Tuesday 28 April 2009

Heiner Goebbels - Songs of Wars I have Seen

This is a short clip from Heiner Goebbels's Songs of Wars I have Seen. It's badly recorded so make huge allowances. The reality is much better. Reality and image are good ways through which to enter Goebbels's world. For nearly 40 years now he's experimented with different ways of expressing ideas. Most of us are conditioned to thinking more or less in boxes: what Goebbels does is that mysterious space between boxes, where ideas overlap and change.

Most cross-genre hybrids don't work because they're approached as self-conscious novelties, from outside in rather than from within. In Songs of Wars I have seen, the duality comes from the very meaning, or possible meaning of the piece and thoughtfully worked through.

The texts come from Gertrude Stein's wartime diaries, where she jots down random thoughts. Her words seem embarrassingly banal. Why is she rambling on about honey when people just like herself are being murdered all round Europe? You want to scream in protest. But that's exactly why Songs of Wars I have seen works so effectively. It overturns your assumptions about what it's like to live in such situations. War turns Stein inwards, as if she can only escape the horror of reality by burrowing into trivia. "People go mad" she says, "quietly and slowly".

Goebbels recreates the claustrophobia of Stein’s world by shrouding the stage in darkness, lit only by fragile table lamps, which look as if they might go out at any time. The female musicians are huddled together, as if in a domestic prison. They’re musicians, not singers or actors, so when they read Stein’s texts they sound indistinct, but that’s the point. They, too, are in a world not of their own making. If they sounded polished or “thespian”, the impact would be lost. When they play, though, they create the poignant depths Stein dares not articulate".

Above the women are ranged a menacing counterpoint of percussion and brass, and above them all float eerie sounds like the crackling of radio waves or the rumbling of machines. It’s like bombardment, distant but persistent, creating the tense anxiety Stein tries so hard to suppress. Sometimes it does overwhelm, and the voices are silenced. A trumpet calls out from the background, deliberately distorted.

Stein ruminates on Shakepeare and on the Middle Ages. History seems to come round and round in endless repeat. Is barbarity part of the human condition? How do decent people cope?
Hence Goebbels's seamless blend of early music and modern, theorbo with sound desk. At the end words cease. The musicians leave their sophisticated instruments and turn to Tibetan prayer bowls, which make eerie, circular sounds, while behind them the whirring electronic background drones on.

Monday 27 April 2009

Dem Revolutionär Jesus zum Geburtstag

Du sahst Gewalt und Polizei. Du wolltest alle Menschen frei und Frieden auf der Erde. Du wußtest, wie das Elend tut und wolltest alle Menschen gut, damit es schöner werde!

Du warst ein Revolutionär, und machtest dir das Leben schwer....Du hast die Freiheit stets beschützt und doch den Menschen nichts genützt, du kamst an die Verkehrten!

Du kämpftest tapfer gegen sie, und gegen Staat und Industrie. Bis man an dir weil nichts verfing Justizmord, kurzerhand beging...Es war genau wie Heute.

Der Menschen wurden nicht gescheit. Am wenigsten die Christenheit trotz allem Händgefalten. Du hattest sie vergeblich lieb. Du starbst umsonst. Und alles blieb beim alten.

The organ accompaniment sets the context but this isn't really Bach! Ernst Busch, the singer, was a total revolutionary. Growing up in Kiel, he was aware first hand of the naval rebellions that marked the end of the Kaiser's rule. He acted, sang, appeared in cabaret and on the barricades. He was a completely hands-on revolutionary, no armchair dreamer. Busch escaped from Berlin in 1933, the Nazis hot on his trail, and joined the International Brigade in Spain. Eventually the Nazis got him but he survived and became a revered figure in the DDR.

The text is by Erich Kästner, who became famous for kid novels like Emil and the Detectives and Lotte und Lisa (which Disney turned into The Parent Trap) . He wrote lots of poems like this, socially observant and trenchant.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Why music education ? Inspiring women teachers

Governments slash arts funding, and get away with it because people don't value culture. Yet arts education opens far more doors than people realize. Although it's not narrowly vocational, it opens doors to history, literature, philosophy and the appreciation of human values. Sometimes, anyway. It teaches sensitivity and the ability to intuit feelings from abstractions. Minims and crotchets speak! These habits are useful in most kinds of business, so they have commercial application in many fields.

There's a lot more to music teaching than technical exercise. Good teachers bring out the best in those they teach, inspiring them to learn and create. The latest issue of Signature magazine is now out. (click link) It's devoted to different ways of music education : Clara Schumann, Nadia Boulanger, Elizabeth Maconchy and many others less famous, like Guirne Crieth, and Denise Restout, companion of Wanda Landowska.

Diana Ambache contributes a thoughtful chapter on Nadia Boulanger and her impact on 20th century music. The article on Clara Schumann is by Annemarie Vogt, extensively researched and detailed. These two pieces alone are reference resources. I was also moved by Pam Blevin's tribute to her own, charismatic teacher : a humble person whose impact on others was great.

Signature is rewarding as it approaches music from a different perspective. Women have always played a part in music but they tend to get written out of history because they aren't appreciated. Yet their contributions are significant and unique. Download the current volume (80 pp). It's a good read.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Ruins of St Paul's in Macau - Japanese baroque

These are the ruins of St Paul's (São Paulo) Church in Macau. This picture (1961) shows something of the scale of the cathedral: it must have been awe inspiring when it was built, around 1600, when Macau was little more than a scattering of small houses. In fact the town itself was smaller then, as most of the land in the middle of the picture did not exist at all (that part of the city was built on land reclaimed in the 1920's).
CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE - very high resolution details.

In its glory, São Paulo was 37 metres long, 20 metres wide, 11 metres tall. Imagine coming up the Pearl River from Canton, and seeing this structure loom into view! Once, when you stood at the top of those steps you could see across the delta to the open sea.

In the 16th century, the Jesuits made about 200,000 converts in Japan, so many that it threatened the Tokugawa hegemony. The converts had to revert or be exiled. Those who could afford passage came to Macau, swelling the population by tens of thousands. The bones of many Japanese martyrs were interred under the floor of the church, so it had emotional as well as spiritual significance for the refugees. Ironically Macau was again swamped by refugees after 1937, when the Japanese invaded China. This time the refugees were Chinese, and Macanese who'd emigrated to Hong Kong and Shanghai. The tiny town was teeming with the displaced, near collapse. "God will provide" said the local bishop. No one was turned away.

The facade and steps are all that remain, for the church burned down in 1832. The interior was elaborately decorated with paintings, ivory, lacquer, gold and silks, but the walls were made of chunambuco, a mixture of shells, stones and clay, typical of the area where there aren't forests to provide timber. All the early churches burned down regularly - candles and matshed (bamboo and reed panels used for building) don't mix. The fire, which also destroyed the Jesuit library and part of the 16th century Monte fort, must have lit up the sky for miles. There are legends about secret tunnels under the church leading to the fort but they've never been found, not even after extensive redevelopment.

