Tuesday 31 January 2012

Depths of Der Gondelfahrer - Schubert's soul

Today is Schubert's Birthday, but instead of the usual favourites, I'll write about Der Gondelfahrer because it sheds light on Schubert's values. Ostensibly it's a nocturne, set in exotic Venice. Es tanzen Mond und Sterne, Den flücht'gen Geisterreih'n. But don't be fooled. Already, Geister are afoot.

The poet is Johann Baptist Mayrhofer, a complex man, crippled by morbid thoughts and self hate. A contemporary who knew both Schubert and Mayrhofer described the latter as "always ailing, of sickly complexion, bony but with an abnormal nervous system, totally without elasticity, rigid, icy cold. Also,  in his poetry : elegaic, misanthropic, rancorous, scolding, sarcastic, symbolically-inclined.....his existence and works were a perpetual frenzied struggle of matter and soul, consumed by tragic fluctuation."

Mayrhofer's career was torturous. He trained as priest, became a lawyer but ended up working for the Imperial Censor, which in Metternich's time was the equivalent of a paranoid police state. Since most of Schubert's circle were politically liberal and religiously lax, such work accentuated Mayrhofer's self-critical doubts. Mayrhofer reflects the dark side of Romanticism, with its "Gothic" fixations on gloom and evil. He drowned himself in 1836 but his life seems to have been one long death wish. We don't know why Schubert suddenly dropped Mayrhofer but he can't have been great company, even for Romantics.

So be alert. The poem goes on: Wer wird von Erdensorgen Befangen immer sein! Du kannst in Mondesstrahlen, (who would by earthly agonies be forever trapped? But Du kannst in Mondesstrahlen (you can sparkle in the moonlight) and on the boat alle Schranken los (all restraints gone). But is this an escapist fantasy? Wiegt dich des Meeres Schoss. Vom Markusturme tönte der spruch der Mitternacht (Cradle yourself in the ocean's womb. From St Mark's Tower tolls the sound of midnight). Longing to return to a time before life, ordained by the dark tolling bells which represent Church and State. Since Venice was occupied by Austria, the political undercurrents are obvious.

Sie schlummern friedlich alle, Und nur der Schiffer wacht. Everyone's sleeping peacefully, except the boatman who is on watch. Who is this boatman? Schubert writes lilting, charming bacarolle, to create the image of gentle waves. But why would a gondolier be awake when all the customers lie in bed? This Gondelfahrer's trips cross Lethe not lagoon. He's always alert for the next customer, who might yet be blissfully unaware. Mayrhofer, for all his personal agonies, was an excellent poet, with a surreal vision that's almost 20th century. If only he'd liked himself more, but OTOH he wasn't a self-satisfied prig. Significantly, after Schubert split from Mayrhofer, he was one of the first composers to embrace Heinrich Heine.

So to Schubert's two setting of the poem. The first D808 for high voice and piano plays along with the surface image of Venice and moonlight. Yet no Romantic would fail to twitch at the discrepancy between outward appearances and inner meaning. This is no lullaby, it's a reminder of the presence of Death. As if to emphasize the disconnect, Schubert's second setting, D809 for male quartet, employs a more vigorous jaunty rhythm. Don't take Schubert at face value. Quite possibly the idea of using male voices is to stress the falsity of butch bonhomie. The piano part is sturdy, like a march so fast it can't be sustained too long. The pace is rigid, unrelentless, until the bellrings, when the piano takes on a cruel, metallic tone. No "womb" here. It's midnight, and the ghosts are prowling, dancing in rows, like the moon and stars.  The voices sing decorative rounds, intertwining melodically, but we know from the poem and from the piano, that it's illusion. The Gondelfahrer will get everyone in the end.  The version below is the finest of all because it pits solo pianist (Wolfgang Sawallisch) against a small enough group of singers so their jolly, dance-like interweavings shine brightly. Indeed, the cheerfulness seems almost demented once we know what the song is really about. That's the whole idea. Recognize the voices in Capella Bavariae? Peter Schreier and Fischer Dieskau included. The pianist is Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Monday 30 January 2012

Scottish Chamber Orchestra Ligeti series

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra under their youthful and highly talented Principal Conductor, Robin Ticciati,are performing a mini-series of Ligeti this January, with concert performances repeated in both Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Ligeti is perhaps most widely known for his large-scale works from the1960s such as Requiem and Lux Aeterna as these are used in the soundtracks of Stanley Kubrick's films, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. His work for solo piano has also been popularised, albeit perhaps to a more specialist audience though its advocacy by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who was to join the SCO later this week. Please read review here.  The focus of these particular Ligeti performances is to champion not only the composer himself, who is arguably underappreciated. This gives the listener the opportunity to broaden their appreciation of this composer's chamber output. The forthcoming performance is of that composer's Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments; last Saturday's performance (Queen's Hall, Edinburgh) featured the 1999 Hamburg Concerto for horn.

This remarkable work consists of a series of 14 very short movements over 15 minutes' total duration, in a wide range of styles. It uses natural harmonics between the solo horn and a quartet of four natural (valveless) horns in the orchestra, giving 'dirty' harmonies which create the very characteristic sound which distinguishes Ligeti's larger works. It has their distinctive sound, whilst also having the compact succinctness of the piano etudes.

It was a night of young high fliers as the evening's soloist, Principal Horn Alec Frank-Gemmill, who already has a string of recordings to his name, is only 26 years of age. He and Robin Ticciati had an obvious rapport which made their skilful performance of this challenging work all the more enjoyable. Further information about the work is given on the orchestra's helpful and informative website where both conductor and soloist give their views on it.

The quality of the orchestra's sound, which was crisp and clear in Edinburgh's Queen's Hall, was apparent from the outset and the opening Kodaly showcased their talents and those of their principal conductor. Brass and flutes particularly shone in this opening work. The multi-talented Ticciati, who also plays violin, percussion and piano was encouraged to conduct and learnt from both Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Colin Davis. Remembering as I do (very fondly) the CBSO's tours to London, this conductor easily reminds me of a young Simon Rattle. He has increased both the standard and the repertoire of this orchestra and this is an ambitious programme for him to offer. Ligeti, although he emigrated to the West, was born in Transylvania on the borders of what are now Romania and Hungary. He attended the Budapest Conservatory, where he met and developed a friendship with Kurtag. The concert's programming, subtitled From the Steppes of Central Europe placed his music alongside that of fellow Central Europeans Kodaly (an early influence on Ligeti), whose Dances of Galanta opened the concert and Dvorak, whose Fifth Symphony formed its second half. This enabled the listener to place Ligeti's music in a context of time and place and to see its occasional common ground as well as its obvious differences. For more, see here.

By Juliet Williams

Sunday 29 January 2012

Ligeti in Scotland - Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Juliet Williams writes from Edinburgh : Last night saw the second in this concert series, this time in Edinburgh's magnificent and acoustically excellent Usher Hall. Pierre-Laurent Aimard was sadly indisposed due to a hand injury and Tom Poster admirably stepped in to replace him at short notice, and gave a thoroughly enjoyable performance of the second Brahms concerto. Mr Poster was given a generous welcome by an appreciative audience. Poster is a winner of the Scottish International Piano Competition (in 2007) and has toured with the SCO and Robin Ticciati performing Ligeti's demanding and virtuostic concerto. There was clearly a good rapport between orchestra, soloist and conductor.

One of the pleasures of this happy and serene work is its almost chamber-music like equality between orchestra and soloist and here the orchestra gave a very good account of the work, again under Principal Conductor Robin Ticciati, especially the famous scherzo in the second movement. (Brahms said of this work that he had written, “quite a little tender piano concerto with quite a little tender scherzo”.)

The Ligeti piece featured in this second concert of the mini-series, "Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments*, dates from 1970 and represents a transition between the evolution of his first mature style in the 1960s, giving rise to the better- known large scale works such as *Lux Aeterna, *and the greater use of melody which came to characterise his later works, such as the *Hamburg Concerto* featured on Saturday and played so well then by Alec Frank-Gemmill.

This *Concerto* has a four-movement structure (like the Brahms concerto which followed it): an initial opening with layers of texture unfolding from the woodwind; a second movement which is very slow and a fourth movement which is very fast. These are separated by a remarkable third movement with the rubric “preciso e meccanico”, inspired by clocks and machines gradually going wrong. The same precision of approach demonstrated by the orchestra in the earlier perfomance on Saturday served them very well here, and produced an excellent performance of this very challenging work. Although there was a generally high standard of playing, commendation is deserved in particular by the pianist, who at one point has the instruction, 'hammering like a madman', and the trombone, which has a strident melody bursting from the delicate sound textures hitherto to conclude the first movement.

