Saturday 30 July 2011

Prom 21 Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky - full movie download

It's the 13th century and the Mongols are invading Europe from the east, and Teutonic Knights are invading Slav lands from the west. Novgorod is an idyllic city, open to the waters on one side, vast steppes behind. Clean, pure living. Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, Man of the People, is out fishing with his people as a good Soviet hero should. This is the classic film directed by Sergei Eisenstein, for which Sergei Prokofiev wrote the music. At BBC Prom 21, Andris Nelsons (a Latvian) is conducting Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata.

This is one of Sergei Eisenstein's masterpieces, made in 1937.  Note date and place.  Despite Stalin's repressive anti-modernism, Eisenstein manages to create a modernist icon by playing along with Stalinists stereotypes. One of the glories of this film is the stylized design, totally in tune with western avant garde film at the time. The Soviets can't wipe the Church out of history, so Eisenstein neutralizes it by depicting it in stylized art deco. See the neatly dressed peasants and priests. Then the Teutonic Knights at Pskov, dehumanized aliens in bizarre helmets. Look at the bishop in black, among monks in white. Or the mad monk in black who plays a portable organ to remind us that Religion Is a Drug. (it's powered by monks with bellows).

Wonderful camera angles, long sweeping lines, even clearer in this film than in Battleship Potemkin. Panoramic scenes, shot from heights to maximize scale. Fabulously choreographed crowd scenes and battles. The Battle on the Ice is magnificent! This is propaganda elevated to High Art.

Catalani La Wally Opera Holland Park -first thoughts

Preparing for Alfredo Catalani's La Wally at Opera Holland Park, I was struck by its potential. It's an Italianate Der Freischütz. The music may be good-natured Romantic, but the heroine, Wally is extraordinary. She's an elemental, part-woman, part nature spirit, lives alone, in the wilderness, surviving, one imagines, on sheer force of will. Compared with Wally, Carmen is a wimp. This story isn't set in the high Alps for nothing. The mountains loom upwards towards the stratosphere. Extraordinary heroine, extraordinary setting : mountain peaks, frozen glaciers, crevasses, snowstorms and an avalanche. And then the star herself, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, who created a sensation in 2010's OHP La Forza del destino. Jeffers is unique.Her voice rises fearlessly to any challenge, and is capable of exquisite colour and sensitivity. And she has a personality to match and stage presence. This woman is a born diva and can act so well she can fill a stage on her own (which she does in Act IV). Potentially an ideal Wally.

But was the Opera Holland Park production team working from the same score? There's almost no way anyone could stage La Wally realistically, for a narrative like this demands suspension of disbelief. Landscape settings on this grand scale would have been technically impossible in Catalani's time. Realism in opera isn't "tradition" but aberration. This opera is surreal nature fantasy, but that doesn't mean banal. Designer Jamie Vartan sidesteps the issue altogether, using a painter's dropcloth, suspended by guy ropes that remain clearly visible throughout and threaten to trip the singers at several points. Only in the very end does the dropcloth make sense, when it's manipulated to look like mountains, but by then the opera's nearly over. Until that point, we're staring at the carved portico that remains of Holland Park House which completely  undercuts the idea of open horizons and wilderness. Since the opera itself comprises two distinct parts it might have been more effective to realise the difference with different settings, Perhaps filmed projections would work in the first part, contrasting the banality of village life with the turbulence of nature in the mountains? Even a good old fashioned painted backdrop of mountains and kitsch, so the singers can do their thing unburdened.. 

The staging is so awkward that if you didn't know the plot you'd be lost. Gellner (Stephen Gadd) chases Hagenbach (Adrian Dwyer) up to the peaks and pushes him into a crevasse in the glacier. Wally struggles up the slopes, and pulls him out. Danger, urgency, heroism. If this were a Leni Reifenstahl mountain movie, you'd see slippery ice-clad precipices, and bursts of snow as crampon digs into rockface. (I'll write about Riefenstahl's movie The Holy Mountain next week). Catalani's music describes the urgency and struggle. Whirling figures like wind, trudging staccato, tearing, screaming figures from the string section, alarums from the brass.  Instead what we get at OHP is a trestle table not three feet high, covered with cloth. Gadd scuffles with Dwyer who rolls onto the other side of the table.

And what of Wally, that extraordinary creation? Director Martin Lloyd-Evans keeps Jeffers busy doing things like change her clothes. .As Wally's music shows. It's passionate, throbbing with frustration. That's why Ebben? Ne andrò lontana is so poignant. Wally knows what leaving civilization means. Wally is a complex, confused personality who takes eveything to extremes. Which is why she overreacts to the silly game in the tavern. And why she has no qualms risking her life to save Hagenbach. Jeffers sings with great force and depth, but she's directed to move in an inhibited way, as if she's domesticated and gussied up. Pearls? By nature she's an Edelweisss. Maybe this direction is trying to show how Wally is trapped in the village, but it doesn't bring out the exceptional vividness in her character. I've been following Jeffers's career for about five years and am convinced from past form that she is capable of much more than this. Great potential, underutilized, a wasted resource.

If Jeffers isn't able to act much in this production, her singing makes up for it. Her Act II and Act IV arias are superb, emotionally nuanced, richly coloured.. Jeffers's Wally thinks and feels deeply, and you "hear" the role much more than the largely cardboard way it's shaped in this production.
Jeffers sings abroad these days but she really should be groomed for greater things in this country. She's an asset British opera should nurture properly.(and yet another Oxford Lieder Festival graduate).

Generally strong cast.  Adrian Dwyer and Stephen Gadd sing Hagenbach and Gellner better than they are called on to act. Stephen Richardson's Stromminger is weighty - pity the character dies after Act 1. Alinka Kozari's Walther is bright and wittily characterized. Charles Johnston was Il Pedone and Heather Shipp a sparky Afra.

Peter Robinson conducted. Catalani's music isn't sophisticated, relying more on atmospheric effects to paint imagery. Horns on one side, trombones and trumpet on the other, "calling" to one another as villagers in the Alps might do. The sound of distant hunting horns, long booming alpenhorns (trombones), the sound of cowbells, bright sunny flute motifs, not-quite-Ländler dances, just bucolic enough to be humorous. Yet when the story develops into tragedy, Catalani's writing leaps into higher gear. Stormy passages, dread with foreboding, reinforcing Wally's arias. The avalanche roars through the orchestra. We see an acrobat hanging from a rope on stage but the music has already told us that Wally and Hagenbach have been so overwhelmingly engulfed that no trace of them remains.
Get to this Catalani La Wally at Opera Holland Park because it's unlikely that there'll be another production any time soon. Don't worry too much about the staging. Focus instead on the singing and the orchestra and enjoy. I'm probably going again Wednesday. A more formal  review is here in Opera Today.  My focus is on the opera and its potential, which is why I avoid doing shallow.

Photos : Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Wally and Adrian Dwyer as Hagenbach. Photo Fritz Curzon.
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Wally and Stephen Richardson as Stromminger. Photo
Fritz Curzon.

Friday 29 July 2011

Schoenberg conducts Mahler - rarity

This popped up in my youtube subscriptions last week but I've been much too busy, so AT LAST! Schoenberg conducts Mahler 2/2 with the Cadillac Symphony in Los Angeles in 1934. The occasion isn't mentioned in Stuckenschmidt's extensive biography though there's a brief mention of Schoenberg doing a number of one-off radio broadcasts at the time. Whether he did the full symphony or just one movement (not unknown practice then) I don't know, but fortunately this fragment was recorded.
Please also see the many other composer conducting composer clips I have on this site - Mahler playing Mahler on piano rolls, for example, Grieg playing Grieg, Debussy playing Debussy, even Webern conducts Schubert. (use search box at right)

Thursday 28 July 2011

Dead Firebird, Living Arditti - Stravinsky Dusapin Prom 16

While waiting in the car for Prom 16, a young parking inspector came up for a chat. "Are you going to classical music?", he asked brightly. "Someone in the line (for arena seats) said it cost only £5!" Now there's a man who's going to do his first Prom soon. "I'll bring a newspaper", he said, "to sit on" (which is probably a good use for what the print media has become, thanks in part to NI).

