Monday, 30 May 2016

Wigmore Hall 115th Birthday livestreams


The Wigmore Hall marks its 115th anniversary in grand fashion, - live streaming three concerts this week online.  Less than 500 people can fit into the exquisite Arts and Crafts building on Wigmore Street, but now everyone can tune in and catch some of the atmosphere.  Having watched last year's experimental broadcast, I think these concerts will be well worth experiencing  Enjoy the concerts online HERE on the Wigmore Hall website, or on medici tv (links below)

The concerts :

Schubert  31st May
Elisabeth Leonskaja performing Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major, Cuarteto Casals, and singers Sophie Bevan (soprano), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Henk Neven (baritone) and pianist James Baillieu performing Schubert’s finest Lieder.

JS and JC Bach 1st June
Arcangelo with  Jonathan Cohen,  Isabel Faust (violin), Rachel Brown (flute) and Anna Luise Richter (soprano)

The Jack Quartet 2nd June
The JACK Quartet brings together the old and the new, with a programme including fourteenth-century French Ars nova and Carlo Gesualdo’s madrigals, alongside UK premières of new work by Caroline Shaw and John Zorn.

Three major facets of the Wigmore Hall - Schubert, piano music  and song, Early music and baroque and chamber music, both modern and old.


Wolf Schlafendes Jesuskind

On 8th October 1888, from Unterach, outside Vienna, Hugo Wolf wrote to his friend and patron, Friedrich Eckhardt, about an exciting new project. A volume of songs to texts by Eduard Mörike! As usual with Wolf, once the floodgates of inspiration exploded there was no holding back. Wolf "scrawled at breakneck speed" (described by Frank Walker who saw the original letter). He'd written ten songs in 9 days.

"All these songs are truly shatteringly composed. Often enough the tears rolled down my cheeks as I wrote. They surpass in depth of conception all the other settings of  Mörike. I am working day and night. I  no longer know what rest is.....Ask the publisher of Mörike's poems for a portrait of the poet in his youth. . But be quick, be quick, be quick ! Mörike must appear before Christmas or I'll kill both you and myself".

Yet how radiant the song Schlafendes Jesuskind is, so gentle that it's difficult to sing, since the line should float, barely held up by breath.  Perhaps it isn't even a song for concert performance, but for private contemplation. I won't upload any recording as none of those on YouTube are good, even alas, Fischer-Dieskau. This song is best heard sotto voce, as if it flows from a state of unconscious rapture. Divine serenity, understated and pure. The poem was inspired by a painting by Francesco Albani (1578-1660) in which the painter shows the heavenly infant lying on a plank of wood which one day will be the Holy Cross, "dem Holz der Schmerzen".  Don't wake himu! Let him sleep, presumably oblivious.

Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind! am Boden,
Auf dem Holz der Schmerzen eingeschlafen,
Das der fromme Meister, sinnvoll spielend,
Deinen leichten Träumen unterlegte;
Blume du, noch in der Knospe dämmernd
Eingehüllt die Herrlichkeit des Vaters!

O wer sehen könnte, welche Bilder
Hinter dieser Stirne, diesen schwarzen
Wimpern sich in sanftem Wechsel malen!
[Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind!]

(Translation by Eric Sams on Lieder.net)

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Hubert Parry and the Battle of Jutland


Commemorations this weekend for the Battle of Jutland, which took place 100 years ago this week.  The British navy seemed invincible, Admiral Jellicoe tipped to become the Nelson of his age.  The Dreadnoughts were the largest warships ever built, and the Battle of Jutland was the biggest  naval skirmish in European history. With the Army bogged down in the Somme, the Royal Navy was to claim spectacular victory.  Above, the warships sailing in neat, textbook formation., guns blazing. What went wrong ? So much had been invested in superstructure that simple, human procedures were overlooked.  Below decks, the men loading the guns had so little space to manoeuvre that they cut corners.  When the munitions stores ignited, the ships exploded and sank rapidly.  In the midst of war, the government had to maintain that Jutland was a victory. This week, the Royal Navy announced the building of vast new aircraft carriers that "will make enemies think twice about starting war". (more here)  But the very nature of warfare has changed, as the Russians discovered in Afghanistan, and the Americans in Vietnam.  We only need to follow the news. On the open seas, where there is no cover and no fallback position, it might not be a good idea to concentrate resources in one place.  On the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, should we reflect ?

Charles Hubert Parry's The Chivalry of the Sea - a Naval Ode, was written for a concert on December 12th 1916, commemorating the 6,000 men who died on the night of 31st May and 1st June. The text, by Robert Bridges, is dedicated to Charles Fisher, a graduate of and don at Christ Church, Oxford, a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, who went down with HMS Invincible when it blew up. The photo below shows the Invincible as it sank, with Fisher and 1,025 men. We don't see the massive plume of smoke, captured in other photos. The ship is already part submerged.

Bridges' text might glorify sacrifice. But as Lewis Foreman has said, Parry was a born sailor, "never happier than when running before a prevailing wind", sailing in his small two-master even to Ireland.  A sailor knows the sea and has no illusions about its power.  Parry's Chivalry of  the Sea begins in the depths with a sonorous undertow from which the brighter "chivalry" theme emerges for a moment, soon dissipating like foam on waves, whose strong undercurrents emerge again in a long passage in the midst of the verse.  The orchestral surge continues behind the lines "Over the warring waters".  No question here who's really boss.

The second verse, in which Bridges describes the "staunch and valiant hearted" who eagerly rush to war, is set with conventional brightness,  bright and eager, but Parry repeats the word "war" three times to Bridges' single instance, lest we think the men are off on jolly jaunts.  In the final verse, Parry has the measure of the occasion. The "surging waves" in the orchestra return, and the mood is more doleful.   "in the storm of battle, fast-thundering upon the foe, ye add your kindred names  to the heroes of long ago, and mid the blasting wrack, in the glad sudden death  of the brave....ye lie in your unvisited graves".   Although the choral setting is lush - the voice of the masses - Parry sets the word "sudden" with a chill. Perhaps he intuited the horror of Jutland. At least those blown to atoms at Jutland didn't suffer long.  But some of them were little more than children. Please read the comment below - Parry's godson was one of the only 6 survivors of The Invincible.  The young man's other godfather was Richard Wagner, no less !

Friday, 27 May 2016

Salonen, Stravinsky Tales Les Noces Renard

 
More superlative performances in Esa-Pekka Salonen's Stravinsky series with the Philharmonia Orchestra. This series is much more than a series of concerts. It reaffirms  Stravinsky's place as a man of the theatre.  So much of Stravinsky's early work was choreographed for the Ballets Russes, so it would have been too obvious to present works as "ballet" because they all are!  Instead, Salonen chooses, provocatively, to group works by underlying theme, reinforced where necessary with dancers, actors and visuals. This programme featured "Tales" – Renard (1916), Mavra (1922 ) and Les Noces (1923), works which emphasize Stravinsky as story teller, bringing together orchestra, dancers and singers to tell a tale.  For my review of the concert "Faith" of late Stravinskt raities, please see HERE.

