Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Compassion Bypass? Met stars withdraw from Japan

"Fearing Radiation", Netrebko, Kaufmann and Calleja have withdrawn from the Met Opera's Japan tour just before it starts this week. (See story HERE) It's the Met's first tour to Japan since 2007, and the first visit by a big company since the March 11 earthquake, so it's very high profile indeed. In Japan, opera is taken extremely seriously so the Met's visit has huge symbolic implications. In situations like these, normal life must go on, so the country can rebuild. Boosting morale is a form of disaster relief. If ever there was a time to show solidarity with the Japanese people, this would be it.

Compassion bypass?  Of course everyone worries about radiation. But Tokyo is 240 km south west of Fukushima, and Nagoya is 270km even further south west than Tokyo. It's not like the Big Stars will be forced to live like millions in the north of Japan, where many still don't have proper housing or support. Statistically, millions in Japan are likely to suffer more than the Big Stars nominally exposed for a few days in swanky hotels. The rest of the Met crew who aren't so rich and famous don't have the option of playing chicken. In any case, ther Met wouldn't be sending nearly 400 people there if there was a serious risk. Imagine the lawsuits.

In Netrebko's defence, she's been cancelling all Spring, even before the earthquake, as has Levine. But the other two? Sure, they're scared. Everyone is. But it's not fair on Japanese opera audiences, on the Japanese people and on the rest of us all over the world who care about human suffering.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker - the Future 2011-2012

The Berliner Philharmoniker is the world's local orchestra, thanks to its Digital Concert Hall. Anyone can listen, any time, for a nominal fee, as long as they have internet access. This is the real revolution in classical music. The Berliners raise the bar for everyone else. Listening regularly to the Digital Concert Hall is an education. So much nonsense has been written about the non-future of classical music.  It's not dying, only the deadwood. The Berliners show the way ahead.

Thirty six new concerts are being broadcast from Berlin in 2011-2012. That's three concerts a month. Lots of big names - Rattle, Jurowski, Bychkov, Abbado, Thielemann, Osawa, Sokhiev, Eötvös, Haïm. Too many illustrious soloists to name. Relatively new conductors too, like Pablo Heras-Casado who hasn't done much for me yet but is respected by Boulez and Abbado. Fantastic range of repertoire! Mahler blockbusters, like Das Lied von der Erde and a Mahler 8th with a stunning lineup on 18/9. Complete operas in concert- Carmen, Die Walküre and parts of Cunning Vixen and Palestrina (Pfitzner). But look at the range of repertoire! In addition to the great classics, more unusual fare like a set of Hugo Wolf orchsetral songs, a premiere by Wolfgang Rihm, Szymanowski, Johnathan Harvey and lots and lots of Luciano Berio scattered throughout the year. HERE is the schedule. Drool!

Oswald von Wolkenstein King of the Road

Oswald von Wolkenstein (1366-1445) and the 60's hippie/ C&W hit? Remember the refrain "I'm a man of means, by no means, King of the Road? Oswald was born into the aristocracy, but not firstborn, so as a young boy he took to the road as men did then, travelling with other dispossessed knights, troubadours  and guns for hire (were there guns, and not lances and swords). Sometimes they'd be mercenaries, sometimes poets, but they wandered around Europe without borders, "looking for adventure" as rock stars might say.

"I have been in warm and cold places, in misery and poverty, bei cristen, Kreichen, haiden" (Christians, Orthodox and heathens) He describes how he lived by his wits in ten languages in two long monologues Es fügt sich (It happened). Along the way he got religion, became a monk, got married and had numerous sexual relationships. In that order and otherwise.

Wolkenstein was no fool. Unusually among the poet/musicians of his age, he kept manuscripts, so we can hear his work today and get a glimpse into medieval life that wasn't cleaned up by Church or State. There's a wonderful new CD out now, of Wolkenstein's songs, with Andreas Scholl and Shield of Harmony, 14th century period specialists. It's called "Songs of Myself" because Oswald von Wolkenstein was singing about himself from first-person experience. But there's also wider meaning. The recording was made live in the tiny St Valentinuskirche, Kiedrich, in Hesse. Wolkenstein certainly travelled in the vicinity, thougfh it's not known if he visited the church. It's now the only place in the world where plainchant is still sung in "Mainz dialect".

But the small church is central to the life of Andreas Scholl. This is where he first started singing, as a choirboy aged 7, just as generations of his family had done before him. He went on, like Wolkenstein, to find fame and fortune in the wider world, but Kiedrich is his grounding place. The CD is dedicated to the memory of his sister, one of the few choirgirls at the time, who died too young, and to his father who died two years before the recording was made.  Scholl is sublime almost without exception, but on this disc  he's singing with even more intensity than usual; he knows the significance of the performance. Heartfelt sincerity and tenderness, as if he's distilling the experience of generations of Kiedrichers over the centuries. This CD is unique because it's so personal, and so moving.

I won't write about the songs as it's repertoire I know nothing about and can't fake. But listen to this, even if you wouldn't normally dream of listening to the genre. I love this recording because it's beautiful and timeless. I can imagine sitting in darkness, the thick stone walls staying cold even when its hot outside, and thinking of the invisible thousands who've passed through before. Wolkenstein would probably feel quite at home in the modern world. With this disc, we can feel at home in his.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The Prince and the Composer - Parry back to the Ghetto

Read the fine print as they say, for the high profile, heavily marketed documentary on BBC TV4 is titled "The Prince and the Composer: a film about Hubert Parry by HRH the Prince of Wales". Very clearly, prince first, composer next. It's a curious hybrid indeed, as if two completely different films were spliced together without much relation to each other.

What was the purpose of this documentary? If it was to raise interest in Parry it suceeds to the extent that most viewers know so little about Parry that anything is a huge improvement. Fortunately the finest possible commentators are assembled. Jeremy Dibble, Anthony Boden, Anthony Payne, David Owen Norris, members of the Parry clan and experienced performers. With this illustrious band, there is no way this film could fall into the usual made for TV triviality. Someone's done their homework here. Thanks to them, this documentary is head and shoulders more coherent than most of John Bridcut's other work. This assembly is so good, you wonder just how wonderful a programme could have been made if they'd been left to develop their subject. There's still so much more to Hubert Parry that it's frustrating to think how much more could have been done.

But as is repeated through the film, Parry is handicapped because he's seen through a cloak of false assumptions. He's trapped into the stereotype of a WASP Establishment figure. He's a poster boy for the BNP wing of musical taste. British National Party, not Banque National de Paris, for European readers. Parry, European? Most definitely, but that doesn't sit with the concept of Parry as Old Fogey reactionary.

But what is England anyway? It is Europe, whether Eurosceptics like it or not. Prior to Parry, England was Das Land ohne Musik. Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn - all Germans. Purcell, Byrd, Dowland, yes, but in the late 19th century, what was happening in England?  Hubert Parry was completely aware of the explosions of new music in Europe. he adored Brahms and Schumann, and was greatly influenced by Wagner, despite eschewing Wagner's wilder extremes. Charles Villiers Stanford's narrow insularity fits much better with conservatism  than Parry's embrace of European and progressive. Parry's influence on later British composers is so pervasive that it's really time to consider his music for what it really is, not what The Far Right or Left are comfortable with.

So if Parry needs liberating from the ghetto of stereotype why box him in with the epitome of the Establishment,  HRH Prince Charles?  The first part of the film is an exercise in glorifying the monarchy, which is OK, but it's also an excuse for HRH to talk about himself and his place in the scheme of things. Parry's music is thus decoration for Monarchy and Church (which Charles intends to be Head of if he can), though Parry didn't believe. The Prince doesn't even know much more about Parry than anyone else, and mumbles generalities."This is so uplifting". True, but so is a lot else. Watch David Owen Norris's dissection of Jerusalem for what Parry meant by "uplifting". One doesn't expect insight from HRH. But on the other hand, he adds nothing to the film, or to Parry. The film purports to free Parry from the ghetto of stereotype, but pushes him firmly back into place.

Parry was sidelined, muses the Prince, because of Stravinsky and Schoenberg!  Parry, whose expressive markings echoed Mahler's, who listened to Richard Strauss, and might, had the chance occured, have cuddled up with Schoenberg analysing Brahms. What went wrong for Parry's reputation was the First World War. Modernism was a result, not  a cause of the war and the social upheaval that followed.  Even Elgar was stymied by by the Great War, which catapulted Ralph Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Bridge (and thru him Britten) into creating new approaches which would redefine British music.

