Monday 31 May 2010

Coming up in June - multiple Bizet

June is one of the busiest months in the year for live music in England.  It's also the most beautiful month, when gardens burst with peonies, poppies, delphiniums, clematis and roses!  Everything comes into bloom at once before the drought that can come in summer, musically as well as horticulturally.

In London this first week in June is Bizet Immersion - two Carmens and The Pearl Fishers at the ENO. I'm really looking forward to the latter, because it's completely different to the cliché of "pink, glitter and kitsch".

In Bizet's time, the East was an exotic amalgam of fantasy, which served a deeper purpose. People then needed "The East" to disguise their longings onto. At long as something is set in unreality, be it fake-orientalism or fairy tale, it's easier to deal with troubling things like sex and the subconcious. Composers used it as a cloak for musical experiment. Listen carefully to Bizet, how adventurous he is, playing around with ideas, made palatable because he coats them with "other".

Tonight, I will do a full preview of the ENO Pearl Fishers production. Last week, I went behind the scenes of the production, met the people, saw the sets, etc  A lot of work goes into bringing productions to life, and it's team work, moreover. The myth of director's whim doesn't exist very often in reality. Please see my interview with the director, Penny Woolcock HERE.

Today, I'm off to the dress rehearsal of Carmen at Opera Holland Park and on Saturday Carmen at the Royal Opera House. Should be interesting! It is so much a part of modern culture. Everyone's Carmened since they were about three years old, they just didn't realize it was "classical music". Here's a link to a film clip in Mandarin, brilliant take off by the ultimate Modern Girl, Grace Chang.

Combine gardens and music and head for the English Song Weekend in Ludlow,  Shropshire. It's unique, and held only every 3 years. Fantastic ambiance, perfect setting, good music, good talks and excellent company. This is the best season ever and I was seriously planning to go but so much else gets in the way. I know I shall regret.

Glyndebourne continues, it's magnificent, an incredible achievement because it was founded from one man's vision. It's Britain's Bayreuth but with a wider focus. Garsington, too, mixes opera with gardens and picnic. I'll be at Rossini Armida, but also Britten Midsummer Night's Dream, which will be wonderful in the Garsington open-air setting, as night falls outside. Stars courtesy of the Universe.

Then, there's Aldeburgh. Aldeburgh has always been "European" in outlook, because Britten identified with European composers like Shostakovich, Mahler and so on, much more so than the Cotswolds crowd.  That's part of what makes Britten unique, he's English but "not" English at the same time, in a creative way. With Pierre-Laurent Aimard as Artistic Director, this distinctiveness will grow. Read my analysis of Aldeburgh Pierre Boulez is coming, in person, to talk.He doesn't turn up at any old "local" festival, but he does for Aldeburgh, and for Aimard. Great countryside, beaches, food and gardens too.

Another really important mini-festival, if you can call it that, will be the Theresienstadt Terezin Weekend at the Wigmore Hall. Curated by the Nash Ensemble, it features music from composers who were in the camp, but it will also be a kind of remembrance as they'll be doing films, talks and something on Hans Krasa's children's opera Brundibar. Some of the people who performed the original, in Theresienstadt, as children, may be there. Reunions like these can be quite poignant, you almost feel you shouldn't be intruding on privacy, but Theresienstadt music means a lot and must not be forgotten.

Wolfgang Holzmair will be singing. Read about his recording of Theresienstadt music HERE and about Anne Sofie von Otter's concerts and CD. There is a lot on this kind of music on this site, because it means a lot to me.  I'll be writing more about the music at this particular weekend later, so keep coming back.  If the only thing I can do is to make this site a resource for suppressed music of all kinds, it's small recompense.

Also, the Spitalfields Music Festival in London, a gritty part of the East End now trendy: Rumplestiltskin from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. And the City of London Festival, held in private Guildhouses, real medieval Guilds but members don't ply their trade in the same way now.

At the Barbican this first week, two important concerts - Daniel Harding and Thomas Adès, and Kabuki at Sadler's Wells. That's just week one, lots else elsewhere.

Sunday 30 May 2010

Piano for left handed pianists

Left handed people think with their left hands, so playing a"normal" piano means leading with the hand you don't use so well. Nowadays there are left handed scissors, left handed cups etc, so why not left handed pianos?  A lot of left handers learn to adapt to a right handed world so well they don't even realize where their natural facilities lie. One test is to copy script with both hands separately. If there's little difference, you're either naturally ambidextrous, or a left hander who's learned to use your right. Please follow this lovely link to Geza Lozo's site, and pass it on to left handers everywhere.  You never know who it might help!

He sells scores too, classical and even pop, which use the same notes, but reversed so they're easier to follow. Follow this link for a video of Loso's son playing a left handed piano.

The postman knocks....

The other day, my postman delivered a parcel from a big European opera house, complete with fancy logo and wrapping.  "Fantastic stuff, opera!" he said, "I'm hooked!". He told me he'd been watching Tony Pappano's series Opera Italia on BBC TV4 which can be watched online, on demand, everywhere for 2 more weeks, and a new one coming up soon. With a recommendation like that, how could anyone resist? So I hurried to watch. Yes, my postman is right!  This really is wonderful. Pappano's a natural communicator, he makes you feel how he feels, draws you in and makes you care almost as passionately as he does. He communicates. So what if "clever folk" already know the material. Pappano's enthusiasm makes you want to delve further into the subject. In the long term that's much more important. Recommended!

In complete contrast, steer clear of the Wagner show also on offer. I watched that because there was a publicity shot of Alice Sommer Herz, but didn't get that far as I switched it off, thoroughly sickened by Stephen Fry.  Here, the presenter is the subject, which itself is irrelevant except as it promotes the presenter's ego. "Oooh" says Fry, "I can't believe it, they're letting me play Wagner's piano" Honey, it's high profile BBC TV, of course they'll let you. But that can be excused.

Far worse is the crass exploitation of the Holocaust. Everyone's interested in that subject, so as long as you create a connection, you get viewers, even if the actual product has marginal connection. Sorry, but to me it's immoral to use the dead for personal gain. Maybe to others this is OK, but to me it's not.

If this had been a serious look at how Wagner connects to Hitler, it would have been reasonable, but this was just cynical exploitation.  Barely above the level of dirty minded Nudge nudge, wink, wink, count the money as it rolls in. I've long admired Alice Sommer Herz, so I couldn't bear to see her used like this. Perhaps what she really said was heavily edited.  A friend watched to the bitter end and said that Alice had said things like "I wouldn't sit thru 5 hours of Wagner",  and "You listen, I won't". Alice is 106 years old, she's heard it all before. She's still sharp as a tack, and has no time to waste. Most revealingly, when asked if they'd played Wagner in Theresienstadt, she snapped, "We didn't have a Wagner sized orchestra". At one stroke, Fry's pander is punctured.

Saturday 29 May 2010

Mahler plays Mahler piano

Who's that pianist? Gustav Mahler himself playing Mahler in piano transcription. This is the first movement of Symphony no 5.  It's a historic moment though it might not have seemed so at the time. A German company called Welte Mignon invented a new process for recording sound, that was much better anything else at the time. To publicise their new system, they got famous composers to play their own music. So on 9th November 1905, Mahler sits down and does his thing.

He recorded four pieces, Mahler 5/1, Mahler 4/4, and two songs, Ging heut morgen übers Feld and the early Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald.  Before radio and recordings, many people did music at home, so piano transcriptions of everything were standard practice.  Do it Yourself Wagner, for example. People bought scores like they buy MP3s today . That's how composers and publishers made money, and how music spread outside the concert hall or opera stage.  If you play your own, you learn the tunes. Transcriptions were important teaching tools, too, because musicians had to analyze what make a piece work in its essentials.

