Monday, 22 April 2019

Wagner Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes revived in Berlin


Wagner : Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen at the Deutches Oper, Berlin,  reviving the production by Philip Stölzl, with Torsten Kerl reprising the title role as he did ten years ago.  Wagner and Verdi were born within 6 months of each other : two completely opposite strands of opera? Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen comes from 1840 - same year as Schumann Dichterliebe - but the soundworlds could hardly be more different. Rienzi could be Wagner's Simon Boccanegra - massed chorus, heroic arias and a remarkably similar subject.  Rienzi isn't done too often, for many reasons,  but this production is very good indeed. It's well worth seeking out the 2010 DVD. In the DVD of this Rienzi - the first ever- from Deutsche Oper Berlin, the overture is outstandingly well staged. Rienzi is alone looking out at a giant panorama of the Alps. The majesty of the mountains overwhelms : this is real power. In comparison, Rienzi's nobody despite his status. At first he looks out imperiously, then does an amazing backflip. He starts to "conduct" the music he - and we - hear. Then he crumples into an inept  all.  The whole story, told in simple images against a stunning backdrop. Don't assume this is Berchtesgaden. The Alps can be seen just as clearly from parts of Northern Italy.

Strictly speaking, Rienzi isn't really Italian, since the text is based  on an English novel by eminent Victorian Edward Bulwer-Lytton.  The subject's universal - a  "man of the people" versus established order  who himself gets corrupted by power. Throughout this production, directed by Philip Stölzl, there are references to the early 1920's, to early film and design. Futurism started in Italy long before the First World War. It's preoccupation with technology and mass movements found fruit in Russia after 1917. Indeed, it's the first truly "modern" art theory,long before German Expressionisn, art deco and Triumph des Willens.That's Mussolini at right. Even the costumes in this production reference the Fascist Italy. Limit the ideas in this production to simplistic Hitler and you miss its really profound insights. Rienzi is about power and the abuse thereof. It could happen anywhere. And the idea of designer style as a tool of politics is utterly relevant in our new age of mass media manipulation. Hence the references to film and propaganda. As Rienzi becomes more caught up with power, his hold on reality loosens. Image-building takes over. The man of the people becomes a huge face projected above the regimented, conforming masses. Theatre becomes a substitute for real life. See how the stage becomes divided. "Public" on top, "private" bunker below, where Rienzi and his intimates function pretty much alone. This split screen effect is particularly good as the lower part resembles film cells rolling on loop. Personality-cult dictatorships have always known the power of theatre, from Napolean to Mao Zedong to Sergei Eisenstein for Stalin and Leni Reifenstahl for Hitler.

Torsten Kerl is an excellent, charismatic Rienzi : plenty of forceful volume, yet able to convey the character's inner virtues. He's no simplistic stage villain. Wagner builds humanity into the part so Rienzi's sympathetic. If he were truly ruthless, he'd have wiped out the Colonnas. Kerl's Allmächt’ger Vater is particularly delicate,but throughout the opera, the non-vocal parts are surprisingly contemplative, almost dreamy, as though Wagner understands the value of being visionary. The long non-vocal ppassages are by no means background, but part of the story. This production illustrates them without being intrusive, respecting their obliquenature. Kerl plays with "toy" houses (like empire builders and town planners do). He doesn't have to sing but his boyish innocence suddenly breaks through the iron man exterior. At the end, Rienzi's faith seems to rest in the ultimate good of mankind, even though he's destroyed.

Sebastien Lang-Lessing conducts knowing how important these almost symphonic interludes are in shaping meaning - deft, understated but not overshadowed by the big vocal numbers. Kate Aldrich is an outstanding Adriano Colonna, agile, vibrant, passionate. What a part this is wavering from one loyalty to another, always on the brink of extreme sacrifice! Aldrich's voice expresses intensity, her acting the mercurial frisson in the part. This opera is Adriana’s tragedy almost as much as it's Rienzi's. Camilla Nylund does well as Irene, though the role is less demanding, and Ante Jerkunica's a solid Colonna. But it's the crowd scenes that impress. They're wonderfully costumed and choreographed. Sometimes the singers march like automatons, the "ideal machine" of Futurist iconology. Sometimes they're grotesques with masks straight out of caricature. Or Carneval, gone wrong. The singing is equally good. Mechanical precision, even in the mad scenes, the crowd as mindless monster.
At 156 minutes, this poerformance is obviously  cut from the four hour original, but that may not be a bad thing.  Obsessive "purists" can wait another century. The Sawallisch recording with René Kollo is a standard, but this performance is edgier and tenser - much closer to the horrible truths in the drama. Kerl's excellent, making the purchase worthwhile for his sake alone. This performance (filmed live) is also so vivid, it's a brilliant introduction to an aspect of Wagner that might have been had the composer chosen another direction. For all we know, this Rienzi could convert diehard Verdians to Wagner. Haha !
production photos : Joachim Feiguth, Bettina Stöẞ

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Andrew Davis : Tippett Szymanowski Debussy Barbican

Andrew Davis photo: Chris Christodoulou, bBC
Andrew Davis conducted the BBC SO at the Barbican Hall in London. Top billing to Michael Tippett's The Rose Lake, almost exactly a year after Simon Rattle conducted it with the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom it has been associated since its premiere with Colin Davis in 1995. The Rose Lake is a video in music, inspired by Le lac rose in Sénégal, which Tippett visited in 1990.  As the angle of the sun changed, the colours in the landscape changed, a concept that translates well into a study of orchestral colour.  It was "a continuous five part composition, in essence a set of variations .....a song without words for orchestra", as Tippett wrote at the time.  The sections with programmatic titles mix with sections where only tempo gives clue to meaning, the twelve short segments moving forward in sequence, suggesting the passage of time. Dense but lucid layers of sound as beautifully structured as mosaic.  Andrew Davis, though, brings out its descriptive nature. The panoply of marimbas, vibraphone, and xylophone rustled, suggesting breezes, grasses, rushing water. The massed percsussion even suggested "African" sounds, woodwinds and brass calling like wild creatures against a savannah of strings.  In the organic "earth forms" and especially in the bird and bell sounds, The Rose Lake resembles the music of Olivier Messiaen. Thus the logic of programming it with masters of colour and transparency like Symanowski and Debussy.  A pity that Rattle paired it with Mahler Symphony no 10, with which it has almost nothing in common, since Rattle's feel for Szymanowski and Debussy runs very deep indeed, Rattle being one of Szymanowski's modern pioneers.  Rattle would have made the connections more strongly, but Davis presents it on its own  terms, less Messiaen and divine inspiration than tone poem but perfectly valid. 