Proms audiences are fascinating. Genuine music lovers and anoraks and people who have no idea at all, except that the Proms are An Event. A few years ago I sat with a couple who were totally overwhelmed.  "Is that a timpani orchestra?" said one. "No, dear, it's a SYMPHONY orchestra". "What is this place?" "The Royal Albert Hall". "Who is Royal Albert?". Much consternation. "I had an uncle called Albert." And more. As my friend said "No one could make that up".

But I loved that pair, they were so genuine and so direct. Much, much nicer than some of the self promoting pseuds around. And guess what they were listening to? Birtwistle, which they approached completely without prejudice. And quite enjoyed..

The audience at this Prom seemed mostly new to music, too. "I heard of Firebird" said a woman near me."It was on the radio once." Which proves that the BBC is fulfilling its remit. Hearing it live must have been more fun than she could have imagined. Complete with trumpets in the upper gallery! So I did feel churlish, being so bored witless by this performance by Thierry Fischer conducting BBC NOW (National Orchestra of Wales, not as in "now", up-to-the minute). It's a good orchestra but what are they doing polishing the life out of this music? Stravinsky was writing for ballet, and ballet is physical. Fischer stretches the tempi, killing the dynamic pulse. A dancer would have to hold position so long that they'd lose their natural rhythm. You can only pose en pointe for a moment, or you collapse. The bassoonist entered twice with brio because she knows what her part symbolizes. Fischer pats her down to cool it. Later he tries to rouse the violins with vigorous hand movements, but too little, too late. Maybe Fischer wanted to bring out the range of colour in the music, which might work Haitink-style in a symphony. But ballet is different.

Last time we heard Firebird at the BBC Proms, it was part of the year they did all the Stravinsky ballets. That was an education, because it showed how writing for dance is as much a specialism as writing for voice. Gergiev, being a Mariinsky man, conducted with lethal fire. Dancers would be on their toes, literally, but if they were any good (as they probably are in Russia) they'd rise to the challenge. In 2008, Jurowski and LPO  did the Firebird more orchestrally but with similar verve. You can take the music out of the ballet theatre but you can't take the ballet out of the music.

Nonetheless, the audience loved Fischer's Firebird, which is what matters. Maybe the lady who heard  it on the radio will go on to listen again and hear more. But she'll never forget the thrill of hearing it live for the first time, and in the surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall. Berlioz's Overture Le Corsaire and Fauré's Pavane can be ravishing, but in the Proms ambiance, even Fischer's foursquare approach had an impact.

Much more interesting was Pascal Dusapin's String Quartet No. 6, 'Hinterland' ('Hapax' for string quartet and orchestra (2008-9)  commissioned by the Arditti Quartet who have championed so much of Dusapin's work. It's not quite a concerto for string quartet and orchestra because the primary focus is the quartet, the orchestra extending and expanding what they do. The four main protagonists converse, the orchestra behind them murmuring, clucking, chattering in response. Lots of wood in the orchestral strings, rhythmic affirmations and interjections. No percussion needed, the strings do the work. Two horns, two harps. The action here flows between soloists, quartet and orchestra, the whole a dizzying pattern of ever-changing interconnections.

Dusapin has often spoken about his interest in Samuel Beckett, so one way into this piece is to think of the individual members of the Arditti Quartet as voices, conferring. In real conversation, we express a lot through gesture and monosylllabic responses that express more than they seem on the surface. Dusapin's String Quartet no 6 was fascinating for me as a study in communication. In real life people interact through non-verbal clues, ums, ahs and nods, which all are part of the process of meaning. Real people don't declaim in flowery stylization. Thus the intricate maze of fragmentary sound and counter-sound, operating on several different levels at once. Nothing random in this dense web, every note purposefully placed.  I have no idea what Dusapin means by "hinterland" but for me, the idea emerges of the "hinterland" behind the foreground of conversation, the subconcious interactions that really make communication, much more than simply speech. 

A lot of new music is more approachable than you'd expect coming from conventional expectations oif what music "should" be. The development in Dusapin's Quartet no 6 is in the ebb and flow, rather than structural. There's no obvious resolution because in real life, communication never ends.  No doubt a lot of this audience froze at the very thought of "new" music but I was surprised how warmly some seemed to respond, whether or not they were thinking analytically.  Listen again online, for 7 days and get more from the experience. (There's also a programme where Dusapin talks about his work. Like most composers, he expresses himself better in music)

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Liszt A Faust Symphony - Jurowski Prom 15

You could already hear how Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic would shape Liszt's A Faust Symphony  (BBC Prom 15) from what they did with Kodály and Bartók, not the most obvious companions to Liszt apart from the fact they were Hungarian. Different times, different outlooks, but Jurowski drew on the common thread.

Elegant detail in Kodály's Dances of Galánta, especially the glorious solo clarinet theme. It leads the whole piece forwards, seductive yet sinister. This is no empty pastoral: the dances were used by the Hapsburgs to pressgang guileless recruits into the army.

Similarly, Bartók's Piano Concerto no 1 builds upon confrontation between piano and percussion, Bartók deliberately wanted the piano and percussion together to focus on the struggle which lies beneath the otherwise poised, almost Bachian orchestra. Recently, Yefim Bronfman played this concerto with Salonen and the Philharmonia. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Jurowski and the LPO take a different approach, though both are equally well thought through. Bronfman's solid richness was impressive, but I think Bavouzet's crisp, "French" brightness sharpens the bite.

Liszt's A Faust Symphony is a study of psyche. He knows that everyone knows the story already so he pits the protagonists by creating character together through the impressionism of abstract music.

Thus the first movement, depicting Faust, sets out the main themes which will dominate the whole symphony. They're open, and searching, like Faust's idealistic visions. The LPO's fabled strings carve expansive arcs which seem to probe into space. The famous affirmative theme here was gorgeous, full of vigour. Yet the brooding low winds suggest the melancholy of Faust's drab existence, entombed among his books. The violins probe, as if Faust is singing "Do I dare?" Alarums, cries of discord that sublimate into stillness. Is Faust contemplating or is he being seduced by Mephistophele's sinister charms? That's the beauty of a tone poem - you never know for sure, you rely on what you hear instead of reading text. Jurowski's background in opera informs the way he defines this symphony, so it "feels" vivid. The many repetitions aren't routine, for they reflect Faust's dilemmas. He's no hothead, he thinks before he acts. So when the glorious affirmative theme wins through, the brightness is dazzling.

The hesitations that begin the "Gretchen" movement reflect Gretchen's timidity. Then the affirmative Faust theme enters and Gretchen blossoms. Notice that Liszt gives equal time to Gretchen, whereas in Goethe, she's an almost incidental feature. Is she a real woman oir little more than Faust's fantasy of ideal purity? Perhaps that's why Gounod needed Valentin to flesh things out.  Part of Gretchen's appeal to Faust  may be that she doesn't cogitate like he does, but goes straight for her feelings. Maybe Gretchen is a projection of Faust's dreams. But without Gretchen, Faust would not be redeeemed and the crucial das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan would be meaningless.

Perhaps Liszt defines Gretchen with greater clarity because it gives him a chance to write poised, understated beauty. This Gretchen is harps, delicate violins, serenity, counterpoint to the crudity that is Mephistopheles. Faust's affirmative theme returns, but this time without the trascendant glow. Jurowski and the LPO play Mephistopheles's version of Faust's themes with deliberate hollowness, so you can hear how the old devil, for all his powers, can't figure out what Faust is about. The music jerks wildly between banalized Faust and even the refined Gretchen music. Thus, Jurowski paints the jerky, angular passages with their sudden stops and starts, so you can imagine Mephistopheles stomping about in frustrated rage.

