Sunday, 18 March 2018

Ollie's back ! Knussen Busoni Brahms

Oliver Knussen, Jukka Harju, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Knussen is back, and in excellent form, conducting the Finnish Radio Sympohony Orchestra in Helsinki in  a programme typical of Ollie's quirky flair. Ferrucio Busoni's Rondo Arlecchinesco (1915), and Nocturne Symphonique with Knussen's   Concerto for Horn and Orchestra (1994/5) and Brahms Symphony no 2   A typical Knussen programme, devised with wit and musical nous.  

Ferrucio Busoni fit any neat pigeonhole. Busoni believed that “music was born free and to win freedom is its destiny”, and that it was just in its infancy as an art form.  Busoni envisioned the opening out of horizons. Just as the world chnages, culture cannot stand still, and music changes with it.   Although his own music isn't wildly radical, he paved the way ahead for others. His theories about music and culture may prove to be his legacy.  No less than Edgar Varėse called him “a figure out of the Renaissance”, who “crystallised my half formed ideas, stimulated my imagination, and determined, I believe, the future development of my music”.

Busoni and Knussen have much in common. Indeed, understanding Knussen's life long interest in Busoni explains a lot about what makes Ollie tick.  Busoni's Rondo Arlecchinesco is based on his opera Arlecchino.  Arlecchino, or Harlequin is one of the standard Commedia dell'arte figures, the archetype of traditional Italian theatre.  He's a servant, but not servile, so is depicted as a clown who subverts the pretensions of his masters.  Leporello before his time ! Busoni places Arlecchino centre stage, the four parts of the opera depicting different aspects of Arlecchino's persona.   Quicksilver figures inytroduce the Rondo, soon developing into fanfare, from which brooding, surging figures emerge.  Knussen brings out the cheeky inventiveness in these figures, so when the staccato march resumes, complete with militaristc horns, the figures seem to fly, irreppressibly away from the constraints of control freakery which militarism represents. The bassoons and lower brass blow raspberries at the horns : disorceder poking fun at order. A voice sings "Lalalalala!", Harlequin's defiant song of freedom. Though the brushes may beat on the drums, our anti-hero cannot be suppressed.  Significantly, Arlecchino was written just before the 1914-1918 war and premiered during hostilities. Knussen's a Harlequin, too, in his own inimitable way. Who else could have written operas like Where the Wild Things are and Higgelty-Piggelty Pop !, which are by no means children's operas though they're based on Maurice Sendak.  Please read my analysis of these operas HERE (Faith in Food) and HERE.

The fluency with which Knussen conducted Busoni's Nocturne Symphonique demonstrated a mature understanding of the darker mysteries of Busoni's idiom.   Not for nothing that this preceded Knussen's own Horn Concerto, op 73, 1994/5, soloist Jukka Harju) which he has said "assumed more and more character of a Nachtmusik (in a Mahlerian sense)" as he worked on it.  Short bursts of sound pop up, bright and alert. The horn enters, long calls weaving and moving , the orchestra commenting in brief explosive outbursts.  Bright light winds and brass sparkle around the deeper timbre of the horn as the music enters anew and almost sinister phase, bassooons and counter bassoons rumbling menace.  The horn line rises, as if searching direction by reaching into the space around it.  Near mayhem builds up around it, but the horn persists, despite ominous crashes of timpani. The horn continues reaching out, at first alone, then led on by muted horns and trumpets.  The horn calls, met by crashing cymbals - the clash of metal against metal - but the horn has the advantage since it breathes "alive" as it's being played by human breath.  Over the last 25 years, Knussen's Horn Concerto has been done so many times, it's almost standard repertoire, and for good reason.

As a teenager, Knussen looked like Claude Debussy's secret twin. Now he's in his 60's, he resembles Johannes Brahms.  But that's not why he ended the Helsinki concert with Brahms Symphony no 2  .  Musically, it connects with Busoni's Nocturne Symphoniue and with Knussen's Horn Concerto and links them all to much more ancient sources that might lie in European folk traditions, where dense forests are metaphors for the psyche, and fairy tales a language for coping with mysterious forces.  "Aha !" I thought, "the spirit of Maurice Sendak ! "  At moments I thought I could hear echoes of Brahms Lullaby, which is perfectly pertinent.  Knussen's Brahms is sometimes unorthodox, but this time he was coducting to the manner born, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra playing with emotional depth.  

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Christa Ludwig Champagne Birthday

Christa Ludwig  © Christian Brandstätter Verlag, Wien (Fayer, Wien).
Happy Birthday, Christa Ludwig ! Always perky, even at 90.  Let's party ! Bring out the champagne !  Above, when she was singing Dorabella. Below, her earliest recording, made in 1950, from Der Fledermaus, when she was singing Prince Orlovsky.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Pubs and the British choral tradition - The Gluepot Connection

"That bloody Gluepot" railed Sir Henry Wood, annoyed by musicians who were late for work because they tarried too long at The George, on the corner of Great Portland Street, adjacent to the old Queen's Hall and near the BBC in Langham Place. The George attracted a close-knit crowd of composers, musicians, poets, artists and writers. It's still around, and thriving, though the clientele has changed, so it's fitting that its past should be remembered in this new recording The Gluepot Connection from SOMM Recordings.  The CD features music from John Ireland, Alan Rawsthorne, Peter Warlock, Atrnold Bax, Alan Bush, Elizabeth Lutyens, William Walton and E J Moeran, a few of the many who once thronged therein.  Andrew Griffiths conducts the a capella Londinium Chamber Choir.

The Full Heart is Peter Warlock's earliest choral work, dedicated to the memory of Carlo Gesualdo, an interesting choice of role model for the young Peter Heseltine who was but 21 when he sketched the piece.  The Gesualdo connection probably relates more to musical form, for the piece  employs finely parted chromatics, creating a rapturous work that seems to span centuries.  "O, my companions, Wind, Waters, Stars and Night". The text is by Robert Nicholls, invalided from the Somme, and later a socialite whose friends included Aldous Huxley.  Heseltine heard Frederick Delius's On Craig Ddu (1907) while still a student at Eton, and went on to champion the older composer.  The two pieces complement each other, though Warlock is more stylish.  Beautifully balanced singing from the Londinium Chamber Choir keeps texture clear and clean.  Warlock's The Full Heart is a stand out, on its own worth the price of the CD.

