Sunday 29 September 2013

Jurowski Britten Peter Grimes Skelton RFH

Vladimir Jurowski conducted a fascinating Britten Peter Grimes with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Fascinating, because Jurowski  finds things in Britten other conductors don't get in the first place. Jurowski approaches Britten as a composer,  without the usual baggage of Britishness and Brittenish. Jurowski makes us hear Britten as a composer who knew the music of his era and  had much to say about the times he lived in. Britten was not provincial though he chose to live in Aldeburgh. Peter Grimes is by no means a "heritage museum" in music even if its inspiration was an 18th century text.

Jurowski's Passacaglia and Sea Interludes reveal Britten  as a composer in the wider European context: grand, majestic gestures, as Romantic in the best sense of the word, but emotionally intense with a very modern edge. Peter Grimes was Britten's first mature opera and arguably the first real British opera, so it's important to hear it in this context. Britten knew the music of his time. The orchestration is huge in comparison to Britten's later works. There are even references to American popular music, such as in the Act Three scene in the pub. Britten, who knew more about America than most Suffolk fisherfolk, was obliquely commenting on social change. For change is at the heart of Peter Grimes.

Grimes is persecuted by pious hypocrites, determined to condemn him on principle. All around Aldeburgh, there are ruined churches, destroyed by fanatics in the Reformation. Witch hunts weren't so far in the past. Whatever Grimes may or may not have done, there are those in the Borough  who need  an outlet for the poison in their own souls. Perhaps there are subtexts in this opera linked to Britten's sexuality, or to his relationship with the conservative music establishment (qv Gloriana here) but Peter Grimes is an opera which protests blind obedience to conformity. Anniversary years like this smother genuine knowledge under a fire blanket of banal cliché. All the more reason to respect Jurowski, even though the concert was part of the South Bank's anodyne, dementedly superficial The Rest Is Noise marketing. 

Stuart Skelton's Peter Grimes is a breath of fresh air. Because Grimes is inarticulate, it doesn't mean that the role should be sung with neutral colour. The clarity of Skelton's timbre  suggests Grimes's intelligence. Like his apprentices, he might have been forced into his line of work without choice. Skelton sang "Now the Great Bear and Pleaides" with such elegant purity that I thought of Captain Vere, the real hero of Billy Budd. Strength, for Britten, isn't physical prowess so much as emotional integrity. Audiences might like their Britten characters safer and more comfortable, but Skelton shows where the real potential in the role might lie. 

Some excellent support from Brindley Sherratt (Swallow), whose shimmy with the Nieces ((Malin Christensson and Elizabeth Cragg) was low down and dirty yet hilarious at the same time. Nice to hear levity in a bass. Alan Opie was a good Balstrode and Mark Stone a very convincing Ned Keene. If that leather jacket cost thousands, it gave him an authentic swagger. The main female roles, Ellen Orford (Pamela Armstong), Auntie (Pamela Helen Stephen), and Mrs Sedley (Jean Rigby) could have been done with more bite, but to some extent, Britten wasn't at his best creating women. Mrs Sedley, though, can benefit from being done malevolently. There's vicious camp humour in "Murder most horrid", where trombones slither like snakes. If nothing else in this anniversary year, we should learn to recognize Britten's incisive sense of humour. 

Singers have to show character and interact even in semi-stagings  and concert performances. If anything, good Personenregie is even more important in semi-stagings and concert performances. One of the reasons I like minimal productions is that they focus attention on the performers themselves, not on the decor. The director was Daniel Salter who directed an excellent Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Garsington Opera at Wormsley. (review here) . Alex Doidge-Green's designs were excellent. The LPO were roped in, partly to shield them from the movement of the singers on a cramped stage, but also symbolically. When Skelton rolled up the rope, he released the Peter Grimes, heading towards fate. 

Saturday 28 September 2013

Goerne Wigmore Hall Wolf Liszt Haefliger

Matthias Goerne and Andreas Haefliger's recital at the Wigmore Hall was eagerly anticipated.  Goerne and Haefliger are a Dream Team, who have worked together for about 15 years. In the audience were many who had heard Goerne before he became famous, and some who knew Andreas Haefliger's father, the tenor Ernst Haeflinger. An audience like this doesn't need popular titbits. Goerne and Haefliger performed Wolf and Liszt  with intense, passionate committment. Even by the very high standards of the Wigmore Hall, this was an evening to remember.

Hugo Wolf's Peregrina I and II (1888) set the mood. Peregrina was a real, if mysterious, woman, a beautiful semi-vagrant, extremely well read and intellectual, though tinged with religious mania. Eduard Mörike, a nice Lutheran pastor, was intrigued because she represented  a wild, exotic alternative to conventional mores. The piano part seems worshipful, but when Goerne sang the phrase "....Tod im Kelch der Sünden", the poisonous danger in the reverie could not be mistaken. Wolf set only two of Mörike's five Peregrina poems, but the ending of Peregrina II might suggest why. The poet is in the midst of a family celebration. But in the midst of the festivities, the ghost of Peregrina comes to him, and they walk out, hand in hand. Goerne expressed the horror, but also the excitement. After 150 years, Peregrina continues to taunt, tempt and tantalize.

In contrast, Wolf's An der Geliebte, also to a poem by  Mörike, seemed heartfelt relief.  Goerne's voice these days is freer and brighter at the top.  In the two Wolf  Reinick songs Liebesbotschaft and Nachtgruß (both 1883), he could bring out the images of light and transparency to great effect.

These very early songs thus served as a good prelude to Wolf at his craggiest, the Three Lieder to texts by Michelangelo (1897). These songs, originally written for bass, have long been Goerne specialities, for they fit his natural register so well.  Haefliger delineated the firm opening chords, so when Goerne's voice emerged, it seemed hewn from stone. In Wohl denk' ich oft , the two strophes contrast past and present. Once, the poet thought "to live for song alone" though "im jeder Tag verloren für mich war". Now he's famous - and censured - "Und, dass ich da bin, wissen alle Leute!"  Goerne brought out the bitter irony, his voice spitting the consonants in the last line, contrasting with the firm round vowels of "alle". Two parallel realities embedded in the structure of the song.

Haefliger's chords struck like purposeful hammerblows in Alles endet, was entstehet. Goerne sang with nobility, the smoothness of his legato giving the song an elegaic quality. Yet this was no marble monument. When Goerne sang "Alles, alles rings vergehet!", he expressed human, personal anguish. In the final song, Fühlt meine Seele, the poet wonders whether his art has been inspired by "Licht von Gott". When Goerne sang "ich weiss es nicht", he expressed something altogether more complex. The strength in his timbre suggested where Michelangelo's deepest convictions lay.

Franz Liszt expressed himself ideally in his works for piano, and in some ways his songs work best as Lieder-in-reverse, where the piano sings and the voice accompanies. That in itself makes them an interesting part of the repertoire. Haefliger came to the fore. He played the introductions and postludes elegantly, but with the focus on meaning that differentiates piano song from piano solo. In Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam (S309/1 c 1855) the piano's sparkling, twinkling chords describe snowfall and starlight. Heine's poem is more ironic, for he imagines the spruce tree imagining itself a palm. For Liszt, though, the atmosphere is magic, and we marvel in its beauty.

More conventional poets seem to bring out the best in Liszt. In Laßt mich ruhen (S314 1858) to a [poem by Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Liszt creates the "Mondes Silberhelle auf des Baches dunkler Welle" so vividly that the song is almost a tone poem. Ich möchte hingehen (S296, 1845), Georg Herwegh the poet thinks how nice it must be to die. The piano part is almost jolly, as if Liszt is mocking the poet's delusion. The new brightness in Goerne's voice worked very well indeed.  Only in the last verse does reality intrude. The lines go haywire. and Goerne sings sardonically. "Das arme Menschenherz muss stückweis brechen".

