Saturday, 23 May 2020

The personal Roger Quilter : Mark Stone - Songs of Roger Quilter vol 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume III in their series the Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records. Quilter made more settings of Shakepeare than most others, so Volume I in the series focussed on his Shakespeare settings, while volume II featured his settings of Jacobean poets. In contrast, this third volume highlights Quilter's interest in folk-inspired sources.  This shows a more informal Quilter than the greatly admired art songs, but reveals the intimate side of Quilter's personality. Superb notes enhance this series, which re-assesses the range of Quilter's output.

The Arnold Book of Old Songs was c ollected for Arnold Vivian.  Quilter and his older brother Arnold, for whom their nephew was named, seem to have ben very different personalities, though they were very close.  Arnold was extravert, athletic, tall (6 foot 7) and had served in the Boer War.  He was also part of the circle around Rupert Brooke, whom he helped bury.  Two weeks later, he, too, was killed at Gallipoli.  When the younger Arnold joined the Grenadier Guards at the outbreak of the Second World War,  Quilter expanded a smaller collection published in 1924, for Arnold to sing when he was away.But yet again, tragedy struck, when Arnold was shot in September 1942 while trying to escape from a prisoner of war camp.

The Arnold Songs are based on songs from earlier vernacular songs, which are so well known that they've enetered the mainstream almost as popular song.  Drink to me only with thine eyes is a setting of Ben Johnson, based on Philostratus, the second-century Greek poet,  the tune we know now published in the late 18th century.  Similarly, My Lady Greensleeves was first published in 1600 as a lute song, though there are references to it in Shakespeare's The merry wives of Windsor, suggesting that it was well-known long before. Barbara Allen  was mentioned in Pepys diaries.It is folk song as popular music, a best seller in the ballad-selling broadside trade, enabling its dissemination, with many regional variations,  throughout the English-speaking world.  Quilter's version adapts the tune with great sensitivity.  Delicate piano figures illuminate the name "Barbara Allen", suggesting her beauty: perhaps it even suggests a softer side of her nature, which explains her change of heart. Dramatic chords evoke the "dead bell". Barbara dies, chastened and meek : this is no simple love story.

The Irish songs in the Arnold Bookof Songs also originate from the end of the 18th century. The text for Believe me, if all those endearing young charms could come from two sources in the mid 17th century, but the form suggest traditionl ballad.  The jolly, rythmic Oh ! 'tis sweet to think seems to stem from country dance. All three of the Scottish songs have connections to Robert Burns, who collected and adapted songs as part of his fascination with all things Scottish.  Ye banks and braes is now so famous that it's almost basic repertoire.  Charlie is my darling  refers to  Bonnie Prince Charlie. Though the text is by Lady Nairne, the song may have  had topical appeal for people who knew the Jacobite cause and its brutal suppression at Culloden in 1746.  Quilter's Ca' the Yowes is very different to earlier arrangements, such as the version by Maurice Jacobsen made famous by Kathleen Ferrier, and the version by Benjamin Britten, much more frequently perfomed.  Jacobsens's version is gentle, like a lullaby, while Britten's version is more austere and plaintive, as befits a song which might once have been a lament from harsh times, long ago.  Both Britten and Quilter evoke a sense of abandoned desolation, recognizing the context from which the song might have arisen. Quilter's version is even closer to lament, particularly in favouring a lower, masculine register : the piano part is understated, suggesting, perhaps, the bleak internal landscape. In the final verse, the voice swells in intensity : "I can die but canna part, My bonnie dearie".  The  song is attrributed to Isobel "Tibbie" Pagan (1741-1821)  a colourful character, who owned an alehouse where she wrote poems and sang songs for her customers. Robert Burns heard it sung by a clergyman, who may or not have got it direct.  Burns himself revised his version of the poem three times. (Please read more here). 

Also of interest is Quilter's version of The Rose of Tralee based on  a poem from 1846, set  in the same period. The song is so popular that it has entered into the canon as "traditional song", and may well have antecedents.  Quilter develops the piano part with subtle sophistication : art song without artifice.. Although Quilter has been described by some as a "walled garden", perfect but intensely private, he was well aware of what was happening in the world around him.  Marian Anderson and Quilter were friends,  and he accompanied her in his own songs at her WigmoreHall debut in 1928.  I got a robe was written for the occasion, based on a an arrangement of a spiritual arranged by Harry Burlieigh as Heav'n, heav'n.  Quilter also worked in musicalm theatre, partnering Rodney Bennett (father of Richard Rodney Bennnet) in several popular musicals, of which Where the rainbow ends was successful enough to encouage Quilter to write a light opera The blue boar, premiered as Julia..  Two songs from Songs from "Love at the Inn" suggest a more modest, vaguely pastoral theme.  More substantial  is The Man behind the Plough, Bennett's adaptation of a 19th century French song, which is  included among the four French songs in the Arnold Book of Songs, The Pretty Month of May derived from a composer at the court of Louis XIII. Quilter's Four Songs of Mirza Schaffy  set poems in German based on an Azerbaijani poet who taught languages in Germany.  of these Die helle Sonne leuchtet is lyrical, the piano - Quilter's instrument - radiant, emphasising the glorious crescendo in the final verse.

