Saturday, 18 January 2020

Massive Beethoven concert from 1808 - Wiener Philharmonker, Philippe Jordan

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Heras-Casado - Manuel de Falla El Sombrero des Tres Picos, Granada

Manuel de Falla The Three Cornered Hat (El Sombrero des Tres Pucos) with Pablo Heras-Casado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra streamed HERE. Pablo Heras-Casado came up through the ranks of the Abbado group of orchestras, of which the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is an integral part, and was mentored by Pierre Boulez. There's a video of  Boulez and the Lucerne Festival Academy with a very young Heras-Casado, still round with puppy fat.  Soon, Heras-Casado became joint director of the Academy beside Boulez. Since then, he's become a big-time international name, conducting everywhere at the highest levels. Yet Granada, his hometown, remains part of his identity. He headed for some years the Granada Festival of Music and Dance at which this performance was filmed in July 2019 in the grounds of the palace of Charles V in Alhambra.
Flamenco, and indeed most dance, depends on precision, energy and discipline, well suited to the very high standards of the elite Mahler Chamber Orchestra.  With Heras-Casado, this provides a foundation for a performance of extraordinary power, where the playing alone is so vivid that the music "speaks" without the need for dancers or staging, other than the backdrop of  the palace coutyard itself and the abstract video projections in the background, designed to reflect the architecture. Listen to the detail in this performance : castanets, trumpets, piccolos, clapping, their purpose sharply defined amid the passionate, swirling textures. As in Flamenco, single gestures matter, where directions can switch on sudden pivot points.  Heras-Casado reminds us that de Falla was a twentieth century composer, building on earlier traditions. He was a contemporary and friend of Stravinsky, and died as recently as 1946. The Three Cornered Hat was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev and choreographed by Leonid Massine in 1919, in co-operation wth de Falla and authentic Spansh dancers.  It's relatively late for a Ballets Russe production, and the flavour of the 1920's is in evidence.  It predates Ravel's Boléro by 10 years.

This wonderfully vivid performance, with  Carmen Romeu as soloist, follows on from Heras-Casado's recent recording, also with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, of El Sombreo des Picos and El amor brujo on Harmonia Mundi, which was one of my favourites of 2019. I can listen to it again and again and still feel refreshed by its spotaniety and verve.  When it came out some said it was "too fast" and not "romantic" enough. Too bad !  This music isn't mean to be soft-focussed.  its a pity that listeners these days seem to approach music with a laundry list of preconceived assumptions rather than listening to what a composer might mean, or what a good performer can bring out in the music. It's the repertoire that counts !

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - Raminta Šerkšnytė, Deutsche Grammophon

From Deutsche Grammophon, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė with the Kremerata Baltica. In the four years since her appointment as Chief Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra  was announced, Gražinytė-Tyla has established a significant presence. She  understands the long standing CBSO ethos of adventurous programming.  While many conductors would play safe with recordings of easily-marketable repertoire, Gražinytė-Tyla chooses repertoire which stretches boundaries.  In 2018, she led the CBSO in an in-depth immersion into the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, which resulted in one of the finest ever recordings of Weinberg's Symphony no 21, the "Kaddish" together with Weinberg specialists Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica.  Please read my review of that here.   

In this new recording, she presents the Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė. Though this recording may not have immediate mass market appeal, it is so unusual, so beautiful and so moving that it could, long term, prove to be a milestone in bringing the riches of Lithuanian and Baltic music to a wider audience.

The music of the Baltic region evolves from ancient traditions absorbed into the culture of the early Christian era, encouraging vocal and communal music-making. When Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were incorporated into the Soviet Union, regional identities were suppressed, and music became a covert force against the regime. It's notable how music with a spiritual element survived repression :  Ustvolskaya and Giubaldina, Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis, Osvaldus Balaskauskas, Pēteris Vasks, Lutosławski, Miloslav Kabeláč and many others. Hence the Singing Revolution of 1987 and mass non-violent protest which ultimately led to independence. This spiritual element also connects to a sense of communion with nature and the environment. The bonus DVD that comes with this recording, includes a performance conducted by Gražinytė-Tyla of works by Bronius Kutavičius (b. 1932) inspired by ancient polytheistic belief and music in what is now Lithuania. Definitely worth listening to, as it sets context for the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė. Indeed, the whole video is worth watching for its insights into Gražinytė-Tyla's values and background.