On the facade, there are conventional religious symbols, like the metal cross on the pinnacle, a finely carved dove below. Look at the sun and moon on each side - especially the sun, which has a happy face. On the second tier down, there's a fairly typical Iberian Infant Jesus, dressed in robes, but at his side are the implements used as he was tortured on the way to the cross : a whip, a crown of thorns, nails, a ladder. This would have been specially poignant, for many of the Japanese martyrs were killed by being crucified, like their God. Unlike Christians in Europe, these Japanese craftsmen probably had first hand knowledge.

The next tier shows a large bronze Virgin Mary, surrounded by six angels - these angels being the symbol of Macau. Yet on one side there's an exotic palm tree and on the other a baroque fountain. Beside the fountain is a carving of a Portuguese ship, without which there would have been no Descobrimento, no adventures to the East and to the new world. Next to it is another dragon, more serpent-like and Japanese-looking. There's an inscription carved in Chinese (not kanji) identifying it as the Devil vanquished.
On the right side of the Virgin Mary, there's a strange dragon with seven heads and two legs. It's neither Japanese or Chinese - did the idea come from India, or from books? On the monster's head is a small image of the Virgin Mary, so the inscription reads "The Virgin Mary tramples on the dragon's head". Beside this dragon, there's a skeleton, beautifully carved and leering madly, a macabre but pertinent memento mori. "Remember death and do not sin".

The facade faces west, towards the sea and towards Rome. But due west of Macau is the island of Sanxian, where St Francis Xavier passed away, dreaming of China. He wasn't a saint yet, but was so revered that barely 50 years after his death he was commemorated in one of the bronze statues on the lowest level overlooking where the ornate doors stood, as if he were welcoming those who came to pray.

Other Jesuit heroes are also depicted in bronze on this tier above the doors These are St Ignatius Loyola, Francis Borgia and Luis Gonzaga. Other orders put their saints on plinths, so it wasn't so unusual for the Jesuits to do the same. These statues were a reminder of "living faith", the concept that their mission was in the present, not the past. It's a powerful statement. Connected to São Paulo was the massive Jesuit library and seminary which was the main interface between China and the West, supporting dozens of scholars, translators, teachers, collecting research materials. Other big Jesuit saints like Adam Schall and Matteo Ricci aren't there, because the church is so early that they hadn't even arrived in Macau when it was built. Long before they became saints, as ordinary men they would have stood on the stone steps, looking at the church, understanding its imagery. Little do the hordes of tourists know who was there before!

Over the doorframes on the entry floor there are carvings of the Jesuit seal, IHS surrounded by sunbeams. Macau was a rich prize, so the Dominicans and other orders wanted a piece ofv the action. Eventually the Jesuits were kicked out of Macau when the order was suppressed in Portugal. But the Jesuit impact was profound. Monastic orders were never able to dominate Macau, which is just as well as they were less China-centred. While Christians might be able to convert by force, as in South America, it would not have been possible in China. In China, learning is revered above all: scholars have moral authority, soldiers are the bottom of the heap. So even though the great Jesuit library burned to the ground, it symbolized something far different from what would happen later in the "age of imperialism".

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Jesuits in Asia : Chinese baroque music

This antique Chinese print depicts St Francis Xavier dying in 1552, or in Chinese the 32nd year of the Jaijing emperor of the Ming dynasty. He was the "Apostle to the Indies", who converted hundreds of thousands in Goa and Japan, but wasn't allowed into China. Basically, the Chinese didn't need Christianity and at that time were powerful enough to keep outsiders at bay.

Macau was far too small to be a threat to Beijing, so it was tolerated. In 1557 it received a charter from Lisbon declaring it a city with equal status to the ancient university city of Evora. Extravagant, perhaps, but trade was mainly between Japan and Goa, and Macau became instead the epicentre of Jesuit studies in Asia. Their library here was reputedly better than most in Europe, but uniquely, Macau was where Europeans came to learn about China.

The Jesuits were able to develop a radical new approach to Asia because they were a new order, and one which valued education. They immersed themselves in Chinese literature and philosophy. They took Chinese names, spoke the language, treated the culture with reverence. Thus they gradually connected to the Chinese system, where scholars were the elite. Eventually the Jesuits established a toehold in Beijing where they dutifully served the Qing Emperors. Jesuits had backgrounds in science, art and literature. They built scientific instruments and clocks, translated and even wrote books in Chinese. Apart from their religion, they lived as Chinese, wearing Chinese clothes, living with Chinese etc. Some lived 50 years in China, with little contact with other foreigners.

This is a Chinese painting of St Matteo Ricci who came to Macau in 1578 and moved to China when he'd mastered the language. He compiled the first Western Chinese dictionary, and drew the first western-style map of China. Notice the clavichord in the background and the astrolabe. Besides literature, Ricci did music and astronomy. The Jesuits were quick to appreciate how western and Chinese music might connect. The clavichord, for example, sounds a lot like the Chinese quqing, the pipa like a lute. At least three Jesuits composed music in the Chinese style, adapting the Catholic mass to Chinese aesthetics.

Track down the recording Messe des Jesuites de Pekin: Joseph-Marie Amiot. The CD came out to great acclaim in 1998, and has been reissued. It combines western liturgical music with Chinese song and declamation, this latter working surprisingly well with the way the Latin Mass used chant. A few years ago, in Germany, I saw another recording, a boxed set with tracks of western baroque and Asian music of the same period.

This painting looks Chinese but in fact it was painted by an Italian, Guiseppe Castiglione, known by his Chinese name Lang shi ning. What the kids are building in the snow! One of Lang's paintings is a scroll 37 metres long, depicting thousands of Manchu soldiers massed in formation before the Emperor, a bit like the Terracotta Army. Another of his paintings, using Chinese techniques, shows the Kangxi emperor astride a horse, in the manner of Louis XIV, his almost exact contemporary.

The Chinese did things on such a grand scale that they could out-baroque the European baroque anytime. One of the small items (easily missed) in the V&A exhibition is a book about Lang's designs for the Yuanmingyuen, the "summer palace" outside Beijing, built in the manner of Versailles. Not bad for a holiday cottage. Spectacular as it was, it was dwarfed by things like Tienanmen, the Ming tombs and the Great Wall. If the tomb of the First Emperor is ever excavated it could be a wonder of the world. The Terracotta armies are just the prelude. "Louis XIV", said Professor Jessica Rawson, the eminent art historian, "doesn't even come into the radar" in comparison.

Sunday 19 April 2009

Baroque Magnificence at the V&A

The first multi-national art movement was the baroque. It linked Holland to Japan, Spain to South America. With access to the new worlds, European culture burst out of its relative provincialism, embracing infinite new possibilities.

