Saturday 30 November 2013

Timings Tyranny and other aberrations

When databases got going, there was a fashion for finding "perfect" recordings, as by hoarding data it might be possible to distil all the variants of performance into one ideal.  The logic was that timings were often used as a measure of quality. But can performance really be measured in pseudo-science terms? It's much easier to say "Haitink takes 25 minutes, Gergiev takes six" than to analyse why.

It's human nature to control chaos by imposing order even if the order is nonsense.  A spin off from Timings Tyranny was the idea of database surveys.  Reviews were collected and entered into  database. Press the right spec formula  and out would pop the right recording! There was even an attempt to systemize the Ring. That presumes, however, that somewhere along the line someone had actually listened, and listened enough to know why performances work, assuming quality is even throughout. Listening takes decades of experience and knowledge. It's a progress without end.  Every time you listen to something, you're hearing it new. The disc might not change, but you have changed since the last time you listened even if it was only a few hours ago. And I think, the better the work, the less likely you "need" listening guides.The fun is in the learning.

It's human nature to seek order from chaos and in busy modern times it makes  sense to depend on preprocessed information. But what would be the fun in that?  The idea of discographic purity falls apart when technology allows hundreds of ways of accessing what we listen to. Instead of timings and record label numbers, the alternative might be artist-based information. There is a study of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's recording sessions, so we know when she sang what and where. The same song might be replicated a hundred times in the catalogue, but at least we can figure what else she was doing at that point in her life. If she'd come fresh from singing a role somewhere, it might have shaped the way she sang a song by a composer. But it would be impossible to pinpoint. By its very nature, listening is intangible, and subjective, and can never be measured.

Friday 29 November 2013

Handel Acis and Galatea Wigmore Hall Early Opera Company

Handel Acis and Galatea at the Wigmore Hall with the Early Opera Company. HERE is a link to Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today.

"Christian Curnyn launched into the overture with verve, the dynamic, animated playing of the instrumentalists setting the high standard of playing that was sustained throughout the evening and establishing a gripping dramatic momentum. Ensemble was exemplary, and the stylish execution, full of intensity but always elegant, was impressive, as the players painted an Arcadian scene....;"

"The opening chorus instituted the mood of Arcadian serenity, the five voices intermingling with ease and simplicity, initially creating a sense of breadth, before the introduction of some relaxed counterpoint and points of imitation. In contrast, ‘Wretched lovers!’, which commences Act 2 was full of foreboding, and in the unaccompanied lament, ‘Mourn all ye muses’, sung over the body of the slain Acis, the consort of voices was touching but not sentimental, particularly at the line, ‘The gentle Acis is no more’.

Robert Murray, tenor (as Acis); Sophie Bevan, soprano (as Galatea); Samuel Boden, tenor (as Damon); Matthew Rose, baritone (as Polyphemus); David de Winter, tenor (as Coridon); Christian Curnyn, director, harpsichord.

Jell-o, an American Art Form

Anyone who's ever entertained or been entertained ins small town America has come across the thriving native art form - Jell-o creativity! A packet of gelatine can unleash the creative demon in the most unliberated suburban Mom. Pink, green, blue, purple, orange and sulphur yellow. Objects formed in strange moulds, sometime with even stranger moulds embedded within. The wackier the flavour combination, the better - Heston Blumenthal has noithing on this uncelebrity sisterhood.  HERE is an article about these unsung glories of the American kitchen. Europeans have no idea what they're missing !

Mainstrean creativity favours male dominated public genres, while women are relegated to the background. Literally, the kitchen. Obviously real equality would be better, but women made do with what they could.  Far from being entirely cowed women created their own sphere. Rozsika Parker's seminal book The Subversive Stitch : Embroidery and the Making of The Feminine first published in the early 1980's has now been reissued in a new edition. Needlework gave women an outlet when they had few others. When Ellen Orford sings "Embroidery in Childhood" in Peter Grimes, you realize how much her dreams, too, have been thwarted by society.

So celebrate the fine art of American jell-o salads and desserts - the ephemeral creations of decades of anonymous women doing what they could to brighten their lives and please those around them. Someone should document their wit and humour - families all round must have photos of some forgotten feast or clippings from magazines that taught "home craft".

Courtesy of a friend, a tribute to the Art of Jell-o by William Bolcom

Thursday 28 November 2013

Abel Gance Napoléon RFH Saturday

Almost unique event this Saturday, 30th November - a screening of Abel Gance's epic Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall, London.  This version, curated by Kevin Brownlow,  runs from 1330 to 2130 with two intervals and a 100 minute dinner break. A marathon! This screening will be accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra, playing Carl Davis's score for the film.

Gance's Napoléon is legendary because it's a masterpiece of cinematic art, with sequences and shots way ahead of its time, and a dramatic intensity that makes spoken dialogue superfluous. This was film as the highest form of art. Albert Dieudonné played Napléon, Antonin Artaud played Marat and Gance and his wife played subsidiary parts. The original music was composed specially by Arhur Honneger and can still be heard - separately from the film - as his Napoléon Suite.

So why is a milestone in film and music history,  made nearly 90 years ago, still excluded from public life? I won't go into the legal ramifications here, but read the article in the NYTimes for background.  But what artistic integrity lies behind some things. How much of the profits actually accrue to those who made the film in the first place? It also raises questions about the stranglehold of the English language media,. The NYT article quotes a US review of an early version released in the US. "The film “doesn’t mean anything to the great horde of picture house goers over here......“Nap wasn’t good looking enough and they didn’t put in the right scenes for the flaps here.” Oh well. Maybe we're wiser and more mature nowadays.  Or not, as the case may be.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Alice Herz-Sommer, 110 years old today

Alice Herz-Sommer is 110 years old today. Anyone reaching 110 is special but Alice has defied more odds than most. Born in Prague in 1903, she was a professional musician. When the Nazis came, she was shipped to Terezin (Theresienstadt) where she played in the notorious camp orchestra. Even then, she was unusual because she had a young son to live for. He made her laugh when he sang songs from Brundibar. To laugh, in a concentration camp?  But that sums up Alice's personality.  When she was "just" 97, she told Christopher Nupen in his film "We Want the Light" that her twin sister was a pessimist and  that "tension" shortened her life. "Nature and music, that is my religion" she says, her face lighting up radiantly. "I am grateful to my mother who wanted us to learn, to know, to be thankful for everything ..... seeing the sun, seeing a smile, hearing a nice word. Everything is a present to be thankful for".

"Life is a gift", she often said. "Hatred eats the soul of the hater, not that of the hated"   Alice is an inspiration, positive therapy in human form. She's had a tough life, but hasn't become bitter. "Music is God", she has said, in difficult times you feel it most". Think of the famous quandary, is a glass half full or half empty? But the glass is always full. The other half is air, without which we cannot live. Drink it gratefully!  Some people, alas, get their kicks out of being miserable and inflicting it on everyone else. Not Alice!

The Prague Monitor carries a report today of Alice's birthday. "Her health has finally started to fade, and her family has requested that she is given her peace from the media. Her birthday will be spent without visitors and fuss, and her grandson Ariel will spend the day by her side at her flat. He said: “The image given on the internet is that she is quite active but the reality is quite the opposite and in fact her health is failing both physically and mentally, unfortunately”.

It's not how long you live, some have said, but how well you have lived. Not in material terms, but in terms of what you've learned and given back to others. In that sense Alice will be immortal.
Once I met Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and told her how she inspired me."But I didn't do anything, I just survived", she said, which is an understatement, but utterly sincere. People take responsibility for themselves. Another camp inmate (also with a young son) told me about grass shoots emerging from the ground after a hard winter."We ate them" she said, totally matter-of-fact.

