Saturday, 30 October 2010

Son of Ingagi full download


A  different movie for Halloween! All black production, scripted and conceived by songwriter Spencer Williams (1889-1965). Hence the snappy dialogue, especially in the scenes where Nelson the Attorney (played by Williams himself) tussles with Dr Jackson ("Hello my friend!" "You're not my friend, you're my lawyer!") and processes the old lady's will for 5 dollars.

Because US cinemas were segregated, there was a whole specialist market for black films. Williams was sharp enough to know that black people wanted horror movies like anyone else. And why should explorers in Africa be a white monopoly? Hence too the positive images of black professional people, police chiefs etc. and the aspirational young couple, Robert and Eleanor Lindsay.

And indeed the central character Dr. Jackson (Laura Bowman) who is a doctor of science and has been to Africa. She also happens to have a lab in her dining room where she mixes up a test tube with a formula that will do good for humanity. "Not that humanity's been good to me", she snaps. She wears Victorian clothes and has "never been in a motor vehicle and won't start now" which may date her to be about 80 in 1940. Anyway, she knew Eleanor Lindsay's natural father who was younger than she, but whom she loved and lost. She did medical work in Africa, and brought back treasures from her many travels, such as a gong from Singapore which she uses to summon up another memento, a gigantic ape man who lives in a secret cellar.

He's N'gina, son of Ingagi, whoever he may have been. Possibly he's half man, half gorilla, which makes you wonder why Dr Jackson's so maternal to him?  Dr Jackson's rich, too, and has gold hidden in the house.

The gold brings out the crooks, including Dr Jackson's conman brother Zeno and Lawyer Nelson, who tries to con the couple out of the house Dr Jackson left them when she died.  Then the plot turns to comedy as the dopey Detective Bradshaw is assigned to stay in the house while murders happen and an apeman wanders about about. Hilarious! Bradshaw is a parody of the venal Stepin Fetchit fool who usually represented blacks in white media. Of course he's a crook too, but an opportunist, who hands the sacks of gold to the Jacksons. "Oh", they cry as their house burns down. "There goes our furniture, our clothes!" When they get the sacks of gold, they cry "Furniture! Clothes! New House!"

This film was made quickly and to a budget, so it's certainly not great art. But it's sharper than the average B movie, given its background. Spencer Williams was an all-round talent, who wrote hits like Basin Street Blues and settled in London. Good businessman too, spotting the market for race movies. Director credited is Richard Kahn and producer is Alfred Sack of Sack Studios. Presumable white and Jewish financiers? Williams's racy spirit pervades much of the film. Enjoy the song sequences by The Toppers, a guitar and falsetto-led group. Ironically I think the only white guy actually in the film is N'gina the mixed species from Africa. Men over seven feet tall are treasured whatever their race.

Movies like this contrast with the films Paul Robeson starred in. They had higher production values and bigger budgets, but Robeson was typecast to represent what white people expected blacks to be. At best noble but doomed and never equal. Race films, and the race music recording industry were a form of apartheid but at least with Williams we can glimpse something irreverent and irrepressible.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Haydn L'isola disabitata - Young Artists

Joseph Haydn's operas are hardly unknown - even the genuinely obscure Il ritorno di Tobias has  several times in the last few years - in Rome and in London. L'isola disabitata,  a Young Artists presentation in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House proves decisively that the idea of Haydn being box office "unsexy" is ironic.

Full review in Opera Today HERE  It's MUCH better than this, so read the link. I wasn't feeling well when I wrote this so it's pretty basic. The "real" review is infinitely better. And production photos too. There's a review of the 2009 Gotham City Opera L'isola disabitata on Opera Today HERE. Although that involved Mark Morris,  it seems less successful production than the Young Artists in London, I think.

Written in 1799, just before the three best known operas, L'isola disabitata is enjoying a major revival all of its own,  thanks to the 2007 edition used here. This is Haydn for those who think they don't like the composer or don't even like baroque. It's short, snappy, and no high voices!

Because the programme notes cite the opening Sinfonia  as "an impressive example of Sturm und Drang", everyone's quoting that verbatim. What it means is that Haydn is responding to what were then modern ideas. Classical poise tempered high baroque opulence. Then, the turbulence of Sturm und Drang stirred up what was to become what we now call Romanticism. No wonder it's easier for modern audiences to relate to.

L'isola disabitata uses only four voices, distinctly defined and characterized.  Until they're united at the end, they sing alone, reflecting the characters' inability to link up. The orchestra's small - mainly strings, with only two horns, two oboes, bassoon and flute. Minimalist by 18th century standards. Perfect for the modern trend towards chamber opera. The plot's minimal, too. But that's its strength.

As with so much pre 19th century music, avoid long, elaborate libretti which confuse the real issues. In this case the plot's simple : keeping faith. Constanza (Elisabeth Meister) has been on a island for 13 years with her then infant sister Silvia (Anna Devin). Note her name - Constanza means "constancy".  Yet she's no doormat like Penelope who put up with Ulysses's wanderings. Constanza thinks she's been deserted so she gets mad. She spends the years carving deep graffiti into a rock, cursing her husband .

Just as she's about to give up and die, Gernando (Steven Ebel), her husband, turns up on the island. He didn't run off, he was kidnapped and he's come back to save her. So faith conquers adversity, no matter how ludicrous the plotline. Silvia and Enrico (Daniel Grice), Enrico's sidekick, form a romantic subplot that jazzes up the almost existentialist anomie of the basic Constanza story.

Even the island's only a framing device to the basic idea. Jamie Vartan's set reflects Constanza's emotional landscape - she's desolate, ruined, shattered because she put so much faith in marriage.  The smoke, the rocks - all there in the text. Silvia on the other hand is completely feral, having grown up in isolation. She's shocked about Enrico's anatomy, (though Hadyn doesn't make this too explicit) because she's known nothing but Constanza's bitterness against men. But nature wins over nurture.

It's a surprisingly modern storyline, once you get away from mythical trappings which even Hadyn doesn't indulge in. Musically, it's also "modern", the voice parts direct and communicative, without excess adornment. The orchestra follows the words intimately. Sometimes one instrument shadowing a voice. In the Sinfonia that serves as overture, you can hear glimpses of Haydn as symphonist. He doesn't need to overpower to make his point. Prototype Mozart, rather than musical dead end.

Elisabeth Meister and Steven Ebel excel. Both have been  prominent in the Jette Parker Young Artists scheme for some time, and have been heard many times in smaller roles in the main House. Meister memorably stepped in at short notice to sing the Fox in the Cunning Little Vixen. She sang with Ebel in Ebel's The Truth about Love at the Linbury last year. (read Steven Ebel's interview on Rilke). He also sang Rimenes in Arne's Atarxerxes.

Daniel Grice's Enrico was also good - I'd like to hear more of him. Anna Devin's singing was rather obscured because she had to jump about so much. It's in keeping with the idea of Silvia as a feral child unfettered by society, so director Rodula Gaitanou and movement director Mandy Demetriou  are making a valid point,  but even wild animals aren't manic.

But the point of Young Artists presentations is learning through experience. There's more to performance than technical prowess. Life skills count too. Please read "Polishing gemstones" where Simona Mihai and Kai Rüütel speak on the benefits of the Programme, one of the most highly regarded in Europe. The scheme also trains people in all aspects of opera, such as the conductor Volker Krafft, the director, designer, lighting and fighting. It's tough being a creative artist especially in this financial climate. But if this excellent performance of Haydn L'isola disabitata is anything to go by, the Young Artists have proved themselves.


Photo credits : Elisabeth Meister : Brian Tarr, Steven Ebel : Novo Artists

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Gounod Roméo et Juliette Beczala

In many ways, Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette is more musical than opera. Everyone knows the story and no-one can compete with Shakespeare as dramatist. So Gounod wisely focuses on big musical showpieces. Which is why the opera's reputation is based on stellar performances, of which there are many. Last night at the Royal Opera House, Piotr Beczala sang a remarkable Roméo, beautifully toned yet with genuine personality. He's relatively new to the role, creating it at Salzburg in 2008 and repeating it there in August 2010.