That's why baroque matters today, when modern technology connects us all. Baroque style is the exact opposite of insularity. The rationale behind the glorious excess was a celebration of glory, not just of God and wealth but the very exuberance of life. There's a major exhibition now on at the V&A in London, "Baroque : Style in the Age of Magnificence 1600-1800". It runs til June.

When Europeans ventured into Asia, Africa, South America, suddenly they were confronted by an overload of new experiences. Together with spices, tea and tomatoes came tales of strange, new worlds. This period was fundamentally different to 19th century imperialism. Although the conquistadors destroyed American society, the fact that other civilizations existed was not lost on them. Moreover, Europeans were by no means dominant. In India and South East Asia, there were powerful kingdoms and networks of Chinese and Arab traders who kept the Portuguese on their toes. And of course, China, the biggest empire on earth, which Europeans could not penetrate. Because the balance of power didn't solely favour the west, Europeans could not impose themselves in the way they did later.

So the baroque was a flow of trade and influence going several ways at once. It's intriguing to compare baroque style to Inca pyramids, or to Angkor or Borobodur. On a more basic level, without spices, tea and exotic vegetables,what would European food be like? Of the cuisine of South China, which uses peanuts, brought from Brazil via Africa and Macau. Without high-fired porcelain from Jingdezhen, would we have Delft and Meissen? Would the splendid palaces and churches of Europe have been possible without the wealth of trade (and looted gold)? Even in Beijing, the Qing emporers built an exotic "European" palace, the Yuan mingyuen, burned and pillaged by the British in 1860. One of the most interesting galleries for me was the one showing how Latin American cultures adapted European influence to local needs. There's a reredos with dark panels, which looks distinctly non Iberian, and sculpture by a Brazilian of African origin. In the background, the music playing is 17th century South American, conventional liturgy music enlivened by jaunty local rhythms.

It's this sense of adventure that's the rationale behind the extreme elaboration, the wildly effusive ornamentation. They can't even make cupboards that don't writhe with excitement: each little detail opens out a new vista, each use of alien materials like ivory and coral opens out references to the splendour of an exotic world beyond the confines of what has gone before. The style may seem shocking to minimalist modern eyes, but until this time, Europeans led fairly drab, constrained lives other than when they went to church. Suddenly, all life is glory. Dutch still life painting show things like shells and exotic fruit, which may seem commonplace, to us, but to people of the time, these were objects of wonder. There's a metre high vase with holes for only 24 tulips. To modern eyes, it's hideous, but tulip bulbs then were more expensive than houses. Whoever wanted this piece made wanted something striking that would show the precious blooms as strikingly as possible.

Baroque is Gesammstkunstwerk avant la lettre, where every sense is indulged to intensify emotional impact. A gallery at the V&A is devoted to church art, for in many ways this is echt Baroque, where nothing is spared to celebrate the glory of God. The picture above shows the church of Sao Domingo in Oaxaca, Mexico, writhing and heaving with golden detail. Imagine the impact, particularly on the locals whose ancestors knew Moctezuma. There's a film of a procession in Seville, where religious icons are carried through the streets by men in medieval hoods. As evening falls into night, candles light the way, making the statues glow as if alive. Imagine the singing, the slow penitential walking pace, the smell of incense : religion as theatre!

Baroque is "life as theatre". Everything moves, everything tells a story. Human figures busily abound. Even when they are standing still, they "emote" plaintively. That, too, explains the baroque fascination with foliage. Nature itself unfolds in abundance, vines intertwining, plants growing and bursting with fruit. Allegory abounds. There's a huge painting of a town in Mexico, so detailed and full of incident that you can spend ages looking at it, following what's happening. It's opera in paint, on a flat one-dimensional plane, but comes to vivid life if you use your imagination.

The constant references to bible and classical literature would have enriched meaning for those who understood them. To us the idea of figures representing moral concepts like Virtue or Prudence may seem odd, since we're accustomed to a higher level of realism. To people in those times, it wasn't so strange to see concepts depicted as symbols.

The gallery on baroque theatre is wonderful. Cesky Krumlov (see the labels on right for more) is represented in a film, showing the backstage operating mechanism which made the elaborate scene changes possible. Because technology shaped what could be done, baroque operas were naturally constrained to non vérité. They embraced the idea that theatre was illusion, that gods could pop up from holes in the ceiling, that actors wore exaggerated makeup toxic with white lead. People were fascinated by castrati precisely because they weren't "real". Because we have electricity and film, we're conditioned to a different way of thinking about art. Baroque opera needs to be taken on its own terms. Even the instruments are theatre - there's a bassoon with the head of a sea monster which was used in open air entertainments.

Then, as now, shrewd rulers knew the political advantages of illusion. Displays of wealth and power were used like weapons. Versailles and Sans Souci, the Zwinger and the Vatican, are uncoded messages of domination. Even in a poor country like Norway, a baptism font is painted with Danish words, showing the locals who is boss. The images are so pervasive rulers themselves get fooled. Trianon is built for queens to play shepherdess. We know what happened next.

Because the V&A is primarily a place for consumer design, it's good at showing flashy objects like a silver ice bucket the size of a bath. But ultimately this last gallery isn't remotely as interesting as the others. It's like looking at WAGs' handbags. Impressive, expensive but so what? Conspicuous consumption for its own sake is vulgar. That's what gives baroque a bad reputation.

The really intriguing thing about the baroque is that it was creative and inventive, inspired by ideas and exotic experiences. Those golden monstrances and chalices celebrated a higher purpose in life than surface glamour. Ultimately the baroque isn't about excess for its own sake, but about greater ideals. Part of the problem I suspect lies in the fact that there were many different baroque styles. By fixing on the arbitrary starting point of 1600, the V&A is missing out on a whole hundred years of exciting developments. By 1800 the style had fossilized, becoming little different from the extremes of modern excess.

This is a big exhibition, but no exhibition can comprehensively cover a period as complex as the baroque. There are weaknesses, probably due to the emphasis on "style" rather than the reasons behind it. Curiously, there's little evaluation of other cultures and their impact on the baroque. Beijing, for example, could outdo Versailles at any time. The Qing Emperors used art as a political tool. They used the Jesuits to learn about western science and culture but didn't buy the religion. The Jesuits were so overwhelmed they accommodated to Chinese culture, even writing masses for performance in Chinese. The Royal Academy ran a wonderful exhibition on this very subject in 2006.

So please look at my other posts on the baroque in Japan and in China. Both China and Japan were hugely important in the development of the style so it really does need serious attention, more than I alone can give. I'll also write about Macau, of course, where European baroque meets Asia. St Paul's in Macau was built by Japaneese craftsmen exiled when the Tokugawa kicked Christians out of Japan. So the facade shows the Virgin Mary and angels, but also palm trees, chrysanthemums, a dragon and a 17th century ship. Please keep following this blog, I'll do a more detailed description later. One of my big things is the way cultures overlap and interact, so of course Macau is a special subject. Follow the labels list on right for much more.

