Tuesday 30 August 2011

Mendelssohn Elijah Prom 58 McCreesh Gabrieli

Droughts, deserts, false gods, angels, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and a firestorm. Plenty of drama in the Bible. Perhaps what drew Felix Mendelssohn to Elijah (Prom 58) was the personality of the prophet himself. But Elijah is a remarkable statement of faith. Christians may have monopolized the oratorio, especially in this country, but fundamentally Elijah reflects something even deeper in Mendelssohn's spirit. Although he was a devout Lutheran, never did he deny nor denigrate his Jewish roots.  Elijah's God isn't Jesus but the stern God of the Old Testament.  St Paul was written to please his father, but Elijah springs from deeper sources. This gives the oratorio an undercurrent of grit and draws from the composer some of his most passionate, powerful music. No wonder Berlioz and Wagner were jealous and did all they could to destroy Mendelssohn's reputation. The damage lasts still. One antidote is to listen to Elijah and think about what it means.

In Prom 58, Paul McCreesh conducted the Gabrieli Consort and Players. Wonderful choice, as McCreesh and his orchestra are formidably good early music pioneers. This Proms performance was informed by English Elijah performances (Birmingham 1846 and London 1847). The early music sensibility brings Elijah closer to Handel and Bach, who were Mendelssohn's own musical Gods, and who are quoted in the score. The leaner period sound may be why the oratorio initially appealed to the English dissenting movement rather than to High Church tastes. So McCreesh's decision to "reclaim" Elijah from very Late Victorian practice is significant, for it connects to a time when Non-conformism was part of British Christianity, and choral performance an expression of newly emergent middle class independence. Listen again to the broadcast, and contribute to the recording (not BBC). Because this Elijah goes back to the essence of Mendelssohn's beliefs, it's strikingly "modern" in the sense that it confronts dilemmas we still face today, like identity, faith and integrity.

Orchestrally, this BBC Proms performance was wonderful. Instruments like serpents, orginally instruments used in warfare to scare the enemy - baroque fantasy put to practical use. Slide trumpets which still sound natural and relatively unpitched. Goatskin timpani. The Royal Albert Hall Organ restricted to period stops and pipes. Two ophicleides augment the brass, and a magnificent contrabass ophicleides, known as the "Monstre" for obvious reasons. This period sensibility is not merely historic affectation. In the Bible, Elijah is a wild man of the desert who stands up those who worship Baal, who seems to represent consumption and corruption. The orchestra connects to Elijah's spartan nonconformity, and thus has more authority than more elaborate instrumentation. Furthermore, McCreesh's musicians play as if they're evoking ancient Hebrew instruments. Mendelssohn probably wouldn't have heard Jewish liturgical music, but he had observant relatives, and was musician enough to intuit how instruments depicted in Bible pictures might have sounded. Mendelssohn is reaffirming his Jewish heritage discreetly but firmly. McCreesh and the Gabrieli's prove that period practice can be powerful..

The Gabriei Cionsort was augmented by the Wroclaw Philharmonic Chorus, wuith whom they've worked before. Exceptionally precise singing - not a word muffled, despite the size of the hall. Conducting this many singers at once is difficult, but here they were so well drilled, no-one fluffed an entry. Perfect co-ordination, but even better, total committment and enthusiasm. This was the best choral singing I've heard in ages and I've heard a lot. Perhaps it's because the music is so "singable". When the people call out to Baal, their calls are met by silence. These singers seem to listen! Blocks of male and female voices alternate and interweave."Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty Land!", the voices sing. Mendelssohn builds into the wild cross-currents images of wind and rain, thundering into parched ground.  There are so many exquisite passages, it's hard to pick out the most beautiful. "He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps" for example, where the words "slumbers not nor sleeps" repeat in lovely tender patterns. Such delicacy from such a huge chorus. And the glorious apotheosis of the final "and then shall your light  shine forth", ablaze with glory, for Elijah has ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot.

Although the five soloists naturally take the foreground, it's the magnificent background of the choruses that make Elijah the monument it is. Three hundred voices, creating a wonderful opulent sheen. These are the "people of Israel" after all, for whom Elijah sacrifices himself, so it's utterly appropriate. Poised between soloists and massed choir are sub-groups like the double quartet, the quartet and an exceptionally good  trio. "Lift up thine eyes to the mountains", this group sings "whence cometh help". They're so clean and pure, they really do sound like angels.

Of these 300 voices, 181 are the voices of children from four youth choirs who participate in the Gabrieli's Youth Coaching Project. This is an important part of the Gabrieli mission. Even though young voices break, by being involved, they learn the physical joy of singing and appreciate music better whatever they might go on to do in  life. Singing is a community thing, and enhances life. Read more about the project HERE. These singers are so well trained that there's no lapse in standards. Indeed, their freshness and enthusiasm adds excitement to the performance. Someone asked me why a large Polish choir, the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir was included. Simple answer - they are superb, and McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort are performing Mendelssohn Elijah in Wroclaw, Poland on 18/9 and at Mendelssohn's own Leipzig Gewandhaus on 16/9.

Simon Keenlyside sings Elijah. This is the key part, on which the whole oratorio hangs, and is the only one treated as a single "character". Keenlyside is good, though he's not quite as forceful as Terfel, Fischer-Dieskau or Goerne, but that's OK. We don't need Elijah as wild prophet of the desert every time. His recitatives, "It is enough, O Lord" and "O Lord, I have laboured in vain" could have been more heart rending, because they show Elijah as human and vulnerable, but Keenlyside keeps them "English" and understated, which is perhaps more apt in an English context.  Rosemary Joshua sings the soprano parts and Sarah Connolly the mezzo parts. Both very convincing, though I'm imprinted with Gwyneth Jones and Janet Baker. The Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir were part of that, too. Robert Murray had some tricky moments but better in the Obadiah pasages. Jonty Ward sang the Youth. It's a beautifully written sequence where Mendelssohn contrasts the anxiety of the crowd with the pure, ringing tones of the Youth rising from silence. "It is nothing", he sings three times. Then Elijah begs God for a sign, and the Youth beholds a cloud rising from the waters. It's the incoming hurricane, and from then on all hell breaks loose in the music, and the people cheer. (Joshua sang with McCreesh in the 2009 Proms Haydn Creation. Read about that HERE, because it was a pioneering project and very relevant to this 2011 Mendelssohn Proms Elijah)

Possibly this was the best Prom for me this season, it was that good. Listen again HERE and support the CD. More details on the Gabrieli Consort website, which is packed with information about the music, the players, and the instruments. A great resource.
Please note there's a lot on Mendelssohn on this site, also on Handel ! And Elgar. Please take tim e tpo search.

Monday 29 August 2011

Glyndebourne 2012 season

First news - details to follow.
Leoš Janáček The Cunning Little Vixen
Gioachino Rossini La Cenerentola
Giacomo Puccini La bohème
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Le nozze di Figaro
Henry Purcell The Fairy Queen
Maurice Ravel L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges

Guess which will be new productions ? I can't say, but it's not difficult to do an educated guess. At least one of these will coincide with the Olympics, so that's another reason to book and escape doomed London.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Sunday Prom 58 Mendelssohn Elijah

FANTASTIC Prom ! Review is HERE with many extra links !  Please bookmark and revisit. In 2009, to celebrate Mendelssohn's anniversary, the BBC Proms did all his symphonies and some other works but not the biggie : Elijah. Or Paulus (which I love). The Three Choirs Festival did Elijah that year so I guess it was too much of a good thing. But when the Proms do something well, they do it ultra well. Week after week of massed choir blockbusters this year, making the most of the opportunities afforded by the Royal Albert Hall and its magnificent organ, the biggest and boomiest in the country. In times of economic and moral meltdown, we need extravagances, because they lift the soul. Besides, these blockbusters honour a grand British traditio : choral singing. One of the pleasures of getting to the Proms early is that you get to see the choristers lined up waiting to go backstage, and afterwards, they mill out among the crowd, still high form having sung their lungs out. In Victorian times, the burgeoning British middle class just loved massive displays. Look at the Albert Memorial, The Royal Albert Hall, the V&A, the Royal Parks. There are accounts of Elijah performances with 10,000 voices, though it's hard to imagine keeping them all together. At least they wouldn't have needed amplification. The excess is ironic, given the nature of the story - Elijah in the desert, the populace starving. Wild man Elijah rejects gods of luxury for an uncompromising God, and gets carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot. But goodness, it's fun!
Sorry I am a bit late with review but in the meantime you might like Elgar Caractacus Three Choirs, Handel Terrorist Samson Prom, Handel Messiah Prom (youth choirs)  Please use search box.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Semyon Bychkov Mahler 6th Prom 56

Of all the Mahler Proms this season, only one really stands out for attention, and it's this, Prom 56 with Semyon Bychkov. When Bychkov conducted Mahler in Cologne, I was disappointed, because he favoured Romantic repertoire. Last Proms, he conducted Mahler's 3rd, which I found too refined, but some of my friends loved. But Bychkov is an extremely important conductor, who has a lot to say in Romantic repertoire and opera. So I was thrilled by this Proms performance of Mahler 6. Oddly, in part, because Bychkov draws the parallels with Mahler 3. It's a wonderful insight.