More personal is Daisies after the rain by a contemprary of Quilter's, Judith Bickle, published in 1951. All his life, Quilter was plagued by ill health, yet survived, unlike his more robust relatives and friends. Like the wild daisies in the poem,  humble blooms can defy odds that fell more showy flowers.  Thus it is appropriate that Stone and Barlow conclude this recording with The Ash Grove, fromThe Arnold Book of Songs. The song as  Llwyn Onn was first published in 1802 in  a collection of Bardic songs called The Bardic Museum, which implies that even then it had early origins.  Texts vary. Quilter set words by Rodney Bennett who understood  very well how their  meaning applied to Quilter's personal life.  The piano line is discreet, intensifying the suppressed emotional anguish.   Once friends gathered in the Ash Grove  "How little we knew, as we laughed there so lightly,/ and time seemed to us to stretch endless away,/The hopes that then shone like a vision so brightly/ Could fade as a dream in the coming of day!"   But memories live on in the  song of a lone bird and the whisper of the wind.   In 1950, Quilter was nearing his own end, so it mattered to him that "there in the Ash Grove my heart be at rest".

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Hi'ilawe - one of the loveliest songs, ever

Hi'ilawe is one of my favourite songs ever, which is saying a lot since I've been doing Lieder and art song since I was a kid.  More than most people have been alive.  On what woud have been Israel Kamakawiwi'ole' s 61st birhday,  hearing him sing this song is as refreshing and life-enhancing as the waters that feed the crops beneath the falls in the Waipi'o Valley on Big Island, Hawai'i, sustaining farmers growing crops for sustenance.  It's a traditional song, attributed to Martha K. Maui under the title of Ke Aloha Poina ʻOle (Unforgettable Love), and also to Sam Liʻa Kalainaina, Sr. and first printed in 1902, four years after annexation by the United States.  Kawakawiwi'ole, also known as Bruddah Iz, was passionate about Hawaiian identity, sovereignity, another very good reason for loving his performance.  Instinctively, I identify with what he was about, and why.  And what a voice he had - so pure, so agile!  Hawaiian vowels are elegant,  the syntax flexible, single words held together like a phrase.

For the text and translation, please see HERE 

Kūmaka ka ʻikena iā Hiʻilawe
Ka papa lohi mai aʻo Maukele
Pakele mai au i ka nui manu
Hau walaʻau nei puni Waipiʻo
ʻAʻole nō wau e loaʻa mai
A he uhiwai au no ke kuahiwi
He hiwahiwa au na ka makua
A he lei ʻāʻī na ke kupuna *(A he milimili hoʻi na ka makua)

No Puna ke ʻala i hali ʻia mai
Noho i ka wailele aʻo Hiʻilawe
I ka poli nō au o Haʻi wahine
I ka poli aloha o Haʻinakolo
Hoʻokolo ʻia aku i ka nui manu I like ke ka ʻina meka uahoa
He hoa ʻoe no ka lā leʻaleʻa
Na ka nui manu iho haunaele
E ʻole koʻu nui piha akamai
Hala aʻe nā ʻale o ka moana

Hao mai ka moana kau e ka weli
Mea ʻole naʻe ia no ia hoʻokele
Hoʻokele o ʻuleu pili i ka uapo
Honi malihini au me kuʻu aloha
He aloha ia pua ua lei ʻia Kuʻu pua miulana poina ʻole
 Haʻina ʻia mai ana ka puana
Kūmaka ka ʻikena iā Hiʻilawe

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Ca' the yowes to the knowes - folk song and art song

New from Stone Records, Part 3 in their Roger Quilter Complete Songs series,  Roger Quilter's Ca' the yowes with Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow.  Quilter's Ca' the yowes comes from a a set named the Arnold Book of Old Songs, written for Arnold Vivian, Quilter's nephew, named after Quilter's brother Arnold, killed at Gallipolli.  Tragically, Vivian, too, was killed, in 1942, shot while attempting to escape from a prisoner of war camp. Quilter's Ca' the Yowes is very different to earlier arrangements, such as the version by Maurice Jacobsen made famous by Kathleen Ferrier, and the version by Benjamin Britten, much more frequently perfomed.  Jacobsens's version is gentle, like a lullaby, while Britten's version is more austere and plaintive, as befits a song which might once have been a lament from harsh times, long ago.  Both Britten and Quilter evoke a sense of abandoned desolation, recognizing the context from which the song might have arisen. Quilter's version is even closer to lament, particularly in favouring a lower, masculine register : the piano part is understated, suggesting, perhaps, the bleak internal landscape. In the final verse, the voice swells in intensity : "I can die but canna part, My bonnie dearie".  The  song is attrributed to Isobel "Tibbie" Pagan (1741-1821)  a colourful character, who owned an alehouse where she wrote poems and sang songs for her customers.  Click HERE for a well researched piece on the evidence of Pagan's life It seems she was an outsider, not only because of her looks, but may have been born illegitimate. Nonetheless, the song's origins may well go much further back, to undocumented traditional ballad.  (Pagan wasn't a farmer, nor was she illiterate).  Robert Burns heard it sung by a clergyman, who may or not have got it direct.  Burns himself revised his version of the poem three times. The version in the photo at right was published in 1790.

