Tuesday 31 March 2009

Ernest Bloch - Macbeth London

"Mention Macbeth — The Opera and most think of Verdi. Ernest Bloch took on the subject more than half a century later, in Paris in 1910, when Verdi’s version was almost as obscure as Bloch’s is today......."

"This is an opera which concentrates on private moments, monologues and dialogues; the sleepwalking scene is a private nightmare, without the usual pair of onlookers. Far more of the play’s soliloquys survive than in the libretto Piave wrote for Verdi; even the Drunken Porter makes an appearance, with the opera’s one straightforward strophic song; a contrast in word-setting which reflects Shakespeare’s own switch from blank verse to prose. The score is primarily reminiscent of Debussy in its often rather nebulous drift through the text, but has shades of Salome and Götterdämmerung as well."

Full review with pictures ! of the production at UC Opera, London by Ruth Elleson in Opera Today


Saturday 28 March 2009

Bohuslav Martinů : Juliette, Kožená

Many works by Martinů will be performed in this year’s commemoration of the anniversary of his death, but it would be hard to equal the impact of this performance. Much of its success was due to Magdalena Kožená, whose presence illuminated the whole opera, even though her moments on stage were fleeting.

A man arrives in a strange village where nothing seems quite right. The villagers have no memories to bind them to reality, so things unfold without sense or connection. But what is reality? The opera’s subtitle is “The Key to Dreams”, which implies a search for meaning, whether or not it can be unlocked.

From the orchestra emerges a lovely, haunting melody. The man thinks he’s heard it before, connected to a vague memory - a beautiful woman ? He’s determined to pursue the dream which seems to fade as fast as it unfolds. The woman is Juliette, shining bright and golden, “like a star in the firmament”.

Deeper the man goes, into a dark forest, where he meets a Seller of Memories, who sells photographs of exotic places. The man buys into the images, convinced that they show his past with the woman he’s searching for. Eventually the man finds himself in The Central Office of Dreams which people enter and leave when they sleep. On ferme! warns the nightwatchman (who was also the Seller of Memories). Wake or you’re forever trapped! But Juliette is such a powerful, seductive dream that the man would rather remain in eternal limbo than lose her.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Juliette materialized at the Barbican, London, in a new edition of the urtext, using the French version the composer wrote on his deathbed in 1959. He lived most of his adult life in France, so it’s perhaps poignant that he should return to his masterpiece in this way.

Hardly any staging was needed, for the action unfolds like a dream, utterly adrift from rules of cause and logic. Indeed, what narrative there is lurks in the music. The orchestral writing is densely vivid but at critical moments the density clears and a solo instrument takes centre stage. At first, it’s an accordion, then horn, clarinet and oboe, then a particularly evocative melody on piano which surrounds Juliette’s entries. It’s like in dreams where a single image comes into focus, like symbolic portent. Each time Juliette’s music returns, impressions deepen and become frustratingly familiar. Have we heard it before ? And where ? In dreams, the mind fixes on details and follows their trail. Martinů uses allusions from music as tantalizing clues. There’s a snippet from L’Histoire du Soldat, just before the Fortune teller scatters cards. Then, a quotation from L’Après-midi d’un Faune, evoking a mood of frustrated love and longing. The villagers lack memory so can't find meaning : the composer uses memory to extend it. Similarly, Martinů uses off stage noises and singing. Even when asleep, the mind hears what’s happening “outside” so to speak. At any moment the dreamer might be woken, the dream shattered. It’s psychologically astute, building dramatic tension into the very fabric of the music.

Jiří Bělohlávek has a specially sensitive feel for this elusive, mysterious music, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard his Janaček or Dvořák. This performance was as good as the superlative Excursions of Mr Brouček last year, which he conducted with the same forces, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers. This production was also directed by Kenneth Richardson, who made such magic with the concert staging of Mr Brouček. Richardson’s intelligent, subtle style achieves great things by simple means. The forest, for example, is created by light and shadow, yet feels impressively alive.

Kožená was outstanding. Visually and vocally she glowed. While all the cast was good, she was exceptional, for Juliette is in an altogether more exalted league than ordinary mortals. Kožená’s fees might normally exceed the other singers fees put together, but here she was utterly worth it, for her presence embodied all that Juliette stands for. The role is so important that the whole opera rests on how well it is realized. Kožená has long championed Martinů’s music, so this magnificent performance was a great tribute.

William Burden sings Michel, the protagonist. It’s a long, demanding role which he carries off with aplomb. Also familiar to those who loved Mr Brouček was Zdeněk Plech, who made the relatively small role of The Old Arab/Sailor so interesting that you wished the composer had developed it further. Roderick Williams sang no less than four roles, including the pivotal Seller of Memories. He acts as well as he sings, and is certainly one of the brightest young British stars of his generation. When will he get the profile he deserves ? Andreas Jäggi’s Clerk was suitably tense and manic.

There are only two available recordings of Julietta, and the classic version is nearly 50 years old. Let’s hope this performance, which was recorded by the BBC, will make it to CD/DVD. Bělohlávek’s recording of Mr Brouček won the Gramophone award for best Opera in 2008, so perhaps this new Juliette will do the same.

This performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 31st March, available online for a week.

Read the original on Opera Today:


Photo is by Pepe Araneda,

Friday 27 March 2009

Mr Beethoven lives upstairs

"There's a madman upstairs!" says a young lad writing to his uncle about a nutcase neighbour who makes a lot of noise."Send Mr Beethoven away, I beg you !" cries the boy. It's a little Freudian considering that Beethoven's own nephew felt exactly the same way.

Long before the advent of DVD, or even CDs, there was a series of cassettes and LP's for kids by Ann Rachlin, called "Fun with Music". Highly recommended as the series was not in the least dumbed down. Each piece is well written, and has something intelligent to say, even if you aren't six anymore. Better than many programme notes these days ! Or the awful Naxos "composer books" series. Rachlin did a "Happy Birthday Mr Beethoven" which was pretty much on the same lines as the DVD - Beethoven seen thru a kid's perspective. "Did you know that Beethoven's favourite food was macaroni cheese? Or that he took a shower standing in a bowl, throwing water all over himself - and the floor?" It's documented too, though you might not read that in Grove. Rachlin's series are still available, so check out the website if you know any kids. Bookmark it for birthdays and Xmas !

My favourite in the series was the one about Mozart's childhood, Mozart the Miracle Maestro, very well researched, but presented in such a way that kids become fascinated with the 18th century. "A small boy who hated sloppy kisses!...A miracle in a cathedral in Rome!...The mystery of the Dark Stranger...Wolfgang's journey through Europe with his sister". In fact, and this is a TRUE STORY, one five year old, visiting Mozart's birthplace in Salzburg, piped up, "that's Mozart's sister!" looking at her portrait. She'd recognized the picture from a children's book and knew the story from Ann Rachlin.

And there are excellent ones on Handel and Haydn, indeed, two on Handel, which should be required listening for people who don't get the baroque. Rachlin's Handel's Firework Party resonates with kids who know London. It is a godsend if you get stuck with kids in the car in Central London traffic. "Fireworks that backfire...Traffic jams in 1749...Sword fights on London Bridge...Road rage in horse-drawn carriages." One minute the kid is having a tantrum, the next it's transfixed by proper music, not pap. The performances are pretty good, LSO, Mackerras etc. Again, Naxos pabulum it ain't.

Google Ann Rachlin for details. The series also includes ballets and orchestras and "stories" like Lt. Kije. Extremely good introduction to music even if you're not a kid.

