Thursday 31 July 2014

Three Choirs Festival - Reflections on 1914 Elgar Rasch


The Three Choirs Festival began more than 300 years ago. Perhaps it is the oldest music festival in the western world. The exact start date is unknown: members of the choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford  decided to join together and sing. That sense of community and cooperation, is very much a part of Christian tradition. As Jesus taught "Love they neighbour as thyself". If only people could live by that concept, whatever their faith.

Next week we mark the centenary of the day on which Britain declared war on Germany. Thus began a conflict that, arguably, continued until 1945. Would the cycle of attack and revenge have continued?  Instead of punitive reparations, the US introduced the Marshall Plan: victors supporting the welfare of the defeated.  Mutual humanity. Some - certainly not all - Britons might still relish foreign wars (on behalf of other states) but Germany has becomes a force for peace. In this spirit I salute (perhaps the wrong choice of word) the Three Choirs Festival for its concert tonight, Reflections on 1914.

"Spirit of England, go before us !" the soprano sings at the start of Edward Elgar's The Spirit of England. The melody echoes, gloriously,  in the solo violin, recurring and uniting the piece, its warmth suggesting sunny confidence. . Lawrence Binyon's poem "The Fourth of August", written in the heat of the moment, refers to the "grandeur of our fate". Binyon even equates war with Spring and regrowth. England  "fights the fraud that feeds desire on Lies, in lust to enslave or kill, The barren creed of blood and iron," The photo above shows officers of the Worcestershire Regiment posing before they're sent to the Front in 1914. How many would survive?

Perhaps Elgar wasn't quite so belligerent. He sets the middle section (loosely based on Binyon's To Women, in a more reflective key, ushering in the final section "To the Fallen". Trumpets blare and a march-like rhythm emerges. "The enemies of England|" are still a threat. At last the meaning of death sinks in. The text comes from Binyon's most famous poem, To The Fallen. "We will remember them" repeats the soprano, her melody taken up by the chorus, and at times a melancholy cello. .Boadicea-like, the soprano's voice soars. even as the orchestra becomes hushed. "As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, To the end, to the end, they remain."

Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending  can mean many things but in this context, one might reflect on its melancholy. Something very beautiful is being glimpse, but through a haze of nostalgia. Perhaps when the violin soars upwards, we could be thinking of transcendence, deliverance, or timless release? Music doesn't exist just in notes but in our emotional response.

 Two of the greatest British composers, responding to a war that would change their world, and a youngish German composer who has travelled the world, reflecting on what went before him.  Torsten Rasch grew up in a tradition very close to the Three Choirs: he was a boy chorister with the Dresdner Kreuzchor, which produced Peter Schreier and Rudolf Mauersberger (lots about them on this site too). Rasch's music embraces wider genres. He emigrated to Japan as a young man and has worked in theatre, film and multimedia.  Read more about him here.

Torsten Rasch's A Foreign Field is a Three Choirs commission, (in connection with Chemnitz Opera) continuing the Festival's support for new music in its core repertoire. "It's not a Requiem" says Rasch. He uses the British Evensong tradition to bring together English and German poems texts by poets who served on opposite sides in 1914-18 - Ivor Gurney, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl. Below a sample

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Rameau Motets Prom William Christie Les Arts Florissants

Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants  performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years. Even more significantly, this perfection was mixed with joy and humour. This was an  hommage to Rameau, whose 250th anniversary we celebrate, But for us in the audience, it was also an hommage to William Christie, who founded Les Arts Florissants in 1979. Christie and the generations of artists he has inspired  blend new scholarly research with musical intelligence.

In his lifetime, Rameau was something of a radical. Christie and modern baroque specialists present  Rameau as vibrant as it might have been when the music was still fresh.  Deus noster refugium (1713) (God is our refuge) begins in relatively conventional mode, suitable for decorous church performance. Then a wilder. almost dance-like mood takes over, ushered in by "footsteps"in the vocal line, where each syllable is deliberately defined. The voices sing with firm conviction, while the forces around them are in tumult. With a little imagination, we can hear, as Lindsay Kemp describes in his programme notes, "'mountains' cast into the sea (bursts of tremolos and rushing scales  in the strings, stoically resisted  by firmly regular crotchets  in the three solo voices; swelling waters (smooth but restless choral writing over forward-driving strings); and finally  streams that 'filled the city of God with joy' a gigue-like aria for soprano with solo violin".

Quam dilecta tabernacula (1713-15?) (How lovely is thy dwelling place) allows Rameau to write elaboate fugal patterns. Rameau, the master of technical form, also manages to evoke the beauty of the outdoors. The piece begins with very high soprano, accompanied by delicate winds : pastoral, sensual and mysteriously unearthly. The choruses introduce a livelier mood, which might suggest fecundity and vigorous growth. The soprano solo is balanced by a tenor solo, then later by baritone. Elegant design, reminiscent of baroque gardens, laid out in tight formation. When the soloists sing in ensemble, and later with full chorus, the voices entwine gracefully.

The version of In convertendo Dominus (Psalm 126, When the Lord turned again the Captivity of Zion)  only now exists in a revision made for Holy Week in 1751. The piece begins with a wonderful part for very high tenor, presaging the passion later French opera would have for the voice type. Do we owe Enée and  Robert le Diable to Rameau?  Reinoud Van Mechelen's voice rang nicely, joined by the other five soloists in merry, lilting chorus that suggests laughter. The bass Cyril Costanzo's art was enhanced by whip-like flourishes of brass and wind. Even lovelier,  the well decorated soprano passages, which lead into a  beautiful blending of solo voices and orchestra.  A pause: and then the exquisite chorus. "They that go out weeping....shall come back in exultation, carrying their sheaves with them.  Christie balances the voices so finely that one really hears "sheaves", united and golden.

If these Grand Motets weren't enough, Christie continued with so many encores that the  BBC schedule was thrown off kilter, and only one can be heard on rebroadcast. Haha! I thought, admiring Christie's sense of humour and bravado.  The photo above shows Christie having fun in fancy dress. Since I'd come for the music (and for Les Arts Flo) I was glad I could stay, and not worry about mundane things like missing the last bus. "Hahahahahaha " went the chorus in the excerpt from Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville's In exitu Israel (1753) on exactly the same subject.   A brilliant choice!  Just as in Rameaus In convertendo Dominus, the Hebrews are laughing because they've been freed. Rameau's laughter is more subtle, Mondonville's more crude, "crowd pleasing" to the point of being coarse.  Christie is making a point. Mondonville was more fashionable at the time, but as we know now, Rameau has had the last laugh.

Christie continued with an extract from Rameau's Castor et Pollux which was used with words of Kyrie Eléison for Rameau's funeral Mass. The opera and its successors meant a lot to the composer, and to Christie, who conducted Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne last year (read my review HERE). Christie is no fool. Respect his choices. He knows baroque style better than most, and chose as director Jonathan Kent, with whom he created the magnificent Glyndebourne Purcell The Fairy Queen. "If it's good enough for Bill Christie", my companion said, "It's good enough for me". At the interval at Glyndebourne we bumped into Christie himself, and told him. He beamed with delight, his eyes twinkling. "That's what I like", he grinned.

