Saturday 31 August 2013

American Lulu - Edinburgh Festival

By Juliet Williams

Last Night's premiere in the closing days of the Edinburgh Festival of their new production American Lulu had much in common with last year's very enjoyable chamber series from Scottish Opera.

Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth  has adapted Alban Berg's opera to a period spanning the 1950s to the 1970s in the American South. The personal tragedy of the exploited but manipulative antiheroine is played out against a backdrop of the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. The action on stage is intercut with the playing of famous speeches of Martin Luther King, a timely commemoration of his 50th anniversary, and remaining pertinent as well as inspiring.

The plot elements contrast personal and collective aspects of freedom. This tale of mutual sexual exploitation still has power to shock, perhaps all the more so seen now from the perspective of a woman who has pursued a 'successful' career in high-class prostitution from the age of 12. Neuwirth has creatively re-orchestrated the first two acts to include electric guitar, electric piano and percussion and the music references jazz and blues, acting implictly as a voice of the oppressed black population. Her re-working of the first two acts follows the original libretto but goes on to a new ending which I actually much prefer. I prefer the more ambiguous ending (unsolved crime, many possible suspects and motives) than the Jack the Ripper scenario. This underscores, as a sub-plot element, the uneasy relationship between the black community and the police, the ending and the police commissioner scene playing off against each other in an interesting nuance.

A small cast performed a musically enjoyably and emotionally intense work using effective but never extravagant staging.  Angel Blue sings the title role. Jacqui Dankworth, cast well as Eleanor, the "Countess Geschwitz" character is stunning as a lesbian admirer and aspiring jazz singer. Paul Reeves multi-tasks as Professor/Banker/Commissioner with aplomb..The singing is uniformly good in the supporting parts, as is the orchestral playing but Paul Curievici, also good in last year's production Ghost Patrol, stands out as the Photographer.

This American  Lulu is co-produced by The Opera Group, (which supports the creation of new work) Bregenzer Festspiele, Scottish Opera and the Young Vic in association with the London Sinfonietta. It was co-commissioned by Komische Oper Berlin and The Opera Group. There is another performance in Edinburgh tonight, and the production then tours to thee Young Vic Theatre from 13-24 September ( / 020 7922 2922). This interesting and creative production is well worth seeing.

Juliet heard American Lulu in Edinburgh. I'm going to the London performances at the Young Vic, where I heard Olga Neuwirth's Lost Highway in 2008. Neuwirth has a thing for completely reinterpreting ideas in new forms. Lost Highway wasn't "about" the David Lynch movie of the same name, butt a kind of afterlife recreation. American Lulu, I suspect, won't be Berg Mark 2 but something quite original. Watch tjhis space!

Royal Opera House FOR FREE

Seven FREE operas from the Royal Opera House coming up :

All broadcasts will be available afterwards on BBC iPlayer. In addition to full performances, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a number of interviews and features throughout the 2013/14 Season.

Thursday 29 August 2013

Orchestra executed in North Korea

Here is the most detailed report I can find I can find on the extermination of the Unhasu Orchestra in Pyongyang, North Korea.  At least a dozen musicians, including the Orchestra's Leader, Mun Kyong-jin, and others were machine-gunned in a public execution on 20th August. News is only just emerging.

The Unhasu Orchestra is not the oldest or largest western orchestra in North Korea but it's extremely prominent.  Orchestras all over the world are used in big public galas, and the Unhasu was a "real" orchestra of serious musicians, although it was pulled out for state occasions and played for dictators.  Last March,  Myun-whun Chung conducted the Unhasu Orchestra and the Radio France Philharmonic at the Salle Pleyel, Paris (which is why I picked a French source - read the comments too).

Myun-Whun Chung went to Pyongyang to conduct them before they arrived in France. Since North Korea is very much a closed country with a paranoid regime, Chung's visit was something of a miracle. Classical music, to Koreans, is as important to their culture as Verdi is to Italians, or football to the British, so Myun-Whun Chung's gesture was sending out massive signals. He is a couratgeous man, because he knew thye risks. If Pyongyang had detained him, France might have reacted, though I guess the Anglophone world might not understood why musicians are such a big deal. The photo shows Chung rehearsing the orchestra. Now it feels tragic. I'm slightly worried that the story hasn't been corroborated elsewhere but nothing would surprise me. [Addendum : the lack of corroboration is troubling, but in situations like this news doesn't come out thru "usual channels". Just as news of Auschwitz, the famines of China in the 50's and Stalin's gulags filtered out slowly, things like this don't get covered in the normal way. People aren't going to twitter from Pyongyang! If the regime wants to discredit the story, they just have to produce the victims alive and well. Who has most to gain from the story ? Not Seoul or Beijing, who'd exploit it more if they could. But within the power structure of North Korea, it's an effective way of suppressing dissent. Kim Jong-un is still new in the job, and probably needs to consolidate his personal control.]

