Monday, 28 February 2011

Hätt' der Adam aus dem Apfel Äppelwoi gemacht


A hymn to Ebbelwoi, the nectar of the Gods, and to many happy memories of Frankfurt Sachsenhausen.
Hätt' der Adam aus dem Apfel Äppelwoi gemacht
hätt' der Herrgott net geschimpft,
dann hätt' er noch gelacht
und wir wären heute alle, des ganz gewiss
liebe klaane Engelche noch im Paradies.

Eschenbach Mahler 9 LPO / database hoarding

Christoph Eschenbach can always be relied upon to find something original to hear in Mahler, so his Mahler 9th Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday was eagerly awaited. My tickets were bought a year in advance. Gosh, was I looking forward to this!

But I was underwhelmed. Obviously the fault is not Eschenbach, who has conducted this symphony many times before and knows what he's doing. Since I never do things the easy way, I won't just write negative, but for a change, think about why and how we respond to what we hear.

Obviously fatigue was a factor for me, with so much going on in the last few weeks (three conferences, more than a dozen concerts, most heavy, and four operas). Also I haven't been feeling well, even missed the premiere of Ferneyhough O Lux on Wednesday. On the other hand I usually can find the stamina for Mahler. Though no-one can conduct four concerts in a row! (grin)

Maybe it was a bad night for everyone. Christopher Maltman likes singing Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, although it's better suited to a more agile, lighter-limbed voice than his. Perhaps Maltman was under the weather too, for his voice seemed trapped, as if his lungs weren't expanding to fill out the sound. He's a good enough singer to know when something's not right, so I felt his pain (rather than the pain of the protagonist in the cycle). He must have felt even more frustrated than I did, though I suspect most people didn't notice. Eschenbach probably did, as he slowed the orchestra down, giving Maltman more room, but Maltman, concentrating so hard entered too early at one point. Still, good marks for effort.

Eschenbach's forte is clarity, a good value for Mahler 9th where the music seems to rise upwards until it disintegrates into the ether. (read more HERE) Getting to that level depends on starting with the goal in mind. Eschenbach's done it before, so I was surprised by the first movement. At first, it felt like Eschenbach were letting the LPO do their thing, which is valid enough, but ultimately, it's not a good idea for conductor and orchestra to pull in different directions. Oddly flat playing in some sections, but that's not fatal. Unlike Beckmesser, I don't carry a slate and stick.

The orchestra seemed to want to do fulsome Romantic way, which is fair enough, but Eschenbach knows his Mahler well enough to have his own ideas on interpretation. Swooping legato in the orchestra, which would have done credit to Brahms. Eschenbach's hands snap suddenly, breaking the line and restoring balance. Actually quite an interesting effect, but ultimately it's more satisfying when orchestra and conductor are on the same track. A perfectly good enough performance though. Eschenbach will always be a million miles more interesting than many others. Why Michael Tilson Thomas or even odder, Lorin Maazel?

Which leads me to think about reputation and musicality. Tilson Thomas and Maazel get the gigs because they're famous though they're so safe they kill the music. Eschenbach, Rattle, Boulez and even Abbado get flak because they're famous. It's a kind of reverse snobbery, perfectly human, but means applying non-musical values. But musicians in orchestras like these aren't so stupid and have more experience than many of their detractors.

What anyone thinks doesn't matter nearly so much is how they've arrived at what they think. For each person who forms an opinion by thinking carefully, there will always be a thousand who have no idea what they're talking about but need to make waves. There used to be, and maybe still is, a fashion for collecting reviews, extracting phrases out of context and then producing an uber-survey. (Beware of cut and paste reviews too, which can be dodgy.)  Such things look authoritative but are worthless. "Database Hoarders",  they used to be called, pundits who live in cyberspace not reality.

It's a crock, however impressive. But it needs facing because modern technology is changing the way we think. Everyone has opinions, but how do we sort them out? There will always be more who don't know or care than those who do.  That's not elitist, that's just life. Majority means nothing. Opinions are not equal, so the idea of treating them as data is fundamentally flawed. They are only valid in context and can't be mechanically processed. Ultimately, there is just no sunbstitute for the long process of listening, learning, developing a broad perspective.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Militant Marching Mahler 3 Szenkár

Eugen Szenkár, Mahler conductor? Most people don't know who Szenkár (1891-1977) was at all, far less his track record in Mahler. But he was quite a significant figure in his time. It was he who premiered Béla Bartók's shocking The Miraculous Mandarin in 1926 and was attacked by Konrad Adenauer, then Mayor of Köln. "Szenkár", he said, "that piece of filth must go!" before banning further performances.

 Bartók knew Szenkár, a fellow Hungarian, and obviously trusted the then young conductor to take on the difficult, innovative piece. Nonetheless, the composer, oblivious to the near riot around him at the premiere, grumbled "Eugen, on page 34, I specified mezzo-forte for the clarinet! I could not hear it!".

Szenkár, like Jascha Horenstein, was forced out of Europe by the Nazis – to Russia in 1934, to South America in 1938. The photo shows him conducting in Buenos Aires in 1939.  He is known to have conducted at the famous opera house, Teatro de Colón and also in Rio de Janiero. He also reorganized local orchestras. Perhaps Daniel Barenboim's parents knew him?   And Erich Kleiber, who had premiered Wozzeck and had moved to Argentina in 1935 ? They were all part of a flourishing émigré community. Szenkár returned to Germany in 1950, conducting in Mannheim and Düsseldorf, where he died in 1977. He was by no means an obscure conductor, as his continuing relationship with Bartók indicates.

Mahler was not, as popularly supposed, forgotten after his death, for there were many performances of his work among the "modern" young guard. Willem Mengelberg  maintained an unbroken tradition in the Netherlands, and Carl Schuricht started a festival in Wiesbaden in 1923. During 1926 Szenkár conducted several Mahler symphonies in Germany.Thus he was recognized in the field and was awarded a Gold Medal by the Mahlerverein after the war.

Szenkár's recording of Mahler's Third Symphony was made in Köln in March 1951, a few short months after Scherchen made the first ever recording. Because Szenkár was so connected in that period, his recording needs to be studied to get an idea how early Mahler interpreters thought about the symphony. What's striking is how Szenkár emphasizes the marches in Mahler's sunniest, cheeriest symphony. There are marches in this symphony for a a very good reason."Summer marches in", as Mahler said. It's vigorous and drives away all traces of winter in its path  There are references to Dionysius, the God of Misrule, whose followers drunkenly disrupt society around them. But also, there are links to Socialism.

Mahler was known to have sympathies with the left. Workers' movements were active in Germany and Austria. Even Alma noted that Mahler walked alongside a worker's procession. Whether he was merely curious or showing support, we don't know, but he is believed to have voted for the left and certainly was well aware of the issues. Indeed, when Richard Strauss conducted Mahler's Third, he said that the marches made him think of worker's processions, and men marching in solidarity. The relevance, then, for conductors like Szenkár and Horenstein, becomes clearly obvious. They knew all about Hitler's Brownshirts, the Spanish Civil War and the suppression of the left.

Szenkár’s marches capture a rough and ready proletarian feel. Real marching men's brass here, these, played by musicians who had heard a lot of marches in their time, both socialist and national socialist. Militant and miltary, and still painfully relevant in 1951 when the Cold War split west and east Germany. There is a real grimness to this playing, which even goes beyond Mahler's exhortation roh dreinblasen" (raw and crudely blown). One of the horns manages a bizarre, almost jazz-like flavouring which is not so surprising when you remember what jazz meant in the Weimar Republic and how the Nazis hated it. The orchestra is the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, some of whom might have remembered Adenauer's conservatism and had mixed feelings about capitalism, even if they didn't adhere to communism.

Szenkár keeps a solid, steady rhythm which underpins the different sections in the Erste Abteilung. There are few dramatic contrasts. Even the massed horn fanfare towards the end doesn't shake the sense of relentless marching. This is a very "military" reading, good at capturing "Das Gesindel" (the rabble) with its resonant bass drums and lack of dramatic contrast, even in the famous eight horn fanfare.

