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.

Saturday 22 November 2008

Dr Atomic at the Met

Bruce Hodges on John Adams Dr Atomic at the Met which will be seen in London at the ENO next year:

"Somewhere in this well-intentioned study of the nail-biting hours leading to the test of the first atomic bomb, there is a transcendent experience that this production did not quite reveal. And as a fan of John Adams, I was curious enough that I saw it not once, but twice"........" "The basic premise is meritorious and worth exploring: getting inside the head of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues in Los Alamos, New Mexico in June of 1945, during those uncomfortable final hours before the bomb test. ...."

"But the libretto, flickering with possibilities, ultimately kept me at a safe distance. At least as seen here, the opera seems largely about "the banality of waiting around." I empathize, but as a listener I don't feel the need to travel the same journey. And some scenes seemed hungry for a director's ability to clarify and amplify—to help focus our attention on what in this story is important. Often large groups of people are milling about, working on something related to the impending test, but it is never clear why, or why we should care."

"Given the number of times Doctor Atomic has been produced already, goodwill is clearly on the creators' side. Much of the set, by Julian Crouch (whose work was also seen in last season's Satyagraha) is enticing to look at, such as two massive blocks of cubicles—three rows of seven on each side—in which singers can pose, sometimes in gripping images: in the second half, a row of bodies appear flung to the walls, stuck upside down or at strange angles. White shades, when drawn, allow animation to be projected: maps of Japan, equations on a blackboard, and the endless, relentless rain."

For the whole piece and production pix see:

Thursday 20 November 2008

Pelléas et Mélisande Independent Opera Sadler's Wells

Everything Independent Opera does is distinctive. It's a tiny company, but visionary. Pelléas et Mélisande is a challenge even for big houses, but this isn't the kind of company that's daunted. This Pelléas et Mélisande would do credit to much bigger houses. What Independent Opera lacks in money it makes up with imagination and creativity. Talent like this is far rarer than we appreciate. If the big companies take note of Independent Opera, all of us could be in for some of the most vibrant opera in Europe.

There’s hardly any stage space in the Lilian Baylis Theatre at Sadler’s Wells, and the audience seats are so steeply raked that it’s claustrophobic. But claustrophobia is central to the plot. This set, by Madeleine Boyd, uses horizontal plinths which bear down oppressively. Wings, rafters and mechanics are fully visible, a striking illustration of life in this castle, which is repressively formal, organized like an industrial machine. Allemonde is not a happy kingdom. This set reminds us that dungeons and subterranean passages lurk below, Maeterlinck’s metaphor for the subconscious. We catch brief glimpses of the servants who make the edifice function.

This too, is an integral part of the plot even though the roles are silent, for Allemonde is kept alive by scores and scores of underlings who serve in suppressed anonymity. Remember this, for it’s important and pertains to the “surprise” ending this production reveals ! Arkel and Geneviève can’t even walk freely at first but are propelled by machines. When Mélisande enters his life, Arkel can suddenly walk again, albeit with sticks. Geneviève’s costume (also by Boyd) is a statement in itself, a bizarre contraption that makes her look like a piece of ornate Victorian furniture. Her skirt is like a cabinet, brightly polished but strictly compartmentalized. It’s a symbol of the alienated rigidity which Mélisande’s presence shakes to the core.

Independent Opera productions sell out fast, but the company can’t afford really big name singers. Instead, it seeks out the best new talent. Several careers have flourished as a result. The singers here certainly aren’t unknowns, but chosen with care. Andrew Foster-Williams has appeared internationally, at ROH, ENO, WNO and Opera North. He’s vocally very assured but even more interestingly, he gets unexpected depths from Golaud. This production is unusual because it explores the relationships between the men.

Golaud’s emotionally retarded, with a history of clumsy relationships. Foster-Williams makes Golaud’s sexual interest in Mélisande very clear. This adds to the suppressed aggression beneath the surface calm. When they'd met, Mélisande had cried "Ne me touchez pas !", but all Golaud can do is touch her. This Golaud is a man who expresses himself violently because he can’t deal with complex emotions. One of the most striking images in this production is when Golaud strokes Pelléas tenderly and combs his hair. It’s a charged moment. It's not erotic so much as Golaud trying to understand "normal" feelings in his inept way, feelings he knows come naturally to his brother. This is a fascinating characterization, supported by the tenderness that wells up in the music, which speaks for him what he cannot express in words.

This Mélisande, too, isn’t a pallid victim, but, portrayed by Ingrid Perruche, a sexually vibrant woman. Maggie Teyte, one of the great Mélisandes, said that in her time “the characters were so STRONG (her emphasis)……modern performers (in 1958) have taken out all the blood”. She may be mysterious, but she’s a creature of instinct and feeling, who dares push the boundaries. That’s why she leans, dangerously, over the well (significantly called the Fountain of the Blind) and loses her ring. No wonder Pelléas is both terrified and attracted. Vocally, she has enough richness to bring out the sensuality in the part, and visually, she’s voluptuous. The "Rapunzel" scene with Mélisande’s hair, symbol of erotic power, is almost impossible to stage literally, so it’s hinted at in this production obliquely. Perruche’s hair is long enough, wildly curly and free. In the tower scene, Pelléas follows a golden thread. It’s simple but conveys the musical imagery well. It’s strong, yet fragile, and could snap at any time. Later, on her death bed, Mélisande is covered by a silken blanket in exactly the same shade as her hair. It’s a beautiful detail, implying much about the mystery that surrounds her persona.

