Monday, 29 December 2008

Gerald Finzi's New Year's Eve Epiphany

Chosen Hill in Gloucestershire is one of those "power spots" which attract creative energy. In the early 1920's, shy, repressed Gerald Finzi started to visit. He met up with Detmar Blow and other arts and crafts types, who introduced him to exotic things like yoghurt and alternative living. In many ways, Finzi's life was an extension of the William Morris ideal.

Ivor Gurney used to come here most days, walking the 5 miles from Gloucester each way. But it was worth it – from this hill there's a panoramic view across the Cotswolds, only broken by mists on the horizon (or smog). At the top of the hill is a church tower, dangerously poised on a cliff – parts are now blocked off. Below is a tiny cottage, low slung, almost invisble from the road. On New Year's Eve, 1925, Finzi went to a party in the cottage. At midnight, they came outside, into sharp frost, the night sky filled with stars, and "heard bells ringing across Gloucestershire from beside the Severn to the hill villages of the Cotswolds".

Stephen Banfield, Finzi's biographer, calls this the "hilltop epiphany", for it released in Finzi a surge of original music. This was the inspiration for In Terra Pax and Nocturne whose sub-title is in fact New Year's Music, filled with bells and joy. Finzi needed an impetus to find himself and something happened that night under the stars. "I love New Year's Eve," he told a friend later, "Though it's the saddest time of the year..... a time of silence and quiet". And soon after asked himself "must knowledge come to me, if comes at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and no longer by the familiar process (of reading other's work)?" ie Finzi was learning to trust his own artistic instincts.

Chosen Hill remained so dear to Finzi that nearly 30 years later, he took Ralph Vaughan Williams up the steep hill. The new tenants of the cottage had small kids. Finzi, weakened by cancer, caught their illness and died three weeks later.

In Terra Pax was also the last piece Finzi conducted, on 6th September, at the Three Choirs Festival (which is how he and RVW came to be on Chosen Hill that week)

"A frosty Xmas Eve, when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone, where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water'd valley,
Distant music reached me, peals of bells a-ringing"

Then an angel appears and sings "Fear not, fear not, fear not!" and the choir bursts into a song like multi layered pealing of bells, the orchestra throwing out chords like shards of light.

"The old words came to me by the riches of time,
Mellowed and transfigured as I stood on the hill,
Harkening in the aspect of th'eternal silence"

sings the baritone, and the choir sings "Peace, goodwill towards all men".

Saturday, 27 December 2008

1968 and the Raft of the Medusa

1968 was a watershed year like 1789, 1848 and 1914. So why haven't we remembered ? That was the year of the Prague Spring and its brutal crushing by the Soviets (remember them ?). It was the year of Red Rudi and the Paris riots. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive. There was a huge massacre of civilians in Hué In the US it was "the summer of love". 1968 changed a lot of things.

Oddly, what I remember (apart from knowing a family wiped out at Hué) was the furore over Hans Werner Henze's Raft of the Medusa. It was only a small paragraph in a provincial paper, but somehow it jumped out at me. At the premiere of the new work someone raised a red flag. No big deal, given the spirit of the times and student revolt everywhere. But the police were called and the performance stopped. Henze was ostracized, his prosperous career destroyed.

What was all the fuss about ? Henze's political views were well known. He was a Communist, an opponent of the Vietnam War. The Raft of the Medusa was dedicated to Che Guevara. Its subject is pretty obvious, the suppression of the poor and weak. So why the self-righteous recrimination about the red flag being raised ? Anyone reading the score beforehand should have figured what it was about.

Until that point Henze and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were an item, artistically. Hans Neunzig, DFD's biographer (and hagiographer, some say) describes how DFD chased Henze to write music for him. Read what Neunzig says, he gives the original correspondence. So we have masterpieces like Elegy for Young Lovers, and much else. In his memoirs, Henze writes bitterly about someone who let him down. Read his exact words, too. So it's interesting to listen to the recording of the Raft of the Medusa, made the day before the scandal. It's still a powerful, hard-hitting piece. What has happened to music since ? We have had many wars and things to protest about, but composers are silent, now.

After a traumatic break Henze came up with Versuch über Schweine, a cry of anguish so primal it's painful to listen to. But Henze has integrity. Perhaps now, after forty years he can get the respect due to him. When I was young there was no chance I could have heard Henze's music, but the news of the flag fiasco started me reading about Géricault, Fanon and other naughty things. So I owe Henze a lot, indirectly.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Auf ein altes Bild

In the blossoming summer landscape (here distinctly German !) the child without sin plays with his mother. Yet the tree that will become the Cross is already growing in the woods behind.

In grüner Landschaft Sommerflor,
Bei kühlem Wasser, Schilf, und Rohr,
Schau, wie das Knäblein Sündelos
Frei spielet auf der Jungfrau Schoss!
Und dort im Walde wonnesam,
Ach, grünet schon des Kreuzes Stamm!
The exact painting about which Eduard Mörike wrote this poem is unknown, but the scene is pretty typical of the early German school which linked biblical themes to naturalist reality. The poem was set by Hugo Wolf. As Eric Sams said of the song, "With a modal tonality and slow rhythms, the melodies of voice and piano move by step in contrary motion, all within a very limited compass. This gives the song an otherworldly quality of timelessness, .....a motionless summery haze within which the vision is concentrated from a whole landscape into one tree. The small quiet phrases of voice and piano lead up to one stab of pain at the last words, where a transient discord is introduced and resolved. Then, the postlude relives the timeless scene: and if the song has made the proper effect there is eternal grief in that eternal summer".

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Jauchzet, it's Bach, in Macau !

A concert by the Macau Orchestra, from Xmas last year. Watch it for interior scenes of S. Domingo Church - isn't it gorgeous ! Leipzig it may not be, but this is truly unique. Then look at this, also by MacauMusic. It is filmed in the Dom Pedro V theatre featured below on this blog (where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears played in 1956) When the offstage trumpeter plays, you can see him backlit in the baroque balcony. Almost nobody gets to see that ! Well off the tourist track.

High relief in the A Ma Temple, Macau

These are the "frescoes" in high relief in Ma Kok Miu, the oldest temple in the Macau area. Note how the pattern of white, fern-like tendrils is regular and vaguely "western" like the tracery in S Domingo church (see below). This is just a side gate, the temple itself goes all the way up the hill, with sacred rocks etc, one of which carries an inscription written by an Emperor in Sung times. Part of the temple experience is that you walk around, commune with the idea of landscape in compressed form. Below in the courtyard, it's crowded, noisy. Up in the summit it's calm.

The goddess A Ma was a girl from somewhere on the Zhekiang coast before 1000. During a typhoon, she appeared, walking on the waves, to save some fishermen from being drowned. So she's the principal deity all along the South China coast. Inside this temple there are massive boulders with images of junks carved on them, and some ancient models of ships. Opposite is a superlative museum of maritime history. But look at the stucco relief - isn't it wonderful ? And the glazed tiles on the roof, another regional speciality.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

HILARIOUS video clip !!!!

