Thursday, 14 November 2019

A Baroque Christmas Harmonia Mundi - Charpentier Pastorale de Noël

A baroque Christmas from Harmonia Mundi, this year's offering in their acclaimed series. Great value for money - four CDs of music so good that it shouldn't be saved just for Christmas.  Bach's immortal Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 with René Jacobs,  and seasonal works by Corelli, Buxtehude,  Schütz, Rosenmüller and othersThe prize here, though is the Pastorale de Noël by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with Ensemble Correspondances, with Sébastien Daucé, highly acclaimed on its first release just  a few years ago. Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances are among the finest of many very specialistin French baroque. Please read here about their Le Concert Royale de la Nuit, their recreation of the extravangaza with which Louis XIV dazzled his Court. They have also focussed on Charpentier and in particular the Histoires sacrées (Please read more here), which have roots both in sacred oratorio and in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages.  Their performances are outstanding : paragons of the art, presented with stylish flourish. This set is worth purchasing for this superlative Charpentier. 

Charpentier's patron was Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, an independent woman whose tastes were freer and more informal than those at the royal Court.  In the Pastorale sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, H. 483, Charpentier adapts the pastoral style into a work of piety, somewhat unusual at the time. Between 1684 and 1686 he created three versions, with different second parts, all of which are recorded together for the first time on this disc.

"The first part of the pastorale is imbued with solemnity", writes Daucé. "The protagonists evoke the condition of humanity, permeated by sin, violence, darkness and death, and, in this state of extreme wretchedness, call for a divine sign bringing light, peace, justice and redemption.". The exquisite balance of voices in the ensembles suggests rapture, and the restrained power of the soloist in "Ecoutez-moi, peuple fidele" suggests emotional authority. Charpentier's instrumental writing is equally meticulous, marking the "contrast between the tenuousness of the recitative and the plenitude of the chorus, and above all of the device of silence".  The instrumental interlude that is the "Simphonie de la Nuit" marks in many ways the spiritual core of the first of the two parts of this Pastorale. A sublime "Paix en terre" completes the first half : voices and instruments in glorious harmony.

The second part of H.483 is a series of vignettes illustrating the Nativity scene.  Particularly attractive is the section "Cette nuit d'une vierge aussis pure que belle", the countertenor line lambent and clear, haloed by female voices. All three second parts follow the same pattern but each section within is different. In version H.483a,"We encounter the naïve and folklike elements which the first part of the work had completely avoided", writes Daucé. "Here the musical gesture draws on the same popular imagery with which painters and designers have always depicted the Nativity scene."  Especially imporessive is "Heureux bergers" for tenor with enesmble. This version ends joyously, voices accompanied by pipes, strings and percussion. "Faisons de nos joyeux cantiques", "Menuet de la Bergère" and " Ne laissons point sans louanges".  There are just four sections in the second part of version H.483b. "Le Soleil recommence à dorer nos montagnes" is contemplative, introducing a more reverential character.  The infant Jesus is addressed as  "Ouy Siegneur" framing the last section which is along as the first three sections put togerther, for it celebrates the "Source de lumière et de grâce".

Also included on the Ensemble Correspondances disc is Charpentiers' Grands antiennes de O de l'avent, (1693) ten anthems, each beginning with the word "O" on the veneration of Advent.  The best -known piece on this set will be Bach's Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium) BWV 248  with René Jacobs conducting the RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik  with soloists Dorothea Röschmann, Andreas Scholl, Werner Güra and Klaus Häger, all then at their prime. Recorded in 1997, this performance evokes the spirit of early 18th century Lutheran piety.  In modern times, we're overwhelmed by commercialized Christmas kitsch and consumerist excess, and the banality of the seasonal music that comes with it.  All the more reason then to turn to performances like this which reflect the real values of Christmas, and the promise of hope in dark times.  Strong stuff, but necessary.  The fourth disc on this set is a collection of pieces by Corelli (Concerto Grosso), Johann Rosenmüller, Buxtehude, Heinrich Schütz (Heute ist Christus geboren, Concerto Vocale/René Jacobs), Louis-Claude Daquin, Domenico Zipoli, and Claude Bénigne Balbastre from performances recorded between 1976 and 2004.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Christmas at St George's, Windsor

Christmas at St George's Chapel, Windsor, with the Choir of St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, James Vivian, organist and conductor. New from Hyperion, this continues their series of previous recordings with this Choir.  The College of St George, founded in 1348, is unusual in that it is a Royal Peculiar, a parish under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch. The Choir of St George's Chapel comprises twelve lay clerks, who live within Windsor Castle, and  twenty choristers drawn from St. George's School nearby. St George's is a close-knit, residential community, providing services at daily office throughout the year : effectively the Queen's own chapel and choir.

