Wednesday 31 October 2012

Busoni's werewolves - Lieder for Halloween

Lieder for Halloween ? The choice is huge, some choices obvious, But here is one that isn't quite so well known : Ferrucio Busoni's setting of Goethe's Zigeunerlied.

Busoni is best known for Doktor Faust and for his piano music, but he wrote an number of lively songs. Listen to the demented piano part and the refrain "Wille wau wau wau, Wille wo wo wo, Witu hu !". This is a wonderful encore piece, ideally suited to low baritone, and will have audiences wondering who the composer is. The singer here (guess who!) lets his hair down and brings out the dark humour. One of the best versions I've ever heard.Enjoy the almost scat rhythms and play on words. A singer could have fun throwing his head in the air pretending to howl.

A man is out on a windy night and hears the howl of wolves. He takes a shot at a black cat. Not smart ! It's a witch's familiar. Instantly he's surrounded by werewolves. Even in wolf form he recognizes them as women from his village out on a hen night from hell.

 Ich kannte sie all', ich kannte sie wohl Die Anne, die Ursel, die Käth', Die Liese, die Barbe, die Ev', die Beth'; Sie heulten im Kreise mich an. Wille wau wau wau! Wille wo wo wo! Wito hu! 

Da nannt' ich sie alle beim Namen laut: Was willst du Anne? was willst du Beth? Sie rüttelten sich, sie schüttelten sich Und liefen heulend davon. Wille wau wau wau! Wille wo wo wo! Wito hu! 

photo : GCD Comics

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Alternative Erlkönig? Loewe Der spaete Gast

An alternative Erlkönig? A woman and her son live alone in the wilderness.One night, there's a knock at the door. It's a goblin. "Little mother, take me into your little house, it's cold and wet out on the moor." "No, I lost my daughter out there in the heath, underr the moon". Then the dog starts to wail, recognizing the voice. Mother thinks her son has opened the door and let in a draught. But his body lies in his bed, in his little room, blaß wie der Mondenschein. Carl Loewe (1796-1869)  Der spaete Gast Op. 7 Nr. 2 to a poem by Willibald Alexis (Georg Wilhelm Heinrich Häring 1798-1871)
 Was klopft ans Tor? Über die rote Heide geht nur mein Sohn und ich, wir beide. Wir beide wohnen in der Wildnis allein, mein Sohn schläft dort im Kämmerlein. Keinen Kobold laß ich zur Tür herein. "Mutterlein! nimm mich ins kleine Haus, draußen weht es so kalt, draußen weht es so graus. Oft schon kreuzt' ich die rote Heide, oft schon sahen wir uns beide, kein Kobold ich, tu nichts zu Liede."

Denn bist du ein Irrwisch und locktest ins Moor meine Tochter, als ich das Kind verlor. Im Schilf, das dort am Felsen gränzt, da tanzt mein Kind, wenn der Mond drauf glänzt, du magst bei ihm schlafen, du hässlich Gespenst. "Ich kann nicht schlafen auf welkem Gras, von Tau und Regen ist's kalt, von Tau und Regen ist's naß. Ich bin kein Irrwisch, ich bin dir verwandt, deine Tochter hab' ich Schwester genannt und hab' sie gewarnt vor des Sumpfes Rand."

Verwandt ist mir niemand, niemand wert, ich steh' allein hier an meinem Herd. Den Fremden empfinge des Hundes Gebell, dem Blutsfreund, spräng'er entgegen schnell, nun starrt er zitternd auf eine Stell. "Mutter, der alte Hund kannte bald die Stimme, die draußen im Dunkel schallt. Er hatte schon sieben Jahr mich gekannt, seit ich ihn drüben am Kreuzweg fand. Mutter, ich bin dir so nah, so nah verwandt."

Was hast du mich spät in der Nacht geweckt? Was hast du im Schlummer die Mutter geschreckt? Was schläfst du nicht ruhig im Kämmerlein? Was spukest du draußen im Mondesschein? Mein Sohn kanns ja nur draußen sein. "Mutter, dein Sohn steht draußen nicht, aber mich brachte dein Schoß ans Licht. Noch schläft dein Sohn im Kämmerlein, aber ich schwebe im Mondesschein und will so gern zu dir hinein."

 Mein Sohn, du stehst so nahe bei mir, warum öffnest du selber dir nicht die Tür? Leicht Flechtwerk ist sie von Elsenwald, und draußen weht der Wind so kalt, o komm ins warme Kämmerlein bald!

"Mutter, ich stehe sehr weit von dir, öffnen kann ich nicht mehr die Tür! Selbst wie der Wind bin ich leicht und schwacht, komm nie mehr unter dein warmes Dach, drum gib mir draußen ein kalt Gemach!" Ich öffne geschwind, mein liebes Kind. Wo bist du? Es saust vorbei der Wind. "Der Wind weht fort mich, Mütterlein!" O weh! da liegt im Kämmerlein mein Sohn, blaß wie der Mondenschein.

Monday 29 October 2012

Scandal! Henze Das Floß der Medusa

Hans Werner Henze on the scandal surrounding the first performance of Das Floß der Medusa (the Raft of the Medusa). In April, 1968, "Red" Rudi Dutschke, demonized student leader, survived an assassination attempt by a neo-Nazi. Henze helped Dutschke and sheltered him in his own home, attracting the kindly interest of the local police. That summer, Henze had written an article about the arts and revolution, in which he linked culture to social equality. "I most certainly did not mean international Stalinization or some such other horrific scenario". But in the paranoid atmosphere of the time, tempers ran high, and with that fear, denunciation  and self interest.  According to Henze, Luigi Nono and Peter Weiss had written letters in defence, but Theodor Adorno refused because he "could not consort with Communists". "Today", said Henze in his autobiography "we can see the cultural misunderstanding that obtained at the time for what it was - stupid and arrogant - but at that difficult it was to explain....the wrongs that had built up over the years".

At a performance of his Second Piano Concerto on 29/9, Henze noticed that the orchestra refused to applaud. "It was because of my world revolution", he said he was told. Soon, there was a "media campaign" against him "by a "ghost writer also active as a composer" and a Hamburg journalist who attacked Henze "pillorying me and  the artistic ideas in the score of Das  Floß der Medusa, a work which, as yet unperformed, they could not possibly have known." During rehearsals, there were rumours of possible trouble. "Throughout this period, I felt as though I was cut off  from the rest of humanity and utterly on my own". 

He describes the night of the premiere : "There we were, waiting backstage - Charles Regnier (Charon),  Edda Moser (Madame la Mort), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Jean-Charles),  and I, ready to go on, but no-one came to fetch us, ...through a chink in the wall, we could see that something was wrong in the hall. People were standing around. Had there been a problem with tickets?........ later we discovered that plain clothes detectives were in the audience, keeping an eye out for rebellious-looking types would that be my claque or my critics? Since no-one came to fetch us, the four of us decided to go out on the platform on our own. After all, the power of music, or at least the power of musicians  might have been sufficient to restore a semblance oforder, And so we set off, the soloists ahead of me, with the result that they were unaware of a man in a grey suit detaining me and saying that if I did not remnve the red flag  that was then being unfurled on stage, I would be held responsible for the consequences. .....In a flash, I realized that it was important for my whole future as an artist and as a member of civilized society, to react impeccably towards this obvious provocation.... I could also have said that I was there to conduct, not to keep the place clean..."

" I  mounted the podium and asked for silence  in the hall...... I raised my baton for the first entry. It was then that I heard a chorus of voices, at first pianissimo, then increasinglu audible. Where was it coming from? I could scarcely believe my ears, it was coming from the platform. The ladies and the gentlemen of the RIAS Chamber Choir that had come to Hamburg  from Berlin ...with whom I had often worked in the past  on terms of perfect amity were chanting in unison "Get rid of the flag!"...."

