Friday 30 December 2011

Ne me quitte pas

What a beautiful song ! As so often, the most famous English version doesn't convey the power of the song. Jacques Brel's phrasing is unconventional, so the lines compress and run over, and the tempo hesitates and speeds up. It feels like conversation, more human and sincere. Sing this in a more formal or "English" way and much of the inner poetry is lost. The inner pulse is 5 syllables around which the words wrap. (Please also see my post on Gloomy Sunday, Song with  a Curse)

Here's my attempt at translation, which is tricky as so much of the original depends on allitration and word play. "Don't leave me. It would mean forgetting everything, everything that can be forgotten, which has already flown away. Forget the times of misunderstanding, and le temps.... perdu.  How? to forget hours the hours whose memory can kill, sometimes, with the blow of why? The heart of happiness."

"Me ! I could offer you pearls of raindrops from distant lands where it never rains. I'd dig the earth, even after I die, to cover your body with gold and light. I'd create a realm where love would be king, and love would be  law and you would be queen."

"I'd invent for you crazy words that you would understand. I'd speak to you then of lovers who've twice seen their hearts embrace. I'd tell you the story of this dead king who was not able to meet you again. Don't leave me."

"One has often seen  regenerated,  flames of ancient volcanos which seemed too old.  It could be that scorched earth gives more wheat than a good April.  And when evening comes, in a blazing sunset, don't  red and black combine?"

"Don't leave me. I can no longer cry. I can no longer speak. I'll hide myself away where I can watch you dancing and smiling. I'll listen to you sing and laugh Let me become the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog"

The girlfriend, like millions of women before and since, will recognize this type of man. "It's all about you, you, you", Who gives a stuff about promises when the guy doesn't deliver ? But it's still such a moving song, especially the way Brel sings it.

Thursday 29 December 2011

New Year Free opera and more

TV and Radio treats, most on-demand so they won't hold up your social plans. You could see the New Year in with Lang Lang and Howard Skempton on BBC Radio 3 but for me, from 1800hr, it's La Traviata from The Royal Opera House with  Beczala, Perez and Keenlyside. This production has been done so many times that it's become pretty tired, but this second of the four casts was a surprise hit.

The opera is a vehicle for sopranos who always sound amazing, since Violetta is written wonderfully for voice, flatteriung every woman who sings it. Papa Germont is a vehicle for big name baritones because they don't have to sing all that much for their fee and star billing. And Alfredo's are often cast with up and coming media darlings. So along comes Piotr Beczala, and suddenly the perspective switches. It's like hearing the opera with fresh ears, from Alfredo's point of view. Beczala is extremely experienced and has one of the most beautiful lyric voices in the business. When I hear him, I think what Fritz Wunderlich might have been had he lived. Beczala has another advantage in that he understands his roles from within, so the singing flows from deep sources. So La Traviata takes on new life. "It's like falling in love all over again," said a friend. A good experience ! (review here)

On New Year's Day you can catch Maris Janssons live from the Musikverein, Vienna on TV and on Radio from 10.15.  The current production of Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Royal Opera House is worth catching at 1445 on January 1st It's enjoyable on its own terms, once you get your head around the fact that it's more good natured Donizetti than Wagner. (review here) It's unidiomatic but but at least genial, and not as bland as Walt Disney Wagner at the Met.

Mozart The Magic Flute from the Lucerne Festival should be worth hearing too. Daniel Harding conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, whose personnel he has been connected with for years. The cast is mostly English or resident in England, which might be interesting. 

Wild cards : Kurt Weill's Street Scene, one of his better "American" works, not that that's saying much. Much more unusual is the programme that places Beethoven's Egmont Overture in context, with readings from the original source. It also includes Sibelius's Kung Christian II. The performance isn't particularly rivetting, but the piece is worth hearing, even if it's very early work. It precedes the symphonies and more ambitious works like The Tempest but has affinities with his Kalevala pieces.

(Photo © 2005, 2006, 2007 by Bjørn Erik Pedersen)

Cortot Casals Beethoven Sonata - FULL

Pablo Casals and Alfred Cortot play Beethoven, Sonata op 69, It's 1958, one of Cortot's last recitals. What vigour and individuality!

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Magical acrobats!

Les Kiriki, a 1907 short by Segundo de Chomón (1871-1929) pioneering film maker who worked for Pathé and with other pioneering directors like Abel Gance

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Welcome, Massenet Werther!

Noël, Noël, Noël sing the children, even tho' it's July. Welcome return for Massenet Werther from ONP Bastille Paris streaming again on HERE. This is the fabled performance from early 2010 which won a Diapason d'or when it went onto DVD. Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, Ludovic Tézier and Anne Catherine Gillet! Just look a that cast and listen to that divine singing! Kaufmann fans will get lots more of their man as Werther than as Cavaradossi. He's ideally suited to the troubled romantic Werther, and there's plenty of room for him to develop the role in all its nuances.  What's more, Sophie Koch sings Charlotte with such depth that she's emotionally real. And what perfect, sensitive timbre in all the parts. It's so beautiful, I've been listening again and again, just to soak up this singing and playing (Michel Plasson).

The production and the film are by Benoît Jacquot, which is significant as he's primarily a film director.  Don't let that panic you. Unlike most theatre people he's musically literate and sensitive to the inner drama of this almost action-free opera, where most things take place in the protagonists' heads. That's the beauty of this production, which minimizes props to the max so everything's concentrated on the singers. Psychologically true, too, for Werther lives in a world of his own where reality doesn't much intrude. Wide, open vistas on stage, bare but for rustling leaves, or oppressively huge windows that dwarf the singers. Jacquot also directed the film, so he develops the basic concept even further. Often the singers are shown, alone, on the platform with orchestra in view, as if they were in recital. Sometimes we see the back of the props! This Werther is about the singing, and because it concentrates on performance, not trappings, the music speaks all the more deeply. Fundamentalists will moan that it's not "decorative" as they imagine Werther should be (see the original poster here, Eugene Grasset 1893). But think about the plot, and listen to the music. It's not about chintz !
LOTS more on Massenet on this site, like Le jongleur de Notre Dame, Massenet mélodies with Véronique Gens, Cendrillon, Manon and Le portrait de Manon.

Monday 26 December 2011

Grim Brothers Grimm Hánsel and Gretel free online

Indulged too much at Christmas? This is the antidote. Laurent Pelly's radical, pointed Humperdinck Hánsel and Gretel from Glyndebourne 2008. This puts grim back into Brothers Grimm! Watch it HERE free online. A DVD is also available (amazon and other sources) and an audio version can be found if you look round carefully. Here is what Opera Today said :

"Alice Coote, enacted an astonishing metamorphosis to petulant, prepubescent mischief-maker — a touch of attention deficit disorder, perhaps? Coote was exhaustingly hyperactive, even managing to make disappearing into a cardboard box appear interesting and amusing. Her glorious tone was consistently projected with clarity and warmth - one cannot imagine a better Hansel, or a mezzo-soprano who enjoys the role more. Lydia Teuscher, as Gretel, held her own admirably with such a seasoned partner...... "

"Attired in a fluorescent pink two-piece suit and bouffant wig, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was an eye-watering picture of consumerist and gastronomic greed as the Witch. His ‘Shirley-Bassey’ strutting, brazenly clutching an upturned mop — microphone or broomstick? — raised uncomfortable hackles, and anticipated the exposure of his chilling intent when he whipped off the wig and revealed the sinisterly bare-headed, pot-bellied, knife-wielding monster beneath the deceptively frivolous drag-queen apparel."