This is hilarious !!!!! But there is a serious value to it because it shows how different types of Indian music "work". The rhythms are fascinating. Count the talas, get into the spirit !

Monday, 22 December 2008

Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus

Concert of the Year ! I've been addicted to Aimard's recording of this for years (made just after his baby son was born), but wasn't prepared for just how good this recital would be. It figures. This was Aimard's personal hommage to Messiaen, one of the key concerts in the whole Messiaen centenary year. The performance of a lifetime ! I could hardly breathe ! Neither could the audience, many of whom were seriuosly big name pianists.

So in the midst of the holiday hooha and Enforced Jollity, this is a chance to contemplate something deeper than crashing your credit card on things that won't last. This will. This is the gift of deep meditation, whatever your religion might be.

Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus is quintessential Messiaen, but perhaps the "inner sanctum" without loudness or abandon, a core of extreme peace and stillness. Catholics follow the Stations of the Cross because the visual images are an aid to contemplating the meaning of the crucifixion. So in Vingt Regards, Messiaen presents a series of images in sound, each stage illuminating a different aspect of Christ’s birth. Messiaen’s “stations of the Nativity” is an inner pilgrimage.

Vingt Regards begins in silence, long before a single note is heard. Aimard sat utterly still for a while before even reaching out towards the keyboard. Obviously, he reveres the music and the composer, who was like a father to him. Yet this moment of reverential calm is artistically crucial. It is a transit from the bustle of the outside world into a mood of mystical veneration. Aimard played the first Regard du Père with such controlled pace that the gaps between notes seemed to hover, creating space for the images to unfold gradually in the imagination. He managed too, to extend the vibration of the piano strings for an extraordinarily long time, so they floated long after the keys fell still, soundwaves extending into the void. It was as if the piano were being played by an invisible presence. Perhaps it was, for Messiaen’s intention was to express the divine through music.

The central mystery of the Nativity is the idea that God becomes man. Medieval paintings depict the Madonna gazing with rapture, yet also emphasize the human nature of her relationship with her child. Again, Messiaen portrays this intimacy in his music by the gentle, unhurried atmosphere. Aimard brings out detail, like the steady ostinato of the Virgin’s heartbeat, rising with excitement as the Angel announces her pregnancy. Later Le Baiser de L’Enfant-Jésus interlaces the divinity theme with playing of great warmth and delicacy. It was ecstatic here.

Yet always in the background is the Crucifixion. The sixth Regard, Par lui tout a été fait, frantically turns back on itself, as if in time itself. The ostinatos scream and the glistening “starlight” chords shoot backwards as if they were being sucked back into a black hole. Aimard makes virtuosity seem easy but it isn’t. So perfect was his discipline in the 19th Regard, Je dors, mais mon cœur veille, that, although the pace was again extended, each note flowed lucidly. Then Aimard launched into the magnificent final Regard sur l’Église d’Amour. The colours here were exquisite. Again and again that confident ascending line appeared, with flourishes and sudden descending bass, as if it could also stretch out into infinity. Each time, Aimard revealed new, shining nuances. It was utterly exquisite. I wanted time itself to stand still, hardly daring to breathe.

This really was a historic performance. Aimard knows how important this South Bank tribute is, and how it will affect Messiaen’s reputation for decades to come. He spared nothing. This was perhaps the performance of a lifetime, eclipsing the remarkable 1999 recording in terms of depth and maturity. At the end, he looked shattered and ecstatic in equal measure, for this is music that refreshes the soul even though it must be gruelling to perform. But he must have felt rewarded that the entire QEH audience was standing in ovation. This wasn’t at all the kind of audience that goes to piano recitals to chase celebrities, rather than caring what music is being played (as long as it’s safe). On the contrary, this was an audience who were genuinely interested in Aimard’s approach to Messiaen. There were many composers and musicians present, some from France, Germany and Japan; but whatever their backgrounds, most people at this concert were there because they sincerely wanted to engage with this amazing music. Aimard, too, had his priorities right. He bowed several times to a small group of students seated on makeshift seats beside the piano, where they could watch his fingering and pedal in greater detail than could be seen in the stalls. One day, perhaps, it will be students as enthusiastic as these who will take on the mantle of performance, bringing Vingt Regards to audiences still unborn.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Macau - Sao Domingo Church

This is the church of Sao Domingo in Macau. This particular building is early 19th century, but there was a church of very similar design here from the mid 16th century. It's covered with elaborate filigree decoration like icing on a wedding cake. In Chinese, it's called Mui Kwei Tang (Rose Temple) as the filigree looks like vines and roses.

Interestingly, there are very similar themes in the oldest Chinese temple in town, The Ma kok Miu, which was founded around 1100, from which Macau takes its name. Perhaps the same craftsmen did the building work ? The Chinese and Macanese had a lot in common - both worshipped female deities, the Chinese the goddess Tin Hau and the Macanese the Virgin Mary. In Macau one of the favourite manifestations of the Virgin Mary is "Stella Maris", where she holds a small ship in her hand.

Also significant is the way the church was built to maximize air flow. It's hot in Macau, and humid. In the days before air conditioning sitting in a church packed with parishioners would not have been fun. So the nave is surrounded by a series of outer corridors, with windows placed strategically for maximum air flow. Note the windows ! They are kept open in summer even though birds fly in. The choir loft is directly behind these windows, airily above the nave.

Inside, it's roccoco fantasy ! The altar is gorgeous, encrusted with white filigree. In the middle is a Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. The sculpture was made in Goa in the 1700's which is why she looks Indian. In the corridors around the nave are several side chapels with more saints and Virgin Mary's including one which is supposed to have miraculous powers. I've tried, she works! She gets taken round town in processions each year to bless the community. The statue of the Chinese goddess Tin Hau also gets processioned around town, too, with similar reverence.

At the side of the church is an amazing museum of religious art. Some of it is the usual baroque gold and silver finery, (HUGE silver catafalque used in processions) but some is specifically Macau. For example, the santos, exquisitely detailed ivory carvings made locally or imported from India. When the Tokugawa expelled Christians from Japan, most of them ended up in Macau, hence a strong Japanese influence on Macau art. The church was run by the Dominican order who fought like blazes with the Franciscans and the Jesuits.

The church is just off the main square in town, near important buildings like the Santa Casa di Misericorda, built in the mid 16th century as a sort of "welfare office" because there were lots of single women with children, dependent on charity. Opposite is the town hall, known as the "Leal Senado" or loyal senate, which held out against the Spanish when they claimed the crown of Portugal.

There is much more on this blog on Macau and Chinese culture, look at the labels on right. There is a big post about the Ruins of St Paul Ruinhas de Sao Paolo with fantastic pictures taken by me. The photo of Sao Domingo is by Kevin Tierney, one of the best.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Lieder pianists - the unsung heroes of song

A few years ago, at a reception after a major Lieder recital, I noticed the pianist in a corner on his own. Since he is very famous in his own right I asked him how he felt about the attention being focussed on the singer. “That’s alright”, he answered, “it’s the music that counts”.

Lieder pianists may be unobtrusive but they are absolutely essential to performance. A good pianist is much more than mere “accompanist”, but interacts with the singer.