The second and third movements are played relatively straightforwardly. Szenkar doesn't make much of the savage irony in the Ablösung sections which do so much to give the symphony its characteristic black humour. However, the posthorn interlude is bittersweet and nostalgic, heard as if from a distance both in space and time. The finale is played through quickly, hardly evoking the horror that Mahler perceived below the surface. Given the gravitas of Szenkár's approach, much might be expected of the critical "O Mensch!". Indeed, the soloist, Diana Eustrati, a Greek alto, makes this perhaps the most successful part of this performance. She sings with dignity, infusing real sincerity into " Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit". The boy's choir is also excellent – bursting with joyous confidence and exhilaration, a counterpoint to the Dionysian march in the first movement. Eustrati's voice contrasts well against the background of bimm-bamms. Even the orchestra, for once, joins in the exuberance. The final movement draws together the reverence of "O Mensch" and the optimism of the choir, in a shimmering contemplation of bliss. Szenkár's steadiness helps weave a texture where all the elements balance to create a seamless feeling of light.

This recording is on a tiny label, Archiphon, issued about 8 years ago. No way will this appeal to the current fashion for Mahlerkugeln! Nor to those who swallow the "Vienna City of Dreams" mythology.  It's not even one to listen to for "fun". The orchestra is more enthusiastic than good! But it's an extremly important insight into a much deeper level of Mahler's mindset. I don't think you can evaluate this symphony without knowing Szenkár, or Horenstein's Mahler 3. Now maybe you can understand why I think so very highly of Simon Rattle's Mahler Third with the Berliner-Philhamoniker.  Obviously Rattle and the Berliners don't access the same militancy, but they have that energetic, vigorous spirit of conviction. Nature marches on, like mankind, and neither gets suppressed.

Friday, 25 February 2011

GSMD Opera - Dialogue of the Carmelites

Another Guildhall School of Music and Drama production coming up this week - Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites.  All GSMD events are interesting because those involved are fresh and motivated. This opera's full of high drama - cloistered nuns, holy fervour, the French Revolution and the guillotine. Death and sex (or rather the repression of sex). Be prepared for an eventful evening. FOR THE FULL REVIEW CLICK HERE

Guildhall productions are always worth supporting because students need the experience of performing and public feedback. Not everyone becomes Bryn Terfel (graduated 1989) but all benefit. What better training in presentation skills, organization and public interaction? These are great skills in any business. GSMD delivers more than "just" the arts.

GSMD operas are always stimulating, even when they're over the top, because the students have energy and committment. Past productions have included Sallinen The King Goes Forth to France, Rossini La cambiale di matrimonio, Martinu The Marriage and the rarity Spinalba by Fransceco d'Almeida which had a lot more going for itb than most realized.

GSMD students work with established professionals, so they hone their skills. This GSMD production will be directed by Stephen Barlow, well known for his stagings of Fantastic Mr Fox, Tosca, and Hansel and Gretel at Holland Park. He's also worked at Glyndebourne, ROH and the Met. (He's not the composer Stephen Barlow, married to Joanna Lumley). Conductor will be Guildhall regular Clive Timms.

But it's the students we really go to hear. Some good names to listen for : Gary Griffiths, Koji Terada,  Natalya Romaniw and many others. Ensemble work too is always enthusiastic. Terada and Romaniw are two of the four finalists in this year's Guildhall Gold Medal, to be awarded in May. (The other contenders are Ashley Riches and Victor Sicard.)

Performances on 3, 5, 7 and 9 March. More details on the GSMD site.

Mountains and Mahler - Rattle Mahler 3 Berliner Philharmoniker

"Every experience is unique" says Fergus McWilliams, horn player of the Berliner Philharmoniker in the broadcast now available online of Mahler's Symphony No 3 conducted by Simon Rattle in Berlin earlier this month  (Full concert also available in the Berliner Philhamoniker digital concert hall). McWilliams knows what he's talking about, since he's a 26 year veteran of the orchestra. He speaks of  "new altitudes reached...new base camps established for ever higher ascents". Interesting words, for this performance really feels embedded in the mountains, which meant so much to Mahler.


To 19th century artists, mountains represent Nature in its most pristine, powerful form, wild, untamed as far from urban proprieties as possible. Expand the photo and locate Steinbach am Attersee in the top right, where Mahler had a small composing hut at the water's edge. A massive cliff hangs over the village, which is approached through a narrow and very steep pass in the Höllengebirge. Behind this range, the even more imnposing Hohen Dachstein, covered in snow all year. Mahler hiked and mountain biked, once suffering a fall so bad he was nearly killed. Spectacular as mountains are, they're dangerous and unpredictable. But that's precisely what makes them so inspiring. Mountaineers feel a communion with  nature that's profoundly spiritual.  Climbing is a kind of pilgrimage which lifts you right out of the sphere of ordinary existence. Some say, the ultimate challenge:  making petty ego utterly irrelevant. Think about the trajectory of Mahler's music and its unending search for transcendence and higher planes of existence. Mountains are a metaphor for the soul and for Mahler's music.

In this Berlin performance of Mahler 3, Rattle and the Berliners create an extraordinarily prescient image of the mountains. Mahler 3 is often considered the most cheerful of Mahler's symphonies, but on a deeper level there's much more to it. Adrenalin doesn't flow unless you've risked something. Peaks aren't reached without effort.  Thus the bedrock of the symphony is the massive first movement. Mahler seems to be building mountains into the music. The solid blocks of sound have an almost geological intensity. The Rite of Spring before Stravinsky, Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum before Messiaen.

Follow these blocks as mountains and the structure of the sprawling first movement reveals its true logic. Hear the steady tread of footsteps which give the music a pulse. Right from the start, a sense of danger - muffled rumblings from the basses, like ominous clouds, then suddenly the wild sweep of trombones - an instrument that looks as expansive as it sounds. With each progression, the music develops into a panorama, like a circle of mountains. Each peak gained reveals new vistas, spurring  the music forward and upward.  Stunning ascents, each more spectacular than the other (listen for the horn) yet the Berliners don't lose touch with the darker, craggier aspects in the music. There's violence here. The trudging footseps become a determined march, the timpani beating staccato like machine gun fire. Storms and danger never far away, like the low, brooding strings at  44', magnificent and sculptural. Oddly, I thought of Horenstein's dark Mahler 3, with its glowering crags. What might Horenstein have done with an orchestra like the Berliners?  Even more energy in this performance than in the recent Mahler 4th, for a good reason. Traversing this movement is strenuous. Losing momentum can turn it into mush. So Rattle and the Berliners take risks - as mountaineers do - so the peaks when reached are all the more exhilirating.

With these fundamentals established, the next sections can be more relaxed., literally "ohne hast". The Berliners do the details with great lyricism. Birdsong, flourishes on the clarinet like moments from Das himmmlische Leben. circular shapes that dance. It feels like open alpine meadow, the solo violin playing exqusitely nostalgic melodies. Yet no stasis. The offstage trumpets call, from the "heavens" above, answered by the brass in the "earthly" orchestra. Both exqusitely beautiful in this performance. Yet immediately the mood is cut by Dionysian swagger. Summer rushes forth with unstoppable vigour - listen to the brass repeat the birdsong, but with sass and rude health. Kukuk ist tod, kukuk ist  tod - but not for the moment!  Summer is short in the mountains, as the lingering call of the distant brass reminds us. But while it's here it's glorious, as the rush at the end of the second movement reminds us.


Natalie Stutzmann's voice doesn't lend itself easily to many parts of the repertoire but her O Mensch is perfection. Stutzmann doesn't do diva. In a piece as deep as this the emphasis must be on meaning, not magnificence. Stutzmann's lack of self consciousness is wonderful. She realizes that outward appearances are irrelevant, almost offensive, for what Mahler is getting at here is the sublimation of ego, Stutzmann is wonderful because she sounds like a primeval spirit, an earth goddess, perhaps, a darker version of Dionysius. The flute winds round her voice at once seductive and malevolent, snake-like. It feels like a lament from the beginning of time, as clarinet and horn take up the wailing theme, interspersed with whip-like string interjections.

