Friday, 31 August 2012

Atmosphèric Lohengrin Berliner Phil Prom Ligeti Wagner Sibelius

At BBC Prom 63, Simon Rattle brought the Berliner Philharmoniker and did more than just play. They illuminated their music. Ligeti's Atmosphères, Wagner's Act 1 Prelude to Lohengrin, Sibelius Symphony no 4, combined in a flowing seam where each highlighted the other.

The long, reverberating opening chord of Ligeti's Atmosphères gives way to layer after layer of extended sounds. This really is "music from another planet", emanations so pure, high and unnaturally sustained that it must be hell to play. No "melody" as such, but changes of direction and density. Long hollow chords which seem to move from some extraterrestial plane, heralding a rumble from which other chords arise. Low brass pulsate, and the strings shimmer, like rays of light stretching outwards, accelerating in intensity. When I was a kid I used to look up at the sky and think think that shafts of sunlight bursting from clouds were "God", for that's how an abstract idea like God is depicted in religious imagery.

Above all, Ligeti's Atmosphères suggests a soaring sense of infinite expansiveness. Hearing the first strains of Wagner emerge from Ligeti  rings absolutely true in a deeper spiritual sense. Lohengrin isn't historical. Christianity had long since been established by the time Heinrich der Vogler came to Brabant. or he wouldn't be fighting the Huns. In any case, what's authentic about  Lohengrin or the whole Grail community for that matter? From a theological perspecvtive it's hogwash, if not outright blasphemy.  What the Grail represents, however, is something much more primeval than Christianity. It's an ideal that transcends time and context. Hearing this Prelude after Ligeti suggests that Grail values transcend human history, and derive from the cosmos. It goes without saying that the Berliner Philharmonikers are good. Here, they were exceptional. It wasn't just the beauty of their playing, it was the emotional committment .

Theodor Adorno hated Sibelius, in part because performance practice in those days emphasized the  picturesque aspects of his music rather than the innate structural qualities. Sibelius Fourth Symphony was a breakthrough, so shocking in its time that many thought it incomprehensible. In this performance, Rattle and the Berliners show how visionary Sibelius really was. Dark, primordial undercurrents, rent through by blasts of sharply defined chords. The imagery of light in Wagner, the  idea of abstract eternity in Ligeti.  The winds of change so familiar in Sibelius seem to blow from a higher level of consciousness. Sibelius's interest in the Kalevala and nature wasn't regressive but forward thinking. This performance emphasized the "wide open spaces" in the symphony, and the thrill of discovery that makes Sibelius so exciting from a modern perspective. How radical that ending sounds, considering when it was written.

Rattle and the Berliners changed focus in the second part of Prom 63. Ostensibly the connection between Debussy's Jeux and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe is ballet, but that's simplistic. Ballet music is constrained by the limits of the human body, but abstract music isn't. By choosing the Suite on Daphnis et Chloe rather than the full piece, Rattle could focus on the brisk liveliness in both works. In Debussy, the pace was tempered by a good sense of structure. Games, after all, depend on strategy not impulse. In the Suite from Daphnis et Chloe, Rattle and the Berliners could let loose with greater exuberance, capturing its innate spirit of freedom. Not, after all, so very different from the light-filled, open horizons of Ligeti, Wagner and Sibelius.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Hymnus Paradisi Howells Elgar Brabbins Prom 61

Herbert Howells Hymnus Paradisi is not a rarity. Indeed, it's considered by some to be his masterpiece, extremely well known to those interested in British choral tradition. Sowhat if it's new to the Proms?  Several recordings exist, Vernon Handley, David Hill, David Willcox and my personal favourite, Richard Hickox. So it's fitting that it was included in this Proms season with its sucession of spectacular choral extravangazas. Martyn Brabbins is a great champion of British music, but with huge experience of more contemporary music.  Brabbins conducted Howells and Elgar's Symphony No 1 with a fresh new perspective.

Hymnus Paradisi is an amalgam of private grief, public celebration and art for its own sake. Howell's only son Michael died suddenly, aged only 9. Any parent would be devastated: no one ever "gets over" such events. Howells worked through his grief with music. Hymnus Paradisi is no less than a rumination on the meaning of life and loss. As a young man, Howells was so sickly that he nearly died, and couldn't serve in the First World War. The irony was not lost on him. When Howells wrote Hymnus Paradisi, he wasn't to know he'd live til 1983, but he knew his friend Ivor Gurney was incarcerated in a mental hospital, far from his beloved Gloucestershire hills.

Unlike so many Requiems and memorial pieces, Hymnus Paradisi is deeply felt and deeply personal. Although Howells is writing for big orchestra and choir, the last thing you want in performance is insincerity. Brabbins's approach emphasizes the luminous qualities in this music: high, bright textures, always ascending, refusing to wallow in self indulgence. How quietly this Preludio began, suggesting, perhaps, lost innocence. Yet already, sudden, shining chords break through. The choirs enter in hushed tones, without breaking the reverie. Only when the soloist, Miah Persson, sings, do the choirs begin to reach greater volume. The organ enters, reminding us of the force of suffering. It's interesting how Howells works the different phrases in The Lord is my Shepherd, so they aren't full blast unison, maximizing instead the poignancy of the solo soprano line "I will lift up miine eyes". Quietly, the tenor (Andrew Kennedy) repeats "The Lord is my Shepherd". Parallel songs, parallel prayers, parallel lives. This interweaving is crucial, I think, to the meaning of the work, for it emphasizes the idea that those gone are neither alone nor lost. Only then do the choirs (BBC Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir) and the BBC SO reach full crescendo.

"I heard a voice from Heaven" sings Kennedy, alone. Again the interplay of voices is critical, for in a burial service, one person takes leave from those around him and  goes out on their own. But as Howells shows it's a journey into glorious eternal light. "Wonderful, wonderful" is the holy light which receives those who die, and offers comfort to those who believe. "Alleluja!". Hymnus Paradisi ends in a glowing halo. Eternal rest, eternal bliss.

I used to do an annual pilgrimage to Chosen Hill, where Ivor Gurney would stride ahead, Howells behind him, and then visit nearby Twigworth where Howells, Gurney and Michael are buried together. Photo by Jeffrey Carter (link here)  Arguably, Gurney was  by far the greater and more originnal composer (and poet), and I suspect Howells knew, which  makes Hymnus Paradisi so moving.  I loved Brabbins's Elgar First Symphony, tightly structured and lucid, but was so wiped out emotionally by his Howells that I had to listen again to the broadcast to appreciate how well Brabbins conducts Elgar.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Is my team ploughing? A E Housman's inner world


Courtesy of EMI, Ralph Vaughan Williams's setting of AE Housman's Is My Team Ploughing. Bernard Haitink conducts the LSO, Ian Bostridge is the soloist. It's 1999, don't they all look young?  Even though Bostridge's diction isn't as precise as it is now, he's expressing the spooky ambiguity in the song on a much eerier level than most. The dialogue is between the dead man and his living male friend. Interestingly, the dead man asks first about his animals, then about football. The girlfriend comes last. Vaughan Williams leaves out the football stanza, while Gurney and Butterworth leave it in. "Aye, the ball is flying, the lads play heart and soul. The goal stands up, the keeper stands up to keep the goal". Vaughan Williams setting is superb, but the stanza does count, since it's a coded reference to what's happening in the dead man's sweetheart's bed.