Christie and Les Arts Florissantes ended with a excerpt from Les Indes Galantes, their greatest hit, which revolutionized public perceptions of the genre.The baroque era was audacious, given to extravagant, crazy extremes. People embraced the new world outside Europe, and delighted in exotic fantasy. Po-faced literalism is an aberration of late 20th century culture, dominated by TV.  To really appreciate baroque style, it helps to understand the period. "You have to steep yourself in historical, performance practice", says Christie. "it has to become completely natural and spontaneous. If the public starts to become aware of the archaeological aspects, then we've failed. I think one of the reasons we've had success in Les Arts Florissants is because we've become completely instinctive". This fabulous Prom unleashed the joy, energy and wit in the style. Christie makes Rameau, and the spirit of his age, come alive.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra - China's oldest and biggest

The BBC Proms always feature orchestras from outside the UK. We've heard the Berliner Philharmoniker, he Wiener Philharmoniker, SWR  Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Concerto Copenhagen and many, many more. This year the focus is on orchestras from outside Europe.  The China Philharmonic Orchestra featured in the Second Night of the Proms. (reviewed here). Classical music audiences in Asia (in particular) are vast, and growing, so by including  less well known orchestras, the Proms connects to audiences in the countries the orchestras come from (Turkey, The Middle East etc)  All part of one huge world-wide family.

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra is the oldest orchestra in Asia. It was founded 1879. Shanghai was a prosperous, cosmopolitan city, so the orchestra soon became well established.  Details of the 2014-15 season have just been announced. If you're wondering why the photo above looks familiar, it was taken at the Philharmonie in Berlin  The SSO is international.

"What feels like to be the richest orchestra in an emerging second-richest country in the world? Ask Shanghai Symphony Orchestra." writes Rudolph Tang in Klassikom. "With 60 million RMB from the government subsidy and another 30 million from its board which comprises some of the biggest state businesses in Shanghai, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra engrosses over 100 million RMB (or USD 15 million) as its annual budget. The orchestra announced its probably the most ambitious season ever at the SSO’s new hall this afternoon. The 14-15 season of SSO in a comprehensive season integrates both the orchestra and the two halls that seat 1,500 in total."  Read the full article HERE.

Monday 28 July 2014

Bayreuth Ring live broadcasts 2014

BR Klassik is again broadcasting live from Bayreuth.Very similar casts to last year. Coming up:

Die Walküre  - 5th August
Siegfried  - 12th August
Götterdämmerung  - 16th August 
Lohengrin  - 19th August 

All broadcasts are live. Start times all 1805 German time (5 pm GMT)  More details here.

Here's what I wrote about the performances last year . Two Rings in the space of weeks !Part of the reason Barenboim seems more vivid was because I was there live, sweltering in the heat.

Die Walküre (Petrenko Bayreuth) and Barenboim Prom
Siegfried (Petrenko Bayreuth) and Barenboim Prom
Götterdämmerung (Petrenko, Bayreuth) and Barenboim Prom
Lohengrin (Bayreuth 2011)

A Face in a Crowd

One hundred years ago today, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. From relatively small beginnings, thus was ignited the "Thirty Years War" of the 20th century. In Vienna, saccharinely rebranded the "City of Dreams", people gathered to cheer. The Face in the Crowd ? Adolf Hitler. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Schoenberg in London - WNO Moses und Aron

Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron at last returned to London. The Royal Opera House in fact gave the British premiere of the opera, in 1965.  In the present philistine artistic climate, would they dare value art over stupidity? We need the values of Moses und Aron more than ever.  Thank goodness ROH has sponsored the Welsh National Opera production, which itself dates from 2003. At least we in London get a chance to experience the opera live. House co-operations like this are a boon.
John Tomlinson sang Moses in the Met production eleven years ago. Moses, as the text tells us, is a man who doesn't express himself in words, so Tomlinson's powerful presence creates the right impact. Rainer Trost sang Aron, catching the true Sprechstimme cadences well. The opera is a dialectic between Moses and Aron, but the choruses provide ballast and background. Their music is wonderful. Sometimes they represent the voice of god, sometimes the voice of the people. I would have liked sharper, tighter diction but for non-German speakers this was good enough.  Good enough playing, with the WNO orchestra conducted by Lothar Koenigs. Although I hate it when people wail of any performance "It's not like the recording" in this case we have such a choice of outstanding recordings that if we compared like for like, this performance won't come near the top. But never mind. Just getting a chance to engage with Moses und Aron is a privilege.

Please read Mark Berry's review of Schoenberg Moses und Aron in Opera Today. It's the most detailed of all.

The original Stuttgart production looks a little dated now, but it's perfectly acceptable. Although the story comes from The Book of Exodus, when Schoenberg was writing in 1932 he may have been intuiting another kind of exodus. Moses believes in ideals that can't easily be put into words. Aron is his interpreter, much in the way a performer interprets what a composer sets onto paper. No need for tablets made of stone. Pocket scores will suffice.  And even these are meaningless unless the people engage with the content therein. But will the people care, or understand?  Will they prefer cheap thrills and easy answers? Yet, as Moses says, "Ich darf, und ich muss". He cannot compromise or lose his integrity.

There's plenty of nudity and sex in the libretto, but not in the production. The historical-reality crowd might prefer that, but the original directors  Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito,adhere to the spirit of that which cannot be expressed in direct images.  The People sit in what looks like a cinema, facing the audience in the auditorium, "watching" the golden calf in their imaginations, having vaguely impersonal orgies when they think they cant be observed. Much better this than gaudy special effects to distract from the moral power of the opera and the music. Indeed, the staging allows us to concentrate on the inner workings of the music. The naked women emerge vocally from the sprawl in the "theatre", their voices ringing out from the throng. So damn what if they're wearing anonymous clothes. Anyone with ears can pick them out clearly.  Moses und Aron is as much an opera about music as it is about faith.

The god of the Hebrews was austere, so holy that his name could not be spoken, whose presence could not be depicted in crass graven images. When Verdi Nabucco was staged last year at the Royal Opera House (read more here) some people went nuts because there wasn't enough gold and decoration. Surely such people must realize that the Hebrews chose the God of Moses, and not the graven images of Babylon? 

Glyndebourne comes to you

Glyndebourne Tour dedicates its 2014 season to visionary founder Sir George Christie. Glyndebourne Tour is to honour the artistic vision of its founder Sir George Christie by taking three world-class productions, two fresh from premières at Glyndebourne Festival, on the road this autumn. Sir George, who died in May, established the Tour in 1968 driven by an ambition to bring the highest-quality opera to as many people as possible and nurture talented singers from across the world at the start of their careers. Now in its 46th year, the Glyndebourne Tour is offering a rare opportunity to see two new productions direct from the internationally acclaimed Glyndebourne Festival, Verdi’s La traviata and Mozart’s La finta giardiniera.

 It''s not often that brand new productions hit the road so quickly, so this is good news, even though the  casts will be different. The new La Traviata is a safe enough choice though from what I've heard, the original cast was the draw, with all respect to the Tour cast. Good careers have been built from Glyndebourne Tour beginnings.

 The real attraction for me will be  La finta giardiniera.  Mozart's early  opera is relatively rare because it isn't a masterpiece but there's a lot more to it than, say, Bastien and Bastienne  On the other hand, the Glyndebourne production highlights its strengths and makes it good theatre, enhancing our understanding. Read Claire Seymour's perceptive review in Opera Today. I rushed to get tickets at Glyndebourne but it was sold out.  So I'm booking early for the Tour production. Has this Cinderella of Mozart's operas  found her prince? In Frederick Wake-Walker's thoughtful staging, La finta giardiniera.proves its strengths. The first night at Glyndebourne (5/12) is already sold out.
Also taking to the road is Jonathan Kent’s highly acclaimed 2006 production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.  Glyndebourne will also be screening  Melly Still’s playful family production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in selected cinemas. "Playful family production" is the right description. "Vixen de-fanged",  I called it at the premeiere (more HERE)  It does nothing for Janáček or for those who like the opera, but it's great for family outings. Disney, with rather good music. Two other special productions for primary school children and  families, Songs about us and Five Deaths and a Happy Ending. Glyndebourne's youth outreach is very high quality indeed, and has featured commissions from composers like Julian Phillips (The Yellow Sofa).