This ambitious programming and consistently high standard of performance across a very varied repertoire is making the SCO an exciting ensemble to follow. More about the Scottish Chamber Orchestra here - their rare appearances iin London are greatly appreciated. For more on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's Ligeti season please see HERE,

Jurowski 's case for Prokofiev proved?

In this Prokofiev - man of the people? season at the Royal Festival Hall, Vladimir Jurowski has been examining Prokofiev's career after his return to the Soviet Union, placing his later music in context. On 28/1/12,  he presented two rarities, one a premiere,  focussing on Prokofiev as dramatist.  It was a winner. Thrilling music, but also an indication of what the composer might have meant about reaching the people.

Popular art need not be populist. Film was a revolutionary art form because it reached the masses, even those who didn't realize that what they were watching was "art". Eisenstein was an artist, but used mass media to get his messages across. What better way for a man like Prokofiev to use his art to reach millions who might never enter a formal concert hall? In the west, people are perplexed that anyone should leave "freedom" for Communism, but at the time, many intellectuals were idealistic. Stalin was the price they had to pay. Similarly, many Chinese intellectuals returned to China when the country was in need. It was moral imperative, and then the Cultural Revolution.. Maybe it's just not a concept everyone for themselves societies can grasp, but it's not without honour.

"I serve Russia, not myself" to paraphrase Ivan the Terrible in Eisenstein's masterpiece, with score by Prokofiev.  The Tsar's primary duty is to serve the people, even if he's bloodthisrty and immoral. Although Soviet censors may have balked at Ivan the Terrible Part II, it doesn't show the tsar as villain so much as an individual motivated by ideals, although he's become twisted with power and intrigue. Curiously, Ivan is an artist, a "man of the people" in his own way.

The world premiere tonight was Levon Atomyan's 1961 version of Prokofiev's score for Ivan The Terrible , condensed into less than an hour.  It was approved by the Union of Soviet Composers (one judge being Shostakovich), but Atomyan had a stroke and the work remained in his archive.  Although there is another arrangement, by the conductor Abram Stasevich, who recorded the original sound track, Atomyan was a close friend of Prokofiev and influenced his return to Russia.

Atomyan's arragement doesn't follow the narrative in the film, but reshapes the soundtrack in symphonic form in seven movements. While we hear the magnificence which represenst Russian glory, what comes over more prominently is a gentler. more human Ivan.. After the belligerance of the first section, there's a folk song about a beaver who is hunted down for his pelt. Folk melody, perhaps, but brutal. Prokofiev wanted the singer,to sound  "as senile as possible, as though holding a cigarette between the lips, as though  through a comb", I wouldn't say that was what Ewa Podleś sounded like, for at 60, her voice is still naturally warm and rich,  It's the song Yefrovsinya, the Tsar's aunt later sings to her own son,  as she plots the Tsar's downfall.

The song of the Oprichniks, the Oprichnina appears in full in the seond part of the film, but  its savage pulsating staccato occurs throughout the soundtrack, In this arrangement it's the third segment, enmphasing the primitive power of Ivan's terrifying hitmen.  Andrey Breus sang the baritone part, supported by the male voices of the London Philharmonic Choir. One should feel fear and revulsion. but the music is so infectious, you're almost drawn into it, which is rather worrying. But then, that's what mobs are like.

The 4th and 5th movements describe Ivan's marraige to Anastasia, the "swan", whose beauty and purity stand in contrast to the intrigue around them. Would he have turned out differently if she hadn't been murdered? The film links the poisoning of Anastasia to the murder of Ivan's mother, which made the young boy determined to be strong.  Atomyan adds Ocean Song for contralto and orchestra, which doesn't appear in the film, but fits the story well, and connects to the song Yefrosinya sings to her son. A vivid depiection of the attack on Kazan, complete with cannons, and the chorus singing a hymn to Russian glory. The gory elements in the film are played down, the orchestration emphasizing quirky good humour.  Eisenstein, Prokofiev and Stalin were all dead by 1958, when Ivan the Terrible Part II was unbanned, but the ideas were still dangerous. Atomyan's finale, the Magnifcation for chorus and orchestra, is straightforward glory on Russian themes. It's a watering down of the original for practical/political reasons, but is rousing and entertaining. Populism rather than art.

Atomyan's mediocrity makes one all the more appreciate the courage and artistic integrity of Eisenstein and Prokofiev.  Fabulously lively playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Jurowski made his point, with glory!

Simon Callow and Miranda Richardson narrated Prokofiev's Incidental Music to Egyptian Nights. This was an experimental theatre project, directed by Alexander Tairov in 1934, before Prokofiev made his final committment to return to the Soviet Union. Tairov mixed passages from Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Pushkin to create a story that covered Cleopatra's life from youth to death. Prokofiev's score runs to 44 numbers, played with verve by the LPO. But all attention was on Callow, who created one figure after another - Julius Caesar as old rake, Caesar as ruler and betrayer, Mark Antony and the Irish-accented fig seller who brings Cleopatra the asp.  Callow was wonderful - no stilted RADAisms that some actors might use, but warm, natural, imposing and funny by turns. The script's clunky,  but Callow saved it. Richardson's Cleopatra was fun too, though her part's more safe. Although the piece runs for exactly the same time as Ivan The Terrible, the strange hybrid form tends to drag and confuse. But the point is that Prokofiev realized it was "experimental" even as Stalin's purges were kicking in.

Excellent booklet notes. I wish I'd beem to more in this Prokofiev - man of the people? series. Can't wait til Simon Morrison's book on Lina Prokofiev is published later this year. Lina was the one who really sacrificed herself for Russia. Please see my other posts on early art  film, music for film, political film, suppressed composers etc.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Пир Ивана Грозного

Пир Ивана Грозного - the Dance of the Oprochniks from Sergei Eisensteins' Ivan The Terrible Part 2, music by Sergei Prokofiev. This is a crucial scene. The Tsar, long driven mad by conspiracies around him, is locked in a struggle with his aunt and the boyars. The Oprochniks are his personal henchmen "Tied to him by blood". But as Ivan says, so is his formidable aunt, whom he admires for whacking his men with her staff when they confronted her. The film is stark black and white, to heighten the extreme contrast, and evoke the Tsar's possibly schizoid paranoia. It also means sinister, creeping shadows, stark contrasts between the luxury of the court and ascetic monks. . Ivan slides snake like through maze like corridors, his beard pointing forward, his cloak leaving a wake of menace. Ludicrously stylized shots, but which have purpose : no one acts independently in this world til the director cries "Action" and the actors suddenly stiffen into pose, eyes dilated, hypnotized by fear. There's a masque about fiery angels whom Nebuchadnezzar of the Chaldees could not burn in his furnace. (a pun on Prokofiev's Fiery Angel?) God will prevail over evil rulers. Ivan knows there's a plot to assassinate him so he invites his cousin Vladimir to a party and gets him drunk. Suddenly the film turns into colour. Early technology means the film bleeds red, which is rather appropriate. The Oprochniks dance and sing. Note the "female" mask and outfit. Something terrible is about to happen.

Friday 27 January 2012

Luigi Dallapiccola Il Prigioniero Salonen South Bank

At last, Luigi Dallapiccola's Il prigioniero came to the South Bank. How happy Esa-Pekka Salonen must be that he returned to London, where he has a top orchestra in the Philharmonia, who relish exploring new repertoire, and audiences who appreciate what they can do. Il prigioniero is the latest adventure in a series of ground-breaking performances like Gurrelieder, Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony and the Bartók year.

Programming Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with Dallapiccola was perceptive. Il prigioniero could be Fidelio with bite. As the inmates at Guantanamo Bay can tell us, happy endings don't happen. However, the Philharmonia put so much effort into Dallapiccola that Beethoven managed to fall flat. Nonetheless we can hear Beethoven any time and can always grab a good CD. Il prigioniero needs to be experienced live.