Szymanowski's Violin Concerto no 1 dates from around 1916, when he was making a creative breakthrough. To quote Jim Samson, the foremost Szymanowski scholar, writing as long ago as 1981, "the orchestra is conceived rather as a reservoir from which may be drawn an infinite variety of timbral combinations....the string body...sub divided into many parts, further characterized by the most delicate combinations of arco and pizzicato, harmonics, sul tasto, sul ponticello and tremolando effects".As Jim Samson said in his book, The Music of Karol Szymanowski (1981), in the Violin Concert no 1 "the formal scheme is totally unique and represents an ingenious solution to the problem of building extended structures without resorting to sonata form". The almost chaotic proliferation of sub groups and themes within the orchestra, contrasted with extended violin cantilenas, soaring high above the orchestra, are so refined and so rarified that they seem to propel the music into new stratospheres, beyond earthly possibilities. Mandelbrot patterns, in music, mathematically precise, yet full of the vigour of natural, organic growth.  Though a contemporary of Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartók, Szymanowski's music defies category and is astonishingly prophetic. No surprise then that Boulez adored him, and made the keynote recording with Christian Tetzlaff and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  I enjoyed Lisa Batiashvili's more romantic approach with Andrew Davis and the BBCSO but to really get the full wonder of the piece you need Tetzlaff and Boulez.  

This concert concluded with Alain Altinoglu's suite on Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande.  Please read more about the background HERE. Nothing whatseover wrong with suites. These days there's ill-informed prejudice against them butn they serve a good purpose. In the case of Pelléas et Mélisande a suite arrangement is perfectly valid, since  it focuses on the orchestral aspects of the opera - Debussy's only opera - presenting it almost as tone poem like La Mer. Thus it can be programmed more readily in the concert hall, bringing it to non-opera audiences. The opera itself  is by no means a typical narrative opera, so this orchestral approach has its merits. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Proms by Algorithm - BBC Proms 2019

BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall - photo : Chris Christodoulou, courtesy Royal Albert Hall



What has happened to the BBC Proms ? Was the 2019 season devised by algorithm ?  BBC and Proms management venerate formula, but formula is no substitute for vision.   When David Pickard took over as Proms Director,  many hoped that he'd be able to stem the dumbing down of BBC Radio 3. But perhaps he's caught the virus.  Sir Henry Wood believed that audieces could rise to the challenge of good music.  Now it seems that music is no more than an excuse to sell tickets to audiences who want "the music experience" as opposed to music itself. Proms-by-Algorithm isn't music.  The BBC's own research has shown that the obsession with attracting "new" audiences doesn't develop the market. Indeed, it drives away the core audience.  On the plus side that means those of us who used to go to Prom after Prom each year can now save time and money ! Nearly everything will be broadcast.

Musicians, however, will save the day. Good musicians can't produce pap and live with themselves.  We can always rely on Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, whatever they're doing (Bruckner 7, 3rd September). Daniel Harding and the Orchestre de Paris (Beethoven 6, 26th August) and Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Bach and Bruckner 8, 23rd August).   There's also Mariss Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (30 and 31st July),and Myun-whun Chung and Staatskapelle Dresden (5th September) in Brahms and Rachmaninov), Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonc (two programmes  - Mahler 4, Tchaikovsky, Schubert and Smetana), Mariss Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (30 and 31st July).  Perhaps my top choice will be John Eliot Gardiner Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and a great cast (Monday 2nd September). 

Some of the less obvious choices are interesting because the programes are planned by musical minds : Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra are doing a really daring Prom on 20th August - Charles Koechlin : Les Bandar-log, Edgard Varèse Amériques and William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, which has been done many times but rarely in such context ! Also, less well known repertoire : Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the London premiere of Mieczysław Weinberg Symphony no 3 (22nd August). Weinberg's Cello Concerto gets its London premiere, too, with  Sol Gabetta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra with their new principal Guest conductor Dalia Stasevska.

This year's First Night of the Proms (19th July) features Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, with a good partly Czech cast and Asmik Grigorian, Karina Canellakis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Glagolitic Mass is spectacular and has been done several times in recent years, but my preference would be for the Second Night programme on 20th July, with Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, doing Smetana Má vlast and Antonín Dvořák Violin Concerto in A minor (Joshua Bell). Also interesting Christine Goerke's Wagner Prom (9th September with Marc Albrecht and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Olivier Latry, organiste titulaire of Notre Dame Cathedral,  back in London after 10 years on Sunday 4th August at 11 am. 

As always lots of British and BBC Orchestras - lots of Sakari Oramo, Vladimir Jurowski all-Russian Prom 17th August, Andrew Davis, Edward Gardner, Thomas Dausgaard, John Storgårds and many others. So very little that's outstanding and unusual, but enough solid fare, thanks toi the musicians who are performing.


Monday, 15 April 2019

Everlasting Love 天長地久


A classic of Cantonese cinema - Everlasting Love 天長地久, starring screen idols Hung Sin Nui (紅線女 ) and Ng Chor Fan (吳楚帆). What's the secret of its enduring appeal ?  It premiered in 1955 at a time of unprecedented social change, when traditional assumptions were being challenged by new ideas.  This  film is more than a love story : it deals with fundamental human values in difficult times. The print may be aging but its message is relevant today.

A train crosses countryside that is now  mega city.  Trains carried millions out of China into Hong Kong. The poorest of the poor though - came by boat from the Guangzhou delta or simply walked. Mui Ga Lei (played by Hung Sin Nui) is a country girl but not a peasant : her qipao is old fashioned but modest.  Her father's died so she's come to Hong Kong to find her kinsman, who's a caretaker in a fancy western-style restaurant with uniformed doormen and sophisticated clientele.  She's out of place. The restaurant is managed by  Chan Sai Wah (played by Ng Chor Fan). in his fancy western suit, he looks the part but his authority is constantly undermined. He can't even order new curtains without approval from the owner, Patriarch Yan.  The reason Chan has his job is that Old Mr Yan wanted a successor but his own son was neither competent : so he arranged that his daughter should marry someone capable, effectively adopting good stock into the family : the family unit is what counts, not the individual. Though Chan and his wife have a son,  their marriage is a disaster, both desperately bitter.  Because Chan's mother and sister have no income of their own, they live in the Yan family mansion. They "need tea, have tea, need water have water" as extended family. But like Mr Chan, they are dependent on those with money and power.  Old Mr Yan think's he's doing the Chans a favour by arranging for her to marry a rich man. He can't comprehend that she might object. Chan's sister wants to move out, even if that means living in a bed space in a tenement, but her mother refuses : it would damage her son's social status.