Monday 25 November 2013

Barbican Britten Albert Herring Pickled

Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring is a red herring  The hero Albert Herring gets pickled. In the process, he finds himself and sends up those who thought he was simple. The opera is comic, but the laughs are on those who ignore the double meanings fundamental to Britten's idiom. At the Barbican Hall, Steuart Bedford conducted a performance so vivid that you wonder why Albert Herring is still one of Britten's Cinderellas, doomed to stodgy retro stagings that emphasize the leaden text at the expense of the music. Bedford rescues Albert Herring from provincial Loxford and liberates him into the modern world.

After the Rape of Lucretia, Britten wanted to write something light that could be staged in the relatively limited resources of the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, a few yards from Britten's home at Crag House. Albert Herring premiered at the very first Aldeburgh Music festival in June 1948, with Britten's own English Opera Group, with which Steuart Bedford was later connected. The Jubilee Hall is now far too small for modern audiences and its backstage facilities almost non-existent, so in 2011 Bedford conducted the opera at the Maltings, Snape, where the stage was a mock-up of the original, complete with a determined "community" atmosphere. Locals were asked to contribute home-made cakes for Lady Billows's (Felicity Lott) tea party.(read more here). That production recreated not just the opera, but the whole spirit of early Aldeburgh and make-do Austerity Britain. A hopelessly amateur video circulated for a while, which I rather liked because it was so doggedly in period.  Because Bedford elucidates the music so clearly,  Kenneth Richardson's modern dress staging at the Barbican Hall was well received.

Britten's Albert Herring is an adaptation of a short story by Guy de Maupassant, set in Catholic France. Translation to Middle England causes problems. But that suited Britten. He and Crozier were able to create a satire on English social pretension and hypocrisy. Loxford is a polite middle-class, suburban version of the Borough where Peter Grimes was hounded to his death. Victorian grand dames would probably have been more interested in the sex lives of horses than in the suburban proletariat. Lady Billows is nuts, her lady friend Miss Pike filhty-minded, but powers that be in Loxford do their bidding without question. Some things don't change!

Even before he's made May Queen, Albert's looking for a way out. He knows he has to break away, but how? When Sid and Nancy spike his lemonade he loses his inhibitions. He becomes both Titania and Bottom at the same time, both dreamer and down to earth. When Albert is drunk, woodwinds entwine, ever so slightly off-colour, as if they're embracing in a dream. Alcohol is just a shortcut to something that's been fermenting in Albert for a long time.

Britten uses the Tristan chord but even more significantly the horn themes from Siegfried, and even the call of the Wood Bird, which he used as early as 1939 in The Sword in the Stone (more here)  Andrew Staples's voice rings clear and pure, glowing with promise. he's not a Wagnerian Heldentenor, but English tenor as Hero, which is quite something in the understated British way. There's a lot more to the part than the singing, as Britten's music makes clear.

Much has also been made of the inconclusive ending. Is Albert gay, as has been suggested? It probably doesn't matter either way., though he's attracted enough to Nancy that Sid gets worried. Kitty Whateley sang a specially toothsome Nancy: the part is one of the most womanly Britten ever wrote, and she did it justice. Marcus Farnworth's Sid was characterized enough that I wondered if Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen  knew Albert Herring 

The cast was well chosen. Lady Billows always gets attention, and the role is well suited to Christine Brewer's timbre, shrilly imperious yet softly billowing in the middle. The part isn't "funny". As Nancy observes, it's not nice to humiliate a shy man like Albert. The girls of Loxford don't deserve shaming, either. Albert's mother is no heroine either. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, who has a true gift for singing character, gives the part a tough edge: this mother smothers and will sell her son for £25.  One wonders what happened to her husband. Gillian Keith sings Miss Wordsworth and Gaynor Keeble sings Florence Pike. The villains in this opera are women, but the male roles are cast so strongly that they have more substance. Roderick Williams was a particularly effective Mr Gedge, suggesting the parson's saner, gentler side. Adrian Thompson sang Mr Upfold and Matthew Rose was a powerfully arresting Superintendent Budd (note the name, which Britten would use three years later in a very different way).

"What I like is a clear cut murder", Rose sings. In the original French story, the hero dies. In Albert Herring, the hero throws his crown of orange blossoms to the ground. It's a very "British" compromise. In a way, Albert has been murdered because his life has been overturned. .Will he be bullied back into submission? Or, having slayed his Mime (Mum) emotionally, will he continue to run the shop, in a very Brittenesque way by doing what he wants whatever others might think? Perhaps the clue is in the nature of his business. He's a greengrocer, in an area full of organic farms. Will his life bear fruit and prosper as vigorously as the vegetables he sells? Listening to Steuart Bedford and to Andrew Staples, we're left full of hope. Lady Billows serves cream cakes that will clog your arteries. Albert Herring sells things that are good for you.

photo:  Paul Mitchell

Sunday 24 November 2013

Unorthodox Symphonist Britten 100 Centenary Aldeburgh Knussen

The legacy of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears lives on in Aldeburgh with the Britten-Pears Foundation. At the Maltings, Snape, in the concert hall Britten and Pears loved so dearly, Oliver Knussen conducted the keynote concert of the Aldeburgh Music weekend marking Britten's 100th birthday. Given the significance of the occasion, some conductors might have opted for safe and solemn, but Knussen's interpretation was innovative, even dangerous, reaching into the maelstrom of Britten's visionary darkness.  Yet it was also exceptionally beautiful, suggesting the majesty of Nature, and the skies and seas around Aldeburgh. Those who deride Britten because he didn't write formal, conventional symphonies need to hear Knussen transform the piece. The Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia may derive from Peter Grimes but this is no mere suite based on an opera. Knussen shows how it becomes a pure (five movement) symphonic masterpiece on its own terms.

The.opening chords of "Dawn" shine with almost preternatural brightness. It feels cosmic, more than a picture of the sun breaking through clouds. We feel the gravitational pull of currents stronger than the tides of the sea. "Sunday Morning" didn't feel religious (and the pious of the Borough don't practise Christian values). When the lively upwards passages shimmered, I thought of Apollo, and Tadzio dancing on the beach, images much more central to Britten's inspiration than the grizzled Peter Grimes. The viola solo in "Moonlight" was exquisite, its mystery undercut by the tense, brisk brass and scurrying strings. Oddly enough, I thought I heard echoes of the Rite of Spring, which isn't inappropriate, as the sacrifical "Storm" is about to break loose.When the viola returns, it feels achingly poignant. The surging tensions were well judged, so the woodwind figures emerged all the brighter. Knussen is a master of contemporary repertoire: he shaped the jagged edges of the Storm so the music exploded in wild dissonance, surging forward to the shocking, sudden conclusion. There's nothing "picturesque" about Knussen's Sea Interludes. He's no tourist. He inhabits Aldeburgh and Britten's music like a native.

