Sunday 31 August 2014

Stemme's stunning Salome Prom 58

Stunning Nina Stemme Strauss Salome Prom 58.  Full review in Opera Today by Robert Hugill

"The problem with Salome (written in 1905), is that though premiered barely a century ago it dates from an era of different performing styles. Dramatic sopranos had voices which were more lithe, more narrow in focus. Orchestras were generally quieter, with narrower bore brass and gut strings, and the orchestral sound a lot less dense. Production values were more forgiving, Audiences didn't generally worry about whether the heroine looked 16. But early sopranos in the role would probably sound a lot younger, to our ears. Nowadays, both singers and directors frequently move the character into maturity."

 "The remarkable thing about Nina Stemme's account of the title role was the wonderful brightness and freshness that she brought to the vocal line. Singing with a lovely, fluid sense of line, this was a singer who really did link this music to the Strauss of the songs and the later operas. There wasn't a screamed note the whole evening, and she seemed to be able to encompass the whole role whilst preserving focus and flexibility. As Brünnhilde, Stemme does not have a huge voice compared to some of the Brünnhildes of the past, but this is an advantage as Salome.She both looked and sounded young. From the moments of her first entry (throughout she was off the book, and fully acted), it was clear that this was a petulant, selfish teenager. Salome's naivety and inexperience came out in Stemme's voice and her body language. It was wonderful to see and hear the way petulance gave way to desire and more; the typical teenager reaction of becoming obsessed with something you are not allowed to have." 

Read the full review here in Opera Today.
At left, Astrid Varnay's Salome in bra size 60LLL

Saturday 30 August 2014

Triumphant Mahler 2 Harding Prom 57

Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall.  Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker, read more HERE) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed.  Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.

Pierre Boulez used to speak about the importance of trajectory, that is, the sense of direction that drives a symphony. Even the first bars zinged with purpose: Harding setting the trajectory in motion right from the start. When Bernard Haitink conducted this symphony at the Proms in 2006, he chose tempi so slow that it was hard for his orchestra to sustain the line, suggesting the approach of death.  Harding's tempi are less extreme, but equally purposeful.  He emphasized the inherent  tension between forward-reaching  lines and tight staccato, suggesting  that a powerful transformation is underway even in the presence of annihilation. Harding showed how Mahler's themes of transcendance and renewal were in place even at this point in his career.  The tension Harding creates suggests the power of what is to come, even when it's curtailed, temporarily, by death. If this is a funeral procession, it operates on many levels. The pastoral woodwinds might suggest happy memories of the past.  Quiet, purposeful pizzicato, like footsteps, lead into savage brass climaxes, creating the sense of hard-won stages on a difficult ascent. Perhaps we can already hear the "mountains" in Mahler's Third Symphony, rising ever upwards.

 Then the sudden, anguished descent into silence. The Luftpause which follows is very much part of meaning, "inaudible music" during which one might contemplate the finality of death. Harding sat on a chair, head bowed. Instead, the Royal Albert Hall ushers let in dozens of latecomers, totally destroying the moment of reverence. Someone needs to tell the staff that Luftpauses are not intervals.

The second movement  began with gleeful energy, leading into lyrical Ländler themes, which will recur again through many symphonies to come. Although this movement is marked "Nicht eilen", it should be leisurely rather than slow, for something positive is stirring. Perhaps we begin to hear the Pan theme for Mahler's Third, as summer marches in. Harding took particular care to bring out the life force in the third movement, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, an illustration of which stands in Mahler's composer hut.  Like Dionysius, St Anthony is drunk. Perhaps the song is used to indicate the futility of words, which is rather droll, since in this symphony Mahler begins to use voice as part of his orchestral toolbox.  Harding might be more taken with the inherent energy in the leaping figures which suggest the movement of fish, leaping upwards, and swimming away. Exuberant playing here, the passages undertaken with great agility.

Perhaps it's included to illustrate the futility of words, but the liveliness of the writing suggests energy and escape from the sombre mood of the first movement. Harding led his orchestra into a glorious climax: summer is marching in, underlined yet again by the exuberant Fischpredigt allusion to leaping fish. 

 Excellent use of offstage trumpets and trombones, even if some sounds went slightly awry. These sections aren't merely for show, since they illustrate cosmological meaning. Harding's musicians may have to run up and down a lot, but by doing so they literally connect earthly reality with the promise of Heaven. This isn't the "Resurrection" symphony for nothing.  Angels blow horns and trumpets, as do Alpine herdsmen and farmers. Mahler's making connections on all levels. Very possibly, we might think ahead to Mahler's Fourth with its cataclysmic burst of energy. What thrust Harding got from his players, trumpets leading! Processional footseps yet again, this time confident and assured. Having shown us how near we are to the summit, Harding and his orchestra descended once more into quiet reverence. The trumpet solo, calling from the highest reaches oif the Royal Albert Hall, seemed to glow forever, like a sunset. The hushed voices of the Swedish Radio Choir and the Philharmonia Chorus were so well blended that their impact was enhanced: an image of vast panoramas and repose, from which Christianne Stotijn's voice rose with dignity. 

Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du, Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!  Stotijn, Kate Royal, the choruses and orchestra united in a blaze of glorious sound. Crashing cymbals, the klang of metal on metal and a thunderous timpani roll cut short much too soon by an audience too excited to hold back any longer.

Please see my other posts on Mahler, especially Mahler 3 and also my many posts on the BBC Proms

Thursday 28 August 2014

Red herrings - why the BBC drops new music

An article popped up in the Guardian just before 6 pm today, titled "Why does the BBC assume its audience won't like new music?" It deals with the fact that Harrison Birtwistle's Sonance Severance has been dropped from the BBC TV 4 broadcast of Prom 33. Hang on! Before jumping on the sackcloth and ashes bandwagon, try a bit of common sense.

First, Birtwistle's piece is only three minutes long, dates from way back and isn't a particularly crucial part of his output.  The really important part of this Prom broadcast is Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, a  significant milestone in modern music. Not knowing who Lutoslawski is, would be a much greater scandal.

Second, it's taken the Guardian a while to twig onto the story, which I first ran on 11th August, titled "Why the Proms musical apartheid on BBC TV?" The Guardian uses almost the same title, but my piece is more detailed. Read my article in full here. 

Third, let's think critically  If we really care about new music, we should be looking not at TV but at the new music being performed in the first place. BBC TV4 is a generalist channel,  it's not aimed at cutting edge. It's like blaming Aldi for not stocking Beluga caviar. TV coverage of the Proms this year hasn't been as good as it used to be for various reasons, but that's a separate issue.

If we're going to talk about new music, at least we could understand what new music is. The two composers Daniel Barenboim featured in his Prom were pleasant enough, but won't change music history. They deserve credit, but shouldn't be used as footballs in a game they're not  playing.  The real crux of the matter is why the BBC needs to programme music that's too  bland to be original.  I've written a lot about the poor quality of new music this season many times, so search this site. By dropping some of the "new" music from TV, the BBC is doing some composers a huge favour.

Why is this year's "new" music so dull? The Proms audience is the biggest audience in the world. The bigger the audience, the higher the number of those who think they can't cope with what they don't know.  Because the BBC (and the arts in general) are under attack for being "elitist", they have to conform.

The trouble with art is that it's created by artists, not marketers. I don't believe that audiences are necessarily anti-innovation.  But public opinion is shaped by the media,  by politicians who play people off each other and, alas, by an increasingly vocal minority who espouse the musical equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church. If we genuinely care about new music, the real issue we should be addressing is not red herrings like BBC TV4 but much wider issues..