The Guardian is streaming next June's big event, The Cunning Little Vixen for free, which means kaput for the small, independent cinemas that will be showing it on the same day. Glyndebourne itself sells out all the time, and, like last year, might not be screening live. Interesting economics. Is there a story?
PS I thought it was odd that Tom Service didn't mention cast or conductor at all in his piece.  But there's a good  reason !

Sunday 25 December 2011

Richard Tauber can't sing proper !

Here is a special gift for those who think accents are more important than anything else. This is Richard Tauber singing "White Christmas". At first he's careful to sound like a clipped upper class Englishman of the 30's. But once he warms into the song his natural instincts take over, and the accent goes haywire. So what? He knows how to sing.

School Choir Xmas with a difference

Choral singing is huge in Hong Kong where music education is taken very seriously indeed. At Xmas, one of the popular customs is that school choirs like this sing in public places to raise money for charity. This school's choirs and orchestras (multiple) usually win all the prizes in music festivals all over Asia, but here the girls are singing for pure happiness, which is why they're so good.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Free opera and more - Xmas broadcasts

Compensation from not getting out this week? What's on TV and radio? Unmissable Xmas Eve afternoon 1435 on BBCTV2 wil be Tosca from The Royal Opera House with the grande luxe cast - Gheorghiu, Terfel, Kaufmann. Pray for intervals so you can rush off and do tasks. Catch Pappano talking about it from 1335. He's a brillaint speaker, his enthusiasm is infectious. If anyone can persuade you Tosca is more than "shabby little shocker" it's him and this cast. Traditional Carols from Kings in the evening.

Another chance to see the wonderful Royal Ballet Alice in Wonderland on Xmas Day at 1210. Highly recommended. John Rutter to follow and then The Prince and the Composer at 1510. The Prince is now being heavily marketed as a Patron of the Arts, so the film is now being sold as "by" HRH. Which is fine and will please royalists, but poor Hubert Parry is unfortunately remodelled as a servant of the throne.  What would Parry have thought of that? Please read what I wrote at the premiere. 
Salzburg Festival Mozart Le nozze de Figaro Keenlyside, Erwin Schrott and other goodies. Alas, no videoo but audio should be rewarding. This only til next Thursday, don't dawdle. Donizetti La fille du regiment from the Met on Xmas Eve at 6pm. In theory you can sit at home and watch/listen all day.

Catch up time for things missed but still available. Priority I think is Massanet's Le Jongleur de Notre Dame available here. It is unusual fare and very good indeed.  Read more HERE.  It is better than a lot of the heavily promoted glitz. Also, Bach Christmas Oratorio from St Johns Smith Square - James Gilchrist, Iestyn Davies, Neal Davies and Katharine Watson, cond Stephen Layton. I have now listened - it's glorious ! Layton also conducts Benjamin Britten Ceremony of Carols and St Nicolas. There's also Discovering Music programme about it before hand, which is good, as this series is well informed and analytical. Listen to programmes like this while you can. Dumbing down looms close. As for me, I'm increasingly less impressed by the anglophone world these days. So escape to Francesco Cavall La didone on medici TV, semi staged, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. More Massenet, too - Werther with Kaufmann !

Friday 23 December 2011

Strange Santas - Missionary Christmas

A missionary video fromm the early 50's with wonderful shots of Hong Kong as it was. Then it gets odd. Chi Kwong  is a small refugee boy who's fascinated by the bizarre customs of Xmas. "Who is that fat man?" asks the kid. Authentic in many ways. The film is made for American audiences, however, so the casual imperialism bugs me. You can see where the term "missionary position" comes from. Nonetheless, it's well meaning and at the end, the narrator admits Xmas isn't about toys but about goodwill. There have been Christian communities in China for hundreds of years.

Massenet - Le Jongleur de Notre Dame

Jules Massenet's Le Jongleur de Notre Dame can be heard online internationally HERE til Thursday. Although it's an opera it's very unusual, almost more miracle-play or oratorio than drama. It was first performed in 1902, yet there are moments when the orchestration is so spartan and pure that you think you're listening to Poulenc or Honegger rather than to Massenet. He also makes references to "medieval" sounds and plainchant, though early music wasn't fashionable at the turn of the last century. Perhaps Massenet's ideas grew from church or folk music (at one stage the monks sing a version of Frère Jacques) but that humility is perfect for the story, which has medieval origins. Wonderful preludes and postludes, some of the vocal parts are "framed" as in medieval art. Each part is drolly characterized, with appropriate instruments. Jean, the juggler,  for example, with bells and violin, Boniface the solid monk, with timpani.

A man called Jean (tenor) tries to make a living juggling for townsfolk at markets and fairs, but they're more into shopping and mocking, so he starves. The monks of the Notre Dame scold him for singing profane songs and make him repent. Since the monks live well on fat meat, (chorus A table!) it's not a bad deal for Jean, These are fancy monks. One sculpts, one paints, one writes poetry, and they scrap as to who's better at serving God. But one wise monk, Boniface (baritone) has dedicated himself to simple things like cooking.  Yet Jean wants to contribute though all he knows is juggling. One night he creeps into the chapel and sings and juggles for the statue of the Virgin Mary. Some of the monks think it's sacrilege. But suddenly a great light emanates from the statue, and the Madonna reaches out to Jean, smiling.  He dies, but he's been blessed.

The performance is from 1985. Wonderful, lucid  Gerard Garino (tenor: Jean (le jongleur)), Bruno Laplante (baritone: Boniface), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone: Le Prieur), Ad van Baasbank (tenor: Poet-monk), Math Dirks (bar: Painter-monk), Bernard Kuysen (bar: Musician-Monk), David Shapero (bass: Sculptor-Monk), The Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir, Jean Fournet (conductor)

A perfrormance would run around 75 minutes, no interval needed, so it would be practical to stage with another short opera. Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites would be a bit too overwhelming. But Puccini Suor Angelica  which it predates by 16 years) might be a perfect match. They're thematically linked, one mostly female voices, the other most male. But just listen ! Le Jongleur de Notre Dame is understated but in its honest, simple piety lies its beauty.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Champagne and bombs - highs and lows of 2011

What fizzed and what fell flat? Some real surprises and not quite what you'd expect. Safe top choice, Gounod Faust at the Royal Opera House. No compromise on the economic mess, top quality production, top quality singing. More adventurous top choice, Puccini Il Trittico, also ROH, and especially Suor Angelica. "ReNUNciation" - a Cinderella opera to the fore, great singing from Anna Larsson and Ermolena Jaho. Another mega hit, Mozart Don Giovanni at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Fabulous singing, intelligent staging, provocative approach. When this comes out on DVD, get it.

Productions which help you re-assess wehat you think you knew are usually the most rewarding. We've all seen the same old production of Verdi La Traviata so many times, and Alfredo is almost always a lightweight. So when Piotr Beczala turned the role into a major creation, all assumptions overturned.  It was like hearing the opera afresh, from a new perspective. This is a singer who really knows what he's doing and is genuinely well informed about historic tenor style. There is so much hype about these days, but Beczala is the genuine article, who delivers beautifully, without fuss.

