Tuesday 30 July 2013

Bayreuth Siegfried - Lance Ryan redeemed

Siegfried at Bayreuth, 29/7/13, (broadcast live by BR Klassik) showed why Lance Ryan is the Siegfried of choice on the Wagner circuit. At Bayreuth, where it really counts, Ryan was very good indeed. In London, his mind may have been focused on Bayreuth, so his Proms performance was a shock.  Ryan's strengths lie in his diction and projection. He is so clear that any problems are magnified. Robert Dean Smith, on the other hand, can get away with anything because he can't be heard. Ryan doesn't have the most floridly beautiful  voice, but he uses it wisely. This Siegfried had authority. We could glimpse the genuine hero Siegfried might have become had he had the chance.

Kirill Petrenko conducted. Where Barenboim relished muscular energy, Petrenko went for clean lines and clarity, the energy purposefully contained. How wonderful it was to hear two very different interpretations only two days apart. Both valid, both authoritative. Wagner conducted with committment always gives us something to think about. Petrenko was specially good at defining the rumbling undercurrents that flow through this opera. The orchestra doesn't have as many "star turns", as in, say Götterdämmerung but it conveys atmosphere. Petrenko's textures suggested the density of rocky outcrops rising above a dense forest. Fafner feels overwhelmingly present, even though he doesn't actually appear until the second Act. He's breathing, ominously, while everyone else is busy singing, scrapping and posing riddles. A bit like Erda. Perhaps this sounds silly, but my dog, who hears opera all the time and usually ignores it, jumped up and paid attention when Fafner growled out of my PC. Staffies don't know what operas are "about" but they sure can recognize sounds!

Burkhard Ulrich's Mime wasn't quite as manically kinetic as the score might suggest, but he negotiated the twists and slithers in the part effectively. Trolls are dangerous when they don't look like trolls. Real life Mimes hide their treachery by sounding smooth.  Wolfgang Koch's Wanderer sang with slow-moving gravity. It can't have been more than 20 years since Wotan fought with Brünnhilde over Siegmund, but he's aged dramatically. Koch's Wanderer is fast becoming an Erda, too. Nadine Weissmann's Erda, by contrast, sounded refreshingly sprightly. Her sleep must be doing her good, and she doesn't want to be disturbed. Martin Winkler's Alberich was lively, taunting and tantalizing.

But the show revolved around Lance Ryan. Significantly, Wagner doesn't write the part in this opera for effusive emotion. That comes in Götterdämmerung when Siegfried has, more or less, grown up.   But while he's in the forest, he's still in fragments, like the sword. Mime splutters and splatters. Siegfried sings in brief bursts: a surly teenager ! Mime spars with the Wanderer and with Alberich  on equal grounds. Until Siegfried has forged the sword, he's no match for anyone. In this performance I was hugely impressed by the way Ryan transformed. With the wonky, out of tune horn warbles, Siegfried is taking his first baby steps so to speak. The Bayreuth horn player sounded surprisngly bluesy, intensifying the humour. Gradually Ryan's voice rises and fills out. Rich vibrato isn't his thing, but his sound rings clear and pure. No forcing or stutter this time. Ryan's Siegfried is  pristine, like the child of Nature he's portraying. Mirella Hagen's Waldvogel is a little shrill, but that only serves to highlight Siegfried's growing confidence. By the time Ryan confronts Fafner. he's fully formed, and Fafner's smart enough to notice. This time, when Siegfried meets Brünnhilde, he's most certainly the kind of man a Brünhilde might fancy, even if she's still half awake.  Now, both Siegfried and Brünnhilde are dazzled by the dawn and the glorious new prospects that await them. Catherine Foster sang a sweet, girlish Brünnhilde. She's the first English soprano to sing the part in Bayreuth (Susan Bullock has done it just about everywhere else). But Lance Ryan's Siegfried steals the show.

Monday 29 July 2013

Sensational singing Götterdämmerung Barenboim Prom Wagner

With this phenomenal  Prom 20 Götterdämmerung, Daniel Barenboim's traverse through Wagner's Ring reached its culmination. After the Prom, Barenboim spoke of the "communion" this journey has brought to performers and to the audience. Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin have upped the ante for all future performances with this ground-breaking interpretation. I will;never forget this experience. This Götterdämmerung felt like a historic moment.

 This  Götterdämmerung, was historic, too, because of the singers. Nina Stemme and Andreas Schager were making their high profile Proms debuts as Brünnhilde and Siegfried. Because the BBC Proms are broadcast internationally, there can be no greater exposure. But bear in mind, too, that that creates tremendous pressure. Nina Stemme is one of the greatest Isoldes of our time, and everyone was expecting miracles. Brünnhilde and Isolde may be sisters in spirit, but Brünnhilde is a very different prospect. She's a Valkyrie, a woman-warrior and the true hero of the entire Ring. On Brünnhilde all interpretations evolve. Stemme's Brünnhilde is feminine and surprisngly fragile. When she's led into the Hall of the Gibichungs, Stemme sings softly, showing how Brünnhilde is lost, for once, out of her depth ins a strange new environment. Stemme's Immolation Scene was magical. Standing in the organ loft, lit by ethereal light, Stemme delivered a performance that would put many others to shame. As the "flames" rose in the orchestra, Stemme expressed Brünnhilde's resolve and strength. Although Brünnhilde returns the ring to the Rhinemaidens and Valhalla and its values are destroyed, we can't really be sure what happens next. So no false sense of triumph, but rather valediction for what has passed. Stemme is still finding her way into the role, good as she was. One day, she'll be truly superb. We were hearing her Brünnhilde in germination, and have something good to remember.

The sensation of the evening was Andreas Schager. True Heldentenors are rare and a singer like this is rarer still. Schager's voice is full of natural colour and beauty, which he uses well, creating myriad nuances and shadings. His phrasing is intelligent, bringing out character and meaning.  In Wagner, it's not enough, ever, to sing words without meaning. Each time Schager sang, I felt that I was learning more about Siegfried than I'd fathomed before. Every  passage was individual, purposefully and beautifully expressed. Schager's voice is flexible, so he can do subtle changes of inflection without sacrificing line. He also has stamina. Though the part isn't a killer like that in Siegfried, it shouldn't pose problems. Schager has strong lungs but also strong technique. 

He can also act. He inhabits the part so intuitively that his body becomes an extension of his singing. His movements are instinctive and expressive.  Schager could not have had much coaching for the part since he only stepped into the Berlin production at short notice, and from what I've read, it was one devoid of Personenregie. When Schager moves, we remember that Siegfried grew up with animals in the forest, a true child of nature. Even when he dons a suit, Schager's agility suggests that the real Siegfried still lives within. The sheer joy and energy in Schager's singing makes us realize that, for Siegfried, everything is new and exciting. The interaction between Schager and Anna Samuil's Gutrune is fascinating. These two are natural partners, frisky and playful. If Siegfried had had a chance to grow up normally. he might have picked a Gutrune. Let's not forget, his love for Brünnhilde, though genuine, resulted from unusual circumstances. As even Brünnhilde sings, "Zu neuen Taten, teurer Helde, wie liebt' ich dich, ließ ich dich nicht?" The Journey Down the Rhine expresses the wonder of expansive new horizons. When Schager's Siegfried dies, it's like something in all of us dies, too.

Waltraud Meier, one of the great Kundrys, Isoldes and Sieglindes of all time, sang  Waltraute and the Second Norn.  Her dialogue with Stemme's Brünnhilde was touching. Waltraute acts as Brünnhilde's conscience. Her voice still carries authority. This Waltraute was no mere incident in proceedings, but a turning point, reminding Brünnhilde where her duty lay. 

Mikhail Petrenko's Hagen was intriguing, as original as Barenboim's approach to the opera itself. . Petrenko's voice is firm, but clear and bright for his fach.That's good, for it brings out Hagen's human qualities rather than a more "mythic" portrayal. Hagen's conflicted by his heritage. Alberich (Johannes Martin Kränzle) haunts him, but he's been brought up among the Gibichung.  Petrenko's consonants bite, suggesting inner pain. The relationship between Petrenko's Hagen and Schager's Siegfried is thus even more interesting, because they're both outsiders in an alien environment. Listen to the interaction between the voices. Petrenko listens and responds. He's not simply doing a star turn of his own.

