Friday, 27 February 2009

Dr Atomic ENO London (2)

To say that Dr Atomic landed in London with a bang is shocking, but the subject it deals with is meant to be disturbing. Unlike the scientists at Los Alamos, we can't live in denial of the wider implications of their work. This isn't history. It's a universal dilemma, as relevant now as it was in 1945.

On the surface, there’s little overt action. Oppenheimer and his colleagues stand about talking, but therein lies the drama. Remember “Waiting for Godot”. The angst is existential, directed inwards. There is no overt commentary in the libretto, either. Instead, texts are taken from documents and letters of the time, presenting evidence without explicit judgement, for there are no easy answers. The words hang in limbo, like the photograph of the wall in Hiroshima standing amid the rubble, a mute witness to horror.

If the action drags at first, it recreates the suffocating atmosphere at Los Alamos, which is central to the drama. It's hard to express tedium without being tedious, but Adams takes the risk because it contrasts the banality of the scientists musings with the savagery of what they are about to unleash. Someone said (Hannah Arendt?), that evil grows from the mundane. This frustration the scientists feel is supposed to spur us to question. Perhaps it isn't theatre as we're used to but Adams is making an interesting conceptual leap forward.

How do scientists, men of reason, get caught up in barbarity ? Oppenheimer himself was an educated, civilized man who was later persecuted for his political beliefs. The scientists on the Manhattan project didn’t know the full consequences of what they were doing and were in denial. Audiences at Dr Atomic have images of Hiroshima and the Cold War seared into their memories and cannot escape.

The lyrical episodes Adams builds into the opera are essential to the whole meaning of the opera. Oppenheimer quotes Donne, Baudelaire and other poetry. It’s an escape to a more ideal world, but he’s deeply conflicted. The song “Batter my heart” is Ground Zero in this opera, utterly pivotal and beautifully written. Gerald Finley sings it with conviction, and doesn’t flinch from its irony. “Reason….me should defend, but is captived, and proves weak or untrue”. It’s so powerful that it would obliterate anything that followed. We leave the first act stunned, to ponder it in the interval.

Perhaps the secret to this opera is not to expect action from the words, but from the music. Orchestrally, this is surprising rich and beautiful, the choruses in particular well supported. The ENO chorus and orchestra have performed Adams before, most recently Nixon in China but this isn't traditional repertoire, so they deserve credit for achieving such good results. Lawrence Renes conducted the European premiere of the original staging at Der Nederlandse Opera in 2007. Experience shows.

This production, by Penny Woolcock, who directed the Death of Klinghoffer film, makes much of the Teva Pueblo. Just as the scientists do the bidding of politicians, the Pueblo serve the scientists. But they observe, they are the conscience of nature. The production starts with a wall of photographs showing the scientists formally posing, as if for mug shots. Later, they are replaced by Pueblo, standing in the cavities of the wall, as if in a massive canyon. They sing from the Bhagavad-gita, prophesying doom. “Your shape stupendous”, they repeat, to booming percussion, All the worlds are fear struck”.

Special mention should be made of Meredith Arwady’s dark contralto, seething suppressed passion. Pasqualita is a small part, but essential. Kitty is too distressed to mother her baby, but Pasqualita nurtures.

The final scene is overwhelming, as it should be. The orchestra builds up to a harrowing climax, rolling thunder as it the skies were rent asunder. As the cast stare upward, transfixed, the bomb explodes. The whole auditorium is bathed in unearthly yellow light. This is what “awesome” really means – it is magnificent as theatre. But lest we be too impressed, the voice of a Japanese woman cries out for water. All that power, all that knowledge, was to be channelled for destruction.

Superb singing from Gerald Finley who has made Oppenheimer his speciality, and also from Brindley Sherratt who was impressive recently as Pimen in Boris Gudonov. Sasha Cooke characterizes the brittle Kitty well. The whole cast is strong but chorus and orchestra ground the production with firm purpose. The ENO has long had a reputation for choosing innovative and challenging work : this Dr Atomic epitomises what the ENO stands for.

More to come soon, and production pictures, too.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Dr Atomic ENO London (1)

My father had lived in a busy city (not Hiroshima). After the surrender, he returned to find the whole city bombed flat, nothing but rubble, no way to find your bearings except by following the line of hills. This really hit him as the view of the hills had formerly been obscured by what were then high rise buildings. Suddenly, all the building were gone. He hitched a ride on someone's bicycle and the two of them ventured into the eerie landscape. Every now and then there would be a dull thud – the sound of buried bodies exploding from the gas emitted by decay.

So I really didn't know how I was going to cope with John Adams' Dr Atomic. Would I stand up and cry "murderers "? Adams is concerned with the dilemmas faced by the scientists at Los Alamos who worked on the bomb, denying even to themselves where their research might lead. They live in a vacuum far removed from reality. True, they didn't make political decisions, but what they did gave politicians power. Recent studies indicate that the real purpose of the bomb was to scare Stalin. Japanese civilians were "collateral damage".
But Dr Atomic the opera is compelling. The scientists theorize, imagining the dangers to themselves. It's angst, even if it's more existential than actually being in the blast and living with the aftermath. Indeed, if images of the devastation are inescapably seared into your memory, it's even more haunting because you "know" what they're trying to avoid. This is a seriously good opera. Go, especially as there are £20 offers on tickets at the moment.

Edward Seckerson has written one of the most perceptive reviews so far. Read it and listen to the podcast where he interviews those involved with the production. Look up other posts on this blog under Hiroshima. It's not a subject "from the past", but utterly relevant to now.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Der fliegende Holländer London Terfel

This Der fliegende Holländer was eagerly awaited as it hasn’t been heard at the Royal Opera House, London, since 2000. With Bryn Terfel’s return to Covent Garden as the Dutchman a full house was guaranteed.

Terfel's admirers would not have been disappointed. His voice boomed majestically, even when he had to walk carrying a heavy rope, and wade through real water at the foot of the platform. In this production, however, by Tim Albery, he wasn't really called upon to develop the Dutchman's character. As he said to one interviewer, he hasn't been challenged enough yet. He is capable, so it's a pity that it wasn't needed in Albery's concept of the opera.

At the recent ENO Boris Gudonov (see label list at right), Albery gave us Gudonov as stolid, mild-mannered bourgeois. This Dutchman is his kin, by no means a ravaged, cursed "pale man", no more haunted than Daland. Later, when his men appear, they're all neatly dressed in uniform. No way have they been roaming the oceans for centuries. Perhaps there's a rationale for this. When the Norwegians call out to the doomed ship, they face the audience in the orchestra stalls, shining torches in their faces. Is this a hidden meaning? I don't know. The production was generously supported by wealthy patrons. But then, Wagner himself was not above cocking a snoot at his benefactors. But I suspect the real reason was that the concept wasn't completely followed through.