This recording takes us through three important seasons in the liturgical calendar - Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.  Each section is planned in a sequence connecting the past to the present. William Byrd is represented three times - Vigilate for Advent, Puer natus est nobis for Christmas and Ecce Avenit for Epiphany,  serving as a pivot between the modern Church of England, the Reformation and the church before that.  The melody Creator of the Stars and Night used in the Vespers on the four Sundays in Advent, dates from the seventh century, heard here with a text from Victorian times. The cantor is Simon Whiteley. The polyphony of Byrd's Vigilate rings out beautifully in this Chapel, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.  Orlando Gibbons’ This is the record of St John, from the same period, connects to the new Anglican tradition. Both are complemented by Joseph Rheinberger's "Rorate caeli" from Neun Advent-Motteten op 176 (1893)  for four-part chorus.  Michael Finnissy's Telling (2008) sets an anonymous 16th century text."Man stands in doubt, but seeks about, where they mayest him see". Finnissy comments on the final chord of the refrain, on its "mystery, ambiguity and even irrationality". After all, a miracle has happened beyond normal understanding. "Must carols be fluffy and sentimental?", he asks. No qualms in the jolliness of  Arvo Pärt's Bogoróditse Djévo, from 1990 but already a Christmas  classic.  In an acknowledgement of other threads of the British choral tradition, A Tender Shoot by Otto Goldschmidt who founded the Bach Choir in 1875. If it sounds familiar, it's because it's a variation of the hymn to the Virgin Mary,  Es ist ein Ros' entrsprungen in English translation. John Gardner's Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (1966) is another modern classic, where the organ, usually solemn, does a jerky "dance".

Christmas here begins with Puer natus est nobis, twice, first as plainsong (Ben Alden, cantor), then in William Byrd's version, from his Gradualia Book 2, (before 1607) — Alden being joined by two altos and the choir, the parts forming a tracery as elaborate and beautifully structured as the ceiling above the choir stalls in St George's Chapel.  "On Christmas night, all Christians Sing", is heard here based on the song collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in May, 1904, near Horsham, hence the title The Sussex Carol. The text was first published in the 17th century but its origins may go back even further.  Here it is heard in an arrangement by Philip Ledger from 1986, where the sound of pealing bells is evoked in the voice parts and organ.  "Minuit, chrétiens, c'est l'heure solennelle", Adolphe Adam's Cantique de Noël is here heard in the original, Nicholas Madden singing in fairly idiomatic French.  This isn't carol so much as art song, given that Adam wrote grand opera (Le postillon de Lonjumeau), audiences of the time expecting performance standards equal to what they might hear in the opera house.  Madden's voice rings clearly and carries well, supported by the organ.

More bells in Mykola Leontovich's The Carol of the Bells, an arrangement of the Ukrainian folksong Schedryck, heard here in English translation.  Another Philip Ledger arrangement of a traditional carol, I saw Three Ships is followed by an arrangement by David Briggs of Away in the Manger. "I wrapped the original melody up in a post impressionist harmonic language, saturated in garlic and one or two other exotic, succulent herbs!".  It is a delight, Briggs’ background as an organist spicing up the organ part so it glows with rich warmth.  In contrast, the sparkling voices of the young choristers of St George's enliven The Seven Joys of Mary arranged by William Whitehead.

Just as the introit to Christmas in this collection began with plainsong and Byrd,  Epiphany is marked by Ecce Avenit, first with cantor Ben Alden, then with the full blown polyphony of William Byrd. West Gallery music, usually simple metrical psalm, originated in smaller parishes in Georgian times. The term "West Gallery" refers to the practice of placing choirs in a gallery on the west side of the chapel, facing the altar but behind the congregation. Their relative informality fell out of favour after the rise in popularity of organs and more organzied religious practce in the 19th century.  In Under the Greewood Tree, Thomas Hardy describes this social change in rural Dorset. West Gallery hymnal would have been even more remote from the perspective of high Victorian Windsor, so it's good to hear how the Choir of St George's Chapel enjoy singing A Gallery Carol, from Dorset, in an arrangement by Reginald Jacques. The background to Bethlehem Down is even more irreverent. Neither Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) nor Bruce Blunt, who wrote the text, were religious. They wrote the hymn for a newspaper competition to raise money so they could indulge in alcohol.  Nontheless, the hymn was an instant hit, and remains a favourite to this day. God moves in mysterious ways.  This most rewarding collection concludes with an exuberant flourish. Nowell Sing We was commissioned for the 2014 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in York Minster. The composer is Matthew Martin (b. 1976) Director of Music at Keble College, Oxford.  It's a heady mix blending Latin and English texts, in a spicy cocktail of sound, the organ wild and free, before a sudden, conventional coda.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Henry Purcell : King Arthur new edition Paul McCreesh Gabrieli Consort

The Gabrieli Consort : photo Andy Staples

A new edition of Henry Purcell's King Arthur by Paul McCreesh and Christopher Suckling from the Gabrieli Consort and Players.  "The editorial problems are many", writes Claire Seymout in Opera Today. "There is no manuscript of Dryden’s 1684 libretto and no reliable source for Purcell’s music: scholar Curtis Price has noted that instead we face ‘a confused assortment of more than sixty manuscripts and miscellaneous publications, none of which includes the complete music’.