Seoul Philharmonic shines Prom 55 Chung, Wu Wei

When Unsuk Chin's Šu (2009) for sheng written for Wu Wei premiered in London at the Barbican in 2011, it didn't work for me at all.  I wrote then  that "overall the music didn't develop the possibilities beyond the initial novelty"  of this remarkable instrument, and "Wu's playing is assertive and full bodied but I'm not sure how far he's stretched as an artist by this material"  (read my full piece here which has background on the sheng and on Wu Wei, the soloist). But at BBC Prom 55, when Myung-Whun Chung conducted the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, the piece was transformed. What a difference a sympathetic orchestra makes!

Chung and his orchestra intuitively understand the context.  Šu isn't so much a concerto in the usual sense as an orchestral expansion of the instrument.  Wu Wei plays a modern version of the ancient instrument, The "modern" Sheng is much bigger, often 36 pipes as opposed to the traditional 17. Playing so many reeds by fingers alone would be difficult, so modern Shengs are keyed for ease of operation. Range is bigger, volume is bigger, many more musical possibilities. Just as in the west, composers had to write new music for new instrumental and performance styles. There's a whole genre of modern Chinese music that's different from traditional folk idiom, but also from western form. Wu Wei's instrument  is so unique that it's inspired many composers to write for him. He's fascinating, exploring the myriad nuances and possibilties with such poise that one almost forgets how difficult the instrument is to play.

Unsuk Chin adds her characteristic panoply of eccentric instruments and jokey asides, but Chung fundamentally lets Wu Wei lead, so  Šu evolves like a solo work with embellishments.  Apart from ceremonial music, Chinese music wasn't orchestral  in the western sense  but closer to chamber forms. Chung understood the balance. in favour of soloist, allowing the main line to flow smoothly without slipping into the eddies.  Sheng legato is amazing, and Wu's masterful circular breathing creates wonders. Yet the instrument is also oddly percussive, so Wu can shape staccato riffs  and jerky rhythms.  This is modern music, and not uniquely Chinese, but greatly invigorating. For an encore Wu followed with an arrangement of his own, based on a traditional folk melody. Wu's variations on the basic melody displayed his instrument's versatility. Pipa or flute or voice might be more plaintive,  but the sheng is robust and confidently inventive.

Although the BBC is making a big deal about global orchestras this season, the Seoul Philharmonic is in an altogether more elevated league than many of the others. It's world class, so good that it can easily stand on its own merits, and should get the credit it deserves. Korean musicians  (and singers) dominate orchestras and opera houses all over the world. In Korea, classical music  isn't a niche but part of mainstream life and national identity. (Read my article on Jihoon Kim's Korean recital here).  Please also see my posts on orchestrations of Arirang.  Western politicians who complain that classical music is elitist should address the collapse of music education instead of slamming arts organizations that produce good work.  The German concept of Bildung applies in many Asian countries. English speakers just don't comprehend. With the large pool of musicians in South Korea, Chung is able to choose players of an unusually high standard.

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra don't quite have the panache of  Chung's other orchestra, the Orchèstre Philharmonique de Radio France, but what they do have is the sensitivity to create refined, diaphanous textures. This  La Mer sparkled.  Shimmering lustre, balancing the darker undercurrents.   This Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B minor, 'Pathétique' also impressed. Altogether a satisfying Prom with an orchestra we should hear more often (other than on recordings). 

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Small nation seeks independence - Guglielmo Tell Edinburgh Festival

From Juliet Williams at the Edinburgh International Festival:

Usher Hall, Edinburgh 26th August 2014 sung in Italian by Teatro Regio Torino; conductor Gianandreo Noseda;  Dalibor Jenis, Guglielmo Tell; Angela Meade, Mathilde; John Osborn, Arnoldo; Mirco Palazzi, Gaultiero; Fabrizio Beggi,Melcthal; Marina Bucciarelli, Jemmy. William Tell's son; Anna Maria Chiuri, Edwige, William Tell's wife; Luca Tittoto, Gessler; Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, Ruodi; Luca Casalin, Rodolfo; Paolo Orecchia, Leutoldo

"The choice of this tale, Rossini's last opera, of liberation from oppressive rule by a larger country to the south east for the Edinburgh Festival as Scotland ponders the question of independence is perhaps apposite and has already been noted, for example in the Herald. This performance was also dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado, remembered in a moving introductory speech by festival director Jonathan Mills. 

This production had two great stars: Dalibor Jenis  (photo above) in the title role, and the music itself. Jenis excelled both vocally and in his stage presence as the baritone hero. His performance was for me the highlight of the show and was consistently excellent. John Osborn was good in the tricky role of Arnoldo. His lengthy aria opening the fourth and final act of the opera attracted lengthy applause. This is part of a well-performed scene in which the Swiss confederates rouse their strength to prepare for battle despite the capture of their hitherto leader, William Tell. Angela Meade as Mathilde gave a lovely performance in Act Three in her dialogue with Arnoldo as to their divided loyalties given that their love falls across the political divide of their respective countries. She came into her own in this scene, and in the closing scene of this act, where her tenderness towards William's son was clearly apparent. In a generally even cast, amongst the smaller parts Paolo Orecchia stood out as Leutoldo the shepherd. Rossini's energetic and likeable score, opening with the eponymous overture was played and sung with enthusiasm in Italian by Teatro Regio Torino's musicians and chorus. The big sound resounded in the Usher Hall's favourable acoustic in this concert performance, but the nature of the libretto cries out for staging, and it is a shame that touring the fully staged version to Edinburgh was not practical. It is an enjoyable production which whets the appetite to see this work again."

Lots of chances coming up. Wonderful Guillaume Tell at Munich a few weeks back with Bryan Hymel hitting C after C after C and  Michael Volle as Tell. Pity about the dull production. Antonio Pappano is another William Tell specialist (wonderful Prom and CD). He's bringing Guillaume to The Royal Opera House London in July 2015. John Osborn and Gerald Finley.

Edinburgh International Festival : Commonwealth Strings

From Juliet Williams in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Festival Chamber series looks forward and back

Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings Op.47 Peter Sculthorpe: Sonata for Strings No.3 Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis Gareth Farr: Relict Furies for mezzo-soprano and double string orchestra Tippett: Concerto for Double String Orchestra Scottish Ensemble Commonwealth Strings Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano

The morning concert series in Edinburgh's Queens Hall usually features distinguished chamber musicians in small groups. Yesterday's performance saw a larger ensemble take to the stage, showcasing the talents of an international group of young Commonwealth players in an Antipodean-influenced programme. In between good accounts of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, they commemorated significant Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe who died earlier this month – his work was also performed by the Kronos Quartet here last week. The well-known Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis was taken at a very slow tempo, creating a new insight into this frequently performed piece, making it almost reminiscent at times of Arvo Part.

After the interval a new commission from young New Zealand composer Gareth Farr followed. Taking the theme of the centenary of the First World War his work looks at the anger and pain that those who survive, those who are widowed and those whose loved ones return permanently injured are left with. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was the soloist with large forces, also required in Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra which closed the programme. Whilst commemorating the Great War and the loss of a major influence, this event also looked forward to the talent and creativity of the young and outward to the talent in other parts of the Commonwealth as well as the traditions of our own country. Listening via the BBC iPlayer has the additional bonus of Kiri Te Kanewa's account of Songs of the Auvergene (extract) in the interval. 

