Friday, 31 December 2010

Täällä Pohjantähden alla

A bit more winter from Finland. Jorma Hynninen sings Täällä Pohjantähden alla (Under the North Star). Listen to the kantele!  Happy New Year!

Körkarlen The Phantom Carriage of New Year's Eve

Nothing like a good horror story to cheer you up for the New Year. After seeing Victor Sjöström's Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage), first screened 1/1/1921 anything will seem joyous. Even the Salvation Army comes over sexy. Can you miss this?

Sister Edit, a sturdy-looking maiden is dying on New Year's Eve. She has one last wish, to see David Holm. He refuses to come. His wife runs in, kissing the girl's hand. What's going on? Cut to David Holm and his drunken mates, carousing in the graveyard. Last year their pal George died on the stroke of midnight. "George went to university at Uppsala" says David, "He knows things". But still ended up a bum.

The men fight, and on the stroke of midnight, David falls over and cracks his head. Up draws a rickety old carriage pulled by a wasted nag. It's George. "Whoever dies in sin at midnight must harvest souls for a year". The Grim Reaper takes David on his rounds.

In the photo, notice the use of double images to create a ghostly effect. That's David's dead body there. This film was made during 1920, so the technique was brand-new, hauntingly atmospheric. In the current DVD restoration, the soundtrack is fantastic. Hollow, metallic sounds like a slowed heartbeat, or the ticking of a clock that isn't right. This is a soundtrack that actually follows the action. It skips a beat when David jumps. Wonderful atmospheric scenes of the phantom carriage harvesting souls on land and sea and in the sky, collecting the souls of rich and poor. Extremely beautiful in its own eerie way, like abstract art. "A moment here is like a hundred years on earth" says the Grim Reaper.

David was once in a a happy family but he took to Demon Drink. His wife ran away with the kids, his brother was led astray. Enraged, David hunts for ex-wife threatening to kill her. Exhausted, he collapses outside a brand new Salvation Army Hostel on New Year's Eve. He's taken in by idealistic Sister Edit who spends all night mending his shabby coat. Since he's the first guest, she pledges herself for a year towards saving him, parallel with the idea of last person dead being forced to collect souls. Both a kinky kind of penitence. Very subtly, the film hints that Edit's sexually attracted to David (played by the director Victor Sjöström himself). He looks too much like a hunk to be consumptive, but that's why he's dangerous. He delights in coughing on people so they will get TB too. And so he transmits it to Edit.

Meanwhile Edit bullies Mrs Holm into taking him back. But David hasn't mended his ways and threatens to kill her and the kids, so terrified, she runs off again. Still, Edit can't die until she's done her duty by David. She argues with the Grim Reaper, forcing him to give David one more chance to reform. They stops outside a slum. "Who is dying here?" asks David. The men enter, (invisibly, of course). Mrs Holm is preparing to kill the kids and commit suicide because she's lost hope. At last, David is moved enough to repent his wicked ways. And Mrs Holm takes him back and they all live happily ever after, as Edit's given her soul for David. (She's collected by "the other ones" ie angels, ventures the Grim Reaper.) If this sounds sentimental, do not worry, it's not  Acting is exceptionally natural, especially for the period. Sjöström as David Holm is full of life and vigour (which is why Edit fixates on him).  

Körkarlen is nothing like the silent films of the era. Instead it achieves its effects by subtle atmospheric plays of light and shadow and double images which move and realign so smoothly you almost forget what's real and what isn't.

The original novel, by Selma Lagerlöf (another of these progressive Scandinavian and Finnish feminist authors) is apparently more into social issues like drink, TB and slum control via The Salvation Army, all perfectly valid in an era before penicillin and social security, Sjöström however is working in a completely new medium, with completely new ideas.  Elsewhere they're filming The Keystone Cops. Sjöström's doing  a psychological study and high art. The supernatural effects to enhance the unstable balance between inner and outer reality, so they express what the characters can't. .As they're riding along, the Grim Reaper says to David, "If there's one thing I could tell people, it would be to hope their lives reach maturity before they are felled". In other words, to learn wisdom and goodness before it's too late. It's not Salvation Army hell, brimstone and hard living, but basic good sense. Not at all a depressing movie, despite the subject.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

New Year Broadcasts Verdi Strauss Mozart

Ten years into the new millennium! Yet it seems like only yesterday. Since then we've had 9/11 and the War on Terror with all the wars, terrorism and hyper-security that's followed. The economy nosedived worse than anyone could have imagined.  The last Great Depression took ten years, ended only with a war. This one started with a war and won't end unless fundamental structural changes are made. Won't happen soon. In 2008 I saw it coming and made predictions no-one then believed. Most have come true, unfortunately. But as Heinrich Herine put it 200 years ago:

Wenn die Kinder sind im Dunkeln, Wird beklommen ihr Gemüt, Und um ihre Angst zu bannen, Singen sie ein lautes Lied.(When children are in the dark, they sing to chase away their fears)

New Year's Eve BBC TV 4 extravaganza is Verdi Rigoletto, yes, the famous one from RAI Mantua with Placido Domingo, Ruggerio Raimondi and Vittorio Grigolo, the one that was filmed live on location. This is the one that proves blind adherence to stage directions means squat without dramatic vision. The ultimate "traditional" that proves traditional alone means zilch. On the other hand, the sense of occasion, and the sheer presence of Placido : I'm watching again, gladly.  Click on the link to see what I wrote originally. This time it seems to be compressed into 2 hours, which maybe means no chatty bits. If you really, really like chatter there's another week of the repeat of "The Best of European Opera 2010" from 2nd Jan but you might want to be fully tanked to watch that.

Still available on BBC i-player are Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne and Tannhäuser. from the Royal Opera house, both of which I've written lots about and much more than  reviews. Both will be discussed for years pro and con, so you need to know them.  On Saturday (New Year's Day), though, there's an alternative Mozart Don Giovanni. Franz Welser-Möst in Vienna with Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Don G. Audio only but this should be sparky - it's Vienna after all

Earlier in the morning on New Year's Day,  the traditional all-Strauss extravaganza, also conducted by Welser-Möst, who has proved his real worth despite years of  abuse from smalltime bullies.  This programme wil also be broadcast live on BBC TV2 at 11.30 which might be better as we'll get the colour and sense of occasion  That's the medicine that makes the spoonful of sugar go down. (The Sound of Music is also on TV)

With the New Year, an unprecedented Mozart Marathon on the BBC, with every single scrap Mozart ever wrote, even the discards and juvenilia.  Normally blockbusters like this are overkill, but looking analytically at this series, it might actually be worth doing. It seems coherently put together, the focus being on learning and exploration. Some of the presenters are good, some borderline worthless, so we shall hear. If marathons like this are worth doing, they're worth doing well and only a big organization like the BBC can carry it off properly. Kings Place is holding a Mozart Unwrapped series which sounds interesting  but is of necessity limited to what can be done in a small venue. Mozart Total Immersion, full steam ahead!

Christianne Stotijn, Vancouver

Barbara Miller writes about Christianne Stotijn's concert in Vancouver BC :

"Appropriately enough, the recital opened with the Opus 48 songs by Edvard Grieg. The opening song “Gruss”,with text by Heinrich Heine, ends “Wenn du eine Rose schaust, Sag, ich lass sie grüssen” (If you see a rose, give her my greetings). This not only set up the Goethe song “Zur Rosenzeit” later in the set, but also the Brahms set of Heine settings, and the Strauss set of “rose” themed songs, that filled out the first half of the recital.

