Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Song of the Phoenix : artistic integrity in tricky times

The Song of the Phoenix (2016)(百鸟朝凤) was the last film completed by Wu Tian Ming (吳天明), one of the seminal figures in modern Chinese cinema. Although the film is titled "The Song of the Phoenix" for western release, a more accurate translation of the title would be "A Hundred Birds and One Phoenix",which is more literary and also reflects what the film is about : the imperative of integrity, in art.  The film is a lovingly observed evocation of traditional rural life in  North China in times of change. Although the script is based on a novel by Xiao Jiang Hong, the name of the young apprentce is Yu Tian Meng (游天鸣) not so far different from Wu Tian Ming, who was exiled after the Tian An Men massacres, but allowed to return after the later reforms. "A Hundred Birds and One Phoenix " also reflects the aesthetic of the souna, the ancient blown instrument played by Old Master Jiao San Yie, who learned from many generations of masters before him.  The souna evokes the sounds of Nature, especially the cries of birds in the fields, reedbeds and mountains in the area, and thus has cosmological significance.  Thus its use in communal occasions, such as weddings and funerals, as well ss private reflection.
A father and son, from ther "Earth" village trudge up to Jiao San Yie's house in "Water" village. The father wants his son to learn the souna, but the Master isn't impressed, and the boy doesn't want to stay.  Father beats son in frustration. Son is furious, but comforts father when he falls and is hurt. Later, the Master says that was the moment he decided to take the boy on, since his actions displayed emotional depth and strength of character.  The Master makes the boy suck water up a long reed.  This trains lungs and mouth muscles, but it's also mental discipline.  Learning also involves living: helping in the fields, visiting family, marvelling at things like fireflies.  After many months the younger apprentice Lan Yu gets to actually play the souna, but Tian Meng doesn't. Dejected he returns home and overhears his father talking proudly of him, so he goes back to the Master. Eventually he starts to play, too. 

Part of the training means observing Nature, listening and learning from wild birds, imitating their songs on different sized souna.  Eventually the boys are able to follow the master's troupe, and learn the cultural context. At a rich man's funeral, the Master's eight man band is hired, but the master won't play the Song of the Phoenix for any price. it's only for persons of exceptional moral value, who are not necessarily the rich and powerful. At last the Master decides to appoint his successor.  before the assembled villagers, he explains.  In twenty years, he's trained many good players but technical skills are not enough.  A souna master must have the ability to move people : it is responsibility and heritage.  He holds up the golden souna handed down from master to master for six generations. It's more than 300 years old.  Then he hands his legacy to Tian Meng who's so shocked he can barely take it in.    Poor Lan Yu, who was technically the better player.  Artistry can't be measured by technique. Lan Yu later understands that Tian Meng got the accolade because he was a more determined personality. 

Tian Meng takes over the business of the troupe, leading the other (older) players.  They do a gig at the wedding of Tian Meng's schoolfriend, who's struck it rich.  The Master recounts days when the troupe would be given gifts like wine, and ceremonial chairs  But Tian Meng knows his hosts weren't interested in the music, only in money. Times are changing. Tian Meng's band plays at another wedding, where the family's so rich they hire a western band, electric guitar and pop singer. Tian Meng, supported by the Master, retaliates by playing a souna tune, but the western band drowns them out with the Radetsky March.  The local wide boys beat up the souna players and smash the Master's ancient souna.   there's no work now for traditional bands, and the players have gone on to other jobs. Even Tian Meng's mother scolds him and tells him to get a proper job.  Chief Dou of Fire Village dies . Though deaf in life, he wanted a souna band.  The Master shames some of the old troupe to return, because the dead elder was a war hero and good man, and starts to play the Song of the Phoenix, but stops because he's unwell. 

The Master has lung cancer, but it's too advanced to be treated.   People from the government want Tian Meng to go to Xian to record souna music for posterity. Coughing in pain, the Master insists that Tian Meng do so. So Tian Meng heads to the city and meets Lan Yu, who's now a construction worker, married to Tian Meng's sister.  Life's easier in town, but Tian Meng hears a lone souna player, begging for tips, and knows what he has to do.  When Tian Meng goes back, the Master is dead, buried in a mound grave.  Now, Tian Meng plays the Song of the Phoenix, the sound of the souna singing out from the grave site, over the mountain, into the valley and river which the Old Master had loved so dearly.   No-one is there to listen, apart from the Master's faithful dog (who used to carry meals to him as he worked in the fields) An incredibly moving performance.  The eulogy isn't just for the master but honours the whole souna heritage and the culture behind it. 

Monday, 13 August 2018

Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem - Prom 41 Gardner, Elgar, Boulanger

Prom 41 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBCSO in Vaughan Williams' Dona nobis pacem, Elgar's Cello Concerto (Jean-Guihen Queyras) and Lili Boulanger .   Extremely perceptive performances that revealed deep insight, far more profound than the ostensible  "1918" theme   Neither Boulanger nor Elgar had direct experience of war, but, like all decent people with any conscience, they cared about what was happening around them, and could address the human impact of war.

Boulanger's Pour les funerailles d'un soldat is a grave processional, a far more mature piece than the miniatures she is usually represented by on programmes that stress her gender and youth, as opposed to her music.  A steady pace, drum rolls, the tolling of bells and rising frisson in the orchestra enhance the solemn choral backdrop. The strength of  Alexandre Duhamel's delivery added even more gravitas.  At the end, wordless sighs vocalized by the voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus.  This provided context for Elgar's Cello Concerto in G minor op 85 (1918-9) which, in some ways,  is am abstract funeral of sorts.  Jean-Guihen Queyras defined the first theme drawing out the richness, as if to savour it.  Gardner and the BBCSO reiterated the theme with sweeping expansiveness.  Theme and response repeat,  replicating the rising and falling figures which move like processional.  Queyras's tone was beautiful, suggesting the warmth of Elgar's vision, yet also pointedly poignant.  As so often in Elgar, confidence is undercut by an awareness that things do not remain the same forever.  Although Gardner's approach was not as full blooded as, say, Barbirolli, he conducted with refined sensitivity, which worked well with Queyras's sophisticated elegance.  The sudden changes of direction were nicely defined, enhancing the interaction between soloist and orchestra.  Though we've heard Elgar's Cello Concerto so many times, this approach was perfectly valid, and rewarding because it was slightly unusual.  For an encore, Queyras chose Dutilleux, one of the Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher, a brave choice in a place like the Royal Albert Hall where sensitive playing is usually drowned out.  But Queyras's mastery held the audience spellbound.

But the highlight of Prom 41 was, undoubtedly, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Dona nobis pacem, which Gardner approached with astonishing originality, bringing out the power in the message. Perhaps in modern times, we can better appreciate the visceral intensity.  Gardner also drew out the structural cohesion of the piece, and even brought out its cyclic qualities, which are themselves part of meaning.  Beware of over-emphasizing the use of different texts. What matters is how Vaughan Williams draws together different strands of human experience into an integrated whole.  Sophie Bevan stood in the organ loft, distant but not too distant, a reminder that the organ and its restrained undertones pulse at the heart of this piece.  Bevan floated her lines so they penetrated the vastness of the hall, the exqusite purity of her tone reflected in the winds. Within moments serenity was shattered by savage chords, the pounding of timpani and the call of trumpets.  "Beat! Beat ! Drums" is a Dies Irae in all but name, the lines swirling and whipping like flames, swept by violent forces, the BBC SO and Chorus unleashing fury.