Thursday 26 March 2009

Chopsticks orchestra

1935 scratch percussion band. Making music with what you have. Life is tough for the peasants but they make the most of it. Some of the people here are real peasants, North China in the 1930's. The actress is Li lili (1915-2005). The film was "Big Road" about young people going into the wild countryside building a road so that the interior could be accessed. "Just as important as being in the army" says the hero. In the New China technology was just as important as traditional warfare. Li lili plays a "modern" girl a tomboy who hangs out with the men. There's a shot where she comes upon the men stark naked bathing in the river and laughs with them while the other girl turns away. Eventually the whole bunch get mowed down by an aeroplane (fixed wing bi plane) but the hero manages to kill the pilot and bring the plane down. So the troupe are wiped out., but their ghosts rise (superimposed film technique). They're right. Roads open feudal China to the modern world.

Monday 23 March 2009

Virtual tour baroque theatre Český Krumlov

This is the "ceremonial hall scene" in the Royal Theatre of Český Krumlov in Bohemia. There are ten sets of side wings, creating an illusion of depth and space, though the stage is tiny. Scene changes were created by moving side wings as needed, so there were many different sets of wings for different purposes, eg woodland, town, port and even "besieged town" and "prison". Since there was no electricity, elaborate machinery was used. This is of interest in itself because it was state of the art technology at the time.

Český Krumlov is coming to London on April 4th, where parts of it will be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the blockbuster exhibition Style in the Age of Magnificence : Baroque 1620-1800 which perhaps I should highlight in goldleaf, since extravagant excess is so much in the spirit of the era. The theatre at Český Krumlov was built in 1766 and remarkably well preserved. Even now access is strictly limited, and its rare performances aren't open to the public. The only other comparable baroque theatre is Drottingholm in Sweden, which is slightly later. The V&A exhibition will be a unique opportunity to look at 18th century stagecraft and understand why it was the way it was. The baroque needs to be understood on its own terms, not by those of the late 19th century, or you miss the whole point.

Český Krumlov castle has a website where you can even do a 360 degree virtual tour of the theatre and read about its history, sets, machinery etc. Highly recommended ! The site has masses of material but takes a while to navigate, so use odd labels like the one simply marked "interesting".

Please see the other posts on baroque art and music, and the big exhibition at the V&A


Saturday 21 March 2009

Aldeburgh Festival 2009- big on the European circuit

The Aldeburgh Festival is very much a fixture on the European music circuit. Far more than any other British composer, Britten saw himself as European at heart, so the Aldeburgh Festival has always had an international, progressive outlook, with strong connections abroad. Londoners don't know what treasures they have "in their own backyard".

Britten's ideals come to fruit in this year's Festival, titled "Glitter of Waves". It's Pierre-Laurent Aimard's first full year as artistic director, and he brings sharp new focus. Even the buildings have been extended to provide new theatres and workshops, at last fulfilling Britten's vision for Snape.

Harrison Birtwistle's two new chamber opera set the tone. Dowland's Semper Dowland, semper dolens, is "theatre of melancholy, in which Birtwistle adapts Dowland's Seven Teares figured in Seven Pavanes and interweaves them with Dowland's songs. Early English music reinvigorated with modern British music.

The big premiere is The Corridor, a scena for soprano, tenor and six instruments. As Orpheus and Eurydice escape the Underworld, he looks back on her despite being warned not to do so, and he loses her forever. "I see the Corridor as a single moment from the Orpheus story magnified, like a photographic blow-up", says Birtwistle. Given his long standing fascination with primeval myth this should be interesting. Libretto is by David Harsent, who wrote The Minotaur and other important Birtwistle milestones, so expect limpid, lucid poetry in direct modern speech - extremely moving on its own terms. Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton sing the lead roles. The London Sinfonietta, Britain's best modern music ensemble, will perform. VERY high profile indeed. Even if it's repeated in London, seeing it first at Aldeburgh is part of the experience, for it was here 41 years ago that Britten and Birtwistle met. Britten apparently wasn't impressed. But Birtwistle's come a long way since Punch and Judy. Perhaps Britten would now be pleased, for Birtwistle has developed and is now an Elder Statesman himself, undisputedly this country's foremost opera composer.

Next morning there's another Sinfonietta concert featuring bits of The Io Passion, and the 3 Settings of Celan - Claire Booth whom we hear everywhere and for good reason! Then Harrison's Clocks where Hideki Nagano plays the brilliant Birtwistle piece as part of an installation around the new buildings at Snape - very unusual. That same evening, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, with ensembles, will produce a "free thinking musical fantasy". Moto perpetuo movements from Beethoven and Bartok are interlaced with serene moments from Brahms and Messiaen. The finale is Ligeti. Aimard excels in imaginative juxtapositions like this - see the links on right for what he did last year at Aldeburgh with Bach and Kurtag. That's just the first weekend, 12th and 13th June.

The following week starts with a Britten song symposium, more performances of the Birtwistle operas, and some very interesting recitals including Christiane Oelze, (highly recommended!), Zimmermann, and Exaudi. Vladimir Jurowski conducts a chamber orchestra on Wednesday 15th - Gabrieli, Stravinsky and Birtwistle. The big concert on Friday night, 19th June, has George Benjamin conduct the BBCSO, in two premieres, Julian Anderson's Fantasias and Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra - with Aimard as soloist. Of course this will be broadcast, but the atmosphere at Snape is part of the fun, you want to "be" there.

Elliott Carter is the focus of the second week. In fact, he's planning to be there in person, scheduled to talk with Aimard, with whom he goes back decades. Carter's presence alone should make attendance compulsory, for he is an icon. He's closely connected to so many involved with this Festival, including Oliver Knussen who will be conducting the keynote Saturday night concert on Saturday 20th. This features yet another Carter premiere, On Conversing with Paradise, a song cycle to poems by Ezra Pound, for baritone and orchestra. This is rumoured to be powerful stuff. In recent years, Carter's style has distilled into intense zen-like depths, perhaps well suited to Pound's verse, which Carter has long loved.

This second week is the week to come for more Elliot Carter, Birtwistle and Thomas Adès chamber music. Ian Bostridge, Louis Lortie, Mark Padmore and Nicholas Daniel will appear in recital, too. The blockbuster concerts, though, will be the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, one of the hottest bands in Europe. This was founded by Claudio Abbado. Daniel Harding's been seminally involved since 1998. He's now principal conductor, but their first concert on 25th (Hadyn, Ligeti, Birtwistle) will be conducted by Susanna Mälkki, the charismatic conductor of Ensemble Intercontemporain. Aimard plays Birtwistle's Slow Frieze. Aimard conducts the second concert on 27th, another eclectic mix, Haydn, Stockhausen and Beethoven. Since the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is exceptionally good, and rarely heard in the UK, these are concerts that shouldn't be missed.

Then, on Sunday 28th, Masaaki Suzuki returns to conduct Bach's St Matthew's Passion. Suzuki's Bach is legendary. He's working with the Britten-Pears Orchestra. Its members are young, but enthusiastic. Britten and Pears would be thrilled.

Seats sell fast and accommodation gets hard to book, so check Aldeburgh Music sooner not later.