Obviously we don't know why the Unhasu Orchestra was targetted: paranoid regimes don't act logically. The musicians could have simply disappeared into gulags in the frozen north and starved to death like so much of the population. So a mass public execution means something. Maybe their prominence attracted rivalry, maybe it was simply because one of the women killed, singer Hyon Song-woi, was dictator Kim Jong-un's former girlfriend, though "girlfriend" in those circumstances does not mean voluntary as it might mean elsewhere. He married another singer recently. What hidden agendas might there be? Even though nearly everyone does music in South Korea, music circles are close enough that most people know each other even if just by name. In North Korea, because of the nature of the regime, circles are even smaller and tighter. I hate to think what might be going on.  In the west, we have things easy.

Below three contrasting clips. The first comes from the official DR Korea channel and shows Kim Jong-un cheering the Unhasa on a recent State occasion.Then the New Year Gala 2012. This is REALLY worth watching because it shows what state orchestrated music can be like. The concert is played to a backdrop of political videos, Massive choir. Where have we seen such things before ?  Spot the orchestra's leader, now murdered. Then the Paris concert with RFP two moths later.

Addendum : When the Wen Weibo ran a story on Kim's unclke being killed by dogs. the western media fell over themselves to ridicule the story. One writer sneered why X number of dogs when Y would do just as well ? That's not the point. The fact is that one of the most powerful figures in the country has been brutally disappeared.. That kind of writer possibly still denies the Holocaust.  Whatever is happening in Pyongyang is big, and should not be trivialized.

Totally Politically Incorrect 支那の夜

With trepidation, I watched China Nights, Shina no Yoru, the notorious film made during the Japanese occupation of China. For Chinese people, the film has negative connotations because it connects to a brutal period in the Chinese past. For a hundred years, the nation suffered humiliation and then was invaded yet again. Although this was a propganda movie, thousands of people watched it, and the song on which the film is based is ubiquitous. Why, I thought, did people watch it then, when the very mention of it now raises old wounds?

One steamy night in Shanghai, there's a fight. A handsome Japanese (Kazuo Hasegawa) rescues a Chinese woman (Li Xianglan). She says she has nowhere to go so he takes her back to his rooms in a building where many Japanese live. .He makes her take a bath. This is more provocative than it might seem to westerners because the Japanese were fastidious about cleanliness and regarded the Chinese as less so.  The implication is that the Japanese are in China to civilize the Chinese. But he's such a gentleman that he's chaste and respectful.

It's interesting to see how the other Japanese react. The house is "westernized" with typical thirties comforts. Nothing big deal in itself, as many Chinese lived like that too. The Japanese take their meals together on western tables and discuss the "scandal".  But the women are welcoming, even the one who is in love with Hasegawa. Even more significant are the scenes depicting the streets of Shanghai during the 1920's, when the film is set (though it was made in 1940). We see images of western soldiers marching on Chinese streets, western jazz and broadcasts, nightclubs for the rich while the locals struggle in poverty. This is not a film about gender politics as some have suggested. It's plain old-fashioned politics. Shanghai was occupied, too, not just by the Japanese but by western colonial powers who had themselves invaded China to force the country to trade with them. Let's never forget that China was "opened" so British merchants could sell opium. War is not, as has been said, the continuation of politics but the continuation of dirty business interests.
So Hasegawa and Li go shopping in a city where western troops march in the streets and the locals struggle in poverty. Propaganda, perhaps, but the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was a genuine belief in "Asia for Asians", though it was still colonialism, with the Japanese in control instead of Europeans. It's important to remember the relationship between Japan and China : Japan modernized with amazing speed and success. Chinese liberals, including Dr Sun Yat Sen, went to Japan to learn. It's not at all as simple as Chinese hating the Japanese the way westerners demonized the Japanese.  In this film, Miss Li is a metaphor for China, because she's an orphan whose home was destroyed in some unknown battle. She revisits the site of her former mansion, and picks a spray of plum blossom in the ruins. She weeps for her parents, and  Hasegawa comes and comforts her. When she was sick with fever, he nursed her back to health. They fall in love and holiday, blissfully, in the West Lakes.Wonderful shots of Old China, bridges, old boats.

 Miss Li is, however, a partisan whose mission is to infiltrate Japanese circles and collect information.  Hasegawa confronts the Chinese underground and thinks he's saved Miss Li. They marry. She wears a modern wedding dress, but suddenly, he's called back to work. He's some kind of merchant navy security rather than military, which skirts the issue everyone watching the film would have known only too well. The cargo boat he's escorting gets attacked by partisans. Hasegawa goes missing: everyone thinks he's dead. Miss Li goes back to the scenic spot where they'd been so happy and tries to kill herself. But Hasegawa appears and the lovers are reunited.