Liszt responds to individual lines in  poems, like "Noch leuchten ihre Prpurgluten um jene Höhen, kahl und fern" in Des Tages laute Stimmen schweiugen S337 (1880)  to a poem by Ferdinand von Saar. Delicious round sounds for Goerne to circulate his voice around. Liszt is interesting as song composer, too, because his songs suggest how Lieder might have been experienced in the interregnum between Schubert, Schumann and Hugo Wolf. Liszt's Über alles Gipfeln ist Ruh' (S306/2, 1859) predicates on repeats of the words "Warte nur" and a nice final coda. Dozens of composers set this poem by Goethe, not all to penetrating effect.

Earlier this week at the Wigmore Hall, Goerne sang Schubert Lieder accompanied by harp (full review here) with the three Gesänge des Harfners.Now he turned to Hugo Wolf's settings of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister songs, Harfenspieler I, II and III (1888). Wolf's approach is more extreme than Schubert's, veering away from tonality towards psychic disintegration. The piano treads penitentiually. "Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt", sang Goerne, bringing out the desolation. "Still und sittsam, will ich stehn"sings the Harper in the second song. One of Goerne's great strengths is his inwardness. Like the Harper,  he doesn't emote theatrically to entertain an audience, but draws in on himself, physically and emotionally, focussing expression outwards, entirely through his voice. In the third song "Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß" brought the loudest asnd most forceful singing of the evening, but, as always with Goerne, volume was natural and unforced, deployed intelligently, not simply for show. Magnificent singing, and done with integrity. No populist showmanship here.

Goerne and Haefliger concluded with three Wolf songs from 1896, Keine gleicht von allen Schönen  and Sonne der Schlummerlosen, to texts by Byron and Morgenstimmung to a text by Reinick. A glorious ending to a thrilling concert. "Die Engel freundejauchzend fliegen". Goerne's enunciation was flawless. The encore was Wolf's Anakreon's Grab. Goethe describes the Greek poet's grave festooned with flowers. "Frühling, Sommer, und Herbst genoß der glückliche Dichter; Vor dem Winter hat ihn endlich der Hügel geschützt. der Hügel geschützt." As I left the Wigmore Hall, the thought of that "mound" where art rests eternally cheered my heart.

This review appears in full in Opera Today

Friday 27 September 2013

Britten Canticles Plus - Stone Records

New from Stone Records, a recording of Benjamin Britten's Canticles. This release is  a valuable addition to the Britten discography because it resembles a concert given at Aldeburgh in 1956, entitled "The Heart of the Matter". At this stage, only three Canticles had been written, so the recital showcased Canticle III,  Still Falls the Rain, then a "new" work, written the previous year.Thus the recital included readings by Edith Sitwell herself, of other poems in her collection. For the occasion, Britten wrote extra music, which until now has rarely been heard.

The new recording begins with Canticle I (My beloved is  Mine) from 1947 and Canticle II (Abraham and Isaac) from 1952. Then we hear the Prologue Britten wrote for the 1956 recital, "Where are the seeds of the Universal Fire", followed by a reading of Sitwell's poem The earth of my heart was broken and gaped low. A short song follows, "We are the darkness in the heat of the day", then another reading before the highlight, Canticle III. A further reading "I see Christ's wounds weep in the Rose on the Wall" reinforces the imagery in Still Falls the Rain. The collection concludes with an Epilogue which Britten based on the verse "So out of the dark". The disc concludes with Canticles IV and V.

The three extra pieces Britten wrote for this set aren't particularly distinguished, more incidental music than music that might stand on its own, but we need to know them to enhance our understanding, particularly of the period in which Still Falls the Rain was set.  Of the five Canticles, it is the only one to a text by Sitwell.  It is a great pity, then, that the booklet notes don't tell us much about the context and read more like a generalized description of the Canticles, which are by no means a unified cycle. They were written over nearly 30 years, and, as  Roger Vignoles has written, they can be interpreted as distinct stages in the evolution of Britten's output. Vignoles's article, in Britten's Century (ed. Mark Bostridge) is so perceptive that it's worth the price of the book alone.  By making this recording, Stone Records has contributed greatly to our appreciation of Canticle III but the booklet notes are a lost opportunity to extend our knowledge of the background.

Performances are generally of a very high standard, as one would expect with soloists of the calibre of Richard Watkins and Hugh Webb, Roderick Williams, William Towers and Christopher Gould. But for Britten, the tenor voice dominates above all else. Daniel Norman is good enough, though some of Britten's more elaborate ululations are a challenge. But when we think back to 1956, we can hear the kind of innocence and simplicity that would have sounded well. Benjamin Maclean, the treble, is delightful.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Schubert with harp : Goerne Christ Wigmore Hall

In the first of his two recitals at the Wigmore Hall this week, Matthias Goerne sang Schubert, but Schubert with a difference. Instead of the familiar songs for voice and piano, Goerne sang versions transcribed for harp, accompanied by Sarah Christ. Goerne knows the Wigmore Hall audience. True Lieder devotees were intrigued. (For my review of Goerne's concert with Andreas Haefliger (Wolf/Liszt) please see here).

Throughout the Lieder repertoire, there are references to Ständchen, serenades where a man, usually alone, sings and plays a simple, portable plucked string instrument, much in the way that troubadours performed centuries before. Indeed, the idea of song with harp long predates Lieder itself. The harp is a much less sophisticated instrument than a modern piano. It's more in keeping with the Arcadian image of the harp, where a  bard might play and sing in tune with nature. Wilhelm Meister, for example, creating his music as he wandered.  Harps also evoke the sounds of lutes, zithers and even early guitars. There's an excellent  transcription of Die schöne Müllerin for guitar, which brings out the miller's relationship with his lute, as well as with the brook. Goerne's concept of Lieder with harp has a long pedigree.

Dynamics shift when Schubert is heard with harp instead of piano. The sound is  more fluid, more "innocent" and naturalistic. Perhaps sound is more difficult to control when it resonates over a long string. Sarah Christ made the harp sound playful, spontaneous, even slightly unpredictable. Goerne had to listen, even more carefully than usual, adapting his singing to a lighter, brighter voice than a piano. It was refreshing to hear familiar songs done in this new way. They felt even more personal, as if we were listening in natural surroundings rather than in the formal context oif a concert hall.

Songs like Im Frühling (D882. 1826) and Das Lied im Grünem (D917. 1827) adapted well to the more vernal approach. Goerne's timbre rose to a transparency one doesn't normally associate with a baritone with bass-like coloration.  This suited  Des Fischers Liebesglück (D913, 1827) where the fisherman's lines are short and simple, suggesting his unspoiled simplicity. It was interesting to hear how Goerne respected the slight pauses between each short phrase, while Christ's harp continued to resonate even after her hands had left the strings. Just as Schubert describes moonlight, stars and the stillness of night, Goerne and Christ create an atmosphere of watchfulness. In Der Winterabend (D938, 1828), the harp evokes the sound of muffled snowfall, from which the voice emerges with warmth.

"Und geb' ein Lied euch noch zur Zither, mit fliess gesungen un gespeilet" (Pilgerweise (D789, 1823), worked particularly well with the humble harp, as did Der Kreuzzug (D932, 1827). Christ's playing tolls, like a bell in an austere monastery. Goerne floats the extremely high lines in the first strophe so we can imagine what the monk might feel as he watches the Crusaders on their way to war. Then his force takes on the rich, dark assertiveness for which he has no peer. ""Ich bin, wie ihr, ein Pilger doch!" he sings with fervour. The monk is fighting inner battles every bit as difficult as those the Crusaders are heading for.

Although Wigmore Hall concerts are rarely disappointing, this season's concerts so far have been enjoyable more for the artistry of the performers than for the technical standards of performance.  Goerne, however, restored the balance. His voice has blossomed since he was last heard in London, and is now truly revealing its riches.

His three Gesänge des Harfners were outstanding. Superlative singing, beautifully nuanced and shaped.  The best singing so far this year and more to come on Friday 27th, no doubt. Wilhelm Meister, the harper, wanders through life, haunted by guilt. "Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß, ....Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächt!".  He who has never eaten his bread with tears....cannot know the power of Heaven". Goerne's voice resonates, expressing mysteries and pain words alone cannot articulate. Yet even in his anguish, the Harper finds validation.of some sort, through his art.