The Royal Festival Hall was shrouded in atmospheric darkness. (Semi staging by David Edwards, Lighting by David Holmes)The savage, angular opening chords of the Prologue lacerated. When Dallapiccola was writing, most of Europe was one big political prison. No cross-dressing wife, inexplicably fooling prison guards. Instead, a mother wailing at the all powerful Grand Inquisitor, whose head transforms into a skull. No false hopes. Above the stage, a choir sings, and the RFH organ booms menacingly. The Inquisitor holds the reins of Church and State (the setting is the revolt of the Spanish Netherlands). The prisoner sings graphically about suffering - iron and fire, fear of sleep and fear of being awake. He's no Florestan, but an ordinary, terrified man. A warden offers hope. He carries a lighted candle, he calls the prisoner "Fratello" (brother) and tells him about uprisings in Ghent and other cities. The warden sings of a giant bell ringing for freedom, which gives Dallapiccola a chance to write a  fugue-like section, full orchestra and organ in full throttle. For a moment the prisoner feels like a hero. Somehow he crawls out of the dungeon and feels fresh air, and thinks of distant mountains. But it's a cynical trap. The prisoner and his fellows are burned at the stake. The cruellest torture is the illusion of hope.

Il prigioniero isn't easy to stage, for it's effectively a one-man opera, with the mother and warden fulfilling limited parts. It's not a chamber opera, either, for the orchestral forces are vast. Indeed, I doubt that full staging would add anything the imagination can't suggest. Lauri Vasar sang the prisoner very effectively, nice ringing tone with just enough desperation at the edges. Paoletta Marrocu sang his mother, veiled in black, gesturing like a figure in a Greek chorus. The Warders/priests were sung by Peter Hoare, Brian Galliford and Francisco Javier Borda. Yet Il prigioniero isn't really a "singing" opera so much as a symphonic work with voices and storyline.  Not so different from Fidelio, after all. The performance was vividly dramatic, Salonen firmly keeping the pace with lethal  intensity. Moments of wildness leap out from the dark textures, like the fragile candle that brought the prisoner hope. In this opera, the orchestral players are protagonists, and here the members of the Philharmonia were "singing" with individuality and verve.

Generic programme notes are worthless now anyone can search on Wikipedia. Fortunately, Misha Donat's programme notes are superb, informative and filled with the kind of insight that comes from genuine knowledge and experience. Notes like this serve a purpose other than to fill space. Donat describes Dallapiccola's use of dodecaphony, showing that twelve tone series and emotional truth are by no means incompatible. He also recounts the episode when Schoenberg visited Florence in 1924. Most people couldn't get his music at all. As Alban Berg said in 1933, "In Italy they are just discovering Richard Strauss". Two men in the audience, however, were fascinated. One was 20 year old Dallapiccola. The other, a terminally ill Giacomo Puccini, who'd driven 50 miles to get there.  Perhaps Il Prigioniero links to Tosca, of all things. It's exactly what happened to Cavaradossi, but Tosca hogs attention. NOW we know whty Salonen was so good in Dallapiccola (apart from the fact he studied the composer in his youth)  There's a new recording of Il prigioniero where Salonen conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony, LINK HERE

Thursday 26 January 2012

Paavo Berglund has died

Kapellimestari Paavo Berglund on kuollut - headlines in Finland.  Paavo Berglund has died, 25/1/12, aged 82. Berglund was an extremely important figure in modern Sibelius performance practice. Indeed, I'd suggest, one of the seminal Sibelius conductors of our time. Not comfortable, not romantic, Berglund's Sibelius was elemental and uncompormising. If Adorno had heard Berglund, he might have been converted. Nor was Berglund a man to take things for granted. His second recording of Kullervo, made several years after the score was rediscovered, shows even deeper penetration into the wildness of the piece. Perhaps one of the reasons it was quietly put aside in the first place was because it was so savage, but it held a place in Sibelius's heart. Below, a clip from Berglund's legendary Bournemouth years:

Wolfgang Rihm at 60 - London Sinfonietta

Eager anticipation for the London Sinfonietta's Wolfgang Rihm at 60 concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Part of the disappointment was that it wasn't really "Rihm at 60" but a revisting of earlier works. That's not necessarily a minus since Rihm himself loves revisiting familiar work from a wildly new perspective.

Rihm's Nach-Schrift (Eine Chiffre für Ensemble (2004) is an outgrowth from the extensive Chiffre-Zyklus (recording here) written during the course of the 1980's. Chiffre means "cipher", so part of the fun is trying to discern how ideas disguise themselves. Score-studier's paradise. But Rihm himself is a natural anarchist, not a pedant. What's striking about his music is its joyous energy and vigour. In Nach-Schrift, (postscript),  do we hear the sound of rushing footsteps in that merry ostinato? It's as if the music were playing hide and seek, teasing us with patterns that seem to repeat but suddenly whisk themselves away when we grasp them. The xylophone keeps things light hearted, despite dense textures. Bright, strident trumpets and giant contrabass trombone. Low murmuring contrabassoon and clarinet, like mysterious voices of darkness.

Will Sound More Again (2011) (an outgrowth of Will Sound, 2005), comes seven years on from Nach-Schrift, and is much more densely orchestrated. Very firm structure, weighted down with tuba, contrabassoon, the winds extended by two cheeky saxophones. This time there's a sense of churning and turning, ideas reverberating  in concentric waves. This time there's a new figure in the landscape, struggling against the orchestra. Andrew Zolinsky let the piano taunt and trick, bright, lyrical lines bursting forth with joyous freedom. The orchestra's trying to encircle him but he won't be bound. The title? "Something will sound because it wants to", says Rihm in the notes. "The composer obeys the will  and the development and notates the spaces in between". Sometimes it flows undergound, but its trajectory and life-force are not submerged.

Rihm's Ricercare in memoriam Luigi Nono (1990) references Nono's ideas on spatial relationships. The small orchestra is arranged in a semi circle,  the usual instrument groups separated, with gaps between, and two percussion desks at each end. Elegant directional flow, high pitched sounds stretching upwards and outwards. Not vintage Rihm, but useful as a reminder of what he - and we - owe Luigi Nono for his concept  of music as invisible architecture.

This puts Rebecca Saunders Quartet (1997-8) into context, for Saunders is a master of music as sculptural  form.  She was one of Rihm's early students but early on developed a totally distinctive, unique style. Her music is almost tactile, as if the notes are tracing curves like fingers exploring their way around an invisble shape by instinct. Quartet is scored for an unusual combination of accordion, bass clarinet, piano and double bass so there's much more than the usual communal listening that makes chamber music so rewarding. The accordion is an ideal instrument for Saunders, as it's like the human body, breathing in and out through "lungs". Saunders's music has a deeply organic pulse, as if she's describing a body at sleep, anchored with a steady  heartbeat, but drifting in subconscious dreams. At times the accordion made sounds so ethereal they seemed to come from inside the psyche. Quartet rotates and turns, not like Rihm's churnings, but more intimate and meditative. Indeed, Saunders's music is more spiritually gratifying. once you understand where she's at. She's highly respected in her own right apart from the Rihm connection and has been a regular at the Proms and at Huddersfield.

Jörg Widmann, a much later Rihm pupil, has a high profile because he and his sister, the immensely talented violinist Caroline Widmann, have spent a lot of time in London and are well connected. The South Bank and Wigmore Hall have done a lot for Widmann, whose music fills a niche for audiences not yet ready for Rihm and Saunders. Dubairische Tänze (2009) is a series of 8 unconnected pieces over 18 minutes. A parody of Viennese waltz, of polka, of Bavarian oompah band, then novelty items like two basins of water being splashed about. A new kind of percussion but one that outstays its welcome within seconds. Perhaps there's a Rihm influence in the madcap mayhem of the later segments but they came over more as soundtracks for cartoons.  Unusual audience.There were well known composers and musicians  present, but also some who probably don't go out much. One woman read a newspaper throughout the concert, while another spent the whole evening playing games on an iPad.  Perhaps that accounted for the response - wildly enthusiastic applause and muttered murmurings.

Although I love the London Sinfonietta and once had an unbroken run of every single concert for five years, they didn't sound much like themselves this evening. Even though I wasn't listening from score (often the sign of a Beckmesser) some entries felt wrong and the overall dynamics somewhat muffled. Thierry Fischer, longtime conductor of the BBCNOW in Wales, has a strong interest in modern music but his approach seemed more suited to large ensemble than tight, small scale detail.

Lots about Rihm and Saunders on this site, please search. Rihm was the subject of a Barbican Total Immersion two years ago, which I wrote about here. .

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Delius Royal Festival Hall Sunday

Sunday 29th January for Delius at the South Bank, with an important AFTERNOON concert at the Royal Festival Hall, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis. Julian Lloyd Webber will play Delius's Cello Concerto, which I always associate with Jacqueline du Pré, though Lloyd Webber loves it dearly and is its current high profile champion. Heavy competition: Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending, one of the most sublime pieces of music ever, indescribably alluring. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, soloist.