Ca' the Yowes demonstrates one of the fundamentals of vernacular song, that the music and text are  flexible, depending on the performer or composer.  Furthermore, these songs were being collected, and notated, too, long before the "folk revival" at the turn of the 20th century.  It's just a question of luck which performer happens to be collected, and that doesn't stop good composers and performers from making the most of the material at hand.   

Please also see my piece Morbid Lullabies : ballads, folk song, art song and creative vision 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Herbert Howells Missa Sabrinensis, revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howell's Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned the Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere. "Such was the level of intricate detail of Howell's counterpoint", noted Wilcocks, "that he was like a medieval stonemason carving high in a cathedral, knowing that his details would be perceptible only to the composer."  This new edition by Paul Spicer and David Hill, recorded irded by Hyperion using modern sound technology, reveals those details in their full intricate glory.

In Missa Sabrinensis, Howells adapts the Mass format to celebrate the river Severn, (in Latin, "Sabrina") and by extension its role in British history, and specifically its connections to British music. The 1954 premiere of Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis was paired with Vaughan Williams' Hodie, dedicated to Howells in his maturity.  By extension, the Mass  also celebrates the Gloucestershire landscape and its personal significance for Howells and Ivor Gurney, with whom he would go walking in the surrounding countryside.

Nonetheless, Howells breaks away significantly from conventional choral tradition in the sophistication of this Mass. As Jonathan Clinch writes in his notes "the Mass can be heard as more of a choral symphony, in which he gradually builds up significant blocks of sound, using the soloists, chorus and orchestra as contrapuntal forces. This is the main reason that the work was considered so difficult, as the orchestra was not there to support the chorus in the traditional manner, but rather to build more and more lines of polyphony.  The river metaphor is appropriate as Howells writes such long lines, which are subsumed into the overall mass of sound, surging forward through the first four movements and gradually dispersing in the final two; thus, despite the complexity and number of Howells’ parts, it is the overall symphonic arch that dominates." 

The surging lines of the Kyrie with their complex melismata suggest vast horizons, such as the flow of a mighty river, or plainchant under the vaulting of a cathedral.  Soprano (Helena Dix) and tenor (Benjamin Hulett) function as an extension of the chorus. Their lines undulate, creating dense textural patterns, as if the search for faith were greater than the need for simple resolution, the final movements ending in diminuendo. Though Clinch identifies elements of Debussy and Ravel in this Kyrie, as well as Parry and Vaughan Williams, the synthesis is distinctively Howells’, closer to the spirit of Howells' English Mass, from the following year, 1955 (Please read more here )  In the Gloria, Clinch notes "ecstatic fanfares and constant dotted rhythms... creating a texture teeming with life, reinforced with bright high brass and percussion.". Again, the image of a great river, fertile and fertilizing,  while the underlying flow remains strong and unhurried.

Of the Credo, Howells wrote "this movement is begun in full cry, chorally and orchestrally, using a theme that will return at all cardinal moments.....At ‘in Spiritum Sanctum’ the theme of ‘Qui sedes’ and that of ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ are quoted. Thereafter the movement’s climax is reached through the style of opposed diatonic chords (‘et apostolicam Ecclesiam’), recapitulation (‘Confiteor’) and coda (‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’).". This Credo is a statement of hope and faith : all four soloists (Dix, Hulett, Christine Rice and Roderick Williams) join in, their voices reflected by the their counterparts in the choir.  For a moment the soloists sing with relatively little accompaniment, but on "et resurrexit tertia die secundum scripturas" all voices combine. Here, too, the orchestra (the BBC Concert Orchestra) comes to the fore, in glorious finale.

Howell's Sanctus begins with reference to Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms,  which he regularly cited in his teaching at the Royal College of Music. The Symphony of Psalms is a hybrid, its texts drawn from Psalms 38, 39 and 150, blending the form of ritual religious music to orchestral style, at once ancient and modern, with the unmistakable austerity that would mark Stravinsky's later style. Huge blocks of sound, hewn as if from a rockface, yet moving forward with slow but monumental pace. There are connections between the two works. Howells creates a wall of sound,  building up dense, complex textures culminating in an outburst where the organ leads voices and orchestra. textures building up in density : "Osanna in excelsis" before yet another return to pregnant stillness, from which the Benedictus emerges.  The voice parts here are spare, resembling plainchant, enhancing the purity of the text, creating luminous contrast with what has gone before. 

In the Agnus Dei, Howells reiterates themes from the Kyrie, emphasizing the cyclic symphonic structure of this Mass.  It is as if Howells were looking back while at the same venturing forward to new musical territory.  It reminds us of the tragedy that generated the Hymnus Paradisi, as if the offering up of the life of Michael Howells, so many years previously, had made the tenderness and resolution of this conclusion possible.  Howell's Missa Sabrinesis is a masterpiece, its true genius revealed in this exceptionally sensitive performance, recorded so lucidly that it defies its reputation for being difficult to perform.   This is essential listening for anyone into Howells and the true greatness of his work. 

