Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Strange afterlives : Hugo and Pavel Haas

Pavel Haas and Hugo Haas : brothers from Brno who led very different lives.   Pavel, the composer, was incarcerated in Terezin and murdered in Auschwitz. Hugo, a movie star and director, far more famous in his time, was able to escape and start a second career in Hollywood. Both brothers seem to have suffered a strange afterlife in that their reputations are miscontrued. Perhaps it's the way English language sources have dominated the internet, distorting reality.

From 1919 to 1921, Pavel Haas studied at the Brno Conservatory of which Janáček  was Director. Even in those early days,  no Czech composer could fail not to be influenced by Janáček,  but any decent composer finds his or her own, original voice. Pavel Haas's String Quartet no 1 (1920), suggests that Haas was well aware of the avant garde in other parts of Europe. Janáček wasn't a cuddly personality.  Read here what Haas said of him. Haas wrote mainly chamber music and songs. My favourites are the String Quartet no 3 and his Four Songs on Chinese Poetry (1944), though look under the label "Theresienstadt" for more.
 
Hugo Haas started in the movies in 1925 and soon became a matinee idol, involved with, literally, dozens of movies of all kinds. Many of these films are still highly regarded and available, but you'd have to check Czech language sources to find them, since the English-language media seem to ignore them altogether.  Although I don't speak Czech I used to follow them well enough because the acting and direction was so vivid.  Perhaps the most remarkable of Hugo's many movies was Bílá nemoc, or The White Plague  This was made in 1937, when Hitler was threatening Czechoslovakia, but the rest oif Europe didn't seem to care. The script was by Karel Čapek, who also wrote the play on which Janáček based The Makropulos Affair. In that "Czech renaissance" (1914-1938), the arts were very much in the vanguard of social progress. And the music score was by Pavel Haas.
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In Bílá nemoc,there's a sudden frame of a man in the howling mob outside the Dictator's palace (which is monumentalist Art Deco and filled with geometric symbols) . It's Dr Galen (Hugo Haas). There's a mysterious plague in the country, which starts as white spots on the body and kills everyone it touches. Everyone's paranoid about contamination. Galen has a cure but he's not allowed to use it because his political terms are too high. So he's only allowed to treat the destitute in Ward 13, who don't count. But those he treats, survive. Gradually the plague spreads, and the paranoia. The Dictator visits the research hospital but Galen isn't allowed near him. Galen is anti-war, and that's another form of plague. Eventually, Baron Krog, the second most powerful man in the land, gets sick and is saved when he promises to respect Galen's ideas. Galen meets the dictator. Both of them fought in the Great War, but the Dictator believes war is a good thing and Galen thinks otherwise. Soon, the Dictator gets infected too, has a change of heart, signs ceasefire documents, and summons Galen. Galen tries to pass through the howling crowds, but they confront him when he talks anti-war and they beat him to death. No-one now to stop the plague, or the war. And of course, we now know what happened when Hitler marched in a few months after the movie was made.

Being prominent, Hugo Haas was able to escape, while Pavel didn't. Via Austria and Portugal, he arrived in Hollywood where he had to begin all over again as an actor of small parts, though he had been a very experienced director and producer. Eventually he found a niche in smaller studios where he made films which are only B movies because their budgets were small. Many of them have the characteristic flavour of his earlier career when he was as big at the box office as the glitzier stars of Hollywood.  Watch, for example, The Other Woman (1954) in which Haas plays a film director who *used to be something in Europe", as an extra whispers. His boss insists he should be more "American". "Movies for kiddies?" snorts Haas in contempt. He gives a wannabe a chance, but when she blows her lines, she blackmails him. She's a  twisted loser but destroys him. Eventually she's found strangled, but by then Haas's life is ruined. The last frame ends as the first, where Haas is seen screaming from behind bars. First time round, he was showing actors how to emote. this time, it's him behind bars for real.

Pavel Haas made movies, too, since he wrote several film scores for Hugo and the Czech cinema industry. Ironically, the film in which he actually appears, as himself, was the Nazi propaganda film glorifying the joys of Theresienstadt. He conducts his Study for Strings with an orchestra made up of camp inmates. The fragment is short but potent - the kinds of  "modern" music Nazis don't like. Hugo's son Ivan,incidentally, appears in Hugo's later films, in small roles. Maybe he gets overlooked, but not by those who care about Hugo and Pavel Haas and the world they knew.

Monday, 28 September 2015

China's new Piano Museum and why it's in Chongqing


A new Piano Museum has opened in Chongqing in China. More than 200 rare pianos are displayed in 3000 sq meters of exhibition space in a purpose-built new building. The city of Chongqing, capital of Szechuan province near the foothills of the Himalayas, is a good choice. It's a city of music ,home to one of the liveliest music conservatoires in China, with a distinctive character. Yundi Li, a native of Szechuan and a graduate of Chongqing, gave the inaugural concert in the museum last week, and has also been named honorary director.   Pianos are a big, big deal in China, where music is considered a mark of education and culture. This isn't a recent phenomenom, either.  Conservatories were established in Beijing and Shanghai well over 100 years ago. Would that serious music - and learning - were treated with similar respect elsewhere, and not taken for granted.  

Since the museum is new, I can't find much information about the collection, but it include  an ancient eight-pedal piano, an antique hand-powered organ, an old four-corner piano, a gold-plated piano and the piano used by Camille Saint-Saens. This sounds a lot like the famous Piano Museum on remote Gulangyu Island near Xiamen, put together over many years by a piano devotee, and housed in his family's ancestral mansion. Tropical islands, however, aren't ideal for old pianos, so perhaps the Gulangyu collection has found a new home in a purpose-built museum. Certainly, Chongqing is more on the national music circuit, so there are associated concert facilities and plans to let visitors use some instruments.  Top photo shows the opening of the Chongqing Piano museum, other 2 photos show exhibits at Gulangyu. {on further checking it seems that Gulangyu was loaned to the island council for 10 years after which it went to the national government, who can afford big projects. So if anyone has more detail, let me know. PS Admission to Chongqing is free til 1st October.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

ENO Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk Shostakovich on mute


It took artistic courage to choose Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to start the ENO's 2015-2016 season.  Shostakovich isn't an easy sell, and so full of sex and violence that some minds - like Josef Stalin - would be aghast. But Mark Wigglesworth is passionate about Shostakovich , and as new Music Director of the ENO, he's making a point. Good opera needs artistic vision.

Shostakovich's plot, derived from a short story by Nikolai Leskov, revolves around a frustrated young wife,  Katarina Lvovna (Patricia Racette) who is bored out of her mind in the house of the Ismailovs.  Dmitri Tcherniakov's staging shows her in a box, isolated from the world of business around her. It's a good concept, and solves practical logistical problems but doesn't vary much. In the final act, the box becomes a prison cell. Katarina's been in a cell all her married life, though once it was draped in fancy carpets. It's a valid concept, but unvarying, and doesn't quite capture the savage turbulence of a society where most people are trapped in some kind of emotional prison.  Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov (Robert Hayward), the head of the family, is a boor and a bully, who'd rape his daughter in law if he could.  Significantly, he's a rich man whose power means he can get away with anything, until he crosses Katarina.  The undercurrent of subversion that runs through Shostakovich's operas is integral to their meaning. Everyone is poisoned in a society based on power based on brutality. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, easily the finest of Shostakovich's many satirical operas, is much more than one woman's story.

Perhaps First Night nerves inhibited the performance of the first two acts. While Wigglesworth drew thoughtful playing from the ENO orchestra, the music didn't ignite until the last two acts, where Shostakovich wrote music so dramatic that it brought out the inner intensity of the opera far more vividly than the somewhat tentative staging. The off-stage brass weren't just for show. They operate as part of the audience, like voices in a crowd, whose comments might otherwise be suppressed. In these two acts, Wigglesworth made his mark.  The playing became violent and extreme, all inhibitions freed. It's not for nothing that the libretto keeps referring to alcohol, which stifles pain, but eventually breaks down social order. The all-important orchestral Interludes blazed with conviction, so well played that the nominal action on stage felt largely irrelevant. Had the singing been of the same standard, this would have been an evening of great music.