The story in Renard is universal, known in many languages and dating back to the early Middle Ages. The Fox is, literally, an "underdog", a wild creature who lives by his wits.  Thus Stravinsky's  jaunty, stabbing rhythms and repeated words, like "Kuda, kuda, kuda!" which lead to a more plaintive passage, not all that far away from pious plainchant: notice the voice sings alone, the winds and brass joining in only when the voice is in full flow. Then a drum roll and staccato woodwind.  "oh ho ho ho" the voices sing in quirky goosestep, pitted against cajoling, curving lines.  Perhaps Renard's descendants include Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, but Stravinsky's fox is more sinister.   The cimbalom adds mystery. A high voice sings  "Chut, chut, chut!". The lower voices shout "Oh ! oh ! Oh!". The Fox, with his waving legato,  wiggles away. The orchestra marches in quirky quickstep.  An energetic, idiomatic performance - nothing prettified.

No mistaking Stravinsky's Mavra (1922) for a large-scale opera in the grand Rusian manner: it's a tightly scored chamber miniature, whose plot pokes fun at overblown sensibilities. A woman mourns– the cook can't keep the kitchen in order. The fact that the cook's dead seems a minor rritation in comparison.  The pace is fast, requiring deft touch and disciplined performance – no room here for approximation.  When the daughter sings, her lines are undercut by tuba and trombone, blowing raspberries.  She's no heroine, she wants a live-in boyfriend, not a cook. Although Mavra is a comedy, it's not funny.  Perfect diction, presented with aplomb, from the singers, from the Mariinsky Theatre .
in St Petersburg, 

Highlight of the programme, though, was Les Noces (1923) in the version for four pianos, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich, Nenad Lecic and Lorenzo Soulès.  Four pianos, centre stage! That alone provides a theatrical touch. In unison the four pianos beat out ferocious staccato, reminding us that the piano is a percussion instrument, prone to violence as well as to lyricism. In Les Noces, we can even hear vestiges of the Rite of S[ring where the virgin is married to the Earth Spirit.  Thus the bass voices, whose singing suggests the chant of Orthodox prayer, and the shrill near hysteria in the female chorus. Now the pianos become individual, wayward against the monolith of voices.  Seven years ago, Les Noces was performed at the Proms, but it was a tame affair. Here, the pianists, the singers and the orchestra gave it a powerful edge of savagery.  Driving cross-currents, vocal lines that suggest defiance, even violence.  Towards the end, female voices become assertive, while the male voices interject.  Maybe at this wedding the guests get carried away by drink and dance.  But Salonen and the Philharmonia demonstrate that, as so often in Stravinsky, the angular, jerky edges suggest something darker. The pianos play figures that sound like bells, but without melody. When they disintegrate into silence, you're left wondering "What does that really mean ?"

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Schütz Psalmen Davids Regensburg



Heinrich Schütz:  Psalmen Davids from Tage Alte Musik Regensburg   BR Klassik prresents highlights from the Regensburg Early Music Days festival, one of the major early music festivals. This is one of three broadcasts from the festival presented by BR Kl;assik, but Schütz is my thing.  Schütz  lived in Venice from 1609 to 1612, studying with Giovanni Gabrieli,  learning the "new music" of the era.  The Psalmen Davids are Schütz's Op 2, from 1619.  This is an important development because they adapt Venetian polyphony to a German setting. Schütz,  employed by the Protestant  Elector of Dresden,  used Martin Luther's translations of Latin texts. Although these are religious works, they're lively: shifting between different groups of singers and musicians.

In this performance, the Dresdner Kammerchor and Dresdner Barockorchester are conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann, The concert takes place in the Dreieinigkeitskirche (Holy Trinity) in Regensburg, which dates from 1622 - a few years later than the music - but it's very atmospheric.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Enescu Romanian Rhapsody - Stokowski speaks


George Enescu as a teenager playing for the Queen of Romania.   A remarkable life, a remarkable composer.  Essential reading : George Enescu : His Life and Music by Noel Malcolm, originally published in 1990 by Martin Anderson's Toccata Press and available via Boydell & Brewer .The book that got me hooked !  And below three clips. First Leopold Stokowski explaining and conducting Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody no 1 (1901) in Cologne in 1951; second, Sergiu Celibidache conducting it in 1978; and Enescu himself conducting it in Paris in 1951.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Enescu Oedipe, ROH : Visuals matching music

George Enescu Oedipe came at last to the Royal Opera House.  Oedipe is an astonishingly complex work, so rich and idiosyncratic that it defies category. We hear sounds that evoke the ancient past. like flutes and folk-like instruments which some identify as being Romanian, and sound that place the opera in the world of The Rite of Spring and Król Roger.  The orchestration is luscious yet elusive, embellished with unusual sounds like saxophone, wind sheet and whips.  Musically we are in  strange territory, as if suspended in time and place. Oedipus's psyche is unsettled, alienated from his surroundings, and so should we be, too, as we follow his journey. Yet Oedipe is hypnotizing, with its combination of beauty and foreboding. So many clues in this opera lie in abstract music. Will London audiences pay attention? 
   
This production, created by Alex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, was a sensation at La Monnaie in 2011.  The overture unfolds in darkness. Figures appear, lit in shades of earthy ochre against a black backdrop. The figures hold stylized poses, like ancient Greek pottery on a giant scale. Slowly, they move, as if called into life by the music.  Ollé is a director who understands the connection between music and visuals.  The First Act is stylized too, reflecting the  discipline of Greek tragedy.  Oedipus  the infant is a doll in every sense, a toy of Fate, to be passed around like an object.  When he grows up and learns about the curse he has to leave his adopted parents.  He loses his identity. In this production, he wanders through roadworks, where familiar routes are blocked off. Literally he's in no man's land. He can see Laius and his companions in the darkness because they wear high-visibility jackets. They belong  there, they know their way.  Oedipe doesn't.  He doesn't even know that the prophecy is fulfilled when they die. 

The music in this part of the opera is amazing. It's just as well that we can't see much on stage. We should be listening. We shouldn't complain but appreciate that Enescu is making us think, just as Oedipe finds his way.  Out of the shadows looms the Sphinx, here depicted as a war plane, rather aptly, since the Sphinx has wings and rains down death one those who get in the way.  Again, connect the music to the stage action. The plane is grounded, like the Sphinx, but as the music whirs, its engines springing into life.   Its voice comes from a figure disguised in goggles and uniform, suitably anonymous as Fate is. But what singing!  The part is demanding, and has to be delivered with authority. Fortunately, Marie-Nicole Lemieux who created it in Brussels, sings in London too.  As her music fades away, the orchestra emits a low drone, like the sound of giant wings, taking off into the air. Again, perceptive matching of music with action. Try staging that "realistically", especially in an opera that predicates on surreal non-reality.

As saviour of the Thebans, Oedipe gets to marry Jocasta. Strictly speaking he is the rightful heir but the irony is that the succession wasn't meant to be this way. Years later, Creon, Tiresias and the shepherd spill the beans. Perhaps Oedipe had an inkling all along. His part is vividly characterized in the musical line, wavering in indeterminate tones, immensely difficult to sing, especially as he's on for nearly two and a half hours. When Dietrich Henschel sang Oedipe in Brussels, his hard metallic timbre was absolutely ideal for the portrayal, since it reflected the idea of Fate as a machine, consuming those it traps.   Even the slight strain that ate into his voice as the evening wore on was perfect.  I'm not sure the part is really right for someone too ripe. When John Relyea sang it in Edinburgh in 2002, he was very young indeed, adding a good sense of tension.  Faced with the truth, Oedipe rips his eyes out.  The staging reflects "blindness", visual detail obliterated in strong washes of single colour. Again, follow the music when you can't see.  Oedipe has Antigone.  We have Leo Hussain, who also conducted in Brussels, and is masterful. 

