Thursday, 28 August 2008

Chinese music resurgence

Here's a pic of a blind musician ensemble at the turn of the last century. The man on the table is playing a gu zheng (dulcimer) and the man in green is playing an erhu. The third musician is playing a zhao (end blown flute). These were the "folk" end of Chinese music, hired to play at private parties, teahouses etc. Scholars (middle class, educated) often played at home among friends, too, so Chinese music covered the whole social range. Itinerant musicians ranged from horrible to virtuoso. Some were legends in their time. When I was a teenager my pal and I tried to tape and interview the last of the beggar musicians. They freaked out, couldn't believe posh schoolkids were interested. But there are genuine academic recordings and studies. Prof. Bell Yung made a UNIQUE documentary about a blind singer/raconteur called "A Blind Singer's Story". It's based on hours of filmed interviews with one of the last teahouse musicians. It's on DVD, but impossible to get. What these guys did was improvise long extended songs, part known music, part written about the topics of the day. During the Japanese war, they were rounded up as subversives. Which they were, of course.

Chinese music most certainly isn't dead. There have been lots of new compositions, styles, improvements to instruments even the creation of a new genre, the large Chinese Orchestra. Rather like the explosion of music in 18th and 19th century Europe, only the demographic is many times greater. If only musicians and audiences in the west would cotton on to the fact that there's more to Chinese culture than takeaways, Mao suits and gangster movies.

Here is a video from The Virtual Instrument Museum hosted by Wesleyan University.

http://learningobjects.wesleyan.edu/vim/cgi-bin/instrument.cgi?id=19

There is lots more on this site about Chinese music and opera. Just go the the list at the right of this blog and click on "Chinese music" Chinese opera" etc. and "unusual instruments"> PLease also let me know if there are more aspects you want to read about. There are so few sites for Chinese music written in English !
and here is an off the wall but informative site on OLD Chinese music recordings. Note though that there are many modern recordings and good ones, so these are of historical interest.
http://hajimaji.wordpress.com/2007/11/12/bai-ju-rong/

RVW is Chinese ! Prom 55 Erhu

The erhu is a Chinese bowed instrument, with a resonating box, a bit like a western violin, but more plaintive and "liquid". It's exquisitely expressive, and can sustain extremely long legato. Classical Chinese music is primarily chamber music, and for private reflection, rather than public show, though the erhu is also a folk instrument, once played on the streets by blind beggars. In ensemble, erhus are often accompanied by flutes, lutes, and dulcimers. It was quite difficult to find a decent sound bite, as most of the youtube stuff is seriously horrible playing. But here are some clips. If I could figure how to upload stuff off CD, you'd really hear what the erhu can do !
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz1YMjLwExE&NR=1
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz1YMjLwExE&feature=related

Now listen again to The Lark Ascending. Because it's familiar, it's fashionable for smart types to sneer at it. But listen to the Lark with completely fresh ears, and hear how original it really is. There are erhu melodies which sound very similar (except I couldn't find them on youtube) Just a bit more spare and pentatonic, and RVW could have been writing Chinese music. Given that Chinese music is undergoing a massive revival, there's lots of spoofs of western music using Chinese instruments. The Lark Ascending would translate perfectly to erhu. Obviously RVW had no idea about Chinese music, but it's a bit of a myth that he was writing English folk music in this piece. England became urbanized and industrial long before the rest of Europe, and folk music is robust stuff. In this Prom, it was played by two performers outside the cynical school of thought that treats RVW as cowpat yokel. Akiko Suwanai and Susanna Mälkki, soloist and conductor, both come to The Lark without preconceptions, and hear it as pure music, without connotations. The result was playing of vivid freshness, the violin soaring free and fluid, almost painfully graceful, like a bird in flight. Unbelievably high timbre, pure as clean air. Perhaps RVW "heard" it as nostalgic and idyllic, but such things are by no means exclusive to English or western culture. Now listen again to the erhu clips and hear the correspondences.

Pairing The Lark with Ravel's Shéhérazade was also inspired. Ravel is consciously writing about "other worlds", in the grand French tradition of exoticism. It's a deliberate attempt to explore new colours and textures. Could RVW have written something so magical had he still been constrained by Stanford and Parry ? EXCELLENT Prom and much more unusual and thought provoking than you'd expect. Listen again ! RVW is less "English" than we think.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

King's Place - London's new arts hub



This is where we'll be spending lots of time in the next few years ! On October 1st, King's Place will open near King's Cross. Exciting architecture, and very interesting impact on the surrounding area. Plus it will be "South Bank North", home to the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment. and "Aldeburgh South" hosting Aldeburgh connected events. This morning the post brought the full brochure with details of the 100 concerts planned, the facilities etc. Steve Reich, Ligeti's 100 Metronomes etc. Seems too they will be heavy on outreach, with lots on world music, jazz, community and even Lieder! Here is a link to an article in the Independent. Why are visual arts and architecture writers usually better than music writers ?
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/a-wealth-of-sound-kings-place-concert-hall-909507.html

Prom 34 Il Tabarro

Ruth Elleson writes : "Although it's often labelled as a melodrama, Tabarro is more subtle than that – a study of unfulfilled, rootless people – and even besides the obvious orchestral sound-effects like the boats' horns and out-of-tune barrel-organ, the musical scene-setting has an impressionistic colour palette unmatched anywhere else in Puccini's canon. This strong and richly evocative raw material gives the opera an advantage in holding its own when scenery and costumes are stripped away and the piece is presented in concert form, as it was here." Please see

http://www.operatoday.com/content/2008/08/prom_34_puccini.php

Monday, 25 August 2008

Janacek Excursions of Mr Brouček


The Excursions of Mr Brouček has a reputation for being unexportable because of the references to Czech history and Prague art circles in the composer's time. I once went to a study day led by Jan Smaczny, which elucidates the political background. Apparently it's a satire on music critics and politicians in Janáček's time. One of them went on to become Culture Minister when the communists came to power. Hence the ultra low profile given to Czechoslovakia's greatest composer by his own country until recent years ! But it's a universal satire - frauds, boors and opportunist cowards exist in every society, in all times. Brouček is pompous, but the name means "beetle" in Czech - the fellow is a crawler ! He's of course quite happy to betray his country but grabs the chance to take credit for the victory. Can you wonder why this opera wasn't "popular" ?

Last year I went to the semi staged production at the Barbican conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. It was simple and elegant, changes wrought by changes of headgear, reminding us how easy it is to to fake things ! This was a magical performance, in Czech of course, a language sharp and pungent as percussion. Imagine an orchestra without percussion (including percussive effects on strings) – Janáček in English is emasculated. The singing, by regulars at Prague Opera, was excellent. This production was magic, reality blending into unreality, exactly what the plot is all about. Later that evening, I was driving through the long tunnel by the Barbican. The two principal singers were there. walking towards the Tube station, struggling to balance their suitcases with the huge bunches of flowers they'd been presented with at the end of the show. What a cosmic moment ! It was surreal -
yet another “transformation” in a world where anything can happen.

Luckily, the performance was recorded and is now available on CD. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ! The version conducted by Frantisek Jílek is very good, too.
Here's a bit of description from the Barbican performance :

"Janáček was so determined that the opening overture should evoke the image of Prague at nightfall that he climbed the highest tower in the city to observe the way the skies and the city transformed as dusk encroached. The short, hurried clusters of notes eventually melt into an expansive swathe of sound, gradually darkening in timbre. It’s like a panorama in a film, where details get gradually absorbed in a wider whole. Then Brouček is spirited away, even if it’s only a result of his being blind drunk....
but Brouček is s Janáček’s own “Midsummers Night’s Dream” complete with Bottom in the form of Brouček. " "The first Excursion has Brouček transported to the Moon where people live on scents, not on food. Needless to say his obsession with alcohol, and “minced pig flesh stuffed in an intestine” disgusts the ultra-aesthetes on the moon. The land on the moon is supposed to be a veiled satire on cultural snobbery, but Brouček is such a boor that he’s hardly sympathetic. Maybe having Etherea fall in love with him is an indication of her bad taste, rather than just a reference to Titania. Janáček resolves the piece by ending with a “Dawn Duet” balancing the night music of the overture. Etherea is Malinka again, reunited with her lover Mazal, their music so beautiful it dazzles, driving the events of the night back into the shadows.

