Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Hear and SMELL Handel Acis and Galatea

Hear and SMELL Handel at St John's Smith Square on Monday 2nd November. La Nuova Musica, dedicated to ardent and vivid performances, will present  Handel Acis and Galatea in a performance that will bring a whole new dimension to the idea of "period authenticity".
"In Handel's time scents abounded - from animals, lack of public hygiene, both personal and civic, and from expensive perfumes used by wealthy individuals and establishments, including the church. An opera would have been intensely scented, both accidentally and on purpose", says
Sarah McCartney of 4160Tuesday, who is providing value-added period detail. "Posies drowned out the stench of the street; dried flowers and incense created a suitable atmosphere, the wealthy powdered their hair and clothes with costly iris root, and kept deterred fleas and moths with patchouli."

"The 21st Century is scent averse. Smell is probably the only sense which has less to do in the modern world than in previous centuries. We now revere cleanliness and the "natural" scents of fresh, natural fruits (which are usually made with synthetics for practical reasons). It's a very unusual age. Our default is no scent at all, and removing all trace of natural smell from our bodies. For that reason, we won't need to fight the overwhelming olfactory bombardment that the 18th Century would have brought with it. People generally assume that naturals are safer, but in fact it's the other way round. For this project I'm using pure synthetics to avoid even the slightest possibility of any kind of allergic reaction. Rather than aiming for an authentic 18th century fragrance – which 21st Century audiences would find completely intolerable – I have created three light background scents to alter the mood, literally changing the atmosphere. "

La Nuova Musica are fine musicians, so look forward to a good performance in the intimate atmosphere of St John's Smith Square. Excellent soloists - Ed Lyon, Katherine Manley, Christopher Purves, Rupert Charlesworth, and Nick Scott. And perfumed, too !  (note the allergy-free aspects).  For more details, check the SJSS site HERE.

The image above shows Handel's organ on the Royal Opera House stage. Handel came to work at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1735. Photo belongs to the Royal Opera House archives

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Rossini La Gazza Ladra Pesaro

Rossini La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), the grand opening opera at this year's Pesaro Festival  now available on BBC Radio 3.  Donato Renzetti conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Communale di Bologna. Fans of Nino Machaidze will be thrilled - she sings Ninetta, the heroine, unjustly accused of theft but brave enough to withstand villains and face death.  Machaidze's voice is "moist" in the best sense of the word, naturally fluid and and refreshing,. She negotiates the phrasing and decoration with elegant grace. The rest of the cast is good too - Alex Esposito  sings Fernando, her crooked deserter father. Listen out, too, for the combinations of male voices. Lovely, tight ensembles. (cast details on the link).This is also worth listening to because the speaking guest is Francesco Izzo,who knows what he is talking about ! and he's a good communicator. Here is a link to Izzo's book Laughter between Two Revolutions - Opera buffa in Italy 1831-1848. 

Damiano Michielleto has directed Rossini  at Pesaro several times - La  Cenerentola, La scala di seta,  Sigismondo, and this revival of La gazza ladra, first seen in 2007. He has also directed productuons at La Scala, Theater an der Wien and Salzburg, mostly Italian repertoire. Chances are, he knows his métier,better than the London press who savaged his  Guillaume Tell at ROH because he dared to respect Rossini's own stage instructions about the humiliation of women in war. What were they expecting, Walt Disney?  Please read my piece Audience back Gesler, not Tell   What's wrong with audiences who are more upset by two seconds of tit but not the idea of a sadist regime which forces a man to shoot at his own son?

That scandal distorted any real analysis of the opera,and of the deeper ideas in the production.  One critic, known for his own nastiness, screamed against the gala new production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, which the Royal Opera House is presenting at Christmas. If he doesn't want to go, I'll take his ticket thank you, even though I've already purchased one, the high cost offset by fairly cheap Chabrier L'Etoile and Haas Morgen un Abends  Intrigued by what Michielleto might do with Cav/Pag, I did the unthinkable. I actually watched and listened to as much as I could  All performances are someone else's point of view. In normal life, we communicate by listening to people whether we agree or not.