Throughout Housman's work runs a thread of young men dying while in their prime unable to develop relationships with women. Men glance at one another, meaningfully, without articulating their feelings. A young shepherd is condemned to hang: Housman muses on "a neck God made for other use than strangling on a string". In an era when homosexuality meant death, or at least condemnation, Housman never denied his orientation, quietly supporting dignity. The love of his life was Moses Jackson, who was straight, married and moved abroad, remaining forever young in Housman's memory. Hence, perhaps, the images of athletes and soldiers, doomed  young men, beds, graves, sleep, death and curiously inert women who inhabit Housman's poetry. Even 1887 (set by C W Orr) isn't so much an antiwar protest as a lament for the loss of healthy young bloodstock. See also my post on The Lads in Their Hundreds.

Housman's De Amaticia refers to Moses Jackson. It wasn't published until 30 years after Housman's death.

 Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say
 It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
Goodbye, said you, forget me.
I will, no fear, said I

If here, where clover whitens
The dead man's knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Stone Records : C W Orr Song book vol 2

C W Orr isn't unknown. More than ten years ago, Hyperion issued a 2 CD set of songs based on A E Housman's poems from A Shropshire Lad  with settings by Butterworth, Moeran, John Ireland and five by C W Orr. The late Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang and Alan Bates recited. Mark Stone has put a lot of research into this new complete Orr series, uncovering songs and biographical details about the composer, not readily available. Stone Records Complete C W Orr Songbook vols 1 and 2 fill a significant gap in the discography of British music.

Stone Records has made a major contribution to the music of Frederick Delius, recording Delius's complete songs and his music for piano and small ensemble. Hence the C W Orr set, for Orr owed his career to Delius. Orr himself was something of an anomaly. The posthumous son of an officer in the late Victorian  Raj, he seems to have had a very sheltered life in Gloucestershire.  Much has been made oif his fondness for German Lieder, which was hardly unusual at the time, even in England. But the influence is frankly hard to detect in his music, which owes as much to late Victorian song and to British composers a generation older than Orr himself.  Delius learned from Grieg and the European mainstream of his own time.  Orr, on the other hand, seems to have immersed himself in a form of Englishness that Delius eschewed. Delius lived in France. Orr, uncommonly attached to his mother and later responsible for her female companion, spent most of his life in the Cotswolds, mainly in Painswick. His only other musical influence seems to have been Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), who died in 1930. This  biographical background is important because it sets Orr's music into context.

Some of the songs on this second volume of Orr's songs date from as late as 1959, but stylistically they could have been written more than fifty years earlier. Don't even venture Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi or Ralph Vaughan Williams. Perhaps this explains Orr's identification with A E Housman, a favourite of composers before the First World War. One of the better songs in this volume is Housman's 1887 where the poet writes of soldiers dying in the service of Empire in far-flung colonies. The fate of Orr's father is pertinent. Housman contrasted Queen Victoria's 50th Jubilee with the loss of healthy young men. Orr however sets the poem in a straightforwardly heroic style, missing Hiusman's darker subtext altogether. He quite likely wasn't even aware of the homoerotic undercurrents in Housman's work, which gives it such distinctive emotional character. The song dates from 1937. It's almost cheerfully lilting and insouciant, with a jolly final flourish. One wonders what George Butterworth would have made of this poem. Read about Mark Stone's excellent George Butterworth Songbook.

Even had Orr, who died  as recently as 1976, belonged to his parents' generation, one wonders if he'd have made an impact in comparison with masters like Vaughan Williams and  Butterworth. Their settings of Housman poems are masterpieces. Orr's style depends on heavy, workmanlike word painting rather tham musical inspiration. The phrasing is often stilted, forcing a naturally mellifluous voice like Mark Stone's into awkward corners and sudden contortions. Simon Lepper is fortunate because the piano parts are written in a prosaic, even unsubtle way that makes no great demands.  Nontheless Stone Records has made a major contribution to British music by recording Orr's work. Stone's trademark is meticulously well prepared professionalism, giving all the composers they record as high quality as possible presentation.  The Stone Records Havergal Brian Songbook is wonderful beecause it makes a very strong case for Brian's quirky individuality. It's a genuinely lovable recording. (read more here).

Orr is far less original than Havergal Brian, so don't expect the same delights. But Stone Records makes the best possible case for him, and that is a service to British music.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Strange Twins Knussen Debussy Goehr Prom 56

Oliver Knussen is an institution. He lights up every Prom season but this year was special, as he was conducting his own Symphony No 3. This piece was the true breakthrough of his career. Hearing Knussen revisit the piece, more than thirty years after he completed it, was a revelation. This performance sounded so fresh and bright, it was like hearing the piece anew. The dreamy lyricism of Michael Tilson Thomas's recording of 1981 gives way to a tighter, more incisive reading where details are pinpointed in sharp relief.

In Shakespeare, Ophelia loses her mind, singing "mad songs" and dancing wild dances. She is a paradigm of a creative artist, who uses art to articulate emotion. Knussen's Third Symphony is abstract, but its sinuous figures suggest curving, swaying movement, like a dancer turning in circles. Knussen has referred to its "cinematic" nature and "the potential relationship in film between a tough and fluid narrative form and detail which can be frozen or 'blown up' at any point." Without words, Knussen creates drama, in the shifting layers and tempi. Each permutation unfolds like a frenzied dance, or perhaps processional, given the size of these orchestral forces. The orchestra is huge - especially for a piece that lasts 15 minutes, but at its heart lie just three players, a sub unit oif celeste, harp and guitar (alternating mandolin). Does that suggest Mahler's Seventh Symphony, and its strange Nachtmusik? Knussen and Mahler don't sound the least bit similar, and Knussen is not a Mahler conductor (and the celeste appears elswhere) but the comparison is fruitful, because both symphonies evoke contradictory responses. Knussen's symphony "dances" with grave dignity, strong tutti chords suggesting fractured intensity. Darkness and blinding bright light. Yet at the heart, quiet, simple sounds suggesting the fragile human soul within.