"A violent off-stage discussion now broke out. The chorus said that they could not bring themselves  to appear on stage with the red flag, the very flag that fluttered from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. By now Fidi too was worked up  and announced that this was the last time he would allow himself to be led up the garden path by me. I was so shocked by his remark that I forgot to ask when the previous occasion had been. ...What garden path? But before I could  think of an answer, Frau Moser broke in and threw her arms around me explaining that whatever happened, she would always stick by me. All this happened in the green room within a matter of seconds, while outside in the hall riot police were starting to launch their attack. That they were already on the scene was due to the fact that they had been stationed in an adjoining room since before the start ofv the concert, ready for action with their clubs and shields and riot gear..... "

"But why, I wondered, had Mr Plod entered the fray? I returned to the platform to find that the orchestra had left... Finding a microphone, he tried  to protest the police intevention, but before he spoke a word, the mike was wrested away. "Meanwhile, at the entrance, representatives of different schools were laying into each other...There was total confusion, brute force was used, and a number of arrests were made. Ernest Schnabel may have been a former controller of North German Radio, but that did not stop him from being thrown through a plate glass door by a representative of the forces of law  and from being locked up in a cell for opposing the state's authority. He had tried to stop the fighting. The red flag was torn to shreds. One thing that I did not see that evening  and discovered only from a photograph  in the newspaper, was a further poster attached to the conductor's desk on which someone had daubed the word "Revolutionary" followed by a question mark. What was meant by this and what happened to the poster are questions I have never been able to answer".

".....I spent the evening with some acquaintances in the same street as the one in which some old friends  from the music world live. They were at home, I saw the lights on, and I knew that they knew where I was , but none of them made any effort to telephone or call around." 

The next day, the programme director of North German  radio apparently told a press conference that "for the next ten years, Henze would be dead as far as the German music scene was involved" and tried to charge Henze for damage to the hall. "At the time I thought the whole thing risible, and shameful, unnecessary, mismanaged  and mean. Time has done nothing to alter that position".

This incident is critical to an understanding of Henze's career. Whatever the details it's clear that Henze was also traumatized by a sense of personal betrayal. He was getting stick from all sides, Far Right, Far Left and points between.  Notice the poster with the question mark after the word "revolutionary". There's no evidence that Henze was complicit, and he emerged greatly damaged by the taint of scandal.  There's a brief hiatus in his output during 1969, which wasn't really broken until El Cimarrón (The Runaway Slave) and Henze's Sixth Symphony. In both cases he reaffirms his ideals and doesn't compromise for the sake of popularity.

 One can completely understand the actions of the Berlin RIA Choir, since their city was still brutally divided. For them, the traumas of the past were still open wounds.  But the sudden change in Henze's position is harder to explain. No-one could claim not to have known what Henze's politics were. Das Floß der Medusa is an explicit condemnation of the exploitation of the poor. It was even dedicated to Che Guevara. Perhaps people like revolution when it's sanitized and defanged, like wearing a Palestinan headscarf shows ones credentials without actually having to care about the issues. While Henze was being demonized,  Leonard Bernstein was admired for flaffing about with Black Panthers, who had no illusions about him.  Henze was lionized when he was fashionable and could guarantee those around him fame and fortune. But once he was demonized, the fashionable fled. That I find more shameful than those who objected to his politics.

Sunday 28 October 2012

I put a spell on you

When this came ourt in 1956 most kids were listening to Pat Boone...... i didn't discover it til 1964, but it changed my life. Never could go back to Perry Como.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Hans Werner Henze has died

Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012). Henze's death has just been announced by his publishers, Schott. Ironically, his Moralitäten is being performed tonight in Basel. No details yet, but Henze has been unwell for many years. Despite his suffering, Henze continued to write. If anything some of his later work is even more uncompromising. Henze would not "go gently into that good night". He believed in principles, even if they might not fit in with what others might expect. His music defies categories. It fits no easy pigeonholes. Henze was contradiction, personified.

Read the obit on Schott's website here.  (photo: Peter Andersen). One of the best pieces on Henze in the British media is here (Ivan Hewett). There is a lot on my site here on Henze.  Especially read  what I've written about Phaedra, which is much misunderstood by listeners expecting easy focus feelgood. Henze confronted death during its genesis and came up with a powerful statement on love and life. I attended the Berlin premiere but over the years,  I've grown to appreciate its profound depth even more.  The score is available bei Schott.  It's ironic that Henze should die just as we enter Benjamin Britten's centenary, for Henze was a Britten devotee, though never a part of Britten's inner circle. Henze's Phaedra and Britten's Phaedra are worth considering together, though they could never be performed together. Read what I've written on the subject HERE 

Also  read my piece on Henze's Six Songs from the Arabian, based on Ian Bostridge's searing performance at the Wigmore Hall this year (more mature and more intense than the recording). This is another seminally important work which anyone interested in Henze needs to know.

Also on this site, Henze's Voices , Der junge Lord,  and Elogium musicum, one of his last works.
Listening recommendations ? Obviously in the circumstances, the Requiem (superlative recording conducted by Ingo Metzmacher). But anyone who loves Henze would have many other favourites.  Later I'll listen to The Raft of the Medusa which started my Henze thing when i was a kid. Or the Ninth Symphony, or L'upupa.  I might however go into the garden because it's the first sunny day in weeks, and remember Henze in the Italian sunshine. But for starters, Henze's very early Whispers from heavenly death. 

Friday 26 October 2012

Romance of the West Chamber 1927 - analysis

The Romance of the West Chamber (1927) (西厢记) was made barely two years after Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, and was almost exactly contemporary with Abel Gance's Napoléon, both of them landmarks in western cinema. The Romance of the West Chamber is almost up there with them, for it was the first grand-scale historical saga made in China. The subject itself was ambitious, because it's one of the great classics of Chinese literature. Adapting it for film was an entirely new concept, and the film makers knew how much they had to live up to. The movie was concieved on a grand scale, shot on location in the vicinity of the 1,000 year old Liuhe pagoda (六和塔) near Hangzhou. Some of the scenes are clearly shot on location in an ancient monastery because they feature elaborately carved gates and architectural features which no studio mock-up could hope to emulate. The film used the most advanced film techniques available at the time, so the narrative blends realism with fantasy.

Hong Kong was right in the vanguard of Chinese film. Lai Man Wai (黎民偉, Li Min-wei, 1893–1953), made the first Chinese feature film in Hong Kong in 1913 and founded Minxin Film Company, which later moved to boom-town Shanghai.. Lai was a visionary, who had supported Sun Yat Sen during the 1911 Revolution, and who understood the potential film could contribute to the modernization of China. Earlier Minxin movies were relatively low budget but Lai put so much in the Romance that his company didn't reecover financially. Indeed the whole of Lai's life can be seen as a struggle to create art despite adverse situations. Choi Kai Kwong's 2001 documentary Lai Man Wai, Father of Hong Kong Cinema is absolutely essential, for Cantonese film makers, actors and technicians were fundamental to the development of film in China. Get the DVD  here.

The Romance of the Western Chamber is available on DVD and through other sources, but it's only half of what the original must have been like. Of the 10 original reels, only 5 remain, so it helps to know the basic story, rather than judge the film in ordinary movie terms, because there are so many missing parts.  Luxuriate in the scenery and the attention to detail. Look out for the bamboo filigree in the ornamental garden, the carvings in the temple, the costumes and the antiques. Watch the soldiers running up hills, with the Liuhe pagoda in the background. The real pagoda in which the original story was set is hundreds of miles away in Shanxi province. Liuhe is closer to Shanghai, and more convenient for the film studio. It's also quite a sight.

Tsui Yingying is a maiden who is staying in a monastery with her mother, younger brother and maid. The actress is Lim Chocho, a big star at the time, very charming. She was a Cantonese too, though born in Vancouver. She married Lai Man Wai in 1920 and made many movies together. Read more about her here. The hero Chang Kung (T K Kar) is a scholar travelling to Beijing for the Imperial exams, who stops at the monastery because it's a quiet place to study. Their eyes meet, they fall in love. However, the countryside is overrun by bandits and the bandit king wants to abduct Miss Tsui, so he attacks the temple. Wonderful battle scenes, soldiers running along up steep slopes and a fight between the bandit and the White Horse General who happens to be a friend of the scholar. Here is where you wonder what the missing reels might have shown - the earliest swordplay choreography in Chinese film?