Moire details of Glyndebourne Tour's schedule here. 

photo : morebyless

Friday 25 July 2014

Gergiev Janáček Glagolitic Mass Prom LSO

At  Prom 9 Valery Gergiev conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO are an excellent orchestra, whose musicians have worked together, and with Gergiev, for many years. Earlier in the week, Gergiev conducted the World Orchestra For Peace, made up of musicians from 75 different ensembles who meet roughly once a year. WOP publicity made much of the fact that many of them were principals in their own orchestras. But there is no way in the world  that 75 orchestra are going to be of the same quality, or have the same standards, even with a few really good musicians among them for strengthening, like the LSO leader.  With the WOP, Gergiev's job was to hold the unwieldy unit together, hoping at least for cohesion.  With the LSO, he can be an artist, with musicians he knows can be challenged to great things. What a difference a good orchestra makes!

If an orchestra is about musicianship, the LSO delivered, superbly. Barry Douglas was the soloist in Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor. Douglas played with verve, confident that the orchestra would support him. It must have been as much of a joy for Gergiev to conduct this as it was to listen to.

Janáček's Glagolitic Mass was, however, the main draw. The Royal Albert Hall is made for monumental works like this, allowing the performers to throw themselves into its spirit with all the force they can muster. In Czech tradition, thousands would gather at religious festivals to worship by singing together, with the fervour of communal affirmation. No ifs, buts or maybes in such circumstances. "Gospodi pomiluj gospodi pomiluj" the chorus repeat, whipped into delirious frenzy,. It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe with intensity. Perhaps that's why Janáček used an ancient Slavonic language no-one actually speaks and used it in a way that would drive scholars crazy. It's the ferocity of belief that matters. Janáček, an atheist who knew all about playing in churches, aimed for something quite specifically non-churchy. His passion for nature and the outdoors inspires the piece. "My cathedral ", he said, was “the enormous grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…...the scent of moist forests my incense”.

Wisely, Gergiev chose Paul Wingfield's reconstruction of the original version of the piece, which captures its audacious wildness in all its rough-hewn glory. This isn't nearly as well-known as the more conventional later version. It's shockingly modern, while also accessing the traditions of the Primitive Church. Pierre Boulez conducted it at the Proms in 2008 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, an  experience etched forever in my memory. The piece is almost as if Janáček's cathedral were being built in sound. Those powerful, pounding brasses, the upward, thrusting rhythms, cascading rivulets of sound sparkling like light through the giant trees in the forest, the chorus intoxicated by faith.

Janáček's Glagolitic Mass suits Gergiev's temperament, too. Boulez articulated the waving, angular cross-rhythms, showing the strength in Janáček's structure, from which firm base the excitement in the singing can emerge. Gergiev goes for a blunter approach, details more muted, but equally strong.. Possibly this way the piece connects more to pan-Slavic tradition and the Russian composers whom Janáček, would have been familiar with. Janáček was so fervently pro-Russian that he placed his beliefs above the welfare of his daughter. The photo shows the saints of the Slavonic Church revealing the gospels.

This interpretation suits the more lyrical passages in the music. The choruses and female soloists (Mlada Khudoley and Yulia Matochkina) produced beautiful sounds, like the "scent of the forest" the composer was referring to. Mikhail Vekua, the tenor, negotiated the extremes of the part nicely. Yuri Vorobiev sang the bass part.  Given the volume of sound around them, the soloists came over clearly. Strain isn't by any means inappropriate in this music given its quasi-savagery. Gergiev, though, adopts a sheen more in keeping with the neo-primitivism of Stravinsky, and the spirit of  much of Janáček's  other music. How I'd like to hear Gergiev conduct The Cunning Little Vixen It's a perfectly valid approach,  gentler on the voices, particularly the choruses, though the organ sounded oddly incongruous in context.  Thomas Trotter showed just how powerful the organ part can be, separate from the orchestra.  His Varhany sólo was extraordinarily explosive, yet dignified and controlled. Perhaps the organ is the voice of God, bursting through ? Or the voice of Janáček, the former church organist, who knew the spiritual power of abstract music.

Claire Seymour's review is HERE IN OPERA TODAY

Thursday 24 July 2014

Bartók Shostakovich Bělohlávek Prom 7

Jiří Bělohlávek made a welcome return to the BBC Proms. Sakari Oramo is a good Chief Conductor of the BBCSO but Bělohlávek was unique. He conducted the BBC SO from 1995, becoming the first non-British Chief Conductor in 2006, and serving in that capacity until 2012. He then decided to concentrate on Prague. Our loss, for Bělohlávek was in a unique position to teach us repertoire we can't claim to know better than he.  He forged strong links between Czech musicians and Londoners, which remain. At the First Night of the Proms in 2011, he conducted  Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, to almost universal acclaim. Please read Mark Berry's review here.  Tonight, Valéry Gergiev will be conducting the piece, in Paul Wingfield's  less familair edition, so the performances will be very different.  When  Bělohlávek conducted The Last Night of the Proms in 2012, he was greeted warmly. He gave the traditional conductor speech, his command of the English language greatly improved. In the past, he'd struggled to read from a script. He ad-libbed comfortably, joked and led audience and performers like a seasoned Master of Ceremonies. Altogether a valediction, and well deserved.

At BBC Prom 7 at the Royal Albert Hall, we heard again what we'd missed. Bělohlávek's traverse of the long, slow first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony no 10 was purposefuL. This is a theme that can test an  audience's patience,  but Bělohlávek shaped its complex structure, showing how its themes unfold. The Allegro was suitably wild. Whether the section represents Stalin or not, this movement shakes up the order of the Moderato that came before. Jazzy influences sneak past. In the Soviet era, as in Nazi Germany, jazz meant subversion. When Bělohlávek conducted the DSCH themes, one could imagine the composer grinning sardonically. Bělohlávek's forte is his ability to suggest warmth and humanity,against all odds. Qualities sadly undervalued in this world.

This thoughtful reading of Shostakovich's 10th pulled the whole programme together. Shostakovich writes in different influences, breaking the monopoly of form. Earlier, we'd heard the.posthumous premiere of John Tavener's  Gnosis, dedicated to Sarah Connolly. The piece makes good use of the special qualities of her voice. Lovely legato, delicious to listen to, but the piece itself amounted to nothing much. At the end, a completely different melody comes in, a direct Mozart quotation, breaking the dreaminess, just as if a window had been opened to let in banal reality. A piece for the singer rather than the song.

Thank goodness for Bartók's Violin Concerto no 2, with Isabelle Faust. She's pretty much the most interesting person doing Bartók's two violin concertos. Indeed, in her hands, the pieces sing as true originals: she did intensive background work into their genesis, notation and interpretation. She's recorded them with Daniel Harding. Bělohlávek and Harding are completely different interpreters, but both bring insight. Faust wouldn't choose to work with them if she didn't understand how they'd work with her. Bartók weaves in themes and styles (even more so in the First concerto), negotiating the extreme technical challenges. What a a variety of techniques, superbly executed, and with exquisite poise.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Der Rosenkavalier BBC Prom 6

Glyndebourne's Der Rosenkavalier came to BBC Prom 6. I was at the premiere (read my review here), captivated by Lars Woldt's unusual but singularly perceptive Baron Ochs. What a pity the Baron Ochs of the media were more focused on whether Octavian was sexually attractive to them, "either as man or woman". Its not up to them. If Ochs is fooled, that's his problem.  (Read my analysis of the interpretation of the role HERE)

The first act of Der Rosenkavalier usually gets most attention because it's luscious. But Strauss satirizes convention and superficial appearances. In the final act, Baron Ochs is shown for the boor he is. It's Octravian who sets him up. At the very end of the opera, the Marschallin renounces her hopes and blesses the young lovers. Quite pointedly, Strauss suggests that wallowing in the past is not good. In the new lies the future.  After Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier might seem a stylistic step backwards, but don't be fooled. Strauss references Mozart but also throws in sly barbs at the Strausses of Vienna, who turned the Mozart ideal into banal pap. The famous tenor aria is cute, but it's commercial, a consumer product like new clothes and hairdos. Baron Ochs likes music, too, but the music he likes is barely above the level of pop.

