Tuesday 30 September 2014

All for one, one for all 危樓春曉

In view of what is happening in Hong Kong, this is a prescient time to revisit one of the great classic icons of Cantonese film, In the Face of Demolition, 危樓春曉. No-one can really understand a place until they understand the moral values which influence the way people think. In 1953, when the film was made, Hong Kong was very much a city in turmoil. Everyone was a refugee, including the native born, who'd been displaced  by the Japanese invasion. Cheerful as the people in the movie might seem, they're operating against a background of hardship and extreme insecurity.Watch the opening credits which show a busy city, panning to a shot of a bombed-out building.

Dressed in a sharp western suit,  Lo Ming, (Cheung Ying 張瑛 ) arrives in a rickshaw. He's moving into a run-down tenement. The decreptitude is a symbol.  The owner of the building is Wong Tai Pan – Big shot Wong (Lo Tun (盧敦) who speaks English to intimidate Ah Fong (Mui Yee  梅綺). Mr Lo doesn't realize it but he's moving into a room currently occupied by a family. whose father is played by Wong  Cho san 黃楚山. They haven't been able to pay the rent for 3 months, and they're being evicted, even though the mother has just given birth and can't walk. The commotion wakes the lady in the next bed space, Pak Ying (Tsi Law Lin 紫羅蓮) who leans over the flimsy partition. In those days, houses didn't have rooms but were divided up by screens or pieces of cloth.  The housekeeper Sam Koo is tough, but she has no choice. The house owner's wife screams at her.

 Enter Leung Wai, (Ng Cho Fan 吳楚帆), a tall and confident taxi driver). He confronts the owner's wife and offers to pay for the family to use the maid's bed space in the corridor (she says she'll sleep in the staircase). Eventually the owner returns and blows up at the housekeeper. "Do you know" he says in bad English, "This is crim-in-nal" and threatens the housekeeper with prison. A small detail,  but one with political ramifications. in a colony where the justice system was badly skewed. Although 99% of the population couldn't speak English, the use of Chinese was forbidden in the courts and officialdom until 1974. So much for the myth that "Chinese people aren't political" which the colonial government used to deny democracy in Hong Kong, with results as we see today.

The cubicle dividers are flimsy, and by accident Lo knocks over Leung's prized possession, a framed calligraphy that reads "All for one, one for all". "It was given to me by my seefoo" says Ng Cho Fan. "It's a motto by which I've lived my life"  Lo is a teacher, way up the social scale even though he's poor, while Leung is an uneducated guy, but positive and moral, which is utterly pertinent to the plot. "I'm a direct kind of guy", he adds, "I do and say what I think". Which includes kissing his wife in public, which must have been pretty racy in 1953. (see main photo above)

One of the other neighbours  (who fantasizes he's a kung fu master) played by Ko Lo Cheun (高魯泉 ) comes into Lo's room to draw. He used to be an artist before falling on hard times. He tells Lo that the house owner used to be a big shot too, but lost everything but the shabby tenement. Ah Fong isn't a maid but the owner's wife's niece, a naive country girl. from a good family, but exploited by her aunt. The beautiful Miss Pak is well bred, but fell on hard times too. She works as a dance hostess, fending off groping customers. "At night I hear her crying", says Yee Suk, "so pitiful" "Such a small building" says Lo, "But so many sad stories."

Lo and Pak have a lot in common: they drink a lot of coffee (unusual for the time) and share the same birthday.  Lo tries to borrow money from his school, but gets fired. Pak can't borrow from her boss either because she won't sleep with customers."You book learning people" says Brother Leung, "always worrying". He stumps up so the party can go on. Everyone joins in for dinner, including the owner Wong and his wife, but Wong keeps complaining and leaves. Leung, ever positive, says "We're all poor together. Even if all we have is white congee and yau ja kuei, we can fill up on that and be just as happy". Miss Pak's friend from the dance hall is there, dressed up like a glamour girl. "Looks aren't anything, I know what it's like when you can't even afford fish balls".  Miss Pak tells the group, "We don't dress up for vanity, we need to present an illusion so we can scrape a living".

