Friday 30 September 2011

José Serebrier conducts Gershwin at the Cadogan Hall

Good news! José Serebrier conducts an all-Gershwin progremme at the Cadogan Hall tonight. Bad news, it's sold out! (returns only). This should be exciting.  South American youth orchestras? Serebrier created the first, aged 14, playing before the President of Uruguay, who was a musican. What's more, they did a Festival of American Music, playing Edgard Varèse and Charles Ruggles who even now are pretty avant garde. Serebrier was too young to know kids weren't "supposed" to be safe. He was carried away by enthusiasm and his love for interesting music. He's still as adventurous and dynamic today.

Tonight's Gershwin concert will include Rhapsody in Blue (Pianist Shelly Berg), An American in Paris and Variations on I Got Rhythm. But what makes this programme special is that it includes Serebrier's own adaptations for orchestra  of Gershwin's Lullaby and Three Preludes. 

The Guinness Book of Records should award something to Serebrier for having conducted more recordings than anyone else. He works well with orchestras, and his preparation is meticulous. Get the basics right, and from that flows energy and verve. Serebrier's recordings of Russian masters are superb.  His wonderful complete series of symphonies by Alexander Glazunov (essential listening) has now expanded to include the Glazunov Concertos. When Serebrier approaches things, he does so thoroughly and with great enthusiasm. I've often watched him conduct live to study the way he interacts with his players. He's a born motivator, who gets the best out of those he works with. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will be having a good time, as Serebrier's commitment to Gershwin goes back a long way. Serebrier worked with Copland and Stokowski, with whom he conducted Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony, then considered unperformable because it was so difficult. Now it's standard repertoire.  Serebrier knows Gershwin well, and has recorded him before. Hopefully, this concert will herald a new series, making Gershwin part of the classical mainstream as he deserves.

Listen to BBC Radio 3 for an interesting conversation between Serebrier and Susanna Mälkki. They have a lot in common!  Serebrier knew Boulez in Cleveland and recounts how George Szell listened in stunned admiration when Boulez conducted Mahler 5, a work Szell loved dearly.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Gounod Faust Royal Opera House - devilish !

Gounod's Faust at the Royal Opera House, London is devilishly good. Please read this review in Opera Today.

"A stellar cast — Angela Gheorghiu, Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape and Dmitri Hvorostovsky — made this a special occasion, although the production, by David McVicar, was first seen in 2004. The performance worked well because there was good integration of all elements that contribute towards operatic experience — singing, staging, acting and orchestra. Following on from the superb Puccini Il trittico (reviewed here), it made for a spectacular start to the 2011/2 season at the Royal Opera House, London."

"McVicar himself wasn’t present, but revival director Lee Blakely must have inspired the cast, for they were singing with great panache. Perhaps a little too much at times, for both Gheorghiu and Grigolo threw themselves so passionately into their parts that at times, there were weaknesses. But better this enthusiasm than technically note-perfect and dull. Faust and Marguerite don’t have Méphistophélès’s demonic powers, but they beat him in the end."

Lots more, enjoy.

Photos :  René Pape Méphistophélès’ copyright Catherine Ashmore,  Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Valentin, copyright Catherine Ashmore.

Whistling tunes from Boulez

"It was a beautiful day and guess what? I found I was whistling tunes from Boulez!" says Barabra Hannigan, who's singing Pli selon Pli on Sunday 2nd October, part of the three-day Boulez retrospective Exquisite Labyrinth at the South Bank, London. "It’s just very beautiful in the way it unfolds. What I love about Boulez is the way the music is very strict in its structure but inside it’s beautifully fluid. It feels like I’m singing liquids of all different colours and viscosities, which are constantly changing.”Read more in this interview here Hannigan speaks with Ivan Hewett.

Read my post from March 1st about the Boulez marathon HERE. With persistence, I managed to bookstraight away tho' some tickets weren't yet online. Full details from the South Bank HERE. The series is curated by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Das Bankenlied

A special song for those occupying Wall Street. And a note for the world. The real Collapse is just beginning.

Revidieren die Kassen!
Wenn man mal keine Arbeit hat,
Dann kann man durch die ganze Stadt
Wie ein entsprungner Häftling bummeln.
Kein bißchen Brot, kein Tropfen Bier,
Und unsre Magen wände trommeln
An jeder Bäckerladentür!

Es scheint fast, daß die Handelsherrn,
Bankhäuser und Fabrikskonzern
Den gleichen Spruch im Munde führen.
Sie machen gern und schnell Bankrott,
Die Ärmsten ? ach, es ist zum rühren!
Könnt' ich's nur auch tun, lieber Gott!

Redistribute wealth!  When youre out of work, you're free, but no beer, no bread....It seems that the merchant princes, banking houses and big industry feed themselves. They'd quickly bankrupt the poor. Rise up!

Monday 26 September 2011

Feed Felicity Lott !

Felicity Lott is singing Lady Billows in Albert Herring at Aldeburgh, part of the Britten Weekend from 19th October, and she needs food ! Urgent notice from Aldeburgh Music :

"Set in an east Suffolk village in 1955, one of the most memorable scenes takes place during the village fete and we're looking for volunteers to bake food appropriate to the period. "Cakes, different flavoured jellies, custard, chocolate dates, fruit salad, trifles, and they gave us pastries freshly made with cream in, followed by almond favours!... sings Albert; we need them all! The food is not just for show; it needs to be fresh as it will be eaten by cast members, including Dame Felicity Lott, during the four performances and we need food for the dress rehearsal as well."

Since Aldeburgh is foodie paradise with lots of good cooks,  (see my report HERE) food and good qualitry food won't be a problem. In fact, if they have extras, they should put them on sale!

Sunday 25 September 2011

Fantastic Feast - the Greyhound

Now you see why I'm too busy to get to Salonen's Sibelius at the South Bank. I was at The Greyhound, nestled in the Berkshire countryside. It's an ancient half-timbered village pub with weathered flagstones. Dozens of pubs like this in this part of the countryside. But the Greyhound is run by Antony Worrall Thompson, one of the biggest names in British cooking. The atmosphere is unique - unpretentious country ambiance but gourmet class food, for which you'd pay big money in London.

English food gets a bad reputation because it's usually so mean and ill-prepared. The Greyhound proves that English cuisine is not an oxymoron. Here English fare is done so well that at last you can understand why Europeans once envied the British for their rosbif and accompaniments like horseradish suace, Yorkshire pudding (a kind of starch) and cauliflower cheese. Simple ingredients, cooked properly. That's all it really takes.

The meat here is sourced from Gabriel Machin, the Henley-on-Thames butchers that's been family-run for over a hundred years. Vegans look away. Machins are artists with meat. They kill, hang and prepare their cuts the craftsman way, and make superlative sausages and hams. Traditional shop, too, in a Tudor building. When I first started going there they had sawdust on the floor (full of blood, so I don't miss that).

Even though most of the Sunday Lunch crowd scoffed Sunday Roast, as one should, my pal and I chose something different. Thai crab soup with coconut and coriander - chunks of crab, aromatic. I thought about the starter of wild mushrooms (locally sourced - lots of woods round here), but settled on roast fig stuffed with nuts and blue cheese, wrapped in Parma Ham and served on a bed of Caesar salad. The fig was huge - probably not locally sourced though there are several historic fig trees in the neighbourhood. The Caesar dressing was so rich (and tasty) that next time I'm having this instead of a main. Fig, ham and two cheeses - perfect balance of flavours!

