Monday, 31 August 2009

Why greedy kids in Mahler 4th?


Why is the Das himmlische Leben, the final movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony obsessed with images of food? It's a perceptive question because it's a path into Mahler's imagery that runs throughout his work. Many thanks to the person who emailed me.

"A disgusting Catholic meat eater's vision of Heaven" said one LP note of the 1960's. Nowadays thank goodness people know more about Mahler that such peevish silliness would be laughed at. Devout or not, Mahler knew a lot about medieval images. Symphony no 4 is the culmination of the Wunderhorn symphonies inspired by Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of folk tales and poems Brentano and von Arnim sourced from peasant oral tradition.

War, famine, pestilence and dead children were a fact of life in medieval Europe, so naturally folk wisdom was haunted by such things. Folk wisdom was a source of many ideas too complex to deal with except through imagery, which is why the Romantics were fascinated. Death, fairies and magic opened the way for probing the subconscious. Hence the symphony needs to be understood in the context of the Wunderhorn songs. Das himmlisches Leben directly connects to Das irdisches Leben (heavenly life - earthly life) where a child keeps asking for food and is rejected. Und als das Brot gebacken war, Lag das Kind auf der Totenbahr. When the bread's ready, the kid is dead. Is it a tale of cruelty and child abuse (which did exist then as now)? Often the song is interpreted as a metaphor for the way artists don't get recognition til they're dead. But there's also the possibility that the mother was starving too and the song an attempt to lull the kid with a dream.

The child in Das himmlisches Leben is already dead. Its song is an act of comfort, so bereaved parents can be soothed in the belief that their lost child is happy in heaven and can no more suffer. So many children died young then, Mahler himself losing several siblings, so there were lots of people who needed comfort. Believing that the child was safe in the afterlife meant a great deal. Wir führen ein englisches Leben, Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben. "We're dancing, springing, skipping, singing". Happiness and health restored. The concept pops up again in Kindertotenlieder.

Matthias Goerne will be singing Kindertotenlieder at the Proms on Friday 4th September. You can hear the performance live, on broadcast, online and on TV by going to the Proms site
Please read a description of him singing Kindertotenlieder at a recent recital HERE. As always, it helps to know a bit about the repertoire if needed, read in advance and try and figure out what a performer may be getting at.

The Saints in the song represent loving family figures, Sankt Marthe the cook, Sankt Peter catching fish, not at all a stuffy first Patriarch. Sure, Saint Luke (a physician in the Bible) slaughters the lamb ohn' einig's Andenken und Achten, without thinking too much of it but again that fits the mystical idea that death affords life. Any Catholic kid knows Jesus was a willing Lamb. Death is so much a part of existence that there's no pretending it's not, particularly if there's a redemptive purpose. Which is why the crucially important interlude before the final strophe.

This marks a transition from innocent childlike glee to something much more sophisticated. Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, Die unsrer verglichen kann werden, In Heaven there's work to be done, and it's singing. Then looms the memory of the horrors of earthly life. Saint Ursula was a woman who led an army of 11,000 virgins to their deaths and worse, during the Crusades. Needless to say, these "willing lambs" didn't stand a chance, most of them dying along the way. So there they are fulfilling their purpose in Heaven, with Saint Cecilia, the patron of music. So it's certainly not simple fun. It's sehr behaglich but not bucolic. Sacrifice and death are an unavoidable stage in the jouney to eternal life. Mahler all over, even to the 10th.

Mahler himself told Bruno Walter that the symphony reminded him of the statues in a medieval church, saints, their hands solemnly folded across their chests, but whose calm faith in a better afterlife lights their faces with gentle smiles. Saints often die grisly deaths after deprived lives, but their faith in eternal resurrection sustains them with unearthly serenity.

Understanding the role of the movement is essential to understanding the symphony as a whole. Tempting as it is to listen to Wir Geneissen on its own, it needs to be approached through the symphony. The third movement absolutely connects to the fourth - turmoil and anguish leading to apotheosis.

That's why it's so important that the soloist participates even though she's not singing. It's a test of a conductor what he gets the singer to do. Last year, Eschenbach had Marisol Montalvo enter quietly after the second movement, and sit, eyes closed, imaging the third, so when she started to sing, her performance grew naturally from it. Gergiev had his soloist carefully walk on DURING the introduction, wearing a scarlet dress, deliberately distracting from the extremely important opening bars. "Ignore the instrumental!" Gergiev must have said. Then as she reached the podium she burst into song as if this were a number in a West End musical, to be belted out regardless of meaning or of musical context. Read about it HERE. Perhaps the Gergiev approach is the future of Mahler performance now that it's fashionable to get on the Mahler bandwagon whether or not one gives a toss about the composer. But not for me.
Please bookmark or subscribe to this blog, there is LOTS about Mahler and connected music, and will be lots more ! Look at other pieces already done - lots ! and more to come ! Please look at the series on Das Lied von der Erde images and Kindertotenlieder

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Claude Vivier Orion Kopernikus Prom 60 Rêves d’un Marco Polo

Claude Vivier's Orion is at last receiving its UK premiere at the Proms, conducted by Charles Dutoit. From the commentary, it's being presented as a kind of upmarket Star Wars to fit the theme of astronomy. Which is a real pity, as Orion stems from a much larger, much more radical work, Vivier's opera Kopernickus.

It's poignant that Vivier is still so unknown in the UK. He was an extremely influential figure, but most famous in the popular imagination for writing a piece which was found on his desk, possibly incomplete, after he was murdered in exactly the way described in the song. But Glaubst du an der Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?) is a masterpiece whatever the circumstances around it. Obviously there's no connection between the song and Vivier's death, but since when was fate logical?

That's an idea to bear in mind when listening to Vivier's music. Rêves d’un Marco Polo is an Opus Arte DVD, so it's more widely available than a lot of recordings of Vivier's music. It's an "Opéra fleuve in deux parties" . Part one is the opera Kopernickus, while part two is a programme of various Viver works, including Glaubst du, performed as a group in a staging directed by Pierre Audi, filmed at the Holland Festival in 2004. This was a hugely important concert for it put Vivier on the map. The notes say the two parts fit together "like shadow and light, forming a dreamlike ritualistic experience". Whatever, but it's certainly interesting, and the performances are extremely good - the Asko and Schönberg Ensembles, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw and including excellent singers. Also included is a documentary about Vivier's life, and how it pertains to his music. Vivier was a loner, something of a Marco Polo, who ventured into territories still unexplored.

In Kopernickus a woman named Agni (Susan Narucki) enters a mysterious landscape. A strange man speaks about a melody, more tender than a mother's caress, which will reveal a new dawn , where the sadness - and evil - of this world will be forgotten in "the dreams of the night that is over". Like Alice in Wonderland, Agni is on a journey where she meets strange and wondrous ideas, expressed in musical references. "Visionaries of all times, gather together !" These encounters are not at all literal, as they're introduced by figures dressed in similar costumes. But that's the point, I think, you don't know who's really significant til they're gone.

Orchestral players walk around the stage, painted, masked and costumed like the singers and actors, further integrating the music into the whole. They weave their way through the action – each soloist a "player" in every sense. It's odd, but once you get used to the strangeness it starts to feel real. It's surreal, and faintly ludicrous, but it's meant to confound, to make you lose your bearings. The strange man whom Agni thought was Lewis Carroll starts to expound crackpot theories of the universe. Logic has no more meaning here than the physics of time and space. Sometimes invented words replace language altogether.

"We shall see God!" the voices sing and Agni looks transfixed by something we can't see, the strange man waving his hands behind her head like wings, or an aura. It's an image that keeps recurring, sometimes as subtle as blinking. Once you divest yourself of the usual signposts of literal meaning, Kopernikus comes together in a magical way. Musically this is a marvel, long swaying arcs of sound, trumpets, flutes, profound clarinet, mad violins. Audi's staging and choreography - the best way to describe the complex interactions between people and objects in stage - is wonderfully inventive and expands detail in the music. In the film we see important close-ups, like a man listening to a long tube into which a clarinet is played. It's a powerful image conveying the idea of sound travelling distances through different dimensions, which in many ways is what the whole opera is about.

