Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Britten Owen Wingrave Imbrailo broadcast

A rare chance to hear Jacques Imbrailo sing Owen Wingrave in Britten's spooky anti-militarist opera, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday, available for a week. This is a recording of a live performance at the Linbury, Royal Opera House in 2007. Imbrailo was then in his first year as a Jette Parker Young Artist, but already it was obnvious that he had something exceptional to offer. This performance isn't available on the open market, so listen carefully. Imbrailo's portrayal is imbued with natural purity: his voice seems to glow from within.  So many productions focus on the Wingrave family and their rigid traditions, so Owen can come over as a cipher in comparison. But Imbrailo suggests that the mystery of Owen Wingrave is cryptic. Is Owen like Billy Budd, evoking  metaphysical forces? Does he represent love (not necessarily marriage) in its purest form?

What also makes this performance interesting is that it's transcribed for smaller orchestral forces by . David Matthews, who worked closely with Britten, and understands his idiom well .The original opera was made for TV, so it's perfectly reasonable to make alterations for stage performance. The result is a sharper, more chamber-like focus, which concentrates the mind. Britten makes a lot of the militarism, but a few fanfares and drum rolls can go a very long way. The sparser textures throw more emphasis on the lyrical ballad, reminiscent of folk music. It is “Owen’s theme” reflecting his music. It also emphasises the impression that the legend of the ghost is as ancient as the Wingrave family, depicted in Elizabethan portraits, one of which sports an incongruous Pickelhaube – surely this cannot be a mistake? The nature of the ballad also recalls Britten’s earliest protest music, particularly the remarkable Our Hunting Fathers to texts by W H Auden. “They are our past…..and our future” is surprisingly apposite: listen to it and think about Owen Wingrave.  It was Auden who radicalised Britten. Britten was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, as was Pears – whose brother was a prisoner of the Japanese.
 Thus, there are many reasons why Britten would think of Owen Wingrave in terms of an anti-military statement. However, perhaps that’s what explains the weakness of the drama. The opera assumes war is a game: toy soldiers and horses abound in this production. But as the Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, genuinely descended from an ancient military family, said, “No one hates war more than a soldier”. They know reality, politicians don’t. Von Moltke’s descendant, incidentally, rejected the Army, but gave his life opposing Hitler. Perhaps that’s the significance of the Pickelhaube portrait that featured in the staging in 2007?

 The Wingrave family certainly don’t know reality, but live in a miasma of blind duty, propelled by a warped fascination with death. Miss Wingrave got her dominant status because of the deaths of her brother and fiancé. Kate thinks Owen’s death in battle would bring her glory: it’s not the man she wants to marry, but the social cachet. Mrs Julian is complicit, too, by moving in with the family, though as an officer’s widow surely she would have had a home of her own. Something’s very odd here. When this household sings the funeral march in unison, their solidarity is more terrifying than the lines they sing. Spencer Coyle, the man who tutored Owen for Sandhurst and presumably knows lots more about what the military means, is much more sanguine about the situation. He doesn’t get nearly as violently upset as the Wingraves. Why are they so hysterical at the prospect of change? What really motivates them? Britten emphasises the role of the house itself. “Listen to the house!” goes a line in the libretto, as if Paramore were a living, active presence. It makes it easy to explain why Owen dies in the haunted room, but why he goes there in the first place isn‘t quite so clear. What has a non-violent man to fear from the ghost of a boy who refused to fight? (the ghost presumably killed his bullying father). Owen Wingrave is the quintessentail Britten innocent, who routs the deviousness around him by the sheer example of his goodness.
photo: Sim Canetty Clarke

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Wolfgang Sawallisch, pianist

The auditorium seems empty. Wolfgang Sawallisch is dead, aged 89. All the obits give details of his career – look them up. When I write obits I try to add something personal. But it takes time, in order to do the person justice. So this time, something simple. Everyone has favourite memories of a conductor who seems to have been present all our lives.  His Munich era means most to me, because those were golden days whn Fischer-Dieskau, Schreier, Moser and others were active. The first thing that popped into my mind on hearing of his death was his Meistersinger with DFD.  But I'll post something different. Sawallisch was also a pianist, who accompanied Lieder singers. Here is a recording by an ensemble called "Capella Bavariae".  Here they're singing Schubert Der Gondelfahrer D809. Recognize the voices ? (Read more about this song here)

Britten Noye's Fludde, Blackheath Halls (1)

Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde is on at Blackheath Halls.  Here is a link to my review.  From what I've heard this promises to be a particularly spirited performance. Certainly lots of enthusiasm, which is critical, because most of the cast is made up of children. Enthusiasm is far more important than fine singing where children are concerned. Noye's Fludde was written, in part, to get children excited about performance. Absolutely, they're the key to the whole opera, even though the three adult parts are taken by professionals: Matthew Rose is singing Mr Noye. Delightful orchestration, full of unusual sound effects.  This is an opera that absolutely needs to be experienced live, because it is the children, and their joyous engagement, who make it work.
Noye's Fludde is seminal Britten, too, for it captures so many themes dear to his heart. Children are given respect, even more so than adults. Like animals, children are fundamentally innocent. Noah saves them from the Flood so they will renew the earth. The cynics who doubted God's word are annilhilated. Perhaps in Noye's Fludde, Britten is re-enacting his own antediluvian ideals.

 For background, read Claire Seymour's The Operas of Benjamin Britten : Expression and Evasion (Boydell), wherre there's a whole chapter on this short one-act opera. Noye's Fludde may be small scale, and "community" based but it's a serious work of art.  For Britten, integrating community with "high" art was a statement of faith. Creativity should be part of normal life, not elitist exception. Britten's interest in early music connects, in part, to the way in which music was created in the distant past, by "ordinary" people creating mystery plays and such. Significantly, the first performance of Noye's Fludde took place in Orford Church, with local people.

 Below, the film in which Britten speaks about the first performance, courtesy the Britten Pears Foundation.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Met Parsifal rave review

John Yohalem was at the Met's Wagner Parsifal. Here's a link to his review in parterre :
"The assembled folk, male and female still divided, unenlightened, appear for the funeral of Titurel ....Their utter demoralization in this featureless, storm-clouded landscape for once seems proper for their bitter and ungenerous attack on desperate, pain-wracked Amfortas. I’ve always felt, at that point, that the Knights of the Grail, for all their supposed sanctity, sure don’t demonstrate much Christian (or basic) generosity towards a fellow Knight’s suffering—but that may have been exactly Wagner’s point: Dogma without the personal attainment of compassion is never enough. It’s tough to out-think someone who thought as elaborately as Wagner."

So much about the Knights of the Grail contradicts Christianity.  Is Wagner  taking the mickey out of religion just as he contradicts capitalism, paternalism, heroism and so much else in the Ring?  

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Wolf with Wit - Bostridge Daneman Drake Wigmore Hall

Fun and Hugo Wolf ? Wolf's songs are the epitome of art song, due great reverence. But they're also vibrant with good-hearted wit. This latest concert in Julius Drake's ongoing "Perspectives" series at the Wigmore Hall brought together  Sophie Daneman, Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, all of whom have been working together for many years, and the chemistry was almost palpable. The Wigmore Hall, with its small size and good acoustic, is specially suited to Lieder recitals, but this concert had an unusually intimate immediacy.

