Thursday, 23 June 2016

Vaughan Williams Weekend St John's Smith Square

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Friends Weekend at St John's Smith Square, a glorious three-day celebration of British music. This follows on the success of previous SJSS weekends devoted to Schubert and Schumann.  Curated by Anna Tilbrook, the RVW/SJSS weekend features The Holst Singers, James Gilchrist, Philip Dukes, and Ensemble Elata. The Weekend runs from 7th to 9th October, but get tickets soon as they will sell fast. There's no clash with the Oxford Lieder Festival which starts the following weekend, this year featuring Schumann.

Friday 7th at 7.30 : The Holst Singers conducted by Benjamin Nicholas launch the festival on Friday evening: Parry I was Glad, Stanford Beatoi quorum via, W Lloyd Weber, Howells Requiem, Holst Nunc Dimittis, and RVW's Lord thou hast been our refuge

Saturday 8th at 1 pm :  RVW Songs of Travel, Elgar Salut d'amour, Frank Bridge Oh, that it were so, Rebecca Clarke Passacaglia, Quilter : Go, lovely Rose, Bantock Hebrew Melody, Ivor Gurney Ludlow and Teme

Saturday 8th 4 pm : The Folk Connection  Quilter I will go with my father a-ploughing, Percy Grainger : Molly on the Shoree, RVW : Along the Field, Six Studies in English Folk Song, Winter's Willow and Linden lea, Rebecca Clarke : I'll bid my heart be still, Grainger: Handel in the Strand.

Saturday 8th at 7.30 : The Spiritual Realm  RVW : Rhosymedre, Four Hymns, Orpheus with his lute, Sky above the roof, Silent Noon, Piano Quintet, Finzi : Til the Earth Outwears, Elgar : Chanson de matin, Chanson de nuit (photo above Finzi and RVW, courtesy Finzi Trust)

Sunday 9th at 11.30 : The Shadow of War : Bliss Elegaic Sonnet, Ireland The Darkened valley, Butterworth : Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, Elgar : Piano Quintet

Sunday 9th at 3 pm : The Shadow of War II : Ireland ;The Soldier, Blow out, you bugles, Spring Sorrow, Elgar : Sospiri, Gurney: Severn Meadows, Lights Out, Sleep, In Flanders, By a Bierside, Howells : Elegy, RVW : On Wenlock Edge

James Gilchrist Sally Beamish premiere Wigmore Hall

James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at the Wigmore Hall, London, with  Sally Beamish's West Wind.  Gilchrist has been one of the most determined advocates of English song, almost from the beginning of his career.  Although his core repertoire is built on solid foundations of Handel, Purcell, RVW, Britten, and especially Gerald Finzi of whom he is a great exponent, Gilchrist has always made a point of promoting composers who should be more in the mainstream, like Hugh Wood, Lennox Berkeley and John Jeffreys and others whom he's performed live but not recorded. .  By commissioning Beamish, one of the most prominent British composers for voice, Gilchrist is again making a valuable contribution to British music.

Beamish's West Wind is based on Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, which everyone knows as a poem, but which has hardly ever been set to music, at least not in full.  English poets dominate world literature - Shakespeare, the Restoration poets, Wordsworth, Keats - but this heritage is hardly reflected in music. History might explain things. The Industrial Revolution transformed British society, making it more urban and centralized than was the case elsewhere in Europe.  British and continental European strands of Romanticism were very different, in ways too complex to describe here.  Furthermore,  the British choral tradition was so strong that other forms of music making didn't get much attention.  Perhaps the very nature of English Romantic poetry is relevant.  The style is fulsome and elegaic, lending itself to oratorio rather than to art song. It's significant that Hubert Parry was one of the first to create art song from English poetry.  Read here about the ground breaking series of Parry's songs to English texts from Somm Records  (Gilchrist, Roderick Williams and Susan Gritton.)

