Friday, 21 February 2020

Magnificent Mahler Symphony no 2. Jakub Hrůša, Philharmonia Orchestra

Photo: Roger Thomas

Visceral and intense Mahler Symphony no 2 ("The Resurrection") with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall with Camilla Tilling, Jennifer Johnston, The Philharmonia Chorus.  How lucky I was to attend with friends who between us have clocked up hundreds of performances of Mahler's Second over the last sixty years.  Proof that the better a piece is, the more there is to discover. Every good performance yields insights : in a market now oversaturated with safe and predictable, it's a joy to hear an approach that derives fresh from the score itself, rather than from market expectations. 

With his foundations in Czech repertoire, Hrůša doesn't do "routine" Mahler. I heard him do Mahler in 2017 when he conducted Mahler's Symphony no 4 with the Czech Philharmonic, then again in 2018 when he conducted Mahler Symphony no 5 with the Philharmonia. Please read my article "How Bohemian was  Gustav Mahler?" HERE. With this Mahler Symphony no 2, the answer is that Mahler was Mahler, drawing on roots far deeper than "just" the Austro-German tradition, addressing universal human issues with highly individual and original passion.  As in most of Mahler, there are extremes in this symphony,  but they're not there just for effect. They serve a purpose. What can be more extreme than the contrast between death and life ? Death is shocking, and it is final, whether or not you believe in resurrection in any conventional sense.  But Hrůša appreciates what Mahler might have meant. The  Klopstock hymn Mahler quotes offers "Unsterblich Leben!....Wieder aufzublüh’n, wirst du gesät! Der Herr der Ernte geht Und sammelt Garben Uns ein, die starben.". This image of regrowth and renewal as part of the cycle of Nature pops up again in Mahler : "Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen! Ewig... ewig...

The first movement was inspired in part by the funeral of Hans von Bülow, who Mahler venerated.  Yet it begins with a great burst of energy. It needs this kind iof emphasis, since it's is a herald of what is to come.  Haitink has taken this movement very slowly, focussing on the way a body shuts down gradually before oblivion, a very good insight indeed.  A funeral march is processional, but its destination is never in doubt. No-one ever gets away ! Hrůša maintains a steady pace, but makes clear the figures in the background that propel the movement - lines that fly in sequence, strings sometimes bowed, sometimes plucked, pizzicato like running footseps, always flowing. Not for nothing did Luciano Berio incorporate Mahler's Second into his Sinfonia, making connctions with a river, fed by many tributaries, flowing into an ocean, refreshed again by rain. Another image of the cycle of Nature. Hrůša's Allegro maestoso is "Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck", the dignity all the more moving because it carries in its flow a sense that passage is not in itself an end. That final rushing descent into the abyss had a powerful kick, echoing in the silence of the Luftpause. Hrůša and the orchestra knew that it's there to signify the silence of oblivion, purgatory before resurrection. Pity the RFH audience thought it was time for a coughing epidemic. 

The unrushed Andante acted as a foil to the urgency of the Allegro. Although much is made of the Ländler aspects, these too exist as part of the wider concept, for peasants live in harmony with the seasons and with the cycle of natural change. Though peasant dances can be crude, it doesn't follow that performance needs to be crude, so Hrůša's emphasis on the vernal aspects of this movement renminded us that even in dark times, things happen under the earth which will eventually bear fruit.The third movement again brings contrast, which Hrůša magnified when the cymbals and timpani, centred in the middle of the platform, exploded into life. I nearly jumped out of my seat, but that was fine. Mahler knew what he was doing when he wrote this shockingly bold introduction. This schrezo quotes Mahler's song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt. Like Dionysius, St Anthony is drunk, preaching to fish who hear but do not actually listen. Perhaps the song is used to indicate the futility of words, which is ironic, since in this symphony Mahler begins to use voice as part of his orchestral toolbox.  On the other hand, though, the fish represent a life force much more powerful than mankind.  Their actions speak louder than pious prayers.  Hrůša was particularly effective evoking the fluid energy in the leaping figures which suggest the movement of fish, leaping upwards, out of their natural watery environment, scrapping exuberantly, being true to their natuures, and swimming away, free. A glorious climax: summer is marching in, references to Pan, Dionysius and Mahler's Symphony no 3. But yet again, though a sudden wild diminuendo at the very end, gongs reverberating. Urlicht (here with Jennifer Johnston) is a cry of anguish, much like the agony of childbirth. For indeed, this is a turning point in the symphony. Like childbirth, there is a purpose to suffering "Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen! Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!".
The extremes inherent in this score can be overdone, but not on this occasion.  In the all-important final movement, Hrůša had thought through the dynamics of the Royal Festival Hall and in the orchestra.  The doubles basses sat just behind the harps, together magnifying impact : the darker sounds like the earth, the brighter sounds like heaven.  Magnificent rolling percussion, swept by turbulent strings, as another march develops, this time an irrepressibly energetic march, the brass sassy, bells ringing in celebration. For all we knoiw this might be the march of the life force exemplified by the fishes, hence the cheeky screams from the lower woodwinds, and the defiant, swirling figures, the sudden diminuendo and the wailing trombones, their chill turning to more sublime, otherworldy figures from which the phrase "Das himmliche Leben" emerges,with woodwind calls. 

The offstage brass ensemble was seated outside the auditorium, just outside the Green-side door,  invisible but with just the right degree of audibility. Usually in this hall, they get put into a box, often the Royal Box but the effect is often too strident.  This also allowed the finer details, like the delicate woodwinds and pizzicato to shine clearly. Later, when the offstage brass returned, the horns stood above the orchestra to the left of the conductor, while the trumpets stood to his right, spreading the balance with much better effect. The importance of spatial elements can't be stressed enough - this is "a symphony that contains the world", past, present, future.  Every instrumental voice matters, just as every mortal who has ever lived or died. At last the voices are set free, the soloists, Camilla Tilling and Jennifer Johnston, leading the choir. Though the diction of the choruses wasn't ideal, I'd much rather hear them sing with musical intelligence like this, the reverence better integrated with the soloists and orchestra.  In any case, they echo the words the soloists sing, and this symphony is so well known that most people know what the texts mean. When the male voices cried out "Bereite dich zu leben!" everything came together in magnificent climax. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Beethoven seance - Aimard, FX Roth, Gurzenich Orchestra

Raising the spirit of Beethoven in a musical seance "Nothing but Freedom", with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, François-Xavier Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. As always, Roth's flair for programmes creates an experiece that inspires the mind and imagination.  Beethoven's passion for  freedom played no small part in shaping his music, the "new music" of his time.  If we could contact him now, what would he feel about the state of civil liberties today, even in supposedly "democractic" countries ? Would he, in turn, connect with how his values continue to shape music in a very different world from his own.  Of course you don't get answers in a seance, but as music, this was interesting food for thought.  Roth, Aimard and the orchestra are touring the programme over Europe, with a visit to London's Royal Festival Hall on Friday 21st February. The concert was also livestreamed from Köln last week.