For me, this production worked musically because it focussed on Wagner's underlying techniques, at a period when he was finding his own direction. Particularly interesting is the way he mixes the banal pop songs the sailors sing with the altogether more extreme wildness of the Dutchman's music. These songs and choruses reminded me of Der Freischütz, another tale in which happy peasants meet demonic forces. This duality runs throughout the opera, so there's constant turmoil in this music. Like the sea itself, ever churning, it's not fixed on firm ground. Wagner is moving away from established German aria-based opera to something altogether new. Marc Albrecht, the son of George, not Gerd, who conducted this opera at Covent Garden 30 years ago, focussed on the more traditional elements of the work. It's still a "numbers" piece with set vignettes and "local colour". If Albrecht didn't get the grand sweep of Wagner's later vision perhaps it's because he was focussing on his earlier influences. This performance was a reminder that Wagner was still young when he wrote it, and how far he still had to go.

But music must work with staging, and it wouldn't have been any more right for Albrecht to go for panoramic wildness any more than for Terfel to do what he might have done with a more ravaged Dutchman. Thus it was interesting to watch the Overture unfold. This is an essential part of the opera, not merely an opener, for it sets out the themes that are to come at considerable length. Here it was played against a backdrop of green light, with projections of rain on glass and vague forms flitting from left to right with minimal variation. Perhaps that's what being at sea is like, but there's a lot more development in the music, which goes through very distinct changes as it progresses.

And conflict is what the opera is about. Wagner wields leitmotivs about like weapons. Particularly wonderful is the Third Act where crosscurrents of different music are thrown against each other, with the force of violent waves. Just as there's a storm at sea in Act One, there's a storm on land in the Third, an echo of a more cosmic storm of the soul. In the Third Act, the Royal Opera House Choruses show how exceptionally good they are. They carry the intricate counter-forces with precision and committment. No denying the in this opera now. At last the production came vividly to life.

Bryn Terfel was obviously the big draw, but it's Anja Kampe who I'll remember. What a huge voice, from such a tiny frame! Maybe it's good miking, but she gave Terfel a run for his money. Again, the production downplays her inherent hysteria. She's fixated on the Dutchman long before he appears, clinging to his image like a teenage Goth obsessed by symbols of doom. Of course she's virginal and sweet but even her mates think she's a bit warped. Senta is the prototype Wagner heroine, who equates love with death, and needs to find herself through sacrificial redemption. A bit like what Wagner expected of the women in his life. Kampe should go on to do interesting things in this vein. She's singing Isolde at Glyndebourne this summer.

Please see what Mark says about this on Boulezian and also Intermezzo (link at right)
And photos

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Audi Partenope Wien Schäfer

As Sue Loder says in her review linked below, Handel's Partenope is like London buses. You wait ages and then three come along at once. She's writing about the Vienna production directed by Pierre Audi in Vienna with Christine Schäfer, David Daniels, Florian Boesch and Les Talens lyriques, providing period instrument ambience.

".........It is this finale which cleverly encapsulates Audi’s vision of Partenope’s latently violent world: the confrontation becomes an actual boxing match set inside the villa, complete with ropes, hanging microphone, glitzy scorecard girls and the protagonists in lurid red and white towelling robes. The watching characters seem to hold their breath as Arsace makes the winning blow: his opponent must fight, like him, bare-chested (and thus betray her sex). This cruel twist breaks her spirit, and reveals all the treachery and immorality lying beneath the sham glamour of their lives. Handel’s final chorus is oddly abrupt and Audi leaves us wondering whether any of them will ever love each other again. No heroes here in Vienna, just a baroque opera for the 21st century, and none the worse for it. "

Read the whole piece here with production pix:

Monday, 23 February 2009

Handel Festival, London

Get a handle on Handel this year in London! Below is a link to Melanie Eskenazi's article on the celebrations. This will be Handel Total Immersion, as there will be so many concerts, talks etc, even walking tours, as the composer spent so much time in England. The London Handel Festival, which starts 23 Feb, features some of the greatest oratorios, Theodora, Alessandro and Jephtha.

"The highlight of the Festival is surely Jephtha. Laurence Cumming, the conductor and Festival director, has been “saving up for this as it’s such a dark piece, with such complex issues being grappled with. It’s a work in which everything is inherent in the drama, with nothing more needed to bring it out than the right singers.” John Mark Ainsley considers the title role one of the greatest and most challenging: “I’ve recorded it once and would love to have another go at it now that I’ve got so much more life-experience under my belt – I’ve always liked the piece for its top-class Handelian lyricism, and its combination of superlative music with an involving text.” The clearly-defined narrative is “as much about moods of the protagonists as it is about actions”, and he loves the almost Shakespearean nature of the text, which he says you can speak “without cringeing”. After a relatively long absence from the role, Ainsley is looking forward to finding out “what new colours I’ve got in the paintbox.” Ainsley has a special closeness to the Festival, since he sang his very first Handel oratorio in St George’s and learned a great deal from performances there by an earlier generation of singers. He credits Laurence Cummings with the new energy that is evident in the Festival, owing not only to his musical invention but also to his enabling, “yea-saying” approach. He feels that we don’t really celebrate Handel enough as a Londoner, but this Festival gives the chance to do just that in the composer’s anniversary year."

Read the whole article here

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Architecture as music Kowloon Walled City

In 1965, my friend went to a talk by Xenakis. Yesterday we went together to the big Le Corbusier exhibition at the Barbican. First weekend - queues for tickets, packed with earnest looking students and a few familiar faces, not that architects are as high profile as rock stars.

The Poème Électronique room is particularly good because you can see the whole film in its original black and white starkness - clips of Godzilla, ancient art, Belsen, Madonnas. Profound and found objects, thrown together. Sit where you can see both the film and the colour overlay on the other side of the room. At the Philips Pavilion both were shown together : at the Barbican, use your imagination to put them together and in the context of the undulating, walls not made of solid concrete but shards attached to a metal frame, hanging in the air, defying gravity rather than solidly ignoring it.

So, a few random and non-technical thoughts. Mandelbrot patterns are supposed to show how all creation evolves in a systematic sequence even though it may look infinitely chaotic. One striking thing about the patterns in Le Corbusier's work is the way simple grids multiply themselves, becoming ever more complex. It's really not so different from so much new music. Which is why for me new music is as organic as nature, cells dividing and expanding in sequence. And why I don't buy rigid tonality versus atonality doctrines which inflict labels on what is beyond classification. Time to reverse dogma and simply listen.

Architecture is a way of "enclosing space" even when they integrate light, air and landscape. Xenakis described the three planes of the Philips Pavilion as a "cow's stomach", an inner space where ideas are digested. Music too is a way of enclosing sound in structure, creating sculptures with sound. More on this soon after Xenakis Immersion Day on March 7.