I want my music to compose a symphony from the roaring of waves, from the mysterious langauage of hundred-year woods, from the twinkling of stars, from our folksongs and from my boundless longing" wrote Mikalojus Čiurlionis (1875-1911) the Lithuanian composer, poet and painter. Šerkšnytė's Midsummer Song (2009) addresses the summer solstice,  the longest day and shortest night in the calendar, which has ritual significance in many cultures, as it marks the passage of seasons and of time itself.  Thus the "gossamer melodies alternating between major and minor , evolving step by step into a wealth of colours and forms", as Verena Mogel notes, "....a multi-layered, finely structured fabric in which the overlapping and contrasting layers of strings never lose their coherence.... a consistent, dramatic arch unfolds from beginning to end, a constant alternation of tension and relaxation, the singing of isolated voices and dense textures". The effect is mystical, as if the music were tapping into some deep source of earth-magic. Brief figures might represent specifics, like birds, or wind,  but this is an inner landscape of the soul : much deeper than tone poem.   Listening to this can clean away the superficial clutter of noise that surrounds us. For me, it is an  immensely rewarding and uplifting experience.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Raminta Šerkšnytė - photo Modestas Ezerkskis
Šerkšnytė's De profundis (1989) takes its cue not so much from  Psalm 130 but from the storms and turbulence of youth, perhaps a necessary rite of passage before the coming of wisdom. Hence the shifting tensions, formed by "fretful, 18 note motifs interspersed with rests which hover above downward spiralling glissandi in contrast with almost motionless chord progressions in which dissonances resolve again and again into harmonic clarity".  This was the piece which earned Šerkšnytė her bachelors degree, but it is by no means a "student" work.

Based on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, Šerkšnytė's
Songs of Love and Death (2007) is structured along the lines of an Indian raga, evoking emotional states of mind as much as the themes of day, evening, night and dawn in the text.  In the first movement, "Diena, Vakararas" (day, evening)  textures hover creating an impressionistic palette of delicate colour, highlighted by exotic-sounding percussion and woodwinds.  A free-flowing sense of calm prevails, from which the soloists’ voices arise, their lines like incantation, gradually building up to form a chorale as intricate as tracery.  In "Naktis" (Night) a solo violin sings, elaborating on the themes of the previous movement. The choir picks up the themes, their lines hushed, undulating and diffuse, providing a backdrop to the two pairs of soloists (Lina Dambrauskaitė, Justina Gringyte, Tomas Pavilionis and Nerijus Masevičius) who sing of love and longing. The brief orchestral interlude marks a transition.  The woodwinds create fluttering bird-like figures, which illustrate the references in the text to a dawn chorus followed by the sudden flight of birds. "Rytus. Amzinasis rytas (Morning. Eternal morning) marks not just a new day but a leap into an altogether new level of transcendence.  The soloists sing, united in ensemble and as individuals interacting, the choir intoning behind them. As the emotional flight takes off, the voices gradually recede into space, the orchestra returning to reverent serenity. Giedré Slekytė conducts the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and the Vilnius Municipal Choir (Jauna Muzika).

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Sumptuous yet witty - Offenbach La belle Hélène

"À l'Opéra de Lausanne, l'extravagant Michel Fau s'empare du plus populaire des opéras-bouffes de Jacques Offenbach dans une mise en scène très attendue, chaussant pour l'occasion les sandales du roi Ménélas". Gloriously sumptuous yet also witty - Offenbach La belle Hélène in a new production by Michel Fau now available for a short period on   is opéra-bouffe as it should be done - with wit, extravagant and idiomatic verve. As one would expect from Michel Fay, who is unique - not only an actor, but one with extraordinary musical affinities, who can bring out the music in spoken text, so it picks up on the musical logic - not Spechstimme, but declamation that accenntuates the musical line. When he narrates - such as in the recent F X Roth Berlioz Lélio, (please read more here), he makes the text fit so well with the orchestra and singers that it's hard to go back to listening to non-text or non-idomatic performance.  Fau is also a theatre historian, extremely well infomed about the performance style and ideologies in French music and theatre.  This production, lit in gold and jewel tones is audaciously indulgent, and the performances are vivid, too.  Do not miss this - it's fabulous, in every way ! (cast list and credits in the link).