Dispense with the usual maudlin sentimentality that attaches to this symphony, typical of the period. It's good to know what the hammerblows mean and that the symphony's called the "Tragic" but such myths detract from what's really in the music. As pure music, Mahler 6 is remarkably well-constructed, themes interweaving in constantly repeated patterns, which develop imperceptibly towards resolution. Since it's Mahler, it can't be purely abstract, though a straight autobiographical programme is misleading. Interpretation depends on understanding Mahler's music and mindset on a much deeper level. Whatever Haitink may say, everyone interprets. You can't even read a score without interpreting how the marks fit together. Only a machine doesn't "interpret". What I liked about Bychkov's interpretation was that it evolves from the music itself, rather than what Bruno Walter, or Alma, or anyone else might say.

Right from the start, Bychkov goes for the attack. The powerful opening march leads into a quieter theme - not passive, but contemplative. Then a third, expansive theme, often called "alpine", sounds heard from a distance. Hence cowbells and distant natural-sounding trumpets. These three themes interact throughout the symphony, providing a kind of inner skeleton, the "backbone" of the piece. Bychkov's entry is very bright and assertive. Immediately you sense this won't be a doom laden  wail. Mahler wasn't like that. For all his ruminations on death, it's life he's interested in, and its continuation in other forms after death. Hence the marches that run throughout most of the symphonies. Marches aren't necessarily military. Bychkov's march isn't ragged but elegant, even classical. The Mahler 3 connection becomes clear. (Please see what I've written about that on the labels at right) This isn't barbarism but purposeful forward thrust. It's orderly even though it's relentless. Is this the march of time or of nature ?

After the assertive first movement, Bychkov chooses the Scherzo. In this performance, it makes sense because it keeps up the energy levels, and develops the themes of the first in new ways. Placing the Andante third thus gives respite before the explosion that is the Finale, like the first "allegro energico". Classical structure again, right for this performance. Bychkov keeps this Scherzo almost blindingly bright - sharp, clean playing from the BBCSO, flagship of the whole BBC orchestra fleet. This emphasizes the troubling nature of this movement. It's as if unnatural light is throwing shapes into surreal contrast. Here, the march morphs into screams, repeated shrilly. The brass blare then fall into dizzying diminuendo. The percussion sound deliberately wooden. This is altväterisch, a very Austrian expression evoking nostalgic pastoralism. Yet it's not purely for ethnic colour, since Mahler knows very well that folk sounds aren't nearly as complex as full symphonic expression. Perhaps the hollow knocking is a reminder of a heartbeat, or a precursor of the hammerblows to follow. The "alpine" theme emerges quietly, very much alone amid the tumult, and it, too, spirals downwards. The mysterioso seems haunted. Yet the march returns, uncowed. This doesn't feel like a defeat, but a strategic retreat, which again makes sense of Andante before Finale.

After that Scherzo, the Andante does not seem like peace. Bychkov's poise in the Andante implies that the warmth of this alpine summer is fragile, as summers are in the mountains. The delicate balance is soon ruffled by sweeping chill. Yet the march themes remind us that time, or weather, or life, moves ever onwards.  The surging vigour of the march returns, suggesting that whatever might lie ahead shall also pass. The mood is quieter, but uncowed.

The attack that started the first movement returns at the start of the Finale. It's a monumental statement but again is carefully structured. Cowbells suggest the countryside, simple sounds (like heartbeats) underlying the sophisticated achievement of grand symphonic form. They're not just for decoration. The cartoon makes fun of the cowbells and hammer blows in this symphony, but the subject is complex, and worth discussing in depth. Another time ! Bychkov's clarity shows how carefully Mahler 6 is constructed, everything integrated. The trumpet calls refer to "music heard from afar" and also to communication between horns in the mountains, and even perhaps to cosmic trumpets heard from heaven. The celeste suggests otherworldly sounds, wafting from heights unknown. Marvellously brash discords melt into mysterious murmurs.

The march theme returns again, bright, sharp, almost demonic. Bychkov makes it burst with the vigour we associate with the onward march of spring in Mahler 3. Trumpet calls in marches function to rally forces onwards, and whip them into action. The march in this Finale grows ever more strident and energtic, so the dizzying, blinding flash that cuts it off comes as an absolute shock. Silence. Hammerblows. Silence.  Perhaps the hammerblows signify a heart attack or sudden death.  Certainly they're heart-wrenching because they mean the end of all that remarkable music. Yet remember that marches continue relentlessly, marchers who fall replced by new. Mahler's marches are surges of creative energy that cannot be dimmed.

Please see lots more on this site about Mahler and related subjects. My life work, in  a sense.I'm just passing on what I've learned so it might help others. I cover about 40 Proms each year. Please take a bit of time and read more.

Friday 26 August 2011

Handel Rinaldo Glyndebourne Prom 55 REVIEW Less is more

Less is more! If ever there was a case to be made for semi-staging, this Prom 55 version of Handel Rinaldo from Glyndebourne proved it. The original Glyndebourne full production was strikingr in parts (please see review HERE) but conceptually flawed.  Handel's glorious opera works because it's hyper-fantasy. Knights, enchantresses, magic, battle scenes, mountains, oceans, anything but literal realism. Handel's audiences had no delusions that the opera and all the other Orlando sagas based on Tasso, had anything to do with historical fact. Handel's audiences thought of the past in terms of Classical Antiquity and Arcadian Idyll so they couldn't have cared less for the faux-profound statement emblazoned across the stage "Were the first Crusades the result of...........".

That's the fatal flaw in Carsen's staging, from which all other horrors (and high points) flow. Reducing the opera to schoolboy dream sequence delimits the fantasy. Bruno Ravella does away with Carsen's excesses, creating a semi-staging that's even more dramatic than the original. Instead of silly gimmicks like bicycle shed battlegrounds, he gets closer to the fundamental fantasy that is the essence of baroque.

Ravella's semi-staging also places more emphasis on the singing, which was more spontaneous than in the original staging. Maybe it's the "end of term" factor, since the Glyndebourne season ended last week. Maybe it's because I was sittting face level with the singers barely a few metres away. But the singing seemed much freer and more exuberant than before, which is a good thing.

This time, Sonia Prina came over much more effectively. I'm even more convinced now that Carsen might have designed the whole production around her. She is a major Handel singer in Europe, and has worked with Dantone and Carsen before, so you can understand why they wanted to make the most of her assets. Freed of having to play along with the schoolboy business, she sang with greater vigour than before, demonstrating why the role isn't necessarily territory for counter tenors like Andreas Scholl, divine as he is. Prina's a woman, but conversely brings out the gutsy, masculine forcefulness of the role.Handel's audiences related to heroes with high, ethereal voices, but Rinaldo's still a fighter and a hero.  Prina's long Cara sposa was very well phrased, demonstrating solid technique and breath control.

Juast as Luca Pisaroni's Argante was getting into his stride in the very difficult Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto, the atmosphere was destroyed by three latecomers who were allowed into the front row of the auditorium. Pisaroni's much too professional to miss a beat, but this was extremely unsettling for others in the audience.  Later another group were let in on the opposite side of the hall, also heading for seats in the middle near the front : maximum disruption. The BBC Proms management really must stop this, which has been happening far too frequently this season.. It's completely unfair on the rest of the audience and on performers. Whoever manages the ushers should make it clear in no uncertain terms, absolutely no late entry til the interval.

