Sunday 31 January 2010

Chinese film - Weimar East

Chinese film is infinitely richer than the usual stereotype of kungfu potboilers. Within a few years of the advent of film in the west, films were being made in China, too. Very early on, Chinese realized that this new medium was ideal for transmitting new ideas. Films were the vanguard of modernization.

To understand how China modernized, study early Chinese film. The real revolution wasn't 1911 but 1919, with the May Fourth Movement. That movement focused on the concept that genuine, fundamental change came from influencing the way people think, not by overt force but through literature and the arts. Right from the start, Chinese film makers connected to modernization, and realized how film could reach people who didn't read political tracts, but happily watched the movies. Even the illiterate could be reached.

Like the films of Weimar, Chinese films address issues about modernization, change, urban lifestyles, political and social instability. Indeed, there were Weimar connections. Mei Lan Fang, the opera megastar, fascinated Bertholt Brecht, Paul Robeson and lots of 20's and 30's progressives. Indeed, you could trace Brecht's spare, didactic ideas to the symbolism of Chinese theatre. In a nutshell, Chinese film reflects modern Chinese history. But even the general history of film can't really be told without understanding films outside the west.

Below is a clip from the documentary about Lai Man Wai, "father of Chinese cinema". Lai, like Sun Yat Sen, whom he knew personally, was Cantonese. Hong Kong's role in Chinese history is much underestimated. However the real centre of film in China before 1949 was Shanghai, the biggest metropolis in the world. Unlike big cities elsewhere, Shanghai was brand new ij every way. Beore 1860, it was little more than a local fishing village. Its millions of inhabitants all came from somewhere else, dislocated from their roots. With its sophisticated skyscrapers and brutal hovels, Shanghai is a metaphor for the modern world.

Also watch for the reference to Lai's film of Mei Lan Fang. And note the footage of the 1925 General Strike, an extremely critical point in Chinese history, with which Hanns Eisler's brother (a Comintern agent) was involved. Watch also for the sequence from Lai's film Romance of West Chamber (1927) where the hero rides on an inkbrush (writing implement) through the skies and defeats the military warlord. Explicitly "the pen is mightier than the sword".

The full documentary needs to be better known. Buy it HERE. HK Flix is a good, reliable site which I've used many times. Lots of good stuff but check region code. Here's a review of the film in English. You can watch clips from other Chinese movies (including Lai's Romance of West Chamber) by clicking on the label "Chinese movies" on the right side of the screen here. Movies like this re-examine Chinese culture in the perspective of modern society.

Friday 29 January 2010

The Cripple Brigade bear witness

Most politicians are crooks but every now and then one’s so delusional as to lurch beyond criminality into utter unreality. A few years ago an interviewer asked Tony Blair if he’d thought through the implications of invading Iraq. He replied: “I asked God, and he agreed I must be right.” Perhaps that pact with God (or some other supernatural power) will shield bLiar from retribution. But there are many who'll stand witness.

Hanns Eisler set this text by David Weber. Weber was born Robert Winterfeld but used "David Weber" for left wing cabaret, poetry and music. He used the name "Robert Gilbert" when working in operetta and musicals. Besides writing texts like this, he wrote the lyrics of O mein Papa and collaborated on the notorious Im weissen Rössl (White Horse Inn) with Robert Stolz (whose equally amazing life story is HERE) Later in life he translated hits like Hello Dolly and Oklahoma! while simultaneously apprearing in cabaret in Munich. As a young man, Weber/Winterfeld/Gilbert was very left wing and linked to the Spartakists. He was a close friend of Hannah Arendt. And in addition to radical agit prop he wrote music more likely to appeal to the Right. So much for easy generalizations. Read more HERE

Ballade von der Krüppelgarde

Wir sind die Krüppelgarde,
die schönste Garde der Welt;
wir zählen fast eine Milliarde,
wenn man die Toten mitzählt.
Die Toten können nicht mitgehn,
die müssen im Grabe sein
und wir können nicht im Schritt gehn,
die Mehrzahl hat nur ein Bein.

Unser Leutnant kommt von den Toten
unser Hauptmann hat einen Stumpf
Unser Feldmarschall knecht am Boden,
und ist nur noch ein Rumpf

Wir sind die Garde der Krüppel und jedem zweiten Mann
schnallt man solide Knüppel direct an die Knochen an.
Sie sagten: Es sind die Prothesen
viel schöner als Arm und Bein.
Sie sagten: die Blinden lesen mit den Fingem,
noch mal so fein.

Wartet ab, wenn wir auch hinken,
gegen euch werd’n wir stramm marschier’n.
Was tut’s, wenn wir zum linken das rechte Bein verlier’n.
Wir sind die Krüppelgarde, das stärkste Bataillon,
die allererste Reihe in der Front der Revolution

We are the Cripple Brigade, the most beautiful Brigade in the world. We number close to a billion, if you include the dead in the count. The dead can’t march with us, though. They’ve got to stay in their graves. And we can’t march in step because most of us have only one leg.

Our Lieutenant comes from the ranks of the Dead, our Captain has a stump for a leg, Our Field Marshal crawls on the ground. He’s a torso.

We are the Brigade of Cripples and every second man gets a wooden leg strapped onto his knees. They said to us: Prosthetics are better than arms or legs. They said: Blind people can read better with their fingers ….

Just watch out! Though we are limping now, we’ll march again strong against you even if we lose to the left our right legs. We are the Cripple Brigade, the strongest battalion, the front of the revolution.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Vienna to Weimar - Song recital

The real star of this recital at Kings Place on 27th January, part of the Vienna to Weimar week, was Erik Levi, who compiled the excellent programme. It was erudite and intelligent, an excellent introduction to that era in song. You can replicate the recital with recordings. It's almost impossible to describe the programme fully here, but maybe this will give some background.

Starting with Franz Schreker's Die feurige Männlein put the whole theme of Vienna to Weimar in context. It's a violent, dissonant song about a horseman cloaked in flames who brings havoc and death to the world. Written in 1915, it's fairly obvious what Schreker's getting at. In this Apocalypse the horseman's a miserable troll. Perhaps it was a mercy that Schreker died before the Holocaust. This song relates to Die Gezeichneten, of which I've written HERE.

Hans Gál escaped early to Scotland and livd to be 97. His Five Songs (1917-21) are beautiful. Listen to audio samples HERE. Der Weissenbach is a lovely miniature. I also love Gál's Das Vöglein Schwermut, more lyrical than Zemlinsky's setting. These were Christian Immler's finest moments in the recital. It's him on the sound clip, with Erik Levi on the piano! Very evocative postludes and preludes, in the recital well played by Helmut Deutsch. And Drei Prinzessinnen (Bethge), with a delicate, refined mood of melancholy. Yet the line expands zu den Ufern, wo die Freiheit wohnt. Immler sings the world Freiheit with fullness and feeling, for it's the goal the princesses will never reach.

Hearing these Berthold Goldschmidt songs, Ein Rosenweig and Nebelweben, made me feel Sensucht too, because I used to have a recording of them with Goldschmidt playing. Even if I replace the one I gave away, it won't be quite the same. The CD I had belonged to Goldschmidt himself. It's a long story which I'll save for another time. Goldschmidt led the Matthews brothers in their performing version of Mahler's 10th, but was a fairly self-effacing man, whose music didn't get into the repertoire until fairly late in his life. Incidentally he himself was taught by Franz Schreker, among others.

Hanns Eisler gets a bad press because he's mostly known in the US for being kicked out of Hollywood by the Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. His political music is extremely important. In many ways it was he who gave Brecht more backbone than Weill did. his political songs tie in with the Brecht belief in direct communication, which is why they're simple and can be sung by untrained voices. and performed in non-concert-hall situations. That's how to reach the masses. But there's a lot more to Eisler.