Given Wolf's exceptional feeling for poetry, any interpretations must be influenced by the texts he chose. In this recital, we heard songs by Eduard Mörike.and Goethe, each of which Wolf turns into a miniature opera distilled into purest form. Some of these songs are character studies like Abschied where a critic is kicked downstairs to mock waltzes and garishly manic melodies. There's so much action in this song that it could be expanded into monodrama, but Wolf doesn't overpower the simplicity of Mörike's text. Apart from the droll, and very pointed, reference to Viennese taste,  Wolf writes with the precision of a Lieder composer. Even when Wolf sets more abstract texts, like   Selbstgeständnis, a soliloquy where the single child considers a family dynamic different to his own, the focus is on the protagonist's inner life, and on the poem.

Wolf may have been prickly, but he was an acute observer, and very empathic towards others. From Frank Walker's biography, still the best after 60 years, we get a much more rounded sense of his personality than accounts of his death might suggest. Perhaps his sensitivity to others might explain his respect for the individuality of the poets he set. Wolf's songs, be they settings of Mörike, Eichendorff, Goethe or Heyse, are informed by an interest in people and the siuations they get into.  This good-hearted warmth runs throughout his work. This Wigmore Hall recital was a delight, because it connected to that fundamental humanity in Wolf's music.

Wolf creates character with great subtlety,  In Agnes, for example, a young woman has a ribbon in her hat, which flutters gently in the wind. Daneman sang quietly, as a maiden might. The piano, however,  expresses what a demure girl dare not say. Just as the ribbon flutters. the girl's heart beats wildly at the thought of the man who gave her the ribbon, who has now betrayed her. Often the postlude fades unnoticed, but Drake emphasizes the "fluttering" figures, reinforcing their impact by following Agnes with Lied vom Winde, where notes explode forcefully,  "Sausewind, Brausewind, Dort von hier!". Drake reinforced the connection with the "fluttery" images before the final strophe. "Lieb ist wier Wind....... nicht immer beständig". This wind is capricious but not destructive.  As it blows away, the words "Kindlien, Ade!" repeat three times, suggesting that winds, like love, can return. The connection was made again in An eine Äolsharfe where Drake played the postlude so beautifully that he evoked the magical world of nature spirits that inspired Eduard Mörike.

Like Wolf, Mörike had what we might today recognize as psychological issues, but he also had a jaunty sense of irreverence that gives so much of his work a defiant vitality, which Wolf picks up on. Abschied, for eample, touched on a painful subject for Wolf, who was a music critic as was Eduard Hanslick. Behind the slapstick humour in this song lies the suffering and frustration that would later drive Wolf insane. Sensitivity is important in an artist, so ill-intentioned nit-picking isn't constructive.  Wolf and Mörike.suggest that an artist, being creative, will triumph over the venality around him. Bostridge's performance was superb, conveying bite as well as wit. Every consonant sharply enunciated, crisp, confident, even defiant.

Storchenbotshaft  has long been a Bostridge/Drake speciality. The song is funny, and we join in the shepherd's shock as he learns he's become the father of twins. Yet the poem is Mörike, and there's an element of the supernatural. Wolf writes jerky, angular figures into the music which suggests the way storks move, but also conveys a heightened sense of excitement that borders on panic. "Ein Geistlein, ein Hexlein, so wustige Wicht", each phrase defined by just the right short gasp. Is the shepherd altogether happy?  One of Bostridge's great strengths as an artist is his intuitive ability to access deep, often disturbing undercurrents in the music he sings. His Britten is exceptional.  Over the years, his Wolf has developed true maturity.

In the Goethe songs, Daneman was charming. Her Blumengruß was lustrous, and her Cophtisches Lied I and II nicely articulated. Bostridge was frech und froh in the two Frech und Froh songs, and created Gutmann und Gutweib bringing out the riotous humour. For an encore, Daneman, Bostridge and Drake did an excellent Schubert Licht und Liebe (Matthäus von Collin). As duet, the words "süßes Licht" entwine deliciously.

The surprise of the evening, though, happened while Daneman sang Wolf's Epiphanias.  The door behind the stage opened. In walked a boy dressed as a Wise Man, bearing a gift. He was followed by two other boys in costume, and then a little girl, dressed asd a fairy, waving a wand with a star at its apex! The song was written on 27 December 1888, while Wolf was spending the holidays with the Köchert family. In Goethe's time and quite likely in late 19th century Vienna, household masques like this weren't unknown: indeed, Goethe staged a presentation of this very poem at Weimar in 1781. Moreover, people used to have processions door-to-door bearing a star. The parallel with Wagner's children serenading Cosima on her birthday wouldn't have been lost on Wolf if he'd known.  Wolf had a long-term love affair with Melanie Köchert, with the tacit approval of her husband, Wolf's patron and friend. Evidently they all got on, so Wolf was able to rehearse the Köchert children and play the piano. The song was a gift of friendship, a love song in code (Read more here). This time, at the Wigmore Hall,  two of the children were Bostridges and the younger pair were Daneman's children.  All four moved solemnly in time to the music, with great dignity.  It was hilarious, and also magical. It showed Hugo Wolf as "family man", loving and loved. For years, I've dreamed of interpretations that would access this aspect of Wolf's idiom. Thanks to Drake, Bostridge and Daneman (and their kids), that dream is  fulfilled.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Edward Gardner - what Bergen means

Edward Gardner's been appointed Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. starting October 2015. Some media reports suggest that he's doing it for the weather as it rains a lot in Bergen.  So what does it really mean?

Gardner is the Great Hope of British conducting, often compared to Simon Rattle,  He's a good conductor, and very charismatic. He flirts like a pro, too. It's part of the job! His career has implications for the British music scene as a whole.  It's been five years since Gardner shot to prominence as Music Director at the ENO. Before that he was relatively unknown, though he'd been head of Glyndebourne On Tour, where Robin Ticciati  is now before taking over the main Festival in 2014. Gardner has worked with numerous different orchestras and is currently Principal Guest Conductor at the CBSO, whose Chief Conductor is Andris Nelsons. Gardner neeeds  significant international tenure to expand his CV.

Although Bergen is a  fairly small town, (pop under 300,000), it's culturally significant.  The orchestra was founded in 1765, which makes it contemporary with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.  It's significant that Gardner takes over in 2015, the 250th anniversary of the orchestra's foundation, when all ears will be on Bergen. Gardner has conducted this orchestra many times before, so they already have a good relationship. Bergen also punches above its weight because it has a strong recording profile, but Gardner is a much more interesting conductor than some the orchestra has had in the recent past.  Gardner's also contracted to Chandos, who plan major initiatives with him and with Bergen in future years. Gardner's best known for conducting opera, so Bergen will consolidate his reputation in the orchestral mainstream. It will also mean high profile recordings, which will reach international audiences. Maximum impact! Gardner (and his management) are shrewd. He's not going to Bergen for the scenery. He's being positioned for greater things in the longer term. 