Exceptionally well-written programme notes by Richard Stokes,  If the Wigmore Hall collects his work into a compendium, it will create a classic reference work. Programme notes, though, are written before a performance and don't directly relate to it. If the Wigmore Hall does another programme like this (lots of possibilities) it would be nice to read something on Schubert's interest in instruments other than piano. That would take the erudition of a Richard Stokes to be truly original.

This review appears also in Opera Today.  

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Explosive Elektra Royal Opera House

Richard Strauss Elektra at the Royal Opera House is every bit as explosive as reports indicated.  Audiences are  perfectly capable of appreciating extreme trauma as drama. At last, this intelligent production gets the superlative performances it deserves, suggesting that Elektra should feature more regularly in the ROH repertoire. There's more to opera than tired rehashes of Così, Traviata and Carmen. It takes courage to do Elektra with the intensity it merits. Get to this before the run ends, because it's very powerful. If ROH has the foresight to film this, it will become a cult on DVD.

Andris Nelsons conducted. No mistaking this Strauss for Johann! Nelsons is always dynamic, but Elektra seems to have electrified him.  He relishes the danger of Strauss's most adventurous score, which threatens to break through the bounds of tonality, just as Elektra herself breaks through the bounds of convention. Nelsons stretched the Royal Opera House orchestra, and they responded with unusually idiomatic freedom, almost as though they were a specialist ensemble like the London Sinfonietta.  His tempi are well judged, creating huge surges of tension. It's as if the palace itself were alive, breathing like Elektra herself, a volcano, a force of nature about to erupt. The ghost of Agamemnon hovers oppressively over the drama. Eletra's father, the king, doesn't need to sing. His "Schatten" looms in the backdrop, and his voice is in the orchestra. Dark bassoons and basses slither, rumbling under the seething strings. Details emerge like brief releases of tension: sour, bitter woodwinds, oscillating like the pan-pipes of mad dancers.

Yet Elektra affects us most emotionally when we identify with her as a human being. Charles Edwards, the director, wanted to avoid the caricature of Elektra as a mad harpie. "A lot of her music is soft, amazingly tender...... Elektra, for all her righteousness, is deeply damaged: everything that's weiblich, human and fertile about her, she’s had to repress, yet she doesn’t hold it against her sister who stands for all she can never have.” In 2008, this was Mark Elder's first Elektra. He overdid the restraint at the expense of drama. This music needs a schizophrenic dynamic between oppressive extreme and fragile vulnerability. Nelsons gets the contrast perfectly. At critical moments the orchestra almost falls silent as singers growl sotto voce. The impact is all the more unsettling.

Christine Goerke is astonishingly good. She projects crescendi at maximum volume without sounding shrill or forced, though that might well be within the character. Goerke's technical control allows her to create Elektra as a fully rounded personality, a normal woman driven to extremes. She terrifies the maids but at least one of them identifies with her. Women are brutalized in societies like this. Goerke's "inner Elektra" is equally impressive. When she sings about Elektra having once been beautiful, Goerke's voice mellows into rich rubato: we can "see"  the young innocent she used to be. Edward's Personenregie is exceptional. Every gesture, every modulation works expressively. When Goerrke sings "Orest! Orest!" , she does so with such Sensucht that you can visualize her "Traumbild".  Nelson's conducting in this section  glowed with wistfulness.

For all we know, Agamemnon was a brute, and Klytemnestra was redressing the balance. Michaela Schuster's Klytemnestra is still young enough to hope for happiness. Schuster's voice is vibrant and sensual, and she moves with energy and litheness. Psychologically, this is perceptive. If Klytemnestra were a desiccated hag, we might not feel the desperation which led her to this cataclysm. The insomnia sequence suggests how deeply conflicted she is. Klytemnestra is strong, but Schuster (very well blocked) was able to suggest that there are savage cracks beneath her surface.

This is one seriously dysfunctional family, but we're drawn to them because they're realisitic. Adrianne Pieczonka sings Chrysothemis with authority, so one feels that the character is mature enough to make choices even if they're not the ones her sister makes. Were it not for Elektra's sacrifice and Orest's courage, Chrysothemis might have become trapped in the same syndrome of denial and revenge turned unhealthily inward.

Iain Patterson sang Orest with enough character to make the role a credible hero. The role isn't massive, but Patterson makes a far stronger impact than some who've done the role. With genes like these, Orest needs to be credible. Again, the direction is good. When Patterson climbs into the castle, hanging onto a rope, it feels, and looks dangerous. When he and Elektra embrace, it feels genuine. "The dogs recognized me": a deft human touch in the libretto, which Patterson sings with warmth. In this revival, there isn't a single role, however minor, that isn't well cast and well directed.

This time round, the staging and direction are even more focused. The revolving door as plot device works extremely well. It's a kind of Tardis, compressing the violence beyond the stage, its movement reflecting the sudden switches of fate in this opera and in its turbulent music. The palace wall looks impenetrable, but the cloth backdrop reminds us that the inner rooms will be breached, and Klytemnestra, for all her power, will die. Debris is strewn over the stage, and bodies, but purposefully. We are "inside" the fractured psyches that inhabit this opera and its insights into human psychology.

photos : copyright Clive Barda, courtesy Royal Opera House

Sunday 22 September 2013

Elektra - Royal Opera House - the director speaks

“Opera directing is very different to theatre directing,” Charles Edwards, director of Elektra at the Royal Opera House, told me in 2008.  “It has to be the music that motivates you.” In this second revival, Andris Nelsons is conducting, which alone almost guarantees an absorbing musical experience. Chrsitine Goerke sings Elektra, with Adrianne Pieczoka as Chrysothemis and Michaela Schuster as Klytemnestra. Rehearsal reports suggest that this will be stunning on all counts. HERE IS MY REVIEW.

Elektra is a kind of Holy Stück,” Edwards told me. Sir Thomas Beecham conducted it at the Royal Opera House in 1910, a year after it was written, so it carries a venerable performance tradition. But every production is different. “It’s an opera with a fantastic inner logic to it, like Wozzeck, in terms of orchestral and psychological insight…. a kind of psychogram, drawing a picture of what’s happening in the minds of the characters." Citing the sequence where Klytemnestra recounts her traumatic dream, Edwards notes how close Strauss comes to atonality. The music wavers between tones because Klytemnestra can’t find her place emotionally. Strauss was writing well before Schoenberg, and conceptually this is very advanced. It’s as if the composer was on a “cliff edge, looking over into an abyss and pulling back”. Although there are elements of later Strauss in this music, the composer is on dangerous new ground.

Elektra also stands on the precipice in historical terms. This was the Vienna of Freud and artistic innovation. “Hofmannsthal’s libretto isn’t Wagnerian, it’s highly colloquial language, it was daring, yet he didn’t undertake lightly the task of reinterpreting the ancient tragedy in modern, psychological terms.” This was a pivot point in European history: nations tottering on the edge of the First World War, and the end of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires. Hence costumes which evoke Kaiser and Tsar, and sets which juxtapose ancient Greek ruins and early Bauhaus architecture. “The whole weight of history is pressing down.” It’s significant that the production was first conceived on the brink of the invasion of Iraq. If anything, the five years since the premiere in 2003,  have sharpened the focus. “We cannot ignore the past.” Had Parliament not had the guts to reject the bombing of Syria, we might be at war yet again, today. This Elektra is frighteningly prescient.

 Klytemnestra wants to forget Agamemnon’s murder, but the truth catches up on her. The characters are locked in a cycle of retribution and violence. “Revenge, revenge, revenge,” said Edwards, “it’s been going on since the beginning of mankind.”

“Ich trage die Last des Glückes”, Elektra carries the burden of the past, until she herself dies. Her final dance is not a dance of triumph – she doesn’t die in other versions of the legend, but in Hofmannsthal’s version, she is killed, just like those who killed her father, because she wanted vengeance too much. “That’s what that final C Major chord means,” said Edwards. "It comes suddenly, in contrast to the minor keys that lead up to this point. Strauss is turning a blinding light upon us, This is not celebration, it’s interrogation : Is this what we really want ?” Elektra has been rehearsing her victory for a long time, but when it becomes reality, it finishes her off.