Stutzmann's so powerful that she infuses the glorious final movement with graciousness. All round her the bright, cheerful voices of the boys in the Berlin State and Cathedral Choir and the women of the Berlin Radio Chorus. Ecstatic happiness, yet an apotheosis won at a cost, as Stutzmann's dignity reminds us. The bimm-bamms are angels and church bells tolling, as they do in the Alps, but there's also something much deeper in this performance. It feels like a communion with the essence of nature where man's tribulations are rendered trivial. Transcendence of the self:, the spirit of nearly all Mahler. Das Lied von der Erde looms into view. Rattle and the Berliners are onto something profound, completely against the current trend towards soft centred performance practice, but more in tune with serious Mahler scholarship.  Mahler couldn't stand the cosy social whirl of cities like Vienna, and couldn't wait to get away.
Please also see Miltant Marching Mahler Eugen Szenkar's 1951 recording of Mahler 3.


More on Mahler on this site than most, please search and follow the labels.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Abbado Fidelio Lucerne Stemme Kaufmann

Now online !  Claudio Abbado conducts Beethoven Fidelio last year in Lucerne. Follow link HERE
Nina Stemme, Jonas Kaufmann, Peter Mattei, Falk Struckmann.....and of course THAT orchestra.  It IS being repeated after all, for 6 days. Listen !

Wonderful performance, clearly concerft not staging as the voices project the same way, no muffling from set and Orchestra gets its due place atb the back. Which is good, as Fidelio is as much an orchestral work than an opera. Despite the drama in the story, it's interesting hoiw Beethoven tells the story via orchestra and spoken word rather than through the singing. Superb declamation, too, showing how "musical" spoken word can be. Minus the spoken segments, Fidelio is not what Beethoven intended , even if it's more "operatic".

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Barbican Simon Rattle Mahler 4 Berliner Philharmoniker

Seldom have I heard a more gloriously ecstatic beginning to Mahler's Fourth Symphony than this performance at London's Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Those sleighbells aren't there by chance, just to add folksy Wunderhornish whimsy. In Mahler's time, people heard lots of sleigh bells, and were connoisseurs, perhaps, of different kinds. Mahler began this symphony at the end of winter, just before the snows began to melt. Perhaps he had a mental image of sleighs hurtling forwards, their bells shining and so clear-toned they could be heard a long distance away. Perhaps he visualized the intense brightness of a snow-covered landscape where the UV hurts your eyes.  Certainly the brightness in the final movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony refers to the brightness of heaven, and happiness so dazzling that even St Ursula, the warrior vigrin, bursts out laughing while her murdered acolytes dance. The sorrows of earthly life are obliterated by the joys of Heaven.  Angels, trumpets, dances, feasts and plenty, Daß alles für Freuden erwacht.

Rattle's unusually effervescent first movement was a wonderful herald. The joyful sleigh bells carry through into a lively but very tight pulse. The exuberance seems all the more exhilarating because it has a firm base. Such dynamism ! It's as if Rattle were leading a team of stallions. Yet such lightness of touch, too. There's sass in this playing, too. Mahler is being audacious. The symphony started out as a Humoreske though it resolves on a religious image. The brass have pizzazz, the winds blast and bleep, and whenever they can, the sleighbells break cover, adding merriment.

I haven't seen the First Concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto before, though I may  have heard him. He has a very individual sound, bright and distinctive. The Leader's role in the second movement of this symphony is critical. In his solos he has to express the devil himself, fiddling souls to hell. In the context of this performance too much grotesquerie would have been wrong,  but Kashimoto gets just the right degree of demonic panache.  Part way into the third movement, Rattle started to stretch the dynamics a little too much to emphasize the restful mood, but the underlying energy quickly stabilized the balance. The coda flared up magnificently, giving way to exquisite calm. "ethereal, church-like, Catholic in mood" as Mahler told a friend.

Christine Schäfer has probably done more performances of the Finale of the Fourth than anyone else, so she's always worth listening to, and she isn't always the same. Sometimes she sounds etherally vulnerable, like a child. Tonight, her voice was darker and rounder than usual, which fitted nicely with Rattle's robust , vibrant approach. The voice represents a soul that's found joy through faith, so Schäfer's conviction worked well. Wonderful detail in the orchestra. Winds bleated as the lambs meekly let themselves be killed by St John. Celli swooped downstroke in perfect unison, like the thrust of a sword as St Lukas slaughtered the oxen. Violins skipped like the fish dancing in St Peter's net. And suddenly, the music dissolves into silence and the magical vision disappears.

If anything, Stravinsky's Apollon Musagète (1947) was even more impressive, not only because it's less familiar than Mahler 4th. Although there was no ballet to watch, the Berliners played with such deft precision and energy that you could feel the physical impact of the music. Exceptionally wonderful playing, so good that I even dared wish that it might be followed by something other than blockbuster Mahler.

As always reflection deepens the experience. Rattle's M4 is unorthodox because his first movement is so exceptionally energetic, rather than burning along til the finale as some do. But his approach makes total sense because he';s sussed where the energy in the ,music comes from and why it;s there. The first and last stand like two pillars, so the resolution is a natural outcome of the "life force" that surges thru this symphony.  That's relevant in the light of recent Mahler studies (until the retrograde anniversary year) which focus on  Mahler's personality and intelligence rather than the old maudlin death neurosis. Mahler likes life because it beats death : it's exciting and vibrant. Rattle's M4 is like his M3, inspired by nature and sturdy dionysian determinism. The very spirit of life! INFINITELY better that a conductor thinks afresh and takes a point of view than regurgiates pap. More on M3 soon.


PLENTY more Mahler on this site - see labels! For a summary of the Berliner Philharmoniker Mahler year, please follow this link. 

Monday, 21 February 2011

Kurtág Kafka Fragments Keller and Banse, Wigmore Hall

György Kurtág's Kafka Fragments is a masterpiece, one of the seminal works of the late 20th century. Absolutely essential is the recording by Juliane Banse and András Keller, on ECM (2006). To hear Banse and Keller perform it live at the Wigmore Hall was a great experience.


Kurtág's music is deceptive. Because he writes aphoristically, his miniatures seem simple. But Kurtág likes puzzles. His music opens out, like a complex maze entered through a tiny door. Its secrets lie not so much in what's on the page, but what's not. His notations are unorthodox, so can't be followed on autopilot. Instead, Kurtág's performance depends on the innate musicality of those who perform the work, and how well they intuit his idiom.

Most music only "becomes" music when played by those who understand what's happening, but much more so with an idiom as elusive as Kurtág's.  For all the inventive freedom and whimsy he embodies, Kurtág's music requires superlative discipline and attentiveness. The Wigmore Hall recently hosted Kurtág's Ghosts, a series of workshops led by Julian Phillips. (Read more about it by following the link).The series was designed around Marino Formenti's montage entitled Kurtág's Ghosts, where tiny snippets of Kurtág's music are placed besides snippets of music by the composers to whom his own music refers. Not at all as simple a process as might seem. It involves really knowing Kurtág's music in detail and tracing where his sources come from. "Looking for the perfect fragment of Scarlatti was difficult", said Formenti in the workshop, "because there isn't one single moment when Scarlatti "is" ". That's Kurtág's spirit, drawing the listener in deeper and deeper

Kurtág's Kafka Fragments are intense, homeopathic distilllations of ideas from Kafka's letters and diaries. The gist is that they are "fragments" not whole quotations. What is not said is every bit as important as what is.  Meaning doesn't depend on words alone. Hence the absolute importance of well-informed, intuitive performance. András Keller has worked with Kurtág for decades and is one of his primary interpreters,. Kurtág himself worked with Keller and Banse as they developed their interpretation.

Indeed, the very idea that Kurtág's Kafka Fragments is a song cycle is misleading. Hearing Banse and Keller interact live, showed just how much the work is a delicately-poised balance between violin and voice. It's a primarily musical dialogue, too, for Kurtág's expression comes from the way he sculpts sound and uses intervals. Text setting this isn't, rather a sophisticated use of sound and silence to evolve an impressionistic panaorama of diffuse feelings and ideas.

The first sound you hear is the violin, creating a swaying zig zag. Like a door swinging open? Banse's voice enters, completely in synch with Keller's playing. Die Guten gehn in gleichen Schritt, personified. Significantly, the nest line refers to "others" who dance around them, unaware. Immediately, Kurtág establishes a sense of movement and purpose. Perhaps the central image in the Kafka Fragments is that of an esoteric pathway, deliberately obscured. The violin soars in wild frenzy. Banse simply has to speak the title of the fourth song, Ruhelos. No need for elaboration. Keller comments, without words.