Architecture isn't just buildings. The exhibition featured a lot on Le Corbusier's thing for urban space. Cities don't usually grow by planning. except when there's a disaster like the Lisbon Earthquake, or the upheavals in Paris in the 19th century. In the third world there are/were lots of urban environments which defy any principle of urban order - people just build where and how they can. The "traditional" Third World city is a maze-like warren of random structures. Electricity is "borrowed", sewers connect to water supply. There used to be a place in Hong Kong called the Kowloon Walled City which was a vertical burrow of conjoined structures where you never had to reach street level, if you knew how to navigate corridors, illegal bridges etc.

Note in the photo above, extensive gardens were created by the government - not the city inhabitants - to counteract the claustrophobia of the Walled City. (the photo enlarges if you click on it). The gardens acted as a kind of cordon sanitaire around the conurbation. Previously, it had been surrounded by multi storey building, only separated by a narrow city street. Had fires broken out or plague or cholera, it would have easily spread to the rest of the area. Moreover, since the Hong Kong government had no legal jurisdiction, triads ruled : the Walled City was a crime hotspot. Surrounding it with public gardens meant that police surveillance was possible. When the Triads ventured out, they could be stopped. In theory, anyway. The gardens weren't about aesthetic design, but served a grim, practical purpose. Town planners with their drawing boards sometimes don't understand.

Eventually the Chinese and Hong Kong governments made a deal to end the historic anomaly that allowed the Walled City to exist, and the whole place was razed.

So back to my beef with the Barbican. Originally the idea was that the mini-Metropolis should reflect the warren that was medieval London. The ancestors of my friend who heard Xenakis in 1965 lived under what is now the Barbican Hall. The difference is that, in a medieval village people knew their way around because they didn't travel far, and adapted to the higgeldy-piggledy maze by habit, not optimum convenience. People don't build warrens for fun, they just come about piecemeal. Ordinary people don't have big budgets they just improvise. "Traditional" cities aren't a "model" for anything.

The Barbican's systems are utterly counter intuitive to logic and rational movement. Even the lifts (elevators) when they condescend to appear, don't all go to the same floors. And when you get in them they decide for themselves where they are going to go, complete with sado-mechanist voice machinery. The Barbican was not designed for the disabled, elderly, children, or anyone who wants to get from point A to B without going round the block ten times. here's no natural flow of movement. And the feng shui is hopelessly stagnant. The Barbican complex is a structure that actively hates people.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Discovering Glazunov - Serebrier

When I was young, Glazunov and early Russians were often played by leaden Soviet era orchestras, dutifully earnest and plodding. So I was completely taken by surprise when I started listening to the series of Glazunov symphonies recorded over the last few years by José Serebrier and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Not my thing, I thought, but listened, and discovered how much fun they could be. Serebrier thinks the symphonies anew. It’s like scrubbing stale varnish off a piece of furniture, to find the rich wood beneath.

This Glazunov is vivacious, fluid and witty! Currently I’m listening to Symphony No 6, a recording which has been nominated for the 2009 Grammy awards, and raved about by lots of different people, some of whom don’t usually agree. It isn’t easy for me to write about repertoire I don’t know well, but this is great fun. These recordings prove yet again how important thoughtful performance can be, not "going through the motions" but expressing genuine enthusiasm for the music. I love listening to these recordings because they fill my heart. Which is as good a recommendation as any in these difficult times.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Le Corbusier, Xenakis and Varèse Philips Pavilion

Think back to the Brave New World of 1958, after grim years of war and austerity. Philips, the then technology giant, wanted to dazzle the postwar world with the ultimate in artistic modernity. Thus Poème Électronique was conceived. It was an amazingly ambitious, visionary venture : it’s hard to imagine what an impact it made on audiences then who weren’t used to techno anything, far less an extravaganza of electronic music and visual effects in a building that looked like something from a sci-fi movie

Le Corbusier wanted to create a Gesammstkunstwerk. As an architect he understood how people experience space and fill it with sight and sound : Poème Électronique is a concept that juumps straight off the theoretical draftboard into reality. That's why he threatened to quit altogether if Philips wanted to drop Edgard Varèse. The whole point, for Le Corbusier, was that Varèse, neglected and frustrated, represented the new frontier, mixing technology with art.

Looking back on 20th century modernism , that's a trend that keeps recurring from the Italian Futurists to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique. But the Philips Pavilion was a multi-dimensional experience on a huge scale, where vistors and space were part of what was happening. Thousands filed through the Pavilion, herded almost like animals, through corridors in which they were bombarded with bizarre sounds, flickers of images blasted so quickly they hardly had time to absorb them. In 1958, before most people even had TV, this was amazing. No way would a multinational today even dare consider something so adventurous.

There's plenty to read, even diagram by diagram plans of how the pavilion was built. Here is a clip of what folks in 1958 saw :

What a succession of images! And how strange they must have seemed to people who still watched movies in black and white. And how shockingly prescient - multiple Hiroshimas, right in the middle of the Cold War.

A lot of fuss is made over who did what and when in the development of the Philips Pavilion project. But such nitpicking misses the point. Architects, unlike composers, can't work on in isolation. Moreover, Poème Électronique was a fusion, not merely a series of events. As Xenakis himself said, there was an alternative son et lumiére installation Philips wanted to use, but it just didn't work in quite the same way.

Varèse didn't see the pavilion before he wrote the music, he understood the concept of sound being created as part of an environment. This idea – which dates from the Middle Ages – is very much live today. Think Stockhausen's sculptures in sound like Cosmic Pulses (Proms 2008) or "architectural" music built for specific spaces. Think Simon Bainbridge, Magnus Lindberg, Luigi Nono, where performance space is part of the experience. The images were projected onto the fluid lines of the building, the sounds adapting to the acoustic.

Furthermore, although Xenakis only wrote a short prelude before
Poème Électronique, he designed the structure of the pavilion on principles that relate mathematics, architecture and music. In 1955, he'd written Metastasis, distinctive for its glissandi that shoot upwards and outwards like arches. He said "If glissandi are long and sufficiently interlaced, we obtain sonic spaces of continuous evolution. It is possible to produce ruled surfaces by drawing the glissandi as straight lines. ... my inspiration (for the Philips Pavilion) was pinpointed by the experiment with Metastasis". He goes on to show, via diagrams, the causal chain of ideas which led him to formulate the architecture from his earlier piece of music. The music grew from architecture and vice versa. It's way of thinking in pliable shapes.

This is why
Poème Électronique is still significant after 50 years. Varèse never had the facilities which IRCAM, computers and modern electronics gave those who came after. But like a wild and woolly John the Baptist, he showed the way (See a wonderful 1920's arty shot of him by clicking on his name in the labels list on right). Conceptually, Le Corbusier, Xenakis and Varèse are still in the vanguard, their achievement still not fully understood. Follow the labels list on tight - lots on the architecture and music interface, Xenakis etc.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Big Le Corbusier retrospective London

A major Le Corbusier retrospective starts Friday 19th Feb in London at the Barbican. It's an important exhibition which covers Le Corbusier's whole career- architecture, design, philosophy - and his influence on others. There's a tie in with the Xenakis Total Immersion Day on 7th March.