La gazza ladra opens with a gorgeous, lively overture. Sure, we could watch the orchestra, but some would complain about that, too. In Michielleto's staging, we see an adolescent playing with silvery tubes. Is he/she putting together a kind of puzzle ? The plot is so convoluted that you can understand how an innocent might wonder at the proceedings. Later the silver tubes become a backdrop which adapts to whatever action is going on.  Do the silver tubes suggest the stolen cutlery (which, we discover at the end has been present all along). The tubes turn over and become tunnels, perhaps even a cathedral looming high? Why should visual images only have to represent one thing? Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant. One feels the tail, the other the trunk. But neither "get" the elephant.  

Each of the two acts is monumental, and in the second, the stage is dominated by a walkway above which the chorus parade in judgement. Given the importance of their music, not at all a bad idea. I'm less sure about the rain and water, but maybe that's the presence of nature, in a drama otherwise tied up with "indoor" ideas of possessiveness and material values. The adolescent watches, as a magpie might, bemused. The contrast is telling. Magpies like shiny things but they aren't avaricious. Now maybe we can understand why Michieletto uses young people, like Jemmy in Guillaume Tell to bring out a fresh perspective and sense of imagination. Without imagination, what is art ? 

So I'm glad I'm going to the Royal Opera House Cav/Pag double bill. Consider what those operas mean and why they get done at Christmas when the idea of "peace and goodwill" might be relevant. 

On Thursday 8th October, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting Rossini La gazetta live from Pesaro. It's a satire on newspapers. Hahaha!

Monday, 5 October 2015

Hangmen also die! Fritz Lang, Brecht and Hanns Eisler

Reissued last year on DVD in a restoration by the BFI, Fritz Lang's Hangmen also Die!. (1943).  Lang worked with Bertolt Brecht on the script, which loosely recounts the reprisals that followed the assasination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May 1942. The score was written by Hanns Eisler. The producer was Arnold Pressbuger.  Some of the actors were émigrés, too.  In theory,  the co-operation of so many Weimar exiles could have made the movie quite something. The film isn't quite a masterpiece though it's good and gripping. Its value lies in its political significance. It ends with the word "Not" held on screen for several moments. Does this mean "Not" as in German? Could be. But the words "The End" follow, reminding the audience at the time that the Reich was still in power, and that the struggle against Hitler must continue.

Although Hanns Eisler received one of his Oscar nominations for the soundtrack, there isn't a lot of music in this movie, which is fair enough. The subject is grim, the mood too tense for background diversion. Eisler writes a stirring introduction, heard as the camera pans over mock-up scenes of Prague. When his music does enter, it's atmospheric. In the scene in a restaurant, the music suggests dance music, though it comes over slightly distorted. No-one is really in the mood for dancing when hostages are being taken and suspects hunted down. Later there's a scene when arrested people are taken off in trucks to their deaths. It's oddly clean and antiseptic: it's Hollywood, after all.  The final screenplay used wasn't echt Brecht or Lang. The men start singing a maudlin rhyming song which ends with the cry "No surrender!". It's a far cry from Solidaritätslied but could be the kind of song ordinary people might sing, which is part of the purpose behind making the movie, which was to inspire the masses. Luckily, there's plenty of really top notch Eisler elsewhere.

By Hollywood thriller standards, Hangmen also Die! is a  movie that keeps you on your toes. I first saw it as a teenager, fascinated by Weimar and its aftermath though I didn't yet know who Hanns Eisler was, but I vividly remember the atmosphere.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Devastating Wozzeck Fabio Luisi Zurich Opera Leigh Melrose

Zurich Opera brought Alban Berg Wozzeck to the Royal Festival Hall, London . Fabio Luisi conducted Philharmonia Zurich and a very good cast in a concert performance. With all pretence at staging removed (apart from natural good acting)  we could focus on the sheer musical audacity of Berg's writing, and pick up on the processes the music employs to create the drama. Wozzeck describes  a whole community caught up in  insane delusions. Wozzeck is at the vortex,  but his story began long before, and will certainly continue.

