With this little vignette, a remarkable movie begins.

Don't Change Your Husband 情海重吻  aka Kisses Once was made by the Great Lilium Picture studio. It was one of several Shanghai studios making films for Chinese audiences, dealing with issues of social change and modernization in the Republican period, Republican as in Chinese Republic, post 1912.  Chinese cinema reflected the aspirations of a nation struggling to progress from feudal stagnation towards a better world.  Very much in the Weimar spirit, although the challenges, in China, were even more extreme. Even the studio name "Great Lilium" is nationalistic, since the lily is one of the symbolic flowers of China, and regrows after lying dormant in the earth.

This film deals with the lives of very wealthy people indeed, who own cars and live in huge, fancy mansions decorated in sophisticated art deco. Even the older generation lives well - look at the props! Proper antiques, elaborate blackwood funiture, scroll paintings and embroideries , the high style of the prosperous merchant class. There was so much of it around then that the studio didn't need to use replicas.

The camera shifts to Shanghai, where workers flock like ants into western-style office buildings. Almost immediately, we see Wong Chi Ping, (Lynton Wong 王乃東) get fired for being late (a significant detail). That's no big deal to him because he's reasonably well off. .Look at his home with its Directoire and French tapestries!  However, the maid finds a letter which implicates his wife in an extra-marital affair. Next, we're in the home of Chen Mong Tien,  "a dissipated youth",  (actor Tang Xinyiu 湯天綉), who often played a womanizer and sophisticate.

This time he's snared Mrs Wong, played by Lee Ya Ching (李霞卿 1912-98) who came from a prominent Cantonese family who supported Sun Yat-sen. They'd have personally known some of the 72 Martyrs killed by the Qing. From the age of 14, she was making movies,  part of the Cantonese clique  who helped set up the Shanghai film industry. Her film name was  Lee dan-dan (which means "little bomb")  a reference to her infant role in the Revolution of 1912). She played the maid to the heroine of The Romance of the West Chamber,  the seminal blockbuster based on the famous Chinese classic, made in 1927 by the Father of Chinese Cinema, Lee Man-wai (read more here).

Lee was a horsewoman and one of the first women aviators in China, though not the only one (look up Hilda Yen)  a stunt flier, who fell into San Francisco Bay and survived, and who raised funds for China during the Japanese War.  A meme of amazons runs through Chinese film and culture - women who shoot guns, ride horses, use whips and cross dress, often the spoiled daughters of warlords. Don't Change Your Husband was somewhat risqué in that Lee played an adulteress who gets divorced. Shortly after the film was made, Lee married a Chinese diplomat, educated at the Sorbonne, and lived with him in Geneva (League of Nations) but divorced him not long after.

In   Don't Change Your Husband , the wife demands a divorce so she can be with wastrel lover Chen. The two mothers face each other off, beautifully acted. The papers get signed in a lawyer's office, but the wife breaks down in tears. Then, as now, the lawyer grins, having made a handsome profit. Wastrel Chen wants ex Mrs Wong to smoke, drink and party around. There's a shockingly daring scene when she takes off her qi pao in front of him (and the camera) to put on a tarty new dress. But she isn't happy: she doesn't quite trust Chen. Meanwhile the ex is miserable, and looks lovingly at her wedding photo (where incidentally she's wearing a white veil, which is not traditional Chinese dress but a fashion adopted after Sun Yat Sen married Song Ching-ling in a western wedding gown).  This is a silent movie, so the actors don't articulate in words.  There's a long sequence in which Chi Ping smokes a pipe and looks morose. We guess his thoughts.

Now for some really spectacular scenes in the opulent mansion that is ex-Mrs Wong's family home. It's her father Mr Xie's birthday, and a huge party is being held - look at the lanterns, the feast, the acrobats, and the musicians, one of whom is a male singer, dressed as a woman, which was the norm then when women didn't go on stage. These are amazing sequences from an ethnographic point of view, utterly authentic because it was just as easy to use real musicians as to hire actors to play musicians.  Mrs Xie, knowing that her daughter is still pining for her ex, concocts a ruse to bring Wong to the party. Ex-Mrs Wong asks boyfriend to go, and he storms out of his home in a rage. Overwhelmed with grief she takes an overdose.

Amazingly Mr Xie doesn't know about the divorce because he's been away at his lumber mills way out in the interior. He blames his own wife for the mess. Mr Xie goes to Mr Wong to ask him to see the daughter "I'll never have that Chen for a son in law". Older Mrs Wong stands up for her rights, a character as pugnacious as Lee Ya -ching in real life. The families return to Wong's relatively humble villa. The two mother sit resolutely back to back. Mr Xie says sagely: "We. must forget the past, but hope they (the young couple) will come to an understanding with a bright future." When ex Mrs awakes, she's so upset that she runs to the river and tries to drown herself. We can tell by the shape of the sails on the junks that the river is somewhere near Shanghai. Mr Wong chases after her and holds her in his arms. "I know you are repentant. It makes me love you all the more."