The golden altar in the photo is the church of Sao Domingo in Oaxaca, Mexico. That's only a small part of its treasures. The ceiling shows a massive Tree of Life with many statues, and the walls, crypts, etc are wonderfully ornamented too. People attending Mass would have been able to "read" the symbolism and take in a lot more than the decoration.

Friday 17 April 2009

Since 1715, the Three Choirs Festival

The 3 Choirs Festival started around 1715. So this year is Festival number 284!

Three Choirs came about when the choirs of three cathedrals, Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester, agreed to come together and sing in each other's home city every year. Who is the man in the statue, with the bike? No less than Edward Elgar, born in Worcester, and a regular visitor to the Festival most of his adult life.

Over the last three centuries, the Festival has been the epicentre of the British choral tradition. Indeed, its influence is so great that it has shaped the very nature of British music. In the 19th century, Germans used to call Britain Das Land ohne Musik because the British didn't do symphonies or operas. But think Handel, Mendelsssohn, Bach, and the whole perspective changes. We wouldn't have had Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Finzi etc without that tradition. It's Three Choirs that defines so much of the British musical heritage. For that reason alone, visiting at least once connects to the ambience.

This year's Festival is in Hereford, starting 8 August, with Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. This is always a festival keynote, carrying all kinds of emotional resonance. Geraint Bowen, the Festival director. conducts the Philharmonia and a cast including Catherine Wyn-Rogers. It's followed by a fireworks display and a reception in the Bishop's Palace Gardens, making the most of the long summer evening. This evening is the biggie everyone goes to, so book early.

Sunday morning starts with Haydn's Heiligemesse and ends with a very late night (2215hr!) Happy Hour with the Lay Clerks where the Cathdral singers let it hang out with songs old and new. Monday's big evening concert includes Haydn, Finzi and Britten, who inhabited a completely different world from Three Choirs, though he is known to have attended. The late night concert is interesting - the Philharmonia Brass play Gabrieli and Michael Berkeley.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons appears earlier in the programme, but Haydn's Four Seasons on Tuesday 11th will be a better treat. Performers include James Gilchrist, Roderick Williams, and Gillian Keith. I've heard them sing this in London with another orchestra and conductor, so it should be very good indeed. Next night it's Handel, Israel in Egypt, in a new edition by Stephen Layton, who conducts. Iestyn Davies sings! Handel operas, for me, work well when there's something to look at. Interestingly, when Mendelssohn conducted this in 1833, he staged it, even using transparencies of Durer and Raphael.) The last night is a famous and much enjoyed communal song fest, but the next to last night is Mendelssohn's Elijah. Unlike so many choral bonanzas, there are parts in this where really top class singing makes all the difference. Sarah Fox gets to do the killer high parts! That's why Three Choirs is way above the "average" choir festival. The singing here is altogether another league.

Three Choirs isn't just song though. Lots of other music to keep you busy all day, every day, and talks, generally of a high calibre. Plenty of open-air Shakespeare performances too. The Festival is also a big social occasion for those into British music – everyone converges for reunions like the Elgar, RVW and Finzi societies etc. Many people stay all week and party because this is a lovely, atmospheric part of England, still rural in many places. Lots of excursions if you travel by car (but parking in town is difficult) Plus, no likelihood of snow in August.


(photo above by Tony Hodges on flickr)

Thursday 16 April 2009

First of the fine Jephtas

Tickets for this Jephta were like gold dust, impossible to get because they were snapped up so fast by the cognoscenti.

"The title role requires a singer with immense powers of characterisation as well as prodigious vocal technique", says Melanie Eskenazi in Classical Source, "both of these were amply provided by John Mark Ainsley, who recorded the part in 1992. That recording still sets the standard for this role. However, on the evidence of the current performance, it’s time for a new one, since not only does Ainsley now give a much deeper reading but Cummings also infuses the score with a verve and power not yet committed to a recording of this work."

"Ainsley was surrounded by some of the best young Handelians. Countertenor Iestyn Davies is fast taking on the mantle of James Bowman; his Hamor had everything this part requires, from the confident declamatory strength needed in ‘If such thy cruel purpose’ to the sweetness of tone and moving quality of intonation in ‘Tis Heav’n’s all-ruling pow’r’. He was almost equalled by the sympathetic and gentle-toned Iphis of Sarah Tynan, her vocal agility sometimes challenged by Cummings’s tempos, but her interpretation was always convincing. "

There will be another Handel Jephta at the Barbican in June. Paul McCreesh conducts the Gabrieli Consort with Mark Padmore, Christianne Stotjin (lovely), Andrew Foster Williams (an excellent Arkel last year) and others. Should be good even though it will be without the cachet of the divine JMA.

Listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 available on demand online for a few more days. It really is very good ! JMA is heroic.
Read the whole review here :

Tuesday 14 April 2009

New Music at the Proms 2009

The Proms aren't fossilized. They've always supported new music, introducing things that have turned out to be standard mainstream fare. The idea that anything new must automatically be suspect is a fairly recent concept. It wasn't always so. Conductors mix new with old so people can listen in an intelligent way. Nowadays unfortunately there are audiences who pride themselves on refusing to pay attention, to prove they "know" the "trick". It's not a trick, just sensible programming. Henry Wood would not have been amused by such "clever" folk. Fortunately, the Proms still respect his ideals of learning and listening.

Obviously, not all new music is particularly new conceptually or musically. That's fair enough. What we know now as basic repertoire is only the tiniest fraction of what was produced at any time. Naturally there's more dross than gold, but if we don't get a chance to hear, how are we ever going to know? There's a basic problem in that most of the best music around now is chamber music, quietist work that doesn't sound good in a cavern like the Royal Albert Hall, which favours big blasts of booming noise. One of the most horrible pieces I've ever heard was something of a hit a few years ago because it was big. It was described, by the composer, as similar to Beethoven 7th. Unfortunately it was followed by Beethoven 7th. Someone behind the programming had a brain!

In among the baroque, 19th century giants and solid early 20th century British composers this year are some intriguing prospects. Jonathan Harvey and James Macmillan fit in nicely with the wallpaper of semi-religious and choral music. Macmillan's pitted with Haydn no less.

For me one of the must gos is Prom 10 on 24 July, a concert of Takemitsu, Debussy, Hosokawa and Ravel. Akiko Suwanai, who so impressed last year in RVW, will be playing. Hosokawa's new piece incorporates Japanese instruments like the sho. It should be good, he's no pastichiste.
Another must go is Prom 18 on 29 July, Widmann's Con Brio. There was a Widmann series at the Wigmore Hall this year, which was well received. Jonathan Nott conducts the Bamberg Symphony, sensitive performers of new though not necessarily shocking new music.