Those of us who can't make it to Edinburgh  can hear no fewer than 15 EIF concerts on BBC Radio 3.  All chamber - opera, theatre and big orchestral works aren't included, but there have been some real treasures among the chamber concerts.  Bostridge/Adès, Anna Prohaska's Songs of war,  and Stéphane Degout yesterday. Most remarkable of all,  The Hebrides Ensemble  with a truly brilliant extended Stravinsky A Soldier's Tale. Graham F Valentine (pictured above) created a brilliant narration  which followed the metre of the music, yet was full of wisecracks and word plays, some so uniquely Scottish I coiuldn't get them. This narration was a work of art,, not mere "filller". I hope  someone's recorded it so it won't be lost. Would that we could hear more of Valentine in London.

I listened to the Commonwealth Strings concert too, quite pleased with Peter Sculthorpe's Sonata for Strings no 3.  Landscape music which evokes the vast open horizons of the outback. Sculthorpe reproduces exactly in sound, the way  flocks of Rodsellas and other types of parrot  suddenly take off from the trees in which they perch, screaming in unison. Often there will be a few thousand birds together. An amazing sight which you have to have experience to believe.  I's be very wary, however, of ascribing "Aboriginal" colours  to Sculthorpe's work.  Given what happened to the indigenous people of Australaia, plundering their heritage is a kind of cultural rape.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice Bejun Mehta

"This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta. The film is sung, played, danced and staged in a style not inappropriate to the day of the opera’s premiere in 1762 on the stage of the Baroque Theatre of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic—or in the theater’s wings, stairs and basement, doing service for Orfeo’s journey to the Underworld."

Read the full review HERE in Opera Today

Monday 25 August 2014

Creative People......

This one has been around a while but it's still true:

  • get bored but find ways out of it
  • take risks
  • colour outside the lines
  • think with their hearts 
  • make mistakes
  • hate rules
  • work independently
  • change their minds
  • infuriate plods

Sunday 24 August 2014

Glyndebourne 2015 season announced

Interesting Glyndebourne 2015 season announced! Three new productions, three revivals and one new commission.


The FIRST EVER UK production of Donizetti Poliuto (from 21st May) will be conducted by Enrique Mazzola and directed by Mariame Clément, the duo behind Glyndebourne’s acclaimed 2011 production of Don Pasquale. American tenor Michael Fabiano, who made his Glyndebourne debut in Festival 2014’s new production of La traviata will sing the title role alongside Ana María Martínez.

Handel Saul will be the fifth work by Handel to be staged by Glyndebourne since the opening of the current theatre in 1994. Brilliant and provocative director Barrie Kosky will direct, with Ivor Bolton conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Christopher Purves will sing the title role, Iestyn Davies will perform David, the acclaimed British soprano Lucy Crowe makes a role debut as Merab and American tenor Paul Appleby makes his Glyndebourne debut as Jonathan.

Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail last seen in the Festival in 1988. Robin Ticciati will undertake his fifth Mozart opera for Glyndebourne, conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a cast including Sally Matthews, Edgaras Montvidas and Mari Eriksmoen.

The revivals might be even better :

Bizet Carmen - David McVicar's 2002 production revived for the second time. Good performers: Jakub Hrůša conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with  Stéphanie d’Oustrac in the title role, Paulo Szot as Escamillo, Lucy Crowe as Micaëla.

Britten The Rape of Lucretia  - Fiona Shaw's production with Leo Hussain, Kate Royal, Christine Rice, Allan Clayton and Duncan Rock

Maurice Ravel L’heure espagnole/L’enfant et les sortilèges. Laurent Pelly's brilliant production of L’enfant et les sortilèges is back after only two years. It's wonderful - read my review of the premiere HERE in Opera Today

"Surrealist fantasy with wit and style! L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges, the Ravel Double Bill at Glyndebourne, mixes charm, intelligence and nightmare.The audience applauded the scenery, but this time the praise was sincere.  Ravel's music and ideas come alive. I'm tempted to say, "beyond our wildest dreams", because dreams release the creative imagination. .....L'enfant et les sortilèges" says director Laurent Pelly "lasts about 45 minutes, but has the depth of an opera of three or four hours". (read the interview in Opera Today here). Ravel's music is extraordinarliy vivid, but his concepts don't easily translate into visual images. Pelly, however, is a master at bringing abstract ideas to life, as anyone who has seen his Glyndebourne Humperdinck Hansel und Gretel would know. The Teapot and the Chinese cup dance, their "human" bodies exposed beneath the hard exteriors of their form. Ravel glories in mad chinoiserie......the words aren't real but dadaist invention, even in Colette's original."

 Danielle de Niese sings the two main roles.Coming home to Glyndebourne to sing is hugely special to me. Playing both an adulterous femme fatale and an androgynous young boy in the same evening will be an exciting challenge and transformation for me as an actress. I have labelled it my 'Meryl Streep moment' - a chance for me to show different sides of my musical and dramatic palette. Glyndebourne and I share a common goal in constantly aiming to reach new heights and I am thrilled to be taking audiences on this artistic journey."

The new commission is Luke Styles' new opera Macbeth.

David Pickard, General Director of Glyndebourne, said: “I am delighted that, as well as maintaining our high artistic standards and international reputation for discovering exciting young artists, Glyndebourne’s 2014 Festival reached broader audiences than ever before. As a privately funded Festival, I am particularly proud that we are the only UK opera company to offer our performances for free online to be accessed by audiences right across the globe. Those streamings, together with the success of our dedicated Under 30s performance, were highlights of the season for me. I hope that all those who saw Festival 2014 operas, whether on stage, on screen or online went away with a new, or renewed, love of live opera.”

  • Box Office sales of 98% of financial capacity
  • A doubling of the live audience of 98,000 who attended Festival 2014 in person through cinema screenings and free online streamings
  • Sell-out of the first dedicated Festival performance for subscribers to Glyndebourne’s Under 30s scheme
 photo credit Simon Annand

Komsi Oramo Prom Russian (and other) Fairy Tales

Wonderfully evocative!  In BBC Prom 49, Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC SO showing how exotic dreams and magical tales still inspire creative art.  The soloist was Anu Komsi, Oramo's wife and twin sister of Piia Komsi, both coloraturas with such remarkable range that they've inspired several works written specially for them.. Although this Prom was billed "Russian Fairy Tales" it could well have been billed as a showpiece for Anu Komsi's exquisite singing. .

Ravel's Mother Goose Suite (Ma mère l’oye)  created the perfect mood. Lustrous, shimmering textures, sparkling with light and delight. Fairy Tales are beautiful, but strictly speaking they're wasted on children. As Bruno Bettelheim demonstrated decades ago,  fairy tales deal with the subconscious, and are a lot darker than they're made out to be.  Beneath the gossamer in Ravel's music lie details which suggest something more sinister. Hollow-sounding woodwinds, brass like the call of hunting horns. Could the high-pitched violins suggest pain and longing?  Do the horns suggest hunting, or death? Why is the princess of the pagodas, Laideronnette, supposed to be ugly? No answers.  In this magical realm answers mean less than dreams.

In Jukka Tiensuu: Voice verser (2012?),  Anu Komsi's voice operates like a magical force of nature. Her tessitura is so high it seems almost unearthly, and her projection so powerful that her voice seems to stretch into infinity. High winds and strings cry out, like high-flying sea birds.  Strings form elliptical sounds like waves.  Immediately I thought of Sibelius Luonnotar (more here) where the voice represents the primeval being who created the universe, after swimming for centuries in an endless ocean. When Komsi's voice switches from extended legato to sudden staccato, she makes gasping sounds that could be Luonnotar giving birth to the earth, stars and skies. Yet for all this extreme virtuosity, this is a quirkily humorous piece which  suggests play and joyful interaction between singer and orchestra. This is music with wit and and spirit, proving that "new" music can be fun and spark the imagination. We can also hear why so many are in love with Komsi's voice. She's technically superb but can also convey warmth and feeling.