There are further sub-texts to the film. It's not nearly as simple as it seems. The actress, Li Xianglan, was considered a traitor. It turned out that she was in fact Japanese, though born and raised in China. After the war she returned to Japan and to her Japanese name Yoshiko Yamaguchi. She made more movies and ran as a member of Parliament.  The film, directed by Osamu Fushimizu, was only one of many made for the Japanese market, which was fascinated by anything Chinese. Their military might be in the process of ripping China apart, but like western colonial powers, they thought it was in China's best interests. As so often, those who "love" a place, don't "love" its people other than as tourist fantasy.

Indeed, the film itself "colonizes" and appropriates for itself a song written much earlier by a composer who wrote "serious" western classical music as well as popular music and music for film. The song was first recorded by Hamako Watanabe, 渡辺はま子(1910-1999) (pictured left) who was a real classical music singer, unlike Li Xianglan who was an actress who could carry a tune. Watanabe also sang it in another Japanese movie, which I've seen but which isn't now available. She sang it in a concert setting, with great dignity. Watanabe, who had iconic status, cannot have been too impressed by Li's warbling.  But the real shame was to come later, when the song was further exploited by American GIs who dreamed up offensive, bowdlerized new lyrics that demean women, orientals and anyone else for that matter. "Colonialization" all over again.These things need to be dealt with. They aren't issues of  the past but still happening in different forms all round us.

Please see my post on "Gloomy Sunday" another popular song that bears little resemblance to the original. Also, see my numerous posts on cultural stereotypes, Japan and China, Japanese and Chinese music and film.

Arditti Quartet Xenakis Edinburgh International Festival

By Juliet Williams

Tuesday, like Monday, saw the performance in Edinburgh of work created by a polymath, this time the Greek architect and composer Yannis Xenakis, whose mathematically derived boundary-pushing work  started to be created under the tuition of Messiaen. One of the interesting aspect's of the very enjoyable Messiaen anniversary year was the chance to see the very considerable diversity of subsequent-generation composers who benefited from his tutelage in developing their divergent styles.

The work of Xenakis is extraordinary, challenging to listen to but from which I emerged strangely energized. For me it was the highlight of the  performance. Two of his works were presented. Ikhoor, named after the life-giving fluid flowing through the Greek Gods used in place of blood (blood cells and their behaviour being a subject which had fascinated the composer), is a string trio with an urgent insistent drive, full of buzzing sounds which create the impression of a swarm of bees. The cleverly contrasting ending involves the previously intense sound fading to a whisper, then creating the effect of echo. Tetras ('Four') was inspired by the composer's experience of working with this ensemble. As Messiaen describes it, 'The sound is a delicately poetic or violently brutal agitation.'

Like the previous day's performance, the Arditti Quartet recital at the Queens Hall  featured both high-quality performance of established repertoire (here Janáček's pleasing “Kreutzer Sonata”  string quartet number one) and innovative contemporary works. Perhaps more than any other ensemble, the Ardittis emphasis working with and alongside composers as they develop the works they commission.

This performance featured the fruits of not one but two such collaborations; not only the work with Xenakis, but also two string quartets from  the American Conlon Nancarrow, best know for composing a large number of works for player piano. Two of these were arranged here for live musicians, and these were presented  after the performance of two string quartets from him, the second of which was created for the Ardittis after hearing their own performance of the first. These two quartets were separated in the composer's output by another, never finished but referred to as his 'second' string quartet, so that the two performed here are known as the first and third.

The Third Nancarrow Quartet, which formed the second item in the second half of the Edinburgh concert, was a real revelation, being much of the time very delicate and almost melodic in its sound world, referencing at times the melancholic longing of the opening Janacek. Its first movement closed with an extended cello solo, excellently performed here by Lucas Fels – who was consistently good. The baton is then passed to the first violin, which has another extended, this time largely pizzicato, solo, with occasional accompaniment from the second violin, which occupies most of the second movement. The technically demanding and rhythmically unusual closing movement uses all four voices to come to a surprising ending.

The Ardittis performed excellently in a very varied and challenging mixture of repertoire. Broadcast live on BBC Radio Three, the performance remain listenable via the BBC website for another six days.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

FANTASTIC Billy Budd Prom 60 Davis

Astonishingly good Benjamin Britten  Billy Budd, Prom 60, from Glyndebourne. Definitely BBC Prom of the Year, it's THAT good. Exceptionally powerful performance all round, even in the minor parts. Not a weak link, and Andrew Davis conducts one of the most vivid, intense performances ever.  Musically,  this 2013 revival leaves the 2010 original for dead on every count. What a pity Glyndebourne invested so much in filming 2010. It's this 2013 version that should be preserved for posterity. Glyndebourne (and the BBC Proms) should figure out ways of making this available, because there will be huge underground demand.

Jacques Imbrailo's Billy Budd completely redefines the opera. Captain Vere has spent a lifetime trying to figure out what Billy meant. Strictly speaking, Billy Budd is about Captain Vere and his dilemmas.  If anything, this time Imbrailo's even better because he's developed more aspects of Billy's personality. Imbrailo is unique. Quite likely no-one else will ever create the role as perceptively as this. We'll probably go back to straightforward Beautys or Thomas Allen Billys, but Imbrailo has shown us what Vere might mean when he spies a ship in a vision  and "knows where she's heading".