Gradually it dawns on Agni that she's not dreaming at all, but in another plane of reality, vaguely sinister. A trumpet calls out and Claron McFadden appears on high, a rope around her neck. An indication perhaps of what has brought Agni to this strange place. Not for nothing Vivier subtitled this work Opéra rituel de mort. It's not a fantasy game, but a solemn and purposeful progression, despite the hallucinatory quality of the images. Suddenly the bird-like masks of the players falls into place. In Egyptian ritual, bird spirits accompany the soul on its transition to death. As Pierre Audi says in his notes, this is "the closest music theatre has come to the medieval mystère, a form that is able to stretch from deep meditation to the extreme grotesque". Brian Ferneyhough goes on to do something similar in his astounding opera Shadowtime.

Hence the figures who chant about "monks who abandon themselves to mystic rituals in secret". Agni proceeds roward the "purifying waters" of a river that marks some kind of major divide, a clear reference to the River Styx. As she approaches, she "sees" "Herr Mozart" and asks him if it's true that on the other side there is music so beautiful that even gods and angels swoon. Do people communicate by music, the "songs of all of the people of all dimensions are in harmony with cosmic rhythms". It's enticing: Agni imagines she'll be able to dance from "galaxy to galaxy".

Now individual concerns don't matter. The strange man sings "Truth is not to be found in short term things but in ideas. Uppermost is the idea of good". He gathers up the Christmas lights that amused Agni for a while: brightly coloured bulbs, not the idea Christmas commemorates.

"You shall hear Orion's music", the voices sing as Agni, transfixed, listens to trumpets heard from a distance, and sees the heavens revealed as the gates of Paradise are thrown open. The strange man tells of philosophers and astronomers of the past, and their contribution to knowledge and the mysteries of the universe. It's a procession from the ancient past towards greater wisdom, and a procession Agni is about to join. She heads offstage. leading the singers and musicians behind her in solemn single file. They head into the auditorium, into the darkness and beyond. You hear echoes of the music from afar. Then Agni runs back, to check on the strange man, but he slams the book he was reading from at the beginning. No more answers. The last image is Agni's face, deep in shock.

Of course as a stand alone, Orion works as beautifully vivid music, conducted with authority by Charles Dutoit who premiered it years ago and knows why Vivier is such an important composer. It's published as a completely independent orchestral work, but both Orion and Kopernickus were written at the same time (1979) and there's a great deal of quite explicit overlap, the same material being used in both, even the faint chorus "Die-u, Die-u". the Middle Ages, astronomy was a dark art, only slightly more respectable than alchemy, so Copernicus was lucky he wasn't born earlier, wen his ideas might have been thought heresy. So it's useful to think of Orion in the context of Kopernickus, as it gives it greater resonance and opens up windows on Vivier's work. "Opening the curtain", as the strange man said at the beginning. Vivier is very profound, deeply interesting: and he died aged only 34.

I wonder whether Stockhausen heard Orion ? He knew who Vivier was, for sure. Vivier went to Europe, hoping to study with him, but Stockhausen could not stand the guy and took him on in sufferance. Yet Vivier had his head in the stars just as Stockhausen did, except Vivier didn't believe for a moment he came from them, and had much more literary and cultural underpinnings. Listen to Stockhausen's Michaels-Abschied from his LICHT cycle. Trumpeters sound out from way on high, the sounds they make arching into the heavens. Orion got there first.

When i get time I'll write about the second disc on the Opus Arte DVD which has other Vivier treasures like Wo bist du, Licht, the Lonely Child, Zipangu and the masterpiece Glaubst du an der Unsterblckheit der Seele. There is a lot that could be said and needs saying but another time. Please come back to this site, subscribe and bookmark for more ! (Lots here too on Gerard Grisey and others influenced by Claude Vivier)

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Andriessen De Staat Prom 58 2009

De Staat is a seminally important work. So much modern music stems from it, not only "serious" classical music but progressive popular music too. No De Staat no Different Trains and many other things.

De Staat is so radical that it still sounds fresh after almost 40 years. Essentially, it's a wild, almost savage piece that breaks all the rules of form and development that constitute formal music. But such manic, kinetic energy! Driving, compelling rhythmic patterns drive the piece forward. The patterns are circular, revolving on themselves relentlessly without beginning or end. Structurally, blocks of density are intersected by planes of sharp brightness.

De Staat is also interesting because it transcends text. It's based on Plato's The Republic where music is denounced as a form of subversion. The words matter. At early performances, audiences were given the text to read carefully. Yet De Staat transcends text. The singing is deliberately embedded into the music, almost abstract, like a cryptic code whose meaning goes deeper than surface words. Modern music doesn't do simple word-painting. Meaning is absorbed, translated into abstract sound. Much modern writing approaches this state too. Just yesterday we heard Rebecca Saunders's Traces, which springs from Samuel Beckett's exploratory syntax. (Another Beckett-inspired composer is Pascal Dusapin)

The texts are in ancient Greek, which most people don't understand nowadays, which is all the more reason to focus on how the music itself expresses meaning, not just the words. The final chorus is illuminating for it quotes authoritarian dogma against innovation. "Change always invokes far-reaching danger. Any alteration in the modes of music is always followed by alteration in the most fundamental laws of the State". Nothing has changed since Plato. Modern music is hated for much the same reasons, as if easy music makes life safe.

So Andriessen's unremitting, hard driving planes of sound express something about society and its pressures. This Proms performance, conducted by Lucas Vis, leading the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, celebrated the composer's birthday, so wasn't quite as intense as some performances, where the relentless, pounding rhythms create severe anxiety and tension. This is an ensemble for whom the work is basic repertoire – listen to the live recording, also by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, from the 1978 Holland Festival, included as a CD in the book by Robert Adlington, Louis Andriessen : De Staat (2004).

This sense of fear and danger is important, for the driving repetitions represent the idea of conformity. Hence the need for tight, disciplined performance. Repetition is conformity, strictly imposed. From which freedom, non-conformity and creative innovation can break loose. Perhaps that's why I admire Ravel's Bolero and liked Salonen's perceptive performance).

The very structure of De Staat is meaning. As Andriessen has said, "there is no hierarchy in the parts". The chorus is only one of the several units in the piece that function in parallel, rather like society itself. Hence the phalanx of brass positioned on both sides of the orchestra, and the "chorus" of violas and lower strings. Voices may be suppressed in authoritarian states, but abstract music can still speak.

This programme was extremely well chosen, placing De Staat between Steve Martland's Beat the Retreat and Cornelis de Bondt's Closed Doors. Martland's piece is a protest against government laws on outdoors entertainment, a cheerful act of irreverent anarchy. De Bondt's piece, from 1985, starts and ends with a deep sonic boom that reverbrated nicely in the Royal Albert Hall. It's part of a much larger work that pivots different threads of music history upon each other. That's why there were two conductors, not in itself any big deal (Charles Ives did it decades ago). Like De Staat, the material circulates, disparate parts that can't meld.

Another recommended recording of De Staat is by the Schoenberg Ensemble, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, a superb performance, with a stellar group of singers, but with one big caveat, that's all there is on the disc and it's expensive. The Netherlands Wind Ensemble recording includes Il Principe, part of a series of works associated with De Staat as a kind of mega-cycle (and you get the book, too).

This Prom was woefully under-attended, perhaps because it was the start of the last holiday weekend of the summer, when everyone's out of town, or perhaps because the early evening concert was Tchaikovsky, whose fans don't overlap with Andriessen's. But that's why broadcast and online repeat listening is so valuable. Not everyone can have the luxury of getting into London for a concert that ends after much public transport closes for the night. But many, many more get to hear the music at home, or on the radio, wherever they may be, in London or anywhere else. Why should music be the privilege of a closed elite? Thank goodness for technological innovation!

Friday, 28 August 2009

Rebecca Saunders is the Real Thing Prom 56

Rebecca Saunders is The Real Thing as modern composers go. This isn't at all "musical fast food" which gives an instant kick but rebounds on your system. You have to savour it thoughtfully, to engage with the wonderful range of timbres and colours that emerge: a bit like not rushing a vintage wine, so it breathes and develops on the palate. Look at her photo, where she stares out fearlessly, absorbed in thought. No artifice, no compromise, but a kind of inner purity that promises great depth. Livelier photos HERE

Prom 56 showcased Saunders's Traces, premiered the previous night in Dresden with the Staatskapelle and Fabio Luisi. Listen to this on repeat broadcast and on TV, and read the programme notes which are very informative.