I've picked M5/1 because it shows how Mahler focuses on a clean, direct line, darkening the tone to suggest the larger forces in an orchestra. Oddly enough, it makes me think of some of his earliest songs, like Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz. Here he is coming out of the Wunderhorn phase, but are Wunderhorn settings so far from his mind?

His tempi are fast, but that's because he's trying to squeeze each piece into the short time frame the technology was limited to.  It's completely wrong to assume that these are any indication of how he wanted the symphonies to sound. What he was doing here was experimenting with technology, not setting down a sacred template for performance practice. He's very free because it's a one-off experiment.

What's also interesting is what it tells us about Mahler. No Luddite, no technophobe. Here he is playing "new" music, written only 3 years before,  for people with the very latest new invention. He was the man who followed up on Freud, took an interest in leftish politics, read about Eastern philosophy, and saw Schoenberg's potential.  Not a backward thinker, but someone who cared about the past because it informed the future.

Welte Mignon folded for many reasons, and recording went back to more primitive methods, which is why recordings of the 1920's and 30's often sound horrible. But Welte Mignon captured a moment, like a snapshot in time. Obviously, copyright has long expired, which is why these pieces keep popping up on CD.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Berliner-Philharmoniker Mahler series 2010-11

The Berliner-Philharmoniker reveals its new season May to May Mahler, of course, but upmarket and with an edge. There'll be many Mahler cycles this year, some "feel the width, not the quality".  The Berliners do Mahler superbly. After all, they're one of the finest orchestras anywhere, and steeped in 19th century Austro-German tradition. Rattle's Mahler is very good indeed, always with personality. This will genuinely be a worthy contribution to the Mahler Year, because the series is so intelligently put together.

For review of the Mahler 1 concert please see

The series starts August 27 2010, with the First Symphony, the concert being repeated twice in November, three different performances over three months. Compare and contrast. Next, in February 2011, they'll be doing three performances in three days of Mahler's Third Symphony. It should be good, particularly as they're  doing it with Hugo Wolf's Elfenlied. This  is the orchestral version of the famous Mörike song, but is very rarely heard. Only 2 recordings.  It's a magical, diaphanous song, but works very well even when scored for a Mahler-sized orchestra. This will be a revelation! It should work well with Mahler 3, since both are rhapsodies on Nature. It's Hugo Wolf's anniversary too, but thank goodness the exploitation machine hasn't hit him yet.

Mark 16, 17 and 18 Feb too because Christine Schäfer is the soloist  in Mahler 4. She's wonderful in this, combining fragility with firmness. She's been singing it for years, yet she manages to get something very special. In fact, she's one of my top choices. It's on with Stravinsky's quirky ballet Apollo. 

In April, Mahler 5 with Henry Purcell, Funeral Music for Queen Mary - very interesting indeed, Rattle bringing his early music expertise to the Berliners who in recent years have hugely expanded their core repertoire. Obviously, it will be RIAS Kammerchor doing the honours, but musicians listen, too, and learn from each other. Rattle's motive may be to show how pure and lucid Mahler 5 can be. A few years ago,  I heard Daniel Harding mix Mahler 5 with Rameau. What a daring choice! But it worked beautifully, showing how carefully crafted the symphony is, more chamber music than bombast.

In May 2011, Claudio Abbado AND Maurizio Pollini! Only the Adagio from Mahler 10, but combined with Liszt Totentanz, it makes sense. But M10 looks forwards, too, since Mahler didn't know he was going to die. So The Berliners and Abbado will be playing Berg's Lulu Suite. That's also a thoughtful choice, because M10 is infused with Alma, and in many ways Alma was a  Lulu.

In June 2011, Rattle conducts M6 with Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra. and Vladimir Jurowski conducts Das klagende Lied. Jurowski's Mahler can be uneven, Again, there's a brain behind this programming, since it matches conductors to works they do well. Jurowski shines in this piece, because it's the closest Mahler gets to Romantic opera (Die drei Pintos doesn't count). Recently I heard Daniele Gatti condiuct DkL, very well, though he's not usually idiomatic in Mahler.

The Berlin Philharmonic has been doing interesting Mahler for years, including Mahlerthons at Easter with Boulez, so they have a track record.  This 2010-11 series will be good because it's designed with integrity, and with genuine understanding of what makes Mahler the composer he is.  LOTS MORE on Mahler on this site - and ORIGINAL too - things you won't find anywhere else. follow labels, search, subscribe

Entartete-Technik Kugelhaus

This is the Kugelhaus, a circular building made of steel and glass, built in Dresden in 1928. Architect Peter Birkenholz (d 1961) Click on the pic to enlarge for detail.  Plans were laid to build a row of them, like a galaxy of planets in orbit. That was the spirit of the age. Very "futurist". Needless to say anything so interesting was denounced by the Nazis as "degenerate". Prince Charles would have loved the way they got rid of modern architecture!  It was pulled down in 1938. The "Arc" aka the Ove Arup building that looms over the A4 is a distant descendant. There's a glass dome in modern Dresden, too, built as a memorial to the Kugelhaus, but it's not quite the same. Read more HERE

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Feminist Finnish Jenůfa, Anna-Liisa 1922

Even if you don 't know Finnish or Swedish, this 1922 movie Anna-Liisa, is so dramatic that you can follow the story without words. Anna-Liisa, a nice country girl is about to marry a wealthy hunk called Johannes, in an idyllic Finnish farm by a lake. But she has a secret! Three years ago she murdered her own baby. This is Jenůfa, except that she does the dirty work herself .

The film was based on a play by Minna Kanth (1844-1897) the first great Finnish playwright, a contemporary of Ibsen .She was a feminist, and interested in modern social issues. Follow the link above to find out more about her. Hers was a liberal, artistic and free-thinking milieu that produced artists, writers, musicians and poets who created the Finnish Republic. To really appreciate Sibelius in context, it helps to understand the "Finnish Renaissance".The film is subtitled both in Swedish, which most educated people spoke, and in Finnish, the language of national identity (which Sibelius, among others had to learn as a second language). English text HERE

Kanth wrote the play, Anna-Liisa, in 1895.  This film, by Teuvo Puro and Jussi Snellman, was made in 1922, but is very well shot for its time. They use the background as an essential part of the story. Look at the detail: life in a simple country farm as it was long ago : the fence built with diagonal logs, windows built of shutters to keep out the winter. When Anna-Liisa's kid sister wants to look into her room, she shifts a slat aside. Modern audiences will be wowed by the elaborate spinning wheel, used for making woolen thread. People didn't just make their own clothes, they made the thread. Look out, too, for the well, operated by an elaborate but obviously efficient mechanism. Horse drawn carts and actors who don't need to be taught how to move around them.  Even a wood sauna by the water, and a naked man strolling out. This pure, simple lifestyle represents Anna-Liisa's world. You can almost smell the clean, fresh air and trees.

Anna-Liisa is seduced by a farmhand called Mikko, who runs off to work in a logging camp. In the play, there's be no way of showing what logging involved. Here we see the mighty forests, and logs being floated down the river. Logging is a dangerous business, loggers jump into the river to shift the logs. Understanding this makes you appreciate how much Mikko has achieved by leaving the village, and why he assumes that Anna-Liisa should have to marry him whether she wants to or not..

