Wednesday 30 September 2009

Tristan und Isolde ROH - first thoughts

One of the slogans often put about is that there is some kind of "traditional" staging that must be enforced. Yet Wagner himself famously said "next year we'll do everything differently". The drama was what mattered to him, not the packaging.

Look again at the Aldophe Appia sketch for Tristan und Isolde I posted earlier. Wow! It materialized onstage at the Royal Opera House last night, with the extra benefit of modern technology and lighting. The ROH stage is angled anyway, so no need for a "platform". One wing extends into the stage diagonally ( which may have to change angle for future productions so upper left galleries get a better view). And there's even the tall arched windows Appia sketched!

Then the colour scheme - planes of black and white, but lots of shades of grey, like silver, silk, suede, marble, extremely elegant and beautiful. Obviously evoking Appia but more importantly a reference to the recurring themes in the opera of light, dark and in-between.... nothing in this opera is really black and white, as the text keeps reminding us, again and again.

The significance was probably lost on many, as the booing started almost as soon as the prelude began. This was an unusually inattentive crowd determined to prove a point whatever the production actually might be. Up in the galleries someone noticed that the booers were having a wonderful time, enjoying themselves. There is nothing wrong in principle about disliking something intensely. Everyone has different tastes. But for every person who boos because they've actually thought about the production, there must be a hundred who boo because for one moment in their lives they have power. It's fulfilling : they've all read about the Met Tosca booing and now they are venting themselves on ROH. Just because "everyone" says something doesn't make it right. Once people cared enough that they'd go listen. Now going out is a sort of communal bloodsport. No one has the same taste, but booing is not fair, it's bullying.

As Wagner tells us over and over in this opera, what you see just might not be what you get. Illusion, delusion, things that need to be properly understood not taken at face value.

This was uncommonly musically literate: all irrelevance stripped away, revealing the music. Every gesture, every movement directed towards showing what's on in the music. Often those who hate "modern" opera claim they come for the music. This time the music "was" the star. Loy doesn't spell things out literally, forcing you to really listen and think about what the sounds and words mean.

Also very good was the way the stage was separated into foreground and background, concentrating the main action on the spartan "inner space" which really matters. The background fills in background. The grandeur of a royal banquet is shown, very formal and entirely male, power oriented. Which is Isolde's predicament, she's a spoil of war, and not the kind of person who gets off on surface glamour. One of the main points of the opera is that Isolde doesn't play games, and Tristan has turned his back on them.

At the end, the men in the banquet hall stab each other in stylized slow motion. At first I thought, why? Then it dawned on me that it's a comment on the themes of treachery, death, betrayal all over again acted out in society. Since this occurs in the background, not the
foreground it does not overpower the main action at all. Far from being "wilful" Loy puts his comment behind the main scene, reinforcing the themes rather than placing his extension for their own sake.

And the Liebestod ? Magnificent singing - Nina Stemme is passionately committed, she burns with intensity. Tristan and Isolde embrace tenderly - it's very touching and intimate, particularly against the vast empty spaces (part of the meaning too). Read the libretto: the borders between life and death are not as simple as they seem. Throughout the opera, people are seeing things in different ways, mistaking surface for reality. Eventually Ben Heppner's arms drop away in one last spasm. It could be rigor mortis but it connects to the ideas of death and illusion, and of different realities. And then the soaring, glorious transfiguration that is the Liebestod which ends with Isolde sitting where Tristan had been earlier. So the lovers are united in deeper ways than we can imagine.

I've been offline til this pm so I'lll write more - watch this space! There is so much in this opera that it's hard to reach all levels in any production. Anything good is like that, not easy to "get" at first and benefits from thoughtful consideration. This production with its silences and subtleties isn't easy, but it's worthy of an opera like this where what's really happening isn't literal at all.

MORE TO COME !!!!!! Please see review above and also second night. There's so much in this production that grows the more you you listen and think about it. Please keep looking in, there will be more. I'm going again Friday. Please also read the other posts on Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne and Bayreuth on this blog and on the ROH Lulu

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Luckiest man ever?

Tonight, Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House! But first something cheering. A few years ago I was walking in Dahlem in Berlin, and saw a monument to a composer I'd barely heard of: Robert Stolz 1880-1975. How that man was blessed under a lucky star! Born in Vienna, he moved in the right circles. As a boy he played the piano in a concert with Brahms in attendance. He met Strauss, Humperdinck and many others. He started a prosperous career in music theatre but lost all in the First World War. Off he moves to Berlin and starts another prosperous career in Weimar Berlin (hence the monument in Dahlem).

He made and lost several fortunes and went through four traumatic divorces. Then the Nazis came and he lost everything again. He started up once more in Vienna, but they came there, too. When he fled to Paris, his latest wife took his money and papers and left him high and dry. So there he is, bald, broke, stateless and 60. But what should happen? Weeks before his internment by the French as an enemy alien, he'd met a beautiful 19-year-old heiress. She fell in love with him, sprang him from prison and married him. They went to Hollywood where he started yet another successful career writing for movies.

Being echt Viennese he returned to Austria in 1946 where he became the embodiment of Viennese light music and operetta, a living symbol of a former age. His wife still lives in Vienna, aged 90, continuing to devote her life to promoting his work. There's lots of Stolz's music around and it's still regularly performed. Last night at the Wigmore Hall, at Imogen Cooper's 60th birthday celebration (she looked radiant!), Wolfgang Holzmair, passionate promoter of things Austrian, sang one of Stolz's 2,000 or so songs, about dancing and happiness, from one of his hit operettas in the 1920's. I'll do more on Stolz later, but what a lucky man!

Monday 28 September 2009

Jurowski Mahler 2 - some thoughts

Several of my friends attended the Mahler Second Symphony concerts this weekend conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. We didn't consult, yet nearly all came to similar conclusions. Not that that means a bean because in art "consensus" is irrelevant: what matters is how opinions are reached, not what they are. Much more interesting, then, isn't so much what Jurowski's Mahler was like, but why it is the way it is.

Mahler's 2nd Symphony is failsafe. Everything about it works for a great experience - massed orchestra, massed choir, highly theatrical effects like off-stage trumpets filling the hall from all angles. Can't miss. Jurowski is a very good conductor (if his taste in modern music may be a little odd – and I don't mean the excellent Kurtag Stele performed on Saturday). In some repertoire he's downright wonderful. But not every conductor is able to do the same with all repertoire, any more than any of us can do everything well.

Wisely, perhaps, Jurowski has hitherto skirted around Mahler, conducting smaller, non-final works like Totenfeier, Blumine, the Adagio from the Tenth and only recently the First Symphony. It's not a bad strategy to ease into a composer's idiom gradually, so Jurowski is no fool. It took Barenboim years to get Mahler at all. But the fact is that the Big Anniversary Year 2010-2011 is looming and the commercial pressure to do Mahler is snowballing. Everyone but everyone has to do Mahler to keep up with the market whether or not they have anything to say. It's not a healthy thing, either for musicians or for audiences.

It's probably not a good thing for the composer and his music either. Will he become like the Mozart or Tchaikowsky caricatures, his face decorating chocolate boxes and his music at proms in parks, complete with fireworks?

A great deal was hanging on these concerts, so the South Bank scheduled the symphony over two consecutive nights to meet demand. Jurowski after all conducts the London Philharmonic and they need the high profile showcase for 2010-2011. If Jurowski's Mahler seems a work in progress, in some ways that's better than if he sold out completely and churned out rubbish regardless: others might not hesitate.

