Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Mady Mesplé Ophélie's mad scene Hamlet


Mady Mesplé sings Ophélie's mad scene from Ambroise Thomas Hamlet.  There is also a clip circulating of Marlis Petersen singing it at the Met.  Completely different, and takes getting used to because it's lower, less decorative and more resonant, but in many ways more drama.  Petersen's growing on me with repeat listenings. Amazing that she's just learned the part!  Please see my comments on Hamlet at the Met here with FULL performance download.  Wonderful Keenlyside Hamlet.on it

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Piccadilly Revisited - Anna May Wong


Tonight and tomorrow at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House there's Piccadilly Revisited, a "film, dance, music and drama celebration" of the life of Anna May Wong (1905-61). AMW was the first Chinese woman to become a star (of sorts) in Hollywood, playing  with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and Marlene Dietrich.  Her finest film, though, is Piccadilly (1929), filmed in London.(cheaper on amazon than ebay) The film's wonderfully shot, atmospheric angles and mysterious scenes of 1920's Limehouse, and uses several very good Chinese actors, besides AMW herself. Many Hollywood films used whites like Walter Oland  made up to look Chinese.

Although it depicts Chinese as inscrutable stereotypes, it deals with race relationships, and in a much less airbrushed sentimental way than Hollywood.  AMW must die because she breaks the rules, but at least the movie acknowledges that such things happen and that there's prejudice. Until the late1920's interracial marriage was illegal in some parts of the US.  Mass deportations in Mexico, no civic rights in Canada, and even China was under extraterritorial control until 1943. That's the background.

Anna May Wong was third generation ABC (American born Chinese) not FOB (fresh off boat), ethnically Chinese (although extremely tall) but acculturated American. There were quite a number of Chinese in the California film industry even then (before Keye Luke, James Wong Howe etc) In fact, the very first Chinese-American movie was made by a woman, Marion Wong (no relation)  in 1916, self financed, and using her family as actors.  The first Chinese movie was made in Hong Kong in 1909, but Chinese and American movie circles were completely separate worlds. Could be different planets. In fact, more Chinese movies than western, just as Bollywood is bigger than Hollywood..

Nowadays, there are tens of thousands of Chinese who've known only the west. There's a rude term, "bananas" (peel off the yellow skin, white inside) but that trivializes a very genuine need for these new generations to redefine their unique identity. That's why Anna May Wong fascinates modern  ABC's and BBC's (British born Chinese). She's the pioneer, who faced these challenges long ago. She's also drop dead gorgeous.  Hence the AMW cult, lots of  books, films, and "celebrations" of what she means to a whole new generation of Chinese who've grown up in the west.

To Chinese born and raised in China, though, she's strangely western and alien. That's not Chinese dancing at all in the clip, from a Chinese perspective it's an obscene travesty. That's why the "Chinaman" in the clip looks embarrassed. You can almost hear Chinese people scream that she's letting the side down with this undignified playing to caricature. When AMW visited China in 1936 there were plenty of Chinese "New Women" of many kinds, not only actresses but writers, artists, teachers and businesswomen, much more sophisticated than AMW. She wasn't relevant to the Chinese identity, indeed, she represented a kind of colonialism, since the locals were pretty good at doing modern themselves without outside help.  Plenty of Chinese icons. AMW didn't fit in, and went back to the US, her destiny to be "white" but not quite.

There always will be more Chinese Chinese than hybrids,  Eurasians and westernized Chinese. But cultural adaption is an issue and needs to be understood. So alien as AMW may seem to Chinese Chinese, she's relevant there too. Ultimately, though,. we need to appreciate just how innovative and "modern" China really was in those days, despite the wars and sufferings.  ABC's and others should be studying China, and Chinese moderns, not AMW. The South China mentality is enterprising, innovative, adaptive but misunderstood because the North dominates. They key to the future I think, is understanding this most vibrant region (which is where most "bananas" ancestors come from): Read  Hong Kong in Chinese History for starters..

Below is a rare clip from Toll of the Sea, a very early film starring Anna May Wong (1922) made before the Thief of Bagdad (1924) made her famous. The director was one of AMW's boyfriends, which is why it shows a Chinese woman in a sympathetic light : far less racist than Madama Butterfly. There were hundreds of real life situations like this, and many were genuine relationships, not scams like the one Puccini depicted. (though he didn't know). There are lots of other early Chinese and Chinese-American films, which I might post as and when I can, look at labels on right and please keep coming back. Watch the full movie  download on this site of Street Angel and read the analysis.. In the long term Zhou Xuan is a much better icon of the modern Chinese woman than AMW.(though she ended up insane).  Please see my other post on  Anna May Wong Piccadilly HERE  Later I'll be doing a lot more on Li lili a "real" Chinese icon..

Monday, 29 March 2010

Keenlyside Thomas Hamlet at the Met with DOWNLOAD

Perhaps Renée Fleming's performance before the beginning of Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet told us something. La  Renée started her spiel about how great things would be. Then forgot her lines completely and had to be handed a prompt sheet - filmed live on camera, broadcast to thousands watching in movie houses all over the world. She didn't miss a beat, reading off the card with the same fixed smile and artificial bonhomie.  I was at a cinema where the audience burst out snorting at the insincerity. It's not Renée so much as the way the Met works, and the difference between US and European attitudes. And Renée's bombshell : "This is an empty set, this time the focus is on the singers".

Renée is right. The unfussy set emphasizes the action. The set is stylized, the courtiers in simple drab. King Claudius, Queen Gertrude and Ophélie wear monochrome outfits which are streamlined modern takes on mid 19th century costume. For the "Play" scene in Act 2 a long trestle table is wheeled out: a few tureens, no fancy plates and decorations. The table's like a wall between the actors in the play within a play and the "real" murderers watching them. Later, Keenlyside jumps onto the table, pouring a jug of wine over his head. He really looks wild, as if he's covered in blood.  Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse has never been so realistic. After this, long interval (Keenlyside needs a shower).

In Act 3, the backdrop is lit claret-red, so Gertude's claret red dress dissolves into hues of wine or blood, only her haunted gface gleaming white - not unlike the white of the ghost of her late husband. In this subtle way, mother and son are linked, and murderer to murdered. For the all-important mad scene, nothing distracted from Marlis Petersen. Nice touch too, pulling up the floorboards to dig her grave, and finding sand!

Modern as this production was (Moshe Lieser and Patrice Caurier, set Christian Fenouillat)) , the sky did not fall in, nor did the audience collapse in hysterics. The filming was directed by Brian Large, who has made the filing of opera into an art form of its own. He uses close-ups well, so you see musch more than you'd see live. He knows which angles to shoot, and just how much detail to include. He's also musically well-informed. In this case, he picks up on how cleanly Ambroise Thomas orchestrated.  Large pinpoints the use of solo instruments - French horn in the overture, oboe, double harps and even saxophone (brand new instrument then, mentioned in Berlioz's Treatise on Orchestration).

You can follow Thomas's orchestral thinking clearly, which helps a lot in an opera like Hamlet better known for its big numbers than its overall structure. This opera gets derided but heard on its own terms, it's not all that far from, say, Gounod's Faust. It's French after all, with a French sensibility. Having Louis Langrée conduct  made a huge difference because he did so with precision and clarity. His light but disciplined touch kept the music animated. The performance lasted nearly four hours, but didn't at all feel that long, so vivid was this playing.

Simon Keenlyside created the part in 1996. He's completely immersed, as though he was born to Shakespeare, but the least hammy Hamlet I can imagine. Keenlyside's Hamlet looks tortured, but he's mentally very tough, playing psychological games to break Claudius. Breaking his own mother is part of the process, which gives the struggle a Freudian edge.  Keenlyside's French is superb, too. être ou ne pas être sounds so natural you almost forget what it is in English. He gets the right sardonic Gallic snarl and is completely intelligible without sub titles. Hamlet made his career, the characterization of his lifetime. As Renée said, they did the opera to get him, and you can see and hear why.