Monseuir settled on fried chicken and Madame on a cheeseburger. But not like any you're used to. The chicken was crisp and light, flavoured with real herbs not Colonel Sanders's chemicals.  The burger was top-quality lean beef and tasted like steak. No additives. The best burger I ever had was in a cliff top shack on the Northern California coast, where the owner got his meat from an organic ranch and did everything himself. Perhaps Worrall Thompson does too. Around the end of service, he and his manager appear in the dining room and ask if all's well. as if they genuinely mean it. From the excellent service and high standards, I think they do. Usually, I don't give a stuff about celebrities, but these two seemed like good people, glad to be doing a good job. 
Although we'd eaten more meat, cheese and mayo than usual, this meal didn't weigh one down as the ingredients were so fresh. The Greyhound is generous with water - we consumed two whole jugs - and that helped, too. So though we only had two glasses of wine we had room for dessert. English puddings, done perfectly, full of fruit not lard. We were tempted by the cheese selection -  a choice of local soft cheese and imported gourmet fare, but the ice cream won. Peach ice cream with melon and mango sorbet. Each divinely light and sparkling - the melon tastes like cantaloupe whipped into a mousse and frozen.  We were shocked - poistively - by the price, which included 4 coffees. Less than what you'd pay for in an average, boring place. And at the Greyhound you can sit outdoors in a garden with a real koi pond and a vine covered secret arbour if you're so inclined. Here's the website.

Sibelius Kullervo recording recommendations

Apropos Esa Pekka Salonen's Sibelius Kullervo at the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia, here are some  recording recommendations. The Kullervo I keep going back to is Segerstam because Soile Isokoski is phenomenal ! She really understands the idea of Kullervo as a symbolic spirit of nature, driven by cosmic forces. In the Kalevala, Kullervo was a horribly abused child, his inheritance stolen and mistreated by his uncle, which is why he's so screwed up and heads to the forests. So when he falls in lust with the wealthy maiden who turns out to be his sister, the psychic shock is much greater than the text in this canata indicates. Isokoski and Segerstam know the background, and that makes all the difference.  Please also read here about Sibelius Luonnotar, another piece Isokoski and Segerstam performed so often that it's now standard repertoire. Isokoski makes it sound natural, spontaneous and elemental. Most singers hardly get past the Finnish syntax. Understand Luonnotar and the whole Kalevala mentality falls into place - and Sibelius, too.

Everyone needs to know Paavo Berglund's second recording because it is the classic. Berglund 1 was the first recording ever, made soon after the manuscript was republished. Berglund 2 made 15 years later is more mature and fuller. I'd also highly recommend Neeme Järvi (Gothenberg) for he has Jorma Hynninen and a very young Karita Mattila. Fabulous, But avoid Paavo Järvi's recording, it's definitely "son of..." As for Salonen's LA recording, remember it is nearly 20 years old. It's very clean, but now I think he will be much, much better and deeper. If Salonen records Kullervo again, wow, I think. As Le petit concertorialiste mentions, Salonen conducted Aulis Sallinen's Kullervo at around the same time. Sallinen has written many good things, but his Kullervo, at least on the basis of this CD, isn't one of his finer moments. But you can understand why Salonen championed Sallinen in Los Angeles. The story takes Kullervo into the urban jungle. Gangs, motorcycles, jazz (Sallinen wrote before rap) Conceptually correct, but Sallinen isn't Sibelius.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Sibelius Kullervo, Salonen, South Bank

Kullervo, karlevon poika! Sibelius Kullervo at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Monica Groop and  Jukka Rasilainen are soloists, and it's the Philharmonia.  Kullervo is an amazingly audacious piece, so daring that it was  suppressed for many years..Being a perfectionist, but also insecure, Sibelius was so self-critical that he apparently didn't want the piece heard after early performances. Robert Kajanus, the first conductor, and major figure in Finnish musical life, (who also wrote an earlier Kullervo) kept the manuscript. Performances are not that rare - five in about ten years in London, but I keep missing them, which is a pity as live it must be spectacular.

Salonen recorded Kullervo several years ago with the LA Philharmonic, Mariana Rorholm and the King of Finnish singing, Jorma Hynninen, but I suspect that tonight's performance will be even better. The Philharmonia is brillliant, and Salonen enjoys wonderful rapport with them. Nothing safe, comfortable and sub-Tchaikovsky about Salonen's Sibelius. Sibelius so dominates Finnish music that it was wise of Salonen to steer clear of established tradition until he himself was mature enough to take Sibelius on his own terms. It's a bit like having an extremely famous and very dominant father whom you appreciate better if you're able to stand up to him. When Salonen conducted his Sibelius series at the Barbican  a few years ago, many were shocked, because he made the music sound so fresh and radical. But it is! We'd just forgotten. I've written a lot about Kullervo over the years, but so busy at the moment I can't even go to the concert. But please read HERE a very good article about Sibelius Kullervo in Le petit concertorialisteVery stimulating!  For recording recommendations, please see HERE

More from the Wigmore Hall - Lawrence Zazzo, Schiller

Still only September but lots happening at the Wigmore Hall, covered by Opera Today. HERE's a link to the Schiller songs programme devised by Graham Johnson featuring Christopher Maltman.  And HERE's a link to the fascinating Lawrence Zazzo recital.   It "amply demonstrated his declared intention to “push the envelope in terms of what countertenors can do” not just in terms of “different repertoire or singing higher, but showing that you can give a rounded performance that's acceptable on all different levels”.  

All over the business standards are spiralling downwards to suit a new market that thinks in dumbed down soundbites. It's creeping in everywhere, and probably unstoppable. But some will hold out !

Friday 23 September 2011

Christian Gerhaher Schubert Cycles Wigmore Hall

What, actually, is Lieder singing?  Christian Gerhaher's recitals at the Wigmore Hall this week are an opportunity to assess the differences between opera and Lieder. Gerhaher has been singing at the Wigmore Hall for years, so regular Lieder audiences know him well.  He shot into stardom with more mainstream opera audiences with his Wolfram in Wagner Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House last year. (Please read my review here) Gerhaher's Wolfram was sensationally beautiful, perfectly fitting the other worldly, rarified purity that is in Wolfram's character. Few baritones have that tenor-like lightness of touch. Gerhaher's Wolfram shimmered, but Elisabeth still chose Tannhäuser. Think what Wagner meant by that.

Vocal music, almost by definition, is about meaning. One of the fundamental differences between opera and Lieder is how meaning is expressed.  It's not simply a question of refinement or detail, but of perspective. In opera, an artist creates a character.  In Lieder, the character "is" the artist himself.  In opera, a singer is expressing what the role represents in the context of the opera. In most Lieder, text is confined to a few lines from which a singer must extract maximum possible meaning . No help from plot or orchestra. Opera singer expands outwards. Lieder singing expands inwards.

The Schubert song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (D795) and Winterreise (D911) allow more context than single songs, but their narrative is internal, not external. Significantly, both are journeys, where landscape marks stages in the protagonists' inner development. Gerhaher and Huber also gave a recital of Schwanengesang (D957), but it's not actually a song cycle but a compilation put together by Schubert's publisher after his death.

Die schöne Müllerin is interpretively more challenging because of its deliberate contradictions - cheerfully babbling brooks and declarations of love. But for whom, and  by whom? The high tessitura in Die schöne Müllerin is meant to suggest the miller's  naivety. It's a complication that a light, airy baritone like Gerhaher doesn't have to contend with, so the cycle is a good test of his interpretive skills. This performance was infinitely better than his recording with budget label Arte Nova six years ago, which fortunately will be suuperseded with a new recording. Gerhaher uses his range more effectively, and is more secure shaping phrases. His singing is particularly attractive in songs like Des Müllers Blumen which could be mistaken for a love song, out of context. Yet almost from the beginning the poems hint at altogether more sinister levels. The emotional range in this cycle is much more challenging than the vocal range. In Der Jäger, the miller's jealousy erupts into anger. Gerhaher expresses this through increased volume and projection, which is effective enough, but doesn't have quite the emotional wildness that can make this song so troubling. Gerhaher's miller isn't menacing, even in Die böse Farbe with its hints of what today we'd call stalking, but a poetic dreamer. Gerhaher is pleasant, but if you want limpid sweetness, Fritz Wunderlich sings with such exquisite poise, his emotional denial is chilling.