It's also interesting to speculate why Jurowski doesn't do great Mahler. It's not emotional. There are lots of different kinds of emotion, not all are heart on the sleeve. Bernstein's Mahler is being cranked out again big time, but his is by no means the only way to do Mahler. As Bernard Haitink said recently, conductors should not treat the composer as "free for all". Quiet, white-hot intellectual and spiritual intensity may not be so easy to "get", compared with Bernstein or Gergiev, but it's emotional too, and perhaps closer to what we know of Mahler.

Perhaps what makes Jurowski good at ballet and opera is what inhibits him in Mahler. These are different genres, different frames of mind. I loved Jurowski's Das klagende Lied in 2007. But Mahler decisively turned away from opera and cantata, and found his own voice in something quite unique. Mahler's song symphonies don't use voices as "characters" or narrative, but as extensions of the orchestral palette. With a few deft words like "Bereite dich!" he can cover specific ideas quite clearly in condensed form. Das klagende Lied is delightful because it's a tale, rather than a deep cosmic exploration. Jurowski in private doesn't lack spirituality - far from it - but he's probably more attuned to a different means of expressing it.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Mahler 4th Stein not a miniature

Why a chamber transcription of Mahler's Fourth Symphony when the full thing is so good? Because transcriptions are made as study materials, to explore the basic structure of the work to better appreciate how it functions. That was the aim of the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (The Society for Private Musical Performance). It was a closed, private circle of musicians and composers (including Schoenberg) who met to hear and study music they cared about. This wasn't a public concert series, but a kind of big scale Liederabend where musicians could hear music thoughtfully performed.

Stein's transcription isn't a substitute for the full symphony, nor Mahler "lite"or even meant to be "beautiful". It's a way of understanding compositional processes in performance. Kenneth Slowik's version uses period instruments from the Smithsonian Museum, which creates a nice ambience, which fills out the sparsness of the orchestration. It's also useful because Slowik used Willem Mengelberg's handwritten notes on his performance score. Since Mengelberg knew and worked with Mahler on the symphony, this is valuable first-hand source material. Elegant playing, though the singing isn't great. Read more about it here.

The version by Thomas Christian Ensemble with Christine Oelze as soloist, however, is outstanding, and lifts the Stein transcription from being a study reference to a work of artistic merit for its own sake. The Ensemble's commitment shines through, and Oelze's singing is so wonderful that her presence alone makes this one of the "must have" recordings, up there with the greats.

The simplicity of the orchestration makes each group of sounds distinct: winds setting out a theme, while the strings curve seductively around them. The Schnellkappe is particularly attractive, the bells not too dominant – “their time will come” - and the overall effect is of a delicately paced dance. This is no clumsy Ländler, but more like a minuet danced by putti, a reference to the vision of Heaven to come. Overall, the transcription brings out the airy, dance-like character of the symphony, and this performance, more than any of the others, emphasizes its almost baroque quality. Tiny details become clear in closeup: the flattened toot toot of the harmonium introduces humour with the sparest of notes, the solo flute dances around the piano part, imitating its steady tread. In the second movement, a solo violin represents Freund Hein, the fiddler who leads the dance of death.

The pianos play an essential part in the transcription for they hold together the whole structure of the piece. They don’t constitute a “part”, but come in at intervals when depth is needed. Here they are performed with real warmth of tone, firm enough to keep the piece on course, yet sensitive to the other parts. It is especially effective in the Ruhevoll, which Mahler himself told Bruno Walter reminded him of the statues of medieval saints, their hands solemnly folded across their chests, but whose calm faith in a better afterlife lights their faces with gentle smiles. The piano part adds resonant gravitas to the movement, which, together with the solo violin creates a lovely sense of ebb and flow. Its contemplative tone makes the dramatic “sunrise” coda all the more glorious and uplifting.

In the last movement the piece reaches its apotheosis. It was the first part to be written, all else leads up to it, and any performance stands or falls on it. This is the only recording of the transcription that uses a really top-notch soloist, and it makes all the difference, particularly as the singer has to adjust to the reduced orchestral forces.

Oelze is blessed with unusual purity of tone, so the bell-like clarity of her voice matches the piece perfectly in purely aesthetic terms. Moreover, she is far more experienced than the other soloists: for her, emotional warmth and sensitivity flow naturally. She seems to sing with the smile of the saints, beatified: Elftausend Jungfrauen zu tanzen sich trauen is so beautifully phrased it sent goosebumps up my spine, and I’ve heard a few good versions in my time. Although I personally have a weakness for singers with fragile voices, a voice as genuinely lovely as this is much more in keeping with Mahler’s intention, that that divine bliss conquers all earthly sorrow. It was a powerful message for him, and should be sung with convincing Seligkeit (heavenly bliss). Oelze’s background in early music and the baroque adds to her appreciation of Mahler’s imagery : Keine Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, die unsrer verglichen kann warden (no music on earth can be compared to ours).

There are two other versions I know, one by the Linos Ensemble which was the first recording but not otherwise very special and one by The Manchester Camerata with a very young Kate Royal. That was highly publicized when it came out, perhaps because it was British, however that pertains and because not many knew the other recordings. Much as I tried to hear merit in it, it offers little, and I can't recommend it. The Thomas Christian Ensemble with Oelze came out soon after with nil publicity (issued by MDG - small German audiophile recording label) but soon became the version that makes the transcription a fulfilling musical experience on its own terms.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Adolphe Appia's Tristan und Isolde

This is how Adolphe Appia saw Tristan und Isolde around 1900. This is Isolde in Act 1 on her way to Cornwall as trophy wife. The irony that such a feisty, strong woman should be a trophy wife is horrible! It's part of the tragedy, too, though most productions (a male preserve) don't make much of it. What Appia is fixed on is the sense of entrapment, the world closing in, the feeling of doom. We see Isolde in a vast space, which looms over her menacingly, the only light that which is around her, and she's calling out into the abyss. Once I saw a production where she was sitting in a creaky hold, splashed by water so we know she's in a boat. But what Appia is showing is Isolde's inner predicament. It also connects to the recurring themes of night and day, darkness and light which run through the whole opera, meaning different things. This week a brand new production of Tristan und Isolde starts at the Royal Opera House, London. It's directed by Christof Loy, whose recent Lulu was so amazingly true to the music. Read about it on this blog under Berg Lulu tags and read about Loy under Loy and T&I under T&I. "I don't like distractions," Loy said recently. So don 't expect breastplates and helmets. It's the human drama he's interested in.

Friday 25 September 2009

"Painted through the music" early Wagner stagecraft

"Turning the virtue of fidelity into the fossilization" said Wieland Wagner of Cosima's control freakery. Wagner himself didn't seem to have that same obsession. For him, the main thing was to get his operas across in the best possible way. "Next year we'll do everything differently" he said after the 1877 revival of the Ring.

Somehow along the way has snowballed the idea that there's only one way to do Wagner and that one way should somehow be enforced. But when was there "one way"? This photo shows the set Aldophe Appia designed in the early years of the last century. How spare it is, compared with Victorian/Beidermeier excess. All distractions removed, so the focus is on the drama. A pier leading out to distant waters, light seen through a dark oppressive wall. I couldn't find an exact credit but it feels like it's Lohengrin. Simple as the set may be, it tells more about the essential drama than acres of tapestry. (Might also be the ramparts of Gibichunghall overlooking the Rhine - same mood of expectation versus repression.)