When father and daughter reach Colonna, Oedipe knows he can escape no more and departs in a blaze of light. Reports of near-death experiences often mention tunnels of light. In Oedipe's case, however, the reference could also be to the birth canal whence Oedipe once came, and where he travelled back, incestuously. 


Enescu's Oedipe is a masterpiece but it's certainly not obscure.  It's hard to produce, requiring a baritone with stamina and personality, a large chorus and some very tricky stage effects.  So hopefully, London audiences will appreciate how lucky they are to get a chance to experience its full impact.  There are  several recordings from the late 1990's,  like José van Dam with Lawrence Foster in Monte Carlo, and Monte Pederson with Michael Gielen, recorded in Vienna, (originally staged in Berlin in 1996 by Götz Friedrich), followed by the concert performance at Edinburgh in 2000, with John Relyea with Cristian Mandeal, all recommended.

Please see also my review of the brilliant ROH Szymanowski Król Roger. HERE.  London will be a duller place without art, and without Kasper Holten. 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Stravinsky conducts Oedipus Rex live


"This is the BBC Third Programme. Tonight, in the Royal Festival Hall, Igor Stravinsky is to conduct  a performance of his oratorio Oedipus Rex. The narrator is Jean Cocteau, who wrote the text. This is the first time that Stravinsky and Cocteau have appeared together at a public concert in London. Here is the cast: Helmut Mecchert (Oedipus), Irma Colassi (Jocasta), Thomas Helmsley (Creon) Roger Stalman (Messenger), Duncan Robertson (Shepherd), Michael Langdon (Tiresias). with the BBC Mens Chors trained by Alan Melville, and the BBC Orchestra, leader Pail Beard.  Tonight the part of the Narrator is spoken by Jean Cocteau, in French"

Imagine that spoken with clipped uptight formality !  the concert took place on 8th November 1965. Thankfully, the broadcast tape was preserved and  can still be heard if you hunt around.  The male singers grew up in a time when Latin was an essential part of the school curriculum. so perhaps we're getting "public school accent" Latin, but it's consistent. Nothing "distanced" in this powerful performance, perhaps because it's so tight and disciplined.  Stravinsky conducted Oedipus Rex many times, including London in the 1920's and later in the 1960's,  but this is legendary.  The narration is pungent and punchy. No RADA gentility  here. The photo above was taken in rehearsal before the RFH concert. This is the tradition the BBC stands for. Long may it be preserved. If Murdoch and his "market forces" can't compete, it's too d--- bad.

Interpreting Meistersinger : Glyndebourne, Munich


Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne. Is it unusual to start a new season with a revival ?  This production premiered on the exact date on which Wagner was born 200 years before.  Fortuitous timing, perhaps, but also a bright start to the 2011 season.  "Sunny but not shallow" I wrote at the time - read my original piece HERE

David McVicar set the production around the time of Wagner's birth, which was appropriate in the composer's anniversary year, but rather less relevant now.  On the plus side, early 19th century designs are easy on the eye.  Perhaps the popularity of this production stems from it being so genteel and non-challenging. But Die Meistersinger isn't about pretty scenery. On the contrary. It says, quite clearly that appearances deceive. The good guy is not the one in the smart black suit.  On the minus side, it gentrified 16th century Nuremburg,  obliterating the context of Reformation and revolt.  It didn't matter so much in 2011 because we were celebrating the start of the season, the production was fresh and it was different. Gerald Finley was a sophisticate, rather than earthy. Because he's a house favourite, it's perfectly reasonable to build a production around him.  There isn't and shouldn't be a "Hans Sachs type" but Finley's voice is on the genteel side, so his Sachs was never going to be gritty or pugnacious.  Hence his Sachs was an Early Romantic poet, from a time when poets were intellectuals, often aristocratic, almost all middle class.  They'd no more make a living fixing shoes than might a hero from Jane Austen. 

True, the Romantic period was a revolution, but the revolution Wagner wrought transformed the music of the past, even if it grew from Romantic values.  I enjoyed the 2011 premiere because Vladimir Jurowski conducted exceptionally well. The orchestra communicated what the set avoided.  There's no reason why Die Meistersinger shouldn't be sunny and gay, in the old sense of the word, because the Nuremburgers are celebrating the survival of their city and the renewalof art.  There is more in the opera, though.  The Meistersingers were happy enough to do as Beckmesser wanted and run Walter out of town, had Sachs not intervened.  Not for nothing, when darkness falls, the townsfolks crap. It's comic but not funny. A crowd can descend into a mob. The Night Watchman is a counterpart to Sachs, restoring sanity.  

And so to  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich, just down the road from Bayreuth and not far from Nuremburg. Presumably the locals have Die Meistersinger in their DNA, notwithstanding their ancestors' less than worshipful approach to Wagner himself.  Even if they don't, the opera is so familiar that it could be interpreted in a new way, yet still be true to the fundamentals.  Jonas Kaufmann is Munich's greatest asset, and even more popular than Finley is at Glyndebourne. I'm glad I listened to the premiere audio only, in order to get the musical logic behind the interpretation.  Kaufmann is simply head and shoulders above everyone else in the cast, though they are good, and probably better than the Glyndebourne cast.  He's just so good that he changes the balance of the opera.  Jacques Imbrailo did the same with the Glyndebounre  Billy Budd, singing so divinely that some forget that for Britten, the story actually revolves around Captain Vere's moral dilemma.  It's fine to adjust balances in this way because they allow a change of perspective.  Kaufmann's Walter was so good that no one could have mistaken him for an untrained newcomer.  The birds in the woods who taught Kaufmann's Walter must have been pretty amazing.  An interpretation placing more emphasis on Walter than on Sachs would be perfectly valid, if done well, because Walter is the future, as Sachs recognizes.  

Sachs was named after St John the Baptist, who laid the way for Jesus.  Johannisnacht is a Christian festival, but also has connections with prehistory and even the occult.  The tree in the town square, for example is a kind of fertility symbol, and young folk go courting at the fair.  "Holy German Art" was poisoned by Hitler, but it's not actually about Nazism.  The music isn't even demonic, just affirmative, so,playing it up for cheap,thrills is a cop out.  It's time to exorcise that ghost from the opera and from its interpretation. Holy German Art in Hans Sachs's time was an affirmation of native German values, as opposed to the Catholic Church, to the democratization of learning through the printed word.  Before Gutenberg, people didn't have books, and had to believe what they were told.   The real message of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg  is a lot more radical than some realize. 

Please also read Mills and Boon Wagner -Meistersinger at the Met  and  Stefan Herheim's perceptive Meistersinger, Salzburg and ENO Vindicated : Wagner's prescient warning. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Mahler early Songs orch. Berio, Matthias Goerne

Two of the three sets of  Mahler early songs, arranged by Luciano Berio, for baritone and orchestra, with Matthias Goerne, the BBC SO and conductor Josep Pons, HERE on BBC Radio 3.

The Mahler songs start 50 minutes into the broadcast. Berio's orchestrations are interesting, because they are "Berio" though they are absolutely faithful to the spirit of Mahler's original songs for piano. Mahler himself worked from piano song to symphonic movement. Berio's arrangements were premiered at the Mahler Musikwochen in Toblach where serious Mahler minds meet. The two sets on this broadcast are 5 frühe Lieder (1986),and 6 frühe Lieder(1987).  Thomas Hampson made the first recording in January 1992, with Berio himself conducting the Philharmonia, London. It's still the classic, but Goerne and Pons should be strong competition. Goerne has been singing Mahler for more than 20 years - long before Mahler became fashionable. He sang the Rückert-Lieder which is is a treasured collector's item, never commercially released. Goerne's Ich bin der Welt abhanden geworden is moving : a great Mahler enthusiast chose it for her funeral.