This recording pairs the Mass with Michael, written one morning whern Howells was having breakfast with his son. It's a joyous hymn tune employing youthful voices, highlighting the simple joys of life. The brass fanfares might evoke adventure, hope, and promises that tragically, would never come to pass.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Mahler Festival Online LINKS

Plans for the 2020 Mahler Festival with the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam had to be cancelled at short notice, thanks to coronavirus. Not daunted though, the RCOA  created a new programme of recordings made live over the years,  every symphony in order, with conductors like Mariss Jansons, Daniele Gatti, Pierre Boulez, Bernhard Haitink, Ivan Fischer and Fabio Luisi. Sponsored by the Mahler Foundation,  the Festival is now the Mahler Festival Online, all concerts, talks and specially filmed documentaries available for free, internationally.  Please follow THIS LINK for the complete schedule.  Scroll down past the schedule for individual events. 

Years ago we would have been there or sure - we love Amsterdam - but in the circumstances no-one sane would want to risk the musicians, patrons and the people of the city to be put at risk.  And in lockdown, listening (and relistening) is all the more welcome !

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Prophetic Nemesis : Hitchcock the Birds

In times of COVID pandemic, it's scarier than ever to watch Alfred Hirtchcock's The Birds, released in 1963.  Since I used to live round there, the dichotomy between art and reality had an even greater impact than an ordinary movie.  We knew that gas station when it was still  hand pumped, and the pier when it was still worked by fishermen, bringing in their catch. We used to drive past the schoolhouse, up a narrow lane.  One year the rose covered cottage where Annie the schoolteacher supposedly lived, but didn't join the crowds of tourists who went to view. Some scenes filmed on location, others copied in studio, but absolutely convincing. So scenes such as Melanie sitting "driving" a car against a badly cut filmed background of birds  might have been deliberatly unsettling - what is real, what is not ?

Hitchcocks The Birds works on many levels. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren) is a rich bitch whose life is aimless so she does silly stunts like dancing naked in a public fountain and smashing. Daddy's a millionaire newspaper owner., so she gets away with anything, including getting reporters to track people down by their car licence plates - illegal then, as now.  While she's in a bird shop, a lovebbird escapes and goes berserk flying round the room.  What does it know ? Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) gently catches it and puts it back in its cage. Melanie becomes obssessed with Mitch and figures out a way to stalk him, even if it means sailing a boat across Bodega Bay to his home.  She brings him a pair of lovebirds, but lies non stop about her motives. Yet he lets her into his life.  Annie, (Susanne Pleshette) knows something's wrong with Melanie but she loves Mitch so much she's willing to play second fiddle rather than lose him.. Mitch's mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) also has psychiatric issues so perhaps Mitch, Annie and his family are in cages of their own.  Melanie blames hrer problrems on her mother who walked out on her but doesn't wonder why her mother needed to do that in the first place.  Though the mayhem doesn't start til the birds go mad, the people here are already waiting to explode.

Birds attack the children playing at Cathy (Mitch's sisters)'s birthday party, burst in the balloons. Seagulls come down the chimney and attack Mitch's family as they sit after dinner - rural bliss destroyed by something alien.  On the farm next door,  the chickens haven't been feeding, something's amiss.  Next moring, the farmer is found dead, his eyes picked out by birds. This is no silly prank. Chickens, who don't fly, avenged by crows. Then the famous schoolyard scene. While the kids sing in the classroom, Melanie waits outside, smoking a  cigarette.  A crow appears on the climbing frame, then another, and another...... Calmly tells the kids to move as quietly as possible  but the birds descend on them as they walk to the cars.  Melanie goes to the local gas station to phone her Dad. No phones at home, then !  And goods delivered by horse and cart.  The crows attack. Gasoline spills and ignites into a fireball. Melanie hides in a phone booth ( a glass cage). She and Mitch go fetch Cathy, who is at Annie's but Annie is dead. She died, pushing Cathy into the house before she was pecked to death on the doorstep.

The family hides out at their farm, which is boarded up in vain defence. But the birds get in, through the attic and attack Melanie. They don't really know what's happening outside Bodega Bay except that most locals have evacuated, they're alone and attacks have occured in Santa Rosa (nearest major hospital) so they start to drive to San Fransisco.  But as they're fleeing, the car is besieged. What happens ? Hitchcock's The Birds is a masterpiece. Nature can turn the tables without notice.  The trappings of civilisation collapse quickly when people think they know better than Nature

Friday, 1 May 2020

After COVID, what will workers (and non workers) do ?

Luton Town Hall burhed down, May Day 1919 worker's revolt
What happens when COVID 19 is "over" ? Unprecedented economic collapse,industries that may never recover, billions of lives destroyed. Is it OK that big corporatioins get bailed out, especially if they're  built on dodgy financial models.  Some industries, like airlines and holiday travel, are based on delusion - tourism destroys the places it gets inflicted on, plus it's environmentally unsustainbable : but rich white folk want to get drunk and think they're doing the natives a favour.  And offshore tax havens which could at a single swoop pay for the damage done all over the world.   But what about small businesses on which the economy  is dependent  And what about the gig economy and those living hand to mouth ? And the long term toll on survivors, families, key workers, who include cleaners, underpaid care workers and so on.  This includes orchestras, musicians, soloists : professionals whose lives have been built on years of expertise, suddenly cut adrift, perhaps never to recover.  Let them harvest strawberries for the rich !