Monday, 18 February 2013

New Chief Exec at ROH ?

Wow, have I heard a rumour but this one's so intrguing I can hardly believe it. Somone will extensive experience, who knows the business and who knows London well. Let's consider the job specs. With Kaspar Holten, Tony Pappano, and John Fulljames, the artistic side of things is covered. The top man's job is to interface with government, sponsors, artists, audiences and to back creative vision.  This person ticks all the boxes and has a profitable track record, too. A long shot but if it happens......hint, not one of the contenders proposed in the media,

ENO Charpentier Medea

"Musical Theatre at its best", writes Claire Seymour of Charpentier's Medea at the ENO, in a detailed, analytical review in Opera Today. Read it in full HERE. 

"Although the Prologue, with its discrete contemporary political intent, is sensibly omitted, McVicar resists the temptation to exclude those elements of the score which others might deem un-dramatic and irrelevant: thus, the elements of spectacle — the ballet de cours with its extravagant costumes and scenic effects, the formal dances and elaborate divertissements — are intelligently and convincingly incorporated, smoothly dove-tailed with the scenes for the principals."

"That said, the more abstract interpretations of the final three acts are more compelling than the heavily stylised end-of-act frivolities of the first two acts. The Act 2 divertissement to celebrate the arrival of the nubile Creusa — with its sequinned, star-studded plane, diva-esque posturing and nautical buffoonery — is a little too reminiscent of Flying Down to Rio or the stylised hamming of South Pacific. But, the demonic diversions of a snarling Vengeance, resentful Jealousy and aggrieved crowd of demons who poisonously bewitch the golden dress destined for Creusa, are fittingly disconcerting; similarly, the insubstantial phantoms which defeat Creon’s armed guard in Act 4 exemplify the choreographic approach of Lynne Page: namely, to present extremes of emotional excess expressed within controlled formal structures."

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Petition - Chetham's and other music schools

Frances Andrade should not die in vain. Read the background to the case here.  This isn't "just" a Chetham's story, nor "just" a situation peculiar to music schools. Abuse - psychological, sexual and otherwise - occurs whenever there are unequal balances of power, exploited by unscrupulous people.  Statistically, there are more good people around than bad, but safeguards should be in place to prevent abuse. People can learn, and thrive, without being made to feel like dirt. The problem needs to be addressed, if only to clarify guidelines. HERE is a link to a petition for an inquiry drafted by Paul Lewis, Timothy William Horton and Ian Pace. Read and participate.

Another Madame Butterfly - Butterfly Wu

The name "Butterfly" suggests fragile beauty but Butterfly Wu was a survivor, whose life reads like a lurid novel. Butterfly Wu (Wu Dip, Hu Die 胡蝶) made her first movies in Shanghai as a young girl and became a megastar. She was the real "Lady from Shanghai" before Marlene Dietrich. Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. Her name was a byword for beauty, but she was admired because she was strong and resourceful. Her life is like a chronicle of moderrn China.

Because Butterfly Wiu was so prominent, she was courted by warlords, and adored by film goers, to whom she was an inspiration of ideal Chinese Womanhood. Then the Japanese attacked China. Millions were killed, even more millions forced to move round the country as refugees. Yet in the midst of war, Butterfly Wu found love. In her native Hong Kong, she married a businessman, but the Japanese conquered Hong Kong, too. Because of her high profile, Wu Dip had to be smuggled out into Free China, pursued by Japanese agents. She wasn't safe there, either. General Dai Li (戴笠), head of the terrifying Chinese secret police, became infatuated with her and threatened to kill her husband unless she became his mistress.  Dai Li, who made the Gestapo and NKVD look like amateurs, died in a plane crash in 1946, possibly assassinated. Wu Dip and her hiusband were reunited, but he suffered ill heath, possibly a result of being tortured and imprisoned..  

Wu Dip continued to make movies until 1967, so her career spanned several golden ages of Chinese cinema. Because she's so closely associated with pre-war Shanghai, her contribution to Cantonese cinema is undervalued.  I've been watching "A Gratitude as Weighty as the Mountain" 恩重如山 (a quote from poetry) made in 1962.  In this film, she stars with Lam Ka Sing, who plays her son. He was an extremely famous opera singer and actor. 

A young woman's lover is  moving with his school into the interior of China. She's left behind and is bombed out and homeless. She falls into the hands of a man who rapes her and sells her into prostitution. Meanwhile, she's given birth to a son, named Tak Ming. Eventually, she escapes the crook and starts a new life in Hong Kong where she works as a bone massager, not quite prostitution but shameful. She had earlier given up her son to a kindly neighbour, who brought him up in South East Asia, so he would have a chance for a better life.

When the boy grows up, he returns to find his mother, but she pretends that his real mother is dead.  The son  goes to university and gets a job with a wonderful boss, who treats him as his successor.. Everything seems perfect, but he discovers that the woman who is looking after him a masseuse. He renounces her violently. How can she shame him so? The film contrasts the arrogant son with his self-sacrificing mother. He has a fancy western education but she has proper values. She is the one to whom he owes "gratitude as great as mountains". Throughout this film, it's strong female characters who help others and do virtue.

Then boss and rejected masseuse meet. "She is your natural mother", says the boss. "And I'm your natural father". The complication is that Tak Ming has made the boss's daughter pregnant. Scandal is averted when father reveals the daughter was a foundling, so the young couple can marry. This might sound like a crazy plot device but it was a genuine concern  in those days, when so many families were disrupted by war. No doubt there were real life stories like this. No wonder people turned to movies, which reflected their own pasts and anxieties. 

When Wu Dip retired and moved to Canada, there was a retrospective of her films on TV. I watched with my grandmother who was herself a Shanghai belle.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Geschichte vom Soldaten - Berlin

A regular reader sends an alert about Stravinsky Histore du Soldat in Berlin, auf Deutsch. Wow, this is electric ! Isabel Karajan,  the speaker, crackles with Expressionist energy, her animated face and voice powerfully dynamic. All the "characters" come alive - the soldier, the devil, the dancer. Guy Braunstein plays the violin, or should one say the fiddle in this context. "Gibt mir die Geige!"cries Karajan and Braunstein, a big man, quivers.  Watch it here, definitely worth the cost.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Ständchen or Sérénade Schubert Valentine

Jusqu'à toi mon chant dans l'ombre
Monte doucement

Verdi Giovanna D'Arco Full broadcasts

Giuseppe Verdi Giovanna d'Arco broadcast on BBC Radio 3 today, as the BBC Verdi 200 series continues. This is a  recent performance, from Graz,  so chances are vfew have heard it. Don't miss. Maria Agresta sings Giovanna, Jean-François Borras sings Carlo VII, King of France. Carlo Montanaro conducts. Being a fan of Borras, I think this will be good. Listen online for a week.