Here we heard some of Eisler's Galgenlieder, much closer to the sophisticated, exquisitely crafted art songs and chamber pieces that Eisler's reputation really should be based upon. They're literate, whimsical songs. Die beiden Trichter, for example, needs to be read from the page because the visual shape of the poem, as written, is crucial to its meaning. Two funnels pour into a single source til the last drop fades away. The poem's shaped like a triangle, wider at the top, ending with just a "w". As does Eisler's music, ending with a single note.  HERE is a link to Eisler's song Cripple Brigade. LOTs of Eisler on this site.

Eisler also wrote quirky little pieces based on snippets from the newspapers, ideas condensed to haiku-like extremes. Not at all populist in the usual sense, but if you like cryptic crosswords, you might like this other aspect of Hanns Eisler.

One of the myths about Erich Korngold popular on the internet is that he was only "forced" into writing for the movies by the Nazis. In fact, he was smart enough to realize long before the Anschluss that film had a future, the "opera" of the New World. Surprisingly, there aren't all that many settings of Shakespeare, so Korngold's Songs of the Clown have a place in the repertoire. It's interesting to think about Korngold adapting to Anglo culture, writing music for Robin Hood, Elizabeth and Essex and of course adapting Mendelssohn's Midsummer's Nights Dream.

It's also interesting to think of Hanns Eisler writing hits in Hollywood, though he began with uncompromising Kuhle Wampe (watch full download HERE) and continued to write art music for documentaries like Resnais's Night and Fog, one of the best films about the Holocaust.

Prof Levi's programme thus turned to America. Zemlinsky didn't write for film, though he might have done great things given his feel for lushness. But he was interested in American music, meaning jazz. Quite a liberating thing for him, I think, a pity he died relarively young. Like many intellectuals of the time, he was interested in the Harlem Renaissance and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Grollen die Tomtoms, rollen die Tomtoms, grollen, rollen wecken das Blut. This is Hollywood Africa, exotic and louche, but it's fun music anyway. Which is perhaps why there are so many different recordings of Afrikanischer Tanz, and it's sometimes used as an encore. Listen to Michael Volle with James Conlon, definitely quirky and "lowdown".

More "Black America" seen through German eyes/ears in Eisler's Ballad of Nigger Jim. This is closer to the bone because Nigger Jim bucks Jim Crow and gets lynched. Eisler's ending parodies popular song but the message isn't funny. Similarly, Ballade von der Krüppelgarde,(op 18 1929/31) is a march, but the marchers are cripples. led by a Field Marshal who is a crawling torso. They've been maimed in war but no-one cares. So the rhythms are off centre, like the movements of men who can't march in line. It's horrific stuff despite the pretend insouciance. There's a truly biting recording by Ernst Busch (of course). Wir sind die Krüppelgarde, das strärkste Batallion, die alleresrtes Reihe in der Weltrevolution. So what if the sentiments are left wing? It's a very good song. And in any case, things have not changed in this world.

An aside - strange how Weimar people were fascinated by things English/American. Brecht goes on and on about exotic places which really live in his mind. Nigger Jims abound in various forms.

Which leads to Ernst Krenek. After his smash hit Jonny Spielt Auf, with the iconic black musician, Krenek took a sabbatical in the Salzkammergut insteade of capitalizing on his success in Vienna. Krenek travelled light because he wanted to probe deeper into what shaped the Austrian psyche (as opposed to the Viennese).

The Reisebuch aus den Oesterreicheschen Alpen
is a panorama of unforgiving mountain landscapes and the harsh lives of peasants before modern utilities. In 1927, they were just finishing the D numbers, and Schubert wasn't quite so ubiquitous as he is now. So Krenek's pilgrimage was also a means of engaging with what made a city boy like Schubert respond to the countryside as he did. Krenek's cycle (to his own poems) isn't High Romantic although it's beautiful. There are songs about rich Bavarians burning down the roads in leathers on motorbikes, and a mention of Hitler, not long after Hitler got out of prison. But then, Schubert set contemporary poetry, too.

Krenek's Reisebuch aus den Oesterreicheschen Alpen is such an important work that it really deserves to be written about in more detail than this, so I'll do something more on it later. Shockingly, there's only one recording, by Wolfgang Holzmair, made in 1998. It's beautiful, the CD cover designed to look like a 1920's photo album. Holzmair passionately champions the cycle and toured with it for several years. He also devised a concert programme where he mixed Krenek's songs with Schubert's. That too, he recorded, but on a small label, almost impossible to find. Since wrfiting this I've found Julius Patzak's even earlier recording, which is wonderful, too.

Please see my other posts on the Kings Place Vienna to Weimar event – lots of links. Also to full movie downloads. There's a lot on this site about the music of this period, one of my special interests.

Tenerife Canary Islands Music Festival

Santa Cruz hosts Staatskapelle Dresden, the Goteburg Orchestra, and the London Philharmonic? Dudamel, Jurowski, Quasthoff, Mehta and the very hip Carolin Widmann? Not Santa Cruz in California but Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands in the wild Atlantic.

The Festival de Música de Canarias is now in its 26th year. While the rest of Europe struggles through winter, in the Canaries, the sunshine's glorious and you can possibly go to the beach before going to a concert. In past years, the Festival's attracted many huge names, like the Berliner Philharmoniker, Abbado, Barenboim, Haitink. The Festival was founded back in the 1980's to bring good music to the people of the islands, but naturally it has attracted tourists from elsewhere - a much better type of tourist than the ones who get so blind drunk they might as well have stayed at home. It's good for visiting musicians, because the atmosphere is relaxed and free, and it's good for local musicians too because they get to play and listen at a higher level than small town orchestras in most other places.

Intrepid Traveller De chez toi, fresh from his visit to Romania for the Enescu Festival, was in Tenerife these last few weeks. Read his reports HERE with photos. He's s an especially good observer, since he lives in Mauritius, where the scenery is even more verdant, and he understands the economic ramifications.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Theresienstadt Terezin Orchestra

Today marks the liberation of Auschwitz, but Holocaust Day commemorates all people destroyed in that madness, and by extension, those destroyed in other madnesses. I steeled myself to watch the propaganda movie made in Theresienstadt, to show the world what a "fun" place it was. There are shots of obviously urban people merrily digging vegetable plots, looking healthily suntanned and smiling. And shots of women working at menial factory jobs (though you can tell even from these glimpses that was not how they would have been in normal times). You want to scream because you know what was really going on and what was going to happen. I won't show the film, it's awful, but the photo above is a still from it.

Then, the propaganda film shows the Theresienstadt Orchestra. Alice Sommer Herz was one of those musicians. When her mother was deported in one raid, Herz, left behind, defiantly played her piano even though some other tenants in her building were Nazis. Eventually her time came, too. As she was being taken, one of her neighbours told her "I am eternally grateful to you" he said, for the music had helped his family, too. Music saved her life, literally, for in Theresienstadt she became one of the musicians in the camp orchestra, playing over one hundred concerts. She said that even though she was starving, the idea of looking forward to playing music in the evening kept her mentally healthy. Alice Sommer Herz is still alive, aged 106.

Jacques Stroumsa arrived in camp and was asked to play a violin. He was astounded because he could not believe that music and the evil of concentration camps could coexist. But play he did, and everyone around was moved. The Nazi said he hoped Stroumsa would not die for he played so well. "I'm not planning to" said Stroumsa boldly. "You don't know", said the Nazi, "what a concentration camp is".

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was the cellist in the camp orchestra, whose conductor and leader was Alma Rosé, niece of Mahler, and a great musician in her own right. She describes the "crazy group" of music they had to play, operettas and above all marches for the slave labourers. Once Josef Mengele visited and asked her to play Schumann's Traümerei.