Saunders describes her method as being like looking at a sculpture from different angles, in different light, against different backgrounds. Yet Traces operates on a much deeper level: hence the double basses, sounds as darkly sonorous as it's possible to get with string instruments, legato that curves and stretches and lifts off suddenly, to slide along from a different angle. It's like touching a work of art, "feeling" it intuitively. As a blind person might see, visualizing by instinct and emotion, surprisingly sensual. Such subtle music means players of great sensitivity, but its challenges are met by musicians of the calibre of the Staatskapelle Dresden, one of the great orchestras of the world.

Then the music changes tack in the second part (about 7 minutes into the 15 minute work). Sharper, brighter textures now, very high strings, though the same sense of sweeping curves, sculpting shapes in swathes of sound. It's like glissandi but created by a group of different individuals playing in such connection they move as a unit, stretching the palette beyond what a single instrument could do. Brass and woodwinds form similar blocks, so there's a sense of great forces rotating, revealing different aspects of sound as they move, leaving in their wake ripples of unpitched percussion. Towards the end te keening sounds stretch out, becoming so pure and clean the music seems to float into infinity.

I first encountered Rebecca Saunders's Miniata from the Donaueschingen MusikTage in 2004. For recordings and scores see Editions Peters HERE. Writing about Miniata, Saunders quoted Wassily Kandinsky’s theories on colour, of “feeling the weight of sound…..being aware of the grit and noise of an instrument, or a voice reminds us of the presence of a fallible physical body behind the sound”. Hence the vibrating resonances that follow loud outbursts on timpani, and the echo of percussion sticks as they clatter across the soundscape, imitated in turn by piano. It's about sensations, huge masses of sound, up and turning on a pivot. About half way through, there is a massive crescendo splintering in fragments of fractured sound, transmuted into the vocal equivalent of “white noise”, almost imperceptible variations on a long drawn out sigh. Traces is a more sophisticated and mature version of these ideas, for she's no longer dealing with a spectrum of light infused colour but something much deeper and more emotionally resonant.
REPEAT BROADCAST OF THIS PROM online ondemand for 7 days from 30/12 on the BBC Radio 3 website - see "performance on 3" on 30/12 . And please also read other pices about Rebecca Saunders music on this site, like this : http://classical-iconoclast.blogspot.com/2009/11/simon-bainbridge-rebecca-saunders-music.html"

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten Salzburg DVD


In the early 90's Decca did a series of recordings of Entartete Musik, music suppressed by the Nazi regime. It was an act of great commercial foresight because at the time much of this music wasn't known outside specialist circles. The Decca series, created by Dr Albrecht Dümling, was truly visionary, extremely well curated, and the performances often so good they remain classics even now the genre is pretty much mainstream. This series is the benchmark by which all else is measured. Probably there won't be another series of this breadth and quality.

Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten was part of the series, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek and the Berlin Radio Symphony who were behind many of the recordings. Entartete Musik was cherished in East Germany, where there was a performance tradition. On one disc there's Matthias Goerne, barely out of his teens. Worthy as that recording is, it's outclassed by the performance in Salzburg in 2005, when Peter Ruzicka was director. So a visionary performance, unmissable for anyone, interested in the genre or not. This puts Die Gezeichneten firmly in the mainstram repertoire.

The Salzburg production is so good that topping it will be a challenge no one has yet dared attempt. It was conducted by Kent Nagano, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (where many East Berliners went to). The cast is absolutely top notch : Anne Schwanewilms, Michael Volle, Wolfgang Schöne and Robert Brubaker in what must be the ultimate performance of his career. The director was Nikolaus Lehnhoff.

Lehnhoff's penchant for massive constructions works wonderfully to express the meaning of the opera. The stage at first looks like it's strewn with formidable boulders. Alviano Salvago has built Elysium, a secret world on a remote island off Genoa. These boulders are like the bastions of a frightening fortress, which is what Elysium really is, despite being dedicated to art, love and beauty. There are prisoners here, and unspeakable crimes which don't get revealed until the end. Salvago himself is a fortress. He's a hunchback, "the ugliest man in Genoa", crippled by self-loathing. He's built Elysium as an escape. It's so perfect that it makes everything beautiful. It's used by aristocrats for exquisite orgies, in which Salvago himself doesn't participate despite the magical aura which makes hideousness beautiful.

As the lovely Overture unfolds, Brubaker is carefully putting on elaborate makeup. He's dressed in a flimsy negligee. but his cropped hair and butch features make him look like a caricature drag queen. Immediately, the staging and acting conncet to the idea of psychic dissonance that is so much the soul of this opera. The boulders on stage are formed by a giant statue of a woman, but a statue collapsed and destroyed, only one arm, on hand still raised in a futile gesture to heaven. Most of the action in the opera unfolds on the statue's body, so watch carefully how the body becomes part of the action. Sometimes its rounded curves nurture, sometimes they allow a place to hide, but they remain opaque, inpenetrable, unlike the island's victims. The stage too extends to the walls around the auditorium, arches representing the many secret rooms in the grotto, yet also look sinister, like catacombs. The statue does not foretell the ending. It's clear in the music and text all along that Elysium is an unsustainable delusion in the first place, and Salvago is not deluded. This is important because there are moral and social values in this opera. Elysium is a prototype of an ideal society, corrupted by people who don't have ideals.

Salvago announces he's giving Elysium away to the City of Genoa. An altruistic act, perhaps, but Salvago knows that the girls used in the orgies were kidnapped from the town. Schreker's dwarf is an altogether more complex person than any of Zemlinsky's. Zemlinsky's dwarves fall in love with beauties, but accept their rejection on a relatively straightforward fairy tale level. Schreker's Salavgo (note the name) is so screwed up he doesn't dare look beyond himself and or even conceive of love. Fortress Elysium blocks out vulnerable feelings.

Schreker's drama is more than fairy tale in other ways. Listen to the way Anne Schwanewilms creates Carlotta Nardi, the wayward daughter of the Podestà (Wolfgang Schöne). She's a liberated woman, an artist who doesn't follow rules, the personification of Der ferne Klang, the elusive melody in physical form. She paints souls. Listen to that wonderful passage where she sings about her dream. She sees a "small wretched wanderer" walk into the sunlight, and a miracle happens - he grows larger and larger. "So male ich eure Gestalt, Signor Alviano". Watch Brubaker's face twitch. This is truly masterful acting. He's pouring out a flood of dammed up emotions, too powerful for Salvago to contain. Then she says, she still needs to see "trunkene Auge, darin all die Schoenheit sich gespeigelt".

This line is critical. Can Salvago give her the "drunken eye" that mirrors beauty ? Brubaker pulls his butch black overcoat on again, hiding his soft pink negligee, and for a moment stands alone on the harsh boulders. The scene ends with poignant strings, the film projecting the statue's blind stone eyes.

Salvago's mirror image twin is Graf Vitelozzo Tamare, given a tour de force performance by Michael Volle, another high point in his career he deserves to be very proud of. Tamare is handsome, tall, virile. What body language! Yet listen to the music behind his description of Elysium, and its "Ein künstliche Grotto auf jenem Eiland", the Eiland soaring, swelling lyrically. So it makes sense that Tamare, Alpha male that he is, unlke the other men, the one who discovers love. "There are men who see only the light, and darkness "ist ihrem Fremd". Since he's set eyes on the Carlotta with her mysterious, challenging smile, no longer can he be careless and uncaring, no longer can he be the prankster hero he used to be. Think Tristan. Pity Volle isn't a tenor. Listen to the way Schreker builds echoes of horn calls into the music, as if he did hear the parallels. But it's distinctively Schreker's voice, "Ferne Musik und leise Gesänge" further invoked in the orchestral interlude that follows, where Lehnhoff has Schwanewilms start to seduce Brubaker.

Both Schwanewilms and Brubaker are encased in transparent black chiffon on naked flesh. When Schwanewilms talks off Brubaker's hard, heavy boots it's erotic and yet extremely tender. Watch Brubaker's expressions carefully as he doesn't have much to sing but his reactions are extremely important - thank goodness for close-ups in film! Yet seduction is just a simile for deeper intimacy. Carlotta sings of going out on s a sunny day, feeling sad without knowing why. Salvago realises someone has at last broken down his emotional walls. But that means he has to learn to give tenderness in return, for she, too is "ein gar gebrechliches Spielzug" She pulls off his pink dress, exposing him, but that's it.

