Thursday 30 October 2008

Gay Rights and Itzhak Perlman

Another reason to respect Itzhak Perlman ! His love for his family has shaped his whole life. Love, in fact, is core to his personality - love for music, love for humanity, love of God's creation, whoever that God may be. Alas, many who espouse the love of what they believe apply it only sparingly, to what they want and deny it to others. So Perlman has stood up and be counted against those who would restrict the rights of gay people. Good for him ! There is a description of the film about Perlman's remarkable life on this blog - scroll down the list of subjects at the right and click "Itzhak Perlman" or"music on film".

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Nathan Milstein, last of the great Russian violinists, caught on film

On Nathan Milstein’s death, Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times wrote: “There can be no argument about Nathan Milstein's exalted place in the hierarchy of 20th-century violinists.” He was “probably the most nearly perfect violinist of his age”. S0 why doesn't he sell millions and make greatest hit albums ? Because he came from that rare breed of musicians for whom artistic merit was everything, far more important than popular success. Chasing publicity was vulgar, corrupting the purity of art. This message is perhaps even more relevant now than when aged 7 he played for Glazunov himself. Later he played with Heifitz and Horowitz, with whom he had a close, lifelong friendship. So how did he come to make one of the finest ever movies about performance ?

For several years, Christopher Nupen had tea with Milstein every Sunday at his home in Chester Square. One day Nupen said that a film of Paganini had been found in a film archive. “Why do you tell me such nonsense!” said Milstein. “Ah, but if the film existed, you’d be the first to want to see and hear what he did!” said Nupen. “It was a great moment of silence in my life. We both drank tea and I knew that he knew what I was up to”. Milstein realized then that film would be a unique way of preserving art for generations to come. “You win”, he smiled, and the documentary was made. He realised that film has a unique way of capturing performance no mere recording can ever match. Milstein wanted to see Paganini's personality, the way he expressed himself while playing. There's lots more to music than mechanical technique.

So in 1986, after 73 years on stage, Milstein made a film, playing the Kreutzer Sonata and the Bach Chaconne. It's being shown on BBCTV 4 on Friday 31st October, one of the absolute "must sees" in this series. It's won prizes all round. It's a beautiful performance, but even more significantly, this film is perhaps the last visual record of a master in the grand Russian tradition. It very nearly didn't get made because on the morning the concert was due to take place Milstein woke with an extreme pain in his arm. But he knew how important the film would be for posterity. So he spent the whole day working out alternative fingerings to ease the burden on that critical first finger. That might seem almost impossible, but Milstein had superlative technique. “He experimented with fingerings all the time”, says Nupen, “because he felt that if you always used the same fingerings, you’d lose spontaneity”. Often he’d play an opening in a certain way and when the recapitulation came, he’d play the same theme in the bar, but with different fingerings. It was a facility that he’d enjoyed polishing over the years until it came instinctively. On the film, he can be seen doing so. He doesn’t spare his painful finger entirely, because it’s important. But as Nupen says “His finger can be seen held up while the second, third and fourth fingers are busily playing away with tremendous virtuosity.” The performance has a vivacity that belies the pain the performer must have undergone.

What Nupen loved about Milstein was his eagerness to keep learning and developing. Film-making is a complex process and there are many technical imperatives that have to be followed. Many artists might not appreciate this, but Milstein immediately understood. “There he was, at the age of 82, knowing hardly anything about television”, says Nupen, “but so willing to learn that he understood immediately what he needed to do to make the film work”. A lovely moment is captured on the film, when Milstein tunes his violin, but before he starts, you see him quietly looking down on the floor to see if he’s on the mark he’d been given to stand on to give the best angles for lighting. He knows the mark is there to make the film more accurate, so he moves into the right position and starts to play. “I find this immensely touching and impressive”, says Nupen. “There is so much temptation for someone in his position to be demanding but Milstein had absolutely no egotistical pretensions. He was willing to learn what was completely alien to him, if it would help the ultimate result”. He was courteous to even the most junior member of the film crew, respecting their art as well as his own. “When you stop learning”, he used to say”, quotes Nupen, “That’s when the trouble starts”.

Next week, the second part of the film will be shown, tracing Milstein's career from his childhood in Russia to America and eventually to London. But for now, watch the film of the performance on BBCTV4 and/or get the DVD from Allegro Films. Highly recommended !

Monday 27 October 2008

Matilde di Shabran and Tsar Saltan - made for each other

Matilde di Shabran and Tsar Saltan are two war horses made for each other. "Morecambe Pier 1978" says Keith Mc'Donnell. "The audience" says Mark Berry, "seemed to find humour in what was not necessarily intended as such". But they seem like good opportunities in indulge in heavy syrup. OTT lushness ? Now I wish I'd gone to hear Jurowski conduct Tchaikovsky with leanness and light ! Please see:

Saturday 25 October 2008

Birdsong on Chinese flute

Chinese culture connects deeply with nature. Even in tiny apartments in big cities, you'll often find a pet singing bird. Early in the morning people will take their birds to the park, where the birds hang in trees and sing to each other. Exercise and companionship for pet and owner ! Afterwards, people congregate to the teahouse where the birds hang in windows, singing away. All these activities are but a substitute for observing birds in nature - as is the recreation of birdsong in music. Here is a clip showing Du Ciwen, playing birdsong on short Chinese transverse bamboo flute. Notice how each segment is short and varied, the sudden leaps of tone, even the hollow thudding timbres. Nature isn't always "beautiful". Note how Prof Du varies tempo and direction. Messiaen would have loved this !

Friday 24 October 2008

Embryo riot ! Cambreling Messiaen Poemes pour Mi

Think Messiaen, think colour. This concert combined basic Messiaen works with popular standards, so it might have helped audiences unfamiliar with the composer. Perhaps it might have worked earlier in the year. By now, most people will have figured out how Debussy, Scriabin and Messiaen connect. Nonetheless, it was a chance to hear another prolific Messiaen specialist, Sylvain Cambreling, conduct two basic works often held up as classic examples of the composer’s work. Réveil des Oiseaux and Poèmes por Mi are Messiaen in embryo.

Embryo is the right work, for Poèmes pour Mi was conceived at a critical moment in Messiaen’s life. His first wife, Claire Delbos, was pregnant again after suffering several miscarriages. At the same time, Delbos wrote her own cycle, L’Âme en bourgeon (The Soul in bud) to texts by Messiaen’s own mother, who wrote them while she was carrying him. This is a perfect, mystical union, the significance of which was not lost on those who knew the composer. Sadly, after Delbos’s child was born, she became mentally ill and died in an institution 30 years later. “Study this cycle”, said the composer, “and you’ll understand my work”.

What we heard tonight was the orchestral version of the piano/voice original. The delicate “moonlight” textures in the piano part become more elaborate, and are attractive, but something of the intensely “inward” intimacy is lost. Messiaen and Delbos had just bought an isolated cottage : some of the images in the text are quite domestic. One refers to the small lake nearby, “Le lac comme un gros bijoux bleu”. The orchestration puts more pressure on the singer, too. Unfortunately, Mireille Delunsch, who was scheduled, had to cancel as early as June 2008. Lauren Flanigan, who stood in, has extensive experience singing new American operas and has worked with conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas and Gerald Schwarz in Seattle, but this doesn’t make anyone a natural for Messiaen’s idiosyncratic idiom. Best not, then, to dwell on the vocal part. Those unfamiliar with the cycle might be advised to listen to a recording. Françoise Pollet, with Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra is the benchmark. Hopefully we’ll be able to hear it again soon as there are several very good Messiaen singers around, and London is only two hours from Paris by train these days. On 17th October, I heard a stunning performance of the piano/voice version by Gweneth Ann Jeffers and Simon Lepper in Oxford.