Camp guards used to step in and listen on breaks from their work. Yet, Lasker-Wallfisch says, there was never any doubt that they could all be suddenly killed, and would leave the camp "as smoke". I met Mrs Wallfisch once, and told her how she'd inspired me. "Nuts" she said, "I'm not trying to inspire anyone, I'm just telling it like it is". (or words to that effect).

Read HERE about We Want the Light, a much better modern film where Herz, Wallfisch and Stroumsa speak. Please see other posts on this site about Theresienstadt Terezin music and related subject

Update: see Alice Sommer Herz, in footage made when she was 98, on the BBC IPlayer for the next seven days. (there's a lot in the archives, still unreleased). Much of this film is footage not used in the longer film. Two things she says, she learned from her mother : to be "always learning" and to "be grateful". Learning is taking on board new ideas, new experiences. Being grateful is to welcome life, "Everything is a present"
Read more about Alice Sommer Herz (A Garden of Eden in Hell) and Anita Lasker Wallfisch. (Inherit the Truth)

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Dr Caligari - full movie download

Full movie download here of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), cult film from 1919. This version has sound and English subtitles, but you can always silence it. What did the cinema orchestras or pianists originally play ? The film reflects ideas in modern (90 years ago) painting and sculpture - odd angles and askew perspectives, "primitivism", the discovery of the subconscious. New ways of thinking about the world, no more surface literalism. Modern music (90 years after) reflects that sense of new possibilities. Those who'd shift back the clock in music might as well shift back the clock in painting, film, poetry, psychology, sculpture......

Please see the other Weimar movies on this site, many full download. Many big ones like Der blaue Engel, Nosferatu, Berlin Sinfonie eines Grosstadt, and many others Follow the links on the post below "Vienna to Weimar". Or key in on search or use label on right. Also this is the only site with Chinese movies of the same period which are in so many ways imbued with the same idealistic vision.

Monday 25 January 2010

Luke Bedford - Good Dream She Has

The London premiere of Luke Bedford's Good Dream She Has by BCMG (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) felt like a historic occasion. Bedford's music is highly individual and distinctive. It felt right that the Wigmore Hall, where he is now Composer in Residence, was filled with many notable British composers and musicians.

Good Dream She Has was premiered in 2008, but this was the first time it's been heard live in London. It lives up to its formidable reputation. From the first bars, you sense you're entering new, uncharted territory. It's scored for only three voices and small ensemble, but feels like a chorale, opening out into infinite space. The voices intersect and expand upon each other, a kind of intricate tracery that made me think of the vaulted ceilings of ancient cathedrals , where stone arches span open space, forming myriad patterns. Rising and falling cadences add to the effect of complex harmonies. They move, swelling and growing as naturally as breathing. It must be wonderful to sing these lines. Bedford's instinct for the way voice works is uncanny.

High voices are paired with sonorous ensemble. There are two Bb clarinets, one of them a bass, the subtle difference extending the oscillating effect, that's so marked in the voices. The text, by Glyn Maxwell. is taken from John Milton and refers to Adam and Eve, one created from the other's rib, so the idea of pairings, between voices and instruments, is deeply embedded. Yet this text and music are neither religious nor conventional. The mysterious wavering cadences feel primordial, like the tides. I thought of Sibelius's Luonnotar, where the universe is created from primeval ocean. "We know, we know no time, we know no time when we were not". The reverberating "o" sounds ebb and flow wonderfully, the balance between voices and their round-like overlap is exquisite. Later the resonant "o" sounds sharpen to "w" and "ee". "What there, what there thous seest, ...with thee it came, with thee..."

These magical cadences are held together by a recurrent pulse, a single chord that acts as a baseline. Percussion would be too obvious. Instead the chord is created several ways, sometimes through harp, guitar, bass and cello, so it varies in texture. Nor does it function as metronome. If you try to beat time, you realize the intervals aren't even and the chord doesn't always fall in line with the cadences. It's wonderfully subtle and elusive, opening out spatially, rather than restrictive. Only at the end are the large tubular bells struck, revealing the chord as a kind of tolling, marking a passage of time (and not any regular passage, at that).

In Bedford's own words : "...the music is dominated by the sound of a repeated G. It acts as a continuous linking device, whilst around it ideas develop, decay or return. With the repeated G acting as pivot point, I could move almost instantaneously ...from a moment of sombre refllection to more active material, but without the change being too abrupt. The repeated G is almost never on the conductor's beat, so there is a constant tension between the ensemble's downbeat and the pulsed G."

In this mysterious, magical piece, syntax and logic are irrelevant. Words pop up as if from the subconcious. "Eve" and "Empress". Sometimes Adam and Eve sing identifiable lines, sometimes they become parts in the ensemble of "Creatures", whose very nature is undefined. Somewhere along the way a "shape within the water" is glimpsed. It fades, but reacts to the viewer and returns, elusively, like the music itself. There's a lovely wavering passage where the instruments "sing" tracery like the voices and then Adam is suddenly heard, saying quite clearly "She disappeared". Conventional notions of word setting are irrelevant, too, for what's being created here is a whole new world of impressionist sound, whose meaning grows from creative intuition.

Superb performance by Claire Booth, Hilary Summers, Christopher Gillett and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Oliver Knussen.

Perhaps much will be made of the fact that the other items on this programme were "early" pieces, but that's misleading, for the relationships are much deeper and musically astute. Birtwistle's The World Is Discovered (1960-1) suggests the creation myth in Bedford's "new world", but also uses - entirely coincidentally - similarly complex cadences. They even share the unusual combination of guitar and harp.

Peter Maxwell Davies's Leopardi Fragments (also 1961) and Alexander Goehr's The Deluge (1957-8) demonstrated why the "Manchester" group were the dynamos of their time. They're both dramatic pieces, contrasting density and spareness for vivid impact. The Deluge also takes up the theme of new worlds being created from primordial chaos, in this case, the Flood. The text is by Sergei Eisenstein, so it evolves like a collage of images in film. Disparate images rush past, borne on the swirling deluge of sound. The phrases in the text and vocal line don't connect grammatically, but the effect is perfectly apposite. Again, the notion that meaning doesn't have to be spelled out, but can be created by combining voice with orchestral sound for impressionistic effect.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Vienna to Weimar, Kings Place

This week's theme at Kings Place is "Vienna to Weimar" a subject I'm passionately interested in. As usual with Kings Place, top performers are the exception rather than the rule, but there'll be a rare chance to hear the Artis-Quartett Wien on Friday in Berg's famous Lyric Suite and a Zemlinsky String Quartet plus, really interesting, Wellesz and Weigl String Quartets. There's a story behind the Wellesz but let them tell that.

The other big concert for me is the song recital on 27th with Christian Immler, whom I have heard before, but what a wonderful programme. My beloved Eisler! And not the most famous songs, either. If I have time I'll wrote more about this programme because most of it isn't generally familiar, and each of the composers is very different. Lots and lots to talk about. Even the two Goldschmidt songs (Ein Rosenweig and Nebelweben) carry "stories". The Krenek songs come from a cycle I've written lots about over the years. It's one of his best works and should be heard more frequently, but in many ways doesn't really fit into the "Vienna/Weimar" concept though it deals with Schubertian Austria on the verge of Hitler.

There'll also be movies, the new art form of the period. Most of these films are classics, which most people will have seen before, like Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Unfortunately there are many clashes, so if you go to the song concert you'll miss the film of Die Dreigroschenoper. But on the other hand maybe that's not such a loss as the film is softer than the original. There are clips of the film HERE and a commentary.

Ssssh I shouldn't say this if you're buying tickets, but several of the other films have long been available on this site as full downloads, with commentary.

For Die blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) see HERE.

For Berlin : Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt, please see HERE, with a long commentary. At present I'm doing something on black people in France and Germany at the time, There were thousands. A number were fairly successful professional actors, who made movies well into the Nazi period. Not all voluntarily, but still they should be remembered.