Unfortunately the ENO budget does not run high enough, and might shrink further, given the stranglehold of Arts Council England's "special measures". The best singers don't need to learn a role in English because their careers are international. Yet there is an increasingly strong case for opera in the vernacular. Now that most people know basic repertoire from recordings and DVDs, the experience of live opera is even more important. It adds extra perspective. When audiences hear opera in their own language, they can focus on the feelings and emotions behind the sounds. Opera in the vernacular is not a substitute for the original language but offers a different focus.  If the government of this country were serious about culture "for the people" it would recognize the value of the ENO,  the flagship for opera in English,. It's also a unique training source for singers whose native language is English. 

Much depends, however, on the quality of translation.  Some ENO translations have been brilliant, like The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, and The Girl of the Golden West, which in English is even funnier than in Italian.  David Pountney's translation of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk matched the idea of crude banality which runs through the libretto,  but could have used more wit and bite.  Even this might have worked had the singing been of the high standards of the orchestral playing. Part of the reason lies in the Personregie or lack thereof.  The production premiered in Düsseldorf in 2008. It could use a re-charge.

Patrica Racette is an ENO favourite because she;'s a big name in the United States, an important market for the ENO. She sang Katya Kabanova five years ago.  At first, her voice didn't quite project through the stalls, so I don't know how it carried further up in the house. At moments, she rose to the challenge of a diffucult and demanding role, but generally the portrayal didn't capture the full  breadth of Katarina's personality. Since Tcherniakov's concept of the opera seems to focus on Katarina rather than the world around her, this put added pressure on Racette.

John Daszak sang Sergei, the handsome hunk who relieves Katarina's sexual frustration but ends up a victim like everyone else.  He certainly looks the part, and we get to see his behind (or more likely that of a body double).  He sings forcefully, and in the final act, creates a sense of genuine outrage. His seduction of Sonyetka (Clare Presland) is an act of violence against Katarina as much as pure animal lust. Nearly ten years ago, the Royal Opera House presented Lady Macbeth of Mtensk  with Eva Maria Westbroek and Christopher Ventris in the leading roles.  Those two had real chemistry together. They lit up the production (by Richard Jones) by the sheer committment of their singing. In Tcherniakov's staging, the copulation is simulated, routine rather than vocally dangerous with little erotic charge..

Quibbles aside, this Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was a good start to the ENO season. One hopes, though, that the vision that animated the ENO will once again return.

This review also appears in Opera Today.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Complete Schubert Songs Wigmore Hall Boesch Martineau


The Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert Songs series of 40 concerts began with a recital by Florian Boesch and Graham Johnson.  (Read my review here).  If anything, though, the second concert, where Boesch was accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, was even better. The programme was  beautifully planned, and the performance  exceptional, even by the very high standards of the Wigmore Hall.

Boesch and Martineau began, "at the beginning" with two very early pieces Schubert wrote while still a student at the Stadtkonvict, a school as forbidding as its name in English might suggest. But Schubert has Antonio Salieri for a teacher.  Quel innocent figlio D 17/1 1812 and Pensa, che questo istante D76 1813, are settings of poems by Pietro Metastasio. Metastasio (1698-1782)  was a prolific composer of operas and other vocal works, whom Salieri knew personally . To Schubert, Metastasio would have been almost a contemporary figure. Boesch and Martineau performed them so well that they seemed surprisingly sophisticated, showing that the young Schubert was absorbing the fundamentals of his art thoroughly from the finest models of his time.

Nonetheless, Schubert was independent-minded, already immersed in German poetry and song. No doubt Gretchen am Spinnrade and other early songs will appear later in the Wigmore Hall series, but for now, Boesch and Martineau chose four of Schubert's eleven settings of poems by Theodor Körner (1791-1813), from 1815.  Amphiaraos D166 is a ballad in heroic mien. "Dank Dir, Gewätiger Gott" sang Boesch, "Dein Blitz ist mir der Unsterblickeit Siegel!"  The thunderbolt of Zeus is the protagonist's "seal of Immortality. Gebet wäjhrend der Schlacht D171 begins with forceful violence turning suddenly to prayer.  Körner was a patriot, a hero of the Lützower Jäger, freedom fighters against  Napoleon, in a period in which the Romantic ideals of German identity were forged.  Körner was killed in battle. . Schubert was a few years younger, and in no position to enlist, which gives the settings extra poignancy.  The mood changed completely with  Das war Ich D174, a song of love with a twist of humour and a delightfully pretty postlude. With a big smile, Boesch sang Liebestädelei D206. "Lass dich küssen" sang Boesch with total charm.  

More contrast. Boesch and Martineau followed the lighter side of Körner with the declamatory ballad,  Die drei Sänger D329 1815 to a poem by Johann Friedrich Ludwig Bobrik. Schubert loved setting these sagas, though they are hard to carry off well without the communication skills Boesch and Martineau possess. Schubert didn't complete the song, so Boesch recited the rest of the poem so we could imagine what might have been. The story is familiar. It's a variation of the legend of  Der König von Thule, better known in the Goethe setting Schubert wrote at around the same time. Then, the lyrical dialogue between swan, eagle and doves that is Lebensmelodien D 395 1816,  to a poem by August  Wilhelm von Schlegel, brother of the more famous Friedrich Schlegel, of whom more below. It's a gentle song, made persuasive by the sheer grace of Boesch and Martineau's delivery. 

Das Heimweh D 456 1816 (Theodor Hell) prepared us for the high point of the whole evening, a truly masterful performance of Der Wanderer D489 1816 to a poem by Georg Phillipp Schmidt known as "Schmidt von Lübeck". (He wasn't born a nobleman.)  Der Wanderer is the epitome of the whole Romantic aesthetic, so beautiful and so profound that it is, to many, an even greater masterpiece than Erlkönig.  Boesch and Martineau performed it with exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, bringing out its deepest undercurrents.  Magnificent phrasing, elucidating the inner patterns in the music, which enhanced meaning even further. This is why those of us who cherish Lieder appreciate the unique qualities of the genre.  Der Wanderer expresses emotions so universal that no-one with a soul could fail to be drawn in.

Capping that astonishing  Der Wanderer would have been near impossible.  After the interval, Boesch and Martineau returned with another Der Wanderer D649 1819 to a poem by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, another great pillar of the Romantic revolution that transformed European culture. That might sound formidable, but what it means is that the Romantiker  shifted emphasis from externals to internals, from the public to the private.  Schlegel's Der Wanderer is a contemplative piece. While Schmidt von Lübeck's wanderer believes ""Dort wo du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück", Schlegel's wanderer finds peace  within himself. "Alles reinen seh' ich mild im Weiderscheine, nichts verworren....froh umgeben, doch allein". (All things I see clearly, gently reflected around me, nothing distorted, happy but resolutely alone). Sometimes it takes greater strength to come to terms with life. In its own way, this Wanderer is as inspirational and as challenging as the other.

The two Der Wanderer songs formed the centrepiece of the recital, whose programme was designed as elegantly as a rondo.   Three more Schlegel songs from 1820 followed, Die Vögel D 691, Der Schiffer D694 and Im Walde D 708  In the latter song, Schubert emphasizes the turbulence of "Windes Rauschen, Göttes  Flügel", Martineau playing with great vigour.  But Schlegel's message is more elusive. Boesch brought out the real depth in the song with the firm way in which he articulated the critical strophe, ""Tief in dunker Waldesnacht, freigegeben alle Zügel schwingt sich des Gedankens Mavcht". (Deep in the forest, in the night we aren't inhibited, so the Power of Thought is made free)  In a nutshell, the spirit of the Romantiker, without which we might not appreciate ideas like what we now call psychology.  and personal freedom.