Yan Junior is the company accountant, though he's work shy and scheming.  He offers Miss Mui a job as secretary though she knows nothing about working in an office. He takes her round town to get a modern haircut and fancy western clothes.  Her kinsman warns her that things might not be as easy as they seem.   Miss Mui sees that Mr Chan wanders in the restaurant gardens, looking stressed.  Hung Sin Nui's voice had a soft tremolo, like a caress, so she could express tenderness while saying simple things. You can hear why it's balm for Chan's troubled soul.  Yan Junior invites Miss Mui for dinner, but it's in a hotel bedroom. She runs away, so he tells Mrs Chan that her husband's been seen with another woman. "I want a divorce!" she screams, but her father says no.  Miss Mui gets fired and makes a scene in the restaurant since she thought Chan was widowed.  Mr Chan's mother dies, a suicide, and his sister runs away. Scandal after scandal !  In the office, Chan has $20,000 but can't put it in the safe because Yan Junior's got the combination and has gone out.  He's had enough. He wants to run away.  When Miss Mui sees him off, they decide, on the spur of the monent to elope, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

They take the ferry to Macau, as millions did then. Vintage shots !  Panoramas of the city when it was a small, sleepy hamlet. Fishing junks in the inner harbour, and the outer harbour before the bay was reclaimed.  They check into a hotel which was new then and was still there til not so long ago. They visit scenic spots like the facade of St Paul's and the statue of Colonel Mesquita killing Chinese people in China. That's gone, which is maybe just as well.  Hung Sin Nui sings the song which made this film immortal.  In real life, she was a Cantonese opera singer who could elide lines so they dipped and swooped gracefully.
The idyll doesn't last : Yan Junior arrives demanding the $20,000. Chan said he was owed that for all the years his pay was witheld by his wife, but he returns it all but what he's spent. Chan and Mui now move to a shared house in a tenement in a shabby old part of town. But their housemates are friendly, everyone chips together.  Chan's job offers fall through because news of what happened in Hong Kong has filtered through.  He pounds the streets, increasingly desperate.  Mui becomes pregnant but this adds to his distress : how will he support a wife and child ? "We love each other. As long as we have hands and feet, we will survive" she says.  He's reduced to a job as a tout grabbing ferry passengers to hotels. He makes nothing "You have to grab and fight or you can't live!" screams the boss. Mui falls and has a miscarriage. As she lies in bed, Mrs Chan and her lawyer arrive from Hong Kong.  When Mrs Chan sees Mr Chan, now wearing Chinese working class clothes, she sneers.  She wants a divorce with damages and sole custody of the son. He gives in: he has no choice. Years pass. Mui gets a job in a factory - great shots of early industrial conditiions - while Chan helps the women in the kitchen.  He's humiliated. But she says, if society doesn't treat us well, we care about each other.  "We dreamed" he says, of "Hang Fuk,Fai Lok" (happiness and prosperity) but where has it all gone ? "As long as we stick together", she says "we can make things around us better even if we cabn't change te world". .  

In those days, food was bought each day from the market, wrapped in newspaper. One day, Chan reads the news. His son has been appointed new manager of Old Mr Yan's businesses.  He wants to return to Hong Kong "My son will look after us". But she won't go.  If she goes with him,he might not find the happiness he seeks.  He promises to send for her when he's rich again, but she tells him that wealth was never part of their bargain, just love. This time he takes the ferry, he travels alone.

In the Yan mansion, everyone's partying,  everything glitters., Chan, in peasant clothes, unshaven, looks in and sees his son feted by all.  But he can't go in.  What if he jinxes his son's succcess ? Suddenly, Miss Mui's kinsman greets him. He's remembered. But Chan disappears into the darkness.  Back in Macau in the tenement neigbourhood, he finds that Miss Mui has moved away.   She's left a letter : "I can't give you the happiness you need".  He walks through narrow alleyways and shares bed space in a doss house.  He's sick and has no money. Even from this he gets evicted because he can't pay. Now homeless he paces the streets, picking up cigarette butts. Then he sees a poster for a Cantonese Opera - the epitome of Cantonese culture. Miss Mui has become an opera star ! As he stands gazing, she spots him and takes him back into her dressing room.  Over the years she's worked hard and has travelled all round doing shows.  He can barely speak "I'm useless", he says, "You were right to leave me". "But from now on we can be together again," she says, "and be happy". Since he hasn't eaten for days, she goes to order food. She's gone just a moment but he has run away again, unable to face being a burden on her. She runs out of the theatre, chasing his shadow as it retreats in the distance.

In real life, Hung Sin Nui's career as a star in Hong Kong ended when she returned to Guangzhou in 1956 with her then husband Ma Tze Tsang to set up a Cantonese opera institute in the capital of Cantonese culture. He died in 1964. She was caught up in the Cultural Revolution, denounced as a class enemy by her own daughter, but lived to be 88.  As for Ng Chor Fan, he was the doyen of Cantonese cinema , not just as actor but organizer, keeping the industry together under the Japanese occupation. His first wife was a beauty and movie star, but couldn't cope with wartime conditions and died young. It's not too hard to see where the themes in this movie come from.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Sir Harrison Birtwistle in Focus : Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall

Sir Harrison Birtwistle (Photo credit Simon Harsent)
At the Wigmore Hall, the Nash Ensemble Focus on Sir Harrison Birtwistle: or rather the "latest" focus, since the Nash and Birtwistle have had a fruitful relationship for years.  Indeed, four pieces on this programme were commissions from the Nash and Artitsic Director Amelia Freedman (who was also in the audience) : Birtwistle's Fantasia upon all the notes (2011), Elliott Carter's Mosaic (2004) and that perennnial favourite, Birtwistle's The Woman and the Hare (1999).  Highlights of the evening, however were two new pices, Birtwistle's Duet for Eight Strings, and Oliver Knussen's Study for 'Metamorphosis' for solo bassoon.

Birtwistle will turn 85 in July, but still looks sprightly, his dry humour undimmed.  His Duet for Eight Strings (2018-2019) shows that musically he's in top form, as inventive and thought-provoking as ever.  He described this Duet as "a string quartet for two players". He put his hands together, fingers intertwined, and moved them to show how the two focal points of the piece connect while remaining distinct.  More formally, the piece "alternates between passages of double-stopped chords in rhythmic unison (or near unison) in which the four strings oif the viola and the four of the cello form a single unit of eight strings, 'hocket' passages of rhythmically interlocking exchanges, in which the two/four string units combine to produce a contrasting kind of eight-string texture" (Anthony Burton's programme notes). Seated in the front row, two metres from Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel, that sense of connectedness felt so strong it was as if I was being drawn into the performer's circle of energy : uncommonly intense.  Another of Birtwistle's intricate puzzles within puzzles, this one with the extra dimension of drawing the listener.  The piece evolves as a series of separate units, hockets as pauses which aren't really silent, but contribute to structure. The sections aren't variations so much as new ideas, imaginatively articulated, yet in typical Birtwistle style, aphoristic and elusive.   Such a sense of invisible connections ! My partner said, later, "If Knussen were here, he'd say 'let's do that again !". I thought, too, of Elliott Carter's sense of whimsy. Many happy memories at Aldeburgh and elsewhere.

