Monday, 29 September 2008

Hartmann Gesangsszene Goerne

"..and in this storm, these thundering waves, this war of wars, nothing survives but bankruptcy and disgrace, the face of a child, distorted by hunger, the cry of a madman - and Death"

Karl Amadeus Hartmann's rarely-heard Gesangsszene is a powerful vision of a proud society that seemed to have everything: prosperity,progress, even a cure for the common cold. Then, suddenly it's destroyed by "the sickness of great empires". (For my more recent piece on this work, please see HERE) It's horrifyingly prophetic because there are references to banking and economic collapse, even to "God's mortgages". Hartmann was writing in 1961, when the Americans were pitted against the Russians, and the Berlin Wall was built. He knew all about the flaws of even the greatest empires; he'd resisted the Nazis, not by emigrating like so many others, but by "internal exile", refusing to make music while the regime lasted. Then came Hiroshima (Hartmann specifically refers to the empire "finding atoms in cells") unparalleled material wealth, the "German miracle"and the Cold War. As a lifelong socialist who'd seen the Great Depression and war, Hartmann notes that Empires crumble, "especially the ones with apparently the most secure guarantees of stability".

Gesangsszene starts with long, haunting solo flute melody which gradually becomes tonally ambiguous as blasts from trumpets and trombones interrupt. Crescendi build up in the orchestra, richly, the flute's warning barely heard above the tumult. Then, suddenly, baritone Matthias Goerne materializes from within the orchestra: "Das ist derschönste Spielbeginn". It is beautiful and all the more terrifying for that. The text has a difficult, wordy syntax, so Hartmann sets it like speech, making the most of the solemn pace. At times, it feels like quasi-sermon for there is moral indignation behind the simple, matter-of-fact setting. When Goerne sings the third verse "Wir alle haben Reiche sturzen sehen", it's like a chorus.

At first voice and orchestra alternate, then gradually combine. Angular ostinatos underline the voice "Das Übel der Großen Reiche ! Das
Tödliche Übel ! It's horrible, horrifying. Huge swirling figures in then orchestra, like windstorms, crashing cymbals - and very quiet drum beats and single notes on harp.
"In jedes Vogellied hat ein grauenhafter Ton scheingeschlichen..... Und die Bäche sind clar und spiegelblank die Quellen" The orchestra plays "watery" sounds, wavering and insecure"Aber ich habe das Wasser gekostet, es ist das Wasser der Sintflut. " Hartmann didn't finish setting the last strophe, because he died. So it's intoned, unaccompanied. It could easily be done with silly histrionics, but Goerne chose a more dignified, simple style, closer to the numb understatement that runs throughout the piece. "Es ist ein Ende der Welt ! Das Traurigste von allen!". Not just one end of the world - it happens again and again, we never learn.

Friday, 26 September 2008

New BILLY BUDD Britten Harding LSO Bostridge Barbican

Brand new recording of Britten's Billy Budd. Daniel Harding conducts the LSO at the Barbican. This performance changed the whole way I listen to Billy Budd. Previously it wasn't a favourite as performances usually take the "talking heads" approach to the voices and action. But this performance is radically different. It makes a compelling case for Billy Budd as symphony, an orchestral work that uses voices to extend its impact, not "opera" in the usual sense of singers against a backdrop. Suddenly, Billy Budd is revealed as extremely sophisticated musical writing, where the real action is hidden in the orchestration, not what's happening with the actors. Captain Vere's dilemma "is" the central and absolute drama of the entire piece. "My life's broken. It's not his trial, it's mine, mine. It is I whom the Devil awaits". This opera isn't even about Billy, but about how people respond to difficult ethical situations.Billy Budd was written during the McCarthy era with its hysterical witch hunts. Britten was no fool.. It is significant how much he makes of the political paranoia of 1797, for it is pertinent to the "danger" the ship and its crew are in. Britten was emotionally reticent, knowing it could be dangerous to be too open, unsafe to be candid. So Billy stammers incoherently where he could save himself with clear explanations. Similarly, Captain Vere pulls back from the brink when he could have intervened. Billy Budd is an allegory where Britten expresses unfathomably deep emotions without revealing them except to those sensitive enough to listen.Harding’s emphasis on the orchestra is thus psychologically as well as musically astute. Here the ocean is a protagonist, every bit as much as the singing roles. Indeed, against the wild forces of nature, the 'Indomitable' isn’t indomitable; it’s vulnerable, and can be destroyed by fate as capriciously as Billy himself is destroyed. Through the orchestra, the ocean takes central stage, turbulent and intense. Huge crescendos build up like mighty waves, but even more impressive is the undertow of dark, murmuring sound that surges ever forwards. Above this, currents flowed diagonally across the orchestra, first violins flowing to brass and basses and back, just as ships lurch back and forth. You could get seasick if you focussed too hard, but that is the point, for Britten is showing that the “floating world” aboard ship is unsteady, far removed from the certainties of dry land. Just like the enveloping mists, all points of moral reference are hidden. “Lost in the infinite sea”, sings Captain Vere, a refrain that recurs repeatedly, in voice and in the orchestra.

