Friday, 31 March 2017

Invigorating, perceptive Mahler 1, François-Xavier Roth LSO Barbican

François-Xavier Roth -photo Marco Borrgreve
(For my review of Bernard H|aitink Mahler 9 with the LSO click here)  At the Barbican, London, François-Xavier Roth conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler Symphony no 1 with Debussy Jeux, and  Bartók Piano Concerto no 3 with Simon Trpčeski. The latter pieces preceded the first, and deserve great praise but Mahler is my thing... and this was an exceptionally interesting performance of a piece that is heard so often that it can sometimes be a cliché. Never so with F X Roth, the LSO's Principal Guest Conductor !

Mahler's Symphony no 1 is Mahler's "calling card" announcing his arrival as symphonist. It is idiosyncratic, supporting such a wide range of responses that it's a good test of a conductor.  With the London Symphony Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth revealed its exuberant inventiveness: a "calling card" presented with exuberant audacity, its inventiveness built on strong foundations.  A lot lies in Roth himself.  One of the clichés often repeated about Roth is that he's a baroque specialist but that in itself means nothing.  Historically informed performance has nothing to do with instruments per se. What it really means is connecting to whatever makes any composer unique. Styles differ, but all forms stem from a basic source of creativity that springs from the human soul. Roth, who for many years led SWRO Baden Baden, with its Rosbaud, Gielen and Boulez connections, is also one of the finest conductors of modern music. 

Although Mahler 1 is heard so often that it, too, can become cliché in the wrong hands, his performance made it feel fresh and invigorating, perhaps even as Mahler might have hoped.  The woodwind chords in the introduction always draw attention, and rightly so, but this time I was drawn to the low rumble around them, and the multiple rustlings, for this is the rich source from which the symphony will flow.  Thus the trumpets are heard from a distance: their time will come.  The exuberant theme (Ging heut's Morgen übers Feld) filled out with expansive verve, as if the orchestra were opening its lungs and taking in the clean air of a morning hike. As the theme repeats it developed into full stride, so confident that it almost resembled dance. For what is dance but the expression of physical movement in sound?  Dancers move in ensemble, interacting with each other, supporting one another: a metaphor for the way a good orchestra operates.  Here, Roth's background with baroque paid dividends.  Please read my article on French style and modern music here.  The more intricate the steps, the greater the need to observe clear lines, or the kinetic energy is lost.  Thus the confidence of this performance, where the Ging Heut exuberance was balanced by the mysterious, "grounded" interlude and exuberant climax.

Roth's sense of physicality animated the second movement particularly well, so the Ländler character was defined and strongly rhythmic. Earthy, rich basses and celli, horns and strings dancing along en fête. Just as in the first movement, the pattern of exuberance-mystery- climax repeats, like the figures in  well choreographed dance.  I loved the sassy, wayward brass!  A march is also a form of movement to sound.  Thus the "Huntsman's Funeral" proceeds at a solemn pace. But might Mahler just be suggesting that something is awry? Would the animals mourn the man who kills them? Or are they acting out a macabre joke?  The winds leapt capriciously, and the bassoons piped, perhaps a hint that, in life,  all might not be what it seems.  Through this performance, Roth and the LSO drew tantalizing links between Mahler's First and Seventh Symphonies, where meaning is deliberately occluded by "nightmare waltzes"of the Nachtmusiks.  Again, an insight on Roth's part, for Mahler's work is so cohesive that the performance of any single symphony is enhanced by awareness of other parts of the whole.  

Thus, too, the sudden, shattering climax, and its similarity to the Rondo-Finale of the Seventh. In the First, though, Mahler has more to say, reflecting on gentler, lyrical passage. But notice - the sharp woodwind calls and the rumbling undergrowth at the beginning of the symphony emerge again, and echoes of the Ging Heut' theme,  before the even more explosive "second coming" with its triumphant brass chorale " And he shall reign, for ever and evermore".  Years ago when I mentioned this quotation, I got knocked down for blasphemy but it does fit the concept of continual renewal - resurrection - that runs through Mahler's whole output.  It is egotistic but not delusional.  There's too much warmth in Mahler for that.  For similar reasons, I don't think we should dismiss the title "Titan" altogether though it's not echt Mahler. The composer and his audiences knew Greek mythology so well that they knew who the Titans were - weird inbred prototypes who killled their fathers (Oedipus avant la lettre) but were too stupid to consolidate  Eventually, they were wiped out by proper Gods. Thinking of Mahler's First in those terms might be wry observation.

Some conductors take the marking Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz marking so literally that the symphony becomes a Triumph of the Will tantrum, which may be exciting, but almost certainly doesn't fit what we now know of Mahler, the man and his other music.  The LSO horns stood upright along the back of the Barbican Hall platform, a nice theatrical touch which enhanced impact. It also works musically, since the sound carries over the orchestra, upwards towards the roof of the auditorium.   Heavenwards, towards distant horizons, nine more symphonies to come.   

Please also read numerous other posts on Roth, the LSO, Mahler etc on this site


Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Malice in the Palace - the mad rush to Starvania


So Brexit is Triggered ! off we go on a mad rush to Starvania.   A minority party with no MP's hijacks the Palace of Westminster and enforces an extremist agenda onto a government with the largest majority in living memory, which should in theory make it immune to intimidation.  So much for Parliamentary Democracy. Who needs it when cardboard heroes can lie their way to control ?  Effectively, London, the Home Counties and Scotland are disenfranchised.  The regions that fuel the economy are stifled and have to pay those who don't pay their way.  Who needs democracy when the media can manipulate "The People" ?  Malice in the Palace !  The prophetic title of a Three Stooges satire from 1949. Except this madness isn't funny. 


Monday, 27 March 2017

Simon Holt a table of noises NMC


Simon Holt is one of the really big names in British music, highly regarded by those who listen live and read scores, so this release from NMC, specialists in modern British music, is particularly welcome.  a table of noises follows on from A Book of Colours, Boots of lead, feet of clay and Era Madrugada, all from NMC. Eventually, more of Holt's work will be readily available on disc because it rewards repeat listening. Holt's music isn't noisy. Like good poetry, it reveals itself in quiet, unhurried contemplation.

The title piece, a table of noises, (2007)  refers to the table at which Holt's great uncle Ashworth worked, where he kept tools readily to hand, meticulously organized.  Ashworth was a taxidermist who stuffed birds and small countryside animals. There's something surreal about taxidermy.  It brings the woodland under the control of the parlour.  But can you be decorous with a dead badger in the living room, staring at you through glass eyes, lifelike but immobile?  Taxidermy is  fiddly, messy work and quite unnatural, but strangely obsessive. Great Uncle Ash was disabled so he kept his tools together within easy reach, meticulously organized.  Picture that table in your imagination.  It's a metaphor for Holt's  music. It's strictly defined but the very confinement generates resourceful adaptation. 

Simple means are used for maximum effect. Colin Currie, for whom the piece was commissioned,  plays a variety of small instruments, played in groups of three.  The sound is pared down to essentials, very methodical and down to earth.  Hence the jaunty rhythms and unpretentious sounds. Do we hear a tin whistle in the mix ? Or a squeaky toy?  Currie plays fairly conventional instruments like glockenspiel and xylophone, but the effects are decidedly quirky.  Hammers and chisels clattering as if in a workshop, interspersed by silences and odd rhythmic progressions.  a table of noises is wacky but tightly organized.  It feels like a solemn but vivacious dance. Clog dancing springs to mind. The rhythms are jaunty yet "grounded" since the dancers are possibly drunk and club-footed, and wear heavy boots. Why should athletes have all the fun?  Holt turns rough and ready into art form. 


