Tuesday 30 November 2010

Alma Mahler songs - Ruth Ziesak

At the Wigmore Hall, Ruth Ziesak sang Alma Mahler. She gave an excellent performance of mediocre material. Alma's songs would probably be nowhere in the repertoire but for the fact that she married someone famous. This gives her work extra-musical cachet. sentimentalized out of all proportion because of the story behind the songs. She gets sympathy because Gustav told her that there could be only one composer in the house. True, that's sexist but given the values of the time and his infinitely greater gifts, it's no big deal in itself. In any case, truly creative women have overcome much greater obstacles. Later Gustav gets devastated by Alma's infidelity, and goes overboard praising her. Guilt trip and probably deserved, but it's not really an artistic judgement. And she may well have fooled around whether he liked her music or not. Nonetheless, it's generated a glowing myth of romance in her favour. "Poor Alma", as depicted in her self-serving memoirs.

Even Zemlinsky, Alma's main teacher, who was hopelessly infatuated with her, wasn't too keen. "Don't get me wrong", he wrote, "the songs contain such an incredible number of mistakes...impossible errors of vertical alignment and non-existent musical symbols that it made my head spin".  He made amendments. Later, piqued, he wrote "Your manner is...like your music....a warm, feminine sensitive opening but then of doodles, flourishes, unstylish passage work. Olbrich (a publisher) should have your songs performed by an artiste from the Barnum &Bailey (circus) company, wearing the customary black tails, and on his head, a dunce's cap".

Alma treated Zemlinsky badly but he adored her so much that her image runs through much of his work. No Alma, no Seejungfrau, no Traumgörge and much else. Indeed, I don't think anyone can approach Zemlinsky without understanding his screwed up feelings for her. Contrary to received opinion, Gustav Mahler was quite fond of Zemlinsky, and continued to pay for him to give Alma music lessons long into their marriage. He gave Zemlinsky commissions to transcribe Mahler's music (quite a lucrative thing in days before recordings)

Alma's relationship to Gustav runs on similar lines. She loves being a celebrity wife although she doesn't actually like his music. Probably she did love him, and preserved letters which show her in a good light. But even while he was deathly ill in New York, she's flirting with Walther Gropius, keeping him in reserve, while playing on his jealousy. Luckily GM didn't know that Alma's mother, whom he adored, connived in the deception (and became a Nazi). Devious and manipulative as Alma was, though, the main thing is that she was Mahler's muse. Alma's real creative gift was her ability to inspire art in others. It  doesn't make her music great in itself. Now that Mahler is being given a Romantic makeover, influenced more by Alma's memoirs than reality, we'll be hearing more of Alma's songs because they fit the revisionist image she created. Her music has curiosity value, but her art was in her life.  Unfortunately becxause she was such a "creative artist" when it came to her persona, her version of events is usually taken as gospel truth.  This year we have a whole new generation drawn to Mahler becauase of his anniversary, but how many will bother to look behind Alma's image ?  But until we do, we're back to the twisted, delimiting image Alma created. She didn't  like his music,  and was arranging trysts while he was on his deathbed. The money and the status, though, she loved.Is this a feminist icon ? Only if  you admire manipulative and destructive.  To me she is a fascinating person because of who she really might have been, warts and all.  But unless we get past the hype and self-promotion we'll never know. That is wehy "The Alam Problem" is a genuine issue and must be faced. there's a good article in google, don't know who wrote it, but it's only the tip of the iceberg.

Monday 29 November 2010

Risør at the Wigmore Hall Honneger Stravinsky

This weekend, the Risør Festival came to the Wigmore Hall, London. Sunday night's concert was the most intriguing because it showed the characteristic  Risør touch - eclectic repertoire, unusual ways of hearing familiar works, and above all, an unusally intelligent approach to programming. That's what you get when serious performers get together to play for each other. Please follow this link to read the review in Bachtrack (highly recommended listing site)

"Because Risør is a festival for musicians, it's adventurous.......
Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Not the ballet, but a version for keyboard here heard on two pianos with Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin. The austerity concentrates the mind, focusing on the basic structure of the music......."

Ralf Wallin's Under City Skin "described as a way of hearing things on different levels, seeing archetypal myth beneath the grim reality of a cityscape. Hence the "footsteps", sounds that move forwards and backwards, from different angles. It's deliberately disorienting, especially at the Wigmore Hall where we're conditioned to hearing from only one dimension. The result is that there's a constant battle between what we recognize as conventional music and this strange disembodied counterpoint. It's a good way of shaking up auto pilot listening. Risør does counterpoint in the widest meaning of the term......"

"Arthur Honneger's Symphony no 2 for string orchestra and trumpet. Austere, spartan restraint, but also the clarity you get on a chill morning, when there's little background distraction. Yet Honneger contrasts the elegance with strange, wailing themes, "smeared" notes which counterbalance the formality. Is it an incantation, or a cry of anguish? Hearing Honneger after Stravinsky focuses the mind on the idea of ritual as means of placating fate and cosmic dangers. Significantly, Honneger was writing in 1940-1. The references to Bach confirm the idea of faith (of any type) in times of tribulation. Counterpoint again! In the third and last movement, Vivace non troppo - presto, a trumpet materializes in an archway, usually closed off, above the platform. Trumpets symbolize angels, of course, but musically this is powerfully effective. The strings aren't alone. Their chorale-like theme is reinforced by the deeper and more strident tones of the trumpet, playing in parallel".

Sunday 28 November 2010

Arthur Honnegger Train Man

Tonight at the Wigmore Hall, Arthur Honneger's Symphony no 2. But first the complete film of Honneger's Pacific 231. It's a study in forward movement created by steady tempi that resembles the orderly chugging of a vast machine, slowly changing gears.  Gradually the gravitas lightens, as the huge mass takes flight. Perhaps the high wind instruments suggest, well, wind, and speed. Perhaps the brass resembles the whistling of  a train?  The idea of parallel themes also suggests wheels in formation, moving independently, but in conjunction. Or railway lines, which start in a condensed huddle but spread out as the line heads out into open country.  Honneger's music was conceived as abstract music, but Pacific 231, because of its title, now means locomotives as well as locomotion. Honneger himself conducts in this 1949 film by Jean Mitry.

"Ce film n'est pas un Documentaire. Soutenues par de bruits qui nous sont familiers puis intiment liées à la musique suivre se proposent seulement de créer une ambiance"

Head above the parapet - Angela Gheorghiu

Two weeks ago, Roxana Briban committed suicide, frustrated because her voice had let her down. "She wanted to sing, even if she wasn't paid" said her husband.  Briban and Angela Gheorghiu grew up at the same time in the same environment. Talented kids tend to be isolated from their peers at the best of times and some,  like Gheorghiu, are hothoused from an early age. They're immensely driven people, so when they don't sing it is not for flippant reasons. So Gheorghiu cancels? She's not the first and won't be the last. But the fuss is becoming a kind of bloodsport, which may be amusing for some, but isn't helpful to anyone who really cares about art and artists.

Opera is an unnatural world, where singers are often portraying extreme personalities. It's their job to reflect emotional nuance. So some singers are highly strung? So? Talented people often expect much more of themselves and get stressed when they can't be perfect.  Someone once said that depressives are good people, despite their self-destructive han- ups, because they see the world as it is. Maybe being sensitive is a character fault, but I think it's better than being pig-headed. Singers are not machines.

Of course it's maddening when she cancels but some of the abuse she's been getting goes way beyond that. Personal abuse is totally unacceptable. That AG goes on at all shows courage. Even before she gets into costume, she knows already that there are people out there relishing every weakness, willing her to collapse. The more flak that's piled on, the more they get spooked, and the less likely they are to take risks. It's a vicious cycle. The wonder is that singers bother at all.