Amazingly, Komsi recovered her voice after the interval, to sing Karol Szymanowski's Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess. Komsi and Szymanowski could have been made for each other. Both favour tessituras so high that that they seem to defy gravity.  Much of Szymanowski's output created parts for violin, where only the best violinists can sustain extended lines at the top of register. Komsi makes great feats sound easy. Szymanowski's fantasy was far more than lush reverie.  In the years before 1914, he visited the Middle East and North Africa, fascinated by the exotic sounds he heard. Like many composers in his time, Szymanowski was searching for alternatives to  western tradition.  There's nothing tame about this ulullating legato, these strange leaps up and down scales.

 In the first song, The Lonely Moon, the phrases cry out like imams calling the faithful to prayer, designed to carry over vast distances.  Perhaps this is intentional, for the mood suggests longing, reaching out towards something that can never be grasped. The trills and melismas in The Nightingale allow Komsi's voice to flutter like a bird trying to escape its cage. In The Song of the Wave, Szymanowski catches the idea of surging movement, sparkling arpeggiatos dancing over rolling rhythm. The ocean is beautiful, but the sailor might drown.  Whether the singer is lover or Nereid hardly matters. Szymanowski wrote the songs for voice and piano in 1913 orchestrating  the three above in 1933 when he'd rediscovered Poland and modernism. At this Prom we hear Sakari Oramo's new orchestrations for the three other songs,  sensitively  in keeping with Szymanowski's style yet sympathetic to the uniquesness of Komsi's voice. Infinitely better than the pointless, unidiomatic orchestration of Butterworth Andrew Manze used in his Lest We Forget Prom last week.

To complete this evening of exotic dreams, Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade. Yet again Oramo weaved his magic. The BBC SO played with great beauty, not disguising the little dark details that conceal what Sheherazade will be faced with if she can't spin more tales of fantasy.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Ilan Volkov Iceland Symphony Orchestra Tectonic Classics Prom

"Classical tectonics" - strange name for Ilan Volkov's Prom 48, but pretty good for a Prom featuring the music of Iceland.  A friend of mine loved Iceland because he said it was like no other place on earth. Most of the country is uninhabitable and closed off completely in winter. The people are fiercely independent, yet close knit. They formed one of the world's first consultative democracies.  The landscape seems bleak until you realize it's constantly changing. Lava and magma and emission of gas and water, volcanoes and earth movements, steam in the air that freezes. Time seems ambiguous, too, he said. Sagas and tales of ancient heroes haunt the land, my friend says, even though no-one talks about it.

Landscape as metaphor for music. Haukur Tómasson's Magma operates on multiple levels at once, distinct ideas operating separately and together, moving forwards with unstoppable force. This is  new music anyone can access if they use their imaginations. It borrows the majesty of the earth itself and transforms the emotions generated in us into abstract form.

Jón Leifs' Geysir added to the magic.  Needless to say, you could listen and imagine geysers bursting from the bowels of the earth, and so on. Liefs has a cult following because his music is strikingly modern and yet emotionally vivid. Around 10 years ago BIS issued most of his published music, including the wonderful Hekla. It's extraordinarily atmospheric, but also works as abstract music because it's very well crafted and sophisticated. Think of  Harrison Birtwistle's Earth Dances and his shifting tectonic plates of sound. Click here for a link to Hekla and to my 2011 post on Harpa Hall, home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. .

When Ilan Volkov became Chief Conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in January 2011, i wrote "Iceland punches bigger than its size". Iceland might be small but it has vision. The world banking crisis began in part in Iceland, but the country sorted out much of the mess in a way Britain and the US probably wouldn't dare. When Volkov went to Iceland, he did himself, and the country, a world of good.

Volkov seems an ideal choice too since he's adventurous and innovative,  sympathetic to ideals, yet also the kind of conductor who works well with musicians who might not have the polish of, say, the Berliners and Viennese. More power to the Icelanders for that. Their Beethoven 5th might have been pretty ordinary but they sounded like they were enjoying themselves. The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms was decidedly rough technically, but they played with verve and obvious engagement and carried much of the audience with them for that very reason. The same cannot be said of some of the other international orchestras this season, some of which were so dull that even world famous conductors couldn't resuscitate them. .As the OAE slogan goes "Not all orchestras are the same".

Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor was played by Jonathan Biss. This was infinitely more rewarding than the Bernard Rands Concerto for piano and Orchestra last week, which might well take the prize as the least new piece of new music this year against formidable competition, from composers living and dead.  Thinking of Leifs and formidable landscapes, Sibelius's Symphony no 7 is so original and so tightly crafted that it says so much in 17 minutes that even Sibelius might have been daunted to top that. 

Friday 22 August 2014

Illuminating Britten War Requiem Nelsons CBSO Prom

Andris Nelsons conducted Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at Prom 47. Nelsons' War Requiem with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham is legendary, but the Royal Albert Hall is a unique setting. It illuminates even relatively straightforward performances, like Bychkov's on 11/11/13 more here)  But whatever the reason, Nelsons' Prom Britten War Requiem was exceptional. You can never say "the finest ever" but this came close. Wh ? I think because Nelsons brought out its fundamental musicality. The War Requiem carries emotive baggage, which is perfectly valid, but Nelsons emphasizes its musical depth, making its impact even more powerful.

"Kleenex at the ready… one goes from the critics to the music, knowing that if one should dare to disagree with ‘practically everyone’, one will be made to feel as if one had failed to stand up for ‘God Save the Queen' " said Igor Stravinsky. He had a point, for the image we get of the 1914-18 war is distorted by media emphasis on the Western Front. Stravinsky knew that what happened on the Eastern Front was arguably far more catastrophic. Famine, ethnic cleansing, the rise of Bolshevism and the collapse of the Old Order.  "Which war, whose requiem?" as Ian Bostridge wrote in A Part of History: Aspects of the British Experience of the First World War (Continuum, 2008) . Can a piece commissioned to commemorate Coventry tell us about Dresden, Stalingrad, Nanjing, Hiroshima and the Holocaust?  Nelsons' magisterial account connected the War Requiem to the ages, and made it timeless. Exceptionally good choral singing (concert master Simon Halsey) and playing made this a Prom to remember.

The long chords of the organ thundered into endless resonance, searching infinity. Shimmering brass, and the bright, younger voices of the BBC Proms Youth Choir: a Requiem Aeternam that truly felt eternal.  "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? " comes as a shock. The brutality of Wilfred Owen's imagery emphasized by the quiet menace of the tolling bells in the orchestra.  Trumpets led forward, dazzling in their brightness, percussion at once beautiful and brutal, in telling contrast. For whatever reason, mankind is seduced by war.  Hence, perhaps, the contrast between "bugle" and solo flute, and the first appearance of the soprano.. The elegance Nelsons draws from his players and singers is far more unsettling than straightforward dissonance.The swirling counter-rhythms in the chorus  further shake us from our bearings. Nelsons defined the critical descent into silence from which the soprano (Susan Gritton) rose. Lovely back and forward rhythms, yet chilling, for they suggest the swaying of a body being carried on a stretcher. "Move him into the sun " thus felt surprisingly physical, even earthy, for Owen's poem refers to clay and the fields unknown soldier might have tilled. The poem, however, is titled "Futility" for the sun's rays cannot revive the dead.