What made this recital unusual was the inclusion of three poems from Wilhelm Müller's original set of 25, which Schubert did not set. Das Mühlenleben describes the girl at the mill, but comes between Der Neugierige and Ungeduld, which rather breaks the mood. On the other hand placing it after Am Feierabend extends that mood too long. More effective is Erster Schmerz, letzter Scherz before Der liebe Farbe and Blümlien Vergissmein after  Die böse Farbe, for the spoken poems garland the two companion songs. Gerhaher's reading of Blümlien Vergissmein was lyrical, leading smoothly into Trockne Blumen, enhancing the song.

In Winterreise the protagonist is leaving behind a relatively real world and heading into the unknown. There are far fewer clues to his psyche in the text. That's why Winterreise is so fascinating, because the possibilities are even greater.Performers have to connect to something in themselves to create an individual approach that conveys something personal to the audience.

Those who've come to Gerhaher and Lieder via Wolfram in Tannhäuser will admire the clean tone and even timbre of Gerhaher's singing.There's plenty of scenic beauty in Winterreise, and some performances I've heard make much of the external-internal interface, but Gerhaher describes rather than contemplates.  Individual songs like Frühlingstraum are beautifully modulated. Winterreise moves in stages, and the structure of this cycle is significant. The protagonist is heading somewhere, even if we don't know what will come of it. Is the Leiermann a symbol, and of what? Does the cycle end in death, madness or, even more controversial, resistance? Here, we're admiring Gerhaher's smooth technique, so for a change, it's up to us to be the servant of the music and what it might mean.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Caractacus Rules ! Elgar broadcast

Elgar's splendid Caractacus (from the Three Choirs Festival, Worcester) is being broadcast Friday on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30pm. Even if Elgar oratorios are not your usual fare, this one's fun. Listen, as it's a splendidly rousing account, livelier, I think, than the Hickox recording. "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. But Druids will not be beaten ! Available for a week online, internationally

Please see this review for more.   

Original review, written at the time of the UK riots, is here, which includes historic recording from 1927.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Hope and Hype

So much cheering at the Coliseum London for Weinberg's The Passenger, and fair enough. The production was striking, and the performers well motivated. But as music, and as drama? Weinberg is a man you want to respect because of who he was, but he wasn't necessarily a great composer. About 10 years ago there was a Weinberg bubble when recordings of his symphonies were released. Some people genuinely listened, but there were many more who leapt on the bandwagon because it was fashionable and pretended to know.That's the way the soundbite mentality of the internet works. Instant status counts a lot more than reasoned analysis. In principle, there's nothing wrong with hype. As human beings, we're hard wired to trust and follow. What is wrong is when alternative opinions are damned and denigrated. Fortunately, none of that so far with Weinberg, because he hasn't yet reached the kind of audience that thinks as a mob. God forbid, the irony! There are lots of reasons for catching the ENO Weinberg Passenger, because it's an event. But separate the context from the music and it's another story.  Having heard some of the symphonies, and the Opera North The Portrait, I was hoping against hope that I'd like The Passenger because it's a worthy cause. So please read Rupert Christensen in the Telegraph and Edward Seckerson in the Independent. That's a good critic's job, to analyse, even if it doesn't make you "popular". After the Jackboots Damnation of Faust, someone told me that I shouldn't take the Holocaust so seriously. Well, if we don't, we won't learn.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Mieczsylaw Weinberg The Passenger ENO London Coliseum

The circumstances behind Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger at the ENO, London, are extraordinary. Everything about the Holocaust packs a powerful emotional punch, and rightly so.. Something insane descended on this world at that time - in Nazi-occupied lands, in Stalinist Russia, and beyond, that was so catastrophic that we must never forget. Zofia Posmysz's original novel was based on  her own experiences at Auschwitz, and Weinberg's family perished. Posmysz appears at the end of performances and is deservedly applauded, for she symbolizes the triumph of good over evil, values we all want to believe in. This gives The Passenger such potent extra-musical experience that it's more a communal hommage than an opera.. 

David Pountney's production, premiered at Bregenz, is amazing. Visually it's so striking that it takes your breath away. This production, with designs by Johan Engels, costumes by Marie-Jeanne  Lecca and lighting by Fabrice Kebour  makes the best possible case for this opera. No-one can come away unmoved by this set, or by the intelligence of the direction.  This production absolutely makes the case for this opera as theatrical experience.
Everything's bleached and pristine, so unnaturally bright it hurts the eye. Like Liese Franz herself. Franz was a camp guard in Auschwitz. Liese and Walter have been married 15 years but he's never twigged about her past. "But I did nothing bad" she says. Perhaps. However, anyone connected to Auschwitz was tainted, just by association. Even victims suffer survivor guilt. Think of Primo Levi.

The revelation was provoked by the sight of another passenger on board ship who reminds Liese of Marta, her favoured prisoner. In the original book, Posmysz wondered what had happened to her own persecutor, who'd apparently escaped retribution, so it's an excellent plot device, framing an account of life in camp. Perhaps this is a key to interpreting the two parts of the opera. The First Act is more consciously dramatic, while in the Second, drama is imposed on a "normal" account of a thoroughly abnormal situation.

Music and text in the First Act are didactic to an extreme, which makes for good theatre. The orchestration is loud, strident and jarring, whipping up an excited emotional response. Subtle it is not, though, for the text is unbelievably stiff. Maybe it's the English translation, originally by David Fanning, adapted by David Pountney for this performing edition. Perhaps they're deliberately trying to present the singers as automatons, but this undermines the very real emotions characters like these might have. In  Liese's case this is understandable because the character is in such denial she's hardly human. Excellent performance by Michelle Breedt. If we never get to depths with what makes Liese what she is, it's not through any lapse in Breedt's performance. It's the script. Liese's husband, Walter, for example, reacts to her revelation in stylized clichés. Even the sturdy Kim Begley can't make Walter feel real. Walter's not evil. He, too, has been betrayed  by the big lie, and deserves more sympathy.

Unfortunately, characterizations in the Second Act are equally cardboard.   This is by far the better part of the opera in musical terms, where superficial but emotive B-movie shock gives way to moments of lovely writing, particularly in the arias where the women sing of their pasts and express their solidarity for one another. Excellent playing - evocative basses and deeper strings, a beautiful flute line. The ENO orchestra, conducted by Richard Armstrong, at its best.

The script, however, doesn't reflect the greater subtlety in the score. Giselle Allen plays Marta with statuesque dignity. Her stage presence fills the role, but it's her ability that comes over, rather than the material she has to work with. Each of the other women are characterized by nationality rather than much personality, though what they sing is uplifting. Leigh Melrose.s Tadeusz is strongly sung, but the subplot of love, violin and mad waltz has more potential than is developed.

There's a lot of Holocaust-exploitation around, but The Passenger is most certainly sincere and honourable. The problem may be in the inherent difficulty of turning subjective experience into slightly more objective art.  Such events are so painful that it's perfectly human to need to block the extremes of pain. Good intentions  don't necessarily lead to great art or depth of perception. Again, remember Primo Levi and the price he paid for his brilliance.

Another difficulty stems from the circumstances in which the opera was written. Weinberg was in the Soviet Union, a repressive regime, where political considerations prevailed over art.  The aria about "the freedom of the steppes" rings hollow when you think of reality. Moreover, there was and is a long history of anti-semitism in Russia and in Poland. Different solutions to Hitler, but similar agendas regarding Jews. Obviously not all inmates of Auschwitz were Jewish, and thousands of Catholic Poles were exterminated too. They must not be forgotten. But the world associates Auschwitz with the Holocaust and with Jews, and with death factories. So it's not easy to hear lines like "I'm a Jew, we're meant to die", even if it's in context. No-one is meant to die. There are millions of individual stories, all important, but the Holocaust was so all-encompassing that it needs broad perspective.