Just as we should beware of sugar, we should beware of too much sugar-coating in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss's music and von Hofmannsthal's text savage mindless convention. Richard Jones respects the composers's intention far more astutely than the Ochsen of this world would ever comprehend.

At the Proms, the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier was not staged. Lars Woldt was unwell, replaced by Franz Hawlata, who sang Ochs for Andris Nelsons in Birmingham last month,. I've loved Hawlata since he was a colleague of Jonas Kaufmann in the stable at the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich.  Hawlata's voice is more resonant than Woldt's, more closer to the ox-like heft with which the part is often done. Although I missed Woldt's snake-like wiliness, hearing Hawalata was compensation enough.

Strauss's fondness for sopranos at the height of their fame but almost, not quite, past their prime ensures that the Marschallin is usually cast for a Big Name, thus ensuring box office attention. But strictly speaking, between the first act and the final scenes, The Marschallin doesn't really have much to do, though what she does is pretty remarkable. Kate Royal is a perennial favourite ith the Glyndebourne crowd, and perfectly adequate, but shes not in the ranks of, say, Schwarzkopf, Isoskoski or divas in their class. Still, shes beautiful, whether in evening gown or nude suit, and sang with a nice wry touch, accessing the spirit of the opera with intelligence.

In many ways, Der Rosenkavalier predicates on Octavian, who may only be 17 but has all the nerve and verve of a teenager who's just discovered sex (and cross-dressing). Again, Strausss' music poses a conundrum. Octavian is an extremely demanding part, interpretively as well as vocally. No 17-year-old could do it. Much better that a singer approaches it with youthful exuberance. Tara Erraught brings genuine freshness to the part, singing with sprightly agility. I like the roundness in her timbre, which suits the part. So what if Strauss mentioned that he'd like Octavian to be "willowy". His music suggests otherwise. Anyone familiar with Strauss should expect cryptic clues and contradiction. Erraught is only 27, so she's still to reach her full potential. One day, I suspect, she'll very good indeed. Certainly she impresses German audiences, who know a thing or two. In Birmingham, Alice Coote sang the role: Erraught isn't quite up to Coote's standard, but she could well get there, and deserves respect from those who care about music.

I wish I had been to Birmingham to hear Andris Nelsons conduct Der Rosenkavalier with the CBSO.  Everyone I know who was there loved what he did. Robin Ticciati has only just started his tenure at Glyndebourne. The premere I attended was in fact his first formal day on the job, so to speak. I loved his work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He's also a Glyndebourne insider, a regular conductor of  Glyndebourne Touring Orchestra.  In Der Rosenkavalier , Strauss throws challenges at conductors, too, to test whether they can grasp the tough-minded irony beneath the frothy sugar frosting.  That takes a feel for originality and even quirkiness, which is why, for me, Carlos Kleiber takes the cake. Ticciati has potential but he needs more self confidence.

Louise Alder sang Sophie, more developed and richer  than Teodora Gheorghiu at Glyndebourne. Michael Krauss sang Faninal. Full cast list here. Sarah Fahie directed the Proms semi-staging. She directed movement in the Glyndebourne production, every gesture  expressing character. Definitely a director to watch out for.

Claire Seymour's reveiw  is in Opera Today

photo : Tristram Kenton, courtesy Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Schubert Winterreise staged - Matthias Goerne

Schubert Winterreise with a difference! Matthias Goerne sang Schubert Winterreise with pianist Markus Hinterhäuser at the Aix en Provence Festival with a background of projected images designed by Sabine Theunissen, directed by William Kentridge. Not that there's much to direct. Goerne sings as he would normally, only occasionally turning to gaze at the scenery behind him. A perfectly valid approach, since the protagonist is acutely aware of his surroundings, even if he interprets them subjectively. Perhaps what happens is all in the protagonist's mind, but the richness of the imagery in the music and in the text suggests a typically Romantic interaction between Nature and inward emotion. A well-known baritone once told an audience to think of the "pictures" as Wegweiser, each song marking a distinctive, almost physical stage in the journey.

Staged Winterreises are nothing new. There have been many, even danced versions  but this new staging, premiered in Vienna in June, is one of the best because it makes us consider whats happening in our own minds when we listen.  There's nothing wrong in principle with staging Winterreise. It's so powerful that it demands emotional engagement. There's no such thing as clinically sterile listening. We all respond, each in our own ways, some more expressively than others, but respond we must.

Theunissen's images follow a stream of consiousness that flows alongside the music in a kind of counterpoint. Sometimes we see obvious figures like Der Lindenbaum, and Die Krahe, but then they morph into something more personal and esoteric. It doesn't matter what the images mean in a literal way. The images are predominantly archaic, referencing early 19th century manuscripts and lithos of trees and Germanic architecture. We see figures of men and women glimpsed briefly, as if someone is remembering snatches of a past. These figures don't need to be from the protagonist's memory. The act of listening is in itelf creative. All of us have buried memories.  If we're thinking about the protagonist's feelings of lost love, why shouldn't fragments of our own pasts pop up in our imaginations? Everyone of us will make different connections, but Theunissen shows us the way sentient people process their feelings and use the submerged data in their psyches.

Stream-of-consciousness images can operate on many parallel levels. Theunissen incorporates images of war and desolation, also perfectly valid for a listener living in modern times.  Indeed, the darkness in Winterreise almost predicates on images of death.  The scent of the Linden Tree reputedly has narcotic powers.  "Komm her zu mir, Geselle, Hier find'st du deine Ruh'!"  The protagonist can't rest under the tree. In any case, in winter, he'd freeze.  We see Der Lindenbaum morph into the horrifying The Hanging by Jacques Caillot, made during the Thirty Years War. In 2014, we cannot forget the start of the Thirty Years War of the 20th century, which  ran on with pauses until 1945.  Despite the horrors, somehow the world survived, if only to descend into further conflicts outside Europe.

Deciduous trees in winter are bare, but they carry in themselves the promise of rejuvenation.  Thus the protagonist forces himself even further into the wilderness, following the tracks of animals until he at last connects with another wanderer.  Theunissen's trees thus add to the interpretation of Winterreise. Does the protagonist go mad, or die or hallucinate the Leiermann?  Or does he find some form of painful wisdom? Winterreise is powerful because it's open to many different interpretations, as is all good art.

Every time we hear a performance, or even think about it, we're developing and refining the way we understand the piece.You don't have to understand every single frame in this Winterreise, but  its worth respect. When we're listening, we're doing something persobnal. No-one will ever have exactly the same take on anything. Even when we listento recordings, we hearb things differently because we ourselves are not the same as we were last time round.  After 45 years and hundreds of different Winterreisen, I'm still learning from different perspectives and interpretations. Some Winterreise stagings are so,literal as to be hardly worth the effort . This one, however, enhances the work because it deals with the very nature of creativity that inspired Wilhelm Müller and Schubert, and hundreds of thousands of performers and audiences since their time.  Arte and Medici TV will soon be showing the Aix performance online. The live show, which has also been heard in Amsterdam and in Germany, will also be done at the Lincoln Center in the fall.

Monday 21 July 2014

Gergiev World Orchestra for Peace Prom 4

In the aftermath of  MH 17, it's hard to think of any ally of Vladimir Putin as an ambassador for world peace.  On the other hand, because I genuinely believe in freedom of speech, I can't condemn him for having opinions on subjects he's bound to know more about than I do. Plus, the Gergiev/Putin connection means support for the arts in Russia.