Nino Machaidze sang Juliette at Salzburg, too, though earlier performances in the run featured Anna Netrebko. Beczala and Machaidze were excellent choices for this second revival of Nicholas Joel's 1994 production at the Royal Opera House.  Different staging to Salzburg, but the carry-over worked well.  There wasn't much Personienregie in Stephen Barlow's direction, and movement was staid and immobile, against a picture postcard set. It's worrying when the best direction comes in the fight scenes (Philip Stafford). However, Gounod's material doesn't lend itself to intellectual depth, so singing makes or breaks performance. Fresh from Salzburg, Beczala and Machaidze were invigorated and carried the whole production.

Beczala's Roméo defined the entire performance. Perfect pitch control. luscious timbre. Although his arias aren't all that long he creates maximum impact. Wonderful and deeply expressive L' amour, oui, son ardeur a troublé tout mon être!. The love duets were beautiful, even if Beczala overshadows Machaidze's Juliette – but that's not surprising, he's just more experienced. (as is Roméo for that matter). With Netrebko he must have been superb. In the last act, Beczala's Salut, tombeau sombre et silencieux!, beautifully modulated, emotionally profound. I loved Beczala's Shepherd in Szymanowski's Krol Roger and enjoyed hearing him develop over the years. Romantic Heroes are now his forte, but he has the depth, I think, to tackle Heldentenor territory.

Machaidze's delightful. She looks like Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet, which also adds extra piquancy to her portrayal.  Machaidze's voice is light and agile, the brightness of her timbre expressing Juliette's youthful innocence, her firm lower register expressing the depths of Juliette's character. Like many 14 year olds, Juliette does extremes, as Shakespeare observed well. Machaidze may not have the polish of many much more famous and experienced singers, but she has character. When Machaidze sings of waking too soon, holding Tybalt's blood stained hand, she sings with such fervour that you realize that this Juliette knows what risks she's taking. Sweet as she is, Machaidze's Juliette has a brain.

Performance standards all round the most enthusiastic of the season so far, barring Niobe which is specialist. Darren Jeffrey towers over everyone as Capulet, the role almost as strongly written as Roméo. Alfie Boe received a huge ovation, which he milked as if Tybalt was a principal. He's a good singer, but his fanbase will be his doom unless they take opera seriously, rather than chasing celebrity.

Ketevan Kemoklidze's Stéphano the Page was delightful. Pity the vignette about doves and vultures isn't specially relevant to the drama. Similarly, the crowd scenes, though well executed, are somewhat over-written, though here the crowds were choreographed well, fulfilling their aural purpose without distracting visually. The ROH Chorus is always good and reliable.

Full review HERE  in Opera Today, with production photos. In the meantime, there's a full downlaod of Charles Gounod Roméo et Juliette here on Opera Today. A great resource! The performance is live 1964, Franco Corelli.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Hinterm Berg. brennt es in der Mühle


Hugo Wolf's Der Feuerreiter to a poem by Eduard Mörike. The poet glimpses a red cap, then suddenly there's alarm, everyone's running to the mill.  It's burning. Before fire engines, insurance and water mains, this meant disaster for the whole village. Then comes the mysterious Feuerreiter, his horse galloping (hear it in the piano), and jumps into the flames. Later when the mill is smouldering rubble, a miller finds a skeleton and a red cap...... Who is the Feuerreiter? Is he demon or Valkyrie ? Note the bit about a holy cross and the devil. And the fact that the poet's seen that red cap before. This is Mörike's mysterious world, where nature spirits defy laws of reason. Note how Wolf separates the turbulence from the eerie punchline with a short silence. Then the music rises slowly upwards, like smoke rising from the embers. Husch! da fällt's in Asche ab. The ending floats. No conclusion, suggests the piano, no easy explanation. Perhaps it will happen again.

Below is the orchestral transcription that Wolf made. It's not a particularly good recording (track down the Swiss recording with a Stuttgart choir) but you can hear what ambitions Wolf had and what he might have achieved had illness not intervened. The "Wagner of the Lied" he was called by Amanda Glauert in her Hugo Wolf and the Wagnerian Inheritance. Get this book, essential reading.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Helmut Lachenmann Weekend South Bank

The Royal Festival  Hall well filled for Helmut Lachenmann? Maybe it was because most seats went on sale for £10 but so what? It brought in an audience, and by the end, many of them were standing in applause. Perhaps most of them were Indie fans, as my friend observed, but why not? They're more receptive to new ideas, and in many ways, Lachenmann's easier to appreciate without a classical grounding. Ironically, he may bring people into classical through a completely unorthodox route.

It helps, too, that Lachenmann has a fearsome reputation for being "difficult". He enjoys being perceived as "irritating", which adds to his attractions among a certain kind of devotee. Famously he clashed with Hens Werner Henze, who has an undeserved  chip on the shoulder about Stockhausen and Luigi Nono. But Lachenmann's music, inventive as it is, isn't nearly as shocking as it might seem.

I loved the Arditti Quartet's  String Quartets 1 and 3 (Gran Torso and Grido) on Saturday at the chamber music part of the South Bank's Lachenmann Weekend. (Link to review HERE)  Interesting to compare them with the larger orchestral works, Schreiben and Ausklang (1985) on Sunday.

Ausklang (1985) came last as it's a more conventionally impressive piece, a showstopper. Solo piano (Rolf Hind) and orchestra (the London Sinfonietta doubled in size) relate to each other, but it's more tentative probing than theme and development. Midway, Hind drops chords but the orchestra doesn't react, even after several repeats. Then he varies the notes til they're drawn in and all spin off in completely different directions.

It feels like being in a strange jungle, where you think you're lost and alone. A more complicated version of Abrahamsen's Wald, maybe. Yet sounds all round indicate that there are worlds you don't even know about. Hints of things you might connect to things you might recognize, like the long chord that Hind pulls from one end of the keyboard to another in one swoop. Flashy pianists strive for that effect, yet here it's part of the whole. It must look amazing on the score. There's also a "ghost" piano (John Constable) hidden behind the orchestra, to tantalize. My problem was that I kept listening for direction and structure, but perhaps the key to this is not to even try, but take it as it is.

Schreiben, from 2003, is sparser and more abstract, though the orchestra was even larger. Huge range of percussion producing barely audible brushing sounds, like wind perhaps, or sand. Among these sounds is a Japanese shō. (There's quite a lot on ths site about the shō and other unusual instruments). Interesting to me was the way the sounds operated horizontally, in layers, high violins shading to low basses and back: a sense of shifting depths and shadows. Perhaps more dominant were the multiple individual noises in the orchestra. Two pianos. though neither used concertante, more for multi spatial effect. Perhaps Lachenmann is reducing the orchestra to a swarm of individual sounds, constantly whirring in orbits unconnected with each other. A swarm of insects, a cloud of bees.....

On the other hand Xenakis has had much the same concept, and his Pithoprakta, (1955-6), a true masterpiece of sonic invention and energy. Read more about it here.  On a more cheerful level, Kalevi Aho's Symphony No 7 "The Insects". (1988) is much underrated. The stange unearthly brushings brought to mind Elliott Carter and György Ligeti, even Toru Takemitsu. Those indie fans at the concert have lots more to discover. New music isn't frightening.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Helmut Lachenmann Chamber Music South Bank

One of the South Bank's glories is its committment to new music. This Helmut Lachenmann weekend perhaps mattered even more than other such retrospectives.  Here we had the composer himself, playing Ein  Kinderspiel - something never to be forgotten.

Lachenmann's music operates on different levels. On audio recording you hear it in pure abstraction, so you connect to his ideas of inventing new ways of assimilating sound.  In live performance, you see how these sounds are made. It enriches the experience tremendously. Now, listening to the audio you're freed from thinking "how" so you can assimilate the sounds on a deeper level. As Lachenmann told Ivan Hewett, music is the "friction between structure and listener", which I think means sounds become music when the listener is mentally engaged.

Lachenmann's music most certainly isn't attention deficit. Indeed, the audience's concentration during the minimalist String Quartet no 1 (Gran Torso) was so intense it was almost palpable. Just as well. The tiniest sound counted, single notes, less than chords, so delicate that they would be missed if you weren't alert to their presence.  "Opening your ears in another way", said Lachenmann. The object is to consider what music "is" by thinking about what sound does. Many of the techniques the Arditti String Quartet uses probably don't have formal terminology. A violin makes a different sound when tapped at different points on its inner curve. Different individual violins make different sounds. Individual strings are caressed, or brushed and even bowed. The wood itself "sings". Lachenmann opens up new possibilties, new ways of hearing instruments we think we know.