Knussen's Study for 'Metamorphosis' for solo bassoon followed, with Ursula Leveaux. Originally written in 1972 and revised in 2018, it's Knussen in middle age looking back on early work.  Though it's a "study", it feels like a whole, unified piece.  It's also a good partner for Birtwistle's Duet, since the bassoon seems to be duetting itself, playfully, but with purpose.

Seven years ago, the Nash Ensemble premiered Birtwistle's Fantasia upon all the notes. Despite the title, this has little to do with Henry Purcell's Fantazia upon one note.  Birtwistle's Fantasia is another intricate puzzle. Initially, the  two violins (Benjamin Nabarro and Michael Gurevich) dominate, with fierce chords, followed by flute and clarinet (Philippa Davies and  Sarah Newbould) and viola and cello (Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel), the harp (Lucy Wakeford)  serving as pivot and continuo.  Intricately poised playing - maybe the Purcell connection operates on a deeper level.  At times, the harp is beaten for percussive effect.  More harp-as-leader in Elliott Carter's Mosaic (2004) for harp, flute, oboe, clarinet (Richard Hosford, string trio and double bass (Tom Goodman). Again, patterns of cells multiplying and developing.

The Nash Ensemble were joined by Claire Booth for Birtwistle's Three Songs from the Holy Forest (2016-7). This has connections with Birtwistle's Moth Requiem (2013) a mysterious piece for chamber ensemble and small group of female voices which chant the Latin names of moths.  Like the Moth Requiem, these three songs soar, float, and suddenly dart in new directions: very much like the movement of a moth.  The texts here, to poems by Robin Blaser, are more extensive. The vocal line is more defined too, though it swoops and hovers in short phrases, Booth's voice plangent and almost abstract : singer as wind instrument.  An alto flute replicates and extends the vocal line : two "voices" enclosed in the ensemble, like the moth  Blaser envisaged, trapped inside a piano, its wings making the piano strings vibrate.  Birtwistle wrote his own poems for Songs by Myself (1984).  The haiku-like nature of the texts fit well with the enigmatic minimalism of the orchestration.  Booth's voice moves : at once languid and melancholy, beautifully captured by the sounds of the vibraphone (Richard Benjafield).

"If anything", Philip Langridge told me in 2008,"Birtwistle’s music has become more impressive with time. He writes mathematically, in the way Bach writes mathematically, but with great emotion. To sing Birtwistle, you have to understand the ‘maths’ first, to get the figures right, to get the intervals right".  So to Birtwistle's The Woman and the Hare, another Nash Ensemble classic, to poems by Stephen Harsent. The Woman and the Hare are ancient symbols. Whatever their meaning, they connect to mysteries : Moonlight, wildness, the subconscious. Typical Birtwistle territory. Here the singer's strange, curving lines are shadowed by a reciter (Simone Leona Hueber). Yet spoken words, intoned at a clipped pace suggesting tension, not meant to elucidate : they serve as counterpoint to the singer's keening, flowing lines and ethereal pitch.  Duality, again. The ensemble sussurates around them, silvery tones, rustlings, low rumbles, sounds that might evoke sudden frantic movement, even a sense of danger.   Something happens : we do not know, but we're hypnotised by the singer's  gravity-defying  legato. Is the hare consumed ? "Her flesh falls from the bone" says the reciter.   But when Booth sings, the hare has the last word. "Look with new eyes /everything in place/  lush landscape.... moonrise". Transformational. 

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Florian Boesch's Mahler and Schumann wins BBC Music award 2019

Not that industry awards mean a thing, but sometimes they do pick good things : Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineaus Mahler and sSchumann disc from Linn tops the vocal category.  Though I would have picked Stephane Degout's Enfer because it's more unusual (baroque depictions of Hell) Boesch's recoirding is a milestone : one of the finest Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen around, plus Schumann Liederkreis op 39. I's also a good way for Mahler fans to learn more about the Liedervtradition and its values.

Please read my review HERE

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Dramatic new Elgar Caractacus - Martyn Brabbins, Hyperion

Edward Elgar's Caractacus op 35 (1898), conducted by Martyn Brabbins, from Hyperion.  This is an important release. The recording by Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra, from 1993 on Chandos has dominated the market for decades. The Charles Groves recording on vinyl is long out of print, now only available in fragments in the Warner set. Hickox is the market leader, too, because he's good, but Brabbins could raise the bar again : a livelier, more animated performance, due perhaps to the fact that Brabbins is conducting the Orchestra of Opera North.  Caractacus gets a bad press because it is very much a product of its time, a grand oratorio for massed chorus, burdened down by the  libretto, by Henry Arbuthnot Acworth, an Indian Civil Service official, who had retired to Malvern, who had provided the text for Elgar's King Olaf two years before. Brabbins approaches Caractacus as music drama. The performances he gets from the orchestra, The Hudddersfield Choral Society and an excellent group of soloists, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Roland Wood, Christopher Purves and Alistair Miles, are so vivid that they express the adventurous spirit behind the clumsiness of the text.

Caractacus is an epic oratorio about an ancient Briton King called
Caractacus — his tribe were a segment of a Britain populated from time immemorial by Celts, Picts, Angles, Saxons and other migrants to come.  Legend has it that he was defeated by the Romans, making his last stand on a hill now known as the Herefordshire Beacon. It’s a spectacular spot, commanding a panoramic view over the Malvern Hills. Ancient fortifications can still be seen on its summit.  In 1898, the British Empire was at its peak, so Caractacus could be remodelled as a symbol of pride.  Basking in the certainties of their manifest destiny, Victorian Imperialists didn’t register the irony that they were themselves doing to others what the Roman Imperialists did to their ancestors. In the last big chorus, Elgar’s text specifically mentions “the flag of Britain (and) its triple crosses entwined”, ie the Union Flag which didn’t exist until Stuart times, and British dominion “O’er peoples undiscover’d, inlands we cannot know”. In Elgar's Caractacus, history co-exists with the present of Elgar’s own time. “Watchmen alert!” sing the massed choir. 

Nonetheless, Elgar’s music is much more than bellicose jingoism, overcoming the often lugubrious text. He was a Worcester man at heart, who hiked and cycled in the woods around him. Caractacus is very much inspired by the spirit of the landscape around him in the Malverns. The text may be violent, but the music is gloriously pastoral for the most part. The “Woodland Interlude” that begins Scene III is short, but its verdant loveliness pervades the entire work. The Druids worshipped the forces of nature. Dense woodlands were sacred to them just as Worcester Cathedral is to the modern faithful. For Elgar, nature and landscape were almost sacred too. He wrote to a friend (who appears encoded in the Enigma Variations), “the trees are singing my music- or have I sung theirs?” “The air is sweet, the sky is calm” sings Caractacus, “all nature round is breathing balm…O spirits of the hill surround, with waving wings this holy ground”. Elgar’s forte is the orchestral extension of text, so performance stands or falls on orchestra and conductor.