But how will people respond ? It says a lot about the UK that a 100-y ear old man can raise more money for the NHS than self righteous folks who think clapping at 8pm compensates for lack of PPE testing etc etc.  Let's drink bleach ! Hail Our Leaders even if they kill us. When the working class themselves are deluded, what hope is there for the world ?  More than ever this year on May Day we should be thinking about the rights of workers and non-workers, the disenfranchised, the unacknowledged, the poor.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Morbid Lullabies : ballads, folk song, art song and creative vision

Thomas Rawlinosn The Ballad Singer

What "is" folk music ? Since the term didn't even exist until the 20th century it's wiser to understand how popular music evolved over the centuries. Quite possibly the Greeks sang ballads of some form, and certainly in medieval Europe they were extremely  common.  Norse and Icelandic sagas are an extended form of ballad. The rich had their troubadors, the poor had itinerant musicans who performed at fairs, market-days and gatherings.  Ballads are possibly the oldest form of vernacular music, since they're portable and can be performed anywhere with or without instruments. Moreover, they're strophic, so they're to remember and to adapt  to changing situations and individual variations.  By their very nature, oral traditions evolve and change - they can never be rigidly confined to authoritarian categories. That's what keeps oral tradition alive !

In Western Europe, ballads and songs were collected from very early on. Chaucer included some in The Canterbury Tales and there are references in other literary works.  By the 18th century ballads were big business, printed on broadsides and  displayed for sale on the streets, and collected in published books. The genre made its way into more formal literary circles - Goethe and Schiller wrote ballads, too.  Ballad form entered the classical music mainstream in the wake of Early Romantic fascination with an idealized, Arcadian past, and with the interest in wild places and "non-civilised" ways of life.

Ballads are an integral part of "folk" music. Music travelled between different regions adapting to new locations.  Printed texts and oral tradition existed in symbiosis, each form adapting and influencing the other.At the end of the 19th century, a song might hve morphed over many generations. Gottfried Herder wrote a poem based on a gruesome Scottish ballad, which Carl Loewe set as Edward, Edward. Gradually the song morphed and changed, and connects to the Country and Western hit Knoxville Girl (Please read more here).  The idea that folk song can be separate from human development is an artificial modern construct.  Basically, there's no such thing as dogmatic gold standrad.

One ballad I'm particularly fond of is The Trees They Grow So High, which may or may not be a 16th/17th century Scottish ballad.  Though it comes in different variations, it tells the tale of an arranged marriage between a child and an older woman. The protagonists aren't poor, (the kid goes to school) so it might have been a transaction for money and status.  Trees grow high but the boy, who marries so early is killed aged 18. "Cruel death put an end to his growing". Ralph Vaughan Williams recorded this in the field.  In his version, the woman  begs her father not to marry her off, but her father seems to think the boy's some kind of trophy.  Yet the woman seems OK with this and accepts  widowhood and single-parent status.  But it's a horrible tragedy. Perhaps, over the centuries before it was collected, the song was cleaned up so it wouldn't disturb conventional mores.

Since oral traditions vary all the time, depending on performer and circumstances, it's perfectly natural that they should evolve further when approached by artistic minds. Britten's version of the song, from the beginning of 1942, addresses the tragedy more directly.  The piano part is lyrical, lilting lines suggesting vernal freshness, making the text all the more poignant.  The loss of innocence, for both partners in the marriage, and for the orphaned infant :  characteristic Britten. "Growing, growing  (intoned wth tenderness) as I  watch over his child,while he's growing".  Though the song is understated, gentle and rhythmic, like the rocking of a cradle, the suppressed motions are quite horrific when you think about them.

Another good example of how a song can adapt accordingbto the vision and creativity of a composer.  W B Yeats called Down By the Salley Gardens "An Old Song Re-Sung", quite specifically his own version of a song he heard  was W B Yeats's attempt to capture the spirit of a ballad he heard an old woman sing to herself in County Sligo.  in the ballad, a man recounts a long lost love who "bade me take life easy, just as the leaves fall from the tree, but I being young and foolish, with her did not agree ". It's a song of loss and nostagia with a mysterious, otherworldy quality. In Britten's version, the piano part begins tentatively, as if anything too forceful might breaknthe spell, later, it affirms the vocal line with richness and depth, as if the lovers are reunited in spirit.   Ivor Gurney's version is even more "art song". The voice leads from the start, the line curling tenderly, "When I was young and foo-o-olish and now am full of tears".  Nothing whatseover crude and "folksy" here.  And in any case, we can't assume that Yeats’s old lady was either, though she seems to have been a poor peasant.  Both Britten’s and Gurney's settings are ravishingly beautiful, so delicate that that they capture the gossamer fleeting feel of the monment.   They're very different, too : but that's what art is about : creative vision adapting to individual responses.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Viruses don't discriminate : Mass with the Pope at the Vatican

Viruses don't choose people by who they are, what they  believe or how important they think they are. In time of pandemic all of us are equal.  The worst virus of all is hate.  Indeed, we might not be in this situation hadn't we been exploited politically in the first place. Pope Francis said Mass on Palm Sunday at the Vatican. Usually it's packed with worshippers who come from all over the world.  This year, only key celebrants, carefully spaced apart.  In crisis, we are all alone. But thanks to international livestream we can all participate, including billions who don't have to share the religion but appreciate universal basic human values.