Knussen programmes are always esoteric. It was fascinating to hear the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia (op 33a and 3b) together with the Spring Symphony (op 44, 1949). Britten's ideas on symphonic form were heterodox, so highly original that they still confound. Forget the usual old clichés about Mahler, which are red herrings that obscure its true originality.Britten knew Mahler long before Donald Mitchell did. Like so much Britten wrote, it can be approached on different, contradictory levels. its sprawling structure brings together symphony, chorale, western tradition, bird song and show tunes, Latin, English and Middle English. Of course it's a showpiece, the sort of thing Copland or Leonard Bernstein might have liked to have written. The choristers whistle and the soloists twitter.  But it's also satire. Britten is sending up the idea of a symphony "containing the world", whatever that meant in the first place. "Big", he's suggesting, doesn't mean "better".There are also parallels with the Simple Symphony, where Britten alludes to cartoons, and to Paul Bunyan. Perhaps Britten is commenting on American music and the McCarthy era. It's a much more complex piece than meets the casual ear, and filled with cryptic hints.. Listen carefully to Stephen Johnson's analysis HERE ,a superb introduction to Britten's irony. Knussen himself loves whimsy. Who else could have written Higgelty Piggelty Pop! (more here),.He also knows American music. A fabulously fun performance which didn't conceal the bitterness within. "Rejoice" sing the voices, but the brass bleats raspberries.

Britten's  Cantata Academica (op 62, 1959) extended the concept of Britten as unorthodox symphonist. This piece was commissioned by Paul Sacher, so it automatically earns Britten a place among the great and good of modern European composers. It's also by no means a typical "academic overture" weighed down by pomp and solemnity. It's theatrical, for one thing. As the dons of Basel University gather in their finery, the piece entertains them with tableaux of Basel's past. Again, Britten is monkeying about with form, combining mock medieval with modern.

Oliver Knussen was involved with the Aldeburgh Music Festival for longer than most, bar Britten and Pears themselves. Fundamental to the Britten-Pears ethos is the idea that music should not fossilize but grow. Thus, as part of the Britten tribute, Knussen programmed a new commission by Ryan Wigglesworth, Locke's Theatre, receiving its world premiere. Wigglesworth was attracted to Matthew Locke's "idiosyncratic and daringly advanced harmonic and rhythmic language...... (and  the) very rawness and directness of Locke’s theatre music". Wigglesworth's layering of Jacobean non-naturalism with modern clarity is very different from the way Britten adapted Tudor and Stuart music. It's not pastiche,  but firmly constructed. and original.

Friday 22 November 2013

Britten Canticles Bostridge Broadcast

Revelatory and Rare! Britten's Canticles, though individually well known, are seldom performed together because the forces they require are so diverse. But they need to be heard together so their significance can be truly appreciated. Although written separately over thirty years, they "embody a musical journey" as Roger Vignoles has written. "Not quite the Seven Stages of Man, but at the very least Five Stages of Britten". 

Watch the performance of Britten's Canticles recorded at the Linbury Theatre ROH in July this year. Brilliant performance from Ian Bostridge who catches the many complex moods and undertones. "My dear Darling" his Abraham sings to Isaac, sweet words laced with poison, for dad intends to kill.  The Third Canticle, Still Falls the Rain is powerful. Bostridge captures the very non-Christian mix of religious piety, erotic tension and anti-war protest.  The staging adds political context, fundamental to its meaning. Listen to the "sour" horn, a pointed subversion of the way the instrument is so often used in military music. There's also a connection to Britten's Serenade for Tenor, horn and strings, where sweetness conceals death "O Rose ! Thou art sick", completed in war time, nearly twenty years before Still Falls the Rain. .

In 1947, homosexuality was illegal and careers could be destroyed if any whiff  of scandal became public. Canticle One, My beloved is mine and I am his is a shockingly bold statement of The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.  "I give him songs, he gives me the length of days". The text is Biblical, and refers - we assume - to the relationship between God and man. The piano introduction is tender, almost lullaby-like. Perhaps it is a morning after, as this Jones staging suggests. The juxtaposition between religious text and homosexual love is audacious. This Canticle could still shock the pants off Middle England and the Choral Evensong culture.

Abraham and Isaac, the second Canticle (1952), takes its cue from medieval mystery plays, but revitalizes them with Britten's characteristic asperity. A dominant God, for which one might read authority, society and patriarchal values, demands that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son. Exquisitely beautiful cadences, gruesomely horrible meanings. Iestyn Davies is a much better Isaac than David Daniels was eleven years ago. Davies's voice is purer, stronger, less rococo and much more idiomatic. Isaac agrees to being sacrificed, which suggests that he's more than a typical "innocent". Like the Boy in Curlew River, (another key work in which Britten explores stylized symbolism), Isaac's death has redemptive power. This time it's God who is moved and relents. Britten's Innocents are not as passive as one might think.

Still Falls the Rain (1955), based on Edith Sitwell's poem about the Blitz, is even more equivocal. A horn drones (Richard Watkins). It evokes the sound of an air raid siren, the drone of a bomber's engine, the sound of vast mechanical processes grinding away, mindless and impersonal. The staging was particularly evocative. We saw the white cliffs of Dover, as pale as the bodies of innocents, then shots of munitions factories churning out missiles - pointedly phallic. The gloom is punctuated by staccato piano,  making the connection between bombs and the hundreds of nails in the Holy Cross, and in Christ's body. Julius Drake played with adamant ferocity. This isn't pretty music, even when the horn leaps into a jaunty march. Bostridge sings the long arching lines so they ache and tantalize. Wails of agony or something more?  The poem is a curious blend of religion and the horror of war. Britten suggests that there might be even stranger, possibly erotic elements. Consider Isaac's sacrifice, and ultimately the surreal imagery in Canticle Five, written when Britten himself was confronting death.

Bostridge, Davies and Drake are joined by baritone Benedict Nelson for the fourth Canticle.  The Journey of the Magi (1971) may seem oddly quaint after the drama of Still Falls the Rain  The Three Kings speak in matter-of-fact conversation. They're preoccupied with the coldness of the night and the physical difficulties of travel. The birth of the child at Bethlehem seems almost an afterthought. Yet listen to the curious blending of the three voices. This isn't a chorale.

In 1974, Britten was so ill that he could not play the piano. The Death of St. Narcissus is thus scored for harp (Sally Pryce). The harp gives this last Canticle a curiously ethereal quality. Its strings seem to shimmer, evoking light and frragility. But is this light the natural light we'd expect from the modern equivalent of an arcadian lute?  At first, we're lured into the shadow of a rock, lured by "something different". The poem, by T S Eliot, blends references from classical antiquity with the image of St Sebastien, pierced by arrows, dying for one he loved. Quite probably, Britten didn't read Yukio Mishima on St Sebastien, but he must have understood that the symbolism wasn't strictly Catholic.  Someone, perhaps a tree, a girl, or a fish, has been ravished and corrupted. But the poem continues. "because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows, he danced on the hot sand until the arrows came. As he embraced them, his white skin surrendered itself to the redness of blood and satisfied him". How does one read this image?  One thinks of Tadzio, dancing on the beach in Venice, watched by dry, doomed Aschenbach. Perhaps Britten is contemplating beauty, fragility and the nature of creative life.

Hide in Plain Sight :Benjamin Britten's true legacy

Benjamin Britten was born 100 years ago today. He changed British music - and Britain - forever. He's become a celebrity this anniversary year. Thousands all of the world who wouldn't normally think much about "classical music" know who he is.  That's quite some achievement for an intensely private man who didn't play to the crowd or court public adulation. He enjoyed honours when they came his way but they didn't compromise him as an artist and visionary. Yet I wonder. Is Britain really ready for Britten?