Miss Pak's friend introduces Lo to a publisher who says he wants to print the short stories Lo writes now he's unemployed.  Lo is so excited that he dreams they'll be rich and travel "The world will be ours - America, Canada, Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, Greece - and Russia" !" (said in English, while wearing his pyjamas).  What they don't know is that the publisher is a crook. Fung Ying Sheung (馮應湘 ) was a American-Chinese famous for playing sleazy gangsters. All this playing around with the English language! – there's an implicit sub text somewhere. Lo and Pak laugh so much they wake the whole house. But the publisher turns out to be a fraud. Lo blames Pak for making him lose face. She scolds him for being selfish and getting his head turned by money, forgetting his true friends. In a beautiful scene, they make up, over the top of the cubicle divider. He decides to get a job so he can marry her, and she won't have to be a dance hostess.

Building owner Wong has been grooming Ah Fong. One night, his wife gets blind drunk, and he tells Ah Fong to watch her in their room. Instead, he rapes her.. His wife blames the girl for being ungrateful, and forces her to become a concubine. "If only she'd got a job when she left the countryside" observes one of the tenants. "None of this would have happened."

Earlier in the film, Bruce Lee played the son of the father of the family. The boy refused to eat, so his mother could eat instead, since she couldn't breastfeed the new baby as she had no milk. The father vowed he would do anything to help such a virtuous son. Since he can't get work, he sells his blood. Father feeds family, and also the Leungs, who are poor now that Leung lost his job as a driver and had to become an unskilled labourer. "I can't eat" says Bruce Lee, "it's like eating your blood, Dad."  Wong Cho San (the father) is a wonderful actor. As all at the table fall silent with guilt, Wong's expressive face speaks volumes. at last, he pretends to be cheerful. "Eat up everyone!" he says, "I'm behind 2 months in rent but now Lo the Teacher has got a job as rent collector, we'll be OK". Unfortunately, it's not up to Lo. His bosses are ruthless  and put pressure on him. He has to collect all the rents within 3 days because there's a demolition order on the house in 10 days. Building owners scream at the housekeeper, who screams at the tenants, but no-one has any money. The father of the family tries to sell his blood again, but the clinic won't use him again. He helps Leung at the wharf, but he's too weak and collapses. Their workmates clubbed together and raised $60 for medical treatment. Instead, they give it to Lo the rent collector.

On a typhoon night, Leung's wife goes into labour, while he's on night shift.. The women go to help. Ah Fong is so unhappy she tries to hang herself, but is stopped by the Father of the Family. He tells her that life is precious, even when it seems hopeless. He's used up his last ounce of strength and dies. A funeral, a birth and hospital to pay for. Meanwhile the storms outside gets fierce, and rain comes through the roof. Lo takes rent money to his boss, who is sitting in a comfy living room, wearing a smoking suit. "There you are sitting in comfort while houses are falling apart, and lives are in danger" says Lo, "Stuff your job". Huh !" sneers the boss, "I can get anyone, anytime to replace you". Back at the tenement, people are fleeing for their lives as the house collapses. Big shot Wong is killed.

At the hospital, Leung's wife has lost a lot of blood while giving birth. Miss Pak, Ah Fong and Ko Lo Chuen are in the waiting room. Lo turns up with money from his wages,and asks if the tenants will forgive him. It turns out that Mrs Leung has a rare blood type (B negative) and her only match is Lo the teacher. Mrs Leung needs so much blood that the doctor asks why Lo wants to endanger his own health to save hers "We are friends" says Lo. "Friends help each other". Lo still feels guilty because he chased his friends for rent, but they're all happy now he has helped save Mrs Leung's life. "it's thanks to Leung kor, who taught me his motto, Everyone looks after each other".

Sunday 28 September 2014

Mystery great Wagnerian Závodszky Zoltán

Who was Závodszky Zoltán? A friend sent a link to an hour-long documentary about him, with lots of clips and rare photos, but it's all in Hungarian. Help, please!

From what we've been able to gather, Závodszky (1892-1976) was a famous Hungarian tenor, who specialized in Wagner, singing mainly in Hungarian translation.Watch the documentary because it's fascinating,  even if the language is beyond most of us.  From what I gather Závodszky is being interviewed, and talks about his roles. What a clear, pure Heldentenor he was - if he'd sung more in German, and in German houses, we'd be sure to know him better. How frustrating it is that we can't follow the interview because he sounds like an interesting person with perspectives worth hearing.