The other day I was watching someone standing on a parapet, contemplating suicide. Most of the onlookers empathized, but there are always a few who yell "Jump!" as if it's entertainment. Maybe it makes them feel more important? The world is unfortunately full of those who take pleasure in bringing others down.

Opera has always brought out bullies : remember Callas and Schwarzkopf hate mobs ? Now there's cyber bullying. Because of social media, the way opinion is formed has changed. Now everyone has an opinion, no matter how ill-informed. Sorry, but no one can be balanced in 140 characters or whatever it is. Reputations can be made or destroyed by manipulating the media. Sometimes total con artists are adored because they know how to play the game. What you hear isn't necessarily true.If AG were really blood thirsty she's put up a false front. Remember the Slatkin thing? He's no opera conductor. She told him so when no-one else dared.

No easy answers.  But in the long term, what's better for everyone is a bit more basic human kindness and respect for what goes into being creative. In some ways the plot of Adriana Lecouvreur is a cry for understanding, from which we might learn.
Please see my review, the reviewi n Opera Today and much else on this site(many p;hotos, with commentary)

Saturday 27 November 2010

Britten Finzi Tippett staged, Kings Place

Is English song like the (supposed) English psyche, reticent and unassuming? Britten Winter Words, Finzi A Young Man's Exhortation and Tippett Boyhood's End would be an ambitious programme at any time, but augmenting live perforance with interactive video and digital media? James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook's recital was part of the Kings Place Transition Projects series by Netia Jones,

The theme was "Before Life and After", a self consciously trendy title for three groups of songs about boyhood relived in memory. Both Britten and Finzi chose poems by Thomas Hardy, fixing the time frame firmly in the past. A small boy is sent alone off to school with a key to his "box" round his neck. Boys still get shipped off to boarding school, but now their boxes are supplemented by laptops, games and mobiles. The kind of childhood in these songs is solitary. Boys create their own worlds tnrough their imaginations. Britten's Winter Words are chilling. A boy in a train station plays his violin to amuse an old man. Who turns out to be handcuffed to a policeman. Nowadays, we'd scream "paedophile". Yet the boy's act of kindness is so straightforward,  it reflects on us that we've lost this innocence.

Netia Jones' films are semi-abstract. Images of garden gates, enclosing or opening onto empty roads, trees in winter stripped of leaves. Gilchrist sits at an old fashioned desk, with books, a thermos, an antique bar heater. This isn't our world, even though video screens surround him. It feels cold and austere, yet this staging draws you into an inner world that's all the more intense and creative because there are no comforts to dull the senses.

Britten's Winter Words were written in 1954, though they evoke a much earlier period. Hear The Choirmaster's Burial here)  Gilchrist's style is more immediate and direct, conveying meaning with intelligence : he's specially beautiful in the words decorated with ornate melismas, which sound like pealing bells.  Brilliantly, Jones's staging recreates the time warp. Gilchrist shuffles out of the "room" into the night, alone while Anna Tilbrook plays John Ireland's Soliloquy. It feels like floating down a time tunnel.

The six songs from Finzi's A Young Man's Exhortation which Gilchrist and Tilbrook chose for this recital aren't so much songs about boyhood per se as about memory and the passing of time. "The first fire since the summer is lit" sings Gilchrist, "and it's smoking into the room". Evenings are drawing in early, youth fades like the change of season. Jones's videos are like old photographs, whose images have blurred with time. Very evocative, supplementing the songs with an extra layer of mystery.

For mystery is the essence of childhood. Michael Tippett's Boyhood's End was written for Peter Pears in 1953 (contemporary with Winter Words),  It's a setting of a prose poem by William Henry Hudson who grew up in South America and never quite adjusted to living in cold and colourless Britain. Hudson describes experiences with the intense lucidity one might see through a microscope. Gilchrist sings of overpowering heat: Jones's images are of sunshine seen through a haze of leaves. Hudson's boy communes intimately with nature around him. Adult reality is very far away. Pears struggled with the unusual metre: Gilchrist has no problems, for a sense of wonder comes naturally to him, and his lucid delivery feels effortless and direct. He really is a born character-singer. Artifice is the least thing you'd want in this extended song, so semi-staging works well. You hear Gilchrist's light high tenor and see the boy on the projected screen, raising his arms in a gesture that's at once childlike and primeval.

This staging pulled together four disparate works so well thet it would have been churlish to expect an encore. Yet on my way home I kept thinking of Finzi's Childhood among the Ferns, also to Thomas Hardy. A boy hides under a dense canopy of tall ferns while rain pours down. He imagines he's in a secret nest. When the sun dries the ferns out, he smells the scent of the undergrowth and feels the warmth. "I could live on here this til Death" he muses, then cries, "Why should I have to grow to man's estate, And this afar-noises World perambulate?'  Why didn't Britten and Tippett jump on this poem?

Thursday 25 November 2010

Schreker Irrelohe - the flames of madness

Famously, the name Irrelohe came to Franz Schreker when he heard a train station master call out the name of a tiny hamlet. The name's mellifluous, the meaning is not. "The flames of madness" The plot's  straight out of a horror movie.

Dramatic overture, pulsating cadences like some somnolent monster. Wind instruments whip upwards - a hint of flames and smoke. The word "Irrelohe" repeats throughout. Irrelohe castle stands menacingly above the village. Long ago an Irrelohe ancestor had a relationship with an immortal spirit. All Irrelohe men since are cursed. They'll suddenly go insane, attack a virgin and die.

A peasant called Peter is in love with a beauty called Eva. Idyllic, except that Peter's mother is deranged by some trauma  in her past. Amazingly, Peter doesn't know the local legend or who his father might be, until sinister stranger Christobald arrives who seems to know many secrets. On Count Irrelohe's wedding day, 30 years ago, the village was making merry. Suddenly flames leapt out of Graf Irrelohe's head, his eyes bulged and he ravished a red (flame) haired village maid violently in front of the whole community. Then Christobald  reveals that he was due to marry the girl who was raped. No-one of course did a thing.  Class warfare, disguised as medieval romance. Graf Irrelohe went on to have other children but died insane. Christobald left the village and became a wandering minstrel. Ein Spielmann - follow the link for more. Schreker's connecting to a long German tradition  but deals with the violent sex without shirking. No euphemisms,, no romantic gloss. In 1922-4 when the opera was written, ideas of sexual aberration were being confronted for the first time. Schreker links a traditional German icon to depraved psychosis. It was shocking. No wonder Schreker gained a reputation for being "unhealhy". His relative obscurity after his death is blamed on the Nazis but in fact there's a lot more behind it.

Musically Irrelohe is disturbing because Schreker combines rhythms of traditional German drinking songs and dances with discordant dissonace. It's not specially modern but makes deliberate references to Wagner - Loge's flames, Irrelohe's flames, (hear the link "lo"  in the music)  Wotan protects his daughter from sex, while other women are destroyed by curses and power structures. Cosima would have hated Irrelohe whatever Schreker's ancestry might have been. Richard Wagner, I suspect would have loved it (though there's no competition between Wagner and Schreker in musical terms).

Demonism, too. The parson, the miller and Eva's father, the forester, meet at the crossroads. There's the usual icon of a crucifix, like you see all over Germany and Austria.  They're there for the pious to stop and rest, but also because in mythology, crossroads are vulnerable places where the Devil can enter. This cosy village Trinity leaves, replaced by a much more malevolent trinity. Ratzekahl, Strahlbusch and Fünkchen are Spielmännern too, musicians who turn up out of nowhere. Ostensibly they play at village parties - where drink is served and inhibitions lower -  but they're also faintly dangerous. Christobald's their leader. Gott, Mensch und Tier, sie sündigen alles, Nur durch Feuer kann Friede werden (God, man and beast, all sinners. Only through Fire can peace be reached.)

