Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Janáček Glagolitic Mass, Sinfonietta and more Bělohlávek Czech Philharmonic


From Decca, Janáček classics with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.  Given that Bělohlávek died in May 2017, all these recordings are relatively recent, not re-issues,  and include performances of two new critical editions of the Glagolitic Mass and the Sinfonietta Bělohlávek was the kind of conductor who always found fresh insights into what he did, no matter how familiar he was with the repertoire, so this set forms part of a series which commemorates the golden years of Bělohlávek's tenure with the Czech Philharmonic, which revitalized the orchestra as the foremost in its field.  Recent releases have included Smetana's Má vlast, perhaps the most powerful expression of Czech identity in music. (Please read my review here), and a monumental Dvořák Stabat Mater. (Please read my review here). 
Janáček's Glagolitic Mass (Mša glagolskaja) is heard here in the “September 1927” version edited by Jiří Zahrádka in 2011.  It does not of course supersede  the final, standard version of the piece.  All editions involve informed guesswork, right or wrong. Controversies can be valid : witness the on-going dispute about movement order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony.  Whatever the merits of rival editions, the September 1927 approach is distinctive and has its own merits beyond just demonstrating the composer’s working processes. The first edition of this version, by Paul Wingfield in 2008, revealed the raw potential behind Janáček's earliest ideas, and received enough performances to convince of its merits on its own terms.  Thus it cannot be dismissed as mere curiosity,  which is why Bärenreiter publishes it in two separate formats.  The first recording of the 2011 Zahrádka edition was made in September 2013 by Tomáš Netopil and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, just pipping this performance made in October 2013 by Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic, which is more assured in every respect.

Some time before Janáček wrote the work, the Papacy had made special dispensation for Mass to be said in Slavonic instead of in Latin as was the norm then. This was hugely symbolic since it gave legitmacy to Slavic independence at a crucial point in time. The Glagolitic Mass commemorates the ancient roots of Slavic culture, just as the Sinfonietta celebrates the birth of the modern Czech nation. The Glagolitic script dates from the 8th century, long before the Hapsburgs consolidated their grip on Bohemia. This Credo isn't about the "Catholic and Apostolic Church" so much as Janáček's faith in secular and national Resurrection.  Moreover,  "Glagolitic" masses were held in the open air, with trees instead of stone as buttresses, allowing large communities to come together in Nature and sing.  Of this piece, Janácek said: "My cathedral " was “the enormous grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…...the scent of moist forests my incense”. Hence the idea of freedom and liberation, which is closer to Janácek's intentions than to a religious interpretation.  This version of the  Glagolitic Mass is craggier, more dissonant and more abrasive, but may reflect the rough-hewn spirit of the early church, and its possibly pagan antecedents, which is relevant since Janáček, an atheist, chose to set a language that had disappeared for hundreds of years.

Bělohlávek's approach is spirited but unsentimental,  given the political background to Czech independence not only in Janáček's time but in the decades after his death. Freedom can't be taken for granted.  Bělohlávek and his orchestra lovingly shape the "Janáček:" signatures, star motifs and quirky whips of melody that leap out provocatively against dense, angular blocks of sound.  The theme  "Gospodi pomiluj gospodi pomiluj" rises first in the orchestra, then in the chorus.  Extremely precise singing from the Prague Philharmonic Choir and the soloists Hibla Gerzmava, Veronika Hajnová, Stuart Neill, and Jan Martiník, well experienced regulars in this repertoire, and in this piece in particular. The organ (Aleš Bárta) enters gradually, almost quietly, so whern it bursts forth in the Allegro, it feels wildly explosive, inspiring the orchestra and the chorus. The Credo (Vĕruju) bursts as if a mighty force has been biding its time.  Exquisite beautiful moments like the violins in the Sanctus (Svet) before exuberant rhythms return, rushing ever forwards.  This performance was recorded live at the Rudolfinium, hence the intense immediacy.

This Sinfonietta is based on the critical edition made by Jiří Zahrádka of the 1927 revision made by the composer, in an arrangement for reduced forces by Heinz Stolba.  Given that Bělohlávek made this in February 2017, it is probably a first recording. To quote the publishers, Universal Edition Wien,"the  motivation was to prepare a new reduced version to retain the festive effect of the fanfares at the beginning and end of the work, despite avoiding a separately positioned, additional group of brass instruments as prescribed in the original. In contrast to earlier reduced versions, in the present version all passages that were intended for the separate group of brass instruments in the original version are also entirely played by brass instruments. While a total of 25 brass instruments were required to perform the original version, in the present reduced version there are only 12. Moreover, two additional woodwinds were also cut down on, reducing the original number of wind instruments from 37 to 22, without significantly impacting the sonic result".  It is shinier and leaner, and would make a dramatic statement in smaller concert halls and on informal occasions. Perhaps it's pertinent to note that 2018 marks the centenary of the founding of the Czech Republic.  Though the piece was initially written to celebrate Czechoslovakia's military, it is as much about freedom and free spirits as about the military.  If the Andante depicting the Castle at Brno does not loom as magnificently as in the original, there are compensations. The piccolo and flutes are effervescent,  and the brass sounds cheerful.  The open-air freshness works well in the Allegretto : imagine the people in the streets celebrating, waving flags and being happy.