"Janáček wrote the second excursion in a mood of patriotic fervour, so it’s more focussed than the first. Stumbling into a tunnel, Brouček wakes up in 1420 on the eve of the most important battle in Czech history. In an imaginative plot-within-a plot, the author of the original stage play adapted for this opera appears as an apparition. He says that the heroism of the past has been replaced by the stupidity and crassness Brouček symbolises. Janáček is signalling as loudly and clearly as he can, that he’s concurring with Svatopluk Čzech’s views on “modern” venality. Like the denizens of the Moon, the Hussite rebels may have their blind spots, but both accept strangers (and, by implication, new ideas). This was the crucial turning point in Czech history, and the rebels are prepared to die for their beliefs. Musically, this Excursion inhabits a different world to the first. It’s more strident and discordant, the pace more urgent, the undertones darker. Hussite hymns are incorporated into the blazing anthem Janáček writes for the chorus, amplified resoundingly by full orchestra. The choral writing is particularly interesting, because the style changes just as the solo parts transform"


Sunday, 24 August 2008

Prom 48 Mahler 5 Gürzenich


This Prom was supposed to replicate the premiere of Mahler's Fifth Symphony on October 18th 1904 using the same orchestra, the Gürzenich of Cologne and the same programme (with updates). This is a pic of the front page of the original booklet. The critics of 1904 hated the piece. "The train of thought is as incomprehensible as the style is enigmatic" said one, while another praised the audience for hissing at the "shadowy labyrinths" of Mahler's mind. Another said "Mahler now stands alone as an enemy of culture". Whatever the purpose of this replica Prom, it shows that even firm favourites like Mahler 5 were once derided for "dissonances and dreadful oddities".

But one review, in Munich, was more analytical. "The bizarre should never deter one when judging a work : look at Berlioz", he said. ""What people consider to be disconcerting is for me the composer's most delightful characteristic". ..."only a thorough study of the score could give an exact idea of the ....eminent refinement of the orchestration". Pretty perceptive for a first hearing, since current performance practice emphasises the intricate detail. Mahler was quite specific about it being
Kammermusikton, chamber music sound, where small units function distinctly and interlock to create the whole. Markus Stenz has done his homework. This performance showed how valuable it is to "listen" to what a composer is trying to say, rather than jazz things up to wow the crowds. Earlier this year I heard Philippe Jordan conduct Mahler 5 after a Mozart piano concerto. Bingo ! The combination showed how Mozart and Mahler, in their own ways composed with intelligence and clarity, adventure and subtlety. If you don't know why I dislike Dudamel's "style" listen to his recording of this symphony. Or better not....

Friday, 22 August 2008

Prom 47 Janacek Osud


So what if the Proms don’t do fully staged operas ? If anything this performance of Janáček’s Osud proved the benefits of presenting opera shorn of decoration. Jiří Bělohlávek is changing the way Janàček is being heard in this country. His Excursions of Mr Brouček revealed the magic of the work as never before. Now he does the same with Osud. What he demonstrates is how closely the music and words follow similar syntaxes. These cadences grow specifically from the Czech language. Janàček's music rose from “speech rhythms”. He notated speech and was fascinated by its variations. So change the language and the distinctive patterns are lost. Hearing Osud in English removes the sharpness of the original, and breaks the connection between words and music. Bělohlávek restores Janàček’s context.

Osud isn’t as popular as Kàt’a Kabanova, Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen because it isn’t conventionally dramatic and doesn’t tell a story. But don't judge Osud in those terms. The composer wrote a lot more music than opera and he didn't write for the UK market. The plot is bizarre, as if Janáček is acting out his inner frustrations. Anyone reading the composer's correspondence will recognize the recurring themes : his mistreatment of all the women in his life, his obsession with Kamila Stösslovà and the idea of having a child by her, which also relates to the end of his fallow periods as a composer. The pic shows the composer and Kamila hanging out at a spa one hot summer day in 1919). It’s not a roman à clef, though, and shouldn’t be taken too literally, except perhaps for its vague insights into the composer’s psyche. Yet listen to Osud as an orchestral fantasy with singers and choir, and the whole perspective changes.

Bělohlávek’s pacing was deft. The constant upward and downward cadences flowed naturally, the way speech flows up and down. Osud is propelled not so much by its plot as by this sense of movement, the rising notes like “questions”. It’s no coincidence that Janàček gives Živnỳ such long monologues. He’s talking, not showing off his coloratura skills (or whatever the male equivalent may be). And it’s “normal” speech not histrionics, even though it was sung. It’s a big part, for Živny is the composer’s voice as it were. That’s why I was so impressed by Štefan Margita. He understands how the part works in relation to the whole. It’s written so the voice is ever pushed into upper registers. Živnỳ’s underlying strain and tension are written into his music. You don’t need word for word or false passion : character is built into the music and interpretation grows out naturally from within. There’s also a lovely sensual edge to Margita’s voice which also indicates Živnỳ’s erotic, wilful nature. Nice, and subtly expressed.

Similarly, we know Míla’s mother goes mad, but her “mad scene” comes from within the music rather than through exaggerated volume. Rosalind Plowright was impressive vocally and emotionally, all the more so because she looked so composed ! In the broadcast, Amanda Roocroft described Míla as a bit vacant. It’s true, in the sense that she’s just a projection of Janáček’s idealized image of Kamila Stosslovà, in his opinion, a passive, put upon victim. But what attracted Živnỳ to her in the first place? A bit more colour might have helped. The minor parts were pungently sung, those sharp consonants shot out like staccato.

Members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra aren’t, for the most part, Czech speakers, but Bělohlávek gets idiomatic playing from them. The orchestration came alive with this pungent playing, brassy in the best sense of the word. Like the voices, a slight shrillness at the top highlights the underlying mood of discontent in the opera. It’s called Osud, after all, “fate” or “destiny”, that moves inexorably, against our will. Hence pizzicato passages which sound hollow and wooden, which Bělohlávek let unfold quietly, without adornment, just as in Živnỳ’s monologues where the orchestra falls silent while he sings. The keyboard parts were also refined, their spareness symbolic. The organ part in the Third Act is written with great subtlety. Instead of big, booming sonority, the organ interjected comments, like an otherworldy, invisible member of the orchestra, sometimes flutelike, sometimes like a horn. In the libretto, Živnỳ plays the piano. In this Prom, the orchestra’s pianist can be seen, surrounded by other musicians, yet playing alone. At the very end, the music ends suddenly, the last notes unfinished, frozen mid-air. On recordings, it can be missed, but in this Prom, Bělohlávek made sure it carried dramatic impact. Who needs staging when the orchestra is this well prepared ?

The Prom actually started with Dvòrak’s Slavonic Dances op 46. These were lovingly played but served mainly to make us appreciate Janàček all the more.

Here's the link to the full review :

http://www.musicweb-international.com/sandh/2008/Jul-Dec08/prom47_2108.htm

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Prom 45 Varèse Harvey IRCAM Messiaen


I just had a message from someone (not Mark) saying "Just up on Mark's blog Boulezian is a WONDER
FUL review of last night's fantastic Prom". Read it even if you don't care about the composers. This is what music writing can be like. Pass it on !