For the same reason I loved Wagner Lohengrin from Bayreuth. Hans Neuenfels rats make you realize that the opera is about Brabant and why people want to control it. The rats are funny, tragic, scary, but more "human" than the main characters. It's a completely different perspective and once the shock value wears off, makes the opera much deeper emotionally and intellectually. Obviously we won't get rats again, but this production is seminal because it expands understanding,

For non-staged opera, Handel Alcina at the Barbican, conducted by Marc Minkowski, part of an excellent series there of operas on the theme of Orlando Furioso, which were very good, with specialist French casts and players., At the South Bank, Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Tomlinson, DeYoung and Salonen showed how it should be heard and the semi staging showed how it can be seen. Probably way above the heads of those who don't relate to the quirkiness of this opera. At the ENO, Rameau's Castor and Pollux was also beyond those who couldn't see past the sex. Shocking, but not wrong. The whole point of the opera is that it's an allegory about the dangers of physical excess! So those who think it "must" be pretty because it's baroque need to study it and its period more carefully.

Popular opinion means nothing. Because Monty Python has many fans, most people loved Terry Gilliams's Berlioz Damnation of Faust for its cheap gags and irony-free racism.Unfortunately it proved Mel Brooks's adage about "Springtime for Hitler". People follow crowds when they don't think, in art as well as in politics. OTOH , I learned to love Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride at the Royal Opera House, not from the dull, lacklustre conducting by Mark Elder but from listening to Russian recordings afterwards, which bring out its true violent pungency. Then the mafia staging made total sense. Pity everyone else seemed to expect Sheherazade.  Similarly, to my surprise, I actually got a kick from Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole at the ROH despite the first act longeurs. Anna Nicole was hype, so the opera was a daring statement onn the dangers of trash, an irony lost on many.

On the other hand, 2011 saw other mega-hype bubbles burst (while some still grow). Both Havergal Brian and Mieczsyslaw Weinberg have been plagued for decades by "fans" who may not actually know their music but boost their own cachet by pretending to.  Brian's Gothic Symphony received its best ever performance and highest profile at the Proms, but killed the myth.  Similarly Weinberg's The Passenger (ENO) and The Portrait (Opera North) revealed the music for what it is. Fake fans went ballistic when their bluff was called. That's a good indicator of hype. Genuine music lovers can discuss things rationally. Fashion victims can't. Please see the comments under my post on Dudamel's Mahler at the Proms for more evidence. For much the same reasons, I didn't even bother with Nico Muhly's Two Boys, having spent 18 months trying desperately  to make sense of his other music. My theory is that the Met wanted to outdo the ROH's coup in getting a new opera by a major British composer, so the Met invested huge money in creating Muhly. At least Turnage already existed and had a genuine track record.

This year I've done a lot less orchestral music, song and recordings than I used to (well over 400 a year, once). I loved Vladimir Jurowski's Liszt Faust Symphony at the Proms, and Andrew Davis's Elgar Caractacus at the Three Choirs Festival.  Also Boulez Pli selon Pli, with Barbara Hannigan and Ensemble Intercontemporain, though it was the end of a long tour. Earlier performances must have been mind blowing! Although I've been doing Lieder for more than 40 years, most recitals this year were good rather than exceptional, and there were a few disappointments. A quiet patch, maybe. Recordings-wise, I loved José Serebrier's Dvořák Symphony no 9 "The New World", vindicating studio performance as an art form. Best CD of the year, though, has got to be Pierre Boulez's CD of Szymanowski's Symphony no 3 with the Wiener Philharmoniker. This is so astonishing, it ranks among my top favourites of all time. If you think you know Boulez, or if you think you know Szymanowski, listen to this. It's a revelation. Boulez is conducting two concerts at the Barbican next year, one in April with Tetzlaff and Scriabin, the other in May with Znaider and Szymanowski 3. I booked a year ago.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Royal Opera House

Perhaps it's no accident that Graham Vick's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg returns to the Royal Opera House for the Christmas season. Red, green, gold, sumptuous colours that warm a long, grey evening.  This Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a comedy and here it's presented as the ultimate up-market Xmas show. It's extremely enjoyable, and an ideal introduction to the opera experience. Richard Wagner, though, gets sidelined.

Sir John Tomlinson is a definite reason for catching this revival while you can. The days when he could sing Hans Sachs are past, but he creates an unusually vivid Veit Pogner. Tomlinson plays Pogner powerfully, as if he was a former Sachs, whose reasons for committing his daughter to this bizarre marriage make sense. He's dedicating his daughter to art, not to shabby politics. Luckily for him, and for Eva, Walter von Stolzing arrives in the nick of time. Indeed, Beckmesser very nearly persuades the Meistersingers to drive Walter out of town. Things could so easily have turned out quite differently. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg may be comic, but it evolves against a background of tension. At any moment anarchy could break out. Unless the Meistersingers adapt, they might not survive.

Wagner builds dissent into the music. The Meistersingers sing at cross-purposes, and in the riot scene the turbulence of the chorus evokes the violence which comes with all revolution. That's why the Night Watchman sings "bewahrt euch vor Gespenstern und Spuk, dass kein böser Geist eu'r Seel' beruck'!"  The music for the apprentice boys is energetic, a warning for those who remember Wagner's protosocialism. This time, however, we're treated to a good-natured Meistersinger, where the apprentices dance with little vigour, and the blows Sachs throws at David have no menace. Antonio Pappano received the longest applause of all on the first night. Most audiences can relate better to joyful Romaticism in music than to Wagner-on-edge, so it's understandable. He clearly enjoys the life-affirming elements in this opera, which come over well. Christmas is not the right time for radical ideas, and this is not a production that would support them.

Graham Vick's riot scene is classic because it's so well imagined. The townsfolk pop out of windows and hang precariously upside down over the stage. One man looks like he's about to lose his footing (this happened in earlier productions, so it was planned)  In their nightshirts the townsfolk look like escapees from an asylum, a good idea but not developed. The Festweise scene is masterfully blocked, so each guild is clearly defined. I liked the acrobats in the background, too. But these scenes aren't for entertainment but emphasize the traumas in Nürnberg's past.(Click photo to enlarge, it's wonderful).

Because John Tomlinson so dominates the first Act, Wolfgang Koch's Hans Sach might be overlooked, but Koch understands the role. Sachs is an observer, who stands apart from the crowd, and who thinks before he acts.  Koch's Sachs is sung with sensitivity, and would be very effective in a more perceptive production which focusses on Sachs and not the scenery. Koch looks and sounds younger than the other Meistersingers and is rather more lyrical than Simon O'Neill's Walther von Stolzing who is more hoch dramatisch than a true Heldentenor. This was the best performance I've ever heard from O'Neill, and he was good, but it's a part better suited to a more luminous timbre. O'Neill was, however, a good match for Emma Bell's Eva, joyfully created though perhaps more Italianate than Wagnerian. In a cheerful, non-idiomatic production like this, it didn't matter, and they conveyed the story. Popular favourite Toby Spence sang a very good David, but he's more public school than roustabout.

It was good to see many teenagers in the audience, another good reason for having a show like this in holiday time. Last week, my friend took his daughter to Kurt Weill's Magical Night at the Linbury, and she was transfixed. She will never forget! We can give kids toys anytime, but the gift of a magical experiernce is beyond compare. And the same goes for adults, new to opera. This Meistersinger may not tell us much about the opera or about Wagner, but it's an excellent night out. More details soon and full cast list in Opera Today.

photos copyright Clive Barda 2011, details embedded, 

Meistersinger von Nürnberg - latterday Lohengrin?

Wagner Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Royal Opera House tonight. Tomorrow, a full review, bookmark this site. .Sir John Tomlinson can't sing Sachs any more but my gosh, is he an amazing Veit Pogner. Usually the past fades into the background, but with Tomlinson, Pogner dominates. The whole balance changes when one singer is this good.