Thorbjørn Gulbransøy as Pelléas is convincing as a lover because he can convey Pelléas as a full personality, who can stand up to a strong Golaud. His is a beautiful voice. He’s young, he has good experience and potential. Frédéric Bourreau’s Arkel was extremely well developed too. Although he’s old, he’s mentally sharp, and understands subtleties Golaud can never grasp. He’s seated in a wheelchair, but the voice that arises is steady, firm and clear, drawing attention even when he’s silent – a counterpart of sorts to Mélisande herself. Indeed, Arkel comes into his own in the deathbed scene, where Golaud crumbles. Bourreau gives us a glimpse of what Arkel might have been in his prime, expanding the character by the depth of his portrayal.

And the “surprise” final scene ? As Mélisande breathes her last, four of the women who have been working in the shadows all along appear. “Who has summoned them?” cries Golaud fearfully, but no-one knows. No longer are they mere servants, barely seen. Now they stand around Mélisande like dignified Angels of Death, profoundly powerful and moving. Golaud is an emotional illiterate because he’s like Allemonde as it was, a clockwork mechanism operating on auto pilot. Does it mean change ? These women represent another way of being, more attuned to Mélisande, and they defy the King. Does it mean change ? We know that outside the castle the populace is starving, ready for revolt.

Even the sickly baby materialises as a little girl. Mélisande says “elle va pleurer aussi”, but that could mean many different things. Perhaps the girl will grow up and repeat the mysterious cycle ? Small as this detail may be, it’s an important because it reminds us that we still have no idea where Mélisande came from or who she really was.

Further evidence of Independent Opera’s flair for innovation is the orchestration. This was a specially commissioned instrument version of Debussy’s score, made by the composer Stephen McNeff. Since Debussy’s music is exquisitely detailed, it was a daunting proposition. McNeff was struck by the way Debussy ”creates a constantly moving soundworld by layering and doubling, adding and taking away”, not so different in spirit from chamber music. McNeff reduced the numbers to 35 from 50, keeping the central solo parts intact, so what we hear captures the essential quality of the original. It also means that this opera can, in future, be performed in smaller theatres. Yet again, Independent Opera thinks outside the box. That’s why it’s worth paying so much attention to.

Monday 17 November 2008

Under the Radar Independent Opera at Sadlers Wells

The Independent Opera Company is "under the radar" for those who think of opera mainly in terms of big name celebrities and high profile "appearances". Yet for those who really love good opera and good theatre they are THE buzz on the streets. Yes, this is top quality opera but so lively, so fresh and so innovative that it draws in a mix of serious cognoscenti and bright young minds. Anyone who saw their outrageous (in a good sense) Elizabeth Maconchy operas last year will know what I mean ! This is utterly hip, utterly creative theatre, imaginatively applied to opera. Brilliant ! Big companies take note !

I've loved their work since their first Handel Orlando a few years ago when they struggled against huge odds to produce a magic. Truly "triumph over adversity", in the spirit of baroque. This summer they did a concert performance of the same at the Wigmore Hall which displayed how good the singing is, too. The star was William Towers who's a fairly big name now but has long been associated with this company. That says lots about them too : they draw a loyal group of enthusiasts who come because they love what's happening. Not at all like the sub West End wannabes that sometimes infiltrate the big houses to show they're "posh"! Independent's director is the charismatic Alessandro Talevi, a very gifted creative but also a great manager - the logistics of running an opera are formidable and he carries it off with such style !

Do not miss their Pelleas et Melisande opening tomorrow night and running for only three days. It's a special chamber version because you can't fit a full orchestra into the Lilian Baylis at Sadler's Wells but that's OK. The shining diaphanous textures of this music might sound all the better for being more intimate.

Saturday 15 November 2008

Boris Godunov 1869 ENO London

This isn’t the “usual” Boris Godunov we know and love, but the 1869 original. No Polish scenes, No Princess Marina, no Kromy Forest. It may be “pure” Mussorgsky, but the composer and Rimsky-
Korsakov had good reasons for revising it. Nonetheless, this is much more than a curiosity because it highlights the fundamentals of the plot, rather than letting us luxuriate in highly-coloured histrionics.

Strangely enough, it feels closer to the spirit of Russia. Tim Albery makes the implicit connection between medieval and modern. Russia in “The Time of Troubles”, even for the wealthy was more spartan than the colourful images we see in books and paintings. That’s why the Tsars and the Church were able to overwhelm the peasants. Their authority was built on being able to dazzle the serfs into submission. No wonder the peasants are terrified that somehow the world will collapse if they aren’t dominated by a Tsar. Of course their piety is enforced by police brutality, but the confluence of credulity and servitude tells us something about totalitarian regimes. If people want to believe, they’ll believe anything. This is why False Dimitris figure so much in Russian history. An old man claims his blindness is cured by visiting the grave of the murdered Tsarevich. The dead child becomes a saint and thus connects to the power of the Church. It isn’t rational, but it scares the wits out of Boris. So much for his hold on power. No wonder he has to die.

That’s why this production works so well. It’s firmly centred in the barren greyness in which peasants live. The opening scene, with its huge, oppressive beams hanging over the crowds, is claustrophobic, a symbol of their oppression. The new Tsar walks past, in an elevated cubicle, as distant from his subjects as a dream. Yet the masses acclaim him as though he were a god. No wonder communism had such hold for so long. No wonder the Rimsky-Korsakov version was preferred by the authorities.