When no music exists for songs which are printed in Dryden’s text, we cannot know if Purcell’s music is sadly lost or if he chose not set the lines in question

....;This new edition reflects their evolving interpretation and performance practice. Some text has been repositioned or. reworked; musical insertions have been made, in some places in response to gaps or ambiguities in the original sources, elsewhere to compensate for the absence of the spoken dialogue, or to provide fitting conclusions tthe acts and masques. Inconsistencies in the various manuscripts have been considered as performance, rather than ‘scholarly’, issues: McCreesh explains that ‘Our singers, like Purcell’s, would naturally grace their lines with rhythmic alterations and melodic extemporisations’, thereby rendering the question of which textual variant is ‘correct’ moot. Having examined contemporary sources, the decision was made to perform choruses and dances without continuo; the songs are accompanied by harpsichord, theorbo and guitar, without a string bass line.Please read the full, detailed review of the Gabrielli Consort's concert at St John's, Smith Square in Opera Today.

I've been enjoying the CD and it really is as good as the review says ! Highly recommended ! 

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Magic Bullets - Weber Der Freischütz, Equilbey Insula Barbican

From an early production of Der Freischütz 1822

Magic Bullets Carl Maria von Weber Der Freischütz, Laurence Equilbey conducting the Insula Orchestra and Choeur Accentus,  and soloists at the Barbican, London.  Weber's Der Freischütz Op. 77, J. 277 is a seminally important work, a milestone in music history, and represents a turning point, too, in wider European cultural history. Without Weber and Der Freischütz, music, not just opera, might
not be as we know it today. No Der Freischütz, no Wagner, no Berlioz, no Schumann, no Mahler.  Moreover it's a key document of the Romantic era and its revolutionary impact on culture, the arts, society and so much more.  Misunderstand Der Freischütz and misunderstand the 19th and 20th centuries !  A few years back some smalltown critic declared that if he didn't know it, ("it only has one tune!") it can't have been important. That says more about those who think that getting a press pass makes them somebody.  If they need to bring a friend to help, they shouldn't be doing the job. One of the messages in  Der Freischütz is that there's no such thing as a magic bullet.

In German speaking countries Der Freischütz is pretty much basic repertoire, and elsewhere in Europe, it's extremely well known. The classic recording was conducted by Carlos Kleiber, no less, and it was a favourite of Colin Davis who conducted it at his very last performance at the Barbican.  What's significant about this latest Barbican performance is that Equilbey, Insula and Accentus are specialist par excellence in French repertoire and aesthetics.  Though Der Freischütz does benefit from an understanding of the German context, there's no reason why it can't be approached from a different perspective.  Plenty of forests in France, plenty of hunting societies, plenty of upheavals in society.  Hector Berlioz was so inspired that he did an adaptation in French with a text he wrote himself.  It's very good - John Eliot Gardiner conducted it in London not all that long ago, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment marked their 30th anniversary with the German Der Freischütz and Mark Elder.  Indeed, a lighter, brighter period-informed style can connect better to Weber and his aesthetic than a more interventionist approach.

Der Freischütz was first performed in 1821, just seven years after Napoleon's defeat.  Many in the audiences in early performances would have had direct personal experience of  the wars and their impact on German-speaking lands, and a background knowledge of the Thirty Years War and its impact.  Romanticism has nothing to do with being "romantic" in the modern sense of the word   Its ideals galvanized European thought, especially in Germany which hitherto had been a diverse conglomeration of 300 states.  This period saw the growth of solidarity between German-language speakers, whatever their region. Nationalism then was a progressive, unifying force.  This interest in the past  wasn't about the past but a way of using the past to validate new ideas like national identity and the role of the individual. Thus the interest in German folklore, in Brentano and von Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, in the poetry of Gottfried Herder and even the concept "Gedanken sind Frei" (Read more here)  the individual as opposed to mass authority. From the Romantik sprang the revolutions of 1848, all over Europe, not just Germany. Understanding this context is fundamental to appreciating Der Freischütz

Der Freischütz portrays an idealized vision of the German past, where hunters provide sustenance  and live (more or less) in harmony with Nature.  But remember that forests can be dangerous places. Not for nothing are they a symbol of the unknown, and of the unconscious. Read Simon Schama: Landscape and Memory (2004), Jeffrey Wilson The German Forest (2012).  And, for that matter Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment.  Disney sanitized our appreciation of fairy tales as folk psychology, and infantilized meaning. Absolutely resist the idea that Der Freischütz should either be sentimental or kitsch.  The people in this opera inhabit a world where danger and loss is never very far away.  Max, a humblejunior huntsman, wants to marry Agathe, the boss's daughter, but in this rigid, hierarchical society he has no chance of challenging the social order. To win Agathe, he has to do a deal with the Devil, whom Samiel represents.  If Max escapes in the end, it's only because Caspar pays the price and Prince Ottokar intervenes as deus ex machina. It's a near thing. Agathe could have been killed and Max executed for murder.  