Caractacus works well on purely musical terms, the surging sweep in the orchestral line taken up by the chorus and soloists. Brabbins delineates the various leitmotifs, so evocatively that the music seems to come alive, whispering invisible meaning much in the way that the Druids believed trees whispered meaning to them.  Tight dynamics build drama into what might otherwise be fairly stolid  melodrama, the recurring themes clearly defined so they give coherence. The theme behind the phrase "Go forth, O King, to conquer" suggests the confidence of the late Victorian era which Elgar could capture so well.  In the section The Spirit of the Hill  ("Rest, weary monarch.... the night is falling fast away,") the hush of the chorus suggests trees in a forest, from which the Arch Druid  (Christopher Purves) will lead the chorus,  discreet orchestral colours illuminating the dark, before the vigorous rhythms of "Leap, leap to light, my brand of light!" (Caractacus, Roland Wood.).  As Caractacus sets forth, the music surges with grandeur, creating contrast with the Woodland Interlude.Eigen (Elizabeth Llewellyn) and Orbin (Elgan Llŷr Thomas) represent youth and renewal, hence the pastoral delicacy in the orchestration around them. Yet the expansive theme invades Orbin's lines "A warrior, now, for Britain's weal".  He, too, is off to battle.  In brief respite, Eigen and her maidens contemplate the Malverh Hills before the return of Caractacus. "O my warriors ". Now the depth in Wood's deep baritone suggest resolution, despite defeat.

As the captives embark on the Severn, figures in the orchestra suggest at once the flow of the river and a slow funeral march, which morphs into the Processional Music as the captives enter Rome, its might suggested by vaguely "oriental" percussion and relentlessly pounding figures, so powerfully delineated by Brabbins that the chorius seems whipped into frenzy (for they are Romans, after all). The lines of Claudius (Alastair Miles) are more measured, low woodwinds underlining the authority in the voice.  The depth in Roland Wood's baritone approaches Miles's bass : an interesting detail which emphasizes the idea that both men are equals.  Quixotically, defeat becomes triumph.  "All the nations shall stand and hymn the praise of Britain, like brothers, hand in hand !"  Elgar's Caractacus is neither historic truth, nor logic, but it is rousing music.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Feminist radical : Schubert and Wolfgang Rihm - Prégardien, Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Very interesting programme from Andrés Orozco-Estrada and Hr-sinfonieorchester Frankfurt - Schubert and Wolfgang Rihm.  Schubert Symphony no 2 and the Unvollende, with Rihm's Das Rot song cyle and six songs from SchwanengesangListen HERE.  Perhaps not so unusual, though if you consider that Rihm was setting the poems of  Karoline von Günderrode 1780-1806). Von Günderrode was one of the earliest Romantic poets who adapted the revolutionary ethic of the period to develop what we'd now recognize as radical feminist ideas.  Her poems and letters were written a whole generation before the Brontë sisters : indeed she was long dead before they were even born.  

Though poor, background was aristoctratic and intellectual. Learning was her escape from the mundane restraints of women in society at that time.  Like so many thinkers of her time she was fascinated by the  margins of Europe - the "East" and the far north west, Nordic lands and Scotland representing uncivilized freedom where the unconscious could operate without convention. She also made the most of the passion of the time for writing literary letters which dealt with intellectual concepts.   These sorts of letters weren't just personal, but were discusssed in salons and sometimes published in book form. A useful outlet for women, whose chances of being taken seriously were limited. Uncowed, she wrote “Masculinity and femininity, as they are usually understood, are obstacles to humanity.”  In a letter to Gunda von Brentano she writes: “I’ve often had the unfeminine desire to throw myself into the wild chaos of battle and die. Why didn’t I turn out to be a man! I have no feeling for feminine virtues, for a woman’s happiness. Only that which is wild, great, shining appeals to me. There is an unfortunate but unalterable imbalance in my soul; and it will and must remain so, since I am a woman and have desires like a man without a man’s strength. That’s why I’m so vacillating and so out of harmony with myself….” (read more here and here

In Das Rot : Sechs Gedichte der Karoline von Günderrode, from 1990, Wolfgang Rihm addresses the epigrammatic nature of the texts, letting the poet speak for herself.   The first song "Hochrot" comprises just eight lines:

Du innig Roth,

Bis an den Tod 

Soll meine Lieb 

Dir gleichen,

Soll nimmer bleichen, 

Bis an den Tod,

Du glühende Roth, 

Soll sie Dir gleichen. 

(You, inward red dawn, until death should my life be like you, never fading,you glowing Redness , ever true.)

Thus the minimal piano line (Ulrich Eisenlohr) and restrained declamation in the voice part. A short pause before the last line, which rises high up the scale. Clear traces of the influence of Rihm's teacher, Wilhelm Rihm, and specifically of Killmayer's Hölderlin-Zyklusen. Making the connection between Hölderlin and Von Günderrode is valid. Both were way ahead of their time, more in tune with ours, in many ways. The text for the  second song "Ist alles stumm und leer" is strophic, Günderrode employing images like scents, distant sounds, fragile flowers.  But in the last verse, something wilder emegeges.Prégardien's voices lowers, grows richer.  "Phönix der Lieblichkeit,
Dich trägt dein Fittig weit
Hin zu der Sonne Strahl,
Ach was ist dir zumal
Mein einsam Leid!
" (Phoenix of loveliness, your wings carry you far up towards the sun)  Thoughnthe phoenix might ignore the observer, it is an inspiration, for the phoenix flies into flames and is reborn.

"Des Knaben Morgengruß" and "Des Knaben Abendsgruß" are mirror images. Both employ similar images but for different purposes, which Righm reflects by settingbthe first with plangent spareness, the second more forcefully. Again, clear Killmayer influences in the ardent near-staccato rhythms.  Thus we're prepared for the wild intensity of "An Creuzer". The redness of dawn becomes the glowing redness of sunset, before it's annihilated in darkness.  Rihm's setting is jagged, reflecting the dissonant image in the text : the piano 's last notes dark and foreboding.  And so to the strange last song.

Liebst du das Dunkel 

auigter Nächte
Graut dir der Morgen 


Starrst du ins Spätrot
Seufzest beim Mahle 


Stößest den Becher
Weg von den Lippen 


Liebst du nicht Jagdlust 

Reizet dich Ruhm  nicht
Schlachtengetümmel 


Welken dir Blumen
Schneller am Busen 


Als sie sonst welkten
Drängt sich das Blut dir
Pochend zum Herzen. 