Keller and Banse bring out the musicality in the piece to an extraordinary degree because they understand the internal logic.  For example, Banse leaps up and down the scale within the words Nimmermehr, Niummermehr,. By replicating  the swaying zig zag with which the violin began the piece, she's showing how the structure of the work is evolving. It's a quick Ruckblick befiore the next stage in the journey, In the next fragment, she sings Immer, Immer, with a similar but subtly different sweep : voice as violin again. Keller's playing intensifies the wild swings, Banse's voice responding with force. Then, suddenly silence.

The two Berceuses aren't restful, even though they refer to sleep. Quietness doesn't mean repose. Intervals are carefully placed so the word Aufgewacht leaps out. Banse spits the word out almost in a single syllable. Her voice sounds like a violin string being pulled tautly. Vibration but tightly controlled. Ticking patterns, as Keller taps bow against the neck of the violin. Banse sings staccato, not sharp but resonant, like wood on wood.

The idea of voice/violin balance is further explored in the fragment that refers to Balzac. Banse enunciates the first words in each sentence, with vaguely Sprechstimme deliberation, but leaps in  tune with Keller's violin on the word Hindernisse, both times it's repeated. Another echo of the swaying imagery. Then the violin creates a bizarre sound like that of a door that has long been closed stiff, being slowly prised open. A metaphor? Entirely apt.

Keller unleashes brilliantly virtuosic leaps and elisions.  The singing becomes abstract,, following the patterns in the music. The last thing you'd want to hear here is a voice as "persona", I think, for what matters is the smooth integration of two instruments, one string, one wind. This intense intimacy reminded me of the way Kurtág and his wife Marta play together, as if they're a single organism operating in two halves. Banse turns Keller's sheets for him so he doesn't miss a nano second, which makes a difference in  music like this. Although the gesture is made without sound, it is very much part of the true meaning of the piece.

Then just as you've got into the elliptical vibe, Kurtág cuts it off. Tapping sounds, the word Nichts squeaked shrilly so it doesn't sound human, but violin like. Nichts dergliechen. Take nothing for granted.

The second part consists of a single song in the piece, though there are barely three lines in the text. Keller's playing is exqusite, for this is a stage in the journey that must be savoured. The violin dominates, with a languid almost-melody that snakes round the voice. The Kafka Fragments aren't just a dialogue between voice and violin, but between two violins. Keller's primary instrument has a bright, positive timbre, while the second is warmer, more languid. Because Keller's playing is so subtle the difference is remarkable.

More musical puzzles. In the third section, violin and voice imitate other instruments. In Schmutzig bin ich, Milena, the violin sounds relatively conventional, imitating voice. The words refer to dirt and cleansing but that's deceptive. Most of this fragment is taken up by the image of voices in deepest hell. Specifically, what we take for the song of angels is the song of the doomed.  Later, Banse's voice sounds like a clarion bell,  or murmurs like an oboe, and the violin shimmers like an ethereal flute. The words Aufgewacht surface again. Pay attention, and to the underlying seams that course below.

The mood in part four changes again, taking up the languid stillness of part two. How Keller's violin seems to wail, as if in mourning.Then, suddenly he reverts to notes plucked at  spaced intervals, and awkward, angular scatterings in contrast to Banse's fluid lines. Part way he changes violins again, augmenting the disconcerting effect. Banse's voice swoops wildly : Leoparden brechen in der Tempel - what an image, hinting at some unknowable savagery. Yet immediately after, another Kurtág contradiction. "Ich kann.....(long pause) nicht eigentlich erzahlen" (I can't.....really tell a story). The hesitations in the intervals, and in the text underrline the idea that Fragments cannot tell a story. Proof, if any were needed, that Peter Sellars' staging of this work was an anti-musical abomination. Avoid it, even in audio, as the balance between voice and violin is all wrong. .

Kurtág ends equivocally. Wiederum, wiederum, round and round, like a circle. Banse's voice and Keller's violin twining round each other. But it's the final Fragment that opens out onto new vistas. Es bendetet uns die Mondnacht : moonlight casts spells, transforming daytime reality into something magical. Otherworldy sounds from the violin, part gypsy demonry, part Jewish lament. Banse's voice traces huge, expansive shapes that extend the idea of circles spreading outward. As her voice goes quiet, the ripples resonate endlessly into the void.

Perhaps this wasn't Banse and Keller's finest performance, for which I can't blame them. Half empty house and no composer in attendance. But it was a wonderful masterclass that showed why Kurtág's Kafka Fragments are so remarkable.And believe me, even  not at their best, Keller and Banse are way ahead of any competition.

Ivor Gurney's secret love

Ivor Gurney's secret love? It's known that Gurney became briefly engaged to the nurse Annie Drummond in 1917 but who was Margaret Hunt? Evidently Margaret, a teacher in Gurney's beloved Gloucester, meant a great deal to him. She was the dedicatee of many works, including the song cycle By Ludlow and Teme. But relatively little is known about her. Four years after her death in March 1919, Gurney wrote a poem "On a memory". It's in manuscript in the Gurney archives, being collated by Philip Lancaster.

Read the poem and more HERE and visit the new Ivor Gurney website for news of a premiere in  Gloucester in June and a Gurney weekend at Churchdown in May.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Great Atomic Power - existential angst in Country music



Listen to the words of this amazing song from the "age of anxiety" in the Cold War, when both sides were paranoid about imminent attack, either from each other or by alien forces, like Men from Mars. This song is a good example of how popular culture absorbed the Zeitgeist. Being devout Southern Baptists, the Louvin Brothers thought in the context of Armageddon, so their answer to the predicament could come straight from a pulpit,  enhanced by hillbilly harmony and the twang of guitars. Interesting how they equate Christianity with an "army". Not all so far from the Knights of the Grail in Wagner's Parsifal. Maybe it's a universal response to threat, but Jesus didn't teach violence. Interesting too, how singers like Ira Louvin thought in strict religious terms but lived wildly irreligious lives. Ira died a wreck in 1965. Charlie, the less demon driven brother, (the babyface) died aged 83 last month, singing tributes to Ira to the end. That's genuine love.
 
"Do you fear Man's Great Invention that they call Atomic Power, Are we all in great confusion, do we know the time or hour? When a terrible explosion may rain down upon our land, leaving horrible destruction, blotting out the Works of Man?

"Are you ready, to meet that Great Atomic Power, will you rise and meet your Saviour in the air ? Will you shuddeer, will you cry, when the fire rains down from high, are you ready for that Great Atomic Power?

"There is one way to escape it, be prepared to meet The Lord, put your faith and heart in Jesus,. he will be your shield and sword. He will stand beside and you'll never feel the test, for your soul will fly to safety and eternal peace and rest.

"There's an army that can conquer all the regiments of man, ....when the Mushroom of Destruction falls in all its might, God will surely save his children from that awful, awful fate."

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Sense not scandal - Turnage Anna Nicole

Moral outrage about Anna Nicole has been the best publicity Anna Nicole Smith has ever had. It's raised her value on the celeb stock market by billions. No-one benefits more in the long term than her estate. So what's the deal about the "family" suing Turnage and ROH? First basic rule of journalism -  check the source.

The family in question is Larry Birkhead who came into the picture at a late stage because he had a fling with AN which made her pregnant. Ergo, he gets millions because the kid is his. The most lucrative x of all time! He doesn't want the image harmed? This is the man who has no qualms about flaunting the kid publicly like some kind of freak show. Even AN had a healthier childhood. So promoting this contributes to the "care" the kid is getting. Congratulations, moral outragees.

So the opera is luridly colourful and expletive-laden? It's a style thing, and ironic. Indeed, Anna Nicole the woman comes out rather well in the opera. She's a poor kid who reinvents herself to escape. She was a product of the world around her. "It wasn't God who made Honky Tonk Angels", sang Kitty Wells, C&W star of the 50's.

Turnage has said, "We haven't been cruel about people". Despite the manic mountains of smut the opera is careful not to stray too far from previously published facts. The Larry King scene for example, was seen by millions. Reality like this hardly needs sensation. Indeed, sticking close to public domain may have muted the opera. Gerald Finley's Howard Stern's neutral, almost nice. In January, the case against him was overturned and the opera had to be revised.