Alexander Goehr's Metamorphosis Dance  dates from 1974, whch links it to the period when Knussen began working on the Third Symphony. For Goehr, the archetypical dancer is Circe, who in the Odyssey, turns men into animals and back. Goehr's variations twist and turn gracefully: this Circe's art lies in transformation, without malice. With Knussen, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave  a luminously beautiful reading, which must have warmed the composer's heart. Performances as sympathetic as this justify Goehr's reputation, and Knussen's admiration for him.

Knussen is also a great believer in Helen Grime. premiering many oif her works, at Aldeburgh and at the Proms.  Her Night Songs fitted this Proms programme nicely, though might not have been quite so effective in another setting. Huge orchestra, but lopsided, all the weight on the right side oif the platform,  the strings on the left struggling. Or perhaps that was the intention? The piece lasts just five minutes. One wonders if Grime might plan a second piece for symmetric balance? In typical Knussen practice, the piece was repeated. "I hope it was all right" said Knussen "My glasses fell off, so I'll conduct it again to make sure". (NB Knussen often repeats short pieces, it's his thing You can tell who goes to Ollie concerts and who doesn't, by seeing who got the joke and who didn't).

Oliver Knussen's programmes are always deviously well chosen. If nothing else, Knussen and Debussy look like brothers! Debussy's Le martyre de Sainte Sébastien (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien) (1911) was originally written with a major part for the dancer Ida Rubenstein, and poetic narration (text by Gabriele d'Annunzio no less!). It's a strange exotic work, a non-religious mystery play. Sebastien is a court favourite who's condemned to be shot through with arrows but is redeemed by divine intervention and becomes one of the stranger saints in the liturgy. Yukio Mishima's veneration of St Sebastien in Confessions of a Mask definitely won't appeal to the pious!

The music is striking, so you can hear why it appeals to Knussen's sense of theatre and lurid colours. Knussen's approach is very Knussen, which is fair enough. Claire Booth, a Knussen regular, and a favourite of mine, too, sang the soprano solos, though she wasn't idiomatic. It was also hard to follow the two choirs (New London Chamber Choir and BBC National Chorus of Wales). Many in the audience were French, but needed their programme booklets for the text.  By far the finest singing came from  Polly May and Clare McCaldin  as Mark and Marcellin, commenting on events from up high above the orchestra.
.
You might also like Proms Pelléas et Mélisande,  and the review of Knussen's Third Symphony on NMC in Opera Today.
And also, a review of Knussen's double bill, Higgelty Piggelty Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are from Aldeburgh, which is coming soon to the Barbican.
(Goehr photo : Etan Tal)

Ernst Krenek: Die Nachtigall

Saturday, 25 August 2012

How to watch Reality TV

How to watch Reality TV:
1. Mute the TV
2. Put on some classical music
3. WEEP FOR HUMANITY
So this is what civilisation has come to
See the cartoon on Savage Chickens

Simon Smith at the Edinburgh Festival


One of the delights of the Edinburgh Festival is its ability to throw up unexpected gems. One of these was yesterday's recital given by pianist Simon Smith, to commemorate Stockhausen's would-have-been-birthday.

Whereas larger scale events were taking place today and yesterday – here in Edinburgh a ballet set to the Helicopter Quartet (a piece also streamed live from Birmingham Opera); the first ever staging of the opera, 'Mittwoch' in Birmingham …. - this was a tribute on a smaller scale. Nevertheless it was a serious and important tribute to this challenging composer by a musician who knows and appreciates his works really well. It was an honour and a privilege to be able to watch this dedicated and inspiring performance – perhaps the highlight of this  year's festival so far for me  -  and to boot, it was free (retiring collection for church funds/concert expenses) !

Watching this performance was exciting, and the repertoire chosen gave a good insight into Stockahusen's work and the evolution of his style, ranging from 1955 to 1984. The opening piece, Klavierstuck XIV, subtitled 'Birthday Formula' – with its chanted German numbers and hissing and clacking sounds - showed the debt to this composer which is owed by George Crumb's 'Black Angels'. A range of earlier pieces wer then offered; one dedicated to Pierre Boulez on the occasion of his 60th birthday; one exploring the resonances the piano could give to the single note of middle C sharp and one where the durations of notes , bars and gestures is determined by the Fibonacci mathematical series. A longer final work, 'Lucifer's Dream' then concluded the recital, based on the opening scene of the opera 'Samstag' from the sequence 'Licht', originally for bass voice and piano. It is the most dramatic of the pieces and includes extended techniques and two bundles sof Indian bells suspended at the ends of the piano.

Simon Smith studied with Giles Swayne and has performed and recorded the complete piano music of James MacMillan, whose music was also performed at a later event in Edinburgh on the same day, as well as piano work by Stuart McRae, whose new chamber opera I will be reporting on next week.

 By Juliet Willaims

Friday, 24 August 2012

Participation Art - Stockhausen Mittwoch Birmingham

Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht live from Birmingham Opera Company broadcast in full.  With Stockhausen, listening is not enough. Stockhausen is a "Happening" as they used to say in the 60's. Listening is not enough, you need to experience the whole mentality to get the full impact. Being there, with other people, sharing the dream, is part of where it's at. Participation Art.

On the other hand,  watching online has advantages. You can wander off and get a stiff drink, which makes you more receptive. You wouldn't dare do that in Wagner, who demands such concentration that you feel drained and high at the same time. Yet you can't miss too much of Mittwoch either, because details count. There's method in this madness. The pulsating gradations act like hypnosis, worming their way into your mind. Everyone knows about the Helicopters, but we're prepared for them by seeing other players suspended from the ceiling as they play. They're strapped in, but the cellist's hair falls over her face - how does she see? She must be terrified, playing on auto pilot. The trombone threatens to tip the trombonist over. In comparison, the string players in the helicopters are having an easy ride, and that's part of the "meaning". As someone in the audience asked, "Are the pilots performing, too?" Perceptive comment. Who's controlling whom?  Technology or humans or some extra terrestial force we don't even recognize? Which is, incidentally the story of Michael the archangel and his cosmic spiritual saga. Throughout Mittwoch, the idea of ascent and descent, ladders, pulleys, helicopters, patterns that replicate in the sounds we hear, and in Graham Vick's thoughtful visual images. Danger, insecurity, dottiness.
 
Once you get into Stockhausen's  mindscape, things fall into place whether they make sense or not. Like an intense dreeam in a parallel universe, where you're learning the new vocabulary of an ancient, alien culture.You begin to recognize the patterns in those hypnotic pulses. No wonder Stockhausen fans are mesmerized by the complexities. A man "sings" into a boombox (cutting edge in Stockhausen's day, prehistoric artifact now). A voice intones "coloratura" against technologically-induced white noise. A soprano sings disjointed "coloratura". It's utterly irrelevant to approach Stoockhausen in conventional music terms. Everyone is a performer. Originally the Arditti Quartet played the Helicopter bit, virtuosi playing in the antithesis of what a string quartet should be. Here, it was the Elysian Quartet interacting with rotorblades. Machine-generated electronics, mixed by men. Musicians mixed with non-musicians. Mittwoch is the highest form of communiuty opera around, a lot more sophisticated conceptualy than the gags the Helicopters provoke.