In String Quartet No 2 Grido, Lachenmann is using sounds sculpturally. Shapes defined aurally, constant moving, sounds creating structures out of silence. A wonderfiul "plane" of sound, turning and moving. I thought of Xenakis's drawings for the Philips Pavilion, where physical structure re-defines space. The art is in the concept. Whatever the image doesn't matter as long as the listener responds.  Spirals of sound that move and vibrate. Repetitions that develop almost into fragments of melody, suddenly cut off with a single chord.

Then Lachenmann plays Ein Kinderspiel. Extreme simplicity. "My 7 year old daughter can play the basic theme" he says. Going back to basics, exploring the idea of making sounds, as if discovering a piano for the first time. Simple repetitive acts, one key pressed, one pedal used to create mysterious hum. Again, new possibilties - beating the wood, relating keys to the core of the box, rethinking completely afresh. And it is music, playful and adventurous while making a profound point. The sense of wonder, the naturalness that Lachenmann creates is magical.  Just as Kurtag's Játékok was written to show how much fun music-making can be, so should Kinderspiel be an exercise, not just for the young but for any musician who's become jaded and needs to reconnect to that spirit of creativity. .

Oliver Coates played Pression, for solo cello. Simplicity again, but very deceptive. Extreme precision needed, for pitch and duration keep redefining themselves. Made me marvel at the discipline of the Arditti Quartet, each a soloist but perfectly attuned to each other. As in life, purity in music is harder to achieve than it seems on the surface. Yet from this simplicity. Lachenmann achieves fascinating timbres and vibrancy. Pression is so interesting that by comparison, Toccatina for solo violin is less challenging, even when played by Clio Gould, long term star of the London Sinfonietta, and more besides.

Rethinking what Lachenmann calls "the anatomy of sound" works with abstract music, because music isn't confined to western cultural tradition.  Once I heard two pygmy girls in Africa improvising a wordless tune, incredibly beautiful and pure. Text doesn't need to have meaning but voice anchors sound in a complex way.  Using voice as an instrument does work, it's nothing new. But Lachenmann's Got Lost didn't work for me because the use of voice wasn't skilful.

No discredit to Sarah Leonard whose voice went through a gymnastic work-out. It's probably that Lachenmann isn't naturally a voice person. Voice uses the mouth, but its sound comes from deeper within.  You can't dissect a singer's lungs the way you can dissect a piano. Popping cheeks, blowing noises, growls etc. rather than the use of vocal chords and vibration.  Oddly enough, this isn't so far from the use of voice solely as coloratura display. Which says something about meaning in song. It's amusing as a game (see Cousin Emmy who does the same thing on a more basic level) but Got Lost doesn't do much for voice. The piano part, played by Rolf Hind,  is much more inventive.

|Please see this link to a wonderful article on Lachenmann's String Quartets.
A friend's sent me this link to Rolf Hind, writing about Lachenmann..

Taxpayer funding private gain ?

Tonight I and good friend Boulezian were at Helmut Lachenmann's chamber music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, along with dozens of musicians, composers etc. Almost full house, tumultous applause, standing ovation from normally non-demonstrative Julian Anderson.  Part of tomorrrow's London Sinfonietta programme will be broadcast next Saturday.

Scary thing though - The South Bank seems to have made Norman Lebrecht House Presenter. He's interviewing Lachenmann. This is all very well, but the publicity material isn't directed at the subject being interviewed but at promoting Lebrecht and his latest book. Why? Perhaps Lachenmann has something to say about Mahler but the deliberate, explicit link to Lebrecht and his ventures stinks.The South Bank is public funded, which in theory means impartiality. Why is it a vehicle for Lebrecht's personal advertising? Has he paid them or is taxpayer money being used to promote him? Is the South Bank about artistic validity or has it sold out? If the BBC started running ads for as private person, there'd be an outcry. But maybe the crass commercialism of Mahler year has changed ethics. 

While we were out, we missed Michael Jarrell on BBC Radio 3. But it's on repeat for 7 more days. Same too, another chance to hear Steffani's Niobe Regina de Tebe from ROH. This time I'll listen for the beauty of the singing - Véronique Gens was divine, as was Iestyn Davies and Jacek Laszczkowski, celebrated male soprano. Read Sue Loder for an analysis of why the music worked and me for why the staging was so dramatic. Baroque is a gamble at the box office poison so it showed artistic integrity.  One of my best this year.  It's the production from Schwetzingen where they know how to appreciate period music. Hopefully it was filmed though it really needed to be experienced live.

Garsington's new home at Wormsley

Garsington Opera has received planning permission for a new Opera Pavilion at Wormsley in South Oxfordshire. Vistors in summer 2011 can look forward to a structure "made from a limited palette of materials – timber, fabric and steel and it will combine transparency and lightness with a sense of intimacy. Lifted above the ground to give an appearance of ‘floating’ over the landscape, architect Robin Snell’s design takes its cue from a traditional Japanese pavilion in its use of sliding screens, extended platforms, verandas and bridges to link it to the landscape. It will be built by Unusual Rigging, the UK’s most experienced provider of stage engineering and technical solutions for the entertainment, sports, film and television industry." Hopefully legroom will be more generous, as many patrons need it.

Wormsley Estate is the perfect setting for Garsington Opera as it is not only a quintessentially English country estate with an expanse of rolling, verdant parkland, complete with lake and deer, but has extremely good road access just off junction 5 of the M40.


Saturday, 23 October 2010

Complete Hugo Wolf Mörike songs


Has the complete Hugo Wolf Mörike collection been recorded in one take? There's one coming up now. The first half was recorded Friday 22/10 at the Holywell Music Room, part of the Oxford Lieder Festival.  Second part is 23/10 if you can get in.

The small hall was absolutely packed, wonderful atmosphere, everyone crammed together but intently listening. Some of that energy must have come across into the performances. An almost palpable sense of connection between performers and audience - personal, direct communication. This recording, hopefully, will feel "live".

This recording shows what can be done with enterprise, enthusiasm, dedication, and bold artistic vision. An inspiration for all! Last week, OLF needed 40 sponsors for the recording. Before tonight's concert, 22 had signed up. After the concert, there was a line of people eager to join in. The target will be reached and the money will be used well. CD sales will go towards Oxford Lieder's ongoing projects like the masterclasses, commissions and scholarship and also next year's 10th anniversary Festival. Plus, it's a good addition to the Hugo Wolf discography.

If tonight's performance is anything to go by, the CD will be worth getting. Singers were Oxford Lieder stalwarts, Stephan Loges, Sophie Daneman, Anna Grevelius and James Gilchrist with OLF 's creative leader Sholto Kynoch at the piano. All are well established and hardly need introductions. Anna is a regular at the ENO - she was Seibel and Vavara not long ago. Sholto's a charismatic player, very empathic, which makes him a good pianist for song. He also plays solo and chamber music but he's specially good at motivating singers to give their best.

With fifty-three songs, there are many good moments, everyone doing well. James Gilchrist was in very good form, animated, expressive, full of feeling. yet with the panache that works well in Wolf. Loved that final Auf eine altes Bild. (Read a commentary on the song here)

Check out the Oxford Lieder website for more - hard copy brochure can be downloaded online.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Stephen Hough's new hat - Herbstlieder

Stephen Hough's famous as a pianist, but at the Oxford Lieder Festival he wore a new hat as composer. Previously all I'd heard of Hough's own music was a piece written for the Sacred Made Real exhibition at the National Gallery. Against those phenomenally powerful visual images, it had no chance. So I came expecting to be polite. Instead, I'm most sincerely impressed,.

A coup for the Oxford Lieder Festival! Hough's Herbstlieder is a good addition to the repertoire.  Set to texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, it's a meditation on themes loosely connected with autumn, the passing of time, days drawing in, regret, the end of fruitfulness, and all that implies in life. Herbstlieder is impressionistic, creating an atmosphere as nebulous as autumnal mists.