Warlock and Moeran were born in the same year, but had different backgrounds, Heseltine's influences more esoteric and international. He didn't like the John Ireland focus at the Royal College of Music and encouraged Moeran to develop further.  On this recording we hear Moeran's six Songs of Springtime (c. 1931) to poems by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  Warlock amd Moeran were close, and in this set Warlock's influence is clear : more polyphonic inventiveness built on Renaissance models, yet distinctively of its own time.  These Warlock and Moeran settings shine out out in comparison with the more conventional John Ireland songs, The Hills and Twilight Night. The Hills, written to mark the Coronation in 1953, to a poem by James Kirkup, is chastely hymnal, while Twilight Night

to a poem by Christina Rossetti, while Victorian, is rather more potent. Two people meet clapsed "as close as oak and ivy stand". They may never again meet "in the accustomed way" but that secret encounter is not erased.  Ireland's setting is straightforward, but the meaning of the text could hardly have been lost on the younger moderns, like Warlock and Moeran, in the more liberated 1920's.

Andrew Griffiths' erudite booklet notes give extensive detail on other habitués of the "gluepot", with so many cross-references that one could probably draw up a flowchart.  He quotes Michael Tippett on the "anti-Britten" clique at the George, ".... a cabal of composers who were trying to debunk Ben (Britten) or undermine his reputation.....they all had great chips on their shoulders and enetrtained absurd fantasies about a homosexual conspiracy in music led by Britten and Pears".  Bigots will always find excuses, hence the homophobia, but the real threat Britten posed was not his sexuality but the fact that his music didn't conform to the assumptions of what "British music" should be.  Frank Bridge opened his horizons to Europe, and WH Auden and Colin MacPhee to the world.  Britten was original, and successful, which created resentment.  Britten won the commission for the Coronation of 1953 with Gloriana, in which Queen Elizabeth I sees through sycophancy and status games. This didn't go down well with some, and for some Britten is still too "modern", though his influence has nurtured whole new generations of British composers and musicians.  Britten didn't do the Gluepot, but he is relevant in context.  He, too, drew inspiration from polyphony and Early Music, as any study of Gloriana will demonstrate.

The Gluepot "cabal" Tippett mentioned centred around Constance Lambert, his wife Isabel Nicholas, who later married Alan Rawsthorne, William Walton, and Elizabeth Lutyens and Alan Bush   Most of these are represented in this collection, apart from Lambert who didn't write a capella choral work.   Rawsthorne's Four Seasonal Songs (1956). The title is slightly misleading, since three of the songs refer to Spring. More multipart harmonics applied to 16th century texts !  In Lutyens' Verses of Love (1970) to a text by Ben Jonson, long lines elide, sounds shimmering.  Walton's Where does the Uttered Music Go ? (1946) was written for the dedication of the memorial window of Sir Henry Wood in the Musicians Chapel in St Sepulchre's where Wood, as a boy, learned to play the organ.  This disc also includes the premiere recordings of Alan Bush's Like Rivers Flowing (1957) with sinuous lines, and Lidice (1947) commemorating the massacre in Lidice by the Nazis.  The mood is hushed, the lines swirling : a secular Requiem. 

Another Gluepot regular was Arnold Bax. His I sing of a maiden (1923)  has charm, but is eclipsed by his Mater ora filium (1921) a substantial (11 minute) masterpiece based on William Byrd's five-part Mass, beefed up for as many as 16 parts, embellished by what Griffiths calls "prodigious extremes of range" (cloaked in) "luscious, late Romantic harmony in myriad different textures". The voices of the Londinium Chamber Choir rise to the task, their voices glowing "Amen, Amen". It's as if a stained glass window were bursting into song !

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Calypso sends up Sinatra

Mighty Sparrow (photo Jeff Buxbaum)
Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco) satirizes Frank Sinatra. 

Monday, 12 March 2018

John Eliot Gardiner LSO Schumann Berlioz

John Eliot Gardiner, photo Sim Canetty-Clarke

The start of a major Schumann series with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican: Schumann Symphony no 2 in C major op 61 (1847) and the Overture to Genoveva with Berlioz Les nuits d'été, soloist Ann Hallenberg. Gardiner is one of the great Schumann conductors of our time, so the LSO are right on the mark, choosing him to head their Schumann series, which began with this concert, continues on 15th March and into 2019.  A major series, whose importance cannot be overestimated.  Perhaps we can hear Schumann all the time, but rarely at this level of excellence.

Gardiner's  approach to Schumann is inspired by a deep understanding of the composer's aesthetic.  It's a mistake to assume that period-informed performance means period instruments  It has much more to do with understanding the composer's idiom and practices which might enhance performance dynamics. The LSO doesn't use period instruments, but achieves werktreue effects by other means.  The players didn't sit down to play but instead stood up throughout.  Immediately, you could hear  the difference.  You'd need cloth ears not to notice, even if you didn't know "why". Because the players were closer together, the sound was more concentrated, achieving volume without having to force the instruments, the sound projected from a few feet higher than usual,  intensifying the interaction between players and podium. Chamber-like sensititivty, in a large (ish) ensemble. The musicians could move freely, flexing their bodies naturally, without the rigidity that comes from sitting down. This flexibility flowed through to the music, which felt direct and spontaneous, textures bright and clearly defined.  Gardiner's Schumann is agile and alive, revealing the composer's true originality.

Gardiner preceeded Schumann's Symphony no 2 with the Overture to his opera Genoveva, which he began at around the same time as he wrote the symphony. The connections go deeper.  The original folk tale on which Genoveva is based dates back to the Middle Ages. Indeed it’s the basis of stories like Snow White, for in legend, Genoveva lived in the forest, protected by animals and by her virtue. Significantly, though, Schumann rejected the medieval concept, choosing instead to base his opera on Friedrich Hebbel’s more psychological drama, published only four years previously. Schumann wanted a “modern” take on the story. As Hebbel said “Any drama will come alive only to the extent that it expresses the spirit of the age which brings it forth”. The Overture sets the stage, introducing the themes that will be developed more fully in the opera. It's marvellous, but listen to how it zooms into a chorale, and then into the opera proper, rather like successive proscenia in a theatre add depth to a flat stage. Schumann's doing dramatic perspective with music.

Schumann's Symphony no 2 begins with another brass chorale, which  here came over without stridency, the "brassiness" muted and dignified, integrating well with the bassoons, winds and strings. How poignant the horns and winds sounded, evoking Nature, hinting at the deep sources of the Romantic imagination.  Moving from sostenuto to allegro, Schumann then creates a wild scherzo where notes seem to fly in fiendishly complex patterns, though the themes are sharply defined.  Schumann 2 is unusual, because it mixes serene passages with oddball quirks. The last movement is sublime, but it's undercut by the moody bassoon from the Adagio, which Schumann told a friend was when he heard his "half sickness" calling him. Yet he had a "special fondness"  for this strange melancholy , which infused even the happiest moments of his life. Who but Schumann could have written Dichterliebe as a wedding gift after having struggled so long to win Clara from her father?