Neal Davies sang the Reconciliation, where the word “beautiful" is repeated, not only by the soloist but by the chorus. Beautiful, because "mine Enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead".  This is the core "anti war" sentiment, refuting the idea that war resolves things: in death, all men are equal. Thus the deliberate phrasing, where Davies parsed the sentence with pauses. "I draw near", he continued, approaching the intimate moment of the kiss, with reverence.  A violin melody singing alone, garlanded, like the soprano was earlier, by hushed chorus.  Thus a brief repeat of the Dona Nobis Pacem, plaintive and austere with a rumble of muffled drums as the Dirge began, its quiet , relentless pace suggesting the cortege described in Walt Whitman's text.  With the four strophes, the chorus burst out defiantly. "I hear the great drums pounding...and every blow of the great convulsive drums strikes me through and through".  This is vintage Vaughan Williams in every way, with its echoes of Symphony no 3,  the tag "pastoral" more ironic than literal.  The text, also Whitman, refers to "two veterans, son and father" who die together, buried in a double grave, statistically an unlikely image in modern warfare, but one which works in metaphysical terms, underlining relentless futility, where one war engenders the next.  No words needed in the orchestral postlude, from which Davies re-emerges as the voice of the Angel of Death; the words "Dona nobis pacem" now appear almost as screams of protest.  The swirling furies of the Dies Irae return, to a text from the Book of Jeremiah."There is no balm in Gilead".

Most dramatic of all was the final section. "O Man, greatly beloved" sang Davies with fulsome affirmation, followed by orchestra and chorus in a series of quotations from the Old Testament. Gardner defined the ebb and flow, intensifying the trajectory: If all things must change, there may be resolutions beyond the grave, and from war.  Thus Dona nobis pacem rang again, clean, pure and bright, Bevan holding the last words so they seemed to vibrate into eternity.
Photos: Roger Thomas

Friday, 10 August 2018

Ao longo da viola morosa

Ao longo da viola morosa
Vai adormecendo a parlenda,
Sem que, amadornado, eu atenda
A lengalenga fastidiosa.
Sem que o meu coração se prenda,
Enquanto, nasal, minuciosa,
Ao longo da viola morosa,
Vai adormecendo a parlenda.
Mas que cicatriz melindrosa
Há nele, que essa viola ofenda
E faz que as asitas distenda
Numa agitação dolorosa?
Ao longo da viola, morosa...

Viola Chinesa by
Camillo Pessanha (1867-1926)   Pessanha, a Portuguese poet, who lived
in Macau, acculturating as Chinese, though never fully integrated.  In
this poem he describes a "Chinese viola" playing a nasal yet meticulous
melody which lulls into strange reverie.  What is this "mournful
agitation"  ? Why are foreigners hypnotized by these strange
imaginings?  The poem was dedicated to Wenceslau de Moraes, Pessanha's
friend who lived the same dream, but in Japan, the two of them outsiders
wherever they went.   In the above photograph, Pessanha is dressed as a
Chinese peasant, while sitting in the gardens of the Villa Leitão in
Macau, owned by the Leitão family, once wealthy and powerful in that
city, now dispersed all over the world, the villa itself long gone.  The
photo below shows Pessanha and Moraes on a visit to Hong Kong in 1895.

Pessanha's descedants still live in Macau, and are related to the Jorge family, who are distantly related to my ancestors. One of the Jorges amassed a huge
collection of Chinese antiques, which covered nearly every inch of his
own villa. My grandmother, who visited often, said that real Ming  and Qing 
porcelains covered nearly every surface in the villa, all over the
walls, in even the washrooms.  In the 1860's, the Jorge family rescued
treasures looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing in the Second Opium
War.  They met the troop ships returning from the north, offering the
soldiers beer for the wonders they'd stolen.  The collection was photographed,
catalogued and printed in a book by Vincente Jorge, printed in 1940,
which I found in an antique shop and gave my father.  A limited edition,
the frontispiece hand painted in water colours (sprays of wisteria).  That
book is now lost, too, as is the Jorge collection, supposedly destroyed
when the ship carrying it out of Macau was sunk by pirates in the late
1940's .  The photo below shows the Villa Leitão c.1890, published by  a
family collaterally related to my own.  And so past glories, past dreams, disappearing into live for the moment, and to live well, while you can.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Lisbon under Ashes - rediscovered Portuguese Baroque

In 1755, Lisbon was destroyed, first by a massive earthquake, then by a tsunami pouring in from the Atlantic, then by fire and civil unrest. The scale of the disaster is almost unimaginable today.  The centre of the Portuguese Empire, with treasures from India, Africa, Brazil and beyond, was never to recover. The royal palaces, with their libraries and priceless collections, were annihilated. Some manuscripts survived in other cities,  suggesting the scope of the original collections, which went back centuries.  This recording, by A Corte Musical, led by Rogério Gonçalves, from Pan Classics,  gives us an insight to some of the music that was lost. The spirit of the Age of Discoveries invigorated the Portuguese baroque, stimulating a vibrant culture that almost uniquely embraced influences from all over the world. So lively and varied is this recording that even without the historic significance, it's a delight to listen to. 

Toquen as sonajas, by Gaspar Fernandes (1566-1629), was discovered in the Cathedral at Oaxaca, Mexico.  Fernandes was an organist working in Guatemala at a time when Portugal and Spain were briefly united under one king.  Accompanied by beaten percussion, the song is a round, the voices joining at different points to create lively rhythms. The words are simple : "Play the sonajas, sound the rebecs, and the Portuguese rejoice",  repeated in different patterns in three distinct phases.  A sonaja is a rattle, and a rebec a bowed string instrument, both known in medieval times, and connected to instruments in the Middle East and Africa.  

Olà plimo Bacião, an anonymous piece from a 17th century codex, was found in the monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra. It's decidedly not monastic, but a negrillo, a type of villancico  inspired by the "zente de Guiné" a term applied to all Africans in the Portuguese orbit.  The rhythms suggest dance, possibly of African origin, possibly too uninhibited for the chroegraphy to be preserved, as was apparently the usual case in this period.   A lively refrain "Gulungà, gulungà, gulungué, clap your hands, move your feet".   An interlude with the gentle plucking of a stringed instrument, introduces a more reflective mood, in which the voice parts describe  a beloved child,  ie Jesus "for he is our God, and with the the black Santo Thomé, he is our God".  