This stellar moment was ruined, despite Pisaroni's poise, but the beauty of his singing revealed itself elsewhere, such as the tender richness of  Coma a tempo giungesti  Argante's a complex personality, and the role comes alive created with depth and sensitivity.

Clad in black bondage gear, Brenda Rae created Armida-as-Dominatrix. She's a fabulous actress, and Ravella's semi-staging made the most of her stage presence. Holding a cane, she walks round the audience, like a demented schooltreacher looking for victims to hit. It's a wonderful performance, but the relevance to Handel is marginal. Armida is cruel and powerful, but there's also more to the part. Significantly, Handel interjects long passages for solo harpsichord between Armida's passages. It's a crucial moment in the drama, for Armida's starting to think. Dantone's been playing continuo all along, but now the singing has stopped, she's listening.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are among the best period instrumentalists in Europe (ie the world)  and anything they do is worth hearing, whatever the setting. Wonderful, assured playing, deftly conducted by Dantone. The orchestra creates Almirena even before she comes on stage. Amazingly natural sounding bird song, depicted by sopranino - not flute, not recorder but unique. When Anett Fritsch starts to sing Lascia ch'io pianga, she's haloed by the magical sound around her. 

Tim Mead's Eustazio also blossomed in this Proms performance, freed from the silly changes of uniform.  He's not as stratospheric as, say, Jaroussky or Scholl, but absolutely convincing. Varduhi Abrahamyan sang Goffredo. One of the joys of Rinaldo is that Handel writes start turns for every part. Hence William Towers as the Mago, a Christian version of Armida.  Anyone who still thinks historical realism hasn't heard this part. Would Goffredo and Eustazio have been able to cross seas and mountains to save Rinaldo but for the Mago's magic ? It's not God who saves this hero, nor logic.

Prom 55 Handel Rinaldo was by far superior to the full production because it expressed the true spirit of the opera and its period. Unfortunately, Bruno Ravella, stage director, had to retain the main elements of Carsen's original (schoolchildren, S&M violence) because that was the brief, however confusing it might have been for the audience. But the compensation was that the singing, playing and essential drama came to the fore. (LOTS more on Handel, stagecraft, baroque and the Proms on this site. Please explore )

Thursday 25 August 2011

Staging Handel Rinaldo

Tonight, Prom 55 Handel Rinaldo from Glyndebourne. For background, please read this review of the Glyndebourne production this July HERE  Please also see my Prom 55 preview with more clips HERE.. Here is a clip from a different production from Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2005. Note how the director, Pier Luigi Pizzi, has combined modern abstraction with over-the-top excess, in the true spirit of baroque. Handel's audiences knew very well that what they were watching was theatre, not fake reality. Glorious costumes, but stylized in the 18th century's idea of the Crusades, which even then audiences would have realized bore no relation to the early Middle Ages. Baroque audience weren't bothered in the least about veracity - they thought in terms of Classical Rome and Arcadian idylls. What's delightful about Pizzi's staging is that he goes along with the fantasy but shows the stage mechanics behind them. In the ocean-crossing scene, the sea is depicted simply by waving a blue cloth across the stage while a ship is dragged along by pulleys. The ship glides very slowly, no storms! But Handel's music is written in a non-naturalistic style and needs time to unfold, so the fit between music and visuals is perfect. Witty and ironic, too.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker Abbado Era - archives released online

"I am Claudio to everyone." Claudio Abbado told the Berliner Philharmoniker when he became their Chief Conductor in 1989. The contrast with Herbert von Karajan could not greater. It was the sign of a new era which has transformed not only the orchestra but much of the current European orchestral ethos. In an unprecedented tribute to Abbado's vision, the Berliner Philharmoniker is releasing a huge archive of Abbado concerts in its Digital Concert Hall.

What treasures! A complete cycle of Beethoven Symphonies, chosen from a huge selection of concerts over the years. The May Day Concert from 1991 in Prague - part of the Berliner Philharmoniker's tradition of performing in historic European cities. New Year's Eve concerts, Japan tours, and Paul Smaczny's documentary, The Silence that Follows, not new but a classic in the art of music documentary. Mozart, Verdi, Brahms, Mendelssohn (a particularly fine Lobesgesang), fabulous soloists. The series is a wonderful record of how the Berliner Philharmoniker has developed over the years. Abbado, the Berliners and other institutions and conductors associated with them, like the Lucerne Festival and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, are the crest of a whole resurgence of creative music-making. What is the future of classical music? I hope it lies with ultra high standards and professionalism.  Follow this link here to the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall series on "The Abbado Era".

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Prom 55 preview - Rinaldo Glyndebourne

One of this season's highlights is Thursday's Prom 55 Handel Rinaldo fresh from Glyndebourne where the last performance took place early this week. 7 pm start. Listen live by following link, or on demand for 7 days. We might be better off with non staged or semi staged as the full production has ideas but no overall concept how they might work. (see full review here of the Glyndebourne staging). See HERE For review of the Proms semi-staging which is much better !)  Baroque is fantasy, so let your imagination run free. Battlefields, enchanted islands, flights over seas, skies and mountains, witchcraft and magic spells!

Orchestrally and vocally good, especially Luca Pisaroni who sings Argante, ostensibly the bad guy not the hero, but his characterisation is so good you get more involved with Argante than with the good guys. Listen for the ultra-dramatic moment when Argante enters. The Crusaders have been milling about clueless and suddenly this flamboyant, theatrical Moorish villain enters. Hear trumpets flourish, visualize flags unfurling, and the glint of metal, of swords and armour! Pisaroni will be singing the role again soon in the US and also Rossini's glorious Maometto Secondo, another Muslim hero who starts off as villain. Read my review of Maometto Secondo HERE and an interview with Luca Pisaroni HERE.

Below, Argante's Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto, Sam Ramey much later in life. (There's also a Gerald Finley verison available, but Ramey and Pisaroni have more presence.)

Monday 22 August 2011

Britten Turn of the Screw Glyndebourne broadcast analysis

One hardly needs fake country house in a real country house like Glyndebourne. Jonathan Kent's production of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw, broadcast from Glyndebourne, teases out the sinister levels in this cryptic opera, where the drama lies in the psyches of the protagonists, not in the furnishings. 

Note how quiet Britten's music is, accentuating the disquiet in the narrative. Jakub Hrůša turned 30 only this July, but he's the Chief Conductor of the Prague Philharmonia and has guested everwhere. He conducted an excellent Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne this summer, and conducts Glyndebourne Touring. He completely has the measure of Britten's quirky, discordant style. "Sharp, fixed, strange", as the Governess describes Peter Quint. And so Hrůša's precision brings out the danger in Britten's score. Tight drumbeats mark the beginning of the secret battle, as the children act out Tom, Tom, the Piper's son. Nursery rhymes with a sinister twist. The interludes are particularly expressive, evoking hard glass surfaces, dizzying heights and the ungiving, rock-like hardness at the core of the plot. No chintz here. Hrůša won't please everyone, but that's exactly why his conducting is so good. He's absolutely right  for the tightly coiled anxiety that makes this opera so powerful.  Definitely a conductor to keep track of.  I'm going to buy his CDs.  (photo: Petra Klačková)

Miah Persson is a fantastic Governess. Listen to where she sings Alone, tranquil, serene, her voice soaring ecstatically on the word "alone". Persson's voice is naturally luscious and sensual, hinting at the sexual repression at the root of the character. (Henry James, who wrote the original novel had a brother who was a psychologist when the discipline still equated hysteria with the womb). The Governess sees a shadow, identified only as "he", a detail so subtle it's often missed. Persson sings with such tenderness, you know she 's thinking of the uncle. Hence her distress when she doesn't know who "he" is.

I've rarely heard an In my Labyrinth which combines demure with demented as well as Persson sings it. She keeps the maniacally tight beat, yet with a wild edge, suggesting she'll snap. Her English is so perfect, that you might not know she's not a native speaker, but this only underlines the basic fact that the Governess isn't Establishment. She's most definitely not "among her kind" as the text keeps repeating. That's why she's in awe of the uncle, the house and all it stands for. She wears the uniform of 50's respectability but she hasn't the experience to deal with the madness or evil she finds. Miah Persson's portrayal makes you realize that the Governess is out of place even before she arrived. Effectively, she's trapped in an infernal machine. Kent shows her arriving in a railway carriage (the scenes outside not unlike those around Glyndebourne).