An introduction that was "spooky" in the sense that it was quiet, the notes of Beethoven's Bagatelle in C, Op.119 No.7 (Allegro, ma non troppo) rising upwards, Aimard raising Beethoven before us. From this a completely new work arose : Isabel Mundry's Resonances, unknown to most of us,which was maybe the point - we're entering new territory, where strange sounds and rustlings gradually merge to create  a mysterious new landscape.Whirring sound, swathes of brass and high pitched winds : a sense of turbulence, punctuated by thwacks of percussion. Wherever this might be it's not airhead but then neither was Beethoven.  Listen to this Beethoven Piano Concerto no 3 "The Emperor" Aimard playing with intensity and verve, Roth whipping a performance full of punch.  Beethoven has returned to life !

The house lights dimmed. From the darkness, Aimard played fragments of the Vivace moderato from Beethoven's Bagatelle in  A minor, Op.119 No.9. and the Allegramente from the Bagatelle in A, Op.119 No.10 and the Bagatelle in B flat, Op.119 No.11 (Andante, ma non troppo). But what are the strange chords that follow ?  Francesco Filidei's Quasi una bagatella for piano and orchestra responds.  There are distinct sections, the first wild, the second paced with greater deliberation, Aimard playing with poise and dignity- single notes: lots of "listening" between orchestra and soloist. The final section is quirky, adventurous with a wry sense of playfulness.  Percussion includes the clapping of hands. There's a dialogue, of sorts, going on here. Beethoven via Aimard and Roth, reply with the Beethoven  Adagio sostenuto from Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.27 No.2 (Quasi una fantasia - Moonlight).  How sublime those famous motifs feel. Beethoven may or might not get this music but maybe he can figure where it's coming from.  Helmut Lachenmann's Tableau  (1988) emerged framed by fragments of Mundry and Beethoven. Sheer theatre ! then a reminder of another composer who valued freedom so much that he killed himself in despair, Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Photoptosis, from 1968, is an ambitious piece for large orchestra, teeming with detail, some figures fragmentary, others developing further, like individual voices heard in a tumult. A dense, heavily populated landscape of multi-layered sound.Betthoven, I think, would have "got" this.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Reinbert de Leeuw 1938-2020, renaissance man

Reinbert de Leeuw has died, aged 81. He was something of a renaissance man, interested in many things, always eager to contribute for the greater good. He'll be remembered for his kindness  and unselfishness. Much more than a "recording artist", he was a presence in music circles almost without parallel. De Leeuw was never a one-man band. He was so busy helping others that he didn't find enough time for his own compositions.

From the mid 1960's, he was part of the Schönberg Ensemble, the powerhouse of new music where so many composers and musicians came together from all over Europe.  De Leeuw knew everyone and put the right people in touch with each other.  He taught a lot, influencing whole new generations of composers and performers.  In 1974, he became its public face as chief conductor, and continued after its merger with the equally innovative ASKO Ensemble in 2008.  It's almost impossible to overestimate the influence of these ensembles on the reception and indeed the creation of new music. Nor was it "just" music - De Leeuw understood the social implications of works like Louis Andriessen's De Staat, so much a symbol of its time and its values of common endeavour.  As a specialist in modern music he conducted many other orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, and was a leading peesence in festivals like the Holland Festival and the Dutch National Opera.  Yet, above all, he will best be remembered for the support he gave to others. For example, he played a pivotal role in reviving interest in the music of Galina Ustvolskaya, too radical and individual to be fully appreciated in the Soviet Union. At last, aged nearly 90, she found interpreters who understood her!  (See link to the documentary here).

In recent years, De Leeuw's own music has had something of a revival,too. He's had two high profile Proms, featuring his Abschied (1973) and Der nächtliche Wanderer  from 40 years later. Of the latter, I wrote in 2016 :"Der nächtliche Wanderer begins with the sound of a dog, barking in the distance : a warning.  From a background of low, rumbling sounds, a viola emerges, tentatively probing its way. As the chords stretch, they're illuminated by flashes of sparkling light.  A sense of circular movement yet also of stillness. Muffled drums beat and the large string section creates an elliptical swirl of sound.  Small quiet sounds, deliberately elusive, contrasting with the broad sweep in the strings and rising, angular figures in the brass, themselves interrupted by clicking sounds. In this dream, how the sounds are made is less material than what we might think they are.   Tension mounts. Bells call out, tolling with hollow hardness. "

"Whirling, rushing figures, then silence broken by dull thuds.  This quiet interlude is surprisingly beautiful, suggesting not just the moon but the infinite darkness beyond. This time, the viola emerges  playing a kind of melody which I found poetic and very moving.  This time the melody continues, its tessitura rising higher and higher til it suddenly breaks over, hovering in a sense beyond our ears.  Then, from the quietness, flashes emerge and oscillating figures. Do we hear distant trumpets playing in cacophony?  Frantic tumult: a panic attack in music, yet deftly, carefully orchestrated and performed.  Der nächtliche Wanderer begins with the sound of a dog, barking in the distance : a warning.  From a background of low, rumbling sounds, a viola emerges, tentatively probing its way. As the chords stretch, they're illuminated by flashes of sparkling light.  A sense of circular movement yet also of stillness. Muffled drums beat and the large string section creates an elliptical swirl of sound.  Small quiet sounds, deliberately elusive, contrasting with the broad sweep in the strings and rising, angular figures in the brass, themselves interrupted by clicking sounds. In this dream, how the sounds are made is less material than what we might think they are.   Tension mounts. Bells call out, tolling with hollow hardness. 

