Monday, 29 June 2009

Hugues Cuénod, 107


Please note, I'll be doing LOTS more about Cuénod in 2010 including a few exclusives you won't find anywhere else !!!!!!! So please bookmark this site, subscribe and keep coming back.  HERE is the latest post. Celebrate Hugues Cuénod who turned 107 on 26th June. Read the interesting blog (in French) Comme Il vous plaira. by Charles Sigel. To read the post click HERE
It's lovely, scroll down by one message to get to the Letter to Hugues Cuénod. Cuénod knew everyone in French (and other) music circles, often close enough to tutoyer.

Here is a clip of a recording made in 1937. The pianist is Nadia Boulanger. The recording was possibly made in the home of the Princesse de Polignac. It's like listening in on another, private world. The princess, who was an heiress of the man who invented sewing machines, was a great patron of the arts. She held soirees in her palace, attended by the likes of Poulenc, Ravel, Stravinsky, and many others, where many premieres were played sometimes dedicated by one of the group to another. These were private, so most were not recorded, so what survives is precious.

How fresh and young Cuénod sounds. No wonder he was still singing into his mid 80's. The other singer is Paul Derenne, also a tenor. I don't know who plays the violin as I thought the princess was a pianist.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Glyndebourne : Spectacular Purcell The Fairy Queen

Glyndebourne is the epitome of British opera festivals. Seventy-five years ago, John Christie founded the tradition of “country house opera”, where opera can be enjoyed in beautiful settings. The estate itself is magnificent, but Glyndebourne is distinctive because it’s dedicated to excellence. Christie’s vision was to create “not the best we can do, but the best that can be done anywhere”. Glyndebourne is like Bayreuth, but with wider range.

Celebrating Glyndebourne’s anniversary with The Fairy Queen was a masterstroke, honouring Shakespeare and Henry Purcell, born 350 years ago. This production, conducted by William Christie (no relation to John), directed by Jonathan Kent and designed by Paul Brown, is spectacular in every sense. For Purcell and his contemporaries, opera was meant to be spectacle, to astound audiences with its inventiveness and wit. In the current economic climate, this glorious production may seem extravagant. But baroque is a statement of faith in the power of art to transcend grim reality.

Baroque taste was inspired by the exotic, by the possibilities offered by new worlds "discovered” in Asia, South America and Africa. Thus the first scene, set in a conventional 18th century drawing room, cabinets filled with porcelain and a tree of crimson coral. But The Fairy Queen is based loosely on A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, where, in the darkness of night, fairies rule, and the realm of dreams finds release. Bizarre as it may seem, baroque sensibilities bore fruit in Romanticism and in 20th century ideas about the subconscious.

Oberon and Titania (Joseph Millson and Sally Dexter), and their minions are fairies with attitude, sporting sinister wings like ravens, and black costumes, part evening dress, part bondage gear. They tumble out of the cabinets, invading the rational world. Even Titania isn’t safe : Oberon’s magic potion goes awry, so she falls in love with Bottom, transfigured as an ass.

Shakespeare’s play within a play lends itself superbly to Purcell’s concept of opera as a combination of different forms of theatre – song, masques for dancing, orchestral fantasies, tracts of spoken dialogue and dramatic tableaux. Towards the end, stage overflows into auditorium, players running in through the stalls. William Christie turns to the audience, encouraging them to sing along. At the very end, rose petals fall from the ceiling, engulfing the patrons, a final coup de théâtre which evokes Glyndebourne’s lovely gardens beyond the building.

The workmen-actors enter the drawing room with cleaning tools. Their very bumptiousness is a subversive send-up of the bewigged formality with which the tale begins. The play they create, complete with talking wall and cowardly lion is an anarchic parody of theatre, which is itself an illusion of ordinary life. At the performance I attended, Robert Burt who plays Flute who plays Thisbe tore a ligament in one scene, coming on later with a splint and walking stick. It was a wonderful moment where practical reality merged, yet again, into art.


In dreams, symbols hold sway. Literally, in the scene where Titania is wrapped in shrouds of muslin as she falls into deep sleep. Then a giant spider descends from the ceiling, sweeping the queen upwards like prey, suspended dangerously above the stage. It’s a shockingly potent image, dangerous and breathtaking – if the spiders thread should break, the singer might indeed be killed. A giant opium poppy appears alluding to unnatural dreams and again to the implication of danger and death.

Titania and Bottom, played by Desmond Barrit, his head now an ass, float away in a boat shaped like a giant pea pod which emerged from the bowels beneath the stage. As if crossing the River Styx, they are ferried by a gondolier with the head of a fish.

Purcell’s drama was influenced by the exigencies of his time. Thus the baroque taste for elaborate theatrical illusions, which this production faithfully honours with the extra benefit of modern technology and lighting. The roof opens as huge wooden cut-outs of clouds descend. The clouds part to reveal a resplendent Sun King astride a golden Pegasus, wings unfurled. Then, vignettes of each of the Four Seasons. Autumn comes dressed as cabbage and pumpkin, like those paintings of men as vegetables, so popular in baroque times. These tableaux don’t serve the narrative as such, they’re pure spectacle, in true 17th century spirit.

Adam and Eve appear, naked but for well-placed fig leaves under the canopy of a huge golden apple tree. Baroque audiences liked a bit of titillation but would have understood the Biblical allusion. Eve flirts about and Adam eats an apple, after which the fairies throw them clothing from the wings. Finally the lovers are married – in the right combinations – and there’s a masque where the god of Marriage, Hymen (Andrew Foster-Williams) appears proffering the joys of wedded bliss. Perhaps baroque audiences related to marriage as a symbol of social stability, as opposed to the anarchy of nocturnal mayhem, portrayed earlier in the opera by giant bunnies copulating in myriad ways. Certainly ribaldry runs throughout this opera and even Shakespeare as bard was bawdy.

William Christie led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in free spirited, vivacious performance. This is the best baroque orchestra in England, so it was wonderful to hear them conducted by Christie, who is usually based in France. Very good singing, too. So many songs and ensembles flow in rapid succession that perhaps it’s better not to single out a few from the overall good work. Lovely dancing, too, and a delightfully athletic Puck (Jotham Annan).

This was an amazing Fairy Queen, which will be almost impossible to translate in the semi-stagedperformance to come at the Proms. Nor will it work in theatres outside Glyndebourne which don’t have its superb facilities, so it won’t be included in the Glyndebourne Touring season. Let’s pray this production will be immortalized on film, so all can share in its glory.

A full review with more photos HERE
Photos above are :
In peapod boat : Desmond Barrit as Bottom and Sally Dexter as Titania The
Fairy Queen GFO 2009 photo credit : Neil Libbert
Sally Dexter as Titania and Joseph Millson as Oberon The Fairy Queen GFO
2009 photo credit : Neil Libbert

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Glyndebourne Purcell part 1 bawdy bard

Here is a short post with links about the Glyndebourne production of Purcell's The Fairy Queen. FULL REVIEW HERE. Or click on the label at right for Glyndebourne or Purcell.

I'm still too exhausted after last week to do the production justice, but please look again at this blog tonight or tomorrow and I'll make it worth the wait. OTOH look who was singing : Andrew Foster Williams, who sang Zebul so well in Jephtha the previous night. Again, he turns a small role (Hymen, the Goddess of marriage) into something memorable. So I will write more later.

First, a DOWNLOAD from Glyndebourne where Edward Seckerson talks to the director Jonathan Kent and to the designer Paul Brown. Music clips, too. This is fairly long and detailed but all the better for it. "English music is bawdy" So spend a bit of time on this excellent podcast.

For my complete review please (with production pix) see HERE
or click on Glyndebourne or Purcell on the label list at right
Then reviews by Melanie Eskenazi, Edward Seckerson and Tim Ashley.

Click on the surnames to read what they've written.
And also read about the version at the Proms 2009 HERE

Friday, 26 June 2009

Jephtha 2 McCreesh Gabrieli

Two different Jephtha's this year. The performance on 24th June was higher profile because it took place at the Barbican Hall, which attracts a bigger audience than the first, which was with John Mark Ainsley at St George's, Hanover Square – off the beaten track, but a Handel place, which pulled the more specialized devotees. Read about it HERE

Jephtha is not a prissy subject. The Israelites are struggling for survival so Jephtha the warrior makes a deal with God. Which is not smart because sometimes you get what you want but not how you want. Jephtha must pay for victory by sacrificing his daughter Iphis.