Luisi's Wozzeck felt like a tightly twisted knot, building up tensions that reflect the maze-like inner complexities in the score,  What a viscerally physical performance! The orchestra played like athletes, very strong men (and women) pulling the knot tighter with spirited, energetic playing, prickling with suppressed violence. "Eine Apoplexia cerebri" sings the Doctor (Lars Woldt), terrifying the Captain (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhake). Our brains could explode at any time.

In the very first scene, Wozzeck (Leigh Melrose) is shaving the Captain. "Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam". The orchestra zings with the sharpness of a razor.  We know what will happen to Marie. Even more trenchantly, Luisi brings out the details that connect this indoor scene with the wild moor. Wozzeck and Anders (Mauro Peter) are harvesting reeds, another mechanically repetitive process, but Wozzeck sees visions of mushrooms. Luminous string playing, suggesting the surreal unnatural glow. The moon hangs heavily throughout the opera,  aurally present, though only Wozzeck can see it. The Doctor makes Wozzeck eat only beans. The trombones emit bursts of flatulence. The Doctor goes apoplectic when Wozzeck can't contain his natural impulses. "O meine Theorie", Ablinger-Sperrhacke sang with demented glee, spitting out the final word "Unsterblich", so it cut like a knife.  Theories, controls, regulation: the hallmarks of OCD. Luisi showed how the larger scenes with chorus are not "pastoral". The music moved with a kind of mechanical madness. These peasants are dancing like puppets on strings, their minds dulled with alcohol. No wonder the Drum-Major (Brandon Jovanovich) seems, to Marie (Gun-Brit Barkmin), like a vision of finer things. But Luisi makes sure that the music around the Drum Major is pointedly bombastic. Luisi particularly excelled in the scenes where the chorus, soloists and orchestra were all involved, all playing on slightly different levels - subtly but unnervingly discordant.

Leigh Melrose sang Wozzeck with a day's notice. Like Ablinger-Sperrhacke, and Woldt, Melrose is one of the great character singers in their voice types. This makes a huge difference in a role like Wozzeck, whose lines are muted, as cowed and repressed as the character himself. Wozzeck isn't even an anti-hero, he's been so brutalized that he's almost more animal than man. Singing Wozzeck isn't like singing any other role.  Christian Gerhaher was originally scheduled to sing the part. No-one will ever forget Gerhaher's first Wolfram, which glowed with divine purity. Significantly, Elisabeth chose Tannhäuser. Was Wagner making the point that there's much more to art than beauty? "Wir arme Leute"  sang Melrose, in one of Wozzeck's few moments of articulation,  "Wenn ich ein Herr wär', und hätt' einen Hut und eine Uhr und ein Augenglas und könnt' vornehm reden, ich wollte schon tugendhaft sein!"  But poor folks like Wozzeck pee on walls.  Melrose has an instinctive understanding of Wozzeck's almost feral inability to conform to social niceties. His grittiness created a Wozzeck that worked well with Luisi's approach to the opera.

In the final scenes, Berg creates invisible curtains of sound that conceal what we might see on stage, but speak powerfully in abstract sound. Wozzeck is silenced, but  the orchestra screams in outrage. The Doctor and the Captain recognize the sounds as groans, but do not respond. The children tell Marie's son that her body is lying in the open. He can't respond, for his is a silent part. What little we do glimpse of him  lies in what Wozzeck sings about him, and the way the child cowers to escape trauma.  Consider that, when the children go back to their games. "Hopp hopp, Hopp hopp", as if nothing has happened. If you can leave a good Wozzeck unmoved, you become sucked into the cycle of cruelty, like the Doctor, Captain and the cruel children.

This review will appear in Opera Today. Performance photo : Belinda Lawley

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Independent Opera is back ! Biedermann and the Arsonists

The Independent Opera Company is back !  Once it was the adventurous, lively company that did great opera on a shoestring budget. Remember their Orlando, their The Sofa, and their Pelléas et Mélisande, all directed by Alessandro Talevi ?  Look up the label below for links. These were wonderfully imaginative stagings, full of energy and colour, making a virtue of tight budgets.   Look, too, at the singers who worked for them then. Independent Opera haven't really been away, since they've been quietly funding and training young talent.