Stotijn’s voice is warm and very pleasant to listen to. The 668-seat Vancouver playhouse is intimate enough that I could easily hear her voice directly from my seat in the fifth row, without additional resonance from the hall, which heightened the personal connection I felt with her performance. While I wouldn’t say that her voice shimmered or blossomed in its upper range it had a wonderful presence and she used it expressively, as in “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall”, where the first “Tandaradei” of the nightingale evoked the lover’s happy cries of lovemaking, then was echoed more quietly, as a secret, happy memory.

I particularly enjoyed hearing the Heine-lieder of Brahms, many of which I had explored myself as an adjunct to the class I taught on Schumann’s Dichterliebe. (I presented a little program of “Heine songs by Schumann’s contemporaries at the end of the class). The songs were performed in order of opus number, although I was gratified to see that the artists had made the same choice I ultimately did, by ending the set not with the dramatic, bleak “Meerfahrt” but rather with the peacefully transcendent “Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht”, where the composer accepts his dream of “lauter Liebe”, regardless of whether the poet is using his customary irony, an irony very evident in the song which opened the set: “Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze”. As one would expect from the musical unity between the two, “Sommerabend” and “Mondenschein” were performed essentially as a single piece. My early reading of these songs revealed there is a potential for monotony, which the artists skillfully avoided through delicate work on the piano, and dramatic color change in the voice at “Krankes Herz und müde Glieder”. The Romantic momentum continued with an immediate transition to the rippling “Es schauen die Blumen” If the moonlight and the flight of song had healed the lover temporarily, it lasted no longer than the pause before “Meerfahrt”, where Stotijn gazed rather forlornly into the piano during the opening interlude evoking the bobbing of the little boat on the waves. I personally would have liked to hear more of a dance and less of a straightforwardly urgent forward momentum as the boat passed by the ghostly island with its lovely musical tones and dancing mists, but in “Der Tod”, I felt that the sensitive, skillful, and wonderfully expressive pianist Joseph Breinl did a perfect job of nailing the crucial subito forte chord that cuts into the drowsiness of the vocal line with its reminder of the pain of the day.

The Strauss set which closed the first half was something of a “rose garden” of “Das Rosenband”, “Rote Rosen” and “Die erwachte Rose”, finishing with the rose awakening at dawn in the final verse of “Ständchen”, which also hearkened back to the nightingale and linden tree of Grieg’s “Die Verschiegenen Nachtigall”. It was interesting to contrast this “Ständchen” performance with the one I had heard in San Francisco a few weeks earlier by Measha Brueggergosman and Justus Zeyen. Both the voice and the space had been larger then, matched by the pianist’s virtuoso execution of the filigree accompaniment. I found Breinl’s performance here, while no less detailed, even more breathtaking as it rippled along at a softer volume.

The second half of the recital was in Russian, consisting of some Tchaikovsky romances, two of Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death”, and some Rachmaninoff songs. She is quite comfortable in this language, having made a recording of Tchaikovsky songs with Julius Drake. What I personally found most interesting was that, having concluded the Tchaikovsky set with a very charming Cradle Song (text by Maykov), she kept her gaze on the pianist as he turned a page, the audience withholding applause despite a clear break in the printed program,and then, instead of leaving the stage, the artists began the Cradle Song from the songs and Dances of Death, to quite a chilling effect. While up to this point, the singer had relied upon vocal color changes and a very expressive face to communicate the Romantic songs in the program, here I noticed a real contrast for the dialogue between the distraught mother of the sick baby, and the ironically soothing tone of Death, singing “lullabye” to the child that it is about to take. If it is possible for a shudder to be audible, that is what went up from the audience in the silence following this Cradle Song. The other Mussorsky song was the Trepak, in which Death lulls a drunken peasant to sleep/death under a blanket of snow to the rhythm of a folk dance. As with the Brahms “Meerfahrt”, I would have liked to hear a bit more of the “bounce” of the dance along with the sharply piercing forward motion that Breinl gave us, but that’s a matter of personal taste."

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Richmal Crompton William Rebels with a cause

Short new BBC TV1 series on William, anti hero of Richmal Crompton's many collections of short stories. Crompton channels an eleven-year-old boy but what makes the books so wonderrful is their totally adult pungency and satire. Kids who read William may not get all the words, but they're captured by the sense that an adult is secretly on the side of the rebels.

Richmal Crompton herself grew up in genteel surroundings, seeming to conform. But she became crippled. battled cancer and didn't marry. So William was her rebellion. Much of the savagery of Crompton's wit springs from the spirit of the 1920's when the old Edwardian order was collapsing,. The Browns had a cook and maid and looked down on "new money", the Botts of Botts Hall, saucemakers. Meanwhile tramps roam the countryside, scavenging and doing crime. What Crompton doesn't need to state is that most of these tramps were ex soldiers or the unemployed of the Depression. With whom William, and Crompton, sympathise.

That's why stuffy pedants don't get off well in William books. Pillars of society, Heads of Brains Trusts, Bloomsbury wannabes, pompous officials, all get sent up.  But not the basically decent, even Mr Bott. Later when all society seems to become aspirational, Crompton's mayhem no longer fits.  Just William, William the Fourth, William and the Evacuees etc.flow spontaneously enlived by a sure eye for farce. William and the Pop Star doesn't work because the whole world's become parody. What makes Crompton's William so adventurous is that he has moral bearings, however uncivilised he seems on the surface. Look at the photo of Richmal Crompton - what a clear eyed,  fearless stare. "Don't try bluffing me!"

The difference between Richmal Crompton and Enid Blyton is huge. Blyton fans are defensive because they identify Blyton's pap with idealized childhoods. Crompton fans have fewer illusions. William has that wisdom that comes from being genuinely pure. He doesn't get any older, but his readers learn and grow. And are expected to.  If Richmal Crompton has a soul mate, it's Dr Seuss. Both tell funny stories, but both have sharp intellects and values. "LMF" or "Lack of Moral Fibre" was a common term in the past, but it could not apply to Crompton or Dr Seuss.

Last year a reader told me about the moment he saw through Enid Blyton. "What would Richmal Crompton do?" with the same premise of a plot? So between us we "wrote" a complete new Richmal Crompton story almost as true to the spirit of William as any adaptation. Please read it HERE ("Turkeys for Enid Blyton")

Concerts - best of 2010

Hans Werner Henze started the 2010 concert year off well. The Barbican Total Immersion weekend was well planned, several good concerts incl Elogium Musicum and a non-staged performance of Phaedra which I saw first staged in Berlin. I also enjoyed his ballet Ondine but utterly loathed Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic, the most misguided and self pandering production I have ever seen or heard, anywhere, barring the same director's abortion of Sibelius's Luonnotar. Elegy isn't known in its original form in the UK: now Londoners think it's a TV sitcom. Henze's one of my herores. Check out this site - no fewer than 18 main posts about him.

The Barbican delivered yet again in March with a Wolfgang Rihm Total Immersion. Wonderful music, wonderful man. Henze doesn't really qualify as The Greatest Living German Composer since he lives in and identifies with Italy. So the honours go to Wolfgang Rihm. Much that's written in the US about modern music would be changed if there was greater awareness of what modern music in Europe really is like. Fortunately in the UK, we get plenty of Harrison Birtwistle, and many younger composers like Brian FerneyhoughLuke Bedford. and Simon Holt, all of whom merit several concerts and broadcasts this year - use search label for more. Up and coming, I loved Lloyd Moore's Diabolus in musica.

And then, Aldeburgh, the hippest and liveliest creative festival in the UK. With Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the helm, it attracts the best and brightest from Europe and the US but it's completely muisunderstood by the UK mainstream media, who don't even know enough about Benjamin Britten to know what Aldeburgh meant to him and what it stands for. No other site covers Aldeburgh as much as I do, so take time to explore this site. ABSOLUTE highlight this year was Pierre Boulez. Concert with Ensemble Intercontemporain, who played their hearts out, relishing the buzzy but relaxed  Aldeburgh atmosphere. Aimard and Boulez chatted informally, winning over an audience many of whom had come to hear Bach. 