Since this production was based on a new performing edition, there might have been opportunities to tighten the orchestration and especially the libretto, by Alexander Medvedev. Even Poutney has said, it was the subject tof this opera that drew him to Weinberg. What works fine in a novel does not lend itself to the restraints of opera. The Passenger is Weinberg's masterpiece, far more daring than The Portrait, and as such deserves stringent editing.  Weinberg may now be highly fashionable, but he isn't Shostakovich.  Even as a theatrical and emotive experience, The Passenger works in this production. But more depth and less breadth would make it more satisfying as opera.
Incidentally, I kept hearing Peter Grimes (particularly the Sea Interludes) in this music, so I was delighted afterwards to read David Nice's programme notes about the influence of  Benjamin Britten. Nice mentions Peter Grimes in connection with Shostakovich, but perhaps Weinberg also knew Peter Grimes and what the character meant. Another reminder that Aldeburgh was not insular and is part of a greater European tradition.

Monday 19 September 2011

Gounod Faust - Gedda Christoff full download

To increase your pleasure at the Royal Opera House Gounod Faust, here's a full download of a historic performance from Paris, 1953. Nicolai Gedda, Victoria de los Angeles, Boris Christoff,  Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris Choeurs du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris. André Cluytens, conducting.  Full streaming download of Gounod Faust on Opera Today HERE, plus libretto and synopsis. Enjoy !  Don't forget, the Royal Opera House production is being broadcast on Saturday night on BBC Radio 3. .

Kurt Sanderling, Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod

Kurt Sanderling has died, a few days short of his 99th birthday. A true Berliner, born in what was then East Prussia, exiled in 1935 to the USSR, where he spent his formative years. In 1960, he returned to Berlin to head the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and later the Dresden Staatskapelle. Sanderling was one of the great names in music in East Germany, which is a key to his style. He's uninfluenced by the glitz of the west, or  by capitalist commercial pressures. Despite the repression of the DDR regime, it was a haven for high musical standards. Unlike so many conductors in the west, Sanderling knew first hand, and for longer than many, what it was like living in a totalitarian state, which may or may not give his work a different perspective, to. say, Herbert von Karajan,  Sanderling's Cold War rival. 

Sanderling is specially well known for his Shostakovich, since he knew the composer personally, and worked with Yevgeny Mravinsky. Seek out his recordings of Shostakovich which are masterful. Sanderling was also thoroughly versed in other Russian repertoire, for obvious reasons, but his work with "western" composers is even more interesting. His Sibelius, for example, is craggy, nothing like Karajan, though both are individual, much closer, one thinks, to the composer than the softer, Romantic style popular earlier.

Sandertling also had a passion for Mahler, which he shared with Shostakovich. One of my absolute all-time favourite Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is Sanderling's recording from the 1980's with Peter Schreier,  Birgitta Finnila and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra.  Schreier is unbelievably intense, full of depth and nuance. Sanderling, too. This is a performance of rare intensity where savage anguish mixes with exquisite refinement. Finnila is not quite in that league, though she's better than many. It's just that Sanderling and Schreier are so good. This is a keynote recording because it's so uncompromising.  Get it HERE. There's a new DVD release where Sanderling conducts it but  probably no comparison except for die-hard fans of English singers and orchestras.

Because Sanderling's main career was so tied up with the eastern bloc and its socialist ideals, we're fortunate that recordings are plentiful and cheap (and lots more in the archives from radio broadcasts). Top recommendation is the 16 CD set from Berlin Classics. It's huge and comprehensive, and has appeared on other budget labels, like Brilliant Classics for £9.99! (though that's no longer available, like the complete-ish Shostakovich set)  Here too is a rare interview (auf Deutsch) with Kurt Sanderling in Berlin, 2004. Very informative.

Listen below to the clip of Sanderling's Das Lied von der Erde. How Schreier curls his tongue and spits out resistance, then warms as he sings of the sensual second Goldener Pokale. Every phrase deeply felt "Herr dieses Hause" with defiance. Nothing comfortable about this! The trumpet call, the strings which seem to search infinite heights. Then the sudden end, life cut off short. Ferocity in this song matters, for it's a counterbalance to the Abschied. No loss, no transcendance. Without the ferocity of this first song, the impact of the Abschied is muted. There's nothing "pretty" in Das Lied von der Erde. In the unlikely event I'd have to choose one perfect Mahler moment, this is it.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Paganini's Daemon - DVD from Allegro Films

Bigger than Elvis, bigger than the Beatles - Niccolò Paganini the first megastar of popular music (before it became labelled as elitist and classical). Thousands poured into concert halls to hear him. Promoters audaciously increased ticket prices, which further fuelled demand. So extreme was Paganini's technique, and the flamboyance with which he used it, that there were rumours that he was in league with the devil. Paganini cannily used notoriety as part of his image, becoming the richest and most talked about performer of his time.Sex, scandal and pizzazz - Paganini was the rockstar of his era.

Christopher Nupen's documentary Paganini's Daemon: a most enduring legend is being released by Allegro Films on DVD from 26th September. It's a study of how Paganini was driven by demons in his personality, pushing himself to extreme limits. In the process, he created the concept of soloist as showman. Liszt was mesmerized, as was Chopin. Modern superstars are part of a tradition that dates all the way back to Paganini.

Excellent musical values. Gidon Kremer plays satisfyingly sizeable extracts of music Paganini would have played with great verve and freedom, as if he's thinking in Paganini mode. There's a bonus track, in which Kremer talks about perfectionism and the 13th Caprice. Kremer believes in discipline and technique, though communication doesn't come from strict rules. But he's "infected with the virus of perfection", ever striving to excel.  It's a tantalizing hint of what is to come with another Nupen/Allegro film, Gidon Kremer: Man of Many Musics (First Come the Sounds).

All Christopher Nupen films are meticulously researched and presented objectively, and this is a classic. The film is elegant and stylish, but a tremendous amount if work went on behind the scenes. Wonderful archive material, much from the Paganini Institute in Genoa, some familiar and some not so well known.  Strong scholarly values combine with strong film-making skills. The opening sequence, for example, is shot in a church with a shadow of a violinist superimposed on a fresco. In 1801, Paganini was given an unprecedented invitation to play an interlude at a papal mass. He took 28 minutes. Already, at 19, Paganini was doing things on his own terms.  The sequence captures Paganini's background, future and personality in a few brief moments. It helps, too, that the "talking heads" are people like Goethe and Heine, given to succinct expression. Quotations move briskly, and illustrations are well chosen. A series of charcoal sketches are edited together imaginatively (Peter Heelas) so the drawings seem to move. Paganini comes alive on the screen !

Most of Nupen's films deal with the artistic personality. What makes a person do what he or she does, and why? Just as we'll never know what Paganini's playing sounded like, we can only speculate on what drove him, but it's an intriguing process. Why did he push himself to extremes, long after he had all the money and success anyone could cope with? Wracked with frustration and illness, Paganini kept starting new ventures. The demonic image pursued him in death, for he was not laid to rest for many years after he died. This is a very stimulating film because it raises all kinds of questions about celebrity and its effects on art and on artists. When does success become its own nemesis? Is success a Faustian pact? Nupen films challenge because they don't provide easy answers but make us think and feel.  That's why DVD instead of one-off TV screening. The more attention you pay, the more you get.

More on the art of documentary making :
Surviving Hitler: A Love Story
The Prince and the Composer : Hubert Parry Back to the Ghetto

Paganini's Daemon : a most enduring legend with Gidon Kremer, John Williams, Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, conducted by Lawrence Foster. Allegro Films 1 hr 19 mins.