Flights of fancy, like the piccolos calling above the ensemble, inject a wayward spirit of eccentric freedom.  Why did Victorians preserve dead roadkill and pose them in anthromorphic positions?  Perhaps we are in the lab of a mad scientist whose inventions seem bizarre but might have an inner logic. As Currie hammers away, the orchestra produces equally inventive effects - booming bass trombone and tuba, like the pipes of a funeral organ gone mad. Some of the ten sections have descriptive titles, like "Skennin' Mary", a neighbour whose glass eye spun when she became angry, which would have fascinated a taxidermist who kept collections of glass eyes for his specimens.  Four sections, though, are simply "ghosts", reminding us that what we hear might not be what we assume. Holt's inventive use of sound also reminds me of Third World musicians who make music with whatever comes to hand, like sticks and rocks.  Percussion may be the most ancient form of music.   That's a compliment, since a composer who can work with humble sources understands innately what makes good music.   Holt's a table of noises is also fun. The exact background doesn't matter, since we can feel the sense of adventure in its inventive sounds, and relate to the good natured, if oddball, sense of humour. 

Macabre humour, too, in St Vitus in the Kettle (2008) a brief but tightly structured miniature which begins as a wild dance, whipped by insanely high piccolos,  haunted by dark, sepulchral block chords.  For a moment silence descends but the manic, energetic rhythms return with even greater force.  Do we hear in these bubbling rhythms the sound of  boiling water?  St Vitus in legend was a child martyred by being boiled in a kettle but who leapt unharmed and intact, being saved by faith.  Medieval peasants found cathartic outlet by dancing orgies in his honour, hence the term "St Vitus Dance" to describe derangement. 

St Eulalia of Merida, the ostensible subject of Holt's Witness to a snow miracle (2005) was martyred by the Romans by being buried under hot coals. She rebuked her persecutors to the end, when snow miraculously descended, while her soul ascended to heaven.   Thus the cadenza with which the piece begins, with Chloé Hanslip with wild but determined frenzy.  Does this suggest religious mania or the equally fanatical mania of her persecutors?  Either way, the violin expresses extremes of pitch and tempi, supported by screaming woodwinds  and contrasted with ominous brass and percussion.  Harps  and celeste sparkle, suggesting snowfall, and divine intervention. Eventually the violin soars upwards, as the pounding brass grows muffled. The heat of mania is silenced, under a blanket of snow.  As so often with Holt, textures are built up through meticulous process, every note clearly defined.  Medieval audiences adapted reality into  highly coloured, exaggerated tales like these to suit their own needs.  Simon Holt adapts them into abstract music, but music that connects to human passion and emotion.

The Hallé was conducted by Nicolas Collon. 

Sunday, 26 March 2017

New Life for an Old Pagoda

For Mother's Day NOT ! The Immortality Pagoda (長生塔) a Cantonese film from 1955, with a feminist message so strong that it still shocks.  In a not so distant past, Yuet Mei (Pak Yin) is happily married to Ping (Cheung Wood Yau)  eldest son of the Cheng household. Her mother Chan ka Lai lai (Senior Mother of Chan family) (Man Lee) comes to visit unexpectedly. In the courtyard, there's a pomegranate tree, which Ping planted. "Please stay with us until the fruits come", he asks mother-in-law.  A cryptic clue - pomegranates symbolize fertility.  Mrs Chan says nothing, but she's on the verge of a breakdown.  She has no sons, and her husband has deserted her for a "Wu lei Tsing" - fox spirit - an insulting term which shows how badly she feels about the concubine who has supplanted her at home, and borne sons.  Since Pak Yin hasn't had children after many years of marriage, her mother worries about her. "Ping loves me" says the daughter. But it's not up to them. That night, the Cheng family throw a big dinner party to welcome their visitor, but when she hears the elders discuss the importance of sons, she cracks up and starts screaming. Scandalous breach of manners, painful to witness even today! So Mrs Chan cannot stay in the main house and is exiled to an outhouse, because mental illness was a stigma.

Pak Yin is pregnant. The whole clan celebrates because having children means the continuation of family and all that represents.  Lo Tai Yeh leads everyone out to view the Pagoda, the "Cheung Sang Tap", which brought prosperity to the clan after a necromancer from far away Kwangsi told them to build it.  The pagoda used in the film is the Ping Shan pagoda, built in the 14th century, to harness good fung shui. It 's a listed monument, now fully restored.  Real pagodas were solid affairs. like this one, built to last. They aren't places of worship like western churches, but operate to channel the forces of nature, like ley lines.

When Pak Yin's mother hears her daughter is pregnant she resolves to return home. It's Ching Ming, a festival where people sweep graves, to honour their ancestors. The old lady is thus acknowledging her place in the system of continuing generations, while also respecting the future.  She's made clothes for the new baby but doesn't want to bring bad luck by being sick in her daughter's home.  Because the pregnancy isn't going well, the mother understands why it's bad luck to see her daughter.  She takes her leave, weeping, while her daughter sleeps, knowing they will not meet again in this world.   Wonderful acting, yet again, from Wong Man Lee who played the mother in Parent's Heart with Ma Tse Tsang, which I wrote about here.

Things go wrong with the birth, and the midwife can't handle things. A herbal doctor prescribes a drug that might kill the mother but save the child, Ping and his father fight: wives can be replaced, says the old man. No, says the son. Alas the baby is a girl. Why the "bad luck"   The Old Man blames the daughter in law and infant. He tries to revive the fung shui in the pagoda by burning offerings, but his brother loses the money gambling. Brother gets his son to take the blame, sending him away, even though he's just got married.  The bride gets blamed though no-one's told her why.   Two miserable women in the household now, Mei the eldest son's wife who cannot have more children and  Yee So, the bride of second  uncle in the hierarchy, who may never conceive, since news arrives that the bridegroom has been killed in an accident.. No prospect of sons.  The future of the Cheng clan lies in the balance.  The old man orders Ping to take a concubine but the son refuses. Ping goes away on business,

Mad with grief, Yee So (played by Mui Yee),  walks out of the Cheng gardens, filled with spring blossom, and hangs herself in the pagoda. Serious bad fung shui.  Mei (Pak Yin) finds the body and faints. The LoTai Yeh tells Ping that his wife is dead and that he must remarry. Ping burns offerngs at what he thinks is Mei's grave, but the sound of insane laughter rings out. The truth must be told. Mei isn't dead. She's been imprisoned in the pagoda and has gone raving mad.  Ping enters the dilapidated pagoda and tries to save Mei, but she doesn't recognize him. She climbs further up the pagoda,. The Old Grandfather arrives, with men and torches., but Ping refuses to leave Mei. She falls, and he carries her body out, defying his father. The old system with its rigid superstitions has caused too much tragedy. Ping sails away in a junk to a new, unknown future. The pagoda is seen against the skyline. Maybe the "immortality" it represents means new life, elsewhere.

The film is shot with great detail - architecture, costumes and plants, and has an excellent soundtrack (traditional Chinese music).  The outside shots of the pagoda were done on site, but the internal shots in a studio.  My father used to take us to Ping Shan, where we visited the real life pagoda, which in those days was still remote in a fung shui position, separated from the village by fields and canals.  One evening, at dusk, bats flew out as we approached. Nowadays, it's cleaned up and restored as a heritage site, in the centre of the new, prosperous city around it.  Perhaps the movie was right !   Heritage is people, not material objects in themselves.  We learn from the past and retain the good, exorcising the bad. But if we don't learn, we might make the same mistakes.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Morfydd Owen - Portrait of a Lost Icon

A new recording, made late last year,  Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.  Though she was not part of the male English Establishment, Owen needs no special pleading.  Her music stands on its own merits, highly individual and original.  Her work was published in the Welsh Hymnal even before she graduated and moved to London, where she moved in Bohemian, arty circles with the likes of D H Lawrence, Ezra Pound and Prince Yusupov, one of the conspirators who assassinated Rasputin.  What might she have achieved, had she lived longer, or continued to develop in an international milieu ? Tŷ Cerdd have produced an intriguing collection of her piano pieces and songs, performed by Elin Manahan Thomas and Brian Ellsbury.  Definitely a recording worth getting, for Owen's music is exquisite, enhanced by good performances.  Buy it HERE from Tŷ Cerdd, who also supply scores.