Friday 20 March 2009

First Butterfly

Today the first butterfly of the year alighted in my garden. A true Lieder moment. Eduard Mörike, keen observer of nature, wrote a poem Zitronenfalter im April. It was set by Hugo Wolf. A butterfly awakes in weak April sunshine. But it's doomed, no flowers around to feed on. The butterfly I saw found some pussy willow, so maybe it will survive. And indeed, this morning it was about again, among the daphne. This time it let me look at it more carefully : it was a Peacock, which makes sense as they are early. Though March is "very" early indeed. The photo is by Tom Saunders, see his photostream on flickr.
Grausame Frühlingssonne,
Du weckst mich vor der Zeit,
Dem nur in Maienwonne
Die zarte Kost gedeiht!
Ist nicht ein liebes Mädchen hier,
Das auf der Rosenlippe mir
Ein Tröpfchen Honig beut,
So muss ich jämmerlich vergehn
Und wird der Mai mich nimmer sehn
In meinem gelben Kleid.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Die Herzogin von Chicago Kálmán Korngold

To understand the music of the 1920's and 30's it helps to listen to the music of the time. This might sound obvious, but a lot of what is written these days follows assumptions that don't reflect how music was actually heard and made. These sanitized assumptions in turn change the way we hear things, not for the best.

That's why Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán's Die Herzogin von Chicago is such an important piece. Kálmán was a student of Bartók and Kodály, so his credentials are legit, even though Die Herzogin was an immense popular success. In this crazy, witty operetta, Kálmán integrates conventional "serious" music with jazz, and also draws on the long-standing Austro-German tradition of satirical cabaret (which Schoenberg knew about). The opera is a trenchant comment on the impact of America and social revolution on a Europe just emerging from the First World War. It's hilarious, but no less significant for that.

In 2004, the opera was revived in Vienna to great acclaim. The original 1928 version was five hours long with lots of dialogue, much of which was topical controversy at the time. Some of the savage social edge remains, for when the editors condensed the original script they created a scene where corrupt politicians discuss "expediency" while dividing the spoils. Some things don't ever change!

An impossibly wealthy American heiress, Miss Mary, makes a bet with her Chicago friends that she can bag a prince when she goes to Europe, because anything can be bought with money. In fact it's really not all that different in Europe, for in the tiny kingdom of Sylvania, Prince Sándor Boris and his Ministers are trying to keep the cheering natives happy while the King is off to Paris. Then, as now, there’s nothing like a Royal Wedding to please the locals. They even have "Prince" dolls! The Prince's fiancée is in on the act, for act it is. Neither has illusions.

Cut to Miss Mary's arrival. "Cut" is the right word because one of the sub-texts of this operetta is the influence of Hollywood and the movies. Miss Mary’s best friend is Bondy, a film director, who sees all life as an unfolding movie. Throughout the opera there are references to movies. Kálmán creates hyper coloured music for the music sequences, which is surprisngly perceptive as movies at that time were silents. It's worth listening to this opera for the music alone as it tells something about the way film music germinated. Film music didn't just appear from nowhere. So much nonsense is written about composers and film that this opera is an antidote. Kálmán was a near contemporary of Erich Korngold, and they would have known of each other. Interestingly, both moved to California, and back to Vienna where they both died in the early 50's.

The Prince doesn't want to marry the American so gets his aide to play him while he plays the aide. We've all seen this plot device before, and here it's hilariously well done. Miss Mary must know the device too as she pursues the "aide" and dumps the "prince". The Sylvanians want her money and she wants status. Cue for a great party scene with Viennese waltz on gypsy violin, and songs about Schubert and Johann Strauss, who "shall return one day". There's a nightclub scene where Miss Mary does the charleston, and a bizarre parody of Beethoven's Fifth as foxtrot, danced by two bald women. There’s a takeoff of Ernst Krenek’s Johnny Spielt Auf which had been the sensation of Vienna in 1926 – Kálmán steals Krenek’s central image of a black man with a golden saxophone! Krenek’s operetta, incidentally, was also revived in Vienna in 2003, so there are in-jokes within in-jokes.

Of course Miss Mary falls for the Prince in disguise and Princess fiancée falls for Bondy, the movie director. To jazz up the old story, part of the staging involves a backdrop on which scenes from movies are projected. In fact they show the same four characters, got up as fantasy. It's a scream. The Prince and Mary dissolve into a cartoon cowboy and an Indian Princess, called Morgenrot, and cruise along in a canoe in the moonlight – modern eyes might see references to Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald, especially as Bondy is schmoozing Princess Rosemarie! It’s also a great excuse for more wonderful "Indian" dancing that gets progressively more bizarre, because as we know real Native American culture was already being parodied in Hollywood. It makes a surprisingly powerful point about cultural imperialism and what might face Europe if Europeans didn’t hold their own. As one of the directors said, "it’s still relevant".

Despite the whimsy, there is serious stuff. America was showing the Old World a completely different way of living, much more shocking to Europeans then than we realize, after eighty years of familiarity through TV, mass media and cheap travel. That was still the age when European peasants emigrated, never to return. This operetta makes a strong point that, for all their exoticism, Americans are, at heart, dislocated Europeans. Bondy reveals that his grandfather was a Jewish nobody from some tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere. How shocked the old man would be to see his grandson hobnobbing with royal Sylvanian families!

Then the King comes back, with two Parisian floozies, and tries to put the make on Miss Mary who isn’t falling for that Kuss die Hande nonsense. It is hard to describe just how wild the jokes are from now on, parodying French operetta and German, wordplays and wit, with references to Viennese culture, current events (like monkey glands and Viagra). And of course, everything ends up "happily ever after", though it's like whistling in a graveyard.

Die Herzogin von Chicago is available on CD and DVD - I'd recommend the DVD for the fabulous sets, staging and acting. "Opera archaeology" may have dug the score up and revised it, but this is a fabulous, important moment in music history.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Goethe's birth house child as father of the man

Als ich noch ein Knabe war,
Sperrte man mich ein;
Und so saß ich manches Jahr
Über mir allein,
Wie im Mutterleib.
Doch du warst mein Zeitvertreib,
Goldne Phantasie,
Und ich war ein warmer Held,
Wie der Prinz Pipi,
Und durchzog die Welt.
"When I was a lad, I used to get locked up. I was alone, as in the womb, but to pass time, I had golden fantasies that I could be a hero like Prince Pipi and go throughout the world."

Goethe's father believed children should not be shielded from fear. Young Goethe and his sister were frightened by the gloomy corners of the dark old house he grew up in and and used to sneak off to sleep with the maids. The father, disguised by his dressing gown worn inside out, hid in the corners to scare them off back to their own beds. Later, Goethe wrote, "How can anyone faced with such terrors be freed from fear?" Fortunately, Goethe was securely loved. Imagination goes both ways. As he says in his poem, in dreams anyone can become a prince.

Did Erlkönig germinate on the house in the Grosser Hirschgaben, so sunny and cheerful by day ?

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir liese verspricht?
Ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind:
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.

Stand on the vast staircase in Goethe's birthplace and imagine it's the 1750's and you're less than a metre tall. The stairs on the ground floor are wide, and ornately decorated, but past the upper floors, they narrow and twist. The maids are right at the top, past crooked gables. The only light, if you're lucky, is the moon.

The original house was destroyed in 1945, when most of old Frankfurt was carpet bombed and thousands died. It was one of the first places to be rebuilt, for Goethe represents so much that is good and noble. The basic proportions of the main building show how very different the home was from palaces and churches. The family lived in close proximity with their servants. There must have been so much activity, keeping that busy household going. While young Goethe played toy theatre with grandma, his parents were making music in the next room, the cook and maids in the kitchen, the ostlers tending horses in the yard. Romanticism isn't remote or aristocratic, but human scale.

For all his fantasies about ancient Greece, Goethe knew very well what made people tick. In one of the studies, he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, an expression of what we'd now call teenage angst.