The most striking scenes in this production occurs as the interlude is played. Suddenly the auditorium is bathed in blue light, a reference to the light that makes the Grotto magic. The arches around the stage light up, and figures appear, in black capes. These reference the men of Genoa in their black, beetle-like attire and also longer dramatic traditions. Carlotta's sensitivity is up against something too hard and too ingrained in society for her and Salvago to stand up to. Figures like vultures encroach on the stage as the Duke, representing power, persuades Carlotta that Salvago isn't the man for her. Eventually, it's Tamare she succumbs to, not unwillingly.

These groups of elegant but sinister figures, sexually ambiguous, with masks and feathered headresses, are Lehnhoff trademarks, but here wonderfully evoke things that can't rationally be expressed - mystery, evil, death, power, perhap ? They prepare us for the terrible trial scene when Duke Adorno and the Council of Eight denounce Salvago, blaming him for kidnapping and corrupting the girls of Genoa. It's a horrifying moment. Salvago squirms, helpless. The aristocrats who used Elysium are rounding on him for trying to end it. He must take the blame so they won't. And he is to blame, even though he never laid a finger on anyone. His crime was trying to upset the natural order of things where beauty is beauty and ugliness ugliness. Salvago's attempts to end the orgies on the island by giving it to the city are cruelly punished. Perhaps real ugliness is so powerful that dreams like Elysium can't possibly work and Salvagos are destined to fail. And the rescued girls themselves blame him, for it was in his Elysium they were corrupted.

Then in the final interlude, the ground itself opens up, as Elysium is destroyed, revealing lots of children, half naked, some dead, their haunted eyes captured more accusingly on film than you'd ever see in the opera house. It's horrible. In a corner, Carlotta and Tamare lie together as if dead. Then Volle sings. Even if he's killed, it won't change the fact he's had the most blissful moment of his life. "Die Schönheit sei Beute das Starken". In their final confrontation, Tamare tells Salvago in no uncertain terms why he's failed. "Du sahst nur das Dunkle, die Scahtten, Gefahr und Sünde". What's worse, "ein freudlos Leben, ein langsam Seichen, oder ein Tod in Rausch und Verklärung rauscher in brünstg’r Unarmung ein selig Sterben!". A death in rapture and transfiguration? Carlotta found the ecstasy, the "drunken eyes" she dreamed of so she died happy. Definitely, Tristan und Isolde, with a dash of Tannhauser.

But this is Schreker. Tamare recounts a tale about killing a funfair fiddler with his own violin. Carlotta awakes from her swoon and screams at Salvago in revulsion . "Gebt mir Wasser" she cries, "Nein, gebt mir Wein!" Salvago crumples into a ball as the music explodes into conflagration.

Often the more you love something, the harder it is to write about it, because it's sort of disappointing to dash off something superficial. Maybe one day I'll finally get around to setting out the critique of Eisler's Hollywood Liederbuch I've been making notes on for years. But with a new production of Tristan und Isolde coming up at the Royal Opera House it's a good time to be thinking about the ideas in Die Gezeichneten. Get the DVD, because this production was fantastically expensive to mount and was designed for the specifics of the Felsenreitschule and could never be quite the same again. PLEASE see my other posts on Franz Schreker, use the search button or labels on right.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

What makes the British British? Jerusalem


What makes Britishness? There's no such thing as British ethnicity, for the country was settled by Picts, Celts, Saxons, Vikings, all of whom are found in significant numbers all over Europe. There were Jews, too, but they were ethnically cleansed in the 12th century. London always was an international city. So what is so British about the British?

This Proms season has been fascinating because it has raised lots of ideas that pertain to what makes national identity. The Proms are often seen as a bastion of British but what does that mean.?  The commentary on the Cambridge Prom was revealing as the implication was that Cambridge is what British music "is". Sure, lots of composers and musicians went there, but the really key ones didn't or developed after they got away. Then there's the idea that Cambridge choirs are unique - well, yes they are, because King's College Choir is wonderful and has the most spectacular building to work in. But choirs have been a part of college life since universities were monks-only. Which is all universities throughout Europe before the Renaissance. What is "new" about King's is that they do it bigger, better and more dramatically. But that ignores the fact that there have been Schola cantorums all over the place and still are.

And of Charles Villiers Stanford the less said the better!

This week the Proms posed the question of national identity even more potently with Handel's Samson. So the key figure in non-early British music was German? Most of the musicians at court always were: so were the kings. And of course most of the clergy. So there is no shame attached, whatsoever, to his not being native born.

Handel came to London because that's where progressive things were happening in his time. Which is why his music sounds confident. So his music was hijacked to serve a new sense of national identity? But that's the way history has always worked. People need a sense of community as a raft for diffuse ideas. All over Europe identity created the nation-state, the idea of language-based countries rather than conglomerates like the Hapsburg empire. The Middle East situation has many roots in the European past. Similarly in 20th century Asia where nationalism was part of the process of modernization. The idea of a nation (as opposed to a clearly defined tribe) is relatively recent. What happens in future when technology creates a monolingual community without physical boundaries?

And when does healthy, normal pride cross the line into destructiveness? The BNP (far right political party) could well turn Samson into a weapon. "Sweep the land of this race" after all. Unfortunately or fortunately, the BNP are Philistines, so they won't.

Then there's Jerusalem. Not Jerusalem the place, but the song, highlight of the Last Night of the Proms, when flags are waved and silly hats worn. These days the flags are usually waved by drunken Aussies so they can get on TV where those at home can admire them. It's infantile, but it helps dissipate the bombastic overtones.

Jerusalem
the song has become a badge of national pride, and rightly so as it's a powerfully moving piece that lends itself to the massed choir thing the British like so much. But does it really celebrate England's "green and pleasant land"?

Think who wrote it and why. It was William Blake. He starts part way into a question "And did those feet in ancient times walk on England's mountains green?" This refers to the legend that Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury, with Jesus in tow. Blake doesn't answer "No" though it's implied if you think about it. Blake's Jerusalem is a mental construct, a symbol of an ideal place where godly principles rule. Reality is "dark satanic mills", squalor, poverty, exploitation. Nineteenth-century mill owners may have been towers of respectability, funding churches and perhaps singing massed choir Handel. But the way they treated others was not in accord with the humane teachings of Jesus. This Jerusalem could not have been "builded" in Britain c 1800, but could exist anywhere, anytime as long as people believe in ideals.

So Blake's Jerusalem is anything but comfort music for the established order. "I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, til we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land". Maybe that expresses an alternative tradition of Britishness, doughty idealism. But again, no one nation has a monopoly on radical thought. And that silly idea that British music is Cambridge?  The song setting was written by Hubert Parry, an Oxford don put down by Stanford (the Cambridge don not the ege). And orchestrated by Elgar, who never went to university at all.

Please see HERE for Hanns Eisler's birthday song for Jesus "Du warst ein Revolutionar"

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Fidelio the drama doesn't end Beethoven Prom 50 Barenboim

The real horror of Fidelio is that there are still thousands of Florestans, all over the world, who will never be free. This isn't opera for "entertainment". Ten years ago it didn't seem possible that a project like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra could succeed, given the conflict it grew from. The situation hasn't changed, but the orchestra has thrived, against the odds. At the end, the standing ovation was a statement in itself, and that the ideals it embodies mean something to a lot of people.

"When we play we are making music" said Daniel Barenboim. But the very fact that these young people get together each summer is a act of faith, that people from all parts of the divide can be "side by side, not back to back".

The Prom started with by the Leonora 3 Overture which is often heard towards the end. The heroine, after all, is Leonore not Florestan. This reflects the subtle change of balance in this performance, which incorporated spoken narration written by the late, great Edward Said. Fundamentalists won't approve, but fundamentalists rarely like things that promote understanding. Leonore is sometimes considered "unstageable". The extra words help to clarify the plot, especially for those new to the opera, or to opera of any kind. This matters, because Beethoven's message is important, and should reach people who might not otherwise relate to opera. It also expands the character of Leonore, who doesn't sit passively but takes direct action. Leonore isn't the first forceful woman in opera, but she's a prototype of what women, and all those who love enough, can achieve.

