Sunday, 31 May 2015

Roderick Williams Finzi Ludlow English Song Weekend

Two hardy perennials of the English song tradition, Roderick Williams and the English Song Weekend broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The English Song Weekend — how I wish that I could have been in Ludlow to hear it live. At this time of the year, Shropshire is at its most beautiful, verdant with fresh growth and vigour.  The English Song Weekend, founded by JIm Page and the Finzi Friends in 2001, is a festival like no other. Everyone knows each other and welcomes those who share their love for English song, old and new. That was a Finzi principle, embracing the joys of the language, nature and abundant joy. Ludlow itself isn't, strictly speaking, part of the English music heartland, but fits the atmosphere perfectly. It's a lovely old market town which symbolizes so much of what makes England, and the quintessential Englishness of English song.

"When smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off from Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team",

Ivor Gurney, the poet, and also composer, was a townie who probably never drove a plough. Gerald Finzi was the English Gentleman, so perfect he could have been conjured up by Hollywood Casting, yet was very much an outsider by birth. Ralph Vaughan Williams may have been born in Down Ampney but resolutely spent his life in London. Even A E Housman's visions of Shropshire grew from the imagination rather than from lived rural experience. But that's exactly why I love English song. Dreams of "blue remember'd hills" and "the Land of Lost Content" evoke deep and deliciously complex instincts.  A kind of universal Sensucht, as Germans would say.

Roderick Williams is easily the best exponent of English song, ever. His direct, conversational style  communicates meaning without artifice or condescension. In real life, he's as posh as they come, but his personal warmth and intelligence transcend stereotypes. I shall never forget his Last Night of the Proms, where he eschewed cheap gimmicks for Rule, Britannia, and instead chose sincerity, idealism and conviction.  His eyes shone. No jokiness, but absolute faith in meaning  For me, one of the great things about Britain is that anyone can become somebody, hard as it might be. That's what inclusiveness is really all about. I once had the pleasure of telling a UKIP worthy that I, too, am an immigrant.

Williams began his recital with early Vaughan Williams, so early that the relative clumsiness of the settings makes one glad he went to France and found his voice via Ravel.  In contrast, Williams did RVW's Four Last Songs. Divest oneself of notions of  Richard Strauss.  RVW's songs aren't valedictory, but a loose compilation of ideas left unfinished upon the composer's death. Procris is based on a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Menelaus on the Odyssey. the two last poems are more personal .The contemplative mood of Tired suggests a man assessing his past without rancour, and Hands, eyes and heart suggests inward, private emotions. Stylistically, they connect more to early RVW than to his great masterpieces, but reminded me how people in old age revert to their youth.

Williams and Burnside separated early and late RVW with Robert Saxton's Time and the Seasons, which premiered at the Oxford Lieder Festival in 2013, the best Lieder festival in this country.  With its "starlight" minimalism, and delicacy, this set of songs consciously evoked Gerald Finzi for me, specifically the transformational last strophe of Finzi's Channel Firing: when, after the big guns fall silent, "As far inland as Stourton Tower, And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.". The words aren't grammatic, but the music suggests that the meaning goes far beyond mere words. In the silence of the stars, we are at one with something primeval and magical : the soul of England no less, connecting to ancient mysteries.

In honour of Gerald Finzi and his ideals, and of Jim Page, without whose vision the English Song Weekend might not have come about, Williams concluded with Finzi's great song cycle Before and After Summer. Williams has sung them very often. For a change, especially piquant for an audience who knows him and Finzi practically by heart, Williams adopted a gentle Dorset burr, not too heavy or too intrusive, but just enough to remind us that the poems, by Thomas Hardy, are far more sophisticated than pseudo rural pastiche. Finzi's settings  bring out their philosophical depths and symbolism. Again, a reason why English song holds such a very special place in the English cultural psyche. Not bucolic at all! 

Friday, 29 May 2015

Hindu Hillbillies ? Messiaen Turangalîla-symphonie, Salonen

Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia, Royal Festival Hall, London.  A magnificent performance, infused with true insight into the whole  trajectory  of Messiaen's output.  Turangalîla is a strange, exotic beast, quite unlike anything else in the repertoire, confusing and contradicting easy assumptions.  Salonen, however, is one of the best Messiaen exponents of our time, and understands the idiom well. This was a performance of great insight.
 
When Turangalîla premiered in 1948, one writer  referred to its “fundamental emptiness… appalling melodic tawdriness…..a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, a dance for Hindu hillbillies”. He had a point. If ever there was music in Technicolor, this is it, complete with cinematic swirls of the ondes martenot.  These days, when we hear the ondes martenot, we don’t associate it with cutting-edge Varèse, but with Béla Lugosi. They don’t even make movies like that anymore.

Perhaps Turangalîla suffers from having been premiered in the wrong time and place. In 1948, Messiaen was largely unknown in the United States, so Koussevitsky's commission was very high profile indeed. The premiere was given by Leonard Bernstein, who probably relished the Hollywoodesque extravagance of the piece.  Although Bernstein didn't work with Nadia Boulanger, her influence over American music was overwhelming.  Boulanger and Messiaen both worked in Paris but occupied completely different spheres. Boulanger believed that music stopped with mid-period Stravinsky. She was a forceful personality,  idolized without question by her largely American (English-speaking) students. She despised |Messiaen, who ignored her, The Great Divide between European and American approaches to music was thus entrenched and continues to this day.

Salonen met Messiaen, learning the music direct from the scores, and from Messiaen's  favourite student, Pierre Boulez. For this London  performance, Pierre-Laurent Aimard played the all-important piano part, he too a great Messiaen interpreter closely and personally associated with the composer.  They were joined on this occasion by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, who studied ondes martenot with Jeanne Loriod.  Now that the Loriod sisters are gone, and Boulez no longer conducts,  there can be few more authoritative performers than these.  There will be two more Turangalîlas this year, at the BBC Proms and at the Three Choirs Festival, but Salonen, Aimard, Hartmann-Claverie and the Philharmonia will easily be the best.

Instead of milking  Turangalila's lurid psychedelic effects for their own sake, Salonen emphasized its startling energy. From the first bars, great structural forces are at play as in Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (more here). This isn't coincidence, for Turangalila deals with time and the transcendance of time. Hence the wild, volatile piano part.  No room for fuzzy approximations here: Aimard's passages flew with lucid savagery. The "male" voice, and the "statue" theme  express a vivid life force which can neither be contained nor extinguished. Against this the "female" of "flower\ themes of Claverie's ondes martenot, yielding seductively and langorous.   Turangalîla was conceived when Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod fell in love. Their love was forbidden by the restraints of their religion, so found expression in the zany, extra-terrestial nature of this music with its exotic "Peruvian" and gamelan flourishes, all part of the French fascination with non-western traditions, which Messiaen was to explore further, visiting Japan and the Far East. The ostinato operates like a heartbeat: throbbing with intense, erotic exhilaration, finding release in the sighs of the ondes martenot, taken up by lovely, circular shapes in the strings and winds.

This exoticism isn’t there for decoration, but stems from Messiaen's profound belief that all things reflect God’s bounty, even extra-marital love. Turangalîla. is a celebration of life, of love, and of creation in all its glory. Getting an orchestra of this size to move as a single organism takes some doing, but is also part of meaning. Diverse as the world may be, all things exist in purposeful union. Salonen's diamond-hard precision sharpens the impact.  Every note counts, even the tiniest. Messiaen was a devoted bird watcher who could pick out the individual song of the smallest birds amid the cacophony of a dawn chorus.  This insight, too, underpins Salonen's use of contrast. Many instruments play at the same time, but they don’t blend, as such. Instead the shapes come from precise stops and starts, clearly focussed decelerations and accelerations. We stop and listen to the silences, as we should, in nature, and in relationships. .