This ship is in full sail, you can feel the wind and see the open horizon. This is an important to the narrative, because it reflects the sense that supernatural forces are propelling Billy and Captain Vere inevitably towards their fate. More subtly though, this also expresses something about why Billy loves being up high in the foretop, riding the rigging, high up on the mast. He’s such a free spirit that even death cannot extinguish him. That’s why, perhaps, that he moves ahead, always forward, instead of dwelling on past sorrows. “No more looking down from the heights to the depths !” he sings, “I’ve sighted a sail in the storm…I see where she’s bound for.” It's not for nothing that Britten starts the opera with Vere reflecting on the past and ends with him being liberated, at last understanding what Billy meant.
Britten has been Harding’s speciality since he was in his teens, when he was conducting the Britten Sinfonia. Most of his career has been spent in European circles, where Britten’s music is perhaps less performed than in Britain, but this is an advantage because it makes his approach feel so individual. He has also worked with the LSO and with Bostridge for over 12 years, so the partnership is deeply rooted. Hence the vividness and cohesion in this performance. Take for example the Battle sequence, which bristled with vigour and alertness. There, extreme tension built up in the orchestra, instruments and voices traversing the music in stark staccato, and disciplined formation. Everything seems to be going on at the same time in different directions, voices interjecting, solo instruments leaping into prominence, the choir at full blast. Yet it’s all clearly defined and distinct. To stretch the maritime metaphor a little further: a conductor is like the captain of a ship and there are many reasons why precision gets results. Conductors, like captains, don’t waffle aimlessly and confuse their players, but lead their crew purposefully into action.
One of Harding’s particular strengths is his ability to focus on the fundamental direction of whatever music he conducts. Thus he understands the Battle in the wider context of the opera: jus as the men are about to board the French ship, mist descends and the French escape. The excitement builds to fever pitch but descends into anti-climax. Nothing is resolved. It’s another parallel to Captain Vere’s dilemma, when he pulls back from saving Billy even though he knows in his heart that he could /should do so, if only he dared.

Britten's writing for Vere is the most complex in the whole opera, for he is its true centre.
The men call don't call him "Starry Vere", for nothing, and the "God Bless you, Starry Vere" chorus is beautifully transcendant. Like Billy, his natural habitat is way, way above the decks and hold where Claggart and his brutish bullies reign. Britten has him spouting about Scylla and Charybdis, for he's educated, an intellectual, someone who thinks and makes moral judgements. In contrast, the other characters, even Billy, merely act and react without much mental process. Captain Vere represents the finer part of mankind, capable of seeing beyond and above the immediate. Ian Bostridge is a perfect Vere, tortured and intense, utterly aware of the portent of what he must do. Even in old age, he can't find resolution until he realizes that each man is ultimately master of his own fate, and Billy's choice, so beautifully expressed in the song Through the port comes moonshine astray, was a vision Billy could live by and die with, whatever Vere might have done. Nathan Gunn's Billy at first bothered me because his voice is so light : yet why not ? Billy is a symbol, an ideal, and is a counterpart to Vere on a less sophisticated level. This performance showed how he, too, is 0ne of Britten's innocents, doomed because purity itself is doomed by fate itself, rather than by the actions of others, That's why Vere gets deliverance. Billy Budd deserves its place in the pantheon of Britten's most profound work.GET THIS RECORDING !

Thursday, 25 September 2008

SPECTACULAR shots of London by Night

From the US I just received some of the most SPECTACULAR series of photos of London, taken from the air at night. Look below at the link We are so lucky, we take things for granted,but look at these photos in awe ! Pity winter is drawing in, and it's dark early. Those of us who commute only see the grime and dirt. This is a reminder !

In summer, it's like magic when sunset lasts til 10pm. On the South Bank, on the river, you can watch the sky gradually transform. The glass canyons of the city lit up as if ablaze, reflecting each other. You can still see the skyline Monet saw 150 years ago - Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, St Paul's. And sometimes the river tides are out, and the banks are exposed. If you scavenge you can still find artefacts of London long ago - clay pipes from the 18th century, shards of Victorian bottles etc. Yesterdays rubbish, but somehow romantic. Here's the link, it really is fantastic !

More on the Gherkin and London at a wonderful totally original site ! See links.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Kings Place, King's Cross

Kings Place, King's Cross - remember where the apostrophes go, because we'll be seeing a lot of that phrase. This is the biggest new arts venture in London since the Barbican opened in 1982. Think how that changed things - think what Kings Place might do. Kings Place is an imaginative answer to the perennial problem of what to do about art forms that are too important to neglect yet don't attract mass audiences. Simple ! Build flexible performance spaces that lend themselves to intimate, human-scale events ! Hall One seats 450, a few less than the Wigmore Hall, while Hall Two seats around 200. So at last, purpose-built spaces for chamber music, art song, new music, early music, baroque. There's also a huge emphasis on jazz, world music etc but I don't know enough about that to comment. (I'll never get important, then !) Hall One is completely lined with wood from ONE ancient German oak. In mythology oak spirits bring good fortune, so let's hope ! The acoustic is supposed to be good and very warm, ideal.

Please look at these two links. The first is a wonderful video about the building and its setting, surrounded by canals and currently urban decay (but soon will be ultra trendy).

The second link is to a preview on OMH Music about the opening celebration "Five Days, One Hundred Concerts!" Yes, 100 concerts, many free. Everything from Ligeti's 100 metronome installation to baroque ensembles, to South Indian music to "the English Ry Cooder".

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Rise and Fall of Mahagonny Brecht Weill

The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny opened the Ediburgh Festival this year, conducted by my hero, the inimitable HK Gruber. It's being broadcast by BBC Radio 3, so log on and listen.

Weill’s contribution to the Brecht/Weill partnership is often underestimated, and Weill is more inventive musically than he’s often given credit for. Here are witty set pieces, mock-ups of operatic aria, fake hymns, quasi-pompous marches and bar-room piano rolls, complete with swooping glissandi. Deliberately off-key, of course. Weill uses catchy tunes, so people hum along, hardly realizing they are singing something subversive. And thus Mahagonny insinuates itself into dance band music and pop song, so when people do hear the full Mahagonny, it's eerily familiar. Sentimental tunes for a decidedly unsentimental opera !

HK Gruber is perhaps the perfect conductor ! All his life he's specialized in uproariously manic satire and in the agitprop of the 1930's in particular. If you listen to nothing else of his, grab his recording
Roaring Eisler or the recent release of his own FRANKENSTEIN!!!! which I might write about later as there is nothing in this world quite like it. And Gruber is the great grandson of the guy who wrote Silent Night, Holy Night. He really understands the malevolence of Brecht and Weill. He gets punchy playing from the Royal Scottish Orchestra who probably still don't know what hit them ! But perhaps a less staid orchestra might have raised more sparks. Vocally, too, most of this was a bit polite.