At first, Waltraud Meier spoke the words directly: stunning drama, later dissipated because the rest was recorded. There are good practical reasons for this, since her singing is infinitely more important, and it would not do to use another woman's voice, so it isn't really much to quibble about. She's much smaller in person that the stunning presence her amazing singing would imply. Yet this too underlines how much Leonore achieves. She's an ordinary woman who stands up to tyranny. Meier naturally dominated proceedings. She sang with great feeling. No need for stylistic effects: her purpose here was to get the story across in a direct, personal way.

Said also makes thoughtful comments on Beethoven's first scene, drawing parallels with the plot and its relevance. "The four of us at cross-purposes, each scarcely able to comprehend one another, each bent on a different course. The wonder of it is that we were together in the same place and still I could see how painfully apart we were".

The other singing was more uneven. John Tomlinson's voice is showing its age, but in a way this, too, worked well for his characterization of Rocco, who has his rough edges. He's a priosn warden after all, not a subtle personality. Gerd Grochowski's Don Pizarro, on the other hand, was finely nuanced and convincing. He was a late replacement for Peter Mattei, but he's sung the role many times, and is good, so high-profile Proms coverage should give Grochowski the credit he deserves.

Adriana Kučerová was somewhat underpowered, but Marzelline is a slight, girlish personality, particularly in contrast to Meier's powerful Leonore. The role of Florestan on the other hand is far more important. There have been many good Florestans in the past, who make you realise why a Leonore would love him enough to try to save him. Simon O'Neill is good enough, but not particularly convincing. By the end of his big aria, he's shouting "Freiheit, Freiheit", rather than singing. It's the critical word in the whole piece and should be shaped so its beauty shines forth. Instead it comes over harsh and parched. True he's spent a long time chained up in a cell. Viktor Rud's Don Fernando was interesting enough that it should be interesting to hear how this young singer develops.

It's ludicrous to expect an orchestral performance of the standard of Barenboim's "other" orchestras, like Staatskapelle Berlin.These musicians meet once a year, in summer, and often don't have the resources youth orchestra players in wealthier countries take for granted. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra may not have fine polish but Fidelio isn't about surface gloss. Many of these players have personal knowledge of danger. Throughout the opera, the orchestral playing was characterized by a sense of immediacy. Much better to hear fervour well expressed than finesse without feeling. In any case, many of these players are very good. One went on to become Leader of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Each summer, Barenboim's "graduates" return to work with the younger members of the orchestra. This support is vital, not just in musical terms but because it passes on proof that effort produces results.

But ultimately, Fidelio is fantasy. In the real world, time and time again, Florestans die and Leonores are destroyed. That's another reason why Edward Said's words make a difference. His Leonore is looking back, wistfully, at a time long past. People who've know oppression at first hand often find representation in art unsatisfying. For example, many people are moved by the novel and film Empire of the Sun. Yet I know some who weep tears of rage."That kid had it too easy!" say those who lived through the events in real life. That's why I was dubious when someone staged Fidelio at Auschwitz a few years ago. Said's narration provides a sense of distance, which does make a difference.

"Could we remain free, and for how long ? The question still torments me" reads Meier at the very point Florestan is liberated in the opera. The point may be lost on audiences for whom Fidelio is no more than any other opera. But all over the world, freedom is a luxury few can take for granted. Opera goers can go home, feeling safe. Millions of others know all too well that a knock on the door can come at any time, and that those who are freed remain traumatized for the rest of their lives. Said's Leonore knows more than she's letting on. Of course this will be too pointed for the average audience, so the narration will never become standard. But on this anniversary of the founding of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, it was supremely important to hear Said's words ring out into the Royal Albert Hall and into the wider world. He may no longer be with us, but his presence endures.

"There was never a day like it before, or again......we were all united ...we were transported by nameless joy....And yet......Who were the other prisoners ? And what happened to them after Don Fernando had them released along with Florestan?"

Maybe most people won't get it, but for me it was a trenchant reminder that the drama doesn't stop when the music ends.

For full casting and details please see HERE

photo credit

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Karim Said West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Prom 49

What must it be like to walk on stage at the Royal Albert Hall knowing that 6000 people are waiting for you, and thousands more tuned in all round the world? Debuts do not come any more high profile than this. The pressure must have been terrifying: with all the world listening, your whole future might depend on this moment.

What could have been in Karim Said's mind? He's just 21, relatively unknown, completely the opposite of the usual young prodigy packaged and sold as Instant Wunderkind. Read about his background in articles HERE.

If anything, those around Said deliberately sheltered him from the media circus. so he could develop at his own pace. It was important to his family and those who cared for him that he develop as a whole person, not a music machine. Shocking as it may be to many, there's more to life than music. Or rather, life "is" music. Art enhances life and a life well lived is a work of art. As Daniel Barenboim's career has proved.

Barenboim is a brilliant pianist and conductor. But perhaps what he'll be remembered for is that he cared about people. Please read the article HERE in which Barenboim talks to Ivan Hewett about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and what the whole project signifies. It's a Goethe ideal, which is why the orchestra met in Weimar. This is no ordinary youth orchestra, and certainly not a social experiment to get kids off the street. All its members are talented, and so dedicated to music that they're prepared to take massive risks. Playing together is an act of courage. For music, they're putting a lot on the line.

So when Karim Said and his colleagues stood on that stage tonight, it was a historic moment. It was amazing to see the Royal Albert Hall almost full to capacity for a late night Prom. Karim has lots of friends, since he studied in this country and is a gregarious fellow, but this was something more. After all the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has played at the Proms regularly for years. Said is an unsually mature player, extremely intuitive and perceptive. As Barenboim, who was a child prodigy himself, said: "He already knows what cannot be taught".

The whole ensemble playing together were very good, of a much higher standard than many their age, particularly considering they don't have the same advantages. Berg's Chamber Concerto is a test of musicianship because it contains so many intricate interactions. The piano and the violin (played by Michael Barenboim), have demanding roles, but part of the beauty of the piece is that they stay silent for long periods - listening. Said is impressive technically, but even more so in that he makes what he plays flow naturally, as if it just "is". Hard to explain. I was close enough to watch his fingers, unexpectedly delicate, fly across the keys. No flamboyant bravura, rather an effortless elegance and grace.

Obviously it's far too early to start making wild claims but neither would it be fair to put down someone with such genuine potential. Talented people always draw jealous fire. And Said has decades ahead of him. He's good enough that you know he's going somewhere. I certainly won't forget this first Proms performance. Karim Said has charisma, make no mistake. He stood up, still somewhat gauche in his body language (which is quite endearing). He turned to smile at his friends and then up into that vast audience, lights dazzling. What must he have been thinking? It must have been awesome. To my surprise, I started to cry, as if I were his mum.

photo credit

Friday, 21 August 2009

Handel's Radical Terrorist Samson Prom 47 2009

This Prom could smash down the pillars of Handel-hate. This Samson made Handel seem completely modern. Why modern? He's been dead 250 years. This performance was so good that it brought out the sharp edge to Handel, so the drama felt totally up to the minute and vivid.

Frighteningly so, too, for some of the material is uncomfortably close to modern wounds. Given that the next Prom will feature the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose members are drawn from all sides of the conflict in the Middle East, it's disturbing to hear lines like "Gaza yet stands though all her sons are fallen" and "Sweep this race from this Land". There's no escaping the political nature of this oratorio. As has often been pointed out, Samson is the ultimate suicide bomber, who kills himself in order to kill as many of his enemies as possible, without regard to whether they're innocent bystanders or not. They're Philistines after all, not righteous like "us". There are virgins for the martyr in the next life. Intolerance stays the same whatever the flavour of the current beliefs.

Obviously Handel was writing about another time and place. There was no chance that a man of his era would have gone against the certainties of the Bible, however much they don't fit in with the more humanitarian values now associated with Jesus. Handel and his friends supported Church and State as institutions, whatever Jesus may have taught about gathering the little children, the powerless and so on. Handel's "Middle East" wasn't about Jews and non-Jews so much as about British society in his time. Handel's London was cutting-edge progressive compared with the rest of Europe. It was a place where new money and power held sway. The British beheaded their king long before the French even dreamed of having a revolution. Milton was the Karl Marx of Cromwell's armies. Hence the militant ethic, the self-righteousness. Of course they were humble before God, but God is whatever you make him out to be.