Mark-Anthony Turnage is a very major British composer, with a respected body of work - Greek, Three Screaming Popes,  Scherzoid, From the Wreckage, The Silver Tassie (with Gerald Finley) - a random sprinkling over 30 years. He's been resident at the South Bank, the CBSO and the Chicago Symphony. His pedigree's solid. Any important new work is therefore an event, so it's perfectly natural that his latest opera should be a high profile event. This could have been the big break in British opera, given  that Birtwistle is over 75, and no-one but Adès really comes close. (George Benjamin's   Into the Little Hill  is a masterpiece but for chamber settings) Turnage is a good choice from the Royal Opera House bceause his music is not "too" innovative to scare away those who don't like hardcore modern music, and not too dull to drive most serious music folk to tears.  Lots of people had fun at Anna Nicole, who would have run screaming from Ferneyhough.

But the tabloids (and some music writers) don't know anything about modern music. So they focus instead on the lurid subject not the opera.  They don't realize that Turnage's trademark has always been Fusion, blending classical ideas with jazz, pop and rap. He studied with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. The big difference is that Turnage actually loves jazz and pop, and doesn't use them like fashion accessories. Turnage's fascination with the US is a very English thing in some ways, I think. Some see in Graceland, Las Vegas and Hollywood something completely alien to the dull grey skies and identical grim terraces that epitomize much of Britain. The very unreality and self-invention of America has an appeal, when Britain is still fairly class bound.

Because Anna Nicole is such a powerful symbol, she obliterates all else. I'd  wondered why the publicity focused on her rather than on Turnage's music but the short answer is that most people have no idea who Turnage is or even care much about new music. Which is why most of the publicity focused on Anna Nicole the person not Anna Nicole the music.

Anna Nicole the opera isn't great music, partly, I suspect, because it's subservient to the cleverly strident text, and also to the inhibitions inherent in dealing with real life subjects. John Adams's Nixon in China, for example, is limited because Adam's doesn't have a grip on geopolitics. His Dr Atomic, however, works better because he uses Robert Oppenheimer's own words which open out poetic vistas that can be translated into drama. Turnage's real musical instincts break through in the musical interlude based on Hammered Out which for me forms the centre of the opera. It's punchy, dramatic, energetic and a lot of fun, even if it's not intellectually rewarding. Believe me there is a lot of unbelievably pointless music around that makes Turnage sound like Mozart. Sensation's often been a Turnage thing. There were queues round the block for his The Silver Tassie at ENO in 2000. Less so in revival, but that doesn't change what the music was.  It's life. Turnage's early opera Greek is being revived this summer by Music Theatre Wales, who did Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony so well that it was painful, but artistically potent.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Turnage Anna Nicole Royal Opera House

Paparazzi were flashing cameras outside the Royal Opera House for the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole. Like Hollywood!  Inside, shopping bags with Anna Nicole's face  emblazoned over the heads of statues in the foyer. The historic dioramas  of past productions inside the orchestral stalls area were replaced with sneakers, and a bra with cups so huge you could put balloons in them.  The famous red curtain looks amiss - it's been replaced by gaudy pink.  Bodybuilders in stilettos and Old Glory bikinis instead of  lion and unicorn. Anna Nicole's face beams down surrounded by the motto Honi soit qui mal y pense. "Stuff those who'd sneer" Which expresses the impact of this opera. Given what happens, I shouldn't use the term "in your face". Or as the fake Americanism of this libretto  (Richard Thomas) would put it, "in YER face".

Anna Nicole explodes immediately in a torrent of expletives delivered with the mindlessness of machine gun fire. So much so that it's incoherent, for meaning doesn't really matter so much as spewing forth. You start to think speech rhythms. But Turnage isn't Janáček. This was pure noise, calculated to disconcert. Because Anna Nicole Smith was an incoherent mass. Tacky trash as she was, her story is an indictment of a world that exploits and destroys. We ought to be cussing.

Unfortunately, the opera doesn't develop past this stage. It celebrates superficiality every bit as much as the society it might perhaps excoriate. There's no psychological insight into how a mess like Anna Nicole came to be. Instead a warped version of set piece musical biopic with stock characters that circle round the issue getting nowhere.

On the other hand, it's deliriously, hilariously funny! So much energy has gone into this production that you can't help be borne along by the enthusiasm.  Richard Jones was born to direct hyper-burlesque like this. He's helped by brilliantly imaginative set designs and costumes (Miriam Buether and Nicky Gillibrand).  Remember Richard Jones's Rhinemaidens from ten years ago? This time everyone's in a fat suit with mammaries the size of mountains. The sheer absurdity of the whole enterprise gives it a kind of manic thrust that replaces  the lack of momentum in score and libretto. In other hands, Anna Nicole could have suffocated under the sheer weight of  gibberish. Anna Nicole's boobs aren't real, and neither is this opera, but the impact is impressive. Just don't look too close!

Without Eva-Maria Westbroek's portrayal, this opera might fall flat. The strains are there throughout, like Anna Nicole's inflated front dragging her down and breaking her back. Westbroek  nonetheless manages to make the young Anna Nicole believable while she slowly morphs into the myth she creates for herself. She even makes the part sympathetic, for to some extent Anna Nicole knew full well she was playing a role in a fantasy. Now you see why I thought Westbroek's Elisabeth in Tannhäuser wasn't tame. Remember her Elektra from Zurich even earlier, where Westbroek's Elektra was a streetwise tough punk bursting with aggro.

Gerald Finley is Howard Stern, boyfriend and lawyer. Schemer as he is, he's small beans compared with Anna Nicole herself who engineered her own creation as much as he did. Even scarier, the baby she bears is now being groomed for exactly the same media-mania by her father who wasn't Stern. Anna Nicole at least grew up in a relatively normal home. Perhaps part of Finley's muted portrayal stems from the fact that real-life Stern's culpability was overturned as recently as last month.  Depicting living people in opera is fraught, so the script had to be amended at the last moment to reflect the latest position. Shocking as the incidents are, all are taken from the public domain in the sense that they''ve previously been televised and reported. Relatively little was made up that wasn't there in the first place. Even the costumes in some tableaux come from press photos. Ultimately this opera is no more invention than documentary.

Susan Bickley sings Virgie, Anna Nicole's mother. Not quite the harridan her daughter claimed she was, but sorely put upon. Alan Oke sings J Howard Marshal II, the billionaire. He looks and moves like a geriatric, but how his face lights up when he sees Anna Nicole! He gets one of the best vocal opportunities, singing a whole aria reflecting on his life. Everyone else gets interjections, even Westbroek, who is often made to sing scales.

Despite all the publicity, hardly any mention anywhere of the music. Is this significant? While there's next to no music as such in the first act, there's more in the second and even a long instrumental. I hesitate to call it an orchestral interlude, because it doesn't develop themes like orchestral pieces usually do. It's certainly punchy and vivid, though what it has to say isn't much in terms of ideas.  I don't know if this is an adaptation of Hammered Out at the Proms last year, which I thought would be a great hit.  It turned out that it was based on a hit, by Beyoncé. In fact I thought the papparazzi were out in force because she was coming. She sounds like a real diva and should have been in the Royal Box.

Turnage has been through a long creative drought, and this is his first really big breakthrough in years. Because the performances are electric and the staging gives the opera life,  In some ways maybe Anna Nicole is Turnage's story, too. With this he's found fame and wealth but he's had to make trades to get there. Anna Nicole is a load of tosh as music, but as theatre it's glorious, guilt-free pleasure. It's tremendously good fun if you let your hair down and switch off your brain. I had fun bopping along. On the plus side, there were lots in the audience new to the Royal Opera House, clearly enjoying themselves too. And why not ? Presumably they'll move on to more and keep coming back. Beyoncé.herself starred in a hip hop version of Bizet's Carmen. A creative adaptation of a universal meme. 

photos copyright : Bill Cooper, courtesy Royal Opera House, 2011 details embedded

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Wagner Parsifal ENO Tomlinson review

Wagner's Parsifal returned to the ENO Coliseum last night. It's the hallowed Nikolas Lenhoff production first seen in London in 1999, commemorated in the 2005 DVD from Baden Baden (see more here)  It's extra special because of Sir John Tomlinson. He's a Great Britiish Institution.