The ten parts of the symphony unfold in connection with each other. Tender chantes d'amour alternate with passages of extreme fervour. The subject may be love, but the idiom is a kind of religious ecstasy, beyond the comprehension of those who don't understand the zany logic of altered states. Fluttering notes, like the fluttering of wings, or post-coital heartbeats, then, shimmering veils of sound that cast a magical glow, like enchantment.  Turangalîla is a thing of beauty, its gossamer whimsy concealing great strength. Again, the importance of clarity and purity, and the definition which Salonen, Aimard, Claverie and the Philharmonia brought to this performance.  Aimard's playing of the more whimsical passages was glorious, as if he were teasing the orchestra , inspiring brightness of tone in the percussion, followed by great waves of sound.  Some hear in the sassy passages, echoes of Cole Porter (Love for Sale)  but Messiaen's images are far more audacious. The interweaving of themes, the alternating moments of dense sound and quiet  passage suggest something surprisingly organic, as if we were experiencing the creation of the cosmos itself.  But then, Turangalîla is so explosive, and so liberating that it is an act of creation  One can imagine, perhaps,  the stars shining in the universe and the large, angular sections, the shifting of tectonic plates, ideas which Messiaen would develop throughout his work. The final section, Modéré, presque vif, avec une grande joie:is a kind of apotheosis. The orchestra plays in unison, the lovers are united with each other and with God and Nature in glorious sublimation. Listen to the blaze of that  last coda!

Messaien and Loriod didn't have children (apart from favourites like Boulez, Aimard and |George Benjamin)  but their relationship led to the birth of some of the most remarkable music of the 20th century, its quirky, creative freedom  contradicting silly notions that modern music follows rigid rules. True artists don't operate in schools, like fish, or sheep,  but like the birds Messiaen so loved, but thrive as distinctive individuals. 

The programme began with Debussy Syrinx (Samuel Coles, principal flute) and  Debussy La damoiselle élue with Sophie Bevan,  Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano) and the ladies of the Philharmonia Chorus. The text is based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessèd Damozel.. The love there is forbidden too, but poisoned. No doubt Debussy, with his fondness for  Maeterlinck would have been aware of Rossetti raiding the grave of his beloved to retrieve his poems, tainted by the bodily fluids of death.  Not something Messiaen would have contemplated.

Listen again on BBC Radio 3




Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Garsington Opera 2016 - Haydn choreographed

Many new directions ahead for Garsington Opera at Wormsley! This year's season begins with Mozart Così fan tutte, the start of a new series of Mozart operas  which build on Garsington's formidable reputation as a Rossini house. Another breakthrough this year is Garsington's Midsummer Night's Dream, the first co-operation between Garsington and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Seeing the play, with incidental music by Mendelssohn, in the spectacular surroundings of Wormsley Park should be a great experience. This year's season also includes Strauss Intermezzo and Britten Death in Venice.   Tickets sold out ages ago - phone for returns! 

Garsington Opera at Wormsley is fast becoming the most innovative medium-sized opera company in this country.  Outlines of, Garsington Opera's 2016 have just been announced.  Three new productions: Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, conducted by Douglas Boyd and directed by Michael Boyd, Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri conductor David Parry, director William Tuckett and Mozart's Idomeneo with Tobias Ringborg conducting and Tim Albery directing.

Also in 2016, Haydn's masterpiece The Creation, in a joint production between Garsington Opera and Rambert, the dance company. The Creation will be conducted by Douglas Boyd and brought to life by choreographer Mark Baldwin, who is Artistic Director of Rambert and visual artist Pablo Bronstein.  Originally founded by Marie Rambert, Rambert, is Britain's national dance company. It presents new and historical dance works to audiences in all parts of the country, performed by world-class dancers and accompanied by live music, Read more about Rambert HERE.

Douglas Boyd said: We want to celebrate our wonderful Opera Pavilion and Garsington Opera in every possible way and I am delighted to be collaborating with Rambert. Bringing together different art forms is something that I believe enhances and complements our opera festival as we continue to explore partnerships with some of the most vibrant arts organisations of our time. Mark Baldwin said: Music and cross art-form collaboration have always been an integral part of Rambert's work and a particular passion of mine. I am hugely excited to be collaborating with Garsington Opera and Pablo Bronstein on this very special project which will see Rambert's world-class dancers join the incredible Garsington soloists, orchestra and chorus. I believe this will maximise the creativeness and beauty of Haydn's masterpiece and prove to be a glorious and uplifting experience."

Photo above shows the 1808 performance of The Creation  with Haydn himself  in the foreground. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Henry-Louis de La Grange 91st Birthday


Today is the 91st birthday of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange  His work on Gustav Mahler is a monument, to the composer, to music, and to proper scholarship. Conductors interpret, listeners listen, but scholars provide the materials others can build upon.  That's why I firmly believe that Professor de La Grange has done more than anyone else to increase our knowledge of Mahler, giving us the means to develop our interpretations, and to evaluate the interpretations of others. Professor de La Grange's work has enhanced our understanding of Mahler as a deeply intellectual, thoughtful man, whose symphonies form a trajectory of musical and extra-musical ideas. The greater the insight,  the greater the chances are of true understanding

Professor de La Grange has dedicated his life  to a great cause,  His father was a pioneering aviator, who served the community. His mother was a patron of the arts, encouraging some great names before they became famous. Their son continued that tradition of unselfish dedication to higher things, yet always with the kindness, generosity and humility that marks genuinely remarkable people,  In a world which seems to be descending into selfish barbaric ignorance,  Professor de La Grange, and his values, and the values Mahler espoused, stand as a beacon for civilization.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Turn the Key Softly - love poem for London

Not many films start with credits like: "We acknowledge with gratitude the help of the Home Office, The Prison Commissioners and the Governor of HM Prison, Holloway".  Turn the Key Softly begins with a shot of Holloway Prison,  as it was in 1953. It's oddly nostalgic. Veiled in heavy London fog, the prison looks mysterious, almost romantic.,Within minutes though, we're up against reality. Three women prisoners are being released. The scene's filmed inside. The guards are dehumanized - you can almost smell the repression. In prison, the women are anonymous. They collect their belongings to return outside. "Until you see people in their own clothes, you don't realize what you've been mixing with in this place" Who's that familiar face - Joan Collins  aged 19, dolled up in a deliciously bizarre peplum, which sums up the personality of her part, Stella Jarvis, flibbertigibbet good-time girl.

London itself stars in this film. The camera lingers, lovingly, on scenes shot on location. Monica Marsden ( Yvonne Mitchell) goes home to a flat in a terrace near St Mary's, Bryanston Square - nothing has changed in 60 years !  We also see another part of London which has disappeared, though - rooming houses in run down Victorian mansions, seedily keeping up pretensions. The landlady lets Mrs Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison) have her old room back. It's unchanged. The landlady's even looked after Johnny, the dog. Imagine landlords that laidback now.  Onc scene seems to have been filmed in a real pub, not a set.  Few pubs look like that now.  We see the Underground, pristine and spotless, and Trafalgar Square minus tourists. We see the West End, and something of London's future. Mrs Quilliam's daughter is "aspirational". She's escaped the East End for an identikit house in  some outer suburb and shudders at the thought of "lower class". The cinematography is so poetic that this film is a kind of love story for London.

Turn the Key Softly was written, produced and directed by Maurice Cowan and Jack Lee, at Pinewood Studios, when the British film industry was at its artistic peak. Based on a novel by John Brophy, it's a tightly paced drama, with deftly written dialogue, and strong characterizations, even in the minor parts - all of them London "types", lovingly drawn. Stella brags to her prostitute friends that her boyfriend's "in transport". Since the action all takes place within 24 hours, the narrative moves swiftly. Stella loses the £3 her boyfriend gives her to live on for a week, (!!!!) but gets it back by fleecing the stranger who thought he'd arranged a date with Monica. Unlike Stella and Mrs |Quilliam, who are feckless kleptos, Monica has never been in trouble with the law before. She was arrested because her boyfriend David (Terence Morgan) let her take the rap for one of his burglaries. Clearly, she loves him, but sees through his games. Thinking they're going to the theatre, she wears an evening gown. Now, you don't wear yards of tulle, even at Glyndebourne. David, however, has set up another crime. This time, Monica doesn't help. David is trapped on a roof, fighting off the police.  Wonderful cinematography again, worthy of much better known films noir. The camera shows the West End theatre in awkward angular shots. It's a wet night in theatreland : the camera contrasts textures: stone walls, cramped stairwells, metal fire escapes, the machinery with which the police winch themselves onto the roof. each frame adds to the sense of tension and danger.

The tightness of the script is further enhanced  by the clear-sighted anti-sentimentality of the plot. Monica is a strong person, determined not to be dragged down, like poor, dotty Mrs Quilliam, who gets killed by a car as she squeals in delight and relief, having found her lost dog. Stella's getting married, but how long will it be before she goes back to her old ways  Young as she is, she may squander her future and end up like Mrs Quilliam. 