If the orchestral version has a different ambience to the piano/voice version, Cambreling made the most of the more elaborate colorations. He conducted with great refinement and got lustrous, detailed playing from his musicians. Each of these songs is distinctive and needs individual emphasis : horrified dissonances in Épouvante, shimmering glissandi in Le Collier. The “wavering” sounds in the string section were not like vibrato in voice, but built up from careful modulation, precisely controlled. The final song, Prière exacuée, is particularly well suited to orchestra, where a rich carillon like multiple bells is created by different instruments and combinations. The ending is vivid, picking up the staccato refrain “Frappe, tape, choque”, cymbals crashing on the crest.

Birdsong appears early in Messiaen’s work, but reaches maturity in Réveil des Oiseaux. It’s a key work, for here Messiaen is drawing musical ideas directly from the sounds and movements of nature, rather than incorporating them symbolically. It’s a breakthrough, for Messiaen observes how, in a dawn chorus, each bird has its own distinctive character, and different sound exist together on different levels, rather than combining. Thus the woodlark on piccolo, Cetti’s Warbler on E flat clarinet and so on. No wonder ornithologists marvel at this music – they can identify the birds, even though they are not “realistic” in a scientific way. The piano part represents a robin, singing on its own, above and within the tumult. Messiaen notices, too, how birds are aware of their surroundings : the chorus stops suddenly, as the birds “listen”, then starts again. Birds don’t stay still, they dart about in random patterns : this is in gestation the idea of multi layered time George Benjamin demonstrated in his concert of 21st October. Roger Muraro provided a depth that held the piece together, allowing the individual soloists to soar. Specially impressive was Maya Iwabuchi, Leader of the First violins. At the end, the dense panoply of sound dissipates; All we hear is the tapping of a woodpecker. The heat of the noonday sun has arrived, and the birds take shelter. This is the germination of the intensive, multi-level invention behind the “spectralist” masterpiece, Gérard Grisey’s Les Espaces acoustiques, which created such an overwhelming sensation on 14th October. Embryos gain !

Rather less successful, on the surface, was Cambreling’s Debussy Prélude de l’Après-midi d’un Faune. It was nicely refined and glossy rather than erotic. Perhaps he realises we’ve heard this so often before we merely need to remember its impressionistic colours in relation to Messiaen, and hear it in those terms rather than through the imprint we all carry from Nijinsky’s powerful realization in ballet. After having heard so much Messiaen this year, the relevance of Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’extase is obvious. Scriabin gorges on colour so much so that he gets congested. It’s when Messiaen releases the constraints of structural form that extremes of orchestral colour run riotously free.

For descriptions of the concerts mentioned above go to the list on the right and hit "Messiaen" Read about the piano song version of this cycle and its background by following the subject tags at the right for Messiaen and Lieder. (Look up October). This blog is the biggest non official Messiaen site on the net, so welcome to browse.

Elgar and RVW conference

Over the weekend of 22 and 23rd Nov
ember at the British Library there will be a confer
ence about the influence of literature
and poetry on Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is as "star studded" as a conference gets - all the big guns in the Elgar RVW world - Michael Kennedy, Alain Frogley, Philip Lancaster, Richard Hickox... plus an evening recital with the finest RVW/Elgar baritone today, Roderick Williams. Look at the detailed programme on the RVW site and click on the link "Let Beauty Awake" to reach the pdf.

All one sentence, sing in single span of breath ! 

After the sea-ship, after the whistling winds,
After the white-gray sails taut to their
spars and ropes,
Below, a myriad myriad waves hastening,
lifting up their necks,
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of
the ship,Waves of the ocean bubbling
and gurgling, blithely prying,
Waves, undulating waves, liquid,
uneven, emulous waves,
Toward that whirling current, laughing and buoyant,
with curves, Where the great vessel sailing and
tacking displaced the surface,Larger and smaller
waves in the spread of the ocean yearnfully flowing,
The wake of the sea-ship after she passes, flashing
and frolicsome under the sun,A motley procession
with many a fleck of foam and many fragments,
Following the stately and rapid ship,
in the wake following.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

George Benjamin - Ligeti Messiaen Xenakis South Bank

“Unlike painting, music unfolds in time”. So say the programme notes to George Benjamin’s concert at the South Bank on 21/10. The pieces chosen show composers can adapt concepts of time in music – not simply tempo changes,. The notes for this concert are unusually good but the attributions are tucked away in small print. But they are superb. So if I quote more than I would normally, it’s for a reason. These guys are the best.
This concert was one of the highlights of the massive Messiaen retrospective at the South Bank, conducted by his student, George Benjamin. It centred around Messiaen’s Chronochromie, where “Kronos”(time) and “Khrôma” (colour)interact. Time is expressed through “32 different durations, subject to a system of permutations”. The rhythms are like cells of time, beaten into pace mainly by percussion. Like clockwork, the sound ticks along mechanically, but onto this Messiaen adds two layers of colour. First, the permutations are expanded by “dense harmonies in seven or eight parts”, gongs with first violins, bells with second violins Then Messiaen adds the vibrant “colours” of nature, birdsong and even the sound of a mountain waterfall he heard in the mountains, which he notated in eight parts. At the 1962 première audiences went bananas, what cacophony! But as Messiaen explained: “My permutations of durations are rigorous, my birdsongs are free. Rigour is implacable, but so too is freedom”. In this performance the rhythm whirred nicely but the overlay of detail was perhaps more dominant. Boulez takes a more vigorous approach, getting the contrasting structure and tensions more intensely, but Benjamin is interesting as “closeup”.
My friend first heard Xenakis in 1965 – speaking about architecture. Xenakis was an architect, trained to think spatially, who worked with Le Corbusier. Think blocks, curved concrete and angles – not so different from music. Pithoprakta begins with a horde of tapping, short bursts of sound. Sitting up in a box for a change, I could see how each sound was made differently – sometimes bows tapped against wood, sometimes fingers, strings sometimes plucked, sometimes tapped. It was like an immense chorus of insects, each small sound morphing into a mass. Only later did I read the programme where the writer describes it as “an insect-like crowd of unpitched tapping, punctuated by a single stroke on the woodblock”. Just like insects, the sounds suddenly die down and change direction. Then, as Mr Mystery says, “criss cross glissandi ensue, within a basically static cloud”. …”the final silence is broken into by a mass of swooping glissandi that gradually settle in dense clusters like a swarm of bees”. I must be psychic.
Ligeti’s Atmosphères is almost too well known to describe. Our friend expresses it thus “Now there is virtually no figurative foreground, only background. But what a background! Brilliantly coloured and of blinding intensity this too suggests clouds and gases amassing and dispersing, a strange and exotic void before matter is created”. He refers to Beethoven and Bruckner, most of us think 2001 Space Odyessy. So high and clear are the pitches they seem to exist like elementals, “beyond” structured sound or time frames.
These three masterpieces proved tough competition for George Benjamin’s own Sudden Time from 1989/93. The Messiaen influences are extremely present –sometimes you can hear what must be deliberate references. The title comes from a poem by Wallace Stevens which says “It was like sudden time in a world without time”. So the swirling textures and minute divisons of time “ebb and flow with seamless liquidity and only rarely solidifies into vigorous rhythmic pulsation” – “sudden time” leaping out of stretching time.
The mystery writers ? Peter Hill on Messiaen, Richard Steinitz on the others.