Perhaps HRH funded this documebntary, since he's in the credits. It feels very much like a promotion video for him, showcasing his interest in British culture, though he has little to contribute. For all we know there's something going on behind the scenes that we don't know about, and he needs his PR. Obviously, his presence sells Parry like no other endorsement. But ultimately, Parry is plenty capable of carrying the honours on his own. And worryingly, Prince Charles himself doesn't come over particularly well.  What would down to earth Parry have thought of it all?

Please read my other posts on Hubert Parry, especially Hubert Parry Out of the Ghetto, and read him in  his own words.

The photo, by Edratzer, shows the nave of the Church of the Holy Innocents at Highnam, which Parry's father built and painted with his own hands. Click to enlarge for detail. Look carefully - it's like no ordinary Cof E church.  t's completely "modern" from when Victorian was modern. Parry père was by no means an Establishment stuffed shirt either. Parry fils was more of a chip off the old block than this film would have us believe. The English tradition they represent isn't convention, but almost eccentric individuality.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Brahms Da unten im Tal

Yesterday at the Wigmore Hall an important recital - Brahms and Schumann four-part songs. It's always an occasion when they're performed live because it isn't easy to get four top singers together whose voices balance perfectly and who can get the intricate interplay of harmonies. The two Brahms sets, Liebeslieder Waltzes op 52 and Neues Liebeslieder Waltzes op 65, are quite a hefty undertaking, as performances usually include other Brahms part songs like the exquisite Der Abend, one of my all time favourites. Detailed review follows soon in Opera Today. The last time I heard a Brahms Liebeslieder programme live was also at the Wigmore Hall, in 1997?, very beautiully sung by Christoph Prégardien, Ingeborg Danz, Juliane Banse and Thomas Quasthoff.  The absolute classic recording is Peter Schreier, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Edith Mathis and Brigitte Fassbaender, all but DFD Wigmore Hall regulars.

This time the singers were Bernarda Fink, Sylvia Schwartz, Michael Schade and Robert Holl. Fink and Holl are extremely experienced, top of their Fach, so I wasn't disappointed by Thomas Quasthoff's no-show. Quasthoff wasn't overlooked though, because Michael Schade gave a short speech with a message from him. "Quasthoff talks a lot, so I will do too". Unfortunately that's all too true. Perhaps there are reasons, but I'm more into music than into celebrities. Holl is doing another solo recital on Sunday at the Wigmore Hall - get to it to hear what real Lieder singing is about. He's singing Brahms Vier ernste Lieder, which he does grippingly well. Be there - it will be an experience and maybe even an education. Holl's not young but his technique is so firm, and his expressive ability is so strong, he's impressive.

Da unten im Tal was one of the encores. As Schade noted, it was one of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's favourites, I've put it up here as a sample. The song seems simple, like folk melody, but listen carefully to the desperation in the undertones. The girl knows her lover is a cad, who will always be false and will betray her, as he's probably cheated on many before. Yet her love is so intense that she'll cherish the moment while it lasts. Schwarzkopf shows how the girl has dignity and poise, despite her anguish. And so the poignant last strophe in which a tumult of emotion is distilled into quiet resignation:

Für die Zeit, wo du gliebt mi hast,
Da dank i dir schön,
Und i wünsch, daß dir's anderswo
Besser mag gehn.

(For the time that you made me happy, I thank you. And I wish you well wherever you may wander)

Drought ends - online listening glut

After weeks of drought, the deluge has broken. So much to listen to online this week. First, grab the last chance to hear Jiri Belohlávek conduct the BBCSO in Smetana's The Bartered Bride. Wonderful, lively performance, rustic but not bucolic. Czech cast, and native born speaker as conductor, not that it matters quite so much in Smetana as in Janáček, but still, they can concentrate oin singing not syntax. This one's so good it could make it to CD but catch it now.

Then what promises to be an intelligent Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust from Chicago Lyric Opera. I haven't heard it yet but the singers are John Relyea, (world's best Devil) Susan Graham and Paul Groves. If that's not enough recommendation, conductor is Sir Andrew Davis who is very, very good in this repertoire. The photos indicate intelligent staging, too. So much for the excuse that the damned Gilliam Damnation at the ENO was acceptable because the piece isn't often staged. C'mon, it's not that hard. This may be the purgative. Listen HERE.

Every morning this week the 10 am slot (available anytime HERE) features a different work by C  Hubert Parry, much underrated.  Unfortunately, there's a John Bridcut TV doc about him on Friday night (7.30, BBC4) which does not sound promising, even without HRH Prince Charles enthusing. Part of the reason Parry isn't better appreciated than he should be is that he's saddled with an old fogey Establishment image. The real Parry was a much more enlightened man. Just as Parry's coming out of the ghetto of WASP, his "admirers" might just want him thrown back in.

Saturday Night's BBC Radio 3 opera slot is Moisey (Mieczyslaw) Weinberg's The Portrait, from Opera North's production last year. Publicity blurbs are notorious for picking out good comments from damning reviews but this one stretches credulity so much it's hilarious. (follow the links on the ON site).

But as usual, it's the Berliner Philharmoniker that takes the honours. The repeat of Abbado's Das Lied von der Erde isn't available yet, but last week's concert is available in the archive, featuring Yutaka Sado's debut. Takemitsu and Shostakovich 5.  This Saturday, a big Bruckner symophony for those who love Bruckner, but for me the HUGE MUST will be K A Hartmann's  Gesangsszene (Song Scene), an incredibly prescient piece on economic and political meltdown. But written decades ago! Matthias Goerne sings. It's become one of his trademark pieces and he does it better than anyone (leaves the two current recordings for dead).

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Divine DiDonato Ariodante Barbican

The Barbican was sold out to the rafters, even top gallery almost full. The draw wasn't Handel Ariodante so much as its star, Joyce DiDonato. And she delivered, divinely! Absolutely luscious singing, embellishments elegant and perfectly judged. Karina Gauvin (Ginevra) and Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Polinesso) impressed but once DiDonato got going, no-one else stood a chance. Her stellar presence eclipsed all before her.

The Barbican has been bringing the finest French baroque (and other) ensembles to London over the last few months. Just in the Orlando Furioso series we've had Minkowski/Musiciens du Louvre/Grenoble  genius Alcina, and Spinosi/Ensemble Mattheus in Vivaldi Orlando Furioso. So we're getting spoiled. Maybe it was the DiDonato eclipse effect, or my feeling very unwell, but I wasn't too entranced this time. Perfectly good playing from Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco who are very experienced and have a lively, idiomatic sound.  Lemieux (very good in the low register, quite menacing), Gauvin and Sabina Puertolas (Dalinda) would break into spirited forays of excellent singing, and give DiDonato a run for her money. Handel does write big showcase numbers for them, and for Nicholas Phan's Lurcanio and Matthew Brook's King of Scotland. (This opera is set in Scotland? a bizarre concept if there ever was one! But that's baroque for you and Scoitland was a wild, uncivilized place). But the fans had come for Joyce and that's what they got.  Someone in the audience said "This music is SOOOOOO relaxing" which is a novel take on Handel. But why not? As my partner said, "We know the ending". I was feeling so grogged out that I was happy for once to lean back and luxuriate without too much brain effort. More like how they listened in Handel's day ! DiDonato, fortunately, was wonderful. And she moves as she sings, expressively.

An aside - how I hate those silly Met interval chat shows! They are fillers between intervals but now they are getting to be part of the show. Fake spontaniety, self-congratulatory shallowness. As long as the face is famous, never mind if what comes from it is trivial. Symptomatic about what's wrong with the Met and its market.  Joyce DiDonato is a regular, but she comes over natural, as a real person. Bryn Terfel showed his artistic integrity when he brushed past Placido Domingo, no less, and said "Can't talk, I've a big act to sing next". That's what it's really all about. DiDonato quotes someone on her website, "There's nothing wrong with publicity until it goes to your head". Not in her case, or Terfel's, thank goodness.

Photo copyright Nick Heavican

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Glyndebourne Meistersinger - Beckmesser or Sachs?

Thinking further about Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne I was struck by how well Vladimir Jurowski's approach worked in context.  Glyndebourne is set in glorious gardens, with a lake, woods - and a huge meadow. It feels like a place of pilgrimage because it's the oldest and grandest (so far) summer opera festival. People go back year after year to because it's more than opera, it's also social. Isn't that a lot like Act Three, where the townsfolk leave the warren of the city behind and celebrate in the open air? And one of the fundamental themes of the opera - renewal, regrowth, non-urban values.