Mischa Spoliansky wrote the soundtrack and conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, when orchestras did movie work on a regular basis. Spoliansky was a star in German theatre and cabaret, before being forced into exile. In London, he built a successful  new career, writing scores for Norman Wisdom movies, and many others, including Sanders of the River and King Solomon's Mines. In Turn the Key Softly, Spoliansky's wit shines through. Stella sings trashy pop, but Monica's more sophisticated taste is underlined by quotations from Poulenc Les chemins d'amour

Buddha's Birthday


Today marks the birthday of Lord Guatama Buddha, celebrated across the world.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Donizetti Glyndebourne Poliuto - a great new classic


Donizetti Poliuto at Glyndebourne could well become one of of the great Glyndebourne classics.  It makes a powerful case for the opera, and also for Glyndebourne's artistic vision. Poliuto isn't standard repertoire - it's nothing like L'elisir d'amore - but this brilliant production and performances show what a powerful work it is.  Political repression,  religious intolerance and persecution are all too relevant today. Poliuto packs an emotional punch. We should heed its message

Donizetti's source material was a play by Corneille, written two centuries previously. Polyeucte (Poliuto) was a nobleman in an  outpost of the Roman Empire. The opera begins with brooding, murky music with a hushed but fervent chorus. Christians are meeting in secret. Three hundred years after the death of Christ, being a Christian was dangerous. Most early Christians were poor, an underclass inspired by the doctrine of heavenly rewards for earthly suffering. In a militaristic state like Rome, the idea that the meek might inherit the earth would have seemed dangerously subversive, tantamount to overthrowing the basic values of social order. Towering columns of what appear to be rough-hewn stone overwhelm the figures below, at once a depiction of the harsh conditions Christians faced, yet also the strength of their faith.

The opera begins with murky music suggesting shadows, and a hushed but fervent chorus. Into this darkness Poliuto (Michael Fabiano) appears. He's a nobleman, an outsider. Is he a spy? His friend, Nearco (Emanuele D’Aguanno), is a convert. and Poliuto wants to find out why this strange new faith holds such allure.  Poliuto's troubled because he knows that his wife Paolina (Ana María Martínez) is still in love with Severo ( Igor Golovatenko), who she thought had died. Since Severo is now a Proconsul, with authority direct from Rome, this love triangle has toxic political complications. Severo's costume suggests Mussolini, who defined Fascism. His guards resemble Mussolini's secret police. With a wry tough sense of humour, director Mariame Clément  has them smoking cigarettes.

Enrique Mazzola, a bel canto specialist, conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Last November, Mark Elder conducted Les Martyrs,  the French version of Poluito which Donizetti created for Paris when Poliuto was banned in Naples. The LPO aren't a period instrument orchestra like the Age of Enlightenment for Opera Rara, but Mazzola used that to advantage, creating an almost Verdian richness of colour from the relatively small forces of a Donizetti orchestra. Mazzola seems to inspire great enthusiasm from his players. Hopefully, we'll hear much more of him at Glyndebourne (and in London) in the future.

Severo and Paolina snatch a few moments together.  Martínez executed Paolina's arias with such beauty  that her voice seemed to shimmer. Good casting, since divine light seems to permeate this opera, despite the gruesome nature of the narrative. Donizetti gilds the vocal line with almost minimalist grace - delicately plucked strings, a single low flute, and the sound of the harp. For a moment, an image of a flowering tree is projected on the walls behind her  Martínez's voice blossoms with warmth that's all too soon extinguished.  When she and Golovatenko sing together, they're singing love duets tinged with frustration  and regret.  Paolina, though, is a paragon of virtue, a concept both Roman and Christian.

Regimes that feel threatened turn to extremes. In the Temple of Jupiter, the crowds are whipped up to bloodthirsty frenzy. Some of the chorus had been singing Christians earlier, or Roman guards: interesting irony. Matthew Rose 's firmly focused bass created Callistene, the High Priest with great authority. With Severo wavering, and and Poliuto turning Christian, it's up to him to hold up the foundations of the Roman Empire But Poliuto isn't afraid of death. He believes in the resurrection: worldly concerns are no match. The purity of Michael Fabiano's tenor rings so cleanly that Paolina is convinced that  any faith that can conquer death is one worth having, even if it means leaving her father Felice (Timothy Robinson) singing from a wheelchair, to underline his inability to morally stand on his own two feet. When Poliuto and Paolina die, we don't need to see blood and guts. Being True Believers, they're simply transformed in a blaze of light.  The designs (Julia Hansen and Bernd Purkrabek) with video projections,  b fettFilm (Momme Hinrichs and Torge Möller) were extraordinarily beautiful. Gorgeous washes of colour. Sets that move as seamlessly as this, and transform with such subtlety are a thing of wonder. Like Paolina, I thought I could hear the angels sing.

This review appears also in Opera Today

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Donizetti Poliuto today at Glyndebourne


Donizetti Poliuto at Glyndebourne today!  In November, the opera in its French langauge version, Les Martyrs,  was done by Opera Rara (my review here). What a buzz that created!  After that  Les Martyrs, I could hardly wait for Poliuto. This kind of programming,is good because it expands the way we listen and learn. Moreover this year marks the centenary of the Armenian Holocaust. It's as well that we should remember the centuries of conflict from which that arose. My review of the Glyndebourne production is HERE. 

The opera, or operas, are both set in Armenia, when it was an outpost of the Roman Empire. But beware thinking that the opera is somehow "about" Armenia . It's not !  The story could have happened anywhere in the Roman Empire. It still happens today - think ISIS, Falun Gong, etc etc. Unfortunately those who don't actually engage with opera don't care enough about opera to  get past reading the first line of a synopsis.


Donizetti's impetus was a play by Corneille, written two hundred years previously. It deals with the persecution of Christians by the Romans. Most Christian converts were underclass, but Polyeucte (Poliuto) was a pillar of the Roman establishment, with much more to lose by espousing a subversive cause. Although the story is clothed in Christian piety, it represents something far more dangerous.  Unsurprisngly, Donizetti ran into trouble with Poliuto. It was banned by the King of Sicily, who didn't think religious subjects should be done in the theatre at all.  Quite possibly he didn't get the underlying message of social upheaval.  Donizetti then revised it for French audiences who were more liberal. It also gave him an entrée into French grand opera. Of course the Christians win in the end, for a while, but for the time being we get a spectacle of blood and gore as Poliuto gets fed to the lions (as far as that can be depicted in the theatre)

Please read my review of the Glyndebourne Poliuto in Opera Today

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Garsington Opera for free with dates !


Garsington Opera is an experience so unique that it should not be missed. The theatre at Wormsley is an architectural wonder, shimmering glass, air and light (with good acoustics, too, that seems to float in the air.  Not many theatres have an entire valley, complete with lake, as a backdrop !  But because the theatre is a gem, seats sell out fast.  Under Music Director Douglas Boyd, with the support of Mark Getty, Garsington Opera at Wormsley is developing into the most innovative smaller house in the country.  So Garsington Opera's "Opera for All" plans are extremely good news indeed.

Even more exciting, the opera being screened is the highlight of the whole season, Mozart Così fan tutte. Garsington Opera has  a strong Mozart tradition, and is possibly ideal for thge more intimate Mozart operas, so this brand  new production heralds great things. Douglas Boyd conducts and John Fulljames (Associate Director at the Royal Opera House) directs. Celebrity Lesley Garrett sings Despina, supported by Ashley Riches,  Robin Tritschler, Andreea Soare, Kathryn Rudge and Neal Davies.