Audience participation too, though not as one might think in the Q&A session around the famed quartet. Stockhausen builds that into Mittwoch, to make us think. Why the Birminghgham Opera Company chose the inane DJ, I have no idea. Perhaps it's a joke, though a very childish one, because almost anyone in the audience could have done the job better. Nihal was just plain embarrassing, resorting to insulting his audience in the way an incompetent stand-up comic deflects attention away from his own failings. This audience wa far too polite to boo the bumbler. When someone said the music was bollocks, the audience cheered because it was a real, genuine response, not the hyped up hysteria the fake DJ was pretending to show.  This was an audience who know their Stockhausen well, who see through hyperventilating presenters. The joke, ultimately, was on the joker, showing up the crass stupidity Stockhausen eschewed.

Lots more on this site on Stockhausen. Venture forth. 

Thursday, 23 August 2012

James MacMillan premiere - Edinburgh Festival

Juliet Williams reports on the world premiere of James MacMillan's Since it was the day of preparation...  at the Edinburgh International Festival, with the Hebrides Ensemble and Synergy Vocals, Brindley Sherratt and William Conway (director and cello):

It was fitting that in this Year of Creative Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival should honour James MacMillan's contribution to Scottish musical life with the premiere of a new work. 'Since it was the Day of Preparation' - co-commissioned by the Hebrides Ensemble who gave last night's performance in the historic setting of Greyfriars Kirk. This sets the final section of St John's Gospel from the removal of the body from the cross to the end of John's account, covering the period from Easter Eve until Pentecost.
 
The work is for a small group of singers and a small group of musicians, together with male soloist, variously baritone is in the original scoring but here the role was ably sung by the low operatic bass, Brindley Sheratt. Episodes of recitative for different vocal groupings, are interleaved with 'interludes' an extended cadenza for each instrument in turn and with other 'interludes' for the quintet as an ensemble (theorbo, cello, clarinet, horn and harp). These could in fact by excerpted and would stand on their own, either as short works showcasing each instrument, or possibly collectively. There are long passages for tenor (Andrew Busher) – who opens the entire work - and high baritone (Tom Bullard), not as described slightly confusingly in the programme, a bass, but very good, with a warm sweet tone. Both are very good, and the excellent acoustic meant every word was clearly audible, even at the back of the space.

Against this are placed periodically Latin liturgical texts, mainly from the Renaissance. The musical, liturgical and dramatic climax of the whole work comes early in the second act, when a piercing peal of sound from the clarinet symbolises the discovery of the empty tomb. This is an instrument MacMillan has written well for, and here his writing for it is at its finest. This vocal section, 'The Empty Tomb', is followed by an Interlude for that same instrument, perhaps pre-emininent amongst these and very ably played by Yann Ghiro, whose contribution to this performance was one of its highlights. The clarinet also features prominently in the ensemble interlude between the first two acts, which separates the burial scene from the discovery of the empty tomb; after quiet, dignified understated playing in the lower register by the other instruments, it enters to take the lead in a skirl-like dance which fades into a keening wail of mourning, being joined by the cello playing high in its register – a piece reminiscent of Tuireadh.

The difficulty of performing the role of Christ has been addressed previously here, in the context of the BBC Proms performance of Elgar's The Apostles. MacMillan creates a feeling of distance and otherwordliness by setting the soloists further back from the rest of the singers, and in this performance the use of the low bass voice added gravitas to the role. Brindley Sherratt's singing created an absolutely spine-tingling effect, further enhanced by the continuous use of bells whilst Christ's words were sung, recalling the effect of bells being used in the eucharistic prayers during a mass. Another of James MacMillan's religious works formed one of the programme items in Sunday's recital from the festival series at St Michael's Church. Kiss on Wood, for violin and cello, is also drawn from liturgy for Holy Week, this time an anthem for devotions on Good Friday. A small but powerful piece, it was ably and enjoyably performed there by Monika Geibel (violin) and Olja Buco (piano) – who also gave an excellent account of Elgar's Violin Sonata in E minor, Op 82 (both works influenced by wood as a material, as well as for a wooden instrument).

The Edinburgh Festival will be presenting more of of MacMillan's work next week in the shape of his Opera Clemency, one of a series of chamber operas commisioned by Scottish Opera and performed in turn on a nightly basis. Again a religious work, this time from the Old Testament rather than the New. I'll be reporting further for Opera Today. Since it was the Day of Preparation will be performed again in London during the autumn season this year. Last night's performers are also recording this work, to be released next Spring. Hebrides Ensemble can be heard again on tonight's Late Junction and at the Lammermuir Festival in east Lothian next month. Synergy Vocals will be returning to the Edinburgh Festival next year to perform Berio's Sinfonietta with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Brindley Sheratt will be appearing in a new production of Medea at the ENO.

The earliest Kung Fu movie ? 黃飛鴻傳

Wong Fei Hung 黃飛鴻傳 (1847-1924) was a Kung Fu master, from Foshan in Guangdong, centre of major kung fu traditions. In the west, people associate kung fu with fighting, gang wars, and Bruce Lee, but in China, kung fu "fighting" is just part of several streams of activity. Wong Fei Hung practised Chinese medicine, which is based on holistic theories. Herbal tinctures and teas are tools, but almost more so, the idea of body and mind harmony. Hence the connection between "fighting" and healing. The word "kung fu" means effort, disciple, dedication. Tai Chi is another manifestation,  also the Cantonese tea ceremony (which has become somewhat fetishized).

So here is an early Hong Kong movie about Wong Fei Hung, made in October 1949. Although kung fu movies were made from the earliest days of Chinese cinema back in the early days of the Republic, this one is extremely important, because it emphasizes the cultural context.. It was made with "kung fu" spirit. The director, Hu Peng (胡鵬), and his team wanted to make a record of Cantonese culture and values, not merely "entertainment". So the film starts with an amazing (and long) sequence showing a lion dance. Lion dances are still common today (and associated with kung fu schools) but this one is so detailed, it's worth studying as historical archive. A young apprentice comes to learn from Wong Fei hung, who explains that he's only the current teacher, himself the pupil of seefu gone before. Humility, not ego, is the path to learning.