An atmospheric account of Taras Bulba brings out the composer's Russian soul, but the loom is enlivened by characteristic Janácek feistiness - spiky staccato passages, and expansive open-ness which seems to connect the Prophecy of Taras Bulba to the strange visions of Mr. Brouček.  More connections to Svatopluk Čech with The Fiddler's Child, a modern (at the time) retelling of a folk legend.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

New Hans Zender Schubert Winterreise - Julian Prégardien

Hans Zender's Schuberts Winterreise is now established in the canon, but this recording with Julian Prégardien and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie conducted by Robert Reimer is one of the most striking.  Proof that new work, like good wine, needs to settle and mature to reveal its riches. I first heard Zender's Winterreise in 1994, conducted by Zender himself, with Ensemble Modern and Hans-Peter Blochwitz and didn't get it at the time.  How things have changed. That first recording is good, but this new one in many ways is better, since the work is familiar enough now that performers dare take chances and venture, like the protagonist in the cycle himself.  By no means is it Schubert's Winterreise but "eine komponierte Interpretation", a  composed interpretation.  A new work, not simply an orchestration of the cycle for piano and voice. There's absolutely no way it's an alternative to the original, but rather a meditation by a modern composer reflecting on his response to the most iconic song cycle of all.

Over the years there have been many performances of Zender's Schubert Winterreise, including Ian Bostridge's Dark Mirror, replacing the  rather corny march round the hall of the original with an infinitely more sophisticated staging by Netia Jones. (Please read more here). Alas, that production wasn't preserved for commercial release, but we can settle for this audio-only version, since Prégardien's singing is so vivid that the music seems to come alive.   This matters, for Winterreise is  uncommonly visual music, evolving in stages each matched with images from Nature. Years ago, at a Wolfgang Holzmair masterclass, Holzmair told us to listen, like an animal might, sensing which trail to follow. This is no passive, meandering journey. but purposeful, the protagonist alert to the slightest clues in his surroundings, reading the air, the way a wild animal navigates its territory.  Thus the long introduction in Zender : muffled sounds in the orchestra like footsteps trudging through deep snow.   You can't quite hear unless you're listening properly.

In Zender's Schubert Winterreise the psychic dislocation of the piece is even stronger, allowing an almost Expressionist approach : this is not standard Lieder by any means and cannot be judged in pure Schubertian terms.  Thus the spiky whirlwind in Die Wetterfahne, the strings blowing up a storm,  so the singer's lines expand as if billowed by the wind.  Prégardien's voice takes on an edge, very different from his normal plangent tones, which is perfectly appropriate in the circumstances.  In Gefrorne Tränen, he shapes the first strophe tenderly, in contrast to the ferocity of the words "Ei Tränen mein Tränen".  Similarly "die Blumen" in Erstarrung bloom, briefly before the chill sets in with a  hard "gestorben". Der Lindenbaum begins with beautifully archaic sounds  - plucked low strings and guitar - an idea further developed in Wasserflut by the horn (evoking hunting horn) and hushed Sprechstimme passages. In Rückblick, the saxophone's dissonance moves to sensuous allure, interrupted by trombones and bassoons. No "looking backwards" here.  Thus the shimmering tenderness in Irrlicht and Rast seems haunted, and icicles spike Frühlingstraum.  Prégardien alternates lyrical song with hard spoken prose.

A posthorn rings in Die Post, as if heard from a distance, perhaps in a nightmare, with rumbling percussion, creating striking contrast with the vocal line which stretches and soars  - like a posthorn. Very eerie, but perceptive, since in Die Krähe, a crow circles round the protagonist, who will eventually follow the Leiermann into the unknown.  In Wilhelm Müller's verse, there are many similar parallel pairings, such as the dogs and rattling chains in Im Dorfe, which appear again in Die Leiermann , which Zender brings out in his orchestration.  Warlike violence in Der stürmische Morgen where turbulent percussion alternates with delicate pizzicato, segueing into a waltz like Täuschung.   Echoes of church organ and funereal drums remind us that Das Wirtshaus marks the end for most mortals, but even here the protagonist cannot rest.  Crackling sounds, winds, drums  and pipes in Mut develop the warrior imagery heard earlier, for this courage is misleading.

Thus the desolation of Die Nebensonnen. Yet again, Zender integrates the songs so they complement each other. The quasi-hymn of Das Wirthaus flashes past before a surreal but striking introduction to the critical last song, Der Leiermann, which draws together many strands that have gone before.  This is where Zender the modern composer  meets Schubert and Wilhelm Müller, and the Romantic instinct for morbid psychology.  No hurdy-gurdy as such but a more surreal version thereof, with seductively lyrical tones that suddenly distort.  "Wunderlicher Alter" sings Prégardien with firm deliberation, as the music around him dissolves into strange chords that grow ever more powerful.  Where does the Leiermann lead ?  We do not know, but it sure feels intriguing.

If Russia should win.....


Given Russian interference in the democratic process all over the world, maybe Russia has won, by proxy, thanks to politicians willing to sell out to win election at all costs

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Gustav Holst Orchestral works vol 4 Cotswolds Symphony - Andrew Davis, Chandos