There are also films from the Fritz Lang triology about Dr Mabuse. In many ways these are even more fascinating than the more famous Dr Caligari, because the storylines are more complex and Dr Mabuse is a kind of symbol of evil.

Because film was such a new form, there weren't many models to copy, so many films in this era were pioneering. From the start Germans seemed to realize that films could be art as well as short term entertainment. Also on this site you can see Nosferatu, the greatest vampire movie of all, made in 1921/2 when the 1840's were within human memory. Click HERE.

And, of course the very important Kuhle Wampe, with music by Eisler and text by Bertholt Brecht, which is HERE. This is an amazing movie, take time to savour it.

Lots more to come!

Saturday 23 January 2010

Britten Phaedra, Henze Phaedra

Maze-like, recurring patterns, mirror images. Benjamin Britten wrote his Phaedra towards the end of his life. The orchestration is bizarre. It's scored for percussion and harpsichord, with small string ensemble and soprano, Its textures are stark and stylized, with the directness of Greek or Roman art: no fancy background decoration. The picture shows the fresco in Pompeii showing Phaedra telling her secret.

Percussion and harpsichord? The timpani and metallic instruments add a raw edge, militaristic perhaps, or maybe ceremonial. Phaedra, after all, is a queen and she takes her regal responsibilities seriously. Britten's cycle feels like state treason, (which of course it is). Against the grim percussion, the harpsichord struggles, the thinness of its tone perfectly portrays Phaedra's vulnerability. Harpsichords are percussion instruments too, and Britten makes no pretence at writing anything harmonic or baroque.

Britten's nine songs evolve like tableaux, each a stage in Phaedra's journey from her wedding day to her death. Phaedra's feelings are not love, but a curse. "I faced my flaming executioner Aprodite, my mother's murderer". Phaedra's mother was Pasiphaë, who slept with the bull and died giving birth to The Minotaur.

Britten sets the vocal part in a combination of long, soaring arcs and short staccato interspersed with tense silence. "I could not breath or speak", she sings , describing the compulsion that overwhelms her. She rasps, "Love. Love. Love" heavy and hollow like ostinato, against wildly turbulent, twisting discords, marked by high, screaming strings. "Alone" she suddenly shouts : no adornment, no softening. Indeed, by this stage words are bursting out almost randomly, without any attempt to civilize feelings into conventional form.

"Death to the unhappy is no catastrophe" she intones. At last the strings rise in a sort of elegaic anthem, almost recognizably melodic, but quickly surge into a whirring, rushing torrent. "Chills already dark along by boiling veins" Phaedra faces death heroically. In the end, a solo cello plays a sweet, lyrical passage : Phaedra is no more.

The parallels between Britten's Phaedra and Henze's are clear. This was one of Britten's last works, written when he was entering his final illness. Henze almost didn't survive. Henze even incorporates Britten's cello part into his opera, a deliberate reference to Britten, whom he admired. Henze's music for Phaedra also references Britten's spartan tension, in contrast to the often lyrical lines Hippolytus is given. This fits the myth, for Phaedra is not driven by ordinary mortal lust. Her love is sterile. Britten's Phaedra, compressed into just over 20 minutes, is uncommonly dramatic, but it would be a mistake, I think, to treat it like opera. Britten wasn't emotionally effusive, preferring to cloak feelings obliquely, behind masks. Often Greek figures are seen sideways, not face forward. Confronting his own impending death, Britten responds to Phaedra's no-nonsense determination.

But Henze's hero is Hippolytus. In Henze's Phaedra, the dynamic revolves around the male figures, not the women. That's why Artemis is cast for countertenor, not soprano. She/he is supposed to be sexually ambiguous. Similarly, the Minotaur is both man and beast, both dead and resurrected. As is Hippolytus, who may be put back together, but cannot be himself again. The other male presence is Theseus. he doesn't appear but he's implicitly present as it was he who killed the Minotaur. Now the Minotaur comes back and kills his son. And of course, the Minotaur is Phaedra's half brother.

Such twists and turns in the narrative reflect Henze's central image of the Labyrinth. The whole opera is like a complex, intricate maze with shifts of direction, dead ends and new openings. Henze builds clues in so cryptically that they are almost meant to elude. And, like any good maze, Phaedra is designed to mislead, even though it's elegantly and meticulously constructed. Again, perhaps this is the influence of Britten, on a deep psychological level. Britten used Robert Lowell's translation of Racine's translation from the Greek. The narrative has gone through many permutations, so literal meaning is less important than intuiting the symbols. Henze's Phaedra grew out of Henze's ideas, the text (Christian Lehnert) following and illustrating, as opposed to conventional operatic word setting.

Henze's Phaedra functions much as a Greek frieze, where protagonists are seen in stylized poses. They don't speak. Even the myths they appear in change with different versions. Meaning is fluid, dependent on the observer's intuition. The clues are not in words, but in form. In this way, Henze is right in the vanguard of the modern. So much of the publicity around him would portray him as a new Rossini, an alternative to the avant garde. That silly either/or dichotomy that divides music into modern/not modern clichés is self-defeating. In many ways. I'm relieved that Phaedra confounds, because it's meant to confound. Like a Labyrinth !

Coming up next : Weimar movies. (of which there are several on this site for full downlaod.) PLENTY of Henze on this site, look at the labels on right. I'll be doing Six Songs From the Arabian next.

Friday 22 January 2010

Baba babbles but Baba survives! Rake's Progress, Royal Opera House

Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress started its 2010 run tonight at the Royal Opera House.

Like the Hogarth etchings of The Rake’s Progress, which so inspired Stravinsky when he saw them in Chicago in 1948, the music in this opera is stark and uncompromisingly spare: black and white, evoking the moral absolutes in the fable, as much as the Hogarth prints. It’s interesting to stage. The famous Glyndebourne production of 1975 (revived this year), used the concept of one-dimensional space, so the singers seemed to jump out of the background like images jumping off paper. That’s why this staging by the theatre artist Robert Lepage is so engaging. It’s a spectacular riot of colour, wonderful on the eye, yet it does bring out other significant elements in the opera, which is what good direction should do.

The idea of transposing The Rake’s Progress to Hollywood is perfectly valid as Stravinsky was fascinated by “the new world” of America in the 1940’s and 50’s. The real drama in this opera is between decadence and purity. Even Hogarth’s London is symbolic rather than factual, so the idea of Hollywood is perfectly sensible. As W H Auden said, the story is “A myth - it represents a situation in which all men, at least potentially, find themselves in so far as they are human beings”.

Lepage’s Hollywood setting is also valid because it captures the fundamental anti-naturalism in the opera. Film isn’t reality, but facsimile. Tom Rakewell’s mistake is to be taken in by surface appearances, instead of true values. What you see is not what you get. Nick Shadow convinces Tom that’s he’s a charming “servant”, but he’s really the Devil. So Tom gets sucked in, even though at heart he’s still basically a good person, as even Baba the Turk can see. The Hollywood staging allows some wonderful moments. The first scene comes straight out of Oklahoma!, the wide open horizon symbolising the prospects before Tom and Anne. Even more trenchantly, Nick Shadow is seen filming the action from up high on a camera rig. He’s “directing” the other characters, pulling their strings as though they are puppets. This expresses so well the sense of devious plot within plot that runs through this opera. Tom doesn’t notice the production crew with their booms and continuity boards.

Even more striking is the way Lepage creates the magic machine Tom thinks will turn stone into bread and save the world (while making him money). It’s a huge television set: feed the public illusion and they’ll lap it up. As Nick Shadow says, it’s marketing. Inside the set there’s a film of a small boy in a cowboy suit stealing a plastic loaf of white bread, so synthetic it bears no resemblance to real bread.