It's quiet, too, like meditation. Herbstlieder starts with a simple cadence of separate chords fluttering downwards. "Like leaves falling" said Hough in the pre-concert talk. Diminuendi don't necessarily diminish. The chords that link the first two songs mark a subtle progression. Rilke writes of a star seit Jahrtausenden tot, whose light still reaches us from afar.A strange image : ein weisse Stadt an Ende des Strahls in den Himmeln steht. A white city seen in the heavens at the end of a ray of light. Hough sets these words so the crescendo rises right to the top, to the limits of the register. Whatever the image might mean, the connection is made between the lone individual on earth and distant galaxies beyond.

In Trănenkrūglein, images of jugs being filled and emptied. Circular, cascading piano part,  but at the conclusion, the vocal line pauses, like the last drops dripping from a jug. Machen ...mich....leer. (make me empty), Bestūrz mich, Musik is its companion piece. Big, bold phrasing, the piano part almost staccato. In the midst of the turmoil an unadorned line Mein Herz: Da!, emphasis on the da.The voice part swells passionately, evoking the Posaune des Engels, (the Final Judgement)  Filled to overflowing, the music subsides.

The final song, Herbst, reverts to hushed, autumnal contemplation. Indeed, much of it is parlando. A pianist composer writing his own instrument out of the picture? Yet in some ways, that's the spirit of Rilke's poem. Und in der Năchten făllt die schwere Erde.(and in the end Earth itself will fall) like the distant stars. Individual striving is no big deal in the eternal scheme of things. Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses Fallen, unendlich sanft in seinen Hănden fast. (And yet there is one who holds these fallen gently, eternally in his hands)  Eichendorff or Rūckert might have been specific about the "one", but with Rilke we can imagine a more abstract communion with the cosmos. 

Hough spoke about writing these songs three years ago while he was in a hotel in Seoul, Korea. Even in this maniacally busy world of 24/7 communication, we're often isolated. But it's not necessarily a bad thing if we can switch off the mental muzak around us and think beyond ourselves. Far from being noisy and dissonant a great deal of modern music is like this - pure, abstract, contemplative. There are no jolly jingles in Herbstlieder to worm their way into your mind and distract. Yet that's precisely why it's such a good piece. Wolfgang Rihm, darling of modern German music, said of his hero, Wilhelm Killmayer, "His scores are all white!"  Think of Webern's aphorisms, Kurtág's tiny fragments, antidotes to the frantic turmoil around us. Stephen Hough's nowhere near that league, but he's a lot closer to the real avant garde than he realizes.

Good performance by Alisdair Hogarth and Jacques Imbrailo, who seems to intuit the spirituality of these songs. We will get to hear them again, as there may be a recording in the offing. In the meantime, track down the publisher. See Stephen Hough's site for more.

This is the sort of adventurous music Oxford Lieder Festival is famous for. Also premiered in this recital was a new piece by Ned Rorem, a setting of Shakespeare Sonnet 147, (My love  is as a fever longing still) jointly commissioned by the Oxford Lieder Festival and Prince Consort. They're relatively impecunious but what they have, they invest in long-term benefits for art song. It's an excellent piece, wavy cadences, baritone and tenor artfully blended, the piano tolling like a bell at the culmination.

The Prince Consort also sang songs from Schumann Spanisches Liederspiel and Spanische Liebeslieder. Read about their concert of Rorem's Evidence of Things Not Seen at rthe Oxford Lieder Festival in 2009.

Please read my other posts on Oxford Lieder, Prince Consort and Jacques Imbrailo. (Use search facility or labels below)  Photo credit : Grant Hiroshima

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Hindemith Cardillac Sawallisch

Franz Welser-Möst conducts Paul Hindemith Cardillac at the Wiener Staatsoper. Read about it on the exceptionally good blog Likely Impossibilties. It sounds good! So I watched again the DVD from Munich 1985 conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, with Donald McIntyre as Cardillac.

Cardillac is a goldsmiith. He loves gold because it shines in dark mines and can be moulded the way he wants it to be. He isn't letting anything he can control slip from his grasp. Even if he has to kill his customers.

Nominally, the action is set in Ancien Régime Paris where the King controls everything, just as Cardillac controls gold. Which gives Hindemith a chance to shape a subplot that's pointedly modern and political. The townsfolk are a mob, easily manipulated both by Cardillac and  Gold Dealer, his treacherous crony. The mob tear Cardillac apart in murderous frenzy. In Jean-Pierre Ponelle's  production, the townsfolk are anonymous, masked and dehumanized, vaguely like inmates in a lunatic asylum.  They're dwarfed by the towering set behind them, a cityscape that looms above them menacingly.

The rich and privileged are gorgeously costumed, but they, too, are overshadowed by giant walls. The King appears on a huge white horse, which is fake, drawn along on a plinth. He's a control freak, who brags about melting people on slow flames and mounting them with pins. Not so different from Cardillac and his creations.
 
Watch out for Doris Soffel's wonderful performance as the Lady, dressed in Art Deco exotic silver and fur, hair like a lioness. She keeps giant toy lions and tigers, for she herself is caged in a kinky S&M relationship (control again!) with The Kavalier (Josef Hopferwise). Cardillac kills them when they're in flagrante.

Meanwhile Cardillac's daughter (Maria de Francesca-Cavazza) wants to get married but is scared to tell the old man, knowing how possessive he is. |When the Offizier (Robert Schunk) asks for her hand, Cardillac isn't at all perturbed. All he cares about is gold. Women, he sings, can't be controlled, so they're worthless.

Hindemith's music in the scene between father and daughter pits two different musical lines in cross-currents. Throughout the opera jagged lines race against each other, rarely meeting. No unison in this madhouse. Long orchestral interludes which march one way, down another. There are even hints of military marches, quite apt for an opera written barely 8 years after the Fist World War which was much more disruptive in Germany than in Britain.

Lots of anti-religious hints too, odd for someone like Hindemith, so inspired by liturgical art. "Here I stand" sings Cardillac, defiant, like some mad Martin Luther. In this production, Cardillac's workshop is festooned with gigantic jewels, like a cathedral. Shapes of clear glass look like huge diamonds til you look closely. They're coffin shaped, within each a golden shape vaguely like a rotted corpse. Cardillac is cornered in a graveyard. While the chorus sing one line, he sings another in response, like responses in a Mass. Here. he stands against an angel on a headstone, so her wings seem to sprout from his back.

The ending is equivocal too. As the crowd carouse in the background the two-way cross-currents become three. The daughter joyfully sings of freedom. The Offizier hints that he wants to possess her totally, without question. Although he tells the townsfolk not to judge Cardillac too harshly, is the Offizier a hero? Perhaps this production is hinting that he, too, may turn into a psycho like all the rest. He wears a helmet-like white wig, his makeup a ghostly caricature, like the mob, though he doesn't wear a mask.  He halts the mob and explains, "Er war das Opfer eines heil'gen Wahns" (Cadillac was a victim of a Holy Madness)

As the crowd yell, Cardillac's going back into the earth, where his gold came from. While the crowd intone fairly conventional hymnal chorus, and the Daughter sings soaring scales, the Offizier sings what sounds oddly like plainchant  Ein Held Starb, up and down the octave. Later, he says he envies Cardillac, returned to peace.What is Hindemith getting at? Is Cardillac's madness some kind of ritual, more akin to alchemy than jewellery? Is he an Artist whose work is more precious to him than life, and murder justified? Or is it simply that kindness and love defeat obsession? It's an ending that opens up as many questions as it answers. Thank goodness the opera is being staged more often.

Please see my other posts on Hindemith and stagecraft.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Hong Kong 1898 film


Archive footage of Hong Kong made in 1898 by Thomas A Edison. This is such a beautiful clip. Notice the people looking at the camera wondering what the foreigner is up to. This men are wearing "queue" long pigtails, which by law Chinese had to wear as a sign of subservience to the Qing (Manchu) Empire (there was still an Emperor then). There are sedan chairs too, and a business man in white summer samfoo walking behind a coolie carrying his bags. The cloth the people are wearing is a kind of cotton waxed so it's slightly rainproof and shiny. Once everyone wore that, but it stopped being made around 1960. Why so many bamboo poles? that was the standard method of carrying any kind of item. See the fisherman's hat, round top, round brim, and the conical hat which I can't remember seeing. Maybe these people are working near the docks, which would explain all the carrying. These are the little details that history books don't cover but which were so much a part of real life. Hong Kong 112 years ago ! And watch at the very end, when a Chinese moves in front of the camera. They'd bever seen such a thing before and the Chinese probably wanted to see what the cameraman was looking at.  Then the white cop in white helmet HITS the Chinese with a stick. Not hard, but that in an nstant is what colonialism was like.