Wonderful vignettes, such as the  Stupid Monk (pictured left), the old abbot, the maid and Miss Tsui's maid Hung Niang.  Great acting, and wry humour.  The bandit, Tiger Sun, is more stylized, as if he's a direct descendant of a character in traditional Chinese opera. He doesn't have to emote because he doesn't have to think. He's a warrior. It's interesting to see how this film mixes "modern"  acting with traditional dramatic practice. The director was Hau Yiu, (1903-42), also a Cantonese. Read more about him here. What a tragic life, but so typical of that period.

Some of the frames are so well lit and focussed that you realize just how well made the original movie must have been. Chang Kung the scholar falls asleep at his desk and dreams that he's with  Miss Tsui, and the bandit king comes in and drags her away on his horse. What's a scholar to do? He looks at his ink brush and suddenly it grows so big that he can ride on it . He whips it as if it were a horse, and rides through the skies in pursuit. Nice use of superimposed images, a device that features in later Hong Kong movies, though less so in the realism of left wing mainland film. The image of the scholar riding his brush to defeat the bad guy illustrates the precept "The pen is mightier than the sword".  When he wakes, he realizes that he's been cuddling his servant boy, whose face is now smeared with the ink from the brush.

It's tantalizing to watch the 45 minutes remaining of the Romance of the West Chamber because so much of it seems to foreshadow later Chinese film. Perhaps it was more influential than we realize, even if it didn't make a lot of money. Because the world is west-centric, the creativity of non-western cinema isn't appreciated enough. All the more reason for watching the Dream of the West Chamber and other Chinese movies. They are an insight into how other cultures adapted the new medium for their market.  You might also like to read about Prem Sanyas, "The Light of Asia" the 1925 Indian movie about Gautama Lord Buddha in his youth. That was also filmed on location and in the private palaces of the Maharajah of Jaipur. Both the Romance of the West Chamber and Prem Sanyas are important because they counteract colonial stereotypes. Asian film makers were every bit as adept as their western contemporaries.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Oliver Knussen Immersion Barbican

My review of the Knussen at 60 concert, BBCSO Barbican is HERE. Friday 2nd November 10 am to 6pm Barbican Centre Garden Room: Paul Griffiths, Arnold Whittall, George Benjamin, Edward Venn, Paul Archbold, Julian Anderson and Bayan Northcott discuss Oliver Knussen. Speakers like that are celebs in themselves, all worth hearing whatever they have to say. That's a measure of the level of interest in Ollie and his place in British (and American) music. Lunch and concerts included.

Saturday 3rd November matinee and evening Barbican Hall performances of Knussen's Sendak operas, Where the Wild Things Are and Higgelty Piggelty Pop!. Read my review of the Aldeburgh premiere HERE.  Bring your inner child to get full value! I'm going a second time.

Sunday 4th November - three concerts starting at 1.15, film and discussion. Finale concert is a must. Knussen conducts the BBCSO in some of his major works, incl Symphony no 3, the Horn Concerto and Songs for Sue (Claire Booth)  There's plenty about Knussen on this site, please follow the labels.

Arnold Schoenberg and the Swiss Guards

A flash of vivid colour - the Swiss Guards in their Renaissance costumes, guarding the Pope in the Vatican. They have to be bright, physically fit, Swiss and Catholic which limits them to a fairly small gene pool.  Because there's no open recruitment, they're ferociously clannish and loyal to each other and to the standards they believe in. How does Arnold Schoenberg fit in ? Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden sets a poem by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825-1898), the Swiss poet and novelist.

"Und ein Reich will sich erbauen, das den Frieden sucht auf der Erde.......Und ein königlich Geschlecht wird erblühn mit starken Söhnen, dessen helle Tuben dröhnen: Friede, Friede, auf der Erde!" (and an empire will be built, that will bring peace on earth.....a kingly race will blossom with strong sons, whose shining trumpets call out : Peace, peace on Earth)

In this poem, Meyer wasn't writing about the Swiss Guards per se,  but he was fascinated by pageantry and especially by Rome. So it's interesting that when he did write about the Swiss Guards, in his poem Der Schweizer, he did so as satire. "Sie kommen mit dröhnenden Schritten entlang Den von Raffaels Fresken verherrlichten Gang, In der puffigen alten, historischen Tracht, Als riefe das Horn sie zur Murtener Schlacht: (They march in lordly formation, as if they were painted in a fresco by Raffael, in their antique garb, as if they were called to the battle of Morat, where they defeated Charles of Burgundy in 1467).

But the Pope is cutting back, skimping on coal and candles. How are the Swiss Knights to survive?

"Herr heiliger Vater, die Taler heraus, Sonst räumen wir Kisten und Kasten im Haus. Potz Donner und Hagel und höllischer Pfuhl, Wir versteigern dir den apostolischen Stuhl." (Lord, Holy Father, get out them Talers or we'll smash your walls and roofs. Thunder and lightning and hellish hailstorms. We'll sell off your apostolic Throne!)

So the Pope mumbles and ups their pay packet and the Lions become Lambs once more. The value of Industrial Action! 

Even deeper irony : the poem was set by Viktor Ullmann in 1942, when he was in Theresienstadt. Apart from Schoenberg and the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck, hardly anyone set Meyer's poetry, so Ullmann must have had his reasions. He would almost certainly have been familiar with Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden, as he knew Schoenberg and his circle. Ullmann plays up the sardonic tone, emphasizing the rebellious anarchy. The Swiss Guards are beautifully kitted out but treat them badly and they'll turn on their master, even if he is the Head of the Church. And the Pope gives in, meekly.

photo : Andreas Walker

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Schumann under the influence - Jonathan Biss

"Biss declares his intention to move Schumann from the sidelines — admired, says Biss, only for a remarkably small number of his works — to the centre-stage, as a “vital, riveting creative force”. Each of Biss’s four programmes endeavours to show Schumann’s relationship to both past and present, pairing his works with those of an influential predecessor and a composer of the future whose music “without him would not have been possible”.

First of four concerts at the Wigmore Hall reviewed by Claire Seymour in Opera Today.

Götterdämmerung PLUS

Götterdämmerung on BBC Radio 3 today - listen here.  The plus is the interval talk, with Mark Berry and Roger Scruton, which should mean interesting perspectives. Some of the interval features in this series have been way above average, which isn't saying much as the average is fairly low. But this one should be good.

Listening to this Ring des Nibelungen has been rewarding.  It's not great or historic, but my gosh, is it fun! Antonio Pappano has proved himself by creating the Ring as pure theatre, vivid with drama and striking effects. He's telling a magnificent story, which the Ring is, after all. This Ring feels like epic panorama, like a saga at the movies, with emphasis on the human side of non-human characters. High standards all round though no real depths to encumber. You could do a whole lot worse with Pappano's Ring as an introduction to Wagner, or to opera itself for that matter. 

This free-spirited approach throws up treasures, like the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold, who sounded genuinely fresh and happy. Which is how they should be. They carry no baggage and have no inkling that that's exactly why they don't guard their treasure as they should.  I don't adulate Terfel, but respect him a lot when he's on message. In the Met  Rheingold, he seemed to show his contempt for the miscasting around him. In the ROH Ring, he's enjoying himself being Wotan before the fall. Thus, as the plot develops, his Wotan takes on more depth. I've never thought of Wotan as meta Rhinemaiden before, but yes, the Ring is Wotan's journey towards wisdom, which the Rhinemaidens (like Siegfried) may or may not reach.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Mega Bargain, Wagner complete £67!