This Meistersinger production, (Graham Vick, revived from way back), is an excellent Xmas show, with psychedelic bright colours, that wonderfully humorous riot scene and the brilliant finale. Great fun, but don't expect anarchic or intellectual challenge. Apart from John Tomlinson, there was more grit at Glyndebourne. Oddly enough  I kept thinking of baptism that runs throughout this opera like an undercurrent.  It starts with the church service, and leads up to the big party on the meadow which celebrates Hans Sachs's nameday. Johannestag, Johannestag! The English translation is misleading. Sure it is midsummer but much more  importantly it is the feast of St John. Significantly, Hans Sachs was named (by his apparently single mother) for St John the Baptist, who foretold the coming of someone greater than himself.

This has big implications on how the role of Walther von Stolzing might be interpreted. Sachs, Pogner and the Meistersingers can be gruff and dramatic, but Walther should stand out in a halo of glory, I think, like a latterday Lohengrin, who saves the girl and rejuvenates her whole community. So I thought, very lyrical true Heldentenor, so beautifully sung he's almost divine. So above, John Botha, in 2008. (comparing anyone much earlier isn't right as styles change, even in the way we speak). Ethereal! Close your eyes as the production is awful, but open your ears.

There is a lot on this site about recent Meistersinger von Nürnberg productions like Glyndebourne Gerald Finley and WNO at the Proms (Bryn Terfel) And of course lots more on Wagner.

Monday 19 December 2011

Véronique Gens Wigmore Hall Massenet Gounod Hahn

Véronique Gens is one of the reasons French music is now in a new golden age. Her core repertoire is baroque, so that lucid aesthetic informs her approach, ideally suited to the intelligence of French song. All week I've been enjoying Véronique Gens's recital at the Wigmore Hall still accessible on BBC Radio3  til Xmas Eve. Please listen - it's lovely.

It's unusual too, focussing on songs by Jules Massenet and Charles Gounod, better known outside France for their operas, contrasted with songs by Reynaldo Hahn. It's a good combination because it presents French song in context, and also suggests why French opera is so distinctive.

Massenet's Chant provençal describes a girl so pure she doesn't know her charms. Charlotte or Sophie? The piano part (Susan Manoff) protectively shields Gens's delicate vocal line. True innocence is harder to portray than extravagance. The trite poetry of L'âme des oiseaux is rescued by legato into which Gens breathes, suggesting flight and movement. Altogether more sophisticated is  the justly famous La mort de la cigale. It's an observation from nature, hushed in wonder. Only when the cicada is dead can the voice break out in protest. The cicada's life is too short. As is ours. 

Soleil couchant is based on a poem by Victor Hugo, who builds inner phrases into each line, creating an inner  rhythm which Massenet respects in the range with which he sets each line. Gens is a soprano, but with such depth that she could be a falcon. Nothing simple about this sunset, for night will turn to day, just as rivers flow from mountains to the ocean.  "Mais moi, sous chaque jour courbant plus bas ma tête, Je passe et, refroidi sous ce soleil joyeux, Je m'en irai bientôt, au milieu de la fête, Sans que rien manque au monde immense et radieux!" Listen to how Gens shapes the rolling phrases and then breathes expansively into the last three words so they glow, and Manoff's piano cries in affirmation.

Gounod was a generation older than Massenet, and his songs reflect a different sensibilty. Gens sings them elegantly, beautifully decorating the trills in Sérénade. Exquisite singing, reminding me of the "alpine" lines in   Schubert Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. This poem is Victor Hugo again, from his drama Mary Tudor. Gounod sets it as a lilting berceuse. It's charming, but we'd best forget what happened to Mary!  Including the Lamento by Edmond, Prince de Polignac among the Gounod songs was a good idea. The Lamento is sensual, like a serenade on a lute, but has the air of something alien and and exotic. It connects the mood of Massenet's Nuit d'Espagne and even the open-spirited lyricism of Gounod's Ou voulez-vous aller? with the world of Reynaldo Hahn. One belle époque leading to the next.

Reynaldo Hahn's music evokes for me the luxury of salons graced by such as the Prince de Polignac and his widow Winaretta Singer, friend of Nadia Boulanger and Hugues Cuénod. Hahn's music is highly perfumed but its refinement is by no means merely decorative. A Chloris, for example, the song everyone loves, is based on renaissance court poetry and Bach's Air on the G String, reimagined through the prism of Paris in 1913.  Hahn and his circle were fully aware of what Debussy, Stravinsky and others were doing. A Chloris is an exotic hybrid, a hothouse flowering  that survived because it catches the imagination. For Véronique Gens, it's a link between her baroque background and her championship of later French repertoire.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Debussy : Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus des maisons

We don't have houses anymore, the enemy's taken everything away, even our little bed.  They burned our school and our teacher too. They burned the church and Lord Jesus Christ, and a poor old man who couldn't get away.

Vengez les enfants de France!
Les petits Belges, les petits Serbes,
Et les petits Polonais aussi!
Si nous en oublions, pardonnez-nous.
Noël! Noël! surtout, pas de joujoux,
Tâchez de nous redonner le pain quotidien.

Debussy wrote this about Christmas 1915, when the enemies were Les Boches. A hundred years later the enemies are different but children are still homeless and traumatized. Noël! écoutez-nous, nous n'avons plus de petits sabots. Please visit Shelter. Or Crisis or help in any other way you can.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Pickled by Seven Foot Dilly

Last night I was at I Fagiolini's 25th anniversary party at Spitalfields Winter Music Festival. A capella close harmony - renaissance and 21st century. The fun thing is the way singers can adapt any music and any style, from Striggio and Monteverdi to tunes by Lennon and McCartney. So maybe Manhattan Transfer and barbershop singing spring from a long tradition? When people get together and sing, they can be creative. What are the origins of hillbilly close harmony? People still clog dance in Appalachia, like their ancestors might have in Ireland or Scotland. Did hillbilly song stem from singing in church? Some of the songs clearly have folk origins. A while back I wrote about Knoxville Girl, whose antecdents go so far back that the idea has morphed into many forms, from Carl Loewe's Edward! Edward! (based on quasi folksy Romantic poetry) to modern punk ballad. Please click on this link for more - great juxtaposition of hillbilly harmony and formal Lieder technique. 

Seven Foot Dilly was John Dilleshaw who stood six foot seven. He had a band called the Dill Pickles, whose banjo player was known as "Shorty" for reasons apparent in the photo above. As you can see, they were a string quartet!  The song below is interesting because it's just Seven Foot and AA Gray singing a folk tune. Seven Foot strums guitar, AA strums fiddle. Is it Black music, or European folk (religious) music? Seven Foot learned to play from a black musician. Maybe there was a lot more black/white mixing? Fascinating subject for someone interested in cross culture, cross genre.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Dangerous Ravel - Bernarda Fink, Wigmore Hall

The Wigmore Hall marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Maurice Ravel with a series of concerts that run through to June 2012. Mixing piano song with chamber music, Bernarda Fink's recital  titled "Une rare émotion",  placed Ravel's vocal music in the context of his era.

That "rare emotion" was a search for alternatives to mainstream culture, exemplified by exotic, alien places. While British colonialism infantilized other cultures, the French saw in "orientalism" potential for creative growth. Ravel's fascination with non-western concepts wasn't effete, but an act of affirmative courage.