There are lots of recordings of Verdi's Giovanna D'Arco, so we're spoilt for choice. Last year the Parma production of 2008 was released, but only on Blueray. The earlier Bologna production is readily available and recommended for several reasons. Riccardo Chailly conducts, and Vincenzo La Scola sings Charles VII.  He's wonderful, not at all compromised because he also sang crossover. When an artist is genuinely good it really makes no difference. And even if an artists isn't "that" good, we have no right to complain if they give pleasure to others. La Scola died aged only 53. Although Susan Dunn isn't a specially remarkable Giovanna, another reason for seeing the Chailly/Bologna DVD is that it was directed and designed by Werner Herzog. This is why opera houses commission directors outside the opera world. Some, like Herzog, can translate their skills. As film, Herzog's Giovanna D'Arco is stunning. Watch the scene where the crowd, dressed in masks, parade around carrying candles, singing "Viva, Viva" though we know they're out for Giovanna's blood. The candles look like spikes or staves, a reference to  the armies Joan led into battle, the violence now turned upon her.

Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco has been recorded many times, so if you want audio-only, you're spoiled for choice. For starters : Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bregonzi with Alfredo Simonetto, from Milan 1951, or Montserrat Caballé and Placido Domingo with Levine (1973). HERE is a link to a full broadcast of the 1996 Royal Opera House production conducted by Daniele Gatti, with June Anderson and Dennis O'Neill. It comes with full libretto, too.

 Lots more on this site on the theme of Joan of Arc in music, film, opera and literature. Some quite unusal, like Honegger (with Ingrid Bergman) and Braunfels. and of course Carl Th. Dreyer's film, The Passion of Joan of Arc

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Surprises ! Wigmore Hall 2013-14 season launch

John Gilhooly, Director of the Wigmore Hall, has announced the Wigmore Hall's 2013-14 season. It's so interesting that it's worth becoming a Friend so you can book before things sell out. This is Wigmore Hall programming at its best, a look back on past glories, but also innovative and forward thinking.

Big name stars: Bryn Terfel is doing a piano recital with Malcolm Martineau. This is a a rare occasion. What will prices be like, I wonder, as Bryn don't come cheap.  Will he be singing songs or arias ? He'll be joined by Simon Keenlyside.

Matthias Goerne is being honoured in what's billed as  a "celebration".  Goerne hasn't appeared in London much at all in the last few years,  but not long ago he used to appear 6 or 7 times a year, and always at the Wigmore Hall, where he was greatly admired. His ongoing Schubert series for Deutesche Grammophon is superb. Ian Bostridge is singing Schubert, too. As with  Goerne, the Wigmore Hall launched his career. It's surprising, though, that he isn't singing enough Britten in this centenary year. He has exceptional insights into Britten's idiom and brings out the strange, dangerous depths better than anyone else. To please the opera fans, Christian Gerhaher will be doing a recital, and Dame Felicity Lott will be giving her Farewell. Flott is a beloved fixture at the Wigmore Hall - there won't be a dry eye in the house. Flowers everywhere!

Yo-Yo Ma is giving a Gala concert and there'll be a Menahem Pressler Tribute. Mitsuko Uchida is giving a recital with members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. András Schiff will be doing a Bach series, which should be provocative.  Stephen Osborne gets a "Spotlight".  For those who love violin, Isabelle Faust and Julia Fischer. Marc-André Hamelin is this year's Artist in Residence.

For me, though, the really intriguing things aren't the one-off concerts but intelligently grouped series that delve deeper into repertoire. This year, a 25-concert Contemporary Music series, no less!  Although the Wigmore Hall has an elegant image, it's always been a place where contemporary, new music has thrived. Many composers we consider mainstream now had premieres at the Wigmore Hall, which also sponsors composers like Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Luke Bedford, Thomas Adès and others. This season there's a George Benjamin retrospecticve to coincide with Benjamin's Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House, and later a Simon Bainbridge study day. Although we don't know what this important new series includes, we can be pretty sure from past form that the Wigmore Hall will deliver something well worth listening to. Julian Anderson is next year's Composer in Residence.

The Nash Ensemble follow on from their British music series with an American series: think Barber, Ives, and possibly more adventure. When the Nash do things, they do them well. The Jerusalem Quartet are doing the Shostakovich String Quartets. The Takács Quartet are doing a series and the Elias Quartet are planning a Beethoven cycle.

The Wigmore Hall is also an excellent place for baroque, because the acoustic is so intimate. Christophe Rousset brings Les Talens Lyriques, and William Christie brings Les Arts Florissants.  Harry Bicket and the English Concert celebtrate their 40th anniversary and L'Arpeggiata are baroque artists in residence. Exaudi will be performiong too, whether early music, baroque or contemporary, or all of the above, they are that versatile.

All this plus a Tippett Retrospective, and a Joseph Marx song series. Tippett in a Britten year?  That's what I love about the Wigmore Hall. It doesn't do predictable "anniversaries" but understands that its core audience can take more of a challenge.

photo : David Hawgood

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Pope Springs Eternal

Politicians, bankers and other egotists would do well to consider the Pope's resignation. Running a multinational conglomerate isn't easy at the best of times, and these aren't easy times for the Church. So Benedict XVI has the courage to face the reality that he isn't the one to make the changes that are needed.

Church and Faith are different things. Perhaps he feels that the faith will be stronger if the Augean stables are ckeaned. Perhaps he is just honest enough, and humble enough, to know that he can't work miracles. Or he's so sick of the intrigue that goes on in big institutions that he wants to return to the basic roots of his faith and spend the rest of his life in prayer. God knows, that might even work.

If more people in public places had that kind of integrity this world might be a better place. Instead, the world is full of venal egotists who can't see beyond their own self interest.  Benedict XVI will be excoriated on all sides for being too liberal, too illiberal, too slow to act or too progressive. Being Pope is a no-win situation. Maybe it's just theway that I am, but I think one should look at the man behind the role. Have we become so brainwashed by power games that we can't comprehend when someone rejects toxic values? Politicians, tycoons, so-called leaders and perhaps the rest of us, should meditate on what Benedict has done.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Handel Radamisto Barbican - Daniels Bardon Pisaroni

Handel's Radamisto HWV 12a confirms the Barbican Hall as one of the finest places for baroque in London. Superb  performances from David Daniels, Luca Pisaroni,  and Patricia Bardon, with Harry Bicket conducting The English Concert from the harpsichord. Performances like this highlight the inherent drama in the music. The comparison between this Barbican Radamisto and the ENO staging in 2010 (more here) could hardly have been greater. Although unstaged, Bicket's Barbican Radamisto was far better theatre because the drama was revealed through good singing.

Harry Bicket's style is understated - I hate using the cliché "English" - but it works well in a medium-sized space like the Barbican. Handel's plot may be outrageously exotic, but here the focus was on the characters as human beings, despite the implausible situations in which they find themselves. This isn't historical drama. Most of us wouldn't recognize first century Armenia if we tried. At heart, Radamisto is about a family and their power struggles, and the ultimate triumph of married love.