Think back to Der Feuerreiter, Eduard Mörike's poem inspired by ancient folk legend. He's an elemental who suddenly appears destroying the village economy in a holocaust of flame. The devil, maybe, but also a creature of nature. Just as the Feuerreiter appears first as a glimpse of a red cap, someone's spied  ein greisgrau Männlein mit einer Spitz, roten Feder am Hut (an ash headed dwarf with a pointy hat topped with a red feather)  Something's in the wind, says the forester, lots more fires than usual this year.

Meanwhile Eva has met Graf Heinrich, the current Lord of Irrelohe. He's seized with an irrational passion for her, but the madness hasn't taken over yet. In fact, Eva lusts for him desperately, she'd hardly resist. They decide to marry then and there. What a coincidence that Christobald and his Spielmännern have suddenly materialized.

However it's not Graf Heinrich who jumps a virgin, but Peter, crazed by his unrequited love for Eva.  Tie me up, he begs his mother, or I'll do something bad. Like turn into a werewolf, or the first born son of the last Lord Irrelohe. Heinrich is the second son, the Count raped Lola on his wedding day 30 years before. Now Heinrich must duel with Peter who is the living image of their father. Freudian minefield. The text ending's trite. Eva and Heinrich welcome the flames that destroy the castle (and presumably his mother, servants and fortune). Yet the idea is liberating, getting rid of the baggage of the past. Schreker's music has the last word. It swells up majestically, crackling with infernal energy. Götterdämmerung in a quaint rustic context. Schreker's not as good as Wagner, but wow, this is dramatic, and sinister. Eva and Heinrich think the fire is purifying because it ends their curse. In Irrelohe, the curse was caused by sex, but Die Spielmännern live on to wreak havoc elsewhere. There'll be other fires to come, and worse.

Schreker is currently fashionable because Bard discovered the comparatively twee Der ferne Klang. which is heard in full production in major European houses like Zurich. That opera contains fallen women and haunted men, but Irrelohe takes obsession to extremes. Musically it's altogether stronger and more pointed. The Spielmännern are like demons, emerging from the unconscious, destroying order and reason. After the social upheavals of the 1920's it must have been hard to take. Last month there was a production of Irrelohe in Bonn, at least the third since the Schreker revival thitrty years ago. Unfortunately, there's only one recording, a fairly basic live performance recorded in 1989,  unexceptional singers and the Wiener Symphoniker, who are not the Wiener Philharmoniker. But imagine Irrelohe performed by players who think beyond the idea that Schreker's no more than late, late Romantic. Ingo Metzmacher, we need you.

Thanks to a reader who knows this opera well,, here is a link to the current Bonn production which is apparently "outstanding". Complete with video. Review above. The production continues to Feb 2011. Look at what else is on in Bonn ! Puts Bard into perspective.

500 years ago today

On this day 500 years ago, Alfonso d'Albuquerque (1453-1515) formally laid claim to Goa in India. The Portuguese had been venturing east in search of trade (and adventure) and had already established posts all round the coast of Africa. India was a far bigger prize  but coastal trade was controlled by Arab merchants. It was impossible to keep supply lines between Europe and the East without a regional base. So in 1507, Albuquerque did a deal with the ruler of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and built a fort which was a springboard for expansion. Exploiting the rivalry between the seaborne Muslims and local Hindu rulers, Albuquerque attacked Goa first in 1509 then again in 1510. Victory was declared on 25th November.

So this day marks 500 years of European presence in Asia. From Goa, the Portuguese went on to conquer Malacca in 1511, also by doing deals between rival local rulers. They first visted the China coast in 1509 and reached Nagasaki in Japan in 1543.  Macau was offically founded in 1557. There were also big "Portuguese" communities in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam etc, not self governing but mercenaries and subjects of the local rulers.

Vasco da Gama (146?-1524) came to Goa several times, setting the city up as the administrative centre of Portuguese activities in the east. From Goa, the Portugese branched out all over India and beyond. If you're ever in Park Crescent, London (next to Regent's Park, on the way to the Wigmore Hall), one of those mansions belonged to a woman whose ancestors came from Goa to Macau. She ended up in London in the 1840's because her husband had business interests everywhere. Probate London, 1844, not Macau. Her descendants went on to marry into the aristocracy, both in England and Portugal. Stonor Park, Stonyhurst, etc all have a Macau connection.

Because white women didn't go East, right from the start the Portuguese in Asia were mixed race, multicultural hybrids. Their empire was coastal, ad hoc, always dependent on local initative and alliances. Guns of course, that was a fact of life then. But the Portuguese empire was nothing like Victorian India and different too from Spanish South America. Unfortunately the best books are no longer in print. The classic references in English are nearly all by Charles Boxer, but copies cost a fortune. There's good work too by an Indian professor, KM Panikkar, who studied both Indian and contemporary Portuguese archives. Impossible to get though. Pity as the Portuguese seaborne empire (as Boxer called it) is an interesting example of Europeans adapting to more powerful Asian nations. Acculturation very much both ways. Indeed, the European baroque might not have flourished as it did without the discovery of new worlds beyond Europe.

Latest Adriana Lecouvreur McVicar podcast

Adriana Lecouvreur at the Royal Opera House London is a good lesson in not judging by appearances. When I saw the photos of the ROH set before setting off to see it my heart dropped. Extremely elaborate set, as over the top as the fancy toy theatre my Dad gave my kids when they were small, kind of uber-Drottningholm. (The kids refused to play with it, because they said the little dolls spoiled the vision) (cogitate on that). So I thought, what have I let myself in for? On the other hand I was in the mood for an indulgent sugar rush and an opera won't live forever on your hips.

Yes, they piled on the glamour and lusciousness, thereby rescuing a pleasant but not specially profound opera. Then it dawned on me that David McVicar and Charles Edwards use the elaboration to subvert the usual idea of retro opera. This Adriana Lecouvreur isn't self-indulgent glamour for its own sake. Instead it's a commentary on the hollowness of glamour and celebrity. Adriana is the biggest star in town, but where does it get her ? In some ways, she's made her own tragedy by having illusions about love, fuelled by the theatre rather than real life. Just as everyone else in this opera is playing games of self-delusion on one level or other.

The concept makes the performances fall into place. Angela Gheorghiu s stretched, but that adds to her charcterization. If she belted things out she'd hardly be the sensitive, driven woman she is in the plot. Although she looks extremely young in that makeup, you feel that she's matured to  a point in her life when theatre isn't enough. So if she sounds unhappy lost in the Phédre monologue, it's because Gheorghiu understands that for Adriana, her trademark party piece is just a mask. What she wants now at this stage in her life is to live, without illusion. Yet just as she's made the breakthrough, she dies. {Perhaps that's why Gheorghiu's final aria is so genuinely moving.

The concept has a bearing on Jonas Kaufmann's performance too. Perhaps he doesn't let rip because Maurizio just isn't the kind of man who does deep feelings. its from woman to woman to woman, persona to persona, but is he really engaged emotionally? Even when he proposes to Adriana he knows full well that Counts of Saxony don't marry aging actresses. I loved his Lohengrin this summer but apparently he doesn't like the part. Lohengrin is the ultimate Romantic hero, but he's not really human. So Kaufmann's Maurizio was splendidly realized.

Most reviews have stressed the surface glamour of this production, because the images look so good. So I worried that I was getting too much from it. So much relief when David McVicar speaks about his ideas and about Gheorghiu in THIS PODCAST. I wasn't dreaming, after all. I'm not so sure about his idea that the opera connects to current political philistinism  in government. In most parts of society, people don't analyze or think beyond surface appearances.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Adriana Lecouvreur, ROH - perceptive NEW review

Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur at the Royal Opera House London, by Ruth Elleson in Opera Today. Read this, it's an example of what good reviewing can be - analytical, thoughtful, and above all, processed by a human mind ! If you like perceptive writing you know where to find it. You can see why I was waiting for this.