Stotijn shines at the Wigmore Hall

Christianne Stotijn is back on good form again, with a very good recital at the Wigmore Hall on 18th October. Her confidence was thrown after Tamerlano at the Royal Opera House, when no-one could get their heads round a tyrant like Tamerlano being created by a womanly singer. In March her Wigmore Hall recital was a disappointment, but I'm delighted to say, she's bounced back.

Stotijn's voice is naturally warm and attractive, virtues which have made her a favourite with Bernard Haitink, for example. Fortunately, since March, she's been rethinking her technique, working on the centre of her voice so it's firmer and more assertive. She still has a tendency to rely on charm, which paid off in Gabriel Fauré's Cinq Mélodies "de Venise", where long lines flow langourously, like the mandolin in Mandoline. "Mystiques bacarolles, Romances sans paroles", where legato is more important than precise diction.

This was a well devised programme. For a change, Graham Johnson played solo Schumann's Intermezzo from Faschingsschwank aus Wien, continuing the gentle, good natured mood.  Sei frisch und fromm, und weider komm, goes the jaunty melody in Lied eines Schmeiden in the Schumann settings of Nikolas Lenau. Stotijn seemed invigorated. Nice, expressive depth in "aus dunkeln, tiefen Bronnen" (from the dark, deep well)  in Meine Rose. If the popular Die Sennin didn't quite come off,  Stotijn seemed to be saving herself for Requiem, not the choral Requiem op 148 but a more personal piano song. Stotijn's sensitive phrasing was dignnified and heartfelt. Schumann misjudged the date of Lenau's death, but his feelings were sincere.

Heartened, Stotijn seemed to relax more in the second part of the recital. Gone was the slight tightness in her delivery, replaced by more spontaneity. Ernest Chausson's Serres Chaudes evoke hothouse langour. But these are poems by Maeterlinck. Exotic perfumes hypnotise and lead to madness. Linger too long and you die. Stotijn cries out, breaking abruptly from the ennui. "Mon Dieu! Quand aurons-nous la pluie, et la neige, et la vent dans la serre!" Wonderful cycle, a French Wesendonck-Lieder.

Schumann's Aufträge op 77 no 5 (1850) with its lively pace brought out the best in Stotijn. Character songs give a singer a chance to think into "role", giving a bit more emotional space than intensely introspective material. Technique now fully absorbed, Stotijn could focus on expressiveness Nice, crisp enunciation.

Even livelier were the two Schumann Geibel Zigeunerliedchen from Lieder Album für die Jugend. The images here are murder, imprisonment, and treachery but the strophic form and bouncy piano part render the songs as genre pieces, rather than horror stories. Pairing them with Die Kartenlegerin (op 31 no 2) (Chamisso) was an excellent idea, for they continue the theme of "gypsy" exoticism but with a darker, more mysterious edge, which gives more emotional depth. While her mother sleeps, a girl steals a look at the cards, hoping to divine her future. Just as she gets excited, the girl sees an old crone. Is it her fate? No, it's mother who's woken up.  Humour, hope and despair, in the space of three minutes. Quite a test of a singer, and Stotijn succeeds.


photo credit : Marco Borggreve

Monday, 18 October 2010

Frankenstein live in Manchester

BBC Radio 3 is recording a performace of HK Gruber's Frankenstein!!  on 22 Oct at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. This is music that needs to be experienced live for maximum impact. Get tickets here. Fabulous, crazy programme, Poulenc's Les Biches and Gottfried von Einems' Episodes from Turandot which are nothing like Puccini.  

Frankenstein!!  is an event, a piece of theatre as much as of music. One day Gruber will be too old to create the spectacle afresh, so this will be a special occasion. It's different every time, for Gruber doesn't do jaded, though he's been performing this for 30 years.

The Frankenstein story epitomises the morbid “gothic” seam of Romanticism. Horror movies celebrate it and parody it at the same time. Gruber’s Frankenstein!! parodies the entire genre and throws in Robinson Crusoe, Goldfinger and John Wayne for good measure. Images flash past so quickly they barely register, but that’s part of the effect, which Gruber calls pan-demonium, at once referring to the anarchy of Pan worship and demonology. There are snatches of oompah band and of lullaby, an elegant horn solo that wouldn’t be out of place in a “proper” symphony, and, in true Gruber style, lots of toy instruments and whirring noise tubes. He conducts, sings and plays at the same time, of course. Frantic energy is part of the package. It wouldn’t be quite so manic without tiny, tinny saxophone or good old fashioned alto Melodica (bright red, of course). This performance was in English, which made it even more surreal. He murders syntax and distorts lines still further. Howls and screams seem quite mundane. He affected an extremely heavy accent, exaggerating the kitsch Mitteleuropean ambience so typical of Frankenstein movies. Think Bela Lugosi on speed, performed by Brahms, whom Gruber vaguely resembles.

This madcap romp through images is hilarious, but there’s disciplined method behind it. Rhythms and counter-rhythms cross and converge. As with the horn solo, there is nice intricate scoring for percussion. Random as the images may seem, cumulatively they have an effect. Lurking behind the humour there’s something dark. “Frankenstein is dancing…with the test tube lady…my daughter dear, it’s you!” Batman and Robin in bed together….well, Batman‘s “ill bred”. Crusoe visits a new island where cannibals live…..And a little girl visits a doctor to fix her doll Caspar. “Good medicine is practised here, with minor aberrations.”. So Caspar gets the brain of a criminal. ..”Thank you, thank you” croons Gruber in falsetto. “Now my Caspar can walk again...and chase pretty, little girls”.

Lucky Mancunians!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Oxford Lieder Festival report

Oxford Lieder is much more than a series of recitals, it's the tip of an all-year programme. First, two logistically challenging enterprises. A mass schools exercise, where kids from many different schools in the area joined together in a choir. You can imagine the organizing that goes into this, it didn't happen overnight. They sang in the new atrium at the Ashmolean Museum. This is architecturally spectacular, glass and light - enjoy the photos on the link, they're gorgeous.

Friday afternoon rush hour open air concert on Broad Street - not usual busker fare but Brahms and Schumann part songs. Since this part of Broad Street is now pedestrian, it attracted a big crowd, over 100. Getting Schumann and Brahms to the people!

In the evening gala concert, Wolfgang Holzmair and Julius Drake in the Holywell Music Room. All Schumann, some more uncommon fare, like Abends am Strand and Belsatzar. The first tied together themes throughout the programme - old sailors remembering past adventures on the Ganges and in Lapland. Lotusblooms, throughout this recital, and partnerships, too, such as Die beiden Grenadier and the Kerner-Lieder drinking songs. Crammed into the Holywell Music Room were regulars who come every year plus several Famous Names perfectly happy to sit with us on the benches. Holzmair's programmes are always very well constructed, as his knowledge of repertoire is extensive. (Read about his blending of Schubert and Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen by clicking on the blue link.

Belsatzar is a mini music drama: Holzmair acts with his voice, not overdone, but communicative. Schumann's ventures into opera aren't appreciated because he's experimenting with a new kind of music theatre, and we're more conditioned to conventional form. But one way into his operas is through extended ballads like this. Read about Schumann's Genoveva here.

Three different concerts and two talks on Day 2. Katarina Karnéus sang Grieg's Haugtassa, and Scandinavian songs. Haugtassa ranks for me among the best song cycles ever, it's so beautiful and so magical. I missed Richard Wigmore's pre-concert talk, which was a pity, because it would have been good. Butb there's always Daniel Grimley's book, Grieg:  music, landscape and Norwegian Identity which has a big segment on Haugtassa.

Karnéus is a specialist in Scandinavian song, and has made numerous recordings, including Haugtassa. Check out the BIS site for more - they have the complete Sibelius songs, for example. Anne Sofie von Otter's recording is the classic, but Karnéus's voice is attractively rounded and charming.. It says much about Oxford Lieder that they can attract artists of Karnéus's calibre. She'd fill a much bigger house than the Hoywell, but it was a privilege to hear her in this intimate setting. The songs are about a simple country girl, who encounters love and other mysteries. It definitely benefits from the Holywell atmosphere(apart from drunken students howling outside at the end).