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Silvesterkonzert Dresden Das Land des Lächelns Thielemann

Live from the Semperoper, Dresden, this year's Silvesterkonzert : Franz Lehar, extracts from Das Land des Lächelns with Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden and soloists Pavol Breslik, Jane Archibald, Erin Morley and Sebastien Kohlhepp.  Core Austro-German repertoire, or rather operetta, good natured and stylish.  Just right for New Year's Eve ! Just because it's party time that doesn't mean dropping standards to fit the fashionable market. Lehar's Das Land des Lächelns (Land of Smiles) is closely associated with Richard Tauber, so it's a star vehicle for a good tenor. In Pavol Bresik we have a singer who not only sing but can create Prince Sou-chong as a believable and human personality.

This makes a difference because the libretto is painfully dated : a part created to showcase white people in yellowface, as if real Asians were no more than caricature.  That genre was normal in the early part of the twentieth century, when imperialism and white supriority went unquestioned.  Implicit in the genre is the idea that races cannot mix, and that exotic aliens, despite their erotic frisson, are dangerous to "normal" people. That is just not acceptable today. Fortunately there's enough in the  operetta that it doesn't have to rely on kitsch stereotype. Bresik's Prince Sou-chong is an ordinary, decent man from a culture which Lisa and her friends don't have a clue about. In "Bei einem Tee à deux", we glimpse for a moment how two people can communicate. He knows more about tea than she ever will, so the balance isn't all in her favour.  Bresik is genuinely sexy : he doesn't need a bucketload of makeup in order to pretend to be what he is not. He comes over as a hunk most people would fancy.  He really does command the stage. That "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" is more than a Big Tenor Moment. Breslik makes it feel real. In the finale, when the song is repeated, he sings with sincere feeling. Despite the smiles Das Land des Lächelns is human tragedy behind a mask of insouciant good cheer. Smiling through tears, like so much of this genre. Anyone can feel that way, whatever their origins or background. 

Jane Archibald was a good Lisa, beautifully crested, and Erin Morley, (costumed like fake Japanese !) a sympathetic innocent.  Secretly, she loves Graf Gustav von Pottenstein (Sebastien Kohlhepp) but that love is doomed. Thielemann gets lively, animated playing from the Staatskapelle Dresden, bringing out the "orientalism" in the orchestration.  The "Chinesischer Hochzeitszug" is a bit of a gallop, but  then it should be. Lisa's rushing into something she doesn't understand, and Lehar is writing facsimile of music he doesn't understand, either.  But's its fun anyway. When you're sad, don't mope, but get on with things as if everything will turn out right.

Monday, 30 December 2019

New Year's broadcast links !

Vienna Philharmoniker conducted by Andris Nelsons LIVE BBC TV2 on 1/1/2020 at 1015 and many other sources

Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann, Franz Lehár's The Land of Smiles - a bit of core Austro-German repertoire, done by those who do it well. Medici TV 31st December 1625 GMT

Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Kiril Petrenko - Berlin Phil's new market strategy ? Bernstein, Gershwin, Weill, Sondheim.  Digital Concert Hall, 31st December at 1600 GMT

La Fenice New Year's Opera Gala 

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Peter Schreier dies at Christmas

Announced a few minutes ago in Dresden, the death of Peter Schreier after a long illness, aged 84. It is particularly ironic that he died on Christmas Day.  His Bach and Heinrich Schütz are of course basic fare this time of year, but he also loved singing more informal Weihnachtslieder and folk songs and used to do Christmas specials on German TV.  He took his Christmas seriously ! And now, perhaps, he's with the angels and with those who shaped the musical culture that shaped him. 

Born into a musical family in Meissen in July 1935, Schreier was singing at a very young age. Aged 8, he appeared on stage as one of the Three Boys in Die Zauberflöte.  Aged 10, he joined the Dresdner Kreuzchor. The city had been destroyed in the firebombing of February 1945, so the boys lived in basements. Butr so did everyone else. The Kappellmeister was Rudolf Mauersberger, a composer as well as conductor. Please read HERE about Mauersberger's Weihnachtszyklus  written in Decemeber 1944 to cheer the boys up in wartime.  It celebrates Christmas from the perspective of children. It's not yet another telling of the Bible story, which the choristers sang about all year round. Instead, it describes the Dresden Striezelmarkt, or Christmas fair, and the simple folk toys that children marvelled at before Christmas was commercialized. We can hear bells, cuckoo calls, and rhythms suggesting the movement of mechanical toys.