To mark their 10th anniversary, Independent Opera is doing a full new staging, of Šimon Voseček's Biedermann and the Arsonists, first heard in the Neue Oper Wien in 2013, in a new translation by David Pountney.  The production runs 14. 17 and 19th November at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler's Wells. Good singers including the incomparable Leigh Melrose.
"What would you do if a pair of suspicious-looking strangers enter your home uninvited and then ask for shelter? Would you throw them out? Call the police? Would you try to be diplomatic and avoid a physical confrontation? These are the challenges put before an audience in Biedermann and the Arsonists. The stable domestic world of the Biedermanns, a respectable, prosperous couple, is destroyed because of their inability to combat the serious threat posed to their home and local community. Blind fear, social embarrassment, middle-class guilt and moral paralysis all combine to drive Herr Biedermann and his wife towards compromising with and ultimately submitting to this new power that has infiltrated their home."  (more on Independent Opera's website)

"Though a composer fully-certified in the current pur et dur school of Viennese contemporary music, Voseček‘s opera is human and warm, lending new dimensions to Biedermann’s character throughout his journey from upstanding citizen to accessory to arson. Musically, a combination of empathy and urgency was created through Voseček‘s stunningly beautiful instrumentation choices: three clarinets (two doubling bass clarinet); three trombones, one tuba; two percussionists; one violin and three celli. Well performed by the Amadeus Ensemble-Wien, we heard warmth from keening, sliding trombones and open, dissonant intervals in the celli and low brass. The clarinets provided urgent material in their altissimo range, whining very, very quietly in quarter tones about the danger lurking in the living room. The chorus of three sang almost exclusively in tight chords, differentiating them from the rest of the vocal material, which alternated between angular and smooth lines as the text required.

This quote comes from a review of the Neu Oper Wien production HERE. Please take time to read the whole review, it's a model of intelligent music writing.

In London, we'll be getting a new staging, by Max Hoehn.  but below is a video clip of the Vienna production. Musically interesting, way in advance of most of what we're used to in the UK.  Will UK audiences dare rise to the challenge ? I hope so.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Strange afterlives : Hugo and Pavel Haas

Pavel Haas and Hugo Haas : brothers from Brno who led very different lives.   Pavel, the composer, was incarcerated in Terezin and murdered in Auschwitz. Hugo, a movie star and director, far more famous in his time, was able to escape and start a second career in Hollywood. Both brothers seem to have suffered a strange afterlife in that their reputations are miscontrued. Perhaps it's the way English language sources have dominated the internet, distorting reality.

From 1919 to 1921, Pavel Haas studied at the Brno Conservatory of which Janáček  was Director. Even in those early days,  no Czech composer could fail not to be influenced by Janáček,  but any decent composer finds his or her own, original voice. Pavel Haas's String Quartet no 1 (1920), suggests that Haas was well aware of the avant garde in other parts of Europe. Janáček wasn't a cuddly personality.  Read here what Haas said of him. Haas wrote mainly chamber music and songs. My favourites are the String Quartet no 3 and his Four Songs on Chinese Poetry (1944), though look under the label "Theresienstadt" for more.
Hugo Haas started in the movies in 1925 and soon became a matinee idol, involved with, literally, dozens of movies of all kinds. Many of these films are still highly regarded and available, but you'd have to check Czech language sources to find them, since the English-language media seem to ignore them altogether.  Although I don't speak Czech I used to follow them well enough because the acting and direction was so vivid.  Perhaps the most remarkable of Hugo's many movies was Bílá nemoc, or The White Plague  This was made in 1937, when Hitler was threatening Czechoslovakia, but the rest oif Europe didn't seem to care. The script was by Karel Čapek, who also wrote the play on which Janáček based The Makropulos Affair. In that "Czech renaissance" (1914-1938), the arts were very much in the vanguard of social progress. And the music score was by Pavel Haas.
In Bílá nemoc,there's a sudden frame of a man in the howling mob outside the Dictator's palace (which is monumentalist Art Deco and filled with geometric symbols) . It's Dr Galen (Hugo Haas). There's a mysterious plague in the country, which starts as white spots on the body and kills everyone it touches. Everyone's paranoid about contamination. Galen has a cure but he's not allowed to use it because his political terms are too high. So he's only allowed to treat the destitute in Ward 13, who don't count. But those he treats, survive. Gradually the plague spreads, and the paranoia. The Dictator visits the research hospital but Galen isn't allowed near him. Galen is anti-war, and that's another form of plague. Eventually, Baron Krog, the second most powerful man in the land, gets sick and is saved when he promises to respect Galen's ideas. Galen meets the dictator. Both of them fought in the Great War, but the Dictator believes war is a good thing and Galen thinks otherwise. Soon, the Dictator gets infected too, has a change of heart, signs ceasefire documents, and summons Galen. Galen tries to pass through the howling crowds, but they confront him when he talks anti-war and they beat him to death. No-one now to stop the plague, or the war. And of course, we now know what happened when Hitler marched in a few months after the movie was made.