Class and status do matter in this opera. Mrs Grose, The Governess and even Peter Quint are pawns because real authority lies with the remote, sinister uncle. Mrs Grose (admirably played by Susan Bickley) shields behind bucolic subservience until she hears Flora's nightmares. But maybe she's still being manipulated. Miles dies, but what will Flora do in another place and time?  Flora acts up sweetly, but she's no more pure than Miles is. Many productions are fooled. Kent hints at the danger in Flora, by showing how she's very much Miles's partner in the kinky game where the pair ride each other flailing whips. Later, Flora shoves her doll up her jumper, in a truly horrific imitation of pregnancy. Joanna Songi sang the role in 2006 so vocally she's assured, but even better, she can now create a Flora who is sexually potent while playing at being a child. The connection between Songi's Flora, with her head in the sink, and Giselle Allen's Miss Jessel, who drowned, is clear.

Toby Spence's Peter Quint is excellent. It helps that he still looks like a cherub, though he's not as skeletal as Ian Bostridge, or vocally quite so intense. Oddly, he does resemble Thomas Parfitt, who sings Miles, and even more strangely, one of the musicians in the orchestra. The orange hair is in the libretto, hinting at Quint's demonic nature, so it reminds us that Quint's good looks aren't conventional. Spence is so convincing in the role that it's frightening when he hugs Parfitt at curtain call. Of course it's perfectly innocent, because Spence is kind hearted. Normally we'd beam. But after having experienced a performance as unnerving as this we recoil, despite common sense, which itself says something. We've lost our innocence too.

The set, too, is superlative. Kent and his designer, Paul Brown, take their cue from the music. Like the music, simplicity is all, clarity used in a way that confounds the impenetrable elusiveness of meaning. Throughout the libretto, images of windows, glass, vantage points and strange angles, like Quint in the tower. Glass can be both transparent and opaque. It's strong but when it shatters it's lethal. Study the scene where the Governess and Miss Jessel confront each other with a three panel mirror. Who reflects whom?

Paul Brown creates a set that, like the exploding box in Don Giovanni, moves quickly and doesn't impede dramatic action. It keeps twisting and changing, like the plot. Walls fall in and lean dangerously. A central panel looks like a giant window, blocking off interior from exterior, yet shifts as rapidly as perspective shifts in the opera. Only at the very end does the panel turn completely horizontal. Viewed sideways it's revealed as thin and fragile and seems to disappear. Kent and Brown describe it as a "membrane" between the Governess and "the others".

Even the sofas aren't comfortable. These ones travel of their own volition (propelled by an underfloor mechanism). Floor level objects spin in ellipses, panels above bend and twist shape, and mysterious, atmospheric lighting (Mark Henderson).  This is a staging that moves like Britten's music, every bit as elusive as meaning in this most unsettling of operas, where nothing is meant to be quite as it seems. This Turn of the Screw, from Glyndebourne is both classic and groundbreaking and needs to be experienced by anyone wanting to come to terms with ths striking originality of Britten's mind. Altogether, the 2011 production is cast so strongly it would be hard to beat, and Jakub Hrůša's conducting is exceptional. Extremely well directed for film, too, showing a wide rangle of angles - like the plot - and close-ups used for proper effect.

Both production shots copyright Alastair Miles, from Glyndebourne Opera. (Miah Persson as The Governess, Toby Spence and Giselle Allen as Peter Quint and Miss Jessel).

Sunday 21 August 2011

Birtwistle Angel Fighter Prom Cadogan Hall

Harrison Birtwistle acts nonchalant but delivers seriously. Angel Fighter? (BBC Prom Saturday matinee, Cadogan Hall) Sounds flippant but in fact refers to an all-night cosmic struggle between Jakob and a divine being. Jakob wins and is renamed Israel by the Angel but loses part of his body. Is this a struggle between man and God, and why? Theologians, mystics and Jungians could read much into this. Birtwistle doesn't say, but his music creates such atmosphere that you're drawn in almost as if you're participating.

Shards of dark chords, bright silvery woodwind and brass, alertness, listening. Then the chorus calls, Jakob, wake up! Wonderful mix of circular wailing and staccato, and Jakob (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) enters, confused. Do we hear the sound of heavy wings beating the air? "I cannot see!" cries Jakob, confused, "Save me!" Do we hear his fear in the zigzag undulations of the vocal line? Then the angel (Andrew Watts, countertenor) appears, heralded in a wave of clear, pure almost electronic sound. The two voices stalk and entwine each other. Circular themes in the orchestra, throwing and flipping over: wrestling in music. The London Sinfonietta under one of its founders, David Atherton, are at in peak form again, challenged by music they can really come to grips with.  This feels like struggle, churning, pausing, turning. Two sumo-like figures observing each other, grappling, falling back to re-engage again. Staccato thuds, but always a sense of danger : Keep alert, keep listening.

There seems to be a progression of moods, culminating in a whirring, discordant climax which dissipates once more to the two protagonists, facing each other. Emotionally this is very intense, very physical. One thinks of the Oracle in The Minotaur (also sung by Andrew Watts), but also of the muscularity of the Minotaur himself. Maybe that's why the orchestra stamps quiet ostinato, like a beast at bay. Follow the text and you know the ending is near, yet it still creeps up by stealth and catches you unawares as the tenor's voice cuts off mid flow, high on the scale.  This is Birtwistle at his impenetrable, thorny best, much much better than the fairly inchoate Corridor in 2009, definitely up with Birtwistle's greatest. Listen to this again on BBC repeat (starts 48 minutes into the programme).

Wrestling too, on a more esoteric plane in Georges Aperghis's Champ-Contrechamp. The title refers to multiple frames in film, creating parallel images which may or may not meet. Extremely fast, flickering lines, the pianist, Nicolas Hodges, throwing out percussive series of notes, cross cut with similarly electric spark from the orchestra. Up and up the keyboard Hodges goes, teasing and taunting the orchestra, who fight back: nice blurred brass, like they're blowing raspberries. Hodges hits the other side of the keyboard, big, reverberant ostinato that echoes into the void. Is the orchestra silenced? Ultra high pitched responses, so squeaky you almost wince. Fabulously zany interplay between the two protagonists, plenty of inventive incident to keep you alert. It's wonderful that this is a BBC commission and world premiere, for Champ-Contrechamp is way above average and way beyond mundane. An extremely rewarding piece, which repays repeat listening.

It's such joy to hear the London Sinfonietta in full glory again! I went many years without missing a single concert but it's been ages since I had so much fun.

Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell-Davies were close once, then at loggerheads. But they seem to get progarmmed together more now that they're both Grand Old Men of British Music. Max's Il rozzo martello was written nearly 20 years ago, part of Max's fascination with Italianate figures and landscapes. The reference is to Michelangelo and the sculptor's tool breaking into marble in the process of creating art. Perhaps I shouldn't have taken the title to heart, for the music is a delicate filgree that floats about like incense on a  breezy piazza. It's attractive but it doesn't last.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Georges Aperghis - Storm beneath a Skull

This afternoon Georges Aperghis's Champ-Contrechamp is premiered at the Proms (BBC Prom Saturday matinee, Cadogan Hall) along with premieres by Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell-Davies. Interesting that Aperghis should separate those two! Mischief and anarchy, Aperghis's thing, but with purpose.

Here's a review of  a useful and FUN DVD. "....Aperghis is a “polyphonist”, says a musician, who writes “a bouquet of voices converging or not, which overlay or connect … each voice adds a little thread which requires great rhythmic precision, because if one is not totally tuned in, it unravels”. This is music that happens in “realtime” as they say, because its sheer simplicity calls for exquisitely sensitive playing. A cellist and a zarb player - it’s an African drum, beaten by hand - demonstrate......the two are so well integrated that it’s hard, on first hearing, to remember how basic the zarb is technically." "....Lionel Peintre, the tenor for whom Aperghis has written so much says that the piece wasn’t a composition “but a kind of living being that lashed out at me, the wildest animal I ‘d ever had to face, and quite a nasty one, too.”

There are excerpts from the opera Avis de Tempête (2004). A storm unleashes the wildest forces of nature. It’s dangerous and unpredictable, torrents of rain, followed by thunder, wind and crashes of lightning. A storm, says Aperghis, symbolises “the loss of logic or construction as decided by human forces”.