Weber's music is exquisitely beautiful, as if it were, like the magic bullet, deflecting truth from those who can't handle reality.  Magic Bullets are not a solution. Indeed, this opera can even allude to the dangers of quick-fix nationalism and instant expertise. Utterly relevant in modern times.  When we listen to Weber's hunting horns and rousing choruses, we should think about what's being hunted, and why. The music is ravishingly beautiful because it emphasizes the beauty of life, refreshed by the connections to Nature that hunting for food depends on. But killing is a bloody business, it's not pretty and it's not sentimental 

 Because I was suddenly taken ill the night before, my partner went alone (too late to give away the spare). Veteran of many Freischützs, he appreciated Equilbey's approach, and had a wonderful time. "Superbly done. Great orchestra and singers and a subtle, simple semi-staging ,including a brilliant dancer/acrobat as an omnipresent Samiel, writhing about like a lizard or creeping like a wolf. And all the dialogue - no nonsense of messing about with it.". Fortunately, Equilbey, Insula and Accentius have been touring Europe with Der Freischütz and will be releasing a new recording in the near future. A must, I think.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Strong and dignified : Berlioz Requiem Pablo Heras-Casado, Orchestre de Paris

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Orchestre de Paris, the choir of the Orchestre de Paris and the orchestra of the Conservatoire de Paris, in Hector Berlioz Requiem (Grand Messe des Morts) (streamed here on together with Witold Lutosławski Musique funèbre à la mémoire de Béla Bartók.  Heras-Casado is fast becoming the kind of conductor who doesn't just conduct extremely well, but also finds distinctive insights into the music he conducts. He did a superlative recent Manuel de Falla CD with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, for example, which applies that orchestra's virtuosity to de Falla, bringing out the verve and audacity that animates the music. Flamenco isn't soft or wimpy - its very discipline makes it electrifying.   Now we can hear why Harmonia Mundi only issued Granados Goyescas and not El amor brujo from the recent Josep Pons BBC SO concert. Many years ago, when Heras-Casado was very young, he appeared in one of Boulez's masterclass videos.  We can't judge from short clips, but evidently Boulez. who heard a lot more,  appreciated him. Boulez was right !

Combining Berlioz and Witold Lutosławski on this programme from the Philharmonie de Paris emphasized how innovative Berlioz was in his own time.  By no means is the Lutoslawski an add-on. It enhances the Berlioz Requiem, not that it needs enhancing, but adds to the overall impact of the experience.  There has been a lot of excellent Berlioz this year, and several Berlioz Requiems this year, some very good, some less so.  But Heras-Casado stands out. Again, Heras-Casado works with the strengths of the orchestra and choruses, adapting the clarity and commitment of the style. A lucid interpretation, shining with intelligence. Berlioz was flamboyant,  but beneath that, his mind was sharp and highly original.  After the refined Introit, the Dies Irae emerged with dark, ominous majesty. Tight, precise rhythms, underlining the tense pitting of one choral section against the other, creating a sense of division and anxiety. Thus the explosive release in the fanfare where the combined chorus blazed, underpinned by rumbling brass and percussion, evoking thunder, voices rising like the spirits of the dead. With dignity, for the dead will not go unvanquished.  Plaintive single instruments like cor, and the tenderness of the Lachrymosa.  Our sympathy is with humble human souls, now lost to death, the rising brass and percussion underlining depth of feeling.

The Domine and the Hostias mark a transition, like an Offertory in a Mass, when the host is consecrated, bringing God into the community, reminding believers why Jesus sacrificed for man.  The soloist is Frédéric Antoun, who's very impressive. A pity that Berlioz didn't give the tenor more to do, but the part, though relatively small, is critical : Antoun's voice rings out powerfully, above the hushed chorus, his timbre shining, as if surrounded by light.  On the video, Antoun is shown spotlit, standing alone, above the orchestra and choirs.  Now the Requiem enters its destination:  glorious Hosana, in excelcis, the chorus interacting like the pealing of bells, Antoun's voice ringing divinely. "Behold the Lamb of God", that's what the Agnus Dei means. Thus the hushed reverence in the choruses and the long, clear chords in the orchestra, with baleful undertones, penerating into the distance. Berlioz may not have been devout, but he knew that religion can be a form of theatre.  The conclusion isn't triumphalist, but comtemplative, like a reflection upon the miracle that has occured.  Heras-Casado's approach is deeply committed, strong minded and assured : very much cognizant of what a Grand Messe des Morts should be. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Haunted Lake - Die Geister von Mummelsee

Am Fuße der Hornisgrinde liegt der sagenumwobene, verwunschene Mummelsee. Diesen mythischen Ort sollen die Römer schon "locus mirabilis" genannt haben. Gemälde von Jakob Götzenberger im Wandelgang der Trinkhalle Baden-Baden, fertiggestellt 1844
© L. Hanisch
 Not quite Halloween, but spooky. A poem by Eduard Mörike, Die Geister von Mummelsee, set by Hugo Wolf.  Mummelsee is a deep lake in a remote forest surrounded by mountains in the Schwarzwalde in Swabia, Mörike's homeland.  Perfect Romantic Landscape ! Mörike made a living as a low level pastor, but was fascinated by "nature magic", legend and mysteries.  Please read the full text of the poem HERE. 