Starry Vere lives in the realm of the intellect, thinking in terms of Greek allusion. Billy's a creature of instinct who lives so much in the present that he's overwhelmed by the gift of hard biscuit even when he's about to die. Thetre's another Billy inside which he doesn't reveal, even perhaps, to himself. Notice the delicate lyricism that Imbrailo gives lines like "Nights, I was a-dreaming under the sea", even when evil surrounds him

Fundamentally Billy is a good person, but the stutter traps him when he needs to speak. He strikes out instinctively and kills.  Somewhere deep inside Billy, there's a volcano  "I'm strong, and I know it, and I'll stay strong" A comic book action man doesn't need to remind himself. Imbrailo's Billy makes us realize that Billy's goodness hasn't come as easily as we might think. This Billy is mortal, and all the greater for that because he's no plaster saint. When Imbrailo sang "Through the port comes moonshine astray”, I could hardly breathe, I was so moved. Imbrailo suggests some unknown pain in Billy's past. He does not want to die. But he faces what's coming to him with transcendant grace.

After Billy dies, the orchestra explodes, rumbling with menace, as if the very universe were muttering "Mutiny, Mutiny" like the men. Andrew Davis conducts with surprising ferocity, emphasizing the savagery beneath the notes. Billy Budd is an opera of protest, most certainly not a jolly sea shanty. Orchestrally, Davis's Billy Budd is close to the cosmic violence that Daniel Harding conjured up. We don't need to "see" the sea. It's everywhere in the music. Like the intrigues aboard ship, the sea's moods are deceptive and subject to sudden, radical changes. When fog descends, an eerie inertia descends on the Indomitable, trapped in a miasma of ominous chords. When Davis conducts the battle engagement, the cross-currents in the music reflect not only the high-adrenalin confusion of war but also barbarism.

Mark Padmore gives the finest performance of his career, sacrificing elegance for psychological truth. He takes much greater risks, so they bristle and cut. Vere is neither weak nor effete. Only an "English tenor" can really create that sense of horror that haunts Britten's innermost psyche. Padmore will hate me, but he's sounding more like Ian Bostridge than ever, but to good effect. That takes courage. Full credit to Padmore. John Mark Ainsley, in 2010, was just too angelic.

The other great revelation of Davis's Billy Budd is Brindley Sherratt. Sherratt's background in oratorio must help, because he sings Claggart as if he were a force oif evil of truly Biblical dimensions. Sherratt's Claggart slithers malevolently like the Serpent in Eden. "I will destroy you" Sherratt growls, as if he were the Devil himself. "His name is", Sherratt tells Padmore "Billy Budd", spitting out each syllable with poisonous precision. Not every bass can sing with such lethal clarity. Like Imbrailo's Billy, Sherratt's Claggart will be the stuff of legend for years to come.

Listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 here and pray that it will be available in some form forever. Please also read Claire Seymour;s review of the Glyndebourne Festival production. She's the person who wrote the book on Britten's operas..

Multiple Requiems Edinburgh International Festival

By Juliet Williams : 

One strand in this year's Edinburgh International Festival Programme is the Usher Hall performances of great classical requiems. This began last Saturday (17th August 2013) with that of Fauré, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) under principal conductor Robin Ticciati, now also Music Director Designate of Glyndebourne. The series has continued yesterday (Monday 26th) with Brahms' German Requiem as part of the visit to Scotland of the Tonhalle Orchestra and David Zinman (they are also offering the Brahms Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s third symphony on the preceding Saturday). This work has also been performed this summer (also on Sat 17th August, available until 24th August via BBC iPlayer) at the Proms, a period instrument performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) under Marin Alsop, who as has been widely reported is to conduct this year's Last Night. Verdi's more theatrical requiem, performed by the Royal National Scottish Orchestra under the very popular Donald Runnicles will close the EIF concert series on 31st August.

Of the three, Fauré, who served as church organist of the Madeleine church in Paris – where this work was premiered -  has the most conventionally religious approach to the material. However he sets not only ordinary of the mass from the requiem mass, but also material from the burial Office for the Dead such as the famous concluding In Paradisium. This was very beautifully sung and in particular played in this Edinburgh performance, the performers building to this memorable culmination of both the work and the evening, such that the audience dispersed homewards with its almost hypnotic rhythms like a lullaby in their ears.

The SCO concert performance offered the Fauré generously coupled with works significant in musical development at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A truly exquisite Five Pieces by Webern followed the interval, which had been preceded by another seminal work of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht. Opening the concert had been a chamber version of Debussy's Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune, a pleasing arrangement which brought out delicacy and freshness to this work which although likeable I had heard three times in four days already. All these were performed to a high standard, and were appreciated by an audience sophisticated enough to enjoy this demanding fare as much as to support the National Youth Choir of Scotland. Particularly praised was treble Daniel Doolan, who attends school in nearby Livingston.