That's why he is such a monumental figure. He straddles the classical and the Romantic, the 18th and 19th centuries, the old order and the new, the aristocracy and the peasants. He's an experimental thinker, interested in many different arts and sciences. He combines high flown philosophy with practical government. He adored young Mendelssohn, though probably didn't even see (or understand) the scores Schubert sent him. Goethe is a Renaissance man, who helped change the world.

So a visit to his birthplace is rewarding.
Use your imagination, like he did. Wish away the tourists, and you're in the birthplace of the Romantic, cradled in ancient tradition. Even Goethe didn't know why the street was called Hirschgaben. Long before his time it was part of the medieval commonland, where stags were pastured, semi-domesticated, like Frankfurt itself, still rural despite being urban. Once, long ago, I drove a powerful car on the autobahn round the city, seeing the glass canyons of the banking district in the distance. Brave New Europe and the ideals it symbolizes. Goethe is as valid today as he ever was.

Monday 16 March 2009

Glanert Caligula in Frankfurt

A few years ago, someone was talking to Detlev Glanert about his music, saying it was all doom and gloom. “But it’s not” said Glanert repeatedly, “My work uses humour”. Indeed, one of Glanert’s big hits was the comic opera Scherz, Satire, Ironie und tiefere Bedeutung (Jest, satire, irony and deeper meaning). Even his non-vocal works, like Mahler Skizze, and Theatrum bestiarum, are animated by wit. No matter how often Glanert said humour was his way of making serious points, his interlocutor insisted it wasn’t. It was a scene straight out of surreal drama.

Glanert’s Caligula is certainly not a laugh-a-minute comedy. It’s based on the play by Albert Camus. Caligula’s raving mad, but there’s a crazy, warped logic behind him. “I’ll never be alone”, he says, “the ghosts of those I’ve killed are around me”. Einsamkeit, Einsamkeit, he wails in self-justification. Eventually, everyone seems caught up in delusion.

Glanert was one of Hans Werner Henze’s few students, so this opera is meticulously crafted and works well musically as well as dramatically. Sounds range over no less than seven octaves, mirroring the extremes of Caligula’s personality, yet they don’t sound forced or strained. Caligula may behave like a wilful monster but to Glanert he has the naivety of a child, though a child given the lethal power of a Roman Emperor.

While the subject of this opera would lend itself to sensationalist treatment, Glanert’s approach is more subtle. Caligula may behave monstrously but he’s not a monster. Life itself is absurd, so Caligula’s way of making sense of things isn’t, of itself immoral. He’s a creature of instinct albeit a warped one. So Glanert is careful to make the role sympathetic. When the four poets appear, singing sentimental doggerel, their music is ghastly. When Caligula has them killed, we agree.

Vocally, the writing is sophisticated. Caligula’s baritone contrasts with the countertenor of his slave, Helicon. Significantly, when Caligula in his madness decides to take on the persona of Venus and marry the moon, he sings falsetto. Glanert’s music extends characterization. Caligula’s lines are often unadorned, reflecting the empty anomie that drives him to fill his life with murder. Orchestral accompaniment is deft. Glanert uses a concert organ which creates massive volume, without the complexity of a full organ : again this reflects Caligula’s mental universe. Glanert has a thing for organs – his Theatrum Bestiarum was written specifically for the organ at the Royal Albert Hall, making full use of its huge range to create complex “characters” within the sound, like an opera for instruments only.

Caligula was premiered in Frankfurt in 2006 and has been revived annually. It’s the kind of opera that you need to hear again to fully appreciate, for there are so many levels of meaning. If anything, the cast has grown with it too, so hearing it in its third year has advantages. Ashley Holland created the part and sings it with the conviction that comes from maturing into the character. His Caligula isn’t unsympathetic. Towards the end, he has a moment of clarity, which shows his vulnerability. Holland makes it painfully poignant. Holland’s worked a lot with ENO, singing Kellerbach, Gandhi’s friend, in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha in 2007. Hopefully we’ll hear him again soon in London.

Traditionally, countertenors are supposed to be angelic, like overgrown choirboys. Modern opera has liberated the voice type. Countertenors today have far more challenging repertoire to cope with. Martin Wölferl’s Helicon also shows depth of experience. His voice is gorgeous, but he brings a sharp edge of masculinity to the part, though it’s so much higher than normal range. A strong, butch Helicon underlines Caligula’s fundamental immaturity. Furthermore, Glanert contrasts Helicon with Scipio, the poet who stands up to Caligula, by writing it for alto in trouser role. In this performance, the part was sung by a young Irish alto, Paula Murrihy, with such strength of character that it was hard to tell whether she was male or female. This was good because the role isn’t one to be taken for granted and, vocally, an alto like this is a better foil for a strong countertenor like Wölferl.

Oddly enough, since Caligula has been very successful in this production, directed by Christian Pade, a completely different approach might also work. Given that Caligula is about the absurdity of existence, it’s quite possible that a “baroque” production might work even better. Baroque opera is uniquely surreal, making impossible premises plausible. Those who think of opera, or music for that matter, solely in late 19th century terms can’t get their heads round Monteverdi, Handel or Haydn. Yet it’s the very bizarre unreality of baroque that makes it fascinating. Conceptually, it lends itself to “modern” ideas, where rigid certainties no longer apply. How interesting it might be to see Caligula with stiff baroque sets, actors in powdered wigs, stylized stage action. Baroque audiences didn’t bother about vérité, since they knew very well that Romans weren’t like that. They went to the opera for fantasy, not reality. Glanert’s Caligula isn’t “history”, but symbolic. Pade’s overtly modern setting is pretty straightforward and indeed a bit busy. So why not embrace the fundamental surrealism of this opera by embracing the surreal values of the baroque ? It would turn ideas of traditional/modern staging upside down – the triumph of the absurd. Camus might have understood.

There is a DVD of this production, but I think I'll wait for audio. Please see my other posts about Glanert especially the one about Shoreless River at the Proms, which promises to be a major work.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony Salonen London

http://classical-iconoclast.blogspot.com/2011/01/zemlinsky-lyric-symphony-1.htmlFor more on Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony, pleas read my most recent analyses HERE and HERE. It's one of my favourites, which I've lived with many years.  

Esa Pekka Salonen conducted Zemlinsky;'s Lyric Symphony with the Philharmonia in 2008. Very good, though the soloists didn't come over clearly. Next morning after the concert I was off to Frankfurt and who should be sitting in the same coffee shop at Heathrow ? Members of the Philharmonia, off to their next gig in Köln! It was great to see them and congratulate them on their good work. It wasn't quite in the league of their recent Gurrelieder, but that was so exceptional, it would be hard to top. (see my review below and Mark's too).

Zemlinsky isn't everyone's cup of tea as his music isn't often performed as well as it might be. Last year I listened again to the massive James Conlon Zemlinsky series on EMI, which was reissued as a cheap box set. It was strange how disappointing it sounded, for these were the recordings I learned Zemlinsky from in the first place. Perhaps my tastes have changed after learning more and hearing more. The recordings I've turned to most in recent years have been those by Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam. I'd avoided these at first because they were expensive. But cost doesn't equate with value. Budget recordings may be cheap, but in the long term, a good performance lasts longer, whatever the initial cost.

Salonen's Zemlinsky, from this hearing, is promising. He could bear comparison with Chailly, though I suspect Salonen doesn't favour the more "picturesque" aspects of Zemlinsky's work: The Lyric Symphony is the composer's most sophisticated moment. Choosing the right voices is tricky.The soprano part is particularly demanding, though the baritone can get away with straightforward singing (though really good singing transforms the part). The real challenge is interpretation : what is the music about, how do its pieces fit together ? I think Salonen has what it takes to conduct a really interesting Lyric Symphony . Unlike something massive like Gurrelieder, this symphony is not difficult to programme, so perhaps Salonen can develop it in his repertoire.