Paul McCreesh conducted the Gabrieli Consort and players with verve, so orchestrally this was excellent.The long passages with no singing whipped along with energetic vigour.

It wasn't quite so great a night for singing. Mhairi Lawson's Iphis is charming but Iphis is a formidably strong personality : she's not her father's daughter for nothing, so more punch perhaps was needed. Hamor was sung by Daniel Taylor, whose looks are perfect for a counter tenor - angelic but slightly scary, like a young Simon Rattle with attitude. Pity the voice was very uneven, but credit to him for realizing it wasn't his day. It's more worrying to me when a singer has a bad day and doesn't notice. I don't follow that school of thought that demands perfection every time.

The interesting thing about this repertoire is that good performances are perfectly adequate but extremely good ones somehow reach parts "beyond". For example, the treble part which is usually nicely sung, as William Docherty's Angel was. But every now and then you hear a boy soprano with that something extra that stuns so much that the memory lingers so you're spoiled for perfectly decent singing. Mark Padmore's Jephtha was note perfect, but tonight he wasn't soaring to great heights of colour. I waited all evening for that divine aria "Waft her angels through the skies", where a voice can take off, "far above yon azure plain", but tonight it didn't quite soar to glorious heights. No dis to MP but this is why I love this aria so much : This is John Mark Ainsley in a whole other stratosphere. Video is lovely too


Yet Zebul, sung by Andrew Foster Willliams, was darkly nuanced. It's not the biggest role in this oratorio, but singing like this expands the part by building in extra depths. Christianne Stotjin was impressive, particularly in the first part. But the choir! The Gabrielis were augmented by members of the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir: expressive singing, quite the match for the raw energy McCreesh gets from his players.

After nearly 4 hours of Handel, I drove home through traffic jams and diversions all the way. Then set out early next am for 5 hours of Purcell at Glyndebourne and another long drive back because I got hopelessly lost. Usually I can navigate by instinct, like a homing pigeon, but this time was far too tired to fully function.

So log in tomorrow when I'll tell you what The Fairie Queen at Glyndebourne was like. WOW!!!!!! The memory of it kept me jived up and awake - more stimulating than caffeine.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Aldeburgh - downloads, broadcasts, films

The Aldeburgh Music Festival concludes this weekend , and there's still time to get there. But Aldeburgh functions all year round as a centre for music and the arts. The film above shows how the Festival came into being and why it's such a unique experience.

The website HERE has been updated so you can listen to downloads of music from this year's Festival for a month. Concerts will also be broadcast on BBC Radio3 from 24th June and can be heard online on demand. Thomas Ades today, Benjamin and Ravel on 25th (see review below). on 26th Susanna Mälkki conducts the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a programme that ranges from Haydn and Beethoven to Ligeti and Birtwistle. And check out youtube, where they are posting lots.

As you can see from the website, there's more to Aldeburgh than the festival. All year round there are things to listen to and do. Aldeburgh supports musicians and artists in many ways.
Plus of course the landscape, seascape and town itself, which so intimately link into Britten's music. So read the site and get a feel for Aldeburgh and its environs. It's definitely worth a trip, anytime.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Elliott Carter, 100 1/2, at Aldeburgh


"You can't keep a composer away from his music," quipped Elliott Carter, explaining why he'd travelled all the way from New York to Aldeburgh in rural Suffolk, where many of his works – and several premieres – are being played.

Bright and early on Saturday morning 20th June, he spoke with Pierre-Laurent Aimard in the new Britten Studio. Carter has known Aimard since Aimard was a boy, and has written many pieces for him, so this wasn't the usual run of the mill talk, but something much more personal and intimate.

Carter walked into the room dressed in a natty suit, with bright red polo shirt and crimson socks, and changed to sapphire for the evening concert. "Old age is liberating", he said in an interview last December. "You don't have peer pressure". And so it is with his music, too, as individualistic as his personality.

Carter has now become as famous for being old as for being a composer, and why not? He is inspiring to everyone, musical or not. All Aldeburgh seemed to be buzzing about the "Hundred Year Old composer" and rightly so, he's wonderful. At the age of 100 1/2, he's lively, brighter than many a third his age.

And the publicity is good for music, too, because people may be drawn in to listen. Carter's music is more accessible than people realize. He told Aimard about a man who'd written to him after hearing one of his string quartets on the radio in the early 1950's. The man was a coal miner, nothing fancy (coal was still mined in the US in those days). "I love your music", said the man, "It's just like digging coal."

So there are many ways into Carter's music. Perhaps what keeps Carter so lively is that he's still inventive and creative. His "late, late style" as he calls it, is very different from the multiple layers of complexity he used to write. Now it's as if he's concentrating on fundamentals, getting straight to the essence of things, a sort of zen-like purity.

Carter and Aimard discussed the two new pieces, commissioned by James Levine, not yet officially premiered. They extend Carter's Matribute, premiered in Lucerne in 2007 and heard in London last December. Vaguely they relate to Levine's brother and sister, so they're called Fratribute and Sistribute! This joyful, impish wit has always been present in Carter's work, which throws those who think serious music should be deadly dour.

Fratribute is simple but steady, with sequences up and down the scale. Sistribute is altogether more sparkling, one hand playing triplets while the other plays four fingers. It's in a very high register, a kind of squeaky cantabile. Whether it reflects Levine's sister or not, it's expressive, happy and spirited. "Typical Carter," said Aimard, ""like sparkling drizzle."

It's so new that Carter hadn't heard it played before in this way. "Not as bad as I thought," he said when Aimard played it through. Previously he'd spoken to Aimard about changing the dynamics so Aimard tried the amendments out then and there. "I think I like the original better after all," said Carter. So we were witnessing Sistribute at its very moment of inception. At one point, Carter got up and played the piano himself. "Not as good as you," he grinned at Aimard,

More typical Carter puzzles in Retrouvailles, written for Pierre Boulez in 2000. It takes up the ideas in Esprit rude/esprit doux 1 and 2, written for Boulez's 60th and 70th birthdays. Embedded cryptically into it are the letters of Boulez's name. "Two personnages", said Aimard, describing the way the two voices dialogue, "like Bach". Which is a good point, since Carter and Boulez have been close friends for decades and Carter's love for baroque polyphony goes back to his days at college.

Then 90 Plus, Carter's tribute to Goffredo Petrassi, written for Petrassi's 90th birthday in 1994. Ninety little staccato notes that tail off rather than end, wishing Petrassi long life to come. (He made 98.)

In the evening, Carter's On Conversing with Paradise was premiered. It's a special commission for Aldeburgh and was conducted by Oliver Knussen, another intimate of the Carter circle. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group know the Carter idiom well, so orchestrally this was top notch from the mysterious horn opening, punctuated by profound thwacks of timpani, to the full, dramatic crescendo towards the end.

The text comes from a poem by Ezra Pound, whom Carter actually met many years ago. "People called him mad, but I didn't think so." The soloist was the baritone Leigh Melrose. It's not easy to judge a piece the first time it's heard, but the texts are so amazing that I felt it might be even better with a voice with more authority, to stand up to the powerful orchestral writing.

This is a compelling work, whose title comes from Blake and includes parts of the Pisan Canto 91 and the unfinished Canto 121 where Pound states "I have tried to write Paradise". Most of the page is left blank. Then, simply, Pound says "Do not move let the wind speak that is paradise".

Carter's settings of poetry have often recognized the importance of blank space on texts, and the way lines fragment and roll over round the printed page. This is perceptive, because these devices are essential parts of the poem. Pound despairs of being able to write paradise in a perfect poem, so he breaks off elusively and suggests listening, instead, to the wind.

As Carter said, earlier in the day: "Maybe silence is the answer, and also the biggest question, too".

photo credit Meredith Hauer
Read the article in classicalsource HERE

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Aldeburgh Festival - Aimard, Anderson, Benjamin, Carter, Debussy, Ravel

With Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the helm, the Aldeburgh Festival is even more than ever the place to be in terms of musical excellence. In June, in England, there's so much going, but for me. Aldeburgh takes priority because there's always something very special you don't get elsewhere.