Whoever devised this Prom should get a medal, too, as it was a masterpiece of intelligent programming. The very idea of electronic music terrifies most people, but it's really no more than using new means to expand the palette of possibilities in sound. Varèse was a fascinating visionary who imagined things beyond the technology of his time. He wrote for ondes martenot 17 years before Messiaen did, and used "found sound" like sirens. Boulez was his first big champion. Five years after Varèse's death, Boulez created IRCAM, giving composers the means to take music into an altogether new dimension. Indeed, IRCAM musicians are creating things that expand the very concept of music as multi-dimensional sound in space. Varèse was a rough-hewn John the Baptist heralding what was to come. Déserts and Pme eléctronique are well known enough I don't need to describe them. Read Mark's review and listen to the BBC broadcast of this Prom. The editorial filler is extremely well informed and accessible. There are little odds and ends I'd tweak but it's a wonderful introduction. Listen and understand how electro-acoustic music can be a natural evolution, opening new horizons. In fact, tape it "for study purposes" as there is a lot to take on board on one hearing.

The broadcast was almost compensation for not being there live. I didn't go because I didn't like Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala, an earlier part of the series to which the new piece, Speakings, belongs. This proves why it's not smart to dismiss what's strange and new. I will have to listen again and buy the recording ! Speakings is beautiful, ethereal. It's a good introduction to this kind of music because it's about "how" speech evolves, what communication is, why music "happens". Lots of tentative questing sounds, reaching out into space and silence. I suspect this sense of sound physically searching out through the auditorium would have been quite palpable in live performance. When the sounds connect, there's a spark, like electricity, and gradually the connections build up. There's another unexpected connection, to Elliott Carter's Caténaires, heard on the First Night, also about reaching out and finding links. Speakings is based on baby noises, the way babies learn to speak. Electro-acoustic music, or whatever you call it, is a whole new language we haven't yet come to terms with.

This isn't"difficult" either. Technology is used in the service of creating something expressive, not for its own sake. Mortuos plango, vivos voco is an earlier Harvey piece where his son's singing voice mixes with the tolling of bells in a cathedral. The Latin inscription refers to the bell mourning the dead while calling the living to prayer - past and present together. Hearing this with Messiaen's final, unfinished quartet and Tombeau de Messiaen, Harvey's early homage to his teacher, makes further connections, such as to Messiaen's ideas of time existing on many levels. In fact, listening to Messiaen's unfinished Concert á quatre on the BBC's listen again facility was a good idea because, having heard Harvey's open-ended, non-static music, it didn't matter so much that Messiaen never completed it. Instead, it hovers, tantalising us with what might have been. The old man was right. You're not dead just because your body packs in. Nor is Varèse. His spirit lives on in IRCAM.

Prom 37 Dudamel

Why have I left it to the last minute to listen to the repeat broadcast of Gustavo Dudamel's Prom ? Dudamel was the triumphant sensation of the 2007 Prom season. It was the hottest ticket in town, and I had a freebie but I passed it on to someone else who had no preconception at all. Again why ? I first heard Dudamel when he won the conducting contest at Bamberg in 2004 . That was the first year the competition was held so it wasn't as well established as it is now. Dudamel was good and deserved to win. But almost immediately he was taken up by big recording companies and marketed like the Messiah. He appeared at the Proms in 2005 and 2006 and was received well enough, but with nothing like the hysteria that greeted the 2007 Prom, when he conducted the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. The Venezuelan "sistema" is a brilliant idea and deserves support. And of course they were fun to hear, with their enthusiasm. But separate that emotional clout from actual artistic achievement.....That's why I chickened out. Not to worship Dudamel is now a crime. But if I'm less than enthused, it's not because I don't like him. On the contrary, I care enough to worry about what the adulation might lead to.

My concerns may be esoteric but they're still valid. The media does influence how we judge things, and shape what we think, like it or not. There's nothing at all wrong with having a good time and being excited, but just as junk food gives a quick high, it's not long term nutrition. Showmanship for its own sake is all very well but that's not all there is to good music. A few Big Macs will not kill you, but getting into a habit will. The danger with "Dudamel effect" is that we'll become inured to "instant gratification" performance style. Perhaps I'm still upset about Gergiev's Mahler which blitzed London audiences earlier this year. I generally like Gergiev and actually know his Mahler from Rotterdam. The Barbican had the sense to bill the series as "Gergiev's Mahler" for Mahler's Mahler it sure wasn't. Again, why not ? No one needs to follow form, and it's better to think through things as new. But this was wilfully, crassly distorted : Mahler for people who hate the composer. Fun, yes, but not good for music in the long term. In the space of weeks, Gergiev set back Mahler practice by forty years. Indeed, the way dissenting views were suppressed upset me much more than anything - it was cynical and corrupt. (Not the Barbican, thank goodness - they had the sense to promote it with a veiled warning).

So this 2008 Dudamel Prom ? Potentially another rave - Ravel's Le Valse, the flamboyant Martin Frost and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique which could wake the dead and have them dancing. Milk Berlioz too much and the deluge would be so great we'd drown. Instant cheese! To Dudamel's credit, he didn't. If anything this was understated and restrained, even the demonic sections. So what if it wasn't the heart-on-sleeve passion that people expect from Berlioz? There are many different types of passion and there's a lot more to Berlioz than cliché. There wasn't much insight in this fairly basic reading, but at least it shows Dudamel isn't swallowing the hype his PR machine is churning out. Which is more than can be said for Gergiev!

Here is a link to an article by Andrew Clark in the FT.
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b4d1a71c-6a17-11dd-83e8-0000779fd18c.html

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Prom 40 Janáček Boulez


Contrary to popular assumption, Janáček wasn’t “folkloric” per se, much as he loved his Moravian heritage. Boulez’s perceptive approach shows how inventive and original Janáček’s music can be.

After the revelatory From The House of the Dead in 2007, it will come as no surprise that Boulez has very special insights, which grow from studying what the composer actually wrote, rather than following received wisdom. No artist with integrity can copy, and what there is of tradition in Janáček is of very recent vintage. Boulez’s ideas are shaped by the music itself, in particular the creative explosion of Janáček’s final decade. Significantly, Boulez came to Janáček through reading the score of The Diary of One Who Disappeared, arguably the beginning of that surge of inspiration. The Diary is an extraordinary work. It blends magic, lyricism and explicit sexual menace, complete with otherworldly off stage voices. Like the tenor, Janáček was embarking into the unknown.

With its confident opening fanfare, the Sinfonietta is dramatic. In the Royal Albert Hall it was visually stunning, for the 13 brass players stood up in a row : trumpets and horns catching the light, glowing like gold. Yet what was striking about this performance was how subtly it was achieved. Noise alone doesn’t mean passion. Janáček played down extremes of volume for a reason. This brass was bright and lucid, not brutalist, leading naturally into sweeping “open spaces” heralded by the winds. This piece was written for athletes celebrating the birth of the new Republic, so this clean vernal playing beautifully captured the spirit of optimism. Boulez understood context. The sassy, punchy turns were there like echoes of a military band en fête. Not violent, but impudent and full of joy.

This combined well, with Capriccio, written for a left handed pianist and small ensemble. It’s as playful, lithe as a cat. The mock heroic passages in the second part, and the deadpan downbeat figures throughout were played with warmth: Boulez’s dry humour proved that there’s more to fun in music than belly laughs. Capriccio isn’t heard too often. Perhaps we need to reassess Janáček’s wit.

The Proms come into their own with spectaculars like the Glagolitic Mass, with over 200 choristers, a huge orchestra, 4 soloists, and organ. The Royal Albert Hall organ has 9999 pipes, 147 stops and a height of 32 feet. It’s the second biggest in the world. Janáček was himself an organist and would have been thrilled. In a small Moravian church, this Mass would have been claustrophobic, but Janáček, an atheist who knew all about playing in churches, said his cathedral was “the enormous grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…the scent of moist forests my incense”. Parallels with Boulez’s teacher Olivier Messiaen are obvious.