If Fauré's purpose in writing a requiem is to portray “a joyful deliverance, an aspiration towards a happiness beyond the grave”, Brahms instead has a more humanistic perspective. His 'German Requiem' embodies greater ambivalence and seeks to acknowledge the pain of loss and comfort those who remain. A protestant rather than a catholic perspective, he has taken and set texts from the Lutheran Bible rather than from church liturgy. It embodies consolation rather than judgement, and perhaps shares with Faure a message of hope but one more embodied in the present world than one to come.

I had some concerns about the impact of period instruments in the large space and sometimes difficult acoustic of the Royal Albert, but these proved largely unnecessary.The singing in this performance – from the Choir of the Age of Enlightenment – was very clear and embodied a sense of joy. It was both a pleasure and an inspiration to listen to. Henk Neven excelled in his first solo, which opened the third movement.

Excellent programming presented the Brahms Requiem alongside his own sombre and dignified Tragic Overture and a work by his close friend and fellow composer, Robert Schumann who had died nine years before the publication of this work, the latter's Fourth Symphony, giving a greater insight into the context of its conception. This very enjoyable performance was not only broadcast live but also repeated on Radio Three on Friday 23rd August, so remains available until Friday 30th August. It is well worth listening to.

The Edinburgh performance was very different in approach but also enjoyable. Its style was highly polished and smooth textured, but perhaps on the brisk side. Conductor David Zinman had an understated efficiency and the singers developed into the work to go from strength to strength. All the singing was enjoyable, but Florian Boesch particularly excelled. The work was really a showcase for his very considerable talents, and whether this performance is to your taste depends heavily on how much you enjoy his particular voice. The combination of his voice and the characteristically central European sound of the orchestra gave this a Germanic stamp through and through, which arguably suited the Brahms well. Just as  Marin Alsop's performance sought authenticity of one kind through using instruments in use at the composer's time, in other ways this gave an 'authentic' performance as being from the composer's cultural zone, speaking his language and performing in a style characteristic of his part of the world. The native Festival Chorus were well rehearsed, captured the spirit of the work well and were a credit to Christopher Bell, who is their director.

Verdi's Requiem is like Fauré's in sticking to Catholic liturgy, and in fact on the face of it is more straightforward  in its choice of text. However, its musical approach is much more lavish and its total length considerably greater. Rather than play down the emphasis on judgement, awe and terror – as Brahms does – these are dramatised, such as in the extended 'Dies Irae' to create what has sometimes been referred to as 'an opera dressed in church vestments'. Its origins were in a collaborative requiem to commemorate Rossini, to which Verdi would have been but one contributor – his contribution being the concluding Liberare Me, which is the earliest music to have been composed in the present score. Verdi in fact used this material instead to create his own creation of the Requiem, to commemorate the poet and writer Manzoni.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Glass harmonica Mozart Bloch Hebrides Ensemble Edinburgh

By Juliet Williams :

The Hebrides Ensemble's EIF recital today combined the playing of  established repertoire with pleasing lightness, such as the excellent account today of Mozart's Oboe Quartet K 370; with characteristic boldness of choice of new and innovative works. Capturing the Festival mood, this performance involved ritual hand washing, a delay whilst the flautist adjusted his face mask...... and an instrument created by a US statesman.

Joining the Ensemble was Thomas Bloch, a rare instrument specialist who demonstrated the glass harmonica – a period instrument and a novel addition, being created in the seventeenth century in its present form, although taking inspiration from timeless techniques such as Tibetan singing bowls, or using glass containers of varying sizes to make tuned sounds. It has the distinction of being created by American politician and polymath, Benjamin Franklin. It consists of 20 to 54 blown crystal or quartz bowls  fitted concentrically onto a rotating rod controlled by a pedal reminiscent of a treadle sewing machine. Sound is created by the player rubbing their wetted fingers on the edges of these.

Mozart, with the encouragement of his father, took an interest in this instrument after hearing it performed by a blind musician, Marianne Davies, who specialised in its use, being introduced by her opera-singer sister whilst he was rehearsing Idomineo. He went on to create the short solo work  Adagio K356/617a for it, which today gave an excellent showcase for the instruments distinctive and subtle sound; and an Adagio and Rondo K617 which includes it amongst a chamber ensemble with flute, oboe, violin and cello. Also performed was an arrangement by New Zealander Lyell Creswell of the Fantasia K594, originally composed to include a tuned mechanical clock, but here scored for glass harmonica, flute, oboe and violin.

Hearing the glass harmonica, it is hard not to think of the Ondes Martinot, which Bloch, a pupil of Loriot, also plays. Both were of their time new and innovative and create distinctive sounds, but have not sustained a lasting role in the orchestral cannon.