Thus we returned, refreshed, to more Italian songs by Schubert, the Drei Gesänge D902 (1827), two of which are to poems by Metastasio, who had inspired the composer when he was was learning his trade with Salieri.  This time L'incanto degli ochi and Il traditor deluso are songs of genuine maturity, very much with Schubert's stamp of individuality. Boesch and Martineau delivered them with the grace they deserve   Elegantly framing these songs were three settings to poems by Johan Gabriel Seidl, Widerspruch D 865 1826 before and later Bei dir allein!  D 866/2 1828 and Irdisches Glück D 866/4.  The connections with the rest of the programme go deeper than language. In  Irdisches Glück  the text refers to a man who finds happiness in simple things, even though there are undercurrents of past suffering.  Seidl isn't a poet in the league of Friedrich von Schlegel, but the message isn't so different from that in Schlegel's Der Wanderer : we make of life what we can.  Is Lieder a lost art ? By no means, it's totally relevant to our lives today

This review also appears in Opera Today. The next recital in the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert Songs is on Sunday with Henk Neven. 
 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Gergiev speaks - candid interview

"Sometimes people think they are holding a magic wand"says Valery Gergiev in a remarkably candid interview. Note the source - Tass, the organ of the former Soviet State.   Read the article here. 

Questioned about his demanding schedule, Gergiev explains "it's a conductor's job". At the level at which Gergiev works, orchestras have numerous conductors. It's a maestro's job to polish things. Working with different orchestras keeps a conductor on his toes, and nourishes an interplay between different orchestras. It's naive to assume that conductors have to stay in the same place all the time.  Many creative people thrive on challenge.Indeed, such challenges come with the job description for most good conductors. Gergiev can be maddening, and sometimes come close to the wire, but that's what makes him interesting. 

Much more intriguing are Gergiev's thoughts on the relationship between the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. If anyone has a tab on Putin's mind and the artistic scene in Russia, it's Gergiev, Heed his words.
 

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Songs Florian Boesch, Graham Johnson


The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a  40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons.  There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence. Amazingly, the second recital in thisd series (Boesch, Martineau) was even better ! Please also read my review here.

The Wigmore Hall's unique reputation springs from "the experience of music  made by supremely gifted musicians  for listeners open to what they may have to say", to quote John Gilhooly, the Wigmore Hall's Artistic Director.  Simple words, but radical words in the current cultural climate where compromise means more than quality. The real way ahead for serious music is to treat it seriously. Excellence is by definition, "elitist" or it wouldn't be "excellent". But  that basic ideal is simple. "The intensity of emotions, the concentration, the joy, the spiritual highs and lows, and the sheer vitality of what happens at the Wigmore Hall", Gilhooly continues, "all combine to create a sense of living art, renewed and refreshed in the moment of every performance".

"Don't let the song recital become an endangered species", Gilhooly writes in Classical Music magazine (August 2015).  Great as it will be, the Schubert series is only part of the 96 song recitals this season.   Head-on, Gilhooly confronts the fashion for marketing Lieder other than on its own terms.  "If your experience of a song recital is of someone bluffing their way through pieces they barely know, why should you go back for more?"   Lieder is fascinating because it connects to sources deep in European culture.  Perhaps it's not an easy sell in a non-intellectual age, but the Wigmore Hall meets these challenges by providing the best, aiming to "open minds to this vast imaginary world",  the  ocean of creative experience unleashed by the Romantic revolution. Capital "R", Romanticism, not lower case.

This inaugural concert featured Florian Boesch and Graham Johnson, both icons in Lieder circles. It also started with a rarity to pique the interest of the Wigmore Hall's core Lieder audience, who were out in force. This was Schubert's Lebenstraum D1a, a fragment written without text, only recently and somewhat controversially identified with Lebenstraum D39. Here we heard a version created for performance by Reinhard Van Hoorickx. Johnson played the original part for piano, followed by the new arrangement based on the poem by Gabriele von Baumberg, which formed the basis of the later song. Bear in mind that the fragment was writen in 1810, when Schubert was 13.  Boesch and Johnson followed this with a set of Goethe songs from 1815, Der Fischer D225,  Erster Verlust D226 and Der Gott und die Bayajadere D 254. The first two displayed Schubert's fascination with driven, repeating rhythms, the last with his fondness for long declamatory ballads, both styles he would continue to explore.

Boesch and Johnson then moved to a set of songs from 1816 to poems by Johann Georg Jacobi (1740-1814),  a theologian, jurist and academic. These were perhaps the treasures of this recital, since they are relatively underperformed. An Chloen D 462 and Hochzeit-Lied D 463 were delivered with graceful purity, the masculinity of Boesch's voice gently modulated to bring out their charms.  The greater depth of In der Mitternacht D464 and Trauer der Liebe D 465 suited Boesch's characteristic timbre. Trauer der Liebe was particularly effective, as it's a very good poem. Although Jacobi employs typically Romantic images like mourning doves, dark forest foliage and whispering winds, the poem deals with unsentimental emotional strength. "Freiden gibt den treuen Herzen nur ein künftig Paradies" (Happiness is given to loyal hearts only in a future Paradise) Boesch sang with pointed dignity, suggesting the intellectual rigour in Jacobi's poetry. In Die Perle D 466, the text refers to a man who can't see the joys of Springtime because he's lost a pearl he found on  a pilgrimage in distant lands. Schubert's music is jolly enough, invoking "Birke, Buch' unde Erle" (birch, beech and alder) but Jacobi's punchline is altogether more understated. "Was mir gebricht", sang Boesch quietly, "ist mehr als eines Perle".

The Jacobi set concluded with Lied des Orpheus, als er in die Hölle ging D 474. Johnson played the long piano introduction, so it felt like an overture to a miniature drama.  Schubert chose to set only  the section of the very long poem, in which Orpheus battles flames, monsters and shadows to enter Hades. Almost schizoid frenzy contrasts with eerie stillness. Jacobi and Schubert knew full well what the story of Orpheus symbolizes. Orpheus doesn't interact much with other characters, so the drama is, by its very nature, an inner monologue rather than a narrative. Orpheus doesn't save Eurydice but in the process, discovers the power of creative art. (read my review of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice at the Royal Opera House here.  Better still, go, because it is very well thought through and an excellent show).

Boesch and Johnson continued with three settings of poems by Matthias Claudius, An die Nachtigall D497 1816, Der Tod und das Mädchen D531 (1817) and Täglich zu singen D533, 1817), then five songs to texts by Schubert's strange companion, Johann Baptist Mayrhofer Der Schiffer D 536 1817, Memnon D 541 1817, Auf der Donau D553 1817, Aus Heliopolis 1 D 753 1822 and Aus Heliopolis II D 754 1822.  Mayrhofer's poems reference Classical Antiquity to mask the inner demons the poet faced.  How he must have dreamed of an "unbewölktes Leben" (a life without clouds)  To some extent, Schubert may have intuited what lay beneath the shimmering surface calm.

Then, on to Der blind Knabe D833 1825, and Totengräbers heimweh D842 1825 (Jacob Nikolaus Craigher de Jachelutta), the latter performed so well that it set off spontaneous applause - genuine applause, totally sincere, not daft "audience participation".  Boesch beamed with appreciation. It's a marvellous song, and was done so well!  Please read my piece on this song here. Then, back to "Happy Schubert", Das Lied im Grünem D 917, 1827, (Johann Anton Friedrich Reil). Schubert and Reil, an actor, were friends, so the song may be a memory of good times in the countryside, in the past. We know , now, that Schubert was already ill with the disease that killed him 16 months later, but Schubert didn't, and nor did Reil.  It is enough that we can enjoy this lovely song for itself and revel in its freshness.

This review also appears in Opera Today. Boesch will be singing another recital in this Wigmore Hall series on Thursday 24th September, which I'll write about, too.