In response to the horrors of war, and the millions killed, Mauersberger wrote his Dresdner Requiem, first performed in the bombed out Frauenkirche, with the key alto part written specially for Schreier.  By spooky coincidence, that's what I've been listening to this season rather than regular Christmas fare.  This piece is closely connected with Schreier and the traditions he came from. It's about the mass deaths of millions in barbaric world conflict. The alto part seems vulnerable, but its purity shines out, a message of strength under desperate conditions. (I'll write more soon).  Mauersberger (1889-1971) shaped Schreier's career, supporting him in his transition to tenor after his voice broke.

Perhaps that bedrock is why Schreier's Bach, Schütz and so  much else are so transcedent that they are almost divine. There are few Evangelists quite as intense and committed as Schreier's. He's not  bland, but totally earnest.  The message in these works is much greater than picture-book pretty.  He brought the same passion to his Mozart, Weber (the finest Max, a character torn between good and weakness). Wagner (truly demonic Mime) and much else. Even Janáček. That same commitment shaped his Lieder singing : always, foremost, meaning expressed through sound and nuance.  Because he cared so much about Lieder as communication, he could draw new insights no matter how often he sang something. Lieder is an inward, individual art, miss that and you miss the point.  His Schubert and Schumann are benchmarks, but he also championed other less well known composers. Schreier's Lieder, with its intelligence and sensitivity, shaped my entire listening career. Losing him is like losing a father figure. 

Schreier was a much loved regular at the Wigmore Hall for many years. At his farewell concert in 2003, pretty much the whole audience got up to greet him in the Green Room. The place was packed, but he noticed, behind all the crowds, a frail old lady who looked about 90 and walked with sticks.  Immediately he rushed up to her and led her in, sitting her in a seat beside him. "Thank you, dearest X, you have come from so far to see me!" he said, almost tears in his eyes. "For you, my boy (!) " she said, "I would travel any distance to see you again". All in German : I don't know the background, but the sincerity of feeling they had for each other was obvious.  That is the sort of person Schreier was.  He cared about things he believed in. Wildly successful and a fighter, but not a showbiz creation, Schreier was an artist of integrity, a man for whom sincerity and commitment were principles of faith.  

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Ivory Infant Jesus, 17th century Macau

The Infant Jesus, holding the world in his hands, carved in ivory in the 17th century.  Once ivory objects were made all over Asia and Europe from very early on. Since Africa and India were part of the East-West trade route, smaller religious figures
like these were common in Portuguese communities, all along the route. In Macau, there's a museum of baroque religious art, ivory, silver, gold reflecting the prosperity the city once enjoyed. This particular figure is in Macau, but it's carved in the "Indian" style, Goa being a major centre of religious art.  Japanese and Chinese ivory workers were also involved. Santos were also revered in private homes. My grandparents inherited an heirloom cabinet from the 18th century, big enough that the sons could crawl in to do the cleaning before Holy Days, as part of religious observance.  It was destroyed during the war.  Eventually my Dad started a collection but it was nowhere quite the same. Most of the figures were clothed in hand-embroidered silks and lace, but very few of those garments survived, especially since new garments were regularly made, as a sign of veneration. But the carving is so exquisite that it's a good thing that the figures are now displayed in their natural glory.

Here's a poem written in Macanese patua. Portuguese from Portugal can't follow the grammar or the vocabulary, since it borrows so freely from Asian languages.

Jesus pequinino

Justo ja nace

De frio tremido

Na nga cham di Belem

Filo Divino Di Virgem Maria

Vem-ca nos vai azinha

Vem-ca nos vai azinha

Vem-ca vai azinha adora nosso Rei

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, refugees. What was God trying to tell us ?