A quiet interlude is surprisingly beautiful, suggesting not just the moon but the infinite darkness beyond. This time, the viola emerges  playing a kind of melody which I found poetic and very moving.  This time the melody continues, its tessitura rising higher and higher til it suddenly breaks over, hovering in a sense beyond our ears.  Then, from the quietness, flashes emerge and oscillating figures. Do we hear distant trumpets playing in cacophony?  Frantic tumult: a panic attack in music, yet deftly, carefully orchestrated and performed.  

Cymbals crash: are we in the the throes of a death struggle ? Distorted moans from the strings.  More thoughtful contemplation, from which a disembodied man's voice emerges, whispering the text of the poem  The orchestra surges to life, sprightly dancing figures and animated swirls of sound, woodblocks and searching chords. This time, though, the mood is more confident. When the bells ring this time they sound present and bright, and the woodwinds play a passage that reminded me of the viola melody., especially when joined by the strings evoking the passage with rising tessitura.  Perhaps De Leeuw's wanderer has woken, wiser? De Leeuw's  Der nächtliche Wanderer reminds me of Der Leiermann in Winterreise,which heralds change, but one which is elusively equivocal. "

Friday, 14 February 2020

On the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden - Dresdner Requiem - Rudolf Mauersbeger

Dresden Kreuzchor in the ruins of the Kreuzkirche, August 1945 (Bundesarchiv)

As dawn broke seventy-five years ago, the people of the City of Dresden woke to scenes of unimaginable destruction.  On 13th-15th February 1945, 1300 British and American bombers unleashed some 4000 tons of incendiary bombs on the City of Dresden.  Tens of thousands were killed outright, hundred of thousands more displaced, their lives changed forever.  Though the city was a transport hub, its destruction wasn't simply strategic. Its annihilation was symbolic. Saxony represented German culture at its finest, not just Dresden alone but Leipzig, Meissen, and the  wider region. Architectural treasures, literature, history and music. Ultimately it wasn't just Dresden that suffered but world heritage. Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was a Dresdner, during the Thirty Years War, protected by the Court of Saxony.  Bach lived and worked in Leipzig : not for nothing that he was championed by Mendelssohn, who conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and by Robert Schumann, born in Zwickau.  Wagner was born in Leipzig and found early fame in Dresden. Richard Strauss was remembering the opera house and the Staatskapelle Dresden in his Metamorphosen. Many things we should not forget, but we remebering Dresden makes us value so much of what has been lost, not to be retrieved.

The number of first hand witnesses is shrinking fast. Peter Schreier died at Christmas.  During the war years, the boys were safe in lodgings outside the city but were, understandably, frightened. In December 1944, Rudolf Mauersberger (1889-1971), for decades the Kreuzkantor of the Dresdner Kreuzchor, wrote his Weihnachtszyklus so they could sing and cheer themselves up. Please read my article about Schreier and his importance in the continuation of vocal traditions which emphasize emotional and spiritual engagement : always more challenging, intellectually, than "market forces". Rudolf Mauersberger's Dresdner Requiem RMWV 10, 1947 revised 1961.  Mauersberger (1889-1971) was, for decades, a driving force behind the Dresdner Kreuzchor, deeply immersed in its musical heritage, so the Requiem is a heartfelt cry of anguish. I've been planning to write about it for years, but it's too painful, but maybe now I must confront it.  There are clips of Schreier singing the part in 1949 (see below) but the best known full recording was made in the Lukaskirche in October 1994, Matthias Jung conducting the Dresdner Kreuzchor.  The orchestration is deliberately spartan, in the Lutheran tradition, with organ and celeste and percussion (bells sounds, knocking wooden sounds, drum rolls), restrained trumpet and winds.. It was issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombings, with a dedication written by Roman Herzog, the President of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

Introducing the Dresdner Requiem is Mauerberger's Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst RMWV 4/1,part of the Chorzyklus Dresden, first perfomed in the bombed out ruins of theKreuzkirche in August 1945- see photo above, where the audience is standing, wrapped in heavy coats. "How lonely sits the city that was full of people.....From on high He sent fire into my bones He made it descend. Is this city, which was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth? "  On this disc, it's followed by a brief sound recording of the great bells of the Kreuzkirche ringing in their glory. Heard together, they're very moving.  The Dresdner Requiem proper starts in a relatively conventioibal liturgy - an introit, antiphon, psalm and antiphon, but the use of three choirs, one at the altar, another "echo choir", at a distance, and a third Hauptchor (tutti) for deeper resonance gives the piece spatial aspects which intensify meaning. Interplay is significant, too, between larger and small sub groups, and the plaintive alto soloist, between older and younger singers, suggesting constant change and spiritual searching.  In the Kyrie, the choirs call en masse for mercy but the Epistel introduces a more personal theme : "I heard a voice from Heaven saying.....Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord....that they might rise from their labours", echoed by the Graduale, where the younger, more ethereal voices ring out in their purity.

The Transitory marks even sterner stuff. "Es ist ein Kurz und mühselig Ding um unser Leben".  Our names will be forgotten  with the passing of time and no-one will remember anything we did, Our lives will blow over like the last vestige of a cloud...thus he who comes to his grave, comes not from it again.....Therefore I will not restrain my mouth, I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my will seek me, but I shall not be".  No maudlin comfort here but something infinitely tougher.  The Altarchor and Echochor offer a measure of relief, but first one must deal with grim reality.  In the brief Tod, the choirs  proclaim "Wer will Gott lehren, der auch die Hohen, richtet !". some die at ease, some in bitterness, but both turn to dust, consumed by worms. this is the context of the Evangelium, "Ich bin die Auferstehung und das Leben" the belief that conquers fear even in the flames of the Dies Irae.  Thus "nach dir streck' ich die Hände, zum Zerknirschten, Herr, dich Wende, o gib mir ein selig Ende!" and the peace that follows.  Yet the full force of retribution is yet to come. The section "Der Herr hat seine Hand gewendet", its portent fortified by percussion and brass, is particularly powerful,, its text is dramatically vivid : God has given full vent to his wrath and consumed by the foundations of a great city. Its towers are destroyed, the people crushed, selling treasures for food. Mankind offers nothing : only faith. does. For those who lived through Dresden and many other horrors, such images would have been all too real.