This year's Proms started with a huge celebratory bang, but there were many other solid highlights, such as the Rattle/Berliner Philharmoniker's mega symphony of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, Metzmacher's DSO Berlin Mahler 7. Well balanced and good value. Although this is Mahler year, all but a very few Mahler concerts (Rattle, Berlin, Abbado Lucerne, Salonen South Bank) have been extremely disappointing. The "new" chocolate coated Mahler may have mass appeal but it make take another 50 years to reverse. Tchaikovsky still hasn't recovered.

Schumann, on the other hand, has benefited from the publicity. All his symphonies were played at the Proms, and in a stimulating way. Recitals, too, have been uniformly good. But if there's one single concert that will live in  my memory it will be Matthias Goerne's second Wigmore Hall recital. This is what Lieder singing really should be like - emotionally intense, intellectual sharp, absolute reverence for the music and poetry. Lieder isn't "easy listening", smooth or superficial, much as the celebrity market would like.

Who is Elisabeth in Tannhäuser?

Who is Elisabeth in Wagner Tannhäuser? Is she really the Virgin Mary ? The knights at Wartburg revere her but it would be blasphemous to suggest she was their deity, even if she fulfils the role of alter-ego Venus. She doesn't return their awe. When Tannhäuser runs off in a huff, she withdraws from the company. Not for her those pose-y songfests. Like Tannhäuser, she's an individualist, not one of the conforming crowd.

As soon as Tannhäuser returns from Venusberg, Elisabeth knows he's changed, and for the better even though she doesn't know why.  Specifically, she rejects knightly tradition and wants what Tannhäuser's offering, even though he's still in  a dream.

Doch welch ein seltsam neues Leben, rief Euer Lied mir in die Brust! Bald wollt es mich wie Schmerz durchbeben,bald drang's in mich wie jähe Lust;Gefühle, die ich nie empfunden,Verlangen, das ich nie gekannt!

(Emotions, which I have never experienced, needs I never knew). Elisabeth doesn't want to be a Virgin! The photo above might hint that some Elisabeths of the past had an intuitive idea what Elisabeth was going on about (The photo is Irma de Keukelaire in Antwerp, 1943)  I've seen a photo of Emmy Destin dressed up as a nun for the role, complete with massive rosary, but can't find it. A nun in love with a mortal man? However spritual Elisabeth may be she's not quite reached that level of sublimation. 

Wagner is quite clear that  Tannhäuser and Elisabeth have an intense love for each other, way beyond the narrow bounds of convention. When Tannhäuser seeks penitence, he wants to experience pain greater than other pilgrims. Similarly, Elisabeth wants extreme sacrifice. If indeed God were truly merciful, might He not forgive? It's his job, after all. (The Pope in this opera is Reformation caricature). Is Elisabeth then a prototype Isolde, seeking transfiguration through death? Or a Brünnhilde? Either way, Elisabeth is certainly not a passive, wimpy personality. She has the same inner wildness that Tannhäuser has, which is why they are soulmates, who stand out from the crowd.

Wolfram's ideal love is the ultimate in beautiful but he cannot bear the idea of the "pure stream" being sullied by emotional engagement. To paraphrase Tannhäuser, auto-eroticism is sterile. "Du hast die Liebe arg entstellt; wenn du in solchem Schmachten bangest, versiegte wahrlich wohl die Welt!". Real beauty comes from involvement and connection. Venusberg was a bad place but at least people transacted.

However Elisaberth is performed, somwhere along the line the singer and those around her must think about who Elisabeth is and why she responds in such extreme ways to Tannhäuser. Performances can't really be properly assessed out of context. In the Tim Albery production at the Royal Opera House I like Eva-Maria Westbroek's Elisabeth because she was untamed and passionate. Unfortunately the director and designers didn't understand.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Opera - Best of 2010

Lists bother me.  How do you compare a fish to a pinecone? But looking back at 2010 opera is a good exercise because it makes you think "why" things appeal or don't.

At the top, several Royal Opera House productions proving that it's one of the greatest houses of all, however how some enjoy picking nits. Where would we be otherwise? How we've been enriched by Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur! What an experience, visually, musically, intellectually! This was a production where everything pulled together - stars, comprimario, designs, orchestra, conceptual ideas. Brilliant and not just because it looked good. This production had brains behind it (please see several different posts).

Next Niobe, Regina di Tebe. This generated extreme responses, understandably so, as it was baroque, unknown and given completely innovative treatment. Baroque audiences wanted spectacle, excitement, extravagance and wit. That's why Niobe was a hit with specialist European audiences. Too bad if some London audiences didn't get it. Perhaps too many staid Handel performances blunt the appetite. (And Handel can be wild!)  Artistically, this was a daringly brave.choice. Several different posts on Niobe on this blog, please search.

Tannhäuser would be top of my list for sure except for niggling doubts. Audio-only it's mindbendingly beautiful but therein lies the dilemma.  What does the opera really mean? Why are the Wartburgers and even the Pope so paranoid? It's much more than an opera about art, even though the main man's the one with the lute. It's a morality tale with a twist. As Tannhäuser says, the Wartburgers don't know what real emotion is. It follows that, no matter how beautiful art might be, it's superficial without intense, and dangerous emotional engagement. There's plenty on Tannhäuser and on Wagner on this site, so please take the time to read and think about it. Fascinating. I'm growing to love this performance (as heard on broadcast) passionately but still not completely convinced it's been thought through. Not even by Wagner himself, perhaps.But interpretation is important, because it's has a bearing on evaluating performance.

So what is the thread that runs through how and why I respond to things. For me I think it's repertoire first, understanding the work in question, its composer and its meaning.  Even completely new things like George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill which grows in stature the more it's heard.  With vocal music, there almost inevitably has to be meaning of some kind of other, conscious or otherwise. Indeed, the greater the work, there more complex the interpretation. Usually, though not inevitably.

That's why I enjoyed the Glyndebourne Don Giovanni better than the Glyndebourne Billy Budd.  That Billy Budd managed to avoid morality altogether and present the opera as a sailor love triangle. If it hadn't been for Jacques Imbrailo's outstanding performance,  the production would have been ideas-free altogether. In this opera, Britten comes close to revealing his inner conflicts. But perhaps audiences want comfort zone affirmation, not ideas. Anyway, I'll be writing more later about the filmed version of Don Giovanni that's still available on BBCTV2 on demand.  The film is so different from the actual live experience it needs a special post.

ENO's Makropulos Case would have been top of my list too if it had been in Czech.  No way will the best European singers relearn their parts in a language foreign to them and to the music. Of course the ENO helped put Janáček on the anglophone map but it's still a compromise.  ENO's Bizet Pearl Fishers would have been a greater success if all the singers had been on the level of those in the ROH concert Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Some languages translate better. Oddly enough, the more I think about ENO's Idomeneo, the more it makes sense to me. Revivable, with adjustments.

Two Rossini Armidas and one Handel Alcina this year (same theme, different angle). I walked out of the Met Armida in disgust. Massive budget, but so self-congratulatory (I could use another word) that  it was artistic constipation. In complete contrast Garsington Opera's Armida was utterly brilliant.  Garsington makes a speciality of obscure Rossini operas, so the production came from a genuine understanding of the music and meaning. The Met has money, but Garsington has taste.

Normally I don't like celebrity chasing because it's not good for art or for the kind of performers who take it too seriously. But some singers rise way above that level and have integrity. That's why I shall never forget Plácido Domingo's Simon Boccanegra.  Such artistry, such committment, such engagement. Who cares if the fit's not perfect? There are things in art that transcend all pettiness.

