Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Secrets of the Sahara - Le Désert and L'Atlantide


Secrets of the Sahara !  Two magnificent evocations of the Sahara and its seductive mysteries : Félicien David's Le Désert (1844) an ode-symphonique, and Jacques Feyder's film L'Atlantide (1921).  Both are long term favourites, but the soundtrack in the restored version of the movie is pretty banal, so I muted and played Félicien David's Le désert instead.  The combination worked extremely well !

Perhaps it's because the rhythms of Le désert so strongly resemble the rhythms of a caravan of camels marching single file through the desert. Scored for narrator, orchestra, tenor and choir, the piece unfolds at a steady pace, unhurried yet purposeful.  For thousands of years, caravans like these have crossed the desert : it is as if  the endless sand dunes (depicted by the strings) defy Time itself ; the tracks of the caravan erased as soon as the caravan has passed.  David lived in Eygpt from 1833-35 so the atmospheric exoticism feels drawn from lived experience. Le désert  was sensationally successful in its time, and was to influence the whole genre of French orientalism. If it isn't as well known today, other than to fans of the genre, this might be because it doesn't fit modern ideas of form. David wrote operas, but Le désert is neither opera nor conventional concert piece and requires fairly large forces which make it relatively tricky to programme. In David's time, this form was relatively common (think Berlioz) so it needs to be appreciated as such.  This means performances of a vey high and idiomatic standard.

David's depiction of the sound of Arabic/North African music aligns to sounds very different from the western tonal scale.  The role of narrator is fundamental, holding the piece together and giving it shape.  Dawns rise and nighgt descends : As darkness falls,  the tenor sings the exquisite "O Nuit!"(Hymne à la nuit), suggesting the night sky with boundless horizons. This song is a tour deforce for a very high tenor or countertenor in the tradition of Grand Opéra. By far the best recording to get is the one with Cyrille Dubois and Zachary Wilder, tenors; Jean-Marie Winling, speaker; Accentus, Orchestre de chambre de Paris, conducted by Laurence Equilbey from 2015.  The few copies left on the market retail over £50 so if you have it already, treasure it and accept no imitations.  Dubois's timbre is unique. His voice soars to stratospheric heights, then swoops downwards while remaining elegant. "Le chant du muezzin" resembles the call of a muezzin, carrying over great distances, calling the faithful to mark the start of a new day. Another reminder of the vast distances of the desert, and of the timelessness of experience. 

Eighty years forward to Jaques Feyder's film L'Atlantide,  innovative on many levels.  This, too was innovative, shot on location in Algeria in the desert, employing Algerians in major supporting roles and dozens of locally-recruited extras . No fake blacking up, and earnings for local people. the difference between French colonialism and other forms of colonialism, including Hollywood could not be more pointed.  The sand dunes themselves provide an underlying narrative, which no set of the time could imitate.  The scenery is authentic, too,  showing native villages as they were at the time, and spectacular mountain cliffs.  Even the indoor scenes were assembled on site, using regional textiles like carpets, combined with stylized designs reminiscent of the fashion for "primitive" alien cultures, that made the Ballets Russe so popular. To audiences in 1921, this must have been a revelation to people who weren't used to seeing foreign places in such deatail, or, indeed, to moving images.  L'Atlantide became a box office hit, also starting a trend for films set in exotic places, like The Sheik (1926) with Rudolph Valentino, and Pabst's 1932 remake of L'Atlantide starring Brigitte Helm, both made with assumptions that western values went unquestioned.

Like David's Le désert, Feyder's L'Atlantide employs cyclic narrative. A Frenchman (Lt Saint-Avit) is found wandering in the desert, maddened by thirst and bizarre visions.  Only towards the end do we realise  he's telling his tale back to front. Back to the beginning : he's invalided back to France under a cloud.  suspected of being involved with the mystery disappearance of his friend and mentor, Captain Morhange. Two years previously, a French expedition had been massacred  and the leader Lieutenant Massard had been captured.  Morhange and Saint-Avit approached the desolate mountains of Tidefest, taking shelter in a cave at the approach of sandstorm. Inside, they found insciptions in early Greek with the name "Antinea". Danger lurks. Their faithful guide is poisoned and they turn to a Tarqui from Haggar, Cegheir ben Cheik who suddenly appears, to lead them deeper into the caves below the mountains. Cegheir ben Cheik intoxicates them with hashish. He's smoking Lt. Massard's pipe.  The Frenchmen are catured and taken to the palace of Ahaggar. Both men are bathed, massaged and treated well but they don't know where they are, or why.  In the place’s archive, they meet a librarian who tells them that they are in the centre of Atlantis, ruled by Altinea, descendent of the first Atlanteans. He takes them to a tred marble room filled with solid gold sacrophagi and pins a name on the latest arrival "Lt. Massard", whom Morhange had seen jumping to his death. These are the husbands of Altinea, who die, insane, when she rejects them.  Only one has ever escaped and he made his way back, unable to break the spell. 