Friday 16 September 2011

Walter Braunfels - Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz

Walter Braunfels' Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz (Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz), Op. 25 (1914-17) is a fascinating work, though you'd never guess from the truncated rump that was done at Prom 68. I was so upset that it's taken me ages to write about the complete(ish) piece, but here at last, as promised. Die Vögel, Te Deum,and Jeanne d'Arc to follow. Fantastic Appearances and  Die Vögel  need to be heard together, for both were written at about the same time, when Braunfels was fighting in the First World War. Like so many of his generation that war changed everything and ushered in what we now call the "Modern" age. Braunfels is not escaping into retro Romanticism but confronting the issues of his times without compromise.

Phantastische Erscheinungen deals with a single theme from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust., specifically the scene where Faust and Méphistophélès enter the Auerbach tavern in Leipzig. Both of them are out of their usual element, among "normal" people, so there's more to the scene than divertissement. They've come to learn about life and "le fatras de la philosophie". Brander sings the song about rats invading a kitchen. Méphistophélès's response is the song of the flea. A king becomes obssessed with a pet flea and soon the whole court is infested with fleas. "Mais ce qui fut bien pire, C’est que les gens de cour,Sans en oser rien dire,Se grattaient tout le jour"  What's significant is that the courtiers were too cowed to object, so they suffered. The solution, says Méphistophélès, is to squash the fleas forthwith. Nothing "Romantic" about that.

Braunfels begins with an opening like a vista, then zones in on the theme. The moderato variation is glorious, as if Braunfels is describing the splendour of the court, but that's quickly blown away by the turbulent "gusts of wind" in the Gemessen. Storm clouds ahead, even allusions to Faust and Méphistophélès flying through the skies. This "Appearance" is wild, the relentless "winds" pushing higher and higher. No "sudden end" in this part, but stomping ostinato building towards a climax. The unstoppable march of pounding feet ?

In the next three variations, Braunfels examines the basic theme more wistfully, as if he's looking back on more innocent times from different angles, trying to reflect on how things came about. Notice the endings, where in the original, Méphistophélès suggest a sudden, crushing solution. Here they're muted, even open ended. There was a lot of good in Wilhelmine Germany and indeed in German culture as a whole. There's even something Beethovenian in the grace of the Ruhig. Perhaps Braunfels wasn't the kind of man to do violent Putsches. In this work, he considers a small theme from all perspectives.

The Ruhig is transitional, rather than purely "restful", for Braunfels is now looking ahead. The 7th variation is mercurial, like a sprightly dance, but gradually the darker undrtones draw in. All three variations in this penultimate group start with the same exposition, developing different ways. The 8th Appearance is marked by dizzying, spiralling diminuendos, which lead to whizzing, strident alarums. Hence the very short tenth segment, dominated by a single trumpet. The "winds imagery" whips round it, taking over completely in the turbulent 11th variation, a highly dramatic, demonic Moderato. You can almost picture smoke rising from Hell, storms tearing across the heavens. The final variation, is march-like, loud and expansive. Even so the rising cadences soar above, as if searching beyond into the distance. For me, the image of Faust flying above the landscape, borne on the heavy wings of Satan, til eventually textures open outward in an ending that's almost like a chorale. Is Faust redeemed? Braunfels doesn't commit. The Finale restates the basic theme with elements from all the variations - bright, manic, chilling. The Phantastische Erscheinungen are so tightly bound together, that taking excerpts out of context doesn't do justice to this fascinating composer.

Is this movie prophetic ?

Media Mogul builds empire by ruthless dirt digging. Stories at all costs, as long as they sell. In 1957, they didn't have mobile phones to hack, but the modus operandi is familiar. Lean on journos, lean on anyone, and use the dirt as leverage to pit one person against another. Media Mogul is dangerous because he can manipulate what people think.

In this 1957 film, Slander, Media Mogul is H R Manley (Steve Cochran) who runs a rag called Real Truth that peddles celebrity gossip.The more scandalous, the higher the sales. Manley leans on Scott Martin (Van Johnson). Martin's a puppeteer, same trade as Manley really, but Martin has morals. He's struggled so long with his act that when he suddenly becomes a smash hit, he and his wife Connie (Ann Blyth) know how much they have to lose. Watch out for the marionette show filmed live for a 50's studio audience. The puppets are Cowboy Tex and Ann, who have a wobbly horse for a sidekick and sing cowboy songs in falsetto voices,to sell their sponsor's breakfast cereal. It's a scream, nothing like that today!

Manley wants dirt on a big star Martin knew as a child. Manley blackmails Martin because he's dug dirt on Martin which will destroy his hard won success. Even when Connie leaves him, Martin won't talk. So Manley blasts news of Martin's long ago criminal conviction. Scandal! The Martins' son Joey (Richard Eyer), the Perfect Wholesome Kid, gets taunted and runs straight into the path of a car.  Losing his kid is the last straw. Martin goes on TV and denounces Manley. Unabashed, Manley thinks it's a great way to boost sales and plans to exploit the notoriety. Teflon coated, flame proof ?  In the real world he'd get away with it. However, Manley's ancient mother, who despises what he does, shoots him dead.

This is a fantastic movie, very tightly scripted and acted. Highly relevant today even tho' Manley didn't get cosy with cops and politicians. The movie was based on a real celebrity tabloid in the 50's. Manley's mother (Margaret Rambeau) is a character. His obssessive "love" for her is more like control freakery. Rupert Murdoch's mother is still around, aged 104. What does she think of recent events?.Though obviously she wouldn't dream of being like Manley's Mama.One thing that's really different from the present is that the movie steadfastly pins the blame of those who buy Manley's rags. It shows how lots of people then didn't approve. The real life Scandal sheet collapsed because people stopped buying it. But I guess it's easier to reject a rag that deals with movie stars than one that deals with politics.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Hans Krása at the West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival

That's Hans Krása (1899-1944). The occasion this photo was taken? It's a still from the Nazi propaganda film glorifying Theresienstadt, the model camp where inmates could live happily and healthily and make music. Krasa is listening attentively to Karl Ancerl conduct the Theresienstadt Orchestra. Everyone knows darn well they're being used but it it buys the camp time, what choice do they have?

Great opportunity to heard Krása's Passacaglia and Fugue plus Tanec for String Trio at the new West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival. There are two festivals with similar names but this one's strictly chamber music, and new. It's run by Lawrence Power the violist, familar to many from his work with the Nash Ensemble. Other Nash players included are Paul Watkins, Annabelle Meare and Stephanie Gonley. Also taking part are Anthony Marwood, Simon Crawford Philips, Bjørg Lewis (Mrs Paul), and Guy Johnston. Chamber musicians interconnect through many different networks. The Nash Ensemble played these two Hans Krása works for string trio at the Theresienstadt/Terezin Memorial weekend at the Wigmore Hall in June 2010. Read more about that here and use the "Theresienstadt" label on the right.

West Wycombe is on the western outskirts of High Wycombe, so is easy to reach by car up or down the M40/M25. Famous for the 18th century Hell Fire Club. Good 16th century pub on the main street (or was), so you can make a day of it. Lawrence Power grew up near there, I used to live there once too. Nice place.Musically, though, it's bound to be worth going to just for the concerts, as these are among the best players in the country. Also on the programmes, Dvorak, Brahms, Schumann and Shostakovich. More details HERE.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Suor Angelica full download + broadcast

Here's a link to a full download of Puccini Suor Angelica, a recording not commercially released at the the time, with big names - Barbara Frittoli and Mariana Lipovsek! Chailly, Teatro alla Scala 2008 ! Full text, too. 

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this Saturday of the wonderful Royal Opera House production! Catch it. Please see my review here. When this gets to DVD, get it. Better still, go!

Tuesday 13 September 2011

reNUNciation - Puccini Il trittico, Royal Opera House

A fabulously enjoyable evening of Puccini Il Trittico marks the start of the new Royal Opera House season. What fun, what flair! What's more, it's shockingly original. Catch this for Suor Angelica alone if needs must - Richard Jones brings out levels in Suor Angelica that completely overturn the bad press the opera usually gets. This is the kind of hit any house needs to kickstart a new season (infinitely better than yet another pointless Jonathan Miller revival).