Throughout this symphony there are oblique references to Bach and especially to Mendelssohn whose Midsummer Night's Dream music casts a magical glow on the Adagio.  The assertive, affirmative confidence of the final movement seemed to come straight from the spirit of Beethoven. 
Genoveva and Lohengrin both premiered in the summer of 1850. Wagner disparaged Schumann, as he disparaged Mendelssohn (Schumann’s hero). Since Wagner’s opinions were influential, Genoveva has been eclipsed, and most late Schuman undervalued because it doesn't fit the Wagner ethos  But  Schumann’s ideas on music and music drana stem from sources earlier than Wagner, and might have developed an alternative path had he continued writing after the age of 45.

Between Schumann's Overture to Genoveva and his Symphony no 2,  Berlioz Les nuits d'été op 7 (1841). Gardiner is also a great Berlioz conductor : remember his Damnation of Faust last year ? (read my piece here).  The immediacy of Gardiner's style adds punch to  the song cycle, enhancing dramatic tension.  Ann Hallenberg was a good soloist, not especially French, but in the context of a Schumann series, that's perfectly apt. 

This concert was also broadcast live, part of the LSO live initiative. This itself is news, since it enables the LSO to reach international audiences online who might not otherwise be able to attend concerts, even when the LSO goes on tour.  This particular concert seems to attracted less than the number who logged in for Bychkov's Mahler symphony no 2, but that's fair enough. Mahler is box office, while Schumann and particularly up-market Schumann is more esoteric. It will be interesting to see what the next live stream draws on April 11th (Mahler 10, Simon Rattle, Michael Tippett The Rose Garden)  The economics of livestream are hard to measure.  This concert reached about as many as would be seated in the Barbican, but will continue to attract viewers on Youtube for a longer period. The knock-on effect should also be felt in CD/DVD sales. Long term, streaming enhances the profile of the orchestra, and reaches a wider public.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

"New" Schubert Schwanengesang - Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Schubert Schwanengesang, D957 (1828) with Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall, London. Schwanengesang isn't Schubert's Swan Song any more than it is a cycle like Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise.  The title was given it by his publishers Haslingers, after his death, combining settings of two very differet poets, Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine.  Wigmore Hall audiences have heard lots of good Schwanengesangs, including Boesch and Martineau performances in the past, but this was something special.

Since Schwanengesang is not a song cycle, there's no reason why song order can't be altered.  Boesch and Martineau began with Liebesbotschaft, following it with Frühlingssensucht and Ständchen, forming a bouquet, where the songs complemented each other. This meant that Boesch could focuss on emotional finesse.  We're so used to good baritone performances that it's easy to underestimate the delicacy in these songs, but Boesch, despite the firmness in his timbre, achieves an almost tenor-like freshness, which is very moving. Martineau's opening notes in Ständchen floated gracefully : you could imagine the plucking of lute strings on a warm summer evening.  Boesch has an uncanny ability to sound much younger than he is, without sacrificing the poise that comes with maturity, but what was most impressive here was the way he conveyed the innate intimacy in the songs. The words were shaded as if they were spontaneous, private exchanges. Nothing "troubadour" here. Real lovers, real feelings.

Then in flew Abschied. A farewell so early in the journey? The vigorous figures in the piano part suggest speed and forward thrust. But a clue is hidden in the last strophe.  Not all the stars in heaven can replace "Der Fensterlein trübes, verschimmerndes Licht".  Boesch shaped the phrase deliberately. Beneath the blustery surface, we glimpse once again the intimacy we heard in the first three songs, and feel the loss more strongly. When Boesch sang the first line of In der ferne, "Wehe, den Fliehenden, Welt hinaus ziehenden", my blood ran cold. Suddenly it hit me why that line spans two rhyming phrases. The two songs Abschied and In der Ferne form a pair, one pretending denial, the other unmasked grief.  Thus the logic of grouping them with the turmoil of Aufenthalt and with Kreigers Ahnung, which in the Haslinger edition comes as the second song and here forms the end of the Rellstab settings. In Kreigers Ahnung, the poet is on a battlefield.  He's afraid, his heart heavy with foreboding. And what thought gives him comfort ? "Herzliebe - gute Nacht!", sang Boesch, his voice ringing first with tenderness, then with a kind of haunted resignation, the song quietly fades, and the poet falls asleep. 

Boesch and Martineau's re-ordering of the Rellstab songs makes sense, musically and in terms of meaning, bringing out depths in the material which can be overlooked in comparison with the more sophisticated Heine songs. No-one knows what Schubert might have done, had he lived longer.  How much more of Heine would he have set ? And would more Heine have developed him as a composer, in the way that Schumann was shaped by Heine ?  Boesch and Martineau paired Das Fischermädchen with Am Meer, but the connections are deeper than images of the sea, which in any case is a metaphor for emotion, which the Fischermädchen is right to fear.  The lilting lyricism of the first song gives way to the more disturbing  undercurrents of "Der Nebel stieg, das Wasser schwoll" in Am Meer.  Boesch's voice rose for a moment before receding backwards, like the ebb and flow of a tide.  The two pairs of strophes mirror one another.  Am Meer thus flowed into Ihr Bild, with its dark piano chords and penitential pace. Ihr Bild flowed into Die Stadt.   In both texts, the imagery is almost supernatural. In Die Stadt the piano line is almost impressionistic, a painting in sound.  Only in the last verse does the mood lift, "leuchtend vom Boden empor", Boesch's voice is suddenly defiant, but the mists descend again. 

Thus we were prepared for the final pairing, Der Doppelgänger and Der Atlas, first and last in the Haslinger Heine set and here heard in reverse order.  The pattern of sombre pace and short-lived protest that has gone before returns in Der Doppelgänger but hearing Der Atlas last restores the balance in favour of protest.  Martineau defined the piano part so it felt monumental, and Boesch's singing took on majesty.  Like the Doppelgänger, Atlas has lost what made him happy, and is doomed to suffer for eternity. He is cursed, but he is strong and will not crumble.   Boesch and Martineau's song order has musical and textual insight, and deserves great respect.  This is a refreshing new way of listening to a group of songs that otherwise can sometimes, in less capable performances, seem uneven.   Seeing microphones in the auditorium suggests that a recording will be in the offing, and well worth getting even if you already have rows of Schwanengesangs, or even  the previous recording Boesch and Martineau made for Onyx a few years back.  This unique performance is in an altogether different  league than most.

