Monday, 27 February 2017

Weimar Shanghai - who was McGinty ?

Who was McGinty ? A postcard from Shanghai 100 years ago. Shanghai was a boom town, a thriving metropolis rivalling New York, London and Berlin.  Yet only 50 years previously, it had been a fishing village on  a riverbank.  Shanghai came into existence, after the Second Opium War. It was never a colony, though foreign nationals enjoyed extra-territorial rights.  Rumours had it that there were signs in parks that read "No Chinese and no dogs!".  Yet Shanghai was the first "world city" of the 20th century, with booming industries, a gateway between the vast interior of China and the world.  The city thrived from the influx of cheap immigrant labour and local adaptation to modern industrial methods.  Extremes of wealth and of poverty, of sophistication and feudal tradition, albeit for peasants dispossessed and dislocated from traditional social networks.  Weimar Shanghai !

So who was McGinty ?  His name's generic, bestowed with irony by foreigners, and somewhat deprecating, since Irish people weren't given much respect either, in those days.  There he stands in evening dress, with top hat, tails and cigar.  But is he a worldly, privileged man about town ?  Or was he some poor peasant orphan, dressed up to amuse  night club patrons, whose experience of "real" Chinese people was strictly limited.  The McGinty's of this world have ever existed, as dwarves in royal courts, or freaks in circus shows, mocked and patronized, like performing pets. Yet what characters they must have been, to stand up to prejudice and often cruelty, to make some sort of livelihood despite the odds being stacked against them.  So when I found McGinty, I wanted to honour him, whoever he might have been, however he might have ended up.  Not forgotten by me !

Please also see my piece on Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten. Alviano Salvago is a nobleman, rich, talented and intelligent, yet gets screwed by the world around him, because he's different. McGinty would have understood. 

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Song Cycle within Song Symphony : Goerne, Mahler Eisler

A song cycle within a song symphony - Matthias Goerne's intriuging approach to Mahler song, with  Marcus Hinterhäuser, at the Wigmore Hall, London.  Mahler's entire output can be described as one vast symphony, spanning an arc that stretches from his earliest songs to the sketches for what would have been his tenth symphony. Song was integral to Mahler's compositional process, germinating ideas that could be used even in symphonies which don't employ conventional singing. Goerne's programme was structured like a symphony, through which songs flowed in thoughtful combination, culminating in the Abschied from  Das Lied von der Erde, revealed as a well-constructed miniature song cycle in its own right.  Goerne is more than a superb singer. He's a true artist who illiminates the musical logic that underlies Mahler's music.

Song is the voice of the human soul. With remarkable consistency, from beginning to end, Mahler's music poses questions about the purpose of human existence in the face of suffering and death, Nearly always, transcendance is found through creative renewal.  Thus this programme began with Der Tamboursg'sell (1901), so well known that it symbolizes the whole Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection of songs. The drummer boy is young but he's being marched to the gallows, for reasons unknown. "Gute Nacht, Gute Nacht!"  Goerne's tone rumbled with chilling darkness, as if haunted.  Das irdische Leben (1892-3) followed, paired with Urlicht, in the piano song version, though it's better known as part of Mahler's Symphony no 2, sung by an alto. This was a thoughtful pairing. Das irdische Leben isn't just about child neglect, but opens onto wider issues like the nurturing of artists. In Urlicht, the protagonist refuses to be turned away, determined to reach its destiny. The song occurs at a critical point in the symphony, where the soul has passed through purgatory and is heading towards resurrection. In Goerne's programme, it is halted, temporarily, though we know there will be resolution. These first three songs thus form a kind of prologue for what is to follow.