Photo of Boesch and Johnson by Simon Jay Price

Monday, 21 September 2015

Alondra de la Parra Mahler Symphony



Alondra de la Parra conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony no 2. Alondra de la Parra?  A friend sent me a link to the concert on medici.tv  Her name was a blank to me and her wiki stub isn't well written. But then another friend, whose taste is generally impeccable,  said "She's the real deal".

Definitely worth listening to. De la Parra isn't a genius, but why should she have to be? It's enough that she is good, and  comes over as a person with distinctive ideas,  who cares about the music and the way it should be expressed, which is a good thing. What I liked about this performance is that it is well thought through with a strong sense of what Boulez would have called "trajectory", integrated movement towards a purpose. The Urlicht is one of the critical stages in the journey. At first the mezzo sings of suffering but then of confrontation. An angel blocks the way. But the protagonist will defy even angels to reach his or her goal.
"Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
And so, in this performance that sense of dogged determination shines through from the very first bars, produced with defiant panache.  Interestingly, that urgency marks the very last bars of the first movement, emphasizing the dramatic contrast of the silence of the Luftpause. I thought of the way a cardiac chart spikes upward then descends into flatline at the moment of death.

The processional nature of this First Movement was very clearly defined, each change of mood articulated with deliberation - "Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck". As anyone who has observed Catholic ceremonial will appreciate, religious processions have liturgical significance. The funeral march incorporates not only the last steps of the cortege but also a commemoration of  the person's life.  Hence the significance of detail throughout this performance - distant pastoral sounds suggesting happier memories and solo instruments played with clarity, suggesting the fragility of life. 

De la Parra is conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which we can hear a dozen times a year in London. Here, they sound different, as if they are listening to de la Parra for a different perspective. The soloists (Jennifer Johnston and Olivia Gorra) were fine and the choir is the City of Birmingham Chorus, directed by Simon Halsey. Medici.tv included the concert as part of a series about great concert halls of the world. Again, I don't know the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, whose acoustic seems to pick up every cough and dropped programme booklet. But I would certainly like to hear de la Parra again because she's interesting.  Listen more here where she conducts the first concert of the Verbier Festival Music Camp (youth orchestra, very green) in July this year. When this concert was recorded live last week, she looked very pregnant indeed - all the more respect to her! (the photo above must have been taken a while back). May the baby grow up to have a good ear.  ,

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Grumpy Old Man at the Proms

More from Special Correspondent  GOM (Grumpy Old Man)
That was the week that was. It’s over let it go” sang the wonderful Millicent Martin in TWTWTW. Would that we could say something similar about the travesty of a Proms season which has just ended. I first went to the Proms in the 1950’s when Sir Malcolm ruled the waves, so I can look back for most of the last 60 years, but actually I don’t want to go there although I have to say that the dumbed down season just ended hardly compares, in my opinion, to the glories of past Prom seasons. No, GOM wants to have a go at the audiences and the management of the Royal Albert Hall. From this I must most emphatically exclude the seasoned Prommers themselves who endure the toughest conditions, listen with extraordinary attention and are a quite wonderful audience as any orchestra or performer who plays there will tell you.

No, it is the management and ‘seated’ audience who deserve a serious douche for helping to turn a once great institution, something to be cherished, into the equivalent of ‘a bad night at the Odeon’. For a start, is it really necessary, as now happens, actively to encourage people to bring drink into the auditorium? If you order a drink at a bar in the Royal Albert Hall you will probably be asked whether you want it for immediate consumption (in which case you will be offered a glass) or whether you want it to take into the auditorium (in which case you will get it in a plastic beaker, quite possibly with ice cubes to rattle). Add to this, that one can now buy popcorn in a cardboard container ‘to take in with you’ – personally I loathe the smell of popcorn and if I am in the Tube when someone gets on with fast food, I generally go and sit in another carriage – but in the Albert Hall one has no alternative but to sit tight and grit one’s teeth whilst they rattle their popcorn and shake their ice cubes.

Then the attendants themselves. What is the point of them? At the first of the recent Vienna Philharmonic concerts which started half an hour earlier than usual, Brahms 3rd Symphony was disrupted by hundreds, literally hundreds, of people being admitted and shown to their seats after the first and second movements. Cue extended break in proceedings and goodbye any chance of a normal cumulative concert-going experience.

And finally the ‘seated’ audience itself. Desultory clapping between each movement of a symphony aside, their behaviour frequently has to be seen (and heard) to be believed as they happily chomp through their popcorn, rattle their ice cubes, chat noisily, take photos on their mobiles (despite injunctions that no photography is allowed) and generally behave in a way that would be unacceptable in any public park on the warmest of days. For instance, at recent Proms I had two girls constantly snogging each other throughout one performance and, at another, a middle-aged pair spending the evening, he with one hand up her skirt. Between times the female of the pair asked me “When are we going to get the audience participation?” (I very nearly replied that there seemed to be plenty going on already). Poor David Attenborough seated next to us was meanwhile whacked on his knee by the person in front of him swinging vigorously on his swivel seat and then turned round to glare at someone in the box behind us eating noisily at the breathless close of the Scène aux champs.

To be perfectly frank, going to the Emirates stadium for an Arsenal game, one is now far more likely to encounter acceptable crowd behaviour any day, and actually to enjoy the experience.      

Friday, 18 September 2015

Grumpy Old Man (GOM) at the Royal Opera House

Wise words from Special Correspondent GOM (Grumpy Old Man)

Does the current fad for so-called inclusion know no bounds. Certainly the Royal Opera House’s latest wheeze defies demographics. As anybody who has been involved with marketing knows, we have an ageing population. The big audiences are those who are growing older, not the young. Yet ROH appears obstinately behind the curve, obsessed with youth and ‘inclusion’.
What is ROH’s response to this? Possibly feeling a little guilty at becoming a preserve of the super-rich (top priced seats are £165 but spend an evening eating and drinking there as well and you can probably double this), ROH’s newest marketing initiative runs contrary to any perceptible logic

My partner and I have been ‘regulars’ at ROH now for nearly 50 years, hence the above designation as ‘Grumpy Old Man’ and, if she will pardon me, in my partner’s case, ‘Slightly Ageing but Enduringly Elegant Lady’ or SAEEL (you will appreciate that I am slightly biased). Between us we have been to ROH at least 3,000 times. Now as ‘pensionists’ it remains one of our great and increasingly few pleasures in Life, especially the Royal Ballet which in our opinion is enjoying something of a Golden Age. As retirees understandably we have to count the pennies; my dear ‘Elegant Lady’ is a long term “Friend”, albeit now a Friend of the Lower Order since a hierarchy of giving has been established. Naturally we choose what we see and where we sit with some care.

In response to half a century of loyalty ROH have now seen fit to reserve some of the best seats in the Lower Slips for public booking. When ‘Enduringly Elegant Lady’ queried this with the Friends Office she was curtly informed that “the public” must have equal opportunity to book any seat. Is this all part of the obsession with ‘inclusion’? Leaving aside the simple fact that we are the public, this begs the question “what is the point of paying to be a Friend if seats which are ideal for older people like ourselves are now off-limits and reserved until the opening of public booking?”

Far from anything to do with inclusion this is all about discriminating against older people and is therefore clearly ageist. The seats involved are nearer the stage, next to a gangway and generally ideal for an older person. When we raised this question we were told to go and sit further along.  This actually makes it much harder for older people like ourselves (a) because they are in the middle of a row and therefore harder to get to, and (b) because they are angled slightly backwards and cramped up against the rail, one has constantly to lean forward in order to see the stage. So much for ‘inclusion’.

Of course with occupancy as high as it is Covent Garden can pretty much do what they like, but whatever the rhetoric, ROH is undoubtedly getting progressively less and less ‘accessible’ to the regular genuine opera or ballet-loving punter of modest means and simply becoming yet another ‘night out’, a venue to be gone to, rather than an artistic experience to be regularly enjoyed. As a lifetime supporter of the Arts I never thought I would say this but perhaps the Government through the Arts Council should review the £77 million which I believe Covent Garden currently receives and leave them to find their own financial support.