"the sheer number of references to other shows — maybe a natural progression from the score itself. Cilea was a contemporary of Puccini and Massenet, and most of the aural reminders are from this milieu, but Act 4 in particular evokes a wider range of influences. In McVicar’s staging, a balletomane friend of mine who attended the dress rehearsal picked up on direct references (costumes and choreographic devices) within the Act 3 ballet to Royal Ballet productions of La fille mal gardée, Invitus Invitam and Sylvia. The chorus crowded into their onstage audience-seating much as they did in McVicar’s Alcina for ENO in 1999; then, a marble bust of Handel dominated the stage; here the bust was Moliere’s. It was interesting that of all his own works, this was the one McVicar chose to reference; another opera about the blurred boundary between theatre and reality."

"......Gheorghiu may not be an immediately obvious ‘humble handmaid of art’ but she was poised and charming, playing a very youthful version of this heroine who historically has been associated with the ageing diva. Her voice is very much on the small side given the scoring, and for the intimacy of the first and last acts (which frame Adriana’s two celebrated arias) it was often exquisite. But in the confrontation with the Princesse de Bouillon and again in her vengeful Phèdre monologue, Gheorghiu was a kitten when a tigress was needed"

"Jonas Kaufmann always seemed on the edge of something spectacular, and the contained restraint with which he treats his large, dark-coloured voice would have been massively exciting had it been part of a broad palette. As it was, he seemed to be trying to demonstrate that a hot-blooded verismo hero can be sung with subtlety and intelligence, while also showing off some of his remarkable technical skill (particularly in his legato, and once, memorably, his impeccable ability to diminuendo on a top note). It was very, very impressive — but all too careful, too measured. It seemed a studied effort in avoiding stereotype (or perhaps he was reining himself in to avoid overpowering Gheorghiu) but I longed for him to let rip."

Please follow the link here  for more - it's worth reading, this is the voice of experience, not just another writeup. No-one else gets the references to other works. Scroll down or go HERE to see my review with more photos.
Photo of Angela Gheorhiu and Jonas Kaufmann copyright Catherine Ashmore, courtesy Royal Opera House, details embedded.

Der Spielmann Schumann

Schumann Der Spielmann (op 40/4) to a text by Adelbert von Chamisso, a contemporary poet, who'd died just two years before Schumann made the setting.

At first, it seems idyllic. At a village wedding, wine is flowing, everyone is dancing, and the piano sings merrily. But look closer ! Die Braut nur gleicht dem getünchten Tod..The bride's frozen with deathly pallor. The one she loves is there, but he's not the bridegroom.

Er streichelt die Geige, sein Haar ergraut, Es schwingen die Saiten gellend und laut,Er drückt sie ans Herz und achtet es nicht, Ob auch sie in tausend Stücke zerbricht. Someone is playing a fiddle,so fiercely and wildly, he doesn't care if it breaks into a thousand pieces.  The melody is rousing but the young fiddler's hair is turning grey. "It breaks my heart to see one die like this!" cries the singer.

Then the real horror. The fiddler sees a ghostly hand clawing at him. Wer heißt euch mit Fingern zeigen auf mich? And he, too, freezes. O Gott - bewahr uns gnädiglich, Dass  keinen der Wahnsinn übermannt. Oh God, protect me from this madness! Psychic dissociation. I'm not really here, I'm not part of the party, I'm not the heartbroken lover, I can't cope with the bride's grief.  

Bin selber ein armer Musikant. I'm just a jobbing musician.

What a song for Schumann to set on the eve of his marriage to Clara.

Monday 22 November 2010

Risør comes to the Wigmore Hall

Leif Ove Andsnes's innovative Risør Festival comes to the Wigmore Hall this week. It's very special because it's aimed at performers, playing for each other and sharing ideas. Everyone stays together in this small Norwegian coastal town, so people get to know each other closely, which adds to the  atmosphere - very conducive to good chamber music. Because it's a musicians' festival, the focus is on experiment - unusual repertoire, unusual ways of hearing the familiar. Risør's creative, and attracts the eclectic. Please read this account:  "Revolution in Risør"

Part of the Risør ambiance is Norwegian - clear, clean air, sea breezes, forests, remoteness, long evenings that don't get dark. That doesn't travel but at the Wigmore Hall this week, we'll get a chance to hear some of the music.

On Friday 26th, Leif Ove Andsnes presents a programme framed by Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Op. 8 (presumably with Henning Kraggerud as soloist) and Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor Op. 25 (could be either Marc-André Hamelin or Andsnes himself). In between a series of songs - Wagner, Duparc, Liszt, Chausson. Measha Brueggergosman won second prize the year the Wigmore Hall Song Competition didn't award a first prize. She's developing well. She impressed as a sassy but smart Jenny Smith in the recent Barcelona Kurt Weill  Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She's had recent major heart surgery and proudly bears the scars - good for her! Her stamina will improve,  and these songs will show her to advantage. She's specially good at sensual French chanson.

The concert on Saturday 27th sold out ages ago.  Look at the programme and see why. I'm going on Sundat 28th though, because the programme's more daring. Andsnes and Hamelin play The Rite of Spring? This is the two piano version!

Ralf Wallin's Under City Skin is completely new to me, but my friend Douglas Cooksey wrote "Conjuring up the frenetic sounds of a day in the life of a city from the sinister and dangerous sounds of running high heels in the early morning to the stress of the rush-hour, there was an impressive energy culminating in a downward ride in a skyscraper lift, almost a ride to the abyss; unfortunately,Wallin seemed reluctant to quit whilst he was ahead, rounding off the piece with a tediously soporific slow section which dissipated all the tensions previously generated. Like Satie's mischievous comment about Debussy's La mer when he commented that he liked the bit at quarter-to-eleven in the opening movement ('Dawn to Midday on the Sea'), Wallin should have stopped when we got off the lift!"

Arthur Honneger's Second Symphony, and Alban Berg  4 Pieces for clarinet and piano Op. 5 too! And if that's not enough, there's an 1130 Sunday morning concert too.

Sunday 21 November 2010

ENO A Dog's Heart - Review

In this era of safe, timid opera, A Dog's Heart at the ENO might just be the tonic to liven things up. It's guaranteed to provoke extreme reactions. From Complicite and Simon McBurney, we couldn't expect anything less.

Mikhail Bulgakov's novel  The Heart of a Dog disturbed the Soviet authorities so much  they banned it for 60 years  The plot's seditious. Professor Preobrazhensky (Steven Page) is an eminent surgeon who adopts an abused mongrel from the street. The professor's apartment is a haven in a world that's disintegrating all round.  Everyone is scavenging to survive. Dog eat Dog, "Something's not right here" thinks the dog, hardly believing his luck. The Professor rejuvenates his patients by transplanting animal organs into them. Now, he wants to create a New Man from a dog.  Dog made Man becomes Poligraph Poligrafovich Sharikov (Peter Hoare) a beast, slovenly, venal and brutal. (Please read a more detailed synopsis HERE)

With a plot as surreal as this, don't expect conventional opera or theatre. All art is an expression of how an artist responds to something. We're there to listen to someone's point of view, however outrageous. A Dog's Heart is a new opera, yet we can still come to it carrying baggage about what things "ought" to be, Yet the whole plot plays with the idea of species, genre and gender bending.

For a start it wasn't written in the usual way. Alexander Raskatov, the composer, worked with Simon McBurney and Complicite from the start so music, text and action are symbiotic. Raskatov's music isn't demanding so have no fears on this score. Its bark is worse than its bite. The presence of several big name composers in the audience is no indication of Raskatov's status in the avant garde. He's best known for completing Alfred Schnittke's Ninth Symphony. What he does do well is link music to text.