Anyway, Anna-Liisa gets pregnant and the baby dies, but she keeps her secret from everyone. Yet guilt weighs heavily upon her. Her little sister has a dream (around 33 min) where we see the "dream" girl superimposed on the sleeping girl. In her nightdress the dream girl finds Anna-Liisa dead, by the lake and garlands her with wild flowers. This simple device sets the mood for the real drama. Anna-Liisa sits by the lake, distraught, and suddenly throws herself in, screaming "My Baby!" Along comes Mikko, who drags her out. On Sunday, Anna-Liisa has to marry, but whom? Mikko or Johannes? Marrying Mikko will hide her guilt, but she doesn't love him anymore. But Anna-Liisa's no wimp. In front of the parson and people, she reveals her secret and says she'll take the consequences. And she doesn't marry either man! 

Reynaldo Hahn Le marchand de Venise - download

Reynaldo Hahn's songs are luscious,. They seem to exist in a perfumed world beyond reality. But here is a full streaming download of his last opera,  Le marchand de Venisewritten in 1935. Full details, synopsis and libretto included.

Sunday 23 May 2010

Dichterliebe - Aung San Suu Kyi

In March, 1999, Michael Aris passed away. He was the husband of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident, who is still under arrest in Myanmar on trumped-up charges.  Here they are in happier times, in Burma, in 1973.

Aris was an authority on Himalayan Buddhism at Oxford, so a memorial was held for him in the theatre at Wolfson College. His identical twin Anthony is also a Buddhist scholar, so it was uncanny to see him at the memorial, But in many ways, that's karma.

Karma too, in the form of the memorial, a performance of Dichterliebe, for it was Michael and Suu Kyi's favourite song cycle, and meant a great deal to them.  Schumann won Clara only after years of separation and struggle. Although Dichterliebe was written to celebrate their wedding, the cycle is infused with a sense of uncertainty, as if happiness might not last. Only a few years into their marriage, Schumann became ill and died. Michael and Suu Kyi at least enjoyed some years of happiness before destiny called..

So this Dichterliebe was very  special indeed, emotionally very powerful. Let no one say that extra-musical impressions don't count. They do. We would not be human if we responded to music without emotion. Even the most abstract sounds are processed by who we are. Not all emotion needs to be effusive, heart-on-sleeve, but it's there, because people are not machines.  Sometimes simplicity is all the more sincere.

Mark Padmore sang this Dichterliebe with Julius Drake at the piano. It was a wonderful performance. Previously I'd only heard him sing baroque, lute songs and  Henze's Six Songs From the Arabian (sorry, but it wasn't good) but this Dichterliebe had me almost in tears. It was an experience I'll never forget.

Oddly enough what sticks in my memory too is the strawberries we were served at the end of the meal. Incredibly ripe and fresh.  We ate that crop, but offshoots of the plants have been growing again, year after year. Suu Kyi won't taste strawberries again, in prison, far away in tropical Burma, and Michael is dead. But they must have enjoyed the first strawberries of summer in the past, just as they once enjoyed Dichterliebe. She has grown old, suffering for her people and her ideals. I don't know if she'll be vindicated in her lifetime, but her courage is a symbol, for Burma, and for people everywhere who stand up for what is good, against all odds. Please seemy other posts on Aung San Suu Kyi by following the labels below and support the Burma Campaign and spreade the word by giving the new boiography to your friends.    The book is REVIEWED HERE.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Mark Padmore sings Lachner Oxford

Once in a car park, I saw a nice car, old, but a performance car nonetheless, a lot like mine. Then up popped the owner, who looked familiar - Mark Padmore!

So it was good to hear him yesterday evening in the intimate surroundings of the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, which seats only 100 people, most of whom know each other as we've grown old together, since we've been coming to the Holywell for decades. That's what makes the Holywell ideal for Lieder. It's intimate, seats rising on three sides, so the small performance platform feels shielded, like it's in a womb. Perfect Liederabend mystique. The idea isn't showy flamboyance but private, personal communication.

Padmore sang Schumann and Franz Lachner, Simon Lepper (he of the hypnotic eyes) on piano, instead of the originally scheduled voice and pianoforte programme.

Franz Lachner? If you know Wagner, you've heard the name before. He was the big man in Munich music, pushed aside abruptly by Wagner and Hans von Bülow, the Young Turks of 1864. Partisan times, but Lachner steered clear of the turmoil.  He outlived Wagner, dying as late as 1890, but by then Wagner had changed music forever. Lachner's music seemed like a relic of the past. 

Yet Lachner represents a strain of music that goes right back to Beethoven.  One of his teachers was Beethoven's student. As a young man, Lachner was close to Schubert . he almost certainly knew the work of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and Loewe. Padmore's become interested in Lachner and plans to do a Lachner programme in the near future.

He mentioned coming across Christoph Prégardien's 1999 recording, "Lachner, Krufft, Beethoven: Lieder", with Andreas Staier on pianoforte.  It's the only one available because it would be hard to outclass Prégardien's combination of lithe purity and golden warmth. Because Staier's a brilliant fortepianist, totally at home in this style, it's a wonderful combination.

Padmore sang Lachner's op 33 Sängerfahrt, from the period when Schubert, too, was writing Heine settings. Yet what's striking is how Lachner's songs sound more Beethovenian than Schubert-like. Specifically, I could hear echoes of Beethoven's folk song settings - circular pseudo-dances, perhaps evocations of simple folk instruments translated through the genteel frame of urban, middle class sensibility.  Im Mai  in particular sounds Beethovenian,  nothing like Schumann's Im wunderschönen MaiDie Meerfrau and Das Fischermädchen flow into each other, both with lilting wave-like rhythms.

Ein Traumbild, though, is a nightmare, where a succubus starts to seduce the poet, who's saved by cocks crowing at dawn.   By Heine standards, this is no Allnächtlich in Traume but it suits Lachner who responds to the poem with Erlkönig melodrama. Lachner's no Schubert, but it's good enough.   More attractive, partly because it's perhaps more Lachner's own voice, is Die einsame Träne. A single tear flows down the poet's face,  reminding him of the past. But he's older and wiser now, and the pain is fading. In equilibrium, he can tell the lonely tear, zerfliesse jetzunder auch (go  away like the others). Lovely song, in the intimacy of the Holywell Music Room.

Padmore also sang Schumann: Liederkreis op 24 and Dichterliebe op 48. Lovely to hear, and much welcomed, but written about so often that I won't do so here. Lachner's the "news" item, and Padmore's forthcoming concerts. But tomorrow I'll write about a very special Dichterliebe Padmore sang in Oxford many years ago in a very unusual situation, a memorial for Aung San Suu Kyi's husband, Michael Aris.
 Photo credit : Marco Borggreve

Prokofiev The Gambler full broadcast tonite!

Prokofiev's The Gambler is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 tonight, 1800 London time.Online and international.  Great production shots, synopsis etc.

Listen to it because audio only, it's easier to appreciate the opera for what it is. It's difficult to stage because Prokofiev was trying to turn what is essentailly a symphonic poem into a drama. He's also expressing his own complex feelings about Russia at the time of great upheaval. Yet he's got to mesh it with the original story. First act introduces the characters at length, but action happens in the Third Act.  In theory you could  save time by listening to the Third Act's dramatic music, but understanding the context is important. The people the opera depicts are a shallow, superficial bunch, you're meant to dislike, not identify with. This again isn't operatic convention, which makes the drama seem oddly inert. But The Gambler can't be judged like more mature, conventional operas, which is why it confused the critics earlier this year. Still, it's interesting enough heard on its own terms. In fact it will probably be better appreciated next time round, when people get their heads around it. Certainly, I'm planning to go to the revival in 2011. This is what I wrote about the premiere earlier this year. Incidentally, John Tomlinson was very proactive creating his role, a lot of the ideas are his.