1929 kitsch colour extravaganza

This is a clip  from a 1929 extravaganza shot mainly in Technicolor, packed with elaborate dance sequences. It wasn't called "The Show of Shows" for nothing. Sound was new and colour even more shocking, so this film really announced a new era in entertainment. Trouble was it cost millions and was released just before the Wall Street Crash that started the First Great Depression. The Lehman Brothers of film?

This segment A Chinese Fantasy has almost nothing to do with China. Chinese opera costumes used without context, mixed with peasant hats, Japanese kimonos and "Arabian" objects like Aladdin lamps. This is high camp fun. No offence was intended at the time, though, apart from the basic fact non-whites were considered fair game and not just in entertainment. The film's not racist so much as totally off the wall. The idea was to get something exotic and colourful to make maximum impact.

Look out for the gigantic black legs that descend from the roof. It's a massive black genie, bearing the actress in his palms. The star is Myrna Loy, one of the big names of the 1920's. They are packing in every big name of the time, including the dog, the famous Rin Tin Tin. Loy's role is unashamedly yellowface, because everyone knew it was a vehicle for her and had nothing to do with authenticity. Had the part gone to a real Chinese  that would have been offensive as a real ethnic camping up like this would be selling out to stereotype.

Besides, at that time, any real Chinese actress dancing in her underwear would never have been able to live it down. No doubt the film was shown in China, but the audiences would have been tittering with embarrassment. Eighty years later, it's still hard for real Chinese to watch the sequence of dancers in Chinese hats and tops but NO pants, especially when they squat. OOPs!

The male lead is Nick Lucas, king of kitsch crooning, who created the original Tiptoe thru the Tulips. The song is Lipoli which is gibberish but sounds cute (and Italian to a Chinese.)

Saturday, 25 December 2010

What's up in Venusberg? Melchior naked Tannhäuser

What's really going on in Venusberg? Why are the good folks of Wartburg so afraid ? Much praise for the ballet in the Royal Opera House production of Wagner Tannhäuser because it is beautiful - maidens in white slips waving and bending. As ballet, it's wonderful. But is it Venusberg? Of course sinister things don't "need" to be depicted. Most of us are used to polite images of Venusberg with naked women looking charming, but in the 19th century just showing a nude was titilliating, especially if you were sitting next to a buttoned up High Victorian matron.

What did Wagner think? Anyone who insists on following stage directions to the letter is in for a serious shock! Wagner wanted depravity. Bacchantes, satyrs and fauns: all famous for debauchery. Wagner explicitly depicts ein Nebelbild zeigt die Entführung der Europa, a picture in the clouds of the Rape of Europa, a nymph who's carried off by an oversexed bull. If that's not enough, Wagner later mentions Leda, who caresses a swan on her lap. What Wagner's audiences knew was that the swan then rapes the girl.  Bestiality, drunkeness, violence and disorderly abandon. Read Wagner's exact words (and translation) HERE. So those who piously talk platitudes about "modern" values in stagecraft should go back to source and be grateful that Jasmin Vardiman's ballet cleans things up.

Listening to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 was wonderful. It's available online internationally for 7 days. Because its repeated, no need to cram everything into one listening.

This time really concentrate on the singing, which is magnificent. Gerhaher is beautiful, but Westbroek and Johan Botha are able to develop the complexity that makes the roles so fascinating. As Tannhäuser tells Wolfram, "You lot don't even begin to understand." Botha knows what motivates Tannhäuser and why. And if you REALLY want a shock, search for the Life magazine spread on Lauritz Melchior at the Met in 1943. See Melchior naked! He's completely unconcerned about being seen in his girdle and love handles. This pic is not part of it as far as I can track, and it's pretty tame. By reputation, Melchior was probably the greatest Tannhäuser there ever was. "It's the singing, stupid" he might say.PLENTY MORE ON THIS SITE about Wagner and specifically the Royal Opera House Tannhäuser

Anthromorphist Rudolph

Friday, 24 December 2010

Heinrich Heine's non-naive Nativity

Heinrich Heine isn't someone you'd normally associate with Nativity scenes. So pay attention when Heine does Christmas.

Wilhelm Killmayer (b 1927) set Heine's Die heiligen drei Könige as part of his Heine Lieder. Killmayer is extremely underrated, but worshiped by those who know his work, including Wolfgang Rihm, who calls him his master. Killmayer's music is whimsical and gentle, but packs a powerful emotional and mental punch.

Killmayer arranges 35 songs to Heine poems in four progressive themes. His choice is perceptive even if you think you know Heine by heart. The first section starts with the idea of dreams and aspirations. Ideas gradually build up towards a final section Die Macht des Gesanges, the power of song. Die heiligen drei Könige appears almost at the end of the fourth cycle, ie. near the goal. See why Killmayer is so sharp? The Three Kings have come from the East (das Morgenland) searching for something they know is essential even if they don't know what it is. The piano part is rhythmic yet sways  slightly of centre: camels, with long legs crossing a desert?

How do we get to Bethleham, they ask Ihr leiben Buben und Mädchen (You dear little bumpkins and lassies) Heine's humour - exotic Kings from afar chatting to yokellish (and very German) children. But of course no-one knows, so the Kings continue following the Star. Killmayer sets the Goldener Stern. so it shoots right above the stave, almost unattainable. (Killmayer is kind to the singer, as the build up is gradual).   But what a lovely glow on words like leuchtete lieblich und heiter. (shining sweetly and bright). Piano part sweet, good natured, confident that the star leads the right way..

Then the star stops over Joseph's house. Killmayer sets this totally matter of fact, like it's the most natural thing in the world for strange Kings to pop in on a peasant. No decoration, but typical Killmayer silence, single notes that make you listen. Decoration is reserved for the line Das sind sie hineingegangen, which Killmayer sets on a soaring arc. You're drawn into the little house, so to speak.

Inside the house, gorgeous tumult! Das Öchslein brüllte, das Kindlein schrie. The oxen moo and the Baby screams. It's more vivid auf Deutsch, but Killmayer wants to capture the sense of energy generated by different layers of sound. No plasterboard Nativity this, but full of life and action.

Then the glorious finale. The Kings burst into song. They've found their miracle. Killmayer sets the word "Sangen" in multiple patterns, so it feels ecstatic. One "sangen" draws the "a" out for at least 8 measures. Meanwhile, the pianist's left hand delineates a steady rhythm, the right embroidering a truly lyrical melody. The whole Killmayer cycle started on the theme of dreams and seeking knowledge. Now the resolution through The Power of Song. Yet it's a non-naive Nativity.

Neither Killmayer nor Heine do superficial. Killmayer ends his cycle on a completely different note. Children, Heine says, sing in the darkness so they won't be afraid. So the poet ein tolles Kind (a big Kid) sings in his all-too-dark life of strife. Here the translation of the last two lines (Susan Mary Praeder) is superb, capturing the fear but adding wry humour and irony. She  uses a rhyming couplet, very Germanic. "The song may not be so delightful, but it's freed me from all things frightful" So the culmination of this long cycle is astonishingly modern. We live in horrible times, but as long as we have the power of song, we have hope.

Killmayer's Heine-Lieder cycle is huge, so not many singers have the heft to carry it off, especially with its constant changes of mood. But it's  remarkably well thought through. Killmayer understands Heine well, and in the process creates anew the whole concept of Lieder cycle. Meaning is what Lieder is really about, not just surface beauty. Killmayer's trademark is a kind of observant silence and stillness, that draws the listener in.  Although the cycle as a whole is daunting to sing, there's no reason why the sections can't be performed on their own,  Die heiligen drei Könige is a small masterpiece on its own and really should be part of the repertoire. It's very deep, its meaning applies beyond just Christmas. When Pen Hadow (my kind of guy) walked to the North Pole (and got trapped) a few years ago, I played this song on continuous loop so much that I had to get an extra copy of the CD. Things weren't easy for me at the time, but the idea of Hadow trudging through the Arctic seemed totally in keeping with Heine's poem and Killmayer's setting.