Goerne's fondness for Mahler's early songs goes way back. In 2000, he did an unusual programme at the Wigmore Hall, mixing the early songs with songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn The songs date from 1880 to 1896, but, by grouping them by theme, Goerne brought out the connections between them. The earliest songs were not based on Brentano and von Arnim, but they all convey a sense of wonder. Wo die Schone Trumpeten blasen was followed by Erinnerung and Phantasie came after Urlicht. Der Tambourgs'll preceded Zu Strassbourg auf der Schanz. Thematic connections, and a reaffirmation of the way Mahler's morphed from song to symphony. Sixteen years later, Goerne's voice has matured. These Mahler/Berio songs are very well done indeed. Recently, Goerne sang Das Lied von der Erde in Austria, also with Josep Pons, in the tenor/baritone version. Though Fischer-Dieskau sang it several times, it's still "off the beaten track". But I think Goerne would be interesting.

Pappano Mahler 6 LSO Barbican

Publicity at the Barbican Hall last week had advertised "Pappano Violin Concertos" leading one to think that Antonio Pappano had added another string to his bow. Pappano did conduct Shostakovich Violin Concerto no 1 with Viktoria Mullova, but for me the question was: what would Pappano do with Mahler Symphony no 6 ? Answer : he'd do Pappano Mahler.

Given that Mahler is so ubiquitous these days, there's no reason we can't come up with Mahler of a very different flavour. Pappano is a brilliant conductor of Italian operatic repertoire, but he's also no mean conductor of symphonic work, Indeed some of his finest moments have been with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. He's introduced a new series of orchestral concerts at the Royal Opera House, too, an excellent idea which complements the operatic fare. Surprisngly enough, some opera fans  don't often listen to music without singing or celebrity stars, so Pappano's intiative enhances their experience. (Read my review "Text Sublimated" of Pappano's first ROH orchestral concert here

In his day job, Mahler conducted opera, so Pappano's Mahler was certainly interesting in that context.  Pappano does Mahler with flair, though he has far too much taste and good sense to overdose on theatrical histrionics. Good solid playing from the LSO, with whom Pappano has worked many times. Altogether enjoyable enough, though not as illuminating as one might expect from Mahler specialists. Pappano won't go down in history as a Mahler conductor. Some will never get his Wagner, either.  Pappano's Mahler was certainly much more rewarding than Sinaisky and Karabits, who've both done Mahler this week. At the end of the day, being a really good conductor, as opposed to a good conductor, pays dividends.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Florian Boesch Wigmore Hall Schubert Series


Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall, another highlight of the WH's complete song series. Read my review of the opening concert in the series, also with Boesch asnd Martineau HERE.  The two recitals dovetail beautifully, complementing each other extremely well. As with the first recital, Boesch and Martineau mixed famous songs with others more esoteric. That's why the Wigmore Hall series is so important. It's not enough to know only "greatest hits", but to explore the whole traverse of Schubert songs.  That is why the Wigmore Hall series is so important.

Schubert's settings of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister songs, the Gesänge des Harfners formed the backbone of the first half of this recital, and rightly so.  Although we've heard these songs so many times before, it's worth pondering their place in Schubert's creative output. Schubert would have known Goethe's saga in full, and probably understood the horror of the Harper's situation, cursed by guilt, exile and alienation.  In Wer sich Einsamkeit ergibt D 478, the piano recreates the sound of the kind of travelling harp Wilhelm Meister might have carried with him on his wanderings.  In 2013, at the Wigmore Hall, Matthias Goerne sang the Harfner songs transcribed for harp with Sarah Christ (review here). I remember thinking how beautiful the harp sounded, less assertive than a concert piano and more plaintive. But the darker colours of the piano are firmer, reverberating in silence, very much part of meaning. These songs aren't core repertoire for nothing.

Boesch and Martineau pull off a masterstroke,  though, by pairing the Harfner songs with other songs about struggle and journeying. In Der Pilgrim D794 to a poem by Friedrich Schiller, the piano part resembles the steady march of a pilgrim, possibly just as poor as Wilhelm Meister. He may never reach his goal, but he's inspired by "ein mächtig Hoffen und ein dunkles Glaubenswort". In Der Wallfahrt D 778a, to a poem by Friedrich Rückert,  "Meine Thränen im Bußgewand". This time the pilgrim is adrift in the desert. The song is but a fragment, created for performance by Schubert scholar Reinhard Van Hoorickx who recreated other fragments, like Lebensraum D1a which Boesch and Martineau did at the Wigmore Hall in September 2015. Then Der Hoffnung D295, a grudging, trudging sort of hope and Greisengesang D778, also from the same  Rückert Östliche Rosen from which Der Wallfahrt came, though the song is much more substantial. Here the protagonist has gone old and grey, but, having gone through tough times has found peace. As always, Florian Boesch programmes with genius. Incredibly rewarding intellectually as well as artistically.

What is the theme, then, of the second half of this programme? Is it love, albeit doomed love, like the Harfner's love? The jauntiness of Ratlose Liebe D138 gives way to Die Liebe hat gelogen D751 and Du liebst mich nicht D756, both plaintive, and the mood of secrecy in Geheimes D719. That would fit around the strange, unsettling Abendstern D806 (1824) to a poem by Johann Baptist Mayrhofer.   Mayrhofer was a strange, difficult character: it says much about Schubert's personality that he put up with him so long.  The Evening Star is an outsider, shunned by others, presenting itself briefly before darkness settles. Perhaps Mayrhofer identified with it. The star sings "Ich säe, schaue keinen Keim, und bleibe trauernd still daheim." -  I shine, but stay sorrowful.

This creates the right context for Lied des Florio D857 no 2. which comes from Schubert's incomplete Schauspeil Lacrimas, whose exotic "oriental" setting cloaks doomed love.  The piano part connects to Abdenstern in that it sparkles gently, like a star, but the text expressly refers to poison and death. This song has a companion, Lied der Delphine (Florio's amour) for high soprano. It wouldn't suit Boesch's voice, but keeping the two apart fits in with the idea of unfulfillment. Bear Delphine and Florio in mind, though, for Der Kreuzzug D932  has notes so high that they stretch a baritone's range, which oddly enough fits meaning. A monk watches Crusaders heading off to the East. The piano part suggests the chants and bells of an enclosed monastery. The voice part, however, soars upwards, as if the monk could escape and ride off with the knights.  But "Ich bin, wie ihr, ein Pilger doch!". The monk is fighting inner battles every bit as difficult as those the Crusaders are heading towards.

 With Das Grab D569, we reach the lowest depths. Now the voice inhabits the lowest points in the tessitura. The pace is funereal, the piano tolling a death march.  But good programmes don't send us home feeling sad, so it's followed with Am Tag aller Seelen D343, also known s Litanei.  "Ruh'n in Friden, alles Seelen"  Old and young, freed of earthly suffering, honoured on All Souls Eve, It's an extremely beautiful song, ideally suited to the sensitivity with which Boesch can sing.  And so to the blissful Seligkeit D433 in which happiness is restored.  In a way, perhaps we've been on a journey, or a pilgrimage, facing difficult times, but emerging, not like the Harfner, but like Mignon, transfigured by grace. How I wanted to be at this recital, but circumstances proved otherwise. But a true Lieder buff will never be thwarted! I recreated the programme through  recordings and memories. And I've heard Boesch and Martineau often enough to imagine how they'd sound. As with most things in life, you get as much as you are prepared to put in.