Kung fu practioners also served a social and political function. The Shaolin monks honed their skills so they could do good for others. When the non-Chinese Qing conquered China, Shaolin was one of the covert forms of resistance. When the dynasty began falling apart, the tradition became even more prominent, especially in the Guangdong region, where many early revolutionaries connected to this renaissance in traditional culture. The idealism of Sun Yat Sen in some ways reflects this much older ethos. Sun practised western medicine and was a Christian, so he embodied the basic moral concept of healing and helping, in a "!modern" form. It's highly significant that many of his supporters  were Cantonese. In this film, Wong Fei Hung is asked to help a  merchant whose rival wants to scam him and steal his beautiful wife. The locals don't depend on police but the vigilante (and ethical) function of kung fu.

Wong Fei Hung (played by Kwan Tak-hing (關德興)(1915-1995) quietly sizes the situation up and solves the problem. The wife  is played by Lee Laan 李蘭, the first Miss Hong Kong in 1946. She acts extremely well - how beautifully the film depicts domestic life and virtues in 19th century Foshan. Some of Wong Fei Hung's men aren't so principled. One of them beats up a rival. Wong Fei Hung is furious "I taught you this power to protect yourself. I didn't teach you to cause trouble!"

This film ends with a scene in a brothel, where everyone's listening to  a "Dragon Boat Song". The singer is Chao Fei Fei, who's not a movie actor but a real traditional singer. This was an oral tradition, practised by itinerant musicians who worked in tea houses and private events, improvising songs about ordinary life and toipical current events, often with a satirical twist. (In the 1960's , Sun Ma Se Tsang recreated the style in modern form.)  This particular song is about a downtrodden prostitute who dreams of better things, a good summation of the early Republic period). This film is also one of the earliest surviving records of this type of singing, which no-one bothered to film, much less record oir notate until Bell Yung's work in the 1970's.  By that time, the old school singers were working oin street corners, like beggars.. My classmate and I, in our teens, used to go to listen every time we could, but we didn't have the means to record "Hong Kong street Blues".

This particular film ends here, but cotinued to many parts, all directed by Hu Peng and his team, and starring the same cast led by Kwan Tak-hing, the last (I think of 10) in the late 1950's, after whcih Hu went onto direct more conventional swordplay films. There are dozens of  movies based on Wong Fei Hung, but these are unique as a historic archive because oif the care that went into making them authentic.  When Wong Fei Hung died in 1924, his family and followers moved on to Hong Kong. Cantonese martial arts, opera and film are all connected, in a way incomprehensible in the west. In this film, there are  many actors who go onto big careers as character stars, in non kung fu movies,  like Shek Yin (石堅) and Ma Siu Ying (馬笑英).

LOTS more on Cantonese culture, film and music on this site, please explore.


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Claude and Karlheinz candles


Two birthday boys with a lot in common: Claude Debussy (who'd be 150 today) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (who'd be a mere 84).

Claude gets complete box set reissues of some of the finest  ever performances of his music, from Deutsche Grammophon and Decca. A complerte Boulez Debussy/Ravel edition (Cleveland Orchestra and Berliner Philharmoniker)  It's so much more convenient to have them all in one place and downloadable so you don't need to cart CDs around.
Karlheinz gets a rare performance of Mittwoch aus Licht which would be great to go to live (as Stockhausen needs to be heard). Next best, part of it, the Helicopter String Quartet, is online from 7 tonight GMT. That's ace because thousands will be able to experience Stockhausen who might not have been exposed before.That broadcast is on thespace.org,  And tomorrow, the whole opera is available live on the Birmingham Opera website (note that you need to register),

Incidentally I'm worried about thespace.org.  Britain desperately needs an umbrella arts site like Arte or Medici. The potentail for thespace is huge. It has some brilliant headliners eg Britten War Requiem (CBSO) and Berlioz Les Troyens (ROH) but there doesn't seem to be any consistent vision. It's a jumble. Nor does there seem to be any forward planning. It seems to be compiled by IT geeks with no real interest in the arts, or in arts management, and little concept of how the businesss works. Surely the Arts Council can do better than this, especially with the weight of the BBC and BFI  and Shakespeare circles behind it?  Let's hope it gets properly managed, and developed rather than collapse into a half-hearted cock-up. Why bother to do something with this much scope and not do it well?

Juliet Williams says of Stockhausen, "The missed oppportunity of the year was that his Hymnen – a collage of a piece made up form the national anthems of many countries - was not prominently performed in this Olympic year. Flags, nations, radio transmissions - just right for the bombast of the Olympics .But maybe the "Cultural Olympiad" stayed clear because they figured what Stockhausen might have meant? Read more about Hymnen here.

Goebbels stages John Cage Prom 47

Probably the biggest event this whole John Cage Centenary year!  Heiner Goebbels stages John Cage's Europeras 1 and 2 at the Ruhr Biennial. Read Shirley Apthorp in the Financial Times. 
Cage's Europeras 1 and 2  take fragments of numerous different operas and reprocesses them, much in the way that a kaliedoscope turns fragments of coloured glass into new patterns with new movement. "The paradox", says Apthorp, is that "Chaos only works if fastiduously structured".

Cage is important not so much for what he writes but why he writes. He challenges the very basis of creativity. Kaput to the idea of composer as auteur. Instead the idea of random chance, multiple stimuli which the listener must process in realtime, parameters like duration within which nothing is defined.  The onus is always on the moment and on the listener. In the I ching, you throw a coin and look up the runes in the Book of Changes. These suggest images, but it's up to the person interpreting them to use his other own intuition. Every person, every time a consultation is done, everything depends on how the interpreter can reach into his or her own psyche. It's not divination so much as spiritual and mental discipline.

Paradox again! Despite Cage's reticence, much of his music is exquisitely beautiful, when done well. Listen online to Exaudi doing ear for Ear Antiphonies and then Four (2). Though the sounds they make are so abstract, they feel primeval. Perhaps the echoes of medieval plainchant, projected into the cosmos?  Or even the feeling of sound moving around the perfomance space, creating "music" that isn't even made by the performers? It doesn't matter, as long as you're responding and listening on a deep level. I much prefered these ensemble pieces to Experience II (Joan La Barbara) precisely because they're wordless, and liberate your imagination.

Publicity about the cactuses is misleading because Cage's music isn't about gimmick or novelty. More than ever, this is music that challenges you to think, and gives back what you put in : the creative process turned on its head.  Personally I find Cage surprisingly relaxing, like zen meditation, but it's perfectly OK to be bored witless. But tomorrow it might be the other way round. Like the I Ching, the runes tell you about yourself at a specific time.