Delius is also up against Edward Elgar, the Enigma Variations with its expansive sweep of invention. Interesting contrast with Delius Brigg Fair - an English Rhapsody. That's based on a fragment of an old folk tune sung by Josph Taylor to Percy Grainger at Brigg in Lincolnshire around 1906. The recording lasts only 30 seconds and is grainy, given that it was recorded live in the field, using the technology of the time. Grainger made an arrangement of it which was a great success. Taylor was taken to London to hear Grainger's version in 1910 and is said to have said, "that's my song?" (For more, read Georgina Boyes The Imagined Village, revised and reissued in 2010).  Delius's Brigg Fair makes no pretensions. It's a lyrical fantasy on the spirit of Englishness, very much in keeping with what he learned from Edvard Grieg and the idea of Norway. 

Whatever Englishness may be, for Delius was thoroughly international. His contact with rural English yokels was limited: quite possibly he was more intimate with black Americans (there's a rumour that he had a mixed race daughter). The painting above was by his German wife Jelka, done in their home in France. But Beecham's passionate promotion created Delius as "English" and that's how we've come to hear him. Delius and Debussy were born the same year, 1862, both  will be having anniversaries. It would be fascinating to hear Delius compared to Debussy. There's a new recording of Delius piano music (Paul Guinery) which will be reviewed here. It's part of a major traverse around Delius rarities by Stone Records. The complete Delius Songbook (piano and voice) is reviewed HERE and HERE.  Me? I'm going to the very important  Lieder recital at the Wigmore Hall at exactly the same time, Sunday, but might find a way to get both concerts covered. Keep reading!

Sergei Polunin, wise counsel

Shock news of Sergei Polunin's resignation from the Royal Ballet emerged yesterday afternoon, though his final tweets indicate something was on his mind. I have an expensive ticket for the Dream on 1/2, Only two dancers, so without him, can the show go on in quite the same way? On the other hand, the ballet world is completely unnatural. Dancers are hothoused from childhood, because it's the only way to hone them like racehorses. Or turkeys for Xmas. Their shelf life is maximum aged 35, so they are almost programmed to burn out. If animals were treated like dancers, the industry would have been banned long ago. I cannot blame Polunin but respect him for protesting.

Trouble is, a dancer's best years coincide with the time when normal prople are finding themselves as human beings. They're athletes, so they are drilled into constant training. They can't do kid things like go on benders  or laze about, or make mistakes like everyone. Maybe sports stars get away with it because sports has street cred, and everyone "knows"sportsmen are buffoons. But a dancer inherits the burden of posterity. He or she has to live up to a tradition of artistic excellence.

In theory, dancers might think in terms of sacrificing their youth so they can look forward to a decent life afterwards. But only the very, very few make enough money for a comfortable retirement (aged 35?).In reality most have wrecked their bodies, which limits job prospects and lifestyle. Other people just don't understand when a young-looking person is crippled by muscle and joint pain. Besides, any decent artist lives for his/her art, so when that's gone, it's horribly frustrating. And every dancer, even at the top, knows it doesn't last.

So Polunin's right, even though his timing isn't. The Royal Ballet is being pretty gracious about the disruption, which is judicious because Polunin is still so young. Artists have temperament, they often don't think strategically, all the more reason they need wise counsel around them.  At 21, most people don't know what they want to do, so Polunin's normal. Who hasn't made dramatic decisions regretted in maturity? At least he knows there's something odd about the lifestyle. Those thousands of little girls in pink tutus, pushed by their mothers into Barbie-doll mode, continue to act out the fantasy especially if they don't go on to face the reality of a dancer's life. More power Sergei Polunin, all is not lost yet.

The photo is Nijinsky, L'apres-midi d'un faune. Remember what happened to the faun. And to Nijinsky.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Zum Geburtstag, Friedrich der Große, special concert

Happy Birthday, Friedrich der Große! It's Frederick the Great's 300th birthday and even a baroque potentate wouldn't do 300 candles on his cake, especially not someone as ascetic as he was. "Feed it to the horses!" So zum Geburtstag, a special concert of the music Frederick the Great knew, loved and played. That's der alte Fritz himself playing the flute at Sans-Souci in Potsdam.

Click HERE to listen to a the recital online by members of the Berliner Barock Soloisten and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Speakers will read from Friedrich's correspondence with Voltaire, "a unique document of nonchalantly commented contemporary history, full of top-class irony, anecdotes and philosophy.". The programme includes pieces by CPE Bach, Friedrich's court composer Johann Quantz and of course the King's own compositions. He was a virtuoso flautist and wrote many works, many of which are in print and have been recorded (see HERE and Emmauel Pahud HERE) with video clip. "There's a certain weight about the King's music", says Pahud, "that the courtiers don't have". Would that heads of state today had Friedrich's education and breadth of experience. Or even the basic mental discipline of art. Tomorrow, I'll celebrate by watching some of the old UFA films about the king, which are actually very good, though the lessons weren't learned by some of those watching them at the time. Please see my other posts on Frederick the Great, like this. and about West Prussia, various posts like THIS.

Monday 23 January 2012

How to out Nokia a Nokia

What to do with idiots who don't switch off their phones? Rage doesn't work. Wit might.  Courtesy of good friend and reader, HERE is a link to a recital in the Orthodox Synagogue in Presov in Slovakia. It's not a huge venue and everyone probably knows everyone. Rather than poison the atmosphere, the soloist Lukas Kmit graciously improvises on the Nokia theme tune. Point made. Nokia owner chastened. This is class.

Most people who forget their phones don't do it on purpose. But those who chat, text etc are boors. Worst of all those who liveblog during performances. Liveblogging breaking news is understandable as no-one knows til later how the bits will fit. Performances, however, are interpretation and can't be evaluated til the end when the whole falls into place. Can't people listen without fidgetting? And what sort of friends can they have who rely on tweets instead of real performance. Even if you corrall livebloggers into special areas, the fact remains - attention defict disorder.

The Enchanted Island at the Met - deeper than expected

Extravagance is the essence of baroque, but few houses can do spectacles as well as the Met. So when the  Met throws its might behind The Enchanted Island, it can create a spectacle worthy of the genre. At last Met technology put to good use - this is baroque as it should be done! William Christie is one of the great baroque specialists, and a guiding force behind Purcell The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne in 2009. That may have been part of the inspiration for The Enchanted Island, for both take material from various sources and present them as glorious extravaganza. Christie and the Met also use some of the finest singers in the genre.
Perhaps the idea that The Enchanted Island is a "new" opera panics people. But why not? "Pastiche" carries negative connotations now, but didn't in baroque times when recycling was part of what went into theatre. Recordings didn't exist then, so composers were expected to re-use popular melodies so people could enjoy them again. That's also partly why baroque operas adapt similar ideas over and over. Audiences delighted in new ways of hearing old. How many of Vivaldi's operas were all "new" or even all Vivaldi? And how many adaptations of Ariosto and Tasso? The baroque aesthetic blended characters  from ancient antiquity and medieval myth in joyous riot. Even Mozart had no qualms about recycling a good tune. So snobbery about this kind of pastiche is misguided. Indeed, I suspect the choices made in The Enchanted Island are wittier than might be expected.

The secret to The Enchanted Island is to take the story as it comes,  just as baroque audiences would have done centuries ago. The basic premise is that Prospero has usurped Sycorax on her island, and pushes his weight around. That's why Shakespeare's The Tempest gets banned in Arizona. It's a simile for what happens when indigenous people are colonized by masters from over the seas. Caliban has long been seen as a metaphor for the Third World.  Perhaps Shakespeare wasn't political, but there's no reason why a reworking of the premise shouldn't tease out new meaning from an old story. Handel did it all the time, as did many others. William Christie and Jeremy Sams emphasize the anarchy inherent in the plot. Please read what Sams wrote for the British press here.

Prospero (David Daniels) rules the island but Sycorax (Joyce DiDonato) this time fights back, by simply changing dragon's blood for lizard's blood  in the spell Prospero sets for getting off the island.  Immediately, we know that this retelling of the basic story will be mischief!  So Ariel (Danielle de Niese) conjures up a boat. It's the first of many visual special effects which baroque audiences would have gasped at in admiration. Only it's the wrong boat! It's carrying the lovers from A Midsummers Nights Dream, who've already been cast in several guises before. Ariel connects to Puck, Caliban (Luca Pisaroni) to Bottom. Fun is of the essence. More fool those who can't see the humour in The Enchanted Island. In the cinema where I saw it, the audience was chuckling with delight.