This version reveals the significance of the cell scene. The monk Pimen may not be as attractive theatrically as a diva with a stunning aria but he is the witness of time. Pimen may be frail, but Boris realizes that he cannot escape the uncompromising judgement of history. Brindley Sherratt doesn’t sound old, but he portrayed the true nature of the role all the better by quietly forceful delivery. Sherratt’s dignity is such that it also brings out the irony in the Inn scene, where the drunken monks carouse. Varlaam (Jonathan Viera) is more than comic relief. He represents the ugly reality behind the surface glamour of the Church/State power structure. That’s why False Dimitris are so dangerous. Gregory Turay as Grigory seems a beacon of hope in contrast. It’s interesting that Albery places the one truly vivid blaze of colour with the Innkeeper. Yvonne Howard’s costume (designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) is a visual riot, a flash of uninhibited vivacity. This is costume making a statement : the peasants may be oppressed but their folk culture is irrepressibly vigorous. Despite their wealth, the robes of the Royal household are more muted and formal. It’s a telling insight which can be obscured in more conventional, opulent productions.

The central role, however is Boris Gudonov himself. He’s power-crazed enough to have murdered a child, yet years later is consumed by remorse. Psychologically this is shocking stuff, and many of the great Gudonovs of the past have played the intensity to extremes. Perhaps Albery wants to bring out a more civilised, human side in the role which is certainly valid. The tenderness Boris feels for his children contrasts with the murder of the Tsarevich. But it would have been impossible for Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov not to show the Tsar in sympathetic terms. They’d have been murdered or exiled themselves. This creates an emotional minefield. It’s such a complex part that playing up the extremes is perhaps a relatively easy option. It’s Peter Rose’s first Gudonov, so he may grow into the part and explore its depths. On the other hand, it fits nicely with Edward Gardner’s conducting, which underplays excess where more intensity, too, would have enhanced the raw power in Albery’s vision. Another advantage is that this Boris doesn’t overwhelm the other parts. Prince Shuisky, in particular, is given more weight. He wasn’t just the stock villain of legend. John Graham-Hall’s strong, unfussy portrayal shows that it’s Shuisky’s tragedy too, for Russian audiences knew what happened to him after the story in the opera ends. As for the ending of this production, that’s a puzzle. Despite the funeral bells in the music, Albery has Boris walk off after he dies. This can’t be accidental. Although I don’t understand, it’s a tantalising mystery that makes you ponder long after the evening ends.

Link with production pix to come

Friday 14 November 2008

Why we need to know who Karim Said is

Who is Karim Said, and why is he the subject of tonight's BBC4 TV film at 7.30, the last in the current series of Christopher Nupen portrait films ? Watch the show - it's never been screened on TV and isn't out on DVD. It's extremely inspiring. and suggests answers to the universal questions - why do we love serious music? what pushes people to devote their lives to it?

This is such a motivational film it should be seen by anyone interested in human nature, well beyond classical music, because Karim is a case study in what makes interesting people tick.

It's much more detailed than this and tells lots more about Karim as a musician. Personally, I think he's superb !
Karim was just ten when he started attending the Weimar workshops organised in connection with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and sixteen when he played with them and with Daniel Barenboim. Barenboim, who had been a child star himself, recognized in Karim something quite special. To get anywhere in music you need to be in a big city, so, still a lad, Karim had to leave home and study in England. The real star of the film in many ways is his mother, whose love for him is so deep that she wants him to do what he loves, even if it means not seeing him, This is a film for anyone who's been a mother or anyone who's been a child, for that matter!

Filming was made over a period of seven years, following Karim's life without being intrusive. He also became closely involved with the process – the film is titled "by Christopher Nupen and Karim Said". It certainly makes no claims or predictions. It is enough that we get to see a young person doing what he loves and sticking to it. Everyone can get something from this film even if they don't care anything about music. This is genuine and motivational. Karim's remarkably down to earth and unassuming, a lovely personality who will have something to give whatever he does. I was lucky enough to go to a recital he gave where some of his friends from school were present. They really did love him, he's truly charismatic. And he plays extremely well, too.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

José Serebrier - a fantastic life !

On Tuesday, José Serebrier made one of his sadly too rare London concerts. He has made over 200 recordings, some of which are "best in class", superb. Currently I'm enjoying the latest in his Glazunov series. Highly recommended !
Serebrier's life is absolutely amazing. He started conducting aged 11 in Uruguay, organizing his own orchestra, the first of its kind in South America. They were so innocent they thought they "had" to play by ear and memorized everything ! At 17 he wrote his First Symphony and by a stroke of quite miraculous coincidence it came to the attention of Leopold Stokowski, who hired Serebrier on the spot and premiered the piece in place of Charles Ives's Fourth, then considered too difficult to perform. Of course, Stokowski and Serebrier eventually cracked it, and Serebrier's 1974 recording is a wonder. Serebrier was close to Stokowski for many years, but also worked with Monteux and with Georges Szell. He's also a composer of some note. What I like about his work is that it's so intelligently organized and constructed. Get the fundamentals right, then add flair and sparkling vivacity. His finest work, like his Shostakovich, Dvorak and Janacek is inspired. There is so much in his fascinating life that I couldn't possibly do it justice in a short blog like this. So please look at his website and at the interview below. Look especially for the video clips on the website - amazing !!!!

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Intelligent Elektra - Royal Opera House

“This won’t be a total Schlacht of sound” said the director, Charles Edwards, of this production. Instead, it’s a strikingly intelligent interpretation, focusing on the deeper aspects of the drama.

Despite his extensive experience, this is Mark Elder’s first Elektra. He was adamant that the characterization should reflect the music. Elektra’s part is surprisingly tender at times. Twisted by fate, she’s become wild, but beneath the madness still lurks the real woman Elektra might have been. This makes her tragedy all the more poignant. The real drama here doesn’t lie in decibels. Orchestrally, this was superb. Elder understands the inner dynamic of the music, grasping the fine detail sometimes lost in the vast sweep. Harsh, dry percussion punctuates the beating of the maids. They, too, are victims of the brutal regime. The fifth maid, who protests, is destroyed, as Elektra will be. The playing was so well judged that this would have made a superb recording, even without the visuals.