Cage is so utterly an original, there's almost no precedent. Learning the technique of composition doesn't make you a composer anymore than reading a wiki makes you Einstein. And Cage was a philosopher as much as a musican.  Listen to the broadcast (link above) because the commentary is very good indeed.  Read Ivan Hewett's review of Cage Day Prom 47 (Ilan Volkov) and my review of The London Sinfonietta Prom 44. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Mad dances - BCMG Prom Knussen Bainbridge

When the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group visits the BBC Proms it's a big occasion. While the London Sinfonietta holds a hallowed place, the BCMG advantage is that it works closely with the best British composers. (photo left c Chris Nash)

Beneath Oliver Knussen's quirky playfulness lies an extremely original mind. Knussen's creativity takes on so many forms that's it's meant he doesn't compose as much as he should. On Saturday 25/8 (Prom 56), Knussen conducts his Third Symphony. It's a seminal work, from which many other pieces evolve. Read more HERE.  Ophelia's Last Dance is a 2010 outgrowth from the ideas in the symphony. In Shakepeare, Ophelia dances and sings mad songs in her distress. This time Ophelia is alone, no orchestra around her. Huw Watkins (himself a major composer) plays the twists and angles with elegance. Even in her madness, Ophelia is graceful. Aphoristic as it is. Ophelia's Last Dance creates a strong emotional impact, particularly after the 1974 Ophelia Dances. Knusssen has come a long way, but the core of his sensibility remains undimmed.

Just as Knussen links past to present, Alexander Goehr's .... a musical offering (JSB) 1985....  ruminates on J S Bach, presenting a musical offering from a 1985 perspective. Goehr's filigree tracery charms though it's not a major contribution to the canon. And why should it be? There's plenty of room for creative whimsy in music, as Knussen so often demonstrates. 

More problematic was Simon Bainbridge's The Garden of Earthly Delights, a BBC Commission receiving its world premiere. One of Bainbridge's great strengths is that he writes music which feels rooted in space and visual stimuli (read more about him by following the label below). The Garden of Earthly Delights takes its inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch's triptych of the same name.  Bainbridge has a thing for triptychs and their formal structure, and his sensitivity to multiple layers generates very interesting musical writing indeed, deftly conducted by Nicholas Collon.

Unfortunately, Bainbridge's music is saddled with spoken text. What is this prolix babble, ostentatiously delivered? Maybe it purports to show Bosch's fractured psyche,  but its false bucolic pretentiousness doesn't reflect the fundamental dignity of Bosch's vision.  It also bears little relation to Bainbridge's music. Hopefully the piece will be revised drastically because there's enough interest to satisfy in the music and sung parts (well defined by Andrew Watts,  Lucy Schaufer and the Sinfonietta Voices). Like Ophelia, Bosch may have been mad by some standards, but his madness generated art, not stupidity.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Summary - Edinburgh Gergiev LSO Brahms Szymanowski


Gergiev's Brahms and Szymanowski series at the Edinburgh Festival, ahead of the Barbican tour later this year, has majored in loudness and big climaxes, with a lack of dynamic variation or subtlety. Few of the works on the programme lend themselves well to this approach and this, combined with the surprising programming, has made the listening experience patchy. There have been rare moments when a less bombastic approach has crept in and some very enjoyable music has resulted. Several of these were in the final performance [link to review of this].

There have been some surprise hits too, in particular a good and illuminating account of Szymanowski's rarely performed Second Symphony, especially its theme-and-variation-style second movement. The concert including this is well worth going to, just for the opportunity to hear this particular work.

Hearing the initially surprising pairing with Brahms does find occasional points of illumination, such as the second symphony of Szymanowski's (a good account, see above) with the finale of the Brahms Fourth, and the so-called Haydn variations with both. One of the threads in parallel for the two composers which is brought into focus by hearing this unusual joint cycle is  that from an expansive middle period - for Szymanowksi perhaps his most individualistic and distinctive - there is a return to more traditional forms and influences.

Brahms's Fourth Symphony was found 'severe' by early listeners and collaborators such as Clara Schumann, and whilst I recognise the considerable achievement of its finale, I can appreciate this criticism and in some ways find his Second and Third symphonies easier and more enjoyable to listen to. There is something  more forbiding and austere  about the more academic and structured Fourth, where Brahms seeks to resolve the post-Beethoven differently by returning to Baroque influenced musical architecture but coloured and viewed through the lens of the Romantic era in which he lived and wrote. This however, was better served by Gergiev's possibly surprising approach to Brahms, which has tended – perhaps surprisingly - towards cool and technical, characterised by precision rather than feeling. It is almost as if he sought to overcompensate against the risk of bringing too much theatricality with him from the opera house, instead being at best rather controlled and at times almost impatient or even perfunctory.

Szymanowski, long inspired by travel and the exotic, in his late period looked more to his homeland and to overt influences of folk music, such as from the Tatra  Mountains where he made his home, which can be heard in the Fourth Symphony's third (last) movement. Unlike Brahms – one of whose greatest achievements  was the agnostic German Requiem – Szymanowski turned or returned to traditional religion, for example setting a very beautiful Stabat Mater, which is to be heard in London in 2013 and  a Litany to the Virgin Mary (contemporaneous with the fourth symphony and the second violin conerto heard here).

Alongside the return to the culture and religion of his homeland, he abandoned such rich orchestral colour and lush soundworld for a leaner, more ascetic aesthetic, brought out well in the moving performance of the Second Violin Concerto by Leonidas Kavakos. Both composers seemed to have returned to tradition from a high water mark of emotional expressiveness  and expansiveness, to look homewards rather than abroad and to the past rather than to the future in their late works, the last being a particualr disappointment to the emerging young composer Lutoslawski, who saw Szymanowksi as a leading force in Polish modernism and was disappointed by this conservatism.

The later works of both these composers being leaner and more pared down in their mood  meant though  that they were better suited to the style of playing here, hence the performances of these late works were more enjoyable. The softer, more mellow mid-period of both composers has suffered most, especially that of Szymanowski which calls for positive lushness, not merely for softness, delicacy or lyricism. The leaner more ascetic and more formal later works fared better. The good reception received on the opening night for the first violin concerto, which is of the Romantic middle period, was largely due to the excellent playing and local popularity of  soloist Nicola Benedettini.

One of the points to emerge from the programming in this cycle is that amongst Szymanowski's considerable output, works with a solo line  fare better for both audience and performers. A virtuostic pianist himself, and the close friend of a virtuoso violinist, he writes well for both of these instruments and for voice. The inclusion of one or more soloists seems to bring a welcome focus and make these works more readily coherent and hence more accessible. Most of the real successes of this series fell into this category.

In a recent interview, Gergiev – who is known for his command of the Russian repertoire and for his opera conducting - has expressed his desire to claim Szymanowski as a Russian composer and emphasise his Russian connections. This may go some way towards explaining why his interpretation of this composer's works emphasises theatricality.  (Interestingly, it is notable that arguably the most successful collaboration in overall terms of the entire cycle was with a fellow Russian soloist.) It is not, though, a position completely congruent with the stated aims of the promoters of the concert cycle, who wish to portray Symanowski as a European composer and to emphasise his links westwards rather than eastwards.