Even arch-conservative Houston Stewart Chamberlain saw the potential of Appia's visionary ideas and tried to get him in at Bayreuth. Appia reminded Cosima of RW's comment "This art of mine is not the completed art of the theatre - this art is only in its infancy". Cosima glared, eventually rasping "all this has no meaning at all". Which was hardly a reasoned answer, but then reason means nothing to the dogmatic.

Bayreuth didn't take up Appia's visions, but others did. In Vienna, Alfred Roller designed modern productions for Gustav Mahler. Julius Korngold, usually a conservative, welcomed the new art. "For Appia", he wrote "the artistic power of light stands at the very top (of the hierarchy of scenic elements)". He praised Roller's designs for Tristan und Isolde, saying "stage design has been brought forward as an independent artistic participant and appears completely to enter in certain symbolic relationships through expressed in the libretto and the music. It was seen in Tristan und Isolde, whose scenes were painted through the music".

"Painted through the music". Light and transparency liberating the drama from the literal. Not only Appia and Roller but others. In 1929 Otto Klemperer conducted the Dresden Der fliegende Hollander at the Kroll Oper in Berlin, where a stylized ship appeared against a stark backdrop. The Nazis hated it so much that it became a star exhibit in the Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1938.

There's evidence that Siegfried Wagner might have welcomed less retrogression but he didn't live long enough. Just as Cosima (with no stage experience) took over on RW's death, Winifred (with more experience at Bayreuth but less in the real world) took over from Siegfried. And we all know who Winifred's best friend was. So they had a Meistersinger to beat all Meistersingers with a chorus of (apparently) hundreds that filled the stage to capacity blasting a very particular interpretation of heilige Deutsches Kunst. Completely missing the point that Wagner, through Sachs, was stressing renewal, the individual not the mass, and that Beckmesser wasn't the hero. Since then, helmets and Wagner are not such a clever thing.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Breugelland - thoughts on Le Grand Macabre ENO

Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre is what he called an "anti-anti-opera" so thinking in opera terms doesn't work so well. Ligeti conceived it as a way of filling a perfomance space with anything that would have dramatic impact - theatre with music and many other things rather than music-theatre. La Fura dels Baus's production at the ENO is a very good realization of the composer's basic concept.

Pity the concept is so much of its time in many ways. Like Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Peter Blake for the Beatles) everything possible pulled together at random, the impact being the diversity. Personally I'd cut the Black and White Minister dialogue because it's daft, but it is so central to the whole that cutting it won't work. Cosmic panoramas don't have to be perfect in all parts.

The idea goes back forever though : Ligeti and Ghelderode deliberately invoked Breugelland, the spirit of chaos and infinitely detailed panoramas. Click on the image to enlarge. It's Breughel's The Triumph of Death - see the figure of Death on his mangy horse ? That was the image behind the original production. In the ENO production, Death is a fat man on a plastic bubble horse: but again this is perfectly in keeping with the Breughel/Bosch concept where all assumptions are overturned and made ironic. The whole medieval concept of feast and famine, extremes of excess and deprivation, moments where pleasure is frantically seized from the relentless progress of death.

Think Carmina Burana, with less singing. Click HERE for another Breughel image, a companion to the Triumph of Death. It's The Battle between Carneval and Lent. The people are feasting before Lent and austerity sets in. How do they know they might not be dead when Lent ends? So they party while they can.

So La Fura dels Baus also brings out other very important aspects of the chaotic mindset behind this opera or whatever you call it. "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die!" Hence the grim, brutalist sex, not for the sake of reproduction but as momentary distraction from death. Thus too the giant woman with the stale Big Macs in her lonely room, and the fixation on body parts and functions. These are in the script and in Bosch and to a lesser extent in Breughel. Look at the image of Bosch HERE and see just how seriously obscene medieval art could be. There's a person admiring himself in a mirror, but the mirror is a monster's behind! So the giant on stage at the ENO is a metaphor, its very hugeness a comment on the small-scale frantic activity all round it.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Unknown Britten - new material NMC

Unknown Britten? You'd think we knew all about a composer that famous, but in fact there's lots of material around we don't know. NMC Records has pioneered British new music for 20 years, so so this is a good time for a recording as unusual as this.

Unlike some composers, Britten didn't throw things away, so there is material still unpublished. Even fragments are valuable because they show how his compositional process operated: we can study how he approached things, even when he set them aside.

On this recording we have three extra songs which he didn't include in the final version of Les Illuminations. Aube, for example, stayed in the plan until quite late. We'll never know why Britten didn't continue but hearing these extra songs sheds light on how Les Illuminations functions as a whole, and how it evolved.

In memoriam Dennis Brain shows another aspect of Britten's working methods. Brain was the horn player who helped inspire the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. He died suddenly in an acccident, and Britten tried to compose a memorial. But he wasn't yet able to break from the spell cast by a masterpiece like the Serenade. The new piece floats, hanging, its potential never to be fulfilled. In that sense it is a genuinely moving tribute to a man whose life was cut off too early. And it also tells something about Britten's emotions, usually so tightly kept under wraps.

The movements for a clarinet concerto come from fragments Britten wrote for Benny Goodman – yes, "the" jazz clarinettist. This score was impounded by US Immigration because they thought it was a secret code and dangerous. Britten and Pears were persecuted by the FBI : to this day the details are still too sensitive to be released under the Freedom of Information Act. Please read more about this HERE. So the FBI watched Leonard Bernstein? That's not news.

Colin Matthews knows Britten's idiom intimately, so he's created a performing edition of the piece by connecting the fragment with several other fragments written on the same manuscript paper and at the same time. They form a quite convincing entity. Matthews (who helped create the performing version of Mahler's 10th) is sensitive enough to respect the inconclusive nature of the fragments, and isn't in any way "completing" them. But it's an excellent way to hear what might have been and isn't lost.

Please see the full review in Classical Source HERE which has more details. Listen to the video for sound samples and background. The CD can be ordered via NMC direct which I recommend because this is more than "just" a record label, it's a noble cause. NMC supports niche new music and provides support for British composers, "growing" the market in a way the big labels can't be bothered with.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Opera painted in sand Ukraine Der heilige Krieg

Amazing video! The beauty of this is that it is so simple, and so ephemeral. Like life. Every performance is different, created relatively spontaneously. That's why it's an antidote to the concept of a "Thousand year Reich" imposed by force. (Not that the Soviets didn't suppress artists and much else.) Kseniya Simonova has a website here where there are several other operas in sand she's made. She may not be Leonardo or Tintoretto. What she does is folk art but vibrant, personal and free. That's what all art really should be about, whatever the "quality". Completely the opposite to imposed and rigid forms.

Everyone has seen this video except me but for those who haven't, isn't it a treat. Most of the audience are way too young to have any idea what the war was like. But one of the songs is the famous anthem "The Holy War",everyone in the Soviet Union knows and then a pop song and then the sounds of battle. They make the connection, no words needed. Below I've added the Ernst Busch version of the anthem. It is worth listening to because even now there are plenty of extremists about in different modes and flavours, who'd just love to impose Reichs of all kinds.