However, the very spectacle of this production leads to weaknesses. The brilliance of the first act starts to unravel in the scene where Baba The Turk and Tom sit by the swimming pool. Maybe this is Sunset Boulevard, but Baba is no deluded diva. The role may seem small but it is in fact pivotal. Baba is a counterfoil to Nick Shadow. He’s charming, she’s unloved. He’s seductive, she’s ugly. He’s respected, she’s sneered at. Yet she’s the real heroine, even more so than Anne Trulove. It’s she who sees through Nick and Tom and helps Anne understand the heart of the fable. And it’s she who can walk away from the disaster, because she has genuine strength of character. Baba may babble, but Baba survives!

Baba is such a powerful character that she shines through no matter what the staging. However, the auction scene doesn‘t have much impact unless Baba’s role is more sharply delineated. In this production, she disappears into the pool, which is fair enough, but audiences who don’t know the plot might wonder why she’s resurrected among the tawdry possessions being auctioned off. This too is a crucial scene because it addresses another important theme in the plot, that material things mean nothing in themselves. That’s subversive, even now, and would have been all the more so in the heady days of capitalism, after bleak years of war. Property is theft unless you’ve earned it. You can’t buy virtue at an auction any more than you can buy the Roman bust the auctioneer holds on high. The crowd scenes were well choreographed, as is always the case at the Royal Opera House, but in the libretto, the crowd is evil, getting their kicks from Ton’s distress. Perhaps the black costumes were meant to evoke vultures, which would be apt. But I suspect they were meant to imply that Baba was dead, though she’s not.

The lushness of this staging was impressive, and might have worked even better had the music fought back better. To use the Hollywood metaphor, this was a shoot out between staging and opera. Stravinsky uses baroque orchestration for a purpose. This is music to listen to if you don’t believe harpsichords can do extreme atonal dissonance. Neo-classical formality may shape the opera, but this is modern music, where old serves new. Harpsichords are vulnerable voices, easily overwhelmed. Just as virtue is vulnerable, overwhelmed by vice. Stravinsky expresses the moral dilemma in his music.

In a more minimalist production, elegant playing might be fine, but here a bit more savagery doesn't go wrong. The Hollywood Lepage evokes wasn’t paradise. McCarthy was hunting down artists and destroying people who didn’t conform to the rampant capitalist ethic this opera trenchantly derides. The Rake’s Progress is disturbing and even subversive. But there was little sense of danger in this production. For a moment, there was a hint of a “mushroom cloud” exploding in the centre of the stage. But it turned into a balloon shaped like a movie star trailer.

Wondering why I can write in such detail BEFORE the first night of the new run is over? Instant reactions for their own sake mean nothing if they're daft. The answer is, I wrote the above in 2008, after the first night of the new production.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Sibelius - exceptional film on BBCTV4

Most music documentaries are bland things, but Christopher Nupen's films are on an altogether more complex level. They probe deeply into the very nature of creativity, into the influences that shape each individual artist. Nupen himself is a musician, so these films are unusually well informed musically. Unlike most documentaries, Jean Sibelius is something you can watch over and over and still get pleasure from. This is a work of art in itself, a poetic elegy that penetrates more perceptively yhan mere words can ever do. It's being broadcast in two parts on BBCTV4 (also available online) on Friday 22 and 29 January.

It's exquisitely beautiful. There are scenes which at first seem like abstract studies in black and white: then they reveal trees, rivers, clouds. This is nature's own chiaroscuro, not simple monotone, but myriad gradations of colour, form and texture. Nature filmed in this way is like a symphony : complex and nuanced, yet ordered. What seems still, like snow, teems with particles and movement.

In one powerful image, a 1930’s car drives out of the forest, its lights preceding it ominously. There are panoramic shots of the lakes of Karelia, dotted with islands and swathed in mist. Horizons melt into sea, the sky laden with frozen fog. Sometimes the images are close-ups of water, intangible yet evocative. Like music.

Because film can express unspoken ideas, through opaque images, it is particularly sensitive about intangibles, such as Sibelius’s crises of confidence. It mentions obvious causes of anxiety such as debts and alcoholism, but hints at something more complex. It was the very fertility of his imagination that propelled him towards new ideas. The greater his aims, though, the greater his self-criticism. Earlier works like Kullervo were suppressed, and the Violin Concerto did not achieve quite the heights he had hoped for. His hopes for the Eighth Symphony were high. "It is going to be wonderful … what I am doing in this symphony only a few people in the world can know". Although it reached the printers, Sibelius withdrew it: it ended up in the bonfire in the oven at Ainola. Perhaps that was Sibelius's curse: he could imagine music so wonderful it wasn't possible for anyone to notate it properly. The more he imagined such music, the more frustrated he became.

Interspersed with the wonderful landscapes are performances of Sibelius's music, some made specially for the film. There's also archive footage of Sibelius himself in one of his final moments of public glory, when he came out of seclusion to conduct the Andante Festivo in 1939, being broadcast to the United States. Finbland was under threat from Russia, and Sibelius knew he had to get support from the Am,erican public. The intensity of this performance reflects the darker side of his success. Sibelius knew that the world expected him to represent Finland for much more than music, and it placed him under even greater pressure.

But what made Sibelius a composer in the first place? His childhood dream was to play the violin. Yet by the age of 10 he’d already composed a piece called “waterdrops” for violin and cello. Towards the end of his life, he confided in his diary “I dreamed I was twelve years old again, and a virtuoso”. It's sensitive details like this that make these films so good.

Like a poem, this film speaks obliquely through subtle, indirect images. It is breathtakingly atmospheric, capturing the spirit of Sibelius’s music and motivations by implication rather than direct comment. For me, the most haunting image is of Elisabeth Söderström, singing the song, “Since then I have questioned no further”. In a strikingly spare and dignified way, Sibelius sets Runeberg’s understated lines

“ Why is Spring so quickly over, why must summer flee so soon ?
Thus I used to wonder often, and my mind could find no answer…..
Since then I have questioned no further, while my heart fills with sorrow at the passing of beauty, at the fickleness of fortune”.

It expresses so much, beyond the mere words. At the very end of the two films, it is played again, wordlessly, on solo piano.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

June - English Song Weekend Shropshire

June in Shropshire, by the banks of the river Teme, the perfect image of England in summer. The English Song Weekend takes place in Ludlow 3 to 6 June. This is the absolute, ultimate Festival of English Song, lovingly organized by Finzi Friends, who know and care passionately about the genre. It's only held once every three years, so it really is a special occasion. People come from all over the world. Link HERE.

This year's schedule is good. Well chosen programmes. One's called "A Satnav of English song", with songs about different parts of England. It's one of Iain Burnside's witty compilations: Roderick Williams and Andrew Kennedy sing with Burnside at the piano.

But devotees come because this is a gathering of anyone who's anything in English song. It's a meeting place for old friends and new: great atmosphere. The talks and workshops are good, and quite in-depth. Being in Ludlow to hear Kate Kennedy analyze By Ludlow and Teme will make the performance specially interesting. Pam Blevins will talk on Howells and Gurney. Hilary Finch and Huw Watkins (who played Henze piano solos at the Barbican, Saturday) will discuss song in the 21st century. This is a progressive festival - new talent always supported. There's a competition for composers, and Ann Murray will give masterclasses.

Two unusual events, too. Burnside's created a fully staged theatre piece linking songs and poems about war. There'll also be another concert mixing singing and acting: different responses to poetry.

Then there's the food. Shropshire is traditional market garden and orchard country, and Ludlow is home to some of Britain's top restaurants. More Michelin starred places than anywhere outside London, including the culty La Bécasse and Mr Underhill's, both foodie pilgrimage sites. The local market (with traditional bakers and cheese makers) is so good that you can get way above average picnic stuff too.