However, the listener may readily discern an influence or connection with several other composers when hearing Szymanowski, not only the somewhat tenuous one put forward here with Brahms. The Fourth Symphony might well suggest Ravel, but its Nietzschian inspirations are in common with Delius, in particular the Mass of Life, which I have already referred to, as well as that composer more generally, again a point I made here earlier. Russian inspirations and connections are not hard to make: not only Scriabin (like Szymanowski, an impressive pianist) – quite obviously – but also Stravinsky, and at times Rachmaninov. However, they are perhaps connections more on the fringes than firmly within the Russian mainstream.

What may emerge is that Szymanowski – who for much of his life viewed himself as a cosmopolitan and an explorer – was eclectic and influenced by many styles, experimenting musically and travelling widely. Perhaps Szymanowski  belongs not to Europe,  nor exclusively to Russia but both; and perhaps he is a universalist who is not tied to one cultural influence alone? This might well be how he would have liked to see himself and how he would have liked to be remembered.

There is an argument that rather than try to pigeon-hole his writing with one particular tradition or musical influence, it could more informatively be presented alongside a variety of composers and works with which it had relationships. It has been suggested elsewhere that Szymanowksi is best heard in small doses: perhaps a more sympathetic view would be that it is best heard alongside helpful programming of suitable repertoire.

It would almost seem that, as his 60th birthday approaches, rather than offer a valedictory tour of his best and best known repertoire, Gergiev – known for Russian repertoire and his association with the Kirov/ Marinsky  Opera - has set himself a personal challenge to conduct the music least suited to his style and temperament that he could find and came up with the camp, extravagant and indeed homoerotic Polish aristocrat Szymanowksi on the one hand, and and the measured but tender warmth of Brahms, backlit by the slow tide of the North  Sea, on the other. One might also wonder whether the objective was to explore different approaches, or to try to fit a one-size-for-all Russian-style performance to as many composers as possible? Is this the musical equivalent of the celebrity jungle challenge, or of driving tanks down the streets of Paris? The end result is rather like eating Turkish delight with steak, the steak being a bit tough and the Turkish delight having too much gelatine and not enough sugar!

So who benefits from this musical equivalent of the bush-tucker challenge? Probably the soloists - who all emerge well: Nicola Benedettini; Steve Davislim; Denis Matsuev and perhaps especially Leonidas Kavikos. Also, very much, Roman Simovic, leader of the LSO, who has had consistently good solos across several works.

Should London audiences go to this mishmash when it transfers to the Barbican? The final concert is well worth seeing, for the very dynamic chemistry at the front of stage in the second violin concerto alone, the good account of Szymanowksi four a further bonus. The second is also worth  going to, for the opportunity to hear  a live performance and a good account of the Szymanowksi two. If you enjoyed Eotvos' account of the Song of the Night, only go to this account of that same work if you want to be reminded how good that was. If you are – or might be – interested in hearing more of Szymanowksi, this performance cycle could give a very misleading impression and there are a number of more sympathetic interpretations  available on recordings, including a budget  set of the complete works issued by Naxos, which I have reviewed for MusicWebInternational, a bargain at under £20, good playing if patchy sound quality. It is regrettable that the admirable initiative to tour a major cycle of this composer's work so as to make it better known to audiences in western Europe presents  them with this mainly unsympathetic and idiosyncratic interpretation. If you want a good account of the Brahms symphonies, the LSO/ Haitink partnership  is not surpassed here, now available from the orchestra at a modest price, nor are any of the DG recordings.

Gergiev is conducting Tchaikovsky Cinderella on the final weekend of the Edinburgh Festival, and also at BBC Prom 52 on 22nd August

photo: Marco Borggreve

Edinburgh Gergiev Brahms Szymanowski 4


Juliet Williams on the Gergiev LSO Brahms/Symanowski series:

"It was the final poerfpomanceIt was in fact the final performance of the cycle – given last night in the Usher Hall – which was the highlight of the Brahms/Szymanowski given by the LSO under Gergiev as part of the Edinburgh International Festival's concert programme. This offered the listener a very intense bill of fare, with two major solists perfroming what are in effect concerti, and Brahms's final symphony, a culmination of his ambitions as a major post-Beethovenian symphonist.

The quality of the concert was due in no small measure to the excellent playing of both soloists, the Siberian pianist Denis Matsuev in Szymanowski's Fourth Symphony (a piano concerto by any other name) and Leonidas Kavakos in that composer's Second Violin Concerto. Matsuev was virtuostic , bringing considerable dynamic range to the part which the composer – himself a piano virtouso – had premiered personally.

There was a palpable rapport between Kavakos, Gergiev and LSO leader, Roman Simovic, in the second violin concerto, which made this a very enjoyable performance to watch. Kavakos also excelled in the lengthy cadenza linking its two outer sections, which was written in fact by the work's dedicatee, the composer's close friend Paul Kochanski who gave its first performance. It is worth going to the London (or other) performances of this concert just to this piece alone ! The inclusion of the excellent Szymanowksi 4, perhaps on balance the most successful item of the entire concert cycle is a further bonus.

Simovic is to be commended for his enjoyable playing in both work, especially his solo which precedes a violin-only section (also good) late on the fourth symphony.

In the second, slow, movement of the opening Fourth Symphony, the audience were also at last able to hear how Szymanowski can sound at his delicate and exotic best. These qualities have been largely absent from the middle (romantic) period works presented, never more sadly conspicuous than in the Third Symphony, whose main saving grace in  the Edinburgh performance was the excellent singing and characterisation of Steve Davislim, who has already been commended on this site for his interpretation of this role under the baton of Peter Eotvos. This reviewer concurs with and endorses the views expressed by colleagues here that he would be an excellent shepherd in Krol Roger.

Gergiev's conducting here has majored in loudness and big climaxes, with a lack of tonal variation or subtlety. Few of the works on the programme lend themselves well to this approach and this, combined with the surprising programming, has made the listening experience patchy. There have been rare moments when a less bombastic approach has crept in and some very enjoyable music has resulted. Several of these were in this final performance.

Glyndebourne Ravel Double Bill streaming broadcast

Ravel Double Bill streamed direct from Glyndebourne ! L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges. The live broadcast was extremely well filmed, so it's definitely recommended.

On demand viewing from Tuesday 21st August. Make time to watrch L'enfant et les sortilèges. above all. It's an extremely difficult opera to stage because it's full of ideas (How do you stage "Mathematics" for example?). That's why it's usually heard in the concert hall. This production is fantastic in every sense, absolutely true to music and meaning. If you can only spare an hour watch this L'enfant. It sets the benchmark. It's that good.