Yet what visuals ! A monstrous Bauhaus monolith is set at an awkward angle against a Greek temple. These architectural fault lines remind us that Elektra is powerful political commentary. Klytemnestra murdered Agamemnon to seize his kingdom, but she can’t enjoy power, her nightmares pursue her. Elektra is duty bound to avenge her father, but she’s irrevocably warped by it, and cannot live past retribution. As for Orestes, who will now be king ? Neither Strauss nor von Hofmannsthal make this explicit in the opera, but they knew, and their audiences knew, Orestes continues to be punished by the Gods. This production was conceived at the start of the Iraq war although it references that turning point in European history, just before the collapse of the Austrian, German and Russian empires. If anything, recent events like the failure of the banking system, reinforce the point that power is an illusion, easily destroyed. Nothing’s stable : Aegisth whirls round, dying, in a revolving door.

In this palace, family values are dysfunctional. There are disturbing sexual undercurrents in all relationships. Perceptively, however this production doesn’t play up the kinkiness, but places it firmly in the context of the power crazed society around the palace. Everyone is trapped in this brutal situation. Hence the production accentuates the importance of the maids and subsidiary characters, expanding them as silent roles.

Susan Bullock as Elektra is outstanding. Because this interpretation makes her sympathetic, Bullock can develop the more subtle aspects of Elektra’s personality. She’s no screaming mad harpie. There are many traces of the woman she might have become. She mocks the maids for having children, yet understands why Chrysothemis wants babies. The dynamic between Elektra and Chrysothemis (beautifully realized by Anne Schwanewilms), is lucidly defined. “Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren wie du “, cries Chrysothemis. It helps explain why, at her moment of triumph, Elektra deflates. She has nothing to sustain her but vengeance and must die when she achieves it. Her final dance is slow, barely perceptible, as if she’s sinking into the very ground, carrying the “burden of happiness” which no longer has meaning.

Orestes is the finest part I've seen Johan Reuter play so far, and it suits him well. So much more can be made of Klytemnestra and Aegisth than Jane Henschel and Frank van Aken presented, but in theatrical terms this was no real loss, as it didn’t pull focus away from the sisters and Orestes, and the wider drama around them. Indeed, they, too, are created by the insane world around them, rather than sources of evil. Rarely does lighting merit a mention, but this time it was exceptionally effective. Agamemnon features prominently as a silent role, his “ghost” projected onto the walls of his palace. When Elektra sings to Orestes of “Der milchige des Monds”, a faint, but persistent light shines on the corrugated panoply above her. It’s a tiny detail, easily missed, but that moment of beauty throws the tragedy into high relief. This Elektra becomes more profoundly moving, the more it unfolds.

Pix of production here :

Stockhausen Lucifer's Dance Luzifers Tanz

This spectacular performance of Lucifer’s Dance from the opera Saturday in the LICHT cycle was the crowning glory of the excellent Stockhausen festival at the South Bank.

Lucifer, the devil, wants to stop time, is thwarted, dies and is resurrected. So his next plot for world domination involves a ritual dance based on tics, contortions and grimaces. Of course it’s off the wall, but that’s why Stockhausen is fun. The orchestra is arranged symmetrically in the shape of a face. Four silver tubas form one eyebrow, four golden horns the other. When they move, they make the face wink. Wacky as it might seem, it shows how Stockhausen visualises sound as a pliable mass. The orchestra becomes a bizarre kinetic sculpture, each musician a component is the writhing mass of noise and movement. Music takes shape, in every sense !

Lucifer walks on dressed in circus master guise. The vocal line is “sculpted”, too, not singing so much as guttural groans and waving wails. Nicolas Isherwood, the bass, could make a name for himself in the genre, often called ”extreme vocalism”. Lucifer’s recitative, (for that is what it is, strangely enough) goes through ten sequences. Each time he calls out a facial contortion, the orchestra acts it out. The musicians bend, pointing their instruments downwards. Others hold theirs aloft, and of course, they twitch from side to side with exaggerated diagonal movements. It’s as though there were invisible muscles pulling back and forth. In fact, much of the time they aren’t actually playing. One percussionist does a kind of morse code. Only one in five beats hit his gong, sometimes it just vibrates from air turbulence.

The music shifts shape, too. “Tränen !” (tears) shouts Lucifer and sagging diminuendos emit, filtering down from the second row below the brass, the “eyes”. When Lucifer calls on the nose, the rock band drummer in the middle, beats a series of snorts. Sometimes the winds “blow” short of their instruments, creating odd gasps and exhalations, sometimes they shout forcefully into them. Orchestrral groups function like muscle groups., twitching in unison, forcing other groups to react. Marco Blaauw, often heard with the London Sinfonietta, walks on with trumpet mutes strapped round his waist. He’s Michael, one of the main figures in LICHT, who, like the angel Michael, confronts the Devil. His duet with sound projection is a duel, with sound as weapon. A ninja-like piccolo soloist emerges, dancing freely, unconstrained by the gyrations in the orchestra. Lucifer counts the hours. He reaches 13 ! The music explodes. Crazy as it may seem, Lucifer’s Dance has a bizarre logic of its own. It involves “un-learning” conventional attitudes to music, so it’s particularly good to hear it played by student orchestras like this : they won’t forget the experience.