Monday 21 September 2009

Death of the Gravedigger - Goerne Schubert Wigmore Hall

Totengräber’s Heimweh was the outstanding point in an excellent second Schubert recital by Matthias Goerne at the Wigmore Hall. A gravedigger looks at the hole he's just dug and thinks how cool it would be to lie there dead. This is echt Romanticism, death as apotheosis. Schubert sets the poem with obsessive pounding rhythms which might reflect the digging, or perhaps the gravedigger’s heart. Gradually the music shifts into a higher key, and the gravedigger gets his wish and falls down dead. Above is a painting from 1895 by Carlos Schwabe, made decades after Schubert's immortal song. It's painted with Jugendstil stylization which to this day looks eerily modern. It could start a whole new Goth cult!

Goerne sang the word “Ferne” with such fervour that it feels like the whole song (and the gravedigger) was levitating, searching for something distant. “Ich sinke, ich sinke”, he sings, but gradually, through finely gauged modulation, this becomes “Ich komme”, supported by starlight-suggesting motifs. The song is an old Lieder warhorse: Goerne made it sound utterly fresh (oops wrong choice of word) and immediate.

Most performers leave Nacht und Träume until the end of a concert: it’s a stunning showstopper. It was a brave choice as the first song and the thematic core of this recital revolving around Romantic concerns such as philosophy and death, approached through songs ostensibly about moonlit landscapes and starlight. Nacht und Träume is a hymn to the wonder of dreams (and by extension, the imagination). But dreams do not last, so we’re left in perpetual longing. Thus Goerne stretched the long, floating lines, so they seemed as wonderful as the dreams they describe.

Another song that stood out was Schubert's setting of Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze, Der liebliche Sterne. Schulze was an even more disturbed personaliity tha Mayrhofer, whose morbid poems inspired Schubert to write some of his finest songs (see HERE). Schulze was obssessed with two young sisters, and when one died he made a cult of her memory. Fortunately for the other sister, Schulze died young, before he could become dangerous.

What drew Schubert to poets like Mayrhofer and Schulze? Did he even sense how disturbed they were? Quite possibly. Schulze, like Schubert, was fixated on starlight. In the first Shulze setting in this recital, Tiefes Leid (great sorrow), there's a deliberate disjunction between the morbid text and the lovely secondary melody that floats almost independently. Like starlight, it flickers and fluctuates out of focus. And so in the song, where Goerne alternated hushed reverence with deliberately over-bright clarity: it's the "glow of madness" that can, like starlight, light up one obsession and throw all else off perspective.

In Der liebliche Stern, staccato quavers evoke something even more chillingly obsessive than the twinkling of stars. The words seem innocent, almost child-like in their self-belief, but the central image is a whirlpool into which the poet wants to violently throw himself. Goerne’s voice is magnificent but what makes him truly unique is his ability to convey psychological complexities, subtly by the slightest change of nuance. In real life, nutters aren't always painfully obvious. Had Alexander Schmalcz’s playing been of the same level this would have been truly unnerving.

So that's why Lieder with its morbid fixations still has the power to fascinate. it's about people, and how they respond to extreme situations. We may no longer treasure locks of hair from the dead or wander listlessly through cypress groves, sighing for lovers we didn't actually know. But we all come across human trauma.

Please see the full review in detail in Classical Source
Please also see the other posts on Schubert and Goerne on this site - more Lieder coverage on this blog than anywhere else ! Have fun exploring.

The Mahlers go to America

Here's a copy of the original shipping document which shows who sailed from Hamburg to New York on 12 November 1908. The family Mahler : Gustav aged 48, Alma aged 29 and Anna aged 4. Home city Wien. The next name on the list – Lizzie Turner – was the English nurse who looked after Anna. Click photo to enlarge.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Schubert Mayrhofer and Goethe Goerne WH

When Matthias Goerne sings, it's never superficial. Lieder is a genre that needs almost as much engagement from listeners as from performers. "It's like a church in there,"someone said to me about the Wigmore Hall. "They're 'really' listening".

Schubert's settings of Mayrhofer filled the first part of the recital. Mayrhofer was an unstable personality who dramatically drowned himself. That happened years after these songs were written, but even his youth Mayrhofer had an unhealthy fascination with death, with water, stars and death, extreme even by the standards of early 19th century Romanticism. How much Schubert sensed Mayrhofer's problems we'll never know as he broke off their friendship soon after the songs were written. But in these settings there's a distinct sense of unnatural calm.

Steady, undulating rhythms evoke waves, whether on the Danube or in Venice. The effect is almost hypnotic, revealing Mayrhofer's obsessional fixations. Water images occur frequently in Schubert's music, but rarely as unnervingly as in these songs. "Die Erde ist gewaltig schön doch sicher ist sie nicht" (Wie Ulfru fisht, D 525) No wonder the poet envies the fish hidden in the depths, and the stars in the sky above.

The incessant rocking rhythms of the waters are matched by delicate triplets which evoke the twinkling of distant stars. Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren D 360 is relatively calm, for it describes a sailor already on his journey to death, guided and comforted by the stars.

In performance, sometimes the surface loveliness of these songs distracts from true meaning, but a singer like Goerne understands their inner portent. His voice is capable of great force and fire, but in these songs he tempered power with extreme restraint, true to the spirit of Mayrhofer who was desperately keeping his demons under control.

Goethe's Wilhelm Meister poems lend themselves to much greater dramatic intensity .As he enters his forties, Goerne's voice has grown with maturity. There's no one singing now who can match the gravitas of his lower register, but what's even more impressive is the fluidity with which he can phrase and colour words within lines with precise nuance.

These songs allow moments of great power. Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß (D 840) culminates in crescendi of anguish, which Goerne expresses with surges, not of volume alone, but of emotional depth. Eric Schneider ha s been playing with Goerne for about 15 years, but now he's playing with more articulation and maturity. In the Mayrhofer settings his "star" and "water" passages were eeerily acute. In the Harper songs, he made the piano sing like a harp, not a huge concert hall harp, but the smaller, more intimate harp a wandering minstrel like Wilhelm Meister would have played : it was uncannily vivid, very haunting.

An Mignon (D 161) refers to Mignon, whose frail innocence is tested by tragedy. In many ways, Goerne's agility in lighter, higher passages is even more impressive, for dark timbred voices don't easily lend themselves to such gentleness. Fast paced songs also test a deep baritone, so the frisky Der Fischer (D225) truly tested the agiilty of Goerne's pacing. When he sings the words of the girl in the poem he doesn't even try to mimic a female voice, instead making the transition by brightening and sharpening the tone.

Good technique makes such singing possible, what makes Goerne's musicianship so interesting is the emotional depths he can reach. "Ich denke dein" he sings in Nähe des Geliebten (D 62), warmed with heartfelt ardor. But the beloved isn't actually near but far away. So the voice swells, open-throated, matching the expansive motifs in the piano part.

Read the full review in Opera Today. This was the first of two Schubert recitals taking place at the Wigmore Hall in London.Wait for the next concert tonight, too. PLEASE SEE OTHER posts on Goerne, Goethe, Schubert, Lieder, Wigmore Hall, Schumann, Wolf  etc. my passion for 50 years.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Have a spliff on me! Hakka villagers

Here's a photo of two village women smoking traditional pipes. This was taken in the 60's by which time such sights were already a novelty. The big hats offer shelter from the sun when you're working in rice fields. Click on photo to enlarge.

There used to be an "old farmer" who'd dress up and smoke a similar pipe right next to where the tourists buses stopped at a popular scenic spot. The old man made a fortune because tourists would always give the "poor old man" money because he looked so sad. He'd be there waiting for the first tour bus every day, leaving after the last bus left. Never did any farming. One night someone - not a tourist, a local - saw a Mercedes Benz drive up and pick the old man up. Why not? It was his car and he'd had a hard day at work. Time to hit the jacuzzi!