Gerd Grochowski's Gunther felt fresh and modern too. The moments when Grochowski, Petrenko and Schager sang together were particularly impressive, each contributing something individual.The fervent cries of "Bruderschaft" are sincere. It's male bonding. Siegfried has never known what it's like to be in social situations. Growchowski's Gunther isn't weak, but an optimist. And Petrenko's sensitive, conflicted Hagen suggests that Hagen truly wants to be part of a group, at last. 

And the orchestra and conductor? I've run out of time, energy and superlatives.  Mark Berry will be reviewing this Prom for Opera Today. Read HERE.  

This Prom can be heard for 7 days on BBC I player. It will also be recorded. 

 Please also see my posts on the Proms Die Walkure, Siegfried and Tristan und Isolde .

Sensation! Andreas Schager Siegfried Prom Barenboim

BBC Prom 20, 2013 felt like an historic occasion. Wagner Götterdämmerung with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. It was an astonishing performance. No-one who was there will ever forget it . But the sensation of the evening was Andreas Schager. He was absolutely outstanding. Tonight I think, history was being made. True heldentenors are rare and one like Schager must be rarer still. His voice is divine, and he can act, both with his voice and body. Proms appearances are ultra high profile. Everyone all over the world wants to know who Schager is. His website crashed earlier tonight.  (It needs a more sophisticated revamp.)

HERE is my review of  Götterdämmerung Prom 20

It's just not possible for any singer to sing Siegfried out of the blue. Austrian born, Berlin resident Andreas Schager has quietly been building up a career in the smaller but more esoteric German houses, gaining the sort of experience that comes with hard work and total immersion in repertoire. He sings a lot of Wagner and did the title role in Rienzi twice, including this January in Hamburg. He's not a Met-style publicity creation and puts the hype about the Met Siegfried into perspectiive.  I was wracking my brain trying to remember where I'd heard Schager before and remembered the superb Mozart Magic Flute from Berlin this April. Schager sings the first Armoured Man. It's not a huge part, but he's singing it with the Berliner Philharmoniker and for Simon Rattle -- recommended! At around this time, Mark Berry heard him substitute at very short notice for Ian Storey Lance Ryan as Siegfried when Barenboim conducted Götterdämmerung in Berlin. A lucky hreak! But lucky breaks work only if you're ready and able, and Schager is ready, judging from this Proms performance.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Tristan und Isolde Prom Urmana Bychkov

A stunning triumph for Violetta Urmana in Wagner Tristan und Isolde Prom 19 at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Luscious, resplendent timbre, superb mastery of phrase and timbre. Urmana 's voice glowed with magnificent richness. But even more impressive was her characterization. This Isolde truly comes from a long line of Queens with superhuman powers to heal and perhaps to destroy. She knows potions, spells and herbal lore. For all we know Isolde is a distant heir to Erda and the goddesses of the Earth. Urmana's beautiful tone suggests richness  and beauty. But Urmana is a true artist who can create depths to a part through the intelligence of her interpretation. Isolde is beautiful, but her true beauty lies in her intelligence and inner attributes.

Once, Isolde brought Tristan back from death. It was her moral duty, though he'd killed the man she loved. Marke wants her because she'll be the crowning asset of his kingdom. Once mistress of her own realm, she's now a slave. For a free spirit like Isolde that is more humiliating than death. When Urmana sings the long recitatives in Act I, her voice glowers with Isolde's pain. But Isolde is strong. Urmana sings her lines almost like an ancient incantation, expressing Isolde's resolute dignity.

Tristan und Isolde isn't really about love. Their relationship is thorny. She hates him. He too has a death wish, which has followed him like a shroud since childhood. When the potion takes hold, they are transformed as if by magic into hyper versions of themselves. They snatch a night of love, but even then the murmuring swell in the orchestra reminds us of the ocean, a force of nature greater than all mortals. Art the end, Isolde is restored to her true destiny. Urmana sings the Mild und Liese so it feels like a valediction. Isolde may have lost her man but she she's now in a kind of apotheosis, her powers enhanced by this harrowing experience of life and love. Listen to the broadcast of this Prom HERE for a masterclass in singing and interpretation.

Semyon Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, creating an Einleitung that shimmered with transparent textures. Could we hear light dancing on waves and feel the mist of sea spray? Can we imagine the "Irish child" in her free element? But the undertow reminded us of the tides and the inexorable motion of the seas. With each new surge, what had been before is changed. Bychov brings out the beauty in the score, but also its undercurrent of instability and darkness.  The music, and the oceans, have a pulse like the human heart. The pulse beats even when the orchestra falls quiet. It's a metaphor for life and death. The Yong Seaman (Andrew Staples) sang from a gallery way up in the dome of the Royal Albert Hall, his voice radiating over long distances., Later, Brangäne (Mihoko Fujimura) would sing from the organ loft, and the flautist who played the Shepherd's song would stand near the choir stalls. Throughout the opera, this sense of freedom contrasts with containment. Bychov's touch is refined, almost like Haitink's, but his tempi ebb and flow as strongly as the tides. 

Robert Dean Smith sang Tristan. He gets the notes and charms, but projection was at times a problem. Bychov restrained the orchestra so he could be heard over the surge. Fortunately, the crucial passages in the Third Act are bleak, relatively unemcumbered ny musical background. Dean Smith then came into his own, expressing Tristan's sense of desolation. When Ben Heppner sang the part in 2009, his voice was ravaged by illness in real life, but his portrayal was even more poignant as a result. Tristan doesn't really open himself up to his deepest feelings until he faces death. Robert Dean Smith's finest moments happened when they counted.

Kwangchul Youn was an outstanding King Marke. Youn sings with remarkable agility for a voice centred so low in the register. His voice has authority but his phrasing is flexible, and he adds nuance and colour to create the King as a complex personality, almost as interesting as Isolde herself. Marke has real moral values. When he learns the truth, he doesn't care what other people like Melot (David Wilson-Johnson) think. He sacrifices his status to do what its right and good. Youn develops Marke's journey towards understanding, from the upright king at the end of Act 2 to the sensitive, noble father figure he becomes in the end.  Youn isn't a very physical person, but acts with his voice better than most.

Mihoko Fujimura's Brangäne was powerfully expressive, an excellent match for Urmana''s Isolde. Brangäne is a strong personality, prepared to switch potions and defy her mistress. Fujimura's voice rings out beautifully, clear rich tones, so elegant that she must be Urmana's near-equal, not a mere maid. Boaz Daniel sang a good Kurnewal, and Edward Price the Steersman. Altogether, these were the best all-round vocal performances so far of this Proms season, notwithstanding the sort of blips and weaknesses which come with the territory in "hard sings" like Tristan und Isolde.

ADDENDUM  I spoke too soon, before Barenboim's astonishing Götterdämmerung, (reviewed here) which must surely be a Prom no-one who was there will ever forget. Violeta Urmana's Isolde was so wonderful that it put me is such a good mood that I was prepared to overlook a Tristan who could not be heard. So Isolde worked her magic and saved Tristan yet again.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Wagner Siegfried Prom Barenboim

The Proms Wagner Ring continued with Siegfried, Prom 18. Tonight, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin were as one, united. Much has been written about the confrontation at Die Walküre Prom 15. Although I was sitting concert master side near the podium I didn't witness it because I was dashing out to beat the queue at the bar, desperate for ice and tonic. In any case, so what? Performers are intense. They put so much of themselves into what they do that they overreact. They're human. We shouldn't be judgemental. Perhaps the altercation concentrated everyone's minds. This was a vivid, muscular performance, vindicating orchestra and conductor.

The rumbling mumurs that begin the opera gave way to purposeful forward thrust. Suggestions of Fafner's slithering form coloured the lower winds and brasses.  Barenboim's Ring with the Staatskapelle Berlin is atmospheric, creating the twisted undergrowth that informs the whole saga. It's not "glamorous" like the Met Ring, but sinewy and intelligent. The Staatskapelle play with natural grace and sensuality, carrying off Barenboim's fast paced tempi with complete assurance. Exquisitely beautiful details and solo playing. Götterdämmerung will give this orchestra even more to show their style.