Thursday 12 March 2009

Im weißen Rössl restored

Im weißen Rössl was a huge hit when it premiered in 1930. It merged Austrian folk dance and tunes with jazz and modern rhythms. Risqué too - near naked men prancing about, and some girls, too.

There were ballet sequences, dance acts etc. The whole thing was orchestrated for 250 players, the big string section divided 16 times. Plus a jazz combo and a Tirolean troupe battling out "old" and "new". Presumably shades of Kalman's smash hit, Die Herzogin von Chicago, which pits the Charleston against the czardas, American brashness versus Mitteleuropaische "breeding". People in the 20's and 30's were much sharper than people give them credit for now. Those who wanted to preserve a fake past won out, though, some of them coming to power in 1933.

It was reshaped for right-thinking folks and became "
banal family-entertainment in the harmless Disney style - no nudity, no modern rhythms, no nothing". Luckily, the original score has been found and the piece is being staged again in all its irreverent glory, in June 2009 in Dresden.

Read the whole story http://www.operetta-research-center.org/main.php?task=newsart&cat=1&sub_cat=1&id=00086

Schoenberg Zemlinsky Salonen London

On Thursday 12th at the South Bank, Esa Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra will be playing Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Zemlinsky's Lyrische Symphonie. Before that Oliver Knussen will be conducting two of his own song cycles, the wonderful Songs for Sue and Ocean de terre. Claire Booth sings Knussen - this should be very good indeed as she's made the cycles her own, she sings them so well.

Everybody but everybody repeats the usual cliché connecting Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and Zemlinsky's LS ((code to save typing the whole name). It's much wiser though, to listen to each piece on its own terms and appreciate how unique each one is. Both are symphonies with song. Zemlinsky sets lines from Tagore about two lovers in ancient India. There's a sort of narrative, though it's not clear, but the parts are a kind of dialogue. Mahler sets Chinese poetry, but his songs don't relate to each other causatively. They are expressions of internal psychological states. Mahler's destination is linear, oriented towards transcendence, even if he refers to the return of Spring. Zemlinsky's piece is more circular, like the wheel of karma. Lots more - just listen, for comparison clouds just how original each piece is.

What the Viennese secession did was break away from the hyperfervid neurosis of High Victorian taste, the claustrophobia that exists even in Wagner. That's why it ushered in more fluid lines in design, painting, literature. Zemlinsky is a lot more than an obtuse proto-Wagnerian. He's the missing link (if there is one) between Mahler and the Second Viennese School. He uses extreme exotic lushness but doesn't swoon. Instead the whole thrust is towards new frontiers, new ideas. Prince and girl know they have to go their separate ways. He sings "Ich halte meine Lampe in die Höhe, um dir uf deinen Weg zu leuchten". I hold my lamp up high to light you on your way. Light, again, but a different kind of light. In a good performance of this symphony you can hear pre-echoes of Berg quite distinctly. Zemlinsky knew what was happening around him.

Oddly enough there are lots of tickets left for the performance on Thursday. Below is a description of the most illuminating recording of the LS ever. Scroll down , enjoy

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Zemlinsky Lyrische Symphonie Magic Eschenbach

This is an absolutely fantastic recording of Zemlinsky's Lyrische Symphonie. At one stage I used to have 'em all, but this one is so outstanding it eclipses all else. Eschenbach, Orchestre de Paris, Goerne and Schafer (a dream team).

It's groundbreaking because it'
s informed by recent discoveries about Zemlinsky and his style. Anthony Beaumont’s is the most perceptive of Zemlinsky scholars. His research into Zemlinsky's ideas and methods resulted in a complete re-edition of the score, revealing its true, lucid beauty.

In the 1920’s, Tagore was wildly popular in progressive circles because his rejection of materialism ran counter to the values of the time. Remember, India was still a colony. Embracing Tagore's spirituality was a kind of liberation. By using Tagore as the basis of this symphony, Zemlinsky is doing more than adopting pseudo-oriental exoticism. He knew what Tagore represented. He's not looking backward, but forward..

This performance shows with penetrating clarity just how imaginative Zemlinsky’s writing was. No muddy meandering here. Eschenbach and his soloists have thought the whole symphony through. This is an interpretation with vivid insights, gained not only from the score itself, but informed by an understanding of the music of his time.

Thus those rich drum rolls that lead into the symphony announce things to come, as drum rolls should be – quite literally a “curtain raiser” for a cosmic adventure. Immediately, refreshingly clear brass introduce the three note figure that recurs in myriad guises through the whole symphony. Then, softly, out of the orchestra, the baritones voice enters, quietly but with intense depth and feeling. Ich bin friedlos” (a variant of the three note figure). Goerne is just over forty, still not at the peak of his powers, and yet it’s hard to imagine any singer delivering such authority and nuance to these words. The way he curls his voice around the vowels is utterly delicious – Meine Seele schweift in Sensucht, den Saum der dunkeln Weite zu berühten. You don’t need a word of German to enjoy the richness of his tone.

Berühten, becalmed. Yet this music is anything but listless. It reflects the overwhelming “thirst” in the text for distant, unknown horizons and the “Great Beyond”. Goerne sings Ich bin voll Verlangen with eagerness, then shapes the next words “und wachsam” with warm, rounded, sensuality. It’s delicious to hear two different, but valid feelings, in the space of a few seconds. Make no mistake, this music is about seeking, striving for something yet unknown, which grows from a pool of stillness.

A lovely skittish violin solo introduces the second movement. Schäfer’s voice with its pure, light quality expresses youth better than most of the sopranos who’ve sung this part. She may sound almost breathless with excitement, but she’s far too assured a singer to lose the musical line, Mutter, der junge…. the vowels underline each other., opening out. For the first time we hear an almost Bergian leap in the voice, when Zemlinsky decorates the line Zieg mir, wie soll mein Haar… Both the image and the sudden leap will recur later in the symphony. For the moment, Schäfer colours it with warmth, as though blossoming into womanhood before our ears. The music illustrating the exotic procession is one of the rare overtly “oriental” touches Zemlinsky indulges in. In the tumultuous postlude, the full orchestra surges forth, complete with drums and cymbals, yet the echoes of the three note theme gradually assert themselves as the soprano song blends seamlessly into the next baritone entry. There’s no narrative, we never discover how the girl and prince meet, if they do at all. The erotic tension and waves of sound owe much to Wagner, but also to Berg and Schoenberg. Goerne’s singing in the third movement is some of the most beautiful in the whole symphony. It is quite breathtakingly sensitive and nuanced. Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen, he repeats, each time with intense, but nuanced feeling. These notes, too, are repeated throughout the symphony .