Because Sharik/Sharikov is an unstable chimera. so too is his music, constantly wavering in pitch  and volume, the vocal line unnaturally distorted. He's unnatural, after all, at any moment threatening to change form. He has two voices, one ostensibly "pleasant" (countertenor Andrew Watts) and one   "unpleasant" (soprano Elena Vassilieva, a "dramatic soprano"). On film, Sharik/Sharikov isn't hard to create but live theatre presents  unique challenges. No actor could shape shift that quickly or effectively. Hence the puppet dog, created by Blind Summit the cutting edge puppet company. Like Sharik, the puppet is manipulated into different forms, constantly changing. At one stage one puppet version is discarded for another. But realism is hardly relevant here,

Singers double in different parts. It's disconcerting as you recognize a voice but can't recognize the persona. But that's the story. Characters come and go, adding to the sense of instability, throwing the idea of narrative askew. Unless you know the plot already, it's confusing. But in real life, none of us really know the plot, either.

What this production misses is the strong political context of the original. Shvonder (Alasdair Elliott) and his agitators are reduced to ciphers. In theory that's valid because the basic drama is the Professor's Faustian misuse of knowledge, but the revolutionaries, grubby as they are, add dramatic tension. On the other hand, if the production were more overtly political, the pervading surrealism would be lost. What McBurney and Complicite emphasize instead is the fundamental idea of existential instability. They create the Professor not as a loner but as a representative of another mass, not as grubby as the proletariat, but no less certain of their Rights. The scene where the Professor explains himself to his peers (see photo) is very well done - this mob have white coats but they're also barking demented.

Similarly, McBurney downplays the incident where Sharikov unplugs the tap in the toilet and floods the apartment.  It's a powerful metaphor, but difficult to stage. Here, it's a weakness that adds nothing to the drama. Perhaps it should have been left out altogether, like some of the  minor incidents, like the Professor''s patients. Interesting as they are they aren't central to the drama. McBurney does, however, extend other elements in the plot in subtle ways. Dr Bormenthal (Leigh Melrose)  is seen meticulously typing up his reports, oblivious to the basic madness of their subject. Sitting at his desk, he's propelled across the stage from side to side the way old fashioned typewriters leap when you press return. Maybe that's lost on audiences brought up on PCs, but it's a good idea: Man as Machine, like Dog as Man. Similarly, Zina the Maid (Nancy Allen Lundy) becomes a big part. She shrieks, leaps and jitters. Woman as Puppy, just as disruptive as Sharikov the dog, which is perhaps why he tries to mate with her. On a deeper level, Zina is the "new woman" that appears in the novel, a hybrid that threatens the oligarchy the Professor and his peers maintain. Or isd she a comment on shallow modern society,? (Excellent performance despite the part being mad).

ENO's A Dog's Heart has its flaws, but its energy is a purgative for stodge. The anarchy of A Dog's Heart is an antidote. This is what ENO does best, shaking up complacency, freeing new ideas. A Dog's Heart is by no means Great Art but it's irreverent and fun, and better than much else on offer.

Photos Copyright : Stephen Cummiskey, courtesy ENO, details embedded.
Please read my other posts on A Dog's Heart the Movie and A Dog's Heart Preview

Friday 19 November 2010

A Dog's Heart - the movie

Brand-new opera A Dog's Heart starts at the ENO on 20th. Please see my preview HERE. The opera is based on a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, written only 8 years after the Russian Revolution. It was a time of surprising liberality because the new order didn't, as yet, clamp down on new ideas in society, literature, film, etc. Nonetheless Bulgakov's The Heart of A Dog was so seditious it went underground until officially unbanned in 1987. Perhaps it says something about the Soviet Union that the novel was filmed the very next year for Lenfilms, Moscow, directed by Vladimir Bortko.

Atmospherically shot in sepia, like an antique print, it grounds the drama in 1925, discreetly bypassing the universal relevance. It's a good starting point though, because so much of the film depends on understanding the background. A snow-covered street, shot from ground level. Gradually voice emerges - the thoughts of the dog, which is why the shots are dog-level. Everyone's scavenging in these desperate times, "dog eat dog" you could quip.

Professor Preobrazhensky is an eminent surgeon, who lives in an old Tsarist mansion, now gradually being taken over by squatters authorized  by the new authorities. They pull up the parquet for firewood, the electricity's unreliable, everything's slowly falling apart. The Professor dines in elegant surroundings and still has the clout to ward off Shvonder and his Management Committee who represent the new order. The Professor adopts the dog and feeds him kielbasa. The Professor's speciality is interspecies transplant which was actually popular pseudoscience in the 1920's - monkey glands as viagra for example. Rejuvenation by extreme measures - a metaphor for the grand Soviet Experiment. 

But you can't take the dog out of the man. Post-surgery Sharik gets poshed up as Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov. The name means "polygraph" a nonsense name chosen by a dog asserting his identity. He wrecks the house, tries to rape the maid, generally runs amok till he takes up with Shvonder and his gang of bullies. Then he gets a job in pest control. "You're so good at rounding up stray cats", say his mates. "It's in my heart", says Sharikov. Now that Sharokov has power and is armed with a gun, he's dangerous.  Not because he is pals with Shvonder. "The real horror is that he now has a man's heart, not a dog's,", says the Professor, "the rottenest heart in all creation".

Bortko's Heart of a Dog is full of quirky period details that will have Russians howling with delight. But it's a wonderful film anyone with wit can enjoy if you like subversive satire. The actor who plays the dog even looks jowly, like a mutt. At the ENO, A Dog's Heart is an entirely new work, scored by Alexander Raskatov and dramatized by Simon McBurney, both of them new to opera, though McBurney's work with Complicite, the innovative theatre ensemble, is legendary. The film is excellent background, but go to the Coliseum expecting something completely different to the film. Who knows what this latest transformation  might be?

Adriana Lecouvreur Royal Opera House London

Everyone likes a chocolate rush sometimes. Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur at the Royal Opera House London is  delicious indulgence. Everyone will be raving about the big name stars, the glamour, and the frothy chocolate box staging. "It's safe" people will sigh. "Traditional costumes!" But beware!   Photos deceive without proper context.

Adriana Lecouvreur can be" toffee" as some have suggested,. "Cilea makes Puccini sound as profound as Wagner". But everything's in the staging. David McVicar shows that beneath the candy coated artifice, there's savage irony. This Adriana Lecouvreur makes a mockery of surface appearances. But arguably, so does the opera though no-one has quite yet noticed past the frippery.

Adriana (Angela Gheorghiu) is a famous actress at the Comédie-Française. Most of the action takes place in the theatre. "Actresses don't live like other people" says the manager Michonnet. Illusion is their business. They shift between roles as easily as changing their clothes or make-up. But who is fooling whom and why? Michonnet (Alessandro Corbelli) loves Adriana but she doesn't get what he says when he tries to tell her. The Prince and Princess of Bouillon (Maurizio Muraro and Michaela Schuster) have affairs yet maintain the pretence of marriage. Maurizio (Jonas Kaufmann) pretends to be an ordinary soldier when he's in fact the Count of Saxony. And he's two-timing the women in his life. If Adriana hadn't fooled herself into thinking the dried violets were Maurizio's, she might have saved herself a lot of angst. This is an opera about the art of theatre, about image and delusion, rather than glamour and glitz.

No surprise that the set designs are by Charles Edwards, exceptionally intelligent and pointed. The Royal Opera House stage becomes a series of boxes within boxes,  a theatre within a theatre. Sometimes we see the stars front stage when they're supposed to be backstage. Sometimes the ROH audience see things from the same perspective as the "audience" on stage, the mock theatre. Everyone laughs at the "dancers" some of whom are real ballerinas, some not. And then the masks come off, literally. Look at this photo of the set. The curtain isn't drawn back. It's painted, trompe l'oeil, designed to seem 3D when it's actually flat. And in the middle a "real" door through which people enter. You could look at these sets and be no wiser as to what they mean. Or you could think.....that's the real art of stagecraft.