There's always something new to discover in truly great music. Someone else's interpretation might just bring out levels you hadn't thought about. Jurowski's Meistersinger emphasized the spirit of freedom and openness that is so central to the opera. It connected to the Glyndebourne ethos, with a cheeky wink at status and pretension. Wagner's proto-socialist politics would jar in this context, but it still packs a punch when it's done with a subtle touch. Besides, stupidity afflicts all classes, not just the rich, as the opera shows.

Jurowski and the LPO brought out the energy in  the music, so it felt breezy and energetic - truly the spirit of summer and regrowth. Wagner isn't done at Glyndebourne because the hall is too small. (Tristan und Isolde is an exception because it revolves around two main characters.) Bombast would overwhelm, and emphasise the very aspects of status and display Wagner is seeking to undermine. So Jurowski turns negative to positive, with an unsually bright, lively interpretation that accesses the soul of the opera more perceptively than the image of Bayreuth 1943 that seems imprinted on many people's minds.

David McVicar's staging is woefully dull and bears little relationship to the opera. It dragged so much that it would be easy to assume it was the fault of the music. But no! Jurowski and the LPO played with alert vigour. The music around the apprentices is supposed to burst with rustic quaintness, even suppressed violence. Hence the angular rhythms, which Jurowskiu shaped well. 

Again and again, we fall into the trap of listening through a narrow prism, basing observations on what we're used to, not on what is actually happening in a performance. But no artist is an artist if he/she doesn't find something personal and original.  Always, I think, base observations on the score, separate from performance practice. We have a choice. Walther isn't full formed. But do we listen as Beckmesser or as Sachs? 

HERE is a link to the review in Opera Today. The picture above also contradicts kneejerk thinking. It's a watercolour by Rudolf Bauer (1889-1953), an exact contemporary of Hitler. Bauer was involved with Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Chagall and the Die Sturm group. The picture at first looks traditional, but it's influenced by late art deco, and  more modern values of light and energy. It's not "degenerate" modernism - Nazxis might happily have had this on their walls. In real life, Bauer's friends were Jewish and/or politically suspect. He was imprisoned by the Gestapo. But part of the reason he's forgotten today might be because he was naive in business.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Verdi Macbeth - TWO full downloads

Opinion? Everyone does opinion. Informed opinion? it helps when the groundwork has been done, even if it's  basic background.  Anyway here's a Goodies Bag for Verdi Macbeth, starting at the Royal Opera House tonight. . Not one but TWO free streaming online downloads, and a description of the new critical edition.  Both come from Opera Today, a wonderful resource. The first download is Claudio Abbado, conducting at La Scala Milan in 1975. The second is Vienna, 2009, for Keenlyside fans. Enjoy !

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Glyndebourne Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - sunny but not shallow

Glorious sunshine at Glyndebourne for Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the eve of his birthday. The action in this opera takes place on Hans Sach's nameday, which carries huge signifigance. This opera revolves around Sachs and his views on justice and above all Art. Sachs is a cobbler, who sees all men's shoes - the ultimate leveller. He doesn't judge people by status or background but by who they are. He can spot Walther von Stoltzing's true nobility when the Meistersingers ridicule him as an outsider. And that nobility comes from Art.

Hans Sachs isn't fictive invention. He was a real person who lived at a time when Germany was rent apart by religious struggle. Nuremberg was an island of Protestantism in the sea of Catholic Bavaria.  "Heilige Deutsche Kunst" refers quite specifically to the concept of emerging German identity which started with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and the Reformation. "Should the Holy Roman Empire end", sing the locals, "German values won't end".  Just as Sachs and his peers rejected Rome and what it stood for, Wagner was turning from French and Italian opera, to create anew. So anyone who insists Die Meistersinger  must be Nazi is a fool, who's spent too much time on Monty Python and none on Wagner.

That said, Die Meistersinger is comic, but not comedy. It's subversive. Beckmesser is the Town Clerk, thus symbol of the Establishment and civic status. That's why Pogner's happy to marry his daughter off, and why the Meistersingers obey him when he ridicules Walther, who lives for pure art, which he's learned from nature.  Sachs opposes mob thinking, whether the mob are his fellow Meistersingers, or the townsfolk, fighting mindlessly in the streets. He protects Walther by giving him a chance to express his true talent. Just as Sachs doesn't march to anyone's tune, neither will Walther. If Hitler had had any inkling of what Die Meistersinger really is about, he might not have been quite such a fan.

This production (David McVicar, director,  Vicki Mortimer, designer) is joyful and exuberant. The apprentices are wonderfully energetic and "rude" in the best sense of the word. They leap and dance with the precision of workmen who are mastering their craft. They're the future, just as Walther is. Topi Lehtipuu's David sings with vigour, giving greater depth to the role than it sometimes gets. He acts like he's put upon, but he's a strong personality. Sachs would hardly take on a stupid apprentice, nor promote him to Gesellen. Lehtipuu's David is convincingly the next Sachs in embryo.

But why update to the early 19th century? Perhaps McVicar's making a connection to Beethoven and Goethe, but the connection is remote and adds nothing. Act One is dominated by a huge fan-vaulted ceiling. Perhaps Walther and Eva meet in church, but it's a major misreading of the opera. If anything, this is an opera about the freshness of nature, which is why the tree in the town square and the meadow play an important part. Nuremberg in Sachs's time was a warren, where the community lived in claustrophobic proximity. This elaborate ceiling means that Sachs's workshop becomes something decidedly upper class. which destroys the idea of Sachs as a humble man of the people, who is elevated by his art. Wagner sent the Town Clerk into the cobbler's workshop to show up the contrast in their status.

Hans Sachs isn't a role one might associate with Gerald Finley, so there's no point in comparing him to some of the iconic Sachs's of the past. Finley's voice is in reasonably good shape, so his Sachs is a refined, understated characterization. It emphasizes the poet in Sachs more than the cobbler, but it works well enough. Finley is convincing in the long monologue. Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn is a sentiment anyone can identify with, whatever the context.

Johannes Martin Kränzle is an effective Sixtus Beckmesser. He's the most elegant man in town, who's always got up in finery, unlike the locals who save it for festive occasions. The part could use more malice, but Kränzle spinned out the curling lines sinuously and moved like a viper. At the end, when he played his lute like an air guitar, it was hilarious. Anna Gabler sang Eva as a charming ingénue, at her best in the final scene where she at last can openly declare her love. The quintet was fabulous, the three central figures haloed by the two lesser roles.

Marco Jentzsch's Walther von Stoltzing was extremely impressive. This is a singer to watch as we desperately need new Heldentenors, or at least tenors with good range and dramatic stage presence. Jentzch is tall and handsome, which helps, but his singing is his greatest asset. The voice is warm but authoritative, and he uses it with intelligent expressiveness. This was Prize Song to cherish, beautifully fresh and pure, yet tinged with committment.  For someone relatively young, he's mature. Walther, after all, is an independent spirit who even when he wins, doesn't want to join a group. "Nein, Meister, nein !" While he looked dazzling in his Hussar costume, it was an interpretive mistake, since Wallther is a ronin, a leaderless wanderer who doen't do status or adhere to outward form. Jentzsch is so good, however, that you focus on the singing, not the suit.  

The very idea of  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne breaks the mould, too. In theory, it's too big for a 1,100 seat hall, but Vladimir Jurowski leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra as if it were a huge chamber ensemble. Gloriously lucid reading, well balanced and clear.  Jurowski brought out the fundamental waywardness in the music, which was refreshing. Heavy handed magnificence we associate with Establishment and power structures. Jurowski understands that the soul of Die Meistersinger is in its open-aired freshness.  He conducts the different blocs (Meistersingers, apprentices, townsfolk) so they knock against each other almost in counterpoint, so you really feel how they jostle together in the plot. No congestion whatever in the riot scene or in the tumult at the Prize Ceremony. Jurowski gives each thread its due. Just as Sachs gives all men equal respect.(even if they turn out to be fools like Beckmesser).

Though this Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg  doesn't plumb the subversive depths of this amazingly rewarding opera, it's exuberant and uplifting, especially in the final scene, where all the threads are drawn together. Wagner and Sachs are much deeper, but in these discordant, polarized times, take heed of the message of this Glyndebourne Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Harmony is a lot more difficult to achieve than it seems.  This production may be sunny but it's not shallow. 