The festival started with Michaels-Gruss (Michael’s Greeting) for solo trumpet. Now it concluded with Michaels-Abschied (Michael’s Farewell), Five trumpeters stood on the roof terrace of the Festival Hall, playing an intricate relay of long, solemn lines, interspersed with silence. The sound reach upwards and outwards, across the Thames, into the cityscape, lit up by millions of lights, like the stars the composer identified with. Gradually, sound fades into the sounds of traffic, into infinity, into the cosmos. Stockhausen doesn’t just sculpt sound with music. He uses the whole environment.

Please see other posts on Stockhausen and the latest "Xmas greetings from KHS"

Friday 7 November 2008

Messiaen Quatuor pour le fin du temps Uchida

This was one of the high points in this year’s magnificent Messiaen centenary. The Quartet for the End of Time is so well known that even those who’ve never heard a note of the composer’s work can refer to it. It’s one of the key works of the 20th century. Seldom, though, does it get performances of this insight. This was authoritative because Uchida and Friends (as they are billed) truly grasped the architectural sweep of the piece, elucidating the fundamentals that make this work so profoundly moving.

Messiaen called the first section “The Liturgy of Crystal”. The first birds of dawn have started to sing, but what’s striking about the music is the way it evokes the “crystalline” purity of early morning, a sense of peace and awakening. Martin Fröst’s clarinet curls sensuously, as if unwinding from deep repose. Soovin Kim coaxes seamlessly long legato from his violin, bowing with firm, steady control : this is significant for he is “creating” the image of time, moving slowly but inexorably towards a destination. Quietly, almost in the background, Uchida plays progressions up and down the chord. Messiaen wrote that the first two parts of the piece describe the Angel, who in the Book of Revelation will appear to announce the End of Time, a towering figure straddling the earth, one foot on the sea, the other on land. Uchida is subtle, but assertive and firm. She realises that the piano part is the inner pulse of the whole piece. It may be understated but it is fundamental to the whole conception.

Suddenly we are alone again. The clarinet solo that follows is fearsomely difficult. Fröst can be a flamboyant player, carried away with the sheer joy of playing. Were he to team up with similarly colourful musicians like Pekka Kuusisto, we’d hear fireworks. All the more credit to him then for the steely discipline he showed here, his whole body taut in performance. At times, he made the clarinet evoke a foghorn, at others a siren. Both are sounds of warning and of portent, one deep and booming, the other sharp and shrill. Then the natural ripeness of the instrument surfaces again, and birdsong starts again. Yet note, time is still moving: Fröst builds up a slow rumble, like the fault lines in an earthquake, which rises to forceful crescendo.

“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” is the title of the fifth section. As Pierre-Laurent Aimard said at the beginning of this festival, the cello part is “the music of immortality”, the bowing so slow and subtle that legato seems to disintegrate. Again, it’s fiendishly difficult to sustain, but Christian Poltéra sustained the flow. Again, Uchida’s presence was significant. The piano plays quiet, tolling ostinato, like distant bells: time is evolving, on two simultaneous levels. When the exuberant Dance of Fury erupts in the sixth section, it’s all the more powerful because we know the sudden frenzy propels us towards the inevitable conclusion. Everyone loves this section because it’s so lively. It’s written very tightly, but each part is distinctive and needs the balance of individuality and cohesion it received here. As Messiaen described it, it is “music of stone, of formidable, sonorous granite”. It is a wall of sound, but made of densely packed particles.

The Angel of Time appears once more in the seventh section. Uchida plays Messiaen’s “chords of rapture” the gently pulsating chords familiar from Vingt Regards and other works of contemplation. Uchida keeps the notes distinct – these are the “tolling bells” again, incessant waves of ostinato, endlessly moving forward. Overwhelming as the Angel is, Messiaen sees colours and vibrations, for the End of Time is not negative, but leads to metaphysical union with concepts beyond time and space, which in the Book of Revelation means oneness with God. The composer has held the violin back till now, when it’s revealed in its full glory. Soovin Kim had impressed throughout: one could hear how defined and expressive his playing was, but Messiaen leaves the best until the last, for that’s the whole point of the prophecy. Kim’s playing reached an apotheosis. This part is an even more difficult elaboration on the cello part in section five. This was magnificent. The music soars in higher and higher cadences, the piano’s “bells” pealing in exaltation, leading the ensemble into refined, rarified diminuendo. The long silence at the end signifies that we’ve reached a point “beyond sound”, beyond physical limitations, vibrating into infinity.

What made this performance so good was Uchida’s presence. She is uncommonly perceptive, understanding the very deepest levels in this music. She keeps a firm hand on the ensemble, ensuring that they reached levels that might seem beyond their grasp while they are still so young. I much preferred this performance to the rather disappointing version at the Proms with better known players. Fröst, who played in both, was immeasurably better here. This was an experience that Fröst, Kim and Poltéra will not forget. They are good musicians, whose potential is enormous, but what they learned here was how performers like Uchida use their sensitivity and intelligence to propel the notes off the page and into the stratosphere, musically.