Peter Bronder's Mime crackled with manic energy. The role is far more difficult to sing than many realize. Mime's mind twists, constantly plotting, manipulating and slithering out of traps. Thus Wagner compresses many complex nuances into short, spiky outbursts, which a singer must negotiate with slippery finesse. Fafner slithers because he's a reptile, but he doesn't have Mime's malevolence. Bronder's voice negotiates the tricky, slippery turns and spits sharp siblilants the way a snake might flash its forked tongue. High notes suggest hysteria, low notes drip with poison. Absolute precision is essential. As Mime knows, there's no margin for error. Bronder is at his best when challenged by Alberich and the Wanderer. Until the very end, Siegfried is no match for his wiles. Bronder's clear bright tone suggests unnatural light, the opposite of the healthy sunshine which will wake Brünnhilde. Although born in Hertfordshire, Bronder is a native German speaker and has spent most of his career in German-speaking countries. True character tenors are in short supply. We need more Bronder in this country.

Lance Ryan sang Siegfried with the Staatskapelle earlier this year. His is a serviceable voice that lends itself to a wide repertoire. It's not distinctive but thankfully isn't saccharine, Met style, thank goodness.  Ryan creates vibrato by extending vowels, suggesting effort rather than natural control. His top is pinched and there's not much colour.  But a voice doesn't need to be beautiful to work well in drama. Witness Simon O'Neill's perceptive Siegmund, exuding character and personality. But who is Ryan's Siegfried? Siegfried is an emotional blank canvas  because he hasn't learned fear, or much else about life, for that matter. His first experiments with the horn are tentative and distorted, as he's still learning. But it's strange to hear the horn player growing ever more fluent and expressive while the singer doesn't keep pace. Ryan is straightforward, but there's more to Siegfried than being reliable. 

In this Ring, Barenboim uses different singers for each incarnation of Wotan. Terje Stensvold's Wanderer is Wotan in old age. aware that the future is no longer in his hands. Stensvold paces the part to suggest that the Wanderer is slowing, running to ground. It doesn't matter that his vowels shade towards Norwegian. Wotan isn't German, but an offshoot from Nordic tradition. It's enough that Stensvold has presence and gravitas. Erda is older than Time itself, the only figure who can treat Wotan like a child. Anna Larsson's Erda was gloriously resonant: she sounds youthful and full of life. Erda may be ancient, but Larsson shows she will be more enduring than Wotan because she connects to the pure source of moral values he has polluted.

Johannes Martin Kränzle sang a convincing Alberich, well characterized and detailed, a fitting counter to Broder's Mime. Eric Halfvarson a suitably eloquent Fafner. Rinnat Moriah sang the Wood Bird. But everyone was waiting for Nina Stemme. The softness in her delivery was impressive, for she portrayed Brünnhilde as vulnerable and feminine. She's about to become mortal. Later she will find her Valkyrie soul again, but for the moment, Stemme showed her as woman. The tessitura lies very high for her fach,  but Stemme approaches it with dream-like lyricism. "Heil dir, Sonne!" she sang, "Heil dir, Licht", as if she were drinking in the life-giving, healing properties of Nature. Stemme is fairly new to Brünnhilde, though Ryan has done Siegfried many times. Yet this  Brünnhilde left Siegfried far behind.  I thought about the message of renewal in this opera, and of the dawning of a new era, where the values oif Valhalla  will be swept away. Brünnhilde is the true hero of the whole Ring. I can hardly wait for Sunday, Götterdämmerung, Prom 20..
But see HERE = Bayreuth Siegfried Lance Ryan redeemed two days later !
My review of the Proms Die Walküre  is HERE  You might also enjoy Fritz (Metropolis) Lang's Ring of the Nibelungs (1924 film) HERE, with video !

Friday 26 July 2013

Siegfried not Wagner but Lang

To get us in the mood for Wagner Siegfried with Barenboim, Prom 18 tonight, Fritz Lang's Siegfried from 1924, four years before he made Metropolis.(read more about that HERE). "Farewell, Siegfried, son of King Siegmund, you will never get to Worms!" 

This Siegfried is a golden prince who for some reason lives under a World Ash tree on good terms with a community of trolls. They're quite endearing. When they walk they stomp. legs wide apart.  One guts fish while three childlike trolls (ugly Rhinemaidens?) scamper about.  Siegfried forges a powerful sword. "Siegfried, son of King Siegmund", says Mime,"ride home to Xanten. Even I cannot teach you any more!"  In the woods, Siegfried meets an amazingly realistic reptile, constructed in an era when special effects weren't done by computer, but made by hand, and moved by machines. Fantastic scene! A less convincing mechanical bird tells Siegfried to bathe in the dragon's blood to become invincible..He gets the "Wonder Cap"  from Alberich and steals the Nibelungen Treasures.

Siegfried, now with 12 Knights of his own, arrives in Worms, where King Gunther of Burgundy and his sister Kriemhilde reside in stylized art deco medievalism.Study the sequences, they're a visual delight. Hagen, who wears a magnificent winged cap, tells Gunther to fetch Brunhild, Queen of The Northlands. She lives in a castle surrounded by flames with a regiment of amazons. Defeated in a tournament she is taken back to Worms. More spectacular art deco designs!  "Traditional" costumes were never as audacious as these. The set is immense, allowing dramatic panorama shots, not easy to achieve with early camera technology. This is medievalism as modernity, done with great style. Please read what I wrote about Fritz Lang's four hour Die Nibelungen saga HERE .

Thursday 25 July 2013

Salzburg Braunfels Medievalism as Modernity

How I wish I could be in Salzburg next week - Birtwistle Gawain and the Green Knight (coming unstaged to the Barbican next year) and Walter Braunfels's Jeanne d'Arc, Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna. Manfred Honeck conducts. He made the only recording, released in 2012.  Juliane Banse sings Joan, as she did on the recording but look who else is in the cast!  Bryan Hymel singing the Archangel Michael, Pavol Breslik singing Charles de Valois, Thomas E Bauer the Archbishop and Johan Reuter as Gilles des Rais.  This is luxury casting indeed, infinitely better than the recording (though Banse is superb). There was also a staged production (Schlingensief director, conductor ULf Schirmer) in Berlin in 2010, also with Juliane Banse. Braunfels is at last getting megastar billing.

Braunfels' Jeanne d'Arc, Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna.is eclipsed by the fame of Die Vögel, but it's a masterpiece, tighter, more concise and conceptual. The piece is mock medieval, but like Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, Hartmann's Simplicius Simplicissimuss, (more HERE) Orff's Carmina Burana and indeed Braunfel's  Die Verkündigung. (more HERE)  and  Honegger's Joan of Arc at the Stake (more HERE). It happened not only in music but in the visual arts, architecture and film. Clean lines, stark drama, stylized symbolism. All keynotes of the period. Think also of films like Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc or Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (with music by Prokofiev).

Medievalism was a way towards modernism. There's nothing retro or escapist in these pieces. Far too much is made of the fact that fashion changed after the war, and this music didn't get performed. After the trauma of the Second World War, people were hardly in the mood to deal with reminders of the period, especially when, up to 1989, much of central and eastern Europe was still controlled by the Soviet Union, in direct consequence of the war. Similarly, the "jazz age" and modernity of the 1920;s was a reaction against the trauma of the First World War and the forces that shaped it. It's nonsense to blame Schoenberg or modern music for the eclipse of composers like Braunfels. Every decent composer creates something personal and original. Cultures survive because they adapt.

Braunfels fought at the front during the First World War. The trauma completely changed his perspectives. Die Vögel is is an early stage in Braunfel's's engagement with the issues of the 20th century. Jeanne d'Arc is in many ways its culmination, politically, spritually and musically.
Braunfels started writing Jeanne d'Arc in 1938. He'd been proscribed by the Nazis, and made an unemployable non-person whose music could not be performed in public. Hitler was threatening war, staved off by British appeasement. By the time Braunfels completed the opera in 1943, war had broken out all over again on an even wider scale than the war he'd known. This time his sons were at the front.. The madness was happening all over again."We are like castaways on a desert island, around which the hurricane continues to rage", he wrote.