At midnight, from the darkness lights appear - torches in procession, strange, eerie songs.  Who are these spirits, carrying the Sarge die glänzende Frau! (the coffin of a shimmering woman), chanting strange songs. The dark reflecting lakes open for them like a living staircase to the depths, (ein lebende Treppen hervor) .The waters don't touch them. the spirits are mourning their king, a sorcerer. But wait ! They've spotted the person watching them ! In Hugo Wolf's setting, the piano part marches ominously, evoking the solemn processsion. With each strophe, more detail, shapes shifting and changing, like the spirits. Die Wasser, wie lieblich sie brennen und glühn! Sie spielen in grünendem Feuer.  Sparkling figures, magic, the alarm as the spooks grab the man and drag him preciptatively down to his death.  The recording below comes from the set of pre war broadcasts from German radio, with Herbert Janssen.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Elgar The Apostles - Martyn Brabbins, Royal Festival Hall.

At the Royal Festival Hall, Sir Edward Elgar's The Apostles, Martyn Brabbins conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Chorus, the BBC Symphony Chorus and a good array of soloists. The Apostles is hardly unknown : it's been done numerous times, so its place in the canon is beyond dispute.  So why doesn't it get the respect it's due ?  It occupies a very special place in our understanding of Elgar and his music, and of the times he lived in. The Apostles is part of a trilogy of oratorios examining the nature of Christianity as Jesus taught his followers. This context should be well known, too, since both The Apostles and The Kingdom have been done in recent years, establishing the context. Though Elgar used the grand gestures popular in Edwardian times, it is significant that his approach to Christian belief was much more a personal statement of faith, humble and humane rather than triumphalist.  This might be the "real" Elgar, the "man behind the mask", Elgar the eternal outsider, despite his public acclaim. This makes a difference in reception and interpretation, which is why The Apostles deserves greater appreciation. 

In The Apostles, Elgar shows how Jesus sets out his beliefs in simple, human terms. Judas has doubts about him but is confounded. In The Kingdom, the focus is more open ended.  As the apostles go out on their mission, their story unfolds through a series of tableaux, impressive set pieces, but with less obvious human drama. The final, part would hase been titled The Last Judgement, when World and Time are destroyed and the faithful of all ages are raised from the dead, joining Jesus in Eternity. The sheer audacity of that vision may have stymied Elgar, much in the way that Sibelius's dreams for his eighth symphony inhibited realization. Fragments of The Last Judgement made their way into drafts for what was to be Elgar's final symphony, which we now know in Anthony Payne's performing version of what was to have been Elgar’s Third Symphony. Just as The Dream of Gerontius tells of one man's journey from physical life to the life everlasting. (read more here). The Apostles deals with the relation between  God made man and mortal men. Hence the inherent contradiction that sometimes confuses The Apostles with overblown Edwardian public declarations of Christianity.

The Apostles unfolds in a series of seven tableaux, held together by male and female narrators. This structure allows a surprising degree of intimacy, concentrating on the interaction between  Jesus and the people around him. Judas, Peter and John are gearing up for their mission to spread the gospels to the world. The chorus exults and the brass plays the glorious fanfare, which seems to stretch over vast distances. The huge kettledrums beat out a ceremonial march. Splendid! Yet it is the quiet voice of Jesus which rises above the tumult. "He who receiveth you, receiveth Me, and he that receiveth Me, receiveth Him who sent Me".When Jesus  reveals the Beatitudes in By the Wayside, the baritone should sing with sincerity and conviction.  "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth". Meekness isn't weakness, though, for Jesus hints at persecutions to come.

The tension between grand forces and simplicity gives The Apostles much of its  appeal. Elgar describes the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Davis whips the orchestra into a turmoil. "It is I, Be not afraid!" : the very words  seems to shine like a lighthouse. Elgar's Jesus favours sinners, like Mary Magdalene. Peter the Doubter, and Judas Iscariot. Indeed, Elgar gives Judas more space than the others, suggesting his sympathy with those who question.This dialogue between Judas and Jesus is importnat because together they bring out a more unconventional element in the drama.  Judas isn't a monster. He expresses genuine concern where the other Apostles obey blindly. When Judas recognizes his mistake, his anguish is so intense that the part can take on a strange, noble dignity. The long passage that starts "Our life is short and tedious" evokes compassion. This is a Judas with whom modern people can identify. We cannot judge, but remember the Beatitude "Blessed are the merciful!".

Elgar goes swiftly from Golgotha to the Ascencion, as if drawn forwards by the musical vision of Angels singing "Alleluia!". The string writing is pastoral, yet luminous,  another insight, connecting Jesus's "rebirth" with his Nativity. The Mystic Chorus can ring with beautiful clarity. In The Apostles, Elgar writes for voice as if he were writing for different elements in an orchestra. He weaves together lines for the orchestra, choir and soloists to form an immaculate, shining wall of sound. "And lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world".