Accompaniment is a very special skill, quite distinct from solo playing. A soloist needs only to think of his or her self. The egotism solo performance requires doesn’t lend itself easily to song. A good song pianist, however, empathises and listens, shaping the piano part in relation to what the singer is doing

Fortunately, many good soloists have what it takes. Imogen Cooper, for example, spent much of her childhood fairly isolated, so the Sensucht of Lieder came naturally. Pianists who play a lot of Schubert and Schumann develop such an affinity with the composer’s idiom that they’ve got lots to offer when accompanying singers. Alfred Brendel is a perfect example. Moreover, he adapts to different singers. With Fischer-Dieskau, he’s fairly restrained, yet with Goerne, he challenges, so they both achieve something extraordinary. Their partnership raised the bar to unprecedented heights.

Yet some of the best Lieder pianists have spent their entire careers working with singers. Graham Johnson’s Song Maker’s Almanacs at the Wigmore Hall are legendary. He puts together such interesting, imaginative programmes that even if you’ve heard the songs before a hundred times, you get something new from these concerts. He’s also been the leading light behind many projects, like the groundbreaking Hyperion Schubert series. Who cares if he doesn’t play solo? His contribution to the art of Lieder is tremendous. Truly, he is a “Living National Treasure”.

Specialist pianists do a lot more than “accompany”. They develop performance by enhancing and supporting the singing. A few weeks ago Johnson demonstrated this unusual skill in a concert with Dorothea Röschmann. Her voice is delicate, best suited to songs of youthful purity. So Johnson devised a programme that highlighted her strengths, and played in a way that let her voice shine.

There’s now a whole breed of specialist Lieder pianists, like Julius Drake, Malcolm Martineau and Roger Vignoles. Sholto Kynoch studied with Martineau and Johnson, but has made his name with the Oxford Lieder Festival, which he founded seven years ago. It’s the biggest song festival in Britain, supplemented by masterclasses, workshops and a year-long series of recitals. And he’s still just under 30 years old. Being empathic, and being able to bring out the best in others is an unusual gift. His love for Lieder is inspiring, his enthusiasm infectious, and he knows his material. So cheers for specialist pianists ! There’s a lot more to accompanying than merely spinning notes !

The pic shows Vogl wowing the girls. But look who's behind him, quietly playing. The guy without whom there would have been no party.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Elliott Carter Centenary Knussen, Barbican London

It’s unusual that any conductor can premiere three works written this year and two more, up to eight years old. But when the composer in question has reached his 100th birthday, it’s phenomenal. But then, that’s what Elliott Carter is like. There’s more life in him than many a third his age. “If I didn’t compose, I don’t know what I’d do”, he says, laconically.

As the late Edward Said wrote in his volume On Late Style, getting old can be liberating.
What Carter is doing now is entering a distinctive new phase of development. His “late late style” as he puts it, shines with calm, confident lucidity. “I can doodle more easily than I used to”, says Carter but these “doodles” simple as they are, are quite profound.

One day in 2007, Carter and Oliver Knussen were having lunch, when the idea of an exercise in pure texture cropped up. Thus was born Sound Fields. Since Carter’s written so well for string quartet, it’s surprising that this is his first work for string orchestra. Yet, despite the larger numbers, it’s diaphanous, a gently wavering sequence of chords. There’s a single chord played by twelve sub-groups in the orchestra, startling density yet achieved by simple, elegant means. Although Carter’s still writing explosive pieces like Caténaires, where notes race in tumult, Sound Fields is slow and smooth, the chords gradually enfolding out of each other. It starts with slow timbred cello, evolving towards a simpler, barely audible final chord, also cello, that seems to evaporate into nothingness. All in barely four minutes.

Wind Rose, completed on 8th August this year, grows from Sound Fields, adapting the concept for wind ensemble. Here the chords evolve even more slowly, the almost static effect created by long planes of sound. Wind instruments breathe. The title refers to weather charts showing invisible currents of wind blowing at different velocities and direction. Thus, each instrument is chosen carefully. There’s a whole line of different clarinets. Even when they play together, their different pitches shade the sonority, extending depth. There’s also a group of six flutes, piccolo at the top, bass flute for lower register. The steady, unhurried pulse creates a sense of timelessness, as if each sound remains suspended in space, the chords turning serenely. Knussen said “We won’t get this many clarinets together again soon”, so he conducted the piece a second time, enhancing the idea of eternal, uninterrupted growth. It’s exquisite.

Between Sound Fields and Wind Rose, Knussen placed an “old” piece - from 2000. It was perceptive. Carter has written a lot for cello over the years, so it’s a way of expressing different levels of time simultaneously. The Cello Concerto also has references to Japanese moss gardens, where plants seem motionless but are growing, imperceptibly. The passage of time is marked by the steady drip from bamboo taps. The cello plays a long quasi melody, which over seven episodes reveals different aspects of the instruments' character.The transits are marked by sharp staccato from the orchestra, developed three times into protracted Interludes. Within each section there are interesting vistas – the dramatic, edgy Giocoso where the cello plays with angular, untuned percussion, and the Tranquillo, where the cello sings in ethereally high register. Yet there’s a strong sense of direction. The soloist is walking through the garden, engaging with it but has a separate identity. In this London premiere, Anssi Karttunen played with a firm sense of purpose, his journey uninterrupted by the wonderful sounds of the orchestra.

Knussen introduced another “level of time” with Mad Regales. It was written in 2007 but harks back to the vocal music Carter wrote seventy years ago. Some years back, the BBC Singers gave a concert of Carter’s early songs and the madrigals that inspired him, so one could hear where he learned the polyphony that was to influence the characteristic intricate tracery of his later style. Mad Regales, however, is different conceptually. its three songs have sparer textures, where voices operate on different levels, and where single words pop out of the main vocal line to be savoured on their own accord. It’s an interesting non linear approach, and the six singers here operated like a chamber ensemble.

Like the Cello Concerto, the Horn Concerto, premiered in 2007, unfolds through a series of seven episodes with one orchestral interlude. It’s just over half the length of the Cello Concerto, but soloists need a break. The horn player, Martin Owen, is encased by the orchestra, interacting with different sub groups of instruments. Towards the end, horn and tuba (named Sam Elliott, oddly enough), join in conversation.

The Boston Concerto is a feat - almost a "pizzicato symphony" where string instruments are plucked, beaten, strummed, as well as bowed. They are reinforced by harp, piano and vibraphone, creating sparkling, fast paced rivulets of sound, contrasted with smoothly floating woodwind legato. Carter dedicated this concerto to his wife Helen. It's based on a poem by William Carlos Williams where love is described like rain, bringing life to the earth.Paul Griffiths, who wrote the excellent notes speaks of sequences of "musical raindrops.....rain seen in rainbow light". Like rain, textures vary. When the ensemble plays staccato on different levels, it's like a storm. Later, a single double bass takes up the theme, like a trickle after the storm has passed. “It’s fun”, says Carter. Perhaps that’s the secret of his longevity and irrepressible creative renewal. Why shouldn’t classical music be fun, and cutting edge ?