Aldeburgh has, of course, been a cradle for British composers, but, as Britten intended, it's not insular but has a wider international outlook. So the concert on 19th June placed the UK premiere of George Benjamin's Duet for piano and Orchestra (2008), with Benjamin's spiritual forebears, Debussy, Ravel and Elliott Carter. Aimard was the soloist, Benjamin conducted, and in attendance was Elliott Carter himself, aged 100 1/2, still sprightly and full of vim. No doubt this music will be heard many times in years to come, but being present on this occasion felt like being part of a family, of a creative community such as Britten and Pears envisioned when they started the Aldeburgh Festival 62 years ago.

Indeed, Benjamin’s new piece was written specially for Aimard, and premiered last summer at Lucerne. It's a new departure for Benjamin, his first piece for piano and orchestra. Benjamin’s own notes describe it succinctly. “The piano has an enormous pitch compass and is capable of accumulating complex resonating harmonies, but each note begins to decay as soon as it it is sounded. On the other hand, stringed and wind instruments can sustain and mould their notes after the initial attack”. Thus Benjamin tries to find common ground restricting the pitch range of the piano, avoiding the higher registers where decay occurs quickly. Percussion, harp and pizzicato create attenuated sounds that meet the piano on its own ground.
The piano part isn’t elaborately flamboyant : rather it’s spare, single notes occurring in series, like flurries. It evoked the movement of birds – short, quick jerks expanding into flourish as they take flight. This programme may not have included Messiaen, but he was there, in spirit. Duet for piano and Orchestra is a different kind of concertante, where soloist and orchestra don’t interact in the usual way, but observe each other, so to speak. Then, with a punchy crescendo, it’s over. Benjamin’s music often sounds pontilliste, like detailed embroidery, but here there’s sharpness in design, and clarity of direction.
Julian Anderson's Shir Hashirim f0r soprano and orchestra was included in the programme, replacing the scheduled Fantasias.
Hearing Benjamin in the context of Debussy, Ravel and Elliott Carter demonstrated Benjamin’s roots in the French tradition. Benjamin conducted Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d’un faune with a feel for the purity beneath the langorous sensuality. Exquisite playing by the BBC SO’s principal flautist.
Elliott Carter, too, has roots in the French tradition, His father had business connections in France, so Carter grew up bilingual, spending long periods in Paris. The first of the Three Occasions celebrates the 150th anniversary of the state of Texas, so it’s exuberantly lively. If Benjamin’s approach wasn’t quire as free as the spirit of the piece, he more than compensated in the way he conducted the other two parts, Remembrance and Anniversary. Hearing the latter, on the occasion of this concert, was particularly moving as it was written to celebrate Carter’s 50th wedding anniversary. Carter and his wife Helen were extremely close : when she passed away, those who knew them worried, as one does when partnerships that close end. Benjamin brought out the tenderness of the piece beautifully. When Carter stood up, unaided, to acknowledge the applause at the end it was intensely poignant : an experience I won’t forget.
Yet Aimard’s performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was by far the highlight of the evening, musically. This also brought out the best in Benjamin and the orchestra the slow lugubrious sections full of portent: the contrabassoon solo especially well played, its sonorities evoking inchoate emotions. This is a piece I love dearly, but hearing Aimard’s intense, uncompromising fervour made it feel almost shockingly fresh and vivid. The piece was written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost a hand in the First World War, career death for a dedicated pianist. Hence the manic “military” overtones, deftly executed. Passion doesn’t have to mean sentimental excess. With dignity and strength of attack, Aimard proved that one hand, playing with such defiance, is more than a match for full orchestra.
HEAR THIS CONCERT on BBC Radio 3 at 1900 on 25th June (online too)
To come TOMORROW : Elliott Carter at Aldeburgh ! watch this space LOTS on this blog about Carter
See the REVIEW here

Friday, 19 June 2009

Just the tonic, gin optional : cheerful Martinů at Garsington

“Life is too important to be taken seriously” goes my motto. That could describe this cheerful production, just the right good-humored tonic for these difficult times.

Garsington Opera is quintessential English Country House opera. Garsington Manor is a private house, not normally open to the public, but for a few weeks in early summer it hosts a season of opera in a temporary theater. The whole manor is a piece of theater. It stands on a hilltop overlooking the rural Oxfordshire countryside. It’s designed so the distant horizon looks like an extension of the garden. It’s spectacular trompe d’oeil. At night, statues around the vast, formal lily pond are spotlighted so they glow softly in the darkness. The theater itself is completely open on one side, overlooking a beautiful walled English garden, which can be used to extend the stage area. Indeed, wind, rain and the occasional bird sometimes take part in shows. The atmosphere is unique.

It’s an ideal setting for a light-hearted opera like Mirandolina. Martinů delighted in commedia dell’arte and saw the possibilities of adapting Goldoni’s La Locandiera for the modern stage. Onto this Martinů builds musical jokes, complete with recitatives, arias, moments of Italianate color and stretches of spoken dialogue. This isn’t farce, it’s far too warm hearted and funny. Nor is it slapstick, as it’s too relaxed. As Martinů said it’s “ a light, uncomplicated thing”, fun for the sake of fun.

Mirandola is the hotel owner who likes to tease men but loses interest once they fall for her charms. Her suitors are noblemen whose very names are jokes, like “Albafiorita” and “Forlimpopoli” announced with great flourish. When she gets the woman-hating Cavaliere to love her, she marries her waiter instead. There is room for spicier things, like the sub plot where tarty “actresses” try to pass themselves off as ladies of the nobility, but Martinů chooses not to develop these ideas, focusing instead on sunny insouciance.

The set is gorgeous, bright vivid shades of orange, yellow red and blue, a reference to the “sunny Italy” in the plot, or perhaps to the life the composer was enjoying on the Riviera when the opera was written. Special mention should be made of the costumes, as vivid as the cartoons in 18th century broadsheets. They are so watchable that they make up for the lack of character development.

The translation is by Jeremy Sams. It’s so deadpan and maudlin, it evokes cackles of laughter. Indeed, there are choruses made up entirely of laughs “ha ha ha ha, and oh oh oh, ha ha ha weaving merry rhythms. Mirandolina ‘s grandmother taught her a ditty, “Long live wine and love and laughter". It’s banal but sung with such fervour it’s funny. Word setting otherwise misses the mark, but again, this isn’t High Art but fluff.

Performances could have been more polished, livening up the pace to sharpen comic delivery, but this isn’t the kind of opera where or feats of vocal fireworks are needed. Juanita Lascarro, the heroine, is the only naturalistic role in a company of caricatures, so her part gave her range to show her skills.

Mirandolina would fall flat as serious opera, heard in more formal surroundings, but at Garsington, where you’re mellow with the ambience and fuelled with good champagne, it’s plain good fun. So grandmother had it right after all. As long as you have “wine and love and laughter”, things can’t be all bad.

See full review and pix HERE

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Goerne Eschenbach Winterreise

When Matthias Goerne was about six, he heard Winterreise and was captivated. Obviously, he was too young to understand all the complex emotions in the piece but what he recognized was that they mattered. Winterreise is so powerful that even a child, albeit a talented one, could be inspired to commit it to memory.

There have been hundreds of Winterreises at the Wigmore Hall over the years. This is an audience that knows the work bar by bar and isn't easily impressed, so when most of the house stood up in applause it was serious praise indeed. I first heard Goerne sing Winterreise some 15 years ago, near the start of his adult career (he was a child prodigy in East Germany). He was only 26, yet Irwin Gage was playing, and Alfred Brendel was listening in the stalls, rapt with attention. Goerne and Brendel became a legendary partnership, creating some of the finest Schubert performances ever produced. Their recording of Winterreise is one of the must-hear classics.

Christoph Eschenbach is a superlative Schubert performer too, so this new series of Schubert cycles at the Wigmore Hall is a significant event. Goerne and Eschenbach have already recorded Die Schöne Mullerin as part of the new Harmonia Mundi Schubert Edition. Goerne's earlier recording of that cycle is exceptional. Quite frankly, you can't "know" DsM without having heard that, because it puts paid to the myth that the cycle is sweet and innocent. Darker undercurrents almost always flow through the Romantic (see other posts on Schubert on this blog - I will write more later as Schubert is where I cut my teeth).