Altinea wants Morhange but he will not be seduced. Altinea is like a wild animal, slithering like a serpent, eyes always alert to her prey.  Those palpitations might have seemed erotic in a more buttoned up era, but to modern eyes, they're overacted. still, she must have titilliated the audiences  of 1921 who thought vamp was sexy. Why doesn't Morhange respond ? In France, he had decided to take holy orders as a monk, but the Abbott told him to return to Algeria first, to test his destiny. Hence the crucifix and beads (not a rosary) he wears, which is not standard uniform. To get revenge, she feeds Saint-Evit narcotic cigarettes and gets him to smash Morhange's skull with a silver hammer. Yet Morhange forgives him, as Christ did.  The original novel, by Pierre Benoit, would have appealed to audiences brought up on Catholic morality. Rejection makes Altinea mad with grief: she sees crucifixes shining everywhere and lets Morhange be buried according to his own religion.   Luckily for Saint-Avit, he's been befriended by Tanit-Zerga, Altinea's assistant, who wants to escape and return to her home  in Gao, from which she was taken in a raid by slavers. She arranges a camel, and the two make a plucky escape, aided by Cegheir ben Cheik.  In the desrt, though, their camel dies, and when they reach a well, it's dried out. Tanit-Zerga dies, with a mirage of Gao in her mind. Thus we return to the beginning, when Saint-Avit was found, lost in the desert.  But, like Morhange and others before him, the spell of Altinea haunts him, and he wrangles a posting back to the desert, knowing full well that he is compelled by some unknown, irrational force. 

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Two Pastorals : Beethoven Symphony no 6, Knecht Le portrait musical de la Nature

Two pastorals : Beethoven's Symphony no 6 "Pastoral" op 68 and Justin Heinrich Knecht Le Portrait musical de la Nature , with Bernhard Forck conducting the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, part of the ongoing Harmonia Mundi series where Beethoven's music is presented in thoughtful juxtaposition, geared towards listeners already familiar with the basics of Beethoven.  This recording examines Beethoven's Symphony no 6 in the context of pastoral traditions in European music, which evolved from the17th century and adapted to the Early Romantic aesthetic. 

Justin Knecht (1752-1817), a generation older than Beethoven, was an organist and composer who lived all of his life in Upper Swabia.  Knecht described Le Portrait musical de la nature as a "Tongemälde der Natur oder Groẞe Symphonie" (a tone painting in the form of a large symphony). In the first Allegretto, Knecht's written description suggests a scene where the sun shines, zephyrs blow, and brooks flow merrily through a valley where birds call, shepherds pipe and shepherdesses sing. An Arcadian idyll, embraced for centuries by painters, writers and musicians.  Knecht's  detaied commentary helps, since this movement describes tranquillity, its flow gentle and elegant.  The greater part of the piece - four of the five movements - address the progress of a storm. allowing for more spirited musical depiction.  In the second Allegretto, as Knecht wrote, "Der Himmel verdunkelt schnell", the sky clouds over and "der Donner grollt" presaging the storm to follow in the third movement where "der Bergstrom wälzt seine Wasser mit entssetzlichen Lärm" and gently subsides in the brief third Allegretto.  At last "Die Natur ist von Freude erfüllt" and idealized serenity is restored. 