A vosa porte Maria was found in Madrid and Albrorada is an arrangement of a traditional melody from Tuizelo in northern Portugal. The former is plaintive and  prayer-like, a soprano leading the chorus of voices and instruments.  The latter  is a vibrant parlay where the instruments  interact, strings and winds over a strong rhythmic foundation. Làgrimas de Anarda is a sonnet by Manuel Botelho de Oliveira (1636-1711) one of the pioneers of Brazilian literature, taken from a book published in Lisbon in 1705. The original music is lost, so here it is used with a French melody of the period.  Another interesting combination is the Passacalha da triste vida, an anonymous 16th century villancico paired with  a passacaglia from an opera from the time of Monteverdi.  The oldest piece in this collection is Toda noite e todo dia, from a songbook compiled in the 16th century , discovered in Elvas in 1928.  The text deals with impossible love "Que do que não traz provieto, Lança mão a fantasia" (What does not bring benefit gives way to fantasy)   The lovely soprano line elides over jaunty rhythmic strings, and then is joined by the tenor, singing alongside, not in duet.  Tramabote is one of the earliest purely instrumental pieces from the Portuguese baroque.  Bayle dei amor resucitado is part of a vanished genre of early theatrical pieces with incidental music   Cupid is swooning from love, but damsels and handsome young men greet it, and all sing together "The swan which sings from the tomb promises the more from life, the more deceased it is". Also allegorical is Deseos sin esperança (desire without hope) by Frei Filipe  Madre de Deus,  a Lisbon born vilhuellist who worked in the Spanish court.

In complete contrast Mariniculas to a text by Brazilian poet Gregorio de Matos (1636-1696), published in 1668, which describes a glamorous rascal who makes ladies swoon,  but who was "such a flaming faggot, he never looked at bonnets, finding the best undergarmnets in his pants". And more ! "empurrado por umas Sodmas no ano de tantos em cima de mil". Such a text might have stayed hidden in print, but here is used with a gay (in the old sense of the word) melody found in an archive in Coimbra.  Another early song, Entre os parasismos graves, entwines male and female voices singing of "saudade infelice" before the cheerfully upbeat Dime pedro, por tu vida by Manuel Correea (1600-1653) from one of the oldest musical codices in Latin America.  Wonderfully expressive percussion and jangly rhythms suggest indigenous influence of some kind. The singer is dancing in order to seduce, and presumably succeeds, as she's joined by a tenor. A short, sassy refrain "eh, eh eh !" punctuates the end of each verse. Exuberantly vivid.

A Corte Musical, led by Rogério Gonçalves,who  compiled and researched this collection and also plays bassoon and percussion. Tthe singers are Mercedes Hernández and Alice Borciani, with David Sagastume (alto) and Daniel Issa (tenor). 

Monday, 6 August 2018

Comic book shallow Lohengrin, Bayreuth

photo : Bayreuther Festspiele : E Narwath
 When Piotr Beczała jumped in for Lohengrin at Bayreuth, I breathed a sigh of relief. If Roberto Alagna couldn't be bothered to learn the part for the highest profile Wagner mecca in the world, he should stick to other things. Though there were a few moments when his voice sounded pushed - hardly surprising since he jumped in at short notice - Beczała is a natural Lohengrin, with the right purity and ping.  He's at least thought about who Lohengrin might be, which ought to be the starting point of any production.  Why is Lohengrin so touchy about revealing his identity ? If he believes in love, should't he at least acknowledge Elsa's need to know who she might be sleeping with  "If" might be the operative word. Lohengrin carries cosmic baggage.  Beczała created a "human" Lohengrin, ethereal and sublime, but also a man with conflicts.  Wagner poses questions : it's up to us to figure out possible answers.  Alas, this production, directed by Yuval Sharon, goes out of its way to avoid depth of thought or understanding.

Is Wagner without ideas Wagner at all  ?  Sharon gives us comic book shallowness, cutesy visuals that resolutely defy anything more than surface engagement.  Lohengrin isn't a fairy tale. Though parts of the plot are fantasy, the drama unfolds against a background of tension and metaphysical disintegration. King Heinrich comes to Brabant to mobilize Christendom against the barbarians of the East, and Ortrud represents a tradition even older than Christianity.  Replace that with faux-medieval costumes, origami collars and cartoon psychology and reduce the opera to picture book emptiness.   Blue light does not in itself tell the story, even if it fulfils the modern diktat that opera should above all be pretty to look at in isolated stills. How can  Lohengrin be merely "beautiful" when horrific cosmic forces  are being unleashed all round  ? 

Christian Thielemann's conducting is divine, but even with a good cast,  he's not a magician. We now live in times so bombarded by TV-realism and audio-only listening that we may have lost the art of visual literacy.  Visual literacy is like poetry.  Just as music is more than the markings on page, you have to engage with the oblique and ambiguous, one way or another. there's never any single answer.  Refusing to think in the first place is no answer at all.   As in poetry, meaning reveals itself slowly, and evolves.  Modern audiences, used to judging things from single images, like photos, are conditioned to think like Beckmesser, marking their slates as fast as they can, without really paying attention.  Sachs was different.

So we see Elsa (Anja Harteros) with moth wings on her back ?   Of course she's vulnerable, but she's a lot more than anonymous cipher.  What's that coil behind her ? If Sharon is suggesting Elsa's a bug drawn to bright light, it's an image that doesn't go very far and isn't developed.  So we see swords embedded in the ground. Vaguely phallic, but there's more to Lohengrin than sex.  On the 3Sat broadcast, we could see Telramund (Tomacz Konieczny) and Ortrud (Waltraud Meier), lit up against the darkness, which might either have been a comment on their situatiion or a chance to get away from the cutesy staging.  Ortrud is an unsympathetic part, especially in contrast to Elsa. But there;s a lot more to it, which Meier in her prime might have made more of.  Here, she's fine to listen to, but she doesn't inhabit the part as she she would have done in the past, and isn't helped by the non-directing. Harteros is a fine Elsa, but why the grey wig. Images should hint at something, not merely exist as decoration. Why is a guy painting in oils before the entry of the Herald ?   Another possible image that goes nowhere.  Even more telling, Georg Zeppenfeld's King Heinrich, so well characterized in the recent Royal Opera House Lohengrin (please read more here), seemed sidelined in Bayreuth.  Butterfly wings appear on Ortrud and also on Lohengrin, for no apparent purpose.  the insect imagery seemed a direct steal from the Neuenfel's rats Lohengrin, which was much better thought through. (Please read more here)

Wonderful orchestra and chorus for the wedding scene, but I couldn't understand the brightly coloured pillars.  You don't need to get everything at once, and good stagings can take a while to digest, but this baffled me.  The coils again   The rope might signify the ties that bind, but as we know, this isn't a marriage that will last, and the violence against women in this opera doesn't come just from Lohengrin, but more so from the people of Brabant.  Thank goodness again for Beczała singing sublimely, clear, ringing tones warmed with sincerity and tenderness. Magnificent orchestral, playing for the scenee of the banks of the Scheldt, but comic book staging again, complete with cardboard cut-outs.  Later Lohengrin's sword becomes a thunderbolt and Lohengrin shows Elsa a box with a light, by way of explainging who he is.  The feeble electric coil/moth imagery again !  It's cute, but delimiting. Then little brother Gottfried wanders in, a green Lego figure against Elsa's orange and the blue all round.  This Lohengrin should be popular with audiences who prize fairy tale prettiness but arguably that isn't what Lohengrin, or Wagner, for that matter, might be about. Thank goodness, all the more,  for Piotr Beczała, Thielemann and the rest of the cast for saving the show.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Hiroshima - the scarier scenario we face today