In his notes, Brian Ellsbury writes "One of the fascinations of (Owen's) compositions is the plethora of contrast, often simply between major and minor, melancholy and joy.....the juxtaposition of a self conscious  gaucheness and sophistication - the cosy homely feel of Welsh harmony suddenly layered with unexpectedly complex and deft modulations and almost modern jazz-like harmony,"
 
Owen's setting of William Blake's Spring (1913) is joyously energetic. "Little boy, full of joy, little girl, sweet and small"   Manahan Thomas's lithe, bright soprano perfectly captures the spirit of youth. In The Lamb (1914) Evans subtly underpins the deceptive innocence with richer, more contemplative undertones, never overloading the lines with pathos. Sophisticated, yet pristine.  In contrast, Tristesse (1915) with dramatic, exclamatory crescendi, very much in the surreal spirit of Maeterlinck,  though the text is Alfred de Musset. More hyperactive than Debussy, as exotic as Ravel, this is an unusually unsettling song that suggests not romance but fervid imagination.

A selection of pieces for piano, some like the Rhapsody in C sharp major and Maida Vale, discovered in unpublished manuscript. The miniature Little Eric (1915) is barely a minute long yet vividly idiosyncratic while Tal y Llyn (1916) is  confidently lyrical with a jaunty central motif - witty contrasts of tempi. Strong chords alternate with lively figures in Prelude in E minor (1914) , contrasting well with the early (1910) Sonata for Piano in E minor, which is more diffuse.

The Four Flowers Songs - Speedwell, Daisy's Song, To Violets and God Made a Lovely Garden  were written over a period of seven years, Speedwell (1918) being among Owen's last completed works.  A speedwell is a weed, but cheerful and perky, but here it dreams grand dreams. In a way, this song might encapsulate Owen's idiom, lending seeming insouciance with great inner strength.  God made a Lovely Garden (1917) reveals Owen's gift for melody, expressed with sincerity, not sentimentality.

A long, pensive piano introduction opens Gweddi y Pechadur (1913), the only Welsh language song on this disc. Although neither texts nor translations are included with this recording, the clarity of Owen's setting displays the innate beauty of the language, a "singing language" if ever there was one, and a good reason why non-speakers should study the song.  It is a dignified lament, in minor key.  To Our Lady of Sorrows ((1912) is a miniature scena, in which the Mater Dolorosa contemplates the body of Christ.  Like Gweddiy Pechadur, its lines descend to diminuendo, but the last line packs a punch. Suddenly, the Mother isn't a religious icon, but an ordinary, human woman. A sudden leap up the scale, and passionate mellisma on the word "Baby" and an equally sudden hushed, hollow descent on the words "is dead". 

Photographs show that Morfydd Owen was a beauty with dark hair and eyes, to match what might have been an intense, passionate personality. She had love affairs, requited or unrequited, but after a courtship of only six weeks, married Ernest Jones, the psychiatrist, and acolyte of Sigmund Freud.  Perhaps Owen needed a father figure, despite her talent and acclaim: she wasn't independently wealthy.  Jones didn't encourage her career, and she seems to have been unhappy.  In September 1918, the couple went on holiday in Wales, where Owen died suddenly in uncertain circumstances.  This recording concludes with In the Land of Hush-a-bye, with words by Eos Gwalia "The Nightingale of Wales", aka Gaynor Rowlands (1883-1906), a Welsh actress who lived in London, who, like Morfydd Owen, died young from complications after surgery.  The song is simple, yet charming, and includes Owen's characteristic use of sudden leaps within a phrase. At the end, Manahan Thomas holds the last word for several measures until it fades into silence.  

 Please also see my article on  Morfydd Owen's Nocturne Talent  has No Gender

Thursday, 23 March 2017

For London, courage


"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear." - Mark Twain

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Y Twr - Welsh opera Music Theatre Wales

Y Tŵr - a rare opportunity to hear a new opera in the Welsh language by leading Welsh composer Guto Puw - thanks to a bold collaboration between contemporary opera company Music Theatre Wales and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, the Welsh-language national theatre of Wales.

Poet, writer and singer-songwriter Gwyneth Glyn has adapted Gwenlyn Parry's classic play, Y Tŵr (The Tower - 1978) as an opera.
A brand new opera in the Welsh language is a rarity. The first Welsh-language opera was Joseph Parry's Blodwen (1878) which enjoyed enormous success and had received no fewer than 500 performances by 1896.

Y Tŵr explores the extremes of emotion experienced by a man and a woman over the course of a lifetime together. Based on the work of Gwenlyn Parry, one of Wales' most important playwrights, this touching and lyrical new opera is an intimate and universal story of love and life set within the tower of its title - a metaphor for any relationship, as its two characters ascend from one level to the next; each one representing a particular moment in their relationship, from the flush of youthful romance to the heartfelt ravages of old age.

The production, sung in Welsh with English surtitles, is directed by MTW's Artistic Director, Michael McCarthy and conducted by Richard Baker, working with Music Theatre Wales for the first time. The opera is designed by Samal Blak, who designed MTW and Scottish Opera's successful production of Stuart MacRae's The Devil Inside for MTW/Scottish Opera, and also MacRae's Ghost Patrol (Please read review here

World premiere in Cardiff, 19th May, then touring in Wales and at the Buxton Festival. For more details, please read the Music Theatre Wales website HERE

Monday, 20 March 2017

Brahms German Requiem Fabio Luisi Barbican


Fabio Luisi conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Brahms A German Requiem op 45 and Schubert, Symphony no 8 in B minor D759 ("Unfinished").  The Barbican Centre is built over the remains of a much older London, which still exists in hidden corners.  During the week, the metropolis is manic, but on a Sunday night, a quiet calm descends, and once more you can feel the presence of the past amid the high tech towers and traffic.  Under the Barbican Hall itself was Three Herring Court,  where my companion's ancestors  lived in extreme poverty.   An atmospheric way in which to experience Brahms German Requiem, which commemorates the endurance of the human spirit across boundaries of time and place.  Not for nothing did Brahms blend together verses from the Old and New Testaments, evidence of an upbringing steeped in North German Lutheran tradition, even though he rejected conventional piety, and lived much of his life in staunchly Catholic Vienna. . 

The voices of the London Symphony Chorus rose beautifully from the hushed opening chords. "Selig sind, die da Lied tragen", for those who go forth weeping bearing precious seed will return  "Mit Freuden und bringen ihre Garben". Death is a not an end, but a process.   With Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director of the LSO,  Londoners get another advantage : Simon Halsey,  Rattle's  choral counterpart through the years at Birmingham and in Berlin. The LSO Chorus sounded luminous, voices carefully blended.  If anything, the LSO Chorus sounded even richer in the second movement Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras though this brought the orchestra to the fore. The "march" theme  was particularly well defined, with a good sense of surge underlying the solemn, deliberate pace, so when the lyrical motif appeared, it suggested light and hope. The fanfare at the end of the movement was  understated but confident.

Simon Keenlyside sang the baritone part, which he has taken many times before. Experience showed.  Brahms quotes Psalm 9 (verses 4 to 7), where a man contemplates his fate : humility is of the essence, surrounded as he is by the tumult in the orchestra.  Yet the assured, unforced timbre of Keenlyside's singing highlighted the inner strength that comes from faith, whatever the source of that faith.  When the chorus joined in, the protagonist was no longer alone, in every sense.  Perhaps for this reason the song with soprano (Julia Kleiter) Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit was added, for it is a moment of illumination, before the mood turns sombre yet again.  The solemn processional of the second movement echoes in the sixth.  Forceful chords from the orchestra, and a blazing fanfare of brass, strings and percussion, and the chorus in full swell , for momentous changes are to come.  The trumpets rang out, as in the Book of Revelation, a trumpet will herald the End of Time, when the dead of past ages will be raised to life again. Keenlyside's voice rang out "Wir werden verwandelt werden" and the chorus entered,  forcefully "Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg!"  A thunderous finale, after which it took some moments to recover.