Listen to Keenlyside singing in London in 2003 - STREAMED ONLINE from Opera Today. It's a very good performance indeed - Louis Langrée conducts, much better than Bertrand de Billy on the Barcelona DVD, and Natalie Dessay as Ophélie, which makes it unmissable. The performances are better than the Met.  Brian Large's film of the Met performance, however, is so intelligent and sensitive that the combination of listening to London while thinking of New York is a better experience than having either live.

Natalie Dessay was to have appeared at the Met, too, because Ophélie is one of her great roles. She had to pull, out shortly before, replaced by Marlis Petersen, who had to rehearse while singing in Vienna. Petersen is good, considering, but a little too formal for my taste (which is Mady Mesplé, whose Lakmé was one of the first LP's I ever bought)

At the Met, Jennifer Larmore sang Gertrude in a nicely tense, edgy performandce - you could see her neck tighten with anxiety in the close-ups, just as you would in a movie.  James Morris sang Claudius. His voice isn't what it was, so he didn't develop the character much, but was suitably imposing.  Toby Spence as Laerte was described as having been at "Oxford University" another transatlantic term that raised a chuckle with a British audience. 

A nod though towards Shakepeare. The play scene was wonderfully danced at the Met - such athletic dancers, so expressive that they seemed to be acting, rather than dancing.They didn't cut all the ballet at the Met, they sublimated it.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Singers aren't machines : Christianne Stotijn

Here is a link to the Opera Today review of Christianne Stotijn's Lieder recital at the Wigmore Hall, London, on 25th March. It's critical, but constructive. She's basically a good singer, with charm and sensitivity, who needs to be nurtured, not knocked. In the long run that's what's best for the art. Maybe reading this will help other singers, too, and help non-singers appreciate what's involved.. 

"....Tamerlano is a brutal tyrant, and male. Modern audiences are perhaps more used to hearing a lower voice expressing such things. But Handel isn’t Verdi. He wrote the role for female voice, which makes it all the more difficult to create the role convincingly for modern expectations. Tamerlano’s personality doesn’t come naturally to Stotijn, though part of the art of acting means becoming a character completely different to yourself...."

"Her programme was wide-ranging: Pfitzner, Wolf, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Strauss and Loewe. This is the kind of recital singers often create to show their prowess....The danger with programmes like these is that they stretch singers out too thinly, militating against depth of interpretation....The Strauss set showed her at her best......"

"Part of Stotijn’s problem is that her voice is currently underpowered. Sound seems trapped in her chest, not fully projected, either in volume or intensity. Building up her technique will help, and strengthening the middle of her voice....."

"Unlike instrumental players, singers “are” their instruments. Unlike machines, their performance can vary, depending on many different factors. Stotijn was born with a good voice, capable of great warmth and sensitivity, but at the moment, something is getting in the way. At times like these, technique comes to the rescue. Indeed, good technique has saved many a lesser voice. If she takes the opportunity to refine her skills and rebuild her confidence, she’ll emerge from this period with credit. Just as fire strengthens steel, perhaps these current difficulties can strengthen Stotijn in the longer term."
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Eötvös Angels in America Barbican BBC London

Here is a link to the review of Angels in America in Opera Today.

Angels in America, Peter Eötvös’s opera based on the Tony Kushner plays, received its London premiere at the Barbican Hall. This was very high profile. David Robertson conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance that will be broadcast internationally, online on www.bbc.co.uk/radio3..............Ultimately, Angels in America works on stage because the subject is so powerful. It packs such an emotional punch that it would be hard not to be moved by the human drama in the first part. A lot of choices had to be made when Eötvös and his librettist reduced Kushner’s seven hour saga. That’s all the more reason why decisions had to be taken for maximum dramatic and musical effect. As an opera, Angels in America might have served the subject better had it been less dependent on replicating the play, and taken a more original vision."

The ultimate daan tart recipe



Beautifully clear! If you can't get moulds, use muffin pan.
Coming soon: Ambroise Thomas, Hamlet at the Met. Will wonders never cease? A Met production that's modern and the sky didn't collapse.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Eötvös Angels in America, Barbican

Tony Kushner's Angels in America is an icon, bigger than "just" a play (or plays) because it commemorates the AIDS pandemic, or rather its first phase. In the early 80's, AIDS didn't have a name. It was terrifying because no-one knew why so many healthy young men were dying horrific deaths of what we called then "Karposi's Sarcoma",  a cancer of the very old. Then, ostensibly straight men started dying too, and their partners, and even militant homophobes.  Everyone panicked. Dreadful as the epidemic was, AIDs was a turning point. It exposed hypocrisy and prejudice, and ironically did a lot to bring homosexuality out of the closet.

For personal reasons, I've avoided the play as I lived through those times. "The haunted Castro and City Beach".  Thirty years on, it's amazing how things have changed, and how rapidly the medical establishment responded. Remember the shock waves when Princess Diana kissed an AIDS patient? It was one time when society did pull together to fight what seemed then a plague of medieval proportions.Western people don't die of AIDS anymore, as long as they can afford health care and medication.  AIDS isn't a gay thing - the plague has moved to the Third World. Angels in America could be transcribed for southern Africa.

Peter Eötvös turned it into an opera, premiered in 2004, and at last it's come to the Barbican, London. David Roberston conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the performance was recorded for later international, online broadcast on www.bbc.co.uk/radio3. Huge audience turnout: the upper floors of the Barbican were filled to capacity.  Not for the music, perhaps, (many walked out), but because the subject is so important.

Eötvös compresses Kushner's work into 2 1/2 hours. In the first part, vignettes of people experiencing death in their own way. Prior Walter (David Adam Moore) is a gay man dumped by his frightened lover. (such things happened and can't be judged in hindsight). Roy Cohn (Kelly Anderson), the bully who thinks he can't be touched,  and Joe Pitt (Omar Ebrahim), the hapless married Mormon. This concentrates dramatic focus on human relationships, and is very moving. Indeed, the fact that parts are doubled extends the scope into other lives. Brian Asawa is subtly excellent, in a variety of roles, his rich countertenor hovering beyond easy classification. Everyone dumps on non-white menials, even the dying. Some things don't change.

In the second part, Kushner extends his panorama to the afterlife and to Heaven with its angels of different continents.  Prior is restored to life for reasons not particularly intelligible. But then fate is unintelligible. There are people who lived right through the heart of the storm who never became ill.  It's much less coherent, but works in an impressionistic way. The first part needs reinforcement, and the abstraction of the second works in an impressionistic sort of way.

Eötvös's music illustrates the text nicely. Marimbas and electronics to create weird, surreal sounds, percussion to mark tension, lovely cello and violin melodies  to enhance moments of individual reverie.  As an extension of the play, the music is usefully mood-enhancing, so in that sense it works.  On the other hand, I'm not sure it would work as music without the power of the subject matter and Kushner's dramatic momentum. It's episodic and reactive rather than development.

David Robertson led the BBC Symphony Orchestra. If anyone can give this music bite, he can.  Very good singing and acting by the principals (named above) and other parts, who, just as in life, may seem minor but are actually valid in their own ways. Julia Migenes was superb as the neurotic housewife Harper Pitt (male name, female part). Janice Hall was hampered by cliche roles - a rabbi whose music veers towards almost racist stereotype, and an out-of-towner lost in the Bronx. I enjoyed this concert staging (directed by David Gately) because it showed how the simple resources of a concert staging can have a huge impact, done as thoughtfully as this. The lighting effects were superb, evoking huge vistas in the imagination. I "saw" the stars in the heavens and the lights of a night time city. When the Angel pops out of the organ loft, she's gleaming white. I enjoyed this, but ultimately, Angels in America isn't an opera in the sense that the music is fundamental to the concept.  This music extends the play, in the way that well written film music extends the dominant narrative.  But what a narrative, what a subject!  It's too important to miss. Better and longer version of this NOW in Opera Today.

If you want to hear really original, intense music about death and the afterlife, seek out Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime, or better still, the Pierre Audi staging of Claude Vivier's Kopernikus.  Neither of them are as immediately accessible as Eötvös, but musically, they're infinitely deeper and more rewarding.  Kopernickus I didn't get at all, at first, but have grown to love intensely because there are so many levels in it.  An angel jumps out of the sky, too! It was made in 1980 but so advanced it's still fresh and powerful. Get it here
Reves D'Un Marco Polo - Claude Vivier, Asko Ensemble
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Friday, 26 March 2010

Rabbit strikes back!