Is this a simple melodrama? Clearly mother-in-law Wong doesn't forgive,  and Mr Xie's forbearance suggests he's a saint.  But this is a very well acted (and designed) movie which tells us as much about modern China and its changing values.  Enjoy the film below. You might also like The Orphan, HERE with different cast but also about the clash of modern and feudal values (also with fantastic visuals). Both with bilingual subtitles.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Garsington Opera Death in Venice Britten


Garsington \Opera's Britten Death in Venice reviewed in Opera Today by Claire Seymour, who wrote the book -literally - on the operas of Benjamin Britten


"The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin's mesmerizing Tadzio. It's impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadzio should be or look, but - despite his blond curls - which like some of the visual vignettes allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears's Aschenbach fell victim, Boutin's physical maturity and strength and sheer brazenness foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann's text formulates a theory relating beauty to man's spiritual and intellectual purity : beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption, where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like, not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter".
Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpufv
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf

Monday, 22 June 2015

Kirill Petrenko Chief Conductor Berlin Philharmonic


Kirill Petrenko has been named Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. A surprise, to those who know who is he (as opposed to those who mix him up with Vasily and Mikhail, who is a buddy of Kirill but not of Vasily).  It's also a surprise because Petrenko has only conducted Berlin three times, the last time being in 2012. The choice was made, according to the publicity material, because the orchestra loved working with him and were eager to have him back as soon as possible. But Petrenko is based in Munich, hardly a major commute to Berlin, and his Munich schedule, even allowing for Bayreuth, isn't so onerous that he couldn't have fitted something in during the last three years. The Berliner's schedule is tight too, but is it really that tight that they couldn't fit him in if they liked him so much ?

Moreover, he's primarily an opera conductor. Perhaps the Berliners want to move more in that direction, as they have been doing so under Rattle, and the two main contenders for Chefdirigent were Andris Nelsons and Christian Thielemann, true masters of the genre. He's no Furtwängler either. There are dozens of conductors who can make an orchestra feel good and sound good, but Berlin is already one of the best in the world: It doesn't need ego massage, quite the contrary. Rattle brought exceptional gifts of communication and outreach from his years of experience in Birmingham. The situation doesn't apply in |Munich, which has in some ways become a duller place since Nagano left. So why Petrenko?  To most of the world, he's a blank sheet, and will be loved precisely because he's not a Nelsons or Thielemann. Safe is fine, and usually popular, but it's not quite the same as artistic vision.  A blank sheet is easiyto remodel to suit a brand image. The repackaging has already started, for better or worse.

Schubert's anti-Fathers Day Rant


Franz Schubert's Anti Father's Day Rant  ? Leichenphantasie D7  (Corpse Fantasy) to a luridly Gothic poem by Schiller :

Mit erstorb'nem Scheinen 
Steht der Mond auf totenstillen Hainen
Seufzend streicht der Nachtgeist durch die Luft
Nebelwolken trauern, Sterne trauern Bleich herab, 
wie Lampen in der Gruft. Gleich Gespenstern, 
stumm und hohl und hager, 
Zieht in schwarzem Totenpompe dort 
Ein Gewimmel nach dem Leichenlager
Unterm Schauerflor der Grabnacht fort. 

(In dying light, the moon rises over deathly-silent groves, ghostly night-spirit's wails float through the air.  Dense mists mourn, stars pale in sorrow like lamps descending into a tomb. Ghosts, silent, hollow and gaunt. watch the deathly march of mourners behind the coffin draped in mourning crepe for the night burial) Schubert's setting is slow and deliberate, imitating the slow tread of the pall bearers, Yet every now and then, the vocal lines leaps upward, like a scream.

Unsteadily walking on crutches an old man follows the cortege. In the silence, he hears the word "Father" come from his dead son's mouth. "Son" ! he thinks in his heart. Twice, the line Eiskalt, eiskalt liegt er hier im Tuche (Ice cold, ice cold, he lies here in his shroud) reminding us that the son is dead. The father reminisces about his son's youthful promise. Mutig sprang er im Gewühle der Menschen,Wie ein jugendlich Reh. The song grabbed life with the energy of a roebuck, as proud as a stallion.  Sparkling figures in the piano part suggest the joy this herrlichen Jungen gets from being alive. Yet something's not quite right .Klagen ertränkt' er im Goldener Reben, Schmerzen verhüpft' er im wirbelnden Tanz. Schubert decorates the word "Goldener" but why does a lad like that need to drown his sorrows  ?  But now he's Gramentbundner, in Walhallas Ruh!, buried under grass, in Valhalla's Rest. Schubert infuses the word Valhalla so it sparkles., and the word "Ruh! ends in sudden silence. 