Rolling, circular figures introduce Beamish's West Wind , the voice entering from a distance as if it were being blown in by the "pestilence stricken multitudes".  Soon, though, the voice asserts itself.,  Gilchrist sings the words "Cold and low.....the corpse within its grave". A slow, penetrating chill descends, but, like the wind, the music changes direction, at turns capricious, then still, then rushing forth.  The third section is particularly beautiful. Delicate piano figures lead into curling, keening vocal phrases that seem to hover in the air, "Lull'd by the coil of his crystalline streams".   In the lower register of the piano, perhaps we can detect sonorous "lungs". Suddenly lightness returns. "If I were a dead leaf", Gilchrist sings, almost unaccompanied, suggesting fragility.  His touch is delicate, yet perfectly poised. The phrasing suits his voice. Gilchrist has the strange esoteric timbre of a typical English tenor, but also direct, almost conversational  naturalness.  From vulnerable sensitivity to the ferocity of the last poem. "Make me thy lyre" Gilchrist growls at the bottom of his timbre. Now Tilbrook's playing flutters weightlessly, like falling leaves.  "Scatter, scatter, scatter" Gilchrist sings, each word on a slightly different level.  "O.. O...O " he sang, mimicking the sound of wind, the word "Wind" pitched and held  so high that it floated, rarified, into air.

Beamish's West Wind is quirky, underlining the disturbing undercurrents in a poem ostensibly about Nature, but too malign to be a "nature poem". I kept thinking of  Peter Warlock's The Curlew, another cycle well suited to Gilchrist's style.  I also remembered Gilchrist's  Die Schöne Müllerin. There are hundreds of recordings, but his stood out out from the competition because it was an interpretation derived as if from clinical observation of the miller's psychology.

In this Wigmore Hall recital, Gilchrist and Tilbrook included songs by Mendelssohn,and Liszt and Schumann's Liederkreis op 39. Eichendorff's poems are less overtly ironic than Heine's, which formed the basis of Schumann's Leiderkreis Op 24.  but are perhaps closer to,the spirit of the very early Romantic period. After hearing this performance, I've decided to grt Gilchrist's recent recording of the Schumann song cycles on Linn.

photo credit Chase Management

Monday, 20 June 2016

Offenbach Le roi Carotte - perfect for post-truth politics

At the International Opera Awards this spring, Jacques Offenbach Le roi Carotte. and deservedly so. What a discovery!  Le roi Carotte is a wildly anarchic satire, whose message is only too relevant now, in our era of "post-truth" politics where demagogues and their followers think winning is everything. The production was a sensation at its premiere at the Opéra National de Lyon on 12 December 2015. It was broadcast on France Musique, French and German TV, the BBC, and elsewhere but in the UK it seems have have raised nary a ripple of interest.  Judging by the incomprehension with which Chabrier's LÉtoile was received in London this February (read more here) maybe one could conclude that London audiences don't get opéra bouffe, or they'd have realized that King Ouf's very name springs from the word "bouffe". In other words, puffed up, wicked, lively, as delicious as whipped creme.  

Offenbach's original, first heard in 1872, was an over the top extravaganza of 22 scenes, singing, dancing, music and comedy sketches, lasting more than six hours, which definitely wouldn't go down well with modern audiences.  Bouffe and operetta aren't quite the same thing. This new edition was prepared by Laurent Pelly, a man of the theatre who knows the genre extremely well, and indeed specializes in French theatre and opera. Remember his Ravel  L'enfant et les sortilèges at Glyndebourne?  Read an interview with Pelly here.  Pelly has directed a lot of Offenbach : La belle Hélène  Les conte's d'Hoffmann (twice) , La Périchole and La Duchesse de Gérolstein 

Le roi Carotte is magnificent on its own terms, but a bit of background doesn't hurt. The Overture, for example, though it's pure Offenbach, has the panache of the military choruses in Gounod's Faust. This may be no accident, since going to war meant less to Goethe than it did to Gounod whose audiences gloried in Napoleon III and victories in the Crimea. When Le roi Carotte premiered, the irony would not have been lost on Offenbach's audiences, who only the previous year had witnessed the Prussian invasion and the Paris Commune.  In Le roi Carotte, the drunken student chorus is even more prominent, complete with staccato riffs to which beer mugs can be rhythmically beaten. Hedonism rules! But "Don't knock it" sing the chorus : it can all evaporate in an instant.  