Exceptionally good performances from Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax) and Luca Pisaroni (Caliban). DiDonato pretty much creates the part on her own, since it's hardly developed elsewhere, but fundamental to the background of the story. DiDonato is magnificent. Her singing ranges from ethereally high textures to animal-like growls. She's a nature spirit, connected to the mysteries in the jungles of her island. She's also an earth mother who loves her son just as much as Prospero loves Admir'd Miranda (Lisette Oropesa, singing in American). Caliban (Luca Pisaroni) is costumed as half gorilla, but with a sensitive side, (he likes flowers). Pisaroni is a natural actor, moving half crouched and intuitively, like an animal, yet his voice expresses deep emotional feelings.  In The Tempest, Prospero holds all the cards. In The Enchanted Island, the underdogs Sycorax and Caliban get a fair chance. This time, they're evenly balanced, and the meaning of the plot enhanced. Incidentally, the plot is driven by pe-existing baroque materials - nothing 21st century added. Sorceresses on enchanted islands abound throughout the genre.

Then, one of the most magnificent coups de théâtre in recent memory. Ariel calls on the God Neptune nd suddenly he arises from the ocean, surrounded by four mermaids, suspended from the roof. It's an image straight out of baroque fantasy, the sort of scene baroque artists used to paint, except this time it's done with modern stage techniques baroque stage designers could only dream of. It's fantastic in the true, baroque meaning of the word, totally artificial and gloriously splendid at the same time. Some of the chorus fill the foreground, others as singing heads in a backdrop that could come right out of an 18th century painted flat.    Since when did Gods rise up out of the sea, except in the imagination? And part of the baroque aesthetic is to push the boundaries of imagination. Only a house like the Met can pull scenes like this off so well.

This magnificent scene must have been stunning live, given the gasps from the audience, on screen and in the cinema. But it's absolutely fundamental to the whole concept of the plot. Neptune is the Deus ex machina around whom the resolution pivots. What a wonderful way to make the most of Placido Domingo!  He doesn't have to sing much (thankfully) but his acting skills are superb. Again, the anarchic humour in the text. "I'm old, irritable and tired", he sings with a merry grin, "I don't do the high seas". Pun, pun, pun for those who forget he used to be a tenor. It's a measure of Domingo's greatness that he can do acidly witty self parody like this, upstaging the elaborate ostentation around him.

The scene where Pisaroni as Caliban is surrounded by dancers isn't there merely to squeeze in a bit of Rameau but to show how he's "enchanted" by nature spirits half-animal, half-human like himself.  It's crucial to the plot because Caliban is trying his hand at magic spells and conjuring a new world, unintended,  where things will be more in tune with nature. It won't happen, though, as Prospero won't let it. The proscenuim, which magically transforms throught the evening from dense jungle to baroque fanatsy now turns dark, two glowing orbs like the eyes of a wild animal, the stage like a gigantic mouth swallowing Caliban's dreams. It's time now for Neptune to restore the natural order.  In another spectacular scene, Domingo as Neptune conjures up another magnificent boat, complete with the sort of rolling "waves" baroque designers made out of painted horizontal sheets, shaken up and down. At once "traditional" baroque design, with modern technology. At last Ferdinand (Anthony Roth Costanzo) appears. Miranda is saved, and Prospero returned to where he belongs. "Forgive me" he begs Sycorax, and maybe he means it, but our sympathies are with DiDonato's wonderful characterization. But baroque means happy ending, so all join in in standard ensemble, praising new beginnings. Excellent ideas, excellent cast and the Met Orchestra playing idiomatically even though they're using modern instruments (plus harpsichord). The Enchanted Island shows that the Met has huge potential.  Had this piece been heard at Glyndebourne, where audiences are receptive to baroque and to innovation, it would have been greeted with the acclaim that The Fairy Queen received. (read more here)  

And HERE is a link to my most recent post which has another link to something even better.

Kung Hei Fat Choy !

Kung Hei Fat Choy 恭喜發財, Sun Nien Fai Lok 新年快樂 - Good wishes and Prosperity, Happy New Year. Today is Chinese New year. Today we don't use knives, we live on fruits, candies and nuts. Boxes of clementines with leaves on, red melon seeds, dumplings filled with sugar and black sesame, and eat a soft cake made of glutinous rice called Nien Go. Nowadays these come in all shapes and flavours, the most striking in the shape of two carps, coloured with food colouring red, yellow and white.

Traditionally, fireworks, to scare away the bad vibes of the past. Once, the streets were covered knee high in spent firecracker paper. It's neither safe nor practical so cities mount massive fireworks displays after the main festival day, which is spent with family. The clip above is last year in Hong Kong, bigger and fancier than western new year. 31888 pieces. This display is in 8 parts, each with a different theme and music. One is "I (heart) HK" sung in Mandarin which is significant because that's not the local dialect but national. Another is Placido Domingo, idolized in China. The finale (22.30) is so spectacular that the whole skyline is blitzed out in light and colour, to the 1812 Overture.

Saturday 21 January 2012

How to hate Mozart

A season of Mozart's Da Ponte operas at the Royal Opera House started with Don Giovanni. Two casts : Finley, Karnéus, Regazzo or Schrott, Donose, and Esposito (my prefered, I think). For fun, I've been watching the rarely seen Mozart movie, Whom the Gods Love (Basil Dean, 1936).Mozart (played by Stephen Haggard of the Rider Haggard clan) is chatting with a bunch of brain dead bimbos (the Weber family and conveniently, Schikaneder), when they spot a "queer fish". "He looks like a marionette!" squeals Constanze. "Allow me to introduce myself" says the gaunt figure. "I'm Lorenzo da Ponte".

In the next scene Haydn tells Joseph II that Mozart's good. "In that case we shall have him write an opera". The script is based on Constanze's memoirs, coloured as they were by time and vanity. Also, the film was meant as a vehicle for the director's wife, Victoria Hopper. So the emphasis is on Constanze's charms and maipulativeness. One wonders about relationships in the Dean household. Mozart's pretty much in the background, portrayed as an effeminate, stupid child.  Mozart was odd, but this film doesn't go into that. When his mother dies he flaps about and postures "Is this Death?", hand raised to his forehead, the frame shot in diagonal, like a parody of art movie. Needless to say, the scenes about the Requiem and the Magic Flute are high camp.

The film isn't very good and isn't commercially available, but it's significant from an educational point of view, and needs to be known. Just as Miloš Forman's Amadeus transformed Mozart and Salieri's public image, many would have taken this earlier film at face value. And it's much better than the portrait of Schubert in Lilac Time, which even Tauber, who appeared in it, thought a joke. That's the nature of movies about composers. They're fiction, not fact. Only the very greatest lift the genre, when they're perceptive about the music and the artistic persona behind it. But many more people see movies than go deeper into the subject.  Shallowness sticks. This soundtrack uses clips from Beecham's Mozart and elaborate costumes to give it credibility (especially with 1930's British audiences). But Mozart, it ain't. The answer? Always keep listening, keep learning. Composers, like all human beings, are infinitely complex. Watch the film HERE, it's a public service.

Lots more on this site about music on film, music in movies, documentaries and art film. Some are genuine art, others like The Flying Dutchman meets Carmen and naked Ava Gardner.

Friday 20 January 2012

Boulez conducts Rameau

Boulez conducts Rameau. And why not? I thinik it's interesting because it shows what Boulez is learning from Rameau. Boulez was 40 at the time, well into the Domaines musicales years. Rameau is a good test of structure, precision, and sprightliness. Excellent foundation for most performance. A few years ago, there was a concert where Rameau was on with Mahler 5.  Mahler 5 was Kammermusikton, written for the lucidity of chamber like forces. Rameau wrote for elegant, formal dance, full of energy and brightness. Perceptive combination, which enhanced appreciation of both composers. To hear the whole performance, you'll need to sign on and pay but Euro 2.99 is a small price to pay for this perspective.

ENO presents John Cage Musicircus

The ENO is the first opera company to present John Cage's legendary Musicircus, for one day only! March 3rd. COMPLETELY FREE !!!!  "Cage's idea for the composition was to invite a wide range of musicians and other artists to perform different works simultaneously. Within the limits of a precise structure determined by chance operations this created a unique, exciting and seemingly anarchic sound."

A multitude of people from different walks of life, from Michael Nyman and Led Zeppelin to a botanist from my old college, a Chess Grand Master and someone who plays toy piano. Serendipity, perhaps, but also purposeful, as all were among Cage's interests. Curated by Stephen Montague who worked with Cage for 15 years, it's a multi dimension re-creation of Cage's personality which you absorb as and how you can on different levels. Not so far, conceptually, from how we get to know people. layer by layer.