What "offering" is this Offertorium?  jaunty rhythms like a mad folk tune from the ancient past. This sets the context for the "Abraham and Isaac" passage, where Toby Spence and  Hanno Müller-Brachmann sang together, victim and killer bound in an unclean pact.  We're in the trenches but the weight of  Biblical forces bears down. "Half the seed of Europe, one by one" is destroyed. Nelsons marks the silences between each repeat, so the portent sank in fully .

The Sanctus refers to the sacrament of consecration. Bell sounds rang out, as in the most holy moment in the Mass. Susan Gritton's voice shone on the word "Sanctus", but also picked up on the "medieval" decoration Britten wrote into the part, not always observed so cleanly. From cataclysmic tumult to all-illuminating transfiguration. All the forces Nelsons had at his command united in a glorious pinnacle of overpowering brightness. Truly, "after the blast of lightning from the east, the flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot throne".

In the Agnus Dei, Britten quotes Owen's "At a Calvary near Ancre" which mentions a wayside calvary with the image of a crucifix and priests whose proud faces are "flesh-marked by the Beast". How few conventional performances recognize the irony!  Britten's sympathies are not with the Church. This Libera Me was driven by powerful forces indeed. Gritton's voice marked the choppy, deliberately breathless excitement which culminated in a glorious  crescendo.  Insistent tappings in the orchestra, machine-gun staccato deployed with purpose, mixing death and transition. A transformative Liberation indeed. We've passed through Owen's "profound dark tunnel"  (a reverse of birth) into a new , strange plane of existence where earthly enmities have no meaning. Listen to the quiet drone behind Spence's voice on the rebroadcast,  it's very atmospheric. The baritone's final words need no accompaniment. Müller-Brachmann intoned the words "I am the enemy you killed" so it felt personal. At the culmination of his War Requiem, Britten brings back the youthful chorus, the blending of orchestra, organ, massed voices and soloists suggesting a glorious rebirth, a bright new tapestry looking forwards. This time, when we hear the bells and the words "Requiem Aeternam", we are on another plane.  Best Prom of the 2014 season so far!

Please explore my other posts on Britten and Britten's War Requiem on the BBC Proms and on war. More on this site about Britten than any non-dedicated site

Please also see Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today

photo of Andris Nelsons : Marco Borggreve

Concert That Shall Not Be Named

"It was like staying at a small provincial hotel in the 1970's"

quoth a friend of a Concert That Shall Not Be Named.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Anna Netrebko Il trovatore Salzburg

Interviewed by Austrian TV just before her performnac as Leonora in Verdi Il Trovatore at Salzburg, Anna Netrebko says "Leave me alone!" She's made up and costumed just before curtain call and the interviewer asks her auf Deutsch about the difficulties of the role. "That's why I need to concentrate in this hour, I don't need lots of people around." But she's gracious and smiles and gives the guy something for the camera.

Singing Leonora "is difficult because it needs such a range, and several styles, over two octaves, from a light coloratura to almost mezzo soprano. So it's better that I can concentrate  and be careful with my vocal technique."  In this production she plays two roles, a woman in a  museum and Leonora. "This is a good idea. It has a modern twist and it looks very beautiful aesthetically and it doesn't disturb the music, which is the most important thing of all."

When Netrebko was younger she used to draw and paint. She would still do so if she could but she's just too busy. "No time, no inspiration - if you have no inspiration, then it's mmmmmmm" she smiles.  Watch the production on medici TV here.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Lest we forget - Bleuet Poulenc

Just as the Poppy symbolizes war to the British, the cornflower symbolizes loss and memory for the French. The Western Front was in France and Belgium, lest we forget....... French soldiers wore blue uniforms, hence the multiple connotations of the word "bleuet".

At right, Francis Poulenc aged 21, in uniform, painted by a friend. "Jeune homme /de vingt ans /Qui as vu des choses si affreuses /que penses-tu des hommes /de ton enfance/la bravure et la ruse" wrote Guillaume Apollinaire. Read the whole poem HERE in Emily Ezust's Lieder and Song Texts page, because Apollinaire sets the poem out so it descends diagonally across the page, as if the very words were marching. Apollinaire's visual layout emphasises the meaning of the poem,where phrases break off and the word "Mourir" stands alone.

"Young man of 20 , who has seen things so awful, what do you think of  the men of your childhood, of courage and cunning?

"You who have faced death in the face more than 100 times, you take it as if it were life.  Transmit your fearlessness to those who will come after you. Young man, you are joyful. Your memory is soaked in blood, your soul is red. with joy. You have absorbed the life of those who died next to you."

"For you it is decided.  It is 5 o'clock and you're going to die. If not better than those who went before you, at least more piously, because you know death better than you know life." 

"Ô douceur d'autrefois, Lenteur immémoriale"
.O sweetness of former times, to linger in eternity.

Apollinaire was injured badly at the front in 1917. Poulenc, writing his setting in October 1939, reflected not on militarism or glory, but on the tenderness with which Apollinaire depicted the waste of youth and life. 

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Bells and Guns : Rachmaninov Tchaikovsky Stravinsky Gardner Prom 43

Blockbuster Prom 43, sure to be seared into the memory of all who were there. Queues round the block, punters turned away in droves. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture s such a showpiece that it usually gets played at open-air events, complete with fireworks. the presence  of "Sexy Ed", the charismatic Edward Gardner, and the prospect of big band massed choirs and big orchestras - no wonder the Royal Albert Hall was packed to capacity.

 Musical considerations give way to sheer spectacle when it comes to the 1812. Fortunately the ghost of Sir Henry Wood and his high standards still pervades over the Proms. Hence we heard the original version with massed choirs. The BBC SO Chorus and the Crouch End Chorus balanced volume with finesse, not something easily achieved by party-piece outdoor performances. They were wonderfully hushed and reverential, creating a  suitably "Russian" atmosphere, against which the brass, percussion and cannonades seem all the more shocking.  Only at the Royal Albert Hall can  this combination of circus and music be carried off quite so well.

Rachmaninov's The Bells needs similar extravagance. Edgar Allen Poe’s original poems were substantially changed in the Russian translation of The Bells but that doesn’t matter. Rachmaninov got enough from the translation to create a new, original work that would be one of his favourites. Artists need creative licence: in The Bells, Rachmaninov creates a distinctive landscape, each scena regulated by different kinds of bell sounds. Perhaps the Russia he remembered was like that, where the rhythm of life  was accompanied by the bells of the Church, by folk festivities and so on.  Silvery sleigh bells give way to wedding bells,.Winter turns to Spring. Stuart Skelton (another good reason for catching this Prom) sang the tenor part, and Albina Shagimuratova the part of a happy bride, or perhaps, by extension, a future Mother Russia with dreams of fertility and renewal. But then something goes horribly wrong . In the presto third movement, the bells sound alarm, Do we hear flames and destruction in that dangerously wild orchestration? The choral parts were sung with discipline: even in crisis, the peasants stick together. Stillness, muffled drumbeats. then Mikhail Petrenko's powerful voice intoned, the choruses following as if in procession in his wake. Click on photo below to enlarge. It's Ilya Repin's Religious Procession at Kursk, later the scene of the biggest tank battle in world history. 

Sad woodwinds created pathos, and the sense of real wind blowing away what had gone before . Much will always be made of the techniques with which Rachmaninov creates sounds that sound like bells but are illusion. Upright piano played percussively, perhaps a very private joke coming from a virtuoso soloist turned composer. In this centenary year, our perceptions are coloured by what we know happened to Rachmaninov's Russia after he wrote the piece in 1913. Perhaps that's why, in later years, Rachmaninov would look back on The Bells as a favourite, a sort of musical icon preserving a world irrevocably changed.