Sir Andrew Davis is of one of the greatest conductors of British music
in our time, and Chandos is a label that specializes in British repertoire.  This alone should make this new recording of Gustav Holst's orchestral works by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra indispensible. But it is also a signifigant milestone because it includes an exceptionally idiomatic   performance of  Holst's early Symphony in F "The Cotswolds", so convincing that it should at last give this piece the recognition it is due. This disc is valuable too because the programme is cohesive, linking Holst's very early works with later pieces that hint at Holst's wider interests which gave his work a distinct personality.  This disc is also part of  Chandos's long standing series of Holst orchestral works conducted by Andrew Davis, which further adds to its authority. Altogether, a release that's leagues ahead of the market.
Completed in July 1900 and premiered by the Carl Rosa Orchestra in which Holst played, the Cotswolds Symphony (op8 H47) was was not a success.  It would have been unreasonable to expect more from a composer who was barely 25, but there is much more to it than has been revealed in recordings made over the years.  Perhaps the secret is to understand it in the context of the composer and his place in British music.  Davis, like Sir Adrian Boult before him, has an understanding of the full span of Holst's music.  The opening Allegro con brio is free-flowing and confident, evoking Elgar, a composer with whom Davis is so closely associated.  Hence the idiomatic punchiness, and crispness of attack.  This introduces the famous second movement, the Elegy in memoriam William Morris. A tentative, but probing introduction evolves gradually, with suggestions of the more sophisticated Egdon Heath. It rises steadily to a cresendo that is dignified, yet deeply felt. The agitato section surges, like a march, punctuated by brass and percussion. The main theme flares up again, before discreetly receding.  The title "Cotswolds" is something of a misnomer,  suggesting touristy images of cottages, chintz and cream teas. But to Holst, an idealist and a thinker, William Morris was a radical with proto-socialist sympathies. The Arts and Crafts movement predicated on the idea of craftsmen working for themselves, not dependent on commercial capitalism.  This affects interpretation and performance.  Fortunately, Davis understands who Morris was and what he meant to Holst. No false sentimentality here but deep conviction, much closer to the spirit of the piece.  Thus the sudden change of mood in the Scherzo, and the return of the confidence in the Allegro now expanded in much fuller-throated orchestration in the Finale.  Holst's music marches forwards : it's not looking back.  Good use of brass and warm-sounding horns, like wind in the sails, propelling the music onwards.

The Cotswolds Symphony ends on similarly upbeat form as A Winter Idyll (H31 1897) begins.  Again, Andrew Davis's understanding of the idiom makes a diffrence. Winter here is an almost demonic force of Nature, sweeping all before it, craggy peaks and soaring vistas.  The main theme (trumpets and brass) repeats  and string lines swell, as if propelled  by the elements, turning on sudden, capricious points.  One could detect the influence of Nordic saga - Wagner, Grieg or even a hint of Sibelius, nine years Holst's senior.

Davis makes the point further with Holst's Indra (op 13, H66 1903),  a large scale tone poem inspired by Sanskrit literature.  Like so many of his contemporaries all over Europe, "orientalism" fascinated because it opened up new opportunities of tonal colour and form.   Indra breaks new ground, giving Holst a chance to explore a consciousness outside the western mainstream.  For all its lushness, Indra tells a violent story. In the Rig Veda, the god Indra (male) battles a dragon who has seized the rain clouds, throwing the land into drought, its people into ruin.  The brass fanfares are militant, suggesting perhaps the cosmic forces being brought to bear.  Like A Winter Idyll, Indra is a saga. Davis emphasizes the structure - wonderful trumpet calls, dissolving into finer textures,  balancing the warrior with the mystic, bringing out the spirituality in the piece.

Davis's recognition of the spirituality in Holst shapes his approach to Invocation (Op 19 no 2 H75, 1911) for cello (Guy Johnstone) and orchestra.  Subtitled "A Song of the Evening" , the piece begins and ends sensa misura, allowing the soloist to float the line, so the piece moves freely through many smaller incarnations. Johnstone's tone is rich and sensual, evoking allusions to exotic, non-western concepts of sensuality. The obvious connection here is Holst's Lyric Movement for viola and orchestra, but there are links, too, to Holst's other mystical works, including Venus in The Planets, and indeed to works by other composers of the period, such as Szymanowski, whom Holst may not have known but who shared his aesthetic.

A Moorside Suite (H173, 1928), heard here in Holst's 1932 arrangement for string orchestra, was originally conceived for brass band.  The first section is boisterous, but the second, a Nocturne,is more mystical than most repertoire for brass band.  Although it's an interlude before the final March (con larghezza), it is a beautiful miniature, the solo violin line at once fragile and assured.   The Scherzo (H192, 1933-4)  is a worthwhile conclusion to this collection, connecting the early Holst of the Cotswolds Symphony with Holst shortly before his unexpected death,  when he was woirking on what might have been his only other orchestral symphony. Though it lasts but six minutes, it's inventive and covers a lot of material.  

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Um Mitternacht ! Mahler 5 - Andris Nelsons Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

Andris Nelsons : Photo Jens Gerber 2017

Andris Nelsons conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Gewandhausorchester Leipzig) in Mahler Symphony no 5 and Bernd Alois Zimmermann Nobody Knows de Trouble I've seen with Håkan Hardenberger, at the Royal Festival Hall in the first of two concerts marking the start of a five year assocaition between the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the South Bank.  The Gewandhausorchester are regular visitors to London (I first heard them with Kurt Masur) but wow, were they sounding good tonight. The dynamic between players and conductor was like electricity - nothing wasted, quick and agile. The tiniest flick of Nelson's fingers and the Leipzigers knew exactly what to do.  No messing about, no fluffed cues ! This is a virtuoso orchestra, yet so full of life and expression, and with Nelsons, there seems to be a real spark.  

Nelsons has of course conducted this symphony many times, but one of the many things I liked about this particular performance was the way he seemed to be building on the strengths of this orchestra and its unique heritage.  It made me reflect on how the Mendelssohn DNA in this orchestra creates the Leipzig sound - warm, dignified and extremely humane.  This is pertinent applied to Mahler because his music, far from being bombastic or hysterical, reveals itself best when approached with sensitivity.  Although this symphony requires a large orchestra, it operates like chamber music, where individuals pay attention to the others and every note, no matter how small, cointributes to the whole. In some ways, Mahler 5 works like a string orchestra writ large, brass and winds extending instrumental colour.  Trumpets lead, but the soul resides in the murmuring "heartbeats",  the lower-voiced strings which here seemed to pulsate like a living organism.   The celli were placed in the centre, violins and violas around them, basses behind, the winds mediating between the strings, brass and percussion.  This symphony connects to Kindertotenlieder, a song cycle with quasi-symphonic structure.  There are also connections to Um Mitternacht , another Rückert setting,  completed a fe3w months later.  "Um Mitternacht/Nahm ich in Acht/ Die Schläge meines Herzens."  Paying attention to something barely perceptible in the course of daytime bustle,  but heard most clearly in the stillness of night.  And note the final verse "Herr über Tod und Leben/Du hältst die Wacht/Um Mitternacht! "  Life is fragile, dependent on the beating of a small(ish) organ in the body.  It is also significant that the symphony was written not long after Mahler had had a near brush with death in 1901, when the symphony was in gestation.  All this is absolutely relevant to interpretation, and thus to performance.