Then the transfiguration. Mephistopheles is blitzed away by glorious male choir, out of which emerges Marco Jentzsch's plangent tenor. The way Liszt embeds the tenor into the choir is significant, for it creates the idea of Faust reborn. No more is he a loner locked in with his books. Here, he's helped heavenwards by other voices to new horizons. At last, words, but the real meaning is the way they're expressed in music. Jentzsch combines vulnerability with heroism. Listen to the way he projects the legato, without losing the beauty of tone even against the massed forces behind him. Nurtured well, Jentzsch has the makings of a Heldentenor. This "is" Faust, individual to the very end. Hinab, hinab, sing the chorus. No brutal bombast in this Ascension, because it's Gretchen's values that win out, not Mephistopheles's butch crudity.
Definitely worth relistening ! HERE is the link, available online on demand for 7 days on Radio 3, and on BBC4 TV from 29th July. This is a particularly astute performance because Jurowski defines the depth of character in the music so well. Sincerity and quiet faith, not banality. That's what Faust and Gretchen stand for. 

Verdi Requiem Prom 13 Bychkov Poplavskaya

As promised, HERE is Robert Hugill's detailed review of Prom 13 Verdi Requiem. Enjoy !
"....Verdi’s use of the soprano in the final ‘Libera me’ ensures that it is the soprano who we remember best. Poplavskaya brought her familiar plangent tones and beautifully expressive line to the role, singing with a commitment which suggested she was living the part rather than just singing a soprano solo. She floated some supremely lovely lines during the piece, but these were always intelligently placed and not just vocalism for its own sake. In the ‘Libera me’ she took the drama to the point where she was in danger of becoming manner, but the ‘Requiem’ section where she sang just accompanied by the unaccompanied choir was simply beautiful. Though I must admit to having a slight reservation, Poplavskaya’s quiet plangency threatened to push the notes below pitch, but this was a small point in what was a very fine performance."

Solvieg's Song in Chinese

I've posted this before but now it feels right to hear it again. Solvieg's Song sung in Putonghua, stunning singer who could shatter glass with her Cs.

Norrington's Mahler Prom 14

Taking shots at easy targets is not my style. So Norrington's Mahler 9 was my night off from the Proms. Norrington's approach has been interesting sometimes, like his world's fastest Meistersinger overture which really zipped along. I have a lot of time for early music zaniness. But it doesn't sustain. In the1990's I listened to some Norrington and appreciated what he was doing even if it was not my scene. In the mid 2000's there was a huge surge in popularity.  Five or 6 years ago, there were Mahler fans who thought of vibrato in pop star terms, ergo "nil" vibrato must be a good thing. Influential as these folks were, they probably hadn't heard much Mahler.  Nonetheless, I listened to the recordings of Norrington's M4 and M9 (no, that was only last year it must have been M1 in mid 2000's)  Since I don't follow fashion, I thought, yikes! (though the M4 worked surprisingly well). I caught a bit of Prom 14 by accident and thought, "He's doing exactly the same thing as he did years ago". Why is quite an interesting question. What drives him, I wonder?  I don't take potshots but here is someone who does, often on the verge of libel. Under the  nastiness there are grains of reason. Which still does not justify the nastiness so I am thinking of deleting it. After this no-one dares be seen liking Norrington so fashion has moved on. But I do think in a way we should admire Norrington for persisting in what he believes in.

Monday 25 July 2011

Faust - the movie, complete

So many Fausts this year - Gounod Faust in English, Berlioz Monty Python at the ENO, Liszt A Faust Symphony Prom 15 tomorrow and from 18 Sept Gounod Faust in French with Pape, Gheorghiu, Grigolo and Hvorostovsky. Earler this year there was a Faust feat in Oxford, and last year at the Proms Schumann Manfred Symphony. (Please click on label at the right for Proms 2010 (37 posts) and Proms 2009 (43))
So above is the F W Murnau Faust from 1926. This film is a classic and set "Gothic" into the popular psyche ever since. It's as much art as the operas and sympohonies. Some of the actors became big names, like Emil Jannings, Wilhelm Dieterle and Camilla Horn. (lots on Weimar film on this site too, many full dowloads) So enjoy the movie before tomorrow's Prom 15 when Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO, Marco Jentsch and two choirs.

Verdi Requiem Bychkov Prom 13

Luckily, it hasn't been a hot summer so far. The Royal Albert Hall can be an inferno with 6000 bodies emitting heat, and this year's theme is BIG MASSED CHOIRS, which adds hundreds of extra bodies singing with all their might. Sometimes the emissions have been hot air, like Havergal Brian's Gothic, but that doesn't matter because the more we hear the more we know. And only the BBC Proms have the capacity - and guts - to go for mega extravanganza and pull it off. Havergal Brian almost certainly didn't envison his symphony turned into fantastic theatre, but by gosh, it worked!

Verdi's Requiem is in quite a different league to Brian, because Verdi 's iimpact comes from the richness inherent in his music. Poplavskaya, Furlanetto, Calleja and Pentcheva almost guarantee a good experience singing wise, so you're stunned by the sheer beauty of the vocal glory. With Semyon Bychkov conducting the BBCSO, there's almost no way Prom 13 could go wrong. Only three choirs, but beautifully judged singing. Verdi knows how voices work and doesn't need to push them into la la la vocalise, filling space with banality. What clear, shining singing, what zip in the orchestra ! I listened, full of admiration and respect, but emotionally could not connect. That's NOT the fault of the performers. It's me.

Requiems, by definition, are elaborate public displays of orchestrated grief, meant to dazzle. In theory they are religious masses for the dead but the very fact that they follow a formula, albeit from liturgy, means that they aren't necessarily personal. No matter how beautiful the music may be, requiems are designed so they tap into predetermined codes of expression.  After Utøya, (see more HERE), I'm just not able to deal with non-personal, non-intimate sorrow. Gunmen trash others for imagined crimes, when the fault, if any, lies in their heads.

Maybe I'll absorb more later in the  week, since the Verdi Requiem Prom is being broadcast for a week on BBC online and on demand. It will also be broadcast on BBC4 TV on 21st August. PLEASE COME BACK as in a day or so therewill be a VERY DETAILED review by Robert Hugill in Opera Today.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Norway - Grieg, landscape and Utøya

Edvard Grieg wrote to a young urban composer "You need an inoculation of mountain stuff into your work.  For Grieg, the pure air and physicality of mountain living inspired a deep emotional response. He wrote about the "youthful combativeness" of Norway, "like the music of harsh triads compared with all the sugary seventh chords " in Denmark. In Norway, he said "the conflict concerns spiritual existence" while in the urban south it was "just a matter of trivialities".

That's probably arguable if you're Italian or German or Finnish or Czech,  but what Grieg is getting at is the concept that composers are shaped on an instinctive level by the landscape around them. For Grieg, the very remoteness of Norway's landscape symbolized the distancing he needed to counteract the Austro-German musical hegemony. Mountains, fjords and harsh winters concentrate the mind . What is trivial and commonplace is dwarfed by the power of nature. In his seminal Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity,(2006) Daniel M Grimley shows how landscape inspired a sense of identity that gave rise to concepts which would shape Norwegian culture. Speaking of Gangar op 54/2. Grimley demonstrates how Grieg develops a powerful structure by contrasting dynamic and static elements. "It is, arguably", he concludes, "the denial of personal subjectivity and the longing for transcendence that this systematic organisation and division of musical space creates that is the most powerful expression of Grieg’s landscape."