Goerne has been singing Mahler for decades, though he hasn't recorded much, which is a loss to posterity as his Mahler is deeply thought through and perceptive.  He's been singing Hanns Eisler even longer, since he grew up a child star in the DDR where Eisler's childrens' songs were well known   He recorded Eisler's German Symphony op 50 (1957) with Lothar Zagrosek in 1995.  Eisler's German Symphony is a song symphony, an "Anti-Fascist Cantata" setting poems by Brecht and Ignazio Silone. Goerne's recording of Eisler's Hollywood Songbook in 1998 is a masterpiece, easily eclipsing all others.and still remainsthe classic.  At the Wigmore Hall, Goerne combined two specialities into a well-integrated whole, the Eialer songs functioning as middle movements expanding the themes in the Mahler songs.

Eisler wrote Hollywood Liederbuch while in exile in Hollywood, pondering on the nature of German culture and identity during the cataclysm that was the Third Reich.  Although Eisler is often colonized by pop singers, these songs are serious art songs and include settings of Hölderlin and Heine and really need to be heard with singers like Goerne who can handle the tricky phrasing and vocal range with the understated finesse they need.  These are songs of existential anguish, expressed obliquely because the pain they deal with is almost too hard to articulate.  For this recital, Goerne chose songs set to some of Brecht's finest poetry, like Hotelzimmer 1942 where Brecht describes neatly arranged objects. But from a radio blare out "Die Seigesmeldungen meiner Feinde". Goerne flowed straight into An den kleinen Radioapparat, reinforcing the connection between the two songs so they flowed together as one larger piece.  The piano parts are written with delicacy, suggesting the fragility of radio waves and the vulnerability of life itself.

Brecht, like Eisler, was a refugee, fleeing from persecution.  After this first group of Eisler songs, Goerne placed Über den Selbstmord. The contrast was shocking. The mood changed from suppressed  anxiety to outright horror. Goerne brought out the surreal malevolence, his voice rasping with menace. "Das ist gefährlich". The song is a deliberate reversal of Romantic imagery - bridges, moonlight, rivers - and sudden, unplanned suicide. Goerne sang the last phrase, letting his words hang, suspended  "das uberträgliche Leben"....coming to a violent sudden end on the word "fort".

A brief respite when Goerne recited lines from Blaise Pascal, which Eisler set with minimal coloration to the Brecht Fünf Elegien, refined miniatures about daily life in Los Angeles, where everything seems normal.  Three more songs of poisoned "normacly"- Ostersonntag, Automne californien and In die Fr
ühe before a return to the grim reality of  Der Sohn I and Die Heimkehr.  Then again Brecht and Eisler overturn Romantic nostalgia. "Vor mir kommen die Bomber, Tödlicher Schwärme" and a horrific parody of a Homecoming hero.  The songs in the Hollywood Liederbuch can be presented in any order, but Goerne arranged them here in a pattern which suggests deceptively light andantes cut short by brutal scherzi.

Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde progresses from frenzied denial to transfigured acceptance, expressed through a series of very distinctive songs.  In this performance, context came from the songs that had come before, widening the panorama.  Bethge's texts evoke China a thousand years past. Once again, many face what Brecht and Eisler went through. Hearing the Abschied in this context is uncomfortable, yet also uplifting, for it reminds us that the grass will grow again. Hearing the Abschied for piano also makes us focus on the structure of the song, and the way it, too, develops in a series of distinct stages, like a miniature song cycle, like Das Lied von der Erde itself,  "wunderlich im Spiegelbilde".