Cheap Wagner for us plebs! The complete works of Richard Wagner in a 43 CD for £75, £67.50 if you buy early. This works out to just over £1 per CD.  Deutsche Grammophon corrals the anniversary market with this new box set out 5th November. Needless to say, the recordings are classic DG releases,  such as the complete James Levine Ring des Nibelungen, Solti's Parsifal and Lohengrin,  Kleiber's Tristan und Isolde,  all of which will be in Wagner collections, but will be useful as convenient backup. More unusual, recordings of Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot (Edward Downes), and Heinrich Hollreiser's 1976 Dresden Rienzi. (Rene Kollo, Wenberg, Adam, Schreier). For that price don't expect printed booklets, though there will be links to online libretti. Excellent Xmas gift.

Josef Suk - The Ripening

"Where have you vanished, the suns and snows of youth"? As autumn closes in, I think of Josef Suk's The Ripening. The Ripening  op 34 is based on a poem, Zrání, by Antonín Sova, a contemporary of Suk, and a "modern" poet of the renaissance in Czech culture. "Ripening" is  a metaphor for maturity and the cycle of life. The piece isn't as well known as Suk's Asrael Symphony, written in memory of his wife and her father,  Antonin Dvořák, but the symphony and tone poem connect. The Ripening was written slowly, ten years after the trauma from which arose the steely Asrael. There are several recordings, all worthwhile: Talich, Pešek, Neumann, Ancerl, Bělohlávek and Kirill Petrenko. Earlier this year, Bělohlávek conducted it yet again with the BBCSO at the Barbican, and BBC Radio 3 broadcast it with an excellent commentary by Geoffrey Chew, who explained the complex symbolism of Sova's poem, or rather, suggested ways of connecting to its oblique character. 

The Ripening starts off with 13 bars that define the moods to come. Pure, almost transparent chords rise ever upwards and hang. Do they suggest mists hanging in the air, clouding vision or images remembered through hazy half-light? Gradually the tranquillity deepens and "Czech" sounds, suggesting Dvořák, emerge. Darker, earthier, evocations of soil and fertliity. In winter, the fields may be barren, but life teems beneath the surface  Beautifully rarefied textures return, harps and lively figures which may suggest youth and hope. At times, the piece feels cinematic, because the music seems to happen on different levels, like contrasting frames in a film. I feel this is very much central to meaning and impact, for it conveys a feeling of events happening on different but separate planes.

Cymbals  crash, suggesting turbulent, violent change. Small speeding figures even suggest the turmoil of urban life. Then a solo violin leads us out of the dense thickets of sound - it feels poignant but progresses forward. Hymn-like figures enter, rolling timpani, then swathes of string sound that seem to cut like knives. Suk doesn't need hammerblows. Yet again, solo violin and winds counteract the full orchestra. Slow funereal passages in the fourth movement Piu tranquillo gradually dissipate, liberating a serene violin melody, reinforced by harps and bells. One remembers that Suk, his father-in-law and his grandson were all string players.

Wilder, flying figures propel the music forward, driven by trumpets calls. Angular shapes, which sway intensely back and forth. I like the way Suk evokes zig zag dichotomies, the swaying like wind through endless cornfields. Bells peal triumphantly, trumpets leading a charge into resonating reesolution. Rich, warm confidence and conviction. Those cornfields will die down at the end of summer, but the grain they provide will sustain others through the long winter ahead.

"Angel voices" (as Bělohlávek  calls them) rise from the choir. We only hear them now, when we ourselves are "ripe", having  been made ready by listening to the transitions in the music that has gone before. The voices are wordless so they feel surreal : the spirit of Sova's symbolist images in abstract sound. Yet the voices alone don't express the mood. The exquisitely high -pitched "ascending" theme that's run through the whole tone poem emerges yet again, led by the solo violin. The dialogue between choir and violin operates on two planes like a strange concerto. The swaying images in the music which have suggested psychic dislocation, dichotomies and cornfields, now reveal themselves as a gently rocking lullaby.

Monday 22 October 2012

Mario del Monaco sings Cowboy

Who says crossover is new? "Yippee yi-yay Yippeee yay-oooo !" Mario del Monaco (1915-1980), sings Ghost Riders in the sky with Italianate operatic flourish! "Awe inspiring and hilarious in equal measure", says the friend who sent it to me. You bet. Enjoy the flatulent brass underscoring del Monaco's heroic approach.

What every good opera singer needs

Leung Sing Por, the great Cantonese opera singer and comedian says, "In our line of business we're under pressure, need something that will keep us going all day". So from performance to business, he always has on hand a drink that smells/tastes good and is good for you. Horlicks! "Really GOOD !" says the master. (It's a pun on the word "HO" which means "good" in Chinese) Can't see Placido Domingo trying this !

Sunday 21 October 2012

Schoenberg's missing Mahler photo - latest

Three weeks ago, E Randol Schoenberg broke the news that Arnold Schoenberg's treasured photo of Mahler might have been located. It's not any old photo, but was signed and dedicated to Schoenberg personally, and for many years had pride of place in Schoenberg's study. Then it went missing The story is that one of Schoenberg's colleagues gave it to to the grandfather of the man who now claims to own it. Maybe true, maybe not, depending on proof. Read the latest development HERE.

Divine Levine?

Conductors seem to live forever, like Takashi Asahina who was on the podium til age 93,  In comparison, Levine at 70 is a mere babe. But Levine's return raises many questions. He's an icon because he's been at the Met for more than 40 years. Powerful symbiosis between man and house. Levine's doctors say he's fine to work again so that's good news. Levine's raring to go. "It would be torture for him not to conduct", sources say. Good spirit!  In an era where employers get away with treating employees like disposables, the way the Met has cared for Levine has been almost miraculous.

When Levine returns after three years away the audience reaction will be astonishing. Massive sympathy, massive support. But it is necessarily healthy for music ? Perhaps Levine will pick up again rejuvenated. Star performers are always bankable, because even past their prime, people want to hear them and bask in the memory of glory. Unlike singing, conducting doesn't depend on physical fitness. But it does demand creative prowess. No-one would begrudge Levine a graceful retirement and a gradual return, so maybe he has a long term strategy? Running an opera house that size, with that much influence, means a lot more than more-of-the-same. Does the Met itself have long term vision?  We aren't privy to the internal politics in the Met, but what might be happening behind the scenes? In big organizations, it's rarely up to individuals.

The Levine/Met symbiosis is interesting also because it illustrates the different demography betwen US and European classical music. In Europe, there are many more orchestras, opera houses and conductors in a relatively small space, compared with the US. In Europe, opera going isn't necessarily associated with social status. When there's so much choice, momopoly situations don't happen so easily. And with more choice, more challenge. 

Friday 19 October 2012

The original Sid and Nancy - ETO's Albert Herring

Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring, with the English Touring Opera reviewed by Claire Seymour (author of The Operas of Benamin Britten, 2007) in Opera Today.
"Labelled a “parable of oppression” by the late musicologist, Philip Brett, Britten’s provincial comedy, Albert Herring, is a tough nut to crack. A director has to make us laugh while also finding the darker kernel encased in an outer shell of light-hearted satire; to enjoy and celebrate its somewhat localised, even cliquish, nature, while also recognising the continuing relevance and wider frame of reference of its themes and inferences"

"The gait and mannerisms of Mark Wilde’s Albert, entering laden with boxes of vegetables, aptly conveyed the weight of the burden he bears. Wilde’s relaxed, expressive tenor affectingly revealed Albert’s loneliness. Kitted out in diamond-patterned grey sweater and afflicted by a nervous tic, his dramatic eloquence was touchingly at odds with his physical appearance. Wilde’s interpretation was never sentimental. He made it clear that Albert is not wholly innocent or pure, but that he understands his ridiculers’ double entrendres, and is troubled by feelings for which he has no opportunity of expressive outlet or satiation, nascent anger and rebellion."

"This production certainly did fulfil Rolls’ stated intention to “serve both its light and dark sides”. The Maupassant short story from which the libretto was drawn, is a much darker affair, its protagonist, Isidore, coming to a painful, tragic end: “Who knows, who can tell, what grim struggle raged in the Rose-king’s soul between the powers of good and evil?”, Maupassant’s narrator asks. Albert’s liberation is presented by Rolls as an unfailingly positive outcome. Initially incarcerated by his mother’s overpowering embrace and by his public reputation for an almost unnatural innocence, this Albert is now ready to face the world on his own terms, transformed and sustained by his knowledge of love." 