Grimley naturally focuses on Grieg, Bull and the poets who inspired them (and changed the very language).  But similar things were happening in the visual arts. Edvard Munch immediately springs to mind, but there were many other painters and craftsmen. Just as elsewhere in Europe, new concepts of design were sweeping away the past, so too in Scandinavia. About 25 years ago there was an exhibition at the Royal Academy called "Northern Light", which showed how art nouveau and Japanese design concepts meshed well with the nature-oriented simplicity of Norwegian life. Recently I wrote about Delius in this context, but the concept applies even more so to Grieg and his contemporaries (who got there first).(painting is Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928 ) Read more about him HERE

Everyone is going to have different ideas on any subject but that doesn't mean it's right to destroy anyone who doesn't agree. Now, thanks to the internet,  ideas about community and identity are being redefined. Once we jostled on with others and at some level realized that no-one really is omnipotent. Now any nutcase can link to other nutters and convince themselves that their reality is more important than anyone else's. This new community reinforces absolutism, in poltics and everything else.  In the moral vacuum of modern communications, perspective disappears, and with that tolerance and decency.  And I don't mean just gunmen. Again, Norwegian myth to the rescue.  Trolls don't venture forth, learn, develop. They are fools but they get their kicks from destroying travellers who do. They usually win because they operate  thru networks of fellow trolls.  Significantly, trolls live under bridges and travellers seek wide open spaces. Out in the mountains and in the vastness of nature, we're forced to realize how grubby bigotry can be.

I've written a lot over the years about what mountains signify in music, especially in Mahler. Please read HERE and HERE for example. Also please read here about Thorbjørn, who was a Traveller, in every sense.

Saturday 23 July 2011


"Yumpin' yiminey!" Thorbjørn used to say, never losing his heavy accent. His father was a harbour official at Christiania. One of his numerous siblings fell off the dock and drowned, aged 5. In her old age, his mother lived in a mountain hut near Lillehammer, "like Heidi". Thorbjørn and two of his other brothers went to sea and travelled all over the world.  Aged 17, he got shipwrecked off the coast of western Australia and lived with the aboriginals. Later, he wrote a book about it. One day he just happened to be walking down a street in New York, and what should happen, but all three brothers met up on the same street corner, though they didn't even know they were on the same continent. To mark the occasion they had a photograph taken at the nearest studio, as people did then. The brother who worked on JP Morgan's yacht stayed in America. Next brother settled in Fuzhou, China, where he had a large brood of kids, but then the Japanese came and then the Communists. Thorbjørn worked all over China, grew strawberries in Shanghai (quite  a feat),  played tennis, and was a fantastic draftsman, who did hundreds of pen and ink drawings of ships. He was close to his Parsee brother-in-law and his Cantonese PA whom I called "Chan Pak" (Grandfather Chan). He spent 2 1/2 years in a Japanese prison camp. Although Norwegians were officially Quisling, individually they gave grief to the Japanese. Badly weakened, he died soon after. I never knew him.

Now Thorbjørn is in a crowded burial ground, so higgeldy piggeldy that you have to step on dozens of others to get to his grave. No-one can ever find it. But I always locate it right away as if by radar, lord knows how..  

Flashmob La Rondine OHP

THIS SHOULD GO VIRAL. Thanks to a friend this lovely clip on a normal day at Tesco. Clue, it's the 24/7 Tesco off the A4 near Holland Park. Hint. Then some guy in the line opens a bottle of wine and serenades the check out girl. Spot the other members of the cast among the crowd, who look amazed! This is exactly the sort of publicity opera needs. Opera needs "ordinary" people to enjoy without prejudice or prejudgement. The trouble with opera is that it carries connotations of class, status and social expectations. Snobbery poisons the fun. Opera Holland Park is fun, which is its unique selling point. I love the way this integrates "ordinary" people with the magic of opera. No-one is ever "ordinary" if they can enjoy something beautiful even on a trip to the shops. Way to go, OHP !

Friday 22 July 2011

Mignon and Saul at Buxton Opera - with pix

What a combination ! Dour Handel Saul and vivacious Ambroise Thomas Mignon in one tiny opera house, but Buxton Opera has pulled off the feat. Mignon is the inimitable Wendy Dawn Thompson who doesn't do wraith but has the charm of a French ingénue.  Please read a double review here from Claire Seymour  - as usual analytical and well balanced. Great pix too.

Complete Delius Songbook part 1 Mark Stone

Frederick Delius spent most of his adult life outside Britain. His influences were European rather than parochially English. His parents were German, and he was a native German speaker. Culturally he was a citizen of the world. What, then, makes Delius an “English composer”?

The Complete Delius Songbook is another ambitious project from small, independent company Stone Records, who gave us the first George Butterworth Songbook (see review HERE) and the new Hugo Wolf Mörike Songbook. (review HERE). Such enterprise deserves respect. This disc is the first in a two-part series which will include songs published only in the last few years, and some in new singing translations.

Unlike many British composers, Delius used non-English texts extensively. He was, of course, a native German speaker and learned enough Norwegian to socialize and attend plays. Indeed, of the 61 Delius songs for voice and piano that survive, many are settings of Norwegian poetry. Delius was close to Edvard Grieg, so would have been acutely aware of Grieg’s settings of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and indeed of alternative settings of the same poems by Emil Sjögren, Halfdan Kjerulf and others.

Bjørnson was a contemporary of Grieg and Ibsen, one of the great figures whose championship of Norwegian values and language created a distinct Norwegian identity, making way for eventual independence. He wasn't an antique figurehead, and certainly no bucolic rustic. Even Ole Bull, from whom Grieg learned so much, was far more than a country fiddler.

Delius learned to write original music with the spirit of purity inherent in folk music, rather than transcribing traditional singers as Percy Grainger did. Hence, the charm of Delius's Seven Songs from the Norwegian (RT V9) lies in their utter simplicity. Grieg sets the same poems with much greater subtlety, the piano part deliciously pristine.  On this disc, Mark Stone sings "Twilight Fancies" or "The Princess looks forth from her maiden bower" with utter sincerity, so when his voice reaches a crescendo on the word "soar", it's a nice contrast with the understatement elsewhere. Stephen Barlow, the pianist, is appropriately discreet and restrained.

Delius settings are "modern" in the sense that they evoke the spirit of Jugendstil or the Art and Crafts  Movement. They are totally of their time. This CD also includes the even earlier and sparer Five Songs from the Norwegian RT V/5 and The Eleven Early Songs - Norwegian (RT V/2). 

Delius's grounding in this pure aesthetic extends to his settings of English verse. Shakespeare's It was a lover and his lass has been set so many times that it's almost become a cliché for quaint folksiness. Nowadays, it would take guts to set "a hey and aho and a hey nonino". Similarly, it would be hard to avoid twee in "cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-wee, too wittawoo" as in the Thomas Nash setting. But Delius writing during the First World War would have had quite different connotations. Stone and Barlow deliver without affectation.

Delius doesn't have the melodic gift of  Ralph Vaughan Williams or Gerald Finzi''s affinity with Tudor and Stuart poets, but his approach is sincere - "Arts and Crafts"  honesty. Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetry, however, doesn't naturally lend itself to simplicity. Delius's Three Songs  RT V/12 (1891) to Shelley are more conventionally "Victorian".  In Love's Philosophy, Barlow shapes the elaborate piano part which lets Stone's voice emerge at the critical moment, "if thou kisst not me?".  These songs are more "polished", like sophisticated parlour songs, but Delius's earlier purity is more distinctively individual. 

Sibelius, Bartók, Janáček Prom 9 Elder

With Sibelius, Bartók and Janáček on the programme, Prom 9 could have been explosive. All three composers are noted for their uncompromising independence. Instead, though, Mark Elder and the Hallé presented the Prom with a nostalgic sheen.  Perhaps I should gave read the programme notes beforehand. "The Russians had no time for Finnish nationalism and made strenuous efforts to kill it off". Which is like saying Masaryk was thrilled by Stalin.

On the other hand until fairly recent times, Sibelius was conducted as if he were a  revamp of Tchaikovsky, whom audiences in the west were far more familar with. Although the Tchaikovsky connection made his music popular, Sibelius was unimpressed, complaining to his friend the conductor Simon Parmet that his music was "distorted" and misunderstood.  How differently Adorno might have thought of Sibelius had he known.

Thus, Elder's shaping of Sibelius Scènes historiques Suite no 2 and the Seventh Symphony was part of a long-standing tradition. Just not the tradition we are used to today. So hearing Elder's Sibelius is like going back in time to a more primeval spring where everything's luscious and peaceful, untroubled by war, independence and dangerous modernity.  One reason Sibelius may have entered the "Silence of Järvenpää" was the realization that he couldn't top the 7th, despite his visions of even more remarkable music. But with Elder, we can forget the future and luxuriate in the loveliness of the landscape, which, arguably, is also integral to what Sibelius was.