In any case, the grandiose title "World Orchestra for Peace" wasn't Gergiev's idea.  The orchestra was created by Georg Solti. The concept was idealistic and attracted much celebrity support. Musically, however, the orchestra has performed only some 20 times since 1995, four of which were at the BBC Proms.  It's good that musicians can get together from all parts of the world but that doesn't mean musical consistency,especially with players from 75 different ensembles whose styles don't necessarily mesh.  The Lucerne Festival Orchetsra (founded 2003)  is a summertime special too, but altogether in a different league in musical terms because all the players are on the same level of expertise, and work together regularly. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (founded 1999) probably does more for world peace than any other orchestra because it focuses on a specific conflict zone, and gives young musicians opportunities they would never otrherwise encounter.

Gergiev can be maddening as a conductor but he's almost never boring.  When he conducts repertoire that resonates with his soul, he can reach heights of brilliance. When he's forced to conduct material he doesn't like so much, he can be infuriating. His Mahler, in particular, is notorious for being Gergiev, not Mahler. So when he conducted Mahler Symphony no 6 at Prom 4, he achieved the feat of making the piece lifeless. It wasn't nearly as dull as his 2010 Prom with this same orchestra (also Mahler) but the sense of dutiful earnestness hung heavy. How I yearned for Gergiev when he's inspired, even when he's demonic, with an orchestra prepared to take risks and let rip.

Earnestness and duty hung heavily on Roxanna Panufnik's Three Paths to Peace. The short work (12 minutes) attempts to plait together the sounds of Islam, Christianity and Judaism;  the result was worthy, but vague. How does peace come about? When people's hearts and minds are focussed on pragmatic ways of ending specific problems. Think about what's happening in Gaza. Pretty music isn''t going to make a shred of difference. I quite liked Gergiev's way with Strauss's Symphonic Fantasia on Die Frau ohne Schatten , but like so much else on this evening, it wasn't quite the real thing.

Sunday 20 July 2014

China Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms

Hearing the China Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall made BBC Prom 2 something unique. Listening as "pure music" is largely irrelevant: its real significance was that it acknowledged where the future of classical music might lie. In the west, audiences may be perceived to be in decline, but in Asia, nearly every middle class family puts faith in what Germans call Bildung: improvement through cultivation. In China, being educated is a principle of faith, honed  and polished through  thousands of years of civilization.  Not everyone could aspire to be a scholar but even the poorest peasants  respected learning. Western classical music is relatively recent in world history terms, but it fits perfectly with the Chinese sensibility

Western classical music has much deeper roots in China  than the clichés  promoted by BBC presenters.  Even in the 19th century, Chinese audiences listened to western music, just as they took on board western literature and art.  By the turn of the last century, there were enough Chinese musicians in China that western-style conservatories could flourish in Shanghai and Beijing. It's bracing to realize that the Juilliard School was founded in the same period.  It's important to recognize the difference between British and French colonialism. Chinese intellectuals of all types flocked to Paris, where orientalisme was respected and where the natives were interested in foreign cultures. Chinese musicians could feel right at home listening to Debussy, Massenet and Ravel. Going abroad was a rite of passage. Even those who couldn't afford travel were active.  The photo left was taken in the 1920's in Shanghai at a famous art school. Notice how the students have included their life model in the picture, a wry  reference to Degas.

It's simply not true that western classical music didn't exist in China until after the Cultural Revolution. On the contrary, the Cultural Revolution happened in part because extremists like Mao and Jiang Qing wanted to destroy class division.  Unlike Zhou Enlai, who studied in Paris, and many of the artists the Red Guards attacked, Mao and Jiang weren't cosmopolitan and resented those who were. The "Russian" influence on Chinese music came after 1917, when Russian musicians fled to China. It stopped abruptly in 1957 with the Sino-Soviet Split. Best, then, to think of western music in China as a continuum, cruelly interrupted by a few aberrant years of turmoil.

For their BBC Proms debut, The China Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Long Yu chose a programme balancing reliable warhorses like Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky with more adventurous fare. Haochen Zhange made his Proms debut, with Lizt's First Piano Concerto. Zhang is only 28, but promising enough for one to hope to hear him play again, and soon. Then, Qigang Chen's Joie Eternelle, a BBC Commission for Alison Balsom, who has played it in Shanghai and Beijing. It's based loosely on a theme from The Peony Pavilion, the exqusite Kunqu opera. (Read more about the opera HERE),  It's interesting because a trumpet is used to  navigate lines which might flow more naturally for flute or even violin. Chen was Messiaen's last student. Perhaps the delicate water-colour aesthetic comes from Messiaen. Certainly the piece reminded me of early George Benjamin. Non-Chinese listeners would probably  enjoy the orientalisme colourings.  Perhaps the pressure of being at the Proms  held the orchestra back somewhat. For their encores, they livened up immeasurably. They let loose with a transcription of a folksong for erhu, and a brilliant set of variations on God Save the Queen. Hilarious, unidiomatic but full of verve. Conductor Long Yu has been described as "China's Gergiev". If that's a compliment, it's barbed.

Saturday 19 July 2014

BBC First Night of the Proms 2014 Elgar The Kingdom

Sir Edward Elgar's The Kingdom, First Night of the BBC Proms 2014. A magnificent start to the season, particularly one which commemorates 1914, the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Elgar dreamed of writing a trilogy of oratorios examining the nature of Christianity as Jesus taught his followers, using the grand context of the Edwardian taste. In The Apostles, Jesus sets out his beliefs in simple, human terms. Judas doubts him and is confounded. In The Kingdom, the focus is more diffuse. The disciples are many and their story unfolds through a series of tableaux, impressive set pieces, but with less obvious human drama. The final, part would hase been titled The Last Judgement, when World and Time are destroyed and the faithful of all ages are raised from the dead, joining Jesus in Eternity. The sheer audacity of that vision may have stymied Elgar, much in the way that Sibelius's dreams for his eighth symphony inhibited realization. Fragments of The Last Judgement made their way into drafts for what was to be Elgar's third and final symphony, which we now know in Anthony Payne's performing version. There could be many reasons why Elgar didn't proceed, but he may well have intuited the contradiction between simple faith and extravagant gesture.

In his excellent programme notes, Stephen Johnson describes The Kingdom "as a kind of symphonic 'slow movement', a pause between two much more monumental pillars. It doesn't exist on its own out of context, and can't really be judged as a stand-alone. Elgar's creative output declined after the First World War. Since we know the wars that followed, listening to this piece is even more poignant. The Kingdom is a fragment of a confident but doomed past. I also like The Kingdom because, like The Apostles, it portrays Jesus and his followers are down-to-earth ordinary men and women encountering events normal comprehension. They're not pious saints but simple folk with fears and insecurities, saved by faith.
Andrew Davis conducted the Prelude with sober dignity. The disciples are starting a journey that continues 2000 years later. Davis's tempi were unhurried, with just enough liveliness to suggest the excitement of hopes to come. There are familiar themes from The Apostles here, and lyrical passages, which Davis conducted with particular finesse. I watched his hands sculpt curving shapes, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded well. Nice bright horns, seductive lower winds. The long pauses with which Davis marked the different parts of the piece serve a purpose, but tended to break the flow. However, Davis masterfully contrasted extreme of volume and relative quietness, giving dramatic structure. 

When the combined forces of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the BBC Symphony Chorus entered, the effect was splendid. This is what good choral singing should be: lush richness yet brightened by sharp, disciplined diction, individual sections clearly defined within the mass.  These Christians march forwards but don't lose themselves  to the multitude. Unsurprisngly, the chorus masters were two of the best in the genre: Adrian Partington (of Three Choirs fame) and Stephen Jackson. 

The soloists were Erin Wall (Mary the Virgin), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mary Magdalene), Andrew Staples (St John) and Christopher Purves (St Peter). All are extremely reliable, and well experienced in large choral repertoire, and they delivered well. Staples, however, was unusually  expressive. His firm, animated tenor seemed to shine from the dense textures in the music around him. The Kingdom unfolds like a procession of tableaux, each savoured at a measured pace, so Staples provided welcome individuality.