Again, Boulez brings insight. With forces like these, any performance is monumental, hence the temptation is to let sheer scale dominate. Instead Boulez maintains clarity, so the complex textures remain bright and clean. Orchestral details count, despite the magnitude of the setting. The four soloists could easily be heard above the tumult, and the massed voices of the choirs were not muddied. In any Mass, there’s a tendency to focus on lush excess : after all the “story” is pretty big. But as Boulez, himself an unbeliever, said before the Prom, the composer chose to set the words in ancient Slavonic which few people understood. This creates a sense of distance, allowing the listeners some freedom of imagination. Of course words like “Gospodi” and “Amin” have obvious meaning, but the words are signposts. The action is in the music and how we listen. Janáček is also creating a temporal distance, as if the piece was a throwback to ancient times and ancient communities that had ceased to exist even in his time.

The version used in this Prom was an edition by Paul Wingfield based on the original score, wilder than the more refined edition we’re used to. Boulez responded to this well, sculpting angular blocks of sound, respecting the jagged, wayward rhythms. This was echt Janáček, that old curmudgeon ! The movement for solo organ seemed almost sedate in comparison, but this being the mighty Willis, there was no way it sounded tame.

This Prom was filmed and can be viewed on the BBC site in full! Worth watching to study Boulez's gestures.

http://www.operatoday.com/content/2008/08/prom_40_boulez.php


Sunday, 17 August 2008

Prom 39 Stravinsky L'Histoire du Soldat

Because L’Histoire du Soldat contains spoken words, it’s easy to assume that a conventional reading will suffice. Hence some of the elaborate performances which attempt to inject exaggerated “realism” into the words, overwhelming the music. Yet the music is paramount, the spoken parts mimicking its rhythms, not the other way round. This is music, above all. The words serve the musical line, like a new kind of instrument. Most actors aren’t musically acute enough to appreciate this, which is why performances without the vocal parts are valid, and so often far more successful as a result. As Patrice Chéreau said on the BBC broadcast, this is “pure theatre”, artifice, not naturalism, we don’t need to be lulled by false realism. Parallels with The Rake’s Progress are apt. In both, men make pacts with the Devil. Stravinsky deliberately uses spartan forms, so the stark moral dilemmas are not softened or compromised.

Chéreau famously helped Boulez create the seminal Bayreuth Ring decades ago, which might have earned him easy laurels solely in opera. Instead, he made his career in theatre. Then, last year, he and Boulez created a remarkable new approach to Janáček in a new production of From The House of the Dead. For an actor, Chéreau is unusually “musical”, perhaps because his work isn’t mainstream theatre but sensitive to wider influences. If anyone could do justice to L’Histoire, it would be someone like Chéreau, who understands how words and music integrate. He got exactly the right balance. By holding the script in his hands, even though he was clearly reciting from memory, he gave visual expression of Stravinsky’s concept of theatre/music as art, not faux reality. It’s also a reference to the mysterious book in the text which the devil gave the soldier (who didn’t read it).

Chéreau narrated all three “parts”, the soldier, the devil and the narrator. The princess is represented, silently, by a ballerina in some performances. This is perceptive, as the parts aren’t “characters” as such but symbolic. Chéreau’s delivery was perfect, pungent and pointed. He was earthy enough to convey the “sense” of the peasant soldier, reinforcing the way Stravinsky writes into this music echoes of a raucous village band. The angular, quirky rhythms turn the steady trudge of footsteps into a bizarre, macabre dance of death. Chéreau is so attuned to the musical logic that his spoken lines take on the same, jerky staccato. These are not verité rhythms of speech., but presenting this in any language other than French spoils the cadences. In non-vocal performances, the violin part is predominant, for many reasons. The devil, for example is often portrayed as a fiddler. This violinist was excellent – no surprise then to find it was Guy Braunstein, concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmoniker, no less. Barenboim brought out the internal relationships well, violin and voice, bassoon and clarinet, violin and double bass. The programme notes translate L’Histoire as “March” but it’s a manic, sardonic dance as well, so these inner relationships do count. They are not unisons so much as tense little duels, like the card game in the story (and in The Rake’s Progress!).

I went to this Prom for Chéreau, for he is a huge draw and rarely heard. The ensemble comprised members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. This is an extremely good orchestra, far better than the label “youth orchestra” might imply. If anything, the circumstances in which they work together intensify the commitment of their playing. It’s full spirited, yet well integrated : these musicians really know why it’s important to listen to each other, even if they don’t agree. In a small ensemble these values come through even more strongly. The most accomplished players here naturally shone, but all pulled together. At one point during L’Histoire, the percussionist instinctively started to dance. It showed how completely “involved” he was. I loved it.

Boulez’s Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe originel) is demanding but came over well because the ensemble understood how its muted dignity comes about through relationships, not star turns, even though the flute part is exquisite. Boulez was as young as these musicians when he met Stravinsky. The two composers hit it off immediately. There are accounts of them sitting together deep in earnest conversation. What might have happened had their friendship developed ? We’ll never know, but Mémoriale is a sincere and very moving tribute to Stravinsky, and, in this revision, also to a flautist prominent in IRCAM. This background is worth bearing in mind as there was an invisible thread in this Prom. Just as Boulez learned from Stravinsky, Boulez, Barenboim and Chéreau (and Braunstein), have worked together for years, and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has significance in human as well as music terms. After Mémoriale, Boulez briskly bounced onto the platform, shaking Guy Eshed’s hand warmly. The flautist’s face lit up. It wasn’t a moment he will easily forget.

Part of this Prom was being filmed. What they probabaly won't show, though, was Boulez, standing in a box over the stage, listening to L'Histoire - another moving, intimate moment for me. BTW the picture shows the cover 0f the Chicago Pro Musica recording of L'Histoire (non-vocal) on Reference Recordings. It's one of the best, proving how good this piece is even without narration. Better none than bad : all the more to value narration as idiomatic as Chéreau's.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Bayreuth and Glyndebourne

No, I'm not comparing the uncomparable. Just pointing to interesting things ! Mark has been to Bayreuth. Hated Meistersinger and LOVED Parsifal. Note carefully, different director and one of them is not a Wagner ! Read his reviews on boulezian on the bloglist at right. . This is a guy who really knows his Wagner. Google "treacherous bonds" and see why!

Simon has been to Glyndebourne for Peter Eötvös's new opera Love and Other Demons. Despite my fondness for new music, I've never yet "got" him, either as composer or conductor, so I was particularly keen to read someone who doesn't have an axe to grind. It's wondeful that Glyndeboune should do such things. Their core audience is pretty savvy, and helped raise the money for the venture. Some rich bankers have brains, you don't get that rich by being dumb. Though many Sun readers are wealthier than I'll ever be. So there's also a link below to a piece in the Financial Times which gives the background. This is an article that's made me think a lot.You might need to register to read the FT article but it's free and worth the effort.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4b791a60-64dc-11dd-af61-0000779fd18c.html

http://www.musicomh.com/opera/love-demons_0808.htm

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers Harawi Messiaen


This was the Prom everyone will kick themselves for missing because it was way out in Sloane Square in the middle of the day. Messiaen's Harawi is very rarely heard because it demands technical virtuosity beyond the norm. More than in most vocal work, the voice becomes an instrument : yet even when the singer is singing made-up words or Peruvian, she has to convey several different levels of meaning, musically and emotionally. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers is still young by singer standards and this is not a cycle for the faint hearted. Full marks for ambition ! And she pulls it off. was spectacular. Her singing ranged from barely audible whispers, when describing the sleeping village and the transition to "colombe verte", symbol of erotic love. Then the explosive cosmic tourbillon of song 6 with its manic outbursts and the esctasy when the lovers become transfigured with the stars. Then the very complex rhythmic patterns and sudden changes of direction. Listen and you'll hear what "Doundou Tchil" is. This is a difficult piece because its deliberately elusive and emotionally contradictory. One of the lovers suggests decapitation (what an idea for a date) which implies it's more than a private love pact, and of course the incantation and chanting. The lines are formidably long and the singer has to judge her resources with extreme precision. Also the relationship between piano, voice and silence is intriguing.