These two old ladies look authentic enough. They are Hakka, a fiercely clannish group that inhabited coastal South China in the 17th century when the local Cantonese there were forcibly removed en masse inland. Hence the name "Hakka" which means "guest families" in Cantonese. They lived in walled villages, some with moats, which could be locked at night to fend off pirates and brigands, which were part of life well into the 1940's. Even now they're proudly distinct. There are Hakka clan groups, associations etc. In the 70's my uncle took me into a "restricted area"where you had to have a pass to get in. To my surprise he spoke Hakka and was warmly welcomed ! So I got to see a bit of traditional Hakka life as it was. A few years ago, out in the mountains I found a fairly remote village. It wasn't walled, not that ancient and most of the locals had PC's and TV's and worked in town. No one else about. So I approached two old ladies for directions. "Go away", they said "We don't speak Cantonese !" The last hang outs from an almost forgotten past.

For more links to Hakka culture plasee see HERE. and HERE.
You can download some authentic Hakka Hill songs HERE

Friday 18 September 2009

Humour and horror - Le Grand Macabre ENO

Extreme theatre! A massive female figure fills the whole stage at the ENO for Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, in this amazing production from La Fura dels Baus (Alex Ollé). The giant woman is a miracle of motors and pulleys, engineering transfigured as art. She's obviously not alive, but she moves, following the action. She takes on whatever is projected onto her, changing with light from woman to man, ageing, decaying, turning into a skull. She's solid enough to support actors crawling over her yet seems to disappear into starlight or clouds when the lighting's right. Her body opens to reveal secret caverns. She's so wonderful you're mesmerised.

"A dress rehearsal for the end of the world" wrote Michel de Ghelderode whose original play inspired Ligeti's "anti-opera". Le Grand Macabre is an apocalyptic vision after Hieronymus Bosch, Theatre of the Absurd at its most picaresque. Nothing is supposed to make sense, all logic overturned. So lovers Amando and Amanda (Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone, both women) wear their muscles outside their skin. Nekrotzar, note the nameplay (Pavlo Hunka) is the all powerful figure of Death, who rides a plastic bubble horse while wielding a scythe.

There's lots of action, for this is Breughelland, teeming with busy figures. Venus (Susanna Andersson) slides down from the ceiling, and later appears as singing stormtrooper. Lots of deliberately unerotic sexual shennanigans - Astramodars (Frode Olsen) and his wife Mescalina (Susan Bickley), she of the conical size ZZ bra cups. The Black Minister (Simon Butteriss) and The White Minister (Daniel Norman) exchange playground obscenities in alphabetical order. Piet the Pot ((Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) is a down to earth drunk. Prince Go-Go (Andrew Watts, the countertenor) portrays a sad Elvis impersonator, his naivety no match for the evil plotters around him. There's even a recreation of Michael Jackson's Thriller dance routine to keep the chorus and actors on their toes.

It's wildly madcap, lots of fun if taken on its own terms. This audience certainly got the mood, for there was lots of laughter. This production is so inherently dramatic that it "is" the opera, and the giant woman very much one of the characters. The difficulty with Le Grand Macabre, though, is that it's not easy to marry humour with horror. Some of Ligeti's humour is pretty asinine anyway, without the saving grace of shock, but there's a lot more darkness and despair in his music than this production dwells on. On the other hand, human nature being what it is chooses levity over grim surreality any time.

In the Second Act, where Ligeti writes longer musical passages without narrative, Baldur Brönimann got reasonably idiomatic playing from the orchestra. Nonetheless this isn't Ligeti at his most subtle, and most of the audience were there for the show not the music. Since this production had so much going for it its sheer inventive energy was compensation for the relative lack of musical bite. Nothing to scare away Those Who Fear New Music. This was so good that it will stick in the memory : for once, it will be good to listen to a recording (ideally Salonen) allowing La Fura del Bas's incredible images come to life again in your imagination. You can hear the music again, but you'll never see another production quite like this !

Yet Le Grand Macabre isn't, ultimately, macabre. Death, too, is overturned. Prince G0-Go is arrested because he isn't dead. Piet, Astromodars and Mescalina return to life and carry on as before. Nekrotzar is defeated and doesn't come back. Instead a shrunken puppet version appears, inside the giant woman's stomach. Then the giant's features bloom again, colour returning to her cheeks, and she smiles. She's remarkably realistic now, so it's quite frightening seeing her eyeball to eyeball if you're sitting upstairs. The giant woman's image grew out of a film at the very beginning, where a woman seemed to be dying of a heart attack, which for me made the idea of her "dead" body being subject to indignities rather painful to watch, even though the concept goes bach to Bosch (look at the painting below) . Seeing the actress who plays her in the film taking applause later was reassuring, but begs the question : what shambles of an existence has she returned to? Which is perhaps the point - we can't assume everything's back to normal, whatever normal "is".

Please see the podcasts on the ENO site and the review on Opera Today with production pix. Very fun !

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Ligeti Le Grand Macabre ENO Hieronymus Bosch

Tomorrow Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre opens at the ENO in London. What a wonderful Bang to start the season. Some sneer at new music on auto pilot but Le Grand Macabre confounds all expectations. It's completely off the wall, humour, satire and pain thrown together. This production premiered recently in Brussels, where several who saw it were delighted. "Not as scary as I thought" said one, who ended up having fun. Here's what Hugh Canning (usually conservative) said in the Sunday Times. So fear not, go and enter into its mad spirit.

There are several recordings, easily the classiest of which is Esa Pekka Salonen with the Philharmonia, the London Sinfonietta etc. But there is nothing like being there to get the full impact. Needs to be experienced first hand !

To whet your appetite or not here is the painting by Hieronymus Bosch which Ligeti used as inspiration. Click on both images to enlarge - the detail is amazing.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?

Who is Hagen? my friends and I are discussing. Is he evil by choice or by nature? are we all Hagens to some extent? Understanding Hagen helps elucidate the moral dilemmas in the Ring.

Hagen is Gunther's kid brother via Grimhilde who for some reason was seduced by Alberich. But it's not all that clear how the relationship came about. In any case Grimhilde told Hagen to respect Gunther. So despite his envy, he does what his mum tells him. Gunther's pretty laidback about having an illegitmate half-dwarf for a brother and admires him for his brains. Very interesting family dynamic - if only we knew more.

When did Grimhilde die and what was she like? These do pertain to the relationships and to Hagen's character. What we do know is that Hagen knows about the gold and about Siegfried and the dragon.

But Gutrune, who knows Siegfried must have a past, has no qualms about accepting a potion that will ensnare the hero. She's not evil, but potions don't play fair. So she's compromised morally. She does this because she thinks she can't win any other way. But low self-esteem doesn't justify cheating. When she finally acknowledges Brünnhilde it's too late, the damage is done. In Gunther's case the moral perjury is even greater. The Gibichungs are no different from the gods who grabbed Valhalla without paying the builders. only pettier and more venal.

Whatever Hagen may be, he's not a mediocrity aiming above his station. That is why he's interesting, he has moral potential. He's dutiful, in his own way, guarding Gibichung interests, whatever they may mean to him - Gibich wasn't his dad. So he's an unhappy, tortured soul: on some level he can't surpress his traumas. So Alberich comes into his subconscious : Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn? Notice, Hagen is asleep, but he's not at rest.