A more formal version of this will appear shortly in Opera Today. Click HERE for link.  OT is an international publication, and Glyndebournje is now reaching audiences well beyond the UK. So this is being rewritten for a more international audience. Same conclusions, but more on Jurowski's intelligent approach to Meistersinger in a summer setting. Click HERE for another on why Jurowski's approach worked so well.

When this gets to DVD, get it! There will be screenings in cinemas this summer and on websites. 
Photos copyright Tristram Kenton, (details embedded) courtesy Glyndebourne Opera

Don't throw money


Don't need to understand Cantonese to get the gist of this clip. "Don't throw money" Nice guy gets conned by a gang of crooks. COMING UP GLYNDEBOURNE MEISTERSINGER !

Friday, 20 May 2011

ENO Britten Midsummer Night's Dream

Almost casually, in late life, Benjamin Britten let slip that he'd been raped at school. No details, no histrionics, and the composer immediately retreated back into characteristic icy reserve. Clearly, though, Britten's emotional reticence and fixation with the loss of innocence stemmed from very deep sources. As his boy friends (not boyfriends) noticed, he was even  more of a boy than  they were. It's as if he were forever fixed emotionally aged 13. It becomes part of his creative persona. He writes gloriously complex, sophisticated dramas, but always there's a veiled mystery, a secret that cannot be revealed.

The new ENO Britten Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Christopher Alden will draw fire because it's an oppressively dark reading of the opera, and by extension, of Shakespeare. The anti-update crowd will howl, but the concept is utterly valid, both in terms of the score and in the insights it brings about Britten's personality.  The set (Charles Edwards) is perfect. Heavy, grey walls of an old style school, identical classrooms, all symbols of regimentation.  The dense forests outside Athens become a "blackboard jungle".  It's suffocatingly oppressive, but that's exactly how it's meant to be, emotionally.  Britten, who'd been cosseted by his mother up to that point rebelled against the suppression of individuality. He "was" Puck, fought over by Tytania and Oberon.

There are other oblique hints, like the refrain, commonly known as "Girls and boys come out to play".  For Britten life was a mask from which he escaped in fantasy. It is perfectly valid to read in his Midsummer Night's Dream a coded roman à clef, even if it's not quite so in Shakespeare.  Plenty of homosexual references throughout, which are perfectly valid in the Britten context. There are fairies in this Midsummer Night's Dream, but they're concealed. Anyone can be magical, unique and gay. No need to sprout wings to prove it.

Potentially, this could have been a brilliant production, full of insight and pathos. But what happened? The concept is right, the set's correct and there are some extremely good performances. In the beginning characters slump against walls, and move as if sleepwalking. This is fine, for we're entering the realm of sleep, escaping from the "public" of school into the "private" of school in a symbolic sense.  But after a while the effect wears off and we're supposed to be in alternative universes. The lovers, the workers, the fairies and the nobles inhabit different spheres. The drama comes when they interact. If they're not differentiated, the impact of the surreal is neutered. The plot's crazy, when you think about it. Here it's rendered dull. The idea of mind-numbing regimentation doesn't need to spread out this far into the opera. The workmen, for example,  are usually a scream, because they're so off the wall.  Here the wall is the only spot of colour. (and it's a Queen).

The Second Act is brighter, enlivened by putting the nobles in the Royal Box to watch the workmen's play. Nice blending of real and unreal, but it's too little, too late. The workmen's play is literal, too, taken straight from the kind of toy theatre Britten almost certainly knew about. In fact, there's probably one in the catalogue of his childhood possessions. This is a valid idea because for Britten fantasy was more powerful than reality. But it's a concept too subtle for most to pick up on. This audience howled with laughter, perhaps grateful for a moment of brightness in monochrome grimness.  

Often with dull staging, attention falls on the orchestra for relief. It reflects Britten's fascination with early English music - itself a form of escape from the stolid tastes of early 20th century Britain. He used early form because he liked the vigour and earthiness - listen to the beaten percussion, expressed wonderfully on stage by the schoolboys beating windowframes. (Oddly enough a reminder of prison riots that start from similar small beginnings.) It's not simply because Britten's setting Shakespeare. All his life he was inspired by early and Renaissance music. Many of my friends enjoyed Leo Hussain's conducting because the music itself is so enjoyable. But Midsummer Night's Dream is like a series of masques where the fun happens when they  jangle against each other. Here, the individuality of the units was subsumed into the same kind of generic wash as Alden's direction.

Willard White pretty much carried the whole performance. Dream casting! His Bottom is earthy, and stands out all the more as he's easily the most mature and experienced person in this cast. He gets to take his clothes off, which is symbolic. Bet he enjoyed that, and what Tytania proceeded to do to him.  Britten's music for Tytania is quite quirky, with a wild edge Anna Christy brought off extremely well. William Towers substituted for Iestyn Davies a few hours before curtain up, and did extremely well, considering he almost certainly didn't do a full rehearsal. He really should be heard more often as countertenors like he, with a dark, distinctive timbre, can be much more interesting in some roles than pure and choirboy. 

How I would have liked to love this new ENO production because it's bursting with detail and potential. The basic concept can't be faulted. But it falls flat because Alden's direction is hamstrung by being too literal, where it could fly, brazenly, audaciously, into the realm of the surreal. This might as well have been a concert performance against a splendidly evocative backdrop.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Abbado Mahler Das Lied von der Erde Berlin - review

There was no way any performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker would be anything but good. It was Mahler's Todestag after all,  everyone was reverent. But it exceeded all expectations because of Anne Sofie von Otter. She's by no means a typical Mahler singer, but that's exactly why she was so fantastic.

Scrap the clichés about how Der Abschied "should" be done: von Otter goes straight back to the score, and moreover to her soul, the source of real Mahler singing. Her voice is on the light side, so don't expect ultra-rich sumptuousness. There are different ways of expressing emotion. Von Otter's performance was wonderful because it was pure and direct. No diva-like affectations, no self-conscious playing to the audience. Such things impress, but ultimately they are ego trips for the singer, putting a barrier between listener and music. And Das Lied von der Erde, like so much Mahler, is about the sublimation of the ego.

Von Otter's interpretation highlighted Mahler, not herself. She's not as youthful as she was, but her voice is in excellent shape, enhanced by the depth emotional maturity can bring.  Complete technical control, firm tone, no wavering for adornment's sake.  Throught the text, there are references to lotuses and to ponds, which in China, almost always imply lotuses. These links are not superficial chinoiserie but fundamental to the whole meaning of this symphony. Lotuses are the symbol of purity becuase they rise upwards from murky depths. They look delicate but they're resilient. They survive and renew themselves year after year. Von Otter's singing has a pellucid quality that reminds me of the simple, unfussy purity of the lotus. She has grit and strength, but she projects legato so it expands with radiant lucidity. This is the essence of  O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens.

Von Otter's clarity worked perfectly with the way Claudio Abbado conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker.  Can any other orchestra match the Berliners for lucidity and sheer finesse?  This was a performance that connected to the many images of darkness, contrasted with shimmering light in the text and in the music - mirror reflections, sparkling water, sunlight.... instruments reflected by others (flute/clarinet, violins/harp). Unmuddied, unsullied.  Even tutti moments were sharply outlined. Three mandolins, heard clearly and distinctly. And what lines - strutting, angular ostinato, not heavy handed but energetic.You could "see" the horses' muscles, and imagine the throbbing of a heartbeat, all references to a powerful life force.  Even more exquisite the surging, shimmering lines, rising ever upwards.  Combining Das Lied von der Erde with the Adagio from what would have been Mahler's Tenth Symphony enhanced both works. Shorn of the rest of the draft movements, the Adagio can be interpreted different ways, but Abbado and the Berliners know what was to come. Together, the two works are a hymn to life and the transcendence of death.  Hence, free-spirited exuberance rising from absolute technical refinement. Abbado looked even more haggard than usual, but even that added to the sense that this concert was a milestone experience.

Jonas Kauffmann, too, has matured. This performance showed him singing with much greater depth and gravitas than ever before. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde isn't a drinking song. On the contrary, it's a savage, passionate protest against death and its curtailment of earthly happiness. Kaufmann spat out the lines about the ape on the tomb with appropriate violence. The image is horrific, especially for Chinese sensibilities. The ape represents the triumph of barbarism: apes aren't schön gekleidet and don't write verse or converse. Kaufmann's interpretation was flawless, impressively dignified. Unfortunately, his voice showd signs of strain, probably from having come fresh from a glorious Siegmund. But it didn't really matter if his top wasn't quite as smooth as it could be. Much better that he put his effort into emotional truth into what he was doing, singing meaning rather than surface beauty.