The Nativity, a painting by Lu Hong nian ( 陸鴻年) 1914-1989. Summoned by Chinese angels, shepherds are arriving at the cave in which Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus are taking shelter.  Mary and Joseph were refugees, fleeing persecution. The North China context is important. No cosy "western" fantasy here.   In Lu's lifetime, people all over China were refugees of some sort or other, displaced by war and suffering. No-one chooses to risk their lives to become a refugee. whatever the reasons.  Why did God deliberately chose to send Jesus to be born in suffering and hardship ? God could do anything he likes, but he was making a powerful statement. Too many miss the point, entirely.

In Lu's case, that Chinese context was especially important because he sought to connect Christian concepts to Chinese tradition and values. There's a huge body of art of this type, though Lu as an artist was way above the usual prayer book art we grew up with.  This approach goes way back to the first Jesuits who entered China,  respecting Chinese social mores and values.   A Jesuit in the Forbidden City, R Po-chai Hsia, OUP 2010 Meticulously researched, and the first to use original sources in Chinese, and written with genuine understanding of Chinese society and mores, it is pretty much essential reading. The same cannot be said of the more populist best sellers.  Lu's experiences as a Catholic are also relevant. Given the role of western involvement in China and Cold War politics, a minority church would not have beeen a priority. This painting was made in 1951, as Korea and China were drawn in almost as pawns in a wider geopolitical game.  For Lu, the experience of Mary and Joseph, persecuted, was only too real.

At this time of year, so many people think in terms of material excess. Rituals observed through gritted teeth, with everyone pretending to be happy for the camera. And some, alas, would turn Mary and Jesus away if they turned up seeking shelter.  remeberthe smash hit "Feed the world at Christmas" and the truly offensive chorus "Don't they know it's Christmas time?" As if the whole world was white and middle class and money replaced genuine compassion.  The rest of world does not exist to reinforce pernicious ideas of assumed superiority.  One year a charity called at my door. "I've already given", I said, telling the truth. "Well in that case, I DON'T wish you a happy Christmas" said the "Christian", in front of her kids and mine. That's why I make a point of supporting non west centric causes which all year round emphasize working with communities in their own society, supplying water, health, education so people don't have to become refugees in the first place.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Christmas non-fare on BBC

photo: Jean-Christophe BENOIST [CC BY 3.0 (]

This year's Christmas schedule on BBC radio and TV is more meagre than ever, unless you really like animated cartoons.  Maybe that says something. Especially since the original Manchurian Candidate is being screened on BBC TV 2 at midnight tonight. That's the Cold War thriller from 1962, where men who were brainwashed by the nation's enemies come to realize that the bad guys have a much mor sinister plan.  Soon the whole nation will be brainwashed. Can movies become reality?  Be scared, be very, very scared.

At least we still have Carols from King's College, Cambridge, BBC TV2 24th December at 1700 hr. This will be repeated on 25th December on BBC Radio 3 at 1400.   King's College is magnificent. People visit year round, from all over the globe. It's in a league of its own. In musical terms no comparison to regular community church choirs, however loved they are.  King's is an institution that goes way beyond being religious. Being able to sing at this standard can get you fast tracked into Cambridge and set you up for life. Some alumni go on to careers in music, most go on to other things, but the experience of singing at this level, and in these surroundings is probably like nothing else.  The photo above shows what you see when you look upwards. It just happens to be the largest medieval fan vaulted ceiling in the world.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Cycling underwater, upriver

In a dream I was in modern day Macau in a tiny apartment. Below, in the street, was a pedicab driver ,looking for work. Usually they only carry tourists for short distances. "Take me to Califonia" I asked, naming a mall that long ago went bust.  Unperturbed, he pedals on but the pedicab turns into a bicycle and I'm riding pillion like people used to do all the time.  Suddenly, he takes a sharp turn at the Praya Grande and descends straight into the river; now it's built up but in the dream it’s waterfront, the water brown with delta mud and pieces of vegetation from upstream. How can two people cycle up against the flow of the mighty Pearl River, whose source is in the mountains of Yunnan  ? Beneath the water there's a solid path, invisible above but so firm and straight below that the bicycle doesn't even wobble, though the driver and me are immersed to our chests. So we proceed, untroubled, way up the delta, following the shoreline and ancient villages. Eventually we're back in modern Macau near the bus terminus by the Taipa bridge.  Miraculously, I wasn't in the least bit wet or dirty at all, despite wearing a long white cotton gown through the waters of the river, which are so brown and fertile that they support thriving farming and fishing communities. I offer to pay the driver  but he won't take anything, and disappears. What I've learned from this journey is greater than money can buy.  Nowadays people think they can just deny heritage as if it means nothing.  But without foundations, you're nothing.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Back to the Future - Aldeburgh Festival 2020