In the intermission before the Rellstab and Heine songs Boesch and Martineau did Grenzen von Menschheit D 716, Meeres Stille D 216 and Der Fischer D225 - which also form a mini-cyle of their own amd fit in very well with the songs that make up Schwanengesang.  At the very end, though, Boesch and Martineau found a way to incorporate Die Taubenpost, D 965 A, Schubert's setting of a poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl, which the publishers Haslinger added to Schwangesang but which has little connection, otherwise.  Boesch's face lit up in a broad grin, and he danced a cheerful shimmy before he started to sing, banishing the ghosts of loss and despair.  Yet again this made musical sense, since like Abschied, the carefree mood in Der Taubenpost belies its message : the dove's name is Sehnsucht, but, being a bird, it doesn't know what that means.   

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Melon Soup, served in a carved melon

Not my pic, but too good not to share.  Soup made of winter melon, mushroom and herbs, served in a carved, hollowed out melon, base made out of melon too. 

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Janáček From the House of the Dead, ROH and memories of Chéreau

Scene from From the House of the Dead, Patrice Chéreau 2007
Leoš Janáček From the House of the Dead at  the Royal Opera House, London, last night, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth in a new production by Krzysztof Warlikowski.  Of course, some in the audience had to do their ritual booing. What did they expect?   Cuddly animals dressed as people? "Respect the Composer" is the mantra of the booing mob. It's probably too much to expect from them even a basic knowledge of this opera, but the least they could do is listen to the music.   Like an infernal machine, the repetitive rhythms hammer and pound until their pulse threatens to overcome your own.  A metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of a world where men (and women) are destroyed for no reason than the maintenance of order for the sake of order.  Respect the composer and his music, don't expect prettified feelgood.

Mark Wigglesworth's conducting certainly played up the violence, and rightly so, since there's nothing cute about a society that needs gulags to keep people under control.  Luckily for me, I learned this opera audio-only, from the Vaclav Neumann recording, rather than from Mackerras, so I think of it in terms of the music first. The first time I experienced the opera live was when Perre Boulez conducted the production directed by Patrice Chéreau : a historic event in many ways, impossible to forget.  Boulez conducted with an unnerving intensity: red hot holds nothing back but ice-cold suggests invisible horrors too dangerous to contemplate. The tragedy of human suffering, so fundamental to Janáček's vision, grows ever more powerful in contrast.  From the House of the Dead is actually more humane than some assume. Janáček cared about people. As Chéreau pointed out, what really pervades the opera for him is its implicit humanity. Under the harshness and violence flows surprisingly strongly a sense of “compassion”, as he puts it, which runs like a hidden stream throughout the opera, surfacing at critical junctures. It is also totally non-judgemental. Neither murderers nor guards are held to account, they simply exist. Thus the famous phrase near the end, “he too was born of a mother”.

At a discussion session after the performance I heard in Amsterdam in 2007, someone in the audience (beware that type) asked Chéreau why he didn't costume the prisoners in orange, to protest Guantanamo Bay. Quick as a flash, Boulez said: "We are in Holland. In Holland, Orange is the Royal House". In a nutshell, the art of visual literacy : images mean different things.  Chéreau's prisoners could have been Everyman in their drab garb, in a set dystopian in its abstraction. The prisoners engaged in pointless, repetitive work (building a ship in landlocked Siberia) but it doesn't overwhelm the stage. Instead there's an explosion when the bags of waste paper the men have been collecting blow up and scatter all over the stage: Substance now, waste no longer.  This explosion coincided with a dramatic climax in the music.  In a single striking image, the message is that men who have been thrown away by society are not detritus, whether they can fight back or not.

"Coherence", said Chéreau that eveing so long ago, "between ideas, music and drama, is the basis of interpretation".  Stagecraft is not decoration : it is Gesamtkunstwerk, the drawing-together of different elements into a whole.  Audiences often go for shallow productions because they are bright and jokey, but that isn't necessarily "what the composer intended".  Warlikowski's production has a bit of everything.  His thing for vivid jewel colours against black and white usually works extremely well, though less so in this case.  Maybe ROH chose him to please the punters, so they can tell the difference between prisoners, guards and visitors (which, arguably, should be minimal, just as there often isn't much difference in real life).  Huge structures dominate, which is a good thing as they suggest overwhelming forces  intimidating small figures. It's a rather well-organized prison, probably not too remote, since there are a lot of outsiders here, including blow-up dolls. Presumably these suggest how society dehumanizes women, treating them as objects, which is perfectly valid and connects to the central idea that the men in this prison are "in the house of the dead".  ROH wouldn't have dared show real women getting kicked about, and in any case no-one "should" need the details.  London punters go berserk over two seconds of tit, glimpsed for a moment in an entirely appropriate context, so they can't be expected to understand that their own sensibilities are not more important than being moved by the suffering of others. The Prostitute (Alison Cook) as symbol, in bright-green hot pants cavorting chastely with the boys.  (Or not so chastely, given that she looks 14.) Nothing wrong with that image per se since prostitutes are the "prisoners" of a messed-up world.   Chéreau had the Eagle shot, but for a moment we glimpsed its glory. Maybe I missed Warlikowski's Eagle, but perhaps The Prostitute serves a similar function: she gets out alive.

Big names for the parts where older voices work well like Willard W White as Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov, Graham Clark as Antonic the Elderly Prisoner.  Stefan Margita sang Luka Kuzmič, as he did in the 2007 run as did Peter Hoare, singing Šapkin.  Pascal Charbonneau sang an impressive Aljeja. Ladislav Elgr sang Skuratov and Johan Reuter sang Šiškov. Alexander Vassiliev sang The Governor. As always, House regulars like Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, Grant Doyle and the always-superb Royal Opera House Chorus were good and reliable.  Nice dancers, too, writhing and twisting their (very attractive) bodies, expressing what is suggested in the music but which ROH probably needs to censor for fear of punter wrath.  This production is not the best, but by no means is it the worst.  But there is not a lot you can do with London audiences who can't be bothered to find out about a composer or an opera beforehand and insist on kitsch and circus. Inevitably that means compromise, which is not good for art.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Muhai Tang Shanghai Chinese Orchestra, Philharmonie de Paris

Muhai Tang and the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra have been touring Europe in a series coinciding with the Chinese Lunar New Year. Their concert at the Philharmonie de Paris is now online on the Philhamonie site.  This is serious Chinese classical music, extremely well done, light years ahead of the sort of kitsch you get on TV and in some movies. Chinese opera dates back some 700 years, pre-dating western opera. Traditionally Chinese music was chamber music for private self-cultivation or folk/popular music for entertainment.  Even opera orchestras were relatively modest, the emphasis on poetry, acting and singing.  Large-scale Chinese instrument orchestras are relatively new, going back around 100 years. But consider that western orchestral tradition didn't come into its own until the late 18th century, and the extreme cultural differences that had to be overcome, it's quite some achievement how distinctive Chinese classical orchestras can be.  All the pieces on this programme are modern works, adapting traditional themes and instruments, effectively creating an original new genre. Muhai Tang, like many of his players, is well versed in western music as well as in Chinese, which adds extra richness to performance.  So listen to this concert, and watch it, too, because the filming is musically well informed, with close up focus on playing techniques you'd never see so clearly in concert hall conditions.   You can focus on tiny, delicate sounds, like a single string reverbrating in near silence, and see instruments like the Chinese piccolo, triangle and snakeskin drums.