Renzo Piano's Shard of Glass

Renzo Piano's new building is named "Shard of Glass" because it's a clear glass spike due to shoot out of the Southwark skyline at London Bridge in 2012. In fact, two of them big momma and baby. Architects and modern art fans, drool. But also fans of Luigi Nono. Prometeo was premiered as a performance installation in a structure designed by Renzo.

Prometeo is all about clawing onto the shards of civilization in a collapsing world. Things can shatter at any time, everything's fragmenting, dissolving. So Piano designs a boat like structure, hanging suspended from the roof of a derelict baroque church. The musicians were seated on planks, little more than boards across space. Scary ! The performance must have captured that edge of danger which the sedate concert at RFH this year missed. So, concept and music combined.

Read about Prometeo by following the links on the list of subjects on the right of this page. It's an experience, its message even more prescient now than in Nono's time. Read about Piano's Shard of Glass in the Times, or by googling Renzo Piano Top of His Game. Photo by Keturn. There is a lot about architecture on this blog considering it's a music blog. Please look on the labels list at right, lots on architecture and its interface with music, incl Xenakis and Le Corbusier, and composers whon think music as architecture, so PLEASE keep coming back. Also pieces on non western architecture, and visual art.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Und's Wort hab' ich vergessen

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a concert hall, vaguely churchlike, listening to a fantastic new piece of music - poetry, song, dance combined. Such a beautiful experience I could swoon like the Pre-Raphaelite and her rose..... The remarkable thing was that every word of the poem was clear, and I marvelled at its wisdom. Such ethereal music. Next part of dream, I'm transported to an open air site vaguely like Oxford but clean and uncrowded. And there the performers were again. The main soprano, a redhead, five others behind her in greys, blues, greens. Again the words so powerful ! Then suddenly I woke
"Und's Wort hab' ich vergessen"
Not even a Strauss von Zypressen to show for it

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Wagner, symphonist- Jurowski Mahler South Bank

We’ve all heard Tristan und Isolde sung magnificently. This time we were here to listen to the orchestra. Seldom are concert performances of Wagner so definitively focussed on the music, rather than the glamorous outward trappings of opera. Indeed, it was a relief that the singing, with few exceptions, was below par, so could be largely ignored, the vocal parts heard from memory.

Whatever doubts I’d had about attending a concert of “bleeding chunks” were dispelled by Jurowski’s intelligent approach to how the music unfolds. Pairing the second act of Tristan und Isolde with the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth drew out the reference in the first two sections of the Adagio to the opera which Mahler loved so dearly. Yet it also anchored the symphony in the context of what was happening in Mahler’s personal life. Not long before, he’d discovered that his wife Alma had been having an affair, and was so devastated he seems to have had some kind of crisis of confidence. He consulted Freud, who said Alma saw him as a father figure. So Mahler as Marke ?

Yet, significantly, the Tristan references soon fade. By the third development we’re hearing pure Mahler. The ebb and flow between the two main themes here was distinct. If it emphasized the “Romantic” aspects of the piece rather than the more complex elements, that was perhaps understandable in the circumstances. We weren’t here to think about the other movements or indeed about Mahler, but to hear how the piece enhances our appreciation of Wagner as orchestrator.

Jurowski conducts so vividly that the inherent drama in the music comes through so clearly that stage action seems unnecessary. The voices here are the instruments, the singers the soloists. The first violin at last gets the attention it is due. Its role is elusive, yet significant. The cor and bassoon, for example, extend King Marke’s lines vividly, even when he isn’t singing. Above all, Jurowski gets such a tight, muscular pace in ensemble. The sense of movement is palpable : the sea and all it symbolizes, “speaks” in this Act, too, propelling the action forward. The characters don’t stand a chance against inexorable fate.

Incidentally, László Polgár was singing with a bad cold. He’s superb in the role of King Marke. Indeed, he used the roughness in his voice to advantage. Marke sounded genuinely infirm, ravaged and old. This is intelligent musicianship, making the most of a difficult situation. I’d come specifically to hear him and wasn’t in the least disappointed.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Elliott Carter centenary Boulez, Aimard London II

My thoughts on the Elliott Carter centenary concert below, to be read in conjunction with Mark's on boulezian blogspot (see link on right). Just like Carter's music, with different but complementary strands, celebrating friendship.

“I think the importance of music …is a sense that one can produce something that has a special and rather strong meaning, because we’re increasingly surrounded now by things whose meaning is cat food or God knows what…..the problem of consumer life has become universal. I don’t feel I’m writing for consumers. The wonderful thing about music is that you don’t consume –it’s something that is like a spirit: a lively spirit that gets into people and shows them all the different kinds of feelings they might have in life, even if they don’t experience them themselves”

(Carter in an interview with Marshall Marcus, Dec 2008)

Ponder and reflect on what Carter is saying, because it’s a key to understanding so much about modern music. The more dependent society gets on “soundbite thinking”, the more we need music that makes us think and feel. Carter’s music is not populist and probably never will be “easy listening”, but, as Pierre Boulez says, “A progressive and stubborn discovery with various and original means”. Music is a journey of awareness, which never ends, either for composer or listener.

This centenary tribute was in many ways a “meeting of friends” and communication. Dialogues, for example, is based on a fairly simple cell of patterns but is the basis for a vibrant exchange between piano and orchestra. Sometimes they are in harmony, sometimes they disagree, but it is an engagement. It’s a concerto, but one with such a lively sense of surprise that it feels like a freshly-minted concept. Aimard plays with lightness of touch, to emphasize the good-natured humour. Boulez shows that the soloists have “voices” here as if they were characters. The cor anglais is particularly droll.

More on the theme of fellowship followed. Matribute was written for James Levine to commemorate his mother, and Intermittences refers to chapter in Proust where Marcel is overwhelmed by memories of his grandmother. Both pieces are combined with Caténaires, written very recently for Pierre-Laurent Aimard who played it on the First Night of the Proms this year. Caténaires are the cables that link electric pylons, enabling the flow of electricity. Personal relationships mean a lot to Carter. By combining the three pieces, he’s showing how people connect and react off each other.

Hence the incredibly rapid rhythms, like the constant hum of electric cables. There’s a “buzz in the air” so to speak. Also striking are the sudden switchbacks and changes of direction. Each instrument is distinctly individual, yet they entwine like a cable, binding different but disparate threads into something new and strong. It’s a one-line piece with no chords. As Carter describes it, it’s a “continuous chain of notes….a stream of semi quavers constantly fast but also constantly fluctuating in register and in smoothness or irregularity”. Then, suddenly it ends, not broken, but as if it’s leaped into another atmosphere.

Since the Proms premiere, Aimard has grown even deeper into the piece, playing unbelievably fast flurries of notes so they seem to fly off the keyboard with a life of their own. Ensemble Intercontemporain, too, is in a totally different league from the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms The Ensemble was founded by Boulez as a specialist new music ensemble, each player chosen for his or her virtuoso status. The clarity Boulez gets from them is phenomenal, as it needs to be in music as precisely defined as this : truly the effect was electric. Many in this audience were musicians of the first rank, who really appreciate what it takes to play at this level. The tumultuous applause that followed was heartfelt.