Braunfels' choice of subject was deliberate. Joan of Arc rallied the French against English invaders. This time France was invaded by Germans. Joan was a powerless girl who stood up to overwhelming forces. Throughout Europe in the 1920's, 30's  and 40's, Joan was a symbol  explored in plays, movies, and music. Braunfels' most direct inspiration was Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, which he heard in Zurich in 1938. By connecting to medieval Christian Europe, Braunfels eschews both totalitarian anti-religion and the kind of nationalism that causes war.

Braunfels' libretto, which he wrote himself after reading about Joan's trial, places the context firmly in  a time of crisis. A chorus of villagers cry in panic, Hilfe, Hilfe! As Joan's father later says "An Himmel lohnt drer Brand von tausend Höfen". Johanna, however, is sitting by a tree from which a strange light is shining. Voices tell her that she has a mission. She';s so child-like that she sings a ditty, complete with tra la las. "Denn ein Kreiger, ein Kreiger, soll ich werden".

Braunfels' music is pointedly pure and simple. Single instrumental groups, often solo instruments, swathes of strings and winds suggest flowing movement not decoration for its own sake. Even in the scenes in the royal court, textures are clean, texts conversational. King and knights, portrayed as ordinary men. When Saint Michael appears, he's almost one of their own. For the faithful like Johanna, (and Braunfels), saints are as natural as normal people.

Braunfels uses a formal structure to frame the narrative, like a  medieval painting. Three main sections, Der Berufung (the summons) Der Triumph and Das Leiden, (Sufferings) unfold. Der Triumph, of course, lasts but a few minutes. It's preceded by a bizarre interlude, after the first Act. The Herzog de la Trémouille steps in front of the theatre curtain and sings a monologue. "When God created the Fool, he, the wisest of all, could be sure that scum (Abschaum) would arise from it". The Duke thinks Johanna is scum, for she leads "Die dumpfe Masse" (stupid masses) "From every hole there now crawls all who were poor, and who, deeply humiliated, long for a 1000 year Reich - troopers, roughnecks, greedy wastrels!". (Landsknechte, Raufbolde, geldsücht'ge Habenichste). Ferocious dark chords, skeletal discords, smoky woodwinds. The vocal part is set with angular extremes. "And I alone" sings the bass, "should be wrong because I don't follow deception and don't give in to urges". Perhaps Braunfels is referring to non-believers who distrust faith and miracles. But the references to the rise of the Brownshirts are so obvious that they can't be ignored.  Anyone who thinks Braunfels was a mindless, dreamy Romantic needs to hear this, and wonder what its upside-down morality might mean.

The moment of Johanna's triumph at Rheims with fanfares. At last the music soars as one would expect, but this is no cinematic glory. Braunfels keeps his colours clear, the text simple. "Johanna! Johanna!" the townsfolk cry, but there's a chill, which prepares us for the next scene, where at dawn, Johanna is communing alone with her voices. This minor-key stillness seems the true heart of Braunfels' meditation,   We're spared the details of Johanna's first imprisonment. Each scene is preceded by a Vorspeil that creates mood, but the one that begins the third act expresses the passage of time. Johanna has been confessed and recanted, yet she's still in prison. Dark rhythms, blasting timpani, trumpets blasting, Johanna's voice ascending shooting up the scale, all sudden, tense moments cut off in their prime.  Distant kin of the jerky bird rhythms of Die Vögel and Die Verkündigung. The Vicar Inquisitor condemns Johanna in a mix of speech and stylized chant. The king and nobles call Johanna  a fraud : their music vaguely like medieval march. Then St Michael appears, a Lohengrin whom no-one can see.

Long, keening lines in the orchestra. We're now at the stake in the marketplace at Rouen. Joan is calm for Saint Michael has told her why she must die. Significantly, now, Braunfels gives Gilles des Rais (Bluebeard) an interesting aria. "Nien, niemals, nein, niemals, so endet das nicht"  He can't believe that the real miracle is Johanna's death, not her escape. Braunfels shows des Rais as sensitive, confused and desperate for certainty, "Gewissheit! Gewissheit! Gewissheit!". Perhaps it was that crisis of faith that drove the historic des Rais into madness and turned him into a mass murderer of innocent children? This is an aspect of the story few explore, but Braunfels does it by implication,  and shows it as.a very 20th century anguish.

The Bishop of Beauvais insists "Mein System war der richtiges!", but the part is written to show the strain on the tenor's voice. Yet again, we hear the bird rhythms of  Die Vögel , and how they function as exclamation points breaking up the vocal line. Not comfortable, soothing or Romantic at all.  In contrast, the deeper, more lugubrious timbre of the Vicar Inquisitor, who shows more sympathy with Johanna. The chorus howls like a mob and in a sudden crescendo, we can hear the flames ignite. Screams and  eerie"smoke" like cadences from the orchestra. Gilles des Rais appears again, his last aria tinged with extreme grief. He sees Johanna as Christ-like, but still can't understand what her death means "Satan, du hast geseigt". Only when the mob discovers that Johanna's heart did not burn do they realize a miracle has taken place. "Wir haben eine Heilige gebrannt" cries the Vicar Inquisitor. By then, though, it's too late.

A recording of this Salzburg performance (one only) opera will be broadcast by ORF on Saturday, August 3, at 7.30 pm on the Ö1 channel.

Happy peasants? Elgar Tchaikovsky Prom 16

Elgar Falstaff and Tchaikovsky Symphony no 4 at BBC Proms 16?  What as the rationale?  Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales showed how strange combinations can affect the way we hear things, and not quite in the way we expect.

Tchaikovsky told his patron Madam von Meck the final movement in his Fourth Symphony described a village fair where the peasants were merry, oblivious of all suffering. 

"How lucky they are that all their feelings are simple and spontaneous. Reproach yourself and do not say that all the world is sad. Simple but strong joys do exist. Rejoice in other’s rejoicing."

Madame von Meck wouldn't have approved of Tchaikovsky's real inner life, so he told her what she wanted to hear.  Does hearing Elgar's Falstaff  in this context change the perspective on how we listen to Elgar?  Elgar was an outsider who adopted establishment values as a kind of emotional cover. On the other hand, he seems to have been a genuinely affable soul who liked having jolly japes. Falstaff is an inventive jaunt, full of joie de vivre. At the end, Falstaff dies but it's not Grand Tragedy.  Elgar loved it so much that he recorded his interpretation for posterity. Falstaff basks in the warm afterglow of late Edwardian innocence. Too much irony would spoil the dream. Van Steen and the BBC NOW played up its high spirits.

Van Steen paired Elgar's Falstaff with William Walton's Falstaff, or rather the fourth movement of a suite based on Walton's music for the 1944 film made during the Second World War when the populace needed cheering up. Like Madam von Meck, the audience didn't want to hear anything that might upset them.  I much preferred Elgar's joyful lack of guile. For Elgar, light hearted didn't preclude sincerity.

Between Elgar and Walton, Granville Bantock's Sapphic Poem (1906), a variant of the better-known Sappho, a large-scale piece for soprano and orchestra.There's an excellent recording by Vernon Handley and a very young Susan Bickley. Raphael Wallfisch was a superlative cello soloist. Performances as brilliant as this can "make" a piece. He followed with a section from Bantock's  Hamabdil (1919).

Fond as I am of Sappho  and the Sapphic Poem, there's something about Bantock that leaves me cold. He was obssessed by exotic fantasies, to the extent that nearly everything he wrote was a kind of technicolour travelogue. Last week at the Proms we heard a very rough and ready Szymanowski Symphony no 3 (more here). Szymanowski used exotic fantasy as a means of expressing musical and emotional ideas  For him, it was a means to an end. For Bantock, exoticism was an end in itself. Exoticism was his lifestyle statement, much in the way some people need to define themselves by the labels they wear and the brands they buy. Bantock was wildly fashionable in his time because he gave the public what they wanted to hear, without distressing them with anything too disturbing.

