Friday, 31 July 2009

Berlioz and Mendelssohn head to head Prom 19 2009 Hallé


Berlioz hated Mendelssohn. Consumed by envy, he spared no effort to denigrate the younger composer. When Mendelssohn invited Berlioz (who needed the work), Berlioz responded by giving Mendelssohn a rough stick of wood in exchange for Mendelssohn’s elegant baton. He added an insulting note, suggesting that they might “down tomahawks” only in death. Wagner gets the blame for destroying Mendelssohn’s reputation. But at least Wagner learned much, despite his jealousy. Hearing Berlioz and Mendelssohn together in this Proms illustrates the fundamental musical gap between them.

If this performance of the Overture from Benvenuto Cellini, by the Hallé under Mark Elder was somewhat undistinguished, it was excusable as it was a curtain raiser for other things. La Mort de Cléopâtre is a 19th century vision of ancient Egypt painted in overwrought purples and golds. This is Berlioz at his colourful best, gloriously over the top, every moment drawn out for theatrical impact. Cleopatra is angry at being rejected – “la fille des Ptolémées” vents her rage in swelling, sonorous lines. Piercing string chords raise the tension, hinting also at the sharp sting of the asp. As the poison seeps through Cleopatra’s veins, the vocal line darkens and slows to funereal place. “Osiris proscrit ma couronne”, intones Susan Graham.

Graham was in her element. Her concert of French songs on 27th July showed her comic gifts. La Mort de Cléopâtra reflects the main part of her career. She’s a superb interpreter of the French operatic tradition. Excellent singing, vibrato properly and tastefully deployed. Berlioz’s Cléopâtre is histrionic in the High Romantic manner, but Graham makes her a believable character. “Cléopâtre en quittant la vie redeient digne de César”. The way Graham delivers it, the sentiment has strange, logical grace.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 2, the Lobgesang, was written to commemorate the invention of moveable-type printing. Since Leipzig was a centre of the book trade, Gutenberg was the city’s secular saint. Of even greater importance, though, print made knowledge accessible. No longer was learning – and power – the privilege of an elite. Print made the Bible available to all, spearheading the Reformation. It gave rise to the Age of Enlightenment and the values of reason and liberty which shaped the modern age. Felix Mendelssohn's grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, epitomised the Enlightenment spirit : his achievements aren’t sufficiently appreciated.

This was the context from which Lobgesang arose. Shockingly, this was its first Proms appearance in 40 years. Perhaps when people understand Mendelssohn’s world, they may better understand the significance of his music.

Lobgesang is a hymn, not simply to God, but to the power of learning and enlightenment in the fullest meaning of the world. It’s powerfully inspiring. It’s Mendelssohn’s equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth, in many ways. It’s even a song symphony, linking Beethoven with Mahler.

The most amazing performance I ever heard was the Leipzig Gewandhaus, conducted by Riccardo Chailly. For the Leipzigers, Mendelssohn isn’t simply music but an act of faith. This was the city whose mayor stood up to the Nazis by refusing to remove Mendelssohn’s statue from outside the Gewandhaus. This was also the city which stood up to the East German regime in 1988. Kurt Masur, conductor of the Gewandhaus at the time, led the non-violent demonstrations, which led eventually to the Wende. The spirit of Mendelssohn was reborn.

No Proms performance could possibly have the same emotive impact. But Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé gave a good account. By de-emphasizing the High Victorian values that have attached to the symphony, Elder reached towards the basic concepts which inspired Mendelssohn in the first place. Despite the massed choirs and big orchestra, this wasn’t the kind of “comfort music” we often get in big public places. The three parts of the first movement, the Sinfonia, evolve graciously. Elder doesn’t let the theme of triumph (trumpets and trombones) become too obvious, even though it emerges near the beginning. Instead, he lets the airy Allegro mood prevail. Elegance in the string playing matters, for when the chorus enters, the symphony shifts up a gear. “Lobt den Herren” they sing, “mit Saitenspiel”. This is what the first movement has been leading up to, in its gentle way.

Elder brings from the Hallé a nice, classical sense of proportion. The balance between orchestra and choir was well judged. Sally Matthews’s voice was attractively bright in tone, projecting well above the massed voices of the choir. This was quite an achievement as the Hallé is very good, very full and rich. The flow from the dark of Die nacht is vergangen to the light of Nun Danket wir alle Gott was well judged. The latter is a classic Protestant hymn, even more effective in some ways as a spartan solo song. Mendelssohn absorbed Bach and Prussian Pietism on a deeply personal level. Steve Davislim gave a good, firm rendition of the demanding hymn, Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede.

This is a wonderfully visual symphony. It was televised for broadcast and repeat listening. Seeing the glitter of the brass, and the organ loft lit by light adds to the experience. It is dramatic, but its primary impact is spiritual. For Mendelssohn, music was sublime, but it was also a channel for higher concepts, a means towards greater goals of human understanding. No wonder he used a well crafted, beautiful baton, sheathed in kid leather. Berlioz wanted to hurt Mendelssohn, crudely comparing their batons. "Le mien est grossier, le tien est simple". In music terms, though, simple can mean greater.

Please see my many other posts on Mendelssohn, Mensch and hero ! (list of labels on right). I'll be writing a lot more about him this year so please subcribe and keep posted.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Jörg Widmann Bamberg Symphony Proms 18 2009

How can a composer aged under 40 be the draw of a Prom with Bruckner and Mozart? If he's Jörg Widmann and the piece is Con Brio.

Con Brio was only written last year. One pf my friends heard the New York premiere and was thrilled, so there was no way I was missing this Prom even though I've been less enthused about Jonathan Nott, the conductor, and Bruckner isn't my thing, try as I may.

Widmann is no stranger. Earlier this year, he was the subject of a whole series of concerts at the Wigmore Hall, where the composer himself played, sometimes accompanied by his also talented sister Carolin.

Most composers play, teach and write so that isn't any kind of surprise at all. What makes Widmann exciting is his articulate enthusiasm and knowledge. That is a much rarer talent than we assume. Widmann should be writing and broadcasting. Listen to the preconcert broadcast HERE for 7 days. (This will also link to the rebroadcast of Prom 17). Most of these BBC talks are abysmal, but Widmann keeps the focus on music, and knows what he's talking about. There are also full performances of Air for Solo Horn, and Five Fragments (1997) this latter interesting because it flirts with extremes high and low but is densely compressed. At about 35 minutes, Widmann himself plays his early (1993) Fantasie.

My friend was right about Con Brio. It's fun! It was written specifically to complement a concert of Beethoven's 7th and 8th symphonies. Thus the snatches of Beethoven. But Widmann is certainly not simply referencing the past, he's far too sharp to wallow in pastiche. Instead he turns the glamour of Beethoven on its head, focussing on basic percussion rhythms. Short, hollow sounds scatter along like objects blown on the ground, muffled whistles. Amazing what timpani can do. There's even the whisper of a formal gavotte, and the echo of a trumpet fanfare and, a hint of Alle menschen würden Brüder. But it's probably wrong to get wrapped up in quotes. This is much more sophisticated, the "essence" of the older composer. This is Beethoven's skeleton. "Nothing left in the end", says Widmann, "only bones".

Since listening to Con Brio last night I listened to Beethoven 5th. Yes! there's that sense of notes hurtling foward, breaking and reforming. A few years ago I saw an Austrian cartoon based on the symphony, which showed clocks ticking, then changing tempo, leaves fluttering on cobbled streets, so much movement. Then, Beethoven himself, a brooding figure, no softness but a deeper grandeur.
Con Brio isn't a great masterpiece by any means, but it's fun and apposite.