The central premise of Suor Angelica is that holiness comes with renouncing all desire, even if it's as innocent as wanting to see a lamb. After all, The Lamb of God is better than any gambolling future cutlet. In this convent, the nuns are cut off from the real world, even though they run a hospital - no doctors, no parents, kids who don't cry. Miriam Beuther's antiseptic set reflects the unnatural orderliness of this situation, where healthy young woman waste away, substituting visions and miracles for normal life. Maybe they're happy, but achieving this rarified state of grace takes more courage than most of us can cope with. Richard Jones and Miriam Beuther manage to decry the arid regimentation of religious life and yet celebrate the spiritual liberation of those who truly believe. Quite miraculous!

Forget, then, the maudlin pseudo-morality that attaches to this opera's usual image. Suor Angelica has been locked up and her inheriutance taken from her to make her atone. She's had a child out of wedlock. Not all so different from the Virgin Mary herself. No wonder this convent is dedicated to the Mother of God.  Po-faced productions don't get this at all, but you can just bet that Puccini knew what he was doing. But Suor Angelica has such spirit that she fights back, despite appearing meek. As if she didn't know suicide was a mortal sin? But she acts on her instincts (which is why she got pregnant in the first place). Golden lights shine outside the spartan ward, and the nuns speak of mysterious signs the Virgin sends of divine mercy. Sure enough, Suor Angelica beats Hell, and her hypocritical aunt, and gets reunited with her son. Conventional piety turned on its head!

Conventional opera conventions turned on their head too. Gianni Schicchi is the most popular of the triptych Il trittico, and this production (Jones/John MacFarlane) is famous for its high spirited farce on 50's materialism. Yet there was a small exodus after Suor Angelica. Maybe people wanted an early night, but quite probably, they thought it wise to leave on a high after this wonderful Suor. The best singing of the whole evening, even though there aren't any showy male parts. Ermolena Jaho sang a superb Suor Angelica. She had the part so well characterized that moments of vulnerability only enhanced the sense of her youth and heartbreak. I've only heard Jaho once, as Mimi in 2009, and wasn't overwhelmed, but friends who heard her on subsequent evenings said she was wonderful. No First Night nerves this time.

Jaho would have stolen the show (and the whole evening) but for Anna Larsson's Princess. Now that's a mezzo voice with real drama and womanly sensuality, no prissiness at all. Costumed by Nicky Gillibrand, Larsson moves like a a snake, another potent religious symbol, and suggests that Angelica's racy nature might be hereditary, except that auntie didn't get caught. Wonderful characterization - don't take the Princess as dried-out spinster again. Excellent smaller roles - Anna Devin's Sister Genovieffa so charming you wonder why she didn't make it to the Wigmore Hall Song Competition finals. Very inspired playing from the pit, too. Antonio Pappano seemed exhilarated, so the music was energetic and even...dare I say... wickedly witty.

Why the full triptych? The three operas together make a huge impact, greater than on their own. The dark, claustrophobic Il tabarro (foreboding grim and grey) made the supernatural glow of Suor Angelica even more surreal. The Princess's greed makes way for petit-bouregois greed in Gianni Schicchi. Thematically, plenty of links, too, like sex and greed, frustration and thwated dreams. Please read this account of the Frankfurt Opera's Il trittico in 2008. Length apart, it's a pity that the three operas don't get done together more often. Each feels like a movement from a much larger work - what happens next in Il tabarro, for example? It's like a trailer for a film noir. What does Gianni Schicchi do with his ill-gotten gains ? Ironically, it's only Suor Angelica that works best as a stand alone, though interpretively it's the most complex of all.

Each of these three mini operas was beautifully realized and well sung (especially the tight ensemble in Gianni Schicchi)  Together they're unmissable. The Royal Opera House offerings this year looked solid rather han exciting on paper, but it just might prove to offer more surprises than we'd expect. Please see my article "Synchronized Swimming" - ROH 2011-2)  The ENO year looks more exciting in theory, but they are the ones starting the year with yet another meaningless Jonathan Miller revival.

PS -  Special mention of Ji-min Park's Songseller in Tabarro - outstanding voice. Time after time he does amazing things but in parts so small they get no attention. Everyone asks, who is this guy? He's an asset the ROH should use more often.

PS2 - delightful kid in Suor Angelica who acted up during the applause, trying to get the other boys to rebel, though they didn't. He was a natural ham, and irepressible. Was he doing an epilogue to the opera itself, where Suor Angelica herself doesn't conform?

Monday 12 September 2011

BBC Proms 2011 Post Mortem

The 2011 BBC Proms are over and what have we learned? Proms series are wonderfully well-planned, with multiple themes that develop as we go along. But that's the challenge. Being judgemental is easy, uncovering deeper trends is much more fun.

One big theme this year were the Choral Sundays which make the most of the Royal Albert Hall's size and acoustic. Massed choirs are a British thing, and the Proms bring together choirs from all round the country - truly uniting the nation in song. Singing is fun.. In a choir you can enjoy yourself without being exposed like a soloist. And what quality we're blessed with! The four youth choirs in Prom 58 Mendelssohn Elijah  were so good they animated Elijah and made it sound fresh and relevant. Mark Berry loved Prom 67 Beethoven Missa Solemnis. Since the BBC supports a huge part of the British classical music industry, it's important that they give choral (and organ) music the best possible showcase.

Another hidden theme in the 2011 Proms season was Faust. This was wonderful because it tied the Proms in with what's happening throughout the year in other venues. Faust seems to be everywhere, in all guises. Particularly intelligent programming in Prom 63 "Trumpets and Demons" where Ivan Fischer brought together Liszt and Mahler, showing how they connect. That was extremely stimulating for those who really care about music and Mahler. More Faust, and Liszt in Prom 15 Liszt A Faust Symphony where Vladimir Jurowski 's flair for drama created one of the best Proms all year. Why the RAH wasn't packed for this I have no idea. It was definitely one of this year's highlights. Lots more devilishly subtle Faust fragments throught the season, even the mutilated rump of Walter Braunfels in Prom 68 and Berlioz's rewriting of Weber in Prom 70, the French Freischutz. Berlioz's Damnation of Faust was not itself in this Prom season, but here was its prototype.

French themes too, throughout, and of course British. Indeed, the Proms are the flagship of British new music. Two premieres for Sir Harrison Birtwisle who is by far the greatest living British composer (Benjamin, Adès, Holt, Bedford and others will get there one day). I loved Angel Fighter instantly, as it follows on from Birtwistle's earlier work. Birtwistle seems to be heading into new territory with his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. I haven't written much about it as it took me a while to get into, but that's often the sign of something really good. (read Ivan Hewett on Birtwistle HERE) "This man doesn't give a damn". But that's exactly why Birtwistle is what he is, he doesn't play to the galleries or court the downmarket rabble. He has integrity, and that's what makes him a true artist.

Similarly Frank Bridge, who did his own thing and taught Benjamin Britten to do so too. Britten, despite his love for the English past, was by no means a "Little Englander", and for that we have to thank Frank Bridge. Havergal Brian did his own thing too, but not quite so effectively. Because everyone wants to be seen as an expert on the obscure, a lot of Brian fans are fakes, though there is a core of those who genuinely hear something in this eccentric character. The BBC has done the feat of giving Brian more exposure than ever before, and in possibly the best performance ever while effectively bursting the bubble. (Read more here about Prom 4 Brian Gothic). OTOH Now we can move on to other composers interesting for their music rather than their personality.