The exhibition, which runs to 24th May includes, according to the Barbican blurb, the "monumental mural painting, Femme et coquillage IV (1948) from his own office at Rues de Sèvres, Paris; a reconstruction of his Plan Voisin for Paris (1925); a complete original kitchen by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand from his famous Unité d’habitation, Marseille (1947-50); original models of Ronchamp (1950-55), Unité d’habitation (1945-52), Parliament Building Chandigarh (1951-64) amongst others; and the film version of Le Corbusier and Edgard Varèse’s Poème Electronique (1958)." This later is a must for anyone interested in 20th century music, as it led to IRCAM and so much more. Lots of Picassos, Legers etc too.

Later I'll write about Le C, Xenakis, Varèse , the Philips Pavilion and Poème Electronique so watch this space - this blog can be bookmarked and subscribed to. In the meantime, here's a link to the article in the Times about the retrospective. There aren't any Le Corbusier buildings in England, so holding the show at the Barbican is as close as it gets. Pity that even after 25 years, I loathe the Barbican's demented anti-human, anti-intuitive architecture, with its appalling feng shui, as much as I love the clean tangents of Le Corbusier's work seen from photos. The photo above, Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp is by Guigui Yoshito.

Times article :

Monday, 16 February 2009

George Benjamin Into the Little Hill

The big news about the long-awaited London premiere of George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill was that it wasn't. A power cut minutes into the performance and that was it. Read about it on boulezian and intermezzo's blogs (follow link at right). Intermezzo has pix!

Since many people don't live within taxi distance, the "solution"to the power cut was pretty unfair. Lots of people are out of pocket and not just for tickets. Next time let's hope they do the right thing and offer refunds. There must be insurance for these things.

Luckily, I had cancelled my tickets for the first night and caught the whole show on the second night. For a change I hit the jackpot. This was a wonderful performance with Benjamin himself conducting the London Sinfonietta. Claire Booth and Susan Bickley, often raved here on this blog, sang the vocal parts. This is a new production by The Opera Group. Follow the link below to read more about them and the background to the opera. Their site has photos, video and audio clips - recommended!

Into the Little Hill reminds me of many things - the cartoon/novel Maus, even Michael Jackson's truly creepy song "Ben", where the disturbed kid makes friends with a rat. The story is desolate. A man appears in a little girl's bedroom. He has no eyes. Yet the father does a deal with the sinister stranger and swears on the little girl's life. Seriously sick. The whole opera pivots on ideas of dissimulation, concealment, crawling into dark recesses, nothing is safe from being gnawed away.

This production seems, from pictures, to be more atmospheric than the French one. A circle of black gauze screens orchestra from singers. That's very well thought through, for even the music here is cloaked in disguise. You hear something eerie, or harps or bells. Sure enough, look behind the screens afterwards and there's a cimbalom right in the heart of the orchestra. You hear something tense, tinny and shrill : it's a banjo, and conventional strings being played like banjos, strings plucked high up the shaft, not bowed. Much emphasis is on low toned instruments like bass flute and bass clarinet, whose sensuous, seductive themes weave through the piece like a narcotic night blooming flower. At one point it sure feels like there's a sound so high pitched that the human ear can't quite hear it : but rats can hear at higher frequencies than we can....

Benjamin's writing for voice is a revelation. Unlike Thomas Adès, he doesn't force voices into painful contortion. While the lines are extremely challenging, they flow naturally, almost as speech even when they range up and down octaves. Part of this may be the texts themselves, written thoughtfully, like haiku, allowing the listener's thoughts to form. "The hum of a refrigerator in summer" sings the mezzo, and you know what she means and why it's relevant. Bickley and Booth don't sing "roles" and often their lines are reported speech, echoes perhaps of the ancient tradition of story telling. But there's no mistaking the modernity of this truly disturbing, ambiguous piece. It has a force of its own, which I suspect, even Benjamin and his librettist, Martin Crimp, have channelled as opposed to having consciously written.

What a brilliant idea, too, to pair Into the Little Hill with Harrison Birtwistle's At the Greenwood Side, from 1969. The whole Punch and Judy ethos gives me the creeps, whatever its artistic validity, because it is sick and unhealthy. Perhaps that's the point Birtwistle is making. The mummers and their play are frauds, utterly sordid. You can almost smell their stench in this production. But there's a thin line between ironic comment and the celebration of sickness. At least At the Greenwood Side is concise and gets to the point without too much fuss. And Booth's bag lady murderess is so clearly nuts, she's sad, not vicious, unlike the male characters. Nice touch, too, that the London Sinfonietta are dressed in white tie, which for them is "costume". This distances them from the drunken tramps the actors portray. Pity though that the piece is more speech than music. But then is Birtwistle implying that the barbarians have breached the gate ? This piece feels like graffiti in the meanest sense, smeared on art. Good performance and production though. Perhaps that's why it's so effective (and upsetting).

Here's The Opera Group's link, with photos, video clips and audio samples:

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Tristan Murail Terre d'ombre

Terre d'ombre is a shade of brown frequently used in oil painting because it adds a warm "burnt umber" glow. The colour, for most people, connects to nature, the soil, growth, fertility. Murail's choice of this name for this piece refers to his father, a painter, and to Messiaen for whom colour was inextricably connected to music. "Spectralists" (to use a horrible blanket term) extend the concept so that visual connotations are as valid to the musical whole as any other reference. Just as painters extend the depth of colour by adding density, composers can "paint" by intensifying sound.

Murail's Terre d'ombre, though, also references Scriabin's Prometheus, the Poem of Fire. Scriabin was probably clinically synaesthetic, unlike Messiaen who would have liked to have been, so again the reference is to the concept of colour in music.

Perhaps too much can be made of Murail's fondness for quotation. In many ways it's a good thing because it helps access since it gives those new to the music something to relate to. But it's also misleading because it underplays the originality of the work. God forbid that the anti atonality fundamentalists get hold of Murail and use him to beat up on modern music. These extremists, who don't usually actually listen, are crazy enough, so it's a real threat.

Here Murail uses a massive orchestra, no less than 12 cellos, 8 double basses, a swathe of violas and a panoply of dark brass. Cue the idea of "ombre", earth tones, depth of shading. He uses a large orchestra because that in itself allows a wider range of sound, getting round the problem of fine tuning or de-tuning instruments and working out modulations and micro tones which only the most sophisticated musicians can play. Electronic projection is still an important feature, but it doesn't act like a soloists in a concerto, like the piano part in Scriabin. Rather it works with the orchestra, extending its range. This is a much bigger piece than Gondwana, and more sophisticated.