Also perhaps somewhat of its time is the work which closed the concert, George Crumb's Vox Balaenae. It's one of a number of works created around 1970, shortly after biologist Roger Payne discovered the communication of whales by sound, and recorded this in 1967  – to the inspiration of musicians working across a wide range of genres. One example being American-Amernian Alan Hovhaness , who incorporated whale song recordings into a work for large orchestra, '…....And God Created Whales'. Here in the UK, one thinks inevitably of John Taverner's The Whale, which the London Sinfonietta was formed to play. Happily, the Sinfonietta has gone from strength to strength, and has gone on to play and commission many other works.

One link between Mozart, whose music opened the concert and provided much of its concert, and Crumb, whose music closed it, is that both wrote 'Nightmusic'. Crumb's second Nightmusic, also titled 'Four Nocturnes' is a series of delicate miniatures for violin and piano, both being asked to use considerably extended techniques,with a 'prevailing sense of 'suspension in time'. Performed to close the first half, they provided a  refreshing contrast to the earlier works in the programme, and a broader view of the wide output of George Crumb, from whom we heard more later (see above). The playing was as pleasing as it was virtuostic, and this although short was one of the highlights of the programme for me. The other outstanding contribution I would pick out was the oboe playing of the opening work.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio Three and remains listenable for the next seven days. Tomorrow morning's recital from the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh is from the Arditti Quartet and is also broadcast live.  Look out for coverage here too.

Monday 26 August 2013

Wagner Parsifal Prom 57 Tomlinson Elder

Prom 57, Wagner Parsifal (Mark Elder, the Hallé) brought us John Tomlinson, perhaps the greatest Wagnerian bass of our time.  Gurnemanz is one of his signature roles. He might bark, but he doesn't "park". Age skills are enhanced by age, not diminished.

When Titurel sounds in better vocal health than Gurnemanz, it's worrying. But Gurnemanz is probably even older than Titurel. John the Baptist knew nothing of Christianity but baptised Jesus himself. Like John the Baptist, John Tomlinson's Gurnemanz recognizes who Parsifal must be and anoints his mission.  Tomlinson now portrays Gurnemanz as an Ancient, a witness to primeval mysteries that long predated formal religion. An Erda in male form!

The part is also huge, bigger even than Parsifal's in many ways. Tomlinson still has stamina and stage presence, even if he makes us wince at his dry, constricted croaks, though they're arguably in character. Tomlinson's just back from singing The Green Knight in Birtwistle's Gawain in Salzburg. He's tired, but he's still giving us pointers in how to channel Gurnemanz.  Like Gerontius in the Bible, (not in Elgar) Tomlinson's Gurnemanz is redeemed because he has seen the future. This Proms Parsifal was something to cherish because Tomlinson made us "feel" Gurnemanz's soul, still idealistic, despite the ravages of time.

Katarina Dalayman's Kundry, in contrast, was uncommonly seductive. Waltraud Meier's wild animal Kundry remains a tour de force, defining the role at its most savage, but Dalayman's more womanly portrayal is perfectly valid, bringing out the more human, vulnerable side of the role. This is important, for in Parsifal, Wagner reprises themes that persist throughout his career: motherhood, or the lack thereof, the distortion of sexual and family relationships, inter-generational power struggles and basic body fluids. Kundry is an outsider because she's a sexual being in a repressed society. Dalayman blends the natural warmth of her voice with forceful delivery, so her crescendi rang out , reaching into the furthest recesses of the Royal Albert Hall. At times, she almost sounds like a Verdi heroine. But it's a perfectly valid interpretation, which would benefit from a sympathetic staging which deals with the psycho-sexual emotional thickets that underpin the portentious pseudo-religiosity which has dominated Parsifal interpretation. Read my "Religion versus Religiousity" here.
In Parsifal, there are three different Parsifals, just as there are three different Wotans in the Ring. We can't gauge the whole Wotan from either manifestation. It's a mistake to expect Parsifal to be glowing and luminous from the start . Like most Wagner heroes, he goes through a process of change. Lars Cleveman achieved this transition well. In the first Act,  Parsifal's a young Siegfried, imnstinctive and almost animal. He kills the swan because he knows no better. Lars Cleveman's sturdy physicality suits this Parsifal . He's cocky, confident and even sexy in a quirky way: a good foil for Dalayman's mother/seducer Kundry. The second act brought forth the best singing of the evening, even from Tomlinson.  Yet Wagner springs a surprise in the end. Once Parsifal is mature and takes on his mission, he doesn't actually sing all that much. The mystical splendour of transfiguration comes from the orchestra. The Divine Presence is in the music. Parsifal kneels and listens, in awe.