It is known that Beethoven knew Knechts's theoretical writings, but there is no direct documentary evidence that Beethoven knew Knecht's Le portrait musical de la natureNonetheless,  Beethoven's structures are similar enough he may well have been aware of it.  But  Beethoven goes far beyond replication. In an era when symphonic form was relatively new, it was perhaps inevitable that Beethoven should respond to the pastoral genre by writing a "modern" symphony.  Beethoven's symphony is highly original.  He "provides a reinforcing counterpart to the underlying structure",writes Peter Gülke, and achieves "more concrete and radical programmatic effects  the murmuring brook, the trio of birds,  the character of the oboist of the village band who comes in too late several times  and its bassoonist who can only play three notes, the sudden thunderclaps...." Charming as Knecht's Le portrait musical de la nature is, Beethoven's symphony is altogther more sophisticated.  His landscape portrays the storm in the context of the lives of people who live in the countryside, the storm part of the wider cycle of Nature.  His titles refer to emotional states : "Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunftauf dem Lande", and "Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm". As Gülke says, the initial notes "come so close to the character of bird calls that it is only a tiny step to Nightingale - Cuckoo -Quail, in which Art and Nature finally become one."  Gülke also compares and contrasts the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, premiered together in the Vienna concert of 22nd December 1808.       

Although there are so many Beethoven Sixths on the market, this recording is well worth attention because the performance, by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, is that of a specialist ensemble with a strong background in 18th and early 19th century repertoire.  They have just released a new recoring of Beethoven's Symphonies 1 and 2. (There are other recordings of Knecht but they're not nearly as well performed).  Period-informed performance does make a difference with Beethoven, and especially with the unique aesthetic of Symphony no 6.  Period instruments  highlight the "pastoral" delicacy in the orchestration. This free-spirited lightness of touch evokes the simplicity and purity inherent in the idea of a population living in harmony with Nature. There is a strong underlying sense of pulse, that feels as natural as breathing.  Because there is no sense of rush, details can be lovingly savoured, without pressure. Natural horns and simple percussion sound as they might have been heard in countrysides where people depended on Nature for sustenance, where hunting and harvests depended on understanding their connection to the natural forces around them. Clear, pure winds, sprightly strings and more than a slight touch of cheerful good humour. Even the storm, vividly portrayed, does not need to be heavy handed or brutal : the countryside survives, refreshed.   Beethoven's Pastoral is no disembodied, idealized landscape but one which evokes the spirit of life.                                                                                                                                                                      Please also see my review of Beethoven Symphony no 9 and The Choral Fantasy, also in this Harmonia Mundi series,  with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester.                                                                                                              

Friday, 3 July 2020

Freiburger Barockorchester, Heras-Casado : Beethoven Choral Fantasy and Symphony no 9

Beethoven Symphony no 9 "Choral" in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy   in C minor op 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.  In this Beethoven anniversary year, it is good that there are ventures which probe more deeply into the composer and his music. The year started with reconstructions, in full performances concerts throughout Europe, of the concert of 22nd December 1808, in honour of the composer, in Vienna which included the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, concluding with the Choral Fantasy providing a grand finale, Beethoven himself playing  the piano part.  Perhaps it says something about the stamina of modern audiences that some could not understand the ambitious scale of the programme. The Choral Fantasy is in many ways the embryo of  Beethoven's Symphony no 9,  now an anthem of hope and unity, all over the world.

Although the Choral Fantasy wasn't successful at the 1808 concert for many reasons, it is hardly a neglected work. The Adagio begins with a substantial section for solo piano, for this is very much a piece for piano, supplemented by orchestra and voices.  The familiar "Ode to Joy" motif is introduced first by the piano, then elaborated by different sections in the orchestra.  A concerto, in effect, the piano very much part of the evolution of the whole. Not for nothing is the Choral Fantasy in the repertoire of many fine keyboardists.  Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano is complemented by the Freiburger Barockorchester, whose period sensibilities enhance finer textures and a "personality" in the approach which feels more intimate and direct, very much in keeping with the idea of individuals interacting as individuals, gradually building up towards communal expression.  Just as in the Choral Symphony, the choir and vocal soloists in the Choral Fantasy enter only in the final Allegro, which has been purposefully reached as a result of what has gone before.

The character of these performances make this new recording a strong recommendation even in a market saturated with Beethoven Ninths. The vivacity and vigour of the Freiburger Barockorchester works extremely well with this symphony, given its fundamental message. "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" was a radical concept in the context of its time, when authoritarian regimes were giving way to new ideas, which included the freedom of the individual, and the right to tolerate self-determination.  It is significant that Beethoven replaced the text used in the Choral Fantasy (by Christoph Kuffner) celebrating the harmony of Nature where "Nacht und Stürme werden Licht" with the even more explicit Friedrich von Schiller Ode to Joy.