Ecstatic Nagano Messiaen Transfiguration !

La Transfigur
ation de Notre-
Seigneur Jésus-Christ
is one of the key works of Messiaen’s whole output. It describes nothing less than the transfiguration of Jesus into God. It’s a miracle, so miraculous music is quite in order. Kent Nagano worked closely with Messiaen, and is one of his great interpreters. Therefore this concert ought to have been sold out. Unfortunately, La Transfiguration received a very dull performance at the Proms which may have put people off. No comparison between the turgid Prom and this performance. This shone ! A two hour concert without an interval might seem hard to take, but time flashed past with Nagano’s electric, inspired delivery. Seldom has a case been so clearly made for idiomatic interpretation, by musicians who understand what they are doing.

Nagano realizes that, despite the Catholic liturgy, Messiaen’s music is all-embracing, recognizing the value in all cultures. Knowing something about the theology helps on finer points of detail, but essentially, all you really need to know to “get” Messiaen is to share his heterodox vision of the world, where all things rejoice in the glory of life. It’s probably easier for a Kathak drummer or Turkish dervish to understand him than some po-faced fundamentalist. Early Christian saints had much in common with other religions : think of medieval sculpture and painting where saints glow with otherworldy joy. What Nagano brought out in this performance was Messiaen’s uninhibited freedom of spirit. Despite the Latin text and references to the Mass, what made this performance so good was its vibrant liveliness. The idea of man made God “is” exciting whatever flavour your beliefs may be.

Nagano also had the advantage of musicians able to adapt to Messiaen’s unusual idiom. The BBC Symphony Chorus and the Philharmonia Voices showed they could “swing” with the right heady wildness while being so precise that all two hundred voices held together with clarity. Again, this looseness doesn’t come easily to classically trained musicians. That’s why I was so surprised when, again at this year’s Prom, Simon Rattle achieved the feat of making the Berlin Philharmoniker jive. (See reviews in the archive from the list on the right) I dislike his recording of the Turangalîla-symphonie with CBSO, so I really wasn't expecting much. But what he did with the Berliners was in a completely different league. The secret was that the Berliners were playing with the idiosyncratic vitality Messiaen needs above all. That combined with their ability topo play the mosr vivid colours made it wonderful. (Colour is as important in Messiaen as structure). Nagano did much the same with the even larger forces La Transfiguration requires.

La Transfiguration is configured in two Septénaires, two sections each with seven parts. The piece moves forward not through ordinary thematic development but rather as a procession of units marking each stage of the narrative. Thus section 3, Christus Jésus splendour Patris marks a new phase in the progress, opening wide vistas of sound : the choirs seem to explode in glory. “Your lightnings lit up the world, the earth trembled and shook”, they sing in endless variation. No holds barred, this is shock and awe made sound. In the 5th part, Quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Nagano shows how Messiaen writes angular blocks of sound like massed ostinato, yet animated with a strange wavy rhythm. Within this is embedded a glorious cello solo, here played by Karen Stephenson. Her beautiful playing adds another smaller, but vital element to the cross currents of texture. The whole orchestra seems to be swaying together, in perfect unison, for this is a part of the “procession”. Messiaen has two percussion soloists at the front, whose role is much the same as if they were leading a marching band.

The Second Septénaire is even more glorious than the first. The textures here are even more complex, the central core being more dominant, the wavering rhythms now like shards of light radiating outwards into space. After all, God has suddenly appeared in the heavens, announcing that Jesus is his son “in whom I am well pleased”. On the final “ipsum audite” choir and orchestra seem to explode, the darker brass booming like fog horns. Then in the 9th section, Messiaen uses individual solo voices, the embodiment of “man”, before returning to the climactic roar that is God. Exquisitely beautiful committed singing from these voices, heard cleanly and crisply above the tumult.

Nagano also knows the importance of the silences that mark transitions in the form of the music. For example, he respects the silences between the 10th , 11th and 12th sections which mark the differing foci and also the sense of ceremonial procession. At the Proms these silences were interrupted by radio broadcasts, showing how little their function was understood. The 12th section opens with a single phrase “Clothed with light as with a robe” a reference to Jesus appearing to his disciples shining with light. We’ve all seen this in Bible pictures, but rarely made as “real” as in Messiaen’s music. The vocal line becomes highly decorated. Then, Gloria in excelcis Deo, almost hysterical with bliss. Nagano makes the up and down pulse in the orchestra, indicated barely restrained excitement. All nature is singing here, Greek metres and Hindu talas, birds and musicians. The final two sections extend the sense of epiphany, outburst of pure ecstasy and transcendant bliss.

This concert was also a reminder of just how much Messiaen has influenced conducting practice. Music like this cannot afford to be handled without precision and clarity of purpose. Muddy performance dims the light infused detail. Like so many others who worked with Messiaen (Boulez, Myun-whun Chung, Benjamin) Nagano’s conducting persona has been defined by a clear sense of how music works on its own terms. There’s no need for extraneous flashiness. It’s all in the music for those who can find it. Photo of Nagano with suitably colourful background is credit Nicolas Ruel.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Michael Berkeley Speaking Silences Oxford

Why do I like Oxford Lieder so much? It's always in with things ahead of the main pack. Follow Oxford to hear what London will get round to hearing lots later. This applies to singers as well as repertoire. And what a beautiful city – only an hour from town but a different world. Come all ye cityfolk ! (Lisa Milne and Mark Stone on Saturday)

Next week London gets the premiere of Michael Berkeley's latest opera For You at the Linbury, nearly sold out of course. With an Ian McEwan libretto it's hot. Last week, Oxford did Berkeley's rarely heard song cycle, Speaking Silences. In fact its very creation is thanks to Julius Drake, who thinks the cycle is the best written by any British composer in the last 25 years. And he should know, he hears them all and probably knows more about song cycles than most. This version is bespoke, written specially for Drake and soprano voice. The premiere was Alice Coote in 1995, but now we had Susan Bickley. Also fresh from her triumph as Kostelnicka in Wales last week !

Central to the Berkeley cycle is a ancient folk tune, Blow, Northern Wind. This gives Bickley delicious vowels to curve her voice around, but the piano part is even more impressive. Drake gets to play tricky, turbulent bell-like figures. Indeed the “ghost” of an orchestra is present. The vocal part opens out expansively, like a trumpet, lines rising and spreading at the top of the register. The piano part is endlessly inventive, rippling, boisterous, then quietly understated. It must be a joy to play. Often the voice soars with the most minimal accompaniment – single muted notes like punctuation. “Come to me in the silence of the night: Come in the speaking silence of a dream”, Berkeley adapts Christina Rossetti’s mysterious poem. Then, like a wind instrument, the vocal line returns to rounded vowels, “Speak low, lean low, As long ago, my love, how long ago”.