There's also a complete film where Aperghis recreates the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood as if it were a story within a story. ”A group of musicians climbed into a box” goes the voice-over, in order to create the story. “For all we know, they are in that box still” it adds. “If they are alive at all!” This sums up a lot of the ethos of Aperghis’s work. The composer isn’t the only auteur. It’s almost a joint effort, reborn with each performance. Thus the lines blur between those wearing red hoods and those wearing wolf masks. Sometimes the little red hat “dances” by itself. Of course it’s invisibly manipulated by someone holding a stick while hidden behind the piano, but while we watch, spellbound by the mysteries of this ancient tale, we no longer need logic or causation. As the moral of the story makes clear, how stupid can a girl be, to get into bed with a wolf and not expect to get eaten?"

Friday 19 August 2011

Schizo composer goes on killer rampage

"This is the story of George Henry Bone....the British Catalogue of Music lists him as a distinguished composer". What "British Catalogue of Music"? Lots more in this film that's slightly off centre. The director is John Brahm, not quite Johannes Brahms, the writer is Barré Lyndon, not Barry, and Bone lives in an ultra swanky Edwardian mansion in Hangover Square named for no obvious reason except that drunks clear their heads when they walk round.  The real life star of Hangover Square was Laird Cregar, who died tragically aged 31 before the film was released.  On the other hand, that's exactly the premise of the story : what you think you see is not what you get.

Bone comes in from a night out to find distinguished Sir Henry, conductor of the Philharmonic, in his house, who asks him to write a concerto. Like it's so easy? So George wanders into a lowlife music hall where Netta sings. Netta's not quite the usual pub act, she can play George's melody from memory and sees its potential as a waltz.  So she and her manager latch onto George and he writes hit tunes for them instead of completing his concerto.  George becomes hopelessly infatuated with Netta who uses him cruelly. What she doesn't know is that George has extreme mood swings that are triggered off by music. A problem for a musician. When he's stressed, George goes into homicidal rages and kills people.

On Guy Fawkes Night 1903, George snaps and kills Netta, and disposes of her on a gigantic bonfire. Nearly everyone's wearing a mask, including Netta. Why doesn't George? Since no-one does Bonfire Nights this elaborate any more, we can rest assured we couldn't get away with it. The police discuss "thugee knots" and decide George must be the killer after all, and rush into the Philharmonic Hall where George is playing his now complete concerto. (note the semi-circular seating plan) . In the scuffle, a fire breaks out and everyone runs for their lives, but George plays on.

George's concerto is  Bernard Herrmann's Concerto Macabre (1945), gorgeously over the top, like demented Rachmaninov. Madly schizophrenic, atmospherically perfect. Herrmann is the man who wrote the stabbing music for Psycho, Twilight Zone, Taxi Driver and much else.. Listen to Concerto Macabre as a concert piece, freed of the melodrama, and it's great fun. Writing for Hollywood was hack work, but the best composers still managed to produce interesting material. Indeed, I'd venture that the movies wouldn't have been so successful without some of these soundtracks. Another curious but true fact. Bernard Herrmann adored Gerald Finzi, long before Finzi was really famous. Herrmann used to visit England to see Finzi and stayed with him at Ashmansworth. What an unlikely pair! The hard-bitten Hollywood mogul and the quintessential other-worldly Englishman. But again, appearances deceive. Finzi was the ideal Englishmen straight out of central casting, but was, to his credit, a self-made man, as was Herrmann in his field.


Thursday 18 August 2011

Ten years - Oxford Lieder Festival 2011

Ten years of the Oxford Lieder Festival!  The Oxford Lieder Festival 2011 is the most important song festival in this country, and attracts international interest.  Sholto Kynoch and Oxford Lieder prove that those who believe passionately in what they do can achieve great things. The Oxford Lieder spirit is exciting because it's a mix of enthusiasm, deep knowledge and genuine love for the art of song performance. Support it and be there.
Public booking is now open, so please make plans. Oxford's not that far from London and the two key weekends are unmissable. October is perhaps the best time to be in Oxford, since the crowds are gone and, in the mist, the city takes on melancholy, timeless romance. Wonderfully atmospheric. That's the Holywell Music Room, where most concerts take place. (Photo : Peter Trimming)  It's the oldest public music room in the world. Mozart, Handel and Haydn played here, and many others. It seats only 150 people, ideal for a genre like Lieder where intimate, personal communication is of the essence. No-one makes big money from audiences this size, so that's all the more reason to support the Oxford Lieder ethos.

This year's programme is ambitious. Wolfgang Holzmair, Hakan Vramsmo, James Gilchrist, Miah Persson, Roderick Williams, Felicity Lott, Thomas Allen,  Florian Boesch, Mark Stone, Sarah Connolly, Birgid Steinberger, Graham Johnson, Anna Larsson, and many others. Many big names appear at Oxford Lieder long before they reached the really big time. This year Gary Griffiths and Marcus Farnsworth, for example, who have already made an impact. Indeed, one of the many fine things about Oxford Lieder is the way it nurtures talent, for the young are the lifeblood of the future.

Only three concerts featured in the first festival in 2001, but they were the three Schubert song cycles. cornerstone of the genre. This year the first weeked (14th to 17th October) is an intensive immersion in Schubert, where nearly everything he wrote for voice will be included. All day and evening, plus talks!

The second weekend  (22-23 October) will be worth travelling much longer distances than usual for it's an immersion in Scandinavian song, long a speciality of Oxford Lieder.  Rangstrom, Nystroem, Stenhammer, Petersen-Berger etc, featuring singers like Miah Persson who normally would play much bigger houses like Glyndebourne but sings at Oxford Lieder because they're reaching an audience who knows and cares.  Book for this straight away, even if Swedish song is new to you, because it's a treasure house of fascinating gems.

Thius year's Festival features no fewer than 33 recitals, as well as talks before every evening concert, a 2-day study event looking at Wagner and his influence on Liszt and Wolf, the launch of Volume 2 in Oxford Lieder’s recordings of the complete songs of Hugo Wolf, (please see review of Vol 1 HERE).

Oxford Lieder is committed to commissioning new work. This year's composer is award-winning Charlotte Bray, who has written a song cycle for baritone and piano based on the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, the eccentric Portuguese fantasist. (Lots more about Pessoa on this site, please search on "Pessoa"). Roderick Williams sings, so this should be a highlight. (27th October)

Central to the Oxford Lieder Festival philosophy is the idea of giving back to society something of what Lieder has given us : the joy of song.  Hence the very much acclaimed residential masterclass, which give intensive, specialist development for experienced pairs of singers and pianists. Yet anyone can experience the pleasure of singing - lots of work is done with schools, with amateurs as well as professionals.

I've supported the Oxford Lieder Festival since year two, so naturally I sing its praises, but there's quite a big circle of long-term and new supporters for the simple reason - it's unique and an extremely important contribution to the art of song and performance. For more information, see the website and book soon.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Surviving Hitler: a love story

Two remarkable films about living under the Nazis on BBC4 TV. First Surviving Hitler: a Love Story . This is big news, as it's making its first high profile appearance in Britain. So far it's only been screened in festivals and small houses. The DVD will be released in December. Second, My father was a Nazi Commandant. Watch them both for a week on this link and this one.

Surviving Hitler: a love story is so amazing, it's almost hard to believe. The people involved were camera fanatics and recorded every detail of their daily lives. It's an almost unequalled archive, a valuable resource for historians of all kinds. But most amazing of all is what the family went through. All of them arrested for being involved with Operation Valkyrie, to assassinate Hitler. And all miraculously survived.

Tall, "Aryan" Jutta discovers that her maternal grandparents were converted Jews, and is sent to Switzerland for safety. But she returns to Berlin where she can't work, study or marry. Luckily she's rich and moves in influential circles. She meets Helmuth Cordes, a man who seems permanently attached to a camera, whether he's taking stills or moving film. The family is close friends with Werner von Haeften, adjutant to Claus von Stauffenberg, who planted the bomb that should have killed Hitler. They attend "tea party" groups  that denounce Hitler (Moltke?) and sheltered one of the plotters in their mansion.  Come July 20th 1944, the assassination fails and von Stauffenberg and von Haeften are murdered. Jutta's father is imprisoned and her mother sent to Ravensbruck, Helmut, who had a very junior position in Haeften's staff, is arrested too. Officially around 5000 people were executed in the bloodbath that followed. Others just disappeared. Jutta hides for a while then walks into Gestapo HQ and is promptly arrested. Eventually, the Russians roll into Berlin and Jutta, freed, goes home. In walks her mother, who's also been freed, and then father and Helmut as well. So they take out their cameras and record their wedding, the first in liberated Berlin.