Thus Alberich weaves the plot, carefully playing on Hagen's insecurities. The poor guy resists der schlimmer Albe, even dissing his mother, perhaps the only person who loved him, because she gave him courage. (Mut in this case meaning I think more than ordinary valour but a strong personality). Alberich cuts straight to Hagen's weak spot, his insecurity and envy. Hassen die Frohen! Hate those who are happy and have what you have not. Alberich has no values other than to destroy. Just as he mistreated the Nibelungs, he manipulates his son's unhappiness. Alberich is a troll in the modern sense of the word, which is why he can't understand what Siegfried stands for. Fool as he is, Siegfried wants to seek adventures, so much so that he dumps Brünnhilde to seek the unknown. Hagen has never had that freedom of choice, he's trapped in the hall of the Gibichungs because of his past (which is why it's interesting to ponder).

Hagen has no beef with Wotan. He's manipulated into acting out Alberich's revenge. There's little emphasis on what Hagen will gain from grabbing power, but plenty on why Hagen must take sides with Alberich's vendetta. You belong to me, Alberich implies, we're both of the night. Die wir bekämpfen mit nächtigem Krieg, schon gibt ihnen Not unser Neid. and in doing so, liebst du (mich), wie du sollst! Talk about toxic parents!

So is Hagen evil? He does evil things and eventually stabs Siegfried. Hagen and Gunther only fall out when Hagen claims the Ring, which according to Alberich is "his" inheritance. And look what happens when Brünnhilde does her thing and asserts her moral authority by throwing the Ring back to its rightful owners and sacrifices herself to the flames. Hagen cries Zurück vom Ring! Keep away from the Ring and all it implies. He loses his cool and jumps into the river, presumably to die. Has he found some kind of redemption in a sub-Brünnhilde purification? Hagen has more personality depth than Gunther or Gutrune so it's he who can make the connection with what the Ring stands for, and why he can't go on.

So Hagen isn't a bad guy per se, but a kind of Everyman. Most people feel insecure and jealous of others and are easily swayed by what others think. Perhaps it's human nature to knock tbose who have what the rest of us don't have. We all get dragged along by leaders with persuasive powers. It's the story of Bayreuth, post-Wagner. It leads to things like Kristallnacht. Some never wake up and realize. But Hagen has his moment of illumination (lit up by the fires around Brünnhilde), so perhaps he redeems his conflicted soul.

Monday 14 September 2009

Hildegard Behrens Fidelio streaming

Currently streaming online is a very good Beethoven Fidelio, with Hildegard Behrens, James King, Kurt Moll, Lucia Popp, etc conducted by Karl Boehm, Munich 1978. Complete libretto. Behrens is lovely and clear, so it's a nice tribute.

See HERE for the complete download free and under license from Opera Today.

The pic is an ad for meat extract - just the thing for a starving hubby! There was a huge vogue for opera-related ads in the late 19th century. One famous beer in the US was marketed as "Rheingold" which kind of makes sense but Fidelio and meat extract?

Sunday 13 September 2009

The social phenomenom that is the BBC Proms

The BBC Proms are the biggest music festival in the world, and the most ambitious project anywhere in classical music, live or broadcast. There's no other single event - bar the Olympics, maybe - with such huge coverage. No wonder the Murdochs hate the BBC. It's serious competition.

Yet that's perhaps why the BBC Proms are so important. They provide a unique service which goes a lot further than music. The Proms promote an image of Britain as civilized and benevolent, bringing the world together and sharing good music. This pays off in the long term, despite the realities of "real" politics, Britain hasn't done as much for music as, say, Austria-Germany but it can make music reach the world. Cultural re-exports count, too.

And so what if the BBC is state subsidized? It is a public service, giving value in many ways that aren't easily itemized. Most businesses operate on what sells quick and fast, so are dependent on short-term goals. Why invest in anything whose benefits can't be measured on a year-to-year balance sheet ? Yet the BBC offers an alternative business model, where the market is carefully seeded, to yield long-term returns. That old slogan "Entertain, educate and inform" is sound business wisdom. Entertain an audience but with good things to aim for, so they learn: and when they learn, they seek more. Plus, an interest in serious music leads to other areas like literature, art, history, so the market expands exponentially. But give dumbed-down pap and the market never grows beyond it.

Public spending on education is going down the tubes, but in any case people aren't learning from school so much anymore but from the media. So the media has a responsibility to provide what schools no longer give. Plus music provides huge non-material benefits which can never be measured. The fulfilment classical music gives is an antidote to the spiritual anomie of our times.

One of the big things about the Proms is the way they're geared towards bringing in new audiences. Hence things like the Messiah Prom – hundreds of kid from all over the country got together and had so much fun they rejuvenated Handel's old warhorse. Read HERE about the Sing Hallelujah project which keeps the enterprise alive long after the Proms are over, and will bring in lots more listeners and participants.

Everyone niggles about the Proms being white and middle class, but that's what the classical music market is, largely, in this country. But outside the UK, the classical music audience is changing. That's why the BBC Proms broadcasts are so important - they reach new audiences which don't fit the mould. East Asia, for example. In the West, people don't even begin to understand how big that market can be, and why it's so important to "grow" it wisely. I'd like to see a lot more joint ventures between the BBC, China, Japan, South Korea, India. Indeed, it would be a good thing for this country to engage with world markets anyway. And even within this country the very fact that the Proms exist, and create attention, helps classical music penetrate further.

Of course there are dangers in becoming "too" popular and populist. What the Royal Albert Hall is wonderful for is big, noisy and brash, so large orchestral pieces, played with wild abandon always sound more "exciting". But is that kind of excitement necessarily good music? At least two new works this year were ideally created for that kind of instant impact, too. So what does this bode for other kinds of music, or for performances and for music that needs more sophisticated involvement? "

These days people form opinions from things like Facebook and Youtube, geared towards short attention spans. It would be fine if they progress towards the "real thing" but do they? Will classical music be repackaged to appeal to the majority, like fast food? Fast food serves a purpose but just because it sells doesn't make it worthwhile. This applies to musicianship, too. During one Prom this seaon, one of the hosts said a violinist was "dull" hardly before he finished. This was unfair because the violinist was good - no one really bad gets on the Proms unless they're connected to the BBC - but the damage was done, not just to the poor violinist but to the whole way music is presented.

The fact is that the BBC Proms are so omnipotent that they shape public taste and they shape music. That's why they have to be done with a sense of social responsibility. Now that so much of the audience is new to classical music, there's all the more reason for professional high standards, genuinely well in formed and enthusiastic presentation that matches the level of the music. The Proms should not be run along the lines of a commuter chat show. Maybe Dudamel conducting Augusta Read Thomas may sell, popularity isn't any indicator of quality. That is where commercial interests and the BBC remit diverge. There is more to music than instant kicks. The Proms aren't usually afraid to introduce new and thought provoking stuff that doesn't wow the balance sheet, but in a healthy society, minorities count too.

Fortunately this year the choice of repertoire was well balanced and sound. Some of the themes are daft (like 1934) but generally this was a very good year, not flashy but solid. Thank goodness too for off the wall stuff like the Ukulele Prom !

Maybe the world is heading towards things like snap judgements, twitter opera, Youtube orchestras, two minutte downloads and opinionation instead of opinion. These are all very different to the values that classical music used to be about. It is good that new audiences are coming in greater numbers, but this isn't necessarily the sort of audience that will nurture music that involves a bit more engagement, sophistication, perseverance. It's a paradox that that the Proms will have to think about.