"The audience is invited to explore an array of performances, installations and experiences, which will create new and unusual relationships and a collision of sound and images."  These things do work. I knew of someone who owned a collection of keyboards and had an event where all were played simulateously by different professionals, (no amateurs allowed near these instruments) as if the keyboards were having a conversation, each adding their individual voices.  It happened soon after Cage dreamed up Musicircus, so maybe it was influenced by him?

Thursday 19 January 2012

Barbican 2012-13 orchestral

Karol Szymanowski everywhere this year! Szymanowski was Poland's "first modernist", a cosmopolitan intellectual and contemporary of Bartók, dismissed by the Communist Party for his aesthetic background. The current Szymanowski revival started in the 1980's with Simon Rattle, who deserves much respect for his support. The Barbican's on the forefront. Boulez is conducting two Szymanowski concerts in May, and in Sept and October Valery Gergiev is conducting Szymanowski with a  special study day included. The Barbican schedule suggests two performances of Symphony no 2 which may or may not be correct as Symphony no 3 is the most spectacular. Gergiev is pairing Szymanowski with Brahms throughout, which is interesting. What might that mean? Hearing Szymanowski in context with Scriabin, Stravinsky or other Gergiev favourites might be more stimulating. Jurowski's pairing it with Zemlinsky at the South Bank, and Boulez is doing Szymanowski "pure".

Colin Davis is celebrating his 85th birthday by conducting no less than 12 concerts. Some Davis specialities, like Mozart and Sibelius, some less his regular scene, like Mahler and Britten. Best bet, I think, is the performance version of Elgar's Third, prepared by Anthony Payne on 27/9/12. First heard in 1998.it almost stole the show at the Elgar Centenary Festival in 2007, an outstanding performance (Not Davis but Oramo) with all the big names in Elgar studies gathered. Bernard Haitink returns in February for two Bruckner concerts with the LSO. The LSO makes a brief foray into modern music, first with Daniel Harding in February in a focus on Mark-Anthony Turnage, with a premiere on 7/2/12). Then in April, "LSO Futures week" which basically means François-Xavier Roth conducting Varèse, Coiln Matthews, Boulez, Adams and Stravinsky. He's doing new work by Tansy Davies and Jason Yarde but the LSO hasn't been adventurous for a long time and is getting grey.

The BBCSO programme is very much more exciting.  Neeme Järvi is doing Shostakovich 4 on 3/10 and Mark Wigglesworth does Tippett and "The Ring - an orchestrral adventure", arranged by Henk de Vlieger, the Dutch percussionist, which received its Hong Kong premiere in 2008 under Edo de Waart. It tells the whole Ring saga in 50 minutes of orchestral invention.  On 18/1/13, Elgar, Haydn and two new Chinese composers. Intriguing titles : Qigang Chen Reflet d’un temps disparu and Raymond Yiu The Londoner Exceedingly Injur’d.

Ilan Volkov pits Schubert on 15/2/13 with a new Schubert-fantasie by Dieter Schnebel and a new work by David Sawer, Flesh and Blood. Sawer's Gold and Straw was a big hit with BCMG/Brabbins,(see my review) so this new piece with Christine Rice and Marcus Farnsworth will be a must.Then, the mercurial Thomas Dausgaard conducts Neilsen 4 on 22/2/13 with Prokofiev and Ernst Bloch's Schelomo, rarely heard but highly regarded. More Tippett in the spring with David Robertson, Alexander Verdernikov, Martyn Brabbins and Andrew Davis - in fact, Tippett spread through the year. Must be an anniversary too. My top pick will be Ingo Metzmacher on 25/5/13 - Shostakovich 11 and Wolfgang Rihm Nähe-Fern-1.

Please also see what I've written on the Barbican's 2012-2013 vocal  here and please also see Barbican 2011-2 vocal and Barbican orchestral 2011-2, as 2012 has only just begun! For link, see here.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Barbican 2012 2013 Opera and Vocal

Hooray for the Barbican, going for baroque on baroque! The Barbican is ideal - big enough to afford top performers, small enough not to overwhelm the aesthetic. Even though soloists haven't yet been announced, it's likely that Les Talens Lyriques Lully Phaéton, cond. Christophe Rousset on 8/3/13 will be a highlight - just 15 months to go! Another relative rarity - Handel Imeneo on 29/5/13. It's not Blockbuster Handel, but more delicate, and the cast is excellent - Rebecca Bottone, character soprano par excellence who lifts everything she's in. Already I'm looking forward to what Robert Hugill will write about this (read his review of a much less stellar performance).

David Daniels will sing in that and also in Handel Radamisto (10/2/13) with Harry Bicket, English Consort, Luca Pisaroni, Patrica Bardon and Elizabeth Watts - infinitely stronger cast than the ENO staging. Two Les Arts Florissante performances - John Eliot Gardiner conducts Handel Belsahazzar on 13/12/12 and Paul Agnew conducts Monteverdi Madrigals Book 5 on 15/6/13. It's JEG's 75th birthday next March, and he's celebrating by conducting Stravinsky Oedipus Rex.

If baroque don't rock your boat, there's a full Grieg Peer Gynt 15/12/12 with Miah Persson, Ann Hallenberg, Johannes Weisser, BBCSO and BBC Singers and the wonderful Marc Minkowski. Although everyone knows bits of Peer Gynt, hearing it as a whole is extremely rewarding. And just the thought of Miah Persson singing Solvieg's Song gives me goosebumps.

Donizetti's Belisaro (28/10/12) with Mark Elder, BBCSO and an interesting Poulenc Les animaux modèles (26/4/13) with readings and video projections, which can be fine, done well. Stéphane Denève conducts the BBCSO.

Re British opera, you could go for Britten The Turn of the Screw (Andrew Kennedy, Sally Matthews, Colin Davis,16/4/13) but far more unusual would be the Oliver Knussen double bill, Where the Wild Things Are and Higgelty Piggelty Pop!  (3/11/12). It's a matinee, because they were inspired by books Knussen's daughter used to read.  Although this will be a must for people with kids, it's also a good outing for those who don't have them, since this kind of zany good humour is so Knussenesque. He mostly conducts these days but he's a pretty good composer too.

Wild card: John Adams The Gospel according to the Other Mary, a Barbican co-commission. (16/3/13). Adams can be variable, see Nixon in China, but the subject's very tricky. Gustavo Dudamel's first big, big opera premiere with the LA Phil and Peter Sellars directing. Maybe it will be good, but my gut instincts are that this constellation will bring out fashion victims in force.  Two weeks later, Valery Gergiev conducts Szymanowski Stabat Mater and Brahms German Requiem. Will Gergiev bring us back to earth? He has his merits, and could say much in Szymanowski.

Recitals with Juan Diego Florez, Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming,  Elina Garanca, Cecelia Bartoli and Magdalena Kozcena.

Tomorrow : Barbican orchestral 2012-3. Please also see Barbican 2011-2 vocal and Barbican orchestral 2011-2, as 2012 has only just begun! For link, see here.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Józef Poniatowski - Pierre de Medicis

If the name Poniatowski is familiar, it's because Prince Józef Poniatowski (1763-1813) was one of the great heroes of Polish history. That's his monument in the historic capital, Krakow.  Józef Michal Poniatowski (1814-73) was the general's nephew, and grand nephew of King Stanislaus Augustus. Born illegitimate in Italy, Józef Michal became a tenor and composer, who was active in Irtaly and France, though he died in Chislehurst.  Tonight after midnight, but available on demand for a week, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting J M Poniatowski's opera Pierre de Medicis. This is the performance of 23 July 2011 in Krakow, at the Festival of Polish Music in Krakow, the first in modern times.

Cast includes Aleksandra Buczek, whose recording "Poniatowski Rediscovered" came out last year - read more about that HERE. The cover alone looks like fun.  Evidently something of a mini-revival as the Krakow Festival also presented Poniatowski 's Missa in F.  Below several clips also from the rehearsal of the Krakow performance. Text is in French as the opera was written in France and premiered in 1860.

Intricate Temple

Watch this full screen for AMAZING detail. It's the Chan Clan Ancestral Temple in Guangzhou, a magnificent example of Pearl River Delta architecture. Look at the carvings, and the ceramic figures on the roof lintels. The same person behind this has a whole series about the temple, showing different aspects, eg giant demon sculptures, but I specially love the intricate little figures. 