Goerne doesn't do mundane. With Eschenbach, he's refining his approach to Winterreise yet again, this time even more cognizant of the structural underpinnings beneath the text. Each song marks a different stage in the journey, and those stages are in themselves significant, to be savoured for what they portend. The journey starts in a huff, the protagonist impulsively dashing out of town, the wind images in Die Wetterfahne expressing turbulent confusion. Gradually the woman who caused the problem fades into a more generalised image on which the man can hang his feelings. Der Lindenbaum is a temporary halt, a short moment of calm before die kalten Winde bliesen.. Then the true impact of the words ich wendete mich nicht. sinks in.

This is a psychological journey, away from the town and its bourgeois values. The protagonist is out in the wilderness, in uncharted territory, where only animal spoor marks a path. Thus Goerne and Eschenbach employ a deliberate, watchful pace: paying close attention to each passage, every detail counts. Eschenbach even brought out the faint pre echo of the posthorn that appears as early as Der Lindenbaum. Similarly, the village dogs appear, in the rhythms that start Im Dorfe.

Landscape is important in Winterreise: it is a mirror of the protagonist's soul. Schubert builds images of nature into the piano part not merely to illustrate text, but to act as an alter ego, almost a third party commentary beyond the protagonist's highly subjective anguish. Pathetic fallacy operates, of course, for the protagonist hears his troubles reflected in the storm and swollen river, and sees frost patterns as flowers. But there's infinitely more to the idea of Nature in the Romantic imagination. It stands as a symbol of something greater than mankind, something that endures beyond the personal and immediate.

This has implications for interpretation. Some performances depend on exaggeratedly emotional singing, on the assumption that the protagonist must be mad, since he gives up civilization to follow a crazy old beggar. Thus follows the idea that the journey can only end in death. But that trivializes the whole logic behind the cycle. If the protagonist is mad, why are we so drawn into this psychodrama? Wilhelm Muller – and Schubert – wanted us to experience the journey through the man's feelings, to sympathize with why someone should choose a wilder path in life. Perhaps in more psychologically repressed times the idea of madness and death prevailed but for the Romantics angst was a code for what we now call the subconscious. The Romantic interest in emotional extremes was a reaction to the tidy elegance of classicism. Schubert's contemporaries were troubled by the world Winterreise revealed, and rightly so.

The protagonist is driven to his limits but never loses sight of the world around him, even though he interprets it in terms of himself, for example when he thinks the crow is a companion. In that sense he's not a depressive, turned entirely away from reality. Some point to Der Nebensoonen as evidence that the man must be nuts if he sees three suns in the sky. But it's a physical phenomenon that in extreme cold, the sun appears distorted in this way. For a century, we've become so used to electricity and urban living that we can't imagine such things as reality. Goerne sings with quiet, understated dignity, as if he's witnessing a miracle in nature. True, the protagonist still sees the eyes of his beloved wrought as huge cosmic images in the sky, but perhaps there's something more.

The cycle ends with the strange hurdy-gurdy of Der Leiermann. The Leier isn't a lyre, but a primitive instrument, turned rather tha actively played, making a mechanical circular sound. Can music be reduced to lesser things ? The old man is barfuß auf dem Eise, barefoot on the ice, exposed to the elements, without a shred of bourgeois respectabilty. And yet he doggedly makes his way from village to village, despite being hounded by dogs and men. Wunderliches Alte! sings the protagonist, what kind of phenomenom is this? Orpheus in rags?

Goerne sings the final sentence with overwhelming grace and wonder. Willst zu meinen Liedern Deine Lieier drehn? Will the man follow the old beggar, who perhaps once set out on a similar journey? Perhaps he's like the crow, whose companionship is coincidental not real. But the old man is human annd plays a vaguely musical instrument. Perhaps he's a symbol of the power of music, which like Nature endures whatever may happen to an individual. Throughout the cycle, the rhythms of the hurdy gurdy and lurching footsteps lurk in the shifts of pace and intensity. The Leiermann haunts the whole piece, though it takes performance of this very high standard to bring them out.

Read Melanie Eskenazi's review HERE.
Also read reviews on Boulezian and Opera Today shortly to come.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Aldeburgh : new buildings, new Birtwistle operas


Why did Britten and Pears choose Aldeburgh? Britten grew up on this coast and its spirit infuses his music. There are few cosy harbours here and the North Sea wind blasts across the plain. Like the landscape, Britten isn't cuddly, but a product of tougher climes. He wanted Aldeburgh because it wasn't London, but remote enough that musicians could get away from the distractions of the city, and focus on the purity of their art. The new building at Snape extend the Maltings, so it is more than ever a self-contained community, dedicated to excellence.

The new studios are built where the old grainstore once stood, again an appropriate metaphor for Britten's music : new work, with ancient foundations. So it was good that Sir Harrison Birtwistle's two new operas should open the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival, linking past and present.

Britten was passionate about early English music, where formal simplicity belies depth of feeling. So Harrison Birtwistle's Semper Dowland, semper dolens taps into ancient tradition. Dowland's Seven Teares figured in seven passionate Pavanes is, to Birtwistle, "unique in the history of music". The basic unit is a song Lacrimae, which is set in seven versions, with the same chord sequence, each only a slight variation on the former, so the whole flows endlessly like the tears in the text. "It's like making music into a three dimensional object", says Birtwistle, "like seeing something in different facets".

In a musical puzzle piece like this, simplicity is of the essence. Dowland played the lute and sang it himself to small audiences. Mark Padmore sings, accompanied by austere yet limpid harp, a lute writ large with deeper sonorities. At critical moments, low voiced murmurs from bass clarinet, viola and alto flute, then sudden lyrical flights on piccolo. It's a mood piece, its impact diffused in a celebratory setting like the opening of the 2009 Festival. But perhaps that's why it was chosen: to remind us that celebration can be effective in a humble, reverent minor key. Look at the photo of the roof of the new Britten Studio. It's stark, plain, unpretentious, yet solid. It references the old mill and the old auditorium yet is strikingly modern. Engineering as abstract art.

The Corridor is Birtwistle's latest exploration of the Orpheus myth. Again, it springs from a simple idea, a freeze frame focus on a single, fleeting moment in the saga, when Orpheus, leading Eurydice out of the Underworld, suddenly looks back. In an instant, he loses her and she's swept back into eternity. So Birtwistle makes the split second extend into a half hour meditation on past, present and future. He layers mood on mood, infinitely extending the moment, which once past cannot be retrieved. So don't expect a storyline or development. It is a different concept of time in music.

The text is by David Harsent, whose poetry is poignant because it's direct and seemingly simple. He wrote the libretto for Birtwistle's The Minotaur where the Minotaur's fierce exterior hides his innocent, childlike soul. An even better comparison with The Corridor is The Woman and the Hare, a 15 minute jewel Harsent and Birtwistle wrote some several years ago. It's not true that Birtwistle only writes savage things like Punch and Judy. His more introspective work is delicate and intricately constructed – like his fascination with clockwork and mazes.

Indeed, Harsent's text in The Corridor is particularly elegaic and beautiful, Birtwistle hardly has to "set" it as such, for the phrases and words flow melodically. Elizabeth Atherton's was nicely warm blooded and lusty, making her fate all the more distressing. You could "hear" the vibrant young woman who dies on her wedding day. I wasn't so sure about the film projections and dancing, though I can see why the spartan staging might need extending to entertain an audience. London audiences will get a chance to see a concert performance at trhe Queen Elizabeth Hall on 6th and 7th July.

But again, the best writing is for the male voice. As the poem goes:
"...there's only one word dark enough, one word as bleak, as cruel....to tear the heart, a word to blacken rain....to bring to ruin all joy or gift or courage...."