Interestingly, The Kingdom focuses on female figures. The contralto (Wyn-Rogers)  has lovely recitatives and the soprano (Erin Wall) has the glorious"The sun goeth down".  The female choruses have good music, too,  and were very brightly coloured and lively. Davis highlighted the relationship between solo voices and instruments, such as the dialogue between Wall and the First Violin, Stephen Bryant. The Kingdom is a showpiece, not because it's flamboyant but because it's restrained.  More a prolonged recitative than an aria, but without recvitatives to hold the drama together, where would we be ? It's better, in many ways, to start the BBC Proms season with something esoteric than with something crude. 

This review also appears in Opera Today. Each year I cover around 40 Proms, so please keeping coming back. Please also read my other posts on Elgar, on Three Choirs, The Apostles, Caractacus, The Dreeam of Gerontius, The Powicj  musiuc and so on.

Friday 18 July 2014

Prelude to Elgar The Kingdom First Night of the Proms

Edward Elgar The Kingdom at the First Night of the BBC Proms, hot ticket in more ways than one. My review is HERE.  I shall brave the heat of the Royal Albert Hall and make the pilgrimage. As I predicted before this year's Proms were announced The Kingdom is an ideal blockbuster with which to start the Proms season. Oddly enough it was last heard at the Proms in 1999, though it's been done 8 times since 1930. Andrew Davis conducted the BBC SO  then - it will be interesting to hear him conduct it fifteen years later  The Kingdom is big, grand and appeals to those who like pomp and circumstance. Absolutely the stuff to capture national pride and what Teddy Roosevelt, Elgar's contemporary, called "Viggah". As long as they don't really listen. Once I was scolded by an "expert" who knew everything because he'd heard of "Elgar's two symphonies". Heard of, not heard, methinks.

But I love Elgar because I intuit something very different in his music, something much more complex, even more contradictory. Like Benjamin Britten, Elgar reveals himself once you get past the mask that's been imposed upon him by his public status.

The Kingdom is a counterpart of The Apostles, about which I've written HERE. In The Apostles, Jesus describes the Beatitudes to his followers.  In The Kingdom, Jesus's followers are moved at Pentecost by the image of a dove, reminding them of  his message "Lo,  I am with you always, even unto the end of the world". Ideally it would be nice to hear The Apostles and The Kingdom together but that would be a logistical nightmare, and wear everyone out, listeners as well as performers.  So I'm thrilled about hearing The Kingdom tonight and hearing The Apostles again at the Three Choirs Festival this year in Worcester, Elgar's birthplace. There will be lots oif Elgar-related excursions and activities, as well as music. It does help to get The Spirit of Elgar via The Spirit of England, in the form of the places Elgar knew and loved. Long ago, I used to traipse round the Malverns, in the footsteps of Elgar, Gurney, Howells and so on, getting a feel for the landscape that inspired them. . Maybe I'll do the circuit again in autumn with its mood of melancholy.

As a taster for tonight's The Kingdom at The Proms two historic recordings, the first Elgar himself, the second, Isobel Baillie singing "The Sun goeth down".

Thursday 17 July 2014

Remembering Lin Dai

Fifty years ago today, Lin Dai 林黛 committed suicide. She was 29 years old, at the height of her career. Her death sent shock waves through Chinese communities all over the world. It's hard to overestimate the impact.  I can still recall the sense of utter disbelief when the news broke.  Lin Dai seemed to have everything going for her. Her movies were guaranteed box office hits, artistically as well as commercially top notch. She seemed to radiate happiness whatever she did. On camera, she seemed to glow. Even in private life she was vibrant and charming. Why did she want to die?  There had been a trivial family misunderstanding but nothing to suggest suicide. She was given a proper Catholic funeral, since the bishop ruled that her death wasn't intentional. To this day, fans flock to give their respects at her pink marble tombstone. After  her death, her husband kept their room exactly as she had left it, with her hair in her hairbrush and her lipsticks on the dressing table. When he died a few years ago, the room was preserved intact in a museum.

Lin Dai was loved because she was much more than an actress. She was a symbol of the hopes of her era. When she died, it was as though those dreams were shattered. Lin Dai's father was a powerful politician in Guangxi, a province with a tradition of fiercely independent reformist leaders, among them  General Bai Chongxi (白崇禧) hero of the anti-Japanese resistance. The Japanese invasion created one of the biggest population upheavals in modern history. Millions of Chinese moved as refugees to the distant  western provinces of Guangxi, Sichaun and Yunnan. Later, the demographic upheaval reversed, and millions fled the Communists. In many ways, Lin Dai represented Brave New China.  She was making a fresh start in a new region and in an industry which played an important role in the modernization of China. In her first movie, 翠翠 Singing under the Moon (1953) she plays a country orphan, devoted to her grandfather. People could identify with her fresh, youthful optimism.

In 1957, Lin Dai was signed by Shaw Brothers Studios, bigger and more ambitious than any other Chinese (and many western) film studios. Shaw Brothers put Lin Dai in high-budget historical extravaganzas. far more sophisticated than anything she'd done until that time. In Diau Charn (貂蟬) her big breakthrough, she played a heroine who united warring kingdoms.  The Kingdom and the Beauty (江山美人) beat all box office records. Lin Dai plays the peasant girl who steals the heart of an Emperor in disguise. It's one of the best Shaw Brothers movies of all time. It's a shame that the company that bought the rights to Shaw's catalogue hasn't done much to make them better known. The Kingdom and the Beauty is so good that it could easily find a p;lace in international cinema. Lin Dai also starred in Beyond the Great Wall and The Last Woman of Shang, both released after her death. In Beyond the Great Wall, she plays a heroine who goes into exile to save her lover the Emperor and her country. These movies aren't ponderous, stultified costume dramas because Lin Dai plays her roles as convincing human beings. The shot above shows her famous pout, followed by a slow sideways glance that often bursts into a smile.

Lin Dai also made an opera-based movie, Madam White Snake (1962), but her singing voice was untrained, better suited to more light-hearted musicals,  and cheerful comedies like Les Belles, Bachelors Beware and Cinderella and her little angels and Love Parade, with an unusual story line based on fashion shows, for which she designed the costumes.  She was a "modern girl". Lin Dai's vivacious charm makes these films sparkle, but they're much better than similar films from Hollywood.  She was also a serous dramatic actress. In The Blue and the Black Parts 1 and 2, released after her death, she plays a brave woman whose life is damaged by war.

But the movie that makes Lin Dai immortal has to be Love Without End (不了情, 1961). This is a version of La Traviata. The heroine even retreats to a remote island in her last illness, where she's tended by a Catholic priest. Lin Dai plays a virtuous nightclub singer whose beloved faces financial ruin. To save him, she agrees to go abroad with a rich man, but gives her virginity to the boyfriend first. He doesn't understand, and walks out on her in an extremely moving scene where he skulks along a back alley while she watches from above. Eventually, he finds out that she sacrificed herself for his sake, but when he tracks her down, it's too late. Like Violetta Valéry, she dies. If only this film were readily available outside Region 3. It's one of the most iconic movies of Hong Kong in  that period, describing the values of its time. The title song is so famous that it's seared forever in the memories of those who were there.  It's not actually her singing voice,  but it breaks the heart.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

FREE Herbert von Karajan - today only

Herbert von Karajan died 25 years ago today. He was Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1966 to 1989. The Berliner Philharmoniker website now contains a section dedicated to his memory. In the Digital Concert Hall "you will find recordings of the Unitel company from the sixties and seventies, including Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World”, a Brahms cycle, Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 3, 6, 7 and 9 and the documentary Karajan – The Second Life."