Arabella Steinbacher was the soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto no 3 (K216). It worked well with Con brio because it's so free and spare. The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra isn't huge and starry. Bamberg is a small town, with a superb music school, so it has a different character to orchestras in major cities. It has a lovely sound, mellow but firm, like the wood on an old violin. I first heard them with Keilberth. It always has played new music, some so obscure it's never been heard again. Some of Jonathan Nott's work with this orchestra has been very good indeed, particularly when he works with their strengths, some less so. I should have listened to their Bruckner. They'd be good.

photo : ©Schott productions/Peter Andersen
Tonight : Susan Graham in Berlioz, with Mendelssohn's massive Lobgesang. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Haydn - sexier now ?

Earlier this year there was a talk at the South Bank with the title "Haydn : deeply unsexy ?" The idea was that Haydn doesn't sell the way Mahler or Mozart sells to audiences that don't normally listen to classical music. It's not Haydn himself but the way he doesn't fit the temper of modern times. "Who does he think he is writing baroque!" as someone said of Handel.

Andrew Clark in the Financial Times takes the Farewell Symphony as his starting point. Why do the musicians quietly remove themselves? Clark hears it as an elegant, but forceful response to the overbearing Prince Esterházy. Fortunately the Prince was astute enough to get the message. A suppressed rebel, then FJ Haydn ? But consider the times, when men could get disappeared for life if they upset the powers that were. And have things really changed so much?

Harrison Birtwistle did much the same thing in his Tree of Life (2008) but with less pointed portent.

Clark recommends Richard Wigmore's new book, The Faber Pocket Guide to Hadyn. Wigmore needs no introduction, he's original and perceptive. "...the Faber guides are a more substantial undertaking than the “pocket” appellation suggests. Wigmore’s lightly worn erudition is deceptive: without over-simplifying he has a knack of clarifying and contextualising all the relevant material, and is not afraid to give us the benefit of his own opinion. In his magisterial guide to individual works, he offers more insights than any other Haydn authority, signing off his chapter on The Seasons with the observation that the work “is killed by an excess of solemnity in performance”.

"Wigmore demonstrates that it is not enough for today’s scholars to know the territory through and through. They have to be able to sift and communicate it in a way that makes the reader drop the book and run to the music." Of course that presupposes people read to learn, not necessarily a given in this day and age.

Full article HERE

Martinů and Bělohlávek Prom 15 2009

Jiří Bělohlávek continues to work wonders. He's changing the face of music in Britain. Not since Kubelik in the late 1940's has there been a conductor who understands the syntax of Slavic music because he is a native speaker. It really does make a difference. He's also good because he's prepared to bring more of the repertoire into prominence. It helps, too, that he knows everyone and can bring in good musicians that we might otherwise miss. Read about his Janacek Prom 2008 Osud, his recording of The Excursions of Mr Broucek and the wonderful Martinů Julietta with Magdalena Kozena.

Take note. Bělohlávek will be conducting the biggest ever series of Martinů symphonies ever heard in Britain later this year at the Barbican. In New York, Alan Gilbert will be weaning audiences onto the composer too. This Prom was a taster for the future. Here's a review by my friend Douglas Cooksey (read his report on the Risor Festival in Norway) who doesn't like Martinů as much as I do but writes better.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Benjamin Britten, Boy Wonder, Red House, Aldeburgh


New Benjamin Britten discovery! The song goes "Hop, happy bunnies, we, one, two" Suddenly the voice leaps an octave and squeaks "three!" CUTE, but not bad considering he was about 7 when he wrote it. You can hear the whole song at an exhibition at The Red House, Aldeburgh, where Britten and Pears lived from 1957 until they died. Over the past few years, Britten's childhood has been exhaustively documented. The exhibition has items never before displayed. There's also a series of concerts through the summer.

Composer juvenilia can be embarrassing. Most composers lose theirs, or throw them out, but Britten kept his all his life, scrupulously organized in an eerily adult manner. He wrote no fewer than 800 pieces before the age of 18, many formally copied out with proper title pages marked "E B Britten". In Britten's case, juvenilia matters. The child is father of the man. All his life he was fixated on youth, on innocence corrupted, so it's interesting to find out what Britten was like when he himself was an innocent. CLICK on the photos to enlarge for detail.

Many handwritten scores can be seen: lots of bright kids live in this kind of fantasy world where they illustrate and "publish" series of books and pictures. It's a kind of role play. In Britten's case, it reinforced his sense of being different.

"I feel very small, and very strange", he wrote home from boarding school. It must have been strange indeed to come from a home where things revolved around him, pampered by his adoring mother, and suddenly be forced to live with ordinary boys.

What the boys thought of him isn't known, which is odd since he was to become so famous in their lifetimes. But some of the teachers seem to have been unsettled by him. Were they jealous, did his abilities make them feel inadequate? To them, Britten may not have seemed quite as vulnerable as he really was. For Britten, school was a tough test, where he proved himself. But as he was later to confide to a friend, it was when he discovered sex, by force. No conclusive proof of course, but it makes you reflect on the many things that made Britten the person he was. He learned early to stand up for himself, whatever the ways of the world. It also sheds light on that strange emotional reticence that many find offputting in his music but is so integral to his expression.

The years of work that went into cataloguing Britten's boyhood also shed light on teaching methods of the time. One of the exhibits is a board with stave lines on which kids can move time signatures and clefs, like a board game. It makes abstract ideas concrete and shows how components can be moved around. Because Britten's youth is so well documented, the project's also useful as source material for the study of childhood.

The Red House (up a driveway past a golf course) also houses the Britten-Pears Library (books and scores), in what was once their living room. You can see Britten's piano, facing the garden, covered with a rather well crocheted afghan rug. Opposite are the chairs where he and Pears would have sat. Through the house are pictures and furniture of their time. They lived as modernists in mid-century European style. No kitsch chintz. I spent ages browsing their books, some signed with their names, most with a fancy Ex Libris plate. They certainly were up to date in their reading - first editions of books then published. Striking was how much they read on the baroque. Some rare books, in German as well as English.

The exhibition runs til 11 December, and concerts run through August 2009. It's a good opportunity to visit Aldeburgh when it's relatively quiet out of Festival season. The town is becoming a foodie paradise -- genuine home-cooked treats and local produce. Shop at Salters, the family-run local butcher where you can buy quiches on bases which the cook's kids have cut out from cardboard and covered with foil. Delicious, and fresh. Fantastic meat, cheese, apple juice and picnic food. It is wonderful to get away from mass-produced chain stores. The locals get excited because there's a supermarket out of town, but visitors thank God that Aldeburgh is a time warp. People wait all year to stock up at the local pharmacist, Shooters, which carries luxury brands among the quaint beach toys. Visit Butchers, which must be the last Old Worlde department store in Britain, where the shop fittings are Victorian and you buy clothes from a staffed counter. Since they stock modern brands like Barbour, it's real shopping not fantasy. Much more fun than self-conscious arty boutiques. Support local independent business, buy a years' supply of socks, shirts, coats.
For more on the Britten juvenilia catalogue, please see HERE

Monday, 27 July 2009

Susan Graham French Songs Proms 2009

If Renee Fleming's voice is "creamy", Susan's Graham would be pure golden honey, scented with summer blossom. Graham sings with personality and wit, making her songs come alive with personal feeling. Like William Christie and others, she's American but France is her artistic home. She understands the clarity of French song, and adds robust warmth and spirit. Had Ravel, Debussy and Poulenc lived to hear this voice! Her recordings of Charles Ives and Ned Rorem show that her style works for American song, too. But she's almost without par in French chanson.

So this chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall had song fans drooling with delight. Most of the audience know her masterpieces, like the amazing Reynaldo Hahn songs, and Berlioz, Massenet and Bizet, so she chose a good mix of other French song composers for variety.