(Do you love darkness (ambiguity). Longing for a feast but pushing  the wineglass away, passion so strong it wilts flowers and ends in death.).  

Günderrode's life seemed full of contradiction : breaking away from conventional role models, yet not finding resolution.  She fell in love with a man she could not marry, and killed herself, aged only 26. One wonders if she would have been happy even if she had married? Perhaps for a Romantic, turbulence and tragedy make better art.  The Schubert Heine songs with which this interesting concert ended continued the mood of irony.  Günderrode would have been (just) old enough to be Schubert's mother but she is in some ways the predecessor of some of his poets like Schulze and Mayrhofer.  So it was good hearing Rihm's settings of her work with Schubert's orchestral work.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Impressive Hubert Parry: Judith, William Vann, Royal Festival Hall

The first London performance in over 100 years of Hubert Parry's Judith, or the Regeneration of Manasseh, at the Royal Festival Hall, with William Vann conducting the London Mozart Players , the Crouch End Festival Chorus (David Temple, chorusmaster) and an all-star cast of soloists:  Sarah Fox, Kathryn Rudge, Toby Spence and Henry Waddington.  Hugely impressive !  Parry's current public image is based on a very few high profile pieces like Blest Pair of Sirens. But the true nature of Parry's music is infinitely more diverse, even radical in his originality. Judith is important because it puts the composer into context. Oratorios, sacred and non-sacred, are at the heart of the English choral tradition.  But Parry wasn't a traditionalist.  "I don't like the oratorio notion", he wrote,"though of course I can make a work on oratorio lines which shall be perfectly independent of ecclesiastic or so-called religious conventions."  Parry's Judith draws from the Book of Judith which does not figure either in the Hebrew canon or Protestant Old Testament,  Parry expands the drama with new material, developing substantial roles for the main figures, hence the full title Judith, or the Regeneration of Manasseh.  The emphasis is on the liberation of the nation through a revival of its identity. In 1888, at the age of forty, Parry was forging his own identity and advancing British music in the process.

Parry's Judith was written for the Birmingham Triennial Festival, vwhich had commissioned  Mendelssohn's Elijah, and had also premiered St. Paul. Thus the explicit homage to Mendelssohn in the choruses and perhaps more so in the intensity of conception.  Parry achieves this not by the extravagance of late Victorian taste, but with a fairly small orchestra. The detail in Parry's orchestration is so expressive that it needs skilled individual playing.  The lines of the vocal soloists are enhanced by soloists in the orchestra. The "Mozart" ethos of the London Mozart Players no doubt contributed to the clarity of this performance. Some very fine playing indeed. Parry also references Bach, using counterpoint to elaborate texture. There are wonderful dramatic effects, too, when needed -  oboe and clarinets singing melancholy sweetness, trombones calling like ancient instruments, supplemented by livelier horns. Cymbals and a large tam-tam provide suitably "period" colour.

Very early on, though, Parry's gift for song emerges in Meshullemeth's "Long since in Egypt's plenteous Land", which proved so popular that it was adapted as the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" (Repton).  Kathryn Rudge sang Meshullemeth, the richness in her voce in keeping with the regal bearing of a queen, though in this case, a queen who isn't a heroine.  Sarah Fox sang Judith:  Her "Ho! Ye upon the walls! Open to me!" rang out, filling the RFH auditorium with its presence.  To sing like this is quite an achievement, especially as she showed no shrillness. Though we don't see Holofernes’ head being cut off, we hear the emotions that brought it about . The brass screamed in alarm, the chorus singing angular lines evoking horror. Toby Spence, singing Manasseh, had many good moments. In the Intermezzo, when Manasseh repents in Babylon, his voice rang with convicts tion "I will bear the indigantion of God" . Later he sang the lovely "Jerusalem is a city", his voice glowing.   In this scene, where the Hebrews look towards the camp of the Assyrians, tenor, soprano and the voices of the men in the chorus interact so well that it works as effectively as a scene from an opera.  Spence sang Manasseh's  "God breaketh the battle" with near heldentenor ring.  He must have known how Parry had thought of Parsifal, the fool who learned truth, while writing this oratorio.  Henry Waddington sang a very well characterized The High Priest of Moloch and the Messenger of Holofernes, further indication, if any were needed, that Judith is more than oratorio.  Excellent performances too from the Crouch End Chorus and from the young singers who sang the King's Children.

As Judith reached its triumphant conclusion, the exuberance of Parry's writing shone forth : wave after wave of excitement, in the chorus and orchestra, cymbals crashing.  The lights in the Royal Festival Hall lit up, illuminating the whole auditorium in a way we don't often get to see. A truly theatrical ending to a superb experience.   William Vann is recording Parry's Judith for Chandos. Many of those who booked last year when tickets for this perforance went on sale, will be ordering the CD as soon as it's announced.  So what if the Royal Festival Hall was woefully under capacity : better to have an audience (apart from the usual freebie crowd) who know what they're listening to! At least we who were there can say we got to Judith on this unforgettable evening.

Photos: Roger Thomas

Please also see some of my other pieces on Hubert Parry, for example
Parry Symphony no 4, Rumon Gamba, BBC NOW, Chandos.
Parry : English Lyrics SOMM vol  I

Parry : English Lyrics, SOMM vol 2 

Parry : English Lyrics vol 3
Hubert Parry's Jerusalem - more dangerous than you'd think
Parry : The Soul's Ransom 
and much more !

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Jeremy and the Poisoned Chalice


What kind of wooden-headed twat falls for traps like that ? Snakes shall not arise  !
Or rather the snakes that crawl out will be carrying the can for or against Brexit, splitting the Labour Party and diverting attention from the collapse of the Tories.  

Monday, 1 April 2019

Jurowski Rundfunk-sinfonieorchester Berlin Brahms Mahler


Another chance to hear Vladimir Jurowski with the Rundfunk-sinfonieorchester Berlin, where he is now into his second year as Chief Conductor.  It's good to hear him with them, since we're so used to hearing him with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, where he's been Chief since  2007, and with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.  Here's a link to Sunday's concert featuring Brahms Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 2 B-Dur op. 83 (with Nicholas Angelich) and Mahler Symphony no 1.  Different dynamic, different sounds : the sign of fruitful partnerships. Jurowski's conducted Mahler 1 several times at the Royal Festival Hall but I definitely like this latest performance. Nothing like a change ! We will miss Jurowski if and when he leaves the LPO in 2021.   