Fabio Luisi and the London Symphony Orchestra were impressive, and their Schubert Symphony no 8 was excellent, well poised and stylish.   But the full honours went to the London Symphony Chorus, for Brahms's German Requiem is one of the high points in the choral repertoire.  "Selig sind die Toten.....daß sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit".  Rich, fulsome playing from the LSO, luminous singing from the LSO Chorus.  The German Requiem concluded in transcendance.

Please also see : Brahms exults ! Vier ernste Lieder and other songs : Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach

and Hanns Eisler Deutsches Sinfonie: an anti fascist cantata



This review will also appear in Opera Today



Friday, 17 March 2017

Chandos British Tone Poems Vol 1 - Rumon Gamba Gurney Gardiner

First in a new series of recordings of British orchestral repertoire, British Tone Poems vol 1 from Chandos, featuring Ivor Gurney's Gloucestershire Rhapsody, with Rumon Gamba conducting the BBC Nationl Orchestra of Wales."What Gurney orchestral music?" one might have asked some years ago, since until only very recently, Gurney was primarily known for his songs for voice and piano  Fortunately, from manuscripts in the Gurney archives, three "new" pieces have been prepared for performance, the Gloucestershire Rhapsody, The Trumpet and the superlative War Elegy, which received its BBC Proms premiere in 2014 (Please read what I wrote about that here).

Gurney's Gloucestershire Rhapsody was written between 1919, on Gurney's return fro the battlefield, and 1920, shortly before he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, where he died 15 years later.   Although  it was generally assumed that Gurney's late works were incoherent and unplayable,  Gurney scholars Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables have edited them for performance, revealing their true value.  This new recording for Chandos with Rumon Gamba and the BBC NOW is significant because it's the first formal recording, recorded  in Cardiff in September 2016. It's much more polished than the earlier recording on the BBC's own budget label of a Glasgow concert in 2012, with David Parry and the BBC NOW. Gamba lets the music breathe: one might imagine Gurney inhaling the fresh, pure air of Gloucestershire,  and the exhilaration of being able to roam in his beloved countryside. So very different from the horrors of the trenches!  Gurney's doctors believed that he was better off in hospital, but, when a friend smuggled in a copy of a map, Gurney traced his old hiking routes with  his fingers, as if re-living what he had lost. This background is relevant, for this performance seems infused with a spirit of freedom, of endless open horizons and limitless possibilities.

This "open vista" approach to the Gloucestershire Rhapsody may connect to Gurney's own hopes for the future. Significantly, the piece starts with the same first bars as Richard Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra -  a dramatic opening, but with a twist.  Gurney deliberately wanted to counteract "The Prussians" and what they stood for. Understandable for a man who served throughout the war, though Strauss wasn't fond of "Prussians" either, being Bavarian. The horns give way to a pastorale evoking the Gloucestershire countryside, with its rolling hills and spacious panoramas.  To Gurney, past and present connected in seamless flow. The ghosts of prehistoric hunters, Romans, medieval farmers, depicted in a bucolic dance theme. "Two thousand centuries of change, and strange people".  An ostinato section suggests both the heavy march of Time and the men of Gloucestershire marching innocently to slaughter on the Somme.  Gurney said that what kept him going in the trenches was the thought of commemorating these men in poetry and music.  A short, chaotic "war" section then gives way to a beautifully expansive theme, which might evoke a glorious dawn after a night of horror. It's Elgarian in its glory, but also Gurneyesque.  In this new dawn, though time moves on, Nature returns, and possibly heals.

This disc also features new recordings of Frederic Austin's Spring, William Alwyn's Blackdown, Granville Bantock's The Witch of Atlas  and Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Solent   refreshing readings that do not duplicate previous versions, and together form a very useful, coherent collection: a traverse through the British landscape, in sound.  Also included is the world premiere recording of Henry Balfour Gardiner's A Berkshire Idyll.  A sparkling Adagio lit by harps leads to a woodwind melody developed further by violins, with expansive legato.  The second section is tranquil yet agile. Firm, exuberant chords dance confidently into an andante where a solo violin takes up the melody, which is then shadowed by darkness, from which the theme re-emerges. into an adagio quasi andante,  resolving opposing moods in peaceful harmony. The piece was inspired by Ashampstead, which is still rural, though it's just north of the M4 and just south of the main road from Reading to Oxford.  Perhaps the terrain preserves it. As music, A Berkshire Idyll preserves a dream of peace, which was to be shattered the year after it was written by the declaration of war. Gardiner had studied in Frankfurt, so possibly was more affected than might be obvious. He ceased writing music in 1925, though he lived happily thereafter - no tragic Gurney, he.  A Berkshire Idyll is beautiful and will live on.  Gardiner died only in 1950 : his grand nephew is Sir John Eliot Gardiner. 

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Hanns Eisler Deutsche Sinfonie : Anti Fascist Cantata


On Sunday, Fabio Luisi conducts Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem at the Barbican. Why "A" German Requiem as opposed to "the" or just plain "German Requiem"? Lots of reasons. An opportune time to consider another "German Requiem", Hanns Eisler's Deutsche Sinfonie  "an Anti-Fascist Cantata", effectively a Requiem for Germany 1933-45 and thereafter, a work which developed in gestation throughout the period, completed only in 1957.  A conventional Requiem would have been out of the question, considering the Holocaust, and in any case Eisler was agnostic. "I wanted", he wrote, "to convey grief without sentimentality", and (to express) "struggle without the use of militaristic music"

Eisler's Deutsches Sinfonie is elegaic, even heroic, but muted. The Präludium sets the mood. Long string lines, rising slowly upwards.  Like smoke "Auferstanden aus Ruinen", though the national anthem of the DDR is, understandably, more upbeat.  Not many national anthems are wreitten by composers like Eisler.  From this haze, hushed voices emerge "O Deutschland, blieche Mutter, wie bist du besudelt mit dem Blut deiner besten Söhne!"  Eisler works in a quote from the Internationale, so the piece connects the defeat of the Nazis and the establishment of the East German state, so the reference to Auferstanden aus Ruinen is quite appropriate and possibly ironic. Though he was unshakeably a Communist, Eisler's individualism and modern tastes in music didn't necessarily endear him to the more conservative forces in the regime.

The mood changes again with the Passacaglia, slippery, wayward woodwinds defying heavy staccato.The text is Bertolt Brecht, An die Kämpfer in den Konzentrationslagern : the "fighters" in the concentration camps, being socialists, dissidents, Jews, gays, and anyone who fell  foul of the Reich.  Like the woodwinds, the alto lines moves in quirky dance-like angles until the choir joins in with more affirmative confidence. The timpani blast, the choir becomes hushed, but the soloist returns, the winds and brass "marching" alongside.  The Étude for orchestra is marvellously compressed - dizzyingly angular lines, interspersed by scurrying, marching figures, trumpets blasting single chords: jazz-age militarism, madly awry but deftly orchestrated. Woodwinds dash ahead of the tumult. Use your imagination and "see" street fighters battling forces of oppression.