What I liked about Nelsons and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig's Mahler 5 was thus intimacy.  The symphony can be done as Big Blast Phil Spector Wall of Sound, which is of course exciting. But for me, anyway,  real excitement comes from understanding how the climaxes grow from the quiet moments where the focus is on tiny details, like the ping of the triangle, which on this occasion was every bit as powerful n its own way as the more obviously dramatic trumpet introduction, also beautifully played, echoed later by the other trumpets.  Collegiality matters in Mahler 5.  Like the human body, the music lives when its components work together.  And chamber music collegiality comes naturally to an orchestra like the Gewandhausorchester Liepzig.  At moments I felt I could hear the sound of individual players and instruments,  working together rather than absorbed into undifferentiated mass.  If a symphony should contain the world as Mahler said, this is what it might sound like. Much more hunman and personal !  In this increasingly polarized world, the last thing we need is Party Rally "excitement" in music. 

Like the beating of a heart, the Trauermarsch was neither hyper nor feeble, but steady and unostentatious.  A funeral march, but  disciplined, as one might hear in the kind of military garrison town such as Mahler grew up in. Not a flashy militarist procession !  Very deliberate, not long enoughtoi break the flow but just enough to catch the breath  - Um Mitternacht Hab' ich gedacht  hinaus in dunkle Schranken.  This emphasized the contrast with the Stürmisch bewegt section which followed, showing them as two connected parts of the same whole.  A lively Scherzo and then one of the most beautiful Adagiettos in a long time, so lovely that it was perhaps the highpoint of the evening. The harps sparkled, the strings shimmered : truly a hymn to love, though not  just in the sense of a Valentine for Alma as this section is sometimes marketed.   The love here is more transcendent : the love of life itself, a theme that flows through so much of Mahler's music like lifeblood, pumping through the heart.  The warmth and assurance that the Leipzigers do so well enriched this performance.  Yet again, consider the way Um Mitternacht concludes on a high, with a kind of mini-anthem.  Thus the Rondo Finale which pulls together the dfferent threads of the symphony, creating a sense of purposeful unity.  In short, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig trademark style,  unfussy but profound.

Nelsons has conducted Bernd Alois Zimmernann's Nobody Knows de Trouble I've Seen paired with Mahler 5  with the Berliner Philharmoniker since it features a stunning, jazzy trumpet part (Håkan Hardberger, too) as does the symphony. But the glow of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig is different from the shine of the Berliner Philharmoniker so this time, the combination didn't work as well.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Hubert Parry died 100 years ago today



C Hubert Parry, who died 100 years ago on 7th October, will be Composer of the Week on BBC R3 from Monday. Available online, internationally for 30 days. Events coming up soon

All day Parry at the Oxford Lieder Festival  on 19th October, with talks (Jeremy Dibble) , two concerts (James Gilchrist) and a chance to visit theParry archive at the Bodleian Library

New CD release :  Parry Symphony no 4 original version in new edition by Jeremy Dibble, with Rumon Gamba conducting BBC NOW, on Chandos

Lots on this site about Parry - use the label at right or below.  Please visit my Hubrert Parry Group on Facebook

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Judicial temperament

Times when politics makes you sick !  Judicial temperament once meant impartial objectivity.
Forget that, forget justice.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Two Philharmonia specials - Salonen, Valade

Hans Zender conducting from memory


Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Wagner, Schoenberg and Bruckner with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall while Pierre-André Valade conducted the Philharmonia soloists at the Purcell Room in music by Hans Zender and Philippe Manoury,  Please read here what Marc Bridle said, in Opera Today

Monday, 1 October 2018

Poignantly human - Mozart The Magic Flute, Castellucci, La Monnaie


Mozart Die Zauberflöte at La Monnaie /De Munt, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, directed by Romeo Castellucci.  Part allegory,  part Singspeile, and very much a morality play, Die Zauberflöte is not conventional opera in the late 19th century style. Naturalist realism is not what it's meant  to be.  Cryptic is closer to what it might mean. It is thus ideally suited to Romeo Castellucci's intelligent, literate approach, with multiple layers of symbols, not all of which might be obvious at first, but become more rewarding with each viewing.  His sets are elegant but don't operate on appearance alone. Castellucci is a director for those who care enough about opera to make an effort to penetrate beyond the surface.  Those who want opera to be "pretty" can be content, but they'll miss out on the real depths.   Please read more about three of his recent productions Salzburg Salomé, Munich Tannhäuser, and Henze's the Raft of the Medusa.    Like composers, and conductors and artistes, good directors have a vocabulary of their own : the more you experience, the more patterns emerge.

Catellucci's approach to Die Zauberflöte  is illuminating on many levels, a term which has more meaning in this case than usual, since illumination is a concept at the core of Freemason beliefs. Freemasons are "The Sons of Light", light meaning enlightenment, self-awareness and understanding an individual's place in a community.  Members undergo rites of initiation, facing challenges as they rise within the hierarchy.  Until very recently, secrecy was also part of the Freemason ethos, further emphasizing the concept that wisdom comes not as an automatic right for everyone, but only to those who make the effort to seek it out.  Elitist perhaps, but that kind of elitism is no bad thing.