Bartók's Piano concerto no 3 is curious because it's so very different from his Concerto no 2, one of the most explosive, passionate pieces of the 20th century. (Listen to Cziffra here, playing in 1956).  András Schiff's playing is sublime, elegantly balanced, yet rich with feeling. When this Prom is televised on Friday and Saturday, watch and see how his face communicates almost as fluently as his hands. Schiff knows where this work stands in Bartók's life and oeuvre. The Adagio religioso in particular sounded deeply sincere and affirmative. Like the Concerto for Orchestra, this piece opens out beyond the folksy "Magyarism", onto new horizons far from war-torn Europe, Maybe the composer is trying to cheer his wife and himself, but Schiff gets a sense of inner repose.

Indeed, Schiff and Bartók proved to be the centrepiece of this entire Prom.  Elder's sunny interpretation of  Sibelius 7 and Janáček Sinfonietta thus had a certain, if unorthodox logic. Again the  BBC  programme notes emphasize the joyous, open-air nature of the Sinfonietta, inspired as it was by a brass band on a happy day.  The highly polished Hallé made the sassy, angular opening sound like a rustic band not too bothered about being fierce. Gemütlich, though that's probably not the most tactful term to use, given what would happen in the Sudetenland (Bohemia) ten years later. Arguably Elder's light-hearted Sinfonietta makes a point, but I would much rather have heard the strident, pungent quirkiness that makes it so characteristcally Janáček.  Daniel Harding's Janáček Sinfonietta at the Barbican also made much of the sophitication in the orchestration, so when the punchy coda came, it burst forth even more exuberantly in comparison. After all, Janáček isn't just celebrating a happy moment, but the spirit behind the occasion - the birth of the Czech nation no less. The composer was far too politically astute to think independence would come easy. Summery as the Sinfonietta is, it isn't genteel, and does need to be performed with reference to its background, even when that background means nothing to non-Czech audiences.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Opera fanatics, analyzed anthropologically

Why not study the anthropology of opera fans just as we study primitive tribes in obscure places ? There's a new book out called The Opera Fanatic : Enthnography of an Obsession by Claudio E Benzecry (2011). HERE  is a description which also covers a much more provoking title, The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire by Wayne Koestenbaum.

Benzecry apparently divides opera fanatics into four types. Heroes who keep the art going,  addicts for whom opera is an alternative to drugs, nostalgics who think the past was golden, and pilgrims, for whom opera is an outlet for OCD.  By which definitions, most people have one or more characteristics, yet certainly aren't demented. "The author hasn't read opera-l", said Gary, who forwarded this to me. (more soon)  It seems pretty normal behaviour, not all that different from other sections of the population, like Elvis impersonators, Havergal Brian devotees, or Cliff Richard groupies who think he's just waiting for the right girl. There was a stamp collector so devoted that he'd wander around China collecting first day covers behind Japanese lines. The Kempeitai couldn't believe an elderly gent would risk his life crawling under barbed wire to get a stamp. Luckily some of them were philatelists too, so he didn't get shot.

There are fans and there are fanatics, who live beyond reason and tolerance. Frankly some "fans" are so deranged that they harm the reputation of the very idol they worship. Obsession fills a psychological hole in a person's soul. In itself that's perfectly reasonable and healthy human behaviour. People keep pets, after all. It only goes haywire when they keep hundreds in squalid conditions and call it love. But even then, that's benign compared with those who would destroy others who don't believe as they do.  Politicians. And  some of the denizens on opera-l ! So, from opera fan to opera obsessive, to obsessive-in-general to extreme megalomania.  That's why it's a subject worth studying, though I'm not too sure about the methodology in either book.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Francesco Cavalli Feast online

Glorious strains of Hugues Cuénod streaming off the radio today.  He was singing a role from Francesco Cavalli's Ormindo at Glyndebourne in the 1960's. He was so wonderful I would have pulled  over and parked but that's not safe on the motorway. The clip was part of this week's Composer of The Week feature on Francesco Cavalli. The series runs from  noon and repeats at 2200 on BBC Radio 3 LINK HERE. Five programmes, packed with music. Some Composer of the Week shows are rubbish but this one is extremely good asnd was made specially in 2008 to go with Cavalli's La Calisto at the Royal Opera House.This is the first repeat. Fabulous music, beautifully chosen. Clear your head from the Proms a bit and imagine back to 17th century Venice.

Aix La Traviata Dessay full online broadcast

Bien merci to my dear friend Olivier, who sent this link to the live broadcast of La Traviata from Aix en Provence, on Dessay, Tézier, Castronovo, Louis Langrée !  Enjoy !

Scintillating Stravinsky Rite of Spring Prom 6

Just when I think I can have a night off to relax, what happens? A scintillating, sparkling Rite of Spring, Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Prom 6. We've all heard Stravinsky's masterpiece a million times, and we all know how wonderful Chung and the OPRF are, but this was exceptional. I haven't yet got round to listening to the rest of the concert (particularly keen on Weber). 

So listen to this no matter how blasé you might be. This is different because it's so clean and clear. Often Rites of Spring are angular and earthy, but Chung makes it feel electric and mercurial - such movement, such clarity, such energy! Makes me think - silver, pure crystal springs, newness, shining light. Of course it's brass, winds, percussion and strings, but that's the instinctive effect it's having on me. Which is why I picked this photo, with its silver clouds and violet depths. It's one of the original designs by Nicholas Roerich  for Le Sacre du Printemps for the  Ballets Russe. Listen here for 7 days online on demand.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Havergal Brian Gothic Prom - new review

Here is a link to a more analytical review of Havergal Brian's Symphony no 1 "The Gothic" BBC Prom 4 at the Royal Albert Hall.  Wonderful theatre, though that's probably thanks to the BBC rather than to the composer. Musically, it's a strange beast, " accumulation whose object is to amass as many pieces as possible — not a jigsaw, for the ideas don’t really cohere."  Brian was a self-taught loner who didn't really think in terms of performance or performability.  On paper the ideas may look good, they don't develop or connect. Maybe amateur and uncrafted has appeal, but you do wonder why music so fervently promoted  is otherwise known only through poor performances and on deleted recordings. Maybe that's part of the cachet. Brian is part of the grand British Eccentric Tradition.  But there is so much else waiting to be discovered that one hopes attention will move to music with innate musical value.  Please also see this analysis, from someone with experience of turning paper into music.

Gerard McBurney discovers Wagner

Delightful article by Gerard McBurney on how he discovered Wagner when he was a kid - despite parental opposition  Read it here. We all come to things in our own ways. I grew up with Verdi because that's what my father loved. He was put off by Mahler because when he was an undergraduate, Mahler was admired by pretentious fellow students "posing in smoking jackets".

My first experience of Wagner was when I was about 6. A family friend used to play LPs and make me listen and think what the music was trying to say. It's still a good exercise in listening because usually we're taught what to listen to, not how to listen for ourselves. I remember the wildness and the churning movement, people singing in a foreign language. Then he showed me the picture - white people rioting! I was deeply shocked. Only years later did I realize it was a scene from Meistersinger.  So I don't think you can ever introduce kids too young, and you don't need to dumb down. If they're willing, they'll find a way.

Monday 18 July 2011

"Feel the width" Havergal Brian Gothic at the Proms

If ever there was a performance that could make Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony work, Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Proms (Prom 4) pulled off the most amazing performance imaginable. This was total, extravagant theatre, an event to be remembered for decades to come. "And we were there!" someone said reverentially. "Pity about the music".

One third of the massive Royal Albert Hall was taken over by the sheer number of performers. Nine choirs, no less, visually stunning on their own, especially the ones in lavender gowns. Two main orchestras. Two timpani orchestras (not symphony orchestras). The choristers sitting beside them might be still deaf the next day. And of course, like a Colossus, the mighty Royal Albert Hall Willis organ with its 9997 pipes and 149 stops, the second biggest in the world, wonderfully spotlit.