Britten was fortunate to come into the world when the world itself was about to change. Empires were collapsing, giving rise to a creative renaissance in all aspects of life - politics, philosophy, literature, visual arts, theatre, film. Music could hardly remain unaffected.  Luckily for Britten, he didn't grow up stifled in the kind of Establishment conformity represented by Charles Villiers Stanford. Yet, more than any other British composer in his time, bar Ralph Vaughan Williams, he absorbed Tudor and Stuart music to create a new, uniquely English idiom. Britten was never part of mainstream "British" music, even diplomatically avoiding the Three Choirs Festival, the finest expression of that tradition.  Yet the Britten industry would have his legacy recreated in cosy, theme park style, as a kind of retro Britishness. Britten is British, yes, but in a distinctively modern way, not insular but receptive to outside influences. Britten may not have been a wild-eyed radical, but he cared about integrity, new music and new ideas.

But is Britain really ready for Britten? There is something very alien and so unclubbable about Britten. So much of his music operates on multiple levels. The War Requiem, for example, (read more here) or Gloriana which has confounded critics since its premiere.(read more here). Do we really begin to understand the moral complexities of Billy Budd or The Rape of Lucretia or Death in Venice? We probably won't, given the popularity of one-dimensional, simplistic productions that skim the surface. But for me that's the fascination of Britten. We've hardly even begun to appreciate just how visionary he really was.

For many years, Britten drove me crazy because I couldn't penetrate his emotional elusiveness. But that's exactly why he fascinates me now. Oddly enough, he's like Boulez, whose emotions are so deeply embedded within his intellect that those who aren't listening carefully might not understand. Britten doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, like Bernstein. He's detached and opaque, but all the more challenging for that. Perhaps his music reflects his personality. It has a dark side, attuned to the supernatural and to moral complexities. Being gay must have had an effect, too, though not in a sensationalist way. If I were to write a book about Britten, I'd call it "Hide in Plain Sight".

Britten's life has been exhaustively documented that there's no real need for more. Instead, we should focus on new ways of interpreting and evaluating. What was Britten's relationship with his father, for example, and why are his women so wooden? What was the effect of the American Adventure?  What do Britten's Innocents really mean? And what may live in Britten's "dark side"? And Britten in the intellectual climate of his times. So much could be done, beside the obsession with trivia. Britten reached out to simple ,ordinary people, but he did not dumb down.

We need to hear Britten in the context of European and even non-European music to appreciate how individual he was. Aldeburgh represents Britten's legacy in an ideal form.  Contrary to populist music history, good composers don't work in "schools". The Britten-Pears Foundation helps composers and musicians find their own way. Britten's commercial pull is so strong that he attracts hangers-on who might think they write in his style, but, almost by definition any paint-by-numbers composer would have been anathema to him. Britten's successors include anyone with a truly individual, original style, like Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and even Elliott Carter, a near contemporary who found his personal voice fairly late in life. They carry on (or did, in the case of Carter) the legacy of irreverence, wit and dogged individuality.

Today we celebrate Britten 100, his centenary. But the date is also associated with the assassination of John F Kennedy, on the very same day 50 years ago. Britten and JFK had a common enemy in J Edgar Hoover (read my post on Britten and the FBI here) . Both were liberal for their time and didn't ascribe to what we'd now call "traditional" values. The traditions they respected went much deeper. Sadly, the world of 1963 seems so innocent compared with our world of corporate banditry, political paranoia and wars of attrition. What, one wonders, would Kennedy and Britten have made of our times?  Music doesn't exist in limbo, but in our hearts and minds. Now, I think we need to listen to Britten 's complex moral dilemmas more acutely than ever.

There's more on Britten and Aldeburgh on this site than anywhere else that's not Britten only. Please explore. See also my review of Knussen's centenary concert at Snape Here:

Thursday 21 November 2013

ENO Satyagraha - puppets with purpose

Why is the ENO Philip Glass Satyagraha in Sanskrit? Why are the intertitles in turgid Victorian prose? What's the point of an opera where words have no meaning? But that's exactly the point Philip Glass is making. Words, in themselves, have no meaning.  What really matters is communication. In his early life, Gandhi wrote in newspapers, endlessly churning out words that had no impact. Once he dropped verbiage for direct action, he changed the world. When he swapped his three-piece suit for a dhoti, he made a statement. Material things and the power structures that rest on them are meaningless. What matters is purity of spirit. The juggernaut of Empire was felled by humble peasants and non-violence.

Philip Glass's music is maddeningly repetitive but once you stop trying to make sense of it, it kicks in. Many cultures employ repetitive chant because it works. Self consciousness and self awareness contradict each other..Chant keeps the body occupied so the soul can run free. Freedom, though, is  a dangerous concept, which is why many resist it, preferring the certainity of social constructs. Loosen up, guys!   Read what I wrote here about Bianca Jagger being sharper than "clever" folk . As has been said by persons wiser than us, it's harder for a rich man to enter heaven. Glass's structure connects to the epic saga of the Mahabharata but you don't need to know that in detail. Millions have got the ancient story without mastering the literature. Perhaps it's best to approach Satyagraha in the same way. Listen past the language of text and music, not to it, and relax.

 Puppets abound throughout this brilliantly theatrical staging by Improbable, Phelim McDermot's innovative company. Puppets are representations, not reality : inaminate objects that don't exist until manipulated by others. The turgid intertitles are claptrap designed to confuse readers. Just like puppets, we should be able to see through them.  Arjuna and his foes from the Mahabarata loom like ghosts in the first act. Giant grotesques loom over Gandhi and his colleagues. But they're just paper. Later the puppeteers dispense with puppets altogether, walking across the stage with strips of transparent tape, gradually creating cats cradles. The sticky filaments could tie them down and choke them, but from the maze they create a vaguely humanoid monster that rises upwards. Once it's served its purpose a puppeteer crushes it, and it becomes, once again, a worthless mess. What a metaphor for the way we are manipulated by the media and by society!

At one point, the chorus sits stretched across the stage, singing hahahahahahaha. They're reading newspapers, expecting the "natives" to wipe their boots, As an image of power, it's very effective. But the joke is on the rich, not the poor. Gandhi showed that humble people don't need to play games. During his lifetime, he knew Tolstoy and Tagore. He inspired Martin Luther King, whom we see in the final act. Gandhi and King were assassinated. Perhaps they were threatening because they represented an alternative to traditional power structures.  As the actor playing King addresses the heavens, Gandhi (Alan Oke) sings a surprisingly beautiful series of songs.  We don't know what he's saying, but he conveys more complex meanings through abstract sound and nuance than words might articulate. Should we shoot Satyagraha down because we don't like its implications?

 Alan Oke has grown into the role over the years. Although there aren't great florid technical displays in this music, it isn't easy to sing. Miss one bar and it falls out of synch. The purity of Oke's voice is ideal for the part, and now, with experience, he imbues his singing with intuitive confidence and dignity. He might be too tall and too pink to be a facsimile of Gandhi, but he creates the idealized personality in the opera. An "athlete of the spirit", whatever that might mean. His avatars, Arjuna (Eddie Wade) and Krishna (Nicholas Masters) are very good, bringing individual character to the roles. Wade's cockinesss is particularly well thought through.

The ENO chorus are in excellent form, so well drilled by chorus master Philip White in Glass's strange cadences that they make the music seem oddly natural. Stuart Stratford conducted: an act of concentration above and beyond the call of duty. Miss one bar or repeat and the whole opera goes awry. To my surprise, I was humming the "tunes" all the way home. Clare Eggington sang Miss Schlesen, Janis Kelly Mrs Naidoo ,with Stephanie Marshall, Nicholas Folwell and Sarah Pring in other roles. I don't know if I could cope with Satyagraha audio-only but live it works, thanks tp  Phelim McDermot, Peter Relton and the Improbable troupe of multi taskers.  Perhaps Glass might have jazzed things up in waltz time, but Improbable and Alan Oke make Satyagraha worthwhile as theatre.