Le roi Fridolin XXIV is broke and must marry Princess Cunégonde for her money.  There's a wonderful vignette, in which a crafty student, Robin-Lauron, plots to rip off Fridolin and his remaining assets (weapons).  Indeed, all the set pieces are full of character, sharply defined.  Robin-Lauron discovers Rosée-du-soir, princess of Moravia, who has been imprisoned for years by the witch Coloquinte  The pair sing a duet "Roule, petit boule" , so even if we don't have a clue why they're there, the scene is delightful.  The witch is tricked by greed into conjuring up Le roi Carotte..... 

Back in the palace, Cunégonde meets the stuffy courtiers. But who should march in but Le roi Carotte and his vegetable minions.  The court is horrified: the orchestra playing strange sounds that could come from Berlioz.  But Coloquinte the witch "conducts" from above, and the court fall over in mindless adulation.  "A bas Fridolin!"  the chorus cries. The Carrot is King.  Fridolin calls on his forebears. Ghostly knights in armour march in, singing a parody of Gounod's Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux.  "How dare you invoke your ancestors", they scold, "roi sans vertu qui les bravais jadis".  Fridolin consults a magician, Kiribibi, who sings an aria about politics, Talleyrand and a fickle public.  Fridolin and his friends are magicked of to Pompeii, "la ville de la morte" . More spooky music, more references to Faust.  Like the hedonistic students, the citizens of Pompeii sing of bread and wine. Fridolin and his companions con the Pompeiians  by invoking railway trains!  I kid you not, this is in the score and libretto  Growling ostinato, high flutes suggesting wind, whistles and speed. "La locomotive, coursier infernale, encore captive, s'ébrante le signale". The railway symbolized progress : Berlioz and Heine wrote about them, too.  The music is so vivid that the staging doesn't need to show trains. Instead a depiction of Vesuvius is wheeled in, spouting smoke.  Like a locomotive.....

Meanwhile back in the palace le roi Carotte is besieged by sycophants and salesmen - from Persia no less - but being down to earth, he prefers soup to silks.  Fridolin and Cunégonde meet. "Moi! Toi?  haha haha " they duet, the orchestra laughing along.  Coloquinte appears and sends Fridolin, Robin-Lauron and Rosée-du-soir underground in puffs of smoke, the journey described by the orchestra, playing in darkness. Here, insects rule.  "Gloria nobis", they sing as they educate Fridolin and friends about their underworld. The bugs swarm upwards.  Coloquinte can't cope.  Le roi Carotte and his radish knights get sick.  "Ça,  Le Stratège ", to use bugs to weaken veg! Crops fail, prices rise and the populace in the market place revolt.  At last they call the king a carrot. Kiribibi stands astride a barricade of vegetable crates and sings of Liberty.  The people recognize the sounds of an approaching army.   Fridolin is restored. Le roi carotte doesn't go to the guillotine. He's shredded in a vegetable press.

An exceptional opera, an exceptional production and a very good cast, details here.  Chances are it will never come to the UK, but let's hope it will be appreciated on DVD.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Aldeburgh why I woke before dawn for Messiaen

In the reedbeds around Snape, Aldeburgh, Pierre-Laurent Aimard played Olivier Messiaen Catalogue d'Oiseaux to greet the dawn chorus. RSPB Minsmere, whose photo this is,  is one of the finest nature reserves in the UK, home to nearly 6,000 species.  The Alde River estuary is virtually untouched in many places, it's an area of outstanding beauty, and a haven for year-round residents as well as migrating species.  Aimard's Catalogue d'Oiseaux is  a metaphor for what the Aldeburgh Music Festival stands for.  Long may it be protected from exploitation and vested interests. Long may it stand for pristine excellence.

Messiaen was a deeply spiritual person, so for him birds were part of God's creation. Not for nothing that his great opera was Saint François d'Assise, the humble saint who embraced simplicity and talked to the birds.  (Read more about the opera here)  And so I am up with the birds, too, with darkness outside, listening quietly. An incredible haven of peace in a world that's become insane with extremist delusion.  This morning Aimard played Le Traquet stapazin (black-eared wheatear), La Bouscarle (Cetti's warbler) and Le Traquet rieur (black wheatear)  Never mind that these aren't the exact same birds at Aldeburgh. Messiaen's music is music, transcribing and adapting the spirit of the  birds.   It's 5 am now, and the music is over, but I'm going outside to sit in the garden for a bit. The sun's not quite out yet. It will be cold. But it's so beautiful.

BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting all four of Aimard's Catalogue d'Oiseaux concerts live (and on demand) plus other features on connected themes. Next concert 1pm, then 730pm and 11pm. Link HERE.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Aldeburgh Knussen Berg Butterworth Bray

Aldeburgh and Oliver Knussen, so closely connected that it's always an occasion when Ollie conducts the BBC SO at Snape. Ostensibly, the theme of this programme commemorated the First World War, but frankly it didn't need an artificial angle. In true Britten, Aldeburgh and Knussen tradition, this concert was forward looking and adventurous, working very well on its own musical terms.

Britten and Aldeburgh have always been outside the mainstream of British tradition, so Elgar isn't heard much here, and the oratorios and major works don't suit the Maltings.  Bach, however, is an Aldeburgh staple, since Britten passionately believed in links between the baroque and the modern.  So for a change, Elgar's transcriptions of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in C minor.  Bach often gets tellingly transcribed in every era,  so transcriptions offer a glimpse into the transcriber's style.  Elgar's Bach is stately,  an ocean liner rather than a doughty skiff. Not top-notch Elgar but pleasant enough. It served, however, to magnify the originality of George Butterworth to whom Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated his Second Symphony, an acknowledgement that, without Butterworth's vision, RVW might not have achieved so much so soon. Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad is based on the same Housman sources that inspired both Butterworth and RVW's wonderful song cycles. RVW orchestrated his songs, but Butterworth created something entirely new for his orchestral Shropshire Lad.   You can recognize echoes of the songs, but the whole is a quasi-symphonic work in its own terms, sophisticated ideas expressed with clarity and originality.  Because Knussen doesn't do mainstream "English" music, he approached Butterworth without baggage. This Shropshire Lad sounded remarkably fresh. Definitely not "cowpat school", but a contender for inclusion in the new age of music that was fast developing all over Europe at the time the piece was written.  What might British music have been had Butterworth survived the war?

With this imaginative Butterwoth still resonating in the mind, Gary Carpenter's Willie Stock didn't have much chance. Even on relistening to the broadcast, it's a work that is wonderful in concept, though less so in execution. Willie Stock was an ordinary soldier, killed in the trenches, so Carpenter adapts popular song of the time, deconstructing and fragmenting the tunes, just as the men in the trenches were blown to bits.   It's  thoughtful, and one feels close to poor Willie Stock but it might be best heard as part of a documentary, rather than a concert piece.

Elliott Carter's Sound Fields replaced at short notice a Carter work for baritone and orchestra. Sound Fields was born when Knussen and Carter were having lunch together at Tanglewood in 2007.  Since Carter wrote so well for string quartet, it’s surprising that this is his first work for string orchestra. Yet, despite the larger numbers involved, it’s diaphanous, a gently wavering sequence of chords. A single chord is played by twelve sub-groups in the orchestra, achieving  startling density by simple, elegant means. Sound Fields is slow and smooth, the chords gradually enfolding out of each other. It starts with slow timbred cello, evolving towards a simpler, barely audible final chord, also cello, that seems to evaporate into nothingness. All in barely four minutes.

Charlotte Bray is an Aldeburgh regular, and good, so her Stone Dancer was eagerly anticipated. It was inspired by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's Red Stone Dancer  (1913-14)  when western art was learning from non-western "primitive" art. Picasso, Braque, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and more. Thus the figure of a dancer, whose métier is fluid movement, depicted as solid, inanimate object. What comes over, though, is physical presence and strength.  Thus Charlotte Bray's Stone Dancer moves in a series of smaller movements, each held long enough that we feel the force behind the ideas before moving on.  This reminded me a lot of Rebecca Saunders's  monumental sculptures in sound, which come vividly to life in performance.  British music is most certainly alive and well, without a whisper of twee.