The trouble with success is that it breeds its own demons. And success attracts jealousy. But what makes the BBC unique is that it doesn't follow any obvious corporate model. Its ambit was never simply to broadcast but to provide a wider service to society, not just the mass majority but minority interests too, and to further knowledge, not lag behind it. There's no way any commercial enterprise could function in the same way. It's idealism, perhaps, but it's still a good thing that in this world of self interest that idealism survives and is appreciated.

As for the Last Night and Britishness, please read what I wrote about Jerusalem (song not city), "What makes the British British" At least according to William Blake idealism is part of the British psyche. So the social remit of the BBC is rooted in the national soul. In this case, I'll back "repel all boarders" to keep anti idealism away !

PS Fond memories of Malcolm Arnold A Grand, Grand Overture which must have been written for the Proms with its roaring vacuum cleaners and rifle shots ! A friend recorded it in the perfect acoustic of the Reading Town Hall (a polished mahogany coccoon) in 1974 for what was to become Nimbus Records, so they used "ambisonics" the last word in sound reproduction. Only a demo disc was ever made but it was sought after by audiophiles for testing hi fi. I lent my copy to someone and it never came back. Whoever has it, please give it back !

Saturday 12 September 2009

Enescu Festival Bucharest useful link

Several of my friends are in Bucharest for the Enescu Festival which features Enescu of course but lots more. One has sent a link to a very interesting site about Enescu, Romania and music of the Balkans (and Romanians in Paris). It's good reading as it's first person experiences by a very observant French journalist Alain Chotil- Fani. Great writing ! Find the link HERE
Read my previous posts on Enescu and Bucharest here
Please look at the comment under that post from a lasy in Bucharest who is doing regular updates as she goes every day !

Friday 11 September 2009

Die verkaüfte Braut - full movie download

Not quite Smetana's The Bartered Bride but frei nach Smetana, a movie adaptation by Max Ophüls. This was one of his earliest films, made in 1932. Note date : being Jewish he was forced into exile soon after, so the film didn't get the distribution it should have had. (and all those Czechs in it - though Czech actresses were something Goebbels wasn't hardline on or maybe that's not quite the right word). Plenty of peasant costumes and footage of horse and cart riding, filmed at a time when people still rode horses and carts - an authentic touch. Although it's made as a German film, the stars include the Czech singer Jarmila Novotná who plays Marie (Mařenka) and the German baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender as Hans (Jeník). Not that they have much to sing : this is a film, not a filmed opera.

Watch out for the scene where the real bear escapes ! Can't do that in an opera house. Please note, film can be viewed fullscreen.

Crazy druggies at ROH

From a friend who saw this in the Guardian crossword today:

Clue : Confession by former drug dealer's legendary lover?
Answer: Isolde

Geddit? "I sold e"

Thursday 10 September 2009

Jonas Kaufmann "I want to do this job for 40 years"

"It's so important to keep what you do fresh, interesting and new" says Jonas Kaufmann about his debut as Don Carlo which starts soon at the Royal Opera House. "I want to do this job for forty years or more and the wider the repertoire, the easier it is to do that. If you do the same roles, or even the same composer, it's boring. And also dangerous. It means you're not challenging or controlling yourself. It becomes automatic and you start making mistakes."

Read the full interview with Simon Thomas. It's very good. As Simon says, it's unusual to have a German tenor sing Italian (other than Mozart) which makes Kaufmann's Don Carlos even more interesting. They discuss the part and Kaufmann bursts into song to illustrate !

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Tristan und Isolde as human beings - Christof Loy on the new ROH production

For reviews of the production see HERE.
"Opera has so much to give", says Christof Loy, whose new production of Tristan und Isolde opens at the Royal Opera House on 29th September. Loy's credentials lie in baroque and Mozart (read what the FT said of his recent Salzburg Handel Theodora HERE) He likes to get to the heart of the music and drama : "I don't like superficial distractions".

So don't expect chainmail and fussy costumes to tell this story. Loy's approach is to focus on the characters and how they develop. Not for nothing Wagner places so much emphasis on what happens before the opera even begins. Who are Tristan and Isolde, as human beings?

These are fragile people”, he adds. “And fragile people often hide behind an emotional wall to hide their deepest feelings”. Tristan in particular is a much more complex person than his surface heroism might indicate. “He is an extremely damaged person, carrying so much guilt. His father died after begetting him, his mother died giving him birth, and he breaks his uncle’s heart. ‘Zu welchem Los erkoren, ich damals wohl geboren?’”

“So Tristan feels unworthy, but like so many macho men, he builds up an action hero image which has nothing to do with what he feels inside. He cannot express himself, he hides behind an emotional coat of armour”. To the world he may be “der Helden ohne Gleiche” but Isolde, ever sharp, sees him cowering, “in Scham und Scheue”.

Tristan und Isolde is so familiar that everyone carries baggage from past experience and assumptions. There's a saying that the path to wisdom lies in realizing just how much you don't know. So read the score with fresh ears, as if it were completely new. It's fascinating to see how explicit Wagner is on some things, yet elusive on other quite critical points. Read what Loy says in this interview HERE. Read what Loy says about Nina Stemme who sings Isolde. Ben Heppner is Tristan, Sophie Koch Brangane, John Tomlinson Marke and Michael Volle Kurnewal. Please also read my other posts on Tristan und Isolde - Glyndebourne and Bayreuth.

photo credit : Christof Loy, Royal Opera House 9/2009

More on Chailly's Mahler 10 Prom

Interesting performances grow in your mind. I thought I knew Mahler’s 10th pretty well, but Chailly’s performance at the Proms keeps generating new ideas. Another good reason to steer clear of “instant” opinions.

The Tenth feels like a departure, for of course every new work is a new venture. But it’s not a departure into death as commonly assumed, but something quite unusual even in Mahler terms.

The lyricism in the Adagio harks back to the Adagietto of the 5th Symphony, which was also a tribute to Alma. It also evokes the wide, open landscapes Mahler loved so much. These symbolize the limitless panoramas so many of the symphonies open out towards – “eternal light”.

When the Adagio is performed as a stand alone, it doesn’t matter so much what a conductor puts into it. But when it’s performed as part of the wider symphony, it needs to be shaped by wider considerations. Since the Tenth is a sketch, not a completion, it’s not going to be fully orchestrated, so the Adagio needs a lighter, more elusive touch than if it were a straightforward love song.

Right from the start it’s apparent that there are two voices here, the dark rich one and the light, beautiful string theme. Obviously, it may be a reference to Mahler’s marriage but what’s significant is that the “scream” chords” could refer to different things. Are they cries of pain, or sudden flashes of knowledge? Either possibility works even though the actual notes remain the same.

So this is a departure for Mahler on another level. All along what stands out in his music is the idea of an individual, usually pitted against vast forces. Of course dual themes occur everywhere in nearly all music but what’s interesting fort me in Mahler 10th is how duality is embedded into the symphony’s structure. The Purgatorio bridges two Scherzi. Is this an echo of the two Nachtmusiks in Mahler 7 ? Conventional middle movements can be heard as a climax but in the Seventh, the middle movement separates two different stages in the journey towards the glowing Finale. Incidentally the most wonderful performance of the Seventh I have ever heard was Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. He placed the mandolin in the centre of the orchestra, not tucked away in a corner, so the “lone voices” were absolutely at the heart of the music, not some peripheral detail. There’s a reason!