There aren't many recordings : Dorothy Dorow/Carl-Axel Dominique is a safe bet. Jane Manning, the British Harawi doyenne, literally "wrote the book" with her detailed and perceptive commentary sadly now out of print. Her recording was made with such emphasis on the piano that she sounds way too distant but she knows what she's doing. So, listen to Gweneth Ann Jeffers and Simon Lepper on the repeat broadcasts. They could be the definitive champions of this work in our time.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Proms Boulez Janacek


On Friday Pierre Boulez is conducting Janáček's Glagolitic Mass at the Proms. This will be a must as he hasn't officially recorded Janáček, but in the real world musicians do a lot more than what filters down the commercial system. His Janacek Sinfonietta is a wonder to behold, totally making a case for Janáček as a seriously original and ground breaking composer. Last year I was in Amsterdam to hear Boulez conduct From the House of the Dead. This isn't one of the cutesy operas like Cunning Vixen (which could I think benefit from a more incisive approach than it usually gets). In his last years, the composer was entering new territory musically. Who knows where he'd have gone had he lived longer ? Remember, Janáček was the guy who notated chickens in his yard and whose experiments with non western sounds in some ways lean closer to Bartók than Dvórak. Boulez's From the House of the Dead is a revelation! The director was Patrice Chéreau, with whom Boulez created the Wagner Ring that transformed Bayreuth a generation ago. Fantastic experience ! There's a link to the Amsterdam performance below. It's now out on DVD with extras, so GRAB IT.

http://www.musicweb-international.com/sandh/2007/Jan-Jun07/janacek3105.htm


Glagolitic Mass has always been a poser to me, because it's huge and sprawling, and that sort of thing tends to bring out extreme syrup from most conductors. But Boulez doesn't conduct music he hasn't thought carefully about, so I don't think he will serve up stodge.

Prom 32 Manchicourt, Messiaen

From Stravinsky to Rachmaninov, from Elliott Carter to Ferneyhough, so many "modern" composers draw inspiration from early music. This year at Aldeburgh there was a veritable feast of Bach and Bach transcriptions, showing how "new" music uses ideas from the very ancient past. Luigi Nono and his fellow students in the early 1950's were told to sing motets in harmony while trying to swim in a choppy ocean. It was a good exercise because they learned how different rhythms could coexist and disintegrate, querying the vary basis of rhythm. Early music is so much the parent of the new that sometimes it seems the 19th century was an aberration, a quirk in the march of music history.

So it was an education to hear Messiaen's Messe de la Pentecôte, interspersed with Manchicourt's Missa Veni Sancte Spiritus written in the mid 1550's. Messiaen played in church nearly every day for 60 years, and indeed Messe de la Pentecôte was played as a whole during Masses at Ste Trinité, but song has always been part of a Mass, so mixing Messiaen with Manchicourt is perfectly natural. Indeed, the multi-part structure of Messiaen's music lends itself to this kind of meaningful enhancement. I specially liked this combination because it balanced the solo organ with the polyphony of the voices. It showed just how original and inventive Messiaen's liturgical writing really was. There's conventional grandeur, but also extreme delicacy, such as the segment with the quiet birdsong. Then the wild "breath of the Spirit" which suddenly sweeps all before it, God himself dispensing with conventional form.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Prom PCM4 Harawi Messiaen


If there's any way you can listen to the BBC lunchtime Prom tomorrow (live on BBC Radio 3 and available online on demand for a week), do it ! It's Messiaen's Harawi. Messiaen didn't write much for voice and this is his "big" vocal statement. Tomorrow's singer is Gweneth-Ann Jeffers who is making the piece her speciality. I heard her sing it last February at the South Bank, with the same pianist, Simon Lepper. She was magnificent, and I suspect the ultra high profile of the Proms will bring out even more from her. There's no recording of her, so the broadcast will be important.

Harawi is worth studying because it's Messiaen in miniature, so to speak. Just piano and soprano : but like Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus-Christ, it's homeopathic distllation, powerfully effective. Like so much of Messiaen's other work, it develops in progression, not narrative but impressionistic. Harawi shows that Messiaen's ideas of procession aren't just Christian, for the Gods here are decidedly pagan, not even exclusively Peruvian. Harawi unfolds like a ritual.

Note the strange rhythms, like incantation, like dancers entering mystical trances, hypnotised by repeated sound patterns. The singer sings onomatopaiec sounds, repeated over, interspersed with "real" words from time to time like signposts. Like birds in dense jungles, meaning is glimpsed in sudden flashes of colour. Exotica, for Messiaen, is a vibrant celebration of the richness and diversity of life. Here, though the lovers die, they are transfigured into stars, "Du temps, du ciel, de l'eau". The jungle, too, is a metaphor for intense passion, beyond the constraints of "civilization". So there's menace, too, a kind of exotic, exuberant savagery. Harawi
is often compared to Tristan und Isolde because of the love/death thing but it's much more "primitive" in the sense that these lovers are more than characters but part of the flora and fauna of the mystic jungle they inhabit.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Prom 27 George Benjamin



In the photo, George Benjamin is sitting with Olivier Messiaen. To Benjamin's right, is, I think Myung Whun Chung ! Benjamin was just 16. This Prom showcased Benjamin's Ringed by the Flat Horizon written just four years later. It was a smash hit when it was premiered at the Proms in 1980 - not many students achieve that kind of fame ! It's vivid, swooping chords, that disintegrate into sparkling chromatic showers, étincelante as they say in French. The Messiaen influence is obvious,and good. Benjamin is writing with images of lightning, filling space. So it was apposite hearing it after L'Ascension. This is very early Messiaen, indeed, still not quite fully formed. The orchestration is unusual, winds and brass alone then arching towards a muted ensemble of strings. It's quite experimental in its own way, but hasn't quite the magnificence of the version for solo organ we heard in Prom 6 played by Olivier Latry. I wonder how many noticed they were the same piece (almost) ?

After listening to Ringed by the flat Horizon, I listened again to Toru Takemitsu's Corona from 1973. Listen to Roger Woodward's recording and then to the Prom repeat broadcast (or to the recording conducted by Mark Elder) and compare. Both Takemitsu and Benjamin are writing pieces that evoke movement across planes/plains, both have images like rolling thunder, flashes of sudden illumination against darkness, but of course are totally independent pieces.

This Prom gave us early Messiaen and early Benjamin, hinting at what was to come. So it followed up with Early Ravel and later, the Pavane pour une Infante défunte first written in 1899 then orchestrated in 1910. Benjamin segued it straight into Bolero without a break to emphasize the progression. Bolero is so often heard played like a raucuous party piece : Benjamin instead understands what Ravel was really up to, working with blocks of sound - movement again, like a procession. Overfamiliarity makes us forget just how unusual Bolero is in musical terms. It takes a composer like Benjamin to help us "hear" it afresh.