Muffled drumstrokes and a funereal march, from which the solo baritone's voice rises, . The song Zu Potsdam, unter der Eichern describes men who are carrying a coffin down the tree-lined streets of Potsdam, the soul of Prussia. The cross is decorated with oak leaves, commemorating those who had fallen in Verdun. It's a political demonstration, the protestors seeking a future "fit for heroes", so the police barge in,smashing things up.  A short, ironic ditty, and bitter.  After the truly haunting Zu  Potsdam, Sonnenberg, where male and female soloists alternate, is relatively straightforward, though the orchestra  screams protest.  Perhaps we need to catch our breath between Zu Potsdam and the Intermezzo which follows. Like the Étudethis section is highly condensed, long, shifting lines, intercut with sprightly passages which thrust the music forward to an eerily quiet resolution. For the time being, that is.

An ominous bass voice introduces the Burial of the Trouble-maker in a zinc coffin.This is a mini cantata, where the bass interacts with soprano, chorus and orchestra.  Who is sealed inside the box? "Wer sich solidarisch erklcrt mit allen Unterdrückten, der soll von nun an bis in die Ewigkeit in das Zink komen wie dieser da, als ein Hertzer und verschart werden".  The "Millionmassen der Arbeit" who agitate for change and are suppressed.  As in the Hollywood Liederbook, Eisler writes cantata with cantata. The Bauernkantata here comprises four individual songs, three of which seem fairly standard "proletarian" in that a bass sings about peasants and peasant revolt.  But Eisler throws a curveball The third song isn't a song so much as an occluded mystery with spoken voices whispering scraps of text in hurried snatches.  "Die Regierung will niht, dass es bekannt wird, es Leute gibt, die den Krieg bekämpfen". (The Government doesn't want it known that there are people who oppose the war)   What do we make of this, particularly in conjuntion with the politically safe farmer songs ?

The Bauernkantata is followed by the Arbeiterkantata, a much more cohesive song which runs more than twice as long as the four songs of the Bauernkantata.  Further contrasts : written for soprano, baritone, choir, spoken voices and orchestra, the song is a sophisticated "art" work with a complex structure.  The text (also Brecht) is interesting because it incorporates shifting ideas. Who is the "Class Enemy"  here?   The protagonist or protagonists have obediently gone to war,  followed orders and welcomed in the new regime.  The generals names change, but the system hasn't.  Is a classless society possible if struggle is part of the system. "Da mag euer Anstreicher dtreichen, diesen Riss streicht er uns nicht zu " (when there are cracks in the foundations of a building, a housepainter, ie Hitler, can't paint them over)

So how do we interpret the Allegro, the longest and most complex of the three orchestral commentaries? Again, long planes of sound, searching and probing, wildly independent woodwind figures darting agilely ahead, defying the drums, rising about massed strings.  And the brief epigrammatiuc Epilog , where the pure,clean voice of the soprano sings as if  in a void, her words echoing those in the Präludium.  The children (of Germany) have been freed "vom eingefrornen Tank" Suddenly the chorus and orchestra interject "Warm them !"

Eisler's Deutsche Sinfonie op 50 is a panorama, with multiple images and allusions, covering an extended time span. A bit like a collage in an art film. Eisler is sometimes written off because his politics made him aware that music should communicate, but he didn't compromise his artistic integrity.   Like the Hollywood Liederbook, the Deutsche Sinfonie is immensely rewarding.  There are several recordings on the market.  The ones to go for are

Lothar Zagrosek with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig on Decca, recorded 1995 with a particularly wonderful Zu Potsdam with Matthias Goerne, easily the best Eisler singer in the business now.  

Max Pommer with the Rundfunks Sinfonie Orchester Berlin, 1987, on Berlin Classics, where Rosemarie Lang is the alto.

Adolf  Fritz Guhl  with the Rundfunks Sinfonie Orchester Leipzig from 1964 which isn't available anymore. I own it but it's stored away in a cupboard I can't reach. Sound quality a bit rough.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Queer Talk - Britten Pears love letters


Queer Talk : Homosexuality in Britten's Britain, an exhibition running until 28th October 2017, hosted, appropriately, at the Red House in Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears lived together for much of their relationship of nearly 40 years.  Fifty years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in this country, it's hard to imagine how pervasive anti-gay attitudes once were, but remember we must, for intolerance is still around, and, in an increasingly bigoted world, growing once again. Even the slightest hint of scandal could destroy a man's career in those benighted days, but Britten and Pears were never intimidated.   They weren't the kind of people who'd do parades, but neither did they betray their nature.  By being themselves fairly open, they showed the world that gay men were part of society, deserving respect. With quiet courage and integrity they stood up for what they believed.

All his life, Britten opposed bullying.  At school, where he was apparently raped, he didn't like the system. He became a pacifist for similar reasons, having observed how  nations and political parties can bully each other. Unlike Tippett, who went to prison, Britten helped the anti-Nazi war effort by non-violent means.  He was blacklisted in the US, ironically by J Edgar Hoover, who may have been in the closet.  Was Hoover a model for John Claggart?  Please read my article Britten and the FBI : love match ? here . 

Far from being invisible, homosexuality was a sensitive issue, but publicly discussed.  The exhibition Queer Talk focuses on two extraordinary works that Britten created against a backdrop of widespread debate on homosexuality: the 1951 all-male opera Billy Budd  and the extended solo vocal work Canticle I ‘My beloved is mine and I am his’ (1947) an open declaration of Britten’s love for Pears. Also on display are letters by Alan Turing, manuscripts and edits of EM Forster’s homoerotic novel Maurice and photographs of Noël Coward and his long-term companion Graham Payn.

Please also read my article  "A Homosexual Story" : Gerald Finzi on Billy Budd  from five years ago. Billy Budd is a whole lot more than a "homosexual story" since it predicates on Captain Vere;'s moral and ethical dilemmas, so beware narrowing the interpretation of the opera. It's not really  about Billy but about Vere, who in many ways is Britten himself.  Incidentally, Finzi was no homophobe. By the standards of the time, he was an outsider too, being vegetarian, holistic and mystical.  

The love letters between Britten and Pears have been public for decades, and in 2016 were collected in a single volume and published in full.  Read more here.. Britten was a pack rat who saved everything, and in later years was acutely aware that his life would be scrutinized in great detail.  By saving the letters, Britten and Pears were making the statement that their love was not something to hide, but to cherish. A heart warming read for anyone, gay or straight.



Sacrifice of an Opera Singer


One of the finest Cantonese movies ever made, and one which deserves to be in the canon of world cinema, Parents Heart (父母心) starring Ma Tse Tsang  (,馬師曾) (1900-1962),  the paramount actor and opera singer of his era. As a young man, Ma was a megastar, galvanizing Cantonese opera, so significant that there's no equivalent in the west.   In Parents Heart, he plays an opera star reduced to poverty by social change.  Watch this movie and learn a lot about the art of Cantonese opera, since performances are built into the narrative expanding the drama.  The film is also a study of Chinese values, but it's a universal story.  It's so sensitive, and so emotionally true that sometimes the intensity is hard to cope with, but its message is extraordinarily powerful. What keeps us going when life is too hard to bear ?  Love, art, aspiration and hope : utterly relevant for all.  Yet it's lost to western audiences, because it's not in English but needs an awareness of cultural background.

The title credits play out against a curtain on which two masks are placed, one smiling, one in tears : symbols familiar to all but here distinctively Chinese. Next we see neon signs : modern theatres and nightlife.  Opera has fallen on hard times, having to compete with movies and westernized entertainment.   The character Ma plays was once extremely popular but now he's reduced to playing in half empty, rundown theatres. Nonetheless, we're treated to a superlative performance -a masterclass in Cantonese rhythmic singing, a bit like Sprechstimme, but improvised and inventively spontaneous.  Listen to the phrasing patterns, and the imaginative variations on basic tunes.   Ma plays a scholar but suddenly breaks in to a march. "Quit fooling around" sings an actress "You're supposed to be singing"  Great as the performance is, the show is closing and the opera troupe breaking up.  So when Ma answers "These days, it's foreign things that count" you realize that his march isn't just improvisation but a cry of protest. Notice how the percussion clappers used to punctuate singing continue on after the show has ended and Ma relaxes with his friend Wong Chow San. The clicks suggest mounting tension. Gradually the background music turns to western orchestral (Sibelius) as in many "modern"dramas, but the point is made.