Monday 16 January 2012

Lt. Kijé 1934 full download

Lieutenant Kizhe (Kijé) aka The Tsar wants to sleep. This is the full movie, directed by Alexander Faintzimmer in 1934, with a score by Sergei Prokofiev. To get English subtitles, press on the tiny CC icon on the right of the screen. Don't worry too much as most of the gags are visual. As long as you know the gist of the story, it's fun. I didn't realize that I was following it in Russian until half way. Note how the dialogue and music are sparsely applied, more like European art film at the time, not like Hollywood scores where the music sometimes overwhelms the action.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Knussen Myaskovsky Goehr Barbican

Big publicity for the Prokofiev - man of the people? concert at the South Bank, but the smart money was at the Barbican to hear Prokofiev's contemporary, the rarely heard Nikolay Myaskovsky. Ten years older than Prokofiev, Myaskovsky (1881-1950)  knew the brief period when the Soviet Union represented the futurist modernity. A sensitive aesthete with an upper class background, he cloaked himself in inscrutable reticence, which helped him survive the excesses of Stalinism. Oliver Knussen's striking performance of Myaskovsky's 10th Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra showed how much more there is to Myaskovsky than his relative obscurity might suggest.

Myaskovsky's inspiration was Pushkin's story of the Bronze Horseman, where a man, whose lover has died in a terrible flood, rages against fate. The huge bronze statue of Peter the Great comes off its plinth and hunts the man down.  Even in Pushkin's time, that could be read as a protest against unfair authority. In 1927, as Stalin was consolidating power, it was shockingly brave of Myaskovsky to choose such a subject.

Furthermore, Oliver Knussen's striking performance brought out the modernist elements in the score much more sharply than Evgeny Svetlanov did in the only readily available recording. One of Knussen's specialities is Futurist music. He underlines the contrast between the "little man" and his beloved, represented by solo violin (Andrew Haveron) and the overwhelming forces against them. Indeed, Myaskovsky was particularly moved by Alexander Benois's illustrations of the story (see above) so Knussen's dynamics carry weight. Rolling waves of brass and timpani vividly evoke the waves of the flood, engulfing the strings, Stark alarums, trumpets screaming anguish. Savage discords that thwack down all opposition. Nothing romantic or populist about this music. Maybe Prokofiev needs to be heard in context with Myaskovsky.

It's Alexander Goehr's 80th birthday this year, honoured by a special BBC commission, When Adam Fell. Numerous composers in the audience, as Goehr is an important figurehead. It's nicely orchestrated. Goehr himself connects it to one of his best known works, The Deluge, using texts by Sergei Eisenstein, evolving like collage in film. Another Prokofiev connection! Knussen, that master of erudite programming must have chuckled. When Adam Fell is lighter and more scintillating, all bright, sparkling sounds, percussion reduced to two desks of marimba and bell-like effects. References, too, to Bach's chorale Durch Adam's Fall ist alles verderbt. (photo Elan Tal)

Goehr studied with Hanns Eisler in East Berlin, who had worked with Schoenberg, as did Goehr's father Walter. Again, Knussen's programming genius came up with Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony no 1, which like Goehr's new work eschews percussion.  Full circle, a subtle tribute. Not the usual version this time, but the revison for large orchestra created in 1935 which fleshes out the same basic structure with extra voices. The BBCSO trumpets and horns had a great time, vivacious! One of the joys of the original is its audacious compression, which gets lost with larger forces, but Knussen made it lively and cheerful. Several big names in the audience drifted off after the Goehr piece, but Goehr himself stayed on to listen. Afterwards, his face was lit up with happiness. A good man!

For concision and clarity, though, Niccolò Castiglioni usually surpasses anyone else. Knussen adores him, partly because they have a similar irreverent sense of humour. Castiglioni's music is the perfect antidote to those who think classical music is ponderous and dull, but it isn't performed as often as it should be because it's technically demanding. In another flash of wit, Knussen chose Castiglioni's 1963 Concerto for Orchestra. Again, no timpani. Just as Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie used a small orchestra in big music, Castiglioni uses a  big orchestra for music of aphoristic compression. Most of Castiglioni's music is written for soloists or small ensemble, but Concerto is unusual in that it's written for vast forces.  Just as Goehr's When Adam Fell quotes from his earlier work The Deluge, Castiglioni's Concerto quotes the first bars of his most famous work Tropi. "Full of light and fantasy and crazy gestures", says Knussen "in an accelerator tunnel ...little fragments which start to multiply". Quick flurries of high pitched sounds, interspersed with silences that Knussen carefully beats out with his baton, so you "hear" the pulse of the work continuing uninterrupted.  A very long chord, wavering brass lines, single note interjections from the clarinet, then the whole ensemble storms forward, trumpets blasting like the horn of a train speeding out of control. Silences again, tiny flurries, more clean brass chords, repeated as echoes, and sudden stop. "You know what I'm going to say" said Knussen grinning, because he often reprises works he really loves. Lots more on Castiglioni and Knussen on this site like THIS 
LISTEN TO THIS CONCERT on BBC Radio 3 til Friday

Ken Russell - a Bit of a Devil

Ken "The Shining" Russell. The documentary "A Bit of the Devil" (watch HERE) was pretty well balanced though a few too many talking heads. Some like Roger Daltrey and Glenda Jackson had constructive things to say. Oliver Reed would have been fascinating but needs a whole film to himself.

Above right, one of my favorites, Ken and Cadaver (a prop) and right, Ken and Shirley, his first wife, whose contribution to the early work was major. Ah, the Zeitgeist of the 70's. Please note, these photos are copyright and used with permission - do not copy ! 
Lots more on this site about the art of films on music and about making documentaries. Ken was a pioneer. He made films which transcended the original subject and became creative adventures in their own right. The Elgar film, for example got to the heart of what Elgar 's personality and motivations might have been. It doesn't matter whether he rode a horse over the Malverns or not: it was the spirit of freedom it represented. Elgar cycled and hiked for miles, so it's psychologically true.  Similarly the last scene, when Elgar's death is suggested by wind blowing through an open window facing the hills. That's poetic licence, much closer to the spirit than faked-up sensation for publicity's sake. Literal and unimaginative films about creative people are stupid. But you can't do imaginative without some inner sense of how people work (not necessarily the subject). That's why I like Christopher Nupen's Sibelius films which are so musically astute. I can't get past the first 1/2 hour of the Ken Russell Mahler film, but respect what Ken was trying to do. The "volcano" sequences express the music but the train scene drives me nuts. OTOH the situation would probably have driven Mahler nuts too, which is why he needed the mountains.

Friday 13 January 2012

Ken Russell feted BBCTV 2

Why is it that great figures don't get respect til they're gone? Ken Russell was a phenomenom who changed so much about British film and, indeed, British attitudes to life and to art. Just as Elizabeth David changed British food by introducing tomatoes, olive oil and (horror!) garlic, Ken brought psychedelic colour to British life. So honour due. Wherever he is, Ken will be snorting and cackling that he gets a night on BBCTV 2 on Saturday 14th January starting 9 pm.

"A Bit of a  Devil", a documentary by Alan Yentob and screenings of Women in Love and The Rainbow, both based on DH Lawrence. Remember the scandal Lady Chatterley caused and how that changed things in its time? Ken's whole life pushed boundaries, all the time.  Ken's films could drive you crazy but he was never bland. And underneath the wild image, a man of knowledge, sensitivity and depth. Please see THIS for more.

Exsultate, Jubilate Anna Lucia Richter

Anna Lucia Richter, so impressive singing Hugo Wolf at the Wigmore Hall, recommended by a friend who was there, too. (My review is HERE)  She wore the same dress.  Very professionally done video, too. Here she is singing in Aachen in December 2009, when she would have been 19. Give her a few more years....!

Thursday 12 January 2012

Hugo Wolf : Mörike Goethe Prégardien Richter Wigmore Hall

Hugo Wolf is a hard sell. Technical expertise isn't enough. The secret to singing Wolf is expressing the unique personality in each song. Wolf, perhaps more than any other composer, creates miniatures that open out into mini-operas when performed well. Singing Wolf can never be generic, so true Wolf specialists are hard to find.