In his sermon, the Pope addressed  the COVID crisis and its impact.  Jesus was betrayed by his own friends, which is much more hurtful than being persecuted by strangers.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, he faced up to mortality, and made his choice: to save others by giving up his own physical life.  "My God, my God, why have thou abandoned me?".  But he wasn't  abandoned, however hard it must have felt. The Pope specifically mentioned the heroes who are putting themselves selflessly in danger, for the sake of others.  In  Britain  where the National Health Survice is dependent on immigrants, and the descendants thereof, that means Muslims, and others too. So much for blaming minorites.  Many others sacrifice, too, like transport workers, delivery systems personnel, social carers, underpaid cleaners, and ordinary people whodse jobs may never come back. And sadly the vulnerable, with health conditions who can't get basic needs fulfilled.  It's easy to say, like Our Dear Leader Boris, that "every family should be prepared to lose someone".  Indeed the statistics behind the Herd Immunity model are bogus.

In the emptiness of that grand basilica, the fundamentals of faith spoke out even more clearly than  before. The architecture means nothing in comparison to simple sincerity. No offertory procession which does matter, but not in these circumstances. Instead, a frail old man in his 80's performing the ceremony itself, by himself : an act of humility.  Those acres of white marble are symbolic : purity, and great endurance.  That's what faith's about - any true faith.  When the Pope blessed the poor and the sick on Ash Wednesday, many went apoplectic. But why should he hide and save himself ? The Jesus he believes in gave himself that others might live. Miss that and miss the whole message of love and compassion.  This year Holy Week is more personal and vivid than ever before, as those who wish can follow Jesus on his journey from death to life.


Friday, 3 April 2020

Richard Tauber stars with Jimmy Durante - Forbidden Music !

Not an April Fool !  Richard Tauber statrs with Jimmy Durante in Land without Music aka Forbidden Music.  In a tiny principality somewhere in Mittel-Europa, the peasants make music all te time. The cattle in the field plough their furroughs unatteneded, whike the peasants make music - a farmer playing a (concert bassoon) and an old man in nightgown a horn.  Somehow the country exists in a time warp from the late 18th century - elaborate military uniforms for the rich, bucolic blouses for the poor.  Because the locals have other values, a bigger, more aggressive country threatens  to take them over. Princess-Regent Maria Renata (played by Diane Napier, Tauber's real-life wife) decrees music should henceforth be banned in Look-a , with severe penalties.  Since the film was made in 1936 the political parallels are obvious. This isn't just a comedy.

Jonah J Whistler, an American newspaperman, arrives in Look-a driving a horse-drawn carraige with his daughter Sadie. She wears early 19th century dimity, but she's utterly "modern" with her wisecracking repartee.   Since the secret police are cracking down on music, there's a mixup at customs. Jonah and Sadie's trunk has been swtched for a cache of musical instruments which include violin, balalaika, trumpet and much, much else.  "But I don;'t even know what a harpishord (sic) is" snorts Jonas.  Enter too,  Richard Tauber as Mario Carlini, a tenor with golden upper notes which he can extend almost to a scream, with a habit of bursting  into song at the oddest moments. The brigands are so impressed that they protect him from the secret police. Now that the people of Look-a have instruments again, they can organize concerts, just like dissidents getting together underground. While checking out the forest for  a meeting place, Tauber, who remains  Tauber whatever role he's playing, meets Princess Maria Renata and charms her, against her better judgement.

To cut a long story short, the son of the head of the Secret Police, Count Strozzi, falls in love with Sadie and she with him. when Tauber, Durante and the peasants are arrested and put into prison, Strozzi junior helps them.  From his cell, Tauber sings, so loudly that the whole principality can hear and join in. Revoution ! The population storm the gates of the prison and the musicians march out, heading the cheering masses. The scene is a fairly pointed take on the Solidarity Song sequence in Kuhle Wampe, which the Nazis didn't like, one bit.  So the princess relents and orders Look-a to make music its local industry.  Gold coins fill the coffers ! Music is OK, as long as it serves commerce and politics.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.  The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had beeen planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca, (much of this reviewed by me - please see links below). Hrůša, a close associate of Bělohlávek, conducted the Czech Philharmonic's memorial to Bělohlávek in September 2017 (Dvořák Stabat Mater). The performance of Dvořák Requiem on this recording was made in Spetember 2017 at the start of the Dvořák Festival in Prague, also in honour of Bělohlávek. Although Bělohlávek himself was only able to record the Dvořák Biblical Songs op 99 (with another Bělohlávek regular, Jan Martinik) this recording is effectively a monument to Bělohlávek, and a worthy successor to the rest of the Decca series. Hrůša's Requiem, capturing the full emotional intensity of that memorial concert in the Rudolfinium, Prague, where everyone on the platform and in the audience had personal knowledge of Bělohlávek and what he meant.