Commissioned by Boulez for Ensemble Intercontemporain, Carter wrote the Clarinet Concerto specifically for Alain Damiens, the ensemble’s eminent soloist, whom we heard in superb form. Carter builds the piece around what he calls “family groupings” of instruments of different types, rather than the more usual blocks, which creates an unusual balance. Each of the seven movements has a distinct character, with sweeping swings of mood. Damiens moves between the different groups, creating a level of unity, a “caténaire”, so to speak, each new position subtly changing the dynamics. The final part, the Agitato is vigorous, all the players in action but in discrete cells.

Choosing Boulez’s own Dérive II to complete the tribute to Carter was an inspired idea. Carter and Boulez have been so closely associated for so long that the piece continues the idea of confraternity central to this programme. But it’s significant on a deeper level, too. Even at the age of 100, Carter is still writing, still finding new sources of inspiration. As he says, there’s “late Carter” and “late, late Carter” ! Dérive II exemplifies that open-ended, ever-renewing approach to creativity. The spirit that drives Dérive II is the spirit that drives Carter. This music isn't pre-packaged consumer product "like cat food", as Carter said, but "gets into people", constantly growing in their psyches. It was a perceptive affirmation of Carter's enduring vitality.

Dérive II grows out of Dérive I. Both explore the idea of development from simple cells, but with five extra instruments the possibilities expand exponientially. Sounds interweave and morph, sometimes pivoting on a single note, presaging, perhaps the switchbacks in Caténaires. It moves, unfolds, spirals, like a plant shooting out of the soil, its tendrils unfurling, turning towards the light. There are even lyrical passages where snatches of near-melody flit past, tantalizingly elusive. It feels like being in an enchanted forest of sound, each tree, branch, leaf vivid and different. Sometimes the forest is dense, sometimes the music opens onto clearings that reveal new ways of listening. Like Carter's own music, Boulez's is vital and vigorous, still evolving. Perhaps there will be "late, late Boulez" too, if he makes 100. Cat food fans beware !

It goes without saying that this was an astounding performance for this orchestra is so acutely attuned to Boulez's idiom that it was quite magical. I hope someone taped it for Carter to listen to. He would beam with delight !

Elliott Carter centenary Boulez Aimard London

Here is Mark Berry's superlatively well written review of Elliott Carter's centenary tribute. Often lots of good things on boulezian.blogspot, but this is one of the best ! Read it by clicking on the link on the list on the right - definitely RECOMMENDED !!!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Aimard Boulez Messiaen centenary Sept Haïkaï London

This centenary tribute to Oliver Messiaen began with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. On the very anniversary of the composer’s birth, they were joined by their founder, Pierre Boulez, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, both long term Messiaen champions. Since so many others associated with Messiaen were in the audience it felt like a family celebration. Yet, even in this year of extremely good performances, this concert stood out as exceptional. Obviously, the performance was superb, but even more interesting was that it proved just how visionary Messiaen was and how powerful his influence was.

Couleurs de la cité céleste refers to the biblical prophecy in which a shining palace appears in the heavens after the apocalypse. It’s made of jewels and glows with light, a powerful symbol of the goal of all creation. Bear the image in mind, for it epitomizes everything Messiaen believed in. This performance blazed with Messiaen’s sharp, lucid colours, but even more significantly, Boulez showed the firm foundations of its glory. The piece is tightly constructed, its structure itself reaffirming the ideas behind the vision. Like Buddhist mandalas and Sanskrit wheels, the symmetry in this piece suggests eternity. Messiaen himself said “The work does not end, but turns upon itself …like the rose window of a cathedral”. Like a living organism, the music continues to grow, even after it seems to have ended. Anyone familiar with Boulez’s own work will appreciate the importance of this concept.

Even more revolutionary is Sept Haïkaï, another Boulez favourite. This time the image is “floating gate”, the torii at the Miyajima shrine in Japan, which Messiaen visited in 1962. Ponder the image as it’s central to so much in this music and in Messiaen’s overall beliefs. The red arches stand alone in the sea, as if suspended between earth and sky. It is a gate, but to what ? That is the mystery of creation, as relevant to Messiaen as to Japanese spirituality. The arches stand amid a panoramic landscape. As the weather changes, as time changes, the surroundings change dramatically. It’s an almost miraculous metaphor for how Messiaen’s music works.

Even though it was written nearly 50 years ago, Sept Haïkaï is still a difficult work to penetrate. Those accustomed to thinking of Messiaen only in terms of birdsong, liturgy and colour have to “hear” in a completely different mode. Structurally it’s based on cells of instruments operating separately and simultaneously. Japanese gagaku music has been described as “a mosaic of melody, rhythm and harmony”, co-ordinated rather than fused, as in western music. Although the references are to Japanese music, the waving, pulsing rhythms derive from Indian talas. Conceptually, this is unusual, too. It’s not “wallpaper music”, but benefits from being listened to with a mix of rapt attention and liberating openness. Meditation as music ! Again, this is the essence of Messaien. The music comes to a sudden halt, but as with Couleurs de la cité céleste does it really end ?

Hearing Boulez’s Sur Incises in this context showed just how far reaching Messiaen’s ideas really are. Boulez’s masterpiece may sound nothing like Messiaen, but here is the same understanding of structure as a kind of exoskeleton, allowing profuse sound forms to flourish other than in conventional symphonic development. Boulez bases the piece on three “islands”, three pianos, three harps, three banks of percussion. Just as in Sept Haïkaï, the music grows on several different levels at the same time, intersecting, weaving rather than fusing, each individual element distinct.

Much has been made of the steel drums, for Boulez hears them as marimba writ large, drawing subtle sonorities from what is ostensibly a simple instrument. Pierre-Laurent Aimard ceded the piano part in Couleurs to Sébastien Vichard, pianist of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, a position Aimard was appointed to at the age of 19 by Boulez, for the cadenzas in this piece are so intricate they demand total concentration. Often those who don’t know Boulez assume he must be cold because he’s logical and precise. But Sur Incises reveals passionate intensity of quite another order. Like Messiaen, this is music as “living organism” growing and unfurling.