Bicket's restraint allows the singers to demonstrate the elaborate vocal technique that Handel's audiences would have thrilled to. Part of the drama in Radamisto is marvelling how long a singer can sustain a line, or decorate a vowel in myriad repeats. Radamisto and Tiridate are duelling with their voices: oneupmanship through trills. David Daniels was particularly effective, showing the gentle side of Radamisto . His "Cara Sposa" was tender: no wonder Zenobia adores him so. Later, when Radamisto and Zenobia duet, the chemistry between Daniels and Patricia Bardon is palpable. She was suffering from an illness, but delivered with the courage Zenobia has to endure suffering. If anything, Bardon's determination enhanced her portrayal.  Daniels sounded genuinely solicitous. The dynamic between the two singers, especially in the Act Two sequences which predicate on the emotional bond between the couple,  is so deep that they can see through disguises and the convolutions in the narrative. Tiridate hasn't a chance.

Luca Pisaroni is an exceptionally good Tiridate. He sings with great authority. He creates Tiridate as a mighty tyrant before whom all enemies quake. Except, of course, Zenobia, whose weapon is love. Pisaroni has presence as well as astounding range. In Act One, his variations on the single vowel "a" are spectacular, suggesting the arsenal he has behind him. The valveless horns of the English Concert extend his burnished tones. This is where period instruments come into their own. Do the horns suggest military glory or the hollowness of power? This subtlety would be lost with modern instruments.

Later, Pisaroni's "Sì che ti renderai"  was so beautiful that the audience rewarded him with the longest, and genuinely spontaneous applause. Pisaroni's expressive range shows how Tiridate, formidable as he is, is still "family". When he sings Tiridate's magnaminous reconciliation, it feels right, emotionally, although the act would be absurd Realpolitik.  In the final scene, the elegant balance of voices suggests that this war-torn family will indeed find harmony.

Elizabeth Watts sang Tigrane. Since this is usually a trouser role, she was dressed in 18th century male costume. At the ENO Radamisto, the part was played as burlesque. A singer like Elizabeth Watts couldn't do crude even if she tried, for her timbre is naturally lustrous and Italianate, to the extent that she is far better in dramatic repertoire than in Lieder. Tigrane is the peacemaker in this opera, not a figure of derision. Watts's warm timbre fills out the generosity inherent in Tigrane's personality. Brenda Rae sang Polissena and Robert Rice sang Farasmane.

Read the FULL review in Opera Today

MORE Baroque coming up soon at the Barbican, an ideal setting for the genre. 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

For Frances Andrade

Frances Andrade (Shorney) killed herself 6 days after giving evidence against a man who abused his position of trust as a music teacher and molested her. News of her death was kept confidential while the trial proceeded, presumably so the jury would not be influenced. They found the teacher and his wife guilty anyway. "She was a combative, confident and emotional witness", reports the Guardian. ."When Kate Blackwell QC, Brewer's barrister, alleged her account of being raped by the Brewers at their house was "utter fantasy", Andrade loudly replied: "Bollocks".

"This feels like rape all over again", she told the court

It's horrific that victims of abuse should be treated in this way, but even she admitted that it was the  defence counsel's job to defend her clients. Indeed, that proves the case was strong enough to stand, even if the Brewers weren't found guilty on all counts. "You have told this jury a complete pack of lies about the visit to this house," said Blackwell. Andrade replied: "This is why cases don't come to court. This happened."  

 Our legal system is fair in that it assumes people are innocent until proven guilty. It's a basic human right. Unfortunately in abuse cases like this, the system is skewed against those who don't have the resources to stand up for themselves. The Jersey orphanages, the North Wales care homes and Jimmy Savile scandals show how hard it is to substantiate claims.  So it's all the more important that cases like this do come to trial, and remind us of the human tragedy behind the headlines. Frances Andrade's courage is remarkable, becauses she knew the risks she was taking, but didn't flinch. She was doing what was right. But because she was human, it was, eventually, more than she could cope with.  Read about her life here in  the Telegraph and also the article "A force of creativity" by Helen Pidd.

Frances Andrade did the right thing by testifying, and should be honoured for having done so. She didn't have to, but she did so in the hope that she might prevent the same thing happening to others. No-one else should be blamed for her death other than those who abused her in the first place.  But we must be outraged, because what happened to her was wrong, and anger is a healthy part of mourning. It can stop bad things happening to other people.

There is no point in blaming music schools, or blaming music students, because these situations arise in many different circumstances.  It's yet another form of abuse to assume that everyone is tainted by association. Indeed, abuse is probably more prevalent in care homes, "reform schools" and similar institutions where kids come from much more difficult backgrounds.

The sort of one to one contact students in music schools have with their teachers is, in principle, a good thing because students need that to develop.  Young athletes need the same kind of individual, personal attention. But it does not, under any circumstances, connect to abuse. In the scramble to place blame, there's the danger that we might lose sight of the real problem, which is sick individuals who hurt others for their own pleasure. 

Michael Brewer and his ex wife knew what they were doing when they assaulted Frances Andrade. They smiled while she confronted them during the trial, which is a cruel thing to do even if you're not guilty. There are cases when people are falsely accused, or when the teacher is himself/herself is vulnerable. But when some people are in positions of power, they use their authority to get away with their deeds, and no-one dares stand up to them.

Brewer left Chetham's after he was exposed for having abused another student, some years after Frances Andrade had left. The other student didn't go to court, for understandable reasons. Thus Brewer was able to get other jobs, and even an OBE. He became artistic director of the National Youth Choirs of Britain, and director of the World Youth Choir, appeared on the BBC andf performed before the Queen. His later employers claimed that they didn't know about his past.  But if cases don't come to court how do they find out? Read the correspondence HERE which gives background. On page 26, there is a letter from Frances Andrade, written in 2002. Even then, she was speaking out.

Although the age of consent is 16 for heterosexual acts, abuse doesn't become legitimate because people are technically adult. It can happen in further education, in the workplace, anywhere there is an imbalance of power and where institutions are complacent about bullying.  The Brewer case has wide implications, far beyond music schools and the events of 30 years ago. Post-Jimmy Savile, the police have been focussing on old men and on old evidence, which is fair enough. But the danger is that abuse continues.  It's not "historic". Shouldn't emphasis be on fresh cases and the prevention of further abuse?  Perhaps that might mean institutions have to be more vigilant and take things more seriously. It's not easy to balance evidence of proof against the possibility of harm. Whistleblowers aren't necessarily troublemakers. Many decent people don't act on their consciences, and bad things go unchecked. They are less culpable than those who chose not to check. The real guilt lies with those who harm in the first place. Frances Andrade had the integrity to appear in court, even if it destroyed her.  Angry we must be, for her sake, and for the thousands of others elsewhere who are still intimidated.

And this might just be the beginning....

Friday, 8 February 2013

Benjamin Britten's Secret Twin

 If you like this see the other secret twins :

Dmitri Shostakovich and Harry Potter

Huw Watkins Day, Wigmore Hall

Huw Watkins Day at the Wigmore Hall, 9th February. It's a good retrospective of Watkins's music.