The fourth movement, expands the symphony into new territory. Again, an exquisite violin solo sets the mood, which deepens with cellos and violas. Schäfer’s voice cleanly rings out Spricht’s du mir Speak to me! The line here is tender, yet also discordant, with frequent sudden leaps in pitch which are decidedly modern. So, too, is the indeterminate tonality, creating at once lushness and unreality. The music seems to hover as if it were the stuff of dreams and unconscious. It’s atmospheric, pure chromatic impressionism. There are murmurs of Spricht’s du mir, and again the painfully beautiful violin, and sinister, dark woodwind. This song is sensual, but it’s no excuse for sentimental indulgence, and the orchestra plays with well judged reticence. . It is, after all, a movement about the silence of intimacy. Nur die Bäume werden im Dunkel flüstern (only the trees will whisper in the dark),

The fanfare with which the fifth movement starts seems to drive away the strange mood that had prevailed before. It may seem relatively conventional music but this is emotionally amorphous territory. When the sixth movement starts, there’s no mistaking the modernism here. Horn and bass clarinet inject a darker, discordant mood. Schäfer’s extensive experience in new music means she copes effortlessly with those sudden tonal swoops while still keeping sensual beauty. She makes “mein gierigen Hände” sound genuinely eager. This is Ewartung, minus the harsh dementia, and all the more complex for that. The mood is rocked by rhythmic melody, as the singer becomes aware Träume lassen sich nicht eingefangen (dreams can’t be made captive). Only then does the voice rise in horror, punctuated by a single, fatal drumstroke. Has it all been an illusion ? It’s not clear, nor on what level, but that’s what makes it so intruiging. Zemlinsky wisely leaves the ideas floating. Instead, he lets the music segue, mysteriously, into the final movement.

This final song is full of interpretative possibilities. The protagonist accepts that the affair is at an end, yet is dignified and positive. Lass es nicht eine Tod sein, sondern Vollendung (let it not be a death, but completeness). Even love is sublimated in creative rebirth. Lass Liebe in Erinn’rung schmelzen und Schmerz in lieder. Let love ache and melt in memory, in song. The dignified calmy with which Goerne sings confirms that the protagonist has reached that “Great Beyond” he sang of in the first movement and has found the horizons he sought.. This time, the violin returns, playing a sweet, plaintive melody., while the orchestra echoes the word Vollendung, Vollendung. Then there’s another transition. A warmer note, like a breeze, enters on the strings, and the wavering halftones resolve from minor, gradually, to major. With infinite depth , Goerne sings that last phrase Ich halte meine Lampe in die Höhe, um dir auf deinen Weg zu leuchten. I hold my lamp up high to light your way. .Lovers must part, for life has a higher purpose. zu leuchten is sung with such goodwill, that you feel that whoever embarks on the next phase will be going armed with knowledge and faith gained by those who care enough to light them on their way. The postlude is led by a distant woodwind, a reference to the flute that called in the very beginning of this journey. There are echoes, too, of the Du bist mein Eigen theme, emphasizing the sense of fulfillment. Gradually the wavering half tones resolve, and the music moves from minor to major, concluding in another shimmering plane of colour. .

Anthony Beaumont, in his analysis of the symphony, said “often the singers are engulfed in a dark forest of orchestral filigree work. In performance, the score requires Mozartian grace and precision. For all its abandon, this music reveals its true beauty and power only in performed with discipline and cool headed restraint”. Eschenbach recognizes its profoundly spiritual qualities, keeping the textures clear, letting them shimmer through unsullied. It’s the very purity of the orchestral playing that sheds light on the dynamics of the scoring. The soloists voices complement each other perfectly, and are in turn complemented by the elegance of the orchestral sound.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

The Peach Girl

Ruan Lingyu is one of the most iconic symbols of Chinese film. Her tragedy has universal relevance. A few years back a biopic was made of her, but reality was even more interesting.

To understand Ruan, understand the society she came from. Her parents were Cantonese who'd moved to Shanghai, a cosmopolitan boomtown that had suddenly sprung up in the late 19th century. By the time Ruan was born in 1905, Shanghai was one of the biggest, most sophisticated cities in the world, rivalling New York.

But Ruan's father died young and her destitute mother had to turn to the Cantonese community in Shanghai for help. She became a household servant for a wealthy family called Zhang, whose sons were flash young playboys. Needless to say a pretty innocent like Ruan caught their eyes. So she was "married" at 15. The Zhangs owned movie studios. The movie business in China was every bit as active as Hollywood, even then, and Ruan soon became a star. She left the Zhangs and moved to other studios and other "husbands". But no matter how successful an actress might be she was still low status, cruelly treated. Eventually Ruan got caught up in a court case and the tabloids blackened her name so badly that she was driven to suicide, at the age of only 24.

Like Rudolf Valentino, her funeral drew the biggest crowds Shanghai had ever seen, complete with copycat suicides. (also like Valentino). Even Lu Xun, the great writer and intellectual, commented on her case, denouncing the power of the media. For some reason, Chinese movie actresses seemed drawn to early suicide - Grace Chang, Lin Dai and others, as if it were a career path. It would be fascinating to understand why, for it says something about the position of women as artists in early/mid 20th century China.

Movies in that period were important because they often dealt with social issues and the impact of modern life, even if they used sentimental storylines. More so perhaps than Hollywood ? That would be interesting to explore. All I can think of offhand is Chaplin's The Immigrant. Ruan's most famous role was in the film Goddess (1934) where she plays an innocent girl who gets seduced and abandoned, forced into prostitution. She sacrifices nobly to bring up her young son, so he will be a success even if she suffers for it. But of course it all ends badly. Here is a clip from an earlier film, The Peach Girl (1931) which is so moving. She's at the spinning wheel when a city lad spots her. " A city girl's beauty depends on powder and rouge. But this is true beauty !" It's a silent film to which someone has added a piano piece, Chinese but written in westerns style. It's beautiful too and frustratingly familiar - anyone know who wrote it? See the comment below - the composer is David Sosin. Great stuff, sounds just like the real thing - a compliment.