In years to come, Tomlinson will retire gracefully so any opportunity to hear this great Wagnerian in a major role is to be cherished. He is one of the few singer actors who can command a stage, occupying it by sheer strength of personality.It doesn't matter if time has frayed the edges of Tomlinson's majestic voice. The centre is still firm and authoritative. Gurnemanz is wise because he's experienced. Tomlinson convinces because he is, too. Perfect fit. One day, we'll look back and be able to say we heard him still in his prime as this striking Gurnemanz. 

Stuart Skelton impressed when he warmed up. The further he gets away from "innocent fool" the better he functions, which says positive things about him. Iain Patterson and Tom Fox were Amfortas and Klingsor erespectively. Waltraud Meier created this Kundry so indelibly in Baden-Baden that it would be unfair to compare her to anyone else. Jane Dutton, called in at short notice, sang heroically in the circumstances. Don't assume that because Titurel is little more than a husk that the few moments he sings don't count. Andrew Greenan's sturdy, resonant singing made Titurel feel like a powerful life force despite the decreptitude around him.


Everyone in the audience, though, seemed to want to talk about the production itself.  What I like about this production is that it raises questions and suggests multiple meanings. Immediately, the first scene confronts the inner reality of Monsalvat. The crater in the wall is a dramatic metaphor for what has happened to Monsalvat. The community has been knocked off its normal orbit, so to speak, shattered by the impact of Amfortas's tragedy. Everything's out of alignment, cosmically and spiritually. The community moves about in slow motion as if in traumatic shock.

Jon Vickers pulled out of Tannhäuser because he supposedly thought it was irreligious. Yet Parsifal was one of his great roles, and the theology in Parsifal is outright blasphemy.  Despite the Good Friday, Communion wine and  Grail themes, Wagner's mainly interested in Christianity insofar as it provides material for his own dramatic ideas such as sacrifice and redemption. In the Bible, Mary Magdalen is a marginal figure. In Parsifal, Kundry is the pivot that connects Jesus to the Devil (Klingsor) to the Knights and ultimately to Parsifal, their true Saviour, rather than Christ.The Knights may be misogynistic, but Wagner isn't. His heroes are often women. Kundry is kin to Brünnhilde, who rights wrongs even if it means going against the Gods. You could compare the ennui that falls on Monsalvat to the way the Gods in Das Rheingold suffer when they're deprived of golden apples.

Downplaying the cod-Christianity in Parsifal opens out a wider perspective of Wagner's ideas. The Knights of the Grail didn't exist, Kundry can't have lived a thousand years.  But the First Emperor of China did.  Significantly, Nikolas Lehnhoff's original production was devised in the wake of the first big exhibition of the Terracotta Armies in Europe. While that's not so apparent to us now, in 1999 the references would have been obvious. The First Emperor wanted to be immortal. He built his palace on a lake of liquid mercury, which gave him pretty much the same symptoms as Amfortas. The zombie-like pace in Montsalvat had an ironic precedent. Hence the Knights are dressed like Terracotta Warriors. They embody the idea of a military order whose mission is spiritual and cosmic. Lenhoff even has Amfortas crawl into a pit like those in the excavations in Xian.  The Knights are regimented, stiff and unexpressive, intensifying the contrast between their "virtue" and the wild animal sensibility of Kundry and the young Parsifal.

The Flower maidens represent Nature, too, but an ultimately poisoned version. Lenhoff's realization is beautifully lit, and the chorus moves enticingly. In nature, petals and scent trap bees for pollination. These Flowermaidens have pretty, petal-like sleeves, but their headdresses are like stamens, and they wield pistils (in a bizarre imitation of the Knight's weapons). Yet the headdresses also reference Tang Dynasty tomb figures. Beautiful, but deadly.


Similarly, Lenhoff and his designers (Raimund Bauer and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer) portray Klingsor and Parsifal in the Third Act as bizarre inventions on a Samurai theme.  Tinturel's costume refers to the tomb where a prince was found encased in chain mail made of jade, reputed to confer eternal life. Warriors, but aliens, outside the Christian tradition, just as the Knights of the Grail really are.

Lenhoff  keeps the Parsifal-Kundry-Knights dynamic occupying the foreground, with Gurnemanz as mediator, because this is the centre of the drama. Attention shifts from kitsch medievalism back to universal themes like sacrifice and eternal life. The non-western references are background, so they enhance if you notice them, but don't intrude, though even the most inattentive observer should be wondering why these aren't Proper Christians. Because they're not and never were!

Liberating the narrative from the pseudo-religious trappings frees the drama. This production is infinitely more dramatic than Klaus Michael Grüber's 2002 Parsifal at the Royal Opera House where the Knights were so comatose that they had to be moved on pulleys dragged across the stage. Haitink dutifully conducted at a funereal pace, perhaps in keeping with the idea of Monsalvat Moribund, but more of a mystical than a theatrical experience. Mark Wigglesworth responds to the livelier staging with acuity. What his conducting may lack in refinement, it's made up for with full-bodied vigour. Amfortas hovers between life and death, but it's not good for the whole Grail community to stay that way. Parsifal represents movement and life.

Which leads to the conclusion. Kundry is baptised and now appears in a shroud. Ironically this is one moment when Christian ideas do apply. Kundry is dead but her soul lives on. By her spirit she's helped redeem the kingdom. Thus I don't have any problem with her walking along the railway track. Symbolically, she's heading "back to source" from whence she, and the Knights, and all mankind, have come. You don't  need a dove when you've got Kundry as dove. The railway track may also be a reminder oof the Rainbow Bridge in Das Rheingold, which marked a transition. This time, though, it's a path to genuine salvation.

As usual the use of English doesn't help meaning. "I have an idea" sings Parsifal, except musically it's scanned " I have an i (long pause) dea", which sounds like he's telling Gurnemanz that he has "an eye, dear". Then Gurnemanz, instead of telling Parsifal "suche dir, Gänser, die Gans!", talks about ducklings, losing the punch as it were. Sometimes deliberate humour serves a purpose, as in Orsini's drunken songs in Lucrezia Borgia, but in Parsifal, I'm not sure jokes fit.
LOTS MORE Wagner on this site - please see labels list on right
Photos : Richard Hubert Smith, courtesy ENO

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Wagner Parsifal Lehnhoff DVD

Nicholas Lenhoff's Wagner Parsifal comes to the ENO tonight. It's well known from the 2004 staging at Baden Baden which is available on DVD. It's generally a respected production although there will always be those who feel threatened by anything that's not museum piece. Certainly Lenhoff is a cut above the average (excluding the Alden brothers who are so good)

For the link to the review of the 2011 ENO Parsifal at the Coliseum, see HERE.

Please follow this link to a review in Opera Today from 6 years ago. "First, Lehnhoff has an unorthodox view of Gurnemanz, whom he characterizes not as the sacerdotal father-figure familiar from conventional productions, but as a reactionary, unhinged authoritarian bereft of genuine human feeling. Second, Lehnhoff finds that if there is any redemptive message in Parsifal, it describes an enlightened humankind that has discarded impotent, atavistic religious ritual and doctrine. ....Lehnhoff believes Parsifal is essentially a utopian work, where utopia is a dynamic principle that has nothing to do with religious tribalism or any other fixed identity." Unorthodox, but not amiss. Livelier too than the ROH staging, where the Knights were wheeled on and off stage on a pallet, like frozen corpses..

When i saw this DVD I was entranced by Kent Nagano's playing, so lucid and transparent yet not  specially drawn out. Enough slow mo in the opera!  What I noticed at the time was Waltraud Meier's Kundry, a wild, feral creature  totally at odds with the Knights, as stiff and immobile as Terracotta Warriors. That's a point since the Emperor who ordered the warriors believed in an elixir of Immortality, without which he and the nation would wither away. Most interesting is the dynamic between Kundry and the Knights, Gurnemanz, Parsifal and Amfortas and the striking apparition that is Titurel. As described in the review "Thomas Hampson’s Amfortas is not, as would be customary, an object of mixed reverence and pity, but he is relentlessly pursued and harassed by his desperate knights. He never enters in solemn procession, but always in full flight from his own followers, frantic to evade their demand that he celebrate their liturgy. This Amfortas must have the strength to run. Accordingly, Hampson’s Amfortas is less prostrate, less helpless, and more histrionic and physical than most."