Surviving Hitler: a love story is an extremely well crafted documentary. There must be thousands of photographs, for the story can be told through real pictures, carefully matched to fit the narrative, even thoughn the pictures may have been taken at different times.  Only one talking head, Jutta herself, who is eloquent and has such force of personality that she'd be worth watching even without the amazing story and archive. The family shots are augmented by contemporary film clips, including rare film of Hitler in colour. Where there's no original material, the film makers resort to re-enactments and footage from old movies, but these are incorporated so well that they blend in perfectly. This film has none of the tacky cut and paste feel many other documentaries suffer from. And the film makers are so self effacing, you can't find them on their website ! Truly a remarkable movie, beautifully made. This should be screened everywhere, including film making classes.

As film, My Father was a  Nazi Commandant (2006) isn't nearly as well made, but it's about Monika, the daughter of Amon Goeth, commander of the work camp at Plaszow near Krakow, and her quest to make amends by contacting Helen, who was a slave in Goeth's luxurious dwelling.  Monika was brought up in ignorance, not understanding why her mother was a cold hearted bitch.  Helen tells her everything, and how the father was an evil killer who took pleasure in destroying thousands of lives. Helen's husband killed himself in 1980, haunted by memories. For Helen, making this film was a kind of closure because now her testimony is in the public domain. Monika is traumatized. It wasn't her fault, but she's devastated, practically hysterical throughout. "Your suffering is just beginning" says Helen. As documentary, this film feels very edited, so you wonder what really went on behind the scenes, and how the participants were treated. But Monika and Helen's feelings are so raw that it's a disturbing, emotionally draining experience. Monika, too, is a victim of the sadist who engendered her, and she's worthy of respect. She's a courageous woman, so I hope the trauma of making this film hasn't wrecked her.

Making documentaries like these isn't easy. Sometimes you wonder at what human cost is "good TV" created. But they need to be watched, to remind us that totalitarianism is never harmless or acceptable.

Monday 15 August 2011

Rats raid Bayreuth - Lohengrin Review

Many will run, shrieking like rats from a sinking ship when they see this production of Wagner 's Lohengrin from Bayreuth, the famous Neuenfels Rats production. But steel your nerves and watch in online on demand from Siemens AG (link HERE) until 30th August. View more than once, there's a lot to take in. It's an experience that makes you appreciate just how radically original Wagner can be. Shocking as it is, this production is created with insight. Those who prefer kitsch to Wagner can leave the ship for those who care about Wagner as a thinker on an audacious scale.

Take Wagner literally and you're the fool. The real King Heinrich defeated the hordes from the East in 933 CE.  By which time Brabant had been firmly Christian for 500 years. Ortrud would not have been a strategic match for Telramund. She'd have been burnt at the stake. Then Lohengrin appears, conjured up by Elsa's dream. Ortrud's right: Elsa should know who she's marrying. Lohengrin reveals he's the son of Parsifal and comes from a strange cult at Monsalvat, where they talk Christ but practise blasphemy. Lohengrin's name is the least of the questions she should be asking.

And who are these Brabanters whom everyone wants to protect? Usually they're depicted as irrelevant ormnamental background. Here they're rats, in ingenious costumes. They hold their bodies like rats, and twitch. They move in massed groups like rats do. Yet they have individual personalities, like humans. They're even cute! Suddenly, the focus is on the Brabanters themselves, rather than  those who decide what they should do. Because the Brabanters now have identities, the whole scope of the opera opens out. One is reminded of Wagner's proto-socialist beliefs and his disdain for mindless authority.

When the rats are manipulated by Telramund they can turn vicious, which is why Elsa appears, borne down with arrows stuck in her back. It's a horrifying image, but Elsa's been shafted from all sides. That Annette Dasch is a tall, strong woman makes it even more poignant. Yet the rats are fundamentally creatures of nature who do what they think they need to survive. When they're not threatened they're quite delightful.  They have hideous claws and feet, but caress each other with great tenderness, as rats do. In their nobler moments, they remove their hoods and reveal their human faces. There's a lot of humour in Neuenfels's production. The Brabanters could be prototype Nuremburgers. But rats don't think and easily descend into mobs. Note how the rats in uniform resemble the SS. Petra Lang's Ortrud is got up vaguely like a camp guard. When she flashes her teeth, they shine sharp and white, lika a rat. When she kisses Telramund, it looks like she's savaging him.

Why rats? The idea is not nearly as far fetched as Lohengrin's connection with a swan. The Christian image is a dove, a symbol of peace. Swans look serene, but are aggressive, clumsy and attack in mobs. So why does Monsalvat revere swans? Bigger isn't necessarily better. When Elsa appears as a bride, she's dressed like a swan, hiding her face behind a feather fan, but look at her hair. It's hidden behind a helmet-like cowl, with a point like a widow's peak. Both sides of a swan's nature. Ortrud appears as a black swan, but can't get it right, like jealous people who try to imitate those more talented than themselves. Poor Petra Lang, painted like a mad doll, with 7cm false eyelashes.

When Lohengrin and Elsa are at last alone for the first time, they appear in simple garments that don't inhibit movement. It's actually in the libretto. Now they're neither swan nor rat, but fully human. The action here is as eloquent as the singing. Klaus Florian Vogt, who's sung more Lohengrins than most, reveals the hero as profoundly a sensitive and vulnerable. His singing is divine, (thrill to it) but watch his face, which projects genuine love and concern. Lohengrin is an almost supernatural hero, but he can't control things in his own bridal chamber. This is a very  moving interpretation, which gives Lohengrin much greater depth of personality. When he and Dasch grapple, the physical charge is palpable. And they're barefoot, like rats, only more beautiful to us, as humans.

There are many references in Neuenfels's production to other Wagner ideas. King Heinrich refuses to wear a sword til the truth is established. He plunges it into a potted tree in the middle of the stage - Wotan plunging his sword into the World Ash Tree. An ordinary king could decide Elsa's fate on the spot. Perhaps Heinrich realizes that this is cosmic, not a civil dispute. Georg Zeppenfeld doesn't do Heinrich as despot, but as thoughtful, unarmed human being. The female wedding guests appear in luminous colours and floral hats - the Flower Maidens from Parsifal, a warning that the hero must resist temptation?

Then the full horror of what Lohengrin reveals. Read the libretto carefully, for it's a discussion about a year's gestation and the freeing of the swan from its thrall to the Grail, and the return of dead Gottfried. So maybe it's not so far fetched after all that the swan boat turns into an egg, from which a foetus emerges, fully-formed, decisively tearing up its umbilical cord. It's Gottfried, reborn, his glänzendem Silbergewande not an artificial armour but natural, silvery vernix, which protects newborns from infection. Bizarre as this sight may be, it's implicit in the text and no crazier than the whole Parsifal myth. Indeed, it takes the myth to its conclusion, as Monsalvat is now refreshed through Virgin Birth and Resurrection.

The art of filming opera is also in its infancy. Since most operas now come in film form, Bildregie is becoming more important than ever and shouldn't be left to the point-and-shoot brigade. Bildregie as musically sensitive as in this broadcast should be studied carefully as it's a lot more than what happens on stage. The overtures begin in the Festspielhaus itself. Act One starts with Vogt's Lohengrin trying to unlock a door, which opens when he ceases to search. We descend into the world of Ortrud and Telramund through the bowels of backstage, and underground machinery. From high up in the ceiling, we see the nobles of Brabant gathering in colourful formation. Then when they go into battle, we see them girding up in their armour (rat suits).  Gloriously wonderful music, admirably conducted by Andris Nelsons, warmed by the blending of drama and reality.

Many will howl that there's no place for humour in Wagner, but that might not be true. Neuenfels uses rats to infuse this production with genuine humanity, which favours non-violent understanding, not brutal totalitariansim.  Wagner is myth on a grand scale. Literal representation distorts the real imagination in his work. So the humour here reaches parts the others don't go near.Yet again, proof that in wit there is wisdom.