Thus the Overture is played over a dark set where a man faces a single line of light and tries to grasp it. Other men appear, in strange non-human regalia, with a sheet of coloured cloth. It's evidently a reference to something, though one I don't get, which is part of the fascination of Castellucci productions : you don't need to know everything first time round, which in itself is the beginning of wisdom.  The darkness remains, but now is backdrop to props and costumes of lustrous whiteness: singers and actors move like dolls in an elegant music box, seen through a haze of fine gauze.  Roccoco elaboration against classical formality.  For more detail on the set, which is as beautiful as icing on a wedding cake, please see HERE.  he singers move in symmetrical patterns, suggesting at once the intricate layers in the plot and the idea that the characters’ fates are controlled by forces beyond their control.  The moon, the sun, the movement of planets in the universe and the traverse of time. Lots of feathers, too, evoking nature and the birds, and Papageno (Georg Nigl) whose job it is to trap and kill.  In Die Zauberflöte the Queen of the Night (Sabine Devieilhe) pits her wits against  Sarastro (Gábor Betz) and his confrères. Men versus women, an undercurrent that runs through the piece, which Castellucci, with his appreciation of the "Eternal Feminine", knows how to develop.

Thus the interlude between the first and second acts, separating the silvery night from golden day.  At first, the impersonal "song" of machines : three women are seen using breast pumps. Real women, who lactate.  the contrast between this intimate act of selfless nurturance and the hollow drone of the machine makes a point.   As the real music starts the milk is poured into a long tube - the tube which represented light right at the beginning.  This makes sense connected  to Sarastro's aria "O Isis und Osiris" which follows, which is an invocation to protect those starting out on their journey ahead. Castellucci then inserts spoken dialogue which also should not shock, since dialogue is part of the Singspiele tradition.  Women and men on two sides of the same stage, costumed as androgynes.   As they tell of the challenges they have faced in their lives, they become individual, with personalities and backgrounds.  Compelling testimonies about coming to terms with blindness and disfiguremernt. Many of these speakers are in fact real people, not actors, and they've faced challenges most of us may (hopefully) never meet.  So anyone in the audience who can't face these brutal truths therefore fails the challenges placed before them.  "We have passed through the Night. We are very close to freedom".  So don't anyone dare knock this scene or sneer at their courage, and Castellucci's decision to let them speak. The reason the dialogue is in English is, I think, because the speakers come from different countries, but are united by experience - another concept important to this drama.

More gold - more "light"- but androgyny still prevails, since enlightenment is not yet achieved. Georg Nigl's robust Papageno provides comic relief, of a sort, but the silvery tomes that accompany his song suggest the silvery tones of the night.  For much the same reason, the Three Knaben represent immaturity.  They have the innocence of birds, for they have not experienced challenge.  Tamino (Ed Lyon) and Pamina (Sophie Kärthauser) will, however, grow up in the course of the time as they face their destiny. Different couples - professional singers and amateur speakers - are seen interacting together, coming to "know" each other and themselves.  More symmetry still, and almost painful vulnerability.  A blind woman lets herself be touched, respectfully, by men whose hands are maimed : she has learned to trust, not to judge.  Would that more audience dared the same ! Then another surprise - the Narrator (Dietrich Henschel)! He finds himself alone.  "I am not myself, but still myself.  I have crossed another horizon", he says  "But I have you, silvery light, victorious over fire".  He calls out the individual names of the non-professional speakers, who surround him, some of whom are burns victims.  "You are the truth for me - you re-assure me".  Thus the bird-like freedom and innocence of the Papageno-Papagena duet that follows and the joyous ensemble, where all are united, women and men, Night and Day, mortals and (possibly) immortals.  "Heil sei die Geweihten! Ihr dräget durch Nacht!.....Es siegt die Stärke und Krönet zum Lohn die Schönheit und Weisheit mit ewiger Kron".  A fine cast all round, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, worthy of the challenges of this visionary yet powerfully human production.  Those who can cope with challenge can catch it here on arte.tv. 

Saturday, 29 September 2018

15 BILLION views in 6 weeks - The Story of Yanxi Palace


Fifteen BILLION view between 19th July and 1 September,  and half a billion on one day alone (August 12th). Phenomenal viewing figures by any standard for The Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略).  Viewing figures like that should be major news, since they reflect a mass market untapped by current media marketing models.  Yet in the west, barely a mention. Which says plenty about the global market for the arts, and about current west-centric business and political assumptions.  It's compulsive viewing.  I've watched all 70 episodes (45 minutes each) and want to start all over again to catch more detail.  And I don't usually like these kind of sagas and rarely watch TV at all. 
The Story of Yanxi Palace is an extravagant historical saga set in the Forbidden City in Beijing during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, a period that out-baroques the baroque and makes even Louis XIV look modest in comparison.  It tells the story of a girl who enters imperial service as a maid and works her way up to becoming de facto Empress. A rags to riches story without precedent,  particularly cogent since it's based more or less on a true story.   Moreover, the heroine, Wei Yinglou (Jinyan Wu), is a ferociously strong personality despite her demure appearance. So much for the idea that Asian women are meek.  There always were lots of strong women in Chinese history, despite patriarchal values.  Although the Emperor is kingpin in the Forbidden City where no other men can remain at night, the drama predicates around the women in the palace, most of them feisty characters in their own ways, competing to survive.  Like the women in the palace, you have to keep alert at all times : the plot moves so fast, with so many sub plots that you're mesmerized. Every episode ends on a cliff hanger.