Wilder, darker chords remind us that the boy, his father and friends will meet no more in life Wiedersehn dort an Edens Tor! (to meet again at the gates of Eden) Nimmer gibt das Grab zurück. What the grave takes it does not give back.

Yet there's more to this song than 19th century death fantasy. Why is the young man being buried at night  ?  and with no mention of Christian rites ? Death's no fun, but why the air of horrified doom  ?  Did the lad kill himself, the ultimate mortal sin  There are hints in the text about chasing girls, and also, possibly something less publicly acceptable. Da wir trunken um einander rollten, Lippen schwiegen, und das Auge sprach (then we drank and rolled about together, lips silent but eyes speaking)  Maybe that's why the father is so shattered. Even if the hint of high jinks is non sexual, the implication is that the son is reproaching his father from beyond the grave. Schubert was only 14 when he wrote this song,.  It's 1811, his opus 7. Thousands of teenagers before and since have rebelled, and admonished their parents by doing themselves in. "You'll be sorry when I'm gone". But they don't get a chance to retract. Maybe the teenaged Schubert, who scrapped with his Dad, identified with the boy. Schiller's poem, on the other hand, raises other issues.

I've heard two exceptionally intelligent performances of this long and difficult song. Goerne sang it as part of a programme about father/son conflicts.  Prégardien included it on his disc of Schiller settings. It's part of a series of settings of Goethe, Schiller and other poets, and essential listening.   Both Goerne and Prégardien have done it at the Wigmore Hall.



Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Curse of the Lieder Recital


What is the curse of the Lieder Recital? Are the performers feeling unwell (singers "are" their instruments)? Or someone coughing? Or an unanswered phone? Such things can be accidents. The real curse of a Lieder recital is when audience members keep their noses in the programme. Of course poetry counts. Composers wouldn't be writing song if they didn't want to communicate the meaning of a poem. But composers write music. Words and music cannot be separate. Burying your nose in the programme means you're not really listening.

So what if you don't know the song? Get the gist of the text by reading up beforehand, then listening to how the composer interprets meaning by developing the musical setting.  In song, words and music cannot be separate. What really matters is what the composer thinks about the poem, not what the reader thinks.  Good poems inspire multiple interpretations,. In any case, how can anyone who doesn't know a song, or a poem, or a language, think they can automatically know everything simply by reading? It's the curse of Fast Food thinking. There's no need to digest a song in one gulp. Many Lieder fans savour favourite songs over the whole course of their lives. Quickfix is a sign of arrogance, as if the consumer can get everything first time round, like consuming a product. As in all things, learning takes time.

Lieder recitals are also interactive. Performers communicate. It's horrible to sing or play when the audience isn't paying attention . Performers need feedback to give their best: you can't blame them if they freeze because they know the audience is more interested in reading the programme than relating to the performance? Why sing or play when no-one's interested  Live recitals are not like recordings. Each performance is very different, even if the singer has done the same material 1000 times. Some folk should just stay at home with a CD. Eventually that will kill the art altogether, which thrives on human interaction.

Much better to read the text beforehand, to get the general spirit. Don['t worry about exactitude. Poetry isn't like that. Listen to the performers, absorb the music, react to their body language. But above all, listen. What does the composer bring out in a poem? How does that make you feel? That emotional engagement is the start of good listening. You can get it all wrong but at least you've learned to listen and feel.

One very good exercise I recommend is listening to new songs in a language which you don't understand. Then you are focusing on the song and the ideas it generates. The more you listen, the more you learn . Real understanding comes through that process, not just from print.

Above, an engraving of Franz Liszt. Notice how the audience are listening intently. It's a piano recital - no singer - but chances are they'd be paying attention anyway. Even the kid is alert.  That is how people were in the 19th century, much more formal than now. These days, it's fashionable for people like Alex Ross and his followers to say it's OK to clap, wander around and generally act up in performance. In some things maybe, and in some cultures. By all means spontaneous reactions like clapping something genuinely surprising, but serious listeners pay attention, because that's what good music deserves.  Listening is about caring about what other people think. A good lesson for life in general.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Brilliant pairings : François-Xavier Roth Mahler Chamber Orchestra Aldeburgh

François-Xavier Roth's concert with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival will probably be the highlight of this year's festival. That the print media ignored it speaks volumes about the London press. Roth is one of the most exciting conductors of his generation because nearly everything he does is musically astute and well informed. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra is a superlative ensemble, and with Roth they achieve great heights.  Absolutely this was the concert to go to. Fortunately the BBC recognized the significance and recorded it for broadcast, still available HERE.