Being prominent, Hugo Haas was able to escape, while Pavel didn't. Via Austria and Portugal, he arrived in Hollywood where he had to begin all over again as an actor of small parts, though he had been a very experienced director and producer. Eventually he found a niche in smaller studios where he made films which are only B movies because their budgets were small. Many of them have the characteristic flavour of his earlier career when he was as big at the box office as the glitzier stars of Hollywood.  Watch, for example, The Other Woman (1954) in which Haas plays a film director who *used to be something in Europe", as an extra whispers. His boss insists he should be more "American". "Movies for kiddies?" snorts Haas in contempt. He gives a wannabe a chance, but when she blows her lines, she blackmails him. She's a  twisted loser but destroys him. Eventually she's found strangled, but by then Haas's life is ruined. The last frame ends as the first, where Haas is seen screaming from behind bars. First time round, he was showing actors how to emote. this time, it's him behind bars for real.

Pavel Haas made movies, too, since he wrote several film scores for Hugo and the Czech cinema industry. Ironically, the film in which he actually appears, as himself, was the Nazi propaganda film glorifying the joys of Theresienstadt. He conducts his Study for Strings with an orchestra made up of camp inmates. The fragment is short but potent - the kinds of  "modern" music Nazis don't like. Hugo's son Ivan,incidentally, appears in Hugo's later films, in small roles. Maybe he gets overlooked, but not by those who care about Hugo and Pavel Haas and the world they knew.

Monday, 28 September 2015

China's new Piano Museum and why it's in Chongqing

A new Piano Museum has opened in Chongqing in China. More than 200 rare pianos are displayed in 3000 sq meters of exhibition space in a purpose-built new building. The city of Chongqing, capital of Szechuan province near the foothills of the Himalayas, is a good choice. It's a city of music ,home to one of the liveliest music conservatoires in China, with a distinctive character. Yundi Li, a native of Szechuan and a graduate of Chongqing, gave the inaugural concert in the museum last week, and has also been named honorary director.   Pianos are a big, big deal in China, where music is considered a mark of education and culture. This isn't a recent phenomenom, either.  Conservatories were established in Beijing and Shanghai well over 100 years ago. Would that serious music - and learning - were treated with similar respect elsewhere, and not taken for granted.  

Since the museum is new, I can't find much information about the collection, but it include  an ancient eight-pedal piano, an antique hand-powered organ, an old four-corner piano, a gold-plated piano and the piano used by Camille Saint-Saens. This sounds a lot like the famous Piano Museum on remote Gulangyu Island near Xiamen, put together over many years by a piano devotee, and housed in his family's ancestral mansion. Tropical islands, however, aren't ideal for old pianos, so perhaps the Gulangyu collection has found a new home in a purpose-built museum. Certainly, Chongqing is more on the national music circuit, so there are associated concert facilities and plans to let visitors use some instruments.  Top photo shows the opening of the Chongqing Piano museum, other 2 photos show exhibits at Gulangyu. {on further checking it seems that Gulangyu was loaned to the island council for 10 years after which it went to the national government, who can afford big projects. So if anyone has more detail, let me know. PS Admission to Chongqing is free til 1st October.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