Terre d'ombre also refers to the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, bringing light to mankind. Murail's treatment is no way as profound and passionate as Luigi Nono's Prometeo (see links to that amazing piece in the subject list on right, below). Nontheless the dark, throbbing resonances do evoke a sense of primeval struggle. Poeme d'Extase it isn't. Note that even fifteen years before this, Murail was quoting passages from Scriabin in Gondwana, with its slowly building mountains of sound, themselves reminsicent of Messiaen's shifting tectonic plates.

Terre d'ombre is a spectacular piece, perfect for large scale auditoriums like the Royal Albert Hall, where its dark richness will wow the audience. The piece is only five years old, and Proms planning has a run in of several years. It is an ideal Proms piece and would be a huge hit. Much fuss has been made of the fact French music doesn't get Proms coverage "because of Boulez" which is a laugh, since even Boulez and Birtwistle were relegated to the "ghetto" of late night slots in recent years. So much modern French music, specifically Maurice Ohana and Dutilleux, is chamber music, not suited to the Proms ambience. Besides, why shouldn't the BBC favour British composers, even if they choose Thea Musgrave et al year after year?

Murail himself uses the metaphor of cooking to explain what he does. With his FM and computer generated calculations, he's working out the "chemistry". Boulez is more like an intuitive cook who just "knows" by instinct and experience. FM allows precise perfection. Boulez doesn't do much electronic/computer enhancement but without him, there would have been no IRCAM, no Ensemble Intercontemporain, no springboard for so many French (and British and German) composers. And in this Murail Immersion day, let's not forget, we heard Hugues Dufourt. (see the link below or use the subject list at right)

Photo of the paint pigment is from

Friday, 13 February 2009

Yi-kwei Sze Chinese Lieder song

Shanghai born bass baritone Yi-kwei Sze (1915-1994) is famous in the west because he moved to the US in 1947. He was highly acclaimed. Some of his recordings are still available, more should be. Tcherepnin wrote his op 95 for him, Seven Chinese Folksongs. No longer in print, but there's a copy in the New York Public Library (Music).

The song above, though is "How can I forget her?", written by Zhao Yuanren, (1892-1982), a scholar and linguist who developed a system for romanizing Chinese characters. The poem is by another linguist Liu Ban-nung, his friend. Composer, poet and singer were all exiles, as most people were in those war torn decades from 1931 onwards. The Sensucht the song expresses, though, applies on many levels. The song has become a classic, so firmly embedded in Chinese culture that many people don't realize it was art song. Part of the reason Chinese composers and poets get relatively forgotten is that their art has become absorbed in everyday culture.

The second video clip shows a soprano version, taken from a movie in the 1950's. In the West, art song and popular song are separate. In China, however, even though western classical tradition started to take hold from the late 19th century, there was less division. Film, above all else, was the art form par excellence of modern China, an extremely important means by which ideas spread. Indeed, film helped unify the country in the face of war and hardship.

Please see the Yi kwei sze website HERE for more information.

Here's a translation. Note that in Chinese "he" and "she" are the same word.

In the sky, floating clouds;
On the earth, a gentle breeze.
The cool air blowing through my hair;
How can I not think of her?

The moon in love with the sea;
The sea in love with the moon.
Ah, on this sweet, silvery night
How can I not think of her?

Blossoms drifting on the water;
Fishes sporting in the stream,
Swallow, what is that you're saying?
How could I not think of her?

Bare trees shivering in the wind;
Wildfire aflame in the evening glow.
The sun still colouring the western sky;
How could I not think of her?

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Lincoln and Darwin birthdays

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin share Feb 12 as a birthday. Lincoln of course was a giant among men in every way. Here he is with ex slave and campaigner, Sojourner Truth. Apparently Darwin's family were abolitionists, too.

Walt Whitman's poem on Lincoln's death was set by Paul Hindemith when Roosevelt passed away. Horribly difficult lines to set.

"When lilacs last in the door yard bloom'd,
And the great star early drop'd
in the western sky at night,
I mourn'd - and yet shall mourn
with ever-returning spring".

Offhand I can't think of any songs that commemorate Darwin. But John Updike's worth remembering, too. Brian Holmes's Science Songs are based on Updike's poems. These songs are becoming quite a cult on the song circuit as they are lively, witty and fun to sing. Great in recital. Brian is a physicist and brass player, all round interesting person. To hear clips of his Science Songs, follow this link about halfway down the page:

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Haydn "deeply unsexy" ? The Return of Tobias

Is Haydn "deeply unsexy" as he's been described or is he a "radical, genius, entertainer" as the bicentenary celebrations at the South Bank would have it ? To challenge our assumptions, the series starts off with a rarity, The Return of Tobias.

Tobias was such a smash hit in 1775 that it raised the equivalent today of £100,000. All Vienna turned out to hear Nancy Storace and Stefano Mandini, now remembered for premiering Mozart, singing gorgeously before 180 musicians and choir. What an extravaganza, it must have been spectacular. Yet, when it was revived in 1808, it flopped and fell into obscurity. Audiences had discovered Mozart, who changed the whole way opera is heard. Haydn's reputation was firmly defined by The Creation, the symphonies, the chamber music. Mendelssohn's Elijah and Paulus revived the genre for a while, but biblical oratorio was eclipsed by more "modern" opera. Two hundred years later perhaps we can hear things from a different perspective.

Drama there is aplenty in Tobias, but the action takes place only in memory: when Tobias returns home he tells his parents about his adventures, which include killing a sea monster and the demon who strangled all 7 other bridegrooms his new wife Sara married before him. Stories told in reverse aren't necessarily a problem – Wagner did this often. Indeed, because there's no need for narrative action as such, the device affords opportunities to indulge in glorious arias and recitatives. Eighteenth century audiences weren't much bothered by characterization or psychological insight as long as the tunes were good.

And in Tobias, there are glorious moments indeed. Each singer has a showpiece to display his or her vocal prowess to stunning effect, wowing the listener into abject wonder. Anna, Tobias's mother, has some of the loveliest pieces, like Sudò il guerriero. She's just nagging her blind, old husband, but who cares when it's done with this much panache ? Later, Tobias brings the magic potion he got from the serpent he killed. "Delay could prove fatal", he urges, launching into a ten minute aria, followed by another elaborate aria by Anna and extended choral effusions. Tobit, of course, refuses the potion at first, giving rise to a very long recitative where the various singers can indulge in deliciously beautiful interchanges, though they're describing Tobit's agonized suffering as the poison takes hold. He gets cured, eventually, but 18th century audiences already knew the story and were more interested in extending the moment with trills and cadenzas.

Perhaps the best arias are written for Raffaelle, the angel, who accompanies Tobias on his adventure, disguised a traveller. The lines soar and glow. "Come se a voi parlasse un messagier del cielo" like a messenger from Heaven has spoken. It's amazingly effective, as theatre, as ideally the sound should project like rays of light.