Christoph Prégardien started off the Wigmore Hall's new series of Hugo Wolf Songbooks with Lieder to texts by Mörike and Goethe. Prégardien is one of the best Wolf singers around, with the right combination of  timbre and individuality. At his best, he's brilliant. For whatever reason, on this occasion, he wasn't his usual self, the voice sounding tired and occluded. Nonetheless, he has years of experience to fall back on. Intelligent phrasing, the right emphases in the right places, accurate intonation. Yet not the luminous, transcendent tones he's capable of, which lift his performance way above most everyone else. Still, proof that mastery of technique pulls one through. His Feuerreiter was suitably dramatic, though not quite at the demonic level he and some others (especially baritones) can reach. But he brought real drama to Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt, a strophic ballad that can fall flat in the wrong hands (voice) (read more about Feuerreiter here). In Sankt Nepomuks Vorabend, one could hear glimmers of Prégardien's natural translucence, reflecting his youth as a choirboy. "Lichtlein, schwimmen auf dem Strom"

Listen to Prégardien's most recent recording of Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch which came out in Spring 2011 on the small label Channel Classics (reviewed here). The soprano on that disc was Julia Kleiter, a fellow Limburger, good for the ensemble work so crucial to the Italian Songbook. But the Mörike and Goethe are much more sharply defined and need great personality. When we heard that Kelier was being replaced ar minimal notice by a singer born in 1990, our hearts dropped. What could any singer that young bring to Hugo Wolf?

Yet Anna Lucia Richter turned out to be the surprise of the evening. Obviously someone aged 21 isn't going to sound polished but Richter turned her youth to advantage. In Nixe Binsefuß, bright, almost staccato notes sparkle like sharp icicles. But this Nixe is a water sprite with attitude who would like to slash the fisherman's nets and liberate the fish. Richter's voice is pure, but has a wild edge totally in keeping with the Nixe's free spirited anarchy. Then, when she sings about the fisherman's daughter, her voice warms. Icicles no more! And so the Nixe flies away as the day breaks. (read more about this song here)

It's difficult to combine the technical demands of Elfenlied with a true sense of innocence, but Richter manages well. Her elf is genuinely naive and she describes his accident with droll humour. Similarly, Richter's Begegnung is turbulent, like the wind and the emotions the young girl experiences.  I don't know how long Richter had to prepare, as the programme was printed before she was hired,  but she threw herself into the songs with unselfconscious enthusiasm, so they come over extremely well.

No-one at Richter's age, or even ten years older,  is going to have finesse, but that will come with experience. It's much better that a singer starts out with enthusiasm, and engages with what she sings, as Richter does. Her voice has colour and range, so she has plenty of potential. Definitely someone to follow. She has dramatic instincts, leaping into some songs in the second part of the programme as an opera singer might, so she will have many options. She's still studying at the Cologne Conservatory but is scheduled to  join the company of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf from 2012-13. She's also worked with Prégardien before  and recorded Schumann with him."We'd better give the poor girl some help" said Julius Drake before the encore (a Mendelssohn duet). He played gloriously, but part of a song pianist's brief is to work with singers, especially the young.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Thomas Quasthoff retires

Sad news of Thomas Quasthoff's retirement, but understandable. TQ was a regular canceller, so you always booked on the off chance that he'd show. In recent years, he's taken to talking a lot through concerts, rather than singing, so it's a wise move. Health matters more than wealth, as does his reputation. I heard his very first London recital, at the Wigmore Hall in the mid 90's. It was weeks after his UK debut at Edinburgh. TQ walked on stage and there was a moment of surprise. No-one realized he was so short. That wasn't prejudice, but realistic. Singing is a tougher profession than outsiders realize. Then he started to sing, with a ferocity you don't usually associate with Schubert. Das Fischermädchen with sly, teasing undercurrents. Erlkönig with genuine malevolence, the final "Tot" spat out with revulsion at the father's naivety,  not at the erlking.

Then, Der Zwerg. The dwarf in the song is a sex murderer. It's not a pretty song. Quasthoff sang it like an act of defiance, "Don't write people off because they're physically challenged!" And being challenged doesn't mean you have to keep up a fake "sweet" front to impress the world. Schubert's dwarf was a sexual being, who'd had an affair with the queen before she married the king. As the dwarf strangles her, she doesn't condemn him. Very kinky. Still, he's cursed never to return to shore, forced to be alone forever. But then that's the fate of many people with disabilities and even "normal" infirmities like illness, age and poverty. So TQ was confronting society's expectations. Why should the disabled "have" to be sweet to "be deserving"? They've every right to feel p'd off by fate and to be who they want to be.

Quasthoff was a stage presence who knew how to work an audience. Few singers have that charisma.  He used to end recitals in the US with pop songs, which audiences loved because it showed his populist touch.  It didn't go down so well in Europe, though he did try it in recent years. He persuaded recording companies to promote his jazz, but it really wasn't his forte however much he might have liked doing it. Recordings weren't his forte either, for somehow technology can't quite pick up the nuances you hear live, and TQ's voice sometimes sounds muffled and unrefined. But those who heard him in his prime have wonderful memories! (photo : Elke Wetzig)

Monday 9 January 2012

Violent, explosive Má vlast. - Václav Talich

Heartfelt thank you to the reader who sent me a copy of the recent Supraphon reissue of Václav Talich's remarkable performance of Smetana Má vlast. This is no ordinary concert, it's a historic moment. It's 5th June 1939. The Germans had occupied Czechoslovakia with the blessing of the British, ending the cultural renaissance that was the first Czech Republic. Conducting Má vlast was symbolic protest and the Prague audience knew it. This performance, the second in a series, was broadcast on Czech radio, and woud have been lost forever had it not been picked up by Norwegian radio, and almost miraculously survived on a pioneer tape recording. 

It's an explosive, violent performance. Talich knows that his audience know the piece so well that they can cope with a radically different interpretation. "Our homeland", this performance seems to scream, "betrayed to Hitler"! The audience bursts spontaneously into applause between movements because they, too, are expressing rage at the situation their country faces. This isn't silly "audience participation" but part of the message the Czechs are sending the Nazis. The crowd won't stop, and perhaps some knew they'd soon be silenced forever. So listen to those roaring voices and respect.

The two final movements, Tábor and Blanik, are more than picturesque rural vistas.Tábor was the centre of the Hussite wars in the 15th century which shaped Bohemian identity. So Talich exaggerates the violence in the music, the menacing slow tempi, fast, marching tempi, thunderous timpani like cannon fire, brass that seems to spit flame. The Hussite ancestors of that audience might have used quaint muskets and leather armour. Smetana himself could never have imagined that their descendants would face tanks, planes and bombs. But it works, powerfully. Listen to the "flying" motif repeated all over the orchestra, building in confidence.

Blanik is the mountain where St Wenceslas is supposed to lie asleep until the country needs to be saved.That's the statue in St Wenceslas Square, not far from the concert hall where Talich was conducting. This final movement draws together the whole piece, the idea of the Moldau continuing to flow and fertilise the country, the Hussite hymns and the Wenceslas legend, promising hope. Then the audience spontaneously bursts into singing the Czech national anthem. This isn't a concert, it's a statement. Some of that audience would have gone home passing the statue. Few of them would have missed the significance. Seventy three years later, nearly all of them are dead but here they are preserved on tape.

This fantastic disc includes six of Dvořák's Slavonic Dances, recorded on 13th June 1939, a week after that searing  Má vlast.  Again, the performance is unusually ferocious and defiant.  Everyone is listening intently, but they are hearing more than Dvořák. So much of the way we experience any performance is coloured by what is inside ourselves. Lord no, I don't ever want to experience music in such circumstances. Nor are interpretations like this always true to the composer's intent.  But by God, we need this recording to remind us what music can mean.


Talich (1883-1961) was a key figure in music circles during the first Czech Republic, a friend of Josef Suk, and of Leoš Janáček, several of whose operas he premiered. Had he been American, German or British, he might be a household name. Talich's reputation isn't what it might be, thanks to internal Czech politics at the time. He didn't get on with a key politician who became culture minister in several governments and was able to stifle those he didn't like, among them Janáček. This politician is caricatured in Janáček's The Excursions of Mr. Brouček (which also refers to the Hussites).  After the German surrender, Talich walked back to Prague and was promptly arrested for collaboration. There was no evidence and he was released but Talich's career was blocked. Irony isn't it, that when even the Nazis couldn't completely silence Czech artists, some toadying beetles managed quite well.

Please also read Kapralova - songs of Czech Independence, Bílá nemoc - Hugo and Pavel Haas (Czech anti-Nazi film) and of course lots on Janáček, Smetana, Dvořák, Suk and many, many others suppressed by the Nazis. Interesting too that Má vlast was one of most popular pieces of music in 20th century China. Maybe they were responding to it like Talich did, though with different cultural landmarks?