Bernarda Fink began her recital with Ravel's Cinq mélodies populaires grecques  Their simplicity is deceptive for they represent a very different aesthetic to the often florid fin de siècle lushness of the time. Perhaps it's significant that the poet who wrote the texts, Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, persuaded Ralph Vaughan Williams to study with Ravel instead of with Vincent d'Indy. Fink and Christopher Glynn, her pianist, are right not to overdo the folk origins of these songs, for they herald Ravel's later work, like Rapsodie espagnol and even Boléro. Perceptively, Fink and Glynn juxtaposed these songs with Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, written only 5 years previously, preceding the sensuality of La Flûte de Pan with Camille Saint-Saëns Une flûte invisible (Flautist : Adam Walker)

More stellar, however, was Fink's performance of Ravel's very early Shéherézade (1903). "Asie, Asie, Asie", she sang, her voice glowing with excitement, "Vieux pays merveilleux des contes de nourrice". Then, she intoned the words "Je voudrais voir des assassins souriant", almost parlando, hinting at menacing mysteries. Emotional extremes and daring - Ravel was by no means as mannered as the dandy image might suggest.

Jules Massenet's Élégie (1872) was a reminder of the French Romantic tradition, here transcribed for cello (Marie Bitlloch) which nicely complimented Fink's lower register. The highlight of the evening, nonetheless, was Fink's performance of Ravel's Chansons madécasses (1926). This is Ravel's exoticism in full glory. Fink's singing took on a shimmer that brought out the suppressed erotic tension. Her Aoua! was spectacular, vibrant with horror. "Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitants du rivage", she sang. Beware of the whites, who make enticing promises, but bring carnage. The violence is even more terrifying when Ravel follows this outburst with Il est doux. A man is sitting under a palm tree, a woman is preparing his meal. The music lilts languidly. But who is the man, and who is the woman? After Aoua!, we should beware. Ravel is provocative. Exoticism isn't safe.

Fink and Glynn sang Debussy's Trois mélodies de Paul Verlaine (1891) and a selection of Fauré songs from his op 39 and 76, including the lovely Les roses d'Ispahan which often makes me swoon,  but after that Aoua! anything but Ravel seemed tame. Glynn's transcription of Poulenc's Priez pour paix, for voice, piano, flute and cello ended the evening on a less disturbing note. Full review in Opera Today  here.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Spitalfields Winter Music Festival - Grisey Vortex temporum

Magical night of a different  kind when Hugh Brunt conducted the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Spitalfields Winter Music Festival. (Read more about it HERE)  Gérard Grisey's Vortex temporum (1996-7) was the centrepiece, for it's one of the classics of contemporary music, brilliantly conceptual, yet rich with imagery and feeling. It's is seminally important and any performance is an event. 

Wisely, Hugh Brunt and the London Contemporary Orchestra eased into it with Claude Vivier's Pulau Dewata (1977). Vivier was thoroughly grunge, frequenting rough dives and wearing a sheepskin coat that smelled bad. Then he goes to Bali and immerses himself in a totally different culture. Indonesian music wasn't new to western composers but for Vivier it crystallized ideas. In Pulau Dewata, Vivier uses simple quasi-melodies which pass from player to player, adapting imperceptibly. The music seems to levitate. Imagine a ball parried constantly back and forth until the movement seems to sustain itself.

Gérard Grisey's Vortex temporum is like a perpetual motion installation in sound, infinitely multi-layered. Spiralling patterns, the long planes that stretch plaintively outwards, the piano providing a varied "heartbeat". Incredible incident, suggesting in Grisey's own words, human breathing, sleeping whales, the movements of birds and insects. "In this imagined microscope", he said, "the notes become sound, a chord becomes a spectral complex, and rhythm transforms into a wave of unexpected  duration".  Much is written about spectralism, but its essence is in exploring  the whole spectrum of sound, dissected even beyond normal perception, assembled in music of refreshing freedom. Messaien's legacy, via Stockhausen (Vivier's teacher), expressing the "rhythm of life". 

Different concepts of time and consciousness, but other levels of meaning  Each of the three parts is dedicated to a composer and references his own music. The first part honours Gérard Zinsstag, and the second Salvatore Sciarrino about whom there is a lot on this site, like HERE and HERE) and the third Helmut Lachenmann (also lots on this site HERE and HERE). Vibrations, oscillations, percussive dotted rhythms, parallel but contrasting tempi, instruments played in unorthodox ways so you hear sounds from new perspectives. Grisey embeds temporal continuity into this work, like spreading ripples. Ostinato suggests intervals of time being measured, as the music shivers off into infinity. Ironically, Grisey died soon after Vortex temporum was written. His three friends are all still alive. To quote Grisey again, "Vortex temporum is perhaps only a history of the arpeggio in in time and space - from the point of view of our own ears".

The London Contemporary Orchestra are young, so it wouldn't be fair to expect a performance that really does justice to the piece, but they deserve respect. The piano part would tax a Nicholas Hodges or Rolf Hind, so Antoine François did well indeed. At times he made the piano resonate like an organ. Perhaps Grisey was thinking of Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum? It's perfectly valid. (read more HERE). But these works are very much chamber pieces, so much credit to to the way these musicians interacted. Congratulations to them for having the guts and committment to tackle this demanding music!

Martin Suckling (b 1981) is one of the rising stars of this generation of composers, and it was good to hear his new de sol y grana. It's based on a poem by Antonio Machado, about bubbles rising into the sunlight. It's written in nine segments, as individual as each bubble. It's closer to a concerto than Grisey's unclassifiable work, and Agata Szymczewska played the violin part vivaciously. This piece reflects Grisey and Vivier in the sense that Suckling develops the idea of perpetual motion and interchange. It's joyful, with nice colours, though could do with more translucence. Suckling is very promising indeed, and definitely worth hearing, but no-one compares to Gérard Grisey. On the other hand, I suspect that Grisey would have been delighted to hear this concert at the Spitalfields Winter Music Festival for it proves the basic premise of Vortex temporum, that creativity is a continuum. Artists die, but their ideas pass on to others.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Verdi La Forza del Destino - Paris

If you, like me, have a weak spot for Verdi's La Forza del Destino, any production is interesting. It's notoriously hard to stage.Too much realism makes this high kitsch tale wackier than it needs to be.  Even Caruso and Ponselle (photo left) make it look camp. But the rousing, hyper-emotional music makes the opera fun.

Please read Jim Sohre's review Drapes 'n' Drops in Paris Forza of the current La Forza del Destino at the Bastille in Paris. Philippe Jordan conducts, brilliantly. Full webcast on Medici TV. Marcelo Alvarez and Violeta Urmana, who has created Leonora several times, and Kwangchul Youn, who must make Fra Melitone an overwhelming figure.  I'm now listening to the medici tv webcast, it's WONDERFUL!  Orchestrally amazing and very good singing - this score is full of killer star turns, and they all come through. I will watch again and again and write up over Xmas  HERE is the link to Jim's review in Opera Today

Monday 12 December 2011

Magical Night - Linbury, ROH

"Kurt Weill in a Tutu" I wrote in April, when the Royal Opera House announced the premiere of Weill's Magical Night (Zaubernacht). It's now on at the Linbury Studio. From word of mouth, it's pretty fantastic. Find a kid, or an excuse, to go. My friend took his little daughter who is or was a staunch fan of Lion King. "Much better (than Disney)", she declared. "I want to go TWO times" (kidspeak for "many" times").  She was so thrilled she couldn't stop talking about it and woke the next morning saying she'd dreamed about the Pink Fairy. "Empowering" said her Dad. They immediately re-booked.

So if you want to give a kid a treat they'll never forget, get to Magical Night at the Linbury. Material toys they can get any time, but this is a unique opportunity to get them hooked on the magic of live theatre.