Fröst, Kim and Poltéra were sponsored by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust. The Trust recognises that developing musicians need sustained support, advice and direction well into their careers. That’s why Uchida is such a perfect choice. Her love of music is so deep that her enthusiasm electrifies those around her. Reading the body language in this ensemble shows what she means by the name “Uchida and Friends”. Prior to the Quartet for the End of Time, Llŷr Williams, another Borlotti-Buitoni musician, played Liszt’s La Lugubre Gondola. It was lyrical, but Bartòk’s quartet, Contrasts, displayed more of the character these musicians showed in the Messiaen. Kim, in particular, was so interesting that it was almost frustrating to know we had to wait a little longer to hear him display his true colours.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Chinese Opera Festival Hong Kong kunqu Chinese music

"Exquisite Beauty: The World of Kunqu is an unprecedented large-scale Kunqu promotion programme in Hong Kong. A series of six demonstration talks on different themes will be conducted at respective tertiary institutions from the 4th to 15th November 2008, while six performances will be staged at the Jockey Club Auditorium of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University from the 18th to 23rd November 2008 to showcase a variety of Kunqu repertoires. Mobilising over a hundred members from the troupes, including eminent artists and reputable masters".

“Exquisite Beauty” best describes the art of Kunqu — its refined language, elegant movements, and regard for tunes and voices. Calling himself a “Kunqu enthusiast”, Professor Hsien-Yung Pai was deeply attracted to this oldest form of existing Chinese opera since his youth. In recent years, he has been actively involved in revitalizing this art form, leading to his accepting the invitation as the honorary chairman of the “Research and Development Project on Kunqu” at The University of Hong Kong in October 2007."

Western people really miss out on the riches of Chinese culture. There's a lot more to it than they realise ! How much could be learned ! One of my dreams is to share the beauty of Chinese music and art. PLEASE look at the labels on the right of this blog as there are several articles about Chinese opera, including the most comprehensive description in English of Peony Pavilion.

For more details, following the links on the right of this blog and look at:
Click on the link to HKU which is in Chinese but many who follow this blog can read Chinese.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

ROH Elektra - the Director speaks

“Opera directing is very different to theatre directing”, says Charles Edwards, director of Elektra at the Royal Opera House this season. “It has to be the music that motivates you”. For this production, he works with Mark Elder, “an extraordinarily theatrically-minded conductor who sees theatre in everything he hears”.

Elektra is a kind of Holy Stück”, he adds. Sir Thomas Beecham conducted it at the Royal Opera House in 1910, a year after it was written, so it carries a venerable performance tradition. But every production is different. “It’s an opera with a fantastic inner logic to it, like Wozzeck, in terms of orchestral and psychological insight…. a kind of psychogram, drawing a picture of what’s happening in the minds of the characters." Citing the sequence where Klytemnestra recounts her traumatic dream, Edwards notes how close Strauss comes to atonality. The music wavers between tones because Klytemnestra can’t find her place emotionally. Strauss was writing well before Schoenberg, and conceptually this is very advanced. It’s as if the composer was on a “cliff edge, looking over into an abyss and pulling back”. Although there are elements of later Strauss in this music, the composer is on dangerous new ground.

Elektra also stands on the precipice in historic terms. This was the Vienna of Freud and artistic innovation. “Hofmannsthal’s libretto isn’t Wagnerian, it’s highly colloquial language, it was daring, yet he didn’t undertake lightly the task of reinterpreting the ancient tragedy in modern, psychological terms.” This was a pivot point in European history, nations tottering on the edge of the First World War, and the end of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires. Hence costumes which evoke Kaiser and Tsar, and sets which juxtapose ancient Greek ruins and early Bauhaus architecture. “The whole weight of history is pressing down.” It’s significant that the production was first conceived on the brink of the invasion of Iraq. If anything, the last five years have sharpened the focus. “We cannot ignore the past.” Klytemnestra wants to forget Agamemnon’s murder, but the truth catches up on her. The characters are locked in a cycle of retribution and violence. “Revenge, revenge, revenge,” says Edwards, “it’s been going on since the beginning of mankind.”

“Ich trage die Last des Glückes”, Elektra carries the burden of the past, until she herself dies. Her final dance is not a dance of triumph – she doesn’t die in other versions of the legend, but in Hofmannsthal’s version, she is killed, just like those who killed her father, because she wanted vengeance too much. “That’s what that final C Major chord means,” says Edwards. As Mark Elder pointed out, it comes suddenly, in contrast to the minor keys that lead up to this point. “Strauss is turning a blinding light upon us,” says Edwards. “This is not celebration, it’s interrogation : Is this what we really want ?” Elektra has been rehearsing her victory for a long time, but when it becomes reality, it finishes her off.

In this production, Edwards wants the music to come through clearly. “This won’t be a total Schlacht of sound, a generalised bloodbath of noise where you can’t really hear the words. The louder the orchestra, the more the singers have to force their voices and that lessens what they can really do.” Of course Elektra can be loud, but this can obscure the deeper levels of meaning. No diva “bathing in vast amounts of decibels”, then ? “Mark Elder knew absolutely that he wanted to avoid the caricature of Elektra as a mad harpie. A lot of her music is soft, amazingly tender. The dynamic between Elektra and Chrysothemis is fundamental. Elektra, for all her righteousness, is deeply damaged : everything that weiblich, human and fertile about her, she’s had to repress, yet she doesn’t hold it against her sister who stands for all she can never have.”

That’s why Edwards is so thrilled about Susan Bullock who will be this Elektra. “She understood, instinctively, she has an astonishing theatrical imagination. She is the greatest English singing actress in this role in the world.” Many who have heard Bullock will agree. Although she has created the part more than 50 times, she comes to the production with an open mind, eager to develop. Her experience counts. “Because of the physical requirements of opera, singers, like dancers, absolutely have to get the character ‘into their bodies’ and grow with it flexibly.”

Bullock’s approach to Elektra determines this characterization of Chrysothermis. “Nagellack”, a conductor once told Edwards, was the essence of the part, as if she had to be some hardened Jean Harlow vamp. “I don’t think Chrysothemis ever puts nail polish on,” he says, however. She’s the one who believes in babies and intimacy. “She’s as strong as Elektra but more rational. Elektra has this hallucinogenic monologue where she’s fantasizing about revenge, and Chrysothemis comes in quietly and warns her that the immediate problem pressing on her is that their mother wants to lock her up." Anne Schwanewilms will be singing the role.