Exciting news about the 2020 Aldeburgh Music Festival.   Back to the future, in the sense that  the festival is returning to its roots, and to the musical ideals that Britten and Pears sought to achieve.  Aldeburgh is absolutely unique.  British music is like a grand river, into which flow many differnt streams and tributaries, which go on to fertilize creative fertility.  There are many different threads and traditions. Diversity, in all aspects of life does matter. That's why there are so many different music festivals. The Three Choirs Festival focuses on cathedral based, communal performing traditions.  Oxbridge College traditions, epitomised by King's College, are different, too, even different from other colleges. There are other regional and specialist festivals all round the country which encourage greater focus on whatever theme they dedicate themselves too.

The last thing Britain needs is a bland, all-purpose quango run by suits with non-musical agendas, catering for theme-park values rather than for musical quality. Aldeburgh's identity is unique. Right from the start, Britten and Pears believed in the concept that music doesn't have to be populist to be popular.  much of Britten's music was indeed written for the specifics of Aldeburgh and the region around it.  Had the Aldeburgh Festival existed in 1945, chances are that it woud have been heard there, too.  That emphasis on smaller, community based music making which brought forth Albert Herring represents anothrer Britten-Pears ideal that ordinary people are capable of responding to excellence without  compromise. The Aldeburgh Festival is just the high profile face of what the Britten-Pears Foundation stands for all year round.  Nearly every leading British composer has benefitted form the creative fertility that was Briten and Pears' dream.   So thank goodness after a few fallow years when Aldeburgh seemed to be turning into an outlet for BBC Radio 3, the 2020 Festival promises new hope.

Tom Coult's opera Violet, an Aldeburgh Commission,  has its world premiere starting 12th June. Coult is an extremely interesting younger composer, highly regarded by many.  Coult's  St John's Dance kicked off the 2017 First Night of the Proms . An exercise in perpetual motion and tempi, it was engrossing enough to hold attention, while being concise. Certainly better than some of the mindless pap the Proms assumes new music must be.  But beware! St John's Dance was a form of mass hysteria, where people kept dancing on, unheeding to their deaths.  With a libretto by Alice Birch, Violet promises to pack an even more subversive punch. "With the townspeople in crisis, can Violet finally escape?" Maybe this Violet's not shrinking anymore. Andrew Gourlay conducts the London Sinfonietta. Coult's Violin Concerto features in the 19th June concert, Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.

Allan Clayton and Mark-Anthony Turnage are featured artists this year. Turnage's Silenced is a song cycle receiving its wold premiere on 17th June,  to be heard with Steven Osborne in Britten's Piano Concerto. and Percy Grainger.   This concert is paired with another on 20th June, also Britten, Grainger, Janáček and a new work by Cassandra Miller. Clayton's seciond recital on 27th June features Britten, Michael Berkeley and Priaulx Rainier.  Other good concerts with Imogen Cooper (Mozart)  and lots of the early and baroque music which shaped Britten's outlook so strongly that they've always been a major theme in the Festival.

The really big moment everyone will book for will be Britten's War Requiem, on Sunday 21st June, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Allan Clayton, Florian Boesch and Tatiana Pavlovskaya. In the Maltings, Snape, the impact should be overwhelming. Ryan Wigglesworth conducting the Knussen Chamber Orchestra on 25th June is a classic Aldeburgh programme - Mozart, Elliott Carter and Messiaen.  Gala final concert on 28th June with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Britten Les Illuminations (Julia Bullock), Pictures at an Exhibition and another Turnage work, Frieze from 2012.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Not so Gay Hussar - Emmerich Kálmán - Ein Herbstmanöver, Giessen