Monday 9 March 2009

Xenakis Total Immersion

Of the three Total Immersion Days at the Barbican this year, this was the most demanding as it connected with the on-going Le Corbusier exhibitions at the Barbican and RIBA. Yet for that very reason, Xenakis Day was the most satisfying because it meant “thinking outside the box”, architecture people connecting to music, music people connecting to architecture.
Xenakis didn’t give up architecture for music. Both architecture and music were, for him, different aspects of creative expression. Just as architecture is a way of enclosing space, music is a way of ordering sound.
The day (12 hours!) began with Mark Kidel’s film Something Rich and Strange. It was made in 1991, and Xenakis himself features. As in all good film, some of the most revealing moments are impromptu. Xenakis and his wife visit his old school. She’s thrilled. Until that time, Xenakis had been a political exile : Greece was a part of his life she’d not known. He’s more sanguine. “It’s all in the past”, he says. He was pragmatic, a man who sought solutions.
Hence Anastenaria, from 1953, when Xenakis was still working full time with Le Corbusier. The first part, Procession aux eaux claires refers to ancient Thracian mysteries. The male voices represent the Anasthenarides, priests, who lead the populace to sacred waters. The music evokes chant but made abstract, angular layers of sound building up to density. The second part, Sacrifice, employs slow glissandi which will become one of the composer’s trademark.
But it’s the third section, Metastaseis, where the interface with architecture is most apparent. Diagrams for the score resemble diagrams for the building. It was used to “introduce” audiences to Varèse’s Poème Électronique as they entered the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. The Pavilion went even beyond Le Corbusier’s ideas about free form buildings. It was conceived as a unit of three surfaces, curved, rather than flat, which enclosed the space within in a womb-like embrace. Xenakis was less poetic, describing the concept as “cow’s stomachs”. The surfaces weren’t even solid but composed of small panels individually pieced together. What shocking sci-fi it must have seemed to people used to buildings as rectangular boxes !
Metastaseis grows from simple sustained pitch, from straight line to curve, long arcing glissando stretching and bending, like the planes of the Philips Pavilion..It’s a relatively straightforward miniature, though, so Tracées, from 1987, opened the evening concert where Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Tracées employs ninety-five musicians, yet is tightly constructed. Brabbins understands why, conducting with discipline. Here, the woodwinds imitate glissandi, although they aren’t designed for such things. Without good performers of this calibre, these sections would collapse into mush. Congratulations are due to the musicians involved – this took expertise and Brabbins let them do it without fuss.
In the Marc Kindel film, Xenakis stands in his old school and recites from memory, apparently spontaneously, Ariel’s song from The Tempest, “Full fathom five, thy father lies….”. Perhaps he had been meditating on the poem, for he set it in 1994 for the BBC Singers as Sea-Nymphs. They’ve performed this often, and with Stephen Betteridge conducting, it was nicely polished. Less polish, though, would have been preferable in Nuits, which Xenakis dedicated to political prisoners from antiquity to the present. It’s a horrific protest, written from personal experience. The words are tortured like the prisoners are, yet when they can, fragments leap out like vocal glissandi, before subsiding into the complex polyphony, intensified by non verbal sounds like whistles and low hums. Exaudi, which has performed Nuits several times in the past few years, has a more acute feel for the tense anguish of the piece.
It was good to separate Sea Nymphs from Nuits with Mists for solo piano, for it made a bracing interlude, throwing the different techniques into high relief. In the programme notes, Ivan Hewett describes the mathematical theories behind the work. I can’t explain them nearly so well, but simply enjoyed the clean, uncluttered lines and clusters of notes which Rolf Hind played with rapid-fire tempi.
In Troorkh, Xenakis explores “extreme glissando”. Hewett’s notes describe it so well that they’re worth quoting. Xenakis, he says “treats the trombone as a kind of superhuman Homeric bard, recounting some tempestuous tale in wordless song”. The technical and physical demands are such that even Christian Lindberg, for whose skills the piece was written, collapses visibly from exertion after each of the two most demanding passages. It is an elegaic piece, as expressive as Greek tragedy. The trombone is supported by a group of brass, written with character. The trombone in the orchestra cannot possibly hope to match the virtuosity of the solo part, but responds in simpler mode. The tuba part is expressive : it can’t match the trombone’s stretching slides, but its tone is darker and profound.
Antikhthon again demands a huge orchestra. One of its characteristics is a long, shrill chord, like an air raid siren, or perhaps the drone of an aircraft taking off. It doesn’t matter, the effect is eerie, menacing, out of this world. If the chord is mega-glissando, it’s balanced with clouds of densely layered pointillist sound. There’s so much disparate activity it’s hard to make individuals out clearly, like finding a single insect in a swarm of locusts. Pithoprakta springs to mind, though this is later and more sophisticated. . Like the multiple panels on the planes of the Philips Pavilion, the different units function together. Sometimes the cloud clears, to reveal details, like the first violin (Andrew Haveron) tapping staccato on wood, before the orchestra wells up again. Brabbins’s strategy of keeping textures clean and clear paid off well. Like good architecture, an elegant structure doesn’t need fussy curlicues.
This was a magnificent concert, and would be quite an event at the Proms. Like the South Bank Xenakis series some years ago, audience numbers were healthy. Total Immersion Days aren’t just about blockbusters, though. Not all Xenakis is mind bendingly difficult.
Earlier in the day there was a special concert of Xenakis’s works for percussion ensemble. Sanforta, a specialist percussion ensemble played Okho for three djembas. In Africa, these drums really can “speak” as they’re played with much improvisation. Notated music is never going to be quite so fluid. Catherine Ring, still in her final year at the Guildhall, impressed as soloist in Rebonds, cheered along by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble who performed Persephona. It was good to hear these musicians and these pieces because they reveal how Xenakis’s more elaborate works grew from “simple”, direct roots.
Please look at this link for more detail, and more photos

Sunday 8 March 2009

Holland Festval 2009

The Holland Festival is lively - a great excuse to visit Amsterdam in early summer. This year the Festival celebrates Louis Andriessen's 70th birthday. The Andriessen family have long been significant figures in the Dutch music scene. In the 60's and 70's Louis symbolised the progressive spirit of the times, creating the Orkest de Vollharding and seminally important works like De Staat.

On June 6, there'll be an all day series featuring Andriessen's Haags Hakkuh (2008) and Vermeer Pictures (2005) plus works by Henrik Andriessen (father), Stravinsky (hero) and Diderik Wagenaar, another important Dutch composer. There'll also be another programme with vocal/theatre work, La Passione (2002) and the Folksongs of Luciano Berio, Andriessen's mentor.

Th big opera this year is Adam in Ballingschap by Rob Zuidam. Claron McFadden sings, which should be interesting. If I were going this year (alas not), I'd be heading for Pascal Dusapin's Passion, based on Monteverdi's Orfeo. This is also on in Paris in April. Dusapin writes exquisite chamber music and his operas are restrained but to the point. His Faustus, the Last Night is excellent. It's out on DVD. For a detailed description of Passion in Aix last year follow the link on the labels list at right. Dusapin was Iannis Xenakis's only student. More on Xenakis coming up soon, bookmark this blog.

Since writing this I've looked at the printed book programme and there's lots more - quite a bit of Dusapin chamber music and also the opera The Anatomy of Melancholie on 19th June. There is also a concert of Goeyvarts and his opera Aquarius on 21st June. There are several Varese events, a symposium, some concerts and installations. Holland Festival always delivers interesting things !

The Holland Festival is also good on world music, and this year's special is a performance of Buranku theatre. Bunraku puppets are stylised, as divorced from modern western concepts of theatre as can be, more austere than kabuki. Yet that's precisely why they're interesting. I'd go to this if I could.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Sallinen The King goes forth to France Guildhall

Madcap mayhem! Aulis Sallinen's The King goes forth to France is off the wall. England is in the grip of an Ice Age, so the Prince of England, four girlfriends and the populace cross the bridge over the channel (yes) and invade France. Cue for ragtag armies of archers, Genoese, blind Bohemians and the houses of Parliament wielded like a cannon. Don't ask.

Guildhall School of Music operas are a delicious secret not known to the mainstream Establishment. This production shows why. Guildhall students have fire. It's refreshing to hear performers so enthusiastic that the lack of polish actually makes the experience more exciting. Who cares about note perfect when they're clearly pouring out their hearts ?

The King goes forth to France was a good choice because its crowd scenes let many students participate. They need the thrill of "live" to grow. This is an opera with so many vignettes everyone gets a chance to contribute. It's full of gags, visual, vocal, and musical, which stretch the performers so they learn their craft while having fun. Indeed, this is "why" the Guildhall is important. Statistically only a very tiny minority end up at La Scala or the Vienna Philharmonic. But the experience of performance will remain with them forever, enhancing their lives whatever they go on to do. From an employers point of view, students like these are a good bet because they've learned to care about things, to work in teams, and that trying your best is spiritually more rewarding in the long run than coasting.

The opera itself has its ups and downs. It's funny, which is almost harder to do than depressing. In Finnish, apparently, the text is hilarious, full of puns which have Finns howling with laughter. In English, we have to make do with visuals like the procession where the peasants carry symbols of Englishness like fish and chips, football scarves, Colman's mustard etc. Then when we get to France the locals carry placards marked "Fermé". The plot's mindless, but then so is reality, these days. It could be blacker, but let's be glad of small mercies. This opera has only ever been staged in the UK once, years ago at ROH.