Hence the violence of the metaphors "The tempest of thy wrath.... in whirlwinds they pursue". And the particularly vindictive language Milton used to put down women. "Out! Hyena!" Samson cries at Dalila, who comes "sailing like a stately ship". Milton's misogyny had personal roots, but putting down others to soothe oneself is part of the extremist spirit. Samson, for example, is incensed because Dagon's followers party "free from sorrow, free from thrall, all blithe and gay, with sports and play" and drink lots of wine. Evidently, this is threatening to him. Samson's mad because he let himself be seduced. "Effeminacy held me yok'd". What would a psychiatrist make of it? "How cunningly the sorceress displays her own transgressions, to upbraid me mine!". Think about it.

Fortunately Handel didn't carry the same baggage. His Dalila, especially characterized by the winsome Susan Gritton, is supported by a beautiful solo violin, strengthened by cello and a band of women's voices. He's even fairly fair and even when it comes to the warring tribes. In the double choruses, both Israelites and Philistines sing the same words : the name of their Gods interchangeable. It's very subtle, in contrast with the unblinking self satisfaction of the Third Act.

Mark Padmore's Samson is an apotheosis. He creates Samson as a full personality, which is quite a feat. His Samson is a troubled beast in every sense. This Samson's strength comes from within. He's no WWF clown (note WWF wrestlers often have long hair). There's so much in this part that a lesser singer could coast, but Padmore brings an unusally white-hot intensity to his performance. Padmore's Samson is fuelled by buried conflicts and repressions. He spits venom, when he accuses Dalila of being a snake. Wonderful clipped phrasing, crackling with tension. This is how I like to hear Padmore, taking risks and engaging emotionally. He makes you understand how Samson comes to feel "some inward motions". He sings that last aria, "Thus when the sun from's watr'y bed" with quiet dignity. It's interesting how Handel writes it in a very different way to the blood-curdling defiance that's gone before.

Exceptionally crisp, clear textures in the playing from the English Concert led by Harry Bicket. This is baroque as "new music". Such freshness and vivacity, such sharpness of attack - worlds away from the soft-grained piety of mediocre performances that have saddled Handel with a bad image. Bicket shows just how cutting edge Samson must have felt once, when memories of the English Civil War were still fresh, and Europe was on the verge of The Age of Reason.

The funeral march in the Third Act showed how period instruments can pack a punch, played with this level of commitment. Listen to the natural horns and trumpets, the latter as long as trombones, but without a slide, the length extending the sound. The continuo is brisk, forthright, propelling forward movement. "Bring the laurels, bring the bays" sing the chorus, at a crisp walking pace. How vividly visual Handel's music can be! When Lucy Crowe appears to sing the famous "Let the bright Seraphim", you can almost see the angels, "and the cherubic host in tuneful choirs. " Close-up on television, you can see her eyes widen as she listen to the trumpets in the orchestra before she takes off into golden coloratura. "Let their celestial concerts all unite" sing the choir, "ever to sound his praise in endless blaze of light". This performance really did shine, especially against the darkness, the Eclipse, that went before.

Excellent singing throughout - Susan Gritton seductive and sympathetic, Iestyn Davies clear, Neal Davies full of character. Christopher Purves a solid Harapha.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Detlev Glanert Shoreless River Prom 46 2009

Shoreless River (Fluss ohne Ufer), is an 18 minute excerpt from a new opera Detlev Glanert is working on, Das Holzschiff, The Wooden Ship. It's the first part of an opera based on the 1937 book by Baltic poet Hans Henny Jahnn, part of a trilogy. Glanert's music is inherently dramatic, and he's written lots of opera, so this Jahnn saga, the first part to be premiered in Munich in 2010, should be definitely be something to look forward to.

Listen to this wonderful piece on the BBC Listen again broadcast. It starts with near silence, long enough that tension builds. Just as at sea, if you're alert you can hear sounds over huge distances. A rolling pulse emerges, like the movement of waves, interspersed with bells, the means by which wooden ships communicated time. The ebb and flow continues with surging, swelling passages that build up and then retreat into quieter moments where tiny woodwind and string cells flicker. In these details, you can imagine seagulls, sea spray, gusts of wind. Imagination is what dramatic music is.

Read the excellent programme notes by Guy Rickards. "The shimmering textures, alternating solo and tutti sections, harp arabesques and wind lines intermingle with variants and extensions of the horn triplet motif. The orchestration thickens out gradually until the bells, supported by trumpets and timpani, ring out the opening figure for the third time. A solo viola leads off a sinuous variation on the main theme....." Towards the end the music builds up again in a swift fff passage for trumpets and percussion. "This acts as a catharsis, unleashing a cadenza-like passage in a broader tempo led by the percussion, at length transferring to the harps, supported by horns." If this is a prelude, the whole opera should be wonderful, whatever the libretto and development.

What might Glanert's The Wooden Ship saga be like? For clues, I looked up more on Hans Henny Jahnn and the book which inspired Glanert in the first place. There was an English translation, no longer in stock, and apparently there are some in French, but the work is readily available in German. Jahn seems like quite a character. He wrote novels, essays, poems, about philosophy, spirituality etc. and lived an unconventional life. Apart from all else he built organs with carved heads as keys.

Access the Jahnn site HERE for many photos and details of his work and places. Access a blog about his books HERE. which includes a quote about the style of writing he used in Das Holzschiff. Apparently he breaks down and rearranges the German language like James Joyce recreates English. The two companion volumes in the saga are huge, sprawling and inventive: no wonder no English translations of these exist. Glanert's music is sensitive to prose and speech patterns, so what he'll make of such dialogue in his opera should be interesting. A quote from the novel:

"A healthy body is run over by a truck, crushed. Blood, once secreted, once feeling its way blindly through the body, pulsating in a meshwork of thin streams, spreading the chemically charged hormones and their mysterious functions like a red tree inside man–this blood now runs out shapelesssly in great puddles. And still no one grasps that, in a network of veins, it has form. But even more horrible–the death struggle itself, in which the innumerable organs, which we believe we feel, take part. Terror is stronger in us than delight” Yow! Drama even in the syntax.

Read here what I wrote about Theatrum bestiarum and HERE what I've written about Glanert's Caligula, which I saw in Frankfurt this year. Although it was the third revival in three years, the house was packed, even on a week night. Admittedly this was Frankfurt's smaller house, not the Alte Oper, but still, it was interesting to watch the audience, some of whom were hearing it again.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Ukuleles at the Proms - and in Chinese movies !


Gosh I wish I'd been at the Ukulele Prom ! Maybe it will go down in Proms history as the fun-est Prom ever. Thousands of uptight English letting their hair down, glorying in gorgeous kitsch ! Read what Intermezzo says here She has wonderful pictures, really conveys the atmosphere. Just reading about this Prom brightens my day.

For Hawaii we have to thank the ukulele, the slide guitar, Elvis, Monoi Melt, Hawaiian shirts and Sun Yat Sen, founder of the Chinese Republic. So how about this clip from a 1951 Cantonese movie. The singer is wearing a Chinese dress and her admirer fake "traditional garb". But it's a send up ! The admirer is comedian Leung Sing Por. And they mix Chinese and Hawaiian and hot cha cha !!!! The smooth dude says "Miss Lee, you sing so well, my heart is all jumbled up!" But she goes out with the old guy instead. "C'mon, Ah King", he says "Let's go party". I've just had an email, saying ukuleles were introduced to Hawaii by the Portuguese. By the time Hawaii was serrled by foreigners, there weren't that many white Portuguese around, so chances are it was Macau people who went there together with the first Chinese. Nearly all the migrants to Hawaii were from the Tongshan area around Macau, which was the source of coolie labour) So Macau figures again !

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Andriessen Ravel Mother Goose Salonen Philharmonia Prom




















So what if there are no US orchestras at this year's Proms? Listen to London's own Philharmonia Orchestra, They've long been one of the best in this country. Now under Esa-Pekka Salonen they're entering an even more glowing phase. Having heard their amazing Gurrelieder and astute Mahler I was prepared for excellence but this Prom 43 produced some of the finest playing all season, despite much strong competition.