Get the DVD of the LA Opera production for more distinctive singing and superlative acting by Patti LuPone and Audra Macdonald. Mahagonny and Los Angeles have a lot in common, which is uncomfortable and this could have been disturbing but what do you expect ? I can imagine the ghosts of Brecht and Weill snorting sardonically at the LA crowd spending big bucks on an anti-capitalist tirade. "There's nothing but today!" sings Jimmy as he's about to die. It's the good guys in Benares who get wiped while Mahagonny is saved, at least until it self-destructs.

Please see the other posts on Brecht, Weill, Eisler and Ernst Busch - click lables. This is my fach, and Busch my hero.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Jacqueline du Pré on TV Friday !

This time, next Friday evening, on BBC4, Jackie Du Pré will light up our screens again. Jacqueline du Pré in Portrait opens a season of Films by Christopher Nupen, which starts on 26th September. A great reason for staying in Friday evenings !

The Jackie du Pré film was revolutionary. Up til then, filmed music was a stiff, formal affair. Then, suddenly, along comes this vivacious young woman who plays pizzicato on a train, humming a tune cheerfully. The starched suits hated it, but thousands of people came to classical music after seeing how exhilarating music can be. Jackie's enthusiasm and generous spirit adds a whole new dimension to the experience of music making, and to listening. Film captures, like no other medium, the "whole personality". Jackie is immortal through these films. She continues to move, inspire and illuminate.

Because the Nupen films are being shown together as a group, it deepens their impact. All theses films deal with the idea of performer as creative and human. What makes a person become an artist ? How do they develop their unique gift ? What goes into a performance ? With each film, different aspects emerge. The films on Nathan Milstein (to be shown 31 Oct and 7 Nov) are exceptional. Milstein was a virtuoso who eschewed popular success and didn't want to be filmed. Nupen teased him. " I have a film of Paganini." "What !" says Milstein. Then he, too, realized how film could preserve aspects of performance mere audio can never fully capture.

Make a special effort to watch the Jacqueline du Pré film if you possibly can as it's a classic and a masterpiece. But if you do miss it, get the DVD. But most of all, tell other people, especially those who they think they don't like classical music. It could change their lives.
For details of the TV series, and info on the films.
Photo of Jackie's big, whole hearted laugh courtesy of Allegro Films.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Proms postmortem

The Proms are alive and well, but post
mortem is a better term than "de-
briefing" or whatever the buzz word may be. This has been an excellent season, much better than expected. Hooray for Roger Wright – if the next ten years are like this the ghosts of the past will be well buried. No institution survives without growth. The key to growth in classical music, and in the Proms, isn't broadening out and dumbing down, I think, but raising the bar. Listeners who genuinely like music are open-minded enough to listen intelligently. People do continue listening before and after a Prom and gradually expand what they know. Hence total immersion in Messiaen and RVW might have been a lot to take in, but for some it was a good and thorough introduction to be followed up in more detail later. Though the message of St Francis of Assisi to "be humble, listen !" will never work for some ! Hence things like Bach Day and Stockhausen Day worked so well because they assumed a certain degree of dedication from audiences.

What are Proms audiences ? They are amazingly diverse. The point I think is to target sub-groups rather than aim for bland one size fits all. Last year the Michael Ball Prom drew masses of new listeners but they went to other concerts expecting more of the same, and of course they were disappointed as they thought they knew everything. Same with the Gergiev Mahler series at the Barbican, many who went to those came away thinking that's how Mahler "must"be like. So seats may sell, but in the long term will they benefit real musical appreciation ? I don't care if it's elitist, but music isn't a spectator sport to me, it involves something more than passive thrills. Think back to Sir Henry Wood and all those high-minded Victorians (Like Prince Albert) who believed that to be fully human one had to be civilized, and that learning and culture were part of the process. They might have hated Stockhausen but they would probably know why the BBC featured his work so prominently. Instead we seem to live now in times where a blind troll mentality prevails . Kulcha! not culture. Down with what takes thought.

And where are Proms audiences? Lots of people hated the Lang Lang concert, some because they don't like his music, some because he is successful, famous and Chinese. Yes, racism does exist, even if it's covert. So he had a small boy play with him. Again, the critics couldn't understand. But somewhere, in outer Mongolia, or in deepest Manchuria, maybe there's some small kid watching the Proms on TV and thinking "I could do that!" Or even, "I love that music !". In London we can hear any big name pianist any time, but for people way out in the middle of nowhere Lang Lang represents an elusive dream. Of course not all the kids in China will become virtuosi, but they will grow up knowing things like classical music exist and that they are cool, acceptable activities no one will sneer at you for pursuing. In 30 years' time that's where the really astute audiences will be. Thank goodness that there are countries where kids look up to people playing Chopin rather than to drunken footballers abusing women.

The Proms do have the capacity to change the way we listen. Belohlavek's and Boulez's Janacek, for example ! And the idea that we have the stamina to take long concerts with extras after. I also appreciated the Prom's refusal to cave in to insularity – some people may have objected to hearing L'Histoire du Soldat in French but that's their problem, not ours.

New music has always been a Proms tradition, and this season we may/may not have had more, but it was much better presented, backed up often by talks etc, some of which were good, others less so, but at least they were there to help. Some premieres were of course better than others - my favourites Pintscher, Lindberg, Carter, Harvey and even Holt. Things may take time to percolate but they need to be heard in the first place. The point is that really important stuff, like Carter and Boulez, can reward high profile given the chance. And this year new music was taken seriously, backed by talks etc. rather than feared. Henry Wood and co. always supported new music - without them, Elgar, and many others, might not be as prominent as they are today. What the BBC does year round for music in this country is remarkable : it is an industry in itself, supporting composers, musicians, music schools, students and all those involved in music as a living art form.