"On today’s anniversary, these films as well as the recording of the memorial concert for Herbert von Karajan which took place in Salzburg cathedral in the summer of 1999 with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Claudio Abbado, are available free of charge. Further films with Herbert von Karajan will be released in the Digital Concert Hall into next year. During this time we will also talk to musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker about their memories of Herbert von Karajan and these conversations will be made available as a documentary"  Read more here

Further recording s will be released in the next few weeks, Altogether they will create an excellent one-stop archive. If you're already registered, log in and watch for free. If you're not already registered, you can register and enjoy, too. But just for today. It's definitely worth signing up because you get access to all the Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, year round, and all those in the archive. So we have to pay to participate, but that's fair enough. The arts cost money. For a reasonable fee, you get the world's finest orchestra (arguably) right in your own room, wherever you might live. Politicians grumble that classical music doesn't breach the masses. That's not true. You can't measure audiences simply in terms of filling halls.

Many in my generation were conditioned to hate Karajan for his politics and his style, just as trolls today hold extreme views on contemporary conductors. I don't do bandwagons, as anyone who reads me regularly will know. I really came to Sibelius through Karajan's chilling, almost demonic interpretations. Pity Adorno kept his ears closed.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Happy Birthday, Harrison Birtwistle !

HAPPY BIRTHDAY HARRY! Today is Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 80th birthday - many happy returns and many more good years ahead! May he thrive like Elliott Carter, always finding new challenges. Birtwistle is Britain's greatest living composer - no-one else comes near, by leagues.  Tonight, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting Gawain, Birtwistle's breakthrough opera. It's from the performance this May at the Barbican, which you can read about HERE. Read about the NMC recording HERE.

Fifty years ago, Birtwistle was one of the Manchester-based Young Turks who created British music in the wake of Britten and Vaughan Williams, the two disparate, discrete musical tribes in this country up to that time. The words "disparate" and "discrete" used correctly! The kind of word-game that Birtwistle loves to play. Alas, with the dumbing-down of language, that aspect of Birtwistle's art may well be lost to future generations. Birtwistle is audacious, but behind his affable mask lies an acutely precise intellect, occupied with  puzzles, games and conundrums. His music fascinates because it's alive with layers whirring away, operating on many levels at once, vivid detail growing as if they were organic life-forms.

Birtistle connects to Boulez, to Messiaen, even to Webern, and also to the complexities of the avant garde in Europe, yet his music seems to spring from some ancient source. When I listen to Birtwistle, I feel the earth move, in the sense that one might pick up on invisible magnetic fields under a calm landscape. Go to Avebury or Silbury at night, when the tourists are gone, and commune withthe souls of the ancients who built those mysteries. Listen to Earth Dances,  to Yan Tan Tethera. and much more and "hear" something so rooted in primeval mysteries that it can only be expressed obliquely through music. Birtwistle plays with time, mechanisms and myth - From Harrison's Clocks to the Maze of The Minotaur, a vast universe of ideas and sounds.

I've often wondered about what really happened when Birtwistle's Punch and Judy was heard at Aldeburgh. The story goes that Britten walked out in despair, alternatively that he went out for a drink. It's even been suggested that the rumour was played up to emphasize Birtwistle's notoriety. Maybe we shall never know, since Britten and Pears are long dead, but it hardly matters. Britten could read a score and he wasn't so stupid that he included things at Aldeburgh he didn't know about. The point, I think, is that music doesn't exist "for" a particular listener, but for itself. And Birtwistle fits with the Aldeburgh aesthetic better than most. Britten and Birtwistle, the two greatest names in 20th century British music.

More on Birtwistle on this site than almost anywhere else.

Monday 14 July 2014

Il turco in Italia - Aix Festival

Rossini Le turc en Italie, Il Turco in Italia at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. a delicious approach to an opera that predicates on mistaken identities, fancy dress and good humour. The opera may have been written 200 years ago but its charm shines ever brighter in this lively staging directed  by Christopher Alden. Rossini's Prologue is very long but illustrates the themes to come: lively, upbeat frolics give way to a horn solo, at turns sensual and melancholy, interrupted by staccato outbursts from the rest of the opera. Rarely is abstract music translated so perceptively into visuals. The joyous, extravagant tutti in the orchestra suggests exuberance: we see a stage covered in minute abstract patterns, bathed in ever changing colours. But, like the horn, the central character is alone.

Prosdocimo (Pietro Spagnoli) is so fixated on writing something that  he doesn't notice the glories around him. His friend Don Geronio (Alessandro Corbelli) is frustrated too, by affairs of the heart. Luckily the gypsies arrive. Gypsies are outsiders.  They don't have to be garbed like escapees from a bad staging of Carmen. They represent people who don't conform to the rigidities of convention. So Zaida (Cecelia Hall) says she's an escapee from a Turkish harem. Selim the Turk (Adrian Sâmpetrean) turns up, but he's attracted to Geronio's glamorous wife Fiorilla (Olga Peretyatko) who fancies him, ignoring her husband nearby. As for Narciso (Lawrence Brownlee) he's living in dreams. So much for literalism. Il turco in Italie is art, not history. Prosdocimo is a poet, not a bean counter. The characters flirt: the art of illusion. Prosdicimo can magic up chairs.  Alden's lighting (Adam Silverman) magics up colours. Rossini's music magics up a wonderfully vivid storm. Conductor Marc Minkowski whips up the tempi, and the singers and chorus sing heady, windswept staccato.

Wonderfully punchy performance, electrified by sprightly, punching rhythms, lucidly enunciated. In the inn scne, Corbelli and  Sâmpetrean joust with rapier-swift passage work. The strings add exclamation points. Lovely detail: the inn is as colourful and kitschy as a pseudo-Turkish tea room, complete with plastic-coated tablecloths, which serve a purpose. As Selim and Geronio scrap, they push bottles back and forth, the bottles sliding in time with the music. Everything predicates on confusion. Stunning dialogue between Sâmpetrean and Peretyatko. Until now, Rossini doesnt give Narciso all that much to sing, but when Brownlee  explodes into Tu seconda il mio disegno, he reveals the intensity Narciso has kept hidden for so long. Earth shattering high C's.  Corbelli 's Geronio is a tour de force, sparkling with fire and agility. At last, even Albazar (Juan Sancho) gets to sing his heart out.

Magical  ensemble in the Masquerade scene, when the ship's mast is lit with golden lights, and Corbelli ascents its dizzy heights, expressing Geronio's pent-up rage.  This scene is crucial. When Fiorilla realizes what divorce might mean, Peretyatko's singing becomes impassioned, for she knows what Geronio is made of. If there had been good singing before, Peretyatko now brought down the house. Superb. And so the Poet Prosdocimo gets his inspiration. Poetry, and opera, is about human emotion.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Hotting up - Elgar at the Proms

First Night of the BBC Proms Friday : Elgar The Kingdom which i guessed thru mysterious powers (more here).  An ideal extravaganza with which to start the summer. Even the weather report suggests a surge in the temperature. Elgar  took to technological change with zest, making numerous studio recordings and taking part in films. No regressive fuddy duddy he ! Below, the composer conducts the Prelude to the Kingdom. There aren't any photos I can find  showing him directing The Kingdom, so I've used one where he conducts the Dream of Gerontius.  You can imagine the premiere in 1906.  Lots more on this site about Elgar, composer recordings etc and The Apostles, a work closely connected to The Kingdom (read more here)

Saturday 12 July 2014

Cantonese Opera comes to London

The renowned  Cantonese Opera singer Yuen Siu-fai (阮兆輝 ) is bringing top quality Cantonese opera to London on 4th August (details here). Masters of this calibre don't often come to the west. This will be a unique experience. Yuen is bringing his own troupe, the Spring Glory Cantonese Opera Workshop.   They will be performing short extracts from four operas - Loyalty under the Sun, The Assassin, The Celebration of Good Times (a duet) and The Princess in Distress. Each of these pieces will illustrate an aspect of the Cantonese opera tradition, so much to learn as well as enjoy. The evening will be free of charge but it's very high level indeed. In Hong Kong Yuen's workshops cost a lot. There'll also be explanations in English, though the singing will be Cantonese. A lot of the physical gestures are stylized, so the shows should be easy enough to follow even though non-Cantonese speakers will miss out on the poetry of the Cantonese language. It's organized through the True Heart Theatre, who have been creating since 2006 a platform for British Chinese voices to be seen and  heard through work in mainstream scripted productions and in applied theatre contexts.