Photo by H. Orihashi

Elliott Carter kissed me

Happy Birthday to Elliott Carter, 100 today ! And he's still going strong, ever creative. What an inspiration ! At the big Barbican retrospective a few years back, he kissed me. It's a long story, but it says a lot about the man. He's surrounded by bigwigs, the heavies in the industry. But he'll take time out to embrace ordinary folk, who love his music.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The glorious Angelika Kirchschlager

Tonight the divine Angelika Kirchschlager sings Hänsel in the ROH Hänsel und Gretel ! It's a role that could be made for her. She has a personality as vivacious as her voice. Over the years, it's been lovely to watch her develop from an ingenue to a major star, yet what's always come over in interviews (and her singing) is her naturalness and sincerity. Life hasn't been a fairy tale for her, to use the cliché. But fairy tales in reality are pretty grimm. So maybe like their heroines she's grown from the experience. Certainly Kirchschlager is lovable and such a pure, luscious voice ! Her Mélisande last year was deeply thoughtful. Clad in scarlet, she brought out the erotic danger in the part few dare express quite so clearly these days. Pity about the rest of the staging, which didn't develop the concept. Maybe another production ! Here is a link to what she said last week with Simon Thomas :

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Elliott Carter speaks to Ivan Hewett

Elliott Carter will be 100 years old on Thursday, the first really important composer to be around for his own centenary. (There is another composer, famous for being old, not for his music.) No such qualms with Carter, who continues to write interesting work. Mentally he's younger than people half his age. Needless to say, everyone's rushing on the bandwagon for interviews as Carter gives a great interview, full of quotable copy. There's one interview around where the writer is completely clueless about music, yet Carter is gracious enough to give the guy sufficient material to write an article that sounds plausible. "Phew!" Carter must have thought, "There's more to me than reaching 100!" Infinitely better is this interview by Ivan Hewett who actually knows Carter's work and knows music history. Carter must have had a lot more fun talking to him! There is also a programme onn BBC Radio 3 where Hewett talks about Carter and plays his music. Go to the site and it's online streaming on demand – Hear and Now usually 10.30 pm Saturdays. This is the interview definitely worth reading.

Friday, 5 December 2008

George Benjamin on Messiaen

"Fais le chien" said Mme Loriod, and George Benjamin would do dog imitations, making Olivier Messiaen burst into smiles. That's the sort of thing that happens in truly close families, complete naturalness and no "front". That is why I love Messiaen. More than just the music, Messiaen the man is inspirational. He was one of those rare genuinely good souls who make a difference to others simply by being themselves.

"Faith is simple", Messiaen used to say. Yet simplicity is one of the hardest things to achieve. It just "is". A million times deeper than mindlessness. Whatever faith you may follow - and it doesn't matter - this inner stillness, purity of spirit - is a truly rare thing. That's why Messiaen chose St Francis of Assisi for his only "mortal" subject. St Francis abjured worldy values. "Listen to the birds" he said. Utterly simple and yet profound. Some folks go violently ballistic at the very thought of "listening" to things they don't already know. Please read what George Benjamin has to say :

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Britten played here, Macau 1956

This is the oldest remaining western theatre in China. It's in Macau, a former Portuguese outpost on the Pearl River delta. The Portuguese had ventured East from the 1490's almost immediately engendering a mixed race community that went on to explore and trade throughout Asia. Japan by 1542. Macau was declared an "official" Portuguese city,with charter and all, in 1557. Luis de Camões, the Portuguese Shakespeare, possibly wrote part of the epic Os Lusiadas in a nearby grove.

An amazing place (or was) with a unique cultural heritage. Even a local dialect complete with literature and song. For centuries, Macau was the interface between China and the West. This is how peanuts came to China. Impossible to imagine Cantonese food without peanut oil, candies, cookies!

W H Auden, after a short visit, wrote very superficially:

"A weed from Catholic Europe, it took root
Between the yellow mountains and the sea,
And bore these gay stone houses like a fruit
A Portugal-cum-China oddity........
And nothing serious can happen here".

The theatre itself, Dom Pedro V, dates only from 1860. Prior to that performances were held in private homes or purpose built matsheds like you still get for open air Chinese opera. It was "state of the art" for its time, hosting operettas, opera, piano recitals etc. It's elegant, and the acoustic's clean. Even the window shutters are wrought iron depictions of lyres and violins. During the Japanese war it was a centre for refugee music. Many of the refugees were musicians.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears did a Schubert recital here on 4 February 1956. Afterwards they went gambling as Auden would have told them about the city's racy reputation. They were bored witless. There was no contradiction between religion and gambling for the locals, who didn't indulge. It was something visitors did, sailors and Hong Kong people up for a dirty weekend. In any case Chinese didn't do"moral panic".

For many years after the early 1960s the building was derelict, but it was restored to its former glory a few years back. Somewhere I have dozens of photos of the restoration, antechambers, backstage, etc. It was amazing to stand where Britten, Pears and many before had stood and imagine Macau in its finery. The theatre's now a world heritage site, but, like The Holywell Music Room in Oxford, isn't in continuous use as it only seats 150, albeit in velvet elegance. Casual tourists have no idea of the treasures within! There's a short book about the theatre by Fr Manuel Teixiera (himself an amazing character), but you'd need a specialist librarian to track it down. (a copy is in the Macau historical archives). Read Jonathan Porter's Macau, The Imaginary City, one of the few decent books about the city and its special ambience. (try amazon and ebay) To see a video of a recital INSIDE this theatre click on the Macau label list on right. For a brief moment you can see the wrought iron balcony, with its stylized violins.

I was lucky to go into the building during the massive restoration in 2001, to see how it's put together. There is an inner verandah round the hall itself which provides a kind of climate control, shading from sun and wind. It gets really hot and sticky in Macau. All thet mahogany and velvet must have been stifling.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Media clone ? not Yundi Li

What is it about pianists (and to a lesser extent violinists) that attracts fervid romantic excess ? Could a tuba player or contrabassoonist have audiences swooning and wanting the T shirt ? It's not a modern thing, as this portrait of Paderewski (1920) epitomizes. Marketing ever was what it is now. Only now the media reaches wider than ever before. In principle, so what ? Classical music can be fun. Some of the mass audience will eventually grow up and maybe develop "taste". Unfortunately I suspect "taste" whatever that means will always be a minority thing. So for the hold outs against mass values, I hold a candle.

Here is an article about Yundi Li getting sidelined because he doesn't fit the marketing template. Although the article has some odd perspectives it does raise issues about media clones. (like he sees things in race terms) Pity is that some perfectly decent musicians get caught up in the Faustian pact. But that's what mass audiences want. Bread or art, was ever the choice. But marketing per se isn't the demon. There always will be millions more who prefer flashy to refined. There's wise and there's cynical, as in every industry. It's just easy to grab on a kid with a pretty face and sob story and make him the Messiah. In this cynical world it's also too easy to sneer at the talented "because" they are good. Some very genuine Messiahs are out there who do have pretty faces and stories but "taste" is what helps us spot the real ones.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Gerard Grisey et Claude Vivier Spooky Tale

What could have inspired Grisey's extraordinary song cycle Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuil ? The title comes from a line in Claude Vivier's Glaubst du, an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele ? The piece refers to being stabbed and crossing over into the unknown. Soon after it was completed, Vivier (ironic name) was murdered by a casual stranger. After Grisey completed Quatre Chants, he too died suddenly in the prime of his life. No wonder the spooky connotations that attach to these works. They had nothing to do with the compositional process, though they do colour the way we listen.