Beethoven's Symphony no 9 perfectly captures the revolutionary spirit of the Romantic era, and of the ideals Beethoven held so deeply.  What would Beethoven, Schiller and their contemporaries think of modern societies where such values seem to be in retreat ?  While this symphony is expressive with the full blast of a large modern orchestra and massed voices,  the Freiburger Barockorchester, with their appreciation of the more intimate soundworld of Beethoven's time, also bring out the human scale and personal warmth in this symphony. The power of this piece lies in the way Beethoven uses individuals to create a greater creative whole.  The Freiburger Barockorchester have also recorded a superb Beethoven Leonore (the 1805 version of Fidelio) with René Jacobs, livelier and more spirited than John Eliot Gardiner, emphasizing the originality of Beethoven's writing for the two female roles, who are much more developed than in the 1814 version. It is essential listening. The Freiburger Barockorchester have recently released a new recording of Beethoven's Piano Concertos no 2 and 5 "The Emperor" also with Kristian Bezuindenhout and Pablo Heras-Casado.

The superb playing of the Freiburger  Barockorchester is enhanced by Heras-Casado's direct, vivid style, and by the quality of the soloists,  Christiane Karg, Sophie Harmsen, Werner Güra and Florian Boesch.  Their voices are exceptionally well-balanced, and operate in consort with each other, which is also part of underlying meaning. Not a weak link here, as is sometimes the case with lesser performances.  The choir is the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, also very rewarding. 

Monday, 29 June 2020

Glyndebourne magic at home - Ravel L'enfant et les sortilèges

L'enfant et les sortilèges - Teapot (François Piolino) Child (Khatouna Gadelia) Chinese Cup (Elodie Méchain) Credit Simon Annand
 Glyndebourne at home, minus the garden. Champagne and strawberries optional. But a glorious chance to experience once more the magic of Ravel L'enfant et les sortilèges, in the Laurent Pelly production.  In L'enfant et les sortilèges, the world is seen through the eyes of a child, still full of wonder, too young to be locked into rigid assumptions : innocent, yet still  aware that there might be darker forces lurking just beyond.  This isn't an opera that can be approached literally, with the judgementalism that some adults might prefer.   Pelly, however, captures its elusive delicacy, where magical thinking co-exists with an awareness that harsh reality will eventually intrude, even on the pure in spirit.  "L'enfant et les sortilèges" said Pelly, "lasts about 45 minutes, but has the depth of an opera of three or four hours".This production's timeless, endlessly refreshing. What a joy it is to experience its freedom again via Glyndebourne streaming, especially in these times when it seems that the world seems bent on self destruction.

The combination of this L'enfant et les sortilèges, from 2012, with Pelly's much earlier L'heure espagnole underlines the freshness of Pelly's conception.  In  L'heure espagnole the adult figures are cynical, as inhuman and as inhumane as the clocks Torquemada surrounds himself with. Machines can be controlled to suit. Torquemada's a classic case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, where process means more than goal, the need to regulate a mask for existential anxiety.  Concepción thinks she can escape by playing men off against each other, but she, too, is operating on clockwork. Everyone in  L'heure espagnole is trapped in an infernal machine they don't even recognise : no-one's happy, or innocent.

The 2012 Glyndebourne cast was brilliant - Stéphanie d'Oustrac and Kathleen Kim, for starters ! Altogether unforgettable !  Please see my original review from the premiere  and also my interview with Laurent Pelly.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

The New Babylon - Kozintsev, Trauberg and Shostakovich

Dimitri Shostakovich's first film score, for the 1929 film by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon). The film makers were part of a co-operative known as FEKS (the Factory of the Eccentric Actor) that thrived on the daring new possibilities offered by film as an artistic medium,  thriving on futurism and the avant garde. The subversive spirit of the 1920's squeezed into political orthodoxy.