The intricate garland of  prayers, Sanctuses, hosannas and chorales which follow, build up gradually to a vision of divine redemption,  all the more glorious because they have been won after brutal struggle.  In the Vorspel and Chorale the congregation joins the choirs, all singing "Mit Jubelklang, mit instrumenten schön auf Chören ohne Zahl", the percussion ringing like muted church bells.  The Agnus Dei is heartfelt : faith isn't easy, it's achieved from deep within.  In the De profoundis the alto solo sings almost alone, the choirs hushed behind him. If God can hear this fragile voice, God can hear all.  The choirs and congregation join again for the finale Chorale,the organ leading. At last "Lass sie ruhen in Freiden. Amen". Not triumphant, not cocky but humble and sincere.  

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Triple A's - Mahler 9, Myun-whun Chung, Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam at the Elbphilharmonie

Life-affirming Mahler Symphony no 9 from Myun-whun Chung, conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, from the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg.  Triple run of A-Listers ! One of the best conductors around, one of the best orchestras heard in the wonderful acoustic of the Elbphilharmonie. The RCOA has probably done more Mahler than most orchestras, Chung is a Mahler specialist too  so excellence was to be expected,  but wow, was this good !  Really great musicianship at this standard challenges and stretches our appreciation of the music itself.  
There is never any one way to do good music so thank goodness there are musicians who care deeply enough about the music to approach it with such insight. The market for performances that fit listeners’ preconceptions will always be greater than the market for anything new but that's more to do with received opinion. These days many prefer C or D listers because they're less likely to get in the way of fixed certainties. So the more you listen and the more widely you listen, the less the likelihood of fixed positions.  And Mahler's music is so very much open to new possibilities and new horizons.  
Myun-whun Chung, credit Jean-Francois Leclerq, Askonas Holt
In this case, Chung's life-affirming interpretation, brimming with life and the love of life, proves that there is so much more to the symphony than the old cliché that M9 is only about death.  Maybe one day audiences will catch up on the amount we've learned about Mahler, the man and his music in the last 50 years. From the early songs and Das klagende Lied to the final stretches of what was to be the tenth symphony, a powerful life force surges, which cannot be defeated.  The second, third and fouth symphony address the world beyond and in the 8th and Das Lied von der Erde,  there are concepts of tranfiguration onto another plane. 
A wonderfully rich first movement, low timbred winds and brass lit by harps, and strings that move like gentle breezes - always  a sense of movement - andante commodo, an open hearted embrace of life and its diversity.  For a "pulse" this is, suggesting the human body at rest, calmly breathing.  Gradually the palpitations built up towards expansive outbursts, as if invigorated by the flow of life.  When silence descends, marked by timpani ans strident brass, the effect is chilling.

The harp ruminates, and the steady pace resumes.  The music flares up again, fractured angular shapes suggesting tension, alarm and a spiralling descent into darkness, and a wall  of mournful winds and brasses, and at last, a glowing coda, like embers yet undimmed. In Das Lied von der Erde, the poet fears death because he loves life too much to let go. enjoys life too much to leave it. Thus the gradual coming to terms, which also influences the first movement of the 9th, and its culmination, where the orchestra soars in an outburst of defiance. To really understand Mahler, it helps to think of the works as part of a continuum. 

A vigorous second movement, marked "Etwas täppisch und sehr derb".(rustic, simple, earthy). Why Ländler? Ländler are danced by peasants who till the soil, who know that seasons change and that harvests return after winter. This movement is much more than folklore and quaint kitsch, connecting yet again to themes of change and rebirth that run through so much of Mahler's work.  Earthy in that sense doesn't necessarily mean crude, especially when considered in the context of the interpretation as a whole. There's humour here, not grotesque per se. Pan awakes, bringing life !  The pace whipped up, propelled along with force, yet once again, the dance returns, for dance, like Nature, moves in rhythmic cycles.  Poise, more so than turbulence is of the essence.This idea of change and renewal informed the third movement, written in rondo form. A chill seemed to descend with the wild, almost manic figures, the "burleske" mocking any ideas of simple comfort.  Has frost cut down the harvest?  Dark bassoons murmured, the strings went quiet, yet again  from this desolation a melodic string line arose, rising upward. (The violist looked exactly like my father, which for me added poignancy).  Chung captured the sense of forward movement - the trumpet line like a horn in the Alps, resonating from peak to peak. Great walls of sound, looming like cliffs, yet tiny details, like the triangle clearly audible.

In the final movement, Chung again brought out the sense of flowing movement, the "rondo" of the changes of seasons and the passage of time. Thus the growling low brass, as if sounds were coming from the bowels of the earth, while high, string tessituras evoked something more transcendant.  The orchestral Leader (who looks like young Brahms) delineated his line so it seemed to shimmer, weightlessly.  Many of these players would have worked with Bernard Haitink, legendary for the spiritual transparency he could bring to this symphony.  When the warm surge that characterized Chung's first movement returned, the idea of cyclic change felt reaffirmed.  The idea of differences reconciled in the figures for oboe and flute, moderated by harp, and the magnificent coda, where the strings en masse rang out in glowing chorale, leading the orchestra onward, ever forward.    Please listen here, it's wonderful. 

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Beethoven channels Walter Scott's Scotland

Ruins of Melrose Abbety - photo 1878
Between 1809 and 1816, Beethoven wrote dozens of arrangements of folk songs and folk-like material from Scotland, Ireland and Wales for the Scottish publisher George Thompson.  Sunset (or Der Abend: Die Sonne sinkt ins Ettrick Thal) comes from from Beethoven's 25 Scottish Songs Op 108/2 (1818) to a poem by Walter Scott, (yet another Beethoven contemporary) The Weary Change (The Sun sets upon the Wierdlaw Hill).  For the Early Romantics, Scotland suggested an idealized image of societies where people lived close to Nature, as yet untamed by civilised convention. When Mendelssohn visited, he travelled, sometimes alone by foot - no tour guides or organized trips, no hotels, no-one to translate from Gaelic to German. For someone from his background, this might have been the equivalent, perhaps, of visiting an alien planet where almost nothing is quite familiar, but which provides unending stimulus and fascination. Nothing safe or connentional.  For Walter Scott, native Scotsmen represented a past that had to be redeemed by making the Scots more middle clas and "English", but European Romantics liked Scotland for what it was. (Please see my piece on Rossini La donna del lago).