“Grumpy old Man” (GOM)

Thursday, 17 September 2015

La Nuit de Louis XIV William Christie Versailles


"Pour célébrer le tricentenaire de la mort de Louis XIV, l'orchestre des Arts Florissants, dirigé par William Christie, fait résonner les plus beaux airs de Lully, Charpentier, Delalande, Couperin, Desmaret et de Visée au cœur du château de Versailles, où ils ont été joués pour le plaisir du roi des arts. Bercée par la voix de Denis Podalydès et rythmée par les pas de danse de Nicolas Paul, de l'Opéra de Paris, cette promenade nocturne nous entraîne dans trois espaces emblématiques : l'Atys de Lully enchante l'Opéra royal du château, les Te deum retentissent dans la Chapelle royale, et la musique de cour fait virevolter la galerie des Glaces."

It's not often that we can hear a concert in the heart of the Palace of Versailles. In June, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants marked the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV with a presentaion so unique it should not be missed. Enjoy it here on arte.tv for a limited period. The camera pans over Versailles at dusk. The palace is huge, a spectacular statement of the Sun King's glory. Yet we hear a single owl, calling from the forests around it. An important detail - think about it. Next. we're in the performance space where Louis XIV would have enjoyed his entertainments. It's lovely, but immediately the film pans to the empty stage.

An actor, Denis Podalydès,  expounds. "La musique nouurit...." every aspect of life. Do not fast forward, since this introduction encapsulates the spirit of French style - intellect, logic, intense passion without maudlin sentimentality, flamboyance energized with rigour.  I don't know the sources of the texts, but Podalydès delivers with passionate commitment.  Each instrument is introduced in turn, like a personage, for if music is divine, its messengers are heroes. Notice, too, the dancer. He moves as if the very sculptures and paintings around him were coming alive. Then you realize how Podalydès's style derives from centuries of theatrical tradition, to Molière and before. And how the spoken voice "sings",  with dramatic cadences and stylized gestures.. Music unites instruments, singers, dancers, dramatists, composers and listeners in rich continuum.

Versailles was Louis XIV's "music as architecture". Jean-Baptiste Lully was his ideal composer, and Lully's Atys (1676) his favourite opera. Atys is a seminal work in music history, and a speciality of William Christie and Les Arts Flo. Christie is looking older these days, but this added to the sense of occasion. With his halo of white hair and wise expression, Christie seems an embodiment of the Age of the Enlightenment, beaming affectionately at his musicians, most of whom he's worked with since they were very young.  He conducts with vigour, inspired by his love of the art to which he's dedicated his whole life. These extracts from Atys were produced with elegance and deep feeling. Again, seamless integration of orchestra, singers and dancers.  The impact came from the sheer excellence of performance, infinitely closer to the ideals of the genre than gimmicky period costumesfor those who can't use their imaginations.

If anything, the second part of the concert is even more profound. Again, we hear the lone owl calling as the night draws in on Versailles. this time the performance takes place in the Chapelle Royale, for we are commemorating the death of Louis XIV. Podalydès recites extracts from the Sermon sur la mort et la brièveté de la vie (1662). Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the author, was the leading theologian of his time, and a great orator, so this performance also made the connection between religion and theatre. Orators are showmen, working on the emotions of their audience. This also connects the role of religion as part of the power structure. "Politics as theatre" could describe Louis XIV's monarchy , where spectacle glittered over ruthless absolutism.  Bossuet was also Louis XIV's personal chaplain. Louis went for the ultimate in  all things. King and Bishop would have attended Mass in this very chapel. No doubt Bossuet heard  Louis XIV's confessions. Like the call of the owl, this, too, is an important detail. The King ruled in all his glory, but the moment he died, he was mortal, like all men.  This we see, way up above the gilded sculptures and marble columns,  a dancer writhes like a soul in Purgatory.

 Drumstrokes introduce extracts from Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Te Deum. Watch carefully at how Christie throws himself bodily into his conducting. Again, this isn't for show. He's in symbiosis with his singers and players, bringing out together the full force of the music. In the angelic Lully Regina Caeli , he sings the Alleluias. silently, at one with the trio and their intricate interactions. The camera pans to the chapel's painted ceiling with its images of heaven. A trio from Henri Desmarest Usquequo Domine  follows and then 5the choral finale from Lalande Te Deum laudamaus, another Les Arts Flo speciality.

The concert now moves to the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles' crowning glory. Ordinary tourists may not  get to see the chandeliers lit up like this, their light refracted in multitude, illuminating the entire room. Podalydès is seen, walking silently in awe. Echoes of his "La musique nouurit....." speech resonate.  Now, at last we see the audience. They're wearing ordinary street clothes. Polyadès smiles and welcomes them in though they don't seem to notice because Les Arts Flo are playing again. Podalydès then addresses the throng : perhaps he's Louis XIV proud of what he's achieved throwing his arms open, too, to the world outside, still visible though dusk encroaches.

Podalydès leads Eloide Fonnard by the hand as she sings Charpentier Les plaisirs de Versailles,, as the King might have led a muse in one of the mythical enactments he enjoyed so much.  More Charpentier, more Lalande and music written for Versailles. Now the singers walk through the crowd,  smiling and occasionally striking dance poses, followed by the theorbo player.and then the whole chorus. Again, this is more than detail, but central to meaning.

Christie and Les Arts Flo concluded with some of  Charpentier's incidental music for Molière's Le malade imaginaire, shocking "new" work that departed from Lully's stranglehold on  French music., paving the way for Rameau and masters to come. "LOUIS ! LOUIS ! and "Mille fois, mille fois", the singers sing. Is Charpentier picking up a theme from Lully's Atys ?  Just as the candles and mirrors of the Galerie des Glaces reflect light, the musical achievements of the reign of Louis XIV are reflected endlessly so long as there are those who listen, care and create anew. Suddenly, the Hall of Mirrors is eclipsed by  a spectacular fireworks display on the terraces, such as Louis XIV adored. Christie waves his arms in a flourish. He looks exhausted, but deliriously happy, and so he should be. For this was truly the "Night of Louis XIV".

Also enjoy this docu about Louis XIV and baroque dance





Schützengraben

Infantrymen in the trenches

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Beautifully multi-layered Orphée et Eurydice Royal Opera House


Christoph Willibald Gluck Orphée et Eurydice at the Royal Opera House.  John Eliot Gardiner conducted the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, so musical excellence was  absolutely guaranteed. More surprisingly, the production itself broke new ground, for it connected the music, the singing and the dancing into a stunningly integrated whole. This takes vision. In its own time, Orphée et Eurydice was ground breaking, introducing radical reform to the genre. Gardiner and the Royal Opera House know their music history and have the artistic vision to bring Orphée et Eurydice back to life in a production as audacious as this.

Orpheus journeys into the Underworld. He doesn't save Eurydice but finds music.  Orphée et Eurydice  is an opera about abstract concepts, so abstract expression is of the essence, just as it would have been in Greek drama. The narrative unfolds through music, in different forms and on different levels. Hence John Fulljames and his designer Conor Murphy uses the whole performing space at the Royal Opera House, placing the orchestra centre stage. Even when it's barely visible, partly hidden in a pit, it's absolutely present at the very heart of the production, fundamentally true to its spirit. A production for those who actually "get" that opera is music.

Music leads us out of the total darkness representing "le tombeau de Eurydice". Hence the gloom that overhangs the structure from which the singers emerge. The  columns represent marble pillars, yet also the forest of tall trees, depicted in many paintings because they, too, are symbolic.  The music suggest ceremonial dirge, a hymn in the style of Classical Antiquity familiar to Gluck and his audiences. Gardiner respects the solemn pace, from which Orphée will emerge. This opera is Orpheus's journey, and one which he has to make alone, hence the"concert performance" emphasis on Orphée, which is vital to meaning.  Although the role was conceived for a castrati, and is usually now cast for mezzo, here we had the French version.  Juan Diego Flórez has the dramatic presence to carry it off. His long Récit at the end of the First Act felt emotionally convincing.His timbre also highlighted the frilly decorations in the part of  Amore (Amanda Forsythe). 