To my main disappointment: It is important to include popular as well as good quality, but I wonder if we're going too far with Dudamel. His first concert with a grown-up orchestra was awful. I thought at first he was moderating his style to counter criticism but anyone who can make Symphonie fantastique that dull has a problem. I missed the encore, nationalism and flag waving, which was just as well, since that's exactly why I have problems with him . All style, no substance. He's the Sarah Palin of classical music. It's not his inexperience that's worrying but the sort of mob mentality that's propelled him to the top. For years he raised no waves, then suddenly everyone was caught up in a tsunami of euphoria connected in no small way to the emotive connotation of El Sistema and his youth orchestra. In front of a grown-up band, he's nothing. The "Dudamel effect" was created by youtube, downloads and gossip on the internet, not through actual, systematic listening. Often people who don't even know the music "know"! his is the only way to play it. The fervour is like that in a Party Rally – dissent and doubt not permitted. Forget the issues ! Feel the fever ! This in the long term is far scarier than just his conducting. But he'll do well and will establish himself in LA as the new Messiah. At least that's "just" music not international politics.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Mahler 1 Eschenbach Prom 74

Mahler's First Symphony - Eschenbach and Orchestre de Paris, Prom 74

Two days before, Bernard Haitink’s Mahler 6th with the Chicago Symphony had drawn a capacity crowd. In contrast, this Prom was woefully under-attended. Yet it was by far the superior performance, appealing not to celebrity followers but to those interested in the music.

Mahler’s 1st Symphony may be familiar but it reveals a great deal about how well a conductor really understands the composer. Eschenbach hears the symphony in the context of Mahler’s entire output, from the very early songs through to the later symphonies. This is perceptive, for some have even suggested that the composer's whole oeuvre is one huge symphony in different stages. This performance thus presumes more engagement from listeners than does the current fashion for loud and bombastic. But a conductor with integrity goes for insight, not short-term popularity. This performance was rewarding because it shed light on where Mahler was coming from and where he was heading.

The songs of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen weave through the symphony for a reason, not merely as decoration. While there’s no need to remember the words exactly, it’s important to remember their spirit – youth, nature, disappointment and ultimately resolution – themes that recur repeatedly throughout Mahler’s work. It's significant that Mahler specified that the trumpets in the introduction should be from a distance. The songs and marches in this symphony aren’t happening in realtime but are filtered through memory, heard from afar, carrying connotations that go beyond literal representation. Thus Eschenbach doesn’t do the marches with brass band brutality. These aren’t “military” marches but memories of marches Mahler heard in childhood, symbolizing many things, like innocence, nostalgia, loss. Hence the Bruder Martin melody. Eschenbach eschews the temptation to play them up for garish impact but makes a more subtle connection to the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Thus the menacing storm of the final movement isn’t just an episode, but a kind of psychological working through, as being a teenager prepares a person for adulthood. Mahler’s protagonist is moving on, heading out into the world.

Of all Mahler’s symphonies, the First is perhaps the only one that can survive an arrogant, noisy interpretation, because adolescence involves being full of oneself ! But Eschenbach showed clearly how the symphony is far from one-dimensional.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Second to Last Night of the Proms - Hiroshima and Beethoven

The Last Night of the Proms is notorious because it’s an excuse for jingoistic excess. Wear a silly hat, wave a flag and maybe the cameras will spot you. Then Mom will see you on TV 10,000 miles away. The Second-to-Last Night, though, is the “real” Last Night for music lovers and it’s traditionally observed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Justly so, for there is no music more symbolic of the Proms ethos than this wonderful symphony. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder !” All men shall be brothers. No wonder it’s the theme song of the European Union. In these troubled times, Schiller’s message is even more relevant. Since this Prom is broadcast worldwide and available online, it will reach wherever technology permits – a universal experience that crosses boundaries, bringing people together for a moment of coimmunal celebration.

A pity then that the performance was so lacklustre. If ever there was an opportunity to let a performance rip open with exhilaration this would have been it ! The City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus are so well versed they managed to create a frisson, but the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, under their chief conductor Gianandrea Noseda, were rather laboured and sedate. The pressure of being so high profile must be intimidating, but this music is so vivid that it hardly matters whether it’s note perfect, as long as it conveys the sense of joyous enthusiasm. One of the most interesting performances I’ve heard was by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, some of whom are as young as ten years old. Technically they weren’t brilliant, but they understood the radical message of Schiller’s text and why Beethoven set it with such affirmation.

The baritone, Iain Paterson, was impressive, which was good, for his part dominates the other soloists despite the aesthetic that shapes the ensemble. His voice filled the stadium-like acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with ease. Still, the Choral Symphony never fails to pack a punch and the atmosphere was so charged with a sense of occasion that when the capacity audience of 7500 people roared approval, it was quite an experience.

Wagner’s Prelude from Parsifal can create an aura, like dawn, before a large programme, but here it was too studied to create any sense of anticipation. This might be fatal in an opera performance, but at this Prom, it was followed by two relative rarities, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, segued without a break into Beethoven’s Elegischer Gesang. Yet again, it was the music that made an impact, rather than the way it was realised. Noseda’s right and left hands rarely diverge, favouring slow, imprecise gestures that emphasise the stretch of lines rather than the structure. This worked rather well with the Penderecki piece with its prolonged low humming and circular “wind” themes, sounds that are eerie because they are mechanical and unrelenting. If the horror in the piece was lost, merging it with Beethoven’s lament “Sanft wie du lebtest hast du vollendet.” gave a rationale to the muted treatment. But surely no-one can possibly suggest that being blown up at Hiroshima was “a gentle ending” ?