The anthropomorphism of The Cunning Little Vixen is affecting me.....Clip by Run Wrake a Sclah film for 4mation TV.  TOMORROW : Eötvös Angels in America. In the meantime, plerase read about Claude Vivier's Kopernikus which is also about death and dreams, but INFINITELY more sophisticated and more magical.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Harrison Birtwistle 75th birthday Wigmore Hall

















"If anything", said Philip Langridge in 2008,"Birtwistle’s music has become more impressive with time".  "He writes mathematically, in the way Bach writes mathematically, but with great emotion. To sing Birtwistle," he adds, "you have to understand the ‘maths’ first, to get the figures right, to get the intervals right".

To get the intervals right, to respect the silences....... an apt description of Birtwistle's mature work. The Nash Ensemble celebrated Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 75th birthday at the Wigmore Hall, London with a well balanced programme of his music with two premieres, an Oboe Quartet and the UK premiere of Elliott Carter's Poems of Louis Zukofsky (2009)

Framing the two new works with two older pieces was a good idea, because that linked past to present.  Five Distances for Wind Quintet shows Birtwistle (1992) in a cheerful mood. A horn in a wind quartet? Formality is scuttled, the horn chasing and distorting the more conventional wind ensemble. "A fox among chickens", says Stephen Pruslin.  The Oboe Quartet is more open ended. It's not complete, which is rather fun, because you have to use your imagination. The two outer movements are symmetrical and the unfinished middle movement, barely sketched here, may be freer and more improvisational.  Long, searching chords on flute and oboe mix with short, sharp interjections: bass plucked like a giant lute, violin strummed like a guitar.  Because it's incomplete, there's a sense of "tearing" that's appealling. It reminds me of Wolfgang Rihm's "fragmentization"


Which is why it goes well with The Woman and the Hare (1999).  Again, there's a dichotomy between form and freedom. The reciter (Julia Watson) intones  text in notated speech, while the soprano (Claire Booth) sings long arching lines : words barely connected by grammar, crystallized as images. "Moonrise ....landscape awash with dead white light". David Harsent's text is understated, its meaning elusive, coming from the odd pulse and silences as much as from the words. 


Two voices, then two flutes. In Duets for Storab (1983) Philippa Davies and Ian Clarke interact like aspects of nature, birds perhaps, or even eddies of wind. (which is what flutes do) This feels like "earth music", as if it composed itself without human intervention, yet it's beautifully shaped.

Elliott Carter's Poems of Louis Zukofsky takes the idea of silence even further. The poems come with a stern warning that they must not even be quoted without express permission.  How then to comment on Carter's setting? The poems are minimal. Single, disconnected words spread loosely across the page, which Carter sets extremely sensitively. His music incorporates silence, that speaks just as the blank spaces in the poems are part of their essence.  Maybe the Zufofsky estate will try to make money out of silence. Sorry, but it's anti-art, to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. 


To conclude, Birtwistle's Tragoedia (1965). Tragedy is misleading in a way because there's too much wit in the piece to be gloomy. In the centre sits the harpist (Hugh Webb) acting as gate keeper between the 5 winds and 4 strings. Sometimes the flautist doubles as percussion, beating a small wooden block, marking the passage of time, perhaps. The harp's also a stringed instrument, so there are patterns within patterns in this meticulously choreographed piece. More symmetry. Just as the concert began with two pieces that pit formality with freedom, Tragoedia uses the idea of a processional march but enlivens it.  The piece  pivots on the harp, and ends with the same 4 note sequence which framed the various segments.

Please see many other pieces on Birtwistle on this site

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Genoveva Schumann UCL Opera, London

Schumann's Genoveva at the Bloomsbury Theatre is produced by UCL Opera. Please see the review HERE in Opera Today. UCL Opera is a good cause because they've been supporting off the beaten track operas for 60 years. Very enthusiastic!   The text translation is a bit G&S but the production is rollicking good fun. But please see the recording recommendation HERE because it is the best possible way to get to know this opera. It's Leipzig Gewandhaus under Kutrt Masur in 1976. Peter Schreier amazing emotional range as Golo.  Edda Moser, DFD etc. Everyone keeps repeating the cliche that Genoveva is hard to stage. Yet it's more logical than Lohengrin. How many  actually know Genoveva or have heard a superlative performance? That is the question to ask.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Wolfgang Wagner, a different take


Photos of Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner and their "family friend" are well known because Family Friend used them to legitimize his own status. With the mother and grandparents they had, it's a wonder that the boys grew up relatively normal. Read HERE for my description of Jonathan Carr's book, The Wagner Clan which is a sensitive, well-balanced account.

The photo here, taken in 1955, when they were still on good terms, shows how closely Wieland and Wolfgang resembled each other. They looked like twins, and shackled in the image of RW himself. It's creepy, as if the family saga was a kind of theatre. An opera as lived in life. Also quite tragic. Wieland, the more talented visionary, dies too young, and his talented offspring are bypassed. Even Wolfgang's talented elder daughter has to share with younger daughter, as yet unproved. Wolfgang's death isn't really "news". Wait for the next installment.

Everywhere there will be the usual obituaries and no doubt explosions of venom as anything Wagner attracts hate in some quarters, rightly or wrongly from the Alberichs of this world. But here is something original, comparing Wolfgang with Lady Walton, whose passing receives less attention. Rupert Christiansen compares them as two "keepers of the flame", neither of them geniuses, but people who served genius in their own way.

Bard Festival 2010 "Berg" ?

This year's Bard Festival theme has been announced: "Berg and his world". Big feature is the first US production of "The Distant Sound" also known as Der ferne Klang, possibly Franz Schreker's best-known opera. Although Berg is the theme, the music presented will be much more diverse. There'll be a performances of Oscar Straus's operetta The Chocolate Soldier. My father loved Nelson Eddy films, we used to watch the 1941 film version, which was "so bad it was good". There'll also be a series of G W Pabst films and a performance of Franz Schmidt's Book of the Seven Seals. The publicity material reveals an agenda, but it probably only reflects the difference between US and European approaches to music. But if it brings anyone in the audience closer to other "obscure" composers of the time, it's not entirely a bad thing. Wait till they find out more. But why not simply use a theme "Music of the 20's and 30's" ?

Monday, 22 March 2010

Schumann Genoveva Leipzig Gewandhaus recording


Everyone knows Schumann's Genoveva Overture, but those who know the full opera can hear it as the missing link between Weber and Wagner. The full opera isn't a rarity but it has a reputation for being "unstageable", so get to the performances put on by University College Opera at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London this week.

THIS is the absolute top recording, from 1976. Kurt Masur conducts the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. Soloists are unsurpassable. Peter Schreier as Golo, Edda Moser as Genoveva, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Seigfried Lorenz, and Seigfried Vogel. This is a true classic. The performance are exceptionally vivid, fresh and passionate. Their enthusiasm makes a case for this wonderful opera.

Genoveva is a virtuous woman who is set up by Golo, a villain who's in love with her. Magic is involved, too. Golo's friend is Margaretha the witch. Genoveva ends up living in the woods with her baby son Schmerzenreich (rich with sorrow). She's so gentle that the animals look after her. The painting above by Adrian Ludwig Ritter was painted in 1841, so is from Schumann's time (it's on the cover of the Masur recording).

The story itself is ancient, but significantly, Schumann, rejected tradiiional, sentimental texts for a text by Freidrich Hebel, written in 1843. Schumann started the Overture in 1847, completing the opera in 1848, right in the midst of the Revolutions of that year. Wagner was on the barricades in Dresden. While Schuman hid away in the countryside, his manifesto was his music. As Hebbel had said, "Any drama will come alive only to the extent it expresses the spirit of the age". Like many original things, it wasn't all that well received. Not long after, Schumann became ill and Genoveva fell out of fashion. But forget fashionable assumptions and listen to the music itself (especially the Leipzig recording).

The Overture sets the stage, introducing the themes that will be developed more fully in the opera. It's marvellous, but listen to how it zooms into a chorale, and then into the opera proper, rather like successive proscenia in a theatre add depth to a flat stage. Schumann's doing dramatic perspective with music.