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Kaufmann saves Meistersinger, superb Salonen Stravinsky


All quiet on the Live Front, but a glut of good listening links online. For starters :

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - live from Munich :  Jonas Kaufmann is a dream Walter von Stolzing, giving depth and maturity to the role with his now slightly darker timbre.  Definitely an interesting take on the part.   That Prize Song is so ardent that it's not the work of someone new to the game.  Kaufmann is such a singular Walter that this is worth hearing for him alone.  Any new Die Meistersinger is high profile, especially when it is in Munich, so close to Nuremburg and also to Bayreuth, so perhaps I was expecting too much.  At this level, no performance is ever going to be bad, but I would have preferred something less generic. Because Kaufmann is the Bayerisches Staatsoper's greatest asset, you'd think they could have created  the whole thing around him. He's not a typical Walter, but that could have been an ideal opportunity to rethink things musically.  It's not as if the opera is unfamiliar, is it ?  We could cope with something unique, making the most of  Kaufmann's distinctive timbre. Walter Koch is a good Hans Sachs, but everything needs to be stronger and more individual not to be eclipsed by such a powerful Walter.  Despite listening carefully twice over, which takes 10+ hours,  I can't get specially fired up. Meistersinger should be much more than generic. Meistersinger opens the Glyndebourne season on Friday. Munich ought to win hands down; But who knows ? Michael Güttler is conducting. Although he's relatively unknown in the UK, at 50, he is no ingénu and has a reasonably solid background. Please see my latest article Interpreting Meistersinger : Glyndebourne, Munich.

Stravinsky : Myths and Rituals :  Esa Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra continues a fascinating season devoted to Igor Stravinsky.  As usual, Salonen's in-depth explorations with the Philharmonia go far beyond simply presenting "greatest hits". The concert on Sunday May 15th is now available on BBC Radio 3.  It includes Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 version). .  Salonen does wonders, bringing out its quirky originality. In the last few weeks I've been immersed in Boulez's recording of the 1920 version. What a joy to compare the two,and with two conductors who really understand.   On the radio, we miss out on the choreography specially commissioned for this performance of Agon, which is a pity since the work is usually heard without the context of dance, but the playing is so vivid, you can use your imagination.  A stunning Rite of Spring, too. On Sunday 21st,  Salonen and the Philharmonia will be doing Oedipus Rex with a good cast and a semi-staging by Peter Sellars.  Not being a Sellars fan, I think I'll stick to the live broadcast.

More to come : Matthias Goerne : Mahler Early Lieder orch.  Berio, Heinrich Schutz from Regensburg, English Song Weekend and much more

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Dark Mirror Bostridge Zender Winterreise Part Two


At the Barbican, London, Ian Bostridge's "Dark Mirror", a brilliant response to Hans Zender's response to Schubert's response to Wilhelm Müller's poetry. Bostridge's journey into the dark soul of Winterreise explores uncharted territory, opening new routes into meaning. Winterreise is a work of such genius that you can, like Bostridge, spend a lifetime contemplating it yet still find more to learn. Hence the numerous reworkings and stagings to which Winterreise lends itself so well. This, however, must be one of the most fascinating, since it generates so many insights.

Zender';s Winterreise delves into the inner musical logic, bringing out the  mechanics of the protagonist's mind, going round in obsessive circles. yet always compelled forward.  Hence the mysterious rustlings, and almost hypnotic pizzicato heartbeats, and tense bursts on wind instruments, exhaling and drawing breath. Very physical. As the pace picks up, a familiar melody, but oddly mechanical. The protagonist is determined to keep going lest his feelings overwhelm him. The vocal part starts normally enough, but suddenly, from "von einem zu den andern", words repeat mechanically, and the orchestra whizzes into a manic march.  Just as suddenly, a switch back to normal with Fein Liebchen, Gute Nacht but now we know the lyricism is forced. The protagonist can't give in to mere beauty but must struggle on.  The stops and starts and sudden flurries of recitation illustrate the protagonist's dilemma. Like a machine, he winds down, yet lurches back into life. Like an animal, he listens, picking up clues as to direction. Schubert's music is often quite driven - think Der Musensohn - so this obsessiveness is valid. 

Zender's music is graphic, but also abstract enough that it's not mere illustration. Sudden turns, strange distorted sounds. Sometimes the singer recites rather than sings, as if he's trying to pick up an invisible trail.  The music throws you off-course, so you're as disoriented as the protagonist and  start thinking like him. The instrumentation evokes the sound of wandering folk musicians, reminding us of the tradition from which the Leiermann comes. The protagonist rebels against constraining systems.  It's no accident that he strides away from houses into the wilderness. The "Expressionist" visuals were also a good reminder that the boom in German art film in the 1920's had its roots in Gothic Romanticism.

Netia Jones's images focus, too, on this "inner landscape". Though we see the ghost of a tree and glimpses of barking dogs, the stage resembles an infernal machine, with dangerously sloping angles and hard metallic surfaces. We catch glimpses of cogs and wheels, grinding relentlessly together. The hurdy-gurdy is a primitive instrument which drones, and is ground relentlessly, rather than played. At the end, we don't see the Leiermann as bedraggled beggar, but the image of the cogs and wheels grows huge, behind Bostridge's gaunt figure. Seldom has the identification between the Leiermann and the protagonist connected with such power.  "Wunderlicher Alter ! Soll ich mit dir geh'n ? Willst zu meinen Liedern, Deine Leier dreh'n ?"  Jones's images also connect the first song with the last. Dogs howl. The protagonist will ever be an outsider, threatening  conformity, whatever might be his fate.  Is the Leiermann a harbinger of death or the hallucination of a deranged mind? Perhaps some need such comforting thoughts to distance themselves from the protagonist, but I think there is much evidence to suggest an even more challenging outcome. Although the images in Winterreise are pictorial, their symbolism runs much deeper. 

This Dark Mirror Winterreise also benefits from the unique quality of Bostridge's voice. He can infuse seemingly straightforward lines with layers of complex meaning. His voice stretches, as if probing the recesses of the mind, teasing out the surreal from the straightforward.  He's incomparable in Britten.  Bostridge's voice curls, tightly coiled like a spring, leaping upwards when Zender's lines erupt. There was a wonderful, haunted quality to this singing,  utterly faithful to the undercurrents in meaning. The wunderliches Alter is a vision, whether he's real or illusion.  Bostridge's hushed tones  suggest both horror and wonder in the English sense of the word.  As so often, Bostridge's timbre suggests an exotic instrument, again, in this case , in keeping with the implicit musical logic of Zender's conception.  Baldur Brönnimann, a sensitive interpreter of new music, conducted the Britten Sinfonia.  When - it's not a question of "if" - Bostridge's Dark Mirror reaches DVD, it will be a must for anyone seriously interested in Winterreise. Those of us fortunate enough to experience it live will never forget the experience.  Please also see my previous post on Hans Zender's Winterreise.