The orchestral Das Lied von der Erde predicates on the tension between tenor and alto/mezzo, a typical Mahler contrast between unhappy man and redeeming female deity, but as a stand alone, the Abschied lends itself perfectly well to other voice types. Goerne thus resurrects the Abschied for baritones, connecting the songs of passage, whether they be passages through death or domicile.  The message remains the same. The darker hues in Goerne's voice suggest strength and solidity,  values which emphasize the earthiness of the imagery in the text.  He sings gravitas yet the high notes are reached with grace and ease. At the moment he's singing particularly well, better even than when he recorded Eisler's Ernste Gesänge in 2013, also with songs from the Hollywood Songbook.  Marcus Hinterhäuser's playing was exquisite, so elegant that he made the piano sound like pipa or erhu, revealing the refined, chamber music intimacy in the song that the orchestral versions don't often access.  Although the piano/voice recording with Brigtte Fassbaender, Thomas Moser and Cyprien Katsaris has been around for years, there's no comparison whatsoever. At times I thought Hinterhäuser might be playing a new, cleaner edition of the score, since his playing was infinitely  more beautiful and expressive. I suspect he's just a much better pianist, and he and Goerne have worked together a lot in recent years. As Hinterhäuser played the long non-vocal interludes, Goerne was visibly following the score, listening avidly. That's how good Lieder partnerships are made.  As Goerne sang the last "Ewig....ewig...."  I couldn't bear for the music to end.

\you might want to read more :

Schubert Winterreise staged Aix, Goerne, now out on DVD

Brahns exults ! Vier ernste Lieder Goerne Eschenbach

Mahler early songs, orh Berio, Goerne

LOTS and lots on Mahler, Eisler, Lieder and  Goerne, please explore

 This review also appears in Opera Today

Thursday, 23 February 2017

More than a sum of parts : Jurowski, Berg, Denisov, Shostakovich

Vladimir Jurowski, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, London Philharmonic Orchestra,  photo : Sven Lorenz, Essen

Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Patricia Kopatchinskaja presented Alban Berg's Violin Concerto.  Kopatchinskaja, Jurowski and the LPO recorded Stravinsky's Violin Concerto and Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no 2 nearly four years ago, and the disc is a best seller, for good reason. Sine Berg's Violin Concerto is perhaps even more popular, the prospect of  hearing it with Kopatchinskaya, Jurowski and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall was hard to resist. Hopefully, it will be released at some stage. In the meantime, listen to the repeat broadcast on BBC Radio 3

But this concert was also memorable because it connected Berg's Violin Concerto with Edison Denisov's Symphony no 2 and Shostakovich's Symphony no 15. Jurowski has a genius for devising programmes that are greater even than the sum of their parts.  Anyone can put a programme together; very few can do so on this level.  Please read my review of  Jurowski's Kancheli, Martinů and Ralph Vaughan Williams concert.  This evening's inspired combination drew out the  more esoteric levels from all three pieces, absolutely justifying  the theme "Belief and Beyond Belief". Although so much about South Bank marketing is gimmick, Jurowski's "Belief and Beyond"  is genuinely well thought through, and adds considerable depth to this year's series of LPO concerts.  By no means is the term Belief limited to conventional, organized religion.  The concept of Belief  informs the whole way we respond to the human condition, even when we don't believe in fixed concepts.  Jurowski's programmes relate to much wider ideas of spiritual and intellectual questioning.  Comic book rigidities go against the grain of creative expression.

Edison Denisov's Symphony no 2 (1996) is typical Jurowski territory: stretching boundaries. Although Denisov lived under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, he didn't conform. His perspectives were modern and international. He learned from Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen and eventually was able to move to Paris, where his music was supported by IRCAM.  Denisov's Symphony, written after he'd moved to Paris, inhabits a world of shimmering almost micro tonality,  sounds blending yet separate, like fluids of different densities flowing together. The voice of a violin emerges from the complex confluences, then  a group of low winds, then a murmur of bassoons and a rumble of percussion.  Swirling figures, very high tessitura, creating forward thrust, broken by staccato cross-currents. Harps and gunfire, I thought.  Savagely angular discords, and the music stops dead. Perhaps literally. Denisov was seriously ill  and passed away six months later.  On the broadcast, Jurowski says there's a quotation from a bassoon solo in Tchaikovsky's Pathétique,  transposed for double bass.