And so to Alban Berg's Three Piece for Orchestra Op 6 from the same period as Gaudier-Brzeska's sculpture.  Again, the idea of dance and physical forces expressed through music.   In the first "piece", the Praeludium, the orchestra growls, as if invoking primitive powers. The central piece is even called Reigen referring to dance.  Ländler and waltzes appear fleetingly, caught up in the swirl of the larger flow, as if the orchestra was like time itself, pulling things along in its wake.  Thus the wild finale, where dance figures coarsen into march: the idea of movement made brutal   Knussen and the BBCSO defined the sparkling touches in the piece so well that the contrasts with low winds, wailing brass and timpani felt savagely disconcerting.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Brudeferden i Hardanger Fiddles and film

Tomorrow at the Aldeburgh Music Festival is Hardanger Fiddle Day. Julian Anderson's Ring Dance for two violins (1987) will be heard at the Jubilee Hall, together with pieces played by Hardanger fiddle master Sivert Holmen.  The Hardanger tradition comes from the mountains of western Norway.  In rural areas, social occasions like weddings  brought isolated communities together,  thus helped shape regional culture. Hardanger fiddlers played for dances: thus the strong rhythmic beat and repeated patterns.  Hardanger music is joyful, even athletic - some forms of Norwegian dance resemble acrobatics. Yet Hardanger music is also plaintive, with an overlay of keening melancholy. 

That curious blend of youthful vigour and sorrow pervades Brudeferden  i Hardanger, a film from 1926, directed by Rasmus Breistein, who was himself a country fiddler and later learned the Hardanger style. The film is based on at least one novel, but also explicitly connects to one of the most famous paintings in Norwegian art, Brudeferd i Hardanger, (1848) by Tidemand and Gude. The painting shows a boat sailing down a fjord, surrounded by mountains. On the boat is a bride leaving home for a supposedly happy future.  In the film, there's a shot in the film which almost exactly replicates the painting.  Presumably those who watched the movie made the connection.

Breistein's film, though, starts out first with another scene in which a boat carries a family, forced by poverty to emigrate. Marit refuses to go with her parents, but runs up the mountainside, watching the ship head out to sea. The family look back, grimly, at the mountains, not knowing what will lie ahead. Marit stays because she's secretly in love with Anders. Anders is leaving, too, but gives Marit his mother's Sølje, a traditional wedding brooch.  She assumes he'll marry her but four years pass without a word.

Next we see a bridal procession, the Brudeferd. The soundtrack, added when the film was restored, features Hardanger fiddle played by a named master, though otherwise the music is mostly Grieg.  It's a big wedding, with at least a dozen boats, being rowed down the fjord, fancier than in the painting. The bride is rich, wearing a jewelled crown, and elaborate traditional dress. Wonderful shots of the wedding party, with  the women in starched aprons and headresses.  Hardanger embroidery ? Hardanger fiddlers, of course. But who is the bridegroom ? Marit gets Anders alone and scolds him for marrying money.  Marit quits her job in the house of the judge and goes to work with a crofter in the mountains.  Loyal Tore, who has loved her all along, finds her and takes her back to Skjralte, his big farm in the valley.

Many years pass, and Marit is now a rich old widow. Look at her embroidered finery now !  She's still wearing Anders's mother's Sølje. But she's bitter, her mouth hard, like a scar.  Anders has fallen on hard times. His wife's money is gone, and the once rich bride is forced to peddle small goods to scrape a living.  Cruel Marit humiliates the woman, who eventually dies.  Fate, though, intervenes. Marit's daughter Eli falls in love with Anders's son Bérd. When her mother throws her out, she goes to live with him and old Anders in a humble hut. Another country dance, another Hardanger fiddler. Marit's son Vigleik gets drunk, goes to Anders's hovel and beats the old man up. Eli takes Anders back to Skjralte to recover, Vigliek flees to America, and Marit nurses Anders back to health.

The film is beautifully shot, lingering lovingly on things like spinning wheels, bucket making, rustic houses furnished sparsely, some with simple painting on on the walls. and the laying of hay to dry on branches set in the ground.  The acting is good, too, much better than in most silent film.  The restoration is so good that  details are given in full at the end, deservedly so.  Brudeferden i Hardanger is an even more beautifully made film than Troll-Elgen  (which I wrote about here) though Marit is an unsympathetic piece of work.  In the photo below, we can see the simple, portable cameras Breistein's crew used, shooting on location in the open countryside.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Time travel Aldeburgh : François-Xavier Roth Rameau Ravel

François-Xavier Roth brought Aldeburgh "through the centuries" when  Les Siècles played Rameau and Ravel on Saturday, the first in a series by this most fascinating of ensembles. Roth and Les Siècles are innovative, dispensing with the whole idea of boxing music into stereotypes of period and genre.  For them, music is a life force so vital that it transcends boundaries.  Period performance isn't just about instruments or even style. It's a whole new way of thinking, which respects the music itself, as opposed to received tradition.  In his own time, Jean-Philippe Rameau was avant garde, so shockingly different that he was lucky to have patrons in high places.  Rameau changed music.  Thus Roth and Les Siècles paired Rameau and Ravel, innovators across the centuries, both working on themes from classical antiquity.  Time travel on every level !