A friend of mine attended the Covent Garden performance, hated it then and hated it again. The Guildhall performers are definitely not to blame though. For one thing, Sallinen wants to pile so much in that the business becomes busyness. Like telling the same joke ad nauseum. After a while it gets stale. After nearly three hours, your brain goes numb. I learned this opera from the (only) recording, which meant I could hit pause and get it in smaller doses.

But it was worth going to for the performers. Many, like Derek Welton as the Prince/King have interesting voices that will adapt to many things. He's singing Jephta, on 12th March, part of the London Handel celebrations. Hanna Hipp (blessed with a name the Gods could not have devised better) as The Anne who Strips, has real dramatic flair. The part is great, but I suspect, it's partly thanks to her ability to make it so. Ensembles were tightly directed - I liked that mock marching with hops! The scene with the Calais burghers was very well done. In groups like this, individuals don't stand out but one of them drew the eye and ear. Perhaps that is the secret ingredient no-one can ever teach - charisma and personality. Even if we all don't end up mega bucks like Bryn Terfel, this is what makes a person interesting.

These productions deserve support. Coming up next, in June, is an intelligent programme - Martinu's The Marriage and Rossini's La cambiale di matrimonio. Anyone in London, pencil it in your diary.

Gloomy Sunday song with a curse

There are many legends about this song, "Gloomy Sunday". It's supposed to have mysteriously come off the piano as the young composer, Rezső Seress, was gloomily tinkering away. The story goes that it caused masses of suicides and was banned for public safety. The composer did kill himself, but not for another 36 years.

Look at the original lyrics, written by László Jávor. They are grim. I've not been able to find out about Jávor, but Seress lost his family in the Holocaust. Surviving that must have been a kind of hell.

"It is autumn and the leaves are falling
All love has died on earth
The wind is weeping with sorrowful tears
My heart will never hope for a new spring again
My tears and my sorrows are all in vain
People are heartless, greedy and wicked...
Love has died!

The world has come to its end, hope has ceased to have a meaning
Cities are being wiped out, shrapnel is making music
Meadows are coloured red with human blood
There are dead people on the streets everywhere
I will say another quiet prayer:
People are sinners, Lord, they make mistakes..."
The world has ended!
The legend of the curse comes about because the popular English translations sanitize the text, turning it into a tale of thwarted love. "Little white flowers will never awaken me" huh ? Yet the song is haunting enough to survive sentimental censorship, and has become a cult classic. How frustrating it must have been for the Seress and especially Jávor whose good work was completely sidelined. But dumbed down is where the money is.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Gurrelieder Salonen London Part 2

When Schoenberg returns to Gurrelieder in 1910, he has new energy and purpose. What a transformation! Of course the Wagner elements are still there, like the rhythms straight out of Der fliegende Hollander, lurching upwards and down like waves. Because King Waldemar cursed God, he and his men are cursed in return, forced to ride the clouds each night. But this is also the surreal, mad world of Ewartung. Anti-atonalists don't understand that atonality isn't anti-music but a way of extending the possibilities of music. Schoenberg and his contemporaries were responding to new frontiers opened by Freud and others. Ideas could no longer be contained in cosy boxes of certainty. How could music remain unchanged ?

What Schoenberg did was more than invent the 12 tone system. So what if composers don't write in serial rows or whatever any more? The real revolution Schoenberg rode the crest of was the idea that there are more possibilities to music than we realize.

So in Part 3 of Gurrelieder, there's a wildness breaking through that will one day find expression in many different ways. How Schoenberg must have smiled when he set the Bauer's terrified words. No more hiding under blankets, no more formula prayers.

Klaus-Narr isn't talking nonsense. He isn't a sophisticated person but he's talking about complex things, so he uses odd images. When Waldemar cursed God, he shouted, "Lasst mich, Herr, die Kappe deines Hofnarr'n tragen!". "Let me wear your jester's cap", all you stand for is a joke. Klaus Narr is the jester, whose job it is to say things to kings they don't want to hear, cloaking them as jest. Like Waldemar and his hunters, the jester is dead, too, a haunted spirit forced to walk in endless circles, going nowhere. It's not a good thing and he knows it. His music is unsettling, as it should be, leading into the demonic haunted chorus that fades Versinkt! Versinkt! before the truly amazing Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind. This is remarkable music : perhaps someone should analyze technically how it works. It sweeps away all that's gone before. Waldemar's curse is not resolved. Instead, this music and the Sprecher herald something completely beyond the level of straightforward story.

For many years I couldn't understand why the Sprecher is absolutely, pivotally important. Then I heard Hans Hotter. It was 1994, he was 85 years old, but so powerful that he transformed the entire performance. Hotter looked frail but he had such presence and authority that at last I realized what the Sprecher means. Gurrelieder is much more than narrative, it is more than a dramatic story. The Sprecher represents something so bizarre that even now it's hard to understand.

He's an elemental force, the very spirit of life, which overcomes death and darkness. Like Kluas-Narr he seems t0o speak in riddles, but the real "fools" are those who think the riddles are a joke. Are the gnats the knights, is Waldemar "Sankt Johanisswurm" ? What is real, what's illusion ? The words are simple but the portents far more profound. The whole locus of parts 1 and 2 are overturned, we are in an altogether more bizarre realm where nothing is what it seems. The Sprecher is the Waldtaube revisited, on an altogether more complex plane. Expressionism expresses things straight narrative can't hope to reach.

Hence the way the part is written, not song, not speech. It doesn't strain the voice, so it's usually taken by retired singers, even actors. But even if it's not physically a strain it requires exceptional musical sensibility to get those wavering pitches right and establish the significance of the part. In capsule, the Sprecher is atonality, modernism, a whole new way of approaching musical expression. No one uses Sprechstimme as such anymore, but its spirit lives on in, in different forms.

And to make the new beginnings clear, Schoenberg writes the magnificent coda at the end. Chorus and orchestra explode. "Seht die Sonne!" Behold the sun ! The night is driven away and the new dawn glows in a blaze of light. Fantastic playing from the orchestra here : Salonen doesn't lose sight of the purpose behind the enthralling glory.

Gurrelieder is dramatic, but staging would trivialize its whole meaning. It's distinctly not an opera, Wagnerisms notwithstanding. In this performance, light effects were skilfully used to intensify the mood. This isn't a new idea, as the music cries out contrasts of light and dark and shades between. Whoever did the lighting here was an artist, so sensitively was the music enhanced.

As Schoenberg himself said, Gurrelieder is a cantata, even if ends in a completely bizarre new way. The cantata form goes back at least to Bach. Mendelssohn and Schumann showed how it could serve secular drama. It's not a good idea to connect Gurrelieder to Mahler's Das klagende Lied. Mahler decisively and unequivocally turned away from cantata and from writing opera at a very early stage in his career. Instead, he went on to create something very different indeed. Often, people think Mahler is an opera man at heart. That's nonsense, and shows no understanding whatsoever of Mahler, demeaning what he really achieved. Similarly, Gurrelieder needs to be appreciated for what it is, cantata with a wonderful twist.

So much money has gone into this project, Vienna, City of Dreams, that it's a shame it's let down by the programme notes. Obviously, there are advantages to describing things in terms of Mahler, particularly with his anniversary year coming up and the lucrative marketing boom that will create. But oversimplification can become misleading and inaccurate. The world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn long predated Mahler. The Gothic in central European culture goes back a long way, and was a major impetus behind the whole Romantic movement. Indeed, the Romantic fascination with folk tale and horror created the whole mindset that enabled Freud and Jung to find terminology to describe. The Romantic interest in the individual also led to changes in politics, society, and aesthetics. Vienna 1900-35 wouldn't have happened at all if it hadn't been for the early 19th century Romantics.