Ma goes home with the pittance he's made but his wife (Wong Man Lei)  bursts into tears.  She's on the verge of a breakdown. Wong's performance is frighteningly well observed, and the way she and Ma interact is sensitively played.  Ma plays with his younger son Wai Tsai, but in the process is also teaching the kid the rudiments of opera improvisation and movement.  The boy is played by Yuen Siu-fai, who also appeared in Father and Son, read more here)  The elder son, Ah Kuen has been studying abroad but comes back on vacation.  He's played by Lam Kar Sing of whom more HERE.  Ah Kuen immediately notices that something's wrong with his mother, but both parent keep up pretences.  Although Ma is broke, he loves his boys so much he wants to protect them. He takes them out for a meal and buys the younger one a toy monkey.  Little Wai Tse wants to be like Dad and sing opera : another chance for play disguised as teaching.

Proud of his Dad, Ah Kuen invites his friends to the theatre.   Once Ma was a star, now he's reduced to humiliating bit parts. Watch the way he does acrobatic back flips, though!  Though Ma is dressed as a lion clown, his expression is heartbreaking. Ah Kuen realizes that his parents are broke. He can't bear to take the money his father gives him for school.  Ma bursts into tears : for his son, he'd sacrifice anything.  "I don't want you to end up like me, you need an education to set you up for life".  Unlike many stage stars and opera singers, Ma was a natural in close-ups, acting with great nuance and subtlety.

Ah Kuen can't get a job because he has no experience, so sneaks back to school but leaves the money with his mother. With the money, Ma redeems the opera costumes he'd pawned and starts busking on the streets.  A big come down from the past, but better than starving. Yet again, this is an opportunity for Ma to demonstrate the art of Cantonese opera. A long sequence of skits in which he plays roles which are both theatre and "reality", for example a sad clown cheered by the thought of having children.  Meanwhile Mother becomes ill.  Another well acted scene in which Ma and Wong face her death with mutual respect and tenderness.  After she dies, there's a long shot of Ma in the now empty house, looking at photographs of the family in happier  times.  Back on the streets busking,there's a wonderful vignette in which Ma plays a beggar who sees a gold ingot, which is grabbed by a succession of other players "No mercy in this world" sings Ma.  eventually Ma becomes unwell and loses his voice, permanently.  "If I can't sing,how can I live!" he cries.

The busking troupe mates pool their own meagre earnings to help, but it's not enough. Wai Tsai misbehaves and Ma beats him with a feather duster.  "But I'm angry at myself", the father cries, "I didn't want to hurt you". Ma's ex boss, who was once his apprentice offers to train Wai Tsai for the opera. "I'd rather starve than seperate from you" the child cries,but the father knows  there's  no  choice. He walks away "Doesn't Dad love me ?" the child asks . A kind friend says "One day, when you're a parent,you'll understand".

Wai Tsai has talent but he's preoccupied, worrying about his Dad. The boss offers to send him home, but the boy says Dad would be disappointed.  When the boy makes his debut on stage, it's a disaster. Everyone laughs. In the shadows, the father watches, feeling the child's humiliation. as if it were his own.  Once home, he looks at the portrait of his wife and says "I've failed him like I've failed myself - are you mad at me, dear wife?" A single shot lingers on the photo. Perhaps she understands.  Ah Kuen returns. He's graduated !  But Ma is on his death bed   Seeing his son happy has made his struggles worthwhile. "I'm not going to die!" he grins. "I've been through so much. But I could use a rest", his says as he expires. The camera then pans away from the decrepit room to a vista over the houses, facing the horizon.  

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Benjamin Appl Heimat - ideas and identity


Benjamin Appl and James Baillieu Heimat new from Sony.  In the booklet notes, Appl reflects on arriving in London in 2010 to study at the Guildhall School of Music. "I felt", he writes, "not only a sense of freedom but also a sense of uncertainty."  He could have remained in Germany,  the"home"of Lieder, but chose to adapt to a new environment in which he had to find his bearings afresh.   On graduation, Appl became part of the BBC Young Generation Artists Programme, whose extensive coverage has launched many careers.  The eclectic mix of Lieder and English Song on this disc reflects Appl's background, but there's a lot more to this programme, which is very well thought through and deeply satisfying.

The songs are arranged in eight sections - Wurzeln (Roots), Räume (Locations), Menschen (People), Unterwegs (On the road), Sensucht (Yearning) and Grenzenlos (Without borders), framed by a Prologue (Schubert's Seligkeit D433  and an Epilogue (Grieg's An das Vaterland op58/2 and Ein Träum 0p 48/6.  This gives cohesive structure, and brings out the logic in the programme.  An individual Winterreise, a journey of self discovery.  Much more rewarding than a random selection!  Appl and Baillieu set out "alone" but traverse different, diverse threads of European art song.

Thus the section Wurzeln starts with Max Reger Das Kindes Gebet op 76/22, where the piano tinkles, as might a child's toy piano, and ends with Brahms' Wegenlied op 49/4., the world's most loved lullaby, which millions of children know even before they learn formal language. Appl mentions the death of two of his grandparents while he was away from home,which gives these familiar songs personal import, with which we can all identify.  Franz Schreker's  Waldeinsamkeit might not be quite so well known, but Appl might have included it because the text, a German translation of a Danish poem by Jens Peter Jacobsen, predicates on the phrase "Wir müssen, Geliebteste, leise hinschreiten, ich und du". On a beautiful moonlit night in the woods, the lovers cannot tarry but must move on. Schreker was 19 when he wrote this song, which may perhaps be significant.

And thus, we move on. Romanticism was  forward-thinking, always concerned with wanderers, seeking  new horizons : the journey as important as the destination.  Appl and Baillieu chose two of Shubert's many "wanderer" songs, Drang in die Ferne D 770 and Der Wanderer an den Mond D870, but pointedly matched them with Adolf Strauss  Ich weiß bestimmt, ich werd' dich wiedersehen.   Fate has torn the lovers apart, but the underlying mood is overlaid with deceptive optimism   "I am certain that I will see you again, and hold you in my arms". The song is laconic, a Weimar-infused  pop song. But this Strauss wasn't Richard or Johann but Adolf Strauss (1902-1944), imprisoned at Theresienstadt, killed in Auschwitz. Think on that. This is what happens when national pride turns to bigotry.  At least Germans  deal with such things in a way many Brits cannot.  This colours the Sensucht in Schubert's Das Heimweh D456 and DerWanderer D489 with poignant depth.  "Ich wandle still, bin wenig froh, und ier fragt der Seufzer wo  Im Gesiterhauch tönt's mir zurück; "Dort, wo du nicht bist, dort is ds Glück".

Perhaps the very concept of unchanging Heimat is illusion.  Appl and Baillieu made the point still further with Hyde Park, by Francis Poulenc, never François, setting a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire which isn't  about London at all, followed by Benjamin Britten's mock Tudor version of Greensleeves. Another brilliant pairing: Ralph Vaughan Williams Silent Noon with Henry Bishop Home sweet Home, the former a masterpiece, the latter sentimental tosh, but Appl and Baillieu perform them with finesse.  I love hearing them done with a slight German accent, a reminder that the world is not all Anglo and that music is universal. 

This proved an excellent introduction to Peter Warlock's My own country (1927) about an imaginary homeland, which once reached, is a place to lie down and dream "forever and all". John Ireland's If there were dreams to sell continued the dream meme.pointedly, though, dreams can't be "bought" like physical commodities.  Appl and Baillieu completed the set with two songs by Edvard Grieg, whose music shaped national identity and led to Norwegian independence.  Is Heimat a state of mind? In the last Grieg song (to a poem by a German) "Dort ward die Wirklichkeit zumTraum, Dort ward der Traum zur Wirklichkeit !".