Friday, 29 March 2019

Matthias Goerne : Schumann Liederkreis op 24, Kernerlieder

New from Harmonia Mundi, Matthias Goerne and Lief Ove Andsnes : Robert Schumann : Liederkreis op 24 and Kernerlieder.  Goerne and Andsnes have a partnership based on many years of working together, which makes this new release, originally recorded in late 2018, well worth hearing. It's a good companion piece to Goerne's Schumann Lieder with Markus Hinterhäuser, also from Harmonia Mundi, with settings of Lenau, Eichendorff and more esoteric poets (Please read more about that HERE). Goerne has been singing Schumann since his youth. He sang Schumann and Schubert in his earliest performaces at theWigmore Hall, London. The art of Lieder is so personal that it's not surprising that an artist's priorities might be performance rather than recording, so this is a good chance to capture Goerne's art on disc  His recording of Dichterliebe  with Vladimir Ashkenazy, released in 1998, remains a favourite.  I'm also very fond of his Schumann with Eric Schneider, with whom he recorded his groundbreaking Schubert Die schöne Müllerin. 



Heinrich Heine's subtle ironies inspired in Schumann settings of great quality: like Dichterliebe op 48, Schumann's Liederkreis op 24 is a masterpiece. With "Morgens steh' ich auf und frage"it begins on a note of hope, the piano line bubbling busily, expressing hope and impatience.  There are advantages to hearing this with Goerne's dark timbre. Lighter voices sometimes sound too innocent : the depth in Goerne's voice reminds us that not all dreams come true. Thus to the resolute firmness of "Es triebt mich hin und estreibt mich her" where Andsnes shapes the piano line with greater tension, and Goerne alternates confidence with tenderness, as if the poet is forcing himself to be cheerful.  This highlights the pathos of "Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen". the birds understand sorrow. Thus the piano line where lyricism is overcome by penitential stillness. In "Lieb' Liebchen" Heine connects the lover's heartbeat to the sound of a carpenter pounding nails into a coffin : a macabre image, hardly a promise of joy.  Again the haunted quality in Goerne's voice brings out inner meaning. The piano line in  "Schöne Wiege meiner Leide", lilts like a cursed lullaby, but the vocal line surges upwards, as if buoyed up by the same resolution that informed the start of his journey. The tenderness with which Goerne sings "Lebewohl, Lebewohl" suggests resignation.  But yet again, this might be a mask. The forcefulness of Andsnes's playing and the magnificence of Goerne's phrasing indicate much greater turbulence. With "Warte, warte, wilder Schiffman", this is a masterful interpretatiom.  We cannot hear the lovely "Burg und Bergen schaun herunter" without remebering what came before. The steady pace of "Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen" now returns, intensified, as if the coffin the carpenter prepared in "Lieb' Liebchen" is now being used in solemn procession.  "Mit Myrthen und Rosen" evokes images of flowers, symbols of Spring and of Love, but also of death.  Goerne's voice becomes gentle, as if purified.  If in life the poet hasn't found love, his art will live on. 

Justinus Kerner (1785-1852) was a Swabian medical doctor, interested in the wilder shores of therapy in his time, when ideas like magnetism, mesmerism and the occult weren't excluded. Imagine how he and his contemporaries would have embraced psychology!  Schumann's Kernerlieder op 35 (1840 is a true cycle, more than a  random collection of songs, and in recent years has come to be appreciated as equal to the other works of Schumann's Liederjahr. The cycle begins with the violent "Lust der Strumnacht", invoking storm, winds and heavy rain, through which a mysterious traveller makes his way. Listen to the savage "s" sibilants whipping the song forward to its adamant one-chord conclusion. Somewhere trapped inside the second strophe is the image of lovers snatching a golden moment - indoors - who want the storm never to end. "Bäumt euch, Wälder, braus, o Welle, Mich umfängt des Himmels Helle!" Already Schumann creates the almost schizoid extremes of mood that characterize the cycle. This turbulence gives way to "Stirb' Lieb’ und Freud" in which a man observes a woman transfixed by religious ecstasy. She's young but wants to renounce the world, to become one with the Virgin Mary. Beautiful as the image is, it's unnatural to the man, who now can never speak of his love. The tessitura suddenly peaks so high that some singers scrape into falsetto, which is why the Kernerlieder are more safely performed by tenors who can do the sudden tour de force transition with relative ease. Peter Schreier mixes purity with ardent protest - wonderful. It's more of a strain for baritones. Fischer-Dieskau recorded it only once, as did Hermann Prey. However, when Matthias Goerne, with an even lower timbre, sings it he shows how the contrast between dark and light is integral to meaning. The high pitch isn't merely a way of imitating the young girl's voice, but a cry of pain from a man in the shadows, seeing the girl illuminated by rays from a Heaven he can never attain. As the last notes fade, Schumann throws us back into the maelstrom..

In "Wanderlied", the protagonist enjoys golden wine (a recurring symbol in this cycle) but this moment of rest is soon blown away by the dynamic opening line, "Wohlauf! noch getrunken den funkelnden Wein!" Wherever he might find himself, he doesn't belong. Again, the minor key of 'Du junges Grün, du frisches Gras!' throws us out of kilter. The protagonist admires fresh shoot of grass, but he'd rather be under them than alive. The lyricism in the piano part is deceptive. Similarly, the rolling, circular figures in 'Wär' ich nie aus euch gegangen' belie the intense regret in the text. These two songs function like a prelude to the magnificent  "Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenes Freundes". The canon-like melody has a grandeur that raises it above a mere drinking song. It has an elegaic quality, suggesting an organ in a cathedral – linking back again to the mood of "Stirb' Lieb’ und Freud”. Its long lines demand exceptional skill in phrasing, for it ponders the mystery of the relationship between the living and the dead, and along the way reflects the composer’s love of “Gold der deutschen Reben!”– at these lines there is a touching modulation which is sustained through the grandeur of “Auf diesen Glauben, Glas so hold!” A spider has wound its web round the long-dead man's wineglass. Again, Schumann forces the singer's voice way up his register. suggesting heights and distances the living cannot reach. The very spookiness in this song elevates it to another plane. This song doesn't come at mid point in the cycle for nothing.

For a moment, Schumann retreats into the relatively conventional "Wanderung", and the delicacy of "Stille Liebe", but notice how the soft, rolling figures from "Wär' ich nie aus euch gegangen" should keep us from being lulled. Thus, "Frage" emerges like a prayer: a miniature whose quiet tone disguises its key position in the cycle. The protagonist is now the one who is mediating on the stillness which the young nun and the departed friend have achieved. With "Noch" the pace slows deliberately, so the last phrase "in arger Zeit ein Herz mit Lust?" shines upwards.