The Royal Festival Hall is not the most ideal setting for a piece like The Apostles, which, when heard in a cathedral or the Royal Albert Hall, breathes its full majesty. Cathedrals and the RAH have better organs, too, which make a difference.  Still, if the message of The Apostles is human scale, concert hall acoustic isn't necessarily a factor.  Mark Elder was originally scheduled to conduct. Since Elder's done the piece many times (and recorded it) his Apostles is a known quantity.  Though Elder did it with the Hallé at the Proms and on the recording, and the lineup of soloists is slightly different, (Alice Coote and Brindley Sherratt reprising their roles), the difference would not have been extreme. Jacques Imbrailo was divine, but Roderick Williams is a great communicator, too. I did want to hear Elizabeth Watts, Allan Clayton and David Stout but they're good enough that they can be heard everywhere. Brabbins, on ther other hand, is one of the most original and distinctive conductors around, specializing in British and modern repertoire. His The Apostles should have been worth hearing ! Pity that I couldn't make it to the RFH, since I would have appreciated the experience.  Still, conductors rarely do something only once, so here's hoping !

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Fantasy Botany - The Anguished Lotus Bloom

Die Lotosblume ängstigt 
Sich vor der Sonne Pracht
Und mit gesenktem Haupte 
Erwartet sie träumend die Nacht. 

Der Mond, ist ihr Buhle 
Er weckt sie mit seinem Licht,
Und ihm entschleiert sie freundlich
Ihr frommes Blumengesicht, 

Sie blüht und glüht und leuchtet 
Und starret stumm in die Höh'; 
Sie duftet und weinet und zittert
Vor Liebe und Liebesweh. 

(The lotus bloom is stressed under the glare of the sun, and bends her head to await and dream of the night.  The moon, her secret lover, awakens her with its light, and for him, she she reveals her purity. She blooms, and gleams and shines and gazes towards the heavens. She releases her fragrance to the air and weeps and trembles with love and the pain of love.) 

The poem, by Heinrich Heine, is deceptively subtle.  The setting, by Robert Schumann is discreet, but notice the throbbing piano accompaniment, suggesting the palpitations of an anxious lover's heart.  Neither Heine nor Schumann probably saw lotuses growing in their natural habitat, where they grow en masse in ponds and lakes, reaching upwards toward the sun.  It's hot in the tropics, though the water keeps them cool.  The petals look fragile, though they're strong, like the stems and roots. Perhaps Heine and Schumann and their audiences identified the lotus with the moon, stillness, and secrecy, as Goethe did when he wrote of feelings inspired by the untouchable Charlotte von Stein.  In the last  line, passion breaks through,the voice part fills out "for love, and the pain of love"

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Edgard Varèse, FX Roth, Berliner Philharmoniker

Edgard Varèse Night  - two concerts - at the Philharmonie, François-Xavier Roth conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  By sheer coincidence, this waas the day after the death of Chou Wen-chung, Varèse's friend and foremost scholar. (Please read more here)   Thoughtful programming !  First off, Joseph Haydn Symphony No. 59 in A major “Fire Symphony”an early work, from the 1760's.  The connection to Edgard Varèse?  Haydn was a court composer, obligated to turning out music for his employer,  Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Yet Haydn created the modern symphony, paving the way for many others.  Varèse was a lone figure, pioneering new forms in a new world. The first concert featured Béla Bartók, another highly individual personality, who didn't write conventional symphonic works, but forged new approaches to other forms.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard played Bartók's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3, Sz 119 (1945), followed by Roth and the Berliners with Bartók's Dance Suite, Sz 77(1923). Stylish ! Varèse's Arcana for large Orchestra completed the set. Arcana is the biggest of Varèse's works, and relatively accessible.  The original version,from 1925-7,is scored for massive forces, roughly 120 players altogether,  68
 strings, 20 woodwinds, 20 brass and a phalanx of percussionsts playing 40 different instruments from timpani to castanets.  It's also very visual : watching is very much part of the experience.  It's not every day you see rows of trumpets and trombones, some muted, some not playing together, or 8 horns raised heavenwards. This time,we heard the more compact  revision from 1960, which balanced more neatly with Haydn and
Bartók. Arcana is big, but its bigness springs from its musical function. It proceeds like a gigantic beast, its component parts articulated to move in stately formation, groups of instruments impacting on each other in constantly varying combinations. Whatever Varèse meant by its title, the piece moves as if it were a mythical creature brought to life by arcane spells and incantations. Varèse might be called the Wild Man of Modern Music, but he was aware of the importance of structure and progression. 