Appl and Baillieu's Heimat follows on from their  Stunde, Tage, Ewigkeiten, settings of Heine, from Champs Hill Records (reviewed here) which could become a sought after collector's item.  Appl's voice is a joy to listen to, but I hope he'll develop and take more risks. He's very good, and I think he can do it.  At times, he sounds too much like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with whom he studied briefly.  But no man can be a master until he finds himself first, and his own inner "Heimat". Especially in a genre like Lieder which celebrates freedom and individuality. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

Nodding and Laughing....Not !

photo: Phillip Halling
His thoughts dropped back Through eighteen years, and he again saw Jack 
At the old home beneath the Malvern hills, A little fellow plucking daffodils,
A little fellow who could scarcely walk, Yet chuckling as he snapped each juicy stalk
And held up every yellow bloom to smell, Poking his tiny nose into the bell
And sniffing the fresh scent, and chuckling still As though he'd secrets with each daffodil.

Ay, he could see again the little fellow In his blue frock among that laughing yellow,
And plovers in their sheeny black and white Flirting and tumbling in the morning light
About his curly head: he still could see, Shutting his eyes, as plain as plain could be,
Drift upon drift those long-dead daffodils Against the far green of the Malvern hills,
Nodding and laughing round his little lad, As if to see him happy made them glad

— Nodding and laughing ...

They were nodding now, The daffodils, and laughing — yet somehow
They didn't seem so merry now
 ... And he
Was fighting in a bloody trench maybe
 For very life this minute
... They missed Jack, And he would give them all to have him back.

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)  "Daffodils"
photo : Roger Thomas

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Morfydd Owen - Talent has no gender



Is International Women's Day bad for women?  Is it innate hypocrisy to make a fuss one day a year when all round the world, millions of women are struggling simply to survive and protect others? Making a fuss about middle class white folk priorities distracts from much more immediate issues like poverty, abuse, health, education, even climate change, where activism would really make a change. So some people react in fury because some women composer isn't revered like Schubert?  Tell that to the women of Africa and the Middle East, or in the underclasses in affluent "civilized" societies. Until women are respected for themselves, not for their gender, media frenzy about Women's Day is demeaning.

Good women have been doing good things for millennia, almost always against the odds. Today, let's remember Morfydd Owen (1891-1918).  She doesn't seem to have been shaped by her gender. Though she died before her 27tth birthday, she was prolific. She moved in interesting artistic and intellectual circles and might, quite likely, have developed well.  Read more about her HERE on Tŷ Cerdd, Discover Welsh Music, from which you can buy printed scores and also a CD of her songs for voice and piano.  Making her work available is the proper way  to honour her memory.  Talent needs no special pleading.  
 
Morfydd Owen's Nocturne for orchestra can be heard on BBC Radio 3 here, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Perry So, and not, as far as I can tell, recorded commercially. It's original and quite distinctive, especially considering it was written in 1913 when Owen was a postgraduate student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. A lone clarinet sings a melody, taken up by strings. Almost immediately a flute enters, gradually taking over, introducing a new theme, itself taken up by celli and low strings. The first melody and gradually, a richer, deeper theme emerges.  In this second section, the mood is confident, framing a vivacious cantilena for woodwinds, which dances merrily along, decorated by harps and percussion.  A solo violin extends the melody which is then taken up by the full strings. The tempo stirs, and the music surges towards a striking climax where chords thrash wildly but purposefully, then diminishes to reveal a new theme, quirky, sassy and spirited. A nocturne, yes, but very unusual.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Secret History : The Ghana Freedom Song

Ghana Freedom is a cult song, known to most Ghanaians under the age of 60 through the recording by E T Mensah made for Ghana's independence in 1957. The tune is irrepressible, but the story behind it is even more irrepressible than most  realize. This is a scoop for African history!  In 1977, one of the regular readers of this blog unearthed papers in Colonial Office Archive to explain the mystery.

He found a clipping from The Morning Telegraph, a Sekondi newspaper, dated 5 February 1952, which states "As an expression of solidarity between Africans of the Gold Coast and people of African descent in the West Indies, Trinidad calypso singers, headed by George Browne have composed a calypso called Freedom for Africa. The new dance song is dedicated to the Honourable Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Prime Minister and Chairman of the Convention People's Party, popularly known as the CPP" ..... "the background music is provided by African drums  played by two Gold Coast Natives, Alfred Payne of Accra and Kofi Mensah of Cape Coast. The calypso has an attractive tune and should be popular among dancers as well as among supporters of the CPP". Here are four of the eight verses::


From his Ussherfort Cell, where they bolted the doors so well,
Nkrumah made his clarion call, and the people voted him one and all.

Chorus : Freedom, freedom is in the land, Friends, let us shout, Long live the CPP! Which now controls Africa's destiny. 

They called us all the verandah boys, they thought we were just a bunch of toys, But we won the right to vote at midnight hour, came out of jail and took power.

With Appiah  the ambassador, Casely Hayford the barrister, 
these two gentlemen did quite well, they got us out of the jailhouse cell.

The British MP Gammans was rude, by his dog in the mangerish attitude, 
But like the ostrich we know that man can go bury his head in the sand

Apparently several thousand records of the song were to be made and shipped to Africa, but the Colonial Office probably wasn't pleased. In those days, The Crown Agents held a monopoly of all government business and locals weren't supposed to act independently. So if a colony grew cotton, it had to buy cotton textiles from Manchester, via the CA.  In a minute preserved in CO554/595 dated 5th January 1952, officials are discussing the activities of men like "Mr Appiah of WASU" (Joe Appiah of the West African Students Union).  Making mass copies of a recording which criticized the government would not go down well. No-one really knows what happened to the first pressing of Ghana Freedom, but quiet words may have been said in London, where the master tapes were. Colonialism was sinister and pernicious, even though there were many good idealists, like Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke and Stafford Cripps whose daughter Peggy married Appiah. Their son Kwame Anthony Appiah was professor of philosophy at Princeton and now has a chair at New York University.

The recording is "lost" as far as can be ascertained. Maybe someone has a copy somewhere? George Browne, aka Young Tiger, was also quite a character- here's his obit.

Fortunately, E T Mensah took up the cause. His song Ghana Freedom is the unofficial national anthem, even sixty years later. So the words "Toil of the brave and the sweat of their labours, they have brought results"remind us that independence wasn't an act of kindness on the part of the British.  Africans, Indians, Pakistanis and Malays died in order that the idea of freedom would be recognized. Democracy is a responsibility we must honour. Don't take it for granted ! It is not a game.

ET was a qualified pharmacist who worked for the government by day and had a huge career in hilife music at night. As he rose higher, he played less until his retirement, when he went back to hi life. In the months before his death, he was interviewed on TV about the events of 1957. He was then old and sick, but still he remembered the words to the song. 

We are "all" Ghana when we celebrate freedom. Nkrumah's government collapsed: Chaos often follows independence, especially where democracy has been so long suppressed that people don't  know how to deal with it. But the principle stands : all people have the right to self determination. These days we're facing a retreat from the very concept of democracy, when electors place their faith in demagogues. Extremism is not democracy. Real democracy comes when people take their rights seriously enough to think, evaluate and question. So democracy isn't "orderly" ? Consider the alternative.