Roth is a fascinating conductor because his background lies both in baroque and in new music,  He has conducted Lully, using a staff like Lully did, but without mishap, giving physical emphasis to the underlying rhythm and liveliness in the music. Roth's musical intelligence generates great energy and insight.  Read more here about some of the connections between French baroque and new music. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra  is part of the network of orchestras founded by Claudio Abbado,. Standards are exceptionally high.  It's an exclusive network that includes the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival. Musicians are chosen individually for the quality of their work. Because they work together a lot, they know each other well. But they're fresh and fluid because they work with different orchestras, within the network and beyond. No fossilizing here!

The programme was eclectic. This was Roth's debut at Aldeburgh. He loves it as the regulars do because it promotes new music in context with what's gone before, exactly as Britten himself  wished.  The Overture to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro exploded into life, reminding us how audacious Mozart must have sounded when he was writing "new music". Figaro the servant will outwit his master. Subversive stuff in a era when authority could not be challenged. Rarely can it have been performed with such vivacious energy. But that's the joy of hearing it in a mixed performance, with a chamber orchestra. They can put everything into the moment without having to save themselves for the rest of the opera, knowing that the audience can figure Figaro for themselves.

Hearing audacious Mozart prepared us for the inventiveness of Luke Bedford's Wonderful Two Headed Nightingale.  The connections are deep. Bedford uses the same instrumentation as Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. The purity of concept enhances the intricate interrelationship between the violin (Matthew Truscott) and viola (Joel Winter) and the orchestra. The title refers to the conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy, who became singers, escaping a lifetime of slavery or freak shows through their music. As a piece of "pure" abstract music Wonderful Two Headed Nightingale works well  because the dialogue between the soloists is reflected  sensitively in the orchestra, suggesting intricate patterns of harmony and non-harmony. Like conjoined twins, the soloists have to co-operate, yet their voices are - literally - very different. The violin line soars and moves with graceful ease, at times flying so high that it seems to dissipate into the stratosphere, like "a lark ascending". The viola supports it, but , more earthbound, discreetly demurs. playing chords that prod and provoke. Altered tuning adds to the sense of mystery. The "voices" are echoed by pairs of oboes and horns - more "conjoined twins" adding haunting, almost mournful texture, reminding us that the twins' situation would only end in death and silence.  It's an exquisite piece, utterly original and distinctive, fast becoming part of the canon. 

The connection between new music and the baroque was further emphasized with Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin. In 1919, this was new music too, even more radical than Ravel's original version for piano. In many ways, it's more "baroque" in spirit , for the delicacy of the orchestration mimics a harpsichord, Couperin's own instrument. Under the baton of a baroque specialist like  François-Xavier Roth, the dance elements seem liberating, the oboe part seductive, like a lithe dancer. The strings played with such grace that the notes seem to dissolve into sheer light: an approach very close to much contemporary music.


George Benjamin loves Le tombeau de Couperin., for it fits well with the pointillist refinement of his own style.  Benjamin's  Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra diverges from much of his earlier work, in that its last movement goes for maximum impact, with huge gongs placed antiphonally, encircling the rest of the orchestra in their embrace. Yet, tellingly, the percussion did not overwhelm: loudness for its own sake is for boors.  I was sitting barely three metres away, yet could hear musicality, not noise.  Sensitive playing!  The combinations of flugelhorn, euphonium and contrabassoon (good to see Gordon Laing again)  evoke a sense of strangeness, lightened by bright, bell-like percussion and pizzicato.  One could imagine the sounds of a forest, birds in the canopy, rustlings in the undergrowth below, through which one progresses with purposeful deliberation.

Schubert's Symphony no 5 reiterated some of the themes of what went before, the pairing of instruments, the values of purity, and even the audacity of Mozart, which so appealed to Schubert, who was only 19 when he wrote the piece. Far from being "minor" it's Lieder ohne Worte, where discipline of form enhances expression, ideal for a Liederabend of chamber musicians.  The Mahler Chamber Orchestra responded with grace, the playing so lyrical that one could dream of dancers. Roth gets such brightness and energy from this orchestra that it's hard to believe that it's the first time he's worked with them in public. They seem an ideal fit, in the Abbado and Daniel Harding spirit, though Roth is a quirkier character. Great hopes for the future!