Love is also an erotic force. Flórez and many of the male dancers wear pantaloons not unlike the fleeces which shepherds draped around their waists. Significantly, Pan, too, was a shepherd an element of mythology which would have come as second nature to Gluck's audiences raised on Greek classics.  The dancers of the Hofesh Schechter Company, choreographed and directed by Schechter, moved with animal-like physicality, wildly gesturing yet precisely in time with the music. Gardiner whipped the orchestra to near frenzy, expressing shocking portent. No mortal has ever defied the natural order of life and death. Even Eurydice (Lucy Crowe) demurs. The natural warmth of period instruments driven hard like this creates tense contrast, also very much part of meaning. The instruments are vulnerable, like mortals, but their playing is heroic, all the more to be admired for that. Gardiner reveled the fundamental connection between baroque music and dance. Precision is of the essence. Dancers, like musicians, don't approximate gestures if they are any good. What a joy it was to watch Gluck's music come alive in physical form !

It was wonderful to watch how the nymphs and shepherds of the Monteverdi Choir walked among the dancers of the Hofesh Schechter Company - mortals and mythic, almost non-human elementals brought together by the miracle that is music. I don't know who the dancer with the dreadlocks was, but he danced like a Fury. Is he an alter ego to Orphée and perhaps a hint of Orpheus's eventual fate? Orpheus enters the Underworld for good when he's ripped apart by demons. So many layers of meaning, opersting together, united by music. In the harp we hear the lute with which Orpheus will find his destiny.  Lights shone from above, channelled at first through small apertures, like sunlight. Then the whole stage, singers, dancers and orchestra were all illuminated in golden light and burnished tones of antique copper.  Orphée doesn't save Eurydice, but when he re-enters the world, he's found his mission.

Get to this. It runs until 3rd October. It's like nothing else you're likely to experience in a while.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

What went wrong ? Last Night of the Proms 2015


What went wrong? The Last Night of the Proms 2015 was a travesty.  Mechanically-processed mush. No one really expects serious music at the LNOP but that there's something interesting, done with style and pizzazz. This LNOP seems to have been curated by drones, applying tick-box principles. It must have looked OK in theory but in execution it was the opposite of pretty much everything the Proms used to stand for. Symptomatic, perhaps,  of the mindless malaise that's descended on the BBC.

Sir Henry Wood believed enough in people that he thought they could rise to the occasion if they were given good music.  Now,what counts above all is inclusiveness, a buzz word implying that people are too stupid  to rise above the lowest possible denominator.The "inclusiveness" mantra which now dominates arts policy is a stranglehold that will stifle the life out of the arts in this country. Far from populist, this mindset is anti-people.

Every Last Night of the Proms includes  a new work, generally anodyne, so in a sense Eleanor Alberga's Arise, Athena runs true to form, so shallow that it could have been written by Sibelius, the software, that is, not Sibelius the composer. At least with Shostakovich's Piano Concerto no 2 and Arvo Pärt's Credo we got some real music, albeit not premier cru.  Jonas Kauffmann might have saved the day but the JK we heard here wasn't the JK we know and love. A blatantly commercial plug for his new CD, which he himself has dissed. (It was this CD he dissed)   Upper levels of management must have forced him into this. He has too much integrity to be doing sham like this by choice. It's OK for JK to croon and for Benjamin Grosvenor to play jazz riffs (without verve) but such things need to be done with genuine wit. This LNOP was so calculated that humour didn't come into it.

Marin Alsop didn't help either. When she became the first female conductor to head the LNOP, that, at least, was news, of a sort, but second time around, the joke falls flat.  If the BBC cared about women conductors, why not find another, and someone more genuinely gifted? , Gender has nothing to do with music. While other LNOP conductors have used the platform to speak of music and ideals, Alsop's speech was about herself and her orchestras.  Time to change the record.  Making a fuss about a middle-class, well-paid professional for her gender is an insult to the millions of women all over the world who suffer far worse obstacles every day of their existence.

Why not Danielle de Niese as host? She has so much personality and doesn't need to sing to prove it.  Part of being a presenter means having to ad lib instead of wisely remaining silent (the curse of radio), but at least de Niese has flair.

Proms seasons are arranged years in advance - you can't book the Vienna Philharmonic on a whim. So much of this year's Prom season would have been conceived when Roger Wright's vision still held sway. We've had some very good Proms this year (two FX Roths, the VPO, Nielsen, Kullervo etc)  But the overall season was top heavy with gimmicks and trivia.   It was more like an advertsisng campaign for the BBC brand than a season about music. And like BBC self-promotion ads , comprised of snippets stuck together.

When David Pickard was announced as new director of the BBC Proms some assumed that he'd change things because he worked so long at Glyndebourne.  Fact is, one man can't stand up to a corporate philosophy of stupidity. Perhaps Pickard was chosen to lend the mindless suits credibility. He has political and management nous but not much background in broadcasting. But then non-experience seems to be the logic -- so much of the BBC top management doesn't have experience either

The BBC is a much loved National Treasure but now it's facing a battle for its very existence.  Where is the hate coming from? Politicians and those who want to grab personal profit from its demise? At a time when the BBC really needs to get its act together, it's falling prey to the very forces that have created the self defeating inclusivist, anti-elitist myth.

Ivan Hewett on the new Proms mentality. Alas, many people, incl many who should care about serious music, actually LIKE dumbing down.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Unique Elgar : Vienna Philharmonic Dream of Gerontius Rattle Prom 75


A singularly unique Elgar Dream of Gerontius  with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle, Prom 75 at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Many good orchestras have played Elgar, but rarely has his music been played with such luscious, sumptuous gloss.  In the UK, we're used to hearing  Elgar in an Anglican context. Some of the finest performances have taken place in Anglican cathedrals, such as at the Three Choirs Festival, and in concert halls where the audience is either agnostic or Protestant. Yet Elgar was fundamentally Catholic, brought up in an aestheic of saints, incense, and mystic ecstasy.  The Dream of Gerontius thrives in the golden luxury of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's distinctive sound. Rattle has conducted the piece many times, but with the VPO, he achieved the sublime. This Dream of Gerontius felt like a Cathedral, honouring the splendour and glory of God.

 A Prelude to die for (ouch!).  From hushed darkness, the first string theme emerges. A chill, reminding us of imminent death.. Yet the magnificent strings rise ever upward. Faith isn't rational.  The violin theme was played with a richness that, like faith, defied the constraints of mundane existence. This prepares us for  "Jesu, Maria - I am near to death, and Thou art calling me;"   In the orchestra, we feel "chill at heart, this dampness on my brow". Toby Spence has done The Dream of Gerontius many times, and probably has personal reasons for understanding what it means, If his timbre on this occasion was strained in parts, he found renewed vigour in moments like "Miserere, Judex meu" which he projected with fervour.  Perfectly true to Gerontius's emotional state. The pain has wearied me". Echoes of Catholic hymnal surface, subtly, in the orchestra, setting the context in which the Priest (Roderick Williams) intones absolution. The Priest's lines repeat with the regularity of chant, picked up by the VPO with great subtlety. Perhaps it helps that some of the players, at least, grew up with ceremonial prayer and connect it to a state of grace.  Williams's voice is warm with feeling and compassion,. He illuminated the word "Christ" so it shone, the orchestra underlining the glow.