The picture above looks innocent doesn't it ? But it's the image of someone who had been standing against a wall at the moment of impact in Nagasaki. He was pulverised into nothing but the blast burned his outline onto the concrete. The photo was taken by Yosuke Yamahata, a photographer who was actually there in the aftermath, the fires still burning. The photos we usually see are "official" released by the Occupation Forces. Yamahata shows the real thing, as it happened. Years later he died of cancer caused by radiation poisoning.

Now you see why I can't stand The Last Night of The Proms.

Exclusive Furtwängler discovery ! Beethoven 9

Genuine spooky Twilight Zone mystery! One day, while working in the UK's Public Record Office archives (now known as the National Archives) on a completely different subject, I keyed in the wrong file number on the computer. That's not easy as each subject has different codes, so this was really bizarre. If you believe in ghosts...... When the file appeared it was a file on Wilhelm Furtwängler!!! Dating from 1946, original documents, some never used in publication. Among the denazification papers and other official bits were hand written testimonies from ordinary people who had attended his concerts in the dark days of the war. "Never shall I forget", wrote one man, "When the conductor entered, the audience stood up as if they were one man....I had the definite impression that the audience felt itself at one with the man who had managed to resist the usual pressure coming from above, and express their gratitude that all was not lost." These audiences were not Party followers but "ordinary people for whom concerts were "Der Besucher zu einer Feierstünde" (untranslatable) that provided them an opportunity to lift themselves above the emptiness the Nazis had caused. Our wings were clipped. Yet music contains so much that cannot be contained or falsified. I can hardly believe that a Beethoven or a Mozart or a Haydn would have upheld party ideology".... At that time, he adds "A Furtwängler concert meant as much to me as a church service"
There is a famous film of Furtwängler conducting during the war. Of course it's propaganda - the actors in the audience had to look happy or they'd end up in some KZ. But real, cultured Germans knew their Schiller and Beethoven. They hardly needed reminding of Schiller's Enlightenment values, or Beethoven's opposition to Napoleon. "ALLE MENSCHEN WERDEN BRŰDER !" Loud and clear !!!! That was lost on most of the Party Hacks in the film, but not on Goebbels, who was educated enough to know. So even in the moment of his "triumph" over the conductor, he must have realized, deep down, that Furtwängler was having the last word.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Hérodiade Fragmente - Matthias Pintscher Prom

Matthias Pintscher was born only in 1971 but his music has already made waves. Boulez conducted his Osiris this May in London and Boulez  doesn't conduct things that aren't worth doing. Hérodiade Fragmente was premiered by Abbado in Berlin in 1999 with Christine Schafer : not minor league ! Of all the "new" music in this year's Prom season this was easily the most intriguing - listen to the re-broadcast.

The text is to Mallarmé's epic poem, a fin de siècle drama of sexual repression and undefinable longings. "J'attends un chose inconnue" sings the soprano. Pintscher leaves the line unadorned, the voice alone and unsupported. It's the still, silent heart of the piece. Read the whole poem to get the full context. Hérodiade is a girl surrounded by sensual excess, which fascinates and repels her. Pintscher focuses solely on her dialogue with the mirror, intensifying the surreal mood. The vocal line is sensual, lovely sighing vowels, but emotions are cut off in sudden cries, their import too much for the girl to handle. But the mirror doesn't shirk. Pintscher's orchestral writing is superb. The mirror takes on a powerful life of its own, commenting and reflecting what words can't express. The strings shimmer, dense and opaque, a smooth hard surface that reflects without relenting. It seems still, and calm. But then the music shatters into jagged, angular staccato. Glass is fragile, it can break into lethal shards. Pintscher also writes eerie circular figures, like the sounds of wet fingers rubbing on glass. It's spooky yet childlike, reminding us how young the girl is. Eschenbach gets wonderfully subdued playing from the Orchestre de Paris - long, barely audible humming, even from the brass, which is quite a feat. This captures the suppressed emotion in the poem, feelings so painful they can only be whispered at. It's beautiful, yet sinister. As the girl's "froides pierreries" drop away in "les sanglots supremes et meurtris", the music explodes in wounded sobs, the percussion ringing bells that could either be celebration or calls of alarm.

Mallarmé knew he was entering dangerous new territory with this poem. He needed symbols that were oblique, to "paint , not the thing itself but the effect it produces". So Pintscher's music profoundly reflects the spirit of the poem - like a mirror, quiet but unflinching.

Review of Mahler 1 will follow shortly, watch this space.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Pierre Audi's Amsterdam St Francis

Metzmacher's Messiaen St Francis came straight from Amsterdam, in an acclaimed production by Pierre Audi. Last year at the Holland Festival, Audi and Patrice Chéreau were talking about how to stage opera intelligently, so it grows from of understanding the music and the way drama evolves from it. Artistic works seem to take on lives of their own : the better they are the more levels to be found. There is no such thing as simply following the notes. Even when you read a score, you're "interpreting" how the notes affect each other, where the music is heading. So good opera staging is not so different from good musicianship. Both are means of bringing out insights into what things mean and how they work.

Messiaen, being a highly visual person, gave detailed descriptions of h0w he "saw" St. Francis. Part of his inspiration came from the frescoes of Giotto. Notice how Giotto's painting are simple and direct, yet totally unnaturalistic. No perspective, flat planes, images flowing impossibly in space. But then the "story" with its Angel, stigmata and ascension isn't literal.

In Amsterdam, what Pierre Audi did was immerse himself in the music and how it works. So no fancy strobe lights and projections (as Messiaen wanted) but an almost empty stage with only some black wooden crosses, jumbled in a thicket : representing the thicket of confused emotions. One monk sings J'ai peur, J'ai peur, a theme that recurs throughout. As God tells Francis, committment is hard work. (Another reason why the opera is so long - it's a journey, like a pilgrimage, not to be rushed. This is not music for quick-fix ! The black thicket of crosses also represents the life of the monks, simple, harsh and spartan. This also reflects the way the vocal parts are written in relation to the orchestral. The monk's lines are regular up and down cadences, like chanting, and never far from conversational tone. Monks don't do flamboyant : arias would be all wrong. Like the black crosses, their simplicity stands out against the mind bending panorama of colour that's in the music.