 I'd recommend the 1130 recital because it features Watkins's Four Spencer Pieces, one of the .loveliest pieces by a contemporary British composer. Watkins himself weill be playing. When I reviewed the NMC Recording, I wrote "Four Spencer Pieces (2001) for solo piano, played by the composer himself . Each of these miniature tone poems was inspired by a specific painting, like "Shipbuilding on the Clyde" and "The Resurrection of Soldiers". Stanley Spencer's paintings show ordinary events but lit by preternatural light, every detail crystal clear. The "pictures" are framed by a Prelude and a ravishingly beautiful Postlude in which cascading cadences suggest light, clarity, contemplation. Watkins isn't "illustrating" the pictures so much as expressing the earthy surrealism of Spencer's work, so the rapture of the Postlude is extraordinarly perceptive. This exqusite miniature is the highlight ofthe whole recording."

Alina Ibragimova plays Partita for solo violin at the 3pm concert. "Despite the allusion to Bach, it's not baroque. As Bayan Northcott says in his notes "no double dotted rhythms, no courante, sarabande or gavotte". Alina Ibragimova, the dedicatee, negotiates its tricky turns gracefully, so the wayward molto allegro sounds vivid, even humorous."  Carolyn Sampson sings Watkins's Three Larkin Songs. Watkins is joined by Guy and Magnus Johnston for his Piano Trio.

The main evening concert features Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale for violin, clarinet and piano (Laura Samuel, Matthew Hunt) and Watkins's Trio for horn, Violin and piano, where he'll be joined by yet another Watkins scion, Richard Watkins, the horn player. Mark Padmore will be singing In My Craft or Sullen Art, an ambitious piece that might come over better live than it did, for me, on the recording. It's a setting of texts by Dylan Thomas on the nature of creative art. "Thomas's craft was poetry. Watkins's setting suggests that poetry, like alchemy, has the power to transmute base material into magic, "exercised in the still night when only the moon rages". A strange unworldly cello entices us in, and the first voice setting is relatively straightforward.

A second, longer section where the quartet plays without the voice."Perhaps this is an interlude, but it feels central to the piece, sparking off a completely different setting of the same poem. This time the mood is agitated, insistent. The words "In my Craft or sullen art" are projected like a cry. Mark Padmore adapts his usual smooth urbanity so it captures the surreal nature of the piece. At times he sounds uncannily like Ian Bostridge. This isn't a work for voice and string quartet so much as a work for string quartet with additional voice. In the final strophe of the second setting of text, the strings subsume the human voice, and take over where it leaves off.  That's Huw Watkins's "Craft": singular and very original."

The things you can do with ONE Brushstroke

ONE brush stroke ! Kung Hei Fat Choy, the year of the snake

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Pink Triangles and Britten biography

Biography is a way into a composer's mind, especially one as enigmatic as Benjamin Britten. He veiled his emotions, expressing them obliquely through the abstraction of music. Indeed, his emotional reserve makes his music a challenge. Listeners who want heart-on-sleeve sentiment can't penetrate his reticence. Britten's edginess doesn't conform to any formula. Perhaps that explains why the media is obssessed with his sex life. It's easier for small minds to seize on gossip than to listen to his music, or ponder Britten's whole persoanlity..

When the Jimmy Savile scandal broke, the Daily Mail ran a story demanding that the BBC "acknowledge" Britten's obssession with boys. But Britten's interest in boys is no secret.  He was no Jimmy Savile, callously harming vulnerable victims, and getting away with it because he was a public figure. The Daily Mail is a tabloid, and tabloids thrive on sensation, not journalism. Its target market couldn't care less about Britten as composer. That article was written during a completely unconnected scandal that led to the resignation of the BBC's Director General. This is relevant because it puts the article into context.  The story ran on 26th October 2012. but on 21st November the Guardian ran a similar sttory, adding noithing new. Of  course it matters if Britten were a Savile, but all the evdience points to the probability that Britten did not act on whatever he might have felt. There is a difference. Throughout his whole career, Britten vehemently protests the loss of innocence. His pacifism was fuelled by passionate opposition to injustice and exploitation. Daily Mail intellectuals can ignore the music. The rest of us can't.

Much of the problem the media have with Britten is that he was gay. Homosexuality was illegal in his time. Careers could be destroyed by the least hint that a man wasn't exclusively hetero. Britten was never dishonest about his orientation. So what if he didn't march or make a fuss? No-one should be forced to express themselves  in any specific way. Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Owen Wingrave, all show how Britten supports the individual against mass conformity.  Media obssession with Britten's sexuality delimits any attempt to really come to terms with the man and his music. If we don't respect people as individual, complex personalities, we might as well pin pink triangles and yellow stars on people, treating them as categories, not as human beings.

That's why we need intelligent biography, so we can appreciate Britten as a uniquely creative individual. No biography can ever be exhaustive, so a certain degree of speculation is necessary. But any speculation must be based on a reasonable interpretation of whatever evidence is available. Answers aren't nearly so important as the process of evaluation.  Currently I'm reading Paul Kildea's Benjamin Britten : A Life in the Twentieh Century (what else? Grin!), and Neil Powell's A Life in Music . Kildea is worth reading because he's Kildea, but neither adds much to Humphrey Carpenter's seminal Benjamin Britten: A Life, first published in 1992. Nothing comes close. I'll be writing more over the next few weeks.

Please see lots more on Britten on this site, and about Aldeburgh, British music and 20th century music in general. In fact,  there's probably more on Britten and his background here than on any non-Britten-specific site.   Different Britten : Aldebuurgh Music Festival 2013, for example.
(photo : Michael Ambjorn)

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Bullseye ! Rossini Guillaume Tell Amsterdam

Giacomo Rossini's Guillaume Tell hits the bullseye at de Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam! Here is a link to the review by Jim Sohre in Opera Today. Pierre Audi directs - always a sign of intelligent stagecraft. "With a visually beautiful and dramatically honest staging, Netherlands Opera has made as compelling a case as I would imagine possible for Rossini’s grand opera Guillaume Tell. For starters they have gifted us with a cast that could hardly be bettered (and vocal excellence is always a great place to start)."

Nicola Alaimo sings the title role, and John Osborn  sings Arnold. Osborn sang the role in  London in a concert performance in 2011 (reviewed HERE )

"Guillaume Tell is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, whose public generally likes their scenery Alpine-kitschy and cuckoo clock ‘realistic.’ At this Dutch premiere at least, the audience embraced and cheered this striking and original imagery, totally winning stagecraft, and top tier musical execution."

Read more about Rossini's Guillaume Tell (which I adore) HERE (Full download with libretto) 

City folks alert

Sarah Minns will be singing a recital at St Bride's, Fleet Street, London EC4Y 8AU, at 1.15 pm Tuesday 12th (admission free). Sarah starred in Wedmore Opera's Eleanor Vale. (read review here).  Pianist is Timothy End, who won the duo prize at the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition in 2011. Programme as follows:
Quanti mi siete intorno....Padre germani (Ilia), Idomeneo, Mozart;  Eccomi...Oh! quante volte (Giulietta), I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Bellini; Je suis encore (Manon), Manon, Massenet; I stole from them....(Vixen), The Cunning Little Vixen, Janáček; The Tower Scene (Governess), The Turn of the Screw, Britten; Laughing song (Adele), Die Fledermaus, Strauss
For those within reach of Oxford, Sholto Kynoch and Mae Heydorn perform Mahler's Ruckert songs, and songs by Dvorak and Rangström at the Holywell Music Room, on Friday 8th at 730 pm Oxford. 