What we heard last night was the tightened-up 1784 version, not that anyone was complaining it wasn't the even longer original. Music like this stands or falls on the quality of the singing, since it was designed primarily to display technical glory. Fortunately, that's what we got, too. Full review below

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Tristan Murail …amaris et dulcibus aquis…

…amaris et dulcibus aquis… takes as its starting point the “Medieval Michelin”, as Murail calls it, the travel guide for pilgrims crossing northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. Travelling in the Middle Ages was dangerous and uncomfortable so just making the effort was a sign of devotion. At each stage in the pilgrimage there were shrines to worship at, and bells. The cathedral bells of Santiago de Compostella were a wonder of the age. Imagine their sound, ringing out over the countryside in a world less overloaded with rubbish noise than ours!

Bells are ideal, too, for expressing the concept of spectralism. The moment a bell is struck, it sounds a particular pitch, but the sound vibrates, extending the palette, untuned, “spectrally” like a ghost.

Thus …amaris et dulcibus aquis… encapsulates many ideas central to Murail’s work. Technically the vocal parts are not “that” difficult, though at times they veer towards overtone singing. The vowels curl o a i u er as if the piece was haunted by Stockhausen’s Stimmung. Two synthesizers extend the tones.

Bells peal in carillon, creating complex patterns from simple repetition. The music replicates a kind of numerical pattern clearly focussed on the final destination. A long early section describes the four routes from which travellers begin the pilgrimage. It’s repeated twice as if it is being committed to memory – this was an age before printing, when communication was oral. There’s a strong directional thrust, the line …Una via exinde usque ad Sanctum Jacobum efficitur firmly enunciated. There is a purpose to this journey, it’s not just early tourism.

Then the 13 stages of the pilgrimage are individually enumerated, like in a chant : Pampiloniam, Biscartum, Stellam….culminating yet again in a firm Sanctus Jacobus Compostelle. Later the rhythmic discipline of bells is evoked. Each line in the next chant section starts with the same word, Deinde, entered with sharp attack, like the discipline of bells played in unison. Indeed, it comes over like "ding ding", especially as the synthesizers carry the voice part into deeper resonance. The earlier references to the four starting points return, so the music creates an effect of events happening on different levels and in different sequences : concepts of time, memory, reiteration, extending the spectrum of sound.

The sonorities are bell like, too, the darkest male voices like huge brass gongs, the highest female voices sharp and clear. The synthesizers create a kind of circular reverberation, like the sound inside a bell, perhaps, mysterious and profound. A climax builds up where sounds burst in full glory: have we reached the fabled sanctuary of St James ? Then, just as bells fade back into silence, the music evaporates.

There’s no recording as yet, but this is such an interesting piece that it’s worth getting the score from the publishers, Éditions Henry Lemoine (link below). BBC Radio 3 has a two hour broadcast of the day’s proceedings on its Listen Again Facility. Although it’s padded out at least it’s Murail himself talking about his work. …amaris et dulcibus aquiis… comes in just after 60 minutes, after Time and Again and Gondwana.

The photograph shows ancient bells in the cathedral courtyard at Santiago de Compostella. It’s by Greg Gladman, used on Creative Commons conditions, so don’t reuse without proper credit.

Score for …amaris et dulcibus aquis…

Monday, 9 February 2009

Tristan Murail Total Immersion

This is why I pay taxes. Each year the BBC sponsors a series at the Barbican in London for “total immersion” in a particular composer. It’s intense: whole days of music, talks, extra activities. In fact so intense that this year they’ve divided it into three separate days. Stockhausen Day was described earlier (follow the subject link on the right). Next month it’s Xenakis, and on Feb 7th it was my favourite, Tristan Murail. Anyone who still thinks that Messiaen had no influence (and there are some) is totally deluded.

Messiaen taught people to find themselves, said Murail to Julian Anderson. In the evening, Pascal Rophé conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in two early Murail works.

Gondwana was the land mass formed when the continents we know were once joined together. Very loosely, this describes Murail’s Gondwana (1980) when densely textured blocks of sound gradually evolve. The concept is Messianique, recalling Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, even The Quartet for the End of Time. Murail also references Sibelius’s Leminkäinnen in Tuonela, from the Kalevala saga, grounding the piece in tradition even though the harmonies were derived from frequency modulation (FM).

Time and Again (1985) was commissioned by Simon Rattle, with whom Murail played ondes Martenot on the famous CBSO recording of Turangalíla. Themes from Turangalíla pop up joyously, but the real tribute is in the way Murail unites Messiaen’s wayward exuberance with electronic techniques made possible by Murail’s use of FM and synthesized sound. If Turangalíla bothers some with its “cinematic” wildness, Murail makes it a virtue. Time and Again moves back and forth, as Murail says “replete with flashback, premonitions, loops…as if the listener were inside some sort of time machine”.

Murail’s more recent work is even more inventive. So much so, that I’ll write about ...amaris et dulcibus aquis….(1994/5 rev 2004) and Terre d’ombre (2003/4) in much greater depth later. Come back to this blog for more.

Murail’s “greatest hits”, Winter Fragments (2000) and Treize couleurs du soleil couchant (1978), were played by students of the Guildhall School of Music in the afternoon, joined by Rolf Hind in Territoires de l’oubli (1977), a thundering turbulence for piano. Plus the Hugues Dufourt Hommage á Charles Négre which is described below. But there’s only so much I can write at one go. So “watch this space”, as they say.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Hugues Dufourt Hommage à Charles Nègre

In the mid 19th century photography was such a new medium that there weren’t any conventions to assume: Nègre and other early pioneers created the medium from scratch. Charles Nègre was a painter, who saw how photography could be art, not merely reproduction.

This picture shows doctors examining a patient in the asylum at Vincennes. The doctors stand in neat, formal poses, but notice how Nègre includes the vast expanses of emptiness that are floor and ceiling. This is part of the composition, for what this depicts is an inmate in the asylum at Vincennes. Psychiatry in those days was barbaric. Note, the patient is blindfolded, and he's rendered immobile in a straitjacket. What are these men in suits and stovepipe hats going to do to him ? Nègre’s photograph screams mute horror.

Hugues Dufourt's flute concerto Antiphysis is fairly well known, as it was commissioned for Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the recording with Boulez has been issued several times. Dufourt coined the term "spectralism" now associated so strongly with Grisey, Murail and Vivier. (See list of subjects at right for more on these composers). So it was good to hear Dufourt's Hommage à Charles Nègre included as part of the Barbican's Tristan Murail retrospective on Feb 7th.

Hommage à Charles Nègre was indeed written in connection with an exhibition of Nègre's photographs. Dufourt captures in his music the "empty spaces" and surreal angles so characteristic of Nègre's work. A photograph represents time, suspended. Dufourt's uneasy silences hang in limbo, chords held longer than expected, or suddenly curtailed. He uses low register instruments like contrabassoon to play at the top of their range, and high pitched instruments like piccolo to play at their lowest. Chords extend into space, particularly evident in the writing for electric guitar (fairly alien to classical convention), whose sounds, extended still further by electronic projection, oscillate into empty space.