Although the live broadcast is over, the Berliner Philharmoniker will be archiving this concert, so it will be available online in the Digital Concert Hall. It was amazing, opening up new interpretive possibilties. Hearing it made me feel high, not on alcohol, but with the joy of life.  Please read my other posts on Mahler, Abbado, Das Lied von Der Erde and other related subjects.,. Lots on this site that's original, not seen anywhere else.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Das Lied von der Erde - personal musing

Amazing Mahler  Das Lied von der Erde from Berlin, Claudio Abbado, Anne Sofie von Otter, Jonas Kaufmann and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Shattering performance, I'm still shaking, one of the most powerful I've ever heard. Full commentary later, but for now, some personal observations on why and how such music can affect us. There is nothing wrong with listening like an autistic actuary, because emotion is messy. But for me, listening without making connections isn't listening at all. 

Because it's Mahler's Todestag, it would be churlish to deny the extra-musical impact of this performance. What lies beyond physical life? Maybe it's all one big con trick. But it does have a bearing on how we live in this world. Which is why it's fascinated people of all cultures for millennia. Listening to Das Lied von der Erde tonight, I kept thinking not only of Mahler but of my father, who resembled the composer in many ways although he couldn't stand Mahler's music, preferring Verdi. My Dad grew up in China. He was familiar with pavilions aus grünem und aus weißem Porzellan, and really did sit with friends talking about art, history and culture. When he was a refugee in the war, he climbed on the roof of the camp to look at the stars, even though he was crippled. South China was so much part of who he was that he withered in exile, like an uprooted plant, even though he kept active and learned many new things. In his old age, he kept a statue of Li Bo, the drunken poet, beside his favourite chair.

His last illness dragged on against all odds. He was a rational scientist but when the time came, he struggled on refusing to give in.  Being just as logical as he, I thought I'd be prepared at the end.  But no way. I shattered like an infant, unable to think straight for months. Any music seemed ludicrously trivial in the face of death. Then one day, much later, it felt like he was speaking to me "It's OK, I have reached the other side". And suddenly, inexplicably, Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde came pouring into my mind, full volume, full of feeling. For the first time, its complete meaning hit me, far greater than the text and music alone. It was like a message from my Dad, that whatever the transition was, it had passed and he was at peace. Totally, insanely illogical, as Mahler was the last composer my Dad would have communicated through. So maybe up wherever he is, he's chuckling at the irony.

For me, now when I hear Das Lied von der Erde, I think of the lotuses that appear almost casually in the text. Yet they are integral to the whole meaning of the song symphony. Lotuses grow in mud. Their roots are tough and fibrous. In summer, whole lakes can be covered by their strong, blue-green leaves. The flowers emerge, the petals so delicate-looking they seem like supernatural spirits. From mud, to purity. In the autumn they die back, but even in the north, where there is snow, they come back again in all their glory, in the spring.
Please see my other posts on Mahler and on Das Lied von der Erde, like THIS.

First complete Hugo Wolf songs set - part 1 Mörike

Hugo Wolf's songs to poems by Eduard Mörike are perhaps the most exquisite Lieder ever written. The songs flowed from Wolf's pen as if divinely inspired. Maybe they were, for they express the spirit of the poems so perfectly, it's almost as if they wrote themselves. Sometimes Wolf would write several in a day, intoxicated by their beauty.

This latest CD from small, independent label Stone Records  is the first in what will eventually be the first complete collection of Wolf's songs by a single group of performers. It will be a monumental undertaking, spread over 11 or 12 discs. There are more than 50 Mörike settings alone, and the range is so wide that one singer can't do them equal justice. Besides, hearing them performed together is a unique experience. This recording was made live at the Holywell Music Room in October 2010 as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival. The disc captures the spontaneous immediacy of live performance. One singer per song, of course, but such a sense of ensemble. These performers are listening to each other avidly, projecting and expecting a response from one another. It's hard to quantify precisely why this feels so vivid, but it feels right, as if we're listening to a group of friends at an early Wolfverein recital.

Perhaps it's because all these performers have worked together for years and have an established rapport. Sophie Daneman, Anna Grevelius, James Gilchrist and Stephan Loges, with pianist Sholto Kynoch, interact intuitively, so the recital flows seamlessly. They're clearly getting pleasure from being together, and the sense of ensemble comes over nicely.  The balance of four different voice types adds extra variety and adds to the charm. Chamber quartet in voice!

The sum of this performance is greater than its parts alone. Obviously, this set won't replace Schwarzkopf or Fischer-Dieskau or most of the really huge names that have done these songs before, but it's rewarding because it feels so personal.  This makes it special, and recommended for anyone who wants to know how live performance differs, even on recording, to studio work. This matters especially as Mörike was a poet for whom privacy was a statement of faith. He became a country prelate so he didn't have to work hard but could spend his time contemplating wild flowers and feeling the sunshine on his back. He believed in earth spirits and the supernatural. Not a man for whom the public sphere held  much attraction. Perhaps Wolf identified so closely with him because he, too, valued friendship and stillness. Both Mörike and Wolf were depressive. Perhaps they were aware that the "real" world isn't a nice place.

Each of these singers is highly experienced and distinctive, so it's also artistically rewarding. Sophie Daneman's Das verlassene Mägdlein is delicate and Stephan Loges' Fussreise vigorous. Anna Grevelius's An eine Äolsharfe lilts so gently that you imagine the sounds of a wind harp, animated by soft but invisible breezes. James Gilchrist shapes his words well in Auf eine Wanderung. Listen to the delicious "r"'s : "rückwärts die Stadt in goldnem Rauch: wie rauscht der Erlenbach wie rauscht der Erlenbach". Kynoch's piano dances lithely along, reinforcing the happy mood.

I confess a vested interest. I've long been associated with Oxford Lieder and contributed towards making this recording possible. Can't hide if my name's in the booklet!  On the other hand, I wouldn't be in that position if I hadn't spent a lifetime listening to Lieder and to Wolf. So I can sincerely recommend this recording. The ensemble atmosphere is so good that it will be a long time before this disc is surpassed in that sense. It is excellent, too, as an introduction to Wolf and to Mörike, because it enters into the inner world that inspired them better than more formal, technically sophisticated and "knowing" performances.

Please see my review of Stone Records Hugo Wolf Songs vol 4 - the early songs, Keller, Fallersleben, Ibsen and others, It's a must for serious Wolf lovers as rarities are conveniently collected together. I've also explained the arc of the set.

Gustav Mahler "such neat music"

Today is the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's death.  Last night I read the relevant passages in Henri-Louis de La Grange's monumental biography, depicting the composer's journey home to Vienna. Although I've read those pages many times before, they're still powerfully moving. Had penicillin existed then Mahler might have lived another 40 years. What might have happened? On the other hand, we know what happened to many he knew. De la Grange's biography shows how Mahler's mind was vital and creative. He wasn't death obsessed as the myths would have it, but lively, inquisitive, intellectually alert. He thought a lot about death, but as the negation of life, rather than as a fetish in itself. That, for me, is why Mahler's music is so endlessly uplifting. It stimulates the spirit to rise ever upwards and explore new horizons.

Many years ago my small son had just learned to read, and voraciously absorbed everything he saw. Propped against my record player was an LP of Mahler with the dates 1860-1911. My son didn't know about dates and thought the numbers were a math problem. "How can a smaller number minus a big one?" he asked.  So I explained what the numbers meant. To a kid, even the measurement oif time is a new concept. The little lad sat intently listening to the music though he was only four. Then he breathed a heartfelt sigh. "What a pity Mahler is dead ! He writes such neat music!"

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

ENO 2011 2012 season - daring! detailed summary

PREVIEW of Ca;luigula HERE.  REVIEW follows shortly. Has the ENO ditched gimmicks for really classy opera? The new 2011-2012 ENO seasons returns to the older tradition of genuinely challenging opera, presented without thrills. The two significant items are Detlev Glanert's Caligula and Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz. Glanert and Lenz are the most significant living composers in Germany. They're extremely well regarded. The dominance of English language media means that anglophones are insular. But Germany was, and is, where it's happening in music. So ENO, despite it's English language remit, is doing a huge public service by bringing Glanert and Rihm to London. These could be landmark productions.