Also worth going to,  on Thursday 14th, is the Academy Song Circle Valentine Concert at David Josefowitz Recital Hall, Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Rd, London NW1, at 730 pm.  "A recital of songs and duets that explore the theme of love". Alice Privett, Rosalind Coad, Rozanna Madylus, Oliver Johnston, Ed Ballard, Finnegan Downie Dear, Horacio Lopez Redondo, Thomas Primrose, Sachika Taniyama and Katharina Thoni.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Décor or staging? Holten Eugene Onegin Royal Opera House

Kaspar Holten's production of Tchaikovaky's Eugene Onegin was eagerly awaited; the new Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House is a man of ideas. What vision would he have in store for us in his first London production? The curtains revealed a gorgeous set, in glowing jewel colours - greens, blues, with Tatyana dressed in scarlet. Except there were two Tatyanas.  Stick-thin Tatyana (Vigdis Hentzer Olsen) was a ballerina, acting out the letter scene in jerking, twitching spasms. It's true that the Young Tatyana confuses fantasy with reality.

Certainly, the idea of Tatyana with a will of iron is one worth developing, especially with Krassimira Stoyanova in the role. She throws herself into the part so well that occasional squally phrases seem part of Tatyana's extreme personality. But she's forced to stand aside, and the intensity of the scene disintegrates. The rest of the household is eclipsed, despite fine performances from Diane Montague, Elena Maximova and especially Kathleen Wilkinson. Shorn from context, Tatyana's dreams of an alternative to her dreary life are reduced to mere tantrum. There's more to Tatyana than this. Stoyanova, with her heft and range, indicates how much is missing but she's undermined by the staging.
Holten's basic concept is that Tatyana and Onegin are looking back on their youth, which is perfectly in keeping with Pushkin.  It could work. Perhaps Onegin and Tatyana haven't matured even if they've grown older, but it's an idea that needs developing more than simply through the use of doubles. With his background in athletics, Simon Keenlyside moves well enough that he almost matches his dancer double, Thom Rackett, but isn't given much with which to define Onegin's personality.

Dance is integral to this opera, not only because it's Tchaikovsky, but because the composer uses dance as a metaphor. Madame Larina's guests dance a cotillon. Its strict formation emphasizes the conformist nature of the society in which they live. The dance is a form of mating ritual, a reference to the fertility of Nature, and to Mother Russia, eternally renewed with each passing generation.  Instead we get a sheaf of corn propped up against a wall.

There is a difference between décor and staging. Décor is nice, but staging should add meaning.  These designs, by Mia Stensgaard and Katrina Lindsay, turn this Eugene Onegin into a TV costume drama. That will please audiences who think no further than period costumes, and don't care whether a staging reflects the opera. Even Deborah Warner's staging for the ENO where the audience applauded the scenery, said more about the shallow, materialist society in this opera than Holten's does. (Read more here).

This production disconnects not only from the inner drama, but more worrryingly, from Tchaikovsky's music.  The interlude between Acts 2 and 3 depicts Onegin's exile. It can be turbulent, soul-searching, even disturbing. What we see are a few ballerinas  in gauze, dancing like wraiths. Maybe Onegin is seeing the ghosts of his past, but it's introduced at the expense of a much deeper level of interpretation.  The aristocrats are dancing, too, acting out rituals of wealth and social precedence. "It bores me", sings Keenlyside with heartfelt sincerity. We don't need to see them, but we should hear them as an impenetrable wall of sound. Tatyana and Onegin have to hide their feelings, but Tchaikovsky can express what cannot be sung through the orchestra. Robin Ticciati might tell us, even if the staging doesn't. What has Tatyana chosen by marrying Gremin (Peter Rose) and rejecting romance? Pushkin, Tchaikovsky and Onegin all knew just how overwhelming society could be. There's no sense of fatalism in this staging, but plenty in the music. A conductor needs to reflect what's happening on stage, but Ticciati is too obedient. He's good but he needs to be more independent and assertive.

Pavol Breslik as Lensky makes this ROH Eugene Onegin an absolute must.  This was a superlative performance. Breslik's voice is seductive, suggesting depths of Lensky's character that most productions skip past.  Breslik's "Kuda, kuda" is so full of feeling that one thinks of youth, energy, beauty. A male version of Mother Russia, perhaps, a life force that's extinguished for reasons we can't comprehend.  The duel scene is staged so badly that it's barely obvious that Lensky lets himself be shot, which is fundamental to the interpretation of the work. Were it not for Breslik's singing, or for Jihoon Kim's demonic Zaretsky, we'd be none the wiser.

Kaspar Holten's Eugene Onegin is worth going to, despite my misgivings, because it is provocative. It makes you think, even if not quite in the way Holten intended. That, for me, is much more important than the merits oif demerits of the staging: opera should provoke and stimulate. Even if we don't agree, we're using our minds.  It's infinitely better that Holten engages us than if he played safe.  He's not boring!  Let's face it, London is not ready for Kryzysztov Warlikowski and his absolutely outstanding Eugene Onegin, also with Pavol Breslik. Read more about that here.  Holten could ease London audiences gently into a brighter future. With him, the Royal Opera House is in good, if quirky, hands.

Photos : Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House

Monday, 4 February 2013

Drake lands Calleja - Temple Song

Joseph Calleja comes to Julius Drake's Temple Song series on May 20th.  Middle Temple Hall is an historic site. The word "Temple" refers to the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Real medieval wood panelling inside, and relics of Sir Francis Drake, whose connection to Julius Drake I don't know. Recitals here are interesting becuase the hall is so small, and the audience sometimes seems drawn entirely from the legal profession.  Nice atmosphere, good for intimate recitals. Good singers, too and Julius Drake as pianist. This season features Véronique Gens, Robert Holl, Brigid Steinberger, James Gilchrist, Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams,.

Calleja, however, is a different proposition.  He'll fill the house with his voice and with his legions of devotees. The occasion is Giuseppe Verdi's birthday, but I imagine that no one will be too bothered what he sings as long as he sings. There aren't too many opportunities to get this close to him in performance. Middle Temple Hall regulars could well be beseiged by lots of new faces.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Holzmair Krenek tonight at Wigmore Hall

Tonight at the Wigmore Hall, Wolfgang Holzmair sings a programme he devised nearly 20 years ago. Holzmair is an exceptionally erudite singer, who not only knows parts of the song repertoire others don't, but also knows why they are important, and why they can change the way we listen. In this unique programme he mixes songs from Ernst Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen with songs by Franz Schubert. This won't be any simple mixed recital: Holzmair's choices are carefully woven  together so the whole flows almost seamlessly.