August 4th will be another good day. The evening concert features a Heinz Hollinger premiere, and the late Prom Harrison Birtwistle classics like Silbury Air. David Atherton, makes a welcome return, conducting the London Sinfonietta, which he helped found decades ago. Birtwistle is Atherton territory. This Prom jumps out from the crowd so anyone interested in new music will have noticed. Those who only know Birtwistle from opera will have a blast on 14th August with the Second Act of The Mask of Orpheus.

Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies were the Brave New World of British music. It's good that the Proms celebrate Max's birthday on 8th September so nicely. The first concert sets the mood with Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. The late concert features the BBC Singers. Both Westerlings and Solstice of Light are to texts by the Scottish poet George Mackay Brown. These are both spectacular pieces and would have worked extremely well in the earlier concert, particularly as the massive organ will be used. When will the Proms get over the idea that late night "ghetto" slots are somehow less important ?

Also unmissable for me will be Detlev Glanert's Shoreless River, Prom 46 on 19th August. Glanert has been heard several times atv the Proms, his Theatrum Bestiarum being written specially for the RAH organ and acoustic. This new piece is part of a forthcoming opera, jointly commissioned by the BBC, WDR SO, NSO Washington and the Royal Concertegebouw Amsterdam. Glanert was one of Henze's few students, he's very good indeed. In March I heard his opera Caligula in Frankfurt (see link at labels list on right)

Another major highlight will be Louis Andriessen's De Staat. This is one of the major works of our time, still as relevant and powerful as it was when new. Again, it's late night on 28th August but it will be performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, who are very good indeed. They're also playing Steve Martland and Cornelis de Bondt, whom I don't know yet, but if an ensemble like this likes him he must be worth hearing.

George Crumb fans will find a way to get to Prom 66 on 4th September even if it's only on the radio. One of the pieces is Vox Balaenae where the flautist sings into his instrument, evoking the song of a whale. There'll also features on Michael Nyman, Philip Glass, Unsuk Chin, John Woolrich, Judith Weir. And of course Claude Vivier, Canada's greatest composer conducted by Charles Dutoit. This will be Orion, "an exploration of the echoing vastnesses of outer spoace" in 13 minutes!

Anyone dependent on public transport is disenfranchised from late night Proms which can end before the last train. It's a marketing thing – mass music, mass audience, though the Hall doesn't suddenly change size at night. But perhaps the Proms are gradually cottoning on that new music can fill houses if it's packaged right. Two high profile Proms this year feature composers who might not fit the image of mass appeal. On 2nd September, David Robertson includes two Xenakis pieces in the "main" evening concert. Audiences who come for Shostakovich shouldn't have any problem with Xenakis. His Nommos gamma is hugely dramatic - 98 players spread around the auditorium. A concert that has to be experienced live, well suited to Robertson's dynamic style.

The next evening, Jurowski is conducting the LPO in B A Zimmermann's Dialogues. Zimmermann is a significant composer : At the Philharmonie in Berlin they're doing a lot of his music including the seminal Requiem for a Young Poet. Catch the video broadcasts on the Berlin Philharmoniker website. If Zimmerman can sell in Berlin, London should take note.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Gott sei dank for Heinrich Schütz

Heinrich Schütz was born a hundred years before JS Bach. He came into a world where people could still remember Martin Luther: the Reformation was still raw and real. Schütz's music inhabits an altogether tougher world. His Historia der frölichen und siegreichen Auferstehung unser Herrn Jesus Christus (1623) occupies a very special place in my heart.

first time I heard it, broadcast from the composer's birthplace, Dresden, it was like a kind of epiphany. I can't explain it, but the music shone out like a blast of light, illuminating everything with a kind of pure spiritual clarity. I don't follow Schütz's religion yet it moved me in a way I've never been able to rationalize. It's so uplifting. In my running days I'd jog along listening to it as I ran. after an hour I was pretty whacked but then the glorious finale would kick in. Gott sei dank! sings the choir, in multiple harmonies, while the tenor soars above all Victoria! Victoria!, and the chorus joins in splendidly woven polyphony. No matter how tired I was, when that finale came on, suddenly I'd speed up before collapsing in joyous ecstasy.

Schütz's Resurrection Story is written for simple forces, mainly an interplay between the Evangelist and choir of youthful voices, supported by a cache of different violas de gambe and positive organ. Speaking about Bible-based music, a friend of mine recently said "We all know the story". What is so moving about Schütz's version is that it feels vivid, fresh, immediate. Until very recently, the Bible had been in Latin, not in German. It must still have felt shocking to hear Jesus depicted by a group of young male voices, their voices weaving like shimmering light. We're so used to Bach now, that we take Evangelists for granted. But Schütz's Evangelist tells the story in clear, direct terms, as if he's recounting something amazing happening right before his eyes.

That's why I love the Peter Schreier recording above all others : He sounds genuinely excited, for nothing quite like this has ever happened before. Just days before, Jesus's followers had seen him die on the cross. Now suddenly he appears in their midst, speaks and even shares a meal with them. No wonder they can't believe their eyes. So Jesus sings "Sehet meine Hände und meine Füsse! Ich bin er selbst!" The voices bounce up and down with joy. Schreier's Evangelist creates a glowing aura like glanzende Kleider, around the other parts, for this is a miracle, not something prosaic. This performance is as unblasé as you can imagine.

The recording was made in 1972, in the dark days of the DDR when faith was perhaps as dangerous as it had been in Schütz's time. Even if the performers didn't share the composer's beliefs they knew who he was and what he stood for in early 17th century Dresden. You can hear clips from the whole Schreier recording, on the www.jpc.de website, and perhaps elsewhere. One of the male sopranos (singing Jesus and Mary Magdelene) is Olaf Bär, who's now a respected baritone.

Please also reead my post on Mendelssohn's Lobgesang HERE

Friday 10 April 2009


Shock! Horror! Handel never used a shower! He urinated in pots in the bedroom. He wore a wig powdered with white lead. In the street he walked in piles of horse dung. He hung out with (scream!) Castrati!!!!! Through the heart of the city, the Thames flowed, scented with sewage. Puts a different perspective on Water Music, no? Snigger, sneer. Who does this guy Handel think he is getting all this honour? Clever folks like us know better.

The picture shows the Prince of Wales, red faced and sodden. Behind him is a chamberpot overflowing with more than pee, dripping onto his bills. If they can do that to royals with autocratic power, no way would they spare mere mortals. Eighteenth century ideas of decorum were savage, satires like this the norm. So it's not smart to assess evidence without appreciating the broader context. To us, 18th century lifestyles may seem gross but to people then they were advanced, much more civilized than generations before.