Think of the colours in orchestration: "golden" shining trumpet fanfares, dense textures that suggest dark forests and shadow. Magical sweeping strings, sudden twists and turns. When Genoveva's husband Siegfried goes off to war, we hear pipes and drums, perhaps even galloping horses. There's so much in this music that it's a shame to recreate it literally: no one comes close to Schumann. Your imagination, in any case, will provide more than can be practical in live performance.

Yet don't be seduced by the gorgeous surface. The central dynamic in this opera is between Golo and Genoveva - good and evil. Peter Schreier's Golo is wonderful, because he's so bright and intense, you "feel" that Golo isn't a one-dimensional stock baddie, but a much more complex person - a Romantic hero gone wrong, a pre-Wagner hero, even. What happens to Genoveva is savage, but she's steadfast and survives because she has integrity.

Schumann's vocal balance is superb - soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone, bass. solos and choir. This makes the interactions move swiftly. The duets and trios are specifically clear : no fudging, every word each character sings is meant to be heard. The choral writing is more uniformed (sometimes they're singing as soldiers) but combined with that wonderfully rich orchestration, it's fabulous. Auf, auf in das feld! could come from Lohengrin. Then Schreier sings alone, Ich bin allein, with minimal woodwind accompaniment: a crazed swan-hero emerging from the mist. Genoveva and Lohengrin were both premiered in the summer of 1850.

This "Elsa", though, is tougher than she seems. The vocal writing is beautiful, ometimes using the full range of the fach in a single aria. Genoveva and Golo have confrontations, yet they're equals: listen to the duet Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär. It's an old folk rhyme, but Schumann has both voices sing with equal force, first in unison, then in diametric opposition. Edda Moser's voice is light, but firm, a good foil for Schreier's adamant intensity.

Then, the finale of Act 3 in which the murdered Drago's ghost appears is scored with sprightly whips of sound (both orchestra and chorus) that vaguely recall the Wolf Glen in Der Freischütz. When Drago appears (Vogelm intoning malevolently), Schumann's audiences knew the cue. Margaretha's so scared, she tells Siegfried the truth about her scam with Golo. Gisela Schröter sang Kundry quite frequently, so this informs the way she develops Margaretha, whose part warms after this point. She's redeemed.

Edda Moser's long aria Der letzte Hiffnung schwindet is a tour de force, demanding for even the most experienced singers. Genoveva makes simple goodness an act of strength. Somehow a singer has to portray purity with great resourcefulness. Perhaps Genoveva is a symbol of unsullied national spirit : Germany was still split into dozens of principalities, some ruled by autocrats. Schumann read (and wrote) newspapers, he knew the spirit of the times. This makes the plot much more than mere fairy tale. Times may have changed, but the idea still applies, all over the world where there's power politics and scamming. There's nothing undramatic in that.

In a way it's sad Genoveva ends up subordinately submissive to Siegfried, a rather one dimensional nobleman. Fischer-Dieskau does noble like no-one else so perhaps it's not so bad.

The real tragedy is that Schumann did not live long enough to write more. Genoveva was his first attempt at opera. Das Paradies und die Peri and Szenen aus Faust are experiments, and should be respected for that, not dismissed as misfires. We know from his songs that Schumann understood writing for voice, and we know from his symphonies and chamber music, piano and other works that he had a much wider range than Wagner. He read more, too. What might he have achieved had he had continued writing after the age of 44? Many composers haven't even found themselves at that age.

So it's time to give Schumann the respect he is due, and value Genoveva for what it is. Towards the end of Genoveva, Golo sings Kennt ihr den Ring? Your heart skips a beat because you wonder what Schumann might have done had he lived longer.

Read a more detailed review HERE in Opera Today. Get the CD HERE

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Aldeburgh Festival June 2010

FOR REVIEWS OF CONCERTS please follow link "Aldeburgh 2010" on right, or use searchg facility. Lots on related topics, too.

Booking's already well under way for this year's Aldeburgh Festival. This year's big opera is George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill, seen last year at the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House.

This time it will be paired with Luciano Berio's Recital 1, instead of the rather oppressive Birtwistle piece heard in London. Berio's Recital 1 is more in tune with Benjamin's magical world, where whimsy and horror combine. Read about Into The Little Hill by following the link above - it's a masterpiece. Recital 1 is every performer's nightmare. The singer starts a recital but the pianist has disappeared! So she improvises....

Those who have seen Into The Little Hill will want to hear it again, especially with Berio, but be warned, it clashes with Rumplestiltskin, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's smash hit (seen in Birmingham and Huddersfield) performed at the Spitalfields Festival in London. You could wait for the next weekend's performance but that clashes with the first night of Idomeneo at the ENO.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays the big First Saturday Night concert with Bach and Benjamin's transcription of the Canon and Fugue from Kunst der Fuge. Piano fans must book this weekend: Leon Fleisher plays the Sunday concert. Fleisher suffered neurological damage in the 1960's. Gradually he regained the use of his left hand, but the crisis let him blossom as teacher and conductor. He's giving a masterclass, too, which should be good.

There's a film about Fleisher too, because one of the major themes of this year's Aldeburgh Festival is "Music and The Brain". This sounds fascinating. Lots of different talks, concerts and films about the way the brain processes music, and fuels the creative process. One is about synaesthesia, backed with a concert featuring (of course) Messiaen and Scriabin.

Alfred Brendel's back, too, giving a talk on the theme "Does classical music have to be entirely serious?" Everyone who's heard or read Brendel knows this will be more intelligent and more original than most. Royal Philharmonic Society take note!

Very unusual indeed will be the event on 20 June when Aimard and a neuroscientist will explore how the brain allows two hands to move in contrary motion. Can we adapt to ambidextrous skills? A stimulating programme not only for pianists, I think.

There'll be a workshop on "Togetherness" about how chamber ensembles communicate. Motion-capture technology will show how players relate to each other by many complex social and musical interactions.

More brains too the second week. Pierre Boulez and members of Ensemble Intercontemporain talk with Aimard and play works by Boulez and Elliott Carter. The next day Aimard and Thomas Zehetmair play Mozart, Schoenberg and Boulez. June 26th is the Big Day, when there'll be two concerts with Ensemble Intercontemporain, with Boulez conducting. Guess what? The world premiere of Elliott Carter's What are Years? Carter should know, he's 101. Plenty more Boulez music this week, and George Benjamin, too. And this being Aldeburgh, new music is interspersed with early music - Exaudi and the amazing polyphony of the Huelgas Ensemble and Bach Mass in B Minor (Monteverdi Choir and JEG).

Plenty of respect too for the Aldeburgh tradition of musicians-as- Directors. There's a big feature on Peter Pears and concerts of music by previous directors, such as John Woolrich, Thomas Adès, Oliver Knussen and of course Benjamin Britten himself. This year's festival is the best I can remember because it's uncompromisingly UNsuperficial : top quality music, placed in relationship to life and original thinking. Definitely not dumbed down but all the more fun for that. Wonderful programmes this year - make the effort and be rewarded. This 63rd Festival is so good that it is worth travelling a long way to get to. Click on photo to enlarge for detail. It's a cliff near Aldeburgh. The coastline there often crumbles : now you can see WHY Peter Grimes's house became dangerous. Britten knew first hand, and made sure the danger came into his music. The apprentice's death was an accident waiting to happen.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Cunning Little Vixen, ROH London 2010













Bill Bryden's production of Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen at the Royal Opera House, London is 20 years old and has been seen with much starrier casts. This time, the emphasis isn't on celebrity names but on the opera itself, which is no bad thing at all.

The set comes into its own, too. William Dudley's designs astutely reflect concepts in the music: huge revolving circles and ellipses, reflecting circular forms in the orchestration. Sharp spikes emanating outwards, like crackling staccato. Characters spin, slide off uneven surfaces, and fly through the air - just like the movement in the music.

Don't expect naturalism. Janácek may be writing about forests and peasants but he's definitely not being folksy or bucolic. Some of the jokes are surreal. There are references to "making operas and novels". Even the old dog is a composer, and we know who! When the Fox and Vixen do what nature intends, horrified onlookers demand they get properly married, first. It's a cue for Janácek to throw in some of his wonderful choruses, which Bryden has materialized in the corners of the auditorium, further breaching the boundaries between stage and audience.