In this production, Edwards wants the music to come through clearly. “This won’t be a total Schlacht of sound, a generalized bloodbath of noise where you can’t really hear the words. The louder the orchestra, the more the singers have to force their voices and that lessens what they can really do.” Of course Elektra can be loud, but this can obscure the deeper levels of meaning. No diva “bathing in vast amounts of decibels”, then?  Edwards wanted to avoid the caricature of Elektra as a mad harpie. "A lot of her music is soft, amazingly tender. The dynamic between Elektra and Chrysothemis is fundamental. Elektra, for all her righteousness, is deeply damaged : everything that's weiblich, human and fertile about her, she’s had to repress, yet she doesn’t hold it against her sister who stands for all she can never have.”

The photo above is a still of a 1913 production of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's original (1903) play.  Notice how un-romantic it is, and how modern! When will those who moan about "non-traditional" stagings learn that stagings were traditionally of their own time? Think about Greek drama - staged in the simplest of surroundings in normal clothing with only masks for fantasy. Decor does not in itself make drama. It's the intelligence behind the staging that makes it work. This Elektra is unnerving, as an opera as disturbing as this should be.

Bampton Classical Opera Mozart La finta semplice

"Mozart cut his operatic teeth on La finta semplice, as a twelve-year-old prodigy being paraded before the Viennese court by his ambitious father, Leopold. Responding enthusiastically to a casual remark by Emperor Joseph II that the young wunderkind might like to compose an opera for the court, the proud parent precipitately exclaimed, “Today we are to see a Gluck and tomorrow a boy of twelve seated at the harpsichord conducting his own opera”."

Claire Seymour's perceptive review of Bampton Classical Opera's Mozart La finta semplice. in Opera Today.  

"Incidentally, operatic croquet seems to be all the rage at present: BYO’s recent production of Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage featured a panoply of ‘sporting’ ensembles - but Bampton got there first!) Overall, this was another discerningly amusing performance by Bampton Classical Opera: a cheerful, charming production which confirmed the essential mystery of the ordinary and the inscrutability of the world of love."

Saturday 21 September 2013

Love, Sacrifice and a Good Education

When Sha Tin was famous for growing papaya! Parent's Love (寸草心) 1953. is another movie so retro that it brings back a world that's past. But it's an extremely important movie because, in its simple and direct way, it tells us a lot about basic Chinese values, like family, education and caring for others..

It's Speech Day in a Hong Kong school. Education was a hard-won privilege for many, in those days before public education. A student stands up to thank parents for what they've done so their children can go to school, but breaks down in tears.

Pan to a shot of Shatin when it was completely rural, with paddy fields and the river. "Has mountains, has water" says the speaker, using an idiomatic expression which means beautiful nature. "It looks peaceful", she adds, "But the people who live here have hard lives". Pan to a shot of the traditional house on the mountainside. The Chang family aren't farmers but modern folk who live in the countryside. Dad takes the train and ferry to work in a bank in Central. Look how he eats his lunch, with his foot on the bench in old-fashioned style, which people don't do nowadays. His lunch is rice in the kind of metal tin everyone used in those days, including my Dad. He has two fish and offers to share one with a friend.

Dad walks home from the station. The younger kids are having baths in metal basins in the open air. "Don't sit on the ground, you've just been washed!" scolds older sister - a detail observed from real, lived experience. Dad's brought home a treat, a whole catty of pork, tied on a string! "What's the fuss" says Mum. "We haven't had pork for half a month. Besides, I'd like some", says Dad, who plays lovingly with the kids. Look at the fire stove in the kitchen, and at the pandanus fans. No air con. Friends visit, and extended family. "Remember how we used to catch crabs together," Dad asks his boyhood friend, the local truck driver. They entertain themselves by playing old-fashioned hand games and a friend sings while playing the erhu. Mum washes dishes in the stream. The kids have fallen asleep. It's a scene of perfect bliss.

But money is short. Mum suggests taking Ah Ming the daughter out of school."What's the point, even educated people can't get jobs." But Dad says education is good in itself because it make you a better person. To save money, Dad gives up the trains and cycles to town, up Shatin Pass, one of the steepest hills in the area. Secretly Ah Ming quits school so she can buy a train pass for him. She gets a humiliating job as an exhibit in a fun fair, and switches back into school uniform so her parents won't find out. But of course they do. Dad flies into  a rage. But when he realizes why she did it, he blames himself. Love and self-sacrifice, the moral basis of this movie.

Dad loses his job, but borrows money to pay Ah Ming's school fees.  He starts carrying passengers on a bicycle, (even lower than pulling a rickshaw). One day, Dad forgets his cardigan. Ah Ming goes to Kowloon to bring it to him and finds out what he's doing. "You lied!" she cries. But he says, people have to do what they can to get by. Dad cheers the family up by singing opera, including the falsetto part. Mum helps a friend sell fried tofu in the market (another Sha Tin speciality). One day, the flaming oil from the pan falls on little brother, who is badly burned. Brother is sick, Mum's pregnant again. Dad is sick and is run over by a car and goes to hospital. Where's the money going to come from? No public health, then. Luckily, the community pulled together. "We didn't eat enough", Ah Ming tells her school, "But I didn't stop studying". The film ends with a shot of Dad, walking on crutches, beaming with joy.

The movie is simple, but that gives it impact: it's so direct and so beautifully filmed. Ah Ming, the daughter, is played by Shi Hui (Shek Hui 石慧) born 1934. Like most of the Chinese movie industry, she had strong social values. In 1967 she and her husband were imprisoned for their beliefs. Watching this film, maybe we should appreciate where she was coming from.  The focus of the film, however, is Dad, played by Lee Chi-yuk (李次玉). The director was Li Ping Qian (李萍倩, 1901-?, photo above)

Friday 20 September 2013

Nazi gold - violinmaker's secret clue ?

Do these violin-makers hold the secret to to the fabled horde of Nazi gold ? This is a Luftmalerei, an outdoor fresco from the village of Mittenwald in Bavaria. Mittelwald was the centre of German violin-making in the 18th century. Mathias Klotz (1653-1743)  was a contemporary of Stradivari and Guarneri, and was connected to Jacob Stainer. This Luftmalerei dates only from 1930, when the Mittelwald Geigenbaumuseum was built, but Klotz founded a violin-making tradition that still endures today. So what's the connection to Nazi gold ?

There have been many theories about the gold the Nazis are supposed to have hidden in the lower Alps. Now, a Dutch film maker, Leon Giesen, claims that there's a hidden code in a score to a March-Impromptu by Gottfried Federlein. Allegedly, Martin Bormann scribbled cryptic notes on the papers, which were found by a Dutch journalist. The "evidence" is a marking that says "Wo Matthias die Saiten Streichelt" and another that says "Enden der Tanz"" which Giesen claims can be read like a "treasure map" to the gold hidden under the local railway. Der Spiegel isn't convinced. It quotes a local historian, who says "It could be a treasure chest.......but it could just be a manhole cover."

So I did a bit of detective work, too. Gottfried Federlein (1883- 1952) was an American organist, who wrote transcriptions and  music for the Wurlitzer. Maybe that's how Martin Bormann supposedly came across his score. On the other hand, Federlein was Jewish. Maybe there's another Federlein who wrote marches. But I think the case rests. Perhaps, the Tooth Fairy can comment.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Battle Plan for Britten's Birthday

With Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday coming up on 22nd November, there's so much happening that it's time to prepare a battle plan  to get the best concerts at the best prices (if you haven't done so already).

The South Bank's Britten weekend starts 28/9. Cabaret Songs, Noyes's Fludde, talks and a screening of Wes Andersen's 2012 comedy Moonrise Kingdom, which reflects Britten's genuine interest in community music. The whole weekend will only set you back £25. The price doesn't include  Peter Grimes, which for many will be the highlight. In fact if you go into the website via "Britten celebrations" you'll have a hard time finding the opera, which may or may not reflect the South Bank management's interest in music.