Plenty more on this site about Philip Glass who can be very good (In the Penal Colony) or not as the case might be (The Perfect American) 

photos : Alastair Muir, courtesy ENO

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Florian Boesch Schubert journeys online

Florian Boesch sings Schubert. with Malcolm Martineau. Quite probably the best baritone in this rep in the business at the moment - exceptionally intelligent, elegant yet profound.  An antidote to pretty and shallow! Available now online, internationally and on demand for 7 days on BBC Radio 3 :

Schwanengesang HERE

Die Schöne Müllerin HERE

Winterreise HERE 

After 40 years of listening to Lieder, I've heard a lot. But Boesch and Martineau reveal so much more with the depth of their interpretation and the clarity of expression.

 HERE is a link to my review of their Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall in Dec 2012.   

HERE is a link to my review of Die Schõne Müllerin at the Wigmore Hall in March 2012. When he sang it in October that year at the Oxford Lieder festival, he was even deeper, even more convincing.  I was so overwhelmed that I could not write it up.  Just as Matthias Goerne's first Die schõne Müllerin with Eric Schneider changed the way we hear the songs, so too does Boesch's Die schõne Müllerin help us find new depths in this amazing music. Please read Boesch's insights here in this keynote interview "Strong minded Die schône Müllerin"

Monday 18 November 2013

Rewriting Michael Tippett

I rewrote Michael Tippett Midsummer Marriage.  Scrapped most of the text, re-orchestrated it drastically  to bring out the structural formality, which has a point.  Then, a brainwave! Thinking of Chinese weddings, where the bride ceremoniously serves tea, I hit on the idea: why not have her stamp on a tea cup and break into a wild dance of liberation? Greeks and Jews smash crockery at their weddings.  It certainly shook Tippett up. How could he have missed the irreverent mischief in Shakespeare and Mendelssohn? Alas, when I woke, the new manuscript blurred from my dream.
PS click photo to enlarge. It's a 19th century Cantonese watercolour on rice paper

Britten 100 BBC Radio 3 this week

Benjamin Britten and the BBC : the first, ground breaking co-operation between a composer and mass media. Britten believed that serious music could communicate to ordinary people, and the BBC helped bring Britten to the masses, fulfilling its remit to "educate, entertain and inform". Sadly, far too many political and social factors have shifted the market downwards. But still we can remember the ideal.  You could travel to Aldeburgh this week, where there will be many activities, such as mass sing alongs  or you could avoid the crowds and listen on BBC Radio 3. For the offerings on TV (even more interesting ) please see here.

On Britten's birthday (Friday 22nd November), Oliver Knussen will be conducting the keynote concert at Snape Maltings :"unmissable with its combination of the rarely heard, well-known and new."  which means Britten: Cantata Academica,  Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, Ryan Wigglesworth: Locke's Theatre (world premiere) and Britten's early, glorious Spring Symphony. My review of that is HERE ("Unorthodox Symphonitst"

On Saturday 23rd, two  more LIVE transmissions. First at  1755, the cantata St Nicolas from Aldeburgh Parish Church. Singers include the Jubilee Opera Chorus, Aldeburgh Voices, The Suffolk Ensemble, Ben Parry (conductor) with Alan Oke is the main role. This will be special because it's "local", featuring people who live in and around Aldeburgh, in keeoing wiuth Britten's ideas on music being part of community life.  Second,  LIVE transmission, this time from the Barbican : Britten's Albert Herring.  My review of it is HERE Albert Herring, Pickled

And on Sunday 24th, Noyes Fludde from Lowestoft. Although I love that opera, it's one that really needs to be experienced live. Created for children, everything rests on the process of performance not on the results.  (Read about the excellent Blackheath Noyes Fludde here).

Also worth listening to are performances of Britten String Quartets and Cello Suite (10 pm Friday and Saturday and at 11 pm recordings of Britten playing Schubert and conducting Bach and Haydn (with Rostopovich). Hopefully, there won't be much "presenting" to kill the music.Lots of talk shows, too, if that's your thing.

Top recommendation last : All three Church Parables, recorded in June at Orford Church - Curlew River, (Saturday 1400). This was infinitely truer to Britten's intentions than the disappointing Barbican St Giles's performance last week, much better musically informed and more dramatically incisive. Also, James Gilchrist as the Madwoman was outstanding, even better than Bostridge, which is saying something. Please read my review here.  On Sunday 1400, The Burning Fiery Furnace (reviewed here) and on Monday  26th 1400 The Prodigal Son.

RARE historic broadcast Britten War Requiem BBC TV 4

Benjamin Britten's War Requiem was such an important event that thousands listened to the broadcast of its premiere on 30th May 1962 : it's hard to imagine modern audiences so drawn to new, classical music today. For many who listened, it was life-changing. A friend of mine recalls tuning in, not expecting anything special, and was wonder struck. Just as everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news of John F Kennedy's assassination - also on 22nd November - Britten's 50th birthday - classical music people remember first hearing Britten's War Requiem. For my review of the fantastic BBC Prom War Requiem (Nelsons, CBSO) see here.
Now we have a chance to see the rare film of the first BBC TV broadcast, first transmitted in August 1964, from the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Britten himself conducts the small ensemble, the Melos Ensemble.  The BBC Symphony Orchestra is conducted by someone who looks like John Barbirolli but is Meredith Davies. The soloists are Heather Harper, Peter Pears and Thomas Helmsley. Simon Preston plays the  RAH organ. Also featured are the BBC Chorus and Choral Society, Boys from Emanuel School, the  London Philharmonic Choir.. Kennedy's assassination must have been fresh in the minds of the performers and the audience : the world seemed a smaller, more Anglophone place then. This time, Londoners filled the Royal Albert Hall : their experience of the Blitz was more prolonged and more damaging than in Coventry.

Watching this film, I'm struck by how formal the performers appear. "Stiff upper lip", and cut-glass accents which would seem unnatural today. Watch Peter Pears' body language though. His face turns red with intensity, his chin jutting forwards, his mouth snapping as if he were firing ammunition. He came from a military family : his older brother was a POW in Hong Kong. For a man of that background, it took courage and serious conviction to become a conscientious objector. When he sings the "Strange Friend" sequence, he sings with powerful dignity.

Watch Britten's conducting style - understated and minimal, while the other conductor leaps and waves his arms. Evidence yet again, of the significance of the chamber orchestra and the fundamental duality that runs through so much of Britten's music. Miss these subtle contradictions, and miss the true heart, I think, of Britten. As Pears and Helmsley sing "Let us sleep" Britten shapes the music around it as delicately as if it were a bizarre lullaby.  The boys choir rings up from the gallery, uniting with the two soloists. Only then do the main choirs and orchestra and Harper join in.

The filming is definitely "old school" point and shoot. Fixed position cameras, with relatively limited angles. At times the camera will linger on musicians who haven't started tom play: the cameraman has been told where to film, when rather than follow the music.  At the end, the camera above Door 12 does a panorama of the stage and its hundreds of performers: quite magnificent, even in low resolution black and white. The camera over Door 9 pans briefly on the audience in the arena, some of whom are wearing ties in the heat of August.