There were great favorites, like Le Paon, from Ravel's Histoires naturelles, animated by Graham's exuberant good humour. A peacock gets jilted by his bride, but he's really more interested in flashing his plumage. When he sings, it's a hideous squawk! Ravel sends up the pompous fool, Graham softens the satire with charm.

Less famous, but much loved, Emmanuel Chabrier's Les cigales. "Les cigales, les cigalons chantent mieux que des violins!" But do they? Malcolm Martineau played the jerky, jumpy piano part with such charm, you really could feel the buzz in the cicada chorus. It was great, too, to hear Caplet, Roussel and Honneger's miniatures.

Two Susan Graham specialities, which no one does quite like she can. Manuel Rosenthal's La souris de l'Angleterre comes from a set of 12, the Chansons de Monsieur Bleu. Some of them sit a little too low for soprano, but they're a wonderful group and should be programmed more often. I've heard Graham bring down the house at the Wigmore Hall with Poulenc's La dame de Monte-Carlo, swaying her hips and prancing with a feather boa. I laughed so much, I had tears in my eyes. Graham is a natural actress, which makes her formidable in opera.

But Graham in a pensive mood is even more beautiful. For an encore she sang Reynaldo Hahn's exquisite A Chloris. Graham brought Hahn into the mainstream. Her recording, with Roger Vignoles, is the benchmark. At this Prom, she was freer and lighter than on the CD. Listen to the clip below. It also links to a version by the dishy Phillippe Jaroussky who makes the song sound gloriously baroque but Hahn, who died in 1947, was only playing at being baroque.

An mein Hammerklavier - Schubert, Drake and Bostridge


Lieder is a partnership between singer and pianist. I've loved Julius Drake for more than 15 years. In May I heard him rescue an indifferent recital by the sheer wonder of his playing. So it was a surprise to hear him at the Wigmore Hall on 25/7.

The programme was promising, an intelligent mix of much-loved Schubert staples with relative rarities which the Wigmore Hall's specialist audience eagerly anticipated. By its very nature Lieder is more extreme than ordinary song. Good Lieder recitals shouldn't be tame. But the reckless pace at which Drake was playing seemed to stem from something quite outside the music. His tempi were so fast that all sense of phrasing was lost. Drake has the technical facility to play at breakneck speeds without losing notes, but this relentless pressure distorted line and meaning. And Lieder without meaning isn't Lieder.

Since each song is individual, its character needs to be respected. Drake lurched from one song to the next without a break, sometimes almost before the resonant echoes of the last had faded. Switching from the contemplative Freiwilliges Versinken (D700), with its images of a pale moon and resignation, to the stormy Der zürnenden Diana (D707b) might in some circumstances be dramatic, but when every song and every traverse is treated the same hurried way, the songs tumble into a jumble.

The audience was disregarded, too. Pauses between songs allow listeners to reflect on what they've heard, for Lieder is about making listeners think. Now there wasn't even time to turn a page, or to cough to break tension. Only after the performance ended did Drake take an extended break, claiming he couldn't find the score for the encore, laughing as if it were a joke. Since the encore was Die Forelle (D 550), and we all knew there'd be an encore, this seemed contrived.

When Drake wasn't aiming for an Olympic speed record, his touch was heavy. An mein Klavier (D 342) refers to a fortepiano. The melody lilts, for it's a "sanftes Klavier". This clavier, instead, gave extra meaning to the term Hammer-klavier.

To Ian Bostridge's credit, he managed to match Drake's pace for the most part. In the last few years, he's developed much greater control and depth. Indeed, a friend of mine heard this concert a few weeks ago at Schwarzenberg and said that, if anything, Bostridge's voice was in even better form this evening. My friend, who hears 50 or more Lieder recitals a year, hasn't in the past been a big Bostridge fan, but has become convinced by the singer's increasing poise and confidence,. Now that's tinged with respect for the way Bostridge handled the wayward dynamics.

Der Wanderer (D 489, von Lübeck) showed how Bostridge can float legato with the fluidity of a clarinet, yet imbue words with great meaning. Lieder isn't a medium for bland purity: a singer has to care about the words. This is one of Bostridge's great strengths. He'd clearly thought through less well known songs like Die Perle (D 466, Jacobi) where the poet knows he'll never find the pearl he's searching for. A pity that the marking schrietend (at a walking pace) was so rushed that it pushed the poet to his death before giving him a chance to savour his predicament with true Romantic pathos.

Ballads like Lied des Gefangenen Jägers (D843) and Normans Gesang (D846) both to texts by Sir Walter Scott, need vivid expression to create interest, which Bostridge's emphasis on meaning provided. Then, in a burst of impassioned energy, he threw himself into the Mayrhofer song An die Freude (D654), giving it greater portent than I've heard before. Mayrhofer, a neurotic with whom Schubert later fell out, contemplates death, when friends will bring flowers to his grave. "Rejoice"sings the poet "Dies alles ist dem Toten gliech" ("all this means nothing to me now"). Despite the turbulent piano, Bostridge had perspective, and sang with grace.

Wonderful programme notes by Richard Stokes. Most programme notes are ephemera, geared to basic readership. Stokes's notes combine insight into the music and poems with knowledge of wider cultural background. He gives details even the astute Wigmore Hall audience might miss. For example, Das Zügenglöcklein (D871) isn't just any bell but one traditionally rung in Austrian villages when parishioners lay dying, to prepare them for the next world. In this frantic modern world, we don't reflect on simple, quiet things like that. Stokes makes us realize just how relevant Schubert is to us today.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

French and Japanese Prom 10 2009 Debussy Takemitsu


“If we listen without European prejudice to the charm of their percussion”, said Claude Debussy of his first exposure to gamelan in 1889, “We must confess that our percussion is like primitive noises at a country fair”

Without Japan, we wouldn't have much of what we now take for granted as "western culture". When Japan burst into Europe in the 19th century, it opened up a new world of exotic possibilities, parallel to the influence of the New World and Asia on the baroque era. No wonder Monet and the Impressionists were so fascinated. Japan primed the west for “other worlds” like Asia, the Middle East, Africa. Orientalism remains a powerful thread in French literature, art and music, which the insular Anglophile world doesn’t appreciate. The significance of this Prom was lost on the small audience. Perhaps people were scared off by “foreign” music, not realizing that Bizet, Ravel and Debussy were inspired by strange new sounds in the first place.

In turn, Debussy inspired Tōru Takemitsu. Takemitsu was fascinated by the way Debussy used washes of orchestral sound, “impressionism” as music. He recognized that Japanese instruments could extend the palette of western orchestras, providing extra colours and richness.

Takemitsu builds his music around the shō. The shō is a bundle of 17 pipes, each with a copper reed. Because a performer can inhale and exhale while playing, the instrument can produce extremely long, seamless legato, far beyond the range of conventional mouth blown instruments. Moreover, each pipe is a different length and each reed vibrates freely within the pipe, allowing subtle gradations of nuance within the line.

Mayumi Miyata demonstrated just how powerful the shō can be. She created sounds that rose out of stillness, rising in keening arcs of sound that seemed to vibrate across the massive space that is the Royal Albert Hall. The shō’s call is met by three pairs of flautists (soprano and bass), positioned round the perimeter. Takemitsu shows that this tiny instrument can match the massive multiple pipes of the Royal Albert Hall organ in dramatic use of sound and space.

Hearing Debussy’s Estampes – Pagodes right after Takemitsu made me appreciate how well Debussy understood non-western idioms. He used pentatonic chords, but also intuited that Asian music develops, not by thematic progression but by changes of tempo and direction.