That's why Audi has the orchestra seated in on the stage occupying nearly all the space. Because
this is orchestral music of breathtaking beauty, in which voices play a part, not the other way round. At the back, the choir stands on stage, also fully visible. Messiaen wanted them hidden, but how do you hide 200 people ? In any case having them on stage adds to the overwhelming impact because they and the orchestra dwarf the singers. It also means that the Angel can materialise out of the choir, from high above the platform.

Messiaen also wanted the climatic section in which God appears to Francis, and the choir sings C'est moi ! C'est moi ! (same them as J'ai peur, they connect).to be staged with a huge cross rotating in different directions to blitz the audience. But listen to the music and it's all there anyway, multi-layered and multi-tempi'd, sounds flying off in different directions, seeking out the darkest corners opf the performance space. It's mind bendingly wonderful musical writing, so Audi didn't cover it. With 120 musicians on stage there's also plenty of shiny brass for lights to pick out.

Messiaen specifies that the Leper is covered in black and yellow pustules. So Audi shrouds him in a casing of Police Do Not Cross tape - he's dangerous, and everyone's scared to go near, including Francis. Perfectly symbolic, and it breaks open instantly, the moment he's cured, so he's instantly pure and clean - not easy to do with normal costumes.

Then the sermon to the birds. How do you get hundreds of birds into an opera house ? As Audi says, what do the birds represent ? Birds, said Messiaen, are fragile but they outlived the dinosaurs. Observe their ways and their songs, says St Francis, they don't communicate through words. So Audi uses colourfully dressed children who dart about/listen - visually lively and refreshing. A more minimalist setting might have worked too, but audiences do need a spritzer of colour that isn't only in the music. In fact the musical writing in this scene is so overwhelmingly gorgeous it is almost too much to take in neat.

Audi proves that opera staging doesn't have to be hidebound : it doesn't matter "what" a director does, as long as it's astute musically and dramatically. His Ring cycle for Amsterdam was astounding. Get the DVDs, especially if yoiu think you "know" The Ring. Siegfried is particularly good. The Holland Festival is brilliant - lots of different things, generally very high quality. What a buzz it must be to be part of it !

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Messiaen St Francis Assisi Prom 70

The first two full reviews of St Francis of Assisi, Messiaen's masterpiece, Prom 70. Mark's is on boulezian, see link on right and mine is here

St Francis of Assisi is radically different from conventional opera, but that’s exactly why it’s exciting. This performance was so good that its 5 hours flew past in a blaze.

Metzmacher conducted this cast and choir in Amsterdam in June. In the staged production, by Pierre Audi, the orchestra was fully visible. The set was minimal, just a tangle of black crosses. This illustrates how the opera “works”. It’s orchestral music with voices, rather than the other way round. The monks sing in regular cadences, like chants, rarely far from conversational mode. Their lives are spartan, but around them, the orchestra creates glorious panoramas of light and colour. Like the monks, we can’t see Heaven, but can hear it in the music, and it’s all around, infusing the opera with exuberant spirit. Even by Messiaen’s standards, the orchestration is inventive, with unusual instruments and techniques, so the sounds are elusive, making you listen more acutely, which is, perhaps the message of the whole piece. There are three ondes Martenot, using the natural oscillation of sound waves to create music out of “empty” space. The Angel, too, materialises out of thin air. “Tu parles à Dieu en musique”, it sings, you speak with god through music. ”Entends la musique de l’invisible”. The orchestra played the Angel’s Viol music with such gossamer delicacy that it seemed to float, in an unworldly plane. Concepts too difficult to grasp rationally can be expressed obliquely through music. That’s why Francis tells the monks to study birds. They speak without words.

God himself speaks through the massed choir, in the mystical scene where Francis receives the stigmata. It’s a magnificent, multi-layered piece that’s very difficult to carry off, as Messiaen wanted to create the effect of light and sound flying forth in different directions and at different speeds, but Metzmacher achieved it, combining precise discipline with ecstatic, exuberant timbre. Moments like this show how much Stockhausen earned from Messiaen in terms of celestial vision, and the idea of sound moving through space.

Heidi Grant Murphy was the shimmering voiced Angel, and Rodney Gilfry sang St Francis. He sings for about 3 hours, and over a wide range, hovering like an interface between the monks’s cadences and the ecstasy in the orchestra. It’s heroic. This will be one of the high points of his career. Hubert Delamboye’s Leper was sung with vivid dissonance, suddenly soothed when Francis cures him with a kiss. The 200 strong choir were very well-prepared, singing extremely complex parts with perfect precision. Full honours, though, to Metzmacher and the Hague Philharmonic for vibrant playing that brought out the translucent glories in this highly original music.

There weren't many people at this Prom but those who were there were dedicated, Several curtain calls, as if going home might break the spell

Monday, 8 September 2008

Julian Anderson Book of Hours

All this ornate, richly coloured music we've been listening to lately reminded me of Julian Anderson's Book of Hours. It’s inspired by the Trés riches heures du Duc de Berry, illuminated painstakingly by hand and gilded with real gold. That rather describes Anderson’s technique, too. Not one slipped note, everything intensely coloured, and enhanced by electronic effects applied at first like fine gold leaf over rich painting. The first part is an intricate tracery built around four basic notes. Its exotic textures are interrupted two-thirds of the way through by a strange electronic interlude. It’s not pre recorded but live. Then a Luftpause to create distance from what has gone before, the second part opens with deliberate distortion – people who listen to "surface sound" will get a shock! It’s based on a scratched LP, a reminder perhaps that recorded music is artificial and ephemeral. Then the distortion clears and the music reveals itself again, reborn. Towards the end there’s an apocalyptic electronic cadenza, which fits in with basic ideas in medieval cosmology, such as "the world overturn’d". In other words, fate, sudden upheaval, etc, ideas which are strikingly modern. Of course you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the music, but Anderson is far too literate a composer not to be aware of this extra dimension. It adds a deeper resonance, linking the Book of Hours to, say, Adès’ America. That's why i've added the pic of the Tower of Babel, which as we know collapsed. For all the beauty of medieval manuscripts, the world of the Middle Ages was a savage place, ripped apart by war and pestilence. Mayhem was never far from the surface and death lurked in every corner. Not pretty. Anderson's music has this sharp, ironic edge which gives it power.