The Cunning Little Vixen is about nature, but the animals in this wild-life documentary are human. Janácek's recurring theme is that sex is natural, and celibacy unnatural: the schoolmaster is a withered old stick, surrounded by a forest of living trees. Even now that topic would be daring. In the 1920's it had to be camouflaged discreetly.

Janácek's startlingly modern in other ways, too. "Do you smoke?" asks the Fox of the Vixen, hopefully. "I do like a modern girl". The Vixen is independent and liberates herself. The hens cannot comprehend and cluck disapprovingly. "We don't need men", cries the Vixen, felling the rooster in one swoop.

In a forest lurks danger. The Gamekeeper's job is killing foxes. Submerged in the greenery are mechanical traps. The Fox and Vixen warn their cubs, but they're no match for the Gamekeeper's gun (which woke a sleeping child in the stalls, who burst into tears).

Nature takes its course. When it's time for the Gamekeeper to die, he returns to a glade where he was once young, but the animals have changed. "You have your mother's eyes," he tells a cub. The old Fox and Vixen are long gone, but Nature is a cycle that renews itself. It's a little misleading in this production that the Gamekeeper joins hands with the animals when he dies, but it reinforces the idea that men and animals aren't that different, and that reproduction means survival. Again the set design is prescient, with its images of spokes and rotating wheels.

Understanding Janácek's motivations gives clues as to performance practice. The Vixen's name is "Sharp Ears", so think pointed, alert, constantly questioning and vigilant, like a wild animal. Listen to the clues in the music - edgy staccato, sudden whips that leap above the stave, wavering haziness that reflects the magic in the tale. There's a huge case to be made for hearing Janácek as "modern", like Bartók. Indeed, even more so, for Janácek's recurrent theme is freedom, breaking away from boundaries and received convention.

Huge applause for Sir Charles Mackerras because he's a pillar of the establishment and so closely associated with this composer. Orchestrally, though, this was fairly straightforward, but Mackerras's Janácek is so familiar, he doesn't need to prove anything. Incidentally, London has great claims on Janácek tradition, with early champions like Rosa Newmarch, George Szell, Břetislav Bakala and Rafael Kubelik, who decades ago conducted Janácek in this very pit.

So this revival turns the wheel again, this time with a fresh crop of singers. Christopher Maltman is an authoritative Gamekeeper, especially towards the end, when the character grows old and reflective. His last scene was very moving. Emma Matthews was a good Vixen. Special credit to Elisabeth Meister, who stood in as the Fox at barely a day's notice. She's charismatic, a born actress with genuine presence, particularly as she's very young and still a Jette Parker Young Artist. Definitely a debut to remember.

The rest of the cast performed with enthusiasm rather than finesse, but that is no demerit. The Cunning Little Vixen is meant to be sung with gusto, so raw edges are better than overly polished conservatoire aesthetics. These are "wild" animals after all, and that is part of their charm. Which is the whole point Janácek was making. Be natural, be free.

Please see my other pieces on Janácek - lots of them - especially on the significance of Janácek's women and their relation to performance practice. Tomorrow (Saturday 20th), there's a broadcast on www.bbc.co.uk/radio3 of From The House of the Dead, Salonen conducting. (from the Met) photo credit : John Harrison

Friday, 19 March 2010

Satan is Real

They don't make LP covers like that anymore ! These are the Louvin Brothers, Charles and Ira, who were big in real country music innthe 50's and 60's when it was still a cottage industry. They did their own material, managed themselves, designed their own LP covers. This one was made by burning a pile of tyres bought from a used car lot. This particular song iss a classic in its own way, in a quite different league from the usual run of the mill. Notice how well it's crafted, like a Lieder. The church is quiet, hushed in anticipation. As the preacher waits befoire starting the sermon, birds can be heard outside and the smell of new mown hay. Then suddenly the whole scenario changes. An old drunk comes in and suddenly that pastoral innoicence is shattered. The old man is evidence that Satan is real and operates in real life. Yow, what a song ! Worthy ofSchumann. Read more about the Louvins HERE

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Cunning Vixen preview Neumann


In 1916, Janáček found inspiration from his local newspaper Lidové noviny. It ran a series of fragments, supposedly letters found torn from the diary of a young man who suddenly left home and vanished. Later it was revealed that the story wasn't news but creative fiction, but it inspired the masterpiece, The Diary of One Who Disappeared, which was a major tuning point in Janáček's creative life. In 1920, the newspaper published a serialized novel which became the opera The Cunning Little Vixen.

The novel "Vixen Sharp Ears" was written by Rudolf Tĕsnohlídek whose personal life was ao gruesome no-one would believe it if it was a work of fiction - three dramatic suicides, three marriages, two murder trials. So the pastoral whimsy of The Cunning Little Vixen has darker undertones.


The novel was illustrated by Stanislav Lolek, who was also well known as a formal painter.
So right from the start the visual impact of the story connected to these simple, open-ended line drawings. To our eyes these drawings seem unremarkable. But cartoons in those days were fairly closely drawn : Lolek's work must have seemed daringl modern at the time, barely more than rough sketches. So perhaps their vivacity and freedom has a bearing on the opera and how it's performed.

There are lots of clips on youtube of The Cunning Little Vixen, and photos everywhere of past productions. There are even animated versions, pushing the "cartoon" idea further, which isn't so bad: the story is magical, and why shouldn't kids (and adults) enjoy 20th century opera? I'm very fond of Vaclav Neumann's Janáček, so was thrilled to find clips of him conducting Vixen in 1954 in Berlin at the Komische Oper. Orchestrally it's superb - Neumann really gets the sparkling, electric quality in the music. The singing is very bright and crisp, an excellent performance. The singers wear animal costumes and hop about on all fours in dense undergrowth. It's so cute!

But the opera doesn't need to be realistic. After all animals don't sing. The Cunning Little Vixen is beautiful because it's magical, a world of imagination. Alas, the owner of these clips doesn't want them embedded so you'll have to buy the DVD or go to his links. Here are the links -Part 1 and Part 2. Enjoy! Someone has mailed me . He has the whole film so he's giving me a chance to see it ! will report. Please also see my piece on Janácek's dangerous Women which shows the Vixen as one of Janácek's many feisty women characters and what they might mean. (LOTS of Janácek on this site)

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Janáček's dangerous women

Is Janácek proto-feminist? Janáček depicts remarkable women from Makropoulos to Málinka, who moves from being a maid to Queen of the Moon in The Excursions of Mr Brouček. None of them meek bimbettes, not even when they're put upon like Katya and Jenůfa. At first, it seems as though he's celebrating feisty women - think of The Cunning Little Vixen who cannot be tamed. Or the gypsy girl who leads the nice boy astray in The Diary of One who Disappeared.

In his personal life, the composer treated women like dirt. He pursued Zdenka when she was only 14, but treated her abusively for the rest of her life. Ironically she was ludicrously loyal. We also know what happened because an observant maid wrote an inside account. Even the servants in Janáček's life weren't illiterate ciphers.

He loved his daughter Olga but sent her off to Russia when she was ill. When she came home to die, he praised her in music. And Zdenka's mother stood by him (and paid the bills), only to be rewarded with mother-in-law from hell portraits like Kabanicha, Mila's mother and (to a lesser extent) Kostelnička. Just as well Kamila Stösslová didn't fall for him, but callously exploited his weaknesses. She refused to sleep with him, because she was "chaste". So he blamed social pressure. "Poor Kamila! Can't let her end up like Katya!"

Janáček's women are vividly characterized. Yet it's not really because he likes them, but because they symbolize something he wants for himself. Even before he met Stösslová he was fantasizing about illicit relationships thwarted by other people. Živný in Osud even meets his wife in a spa (where Janáček later went with Kamila), and spends most of the opera in extended monologue about his own needs. The wife, Mila, spends much of the time dead.