Requiems commemorate the dead, and for those who believe, encapsulate the central tenet of Christianity. Dvořák's religious beliefs were profound, shaping his Requiem as a testament of faith. The Kyrie, by far the longest part of the first section, is a funeral march, the pace measured and dignified.The strings create a reverential hush,  but one lit by luminous, transcendental light. This reflects the text :  "Requiem aeternum dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis". The promise of eternal light, even in the depths of anguish.  "Kyrie eleison" thus has context.  In the second Requiem aeternum, a solo emerges and the pace picks up : lines pulsate, as if in anticipation.  

The Dies Irae marks a transition : powerful chords underline a sense of violent change. A trumpet calls forth, the "tuba mirum spargens sonum" whose baleful sound heralds the Day of Wrath that marks the End of Time and the mass resurrection of all who have died. Thus the tenor part, with its prayer-like intonation, and the fierce outbursts from choir and orchestra. The plaintive Quid sum miser states that mankind is weak but salvation lies through "Rex tremendae majestis". With the Recordare, Dvořák's identity re-asserts itself in the loosely Bohemian personality inn the orchestral line, here highlighted by the sensitivity of Hrůša and this orchestra who understand it so well. The soloists, Michael Spyres, Jan Martinik, Ailyn Pérez and Christianne Stotjin form an ensemble like a garland.  With the Confutatis maledictus and the Lacyrmosa, (particularly beautiful singing and playing) this constant interplay of turbulence and tenderness creates inner momentum, intensifying a sense of forward thrust. 

This underlines the structure of this Requiem, the first part building up to the second.  With the Offertum, the bass part, haloed by harps and choir, suggests depth and profundity, the female soloists and tenor enhancing this new mood of confidence. "Sed signifer sanctus Michael reporesentet eas in lucern sanctum". Vigorous rhythms replace the funereal tread of the first Requiem Aeterum. the trumpet now introduces a Hostias where the soloists ring out pure and the chorus (Prague Philharmonic Choir) very well parted. With the Sanctus, yet another change. As this Requiem reaches its conclusion, its spirit transforms.  Even the Pie Jesu is affirmative, multiple voices together welcoming Eternal Rest.  This Agnus Dei is a wonder, the luminous textures of the first Requiem Aeternum now illuminating the singing and playing transcedent glory.  Delicately paced diminuendos create the image of heavenly peace. Truly "lux perpetua luceat eis". And truly Hrůša's Dvořák Requiem truly establishes the significance of the piece in our appreciation of the composer himself. 

Dvořák's Biblical Songs op 103 enhance the impact of the Requiem. The songs set texts from the Book of Psalms. The vocal line is dignified, even austere, emphasizing the enduring power of these verses which have inspired people for thousands of years. The orchestral line is restrained, letting the voice ring out with Biblical portent. Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic have the Dvořák idiom in their genes, bringing out the distinctive rhythms and character, which enlivens this performance without dominating. I'm very much taken with Jan Martinik, whose voice has natural richness and colour, and delivers with understated power. He worked very closely with Bělohlávek and the Národní divadlo and regularly featured in Bělohlávek's numerous concerts in London. Definitely a recommended recording, even though there is much competition. 

In this performance of Dvořák's Te Deum op 99 recorded by Hrůša in December 2018, the brass are bright and assertive, the rhythms confident and distinctively idiomatic. There are echoes of the composer's ninth symphony, but it is essentially a celebratory showpiece for large orchestra and massed voices, and presented here with great verve. The baritone is Svatopluk Sem, another Bělohlávek favourite and Národní divadlo regular, and the soprano is Kateřina Kněžíkov. Much is made of the high profile premiere in 1892, but the sad truth is that Dvořák was never paid.  When a cheque finally arrived, it failed to clear.  Oddly enough that fits in with the idea of a Requiem. No matter what worldly status might bring, at the end we all end up the same so what you believe might make a difference.

Please also see more about the Bělohlávek Decca series

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Prince Nico Mbarga and his Sweet Mother

A few years back  someone did a "life satisfaction" survey and Nigeria came out tops. Despite the poverty and disorder !  People chase material wealth but where do real values come from ?  Back in 1976 Price Nico Mbarga wrote Aki Special, an instant hit fusing  West African music from the time with traditional styles. His introduction expresses things which might explain how some people retain good values despite the chaos of  the world around them.

"This life is wonderful, but don't be proud because you have it, it comes from God" (ie fate)  "Almighty" he sings after a short pause "Pickin-o good-o, if you get, if you no gettem.... . "Money is good-o, money good-o, we know, if you get, but don't laugh, many people no get's...but if you no gets, make you no cry, first time is the best. Opportunity comes but once in this world. Who knows tomorrow, my friend? Nobody knows tomorrow...."