Yet they are such powerful pieces it hardly makes a difference. Just listen ! Vivier's work is distinctive, even though he was killed aged only 34, when most composers haven't yet found their musical personality. There is a DVD out which is a must-have, which includes Glaubst du and other key Vivier works. Many recordings buut you have to track them down. I'm writing in much more detail aboout the Opus Arte DVD whiuch is perhaps the most comp[rehensive collection of Viviers music, including the operas, directed by Pierre Audi for the Hollan Festival retrospective - see blog list at right

Vivier was a character ! Born in Montreal, he came to Europe to study with Stockhausen, who could not figure him out (apparently, he had BO !) The quotation Grisey used for the title of Quatre Chants comes towards the end of Glaubst du. Listen out, but don't worry if you miss it. It hardly matters as this is distinctive work on its own terms.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Gérard Grisey - Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil

Anyone within reach of London should try to make the FREE South Bank early evening concert on Sunday - Gérard Grisey's Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuil. Barbara Hannigan the Germany based Canadian singer, a specialist in this repertoire, sings. This for me is one of the truly great song cycles of the last 50 years, but it's extremely different. Grisey was interested in "psychoacoustics", which sounds terrible, but all that it means is how what we hear affects how we feel and vice versa. A lot of his music seems attuned to natural body rhythms, which is why it's so amazingly therapeutic without actually being designed that way. Hippie stuff this is not ! It's mentally challenging because it needs careful attention, but somehow it connects to your pulse, your soul and is as natural as breathing. Often I play this music on continuous loop, so it "evolves" like a living organism.

Quatre Chants refers to the idea of "crossing the threshold", between life and death, between struggle and sublimation, a flux between levels of consciousness. It works like deep meditation, releasing the soul so it can be free. Shortly after it was completed Grisey died suddenly. Crazy as it might seem, when you listen to this it "feels" that he has merely passed into a different plane, as we all will. No surprise I often think of it as "Quatre Chants pour fraîchir la seule".

It starts with long semi silence then suddenly waving chords enter, not discordant, but disjointed, This isn't firm ground" but exploratory. "" sings the soprano, vertical sounds over the hazy horizontals around her. Gradually the patterns merge, the Voice part disintegrates and reforms in abstract, transcended form, soaring like an arc, stretching outwards into space. Then the incantation, based on sacred Egyptian texts instructing the soul on its journey from death to immortality. The texts are fragmented, and the music hovers as if intuiting the gaps in the transmission. Each stage in the ritual is numbered and intoned, for what's even more important than the detail is the sense of inexorable forward movement. "Laisse moi passer, laisse moi passer"....then "formule pour être un dieu"'.

More wonderfully shaped moving sound, deep timbred instruments like contrabass clarinet, muted tubas and trumpet, contrasted with the high voice. "Le voix s'épand dans l'ombre". Only the rumble of drums like distant thunder and barely perceptible rustling, hurrying sounds like wind. We're crossing something..... Circular arching trumpet sounds, more rustling, speeding up, punctuated by sharp thwacks on percussion and harp. Then waddling tuba and screeching (but harmonic! ) saxophones and clarinets. We enter a new place, vivid with clear light. The soprano's singing text from the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is the "death of civilization". Human bodies have turned into a vast sea of clay, but to the prophet, it's a terrace open onto an endless horizon. The violin part is painfully beautiful, and there's a steady hum vibrating in the background. Of the final Berceuse, Grisey said it's not a lullaby but "music to the dawning of humanity finally liberated of its nightmare".

This is more new music on this blog than most on the net, so please keep reading and coming back for more. Check labels ion right for more on Grisey, Murail, Vivier, Messiaen, Scelsi, Sciarrino, Stockhausen, Boulez, Carter, Xenakis and many more. Also new music at the Proms 2009. There's also a detailed post on Les Espaces Acoustiques.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Gergiev and Jurowski - overgrown path

Please read this article "Why I am sorely disillusioned by Gergiev" on the blog On an overgrown Path which you can click on via the link on the right of this page (further down). Now this is intelligent, analytical, well reasoned writing by someone who knows what he is talking about. Personally I couldn't care less about Gergiev's politics but they are symptomatic of G's approach to music. I love a lot of Gergiev's work, even when he's crass. But the scary thing is that his new popularity demonstrates something even more scary in this superficial soundbite era of "instant" thrills. People no longer seem to value listening, learning, thinking. Read Overgrown Path, it is what seriously good blogging can be. I wish I could write as well as that.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Harrison Birtwistle The Minotaur ROH

"Between most and least, between man and beast, to nothing". As the Minotaur dies, the small boy within the monstrous frame is released. The mighty John Tomlinson becomes a frightened lad with stumpy, childlike legs, singing a broken lullaby.

Now that the DVD is out it's nice to revisit the experience in memory. Read the link below for a detailed description and great production pix !

This clew is your clue” intones the Snake Priestess, translated by Hiereus. The clew is the string that will guide Theseus through the labyrinth. In an opera teeming with multiple images and meanings, it’s a surprisingly direct pun since the clue to The Minotaur is perhaps, also to follow the thread as it develops. The labyrinth is a “place with more dead ends, more flaws and fault-lines than the human heart”. No wonder Birtwistle has spent so many years exploring the mysteries of ancient myth : the possibilities are endlessly intriguing. The Minotaur is a work of depth and maturity, “It’s as if he’s writing from his soul now”, says Andrew Watts, who plays the Snake Priestess. “He has no need to prove anything, he’s writing for the sake of writing”. Indeed, the music in The Minotaur flows as if welling up from deep sources. During the toccatas, an image of an ocean swell is projected onto a screen on the platform. Like the waves, the music pulsates, surging with power that comes from deep forces within. To achieve his mission, Theseus has to go below the surface and confront what is within, as should we all.

"Superficially, the plot is gruesome. The Minotaur, half man, half beast, feasts on human blood. There’s no escaping the gory circumstances of his conception and birth, which Ariadne graphically describes. But yet again, surface appearances deceive. The Minotaur may roar, but there’s nothing crude at all about this music. It oscillates, endlessly reshaping itself, tantalising yet ever lucid. Birtwistle may use archetypes, but they resonate musically as well as psychologically. Paradox is central to this opera, operating at all levels and The Minotaur is half-man, half-beast. Duality could not be more explicit."...........

Implicit throughout is the presence of the Oracle. The Minotaur himself refers to it, for the oracle dictated the creation of the labyrinth. The oracle is thus the real turning point in the drama. Omphalos is the centre of the world, the Snake Priestess a direct line to Zeus. Again, this is a Birtwistle paradox. The scene may be barely ten minutes long but it’s pivotal. This is where Ariadne gets the thread which Theseus needs to escape the labyrinth, but in order to get it, she needs to face her own inner demons. Where murky darkness obscures the set in other scenes, the Snake Priestess is bathed in chilling light. Here there’s no room for anything but pure, unadorned honesty."

"The Snake Priestess, as conduit to the Gods, is supremely powerful and it’s significant that Birtwistle wrote the part for the countertenor Andrew Watts. The Minotaur is half-man, half-beast, while the Snake Priestess looks like a woman but sings like a man with an extremely high register. Like the Minotaur, she sings without words, her long wavering lines intoned like an incantation. Yet again, ambiguity and paradox is at the heart of this opera : singing without words places more emphasis on listening to the sound on a deeper level. Once more, Birtwistle’s writing for the part fits the idiosyncrasies of Watt’s voice so well that, although it’s a technically a challenge, it doesn’t impose unnatural strains, but unfolds as if it were a strange, living thing on its own."..............