There a world of difference between Szymanowski's priorities and Bantock's florid flavourings. Since Bantock is this year's BBC Proms British Composer, we'll be hearing more. No doubt the Szymanowski comparison will come up, but it's wholly misleading.

Hearing Tchaikowsky's Symphony no 4 after Falstaff and the fake Falstaffs was like a bracing fresh breeze. Van Steen's approach was bracing. The turbulent motif in the Andante was unsettling, suggesting conflicts not easily resolved.  The crazy figures in the Scherzo seemed demented. Tchaikovsky said that the final movement represented peasants who didn't care about neurosis or self doubt. Madame von Meck read that as meaning "happy". For Tchaikovsky, perhaps, it meant that the world wouldn't understand people like himself, which is an altogether different interpretation.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Die Walküre Barenboim Wagner Prom 15

Wagner Die Walküre wasn't just another Prom, it was An Occasion. Bryn Terfel, Nina Stemme and Daniel Barenboim, three of the great Wagner interpreters of our time.  No other Proms, including the other Wagner operas, is likely to come even close. When the BBC does things well it does it well with style. 

Danierl Barenboim is a perennial Prom darling, and for good reason. He cares about doing things with conviction. His Beethoven series last year was disappointing, like warmed-over, recycled  Furtwängler. But the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a shining ideal rather than a full-time professional orchestra. This year, Barenboim is back on form with the Staatskapelle Berlin.  Barenboim's Ring for Bayreuth years ago is a landmark. But this Die Walküre and Das Rheingold the previous evening were different. Barenboim can afford to take risks and be original. Perhaps he's forging a new Ring: sharper, edgier, and tighter.  There were many rough edges in this performance, but it  didn't at all matter. Barenboim was going for the spirit of the drama, rather than for luscious sounds. This  Die Walküre felt as close to a chamber opera as may be possible.

Wagner without ideas isn't Wagner. Barenboim's originality was challenging and provocative, the true measure, I think, of a true Wagner conductor. I was incredibly lucky to be seated where I could see his hands and face clearly and follow his every gesture. In the Vorspeil, he waved the orchestra forwards, then ceased moving entirely. The orchestra completed the circular forms in the music powered by their own momentum. Siegmund has been roaming the woods, "in circles" so to speak. The whole Ring reflects the idea that what goes out, comes round. Barenboim seemed preoccupied with quiet moments in the music.. His hands (which are very small, for a pianist) described restraint, pulling the players back to the core of the drama after wild, emotive surges. The Lenz leitmotiv keeps appearing, sometimes subtly disguised, but it is all the more beautiful because it is fragile. Barenboim's delicate touch made it feel poignant, much more powerful than the warhorse showpieces like the Ride of the Valkyries (rather ropy in this performance). The Ring shows how materialism corrupts. Barenboim reminds us of the ideal of pristine nature.

When Bryn Terfel strode on stage, he surveyed the packed-out Royal Albert Hall. When he faced the orchestra, most of the audience couldn't see the smile flash across his face, but I did. It was perfectly in character. Wotan is a cocky thug who thinks he can charm his way out of anything. In the early exchanges with Brünnhilde (Nina Stimme) and Fricka (Ekatarina Gubanova), Terfel seemed to coast, knowing that his best moments were yet to come. But Terfel is such a phenomenon that he's more compelling than anyone else, even at their best. It's a given that he can sing the big moments, but he's even more impressive in subtle sotto voce. When he sings "Nimm, nimm dein Eid"  he expresses suppressed violence so bitter that you can imagine the eons of corrosive conflict between himself and Fricka. His infidelities aren't the larks of a larrikin so much as desperate attempts to break the ring that binds him. From that point, Terfel ignited, pouring himself wholly into the role, with incredible insight.

Terfel's Wotan also gave good support to Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde, his voice holding her like an invisble embrace. When Terfel sang the part at the Met with a null for a Brünnhilde (Deborah Voigt), he carried the whole opera on his own. Stemme was infinitely better. Like Terfel she is superb even when she's not perfect. I was close enough to see how hot she was in that tight, heavy gown. The dynamic between Terfel and Stemme was intense, as it should be given that these roles are central to the whole saga. Stemme rose to her true heights when she sang Brünnhilde's defiance. She's a good daughter but her rebellion springs from deep principles that her father has yet to learn. Stemme's glow. When the fires rise, Terfel's voice expresses such complex emotion that one wonders if this is the point at which he begins to understand. 

Simon O'Neill's Siegmund was a revelation. His voice is difficult to cast because it has unique qualities that don't lend themselves to all roles. Siegmund, however, is his trademark. He's done it so many times that he, too, brings real insight to the part. Siegmund is ravaged, cursed since childhood, doomed to living rough. Yet he still has the capacity to love, and more moral courage than his father had.  He's so inured to being hurt that anguish pervades his personality. When O'Neill sings resounding  "Wälse! Wälse! Wo ist dein Schwert? " his voice rang out defiantly. But we know, and Siegmund knows, that he's so inured to suffering that no sword can heal his psychic scars. O'Neill creates Siegmund as a whole person, who commands more attention than the role usually gets. Siemund has the selflessness Brünnhilde admires, but none of the foolishness that will destroy Siegfried.  

 Barenboim is particularly good at evoking in the orchestra the sterility of Hunding's house and Sieglinde's (Anja Kampe) quiet desperation.  Kampe's characteristic energy makes her a Sieglinde, who, like Siegmund, grasps at hope, aware it might never come again.  When O'Neill and Kampe sing their famous dialogue, we hear two tortured, damaged souls grasping for escape. But the green shoots of this Spring will be killed by a winter storm. Barenboim's bleak interpretation intensifies their vulnerability and their human tragedy,

Monday 22 July 2013

Wagner or the Wigmore Hall ?

Snowman pictures
Wagner or the Wigmore Hall ? Where do you want to wilt this week?

The BBC Proms Wagner Marathon runs Mon, Tues, Friday, Saturday and Sunday with more to come. The full Ring with Tristan und Isolde. Emotional overload?  One thing for sure. It will be hotter than Bayreuth in the Royal Albert Hall. 7000 people generate heat.

On the other hand, you could go up the road to the Wigmore Hall, which is having one of its best weeks in ages. What agony this wonderful week would have to coincide with Wagner at the Proms!

Tonight, Monday  is Piano For Four Hands - piano duets from Poulenc, Britten, Grainger, Stravinsky and Dai Fujikura. Joseph Tong and Waka Hasegawa play.

Tomorrow Tuesday,  a recital by Graham Johnson, Wolfgang Holzmair and Christine Karg who sang Aricie in Glyndebourne's Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie. Again, an excellent, erudite programme based around the songs of Franz Liszt and Peter Cornelius. Normally this would be unmissable as we seldom get to hear these composers' Lieder. The combination is interesting as neither composer was primarily into Lieder. Some years ago Peter Schreier recorded a set of Cornelius songs, explaining that we needed to know what 19th century Lieder was like other than simply through the high points. "You can't appreciate the mountains if you don't know the valleys". I've got that CD, it isn't bad at all.  Cornelius might not be an Alpine meadow but he's not a crevasse. This recital is, however, up against impossible competition: Die Walküre at the Proms! Bryn Terfel, Nina Stemme, for starters. This is by far the best cast Wagner opera of all the the Proms. This will be worth braving the Royal Albert Hall Inferno.

Wednesday 24th: The Theatre of the Ayre, an early music ensemble with two voices and instruments (Elizabeth Kenny, Nicolas Mulroy, Matthew Brook, and Jakob Heringman). They're doing "Double Voyce" a selection of 17th century  dialogues and duos from Dowland, Purcell, Lawes, Blow and others. Again, early music we can hear anytime, but this will be different.

Thursday, Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees in a well planned all Schubert programme. I might squeeze this in as the Prom that night is Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic, usually a "night off" combination for me.