Brilliant Emmerich Kálmán Ein Herbstmanöver from the Stadttheater, Giessen in 2018, conducted by Michael Hofstetter now on Oehms Classics. Although it's tagged with the title "The Gay Hussars", that's a misnomer, which refers to an English language version made for New York. Kálmán's original was Tatárjárás, (1908) which roughly translates from Hungarian as "the invasion of the Tatars".   This is crucial, since the Hussars were outsiders, much in the way that the Tatars from Central Asia raged over Europe for centuries before. Like the Tatars, the Hussars were cavalrymen, often mercenaries, whose "otherness" represented wildness and freedom. In Ein Herbstmanöver, the German version first heard at the Theater an der Wien in 1909, the Hussars are partying in a palace, where women swoon over them. Being a Husssar symbolized sexual allure. But party hard, die hard.  Unexpectedly, the men are called to the battlefieldand the party's over. Just five years later, Hussar regiments were slaughtered : horses no match for modern weapons.  "Autumn" here has double meaning.  Although operetta seems light hearted, it's more a case of "smiling through tears". Think Die Fledermaus where pain and desperation are masked - literally - by extravagance and champagne. 

Like Singspiele before them, operettas were almost more theatre than opera, with extensive dialogue,  the repartée topical, witty and sometimes risqué.  This Ein Herbstmanöver from Giessen, also broadcast on German language TV, ran well over three hours in production, but the version for CD focuses on the songs, interspersed with snatches of dialogue as introduction.  The selection flows together well. The pace is racy, capturing the exuberant high spirits that define the genre.  Typical, too, is the sense of creative freedom. Operettas were often re-imagined for different audiences, libretti often adapted for new purposes.  So it's nothing unusual at all, that this version, used dialogue by Balázs Kovalik which might be too idiomatic to translate, and too extensive. It also includes the "Pumper-Duett" from Kálmán's Der Güte Kamerad (1911). The male bonding swagger in the text fits well, as does the idea of "Pumpern", Austrian slang that means "stark, angklopfen" (bang, bang,  keep knocking) - use your imagination to figure that out.  Kálmán's characters employ distince voice types - a mature soprano (Christiane Boesinger) for the Baronin Riza von Marbach, and an authoritative baritone (Grga Peroš) as Oberleutnant von Lörenthy, a lighter baritone (Tomi Wendt)for Wallerstein, the reserve cadet who doesn't like being a soldier, and a heroic tenor (Clemens Kerschbaumer) as Morosi, the virile Volunteer who steals the heart of Treska (Marie Seidler) whose father wants her to marry Lörenthy.  The plot revolves on upheaval. The castle belongs by rights to Lörenthy, but his father was bankrupted by Riza's deceased husband : Lörenthy lost his patrimony and the girl he loved, at the same time. He can't bear to join the party, nor even enter the castle.  Now his commanding officer, Feldmarschall von Lohonnay (Harald Pfeiffer) repeats the pattern with his daughter. This time, though, the world has changed.  Two old retainers, Bence and Kurt (Rainer Hustedt and Rainer Domke), character singers, recount the narrative.  The performances are clear and distinct, and the songs fit the personalities so well that it's easy enough to follow what's going on, with basic German. (synopsis provided, and plenty of photos). 

And the songs are so stylish that you can sit back and enjoy this Ein Herbstmanöver as a basic musical experience.  The Overture is lively, almost manic, with flourishes which might  suggest the galloping of horses or dancers, though the frenzied build up of tension is relentless, inescapably demented. The military trumpet and the suggestion of taps, imply that all will not end well.  Baronin Riza and her ladies are excited by the ball that is to come, and the men : thus the coquettish song, with undertones of waltz. The Marschlied von Marosi is a cheerful setpiece establishing Marosi's personality, getting everyone in party mood.  In contrast, the Lied von Lörenthy is melancholy, a "song to the moon", revealing the suffering Lörenthy has experienced over the years, though his career has prospered.  In bursts Wallerstein, grumbling and protesting : comic relief.  A brief spoken Melodram leads to a Soldatenlieder, where Lörenthy and his men sing of army life: big, punchy choruses ! With Seh ich dich Strahlen, Baronin Riza sings, accompanied by lush strings and harp. "Mein Leben is eigentlich vorbei" - despite her wealth, her life is really over, since she didn't marry the man she loved.  Lörenthy answers "Denkst du daran" ; perhaps Riza didn't dump him. The two are still a pair, after all these years.   