This filming feels antique: things have certainly changed for the better! The BBC was in the forefront of the whole new approach to the art of filming music. The BBC and Britten were made for each other. I'll write more later about the BBC's radio broadcasts this week, but for now, look at the other TV offerings :

Britten's Endgame (Reviewed HERE)
Britten's Violin Concerto, one of the best Proms in 2013 reviewed HERE
Billy Budd from Glyndebourne (reviewed here
 Britten and Pears - private folksong recital, filmed 1964.  Good performance but the spoken introductions are sexist!
 Benjamin Britten on Camera - this is much more important documentary than you'd expect as it deals with the relationship between Britten and the BBC and shows how each influenced the other

I've also written a lot about Britten's War Requiem:
Jurowski, LPO, Bostridge, Goerne
Pappano, Accademia di St Cecilia, Rome, Bostridge, Hampson, Netrebko
Bychkov Royal Albert Hall
Nelsons CBSO BBC Prom 2014

Saturday 16 November 2013

Into Zeus's storm: The Invited at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden

Roger Thomas writes :

London is blessed with several small independent
opera companies that give an opportunity for
talented young singers to take on substantial leading roles rather than having their skills confined to the choruses of the big houses. This Opera Room Productions/Iris Theatre production at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden (the Actors' Church) was a good example of the genre.

The Invited (music by Richard Knight, libretto by Norman Welch) is set in 1916 in an upper middle class household in rural Suffolk that has been shrivelled by the vagaries of the First World War to the two daughters of the house; their mother is away undergoing treatment for consumption, their doctor father is serving on the Western Front and the servants have left.

The performance opened dramatically: with the sisters on stage – early morning, with Violet (Sarah Minns) still in bed and Emily (Emma Häll) at a table – the nine-piece orchestra, dressed in a fair approximation of WW1 army uniforms, processed down the church aisle playing a martial theme. But the coup de théâtre's effect was dissipated when they settled down and tuned up. What a waste! Effectively the performance had to begin again.

At the opera's core is a dialogue between the two sisters induced by the catastrophic losses of the war: “rational” Emily seeks comfort from the natural world; Violet, increasingly deranged, seeks a solution in a return of the ancient Greek gods, convinced that in a coming storm Zeus will impregnate her with a new saviour who will cure the world of its ills. Emily proves powerless to dissuade her sister. A third element driving the action is a washerwoman from the village, Mrs Galloway (Miriam Sharrad), whose prying curiosity fuelled by village rumours about the sisters' unorthodox behaviour leads her to spy on their close physical intimacy. Eventually Mrs Galloway reveals that her soldier son has been killed in action, and produces a letter ostensibly indicating that one of the sisters – Violet, it turns out – is pregnant by her son and had promised to marry him.

Violet strenuously denies all this, despite demands from her sister and Mrs Galloway that she tell the truth. Having threatened Mrs Galloway with a knife, she eventually stabs herself. As she dies, her sister, grief-stricken, expels the washerwoman from the house, and moves off the stage down the aisle, into the coming storm, singing that she will offer herself to Zeus in her sister's place.

Minns gave a stunning performance as Violet, acting the deranged and deluded young woman with scary conviction as she pointed heavenwards and stared fixedly forward, at one point moving trance-like down the aisle into the audience. Her singing was powerful and moving. All praise here also to the director (Neil Smith) for tapping Minns's undoubted movement skills (she has dance training as well as established singing credentials) and talent for characterisation. Minns might not have the coloratura to cope with the crazed Lucia di Lammermoor, but on this showing she could beat any singer in acting that part. Häll sang strongly and convincingly as Violet's concerned and loyally loving sister, although her diction was problematic from time to time – a hindrance when so much
depended on what was said in a dense libretto. Sharrad caught effectively the unhealthy mix of busybody and bereaved mother in Mrs Galloway.

The string, wind, horn, percussion orchestra played extremely well, actively and skilfully directed from the piano by Elspeth Wilkes, so it seemed a pity that the music was so heavily scored – relentlessly tutti and seemingly at times in competition with the singers rather than supportive of them and the story line. With such skills available, it might have been more appropriate to the action had there been more lyrical passages using single instruments or groups of instruments.

Yuji Suzuki produced a simple but effective stage design – I particularly liked Violet's bier-like bed with blood-red cover – and Ciaran Cunningham's lighting design and Ned Welch's sound got the approaching storm just right.

Britten's Endgame Bridcut

Currently online on BBC TV4, Britten's Endgame, John Bridcut's film about Britten's last years and last works. Recommended - it's a sensitive and sensible account, much better than most of the oppportunist stuff that's flooded the market this centenary year. Britten's life is so meticulously documented that there isn't much "new" material to use. Hence the sensationalist marketing on non-facts like the idea that Britten was killed by syphilis. Britten was poorly all his life, as this film re-confirms. He was debililitated by anxiety, sometimes vomiting before key events. As one of his associates says in the film, he was so used to being ill that he programmed illnesses into his schedule. Perhaps he was hypochondriac, but more likely the illnesses related to creative crises. Paul Kildea cites Britten's illness in America as evidence of the onset of VD. On the other hand, America was a traumatic period for the composer, resolved by his return to Britain and by Peter Grimes.

Bridcut takes us to Venice, a city where artists have dreamed for centuries. Aschenbach goes searching for change, and glimpses extraordinary, troubling beauty. Some critics sitll condemn Death in Venice, perhaps because it's not easy listening. But that's exactly why it's such a powerful work. As Bridcut shows, Britten was a driven man, under desperate pressure to complete the work. Peter Pears called it "an evil work". The stress might have contributed to Britten's heart condition and stroke, but Pears might have understood .how much it revealed about Britten's innermost dilemmas. For me Death in Venice is the closest Britten comes to  explaining himself, as man and as artist. Tadzio represents a golden ideal. He's seen as an incarnation of Apollo, an eternal inspiration for enlightenment, growth and art. Aschenbach was an intellectual, classically educated and straight. But Tadzio transforms his soul. He can't possess the boy: it might even spoil the dream. Britten was prepared to sacrifice his health to give the opera life.

The current fashion for interpreting Britten through his sexuality is trite, and probably homophobic. Bridcut shows the interview in which David Hemmings says Britten didn't overstep the mark. Throughout his entire career, Britten protests the destruction of innocence. If Tadzio had responded, would Aschenbach run a mile? Ironically, the dancer who played the original Tadzio may have been involved with Peter Pears who was far more omnivorous than the uptight Britten. Myfanwy Piper suggested that the dancers perform naked in authentic Greek fashion. Britten demurred.

Many who knew Britten personally are still active today. Bridcut shows clips from an interview with Janet Baker, for whom Britten wrote Phaedra, an even more intense work of thwarted lust, punished by death. He also shows James Bowman who created the Voice of Apollo, and Michael Berkeley, a true insider and a composer in his own right. Bridcut is far less successful with other "modern" material. Why Joe Phibbs and Mark Anthony Turnage instead of Oliver Knussen or even Harrison Birtwistle? Both of the latter were shaped by Britten for better or worse. there is no "Britten School".  He was unique. He didn't teach but created the Britten-Pears Foundation and the Aldeburgh Festival so that other musicians could find their own way.