Friday, James Gilchrist  and Anna Tilbrook do Schubert Winterreise. A few years ago, I was leaving another of their Winterreise concerts at Kings Place when a few snowflakes fell. Undeterred I drove northwards and got caught in the first huge snowstorm to hit London in 25 years. The motorway was almost impassable, but side roads were lethal.  More than a metre of snow fell in 2 hours. It was the most atmospheric Winterrieise you could imagine. It's up against Siegfried at the Proms. However, that one I plan to listen to from home as it's not a favourite cast, though they're not bad.

Saturday, Diana Damrau sings Schubert, Hahn, Chausson, Duparc, Strauss and more. Damrau everyone loves, but this will be unusual because she's singing songs written for harp accompaniment (Xavier De Maistre). Damrau's voice would marry well with harp : she sings brightly, but with resonance. But she's up against Wagner, too, Tristan und Isolde, with Peter Seiffert and  Violeta Urmana. Semyon Bychkov conducts.

Mark Berry is reviewing Wagner for Opera Today, one of the biggest specialized opera websites. Check out the link HERE
photo Greg Schmit

Viva Verdi Pappano Prom 12

Antonio Pappano's Viva Verdi! Prom 12 gave Verdi's non-operatic work the attention it deserves. It was much more stimulating than yet another opera, which we can hear any time. The Quatro Pezzi Sacrae (Four Sacred Pieces) are a special occasion. The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome (Academy of St Cecilia) always brings out the best in him. Pappano is the kind of guy who gets  excited about his enthusiasms, but the Accademia seem to share his passions. They share the same sense of adventure and stylish panache. There's a lot to be said for orchestras that don't play the same blockbusters all the time. And, dare I say it, they're Italian. Style is in their genes. 

Verdi wasn't pious. But he knew the role of religion in Italian culture, and what the Virgin Mary might symbolize. Church and Theatre aren't really so very different in Catholic Italy where pageantry and display are an inextricable part of the liturgy. The Chorus of the Accademia sang the Ave Maria with panache.While the piece (which dates from 1889) might seem conventionally reverent one wonders if it's really Church music at all. The lines move with sensuous grace, and the singers intone "Maria!" letting the vowels elide.

With the Stabat Mater (1896) we hear Verdi in more characteristic mode. . Dramatic opening chords that dissipate in beautiful descending lines,  pulled forward by surging dark strings. Suddenly the tempo changes. Trumpets sound. A dizzying climax. Then, instead of action, Verdi gives us contemplative pianissimo. The trombones call. One hears "footsteps" in the music, visualizing a large ensemble on stage, moving en bloc. Flutes flutter upwards. Bassoons, celli and low strings suggest downward movement. Christ's soul rises to the heavens, while his body hangs limp on the Cross.
Exquisitely luminous singing from the ladies of the Accademia chorus for the Laudi alla Vergine. Glossy textures, but strong underlying form. 

The Te Deum, though was the highlight. The male voices sang quietly, then orchestra and choirs exploded in a blaze of glory, which Pappano tightly reined in. He showed how Verdi builds up the excitement to bursting point.  Quiet reverential passages suggested anticipation, alternating with moments of expressive relief. Trombones cried out, and the chorus sang "Tu Rex gloriae, Christe."  A soprano sang out triumphantly. Then at last the tension was released in an ecstatic explosion of glory The moment is brief and unsentimental. Verdi has made his point.

Verdi's only String Quartet arranged for string orchestra was vividly played but as music,wasn't particularly distinctive. Maria Agresta sang the short Ave Maria leading up to an extremely intense Libera Me, in the first setting before it became incorporated into the Requiem, which has featured at the Proms on 22 previous occasions. This was a very vigorous, energetic reading which suggested that the "freedom" here wasn't strictly spiritual. 

This Prom can be heard on BBC I player HERE for 7 days online. It will be broadcast on BBC Four TV on 15th August. By delicious co-incidence, that's the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. 

Sunday 21 July 2013

Bruce Lee The Orphan's Tragedy 孤星血淚

Bruce Lee died forty years ago but his legacy lives on. To Cantonese people he's a cultural icon, a symbol of Hong Kong identity. He's infinitely more than "just" a kung fu movie star.

Lee was born into a well educated, sophisticated Cantonese family. His father was  a mover in Chinese movie circles, his mother connected to the influential Hotung family. He was born in the US while his parents were living over there, and not as coolies. By his teens, Bruce Lee had made many movies, together with the biggest names in the business. But when he returned to the US, despite his experience and connections, he had to take roles as a menial. The western market  could only cope with orientals  as stereotypes : stupid, subordinate and unworthy of respect. So when Bruce Lee went back to Hong Kong he shook things up. In Enter the Dragon, he beats up white guys. In colonial times this was dangerous.  But the Cantonese film industry was radical.  Until Bruce Lee, it just didn't engage with foreign subjects. Movies were associated with modernity and social progress. Read more about early Chinese film here.

Perhaps we can see where Bruce Lee was coming from in The Orphan's Tragedy (孤星血淚) (1955). In a rainstorm, a dying woman turns up on a peasant's doorstep. "Take care of my baby" she says, "His father named him Fook-wan" (slightly unusual name which means hope of good luck). Ten years pass, it's 1929. the boy (Bruce Lee) lives with his "grandfather" (Wong Cho San 黃楚山) in an idyllic traditional village. Life is hard, but the boy is filial. When grandfather and his friend give him a cake, he refuses it it with a smile. "You eat it, Grandad".

One day policemen enter the village, shooting guns A prisoner has escaped. He's not a normal convict. Fan Tin Sun is played by Ng Chor Fan (吳楚帆), one of the biggest stars of the time, an intellectual with high moral and political values. The local rich man To (Lau Hak Suen 劉克宣)  is afraid, because the man has something against him. Fook-wan's job is collecting firewood from the hillside for fuel. He meets the prisoner and helps him hide in a secluded mountain temple. At midnight, when Grandad is asleep, the boy creeps out with some food. Having searched the village, the police find Fook-wan missing. They go up the hillside. The prisoner thinks the boy has betrayed him. The police have brought the grandfather out to call for him. "You're called Fook-wan?" says the convict. Ng Chor is a brilliant actor. His face softens. "I knew your father. He was a good man but villains set him up. For ten years he sat in prison but never stopped thinking of you". This music in this scene is Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring. Angular drama gives way to tenderness. The prisoner escapes again and Fook-wan returns to his "grandfather". The prisoner visits a friend, Doctor ChanYuk Sing, (Lee Pang Fei 李鵬飛) who advises him not to seek immediate revenge, but to go abroad and work so his son will prosper.

One day a large sum of money is sent to Grandfather Wong for Fook-wan's education. They don't know whp has sent the money, but off Fook-wan goes to school in the city. The last we see of Bruce Lee, he's waving goodbye to Grandfather, the village and his playmate Biu-yee played by future mega star Siu Fong Fong, who morphs into the adult Yung Siu Yee, a big star of the 50's, to show how time has passed. .

Fook Wan returns from school. This time he's played by Cheung Wood Yau (張活游) another famous hero of Cantonese film. Doctor Chan greets him with more money from the Mysterious Benefactor so he can set up to study medicine. "But how can I thank him?" asks Fook Wan. "He doesn't want thanks, just be a doctor and help others". No-one knows where the money comes from, and Dr Chan isn't saying. But the wicked rich man has suspected all along that the money came from Fan Tin Sum, his old enemy. He plots to control Fook Wan through his beautiful daughter Choi Hung (Wong Fei Fei). Fook Wan and Choi Hung go to a western nightclub. He wears a western suit she's bought for him and is shocked by the price of alcohol. Meanwhile, back in the village, Biu Yee the peasant girl has become a traditional Chinese singer, to support Grandfather Wong who adopted her after her mother died.