Maurice Ravel didn’t use Asian motifs in Rapsodie espagnole, but his concept was similar: to borrow from traditions outside conventional orchestral forms to create new music. Instead of five note tones, he uses a scale of four, adding jerky, angular rhythms of Spanish dance. This piece is so familiar now that we forget how startling it must have seemed in 1907. Similarly, Tzigane, with its “barbaric” wildness of Spanish gypsy, so alien to mainstream, middle class western Europe. This is the sound world of modernism, much in the way that Picasso and Braque embraced angular shapes and blocks of bold colour. Similarly, the Tzigane explores the sounds of gypsy music, more savage and “primitive!" than was the norm in mainstream, middle-class Europe at the time.

The Orchestre National de Lyon (ONL) is extremely good indeed, on a par with Orchestre de Paris and Ensemble Intercontemporain. Under Jun Märkl, they’ve built upon their reputation for energy, so these performances were executed with whip cracking precision and clarity. The strings move as a disciplined unit, so when the leader, Jennifer Gilbert, takes her solos, she sounds all the more thrilling and free.

Nonetheless, Akiko Suwanai, the violin soloist, was outstanding. She has such technical command that she can unleash dizzying displays of bravura, but deeply felt and natural. In Sarasate’s Concert Fantasy on Themes from Carmen, it’s as if Carmen’s personality comes alive, without the need for words. Glissandi “speak”. Imploringly, sharp bursts of staccato crack like boots are stamping in some defiant dance. The “Lilas Pastia” section evokes a gentler mood, Suwanai’s deeper timbre supported by double-bass murmuring.

Suwanai is amazing, very individual. Last year, she played RVW's Lark Ascending at the Proms. It sounded ethereallly beautiful, as if played on a Chinese erhu. See HERE Confirms my theory that British music takes on new life with non-British performers who don't carry years of baggage.

In Toshio Hosokawa’s Cloud and Light (2008) Mayumi Miyata’s shō also functioned as a voice. Where Takemitsu orchestrated around the unornamented shō, Hosokawa integrates it more closely with the ensemble. The title refers to Buddhist paintings where Buddha floats on clouds, light streaming from his halo. The clouds form dense circles, wisps stretching outwards like flames. Hence the dignified traverse of the piece, the shō emerging from a mist of muffled strings, which echo its serene lines.

Miyata holds one legato for what seems like 25 bars. It’s so quiet, so elusive that the sound seems to emanate from vibrations rather than register in the ears. The programme notes (Paul Griffiths) mention Messiaen’s Sept Haïkaï, which was inspired by Gagaku. While listening, though, I thought of the rapturous progressions of Vingt Régards sur L’Enfant-Jésus. In Messiaen as in Hosokawa, it is the sense of timeless movement that comes across most strongly. Towards the end, sounds seem to disintegrate in tiny, fragmented bell tones, wafting into infinity. please see HERE It's one of the most revolutionary pieces because it operates on three levels, each unit functioning separately and at different intervals. The picture on that posts shows a torii, an arch which seems to float suspended between sea and sky, changing with light and time.

In any ordinary Prom, Debussy’s La Mer would have had pride of place. Quite likely, the Orchestre National de Lyon would have produced a stunning performance. But the rest of the concert was so unusual, and so eclectic, that for once, it didn’t matter quite so much that Debussy’s masterpiece didn’t take centre stage. See full review HERE Read about Haitink conducting La Mer a few weeks ago HERE

Please also see what I've written about baroque in Europe, Japanese and Chinese baroque and cultural fusion. Labels on right, under "Macau" and "baroque". And of course, I can’t resist having fun. Here’s Ge Lan (Grace Chang) singing Carmen in Mandarin. She also does Rigoletto, Puccini, lots more. The film is wonderful, she has such panache and wit.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Mendelssohn and mountains : journey of the soul

Because Mendelssohn didn't flaff about in public, it's affected his image. The cliché is that he was a mindlessly happy airhead. Beneath the myth, though, the real Mendelssohn was complex and conflicted.

Here's an article about a man, Rick Jones, who dressed up as Mendelssohn and retraced his long hike through Scotland in the 1830's. It's funny but that's all the more reason why it's relevant. Surface isn't substance in Mendelssohn, nor in this quietly prescient article.

Mountain walkers know that being on your own for long periods forces you into your soul however you fill your immediate thoughts ("My feet hurt!"). Scottish mountains in Mendelssohn's youth were genuinely wild places, remote from civilization, a completely alien and quite dangerous world. There goes young Felix, leaving his wealthy German home, striding off into the unknown.

Jones has done his research and relates his own journey to what Mendelssohn wrote in his diaries. "The journeys that Felix and I made were life-changing events. The majesty of the Scottish wilderness, the hardship, the hunger, the friendship with Klingemann and the irrepressibility of nature seemed to open up in him a deep fount of melody. His future was sealed: a gap-year malaise made way for mature masterpieces. As for me, I’ve understood how deep an impression Scotland made on my favourite chorister composer and what it is like to wear jaw-length sideburns for a year"

Enjoy ! Click HERE for the full article in the Times.

Sorry I am late with Prom 10, but better slow than superficial.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Toru Takemitsu Green London Sinfonietta CD


There is an old photograph where a boyish Oliver Knussen towers head and shoulders over Toru Takemitsu. It captures the rapport between them. This is only the third release on the Sinfonietta’s own label, but it’s fitting that it should feature Takemitsu. Ozawa and Boulez may have premiered the works on this recording, but the relationship between the composer, Knussen and the Sinfonietta was special. This recording contains excerpts from an important Takemitsu retrospective, sponsored by the Sinfonietta in 1998.

Takemitsu said that Green was written "from a wish to enter into the secrets of Debussy’s music". Swathes of string sound revolve, changing coloration as starker, more dominant brass and woodwinds enter. Then, in the last few moments there’s a breakthrough into more vernal openness, the emerging stillness accentuated with the sound of a muted bell.

Arc was written specifically around the idea of a garden, which in Japanese culture is a metaphor for nature itself. Japanese gardens evoke in miniature much wider elements of landscape. At their most abstract, they may seem no more than rocks and sand. Monks who sweep the lines in the sand of these gardens do so as a spiritual exercise: they are recreating symbolic waves, oceans, and limitless horizons for the soul. Businessmen sometimes have a tray garden, to escape without leaving the office.

Not all Japanese gardens are quite so ascetic, though. The vast majority are filled with living plants, rocks, water. This is the type of garden I imagine Takemitsu was most at home in, full of colour, light and movement. At some periods of western garden history, gardens were formally structured to keep nature at bay. A Japanese garden is quite the opposite. It exists to bring the freedom of nature back into human life. Hence the rocks and water, bridges and hidden vistas that only reveal themselves when you are in the garden, involving yourself in its life. Even fallen leaves are part of the concept: the sight of maple leaves floating down a stream has inspired many a poet. Nothing could be further from this approach to nature than the serried rows of bug-free rosebushes in a western winter.

There is a film in which Takemitsu is shown sitting in a garden, explaining how it is a metaphor for music. A garden is like an orchestra, he says, consisting of lots of different elements which a musician can arrange in whatever order seems best. You can increase the impact of some elements by massing them, or extend their colours by planting with others that complement the palette. Sometimes some elements capture the eye, such as autumn leaves, while others remain a backbone, like pines. Textures vary: sometimes the delicacy of spring blossom, sometimes the tough character of tree bark. Then, too, there are extras, maybe the sound of water trickling from a bamboo pipe, or the chirping of crickets, or wind blowing through leaves. Or even the pattern of shade thrown by a cloud in the sky. A gardener works with nature, not against it. Thus a composer works with an orchestra, extending it and encouraging it to grow, but finding his ideas organically and in balance.