The orchestral introduction to the second part was magical. Gerontius has awoken into a strange new world. "How still it is", sang Spence, " I hear no more the busy beat of time".The orchestra murmured quietly behind him. Now Spence was refreshed, singing with a sense of excited wonder. Magdalena Kožená gets a lot of nasty stick in the press, which she doesn't deserve. In this performance she gave tender fragility to The Angel, reminding the Soul that its trials are not yet over.  "It is because then, thou didst fear...and so for thee the bitterness of death is passed". The flames of Hell whip wildly  into life - wonderful dramatic playing for an orchestra attuned to Faust . If the "hahas" from the BBC Proms Youth Choir weren't as maniacally demented as they could have been, their singing reminded us that the voices aren't those of mature adults, but Satan's half-formed Demons. 

"The sound is like the rushing of the wind - The summer wind - among the lofty pines", sings the Soul, entering the Hall of Judgement. The VPO deliver again, with magnificently vivid playing , truly "a grand mysterious harmony. It floods me, like the deep and solemn sound of many waters".  Newman's text is getting the grand but un-grandiose treatment it deserves.  Rattle's duty is to galvanize rather than to conduct in the normal way. Thus inspired, the VPO gives its best.  A finale that rang with lustre of an orchestra who have Beethoven embedded in their souls. I felt that I too was in the presence of some kind of God. Listening links HERE and HERE

Please also read my post on the Vienna Philharmonic Brahms Schmidt Prom with Semyon Bychkov, and my numerous posts on Elgar

Bychkov Vienna Philharmonic Brahms Franz Schmidt Prom 73


In Prom 73, at the Royal Albert Hall, London, Semyon Bychkov conducted the Vienna Philharonic Orchestra. The  VPO are so good that they don't need a Chief Conductor. Music seems to flow from them, channeled and shaped in partnership with those who have conducted them. Their aura is unique, built upon flawless technique and innate, intuitive musicianship on all levels.  Claudio Abbado, who conducted them regularly, once said "Music is an ongoing process, a constant quest, a quest for new forms of music-making, a permanent state of enrichment."  Listening to the Vienna Philharmonic is proof, if any were needed, that dedication and vision of this calibre refreshes the soul.

In the opening movement of Brahms Symphony no 3 Op 90, 1883, Allegro con brio, the motif at its heart was clearly defined. "Frei aber einsam", Free although alone. the confidence of a protagonist mature enough not to need to prove anything. This symphony is a model of restraint, each movement returning to quiet understatement.  Bychkov and the VPO shaped the long keening lines in the second and third movements so they seemed to express a melancholy longing for something which might never be regained. One hardly needs to know the Schumann connotations when the piece is interpreted with such insight and sensitivity. Thus the intense figures in the final movement were marked forceful, sharp stabbing rhythms suggesting determination. Trombones, horns and bassoons, instruments with big voices, yet played with sensitivity.  Lovely  as it was with the VPO, they understood that this Allegro isn't "light", but carries deep emotional undertones. Listening link HERE.

It was a great pity that the performance was spoiled live in the auditorium because after the first movement the ushers let in large numbers of people who hadn't checked  that the Prom started at 7pm not 7.30, yet were allowed to enter the hall noisily, disturbing others who had come for the music. It didn't help that Bychkov seemed to be under the weather, mopping his brow a lot, but that is his privilege. Audiences who actually care about music listen, and shouldn't burst into mechanical applause at every pause. Serious music isn't TV talent show, it doesn't depend on mindless approval. Ironically, this "audience participation" reinforced the insight  in the Bychkov/VPO  interpretation.

It was a wise choice to pair this Brahms 3 with Franz Schmidt's Symphony no 2  (1913). Comparing a composer to one more familiar is fair enough, but it's far more important to listen to music for its own sake.  The better the composer, the more individual he (or she) will sound.  This symphony is most certainly not a pastiche. Ultimately labels close minds and ears.  Schmidt was very much an individual of his time, cognizant with a wide range of others.  Although this particular symphony isn't as well known as the superior "Book of Seven Seals", Schmidt's Symphony no 4 was a huge success at the Proms  in 2000. Schmidt is not obscure and was very much a part of the period in which he was active. Bychkov clearly loves the piece and conducts it with such enthusiasm that he makes it convincing.  He's been conducting it everywhere in the last few years, even leading the student orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music in it last March. When, not if, he records this, it will become the version to get hold of.

Schmidt's Second Symphony spans three movements. The first movement, marked Lebhaft, was lively, with an interesting interplay between confident brass and  playful strings and winds. The VPO played the expansive lines with a great sense of freedom, and the pastoral passages shone with lyrical grace. In the hands of lesser performers  one might detect an uncertainty in the resolution, but with Bychkov and the VPO, the sound is so gorgeously rich that one can luxuriate without worrying too much.  The second movement,, marked "einfach und zart" (simple and tender) is a series of variations, each quite distinctive. Bychkov and the VPO kept tempi flowing, to accentuate the spirited exuberance. Do we hear the ghosts of the Johann Strausses (Not Richard) ? The final movement begins with an impressive brass and wind chorale, which gradually grows to introduce a variation on the woodwind theme in the first movement.  Listening link HERE.

In the final coda,the fanfare surges again, a blaze of glory,played with such richness that it would be wrong to quibble about emotional depth.  Rather like, I thought, the last gasp of the old world before it was annihilated in 1914-1918. Far too much nonsense has been written about Schoenberg forcing music into modernism.  It was the War What Did  It!  And the Nazis, and the inexorable process of artists responding to the times they live in. The twelve tone system opened up new possibilities, it didn't suppress anyone.   The huge variety of styles which proliferated in the 1920's, 30's and beyond is clear evidence that composers can do their own thing. And thus, we return to the singular depth of Brahms Symphony no 3 as revealed by Bychkov and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.   

Coming up next - The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a brilliant Elgar Gerontius

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Charles Ives and Carl Nielsen, the Wild Men of Music Prom 72

Charles Ives and Carl Nielsen, two great outsiders,  together in Prom 72 with  Andrew Litton conducting the BBC SO.. the BBC Singers, the Tiffin Boys and Girls Choirs, The Crouch End Choir and a cast of good soloists

Lovely Carl Nielsen Springtime on Funen, so pretty that one might forget that Spring is brief, even on a paradise island. To make a living, Nielsen had to move to the city, though he never lost his love for his country roots. Henning Kraggerud was the soloist in Nielsen's Violin Concerto.

Charles Ives's music, like his personality, seems to defy convention. Many men write part time while pursuing other careers (like Mahler did) and many are justifiably forgotten but Ives stands out because he built on the sounds around him to create brilliant innovation.  There's nothing quite like Ives's Symphony no 4 until, perhaps, Stockhausen, yet it was written from around 1910.

To get a handle on what made Ives tick, read Stuart Feder's My Father's Song : a psychoanalytiuc biography (1992), still the most perceptive insight on what made Ives tick.  Ives's father was a rich kid, who dreamed (unsuccessfully) on breaking out.  He lived out his fantasies playing in bands commemorating the Civil War, the one time when he'd (sort of) made it big on his own. Thus Ives the son got a kind of revenge on the clan for dissing his Dad, by making more money than they ever did, and honoured his father by incorporating the hymns and brass band marches music he grew up with into music that operates like a kaleidoscope that's hard to pin down in conventional terms. Incidentally, one of the hymns Ives used has  a parody text that dates from way back, "We'll have pie in the sky when we die", an irony probably not lost on the composer.  That's why I've chosen this photo of Ives. He's crouching as if he's about to pounce like a tiger. The photographer was expecting a  normal portrait, but Ives's mischief gets the better of him.

In Ives's Fourth Symphony, different sound worlds operate, more or less independently. The music happens when the sounds are combined in the ear of the listener. Although Ives's roots were in semi-rural Danbury, Connecticut,  he commuted to New York City where  skyscrapers inhabited space in the air, and subways added dimensions underground. People came from all over, each with individual lives and agendas, their interaction - if any - creating what we might call modern city life. It's no accident that Elliott Carter admired Ives and was influenced by his ideas.