The big draw for this Peter Grimes will be Stuart Skelton. Tradition has it that Peter Grimeses should be stolid and inarticulate, but Skelton's voice is more agile and colourful than many who have done the part, and supports the theory that Grimes could be interpreted in new ways. Grimes is an extremely complex man, a victim of circumstances as much as brute. Perhaps he's a thwarted intellectual. This affects the interpretation of Ellen Orfotrd, too: someone from the educated classes who turns inwards in a hardbitten Borough. I'm really looking forward to hearing Vladimir Jurowski conduct the LPO, because he doesn't do lumpen, and might bring out the Russian soul in Peter Grimes. Jurowski also conducts the War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on 12/10 with outstanding soloists: Ian Bostridge, Matthias Goerne and Tatiana Monogarova.

Aldeburgh still isn't - yet - a tourist trap for the "Britten experience" though the Britten Industry will probably put paid to that, though Britten would roll in his grave at the desecration. But anyone seriously into Britten does need to go there at least once to understand the landscape and the sea. Aldeburgh Music is doing Albert Herring from 19/11. There will be numerous Albert Herrings around the country as it's a relatively easy opera to put on, but Aldeburgh is its "home", and where it was conducted by Britten himself inn the dark days of austerity Britain.  Two years ago, they did an "authentic" revival of the original at the cramped Jubilee Hall, complete with home-made cakes and home made filming. This time, we get Snape Maltings. .

Aldeburgh, thankfully, celebrates Britten all year round and in many ways so it doesn't need to overcompensate. A Britten chamber music series is just concluding. On the Birthday itself, Oliver Knussen will conduct the BBCSO and choristers from Norwich in a concert featuring Cantata Academica; Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia; Spring Symphony and a new work by Ryan Wigglesworth. This is actually much more in the true Britten spirit than the glitz and hype there might be elsewhere. With luck, we'll hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 which is devoting a week to Britten on an unprecedented level.

Death in Venice will be staged at Aldeburgh, part of the Opera North Festival of Britten series, which has started in Leeds with Peter Grimes and ends on 222/11 with A Midsummers Night's Dream. Death in Venice will be the highlight, because it's the superlative Yoshi Oida production, which I saw at its UK premiere at Aldeburgh in 2008 (more here), so I'll be catching it at Aldeburgh on 1st November. This production is exceptional and not at all "comfortable" or commercialized.

Glyndebourne Touring Opera will be doing The Rape of Lucretia from October 22nd. I'll be at Glyndebourne itself for this, because that's where the opera was first performed, in 1946. There's an archive of materials on display somewhere at Glyndebourne. This is a new production, with a very good cast indeed: Allan Clayton, Kate Valentine, David Soar, Duncan Rock and Claudia Huckle. Will we get to see "more" of Duncan, as we did when Maltman did the part at Aldeburgh a dozen years ago?

 The Barbican's Britten celebration starts 8/11 with Ian Bostridge. He's singing Our Hunting Fathers, which he recorded in 1998. Although Britten wrote it, like Les Illuminations, for soprano, it sounds radically different with a man's voice, especially with a voice as unique as Bostridge's.  In the 1930's Britten himself might not have dared dream of such a haunting, dangerous performance.  The softness of a woman's singing would have made the piece less threatening. Bostridge, however, shows how Our Hunting Fathers is a masterpiece way ahead of its time, as violent a work of protest as he ever wrote.

On 14-16/11 Bostridge is also singing the Madwoman in Curlew River, a role Pears felt uncomfortable doing, but which I think Bostridge will do well. It's a production by Netia Jones, so should be suitably austere and intelligent. Good cast, and the Britten Sinfonia plays. Mark Padmore sings the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings on 24/11 and Steuart Bedford conducts the BBCSO in a concert staging of Albert Herring (no cakes) on 23/11. There'll be a dance presentation of Phaedra in the Barbican Theatre. There is a series of talks, but very expensive for what it is. Much more interesting, however will be the War Requiem, organized by the Barbican but held at the Royal Albert Hall, which should add tremendously to the sense of occasion. On 10/11 it's timed to coincide with Remembrance Day. Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBCSO. On Britten's birthday itself, the Sixteen will sing Britten choral works.

At the Wigmore Hall, the Prince's Consort will be doing the Canticles on 22/11. In Oxford, the Oxford Lieder Festival will be doing an extended Britten weekend. It's unique. Britten revived the countertenor voice for modern repertoire. James Bowman, who worked with Britten himself, will be giving a masterclass and recital/talk. Red Letter Day for every countertenor in the country. Lots of other Britten events in Oxford too.

Schubert Bostridge Drake Wigmore Hall

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake are planning a two year long traverse of the songs of Franz Schubert, to "‘chart the expressive depths, lyrical inflections and psychological insights of the composer’s work’."

Here's Claire's review of Bostridge and Drake, Wigmore Hall in Opera Today.
Sample, Viola, the long ballad to text by von Schober.

 "It was this song more than any other that confirmed Bostridge’s willingness to look afresh at every nuance of text and music, to surprise us, to manipulate our expectations. The opening tempo was slow, Drake deliciously lightening the second of his paired introductory chords, before Bostridge heralded the arrival of spring with a firm brightness accompanied by the piano’s crisp, sprightly staccato. Throughout the ballad, tempo, texture and tonality were thoughtfully interpreted and their ‘meaning’ communicated; never was the rondo structure allowed to lull us into complacency, and the dialogue between voice and piano was probing. The violet’s urgent terror when she realizes her isolation was chillingly contrasted with a moment of stillness; her fretful torment was coolly, disconcertingly swept aside by the return of the sweet refrain. An accelerando towards the close was halted by a pause before the final statement of the refrain, and the return of the slow tempo of the opening made a requiem of the closing verse."

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Mozart Le nozze di Figaro - ROH

Claire Seymour reviews the Royal Opera House Mozart Le nozze di Figaro in Opera Today.

"The chandeliers glint and sparkle, under Paule Constable’s beautiful lighting; there are some breath-taking moments such as the fading into twilight between the final two Acts, as the interior of the chateau imperceptibly metamorphoses into an enchanted nocturnal garden. Costumes are similarly eye-catching and visually there is scarcely an anachronistic note - indeed, McCallin could probably teach the producers of Downton Abbey a thing or two about period detail. It’s a shame, then, that the shine seems to have been wiped off the drama itself, for this was a rather lacklustre and untidy performance of an opera which should fizz and glide along effortlessly."

Read the whole review in Opera Today HERE. 
(photo copyright Mark Douet, courtesy ROH)

Tuesday 17 September 2013

"1000 people shouting" BCMG 2013/14

A piece for 1000 people shouting in the street? The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group thinks so. They've commissioned David Lang's "marvellously crazy idea"for a major piece for outdoor performance, with a vast community of singers, perhaps involving movement in some way, and to a text of his own writing. BCMG has faith in David Lang. They premiered his My Evil Twin in 1992 and The Passing Measures in 1998. The first was for 14 performers, the second for 43 performers.  Stephen Newbould, artistic director for BCMG, says: "With David one always feels a gauntlet is being thrown down, and all one can do is pick it up".  Crowd Out is a work "with no instruments, other than the human voice (whispering, chanting, singing as well as shouting) and a work for anyone to perform alonside musicians of BCMG". In June 2014, Millennium Point in Birmingham will be a stunning setting for this unique experience.

But first, BCMG starts its 2013/14 season on October 6th with a concert conducted by Oliver Knussen in a programme that includes Ligeti's Chamber Comncerto, the full orchestral version of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces and work by Alexander Goehr, Niccolò Castiglioni and Helen Grime. Knussen and the BCMG will appear at the Barbican in May 2014 for Harrison Birtwistle's 80th Birthday celebrations. They'll also be appearing in April at the Library of Congress in Washington DC and later at the Wigmore Hall, London.

"New music isn't scary if you start young, without hangups. BCMG does a lot with young musicians and with families. In January, they're doing an inventive programme round Thomas Adès' Living Toys, weaving theatrical and visual elements with music to create colourful and engaging concerts to ignite young imaginations."