Beethoven's setting of Sunset replicates Scott's delight in semi-archaic syntax and references to Scottish history, which may or may not be lost on modern listeners, but that very strangeness I find adds to the mystique. This affects interpretation to some extent. There are many very good performances by native English speakers, but I'm particularly fond of performances by non English speakers who approach the songs as music, pronouncing the exotic words so the sense of mystery is enhanced.  How did "Wierdlaw Hill" get its name and what is the "holy fane of Melrose rise in ruin'd pride". Even the syntax is strange. Yet Beethoven's phrasing makes sense : all the singer has to do is trust the score, not tidy it up. Notice how subtle Beethoven's setting is : as realization sinks into the poet's mind, strings are plucked, rhythmically, like faint heartbeats. Thus do the "minstrels" reply to "The harp of strain’d and tuneless chord".

Of the many recordings, my particular favourite is Andrè Schuen with the Boulanger Trio. This set's interesting too because the songs are so well chosen, showing how Beethoven adapted similar figures into different songs, so the songs are connected by a cohesive thread.  Anyone with time on their hands could probably check the scores for greater detail, but it mkes for a very satisfying whole.  Wonderful singing - such reesonant depth and subtle nuance. Buy the CD on or amazon and attend the recital at the Elbphilharmonie on 20th February (details here)   Please also read my other posts on  Andrè Schuen esp his recent Liszt Petraca Sonnets.  And now, here's the text of Scott's poem :
The sun upon the Weirdlaw Hill, 
In Ettrick’s vale, is sinking sweet; 
The westland wind is hush and still, 
The lake lies sleeping at my feet. 
Yet not the landscape to mine eye
Bears those bright hues that once it bore; 
 Though evening, with her richest dye, 
Flames o’er the hills of Ettrick’s shore.
With listless look along the plain, 
I see Tweed’s silver current glide,
 And coldly mark the holy fane 
Of Melrose rise in ruin’d pride. 
The quiet lake, the balmy air, 
The hill, the stream, the tower, the tree,-
Are they still such as once they were? 
Or is the dreary change in me? 
Alas, the warp’d and broken board, 
How can it bear the painter’s dye! 
The harp of strain’d and tuneless chord, 
How to the minstrel’s skill reply! 
To aching eyes each landscape lowers, 
To feverish pulse each gale blows chill; 
And Araby’s or Eden’s bowers 
Were barren as this moorland hill.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Beethoven Prometheus, Opferlied and Symphony no 3 - Ben Gernon, BBC Phil

Ben Gernon (photo : Jane Hobson, courtesy Intermusica)
A good all-Beethoven concert  with Ben Gernon conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra live from Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (listen here). Worth hearing for many reasons. Gernon very  good, indeed. With Gernon as Principal Guest and Omer Meir Welber as Chief Conductor, the BBC Philharmonic needs a breath of new life after a period in relative doldrums.  In this Beethoven anniversary year, there will be dozens of concerts, but not many programmes as interesting as this.  Beethoven Symphony no 3 in E flat, 'Eroica'  - yes ! But also the full The Creatures of Prometheus Op 43 (1801) and Opferlied, Op 121b (1824) for soloist (Jennifer Johnston) and chorus (The Manchester Chamber Choir).  The last two played first, creating background to the symphony.

Prometheus stole fire from the gods to enlighten mankind. Enlightenment in every sense : Apollo the god of the arts and his muses, and Dionysius, the god of wine and creative freedom to counerbalance Zeus, the symbol of authoritarian order. The ballet is structured in two acts, of which the second loosely introduces the muses of music, theatre, literature, history, dance and tso on, "The creatures of Prometheus". Now that it seems the world is becoming increasingly fascist,  it might help to remember that rulers like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin  saw the arts as a reflection of their own glory, ignoring the humanity and diversity of true creative endeavour.  For Beethoven, Napolean was first a liberator, then a tyrant. If only modern political followrs had the guts to realize that they can be wrong.  Napolean, unlike some tyrants, did leave a heritage, like the decimal system. Or maybe the tyrants of today don't care about anything "foreign" and that Prometheus was wrong.

Beethoven's Opferlied underlined the impact. The text is Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831) an almost exact contemporary of the composer, both of them exposed to the same social and cultural upheavals of the time. Matthisson's writings tended towards philosophy, tinged with post-classical idealism. Possibly his best know poem today is Adelaide,  which Beethoven set as a Lied as his op 46 around 1796, when he was working on the original draft of Opferlied (WoO126) for solo voice and piano, revised in 1801-2.  There are more connections than one might think at first. In Adelaide, the poet is wandering lone and forlorn, Adelaide perhaps no more than a figment of his imagination inspired by visual images like mountains and valleys, the swaying of branches and nightingales. Then the final strophe. All is bathed in seemingly light-hearted pastoral sweetness, but the meaning is clear. Whoever, or whatever Adelaide might be can only be revealed after death :

Einst, o Wunder! entblüht auf meinem Grabe
Eine Blume der Asche meines Herzens.
Deutlich schimmert auf jedem Purpurblättchen:


This version for soloist, chorus and orchestra heard here is better known, was completed almost a quarter of a century later.  This version fits the nature of the text better, because it's more formal and heroic than a Lied.

Die Flamme lodert, milder Schein
Durchglänzt den dunkeln Eichenhain
Und Weihrauchdüfte wallen 
O neig' ein gnädig Ohr zu mir
Und laß des Jünglings Opfer dir,
Sei stets der Freiheit Wehr und Schild! 
Dein Lebensgeist durchatme mild Luft, Erde, Feu'r und Fluten!
Gib mir als Jüngling und als Greis
Am väterlichen Heerd,O Zeus,
Das Schöne zu dem Guten.

The flames glow, embers glimpsed through dark groves of oak trees which have symbolic significance in German mythology. The fragrance of burning oak lingers. Bend a gracious ear towards me and honour the sacrifice this young man gave for you (the flames are the funeral pyre of a dead hero). The hero is the highest, best regarded, forever the Defender and Shield of Freedom.  his spirit lives on through the air, earth, fire and flood.  Give to me the young man than the grey heads of your fatherly armies, O Zeus, the Beautiful for the Good).