Because Ives's Fourth predicates on multiple levels and different pulses, performance predicates on precise attention to detail and accurate timing.  The BBCSO, under Andrew Litton, achieved the feat, creating the swirling textures and quirky ins and outs, weaving a whole fabric from the numerous contrary inner cells.  Nowadays we're perhaps used to multi-dimension music, but once it must have seemed hard to achieve.  All the more reason to honour the vision of Leopold Stokowski, who believed in the piece and was instrumental in bringing it to public attention.  When Stokowski first conducted it with the American Symphony Orchestra,in 1954, he needed dozens of hours of rehearsal.  Stokowski's assistant conductor was José Serebrier.  Two main conductors, together conducting an orchestra operating in two sections, with a third, smaller unit, conducted by a third conductor. Not an easy task! When Serebrier recorded Ives's Fourth  in London a few years later, he wasn't allowed the luxury of unlimited rehearsal, or the company of other conductors.  Luckily, he was conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and could rely on players who learned fast and well. He divided the orchestra up into different sections, relying on the section leaders to lead their units.  The recording is still a testimony to creative problem-solving in performance practice. .

Below Stokowski and Serebrier conduct Ives Fourth for prime time TV in the early 1960's Imagine new music getting such mass coverage now, when the media has fooled audiences into thinking that anything difficult is wrong. Without pioneers, like Ives, Stokowski and Serebrier  where would be be? ?



Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Temirkanov St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra Prom 71

Rimsky-Korsakov The Legend of the  Invisble City of Kitezh at BBC Prom 71 should have been a splendid occasion, with Yuri Temirkanov. conducting the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. In the opera, the Princess of Nature and the woods, Fevronia, has come to Kitezh to marry Prince Yuri. But the Tatars are about to attack the city. So Fevronia uses her magical powers to disguise the city and make it invisible. Except on the shore of the lake, where it's reflected in a blaze of glory, its bells ringing elusively. When Gergiev conducted the full piece in London some 20 years ago, it was a sensation. Later I heard the Svetlanov recording. Two very different approaches, but both hugely rewarding, Gergiev getting the edge for bringing out the demonic undertones in the piece. At this Prom, Temirkanov conducted only 13 minutes of the Suite, so we didn't have much to go on, apart from the surface beauty, bird calls, harps, strings, and the lovely wind melody. The rolling drums and muted trumpets suggested dangers to come. Perhaps the City was invisible after all. The photo shows a set design from the original production in 1907. Note the art deco clarity in the design.

More vividly performed, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, in D major Op 35 1878 with Julia Fischer as soloist.  Lyrical playing, nicely contrasted with the dynamic assertiveness in the orchestra. I enjoyed the way Fischer let her lines slide dizzily downward, as if the instrument were flirting with larger forces.

How I wish commentators and the media would get over describing everything in nationalistic clichés!  To some extent it's fair enough to describe things as "Russian" or "English"  As shorthand the terms are fair enough, and sometimes do apply,  but good music is greater than perceived boundaries.  Misplaced nationalism leads to lazy thinking and things far worse.  Beware!

Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations Op 32, 1899, don't define "Englishness" whatever that might mean, except by familiar association.  The variations describe friends and what they meant to the composer. Of course the work sounds "Elgarian". It's Elgar, with his characteristic warm sweep and expansiveness. "Enigmas" are important in Elgar, but they are just that: "enigmas". For example, in the Rondo to his Second Symphony, Elgar wrote "Venice and Tintagel" which clearly meant a lot to him, and are important to interpretation, but they could mean many different things. It's up to the conductor and listener how deeply one can penetrate.  In the Enigma Variations, clues abound, and tantalize. We can't dismiss them but neither should we be trapped by them.  The variations are not fixed portraits as such but, rather, the way different friends might comment on a basic theme.

Temirkanov's Enigma Variations were executed with graceful elegance, suggesting the good-natured aspects of the composer's personality.  Lovely warm strings, played with the equanimity Elgar so valued. No-one "has" to be English, Russian or come from Mars to get that. Temirkanov and the St Petersbug Philharmonic Orcehstra are good, so they sound good.

Why I could not write up Raymond Yiu's Symphony before now


It's taken me two weeks to write up the Prom where Ed Gardner conducted Britten, Nielsen, Yiu and Janácek.  Listen to the repeat broadcast HERE)  I was busy covering FX Roth (Boulez, Ligeti, Bartók)  and Oramo Sibelius Kullervo, but the real reason was that Raymond Yiu's Symphony moved me on a very personal level.  It's not easy to write about things that still hit a raw nerve, even after half a lifetime. But it's absolutely vital that music like this is being written. Many congratulations to whoever in the BBC commissioned this. It takes courage to programme something like this piece which deals with subjects that do matter and continue to resonate.

Yiu's Symphony, though contemporary, springs from the tradition which inspired Britten and Gerald Finzi.  Literary sources are chosen with erudition, and incorporated with other musical references to create a highly individual and original piece which is not song symphony so much as a concerto for countertenor and orchestra.  And why countertenor?  Andrew Watts will "own" the piece for posterity, since the writing follows the unique qualities of his voice. But other countertenors should attempt it too, and soon, because there are few pieces which apply the unusual timbre of the Fach with such thoughtfulness and feeling.  The countertenor voice is unique,and beautiful for the very reason that it sounds as though it were coming from another plane of existence. It's hyper-natural, transcending ordinary reality. It can express, obliquely, things that can't be fully articulated in a mundane world. There has been a lot written for the voice type in recent years, but Yiu's Symphony is unusual in that the countertenor voice is the protagonist - strong, resolute . As in baroque times, the countertenor is hero.

Yet, crucially, a hero who has lived. "I play not marches for accepted victories only, I play marches for conquer'd and slain persons", Watts sang. The word "music" recurs, in slightly different forms, sometimes with the last "c" stressed forcefully, suggesting the "k" of old spelling, connecting present to past. The second movement has a descriptive title "String with Cadence multiply Song" which is confusing, but there's no question what it means in purely abstract terms. Sharp rushing series unfold in short cadences, interspersed with incident: sudden flashes of brilliant light, quietly plaintive violin and flute. "Come back, often and take hold of me", Watts sang. The quotation is from Constantine Cavafy and refers to the way memories connect to physical sensations "when the lips and the skin remember and the hands feel as if they were touching once more".

The fourth movement, quoting Thom Gunn's poem "In Time of Plague" refers explicitly to AIDS and the way it wiped out a generation - the talented, the talentless, interesting people and homophobes locked in the closet.  Someone at the epicentre,  who survived, described himself now surrounded by ghosts. The non-vocal writing in this part is sensitively sensual and rather beautiful. There are echoes of Scarlatti (for reasons deeply personal to the composer) and to the music so many danced to in the club scenes of the 70's and 80's.  It all seems so innocent now. Yet there was so much bigotry then that people would cross the street to avoid "contamination". That bigotry might yet resurface: we must never forget compassion and human suffering, in any form. The poem in this section isn't much, but the music is good, and evokes a whole lost world.

The final Adagietto con affecto quotes John Donne "The Anniversarie". The words are simple, and the musical setting dignified and austere, yet warmed by human feeling.  The orchestra rises in crescendo, which then dissipates into delicate textures. Watts sang "Only our love hath no decay".tenderly, rising to a poignant cry on the word "Yesterday".  An exquisite extended coda which suggest moonlight, stars and the triumph of caring emotions.  Afterwards, the lady next to me, who didn't normally do classical music, remarked on its beauty. There can be few tributes more sincere than that!

A wonderful Carl Nielsen Flute Concerto (1926) with the effervescent, sensual playing of Emily Beynon, a rather straightforward Britten Sinfonia da Requiem (Op 20, 1940) and a sassy Janácek. Sinfonietta ((1926); altogether a good Prom with Gardner and the BBC SO. We can hear the last two any time, and we ought to hear Nielsen's Flute Concerto more often, but it isn't every day we hear something as singular as Raymond Yiu's Symphony.

Photo: Roger Thomas