That's why I chose the photo above. Like Nègre, Dufourt is deliberately distancing the observer/listener from the subject, forcing them to think past smooth surfaces. Just as photographs present a "perfect"image, this music might be heard as serene. Indeed, the elegiac pace stretches colours, so they seem as mellow and nostalgic as the faded, sepia tints in the pictures. But like Nègre's photographs, surface calm belies reality.

Kofi Agawu Renaissance Mahlerian

Kofi Agawu, professor at Harvard, is a "rare scholar whose professional interests cross traditional boundaries within musical scholarship, encompassing music theory, ethnomusicology, and historical musicology".

He's a Mahler specialist, contributing the chapter "Prolonged counterpoint in Mahler" in Stephen Hefling's important Mahler Studies of 1997. He's also written extensively on musical analysis and theory. What takes him outside the realm of the average academic, though, is that his scholarship is informed by much wider sources than western music alone. Indeed, his work goes to the very heart of what music is, a means of communication that springs from specifics of relationships within society and language.

Agawu's "Music as Discourse : Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music" was issued late last year from OUP. "Working at the nexus of musicology, ethnomusicology, and music philosophy and aesthetics, Agawu presents a synthetic and innovative approach to musical meaning which argues deftly for the thinking of music as a discourse in itself--composed not only of sequences of gestures, phrases, or progressions, but rather also of the very philosophical and linguistic props that enable the analytical formulations made about music as an object of study. The book provides extensive demonstration of the pertinence of a semiological approach to understanding the fully-freighted language of romantic music, stresses the importance of a generative approach to tonal understanding, and provides further insight into the analogy between music and language."

Translation perhaps is that as music is a culturally defined means of expression. Agawu's perspectives range widely, well beyond the limited confines of one cultural assumption. The western classical tradition is only one thread in the richly woven fabric of human creativity. Agawu is Ewe, from a distinctive, thriving culture in Southern Ghana and Togo. Steve Reich's explorations in African drumming were based on Ewe tradition, but there's infinitely more to Ewe culture than Steve Reich. Check out numerous books, CDs, DVDs. Many of them by Agawu, even.

Anyone can talk about multi cultural, multi discipline. Few can actually do it from within. For me, Agawu's work is interesting because he's at the top of western music studies, yet he's not tied into one way of thinking about music, or society for that matter. Here is a link to the new book, Music as Discourse.

Agawu means a lot to me because "comparative culture" or whatever you could call it, has been my whole life. It's a field that's rarely explored because most people just don't imbibe multiple cultures and instinctively pick up on the subtle influences. Yet this world is increasingly becoming a global network, society is changing faster than we can comprehend. In a tiny way this blog is doing something. Please look on the labels for history and especially my special subject, South China and Macau, which for centuries was the interface between many different cultures, and in the process, acquired its own polyglot identity. It's something most people know nothing about, so what's on this blog is pretty unique. I don't know anything about Africa but my best mate has Ghanaian roots (Ewe, too) so there are a few things here on Ghana too.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Mahler channels Beethoven 9 via Järvi

Until very recently, it wasn’t unusual for conductors to “retouch” – not “revise” - existing pieces in performance. The logic was simple. Late 19th century instruments and orchestras could produce a much greater range of sound than might have been available in the past. If the retouched music worked, then the original composer’s aims might be achieved even if it wasn’t how he would have heard it. Before recordings, people heard only what was played in the concert hall, and audiences were not particularly aware of the originals. Historically-informed practice was irrelevant.

Mahler’s Retuschen are fairly well known, particularly of Bach where he employs an orchestral arsenal Bach may never have dreamed of. Mahler’s orchestration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was meant to enhance its impact and underline its iconic status in music history.

We can hear echt Beethoven at any time. Since this was the first performance of a new edition of Mahler’s reorchestration, Neeme Järvi emphasized the Mahlerian textures, so we could absorb the wider range of colour. The deeper sonorities are impressive – Mahler adds a tuba, for example, so the contrast between light and darkness that runs like a stream through the symphony are heard in better focus. In the“Turkish” passages, the percussion unit placed well away from the main timpani, so its distinctive, alien nature is emphasized above the whole. Given Mahler’s predilection for marches this adds an extra perspective.

But the whole point of this symphony is that it carries connotations of revolution, freedom and international brotherhood, so it needs performances with fire and energy. Earlier this year, Riccardo Chailly led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in a performance of exceptional vitality that made the old warhorse spring to life again as if it were brand new. Järvi’s attention to detail respected the textures in the orchestration but underplayed the soaring architecture of the symphony which gives it such power. Too much reverence for perfect detail, less understanding for what really makes the symphony work. From what we know of Mahler as conductor - headstrong, vibrant - I suspect he'd have given it more kick.

Beethoven’s 9th is also a prototype of the song symphony which Mahler was to develop so beautifully. Surprisingly then, that the song elements didn’t get greater prominence as they play an important role throughout the symphony, even though the actual vocal parts don’t enter until the end. The soloists were fine, placed behind the orchestra. This is the sweet spot in the new RFH acoustic, where any singing in the front is drowned out. The choral singing though was a disappointment after the precise diction and delivery of the Leipzig choirs for Chailly.

This symphony was conceived on a grand scale, and Mahler faithfully extends the concept of music as spectacle. Volume is always stirring, and accordingly, reception was enthusiastic. Like many of the audiences in the past, many here were not specially committed to either Mahler or Beethoven, so could enjoy themselves quite happily.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Goerne Mahler Kindertotenlieder

Matthias Goerne has a special affinity for Mahler. Though he’s rarely recorded the composer’s work, he has such penetrating insight into the music that there are many treasured bootlegs in circulation. A friend, a Mahler specialist from the 1950’s, listened a lot to a Goerne version of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. It gave her strength and inspiration. It was played at her funeral.

On 4 Feb Goerne was singing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder at the Royal Festival Hall. It’s a grim song cycle that challenges interpretation. There’s nothing autobiographical in it per se, except for the fact that Mahler, like many others in his era, had known many people around him die. Death was to the 19th century what sex was to the 20thth, a popular topic, a source of endless fascination.

Goerne’s singing was superb, capturing the sense of elegiac dignity. This matters, for the songs are more than just another group of Lieder: as a cycle, Kindertotenlieder is a prototype symphony, written so it works as a unified whole. Mahler chose poems which contrast images of light and shade, which recur repeatedly throughout his entire oeuvre, from the Second Symphony to the Tenth.