Logically then to the Late Night concert with members of the Berliner Philharmoniker in smaller ensemble. Varèse Density 21.5 for solo flute, emerging mysteriously like primeval sound, a single melodic instrument developing many different motifs. In Intégrales the piercing cry of the clarinet is answered by rumblings and fractured tappings in the percussion, the other winds picking up on the clarinet's long lines. At moments a snatch of a vaguely familiar tune, almost like Ravel Boléro which was not published at the time Intégrales was completed in 1923. Hyperprism, for winds and percussion, experiments with new sounds, the "klaxon" of Amériques, just one of the procession of timbres, textures and rhythms. Ionisation is orchestrated solely for percussion instruments. The concept, though, is ancient, since much non-western music is percussion based.  It connects, too, to the “primitive” that fascinated modern artists like Braque, and the ethos of Africa, "the Dark Continent" to New York audiences who were horrified by the piece at its premiere in 1933. Ions are particles that build up to form larger units. so Ionisation foresees the idea of cells of sound multiplying to form more complex structures, while fragmenting and re-forming.  Octandre for seven Winds and Double Bass is a group of three miniatures. In the first movement, marked assez lent, an oboe calls, answered by clarinet, both pitched closely so their sounds seem to vibrate off each other. This vibration becomes even more marked in the second movement, marked Très vif et nerveux, the dichotomy developed still further in the last movement marked Grave-Animé et jubilatoire. Nothing primitive in this tightly crafted orchestration.  Sarah Aristidou was the soloist in Offrandes from 1921, soon after the groundbreaking Amériques.  The instrumentaion is relatively conventional, but the vocal lines are freer and more modern, pitched high like the instruments the voice imitates. The texts come from Vicente Huidbrodo and José Juan Tablada.

Chou Wen-chung : the passing of a true Man of Culture

Chou Wen-chung
Chou Wen-Chung (周文中) has died aged 96.  He was a man of great integrity and mental strength.  Now, perhaps, he'll meet up again with Edgard Varèse : the two of them both pioneers, totally original and courageous. No wonder they got on so well, even though they were so very different. A man of great integrity and mental strength. Now, perhaps, he'll meet up with Varèse : the two of them both pioneers. Varèse was not the kind of person who tolerated mediocrity, in himself or in anyone else.  He was also the kind of teacher who expected those he worked with to find their own way, like he had to do himself.  Like Varèse, Chou left his homeland for a new world, and Chou, even more so than Varèse was a man with deeply rooted cultural foundations, who bridged boundaries all through his life.  He was a great composer in his own right, but also more than a composer in the sense that everything he did expressed the wholeness of human creativity and experience. Please watch the video below, made earlier this year, which explains things better than I possibly can.  Chou exemplified the Confucian idea of 文人, a person who understands the concept that culture and learning have a role to play in the betterment of society. (look at the characters in his name - Learning + Central). Culture in its widest sense makes for a healthy society : no-one can suddenly disclaim their heritage without paying a price. (Please see my piece The World Belongs to Society)  So below, the video by Spiralis Music Trust - essential listening on so many levels !

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Hans Zender is dead

Hans Zender with Michael Gielen and Sylvain Cambreling

Hans Zender died this week, aged 82. In the photo above he's with Michael Gielen (middle) and. Sylvain Cambreling (right).  Zender conducted, but was even better known as a composer.  I met Zender in 1994 at the Royal Festival Hall, after the UK premiere of his Schuberts Winterreise with Ensemble Modern.  At that time, I didn't understand the piece.  By no means was it an orchestration of Schubert. It's a through-composed work, a meditaion on the original by a thoughtful modern composer. Over the years, Zender's Schuberts Winterreise has grown in stature and has been performed numerous times, by many great singers and orchestras.It lends itself to staging, too, since both Schubert's Winterreise and Zender's Schuberts Winterreise are so graphic, and lend themselves naturally to visual image. Zender wrote several operas. Please click on the label below "Zender, Hans" to read about several notable performances.  Zender's Schuberts Winterreise has become a modern classic, respected for its originality.  Proof that good things do get the respect that they deserve. Over the years, appreciation has deepened. My go-to recording now is Julian Prégardien and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie conducted by Robert Reimerain, which works so well because it emphasizes Zender's often quirky but individual perspective.  Please read my detailed review HERE

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

David Sawer Rumpelstiltskin, April\March - Martyn Brabbins, BCMG, NMC

From NMC specialists in modern British music, David Sawer Rumpelstitlskin, with Martyn Brabbins conducting the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the team who premiered the ballet in 2010 and also the Rumpelstiltkin Suite (2011) featured here, recorded at a performance at the Wigmore Hall in 2013.  Rumpelstiltskin was one of the BCMG's most successful commissions : this commercial release has long been awaited.

Rumpelstiltskin is a fairy tale so grim even Disney stays clear. A bankrupt miller fools bailiffs, claiming that his daughter can spin straw into gold.  Up pops an ugly dwarf, who staves off the crisis, but keeps the girl prisoner. Though the miller was lying about the girl's ability to spin gold from straw, the Dwarf makes the scam come true.  The King is fooled and makes the girl his queen. When the dwarf returns to collect his payoff, the the girl steals the secret of the spell and gets rid of him by revealing his name. He shatters into many pieces. The girl's as dishonest as her father was. She thinks she's entitled to riches she didn't earn, and destroys the outsider to whom she owed her good fortune. What kind of moral does this tell? Sawer's take on the tale is uncompromising : it's a parable for modern times.