Appropriately, the programme began with Harmony, by Wang Yun Fei, featuring three Sheng players, followed by Wang's even more impressive Black Bamboo for long bamboo flute, pipa and erhu. The large flute has depth and volume, suggesting the gravity of bamboo trunks,  whose wood is so strong that it can be used to build ships and houses. The lightness of the pipa and erhu suggeest movement and flexibility, even a sense of gentle swaying movement, familiar to anyone who's ever seen bamboos bending in the breeze.  More imagery in Spirit of Chinese Calligraphy  (Luo Xiaoci, orchestrated by Xie Peng), with zheng soloist Lu Shasha. A small bamboo flute calls, introducing the zheng, this one with magnificent depth and vigour.   In the west, the term "calligraphy" means ornamental writing, but in Chinese culture calligraphy is an artistic form of expression. Brush strokes "speak": swift, sure figures moving rapidly across paper after a period of contemplation. Lu's playing is graceful and forceful, contrasted with the call of a small banboo flute.  My friend's mother's calligraphy was firm and independent, resembling kapok trees, whose strong lines and angles are majestic, and whose fleshy red flowers spring from bare branches. Spirit of Chinese Calligraphy is abstract, but you can hear the individuality and decisiveness in the flow.

During the Qin dynastic period (221-206 BC), a concubine sacrificed herself to give courage to her Emperor in wartime. This story of love and duty is so powerful that it's inspired literature and opera. Here we heard an adaptation for modern Chinese orchestra which captures the drama.  Its ferocity suggests the saga of non-stop warfare from which the first dynasty in recorded Chinese history emerged, and its majesty suggests the splendour of the imperial court and the love affair that led to tragedy.  Three main figures form the core : pipa, jinghu and large Chinese drum.  Around them the tumult of full orchestra, complemented by westen woodwinds, celli and basses.  The pipa often resembles the sound of a human voice, so its cry is plaintive against the turbulence.   More esoteric, Caterpillar Fungus (Fang Dongqing) arranged for an ensemble of mixed plucked strings including pipas, different types of zheng and qin (large moon shape bodied lutes). Percussive effects are made by beating hands on wood.  The fungus grows on caterpillars and kills its host, though it has curative powers for humans.  Part worm, insect and plant, it is mysterious. Thus the music is hybrid, with a character that could be adapted for western strings.

The Butterfly Lovers Concerto, based on one of the most famous legends in Chinese literature, was written in 1959 by He Zanghou and Chen Gang. Here we heard an adaptation for erhu with soloist Ma Xiao hu, which I think makes it sound more natural than the better known version for western violin.  The erhu duets with the western cello, the "lovers" who cannot meet until released from mortal life. The zheng suggest airborne flight, the Chinese flute the idea of birdsong.  Dancing Phoenix (Huang Lei) features the suona a high pitched horn. Soloist Hu Chenyun calls out, from behind the orchestra, duetting with a small mouth organ : song bird and strident phoenix in a forest of strings, winds and drums, until the souna takes off with a long protracted call, the orchestra strutting in its wake. Imagine if Messiaen had heard this !

Three "Landscapes",  The Silk Road (Jian Jiping), Moonlit Lughou Bridge Before Dawn (Zhoiu Ziping)  and Wedding Celebration from Tan Dun's Northwest Suite, the first and last spiced up with regional colour, such as the evocation of Muslim music,  are eclipsed by the middlepiece  where shifting textures and tempi create a sophisticated tone poem.  Long serene lines mark the beginning, flowing string figures suggesting the movement of water and a thousand years of traders approaching Beijing.  Drums and cymbals announce a wilder, freer section whose zig zag lines could suggest the sounds of Beijing opera.  The theme then develops into a majestic swaying  crescendo broken by plaintive solo erhu, played by the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra Leader. Then suddenly it breaks off, in silence. (The attack on the Lughou Bridge marked the start of the 1931-45 invasion when tens of millions were killed and made refugees. )

Liu Changyuan's Lyrical Variation for the orchestra is even more sophisticated : a deep throated flute sings a long melody agaisnt a backdrop of quietly brushed percussion.  The western double basses play  distinctively "Chinese" sounds which merge seamlessly into the Chinese strings.  A very strong sense of structure, percussive blocks alternating with keening legato (Chinese brass and winds).   Erhus, being small, can play dizzying fast tempi. Members of the orchestra shout echoing the drums. Near-cacophony, from which another strong, swaying rhythmic line emerges   Kong Zhixuan's Flying Bees displays the virtuosity of Chinese instrument technique :  Rimsky-Korsakov's The Flight of the Bumblebee at manic speeds, changing direction and volume non-stop.  What might seem mad frenzy is in fact very carefully paced precision. Ding Long's erhu leads the orchestra : sheng, ruan, qin and a single small muffled drum join in.  Almostjam session   syncopation, played with the ease that comes from true mastery.After that dynamism, a return to more "traditional" chamber music arranged for large orchestra, in Huang Yijun's Blooming Flowers and Full Moon.  Muhai Tang gets the Paris audience to beat time : the rhythmic pulse of Chinese music is never far away. Western composers would do well to study Asian music, which offers its own aesthetic, with a structure based on rhythm and intervals, and a surprising amount of inventiveness.  Oddly enough, Tang often looks like Beethoven, if you can imagine Beethoven beaming and benevolent.   (Please see my piece on Debussy and the influence of gamelan at the Philharmonie recently, and my other pieces on Chinese music, film, culture and history, following the labels below).