As Berkeley states in his programme notes, Speaking Silence focuses on “a desire for rest and oblivion” in contrast to his earlier cycle Songs of Awakening Love, written for Heather Harper in 1985. There’s a brief flurry of action in the lively Yeats setting, O hurry where by waters among the trees, making the quiet conclusion more profound. Père du doux rèpos, Sommeil pere du songe comes from an air by the 16th century French poet Pontus de Tyard. Berkeley is stepping back in time, yet the feeling links to Rossetti. “Viens, Sommeil desiréis a perfect foil for “Come in the speaking silence”. Then the windswept refrain returns and the music blows away as breezily as it came. Julius Drake isn't the only one impressed with this - so am I !

Monday 20 October 2008

Poèmes pour Mi - Gweneth Ann Jeffers Oxford

Who was "Mi" as in Poèmes pour Mi ? She was Claire Delbos, a talented violinist active in new music circles in Paris in the 1920's and 30's. Messiaen adored her. They were married in 1932. For her he wrote violin pieces and the immortal song cycle which bears her pet name. On Friday I heard Gweneth Ann Jeffers and Simon Lepper perform it in the ante-chapel at New College, Oxford. It's a beautiful cycle, though not as wild as Harawi. As Messiaen said, if you want to understand his work, study this cycle as it has all the elements of his later work in embryo.

Poèmes pour Mi starts with delicate moonlight tracery in the piano part which introduces L’Action de graces. The first words “Le ciel” suggest the vast panorama of feelings that will follow. The text repeats phrases starting with “Et…” like a chant in church. Then suddenly the song explodes in delirious joy “Et la Verité, et L’Esprit et la Grace avec son heritage de lumiere”. Then Messiaen challenges the singer with repeated Alléluias, with melismas within the word, stretching the syllables. The fourth song, Épouvante, introduces something strange and surreal, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise to those who know their Messiaen. Jeffers sings the tricky sequence of “ha ha ha ha ha” with the savage grace that is echt Messiaen, then suddenly switching a low “ho”. Vowels mean a lot for they curve round the barbaric imagery in this song which refers to things like “une vomissure triangulaire (a triangular lump of vomit”. It’s almost like scat singing, or something from a primitive (to western ears) culture.

Then, typically Messiaen switches again to the serenely mystical L’Épouse, where Jeffers keeps her voice hovering, barely above the level of a whisper. Lepper’s piano entwines the vocal line, for this is a song about marital union. The balance is carefully judged. More contrasts with the songs Les Deux Guerriers, and Le Collier. The first is like a march, the lovers being “warriors”, in the sense that angels are sometimes depicted as warriors armed in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Then suddenly domesticity returns, transfigured with tenderness. Jane Manning, Britain’s great Messiaen champion, wrote of this song, “One can’t help thinking of the mystical properties of crystals and prisms” for the sounds seem to refract in intricate patterns of light. The final song, Prière Exaucée, is demanding, combining guttural sounds like Frappe, tappe, choque with expansive cries, Donnez-moi votre Grace, marital love uniting with the love of God.

Excellent performance as you'd expect from Gweneth Ann Jeffers. easily the best Messiaen singer of her generation. Sadly, Claire Delbos developed some kind of mental illness after the birth of her son and ended up in a psych hospital, where she lived on for 30 years.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Oxford Lieder Festival Thomas Allen

Why I like the Oxford Lieder Festival so much ! Only one hour from London! Sir Thomas Allen is Patron of the Oxford Lieder Festival. He has dedicated his life to the art of song, and takes his responsibilities as Patron very seriously. This was more than a good performance, it was a memorable experience. Sir Thomas is one of the foremost baritones in this country, enjoying all the accolades of success. Yet he’s altruistic, caring enough about his art to support singers who may one day follow in his footsteps. He could fill concert halls many times the size of this Oxford church, but he understands why the Oxford Lieder Festival is important. It’s of national significance as it’s the most comprehensive art song programmes in the country. In the last seven years, it’s brought together high profile artists and younger talent: many owe their careers in part to the fellowship of Oxford Lieder, and to the pursuit of excellence in art song.

This evening focussed on French chanson. Henri Duparc’s songs are intensely perfumed intoxication. As Richard Stokes says in his excellent programme notes, in L’Invitation du voyage Baudelaire’s middle stanza was omitted from the song, as it was “clearly too domestic for Duparc’s visionary setting”. These songs are often the preserve of opulent sopranos, but Allen’s agile technique lets his voice soar flexibly, floating the higher parts of the register with unforced ease. Voices are like bodies, use them well and they don’t let you down. Similarly, Allen sang Fauré’s L’horizon chimérique with the vigorous free spirit these songs require. To quote Richard Stokes again, citing their great exponent Charles Panzéra, “these are not melodies for a soft grained voice” Like Panzéra, Allen gets just the right, discreet rallentando on the last line “”Car j’ai de grandes départs inassouvies en moi” (For within me are vast, unappeased departures). Just enough decoration to tantalize the listener, to hint at adventures yet unknown.

Allen displayed more Gallic brio in Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée and Histoires naturelles. Each of the songs in both sets are highly distinctive miniatures, The three songs of Don Quichotte are genre pieces with Spanish flavour – they would have worked vividly as episodes in film. The animal portraits of Histoires naturelles are even more closely observed, each song portraying the characteristics of the creatures they describe. Le Grillon (the cricket) hops and darts with nervous energy. Le cygne (the swan) glides with grace. Yet there’s a pungency about these pieces that lifts them above the merely pictorial. Ravel doesn’t set them as purely conventional parlour pieces, he often leaves out mute “e’s” in the text, which until then had been carefully observed. Audiences in 1907 were shocked because the songs sounded rough and unfinished. Ravel did this to give them greater immediacy. These are lively animals, not museum specimens, and the music is natural and direct. A perfect choice for Allen’s witty delivery.

As further proof of his dedication to the ideals of Oxford Lieder, Sir Thomas chose to share his concert with two young singers who deserve “Fifteen minutes of fame”. Catherine Hopper and John Reid may be young, but this high profile exposure is good for them. Performers need the experience of live recital, because song is very much an interactive genre : the better the audience, the better the experience. This new part of the Festival is a good idea. Hopper’s Debussy Chansons de Bilitis was particularly impressive : hers is a voice that can fill a hall with ease, even when she has to compete, as she did here, with the rumbling of buses and pantechnicons on the High Street outside. Nice range of colour, too. Hopper should be worth listening out for again.