Like the film makers, Shostakovich was young and idealistic : this was his first commission for the movies. (the score to be played live at screenings). Cinema was a truly innovative art form, in that it appealed to mass audiences who might not otherwise have been drawn to “art”.  By the standards of the day, The New Babylon was daring. By working on it, the youthful Shostakovich was right in the centre of what was artistic avant garde in Soviet terms. He didn’t have the relative luxury composers in the west had, of conducting and teaching. He needed the movies to make a living. What is intriguing is how much film influenced the development of his music.  Thus the brassy militaristic marches, interposed by manic crowd scenes, chreographed to highlight excess and abandon.

The film celebrates the Paris Commune, dutifully showing images of downtrodden workers, capitalist degenerates, effete officers, healthy peasants and other stereotypes. The plot is simple: the downtrodden rise up against the system with some vague idea of “getting rid of the bosses” but are soon crushed by the military. The acting is banal. The heroine uses one pained expression for every purpose. It’s a relief when she suddenly falls out of the plot, her place taken by a minor actress who really can act, so much so that her personality seems to enliven the screen, even if she’s long dead and forgotten.


This being a propaganda film, the plot doesn’t bear analysis. One moment the washerwomen struggle with weariness. Once they’re told they’re free they suddenly wash with such hysterically manic vigour they get soaked through in the process. If only it were that simple….. The climactic scene is one where the communards and the bourgeoisie face each other in a stand-off. Of course the communards are supposed to be expressing contempt for the depraved ways of the capitalist class, proving their moral superiority and ultimate victory. Perhaps it’s the bad acting again, but the distinct impression I got from the scene was that the actors playing the communards would much rather have been enjoying sinful hedonism.  Perhaps the film was banned because it portrayed the degenerate capitalists with too much glee. They may be a drunken lot with rotten teeth, but they sure seem to have a good time. At least they get to do it in satins and lace. Indeed, the decadence is portrayed with such historical detail that in one brief shot, I’ll swear I saw why the Can Can was so scandalous! Mixed messages, then, in this film.


Shostakovich's score is a delightful riot of witty set pieces, such as the Marseillaise and variations thereon, Can Can music and a maudlin Tchaikovsky piano solo to match the onscreen scene where a communard plays an instrument consigned to the barricades. Moreover, there are obvious “scenery” effects, such as gunshots, the trundling of carts, cannonades and so on. Subtle this isn’t. Someone somehow managed to edit film and music in such a way that they are perfectly synchronised.  When I first saw the restored fim, back in 2006, I wasn't too impressed by the cinematography, but re-watching after all these years, I appreciate it a lot more for what it is.  We're all puppets, the film seems to suggest, caughtup in situations beyond our control.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Keeping live music alive - Royal Opera House live from Covent Garden


Lots to listen to this weekend : Live from the Royal Opera House, London, from the Rudolfinium Prague with Simon Rattle conducting the Czech Philharmonic and Magdalena Kožena, Britten from Aldeburgh,  Britten on Camera documentary on BBC TV 4, plus the LSO tonight (John Eliot Gardiner, Mendelssohn) plus much more.

"Doing our best to re animate the spirit of this gorgeous house" says Antonio Pappano in the introduction. And the ROH is glorious - it's heartbreaking to see it empty and its grand traditions silenced for the forseseeable future. That is WHY we need concerts like this, to remind us of what we might lose forever, if we don't take this crisis seriously.  Most musicians are freelance : they can't suddenly end up on the dole or get jobs filling boxes at Amazon. Like athletes, they need to keep training to keep their skills.  All that expertise gone to waste. The Royal Opera House is the second largests arts employer in this country, after the BBC, and contributes greatly to the economy. It is significant that far too many music fans do not recognize the role of live performance in keeping music alive.  Typical sneers on the net from "music lovers"- "we don't do live in my neck of the woods", "too many classics around already", "We only need Youtube" and most shameful of all, "We don't need professional musicians, amateurs are enough".  We're not just up against a pandemic and financial disaster but up against music fans who can't even comprehend the role of live performance in music-making.  