Killmayer's Heine Lieder are difficult to sing yet easy to listen to. Killmayer is a warm, humorous and totally individual person who defies stereotype. Start with the Heine-Lieder and go onto the truly outstanding Hölderlin-Lieder which I think is one of the most significant works of the late 20th century. Grab the sole recording of Killmayer's Heine-Lieder if you get a chance. (Christoph Prégardien and Siegfried Mauser, CPO)  Or get the score bei Schott. The painting, oddly enough, is Hieronymus Bosch.

Humperdinck Hänsel und Gretel ROH

Humperdinck Hänsel und Gretel revived at the Royal Opera House London. Two years ago almost to the day, Claire Seymour at Opera Today went and wrote about it :

"Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is titled a Märchenspiel — a Fairytale: and as twentieth-century psychologists and psychoanalysts have been eager to inform us, lurking beneath those familiar saccharine stories of sleeping princesses, defeated tyrants, love fulfilled and harmony restored, lie the dark shadows of the human heart — passionate, violent, unpredictable and unredeemed."

"So, directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier are faced with a choice: is this ‘children’s opera’ a tale of sugary sentimentality or a gothic nightmare? To my mind, they aren’t quite sure … The opening act presents a realistic portrait of ‘modern-day family life’, complete with financial woes, parental neglect, bolshy children and over-sexed adults; the second act glides into a kitschy fantasy landscape in which magic and mystery induce a sense of temporary calm, and banish the demons and debt collectors; while, in the final act, menace and maliciousness are unmercilessly unleashed, shocking us almost as much as the thunderous explosion which brings to an end the witch’s depraved malevolence."  Different cast this time round.

But how is this for REALLY creepy ? Penhaglion's the Perfumers have a new walking logo. A tall man in Victorian garb but with the head of an owl. Strange marketing concept - perfume and old owls? Follow this link to a piece with great photos and details. Scare the wits out of a kid near you..

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Guard against Throat Scratch

Seasonal reminder !

Xmas broadcasts - Glyndebourne Don G, ROH Tannhauser

If the Pope's Thought for the Day isn't enough and the Queen isn't likely to say what she thinks, there's still plenty to listen to to enjoy. One of the best Xmas presents I ever had was childcare the year two complete Ring cycles were broadcast back to back. That was in the days before video, far less DVD, so missing  them would have been heartbreaking  We take for granted how much easier things are these days. Now we can record privately what we can't hear live.

Naturally plenty of hymns and church services because that's what the holiday is ABOUT, never forget. But Xmas Eve, the big treat on BBC TV2 at 1445 will be Glyndebourne's Don Giovanni from summer 2010. I much preferred this to the Glyndebourne Billy Budd because it showed some understanding of Mozart's sharp wit and pace. Billy Budd looked nice, but it's not a love triangle. Wonderful performances but no concept of the inner moral dilemmas. Please read about Glyndebourne's Don Giovanni and Billy Budd by clicking on the links.

Then at 1800 on Christmas Day there'll be a broadcast of the current Royal Opera House Wagner Tannhäuser. This should be international online, too, but I'm not sure it repeats. Listen, whether you've already been or are planning to go. Tannhäuser  isn't the easiest of operas to understand, perhaps because Wagner himself was more conflicted about it than might seem at first. That's all the more reason to do homework and think carefully about what the opera means. It's certainly not a love triangle either.  Tannhäuser is torn between easy self indulgence and spartan conformity, yet even these two poles aren't the whole story. His dilemma is that he's tasted emotions so intense that they wreck him for normal life. None of the Wartburgrers can understand - except the holy Elisabeth. A lot of disinformation has been written about this production, so listen carefully and read the libretto and background.  Without the visuals it might be easier to appreciate what a difficult part this is to sing as well as to interpret. I've done an analysis of its meaning and images, and there's a review HERE.

The picture above is Paul Cézanne, Young Girl playing the Tannhäuser Overture. It's a great illustration. Compare the hardworking older woman who seems to be listening to what the young woman's playing. But is she? The older woman sits on a red chair but it's hard and severe. The young woman looks demure and repressed, but she feels the music only too well. All around her the wallpaper patterns swirl and fabrics clash. This girl perhaps knows what Tannhäuser is really about. Perhaps she'd like to escape the confines of that stuffy parlour.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Marschner - Der Vampyr full download

Complete download from Opera Today of  Der Vampyr the short(ish) opera  by H A Marschner (1795-1861) which has been enjoying quite a revival in the last few years. Follow THIS LINK which contains a full  recording from a live performance in Vienna in 1951, with complete original libretto. There are at least four recordings available, but this is the first. This version was created by Hans Pfitzner in the 1930's.

Marschner's Der Vampyr isn't Bram Stoker at all, whose Dracula was only written in 1897.  Marschner's vampire is based on a novel by John Polidori who was English, but of Italian descent, and a friend of Lord Byron and eventually the uncle of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The story was written in 1819, the year after Mary Shelley published Frankenstein. Did the British invent Goth culture as art in the first place? Walter Scott too inspired mid European audiences with his high Romantic glamour.

Polidori's characters are pesudo-Scottish aristocrats - Lord Ruthven, Sir Humphrey Davenant, Sir John Aubry and John and Janthe Berkley. (Not Berkeley which is more "English".) Several of them are already undead. The plot revolves around corrupting young virgins, which, given the Byron and Hellfire Club connections may be social comment as much as psychological horror story. A German language play was written based on the novel. Marschner's opera followed in 1828.

Marschner's Der Vampyr is more than a curiosity because it was so popular in its time. Marschner worked with Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden, hence the tradition of magical hi-jinks and horror that we know from Der Freischütz and Euryanthe. Der Vampyr isn't quite in that league and I can't take the idea that it's an "influence" on Wagner as wiki suggests. But Der Vampyr is fun in a kind of campy potboiler way. I know two of the recordings besides this one, but have never seen it staged - what a hoot that would be - fake aristos scamming each other, chasing pretty brides-to-be on the eve of their weddings etc. A bit racy ! Have fun and enjoy. The full F W Murnau film Nosferatu Der Vampyr (1922) is available in FULL DOWNLOAD on this site, just click on the link. this is brilliant.  Also Carl Th Dreyer's Vampyr HERE.  On BBC TV2 iPlayer until 27/12 is Werner Herzog's 1979 remake with Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani which is atmospheric and well shot. See that and compare.

Edgard Varèse - Birthday Boy!

Somehow it's hard to imagine Edgard Varèse as a babe in swaddling, but he was born on 22 December 1883.  He's more John the Baptist,  "The First Wild Man of Classical Music".  Varèse is interesting for more than his music. He knew everyone from Ferruccio Busoni to Pierre Boulez who championed him long before most had even heard of him.(Boulez has recorded the complete works of Varèse - outstanding). Varèse is generally creditted as the founder of electronic music even though hew didn't have electronic means of making music. He didn't even have a reel to reel tape until around 1955. He's not difficult listening. In fact I think it helps to know Varèse to understand the times he lived in.  Technology and the machine age pitted against exotic primitivism.  Think Picasso, Braque, Matisse. Even Elliott Carter (whom he also knew) There's plenty on Varèse on this site - quite a lot of clips, links, lots on the Philips Pavilion and Xenakis, and even a full download of the 20's movie Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in which the composer appears. Enter Varèse in the search or follow the links on right. I've reviewed nearly all Varèse concerts in the UK in the last few years, several of them here (Varèse 360 South Bank, for example).