And of course the countryside! June is the best time to explore the English countryside, everything's lush and green. Ludlow is still well preserved, medieval buildings and an old castle, no urban sprawl, a huge area of natural woods and parkland, and of course the river. That's part of the attraction, which London cannot possibly match. The pace of life here is not, perhaps, all that different from the early years of the last century, if you lie on a hillside and look out on the rolling fields around, and hear the blackbird's song:
"Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
The sun moves always west;
The road one treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest,
And that will be the best."

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Amsterdam Gloomy Sunday 1956

Home movie made in Amsterdam in 1956 by Michael Rogge. Extremely atmospheric art movie in miniature ! It's very original and foward looking - made forty years before the Kronos Quartet made their fairly bland film version. Rogge's is much more artistic and gets the mystery in the song. He uses the Billie Holliday performance. This is the original and first recording made in 1933 and sung in the original Hungarian. There are lots of legends about this song, which claim there is a curse, but that's urban myth. The composer committed suicide, but not for another 36 years. Read what I dug out about it earlier, and the original text. Link HERE. (there's a much better recording of the Hungarian song there, too). You can also watch Rogge's film with Holliday off and the original on, it works too, though the original text is infinitely more depressing. It's wonderful how ordinary people can make such excellent movies.

Monday 18 January 2010

Henze Phaedra Barbican

Can Henze's grim Phaedra be a love story? Hippolytus is lusted after and betrayed, both by Phaedra his stepmother and by the Gods themselves. He's dismembered, caged, taunted, his very name forbidden. And yet steadfast he remains to Artemis, his goddess, though even she/he cannot change the cycle of fate.

Hearing Phaedra in a concert performance at the Barbican, London, confirmed its stature. The premiere, in Berlin in 2007 astounded because the staging was brilliant. (please see THIS link for more) This time, the focus was on the music. With Ensemble Modern and Michael Boden conducting, and the same cast as in Berlin, the impact was raw and visceral.

Phaedra begins not with Phaedra but with the Minotaur. The long introduction (which starts in silence) is like the Labyrinth in its circuitous,, circular patterns, dead ends heralding changes of direction. In Berlin, the orchestra was filmed as they played, their image projected on stage, confronting the audience. Although this is an opera, the non-vocal, abstract narrative is very important. Already in this music, we can hear the "empty shafts" of the cave in which Hippolytus (Hippolyt in German) will be imprisoned.

Just as the Minotaur roams the Labyrinth, Hippolytus roams the forest. He's devoted to Artemis (Diana) the goddess of hunting, so it's a sacred act, of devotion, not hunting for its own sake. "Death holds (Hippolytus) balanced like a spinning top", sings Phaedra. Humans are toys, at the mercy of some inexorable, almost mechanistic fate. Henze writes the part of Hippolytus very high, so as to convey the unworldly spirituality of the role, for Hippolytus is fundamentally innocent, a foil for the unethical machinations of those around him. John Mark Ainsley has no problem with this, having sung dozens of baroque figures in the past. Yet he also brings convincing strength to the part, with his firm centre. Hippolytus is a hunter, a man of wild, free spaces. Ainsley sings like an angel, but has physical presence. His Hippolyt moves like a huntsman, as intuitive as the animals he hunts. When he himself becomes trapped and caged, the agony Ainsley expresses through his voice is almost painful to witness.

Hippolytus hunts, not for sport, but as an act of worship. Artemis, to whom he is devoted, is the goddess of hunting, which in pre-modern times provided food to the community : a source of life. This gives a sinister, darker meaning to Phaedra's jealousy, and that of Aphrodite. Hence, Henze links Hippolyt to the Minotaur. Both are sacrifices, destroyed by others with ulterior motives. Lauri Vasar's Minotaur is a good balance to Ainsley's Hippolyt. At the Barbican, he wore the same elegant dinner jacket as he did in Berlin, to emphasize the concept of the "beast" as more civilized than those who taunt him. Mythology isn't lost on Henze. The idea of Theseus's son being killed by the resurrection of the Minotaur is another elliptical pattern in this opera, itself constructed like a maze.

And with this denial of innocence comes the sterility of death. Henze writes Phaedra's part with many moments when song fails, and Maria Riccarda Wesseling has to sing almost unaccompanied, alternating between half speech and mechanistic incantation. Her music replicates the twists and turns of the "Labyrinth" music, with its dense flurries and false leads. Phaedra and Aphrodite are a pair, one mortal, one divine, and in the Berlin production were treated as mirror images, reflecting an important theme in the opera. Concert staging benefits Wesseling, who sang with much more confidence than she did in 2007, when she was a late replacement for Magdalena Kožená. She's definitely grown into the part, expanding the role with greater nuance. Marlis Petersen's Aphrodite has developed too, and is more distinctive and individual.

If anything, the Second Act is even more bizarre than the first. Artemis reassembles Hippolytus but the catch is that he has to assume a new name and identity and live in a cage. A bit like marriage. By this stage Hippolytus hardly knows whether he's conscious or dreaming, yet his faith in Artemis is undimmed. Like a bird in an Eygptian myth, Phaedra, too, rises from the dead. Hippolytus the hunter is now the pursued. His body may be restored but without freedom to roam he cannot hunt and is cut off from expressing his love for Artemis, that equivocal male/female figure that holds him in thrall, though he/she can't really help him back to what he was. Axel Köhler's voice is deepening in his maturity, but that's perfect, because it intensifies the ambiguity. that perhaps is what draws Hippolyt to her/him in the first place.

Tempests and earthquakes, cosmic events that further the plot where no human logic can prevail. Hippolytus resurrects yet again, at last as The King of the Forest. As Paul Griffiths noted this may be a reference to Henze's 1956 opera, König Hirsch (Stag, the King of the Forest) which makes sense, for it reflects the recurrent mirror imagery in Phaedra. Indeed, after hearing the Adagio in Elogium musicum (2008) where "eagles fly, and larks and swallows chant many thanksgivings" the reference to Henze's own love, recovery and life is implicit.

At the Barbican, the lights suddenly dimmed, menacingly, as if the hall were about to collapse. It was a wonderful coup de théâtre, achieved by simple means but very effective. Similarly, Henze uses only 23 musicians, augmented by electronics so surreal that it's clear this isn't a naturalistic storm. There's more here than wind and rain, for Henze is creating something metaphysical. (Again, presages of Elogium musicum, with its tortured second movement Nox, referring to "eruptiones, ruinae atroces, nocturni stridores". Indeed, even references to the supernatural trauma in Six Songs from the Arabian, an extremely important song cycle which needs more appreciation (I'll write about that when I have time).

As The King of the Forest, Hippolyus represents spring, regrowth, renewal. The dense, twisting textures of the earthquake and of the Labyrinth music give way again to light, lucid clarity, vernal flutes and pastoral sounding horns. "Ich bin hier, in meinem Anfang" sings Ainsley, with a lovely sense of wonder. (Here I am at my Beginning). Anyone who has ever cared for someone terminally ill knows how people revert to a vulnerable baby-like stage in extremis, as if returning to the safety of the womb. It's incredibly humbling. And so, Phaedra ends, not with chaos but simplicity. "Born naked, we advance toward mortality". We are in a clearing in the forest. The woods will close in again, but so too will there be other clearings. The cyclical symmetry, the mirror images, the pairing of past and future in Phaedra make it a powerful experience.

Please see 15 other posts on Henze on this site including one on Elogium muicum, another on the Berlin Phaedra and more to come)

Sunday 17 January 2010

Henze - Elogium musicum Barbican Immersion

Barbican Henze Phaedra reviewed above. Oddly enough, the most radical thing about the Barbican's Hans Werner Henze Total Immersion Day came in the talk by Paul Griffiths. Henze himself promotes the idea that he's an outsider, in conflict with Darmstadt, Lachenmann, Germany and so on. True, any decent artist has to be an outsider to become an original,, so there always will be differences. Luckily, there's little danger that Henze will be turned into the poster boy of redneck regression, because his music is modern (not that regressionists actually listen). Griffiths states, quite simply, that there are many kinds of modernity, which interact and influence each other. Perhaps one day, we'll be able to escape the simplistic either/or school of music history, and appreciate modern music without preconceptions. Then, perhaps, Henze will really come into his own and be appreciated, not for who he isn't, but what he's really achieved.