In programmes as esoteric as Jurowski's, it's wise to beware of clichés. Following the obvious idea that Berg's Violin Concerto represents Manon Gropius who died aged 16, South Bank marketing plays up the "Memory of an Angel" aspects of the piece. But Berg, being Berg, is cryptic, hiding behind surface appearances. Kopatchinskaja reminds us of Albina, Berg's secret love child, whom he never really knew. Listen to Kopatchinskaja sing the Carpathian (not Austrian) folk song Berg quotes in the piece! Her singing voice is sweet and bird like, which enhances what the piece represents.  When she plays, she defines the part with strong, affirmative poise. The melody is bittersweet, yet undaunted, even when the orchestra storms around her.  Disquieting shapes in the violin part and crashing chords in the orchestra: this isn't  dewy-eyed sentimentality but something far more profound.  Tonality hovers on the point of breaking and then dissolves, when no more can be said.  The quote "Es ist genug", is a reference to Bach. Jurowski understands that Berg, even at his most passionate, uses structure with the clarity of a mathematical mind. Puzzles and patterns are integral.  Hence the innate  power of this piece, and this very strong performance.

Shostakovich's Symphony no 15 starts with exuberance, rushing forward into quirky march with references to Rossini's William Tell.  Is Shostakovich thinking of military oppression or slyly satirizing music for the movies? Perhaps both, for this symphony is in many ways Shostakovich's memoir.  Was he a puppet in an insane toy shop, or was he pulling  strings?  The poignant Adagio might be a reflection, but, like Berg, Shostakovich can be enigma.  The single chord progressions suggests isolation, yet the violin takes up the pattern, leading the orchestra in a dance that is deflated by  typical Shostakovich raspberries.  Though the protagonist may be alone, he's surrounded by other voices.  The orchestration lets many individual instruments have their moment.  This symphony might be an ironic parody of film, unfolding in different scenes, with quotations from Shostakovich's own work and others.  Thus the dramatic chorale of percussion, complete with crashing gongs.  Yet the underlying melody flows, its way lit by unearthly celesta and xylophone.  A thoughtful performance,  highlighting the many individual sections in this excellent orchestra. Definitely a concert that was more than the sum of its parts.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is back !

Welcome return of Shostakovich Lady Macbeth oif Mtsensk with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Christopher Ventris,  conducted by Mariss Jansons, available for a limited time on Opera Platform. All good stagings connect to the music and ideas in an opera but in this famous classic, from 2006,   Jansons' conducting is so powerful that the physical settings seem to dissolve in the abstraction so the music dominates. This production (Martin Kušej, Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam)  won't please those who think opera "must" be decorative, but it's an excellent example of how abstract musical ideas can find visual expression.  The violent staccato and dissonaces in Shostakovich's score come alive, bristling with tension and violence. In orchestral passages, the stage disappears in a thunderstorm of flashing bright lights against darkness, replicating the angularity in the score. You wouldn't want to be prone to seizures.

 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is not a decorative opera. It's a savage cry of protest, against the oppression of women, against closed-minded communities, against repression of all types.   Staccato passages scream and low brasses and winds moan with baleful malevolence. Even while Katerina lives in comfort, chill winds from Siberia blow invisibly around her.  The Ismailov business is built on tight control. When then workers are left to their own devices, they break into mob violence.  The rape scene comes almost right at the beginning - violence against women symbolizes weakness, not strength. Real men don't need to beat up on others to get ahead. Shostakovich's testosterone thrusts are indictment, not glorification. These men are scum because they can't be men in any healthy way. In the libretto, it's clear that Sergei fancies Katerina because she stands up to bullying.  Trolls  aren't constructive: they need to destroy because they can't create.  Zinovy Borisovichs is impotent but he's a good man. He doesn't play games.  Hence  the bittersweet anti-romance in the cocky flute melodies round Sergey and the distorted bombast in  Boris Timofeyevich's music.  Thus, too, the maddening, circular rhythms when the mob intrude, thrusting in every direction.  The solo violin, in contrast, suggests demented resolve.  And so  Boris dies in slow diminuendo.  The crowd scenes are meticulously choreographed, suggesting a kind of orchestrated turmoil. 