Lots more on this site on Wagner, Lohengrin, stagecraft and the art of filming opera.

RATS! Bayreuth Lohengrin

Of course we all know Lohengrin, don't we? Or do we, really? What a shock is this Bayreuth Wagner Lohengrin on Siemens TV available until 30th August.  (My full review HERE) Of course millions will be screaming, running, like rats, for the exit. But think again. What is Lohengrin really about? What kind of folks inhabit Brabant? They're pretty gullible, assuming Elsa must be a killer because Telramund says so. Then out of nowhere a hero materializes, but why and for what? His name and background are the least of the questions we should be asking. This production, directed by Hans Neuenfels is so unusual it had me rushing home to check the score. And guess what? Neuenfels isn't wrong. We're just so jaded that we forget just how bizarre Wagner's Lohengrin really is.(photo by Janet Stephens - many thanks!)

The whole Montsalvat craziness, for one thing. It's not Christian but blasphemy, and here's it's grafted onto fake-medievalism.  The story predicates on saving Elsa and saving Brabant. But who are the Brabanters and why are they worth saving? Depicting them as rats is a brilliant idea because these rats have personality and are funny. Suddenly, they're sympathetic and....human. The opposite of the po-faced nonentities we usually see who might be painted on a backcloth for all they contribute. Once we start caring about the rats, the Lohengrin story takes on whole new levels. And there's precedent in Wagner himself. Lohengrin isn't quite part-human,  part-swan but he's certainly got strange DNA. So rats that switch from rat to human and back aren't so odd at all. Besides, Neuenfels makes lots of references to other Wagner oddites. And the shock ending! It takes the Parsifal myth to its logical conclusion. This new Virgin Birth is no kinkier than anything else in Montsalvat.

Coming away from Neuenfels, I'm more fascinated than ever by the breadth of Wagner's imagination. What kind of brain came up with plots like he did. And there's a lot more humanity and social responsibility in this Lohengrin than meets the eye. Get past the rat suits and there's a much deeper parable here than you'd expect. Film wise, too, this is excellent. Making opera into film is a new art form. This one shows how well it can be done (photo by Janet Stephens - many thanks!).  HERE IS THE FULL REVIEW (click on link)

Sunday 14 August 2011

Vítezslava Kaprálová - songs of Czech independence

Vítezslava Kaprálová was five years old when Czechoslovakia gained independence. She left the country before the Germans invaded in 1937, and died in Montpellier, soon after the fall of France. Like the first Czech Republic's, Kaprálová's life ended far too early. Kaprálová is largely forgotten, for anyone who dies aged only 25 leaves little for posterity. They haven't had a chance to fulfil their potential. Kaprálová's known today mainly for having had a brief affair with Bohuslav Martinu, but what music she did leave behind is surprisingly mature.

Kaprálová was born into Czechoslovakia's musical elite. Her father, Vaclav Kapral, was a composer, her mother a singer. They knew everyone in close-knit Czech musical circles. Kapral was a student of Janáček, and contributed an article on the elder composer's choral music in a magazine celebrating Janáček's achievements. Evidently young Kaprálová heard or read the scores of everything Janáček wrote, and no doubt was familar with a great deal more. She came into contact with almost every big name in Czech music circles, so perhaps it was inevitable that she was something of a child prodigy. She started writing her own music from the age of 9 and entered the Brno Conservatory aged 15.

Kaprálová's chamber music is becoming fairly well known because it's original and lively. There's only one recording of her vocal music, however, "Forever Kaprálová" with Dana Burešová (soprano) and Timothy Cheek (Supraphon 2003). You might do well to track down the printed scores because the recording is no great shakes, but some of these songs are so interesting that they should make their way into the repertoire.

Two songs, Morning and Orphaned, were written when Kaprálová wass a teenager. Simple and unadorned, but better that than the over-ambitious pieces young people usually attempt before they learn that less is more. Nonetheless, the songs aren't innocent, for the composer, though young, is well aware of the the way composers around her didn't ape folk idiom but adapted its spirit. Sparks from the Ashes op 5 (1932-3) is a cycle of four songs to texsts by Bohdan Jelinek, a mid 19th century poet who only lived to age 23. The texts are quaintly archaic, the setting isn't. 

Even better is January, for voice, piano, flute, two violins and cello (1935, the month  when Kaprálová turned 20. This is a beautiful piece, the non-vocal writing exquisitely balanced. Kaprálová was a conductor from her teens (see the photo) and knew how music works in performance, not just in theory. Sophistication in the choice of text, too. The poet is Vítězslav Nezval (1900-58), whom Kaprálová probably knew personaly. He was a musician who studied with Janáček but is better known for his association with the thriving Czech avant garde in the 1920's and 30's, where literature, music and gilm art flourished in a kind of Czech renaissance largely unknown to anglophones. "In the night the frost painted on my window a delicate vase. I am horrified of winter days and vases!" The protagonist sees frozen virgins in a boarded up house, a chill church organ, ceilings falling in. Exquisite balance, the instruments (especially seductive cello) curving round the voice, slowly encircling it. And this is just Kaprálová's op 5!

An apple from the lap is another group of four songs to texts by Jaroslav Seifert (1901-86) another avant garde liberal and colleague of Nezval - Kaprálová chooses contemporary texts, nothing safe or easy. Here, the piano figures are exuberantly quirky, pointing to deeper levels in the imagery.  Kaprálová then takes a creative leap forward. Navždy (Forever)(1936-7) is a 4 song cycle."Wild geese are flying south. Someone is leaving soon and will never return". Obviously Kaprálová didn't know that in leaving for Paris to study with Charles Munch and Nadia Boulanger, that she'd never really return home. Yet there's nothing maudlin about it. In Ruce (Hands) also to a text by Seifert, the protagonist imagines her hands shaped like a lyre, combing through her lover's hair."Then the world fell with us into an abyss...we drank the last drops of wine in Canaan". Like her poets, much older and cannier than she is, Kaprálová mixes different moods deftly. Listen to the piano part in Ruce, where the pianist's hands create another new image, reinforcing the spirit of the poem.

Sbohem a šáteček (Waving Farewell) exists in both piano song and orchestral song. Below, I've added a clip of the latter, sung by a tenor. It's infinitely deeper than the soprano version on the CD I'm refering to. It's a masterpiece. The text is Nerval, not symbolist, but extremely sophisticated emotionally. Two people are parting, knowing they may never meet again. Yet no sentimenatlity. Czech is a language that bristles with consonants and sharp, pungent stresses, nothing like English with its tendency to fluid approximation. "...A waving farewell! Carry on, fate!" the last defiant cry.

Kaprálová's ability to write different moods is demonstrated in several songs that follow, ranging from a Christmas song written for her parents, to cheerful songs of nature and birds, to a beautiful, bell-like Alleuia to songs where melancholy is hinted at, while spirits are held high. There's also a song in memoriam Tomáš Masaryk, probably also an acquaintance though not an intimate.

By 1937, Kaprálová has moved to Paris. She's poised to begin a promsing career. The final song Dopis (Letter) was written four days after Kaprálová's marriage to Jiri Mucha, son of the artist Alphons Mucha, who created Czech art nouveau.  It's tempting to read coded meaning into the song, because it's about a lover rejecting someone who has let them down. Since we don't know what really happened between Kaprálová and Martinu, and why she married Mucha, we can't really speculate. Kaprálová had written songs to strong-minded poems of farewell before, like Sbohem a šáteček and With a white handerchief he waves, one of the group of Vteřiny (Seconds) songs. Had she lived, dare I suggest, Kaprálová might have eclipsed Martinu altogether, much as I like him, as she was such an individualistic original.  We don't know, but we can sing the refrain from The Years are Silent  . "The years are silent, the years go by, the song doesn't die away".