Seventy three years ago today, a bomb fell on Hiroshima.  Many official reasons why, such as ending the war and saving the lives of POWS. Whatever, the war did end and Japan is not militarily aggressive.  But consider the Bomb in wider geo-political terms. Who was the enemy who needed to be stopped.  Soviet troops occupied Eastern Europe, including Germany and Austria.  What was to stop them pouring into North China and Japan ? Tensions between Russia and Japan went back long before the first Russo-Japanese war in 1904-5 when the Japanese decisively crushed the Russian Navy at Port Arthur and at sea.  Amazing,considering that Japan had been feudal and rural barely 50 years before, and that the Russian fleet was state of the art, as powerful as the British Navy. 

Territories like Sakhalin are still disputed today. So what was to stop a Russian surge against defeated Japan, thus threatening the US, Britain and the whole balance of power in the Pacific ?  Not for nothing did the US send thousands of elite Marines to North China after 1945.  Ostensibly, they were there to supervise the withdrawal of Japanese troops and support the Goumindang Government. But North China was a stronghold of the Chinese Communist Party who were dependent on the Soviet Union.   At least the CCP had the sense to split with Russia as soon as they could (1957)

Wars are not waged by direct means alone. Another lesson we can learn from Hiroshima, and one scarily relevant today.  With Putin, we see an upsurge in aggression not just through coventional means, as in Syria, but by technology and its ability to reshape the way we think. Destroying democractic societies from within, spreading fear and ignorance, controlling key stooges to overthrow their own heritage, the masses easily persuaded.  Why bother with bombs when you can use "the people"against themselves?


Thursday, 2 August 2018

Hubert Parry : Invocation to Music

At the Three Choirs Festival today,  Hubert Parry Invocation to Music (1895). Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Three Choirs Festival chorus and soloists Katherine Broderick,  Mark Le Brocq and David Stout.  The concert begins with Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens , so well known that it hardly needs an introduction: with the Three Choirs Festival chorus, it's sure to be very good indeed, especially in this context. Also on the programme,  Parry's Symphony no 5, the Symphonic Fantasia,  which featured in Prom 17 - please read more HERE and HERE. So a few words about the Invocation to Music a grand "Ode in Honour of Henry Purcell" to use its official subtitle, written to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Purcell in 1895.

A splendid orchestral introduction to Parry's Invocation to Music, long string lines rising to crescendo, seguing into joyful processional.  "Myriad voiced Queen ! Enchantress !  of the air!" sing the choir ; magnificent rich textures, voice types clearly defined and separate. "Chained in unborn oblivion drear, thy many-hearted grace restore unto our Isle, our own to be ! And make again our Graces three"...... "Return, return to merry England, return, enchantress, myriad voiced Queen!" The text, by Robert Bridges is somewhat turgid - Parry wasn't terribly keen - but perhaps we can intuit what this Purcell revival meant to the late Victorian age, with its confidence and sense of imperial grandeur.  Thus the intertwining of choral parts and orchestra may be designed to form a garland in music.

Parry valued Purcell highly and ensured that his students did, too. But apart from the introduction, Parry's Invocation isn't so much "about" Purcell as about the ethical and moral mores of Parry's time.  Delicate woodwinds announce a more contemplative mood for the second section, "Thee, fair poetry" for tenor solo, decorated by murmuring orchestra.  Images of the countryside abound, but this landscape is strangely haunted, living in nostalgic memory rather than the present. "Only awhile the distant sun from hidden villages around, threading the glades and woody heights is borne of bells that dong the Sabbath morn"   This song is also a memorial to Parry's schoolfriend George Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, whio died young while the Invocation was being completed.  George was also  the brother of Parry's wife Maude, but that's another story.  Thus the very private tenderness: not at all a grand public statement, despite being embedded in an elaborate whole. One of the reasons why I'm so fond of Parry.  Though he wrote music for official occasions, there's often something humble and human if you listen more carefully.
Almost immediately, Parry switches back to "public mode" with the chorus "The monstrous sea" . Churning , monumental lines, trumpets calling forward, describing the "the orphaning waters wild and wide", sunken ships, a castle studded coastline  and the moon, which controls the tides.  "in the twinkling smile of  his boundless slumber, to the rhythmm of oars....when the waters have glowed with blood, and hearts have laughed in then fight"....O Muse of our Isle, to thee, to thee !".  Whether Bridges was connecting 17th century England to Victorain naval power, I don't know : the main thing is that, for Parry, a highly experienced sailor, this music heaves and surges like the sea and whatever that might represent.  From this maritime imagery, the soprano and tenor duet "Love to love calleth" might seem to echo Tristan und Isolde.  Hardly any composer anywhere in Europe was immune to Wagner, even those contra, so Parry can hardly be blamed for being aware of what was happening around him. All 19th century composers referenced German and Austrian musical tradition and built upon it : it would have been hard for any good composer to be isolationist.  Parry's approach was individual : more understated than florid, gentler and more humane.  Thus the Dirge for bass solo, "To me, to me, fair Goddess, come!" mourning again, possibly a hidden reference to George Herbert, though the section is dramatic and valedictory "Lament ! Lament, for when thy Seer died no song was sung".  A final strophe with valedictory orchestral depth as the bass intones "We ne'er arise to see... our tears as dew".
The seventh section "Man born of desire" is the longest and perhaps the most elegaic.  The chorus begins with hushed mystery but arises, accompanied by trumpets, in contemplation of the possible meaning of life.  "(Man) striveth to know, to unravel the mind, that veileth in horror to vanquish his fate.... no ill shall be...whence he came to pass away...umade, lost for aye, with things that are not".   As the Invocation draws to its cyclic conclusion, a more upbeat mood returns. Soprano, tenor and bass join the chorus for the ninth section "O enter with me the gates of delight"". Awakening from the "terror of night" the protagonists have reached "everlasting day".  "Night hath unlocked the starry heaven for thee, the sea, the trust of his streams.......and death has no sting for beauty undying".  As in the introduction, the different voices interwine gracefully.   Music, thus invoked, brings new life.  Infused with confidence, chorus andorchestra  triumphantly celebrate "O Queen of sinless grace" (meaning Music, not a temporal Queen) which shall "with a myriad voiced song go forth.... with the joy of Man in the beauty of Love's desire". 
Please see my other posts on Parry, especially the reviews of his English Lyrics CDs from SOMM

Monday, 30 July 2018

Rock solid in every way : Strauss Salomé, Salzburg

Strauss Salomé : Asmik Grigorian (photo Ruth Walz)

Richard Strauss Salomé from the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, a powerful interpretation of an opera which defies easy answers, performed and produced with such distinction thast it suceeds on every level.  The words "Te saxa Loquuntur" (The stones are speaking to you) are projected onto the stage.  Salzburg regulars will recognize this as a reference to the rock foundations on which part of the city is built, and the traditions the Festival represents. In this opera, the characters talk at cross-purposes, hearing without understanding. The phrase suggests that what might not be explicitly spoken might have much to reveal.