The texts are interesting, because they're psychologically so perceptive. The horror of what has happened numbs the poet so much that he cannot face it head on. Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn he says, “als sei kein Unglück die Nacht gesehen”. The sun rises, as always, as if the tragedy of the night had never come to pass. No need for histrionics on the singer’s part. He’s in denial, trying to relate the collapse of his inner world to the landscape around him.

The second song, too, is oblique. The vocal writing is soft, almost too high for a bass baritone to negotiate but that’s the whole point. Goerne delivers these ostensibly gentle lines with a sense of wonder, for already the protagonist is seeking somehow to make sense of what’s going on. The poet juxtaposes the intimate with the universal. Memories of shining eyes will become like stars, which shine on in eternity.

The third song is like a central movement in a symphony. For a moment, the poet faces the fact that the children are never coming back. This song wells up magnificently, giving Goerne a chance to unleash that powerful voice at last, before the cycle returns to the minor of numb denial. Are the children really just off on a long walk? Will they come back and bring things back to normal? Goerne brings out the intense pain of maddened hope. But even more impressively, h has this knack of cradling the words, as if by enclosing phrases he might be holding them in an embrace.He doesn’t let the words fly past but seems to hold them fast, treasuring them like the poet treasures his memories. This protagonist is strong, powerfully masculine, so the tenderness and vulnerability Goerne expresses is all the more moving.

Notice how oblique the images are. The poet sees the space above the ground by the mother's skirt, where the children would have been, but they aren't there any more. It's the emptiness that's haunting. So the singer shouldn't flaff about pulling heartstrings. Goerne makes you hear the loss, obliquely. The last thing this father is thinking of is himself and the image he's making on the listener. We should be drawn inwards, into his grief. We're not simply observers.

For a moment, we’re thrown back into the storm. “In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus” repeats the poet. How could the children be sent out in such weather ? “Ich durfte nichts dazu sagen”. Nothing could have changed fate. Mahler writes turbulent circular figures, evoking extremes of wind, rain and anguish.Yet with Mahler, there’s always a search for resolution. Where the children have now gone transcends death. No longer will they fear the storm for they are forever von Gottes Hand bedecket. Goerne’s protective, gentle phrasing has been pointing the way all along.

After Fischer-Dieskau retired there was a lot of fuss about other singers who didn’t follow DFD’s mould. But any singer with integrity has to perform in his or her own way. Now we have more videos of singers in the past, we can see how they (and even DFD) intuitively expressed themselves through their whole physique as well as voice. Singers like Goerne communicate so much that all else falls by the way. Pity, then, that the orchestra under Neeme Jarvi wasn't on message in quite the same way.

Please read my other posts on Mahler songs and on Kindertotenlieder in particular. The key to understanding performances is to understand the music and its place in the wider scheme of Mahler's music. The final song, In diesem Wetter is crucial, because the storm here is NOT a pictorial representation of a storm. It's a cosmic shattering. The father has just lost two kids in the same night and in the morning he's gutted. So the music starts to clear, rising ever higher and purer til the man visualizes the kids in heaven, as if in "their mother's house". Nearly everything Mahler wrotes is about finding resolution, tansfiguaration, redemption in light and clarity. So beware anyone who thinks the song to be "exciting" or wild and noisy. They don't know their Mahler at all. Read the Proms review HERE.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

How to sing Lieder - Lehmann

What makes a good Lieder singer ? It's lots more than the voice, but the way the singer conveys meaning and music. Here is a clip of Lotte Lehmann giving a masterclass in 1953. The song is Brahms's Sonntag. Love that refrain:
Das tausendschöne Jungfräulein,
Das tausendschöne Herzelein,
Wollte Gott, wollte Gott, ich wär' heute bei ihr!
She's in her 70's, her voice reduced to a guttural growl, but so what ? She "sings" the meaning, the spirit of the song. Suddenly we don't see a middle aged matron but the "persona" in the song. The young man is in love with a nice, pure girl whom he's seen outside her door, and then on her way to church. Obviously no hanky panky or overt flirtation - she might not even know who he is ! They may never even have spoken. It's very inward. But he's so much in love, the intensity shines through the formal simplicity. There's a set of DVDs by VAI of Lehmann's masterclasses for sale, so you can enjoy more of this.

And then she shows how to sing the Marschallin

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Auf Flügeln des Gesanges - alternative Lieder

On Wings of Song” is one of the most famous songs of all time – so much for the notion that Mendelssohn was “eclipsed”. Yet it’s very different from the Lieder of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf. Romantic Lieder stresses the word painting, using music to extend text. This stems from the Romantic concept of the individual, where personal, subjective truths mattered. The Romantic Age didn’t use the terminology of modern psychology, but explored inner emotions and the unconscious. Mendelssohn’s songs aren’t “classical” or Mozartean” in any sense, but represent an alternative approach to art song.

First, here is the poem as Mendelssohn might have heard it in his mind. Heine is writing about lotus blooms and exotic settings, but he knows full well that his poems will be read by people who know nothing about fabled “Hindustan” (no way this is real India). It’s important to listen to the poem being read aloud, to appreciate the cadences and expressiveness that bring the words to life.

Auf Flügeln des Gesanges,
Herzliebchen, trag ich dich fort,
Fort nach den Fluren des Ganges,
Dort weiß ich den schönsten Ort;

Dort liegt ein rotblühender Garten
Im stillen Mondenschein,
Die Lotosblumen erwarten
Ihr trautes Schwesterlein.

Die Veilchen kichern und kosen,
Und schaun nach den Sternen empor,
Heimlich erzählen die Rosen
Sich duftende Märchen ins Ohr.

Es hüpfen herbei und lauschen
Die frommen, klugen Gazelln,
Und in der Ferne rauschen
Des heil’gen Stromes Well'n.

Dort wollen wir niedersinken
Unter dem Palmenbaum,
Und Liebe und Ruhe trinken,
Und träumen seligen Traum.

For a translation see Emily Erzust’s formidably useful site listed on the right.
Improve your karma, contribute to good causes.

Next, the version for solo piano, played by Vladimir Horowitz no less. The video is by Spadecaller. Then close your eyes and absorb the music in the abstract. Listen to how Mendelssohn expresses the spirit of the poem without using any obvious images. No lotus blooms, no violets. This is perfume in music, abstract, but none the less potent for being elusive. For the poem is elusive, operating on an unspoken level “behind” the words.

Only now come to the piano/song version, and listen holding the memory of poem and piano transcription in mind. This is Lotte Lehmann singing for US radio in 1941. Hear how she puts feeling and emphasis into the words, expressing text and music seamlessly. Mendelssohn’s songs were written to be sung in salons, intimate settings. Perhaps the singer was wooing the pianist, or someone listening, silently, in the room. Intent is there, but veiled in secrecy. “On the wings of song”, sings the lover, “I’ll carry you away, where I know a beautiful place”. The banks of this Ganges exist only in dreams. Like Heine’s poem, Mendelssohn’s song operates on different levels.