Thus with Arc, Takemitsu’s first explicitly "garden" work, we enter on a six part journey of exploration. Its foundation is a hum on strings that drones like a flatline. It is a low, steady murmur, from which sudden sparks of sound shoot out, gradually getting denser and more animated. The piano enters, at first tentatively, then joyously skittish as sounds around it grow. Horns, clarinet, woodblocks, trombone and other instruments can clearly be heard in short, impressionistic flashes. The steady murmuring strings return, but this time their individual voices are more defined. Sharp, sudden dissonances break the pace, and a clarinet soars up the scale. In the third movement, cellos and basses pick up the murmur and gradually it turns into a wild dance, tantalising sounds coming from all sides in quick succession. This movement wasn’t scored conventionally, and there’s no mistaking its vitality. The lower notes of the piano resonate with depth and darkness. Then with a swooping crescendo, the music transforms again. With scuttling, scraping figures the music subsides again. The piano’s sonorities now become dry, toneless taps, and even the rumbling murmur fades. The piano gets a bit of time on its own, so to speak, but the orchestra returns full force, led by a fast-paced brass fanfare. In the coda, the susurration of the strings asserts the primacy of their theme.

The video clip is pretty rough, plenty of background noise. But in a way that's good because you listen on two levels, to the orchestra and the world sound. On the disc the thunder's clearer. It's a very Takemitsu concept for he definitely lived in the world, and believed that music was part of the joy of existence.

The recording to get is Rolf Hind, London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen, on the London Sinfonietta's own label - support the orchestra, buy the disc.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Other Englishmen Finzi Elgar Moeran Proms 9 2009

Gorgeous as the Cambridge choral tradition is, there's more to British music. Thus Prom 9 balances Prom 8 with the music of other British composers. Moeran, Finzi and even Elgar were outsiders, who didn't belong to the Establishment but created their own, distinctive identities.

Gerald Finzi has fascinated me for years. Ostensibly, he's the most "English" of composers - look at him with a pipe and tweeds in the Cotswolds in 1925. He looks like he's rooted, yet he's only 24, a Londoner on holiday, discovering yoghurt and Bohemian living for the first time.

Finzi eptomized the "English Gentleman" with his self-effacing diffidence which belied an encyclopaedic knowledge of 17th century poetry and passionate dedication to causes, like Ivor Gurney, apple growing and music in performance. He founded the once great Newbury festival, and used to drive an ancient car to the Three Choirs Festival and to the Royal Albert Hall. Read Stephen Banfield's biography and Diane McVeagh's. Look at the label "Finzi" on the list at right for more, like a description of Intimations of Immortality, another Finzi masterpiece.

Finzi's sometimes disparaged as a miniaturist, though his "miniatures" like Dies natalis are more powerful than many composer's symphonies. So it's good that his Grand fantasia and Toccata is given a high profile Proms appearance. Tonight's performance, with Leon McCauley and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky was very spirited, full of vigour. I enjoyed Moeran, but then I usually do, but was blown away by hearing Finzi in the Royal Albert Hall. So much so that I'm itching to hear it on repeat broadcast. In the meantime I'll dig out a recording. There are several, all OK but not outstanding. This is a work that begs for excellence: it deserves to be heard more frequently and performed with the suppressed passion that's so Finzi.

Charles Villiers Stanford was too careful to knock Elgar in public but kicked up a storm when Elgar's Symphony no 2 got more rehearsal time at an important concert than one of his own works. It figures, Elgar's work was  the better work! This symphony is so familiar that there are lots of favourite performances. Sakari Oramo conducted it with the City of Birmingham Symphony as part of the Elgar celebrations. They take their Elgar seriously in those circles, so I was worried if Oramo's dynamic approach would upset traditionalists ("It wasn't done like that when I was a lad"). But it was inspiring, the darker aspects in sharp focus, no toning down and very well received. Not so Sinaisky. Maybe it was just me, still reeling from Finzi, but Sinaisky's Elgar was a bit too restrained, pleasant enough but without the fire and fangs buried deep within.

Tomorrow: Takemitsu, Ravel and Debussy. This will be one of my "must hear" concerts so I'll be writing at length. Later I'll post a review of the London Sinfonietta recording of Arc and Green. Google "takemitsu green arc". This is the essential recording because it's good, and was made with Takemitsu in attendance. Oliver Knussen conducts. This is a historic moment in the Sinfonietta's history, a "must" for their admirers. Takemitsu isn't nearly as well known as he should be, so it's worth having a listen and reading up.

Frenchmen steal show Cambridge Prom 8 2009

One Proms tradition rarely acknowledged is sour, nitpicking peevishness, which often reflects the nitpicker's hang-ups rather than what actually happens. So there were plenty of "big numbers" in this Prom to quiet those who think massiveness equals art. Women composers, modern composers, British composers, hundreds of choristers en masse, everything to satisfy the carpers. But did it work?

This Prom celebrates the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University, so it was a Prom of substance since Cambridge was a cradle of 19th century British music which Charles Villiers Stanford dominated by sheer force of personality. Like Nadia Boulanger, he was an autocrat who taught well but perhaps stifled creative spirits who didn't toe the line.

Significantly, Elgar and Delius didn't go to Cambridge, so he certainly wasn't the guiding force behind top-rank British music. If Stanford "changed the course of British music" as has been suggested, it wasn't necessarily for the best. Strange that this Prom didn't feature Hubert Parry, stomped on by Stanford but less up himself than Stanford, and loved by many. Still, British music owes Stanford. It would be interesting to hear a programme of Stanford students (who included the much underestimated Rebecca Clarke) but it might be as dull as boiled mutton and tweed in high summer, if not chosen well.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was politely circumspect about Stanford, but only really found his own voice when he went briefly to France. As did Gustav Holst. So perhaps we should be celebrating Ravel? The Wasps isn't mature RVW but already you can hear the composer moving away from Victorian values. Ryan Wigglesworth makes much of rampant borrowings in his Genesis of Secrecy, so perhaps the idea is to puzzle listeners into looking for hidden clues. Maybe that's why it sounds familiar even though it's the first of this year's Proms commissions. I'd prefer something more distinctive, but this will please those who don't normally like new music.

All the more to celebrate RVW's Five Mystical Songs. The moment Simon Keenlyside starts "Rise up, heart, they Lord is risen", it feels like RVW is into that "unknown region" which makes a composer individual. RVW links to English music traditions long before the Victorian age, and finds inspiration for the new. Sixteen Cambridge College choirs, and the mighty Royal Albert Hall organ behind Keenlyside: this was truly impressive. And to think of that Antiphon, with its glorious cries "Let all the world in ever'y corner sing, My Lord and King" pouring out of radios and PCs to every corner of the globe. This was a true Proms moment, even for those who don't believe in the same Lord or in any lord at all.

Stanford's Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis then had its Proms premiere, 130 years after it was written. Perhaps wisely, as this piece really needs garguantuan forces to make it work. It's basically plainchant but inflated to grandiose proportions, worlds away from the spirit of early music. Fortunately, the choirs of Clare, Gonville and Caius, and Trinity have the polish to carry it off with style but it's not a work to hear otherwise. But better this than other Stanford, because it fits better with the rest of the Prom and the idea of elaborate religious display.

Another Prom premiere, next, Jonathan Harvey's Come, Holy Ghost from 1984. Harvey was BBC "Composer of the Week", so I listened dutifully, but confess I don't get this composer no matter how I try. Growing up with the Catholic Mass and "world music" ought to make me sympathetic, but it seems to have the opposite effect. More involving was Judith Weir's Ascending into Heaven (1983), also a Proms First, with Thomas Trotter at the organ. But then I like Weir and her down-to-earth sense of humour.