Friday 21 May 2010

Star born thru stutter - Glyndeboune Billy Budd - Imbrailo

Star born through stutter?  It's immediately obvious that Jacques Imbrailo's Billy Budd at Glyndebourne is extraordinary.  His stammer is more expressive than words could ever be.. The cannons don't get to shoot the Frenchies, Vere cannot resolve his conflicts,  but inarticulate Billy overcomes huge obstacles and gets things done. He pays the price for inadvertently killing Claggart, but no-one else stops Claggart's brutality (even if it's only til the next bully appears). Captain Vere's paralyzed by conscience, trapped in the fogs of scruple. Billy's instinctive, physical, direct. Imbrailo lives the part in his body. No makeup can turn his face bright red, no costume can create the tense, twisted coil of his frame.

Imbrailo's Billy is musically astute, as stammer is integral to Britten's music. The mutiny, in Billy Budd, is in the music. So echoes of Billy's stammer burst out in recurrent staccato in the orchestra, disruptive protests against the rigidity of naval life. The sailors don't mutiny, but Billy's stammer comes to affect the rhythms in other voices, even Claggart's. Like Billy, Britten expresses himself in abstract sound, rather than relying on words alone. Orchestration as protagonist. In Billy Budd, Britten shows why he didn't need to write symphonies. 

Significantly, in this new production directed by Michael  Grandage, what stands out most in Billy's star aria, "Through the port comes moonshine astray" isn't the usual lyrical magic but the phrase "I'm strong, and I know it, and I'll stay strong !"  Imbrailo's "Beauty" isn't a passive "Baby" but an assertive force of life.

Yet central to the whole opera is Captain Vere's dilemma. He's spent a lifetime trying to understand what Billy meant. What is  "the love that passes understanding"?  In this production, Vere  recedes almost into the background. This is certainly no "Starry Vere" with his head in the clouds, thinking about Scylla and Charbydis. He's not "Everyman". Instead, here he's "one of the boys", anonymous, Even among the officers he doesn't wear a hat.  In the scene where Billy is hanged, he's seen as an old man in a dressing gown, as still as a statue among the teeming crowd of sailors.  Grandage is making a valid point, but this neuters Vere's position. In this scene, Vere is still Captain, very much a part of proceedings, hamstrung as he is by his quandary. John Mark Ainsley sings beautifully, as he always does, but this production doesn't make full use of his potential.

If Vere's pivotal role is underplayed,  Claggart, in this production, is developed into a finely nuanced personality. Philip Ens makes Claggart twitch with sexual tension. Like the mists that trap the ship, and the haze that shrouds the stage, this Claggart oozes poison so pervasive that just hearing Ens makes one feel unclean- he's a great actor. How did this Claggart come to be who he is? This portrait of warped sexuality is almost too awful to contemplate. Britten wrote such venom into the part it's not surprising that people cope better with one dimensional Claggarts, but the loathing is there in the score. Whatever Britten may have done with boys, he wasn't a Claggart.

This is an extremely dark production, in all ways. Definitely not a cheery sailor story! Christopher Oram's set is claustrophobic. We're inside the bowels of the ship, not on deck, and certainly not up on the foretop.  You can almost smell the fetid air, and feel the cramped, damp chaos. Psychologically, this is astute, but becomes oppressive in itself.  "Farewell to the Rights of Man" might have sounded more poignant if we'd "seen" the bright hope of the other ship in some way. Later, soldiers in brilliant red and white uniforms appear. They're a delight to the eyes, but distract from the grimness of what's happening. The real brightness in this opera is Billy, and this transfiguration. The set is also not flexible, despite intelligent use of lighting (Paule Constable), and works less well after the First Act. Also, the protracted tying of the noose within sight of the
condemned man seemed excessive. The music at this point is so amazing, that we should be listening, not watching.

This was Mark Elder's first Billy Budd. He conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra so the strong undercurrents of Britten's music flowed well. In a production as dark as this, though, more sharpness of attack would have captured the edginess in the music, but Elder understood the recurrent "stammers" well. Dulled, pounding thrusts, as instinctive and direct as Billy's stutter.

"Rum, sodomy and the lash" don 't really fit in with Glyndebourne's elegant, summertime ambience, so it is no surprise that it's taken 60 years to become part of the Festival.  But it's a measure of Glyndebourne's artistic integrity that this particularly brutal production is done at all. This Billy Budd will be revived  many times. The theatre at Glyndebourne is small, but the Festival reaches out all over the world , to a much bigger audience through broadcasts and DVD releases.Hopefully, if they film this Billy Budd, they'll do it with Jacques Imbrailo, who is so good that his star is very definitely in the ascendant.

A more polished version of this will appear shortly - with photos! - in Opera Today. Please see my other pieces on Billy Budd and Benjamin Britten - lots! Use the search facility and labels on the right. And special thanks to the friend who took me and bought me dinner!!!!

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Ernst Krenek - Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen

"Ich reise aus, mein Heimat zu entdecken"  On this stirring note begins Ernst Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen. It sounds confident and hearty but this is no Romantic hero striding into the world. Unglaube gegen uns  selbst ist zuviel in uns verwurzelt (lack of faith in ourselves is deeply rooted). This song cycle is, no less, a parable for modern times, when the idea of identity is constantly being challenged by change. Like Hanns Eisler's Hollywood Liederbuch, Krenek's Reisebuch is one of the milestones of 20th century song.
Not many years previously, the Hapsburg Empire had collapsed. Previously Vienna had been the capital of a culturally diverse, polyglot nation. Suddenly it was a severed rump of German speakers, who weren't German. So Krenek set off into the mountains to make sense of what might be the Austrian soul. In the second song, Verkehr, Krenek makes it clear he's dealing with modern conditions. He travels by electric train, and then a bus. Dangerously steep inclines, teetering on precipices. Will the machines survive? Then he visits a monastery, where the monks aren't Technik Sklaven, but live quietly, with their ancient library.

In the mountains, life is brutally difficult. Steep slopes, dark valleys, poor soil. The weather's treacherous. Sudden storms blow up, even in summer. It's always raining. Wetter and Regentag, relentless pounding motifs, echoing the grim reality of life for the locals.  As Krenek notes, the dead are exhumed after 10 years because the land's too precious. Their remains are put on display for gawping visitors. Suddenly you realize just how much a tourist Schubert was. He liked the scenery, but was, essentially, an outsider on holiday. Krenek constantly refers to the contrast between sojourners and locals, those who have to live with the consequences of change. and those who can run away.

Hence the "modern" images that keep recurring, and sub themes of anomie and disorientation. Musically,  Krenek uses jerky, angular forms that break up the seamlessness of the world he's describing, because it's on the verge of disintegration. 

Mountain folk need tourists because they're desperately poor. But tourists bring irremediable change.Alpenbewohner is a remarkable song, where the locals look sullenly at the wilden Nomaden who descend upon them, speaking oddly "although in German", their motorcycles tearing up the silence, vulgar because they have money.  But what do the locals want? More tourists, preferably English, for whom there must be English churches and 18 hole golf courses, because they can't take Austria for what it is. Look at the scars caused by ski slopes in this photo. Golf courses are even more disastrous to the fragile alpine environment. The rich Germans disrupt the Austrian stillness with their vulgarity and motorbikes, but the locals are so poor they have to sell out to the tourists. Krenek didn't know, in 1929, how prophetic his observations would prove..

Krenek follows this song with Politik. It explicitly refers to the First World War and the sufferings it brought to Austria, "Look to the West" he says "where a free people live on free mountains". It's Switzerland, not Bavaria, a small self-contained country that values neutrality. Yet later, Krenek thinks of Italy but knows that "a thistle transplanted in a lovely garden will not become a rose".