Here's  the big review which like a medieval box, opens up yet another link to another Julian Anderson recording, Alhambra Fantasy inspired by Islamic mosaics. Tiny jewel-like fragments, glowing together.Amazon has them HERE and HERE.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Stravinsky Jurowski Firebird Prom 68

Stravinsky’s The Firebird, written a mere 4 years after Kashchey The Immortal, inhabits an altogether different plane. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s music embellishes the vocal line, Stravinsky’s floats free. It “is” the drama. The ballet evolves from the music rather than the other way round. Music for dance has to respect certain restraints, so it’s necessarily quite episodic, but Stravinsky integrates the 21 segments so seamlessly that the piece has lived on, immortal, as an orchestral masterpiece. Vladimir Jurowski is still only in his mid 30s but has established a reputation for intelligence and sensitivity. Watching him conduct this piece was instructive : he moves with the grace of someone who understands how this music connects to dance. His gestures were understated, yet elegant, his left hand fluttering to restrain the sweep of the strings and keep the tone transparent. This pinpointed how Stravinky wrote cues for physical movement into the music itself. Circular woodwind figures translate into pirouettes, flurries of pizzicato into rapid en pointe. Dancers must hear levels in this music closed to the rest of us, but Jurowski’s intuitive approach helps us appreciate its depths.

The Firebird is a magical figure which materializes out of the air, leading the Prince to Kashchey’s secret garden. Unlike the ogre, the Prince is kind and sets the bird free. He’s rewarded with a magic feather. This time the Princess and other captives are liberated by altruistic love. It’s purer and more esoteric, and Stravinsky’s music is altogether more abstract, imaginative and inventive. Jurowski gets great refinement from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he’s forged a very close relationship in only a year of being their Principal Conductor. The solo part for horn, for example, plays a role in the music like that of a solo dancer. Textures around it need to be clean as they were here, so its beauty is revealed with poignant dignity. The rest of the orchestra plays barely above the point of audibility, until the flute enters carrying the horn’s melody. Later there’s more magic, when the double basses and cellos are plucked quietly, building up towards the crescendos which sound for all the world like the joyous tolling of great bells. In the finale, trombones and trumpets hail the moment of liberation. The trumpeters stand upright, so their music soars above the orchestra, projected into the auditorium with superb, dramatic effect.

The picture above is Léon Bakst's design for the Firebird in Fokine's production of the ballet in 1910. Please see the full review at

Kashchey the Immortal - Prom 68

Kashchey is a gnarled old ogre who imprisons a beautiful young princess in his gloomy underworld. It’s classic psychodrama. Kashchey has supernatural powers, so how can the Princess be saved ? This Prom paired Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey The Immortal with Stravinsky’s The Firebird, contrasting two resolutions to the fairy tale that’s captured Russian imaginations for centuries.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s short opera focuses on multiple relationships. Kashchey is immortal, but he has a daughter, Kashcheyevna, who holds the secret to his death. She’s just as cold and conniving as he is but she falls in love with the Prince. The Storm Knight brings all four of them together, and the Princess’s love triumphs. Kashcheyevna weeps, and her tears break the spell that makes Kashchey invincible. Love conquers all, yet again. It’s simple but affords opportunities for lushly Romantic musical effects. Music as pictorial as this illustrates so well that meaning can be visualized even if you don’t speak Russian. Kashchey’s music is shrilly angular, evoking his harsh personality as well as the traditional way he’s portrayed, as a skeleton, the symbol of death who cannot actually die. The Storm Knight is defined by the wild ostinatos that accompany him, even though he’s more of a plot device than a character. Some of the most inventive music, though, surrounds Kashcheyvna. When she sings, there are echoes of Kundry, or even Brünnhilde. Harps and woodwinds seem to caress her voice, so when her iciness melts, we sympathize. While the other roles verge on stereotypes, this role is more complex, and Manistina impressed.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Rattle Wagner Messiaen Turangalila Prom 64

Log onto boulezian. blogspot thru the link at right. It's Mark's review of Prom 64, Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Wagner and Messiaen. It's one of the best pieces of music writing I've come across in ages. This is what music writing should be! This performance was wonderful - get out your tape machines for posterity's sake.

Because Turangâlìla is such a panorama, taking in Hollywood, Hindus and Peruvians, Wagner and Gurrelieder, it’s easy to assume it’s all surface Technicolor. At its première a critic heard only “a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, a dance for Hindu hillbillies”. At this Prom, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic proved conclusively how inventive it really is.

Rattle paired the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde with the Liebestod. Often that’s a risk as it can leave you longing for the singing, but Rattle had thought the two parts through in orchestral terms. He makes a case for hearing the opera as "music", on its own terms. Here, the surging waves of sound "are" the message, not background. He shows how fundamental the flute part is, weaving throughout, commenting without words. The transition was particularly well blended, one part fading gradually into the next, like a fade in film gradually coming back into full color focus. It is cinematic – how Wagner might have loved the movies !

Wagner is an appropriate curtain raiser for Messiaen's Turangâlìla. As a young boy, Messiaen studied Pelléas et Mélisande, and also inherited the long-standing French fascination for the exotic and "oriental" – think Pierre Loti, Ravel, Maurice Delage and the Impressionists studying Japanese painting. Wagner was by no means the dominant influence on Messiaen, but his oceans swells and undercurrents live on in Turângalìla, as Rattle so clearly demonstrated, stretching the string lines with soaring, surging magnificence. Messiaen's "trajectory", to use a favorite Boulez expression, comes not from conventional symphonic development but from thematic ideas, so this oceanic surge is important.