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Whipping up pogroms

Elsker Hverasndre (The stigmatized, or Love one Another), a silent movie about pogroms in Russia, made in Germany in 1922, by Danish director Carl Th Dreyer with a mainly Russian cast, still frighteningly prescient 100 years later. Hanna-Liebe Segal grows up in the ghetto of a Russian town on the Dnieper.  For some reason her mother sends her to a Cristian school, which is odd since her older brother Jakov was cursed by their father for converting after he moved to St Petersburg and got "Russianized". When Hanna grows up she falls for a student revolutionary, Sasha, so she, too, heads off for St Petersburg.  She lives with a Jewish family since her brother is  passing for Russian.   Jakov, a successful lawyer, recognizes secret police infiltrators among Hanna's friends, one of whom is Rylowitsch, who seems to hate everyone, Jewish, radical or Christian. After smashing the progressives, Rylowitsch poses as a mad monk, whipping up fear. "The Tsar is signing your land over to te Jews!"  You'd think that might be a logical reason for dumping the Tsar, but instead, the peasants kiss icons of the Tsar and kill Jews instead.  Then, as now, populist mobs are easily manipulated. Jakov goes back to the village when his mother dies and sees a ghost in a prayer shawl, walking through doors.  Though he's a Christian, sincere enough to wear a cross, the mob kills him, too.  The village goes up in flames, many are killed. Hanna's revolutionary boyfriend returns, and the pair head off for the Polish/German border.......  Everyone's screwed when mobs run loose. Could a film like this have been made in Russia at the time ? And will such things happen again, to different communities, in different times and places ?  Though the pace is slow and stylized, there are many good moments here. The ghetto scenes were filmed in a studio in Berlin, but based on real places in the ghetto in Lublin.  Brother-in-law "Red haired Abraham" operates a machine that rocks the cradle while he works across the room.  Mama Segal lays out her daughter's trousseau though Hanna has no intention of settliung down.  The scenes in St Petersburg are in some ways even more poignant because they aren't artificial sets but real furniture and furnishings, new at the time, antique now. The family Hanna lodges with owns a keyboard iunstrument with no apparent backboard, unless it's built into the wall. Above the keys is a depiction of a lyre which must stand 2 metres tall.  A world that's  gone. Or does history repeat ? Plenty of Rylowitschs around, though they don't pretend to be monks.  Please see my other posts on early film and on Carl Th Dreyer, using the label below, including his Der Vampyr and The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Mahler Wunderhorn-Lieder Volle, Mahler 10 Thielemann Munich

Latest release in the Münchner Philharmoniker initiative making its archives available on CD : Mahler Wunderhorn-Lieder and the Adagio from what would have been Mahler's Tenth Symphony, with Michael Volle, and Christian Thieilemann conducting.  Michael Volle is one of the finest singers in his Fach, and one of the stars of the Bayerisches Staatsoper. Since Volle hasn't recorded a great deal of Mahler, this is is a valuable addition to the discography.  His performance here is assured. His rich baritone is well-defined, and his delivery informed by an understanding of genre and context. 

On this recording, Volle is singing fully orchestrated versions of twelve songs. The original Des Knaben Wunderhorn texts published by Brentano and Arnim in 1806, were collected from oral tradition, and reflect an aesthetic even earlier than Lieder.  Late nineteenth century composers did not set out to replicate folk song, but Mahler's settings are informed by a perception of a pure world fast receding into the past.  With his Swabian background, and awareness of South German dialects, Volle expresses the charm of songs like Wer hat dies Liedlien erdacht  and Rheinlegendchen so they feel natural and unforced. "Büble, wir!", he sings, characterizing the couple in Verlorne Müh! with dignity : they may be rustic, but they deserve respect.  Lied des Verfolgten im Turm is, ironically, the only song in which Mahler borrows directly from folk melody, qouting the original in full, though following the textual changes Brentano and Arnim adopted to tone down its inherently rebellious anthem "Die Gedanken sind frei". Volle reinforces the message, biting his consonants so they cut, his timbre rising with impassioned power. 

But the finest moments on this recording come with songs like Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,  true through-composed art song, even more haunting with full orchestra.  Quiet knocking at the door awakes a woman from sleep. She sees her lover, and welcomes him in. A nightingale sings. But horns are heard, calling as if from far away.  Echoes from the battlefield, "die grüne Haide, die ist so weit!"  The woman, too, must die that the lovers can re-unite. In Der Tamboursg'sell, the percussion beats the ominous death march, the brass wailing behind. Volle's voice rings out defiantly "Gute Nacht!", but the soft beating of drums remind us that the drummer boy is no more. 

Here the song flows seamlessly into Urlicht, a thoughtful pairing, since in Mahler's Second Symphony, Urlicht marks the  transition from funeral march to the "resurrection" of the Finale.  Volle sings "O Röschen rot!" breathing into the words, adding depth.  But the violin marks another transit. "Ach, nein !" sings Volle, with urgency, The sould will not be turned away "Ich bin von Gott, und will wieder zu Gott!". A third transit, in which Volle's voice softens, illuminated by the light of "das ewig, selig Leben!".  

Thus we are well prepared for the Adagio of what would have been Mahler's Symphony no 10.  Hearing the Adagio on its own in this context is surprisingly effective : you don't miss the rest of the symphony as you might otherwise.  Gossamer textures float, enhanced by the entry of a deeper, more resonant theme. The horns break away, as if they're leading us further onwards. The alternating themes develop it into a complex shifting between polarities, circling each other, interweaving rather than firmly connecting.  This might, or might not be a reflection on Mahler's relationship with Alma, whose bname is written into the manuscript. But if the Adagio is a looking back on the past, that also connects it, in purely musical terms, to the duality in so many songs in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the richness drawn from the many vignettes within.  Perhaps Alma didn't want the symphony to be heard in full because she wanted to preserve the nostalgia of the Adagio, much in the way that the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony can be interpreted.  But what to make of that shattering cataclysm at the end ?  Another good reason for hearing the Adagio with Des Knaben Wunderhorn, where cheery songs mix with songs of abject horror.  Although Thielemann didn't do much Mahler with the Münchner Philharmoniker, what he did do is very perceptive.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Heinrich Heine dumps date by text

Au port de Venasque, Septembre 1899, Bagnères-de-Luchon, Haute-Garonne
Über die Berge steigt schon die Sonne, 
Die Lämmerheerde läutet von fern: 
Mein Liebchen, mein Lamm, meine Sonne und Wonne,
Noch einmal säh' ich dich gar zu gern! 
 Ich schaue hinauf mit spähender Miene, 
"Leb' wohl, mein Kind, ich wandre von hier!"
 Vergebens! es regt sich keine Gardine; 
Sie liegt noch und schläft und träumt von mir. 
Heinrich Heine
(Over the mountain peaks, the sun is rising. Lambs can be heard, frolicking in the distance.  My little love, my lamb, my sun, my fun.  How I'd like to see you again ! I look upwards with searching gaze. "Farewell, my child, I'm moving on !".  Forget it !  Her curtain doesn't even twitch. She's still lying in bed, and sleeping, and dreaming of me. )