Again and again, images of gentle somnolence in the music are shattered by outbursts. The explosive Gewitter (Thunderstorm) isn't merely descriptive, but emphasizes sudden upheaval, from which there's no escape. So Krenek goes back to Vienna (on a schnelle Zug) Huge swelling crescendo on the words Liebes Vaterland. But it isn't just the mountains he's referring to, but his identity as a Viennese.

Krenek had just had a wild success with Jonny Spielt Auf, with the black jazz saxophonist. "Degenerate"!  screamed critics who wanted time turned back. So Krenek goes to the mountains, the "pure source" where people still sang folk songs and lived primeval lives. Significantly, Krenek relates to Schubert, not Mahler, Wolf or Mozart. Intriguingly, the song Krenek dedicates to Schubert is Unser Wein. It's a gay,. lilting melody, but the punchline is that Austrian wine is "valued only by those who know to seek it out". In 1929, Schubert wasn't quite as ubiquitous as he is today. Perhaps Krenek's hinting at deeper levels in Schubert, which we're familiar with now, but in those days, Schubert's  image was prettified through operettas like Blossom Time. 

Perhaps Krenek's figuring out who he is, as a composer living in modern times, troubled by constant, threatening change. Back home, he comes across a strange, sleepy village in the suburbs. There's a motto written above a doorway. "Ich lebe, und weiss nicht wie lang. Ich sterbe, und weiss nicht, wann. Ich geh', und weiss nicht, wohin., mich wundert's dass ich noch Frolich bin." Suddenly, Krenek (who wrote the text as well as the music) finds what might be the key: accepting that you'll never know the answers. Accepting that life's uncertain, yet making the most of it. Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen really is a parable for modern times.

Wolfgang Holzmair's probably done more than most to bring this song cycle into the mainstream.  He's passionate about Austria, and lesser known Austrian composers, as diverse as Franz Mittler and Robert Stolz.  He deserves much credit. This is his 1998 recording, a beautiful mini album, lovingly illustrated with period photos. Track it down, because even if there are new versions, this one is the classic. All 20 songs plus an extra bonus the Fiedelleider op 64.  If you can't get a recording, get the score from Universal Edition.

Holzmair also devised a special programme combining songs by Schubert with songs from this Krenek cycle. It was beautifully well chosen, highlight inner themes both composers wrote about. I heard him sing the programme at an intimate recital  in 1999, organised by the Austrian Cultural Forum, held in the Leighton House Museum before it was renovated. He is singing this special programme at the Wigmore Hall, where Florian Boesch sang excerpts fro the Krenek songbook two years ago.  .Holzmair has in fact recorded the "special" programme, but it's not commercially available anymore. I bought my copy from him personally after another semi-private recital. Must dig it up. Please  also see  my latest on this cycle HERE and a review, coming up soon !

Yvonne Loriod - musician and muse

Yvonne Loriod has passed away, aged 86. All the newspaper obits are out, standard pieces, written long ago, some cobbled together from material on Olivier Messiaen. He was the love of her life and centre of her existence. But there was much more to "Mrs Loriod" as Pierre-Laurent Aimard charmingly calls her. She deserves a tribute in her own right.

Not so easy, because she was self-effacing, letting Messiaen take the limelight, but she was formidably talented. She was an extremely good pianist, playing at a high level, certainly not just Messiaen. She came to Paris to learn composition, and attracted the eye of Nadine Boulanger. Boulanger had a serious animus against Messiaen, so when Loriod took up with Messiaen she was immediately dropped from Boulanger circles. Not that Loriod cared. Messiaen's empathic, open-minded approach to music was much more Loriod's thing, anyway, apart from the fact she fell in love.

Because Messiaen was such a devout Catholic, marriage was out of the question, as his first wife was hospitalized for what seems to have been some kind of mental problem.  Loriod and Messiaen didn't actually live together but shared three floors of the same building.. One floor his, one floor hers and the one in the middle was teaching space. She taught too, becoming a professor at an early age.  Yvonne and her sister Jeanne were both pianists, both learning the Ondes Martenot and performing round the world.  (Both also continued playing piano.) In the late 1990's they both came to London to play: two tiny elderly ladies exuding charm. Sadly Jeanne died soon after. Yvonne lived on, but was too frail to come to London in 2008 to celebrate Messiaen's centenary (curated by Aimard, and bigger than the Paris commemorations).

Loriod and Messiaen were so much of a unit that it's arguable he would not have achieved quite as much as he did without her presence.  Her name means "Oriole", so when the song of an oriole appears in his music, there's an extra level of meaning.  Loriod is a presence in most of his music, even indirectly.  He composed entirely on his own, bringing out new works only near completion, but she was musician enough herself to comment intelligently.

Plenty can, and has, and will be written about Loriod's influence on Messiaen's art, but she contributed in simple, practical ways, too. She knitted the enormous, multi-coloured scarf he wears in one of the most famous photographs. It's too huge and too extrovert to be something you'd find in a shop. He knew what it meant, so he wears it with a huge grin. She was the "practical one" who made arrangements, fixed the tape recorders and apparently drove a car.  She was also the emollient one, who kept up friendships such as with Boulez (pictured here) with whom she was close (same age).  She mothered Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the son she never had, and adored his children. She'll be remembered of course as Messiaen's life partner and muse, but she was someone very special herself.

Coming up next : a report on Florian Boesch at the Wigmore Hall, and a special, which I've been promisiung for ages, on Krenek's Reisebuch  aus den oesterreichischen Alpen, which I've beeen  raving about since Holzmair recorded it in 1998. It's one of the 20th century's key song cycles.  In the meantime read more here. 

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Hugues Cuénod sings Wozzeck

......or rather, The Captain. And in Italian. But once you get your head around Tito Gobbi as Wozzeck, you appreciate Cuénod's hyperbright singing. This Captain really is lit by the "unearthly glow of madness", preternaturally high pitched and brittle. Listen to that machine gun staccato ha ha ha. The laugh of a psycho.. This Captain is madder than Wozzeck, madder than the Doctor, but he holds a position of authority and orders others about.  It's Rome, 1954, and Cuénod is only 52, in his prime.

Monday 17 May 2010

After Life at the Barbican : Michel van der Aa

"If you could take any one memory with you to eternity, which one would you choose?" In Michel van der Aa's After Life several people meet in a waiting room. They've just died, but they must examine their lives, and pick one memory to take with them before they can journey on. One memory to summarize a whole lifetime ? It's not easy. Effectively, they're pondering what their lives might have meant. It's a powerful psychological concept, strikingly adapted as theatre.

At the premiere in 2006, Shirley Apthorp in the Financial Times described the opera as "The Gesammstkunstwerk of the Future". Michel van der Aa mixes live orchestra with electronica, live performers with ordinary people, film with live action. That's not specially innovative in itself, but van der Aa takes the concept further, blending art and reality. Singers and musicians perform a score, while ordinary people speak spontaneously. Van der Aa abandoned the idea of script altogether : people simply turned up at his studio, and talked spontaneously. Ordinary people, but extraordinary lives.

Perhaps that's part of After Life's message too. Emotionally articulate people are more able to intuit what makes them what they are, but even the most mundane life has meaning. What of those who are blocked in some way ? Mr Walter( Richard Suart) looks back on a "so-so job, a so-so marriage", where nothing seems to have mattered either way. Ilana (Margreit van Reisen) has had such a horrible life she doesn't want to remember anything. But in the Afterlife, you can't move on unless you can deal with your past.