Dates and venues here :

OXFORD Sunday 2 July 6pm Magdalen College Fields 
LOUTH Sunday 5 July 1.30pm SO Festival, Westgate Fields
GRIMSBY Tuesday 29 Sept 12noon Grimsby Auditorium
WADDESDON Thursday 3 September Waddesdon Manor
RAMSGATE 10 – 15 October tbc Ramsgate Arts

NOT for free but important : A Midsummers Night's Dream (Mendelssohn) Garsington Opera's first ever collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company opens at Wormsley on 19th July but sold out almost instantly. But it's coming to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London from 22nd July for three nights More details here,

MARLOW Sunday 14 June 7.30pm Marlow Festival Enclosure - a recording of Offenbach’s Vert-Vert from Garsington’s 2014 season. Reviewed HERE in Opera Today

So, enjoy Garsington Opera in stately surroundings, or on the beach. Bring a picnic, or purchase on site. Photo : Mike Hoban

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Christoph Prégardien Wigmore Hall


Christoph Prégardien made a welcome return to the Wigmore Hall.  He's long been a favourite among Wigmore Hall audiences,  Thirty years ago I heard him there, singing Hugo Wolf. The audience was in raptures, Hearing him now feels like greeting an old friend. Prégardien is such a master that he delivers even familiar repertoire like six Schubert Goethe songs and Schumann's Dichterliebe with grace and conviction.

This time round, he was accompanied by Daniel Heide, a young pianist new to me.  Hearing Prégardien and Heide together added to the experience. Accompanying Lieder is an art in its own right, it's not like being a star soloist. Interaction is everything.  Heide listens sensitively to the subtle colours in Prégardian's phrasing. He's learning from one of the best. His introduction to Wandrers Nachtlied 2, D 768 (Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh') was mysterious, setting the right tone of reverent ambiguity. This song isn't landscape painting!  A sudden change of pace and mood in Willkommen und Abschied, D 767 to chase the clouds away and prepare us for real highlight of the concert, Schumann's Dichterliebe  op 48.

Dichterliebe gets performed so often that some Lieder specialists won't go unless the performance is something special. It's been a cornerstone of Prégardien's career, so I welcome any opportunity to hear him singing it.  As one would expect, a very solid performance, well-articulated, executed with the thoughtfulness and finesse characteristic of Prégardien's style.  Daniel Heide's playing impressed, too. Rich preludes and postludes, so important to Schumann's approach to song. In this collection of songs, it's not the flashy and showy that really count.

 The two critical songs that test any performers, are Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen and  Ich hab' im Traum geweinet. Both songs are surprisingly "inner", creating a psychological ambiguity that's way ahead of its time. Imagine how Schubert might have developed had he lived to further immerse in Heine!  The strange, nebuolus glow of haze of a summer morning gives rise to the strange haze of the dream the poet experiences through a veil of tears.  Gradually we're prepared for the truly strange and exotically lovely Allnächtlich im Traume. when the poet sleeps, a vision of his love appears, saying words of wisdom. Perhaps he's too terrestrial, because he's forgotten them by morning.  Heide's postlude to Die alten, bösen Lieder captured Heine's sense of cheeky irony.

The encore was Schumann, too, Mit Myrthen und Rosen from Liederkreis op 24, another Prégardian speciality.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Kirill Gerstein Wigmore Hall Transcendental Liszt Bach Bartók


Kirill Gerstein, Wigmore Hall  London
Bartók Two Pieces from Mikrokosmos Book VI,  Bach 15 Sinfonias BWV 787 - 801; Liszt Etudes d'execution transcendante S139 (publ. 1852)
 
Programming Liszt's complete Transcendental Studies is certainly not for the faint hearted. Few pianists even attempt it. Leaving aside the technical difficulty and the stamina required for an hour of some of the most demanding piano music ever written, what should the remainder of the recital comprise? When Lazar Berman performed all 12 at the Royal Festival Hall in 1976 he gave us Prokofiev's 8th Sonata by way of a warm-up.  Typically thoughtful, Kirill Gerstein, the thinking man's virtuoso, gave  us a first half of Bartók and Bach, a pair of Mikrokosmos from Book VI eliding seamlessly into Bach's 15 'Sinfonias', often referred to as 3 part  inventions.

Both Mikrokosmos and the Sinfonias originally had an overtly educational  purpose, Bartók's Micro Universe of piano music ranging from Beginner's  exercises to concert pieces and Bach's 3 part Inventions having their genesis as as a kind of instructional manual in both keyboard technique and composition, stimulated by the experience of teaching Wilhelm Friedrich, Bach's eldest son. Gerstein's account of Bartók's Two Chromatic Inventions (Nos 145a and  145b) were distinguished by the extreme clarity of the part playing  combined with real physical attack, both entirely appropriate. The second of the pair characteristically for Bartók is a variant of the first in the sense that it is based on the same motif but inverted and transposed.

Without a pause Gerstein dove straight into Bach's 15 Sinfonias. The juxtaposition was enlightening although sadly the inclusion of Bartok's; name on the programme 'may' have accounted for a good many unoccupied seats. If so, it was a pity because seldom can music with an educational  origin have sounded less dry or academic. Gerstein has that rare ability of investing Bach's keyboard music with light and shade, and finely characterising each individual movement, for instance the gently lilting  12/8 of the C minor Sinfonia (No 2), the longer shadows cast by the tortuously chromatic D minor fantasia (No 4) or the boundingly joyous E  major 9/8 in No 6. He even found a vein of sly humour in the penultimate Sinfonia (No 14) which on this occasion had a slightly tongue-in-cheek  quality, almost a kind of quodlibet.

Liszt's 12 Transcendental Studies went through 3 versions, the final version performed here dating from 1852. In some movements such as  Mazeppa, Vision and Wilde Jagd they seem to prefigure the preoccupations of some of the later orchestral music, for example in Mazeppa the  symphonic poem of the same name whilst Vision inhabits a similar world to Nocturnal Procession from Lenau's Faust and Wilde Jagd the galloping motion of Hunnenschlact. Other movements such as Preludio or Feux Follets  are more akin to technical exercises although a technical exercise with a twist in the case of the latter. The movements are arranged in pairs,one in a major key followed by one in the relative minor providing welcome  contrast throughout

There was almost a Schumann-esque quality of whimsy, Gerstein's left hand particularly eloquent here and its sunburst climax carried the sort of emotional weight of that cathartic final climax in the Fantasy Op 17.Ricordanza, wonderfully described by Busoni as a "bundle of faded love letters", was magnificent in the perfectly graduated reserves of tone  which Gerstein was able to unleash - few pianists have this kind of tonal resource - and Harmonies du Soir, written incidentally before Baudelaire's famous poem of almost the same name (Harmonie du Soir), was stroked into  life as it were with a velvet paw. This was undoubtedly great Liszt playing, certainly in the same class as that performance referred to previously which I heard nearly 40 years ago. How lucky to have lived to have heard both. No encore was given and none was needed.

Douglas Cooksey

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Superb new article on Szymanowski King Roger


Wonderful article on Karol Szymaowski King Roger in Soundproof Room HERE.   This is the sort of well-informed, thoughtful writing I love to read. One only has to listen to Szymaowski's music to realize that it isn't "backward looking" or "Germanic". Highly recommended ! .

Numerous articles on Szymanowski on my site too, follow the label on right "Szymanowski"

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Berlioz and Bliss, brothers in arms ? Barbican

Berlioz and Bliss at the Barbican with Andrew Davis and the BBC SO.   Berlioz and Bliss, brothers in arms?  Stylistically, they could be on opposite ends of the spectrum.  Yet this programme worked because Andrew Davis drew a performance from his forces with such flair  that that the very contrasts enhanced the shine. That Andrew Davis should reveal the glories in Bliss is a given. He's one of the finest interpreters of British repertoire. But to reveal the depth in Bliss through the prism of Berlioz is quite some achievement.  Arthur Bliss's Morning Heroes (1930)  isn't completely neglected but performances are rare because it's hard to pull off a symphony on this scale. Much depends on the narrator, who has almost as much to do as the orchestra. Fortunately in Samuel West we had one of the best. Bliss uses a  variety of texts, giving each of the five movements a distinct character.  
The title "Morning Heroes" comes from  the final movement where three different poems are quoted, Now, Trumpeter, For Thy Close (Robert Nichols), Spring Offensive (Wilfred Owen) and Dawn on the Somme (also Robert Nichols), which graphically describe the landscape of a battlefield, specifically the slaughter of the First World War in which Bliss and his brother Kennard (pictured together above) served. Kennard, like millions of others, East as well as West, perished. Morning Heroes isn't a requiem in the religious sense but describes the experience of war in a direct and unsentimental way. Thus the highest praise for Samuel West, whose down to earth narration captured the spirit of the piece without the histrionic theatricality of Brian Blessed, some years ago, whose performance verged on self indulgent self parody. War isn't a game, it's not "entertainment".   In these poems there's enough inherent drama to make a point without theatrical excess. West's dignified delivery made the words feel personal, and real. 