Chrysothemis is pure, but Elektra has been corrupted, along the way, and not simply by her father’s death. Has Aegisth abused her ? His hold over Klytemnestra is sexual, but this production shows that her body has collapsed, while he is still “this priapic power-crazed individual who satisfies himself wherever he can”. That’s why the maids are pregnant ! Aegisth doesn’t think beyond the moment any more than Klytemnestra can think of the past. There’s an unhealthy power struggle between Aegisth and Elektra. “We’re playing this as a kind of sex game, as she can be quite dominating as she has some kind of power over him. Maybe she can tell her mother he’s fiddling with her ? there’s mileage in that. There’s no way out for Elektra, no sexual release or outflow. It comes from a poisoned place because she’s had to stifle all the natural warmth and sexual maturity she should have been able to grow into.” We can imagine Freudian things now that Hofmannsthal would not have dared express a hundred years ago. Here, even Orestes isn’t “some proto Wotan hero, but traumatised”.

“If only I could erase the word ‘revival’ from the operatic lexicon !” says Edwards. “The word Weideraufnahme, a 'new take', is more appropriate. Five years have passed, and if anything, the interpretation takes on extra significance now that all that’s safe and certain seems to be crumbling around us." Edwards credits his cast, who have melded well. The family in the plot may be dysfunctional, but the singers work together like a community. “It’s much more ensemble. Everyone’s on stage at the end, the whole piece is cyclical. Toscanini said there is no such thing as small parts, only small artists and there are no small artists in this production. Everyone is going on a journey, all their roles figure.”

This Elektra is on at the Royal Opera House, London on November 8th, 12th, 15th, 18th, 21st, 24th. See the original article with photo at

Monday 3 November 2008

Stockhausen's Alien Xmas ! Asko Ensemble

Day 2 of the Stockhausen week at the South Bank. Forget your inhibitions, this is fun !

Glanz (Brilliance) is KLANG’s 10th hour. Yet it evolves from Harmonien, KLANG’s 5th hour, two versions of which were played on Saturday, 1st November. Effectively then we’ve heard a progression of Harmoniens in various incarnations, from trumpet, to bass clarinet to flute. This new form centres round a core of three players, clarinet, viola and bassoon, and an outer shell of four – oboe, trumpet, trombone and tuba. In the middle of the stage, there’s a “shining sculpture”. It’s a presence in the composition though it makes no sound, for it’s a pivotal force, which seems to invisibly exert centrifugal force on the players, who face it, move round it and circulate in orbits of their own. At one point the clarinet almost breaks away, heeding the call of the more distant instruments, but he’s drawn back, inexorably. It’s like the cellist in Trans, almost.

The external circle of players materialize from other parts of the auditorium, three of them resplendent in robes shining white, unearthly beings like angels, calling out from another plane. Then the central trio break into disjointed snatches of song. Gloria in excelcis Deo, et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis. It’s the old latin hymn most of us associate with Christmas – Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and goodwill to all. Is this Stockhausen’s nativity scene, a glowing green glass pyramid for a crib ? Even the animals around the stable (or cave, as in some translations) are referenced. The tuba player enters from backstage, playing slowly and gravely “like a bear emerging from hibernation”. No violence here. This bear is adorably benign.

Whatever one might or might not believe, the imagery of Christmas is so deeply etched into our cultural genes that it’s hard to avoid making the connection. But it’s not all that far fetched, because this is a piece full of warmth and goodwill, connecting the human and extra terrestrial. Perhaps the Son of Sirius has produced something that could become a staple for the season. The piece was commissioned by the distinguished Asko Ensemble for the Holland Festival in 2008, but could well become a classic. Why not an alien approach to festive fare, for the sentiments are valid ? This is seriously decent music.

More Stockhausen warmth and wit came with Orchester-Finalisten from 1995-6. This is the second scene from the opera Mittwoch aus LICHT and shows the finalists in a competition for jobs in an orchestra. After the Harmonien progressions, it should come as no surprise that Stockhausen wanted it played twice in succession with different instrumentalists. As it runs almost an hour, that’s probably not practical and might work better fully staged, as intended, with images of the air, the element Mittwoch symbolises in LICHT. No “aerial tour round the earth” here or visual projections, but the music itself was so vivid, anyone with a little imagination could fill in their own visuals, even if they don’t know the context. Courtesy of the sound projection, there are cries of seagulls, soaring over a windswept seascape, the sound of waves crashing on shingle and most intriguingly what sounds like the movement of sand, shifted by wind, amplified to a magnificent roar. Aurally, this creates a vast panorama against which the individual musicians stand out from a line to play their solos.

Each is distinctive, sensitive to the particularities of their instrument, but Stockhausen is playful, setting challenges that go beyond normal playing. The trombone player lies on his back, his instrument held aloft like a jazz saxophone, the flautist bends from her hips. A person dressed as a space alien, swathed in bandages, creeps up behind the double bass player and startles him with a gong. The music indicates it should be a sudden blast causing the bassist to fall over in shock. In practice, he’s more cautious – he knows what the instrument costs and what it would mean to replace it. Though it does detract from the music per se, what Stockhausen is trying to do, I think, is bring out the fun of making music, lively sensations of movement and freedom. It’s complete nonsense that modern music doesn’t allow for humour. Being funny is part of what it means to be human. We all know how Dr Spock and the Klingons in Star Trek can’t even begin to fathom the concept of humour. Humour is part of the emotional spectrum of creative expression. It’s the opposite of rigid classification, rules for the sake of rules, and obsessive conformity. That’s why totalitarian regimes always crack down on comedy and art ! Stockhausen may appeal to the OCD side in many of us, but he’s vindicated by his creative spirits and good humour.