That's why the staff in the "waiting room" help people reconstruct their lives and memories. Sometimes it isn't the grand gestures that create the best memories, but simple things. like hugging a loved pet, or sitting on a park bench and feeling you belong. Aiden (Roderick Williams) reveals that the staff themselves are people who are blocked and can't proceed until they, too, learn the meaning of their lives. Aiden helps Walter, but by helping Walter, he finds his own release. In this strange Limbo, the authority figure, The Chief (Claron McFadden) may in fact be the person most trapped. Maybe the secret to passage isn't what memory you carry with you, but how much excess baggage you're prepared to leave behind.

Michel van der Aa's music may be avant garde, and extended by electronic effects, but it communicates well. Van der Aa wrote one of the study pieces for After Life for the famous Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, hence the harpsichord-led purity of line. As he says, the music "has two layers, a direct, physically dramatic layer and another with more depth, that is more conceptual". The opera deals with very unusual ideas, so this interplay between clarity and mystery, humble and heroic, is fundamental.

The vocal lines sweep up and down the scale, even within phrases, but don't sound unnatural. McFadden, who has few equals in modern music, and has created the wildest Harpies, sounds soft and lyrical, actually quite sweet. Williams proves why he's one of the most sought after character baritones in his generation. He's a wonderful, expressive actor who moves as well as he sings. Yvette Bonner as Sarah, the other member of staff, has good potential.

Michel van der Aa worked with Louis Andriessen (Writing to Vermeer) who promoted the idea of anti-orchestra back in the 1960's. The idea of multi-media, conceptual theatre is fairly well established in Europe. The Queen of the Netherlands attended After Life at the highly prestigious Holland Festival. Holland's famous for its liberal, open-minded attitudes, but After Life is so good that it can export, even to more buttoned down.British pysche. After all, every one of us will one day make that journey, whatever may be on the other side.

Congratulations to the Barbican for bringing it to London, just months after the recent revival (with revisions) . I was impressed by the way the Barbican marketed this opera, which might have been a hard sell, given that it's so modern. They set up a [mini website inviting readers to send in their own ideas of what memory they'd take into the unknown. After Life is about ordinary people, so it's a good idea that "ordinary people" participate. While it emphasizes "ordinary" life, this opera poses questions about life, identity and emotional dexterity that make it a challenge..What you get from it reflects what you put in. A bit like life itself.
Please see the full review with production photos in Opera Today.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Mahler 8th Eschenbach Paris download

Available now for full audio visual download is the Orchestre de Paris Mahler 8th Symphony, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. This is a Mahler 8  like you've never experienced before or will again! Orchestre de Paris site, Eschenbach site.

It's the performance filmed for French TV at the Palais Omnisports de Paris at Bercy in March 2008. It's a stadium where popstars perform and sports events take place. It seats 8000 plus, dwarfing the Royal Albert Hall. Most symphonies would shrivel in such a place, but it's a credit to the film makers, the organizers and the orchestra that this performance actually succeeded.  The film is much better than expected, because it's made by people who really are musically informed.

I was there, at this performance, seated to the right of the stage, above the arena about halfway back, a very good spot, near enough to see the orchestra fairly close up, and near enough to see Eschenbach and his soloists slowly troop into the building from a tunnel deep in the bowels of the vast complex. What a theatrical moment! Even before the music starts, the mood is established. The idea of reverential procession is absolutely musically astute for Mahler's Eighth is a pilgrimage, a journey through suffering to sublimation.

Indeed, a very good case could be made for hearing Symphony No 8 as Mahler's true Mass. It's a profoundly spiritual experience. Astounding message, astounding approach. Catholic Masses are high theatre - processions, costumes, ceremony, choirs, all geared  to emphasizing the glory of the mystery at the heart of faith.  Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris may be performing in a mega complex, but it's not really all so different from the Pope appearing at Mass in St Peter's in the Vatican (crucial differences of course). Big message, big resources. Mahler knew what he was doing.

And because the message of this Symphony is uncompromising, no wimpy half measures. Eschenbach commands the orchestra : no messy entries, no waffle. Even more striking about this performance is the precision in the quieter passages. The Second Part begins remarkably quietly: like the Consecration in a Catholic Mass where God is supposed to become present,  the moment announced in silence, broken only by shrill bells. It's the holiest, most sacred part of the Mass.  The big vocal parts may be more spectacular, but this is the heart of the symphony, the critical transition. Eschenbach had huge forces before him, and thousands in the audience around him, but iit felt like that moment in the mass, where all else was irrelevant but quiet veneration.

Look out too for the moment of sheer theatre when Marisol Montalvo materialises at the top of the huge choir, resplendent in white. She's like an angel, an apparition from the Heavens! It's a wonderful touch that couldn't be done in an ordinary concert hall or before the invention of microphones, but by God, it's accurate, emotionally and musically. Listen too to the organ, specially brought in. Live, it was a bit lost in the vast space, but they've balanced the sound better on the film. Technically, this performance must have posed huge problems, so the fact that balance is generally good is something to respect. The large screens where abstract images are projected were a little distracting live, but in the film they're used in a subtle way, never intruding, and hide the blank space behind the choir.  The overwhelming size of the performance space and the vast audience was very much a part of this performance, so the sweeping panoramas are important. As with a mass, the symphony works as a communion between listeners and musicians.

In the symphony, the soloists don't sing "to" each other, as in an opera, but as separate confluent identities. It's a thoroughly orchestral way of writing for voice, so it's intelligently filmed, the camera panning widescreen, showing soloists, conductor and orchestra on the same horizontal frame. People coming new to Mahler often think this symphony is "operatic". It's understandable, but not when you really get to know his work.  Mahler decisively turned his back on writing opera even before he started writing symphonies. Fundamentally, what he was interested in was something altogether more unique: the idea of a series of semi-abstract works exploring a spiritual journey. He uses voice as part of his palette, not to create "characters"or interactive roles. So beware those who push Mahler as "an opera composer". Think, instead, of the spiritual dimension of his music, and the idea of Mahler 8 as Mass makes sense. And this performance makes you think about the nature of Mahler's spirituality and intellect.

photo: Eric Brissaud
Review of Michel van der Aa at the Barbican coming up soon.  Deeply thought provoking, emotionally demanding. Please see the post on Enschede below.and the comments

Friday 14 May 2010

Royal Opera at a house near you

Two Royal Opera House big screen broadcasts coming up this week. First Tsarina's Slippers at Odeons round the country on 15th.  Then there's La bohème, with Hibla Gerzmava and Teodor Ilincai. It's screening at Vue cinemas on 17th and 18th. Carmen comes up in different cinemas on 8th June, coinciding with the second performance at Covent Garden. Then La Fille du Regiment on 28th and 29th June at Vue cinemas. It was on last week at Cineworlds, but I didn't know. And on 13th July Simon Boccanegra! See the opera live from 29th June, see the movie on 13th July and hear the Proms broadcast on 18th July. This one's limited to mega-venues like Trafalgar Square, though.

I'm always confused by different cinema chains, different opera houses, different schedules etc. so I often miss them. Moreover my local cinema is always completely booked out months in advance by regulars so I usually only get returns. But that proves there's a market. for opera in the cinema. And for someone to devise a "screening database".

Michel van der Aa - Barbican

Big, big buzz about Michel van der Aa After Life at the Barbican on Saturday 15th May. For the full review  of this and also the new Up-Close please follow label "Van der Aa" on right. This is cutting edge, a major critical success when it opened in the Netherlands in June 2006.  The Holland Festival produces seriously interesting things. Van der Aa is multimedia king, combining music, electronics, film, drama etc to create Total Theatre. He's been closely involved with Louis Andriessen, about whom there's a lot on this site (follow the labels) Andriessen in his youth pioneered the idea of anti-orchestra, and of music theatre beyond conventional bounds.