 It's a very deliberate Ruckblick on Schubert through the perspective of a composer living in modern Austria, only a few years after the end of the Hapsburg Empire. Suddenly, the Austria Schubert knew was a rump, divested of the nations that made Vienna a world city, and the certainties Schubert knew were transformed. Krenek in the 1920's was the enfant terrible of his time, scandalizing audiences with his opera Jonny spielt auf, which featured a black saxophonist playing jazz.  Perhaps its success shook Krenek himself, for he took time out to immerse himself in Austrian tradition.  He spent many months in the Austrian Alps, living with the peasants, and experiencing their hardships. Like Schubert before him, he walked, closely engaged with nature and the rhythms of the human body. For years, I've been writing about the role of mountains in music, and how they've shaped the aesthetic of Mahler, Schubert, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss and so on. Krenek is making a similar pilgrimage, getting to terms with landscape and its place in the Romantic Imagination.

The Schubert connection is just as significant, for Krenek was writing 100 years after Schubert's death. Schubert wasn't nearly as omnipresent as he is now. His works had only recently been catalogued, thanks to funds generated by interest in the centenary.  Krenek and many others at the time were on a learning curve as far as Schubert was concerned. So  Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen is a new work, but also inspired by Krenek's response to Schubert as relatively "new" music.

The cycle also deals with Austrian identity and German domination, still sore points today. Krenek even writes about Nazis in Bavaria, barely 3 years after Hitler had been released from prison after the Beer Hall putsch. Some might have been lulled into thinking the party was neutralized. Not Krenek. Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen is not, as has been suggested, a "humorous" cycle though there's wit in it.

Perhaps Krenek's figuring out who he is, as a composer living in modern times, troubled by constant, threatening change. Back home, he comes across a strange, sleepy village in the suburbs. There's a motto written above a doorway. "Ich lebe, und weiss nicht wie lang. Ich sterbe, und weiss nicht, wann. Ich geh', und weiss nicht, wohin., mich wundert's dass ich noch Frolich bin." Suddenly, Krenek (who wrote the text as well as the music) find what might be the key: accepting that you'll never know the answers. Accepting that life's uncertain, yet making the most of it. Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen really is a parable for modern times. .

Here is a link to something I wrote about Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen  a few years ago. Surprisingly almost no-one has written about it, so remember you saw it here first. Holzmair and Russell Ryan, who is also playing tonight, toured Europe and the US with this programme 15 years ago, when the Austrian government was sponsoring the "Year of the Mountains", featuring films, music, and literature associated with mountains.

Wolfgang Holzmair's probably done more than most to bring this song cycle into the mainstream.  He's passionate about Austria, and lesser-known Austrian composers, as diverse as Franz Mittler and Robert Stolz.  He deserves much credit. This is his 1998 recording, a beautiful mini album, lovingly illustrated with period photos. Track it down, because even if there are new versions, this one is the classic. All 20 songs plus an extra bonus the Fiedelleider op 64.  If you can't get a recording, get the score from Universal Edition. I heard him sing the programme at an intimate recital  in 1999, organised by the Austrian Cultural Forum, held in the Leighton House Museum before it was renovated. Holzmair has in fact recorded the "special" programme, but it's not commercially available anymore. I bought my copy from him personally after another semi-private recital organized by Richard Stokes, whose insights into this repertoire are exceptional. 

Friday, 1 February 2013

Different Britten - Aldeburgh Music Festival 2013

Aldeburgh is a place of pilgrimage if  you're serious about Benjamin Britten.  Perhaps more than most composers, Britten's music connects to the landscape he knew. Among the reed beds at Snape, and by the ocean (especially in winter), you can intuit more about Britten than rational analysis could reveal. Britten's years in America were a kind of creative impasse. Then he read George Crabbe's The Borough. "I suddenly realized where I belonged and what I lacked". Rushing home, he found his creative destiny. Peter Grimes was the immediate result.

Naturally, Peter Grimes is the centrepiece of this centenary year's Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. The Festival opens with a concert performance of Peter Grimes on Friday 7th June, repeated on Sunday 9th.  Veteran Britten specialist Steuart Bedford conducts.  Although there will be other Peter Grimes productions this year with starrier orchestras and casts, hearing this production at The Maltings in Snape will have extra, non-musical significance, because the opera was written across the road, literally, when Britten lived at the Old  Mill.

What's more, there'll be Peter Grimes on the Beach, a unique realization of the opera enacted outdoors, on the beach at Aldeburgh. This could be very good, as open air performances have been a feature at Aldeburgh for years, and they know how to do these things well.  Tim Albery directs, with sets, costumes, lighting and sound design by Sounds Intermedia. The singing will be live, though the orchestra will be recorded - instruments and weather don't mix. Since the sounds of the sea and shingle permeate the music, it will be atmospheric to feel the wind, smell the ocean, and feel the wild forces of nature engulf the performance.  As night descends, and darkness envelops the plot, the audience will be drawn into the proceedings, just as the townsfolk in the opera are complicit in what happens. If the weather is mild, it might be an anti-climax, but you are never likely to experience anything quite like this again.

hen Britten lived in Crag House, on Crabbe Street, the window in his study opened straight onto the beach. Crag Path itself is a steep, narrow set of steps which the townsfolk in George Crabbe's time would have used frequently to get from the church to their homes and boats. Crag House is five minutes walk from Jubilee Hall, where the first Aldeburgh Music Festival was held 66 years ago. Concerts are still held there, though it's small and unsophisticated. Renovation would ruin the ambience.

Felix Barrett and Punchdrunk Theatre will be  doing a series of events called The Borough, part way between George Crabbe's original poem (entitled The Borough)  and Britten's opera. Punchdrunk is unique in that they merge performance and audience, performance space and "real" surroundings. Small groups will be able to participate on "individual theatrical journeys" around the places Crabbe and Britten knew, blending modern reality with artistic imagination.

All three of Britten's Church Parables will be performed at Orford, in the church for which they were written. Seating is limited, and parking almost non-existent, but that, I think, is part of what the Parables entail. They aren't "easy", but almost penitential. Theatre in ritualistic form. There are parallels with medieval mystery plays, where spiritual concepts are more important than dramatic narrative. Curlew River is one of the most uncompromising works Britten ever wrote, but also crucial. It's inspired by Noh drama, so it's stylized and orientalist,  but it deals with a theme fundamental to Britten's psyche. The current hysteria about Britten's sex life shows how little his music is understood. Britten's interest in boys wasn't erotic so much as a working out of deep anxieties about identity and loss.  Prurient and small-minded folks should be forced to sit through Curlew River over and over again until they appreciate Britten's passionate protest at the loss of innocence. From this stems his pacifism and his sense of social justice. Miss these thing and you might as well not know Britten at all.

Curlew River is followed by The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son. The church parables are extremely well cast, including James Gilchrist, Lukas Jakobski, Rodney Earl Clarke and Samuel Evans, with Roger Vignoles  as music director. Mahogany Opera (Frederic Wake-Walker) won't be using the oroiginal designs, but those inspired by Mara Amats, an artist based in the region, who had a dramatic life.

Public booking for the Aldeburgh Festival starts 13th February. In the tradition Britten himself established, there will be a lot more than Britten to listen to. Dowland, Bach, Elliott Carter, Henze, Jonathan Harvey and even Stockhausen Kontakte on 15th June. For more, visit the Aldeburgh Festival site HERE.

 photo of Aldeburgh Beach, :Stephen Nunney. Photo of Orford Church : Gary Radford