Plus recording plans and other premieres. More here. .

Watch Janowski's Ring Enescu Festival

Marek Janowski's Wagner Ring at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest continues with Siegfried on Thursday 19th at 1700,  and Götterdämmerung on Sunday 22nd at 1700. No repeats, only live, but it's worth making the time for if you can. Das Rheingold on Sunday was enjoyable, in an energetic way, but Die Walküre was something special. Janowski's style is vigorous, but direct. Not for him the overripe "romance"  some expect in Wagner even though the operas are hardly sentimental by nature. He conducts the Radio Symphonie Orchestra Berlin who may not be as glitzy as Bayreuth but are pretty good.

But listen, too, for the singers, especially Egil Silins. He's a regular on the Wagner circuit  but doesn't often appear in English-speaking countries. His well-modulated control of line suggests Wotan's personality rather well. How Wotan became leader of the Gods, we don't know, but we do know that he's no saint, and may constantly be struggling between his weakness and the power of his position. The Ring isn't about heroes so much as flawed people trying to do the best they can. Silins isn't a flashy personality, but his disciplined technique evokes something of Wotan's hard-won mastery of the wilder forces within himself. Silins is reserved, but when he sings Wotan's confrontation with his daughter, he shows the fragility within., which Wotan usually has to conceal..

Petra Lang is always interesting, and her Brünnhilde is convincing. Without her trademark fiery locks and in evening dress, Lang looks like an ordinary woman, but that helps characterization too. She's strong enough to be a Valkyrie but is also human. I was surprised at the tenderness she brings to the part, especially for a singer who can create demonic Ortruds. A pity that she won't be singing Brünnhilde, awakening from the flames.

On Thursday, Stefan Vinke will sing Siegfried fresh from Seattle. Catherine Foster will sing Brünnhilde fresh from Bayreuth, where much was made of her being the first English Brünnhilde. there. Since the role has no nationality, this alone means nothing. Foster is pleasant enough, if that's what they mean by "English". Martin Winkler sings Alberich and Arnold Bezuyen sings Mime, reprising their roles from Das Rheingold. Both very effective. The George Enescu Festival in Bucharest is definitely on the international map, and they do things to the best of their resources, without fuss. Nearly all concerts are being streamed live, including Enescu's Oedipe around which the Festival was built.

Monday 16 September 2013

Thomas Hampson Mahler Wigmore Hall

Thomas Hampson "lives" Mahler. He's the greatest Mahler singer of our time, and a serious Mahler scholar as well. You could almost say that what Hampson doesn't know about Mahler might not be worth knowing, but he still finds something fresh and new. So, even after all these years, it was good to hear Hampson and Wolfram Rieger perform Mahler at the Wigmore Hall.

Hampson and long-term collaborator Rieger began at the beginning, with some of Mahler's earliest songs such as Scheiden und Meiden and Aus! Aus! from around 1888. They are significant because they represent Mahler's earliest engagement with Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of folk-derived poems published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in 1806/8.  Their appeal to Mahler is obvious. He grew up in a small town with a military garrison. From childhood, he would have recognized the sound of marches and military bands and connected emotionally to the lives of soldiers, and to the simple townsfolk and huntsmen around him. Death was no stranger to Mahler even as a child. Indeed, his fascination with marches, funeral marches and resurrection stemmed from very deep sources in his psyche

Hampson has spoken out against war and gave a remarkable recital in which the Wunderhorn songs were perceptively presented by theme rather than as they appear in publication. Hampson called the Wunderhorn songs "negative love songs" for their protagonists retain sturdy defiance in adverse situations. Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (1898) refers to the picture by Moritz von Schwind. A man is imprisoned in a tower. Meanwhile a row of elves are busily trying to saw down the bars on the window to help him escape. "Gedanken sind Frei", Hampson cries. Thoughts are free. As long as we can dream, we cannot be suppressed. Even now, that's a revolutionary concept.
Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz, with its march rhythm just slightly off-beat, resolves in an evocation of trumpets and drums. The symphonist in Mahler was never far away, even when he was writing piano song. Revelge, that most nightmarish of songs is a masterpiece. If Hampson's voice wasn't, on this occasion, as rich and fluid as it can be, Rieger's playing was manic, horrific. Rieger's staccato ripped like a volley of machine-gun fire. As Hampson notes, the music evokes"Drang", the Grim Reaper gone mad. With our modern ears, it's like a forewarning of the slaughter of the trenches, and worse.."Tralali, tralaley, tralalera" is no lullaby here, but a bitter protest.

Although Alma would ridicule Alexander von Zemlinsky in her memoirs, the truth is more complex.  Zemlinsky knew Alma's songs years before they reached publication. Even though he was infatuated, he told her that her music was, like herself, "a warm, feminine sensitive opening but then of doodles, flourishes, unstylish passage work. Olbrich [a publisher] should have your songs performed by an artiste from the Barnum and Bailey (circus) company, wearing the customary black tails, and on his head, a dunce's cap". It is significant that Alma's songs are orchestrated frequently by other composers, who want them to be more than they are.

The connections between Mahler, Zemlinsky, Strauss, Dehmel, Schoenberg and Webern are so well known they don't need explanation. Hampson sang Zemlinksy's Enbeitung, Alma's Die stille Nacht.and three settings of Dehmel, two by Webern (Aufblick and Tief von fern, both 1901-4) and one by Strauss (Befreit, op 39/4 1898). In Befreit, the round vowel sounds resonated with warmth. "O Glück !" he sang, rising to a glowing crescendo. His family and friends were in the audience. Hampson's feelings were touchingly sincere, though the poem itself is more equivocal.

The highlight of the evening was Schoenberg's Erwartung op 2/1 1899), which pre-dates the monodrama op 17 (1909), and even Schoenberg's meeting with Marie Pappenheim. The dedicatee was Zemlinsky, and the text by Richard Dehmel. It's a cryptic poem where images are reversed. "Aus der meergrünen Tieche....schient der Mond". A woman's face appears under the water. A man throws a ring into the pond. Three opals sparkle. He kisses them, and in the sea-green depths "Ein Fenster tut sich auf". Hampson sang, floating the words with eerie stillness. Then the punchline: "Aus der roten Villa neben den der toten Eiche" with which the poem began, a woman's pale hand waves. Rieger played the circular figures so they felt obsessive, as if trapped in an endless mad dance. The similarities with the later Erwartung are obvious, but the song is fin-de- siècle symbolism and very early Expressionism rather than psychosis. In retrospect, it might seem eerily prophetic of the relationships between Mathilde Zemlinsky and Richard Gerstl, or indeed, Alma and Gropius.

Mahler's Rückert-Lieder are so well known now that it's sometimes forgotten - though not by Hampson - that they were originally published together with the Wunderhorn songs Revelge and Der Tambourg'sell. which weren't included with the first Wunderhorn collections. In 1993, Hampson recorded an interesting collection of Wunderhorn-themed songs with Geoffrey Parsons, which included piano song versions of Urlicht and Es Sungen drei Engeln. This time, with Rieger at the Wigmore Hall, he separated the first four Rückert-Lieder with a Wunderhorn song (Erinnerung) and sang Liebst du um Schönheit as a finale, intensifying the underlying theme of the recital. "It's a postcard", said Hampson, "a message of love". "If you love for beauty, youth or riches" runs the poem, "Do not love me. But if you love for the sake of love, Dich lieb' ich immerdar". The most beautiful, most tender song of the evening, straight from the heart.

A full version of this appears in Opera Today

Sunday 15 September 2013

Janowski Wagner Ring livestreamed from Bucharest

Marek Janowski conducts the complete Wagner Ring from today, live streamed form the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest. He's a very interesting conductor, and he's conducting RSO Berlin.  The casts include good names, like Torsten Kerl, Martin Winkler, Petra Lang, and others. I'm enjoying Das Rheingold right now - vivacious performance. Click HERE for details of dates and times.  Notice how eruditely they refer to the Ring as a tetrology, not a cycle!