There were more Oxford Lieder protégés in the audience at this concert. The Festival’s masterclass workshops start this weekend. These masterclasses are just famous, because they are extremely high quality. Tutors include Sarah Walker, an excellent teacher and personality, Richard Stokes and Eugene Asti. The depth of focus is essential, because there is more to art song than singing notes attractively – good performance springs from much deeper sources. Oxford Lieder masterclasses emphasize collegiality and goodwill: people are there to listen and learn, not compete against each other. Oxford Lieder builds participants’ resources so they can appreciate whatever is valuable around them. There’s plenty of nastiness later on the career path : masterclass participants focus on love for the art itself. Before the concert, masterclass participants were treated to a dinner at the Corner Club, Oxford’s elegant private members club, to which Friends of Oxford Lieder are given membership. The Corner Club is a haven now that Oxford’s becoming so commercial and hectic. Even colleges are more impersonal than they once were, unless you’re still 18. The restaurant is excellent, convenient to the concert venues and infinitely more civilised than a pub. Membership is definitely one of the advantages of supporting Oxford Lieder. Masterclasses take place this week, with a concert on Wednesday 22nd October, open to the public. I’ve been supporting Oxford Lieder for seven years now. Perhaps you can see why! Few Festivals take place is such beautiful surroundings, and few are of such quality.

photo : Trung Thanh Nguyen

Saturday 18 October 2008

Enescu Oedipe Toulouse Joel Paris

Here's an analysis of Georges Enescu's opera Oedipe in Toulouse. Evan Dickerson, who writes the piece , is an Enescu scholar. He's writing a new book, too, which should be worth watching out for as there's relatively little available. (A few years back Toccata published a short bio) Google and you'll find a few of the other things Evan's written about this interesting but relatively neglected composer.

"This new co-production by Nicolas Joel between Toulouse and the International Enescu Festival is further evidence that Enescu’s mature compositions continue to gain serious attention before the public. There are unconfirmed rumours that the production might be seen at the Palais Garnier in Paris during the 2010-11 season, as Joel assumes control of Opéra de Paris in September 2009."

The real beneficiary of the production though was the music, and no doubt as a conductor himself, Joel realised that this is where the emphasis should be. There is after all enough musical detail in Enescu’s score which deserves its chance to be heard, and not become swamped by stage action. A huge orchestra including additional piano, harmonium, celesta, glockenspiel, alto saxophone - and for purely dramatic effect also including a musical saw, wind machine, whip on drum, pistol shot and a nightingale’s song - is employed, but all are used with a great deal of restraint. This is further augmented by mixed adult and children’s choruses to add specific textural nuances to the narrative."

Read the whole piece here :

Friday 17 October 2008

Russian soul - Ashkenazy Rachmaninov on TV tonight

Brand new film about Vladimir Ashkenazy on TV tonight - ! BBC4TV at 7.30, posssibly also live streaming online. This film was only released on October 1st. Ashekenazy plays Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations, a late piece written in exile. Ashekenazy says this isn't the usual expansive, ebullient Rachmaninov we're used to. Rachmaninov's identity was so connected to Russia that when he was forced into exile, something in him broke. "The Corelli Variations have “idiomatic eloquence”, but the “Harmony closes in and becomes darker”, says Askenazy on the short commentary film. He then plays the main lyrical part, but even this ember of happiness is tinged with melancholy. “There is not a shred of hope”, he comments. The piece was inspired by a legend about a shepherd committing suicide because he lost the one he loved. Perhaps for Rachmaninov, exile was a kind of creative suicide. But it's a lovely piece - listen..

Fortunately exile isn't quite as traumatic for Ashkenazy, but he too feels the pull of the Russian soul. Again, watch the film and see why. Read more here :

Thursday 16 October 2008

Gérard Grisey Les espaces acoustiques

Gérard Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques is a ground breaking work which defies assumptions about what music “ought” to be. Not for nothing did the composer describe it as “a great laboratory”, exploring the way we listen.

Written from 1974 to 1985, it’s actually six pieces which can be enjoyed separately. This was the first UK performance of the whole cycle. It starts with a single violist, expanding to ensembles for 7, 18, 33 and 84 musicians. Grisey uses chords that endlessly morph and oscillate, displaying the full spectrum of sound. Hence the term “spectralism” which Grisey later abandoned. This is very organic music, in harmony with the biorhythms of the human body, like breathing, steadily exhaling and inhaling. This isn’t music to “audit” passively as it’s complex, but it’s also strangely therapeutic. Afterwards, you feel refreshed, like you’ve had a workout. If you’ve been listening well, you probably have, since the more you put into this, the more you get back.

Yet Les espaces acoustiques grows outwards from extreme simplicity. A basic melodic cell repeats like in spiral, back and forth, each time with tiny gradations of pitch. It’s a tour de force. Paul Silverthorne demonstrated why he’s the foremost violist in Britain, and a long term stalwart of the London Sinfonietta : fifteen minutes of seamless bowing, energetic yet subtly refined. Grisey himself said such progressions were specially difficult on viola, so Silverthorne’s virtuosity deserves much praise. Even when the viola plays alone, though, there’s a “réponse fantomatique” with the other instruments. The viola is the heartbeat, they are the echo, unheard at first. In the second section, Périodes, Grisey adds to the breathing motif an extra level of “rest” as natural rhythmic as walking. It’s never mechanical but blurred, allowing variations of tempo, stillness and pitch. Most dramatic perhaps is the theme on double bass, played by Enno Senft, but there are many other intriguing variations. This is music that proliferates, building elaborations upon itself, like cell divisions, like fractals in mathematics.

Grisey was a student of Olivier Messiaen, and dedicated the 4th section, Modulations, to him. Since George Benjamin was also Messiaen’s student, this performance took on overtones reminiscent of Messiaen, particularly Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The double bass theme reflects the “walls of solidity” and the extensive brass the “final trumpet” fanfares. Benjamin connects Les espaces acoustiques to the ideas of time, space and eternity in Messiaen, like borrowed vistas in landscape. Just as Grisey’s music expands from simple cells, it thus grows “beyond” itself, into a vast new conceptual universe. Benjamin was extremely perceptive, for this “value-added” approach enhances Grisey’s concept of infinite possibility. You can enjoy this music in a vacuum, but it’s so much more fulfilling in a wider context. In some circles, it’s fashionable to call Messiaen “history” but anyone with any knowledge of his influence on composers as diverse as Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, Grisey, Murail, Anderson and Benjamin himself, will know that’s nonsense.

Messiaen also influenced conducting style, since music of such subtle colour needs performance of great clarity. Benjamin is a lucid conductor, and gets brilliant results. The London Sinfonietta has long championed Grisey’s music. Balances were finely judged, even details like the varied mutings of brass deftly executed. When the viola resurfaced between the 5th and 6th sections, it shone clearly, proving its central role in the whole structure of the cycle. In the Epilogue, the four horns stood proud above the massed orchestra.

Please explore this blog for lots of other pieces on Grisey, Murail, Messiaen, Scelsi, Vivier, Sciarrino, Dufourt, Stockhausen, Xenakis and others ! This is one of the biggest blogs for new music, welcome back anytime.

Please see the whole with extra pix

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Bohuslav Martinu - the operas

Coming up in 2009 is Bohuslav Martinu's anniversary. In London we're lucky as Martinu is a speciality of the BBC's top man Jiri Belohlávek, so we're in for some idiomatic performances. There's a very good article about Martinu's operas in MusicOMH , so follow the link below. It's worth it as Martinu isn't nearly as well known in this country as he should be.

"The best known of the dozen or so oratorios/cantatas are the quietly moving Field Mass and the strangely hypnotic Epic of Gilgamesh. In recent years, only one of the composer's 14 operas have been performed at a major London house – the last one, The Greek Passion, which was finally presented at Covent Garden in its original form in 2000, and again in 2004. It is 30 years since his early opera Julietta has been performed in the capital, although a concert performance is scheduled (the first of the anniversary tributes?) at the Barbican in March 2009"

"Most of Martinu's work flirts with the strange and off-kilter, delving into the subconscious in one way or another, and Les larmes is an extreme example of this exploration – a woman falls in love with a hanged man, Satan rides a bicycle and heads split apart, while legs and arms dance on their own."