Orpheus cannot bring himself to say the word. Padmore sings the name instead, Eurydice, over and over, each time differently, as if reluctant to lose a hold of the moment.
Please see Simon Thomas's review HERE which makes excellent comparisons with Beckett.
Please also see my reviews of the two Birtwistle Proms, Silbury Air and the Mask of Orpheus - click on Birtwistle labels at right.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Bostridge trades fey for Kray - Dreigroschenoper


Ian Bostridge traded his fey haircut for a slicked-back Kray brothers look, complete with wrap-around dark glasses in this Dreigroschenoper at the Barbican 13.6.09. Bostridge’s lean frame was just right for Macheath, the sleazeball who always manages to slip away uncaught. MacHeath oozes, like slime, his lines replicated in saxophone and slide trombone. So Bostridge’s lounge lizard characterization was very apt, menace concealed by an air of impenetrable elusiveness. Mackie gets away because he conceals himself, like so much implicit in this opera.
Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera or 3d Opera) was first performed as part of the agit prop cabaret world of Brecht and Weill’s Berlin. The 1931 recording and subsequent film (rather too naturalistic) has defined its performance history. It made Lotte Lenya the iconic Weill personality. Dozens of singers have colonised the image since then, as if Lenya’s rough voice was a licence for bad singing. Certainly Brecht and Weill used actors rather than singers in those early years, because they were poor and their politics meant they wanted to reach audiences in clubs, not opera houses. It’s a “Beggar’s Opera” after all. But therein lies the contradiction that makes the piece so interesting. It masquerades as cabaret theatre, but it’s actually quite sophisticated musically. Just as Brecht turns the 18th century John Gay play on its head, Brecht turns musical genres upside down. The rousing Finale is a Bach Chorale in disguise. This performance was conducted by HK Gruber who also sang Peachum, “the poorest man in the world” who is also The King of the Beggars (another contradiction). Gruber can do sardonic irony better than anyone else, so his approach to 3dO is in a whole other league from the usual straightforward “entertainment” mode. Beneath the cute tunes, Brecht’s message is savage: all the world’s a stage and a mad one at that. So Gruber ropes in Klangforum Wien as his “orchestra”. They are one of the best contemporary music ensembles around and can do “difficult” anytime. Here they are playing banjos, guitars, saxophones and rinky tink piano. And Vienna's Chorus sine nomine, who can do perfect pitch enough to sing with tuning forks, get to do “backing vocals”. Proof of this musically astute approach are the soloists. Luxury casting this: Angelika Kirschlager sings a brilliantly saucy Jenny, slinking like a snake, a perfect partner to Bostridge’s louche Mackie. Dorothea Röschmann’s usual sweetness is here laced with poison – she can act as well as sing. In this performance Polly sings Seeraüber Jenny, not Jenny herself. This works well, because it adds another level of musical cross-dressing More good performances from Florian Boesch as Tiger Brown the dodgy cop and Cora Burggraaf as his daughter, Hanna Schwarz as Mrs Peachum, a coloratura foil to Gruber’s burlesque Peachum. His lines are half speech, half ham, so having a proper singer as his wife is a telling contrast. There’s plenty of proof as to the value of proper voices in Weill. Lotte Lenya was the Tracey Emin of her time, and a sledgehammer persona was probably needed to bring Weill success on Broadway. If the public persona of Brecht and Weill was a caricature, their real message could be packaged in a less overtly political way. In the former East Germany, socialism wasn’t scary, so there was nothing to prove or defend. Thus the DDR Weill performance tradition diverged from the Lenya model. Weill and Eisler were performed by “real” singers like Gisela May and, of all people, Peter Schreier, consummate Mozartean, Bachophile and Liedermeister. These are the recordings to seek out. You can actually hear the words, enunciated with the same precision as there is in the writing. Because Lenya dominated the western market, we’re been persuaded that hers is the only way to do Brecht, and we’re rewarded by pop stars and amateurs who are fun, but not necessarily best placed to reveal the real Weill. Further proof still: here is a clip of a singer doing Seeräuber Jenny in 1931, in French, and almost exactly at the same time as Pabst was filming 3dO in Germany with Lenya, who significantly sings one song only. Margo Lion worked in cabaret but she could actually sing. Lenya scores though for shock value quirkiness.
And even more proof. The ensemble work is extremely tightly written, and takes dexterity to carry over with panache. Especially good was the Kanonen-song, where Bostridge and Boesch bounce off each other with military precision. Here’s a clip of Ernst Busch (as Mack) and Kurt Gerron as Tiger Brown (in military gear). Wonderful – Busch’s sharpness and quick wits serve him well. He’s almost unrecognizable in smooth suit and bowler hat, but that’s the man who spent the war in Nazi KZ’s.

Fabulous Ile de Maurice

Mauritius is my kind of place. Lots of plants and animals there which don't exist anywhere else in the world. Even better it's an island where people of many different backgrounds and cultures mix, Indians, Africans, Chinese, Malays, French and multiple hybrids. I could care less about the sterilized tourist Mauritius, where hotels cost more than the average wage of the workers. Instead, it's the image of hybrid profusion I love about the place, and the quirky ambience. The music is pretty wonderful, too, hybrid and vibrant. So I read a blog dedicated to the real charm of Mauritius as it is lived by the locals. Click on this link

Le Port-Port Louis de chez toi
"La capitale de Maurice grouille aux heures de bureau... puis se vide en un quart de tour, tel un coeur artificiel qu'on débranche. Théâtre frénétique des ambitions d'hier et d'aujourd'hui, joyeux bazar où s'affirme toute l'île, Port-Louis, au bout du jour, laisse entrevoir sa tristesse. Qui gagne le front de mer et les beaux restes de la ville d'antan. Mais son charme se perpétue dans le calme d'une cour intérieure et dans la mémoire de ses habitants."

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Mahler, Freudian pioneer - Salonen's psychologically astute Mahler 7th


Mahler’s Seventh Symphony doesn’t quite fit in with the usual Mahler fascination with metaphysics, and is something of a Cinderella compared with blockbusters like the 5th,, 6th, 8th and 9th symphonies. Yet it has unique charms. Clues to performance are embedded in the orchestration, so it’s a test of any conductor to hear how he understands them as he builds an interpretation.

Esa-Pekka Salonen produced an original and valid approach with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. His Mahler 7th doesn’t rely on big flashy effects to impress the audience. Instead he’s subtle, as befits a piece with such emphasis on night and shadows. At night, images are blurred, details only briefly perceptible, hidden by darkness. What we hear is elusive, disguised. We need to be alert to subtle hints of what is not revealed.

The First movement starts conventionally enough with brass fanfares, often interpreted as a kind of funeral march. But is it anything so concrete? Mahler writes lots of military processions, but here Salonen indicates that it’s no ordinary, daylight march but a progression into another mode of being, into sleep, into the world of dreams. Gradually the ensemble fades and solo violin emerges, sweetly poignant. It’s as if the hustle and bustle of daily reality has gone, and we’re somewhere more private and intimate.

Thus, we flowed gently into Nachtmusik 1, the first of the two movements where hushed sounds evoke mystery. Alma Mahler said that the composer thought of Eichendorff while writing, and perhaps that’s true, as Eichendorff was a master of magical, almost surreal night images. Verschweigene Liebe”, for example (set by Hugo Wolf) specifically refers to the idea of night as an escape from daytime consciousness. “Die Nacht is verschweigen, Gedanken sind frei”. (The night is mute: Thoughts run free).

Thus the atmosphere of secrecy in this performance, created by the delicacy of detail. The elaborate programme notes to this series “Vienna: City of Dreams” refer to the idea of magic in this symphony, and indeed the idea of enchantment is present. But Mahler was not one to fluff about with fairies. Even when he’s setting folk tales with magic elements, like songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, there’s a very adult, unsentimental awareness in his work. He’s not a gullible believer, his magic comes from an awareness of the irrational forces in the human psyche.

In short, Salonen relates this symphony to Mahler’s interest in psychology and the power of the unconscious. It’s disappointing that this series, with its ostentatious claims to connect music with what was happening in Vienna at the time, undercuts the very importance of the period by frequent references to the past, as if Vienna 1900-30 was a throwback to the 19th century rather than a time of quite revolutionary change. This symphony really does evoke the idea of a city of dreams. Certainly lip service is paid in the notes to Freud and other thinkers, but the message hasn’t go through to the actual core of the texts, which defeats the whole purpose of the series. Perhaps that’s because the series is aimed at a very general audience that might be scared off by any hint of modernity. There’s infinitely more to Mahler than Wagner. Indeed, the more you think about the music, what’s interesting about Mahler is that he’s not Wagner.