Significantly, both Rameau and Ravel were writing for dance.  Dancing is a physical activity, which requires co-operation. Dancers co-ordinate with music, and with each other. Rameau's music takes its very structure from the discipline of dance, with its intricate formal patterns and abstract expressiveness. In 1722,  Rameau wrote the Traité de l'harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels, building firm theoretical foundations for musical creativity.  The baroque aesthetic "contained the world" to borrow a phrase from Mahler, encompassing worlds beyond time and place.

Rameau's Daphnis et Eglé (1753) illustrates the composer's basic ideas.  It was created for Louis XV at Fontainebleau, as entertainment after days spent in the forests hunting animals for sport.  This context matters.  The dancers, singers and musicians act out a fantasy which has little bearing on real life. Yet it's so beautiful that it takes on a logic of its own.  Think about baroque gardens, where the abundance of nature is channeled into formal parterres, though woodlands flourish beyond, and birds fly freely.This tension between nature and artifice livens the spirit: gods mix with mortals, improbable plots seem perfectly plausible.  We enjoy the music as abstract art.  The whole  Daphnis et Eglé unfolds over 16 separate tableaux each of which illustrates a type of dance, the whole piece thus forming an intricate unity of patterns and sub-patterns.   I've seen the piece choreographed which reveals the way the music reflects physical form: a wonderful experience !   At Aldeburgh, Roth and  Les Siècles don't have the resources of Les Arts Florissants to hand, and also dispensed with the sections for voice, but this hardly mattered.   By focusing on the purely musical aspects of the piece, they brought out its innate energy, its liveliness deriving from its origins in dance. This performance was even more muscular than when Christie and Les Arts Flo did it in 2014,  bringing out the forceful, physical quality in the music to great effect.   Baroque dancing, particularly before Louis XIV, was more athletics than ballet as we know it now.  Like fencing, it was physical fitness for aristocrats, training the mind as well as the body.  In this superb performance,  Roth and Les Siècles proved, if any further  proof were needed, that period performance is not for wimps !

This performance of Daphnis et Chloé was even more revealing.  So often the piece is heard as dreamy colorwash, for it is so beautiful,  but its foundations are much firmer. Ravel was writing for the Ballets Russe, for larger and more opulent orchestras than Rameau.   Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé is a descendant of Debussy La Mer, an impressionistic fantasy, yet it is very much a work created for dance.  Ravel gave more room to characterize the narrative, but the spirit of the work is deliberately alien. Thus Ravel's wind instruments and strings evoke otherworldly atmospheres. The solo parts are exquisite, suggesting pan pipes and delphic voices.  . There's even a suggestion of a wind machine (though it's done by more conventional means).  The offstage horns, trumpets and voices evoke mystery, suggesting states beyond mortal comprehension (that's why the singing is wordless).  Yet the aesthetic of Ravel's period embraced modernity, the stylization of art nouveau, where plants, flowers and people were depicted in twirling, twining contrast, influenced heavily by art from beyond central and western Europe. As in the baroque, nature cannot really be tamed even in an era when people lived in cities lit by electricity and rode in tramcars.  Fokine's angular choreography horrified audiences used to mid-19th century ballet, where ballerinas fluttered in tulle.  Bakst's designs for this ballet were decidedly "modern" in comparison, evoking the formality of ancient Greek art.  This superb performance seemed informed by insight into the context of the piece.  Roth and Les Siècles  brought out the innate energy in the piece, reminding us of the angular, "primitive" style of the Ballets Russe, inspired by prehistory and ancient myth.  A vivid performance, bristling with verve and physicality.  Listen again here on BBC Radio 3.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Wozzeck with brains : Florian Boesch Markus Stenz