Adriana Lecouvreuer is a vehicle for Angela Gheorghiu, make no mistake. She's magnificent and she knows it too. Adriana was a diva and so is Angela. And who can blame her? Her star arias are lovely, and she gets to show how many different characters she can express, from trusting lover to the mad scene and dramatic death. But when she sings her final No, qua dentro è la morte! ... m'addenta un serpe il cor, she's utterly convincing and moving. Because she puts her soul into Adriana, she lifts the piece from performance to something heartfelt.

Fans were out in force for Jonas Kaufmann, the tenor whom opera fans think is a Lieder singer and Lieder fans think is an opera singer. His Lohengrin this year was amazing. I first heard him in Schumann Der Rose Pilgerfahrt, (1998) when he was singing both genres. So I don't jump on bandwagons. I thought he'd be an ideal Romantic hero, the ultimate in Rossini or Donizetti, roles which benefit from charm. Maurizio could have been tailor-made. At times there was a little tightness in his voice but it was soon dispelled by glorious climaxes when he needed them.  He knows how to pace himself well. And his looks! He simply has to flash a sidelong glance, raise an eyebrow and the audience, male and female, swoons. Cilea doesn't develop Maurizio psychologically but that's OK. The opera moves around Adriana and her dilemmas.
Or does it really ? Look atthis photo, focused on Adriana and the busy crowd. Who's in the background? Michonnet (Alessandro Corbelli) who appears in nearly every scene, even though he doesn't always get to sing big star numbers Because he's the Manager of the theatre, he's used to making things function well. He's a mover and shaker, but can't get his way in love. Yet he's altruistic, helping Adriana even if it means losing her to the man she really loves. A much loved buffo. Corbelli told me how he envisaged Michonnet, but I was still surprised at how much depth and dignity he brings to the role. Moreover, he does it quietly, without fuss and flash, the mark of a true character singer. Corbelli's Michonnet is a lot more than factotum. In many ways, the really tragic role in Adriana Lecouvreur is Michonnet. He's the man who fixes things for other people, but can't fix things when he really needs to.  Presumably Maurizio can find another woman as quickly as he's dumped the Princess, but chances are that Michonnet, whose business is illusion, can no longer dream.

There's lots more to be written about this fascinating production. such as Mark Elder's conducting, so lucid it makes the music sound good. There'll be one soon in Opera Today  by Ruth Elleson who has interesting things to say about the music and singing. She was at the last London production of this opera, which can't have been as good as this one at ROH, so please read what she says.  

Something as sumptuous as this can only be produced by large houses, in this case a joint production with Vienna, Barcelona, San Francisco and Opéra Bastille. It's going to be a huge success because it looks so good. But its real success is the way it subverts superficial appearances and finds something much more  profound in the work. Perhaps someone could say "That's not what Cilea intended! Cilea wanted fluff!" And maybe so. But this is an Adriana Lecouvreur that's less mindless than it looks.
(photos COPYRIGHT Catherine Ashmore, Royal Opera House, details embedded,  please don't borrow)

György Kurtág Kafka Fragments London Upshaw Sellars

Can Haiku be improved by staging? György Kurtág's Kafka-Fragmente (op. 24), is a masterpiece of zen-like purity. ...... Forty brief quotes from Kafka’s diaries appear, many barely more than a sentence long. Meaning is elusive. “Die Weissnäherinnen in den Regengüssen” (washerwomen in downpours), for example, which is the entire text of song 9. Kurtág sets the words so they slide up and down the scale in strange, disoriented cadence, the violin part edgily racing beside the voice. What does the image mean? Is Kurtág illustrating the image or is he purposefully using it to hint at something wholly intangible?

Kurtág deliberately chose fragments because they are incomplete, and because they are fragile. They are existentialist utterances, beyond explanation. Meaning is distilled, intensely condensed like a homeopathic substance with power to expand in your soul. Most of Kurtág’s music is like this, highly polished miniatures to be carefully savoured on an intuitive level. Very zen, exquisitely beautiful.
But does something so esoteric need to be confined by concrete staging? Sellars interprets the Kafka Fragments with heavy handed literalism, seizing on brief references of purity and dirt to create a soap opera of domestic banality. Dawn Upshaw is seen sweeping, ironing, changing light bulbs and in one memorable image, with a plastic basket over her head. When Kafka remarks on concealment, is he being silly? In his pre-performance talk, Sellars told the audience that cleaning a bathroom was a great source of contemplation. Perhaps to him, but not to all. In his recent staging of Tristan und Isolde, Sellars also used elaborate projections of a long cleansing ritual which bore little relevance to the opera. Wagner as spa? Perhaps it’s a Sellars’ thing. In this case, the photographic projections were not by Bill Viola but by David Michalek, and even more distracting.

Kurtág needs staging, he added. To loosely paraphrase Sellars, “If you associate a song with a visual image, you can follow it”. Yet Kafka-Fragmente is only an hour long, less than many symphonies. Each fragment is so distinct that it’s really not hard to follow if you listen attentively. The danger is worrying too much about consuming what you see on the page, rather than absorbing the whole by listening on a more profound, oblique level.All performances involve interpretation. Even reading a score means personal input. But too literal a layer of expression obliterates without adding insight. Like haiku, Kurtág’s music is magical because it’s both elusive and utterly lucid at the same time, but treating it too literally defeats the whole purpose. This perhaps is why Sellars’ staging was so disappointing.

There were good moments where his images matched the music, such as the swaying movements in the first song, like the ticking of a clock. “Die Guten gehn im gleichen Schritt....die Tänze der Zeit” (The Good march in step...the Dances of Time). Yet many these fragments are evocative because they defy easy stereotypes. Forcing them into a narrative diminishes their power. When Kafka writes of pain, he doesn’t simply mean a woman pressing a hot iron into her face.

In principle, there’s nothing inherently wrong about staging music, particularly vocal music. Otherwise we wouldn’t have opera or ballet. But Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente work because they are beyond definition, their meaning deliberately open-ended and mysterious. It’s this freedom that makes aphoristic music so liberating. Kurtág explicitly connects to Anton Webern through the dedication to Pierre Boulez, Webern’s great champion. “The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended” “Stolzen zu machen, als begangen zu werden”. (making you stumble rather than easily walk) Obliqueness, again, and contradiction. Very haiku. For Sellars the rope seems to imply suicide. Whether that’s valid or not, it means something different to Kurtág.

The Barbican Centre in London should be commended because it does innovative, daring work for contemporary music and opera. Last year they did Eötvös’s Angels in America, and Michael van der Aa’s After Life.  The Barbican has also staged several of Kaija Saariaho’s opera, for which Peter Sellars did excellent semi-stagings. These were successful because they encapsulated the essential drama in Saairaho’s diffuse, chromatic reveries. With Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente the opposite happens. In his pre-performance talk, Sellars gave many different explanations for his choices, a kitchen sink approach, perhaps in the hope that some of the ideas might work. If only he had absorbed the inner essence of Kurtág’s ethos, that less is more and that muzak isn’t music.

The benchmark recording of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente is easily the one with Juliane Banse and András Keller, on ECM (2006). It is the keynote, as Keller has worked with Kurtág for many years and performed most of his work for violin. Indeed, the composer was involved in making the recording. High standards indeed, so it’s to Dawn Upshaw’s credit that her singing was up to the mark. She’s possibly the most experienced American singer in contemporary repertoire, and it showed in the way she negotiated Kurtág’s quirky lines and silences. Technically, Upshaw’s voice is more lustrous than Banse’s but the setting let her down.