Photos: top, Hugo Glendinning; bottom, Roger Thomas


Thursday, 12 May 2016

Bostridge Zender Winterreise Dark Mirror Part One

Ar the Barbican, London, "Dark Mirror", Ian Bostridge in Hans Zender's Winterreise, or, to use Zender's full title "eine komponierte Interpretation",a creative response to Schubert's original, not merely an orchestration.  Schubert's response to the poetry of Wilhelm Müller produced a masterpiece  so powerful that it has continued to inspire creative minds ever since.  Read my review here.  It's not a work for passive disengagement. It's been examined and revisited dozens of times in many different ways.  Winterreise lends itself particularly well to visual imagery: every song is a scena, built around a symbol. This is no passive, meandering journey. but purposeful. For the protagonist learns from the crow, the graveyard, the three suns in the sky. These are signposts  - Wegweiser - constantly pointing the way forward.  Die Nebensonnen is remarkable not simply for its hallucinatory effect, but also because it is based on physical observation. In Nature, strange things do happen. After Die Nebensonnen, we're prepared for the resolution (of sorts) with Der Leiermann.

Bostridge's Dark Mirror collaboration with Netia Jones is at least his third realization of the piece as theatre,  There have been numerous others, like Matthias Goerne at Aix with wonderful visual imagery images, (read more here) and Simon Keenlyside's "dance version" with Trisha Brown.  Even Bostridge's book Schubert's Winter Journey is a creative response to the work, much more than yet another commentary. The book, already a classic, is itself tactile, and visual (read more here).  Winterreise is compelling : the more you love it, the deeper you can go, and still find more to marvel.

Zender's Winterreise begins so slowly and quietly that you'd miss it if you weren't paying attention. We hear the sound of muffled footsteps, as if someone were trudging in deep snow.  The  sounds are made by brushing metal sheets on the skin of timpani. Steady pizzicato heartbeats, and tense bursts on wind instruments, exhaling and drawing breath. Very physical. As the pace picks up, a familiar melody, but oddly mechanical. The protagonist is determined to keep going lest his feelings overwhelm him. The vocal,part starts normally enough, but suddenly, from "von einem zu den andern", words repeat mechanically, and the orchestra whizzes into a manic march.  Just as suddenly, a switch back to normal with"Fein Liebchen, Gute Nacht" but now we know the lyricism is forced. The protagonist can't give in to mere beauty but must struggle on.

Zender's music is graphic - including wind machines and guitar - but this is in keeping with the original. Indeed, Zender marks short pauses for contemplation. Years ago, at a Wolfgang Holzmair masterclass, Holzmair told us to listen, like an animal might, sensing which trail to follow. Nonetheless, Zender's music is abstract enough that it's not mere illustration. Sudden turns, strange distorted sounds. Sometimes the singer recites rather than sings, as if he's trying to pick up an invisible trail.  The music throws you off-course, so you're as disoriented as the protagonist and  start thinking like him. The recitations also remind us of the literary background to the cycle: Wilhelm Müller is most certainly present here, for Zender's making a connection to "pathetic fallacy" and the way art interacts with experience.


I first heard Zender's Winterreise in 1994, conducted by Zender himself, with Ensemble Modern and Hans-Peter Blochwitz at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. The musicians moved around the auditorium, like the kind of wandering peasant bands that used to travel from village to village. This is an insight, for the Leiermann is a wandering musician, albeit reduced to the lowest order. But he doesn't stop making music.  And neither will the protagonist stop trying, The idea that he goes mad or dies just doesn't fit the evidence,  Zender's Winterreise is a good "learning" piece because it's so inventive. Coming up next, my response to Bostridge and Netia Jones's Winterreise - HERE IT IS !

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Troll-Elgen : Landscape and culture

Slow moving but strangely compelling, Troll-Elgen, a Norwegian stumfilm (silent) from1927, directed by Walter Fyrst (1901-1993). It's fascinating because it describes a world poised between the past and the modern, magic and reality. Think of Edvard Grieg's song cycle Haugtassa, where a girl lives alone in the mountains, communing with unseen spirits. Think also of Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz, where a young huntsman must  prove himself, even if it means dealing with the devil.  The very pace of the film is part of its power, forcing us inward, cleansing us of the toxic muzak that passes for life.  Troll-Elgen is also important because it connects to the aesthetics of culture. Read Daniel Grimley Landscape and Norwegian Identity (2006), or, for that matter, Simon Schama : Landscape and Memory (2004) on forests and German art.

Fyrst's Troll-Elgen was based on the 1921 novel Troll-Elgen by Mikkel Arnesen Fønhus (1894-1973). Notice the time frame : Norway became independent from Sweden only in 1905   Literature and culture strengthened Norwegian identity, just as language and culture helped Finland break away from Russia.

The film begins with a panoramic shot of the mountains, densely forested and hostile to humans.  Wonderful landscape shots fill the screen throughout, emphasizing the beauty and power of nature.  In the wilderness lives an ancient elk, the Troll-Elgen , raely seen by humans, reputedly supernatural. Gaupa the huntsman tries to kill it but is driven insane. Huntsmen, like elks, are happiest in the woods but their lives are filled with hardship.  The craft in which Hans lives with his widowed mother is  utterly spartan. Even the rich don't do luxury. The local landowner, Rustebakke, throws a party, but his guests eat off wooden tables, No linen. There's no plumbing. Water is kept in a bucket and ladled into bowls.  Hans is forced to work on Rustebakke's farm, but he and Rustebakke's daughter Ingrid fall in love. The social divide between landowner and tenant is so great that he can't win Ingrid. "Unless", her father says, he can do something impossible, "like shoot the Troll-Elgen".  Gunnar, a horse dealer, and Hans fight over Ingrid. Gunnar gets stabbed. Hans runs away to the big city, thinking he's now an outlaw. He gets a job in the circus as "The Texan" sharpshooter.  Ingrid runs away too, hoping to find him.There's quite a bit of social comment in the film. Hans's boss abuses female employees and the relative Ingrid lodges with turns out to be a lecher. Separately, Ingrid and Hans return to the mountains, rejecting corrupt society.

Hans looks after mad old Gaupa, from whom he learns that Gunnar didn't die, so he isn't being hunted by the law after all.  Gaupa gives Hans a magic bullet, with which he fells the Troll-Elgen.  Ingrid is living alone in a remote cottage. Gunnar comes and attacks her. Hans walks in and the two men fight, but this time Rustebakke and his men intervene.  Hans and Ingrid marry. Presumably with elk for dinner. Or symbolically, anyway.  Although the plot is simple, the film is beautifully shot.  When Hans pursues the Troll-Elgen we see more panoramic vistas, and see the elk galloping over steep slopes and valleys, running along the river, its legs immersed in water. How did the camera crew set that up? The elk doesn't look tame.  The print is in good condition. Whispers of colour appear, too elusive to be remnants of hand tinting. I don't know the technology enough to know how that was done, but the effect enhances the magic of this film.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Berlioz Roméo et Juliette - Boulez

Perceptions of  Hector Berlioz Roméo et Juliette (Op17 1839) have been shaped by performance practice filtered through recordings, which is fair enough, since recordings reach more than live performances. Given Berlioz's fascination with Shakespeare and other things English, it's perhaps not so surprising either that English conductors dominate recordings.   Everyone's grown up with Colin Davis, for example. Over the years, though, my feelings about Berlioz have been developing on different lines, thanks, probably, to getting immersed in John Eliot Gardiner,  Historically informed performance isn't about instruments so much as about understanding a composer on his own terms, and imagining what he might have envisaged.