There is Romanticism in this symphony but it’s not there as frivolous sugar coating. Eichendorff was by no means the only poet who wrote in the Romantic vein. Think of Gottfried Herder, the father of folk-oriented Romantic poetry, a key figure behind the mindset of the period. Brentano and von Arnim, who compiled the collection that is Des Knaben Wunderhorn knew that fairy tales had menacing undercurrents. And we have only to think of Goethe’s Erlkönig, which Mahler knew, to appreciate that magic and dreams were a framework for describing the id and the subconscious long before Freud devised the terms.

Fortunately Salonen and the Philharmonia know their Mahler well. Mandolins and guitars reference strolling troubadors serenading lovers. Indeed, the recurrent “call and response” instrumental pairings may also support the image, which puts the unusual structure of the symphony into perspective : two Nachtmusiks of different characters calling to each other over the divide of the middle movement. Conventionally a middle movement is central, but Mahler turns the concept on its head. Instead, as with so much else in Mahler, there’s a strong sense of direction. In its quiet way, the symphony is heading towards a powerful conclusion.

Salonen’s understated delicacy allowed the sensuality in the piece to emerge, langorously. Troubadors sing of love, albeit often unrequited love, and love is an “altered state” rather than something coldly calculating: an example of the irrational in normal life. I was half hoping for some sensuous portamenti, but Salonen didn’t oblige. James Clark, the concertmaster, obliged with some lusciously pure playing, and the strings responded – “call and response” again. Lovely rich winds, too, especially the lower tones – Gordon Laing’s contrabassoon deeply resonant.

In this symphony, the brass is important. I’ve heard performances collapse when something went horribly awry with one horn – the poor player has probably never lived it down. No such accidents here. The Philharmonia is far too good, and Salonen rehearses them well. Indeed, it’s heart warming to hear the musicians speak of this conductor. London has gained immeasurably, and Los Angeles can have Dudamel.

Oddly enough the cowbells sounded more ragged than usual. They aren’t the most controlled of instruments, and at first I thought it disrupted the flow. Then I realised, cowbells are supposed to sound ragged, as anyone who’s heard the cows being herded home from alpine meadows can attest. Mahler knew all about cowbells from personal experience. So perhaps the cowbells indicate a wildness and freedom beyond the normal ambit of formal symphonic playing? Perhaps they, too, hint at the wildness of the subconscious ? Gedanken sind frei. Mahler may not have set the poem, but its spirit infuses this symphony.

And so to the all-important climax in the final movement. It builds up in fits and starts, rather like slow awakening, but gradually the major keys assert themselves firmly. No more irony now, we’re back in the real world. Or are we? Woven into the tumult are those cowbells again, reminding us that disorder will return as surely as day turns into night.

Pairing this symphony with Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces was a good choice. Like the symphony, the disparate pieces together add to a coherent mood. Berg was still very young when he wrote it – alas he was never to get old – but already he’s grasped the concept of music as act of freedom. The violin stands up to the massed orchestra but is eventually overwhelmed by the savagery of the March. Or is it? As the music begins to distort, maybe there’s hope for the subconscious to escape.

Please see the review HERE and look at the site

Friday, 12 June 2009

Other Lulu's - The Blue Angel, full movie download

The new Lulu at the Royal Opera House brought to mind the film Der blaue Engel, the film which created a huge sensation when it was released in 1930. Watching the film again, it's remarkable how much Alban Berg took from it, and what Christof Loy has taken from it in turn. Josef von Sternberg made the movie in 1930, based on the novel by Heinrich Mann Professor Unrat, written in 1905, which references the Lulu plays of Frank Wedekind, "Spring Awakening" (Erdgeist) in 1895 and Pandora's Box, 1904. G W Pabst's film of Pandora's Box came out in 1929. Embedded into this film is the song Ännchen von Tharau now a much loved Lieder, whose melody goes round and round. The original poem was written in the early 1600's about a real young woman, Anna Neander. It was revised by Gottfried Herder in 1778, and set to music in 1830.

So, rings within rings of influences, each creation a work of art in its own right, Loy being the latest to illuminate the tradition. Berg and the artists of his era didn't believe there was only one way to tell a story.

The Blue Angel starts in a quiet German town : silence operates throughout the movie like an inaudible soundtrack, every bit as important as the "real" music and speech. Long sequences where nothing much happens, nothing is said – bingo! Berg's Lulu, where the action operates on different planes. Berg's long interludes are like musical curtains drawn "across the stage" which aren't simply there to change scenes.

A town clock tings the hours, and a series of carved wooden statues move round its face. Where was this filmed? Probably destroyed now in the blitz - it's a beautiful piece of medieval German art. Look for the saint holding a miniature of a cathedral – a two second image that speaks volumes. The clockwork imagery is also so apt for Berg, whose themes rotate and reappear in relentless symmetry.

The Blue Angel is a seedy nightclub – look at the flat chested frumpy showgirls! Professor Rath's schoolboys (who look like they're 30) sneak off, enamoured of Lola Lola (not Lulu Lulu). So he confronts her and is himself drawn in. He marries her but ends up a sorry clown, amusing the crowds by crowing like a cock. When the show returns to his hometown, the humiliation is too much. He can't go on stage, and cracks up. Later he sneaks back to the schoolhouse and dies on his old desk. It's unbearably tragic, love and "civilization" destroyed.

Watch the minor parts, too like the theatre owner/magician, the strong man, the schoolboys, even the "nice wife". And the last scene, when Professor "UNrat " as his boys called him, creeps back to the schoolroom. Moonlight from the window throws a savage spotlight on his last struggle in the darkness. Loy's last scenes ? The idea is so powerful. Indeed, only now I figure what Loy's doing when he gets Lulu to "make her mark" on Dr Schön by smearing greasepaint on his face. That's what she wore when she was forced to dance while he and his fiancee sat in the audience. Professor Rath breaks down on stage in costume and greasepaint, when he sees how his present distorts his past.

Lola Lola isn't Lulu but they're closely related. Heinrich Mann called her Rosa, and in Berg's opera she has many names. Lola references Lola Montez, the siren who entranced King Ludwig of Bavaria and caused his downfall.

Listen to Marlene Dietrich sing Lola's song
"Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß, auf Liebe eingestellt. Denn das ist meine Welt, und sonst gar nichts. Das ist, was soll ich machen, mein Natur. Ich halt kann lieben nur, und sonnst gar nichts"
(From head to toe, I'm love personified, it's my world, so there. It's how I was made, my nature, I can't do otherwise". The song is famous in English as "Falling in love again" which isn't quite the same. So we've come all the way from an incident in 1617 which inspired the first poem, all the way to the ROH in 2009.

Watch the WHOLE MOVIE HERE on free download. Sorry the clip is interspersed by ads but they are themselves vintage, quite a scream. "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" for those who remember the 1950's ! You can also watch segment by segment AND watch full screen mode by clicking the cicrcular button. Subtitled in English.


Thursday, 11 June 2009

Lulu London Loy even more shocking 2nd time round

Christof Loy's new production of Berg's Lulu at the Royal Opera House really does benefit from repeat viewings as there is so much to take in, it's not possible in one or even two sittings. Second time round, the cast is more confident and settled, so the singing and acting was much better all round.

This time, too, I was sitting nearer the front, to get close-up detail. In a production as spartan as this, Der Teufel is in the detail. There are long passages with no singing, but these are absolutely integral to the development of the music. Instead of distracting the audience with silly gimmicks, Loy puts the focus on the music as simply as possible. So Agneta Eichenholz's Lulu stands alone and vulnerable on an empty stage while the music surges round her. Even at a distance it's a telling moment. Close up, you can see her facial muscles twitch, her shoulders jerk with suppressed tension. This Lulu may look serene but Eichenholz expresses the hidden volcano within.

Eichenholz's Lulu isn't just a cipher or a creature of sensual instinct but a seriously fractured personality. The controlled, elegant exterior is a way of suppressing the chaos within, rather like Berg's almost OCD obsession with patterns and codes. So zips get pulled, shoes and dresses removed, silently showing how clothes are a kind of armour behind which we can hide. Even Peter Rose's portly tum is touching, vulnerable, "exposed".

Thus when, towards the end, Lulu is confronted by her portrait, she loses control and screams "Throw it out!". This scene is brilliant. The portrait isn't an object. What we see instead is a harsh spotlight projected onto Lulu. It pins her down so she can't escape its probing glare. So she cracks up. In many ways, this is her real death, what happens with Jack the Ripper is just the follow-on.