Prom 28 Ferguson Stanford


Overture for an occasion is the title of the Howard Ferguson piece starting this Prom. What occasion ? Cleaning the car on Saturday ? Having a Big Mac ? In this case it's Ferguson's understated irony as the occasion was the Queen's coronation in 1953. Yet Ferguson uses a bland generic term which might apply to anything, even something deadly boring. Ferguson stopped composing at the age of 50, though he lived to be 91, because he felt he had "nothing more to say" musically. For honesty, candour and self knowledge the man should be well honoured ! And also for that equivocal title. Ferguson is an interesting man who had many talents. He was a pal of Gerald Finzi and there's a volume of their correspondence. They were close for years but Finzi didn't tell Ferguson he had cancer and Ferguson didn't tell Finzi he was gay. There's a recent reissue of a recording of Finzi songs where Ferguson is playing piano. He understands the music better than the singer did. Overture for an occasion is pretty good for what it sets out to be -- if deadpan and reticent is what Ferguson wanted. Very British understatement. And he had the taste to realize where his real talents lay.

In complete contrast was Charles Villiers Stanford, whose picture is above. Stanford utterly dominated British music in his lifetime. He taught everyone, but what did he teach ? Arch-conservatism and rigidity ? He demanded, and got, obeisance because he held a powerful position. So RVW praised him but only really "broke out" when he went to France and worked with Ravel. Stanford and Ravel - what a contrast ! Suddenly RVW finds his own voice, and beautifully. On Wenlock Edge is light years ahead of The House of Life though there's only 5 years between them.

Here we heard Stanford's Piano Concerto No 2, a stolid bit of pastiche, however lovingly played. "Music for Airports", as Brian Eno might say. For a moment I longed for Stanford's Songs of the Sea. This is Victorian melodrama, ultra High Camp to perfection ! Except that Stanford didn't do irony. He also wrote sentimental "Irish peasant"pieces though Ireland for him was an exercise in the imagination. Perhaps it's no different from lots of late 19th century "folk" nationalism. But Smetana and Dvorak showed that quaint doesn't have to be kitsch.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Antique Proms programmes

From old Proms programmes :

"He has been attending concerts like this one for more than 17 years. He knows more about music than he knows about himself. He has written more than a million words about music and there's nothing else he'd rather do. He is demanding yet sympathetic. He enjoys, and always encourages, new work as much as he enjoys the classics. He is probably the most respected and widely read critic in Britain. ...He is the Music Critic of The Times. " 1966!

"Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast/And every housewife who with GAS is blest/Has limitless hot water, cooks with ease/Each meal -- a banquet -- every guest to please" (ad for North Thames Gas 1965)

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Music about war : Hiroshima Symphony - Ohki

Today is the anniversary of Hiroshima but what has the world learned ? Just look at the news......There is of course the much underrated Hiroshima Symphony by Masao Ohki (Naxos). We take Hiroshima for granted but in 1952 Japan was still under military occupation and Japanese people weren't allowed official news of the bombing. News leaked out as small horrible hints : people who knew people who knew first hand. And the Japanese were still reeling from the shock of defeat, total carpet bombing, firestorms in cities of wooden houses.

Ohki's Hiroshima Symphony is carefully constructed, as if "boxes within boxes" can make sense of the chaos. The Prelude starts with unsettling calm, tense cello and bass pizzicatos gradually adding a sense of time ticking away urgently. Ohki is too subtle to "depict" the actual impact. Instead, the second part is a meditation in the lowest registers of winds and strings, a solo trumpet adding a sort of cry of anguished disbelief. He titles it Ghosts – it was a procession of ghosts, referring to the images of survivors and wounded walking silently and mindlessly through the flattened landscape. Suddenly driving strings introduce the next section, where at last percussion and brass surge powerfully. Ohki’s mental picture was of waves of fire, expressed by rapid chromatic runs and trills, tremolos and glissandos. This is also the imagery of wind, and transformation for in those moments, Japanese life was changed forever. Another darkly meditative section develops the themes in Ghosts, before the strange and disturbing fifth section, Rainbow. Ohki quotes a description of the time, when "All of a sudden black rain poured over them and then appeared a beautiful rainbow". A plaintive solo violin, then a solo clarinet evoke the unworldly half light. Ohki isn’t depicting the rainbow as such, but perhaps the survivors inchoate response to it, which is far more complex.
 
The seventh section is Atomic desert: boundless desert with skulls. Against a background of "flat-lining" strings, keening and wailing, the disembodied sounds of flute, piccolo and clarinet rise tentatively. It’s a bizarrely abstract piece, strikingly modern, particularly when considering how Ohki had been cut off from western mainstream music for a good fifteen years since the Japanese regime, allied to the Nazis, suppressed "modern" music. The final movement, Elegy, draws in themes from the earlier sections, yet also develops them with deeper emphasis. As Morihide Katayama writes in the booklet of the CD (Naxos) notes: "the conflict is unresolved, and whether the terror is broken down or not depends on subsequent human conscience".

The composer wasn’t to know, in 1953, that survivors would suffer illnesses even into subsequent generations, or that bigger and deadlier bombs would be developed within years. As we face a world still fond of sabre-rattling and leaders who haven’t learned, the message of Hiroshima is, if anything, even more important. This is a deeply felt symphony, all the more moving because of its objectivity and universal qualities. It should take its place in the repertoire of music written in response to war and its devastation. "History repeats itself for those who don’t listen".

Ohki went on to write A Vietnam Symphony, joining composers like Henze and Nono. Use the tags on this blog to LUIGI NONO under the heading "Sofferte...Pollini" and read the bit at the end about A foresta è jovem e cheja de vida. Please also follow the labels on the right of this blog, because there is a LOT more about Hiroshima, music about war, anti war issues, China, Japan, agit prop films, Dr Atomic, Henze, Zimmermann, Eisler and history. READ about the man who survived both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and what he wants the world to know. THIS ARTICLE IS NOT AS WELL KNOWN AS IT SHOULD BE please help to circulate and pass the link on ! Also, for 2010 I have wrfitten about Masako Koybayashis The Human Condition, an epic film about a Japanese in Manchuria and how he keeps faith in being human, despite all odds. And also BLACK RAIN,  (Kuroi Ame) a film based on a novel by a Hiroshima resident, with soundtrack based on Toru Takemitsu's Requiem for Strings.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Prom 20 21 Stockhausen


Stockhausen’s visionary ideas don’t easily translate into real performance, so this really was an inspired decision on the part of the BBC. The Royal Albert Hall and Stockhausen are a match made in heaven.

For a change, the arena was not the place to be. Over a hundred musicians and their instruments fill the space so there’s relatively little space left for Prommers. This time, those in the upper galleries had by far the better perspective, as they could better appreciate the flowing movement that is the essence of this music. Stockhausen is experimenting with different tempi, different groups of sound, different angles in space. That’s why the piece is called Gruppen (groups). Conceptually it breaks away from the idea of music projected “at” an audience from a fixed, remote position. It uses the performance space itself as part of its design. Even the Prommers packed in around the three orchestras become part of the performance as they buffer the sound and break down the division between playing and listening. Like orchestral musicians, they hear what’s closest, rather than the overall effect. For a change audiences have to “think” like musicians. That’s where good conducting proves its value. David Robertson, Martyn Brabbins and Pascal Rophé are each of them specialists in new music, all sensitive to what Stockhausen is trying to achieve, which is the shaping of a piece greater than the sum of its parts. Hence the individuality of detail, like the tiny voice of the celeste, and a single note on one harp: it’s the groupings and re-groupings that make Gruppen so unusual, making you listen on many simultaneous levels. It was a good idea to hear it twice, after experiencing parts of Stockhausen’s later work, as you could appreciate where the ideas in Klang first germinated.