 ...... for me it felt like seeing some great classic of European or Japanese art cinema remade for daytime TV.

Please see the full review in Opera Today with extra links. 

Thursday 18 November 2010

Ma Sicong Music for Violin and Piano 2

Ma Sicong (馬思聰) (1912-1987) (Ma Sitkong) is a composer everyone should know, Chinese or not, because his music can be exquisitely beautiful. The latest recording, Ma Sicong Music for Violin and Piano Vol 2 , has been top of my listening list for many months. It's heart-breakingly poignant and intimate. This is the disc I turn to most,despite all others, because it's so emotionally potent. That's why it's  been difficult for me to write about it because I can't do it justice.

Ma Sicong is an icon in China. He was more  prolific and less ideological than Xian Xinghai (冼星海) (Chang Singhoi) who died young. Ma was extremely influential as he was a virtuoso violinist and charismatic teacher. He had integrity and dignity, despite persecution. His story has meaning for all, Chinese or not.

Western classical music was well established in China even during the late 19th century. Educated, modern-thinking Chinese were open-minded and well aware of European trends. Studying in Europe was the norm for anyone progressive who could afford it (and for some who were poor and held on). There were full conservatories in Beijing and Shanghai, but Ma's older brother lived in France, so 11 year old Ma, already a prodigy violinist, went to Paris.

Ma's music is firmly in the western classical tradition, though he was naturally immersed in Chinese sensibilities. Indeed, that's why learning  Ma's music for violin and piano is a key to his wider repertoire. The violin is not unlike Chinese instruments like the erhu.  Traditional Chinese music is a lot like chamber music, played solo or in very small ensembles. The scholarly ideal of refinement was to play an instrument and make music, much like writing poetry or painting, to be enjoyed in intimate, private surroundings. Folk music, too was often individual, like solo flautists and string players. Most people in the West think of Chinese music as garish and strident, like Beijing opera, but the reality is quite different.

Hsiao-mei Ku is the violinist on the disc I love so much. She, too, was a child prodigy, from the same province of Guangdong. There are precious photos of her playing a child-size violin, and Ma beaming with appreciation. The photos are precious because the Red Guard movement  changed so much. All music, even non-political Chinese music, was considered degenerate. Ma was the top person in Chinese music education, protected by Zhou Enlai (who also studied in Paris), but even he was humiliated in the Cultural Revolution. Ma and his immediate family made a dramatic escape,,first to Hong Kong and then to the United States, where he died in exile. (His brother was punished and his French sister-in-law committed suicide). Hsiao-mei Ku, being much younger, didn't have the same connections. Her violins were taken away. She was forced to clean pig stables and undergo other horrors but eventually made it out, where she now has tenure at Duke University.

This background does have a bearing, because Ku's sensitivity to Ma's music is intense, and she learned from the composer himself. Her work is perhaps definitive. Her playing is exquisite, complete control over the very long, keening legato. Yet there's energy, wildly animated strength and resilience. Most impressive of all, she understands the soul of this music, its context and sense of yearning. What comes over strongly is Ma's love of China, so deep it's embedded in his very nature. This love for music, for art and for humanity transcends the traumas of his life and makes it so inspirational.  Ku is supported well by Ning Lu, the pianist.

If anything, this second volume of Ma's music for violin and piano is even better than the first. (Read about the first CD HERE).  In this second disc, there's no need to play up the "Chinese" character of Ma's music. It stands on its own terms, very much in the western mainstream but original and distinctive.
Spring Dance (1953) starts with an assertive exposition that zig zags confidently and is strikingly modern. It opens out to a quieter central section marked by a lithe, lovely solo violin, before reprising the assertive theme. Simple, but extremely distinctive. Similarly, Rondo no 2 (1950) has the purity of folk music, even though these pieces are definitely sophisticated art music. Ma has absorbed the essence of traditional music and can create something highly individual. Think Bartók. Melody (1952) is almost wholly western, the piano part providing firm support for a violin melody that develops inventively.

Ma's Violin Sonata No 3, written in 1984 towards the end of his life, is particularly moving. The piano part is luscious, romantic without being sentimental.  The violin starts delicately but moves on to a crescendo of great vigour. If this sonata expresses nostalgia, it's also imbued with confidence. The allegro vivace movement is refreshing.

The Gaoshan Suite (1973) is more specifically Chinese in intention, with its references to customs like Calling Back the Spirits. But don't expect pastiche. Ma is far too good. This music could easily stand on its own in any western programme. The "ghosts" here have universal meaning. More "Chinese" in the sense of pentatonic harmony is Ballade (1952)  . The violin sings a melody that for me evokes powerful feelings of nostalgia and intimacy. Maybe other people won't have the same connotations or memories, but anyone who's moved by RVW's The Lark Ascending will be moved by this too, though it's more of a miniature.

The backbones of this disc are the three Rondos.  Rondo no 3 and 4 (1983) are separated from Rondo no 2 by thirty years in which Ma Sicong's life underwent extreme upheaval.  Yet Rondo no 2 starts cheerfully, a skittish melody that seems carefree, even when Ma pushes the violin into angular rhythms. Basic cells repeat, but overall the mood is forward-thinking and positive. Ku and Lu separate the two late Rondos with Ballade, emphasizing the passage of time, like a brief Rückblick. Thus Rondo no 4 feels like an explosion. The piano part almost bursting with determined expressivity. It's intense and dark, yet the violin, which perhaps "speaks" for Ma himself, dominates, defiant with an almost demonic strong sense of purpose  Whatever Ma experienced in life, he wasn't going to be intimidated or robbed of the  life force music gave him.

Please consider buying this disc. It's not expensive (it's Naxos) but if it gives you as much therapeutic sustenance as it's given me, it's value is beyond money. Please see my other posts on Ma Sicong, Chinese music, unusual instruments etc. This is a genuinely multicultural site.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Simon Holt BBC NOW Centauromachy premiere

Centauromachy, a major new work by Simon Holt, premiered last night  conducted by François-Xavier Roth, and BBC NOW (National Orchestra of Wales)  It's substantial, five movements over 25 minutes, as ambitious as a symphony.  (Review of the Proms concert is HERE.)

Holt puts Clarinet with Flugelhorn in a double concerto. "It's surprising how two different "species", wind and brass can sound similar", he says. "Centaurs are a species of mythical creature that appear to have the torso of a man joined at the waist to the hind quarters of a horse at where the horse's head and neck would normally be. They are essentially fantastical beasts that combine, simultaneously, two distinct natures in one body. This may account for, on the one hand, their wisdom, making them intelligent teachers, whilst also making them impulsive and lustful, trapped in a kind of limbo between their two inherent natures: wild and yet capable of civilised behaviour."

Clarinet and Flugelhorn at first duet, establishing their individual character in repeating passages. Soaring calls, cross rhythms, each instrument restating the other's theme over a murmuring, dense orchestral background. A primeval forest, perhaps, setting the context. Duality extends in orchestral texture too, shifts between opaque layers and what Holt calls "still centres", moments of near silence, like clearings in a forest, or the way animals observe each other without making sound. Short snatches of very high pitch, fluttering eddies, ostinato like the stamping of hooves.