As always, repeat viewings bring out more detail.  L'heure espagnole, directed by Laurent Pelly but to designs by Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard looks a bit dated as it was first created nearly 10 years ago. However seen together with L'enfant et les sortilèges it works rather well. The clutter in this set reflects the clutter chez Concepción and Torquemada. Piles of unsorted debris, threatening to suffocate the inhabitants. You don't need to be a shrink to think OCD, a behavioural response to anxiety. Torquemada uses inanimate objects to avoid having to deal with the messy emotions of living people. His obsession is both escape and control. Concepción fancies Ramiro because he carries heavy clocks, instead of getting himself stuck in one. Sharp acting and singing raised this performance above the ordinary. 

Thus the connection between L'heure espagnole and  L'enfant et les sortilèges , both operas exploring issues of fantasy and regulation. The Child in  L'enfant et les sortilèges smashes the Giant Clock but can't stop Time itself. He destroys his room in a tantrum, and the room fights back. Only when he learns that  the world is ordered for a reason (ie through Mathematics), does he begin to understand the value of balance. Kindness, not selfishness. When the Child learns empathy as an alternative to obsessive control. he can come back from his nightmare.

Laurent Pelly has said that there are enough ideas in this 45 minute piece to full a 3 or 4 hour opera. Watch this broadcast. I think he's right. Kazushi Ono's conducting is brilliant - incisive, idiomatic, sharp, every bit as intelligent as the staging.

Incidentally, it's good that Glyndebourne doesn't fill the interval with facetious chatter like the Met does.  What is wrong with audiences that need mindless babble? Attention deficit disorder? At Glyndebourne, audiences are treated like adults, who can fill time on their own. Simply muse on the shots of the garden, the patterns of clouds and light. And go get a drink and relax, as they do at Glyndebourne.



Sunday, 19 August 2012

Szymanowski - King Roger Roxanne's music



Into the Byzantine Court of King Roger, a Shepherd comes, singing wild songs of sensual abandon. It's blasphemy, but Queen Roxanne is intrigued. This music tells us how. Szymanoski's zany sensuality is so perfumed that it's narcotic. Yet this opera is more than a gorgeous swoon. A sacrificial fire consumes the court and the Shepherd appears a supernatural manifestation of Dionysus. King Roger, who's dedicated his life to church, state and propriety tears his heart out as a new dawn rises.

Lots about Szymanowski on this site. Here is my review of the Bregenz production, the only Krol Roger as yet on DVD.  Much better though, get the recordings, by Simon Rattle with Thomas Hampson,  Jacek Kaspzck (Piotr Beczala sings the Shepherd) and Antoni Wit.   And HERE is my review of Szymanowski's Third Symphony at the Barbican, second of three performances this year. I've written about Jurowski, and Juliet Williams will be writing about Gergiev's.

Gergiev Szymanowski Brahms Edinburgh Festival 2

Brahms and Szymanowski? An unlikely combination  but sometimes odd contrasts enhance. What does Gergiev make of them? Gergiev and the LSO are bringing this series to the Barbican soon., but it's now on at the Edinburgh Festival. This is the third Szymanowski Third Symphony in the last year! First, Jurowski and LPO at the RFH, then Eotvos  and the LSO at the Barbican (replacing Boulez)  and now Gergiev !

Only Gergiev and the LSO are doing all the Szymanowski symphonies as a series. Juliet Willaims has been listening to the series in Edinburgh and reports: ( For the first concert, read HERE)

"Last night's performance in the Usher Hall, continuing the Brahms/Szymanowski cycle, saw one work which emphasised the parallels between the composers and one which emphasised their differences.

"It was interesting hearing Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn having heard the set of variations which form the second movement of Szymanowski's second symphony the previous evening. This supported the argument that Szymanowski should be viewed within the European mainstream. Both of these were played well, and other than the Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedettini, this has been the best performance of Szymanowski here to date. Slightly surprising, the Brahms variations followed  his Third Symphony in the programme.

"Song of the Night, as Szymanowksi's Third symphony is subtitled, is a setting for tenor voice (here Steve Davislim, who has also performed this role under Boulez), large chorus and  orchestra of a poem by Rumi, translated into Polish by a friend of the composer's. It speaks of looking up into stars and losing oneself in transcendance and bliss. It is self consciously orientalist and was inspired by travels in North Africa and the near east. The most obvious connection with any other composer's works is that of Scriabin, and in particular the Poem of Ecstasy.

"Although the opportunity to hear this seldom performed work is welcome, it did not sit very easily alongside its companions on the programme. Brahms to me does speak of ecstacy and bliss, especially in his Second and Third symphonies, although he writes candidly about feelings of pain and melancholy, but his bliss is a more moderate, northern European one: a fine sunny day looking out across the beautiful river view at Wiesbaden where the Third was written, rather than a sultry night in a Persian tent like Szymanowski.

"For the synthesis or resolution between these apparantly divergent musical strands, we may have to look to a subsequent Polish composer, Lutoslawski – whose works are performed next week at the Festival – whose influences westwards as well as  eastwards are stronger in my view than those of Szymanowksi. For the synthesis or resolution between these apparantly divergent musical strands, we may have to look to a subsequent Polish composer, Lutoslawski – whose works are performed next week at the Festival – whose influences westwards as well as  eastwards are stronger in my view than those of Szymanowksi. He was profoundly influenced by hearing, at the age of only 11, the first Warsaw performance of this work we have heard last night.

"Brahms as a young man was exercised as to what, after Beethoven, he or any other composer could then bring to the symphonic tradition. However, I find his symphonies some of the most enjoyable of the classical repertoire; they are what I would listen to if I wanted to feel better, to leave the cares of the day behind as the shadows lengthened. At least one Brahms symphony would be in my selection for the infamous desert island; I am simply not sure whether I would choose the Second or the Third – both of which I like very much.

"The style of Brahms which is emerging in these performances does not emphasise these mellow, lyrical qualities of his music. Rather, it is precise and crisp;  devoid of all repeats and occasionally a little fast, it can seem impatient at times. It may to some listeners seem clinically cold or distant from the music's restrained but genuine emotional warmth.

"Edinburgh Festival Chorus returned to the Usher Hall in Szymanowski's also demanding work and were particularly pleasing in the sections of wordless song. Having last seen them in the Delius 'Mass of Life has brought that composer to mind, and this is a comparison which merits a little further pondering, especially this nocturne and the rather differently located nocturne Paris, Song of a Great City, as well actually as with the 'Mass of Life' itself. The other particular commendation I would give is  the LSO's leader, Roman Simovic, who had an enjoyable solo in the Song of Life.

"The works of Rumi are also featured in a another strand of the festival events in Edinburgh, a series of intercultural events held at St Johns Church under the banner 'Festival of Spirituality and Peace'. Performances, readings and workshops on Rumi's writings take place on 19, 22, 24 and 25 August."  

photo of Rumi's tomb by Georges Jansoone