Alban Berg Wozzeck from  Amsterdam last week, Markus Stenz conducting, with Florian Boesch, an outstanding Wozzeck. Boesch's characterization reveals great insight. This Wozzeck is far more complex than a nobody, so browbeaten that he becomes more animal than man. That's a perfectly valid approach, and one which lends itself to surprising psychological development. Wozzeck is "the common man" but the common man isn't necessarily mindless, or psychotic (as Wozzeck might well be).  The natural majesty in Boesch's timbre lends itself to a portrayal as powerful as a force of nature.  The intensity in his voice suggests great strength, pressures building up like magma, held in check by hard geological forces. When the tectonic plates fissure, Wozzeck explodes. When he kills, the murder is more to do with himself than with Marie.  At the end we hear "Ringlien, Ringlein, Rosenkranz". Are cyclic forces destined to come round again? Or have we learned through the process of listening, that the insanity of the Doctor and the Captain is an excuse for evil ?

Boesch's Wozzeck is powerful, too, because he can suggest the fragility in Wozzeck's mind, its fundamental fractures audible in the quiet moments as in the outbursts.  When Boesch sings Wozzeck's brief moment of self assertion " Wir arme Leute......Geld ! Geld!", his voice takes on a steely edge though the lines are delivered with leaden resignation.  Even the Captain picks up that Wozzeck is "eine guter Mensch.... Aber er denkt zu viel, das zehrt."   The Drum Major and Marie just act: Wozzeck in his confused way is trapped by his thoughts. Boesch's Wozzeck thinks, for sure, since intelligence is the hallmark of Boesch's style.  He's a man for whom being superficial would be a moral affront.  In the scene where Wozzeck and Andres are cutting reeds in the bog, Wozzeck sees mushrooms.  Boesch sings with rapturous, though strange  beauty: to Wozzeck, the mushrooms are supernatural miracles.

In his own inarticulate way, Wozzeck is an artist, who can intuit things others cannot see. He's loyal to Marie though she's not too bright,  her emotional range limited to formulaic homilies.  The snatches of pseudo folk song and the "jaunty" choruses are there for a purpose, but not, I think, to suggest pastoral innocence.  Perhaps they are Berg's way of saying that "romantic" escapism is a form of servility which fools "poor people" into accepting their lot.  Berg's writing is too precise, and structured so deliberately that the strictness of the symmetry is very much part of meaning.  This music operates like an invisible mechanism, controlling the narrative just as circumstances control the people trapped in the isolated garrison. Hence the tight discipline of Stenz's conducting. The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest play dance with tense, bristling energy. Marches and dances are exercises in formation. Let the momentum slip and things fall apart.

Boesch and Stenz first did Wozzeck together in 2011 in Cologne, from which the photo above was taken (copyright Bernd Uhlig) so there's an electricity between them that animates this concert performance so it feels like drama.  The dynamic is so strong that I hope they'll be doing further full productions.  In Amsterdam last week,  Nathan Berg sang the Doctor, a role he's done before and does extremely well. Berg's voice crackles with menace. His words may seem rational. The character clearly is not.  Thomas Piffka sang the Captain, Asmik Grigorian sang Marie, Endrik Wottrich the Drum Major and Peter Tantsits Andre.

Also available at the moment is Wozzeck from Zurich, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Christian Gerhaher in the title role. Last October, Luisi brought this to London in concert performance, with Leigh Melrose stepping in. Please read my review here. . Luisi was new to Wozzeck, but conducted brilliantly: proof that technical excellence allows great freedom of expression.  The Zurich production has a very good cast (wonderful Doctor/Captain) and a much better Marie) but the staging doesn't help. In principle, the idea is OK : a puppet theatre with the singers as puppets. In practice, that means wooden acting. The singers become caricatured stereotypes.  Gerhaher in particular becomes a cipher. Gerhaher in particular becomes a cipher, the portrayal too anonymous to compensate for a voice which is a bit of the generic side for a role as quirky as Wozzeck. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Aldeburgh Reedbeds Aimard Messiaen