Definitely read this link for more !

Monday 13 October 2008

James Gilchrist Die Schöne Müllerin Oxford Lieder Festival

Twenty-five years ago I heard Die Schöne Müllerin in a country church beside the Thames in South Oxfordshire. “How lovely”, said the vicar, noting that the village is famous for its old mill. Had he known the cycle he might not have been so thrilled! Beneath the sunlit rippling of the brook in Schubert’s music lies menace indeed.
In an excellent pre performance talk, James Gilchrist made the point of contrasting the brightness of the music with the darkness of its content. All around the young miller, nature blossoms, but he’s totally indifferent. He lives in a vacuum, disconnected from reality. The world hums steadily along but he’s hyperactive, swinging from one extreme to another. He hears voices, becomes violent and finally throws himself into the millpond. It’s not pretty. Nowadays, he’d be heavily medicated and thrown into the community without support, harming others as well as himself.
The vernal landscape deceives, as it’s meant to. Hence exquisite performances like Fritz Wunderlich, where you’re taken in by the sheer beauty of the voice. That’s why Matthias Goerne’s version a few years back was so shocking. “There’s nothing cute about teenage suicide”, he said, producing a version so psychologically penetrating that it’s frightening to listen to, even though it’s groundbreaking and a superlative performance. Ian Bostridge, in his more recent work with Mitsuko Uchida, takes another path, connecting the spirit of the brook to the earth spirits and folk magic so dear to the Romantic imagination. James Gilchrist has found yet another distinctive approach, which is quite an achievement in a cycle as frequently performed as this.
I made a special effort to hear this concert as I thought it would be well suited to Gilchrist’s style and I was right. Firstly, his clear, lucid singing works extremely well for it’s direct and naturalistic : songs like this need an understated, almost conversational style for what we are hearing are highly personal “unspoken thoughts”. Secondly, Gilchrist doesn’t declaim, he convinces by genuinely communicating the inner world of his protagonist. Like a true method actor, his characterization comes from understanding how the young man thinks, alien as it may be to “normal” people, so the performance grows from this. Thirdly, he understands how the poetry and music work as external commentary, following the miller’s descent towards death. There’s a journey here, just as there is in Winterreise.
Gilchrist’s young miller is most certainly delusional, a very sick loner unable to form even the most basic of relationships. As he approaches the mill, he’s almost manic with expectation, the voice taking on a shrill excitement. Peter Schreier’s miller had a similar unnerving intensity. This is observant, for the miller’s mind is lit up with an unnaturally bright light : he sees things in extremes. Phrases repeat, like double takes, as if the miller is contemplating his own vision. The rhythms of the millwheel and brook are resolute, Anna Tilbrook’s playing captures the relentless flow. The miller’s fundamental weakness is thrown into contrast : he doesn’t think he’s as strong as the apprentices : Ungeduld is a list of the things he’d like to do, but can’t.
In some interpretations, Mein! is a moment of hope. But Gilchrist appreciates how it connects to the previous song, Tränenregen, where the miller at last gets to spend time with the girl. Instead of talking to her, he talks to the brook ! No wonder she makes her excuses and leaves. To anyone else, that would be rejection, but suddenly the miller thinks he’s won the girl. Gilchrist’s Mein! is heartbreaking, because the ecstasy is so clearly delusional. The miller “feels” intensely, therefore assumes everyone else feels as he does, without compromise. As Gilchrist shows, this joyous song is the beginning of the end. The miller’s jealousy and anger seem quite healthy in comparison. Just as the brook misleads deceptively, Schubert builds in deceptively happy music at the grimmest movements.
Gilchrist and Tilbrook use silence to create space the two final songs, for they are the threshold from which there is no return. When the miller stops being hyperactively manic, he becomes numb, unable to resist the brook’s lethal powers. This is also tn opportunity for Gilchrist to comment as an observer. All along, he’s acknowledged the miller’s mania accurately, but with sympathy rather than judgement : the poor lad is no grotesque. Gilchrist doesn’t look “at” him, but “with” him. In the end, though, he can’t go where the miller goes. These two songs are trickier than they seem, for the singer has to express sympathy yet detachment. Tenderness is important for the miller has suffered so much. Yet listen to what the brook is saying : It blames the huntsman, it blames the girl, the böses Mägdelein, who still has the power to wake the drowned boy ! Give into the brooks seductive lies and enter into the madness. Gilchrist sings gently, but he knows this is no lullaby, it’s dangerous.
This was one of the key concerts in this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival, and for good reason. Oxford Lieder is dedicated to extending the art of Lieder, making people think how and why it’s such a special art form. Gilchrist demonstrates exactly the sort of intelligence and sensitivity that makes good Lieder singing. This was a masterclass in itself.
See the review and the lovely pic :
Please note, James Gilchrist has recorded this on Orchid, to be issued late September 2009

Sunday 12 October 2008

Die Schöne Müllerin - Bostridge Goerne Uchida

Ian Bostridge astounded the song world with his seminal Die Schöne Müllerin with Graham Johnson in 1994. He's pulled off the feat a second time, in this outstanding performance with Mitsuko Uchida. Indeed, this is even more distinctive for it's shaped with much more depth of insight.

Schubert's song cycles are much more than the sum of their parts: performing them requires a breadth of vision to illuminate the cycle as a whole. It is not enough to sing well: understanding and interpretation are paramount. What is fascinating is how Bostridge has lived with, and grown with, this cycle. With Johnson, Bostridge emphasized the painful vulnerability of the miller's lad, a portrayal of youthful anguish. Now, Bostridge brings to it the insight of a more mature observer, more attuned to the psychological drama that is at the heart of the cycle. It is a tour de force, reflecting an infinitely deeper understanding of what the cycle means. There is nothing quite like it. The nearest comparison is Matthias Goerne, whose depiction of the psychosis haunting the miller's lad shocked many by its intensity. Bostridge manages a different, if equally perceptive understanding, without Goerne's unorthodox tempi. He's also a tenor. Schubert envisioned the cycle for higher voice and was a tenor himself. This matters a lot, for this version expresses much of what might have been Schubert's personal subtext.

This is, therefore, almost as innovative as Goerne's groundbreaking version, but perhaps more accessible. Bostridge and Uchida make more of the brook's demonic struggle to overpower the boy than his inner demons. This makes their version closer to the Romantic spirit where magic and menace lurk close beneath the surface, where nature spirits can be malevolent. It also fits in with the theory that Schubert himself may have felt cursed by his illness, the result of a natural act of love. Danger and the supernatural are Bostridge's natural territory: witness his brilliant Janáček and Henze recordings where he elucidates terrifying mysteries beyond the realm of consciousness. This new interpretation has, therefore, all the virtues of an intelligent, modern psychological reading while remaining within the mainstream of the Romantic tradition.

Significantly, Bostridge emphasizes that the poet Wilhelm Müller said it was a set "Im Winter zu lesen" - to be read in winter, in barrenness and cold. The text may speak of Spring and flowers but it is, frankly about suicide of a very young man. Schubert connected love with death only too well, for he had been diagnosed with venereal disease shortly before setting the poems. It is not a pretty cycle, by any means. Bostridge and Uchida focus on the uneven dialogue between the brook, representing death, and the young man, dreaming of love.