I wish i had time to find a good painting by a German master of an Italian villa, glowing in the sunset, for that would express so much about Henze, and Elogium musicum (2008), which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 18th and available for repeat listening for a week. Make time to listen to this because it's a fascinating work, which I think will grow with repeat listening. (Beware though of some of the commentary, which is ludicrously daft). Its full title is "Musical Elegy for a Most Beloved Friend now Departed" for it's a tribute to Henze's beloved Fausto Moroni. They'd been together 40 years. Bernie Gavin's film "Memoirs of an Outsider", shown earlier in the day, was pretty much hagiography, but it included footage of Moroni smiling and content, an aspect of him captured forever on film, more enduring than the other honeyed "talking heads", respected as they are.

Elogium musicum isn't gloomy, but sunlit. Just as Italian sunsets last a long time, and the walls of old buildings emit warmth long after the day has gone, Moroni's memory lives in Henze's creative soul. Even the structure is beautifully self-contained, built in four parts, equally balanced. Within each part and between them, there's a flow which swells and subsides creating a sense of onward movement. In The Falcon the words recall "two falcons shining birds of fleetest force", sudeenly forced apart. But time moves inexorably forward. The Adagio predicts a future, of "Sweet tenderness, the sight of young men, beautiful as sacred images, eyes of opal, black she-panthers, a secret tranquil retreat".

Henze also creates movement through textures: dense chromatic chords giving way to moments of lucid purity, and then back. It feels like wandering through a forest, entering glades, the journeying. Even when the orchestra is in full flow, you feel aware of individual instruments in the mass. The large choir sings at first in unison, then parts to low male and high female, so the idea of density and open glades follows through to the vocal part. Again, a sense of movement, a kind of pulse that comes from within the form, that leads towards the apotheosis of the finale.

Goethe found himself when he escaped to Italy: he returned to Weimar a changed man. Turner discovered new ways of painting light and colour. Even pathologically repressed John Ruskin learned something from the stones of Venice. This dichotomy between Northern and Southern Europe has inspired art for centuries. It's a beneficial flow. One day, perhaps, Henze's place in music history will be appreciated as part of this ongoing process. And 20th century music understood as a movement towards plurality, not a banal either/or polarity.

Don't forget - listen to the broadcast! The premiere of Elogium musicum took place in October 2008, with Riccardo Chailly, an Italian acculturated to the north, for what's that's worth: national stereotypes mean little. It's not Italy or the North per se that makes a person but how they assimilate different things. Most creative people grow because they're open to new experiences.

This Henze Total Immersion Day concert also included Henze's Fourth Symphony, a good pairing with Elogium musicum , because that, too, develops the idea of movement through changes of texture and chromatic density. Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have Henze in their blood, so this was a free-flowing reading, livelier than Henze's own recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker, more than 40 years ago. Huw Watkins played four Henze piano works with sparkle and grace. He's a composer too, of some note. Indeed, the Barbican on this evening was packed with other composers, conductors, performers. Big names in the audience, and good ones, too, if any further evidence was needed to show how significant this concert was. Henze himself was there, looking frail but chipper. How gratified he must have been to see such a well-filled house. He turned and applauded the audience, even looking upwards, to the balconies.

Please see 14 other posts on Henze and several more to come, including Phaedra both Barbican and Berlin

Friday 15 January 2010

No more music at the V&A ?

London's V&A Museum is closing the gallery displaying its collection of musical instruments. Other galleries are being expanded, but musical instruments don't seem to rate priority. But musical instruments are objects of great craftsmanship, even though their true beauty is only revealed when they're heard.

In any museum, what's on display is only a small fraction of what's in storage. One of the great things about the V&A collections is that they've been available for research : some objects need to be studied in much greater detail than possible in a glass case. The Music Gallery at the V&A has been open mainly by appointment for some time, and the general public doesn't know what it's missing. So in theory, it's a good idea to shift music out of central London to the Horniman Museum way out in SE23.

The Horniman holds by far the biggest collection of musical instruments in the country, so it makes sense to concentrate resources in one place where specialist curators can care for them. Violins, for example, need to be played to stay "alive". In Berlin at the musical instruments museum next to the Philharmonie there are dedicted staff whose job is to tune and play magnificent instruments, the like of which most performers can only dream of. In Oxford, at the Ashmolean, there's the famous "Messiah" Stradivarius, so named because it was kept as a curio, so its sound may or may not have come.

But why should museum pieces be treated as museum pieces? Serious music scholars would head for the Horniman anyway. But what about ordinary people? The warm veneers on these instruments are sensual and tactile for they were made to entice a player to give of his best. Many are richly ornamented with inlays of ivory, exotic woods, and gildings of gold. As design concepts, they're formidable too. How does a master craftsman turn a flat plank of wood into something so beautifully curved that it resonates with a distinctive, individual personality of its own? Often the simpler, plainer instruments have the best sound because effort goes into making them fulfil their purpose as vehicles for music rather than rich men's toys. Indeed, there's a concept that the ideal design combines form and function. Many other objects in the V&A collections don't, thanks to taste in the Victorian age when the museum was founded.

Musical instruments don't reveal their beauties to ordinary eyes. Howe many people know how the 18th century hurdy-gurdies at the V&A should sound? Or why early violins and violas have 20 or more strings, some of which aren't played but exist to add resonance? And how did keyboards evolve, responding to and influencing musical invention ? Even people who don't listen to music can get inspired if they realize what wonders of engineering these instruments can be.

The past isn't musty or dusty. There are human stories behind these instruments, which can tell us about our past. England was once a major centre for viols and guitars, so these objects illustrate the historic trade between England and Iberia. What's more, because instruments serve a purpose, they're constantly being developed to improve the music they can make. "Industrial" design before the term was created.

Perhaps most of the tourists who go to the V&A only want to see famous things with an inbuilt Wow factor. Musical instruments are never going to have the appeal of Tipoo Sultan's tiger devouring an Englishman, or the rooms of Italian marble sculpture, or even Samurai armour. But they are an important part of our heritage, nonetheless, and particularly of a design heritage which isn't confined to music or musicians.

More so, perhaps than even the Theatre and Performance galleries, which are interesting, but by nature, contain emphemera like playbills etc. which were never meant to be art

Once there used to be a gallery of ironwork at the V&A. I haven't looked for it for years but it was a striking, if unsexy collection. Things like that get pushed aside by the need to raise visitor numbers and make museums palatable to sightseers and daytrippers. Even at the Ashmolean in Oxford, the wonderful refurbishment is marred if you know that many of the great items have been relegated to storerooms. All museums hold more than they display, for good reasons, but the general trend towards "visitor friendly" is becoming too narrowly interpreted. Ultimately, a museum is a place of wonder and mystery, not just a backdrop for other acrivities.

The magic of the V&A, and the Ashmolean, the Pitt Rivers, and the British Museum is the thrill of discovering things you don't know. The Horniman will be a magnet for music people, but it won't draw the ordinary visitor who doesn't know what wonders may exist. "I don't want to spend a day looking at old pianos!" Perfectly valid observation. But old pianos, and old string and wind instruments and oddball items like glass harmonicas, can be fascinating if presented well.

There will still be music at the V&A as some items are being retained, but they'll be shown in the context of other collections, for example baroque artefacts.