The final "movement" in the Kerner Lieder begins with "Stille Tränen". It's not unlike "Stille Liebe", but much richer and more assertive. Goerne's voice opens out, the piano part is firm and resonant. The sleeper has woken from a night of tears, to a morning of heavenly blue skies. Is the protagonist starting to wonder "Dass du so krank geworden?". The final song is, to me, one of the finest in the repertoire. It is marked “noch langsamer und leiser” (than the previous song)., rising barely above a mellifluous, perfectly controlled half-voice, so one has to pay attention to every syllable. The poet rejects the comfort offered by nature, and affirms that only death will release him “…aus dem Traum, dem bangen, Weckt mich ein Engel nur.” The quiet lines, with the lovely slight pressure on “Engel”suggesting a caress. The invisible wings of an angel? Whatever the source of this mystery it offers kindness and the hope of ultimate release. Has the protagonist at last found that elusive inner repose Listen to the contemplative pace of the piano, each note separated by silence, like a heartbeat. What a contrast with the turbulent "Lust der Strumnacht" ! The cycle has come round full cycle.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Carl Loewe Lieder - Wigmore Hall RAM Song Circle

The Royal Academy of Music Song Circle presents the Lieder of Carl Loewe at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 2nd April (after the weekend).  BOOK HERE ! The singers are Frances Gregory, Olivia Warburton, Kieran Carrel, Paul Grant, and Thomas Bennett, with pianists Richard Gowers, Gus Tredwell and Leo Nicholson. Carl Loewe (1796-1869) was a contemporary of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Weber, Wagner, Robert Schumann - definitely someone we need to know to fully appreciate the richness of the genre.  Loewe's songs are up there with the greats.  Edward (1818) is one of the gems of the repertoire though it was his op 1 no 1, not bad for an early effort by a young composer.  It's interesting because it sits on the cusp of art song as we know it now, and ballads such as Beethoven's settings of English, Irish and Scottish folksongs. Early Romantics were fascinated by wild, "primitive" cultures that offered an alternative to urban "civilized" society. Think Lucia di Lammermoor !  The poem is Gottfried Herder, who wrote many adaptations of northern folk legend.  Edward walks in on his mother.

He's saturated with blood. "It's my hawk".  No, says Mum.  "It's my steed", blurts Edward.  But the truth comes out. He's slaughtered his father.  No explanation, whatsoever. Edward is the quintessential rebel without a cause, a desperado whom society cannot tame.  The concept continues to fascinate. The same tale resurrects in the Country and Western hit Knoxville Girl, where the psychosexual aspects are emphasized - Edward kills a girl, equally without reason. (Please read more HERE, with clips)

Another spooky apparition in  in Odin's Meeresritt op 118. 1851.

At midnight, a horseman in black armour summons a humble blacksmith to shoe his steed. "I have to get to Norway by  morning." Since they're in Denmark, that's a tall order. Then the horseman rides off into the skies, followed by twelve black eagles. The stranger is Odin, king of the Norse Gods,a prototype Wotan. Think Gurrelieder, where the King and his knights fly across the sky, terrifying peasants and Fools. The Romantic obsession with legend and mystery connects to sources in the subconscious.  Also in the RAM Song Circle programme are Loewe's Erlkönig, op1/3, very different to Schubert’s setting, but also very good. Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh (Wandrers Nachtlied), Ach neige, du Schmerzensreiche, Zum Sehen geboren, Meine Ruh ist hin and Die Lotosblume come from Loewe's op 9.  Loewe’s also had a whimsical side. His setting of Goethe's poem, Die wandelnde Glocke Op. 20 No. 3, is droll and wicked, at the same time !

During his long career, Loewe wrote over 400 songs, so no recital could ever be comprehensive. There are many recordings to choose from : Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey, Thomas Quasthoff, and Florian Boesch, whose more agile timbre brings out the magic in many songs where lightness of touch makes a difference. Years ago CPO did a complete Loewe series of nearly 30 CDs which vary from excellent (Prégardien etc) to less so, and the songs pop up regularly live. Please read about concerts in recent years, following the label Loewe below)  Even Jonas Kaufmann sings Loewe - he's on the recording of Loewe's opera Die drei Wünsche op 42, from 2000.  At that time, I got it for Hawlata ! It's a very enjoyable comic opera, closer to Singspeil and the operas of  Schubert and Weber than to "modern" opera like Wagner.   Loewe's chamber and piano music is also undergoing a revival, so this Wigmore Hall recital with the RAM Song Circle comes at an opportune time.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Don Carlos, Paris - Jonas Kaufmann star production


At last - Verdi Don Carlo from L'Opéra de Paris, with Jonas Kaufmann,  Elina Garanča, Sonya Yoncheva, Ludovic Tézier, Dmitry Belosselskiy, Ildar Abdrazakov, conducted by Philippe Jordan, 2017 directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski on arte.tv.  Highly recommended on all counts.  Absolutely wipes the floor on the Royal Opera House (Italian version)  production from 2013 (please read more here).  The more he sings Don Carlo, the better Kaufmann gets into the soul of the character. Here he's supported by a wonderful cast, and superb direction from Jordan and Warlikowski.  Note, I said "direction" from conductor as well as director, because opera is Gesamtkunstwerk : everything operates together to enhance the drama.  If it was just about singing, we wouldn't need opera at all, and line singers up doing scales for comparison.  Unfortunately it takes a bit of thought to figure out how and why a production works as a whole. So much easier not to think !  You can't expect perfection every time, and shouldn't, but this one fires on all cylinders.

Stunning singing, not only from the soloists but supports and chorus, unusually inspired because they seem to be thinking about why and how the drama works.  Perhaps this is what gives this production the edge : everyone' engaged.  Verdi's Don Carlo is a tragedy, human beings trapped in situations they cannot resolve, no matter how privileged they might be.  Not for nothing Don Carlo and Elizabeth de Valois meet in a forest. Freudian symbolism before Freud, extended by the images of horses frozen in immoboility, not living beings.  Don Carlo's collects cuttings from newspapers to learn where he's supposed to stand in the game. He wears a cricket top, but isn't yet a player.  This idea of games and strategems runs throughout the production, for very good reasons. Realpolitik rules, not  human feeling. Religion intensifies the rigidity : the church plays games with souls and minds. Everyone's forced into rules not of their own making. Hence recurring images of walls, some solid, some tantalisingly transparent, like bars in a cage. Prisons with pretty decor are still prisons.

From the libretto, we know that Elizabeth senses her marriage as death.  She can trust no-one, and must be constantly on guard. Hence the image of the women as fencers, dehumanized, forced to be constantly alert.  A typical Warlikowski meme but a good one. This is the backdrop to the relationship between Elizabeth and Don Carlos, underlining the tension and fear that suppresses their natural instincts.  Hence the sub plots with Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa : who dares stand up for the oppressed, and with the Princess Eboli, who misinterprets signals.  Philip II reads the signals right, but his solution, forced on him by the church, is extreme. Only in death can there be justice.  No surprise that the bust of Charles V looks aghast !  He's learned the hard way that mortal status means nothing.  The death of Don Carlos is depicted in a black and white film image like the newspapers he studied in his youth. (Please read my piece Psychological Thriller on Ernst Krenek's Karl V, a completely different opera, but with similar ideas)