It was misleading that the thread was "dance" because this wasn't raucous, crowd-pleasing noise. Dance, particularly ballet, isn't necessarily pound, pound, pound. Ravels Mother Goose Ma mère l’oye, often gets straightforward graphic treatment, as if all it needs is "making the pictures". Salonen and the Philharmonia caught the spirit of fantasy that transforms the nursery stories into something truly magical. Instead of crude cartoon colours, Salonen and the Philharmonia produced luminous, gossamer-like textures infused with light. Details were defined with real delicacy of touch, so it really did feel that the music was "flying".

This was Mother Goose for adults, or at least adults who haven't lost the wonder of youth. ir souls in cynical materialism. Sensuous violins, woodwinds, horns like calls from fairyland. The prelude soars into a plane beyond the mundane world. Each tableaux is exquisitely beautiful. Yet nursery tales also operate on deeper levels. The Sleeping Beauty has been put to sleep by sinister forces. In her dreams, though, she's not alone. She meets characters like The Beast and Hop o' my thumb. Sometimes you can "hear" birds fluttering in this . The two final sections are truly magical. Into Little Ugly, Empress of the Pagodas, Ravel works in "oriental" themes, which for people in his time was code for sensuality and exotic otherness. So when The Sleeping Beauty meets her Prince in the Enchanted Garden, with lustrous glissandi building up to a full throated "awakening", you know she's transfigured.

Bolero is stark primary colours, but Salonen and the Philharmonia go deeper, accessing the way the music builds up, layer by layer. It's a kind of procession, where new elements enter as the music progresses until it reaches its full-bodied climate. Each element adds new flavours, but fundamentally it's defined by the steady beat of the drum, reflected in the strumming pizzicato. In flamenco, rigid rhythmic discipline is part of the style creating a tension that makes the brief flourishes sound all the more dynamic. Salonen makes sure the orchestra doesn't lose this tight basic pulse, as the climax builds. The wildness is in the music - no need to throw colourful jackets into the crowd. Salonen knows just how shockingly modernist this music is in itself without having to play it for thrills. Eavel himself called Bolero "not music". It iis an experiment in structure. So this performance was far more musically-astute than the usual flamboyant versions have led us to believe.

The more I think about this Ravel, I realise how musically astute it was. Ravel is experimenting with ostinato and strict rhythm, the discipline of flamenco, where feet stamp in ritual progression, body helfd taught and unflinching. Everyone loves Bolero because now we hear it as flamboyant and colourful but Ravel's idea was more experimental and unusual. And this performance brings out the musical logic behind it.


Salonen premiered Louis Andriessen's The Hague Hacking in Los Angeles in January, with the sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque for whom it was written. Like Bolero, the piece moves in choppy progressions, inspired by popular song and dance. Another inspiration was Tom and Jerry who chase each other round malevolently.

Against an almost flat line of strings, the pianos circle, interacting back and forth like a complex machine. Long wind, string and brass lines that reach out over the pianos. The instrumentation includes electric guitars and cimbalom, so despite the relative simplicity of the piece, there's something otherworldly in it. The percussion creates sounds like giant bells heard over a long distance, though they're actually metal tubes struck by muffled hammer, sometimes augmented by brass, taking up the jaunty effect of piano as percussion. I don't know what the piece is "about" but I enjoyed its vivacious, cheerful liveliness, so much less pretentious than some new music around.

In fact that's what I like about Andriessen. He's so down to earth, a natural subversive, yet with a sense of fun. After the Prom there was a very good "Composer Portrait" featuring more of his music. Especially striking is the one-minute trumpet piece which switches from sonata, rondo to ABA song. As Andriessen says, he likes to contrast "sharp" with "soft", precise with abstract. Thus his Images of Gustave Moreau whose paintings follow the same logic. Then, Bells of Haarlem. This refers to bells stolen by the Crusaders from Palestine, and rung each night in Haarlem. They sound tiny, metallic, vulnerable but the orchestral setting, complete with celesta gives it resonance.
PLEASE see my other posts on Andriessen by following the labels at the list on right. Lots of stuff and a special on De Staat, and the Proms performance. Se Staat is a seminal work. No De Staat, no Steve Reich ?

Monday, 17 August 2009

Glyndebourne Tristan und Isolde download

If you can't spend hundreds to get to Glyndebourne's Tristan und Isolde, there's a download available on their site. It's not the current performance but a film of the 2004 production originally directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, starring Nina Stemme and Robert Gambill. Check the sample videos before buying. The download process is cumbersome, and takes almost as long to load as to listen. So why are the producers so proud to announce that half the costs go to them? For £24.99 you might wait for the DVD release which is £27.99 on Opus Arte. Glyndebourne isn't backed by the super efficient Siemens, but still....

It's interesting to watch this production after the Bayreuth version also available on download for half the price. One is grim to look at but connects to the ideas in the opera. The other is glamorous visually, a "designer" look, but in which Wagner's more complex ideas don't intrude.

The design concept for this set must have looked wonderful on the drawing board. Basically the stage is ordered in steps facing the audience, with huge semi-circular arches curving round the performance space - clean and crisp. Because the same elaborate construction can be adapted in all three Acts, it's economic to present. Yet if any venue can accommodate lavish scene changes, it's Glyndebourne, where the intervals are longer than anywhere else. A lost opportunity.

What does the set tell us about the opera? Generally I much prefer abstract, uncluttered settings because they throw attention onto the music. In this case, the minimalism draws attention away without giving much in return. Perhaps the hard surfaces reflect hard situations like Mussolini architecture reflects fascist discipline. Yet, powerful as King Marke may be he's no autocrat. He's such a nice guy he doesn't even force Isolde to sleep with him because he respects her too much. Techno-brutalism isn't his style. Nor "image" because he's not a slave to keeping up surface appearances. Isolde and Brangäne spend a lot of time sitting on the steps, physically and metaphorically. They sing but don't really inhabit the stage. Of course they don't belong in Cornwall, but there's little else in the production to further draw out their plight.

After all the King lives like that too. Act Two is visually the strongest of the three, because the set is lit up by an ever changing light show, evoking the colours of stained glass, or moonlight or daybreak. The lighting also softens the harsh lines: in some ways Isolde's predicament comes about because she has been soft, healing Tristan's wounds even though he'd killed her lover. Admittedly she had a cunning plan but she's overtaken by the tenderness that is love.

Much of the acting is done by the costumes, elaborate mock-medieval get-ups that are part shroud, part Arthur Rackham romantic. These are lovely to look at, contrasting well with the spartan set. Rather like a very expensive boutique where nice things are displayed in voids of chrome and glass. But is Tristan und Isolde a paean to designer styling? Don't the wild emotions overwhelm safe, neat order? What is the nature of those extreme emotions? Are they in love at all?

Years ago I saw Herbert Wernicke's production at the Royal Opera House. Tristan and Isolde inhabited two separate white cubes, suspended in space. They didn't look at each other. It was so shocking, I thought it was "Tristan und Isolde on Prozac", emotionally deadened. Over the years, though, that production has stuck in my mind more than many things, much as I hated it then. Wernicke was making the point that T and I are fantasists, in love with the idea of love rather than with each other. They were drugged after all.

Yet Wernicke's bizarrely barren set was saying something about the deeper ideas in the opera. Tristan and Isolde both have intense personalities, troubled by traumas in their pasts. Tristan's childhood didn't prime him for warm, healthy relationships. At least, not with women. No wonder everyone's so surprised. And Isolde has a thing for extreme reactions. They live in their own feverish minds rather than in the mundane world. They get off on death and high drama rather like medieval Kurt Cobains. So what does Lehnhoff's production tell us?

It's nonsense that productions aren't supposed to have vision. Every time anything is performed it comes to life via a process of interpretation. Even when you read notes on the page and translate them into sound, you're interpreting. Because opera is visual as well as aural, direction and sets are important: a director is almost as significant as a conductor. A conductor can't "just play the notes" any more than a director can just follow the directions. In any case, composers are musicians not stage specialists. As Alban Berg said "I write for the directors of the future" who will have different resources and know how to use them. Ultimately it doesn't matter at all whether a set is period or modern, abstract of realistic. All that matters is whether it inspires insights into a deeper understanding of the work.