Fan Tin Sum sends Fook Wan a huge sum of money to start a hospital. The whole village turns out at the train station to welcome Fook Wan with lanterns, firecrackers, a lion dance and trumpets.  There aren't any medical facilities: a new hospital is like a  miracle. Grandfather Wong is overcome with joy. But Fook Wan thinks the money comes from Mr To and agrees to set up a practice in the city, selling medicines. It turns out that the drugs are fake. "What's the problem?" says the crook, "medicine is a business like any other". Having been disowned by Grandfather Wong for selling out, Fook Wan tries to commit suicide. In walks Fan Tin Sum. "We met in the mountain temple". "Get out, you're a criminal" cries Fook Wan. Fan Tin Sum explains that the money came from him. Dr Chan intervenes and confirms that Fan is Fook Wan's father, who was set up by Rich To in just the same way.
Fan and Fan Tin Sum confront To at a dinner party. A fight breaks out. Fan and To are killed, accidentally. As Fan dies, he tells his son, "We don't live for ourselves but to help others" The final fanfare is Elgar.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Prom 11 Stockhausen's Fiery Furnace Mittwoch

The Royal Albert Hall was made for Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. BBC Prom 11 2013 featured Gesang der Jünglinge and Welt-Parliament from Mittwoch from Licht . The Royal Albert Hall is an imposing building, designed on a grand scale. It is built in an unusual circular shape, which can cause acoustic problems. But it's ideal for Karlheinz Stockhausen's grand visions. The BBC Proms have done Gruppen four times, despite the logistics posed by the use of three orchestras. In 2008, there was an astounding Cosmic Pulses, the 13th Hour from  Stockhausen sculpted sound. At the Royal Albert Hall, he had a huge canvas onto which he could project his experiments. The shape of the building means that sound waves have to travel longer distances than they might in a smaller auditorium. As they bounce off the walls and reverberate, the sound changes, becoming ever more subtle. Architecture becomes a component of performance.

In Gesang der Jünglinge the performers "are" the audience. The "music" happens when an audience processes the aural stimuli around them.The building goes dark. What's happening? Is the show over, one might ask? Slowly, out of the gloom emerge disembodied sounds, coming from many different, unexpected directions. The shape of the Royal Albert Hall means that sound waves have to travel longer distances than they might in a smaller auditorium. As they bounce off the walls and reverberate, the sound changes, becoming ever more subtle. The "performer"  is a recording of a young boy, made many decades ago. He's an old man now, but on the tape he's immortal: another Stockhausen concept. The tape is spliced into myriad fragments and reconstituted into something completely different. Gesang der Jünglinge is the great great great grandfather of DJ mixes. Once Stockhausen himself adjusted the balances and frequencies at the mixing desk. Now his disciple Kathinka Pasveer does the sound projection. Stockhausen decreed that the stage should remain empty but for a few desks, to emphasize the idea that performance isn't something passive, but as blend of what's happening at the sound desk and what we hear, wherever we might be seated in the performance space. 

Gesang der Jünglinge is based on a story in the biblical Book of Daniel, where three youths are condemned to die in a fiery furnace. But they're saved by their faith in God. In a heatwave, the Royal Albert Hall  becomes a furnace. So the audience experiences the piece as all-round sensory endurance, in a way no-one could have imagined. The oscillating electronic sound waves quiver like flames. When disjointed words leap out “Sonne, Mond, Mund…..Frost und Eis, Frost und Eis”., we feel life-restoring deliverance just as the youths in the furnace might have felt. Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, wherever he is, must have been looking down with glee.

Last year, the Birmingham Opera Company produced the first complete UK performance of Mittwoch from Stockhausen's grand saga Licht. .For this Prom, the singers, Ex Cathedra, with  Jeffrey Skidmore (director), recreated the first scene Welt-Parliament.  It was a good choice because the segment focuses on the variety of voices and vocal techniques. This is an extension of Stockhausen's concept of breaking sound into cells, reconstituting them into something new. Stockhausen is also deconstructing the idea of language.We hear words from recognizable languages, and randomly-generated noise. Just as in life, our task as listeners is to process for ourselves what we hear, not to take things as given. There are allusions to chorale, complete with liturgical bells, and red herrings, like when a man in a reflective jacket who materializes from the back of the Royal Albert Hall and calls out about a car with a number plate MITT2013WCH (!)  Eventually, a consensus of sorts emerges. "Licht!" most of the singers conclude. The singers file out gravely. One remains "And now the next scene will follow" he says, but you have to decipher because he stutters to an extreme degree. Yet again, Stockhausen's breaking sound into minute fragments, so we have to really listen, not sit by and coast.

Although  we're not likely to catch the complete 30 hour Licht anywhere soon, by studying fragments like this in minute detail, we can put together something of the whole, bit by bit. Indeed I wonder if Stockhausen meant for us to listen in this way, cell by cell, in random order. In conventional opera we follow a narrative where time and meaning are compressed. Stockhausen's approach replicates the way we experience real life. We put our own narratives together by listening and re-listening, backwards and forwards in time.
Please see my numerous other posts on Stockhausen, especially THIS, an extraordinary realization of Cosmic Pulses at the BBC Proms 2008.

Read the full version in Opera Today

Friday 19 July 2013

Szymanowski Strauss Søndergård Stenhammer

Thomas Søndergård conducted Stenhammer, Szymanowski and Strauss at BBC Prom 9 (BBC National Orchestra of Wales). Why shouldn't we play with alliteration when far too much emphasis is placed on nationality and other relative irrelevancies?  Music is music whatever its "nationality". Narrow definitions of nationality ignore the reality of the creative imagination. Beautifully executed Stenhammer Excelsior  ending with a dramatic punch.Whether that's German, Swedish, Danish or Welsh, who cares ?  It's good music..

Karol Szymanowski came from a part of the Ukraine which became part of Russia when he was young. In later life he had a house in Zakopane but essentially he was upper class and international. If anything, his horizons were defined by dreams. Although he went as a tourist to romantic places, he inhabited them mainly in his dreams. Like so many buttoned-up Europeans, he could express dangerous ideas under the disguise of alien and exotic.

Søndergård conducted the fourth Szymanowski Symphony no 3 (Song of the Night) heard in London in barely 18 months. It's fast becoming a "greatest hit". Read my Scriabin on Speed and my review of the Eötvös at the Barbican.  Numerous posts on Szymanowski on this site. Søndergård's approach to Szymanowski leans towards Boulez's exceptionally lucid interpretation. Boulez responded to Szymanowski's sense of adventure and liberation. Under the cover of night, the poet (and composer) could express secrets otherwise too dangerous to reveal.  Søndergård shaped the murmuring rumble at the beginning with great portent, so the tenor emerged as if glimpsed in a clearing. In some passages, the BBC NOW played with a limpidity that made me think, oddly enough, of Britten's Sea Interludes, which also express dark undercurrents. The "dance" theme was also nicely done, though with rather less electric excitement than Boulez gives it. Søndergård's good at creating the thicket of confluent sounds, keeping individual elements, like the bright "footsteps", clear,.

Michael Weinius has a firm, authoritative tone. His "O nie spij, druhu, nocy tej" (O, sleep not, dearest friend this night") rang out with defiance. His timbre is harder than some tenors who've done the piece before, but it worked well, partly because the violin part was more understated than usual. The BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales were forthright rather than mysterious, so Weinius's strength provided good balance.