Read the whole review in Opera Today and catch forthcoming performances in  Exeter, Tunbridge Wells, Bath, Snape and Malvern. (details of the ETO tour here)

Jacqueline du Pré remembered

Jacqueline du Pré passed away quietly on 19 October 1987, aged 42. The world Jackie lived in may have passed into history, but in our media-manipulated times, what she represented may, if anything, be even more important.

Christopher Nupen met her when she was still in her teens. He and Bill Pleeth, her "cello Daddy", were holding her hands at the end. Nupen’s first encounter with Jacqueline du Pré was quite surreal. One winter evening, he’d come home late to his flat in New Cavendish Street. The house was still, but a streetlight outside shone through the window. The glass was Victorian, so it had imperfections which refracted light onto the wall inside in strange, unworldly patterns. The radio had been left on, still playing in the darkness. "As I walked in", he said, "I saw those strange patterns on the wall and heard sounds the like of which I had never heard before. I didn’t know it then, but it was Jackie playing Bach in a live broadcast from Fenton House. I said "Wow!" I couldn’t put the electric lights on.  I sat down and contemplated those magic patterns on the wall and listened to those magical sounds. At the end, the radio announced ‘That was a young cellist called Jacqueline du Pré’. It was 1961, January, I think, she was barely 16. Then, just a few weeks later she walked into that same flat!"

She’d come to his home because he shared it with John Williams, the guitarist. "She was about to make her first gramophone recording for EMI and they had had the idea of recording her accompanied by several different people, Gerald Moore on piano, Osian Ellis on harp, John Williams on guitar. So she’d come to our flat to rehearse with John. The minute she walked in the door – Boom! I saw this strange creature striding in like an Amazon! Jackie was a big girl, tall and solidly built. She had a huge, long stride and she held her cello high as she strode down the corridor. But, at the same time, I could see that she was tremendously shy. Of course she didn’t know John and she didn’t know me which might explain the shyness - but not the confidence. I thought to myself, ‘How is it possible for a girl to be simultaneously Amazonian and shy? I’ve never forgotten that impression, it was so striking." "And it applied to her music also … I remember a rehearsal in the Royal Albert Hall where she introduced a tremendous glissando. They all stopped and the conductor said, ‘That’s a bit over the top". And Jackie said, ‘Yes, oh yes, of course!" and modified her playing accordingly. I couldn’t attend the concert, only the rehearsal, and asked later how it had gone. She smiled and said, ‘Well, I did it anyway, and it was SUMPTUOUS" As Nupen recounted this, his face lit up, and his voice warmed. It was almost as if Jackie was present, pronouncing the word "sumptuous" with delicious glee. "That was what Jackie was like", he continued.

"She was shy, she was reticent, she didn’t have a lot of faith in herself, but there was some inner dynamic in her, so that when she felt something was artistically right, you could not stop her with wild horses. It just came from the inside. And how powerfully it reached the audience! There must have been thousands of people there, and I expect that it reached all of them. It’s an amazing thing which you cannot explain in words. You can’t explain it but thank the heavens you ‘CAN’ film it while it’s happening!" In the early 1960s Nupen worked in radio at the BBC. While making his first radio programme, a feature about the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, he met his first wife, Diana, secretary to Christopher Sykes. Huw Weldon heard the Siena programme and called Nupen at 9 o'clock the next morning to say that he should be in television, which was then in its infancy. Nupen claims to have learned just about all he knows from the Features Department writers in BBC radio and was reluctant to leave. In those early days, the Nupens were able to wander in and out of the studios at all hours of the night, even carrying tapes out to work on at home. He nevertheless bowed to Huw Weldon’s wishes and in 1966 made a television film with Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy when they appeared together for the first time playing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos with the English Chamber Orchestra. The film was shot in three days and edited in three weeks - no mean feat for the time. Barenboim and Nupen had been friends for some time and had made radio programmes together, Nupen sometimes accompanying Barenboim on tour and turning pages for him. Barenboim, ever the perfectionist, bought him a Savile Row suit so he’d look right on stage. Despite having many friends in common, Barenboim and du Pré didn’t really connect until December 1966. Within minutes of meeting, they were playing Brahms together. "The effect on them both was like dynamite", Nupen recalls.
Months later, he was able to capture that extraordinary energy in the film Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto, where she plays her signature Elgar Concerto with Barenboim conducting. If anything, the dynamic between Jackie and Pinchas Zukerman was even more electric, since they are both string players. "Zukerman tells amazing stories about the way Jackie communicated her intentions by something like telepathy", says Nupen. "They seldom put marks in the parts but Daniel being the pianist and conductor often did. They would generally follow his markings, but sometimes they’d depart, and astonishingly, always in the same direction, without any pre-agreement or even any conscious intention. They just took off together and it worked. To this day Pinchas Zukerman is amazed at some of the things that happened."

In 1970 Nupen had heard the Barenboim, Zukerman, du Pré trio in an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio in Oxford. When plans to film Segovia in St John’s Smith Square fell through at short notice, with the venue and the crew already booked, he telephoned Barenboim in Brighton and asked "What are you doing on Tuesday?" (12 May 1970). "They came up on the first train from Brighton that morning, and went back on the last train that same evening. In between we had shot The Ghost." "We didn’t think that the filming had gone too well because of the shortage of preparation time", says Nupen, "So when we finished the editing and presented the film to them, I started by saying, ‘I’m sorry that the film cannot hold a candle to that wonderful performance in Oxford, but we have done the best we can with material that we shot at rather too short notice." ‘When the screening ended, before anybody else had said a word, Jackie suddenly said, ‘You’re wrong!’. I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about, so I said, ’What’s wrong – don’t you like it?’ Then she said, ‘You’re wrong because you said it was not as good as the concert in Oxford’. I said ‘Jackie, please! You were so busy on the stage that night that you don’t know what you did in the hearts and minds of those people in the audience, the film cannot be better’ And then she said something so deep-seeing that it took me years to understand it in full. She was teaching me my job. She said, ‘It’s better on the film because you can see what’s going on and it adds another dimension’.

"She was referring to the visual communication between the players which says so much about their artistic intentions and the "telepathy" that Pinchas spoke about but couldn’t explain in words. She had seen that it is there, captured on film and she saw it more clearly than any of the rest of us." The same thing operated on a larger scale when Jackie, Daniel and Pinchas were joined by Itzhak Perlman and Zubin Mehta for The Trout. "We shot their rehearsals and the concert when they played Schubert’s Trout Quintet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in August 1969. The film shows them just as they were, inspired by the joy of making music together and it captures something about the experience of music making at its best. That film and the earlier Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto have brought huge numbers of people to music for the first time in their lives. As Jackie said of The Trout nine years after she stopped playing, "We were five friends, united by our youth and the pleasure we had in making music together. When we played the Trout, it would have evaporated as all concerts do, but Christopher Nupen saw a film in it and suddenly, there was a statement of our happiness forever and when I see the film it gives me back something of that feeling which will always be so precious to me".

In those carefree years, Nupen and his wife Diana used to travel with the Barenboims when they could. "We were all young and rather unthinking. We just tagged along and it all seemed like such a natural thing". The Barenboims moved in the upper echelons of the music world, far removed from anything Jackie had known as a girl. She’d grown up outdoorsy, rather gauche, in a wholesome English way. The cultural divide between their lives was hard to bridge, like the many contradictions in her life. She once told Nupen that she "wasn’t ready to move in these elevated circles", but he contradicted her because he could see how much people loved her. "She was so tremendously loveable and loved. It was no accident that she was taken on so warmly by sophisticated people". She mixed a lot with people whose first language wasn’t English, and the mid-European accent she sometimes used was probably a result. It was a way of blending in and helping others to feel at ease.