Magical Night is very early Kurt Weill (1922) so isn't typical of his later work. It premiered in Germany in 1922 and had a US production in 1925 but then disappeared. Meirion Brown did a version in 2000 based on the pianos score and contemporary newspaper descriptions. In 2005, the "lost" orchestral parts were fround in a box in the Weill archive.  Since then, there have been two completely different productions, one in April this year in Dessau and this new version at the ROH Linbury. The ROH production is choreographed by Aletta Collins, with an amazing set by Rachael Canning. Giant Robot toys, the Pink Fairy, scary things and real children having fun. It's quite irrelevant to fuss about "period" setting. Children don't really change at heart. If anything, modern kids, bombarded with TV, film and video games, need more than ever to be transported into a "Magical Night" of heightened imagination.  Full review to follow soon in Opera Today.

Véronique Gens - Héroïnes romantiques

Véronique Gens is singing Massanet, Gounod and Reynaldo Hahn on Monday 12th at the Wigmore Hall. Don't miss this, for Gens is divine in this repertoire (and nearly everything else). She is one of the great things to happen to French repertoire in decades - part of a whole renaissance in French music. I'll write about the Wigmore Hall concert later. But in the meantime, please listen to the Arte-7 broadcast of a concert she gave on 10th November at the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice. "Tragédiennes : Héroïnes romantiques". Christophe Rousset conducts LesTalens Lyriques.

First heroine is Ina, daughter of the King of Scotland in Etienne Méhul's 1799 drama Ariodant. She's on trial for illicit sex. Gens makes every word ring out true and clear, so you know, even if you don't understand French, that the accusations can't be true. Rousset follows this tour de force with the overture from Méhul's Stratonice, extending the mood. Gluck, Gosset, Salieri, Kreutzer, Cherubini,  and then "Ah, mon fils" from Meyerbeer's Le prophète. What range ! Then Didon's tragic lament from Berlioz Les Troyennes, "Ah! Ah! Je vais mourir!". Gens's style is so lucid that her voice cuts right through the image of Berlioz as molasses. Then "Toi qui sus le néant" from Verdi’s Don Carlos, better known in Italian, of course, but no less dramatic in French.

Véronique Gens's range is huge but completely unforced, so it flows naturally even though she sings such a variety of extreme personalities.  There is a new CD in her series of grand Tragédiennes with Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques from Virgin Classics. (photo : Alexandre Weinberger, Virgin Classics). Most of the pieces in this concert can be found on Volume 3 in the series.

However, enjoy the Arte TV film, because it's made in the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice, the Centre de Musique Romantique Française. The building is medieval, and features in John Ruskin's The Stones of Venice. It's been restored in ornate luxury, carvings on the walls, mosaics on the floors. The huge lanterns that light the music salon are striking. Perhaps the composers whose music Gens sings would have known the building and recognize the style.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Youth Orchestra of the Americas tours China

The Youth Orchestra of the Americas marks its tenth annivesary by touring China. The orchestra brings together talented young musicans from 20 different countries mainly in Latin America, so they can work together and with experienced professionals like Plácido Domingo, Yo-Yo Ma, Helmut Rilling, Kent Nagano and Philip Glass. High level music education, emphasizing performace, and interaction with other musicians and communities. The mission statement "music transforming lives".

The youth orchestra tradition in Latin America goes back many decades. Sixty years ago in Uruguay,  José Serebrier organized a schoolboy orchestra. They had no models to follow. No TV, few international concerts and little formal training. Serebrier was only 11, and his friends were very much younger than youth orchestra members are now. Some still wore short pants and thought they had to play from memory! So it's good that Serebrier will lead the Youth Orchestra of America on its biggest ever tour.

The YOA tour of China starts 14th December with a week long residence in Chongqing at the Sichuan Academy of Arts, associated with a thriving conservatoire. Graduates include Yundi Li, Wen Wei and Ning Fen. After working with their Chinese peers, the YOA weill give two concerts, then move on to Guangzhou where they'll play at the new opera house designed by Zaha Hadid. (read more here) Then they fly up north to Beijing andShanghai, also visiting regional centres like Xian, Dalian and Lanzhou in remote Gansu. For orchestra members it will be an unprecedented opportunity to visit famous sites like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Warriors but also to to meet young local musicans like themselves. Being an artist is much more than just playing notes.  The Youth Orchestra of the America's motto is "Music transforming lives". They aren't likely to forget this experience!

Friday 9 December 2011

Brilliant Don Giovanni La Scala Milan - Barenboim Netrebko Frittoli Mattei Terfel

More than a gala for Milan, and for Italy, this wonderful Mozart Don Giovanni at Teatro alla Scala, Milan was a gala for all the world, broadcast live internationally.  Golden casting: Daniel Barenboim, Peter Mattei, Bryn Terfel, Anna Netrebko, Barbara Frittoli, Anna Prohaska, Giuseppe Filianoti, Kwangchul Youn, and Stefan Kocan. Golden performances and a staging that accessed daring levels of meaning.

This production starts controversially. Donna Anna (delicious Anna Netrebko) tussles with Don Giovanni (Peter Mattei) .We assume it's rape, because nice girls don't do sex with strangers. But what is she really objecting to, his presence or his mask?  And how did Don Giovanni get past her defences? He's a man for whom the thrill of the chase may be more important than the act. So this Donna Anna seems to be enjoying herself while claiming to object. After all, she has a fiancé and an image to protect.  Don Ottavio (Giuseppi Filianotti suspects Donna Anna might not love him.  Netrebko sings the recititative and Mi tradì, quell'alma ingrata Non mi dir, bell'idol mio, with such passion that you wonder what private grief she's trying to suppress. Netrebko's Donna Anna is psychologically complex, not simply a victim of an attack, but of the whole  repressed, narrow world she lives in. Netrebko's performance was a tour de force of great emotional depth, haloed by exceptionally lustrous orchestral playing.

Don Giovanni is a cad but he's a charmer. Mattei is sexy, and sings with alpha male confidence, but he expresses Don Giovanni's appeal on deeper levels. Don Giovanni embraces life - meals as well as women - and deliberately flouts convention, whereas men like Don Ottavio and Masetto (Stefan Kocan) cling to it. e offers choice. "È aperto a tutti quanti! Viva la libertà!”. Perhaps that's why he only meets his match in The Commendatore (superb Kwangchul Youn) who defies the constraints of death. Mattei's Don Giovanni has animal energy, and glories in it - what kind of man keeps his own studbook? But Mattei also suggests the boyish impishness that some women can't resist. Women like Donna Elvira (Barbara Frittoli) need so much to be needed that they fall for a trite ditty like Deh vieni alla finestra.

Ultimately, Don Giovanni seduces because he fills women's fantasies. He also charms men. Leporello (Bryn Terfel) is culpable for Don Giovanni's misdeeds, but can''t break away.  Mattei and Terfel are the same age, and have created both Don Giovanni and Leporello, so it's interesting to hear them together. At first Terfel is costumed like a roughneck, which is a complete mistake. No surprise that Terfel, who knows the opera thoroughly, looks uncomfortable and doesn't sing the catalogue aria as crisply as he has done before. Don Giovanni wouldn't hire a buffoon. Once the silly costume is gone, Terfel shows why he's a match for Mattei. Their different styles bounce off each other, creating dramatic tension. Terfel sounds like he's about to explode with the violence Don Giovanni suppresses under his urbane exterior. Mattei, though, is strong enough to stand up to this savage Leporello, his elegant demeanour barely ruffled, for he knows Leporello isn't so different from Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. They all protest but remain transfixed. The Mattei/Terfel dynamic shows the symbiotic relationship between two strong personalities made uneven because of their social status. The dinner party scene bristles with latent menace.