In Berlioz's own time, he was very much avant garde.  His Grand Treatise on Orchestration (1843)  championed among other things the saxophone, invented only three years before and still very much experimental.  The picture above shows Berlioz conducting to the horror of his audience, the figures in the foreground supposedly include Franz Liszt. Recently a friend recommended listening to Pierre Boulez's Roméo et Juliette, with the Cleveland Orchestra, recorded live in 1970, though not issued until some years later.  How distinctive it sounds !  Boulez wasn't conducting a period orchestra but he seems to have understood why Berlioz used instruments like the ophicleide. They aren't timid ! Hence the fanfare in the introduction, the quirky trumpets and bassoons. the lushness of the harps  and above all the sassy punch of the strings, pulling everything together with dramatic forward thrust.  We hear the wayward dance figures, and the sinister, almost demonic undercurrents. Roméo et Juliette is neither a stage play nor conventional opera but an innovation: music theatre for orchestra.


Shakespeare carried no cultural baggage for continental European audiences in Berlioz's time, so the composer could do pretty much his own take on the story, using the Garrick version of the play brought to Paris in 1827 by Charles Kemble, which  Berlioz attended and where he became infatuated with Harriet Smithson.  The picture at left shows Smithson and Kemble in a production in the 1840's. In an age before close-ups and amplification, theatre practice would have to have been more exaggerated than we're used to now. Perhaps Berlioz, a theatre critic, intuited that good orchestral writing had the potential to express feelings in greater complexity than most actors at the time were capable of. The extremes in this music reflect stage practice, yet modified by the sophistication that orchestral subtlety can provide.  This is an intense performance, made all the more powerful because Boulez draws from the dramatic tension inherent in the music itself : a composer's insight into interpretation, that springs from within.

Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette isn't about the lovers so much but about cross-currents : feuding families, crowds versus individuals, beauty versus violence and in the midst of all this, an element of supernatural magic that is more "Gothic" than Shakespeare.  Structurally it's tight, the Prince holding forth in the beginning and the brilliant Friar Laurence monologue at the end.  Montagues and Capulets rip each other apart,  but Friar Laurence's intelligence and humanity give Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette its power.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

ich heiße Mohamet, ich bin aus Yemmen


Täglich ging die wunderschöne
Sultanstochter auf und nieder
Um die Abendzeit am Springbrunn,
Wo die weißen Wasser plätschern.

Täglich stand der junge Sklave
Um die Abendzeit am Springbrunn,
Wo die weißen Wasser plätschern;
Täglich ward er bleich und bleicher.

Eines Abends trat die Fürstin
Auf ihn zu mit raschen Worten:
Deinen Namen will ich wissen,
Deine Heimath, deine Sippschaft!

Und der Sklave sprach: ich heiße
Mohamet, ich bin aus Yemmen,
Und mein Stamm sind jene Asra,
Welche sterben wenn sie lieben.

Heinrich Heine

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Alert ! Nothing from Glyndebourne


Nothing from Glyndebourne - David Bruce's new opera created for Glyndebourne Youth Opera now on The Opera Platform, but catch it quick - it's only available til 2200 on 9th May.  Nothing IS something, better than the term "youth opera" suggests.  It also marks the emergence of Stuart Jackson, a singer so interesting that he could - should - be a distinctive Peter Grimes.  David Bruce's The Firework Maker's Daughter was well received at the Royal Opera House in 2012, but Nothing is special.  Ostensibly a "school story", it's much more. Based loosely on a novel by Janne Teller, with a libretto by poet Glyn Maxwell, the narrative deals with abstract concepts like individuality and conformity, but also questions the very idea of values. 

It's September, and the class is back at school, bragging about what they've done (or imagined they've done) in the summer. Suddenly Pierre - or rather Stuart Jacksdon's distinctive voice - emerges from the crowd. In a beautiful, mysterious aria, he declares he's done "nothing" and walks out the gate. Climbing a tree in the orchard, he sings "Nothing is worth doing. So I will do nothing, nothing. "  The song is beautiful. The resemblance to Tudor lute song may be deliberate. "This is all happening long ago". "Is"? one thinks, and almost immediately Jackson's voice reaffirms the point, dropping seductively on the words "long ago", then rising to a crescendo on the words "Tomorrow.....yesterday"  It's magical.

But the students chant, clapping their hands. Mock medieval music again, shades of Carmina Burana or something much more sinister. Waving stakes in the air, the kids build a pyre. "Let's get him" they scream. "Things will burn and be gone forever!"  The class of 7D will stick together. Or "out of the gang, forever, out! out!" To prove their obedience, they have to give up what they cherish most. Agnes (Robyn Allegra Parton) has her pigtails cut off. "It's democracy", or the rule of the mob. "No exceptions". Agnes, at least, starts to question. Seemingly alone in the dark, she sings a solo "Some things you think you need...." concluding that the things you really need are "those within your heart". Pierre has, however, been listening. Jackson sings a strange song about Agnes, who will live to be 80, wasting most of her life pleasing others, only really alive in the time she spent alone, on her bicycle, "pedalling away". 

Glynn Maxwell's libretto's are often too abstract to follow, spoiling good music, like Luke Bedford's Seven Angels (read more here).At least in Nothing, surrealism is part of meaning. The imbalance between the original Danish novel and the English setting of the opera throws up unsettling images, like the Danish flag, or "rag",  and Olaf, the dead dog eternally running and catching sticks.  The images are askew, but in this opera, everything's supposed to be askew. Maxwell's thing for smartass wordplay sometimes gets in the way: "Olaf - Oh, laugh" for example. 

The class (or mob) march and scream. "You made us go too far, Pierre" It's all his fault for making them question. Nihilism explodes into frenzied discord. Suddenly Agnes is back in the silent orchard. Perched in the tree, Jackson sings another lovely sequence "Why don't you listen to nothing with me, listen to where we belong", the last syllable "long" stretching eloquently. But the Class wants blood.  Pierre returns, climbing up the pyre "I can see the whole world from here, and it's nothing, and it's beautiful.....it's wonderful !" Join me, he says. But the mob won't have it and set the pyre alight. 

Years later, the class returns, grown up, but still denying responsibility, blaming "the parents" , not themselves. Agnes, now an old woman, returns to the tree, followed gradually by her classmates. The music resembles keening folk song. A single fiddle plays a simple, rhythmic line. The school is dark, they wake in the dawn but Pierre is still sleeping, forever young. What did Pierre's self sacrifice mean?  His classmates still don't understand "nothing". At the end, elusive single chords, vaguely reminiscent of Benjamin Britten. I still don't understand Nothing, but the music is so moving that it makes me feel, and think. 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

ENO 2016-2017 - deeper thoughts


Announced today, the ENO 2016-2017 season. First, the easy bits : three new productions, one a  British premiere. Then, perhaps more intriguing, speculation on the future. Far from consolidating expenses, logical enough in the circumstances, the ENO plans to stage one-third of its productions outside the Coliseum by 2018/2019. The economics behind this aren't clear cut by any means, so the portents are worrying. What are the real implications for the future ?

The three new productions  Mozart Don Giovanni conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, in a Richard Jones production with Christopher Purves, Clive Bayley, Caitlin Lynch, Christine Rice, Mary Bevan  and Allan Clayton.  Good solid people there: we're guaranteed a good experience if nothing specially tempting.