 Behind a gauze sceen, a madonna figure with lace veil and golden crown materializes, laying down her veil.  Dark figures appear, crushing the veil and crown underfoot.   Princess Salomé ( a sensational Asmik Grigorian) enters. "Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht!" sings Narraboth (Julien Prégardien, vocally recognizable even beneath the makeup), his lines repeating in different  patterns.   Dark swelling chords surge from the orchestra, Salomé puts on the veil and crown. Like the Madonna she's worshipped (by Narraboth) but later treated as a whore (by Herodes - John Daszak). Horns and trombones call from the pit, heralding the voice of Jochanaan (Gábor Bretz).

This staging (by Romeo Castellucci) manages to depict  the multiple levels in the opera as a coherent whole. Instead of depicting the dungeon as an underground cavern, it uses the simple device of a black hole projected onto the stage, from which Jochanaan emerges, first garbed as a mythic beast hardly visible against the blackness behind him.  The hole is nearly always present, breaking into the marble and mirror glass neatness of the palace. Later it will serve as a technical device disguising quick scene changes.  This is perceptive since the opera itself deals with the way Jochanaan's presence unsettles Salomé, and the way the subconcious intrudes into consciousness. Bretz holds aloft a circular object, like an opaque mirror.

Mirror images abound. Salomé speaks at Jochanaan with images of beauty proliferating in nearly every line, swiftly changing and moving, Grigorian singing with good rhythmic deliberation, almost as though she was already singing the dance of veils. As Salomé moves in on Jochanaan to kiss him, the orchestra wails in horror. "Du bist verflucht." sings Bretz, with malevolent force "Du bist verflucht, Salomé!"  Welser-Möst brings out the strident dissonace, brasses blaring and exhaling - not unlike over-excited human screams.  Then Grigorian dances, slowly, in time to the music, her legs exposed. It's explicitly erotic, though chaste.  Tubas and baleful bassoons announce the entry of Herodes and Herodias (Anna Maria Chiuri) and their retinue, stepping over Narraboth’s corpse, unperturbed. More characters at cross-purposes. "Hört ihr es nicht?" "Ich höre nichts"   Clarity in the singing makes the exchanges bristle with tension. This was particularly effective in the interaction between Herodes and the Jews and Nazarenes.  They too are "dancing" games of non-communication. When the voice of Jochanaan blasts through again, Bretz cuts through, firm and direct.

A monolith marked "Saxa" is shifted, revealing Grigorian, now in a silk shift, looking vulnerable.  But something has changed in her.  Her lines are now fierce, almost monotone, rising to maniacal savagery. Now she's seen in a circle, surounded by white liquid. No whitewash, not milk so much as the symbolism of the moon of which she sang before she encountered Jochannan "Ja, wie die Schönheit einer Jungfrau, die rein geblieben ist." Herodes grows more insistent, and the red paint, covering Daszak’s face like a mask, melts away, staining his clean white shirt.  "Ich will den Kopf des Jochanaan" sings Grigorian, her vouce rising to wild crescendo. Still, Herodes prevaricates, his lines disintegrated into horrified fragments.  Welser-Möst hold nothing back, defining the turbulence with its sharp brass alarums and thunderclaps of percussion.  Grigorian alternates between ferocity and tenderness,  searching lines reaching out, then receding into regret. A tour de force performance, made even more moving by the sensitive filming which picks up the emotion in her expressive face.  The dancing here is in the voice part and the music swirling around it: Grigorian embraces the headless corpse of the prophet, seated like a Babylonian statue, carved in stone.  "Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund", she sings against a luminous orchestral background which rises to strange, unsettling valediction.  And so Salomé dies, her head poking from a hole in the ground, as if on a silver platter.

This is a production of surreal, esoteric beauty, so full of subtle detail that it will, in time, reveal even more depths.  Kudos to the dramaturge Piersandra Di Matteo.  But it also reveals extremely high levels of musicianship, both in the singing and orchestral playing. Since it is co-sponsored by ORF, 3sat and UNITEL in co-operation with Wiener Philharmoniker and the Salzburg Festival, no doubt a DVD will be forthcoming. In which case grab it. 

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Prom 17 - transcendental Parry, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Brabbins

Thunder and lightning above the Royal Albert Hall before Prom 17  with Martyn Brabbins conductingthe BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst.   Parry's Symphony no 5, the Symphonic Fantasia ,doesn't actually have much to do with the First World War, or Englishness for that matter. It's a brilliantly original work,  which should be appreciated on its own musical terms. Parry's place in British music, and European music, deserves far more attention.   The BBC's fixation with non-musical agendas reinforces cliché and shallow thinking to the detriment of the music itself.

Parry's Symphony no 5, the  Symphonic Fantasia, is a brilliantly original work, looking forwards yet built upon Parry's very deep knowledge of his musical antecedents.   In 1883, he had written of Schumann's Symphony no 4 that it "can be felt to represent in its entirety the history of mental and emotional conditions such as may be grouped around one centre.... the conflict of impulses and desires, the different phases of thought and emotion, and the triumph or failure of the different forces which seem to be represented all give the impression of ....being perfectly consistent in their relationship to one another." 

Thus Parry's symphony - for it is a symphony in four movements (allegro, lento, scherzo and moderato) - encompasses infinite variety in tightly structured coherence. The programmatic titles, Stress, Love Play and Now, are in themselves nothing new, but Parry marks the various sub themes and developments not with conventional German or Italian terms, but with words like "brooding", "pity" and "revolt" which allow interpretive freedom.  Its open-ended, free-spirited nature welcomes new performers, inviting them in, rather than imposing on them.  This matters,  since Parry held strong humanistic and ethical views.   Please read my piece on Parry's The Soul's Ransom HERE.  Some teachers teach students what to do, while others teach students how to think for themselves.  Parry was the latter type : more self effacing than the dominant Stanford and in the long term perhaps a greater creative influence on other composers.

Though Parry in this symphony was thinking back to Schumann and Brahms, the innovative nature of this piece harks to Carl Neilsen's Symphony no 2 "The Four Temperaments", and quite possibly more. It's intricate patterns of theme, recapitulation, development and elongation show, says Jeremy Dibble, "a forward looking attitude to modern structural procedures.  For this reason alone it merits a firmer place in the canon of cyclic works, and perhaps more important still it deserves to be more widely recognized as one of the finest and most assured utterances in British symphonic literature".  If anyone can make a case for Parry as a beacon of modern British music, it would be Martyn Brabbins, whose repertoire spans the late 19th and 20th centuries.   This was a powerful performance, very clearly thought through, much more coherent than when Siniasky conducted the piece at the Proms in 2010.  While  Adrian Boult and Matthias Bamert remain invaluable, Brabbins, with his alertness to the sophisticated inventiveness in the piece,  reveals new insights.

Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending is so extraordinary that even though we've heard it a million times, it still has the power to  astonish.  It's so moving that it always works, whatever the performance. Tai Murray, a former BBC New Generation artist, is technically gifted, shaping the long lines with great charm, suggesting the fragility of the lark.  But there is more to this piece than refinement. I would have preferred more emotional engagement, bringing out the heart rending sense of Sehnsucht of really great performances. Perhaps if we hadn't heard this piece so often we might not expect so much, but how could we live without it ?   But the magic of The Lark Ascending worked yet again : the Proms audience went wild with joy.   
With Hubert Parry's Hear My Words, ye People (1894) the organ loft lit up. The organist was Adrian Partington,  evidently enjoying the majesty of the Royal Albert Hall organ.   Just as impressive was  the BBC National Chorus of Wales, as focussed and as precise as they were in last week's Mahler Symphony no 8. Please read more about that here.  Though Parry wrote Hear My Words,  ye People for enthusiastic amateurs, with top notch singers like these, the anthems rang out with magnificent conviction.  The soloists were Ashley Riches and Francesca Chiejina.  This isn't an overblown extravaganza, but all the better for that as it shows the intimacy of Parry's style even when writing for choir, organ and (minimal) orchestra.  Gustav Holst's Ode to Death (1919) blends voices and orchestra to create lush textures which suddenly ignite into crescendo.  returning again to ethereal harmonies "Over the treetops I float thee along, over the rising and sinking waves, come lovely and soothing death, come with joy!".  Harps and fine, bell-like tones in the orchestra suggest transcendence.  

In Vaughan Williams's Symphony no 3  the "Pastoral"  winds and bassoons murmured, as dark and impenetrable as smoke, a rather apposite image since the piece was written after RVW's experiences in the trenches, collecting bodies from fields which should have produced crops.  A  violin melody wafted upwards. Like the Lark it ascends, but its ascent seemed haunted. The natural trumpet in the second movement sounded deliberately hollow, like a trumpet blown by an ordinary soldier, perhaps not quite in tune.  A horn repeats the motif : the last Post meets the last Trumpet at the End of Time. What might the robust dances in the scherzo represent ?  Perhaps this is a threnody not only for those killed in the trenches but for an innocence that cannot return.  Francesca Chiejina’s voice materialized from high up in the balcony, which in the Royal Albert Hall is very far away indeed.  This is important because it creates a sense of distance.  Whatever the soprano might signify, the sound should be otherworldly.  That's why the song is mysterious vocalize. I don't even think it's meant to be an angel or anything quite so comforting, but a reminder that there are things  that are beyond human comprehension and distances that can never be bridged. 

But what of this Proms audience  ?  Even in the expensive seats, people were fidgetting, not paying attention, behaving as if they were at home in front of their TVs.  Some walked out, even after Hear My words, ye People and the Ode to Death.  Why weren't they paying attention to serious subjects and seriously good musicianship ?  Therein lies the danger of marketing music as consumer disposable.   Eventually audiences assume that as long as they've paid for something, they don't need to make an effort to put anything of themselves into the equation.   Maybe what we need is marketing that respects the art it is supposed to serve.  [Since writing this, I've heard from people who weren't able to attend because the Prom sold out almost immediately. All the more it's a shame that those who did get tickets didn't care enough about the music. The ones walking out after the choral pieces were cheerfully heading off to the pub. So much for the music and indeed for the subject ].

Please also read Robert Hugill in Opera Today

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Ahead of Prom 17 Hubert Parry Symphony no 5


Hubert Parry's Symphony no 5 at Prom 17 Friday, along with Vaughan Williams and Holst.   PLease read my review HERE and Robert Hugill's HERE.  There's so much more to this programme than the usual clichés about the First World War.  Just as there's much more to Parry than Jerusalem and sound tracks to royal events. So what if Parry died in 1918 ?  What matters is his influence on British music,which runs deeeper than some expect.  For one thing, Parry was not insular, but had an outlook which embraced continental European music.  Please come back for my review of Prom 17, but some background on Parry's 5th (courtesy of Jeremy Dibble's seminal biography).

Parry's Symphony no 5 connects to Schumann's Symphony no 4 which we heard earlier this week in the 1841 version Brahms preferred.  Since Parry respected Brahms so much, when Brahms died, he wrote a private and very moving tribute.  Schumann's original "fourth" symphony was written in his glorious Liederjahre when a stream of masterpieces burst forth unstemmed. It's not the work of an immature composer, but rather of one who has so much to say that he needs to get it down quickly.    "The important fact", wrote Parry in 1883 about Schumann 4 was "the work can be felt to represent in its entirety the history of mental and emotional conditions such as may be grouped around one centre.... the conflict of impulses and desires, the different phases of thought and emotion, and the triumph or failure of the different forces which seem to be represented all give the impression of ....beingperfectly  consistent in their relationship to one another." Thus Parry's preferred title Symphonic Fantasia

The titles of each movement, Stress, Love, Play and Now might mean different things to different people but had symbolic significance to a composer who cared deeeply about ethical and intellectual issues. Thus the complex but highly organized patterns of theme, capitulation and development. Some themes have titles like "brooding thought", "pity" and "revolt", like leitmotivs, but are defined by subtle tonal variations.  "The elongated capitulation", writes Jeremy Dibble, "is decidedly Lisztian" and "the complex cyclic procedures"  (in Schoenberg's .... Kammersymphonie published 1912) "shows a fascinating affinity with the processes in Parry's Symphony".  Though it was unlikely that Parry knew this, it is all the more reason that it's remarkable how Parry "shows a forward looking attitude to modern structural procedures" adds Dibble. "For this reason alone it merits a firmer place in the canon of cyclic works, and perhaps more important still it deserves to be more widely recognized as one of the fineset and most assured utterances in British symphonic literature"

Thus the real programme in Prom 17, not "greatest hits" so much as British music on the verge of a new era.  RVW's "Pastoral" isn't pastoral, and The Lark Ascending is pretty amazing, even if we've heard it a million times.  Please also read my analysis of the secret programme behind the First Night of the Proms where the BBC's obsession with non-musical themes was trumped by deeper musical undercurrents.  Please also visit the Hubert Parry Group on Facebook

Monday, 23 July 2018

Heavenly choruses - Mahler Symphony no 8 Prom Royal Albert Hall

Photos Roger Theomas

BBC Prom 11 Mahler Symphony no 8 in E flat major at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Thomas Søndergård conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and a huge cast. The nickname "Symphony of a Thousand" wasn't Mahler's choice but the invention of promoters eager to market it as a showpiece.  In music, quality comes before quantity, so many performances scale down the numbers for the sake of the music.  But the Royal Albert Hall was created for extravagant choral spectaculars   In this vast barn of a building, it's possible to do things with Mahler 8 that couldn't be done elsewhere.  Most of the 6000-strong audience will remember this Prom for years to come.   For starters, the Royal Albert Hall is in itself a form of theatre: the dome, the atmosphere, the sense of communal anticipation and the sheer visual impact of seeing the choristers file into their places. All eight rows of the choir stalls were packed, with another row of singers above that still. Across the entire breadth of the hall, two rows of young singers dressed in white.  And right at the heart, the Royal Albert Hall organ  so majestic that it sustain the whole powerful experience.  