Plenty of other Cambridge-connected composers might have fiilled this Prom (Ireland, Julian Anderson, Alexander Goehr, Hugh Wood etc) but it was just as well the finale was Camille Saint-Saëns's Organ Symphony. Saint-Saëns's Cambridge connection is nominal but this work stole the show. Last year, Myun-whun Ching conducted this at the Proms, with Olivier Latry. After an overwhelmingly powerful Messiaen Et exspecto resurrectionum mortuorum it was overshadowed. See description HERE. In this Prom, it overshadowed all that went before. When the Royal Albert Hall organ exploded into full glory, with Thomas Trotter at the helm, it was Saint-Saëns who stole the show.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Glyndebourne at the Proms - Prom 7 2009 Purcell Fairy Queen

At Glyndebourne, Purcell’s The Fairy Queen was utterly spectacular. Fairies tumbled out of walls, Gods descended from the roof, clouds of rose petals wafted from they sky into the audience. Obviously such wonders aren’t possible in the Royal Albert Hall but somehow the Glyndebourne atmosphere manages to travel. Some Prommers wear tuxedos and evening gowns. It was raining so I couldn’t picnic in the Park, but did the Glyndebourne thing in spirit,

Hearing The Fairy Queen at the Proms has its advantages. Although spectacular is very much integral to baroque extravaganza, a semi-staged concert performance lets you focus more on detail. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was itself part of the action, and William Christie made sure we noticed. The wind ensemble stood up to play, emphasizing their role in the music’s development. Musically, the theorbo/harpsichord dialogues mirror the interplay between the world of mortals and fairies. Putting them centre stage maximizes both musical and visual impact.

The First Act starts in the realm of “reality”, Theseus and Egius, and the four lovers in full 17th century finery. Then the workman appear as cleaners, literally “clearing away the cobwebs”, complete with vacuum cleaners. Desmond Barrit brings proceedings down to earth, in his hilarious portrayal of the Drunken Poet (and Bottom) as a gritty Welshman. At one point he places his hands round his ears to make them look bigger and intones like Prince Charles. Brilliant! Beneath the carefree gaiety, there’s no way of masking the subversive undercurrent in Shakespeare’s original. The posh folk may sneer at the workmen, but they’re no match for the fairies, who undo the ways of men.

The lovers escape from the palace by running into the woods. But night transforms the forest into mystery. In the darkness, all is illusion, so it doesn’t really matter all that much if we don’t see the spider in this concert performance. Night releases dreams, and dreams release the imagination. This is the fairy realm, where Titania and Oberon rule, albeit with chaos, but where rigid reality holds no sway. The fairies pull off the lover’s clothes, leaving them exposed in every sense.

This performance retains the essentials of the staging. The fairies are garbed in black, some with sinister wings, for the supernatural represents the unconscious. It’s dangerous. Titania, played by Sally Dexter, is a magnificent virago, her voice trembling with intense power. The love/hate relationship between her and Oberon (Joseph Millson) has drama even without the other levels in the plot whose complexities defy logic. Puck (Jotham Annan) is physical energy personified, half mortal, half animal. Perhaps that’s why he’s the agent who carries out Oberon’s orders, dispensing the magic potion which creates such mayhem.

The Proms performance also gives greater weight to the workmen and their play-within-a-play. This can be easily staged, simply by costumes and good acting. Very good acting indeed, especially in the case of Desmond Barrit and Robert Burt, hilarious in drag, who are primarily singers. Similarly, Ed Lyon, who appears naked, his modesty concealed by a fig leaf, but sings a long part with complete assurance. Andrew Foster-Wiilliams does the comic role of Hymen, the reluctant god of marriage, who has to start singing, heroically, right after running in from the stalls, and round the stage. What’s more, he’d just finished singing Winter in the tableaux, acting the song vocally, complete with the wheezes of frost and old age.

This opera is full of vignettes, like Juno (Lucy Crowe), Phoebus, the Sun King (Lukas Kargl) and the Seasons and the Plaint (Carolyn Sampson). Very good dancing, too, which is something we rarely see at the Proms.

On this occasion, William Christie didn’t even attempt to get the audience to join in the merry chorus “They shall be happy, happy, happy be”. The prospect of 7000 people singing along would have been sensational, but too much to seriously expect. In Glyndebourne, the performance ended with buckets of rose petals pouring from the heavens. Again, this isn’t feasible in the Royal Albert Hall, but this Prom was so much fun, it felt like it was happening in spirit.

To read the review with full cast details, see HERE To read the review from Glyndebourne, with more photos please read HERE

The photo I've used shows Titania and Bottom, nicely sinister. It was painted by Henry Fuseli, a contemporary of William Blake, but who was more interested in dreams and the supernatural. In September, Prom 72, Bělohlávek conducts Mendelssohn's Midsummer's Night's Dream, It will be magical!

Partenope 3 Prom 4 Andreas Scholl Handel

Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Concertus Copenhagen may not be household names in Britain, but they are well respected in European baroque circles. So if the Royal Albert Hall audience was surprisingly sparse, the enthusiasm of those who were there made up for lack of numbers.


Handel’s Partenope has been performed at least three times this year already – at the ENO and then in Vienna at Theater an der Wien, the lively, innovative alternative to the Vienna Opera. The Vienna performance was broadcast recently by BBC Radio 3 as part of its cycle of Handel operas. Each version has been dramatically different, demonstrating just how much potential there is in this opera, and how it remains as pointed now as it did 200 years ago.


Concertus Copenhagen did Partenope, with the same cast, in Denmark recently. As the BBC Proms programme states, it was filmed and will soon be available on DVD. Given this vivid performance, it will be something to watch out for.


The Royal Albert Hall is anything but a good place for baroque opera, which benefits from smaller, more enclosed spaces. Indeed, during the First Act, the ensemble seemed to be feeling their way, rather than demonstrating their obvious fluency. Rehearsals in this vast barn of an auditorium are no preparation for the real thing, because dynamics change completely when the building is filled, and sound is cushioned by the presence of an audience. Technicians may explain it more accurately, but I kept hearing reverberations bounce off the back walls, creating a bizarre echo effect. This strange “stereo” varied frequently, so it must have been difficult for the performers to anticipate and overcome. Fortunately, on the rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3, the balances have been resolved.


Conducting from the harpsichord with expansive gestures, Mortensen creates an energetic realization. If at times, it seemed a little rough and ready, this was an advantage, for it added to the sense of immediacy and drama. In Handel’s time, music wasn’t polished or precious, but lively and direct. Handel audiences didn’t listen with timers and scores, looking for demerits. If Mortensen’s pace was spirited, it felt right as drama.


Mortensen respected significant details, like the two horns in Act One, calling attention on several levels, heralding the natural trumpet that solos in the Third Act. Where Mortensen speeds things up it’s well judged. This in itself is an insight. Singers nowadays are far more technically adept then they were in Handel’s time. They can sing difficult passages with such fluency they don’t sound rushed. Handel was writing long before singers had the training they have today, so they can cope with challenges. Vivacity of expression is what counts above all, in musical drama.


As Partenope, Inger Dam-Jensen looked lovely, in a gown of gold. She’s much underrated as a singer. Partenope allows her to sing florid flourishes, which she carries off with majesty. Nonetheless, Partenope, the Queen adored by countless admirers, is no airhead. She commands in battle and has the sense to pick Armindo for her spouse, rather than the flashy Arsace. Dam-Jensen’s Partenope is thoughtfully down to earth, despite the giddiness around her.