And so to Mark Elder and the Hallé. We don't hear them enough in London, and they're very distinctive. The music in the first act is notoriously hard to pull off. Haitink, for example, stretched the tempi so one could feel the comatose Grail community, so desiccated that it's become fossilized. But inertia and dramatic thrust don't sit naturally together. Elder's approach allowed details to be heard, such as the sour wail of the brass. One of the percussionists leaned onto her timpani to dampen the sound. With a huge orchestra and several choirs, this act must be a beast to conduct. Elder held the orchestra back, giving prominence to Tomlinson's long monologue. But the overall effect was more symphonic than operatic. Fortunately, once the drama got going, the playing gained pace.  Klingsor's magic castle was nicely conjured up. Theologically. Klingsor is off the wall. His battle with Amfortas is kinky, when you really think of it. But the scene sets the tone for the Parsifal/Kundry dialogue, so central to the deeper meaning of the opera.

The Hallé showed their real strengths in the Third Act, where music even dominates the singing. The orchestra evoked the complex images in the narrative. Parsifal's on a mysterious journey, whose nature we don't really know. The angularity in the music cuts against the dream-like chromaticism, suggesting pain and suffering. The Knights are dying. The Hallé express the savagery without the need for words. They were splendid in the Good Friday music, augmented by metallic "Parsifal bells" resonating into space. Despite the Communion imagery in the text, these shouldn't sound "churchy". Good Friday is the one time in the Christian year when the Mass is not celebrated and communion not re-enacted on site. Wagner created new instruments for a purpose. The photo shows the original "bells" used in Bayreuth in Wagner's time.

Detlev Roth replaced Iain Patterson  at short notice. I was pleased, because Roth is highly regarded and experienced in a broad repertoire, other than Wagner. His voice has more natural colour than a traditional Wagnerian, so he sang Amfortas with more flexibility that we associate with the part. There are a lot of heavy low voices in this opera, and Roth's relative brightness was different, but not wrong. Picking Roth was a wise choice. He was an interesting counterbalance to Tomlinson's Gurnemanz of the Ages.

A full version of this review, with cast list, is here in Opera Today.

Glyndebourne 2014 officially announced

Details of the 2014 Glyndebourne Festival have just been officially announced.

Three new productions:
  • Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier directed by Richard Jones with Robin Ticciati conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Kate Royal makes her role debut as Feldmarschallin. Tara Erraught makes her role debut as Octavian and Teodora Gheorghiu makes her Glyndebourne debut in the role of Sophie.
  • Robin Ticciati will conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for Glyndebourne’s first ever production of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera. The new production will be directed by Frederic Wake-Walker. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke returns to Glyndebourne to sing the role of Don Anchise with Christiane Karg singing Sandrina and Gyula Orendt singing Nardo in his Glyndebourne debut.
  • Verdi’s La Traviata, Glyndebourne’s third new production for 2014, returns to the Festival for the first time since 1988. It will be directed by Tom Cairns, who made his Glyndebourne debut in 1994 directing Harrison Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs Kong.  Sir Mark Elder will conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The role of Violetta is performed by Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva, making her Glyndebourne debut.
 Three revivals :
  • Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber makes his UK and Glyndebourne debut conducting a revival of Graham Vick’s 1994 production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Andrei Bondarenko and Ekaterina Scherbachenko, who sang Marcello and Mimì in the 2012 production of Puccini’s La bohème, make a welcome return to the Festival in the roles of Onegin and Tatyana.
  • Jonathan Kent’s 2011 production of Don Giovanni returns with Elliot Madore in the title role following his UK and Glyndebourne debut as Ramiro in the 2012 production of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole. Andrés Orozco-Estrada will make his Glyndebourne debut conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • Robert Carsen’s 2011 production of Handel’s Rinaldo will be revived with Ottavio Dantone returning to conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The production features the four countertenors Iestyn Davies, Tim Mead, Anthony Roth Costanzo and James Laing in the roles of Rinaldo, Goffredo, Eustazio and the Magician.

Wagner Marathon Checklist

Mark Elder conducted Wagner Parsifal, Prom 57. My review is HERE. It was the seventh and last major Wagner opera in this year's BBC Proms season (overtures and songs don't count in quite the same way). What a bumpy ride it's been, from the erratic but exciting Barenboim Ring to the dreadful Tannhäuser to the unidiomatic but imaginative Tristan und Isolde. Tonight's Parsifal was a very mixed bag. When Titurel sounds in better vocal health than Gurnemanz, we've got a problem. On the other hand, John Tomlinson is more than a singer, he's a phenomenom. Even if he sounded rough, he filled the part.

I've heard all seven Proms operas PLUS ALSO five Bayreuth  Wagners and Salzburg Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg (excellent Herheim production) and  will write about Herheim's Bayreuth Parsifal and Christian Thielemann's divine Der fliegende Hollander. Time willing! Plus numerous other Wagner events, like the 1924 Fritz Lang Siegfried, and the  100 year old Wagner biopic. So here's a checklist of this summer so far.