Nothing much seems to happen in the long orchestral passage in the second act, but the music functions as an invisible backdrop. As we watch Jansons conduct, we can "hear" the events which are unfolding after Boris's death.   Katerina's still in a box, trapped in a frame without walls, yet there's strange beauty in the orchestration, suggesting wide open spaces, small, twinkling figures shining like starlight.  The staccato now trudges grimly forward.  The scene where Boris's ghost curses is shrouded in darkness, so we pay attention to the elusive violin melody. Although Westbroek and Ventris spend time groping each other in their undies, there's more desolation here than lust.  Zinovy lies dead, out of sight. Shostakovich's music for the police officers is brilliantly malevolent, underlining the anti-authoritarian message implicit in the opera.  When the police invade the wedding, Jansons conducts the multiple cross-currents with clear definition. No partying for Sergey and Katerina.  We're off to Siberia. Now the whole cast are stripped to their undies. Everyone's exposed. If the chant of the chorus sounds vaguely like religious chant, there may well be a reason for that.

Jansons' conducting was matched by the high standards of singing. Westbroek "owns" parts like this. When the Royal Opera House did Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 2004, Katarina Dalayman sang the part very well, but on balance I think Westbroek's hapless earthiness extends characterization. In London, Ventris exuded sexual magnetism, effectively stealing the show. Unfortunately in this Amsterdam production, filmed two years later, he's not called on to do much.  It's a wasted opportunity since he can do the role extremely well when called on.  Anatoli Kotsjerga sings Boris. Kušej's production isn't nearly as visual as Richard Jones's production for London.  Without Jansons, Westbroek and Ventris, I wonder how effective it would be? Yet it's been revived several times since 2006.  So it's nice to hear the original again. (It's been on DVD for ages.)


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Prostitutes, chamber music and recording

Traditional Chinese singing girls, who used to make music in teahouses, brothels, etc. But look ! A gramophone player ! This would date the photo to the first decade of the 20th century, when  such things were still such a novelty that people would pay to listen to sound coming from a machine.  So these enterprising girls found a way to draw the punters while giving themselves a break from singing and playing.  Recording technology came early to China. There are quite a few cylinders of Beijing opera stars singing popular arias.  From the style of their clothing, (unusually high collars) these girls come from North China. Their feet are tiny - possibly the result of footbinding that fell out of favour after the 1911 revolution.  Generally footbinding was a middle class thing,  which suggests that these girls were "bought" as infants in order to be trained as prostitutes. (though "prostitution" in that context was a mix of different services, like geishas don't just do sex)

The recording below is a Gaisberg cylinder from 1902, in Cantonese dialect, but there exist Beijing-made recordings from 1905-1908 made for the Chinese market

Friday, 17 February 2017

Britten and Pears in Hong Kong

The Empire Theatre in Hong Kong, where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears did a gig on 3rd February 1956. The programme included songs by Dowland, Purcell and Schubert, and Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, plus Britten's folk song arrangements.  On the 6th, the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Alexander Grantham, invited Britten and his party to,lunch at Government House. In the afternoon, Britten and Pears visited the studios of Radio Hong Kong, where they were inteviewed and gave a short recital,which was recorded, and is available below.

On the 7th February, they gave another recital featuring Schumann Dichterliebe "in the private house of a curious man" as Britten wrote the following day to a friend. Britten's friend and travel companion, Prince Ludwig of Hesse, wrote about the concert "at the unpleasant finance manager's home. The clever and really very nice governor and his petite wife were also there. One cannot get rid of the feeling that the sinister nabob had harnessed famous English artists and  foreign royalty in order to lure the important governor into his den"  Somewhat bitchy, perhaps ?  Grantham was not a particularly pleasant man, but the visitors weren't in a position to judge the local situation.  There's no indication who the"finance manager" was, whether he was a government official, a businessman or even British.  That might be relevant.  Since Britten and his party spent much of their time in Hong Kong in the company of the governor, it's possible that they would have been influenced by his views.  Colonial society was, to put it mildly, "stratified".