Sunday 2 November 2008

Stockhausen Trans und Harmonien South Bank

People are drawn to music for many different reasons. Stockhausen might appeal to those who like technology, formulae, ritual and the splitting of fine hairs. But as Mahler said, “the music is not in the notes”. Stockhausen was an obsessive personality but, as this programme showed, there was a deeper vein of creativity in him that subverted the overt control freakery. On paper it wasn’t promising. Two versions of Harmonien, interleaved with two performances of Trans. No wonder so many left at the interval ! Why listen to the same basic pieces repeated ? But that’s the whole mystery Stockhausen presents us with. The music here is not “in the notes” but in the conceptual challenges.

The Harmonien come from KLANG, the 5th Hour in Stockhausen’s monumental traverse of the hours of the day. Anyone sufficiently interested in Stockhausen will know about KLANG, or could look it up: what’s relevant here is that the 5th hour is expressed through a protracted melodic solo instrument and comes in three forms : for bass clarinet, for flute and for trumpet. The same basic melody repeats in different transpositions, with minor variations dependent on which instrument is being used. Significantly all three are dependent on human breathing. Here we heard the versions for bass clarinet and flute. Before the main concert the trumpet had its moment of glory in Michael’s-Grüss, played by Bruce Nockles, the ensemble of the London Sinfonietta conducted by Oliver Knussen. The trumpet featured in Trans as well : like a tightly structured puzzle, the different parts of this programme interlocked neatly. Harmonien for trumpet didn’t have to be “heard” because it existed in the imagination. In any case we heard it at the Proms. (look at the list at right and scroll down to "Stockhausen")

The first five notes of Harmonien evolve into a sequence of 25 notes reiterated in five different transpositions. Jerome Kohl’s notes are so lucid they cannot be bettered. “Each sequence is divided into five segments of from 3 to 7 notes, (3+4+5+6+7=25), each presented at first as a rhythmic motif, then repeated in loops…in even or nearly even rhythmic values”….”these ritornelli result in 3, 5,8, 3 or 21 occurences, fixing these pitch groups into chordal units, the ‘harmonies’ of the title”. Such exactitude might, in theory, make for mechanical performance, but this was most certainly not the case. Suzanne Stevens and Kathinka Pasveer emerged in costumes of pale blue velvet, vaguely channelling medieval musicians : an allusion to time, part of the spirit of KLANG. They moved, too, reflecting in visual form what happens in the music. At one point Stevens played with her back to the audience. A tiny detail, but one whose significance will appear again in Trans. Although the Harmonien are almost identical, this throws more focus on just how individual each instrument and performer really is, quite the opposite to the idea of mechanical, rote playing. Music like this seperates true musicians from drones. Stevens and Pasveer were communicating a lot more than "just the notes".

The two Trans are even more intriguing. Again, the visual element is important. The orchestra sits facing the audience full on, double basses even spaced on either side, which throws awry the way we usually hear. Yet it’s not confrontation: a gauze screen separates the players and those who are being played “to” – or is it “at” or “with” ? The screen veils and distorts. The whole stage is bathed in a red glow. This is a David Lynch movie, but it was created in 1971, long before Lynch made movies. The setting has the portent of a strange, fevered dream, whose meaning seems profound yet is utterly unfathomable. We see only string players, yet we hear a smaller ensemble of winds and brass, and the harsh mechanical sounds of what seem to be blocks of wood and metal beaten together. These are in fact recorded tapes of a shuttle in a loom. Stockhausen is weaving, pulling the threads of the music together, marking changes of direction with the loud mechanical thwack of the shuttle as it hits the edge. In the foyer there's an installation which lets you "weave" different coloured threads on a grid. By the end of the evening it was completely filled.

Snippets of Ravel, Stravinsky and Schumann are woven into the piece, too, as familiar points of reference which disappear before they can quite be grasped. At various points individual musicians are drawn out of the mass : a trumpeter climbing a ladder in the background (the only visible non string player), violinists who stand up and play weird disharmonies, and most memorably a music stand that’s wheeled on stage, causing a cellist to suddenly break ranks and play what’s on the stand. As the stand is removed, he tries to follow it to keep playing, When it’s gone he sinks back into the mass.

“All that rigid conformity, yet the unruly individual can’t be repressed !” said my ever-perceptive companion. Indeed, what the strings are playing are unnaturally slow extended figures, Indeed their functions seems almost more ritualistic than musical. Their arms move slowly and diagonally across their bodies, lit up white with an eerie glow. The music wavers vertiginously : the musicians heads flop from side to side. They are automatons, collapsing like a pack of cards ! Suddenly all sound is sucked into nothingness, and the players are caught freeze frame for so long the wait itself becomes unsettling.

Why two Transes when one might suffice ? Yet this seems to be the point. There is so much lazy, inattentive listening these days that Stockhausen is making a valid point. Again, it’s like studying a puzzle, a “Spot the difference” picture where you have to be alert. Perhaps hearing the first transverse of Trans sets out the premise, so it takes less time to absorb it second time around. Who knows ? It's definitely part of the experience. With Trans, we’re getting close to the wacky humour of Mauricio Kagel (who made movies), the psychoacoustics of Gérard Grisey and to the “theatre of sound” of Heiner Goebbels.