Cosmic Pulses is the 13th of the planned 24 hours in Klang, Stockhausen’s visionary epic. Stockhausen’s ideas are almost impossible to achieve, but this probably came close. Darkness descended, the dome lit up by tiny lights, like stars – this was Royal Albert Hall as planetarium ! However esoteric Stockhausen’s concepts may be, visual elements are important, and physical space is part of the performance. On the First Night of this season, we heard the mighty Willis organ fill the building with its magnificent presence. That was Messiaen’s Dieu parmi nous. For a few moments we were in the presence of the divine, or whatever you might call something beyond mere human experience. Stockhausen was Messiaen’s student. Cosmic Pulses filled space even more profoundly. Indeed, because this piece is performed by electronic sound desk, the performing space “is” part of the creation. Sound resonates differently in different spaces, bouncing off and back into the specifics of the building’s construction. The Royal Albert Hall itself was transformed into a massive instrument, its very form resounding in dialogue with what Katrinka Pasveer was doing at the mixing desk. She was the composer’s muse and is probably the person closest to achieving his ideas. This kind of music is still so new that we don’t yet have the terminology with which to describe what happens. In any case, Cosmic Pulses at the Proms was an experience, rather than “just” music, and it was utterly unique. For some reason the BBC broadcast a different performance. A pity as this was perhaps the most imaginative “use” of the building, ever. As Mark Berry states in his review, had this been part of the Dr Who Prom, thousands of kids would have been forever imprinted with Stockhausen by having listened for themselves and probably understand far better than some adults with preconceived judgements.

Again to the BBC’s credit, Harmonien, 5th of the 24 hours of Klang, was a BBC commission, at last receiving its world premiere. It’s a trumpet solo. Trumpets are meant to sound out over long distances in space. They have functions beyond the production of harmony. In the Bible, the End of Time itself is heralded by the Final Trumpet as this Proms season has already demonstrated through Messiaen. Conceptually this is important because both composers experiment with new ways of incorporating time and spatial dimensions into music. Marco Blauuw demonstrated why he is one of the great specialists in this kind of repertoire. Technically, this piece is mind-bendingly difficult. He has to hold lines in feats of almost superhuman stamina, which perhaps express ideas behind the piece. The secret is circular breathing, but Blauuw has conquered the physical challenges so thoroughly that what impressed was the fluidity of line, and the soulful expressiveness of his playing.

Kontakteis a familiar “standard” in Stockhausen terms. This version was chamber music, but writ large, for it’s an interaction between piano, percussion and mixing desk- though mixing is a primitive name for what Pasveer, André Richard and other masters of the genre have created. It’s a trio, though not like any other. Like Elliott Carter’s Caténaires, heard on the First Night of this season, it’s about connections, contact points,that change direction as a result of meeting. Caténaires refers to the means by which electricity courses through networks. Stockhausen may well have believed he was a conduit for cosmic forces, but he was formed by connections with others and in turn has and will influence others to come...........

Stimmung
is another Stockhausen “hit”, receiving several performances in this country this year alone. It’s fascinating for performers because it makes them rethink what “singing” is really about. They use their whole bodies to project sound, breath passing from lungs through chest, throat and mouth, shaped by muscles, lips and tongue, by the slightest gradations of volume and timbre. The piece is an hour of barely varied pitch, yet within this there’s an immense range of possibilities. There’s no “progression” in the usual sense of conventional music, for the singers keep the music afloat by passing it between each other, rather like jugglers keep many balls afloat in perpetual motion. Stimmung means tuning, or being attuned with one another. That’s why the singers sit in a circle. What they create comes from how well they are in inner harmony. Even “ordinary” vocal performance is never quite the same as the voice is a uniquely “human” instrument affected by things beyond a performer’s control. In Stimmung this is amplified because it requires such intense interaction with others. Stockhausen sets out strict guidelines, yet by the very nature of human performance they deconstruct with surprising freedom. For me, that’s why Stimmung is so liberating. Rituals follow form, but result in totally unpredictable, irrational magic.

This was perhaps the most interesting Stimmung performance so far, surpassing the performance Hillier and the Theatre of Voices gave in 2006. Explaining why is in itself a challenge. The circularity in this performance was very clear, rather like the sound you make when running a damp finger round the rim of a crystal glass. These singers were passing sound between each other, sculpting the piece, resonating against each other like the sound waves bouncing round the Royal Albert Hall in Cosmic Pulses. The balance between voices was excellent because the natural ranges between voices were well defined. They sounded distinct and melded with, as opposed to being absorbed into, the blend. Although there are plenty of non-words, meaning does matter. It’s just doesn’t have to be expressed as straightforward narrative. Here, to, there was a real sense of suppressed danger. Stimmung is a kind of multi-faith shamanism, an incantation the performance of which is supposed to invoke greater powers. A friend quipped that the BBC should have placed the singers on a platform suspended above the arena, slowly levitating it towards the dome. It’s an apposite idea, for that is how the music “works”. Stockhausen’s notorious “helicopters” piece wasn’t written just for show, but expresses how the tiniest variations keep a line afloat. Stimmung is not so far from Ligeti’s Piano Concerto where subtly different rhythms create an energy which Ligeti called “lifting off like an aeroplane…..hovering”. Stockhausen and Ligeti use sound in a way that seems to defy the laws of physics.


George Butterworth in the Trenches.

"4.45 Lt Butterworth killed. " A terse one line entry, hurriedly pencilled into a military notebook at dawn on August 5th 1916. And it goes on to another subject. This is the Somme, under bombardment.
Michael Barlow's bio "Whom the Gods Love" is an invaluable source and much of it is drawn from family letters and material at Cecil Sharp House. Curiously though, there's little on Butterworth's war record. Yet nearly everything about officers in that war is preserved. So I went to the War Office archives and hit a brick wall. No Lt. Butterworth! No wonder Barlow was stymied. But Butterworth won a Military Cross, a significant honour. No way that would not be recorded. So I read every single citation for summer at the Somme 1916 and there I found it, indexed under his mother's maiden name. Then I looked up the regimental war diary. These are notes written by an ADC to the commanding officer, often in pencil, sometimes covered in mud and once I found one stained with a dark liquid.... don't ask ! These diaries are the raw material that record events as they happen, verbatim, no time for reflection. They get tidied up and sent to HQ for analysis. What you read in books is several stages down the line. War diaries are the real thing as it happens. I traced back to when Butterworth joined the unit, part of the 13th Durham Light Infantry. But there's lots more material, and a good historian, like a detective, "makes the connections". Here's a verbatim extract from the War Diary :
2.53 sent following message to Lt Butterworth at B Company "Send a strong bombing platoon up Munster Alley to hold and block". Note owing to our artillery shelling our front line Lt Butterworth cannot have received this message until after 3.45 am
3.40 received from Lt Clarke "we must have reinforcements at once...the men I have got are being kept there by revolvers". 3.41 gave Lt Batty message for Lt Butterworth to reinforce Munster Alley with one platoon at once.
4.19 Forward observation reported that our party at Munster Alley was being heavily bombed but we were apparently holding our own. 4.43 (Brigadier sent 25 men from another unit to relieve)
4.45 Lt Butterworth killed.
Casualties 5th August : Lt G S Kaye-Butterworth, Lt N A Target killed, 2nd Lt Rees
and Batty wounded. Other ranks : 4 killed. 18 wounded, 3 shell shock, 5 missing. (Note: Target featured in the Diary many times, an unfortunately named but charismatic fellow who had been awarded a Military Cross in June. He was much admired by the Brigadier and the man who wrote the diaries. Butterworth would have known him too.)



Monday, 4 August 2008

Prom 18 Monteverdi Poppaea























The BBC Proms bring Glyndebourne to London each year, so those who can’t make the trek to East Sussex can enjoy the experience. This production of L’Incoronazione di Poppaea was a brilliant choice as it translated perfectly to the configurations of the Royal Albert Hall. If anything the opera was enhanced by the minimalist setting, which threw focus on the stark clarity of the plot and music. The final scene is breathtaking. Poppaea walks in triumph, trailing an enormous red cape. It’s been there all along in the background, draped over the choir stalls, reminding us that Poppaea is a “scarlet woman” at once sensual and malevolent. Now as she walks to face the audience, the whole stage is filled with violent red velvet. She’s “crowned” indeed, but it’s macabre : she and Nero, and Rome, will end up badly. This finale was a magnificent coup de théâtre, achieved by simple means.