Above all, live performance is a communal activity, which constantly regenerates artistic growth.  The ROH is huge, not particularly suited to chamber recitals, but at least the company is making an effort, not, like the South Bank, giving up and closing down while keeping governments grants. So we might have to pay £4.99 to view later ROH concerts, but so what ? We should all be doing something to help.  In recent years, the notion that everything should be free is delimiting experience and poisoning growth.  The ROH website (as always) is full of petty complaints but it's not hard to access the concert (which starts a few minutes in) and remains online for repeat listening  There is a certain amount of echo at the beginning of the film before the mikes adjust by the time the performance starts.  Louise Alder sings Britten On this Island, and Toby Spence sings Butterworth A Shropshire Lad, and Gerald Finlay sings Mark-Anthony Turnage Three Songs  and Finzi Fear no more the Heat of the Sun.   The pianist is Pappano himself. For opera regulars, "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet The Pearl Fishers, an opera that's notoriously difficult to stage, and Handel "Tornami a vagheggiar" from Alcina.

Since the ROH is also the home of the Royal Ballet, Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales dance the world premiere of a new pas de deux, choreographed by Wayne McGregor to Richard Strauss Morgen! , Louise Alder singing the Lieder.  Listen to McGregor describe why the arts must not be left to desiccate by default.  "And tomorrow the sun will shine again (Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen)  And that support needs to be coming from listeners like ourselves.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Roderick Williams - defeating cultural apartheid in Lieder, Wigmore Hall


Roderick Williams sings Schumann Frauen-Liebe und Leben at the Wigmore Hall with pianist Joseph Middleton, highlight of an unusual programme Williams calls "Woman's Hour" because it features Lieder that highlight the lives of women.  As Williams says, Lieder aren't necessarily gender-specific, but works of imaginative expression.  So composers and poets were male, but that didn't stop them from caring about how women might think or feel.  The idea that songs should be rigidly classified as male or emale is cultural apartheid, a regressive demeaning of the very values of humanity that Lieder, and indeed the whole Romantic movement, stand for.

Towards the end of the last century, Schumann's Frauen-Liebe und Leben came in for flak from some Lieder fans, thereby ruining it for female singers who risk being attacked for being "anti-feminist" if they like it.  But surely serious Lieder fans should have known better.  Nineteenth century women may not have had equal opportunities but they were human beings with feelings, and even  now, women who chose love and marriage are not traitors to their sex.  Hating Frauen-liebe und Leben says more about the haters than about the music.

Adalbert von Chamisso (1781-1838) was a progressive by the standards of his time, a man of the world and open minded, and a friend of Madame de Staël who was no Handmaid's Tale.  In these poems, Chamisso describes a young woman as she matures and develiops her identity. She becomes strong enough to handle being on her own.  Schumann, too, was not repressive. He knew that Clara was the top celebrity pianist of her time, forging a career without the support of managements and modern PR teams. She'd fought her father in court for the right to marry. Not the sign of a shrinking violet.  She was the breadwinner, continuing to work long after Robert's death. Though neither she nor Robert knew it at the time, Frauen-liebe und Leben was almost prophetic. Schumann's setting is delicate but it's not "effeminate", but rather reflects tenderness and intimacy.

When Matthias Goerne did a programme with  Frauen-liebe und Leben and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder some audiences went apoplectic, but again that says more about themselves.  It's always easier to hate something different than take it on board.  He did this programme at the Wigmore Hall in 2006 where audiences in general know what Lieder is about and aren't threatened by any deviation from recieived wisdom. He revealed the innate beauty of these works, and the fundamental dignity of human expression.  If Lieder fans (or self styled Lieder fans) can't cope with that,  they desreve to stick with kitsch and schlock.  

Williams and Middleton extended to programme with Lieder by Schubert and Brahms, also portraits of women with feelings and minds of their own, and Clara Schumann's Liebst du um Schönheit, which is pleasant enough but proves the case that some women can decide for themselves where their true talents lie. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Night Mail 1936 - Art and covert socialism


Available now on BFI player, Night Mail, the pioneering documentary produced by the General Post Office film unit released in February 1936.  It's fairly unique, a factual documentary about train services,but it's lifted out of this into the realm of art, by its sensitivity to the subject. Real railwaymen and postal workers, not actors : nothing faked. It's an idea that connects back to the futurism of the 1920's and 1930's and even further back to to William Morris's concepts ideas of art and socialism as continuum.  Mail sorters are seen putting letters into pigeonholes : repetitive rythmic movements which streamline the process, their movements almost balletic.  Then, look at the trains themselves - engines puffing, pistons moving, travelling in orderly, organized lines across the country.  Much more than mundane mechanical process ! Even the sound of steam rushing through the chimneys and the banter of the workers sound like music. The Postal Special is so efficient that letters and parcels posted in one area can be sorted and bagged on the train within half an hour.  On this orderly efficiency, rests the prosperity of industrial Britain.  Night Mail was created to boost the morale of low paid workers, but also as public relations. On this orderly efficiency rests the prosperity of industrial Britain.