You're also riveted by the sheer visual richness of the set - elaborate reconstructions of the imperial palace, every inch covered with antiques (or rather very good replicas). Even the slop buckets are cloisonné, and the porcelain in the cha wan (tea cups) is so fine that light shines through them. Best of all the embroidery, created in the workshops that supply the ongoing maintenance needs of the imperial palaces.  Please watch part of the making of documentary here   Since the plot predicates on embroiderers, this is no minor detail, but a metaphor for dedication, patience and attention to detail.   Politics, like embroidery, involves skill. The Qianlong Emperor's father had numerous sons, but  chose him to succeed in recognition of his mental discipline and courage.  A country the size of China isn't easy to rule.  The Emperor's younger brother fools around, "entitled" by privilege”: his weaknesses get him in the end. Yinglou falls in love with Fuca Fuheng,  kid brother of the Fuca Empress, the Emperor's first wife, and he with her, but they can't marry.  He's aristocratic, she's low level Bannerman family.  In any case,  duty comes before love.   He leads the Emperor's armies in the south and eventually dies in service of the country (while also sacrificing himself to save Yinglou, by then an Imperial Concubine and untouchable).  Yinglou's rise to power stems from much the same reason ; not deviousness so much as being more  altruistic than the other concubines. She thinks oif oithers than herself, saving the Fuca Empress's portrait from a fire, and sacricing her own health trying to save the Step Empress's son.  Always a moral, even in made for TV entertainment. Mental exercise for viewers, too.  TV need not be mindless.

The  dialogue is in Mandarin, though it's not impossible to follow if you understand Cantonese. Considering that 19% of the world's population lives in China,  and that many millions around the world can follow it too, the issue of translation is moot.  With an internal market that size, the series doesn't depend on English language audiences.  It has been dubbed in Cantonese, Malay, and Indian sub continent languages, but Mandarin speakers say that it's quite literary, so some translations might not convey the full effect.  In any case some knowledge of Chinese culture and history does make a difference.  Tiny details, for example, like the toddler running round the palace, whose carers can't keep up with him "Fifteenth son !" they call. Just any wilful kid?  The Emperor's fifteenth son was Yinglou's child, who would one day become the Jiajing Emperor though they don't tell you that in the story.  English subtitles do exist but they're not very helpful.  But The Story of Yangzi Palace is such an event in itself that it's sure to be rebroadcast and issued on DVD, presumably with translations and context explained.  Hopefully,  media marketers, economists and politicians will wake up and smell the coffee. Or rather, the scent of tea.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Thomas Adès. LPO season opener : Stravinsky Adès Lutosławski


Continuing the London Philharmonic Orchestra's year-long Stravinsky series at the Royal Festival Hall, Thomas Adès conducted Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements,  Lutosławski Symphony no 3 and his own In Seven Days.  Adès has sometimes been a conductor who puts more into his own works, which is perhaps fair enough, but this was a superb Stravinsky - full of vigour, but perhaps even more pointedly, shaped with an understanding of the structure of the piece and how it works as a coherent whole. The Symphony in Three Movements  operates like a kaleidoscope, with quotes from other works, notanly the Rite of Spring, appearing, fragmentizing and re-surfacing in new combinations. As has been said many times, it's a bit like the cinematic use of collage, where different frames are put together to create a new whole. Stravinsky would have been well aware of Sergei Eisenstein, so it's perhaps no accident that snippets of music planned for use in the film of Franz Werfel's The Song of Bernadette  appear. In musical composition, collage creates impressionistic density, images proliferating in layers and patterns.  Stravinsky suggested that some images were inspired by war : hence the brutal, stomping march that evolves from the "primitivism" of the Rite of Spring, ritual now a force for destruction not regrowth. The inner movement is brief respite before savage, angular ostinato figues return.  One might, perhaps,  read into the piece insights into Stravinsky's predicament, looking back on his past and anxiously ahead, in exile, but the energy of this performance was such that it wholly convinced on its own terms.

This idea of music as collage continued with Adès's own In Seven Days, subtitled "piano concerto with moving image". Ten years ago, when it premiered with Nicholas Hodge and the London Sinfonietta, it was presented with video accompaniment by Adès's partner Tal Rosner, the visuals were given equal billing to the music, to the detriment of the music. Freed of the clumsy caricatures of the video, the piece revealed its true colours.  Bouncing, vibrant staccato and twirling traceries of woodwinds suggest freshness and light.  Passages where clusters of small, rapid notes evoked stars in the universe, perhaps, or city lights at night – it doesn’t matter either way as both catch the fragmented, flickering mood of the music.  A beautiful setting for Kirill Gerstein's rich, deep chords, rumbling at the lower register like some force of nature.  The brass and winds behind him provided another texture - long, rising lines - before the tiny fragments Gerstein played, each note cleanly defined and shining.  The title In Seven Days refers to the seven days of Creation. Each “day” represents a stage in the formation of the universe, though perhaps it’s best not to be too literal: the impression of a universe being created is what matters. Thus the rushing forces towards the middle section and the moment of mysterious calm which seemed to resonate into infinity.  Gerstein's playing in the final section was beautifully assured : no visual images are needed to evoke the sense of some magical dawn materializing in our imaginations.  A sudden, unexpected end, hinting at more to come. Visuals better suited to the music might help, but not the originals.

To my eternal regret, I turned down a chance to hear Witold Lutosławski conduct his Symphony no 3 in 1992, but fortunately it is now established canon and performed by other masters.  Adès has  high standards to meet, but this was very good.  For his publishers, the composer wrote "The work consists of two movements, preceded by a short introduction and followed by an epilogue and a coda. It is played without a break. The first movement comprises three episodes, of which the first is the fastest, the second slower and the third is the slowest. The basic tempo remains the same and the differences of speed are realised by the lengthening of the rhythmical units. Each episode is followed by a short, slow intermezzo. It is based on a group of toccata-like themes contrasting with a rather singing one: a series of differentiated tuttis leads to a climax of the whole work. Then comes the last movement, based on a slow singing theme and a sequence of short dramatic recitatives played by the string group. A short and very fast coda ends the piece."  But within that such originality !