Much more exciting - Brenda Rae's London debut as Lulu in Alban Berg's opera, scheduled for November 2016. She's a huge catch - even ROH hasn't nabbed her yet.  She's appeared in major roles in Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Santa Fe, and was a sensational Armida at Glyndebourne in Handel Rinaldo, where she and Luca Pisaroni stole the sho. (Read my review of the premiere HERE. London audiences will also remember her (again singing with Pisaroni) in Handel Radamisto conducted by Harry Bicket at the Barbican in 2013. Read my review HERE. Rae isn't solely a baroque singer: she's done a lot of Strauss  She should make a very good Lulu - probably more feisty and sexy than some, but that's perfectly valid in the role.  This will be the William Kentridge production also seen in Amsterdam and at the Met.

The ENO will continue to honour its role in creating English-language work with Ryan Wigglesworth's first opera, The Winter's Tale, based of course on Shakespeare, which he'll also conduct.  Excellent cast - Iain Paterson, Leigh Melrose, Susan Bickley and Sophie Bevan   This will also be the directing debut of Rory Kinnear, famous for acting Shakepeare in the theatre.

Revivals include Rigoletto, Tosca, The Pearl Fishers The Pirates of Penzance and Partenope. 

But back to the plans for working outside the Coliseum.  Transferring to the Hackney Empire for experimental work like Charlie Parker's Yardbird might make sense, as it's not very mainstream, and the place is bigger than Ambika 3, whose name confounds most people.  But why do Elgar Dream of Gerontius at the South Bank?  Admittedly, it won't be staged, and it will, hopefully, provide good work for the ENO Chorus and orchestra. Watch out for more news. And  the ENO's The Mikado will play ten dates in Blackpool.  That would tick the right political boxes, like "regional" and "popular" but it isn't necessarily the prime purpose of a company committed to opera as art form. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Remarkable Rossini - Otello

Gioachino Rossini's opera Otello  broadcast here on BBC Radio 3 - very different to Verdi's Otello and, indeed to Shakespeare's original play. The opera premiered in Decemeber 1816,  at a time when  Shakespeare was being rediscovered anew in continental Europe. Otello was overshadowed by the popular success of The Barber of Seville, but it's a very fine piece, and greatly cherished.  Technically it's very demanding, but fortunately there are voices to do it justice.  There are several good recordings and this broadcast is from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in February this year. We could dream of  Bryan Hymel as Rodrigo and Jonas Kaufmann as Otello, but this cast  is pretty good. Jessica Pratt sings Desdemona, reprising the part she first created at Bad Wildbad in 2008,  Dmitry Korchak sings Rodrigo, Yijie Shi sings Iago and Gregory Kunde sings Otello. The conductor is Christopher Franklin.

Notice: Otello isn't first, though he's by no means the least.  Rossini's interest in the interplay of voices led him to focus on the relationship between Rodrigo and Desdemona; he developed the characters, giving them spectacularly beautiful music to sing to.  Some of the arias in this opera are bel canto trailblazers, which almost literally defined the style. The tenor voice has great flexibility, lending itself to glorious coloratura display.  Listen out too for the duets and trios, where the subtle gradations in voice type create complex, interweaving patterns of sound. Rodrigo, Iago and Otello are bound together here by more than fate.  Desdemona and Emilia (Lidia Vinyes-Curtis) have lovely solos and duets.  Elmiro, Desdemona's father (Mirco Palazzi) is a bass, providing ballast.  The First Act sets context with its glorious orchestral colour, but already the music hints at something wayward and individual, in the solo instruments flying capriciously above the tumult. The most flamboyant passages occur in the Second Act. Rodrigo's aria "Che ascolto? ahimè, che dici?"  is a killer tour de force, ending with dramatic ornamentations on the word "Traditor". Normally passages like this stun a house into silence, but Rossini follows it with many more good moments, one after another. the cumulative effect is intoxicating.

Vocal gymnastics aside, the focus on Rodrigo and Desdemona fleshes them out as personalities with whom we can identify. The Gondolier's song adds a haunting dimension, setting the mood for Desdemona's Willow Song with its delicate, sighing harmonies.  When violence intrudes on this atmosphere of melancholy beauty, the exchange between Otello and Desdemona is fast and furious.  The strings scream, the orchestra whirring as if driven by demonic winds. Otello and Desdemona are in fact singing similar words, though they're at cross-purposes. "Mori , infedel" cries Otello. As if stunned into horror, the orchestra reiterates stabbing staccato.  The Doge, Elmiro, Rodrigo and the chorus rush in but it's too late. Otello kills himself  "Punito m'avrà..." And suddenly, the drama ends, in shock.

If you like Rossini's Otello, you'll like his Maometto II - another outsider more hero than villain - which I heard at Garsington. Read my review of that HERE and get the CD. Lots on Rossini opera seria on this site.

Libretto of the 1816 version, as heard in Barcelona

Cavalli headlines Glyndebourne 2017


Really exciting news!  The 2017 Glyndebourne Festival will open with the UK’s first ever production of Cavalli’s Hipermestra, directed by Graham Vick and conducted by baroque specialist William Christie.  Cavalli is perfect for Glyndebourne - witty, irreverent and audacious, ideal for a house like Glyndebourne which does baroque better than most.  There have been so many celebrated productions of Cavalli in recent years - La Didione, Eliogabalo, La Calisto and my particular favourite Il Giasone, for starters - that we shouldn't settle for anything but the finest standards.  But anything William Christie does will be better than practically anyone else can do.

Christie is conducting the lively Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a new edition of the opera.  Graham Vick directs his first new production for Glyndebourne in 17 years. Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth makes her UK debut in the title role. She's a period specialist and was a wonderful  Elena in Aix en Provence in 2013. (Read my review here)  That's her in a blonde wig as Elena.

Hipermestra was one of fifty sisters, the Daniades, who are forced to marry their fifty first cousins but all kill their husbands on their wedding nights except for Hipermestra, who doesn't do sex. Lucia di Lammermoor is timid in comparison. Cavalli does sex, riotously. Be warned. Expect a lot of sopranos, altos, tenors and exuberant mayhem.

Conductor William Christie says: “It was almost 50 years ago that Glyndebourne first introduced Francesco Cavalli, a completely forgotten composer, with two of his works, L’Ormindo and La Calisto. The effect on the opera world was nothing short of extraordinary.  These works established Cavalli as a great composer of opera and reaffirmed Glyndebourne’s role as a place of discovery....Times have changed and I am proud to be part of a new Cavalli wave, more in keeping with the historical performance school that is doing so much to continue the evolution of early music."

Also in 2017, a new production of  Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, which will mark the Glyndebourne debut of the prominent German director Claus Guth, a frequent guest at top European houses including Bayreuth, the Salzburg Festival, Theater an der Wien and La Scala. Glyndebourne's Music Director Robin Ticciati will conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for only the second ever staging of the opera at Glyndebourne. The distinguished Australian lyric tenor Steve Davislim makes his Glyndebourne debut in the title role alongside British lyric mezzo-soprano Alice Coote (Vitellia),

A world premiere: Hamlet by exceedingly prolific Brett Dean, directed by Neil Armfield, who directed Dean's first opera in 2010. Among the revivals La Traviata from 2014 and Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos from  2013.  Read my review of that HERE.  Hopefully this time round there will be more comprehension of this very thoughtful production. Like so much Richard Strauss, the opera is about the making of opera. It's art, not literal narrative, so an intellectual approach is perfectly valid even if it's highbrow. When Katharina Thoma directed Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House, she did the exact opposite, staging the opera as literally as possible in the "traditional" style complete with painted wooden flats. But audiences still didn't get the irony.  Read my analysis of it here.  At the time, someone muttered "We British don't like Germans". Too bad, I think.  Germans do know a lot about theatre.