Glanert and Rihm are huge names and always feature in new music events. (Rihm's more avant garde, Glanert more accessiible).  In fact, they're so significant that they've been featured at the Proms. Rihm was the subject of a BBC Total Immersion last year. (read HERE and HERE). Regular visitors to this site will know them well which is why I've written so much about them in the past (use search box and labels at right)

Detlev Glanert is one of the few students Hans Werner Henze ever took on, so that in itself is an indication of how interesting he is. Like Henze, he loves music that "acts", also a good sign. Caligula, one of Glanert's many operas, grew out of  Theatrum bestiarum, a commission from the BBC for a gala piece using the Royal Albert Hall 's massive organ.  Caligula was an eccentric psychopath, so becoming a Roman Emperor gave him free licence to run amok. The opera's about how he bullies those who stand up to him. It's vivid and quirky, imbued by Glanert's warped but pointed sense of satire. Caligula's mad, and a tyrant, and the opera isn't all laughs. It's been revived several times. I caught it in Frankfurt in 2009. Read about it in more detail HERE. The production then was stupid, but the opera is good and will support a much more incisive staging. ENO is using Benedict Andrews, who did Monteverdi's Ulysses as Reservoir Dogs. Thank goodness, because the last thing Caligula needs is a director who thinks it's trite comedy. If Andrews takes his cues from the music this time, he could do something great.

Rihm's Jakob Lenz is an early (1977) chamber opera. Rihm went on to write lots more music theatre and music that incorporates voice. It's just that his orchestral and chamber music is so astoundingly good that it eclipses all else. Jakob Lenz was an eccentric writer who became insane. The opera is based on a play about him by Georg Büchner who wrote Woyzeck, now known as Wozzeck. It's only one act, so I'm not sure how it's going to be presented. Indications are that it's being done as a stand alone at the small Hampstead Theatre. Below I've posted a clip of Rihm's Jakob Lenz as a taster.

The ENO has a wonderful John Adams/Philip Glass tradition, so the new production of Adams's Death Of Klinghoffer will be a must.  When it premiered it caused a furore, hitting headlines ordinary operas can't hope to achieve. The subject's still controversial, so maybe it's a blessing that it's on in February 2012, before the Olympics, when it might be a bit too close for comfort.

Wonderful, too, that ENO are doing even more thought provoking work about serious issues. Mieczysław Weinberg's The Passenger starts 19th September 2011. When it was at Bregenz last year, Opera Cake wrote about it so vividly that it felt like you were actually there in the audiernce with him. Read him HERE This is what music writing should be like! Maybe we're getting the same production, but in English. What a scoop!

Altogther 11 new productions, which is soome kind of record in these straitened times. They include classics like Billy Budd, Rameau's Castor and Pollux, The Marriage of Figaro and The Flying Dutchman.  Much has been made of "four living composers" in the media but it's misleading. Although it's unethical to judge someone you haven't heard, I don't think Damon Albarn is anything near Glanert, Rihm or Adams. Because Albarn, Wainwright and others are heard at the Linbury, there's clearly a niche market for rock and pop composers branching into opera. But that doesn't automatically translate into cutting edge "new music". Like or not like, we need to know the difference or end up looking stupid.
 Photo above : Mike Quinn


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Monday, 16 May 2011

Die Walküre Met - artistic schizophrenia? Terfel, Kaufmann

What to make of the Met's Wagner Die Walküre? Brilliant First Act, so powerful it seemed like the whole Met ethos had been transformed. Das Rheingold was much derided because Robert Lepage's Big Machine took the spotlight. But in many ways, Das Rheingold failed because the singing, costumes and direction were sub-standard. The machine was a scapegoat. This Die Walküre indicates that it's been vindicated. The fault lies not with the set but the way it's used.

Stormy skies, a dense forest. Small figures appear in the cracks that open when the machine slats open. The Machine isn't a monolith - that in itself is an insight. So oppressive is this "forest" that when Siegmund collapses it feels like he's genuinely been through an overwhelming struggle. Jonas Kaufmann is amazing. I'd worried that his most perfect Lohengrin might not translate into wildman Siegmund, but Kaufmann characterizes so well that he's expanded the role beyond all expectations.

Siegmund is unlettered but not uncouth. Kaufmann's Siegmund bristles with intensity and intelligence. In the context of the whole Ring saga, it's a relatively small part, but Kaufmann shows why it's so critically important in the wider scheme of things. This is Siegmund as  a true hero, one for whom even a Valkyrie will challenge the Gods. As Wehwalt he suffered, but also helped others when he could. Siegfried in comparison can be a bit of a boor. As his Siegmund dies, Kaufmann raises his hand to caress Wotan's face. It's incredibly poignant and moving, intensely evocative.The role sits slightly high for his voice, so there's some strain, such as the sudden, tricky leap upwards on "Geliebter" after the quiet "Schwester". But many have been far worse. What counts is the overall portrayal : Kaufmann sets new standards.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was an excellent foil. She coils around Kaufmann's Siegmund so well that they really do seem like twin serpents.Westbroek isn't a typical "pretty" soprano but a good character singer who can bring edgy depth  to what she does. There's more to Sieglinde than doormat. I loved Westbroek's punk Elektra in Zurich, and her fiesty, sexual Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. Neither role a conventional interpretation, but perfectly valid in context.

Bryn Terfel coasted through the Met's recent Das Rheingold. He was right. Why should he bother when no-one else was even trying? Maybe this time a stronger international cast upped the stakes. Terfel responded.  Terfel's voice is so huge it impresses even when he's more into bark than bite, but here he was throwing himself into character, breathing into words so they came alive. Nuance and Terfel don't necessarily come together, but in this Wotan, Terfel brings out the insecurity at the heart of the role. Wotan wanders because he's searching for something he doesn't have. A paradigm for modern man perhaps, which makes the role so resonant. Exquisitely well balanced, thoughtful monologue in Act Two. Terfel cultivates a gruff persona for his public, but inside there's a sensitive artistic soul that needs to get out more.

Fricka on the other hand represents uncompromising moral absolutes. Stephanie Blythe sang with more gravitas and depth than she's done in years, but the ludicrous costume and throne destoyed her credibility. She's turned into the Queen in Disney's Snow White. It's a warning sign of the silliness that will eventually submerge this otherwise brilliant production. The real damage starts when Brünnhilde enters.

Deborah Voigt is an insider at the Met, so an obvious choice for a high profile production but Brünnhilde really isn't the role for her. I've rarely seen such a one-dimensional performance.Vocally, she's under pressure, so thin at the top she's almost shrill. But far more worrying is the characterization, or lack thereof.  It's as if the insight that went into directing the first two acts suddenly disintegrated.

Any Ring cycle predicates on Brünnhilde, for she is the real hero of the whole cycle. Brünnhilde is the real hero of the Ring because she's the one who breaks its curse. She's a formidably original personality who breaks rules.  Long before the opera begins. she's established her credentials. That's why she's Wotan's pet, for she's smarter than he is. Instead, Voigt simpers, pouts and acts coy like she's exceedingly pleased with herself.  There can be many ways to create Brünnhilde but this one goes against everything we can glean from the text, music and what we know of Wagner's philosophy. Whoever directed Voigt this way does extreme harm. If this is what the role is like at this stage in the saga, what will be be when it proceeds further?

Even Francis Ford Coppola realized how traumatic the Ride of the Valkyries should be. It's an apocalyptic nightmare, where warriors feud even after they're dead. Wagner's music is powerful because the Ride shows where greed leads.  So what do we get from the Met? Jolly cheerleaders in comic book costumes collecting neat plastic bones in gauze bundles. No matter how spirited the playing from the pit, the whole impact of the Ring is rendered trivial.  The production started out so well, so when it ends a mess, it's heartbreaking.

The wonderful first two acts of Die Walküre  prove that this new Ring has the potential to become one of the great classics. So why did it go so horribly wrong in  the Third Act? Were there two completely different directors, or did the Third Act die stillborn in embryo form?   So much has been invested in this project that it's hard to believe it's being left half finished. Perhaps it's a Lepage thing tio run out of steam but too many people were involved in this to make it a one-person show. What is really going on behind the scenes at the Met? Don't they want a good production to replace the last? The disparity between the two different approaches is so extreme it feels like an act of artistic sabotage, suicide or schizophrenia.