Martyn Brabbins deserves a medal.  He's braved the dense jungle of this score like a fearless explorer mapping unknown terrirtory. As he journeys through this humungous traverse, he focuses on the many brief moments which give it interest, a flurry of harps, for example, like flowers blooming in forest clearings.  Better still, he brings out the way the symphony is built from multiple separate units rather like an intricate puzzle. Within the main orchestra there are various sub groups like the group of winds, but in no apparent relation to the whole. At first, the timpani orchestras play together, so there's an acoustic logic, but later one falls silent.  On paper, the ideas may look good, but they don't cohere in practical performance. The symphony feels like it's been constructed like an elaborate theoretical puzzle, the object of which is to fit in as many features as possible.

Brian's Gothic has been compared to Mahler's Eighth Symphony, on the basis that the latter was marketed as the "symphony of a thousand", but the comparison is nonsense. The label was a PR ruse. Mahler's focus was on spiritual meaning. Although Mahler's structure is unorthodox, there's a powerful trajectory that pulls it forward. Brian's symphony is perhaps called the Gothic because it's a construction, like a cathedral built by many people over different periods. But is it a cathedral built without purpose? For example, in the final movement, the Te ergo quaesumus, Alastair Miles intones lines that waver upwards and down, perhaps in homage to Orthodox plainchant, but the orchestra's playing a parody of jazz swing. Sometimes contrasts have reason, but in this symphony they seem to exist for variety's sake. The one truly sublime moment is when Susan Gritton sings Judex crederis esse venturus from way up in the rafters. Magnificent singing, magnificently theatrical. But the rest of the movement consists of that 4-word sentence alone, and it's quickly dispensed with in favour of meaningless extended vocalise.

Perhaps comparison with Stockhausen would be more telling. Martyn Brabbins was one of the three conductors who made sense of Gruppen at the Proms in 2008. Please read this link, which discusses the way Stockhausen used sonic space to create awesome wonder. Obviously Brian writing in the 1920's couldn't conceive of such concepts, but the effects he uses are theatrical, whether or not he was aware of thier impact in real performance.

This BBC Prom performance is a watershed in Havergal Brian reception, because it's the biggest exposure Brian has ever had.  He's always been known better by reputation than by actual experience, which adds to the cachet of exclusivity. Performances are rare, and the recordings are poor, some churned out by the equivalent of jobbing bands. Good performance is essential if any composer is to get the recognition he's due. Novelty status is not enough. John Foulds's Requiem bombed at its much-heralded performance in 2007, also at the Royal Albert Hall, thanks to lugubrious conducting (Leon Botstein). Last year, Foulds's music was heard again at the BBC Proms with far better results.

I enjoyed this performance a lot because it was such a theatrical experience. Brabbins and his musicians all deserve credit. But so, too, the logistic whizzes who made it possible at all. It must have been like moving an army. Brian's Gothic is a strange Leviathan, whose sheer enormity attracts interest. There always will be audiences that "don't mind the quality" as long as they can "feel the width".

Hopefully, Brabbins's Proms performance of Brian's Gothic will be recorded ,if only to recoup the enormous costs. It's a superlative way into the symphony particularly as so little of this music is available. Fortunately, the Havergal Brian Society website is so comprehensive that now everyone can become familiar with his work even if they haven't heard it.
A more detailed and formal review is here in Opera Today

Sunday 17 July 2011

Prom 2 Rossini William Tell Pappano

Heard in its (almost) entirety at BBC Prom 2, Rossini's William Tell is a rousing experience. So rousing that you want to rush out singing Liberté, liberté. Thrilling ! Catch it online for seven days. A new CD too, but there's nothing quite like the buzz of live performance.

William Tell is an icon because he was an ordinary rustic who stirred things up and beat off the Austrians. To this day, the Swiss do things their own way. Perhaps geography helps. You can't easily invade the Alps or subdue a peasantry that knows the mountains. For Schiller, Wilhelm Tell  showed how ordinary people could resist tyrants. For Rossini, too, perhaps.

But what I enjoyed most about this performance wasn't revolutionary fire, but the sense of nature and wide open spaces. Antonio Pappano conducts with expansive brio, bright dynamics and sparkling tempi.  Better this spontaneity than too much studied detail, because Rossini is painting landscape into his music. Panoramic vistas, winds, storms on lakes, impenetrable forests and, again and again, the image of the sky. For the Romantic Age, Nature embodied freedom. William Tell and his peers were "pure" because they lived in tune with simple things.  Rossini's French audiences would automatically connect William Tell with the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Hence the extravagant scenes, which would test Hollywood. Tell and Melchtal escape across a lake and the wind blows up. Peasants gather from miles around: Gessler's surrounded by an army. Milling crowds, battle scenes, and chorus after chorus, augmented by extended dance sequences. The logistics are as hard to comprehend as rhe idea that a man can shoot an apple off his son's head. Yet Rossini writes Guillaume Tell so descriptively that your imagination supplies the visuals. Film would be far too limiting. What makes Guillaume Tell so lively is the sheer variety in the music, as if Rossini's building in multi-screen effects.

Pappano's "other" job besides the Royal Opera House has long been conducting the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome.  In 2007, they did a brilliant Rossini Stabat Mater. They are very different from a coventional opera house orchestra, but Pappano seems to inspire them with his enthusiasm.  This orchestra was having fun.

The singing was even more impressive. John Osborn's Arnold is wonderful. It's a bigger, trickier part than William Tell in many ways, because Rossini places so much importance on the relationship between Arnold and Princess Mathilde (Malyn Byström) which aren't the same in Schiller and history. Again, Rossini's French audiences would have thought of Paul et Virginie. The two parts are lyrical, but the part of Arnold is uncommonly demanding, stretching the tenor to the top of his range for uncomfortably long periods. John Osborn has the stamina, and makes the maddening tessitura seem natural and unforced. The rapport between Osborn and Byström in Act Two was exqusite.

Arnold's an ultra-high tenor, while William Tell himself is a baritone verging on bass. This emphasizes Tell's earthy gruffness : he's a man of relatively few words, but when he does sing he gets to the point.  He shoots straight ! Notice how the music goes eerily silent when Tell takes aim.  Michele Pertusi's firm authority creates the part well.  Rossini also pointedly creates the Tell family as a distinct unit, balancing the baritone Tell with high soprano Jemmy and rich mezzo Hedwige (Elena Xanthoudakis and Patricia Bardon). Family values - natural values.

Rossini writes many different choruses into Guillaume Tell, each very individual. This poses problems with staging because the singers can't change costumes, but is integral to the idea of the opera as panoramic vision of nature in its diversity. The men of Unterwald are not like the men of Uri, but they all come down from their distant cantons to join in a common cause. The chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome sing with such character that it's quite striking hiow they turn each chorus intoi a "role".

Following the performance with the BBC programme text obscures the fact that some passages have been omitted and amended, which is not unusual in an opera of this size. The Act Two trio between Arnold, Tell and Walther (Matthew Rose) is intact, but the Act Four trio between Mathilde, Hedwige and Jemmy is gone. That's odd because it draws the narrative together. If you follow the performance with a full libretto, you get thrown off course from time to time, but presumably the cuts are made for a reason. In any case, I'd rather an exuberant performance like this  than something too pedantic. Better to focus on freedom !.

Please click HERE for a full download of Rossini Guglielmo Tell from Rome 1953 and full libretto. 

Photo : Michele Pertusi (William Tell) and John Osborn (Arnold Melchthal) perform at the BBC Proms on Saturday 16 July, in a concert performance of Rossini's William Tell, with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia conducted by Antonio Pappano. Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Saturday 16 July 2011

First Night of the Proms 2011 Janáček Glagolitic Mass

Fabulous sense of occasion, the First Night of the Proms 2011. "Stars, night, music and light", a wonderful way to start the season. Pity the piece, commissioned specially from Judith Weir, is only 4 minutes and insubstantial but it's a nod to the rote cliché that the Proms don't do enough British and female composers.