The narrator is a Valkyrie-like heroine, which is why it suits a female singer with Wagner credentials. Though Wagner wasn't yet on the horizon, the ideas he imbibed hark back to the wars against the Romans, and their embodiment in German mythology.  This prototype Brünnhilde is echoed by a reverent chorus and orchestral parts dignified by restraint. 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Mendelssohn Elijah at the Barbican - Oramo, BBC SO

Today is my hero Felix Mendelssohn's 211th birthday. Normally I'd translate a Lieder text, but much more fun to look forward to Friday's concert at the Barbican Hall, London, when Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO in Mendelssohn's Elijah, with soloists Elizabeth Watts, Claudia Huckle, Allan Clayton, and Johan Reuter, and the BBC Symphony Chorus.  Book here - good seats still available.
Droughts, deserts, false gods, angels, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and a firestorm. Plenty of drama in the Bible. Perhaps what drew Felix Mendelssohn to Elijah was the personality of the prophet himself. Mendelssohn's St Paul was written to please his father, but Elijah springs from much deeper sources. Christians may have monopolized the oratorio, especially in this country, but fundamentally Elijah reflects something even deeper in Mendelssohn's spirit. Although he was a devout Lutheran, never did he deny nor denigrate his Jewish roots. Elijah's God isn't Jesus but the stern God of the Old Testament. Though the heritage of Bach and Handel is clear,  Mendelssohn's personal stamp is even stronger. Elijah is a remarkable statement of faith, depicting a man whose beliefs are made all the stronger by opposition. This gives the oratorio an undercurrent of grit and draws from the composer some of his most passionate, powerful music.

The first performances were given in Birmingham in 1846 and London in 1847, firmly establishing Mendelssohn as part of British choral tradition, appealing to middle class choral societies and to  dissenting and non-conformist movements rather than to High Church tastes. The Queen and her German consort, Prince Albert, gave the royal stamp of approval.  Mendelssohn could not be challenged whatever the aristocracy and Established Church might have preferred. Perhaps we can even trace some of the roots of Catholic Emancipation from this period. Because this Elijah goes back to the essence of Mendelssohn's beliefs, it's strikingly "modern" in the sense that it confronts dilemmas we still face today, like identity, faith and integrity.

In the Bible, Elijah is a wild man of the desert who stands up those who worship Baal, who seems to represent consumption and corruption. The orchestra connects to Elijah's spartan nonconformity, and thus has more authority than more elaborate instrumentation. Conducting this many singers at once is difficult, but here they were so well drilled, no-one fluffed an entry. Perfect co-ordination, but even better, total commitment and enthusiasm. When the people call out to Baal, their calls are met by silence. Blocks of male and female voices alternate and interweave."Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty Land!", the voices sing. Mendelssohn builds into the wild cross-currents images of wind and rain, thundering into parched ground.  There are so many exquisite passages, it's hard to pick out the most beautiful. "He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps" for example, where the words "slumbers not nor sleeps" repeat in lovely tender patterns. Such delicacy from such a huge chorus. And the glorious apotheosis of the final "and then shall your light  shine forth", ablaze with glory, for Elijah has ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot.

Although the five soloists naturally take the foreground, it's the magnificent background of the choruses that make Elijah the monument it is. These are the "people of Israel" after all, for whom Elijah sacrifices himself, so it's utterly appropriate. Poised between soloists and massed choir are sub-groups like the double quartet, the quartet and an exceptionally good  trio. "Lift up thine eyes to the mountains", this group sings "whence cometh help".  Elijah's recitatives, "It is enough, O Lord" and "O Lord, I have laboured in vain" can show Elijah as human and vulnerable, rather "English" and understated. Johan Reuter, who will be singing the part, is Danish but has been singing in Britain for many years. Not that it really makes a difference - he's good.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Vivacious Schumann Symphonies 1 & 3, John Eliot Gardiner, LSO

John Eliot Gardiner's Schumann series with the London Symphony Orchestra, from the Barbican Hall, London in 2019, now available on CD. This recording captures the verve and spontaniety of live performance, which further enhances the vividness of expression.  Schumann's Symphony no 1 in B flat major,Op. 38, (1841) and his Symphony No. 3  in E flat major, Op. 97, (1850), together with the Overture to Manfred Op. 115 (1848). (For my review of Schumann Symphonies no 2 & 4 with Gardiner and the LSO, please see here)

Following on from Gardiner's Mendelssohn series with the LSO, this Schumann series presented Schumann as Early Romantic, his sensibilities shaped by Mendelssohn and Weber.  In the last few decades, the assumption that Schumann's orchestrations were "inept and clunky" and needed "fiddling and re-touching", to quote Gardiner, has long since been refuted, as musicians and audience have come to appreciate Schumann on his own terms, demonstrated by the number of performances and recordings in recent years inspired by this fresh approach. Gardiner's Schumann series with the LSO is significant because, more than most conductors, he comes from a background immersed in period style and aesthetics.  The London Symphony Orchestra doesn't use period instruments, but that in itself means much less than their understanding of the aesthetics of informed perfomance practice.

Having established his reputation as a composer of music for solo piano, Schumann turned to works for voice and piano, influenced in no small part by his marriage to Clara.  The glorious outpouring of his Liederjahre  saw the creation of masterpieces like Dichterliebe, where individual songs form a larger work internally connected by theme and form.  Appreciating Schumann's Symphony no 1 in this context helps us appreciate him as symphonist. The associations with Spring aren't merely descriptive, but may refer to the Early Romantic symbolism of Spring as purity, simplicity and the freshness of Nature. In four movements, the symphony is "classical" though the spirit is distictively individual.  The exuberant fanfare follows speech rhythms,  quoting a line from the poet Adolf Böttger, "Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf". The andante picks up to vigorous allegro molto vivace, ending with emphatic affirmation. This accentuates the restraint of the second movement, which briefly had the title "Evening".  The scherzo repeats the fanfare, this time more earthy, highlighting the charm of the two trios. "The fanastic, mercurial humour of Schumann's great solo piano cycles", says Gardiner, "is here recreated brilliantly in orchestral terms". The final movement quotes Schubert's C Major symphony, the "Great", whose manuscript Schumann had uncovered in Vienna in 1838, but, as Gardiner says, the slow horn and flute cadenzas are pure Schumann "and for a moment it seems a new world of magical possibility is opened up".