Sunday, 5 March 2017

Pierre Boulez Saal opening concert : Schubert Der Hirt auf dem Felsen

The Opening Concert  of the Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin's new hall for chamber recitals.  Daniel Barenboim  did the honours in the Mozart Piano Quartet KV 493, with his son, Michael, the violinist, beside him.  No way would a concert as significant as this have been  complete without a star like Barenboim.  The invisible star, nonetheless was Pierre Boulez, for whom the hall is named. Fittingly, the concert began and ended with Boulez: Initiale initiating proceedings, with Sur Incises as the grand highlight. Both pieces also demonstrated the acoustic and flexibility of this new hall.  It's more than a recital hall, since it can be adapted for larger ensembles and even, potentially, for chamber opera.  Seating seems generous, so backstage facilities might also be of the same high standard.  Coffin-shaped concert halls are dead.  London, wake up!

Barenboim will also be remembered for posterity because he nurtures young musicians, just as he himself was nurtured when he was a child prodigy. It was good to hear Karim Said, whom Barenboim has mentored since childhood. Please see my article Why we need  to know who Karim Said Is from 2008. Said has matured nicely. He was the soloist in Alban Berg's Kammerkonzert for piano, violin and thirteen winds, with Barenboim as conductor. Later, Said was the lead pianist in Sur Incises.  Jörg Widmann appeared, both as clarinettist and as composer, performing his own Fantasie. The whole concert can be heard on repeat here, a good idea since you can fast forward past the inordinately long breaks between pieces.   You can see who's in the audience, too - Simon Rattle. 

Being a Lieder person,  I was keen to hear Schubert Der Hirt auf dem Felsen D 965 with  Barenboim, Widmann  and the incomparable Anna Prohaska.  Pauline Anna Milder-Hauptmann, the celebrity coloratura of her day, wanted a showpiece that would test her range and artistry. Der Hirt auf dem Felsen is a challenge, even for the finest performers.  The piano part is dense, "rock-like" in its complexity, and the clarinet part equally daunting. But the soprano is the star. The piece runs for twelve minutes, connecting three different poems (Wilhelm Müller and Karl August Vernhagen).  Schubert's setting replicates the imagery in the first poem,  Müller's Der Berghirt, whiuch describes a young shepherd, sitting high on a rock on a mountain, looking down on the valley below, where his beloved lives, far away. Thus the extremes of height and depth,the soprano's voice soaring upwards, while the clarinet's lower register floats seductively around her, sometimes in duet.

In the early part of the 19th century, there was a craze for "Alpine" music connecting the Romantic concepts of Nature, purity and freedom with picturesque mountain scenery and peasant simplicity.   Weber's Der Freischütz premiered in 1821 and Rossini's William Tell in 1829, the year after Schubert wrote this remarkable song. Tragically, it was his last completed work., but it might indicate how Schubert might have progressed had he survived.  Later in the century,"Alpine opera", such as La Wally came into vogue.   Strauss and Mahler wrote music in which mountains appear, figuratively. Indeed,  the whole genre of Bergfilm is an adaptation of the style. Lots on this site about mountains in music and Bergfilme.

Although the soprano in Der Hirt auf dem Felsen certainly does not yodel, the idea of a song designed to carry over long distances applies, and requires good breath control (as do pan pipes and Alpenhorn), Milder-Hauptmann and Schubert no doubt realized the piece would be a tour de force.   Prohaska was wonderful, singing with mellifluous grace.  Her words rang clear and true.

"Je weiter meine Stimme dringt,
Je heller sie mir wieder klingt
Von unten
".  


In the last section, Prohaska's voice trilled deliciousl, .duetting with Widmann's clarinet. Tricky phrasing, but joyously agile, like a mountain spirit. 

"Der Frühling will kommen,
Der Frühling, meine Freud',
Nun mach' ich mich fertig
Zum Wandern bereit
"


It might seem trivial, but I loved the outfit Prohaska wore: cropped trousers, knee-high boots and a long jacket.  Very elegant, yet also reminiscent of a 19th century traveller, a poet or a wanderer.



Saturday, 4 March 2017

Siren Call - Oramo, Sibelius Nielsen Glanert

Sinister mysteries of the sea and malevolence! Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a superlative programme: Sibelius Lemminkäinen Suite, Op.22, with Carl Nielsen An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands and Detlev Glanert's Megaris. inspired by ancient legend.  An atmospheric concert so rewarding that it deserves repeat listening - catch it HERE on BBC Radio 3.

This was the UK premiere of Glanert's Megaris: Seestück mit Klage der toten Sirene (2014-15)  It's a fascinating piece that takes as a starting point the legend that Partenope, the siren, washed up dead on the rocks at Megaris, once an island off the coast of Sicily, now part of the conurbation.  Sirens don't exist, except in myth, but are powerful symbols. They're also pagan. Yet Partenope's relics are supposedly buried in a church on the fortress of Castel dell'Ovo on rocks which jut onto the sea.  Contradictions! Thus layers of myth and meaning, which Glanert incorporates into the complex, shifting textures of his music. Megaris is elusive, but seductive, like the sirens whose songs drove mortals to their deaths. Partenope died because she failed in her mission:  Odysseus escaped by blocking his ears. Partenope's death is romantic and a lure for tourists. But bodies still wash up on shores all over the Mediterranean. Do we listen to their voices?   Far too often, audiences block out new music on principle, lest they be seduced and change, but Glanert's Megaris is compelling.  

From offstage, hidden singers  (the BBC Singers) intone strange harmonies. the lines long, keening, stretching out into space. The orchestra responds. Timpani are beaten in solemn progression, high winds cry plaintively, flying over massed strings and massed choral voices, singing a wordless chorus of vowel sounds.  The pace quickens and the orchestra breaks into a flurry of dissonances, the percussion adding menace, the strings whipped into frenzy. Yet the voices won't be silenced, singing short, sharp sounds, as if imitating the orchestral passage that went before. A strange stillness descends. the voices hum as do the strings: haunting, seamless abstract sound from which the voices materialize. led by the sopranos.  A subtle interplay of tonal colour. The voices then rise, singing short, urgent phrases and the orchestra flies back to life with complex cross-currents. O-A-O-E,, the voices sing, urgently. Another violent tutti, ending with a crash of cymbals before a mysterious stillness descends : silvery, circulating sounds lit by brass, the voices now whispering surreal chant.  The crash of a gong: then a solo soprano, calling wordlessly into the void.  Atmospheric, magical, beautiful, yet also unsettling.  Lots more on Glanert on this site, please explore. 

The four legends in Sibelius Lemminkäinen Suite describe the adventures of Lemminkäinen in the epic saga of the Kalevala. Oramo's approach was fresh and lively, suggesting the young hero's erotic vigour. The Kalevala isn't prissy!  This highlighted the contrast between the hero and the Swan of  Tuonela, the mysterious symbol of the Island of the Dead.  Unlike other birds, a swan does not sing until it dies, so killing the swan implies some mystical rite. Lemminkäinen, like Parsifal, thinks he can kill a swan, but in the process is killed himself and brought back to life. The Lemminkäinen Suite is much more than programme music.  The swan's "voice" is the cor anglais, solemn, mournful and seductive, perhaps not so different from a siren.  Beautiful playing from the BBC SO's soloist.  In the final section, Lemminkäinen's Return, Oramo brought out depth of meaning. The hero is restored, but he's strong because he's learned along the way. 

Oramo is emerging as a major interpreter of Carl Nielsen, having conducted a lot of Nielsen with the BBC SO in recent years. This performance of Nielsen's  An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands (1927) was authoritative, and very individual.  The five sections in this piece form an arc, tone poem as miniature symphony, in a way. Oramo accentuated the contrast between movements which gives the piece such élan. The lugubrious undercurrents in the first section speed up as land approaches, quirky little flourishes from the winds suggesting sea birds on the coast.  This music has the feel of the seas, the orchestra surging as if propelled by powerful waves. Can we hear in the dances echoes of hardy Lutheran chorale? Nielsen had a wry sense of humour, as does Oramo. Perhaps that's why they suit each other so well.  Bracing stuff !