Friday 12 August 2011

Elgar Caractacus Worcester Three Choirs Festival

"Watchmen alert!" sing the massed choir. Right from the start, Elgar's Caractacus begins defiantly. "The Roman hordes have girdled in our British coast". Then Caractacus takes up the call. "Watchmen alert! The King is here!".The Romans have invaded Britain. Legend has it that the Britons' last stand took place at what is now known  as the Herefordshire Beacon, where the  remains of ancient fortifications can be seen atop a hill with panoramic views over the Malverns. (photo copyright Bob Embleton)

The Britons were facing a crisis situation, but in 1898 Elgar's Britain was at its peak. Basking in the certainties of their manifest destiny, Victorian Imperialists didn't register the irony that they were themselves doing to others what the Roman Imperialists did to their ancestors. In the last big chorus, Elgar's text specifically mentions "the flag of Britain (and) its triple crosses", ie the Union Flag which didn't exist until Stuart times, and British dominion "O'er peoples undiscover'd, inlands we cannot know". The truculence of this oratorio might inspire The English Defence League who clearly forget that if it hadn't been for Empire in the first place there wouldn't be immigration now. Indeed, Caractacus and his tribe were only one segment of a Britain populated from time immemorial by Celts, Picts, Angles, Saxons and other migrants to come. Hearing Caractacus, we can appreciate the pain Elgar experienced when the 1914-18 War destroyed the world he had known before.

At the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester Cathedral the audience is far too fundamentally decent to support the violence of the Far Right. This is what is great and good about the British spirit, and about Three Choirs, where it thrives so well. The locals were discussing the murder of three Muslim youths who were defending the whole community during the riots. We're all British together.

Elgar's Caractacus was very much inspired by the spirit of the landscape around him in the Malverns. The text may be violent, but the music is gloriously pastoral for the most part. The "Woodland Interlude" that begins Scene III is short, but its verdant loveliness pervades the entire work. The Druids worshipped the forces of nature. Dense woodlands were sacred to them just as Worcester Cathedral is to the modern faithful. For Elgar, nature and landscape were almost sacred too. He wrote to a friend (who appears encoded in the Enigma Variations), "the trees are singing my music- or have I sung theirs?"

"The air is sweet, the sky is calm" sings Caractacus, "all nature round is breathing balm.....O spirits of the hill surround, with waving wings this holy ground". Peter Savidge's firm intonation carries authority naturally, without being forced. His diction is so clear that it cuts through the choirs, decisively. He creates Caractacus's character with warmth and sensitivity, more faithful, perhaps to the spirit of the Druids than to High Victorian arrogance. Just listening to Savidge, you can understand why Claudius, the Roman Emperor, was so impressed by Caractacus's moral strength that he treated the Britons with respect. Savidge's O my warriors! was expansive, yet surprisngly tender. Truly "a freeborn chieftain and a people free  ...(whose) soul remains unshackled still"."  

Elgar's forte is the orchestral extension of text, so performance stands or falls on orchestra and conductor. Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia were superlative, technically brighter and sharper than the London Symphony Chorus were for Richard Hickox on their recording almost 20 years ago. Davis delineates the underlying themes so precisely that the music seems to come alive, whispering meaning much as the trees the Druids worshipped whispered meaning to them. Tight dynamics built drama into what might otherwise be fairly stolid Victorian melodrama. When this performance is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in September, after the Proms. Make make sure to listen, because this is the new benchmark. Hopefully, a recording may be made available. Worcester, and the Three Choirs Festival are sacred ground to Elgar enthusiasts.

What makes the Three Choirs Festival unique, however, is the quality of the choral singing, which is the whole raison d'être behind this 300 year old tradition. Although at moments it wasn't easy to make out all the text, the fault lies not with the voices nor with the choirmaster but with the text itself. English is a language which lends itself to vowels rather than consonants, so it's easy to approximate vocally, which is why it's near universal today. There were many Caractacus figures in Gaul and in the lands of the Franks, so in theory there might be similar works in French or German, but they'd sound completely different. Caractacus and Nabucco share similar ideas, but Verdi and Elgar could not be more dissimilar. The relative imprecision of English makes the Triumphal March sympathetic. The Britons are a ragged bunch of wildmen, very different  to the sophisticated Roman Court, yet they win out since Caractacus is a level-headed fellow.

Brindley Sherratt sang Claudius with such rich resonance that he brought out the depth in the Roman's personality. The Romans may be the enemy, but Sherratt shows what a fundamentally civilized man Claudius is, for he can show mercy without compromising his power. Stephen Roberts Arch Druid/Bard was also deeply impressive.  Judith Howarth reprised Eigen, Caractacus's daughter. Her voice is in excellent form, still pure and sweet though it's been 20 years since she sang it with Richard Hickox. In  At eve to the greenwood she managed the sudden leap up the register with aplomb. Even better was her When the glow of the evening. Ben Johnson sang Orbin, the Druid whom Eigen is in love with. Johnson's very young and this is a fairly demanding part, so he did very well indeed. His bright tone is matched by good Italianate looks and an expressive face - perhaps someone to cast in operatic roles?

Listen out for the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the Three Choirs Elgar Caractacus as it's superlative. In the meantime, below is a clip from a 1928 recording by Peter Dawson, which Elgar himself would have known. It's But Rome and all her Legions.  It epitomizes the good and the bad in the whole oratorio. The text is lumpen, but listen to the gloriously Elgarian grace in the orchestration. Think of the Dream of Gerontius and read my analysis of that here. More formal review of Caractacus Elgar here.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Daniel Barenboim Nobel Peace Prize?

Daniel Barenboim has been nominated by the Argentine Government for a Nobel Peace Prize. This should be controversial, as the problems in the Middle East are pretty much intractable. No-one's going to solve anything for a long time. But Barenboim and his friend, the late Edward Said, a Palestinian Christian, had ideals. If people's hearts and minds can be changed, maybe there's a smidgen of hope. Goethe was their inspiration. Thus the choice of Weimar as neutral ground, bringing young people together from all over the Middle East to work together on music, which is non-political and non-partisan. These musicians, though young, are chosen for ability, and work with experienced mentors and musicians. So intense are the pressures on these young players that publicity can put them in danger. In any case, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is about the experience of being together. Sometimes, you'd think, when people can't get food, medicines or safety, why invest in music?  But for some of these players, committment to music is as necessary as life. Given the extreme conditions under which some of them live, their very involvement involves an element of courage. And Barenboim himself, too, who doesn't need to prove anything artistically.  He's achieved so much already, he doesn't need money or image, but I think he's acutely aware that idealism is more important.  His books are a turgid read, but his heart is in the right place. (Said was a better writer, it was his job.) Barenboim doesn't run from controversy because he has integrity.  If Barenboim does win the Nobel Prize, he'll come under pressure, but that's all the more reason to respect him.

Mongolian Throat Singing Wars

Mongols, Tuvans, Siberians, Russians and Chinese are at each other's throats over who should register throat singing as part  of UNESCO's register of "the intangible world heritage of humanity".  Western opera fans talk about chest and head voices but throat singing is the ultimate physical use of voice. It's done by using lots of different muscles to shape sound as it moves from lungs through mouth. Once heard, never forgotten.  As you can read from this Mongolian site, there are lots of different variants, just as there are many styles even within genres of western singing.

The Mongol nation once ruled the world. Think Kublai Khan and Attila the Hun, the latter a symbol of many nomadic nations that inhabited central Asia, marauding on each other. That's why the Great Wall of China was built, to keep them out. It didn't work. What a wonderfully rich heritage for a nomadic lifestyle. The Mongols, in a sense, were early "world citizens". So the scrap over who gets UNESCO to register throat singing is a bit of a conundrum.

Western concepts of nationality and fixed borderlines are irrelevant. Cultural identity transcends the sort of boundaries bureaucrats relate to. UNESCO heritage status is important because it is an obligation on governments to put resources into protecting and preserving. Suzhou kunqu opera, which got UNESCO heritage status a few years ago has thrived under this committment. So the problem is that governments and nations aren't the same thing. The idea of nation-state is a fundamentally western concept, and doesn't necessarily apply. Not even in the west. But it shapes the way we percieve things. Western cultural imperialism is so pervasive that we don't even notice.

The  Mongol nation exists in several different jurisdictions. Inner Mongolia, for example, and China have been linked for centuries. The Mongols conquered China, founding the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Instead of bringing Mongol culture to China, the Yuan became fervently Chinese. Similarly, the Manchu, another nomadic nation, conquered China in 1644. Although the Yuan and Qing Dynasties ended, they are still part of one vast heritage. Where does one culture begin and end? Since such issues can never really be resolved there will always be tensions and rightly so. Strictly speaking, no-one owns a culture, because cultures are too diverse to define. Nomadic, one might say, constantly adapting and shifting locale.
The way technology is changing the world, we're all becoming nomads now, our heritage shared through many threads.