For the first time, I really understood the sixth section, Le Jardin du sommeil d'amour. It's slow, almost a relief after the hectic, inventive fifth section, and has its longueurs. But maybe that's what Messiaen was getting at. The lovers are together when they're asleep, in dreams, when the moon pulls the tides that create the waves in the ocean. It's not as spectacular as the glorious Joie du Sang des étoiles, but as with so much Messiaen. he's at his most profound when he’s quiet.

The Tristan und Isolde concept had even more personal meaning for Messiaen. He had fallen in love with Yvonne Loriod, but he was married, and, as devout Catholics, they could not marry until released by his wife’s death. He "was" Tristan and she Isolde, and Turângalìla is their mystical union. Hence the significance of the “paganism” in Turângalìla. Messiaen was fascinated by non-western music, adopting ideas such as the Indian deçi-tâla rhythms which feature in this piece. Anyone who’s seen Hindu erotic sculptures can appreciate the concept of sex as a form of spiritual enhancement, that breaks past the restraint of western moral convention. So Turângalìla isn’t meant to be polite “Good Taste”. Those sassy brass passages and almost Gershwin-like punchiness are essential keys to the spirit of the work. The famous "statue" theme on brass and clarinet "Flower" themes are "male" and "female". No wonder Rattle placed such emphasis on how they intertwine, flirting with each other, so to speak. Pierre-Laurent Aimard's piano and Tristan Murail's ondes Martenot form a second pair of relationships within the whole, connecting to percussion and winds, picked up by harp and strings. Aimard's long solo passages are the unspoken "heart", rather like the flute in Tristan und Isolde.

The Berlin Philharmonic played with extraordinarily beautiful, transparent textures – how the brass fanfares shone ! This orchestra can be relied upon for superlative orchestral colour, so what was even more impressive was how the Berliners took to Messiaen, whose music is so very different to their mainstream core repertoire. Somehow Rattle inspired them so they played with free-spirited exuberance, capturing the exhilarating intoxication so crucial to this composer’s idiom. The “bad taste” of Turângalìla may shock, but it’s the exaltation of spirit that connects mortals to the divine.

Turângalìla was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and premiered by his protégé Leonard Bernstein who hated the piece and refused ever to conduct it again. Perhaps it’s fortunate as he probably didn’t understand its internal architecture. Nagano and Salonen have a firm grasp of the energetic muscularity that animates the piece, but Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic exceeded all expectations, marrying technical perfection to electrifying verve. This performance truly expressed how original and radical Messiaen really can be.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Ondes Martenot - why bad taste is OK

Everyone knows the Ondes Martenot from Bela Lugosi movies. One of the reasons Messiaen's Turangalila puts people off is the Hollywood connotations. The instrument is bizarre, but it's unique in that it uses sound waves and oscillations : an instrument that could not have been conceived before modern technology. Sound out of "empty" space ! No wonder it excited Varèse, Jolivet, Milhaud and even Maurice Ravel who went to Ondes Martenot concerts. It symbolised all that was modern, opening new possibilties.

This was an instrument made in heaven for Messiaen. It expresses his other worldly visions, exotic, and elusive. Yet it's not dreamy. Played well, it's assertive. There's a perfume called Parfum de Therese which is sensual but has a kick of pepper. Like perfume, the Ondes Martenot floats in the air, ever changing, making us actively "follow the scent". Turangalila may sound dated if we think of it solely in terms of Hollywood. Yet in 1946, Hollywood did symbolize exotic, optimistic dreams - especially after the privations of war in Europe. But "Bad taste" is a western, middle class constraint. Lose hangups, says Messiaen, and be liberated. Enjoy without guilt or being judgemental, God is in all things, however odd.

Make a point of listening to the broadcast of Prom 64 Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmoniker. Amazing, the best Prom so far and probably Concert of The Year. And I know Messiaen pretty well. This convinced me at last about the Ondes Martenot. Tristan Murail played the part on Rattle's ancient recording but this was completely on another plane. What's good about the broadcast too, is that there's a talk on the instrument by another famous player, Thomas Bloch. The instrument is live, well and thriving ! He mentions Fred Frith , my hero, one of the best improvised music guys around.

There's a lot on Youtube about the Ondes Martenot, including a very long demonstration of playing technique. But also search on Turangalila desarollo. It's an animation using paintings of the 1920's and it's genuinely creative and original.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Metzmacher on Messiaen St Francis

"Music is the perfect language for expressing ideas which can't be easily grasped", says Ingo Metzmacher. Metzmacher's whole career has focussed on how music, however new and unusual, expresses thought and feeling. His credentials are impeccable. Two years ago I met him at a reception. Everyone was fussing around Matthias Goerne, who was the star. Metzmacher was alone in a corner, unnoticed. "But you are a huge star, too" I asked. "That's OK", he replied, "It is the music that matters"

He conducted Messiaen's St Francis of Assisi in Amsterdam this year to great acclaim so Prom 70 will be special. It's six hours of mind blowingly glorious music (with intervals). But this isn't so much an opera in the usual sense."Yet that's the wonderful thing", says Metzmacher. "Messiaen is taking his time to explore ideas deeply. Nowadays life is so fast, and there's constant change around us. So Messiaen is like a wonderful harbour which gives us space to think." It doesn't really demand superhuman stamina from listeners. "Listen with open ears, open hearts and open minds" he adds. This music moves "like statues", he adds, which might not move themselves, but which move us as we contemplate them. "If you go into the countryside, into nature", he adds, "it's silent, and nothing much seems to happen, but there‘s a lot going on".

Metzmacher explains how St Francis works. Please see