Yuen trained under the even more famous master Mak Bing Wing. Like most Cantonese opera singers, he trained not only in classical opera singing but also in martial arts. Theyre all part of a wider cultural continuum, very different from the narrow definitions of western opera. Martial arts aren't about fighting but about mental and physical discipline. Yuen (born 1945) also did straight drama, acting in films. One of his signature roles was the boy Little Shrimpy in Father and Son (父與子, 1954)  one of the seminal classics of Cantonese cinema. Yuen was only 7 years old then and his voice was still squeaky, but already his stage presence and intelligence shine through.  Please read my analysis of the film here.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Bel canto isn't realism - Maria Stuarda Royal Opera House

We are in a golden age of voice.  Joyce DiDonato creates an astonishing Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Royal Opera House, which will define the role for decades to come. Her range is breathtaking and  her technique is flawless. We will never know how Maria Malibran sounded when she premiered the role, but there's almost no way that Malibran, however good she might have been, would have had at the age of 25 the polish and depth DiDonato brings to the role. So much for the idea that the past is always better. In Joyce DiDonato we have a wonder we should treasure.

"Bel canto isn't realism", someone once said to me. No-one speaks with florid melismas and repeated trills. Bel canto is extreme singing, the triumph of art over naturalism.  When we hear DiDonato's voice soaring, surfing over wave after wave of swelling sound, we - or at least I am - transported to a rarifed realm of hyper-idealism, unsullied by literal pettiness. Maria Stuarda isn't about the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1567. The story isn't  history but creatively re-imagined by Friedrich Schiller into a masterpiece in which an individual triumphs over repression.  Donizetti adds more new angles to the story, such as the love affair between Mary and Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to spice up the drama. 

Elizabeth and her apparatchiks cut Mary's head off but her spirit triumphs. When Joyce DiDonato sings in her final scene, her voice trembles, expressing fear, as if we can hear her heart palpitate. Shorn of her hair, and in her under-robe, she looks painfully vulnerable. Yet that voice releases such firmness and such assurance that we know that Mary has entered into a far finer world than that of the grubby trolls who brought her down. DiDonato seems lit from within, transforming the glare of the execution room into transcendent light.  Although Schiller and Donizetti weren't admirers of the misuse of religion, their Mary, through Joyce DiDonato, reaches apotheosis. The crowd outside, lit in Marian blue, sing quietly, like pilgrims.They've witnessed the triumph of an individual whose inner nobility has set her free. Maria Stuarda is kin to Leonore, but even more powerful and symbolic..The curtain drops, suddenly, like a sword. Snap! the drama ends, so abruptly that it is, and should be, unsettling. Blood and a severed head would be banal, a complete misreading of the ideas in the play and in the opera.

It defies basic common sense that this production should have warranted booing, a churlish and bigoted form of abuse. So we don't behead people these days? Of course we do, in different ways. The directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, are extremely experienced,  and know their music better than most who malign them. Any really good opera inspires new perspectives. If we genuinely care about an opera, or a composer, we seek fresh perspectives. It is irrelevant whether a production is modern or non-modern, as long as it presents the work well. In the case of Maria Stuarda, the very term "traditional" is meaningless, since the opera was unstaged for decades, only entering the repertoire some 40 years ago  It by-passed the whole era of verismo and late 19th century excess. This staging, with its clean lines, focuses full attention on the singers, which is as things should be, especially in bel canto..It's designed with intelligence, illustrating ideas in the opera without overwhelming it with unnecessary detail. If the singers shine, it's partly because they and the directors have worked things through thoroughly, in unison. In any case, the Personregie  in this production is exceptionally fine, given that there are so few parts that there's no room for error. As Joyce DiDonato tweeted:  "People need to understand that great performances are aided by great direction". Pay attention. The lady knows what she's talking about.

The First Act opens in the Palace of Westminster, not "The Houses of Parliament" as such,  Monarchs lived in Westminster Palace before Buckingham Palace and Windsor were completed. In any case Westminster was, and is, the seat of power. It's a symbol of authority. Anyone who has ever been inside, seeing how it operates will recognize the trappings of grandeur - panelling as ornate inside as the facades outside. Wood absorbs sound: the corridors of power are hushed, as oblique as the machinations of the factotums who operate within, the "men in suits" (later seen in long cloaks, like their 16th century counterparts) who pull the strings.  Elisabetta (Carmen Giannattasio) is Queen, but she is a prisoner, too, of sorts, in a system of intrigue and ambition. When she lets her feelings slip, she becomes vulnerable. Just as the crowd outside the palace has to be held back by guard rails, Elisabetta has to keep her feelings under strict control. That's why she cannot show mercy or let Maria's emotional outburst go unpunished. Donizetti's music, with its bright, sharp contrasts, suggests the tension that underlines most of the opera.  The golden burnished tones of Westminster and in the music belie the harsh fact that in this opera, everyone is on a razor edge.

Fotheringay Castle was a border fortress, infinitely less luxurious than Westminster.  For Maria, it was a prison from which she had almost no hope of escape. Towering walls, repressed "cells", corridors, colours of marble and hard granite. When DiDonato sings of the meadows outside, her voice takes on a gloriously lyrical sheen. It's as if by sheer vocal power she can magic in flowers, freedom and femininity. Of course, dour cynics would say, you can't bring a meadow into a prison, but Donizetti knew better. In Maria's imagination anything's possible, and DiDonato's singing makes dreams come true.

When DiDdonato and Giannattasio have their confrontation, Donizetti's music crackles with violent intensity. Maria is letting her emotions out, something which the repressed Elisabetta can never do. Frantic dotted rhythms,  voices trilling and counter-trilling, rapid-fire tempi. DiDonato wins. It's in the score, but Giannattasio gives a good fight, her voice glinting like metal.  Ideally I would have preferred a conductor more versed in period style, but Bertrand de Billy is always reliable.

Exceptional singing as one would expect in this genre where precision and fluidity are so important. Giorgio Talbot is a killer role for a bass, stretching the range cruelly upwards, demanding an agility many basses can't negotiate without compromising the long resonant lines they do more naturally.  Matthew Rose achieved all Talbot's challenges and more, infusing his singing with  emotional conviction.  He creates a Talbot with singular and convincing personality. This is perhaps the finest moment in his career so far (and basses go on singing forever).

Ismael Jordi made his Royal Opera House debut as Roberto, Conte di Leicester, substituting at late notice. As soon as he began to sing,  it was immediately apparent that Jordi has great potential. His voice has a distinct timbre, which combines brightness with mature, expressive  depth. Jordi is also strong enough in terms of personality that he's convincing as the lover of a character as overwhelming as DiDonato's Maria. Let's hope we hear him again in London, soon. Jeremy Carpenter sang a good, solid Guglielmo Cecil, Kathleen Williamson sang Anna Kennedy, Maria's maid and Peter Dineen played the executioner. Altogether an extremely important production, not just for the singing but for the way the staging integrates with the plot and enhances the inherent non-naturalistic beauty of the voices. It also highlights the stupidity of the "anti-modern" Taliban. This staging is a lot closer to bel canto ideals than the booers realize.

photos : Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House