Yet again, The Diary of One who Disappeared is the breakthrough. The gypsy girl is wild, a human Vixen, who lives in the woods and doesn't do houses, She's brown from the sun, She seduces the young man in the open air, among bushes. Eventually he turns his back on civilization, and joins her vagabond ways. Sexually she's extremely proactive, pulling up her skirt in case the lad doesn't get it.

Significantly, Stösslová was very dark, almost gypsy-like though she was hardly a sylph. She flirted but did not yield. For Janáček, the thrill of the chase, the allure of the illicit meant a lot more than the idea of relationships and responsibility. In his correspondence with Kamila (and it was largely an affair by mail) he says he wants kids with her, knowing full well the "children" will be his music. Breaking from convention, for Janáček, meant creative release.

Perhaps that's why he's so interested in wanton women who defy society. It makes them seem racy, wild and free. Quite possibly he wouldn't have coped with modern permissiveness where there's no guilt and fear. Kostelnička's religious, but not puritan. She kills Jenůfa's baby because she wants her stepdaughter to have another chance at life. She kills from misplaced love and accepts she must pay the price.

Kabanicha, on the other hand, is fanatical to the point of obsession. She's not repressed - the Dikoj scene proves. But she's a monomaniacal control freak. That's why she hides the key, insteads of just locking the gate. The scene is the key that unlocks deeper levels of meaning in the opera. Because she's so rich, Kabanicha knows she can manipulate things. So after Katya dies, she thanks people for showing her family respect. She gets away with it because no-one questions wealth. Janáček is saying, "Watch out!"

Money, too, is how Mme Makropoulos has been able to pull strings for centuries. She's almost as cold and cynical as Kabanicha, but significantly, she's learned that power can become a curse. Authority means nothing in itself. Makropoulos is gorgeous, but Janáček has long gone past erotic frisson. Just as in The Excursions of Mr Brouček. he's making trenchant social comment. Janáček was a ratbag and he didn't do authority.

This puts From the House of the Dead into perspective. No women here to provide cover for other ideas. In Dostoyevsky, Janáček has found an outlet for his subversive radicalism.

A few years ago, I heard Jan Smaczny describe Janáček 's brushes with music critics and politicians. One of the men he lampooned eventually became Minister of Culture. No big government grants and publicity for Janáček, then, especially under Communism when his irreverence would not have gone down well. Janáček was Russophile because he didn't like The Austrian Empire (and Zdenka's family were German speaking upper middle class). Had he lived to see Soviet tanks, in 1948 and 1068, his Czech loyalties would have won out. No way were the Communist regime didn't risk promoting him too much.

This approach also has implications for performance practice. Janáček spent a lot of time listening to folk melodies, but deliberately didn't write "folk music". In his maturity, he was discovering new means of expression, relevant to the age he was living in, The Czech and Moravian nations were not backward. Think Kafka, or The Good Soldier Švejk, both contemporary. Janáček was no faux naive bucolic. His nationalism wasn't picturesque, but progressive. So it's probably not a good idea to think of Janáček as tourists might, but to approach him as a Czech (Moravian) modernist.

Lots more on Janáček on this site, and come back Saturday, after the Cunning Little Vixen. Tomorrow I'll upload videos of an early Vixen movie !

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Alden's new Katya Kabanova, ENO


I love Janáček. I love Katya Kabanova. I love David Alden. I even love going to the Coliseum. So this completely new production of Katya at the ENO should have been a major thrill. So why did it leave me less moved than Tamerlano recently at the Royal Opera House ?

No problem with the set (Charles Edwards). The opera is about a woman trapped in sterility, so bare boards and sharply angled, oppressive backdrops are absolutely in order. This is an arena where Katya and Kabanicha struggle to the death, though the odds are mainly on one side.

Katya is trapped in this mental Siberia. That's why the walls are bare until Katya hangs an icon. Katya's an intensely passionate person, but the circumstances of her life mean that the church is her main outlet.

No special problem with the singing, either. Patricia Racette's perfectly good enough as Katya. Don't expect Söderström or Mattila, that's unfair. Racette's most convincing when she sings of Katya's youth, pretending to fly, playing in streams.
The complexity in the part, though, isn't so much in the technical aspects of voice but in characterization. Why does Katya so readily confess? Why doesn't she run off to Moscow? Why does she voluntarily throw herself in the Volga? Alden has her teetering at the edge of the stage, but it doesn't feel nearly as dangerous as it should. There is a barbarism in this opera far more demonic than the comfy 19th century setting might indicate.

Susan Bickley's a very good Kabanicha. Mother-in-law becomes woman-Hitler if you jumble the letters. Kabanicha is an emotional vampire, sucking the life out of all around her. She doesn't need to be theatrically malevolent, or she'd steal the show from Katya. Significantly, Janáček reminds us that Kabanicha and Dikoj have a past. It's unhealthy. Dikoj is a bully but gets his kicks from being dominated by this strict old dowager. Explosive stuff, with a deliberate bearing on the opera's meaning, but not emphasized in this production.

It's ironic that the stronger the subsidiary parts, the weaker the impact of the main struggle, between Katya and Kabanicha. Vavara (Anna Grevelius) is cute, but Alfie Boe as Vanja Kudriash was very good indeed. His singing was pure and animated. When he danced, he embodied the wild, free spirit Katya was when she was young. Vavara and Kudriash are what Katya and Boris might have been, but Boe's Kudriash is one of the strongest characters here - no trace of schoolmaster in him.

Clive Bayley's Dikoj is entombed in a bear costume, which is perhaps apt, and Stuart Skelton's Boris is a looming presence. Even John Graham-Hall's Tikhon looks and sounds more impressive than the role would have him. Maybe they were cast as extensions of Kabanicha, further isolating Katya? It's not necessarily in the opera, but a valid concept. Perhaps Alden might have sharpened the direction, making more of the resources to hand?

It also didn't help that it was sung in English. Of course that's what the English National Opera is about, bringing opera to the public who don't know foreign languages. And of course, the ENO is famous for bringing Janáček to the English speaking public. But Janáček's music is so closely connected to language that too much is lost in translation. Mark Wigglesworth conducts well in the genteel ENO Janáček tradition, but the crackling tension between words and music is lost when the words don't spark and bite. Katya, for example, should be Káťa - musically much more punchy.

Judging by the first night applause, Alden's Katya Kabanova will be a big success. The opera is so remarkable that it's almost impossible for it not to be good drama, even if there are many more levels in it than this production brings out. But Janáček is familiar enough these days that audiences can cope with more challenging, imaginative productions.

photo credit : Clive Barda/ENO Please note this photo is copyright and used with permission.

Please see new post on Janáček's women and what they really signify. More on interpreting Kabanicha. On Saturday I'll review The Cunning Little Vixen.
Please see my other reviews (glowing) of Alden's Lucia di Lammermoor and Peter Grimes.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Wolfgang Rihm Total Immersion Barbican (2)

When Wolfgang Rihm was young he showed his work to Stockhausen and asked what he should learn. "Dear Wolfgang Rihm. Please follow only your inner voice." Stockhausen wrote back, tersely. The note was written in green ballpen, which gradually faded into the paper over the years, becoming less visible. That's a metaphor for Rihm's music, too, where formal outlines disappear. You have to "follow your inner voice" to figure what they might be.

The evening concert on 13/3, on the Wolfgang Rihm Total Immersion Day at the Barbican illlustrated the concept further.

Schwarzer und roter Tanz (1982-3) is powerful, didactic stuff. Cellos and basses pound out a rhythm, bow on wood. Sophisticated instruments used in a primitive way. The relentless beating's important. Modern life is mechanical. People are processed like lines in a factory. Hence Rihm's relentless, pounding verticals, which impose an artificial order over natural form. Rihm's Schwarzer und roter Tanz is a Rite of Spring for the Age of Technology.

As the gears of the tempi change, vivacious anarchy leaps out in brief, lively bursts. Languid trombone and clarinet create unhurried horizontals against the relentless vertical chords. Then, suddenly, the plug is pulled and the machine switches off midflow: another of Rihm's Fetzen (shreds, or better still "tearings off")

The picture above comes from the Munich satire magazine Simplicissimus. It's over a hundred years old, but what it says about society applies today. Our brains are still filled by others, we're still conned into believing dichotomies and clichés. Red and black are the colours of Germany (now moderated with gold). Rihm's being specific. But the concept holds universal.