Gardiner's approach to Schumann's Symphony no 3, the "Rhenish", also brings out the connections between the symphony and Schumann's many songs, even more so than in the First Symphony. Given the central position of song in Schumann's ouevre, his sensitivity to poetry and visual images and his very personal identification with the Rhine, it is wise not to underestimate the song aspects of this symphony.  Indeed, one could suggest that Schumann's Third inhabits a place from which we can consider his search for new forms of music theatre, evolving from oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri  (Op 59, 1843) (please read more here) to Genoveva (1848)  (read more here)  an opera that is more Weber than Wagner.  Is Schumann 3 song in symphonic form ? John  Daverio, the most intuitive of Schumann scholars, felt that text was integral to the music far more deeply than in the sense of word-painting. Schumann liked the shape of syntax, the rhythms of declamation. Schumann's music drama is only "difficult" if we expect it to evolve like Wagner, with conventional narrative. Instead, it's closer to abstract, conceptual art. In this performance, Gardiner and the LSO illuminated the colours, evoking the magic of the worlds of Weber, Mendelssohn and Singspiel tradition.  Lightness of touch, and freedom, are thus integral to interpretation.

Schumann's Symphony no 3 was inspired by an interlude of great happiness, when Robert and Clara took a holiday along the Rhine, both of them acutely aware of its symbolism and place in  Schumann's songs, such as "Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter" from Liederkreis op 24, and the verse, from Heine :
"Freundlich grüssend und verheißend
Lockt hinab des Stromes Pracht;
Doch ich kenn’ ihn, oben gleißend,
Birgt sein Innres Tod und Nacht.!"

In a sense Schumann's third symphony is almost autobiographical, as if the composer were looking back at the high points in his career.  Gardiner and the LSO articulated the sparkling figures in the opening movement so they flowed, like a river, sunny but with darker undercurrents hinted at in the strong chords in the second theme, and the quieter passages in its wake. This coloured the second movement, suggesting the scherzo qualities behind the surface. There are echoes of folk dance, evoking the vigour of peasant life, but Schumann doesn't tarry. Bassoons, horns and trumpets called forth, the movement, ending on an elusive note.  The movement marked "Nicht schnell" was gracefully poised: as an intermezzo it connects the happiness of the Lebhaft  movement with what is to come. The solemn pace of the fourth movement marked "Feierlich" may describe a ceremony the Schumanns witnessed in Cologne Cathedral, but its musical antecedents can be traced to other sources, such as the song "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome" from Dichterliebe.  The size of the cathedral, and the reverberations within it are suggested by the figures (trombones, trumpets, bassoons) which stretch out as if filling vast spaces. With Gardiner's clear textures the motif suggesting a cathedral organ was very distinct.  Whateverv the movement may or may not mean, the muffled horns and brass fanfares evoke a power that is very far from the insouciant quasi-folk tunes that have gone before. Yet Schumann concludes not with gloom but with a reprise of the sunny Lebhaft, the emphatic chords even stronger than before, this time lit up by a glorious fanfare, the brass shining above the strings below. The very image of the Rhine surging past towering mountains. Since we now know of Schumann's suicide attempt, this adds depth to our response.

Gardiner and the LSO make further connections by pairing Schumann's Third with his Overture to Manfred. In Byron's poem, Manfred is doomed, "half dust, half deity" driven mad by some unknown guilt, possibly incest, which in Byron's case may have been true. To German readers, there would have been echoes of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister.  Schumann's emotional extremes had been apparent at an early age, and his sister had committed suicide in her youth. Mendelssohn, whom Schumann revered, had died in 1847 while still in his prime. The Overture begins with majestic upward chords, rising like mountains, quintessential Early Romantic symbols on many levels, undercut by plaintive woodwinds and strings. As Gardiner points out, "the dark key E flat minor is particularly challenging for strings, yet the sense of strain this creates adds to the intensity".  Schumann's orchestration is so well defined that, in the eleven minutes of the Overture alone, he captures surging turmoil and psychic upheaval.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

For the Chinese New Year, but subdued

Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year, the Spring Festival. To many that means food, decorations, and symbols of good fortune, like pots of kumquat and plum blossom.  All of which mean hope and renewal : a start and also a looking back on fundamental values, like family. Family means continuity, community, heritage. People will travel thousands of miles to see their family . In modern times, and not just in China, the New Year exodus from the cities where people work back to their parents and hometowns represents something infinitely deeper than a holiday.  There's a video (from Singapore) which shows a mother,  making preparation all on her own. Son is a big city big shot, he doesn't do folksy stuff. Then suddenly, he appears at the door, and the old woman bursts into tears of joy, and so do most of us who watch it. That says more about New Year than all the fancy trappings ! This year for obvious reasons the mood is subdued. This past year has seen so much trauma and maybe worst the corrosion of heritage and basic values. All the more we should remember what New Year can really mean.

There are lots of Spring and New Year songs, but I've chosen this one, 雨夜花 the Torment of the flower by Deng Yuxian (鄧雨賢) (1906-1944). It's relevant on many different levels this year, because Deng's ancestors were scholar gentry in China, settling in Taiwan late in the Qing period, generations before Taiwan was annexed by Japan after the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895.  When the Japanese took over they enforced the "Japanization" of Taiwan, suppressing traditional customs and promoting a Japanese version of modernization. After 1945, millions of mainland Chinese followed Chiang Kaishek to Taiwan, further obliterating Taiwanese identity, and installing an oppressive regime of their own. Thus Deng occupies a fairly unique place in Chinese and Taiwanese history.  His story helps us understand. (Link to his bio here) Deng was classically trained and worked for music studios, but eventually quit public life and became a humble schoolteacher. Torment of the flower is based on a traditional Taiwan folk song, which, during the the Japanese period, was adapted to fit in with Japanese occupation values.  Deng can't have been pleased. He died in 1944 of a heart condition.  There's nothing militaristic about this song : it’s  beautiful and nostalgic, it transcends place and time.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Magic Bagpipes ! Jaromír Weinberger : Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer

From Saturday 25th January on Operavision, "the last operetta of the Weimar Era", Jaromír Weinberger's Spring Storm (Frühlingsstürme) commissioned for Berlin’s Admiralspalast, which premiered a few days before January 30th 1933, when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, thereby ending the creative flourish that marked the early years of the 20th century.  To prepare I've been revisting Weinberger's Švanda dudák a Czech libretto by Miloš Kareš, which premiered in Prague in 1927 followed by the German premiere in Breslau in 1928, in a translation by Max Brod.  Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer was a smash hit, particularly in German speaking countries.  Boosey & Hawkes describes it thus: "The strikingly folksy and yet anything but old-fashioned opera that makes enormous demands on the performers. It is not a “comic opera” for light voices and a mere municipal theater orchestra. The great  conductors of the time, such as Erich Kleiber and Clemens Krauss, stood on the rostrum. It is significant that Weinberger was particularly acclaimed by the German public of the Weimar Republic, that is to say, in a heady phase between the stiff imperial era and the culturally narrow-minded, dull “Third Reich.