Everyone's playing mind games in this opera. Zerlina (Anna Prohaska) keeps up an illusion of innocence yet delights in kinky activities (read the text). Zerlina is young, but no puppet. Prohaska's movements are as crisp as her diction, creating a pert, non-victim personality who could quite possibly pull the strings on Don Giovanni if their positions were reversed.  Prohaska is a singer to follow. Book now for her recital at the Wigmore Hall on 4th March.  

This production, directed by Robert Carsen, emphasizes the games the characters are playing. When Don Giovanni and Leporello change clothes, they aren't really fooling anyone who doesn't want to be fooled. The set (Michael Levine) resembles the curtain at the Teatro alla Scala, which Don Giovanni "pulls" down in replica. The masqueraders emerge from the audience, dressed in velvet, the colour of blood. It's a very good use of the otherwise wasted space right down the middle of the theatre, and dramatically correct for it engages the audience to take a stand on the morality in the opera.

When the Commendatore rises from his grave, Kwangchul Youn's magnificent bass booms across the auditorium. It's terrifying because the audience is disoriented, just like Don Giovanni. Youn is standing in the royal box, with the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano. It's a powerful statement, since the Italian president isn't an ordinary politician. Politicians screw around like Don Giovanni, but the President of Italy, like Il Commendatore, is supposed to represent higher ideals. Mattei and Youn struggle with such intensity that it's irelevant whether Youn "is" or isn't a statue.  He stabs Don Giovanni through ewith his sword. "Questo è il fin di chi fa mal" sing the ensemble at the end. Often this epilogue feels unnatural after the fireworks that went before. This time there's a twist. Mattei stands on stage, while the ensemble descends into a hole in the ground.  In the real world, Commendatores don't appear by magic. Bad guys will win unless we take responsibility against them.

There are clips on Youtube of the broadcast, but boycott them. They're very poor quality and will spoil the experience. So wait for the repeat broadcast (Arte TV soon, I believe) and DVD.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Don Giovanni - La Scala, Milan (1)

Click here for the half hour trailer to Don Giovanni from Teatro alla Scala, Milan. The trailer doesn't even come near the full experience. HERE IS MY REVIEW. Please read it, it's quite detailed. The real thing's much better. Don Giovanni is Peter Mattei, in top form. Bryn Terfel, Anna Netrebko, Barbara Frittoli, Anna Prohaska, Kwangchul Youn, Giuseppe Filianoti, Stefan Kocan, each one of them superb. The dynamic between Mattei and Terfel is interesting. Both are the same age, both have created both roles memorably, in their own very different styles, and here they are up against each other. Terfel is the last person to be servile, but the casting comes into its own at the end.  Daniel Barenboim conducts. Extremely witty staging, Robert Carsen, all is forgiven after the Glyndebourne Rinaldo

Tuesday 6 December 2011

More Josquin Masses - Tallis Scholars

From the Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips, a fabulous new recording of two of Josquin des Prés canonic Masses, the Missa de Beata Virgine and the Missa Ave Maris Stella.  Any recording by these performers is an event because they're astoundingly good. This release extends their on-going series of Josquin masses, recorded to the highest possible standards by Gimmell Records, with which they are so closely associated.

This disc pairs the Missa de beata virgine,  Josquin's greatest contemporary hit, with the early Missa Ave Maris Stella. It's interesting to hear the difference between the tightness of the earlier Mass and the later, which survives in many different sources. We don't know exactly what Josquin might have intended, but this non-dogmatism allows performance freedom. As Philips says in his notes, the Missa De beata virgine doesn't fit modern ideas of unified construction. Perhaps, he suggests,"Josquin was deliberately creating a virtuoso exercise in modal relationships". One of the joys of this recording is the way extra voices blend in into the usual SATB format. The Kyrie and Gloria are beautiful enough, but the Credo and Sanctus expand, and the Agnus Dei has resonant depth, so the soprano voices soar as if they were angels.

Josquin's music grows through ever-inventive paraphrases, basic motifs replicating in myriad patterns. Mandelbrot theory in sound? It's no surprise that many modern composers, like Brian Fernyhough, are drawn to Renaissance polyphony as an alternative to symphonic form. The Missa Ave maris stella is so concise that it's almost a surprise when single voices emerge from the different reiterations. For much the same reason I enjoy the Credo quarti toni (the "Cambrai" Credo) where the voices blend without losing their individuality. It's not as gloriously imaginative as the Missa de beata virgine but what lively energy!  Buy DIRECT HERE or through the usual channels.

Quqin Master

Master of the Quqin, Zhang Ziqian (张子谦)(1899-1991) plays Pingsha Luoyan (Geese Descending on the Sandbank),  (平沙落雁) , one of his great classics. The quqin is a seven stringed instrument, smaller than the guzheng, and without bridges. Zhang came from Yangzhou in Jiangsu, on the coast south of Shanghai. There's a long bio of him on Toudo the Chinese TV clip channel, from which this is taken (for educational and fair use principles). I love the description! Wild geese are flying south for the winter and rest for a moment on a sandbank in the shallows of a river. They are at peace, but alert to their surroundings. Rather a good metaphor for this contemplative but acutely sensitive music.

Monday 5 December 2011

Aung San Suu Kyi :The Lady and the Peacock

How did a North Oxford housewife, cycling in a longyi to Park Town, win a Nobel Prize and this week be feted by Hillary Clinton?  Do good this Xmas season and read the new book Aung San Suu Kyi : The Lady and the Peacock ( 2011 398pp).

Peter Popham has interviewed Aung San Suu Ki, been to Burma, and has met many people who knew her when she was young. The nbookim includes first-person accounts not available before,  and a good description of events after Suu Kyi returned to Burma. The stand-off at Danubyu in 1989 is vividly described, Suu Kyi was on a progress through rural Burma and forbidden to enter a town under martial law. So she calmly walked down the middle of the road. The military drew their guns but didn't shoot.  That tells us a lot about Suu Kyi but also about Burma. In many countries she'd have been disappeared, not held in long-term detention.

Suu Kuyi's father was Aung San, the father of Burmese Independence, who was assassinated with his cabinet in 1947. Because he was such a figurehead, Suu Kyi had moral force, even after the military downplayed the personality cult.  But Suu Kyi's achievements are her own, and those of the National League for Democracy, and the thousands of unknown, ordinary Burmese who stood up to the regime. Many died, or still languish in prison. It's still not certain what might happen if Suu Kyi wins the next election. The regime nullified the 1990 election win, and used the ludicrous troll trespass incident of 2009 to extend the term of her house arrest.  And government is different to dissent. So no complacency. You need to read this book for background.

Suu Kyi was typical of the educated, idealistic Asian and African elite who studied abroad  and went on to challenge traditional parameters. Think Sun Yat Sen, the Nehrus, even Barack Obama's father. Suu Kyi was international, living from the age of 15 for long periods in India, England, Japan, Bhutan and in New York during the Warhol years. Many of her friends, even her brother, did well at university and had glittering careers but Suu Kyi found her niche only in her 40's.  Yet the fact that she spent her youth raising a family makes her dedication even more admirable. Mandela and Solzhenitsyn didn't sacrifice in the same way. One of the principles of non-violence is that even the humblest individual can change things.