A series of quadrilles, dance songs before the Pumper-Duett and the Tanz-Duett Frauenherzen re-establish the macho atmosphere.  Yet the Serenade reminds us that there are broken hearts in the debris.  Not for long, though. the Kusslied, the Couplet Wallerstein and Walzer-Ensemble chase away doubt : mock hiccups in the vocal lines suggest drunken revelry.  With sneers the Himmel, Herrgott, mayhem breaks out - the music more manic than ever.  "Zigeunermusik", sneers Feldmarschall von Lohonnay as a gypsy violin plays around him. its melody growing ever wilder.  But  Lörenthy begs the gypsy to keep playing . (Robert Varady, soloist).  The Zigeuner (outsider) seems to liberate what has been repressed, too long.  Riza sings of the magic that is love. She and Lörenthy duet , repeating each other’s lines, haloed by harps and strings, before the full orchestra rises to glorious climax.  But the pounding of percussion suggests the pounding of heavy guns.  The chorus cry in frenzy "Gott in Himmel" as the men are called into action. Long, staccato vocal lines suggest gunfire. But the dance goes madly on, as the brass blares. A poignant finale.  The solo violin calls over the sound of distant cannon,  and Bence, the old servant, muses  alone, commenting on the upheavals he has witnessed.  But the choruses continue singing merrily as if oblivious.  

There has been a lot of Kálmán in recent years, some extremely good,  so the composer and genreshold be reasonably familiar. This Giessen version of  Ein Herbstmanöver is so lively, musically-informed and so idiomatic, that this is a welcome outing for this early work which brought him to fame in vienna. 

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Alua - Macau's international Christmas pudding

Alua or Aluar, traditional Christmas delicacy in Macau. As the photo shows, it's now sold in shops as "Western style Nien Go", ie a variant of the Chinese New Year treat Nien Go (cake/pudding that marks the arrival of a new year). Both are made from more or less the same ingredients, glutinous rice, bing tong (slab brown sugar, either Chinese style or what was known as Jagari, from India), coconut milk, nuts, and sometimes lard or butter (Macau style). Heavy duty - you can only eat a sliver at a time, even when it's fried or steamed to soften it. An excuse to wash it down with lots of Chinese tea.  The surface texture was slightly greasy, and the colour usually dark brown, like the sugar, with almonds and extra coconut.  The treat is also supposed to have Indian origins, with Persian, Goanese and Malay versions as well, which isn't so surprising given that these were points on the trade routes between China and theWest from the 16th century.

Making Alua was hard work - the rice had to be ground down fine with mortar and pestle, and the mix steamed for ages. Families  that made it tended to make it in batches, which were then sold throughout the community. Certain cooks were famous, their wares highly sought after : they took bookings well in advance. Read more HERE.  The last time I ate alua was in Macau when I was a teenager, delicious batch from an elderly lady whose family had been making it each season for 250 years.  Calories and cholesterol weren't an issue then, since most of the year people lived on simple fare - vegetables, fish and rice, and religious Fast Days, and abstinence before Mass were strictly observed.  Christmas was a very big thing in the Macanese community because it reinforced Catholic identity, at a time when being a Christian was definitely a minority thing, and the Macanese with their mixed origins and influences, not part of mainstream Portuguese society.  When my Dad was a kid, many y still celebrated in the old Macau style - heaving tables of food, decorated with home made lace doilies and paper flowers, rows of oranges lining cupboards and shelves (oranges also being a Chinese symbol of happiness and hope). You didn't dare miss Mass, you prayed all week in front of the Nativity.  Lots of other festive dishes like giant meatloaf,  cakes and candies like Farté, cookies supposed to represent soft pillows for the Infant Jesus. Aluar represented the hard mattress (hardship) on which he was born, a refugee, fleeing for his life, something that was integral to our understanding of the meaning of Christmas, when God became man. No Coca-Cola Santa ! no commercial tack and excess.You can't in any case overdose on Alua, or your digestion will rebel. 

Macanese home cooking bears little to no relation to what's served in restaurants these days. Beware many of the cookbooks and "guides".  Even the BBC does Macau food, but the recipes are a joke. Things like African Chicken were invented in the early 1960's by professional chefs. Fortunately, families lucky enough to have hand written recipes from way back, are collectingm them and publishing them within the Macanese community.  Still, closely guarded semi-secrets.  HERE is an excellent and authentic community resource.