But sensation sells. If you want massive media coverage, pick on something shocking that attracts attention. Of course Handel was a pig, but there was infinitely more to the man than that. He lived to be 75, a decent age even now, and trhat without the basics of health care, hygiene and environmental quality we take for granted today. Even the Handel House Museum exhibition seems to be marketed to attract "smiters", however worthy it may be. Unfortunately the crasser the publicity, the more attention it gets. And it's not just Handel. One newspaper launched its online section with articles so moronic they were forwarded everywhere in derision. But it was successful, proving that cynical, petty minded self promotion gets results.

Relatively little is known about Handel the man, so visiting the composer's London home is a way of getting into his mindset. It's surprisingly cramped, the rooms are small, the stairs vertiginous. Yet Handel, a big, tall fellow, his companions and servants fitted their busy lives in this small space. I've been to recitals there, literally "chamber music", much more intimate than in any concert hall.

Yet Handel produced music so huge and magnificent that it's spread throughout the world. Handel was a Londoner, like so many others who may have come from far away, but made it their home. He conversed in several languages at once. His friends were cosmopolitan. He was up with everything that was happening in mainland Europe. He was right in the vanguard, at a time when new ideas about theatre and performance were being developed. Handel matters, even more now than in the past, because he was a European Londoner. Understanding his achievement helps us understand England, too, before Victorian values changed the way Britain is perceived and perceives itself. Nobody "needs" to enjoy Handel's music. But he represents more than his music. Handel is a part of our history, and not just British history.

To read a good article which is humorous but perceptive too, check out Neil Fisher in the Times. Google "How Handel became England's National Treasure". Great read.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

BBC Proms 2009 out now !

The programme for the 2009 BBC Proms season is just out !

It's exciting. Of course lots of Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn etc but why not ? Immersion does work. If you do something, do it well. Besides what's coming will be top drawer :

First Night will be the usual blockbusters, but I'm looking forward to Alice Coote in Brahms Alto Rhapsody. Second night is Haydn's Creation. Paul McCreesh conducts Padmore, Rosemary Joshua etc. Third Night will be Handel's Partenope - third production this year. This time the cast includes Andreas Scholl, Inger Dam-Jensen et all conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, not so well known in the UK but very good. Fifth night will be the Glyndeboune's Purcell Fairie Queen, semi-staged. If that's not enough on the first Monday you can hear 11 hours solid of early English music, Haitink's Mahler 9 and Haydn's 7 Last words. And that's just the FIRST week !

Later in the season there's Handel's Samson (Iestyn Davies, Padmore), Beethoven's Fidelio(Waltraud Meier) and in September Handel's Messiah with John Mark Ainsley, Patricia Bardon, Matthew Rose and Dominique Labelle (Northern Sinfonia, McGeghan).

Visiting bands this year include the Vienna Philharmonic (Harnoncourt AND Mehta, no less) and Leipzig Gewandhaus . Since Chailly will be conducting them in Mahler 10 (Cooke 3) this will be special. Among the singers giving recitals will be Magdalena Kozena (31/8), Susan Graham (27/7) - great French programme - Vivaca Genaux, Matthias Goerne, Joyce Di Nato, Anu Komsi.

And if that's still not enough, you can catch Stan Tracey's Trad Jazz Band (British institution) and - wait for it !!! The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain !

PLEASE SEE post on NEW MUSIC at the Proms 2009 for an in depth survey at the new music that will be heard this year. Click on labels at right (Proms 2009)

Please keep reading this blog, subscribe, follow or bookmark because the Proms are the biggest international music festival in the world. Every year I attend 10 or 12 at least and listen to nearly all. So I'll post many previews and reviews ! Join the fun !

On closer examination, I think this years' Proms are very well balanced and meaty. Quality rather than kitsch. Besides the obvious baroque theme, lots of British and French composers. The one real gap is Mendelssohn's Elijah. It's perfect with all that Handel, who inspired it. It's also the kind of thing that's heard best in places like The Royal Albert Hall. What a moissed opportunity ! But at least we'll get all the symphonies.

I will write more about some of the more unusual repertoire and less famous performers. They've got Claude Vivier, for example, whom no one writes about except on this blog !!!! And Karim Said, for example, who will be playing with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Who ? This is the young pianist of whom Barenboim said, hearing him aged 7, that he has more mature musical instinct than most others. And Barenboim was himself a child prodigy, so he knows what ultra-talented kids are like. Read the label at right about Karim. I've heard him in recital. He's good. Last year I covered 44 Proms here on this blog. This year I'll do previews too. Bookmark and subscribe to this blog – lots of interesting stuff re the Proms you won't get elsewhere. Keep reading !

Jonathan Carr The Wagner Clan

Finally I’ve got round to reading Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan. Carr was a top journalist with the Economist and the Financial Times. The Wagner Clan distils a lifetime of knowledge into 350 succinct pages. Carr’s direct, fluent style makes the book an easy, pleasant read but it springs from understanding the social and political background which created the phenomenon that is the Bayreuth Festspiele.

Much of the material isn’t new, but it’s put together with wisdom. Carr demonstrates how much of what we assume to be Wagner's views were in fact created by Cosima and others. Like The Master himself, Cosima was rootless, in denial of her own past, “more Catholic than the Pope”. Significantly the Wagner Idea attracted others similarly alienated – Houston Chamberlain and his curious assumed persona, Hitler the outsider with a monumental chip on his shoulder. Poor orphaned Winifred was doomed from birth, one feels, given that she too was rootless, raised by fanatics, as if genetically engineered to serve the "Wagnerian" image. Wagner’s image takes on projections that aren’t necessarily in his music, which is perhaps why it's so dangerously potent.

Carr is perceptive about Siegfried, reading between the lines of his ostensibly casual memoirs. Siegfried was heroic in his own lowkey way because he tried to extend his heritage. His descendants have each in their own way had to do the same.

Carr does not shy from confronting the Hitler connection. He sorts out myth from reality with cool analysis. Hitler for all his big talk had other things to deal with, alas. No one emerges clean, not even Friedelinde, for such were the times. Just before the book was completed, new material from British archives on her transatlantic ventures were released. They’re interesting reading. Friedelinde tries but the odds are against her.

Given Carr’s special expertise in postwar Germany, he’s particularly good on the complex politics through which the family retained control over the Festival. It’s a lesson in itself how such an institution can continue to be run on autocratic lines, without complete state direction. Carr passed away soon after the book was published, but the issue of succession haunts this account throughout.