ENO Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk Shostakovich on mute

It took artistic courage to choose Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to start the ENO's 2015-2016 season.  Shostakovich isn't an easy sell, and so full of sex and violence that some minds - like Josef Stalin - would be aghast. But Mark Wigglesworth is passionate about Shostakovich , and as new Music Director of the ENO, he's making a point. Good opera needs artistic vision.

Shostakovich's plot, derived from a short story by Nikolai Leskov, revolves around a frustrated young wife,  Katarina Lvovna (Patricia Racette) who is bored out of her mind in the house of the Ismailovs.  Dmitri Tcherniakov's staging shows her in a box, isolated from the world of business around her. It's a good concept, and solves practical logistical problems but doesn't vary much. In the final act, the box becomes a prison cell. Katarina's been in a cell all her married life, though once it was draped in fancy carpets. It's a valid concept, but unvarying, and doesn't quite capture the savage turbulence of a society where most people are trapped in some kind of emotional prison.  Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov (Robert Hayward), the head of the family, is a boor and a bully, who'd rape his daughter in law if he could.  Significantly, he's a rich man whose power means he can get away with anything, until he crosses Katarina.  The undercurrent of subversion that runs through Shostakovich's operas is integral to their meaning. Everyone is poisoned in a society based on power based on brutality. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, easily the finest of Shostakovich's many satirical operas, is much more than one woman's story.

Perhaps First Night nerves inhibited the performance of the first two acts. While Wigglesworth drew thoughtful playing from the ENO orchestra, the music didn't ignite until the last two acts, where Shostakovich wrote music so dramatic that it brought out the inner intensity of the opera far more vividly than the somewhat tentative staging. The off-stage brass weren't just for show. They operate as part of the audience, like voices in a crowd, whose comments might otherwise be suppressed. In these two acts, Wigglesworth made his mark.  The playing became violent and extreme, all inhibitions freed. It's not for nothing that the libretto keeps referring to alcohol, which stifles pain, but eventually breaks down social order. The all-important orchestral Interludes blazed with conviction, so well played that the nominal action on stage felt largely irrelevant. Had the singing been of the same standard, this would have been an evening of great music.

Unfortunately the ENO budget does not run high enough, and might shrink further, given the stranglehold of Arts Council England's "special measures". The best singers don't need to learn a role in English because their careers are international. Yet there is an increasingly strong case for opera in the vernacular. Now that most people know basic repertoire from recordings and DVDs, the experience of live opera is even more important. It adds extra perspective. When audiences hear opera in their own language, they can focus on the feelings and emotions behind the sounds. Opera in the vernacular is not a substitute for the original language but offers a different focus.  If the government of this country were serious about culture "for the people" it would recognize the value of the ENO,  the flagship for opera in English,. It's also a unique training source for singers whose native language is English. 

Much depends, however, on the quality of translation.  Some ENO translations have been brilliant, like The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, and The Girl of the Golden West, which in English is even funnier than in Italian.  David Pountney's translation of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk matched the idea of crude banality which runs through the libretto,  but could have used more wit and bite.  Even this might have worked had the singing been of the high standards of the orchestral playing. Part of the reason lies in the Personregie or lack thereof.  The production premiered in Düsseldorf in 2008. It could use a re-charge.

Patrica Racette is an ENO favourite because she;'s a big name in the United States, an important market for the ENO. She sang Katya Kabanova five years ago.  At first, her voice didn't quite project through the stalls, so I don't know how it carried further up in the house. At moments, she rose to the challenge of a diffucult and demanding role, but generally the portrayal didn't capture the full  breadth of Katarina's personality. Since Tcherniakov's concept of the opera seems to focus on Katarina rather than the world around her, this put added pressure on Racette.