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Wagner Rienzi DVD review

Wagner and Verdi were born within 6 months of each other : two completely opposite strands of opera? Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen comes from 1840 - same year as Schumann Dichterliebe - but the soundworlds could hardly be more different. Rienzi could be Wagner's Simon Boccanegra - massed chorus, heroic arias and a remarkably similar subject.

In this DVD of Wagner's Rienzi - the first ever- from Deutsche Oper Berlin with Torsten Kerl as Rienzi, the overture is outstandingly well staged. Rienzi is alone looking out at a giant panorama of the Alps. The majesty of the mountains overwhelms : this is real power. In comparison, Rienzi's nobody despite his status. At first he looks out imperiously, then does an amazing backflip. He.  starts to "conduct" the music he - and we - hear. Then he crumples into an inept  all.  The whole story, told in simple images against a stunning backdrop. Don't assume this is Berchtesgaden. The Alps can be seen just as clearly from Northern Italy.

Strictly speaking, Rienzi isn't really Italian, since the text is based  on an English novel by eminent Victorian Edward Bulwer-Lytton.  The subject's universal - a  "man of the people" versus established order  who himself gets corrupted by power. Throughout this production, directed by Philip Stölzl, there are references to the early 1920's, to early film and design. Futurism started in Italy long before the First World War. It's preoccupation with technology and mass movements found fruit in Russia after 1917. Indeed, it's the first truly "modern" art theory, long before German Expressionisn, art deco and Triumph des Willens. That's Mussolini at right. Even the costumes in this production reference the Fascist Italy. Limit the ideas in this production to simplistic Hitler and you miss its really profound insights. Rienzi is about power and the abuse thereof. It could happen anywhere. And the idea of designer style as a tool of politics is utterly relevant in our new age of mass media manipulation..

Hence the references to film and propaganda. As Rienzi becomes more caught up with power, his hold on reality loosens. Image-building takes over. The man of the people becomes a huge face projected above the regimented, conforming masses. Theatre becomes a substitute for real life. See how the stage becomes divided. "Public" on top, "private" bunker below, where Rienzi and his intimates function pretty much alone. On the DVD, this split screen effect is particularly good as the lower part resembles film cells rolling on loop. Personality-cult dictatorships have always known the power of theatre, from Napolean to Mao Zedong to Sergei Eisenstein for Stalin and Leni Reifenstahl for Hitler.

Torsten Kerl is an excellent, charismatic Rienzi : plenty of forceful volume, yet able to convey the character's inner virtues. He's no simplistic stage villain. Wagner builds humanity into the part so Rienzi's sympathetic. If he were truly ruthless, he'd have wiped out the Colonnas. Kerl's Allmächt’ger Vater is particularly delicate,but throughout the opera, the non-vocal parts are surprisingly contemplative, almost dreamy, as though Wagner understands the value of being visionary. The long non-vocal passages are by no means background, but part of story. This production illustrates them without being intrusive, respecting their oblique nature. Kerl plays with "toy" houses (like empire builders and town planners do). He doesn't have to sing but his boyish innocence suddenly breaks through the iron man exterior. At the end, Rienzi's faith seems to rest in the ultimate good of mankind, even though he's destroyed.

Sebastien Lang-Lessing conducts knowing how important these almost symphonic interludes are in shaping meaning - deft, understated but not overshadowed by the big vocal numbers. Kate Aldrich is an outstanding Adriano Colonna, agile, vibrant, passionate. What a part this is, wavering from one loyalty to another, always on the brink of extreme sacrifice! Aldrich's voice expresses intensity, her acting the mercurial frisson in the part. This opera is Adriano's tragedy almost as much as it's Rienzi's. Camilla Nylund does well as Irene, though the role is less demanding, and Ante Jerkunica's a solid Colonna. But it's the crowd scenes that impress. They're wonderfully costumed and choreographed. Sometimes the singers march like automatons, the "ideal machine" of Futurist iconology. Sometimes they're grotesques with masks straight out of caricature. Or Carneval, gone wrong. The singing is equally good. Mechanical precision, even in the mad scenes, the crowd as mindless monster.

Rienzi is relatively neglected but this superb new DVD could change that. At 156 minutes, it's obviously  cut from the four hour original, but that may not be a bad thing. The Sawallisch recording with René Kollo is the benchmark, but this performance is edgier and tenser - much closer to the horrible truths in the drama. Kerl's excellent, making the purchase worthwhile for his sake alone. This performance (filmed live) is also so vivid, it's a brilliant introduction to an aspect of Wagner that might have been had the composer chosen another direction. For all we know, this Rienzi could convert diehard Verdians to Wagner.

production photos : Joachim Feiguth, Bettina Stöẞ

Monday, 20 December 2010

L Onerva - feisty woman and poet

L Onerva was an amazing person, the sort of woman about whom books are written because she's so unusual. All in Finnish, though, but perhaps it's time for a change as Onerva is the kind of genuine feminist icon we need to know about.

Born Hilja Lehtinnen in Helsinki in 1882, she was effectively an orphan by age 7, when her mother was locked up in an asylum for the insane, where she lived on for 40 years. With this in her background, Hilja wasn't hindered. She went off to university, graduating in 1902.   She was married for a while to a man who had a home in Karelia, the Finnish heartland. Onerva's problem wasn't how to express her creativity, but which of her many talents to pursue. She was a gifted writer, drawn to poetry, journalism, novels and theatre, a genre pioneered by other women playwrights like Minna Kanth (1844-1897)

Onerva's first collection of poems was published in 1904. Fiery, exotic poems, which shocked many, coming from a young and respectable woman  "But once within a lifetime opens a fiery rose, that for but one night blossoms and in the morning goes... "It has a leaf all bloody; it has a purple lip, it has a dizzy fragrance like spring winds on the steppe."  Life followed art. Onerva went off to live in Rome with the poet Eino Leino, though both were married to others., When Leino didn't treat Onerva right, she dumped him and returned to Helsinki alone. She pursued an independent career as a novelist and wrote for Helsinki newspapers. Apparently she specialized in "New Women",  creative and lively individualists like herself.

She had a friendship with Toivo Kuula, who set her poems, but was killed in a shocking accident during the Finnish war of Independence in 1918. She married Leevi Madetoja (1887-1942) but it didn't work out. He had her confined in an asylum - like her mother - but luckily (for her) he died five years later and she was released. She lived to be 90, writing prolifically to the end. Not an easy life, no money or leisure, but being a true artist, Onerva was driven to defy the odds against her.
Many of Onerva's poems have been turned into song, but perhaps the finest is a song cycle by Madetoja, Syksy-saja, or Autumn Song.  It's an excellent cycle and really should be better known. There are at least four recordings.  Recommended are Karita Mattila and Helena Juntinnen. If I have time, I'll write more about it, but give it a listen.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Päivä vain ja hetki kerrallansa

Soile Isokoski sings the famous Finnish hymn Päivä vain ja hetki kerrallansa (A moment in Time). This isn't a Christmas song but rather a general hymn of peace, God protecting with love.But it's beautiful. It comes from Isokoski's second CD of Finnish hymns. If anything the first CD (2004) is even better, because the songs on that are written by major composers like Merikanto, Madetoja, Kuusisto etc, rather than hymns as such. Last year I did a series on Ernst Busch's ironic Xmas songs.You can always track down lots of Busch on this site, like the wonderful For Jesus, Revolutionary and German Xmas 1918. But this year I feel like doing Scandinavian song. Tomorrow: Jorma Hynninen.  There's also a full download of a great Finnish movie from 1921,  Anna-Liisa, which is powerfully progressive. Not Jenufa but a much more genuinely feminist lady altogether. Yet it's lovingly filmed, smoke sauna, simple farmhouse, lake etc. all authentic period shots. Enjoy!