Although this Prom was billed as "Russian", Gardner's style isn't  "authentically" Russian.  (I'm thinking of Svetlanov's  recording of The Bells)  National identity doesn't define art. Baiba Skride played the violin inStravinsky's Scherzo fantastique and his Concerto for Violin in D with such feeling and elegance that it didn't really matter whether Stravinsky was Russian or French or a dispossessed Russian living in America. His music is universal, stylish, whimsical and fiendishly difficult at turns.

Please keep visiting my site, always something different. Tonight Britten's War Requiem Andris nelsons - bound to be good. Please see the numerous posts Ive written on Britten War requiem (and on Britten)

Lest We Forget Prom - RVW Butterworth Stephan Kelly Manze BBC SSO

 "They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man, The lads that will die in their glory and never be old." 

 A E Housman was writing about handsome farm boys going off to the Boer War. Maybe he was more concerned with the loss of their physical beauty but Prom 42 "Lest We Forget"  with Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra reminded us of the lost music which the three younger composers featured in this concert might have produced.

Roderick Williams sang George Butterworth's Six Songs From a Shropshire Lad.  He never disappoints. He sang with the commitment and heroism the occasion of a keynote Prom warrants. I've written extensively about George Butterworth, (read more here) so I'll just comment on the version  we heard here. It's not strictly Butterworth but a modern orchestral adaptation. Butterworth wrote two separate pieces based on Housman's verse, one for voice and piano and an entirely orchestral version, A Shropshire Lad: a Rhapsody. where the themes are reiterated. Maybe piano song doesn't work so well in the Royal Albert Hall, but it would have been wiser to pick the orchestral piece. Much as I adore Roderick Williams, I think we need to appreciate Butterworth for more than his songs. When there is enough authentic Butterworth around, can't we "honour the fallen" by  using the man's own work?

Butterworth's orchestral A Shropshire Lad would have worked better with the rest of the programme too, especially with Rudi Stephan's Music for Orchestra no. 2 (1912, rev. 1913), Stephan's breakthrough piece which won him a publisher and a lot of favourable attention. It's superb. It's full of interesting ideas, crafted together with flair: definitely a distinctive voice. Listen to the rebroadcast : this isn't recycled retro but intelligent and highly original, reflecting the creative ferment of Secession Munich, and possibly the "modern" Germany of Weimar art and, film and literature. Stephan might have given Alban Berg (also a serving soldier) a great deal to think about. Stephan is definitely on the radar in Germany. There are no less than three recordings of his opera Die ersten Menschen on the market. I'll write about that when I have time - please come back.

In contrast, Frederick Kelly's Elegy for Strings was written in memoriam Rupert Brooke. Kelly is also remembered because he was born in Sydney of Irish parents and served in Gallipoli, and is thus a figure in Australian music history. It's a lovely, elegiac piece with a good violin part, but without the character of Stephan and Butterworth.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was too old to fight in the frontline but served in an ambulance unit, experiencing bombardment knowing he'd have to go out and pick up the carnage. Vaughan Williams's Symphony no 3 "The Pastoral"  may be "about " landscape in an abstract sense, but it's even more about the strange, new landscape of the trenches. Ancient farms and villages were flattened, pitted with craters like the moon. The terrain still hasn't recovered.  RVW's ambiguous swirling tonality suggests psychic dislocation. This isn't "cowpat school", though you can "feel" the mud. It's far more unsettling.

RVWs 3rd is a companion to his 2nd, the "London" Symphony, dedicated  to and inspired by George Butterworth, so hearing the 3rd at this Prom was particularly poignant. Andrew Manze and the BBC SSO  gave a dignified account. An excellent "distant" trumpet, and nicely defined references to typical RVW themes expressing nostaglia and, well, Sensucht,  and loss. Unusually, Manze used a tenor, Allan Clayton to sing the vocal part. A male voice is probably more appropriate in the circumstances  and RVW knew his Bible well enough to know that angels were often men. The trumpet can be diffuse, since RVW was remembering a real trumpeter playing in the landscape. But the dead and dying were all too present. Clayton's "manly" tenor rang out loud and clear. No, we must not shy from the reality of war. There's violence in the crescendi, and folk tunes pop up as  ghosts. Perhaps the voice, like the violin part, loosely reminiscent of The Lark Ascending, is reminding us that life, and nature, will soar upwards from the ruins.

Sunday 17 August 2014

The mystery of George Butterworth

Roderick Williams sang George Butterworth Songs from A Shropshire Lad at tonight's BBC Prom 41 at the Royal Albert Hall. Williams is by far the best best British song specialist around. He has such a warm. conversational style which makes his singing direct and personal. (Read more here) .For my review of the Lest We Forget Prom read here).

The photo at right show George Butterworth  in civilian days. Read Michael Barlow's biography "Whom the Gods Love," (more here)  It's good, given the sparsity of source material. Butterworth was a very private person, and shielded himself from such things as prying historians. There are so many mysteries. Why did he destroy his unpublished music when he went to the front? There are no Butterworth descendants any more - George and his only male cousin died without issue. So perhaps we could  use modern intuition and reflect.

Butterworth's father's archives are in Oxford, but they're not completely reliable because they were compiled by a man who loved his son dearly but probably didn't understand his complexities any more than he understood military procedure. After reading Barlow's book I went to the War Office Archives to read regimental documents. Shock! No "Butterworth" listed!  However, being a good archivist, I think like a detective. I found the original war diary kept by the commanding officer of Butterworth's unit, where each day's events were written as they happened, sometimes in pencil.  I found the actual record of Butterworth's death. Read my account "George Butterworth in the trenches" . I also found his original medal citations by searching under his third forename, Kaye. Somehow, by accident or design, he had been listed as Kaye-Butterworth rather than Butterworth when he signed up.

Finding the war diary is easy enough because British officers' records are extensively documented. But that started another mystery. His fellow soldiers didn't even know he was a musician.  He wasn't actively hiding anything because the army contacted his father after his death. But one wonders who Butterworth might really have been. An Oxford don, on seeing the student Butterworth with a friend, remarked that they were two of the "reddest" revolutionaries in Britain.

Why was Butterworth keen to keep his lives as soldier and composer apart? Was he gay, or conflicted about his father's remarriage ?  By the standards of his time, A E Housman was about as much out of the closet as was possible. The poems in his collection of A Shropshire Lad are heavily homo-erotic. Obviously, orientation doesn't dictate art. The very hetero Ralph Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge is based on Housman's poems too.  But one wonders what Butterworth might have achieved had he not been killed so young. Would he have stayed in the Cecil Sharp fold  with its repressive neo-fascist style? Would he have found a creative breakthrough like RVW? RVW adored him. His  London Symphony was inspired by Butterworth, who pushed RVW towards symphonic writing.  Even Carlos Kleiber liked Butterworth's orchestral music. We shall never know what Butterworth might have achieved,  but I suspect we shouldn't assume that Butterworth was "simply" a writer of folk-inspired songs and pastorals.

Fragile but powerful - Haitink Mahler 4, Schubert Prom 40

" I prefer Mahler slender, not pompous" said Bernard Haitink in rehearsals before BBC Prom 40 2014.  By "slender" I think he means the opposite of pompous, ie. not overinflated, egotistic, or self-satisfied. "Slender" is relevant in the context of Mahler's Symphony no 4 , because the children in Das himmlisches Leben are enjoying food with almost manic glee.  (read my article "Why greedy kids in Mahler 4") These children have been deprived of sustenance so long that all they can think of is the simple needs the rest of us take for granted.  At this time, children are starving to death on mountains in Iraq; other children are dying in Gaza; and millions more children will grow up to die in conflicts all round the world. Mahler's Symphony no 4 is utterly relevant today.