John Daszak sang Sergei, the handsome hunk who relieves Katarina's sexual frustration but ends up a victim like everyone else.  He certainly looks the part, and we get to see his behind (or more likely that of a body double).  He sings forcefully, and in the final act, creates a sense of genuine outrage. His seduction of Sonyetka (Clare Presland) is an act of violence against Katarina as much as pure animal lust. Nearly ten years ago, the Royal Opera House presented Lady Macbeth of Mtensk  with Eva Maria Westbroek and Christopher Ventris in the leading roles.  Those two had real chemistry together. They lit up the production (by Richard Jones) by the sheer committment of their singing. In Tcherniakov's staging, the copulation is simulated, routine rather than vocally dangerous with little erotic charge..

Quibbles aside, this Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was a good start to the ENO season. One hopes, though, that the vision that animated the ENO will once again return.

This review also appears in Opera Today.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Complete Schubert Songs Wigmore Hall Boesch Martineau

The Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert Songs series of 40 concerts began with a recital by Florian Boesch and Graham Johnson.  (Read my review here).  If anything, though, the second concert, where Boesch was accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, was even better. The programme was  beautifully planned, and the performance  exceptional, even by the very high standards of the Wigmore Hall.

Boesch and Martineau began, "at the beginning" with two very early pieces Schubert wrote while still a student at the Stadtkonvict, a school as forbidding as its name in English might suggest. But Schubert has Antonio Salieri for a teacher.  Quel innocent figlio D 17/1 1812 and Pensa, che questo istante D76 1813, are settings of poems by Pietro Metastasio. Metastasio (1698-1782)  was a prolific composer of operas and other vocal works, whom Salieri knew personally . To Schubert, Metastasio would have been almost a contemporary figure. Boesch and Martineau performed them so well that they seemed surprisingly sophisticated, showing that the young Schubert was absorbing the fundamentals of his art thoroughly from the finest models of his time.

Nonetheless, Schubert was independent-minded, already immersed in German poetry and song. No doubt Gretchen am Spinnrade and other early songs will appear later in the Wigmore Hall series, but for now, Boesch and Martineau chose four of Schubert's eleven settings of poems by Theodor Körner (1791-1813), from 1815.  Amphiaraos D166 is a ballad in heroic mien. "Dank Dir, Gewätiger Gott" sang Boesch, "Dein Blitz ist mir der Unsterblickeit Siegel!"  The thunderbolt of Zeus is the protagonist's "seal of Immortality. Gebet wäjhrend der Schlacht D171 begins with forceful violence turning suddenly to prayer.  Körner was a patriot, a hero of the Lützower Jäger, freedom fighters against  Napoleon, in a period in which the Romantic ideals of German identity were forged.  Körner was killed in battle. . Schubert was a few years younger, and in no position to enlist, which gives the settings extra poignancy.  The mood changed completely with  Das war Ich D174, a song of love with a twist of humour and a delightfully pretty postlude. With a big smile, Boesch sang Liebestädelei D206. "Lass dich küssen" sang Boesch with total charm.  

More contrast. Boesch and Martineau followed the lighter side of Körner with the declamatory ballad,  Die drei Sänger D329 1815 to a poem by Johann Friedrich Ludwig Bobrik. Schubert loved setting these sagas, though they are hard to carry off well without the communication skills Boesch and Martineau possess. Schubert didn't complete the song, so Boesch recited the rest of the poem so we could imagine what might have been. The story is familiar. It's a variation of the legend of  Der König von Thule, better known in the Goethe setting Schubert wrote at around the same time. Then, the lyrical dialogue between swan, eagle and doves that is Lebensmelodien D 395 1816,  to a poem by August  Wilhelm von Schlegel, brother of the more famous Friedrich Schlegel, of whom more below. It's a gentle song, made persuasive by the sheer grace of Boesch and Martineau's delivery. 