Night Mail is "industrial poetry" so it's perfectly apt that it should end with poetry and music.  W H Auden's poem captures the rhythms of  machines and men, working in unison, while opening out to the world beyond - letters of every kind, from all over the world, communicating human stories of every kind.  Th very young Benjamin Britten picked up on this context, his music replicating the lines of the text to brilliant effect.  Produced and directed by Harry Watt and  Basil Wright,  this film is also influenced by Alberto Cavalcanti who had made Rien que les heures (Nothing but time) - a day in the life of Paris, from 1926,  not unlike WaltervRuttman's Berlin : Symphony of a Great City (read more here). Very much in the spirit of futurism and creative modernity.  Sadly, some things don't change. Cavalcanti was poised to head the GPO film but was cut off as he wasn't British. He returned to his native Brazil, then returned to Europe, East Berlin and France.

Friday, 5 June 2020

People or pianos ? Good for Yuja Wang !

Yuja Wang (Photo : Julia Wesley)
On her Facebook page Yuja Wang has spoken out on the image of a piano trashed in the protests after the murder of George Floyd #blacklivesmatter :

"Pianos will continue to be crafted with love and care, music will be shared to unite and uplift people during this time of crisis, and stores will be rebuilt, through the hard work and generosity of their communities. What we can’t rebuild or replace, however, are human lives. Those are the most precious thing of all, and we must safeguard the lives of people whose voices aren’t being heard."

"Human expression takes many forms. It has to, especially when marginalized voices are not being acknowledged, and are met with hatred and judgement. I hope you will look at this powerful image and recognize everything that it is trying to say to us."
 
".....when marginalized voices are not being acknowledged and are met with hatred and judgement"  Think on that. The vicious abuse aimed against her for saying that abolutely proves the case.  Racism is endemic ; indeed you could argue that some sections of western society would collapse if they didn't have targets to hate, whatever the target might be.  Right wing extremists are only the tip of the iceberg, (or rather inferno).  Their values tap into a mindset that runs so deep that even supposedly decent people who vomit at DT & Co happily accept the way his agendas have permeated.  Too many Uncle Toms, too. It's the whole Cold War mentality of good guys versus subhuman bad guys, the "good guys"  assuming the moral imperative, however much double standards might apply.  Yuja Wang knows first hand how petty minded and vicious some people can be. So all the more her courage deserves respect.

If pianos are more important than the millions of lives damaged and lost through racism,  that says something about society.  True artists use their instruments to create something more sublime than material things.   In any case, what kind of artist uses white painted pianos, anyway ?

Sure, mass gatherings in times of pandemic are not a great idea for infection control.  But racism is even more contagious than COVID and it kills even more.   strange, usn't itbhow the same poeple who believe in their freedom not to respect disease limitation suddenly advocate it when other people are concerned.   Like the woman who claimed to be a feminist because domestic violence has spiralled during lockdown. As if domestic violence would disappear overnight if lockdown stopped? Or the man who complained because he's isolated for weeks, so therefore no-one else should be out demonstrating, yet doesn't complain about yobs who cheerfully ignore anything other than their own needs.  #onlymylife matters 

Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Proms as Covid Supernova ?

Does some of the London media want a supernova of COVID infections this year ? The BBC Proms this year will respect safety guidelines, switching from live concerts to recordings, with the prospect of some live events at the end of the season.  Perfectly sensible, considering that the capacity of the Royal Albert Hall is well over 6000, squeezing that many people together (with impacts on public transport) would be a recipe for disaster. This virus isn't going away anytime soon, but what do some people care ? In these circumstances, what kind of person could "enjoy" endangering musicians, audiences and service personnel ?  Yes, we need to keep live music alive, and save thousands from bankruptcy but not at the cost of killing people.