There is a battle raging over Britten's legacy. Bridcut stresses the disregard Berio and some of the avant garde had for Britten (and Shostakovich) as if somehow that would make him more mainstream and marketable, by default. But the situation is far more complex. At Darmstadt battles raged between Nono, Berio and Hans Werner Henze, who worshipped Britten and modelled himself upon him. Britten's music is infinitely more innovative than he gets credit for, which is why he is also hated by many in retrogressive "British Music" circles.  There are far too many who would castrate Britten and reinterpret him as bland and conventional. Hence the popularity of one-dimensional, superficial opera productions. Tom Sutcliffe's film, Britten : a Failure is so venomous that it's shown on youtube, not distributed theough mainstream chanels. Those who think Britten isn't trendy enough should reflect on what British music would be like if it wasn't for Britten,. Unfortunately too many people swallow the myth that music has to follow a strict divide between tonality and atonality, modern and anti-modern. Real artists, like Britten, are doggedly individual and follow their own vision, even if it kills them. Remember Aschenbach, and Death in Venice!

photo : Nino Barbieri

Friday 15 November 2013

Barbican Britten Curlew River Bostridge review

Perhaps if I hadn't been looking forward so much to the Barbican Britten Curlew River, I would have been less disappointed. Tradition dictates that Curlew River should be done in a church because that's how it was first done in Britten's time. But what counts above all else is artistic merit.  If this had been a concert staging, in the Barbican Hall or Barbican Theatre, this Curlew River might have worked. St Giles Cripplegate is just all wrong for this. It's the wrong period, for one thing, its late Reformation and Puritan connections unsympathetic to the mysticism of the early Dark Ages fens, where being a Christian was something to be remarked upon. As a work of art, Curlew River is strong enough to make a powerful impact on its own terms, without needing a specific setting.

The physical constraints of St Giles don't make for good theatre. The nave became an extended stage,. Netia Jones's film projections were good, their monochrome starkness appropriate for the piece, but their impact was  spoiled because they could only be seen in full by the orchestra. Sightlines were blocked by pillars. The audience was crammed into the margins of the building. Perhaps one should not feel comfortable in Curlew River, but neither should the experience be penitential. Stages are usually horizontal for a very good reason. The Procession is important to the meaning of this piece,. Though the monks did walk down the nave,  they were kept busy changing their clothes while the Britten Sinfonia played. While the monks do become protagonists in the drama, this re-costuming is a clumsy misuse of space.

Fortunately, when Ian Bostridge started to sing, the drama at last began to kick in. The Madwoman is sneered at because, in her extreme grief, she has lost all conventional decorum. She''s an aristocrat but wanders alone in the wilds, wailing. Her speech is too "high born", too alien for the Fensmen. For me, this is critical to interpretation because the Madwoman is an outsider, a refined person of taste, driven to behave in extremes by the loss of her son, her pride and joy. Bostridge sings the part with all its contortions, fragments and wayward swoops, but does the staging show him trying to knit while he sits on the ferry?  She's no ordinary Mum. After the Madwoman hears the story of the Boy and his death, Bostridge's voice became firm, with almost demonic force. For all we know,  the Madwoman conjures up the vision of the Boy in her mind? Bostridge's purposeful singing suggests that she does have that kind of creative strength. Bostridge was  relatively restrained, considering what he could do with the part, given the right staging, but this bland directing was not the occasion. .No doubt the Madwoman finds peace hearing that the dead will rise. But why do the river people treat the Boy as a saint and giver of miracles?  The plaintive cry of the curlew recurs, suggesting primitive animist mysteries, and the "Japanese" cadences suggest alien worlds where western doctrine has no meaning. There is a lot more to Curlew River than straightforward Christianity.

Mark Stone sang the down-to earth Ferryman  and Neal Davies the Traveller, like the Madwoman, an outsider from places beyond. Gwynne Howell sang the Abbot, grown weary with experience, and Duncan Tarboton sang the Boy, as youthful as the Abbot is old.  William Lacey directed the Britten Sinfonia. Unfortunately, St Giles is perpendicular, so voices are funnelled upwards and muffled. Only Bostridge, right in the middle of the nave was fully audible. With a cast as good as this, it was a waste of good singers.

More thoughts : fomal ritual is central to the interpretation. In the original production Britten supervised, the ,monlks worte masks, the way Noh actors did.  It intensifies the surreal emotional distance so important to the piece. If Britten was writing "naturalistric" why then the use of Japanese form and cadences ? Why not simply writre it like Waly Waly ? Perhaps audiences prefer Britten minus his music.. It's sad that this anniversary years should be taught to disregard the music. If German directors tr8ed this, audiences would scream "Regie!"

More on Benjamin Britten on this site than only any other non specialist site. Please explore ! For Curlew River please read here and here. For Netia Jones please read here and here. (Knussen's Sendak operas, Jones's best work to date. This Curlew River,was an amateurish, superficial  Sunday School homily in comparison. See also the comment below. The Barbican should be professional enough to look after its customers properly.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Barbican Britten Curlew River tonight

The excellent Barbican Britten series continues tonight with Curlew St Giles, Cripplegate (repeat performances til Saturday).  Of all Britten's operas, Curlew River used to frighten me most because it's so raw and painful. And so alien, musically, operating on two different levels.  It's not comfortable, but that's exactly why it's Great Britten.

The Madwoman has been driven insane by grief: but is she a woman at all ? Could she be an extension of an artist, driven mad by the loss of beauty? What hits me about this opera is the extreme sense of anxiety which isn't really resolved by the ending. Tha Madwoman's search seems metaphysical. Curlew River feels claustrophobic. At night, when the mists roll in at Aldeburgh, the reed beds can feel overwhelming: You could lose your sense of direction on all levels: the very ground shifts and moves on the water. As Aschenbach sings in Death in Venice, could the gondolier be the ferryman on the River Styx? The parallels between Curlew River and Death in Venice are very strong. The waters bring people together but that very communication means death. Cholera, in Venice, mindless cruelty on Curlew River. For me, both operas are now the key to "inner" Britten, in which the composer comes very close to revealing his private fears and his mission as an artist.

In Curlew River, Britten connected the formalism of Japanese theatre with the rituals of Catholic liturgical music. Neither form was populist, both the esoteric preserve of an educated minority. Yet Britten, with his passionate belief in communication and in the community, also incorporated elements of medieval mystery plays, where complex ideas were expressed in simplified form. The characters in Curlew River are larger than life, almost symbolist archetypes, and the music they have to sing is extreme. Nowadays. we're so used to naturalism in film and theatre that we forget how recently it took hold.  By eschewing naturalism, Britten connects Curlew River to much more ancient traditions. The stylized ritual also serves as a an emotional mask, distancing the artists from his audiences. This reticence can be offputting, Britten isn't touchy-feely. But his emotions are so intense that they have to be faced obliquely, as if through a mask.

Yoshi Oida has directed both Curlew River and Death in Venice. His productions are outstanding because they deal with the inner ideas of each piece. His Death in Venice incorporated the walls of The Maltings Theatre at Snape, merging art with reality. Besides, Venice does look like that when you're in a gondola. It's not grand palaces but dark, smelly water. The whole point of the opera is that luxury is illusion, like rouge on an old man. Deborah Warner's Death in Venice turned Britten into glossy fashion photoshoot: It was Regie at its worst, but adored by audiences who don't care about music or ideas. Oida's Curlew River, also created for Aix-en-Provence, creates the boat as cosmic crucible, an island surrounded by real water. Nerve wracking tension, but also great beauty.

This Summer, I heard Curlew River at Orford Church, where Britten himself supervised the first performance. Read my review HERE. Frederic Wake Walker brought out levels in the piece most people miss. Orford Church was vandalized in the Reformation. Many other churches were destroyed by violent mobs, jealous of the culture and values medieval learning represented. The Boy in Curlew river is a nobleman's son, the last of his aristocratic line. He's stolen and left to die by a mindless brute.  We should wail with the Madwoman at the annihilation of beauty and art.  One-dimensional, productions like the ENO Death in Venice and the ETO Rape of Lucretia emasculate Britten, turning his difficult, quirky complexity into popular product.  Maybe the public prefer Britten castrated? I think of the ravaged ruins around Aldeburgh, and weep.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Monsaingeon films set

Following the death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Bruno Monsaingeon's boxed set of DFD Materials is being heavily marketed. Don't rush out, though. Most of this material has been issued before, and most fans will already have them in their collections.