Like Niccoló Castiglioni. Even by Oliver Knussen's fiendishly inventive programming standards Prom 19 was a brilliant puzzle. Programming as art form. Castiglioni's Inverno in-ver is so beautiful that it should become part of standard repertoire. If only it wasn't so difficult to play! As David Robertson has been saying for ages, new music needs the best possible performance to give it a chance. Hence Anne Sofie Mutter's exquisite Wolfgang Rihm Gesungene Zeit (Time Chant). It's an anthem for our troubled times.  Read more about it HERE)

Housekeeping. This too is part of the Proms experience. The usual lack of toilet facilities. How did Victorians cope, especiually with those huge dresses for which you need a hoist to use a loo?  This year the door-guards have been more liberal, but someone needs to drill into the ushers that they must NOT let latecomers in until the interval. Time after time, performances have been disrupted, upsetting other members of the audience. Door 11 and 6 seem to be the worst. Because the Proms are being marketed for "everyone" that means lots of audiences who don't know about music, which is not a problem at all. But it also means people who can't understand why there's so much singing in an opera, so they walk out complaining. Long term, the push should be strategic, informed marketing, not bums on seats at any cost, so those who do come enjoy themselves.

Wigmore Hall Johnson Maltman Schiller Ein Leben in Liedern

While the whole music industry seems to be spiralling dementedly downmarket, the Wigmore Hall keeps standards extremely high. This Opening Concert of the new season was devoted to songs to texts by Friedrich von Schiller, and not just the most popular. Goethe gets more musical settings than any other poet because his idiom lends itself naturally to song. Schiller, on the other hand, wrote texts that read well on the page but don't necessarily "sing". All the more reason, then, to cherish the courage behind this concert. (photo : Schiller's statue in Stuttgart,  Andreas Praefcke)

This concert, Friedrich von Schiller - Ein Leben in Liedern, was organized at very short notice. Soile Isokoski had originally been scheduled to sing and to judge the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition, but she was indisposed. The programme was very far from Isokoski's usual repertoire, but so well put together that it was satisfying compensation. It bears the hallmark of Graham Johnson, whose experience in designing good programmes is legendary. Johnson's knowledge of this repertoire is equalled by few (Richard Stokes and Richard Wigmore excepted). Go to the Hyperion Records website and read Johnson's programme notes for the 37 disc set of Schubert songs. This is what programme note writing should be, stimulating an erudite audience like that at the Wigmore Hall.  Indeed, audiences completely new to the genre are even more badly served by superficial, clichéd work, devoid of the analysis and contextual connections that make programme notes worth reading in the first place. The Wigmore Hall gives medals for services to Lieder. Why not Graham Johnson?

How daring to place not one but several long strophic ballads together! Schiller's poetry isn't often lyrical in the way that Goethe's is, so musical settings tend towards declamatory and need to be livened up by good performance or they can descend into dull. Luckily many good singers rise to the challenge. Fischer-Dieskau, Matthias Goerne, Wolfgang Holzmair and Christoph Prégardien had/have them in their repertoire. There were two stunning Die Bürgschaft D246 at the Wigmore Hall (Holzmair and Prégardien) a while back, about a year apart, both performed so vividly the whole song became a dramatic monologue. Quite an achievement for a 20 minute song where the "characters" as such are fairly stylized Classical Heroes.

Fortunately Christopher Maltman has these songs in his repertoire too and has worked so often with Graham Johnson. These Schiller songs suit Maltman's voice and style, for they benefit from rich-toned gravitas. In Der Kampf  D594 Maltman declaims dramatically, so the song sounds like a vignette from a much larger theatrical piece. Very Schiller, more unusual for Schubert. Maltman carefully negotiates the tricky "Bewundert still mein heldenmütiges Entsagen, und grossmutvoll beschliesst sie meinen Lohn.....". If  strain appears later in the next strophe, Maltman's earned his reward.

Tellingly, Johnson quotes Carlyle in his programme notes. Schiller, said Thomas Carlyle, was "too elevated, too regular and sustained in his elevation to be altogether natural". Hence Johnson adds a few songs which lend themselves to earthly lyricism. An den Fr
ühling (D587), Das Geheimnis (D793) and Dithyrambe (D801) bring out the gentler Schiller, and give Maltman a chance to exercise softer, warmer colours. These more "Schubertian" songs allow Johnson to play with great, expressive verve.

Schumann set very little Schiller, but it was interesting that Johnson included Schumann's Der Handschuh op 87 (1850). This is interesting because it dates from the period when Schumann was experimenting with theatrical music, like Genoveva op 81 (of which there's much on this site) and Scenes from Goethe's Faust. Schiller's poem presents a scene of striking dramatic possibilities. Like a Roman Emperor, King Francis 1 is entertaining his court to a gory spectacle where lions, tigers and leopards rip each other apart. A lady drops her glove into the fray to taunt her lover. He gets the glove back but dumps the lady. The drama is in the situation, rather than in the personalities, so Schumann sets it as a decorative story, which Maltman and Johnson tell without too much savagery.

An interesting sub-theme flows through this programme: the unsentimental breaking of bonds. The protagonist in Der Kampf has pledged to some heinous crime by the one he loves. The hero in Der Handschuh learns that his lover wants him dead. In Die Bürgschaft, a man called Moros tries to assassinate the king although he's due to marry his sister off the following day, Oddly enough the King lets him go home, but Moro's friend must be crucified if Moro doesn't come back in time. Cue for glorious dramatic effects in the text, storms, floods, brigands, all of which Moro defeats arriving just as his friend is about to die. Even more oddly, the  king decides that all three should henceforth be friends. Will Moros suddenly embrace the tyrant? Why schedule an assasination with a wedding? Logic doesn't count in melodrama. This time, "meaning" in Lieder means meta-meaning, so as long as twenty steady strophes are delivered with panache, the ballad works.

All this summer, we've had Proms, operas and orchestral performances influenced by Alpine imagery and the freedom and danger mountains evoke. Our debt to Schiller's Wilhelm Tell is far reaching. Johnson and Maltman performed Schumann's Des Buben Schützenlied together with three settings by Franz Liszt, Der Fischerknabe, Der Hirt and Der Alpenj
äger.  Johnson makes a good point about Schiller's political views and Schubert's friend Johann Senn who was exiled from Vienna. The Metternich police state had no hold on Schumann and Liszt (or on Rossini or Catalani), so they can indulge in songs of lyrical grace, untroubled by the darker side of what Tell symbolized. At times the tessitura is high for Maltman ("im Paradies" in Der Fischerknabe) but this enhanced to the sense of danger that runs through Schiller's play. Johnson played so evocatively in the Liszt songs that at times I thought of Edvard Grieg.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Last Night of the BBC Proms 2011

Friends who were at last night's Last Night of the BBC Proms 2011 had so much fun. This is when Brits let their hair down. Ignore the militarist element, and the attention seekers, focus on ordinary people having fun. The minute I got home last night from the Opening Concert at the Wigmore Hall, lots of lovely messages. The Last Night is something I only watch to see what friends in the Arena are up to. Great warm evening for the dinner jackets and evening gowns, lovely photos, everyone grinning. And then two "strangers" go up and crown Sir Henry Wood's bust with laurels. Could not recognize Nick in a  DJ as his native costume is rather different! Watch Susan Bullock, the kitschiest Boadicea in years! What crazy trills, and that's the voice not the outfit.

So different, too, from the 2001 Prom which was just after 9/11.

Years ago the LNoP was plagued by those who used it as a platform (which is where the flag waving came in). But even then, not everyone was jingoistic. When my mother went in 1945, a refugee fresh from camp, the Last Night really did symbolize "Hope and Glory". But even she wouldn't have liked militarist barracking, (which was what led to her being in camp in the first place). So thank goodness they now only allocate tickets to real regulars not opportunists. Please read this good article in the Telegraph .