A cheerful farewell  ! The lover wants to explore the world, the loved one to stay in bed.  He thinks she's a lamb, a child, someone not too bright.  Maybe he wants to see her one more time, but he's off and away.  Maybe they're better off apart.   The poem is no 83 in Heinrich Heine's Buch der Lieder Heimkehr, from 1823-4.  Felix Mendelssoh set it as Morgengruß in his 6 Gesänge, Op.47 (1839).  His sister Fanny set it too, but nothing beats Felix's understated setting.   The gentle rocking rhythm suggests the lambs, innocently dancing in the sunshine.  The  lover sings "Ich schaue hinauf" and  the line stretches, leaping into space.  He can't bring himself to ditch the girl, so off he goes, singing sweetly, as if nothing's wrong.  The lambs might end up as dinner but, like the girl, they don't have a clue.  Christoph Prégardien recorded this with Andreas Staier on fortepiano, nearly 20years ago. Harmonia Mundi has reissued a 4 CD box set of their Schubert songs. This song, though, is part of Prégardiuen and Staier's Heine song set.  With their Schiller and Goethe song sets, these are esesential listening! A few years ago, someone ran out of a fortepiano song recital in a rage. What a fool !  Fortepiano reflects the true, pristine purity of Lieder so beautiufully that it's a pity that there aren't more fortepiano/tenor combinations around.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Worth the wait ! Thielemann Mahler 3, Dresden Staatskapelle

Thielemann, Garanca, Dresden Staatskapelle, photo : Matthias Creutziger, Dresdner Neueste Nachtrichten
Christian Thielemann conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, broadcast on last night.  He hasn't conducted much Mahler in the past, so this was a big event.  Thielemann is one of the great conductors of core Austro-German repertoire, a specialist in Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner and more, so any perspective he might have on Mahler would be significant.  In many ways, it is a point in his favour that he has not rushed to conduct Mahler because everyone else seems to do so, whether they have anything to say, or not.  A while back, Haitink was attacked for not conducting Shostakovich.  If only more conductors had that kind of integrity. We all do some things better than others, so why shouldn't conductors do what they believe in, as opposed to pandering to market forces.  So I listened last night to Thielemann on NDR, not knowing what to think. A few minutes in, I realized that this was no routine performance. Thielemann really does have insights.  So I came briefly "up for air" before plunging in to listen as intensively as possible.  I hope NDR has archived this,m since it is a performance definitely worth further listening.

First, let's consider what Thielemann has actually said about Mahler.  Significantly, this quote was made during the Mahler anniversary year in 2010, when  there was so much hype - often uninformed - that it's hardly surprising that someone should steer well clear on jumping on the celebrity bandwagon.   "Mahler’s music lends itself most to those conductors” Thielemann reflects, “who know how to hold back, who are good at understatement. That doesn’t exactly accommodate my conducting style; I’ve not been terribly successful at that yet. The music of Mahler is already so full of effects, if you are tempted to add anything, you only make it worse. I admire those conductors who achieve that certain noblesse—which is what I desire to achieve, eventually. Not always to enhance something. I’m currently trying to wean myself off that in Strauss, actually…” Thielemann thus continues a solid three minutes on his fallibility as a conductor in Mahler, about trying to break habits and improving—a touching, beautifully honest moment. (source HERE) 

Thielemann's actual words suggest that, far from being anti-Mahler, he had a far more accurate understanding of the composer than most. "Understatement" and "noblesse", as opposed to the kind of overwrought over-excess that became fashionable in the 60's and 70's, and has ever since dominated the way some audiences expect to hear Mahler. "Neurotic Mahler", shaped in part by Bernstein, Karajan and Ken Russell movies is valid in itself, but it is certainly not the only way to approach the composer.   It's an audience thing.  Conductors in the past, most of whom knew the background from which Mahler came, didn't subscribe to this image.  Nowadays, thanks to the research of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange, we know much more about Mahler's personality and creative processes, which has an impact on performance practice.  "Understatement" and "noblesse" are a whole lot closer to Mahler than the self-indulgent image created in the 60's.  If only audiences could learn to hear Mahler from these perspectives ! There is a whole lot more to Mahler than wham and bang.

Thielemann observed the subtle progressions that give the long first movement structure, and form the bedrock of the whole symphony.  This movement does evolve like a panorama, each vista yielding to another, peak after peak on a vast horizon.  Anyone's who has ever hiked and biked in the mountains as Mahler did will comprehend the sense of progression, and also the open-air expansiveness that Thielemann brought to it : the sense of freedom and endless possibilities, a purer, more rarified atmosphere, unpolluted by venal concerns.  Strauss' Alpensinfonie, completed 18 years after Mahler 3 has that sense of adventure, but not quite the almost Brucknerian spirituality which Thielemann finds in Mahler. The previous evening I'd been watching Arnold Fanck's Der heilige Berg (1926) which merges Bergfilm with esoteric mysticism. The skiers achieve great feats on the snow, while the dancer Diotima (the Eternal Feminine) represents artistic ideals.

The Dresden Staatskapelle is a superlative ensemble, sleek and wonderfully agile. Beautifully judged details, well integated into the whole so the flow felt natural and organic. Big blocks of sound we can hear anytime, but less often this poetic sensibility.  It's more difficult to achieve this kind of genuine purity than to blast away.  A very authentic post horn, like you hear in the mountains.  Geuine warmth, too, the music moving as though propelled by summer breezes.  Thus the Pan Erwacht moments, when Spring rushes in, bringing change and revitalization, even the hint of wacky, Pan-like disorder.  Thielemann brought out the contrast in moods from the elegance of the minueto to the vigour of the scherzo, reinforcing the sense of flow. 

 Elīna Garanča's voice is a little light for the "O Mensch" gravitas, but her singing was moving, nonetheless and fitted well with the Dresdner style.  I had been listening, eyes closed, when the Children's Choir of the Semperoper Dresden began to sing, and suddenly my screen burst into light and shook me - an uncanny but very appropriate moment ! And perhaps most impressive of all, the final movement, which had grandeur and transcendence. Definitely an intelligent and well-thought-through approach to this symphony, and to Mahler.  Although we only heard Mahler 3, this performance connected to the deeper ideas in Mahler 2 and 4, and even to Mahler 9 : nature, and triumph, through creativity over struggle.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, Versailles : Pygmalion, Pichon

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, with Ensemble Pygmalion, conducted by Raphaël Pichon now on DVD/Blu -ray from Harmonia Mundi.  This captures the historic performance at the Chapelle Royale de Versailles in November 2015, on the 300th anniversary of the King's death.   When Louis took control of his kingdom, he marked the occasion with an extravaganza, Le Concert Royal de la Nuit, a grand statement that was as much political as artistic  (read more about that HERE)   Just as the Sun King announced his arrival at Dawn, dressed as the sun, his funeral was staged in darkness : the Sun having gone down on his world.  Everything Louis XIV did was a form of theatre, from the audacity of his vision for France, to Versailles, and even to his wigs and clothing. Though extremely well played and sung, this performance needs to be experienced visually for maximum impact.  Nightime shrouds the architectural splendours of  the Chapelle Royale, but this is how things should be. In the presence of death, material glory is nothing. In the presence of God, even the Sun King is mortal man.  The original funeral rites took place over a period of 24 hours, with ovations, prayers and lying in state.  Here, instead, we focus on the music, and its liturgical meaning.  Darkness enhances the experience, intensifying the mystery that is life and death.