The Empire Theatre, built in 1952, was built to state of the art standards, with  huge steel buttresses, (see pic above) and decorated in Shanghai art deco style.  The owner was Harry OIdell, the local impressario, who had himself come from Shanghai.  In 1957, the Empire was closed and re-opened as the State Theatre which became a Hong Kong landmark.  Recently, it was shortlisted as a heritage site for preservation.

Please also see my piece on Britten and Pears in Macau

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Winterreise : a parallel journey

Matthew Rose and Gary Matthewman Winterreise: a Parallel Journey at the Wigmore Hall, a recital with extras.  Schubert's winter journey reflects the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, where images act as signposts mapping the  protagonist's  psychological journey.  Pathetic fallacy, through art, articulates complex emotions.  Often there is more truth in poetry than in straightforward prose.  Each image stimulates a response from the protagonist: visuals are so integral to this cycle that it's perfectly reasonable that Winterreise has inspired so many different presentations.  As we listen, we reaffirm  the connection between Nature and art.

Matthew Rose's recording of Schubert Winterreise for Stone Records in 2012 is greatly admired. The authority in Rose's bass added savage grandeur, evoking the idea of a grand soul, brought down by fate.  His Schwanengesang, also from Stone Records, is also rewarding. Live performance is subject to so many factors. A singer's instrument is his body, subject to the vicissitudes of life.  So no single performance is be-all and end-all.  Even though there were technical problems in the delivery, Rose is never boring. He's a born communicator, and those who know his voice and work hear things in context.  Gary Matthewman gave Rose sensitive support. Winterreise is so well known that iy can be a pleasure to follow the pianist. Very accomplished playing, with many good moments. Matthewman's pedalling let the piano sing. At the end of "Der Leiermann", the reverberations of the piano lingered, haunting, in the silence. A wonderful image, so true to meaning.

Because Winterreise lends itself so well to imagery, there have been numerous  performances where visuals have added to impact.  Some have been works of art in themselves, enhancing understanding and opening out new perspectives.  For example, Ian Bostridge's Dark Mirror, a staging of Hans Zender's homage to Schubert at the Barbican, London, with Netia Jones's video projections drawing out disturbing depths. Please read my review here.   And Matthias Goerne's Winterreise with pianist Markus Hinterhäuser at the Aix en Provence Festival with a background of projected images designed by Sabine Theunissen, directed by William Kentridge (Please read my review here).  This included an image of the notorious "Hanging Tree" of the Thirty Years War, connecting the trauma of German history to the birth of the Romantic revolution.  Schubert's Winterreise is so profound that it's pointless to decry interpretation. What matters is the nature of presentation.

This performance was illustrated by Victoria Crowe's paintings of winter, created over a 40-year period.  Some of these, like the picture of a huge oak tree, bereft of leaves, against a blue background, were immediately familiar since they were used in the booklet for Rose and Matthewman's Winterreise recording for Stone Records. While some of the illustrations used were inspired by Winterreise, others had different origins,which perhaps explains why some connected to the songs better than others did.  Crowe's work can be eerily beautiful, like the flowers springing from the ground, drafted with great skill. The crows in the painting used for "Die Krähe" hung awkwardly, a fault of the mechanical means of projection, rather than the quality of the image itself.  Whatever technology was used, it wasn't particularly effective, doing no justice either to the music or to Crowe's art.  Although Winterreise is so well known, many in the audience were immersed in the printed text, rather than paying attention. This performance deserved more attention.  

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Spiked potion - Frank Martin Le vin herbé WNO

Frank Martin Le vin herbé starts today at the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff before going on tour.   From the synopsis, you'd think it was Tristan und Isolde, Martin's Le vin herbé is spiked, with a twist.  Martin's oratorio profane is an alternative to the extremes of Wagnerian excess.  Martin, a Swiss national, could hardly have been unaware of what was happening in Germany, and of the Nazi appropriation of Wagner. Le vin herbé represents a completely different antithesis to the Tristan und Isolde cult and to the aesthetic of Third Reich Bayreuth.