Yet Morning Heroes starts with Berlioz's source, the Iliad. Perhaps it's not altogether significant that composer and hero shared the same name. though in LesTroyens the hero is Enée. Hector returning mainly as a ghost.  Perhaps for Bliss that held more meaning, for Morning Heroes refers to a mist, rising from the landscape, which is a metaphor for the souls of the dead. rising to heaven. The symphony begins with a long quotation describing Hector taking leave of Andromache, his wife. "Would you leave your children orphans, your wife a widow " the mood isn't quite as ebullient as the "Royal Hunt and Storm" from Les Troyens might suggest.  Enée and Didon have snatched a brief moment of love,  but duty calls.  The refrain in the chorus acts as a whip, goading Enée to sacrifice. Bliss follows this first movement with the turbulent The City Arming. Are the populace so caught up in bloodlust that they forget the human toll ?  The BBC SO Chorus certainly sounded whipped into frenzy.

The third movement, The Vigil, is based on Walt Whitman's  Vigil Strange I Kept of the Field One Night and his By the Bivouac's  Fitful Flame.  Whitman's verse isn't easy to set as its flow doesn't lend itself to music. Wisely,  Bliss uses spoken narration, augmented by chorus. Orchestrally, this is perhaps the most expressive moment. Davis and the BBC SO were in their element, the playing rousing yet dignified and finely detailed, an electrifying approach to Bliss, which respects the originality of his work, and the context of the postwar years, when so much was happening in music, from which those who died were cut off.  The brief return to the Iliad, which follows, is thus put into context, like a look back on values one might no longer share. When the final movement returns to graphic depictions of the Somme, the connection is made between wars long past and more recent. Andrew Davis's interpretation is strongly trenchant (perhaps the wrong term to use).  Bliss understood the reality of war better than most. 

And so, full cycle back to Berlioz, too, confirming the wisdom of placing Bliss and Berlioz together, . the "Royal Hunt and Storm" from Les Troyens serving as an overture so flamboyant that it lit Morning Heroes up with its reflected glow.  In La Mort de Cléopâtre  Berlioz creates a 19th century vision of ancient Egypt painted in  purples and golds,  gloriously over the top, every moment drawn out for theatrical impact. Cleopatra is angry at being rejected – “la fille des Ptolémées” vents her rage in swelling, sonorous lines. Piercing string chords raise the tension, hinting also at the sharp sting of the asp. As the poison seeps through Cleopatra’s veins, the vocal line darkens and slows to funereal pace. “Osiris proscrit ma couronne”,  The soloist was Sarah Connolly.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Henry Wood rolling in his grave ? Prom Picks 2015


Booking starts Saturday for the 2015 BBC Proms. As always, have your choices in hand before the mad rush starts. Thousands will be logging on for non-classical music events. This season must be the least classical music oriented Proms ever, filled with gimmicks, chat shows, game shows and infomercials. .Sir Henry Wood, who founded the Proms,  believed good music spoke for itself, and that ordinary people could listen and learn without the blare of muzak and fabricated  opinion.  He must now be rolling in his grave. How long before his bust gets replaced ?

Even what remains of classical music seems to have been designed by machine, or perhaps by a committee of bureaucrats who don't really care about music. Wade through the dross and there's gold, though. I've picked out the grains of gold, which will be enhanced by the experience of being heard live at the Royal Albert Hall. Otherwise, a lot more listening on the radio this year.  Further group of picks chosen for unusual repertoire, though the performers aren't ideal. Some I've left out simply because they've been heard so many times.

Top of my list:

Prom 1 : 17/7  Who could miss The First Night of the Proms with choral blockbusters on the theme of Belshazzar's Feast ?

Chamber Music Prom Cadogan Hall 25/7 Frank Ollu conducts the ever exciting Birmingham Contemporary Music group - Boulez Dérive II

Prom 25 4/8  John Eliot Gardiner : Monteverdi Orfeo

Prom 47 : 21/8  Jón Leifs Organ Concerto, truly spectacular with the Royal Albert Hall organ, the second biggest in the world, and in a performance space no ordinary concert hall can  match.  With Beethoven 7, Sibelius Tapiola and an Anders Hillborg premiere, this should be theatre as  much as music. Sakari Oramo, BBC SO

Prom 49 : 22/8  Andris Nelsons, Mahler Symphony no 6. While Nelsons isn't an ideal Mahler conductor, he's very, very good indeed - lots to learn from, even though we may have to endure yet more Brett Dean

Prom 51 : 23/8 . Andris Nelsons AFTERNOON matinee - Shiostakovich 10

Prom 53 : 24/8  Esa-Pekka Salonen Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin  Salonen's Bartók credentials are highly acclaimed, witness the Southbank Bartók year. Plus Shostakovich Orango

Prom 55 : 26/8  François-Xavier Roth,  one of the most fascinating conductors conducts a Boulez tribute, with SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden Baden, where Boulez's conducting career was launched 60 years ago by Hans Rosbaud. In January, Baden Baden gave Boulez, who's lived there ever since, the Freedom of the City

Prom 58 : 29/8 Sibelius Kullervo Three high profile Kullervos this year, Helsinki's choreographed version (more here), another at  the Edinburgh International festival and this, with Sakari Oramo, the BBCSO and Finnish soloists.  Bound to be good !

Prom 73 : 10/9 Semyon Bychkov Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Brahms and Franz Schmidt

Further picks :

Prom 7 :  22/7 Andrew Davis conducts Hugh Wood premiere

Prom 38 13/8  Messaien Turangalîla Symphony, one of three Turangalîlas this year (top choice is South Bank, Salonen on 28/5) This one will be interesting as it's paired with John Foulds, who also liked experimenting with exotic "oriental" themes.

Prom 69 : 6/9 Carl Orff Carmina Burana,  a piece that "needs" to be experienced live, whoever is doing it

Prom 72 :  9/11 Charles Ives  Symphony no 4 pioneering use of multiple orchestras and layering once considered unplayable, worth seeing as well as hearing

Last Night of The Proms : ideal if you like parties and dressing up ! I love watching on TV instead so I can see friends doing so. Even Kaufmann will be partying too

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Má vlast and China : Smetana's role in the modernization of China


Smetana's Má vlast was inspired by images of Bohemia, its landscape, and its history. It's much more than a "scenic route" . The original images may be specific to Bohemia, referring to the Hussite uprising, but, translated into abstract music, they convey deep, universal emotions, which transcend place and time.  Thus Má vlast was one of the most popular pieces of music in China.  It expressed the same feelings of national identity that were so critical to the modernization of China. Just as the Vltava flows through Bohemia, the Yellow River (the Huang He) flows through China.  Chinese civilization began on the fertile basin beside the river, rather like Egyptian culture flourished around the Nile. Yet the river twists in a strange course causing catastrophic floods. "China's sorrow", at once the source of prosperity and suffering.  Further south, the Yangtze flows through central China, from the Himalayas to Shanghai, with an equally great impact on the development of China.

The Huang He symbolizes Chinese identity: hard working, enterprising, resilient, undaunted by encroachments and hardship.  So it's perhaps no surprise that Má vlast meant to much to Chinese people. In the early Republic, especo ally after the May Fourth Movement, education drove modernization.  Chinese intellectuals believed that change came through changing hearts and minds, by education, learning and the arts. Even the Communists espoused this ideal, until the grotesque upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Considering that China had to break from over 4000 years of feudalism, it's quite amazing how much has changed since 1911.  Although no-one has collected all concert programmes and broadcast data, anecdotally, Má vlast had a huge impact on the modernization of China. Listeners who might have no idea of Prague could connect to its surging emotions and visualize rivers closer to home.  The popularity of Má vlast  led also to the popularity of other Smetana works.  The Bartered Bride, for example, was allegedly the most performed western opera in China.  When I was a kid, I thought it "was" Chinese though it wasn't Chinese music. Such is the universal power of music that it can reach millions of people as long as it captures their imagination. That's what's wrong about current music education in the UK: it doesn't deal with imagination or with the human soul.   