A single bell tolls. Out of the gloom we hear the Subventi sancti Dei, sung as if by monastic choir.  The voices echo out into the distance, filling the recesses of the chapel.  The echo in this performance space is glorious, more otherworldly and spiritual than can be replicated in modern buildings or studios.  We catch quick glimpses of marble alcoves, lit for a moment before darkness falls again.   Later the spotlight lingers on a soprano/tenor/baritone trio. The black and white starkness is warmed by flashes of golden light, contrasting with blue light through the windows beyond, reinforcing the idea of "eternal light" in the distance.  But the days of wrath are still to come. The "monastic choir" intones, led at times by a bass baritone.  A descent into total darkness, the silence broken by the thud of a single drum.  André Danican Philidor Marche pour le Convoy du roi accompanies the procession of the King's simple black-draped coffin as it slowly enters the chapel and down the nave.  Even in death, Louis XIV recognized the power of symbolism.  The chapel door closes. The King is no longer "of the world".  An extended De profundis by Michel-Richard de Lalande, led by the magnificent bass baritone of Christian Immler, reminds us of the achievements of the King's past.  From a position near the roof, a solo bass voice intones,imploring God to grant mercy. His voice, and the voices of the two small choirs in balconies above the nave, reverberate as if unto the Heavens.  The haute-contre, Samuel Boden sings an unearthly In paradisum.  He isn't visible, but his voice is heard as we ponder the ornate ceiling fresco which depicts God. A de Lalande Dies Irae follows, Immler singing of the trumpet call that shall awake the dead to the Day of Judgement.  A beautiful passage, where Samuel Boden sings of hope and redemption.  Light is beginning to fill the chapel.  The cameras linger on the singers and players, the mortals Jesus was sent to Earth to save.  "Lord grant him Mercy" : soloists, choirs, and players all together in harmony, as the camera pans on the image of the sun above the altar, painted gold, its rays descending on the ensemble below. Soloists included Céline Scheen, Lucile Richardot, Samuel Boden, Marc Mauillon and Christian Immler. Realisation for film was by Stéphanien Vérité, lighting by Bertrand Coudere.
Raphaël Pichon conducted the Ensemble Pygmalion orchestra and choirs.  We're not supposed to "enjoy" funerals, but Louis XIV must have gone out in style.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Secret Love - Nikolai Medtner

Medtner (right) and Anna (Left) London 1948

Nikolai Medtner's works for piano are justly famous, his songs, less well known.  Medtner's work for piano is brilliant, his songs less so, but then I'm a voice person and a song sleuth.  So a little adventure into the secret world behind some of Medtner's songs.   Medtner's first group of Goethe songs, Nine Goethe Lieder, op 6 from 1904, were dedicated as a wedding gift for his older brother Emil who was marrying Anna Bratenskaya, a violinist whom Nikolai was in love with. Most of these songs are fairly straightforward settings of famous texts like Wanderers Nachtlied II, Elfenliedchen and Mailied with a particularly lovely interlude before the final, significant verse.  But consider that last line : "Sei ewig glücklich Wie du mich liebst!" The poem isn't nearly as innocent as it looks. Please read my analysis HERE.

Medtner takes texts from several different Goethe collections.  Was there a reason for his choices ? Who knows, but it's interesting to speculate. Two of the texts Medtner chose, Inneres Wühlen and Sieh mich, Heil'ger, come from Goethe's Schauspiel Erwin und Elmire, (1775) which tells the story of lovers who are kept apart by social convention.  The first song speaks of suppressed emotional turmoil, the second of Elmire's anguish at having rejected Erwin's youthful passion. These texts have rarely been set by anyone other than Medtner and the Duchess Anna Amalia, Goethe's patron and object of his veneration.  Until, of course, he went to Italy and discovered sex and sunshine. Anna Amalie, the chaste Moon, was not amused.

In 1907-8, Medtner wrote his Twelve Goethe Songs op 15. An atmosphere of feverish intrigue haunts this collection. In Selbstbetrug, a curtain twitches. Is someone watching something they shouldn't witness ?  Yet another text from Erwin und Elmira, Sie liebt mich. which rises quickly to emphatic crescendo, repeated over and over, in delighted disbelief.  So tanzet und springst comes from Goethe's Lila, a play about a married woman who goes insane when her husband's away. And most scandalous of all, Vor Gericht, where a woman is pregnant but will not denounce the father, whom she loves. Pastor and magistrate, be damned ! "Es ist mein Kind, es bleibt mein Kind,Ihr gebt mir ja nichts dazu !"  Yet again, Medtner is the only male composer to dare set this defiant text.   Do these songs form a cryptic cycle, from the night-time hush of  Wandrers Nachtlied II and Meerestille to the last two songs, Der untreue Knabe and Geistergruss?  The last two songs form a matched pair, just like the first two, but now the mood is triumphant.  In  Der untreue Knabe the errant lover is reunited with the girl he dumped when they're dead, and in Geistergruss the Knight's ghost sings, like the King of Thule, pledging eternal love, despite separation . "Mein halbes Leben türmt' ich fort,Verdehnt' die Hälft' in Ruh,Und du, du Menschen-Schifflein dort,Fahr' immer, immer zu!".

Is this  cycle wish fulfilment or secret code ?  there's a touch of wry humour in op 15 which there isn't in op 6, so beware of too-literal interpretation.  Whatever may be behind the songs, we will never know and probably don't need to know, but if we did we might better appreciate Medtner as a man.  What we do know is that, in 1918, Medtner and Anna were married, Emil having agreed to a divorce.  They stayed together through over 30 years of exile, ending up in Barnet, North London.  

In 1922, Medtner dedicated his Sonata-Vocalize op 41 1 and 2 to Anna. This is fairly innovative music, closer to Scriabin, than, say, 19th century models. There is no text, but the inspiration was Goethe’s Geweihter Platz. A poet spies on the secret rites of Nymphs silently dancing in the moonlight and all the glories of Heaven and Earth are revealed to him.  "Alles erzählt er den Musen und daß die Götter nicht zürnen,lehren die Musen ihn gleich bescheiden Geheimnisse sprechen" .   This is the Medtner who can now express his love openly, without the guise of text. In the first part, the piano sings, alone. In the second, he's joined by his muse, singing exotic vocalize.  The voice stretches round the piano part, like partners in embrace.  Chamber music, intimate and personal.