After 100 years of recording, we've become accustomed to thinking of opera in purely musical terms. Indeed there's a lot to be said for not watching opera at all. But Wagner wanted Gesammstkunstwerk, creations that pulled together all kinds of art to convey ideas as fully as possible. Still, in the absence of thought-provoking staging, a perfomance can stand by singing and playing alone. Nina Stemme is a lovely Isolde, vocally secure. If the harsh lighting drains her face of colour, she doesn't sing as if she's washed out. Robert Gambill isn't striking, though he isn't strained by the part's demand on higher register. Katarina Karneus can be an excellent singer, with personality, but the way this Brangäne is directed, she might as well have gone on autopilot. There is a lot more to the character, as the Marthaler Bayreuth production demonstrates. That Brangäne is a match for Isolde in terms of spirit and vitality.

This summer's Glyndebourne Tristan und Isolde is conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, with Anja Kampe and Torsten Kerl in the main roles. Last December, Jurowski conducted a concert performance of the Second Act at the Royal Festival Hall. See HERE. It wasn't that wonderful, but that's understandable given it was a work-in-progress, all parties new to the work. Kampe was much more impressive in this spring's ROH Der fliegende Hollämder where she quite frankly stole the show from a pedestrian Bryn Terfel. She may not have Stemme's experience but she'd be interesting. And we know Jurowski's good.

Subsequently I had a thought. Why not a puppet Tristan und Isolde? That would solve the problem of having good singers who can't act and singers who look good but can't sing! That would also solve the problem of people who think the opera is "boring" because there's "no action" and no sex. At last we'd get to see Morold die, Isolde's mum, Tristan's mum etc and T & I could take their clothes off. Definitely a market there. For some.....

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Harrison Birtwistle Mask of Orpheus Proms 2009





















What drives Harrison Birtwistle to Greek myth ? Orpheus is a primal archetype. When he played his lyre he tamed wild beasts and made mountains move. But he suffered. He journeyed into Hades but could not bring Eurydice, his beloved, back to life. In some versions of the myth, his talent enraged the jealous who tore him apart. Yet even then, his head remained intact, still singing. He symbolizes the power of music, and the fate of an artist.

But the wonder of Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus isn't narrative, but an intuitive experience. At Prom 39, only the second Act was heard. In isolation, it was interesting as we were thrown into Orpheus's journey in full flow. In some ways, it doesn't matter so much that we don't know the past or future. The act unfolds in realtime, so we're experiencing it on its own terms. This reflects Birtwistle's concept of different layers of time, identity and action, each operating semi-independently and in parallel.

Each persona has its shadows, Orpheus is both Alan Oke the "man" (whatever that might signify) and Thomas Walker the "myth". Euridice is both Christine Rice the "woman" and Anna Stéphany (outstanding) as Euridice the "myth" and later Persephone, like Euridice, stolen from life by the underworld. In the original (and only) production, puppets were used, to further fragment the idea of persona. In myths, personas change. They are symbols, like images in a dream. Against these multi-faceted roles, Birtwistle juxtaposes multiple choruses, the Furies (Rachel Nicholls, Anna Dennis and Louise Poole), and the judges (Christopher Gillett, Håkan Vramsmo and Tim Mirfin) and a Greek Chorus of BBC Singers. Intricate patterns are embedded in their music too. The Furies' and Judges' lines waver in a rolling sequence of pitches, replicated on a wider scale by the chorus. Birtwistle is doing his puzzles and mazes thing again, his "secret geometry".

Over the singers towers the Voice of Apollo, which Birtwistle describes as an aura. It is an invisible presence but infuses the whole opera with another, unearthly dimension, even when it can't be heard. It's a sound projection, created in IRCAM and here realized by Tim Dearden, who does so much of this work in London. The Voice boomed from beneath the towering dome of the Royal Albert Hall into the vast auditorium, an extraordinary use of space and physics as theatre. When the eerie Voice sounds, members of the orchestra greet it by holding up mirrors to catch light. Tiny particles of light project into the building, like extra-terrestrial fireflies. The mirrors are a pun on what's happening in the music itself. This "mirroring" also captures the connection between Gods and mortals, between stage reality and artistic vision. Tim Hopkins' semi-staging is intelligent, giving maximum impact with minimal effort, like myths themselves which expand in the mind though the original sources are but fragments.

Complex interrelationships suffuse the whole work. The only really distinct presence is that of Hecate, the ambiguous goddess of death and rebirth, wonderfully sung by Claron McFadden high in the orchestra loft, but even Hecate is a multiple figure, often depicted as a trinity. There are two conductors, Martyn Brabbins and Ryan Wigglesworth, for the overlapping threads in the orchestration. The small vocal choruses are echoed by the harps, mirroring the spirit of Orpheus and his lyre. The music for large chorus reflects the voice of Apollo. The semi-silent Song of Magic in the first Arch gives way to a "chorus of Hell", a percussion ensemble that gradually dominates with noisy persistence. It adds important tension, like "reality" (whatever that means) banging on the doors of the dream. Chances are Birtwistle didn't know Martinů's Julietta, but the idea is similar. Indeed, the gradual awakening gives rise to some of the most striking passages in the whole work.

In the 15th Arch, Orpheus's vocal line totally shatters into clipped fragments, heard against the impenetrable wail of chorus and sound projection. After a few seconds of silence it dawns on Orpheus that he isn't going to bring Euridice out of Hades, for the forces against him are too great. All he can do is call out "Euridice!", endlessly, extending the syllables as if making the word grow can draw her back. No wonder this is the "Arch of Ropes" where legato is broken, twined and stretched like rope: a strong image of connection, but a connection that is broken.

This is the moment Birtwistle freeze frames in The Corridor, the fifteen minute scena premiered at Aldeburgh in June 2009. It is the critical point in the whole saga. To miss its significance is to miss the whole point, which is why Birtwistle returned to it, 35 years after first embarking on his Orpheus odyssey. Indeed, The Corridor is the Mask of Orpheus condensed into sharpest focus : it is a much more powerful work than generally appreciated. Read about it HERE Since the Mask of Orpheus is so difficult to stage and perhaps to follow, The Corridor will stand as Birtwistle's peak moment of lucid clarity.

Oke stands alone, at the top of the platform, while Apollo groans from the skies: a true moment of Greek tragedy. How amazing it must be in full production, after all the images of puppets and multiple personas, intricate musical patterns and elaborations.

The 17th Arch, the Arch of Fear is extraordinarily beautiful in its stark simplicity. Orpheus is in the "real" world again but he's still unable to comprehend. "Did I build this stone shelter over the dark cave?" he asks. "Above my head is stone, Under my feet is rock". Birtwistle sets the simple words with amazing cadences, leaping out of an almost staccato, half-spoken baseline. The words "rock", "summer grass", "stream" and "nightmares" jump outwards as if they had a life of their own. Then the Other Orpheus sings single words "Fear. Caught. Time. Lost". Between each word, silence but for the rising sounds of the orchestra. Suddenly, this Orpheus takes off into shining lyricism: two words : "Tide moan". Their meaning is too deep to express by rational logic.

Euridice calls Orpheus's name, but the syllables break up, as if lost in transmission across the void that now keeps them apart. No more words. Only elusive music, possibly the Voice of Apollo. In the original stage directions, the plot is complicated, and Orpheus hangs himself. Here, instead, Alan Oke walks round the stage and into the audience, silently touching people on the shoulder, in an echo of the 9th Arch, the "arch of awareness. Meaning to touch". Those who get touched in the orchestra and choir pass it on to others. This symbolizes the concept that life and death are a continuum. It also fits better with the idea that Orpheus's spirit, which is music, lives on whenever people communicate. The suicide solution might have been an option in 1973/5 but in view of everything Birtwistle has done since then, it's a cop-out. This new "ending" is aesthetically more satisfying.

The performance was preceded by Stravinsky's ballet Apollo which was a good idea, for Apollo was Orpheus's father, who gave him the Lyre and the gift of Music. It's surprisngly austere Stravinsky, presaging his interest in classicism and the baroque. Not really so very different from Birtwistle, the "wild man" of British music, whose notorious image belies music of sensitivity and poise, which also harks back to early music. Apollo was preceded by Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which uses similar orchestration, and has the violins standing to attention.
Please read the full formal review HERE