Adds my friend: "couldn't find a bio, but he had been a pupil of the great Wagnerian tenor Georg Anthes, who sang at Bayreuth and the MET in the early 20th century. Anthes can be heard in a few Mapleson cylinders and had also been the teacher of Rosette Anday and Maria Nemeth, who, unlike our tenor, made great careers in Vienna. He seems to have been active only in his native Hungary. All his recordings are in Hungarian. I first read about him in "Opera on Record", in which he is mentioned as the best Parsifal Knappertsbusch had heard. No mean feat. It's interesting to notice which conductors are mentioned in the documentary: Weingartner, the also forgotten Sergio Failoni and Knappertsbusch. I was told that both Failoni and our tenor were performing at the Budapest Opera until 1948. So, we have got a singer who had been active in the 30s and perhaps  earlier on and later and had a special affinity with Wagner's music I find him no less moving as a Liedersaenger at a well advanced age. I wish he had recorded any of the Schubert cycles."  He also sends this link, in English.

 In the documentary, there's a clip of him singing from Schubert Die schöne Müllerin. He looks about 70 years old but his voice holds up well.  

Below his Tristan and his Lohengrin.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Rameau Les Paladins Christie Les Arts Florissants

Ahead of the all-Rameau Les Paladins concert at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 1st October, a link to a film on Les Paladins on medici tv based on the 2004 Théâtre du Châtelet de Paris production with Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie.

"We're talking about a composer who IS funny.....I've been living with Les Paladins for a number of years now", says William Christie, "and the thing that strikes me is that it's a piece of absolute anarchy, and from a composer who's an old man , 77, 78 years old,, it's as if he's trying essentially to shock. Then, " parody and caricature are important words describing this piece - it's as if he's parodying himself "
A black and white engraving of a huntsman comes alive as rows of deer run out from the flat surface. The stage is divided so rows of dancers occupy the front level, while large-scale videos of other dancers leap above them, as if bouncing off clouds. The baroque imagination adapted and re-created by modern technology. Later, dancing bunnies and other images of the exuberant bounty of Nature. The livret is pretty basic. "It's Entführung" says Laurent Nouri who sings Orcan (ie Osmin). Excellently cast - Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Argie), Topi Lehtipuu (Altis), Sandrine Piau, Laurent Naouri (Orcan), René Schirrer (Anselme), François Piolino (Manto), Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (un paladin).. Choreography and staging by José Montalvo. The music is so bright, and the playing so infectiously jolly that the singers bob about quite naturally among the dancers.

Who could sit still grumpily with music like this?  Throughout the opera ballet, words and orchestral passages bounce back and forwards in intricate patterns, captured in lively splitscreen staging.  Gert the full 2 disc DVD here

Sandrine Piau is singing at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday, with Les Paladins, the consort conducted by Jérôme Correas. They're doing a mixed programme of extracts from different Rameau opera/ballets , including Les Paladins, Castor et Pollux, Les Indes Galantes, Platée asnd Les Surprises d' Amour. Link to Wigmore Hall Box Office HERE. They're selling fast. There's a pre concert talk, too.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Happy 250th, J P Rameau !

Today, 25th September, is the  331st birthday of Jean-Philippe Rameau. Celebrate! Rameau epitomizes the best parts of the era in which he lived, when Europe was confidently discovering the rest of the world, but before it took on the baggage of empire. The baroque was an age of discovery, exploring exotic new frontiers, of glorious, audacious extremes of the imagination.  Cure from the art,  hyperbole, not grim literalism. Gods mix with mortals and animals in landscapes which bear less resemblance to Greece than to contemporary France. Goddesses in states of undress, revealing the delights of the flesh, but teasingly virtuous, under the veil of 'art". Shepherdesses in the clothes of the time, fantastical inventiveness and over the top fantasy. Technical limitations decreed a degree of abstraction in stage mechanics, compensated by extreme imagination in music and characterization. Perhaps Gods and mythic heroes appealed so much - they didn't conform to grubby expectations. When your grandad is Neptune, for example, you don't really need to follow rules.  And so the Heroes go their merry ways, having adventures, fooling around,  screwing around, and getting away with things and eventually learning a degree of basic moral wisdom. In the baroque lies the germ of the idea that Gods and Kings aren't all-powerrful. The baroque was more forward thinking – and "modern" – than many realize.

And listen to Rameau's music! Who can resist the vigorous and very physical dance rhythms, that make you feel with your body as well as with your mind? Petty minded Victorian values colour the past with a prissiness that Baroque personalities wouldn't recognize. Rameau, a nobody from the provinces, captures the imagination of Paris with his uninhibited joie de vivre. In his own time, Rameau was considered a radical and a rebel. Rameau's dance patterns and structures need precise, clear-sighted performance. hence the importance of performance styles which let the music shine, free and unfettered. Without  the  genuinely informed insight we have today, would we be able to hear Rameau in his true light?  Jean-Philippe Rameau, your time has come!