Holzmair Schumann Wigmore Hall

The Dream Team of Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper gave the keynote recital in the Wigmore Hall's Schumann year celebration of German song. Having been to nearly all their recitals since 1998 I gave this a miss but  maybe I should have gone after all. Richard Fairtman at the FT reviewed  it. The Kerner Lieder aren't unloved, except by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who had problems with the extremely high tessitura in sections like the young nun in Stirb, Lieb' und Freud', so he only recorded it I think twice, making DFD fans think it's less valued.  It's unfair, as this is one of Schumann's most tightly constructed cycles, as full of interrelationships as a miniature symphony.  Tenors sing it beautifully (Gilchrist at the Wigmore Hall in September) but it's also a favourite with baritones such as Matthias Goerne who can bring out the layers of spookiness as well as the innate musical logic.

In fact, Holzmair is one of the great Kerner-Lieder exponents. His recording - also with Imogen Cooper - is one of the essentials in the discography. Holzmair's voice is naturally light and sweet-toned, so he makes the cycle flow beautifully, so you realize it's almost a whole piece rather than a group of songs.  Get it and hear why Schumann's Kerner-Lieder are so significant.

What also makes this recording significant is that Holzmair and Cooper include songs by Clara Schumann on the disc, on equal terms with the more famous Robert Schumann songs. They'd been championing Clara for years before this 2002 recording, so the songs are about as sympathetically done as you could expect. Clara was a pianist, so devoted to her work that to some extent she resented being pregnant and feeding because it took her away from her music. Robert and Clara were so close that they kept a joint diary (with code for intimacy), so her songs were an extension of this closeness. I've often wondered, though, why she didn't write more pieces for solo piano, since that was her instrument par excellence. Robert did, of course, and she played him all round Europe. But she was one of the great virtuoso megastars of her time,  with a glittering international career, and contemporary with some very big names like Franz Liszt. So one dreams.

Also on the Wigmore Hall programme was Aribert Reimann’s Nachtstück which Holzmair has made an icon. It's on his 2003 CD (also with Imogen Cooper). This too is a classic, because Holzmair worked the programme around Freiherr von Eichendorff  the Prussian Catholic poet and civil servant. The disc includes relatively little known Eichendorff settings such as those by Robert Franz, Zemlinsky, Korngold, Pfitzner and Othmar Schoeck.  The different settings enhance the poems yet also show how each composer functions. Alas, I really don't like Reimann's Nachtstück (one of the reasons I steered clear of the WH recital) Reimann was closely associated with Fischer-Dieskau and I want to like his work, but sometimes things don't click. OTOH I adore Hans Werner Henze's Nachtstück und Arien (Michaela Kaune sings) but that's a whole other story.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Garbo, Vienna, Pabst FULL download

G W Pabst's Die freudlos Gasse or Joyless Street (1925). This full download is the original US release so it plays up the Great Garbo angle for US audiences. But the film is also interesting because it shows Vienna in 1921, and is based on an influential novel written shortly before. Austria was devastated by the First World War. Everyone suffered deprivation, even the well off. So much for the myth of "Vienna, City of Dreams". Effectively, the waltz stopped in 1914. Obviously low life was depicted before in art (Zola, Wedekind etc) but films like these are background to what was happening in music and opera in the 20's and 30's.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Wigmore Hall Festive Sale

Some VERY important concerts are included in the Wigmore Hall 10% discount offer on some concerts during January and February 2011

The Arditti Quartet are giving the London premiere of Brian Ferneyhough's String Quartet No 6. This is  MAJOR news and you can get in for £10.80. Ferneyhough is I think the greatest of living British composers (and a darn sight better than some dead ones) and the Arditti Quartet are his finest interpreters. If the Ferneyhough were not enough to make headlines, there are also three other new works by well established composers: Hilda Paredes, Dai Fujikura and James Clarke.

The other big news in February is the Wigmore Hall Kurtág series. There's a full price 3 day study workshop at the beginning of the month which includes a ticket to Marino Fomenti's concert on 9/2 which "combines Kurtág’s pieces with works from Beethoven, Bach and Schumann to Messiaen and Bartók." If you can't make the daytime workshops, tickets to this concert are discounted, which is a good idea. To understand a composer, understand his context.

The highlight of the Kurtág series will be Juliane Banse singing Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente with violinist András Keller. If you hated Dawn Upshaw and Peter Sellars' version of this work at the Barbican a while back, think again and hear Banse and Keller. Keller is to Kurtág what Arditti is to Ferneyhough. There just isn't anyone who knows the composer's idiom so intimately. Although there are at least 4 recordings of this seminally-important work, the one by Banse and Keller (1996) is the benchmark. It was made with Kurtág himself, advising in rehearsals and in the studio. Hear Banse and Keller and realize just how powerful this piece really can be, shorn of Sellars' silliness. Anyone remotely interested in 20th century music needs to hear Banse and Keller do this live.

Other recommendations in the WH's Festive Offer : Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace on 16th January, playing Korngold, Prokofiev and Frank Auberbach Preludes op 48. Unusual programme - worth catching. Piers Lane plays Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin on 24th.

February is even better. Boris Giltburg - Chopin, Prokofiev on 8/2. the Borodin Quartet play Myaskovsky's String Quartet no 3 op 86 which is getting cult status in some circles. Stéphane Degout sings an ambitious French recital on 10/2 which I'll go to - may be worth keeping an ear on him. And Midori, for whom I have a soft spot even though she's playing Brett Dean, for whom I don't.
This snow is nothing by Siberian standards  but I feel "snowed in". So over the next vfew days, I'll write about DVDs , CDs and books. Wagner Rienzi for example, fantastic !

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sami Yoik

A new CD from BIS, Songs for Jukkasjarvi music by acclaimed Sami composer Gunnar Idenstam. "...a suite written for the 400th anniversary of the church in Jukkasjärvi, a small community beyond the Arctic Circle in the north of Sweden. Jukkasjärvi was one of the traditional meeting places of the Sami people as they moved their herds of reindeer between the seasonal pastures in the mountains and the lowlands. Written for two singers – one of whom specializes in his own, characteristic Sami yoik singing – folk fiddle, saxophone, percussion, organ and synthesizers, the music is highly atmospheric. Purely instrumental pieces are interspersed with songs in the Sami language, and in a unique mix, the sound of the Sami yoik is married to the Swedish folk music tradition and the sonic possibilities of a large church organ, taking in influences from symphonic folk rock."

The Sami are nomadic herdsmen who live in the European Arctic Circle. Their music is plaintive, primitive, almost unworldly yet also deeply moving. To quote Ánde Somby, a noted Sami and scholar and yoiker,"The regular concept of a western European song is that it has a start, a middle and an ending. In that sense, a song will have a linear structure. A yoik seems to start and stop suddenly. It hasn't a start or neither an ending. Yoik is definitively not a line, but it is perhaps a kind of circle. Yoik is not a circle that would have Euclidian symmetry although it has maybe a depth symmetry. That emphasizes that if you were asking for the start or the ending of a yoik, your question would be wrong".

Once you've heard  a Sami Yoik,  you don't forget. In our stressed out hyper techno society I think we need music like this more than ever. Unfortunately the CD doesn't come out til the new year, or I'd get it in order to survive the commercial Xmas season, but I've placed an advance order anyway.  Please visit this site to hear sound samples to see why Sami music has a following.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Chinese Sprechstimme

You don't need to speak Cantonese dialect to apprecxiate this clip. In fact anyone with an "ear" for speech rhythms might get a kick out of this. This clip is specially interesting because the SECOND woman is expressing extreme emotions in a deliberately exaggerated style. She doesn't really want her husband to understand, so out it comes in a chaotic rush. "How  do you expect me to follow that?" he says. But she's up to something and doesn't want him interfering so she twists him round with this crazy barrage, full of alliteration and idiomatic slang, like Cockney rhyme. (It also takes a cue from Cantonese opera recitatives which are also rhythmic like this). As a pure exercise in sound it's wonderful and you can probably pick up a lot of what it means anyway.