The presence of countertenor superstar Andreas Scholl alone would have made this Prom a success. Good as the other singers are, he’s in an altogether more elevated league. Unlike some others in his fach, his countertenor sounds completely masculine and natural. Even at the top of his register he’s fluid, completely unforced. Again this matters, as Arsace is packed with enough testosterone to attract strong women like Partenope and Rosmira. Again and again, Scholl produces tours de force which express character as well as vocal fireworks. “Furibondo spira il vento” he sings at the end of the second act “e sconvolge il Cielo e ‘l suol.” It really does feel like we’ve been shaken by a force of nature.


Scholl can act, too, camping up his lines with witty glee. Arsace isn’t a straight man but a caricature, not quite the hero he plays at being, so Scholl’s acting expresses the humour in the character. Yet Scholl’s Arsace is capable of genuine tenderness and depth. Witness his duets with Rosmira (Tuva Semmingsen), extremely beautiful and sensitive.


Tuva Semmingsen is fairly young, but is definitely a singer to keep following. She portrays Rosmira as resourceful and determined, with enough richness in her voice to hint at deeper levels of personality. Semmingsen’s contralto is rich without being cloying, with a firm center. What lies ahead for her ? She has a future and not just in novel things like singing in the soundtrack for Lars von Trier’s controversial new film, Antichrist. She’s singing at Glyndebourne this year, too, something to look forward to.


Christophe Dumaux’s Armindo was also impressive. For any counter tenor to compete with Andreas Scholl, he has to be. His voice is well-controlled and has lasting promise. If some of the other singing was at times unsteady, perhaps it was the shock of singing at the Royal Albert Hall, where even the best have to adjust to the gargantuan dynamics.


Original is HERE
Please see descriptions of the ENO and Vienna productions under "Handel" at right
photo credit : Eric Larrayadieu
Prom 7 review is done (Purcell Fairy Queen, Glyndebourne) is done and will be up online tonight.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Mahler 9 as abstract art - Haitink, Prom 5 2009

Conductors should not treat Mahler as a "free for all", says Bernard Haitink. "Mahler's symphonies should not be treated as fantasies, rhapsodies. They are very carefully structured. He was a conductor, he knew very well what he was doing. Emotion is there but one should not tilt the balance".

Please see HERE for more on Haitink and Das Lied von der Erde.

Because the 9th was Mahler's last completed symphony, the myth has it that it must be gloomy and death ridden. Sometimes extreme anguish can work, such as with Horenstein's two recordings, the second of which is almost too painful to listen to. Horenstein is valid because he's expressing real feelings inspired by the music. He's not indulging himself in imagined pathos for its own sake.

But there is more to Mahler than agony. Modern scholarship shows that Mahler was an intellectual, who could see beyond surface emotions. Unlike dotty Victorian sentimentalists, he didn't get off on the pornography of death, but strived to understand what was beyond. He loved life, and nature and the power of the soul to transcend earthly limitations.

In this amazing Prom, Bernard Haitink produced a performance of ethereal, spiritual clarity, so pure that it felt like abstract art. As Haitink said, the coda is "timeless", soaring ever higher until it disappears from human hearing. To Haitink it is a "farewell" but not in a maudlin sense, but in the sense that Mahler is heading into unknown territory, where earthly constraints no longer apply. Mahler is stretching the boundaries, heading towards a new beginning. That's why it's so exhilarating.

Almost immediately, Haitink establishes the ground rules. He gets a surprisingly sweet, warm sound from the London Symphony Orchestra completely different from the sour crudeness Gergiev produced. Instead, Haitink gets the strings to play with such gossamer lightness that the sound seems to rise into the air. Open horizons, endless possibilties, the finale already in sight. Suddenly the pace steps up with the striding theme led by brass. things forward. There's definite, purposeful direction beneath this delicate spirit.

It's not for nothing that Mahler was a keen hiker who spent much time in the mountains. Think back to the "mountain peaks" of the Third Symphony and the panoramic vistas that unfold. Here we hear them again, when Mahler might have thought his hiking days over. Haitink's light touch brings out the sub-themes, which swirl like wind, circulating in spirals but always pushing forward. From this evolves the solo violin, played by the leader, Gordan Nikolitch. Even by his standards, this was exceptionally beautiful. The violin soars but doesn't take off on its own. Instead it dialogues with the flute, here played with great delicacy by Gareth Davies. It's like watching two birds flying together. Then the violin takes flight and soars ever higher beyond the reach of the flute.

Because the second movement is titled Im Tempo eines gemächliches Ländlers, it's easy to assume it's a straightforward depiction of country dances, but Mahler has been using these images so often that we know he's not entirely literal. Haitink doesn't exaggerate the dance aspects, not even the muted swagger. Mahler's intructions were that these passages should be played "clumsily", the way real peasants move. The orchestra is solemn and dignified, trying very hard to be earthbound, for soon the mood will change.

Haitink even finds dignity in the Rondo-burleske. Defiance doesn't need to be violent. Indeed, this muted tension seems to spring from sources too deep to be easily defused, and is all the more powerful for that. Stamp, stamp go the angular rhythms, like an impatient beast pounding the ground. Against this suppressed savagery, the notes of the harp take off, flowing up the scale, an image of light, yet again.

When the final movement begins. it's clear from Haitink's reading that it's a resolution of what has gone before. This Adagio seems to lift off, rising higher and higher. It moves in ever increasing circles like a bird hovering over the earth. The "stamping" theme of the Rondo burleske surfaces in muted form but is left far behind. Haitink plays this orchestra so well that the music seems to grow, smoothly and naturally, like an organic being. Gradually. literal detail fades into abstraction. Are we seeing the world below disappearing like a bird might see it when entering clouds? The final lift off is magical, the sound receding as it were being drawn up into the stratosphere. If Mahler has headed off, it's into the transcendent light, the Urlicht, which has fascinated him all along.

In this Prom, Haitink is aligned with the light-infused, spiritual approach to Mahler, like Boulez and Abbado, rather than Bernstein, Gergiev et al. This is where performance practice has been leading to for forty years. But Mahler's anniversary is coming up, and with that comes crass self-serving commercialism. Already there's pressure to package the composer so he'll sell to the populist market as "operatic" or "Wagnerian", downplaying just how unique he really was. Even Bruno Maderna gets called an "arch modernist", which is odd news, particularly to those who've actually heard Maderna conduct Mahler.


photo credit
For more on Mahler, click labels on right.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Dancing on the moon - Fabulous Echoes


A masterpiece of High Kitsch ! This is a howler, a welcome break from solemn posturing and fake gravitas. The Cold War and the Space race can't have been all bad if you could "do the twist and the Mashed Potato". (hit dances of the 1960's). Hilarious as this clip is,it's a Cultural History Artefact.The Fabulous Echoes were the biggest pop band to come out of Hong Kong in those days. They were created by three Filipinos (brothers and cousin, I think) with outrageous personalities, as you can hear. Filipinos were the backbone of "western" pop in East Asia, and influenced Cantopop. Teresa Campio ! There were lots of other local bands and singers, many more original and talented like Sam Hui, The Mods, The Thunders etc. but the Fabulous Echoes are the mostt famous because they reached an English speaking audience and ended up in the US.. Lots of clips on youtrube. The Thunders were Hong Kong an Macau Portuguese band doing original music, a world that's completely lost now because they emigrated. the photos on youtube are a historic record! So in a way, this clip fits the eclectic cross-cultural fusion this blog does. Besides, what's the point of life if it isn't fun?  But if you want more "off the wall" click on the label "FUN". Lots more on this site about Hong Kong, Macau, South Chinese culture, music, and movies. My big thing is the way difdferent cultures mix and cross, and also theway cultures maintain their identity. Please explore this site, one of the few with so much material in English.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Prom 2 Haydn The Creation McCreesh

Another gift from the BBC Proms to the world – a new English text to Haydn's grand Creation. This must be the first baroque libretto created by text message and email. It was compiled by the conductor Paul McCreesh and Timothy Roberts, with input from singers, so it's specially kind for voice. The new words really do make a difference. At first, you don't notice as most remain the same. Then you realize that phrases are flowing more naturally, more in keeping with the music. Meaning, too, becomes more direct, like clear speech.