Holt describes the second movement as "dreaming". It's subdued, mysterious, yet alert. There's a steady rhythmic undercurrent, almost like breathing. Dreams perhaps, but not sleep.  Suddenly the music breaks forth again. Clarinet and flugelhorn acknowledge each other again in animated figures which leap and bound with energy. First clarinet plays with the orchestra, then flugelhorn, each establishing their own territory. Then they hocket. It's like a duel, each instrument grappling with the other for precedence. As Holt has said, "There was once a battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths and this battle features in the fourth movement".
"Centaurs are well known for being heavy drinkers capable of violent and delinquent behaviour." said Holt. But there was one centaur, Chiron, who was intelligent and idealistic. He was an artist, teacher and healer who served mankind. Although half-beast and half-human, he proved his nobility by sacrificing himself to save Prometheus who defied the Gods and brought fire (ie light and civilization) to mortals. The finale is an  Elegeia for Chiron. It grows out of a long silence after the tumult of the fourth movement. It's austere and dignified, extreme stillness. Blaring flugelhorn reminds us of the Centaur's bestial nature, while clarinet (in A) creates soaring high pitches that rise upwards. As flugelhorn and clarinet combine, the music ends with a down to earth blip.

Wonderful, inspired playing by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Robert Plane played clarinet,  Philippe Schartz had a golden opportunity to display the richness of the flugelhorn. I haven't hear this orchestra in such excellent form in ages. They sound rejuvenated playing with vigour and crisp precision. Part of this may be the new conductor,  François-Xavier Roth, who is most certainly a "personality" in the best sense, charismatic and eclectic. Could BBC NOW emerge as the hippest orchestra in the BBC fold?  Simon Holt's Centauromachy gets most coverage because it's an important new work, but Roth and the orchestra showed just how good they are together in the rest of the programme. Albert Roussel's Bacchus et Ariadne, Suite No 2 (Monteux) shone, sounding decidedly modern. This performance of Sibelius Symphony No 2 was outstanding. It was tightly shaped and disciplined, so when the outbursts of freedom came they were exhilarating. After digesting Centauromachy, pay special attention to Roth's Sibelius. It's truly inspired, clear sighted and visionary. Wonderful !  Listen to the repeat broadcast HERE.

photo credit : Andrzejj Urbaniak

Florian Boesch Loewe Wigmore Hall

Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles gave a very good lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall on Monday. Boesch's voice is magisterial, but also refined. He''s a natural Lieder singer whose interpretations come from within. Last March I heard him in one of Richard Stokes's semi-private Liederabend recitals. Schumann and Schubert standards which we've heard a thousand times, but Boesch infused them with intelligence.

This Wigmore Hall recital featured songs about strange horsemen. Goethe's Erlkönig has been set many times, immortally by Schubert, but Loewe's version comes a close second. It's not as wildly Romantic or dramatic as Schubert, but the gentle, seductive opening chords emphasize the Erl King's seductive charms. Boesch's voice strains somewhat as he sings the boy's terror, but that's in character - the boy is so scared his throat constricts. Then, Loewe's Tom der Reimer, the "Rhymer" (troubador/poet) who meets a vision in the woods. She's astride a white mare, her hair and her horse's mane festooned with tiny silver bells. . She's the Queen of the Elves who enslaves Tom for seven years. He's lost in a swoon of ecstasy, the piano part So klangen hell die Glöckelein. Boesch's voice drops to a low growl for the last word, as if he knows the fairy bells are sinister.

Another ghostly apparition in Odin's Meeresritt. In the middle of the night a terrifying horseman in black armour summons a humble blacksmith to shoe his steed. "I have get to Norway by  morning." Since they're in Denmark, that's a tall order. Then the horseman rides off into the skies, followed by twelve black eagles. The stranger is Odin, king of the Norse Gods. The piano part's gorgeous. Odin's a prototype Wotan, so "hear" the connection.

We don't know why the lovely shepherdess in Süsses Begräbnis Op 62/4 has died, but Loewe creates a flowing sense of movement which might imply she's being borne aloft even as she's being laid into the ground - a subtle variation on Rückert's relatively straightforward text. Much more robust is Reiterlied with its sturdy galloping refrain mein Rößlein komm, wir reiten. Oddly this is more reminiscent of Schubert (think Abschied) than most Loewe. The gravitas in Boesch's voice works well with Der Pilgrim von St Just, who is no less than a King turned monk. Then, the wickedly lively Die wandelnde Glocke. It's Goethe - who else would dream up a poem about a naughty boy who won't go to church . He's pursued by the church bell, which flies over the fields. Superhuman architecture! And to end, Loewe's Edward, which everyone loves. Better still, Hinkende Jamben  "Look how Loewe sets Rückert"  says Boesch, "such ear for little detail", as he recites the tongue twister rapidly

Ein Liebchen hatt ich, das auf einem Aug'schielte;
Weil sie mir schön schien, schien ihr Schielen auch Schönheit.

Photo: Stefan von der Deken

Monday 15 November 2010

ENO A Dog's Heart Preview

"It's a kind of Frankenstein, but with a twist", says Simon McBurney, of the opera A Dog's Heart opening this week at the ENO, London.

A homeless mongrel is saved from the street, but is operated on by a mad scientist who turns him into a man. But the New Man doesn't turn out quite as planned. So he's turned back into a dog. Alexander Raskatov's A Dog's Heart is based on a 1925 novel  by Mikhail Bulgakov. The implication is that social engineering doesn't work any more than species engineering,. More radically, the story of A Dog's Heart relates to the nature of man and beast. You can read the novel or watch a Russian film, complete with English subtitles in full on Youtube. The film's atmospheric and shot in sepia to look antique,  but the story transcends time and place.

A Dog's Heart is worth seeing because it's a joint production with De Nederlandse Opera,  premiered at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam in June 2010. The Holland Festival is innovative, but its standards are extremely high, so we're truly fortunate that the ENO is bringing productions like this to London. There isn't anything quite as progressive in this country at the moment.  Co-productions with De Nederlandse Opera, the Vlaamse Opera and the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich could transform the ENO's status as a European house.
Simon McBurney has known Pierre Audi, the Holland Festival Director, for years. McBurney's creative team Complicite are innovators, too. They don't do bland, boring or safe. This production was created through hands-on involvement by the composer and members of the cast, so it's quite different from bringing in a director with no opera background to style a standard work. It seems to be evolving through realtime experience.

Theatre fans flock to Complicite productions like A Disappearing Number and Shun-kin, so perhaps opera fans are now in for a treat. Because the story is surreal, it lends itself to surreal treatment. Look at the Dog in the photo - he's a puppet created by Blind Summit who created the child in ENO's classic Madame Butterfly (Minghella)  That child upset me because it was so bizarre, but that was probably the intention, for the child - like the Dog - is manipulated by others, a puppet in every sense. In the opera, the Dog has three different voices, reflecting different aspects of its nature. "What is better, a good dog or a bad man?" asks the composer, Alexander Raskatov.

In Amsterdam, Sergei Leiferkus sang the leading role, with Martyn Brabbins conducting. Here's a link to the review in the NY Times which describes the music, a combination of Russian chorales and "a mock lugubrious quality" which underlines the satire. Whether the music's the attraction or the tale itself, I don't know, but this looks like superlative theatre.  Complicite and theatre fans could be drawn to opera by A Dog's Heart. And opera fans should pay attention to the stagecraft. Despite the subject it may not be too squeamish though there's "blood". It's satire, after all.

The cast in London are also very strong. Stephen Page, Leigh Melrose, Andrew Watts, Peter Hoare and others, specialists in contemporary music. Gary Walker conducts. Performance-wise this should be good. From what I've heard so far the music isn't difficult or demanding, so if the word "modern" scares, it's not a big issue here.

I have no idea what I'm going to think about A Dog's Heart but I'm pretty certain of one thing : it's going to be challenging. Much more interesting than yet another revival of something dull which is the safe option in these straitened times. So going to A Dog's Heart is an act of faith. It runs for 7 performances –20, 22, 24, 26, 30 November 2 December at 7.30pm and 4 December at 6.30pm
There's a pre-show talk, too, on 20 Nov. For details, see the ENO site.

And here's a wonderful clip from De Nederlandse Opera :

Photos : credit De Nederlandse Opera, Monika Rittershaus