Mr Sun comes home and a woman congratulates him on his new baby son who's "fat and white" (a compliment). "What kid?" says husband, then goes indoors. Look at the furniture inside the house - typical of the period, now valued as antiques. In comes Mrs Sun, pulling down her sleeves as she's just delivered the home birth (this is 1948). "My baby, you gotta hope"' she says, then launches into her rap. A woman with a difficult situation has come into the Sung clan home to give birth so the baby can be passed off as theirs in secret (cue for a mistaken identity drama baroque masters would have loved). No, says husband. In that case says feisty wife, "I'm  moving out of your room now" So much for meek and subordinate Chinese women! The husband is Ma Sze Tsang 馬師曾 probably the greatest Cantonese actor/opera star of all. The wife is Hung Sin Nui 紅線女 his real life partner and equal. She's still around (born 1924) actively promoting their legacy.

Of Gods and Men - Cannes

A film about a terrorist massacre of Catholic monks in Muslim Algeria may turn out to be a more genuinely "Christmassy"  experience than the usual fare. Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et des Dieux) (dir. Xavier Beauvois) won the Grand Prix at the  2010 Cannes Film Festival. This film will make you think about the values that really matter.

The  monks of Tibhirine were captured by extremists in 1996 and held hostage for months before being beheaded. It's still not clear who actually killed them, small-time brigands or State-endorsed terrorists. The real mystery is what led these men to remain in Algeria when society was collapsing around them.

The monks lived among the local Muslims as equals, not as colonial masters, sharing the humble lives of the community. Then the civil war came and the country slipped into anarchy. Brigands threaten the monks at gunpoint. "Come to our clinic and we'll treat your men" says the leader of the monks coolly, "but don't take medicines from the villagers". The monk quotes the Koran. The brigand keeps the monastery under his protection til he himself is brutally murdered.  The monks know they are in grave danger. But their commitment to living with the villagers is so deep that they can't abandon them to save themselves. There are many themes in this powerful but gentle movie. so catch it while you can. This just might be a gift to give yourself, whatever your beliefs or what you think of the monks. Here are the words of the monks' leader:

"If it should happen one day -- and it could be today -- that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure."

"I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value...... should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down."

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Interpreting Images - Wagner Tannhäuser analysis

Tim Albery's Wagner Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House shows how visual images can be interpreted in different ways. It's a cop-out to suggest that a picture is worth a thousand words. Everyone looks at the same image but sees different things. The real challenge is putting the images together as clues, and from there figuring out what they mean.

Our image of the medieval world is based on those few artefacts that have survived, ie castles, churches, illuminated manuscripts. Facts are that life then was brutish, grim and short, even for knights. Wartburg is a fortress built for warfare. See how it stands, dangerously perched over a steep cliff. It's a military base. In the 16th century, Martin Luther hid out here, after defying Church and temporal rulers. By Wagner's time, Wartburg was a symbol of resistance to "foreign" ideas. Since Wagner wanted to set up a new kind of opera, the implication is clear. "No Meyerbeer here". After a few days, Albery's soviet grunge chic clicked. He's using the metaphor of the Cold War as metaphor, two sides paranoid about each other. How fast we forget such things in the New Europe.

Years ago Jon Vickers pulled out of Tannhäuser because he said it was blasphemous. Compared wth Parsifal and Lohengrin, Tannhäuser's almost factual, so Vickers's reasoning should be taken with a pinch of seasoning. In many ways, Tannhäuser is an update of a medieval morality tale, good and bad pitted against each other in simple contrast. Yet listen closely at the explicitly non-religious undertones.

Zwietracht und Streit sei abgetan commands Landgrave Hermann, (no more contrariness and strife). Tannhäuser is welcome as long as he conforms. They want him because Elisabeth won't come to their revels otherwise. It's not him they care about really. But he's seen Venusberg, and alternatives to Wartburg the others can't even guess at. So they leap on him, prepared to kill, until Elisabeth intervenes. (The photo is Lauritz Melchior)

Who is Tannhäuser? He's arrogant, crabby and treats his good fortune with contempt. And yet Elisabeth adores him. Wagner treated many others in much the same way. So what's the pilgrimage? The Landgrave exiles Tannhäuser, forcing him to go to Rome to be absolved.  The pilgrimage music is so dominant that it's much more than a plot device, but fundamental to the whole idea of the opera: The pilgrims are a mass movement, old and young, submerging their individuality in heartfelt abasement. Significantly, Tannhäuser isn't one of the crowd. Maybe Elisabeth knows, for she heads off heavenwards. Nicht such ich dich, noch deiner Sippschaft Einen. (I don't want you and your type), he tells Wolfram, whom we in the audience have just heard singing the transcendent Song of the Evening Star. Tannhäuser deliberately rejects rarified, otherworldly sublimation. Old forms are hollow for him now. What he's become is a "modern" man with conflicts and angst.

This is the set Wagner designed for Venusberg. Cliffs of stone outside, corals next, but as the eye penetrates deeper, softness, lushness. With Freudian hindsight one might think of reproductive organs. Now that would upset conservative opera audiences!  In comparison, Albery's ROH proscenium is coy, diverting away from the savage soul of the opera. The arch is great visual theatre, but it doesn't connect to anything deep in the opera. Wagner's description of the scene is chaste but he and everyone else knew what Satyrs and Nymphs get up to. Tannhäuser isn't about the art of theatre so much as about, to put it bluntly, sex, and its creative power. Tannhäuser knows Venusberg is dangerous but he has to go back.

Listen carefully to Tannhäuser's big aria Inbrust im Herzen which often gets overlooked because we're so stunned by the Abendsterrn. No-one was more penitent than he, says Tannhäuser, because he values Elisabeth's virtues. Therefore, Wie neben mir der schwerstbedrückte Pilger die Strasse wallt', erschien mir allzuleicht:.Tannhäuser debased himself more than the other pilgrims, choosing the most painful route, such was the intensity of his repentance. But the Pope (ie, God's representative) refused him pardon. Shattered, Tannhäuser's going back to Venus. To Wolfram, that's just nuts, he can't  understand at all. Tannhäuser's on an emotional plane which a relatively conventional man, even a poet like Wolfram, cannot begin to comprehend.. As Tannhäuser has been telling the Knights all along, they don't know know what intensity is, since they haven't experienced the extremes of Venusberg.

What they all didn't count on was Elisabeth's own ferocious intensity. She's so extreme that she can force God into action. She is definitely Tannhäuser's soulmate. Wolfram doesn't even come close, and it's a misreading of the opera to assume otherwise. Tannhäuser and Elisabeth are Tristan und Isolde.

From pilgrim procession to funeral procession. The pilgrims bear the Pope's staff, now sprouting fresh new growth. However the Pope's staff may be staged, the concept is crucially important to the meaning of the opera. Arrogant and rebellious to the end, Tannhäuser, is saved, not by himself but by Elisabeth and what she believes in..The miracle may seem outrageous, but that's the whole idea. Toy tree? As the pilgrims would say, Hoch über aller Welt ist Gott, und sein Erbarmen ist kein Spott! (God is greater than anything on earth. Don't make fun of his mercy.)

Like my friend Mark Berry, I much preferred Albery's Tannhäuser to his Der fliegende Holländer. Similar turgid non-movement but much more awareness of deeper levels of meaning.  Despite its flaws Albery's Tannhäuser has a great deal more to offer than seems at first. There have been many Wagner productions with nil ideas or movement. Imagine, singers trapped in Dalek costumes. Then, most people admired non-movement and non-involvement. Please see my review here.