Throughout the opera, things are constantly being projected – other people's fantasies onto Lulu, the music onto the stage. So the idea of film is fundamental to the opera. Intermezzo's blog makes a good point – why so much fascination with the movies? In the case of Berg and his contemporaries, film was cutting-edge technology, a whole new art form with infinite possibilities, opening up new ways of extending opera and music. Nowadays we think of movies as mass entertainment, but German movies were serious art. Many of them are still classics today.

Watching Michael Volle this time evoked a younger version of Emil Jannings, the schoolmaster in Josef von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel, who is destroyed by his love for the vaguely Lulu-like woman played by Marlene Dietrich. Berg of course knew The Blue Angel, it was a sensation, and he and his crowd appreciated film in a way we don't do today outside art-house cinema.

Close up works better too for Klaus Florian Vogt's Alwa. Because so much of this opera is shocking, Alwa's delicacy is often overwhelmed, yet he's in many ways the "conscience" of the piece. He's a composer who hears Lulu in music – one of Berg's more explicit autobiographical clues. When the Painter commits suicide because of Lulu's infidelity, the message cannot have been lost on Schoenberg. So Vogt's understated lyricism was prescient – subtle, almost dominated by the other characters, a counterpoint to the brutality in the major musical themes.

Berg's writing is almost mathematical in its precision – like a balance sheet where entries must match, credit and debit. Although he wasn't doing economic analysis in this opera, the idea of society kept in order by checks and balances does creep in. Life here is a sequence of cold calculating transactions. Lulu uses sex for power, Dr Schön's wealth buys Lulu status, there are so many references to money (and the explicit in-joke of Jungfrau shares). Since seeing this production, the Paris scene is bringing up lots of new ideas for me. It's almost pure Berg, the discords in the music are expressing the discordant situation. Where Cerha pops up, it's in the barrel organ music around Schilgoch in the London scene, a little too literal compared with the distortions Berg's written in before.

Like a good wine, Loy's production improves with age and will, I think, be one of the defining moments in the performance history of this opera. Next season he directs Tristan und Isolde. It will be worth investing in top price seats if it will be as subtle as this Lulu.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Donald Duck culture warrior

donald duck Pictures, Images and Photos
Please read the article HERE from the Wall Street Journal. It's hilarious ! But it also sums up the way different cultures operate. No doubt it will be greeted by screams of WAK ! WAK! from irate Donalds who think there is ONLY ONE WAY to see the world.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Unusual and loving tribute to Elly Ameling


Elly Ameling lights up everything she sings. It's not simply the purity of her voice, which is exceptionally sweet and beautiful. She communicates much more: warmth of personality, intelligence, charm and, above all, the sense that she loves singing and wants to share her enthusiasm. Although she's one of the greatest singers, she has never sold out to the commercial circus. Even though her voice is ideally suited to Mozart, Handel, Strauss, she chose not to do the big opera circuit and chase the spoilt diva market that sometimes follows. She's maintained her integrity and dignity, and that personal, intimate touch that's so much part of her charm.

That's why I treasure this CD set, Elly Ameling 75 Jaar : Live concertopnamen 1957-1991, Nederlandse Omroep, a 5 CD set available on application from amazon (though for some reason not amazon.uk) It's also available I think at the Concertgebouw and in shops in Holland. You might have to track it down, but I'm glad I did because it's a good alternative to the other box set on the market, "The Artistry of Elly Ameling" released by Philips. The Philips set has Bach, Handel, Haydn, Vivaldi, Hugo Wolf and for fun, Cole Porter. Some of these tracks Elly's fans will already know from the original issues.

This Live Concertoprnamen set is far more distinctive because it's a carefully chosen selection of live recordings from concert performances 1957-1991, most of which are not commercially available. It's rewarding to listen to, because it's more personal, more intimate. A beautiful portrait of a much loved singer and personality!

CD1 comprises opera performances – Bizet and Gounod from a 1966 performance conducted by Bernard Haitink, arias from Idomeneo, Cosi and Le Nozze di Figaro and a lesser known delight, a recitative and aria from Louis-Aimé Maillart's Les Dragons de Villars.

On CD 2 we hear a very fresh performance of Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder (conducted by Sawallisch, 1983), a selection of Strauss with Rudolf Jansen or Dalton Baldwin at the piano, and Alban Berg's Der Wein (cond Leinsdorf). This latter doesn't get the high profile it's due and some singers overdo it, but Ameling is fine and clear.

More Rudolf Jansen on the next CD, songs by Duparc, Debussy and Ravel. The highlight though is Fauré's La bonne chausson, flowing beautifully. Ed Spanjaard conducts a few songs too, which I liked since I mainly know his work in new music. Jansen and Ameling have been partners for years, so it's good to hear more of them together later in the set – arias from Tosti and Rossini, Mussorgsky songs and Stravinsky's Pastorale.

Still more surprises to come – Elly Ameling sings Luigi Dallapiccola! Sex Carmina Alcaei are well suited to Ameling's gentle spirit. She sings Carlos Guastavino, too, the Argentine composer (d 2000) enjoying a new vogue in recent years, thanks to singers like Carole Farley who has raised the profile of South American song in the US and Europe. Here's Ameling singing La rosa y el source in 1981, a little less "Spanish" but lovely. On this same disc, Ameling sings Constantin Huyghens (1596-1687) and a Victorian song in English – she certainly has range!

Louis Andriessen is Holland's greatest living composer, but his father, brother and sister were/are also important figures in Dutch music circles. This is an opportunity to hear Hendrik Andriessen's Magna res est amor and Fiat Domine (cond Haitink) and a devotional work for voice and organ, Miroir de Peine. Father and son write completely different music, but both have strong convictions. Albert de Klerk accompanies Ameling on Miroir de Peine. I don't know where the organ is but it's very low toned and resonant, so Ameling's voice floats lyrically above. She sounds very young and angelic. Then you see it's made in 1958. It's like being transported back in time to a simpler world.

Since we don't hear much of Dutch composers. it's interesting to hear a CD in this set devoted to Bertus van Lier (1906-72) and Robert Heppener (b 1925). The former is represented by an opera, The Song of Songs, where Ameling sings Shulamite. However, the real discovery here is Heppener's Cantico delle Creature di San Francisco d'Assisi (1952). This is very good indeed, in fact the highlight of the whole set. If you like Hans Werner Henze's Italian works, you'll love this. It was written in 1952, before Henze settled in Italy, so there's no connection, though it stands comparison, which is praise indeed. It's about ten minutes, the voice accompanied by string orchestra, particularly lustrous writing where the high strings shine and the low strings add richness. Ameling's in her prime on this 1977 recording, so beautiful that the set's worth getting for this alone.

This set is a labour of love, compiled by those who know Elly Ameling and understand what makes her so good. A lot of work must have gone into tracking down these pieces, many of them radio broadcasts, and getting permissions. There are also wonderful photos, like Ameling with her dogs, and one where she grins, holding a T shirt that says "Happiness is Singing". That sums up the spirit of this set, and why I enjoy it so much. It's sincere, personal and very warm hearted. This is a lovely tribute, so track it down if you can.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Holland and the BBC honour Louis Andriessen

Holland's greatest living composer, Louis Andriessen, celebrates his 70th birthday this year. He's being honoured by the Holland Festival which started this week. Pity I couldn't be there this year. But on BBC Radio 3 there's a programme (Hear and Now) for online on demand listening for the next few days. There's also a good interview by the standards of this series, as the interviewer, Zoe Martlew, did her homework well. Andriessen is an articulate guy, so the talk factor here is informative. Listen for his description of Indonesian women's choirs at the court in Jogjakarta. Eat your heart out, Steve Reich.

First piece is De Stijl, inspired by the paintings of Piet Mondrian.
Mondrian loved jazz and modernity and so does Andriessen. Mondrian "paints" the brightness of boogie woogie in cells of colour, Andriessen with lively riffs. De Stijl is vibrant, exuberant yet also quite nostalgic, for there's a long semi Sprechgesang passage describing Mondrian in his last years – an old man who loved to dance.