The fully staged original (Stewart Laing) presented the tale with stark stylization, the set a box-like structure which emphasized the claustrophia : scams are being woven, caught up in their own mad logic. Even then, though, music was integral to the narrative.  Members of the BCMG moved on stage in and out of the set, the action standing still at critical points to highlight solo players. Effectively, instruments as singers, telling the story without words. The idea of weaving and stalking flowed from the structure of the score. One ensemble with muffled tuba, trumpet, horn, clarinets, oboe, flute, bassoon, bass - dark, ominous - represented one force. The other, smaller ensemble led by harp, with violin, viola, cello represented something more fragile. At first, the girl, but later the Dwarf, destroyed when she loses her innocence. Both groups merge and change like a puzzle "spun" from sound on different levels. Interpretively, this expresses the changing alliances in the plot, the good becoming evil, the strong becoming weak.

Sawer's Rumpelstilstkin Suite concentrates the intensity still further. In the first movement, "The Idle Boast", tuba and bassoon suggest the miller's bombast, and probably also the Dwarf's pride. Trumpets call out, "naming" the miller with sounds of alarm, much as the girl eventually names the Dwarf. As the spell takes hold, the harp, winds and strings, evoke the sound of busy spinning - percussive strikes imitating the shuttle of the spinning wheel flying frantically back and forth. Gradually, the pile of gold rises higher and higher til perhaps we can't see the girl anymore behind the wall of booming orchestral sound. Trumpets announce "The Wedding and Coronation" but what are the baleful sounds of bassoon and clarinet telling us ? The procession goes on its merry way, figures repeating as if in perpetual motion. Bassoon and tuba dance along : as long as surfaces shine, no-one questions. All must be gold.  "The Guessing Game" is brief but tense, strings duelling brass and winds. In the "The Dwarf Alone", the mood is darker : the harp at its lowest register, the brass and winds pacing tense patterns, as if the Dwarf was stomping his feet.  The trumpet blows raspberries, cruelly mocking the Dwarf's dilemma. Rumpelstiltskin does his last dance, clumsy, grotesques, with strident  interjections from the brass, long, high pitched screams and turbulent circular lines suggesting upheaval. The sharp percussive sounds which once suggested the shuttle of the spinning wheel return.  The Dwarf dies but the girls keeps spinning her scam.

Cat's-eye (1986) is an early work, but already Sawer's distinctive feel for dramatic dialectic is apparent. Instruments operate in pairs and in larger groups, with piano and harp at the centre, interacting with nervous, jerky frisson, in constantly changing patterns, each of the seven sections developing what went before. Sustained chords contrast with staccato, moments of near-silence with explosive outburst. Like the sense of perpetual motion in the Rumpelstiltskin Suite, Cat's-Eye generates and regenerates itself with inventive energy.

With April\March (2106), Sawer adapts concepts of time and time reversal, to create an intricate puzzle.  Note the backslash in the title ! Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges's short story A survey of the Works of Herbert Quain,  Sawer experiments with ideas of symmetry, rules subverted and reformulated, sequences moving backwards as well as forward. A melody is heard as if from a distant past, but its lines blur, as if it were being heard back to front.  "Time", writes Steph Power for NMC, "is key to Sawer's music on many levels. It's the precision of his timing, allied with an instinct for structural proportaion and elegance that enables him to explore oppositional tensions with such verve. Boldness and clarity of texture, surprise, economy of ecxpression and an ear for the catchily skew-whiff combine in ways that see-saw between equilibrium and dis-equilbrium, while always remaining cogent  and direct".  Though this music is accessible to listen to, it isn't easy to play.  Martyn Brabbins and The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group perform it with the precision and idiomatic panache it deserves.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Remembering Márta Kurtág - a true artist and human being

Márta Kurtág has died.  Her relationship with György Kurtág was very much a partnership of creative equals. They were together for 73 years, working, playing and inspiring each other. Shockingly, wikipedia leaves her out of his entry !  She was a great pianist in her own right. Fortunately, we were privileged to experience  them together many times : the symbiosis between them was so strong, it was palpable. In recitals, they often played together, picking up on each other so closely it was as if they were two parts of the same whole. That chemistry seemed to impart to those around them, too. Many of their students became very close personal friends and colleeagues. What a warm, sympathetic person Márta was ! Her spirit will live on.
Hearing them play together their performance embodied a lot about the Kurtág ethos of understatement. They would sit before a humble upright piano, just as if they were at home. No grandstanding. Backs to the audience, expressing the essence of music, drawing the listener into that private inner circle, like part of the family.  Sometimes their arms would cross diagonally so each would be playing at the opposite end of the keyboard. The world has lost someone who understood what it is to be a true artist, and human.