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Christopher Hogwood 1941-2014 (extended)

Christopher Hogwood died this morning.  Announcement on his website :

"Following an illness lasting several months, Christopher died peacefully on Wednesday 24 September, a fortnight after his 73rd birthday. He was at home in Cambridge, with family present. The funeral will be private, with a memorial service to be held at a later date."

 He shall ne missed . His death casts a long shadow. over Handel studies,  over period performance, over musical learning and practice.

Period informed performance has been around now more than 60 years It's an unshakeable part of modern musical thinking. Nikolaus Harnoncourt rebelled against the bland "internationalization" of post-war American orchestral sound (read my article Nikolaus Harnoncourt against the bland and the safe)  All "historically-informed" practice means is being aware of the uniqueness of each composer and period, respecting the music, rather than imposing some "one size fits all " approach. As Harnoncourt has said, it's pointless being  "authenticke" in some kitschy way. Integrity is far more important. What is so frightening about that?  There's no reason why early music can't be played any which way. but it's better to build new performances on genuine understanding of period imagination, rather than on inaccurate assumptions thereon. People in the past enjoyed their music without carrying the baggage of stultifying social expectation  that classical music seems to attract in some circles. Period-aware practice has revealed the energy, expressiveness  and liveliness in early music. HIP was once hip, and thankfully is now free again.

Being an Englishman, Hogwood applied these clear-thinking principles to Handel and the British tradition to illuminating effect.  Read this article, Reconstructing The Messiah.) Currently I'm revisiting Hogwood's Handel Messiah, with the Academy of Ancient Music (from 1980). After 35 years, some aspects feel "of its time"  e.g., the haircuts ) but that's perfectly reasonable. All good performance is well informed and modern at the same time, if the performers have integrity.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Bessie Smith St Louis Blues full video

Rare - Bessie Smith's only movie, in its entirety. It's a short from 1929 based around her hit St Louis Blues and features Louis Armstrong and a full orchestral arrangement, with chorus, created by W C Handy and Rosamond Johnson. Equally striking is the way it's made. The director, Dudley Murphy, doesn't sentimentalize.

Bessie Smith and Jimmy Mordecai are playing themselves, in the context of the song. Jimmy was a famous tap dancer who worked with the Cotton Club but later fell on hard times and fell off the radar. In the film, he's wearing an expensive sharp suit and hat - way classier than anyone else. A star! other men are pretty ordinary, one's a janitor, another a semi midget. A "yellow girl" (often a vamp in Blues mythology) steals money from some gamblers and passes it to Johnny. The moment Bessie walks in (at 4.22) the whole mood darkens. She's one powerful lady! But for Jimmy. she's abject . "I give you suits, I give you clothes", she says, imploringly. "Ah, women get out of my face" Hre says as he knocks her to the floor. He steps on her, he kicks her as he walks out the door. It's brutal and very physical.

Then the song starts (7.23) "Feeling tomorrow, like I do today, got to pack my bags, make my getaway". At first she's seated at a bar, getting drunk, singing without accompaniment. Then the band materializes, and the other customers in the bar sing the chorus, and the smart customers go about their business.  Bessie's oblivious, though.

"St Louis woman wears a diamond ring, she leads that man around by her apron strings. If it weren't for powder and store-bought hair, that man I love he wouldn't go nowhere". Her voice takes on the harsh timbre of a saxophone - extremely expressive. Listen to the staccatpo in the chorus, beating her like  a whip. The band plays on, the people dance, waiters twirl empty trays like showmen. In walks Johnny, strutting his stuff, doing a dance sequence – Mordecai was good!)  He spots Bessie alone at the bar. They embrace. The band plays the tune, this time like a smootchy dance number. Jimmy puts his hands up Bessie's dress, feeling up her thigh. But he's stealing the cash strapped under her suspenders. He walks out: Bessie hardly notices. Perhaps she's dreaming ? She's not too drunk to sing.

Band and chorus dissolve into distortions, as if conflicting music is happening at once, textures going awry. "My man's got a heart like a rock cast in the sea, or he wouldn't have gone so far from me".

Monday 22 September 2014

Is introducing children to opera smug parenting or a valuable cultural eye-opener?

"Is introducing children to opera smug parenting or a valuable cultural eye-opener?" asks Chris Shipman of the Royal Opera House, ahead of a new opera for two to six-year-olds, entitled Dot, Squiggle, and Rest. The toddler-friendly opera will feature puppetry, dance and animation and has been intended as an introduction to the art form. Simple answer: depends on the children, depends on the parents.