The Aldeburgh Music Festival epitomizes Britten's belief that life, art and landscape connect, and this year's festival is particularly innovative.  Pierre-Laurent Aimard will take his music outdoors, into the reedbeds that surround Snape and start playing in darkness at 430 am.  In the darkness, the landscape may seem still, but the reedbeds come alive with birds, for this is Minsmere, one of the finest nature reserves in this country.  Olivier Messiaen's Catalogue des Oiseaux is a magnum opus of 13 substantial movements, spread over 7 books, and takes nearly three hours to play. It isn't something you'd hear often in recital.  Messiaen himself woke before sunrise, waiting in the darkness for the dawn chorus  when birds call out to mark sunrise. This Catalogue des Oiseaux will unfold in stages throughout the day of 19th June, ending around midnight when the birds go to rest.  The music will be heard, literally, in context, even if the birds at Minsmere aren't the same as those in the Camargue, where Messiaen heard them, but the event will be "music theatre", music heard with added value.  Aimard is, without doubt, the greatest exponent of Messiaen's works for piano, so this will be the experience of a lifetime.

Please also read my piece on Aldeburgh's Les Illuminations - Britten illuminated. Benjamin Britten goes to the circus !  And why not ? Rimbaud's original is much longer but Britten's setting emphasizes its theatrical aspects.  Les Illuminations is a watershed in Britten's creative growth because he was finding his own, individual voice through what Auden was to call "mediterraneanising" - breaking away from the conventional world of a mainstream British composer. Britten's horizons looked outward to the North Sea and beyond.  He adored Alban Berg and would have been well aware of Lulu, where characters flit from persona to persona, and where proceedings are overseen by a Ringmaster.  Perhaps it's no accident that he responded to ever-changing circus in Les illuminations and it's keynote cri de coeur "J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage!" It's not a cry of triumph but the realization that the key - the illumination -  to creativity lies in being genuinely original.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

C H Sorley A Swift Radiant Morning - Roderick Williams

Roderick Williams and Susie Allan  gave the world premiere of A Swift Radiant Morning commissioned for theThree Choirs Festival. Listen here, because it's an interesting work that extends the canon of British song. "A swift radiant morning" aptly describes Charles Hamilton Sorley, a young man of outstanding promise, killed by a sniper at Loos, seven months short of his 21st birthday.  At that age, few fulfil their potential, but  C H Sorley must have been quite a personality.  In this photo he stares at the camera without flinching, unfazed by the knowledge that he was going to war.  We can see why Sorley's father said "he looked upon the world with clear eyes , and the surface did not deceive him".
Sorley was in Trier when war was declared in 1914. On his return to England, he did his duty and joined the Suffolk Regiment . Yet in his poem To Germany, he writes of war with maturity way beyond his years. The poem is worth reading because it shows his inner strength. He could resist the hate games around him.  This lucid intelligence marks him out as a person with vision. Notice too his direct, yet highly distinctive, way with words. How he would have relished the freedoms of the 1920's and 1930's. Many good poets were destroyed by war - Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney, but John Masefield said that Sorley was the greatest loss.

In A Swift Radiant Morning, Rhian Samuel (b 1944) sets two poems and four texts by Sorley, which has a bearing on her musical conception. Sorley left only 37 complete poems, but a large body of letters. They make fascinating reading, since Sorley was an acute observer and processed ideas with great originality.  Here's a link to the full collection of letters published in 1916. Letters are like a conversation, where one party speaks and the other responds. The voice leads, but the piano comments, unobtrusively. Sorley's texts are so expressive that the piano can't quite compete, but that's no demerit.  Samuel respects Sorley's syntax and turns of phrase, editing the longer texts with sensitivity.    Roderick Williams is an ideal interpreter, since he has the uncanny ability to make what he sings feel personal and direct. A natural match for CH Sorley !  At times, Samuel forces the voice above its natural range. Williams manages extremely well, but I wonder if this cycle could be transposed for tenor.  A Swift Radiant Morning is a well-crafted, sensitive work which deserves attention, and not just because the subject himself was so singular. I've subscribed to a source which features a lot of Rhian Samuel's work. Lots worth listening to.

At Hereford, Roderick Williams and Susie Allan also did Tim Torry's The Face of Grief (2003) to poems by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) but the setting is minimal and the poems not  in the same league as Sorley's.  Please also read my piece on the rest of Roderick Williams's  recital, which highlighted Elgar's Sea Pictures, in the piano version, transposed for baritone.