In the excellent programme notes, Ivan Hewett quotes Antonin Artaud's dream of reinvigorating theatre through "violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements". Thus stark, stylized simplicity, jagged outlines that heighten emotion. Modern society feeds us soma, the mind-numbing pap in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Music and theatre inspired by Artaud's vision is the antidote because it makes us think for ourselves.

Das Gehege (2004-5) was written for stage, so its text offers clues as to meaning. Yet again, paradox, for this text is based on Botho Strauss's Schlusschor : Gruppenbilder mit Dame und Adler. A "group picture" featuring woman and eagle, but not necessarily a narrative. In Rihm's version, a woman goes to a zoo and tears a hole in the aviary. But why? Among the contrasts: feathers versus clothes, nature versus impurity, interspecies sex, lust versus love, victim defeated by predator. Which further begs the question, who is the predator, the woman or the eagle?

Ultimately, it's more like a nightmare, whose interpretation varies from person to person. We're told the woman is Anita, a reference to Anita von Scharstorf, whose father plotted to kill Hitler, so the Eagle could represent Germany. But it's all much kinkier and more contradictory. You could read completely opposite meanings into this, or none at all, which is why it's so tantalizing.

Rihm doesn't give clues. The eagle doesn't have a voice, so we're completely missing "his" side of the story, which is important. He's the "castrated chimera" who ends up torn to shreds - Rihm's Fetzen again - through no fault of his own. I was glad that Rayanne Dupuis replaced Gabriele Schnaut in this performance, because she's still young enough to be sexy. Wearing red velvet slit to her hip was a true stroke of theatre! She acts well, too, so if her diction wasn't perfect, it didn't distract. As with so much modern art, meaning is "beyond" literal.

Sandwiched (not a good choice of word after Anita devours the eagle) between these two hyper-dramatic works, Rihm's Konzert in einem Satz (2005-6) might seem strange. It's a long concertante, where Steven Isserlis has to play almost without a break. Superficially, it could be labelled "conventional" because it seems, at first, relatively straightfoward. But Rihm wrote it specially for Isserlis, who's known for his lyricism and delicacy. "No use writing against a performer", said Rihm, who adapted Isserlis's strengths into the music.

So it contains beautifully complex writing for the cello, and cadenzas in which Isserlis can display the lucidity of his playing. Yet don't assume that Rihm's gone traditional. There are hints of other, earlier music, but they're elusive suggestions, not simple quotes. Rihm removes the signposts so thoroughly that you can't rest on conventional form. Konzert in einem Satz feels like a concert heard from a distance, like it's underwater perhaps, or "music from another planet". Feelings are a perfectly valid point of entry into this music, indeed any music. Compartmentalization is the danger. "Kein Schublade" as Rihm said. "No pigeonholes"

Please see my other pieces on Wolfgang Rihm by scrolling down or using the search facility on the right. Lots more on other contemporary composers on this site. Don't forget to listen to the BBC broadcasts.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Wolfgang Rihm, Barbican Total Immersion (1)




















In an era when surface counts more than substance, it was refreshing to attend this BBC Wolfgang Rihm Total Immersion day at the Barbican, London. For one thing, the composer has no time for superficial clichés. "New Simplicity?" he said. "That was just a group of us friends getting together over a few beers, but someone had to go give it a title". Perhaps people need to fit things into rigid categories : it's easier than actually listening. But that's not how real composers work. "Kein Schublade", as Rihm said, "No pigeonholes".

Even as a child, he was arty, dictating stories to his mother before he learned to write. Debussy introduced him to the possibilities of music. "The process comes through the process", he said, helpfully, which means something like creativity comes from being open to things.

Rihm comes over as a fascinating person, completely without artifice and cant. All the theories in the world can't explain what makes a composer tick, and probably most of them can't explain themselves. But I hope someone at the BBC has kept a tape of Rihm's discussion with Ivan Hewett as it's a gem, better than many formal interviews.

The London Sinfonietta played the 1pm concert, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann. First, Bild (eine Chiffre) (1984), a piece so dramatic that it "is" theatre, no need for narrative. Film music this is not, even though Rihm had in mind the images of Buñuel's Un chien Andalou. Rihm's even said you could cut the music up and scramble it with the film: both are separate works of art expressing connected ideas. Conceptually this is radical because it puts the onus on the listener to make of it what he or she can. From this I got terse, skittering turbulence against moments of tense listening.

Hewett's programme notes (unusually prescient) put it much better, "this sharp little shocker.....is at once murky and sharp-edged like a knife hidden in mud...insistent hammering on metal plates provokes a furious reaction, but then things freeze into immobilty. Stammers and whispers can get no purchase on this silence.......the final outburst has the air of a suicide note".

Bear in mind the idea of music as all-inclusive theatre, for Concerto 'Séraphin' (2006-8) which evolved from ideas that have also found expression in connected chamber pieces and a piece of music-drama, as seen in the video above. The version the Sinfonietta performed is scored for fairly large orchestra. It's huge. lasting almost an hour, developing over more than 20 segments. It's not easy to take in on one listening, so listen to the BBC rebroadcast, which is on now.

Séraphin' refers to an article by Antonin Arnaud, famous for the "Theatre of Cruelty" which sounds gruesome but it's the idea that struggle is needed if the spirit is to be freed. Facing extreme challenge stretches limitations until they burst and are obliterated. That allows a new kind of consciousness to emerge, transcending all that has gone before. It's a metaphor for modern times, and hence a metaphor for modern music. You can't passively wallow, you have to engage. Brian Ferneyhough responds to Artaud, too , as have other composers. The New Simplicity meets the New Complexity! So much for silly labels. Indeed if you think about it Jesus went through much the same when he was on the cross. Rihm makes light of his compositional methods, but his music has probably gone through deep layers before it reaches the score.

Much in Concerto Séraphin is deliberately deceptive : you have to be alert. Fortunately the segmental nature of the piece allows you to concentrate on different parts, so you don't have to get it all at once. That, too, is like life, fleeting images that fly past, only to bear fruit later, when they germinate in your subconscious. The ground keeps shifting. You can fix on signposts, but as soon as you follow them, they change. The flute leads most of the early segments, high and clear, Then the flautist switches to a big, mean bass flute. What sounds at first like a bassoon or unnaturally huigh contrabassoon turns out to be contrabass clarinet. Two harps are beaten, vibrating instruments treated like percussion. Sometimes the first violin starts to lead, then goes into a strange frenzy, the others can't pursue. Snippets of almost-melody appear like Irrlicht.

Get to that rebroadcast soon! More to come on the evening Rihm concert, and if I have time, on Rihm Lieder and Killmayer
photo credit : Hans Peter Schaefer

Wolfgang Rihm, Barbican and Wilhelm Killmayer

Fabulous Total Immersion Day on Wolfgang Rihm at the Barbican London, on his birthday, too. What's more the concerts are being broadcast on www.bbc.co.uk/radio 3 over the next few weeks so anyone can listen, online, on demand, internationally for 7 days after broadcast. This means "real" total immersion because the best way to really get to know new works is to listen, again and again. And with Rihm, that's rewarding. One of the big, unfamiliar works is an hour long Concerto Séraphin which you need time to absorb. More on the day's concerts later and also about Rihm himself - wonderful man. (Scroll down or search for the Arditti Quartet Rihm concert.)

And Wilhelm Killmayer? One of Rihm's heroes, which makes him important. Checking Amazon, there are only a few recordings listed, but go to Schott Music, his publishers, for scores. And to JPC for many more recordings, and at much better prices than Amazon.

Why Killmayer? If Rihm thinks he's his mentor, so should others. Killmayer (b 1927) is an exact contemporary of Boulez and Henze but hardly known outside western Germany. He once quipped that he started writing more in his 60's because he got married and promptly had 3 more kids and needed the money! But seriously, his music is very good indeed. Over the next few weeks, I'll write more about him because there's next to nothing in English. (There's even a biography in German.)