In his own time, Monteverdi was cutting edge and audacious. Monteverdi allows performers much freedom, but it’s a freedom earned through respect for the composer’s idiom. Emmanuelle Haïm’s lucid conducting animated the music, bringing out the sparkle in the spare textures. Individual soloists were clearly heard : no waffle in this ensemble. No wonder Monteverdi is such an influence on modern composers like Luigi Nono. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment made the music move. On a hot summer evening, four hours in the Royal Albert Hall packed to the rafters can be hell, but this playing was crisp and refreshing. Instruments like harpsichord and baroque flutes don’t lend themselves to vast auditoria, so all credit is due to the BBC’s sensitive sound engineers. Recently I was talking to a European radio engineer who explained in extensive technical terms why the BBC teams are highly respected in the business. Now I understand why.

The spoken prelude was lost in the throng of the arena, but in a way, that enhanced the essential theatricality of baroque opera. It’s not verité, but a lively mix of concrete and abstract characters like Cupid who intervene as the action unfolds. Artifice and “reality” entwine. Much of the plot revolves around appearances and counter-appearances, so secondary themes like cross-dressing and mistaken identity are important. Perhaps part of the appeal of castrati was because they were not naturalistic, and a source of wonder. They’re not an option these days, but fortunately we have singers like Alice Coote, who can create Nero as a believable character even though we know she’s a woman. She’s unique because there are few female singers who can provide the equivalent of the countertenor fach in male voice. She carries it off because she’s a convincing actor, as well as having an unusually dark timbre. Coote’s Nero is sexy, notwithstanding he’s Emperor and will kill you if he can’t get his way. It’s quite an achievement, as she looks and sounds like a woman, yet Poppaea is obsessed. Danielle de Niese’s Poppaea was stunningly glamorous – she’s a born diva, who can carry off the part by sheer personality, though in some of her longer arias she demonstrated she could sing just as effectively minus the visual impact.

So much of the action in the plot depends on quick, almost slapstick changes of identity. It’s part of the arch frisson that makes baroque so lively. Iestyn Davies in a silk slip would fool no one in real life, but in opera, everyone’s in on the joke, and knows Otho’s murderous plans will come to nothing, unlike Poppaea’s which are much more sophisticated. The double entendre is rather more forced when a deep male voice emits from Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke’s Amalta, but identity and gender games are part of the moral ambiguity that is the heart of this opera, where the “bad guys” seem to win, at least for the moment. This performance was bright and vivacious, but it had a powerful sting in its tail.

soon to appear in Musical Pointers. Anyone have a photo of that splendid finale ?

Sunday, 3 August 2008

FIRST !!!! Prom 20 Stockhausen

The FIRST review written and probably the most definitive there's going to be ! Mark Berry :

http://boulezian.blogspot.com/

Blogs (like anything else) are only as good as the people who do them : Boulezian shows there IS potential for seriously well informed, analytical, intelligent music writing on the net. These days, Culture seems to be replaced by quickfix Kulcha! for those with the mental level of a gnat. Sorry, gnats. But Boulezian is the real thing. This was an incredible Prom ! When news of "Stockhausen Day" leaked on the net on 1st April, I thought it was a joke. This was an uncompromising Prom, no concessions to down market. The BBC was rewarded by a pretty good turnout, but that's not the point : Stockhausen is such a visionary we probably won't appreciate him fully in our time. As Aimard said recently to a heckler : "Why should Stockhausen have to be popular?"Popularity means little : quality is everything.

Antique Stockhausen Prom 1967

Tonight's Prom was Stockhausen's Gruppen. My friend was at the London premiere on 3 September 1967 "the 73rd Henry Wood Promenade Concert Season" as it was called then. The booklet is tiny, 14 pages, no photos, few ads and sober commentary. Read this in a starchy 60's BBC accent :

"Much of the sound in (Stockhausen's) works is remote indeed from "music" in the Mozartean or Wagnerian sense,....but there is no disputing that even the most radically new among them do exemplfy the art of sound practiced with arresting inventiveness and imagination, and sometimes with compelling effect, even when the listener might wonder whether "music" is the right word for it". The main conductor was Pierre Boulez, aged 41, who is described as "perhaps the most brilliant all-rounder in European music today, and it has been said of him that he could even organize the French Government", Interesting comment, coming before IRCAM, Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the upheavals of 1968.

Also interesting is the young celeste player mentioned in the orchestra list - none other than John Constable, stalwart of the London Sinfonietta which didn't exist at the time of this Prom. (oops, Henry Wood Promenade Concert). There aren't many ads but they're serious minded stuff. You could buy a Decca 12 inch LP for 25 shillings and fourpence (£1.28 in decimal terms). The programme cost one shilling but it was money well spent. Besides Gruppen, Heather Harper sang Berg's Altenberg Lieder and Boulez conducted Three Fragments from Wozzeck and The Rite of Spring.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Prom 16 George Butterworth


Perhaps it's not so surprising few people really know who George Butterworth was. He died aged 31, but two years before that he burned all his unpublished music before joining the Army. When he died, courageously, in battle, his general wrote his father "We did not know he was a musician". Yet this was the man of whom it was said, by his tutor at Oxford, "There goes more red revolution than in the whole of Russia". In 1906, just after the December uprising in Russia, this was incendiary stuff indeed. Butterworth was also closely involved with the English folk music and dance movement under Cecil Sharp - there are wonderfully kitsch photos of him morris dancing in full regalia in the archives which I must use someday. And he was a powerful influence on Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This Prom featured Butterworth's exquisitely beautiful piece for orchestra, A Shropshire Lad. It was interspersed with the A E Housman poems that so inspired the composer. In theory, yes. But why not then Butterworth's song settings of the same ? Heard together the songs and the orchestral piece are enhanced by a sum of magnitude, because they reflect each other. The musical themes expand immeasurably when you know how Butterworth himself set them to music, and he would have assumed listeners would know them both. Instead, here we just had the poems read out minus the music, which might perhaps have worked, were it not for the extreme theatrical declamation. It might have been great for high camp Shakespeare but everything about Housman and Butterworth mitigates against ostentation. In any case these are poems of vernal purity. And there are orchestral versions of the songs as well.

One day perhaps the BBC will do a Butterworth Prom, with this rhapsody and Banks of Green Willow, which sadly exhausts the Butterworth oeuvre, but it could be supplemented with RVW's own A Shropshire Lad and RVW's Second Symphony, "London" in whose creation Butterworth was instrumental. No Butterworth, perhaps not the RVW we know.

It would also tie together the Prom's new ventures into literature with its core music content. Housman and Butterworth are intriguing figures. Both were intensely secretive personalities, who expressed in art what they couldn't express otherwise. Think about all Housman's reference to the lovely naked necks of young soldiers ! Housman didn't out himself to the world but neither did he hide in the closet - an act of courage and integrity in those times.

Butterworth is even more complex. Why did he burn his music ? Why did he cherish the camaraderie of the trenches ? Why did he die the way he did, throwing himself into the line of fire ? No one really has tackled these issues before, but they are significant in understanding what an interesting man Butterworth really was. Michael Barlow's biography is tantalising as it leaves so much out. In the course of my own work in the archives, I found something of the secret. Butterworth didn't enlist under the name "Butterworth" !!!!! No wonder Barlow couldn't track him down. But I managed to find material not, I think, looked at since 1916. Suddenly a lot more about the man falls into place, including the manner of his death. There's a lot more to Butterworth than this Prom produced.