This year's star pianist was Benjamin Grosvenor, at 19 already an 8 year veteran of the BBC Young Artists Programme. I enjoyed his Liszt but it's not really my thing. Much sparkier, for me, the Brahms Academic Festival Overture, which when done as well as this shines and adds to the sense of occasion.

But the real substance came with Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. Jiří Bělohlávek's Janáček is distinctive and idiomatic. He's transformed the way Czech music is heard in this country. This was a wonderfully affirmative Glagolitic Mass, full of vigour and energy.

Although the piece takes religious form, the faith Janáček is celebrating is the Slavic soul. Some time before the piece was written, the Papacy had made special dispensation for Mass to be said in Slavonic instead of in Latin as was the norm then. This was hugely symbolic since it gave legiitmacy to Slavic independence at a crucial point in time. Janáček's nationalist instincts were fuelled. The Glagolitic Mass commemorates the ancient roots of Slavic culture, just as the Sinfonietta  celebrates the birth of the modern Czech nation. The Glagolitic script, seen in the painting, dates from the 8th century, long before the Hapsburgs consolidated their grip on Bohemia. This Credo isn't about the "Catholic and Apostolic Church" so much as Janáček's faith in secular and national Resurrection. 

When Pierre Boulez connducted the Glagolitic Mass at the Proms in 2008, he brought out the craggy, uncompromising structure in the piece so it felt rough hewn, as if it were crafted from stone and natural forces, for this is a remarkable piece of music, coming only 15 years after Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Bělohlávek's approach is much warmer but also firmly unsentimental,  because he knows freedom is hard won.  Hence the lovingly shaped "Janáček:" signatures, star motifs and quirky whips of melody that leap out provocatively, integrating the piece more closely with the composer's earlier work. Bělohlávek shapes the dense angular blocks, so the sudden traceries of brass zip through brightly. At the end of the Slava, the Amin, Amin's are ferocious. Truculent timpani ! The massive Royal Albert Hall organ enters gradually, almost quietly, so whern it bursts forth in the Allegro, it feels explosivce. A mighty force has been biding its time. 

Both Bělohlávek and Boulez bring out the depths of the Glagolitic Mass -- in different ways. Bělohlávek has by far the greater advantage with his singers. No comparison, in fact. Bělohlávek's also a good conductor for voice. Not many are. While Boulez's tenor (Simon O'Neill) faltered, Stefan Vinke for Bělohlávek is a match for the big orchestra, a defiant individual against vast forces. Hibla Gerzmava, Dagmar Pecková and Jan Martinik have all worked with Bělohlávek before, and clearly have the measure of this demanding piece. In fact I can't remember hearing it sung with such committment. The BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus sound inspired, even by their usual extremely high standards  Maybe this will make it to CD, as it deserves to be preserved.

An important note on the edition of bthe Glgolitic Mass used in this performance  "The Glagolitic Mass was given in a new edition by Jiří Zahrádka and Leoš Faltus, which apparently restores passages simplified prior to the first performance in December 1927. According to the programme, the changes included simplification of rhythms, removal of the ‘offstage’ marking for a passage for three clarinets in the ‘Věruju’ (Credo) and cuts to both that movement and the ‘Svet’ (Sanctus). More may be read here concerning the edition, which Zahrádka modestly terms ‘an informative curiosity of sorts’.(Mark Berry in Opera Today and Boulezian)

In the meantime, this Prom can be heard again for seven days from Monday on the BBC listen again facility. It's also on TV, and will be repeated. Please use the BBC Proms button on the list of sites on the right of this site - it gets you straight into the Proms section so you don't need to navigate the whole BBC site.  Lots more coming up, so please keep coming back. In the meantime, here's a link to Rupert Murdoch, eat your heart out, which contrasts the Proms ideal with News International.  Tomorrow, Pappano conducts Rossini William Tell. Here's a link to a full download of the opera from Rome in 1953.

Friday 15 July 2011

Luke Bedord Seven Angels full review Linbury BCMG

As promised here is a link to my full, formal review of Luke Bedford's Seven Angels which premiered in Birmingham and reached London on 12th July. I hope this opera will be heard again, in concert form and revived, because it is a lot deeper than most reports might suggest. It's not an "easy" work as it's deliberately ambiguous. Because the climactic scene is the Conference, where authority figures shout platitudes, it's easy to think that that's what the opera is about. But since when did politicians shouting slogans mean what they say ? So beware ! As in life, you can follow slogans or you can think.
photo credit : Alastair Muir

La Rondine - Opera Holland Park

Glorious production of Puccini La Rondine at Opera Holland Park. This is the sort of thing that makes OHP worth going to.  Please read Ruth Elleson's review.

I'd never thought costumes could make an opera, but the designs here recreate the heady mix of grande luxe and heady abandon that fits the period and the characters. Magda and her friends don't wear corsets in any sense. They're not buttoned up, but others are. Hence the tragedy. I wish I could find a photo of one of Poiret's famous "Grecian" dresses with dozens of tiny pleats, designed to skim the body so it moves like a zephyr.  Freedom in clothing, freedom in spirit and the arts. Puccini firmly in the vanguard of the modern age. And so much fun!

What I'd give for the dress with mock bustle and ombre shadings from white thru grey. Or the eau de nil "Empire cut" dress, or almost best of all the trio of black and white outfits that Georgette, Lolette and Gabriela wear at Bulliers! Congratulations to the designers, Peter Rice and Chrissy Maddison.

Performances, too, were highly credtable. Kate Ladner's Magda looks splendid, and sings well, so carries the principal role well. But it's the secondary roles that catch the irreverent joie de vivre. Nearly everyone in this plot is outside society and owes nothing to the received order of things. Hence Bulliers which is raffish and louche. Perversely, Magda stands out in this crowd because she's trying to look incognito. but that's part of the impishness of this opera.

Which is why the spicy alternative roles matter so much. The cabaret girls are talented women who make an independent living and presumably aren't kept, like Magda..Sean Ruane's Ruggero limps mysteriously - has he been in other wars? If so, it's extra tragic that he's going back, perhaps to die, after his brief chance of love.  Hal Cazalet's Prunier is too healthy to be Erik Satie, but just as alternative. And Hye-Youn Lee's Lisette epitomizes the whole gaudy, naughty, vivacious spirit of the opera. She, too, has dreams, but accepts setbacks graciously. When she sings about the whistles of the crowd, she makes the episode seem funny even though it ended her hopes. At least, one thinks, for the time being.

If you're going to do country house opera in the west of the city as Opera Holland Park does, you have a lot of competition. The facilities in a municipal park are never really going to be quite as glamorous, though the OHP crowd is dressier than Glyndebourne.  Lots of money about, but I suspect different values. There's more room to manoeuvre artistically. Productions like this La Rondine come pretty close to the polish of The Royal Opera House, but can OHP pull off such wonders every time? At least OHP is approaching the major league. There's so much fuss made of pub opera these days, though it's always been around. But with pub opera, you always have to make enormous allowances. So much so that while pub opera can be amusing, it can't be taken seriously as art. As a vision, OHP is unique, and worth supporting on principle.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Handel Rinaldo at Glyndebourne

When Glyndebourne's Handel Rinaldo reaches the Proms on 25th August (live, and broadcast online) make sure you listen, because some of the singing will be very good.  Same principals, different conductor (Lawrence Cummings) and of course, minimal staging.  Hopefully, they'll retain some of the better bits in the production, like the flying bicycles, and drop the kinky boarding school pretence.

Baroque is fun because it's surreal. No-one in their right mind could insist on authentic realism in Rinaldo, simply because it's set in the Crusades. A plot with sorcerers who can whip people over skies and seas? Handel and his audiences had no illusions about being literal. So there's no problem at all with the idea of knights on bicycles, because that's integral to the story. Against Armida's magic, the Crusader's macho bluff is revealed as hollow. Rinaldo gets saved because he's loved.  In fact, you could say the whole idea behind the real Crusades was fantasy. Europeans have long been fascinated by "Eastern Promise" because it offers an alien exoticism they can't get in real life.