Martin had been reading Le roman de Tristan et Iseult, a 1900 romance by French medievalist Joseph Bédier, who based his work on early French sources of the legend, striving to "eradicate inconsistencies, anachronisms, false embellishments,and never to mix our modern conceptions with ancient forms of thought and feeling". By "modern", Bédier meant 1900, when Bayreuth's version dominated public taste. Martin's Le vin herbé is restrained, the very simplicity of its form connecting to the aesthetic of the Middle Ages.
Martin doesn't write pastiche medievalism though.  Le vin herbé is scored for chamber choir and orchestra, so the palette is clean and pure, "modern" in the sense that Martin was writing in the late 1930's, when many French and German composers used medieval subjects as metaphors for modern times. Martin  used dodecaphony to open up and refine tonality, and add subtle lustre and mystery.  The role of the choir is important. Just as in a Greek Chorus, the choir comments on events, creating distance from the frenzied fevers of the  herbal concoction which Tristan and Iseult imbibe. In a departure from medieval form, the choir sings in unison, not polyphony, so the words they sing are part of the drama rather than decoration for decoration's sake. Soloists sometimes sing alone, sometimes with the chorus, and chorus members sing solo parts. It's as if the voices emerge and retreat into background tapestry.

There are only eight instruments in the orchestra, all strings (3v, 2va 2vc cb) with piano. Just as the voices emerge from the choir, solo instruments emerge from the opera at critical  moments; the contrabass and celli reinforcing  Tristan's part. The cantilenas for solo violin are exquisite, operating as an ethereal extra voice, commenting without words. The piano provides a measured counter to the fervent, passionate heartbeat when the strings surge in unison, marking the moment when Iseult and Tristan drink the potion and fall in love. Martin was working on Le Philtre before he even received a commission for the full work.

Tristan and Iseult are joined together in a drugged state, beautiful but ultimately fatal. They run off to live in the forest of Morois,where King Marke find them but spares them. Tristan escapes and after three years in a foreign land marries the evil Iseult of the White Hands. He's injured in battle  by a poison-tipped lance. Now the piano tolls like a bell, and the violin melody soars as if it were stretching across the seas in search of Iseult, mounting frenzy in the orchestra and chorus, and Iseult bursts in with a wild "Hélas ! chétive, hélas !",  the strings swirling around her turbulently.  Tristan is dead but Iseult lies down by Tristan "body to body, mouth to mouth".  We don't get a Mild und Liese, but there's some mighty fine writing for the orchestra and other voices. In an Epilogue, the choir sets out the moral of the story,  perhaps when the effects of the drug wear off, Tristan and Iseult find the true meaning of love. "Puissant-ils trouver ici consolation contre l'inconstance,  contre l'injustice, contre le dépit,  contre le pein, contre tous les maux d'amour"

Martin's Le vin herbé is by no means a rarity. There was a major staging last year, in Berlin, with Anna Prohaska.  There are two recordings. the first from 1960 with the composer himself at the piano, and more recently, the recording with Sandrine Piau, with the RIAS Kammerchor conducted by Daniel Reuss: both indispensable, and both very different. How the WNO production will compare, I don't know.

Le vin Herbé is very different from Martin's larger-scale works like Golgotha and Der Sturm, but it is an insight into an important but neglected period in music history. Understand Le vin herbé and you get a key into Poulenc, Honegger, Hartmann, Orff, and Braunfels.  It also connects to the literature and visual arts, including film, of the time. I discovered Frank Martin by sheer accident, hearing Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (1942/3) another "medieval" piece with a modern twist.  Please read my other posts on Wagner Tristan und Isolde,  especially "More tradition than meets the eye" and THIS about the Christof Loy Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House. There's much more to the opera than fake medieval costumes.Think about characterization, and the characters as human beings in a dramatic setting.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Jonas Kaufmann Barbican £435 ? Sex or art ?