 "She could adapt very easily to people but also transform them" says Nupen, "People felt elevated by her, and she changed them". Tragically, soon after those films were made, Jackie’s health declined. In 1971, she withdrew from her punishing international touring schedule. She had withdrawn once before, when she was 15, though at that time it was, according to Nupen, associated with self-doubt. In the film, her father explains how she used the time positively to develop other interests, such as yoga and fencing. Then, in her own time, she decided to return to playing. "She was her own person", says Nupen, "but the disease overpowered her. I suppose she shouldn’t even have tried that Brahms Double Concerto in New York, but she did, that’s how courageous she was. She hoped it would be alright because she had always been so technically secure. She managed so well that some people thought it was just a lack of practice. She couldn’t feel anything in her fingers. It wasn’t a lack of confidence, it was physical, multiple sclerosis, affecting the nerves." "Jackie was supremely adaptable", says Nupen, "but she did find touring a strain and it got to her. She wasn’t the kind of person who wanted to travel all the time and play concerts every day, other things also mattered to her, even though playing for people was the most important thing. She enjoyed company and teaching so she took on students, including Nupen’s wife, Diana, because she loved to communicate what the cello meant to her. "Diana died of cancer in 1979, aged only 39. Jackie died in 1987 aged 42. They were two of the kindest, gentlest most constructive people I have ever known. How do you even try to understand that?" Nupen’s voice deepens, as he quotes Andrés Segovia who loved them both, ‘Ay, Christopher, my dear, I do not understand and never will, the cruelty of nature." (photo credit Allegro Films)

Watch any of the many Jacqueline du Pré films by Allegro - they are pioneer works and a valuable archive created by people who knew Jackie well and loved here. To read the full interview look here

Thursday 18 October 2012

Mozart Salieri and Rimsky-Korsakov - Young Artists Week, Linbury

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Mozart and Salieri (1897) received its first ever performance at the Royal Opera House as the highlight of Meet The Young Artists Week at the Linbury Studio Theatre.

Salieri is jealous because Mozart makes composing look easy. He poisons Mozart but weeps, since he's reading the score for The Requiem, presumably overwhelmed by its beauty. We know the plot is fiction, but the text is by Alexander Pushkin, who lifts it above maudlin melodrama. Salieri can kill Mozart but he can't kill his art. In destroying his rival, Salieri has compromised his integrity. "Can crime and genius go together?" he asks himself, and consoles himself with the thought that Michelangelo  killed his model for the crucified Christ to get a better likeness for death.  Does art justify murder? Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov possibly knew the tale was untrue, making Salieri's excuse highly ironic.
Mozart and Salieri is unusual. The part of Salieri so dominates the work that it is more psychodrama than opera. Mozart and Salieri barely interact. Mozart isn't a character so much as the embodiment of music. The real protagonists here are Salieri and the orchestra. At critical moments, Rimsky-Korsakov adds apposite musical quotations. Moments of Cherubino's Voi che sapete convey Mozart's youthful impudence. Fortepiano melodies are played, and shrouded figures sing excerpts from Mozart's Requiem.  References to Salieri's opera Tarare and to Beaumarchais and Haydn are embedded into text and orchestration, expanding Salieri's monologue. He can "hear" but he can't create like Mozart can. The Southbank Sinfonia was conducted by Paul Wingfield, with Michele Gamba playing the keyboard Mozart is seen playing invisibly on stage, his hands lit with golden light. A magical moment.

Ashley Riches sang the demanding role of Salieri. His experience and skill come over well, even though he's been a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme for barely a month. Later this year, he'll be singing parts in The Royal Opera House Robert le Diable, Don Carlo and La rondine, and covering the title role in Eugene Onegin.  In this opera, Mozart isn't given much to sing, and the range in the part is limited, but Pablo Bemsch developed the role purposefully through his acting. Salieri thinks Mozart is skittish: Bemsch with sheer personality shows that Mozart is a stronger character than Salieri could ever fathom. Bemsch is a second-year Young Artist and has been heard extensively. He's covering Lensky in February 2013.

The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme isn't just for singers but focuses on theatre skills. This production was one of the most sophisticated I've seen for a group with these relatively limited resources. Sophie Mosberger and Pedro Ribeiro designed an elegantly simple set, which suggested that Salieri, despite his  wealth and status, was a fundamentally isolated man. The little puppet figure buffeted by figures in the darkness suggested that both Mozart and Salieri were victims of forces greater than themselves. Exquisite lighting by Warren Letton, colours changing as mysteriously as the music. A stunning finale, where the dark figures singing the Requiem move around lighted candles. Since financial problems will haunt the opera world for a long time to come, this restrained but poetic minimalism may be the way ahead. This production was intelligently thought through, and musically sensitive.

 Before Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri, we heard Mozart's Bastien and Bastienne, written when the composer was twelve years old. It's a slight piece about a courtship between shepherd and shepherdess. Staging this literally would expose the weaknesses of the piece. Ribeiro and Mosberger set the Singspiele in a vaguely industrial landscape, which added much needed good humour and gave the singers more material with which to develop character. The trouble is, neither Bastien or Bastienne are much more than stereotypes. David Butt Philip, another new Young Artist, generates interest with his voice though the part is shallow. Dušica Bijelić sings sweetly but needs to project more forcefully. Jihoon Kim made a much more convincing portrayal of Colas, the wise older man who sorts things out. He was a striking Hector's Ghost in the Royal Opera House Les Troyens in June 2012, and will be singing in several ROH productions in the 2012/13 season.

The photo show Chaliapin singing Salieri in an early production.
A ful review with cast list will appear in Opera Today.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

The Farewell Song and its context

Another snippet of world culture. Li Shi Tong 李叔同 (1889-1942) came from a wealthy family in Tianjin, North China. He became an all-round artists and scholar, skilled not only in Chinese arts such as painting, poetry and calligraphy but also western art, music and drama. Like so many others of his generation, he believed the way ahead for China was to modernize, so he studied in Japan and married a Japanese wife. Among his many achievements is the "Farewell Song", so famous that it's become almost as ubiquitous as a folk song. It was an adaptation of a 19th century American song, tranformed into a Chinese genre. Its mood of nostalgia is exqusitely moving, so maybe that's why it means so much to many people. After 1918, Li became a monk, another way of seeking enlightenment.

Enjoy the film below

Tuesday 16 October 2012

FREE ROH Wagner Ring

Yes, the Royal Opera House Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen  FOR FREE. Plus, avoid the visuals which may also be an advantage. Possibly interesting features in the interval and no huge bar prices: BYO. Let those who wish spend £1,000 plus to see and be seen. Those who actually want to hear the music and think Wagner can catch it HERE from 7 pm Tuesday 16th October. No repeats, so don't miss.

Monday 15 October 2012

Why did Mo Yan win the Nobel Prize? Red Sorghum

 When Mo Yan (莫言) won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, many had never heard of him. That's fair enough as the world is dominated by Anglophone culture, and let's face it, the average man in the street doesn't read formal literature. The NY Times has published two articles that verge on racist. One article stupidly ignores a thousand years of Chinese literature by assuming the Chinese needed to learn from Victorian novels but didn't. A second article, better informed, insinuates that there are impure motives behind the selection. The Nobel Prize committee have said they made the award for artistic merit. They are reminding the world that high culture exists beyond the narrow confines of west-centric experience. This should be an opportunity to find out who Mo Yan is, and why he's respected.

Mo Yan's writing connects to an ancient tradition of epic saga. Think The Water Margin, where a band of renegades roam Song Dynsty China.  Even in tales like these, there's an element of social commentary, challenging the reader to adapt the tale for wider situations. One of Mo Yan's most famous novels, the trilogy of  Red Sorghum, was written some years before the Tien an men massacre. That says something. It was filmed very soon after publication by Zhang Yimao, and marked the debut of Gong Li. The film itself is important because it was the beginning of a vital new age in Chinese cinema. Red Sorghum the movie (1987) tells the story of an unseen narrator's ancestors, living in feudal times where brides were bought. It's set in a factory that makes kaoliang wine: part industrial, part agrarian. The fields of sorghum play a crucial part in the plot. The crop provides the sorghum that turns into wine. But it's also featureless, a place of hidden dangers that can be trampled. 