The late-night concert was in the medieval New College Ante-Chapel. Schubert Songs for guitar played by Christoph Denoth, a specialist in baroque guitar, Schubert was a keen guitarist and made some transcriptions himself. There's an excellent recording of Die schöne Müllerin by Peter Schreier with Konrad Ragossing, which gives a whole new perspective on the cycle.

And earlier Angela Bic, winner of the 2009 Kathleen Ferrier Song Prize. She's actually appeared at OLF before, in 2008, proving OLF's reputation for spotting talent at an early stage. Next week, I'm going to hear Tilman Lichdi, completely new to me but he's appeared in the US.

Oxford Lieder runs on a shoestring budget, but the emphasis is on helping others. So, though funds are tight, there's a Scholarship. It's generous, big enough to seriously make a difference when you're at the start of your career. This year's award went to Stuart Jackson, still at RAM but a very distinctive voice with good range. I heard him in a Friends recital two weeks ago - definitely someone to listen out for.

Sholto Kynoch gave an excellent talk on Lieder resources on the web. I learned so much, including  a tip I ought to know but didn't "Control F" helps find things quick on a big database. Emily Ezust's Lieder and Song Texts (Lieder,net) collection features nearly 100,000 songs, cross references to poets, composers, first lines etc. It's such an important asset that when the site went down for a day last year, it was a news item in Lieder circles. Also, Bachtrack, excellent for checking what's on. Bookmark these or use the links on the right of this page. They're there because I use them all the time. Sholto also showed us how to navigate IMSLP. This is a collection of public domain scores uploaded by international library services. Full of rarities, useful references. Always so much to learn!

Much more to come on Oxford Lieder - here's the website, complete brochure embedded.
photo credit : Benjamin Harte

Rigoletto, Hvorostovsky, Royal Opera House

Compare and contrast Rigoletto in Mantua and Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House, London. David McVicar's production still packs a powerful punch. This Rigoletto is so wounded he's dehumanized, part beetle, part crab, the man within barricaded emotionally against the world with claws and pincers. I'll never forget Paolo Gavanelli creating the part in 2001. The big news in this current revival is Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who is very different from Gavanelli (who appears in the later performances in this run). Surprisingly, little comparative discussion apart from

Edward Seckerson (Independent) "Hvorostovsky quickly shows us much more of the pain that lurks beneath, though, and this wonderful singer – master of the long legato – unrecognisable physically but unmistakable vocally........when Rigoletto’s dark heart turns to vengeance his humanity deserts him. It is at these moments that Hvorostovsky pushes his lyric baritone to unsettling extremes, the terrible bitterness of his cry of “Joy” over the dead body be believes to be the Duke as painful as it is chilling "

Claire Seymour, (Opera Today) "Fearlessly physical, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, usually seen in rather more suave and sophisticated guises, emits a startling viciousness and ferocity, foreshadowing the inhumanity to which the eponymous jester’s desire for all-consuming vengeance will subsequently propel him. Boundless stamina combined with limitless variety — now sweetly tender when recalling his wife, then cruelly bitter as his obsessive rage engulfs him — characterise a remarkable performance. Hvorostovsky is not afraid to push his baritone to its rougher edges, while his ability to spin an endless lyrical line never ceases to amaze and thrill."

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Princess Nicotine


Five-minute movie from 1909. He's having a smoke, when out of his corncob pipe comes a tiny fairy....a rose appears and in the rose the fairy appears, puffing smoke back at him. Delightful special effects. Next question. WHAT is he smoking?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Calixto Bieito Carmen Barcelona

Mention "Calixto Bieito" and anti-modernists charge like enraged bulls, whether or not they know his work or even know opera. Bizet's Carmen shows how rewarding - and operatically valid - Bieito's approach can be, and a lot more "authentic" than most. My review of the ENO Bieito Carmen in London is here.

In Spain, audiences know enough about bullfighting not to be fooled by kitschy imitations on stage. Escamillo appears in full toreador garb at the right time, but the image is used sparingly for maximum impact. Bullfighting is an ancient ritual, pitting man against nature,  challenging death itself. Just like Carmen.

At Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Bieito's Carmen is specially potent. Catalunya straddles the border between Spain and France: this is real Roma, Basque and Catalan territory. Throughout history there have always been underclasses, living on the margins. Bieito dioesn't need to "update" anything. His gypsies and townsfolk are utterly authentic. Once they drove caravans, now they drive battered old cars. The women are dressed as the poor do everywhere. When the smugglers find "flamenco" dresses, the scene becomes a game. Everyone knows it's putting on an act, not reality.

Béatrice Uria-Monzon's Carmen is a powerful figure. She wears a denim skirt, but it's embrodered and lined with satin. Like the poor dress all over the world, her friends wear chain-store tat, but Carmen references grander things. But for her poverty, she could be someone, and aspire to more. Uria-Monzon doesn't camp up the Habanera. It's Carmen's public persona. When Uria-Monzon sings Près des remparts de Séville, her voice becomes lustrous. She's revealing the true Carmen. All those tra-la-las and seduction moves are survival tactics. Only rarely can she sing  je chante pour moi-même.

Like Carmen, Escamillo lives on his wits. Erwin Schrott's face is half hidden by his hat and he uses cunning rock star moves, but the splendour of the voice reveals the depths of Escamillo's soul. Schrott exaggerates the Gallic snorts, which is good: it highlights the wildness of the character, creating Escamillo as if he was a bull. a powerfully animalistic icon, bursting with energy. The singing comes in short bursts, sudden dramatic turns. Just like in a bullring, where both bull and toreador must be in control, waiting for the decisive, sudden lunge.

A huge silhouette of a bull dominates the staging in Act 2. No need for a literal inn, because Spain itself is a smuggler's den. The silhouette is the Osborne Bull, the famous billboard scattered over the landscape so much that it's become a symbol of Spain. Yet it's an ad for a company with English roots selling Spanish products to Spaniards, and Catalans are fiercely independent-minded. A male dancer creates a wonderful tableau in the darkness, stripping off symbolically, dancing with the grace of an animal. He's both bull and toreador, bending his arms inward towards his chest, the way a bull is skewered. Incredibly poignant.

In the first orchestral interlude, a young girl imagines herself as a dancer, and props up her (blonde) Barbie Doll. She's so young, yet already she's buying into the seamy side of life, because that's what girls have to do in these situations. She'll end up corrupted but what choice does she have? Frasquita and Mercédès sing of marriage as an escape, but Carmen knows it's an illusion. Perhaps it might be shocking to some that the child choruses here include young girls well on the way to prostitution. But that's a fact of life in extremely poor societies (and rich ones too). Why should people be horrified by seeing such things on stage when reality outside is even worse?

If anything, Bieito downplays the sexuality, for sex here is a business transaction like any other. He's interested in the wider implications. First the Osborne bull and its connotations of economic colonialization. Then there's a blonde tourist, sunning heself, nonchalantly ignoring the poverty-stricken masses behind her. In Britain, these levels may be missed, because Bieito doesn't force them too explicitly. But in Spain, and in Barcelona, audiences know what they mean. Again, why be shocked when reality is so much more brutal?

Roberto Alagna sings a convincing Don José. He's sympathetic, as the object of Micaëla's love, but macho enough for us to believe that Carmen might fancy him. But he's no match for Schrott's lethally erotic Escamillo. As the case should be - it wouldn't do otherwise. Marina Poplavskaya makes a nicely strong Micaëla, tough enough to brave brigands, but again, not specially feminine. The attraction for Don José is mother and homeland.  The singer doing The Lieutenant deserves mention. He's tall and sexy, another "bull" figure with his physical presence and authoritative singing.
 
Please read Opera Cake on Bieito's Basel Aida - intelligently analyzed. No doubt some audiences won't cope with the idea of "Ethiopian" underclasses destabilizing "proper" society. But again, that's what's happening in the real world.

Oxford Lieder Festival starts Friday

The Oxford Lieder Festival starts Friday. It's a unique undertaking, which has changed the profile of song perfromance in this country. Emphasis on sharing, learning, and supporting performance practice. This is the place to spot rising talent!