Startling chords announce its arrival.  These form a sharp outline, containing  the individual instrumental groups in the orchestra which operate almost in free form between the punctuation points that hold them in. The woodwinds test and tease, strings tiptoe tentatively, celli tracing elliptical figures.  As the winds break out of formation, percussion attempts control, but the multiple voices in the orchestra remain irrepressible, even when trumpets scream like klaxons.  Zig zag figures, darting forth and flying free. The tension between forms seems to shape the piece as much as the forms themselves. Quieter passages heralded a change of direction : longer, more deliberate liness stretched out, tiny fragments of sound meeting loud chords : a cataclsym where bells and sirens screamed, and timpani thundred. I lovced the way the LPO played the riot (of sorts) that followed, fragments sharp yet sparkling, building up in force.  Towards the end an anthem seems to emerge, rising above and beyond. At last, the startling chords are stilled. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Birthdays for Infantas and dwarves : Schreker Zemlinsky

Listening again to Franz Schreker's Die Geburtstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta) in both the 1908/9 original (Jürgen Bruns, Kammersymphonie Berlin, 1992)  and in the Suite arranged in 1923, of which there are so many performances that it's pretty much standard repertoire.  Recommended recordings are Gerd Albrecht and Lothar Zagrosek.   This had me thinking aboutb the connections between the two Schreker versions,  Schreker's Die Gezeichneten,  Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg, Wilde's short story, Velasquez's painting Las Meninas and the historical roots of the legend.
Schreker's Die Geburtstag der Infantin was commisioned by Grete and Elsa Wreisenthal, dancers in the "expressive" fashion of the time, an early 20th century rebellion against 19th century ballet. Think Ida Rubenstein and even the character Leni Riefenstahl played in Das blaue Licht rather than Diaghilev and the Ballets Russe. Schreker's original was thus described as "pantomime", and scored for chamber orchestra.  The Suite was created for large orchestra, minus dancers and story line.  the emphasis now is on the series of dances  which work as "pure" music. The last two sections Die Rose and Der Spiegel are missing, for reasons unknown, which is a pity, since these are  the punchline of the drama. The Infanta gives the dwarf a white rose : why does it mean so much to the dwarf ?  When he sees himself in the mirror and realizes that it is his own reflection he dies of a broken heart.

The idea that music must be "romantic" when there's a big, lush orchestra isn't true.  Romanticism with a  big "R" refers to the intellectual movement that revolutionized 19th century thought, which impacted on social and political change and on all art forms.romanticism   exploreed what we now call the Unconscious, and ideas about psychology before the term was invented. Thus the idea of the mirror, which incidentally exists in Velasquez's painting, where the artist is seen in the background  as a reverse image. He's painting the scene yet is also part of the picture.   In Velasquez's time, dwarves were no big deal at court, but for Wilde the story predicates on the Infanta who concludes "'For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts!"  So Schreker's suite revision of  Die Geburtstag der Infantin should really be understood in context . Far from being slush romance, it has a very dark side, connecting to the taste for morbidity behind the spirit of the period, which found expression in many art forms, from Baudelaire to Wilde, to the Secession in Vienna and Munich, to Hugo von Hofmannstahl, to expressionism in painting and in the cinema.  Scheker's Die Geburtstag der Infantin is also not a one-off.  Schreker would develop the ideas in many later works, most obviously Die Gezeichneten, where the "dwarf figure",  Salvago, creates a paradise which becomes a cover for depravity. What seems beautiful on the surface, just might not be so within. And vice versa - ugliness might conceal true inner beauty.   Please read my analysis of the opera here.

And thus to Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg.  Significntly, this was written 1919-1921, after Die Gezeichneten, which premiered in 1918, and at a period when Expressionist ideas were influencing art, film, music and literature. The libretto was written by Georg Klaren, adapting the story further, with multiple new connections.  Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel (who'd been her partner since 1917)  were interested too. The bucolic dwarf in Wilde's story is now a sophisticated composer "from the East", a snide reference to Zemlinsky's ancestry and his father's  pretensions to nobility.  But Klaren pointed out that the Court, for all its sumptuous riches, was "peopled with over-refined, decadent, not to say tainted characters" while the Dwarf represents a purer soul.   There's much more to the opera than Alma, who had dumped Zemlinsky in 1902. By this stage Zemlinsky was successful and married to Luise, a woman almost the reverse image of Alma, and in many ways had sublimated his feelings for Alma in art. As Anthony Beaumont writes, Der Zwerg was like a coffin "to  borrow the imagery of Dichetrliebe  - in which his love and pain were laid to rest".  Perhaps the ghosts of the dwarf and those who hurt him are thus buried. Zemlimnsky's next major work was the Lyric Symphony,  a masterpiece which breaks new ground musically and in terms of subject. Please read more about that HERE and also HERE

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Autumn comes to Purple Myrtle Garden

For the Mid-Autumn Festival  and the full moon tonight, Autumn comes to the Purple Myrtle Garden  (紫薇園的秋天) (Tse Mei Yuen Chau Tien) another classic of Cantonese cinema, which was released to coincide with the Festival in 1958.  People celebrate with parties, viewing the moon, eating mooncakes, and playing with lanterns. Partly it's the prospect of winter drawing near when light grows dim. But the festival is very much about family values, especially in difficult times.  The film depicts the Kok family, who live in a Republic era villa  with huge gardens. Hence the name "Purple Myrtle Garden" , lagerstomea, which is beautiful, but fragile.  The house is full of books and antiques. The Koks are old money but privilege has come at a price. When the patriarch died suddenly decades before, his widow took over the business, multiplying the fortune.  She still rules with an iron fist, controlling the destinies of her children and grandchildren, as well as the money.  The matriarch's son is spineless, though good-natured, he and his wife always praying.. (Buddhists).  Effectively, the younger  generation Koks are trapped in a kind of psychic limbo. Eldest son Kok Chung-si (Ng Chor Fan) plays the violin and paints oils. Eldest daughter Kok Fung-yee (Wong Man-lei) plays the piano. No-one really works. Kok Hok-si (Cheung Wood-yau)  goes to the office but "only signs cheques". He and second sister Kok Mok-sau (Yung Siu-yee) go out as often as they can, to escape.