The flow of narrative is like the flow of wine. Songs run through, connecting events to ancient oral tradition. "Drink, drink, good wine, good wine, Kaoliang wine!" the workers sing when they want to let off steam after hard labour. Drunkeness is a brief escape into emotional freedom. The song repeats several times, like a leitmotiv. The wine is red, like blood. The film is poetically saturated with shades of red, from the bride's outfit to the disemboweling of an animal. Gong Li's character gets raped several times, by different men, yet she survives. Another metaphor for China. Eventually she's killed by partisans (Communist) in the forest of sorghum fields. Her child is seen crying, surrounded by flames, but we kn0ow the story isn't over. 

The movie is deliberately stylized, stressing the story's mythic quality. Perhaps this connects to the stylization of oral tradition. Although the events are 20th century, there's a powerful sense of timelessness, as if it were an ancient folk drama. Zhang Yimao's use of red saturation cloaks the story so you have to watch through a veil of mystery, just as the bride enters her new life with her face covered. Don't expect Hollywood-style action. This film is a kind of psychodrama acted out ritually in a procession of images. 

In an article for Le Monde, Mo Yan described his initial inspiration. During the Cultural Revolution, he watched a North Korean movie, which had intense effects on Chinese audiences. People who could not confront the pain in their own lives could find emotional release through the ritualized detachment of a propaganda movie. "We weren’t crying over the tragic destiny of a young girl who sold flowers", said Mo Yan, "but, rather, over ourselves and our country. The screening of this film in China was a considerable political event. It was the sign of the total failure of the Great Cultural Revolution that Mao Zedong had unleashed. The tears had washed the eyes of the people, had allowed them to draw the lessons from this tragedy, and they started to hope for a normal life."

Zhang Yimao's later films have a similar mythic quality. Action is oblique, just as human beings have to observe rather than act on impulse. Surfaces are gloriously glossy, to deflect from the emotional turmoil within. Gong Li was Zhang's muse because her face could capture fleeting feelings behind  a smooth exterior. She smiles, exposing teeth that haven't been cosmeticized for the media. Yet her eyes are hesitant, hinting of secret sorrows. She is an actress who emotes rather than one who says lines and fakes feelings. Her teeth act, too, for they are wide, strong and utterly pure, like the characters she plays. We follow Gong Li in different roles, because we identify with what she symbolizes. Perhaps this cinematic insight derives from Chinese opera, where stock characters are used,  but convey feeling through associations the audience has picked up over long experience. The audience knows tunes and gestures, but are creating new drama in their own minds.

In an interesting article in The New Yorker, Richard Brody refers to the virtues of Zhang Yimao's  movie of Red Sorghum. "The four elements that leap out now are memory, music, talk, and madness. The very fact that the story is told in the framework of a voice-over that tells the tale as it came down from the narrator’s grandfather, the protagonist, suggests the very importance of memory itself—not in the form of official histories but personal stories." Read more here. The Le Monde article is quoted therein.

photo of Mo Yan by Johannes Kolfhaus Gymn. Marienthal, photo of Gong Li by Georges Biard

Lulu La Monnaie - sounds great !

New production of Alban Berg Lulu at La Monnaie/ De Munt in Brussels. Barbara Hannigan as Lulu almost guarantees musical integrity. The director is Krzysztof Warlikowsky (read about his Eugene Onegin here)  Opera Cake, who was there says it was "one of the most outstanding productions created so far anywhere and by any theatrical standard." Read more here. Alas, he says it won't film well, which is a pity as a broadcast is planned soon. But look at the rehearsal videos for a taster.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Welsh National Opera British Firsts

Five year series of "British Firsts" at the Welsh National Opera, starting summer 2013, thanks to a £2 million gift from the Getty family, (who are also connected to Garsington Opera at Wormsley)

David Pountney, WNO's Chief Executive and Artistsic Director, says "This series gives us an extraordinary opportunity to re-engage with contemporary opera writing and to transform our perceptions of new music. We hope to dispel the misconception that modern opera is either moribund or incomprehensible to our audiences."

" Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a massive amount of creative energy in the artform and new works are constantly being created all over the world. we can enjoy modern music and modern opera as part of our normal cultural life, just as we enjoy modern cinema, television, books or fashion. It will open the doors to the landscape of the new."

Exciting news, which should shake things up, but nothing dangerously radical. Two of these operas are well known, albeit not in full UK productions.  Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream (scheduled for summer 2013) was first heard in 2007 at De Nederlandse Opera. Pierre Audi directed: best possible premiere. When it reached the Barbican in London in January 2012, (semi staged), it was the hottest ticket in town, generating much excitement. Colin Stuart Clarke, a Jonathan Harvey devotee, wrote a thoughtful review for Opera Today, more sympathetic than most. "The vast stretch of Harvey’s available compositional resources was impeccably utilised. Tonal sections made great effect (a lullaby, for example) and yet did not jar in the slightest, instead appearing as just one element in the composer’s palette. The music shares with Wagner’s an ability to take the listener out of temporal time into the composer’s expanded time, and, as with Wagner, the time spent experiencing this piece seemed somehow telescoped, as one became intimately involved with the events and their musical realisation. One one level it felt as if we had been there years; on another, it was a mere moment."

In 2017, WNO will be doing Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland. This, too, was premiered in 2007, in Munich. It was screened at the Barbican London last year. The DVD has been available since 2008. Just as Alice was curious, the opera is curious. Absurdity and silliness can mix well, as Lewis Carroll showed. Chin is highly regarded in some circles, but I felt Alice was too self-indulgent as opera, but was wholly redeemed by Achim Freyer's direction. Alice wears a huge mesh head and meets other giant talking heads-in-boxes. A new edition of the opera was prepared by British composer Lloyd Moore for a US production in 2012. I'm not sure which version we'll hear in Cardiff, but I'm hoping for a tighter orchestration.

More intriguing might be the Edgar Allan Poe double bill directed by David Pountney in 2014. Claude Debussy’s unfinished one-act opera The Fall of the House of Usher has been orchestrated by Robert Orledge, using additional material from sketches left by Debussy. It will be heard with Gordon Getty’s Usher House. Both will be presented in San Franciscxo in 2015. The picture right is Harry Clarke's illustration from an early French edition of Poe's poem.

Quietly under-publicized is Richard Ayres' Peter Pan, planned for 2015. Ayres (b 1965) is a significant British composer but better known in mainland Europe - which is so often the case. Peter Pan is a joint commission between the Komische Oper Berlin, Stuttgart Opera and WNO, which indicates its potential. Peter Pan might well be the surprise hit among these "British Firsts". We shall hope!

photo credit : Thomas Duesing

Friday 12 October 2012

Fritz Wunderlich, Romanticism and Die Schöne Müllerin

Fritz Wunderlich died aged only 35, an age when many singers are only just getting into their prime. His Schubert Die Schöne Müllerin is a classic because his voice is so beautiful that it sounds melodic, whatever he might be singing. For that reeason I keep coming back to it, even if it's more exquisite than profound. Hear it in full here.  

The trouble with Romanticism is that people assume it's "romantic" like maudlin Victorian sentimentality. But the Romantics weren't like that at all.  Just as the French Revolution marked an alternative to absolute power, Romanticism inspired emphasis on the individual, not the state, emotional depth as opposed to classical detachment. Ideas and feelings didn't come from "above" but from personal committment and understanding. Without Romanticism would the revolutions of 1848 have been such a watershed? Would the modern world be what it is, (and not in a narrow sense).

Understand Romanticism and you understand Lieder, I think. All good artists create anew: bad artists copy (even if it makes them successful). In the Romantic ethos, art is valid when it's created with integrity and engagement. Machines can't do art. Every genuine artist seeks "truth", grown from an understanding of poet/composer, but also from personal input. That's why listening is so exciting. Over 40 plus years I've heard hundreds of  Die Schöne Müllerin yet can't ever get enough. There's so much to it that there will always be new perspectives. Every performer is an individual, and every listener too, and each experience is coloured by the moment in which it's heard. Fritz Wunderlich never did get old, so we don't know how he might have been singing it aged 45 or 55.  The world has changed a lot in 50 years since Wunderlich made his recording, so I treasure it as a moment crystallized in time.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Malcolm Arnold "Too bawdy for family audiences"

"Too bawdy for family audiences" the BBC said about Malcolm Arnold's comic opera The Dancing Master, which will at last be premiered at this year's Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton next week.