Please read my review of Dalibor at the Barbican HERE 

and my article Yellow River Cantata


Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Black smoke : Latest Berlin Philharmonic election news


Latest on the Berlin Philharmonic's election of a new Music Director. Black smoke signals ! At the Vatican, when cardinals elect a new Pope, white smoke signals indicate a decision has been reached. Black smoke signals signify impasse.  The Berliners haven't decided. Far from that being a problem, in many ways, it's a sign of strength.  There is a lot more at stake than choosing a new conductor. It's a sign of maturity that these musicians are thinking seriously about where they want to be in 10 or 15 years, and can compromise when they can't agree. .Rushing to rash judgement isn't wise in most things in life. Much better that the Berliners take their time to cogitate. The sky won't collapse.

They won't stop playing, for one thing. They'll simply continue working with different conductors and contenders as they've been doing for years. The members of this orchestra are so good, and so well connected that  they can afford to look after themselves. The Berliner Philharmoniker "brand"  will survive.  If anything, the brand will be enhanced because the members of this orchestra are thinking about why they operate.  So hooray for them ! Here's the press release in full :

"Orchestra Board member Peter Riegelbauer said: “After an orchestra assembly which lasted 11 hours, we have unfortunately come to no decision. There were positive and lively discussions and several rounds of voting, but unfortunately we were unable to agree on a conductor.”
123 members of the orchestra who were eligible to vote were present. Riegelbauer continued: “We must continue this process and this election. That will have to take place within one year. We are very confident that we will come to a decision then. The process of this election will be continued, and the orchestra assembly will meet regularly, but we will take the time that is necessary. That can last one year.” The mood during the assembly was described by all participants as very constructive, cooperative and friendly."

Earlier in the day there was a rumour, quickly denied, that Andris Nelsons had been chosen. When, hours later, nothing was confirmed, I thought, either the election's too close to call, or someone's looking into other ramifications.  I don't believe the story that Nelsons turned the offer down of his own accord. Otherwise why run at all ?   A few months ago, he said he was "too young" for the job, which fooled no-one.  Furtwängler was younger than Nelsons is now when he took up the job, and in an era when age was more feted than youth. Delaying the vote gives breathing space for a lot of different parties. Nelsons is probably kicking himself for grabbing a pawn and sacrificing the King. Last week, the British electorate were forced into divisive polarization, resulting into extremism which may not reflect what people really want. Let's hope that the Berliner Philharmoniker won't be pushed into such corners.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Berlin Philharmonic elects new Chief Conductor


The Berliner Philharmoniker elects its new chief conductor on May 11th.  Just like the UK elections on Thursday, the race is too close to call, and the results might be a surprise. Everyone has an opinion on who should win, but the only opinion that counts will come from the musicians themselves, who know their orchestra better than anyone else, who know the conductors they work with, and have a pretty good idea of where they want to go in the next 10 years or so. Choosing a Chief for an orchestra of this importance is not simply a beauty contest, but a statement of artistic principle. In any case, there are no silly prizes for making the most unlikely guess. The Berliner Philharmoniker "brand" is so important that whoever they choose will have reasonable business sense, and know how the market works.  These musicians, at the heart of Europe, with personal networks beyond the imaginings of armchair experts,  aren't going to choose casually.

Latest update : no result ! So please read my piece :  Black Smoke, evaluating the impasse, more positive than negative.

Guesswork is pointless on its own. Wiser to think in terms of "why" not "who". Furtwängler and those before him established the Berlin Philharmonic's standards of excellence. Whether they liked Karajan or not is irrelevant: he pretty much created the market for recordings at a time when that industry was starting to take off.  Under Abbado, they reached even higher standards of artistic excellence. He built up Lucerne and the network of other orchestras which feed into Berlin, and create the co-operative vibe that makes Berlin the place to be for musicians.  They chose Rattle not because he built CBSO from scratch, but because he's a charismatic communicator. Just as the Berliners pioneered the burgeoning market for LPs , they've pioneered the digital market, which reaches far beyond. All over the world now, the Berliners are the "local band" whose live concerts can be enjoyed everywhere, by anyone. They're at a pinnacle. Where might they be going next?

I predicted the UK election results, not by preference but by rational deduction. So maybe I'll risk a guess on Berlin, though it might well result in an equally shocking upset.  The contenders are conductors way above my league, so I've no delusions that they'll quake in their boots because of my comments.  

Front runners are Andris Nelsons and Christian Thielemann, both regulars at the Philharmonie.  Nelsons would be the absolute cert if he hadn't grabbed a pawn and sacrificed a king. Whether he'll leave Boston as he left Birmingham, who knows? He's a prize racehorse who needs the challenge of being at the top.  Lebrecht did an April Fools spoof knocking Thielemann, which fooled many. But any orchestra that thrived under Karajan is probably aware that you don't have to love a man if he has artistic nous. In any case, the Berliners are strong enough to work with him, as they have done so for years. So what if he has a bust of Frederick the Great  It's not a thought crime.

Semyon Bychkov, whose work in Köln has been infinitely eclipsed by his more recent work, especially in opera,  which the Berliners have started to do more of, with good effect.

Daniel Harding,  who's been a Berliner since he was 19, working with Abbado and his many orchestras. A brilliant musician with very strong interpretive skills, though not the kind of flamboyant personality non-musicians seem to prefer.  But the Berliners are musicians, not armchair pundits.

Vladimir Jurowski, whom we know so well in London. Again, a Berliner since his teens, not connected to Russian circles since his dad left Russia when he was a kid. Intellectual, good at interesting programmes, but rather unworldly for political cut and thrust. Nontheless, he's confirmed til 2020 at the LPO, so he's a survivor.

Alan Gilbert, who possibly knows more what's going on than most outsiders do. He's conducted Berlin more than most (bar Nelsons and Thielemann),  and a much better fit in Europe than in the US.  The Royal Philharmonic Society invited him to give their keynote speech in April (full link here), in which he discussed the changing role of orchestras in the digital age. The Berliners are so good that they don't need a conductor to tell them how to play, but they do need someone with  a perspective on the future. 

I have a much longer list, with some wild cards, (including Volkov)  but the choice isn't up to me but to the Berliners themselves.  Chances are they're not going to go for grotesque but for sensible and musicianly. 

Here's a healthy bit of reasoned analysis in Die Zeit where they tend to have a pretty good feel for what's what.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Why Opera Europa's Platform matters


Opera Europa, in conjunction with arte.tv, has launched an Opera Platform, streaming live opera from all over Europe. The Berlin Phiharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall has brought Berlin to the world. Is this where the future of classical music lies? Media and funding agency obsessions with crude measures like bums on seats and regional outreach are rendered pretty meaningless.

Opera Europa represents 155 opera houses and festivals in Europe, promoting co-operation and development, mainly between houses,. . Arte.tv, supported by French and German broadcasters, has been streaming opera and music for years, which is one of the reasons why some performances are blocked outside Europe. Arte.tv  operates like a normal online TV channel, with news, sports, pop, movies etc Medici.tv is already the world's biggest collection of classical music: I have no idea why Opera Europa didn't go through medici.tv which already showcases festivals like Lucerne and Aix., and is an indispensable resource.  

HERE is the link to this year's Opera Platform  streams, which will also be broadcast in 15 cinemas.  Quick link here.  For the launch yesterday, La Traviata (with the divine Ermonela Jaho)  from Madrid, but the real coup (on 16th May) might be the Royal Opera House's Szymanowski Król Roger which I've reviewed HERE.  This is a sensationally good production of an opera which holds a crucial place in music history - the equivalent of Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande, Béla Bartók Duke Bluebeard's Castle , Schoenberg Ewartung and Berg Lulu  While the Nazis, Communists and Catholic Church in Poland didn't like Król Roger, there's absolutely no reason for English-speaking audiences (particularly London music critics) not to be aware of it. Thirty years ago, when Poland was still Communist, Simon Rattle recorded all of Szymanowski's orchestral work, including the opera. There have been numerous productions since. Two books in English on Szymanowski and many more in Polish. Opera Platform will stream in French, German and English  If it does nothing else at least it will break English-language insularity. 

On 24th May, Sibelius Kullervo from Helsinki.This is important, because it's choreographed by Tero Saarinen.  Kullervo isn't an opera so much as a tone poem with voices, so it's rarely dramatized.  In Finland, music, opera and ballet play a much bigger role in ordinary life than in most other places, like the UK.  Sibelius is of course a kind of god. Saarinen's dance company is brilliant: the production enhances the music beautifully. Highly recommended: Please read my review HERE.   Kullervo is being performed at the BBC Proms this year, and also at the Edinburgh International Festival, but I think we can be pretty safe saying that this innovative, creative Kullervo will be the best of the lot. Saraste conducts, also a plus.