With its unconventional structure and eclectic meaning, Mahler's 8th still remains perplexing for many. Why are the two parts so different ? How do they work? Nearly every good performsnce can offer insight.  Under Søndergård, the BBC NOW is at a peak  but the glory of this performance was built on the choral forces he had to hand - the BBC National Chorus of Wales (Adrian Partington, chorus master), the BBC Symphony Chorus (Neil Ferris) and the London Symphony Chorus (Simon Halsey) with the Southend Boys' Choir and Southend Girls' Choir (Roger Humphreys). Halsey was chorus master of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and of the Berlin Philharmonic before his present post, and Partington,  one of the stalwarts of the Three Choirs Festival (which starts next weekend) has conducted Mahler 8 before, at Gloucester Cathedral.  Thus the exceptional coherence in the singing : hundreds of individuals operating in unison, negotiating the swift changes with precision, keeping lines fluid and clean. In a symphony that predicates on images of illumination, this clarity is important.   Most impressive of all was the stillness these massed voices managed to achieve in the quieter passages.  Though the nickname "Symphony of a Thousand" predisposes listeners to expect overwhelming volume, the critical passages are marked by hushed refinement, the "poetical thoughts" of spiritual refinement. Hearing hundreds of voices singing quietly, tenderly and yet in unison was very moving.  They even seemed to synchronize turning their pages. 

The First Part of this symphony is based on an ancient latin hymn about the Pentecost. Divine fire descends upon the Apostles, inspiring them to go forth on their mission to spread Enlightenment.  Hence the  direct attack with which "Veni creator spiritus!" was executed , creating an aural force field n which the soloists voices were embedded.  Though the soloists -  Tamara Wilson, Camilla Nylund, Marianne Beate Kielland,  Claudia Huckle,  Joélle Harvey, Simon O'Neill, Quinn Kelsey and Morris Robinson - stand at the front of the platform where they can be heard,  they are primus inter pares - first among equals - operating as an extension of the chorus and orchestra. 

In the Second Part of this Symphony,  Mahler was inspired by Goethe's Faust, where Faust is redeemed by divine grace. The soloists are named but they operate as stages in the transformation,: they aren't acting out roles as if in an opera.  Take the names too literally and miss the esoteric spirituality, where ego is sublimated for a higher purpose.  The variety in the voice types reflects human diversity,. I liked the balance between  O'Neill's earnest fervour and Kelsey's rich tone, anchored by Robinson's bass.  These parts also operate in musical terms suggesting movement upwards and downwards, on simultaneous planes, also pertinent to meaning.  The women's voices supply the Das Ewig-wiebliche, the "Eternal Feminine". This dichotomy between male and female, creator and muse, is central to Mahler's later work.  The chorus of Blessed boys operates in parellel. "Wir werden früh entfernt von Lebenchören", They too, have been reborn by an act of faith, but how cheeky and childlike they are, like th child in Mahler Symphony no 4.
The vocal music in Mahler's 8th inevitably draws attention, and deservedly so. Thus the absolute importance of the silence that follows the ecstasy with which the first part ends. It represents a transition, bridging the two disparate parts, cleansing away what has gone before, settingb the scene for what is to come.  But in many ways, the whole Symphony pivots on the first part of the Second Part where the orchestra alone speaks.  Søndergård approached it with restraint, letting the detail shine.  Pizzicato figures suggest tentative footseps entering the new territory evoked by sweeping strings, called forward by horn and flutes.  The Chorus and echo repeat the pattern, marking the transition.  Throughout the symphony,  details were respected, so individual instruments like flutes, celesta and harps could be heard despite the size of the forces around them.  Some conductors achieve much more luminous purity, but Søndergård made the most of generous choral resources at his disposal, which played to the strengths of the Royal Albert Hall.  

Please read more about Mahler 8 on this site, following the labels below. Lots more Mahler, too.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Prom 8 Discoveries - Morfydd Owen and lively Schumann

Morfydd Owen's Nocturne in D flat major (1913), at BBC Prom 8 at the Royal Albert Hall, should transform perceptions about Welsh (and British) music history.  Thomas Søndergård conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who premiered its first modern premiere last year, though this performance was far more accomplished.  Owen left some 250 surviving scores by the time of her death at the age of 26, of an extensive range including works for large orchestra, chorus, chamber pieces  songs and works for stage.  To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.  Though she was not part of the male English Establishment, Owen needs no special pleading.  Her music stands on its own merits, highly individual and original.  Her work was published in the Welsh Hymnal when she was 16, before she graduated from Cardiff and moved to London, where she moved in Bohemian, arty circles with the likes of D H Lawrence, Ezra Pound and Prince Yusupov, one of the conspirators who assassinated Rasputin.   A "new woman" she was also independent and had a second career as a singer, hence her fluency in writing for voice.  Unlike far too many supposedly "lost" composers, Owen's legacy was substantial. Her reputation doesn't rest on sentimentality or gender alone, but on the hard evidence of her music itself.

The Nocturne is sophisticated and highly original, which compares well with much else written at the time.  A mysterious woodwind melody calls forth, answered by the strings. The line is is illuminated by tiny bright woodwind fragments, before the main theme is developed into poignant song. Again the strings respond, lit by swathes of brighter winds and harps.  Highly atmospheric yet formally structured, this Noctune now eneters a second, more expansive theme which moves with great assurance towards a magnificent crescendo which suddenly shifts to more urbane, lively motifs. If this is a tone poem about night, it's not somnolent but filled with incident and detail.  Yet another theme develops, this time led by violin. gradually tension builds up : strong, assertive chords not quite ostinato lead to yet another theme, like a lyrical dance for solo woodwind, garlanded by strings and harps.  Such deftness of design, such precise orchestration, and such beauty. All packed into barely half an hour, but unhurried and clear of purpose.  

Owen's Nocturne reminded me of Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and even possibly of Stravinsky, whose work Owen would have known, given her interest in what was happening in Paris and Russia. Yet its serene confidence is highly distinctive : Owen most definitely had a voice of her own, though she was only 22 when it was completed.  BBC NOW should make this Nocturne part of their standard repertoire and explore more of Owen's unique and fascinating music.  Please also read my other two articles on Morfydd Owen  :  Talent has No Gender and Portrait of a Lost Icon.  (which is about the groundbreaking recording of her songs. Both include liniks to Tŷ Cerdd, pioneers of Owen's music and of other Welsh composers.