Haitink's less-is-more conducting style is utterly relevant too. In many ways, the Mahler annivesrary year set Mahler appreciation back to the Dark Ages. Just as we were coming to understand the sensitive, intellectual side of Mahler, the festivities brought a slough of bland performances. Commercial pressures usually override artistic needs. Good conductors have to conduct  Mahler even if they have nothing to say, because what promoters want is what sells, and that often means "generic".  When Haitink says there's too much Mahler around, I think he means that there's too much non-Mahler Mahler. Take heed, BBC Proms!  The more audiences are fed mediocrity, the more they mistake musical fast food for nutrition.  Many times in the last few years, I've felt like the lone dissident in a mass public rally.  Perhaps Haitink is swimming against an unstoppable tide, but he's a man of courage and integrity.

Bedächtig. Nicht eilen and In gemächlicher bewungen. Ohne hast : Mahler's score markings suit Haitink's trademark slow tempi. No need to rush, but rather linger in the present, or more accurately, perhaps, in memories of a sunnier past.  Haitink shapes the oddly dance-like rhythms so they feel airy, more  like the innocent way children dance than heavy-footed Ländler. Such deft lightness from the LSO, who love Haitink and know his style well. When Mahler introduces "winds of change" the strings and brass take on a melancholy mood, as if they don't want the happiness to end.  Gradually, a darker mood emerges. Haitink's attention to detail lets us hear the soft plodding"foosteps" behind the panoramic legato. Nocturnal images perhaps, or images of death? In the rising woodwind melody can we hear a hint of Kindertotenlieder?  Is Mahler saying goodbye to his Wunderhorn years, in preparation for the next phase in his creative life?

From this emerges the solo violin motif, at first sweetly seductive. But, like the Pied Piper, this music leads to death. This particular Freund' Hein underplayed the grotesque scordatura tuning, but his was in keeping with Haitink's emphasis on the goal towards which the symphony is heading. The Third Movement (marked Ruhevoll) is a transition, a purgatory in which the issues of death are resolved into a more perfect "heavenly life". Hence the variations and contemplation, from which the soloist (Camilla Tilling) emerges, almost seamlessly from the music around her. 

Tilling's voice doesn't have quite the pure, angelic ping of, say, Christine Schäfer, but she's been singing this part for nearly 20 years and her experience shows. She may not be ideally child-like, but she's a spokesperson, reaching out to the parents of the dead children, perhaps, consoling them with images of happiness. Most people don't want children to suffer. Even if the parents of these children themselves died in famines or wars, faith in a better afterlife gives some kind of comfort. Haitink's poignant interpretation emphasized the fragility of human existence. missiles crash and people die on barren mountainsides; we are vulnerable in a savage world.  I could hardly breathe as I listened. Yet, as Mahler and Haitink remind us: “Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, die uns’rer verglichen kann werden,”  No music on Earth can compare to the music of Heaven. We can but hope.

As he's done several times in the past, including with the LSO at the Barbican in 2009, Haitink preceded Mahler 4 with Schubert's Symphony no 5, an early piece written when Schubert was still little more than a child.  Haitink brought out the purity in the orchestration, linking the symphony to the deceptive simplicity of Schubert's Lieder and chamber music. i thought of Schubert, full of dreams and ambition, cruelly cut down aged only 29.

Friday 15 August 2014

Sibelius Maxwell Davies Bridge Storgårds Prom 38

Like Prom 36, (more here) Prom 38 demonstrated why some composers are first rank while others aren't. John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic in a programme which contrasted  Jean Sibelius and Frank Bridge with Sir Peter Maxwell Davis.

Finlandia effectively changed the course of world history.  Although Sibelius dashed it off quite quickly, it became an instant hit, and remains so popular that it symbolizes the spirit of Finland. It helped shape national identity. Those craggy chords suggest dark forests, deep lakes and mountains that cannot be conquered.  Like the landscape, dogged Finland will survive hard winters and brutal enemies. But Finnish independence very nearly didn't happen since the Russians were far more powerful. Finlandia, and Sibelius, captured support in the west, even though Finland was forced to side with the Germans against Stalin. Ten minutes of music that created a nation: such is the power of music with emotional intensity. Storgårds conducted with such committment that the piece felt ferocious, as shocking as it must have sounded when new.

In Finlandia, Sibelius finds a unique voice. Storgårds also conducted Sibelius Symphony no 2, where Sibelius's distinctive style emerges clearly. We hear the composer's distinctive hallmarks: immediately we recognize that this is a composer with exceptional originality. Indeed, it's possible that Sibelius entered the "silence of Järvenpää" because he could envision ideas so daring that he couldn't fulfil them without compromising his standards. Lesser artists might have chosen an easier path. Not Sibelius, who burned the symphony that might have been his life achievement. Storgårds's approach emphasized this strength of personality in the music. He delineated the vernal, Romantic passages but recognized the forward momentum, stressing the overall flow and structure. The BBC Philharmonic seemed galvanized, producing a performance so electrifying that the BBC really should give him a much higher profile. Most of their Proms outings this year have been disappointingly lacklustre.  This is basically a good orchestra, but it needs to be inspired to reach its full potential.

Between the twin pillars of Sibelius, Storgårds placed Peter Maxwell Davies and Frank Bridge. Once, Max,  Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr were the great new hopes of British music. Birtwistle continues writing highly individual, distinctive music, but Maxwell Davies' output in recent years hasn't been quite so impressive. It 's not at all simply fashion, since Max gets a lot of exposure. Indeed, now that Birtwistle is so successful, Max's star has risen, although the pair allegedly fell out years ago.   They're both 80 this year; one could hardly praise one and leave out the other. When Maxwell Davies Symphony no 5 premiered at the Proms in 1995, it was well received, but one does rather wonder if the support was for the man rather than the music. It's pleasant enough, but meanders without much direction, even conducted by someone as good as Storgårds. One longs for the old days, of Eight Songs for a Mad King or even The Yellowcake Revue.

And then Frank Bridge, very much the outsider of British music in his era. Bridge was more interested in musical developments in continental Europe than in England, and didn't mix very much in British music circles. Had he, he might have attracted more attention. Bridge never has been really forgotten, though he's often best known through the Benjamin Britten connection. This doesn't diminish him at all, because what Bridge taught Britten was to have wide horizons. Bridge himself had been taught by Charles Villiers Stanford, so he knew all about teachers who strangled young composers from birth. True creatives, like Vaughan Williams, found their voice when they got out from under Stanford's shadow. Bridge found his independence by turning to Europe and America.  It's significant that Britten should make a point of writing Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. Bridge was a role model, giving Britten the courage to be independent and have integrity. 

Bridge's Oration (1929/30) shows another side of the composer's values, which he shared with Britten. It's not his only anti-war piece. Blow Out you Bugles (much earlier) uses the poetry of Rupert Brooke.  Oration is a a "concerto elegaico". where the cello acts as orator addressing the orchestra but the orchestra don't take heed. Anguished, the cello mutters and growls. Leonard Elschenbroich played expressively, creating the mood of frustration and pain.  Appropriate tension between him and the orchestra.  Oration is unique, a very sophisticated and individualistic work, far more interesting than the very early chamber pieces with which Bridge is generally associaited. Better, I think, that a composer should be respected for distinctively original works than for writing for the sake of writing. 