Obviously we won't be having Nagano, Hampson, Meier and Ventris (whom I think is brilliant) but that's too much to expect. At least we'll have a thought provoking production which will make us think about what the characters mean. Better to be challenged to engage with the opera than auto pilot wail. No-one needs to get everything right away, but with Wagner, the process of engaging is part of the experience.  Stagings like this don't come round very often.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Aldeburgh Festival 2011

Aldeburgh is unique. It's not an all-Britten all-British festival. It has always been progressive and international. And it's not London. London can often be more provincial than Aldeburgh. as Britten knew very well. If only more Londoners knew their Britten!

The 2011 Aldeburgh Festival brochure is now out, full of excellent things. False controversy about the big first night, which sold out immediately. So what? Simon Rattle is one of the biggest names to come to Aldeburgh in years. He sold out the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican a year before the concerts. And his Aldeburgh programme is exceptional - Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (a Rattle favourite) and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde – extremely perceptive pairing. This would sell out the Royal Albert Hall, so why the fuss about it selling out the tiny Snape auditorium?  It is being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 which won't be quite so atmospheric, but will mean it's available to all. Let's not be hypocritical. The arts cost money and long-term Aldeburgh patrons have been supporting it for years. And why shouldn't people support whatb they care about?

Aldeburgh also doesn't do Grand Opera, which should come as no surprise to anyone into Britten's aesthetic. The spartan style intensifies the morality, intensifying the stark tensions. The 2011 Aldeburgh Opera is The Rape of Lucretia where the Greek drama concepts are clear. Choruses with major vroles but only one voice each.. What a cast - Angelika Kirschlager as Lucretia, Ian Bostridge (arguably the most intense Britten specialist of all), Susan Gritton,  Peter Coleman-Wright, Christopher Purves, Hilary Summers, Claire Booth and Oliver Knussen conducting.  This travels next to the Holland Festival and to Luxembourg, evidence of Aldeburgh's status in Europe.

Because Aldeburgh's conducive to chamber music and to experiment, it's always supported new music. On Sunday 12/6 there's a Homage to Ligeti. 100 Metronomes for fun but witty, Richard Steinitz for ballast and a series of excellent concerts from early afternoon til midnight. Britten, Rostropovich and the Cello  on 21/6 mixes talk, film and concerts. This year's featured composer is Marco Stroppa, culminating in the final weekend concert. Stroppa's music is being premiered with a new work by Peter Eötvös and Boulez ...explosante-fixe.... London Sinfonietta and Exaudi, so should be good. Other composers featured include Scelsi.

Exaudi are Aldeburgh regulars because their range stretches from early polyphony to the most avant garde work for voice.(The Aldeburgh style in a nutshell). What they're planning this year really is innovative. Everlasting Light is a reflection on Sizewell, where 50 years ago a nuclear reactor was built, turning a fishing village into Brave New World. This performance takes place late in the evening on the beach at Sizewell, blending Ligeti's Lux Aeterna with projections, singing and the landscape itself. Landscape meant a lot to Britten, so the idea of using the land itself as an element in art is very much in keping with the Aldeburgh ethos.

Song people are in for a treat. Matthias Goerne and Pierre-Laurent Aimard are giving the three Schubert collections on 18th, 19th and 20th, with a masterclass on 17th which I'll try to get to, as Goerne's gruff exterior belies exceptional insight and sensitivity. Two James Gilchrist concerts too, including Britten's Les Illuminations, one of the keystones of the repertoire.

Lots of early music too, Bach of course, and a special on Ockeghem's Requiem Mass  Concerts by Les Talens Lyriques and Christopher Rousset. Strangely, these are the main ones being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this year.  Is it because they're "safe" ? A pity, as Aldeburgh isn't safe in the sense of predictable (and neither is this music if you think about it).

Britten loved visual arts, too, which is why exhibitions are also part of the Aldeburgh scene. This year there's a Philip Langridge tribute, curated by his son Stephen, the opera director. Video and audio clips, photos, personal memorabilia.  Unmisssable! My site carries more on the Aldeburgh  Festival than any other, so enjoy trawling thru posts of past years and related subjects.

For more information, please see  Aldeburgh Music website. 

Joan Sutherland Memorial - Westminster Abbey

A Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Joan Sutherland was held today at Westminster Abbey. Thanksgiving, because she gave so much to opera. She may be gone, but she'll go on forever in recordings and memories. Absolutely fitting that she be honoured in Westminster Abbey where the great and the good of Empire have been commemorated.

I wish I could give a detailed description. Though I had an early invitation, (seat 129),  yesterday I started a demon of a sore throat and headache. Dame Joan would never miss me. But what an occasion it must have been. Dame Joan would have loved it! In her element! A lot of work goes into organizing events at Westminster Abbey because of the massive security, so much credit to all those involved.


Monday, 14 February 2011

Goebbels Eislermaterial download

Here's a link to a free streaming download of Heiner Goebbels's Eislermaterial. One of the best examples of adapting a composer to new situations. It was thru Goebbels that I discovered Hanns Eisler, when we were both young and avant garde. Now Heiner is an innovative music theatre person and gets the German equivalent of Arts Council grants! But I remember when he used to play seedy gigs and the ICA.

John Adams Nixon in China Met Opera analysis

Chairman Mao (Mao Tsetung) meets Richard Nixon, President of the US in 1972. It's the subject of John Adams's opera Nixon in China which has come at last to the Met in NY after 23 years. Having lived through those times from a different perspective I was worried the opera might be crass, but no problems. John Adams and Peter Sellars (who directed the HD film) are to real history and to China as Sarah Palin is to geopolitics because you can see Russia from Alaska.

Sellars tells Thomas Hampson in one of the intervals that 22/2/72 was as important to world history as 9/11. No. It's not a cosmic struggle between east and west. Nixon needed to end the Vietnam war and Taiwan was a historic millstone. China didn't have much to gain or lose either way (though it bugged the Russians). But Nixon in China works as a study of political gullibility. Both sides are manipulating the media to fool each other. It's a game of tactics. A sharp diplomat reads the codes. Notice the white vase on the floor by Mao? Why do Nixon (James Maddalena) and even Chou Enlai (Russell Braun) look appalled? The white vase is a spittoon, which Mao uses frequerntly. Old men used such things then, but it's also symbolic of what Mao thinks of the world.

This production is based on historic photos of real events so the designs (Adrianne Lobel) are eerily unsettling. Costumes (Dunya Ramikova) are so accurate they must have been custom dyed. Mao looks uncannily healthy, but we know he often used body doubles not just because he was a sick man but because he was a creep. The big banquet is there and the Potemkin schoolchildren are there, though the moment where Chou feeds Nixon with chopsticks is underplayed in the opera. Feeding guests prize titbits is basic good manners in China, but Chou was also making a political point.  What might be tasty to Chou just might be something Nixon won't eat.

Adams's music drones like the hum of a giant machine, which is appropriate enough for a society reduced to automatons, but would benefit from being edited judiciously. What really saves the opera is the word setting. The libretto (Alice Goodman) is brilliant. She uses stock phrases like "Manifest Destiny" in quirky ways. Usually the term is US expansion to the west. Here, it's China in Vietnam. Similarly sound bite phrases are dissected and re-arranged so they sound like gibberish. Which is exactly how the media uses what really happens. Nixon's speech on arrival is brilliantly well written in this way. The libretto makes the opera, bringing depths that the charcaterizations altogether lack. Sellars's statement, that the libretto is poetic in the way that Yeats, Eliot and the Chinese masters are, is utter nonsense, though.

Maddalena's Nixon knows he's out of his depth when he talks sense, but Mao doesn't care. He's obviously done his homework since he refers to Wang Ming and other political heavies whom Mao carefully excludes. If only politicians still did briefings based on proper risk assessment. Blair told the world he was right to invade Iraq because he asked God, and God said nothing. Nixon would be weeping that things have come to this. Watergate was small cheese compared to what happens now. Nixon comes over as well meaning, and a decent man who's too polite to question the gibberish Mao spouts. Philosophy? Trolls  also speak in riddles. Maddalena created the role in 1987 so deserves much respect. If his voice is aging, so be it, for this is one of the keynotes of his career and deserves being commemorated on film.