At Oxford Lieder, you can can experience what Schubertiades may have been like. In Oxford, most concerts take place in the Holywell Music Room, built in 1740, the oldest dedicated public recital space in the world. The building seats only about 100 people. Seats are arranged on three sides, the platform extending into the room. Interaction between performers and listeners is intense, much more direct than in an ordinary concert hall.

Moreover, the atmosphere is as intimate as the Schubertiades would have been. Oxford Lieder feels like “family”, since it’s so nurturing and supportive. People come together here because they’re united in their love of the genre and want it to thrive. An intimate genre like Lieder can’t — and perhaps shouldn’t — generate mass sales. Funding is backed entirely by private and trust contributions.

The opening recital on 15th October features Wolfgang Holzmair with Julius Drake, performing Schumann. Indeed, all through the festival there will be Schumann recitals and events, including “Lunch with Schumann” — refreshment for the soul!

A measure of how far the festival has come is that it has been able to co-commission Ned Rorem to write a song “My Love is a Fever”. The Prince Consort, who specialize in Rorem, will give the premiere on 21st October, at which a second co-commission, a setting of Rilke by pianist Stephen Hough, will also be unveiled. Read about it HERE The Prince Consort, whose members include Jacques Imbrailo, have been associated with Oxford Lieder almost from the start.

Oxford Lieder programmes blend well-known with unusual repertoire. This year part-songs figure prominently and Schubert settings for guitar (Christoph Denoth and Nathalie Chalkley). Katarina Karnéus and Julius Drake perform Grieg, Sibelius and Ture Rangström, There’ll be an evening of Polish song with Maciek O’Shea and Festival Director Sholto Kynoch. Hugo Wolf’s complete Mörike setting will be heard over two days. Among the singers this year are: James Gilchrist, Anna Grevelius, Sophie Daneman, Stephan Loges, Felicity Palmer, Sophie and Mary Bevan, and Jonathan Lemalu. Oxford Lieder has a reputation for spotting new talent early on, and many of its “discoveries” return loyally.

Ian Partridge leads this year’s main Masterclass programme, but this year there are three, the others, led by Stephan Loges and Henry Herford, encourage non-professionals to enjoy the experience of singing. There are schools events and even an open-air Brahms and Schumann concert. Oxford Lieder is much more than an annual festival — it’s aims are long term and benefit the wider community.

For more information, please visit the Oxford Lieder site.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Not Wagner Siegfried Fritz Lang 1924

Before Fritz Lang made Metropolis, he made Die Nibelungen, the blockbuster of its time, on a scale so elaborate that the film took two years to make. The script was by Thea von Harbou, based very loosely on early German legends, not Icelandic saga and most pointedly not Wagner.

Fritz Lang's Siegfried (Paul Richter) forges his own sword, and gets on fine with Mime. He sets off for Worms because he's heard of Kriemhild, sister of King Gunther. She's a devout Christian. Cue: Mass, crucifixes, altar boys, etc making you realize just how non-Christian Wagner was.

 On the way, Siegfried kills a remarkably realistic dragon. What Wagner would have given for this snake-like serpent that walks and watches Siegfried with soulful eyes! When the dragon is killed, a clear stream flows from its wound, and Siegfried is made invincible, save from where a linden leaf falls on his naked torso. Alberich more or less hands over the magic sword (not Nothung) and treasure before turning to stone. Siegfried becomes a temporal ruler, with 12 kingdoms as vassals.

The palace at Worms is an art deco fantasy. Geometric patterns, as much Bakst or Red Indian as medieval, perhaps connecting to "primitive" and "tribal" archetypes. Watch out for Hagen Tronje's helmet, with eagle wings on each side half a metre high! Significantly, Hagen is blinded in one eye, like Wotan.
 
Siegfried defeats Brunhild, Queen of the Northlands,  in battle, bur she's no prize. Siegfried and Kriemhild are blissfully happy, but Brunhild berates Gunther til he does her will. Oppressively sinister, bristling with hate,, she's much more like Ortrud, plotting to destroy the kingdom. What a dominatrix! Like Ortrud, she tricks Kriemhild into revealing Siegfried's weak spot, so he's killed

Kriemhild swears total revenge. on everyone.  Part 2 of this six hour saga is titled Kriemhilds Rache, and in many ways it's even better than Siegfrieds Tod.  Kriemhild gets herself married to Attila the Hun, no less, and lives in a huge castle in the desert, surrounded by yurts. The castle (vaguely like the Tian An Men) has a magnificent semi-circular door - the same set used in  Gunther's palace. Obviously, this was  cheaper than building a new set, but this has symbolic meaning, too. Panoramic shots, fabulous crowd scenes, an art deco riot in the place.

Attila the Hun is an ugly dwarf, much like Alberich, but benign.  He doesn't sack the churches of Rome because he's "with the white woman" as his soldiers say. Yet Lang doesn't portray him as a demon.  This Attila. ugly as he is, adores the blonde, curly haired baby son he has with Kriemhild while she hates the kid. It's cute how the baby actor gurgles with laughter at the Hun - less prejudice than Kriemhild.

Gunther, Hagen, Nibelungs, Burgundians and assorted European vassals come to visit.  Attila refuses to harm them. Hospitality and honour are sacred to him, he says, almost the same words as Gunther long ago used to welcome Siegfried. 

Once Kriemhild was a sweet, meek Christian maiden. Now she's a robotic monster bent on destroying all in her wake. Aren't you human?! pleads Attila the Hun. "Not since Siegfried died," she answers. Neither Brunhild nor Ortrud were as mad as this. Secretly Kriemhild bribes the Huns to attack her brothers. The rebels invade Attila's grand feast and somehow Hagen kills the baby boy. Attila's devastated with grief yet cannot stop the mayhem bursting out all round. Huns massacre Nibelungs, and the palace is burned. Fantastic special effects and crowd scenes.

"We were not united in love, but now we're united in hate" cries Attila, horrified by Kriemhild's insane intransigence.  At last almost no-one remains alive. Hagen Tronje turns out to be a kind of hero, refusing toi reveal the Nibelung treasures, and offers to die to save what's left of the kingdom. Kriemhild stabs and kills him, but drops dead herself.  Total carnage. To what avail?

Throughout these two films, the themes of honour and loyalty recur.  Kriemhild just takes them to an extreme degree, her loyalty to Siegfried destroying all logic and decency.  Perhaps that was deliberate.  Germany had just come through the First World War, where nations tore each other apart for honour and loyalty. Millions had died, not only in battle but in the famines and revolutions that followed. Von Harbou later became a Nazi but here she's intensely anti-war, anti-power games.

Please read about Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) HERE on this site. there's lots here too on other Weimar movies, some full downloads, too, like Faust and Nosferatu.

Linley Sheridan and Gainsborough mystery

Thomas Linley's La Duenna opens tomorrow at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio in a production by English Touring Opera. The libretto is by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Linley and Sheridan were the mega-stars of London theatreland in their era, and were related by marriage. Thomas was the father of Elizabeth Linley and Sheridan was her husband. Oddly, the plot of the opera replicates their real life experiences.

In 1980 my father bought a painting at an auction clearing the estate of someone connected to the Hearst family in California. The attribution was Gainsborough Dupont, nephew of Thomas Gainsborough. The painting was brought to the US by the notorious art dealer Joseph Duveen, who'd bought it from a named member of the aristocracy. Provenance possibly safe but these small pieces were never catalogued. In any case, my Dad bought it because it was a good painting.

The girl in the picture was undoubtedly Elizabeth Linley, right bone structure, recognizably a Linley. She's posing slightly flirting, eyes sparkling, a half smile on her lips. What's most interesting, though, is the quality of the painting. The face is extremely well painted, very delicate and expressive. The hair, dress and background are painted in a much looser style, almost like a sketch, fiull of movement. Often you can tell fakes because they're painted in a much more studied, careful style, and come over as cramped. This painter had a sure hand and eye.

Whoever painted the portrait concentrated on capturing personality, rather than a mere likeness. When viewed by candlelight from an angle, it comes alive in the eeriest way, as if whoever painted it knew that that was how the purchaser would use the painting.  Attributions don't mean a lot because this kind of portrait was made for private viewing, and quite probably, the buyer, the painter and the subject knew each other personally.