There are plenty of smug, self-obssessed and status-mad parents around, who use their children to promote themselves. Kids are not stupid: they pick up on false vibes. Little Ptolemy and Little Drusilda might rebel but chances are that they'll grow up just like their parents, using opera as a consumer product to prove that somehow they're superior to other people. For people like that, opera becomes a weapon with which to beat other people up. Literally as in a recent case. Imagine if the assailant had been an underclass rapper and the victim an opera-going taxi driver?  No, it's not alright. Maybe children of such parents grow up to be successful because they don't let anyone else get in their way.

On the other hand there are a lot of parents who want their kids to grow up to be happy human beings. The arts, and opera in particular, are an ideal way to introduce kids to the world beyond themselves.  Children naturally learn from fantasy, so opera is an extension of story-telling tradition.  Unlike movies, opera is physical theatre, so children learn how magic can be made by overcoming technical challenges. Above all, children can learn to listen to other people's ideas, and develop their own emotional responses. As a culture, I think we are becoming too materialistic and too literal. Most children haven't yet lost that sense of wonder and openness that is the basis of creative imagination. Opera isn't a gateway to "culture", but a way of learning about emotions, relationships and artistic expression.

Many operas are written for children. Some are a lot better than others - as all operas will be. Benjamin Britten, who was a bit of child himself, passionately believed that opera for children could be exciting without being patronizing. A while back, I wrote about the brilliant Noyes Fludde at Blackheath, devised in conjunction with a local school, so the kids became involved at all levels. The children's eyes shone with excitement, their minds clearly active with ideas. A miracle to behold. Then a cynical adult sneered "That wasn't a proper rainbow". The death of imagination is the death of art.

In continental Europe opera for children is a well-developed genre. Zurich Opera does a wonderful Mozart The Magic Flute specially for children (available on DVD) . It's not trivialized. Children can understand the idea of overcoming trials. The Wiener Staatsoper does an even more interesting Wagner Die Feen, which adults can learn from too (See my review here)  A friend's 3 year old so loved the Ceebeebies Prom that he was high for days. My son, aged two, enjoyed Amahl and the Night Visitors so much that he ran out and stood near the stage, transfixed. I didn't stop him. He was as good as gold, taking in every moment. Last year, at Faust  at the Royal Opera House, I sat near a girl aged about 9 or 10.  Obviously a rich little girl, Russian I think, with governess and minder. The little girl watched with avid concentration, leaning forward.  Faust for a child ? Why not? What's so difficult about an old man who sells his soul to be young and happy again?  Gretchen dies, but other fairy tale heroines suffer grim fates, too.  This little girl was clearly entering into the experience and getting much more from it than her attendants. Obviously an intelligent child, not at all someone to be patronized. She'll grow up an interesting person. So, yes, opera for children, but the right children, the right opera and the right motivations.

Read my numerous other posts on children and opera/classical music, such as Will childrren ever learn about operaand End the \Missionary position in classical music

Will you play this tune as though you've never heard it before

"Good Morning, gentlemen. Will you play this tune as though you've never heard it before"

Saturday 20 September 2014

Three Choirs Festival - Elgar, Rasch, Germans and British

The Three Choirs Festival, which began more than 300 years ago, is the oldest music festival in the western world. Instead of competing, the choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford  came together to share their faith through music. That sense of co-operation is very much a part of Christian tradition. As Jesus taught "Love thy neighbour as thyself". If only people could live by that concept, whatever their faith. Conflicts breed when people can't get that simple, basic tenet into their heads.

The Three Choirs Festival is much more than just a  music festival. Fundamentally, it represents the best of Christian values. Thus the Three Choirs Festival decided to mark the outbreak of the First World War with a special programme "Reflections on 1914", bringing together British and German musicians and composers. I wish I'd been there (though I greatly enjoyed Elgar The Apostles the following evening (review here). Fortunately, the programme can now be heard on BBC Radio 3 here.

Baldur Brönnimann specializes in new music, so he revealed  Elgar's Spirit of England  in all its true magnificence. The piece has suffered from the more belligerent aspects of Lawrence Binyon's texts, and from worthy but unquestioning performance practice. Binyon 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," Brönnimann instead emphasizes the innate optimism in the music. Whatever the "spirit of England" might be, it can be glorious and idealistic as well as bloodthirsty.  Brönnimann emphasizes the innate glory of the music. Brönnimann's Spirit of England applies to all men (and women).