The new release is "Fischer-Dieskau : Last Words" . issued in 2013, but based on  extracts from film sessions from 2008/09. Any chance to see Fischer-Dieskau is welcome. It's fascinating to watch his face as he listens to his recording of Schumann's Kerner Lied Stirb, Lieb' und Freud'. You can hear him anticipate the tricky "O Jungfrau rein! Laß mich allein Dein eigen sein!", where the young nun prays to the Virgin Mary. The interviews are edited so they can be followeed in a series of vignettes. DFD discusses his parents, singing in a POW camp, and his early years as a singer. Don't expect revelations. DFD was too experienced an interviewee to give anything away, and Monsaingeon is more worshipful than probing. DFD comments on Furtwángler,but he was too young to have known much about what the conductor did in the Third Reich and Furtwángler wouldn't, in any case, have revealed it to a youthful singer.  The fiilm is also heavily oriented towards DFD's opera career and gives special prominence to Julia Varady, who will, we hope, be with us for many years to come and holds the key to DFD's estate. Since the film is based on what's left of the original archive material, anything special would have been before.

"Fischer-Dieskau : Last Words" runs  50 minutes and on its own isn't worth the price of the 6 DVD set, although devotees like me get a thrill just watching DFD talk. In any case, it's available free on (link here). The set includes earlier Monsaingeon films like Autumn Journey made to mark DFD's 70th birthday in 1995. There are concerts, with Hartmut Holl and Christoph Eschenbach, originally issued in 1991 and 1992. They're good enough but don't reflect the singer at the height of his powers. .

Monsaingeon describes the set as "a major Edition which bears my name: the Bruno Monsaingeon edition. It is dedicated to my work with some of the legendary artists of our time.......Fischer-Dieskau and I became acquainted towards the end of the eighties. Over the years, our relationship evolved into a real friendship, if I may say so." As such, the materials are interesting in their own right, but by the 80's DFD was already a great celebrity, as Monsaingeon was well aware. Presentation is slick and there's a booklet., But if you have £155 to spare, you might invest in good recordings.

John Tavener and the Taxi Driver

John Tavener died yesterday, after a long illness.  Read his last interview (with Ivan Hewett) HERE.  As regular readers know, I don't do impersonal obits, so instead, an anecdote.

It was early 1993. I caught a taxi outside Harrods. The Taxi Driver wanted to talk about music. "The Protecting Veil, that's perfect!" he said, "The most beautiful thing I've ever heard! "  A bit embarrassed I said that it didn't do anything for me."Then you don't know music" said the taxi driver, annoyed.

I still don't get The Protecting Veil, .but I'm glad it gave so much joy to someone else. If music can reach people that's a good thing. A bit more karma and goodness in the world.

 A few years ago at a London Sinfonietta concert I saw a man I'll swear was Tavener, or his double. "Cannot possibly be!" said everyone."He doesn't go out". Maybe it was the one time he did go out. Maybe it was an apparition. It doesn't matter. As Tavener himself would have understood, there are many things in this world we aren't meant to logic out, but serve a mysterious purpose.

Photo : Devlin Crow 2013

Monday 11 November 2013

Britten War Requiem Royal Albert Hall Bychkov BBC SO

On Remembrance Sunday, Semyon Bychkov conducted Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus and choristers of Westminster Abbey.  The sense of occasion was overwhelming. The vast auditorium was packed, and the arena area, where Prommers throng in summer, was filled with seats. Before the performance began, the house lights were turned, not onto the stage but onto the audience. It was a moment of sheer theatre, but utterly appropriate, for everyone in the building must have known, or know of someone affected by the barbarity of war. No-one could remain unmoved. Wilfred Owen wrote about the First World War, and Britten wrote to commemorate peace after the Second World War. But the world is still wracked by conflict. Wars of attrition continue, millions of people still suffer. Turning the spotlight on the audience reminded us that Remembrance is more than "Lest we forget" but also implies moral obligation.

How amazing it must have been for the performers to look onto the Royal Albert Hall and see the lights shining on thousands of faces!  This was infinitely more a communal experience than just a musical event. The lines between performance and reception blurred.  Normal measures of performance were largely irrelevant. We were all participating in something much greater than ourselves.

Because the War Requiem was commissioned to mark the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, it has become associated with vast venues and ostentatious displays of public piety.Although it's written for some 300 performers, at the really critical moments, Britten silences the tumult. Britten was essentially a private man, not given to big public gestures of emotion. The heart of the piece is the twelve member ensemble that accompanies the two male soloists. The choruses and the female soloist sing in Latin, and sing words that would fit neatly into any standard Requiem Mass. Significantly, Britten sets the key texts in English, using the words of Wilfred Owen, who wrote from personal experience.  Owen does not celebrate public victory: quite the opposite.  He fought bravely, but eschewed formal religion. Britten doesn't quote the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, but Wilfred Owen's Parable of the Old Men and the Young, with its reference to the wilful slaying, not sanctioned by God, of "half the seed of Europe, one by one"

"Move him into the sun" sings the tenor (Allan Clayton). The quote is from a poem titled "Futility". A corpse lies on snowbound ground.  The soprano and choruses sing "Lachrymosa", of tears and the conventional expression of sorrow. The music is beautiful, but Owen, and Britten are having none of this. "O what made fatuous sunbeams toil, to break earth's sleep at all"?  Unlike seeds in the soil, the dead don't re-sprout. In the Sanctus, the choirs sing "Hosanna in excelcis". But Britten has the baritone (Roderick Williams) sing, quite pointedly: "Mine ancient scars should not be gloried. Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried". Britten's War Requiem isn't designed to comfort, but to provoke.

Bychkov places the chamber ensemble to his immediate left, "the heart side" in theatre parlance..The instrumentation mimics that of a large orchestra - five strings, four winds, horn, harp and percussion - but the individual voices are heard clearly: It's another indication of Britten's "inner" programme.

"Lbera me, Domine" the soprano (Sabina Cvilak) sings, haloed by the chorus. "Tremens factus sum ego" (I tremble  and fear)  The orchestra screams, cymbals crashing, suggesting the chaos of battle. Bychkov's definition of horns, trumpets and trombones was specially good, emphasizing military conflict. But Britten deliberately shifts focus. To minimal accompaniment the tenor sings ""Strange friend, I said, here is no cause to mourn".  Tenor and baritone face each other in a strange No Man's Land where  nations do not fight. There are no "Germans" or "British" here, but two human beings, man to man. Their voices blend. "Let us sleep now", singing in unity.  They are turning away from the vast forces around them. Perhaps Britten recognized that social forces dominate over the private. The War Requiem ends on a wave of uplifting glory, sending the audience out into the world feeling  the better for having been part of the experience.

 Please also see my reviews of the War Requiem with Jurowski, the LPO, Bostridge and Goerne (best soloists), and of Antonio Pappano's recording with  the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome,, Academia Stana Cecilia Rome, Bostridge, Hampson (best orchestral playing). Semyon Bychov, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Clayton, Williams and Cvilak, however, won hands down on atmosphere. More on this site about Britten and war than any other, bar Britten-only sites.

This review also appears in Opera Today.

Apropos to the ideal of "conventional piety" please read this article "This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time" by a 91 year old veteran.  He's right. Piety is a good thing but it can be hijacked by commercial and political interests. To honour those who have fallen, we should care enough that we don't let these things happen again.