Killmayer's Hölderlin-Lieder is exceptional. In fact I'd say that it's one of the best art song cycles written in the last 60 years. Since song is my big thing this is no minor praise. This is a very important cycle because it's so beautiful. Moreover, it's Hölderlin. Hölderlin's late poetry really came into its own in the 20th century, when people could appreciate the "madman ravings" as something more esoteric. Many exist only in broken fragments, so setting them to music is an exercise in writing for silence, for dislocated, disjointed expression. There are many 20th century Hölderlin settings, but Killmayer's make a virtue of their fragmentary, visionary spirit.

Killmayer even revisited Heine, and the Schumann settings in particular. His Heine-Lieder are wonderful, an extremely useful adjunct to Schumann. No CD available at the moment, but Schott should have the score. It's essential reading, because it shows how a modern composer relates to Schumann and the Lieder tradition, but reinvents it anew.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Wolfgang Rihm Arditti String Quartet

Last night Wolfgang Rihm was present at LSO St Luke's in London when the Arditti Quartet played his String Quartet No 5 "Ohne Titel". This is the one where the violin plays so fast you'd think the strings would ignite and burst into flames. The Paganini observation's apt because every now and then there are fragments of past music, a Zigeuner, for example glimpsed at, and particles of waltz. And the first violin's demonic, pushing the other instruments to greater heights. It's so inventive, exhilarating.

Over the last 30 years, the Arditti Quartet has been the motor of new music for string quartet: Rihm's great passion. No wonder heartfelt embraces at the end, between composer and players.

Also on the programme was the more recent (1999-2004) Fetzen I-VIII. It's scored for string quartet and accordion, here played by Teodoro Anzellotti. The accordion stretches - literally - the range of sounds strings can make. An accordion pushes air and pulls it forth, like a giant bellows. So swoops of sound that add sonority to the higher strings. The strings swoop and slide in relation to the accordion: the cello almost matches, it's even quite humorous. For many composers, the accordion's useful because of its humble connotations. For Rihm, its valid for its own sake, its possibilities still unplumbed. How thrilled I was today when Rihm himself said of one of the Fetzen segments, that it was meant to be funny, the violin madly bowing as quickly as he could, and the others saying "slow down! slow down!"

More on Rihm in the next few days and also on Wilhelm Killmayer), Rihm's hero and mine too. (Scroll up or use search facilty on right.)

HERE for a picture of my favourite accordionist. I don't know who he is, I found him in an antiques shop, he's so adorable, he should be preserved forever as he was in 1935.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Kingdom of Ife : African sculpture at the British Museum

Kingdom of Ife: African Sculpture is currently on at the British Museum. Go - some of these figures have been brought over specially from Nigeria, where they're usually kept in pride of place as part of African heritage.

These sculptures easily compete artistically with anything in the west. They represent kings and gods, but, unlike Greek and Roman pieces, they present them in a strikingly intimate, human and individual way. Even Michelangelo marbles pale against them, for these are real people, not allegories. In comparison, even Renaissance marbles look prettified and indirect. Western artists focus on the beauty of the body : The Ife depict the beauty of the spirit. Perhaps that says something about the nature of kingship in Africa, perhaps not, but theses cultures are unique.

Ife figures are so realistic, that being with them is an eerie experience. You know they are inanimate objects, but you feel they could breathe, speak or move at any moment. How can we be sure that as we're watching them that they're not watching us?

No wonder they're reputed to have supernatural powers, like the seated man from Tada who was ceremonially taken and washed in the Niger. He's extremely famous, from photos. Live he seems surprisingly small, given his iconic reputation, but he's so intense, he seems superhuman.

The Kingdom of Ife started around 800, and still remains today. These sculptures date from 1100-1500. This was a sophisticated and prosperous nation. Technically these bronzes are so well made that there is nothing quite like them elsewhere. There are sculptures in bronze, copper, stone and terracotta, and smaller objects like votives, spear heads etc, showing that the bronze heads weren't a fluke, but came from a long tradition.

As design icons, they're amazing. For some unknown reason, many of the faces are striated vertically - nothing like scarification, but more elegant and stylized. These lines create a distance between the object and viewer but also accentuate the muscles and curves so they're even more tactile. The holes drilled in some heads may have been made so headresses and fake hair could be attached.


Look at the detail on the King in the photo. He's wearing elaborate symbols of royalty and wealth. Look at that neckplate, festooned with carnelian beads. Another kingly figure holds a horn which may have held medicinal potions. One of the women wears an elaborately woven headress, complete with jewels. These figures are meant to awe you with their regal presence. Yet the most moving are the simplest, depicting the ruler as an ordinary person, emanating serenity, calm, goodness.

Besides the amazing heads, there are other objects. Beautiful stools, for example, carved in a surprisingly modern free form. There's a flatfish of old granite, hardly carved at all. Yet in its simplicity and abstraction, it "feels" like a huge, lugubrious flatfish, lying in the river bed.

There is a lot to see in this exhibition, so take your time and make more than one visit. You'll come away with a completely different perspective on world art. Please read more
HERE. Please reads Waldemar Januszak HERE

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Saariaho operas - why?

Rupert Christiansen reports on Kaija Saariaho's fourth opera, Emilie, in Paris. It's a tour de force for Karita Mattila, who sings for 80 minutes. But all that effort, for what? "Saariaho's mushy modernist idiom – try imagining Pierre Boulez slumming it on a film score – is peppered with pseudo-baroque flourishes from the harpsichord, as well as spooky marimba and electronic effects. Textures are dense and rich, but the flavour is generic: the score never seems specific to Emilie or expressive of her. There's no muscle, no clarity: it all swirls around in a haze. "

L'Amour de loin was interesting because it was different, a sort of mutable mood piece you could drift in and out of. Some nice passages for the baritone, which gave it backbone. When it was staged at the ENO, it was visually gorgeous, the set providing a narrative the opera lacked.

Le Passion de Simone was different. Simone Weil, a middle class intellectual, was desperate to identify with socialist workers. She had such extreme self conviction, that it hardly mattered that the workers weren't moved. During the Holocaust, when people starved in concentration camps, Weil voluntarily starved herself to death. Anorexia elevated to political act. Self regard so intense it swept away realiyty.

Weil is emotive, so you can't really knock an opera based on her. On the other hand, psychologically, Weil's such a character that the dramatic possibilities are infinite. This is perhaps Saariaho's best opera. The music redeems its fundamental inconsistencies of the plot. Blank out the words, (though you shouldn’t) and you have an intoxicating feast of chromatic colour. It’s so vivid and beautiful that, consciously or not, it undermines Weil’s ideas that life is polluting, unworthy "bestiality". Saariaho even manages to incorporate into her music some of Weil’s other ideas, such as the dichotomy between gravity and grace: gravity comes in the dark undercurrents of the brass and winds, for example, and grace in the diaphanous, glistening textures of her writing for strings and percussion. There’s lots of her distinctive exoticism in the gamelan-like passages for marimba, bells and harp. There are some pretentious moments, such as over-long silences between the sections, and passages pushing the same point too long, but on balance, it’s the music that makes this opera.

Then, Adriana Mater. In theory this is an explosive plot: woman raises son born of wartime rape. Decades later, son kills father. This is the stuff of Greek tragedy, but this libretto manages to make the story banal and inconsequential. Saariaho is one of the few composers who has personally experienced pregnancy and childbirth, so you'd hope she has a handle on it male composers don't.

Saariaho’s long lines evolve slowly, their beauty in the gradual process of gestation. Again, there’s a lot of potential in using this style to present a narrative like this, a story that covers a period over 20 years. A friend of mine commented that Saariaho sounds like “Messiaen crossed with Philip Glass” in the sense that her music unfolds organically, like breathing, which is measured and even. But it's been done before, better and since.

And that's about it. There's no sense of narrative, no emotional depth, no sense of turbulent complexity. At the time I heard it I couldn't figure out why it upset me so much, but with the perspective of distance I now understand. The subject is horrible, but the music doesn't engage with it. It's L'Amour de Loin rehashed. At least the world of L'Amour was nice to look at.

Emilie sounds like more of the same all over again. Pregnant woman knowing she's going to die and her life has been wasted. There's great potential in this as drama, but what will Saariaho do with it?