Last year at the Proms, Bernard Haitink conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in an exceptionally wonderful Richard Strauss Ein Alpensinfonie An Alpine Symphony (read more here). It would be too much to ask for lightning to strike twice. Søndergård's traverse was very good in the sunlit passages. The orchestra was steady and sturdy. Hillwalking in the Brecon Beacons, or Snowdonia, perhaps. Great panoramas, and danger when the clouds descend and winter sets in. Not quite the extremes of the high Alps, though, but  Søndergård's interpretation fitted nicely with Strauss's good-natured humour.  The photo above (Bill Boaden) shows Tryfan, which I almost scaled but was driven back by inclement weather.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Totentanz : Thomas Adès gets his mojo back

Welcome back, Thomas Adès  Adès Totentanz received its world premiere at BBC Prom 8.  It's a strikingly original work, quite unlike anything he's written in years, and restores his status after a long dry period. Totentanz should enter the repertoire even though performance presents logistical problems. Central to the piece is a giant Taiko drum, bigger than the one depicted here. But the drum is the heartbeat of Totentanz, integral to its meaning. The starting point of Adès's Totentanz was a fresco in the Lübeck Marienkirche which shows a series of people, dancing hand in hand with corpses, a view of the city (and Church) in the distance. 
The Dance of Death was a frequent theme in medieval art, literature and music. There are dozens of depictions. But Adès's choice of the Lübecker Totentanz is particularly poignant. It no longer exists. It was destroyed in a firebombing raid in 1944. Ghosts haunt this music in many ways. Benjamin Britten wrote his War Requiem to mark the bombing of Coventry Cathedral. Adès's Tontentanz marks the infinitely more extensive destruction of an even greater heritage, and I don't just mean the cathedrals of Germany. This was a period when it was acceptable to destroy history, not just military targets.  The Taiko drum reminds us that terrible things happened all over the world, not just in Europe.
Medieval art isn't naturalistic. Large scale works are shown in sequence and there's no perspective in the modern sense. Adès's structure replicates this formality. Each segment unfolds like a dignified procession towards an inevitable conclusion.  While listening, I kept thinking how graphic this music is. The stomping ostinato suggests angular, vertical form, which suggests the movement of feet, trapped in lockstep. Strings wail, violently oscillating diagonals, up and down the scale like screams of terror. Trumpets and smaller percussion create details that suggest what is being lost. Happier memories, real dances perhaps not the sinister Dance of Death.

Two voices stand in the foreground, against a panoramic large orchestra, just like the original fresco. Not all music with voices is opera. Adès's Totentanz is not operatic. The voices function as an extension of the orchestra. Even the vocal lines replicate the shapes in the orchestra. The baritone (Simon Keenlyside) part is solid and non-effusive.Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau would have been ideal for this - another reference to Britten's War Requiem, as galling as that might be for Adès to admit. The baritone represents Death. The mezzo (Christianne Stotjin) represents Everyman, not just the Maiden, often chosen as a symbol for the loss of youth and beauty. Her lines waver upwards and down, contorted like spasms of pain. Adès was wise to choose a mezzo instead of a higher voice, for the shrillness suggests anguish. Lighter textures would not have quite the same effect.Words like "Ritter", "schwer" and "züruck" are spat out like missiles, weapons in a battle that has only one end.

After a magnificently cacophony, the music begins to spiral downwards. "Nimm, nimmer" sings the baritone, quietly, as if in macabre lullaby, The mezzo's voice elides, smearing the words so they sound like she's being drugged. She is. Her system is breaking down. The marching jackboot rhythms diminish to a slower, comatose tempo. At the end, the music scrapes along in near silence. We feel like we're being dragged, physically, into the grave.

There isn't anything quite like Adès's Totentanz in the mainstream. The only parallels I can think of offhand are the music dramas of Honegger, Carl Orff, K A Hartmann and Walter Braunfels in the 1930's and 40's, also recreating stylized "medieval" aesthetics. Or Britten's Church Parables. Plenty about all these composers elsewhere on this website, please explore. Modernity as medievalism. This aspect of music drama ia sadly neglected, but important.

This Prom began with Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem. Too much is made of the Japanese connection, though Adès's use of the Taiko drum is relevant. Britten know about the Nanjing massacres even if the British government looked the other way. Because Adès's main concern was, rightly enough, the Totentanz, it wasn't particularly expressive.  Much better realized was Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Cello, thanks to a vivid performance by Paul Watkins.

Prom 8 is available online for 7 days HERE and will no doubt make further appearances. It's also being broadcast on BBC TV 4 on 28 July.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

The Keys of the Kingdom Gregory Peck busts stereotypes

"A Christian is a good man, but I have found that a Confucianist usually has a better sense of humour".

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) is such a famous movie that it hardly needs to be written about. But I love it because of its moral values. It's spiritual but mocks cant. It's also an interesting insight into western attitudes on China.  All his life, Francis Chisholm (Gregory Peck) has been a failure in the eyes of the world. To get him out of the way, the Church sends him to a God-forsaken outpost in China. There's no parish, and the locals resent him. He's reduced to living in a derelict stable. If that's God's wish so be it. Jesus was born in a stable, too.

Then Joseph turns up, and things change. Joseph is played by Benson Fong. Fong's roles were defined by the Hollywood stereotype of Chinese as well-meaning but simple-minded menials. In real life, Fong, second generation US born, spoke good Cantonese and went along with the game. because he  had no choice.

Father Chisholm doesn't know medicine but cures the son of a high official, Mr Chia, played by a Caucasian in yellowface. Think about that, when Mr Chia's aide - a very minor role - is played by Philip Ahn, a good actor and a Chinese-American.  Father Chisholm won't accept the man's conversion in return, because he believes religion should be chosen by free will. Nonetheless, Mr Chia gives land and money for a mission.  Nuns arrive to help. They're dressed in white starched wimples, despite having trekked a thousand miles from the nearest sea port.  They're also arrogant, ordering a "Chinese coolie" around. It's Father Chisholm, or Shen Fu as he's known in the local community. He's dressed in native clothes, working with the earth, helping "hands on".

Miraculously, Father Francis's boyhood friend Willy turns  up. He's a hard-drinking atheist, but he does good because he's a doctor, and sets up the mission hospital. .On his deathbed he still rejects religion. The town is being besieged by warring forces.  Richard Loo, also US-born Chinese, plays Major Shen, the  leader of the Imperial Army. He's sophisticated and elegant. He lets the mission use a mansion for a hospital. It's burned to the ground when Gregory Peck and Benson Fong outwit the corrupt rebel commander (played by a Caucasian with a very high voice). Loo thanks Peck and Fong."We wiped out 32 of the enemy", he says. "One more killing like that and you'll force ME to become a Christian".

The Bishop arrives, It's Vincent Price oozing unctuous nastiness. "I must admit China fascinates me", he drools. He's done well for himself, thanks to his position of privilege. "And I disagree violently with those of our world who still regard the Chinese as an inferior race. Truly, there are no limits to the benefits of a belief in God and plenty of soap and water" It's horrifying, but even to this day, there are many who profess to "love" China but regard the Chinese as no more than servants or scenery.

After dinner, Joseph is washing up in the kitchen. He tells Father Chisholm, "I'm thinking a sinful thought". He drops the Bishop's prized bottle of Amontillado, brought from "home". Benson Fong looks sheepish, but defiant. "The benefits of soap and water" he says "made the sherry bottle fall and break". The Bishop leaves in Mr Chia's fancy sedan chair. He can't understand why the High Official doesn't want to convert, given the benefits that might accrue. "I shall never be able to fathom the oriental mind. It's inscrutable, positively inscrutable".  The Reverend Mother comes to Father Chisholm, saying she had wanted to go home. But witnessing the Bishop's arrogance made her realize that Father Chisholm's simple goodness restored her faith and vocation. Ten years later, they're still together, having rebuilt the mission and prospered. Father Chisholm, now old and grey, asks one of the children what he'd rather do, learn Cathechism or eat honey. "Eat honey" says the kid, without hesitation. The priest grins. "God loves you for telling the truth"

Eventually Father Chisholm has to go back to Europe,. The people of the mission line up to bid him farewell  Benson Fong delivers a sincere farewell. The Church hasn't been good to Father Chisholm and he's forced to retire. But he accepts it with good grace. Perhaps the Church thinks he's a failure because he hasn't achieved enough and his parishioners think he's an oddball. Maybe he was happy in China because he identified with it and its resilient people. "Exploited and abandoned by the world around her, starving and struggling to realize what was then just a dream. Unity and dignity  and a place in the sun"

The film was made at the height of the Japanese invasion of China, when the US government wholeheartedly supported the Chinese war effort. The sentiments, and the optimistic farewell scene, reflect the politics of the time. The US was instrumental in negotiating the end of the extra-territorial system and the creation of New China. But The Keys of the Kingdom works on another level which unfortunately is all too relevant today.  It dissects casual stereotypes about race and culture and treats people as Father Chisholm does, "all creatures of heaven" whatever that heaven might be.We don't need the "missionary position". The "natives|" wherever they may be, aren't passive children but  people can think and choose whatever they want to believe.