So why schoolboys/schoolgirls in the Glyndebourne Rinaldo?  The bad news is that it demeans the story as teenage wet dream. But the good news is that it enhances Sonia Prina's Rinaldo. Prina is a very experienced Handel singer and has worked with director Robert Carsen before, so it's quite feasible that the production was designed round her. There can be little explanation for the recent Meistersinger updating other than to enhance Gerald Finley's Sachs as poet, not cobbler. It's essential that the main role looks and sounds right, so as a choice it has merit. Prina is attractive in a short, compact schoolboy way - think Justin Beiber. She's energetic and earthy, so the production plays to her strengths. If you want an ethereal countertenor, you have to conceive the role in a completely different way.

Originally, Sandrine Piau was cast as Armida, which also makes sense in relation to Sonia Prina, because Piau's so elegant and refined the contrast would be hilarious. For whatever reason, Piau pulled out, and Brenda Rae stepped in. Rae is excellent in this context, because she moves well in 6 inch heels and wiggles her body salaciously, which is aboslutely right for Armida as sex queen (which is implicit in Handel!). The voice has an edge, but again that works with the role.

Best singing from Luca Pisaroni, who is singing the role again, in a different production, in Chicago in a few months. Argante is the King of Jerusalem, a warlord who's quite capable of holding the Crusaders at bay. His weak spot is that he fancies Armida who is by no means a nice Muslim girl, even by the standards of the 11th century. Argante is by no means cardboard villain, as Pisaroni shows, glorying in roccoco flourishes of his entry aria so it shines with colour and complexity. You can "hear" the baroque gold and burnished curlicues in this voice! Fortunately, Handel develops the role, so we get to hear Pisaroni build the other sides of Argante's character. This is important because the ending defies logic unless you think of Argante as a real person. He and Armida make up even though both are seriously strong personalities.

If this Glyndebourne Handel Rinaldo becomes available on DVD or in cinemas, it is definitely worth catching. Perhaps the film direction will moderate the staging, and emphasize the music. Wonderful countertenors, William Towers and Tim Mead. Please read my full review of the live performance at Glyndebourne HERE in Opera Today. More photos, too. Photo above of Brenda Rae and Luca Pisaroni, Alastair Miles, courtesy Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Luke Bedford Seven Angels BCMG London - first thoughts

FULL formal review HERE.   These are/were my first thoughts. What you put into any experience affects what you get out. That's the message of Luke Bedford's Seven Angels and one which audiences should remember too. Don't come expecting Mamma Mia. Seven Angels isn't the musical equivalent of fast food. Instead, it works its way outwards from an inner core of musical depth. A tone poem with voices.Seven Angels is a work by a musician that reveals itself as music taking opera form, just as the angels come to earth to act out characters in a role play. 

Seven Angels is allegory, and like allegory,  it works obliquely through images.  The starting point is John Milton's Paradise Lost but don't make the mistake of expecting a literal, or even literary traverse. There are huge hints in the staging (John Fulljames, The Opera Group). Books everywhere, hundreds of them, and projections behind of pages. Millions of words, some legible, some not. A veritable cacophony of written text.

But what are words, when you think about it? They're just expressive markings for communication, not communication itself. The Prince consumes books, stuffing pages torn straight from their covers, until he looks like he's going to burst. Consume is the operative word. It's only when his plate is empty that he sees himself reflected in the shining metal. Later, members if the Conference gather to discuss the evils of overconsumption at a table made from piles of books. Like the Tower of Babel, it collapses. Words alone are delusion. So listen to Bedford's Seven Angels  as a musical evolution whose secrets are encoded in the orchestration, vocal and instrumental.

Seven Angels starts with a mysteriously opaque murmur that gradually takes shape: a metaphor for the chemical forces that existed before the creation of the universe. Just as the Bible describes Seven Days of Creation, the music moves in plateaux, ideas developing in groups, then moving onwards to new planes. The dark brooding primordial sweep gives way to brightness and sharp, rhythmic ostinato. The pulse is quickening. Very subtle and imaginative musical writing. In fact, I think Seven Angels should be heard in concert performance, to focus on the musical logic. The visuals are extremely important but this is a work that needs to unfold on different levels.  Like George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill, Bedford's Seven Angels needs to be absorbed slowly : it's not at all superficial, and can't be gobbled up in one sitting!

The angels are trying to figure out how the world became the way it is. Instinctively, they recreate the earth's imagined history by acting out the narrative we see on stage. Significantly, they don't know the answers. They're doing role play to stimulate ideas which they don't get from reading books. So, too, the way into Bedford's Seven Angels is intuitive.  Don't get distracted by the earnest allusions to eco-politics and G20 banquets where politicians talk, stuffing themselves while the poor starve. The ranting here comes from the angels pretending to be "politicians". Politcian-speak, words without meaning. You can choose whethervto take it at face value. Seven Angels is a reminder that the real riches of existence aren't to be taken for granted.  The Garden of Eden isn't about apple trees but about deeper values. That's why the tree in this production is paper, a cardboard cut-out that pops out of a book. The real fruit of Seven Angels is the sensitivity you can get from letting it work on your soul.

Musically, Seven Angels is very strong indeed. Small ensemble, but extremely unusual and used in inventivce, creative ways. The piano creates a sort of framework like an inner mertronome over which undulations of low winds and strings palpitate. It feels like the breathing of a living organism. Then, angular agitation, sharp rhythmic ostinato: the organism jerking into action, perhaps. The orchestration is subtle. What is that strange wailing you hear in the second half ? Contrabassoon as solo voice, horribly unsettling, but beautiful in a strange, ethereal way. Very strong integration between vocal and non-vocal forces. The four low violas rumble, a singer snores. The angels stand in line, snapping the pages of books, so the sound becomes another form of percussion. It's remarkably effective, and might be an element of staging that survives into future productions. When the angels return where they came ftrom, the orchestra creates howling concentric patterns of sound, whirring like a clock being wound backwards. Extraordinarily vivid.

This libretto, by Glyn Maxwell, "sings" even on the page, for text that is sung is music, not mere shapes on a page. Bedford translates it extremely sensitively. Each angel is distinctive, and lines can be heard clearly when needed, retreating into the orchestration  as instruments do, when a more diffuse effect is neeeded. No heroic feats of gymnastic singing needed. These angels are feeling their way into human situations.  The lines are semi-conversational, with occasional flights of wild fantasy (the queen in particular - a telling psychological touch). This gives it surprising freedom and must make it a pleasure to sing.  I can imagine what Seven Angels might be like with truly top rank singers, but these communiucate well. It's almost an anachronism to refer to these singers as "cast" because they function as part of the whole orchestration, like the individual musicians of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Ensemble. Nicholas Collon conducts.

For an opera where musical values mean so much, The Opera Group's staging is integral to the production. I specially loved the images of the cosmos, white specks of light flickering in darkness, replicated in filmed projections and in the costumes the singers wear. Star People, yes! Grey jackets, like the ash on the barren desert they visit. Books are lined up in rainbow colours : another image of the Paradise that's been lost. Luke Bedford's Seven Angels is how opera should be done, libretto and staging growing with the music from an early stage. It's an extremely rewarding experience, much more emotionally satisfying than a lot of recent new opera. So what if it's not quick-fix. The finest meals are the ones that nourish, not the ones that come in fancy plastic packaging.(and I don't mean Mark Antony Turnage who's OK)

And exactly as I've said, I've ruminated and read the work over, and have written a much more interesting piece than this ! HERE it is in Opera Today.
Photos copyright Alastair Muir. Christopher Lemmings as The Prince, Rhona McKail as The Waitress, Owen Gilhooly as the General, Keel Watson as The King, Emma Selway as the Queen, Joseph Shovelton as the Industrialist.