I’ve written about the Purgatorio below and how it may represent the frailty of a needy child who dies before he can be fed. Song is so central to any understanding of Mahler that it’s not a coincidence. What was Mahler thinking about, returning to an early song at this time in his life, when he was, like the starving child, put aside by a woman who had other things on her mind ?

So like the Nachtmusiks, the Scherzi represent different stages. The first mocks the Adagio, but the second is altogether more complex: this was the part Mahler left most incomplete. See what I’ve written below about his markings and the prepositional nature of the section. It can never be completed because Mahler himself may not have known. In this performance, Chailly creates the sketch-like nature of the section so it really does feel incomplete, which may seem a bit shocking, like entering a room to find the floor opens onto the sky.

That’s why I think it is so important that an orchestra as good as the Leipzig Gewandhaus is central to performance. A really good orchestra can suggest sounds out of silence, creating reverberating echoes than span voids. The Leipzig strings are famous for their luminous, rich sheen : so the beauty of their playing registers on the mind even when they aren’t actually playing. Since the strings create so much of the “Alma” theme such playing warms the music even if it’s loosely orchestrated. Like perfume, an invisible presence.

So here we have two voices in the symphony, not one. What did Mahler mean when he wrote on the pages of the “Fireman’s funeral”, that only Alma knew what it meant? For once Alma wasn’t telling. It must have been something quite deep, not simply a reaction to a stranger’s funeral. But the point is that the composer is no longer a lone figure, like the hero in the First Symphony. GM and Alma now stand together looking out of their hotel room, down at the city below them.

Daniel Harding’s recording is by far more attuned to the “Devil “ theme and the spiky, edgy anxiety in the Scherzi. His “fireman’s funeral” is truly horrific, the drumstrokes devastate. Chailly’s version isn’t nearly so dark, though both lead to the same transformational, transcending resolution. I’ve been listening to them both side by side, and it’s amazing what that reveals. It’s like hearing the same story from both sides. Harding expresses a Mahler perspective but Chailly emphasizes the role of Alma.

Hence Mahler’s references all over the manuscript. “To live for you, to die for you” and the poignant “Almschi”. He may not have finished the symphony but he had no illusions that it had no meaning.

There are several different performing versions of this symphony and they keep evolving, which is a good thing, because the very process involved understanding and informed choice. There are elaborate versions and bland : on balance Cooke 3 perhaps works best because it's sensitive to the idiom without attaching too much. I have a weakness for the Joe Wheeler version which is the most spartan of all, particularly as both performances I've heard are awful. But what would the Tenth be without Alma?
PLEASE see the other posts on Mahler 10 here (two on Chailly, two on Harding)) ! and also on other Mahler works/I'm "downloading" a lifdetime of listening.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Mahler 10 Chailly Leipzig Gewandhaus Prom 69 Mendelssohn

The performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony is intriguing precisely because it's unfinished. Since no-one will ever know for sure what the composer intended, an air of open-endedness hovers over it, opening possibilties in the imagination. So performances need to be created with insight into Mahler's musical processes. It means informed guesswork, so it's not a symphony for beginners. But Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra gave an astounding account at this Prom, which revealed how great the symphony's potential might have been.

Like so much of Mahler's work, the symphony involves memory, echoes of symphonies past and what they might symbolize. Two main themes circle round each other in the Adagio, one delicate, the other warmer, probing each other tentatively. Chailly doesn't dwell on nostalgia, because that can throw the rest of the piece off balance. Stand alone Adagios don't have such considerations. Sharp string figures emerge like sudden chills. The first violin persists in playing a melody, overtaken by the sudden bursts of brass, the "scream" chords. Again, Chailly stresses how they may mean more than one thing : here they came over as sudden flashes of shocking illumination. Evidently he knows the biography.

The first Scherzo mocks the delicacy of the Adagio. Swaggering grotesques, flattened horns, shrill trumpets, echoing the marches of death and disorder in earlier symphonies. The Leipzigers are far too good an orchestra to simply do crude. This orchestra's famous warm tones are put to good effect making the brutality almost hypnotically seductive. The jagged angular rhythms at last expend their energy in the crisp, unambiguous ending.

For me, the Purgatorio echoes the Wunderhorn song Das irdisches Leben : a small, plaintive cry amid larger, more dominant forces, hemmed in as it is by the two dominant Scherzi. Whatever it means, it's a bridge towards the Allegro Pesante, a stage in the passage of ideas. On the first page of this movement, Mahler pencilled the words "The Devil is dancing it with me! Madness, seize me … destroy me! Let me forget that I exist, so that I cease to be.” But a careful observer will note that Mahler then adds “dass ich ver ….” (so that I ….) and trails off without completing the idea. It’s a proposition, but this whole work is a kind of proposition.

Although this movement still feels incomplete despite years of careful adjustment by Coooke, Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers, it's not a fault, as Chailly and the Leipzigers demonstrate. Individual instruments have their moment, without undue ornamentation. For me it felt like the spirit of the Purgatorio popping up uncowed. Playing as beautiful and as confident as this makes you appreciate how pure and clean Mahler's idiom can be, a departure from the overripe excess of so much music in his time. Chailly and his musicians make this second Scherzo feel shockingly spare and elevated.

Again, this is perceptive because at this point, Mahler was on the verge of new phases in his life. The fourth volume of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange's monumental biography is titled "A New Life Cut Short" and is essential. Read about it HERE. What do Mahler's enigmatic markings on the score refer to? The Tenth is a guessing game, but fascinating for that very reason.

Alma described the image of the fireman's funeral in the Finale, but what did it mean to the composer on a deeper, non-literal level? Mahler didn't know the dead man personally, so there is an air of detachment, not overt emotionalism. This burial is symbolic not specific. The drumbeats are emphatic. Whatever Mahler is burying, he's moving away from it. Out of the numbness rises a new theme, led by woodwinds, rising elusively upwards. Again, the idea of fragility in the Purgatorio returns, but this time the theme grows stronger and fuller, as it's taken up by bassoons and darker brass. Even the drumstrokes become sharp rather than muffled. The new theme becomes more lyrical. Then long strident brass chords herald another new stage. Yet again, diaphanously transparent textures. The Leipzig string players are a wonder, their bowing so carefully sustained that sounds seem to glow with warmth and light.

Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra are a marriage made in heaven, so it's specially good to hear them in this symphony. Chailly's gift for Mahler didn't reach fulfilment in his years in Amsterdam, perhaps because they had the Haitink tradition firmly instilled in them. But even then Chailly impressed.

Ten years ago I heard him conduct Mahler 10 with the Royal Concertgebouw, as part of a series of Mahler performances. Earlier, Matthias Goerne had sung the Ruckert Lieder. Usually singers got home after their stint. Instead, just before the beginning of the symphony, when the lights went down, a figure slipped unobtrusively into an empty seat in a corner: Matthias Goerne in street clothes. He sat completely engrossed in the music, listening intently, his body crunched forward. Not many singers immerse themselves in a composer's non-song output, but he does, which is why his performances are so musically informed. Performing Mahler isn't a matter of learning the notes. It's a vocation.

I loved the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto too : Saleem Abboud Ashkar is wonderful, and of course no orchestra plays Mendelssohn like the Leipzig Gewandhaus. But enough from me now.
Later I'll be writing more about Chailly's Mahler and why his approach to this performance works for me. Read HERE The photo above is GM and Alma walking in the mountains above Toblach.