Carr’s distinctive, warm hearted style and intelligence earn this book a special place even among the many volumes already written about the Wagners and Bayreuth (many by the protagonists themselves). I make no apologies for saying I loved reading it because it reminded me of the author, who was kind to me in bad times. So when you read this, remember that the man himself is reflected in the senstivity and fair mindedness with which the book is written.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Hans Abrahamsen Schnee

That's Hans Abrahamsen b 1952. He's one of the most interesting composers about at the moment. He studied with Per Nørgård, a favourite of mine. They don't sound alike but if you like limpid lucidity, you'll like Abrahamsen. Beautifully clean, intelligent music. On 7th April Julian Anderson is hosting an Abrahamsen programme at the South Bank. It's free, so if you can get there, don't miss it.

The concert features only two pieces, but they are a good entry into this composer's work. Märchenbilder is an early work (1984) commissioned by the London Sinfonietta. Märchenbilder translates as "Fairy tale pictures", which describes the magical effect.

"Music is pictures of music", says Abrahamsen. "That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures - basically, music is already there."

The other piece on the programme is even more intriguing. Schnee (2007) is a two part invention of sorts, with piano and strings in one unit, and clarinet, oboe, piccolo and sound sheet in the second unit. It starts in silence, the violin bowing barely above the level of audibility, but gradually viola and cello join, developing the melody. The piano adds a steady pulse that’s almost metronomic at times but is in many ways the basis of the piece. The second part expands the first, the extra instruments taking up the ideas, though the first piano is still the foundation. It’s tuneful, harmonies circulating backwards and forwards, like the round shape the percussionist draws on the sound sheet, whirring just above the threshold of silence. It’s aphoristic, like an elegantly constructed puzzle. But puzzles can be a lot of fun, and this one operates on several levels, so it would be fun figuring out. Apparently, there will be more as these two parts will be included in a larger-scale work. I heard it in November 2007, and was smitten. PLEASE SEE my piece on Abrahamsen's WALD at the Proms.

Monday 6 April 2009

Handel Messsiah with a difference Cambridge

This Handel's Messiah was different because it was relayed live from King's College Chapel in Cambridge, all round the world on sim broadcast.

It was an unusual experience, knowing that at that very moment, thousands of others were listening too. With opera or whatever it's not a big deal but the Messiah was written as shared communion. This communal context is fundamental to its meaning. It will never be quite the same on rebroadcast or DVD.

The performance was excellent as you'd expect from the King's College Chapel Choir, the Academy of Ancient Music and Stephen Cleobury. Soloists were good too - Alice Coote, Ailish Tynan, Matthew Rose and Allan Clayton. Wonderful playing, but what will make this performance a classic was Coote's singing.

Coote's was perhaps the most deeply felt, dramatic "He was despised" I've ever heard. Way out of the normal, polite realm of church singing. "He was despised, ...rejected.....a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief". This was stark, expressive, like Lieder writ large. Suddenly all the centuries of familiarity melted away. Instead we heard Jesus described as an ordinary human being suffering, but with dignity. Even if you get just one track on download this will be the one to get, perhaps Coote's finest moment, and she's had many. It's immortal.

You certainly don't need to be a Christian to appreciate this Messiah. Handel was writing a universal human story, albeit with an unusual plot. "Why do the nations rise so furiously together ?" sings the bass. "Let us break their bond asunder" sing the choir. Earthly power will be dashed to pieces like on a potter's wheel. Then the magnificent Hallelujah, Hallelujah, which has resonated through centuries. The sheer gloriousness of this chorus lifts the spirits, making you feel that there are good things beyond this world.

Nor is Handel all grand gesture. Suddenly the crowd is gone and the lone soprano sings an intimate melody. "I know that my Redeemer liveth". In the vastness of a cathedral, she's tiny, but her faith is strong. Then the bass sings "We shall not sleep, we shall be changed". He's accompanied, not by massed forces but by a primitive baroque trumpet. Like the soprano, it's fragile. Its power lies in the conviction with which it's played. Then the alto and soprano unite. "O Death, where is thy sting ? O Grave, where is thy Victory ?"

This is why Handel's Messiah has become such an icon. Whatever the flavour of their faith, if any, most people ponder what happens when we die. For what do we endure the sufferings of this earth ? Different cultures, different variations, but the mystery remains. Handel is dealing with universal human dilemmas. This music is extraordinarily powerful on its own terms.

So back to the idea of international, simultaneous broadcast. The BBC does it every year with the Proms, but The Messiah is a celebration of something even deeper than music. The usual commercial tie-ins will of course happen, but let's face it, money facilitates things, and even things like King's College need support. Man may not live by bread alone, but without bread, he can't go far. So there's no point being snottily self righteous about the forthcoming CD, DVD and download releases. This performance was so fresh and direct it will be worth listening to again and again, whenever you need a fix of uplift.

I'd stick to the CD. The main downside of this was the filming. King's College Chapel is a marvel, every bit the equivalent in stone of the Messiah. It would have been a wonderful opportunity to show the building in all its glory. Instead the filming was pretty ordinary, superficial panned shots, little detail, the magnificent vaulted ceiling only shown in brief glimpses. This sort of filming would be fine for a normal Sunday TV broadcast, but such was the significance of this performance surely it could have been done with more insight ? King's College is world heritage, why waste it in this way ? Nor was the filming musically adept. Film needs to enhance music, not distract from it. On the other hand, the lack of sophistication behind the Dean's speech was rather endearing. Despite the magnificence around him, he's a normal guy. Which is what it's all about.

More about King's College Chapel, what it does and why it needs support

Sunday 5 April 2009

More about Giacinto Scelsi

Definitely an odd bird, was Giacinto Scelsi. He was odd enough that he spent years in institutions. He was born an aristocrat, and was received at Buckingham Palace. He died only 20 years ago, a recluse, and there are only three known photos of him, taken in his youth. His music is unusual, but conceptually fascinating as it's way ahead of its time. Including ours, too, in some ways.

Scelsi has influenced many – even Tristan Murail, whose own music is much more accessible, visited him in Rome. Last week there was a concert in London by Ensemble Liquid Architecture, whose name alone is interesting. I didn't go, which is a pity, as Scelsi fests don't happen every day.

Scelsi's piano music is a good way into him as the piano is like a lone voice. and Scelsi was definitely a lone voice. Perhaps it's a flavour of the man ? Nothing is too difficult to get into if you try, and this is early work for him. Here is a very useful article and review of Scelsi's piano music. Since there is so little available about him, this is an important resource! The major article was in fact written in 1986 when Scelsi was still alive - definitely prescient.

Also look at the labels on the right for more, including PGW's obituary of Scelsi written for the Independent in 1988. This blog is becoming a link to many Scelsi resources on the net.