Arnold is a composer whose work everyone knows - remember the whistling song in The Bridge on the River Kwai ? Or "Nick Nack Paddy Whack" the children's marching song from The Inn of the Sixth Happiness?  It would be logical for a man who wrote theme music for dozens of hit movies to write music for the stage. Indeed, his music for ballet is well appreciated, and his orchestral music is vivid. So much will be hanging on this performance of Arnold's opera. "Given that there aren't many British operas, it;'s very significant", says Paul Harris, Arnold's biographer, in this article by Dalya Alberge. "Harris praises Arnold's ensemble writing, particularly an "uplifting" sextet towards the end, the catchy melodies and the "transparency" that allows the voices to come through with both colour and support."

Arnold's The Dancing Master is based on a Restoration comedy from  1671, so perhaps it says something about social mores in 1952 that a comedy of manners  accepted 300 years before didn't go down well in Austerity Britain. Later, Granada turned the opera down because "it wasn't serious enough".

On the other hand, British audiences were hardly afraid of risqué, especially packaged for laughs. The operas of Elizabeth Maconchy, like The Sofa (1957), would be louche today. It's a scream. The libretto was written by Ursula Vaughan Williams. Many years ago, when I suggested that the Ursula/Ralph relationship might have been spicy, I was advised not to upset the legions of staid British music fans. Luckily Ursula was made of stronger stuff and was honest enough to tell the world in no uncertain terms that RVW was fun in bed. Hopefully the Arnold Festival performance will make it to broadcast or CD.

Can Beethoven make life worth living?

THE MUSICAL BRAIN 2012 Conference :The Beethoven Question: Can Art Make Life Worth Living?

The Beethoven Question on 27th and 28th October is s a two-day exploration of Beethoven's life and music and the role the arts can play in overcoming life's adversities. How Beethoven's deafness affected his life and music - What new research into his string quartet writing reveals - Can music make life worth living in the face of adversity

Led by the broadcaster STEPHEN JOHNSON, the weekend features
distinguished speakers and musicians including: Classic FM's JOHN
SUCHET on Beethoven's Life and Deafness; PROF BARRY COOPER on the Piano Sonatas; behavioural neurologist PROF MICHEL TRIMBLE on '_Beethoven, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know?'_; composers NIGEL OSBORNE and LLOYD COLEMAN; DR PAUL WHITTAKER founder of Music and the Deaf; PROF RICHARD STOKES on Beethoven: Father of the Lied, LINDSEY DRYDEN's 2012 documentary LOST AND SOUND, on a musician, a dancer and a music critic coping with hearing loss. Also included are three panel discussions: The Need to Compose, The Need to Perform and The Need to Listen and an open forum on Can Art Make Life Worth Living? Concerts, too !
More details HERE

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Florian Boesch - strong minded Die Schöne Müllerin

Florian Boesch is singing Schubert Die Schöne Müllerin at the Oxford Lieder Festival on Sunday 14th October. This won’t be routine. Radically challenging conventional interpretation, Boesch says “I don’t believe it ends in suicide”.

”Through performing, I've come to understand Die Schöne Müllerin in a different way”. A young miller follows a brook which leads him to a mill. There’s nothing sinister in that per se, for millstreams lead to mills and the miller is looking for work. The miller falls in love with the miller's daughter, but she falls in love with a huntsman. The last song, Des Baches Wiegenlied, is a lullaby, and it’s often assumed that the references to sleep and nightfall mean death.

“It’s much stronger than that”, says Boesch. "The miller is not schizophrenic, he's articulate and has a sophisticated inner consciousness. The Wiegenlied is not romantic simple-mindedness. It's much more profound than a love dream. I believe it is a sensitive human being's way of connecting with his inner self".
"We know about Wilhelm Müller and we understand what an intelligent man he was. Although Müller is known today for Schubert’s setting of his poems, in his own time he was known for much more. He fought in the battles of the Prussian Resistance to Napoleon and passionately supported the Greek wars of independence from the Turks. Romanticism involved more than escapist dreams: it embraced action, freedom and progressive ideas.

Boesch refers to the work of Erwin Ringel, the Austrian psychoanalyst who studied suicide. Ringel’s theory on Presuicidal Syndrome involved three phases: constriction caused by situations in life, aggression channeled inward towards the self, and fantasies about suicide as a form of action.  Not all who think about suicide actually follow through. “In that sense” says Boesch, “we can interpret Die schöne Müllerin as a psychological dialogue.  The miller is thinking about the situation he is in and is trying to imagine how to resolve it.  Thoughtful people are always considering the possibilities before them. The miller doesn't have to be talking to a real brook. The brook is another aspect of his own personality, guiding him to make the right choices."

"So," says Boesch, "consider the text". At times of stress, the miller reflects by projecting his feelings. "In Der Müller und der Bach the dialogue is clear. The man speaks of angels singing  to rest the soul. But the Brook says Ein Sternlein, ein neues, Am Himmel erblinkt (a little star, a new one, shining in the heavens)". Then will rise three roses Die welken nicht wieder, Aus Dornenreis.. From the thorns, new growth that will never wilt. "And then, "says Boesch, the image of "die Engelein schneiden, Die Flügel sich ab und gehn alle Morgen zur Erde hinab", What is an angel without wings? A new woman, who will always return. The brook is the more mature, more positive side of the miller's mind. It's telling him that no matter how bad he feels now there will be new mornings and faithful women in the future. The brook is always moving forward, it does not stand still".

Significantly, Wilhelm Müller had a bad love affair but later married happily. Although Schubert wrote the cycle around the time he learned he had syphilis, it isn't necessarily autobiographical.  "Consider Winterreise" says Boesch. "Again, the man does not have to die or go mad."

Boesch's rationale is far more sophisticated.  "In Das Wirtshaus, the man visits the cemetery. Allhier will ich einkehren, hab' ich bei mir gedacht (here I'll settle, I thought). But he rejects death.  Nun weiter denn, nur weiter, mein treuer Wanderstab!" The walking stick leads him on, just like the brook keeps flowing. The man has many chances to stop and die but he chooses to brave the wild weather and struggle on. "Even in the beginning, there's that phrase Die Liebe liebt das Wandern, Gott hat sie so gemacht, von einem zu dem andern. God is not willing death, but Wandern".

"The word Wunder occurs three times in the cycle at critical points" says Boesch. "it means something strange, like Zauberhaft. So Der Leiermann is 'wunderlicher Alter'. Soll ich mit dir geh'n? Willst zu meinen Liedern Deine Leier dreh'n? .(should I go with you ? Do you want to play my songs be played on your hurdy-gurdy? ). The dogs that howl in Gute Nacht appear again in Der Leiermann, who struggles forward, still trying to play although his fingers are frozen. "So I believe in an inner psychological meaning in Winterreise too".

"When I was 12 years old, my grandfather gave me an LP of recited ballads by Goethe and Schiller", adds Boesch. "Two weeks after Christmas, I knew them all by heart. I was fascinated. I studied violincello for many years, but I realized that I would not be that kind of musician. My music is the text", he says decisively "I love the music of language, and expressing the meaning of words in music."

"A performance involves two people, the pianist and the singer", adds Boesch. "Malcolm Martineau is wonderful, because he's very quick to pick up on what I'm singing, and he's very fast to adjust. Although I have a clear understanding of what I want to do, in performance spontaneous ideas can develop". Sometimes Boesch feels like he's accompanying the pianist. "I like working with pianists like Martineau, Roger Vignoles and Justus Zeyen, because they can adjust so well to spontaneity".

This interview also appears in Opera Today