Prom Die Walküre 
Prom Siegfried 
Prom  Gotterdammerung
Andreas Schager
Prom Tristan und Isolde 
Prom Tannhauser
Prom Parsifal (to come) 

Bayreuth Siegfried 
Bayreuth Tannhauser
Bayreuth Gotterdammerung

Salzburg Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

plus Salzburg Don Carlo, Glyndebourne, Mahler, Britten, Stockhausen, Coleridge-Taylor and much more.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Lutosławski, Panufnik "Polish" Prom 55 Warsaw Philharmonic

It's about time that the British government (or at least the BBC) recognised the role of Poles in British life. There are more Polish people in this country than any other foreign group. The economy would collapse without them. So it's good that this year's BBC Proms should acknowledge Polish music and even the Pole by adoption, Nigel Kennedy. But how little most of us really know about Poland and Polish culture! So do listen to the re broadcast of Prom 55 IN FULL. The discussions are exceptionally informative and intelligent, and some of it is entirely new. Listen to Roxanna Panufnik speak about her father (pictured here with Lutosławski, his great friend). She's refreshing because she's a musician and composer in her own right and more importantly, came to her father's music late. It's perfectly normal for people connected to some historic figure to deify them, but hagiography inhibits real appreciation. Roxanna Panufnik's good because she's objective (as far as possible) and Nicholas Raymond helps fill in the Polish cultural context. 

Listen especially to Andrezj Panufnik's Tragic Overture.(1942) and his Lullaby (1947 rev 1955).  At 7 minutes, the Tragic Overture is compressed but very intense. Quiet rumbling. Then the music rushes ferociously forward, whipped along by short blasts of brass and percussion and wailing, grotesquely deflating trombones. An implicit programme is embedded, based on snippets from anti-Nazi songs Panufnik wrote in secret.  Lullaby is even more innovative. It was first written while Panufnik was conducting in London, and was inspired by the sight of the moon, the "same moon shining over Poland, far away". Ethereal strings sing a sad tune, interspersed with single, twinkling notes against the long line. Yet listen to that legato, mysteriously "smeared" with half tones and strange textures. Not a soothing lullaby. It dissolves in a coda at once elusive, sinister and magical.

Panufnik, incidentally, helped found the Warsaw Philharmonic, so it felt right that we should hear this orchestra play his music at this high profile Prom, with Antoni Wit, who's stepping down as Music Director after over 10 years.  Perhaps the BBC wanted to add Shostakovich to the programme to broaden its appeal and "paint a vivid picture of two nations in parallel periods of anxiety", but Lutosławski and Panufnik are plenty interesting in their own right, and hardly "unknown". Wit and the Warsawers did a superb Szymanowski Third last year,. That would have required choir and soloist, but surely there might have been other Szymanowski to choose from?

Edininburgh International Festival Aimard Ligeti Debussy

Juliet Williams writes from the Edinburgh International Festival :

"The acclaimed French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a totally stunning recital yesterday at Edinburgh's Queen's Hall as part of this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Arguably the most musically excellent performance as yet of this year's Festival, his standard of playing was an honour for the Scottish capital.

In a generous programme, Aimard alternated a selection of Debussy's Preludes with a selection of Ligeti's Etudes, of which he is perhaps the greatest living interpreter. Of two of the Etudes performed here (Entrelacs and Der Zauberlehrling), he is the dedicatee. He has recorded both these and the Debussy Preludes .

Aimard's playing developed into the programme, coming to the fore in an excellent account of White on White (named for its exclusive use of the piano's white keys), then going from strength to strength. Fem (Ligeti), Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Debussy) and especially L'Arc en Ciel (The Rainbow – Ligeti) stood out for me in the first half. This closed with the extended prelude Automne a Varsovie, its melancholic tone reflecting both the mood of the that time year and the political circumstances of that city at its time of composition. Its title and content both reference the Polish composer Chopin.

In the second half, En suspens -which has a syncopation not dissimilar to Arc en Ciel, Brouillards  (fog) with its unique dissonant ending and Entrelacs were particularly enjoyable.The alternation of works of different styles through the performance was reminiscent though also of another recording – also featuring Ligeti – in which some of these Ligeti Etudes were performed in alternation with traditional Pygmy music. The Debussy Preludes have been both recorded on Deutsche Gramophon and performed live by Aimard at last year's Proms, concluding the Cadogan Hall Monday lunchtime chamber music stream of programming.

That concert concluded with the Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) prelude, which depicts in music the closing finale of the firework display in Paris for Bastille day, the nationalistic sentiments  of the occasion being referenced in strains of La Marseillaise. This piece is a wonderful finale and therefore inevitably a hard act to follow. The account given yesterday in Edinburgh was if anything even better than that last year in London, and the attempt to include further material afterwards was perhaps not entirely satisfactory. It is very understandable that the longest and very dramatic L'escalier du diable, inspired by struggling through a sudden Pacific storm on a bicycle, was seen as the culmination of the Ligeti series. However it might be argued that this could have been used to conclude the first half of the concert, and to finish as before with the Fireworks.

However this is a very minor point regarding a performance of quality which can only be described as superlative. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio Three and remains available via the iPlayer for another six days. I cannot recommend it enough."