In any case, the BBC has so much in its archives that there should be enough to keep classical music lovers happy, even if it's not the same  as good live performance. But for years now, the Proms have gradually shifted the balance away from classical music.  So the Arron Banks crowd, for whom the Last Night of the Proms is politics, not music or even fun, can celebrate.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Zemlinsky Die Seejungfrau - Jurowski Concertgebouw Amsterdam

Alexander Zemlinsky Die Seejungfrau with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam Orchestra in 2013 on the RCOA streaming site (link here).  Jurowski has conducted Die Seejungfrau with numerous orchestras so many times that he's pretty much the main man when it comes to the piece these days.  Since the score was thought lost until 1984, there really isn't any "performance tradition", though many learned it from Ricardo Chailly's 1994 recording. Jurowski's enthusiasm for the piece has helped to make it now one of the most popular of all Zemlinsky's works. So it's worth listening to the commentaries before the concert starts.

Jurowski conducts the most recent edition, compiled  by Zemlinsky specialist Anthony Beaumont, who has  studied Zemlinsky and his contemporaries (including Ama Mahler) and is probably the main researcher in this field.  Approaching Zemlinsky without access to Beaumont's experience is like trying to swim without water - an apt a metaphor for Die Seejungfrau who loses her identity when she's on alien ground.  This edition reinstates the Sea Witch sequence, which is pretty much fundamental to interpretation, connecting the tale of the mermaid to much more sinister, supernatural forces. This "Little Mermaid" isn't cutesy Disney but a sister of the Sirens,  who lured sailors to their deaths. This Mermaid is all the more cursed because she isn't a serial killer who kills on autopilot, but a person with deep emotions, who is forced to destroy the man she truly loves. One can imagine what psychological levels that might imply.

Knowing the background to any work gives the music extra poignancy. The disturbing, mysterious first movement of Die Seejungfrau came from a sketch for a symphony about death, but the piece as we know it  was written in February 1902, weeks before Alma deserted Zemlinsky to marry Gustav Mahler.  In the second movement,  which portrays a ball at the underwater palace of the sea creatures, some notes are reversed, inextricably linking the mermaid's tragedy to the joys of others who accept what they are meant to be. The mermaid  sees the image of a prince, who is so alien to her world that she  longs to be like him, instead of herself.  A storm arises, sinking the prince's ship – no missing this. As the mermaid walks on shore with painful human feet, she treads in pain, and the music deliberately drags. The mermaid is forced to have her tongue cut out and never sings again. For a musician, giving up creative expression is particularly cruel.  Zemlinsky identified with the mutilated mermaid : like her, he could never be what he was not. Fortunately, he turned his anguish into art, sublimating trauma  through works like Der Traumgörge and Der Zwerg until the transcendance of the Lyric Symphony in which renewal takes over from the past. (please see my piece on Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony HERE)

This is what I wrote about Jurowski's Zemlinsky Die Seejungfrau with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2016, some years after the RCOA concert:

Jurowski captured the menacing depths in the introduction. Small, sparkling figures served to highlight the sinister gloom. The violin melody suggests the upward movement of the mermaid swimming upward: the LPO playing with energetic sense of purpose. Jurowskiu didn't bask too long in the sunshine. the urgent, almost violent theme which might represent the prince as huntsman churned up dissonance. Already we know this fairy tale will end in death. Jurowski and the orchestra delineated the churning undercurrents. Frequent turbulent contrasts between lyricism and violence. Jurowski didn't steer clear of the innate ugliness lurking within. The two-minute Sea Witch passage unearthed and edited by Anthony Beaumont makes a difference, intensifying the violence and the ultimate tragedy. Jurowski's background as opera conductor helps greatly, too, for he emphasizes the inherent drama in the orchestration. Jurowski's Die Seejungfrau is an opera where the orchestra sings for the characters. It's vivid in a cinematic way without being maudlin or sentimental. Descending diminuendos prepare us for the final confrontation. Jurowski lets sounds surge forth, yet holds it back, creating extreme tension. The LPO play with such richness that you could feel the intensity of her loss. Had she had legs instead of a fishtail, she might have been a princess, but in her sacrifice, she finds Isolde-like transfiguration.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Hi'ilawe - one of the loveliest songs, ever



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

For the text and translation, please see  Huapala.org HERE 

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 May 2020

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Herbert Howells Missa Sabrinensis, revealed in its true glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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