Das Heimweh D 456 1816 (Theodor Hell) prepared us for the high point of the whole evening, a truly masterful performance of Der Wanderer D489 1816 to a poem by Georg Phillipp Schmidt known as "Schmidt von Lübeck". (He wasn't born a nobleman.)  Der Wanderer is the epitome of the whole Romantic aesthetic, so beautiful and so profound that it is, to many, an even greater masterpiece than Erlkönig.  Boesch and Martineau performed it with exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, bringing out its deepest undercurrents.  Magnificent phrasing, elucidating the inner patterns in the music, which enhanced meaning even further. This is why those of us who cherish Lieder appreciate the unique qualities of the genre.  Der Wanderer expresses emotions so universal that no-one with a soul could fail to be drawn in.

Capping that astonishing  Der Wanderer would have been near impossible.  After the interval, Boesch and Martineau returned with another Der Wanderer D649 1819 to a poem by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, another great pillar of the Romantic revolution that transformed European culture. That might sound formidable, but what it means is that the Romantiker  shifted emphasis from externals to internals, from the public to the private.  Schlegel's Der Wanderer is a contemplative piece. While Schmidt von Lübeck's wanderer believes ""Dort wo du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück", Schlegel's wanderer finds peace  within himself. "Alles reinen seh' ich mild im Weiderscheine, nichts verworren....froh umgeben, doch allein". (All things I see clearly, gently reflected around me, nothing distorted, happy but resolutely alone). Sometimes it takes greater strength to come to terms with life. In its own way, this Wanderer is as inspirational and as challenging as the other.

The two Der Wanderer songs formed the centrepiece of the recital, whose programme was designed as elegantly as a rondo.   Three more Schlegel songs from 1820 followed, Die Vögel D 691, Der Schiffer D694 and Im Walde D 708  In the latter song, Schubert emphasizes the turbulence of "Windes Rauschen, Göttes  Flügel", Martineau playing with great vigour.  But Schlegel's message is more elusive. Boesch brought out the real depth in the song with the firm way in which he articulated the critical strophe, ""Tief in dunker Waldesnacht, freigegeben alle Zügel schwingt sich des Gedankens Mavcht". (Deep in the forest, in the night we aren't inhibited, so the Power of Thought is made free)  In a nutshell, the spirit of the Romantiker, without which we might not appreciate ideas like what we now call psychology.  and personal freedom.

Thus we returned, refreshed, to more Italian songs by Schubert, the Drei Gesänge D902 (1827), two of which are to poems by Metastasio, who had inspired the composer when he was was learning his trade with Salieri.  This time L'incanto degli ochi and Il traditor deluso are songs of genuine maturity, very much with Schubert's stamp of individuality. Boesch and Martineau delivered them with the grace they deserve   Elegantly framing these songs were three settings to poems by Johan Gabriel Seidl, Widerspruch D 865 1826 before and later Bei dir allein!  D 866/2 1828 and Irdisches Glück D 866/4.  The connections with the rest of the programme go deeper than language. In  Irdisches Glück  the text refers to a man who finds happiness in simple things, even though there are undercurrents of past suffering.  Seidl isn't a poet in the league of Friedrich von Schlegel, but the message isn't so different from that in Schlegel's Der Wanderer : we make of life what we can.  Is Lieder a lost art ? By no means, it's totally relevant to our lives today

This review also appears in Opera Today. The next recital in the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert Songs is on Sunday with Henk Neven. 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Gergiev speaks - candid interview

"Sometimes people think they are holding a magic wand"says Valery Gergiev in a remarkably candid interview. Note the source - Tass, the organ of the former Soviet State.   Read the article here. 

Questioned about his demanding schedule, Gergiev explains "it's a conductor's job". At the level at which Gergiev works, orchestras have numerous conductors. It's a maestro's job to polish things. Working with different orchestras keeps a conductor on his toes, and nourishes an interplay between different orchestras. It's naive to assume that conductors have to stay in the same place all the time.  Many creative people thrive on challenge.Indeed, such challenges come with the job description for most good conductors. Gergiev can be maddening, and sometimes come close to the wire, but that's what makes him interesting. 

Much more intriguing are Gergiev's thoughts on the relationship between the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. If anyone has a tab on Putin's mind and the artistic scene in Russia, it's Gergiev, Heed his words.