Uchida is almost too dominant a partner, yet her evocation of the powerful, unyielding movement of the mill wheel expresses the unrelenting power of the waters. This brook has a demonic life of its own, calling to the boy, drawing him towards its crushing embrace. Bostridge's voice has developed deeper colours over the years and his portrayal of the lad is exquisite – lyrical yet richly shaded, making the contrast between the boy and the brook all the more poignant. He whispers, both in awe and excitement ist das denn meine Straβe ?". The brook has already shown who's boss. In the brief vignette of "reality", where the miller talks with his apprentices after work, Bostridge manages to portray the gathering vividly, yet the piano reminds us of the ferocity lurking outside, threatening to shatter the cosy scene. Der Neugierige (the questioner) is one of the critical turning points in the cycle. For Goerne it was as if we were inside the boy's troubled mind, a terrifying inner sanctum. For Bostridge, it is the curiosity of innocence, a moment when the demons in the brook for once are still, while the boy wonders about love. But not for long – Ungeduld starts almost immediately with its insistent, demented pressures. Bostridge sings the verse, when he thinks he's won love with heartfelt openness and triumph but Uchida has already told us that something's amiss. The contrast between lyricism and the violence of the piano part is striking.

In a Wigmore Hall recital in 2005, he sang the last verse of Morgengruβ with much more defiance than on the recording, which was much more effective, for it shows that there's still spirit and hope in the lad's mind. Soon after, though, follows Pause, which for Bostridge is the turning point of the cycle. The boy has hung his lute on the wall, and can sing no more. Bostridge's voice actually takes on a lute like quality from here on. It is as if the boy has already lost the power to be a proactive individual. The two "lute" songs, Pause and Mit dem grünen Lautenbande are balanced by two angry songs about the huntsman whom the miller's daughter clearly prefers. Bostridge and Uchida hardly stop to breathe between songs, allowing them to form a striking group that in turn connects to the "colour" songs, Der liebe Farbe and Die böse Farbe. As a unit of six, without a break, the drama is intensified. In the middle was a most ferocious Eifersucht und Stolz (Jealousy and Pride). It is somewhat restrained on this recording, compared to the fire with which Bostridge sings it in recital. His recent years in opera have certainly taught him expressive, passionate characterisation.

By the time Bostridge sings "Der Mai ist kommen, der Winter is aus!" we are left under no illusion that Spring really will come. The miller's lad and the brook have a final dialogue. Uchida starts Der Müller und die Bach as if she were playing a funeral march, for the brook is calling the boy to itself. Yet Bostridge infuses the last verses with revived lyricism. "Ach, Bächlein, liebes Bächlein ... aber weiβt du wie Liebe tut?" These are "his" last words in the cycle, and Bostridge has him depart with tenderness.

Just as Uchida started the cycle evoking the mechanical process of the mill wheel, she ends it with the same relentless turning over of the same small motif. In this context, I've often thought of the folktune "muss i' den" with a similar hurdy-gurdy type figure revolving over and over. Here, the coy, fake sentimentality of the folktune seems absolutely right - the brook's quaint song is ersatz. The brook has destroyed the lad and absorbed him into itself. Goerne managed a strange but brilliant synthesis, expressing sympathy for the boy while expressing anger at the waste of a destroyed life. For Bostridge the final Wiegenlied is no tender lullaby either, but the chilling voice of the brook and its lack of conscience. It possessively warns the flowers not to arouse the lad from his slumber, like the warped mother in the movie Psycho. It is all the more disturbing because Bostridge sings this with such understatement, letting the horror speak for itself.

Bostridge has emerged from a period of quiet in his career and become a more mature, deeper and sensitive performer than before. A true artist keeps creating, thinking things over and developing and to his credit, Bostridge seems to have endless reserves of musical intelligence. Creating one distinctive Schöne Müllerin enshrines him as one of the cycle's best performers. Creating a second, exceptional and far more original interpretation as this new version, earns him a place in the pantheon.

Finzi : Intimations of Immortality James Gilchrist

Super performance today by James Gilchrist of Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin. I rushed home to listen to another DSM but couldn't resist pulling up one of the best Gilchrist recordings, Gerald Finzi's Intimations of Immortality. There are many good recordings of Finzi’s masterpiece Dies Natalis op. 8 but relatively few of Intimations of Immortality op. 29. Only two recordings are readily available, one with Philip Langridge (Hickox, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, 1988) and another with John Mark Ainsley (Best, Corydon Orchestra and chorus, 1996). The surprise is that this new recording is so good it exceeds even the high standards of its predecessors. This is the one to get, on nearly every count.
Intimations is a blockbuster, a spectacular on a massive scale. As Finzi himself joked, it was a “hell of a noise, but rather a wonderful noise all told”. It certainly is ambitious, requiring a large orchestra, a well trained big chorus and a tenor with the fortitude to sustain 45 minutes of singing against a loud background. Finzi attempts to match the grand, stirring verse of Wordsworth with an equally expansive orchestral setting. For a composer whose strength was in smaller scale chamber and choral music and song, it is quite an achievement: in some ways it outdoes Vaughan Williams in dramatic effects. Nonetheless, its very sprawling ambitiousness, and the rush with which it was completed for first performance in 1950 poses problems. This means all the more that it needs to be performed with clear vision.

As with Dies Natalis, Intimations starts with an Andante setting out the main themes to come: the horn solo is particularly evocative, with its echoes of Arcadia. Then Gilchrist enters, pure and clear. Gilchrist’s voice is remarkably beautiful, pure and clear. Ainsley brings a highly refined, magical quality to his singing: this baroque sensibility brings out a deeply spiritual level to the text, which is utterly appropriate and will remain a favourite of mine. But Gilchrist has a more direct, almost conversational edge which expresses profound conviction. His phrasing is immaculate, his diction so clear that Wordsworth’s difficult long sentences come across with a natural ease and flow. Wisely, the recording keeps his voice in the foreground. Langridge’s more straightforward singing is more recessed into the whole, which doesn’t help, since the soloist’s role is so important.

David Hill has been conducting Finzi for years, and with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and chorus, he has fine musicians to work with. The results show in by far the most animated, vivacious playing of all three recordings. One of the critical points for me is the xylophone solo which dominates the fourth stanza. Stephen Banfield, one of the great Finzi commentators, calls it, charitably, “ragtime”, though what place ragtime has in Wordsworth, I don’t know. Of course it’s cheerful, but in the Best/Corydon recording in particular it reminds me far too much of “The Donkey Serenade”, a concept totally jarring to the ideas in Wordsworth and the general thrust of the music, and spoils the recording. Hickox may not mute its effect, but doesn’t overemphasize it, either. Hill thoughtfully tones it down and keeps it more integrated with the rest of the orchestra and the choir, so it does not jar quite so much. Indeed, he gets from his players a clarity and liveliness that complements Gilchrist’s expressive singing. This is one of the strengths of this recording, as balancing the constituent parts of the piece make it flow with more spirit and feeling. What Finzi may have been seeking, after all, was a profound emotional charge, so as to equal Wordsworth’s intense poetry. While the Langridge/Hickox recording has its merits, it’s far more conservative and unadventurous. It doesn’t capture the sense of wonder and excitement that Finzi’s spectacular setting seems to cry out for.