They're doing Enescu's Oedipe, of course, on 26/9 but many other goodies. The Enescu Festival has developed greatly in recent years and is now firmly on the international circuit, though it doesn't get the publicity it deserves. Several of my friends are regulars, because Bucharest is good value and a charming city. Although there's an outcry because Enescu's house isn't being preserved, Romania is much more supportive of the arts and of music education than many wealthier countries, the UK, for instance. Thus, listen to Janowski's Wagner for the less starry roles - some of these singers are very, very good indeed.

Friday 13 September 2013

Who really was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor ? Hiawatha BBC

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's complete Song of Hiawatha from this year's Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester is available on BBC iplayer for six more days. I was at the performance, on one of the hottest days of the year, but as ever The Three Choirs Festival people were gracious, and let us take shelter in the cool of the Cathedral, though they themselves may have been melting in their three-piece frock coats. True Christian values!  Please read my review HERE.

Hiawatha is an important piece in music history, and not just British music. Dvorák's Symphony from the New World preceded Hiawatha's Wedding Feast by only five years. Delius had started composing in Florida but hadn't yet made his mark, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, older than Coleridge-Taylor, had yet to work with Ravel. At the age of 23, Coleridge-Taylor was already striking away from Charles Stanford's insular world.  Hiawatha is not so much a throwback to tradition but a rebirth. Stylistically, it's innovative, with angular, repetitive lines that suggest "primitive" music, following Longfellow's syntax which suggests the speech rhythms of an oral tradition. Perhaps Coleridge-Taylor was drawn to African and other alien forms because he never knew his father. But it's even more important that he was among the first to intuit the direction in which European music and culture was heading. Picasso, for example, loved African art, but Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way, years before.

So why has Coleridge-Taylor been neglected?  Far from being appreciated as a man and as a musician, he's been pigeonholed into stereotypes, many of which are totally misleading. If even the BBC doesn't care enough to research the background properly, what hope is there? In the early 20th century, there were reasons why the image of Coleridge-Taylor should be transmuted into silly, sentimental bluff.  The "Black Mahler" tag is musically illiterate: we should be thinking past puff like that.  If we have any respect for the composer at all, or indeed for music, we need to be mature enough to handle genuine scholarship and analysis.

Thus I thoroughly recommend Samuel Coleridge -Taylor: a Musical Life by Jeffrey Green (Pickering & Chatto, 2011, 296pp). This is the kind of proper examination that Coleridge-Taylor deserves. Green is a meticulous researcher.  There's no need for fantasy when there is such a wealth of factual information readily available in many archives. Green's decades of work on Black Britons is unique, and absolutely essential for anyone interested in multi-cultural Britain. But he's also superb on the social context of Victorian  and Edwardian Britain: a lesson for anyone really interested in knowing what life might have been like in crowded terrace houses and large extended families.

But most importantly of all, what emerges from Jeffrey Green's book is a full and vivid portrait of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor himself.  Because there's so much genuine information about the composer, his music and the world he lived in, there is no need for fantasy. We have enough here that we can "feel" what Coleridge-Taylor might have been like, and understand him as a human being. There's even a record of a black child in an orphanage opposite the composer's childhood home. Never underestimate the value of good research and methodology.

The first books written about Coleridge-Taylor skirted around the truth to fit the expectations of the time. The myth about the composer getting a violin from a Curiosity Shop dealer is easily debunked. Coleridge-Taylor's grandfather was a remarkable character who played the violin himself, and whose relatives were musicians. By the standard of working-class Britain, he was very comfortably off, owning two houses and paying poll tax. He adored his grandson so much that there's no way that the boy would have been deprived. But his daughter was illegitimate. In an unusual arrangement, the child grew up with her natural father, his wife and the other children in the family. So for public consumption, the situation, and the relationship between the composer's parents, had to be discreetly underplayed.  In real life, the composer's father was feckless, but had to be romanticized to fit what white middle class people considered acceptable in blacks. Green tackles difficult issues of racial prejudice in the United States where Coleridge-Taylor was feted but coloured people were excluded. The composer was no fool, he knew what was going on. Even in Hiawatha, we can feel his sympathies for the oppressed. Green is, naturally, especially good on Coleridge-Taylor's relationship with American Black intellectuals.

And as for the idea that The Song of Hiawatha should be revived with audiences dressed up as Red Indians?  That  might have been cute once, but now we know that the "Indians" were ethnically cleansed on an epic scale, such behaviour would be racially offensive. Does the BBC really want that in modern Britain where all classes and colours should mix?  This is the very sort of thing that demeans Coleridge-Taylor's reputation and leaves him open to uninformed criticism. Here we have one of the most fascinating British composers but does anyone care?  I have no connection to Jeffrey Green, It's just that I believe in getting to the truth..

PS Get the recording of Coleridge-Taylor's The Song of Hiawatha with Bryn Terfel, Kenneth Alwyn conducts.

Clara Schumann's 200th Birthday

Today is Clara Schumann's 200th birthday. She may not be getting the publicity birthday boys like Wagner and Verdi are getting, or even the coverage given to mere striplings like Benjamin Britten (aged 99 and 10/12ths). But with all the fuss about the "first woman conductor at the BBC Proms", it is Clara whom we should honour.

Clara is a genuine icon in many ways. We will never know what she sounded like as pianist but she was one of the first mega-celebrity pianists, who filled houses all over Europe. Audiences who had heard Chopin and Lizst live loved her playing, which suggests that she was good, whatever her gender. And Brahms, who played well and had a good ear, loved her dearly. We may never know what she sounded like but if she'd had the support of recording companies, etc. she might be better known than she is. (In those days performers had to manage themselves without any system to back them up.)

 She grew up in a strange, strained atmosphere. Her father denied her any contact with her mother or indeed with anyone he could not control. To marry Robert Schumann, she had to take her father to court in a case which shocked those who knew of it. That alone would make her someone to admire. Breaking out of an abusive situation is tough if that's all you've ever known, even now, but she had to face a patriarchal society much more rigid than we know And, she was nice to her Dad when he was old.

Clara lived to perform. She loved Robert dearly, but would rush back on tour as soon as her pregnancies ended. She wasn't the first female celebrity pianist even if we exclude Fanny Mendelssohn whose position placed her "above" society. But she was an artist with an independent career. People listened because she was good, not because she was a novelty. Robert wanted her to write music. She obliged him, but her real passion was playing. Every few years, there are attempts to promote her piano songs. Her greatest champion is Wolfgang Holzmair, whose 2002 recording of Clara's songs with Imogen Cooper is the best in the field. No comparison, although the songs are heard quite often. Holzmair's soft-grained voice suits them well, and he sings with sincerity, so the songs work, just about. The problem is that her heart wasn't in writing, but in performance. So when we honour Clara Schumann, we should honour her as a true pioneer, who achieved what she did without tokenism and media hype. Strange how those who make a fuss about "the first woman conductor" don't seem to have noticed Clara Schumann.So much for true feminism, which still has a long way to go.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Die beiden Grenadiere Schumann

Three contrasting versions of Robert Schumann's Die beiden Grenadiere (op 48/1 !840), showing how vocal styles evolve. The first was made in 1905 by a bass baritone called Carl Reich , Notice the formality, even allowing for the poor sound quality, and the fact that singers were under pressure in an era where singing into a machine was against all their instincts.  Moreover they had to fir their performance to the time allowed by the technical equipment. It didn't make for naturalism.

The second recording is Alexander Kipnis, made in 1939. His timbre is so low that he isn't really flexible, so he varies tempi for dramatic effect. You can tell he sang more opera than Lieder. The Marseillaise runs a tad too high for him but he tackles it manfully, decreasing volume so when it builds up it feels higher than it is. "So will ich liegen und horchen still, Wie eine Schildwach, im Grabe". It suggests pain, and the stumbling footsteps of men marching back from Russia, who may never reach home.