Blaming the Big Machine is a non-starter now that we've seen how good this production can be. Because the machine can undulate and contort, it's potential is huge, used imaginatively. At one point in the Second Act, the machine undulated, as if the ground underfoot was falling apart. Ominous flashes of red light, as if lava was about to spew forth. What a fantastic simile for the twisted moral ground in the plot! But the idea fades and instead we have safe, boring and bland. Let's hope Lepage and/or  the Met decide what they really want to do with this Ring. Whatever Wagner may be, he's not safe, boring or bland.

Live, Abbado, Mahler Das Lied von der Erde Berlin

Live on Wednesday 18th May, the anniversary of Mahler's death one hundred years ago. Claudio Abbado conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, paired with the Adagio from what would have been Mahler's Tenth Symphony. LINK HERE.

This anniversary year has been marred  by too many jumping on the bandwagon. Abbado and the Berliners will, however, do the composer justice. This could be a concert to remember for a long time. Soloists are Anne Sofie von Otter and Jonas Kaufmann. I first encountered Kaufmann singing this at Edinburgh, years ago, when he'd just moved out of the Munich training system.  It was a disaster. As someone said at the time "But isn't Das Lied von der Erde a set of drinking songs?"  which kind of summed it up. "No, it's not", I wept.  Fortunately for all of us, Kaufmann has matured tremendously. Years ago I used to think he'd be best in repertoire that suits the soft focus of his voice - ideal in Strauss, Rossini etc - but his Lohengrin and Siegmund show he's developed. Anne Sofie von Otter's voice has become richer and deeper too, "warmed by life" which does count for something. There's more to Mahler than surface magnificence. What makes him what he is is, I think, emotional complexity, which comes from within.

I will be writing a full commenatry about this AMAZING performance later, but for the time being here arev two other posts on Das Lied von der Erde, one about the Chinese imagery and the other about more personal experiences.  Please come back, there's lots on Mahler on this site and original stuff you won't find elsewhere !

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Frühling läßt sein blaues Band


Frühling läßt sein blaues Band
Wieder flattern durch die Lüfte;
Süße, wohlbekannte Düfte
Streifen ahnungsvoll das Land.
Veilchen träumen schon,
Wollen balde kommen.
Horch, von fern ein leiser Harfenton!
Frühling, ja du bist's!
Dich hab ich vernommen!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Mahler the Ballet - Snow White !


Mahler liked Des Knaben Wunderhorn. One of the tales associated with folk culture is Snow White (or variants thereof). Mahler didn't write opera or ballet. Ergo, Snow White the Ballet to music by Gustav Mahler !  Special screening on Sky Arts 2 TV on Saturday, May 21st to commemorate Mahler's anniversary of Angelin Preljocaj's 2008 ballet Blanche-Neige.

Obviously, never judge anything on the basis of youtube clips. This kind of mélange is a soft target because it's so odd. so it's easy to play safe and slam it. Read this review HERE, from Canada. But such things are so often muddled gibberish, and it might well be an abomination. But balletomanes operate in a completely different artistic universe, where expressive dance is primary, music secondary, hard as it is for music lovers to grasp.  But it works when the result is artistically valid in itself and makes a coherent statement that says something with real meaning. 

Preljocaj wanted to create "une parenthèse féerique et enchantée".....Je suis fidèle à la version des frères Grimm, à quelques variations personnelles près, fondées sur mon analyse des symboles du conte. Bettelheim décrit Blanche Neige comme le lieu d’un œdipe inversé. La marâtre est sans doute le personnage central du conte. C'est elle aussi que j'interroge à travers sa volonté narcissique de ne pas renoncer à la séduction et à sa place de femme, quitte à sacrifier sa belle fille. L’intelligence des symboles appartient aux adultes autant qu'aux enfants, elle parle à tous et c’est pour cela que j'aime les contes." (link here to the company site) The subject is oblique and lends itself to impressionistic and lends to abstract interpretation. And no delusions about "setting" Mahler.

Mahler has been used in ballet for ages. Anthony Tudor's Dark Elegies (1937) for example. I can't stand it because it purports to be a realization of Kindertotenlieder but misses the whole point of the original. It worked because audiences weren't familiar with Mahler and had no means of assessing the music in its natural context. A bit like Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic which London audiences think is a camp comedy about Irishmen.  Like a Christmas tree star represents the galaxies. Tudor's choreography, however, is more interesting on its own terms.

And then there's Dracula : Pages from a Virgin's Diary.  That was Mark Godden, presented by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet about 20 years ago. It wasn't a telling of the Dracula story itself but a completely original exploration on the deeper psychological issues. Blood, and the mixing of blood, sinister strangers from the East, sex and miscegenation.  All only too relevant considering that Canada, like the US had laws against mixed race marriage until fairly recently. and subscribed to myths of the Yellow Peril. It was a compelling and serious creation. The fact that the music was Mahler's Symphony no 3 was largely irrelevant. Like the vampire concealing himself as a bat or aristocrat to penetrate the defences of society, Godden concealed the powerful message in his work behind music and dance so it infiltrated more effectively than, say, a documentary.At the time, audiences were shocked that Canada had a racist past. But Godden dealt with it in a penetrating way.

I've got no idea what Blanche-Neige will be like, but the question is whether it expresses something real in itself, as opposed to mere styling. Costumes by Jean-Paul Gaulthier so "styling" in that sense alone might be OK. I won't hold my breath as there is so much rubbish about. Dracula : Pages from a Virgin's Diary was such an improbable success because it was original and well thought through. Not everything is.

Elgar Three Choirs Festival Worcester 2011

My review of Elgar Caractacus at Worcester 3 Choirs is here. "Beware trip hazard!" What a fantastic photo! (Bob Embleton) It's Elgar, his statue in Worcester, surveying the city being cleaned. But hazard a trip to this year's Three Choirs Festival. Although Worcester is only 90 minutes by car from Oxford and 3 hours plus from London by car, taking the train and staying overnight is a good option, because you get into the more relaxed vibe of the Cotswolds.

The Three Choirs Festival isn't London, "the town built ill" as Housman wrote.  This part of the Cotswolds, "the quietest under the sun", has been prosperous since the Middle Ages, which is why there are three grand cathedrals  fairly close to each other, supporting a large community of singers. The Three Choirs Festival started 300 years ago so the choirs could get together and have what is essentially a mass party, everyone celebrating with song and goodwill.  There's nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.  It operates in a kind of time warp with its own values. From an anthropological perspective, that's fascinating  I've written a lot about the Three Choirs mystique before (use search button or labels at right and below). It's wonderful because it's not glitzy and trendy.

Three Choirs 2011 features a lot that can be heard in London, but will sound different in Worcester's very non-London atmosphere.  For completely emotional reasons, Elgar always feels right in these surroundings  This year's Big Event is Elgar's Caractacus on August 10th. For my detailed review please see here.  Caractacus was an ancient Briton who held out against the Romans. Legend has it he was finally captured in the Malvern Hills, hence the romantic connotations. Taken as a prisoner to Rome he defied the sophisticates at court and impressed the Emperor. Caractacus was a wild man more used to tents and the open air than Roman palaces, so perhaps when Londoners descend on Worcester, they might remember that there is another England.  Sir Andrew Davis conducts the (London based) Philharmonia, good singers. Elgar's Caractacus isn't ultra familiar, so Paul Spicer is giving a talk, titled "There are Druids in the Malverns". He's a charismatic speaker and really knows his material, so get there if you can.  The Elgar Society lunch is also on the same day, which is convenient. (AND you can hear Alison Balsom's trumpet recital.)

Another interesting concert will be "English Exiles" at Tewksebury Abbey on 8th August, featuring music by British composers forced by the religious struggles of the 17th century to work abroad. That same evening, back in Worcester, Mahler's Third Symphony which has been heard so often in London that we might get blasé. Here though, it's the Philharmonia, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, who is so good that even jaded Londoners might want this one. It won't be boring.  The soloist is Catherine Wyn-Rogers and the choirs come from the combined Three Choirs Chorus. It's followed by a late night concert by the Lay Clerks. Although I've never been to these concerts, they're supposed to be a lot of fun and are a regular fixture.