"Six characters are about to trade their earthly existence for a place in heaven. They are allowed to choose one moment from their lives to relive in the form of a film to take them to eternity."  Intriguing concept, based (no surprise) on a Japanese art film.

Congratulations to the Barbican for having the courage to bring this to London, but even more congratulations for marketing it in an intelligent, down-to-earth way.  New music isn't necessarily scary. The opera may be state of the art, but that doesn't mean ordinary people can't relate to it.  Indeed, for Van der Aa, what counts is communication, with as many people as possible, not just trendies. . The Barbican's created a special mini-website for After Life where people can speculate on the ideas for themselves. It's a great idea because it makes people think about the basic premise of the opera, and relate it to their lives. The drama isn't just what's on stage, but what happens in the minds and souls of those taking part.  Definitely an experience on many different levels.

I tracked down the Financial Times article from 2006 HERE. "After Life succeeds not so much because of its plot but because of the ingenious way its component parts are assembled."...."This is the Gesammstkunstwerk of the future". Well, I dunno, since many composers and directors aim for the same extension of theatrical experience, but this should be well worth participating in. The Queen of the Netherlands was at the premiere, showing what an open-minded person she may be. I can't imagine Prince Charles letting down his inhibitions in the same way, for the sake of art.

Musically this will be top notch, as most of the team were involved in the Dutch productions. Michel van der Aa brings together The ASKO/Schoenberg Ensemble (wonderful), Claron McFadden, Roderick Williams and others.

Thursday 13 May 2010

La traviata - Royal Opera House. May 2010

Richard Eyre’s production of La traviata is so beautiful that it can be watched repeatedly, yet still yield pleasure. Here is a link to my review of the November production with a much stronger cast.  But appearances, however splendid, aren’t quite enough to make a completely satisfying evening. Below is a review of the October production. Please also see "La Traviata and the Credit Crunch"

"For a great many in the audience at the Royal Opera House on this occasion, it probably didn’t matter. Opera going is a great experience and La traviata is great theatre. I’ve never seen so many cameras popping, or people texting on their mobiles, even during the performance. Routine applause, for the sake of applause, deserved or not, inhibiting the flow of the drama. Opera has always been a social experience. Now it’s audience participation.....

"......Dimitri Hvorostovsky’s Germont has vocal authority, honed through experience in the role. Yet, when he sings “Pura siccome un angelo”, his timbre softens and glows. In “Di Provenza il mar”, Hvorostovsky captures the lilting melody so cannily that he creates the impression of a distant, happier world far removed from Parisian artifice. .Hvorostovsky fills the role, not just the costume. His Germont is a fully realized personality, more interesting, perhaps, than his son. Hvorostovsky’s “Dove’e’ mio figlio?” makes the confrontation feel intensely profound, his voice colouring expressively............"

PS A friend went to the second night and said it was much better, the best show of the season, praising Jaho and Pirgu in particular. Must have been First Night Syndrome before.
Read more HERE in Opera Today, with production photos.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Prophetic Calypso singer predicted General Election result

A regular reader sends this prediction of the 2010 General Election, from Calypso singer Lord Beginner from 1950. Starts off with a mock fifties BBC voice, "Me, Lord Beginner make this calypso in the style of old Minou Calypso which we sing in Trinidad since many years, so hit it on.....

"General Election we had in Great Britain, caused a sensation, Independents, also Liberal  it was essential, Socialists was glad, Communists was sad, Conservatives did cheer at the results in Trafalgar Square. But I was confused, waiting to hear the news. ..... Two long days it was announced, the parties with no majorities, it is said that the King was listening, so nothing was missing, traffic could not pass, police had a task, it was the best election, I'll say, from ? to the break of day.....;But I was confused, waiting to hear the news....

"At Piccadilly was a grand illumination, names went up in rotation. Some said we will get more employment, others said better house rent. Balloon wernt up, too, I saw red and blue, for Attlee's supporters roar and for Churchill who won the war,  but I was confused, waiting to get the news....

English Song is alive and well

Susan Bicklery and Iain Burnside's recital at the Wigmore Hall on 2nd May proved English Song is alive and well. 
"Everyone’s heard Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, even if they don’t realize it. He wrote the music for the films Four Weddings and a Funeral, Far from the Madding Crowd and Murder On the Orient Express. He embraces jazz, cabaret and show tunes enthusiastically, yet he studied with Pierre Boulez for two years. The four Dream Songs (1986) are to poems by Walter de la Mare, catching the poet’s delicate magic. “Elf-light, bat-light, touchwood-light…in a dream beguiling in a dream of wonders in a world far away”......

Bennett, though, isn’t by any means the only English composer writing art song. There are many others less well known but very good indeed. Bickley and Burnside chose a small sample from the iconic NMC Songbook. NMC is an innovative, independent company, dedicated to promoting the best in modern British song. The NMC Songbook won the 2009 Gramophone award for Best Contemporary Recording. It’s a window on what’s happening in British music.Such a range of composers and styles! Diverse as the scene is, it’s definitely creative.

John White’s Houses and Gardens in the Heart of England sets the text of a tourist brochure. It’s hilarious, playing with the self consciously stunted Officialese. Bickley sings with mock solemnity, Burnside brings out the free flowing liveliness in the piano part. This song is so good it should be standard repertoire. Jeremy Dale Roberts (b 1934) Spoken to a Bronze Head is an elegiac contemplation of the passage of time, well paced and elegant. Julian Grant’s Know thy Kings and Queens is an exercise in downbeat humour, while in Brian Elias’s Meet me in the Green Glen, plangent lines recall plainchant. Richard Baker’s Lullaby pits jerky staccato piano against voice in brittle irony. Not a typical soothing lullaby : this baby fights back!"
 See the full review in Opera Today.
The English Song Weekend in Ludlow starts soon. BEST place for English Song! Above: Susan Bickley [Photo: Samantha Ovens]

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Wake - opera about the Enschede disaster

On 13th May, the tenth anniversary of the Vuurwerkramp (fireworks disaster) that flattened part of the Dutch town of Enschede, the Nationale Reiseopera is presenting a new opera, Wake. The composer is Klaas de Vries (b 1944), and the libretto is by David Mitchell. Read more about it here on the Reiseopera site.  Great photos and synopsis. There is a longer clip on youtube, in Dutch, where the composer speaks.

"On a completely ordinary evening, somewhere high in a block of flats, nine disparate but interrelated stories of passion, reconciliation, humour, TV football, the pain of adolescence and infirmity of old age, are suddenly interrupted by an unspecified catastrophe that changes the lives of eighteen people forever. Are there words to bridge the gap between us, the survivors, and those we have lost? When we give a voice to memory and emotion, what comfort will they bring?"

It's fascinating because the opera deals with events so recent that lots of people are still traumatized. In his article, the librettist David Mitchell mentions a man who protested about the very idea of fact being turned into art. It's a genuine concern, which Mitchell and de Vries took seriously. "Every single line was weighed and weighted with care", says Mitchell.

Can any art reproduce trauma with dignity? Probably there's no way except though fact-based documentary, and even that can't get to grips with individual human grief.  No opera, or any work of art, can ever be "history". Even historians don't do "history". They're only accumulating data and assessing it, they're not producing facsimile. So any opera dealing with real events is its creators' response, and perfectly valid. Even an opera dealing with specifics isn't trapped in history because art is universal, and human.

Indeed, I sometimes think art is a therapeutic way of dealing with tragedy. When Primo Levi wrote about his experiences in the Holocaust, there was controversy.  More recently I watched Lu Chuan's Nanking : City of Love and Death (2009) currently in cinemas but available on DVD. It's about the Rape of Nanking in which 300,000 were killed in a smallish town in the space of a few weeks (millions more died in the rest of the war).  For many, it's catharsis, which is a good thing because it's important to face such things. But real knowledge is also traumatic.