"Great swarms of insects" sings Raphael, on the 6th Day. It's more vivid than the prosaic "a host of insects". "The room with air with fowl is fill'd" becomes "the air is filled with feather'd fowl". Sing that to the German "Der Luft erfüllt das weiche Gelieder". It works! And you can "see" them flapping their wings and taking off.

The Creation is full of lively incident. How witty Haydn can be! When Gabriel sings about the nightingale and her "soft enchanting lays", the composer throws in decorative trills, like birdsong. Then when the Leviathan looms into view, dark winds boom solemnly like whale song. Rhythms bounce jauntily, like waves on the ocean.

It's good to hear the images revealed clearly, without a cloak of verbiage. This is vivacious, exuberant good fun, so Paul McCreesh conducts with a light touch. Adam and Eve keep their clothes on, but they sing with the innocence of nudity. The new words are much simpler. Instead of the formal, clumsy "and from obedience grows, my pride and happiness", Eve now sings "Oh, such obedience brings me joy and honour". She's a normal girl in love, not an automaton churning out cliches. This shows the value of the new text.

Very good performance, Rosemary Joshua, Mark Padmore, Neal Davies and the Gabrieli Consort, baroque specialists, with massed choirs, including from Wroclaw. Unusually, Adam and Eve are sung by young singers, Sophie Bevan and Peter Harvey, not the big names. This gives the delicate tracery of their duet more freshness, even though the singers aren't as polished as the stars. They're a "new creation" after all !

The duet's delicate tracery of "with thee, with thee" flutters merrily. Adam and Eve are like two butterflies in the sunshine. Of course we know what happens nexr in the Bible, but for a moment they dance in unsullied bliss.

Partenope on Sunday. Read about the ENO and Vienna productions by clicking on the Handel labels at right or scrolling down to the post below "BBC Proms 2009 starting this week" where the links are embedded.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

First Night of the Proms 2009 - Alice Coote

Governments throw money into war and power games, thinking that brings security. Nuts! Bombs, threats and hysteria exacerbate tensions. Music, on the other hand, makes us more human and humane. The Proms reach people all over the world, bringing them together for a while in a kind of international street party, celebrating a shared love of music. That pays long-term dividends. If politicians had any sense they'd realize that the Proms are an amazingly effective force for good. The British taxpayers pay, but everyone benefits in the wider scheme of things.

So the First Night of the Proms is a declaration of goodwill. Stravinsky's Fireworks, op 4 is short, but it's the acorn from which the mighty oak of modern music grew. It led to Stravinsky being commissioned to write what was to become The Firebird, and later still the The Rite of Spring and the revolutionary effect that had on art, dance and music. Even the carnage of the First World War could not stem the tide of 20th century ideas.

Chabrier's Ode to Music followed. Ailish Tynan has been on many Young Artist programmes, many of which were BBC funded and promoted. She's proof that such sponsorship nurtures performers. It must be nerve wracking to sing before an audience of millions, so Jiřì Bělohlávek led the BBC Symphony Orchestra sensitively.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no 3 is another acorn, but one which didn't grow past its allegro brillante movement. Yet it's interesting because it shows how full of life the composer was just before he died. No "curse of the Pathétique", then. It was a surprising choice for something as high profile as the First Night of the Proms, when everyone's in a party mood and the audience is happy enough with flashy crowd pleasers. But in a quirky way, that's why it worked. By picking this Cinderella for the start of his series of Tchaikovsky at this year's Proms, perhaps Stephen Hough is telling us to pay attention rather than fall back on convention? The Proms may appear safe, but there's usually enough challenge for those prepared to venture.

Back to fireworks with Katia and Marielle Labèque. The First Night of the Proms is always televised, so visually it helps to have performers who look as well as sound stunning. Poulenc's Concerto in D minor for two pianos is suitably incandescent, particularly when played so fluidly. It's a three-part drama, an interplay between two different pianists and the orchestra, with individual instruments playing smaller but important roles. Moods swing between warmly tender and jazzy downbeat, from elegant serenity to uninhibited joy. One piano has a dialogue with a violin, one piano produces a series of single notes, taken up by the orchestra and then the second piano. For an encore, the Labèques then played four hands on one keyboard, a lively polka by Berio – not Luciano but his grandfather. Another Proms surprise!

International as the Proms may be, they symbolize Britishness to many, so it was good to hear Elgar, in sunny mood. In the South (Alassio) was played with joyous élan, Bělohlávek keeping the pace with a light touch.

The heart of this Prom, though, wasn't the cheerful pieces but Brahms's devastating Rhapsody for Contralto, the Alto Rhapsody. This was a wonderful performance. Few singers can produce the intensity Alice Coote can bring, without sacrificing dignity and compassion.

Goethe's poem depicts an outcast who sets off away into the wilderness. From a brooding otchestral introduction, Coote's voice projects into the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall as if it were a recital room. It's significant, for the poem pits an individual against overwhelming forces. Die Ode verschlingt ihn goes the text (the desert engulfs him). Coote breathed into the "o" in Ode so it rang resonantly, yet hinting subtly of hollowness. Then she extended "verschlingt", stretching it to evoke distance and then oblivion.

There's something obsessive about this poem. The disappointed man "furtively feeds on his own worth in unfulfilling self-love" (zehrt er heimlich auf seinen eignen Wert in ung'nügender Selbstsucht) Coote brought out the repeated sounds "seinen" and "eignen". The protagonist is going round in circles, grinding himself down. Perhaps that's why the poem appealed to Brahms? Ostensibly he was upset that he'd been jilted by Clara Schumann's daughter but there's no evidence that he had a real relationship with her, or indeed with any woman, Clara included. Even more so than the German Requiem this is Brahms's Winterreise, a foretaste of the Vier ernst Gesange.

Perhaps that's why the resolution in this piece comes from the way Brahms integrates the soloist, chorus and orchestra. A characteristic Brahmsian flute melody appears, at first tentatively, then grows in power, joined in the final strophe with the choir of men's voices: no longer is the mezzo really alone, for the Vater der Liebe (father of love, possibly God) has shown compassion, revealing the thousand springs that can help the thirsty in the desert. "die tausend Quellen neben dem Durstenden in der Wüste." Coote rounds the vowel sounds in Wüste so the word seems to grow with fulfilment.

It's been 40 years since the Alto Rhapsody has been heard at the Proms. Chances are that few will be able to top Alice Coote's performance tonight. Listen to it on BBC Radio 3's "listen again" facility for the next 7 days. PLEASE SEE the more fformal version of this post in Opera Today, HERE.

Coote came to prominence when she won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize a few years ago. Ferrier's version is legendary, but Coote's delivery is firmer and stronger. Clips of Ferrier singing with Clemens Kraus are easily available anywhere, so I've chosen two more unusual ones. The first has Brigitte Fassbender singing with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague : maybe Bělohlàvek knows the place and even the performance. In any case he's a much better conductor than the rather sentimental Sinopoli. It's a good clip, though, for Fassbender herself. It was Fassbender who nurtured Alice Coote and brought her back to song after a traumatic car accident which could have ended her career.

The second clip is Marian Anderson, in commemoration. Sound quality is dodgy because it's recorded in 1939. But the committment and dignity with which Anderson sings! Alice Coote is her spiritual heir. Track down Part 1 as well, because it is such a good performance and the video is good, too. Click on the label "Proms 2009" at right for more reports. There will be lots.