Prince Nico Mbarga (1950-1997) didn't make any money from his hits, not even from his Sweet Mother the all-time iconic African classic because the business model there is different.  Though records sell, they;re often pirated copies and artists don't necessaruily get royalties. Sweet Mother was played everywhere and adapted naturally into many cultures, since it captures the spirit of women who keep society going, no matter what. Strong women suffer, but they aren't selfish.  For sure women are oppressed and don't have equal opportunities, but their values keep the world going. In Africa, women do everytrhing - farming,  business, child care etc  and still somehow they carry on.  Prince Nico didn't live cocooned in luxury. Born in Ikom in Nigeria, he lived in Cameroon, where his father came from, at 17 was forced to leave start all over again in Nigeria, where his mother came from.  He stayed in Ikom more  or less permannetly, not being a model husband or father, but middle class western values do not apply to everyone.  At the age of 47, he was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Sweet Mother begins with a swanky guitar riff - very 70's ! - but the words are down home  traditional.  "Sweet Mother, I never forget you, the way you suffer for me - yeah, yeah. When I get get cry, my mother go carry me, she says, my pickin-o, stop, stop, so you no cry again-o".  "You can get another wife, you can get another husband, you cannot get another Mother, so "

A friend said. "Pickin-o means child in West African pidgin, and may come from the Portuguese pequeno. Prince Nico was very family oriented, so to him having children was maybe more valuable than having money."

Please read Sami Kent's article HERE,which is by far the best researched and informative of all, written by someone whose perspective is not western but African, which makes all the difference. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

My contribution to stopping COVID - Pappano, Britten, Vaughan Williams

As my contribution to not spreading COVID, knowingly or unknowingly, I refrained from going to what would otherwise have been a perfect programme for me, Antonio Pappano conducting Britten's Violin Concerto (soloist Vilde Frang, whom I've heard doing this piece before) and Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony no 6. at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra. But in times like these that's when background counts.  No concert ever exists in limbo. Context matters, absolutely. Pappano's programme is particularly relevant in these times, too, because both pieces deal with almost apocalyptic situations, so bleak that even the power of music cannot articulate.

Britten, like so many others knew all too well what the rise of Hitler meant for Europe. Our Hunting Fathers, his op. 8, was a specific response to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which dehumanized Jews, gays, intellectuals and "modernists". Indeed there are very specific references embedded in the text.  As a protest against cruelty and madness, Our Hunting Fathers is so powerful that it perhaps says more about listeners still who don't get it.  Franco's victory in Spain, supported by Nazi aeroplanes and strategists intensified that sense of despair.  For many, it was traumatic, as if European civilization was doomed.  Britten's Violin Concerto is a product of that period of intense despair.  The Violin Concerto was never meant to be easy listening. It takes moral courage to write a deeply uncomforting statement like this, and know it might never be understood.  Perhaps this is why it has only relatively recently entered its status in the canon of major works by a composer who thought deeply about society and the human condition.

From a hushed string introduction, the violin rises, against an understated but ominous background of percussion and brass. Despite the lyricism of the violin line, the idea of war lurks, with menace.  Hollow pizzicato suggest agitation.  The second movement has the character of nightmare scherzo, a battery of strings, brass and percussion battling with the violin, which remains detached.The tumult is shaped carefully, bringing out the huge, angular blocks of sound, booming bassoons,  spikey details in the strings, rumbling drums, creating contrast with the violin. In the cadenza, Frang has in the past lit up the dizzying diminuendo : not a defeat so much as a “tactical withdrawal".  In the passacaglia, descending notes from the brass moved in careful procession. Now the violin line is haunted by other strings, mumuring as if heard from afar. Eventually an anthem builds up, the brass no longer against the soloist, but leading forwards.  Tense, brittle figures suggested gunfire, but the violin remains uncowed.  A particularly full-throated tutti section,  almost a chorale, violin and orchestra united in common cause.  From the strings, a suggestion of guitars : the ghosts of the dead in Spain, rising again, led by the violin, marching quietly onward.

Vaughan Williams would not be drawn on what his Symphony no 6 might be "about", but that in itself suggests how difficult it was to express the traumas he'd witnessed.  Of his third symphony, he  explicitly stated that it was "wartime music", inspired by his experiences as a stretcher bearer in France. "It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted". Thus the sixth has no cosy title to throw the unwary off track. The onus is on the listener to listen sensitively, and understand the piece from within. To hear music as no more than sound is to deny emotion and humanity. Last year, Salonen conducted the introduction so the brass seemed to scream in a communal wail of anguish. The quieter "pastoral" themes on strings, woodwinds and harps felt haunted, swept away in the tumult.  In the second movement tension built up steadily, the three-note ostinato figure at first muffled, the cor anglais offering a moment of contrast before the relentless fusillade of brass and percussion. This  gives context to the saxophone solo in the scherzo, enhancing its strange, alien nature. Its jazziness is seductive, yet it suggests disorder, the breaking-up of safe structural certainties. The bass clarinet served as lament.  The final movement, with its ambiguous pianissimo, suggests not peace, but perhaps a numbness so great that even music cannot fully express. Unlike the third symphony, there's no room even for wordless voice. Muted flutes in unison, rather than the fanfare of brass with which the symphony began.