PLEASE see what I've written abut the V&A Baroque Magnificence Exhibition HERE (and related posts), and the Sacred Made Real Exhibition HERE at the National Gallery (the show's still on). Although this is primarily a music site, there's lots on visual arts and design. Including Baroque in China and Japan. And HERE is the Ashmolean article.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Hans Werner Henze - Phaedra Berlin

Hans Werner Henze's opera Phaedra receives its first UK performance this weekend at the Barbican, London. Henze nearly died while writing it, and spent many weeks in a coma. Of course it doesn't follow that tragedy "must" mean tragic music, but the situation did seem to make Henze face the fundamentals of life and death. When I first saw Phaedra, what gripped me was the way Henze faced the idea of death without flinching. Subsequently, I've come to hear Phaedra more as an elegy to love. Love has the power to overcome death, to break the boundaries between life and death.

London will effectively be getting the Berlin premiere because the performers are almost identical: Michael Boden conducting Ensemble Modern, and John Mark Ainsley, leading the same cast. Although this will be a concert performance, it should still be informed as drama by Peter Mussbach's original, even though the amazing sets (Olafur Eliasson) will be missing. That staging was amazingly true to the music. The clip above and the stills in this link HERE give an idea what the production was like: emphasis on glittery, impenetrable surfaces, darkness and light. At one point, a naked figure curls into foetal position, but the image is refracted endlessly in mirrors, like a kind of crazy kaleidoscope. It's an apt image of the music, too, for this is a chamber opera, where all is reduced to essentials. As in Greek tragedy, less is more.

The whole Berlin production revolved around the orchestra, which was placed in the centre of the auditorium, between stalls and galleries. Raised on a platform, the musicians are reflected directly onto a huge mirror surface on stage, so they were "present" dramatically even before a note was played. It was a brilliant concept, because it concentrated so many ideas in this remarkable opera. As Henze has said, it’s a “concert opera”, more than opera or concert music alone. Barriers between musicians and audience are blurred because this is an opera where listeners participate, rather than sit passively uninvolved. It’s a creative challenge that asks, What is reality? What is reflection? How does imagination enhance what we see and hear?

Then the singers appeared, standing in a circle round the conductor, then gradually making their way along a catwalk, where they are literally inches from the audience. There’s no way you can miss being engaged. The concept also opens the music out spatially, reinforcing the sense of ever-expanding horizons. Later, the large mirrors are revealed as a series, refracting visual images like a kaleidoscope, shifting and rearranging “reality” in a constant flux. The lighting moves similarly, creating apparent substance, even though what we see is achieved simply by shadow and illumination.

This is a brilliant example where staging enhances and amplifies concepts central to the music and to the meaning of the opera. Henze uses only 23 orchestral players and 5 singers, yet he builds intricate textures and sub-textures into the richly vibrant score. Part of this comes from individualized groups of instruments operating like inner cells within the whole. The four string players – only four – operate sometimes as a quartet, sometimes as part of the whole. Piano and celeste feature as distinctive individual voices “within the chorus” so to speak, a subtle reference to the Greek origins of the narrative. There’s a fine swathe of cors anglais, bassoons and a contraforte, a newer contrabassoon with an even more resonant lower range.

Henze’s writing for percussion is particularly lively, for he uses a huge range of this too, and works in sounds which are outside the western mainstream, such as Chinese gongs and wooden bells, at once expressing the atavistic nature of the narrative and its universal significance. The textures in this piece manage to be at once floating, sheer and diaphanous, while operating at deeper, far more sonorous levels. With Ensemble Modern, Henze’s ideas can be fully realised because this orchestra is an extended chamber ensemble, attuned to precise virtuoso playing. Henze’s textures are deliberately ambiguous, floating freely between the diaphanous transparency and sonorous darkness brooding with menace. With Boder's musical direction, the ensemble negotiates the shifting textures deftly. This is music that “acts” in the abstract, as it moves, provocatively, through several simultaneous levels.

Like dreams, Greek myths don’t follow any logical rationale, yet have the power to touch the deepest parts of our psyches. Ultimately, this is perhaps what makes Phaedra so emotionally involving. Henze and his librettist Christian Lehnert go straight for the mystery and its unresolved, unresolvable emotional turmoil. This is a drama that can’t be approached literally, so the text itself tantalises, giving clues rather than answers. Ever present, though obliquely hidden in the background, is the image of the Labyrinth in which the Minotaur was imprisoned. Here the Minotaur wears an immaculate dinner jacket, a primal, disturbing symbol yet “civilised” in modern dress. Lauri Vasar’s solid baritone reflected the bassoons and Wagnerian tubas in the orchestration.

By writing Artemis for counter tenor, Henze is at once acknowledging the role of the voice type in opera history and expanding its repertoire for the future. Moreover, he’s exploring the unusual qualities of this voice, revealing its unique beauty. There is something unworldly about counter tenors, which expresses the exotic, surreal realms that Henze’s music so often evokes. His writing flows naturally with the voice, without distortions, so singers can focus on meaning rather than vocal gymnastics. Since Artemis is female, and the object of Hippolyt’s love, using a counter tenor to portray her adds another important element to this opera. I’ve long enjoyed Axel Köhler’s singing, and here his clean, fluting tones worked well with Hippolyt’s tenor and with Marlis Petersen’s high, bright soprano.

The two key roles in the opera however are Phaedra and Hippolyt and the whole work is electrified by the frenzied energy generated by the polarity between the pair. After Magdalena Kozena pulled out of the production, Maria Riccarda Wesseling took on the part which is a stunning role, highly dramatic and intense, a star vehicle if there ever was one. Wesseling rose to the occasion: under all the wild abandon, her Phaedra was imperious, bristling with tension and power. She moves like a tiger, twisting her body seductively, but the controlled dignity in her singing expressed all of Phaedra’s strong personality and her ultimate power to destroy, even if she must destroy herself in the process. Hence the tight “bondage” costume, complete with dehumanising headdress, which must be horrendously uncomfortable to sing in. Wesseling’s Phaedra is savage, but as the music and text demonstrate, she’s as much trapped into the violent ethos of this mythic world as the Minotaur in his labyrinth and Hippolyt in his various caves and cages.

Yet it is Hippolyt who is the pivot of Henze’s opera and around whom the meaning of the work, whatever that might be, may be found. John Mark Ainsley was superlative. He has done much excellent work in the past, but this was a leap into another league artistically and it was superb. His Hippolyt exudes erotic danger, tinged with animal-like primal unconsciousness: no wonder everyone wants a piece of him, or that the rape scene is so disturbing. Yet, there’s more to this Hippolyt, and Ainsley’s characterisation also develops all of the role fully in accord with what Henze seems to be aiming at. The second act, “Evening”, contains some exceptionally good music. The storm scene, for example is truly spectacular, highly atmospheric yet scored in careful detail with counterpoint and cross-currents, easily eclipsing Adès’s storm music in The Tempest. The small orchestra is augmented by some recorded sound which adds a subtle yet quite stunning “supernatural” overlay. It is, after all, a psychic storm, from the Underworld, followed by a cataclysmic earthquake which transforms Hippolyt’s fate.

Hippolyt’s central role in this opera is further emphasised by having a grand piano on stage. Just as the orchestra had earlier been reflected onto the stage by mirrors, now an instrument, and a solid one at that, is in full focus. Mussbach has Ainsley stride on top of it, singing sometimes unaccompanied, sometimes supported by the piano in the “real” orchestra. It’s a Lieder moment, intimate and personal. It’s also the scene of his final violent struggle with Phaedra, trumpets and trombones blaring out alarms. The very last scene has Hippolyt transformed again into the King of the Forest. Vernal flutes and horns evoke feelings of spring and renewal. It is a kind of apotheosis, Ainsley’s voice rising strong and clear : “Ich bin hier in meinem Anfang”. (I'm here again, at my beginning" - mirror concept again!) In the glorious final dance, the singers regroup, and darkness becomes light.

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