To come : Valentina by Arrturs Maskats from Opera Riga, Götterdämmerung from the Vienna State Opera (Simon Rattle),  Die Entführung aus dem Serail from Aix-en-Provence, features on Pesaro and Aldeburgh, on Den Norske Opera and on Teatro Regio Torino.

Although the Opera Platform isn't big enough to compete with Medici.tv, it's a good, new platform (literally) for promoting European opera, particularly from smaller houses which might not have the resources to do so on their own.  By offering quality and variety of choice, the market is developed in a much more organic way.   The BBC has attempted to emulate arte.tv and medici.tv, but its fundamental approach is too limited, too simplistic and too non-musical to be of much use. In a digital era, people can choose and think for themselves. The BBC just doesn't get it.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Text sublimated : Pappano, Royal Opera House Orchestra


Ambition achieved ! Antonio Pappano brought the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House out of the pit and onto the stage, the centre of attention in their own right. Concert performances are nothing new at the Royal Opera House . Pappano's been doing them for years. In his capacity as Music Director at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia , he conducts orchestral repertoire most of the time. So it makes total sense that the Royal Opera (and Royal Ballet) should inaugurate a new series of concert performances to showcase their orchestra. Even more significantly, though, the experience of opera, or ballet, is much enhanced by an understanding of the musical background and context.

Orchestral concerts can be a richly rewarding extension of the opera and ballet experience. People go out for many different reasons, and combinations thereof. Some go for megastar singers, or dancers, or for colourful costumes (whatever the actual nature of the work being performed). Some may even go for the pleasure of being outraged  Before this concert, Pappano specifically mentioned Karol Szymanowski Król Roger, the sensation of the season, (reviewed HERE)  The opera is so unusual that it's more productive to approach it, not as a stand-alone opera, but through the perspective of the composer's music as a whole.  Its themes run throughout Szymanowski's output.  It's very closely related to his  "The Song of he Night", Szymanowski's Third Symphony in particular. No Szymanowski song symphonies or orchestral songs this time, though, but  works by Ravel, Chausson and Skryabin, his contemporaries and influences.

Opera orchestras, unlike symphony orchestras, play the same piece repeatedly through a run, and don't usually venture far from the basic canon, so it must be refreshing to tackle new repertoire. Yet their experience with drama and dance give them an edge. As soon as they launched into Maurice Ravel's " Une barque sur l'ocean", from Miroirs, we could hear the surge of giant waves, as vividly played as if the music were illustrating some grand piece of theatre. The piece was originally written for solo piano, but orchestrated by Ravel himself. One could almost see the ocean swell, and imagine the tidal surge animating the waters.  In the imagination,  one could envisage the barque sailing towards unknown adventures. Shéhérazade immediately came to mind, an "opera" without words or voices, telling a glorious, dramatic story. "Alborada del gracioso", also based on Miroirs revealed another mood. A guitarist, possibly Spanish, is playing.. Exuberant pizzicato suggest the plucking of strings, and the fast moving feet of dancers. The ROH orchestra is, of course a "dance band" as Pappano has said. Instinctively, they understand the relationship between music and physical movement. 

Anna Caterina Antonacci brought diva glamour to Ernest Chausson's Poème de l'amour et de la mer. Yet again, the orchestra's flair for dramatic colour revealed itself.  Although Antonacci is a star, and sang expressively, this time, I, at least, was paying attention to the interplay between instruments, the abstract "voices" over which the solo voice wafts.  Again, we heard the surge of the seas, reflecting the passion of the love song,  The orchestra describes meaning so vividly that the meaning oif the text is amplified without obscuring the main vocal line.

Perhaps Pappano wanted to inject a bit of comic  relief between the florid intensity of Chausson and Skyriabin. Hence Leonard Bernstein's Fancy Free. There's a Royal Ballet connection, since the piece was conducted by Bernstein himself at Covent Garden in 1946.  It's a chance for the orchestra to demonstrate different styles , eg jazz, big band music and so on, with some lively parts for solo players to "dance", as dancers might, in front of the ensemble.  It's clever and cheerful for the occasion, but one wonders if West Side Story, which I love, might be the closest Bernstein got to the emotional depths of opera. 

And thus to Alexander Skryabin's Le Poème de l'exctase, with which the concert reached its heady climax. Wave after wave of extravagant, impressionistic chromaticism : perhaps such ecstasy is too extreme to be confined within the parameters of text.  In many ways, this, too is a song symphony though the singers are invisible, sublimated into instrumentation.  Skryabin simply supplies titles : "His Soul, in an orgy of love" and "The realization of a fantastic dream".. The listener interprets meaning through imagination. A hundred years after its premiere,  Le Poème de l'exctase, is still so shockingly avant garde that the concept of words abstracted into music still unsettles some.The Szymanowski connection is very strong indeed. King Roger dreams, tantalized by fantasies of sensual discovery.  ends with a cataclysmic blast of aural light,. Has King Roger  found apotheosis  Has he, too, discovered that his god is as beautiful as himself ? Skryabin's  Le Poème de l'exctase, also ends in a blaze of dazzling light, so powerful that I had to cover my ears so as not to be overwhelmed.   The opera and tone poem are very different but very much connected. Skryabin's title for his third movement is "The glory of his own art", a Nietzschean triumph of will, perhaps, or a statement of faith in the transformative power of art. Entirely in tune with the values of Król Roger

This article appears also in Opera Today

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Smetana Dalibor Barbican Bělohlávek


Jiří Bělohlávek's annual Czech opera series at the Barbican, London, with the BBC SO continiued  with Bedřich Smetana's Dalibor.  Bělohlávek has done more than anyone to bring authentic Czech music to Britain, and to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, where he was Chief Conductor for many years.  They've got the idiom under their skin, now, and for Bělohlávek they played with expressive vigour. Smetana has been called "The Father of Czech Music", for he was the first to embrace characteristic Czech folk style, fused with the bright, sharp syntax of the Czech language. Dalibor is a particularly important milestone, since it's explicitly nationalistic.  though disguised as folklore. The Hapsburgs ruled Bohemia from Vienna, and after 1848 clamped down on what they saw as sedition.  Dalibor took part in an uprising, destroying a castle and killing the burgrave. Although Smetana downplays the politics (to escape the censors) the message of Dalibor is loud and clear: Czechs love music, and with music they shall triumph over repression.

Dalibor is a hero: "Dalibor! Dalibor" the chorus (the BBC Singers) rings out with fervour, picked up wordlessly by the orchestra throughout the opera. Jitka, a country girl (Alžběta Poláčková) tells us how he saved her as an orphan. Already though, we have a hint of his otherworldly purity. She sings as though she's describing a saint.  Wonderful "processional" music marks the entry of Vladislav, the Czech King (Ivan Kusnjer). Bělohlávek has been bringing the top singers from the Prague  National Theatre, which he's been conducting for years, so these singers are now greeted in London as if they were familiar friends.  Besides, they can sing Czech repertoire better than anyone else. Kusnjer's voice rang with dignity. Like Pontius Pilate, this King doesn't want to kill, but  Milada the Burgrave's sister wants revenge.

Dana Burešova sang Milada. She's another much-loved regular visitor.  She sang the female lead in The Jacobin, The Bartered Bride and most of Bělohlávek's other London performances of Czech opera.  Milada is a forceful lady, and Burešova's magnificent singing does her justice. The part calls for great vocal control, for the lines ring out with the intensity of a trumpet call, though  Milada's femininity is underlined by lustrous harp. Later Milada disguises herself as a harp-playing minstrel to charm her way into the prison.

Dalibor himself (Richard Samek) is more of an enigma. He killed the Burgrave because the Burgrave killed his friend Zdenek, who doesn't appear in the opera, but lingers, ghost-like, in the strings. Zdenek was a violinist, and Dalibor's love for him is so great that he'd rather be dead than live without him. Nonetheless, when he meets Milada, his love suddenly switches to her (on Zdenek's musical messages). Dalibor's a violinist, too. We don't hear him play but we hear the violins in the orchestra surround him in a halo of sound.  The smooth legato in his part suggests a bow gliding over strings.  Beneš the jailer ( Jan Stava), also a violinist, lets him have his old instrument to pass the time, which Milada delivers. The violin is thus the means by which Dalibor could escape from the dungeon. If he wished, of course, because he doesn't. When he's caught by Budivoj (Svatopluc Sem, another regular)  and told he's to be executed, he's meekly accepting. Perhaps he knows that his real secret weapon isn't his life but his music.