Iris Chang, who wrote a popular book about Nanking, committed suicide. I understand. I spent years in the archives, talking to people, finding out things I wish i didn 't know.The film for me was depressing because it's so clean. No smells, no noise, no chaos, "not" reality. Most people are dispatched with a single bullet, dropping dead neatly. In any case, bullets cost money. Most people were killed cheaply, ie being crudely disembowelled. The scene where soldiers are seen being forced into the sea to drown happens in an orderly fashion. Yet  it wasn't soldiers who were killed this way but 3,000 terrified old folk and children. It wasn't quiet or orderly. Sometimes reality has to be sanitized so it can be made bearable.

Monday 10 May 2010

Seat to street in 2.5 seconds

Alan Gilbert takes up at the New York Phil soon.  Although his parents played and play there, and he's well respected by musicians, the audience, who know better, reportedly ran out in droves when he conducted Martinu and Dvorak.  A very similar concert was welcomed in Berlin, but what do Germans know about music, as a certain famous blogger says. So to protect the public, the NY Phil has installed a special "Listener Speedy Exit Ramp" so patrons can exit the auditorium, seat to street in 2.5 seconds.

"The new ramp, which resembles an extremely fast escalator, will run from the middle of the hall, between Rows M and N, and ascend to an exit door at the loge level. Patrons will now be able to find themselves on Broadway and West 65th Street in record time. “They should be able to exit the building in a matter of seconds, outta there even before the first idiot yells “brava,” said a Philharmonic spokesperson."

“This ramp connected to a state-of-the-art computerized ‘Schenker Sensor’, which collects all the pitch data in previous passages, collates it and then can accurately identify the arrival of the true tonic. It then sends an electric impulse that throws a switch—on goes the escalator and, presto-change-o—out goes your patron.”

Read more about this on John Adams's site, complete with technical diagrams

Monteverdi L'Orfeo Milan full broadcast

Full broadcast (no cuts, no intervals) of Monteverdi L'Orfeo on BBC Radio 3 online and on demand until Thursday afternoon UK time.  This is the production from Milan's Teatro La Scala in September 2009. Rinaldo Alessandrini conducts, but it's La Scala, so not quite the typical baroque ambience Monteverdi would have recognized. Still, it's visually stunning, elegant and classical in the true sense of the word (Robert Wilson).  Lots of still photos on the BBC site and two clips here. Singing a little uneven but some very beautiful momemts. Sara Mingardo and  Roberta Invernizzi lovely, Georg Nigl could be a bit higher toned.  I like the way Alessandrini gets the La Scala orchestra to sound vigorous and unpolished. It's still Verdi Monteverdi but enjoyable nonetheless. I don't know why the BBC gives a link to Naxos, very shallow work there. I've been so busy this week, but finally made the time to listen and enjoy.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Villazon's voice broken - Canning in the Sunday Times

It's sad to me when a singer blows it, even if it's one I didn't rave about in the first place. Read Hugh Canning in the Sunday Times on why Villazon's Voice is Broken.Yow. Enjoy reading before Rupert Murdoch cuts off his nose to spite his face and makes you pay to read his newspapers online.

As someone said to me the other night "David Cameron has balls, Gordon Brown has Ed Balls". Not that I necessarily agree but some people have more spark than others. .

Plenty more on this site about singers, composers, analytical and forthright views.. Search, and look at the labels and lists of posts on right.  This isn't "classical iconoclast" for nothing. I don't toe no party line. Keep coming back and subscribe, if you can handle different and genuinely sharp.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Szymanowski Focus Anderszewski Wigmore Hall 2

Piotr Anderszewski could hardly have chosen a better place for his Szymanowski Focus than the Wigmore Hall.  Szymanowski's never been "unknown". That's him seated in the middle with Arnold Bax on the right and Albert Roussel on the left.  Standing are Gregor Fitelberg, Fritz Reiner and Josef Szigeti. Several of them visited the Wigmore Hall in times past (the archives there must be a treasure trove)

Szymanowski's Metopes op 29 (1915). explores the same territory as his slightly later Myths, heard previously.  It's colourful mood music, recreating in abstract sound the composer's response to the Odyssey.  This is one of Szymanowski's best loved pieces. I learned it from Dennis Lee's good recording, but Anderszewski's more recent  CD was a vigorous  new approach. Szymanowski's still in post-Debussy dreams. Anderszewski's sense of structure makes one feel Szymanowski's reveries have purposeful direction.

Anderszewski emphasized the point by following Métopes with Robert Schumann's Märchenbilder,  with Henning Kraggerud as violinist.  These "fairy tale pictures" aren't literal: Schumann's creating impressions, long before Debussy, though of course in a different way.

Hearing Szymanowski's Songs of a Fairy Princess op 31 (1915) in this context shows how Szymanowski's fascination with fantasy was far more than lush reverie.  The texts are by the composer's sister Zofia, but the music is bizarrely alien. Arabia seen through imagined hashish dreams?  There's nothing tame about this ulullating legato, these strange leaps up and down scales.  Think Delibes' Lakmé condensed into six short songs.

In the first song, The Lonely Moon, the phrases cry out like imams calling the faithful to prayer, designed to carry over vast distances.  Perhaps this is intentional. These songs want to burst out of piano-song mode, though I like them this way because they're so unusual. For once, the Wigmore Hall seemed too small to hold them in.  In 1933, Szymanowski transcribed some of them for singer and orchestra.

Iwona Sobotka sings Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess like a force of nature. She has, and needs, strong breath control. Sobotka's vibrato is carefully modulated,  so her lines shimmer, as if infused with light and air.  Most of these texts refer to escape. In The Nightingale, for example, the poet wants a bird in her chest, not a heart, because birds can fly away and be free. Sobotka decorates the words with exquisite melismas and trills, but she knows that their spirit is deeper. In The Song of the Wave, Szymanowski catches the idea of surging movement, sparkling arpeggiatos dancing over rolling rhythm. The ocean is beautiful, but the sailor might drown.  Whether the singer is lover or Nereid, we don't know. But Sobotka sings ukołysałabym cię na wieczny sen with such feeling, you don't need to understand a word of Polish to sense what she means.

After the First World War and the upheavals that followed, fantasy became associated with escapist retrogression. But it's a mistake to assume that all fantasy music is backward-looking..On the contrary, artists have often used dreams, myths and fantasy to stimulate ideas the literal cannot grasp. That's one of the reasons the Greeks used myth in the first place. For Debussy, Wagner, Ravel and many others, exotic dreams open up new worlds.  Szymanowski's heady perfumes are progressive.  He's thinking forward, even when he's looking back.

This photo shows Szymanowski at the piano . It's the late 1920's - look at the modernist lampshade and the dapper cut of his suit. He understood that good art should be original, even when building on the past.  "Our aim is not yesterday but today and tomorrow", he said in 1927.

Ten years separate Szymanowski's String Quartet no 2 op 56 from his first, but he's advanced into new territory.  Polish motives invigorate this, particularly the second movement vivace scherzando. Yet this certainly isn't cliché folksiness, but far more sophisticated. Like Stravinsky (with whom Szymanowski has a lot in common), Szymanowski connects to a primeval spirit of folk culture, using it to generate new ideas. This duality of old and new sparks creative tension. A lively performance by the Belcea Quartet, making the image of "vibration" come to life. Please see my report on the first Anderszewski concert at the Wigmore Hall HERE) PLease also see lots more on Szymaowski onn this site incl the wonderful Boulez recording of the First Violin Concerto, the Third Symphony and Krol Roger,