Unfortunaterly the BBC's obsession with artificial themes yet again obscured the music.  The tag "Youthful Beginnings" is pretty meaningless in itself, hence the need to include pieces by Lili Boulanger and early Mendelssohn and Schumann, which otherwise don't cohere as a programme.  Boulanger and Morfydd Owen were almost exact contemporaries and died young, but that's where the similarities end. Though Boulanger won the composition prize at the Prix de Rome aged 19 - no small achievement - she didn't leave as much as Owen did. Again, perfectly fair enough, everyone develops at different rates.  D'un matin de printemps and D'un soir triste are delightful if somewhat slight, but her reputation was bolstered vigorously by her sister Nadia and her followers.  These pieces are heard fairly frequently (last November with John Storgårds)  because programme planners need to fill agendas about gender.  Owen's music speaks for itself  regardless of reputation.

Bertrand Chamayou was the soloist in Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto no 1 in G minor, which was  balm to listen to. No special pleading needed.  Whatever his sex and age, Mendelssohn had a unique musical personality which makes his music distinctive.  Søndergård concluded Prom 8 with Schumann's Symphony no 4 in D minor, in the version dating from 1841. This was his glorious Liederjahre when a stream of masterpieces burst forth unstemmed. It's not the work of an immature composer, but rather of one who has so much to say that he needs to get it down quickly. This version instead of the better known 1851 revision has merit.  The orchestration is freer and more spontaneous, textures brighter and livelier.  Søndergård understood why it matters that the four movements flow one into the other. They're so full of inventive spirit that it would be wrong to hold them back to make them "neat".  Great energy, even moments of quirky humour.  Low brass and winds blast, almost in parody of stolid ostentation. A vivacious climax, wittily and succintly achieved.  This version of Schumann's symphony is hardly unknown but how refreshing and vital it felt in this performance! 

Friday, 20 July 2018

Balladen im Wandel der Zeit - traditional song and Lieder

From specialist Austrian label Gramola, founded in 1924, Balladen im Wandel der Zeit (Ballads in changing times) (Please click here to access) linking Lieder and traditional ballads.    Some Lieder are ballads, but not all ballads are Lieder.  The differences aren't clear-cut, but it's fascinating to ponder the connections. Lieder as through-composed art song developed not directly from folk song but from literary sources, generally the preserve of the educated upper and middle classes. These composers, poets and listeners were well aware of pre-urban tradition ; witness the success of Gottfried Herder, the Brothers Grimm and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the compilation of oral sources.   Like the taste for classical antiquity, this interest in folk tradition was idealized into new forms, such as Singspiele and operas like Der Freischütz.  The Lieder of Beethoven and Schubert represented progress, romanticizing the past, but looking forward.  Poets as great as Schiller and Goethe wrote ballads, as did many others. Not all were initially intended for musical setting.  Goethe's Der König von Thule, for example, was incorporated in Faust to demonstrate Gretchen's purity and faithful nature.  On this disc, Robert Holzer and Thomas Kerbl perform the setting by Schubert and also a version by Heinrich Marchner, whose operas like Der Vampyr and Hans Heiling, still popular today, draw on folk sources.  Schubert's Der König von Thule is so well known it doesn't need describing, but Holzer is worth hearing. His bass is firm, yet flexible, with a nicely noble ring.    Prometheus and Kreuzug are well served.  In Grenzen der Menschheit , Kerbl's pace is deliberate, allowing the line "Wenn der uralte, Heilige Vater, mit gelassener Hand aus rollenden Wolken....." to flow with magnificent sweep.  Marschner's version is more prosaic, the strophes repeated with relatively little development, but it's useful to know.  Holzer and Krebl also perform settings by Carl Loewe, Prinz Eugen, Odins Meerstritt and Die Uhr, and Robert Schumann's Die Beiden Grenadiere,  Brahms Verrat and Hugo Wolf's Der Feuerreiter, all of which tell stories as ballads so often do. 
More unusually, Die Ballade vom Bettelvogt by Wilhelm Weismann (1900-1980).  The text was collected by Brentano and von Arnim . It refers to gangs of wandering beggars roaming the countryside in the wake of wars.  The language is archaic. "Ihr Brüder seyd nun lustig, der Bettlevogt ist todt, erhängt schön im Geigen  ganz schwer und voller Noth" Weismann's setting captures the folksy feel yet also marks the changes in the tale with distinctively sophisticated changes. 
This disc begins, however, with with the drone of a hurdy-gurdy, played by Erberhard  Ktummer. Throughout Middle Europe, hurdy-gurdys and bagpipes were associated with folk tradition. References to them in "classical" music, from Winterreise to Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer have extra musical associations for various reasons.  Das Schloss in Österreich is a traditional air, each strophe repeating with occasional variation, the hurdy-gurdy providing plaintive commentary with bursts of rhythmic energy.  In an Austrian castle, filled with silver gold and marble, a "junger Knab" lies imprisoned, but his father can't raise the ransom to free him, so he dies.  But the father sings his ballad, reaching the world beyond.   The last ballad is Todenamt, also with hurdy-gurdy. It's an Austrian Burengesang from the 14th century. The tale is told through alternating verses. "Wachter trut geselle, trit her, ein wort zu mir. Ich hon min lieb verlornen das lied das klag ich dir!"  To no avail. "Mit ir schneewiessen hande macht sie im ein tiefes grab, mit iren heissen trächen si ihm den segen gab"  Fascinating music, unveiling a genre and a sensibility that would be rewarding to explore in greater depth

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Dido and Aeneas in the Mediterranean - Aix festival

Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (Dido et Énée) at the Aix-en-Provence Festival 2018 in a setting that confronts its Mediterranean context. Dido, a refugee from Tyre in what's now the Lebanon,found refuge on the coast of North Africa and founded the city of Carthage. Aeneas fled his homeland after it was destroyed by war. For Virgil and his audiences the saga was contemporary. The Roman empire was seaborne : Carthage was a place they knew.  Purcell's opera based on Nahum Tate's adaptation of Virgil was necessarily removed from context.  But modern audiences cannot, if they have any conscience, escape images of refugees on small boats at sea, or dying in the attempt.  So this staging at Aix is perfectly valid and extends impact.  Before the opera begins,  the singer Rokia Traoré, wrapped in a blanket like so many African refugees even today,  recounts the background. The text by Maylis de Kerangal descibes the perils and anguish of forced exile. Being a refugee in those circustaces is not an easy option.  Though Purcell's music accompanied her entry onto the darkened stage  when Traoré sings "Je suis Didon", she's accompanied by a North African n'goni ( a kind of  lute) Then she sings a chant.  Dido becomes a person, an individual with a past, not just a figure in a play.  Extremely moving.  
The opera proper begins when the cast file in onto a set resembling a pier in an anonymous port.  Anaïk Morel sings Didon,  Sophia Burgos her sister Belinda.  Tobias Greenhalgh sings Aeneas, and Lucile Richardot the Sorceress. The orchestra and choir are Ensemble Pygmalion, baroque specialists, conducted here by Vaclav Luks.  The director is Vincent Huguet, mentored by Patrice Chéreau.  A stylish performance well paced and expressive : nothing prissy about the baroque !  Enjoy it nhere on
Please also see my pieces

Les Funérailles de Louis XIV (Pygmalion Ensemble) and

Perpetual Night - early English Baroque airs - Lucile Richardot Ensemble Correspondances