Saturday 4 April 2009

Kinshasa Orchestra plays Carmina Burana

Musicians in the west may gripe but they ain't seen nothing. In Kinshasa the local orchestra have to build their own instruments and share scores round. "I haven't made a violin yet", says the orchestra manager but I've made 10 basses and 5 cellos." That's the spirit! In the Congo average life expectancy is 53 years, per capita GDP is USD 1200 per annum. Many places don't have clean running water, or paved roads. Life's tough. Yet these people care about higher things. "Music is like prayer" says a cellist. "Music helps me to think", says a soprano. "When I'm sick, and I sing, music gives me strength". This clip shows the orchestra and a local choir doing Carmina Burana. Some time back Operachic raised the very valid point that Carmina Burana is about the struggle of life. (see label at right under Carmina Burana for my comments and a FUNNY video). In Kinshasa, people aren't so far from war and poverty. When they do this music they aren't thinking Nazi rallies or O2 arena glitz. Maybe they're thinking Old Spice ads or whatever, but the fact that they care enough about music to do what they do says a lot about who they are.
Since this post was first written, more has been happening ! Please read the comment below and follow the website http://www.kinshasa-symphony.com. As they say in Cantonese "Feichou tak !" (Africa CAN !!!!!")

Friday 3 April 2009

Roger Bobo Plays the Tuba

Roger Bobo is a real tuba player but Roger Bobo Plays the Tuba isn't about him so much as about the joy of making music and having fun. The words are by John Updike, celebrating Bobo's mellifluous name. The music is by Brian Holmes, celebrating Bobo's mellifluous instrument. The combination is a riot ! The body movements are central to the music, too, because instruments are played with physical force. Not disembodied, so to speak. No lungs, no sound. Stockhausen did the same thing in KLANG! but Bobo is more lively.

Roger Bobo Plays the Tuba should be heard more often, as it's ideal material for getting people enthusiastic. It doesn't require gargantuan forces - just three part female choir, piano and tuba solo. The vocal parts are fun rather than taxing - well within the range of good amateurs. It's published by Roger Dean and also available from sheetmusicplus.

Brian Holmes is a horn player himself, so he understands the tuba well, and what performance can be. He's also a physics professor, and understands the science that makes instruments do what they do. This is a very unusual combination of skills, and makes you think about what the instruments are capable of. He's also a born communicator. He teaches college level, but he also gives direct, vivid talks on music making, and the science of music, intelligible to ordinary people. His music has long appealed to me, because he mixes whimsy with intelligence. His Science Songs (soprano and piano), also set to Updike texts , are very good indeed - song recitalists take note! They are great fun in performance. These are also published by Roger Dean. More recently, Holmes has completed an ambitious piece, The Amherst Requiem, for choir, soloist and orchestra to texts by Emily Dickinson. It fits well with the clear, natural spirit of her poems.

Below is another performance of Roger Bobo Plays The Tuba. This time the choir is more formally dressed as they do in the US, but the effervescence can't be suppressed!

Thursday 2 April 2009

Acis, Galatea, Dido and Aeneas

Melanie Eskenazi in inimitable, lively form on the Royal Opera Royal Ballet double bill :

" “Dido and Aeneas” remains Purcell’s most often performed and subtly influential work – would we have had Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” without it? .....

"To convey the spirit of his mixture of tragic nobility and almost comical malevolence the ideal cast would be made up entirely of genuine baroque specialists, in which the UK is exceptionally rich. Well, I suppose three out of nine isn’t too bad, and it beats the one out of five offered in “Acis and Galatea”.

Wayne McGregor’s austerely beautiful production was first seen at La Scala in 2006, and it looks ravishing in Hildegard Bechtler’s designs – McGregor keeps things nobly simple, as is right for the piece, and the starkness of the surroundings, even in the hunting scene, forms an appropriate backdrop for the tragedy. I found the dancing hard to get used to: attuned to expecting something rather more ‘pastoral, the steps did not quite mesh with the sentiments.

"I felt the same about the dancing in “Acis and Galatea” until I realised how deeply the production was influenced by Lucas Cranach’s iconic painting of “The Golden Age” (1530) where naked figures dance with angular movements around a Golden Apple Tree, “…two and two, necessary coniunctuion / Holding eche other by the hand or the arm / Which betokeneth concorde” (Elyot / Eliot). It was still a little disquieting to find ‘Oh! The Pleasures of the Plains!’ accompanied by what at first looked like an aerobics class, but I became attuned to it after a while and was able to savour some very graceful dancing, especially from Eric Underwood and Edward Watson."

"We were once more in the world of singers for whom the baroque is not really their bread and butter, with the notable exception of Paul Agnew, another (absurdly late) house debutant, who completely outshone everyone else with his gravely sensitive ‘Voice of 18th-century Reason’ of a Damon – not for the first time with this singer, he showed the rest how it should be done."

If anyone can carry off a ludicrous wig and an absurd costume it is the gorgeous Danielle de Niese, and she has the opulent voice to match her looks – the trouble is, it’s just not a very Handelian one, with its rapid vibrato and tendency towards swooping into phrases. As with her Acis, though, she knows how to make you believe in her character, and ‘Heart, thou Seat of soft Delight’ had ravishing moments."

PLEASE NOTE : in January I'm reviewing Katie Mitchell's book on directing.

Read the whole longer piece (it's very perceptive, pulls no punches but warm hearted) here :

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Sparkling Haydn Orlando Berlin

Currently I'm luxuriating in the superb performance of Haydn's Orlando Paladino as heard on 22 March at the Philharmonie, Berlin, conducted by Nicholas Harnoncourt, perhaps its most passionate champion. Kurt Streit is Orlando, Jane Archibald (lovely), James Taylor(real personality), Michelle Breedt and Jonathan Lemalu and others. Sparkling, sharp playing, stunning sound quality, excellent video.... It "feels" almost as close to being there live.

One of the things I like about this performance is that it's period in spirit, not form. Modernish instruments (apart from harpsichord and "tinny" percussion) and no counter tenors. Yet it's baroque in the sense of inventive playfulness. Having watched it nearly three times now what 's grown on me is the lively pace. Yes, the opera goes on and on but the slapstick moments are deft : James Taylor's face is wonderfully mobile, he's wonderful to watch. There's a mind inside this man, he's a natural comic. Jane Archibald, too, has an expressive face which lights up as she sings. Finally I got round to watching the interview with Harnoncourt. The music, he says, comments on what's being said, on different levels. Haydn's a country boy who grew up with different types of music around him. So when he goes off to the city, he can wow with the most deliciously inventive arias, but he's natural and down to earth.

Harnoncourt goes on to describe Orlando Paladino as a nuthouse where Alcina is the boss shrink who uses drugs to snuff stuff out. That and more interesting comments about the value of creative free thinking etc. Three hours of fun which you can listen to over and over for two days and it costs less than 10 Euro !

Catch it too on the Berliner Philharmoniker website http://dch.berliner-philharmoniker.de
Go to "Digital concert hall". The site is very professional and polished, but, like a BMW, it drives you, not the other way round. Takes some getting used to its torque but extremely good value! Please keep following this blog for more Berliner-phil concerts. Thganks to the site the Philharmonie is now my "local" concert hall !