Robert Brubaker as Mao Tsetung is excellent. Despite his crisp new suit Brubaker exudes sleaze. I don't know if the scene where he gropes one of his aides was in the original production, but it's necessary now from what we know of Mao's private life. Russell Braun's Chou Enlai was as stiff as a corpse. Admittedly the man himself was unwell but it was nearly 4 years before he died, struggling to the end. He, too, isn't quite as innocent as portrayed. Neither was Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) a buffoon who can't even find a toilet.

So what's behind the flights of fancy ? What is Adams trying to say and what point is he trying to make?  Surely not something as banal as "in bed we dream"? Pat Nixon (Janis Kelly) comes over as unbelievably naive, though she can't have been since she was a pillar for her husband, even if it came at a price. Pat and Tricky Dick werer tough political animals, so why does Pat lose it when she sees something that's obvioulsy not fake?  The ballet being shown is The Red Detachment of Women, (click link for full download), also faithfully depicted in accurate detail (kapok trees, palms)  It's full blown propaganda, mixing ballet, didactics and the stylization of Chinese opera.

If only Adams, Sellars and Goodman had thought through these ideas instead of merrily making things up. They hint that all's not well when Pat pops pills, but that's not enough. Nixon's reminiscences about The Pacific are pointlessly irrelevant. Hainan is not Guadacanal, and even if it was, the issues are completely different.

The formidable Chiang Ching is so well realized by Kathleen Kim that she stole the show. She was an outstanding Olympia in the recent Met Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Wonderful, searing high notes, meant to grate on the nerves. She's the one who ran the Cultural Revolution while Mao was senile. Chou nearly lost his job. So why is she turned into a sex siren? Of course we know she was an actress when she met Mao but he went through wives and mistresses like other men change shoes. Maybe it helps sell the opera to western audience to add an exotic in silk qipao, but it's pretty hard to make connections. Kim is so good that perhaps the Met will cast her in serious mainstream roles.(the photo shows Chiang Ching shouting back at the prosecutors when she was on trial for her life in 1981. She got away with a life sentence but damaged all the dolls she was forced to make as a prisoner so that they couldn't be sold)

The dancers were very good - dancing en pointe to machine gun fire isn't easy. Mark Morris was the choreographer but the ballerina in red doesn't seem to get credit. Adams Nixon in China wasn't as bad as I thought, but could use judicious editing and much more thoughtful direction, especially in the last fantasy act. Even if the opera deals with media manipulation, it falls apart if it gives up half way. Maybe Nixon should have dumped Pat for Chiang Ching (he might still be in power) but this self-indulgent production runs out of steam just as it's getting somewhere. (Please see my posts on Dr Atomic, A Flowering Tree and many others on China) Photo credit : Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Red Detachment of Women full download


Full download of The Red Detachment of Women the ballet Nixon and Pat are watching in John Adams Nixon in China. Although in the opera, Pat (high on pills) thinks it's reality, in practice I don't know what they made of it. Unlike White Haired Girl which describes the suffering of the poor in feudal times, The Red Detachment of Women doesn't need much background to follow. It's based on Hainan Island, in China's tropics, which was turned into a giant slave camp by the Japanese during the war, since the island is full of minerals. Many Hong Kong people were deported there en masse. The women formed a resistance movement that became known as "The Red Detachment". Because the film is propaganda, it's deliberately didactic and anti-sentimental. The "acting" comes from Soviet agitprop and Chinese opera, so it's not supposed to be realistic. Musically it's pastiche, made-by-committee rather than one composer's vision, since auteurship was considered "feudal" in the new world of the Cultural Revolution. Soon after the Nixons returned Leonard Bernstein premiered several other  Chinese works such as the Yellow River Concerto, also music-by-committee although it's based on a cantata by Xian Xing hai (Chan sing hoi 冼星海) written in Yenan. Lenny reputedly gushed about the concerto but that was the spirit of the times. Lots more on Nixon in China on this site, 3 different performances reviewed

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Nixon in China at the Met

For my detailed analysis of John Adams Nixon in China at the Met please see HERE)
"Nixon in China is a meditation on the events of its era through the medium of opera, which is a new sort of focus to put on the form." writes Jon Yohalem about John Adams Nixon in China in Opera Today (Full review HERE, very detailed). "The curious thing is that the audience for three or four hours of classical entertainment has come to delight in this sort of tableau, this elevation of the humans we have actually known to an archetypal status, and that opera is today considered the proper accolade to the achievement of a certain sort of celebrity, political or otherwise. This makes one wonder what opera, what singing rather than living, now implies to us........"

"But (works like Nixon in China) did not deal in archetypes; they are the musical equivalent of reportage, their substance gone once half the audience no longer knows what Nixon actually did. Modern celebrity opera is a sort of oral history if you like........"
 
The relevance to Turnage's Anna Nicole is obvious, though from past form, Turnage is more interested in jumpy tunes than in philosophic ideas.  But the idea that there's a new kind of opera afoot is interesting. We're far enough away from Nixon and "ping pong diplomacy" to experience this opera as pure theatre, without knowing the background.  I have been avoiding it for years as I didn't feel I could cope with something that must, necessarily, deal with surface experiences as seen through the US media at the time. But I lived through those times and see it from a Chinese perspective. So what I'll be writing will be different to what most people will feel. Please come back to this site soon for a unique point of view.

My gut instinct is that the opera (as opposed to the history) will deal with the way events are manipulated by the media. Hence the fascination with the agitprop ballet. One of the best known ballets at 5the time was Pak Mo Liuy (White haired Girl). The ballet reached saturation exposure in China at the time, one of the few "western forms" permitted during the Cultural Revolution. Everyone could sing along. The ballet was based on a novel which became a movie in 1949, the year when the Communist Party came to power. Please see the  movie HERE streamed in FULL DOWNLOAD. It's really quite good, better than mere propaganda. Watch this movie, and a lot about modern China falls into perspective.

Although there are no subtitles, the story is pretty straightforward. A girl is sold as debt to a rich landowner who rapes her. She  runs away to live in the wild, where her hair turns white with grief. The villagers think she's a ghost that haunts the temple (from which she steals edible offerings) . Eventually her former boyfriend returns as a CCP hero, liberating the village and overthrowing the landlord. Happily ever after, cultivating the fields, restored to health and sanity. The story is simple but direct which is why it packed such a punch sixty years ago when China was torn apart by decades of war and the collapse of feudal society. Everyone could recognize the situation, Communist or not. That's why Mao was necessary, no matter what a tyrant he really was.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Bartók Stravinsky Salonen Infernal Dance 2

Second concert in Infernal Dance, the major Bartók' series at the South Bank with the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Bartók's Cantata Profana (1930) made a spectacular start to this intelliigently planned programme. What a masterstroke to bring in the Coro Gulbenkian under their Chorus Master Jorge Matta! This choir is almost legendary, as its many fine recordings prove, and travels extensively, but its appearances in this country are all too infrequent. With their roots in baroque polyphony, they are technically flawless, yet they bring individual character to what they sing. The voices are extremely well balanced, so instead of a wash of sound, they sound distinctive, like a good orchestra. Combined with the Philharmonia Voices, also among the best in their field, they demonstrated why the choral parts in this cantata are central to its success.

Cantata Profana is based on a legend about nine young huntsmen who go into a forest pursuing stags but are themselves bewitched and turned into their prey. Bartók writes dense textures into the choruses, so the music evokes the mystery of a primeval forest. The father, baritone Michele Kalmandi, begs his sons to return to safety, but the sons have chosen a more dangerous path. The nine sons are depicted as a unit by one tenor, Attila Fekete, but it is the chorus as forest which dominates the whole work. The choral voices murmur menacingly, full of incident, like shadows in the forest. This is where the personality of the chorus pays dividends. Bartók is using the voices like an orchestra. Towards the end, the sons blend back into the forest, as the tenor sings with the choir. Fekete declaims one last glorious phrase, Czak tista forrásból (but from cool mountain springs) which the choir has been quietly intoning and will continue singing after the tenor goes quiet. Fekete floats this exotic last phrase like a muezzin calling across vast distances. It's meant to sound alien because it's coming from another dimension, far from the rules of the father's household. That's why it's "profane" - it uses a Bachian frame on which to hang ideas that subvert conventional piety.

Please see the rest of this review on Bachtrack, the Very Useful listings database.  Also in the programme was Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps. Salonen interprets this so you can hear the relevance to Bartók,, and images of earth. So Cantata profana can be heard in context. Please also read about the FIRST concert in this series HERE.