Monday, 24 November 2008

Sibelius Luonnotar

Shell shocked still by news of the death of Richard Hickox. In tribute the ENO is going ahead with RVW's Riders to Sea, which was meant to be the culmination of this RVW commemoration year. Never did we dream the year would end with the loss of one of the great RVW conductors. (and Tod Handley died this year too)

The opera is very short, so it's being paired with Sibelius's Luonnotar, one of the most remarkable pieces ever written. Strangely enough a lot of the pre publicity material barely mentions it, or even the opera. In fact, it's referred to as "nature spirit" as if it were some new, unknown work! A bit like referring to Siegfried as "naughty boy". Or Wotan as Daddy God. ENO has strange faith in using directors who know and care nothing about music, but really this says something..... But Luonnotar is such an unusual work it repays thinking about and listening to in depth.

..... It transcends both song and symphonic form. Fiendishly difficult to perform, this unique piece needs an appreciation of the very unusual mind that shaped it. Sibelius was at a crossroads. With his Fourth Symphony he was reaching towards new horizons but hadn’t quite come to terms with their implications. While he kept up with Schoenberg and the modernists, he had long realised that he was not part of the German tradition. He knew he was approaching uncharted waters and the prospect was daunting. As so often before, he turned to the ur-source of Finnish mythology for inspiration.

Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, Mother of the Seas, who existed before creation, floating alone in the universe before the worlds were made "in a solitude of ether". Descending to earth she swam in its primordial ocean for 700 years. Then a storm blows up and in torment, she calls to the god Ukko for help. Out of the Void, a duck flies, looking for a place to nest. Luonnotar takes pity and raises her knee above the waters so the duck can nest and lay her eggs. But when the eggs hatch they emit great heat and Luonnotar flinches. The eggs are flown upwards and shatter, but the fragments become the skies, the yolk sunlight, the egg white the moon, the mottled bits the stars. This was the creation myth of the Karelians who represented the ancient soul of the Finnish cultural identity.

The Kalevala was a motherlode for Sibelius, and he adapted it in a strikingly individual way. The orchestra may play modern instruments and the soprano may wear an evening gown, but ideally they should convey the power of ancient, shamanistic incantation, as if by recreating by sound they are performing a ritual to release some kind of creative force. The Kalevala was sung in a unique metre, which shaped the runes and gave them character, so even if the words shifted from singer to singer, the impact would be similar. Sibelius does not replicate the metre though his phrases follow a peculiar, rhythmic phrasing that reflects runic chant. Instead we have Sibelius’s unique pulse. In my jogging days, I’d run to pieces like Night Ride and Sunrise, finding the swift, "driving" passages uncommonly close to heart and breathing rhythms. It felt very organic, as if the music sprang from deep within the body. This pulse underpins Luonnotar too, giving it a dynamism that propels it along. They contrast with the big swirling crescendos, walls of sonority, sometimes with glorious harp passages that evoke the swirling oceans.

But it is the voice part which is astounding. Technically this piece is a killer – there are leaps and drops of almost an octave within a single word. When Luonnotar calls out for help, her words are scored like strange, sudden swoops of unworldly sounds supposed to resound across the eternal emptiness. These hint of the wailing, keening style that Karelian singers used. This cannot be sung with any trace of conservatoire trained artifice: the sounds are supposed to spring from primeval forces. After the duck approaches in a quite delightful passage of dancing notes, the goddess who expresses agony for its predicament. Those cries of "Ei! Ei!" – and their echo – sound avant-garde even by modern standards. The breath control required for this must be formidable. Singing over the cataclysmic orchestral climax that builds up from "Tuuli kaatavi, tuuli kaatavi!" must be quite some challenge. The sonorous wall of sound Sibelius creates is like the tsunami described in the text, and the soprano is riding on its crest.

Luonnotar is a complex creature, godlike and childlike at the same time, strong enough to survive eons of floating in ravaged seas, yet gentle enough to cradle a hapless duck. The singer needs to convey that raw primal energy, yet also somehow show the kindness and humour. The sheer physical stamina of singing this tour de force probably accounts for its relative rarity on the concert platform. Luonnotar swam underwater for centuries, so a soprano attempting this must pray for "swimmers lungs".

The last passages in the piece are brooding, strangely shaped phrases which again seem to reflect runic chanting, as if the magical incantation is building up to fulfilment. And indeed, when the creation of the stars is revealed, the orchestra explodes in a burst of ecstasy. The singer recounts the wonder, with joy and amazement: "Tähiksi taivaale, ne tähiksi taivaale". ("They became the stars in the heavens!"). I can just imagine a singer eyes shining with excitement at this point - and with relief, too, that she’s survived! As Erik Tawaststjerna said, "the soprano line is built on the contrast between … the epic and narrative and the atmospheric and magical".

In his minimalist text, Sibelius doesn’t tell us that Luonnotar goes on to carve out the oceans, bays and inlets and create the earth as we know it, or tell us that she became pregnant by the storm and gave birth later to the first man. But understanding this piece helps to understand Sibelius’s work and personality. Like the goddess, he was struggling with creative challenges and beset by self-doubt and worry. Perhaps through exploring the ancient symbolism of the Kalevala, he was able in some way to work out some ideas: in Luonnotar, I can hear echoes of the great blocks of sound and movement in the equally concise and to the point Seventh Symphony. The year after Luonnotar, Sibelius was to explore ocean imagery again in The Oceanides, whose Finnish title is Aallottaret, or "Spirit of the Waves", just as Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, tossed by waves. The Oceanides, written for a lucrative commission from the United States, is a more popular work, and beautiful, but doesn’t have quite the unconventional intensity and uniqueness of Luonnotar. Soon after, the First World War broke out, and the Finnish War of Independence, and Sibelius’ life changed yet again.

Luonnotar was written for, and premiered by the great Finnish soprano, Aino Ackté. Given that she was a diva, I’m not sure what she would have made of the grittier aspects of the piece, but she was a Finnish nationalist after all, and knew its implications. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was another early champion. When she sang it in Helsinki in 1955, she was moved to say that it was the "best thing she had ever done in her life". It was also central to the repertoire of Elisabeth Söderström, who was so deeply attuned to the composer’s idiom. Her recording, made with Ashkenazy, was for years the best version readily available, and remains a classic. The real Luonnotar of our time is Soile Isokoski who has made it her trademark. She sings it frequently : the finest performance sadly not recorded, though the two that are, are worth seeking out.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Britten and the FBI - love match ?

We now know that J Edgar Hoover, Head of the FBI, was politically regressive, deeply in the closet and vicious about it. He stood for everything Benjamin Britten opposed. Not a love match then. That Claggart business may have more meaning than we think.

Some years ago Donald Mitchell, the eminent Britten scholar, was doing some research under the Freedom of Information Act and came across a letter signed by Hoover himself in 1942 condemning Peter Pears, and another from 1967 condemning Britten. In both cases, the "evidence" is heavily blacked out. "A strange footnote", writes Mitchell, "a rare insight into a disreputable feature of 20th century politics in America and nearer home". It's cited in the Cambridge Companion to BB, ed Mervyn Cooke, where you can see photos of the original papers.