Worcester and Elgar are inextricably entwined, so there are other Elgar events planned. Dame Janet Baker is speaking at the Three Choirs Society Lunch (members only) and there are tours to Elgar's birthplace at Broadheath (which I've also written about ). It's a place of pilgrimage which you "need" to go to when the Festival is in Worcester.  Plays too, Hamlet and one about Alice and Elgar. Talks, walks and recitals.  Since cathedrals and organs are even more inextricably linked than Elgar and Worcester, you'd be mad to miss organ concerts at this Festival, which attracts organists from all over the country. There's even a transcription of Elgar's Second Symphony for organ, by David Briggs, after the bigger profile but more straightforward Harry Christophers The Sixteen on 9th August. Massive programme, and it is also being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in September. .For more, please visit the Three Choirs website.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Berlioz Gilliam Damnation of Faust ENO - review

Maybe Mephistofeles intervened to blow up Google blogger so this post would disappear! But here it is the long promised review of Gilliam's take on Berlioz Faust at the ENO.  " best approached as a Monty Python skit on the theme of Faust, with incidental soundtrack by Berlioz."  Which is pretty mild indeed.  I don't have any objection to things being updated as long as they're done intelligently and with  purpose. But a collection of images with no meaning makes a mockery of one of the most metaphysical icons of all time. The Germans didn't make a pact with the Devil, nor did the Jews. Racial stereotypes and distortions cause wars. Only with real understanding and sensitivity can we avoid things like the Holocaust ever happening again.

I carefully avoided reading any of Gilliam's interviews and podcasts so I wouldn't be influenced.  But here is a corker you simply couldn't make up. "Berlioz was crackers" said Gilliam, "He suffered like me". Sure Berlioz was full of his own self-importance, but he took the subject seriously. And it's his music, not some irrelevance that gets in the way of what's happening on stage. Many directors new to opera don't understand it. Gilliam actively hates it. Faust was an intellectual who cared about truth and ideals. The Devil and the Brownshirts were anti-intellectuals who put the boot into what they didn't understand. Most ordinary people in Germany probably didn't like the Nazis but were caught up in the hysteria. Any society that mocks intellect and learning falls victim to totalitarian brutality. Beware emotive jackboots!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Bluebell Klean, Josephine Lang and Ida von Hahn-Hahn

Bluebell Klean, Ella Mary Leather, Olga Samaroff, Josephine Lang, Ida von Hahn-Hahn.... what names! Who could they have been?  Names like that conjure up colourful connotations. The latest edition of Signature, the Maud Powell Society's magazine, is now out. Download it HERE (and also back issues). Do explore, because it's about singular, often courageous people who had interesting lives even if they aren't household names. We don't even begin to appreciate what women have achieved because we're brainwashed by clichéd assumptions about what women could or couldn't do in the past.  Because society teaches us to evaluate things in male terms, we evaluate male composers primarily by their formal achievements. Thus we underestimate the extent to which female composers were productive in several different aspects of life at the same time.

Josephine Lang is a perfect example of a woman whose creativity was expressed in different directions. She raised a large family in difficult circumstances while continuing to write good music. Having a family is a vocation even if it's not regarded in modern terms as a "career". For Lang, family wasn't an optional either/or, it was part of who she was. The definitive biography by Harald and Sharon Krebs,  comes with a full CD of her music. Malcolm Martineau included Lang's songs in his current series on German song at the Wigmore Hall. In this current edition of Signature, Sharon Krebs writes about Lang's relationships with the poets whose music she set. Some of them were personal friends, women like Ida von Hahn-Hahn, who led similarly muti-tasking lives as she did. She networked. She wasn't "suppressed".  One of the interesting things about Lang is her relationship with Felix Mendelssohn, who mentored her. This supplements R Larry Todd's authoritative study of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. I admire Josephine Lang (and Fanny Hensel) because their creativity was channeled through more than one course. Read the article on Lang and her poets in Signature, it's fascinating. (scroll to page 18 onn the download).

Similarly, Bluebell Klean, who adopted her unusual first name herself. She was a composer and pianist who gave a concert of her own music at the Bechstein Room in 1906, now renamed the Wigmore Hall. Programmes remain of other concerts of her work until 1914, after which she seems to disappear from the archives. But she didn't retreat from life. There's a wonderful photo from a 1924 newspaper where she's grinning next to a huge fish. Champion angler, winning a competition out of a field of 300!

Also in this current issue is an article on Olga Samaroff,  aka Mrs Leopold Stokowski, but a most distinctive personality in her own right. Her "Russian" name was an invention, adopted to sound exotic and more marketable. She came from Texas and was a charismatic teacher.  Also articles on Myra Hess in the US, Meira Warschauer and  Elinor Remick Warren, who looks the spitting image of the actress Lee Remick. Are they related ? If so, creative women in several generations.

Ella Mary Leather? She appears in a back issue of Signature but what a name!  She was a county matron from the shires who spent her life doing good deeds for others, a pillar of her community which is no bad thing at all. Yet she also researched folk customs and music in her local area. Raplh Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth awere indebted to her. Cecil Sharp eventually monopolized the folk song and dance scene, so the women who were so active in the field were eventually written out of the record. But they were there ! And it's thanks to magazines like Signature that they won't be forgotten.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Adriana Lecouvreur on arte-TV

That wonderful Cilea Adriana Lecouvreur at the Royal Opera House last year is now avalable on arte+7 TV for days. Do not miss, it's gorgeous ! Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Corbelli. HERE is the link.  Here are links to my review and to the one in Opera Today.

Nazi Imagery, why and why not

Twenty years ago, the Hayward Gallery showed an exhibtion from Germany on "Romantic Art". The usual suspects, of course, but then something quite shocking - paintings from the Nazi period, such as this, The Sower (1937) by Oskar Martin-Amorbach (1897-1987). Ostensibly it's vaguely folksy, like a faux medieval illumination, to appeal to the regressive tastes of the time. But look carefully. The fields are angular, Cézanne translated into art deco. The farmer is supposed to be hardy and wizened but there's a crazy look in his eye. (click photo to enlarge) What kind of seed is he really planting, I wondered, what is the painter trying to say ?

In societies like Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia and indeed Nazi Germany, modernism wasn't extinguished but adapted. But because art had to serve political purposes, public art had to be simplistic. It was advertising, after all.  Don't think, was the message, just act ! Which is why, ironically, there's hardly any stylistic difference between public art of the Right and the Left. The images are the same, just change the labels. This appeal to mindlessness is perhaps why Nazi imagery appeals to so many. Automatic clichés are easier to fall back on than real analysis or understanding. This shallow comic book mentality is dangerous because it replicates exactly the mindset behind totalitarianism. Using Nazi and other didactic imagery is OK when it's used for a specific purpose, such as to provoke thought. Nazi imagery as fashion statement is obscene, the fallback of a lazy mind. And it's lazy minds that swallow slogans and let totalitarianism reign. Nothing to be complacent about.

Today I've been thinking about Mel Brooks The Producers. It's a brilliant movie, even though it looks very much of its time (1968) but it was so topical that it was hilarious. The whole movie is a savage commentary on society. Two con men want to scam investors by making the worst possible movie, so they can run off with the money. So they get the worst possible performers and the worst possible storyline, Springtime For Hitler. Extreme kitsch crassness, designed to be ridiculous. Yet audiences fall for it and the show becomes a hit. Mel Brooks and his team used comedy to make serious observations. The Producers shows how easy it is to fool the gullible. Give 'em a song and a dance and they'll march in step to anyone. Even the conmen were outclassed.  Here's a link to an article about modernism in totalitarian art by Roger Griffin in 2007.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Berlioz Damnation of Faust not ENO full download

After the depressingly superficial ENO Gilliam The Damnation of Faust at ENO last night, I need to hear the piece as music again.  First and above all, it's not an opera.  The drama is in the music rather than in the actions, however fantastical they may be. Even the arias are vignette set pieces rather than truly interactive relationships between the singers. Though Berlioz's vivid non verbal exuberance doesn't limit possible stagings, it  doesn't mean that it can be submerged in another story. This music isn't soundtrack. It "is" the drama. I can imagine wondrous film versions of this music which let the imagination do things with Berlioz's music no stage production could possibly manage. But visuals would come from the music rather than impose themselves over the music. Fundamentally Faust is an adventure in metaphysics : narrowing its focus turns it into comic book.

Anyway, HERE is a link to another non commercial recording of Berlioz The Damnation of Faust with Nicolai Gedda, who created the role many times. Marilyn Horne, Roger Soyer, Georges Prêtre conducting. Rome, 1969. COMPLETE download, and links to libretto in French. And if you want more, HERE is a link to a complete download of the original Faust movie from 1926 - F W Murnau's classic.  The more you get into the Faust legend, and its ramifications, the less you can tolerate infantile trivia. Please also see this on Boulezian, wonderful analysis.