Saturday 10 September 2011

Wigmore Hall International Song Competition 2011

The Wigmore Hall is the most respected centre of art song excellence in Britain  and its Song Competition attracts interest from all over the world. Sir Ralph Kohn, head of the Kohn Foundation which supports the Competition and many other philanthropic ventures, asks in his introduction "Is a competition essential to identify outstanding talent"? So often competition results are controversial, and don't reflect what happens later in the marketplace. At the Wigmore Hall,  though, the emphasis is less on competition than on nurturing young talent. Kohn adds, "None of Wagner's 'Beckmesserisms' in our search for the next young Meistersinger".

The 2011 Jury included Sir Ralph, Bernarda Fink, Graham Johnson, Thomas Quasthoff, Malcolm Martineau, Sarah Walker, Richard Stokes, Jeremy Geffen and both the present and past Directors of the Wigmore Hall, John Gilhooly and William Lyne. Judgement, though, is not the primary aim, for those who participate are encouraged to develop their skills. No "winners" or "losers" here, for all benefit.

Standards are very high. This year's competition attracted 170 applicants from 33 countries. Some of the curriculum vitae are very impressive indeed, many applicants having extensive experieces in fairly prominent roles. Many have won prizes before, and are involved with young artist schemes in major opera houses..

First prize went to baritone Dominik Köninger who made his debut in 2004 and who has worked extensively throughout Europe. He's appeared in Baden-Baden, Stuttgart, Munich, Hamburg and the Theatre an der Wien. Next season, he joins the Komische Oper, Berlin. He has an atractively burnished voice, and his delivery is refined. He and his pianist Volker Krafft chose a programme of introspective songs, rather than those with immediate dramatic impact.  In a competition which emphasizes German Lieder above all else, this demonstrated his fluency in "inward" expression. Köninger has a nice way of eliding words so they flow, without compromising diction. At times he showed real beauty, such as the way he infused the word "Lindenduft" (from Mahler's Ich atmet einen linden Duft) with expansive warmth, evoking the scented breeze.

Second prize went to Stuart Jackson, one of the youngest participants, who is still attending the opera course at the Royal Academy of Music. Almost as soon as he started singing, I recognized his voice, though I'd heard him only once before, over a year ago, singing a few songs at a private recital which included many very well established performers. At the age of 25, very few singers are quite so distinctive that you remember their voices immediately, though you've forgotten the name and face.

Jackson's voice has natural colour and agility, but more importantly, he uses it intelligently.  He's very sensitive to emotional nuance. He sang several Russian songs, but had prepared so thoroughly that he conveyed mood so well that you could understand meaning. Jackson seems to relish the Russian syntax, sailing through the angular consonants of Mily Balakirev's Son. A soldier is dying, dreaming of home : Jackson conveys both darkness and tenderness, so the song is deeply moving even if you don't know the words.

Plenty of volume, too, huge crescendi where needed, but achieved through careful modulation, projected effectively outwards. No barking here, no straining for effect, but good technical control. A very good Liszt Pace non trovo (Petrach Sonnet no 104) indicates that Jackson can act with his voice. Jackson has an extremely interesting voice, but it's his senstivity to meaning and expressiveness that will give him an edge. Properly polished and nurtured, Jackson will be someone to listen out for.

Song competitions are as much about identifying potential as about what happens in the finals. Perhaps that's why mezzo-soprano Dorottya Lang won third prize, for she was so frozen by nerves that she didn't come across well. Maybe she was better in the earlier heats. Potential, certainly, in baritone Jonathan McGovern. Again, nerves caused problems, which is hardly surprisng, given the pressure these singers and pianists were under. McGovern has a nice, deep timbre, but also uses his brain. He chose Poulenc's Four Songs from Le travail du peintre, shaping each song as Poulenc wanted, to reflect the poem and the painter described. Especially effective, though was his Ivor Gurney Epitaph in old mode. English song often suffers from over-pretentious earnestness. McGovern's free, almost conversational style communicates far better.

McGovern and his pianist, Timothy End, were awarded the Jean Meikle Prize for a duo, End also shared the Pianist Prize with Jonathan Ware, who did not appear in the finals. End's not easy on his singers, being rather dominant and fast, but he's a good player. I was impressed with Volker Krafft's playing for Dominik Köninger. Krafft is primarily a conductor, and part of the Royal Opera House Jette Parker Young Artists Scheme, so his background is in voice,. He let his singer take precedence, shining in passages where the singer falls silent.

Thomas Quasthoff won an award, too, the Wigmore Hall Medal for outstanding contributions to the art of Lieder. The medal has only been awarded once before, to Matthias Goerne. I was at Quasthoff's very first Wigmore Hall recital, his London debut. It was a night to remember, and a reminder that relatively unknown singers can become major stars.
Please note : You  can hear Stuart Jackson at the Oxford Lieder Festival next month.More details HERE. 
photo: Russ London

Prom 70 - Why The French Freischütz matters

What fun tonight's Prom 70, John Eliot Gardiner and the  Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. So what if it's in French, not German? No doubt the same folk who scream sacrilege at Berlioz's sin will happily go to ENO for Berlioz and much else in English. Der Freischütz marks a turning point in music history, influencing Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Loewe, Wagner, even Franz Schreker, so it matters when it influences a composer outside the German tradition. .

Berlioz was only 21 when he heard a bowdlerized version of it in Paris, and set out to learn the original from the score. He didn't merely translate, but adapted it to French popular tastes. out with the long stretches of dialogue (which I adore), in with brisker recitatives. Berlioz also had the wit to adapt the music to the new text so the lines don't jar but feel natural. And he's learning about orchestration. Berlioz would become the great music theoretician of his age. His Treatise on Instrumentation was avidly discussed by Mahler and Strauss. (there's even a section on the saxophone, which had just been invented). A copy stood on Mahler's bedside table. So don't dismiss what Berlioz is trying to do in the French Freischütz.

 Of course Le Freischütz doesn't sound exactly like Der Freischütz. All his life, Berlioz would be adapting ideas and developing styles. adventuring outside the French musical mainstream. Maybe that's why he's interesting. So think of the French  Freischütz as a missing link between the early German Romantic and other styles that folllow, and not as Weber manqué. This is very early Berlioz and he's still finding his way. (The effervesence of Weber still eludes him).

Weber's Der Freischü notoriously difficult to stage realistically, what with Wolf's Glens and so on. And if Der Freischütz is tricky, remember Euryanthe, which the Royal Opera House did stage about 20 years ago. The plot's so improbable anyway. So the Prom 70 semi-staging is an excellent compromise between theatre and concert   Wasn't it great when Samiel boomed down from an upstairs box, and witches' screams burst out all thru the Royal Albert Hall?

Extremely good singing, Gidon Sacks (Gaspard/Kaspar) gorgeously sexy and demonic, Andrew Kennedy (Max), looking bewildered (as Max should be) but singing with heartfelt determination. Not a weak spot in the singing, but it must be remembered that because the syntax is French, singing styles won't be like German. The chorus (the Monteverdi Choir) is great fun. Yes, fun! No-one ever took plots like this seriously. The idea was to get thrills from the ghostly whippoorwills in the orchestra, and the idea of a confrontation with Samiel, the devil, the joyous overtures and choruses. We luxuriate in the Overture, the chorus of Chasseurs, lovely individual arias and entr'actes.

Anyone who knows Der Freischütz has Carlos Kleiber's recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle (Weikl, Janowitz, Mathis, Schreier) tattooed permanently into their soul. And so it should be, for it's a performance of genius. But that's exactly why we need to listen to John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in period performance. Period instruments are never going to sound as full and as wonderful, but they remind us of what the sound world of the early 19th century might have been like. Indeed, part of the charm of Gardiner's orchestra is that they are genuinely bucolic. People then would have identified with natural horns and village dances, so they might have heard the warmth of familiarity where we now hear hokey. Berlioz as orchestrator probably knew what he was doing to create the right atmosphere. We don't need sophistication all the time. A dose of period high jinks reminds us how far we've come.