Into this limbo arrives Miss Yiu Ling-yam(Pak Yin) hired to tutor the youngest grandchild, Yik-si, who can't go to school because grandmother says he's poorly.  Grandmother decides everything.  Miss Yiu notices something's wrong.  Family members eat alone in their rooms, and don't communicate.  Left to her own devices, she wanders in the garden and overhears the sound of a violin coming from a tower : it's Chung-si playing, all alone. Hok-si and Mok-sau tell Miss Yiu the background. "Purple Myrtle" was their father's first wife, who was driven out of the family by the matriarch.  So Chung-si and Fung-yee, left motherless and abused, developed problems.  At a gathering, the matriarch (played by veteran star Lai Cheuk-cheuk) comes to visit and bullies each member of the family in turn.  "What's this about you attempting suicide?" she screams at Fung Yee.  Fung-yee was married briefly but her husband died.  "In this family" snarls the matriach, "no-one comes back home whining".  (traditionally, women stayed with their married families). That night Fung-yee makes another suicide attempt, but is stopped in time.  It turns out that she's still in love with a man the matriach  disliked, so she was forced into her tragic marriage).  

When the Mid-Autumn Festival comes, Hok-si and Miss Yiu organize a party in the garden, like normal families do.  "Why won't you join us", Miss Yiu asks Chung-si. "it's not me that chooses unhappiness, but sadness which chooses me", he answers.  "When you paint", she says, "you can change the colours", ergo, you can change your life.   Lanterns are lit, and fireworks. the sound track switches from Elgar and Mendelssohn to a polka and then a waltz and then a jitterbug - Mok-sau's "modern" and likes dancing.  (see photo above)  In the shadows, Chung-si watches. Shyly, he asks Mis Yiu out, in a ltter. If she wants to go, she should turn on the lamp in her room. She does, and he can't believe his luck.  Howeber, he overhears his brother Hok-si ask her out as well.  (see photo) So he pretends he can't go, and should instead go with Hok-si who is more fun.  Too noble for his own good.  Meanwhile, Fung-yee sneaks out at night. Hok-si, Miss Yiu and Mok-sau follow. (Bizarrely the film now shows a street I grew up in, not the country villa used for the other location shoots).  Fung yee has gone to find her lost love, Pang Ching-lok, but can't face ringing his doorbell.  So Mok-sau alerts him, but Fung-Yee has run away. Hok-si confronts his father, but his father says that the matriarch's will cannot be challenged. "Kok ka pei gui" ie Kok family protocol or values)   Mr Pang finds Fung yee and asks her to elope with him, but she's absorbed the family's negative mindset and won't.

A thunderstorm descends but cannot drown out the music Fung yee is playing, which resounds tnroughout the mansion.  She locks her door so no-one can enter, then climbs on the parapet in yet another suicide attempt.  Chung-si climbs over the balconies to hold her back, and she's saved, but he collapses - he has TB.  Now at last, Chung-si is decisive : he asks Miss Yiu to marry him. "when I'm well, we can leave Tse Mei Yuen and start a new life."  If only. Mr Pang returns from the Philippines  and this time, Fung-yee agrees to go with him.  But the matriarch's spell is not yet broken. She comes back, orders the servants out and scolds the family. "So you are the Miss Yiu who has changed things here!" "No, says Miss Yiu, daring to answer back "They are changing things for themselves"  "Who has let Mr Pang in " the old lady cries. "Me" says Fung-yee's father. "Times have changed".  The matriarch forces Fung-yee to read the inscriptions that set out the family protocols from way back.  Chung-si speaks out, too and the old lady goes ballistic. "You are a bastard!"  As she raises her stick to hit him, his father, at last, intervenes.  The spell is broken.

Winter sets in, but is it too late ? "I will not see spring" says Chung-si.  The family goes down to wave Fung-yee and Mr Pang on their way. But when they go up again, Chung-si is dead.   "You've been a breath of air to this house", says his brother to Miss Yiu, "but this house has not been good to you."   Soon after, Miss Yiu is packed to leave, but as she walks past Chung-si's door, she hears the sound of his violin. She walks into the empty room. the plants on the verandah are dead, the violin in  its case. She takes the painting he made of the tower in the garden, and asks if she can have it, to "remember Tse Mei Yuen in its autumn".  As she is driven off, Hok-si tells her that, if ever she should return, there will be someone waiting. Although this is a film ostensibly about emotional manipulation and the way those who are abused internalize the mistreatment, the real meaning liues deeper. From the late 19th century there was a whole literary genre dealing withhow China responded to change after 2000 years of feudal tradition.   Unequal Treaties were the matriach writ large : control and manipulation made possible because the "family" could not assert itself.  Westernization itself is not the problem - the Koks enjoy western classical music and art.  But people need to change on their own terms, as Miss Yiu tells the old lady.  The second generation (Mum and Dad) go along with what's happening because they don't question the feudal system, but there's a rift in the third generation where the older siblings are mistreated, while the young ones are beginning to understand what's going on.  This film is beautifully made, very literary and elegaic, further making the connection between literature and social commentary, which would not have been lost on audiences aware of the context.