Indeed, what strikes me about his setting is its “technicolor” elements: great surges of volume, intense chromatics, lushly romantic voices and strings in particular. It’s not surprising that the Hollywood musician Bernard Herrmann was one of the first to appreciate the work for what it was. Hollywood may have bad connotations in conservative eyes, but in those dark days of post-war austerity, it meant something quite different. If Finzi sought the ebullient and the upbeat, it seems quite natural that he should have written music whose boundless optimism transcended parochial convention. It’s no defect. Indeed, Banfield calls the chirpy little melody that illustrates the words “this sweet May morning” as “one of most sly pieces of mickey-mousing outside Hollywood”. Finzi’s good humour meant he was no po-faced musical snob. Gilchrist, Hill and the Bournemouth musicians seem to understand Finzi’s quintessential approach, so their bright, vivacious performance is more in keeping with the composer’s vision than their rather staid predecessors. Finzi ends the work with a sparsely orchestrated, exquisitely elegant simplicity, all the more profound for its contrast with what went before. In this final stanza, Gilchrist’s singing is almost surreally beautiful. The way he sings “another race have been, and other palms are won” gives me goosebumps, for so clearly does he evoke "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”.

Friday 10 October 2008

ENO Partenope Handel

Melanie Eskenazi is one of the most perceptive writers on the baroque. This is what she's written on the new ENO production of Handel's Partenope :

"Partenope (Greek for ‘virgin’) was, according to one legend, cast ashore on the coast near Naples after throwing herself into the sea in her despair at not having been able to sing Ulysses to his death – it’s almost as good a name for an opera as “Orfeo” and this first staging of the work in London since 1983 is given an exciting production, further strengthening English National Opera’s pre-eminence as the leading house for Handel opera. “Partenope” could almost be called a chamber opera, and in purely visual terms one might have been looking at a production of Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio” – but more of that later. It’s singing that counts in this music – and this was an evening of exceptional Handelian style. Rosemary Joshua’s Partenope was a worthy successor to her Semele, ‘L’Amor ed il Destin’ typical of her confident delivery, silvery tone and mastery of phrasing. In Act Two, ‘Qual Farfalletta’ was perhaps a little subdued, but ‘Quel volto mi piace’ was incisively characterised. It helped that she was not only beautifully costumed but given graceful and appropriate things to do whilst singing, neither of which advantages were given to the Emilio of John Mark Ainsley, who must surely now win the award for ‘Singer Who Has Survived the Most Stupid Stage Business Whilst Singing Impossibly Florid Music’. Ainsley sang his first aria whilst placing bodies and photographing them, his third up a ladder wearing a skirt and a turban, but ‘Barbaro Fato sì’ topped them all, standing on a toilet, leaning halfway out of a transom window and smoking. All taken in his stride, of course, the rapid coloratura delivered with firm steady tone and immaculate diction..........."

"Alden and his co-director Peter Littlefield, together with the set designer Andrew Lieberman, took their inspiration from Surrealist writers and artists, setting Partenope’s court in a pared-down, blond-and white version of Man Ray’s studio: the character of Emilio is presented as the photographer, arranging images just as he arranges the lives of the other protagonists, and the heroine is an emotionally well balanced version of Zelda Fitzgerald – you could just see this lady using a belt to ensure that the lift stayed on their floor.Does it work? Yes, it does – the world of the early eighteenth-century is not that far distant from that of the early twentieth in terms of its surface gloss and its emergent questioning of the relationship between Reason and Emotion, between the urbane and the spontaneous, and the concept is wonderfully coherent despite the demands made upon some of the singer / actors within it. It’s also very funny in parts, and although I did not always warm to Amanda Holden’s chirpy translation (“Crikey!” “O shit!”), it certainly engaged most of the audience."

Here's the full text :

Thursday 9 October 2008

Oxford Lieder Festival starts Oct 10

This year's Oxford Lieder Festival starts October 10th, kicking off with a "Schubert Weekend" , three days of the big cycles – Florian Boesch in Winterreise, James Gilchrist in Die Schöne Müllerin, and Joshua Ellicott in Schwanen
. Then there's the "lost" cycle, Kosegarten. This is a compilation of existing songs which Prof. Morten Solvik believes may have been presented as a group in Schubert’s time. It’s rarely heard in this form and while it won’t challenge the existing canon, it should be interesting. It’s Schubert, after all!

Two of the greatest names in English singing will be featured. Ian Partridge will be giving his farewell recital. Solid technique and good husbandry have kept him singing to the age of 70. Sir Thomas Allen is a Patron of Oxford Lieder so he's singing a recital on Friday 17th, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. Seats are selling fast as Allen is so much loved. This concert is being held in the church of St Mary The Virgin where John later Cardinal Newman preached: it's the University Church in which the formal religious part of University life takes place – just across from the Sheldonian and the Old Bodleian.

Another reason for going to hear ThomasAllen is to follow him up with the extra late night concert at the Holywell Music Room. It's Gweneth-Ann Jeffers singing Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi , a stunning tour de force which is also rarely heard as it’s such a demanding piece to perform. There’s also Zigeunerlieder, an evening of gypsy-inspired songs by Brahms, Liszt, Janacek and Schumann performed by the Prince Consort, one of the more exciting vocal ensembles to emerge in the last few years, who specialise in relatively neglected repertoire. Along with some rarely heard songs by Liszt and Brahms they are doing Janàček's Diary of One Who Disappeared. The buzz is that this will be one of the highlights, so keep Oct 16th free if you can. The evening before is devoted to Czech song (Martinu, Dvorak, Smetana).

It's Michael Berkeley's 60th birthday this year and Julius Drake suggested he write a voice/piano arrangement of his Speaking Silence. So Drake will be playing this, with Susan Bickley singing – she's a specialist in new repertoire, and very good. More local colour comes later with another David Owen Norris special, "An Oxford Song Book": various 18th century songs by composers who worked in the university. There will also be an "Oxford Musical Walk" earlier in the day. This isn't any average guided tour but is designed around Oxford’s musical history. This is very rich indeed, as the Holywell Music Society was one of the first to encourage serious listening and music making in this country in the 18th century. The Holywell Music Room, built in 1740, hosted performances by Mozart and Hadyn, no less.
The final evening concert is more like conventional "gala" insofar as a festival as original and lively as Oxford Lieder does "conventional". and this year, the stars like Sir Thomas Allen are choosing young singers for "Fifteen minutes of fame" singing pre-concert extras before the main events. It is extremely important that young singers are given such exposure, because song as an artform needs live performances, rather than over-dependence on recordings. Sarah Walker will be conducting master classes. Again this is a typical Oxford droll understatement, for Walker is an amazing personality, who communicates her love and enthusiasm for voice so well that these master classes are worth attending even if you don't sing. They have become almost legendary. Richard Stokes, Eugene Asti and Julius Drake are also leading classes, so these are seriously useful, for anyone wanting to polish their Lieder skills. Participants get to put on a full concert of their own, too. Oxford Lieder is special, an important feature of musical life in Britain..Please read more from the festival web site and try to support it

The photo is Sholto Kynoch who organises Oxford Lieder and plays in many programmes. This is a guy who could curate a week at Kings Place worth making the trek for !