Then Reinbert de Leeuw conducts the Schoenberg and Asko Ensembles in De Staat. Round and round the sequential progressions go, barely changing til they reach a new plateau. It's so much like gamelan, which isn't notated in the western style. Instead it grows out of actual performance, the players lighting on developments simply by listening to subtle changes in each other's playing. The piece was written for Orkest Volharding, the innovative non-hierarchical orchestra which Andriessen was involved with. Volharding was an attempt to create a communal, co-operative ensemble so the gamelan idea is probably apt.

Andriessen wrote De Staat a full 12 years before Steve Reich's Different Trains: listen to them together and Andriessen's influence is clear. Indeed, even the idea of trains is suggested by Andriessen's driving, relentless movement. De Staat, though, concerns itself with ideas about the place of music in society. The text comes from Plato. It is a political work in the deepest sense and an important piece of music for many different reasons. The Netherlands Wind Ensemble (Louis Vis conductor) will be performing it at the Proms on 28th August. It's very visual, so worth hearing live. A full review of the Proms De Staat is posted on this blog, please see HERE
LOTS ON ANDRIESSEN on this blog ! Even something about his father.

Esa Pekka Salonen will conduct the UK premiere of Andriessen's Hague Hacking which Salonen conducted in LA in January. Review of that is on this blog, too, see HERE

photo credit : Meltdown Festival

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Shockingly different Berg Lulu, Royal Opera House

The buzz was right - this new Lulu at the Royal Opera House, London is shockingly different.

Christof Loy's production of Alban Berg's Lulu is what minimalism should be: pared down to essentials so all attention is on the music. The stage is almost empty, no props, no furnishings. At first you think, why stage this at all, then ? Why not just a concert performance? But gradually it dawns that the "empty" space isn't empty at all but inhabited by the music, uncompromising and unadorned. That's why it's so disturbing. Without décor to cushion the narrative, it's impossible to escape.

The word "concept" is sneered at in our anti-intellectual world, but without intellect we are no more than beasts. Berg was an extremely conceptual composer. Lulu is constructed like a complex maze, with mathematical symmetries and interrelationships. Berg was obsessed by secret codes and numerology, with patterns and images shifting as if in a kaleidoscope. Berg is doing much more than telling a story in sound. He's creating a whole new concept, where ideas are expressed through abstraction. He's not literal, so this very non-literal production reveals just how radical his ideas could be.

The stage is bare but for a wall of glass. Like the glass, Lulu is opaque, impenetrable. Like Lulu, the glass takes on whatever role is projected onto it, whether the scene takes place in a mansion, prison or slum. The glass is Lulu's mirror image. No wonder there's no need for a painted portrait. The glass is staring us in the face.

Although the designs look sleek and sophisticated, danger lurks beneath the surface. Twice the narrative is interrupted by news of a revolution in Paris. Then the Third Act takes place in Paris. Everything's askew like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari where you don't know who the madman is, doctor or patient. So there's no film sequence in this production. It "is" the essence of film, and of the opera, and it's even in black and white.

The Caligari reference is relevant for throughout this opera people are becoming what they are not, pretending to be someone else, reappearing in different forms. It's in the music too, with its intricate constructions. So the Professor of Medicine sits with his back to the audience as Lulu fools around with the painter, has his heart attack then rises discreetly from the dead and walks off to become theatre manager and banker. The Painter doesn't have to commit suicide "convincingly" because he comes back as The Negro. Berg isn't being naturalistic, he's playing games of patterns and subterfuge. If Loy's production is confusing, that's because the opera is about confusion.

This is not "Lulu for Beginners", though, conversely, if it's taken entirely on its own terms, without assumptions of what opera "should" be, it might even be easier to grasp the concept of Lulu as a musical puzzle The first time I saw Lulu was 1978 - the original of the 3 act version - and was so shocked by the passive anti-drama of Lulu's personality that I didn't realize that this was exactly what Berg wanted to do. Here, Loy has taken away the obvious signposts to narrative, so we're forced, like Lulu, to be constantly alert, always aware that things may not be what they seem, and be prepared to shift and adjust. We are drawn into the jungle of shadowy dangers: hence the references to Africa (unknown territory), to snakes and predatory men. It's a far deeper insight into Lulu's background than the basic assumption that she was abused as a child. Loy's implication is that the whole world's a place where people are forced to play tricks to survive, like the Animal Trainer's charges.

No doubt there'll be huge opposition to this Lulu but it's one that will keep generating ideas for a long time to come. Spartan as it is, each detail is significant. For example, when Dr Schön embraces Lulu, his arms go round her, but his palms are stretched outward. When he starts to disintegrate emotionally in Act Two, there's a smudge of greasepaint on one side of his face. Lulu had worn such makeup when she was a dancer, and he is a man about to marry someone else. Now he's the vulnerable one. These details are fleeting, easily missed and may mean different things, so repeated visits to this Lulu are in order.

Indeed, the full impact of this production may not emerge until long after it's over. Since coming away from it, I've been thinking about Berg's obsessive sense of order. If the world is in perpetual, confusing chaos, then compulsive orderliness is a means of staving off danger. Berg's symmetries and palindromes aren't simply pattern making but a kind of secret incantation. Was he on the verge of something really radical when he died? We shall never know but it's stimulating to wonder.

Because this production throws so much emphasis on the music, it's quite a surprise at first how soft edged the orchestra sounded. Because I'm imprinted so much by Boulez, I make allowances for anyone else. In rehearsals, Antonio Pappano has emphasized the Viennese aspects of this opera, and its submerged romanticism. Submerged, like Lulu's tragedy. Despite the violence in this opera, it's tender and dignified. So I can see where the soft focus is coming from. It acts like a counterbalance to the stark sharpness of the staging: Boulez conducting a production like this would be almost too intense to bear! On the other hand, as my friend Mark Berry in Boulezian points out, a production with such emphasis on the music might need a more uncompromising performance. As he suggests, Metzmacher, Abbado, Harding or Gielen.

Agneta Eichenholz was Lulu. She's quite experienced though mainly in Sweden, which is perhaps appropriate for a Lulu , whose background is unknown. A First Night at Covent Garden was perhaps the highest profile she's ever had, so if she sounded tense, it's completely understandable.. It's a difficult part to sing, and to some extent shrillness fits in with the character. She doesn't quite have the hypnotizing presence of Christine Schäfer, but it really is asking too much of anyone to expect such standards.

Michael Volle's Dr Schön is a benchmark realization, all the more impressive because it's his first time in the role, though he sang Wozzeck only a few months ago. This is
Dr Schön's tragedy as much as Lulu's. He's a man who showed compassion when he took Lulu off the streets, even if he may have got something back for doing so. Lulu clearly loves him, though she's incapable of giving him the same kindness. Because Volle's Dr Schön looks vigorous and in his prime, his disintegration is all the more distressing. He embodies Berg's theme of control and chaos: an authoritative, powerful voice but the actorly skills to transit from magnate to tortured soul.

Paradoxically – Lulu is full of paradoxes – the most unrealistic scene in the opera occurs when Countess Geschwitz and Lulu swap clothes and personalities. That couldn't happen in real life but in Loy's production the two women really do look alike. Jennifer Larmore's Countess Geschwitz is also a far more sympathetic portrayal than the butch Cruella DeVille some assume gay people must be. Berg's sister Smagarda was lesbian, so he knew they were people just like anyone else. Again, this production captures the essence of the opera by not giving the game away with obvious clues. You have to concentrate when Larmore and Eichenholz aren't singing to keep track of which is which.

Sturdy performances from Klaus Florian Vogt as Alwa and Peter Rose as the Animal Trainer/Athlete. Schigolch, though, might have needed greater definition. Unlike the other characters, he stays the same. He's the animal who can't be tamed, and a counter to Lulu herself, so more should have been made of the role. Gywnne Howell sang well, but the wild edge to the part wasn't present.

Get to this production. Chances are it won't be seen too often as it's hardly box office candy. Some ladies sitting near me were day trippers from the country on a package tour of the capital. They must have been thinking how odd Londoners are – don't we like The Lion KIng?

For production pix, see the formal review HERE
FIVE OTHER POSTS on Lulu and this production and a wholemovie download ! click on labels link at right. Christoff Loy will be directing the new production of Tristan und Isolde at the Toyal Oepra Hpouse London in September. Michael Volle sings Kurnewal, Heppner and Nina Stemme is I