The last recording is Bryn Terfel made in 2000, and is released by the copyright holder Liceu Opera Barcelona.  Thirteen years ago, he still had non-native German, but every word is clear and expressed with proper meaning. You can hear the personalities of the two soldiers. Terfel shapes the turbulent undercurrents in the lines "Das Ehrenkreuz am roten Band, Sollst du aufs Herz mir legen", suggesting demented march rhythms. Perhaps the soldier is maddened by suffering, and by delusion. "Dann steig ich gewaffnet hervor aus dem Grab - Den Kaiser, den Kaiser zu schützen!" Terfel's voice then drops to a haunted, trembling whisper.  Terfel's a bass baritone, not a baritone. but he has exceptional agility and brightness. Compare him with Kipnis, who growls like a true Russian bass. Terfel's also got the technique to keep flexible for many years yet.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Claptrap and clapping in concerts

Yet again, another salvo against listening in the concert hall. What is so wrong about audiences paying attention? in 2010 the Royal Philharmonic Society gave Alex Ross a platform to discuss  "Inventing and re-inventing the Classical concert". I read the entire transcript through. Long and wordy it was.  but it boils down to one idea: that the "No applause rule" in concerts isn't a good thing. Tom Service obediently went along with that. The 2010 Proms were the worst year for mindless clapping and interruptions. Fortunately most people are sane enough to realize that a concert is a communal experience, and polite enough to respect others in the audience.  By the end of the 2010 Proms season, things were back to normal. Neither officious nor boorish.

Sometimes people clap spontaneously because they're genuinely pleased about something. But often it can be because they feel they should be doing something because they're bored or feel they have to do something for show. Think of all that clapping in last week's Bach/Bruckner Prom, as if the evening wasn't long enough. The same applies in opera, where those who think they need to show they "know" applaud any chance they get because they think they "should". Often I've seen singers stunned by applause after a very average performance. Misapplied applause is stupid because it interrupts the flow of the drama, and indicates that the clappers aren't really listening.

The paradox, though, is that anyone "really" listening is often concentrating so hard they don't need to clap, even when something's wonderful. They focus on the flow, and express themselves at the end. Mindless clapping (as opposed to mindful) clapping can be a distraction. For everyone who lets off steam clapping, there are others for whom it's an interruption. So there's no way applause can be considered right or wrong. But for those who go for music in the first place it 's not an issue at all. Classical music attracts snobs because they associate it with money and status, but this type infests churches, golf clubs etc, not just classical music. And  there are reverse snobs, too, the type who think it's smart to put down what you don't know. In both cases, it's stupidity : nothing to do with music. Clapping and booing aren't really so different.

Incidentally it is a fallacy to assume that applause used to be acceptable prior to Adorno and the modern era. Western music developed from two main threads : church music and entertainment.  "Serious" music like Bach and Schutz long pre-dated popular music theatre  Try mindless applause there? No way. And serious music lovers love the music not the show-offs in the audience.

I've long believed that it's good mental practice to listen without the crutch of programme notes, even to music you don't know. Hand-held devices are far worse than printed notes because the light distracts everyone else. It's as bad as beeping. Read the text beforehand and afterwards, but listen attentively during the performance. You'll train your ears better, and your heart. Most of us grew up listening to things in languages we don't understand.  That's why there are so many Korean and Japanese musicians: they've learned to try harder. No-one needs to know everything at once. And as for the fashion for live blogging concerts in progress? It's mad, a sure sign that the person and his/her friends care more about themselves than the music. .

Tragedy on the Hill of the Waiting Wife

In Hong Kong, there's a natural rock formation on the pinnacle of a hill, overlooking the sea. It's Mong Fu Shek, Looking Out for Husband Rock or "Amah" Rock 望夫石). The legend is that a woman climbed the hill every day with her baby on her back, waiting for her husband who had gone away. He never returned, because he was dead and she didn't know. So she was turned to stone, a monument to faithful love. The film Tragedy on the Hill of the Waiting Wife (魂斷望夫山 1955)  is a faithful monument, too, because it captures a world which is now gone.

The movie starts with a dramatic shot of the rock on the hill, and pans out onto the rural countryside around it, where farmers still ploughed barefoot in rice fields behind buffaloes, and villages were surrounded by threshing terraces.  The outdoor scenes were filmed on location, so the scenery and houses are authentic. The indoor scenes were made in a studio but depict details like the actress waving a pandanus fan to chase away mosquitoes before she draws the curtain and goes to bed. The actress quotes a proverb about oil lamps and good luck, which I don't get because I don't know how oil lamps worked. In 1955, these things were living memory, so the film is a lovingly detailed glimpse into the past.

Pak Yin (白燕 1920-87) and Cheung Wood-yau (張活游 1910-85) play the lovers. They're blissfully happy but behind them the Rock looms. Two butterflies flutter past, an allusion to the Tang story of the Butterfly Lovers. In the ancient classic, a girl who wants to become a scholar has to disguise herself as a man in order to go to school in a distant town. She falls in love with a fellow student but eventually has to return home to reality. Her lover dies. She gets married, but as the procession passes the lover's tomb, she dies, and the lovers are at last united in death.

In the film, Pak Yin plays an educated girl who falls in love with a humble peasant. How and why, we don't know. It's enough that we see the traditional village wedding where she's carried over the threshold by an old woman. Although she's a city girl, Pak Yin's character is determined to embrace her new life, and accompanies her husband to the fields, much to his amazed delight. So she's seen working in the brackish water of a rice paddy, her trousers rolled up to her knees. Leeches attach to her bare legs. It's probably not planned but Pak Yin, the most glamorous movie star of her time, bursts out laughing. Paddy fields were like that, not at all romanticized. People grew fish in them to eat the bugs, and caught diseases from cuts and  blood infections. Then, when Cheung Wood-yau has to run in front of the camera, a village dog jumps in on the act and chases him. The director left that in, too. This film is true verité.

Pak Yin starts a school for the children of the village. She teaches them basic science: germs and practical hygiene. She tells them about cholera, and throws up in front of the class, who run out, crying "teacher has cholera". But she's pregnant. It's morning sickness. One day, her husband goes to collect firewood from the hillside. He has a strange premonition. "If I died what would you do?" he asks. She says she'd die rather than live without him. She goes into labour, while he's up the hill collecting firewood. He slips on the steep slope by the Rock and is killed.

Because her mother-in-law heard what the lovers said about suicide, she's terrified what the news might mean. The family concoct a story about the husband being called to work far away with a man who'd left the village years before. They have to forge letters, copying his handwriting, so Pak Yin thinks he's still alive. The Old Lady has to mourn in secret, giving away the roast meats she uses as offerings when she prays, so the young woman won't find out.

A drought  ruins the crops. Travelling necromancers come to the village, banging drums and chanting spells. Pak Yin won't have anything to do with superstition. She tells the villagers to dig an irrigation channel. "When we group together, we can achieve things" Wonderful scene where the villagers use their hoes and sing as they dig. Right from its inception around 1909, Chinese cinema was associated with modernization and progressive change. Movies could reach ordinary people more effectively than books. Pak Yin herself, though a glamour queen, often depicted strong women who stood up to the inequities of the feudal system.  Like the heroine of Butterfly Lovers who a thousand years before set out to study, Pak Yin's character in this movie teaches the village children. She's the breadwinner who runs a school and farm. It's significant, perhaps, that her child is a girl. The photo shows Pak Yin, together with two other megastars, Cheung Wood-yau and Cheung Ying, in real life, posing with a fancy car. You could read a feminist message into this movie, and a lot oif movies atbthe time did have an explicit feminist, modernist ethos, Pak Yin movies in particular.  The mother-in-law wants to protect the daugher-in-law, and the Pak Yin charcter resembles filial women throughout Chinese history, who are commemorated in "widow's arches" and the like.

One day, the man who the family claim the husband works for appears in the village. Pak Yin starts to realize that something's wrong, She looks up at Mong Fu Shek. It dawns on her that she, too, might be a widow deceived into waiting for a man who will never return. She falls sick with fever but hears the family worrying that she'll find the truth if she climbs up to the Rock, where her husband is buried. Delirious with grief, she runs out into the stormy night and collapses at the summit by the Rock, falling onto the stone that marks his grave. At last the lovers are reunited, in spirit.