Gainsborough had known the Linley family from childhood, and painted Elizabeth many times over her lifetime.  It's plausible that the portrait could have been painted by his nephew since they all knew each other. But Gainsborough Dupont was exactly the same age as Elizabeth. If this portrait was made around 1770, both of them were around 17 or 18.  Dupont's later work was formal and stiff, nothing like this.

So who really was the painter? Although it's a fairly straightforward informal piece, it's obviously done by someone who is so sure he can do character that he can dash this off quickly without trying too hard. Since the owner knew the subject, and the subject knew who the portrait was being painted for, little chance of this not having come from life. Undiscovered masterpieces seem to pop up all the time. That's not so surprising since it's only been relatively recently that insurance and security has meant much closer audit.

So for all we know, my father bought a painting by Thomas Gainsborough. It's intriguing because there are portraits of her at other ages but not quite at the end of her teens when she's blossoming into womanhood.  This would have been made at about the time Elizabeth eloped with Sheridan, It was the romantic scandal of the day, two young lovers running off together, but, just as in a play, all turned out well.  I would put up a photo of the painting my father bought, he took lots and wrote a volume of notes. But they and the painting are locked up safely and I can't easily get to them.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Met Das Rheingold - controversial implications?

The long-term implications of the Met Das Rheingold are far more radical than the merits or demerits of the production itself. Despite Robert Lepage's high tech mechanics, this Das Rheingold is regressive, old wine in new skins. Of course it uses state of the art technology, to rival any movie or computer game. Experienced live it must be fantastic. Wagner used the latest mechanics in his time to create ultimate theatre. Using the best modern technology is perfectly valid. Unfortunately, that's where the insight in this Met production stops.

There is no such thing as non-interpretation. Even when we read a score, our minds are processing the relationship between the notes, "interpreting" through imagination. Conducting, direction, staging and individual performance are all part of a process. "Doing the notes" just isn't enough. The main flaw in the Met Rheingold is that there's no coherent interpretation. Letting Lepage's set take the attention lets Levine off the hook. Maybe that's why the Met personnel looked so pleased with themselves.

Ideas-free Wagner isn't Wagner. The Ring is such an amazing work that it supports multiple interpretations. So what's the Met telling us? There are good visual moments in this production, the best of which illustrates Wotan and Loge's voyage to Nibelheim. The white slats look dangerous, twisting and writhing as the pair proceed. Impossible, slippery angles - just like the scam they're planning for Alberich. Here, the set is "acting", adding depth to meaning, so it serves a purpose.

Not all stage directions are equal. Wagner wanted the Rheinmaidens to swim realistically, since by stage techniques in his time that would have been miraculous, emphasizing their supernatural powers. The Met's Rheinmaidens can "swim" since they flap their flippers and emit bubbles generated by their singing. But Wagner's point was that they were spirits, not fish.  Realism is only relative: what matters here is that they should be seeen as free spirits, not women harnessed to guy-ropes. Having them run about on rocks or whatever depicts that essential natural freedom infinitely better than slavishly following the "swimming" instructions.

Similarly, what role does the Rainbow Bridge play in the drama? It's meant to look gorgeous, but the fact is that Valhalla is a scam. Through the entire Ring this theme repeats: power and wealth mean nothing if they're gained by ill means.  Which is why Wagner fixed on "rainbow" - something beautiful that's just a trick of the light. The audience that raged when the Bridge didn't function on the first night missed the point. The Rainbow Bridge is an illusion. Making it material kills its symbolic portent.

Perhaps the tree of golden apples was marginalized because it didn't fit this studiously non-interpretive approach. The apples aren't snacks but sustenance: soulfood in every sense. The tree references the World-Ash tree and the conflict between nature and non-nature which is so much a part of the Ring.  But since technological excess is the God in this Rheingold, such things don't fit in.

There probably will be no more technologically realistic Das Rheingold than this. Just as there can be no physically more realistic Rigoletto than the RAI Mantua film. Both productions follow stage directions literally. But real drama comes from understanding how all elements in an opera work and work together, not on their own.  Both this Rheingold and that Rigoletto demonstrate that real drama is created by understanding ideas, not by rigidly following what's on paper.

Now that we've got the technology to do most anything, we've come full circle, back to the idea that drama springs from imagination, not from tangible material things. That's what the Greeks knew with their utterly minimal stagings and archetypes. that's what Shakespeare knew, when he staged Julius Caesar in the costumes of his own time. The Ring has so much to tell us because it's universal. It's time to realize that ideas aren't constrained by physical trappings and that music in music drama is abstract, open to multiple interpretations.

Many will rage at the Met Rheingold because it's high tech and is expensive.  But that's where the quest for literalism has been leading to. Now that we've got there, maybe we'll realize that it's delusion. The real values of drama - and Wagner drama in particular - lie deeper.  Das Rheingold isn't the first part of the Ring but a prelude, referencing what is to come. It's only when Brünnhilde throws the Ring back to the Rheinmaidens that she breaks the curse. All the gold in the world is dross if you don't follow basic morality. And so,  perhaps we too can be freed so we can concentrate on basic dramatic meaning.

Musically, the Met Rhingold is disappointing, whatever the reports may suggest. Even on film, where voices are enhamced and balanced, there were lapses, not important in themselves but a symptom of the general incoherence. Pleasant enough perforrmances but uninspired, soft-centred, lacking committment or motivation. To his credit, Bryn Terfel holds himself aloof. Why should he be intense when no-one else bothers?

Some extremely hammy acting from the lesser parts, glaringly obvious in the filmed close-ups rather than on stage. This ties in with the fundamentally non-interpretive approach, dependent on externals rather than thinking things through. Direction matters because it helps singers understand why what they do relates to role and to ensemble. There's a lot more to creating drama than walking backwards wired to a cable. Park and Bark leads to Comic Book Performance.

Wonderful-looking set, and a great experience, But set isn't direction. Blaming Lepage isn't fair. What about Levine, what about the whole Met ethos, which favours elaboration and excess? For a production this high profile, not a lot of effort seems to have gone into thinking the music out throroughly. There was little sense of structure, drama or dare I say it - direction.. A conductor can't abrogate vision or interpretation any more than than a director can leave things to the set and costumes.  With his experience, Levine ought to have something to contribute. Mahler and Alfred Roller understood each other because each had the concept of interpreting Wagner to intensify meaning, the heart of the drama. "It's more than just the notes." Mahler said in another context but the idea applies. 

But maybe that's all wrong and what the public wants is opera that looks good but nullifies drama and meaning. Maybe it's all a clever game to reinstate the old Otto Shenck set and formalize it for all time. But if art is worth anything, it grows, lives, and breathes. "Kinder macht neu!" said Wagner. But until such time as audiences listen to what he really says, instead of demanding window-dressed regression, maybe we're doomed. Wagner without meaning is pointless. Doesn't anyone get why Alberich, Wotan and later Siegfried are cursed?
Please read my piece on Robert LePage's Rakes Progress in 2008 (when LePage and Gelb discussed the Met Ring)

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Real Rheingold?


At the start of the Met Das Rheingold, someone proudly announces that "James Levine is the best Wagner conductor that ever was!". Which explains a lot about the Met and its audiences.

Here's a clip from some nobodies known as Karajan, Schreier and the Berlin Philharmonic. What do Europeans know about opera, someone said to me recently. Well listen to this! I've chosen this clip because it illustrates one of the trickier sequences to stage, when Wotan and Loge enter the underworld of the Nibelungs. It's not as flashy as say, the Rainbow bridge, but in terms of the meaning of the Ring, it's critical, This scene embodies the conflict between the Gods and Alberich, between the haves and have-nots. This scene at the Met is well done, the best part of the whole production. It's good at filling the interlude  of the journey, But apart from that the expensive staging doesn't add to drama or meaning. It looks fantastic, so that'a plus.

The comment about Levine probably indicates a lot more than it seems. Basically, this is the same old Levine Ring from 30 years ago, with a high tech trendy backdrop. Why is it scary to think of Wagner's ideas? It's the drama that meant most to Wagner, and the complex, cosmic rationale behind them  Sets are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. I'll be writing more about the Lepage production, which is quite weak apart from the fancy technology. But what's even more interesting is what the wider implications are. What makes an opera dramatic? And what makes Wagner opera in particular what it is? Do people really care about meaning? Here's my analysis of the Met's Rheingold.