Notice, "It is not a comic opera".  Schwanda, who plays the dudelsack (Bohemian bagpipes)  and Dorota are newlyweds happy in their innocence. One day a stranger hides in the house while Schwanda is out at work. The robber is Babinsky, but like so many crooks he has the gift of the gab. He tells Schwanda about glamorous places and adventures and persuades Schwanda to come away with him right away. They head to the palace so Schwanda can play for the Queen to cheer her up. What he doesn't know is that the reason the Queen's heart is as cold as ice is that she sold her soul to a strange Magician. For a moment he awakes her feelings and everyone breaks into a merry polka. But the Queen can't actually love without needing to possess. Sign of a psychopath ! When she hears that Schwanda's married, she condemns him to death. He's saved at the last moment by Babinsky (who wants a way to grab the Queen's diamonds). Dorota's jealous, so Schwanda says he'll go to hell if he's ever kissed the Queen. But he did, when enchanted,  and goes to hell. The Magician knows the source of the magic : the powers of the Dudelsack, and its music. (Bohemian bagpipes have strong cultural symbolism.) In Hell, the Devil challenges Schwanda and Babinsky to a card game -another ancient meme that runs through Central and Eastern European tradition. Wonderfully demonic music. The Devil assumes he'll win, as usual, but Babinsky beats him by being an even bigger conman. Schwanda's freed, returning to Dorota with his Dudelsack, while Babinsky carries on scamming.

Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer is still in the repertoire and gets done fairly frequently. There was a good production at the Semperoper, Dresden in 2016 (Please read more about that HERE). Weinberg was a close associate of Max Reger, which is why he's an adopted Dresden  favourite.  There are also several good reecordings. I like the 1948 one conducted by Winfried Zillig in Frankfurt in 1948. Performance wise it's more rough and ready than the later Hans Wallberg, though Wallberg has a glamour cast of  big name stars - Lucia Popp, Siegfried Jerusalem, Hermann Prey etc. But  the livelier approach of Zillig seems to suit the work better. This isn't necessarily a vehicle for elegant operatic display, it's too earthy and too pointedly pungent.  I love this opera so much. A few years back I had one of those endless nightmares where you go round in circles but can't escape. Suddenly, Schwanda to the rescue ! His music and cheerful nature got me back on track right away !

Things to come

 The Future, visualized in1902

Monday, 20 January 2020

Voices of 1945 - Salonen, Vaughan Williams, Strauss and Stravinsky

Voices of 1945 at the Royal Festival Hall, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony no 6 (here in the 1950 revision), Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto in D and Igor Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. This continues Salonen's long series of programmes that make connections between composers and their responses to the changes in the world around them. This approach is especially important now that music is presented out of context on playlists and short clips.  Programmes like this creates juxtapositions that enhance depths of understanding, even of well known repertoire.  The underlying theme of this concert was war : all three composers reflecting on the impact of war, each in their own different way.

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

Richard Strauss's  Oboe Concerto in D heard here in the 1945 version rather than Strauss's own revision from 1948, with soloist Tom Blomfield, Principal oboe of the Philharmonia. With his typical self-deprecating humour, Strauss dismissed it as "workshop excercises written to prevent the right wrist, freed from the drudgery of wielding the baton from going to sleep, permanently". Perhaps, but like Vaughan Williams, Strauss, who knew all too well about the destruction of German culture, (remember Metamorphosen) didn't want to be drawn into discussion, especially at a time when his homeland was under military occupation.  In any case, the solo part requires tour de force virtuosity, not only in terms of technique but in expressiveness. The first movement is exquisite, its elegance near filigree, an evocation of a more civilized, idealized past.  The timbre of the oboe matters, too : darker than a clarinet, richer yet more bittersweet.  In the final movement, D minor not major, suggests a subtle shift of mood, swiftly swept away by the blazing allegro at the conclusion.

Salonen's long series of Stravinsky concerts with the Philharmoniaa were outstanding. When Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements premiered in 1946 the composer wrote "Each episode is linked in my mind with a concrete impression of war.....the first movement inspired by a war film, a documentary of scorched-earth tactics in China", the second movement by the images of peasants "scratching and digging in their field" and the third "A musical reaction to newsreels I had seen of goose-stepping soldiers. The square march beat, the brass-band instrumentation, the grotesque crescendo in the tuba - all of these are related to those repellent pictures".

Even if he was later quoted (by Robert Craft) denying this, the structure of the symphony reflects turbulence and discord. The Symphony in Three Movements  operates like a kaleidoscope, of multiple aural images, fragmentizing and re-surfacing in new combinations. It's like collage, as used in the cinema where different frames are put together to create impressionistic density, images proliferating in layers and patterns. Stravinsky would have been well aware of Sergei Eisenstein. Hence the many quotes from other works, notably"primitivism" of the Rite of Spring, ritual now a force for sacrifice but not necessarily regrowth, and music planned for use in the film of Franz Werfel's novel The Song of Bernadette  whose visions give her faith, and from Beethoven's Symphony no 3, "Eroica". none of which would have been incorporated without purpose.  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, but the energy of this performance was such that it wholly convinced on its own terms.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Massive Beethoven concert from 1808 - Wiener Philharmonker, Philippe Jordan

"Das Konzert ist ein Höhepunkt der Feierlichkeiten zum 250. Jahrestag der Geburt des Komponisten." Philippe Jordan and the Wiener Symphoniker recreate an all Beethoven programme from 22nd December 1808 - 212 minutes - on This is the programme :

Symphonie Nr. 6 F-Dur op. 68 "Pastorale"
"Ah perfido!", Szene und Arie für Sopran mit Orchester op. 65
Messe C-Dur op. 86, II. Gloria (Qui tollis – Quoniam)
Konzert für Klavier und Orchester Nr. 4 G-Dur op. 58
Symphonie Nr. 5 c-moll op. 67
Messe C-Dur op. 86, IV. Sanctus (Benedictus – Osanna)
Fantasie für Klavier op. 77
Fantasie für Klavier, Chor und Orchester c-moll op. 80 "Chorfantasie"

There seeems to be quite a vogue for huge concerts like these now, maybe to counteract the attention deficit of modern listening (which applies to many things, not only music)