Thursday 14 August 2014

Vaughan Williams Alwyn Oramo Prom 36

After ten days of safe but dull Proms, at last something splendid: Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC SO. Ralph Vaughan Williams's incidental music is far from incidental. William Alwyn wrote a lot of incidental music, but hearing his symphonic work with Vaughan Williams's incidental music puts it into context

Oramo conducts Vaughan Williams with an intensity that makes one appreciate the depths in RVW, often missed by the emphasis on the pastoral aspects of his work. The Overture to the Wasps dates from the same period as On Wenlock Edge, and marks RVW's creative breakthrough   Maurice Ravel liberated Vaughan Williams from himself, so to speak. No longer is he constrained by the comfortable certainties of Charles Villiers Stanford.  He'd learned "to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines", to be an artist foremost and above all.  Having faced that baptism of fire, he would go on to become a true original, reimagining the English experience in his own unique way.

Although The Wasps was written before the start of WWI, its subject is war. These aren't bucolic wasps buzzing around a nest, even though the composer depicts them figuratively. The famous Overture comes from a much larger piece for voice and orchestra, based on Aristophanes' The Birds. The Birds mock man's obsession with war, and the wasps protest. When wasps are disturbed, they attack. In Germany, Walter Braunfels (who served at the front) would soon begin Die Vögel, a work sadly misunderstood by conductors like James Conlon. Oramo emphasizes the suppressed violence in RVW. A lyrical melody hovers, harps suggesting peaceful reverie. The mood is soon broken. Sharp, crisp ostinato, an almost "Russian" angularity, whirring figures like a march. Are the wasps flying upwards in attack?

If only the BBC could have given us the full Wasps, rather than the disembodied Overture. It's utterly relevant this year when we remember 1914. Instead, we had William Alwyn's Symphony no 1. Alwyn is hardly obscure, even though he's not been heard at the Proms for 50 years. His work is well represented on recordings, and familiar to those who enjoy the Golden Age of British cinema. Like many other composers of his period, Alwyn wrote for film.  Alwyn's Symphony no 1 is ambitious, part of a grand scheme of related symphonies. Allusions to technicolor panoramas are approrpiate because the piece unfolds in a series of attractive vignettes which translate easily into visual images. Low, growling basses, giving way to open spaces, sudden surges of strings introducing changes of scene. It's picturesque and relaxing, so its appeal is easily appreciated.  On the other hand, it's illustrative, amiable rather than thought-provoking.  RVW can  say more in ten minutes, almost without trying.  It's totally irrelevant that Alwyn lived in Blythburgh while Britten lived in Aldeburgh. There are sections of the British music audience who need heroes for their own reasons, and don't necessarily do their heroes any favours.  Alwyn is not an incidental composer, but he's more genial than genius..

RVW's The Lark Ascending, however, is a true masterpiece, a work of such brilliance that it defies category. It is so beautiful, and so transcendent that it's almost pointless to analyze.  Perhaps RVW is describing a bird in flight, but that bird is escaping from the world into another more rarified plane of existence. It's exquisite, but also inexplicably, heart breakingly sad. It's much more than an "English Idyll", since it appeals to so many, and in different cultures.  Janine Jensen's performance was good, though there have been other, more powerful interpretations. Oramo's clear focus on the details in the orchestration brought out the connections between Tle Lark Ascending and The Wasps. Interesting insight.

Vaughan Williams's Job : a Masque for Dancing  (1931) was written to be danced to, yet it's no more a conventioinal ballet  than The Pilgrim's Progress is a typical opera. Dancers need more rests than orchestral players, so much music for dance evolves in scenic episodes. This also suits RVW's taste for the formality of Elizabethan music. Although I don't have the programme notes to quote from, and I don't feel like digging up a CD, I'm pretty sure, from memory, that Oramo was conducting the full  score, rather than the version for dancing. It's not a symphony, though the sound is full and rich, because it evolves in a series of scenes. Thus, however, it made a satisfying conclusion to the Prom, following as it did from Alwyn's Symphony. Listen how RVW defines "cinematic" climaxes. Even as audio, one imagines visual and dancers.  And from this emerges a solo violin, playing an elusive, nostalgic melody.  The Wasps, The Lark Ascending and Job: a Masque for Dancing have been heard together before, but Oramo reminds us why the combination is so good.

Rameau Les Boréades broadcast

WONDERFUL Rameau Les Boréades streaming from France Musique. Marc Minkowski from the Aix Festival, recorded live in July.  Nothing timid about the Baroque.  Far from being precious, early music bursts with energy and vigour. Les Boréades is "new music" in the sense that it wasn't heard at all until 40 years ago. There's no "performance tradition"  to stifle enjoyment. Minkowski knows the music, its period and its audacious exuberance. That is the background that really counts.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Support Schubert !

A major new development! The Oxford Lieder Festival has been offered amazing matched funding for its Sponsor a Song scheme. This means big money for a small but exceptionally worthy enterprise, which this year mounts the biggest and most comprehensive celebration of Schubert's songs and chamber music ever attempted in this country, enhanced by talks (Graham Johnson), films, masterclassses, exhibits and community events.

The more we the public help Oxford Lieder's Sponsor a Song, the more funding they'll get from the mystery sponsor. For £25 you can sponsor a Schubert song. Some of the favourites are already taken, and some special songs cost up to £100 to sponsor, but that's fair enough. We need the Schubert Project to succeed. You'll get a mention in the programme book for the recital at which your song is being performed. Not that that in itself is a big deal, but this is such an ambitious, brave project that supporting it will be good for Lieder and for your karma.

Of course, Oxford Lieder will  receive matched funding only if the songs are sponsored. You can sponsor a song from just £25, which will be worth £50 to us (plus Gift Aid). More here:£25. Please get involved and see your name or that of a dedicatee alongside a wonderful Schubert song in The Schubert Project programme.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Clara Butt in Full Flow

We can safely say that Clara Butt dwarfed most every other singer of her time. The photo shows her embarking across the Atlantic in 1907 with her family in her wake. Which was more magnificent, the P&;O liner  or the diva ?  Clara Butt stood 6 foot 2 without high heels. She had a remarkably wide range and volume: when she sang in Dover, it was said she could have been heard in Calais. Imagine a voice like that in an opera house! Alas, she never sang a Prom at the Royal Albet Hall.  Her Land of Hope and Glory would have brought the house down and terrified the Huns into abject submission. Below, her first recording of Land of Hope and Glory, from 1911. In her 1930 version, her voice isn't quite so good . Play it full volume for maximum impact.

I've been listening over and over to Alice Coote singing Elgar's Sea Pictures because she's so wonderful; earthier and more mysterious than Janet Baker, whom I love dearly. Both Coote and Baker are wonderful. But Clara Butt is something else. In her time, singers weren't intimidated: they did crossover and other things singers would not dare do today. When Butt premiered Elgar's Sea Pictures in 1899 at Norwich, she took the sea imagery to another level by wearing a mermaid costume . Oh, that the moment would have been preserved for all time! Nowadays she'd be the Butt of all jokes, but I suspect she would have given as good as she got.  She only recorded one song in the set, "Where Corals Lie" but recorded it twice, once in july 1912 in Hayes Middlesex and again around 1920 for Columbia. listen to that recording below. Notice how ropey the orchestra is. They sound like they're imitating a jazz band. Admittedly, Elgar's rhythms are jaunty but any conductor taking such liberties would be crucified today. Butt makes the most of the leaps up the scale, throwing her voice to the winds, so to speak.  So much for polite orthodoxy!