This book is best where the author has access to good sources, like Bertil Lintner's  account of the 1988 revolt and the diary Ma Thanegi kept for Michael Aris. Eventually perhaps, there'll be a more analytical study with more detail on underlying issues. The Burmese regime became "The Albania of South East Asia" for reasons that need to be understood.  Suu Kyi's maternal uncle was a leader of the Burmese Communist Party.  Similarly, more assessment of relations with Thailand and Japan, the only rwo nations in Asia that escaped colonialism.  Suu Kyi's mother's dismay at her marriage reflects fears of cultural dilution in a post-colonial situation. Indeed, the whole idea of colonialism needs to be confronted.  It's by no means an issue of the past. It lives on unconsciously in any west-centric account of non-western subjects.  The many different varieties of Buddhism, for example, don't need unification any more than the many forms of Judeo-Christian belief.

This is primarliy a book by a journalist, well written in an accessible, direct way. That's important because this book needs to reach general readers everywhere. Later, a more scholarly analysis will be possible, but not yet as the drama still unfolds. Yet Suu Kyi's story resonates with most of us. Inspirational reading for Xmas! Gift this book and make a difference yourself in a small way.  Buy it direct from the Burma Campaign UK so profits go towards the cause.  As Lord David Steel says it's "a reminder that we, in the comfortable outside, must not let her down.

Lots more on Aung San Suu Kyi, Asia and non-violence on this site. Please explore. 

Sofia Gubaidulina LSO Discovery Day

Julie Williams on Sofia Gubaidulina :  Last weekend saw the most recent of a series of educational days put on by the LSO at London's Barbican Centre, stepping at least partly into the gap left by the BBC's traditional Composer Weekend there in January, a longtime out-of-season rendezvous for Prommers. The BBC are in fact continuing to offer educational events for music lovers in the winter season, these are now taking the form of a series of 'Composer Portrait' days, concerning perhaps three composers each year, rather than a long weekend covering a single composer as before. In addition to this, the LSO is offering its own series of educational days, of which this is the first of this year's series.

Those expecting a survey of the composer's oeuvre would have been disappointed or at least somewhat misled, as the focus is much more on one particular work itself; its background, its genesis and the performers involved. A helpful and informative film, shot in Germany where the composer now lives, was shown where the composer spoke about the creation of this work and her approach to writing music generally. This made some comparison with her earlier violin concerto. Chamber works for violin and cello were also performed live by the LSOs principals at the St Lukes venue, giving some insight into her repertoire for strings. In a commitment to innovation, the LSO principals took questions not only from a live audience but also by webinar. The commitment to education was admirable, the titling / description of the event was perhaps a little misleading. Gubaidulina has written in a range of styles and genres and this event did not really give an opportunity for those new to her work to appreciate this. Perhaps more than anything else, this shows the limitations of the one-day format of event.

*In tempus praesens * takes the present moment as its theme – ethereal, transient and beautiful. The composer says of this work, “Only in sleep, religious experience and art are we able to experience lasting present time.” The soloist is pitted against a large deliberately over-scored orchestra, heavy on percussion but devoid of any other violins except hers, suggesting a solitary presence against heavy dark forces. The single movement concerto is uncompromising, coming from the most austere and unrelieved aspect of the composer's quite varied work; it has parallels with her *St John Passion* (whose UK premiere was conducted at the BBC Proms by Gergiev), and with her flute concerto for Sharan Bazaly. In many ways it could be considered almost a 21st century 'concerto against the violin', the violin is certainly in clear opposition to the orchestra.

To mark this important composer's 80th birthday was a fitting tribute to an important musical voice of our times. To choose this demanding work would not have been the easiest introduction to her work. The first violin concerto. 'Offertorium' for Gidon Kremer has an easier appeal, at times humorous; the theme of light amidst darkness is given a gentler and more positive treatment in her lovely cello work for Rostropovich, 'Canticle of the Sun' (performed at BBC Chamber Proms this year by Nathalie Klein). One hopes newcomers to her work will explore further for themselves.

Coming up : LSO Discovery Days on Contemporary British Composers (15/1), Pierre Boulez ( 29/4)

Sunday 4 December 2011

First and greatest Traviata of all - 蘇小小

Another heroic consumptive courtesan? Su Xiao Xiao (So Siu Siu, 蘇小小) was a real person though relatively little is known about her since she died aged only 19 around 501 AD.  But she inspired some of the greatest poets and artists in China, and helped shape fundamental Chinese values. She's a cultural icon, even after 1500 years. Yet she was born in poverty and sold to a brothel as a child.

Su lived on the banks of West Lake, near Hangzhou, an area celebrated for its beauty. Su became famous as a poet and musician: much more valuable than sex. Her legend, however, revolves on her moral integrity. After enjoying this week's La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, (read more here), I decided to watch the 1962 film 蘇小小 which ar the time was one of the most extravagant Cantonese movies made. Part of it was filmed on location on West Lake, showing  its temples, bridges and pavilions and Su's grave, a highly symbolic monument which was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards thought she was bad because she represented Chinese tradition. In fact, her values would easily have fitted socialist ideals. 

Su overcame her circumstances by merit, not wealth or connections. The film develops her poem in which two people encounter each other under trees by Xilin bridge. One is in a carriage, the other on a horse. Xiao Xiao (actress 白茵, Pak Yan, not the same as Pak Yin!) is on her way to the temple in her carriage and she meets Yuen Yu (周驄 Chow Hung) who is on a mission for his father, The Prime Minister. They fall in love and marry. Yuen's kept his identity secret becauase he knows Xiao Xiao doesn't trust wealth and power. But when he tells her who he really is, she says "I love you for you, not your Dad". Eventually the Prime Minister arrives and drags the son away fromk the unsuitable match. When the son is married off to a General's daughter, he tries to escape but falls to his death. Xiao Xiao doesn't know but pines for him.

The wicked local governor wants to sleep with Xiao Xiao but she stands up to him. If she writes a good poem, he has to leave her alone. It's so good that he's stunned into submission for a while. Morality and art as weapons.

Xiao Xiao also meets a scholar called Pao Yen (wonderful performance by Cheung Wood-yau 張活游)who's a master at singing and playing the  guzheng (table lute). More importantly, he's upright and opposes tyranny and poverty. "Why don't you become an official so you can do something about it", asks Xiao Xiao, ever down to earth. He's too poor to travel to the imperial examinations which qualify men for officaldom, so she gives him the money. No strings attached. Later Xiao Xiao is forced to sing for the wicked governor to raise money to bail out a young prostitute who's in love with a nice young man. By now, she's dying of what seems to be TB, so her song is so sad, the governor can't rape her.

The scholar passes his exams and gets a good job at court. So he returns to thank Ziao Xiao, but confirms that her lover is dead. It's too much and she collapses. Her last wish is that Pao Yuen plays the guzheng once more and sings of the West Lake and Zilin Bridge.

Shaw Brothers Studios used to make historical extravaganzas like this, but 蘇小小 was made by a tiny Cantonese independent called Peacock Productions which soon folded. Yet it's ambitious, shot in colour and has Chinese and English subtitles. If you want to watch it, email me for a link.

You might also like reading about another heroic Chinese Traviata, Lin Dai, in Love Without End.
Tomorrow I will review The Lady and the Peacock : the Life of Aung San Suu Kyi (2011) Please come back.  You can see why anyone well versed in Chinese/Buddhist values can relate to Aung San Suu Kyi and the ideas she holds. It's part of a culture that goes back moe than a thousand years.