"We Czechs love music" the text explicitly states, so the whole opera is a coded protest, though the Hapsburg Empire ended only with the end of the First World War. Dalibor is wildly popular in Czech-speaking areas but the message is universal. When Gustav Mahler conducted Dalibor in Vienna in 1892, he may also have been making a private statement.  Mahler was a boy from small town Bohemia, where his father had followed the same profession as Smetana's father had done nearly 100 years before. Unlike Smetana, Mahler made it to the capital of the Hapsburg empire, chosen and protected by the Emperor himself.  Much is made of Mahler's use of Ländler, reflecting the sounds he would have grown up with in a German-speaking area in the provinces.  Mahler had been writing since his teens on themes connected to Des Knaben Wunderhorn, even writing his own poems. Almost certainly he would have been aware of Smetana  In Dalibor, for example, Jitka and Vitek (Aleš Voráček) sing a love duet which could come straight out of Wunderhorn, though it's clearly Czech. Dalibor is clearly inspired by Beethoven Fidelio, although musically it's very different. But might Mahler have thought of Dalibor when he wrote Das  Lied des Verfolgten im Turm with its passionate refrain,  "Die Gedanken sind frei! "
Photos: Roger Thomas

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Penetrating Szymanowski Król Roger Royal Opera House


Karol Szymanowski Król Roger  at the Royal Opera House, London. Szymanowski originally called it a "mysterium".  What is the key to the mystery that is Król Roger? What does the work mean, and why does it defy  most conventional measures of operatic form?  Yet that's precisely why it fascinates.  Just as dreams don't have boundaries, the secret is to approach it for what it is. Kasper Holten's production is so psychologically and musically astute that it gets very close indeed to the soul of this quirky,and highly original work. 

The burgundy and gold luxury of the Royal Opera House auditorium is hidden in darkness. Strange sound emerge from the pit.  We're propelled straight into the drama without an overture. It's unsettling.  Are we eavesdropping on a secret  religious ritual?  The chorus sing with somnolent torpor, as if hypnotized by orthodox incantation. Yet this music also, oddly, suggests the rhythmic breathing of deep sleep.

A huge head fills the stage. Is it King Roger, sleeping, about to embark on a tantalizing voyage? The head is a masterstroke of stage design (Steffen Aarfing).  For we feel literally close to the man it represents.  It's an inert figure, yet seems to come alive, with subtle lighting (Jon Clark) and video projections (Luke Halls)  that move and change with the music.  King Roger becomes human, the deeper he sinks into sleep. Sleep, dreams, images of night and stars, nebulous illusion - themes that recur throughout the libretto  and in the abstract music in the score. Sudden alarm! The Archbishop and deaconess (Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko) intone like Guardians of the psyche. The chorus rage, demanding that King Roger kills the stranger in their midst.

Significantly, Szymanowski gives little background information as to why this Good Shepherd (Saimir Pirgu) might be.  He just "is", plucked from nowhere by his God, who is, uncannily, as beautiful as he is. Pirgu's timbre is golden and seductive, evoking the images of sunshine,smiles and embraces in the text.  The god is Dionysius, of course, the god of wine, intoxication and altered realities. In vino veritas, as in dreams.. There's no need to dress the Shepherd up as bucolic boor or metallic robot (as in productions by Warlikowski and Pountney).  Here, he's a handsome lad in sharp threads, exactly what a King might fall in love with, were he so inclined. One of the joys of Holten's production is that it faces the idea of sexual repression with common sense and dignity. A King and a strict Christian is supposed to marry and reproduce, whatever his basic instincts. As the King's chancellor, Edrisi (Kim Begley), comments, the King hasn't kissed the Queen with passion for quite some time.

The Head turns round, at a leisurely pace, allowing us to exult in orchestral colour and complexity.  Antonio Pappano was in his element, conducting the orchestra so they seem to be enjoying themselves, inspired by the myriad colours and moods with which Szymanowski challenges them.  We hear Moorish themes, pungent and exotic, even an approximation of the ululating calls to prayer that ring across long distances. Indeed, the libretto specifically mentions, several times, that the call of the Shepherd rings out over long distances, arising, even from the waves in the ocean. We hear tambourines tinkle - gypsy calls, maybe, as potent to Eastern European imagination as the "Moorish" elements Szymanowski loved so well. The Shepherd's music is garlanded  by high-pitched violin obbligatos,  so typical of the composer that they're almost his fingerprint. Two harps were positioned in a box in the stalls circle, a stroke of theatre integrating sounds with visuals. 
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In the Second Act, the Head is fully reversed, showing the innards of the King's brain, so to speak. He may live in a palace, but in his head, he's trapped in a maze of steps and corridors, with flimsy--looking handrails. Not much safety or comfort.   Now, King Roger is confronting his fears. Mariusz Kwiecień is the King Roger of choice these days, having done the part so many times  He started well, but was under strain, thoughtfully disguised as part of the characterization. In the interval, Kasper Holten told the audience that Kwiecień was unwell but had bravely agreed to go on anyway. Massive cheer, for the star and also for the way Holten communicated the problem. Dance is very much part of Bacchic practice, so there are dances in the score and references to dance in the text.  Thus it was a very good idea to use dancers to express the sexuality which Roger cannot  directly address.  The dancers (all male) writhed in orgiastic excess, yet were cheerful  and  cheeky (in every sense) . Full body suits, which revealed yet didn't reveal, also very much  in the spirit of the opera.  How could King Roger resist? There's more humour in this opera than one realizes. The business of passwords, for example, which anyone could guess. Part of the Shepherd's appeal is that he smiles a lot . He knows that one doesn't have to be "in control" to be happy.

Queen Roxanne (Georgia Jarman), seemed to have a good time, too.   After all , it was she who sang of mercy, persuading Roger to suppress the Id of Church and State and meet with the Shepherd in secret  Roxanne's part is fearsomely difficult, but Jarman was excellent. She projected well, blending volume with rich tone: a strong, charismatic portrayal, even though the character is a cipher, an alter-ego of the King.  Much of the time she was singing wordless vocalise. . In conventional opera, we're supposed to hear  the words, but in Król Roger, communication comes in many different forms, as in real life. King Roger can't articulate his deepest feelings, so the music does it for him, in abstraction.  Words in this opera are much more impressionistic. Visual images proliferate in the text with such abandon nhat they could not possibly be illustrated in concrete terms. There are references to jasmine petals scenting the breeze, and to lotuses on the Ganges (odd in a story supposedly set in Sicily) . But night-blooming lotuses are botanically impossible. Szymanowski's more interested in the cumulative effect of exotic images than in narrative logic.  In this sonic dreamscape, arias and recitative would go completely against the surreal mystery. Król Roger is the opposite of an oratorio where the message is clear. It's also not so much opera but a dramatic orchestral  tone poem with voices.

In Act Three, King Roger is back in the structure with which the opera began. This time, no Head, but as himself.   A strange theme of sacrifice enters, without explanation. Such is the logic of dream. The Shepherd has gone up in a cloud of smoke to the heavens.  A real fire smoulders on the ROH stage - you can smell the gas that feeds the flames.  Into this pyre, chorus members throw what appear to be books.  "Love, hate, all empty words" sings  Kwiecień   No rule books to follow, no formulaic rituals. What happens to Roger in the end?  We don't know except that he greets the morning sun with delirious joy.  A bright light shines from the roof of the auditorium.  Has Dionysius connected with Apollo?  Or on some more esoteric level, has Roger sensed a new dawn?  Or has he just woken refreshed from a night of subconcious imaginings? Szymanowkski leaves the answers open, and Holten doesn't impose solutions.  In dreams, the subconcious throws up clues,  but it's up to us to intuit the answers. This Royal Opera House Król Roger faithfully respects the composer and the originality of the music.  Would that audiences and critics knew the work so well. So perhaps  this Król Roger will help people start their own journeys into the wonderful world of Szymanowski. !

Please see my article Hashish Dream ? Szymanowski's Król Roger