Jonas Kaufmann's Barbican residency, London  Tickets sold out months ago, despite being priced way beyond average. High prices are fair enough for JK, Karita Mattila, Eric Halfvarson and Tony Pappano, but for the piano recital with Helmut Deutsch ? Viagogo advertised one ticket for the last concert at £435, though I've heard a rumour that prices on the black market were much higher.  This is indecent, it's nothing to do with art.  Which raises interesting questions.  Was the series artistic endeavour or celebrity binge ? Or both ?  Why not?  Nothing JK does is "ordinary". Some of my friends, true devotees, travelled for thousands of miles to attend, and had a wonderful time.  Experience of a lifetime!  Most of my friends opted for the Wagner concert, a wise choice, since hardly anyone does Siegmund better than JK, and Mattila was, by all accounts, even more impressive.

The first concert was much less interesting since Kaufmann's done similar programmes before, including at the Wigmore Hall.  Kaufmann's timbre is  quite Italianate, with luscious depth, ideally suited to Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo  op 22.  Much better than Peter Pears, who sounds like he's singing an alien language. Kaufmann makes the songs breathe sensual richness. Kaufmann's done the Schumann Kerner Lieder op 35 several times, too, as recently in London as 2015.  Nothing obscure about these songs !  Again, they suit Kaufmann's voice. In one of the songs  Stirb'  Lieb’ und Freud”! , a man observes a woman transfixed by religious ecstasy. Beautiful as the image is, it's unnatural to the man, who now can never speak of his love. The tessitura suddenly peaks so high that some singers scrape into falsetto, but no chance of that with Kaufmann, who has the range, and has the technique to make it easy.

It doesn't matter if listeners don't know the songs or who the poet was : the important thing was to pay attention and figure out why Kaufmann likes doing them.  Unfortunately some of the London press tends towards fashion victim. This is a shame, because that does JK no favours. The better audiences understand what he does, and why, the better they'll really value him, but with a press that values hype over substance, how do listeners learn ?.  Schumann's Kerner Lieder are by no means obscure, or difficult to follow.  Think about those images of gold, wine, mystery, lusciousness : JK all over, and making the most of the smoky undertones that make his voice unique.  Read HERE for more about the Kerner Lieder. 

Kaufmann's last concert could well be the most interesting of all, because he's doing something really different, Strauss Vier letzte Lieder, which were written for soprano.  Songs change when they're transposed to a different kind of voice, but there's nothing controversial about that, in principle.  So what Kaufmann will do with them is fascinating. They have been done by men before, even by baritones. But again, I think Kaufmann has the range and stylishness to convince. Moreover, presenting Vier letzte Lieder in the context of other Strauss, and together with Erich Korngold's Schauspeile Overture and Elgar's In the South, also makes a difference.  Again, even if these works are new the challenge is to listen, and appreciate how hearing things in context influences the experience.   Alas, the concert was cancelled at the last minute ! 

There's another concert Feb. 16th 2018, where Kaufmann will sing Hugo Wolf  Italienisches Liederbuch with Diana Damrau.  Tickets reaching £160 !  Again, a wise match between material and voice. Each of these songs tells a little story. While they aren't "operatic", they withstand operatic treatment better than most Lieder.  Kaufmann's voice and Damrau's balance very well, so it's hardly surprising that they've done these songs together before.  Although the Barbican Hall isn't ideal for piano song, it's not bad.  Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf sold out the Royal Festival Hall when they sang Hugo Wolf, sixty years ago. The RFH is bigger than the Barbican and in those days had a dead acoustic. In the end, it's the quality of listening that counts. 

So Jonas Kaufmann's a sex god ?   Real fans also love him for his art. And for many of us, that's WHY he's so darn sexy !

Movie Star Dog meets Wagner


How generations of Chinese kids learned western classical music without any hassle.