 Brönnimann brings out the forward pulse, highlighting the economy with which Elgar builds up textures so they feel alive and sprightly. Slow hushed moments give rise to soaring themes (great woodwinds!). "We shall remember them!" sing the choirs and Peter Hoare, the soloist, sings  They have not died in vain if they're remembered in a performance as glistening and passionate as this. "Age shall not weary them" was truly expressed in the freshness of the playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Such clarity, such purity, surpassing the revered recordings of the past, setting new standards. Using a tenor instead of a soprano helped, too. Peter Hoare's voice is still youthful enough to suggest the soldiers who marched off, never to return.  While a female singer suggests Boadicea, a male voice is more personal and direct, making us think of the real people who sacrificed all for "the spirit of England".

Matthew Trusler was the soloist in Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending. This is a work so beautiful that it transcends time and place, evoking powerful responses in all who hear it.  Usually I'm fixated on the violin part, but this time, the lushness of the Philharmonia's playing added a marvellous veil of poignant mystery.

The Three Choirs Festival is very English, but Torsten Rasch grew up in a similar tradition. 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.  Loosely based on British Evensong which combines song with readings, Rasch brings together the words of poets from opposing sides in the war - Georg Trakl, Edward Thomas and the Dymock poets, finding common ground, so to speak, particularly in the Latin passages.. Rasch's music is modern enough to sound unworldly, but accessible enough to feel dramatic. We hear intimations of conflict in jarring, expansive passages that disintegrate into dark rumblings, yet also bell sounds and subtle pastoral. At Worcester, people who'd heard it told me that they'd been quite intrigued. I especially liked the way the music seemed to revolve like the movement of a sphere.

 A Foreign Field is a Three Choirs Festival Commission, but it's also being shared with Chemnitz, a city heavily bombed in 1945 by the British.  In 1918 savage reparations led to to the Second World War. In 1945, the Marshall Plan broke the cycle of hate, rebuilding a new Germany which is now a force for peace.

Thus the importance of conciliation, and the guiding moral spirit behind the Three Choirs Festival. Just as the Three Choirs Festival is about more than music, Torsten Rasch's A Foreign Field represents idea as well as sounds. Roderick Williams, Peter Hoare and Yeree Suh were joined by the Three Choirs Festival Chorus, the Chorus of the Three Cathedral Choirs and singers from Die Kantorei der Kreuzkirche, Chemnitz, in a highly symbolic coming together. Thus it was all the more offensive that a chorister was reported as having impersonated Hitler and made joking references to Auschwitz, (here). Whatever the situation, this isn't funny. Even though Christians forgive, there is far too much casual, unthinking nastiness about to simply ignore such things. It's not just one individual but a mindset that goes largely unchallenged.

Friday 19 September 2014

Bayerische Staatsoper Broadcast schedule

At the start of the Bayerische Staatsoper 2014-15 season,  dates for online broadcasts are announced.

 NB the schedule's been changed - see latest here

NEW  Strauss Die Schweigsame Frau (Barry Kosky) 5th October

Leoš Janáček ~ The Makropoulos Case - 19 October 1st November

Giacomo Puccini -  Manon Lescaut 15th November

Petipa  (Ratmansky) - Pacquita - 11th January

Donizetti  -  Lucia Di Lammermoor - st February 2015

Rossini -- Le comte d'Ory - 12 April

Ballet by Richard Seigal - 18 April

Alban Berg - Lulu - 6th June

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande - 28th June

Strauss : Arabella - 25th July

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Souffler les bougies : L'année Rameau

Blow out the candles. It's Rameau's 250th birthday on 25th September. To celebrate Arte TV is screening four classic productions

All of these are very well known, so anyone with the slightest interest in Rameau will have seen them already. But my goodness, they are so good that you want to enjoy them over and over. A brilliant introduction, too, for those new to Rameau.

Les Indes Galantes - the groundbreaking  1992 William Christe Les Arts Florissants production from 1992. Barqoue is its true, exuberant glory!

Platée  (1999) Marc Minkowski, L'Orchestre des Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble in the brilliant Laurent Pelly production, described here - Prince kisses Frog.

Les Paladins : William Christie ".....; une oeuvre rare de Jean-Philippe Rameau. Presque oubliée, elle s'inspire pourtant des fameuses "Fables" de la Fontaine. Avec humour et surréalisme, cet opéra raconte l'amour impossible entre Atis et Argie, cette dernière étant promise au vénérable sénateur Anselme et placée sous la surveillance de l'inflexible Orcan. "Les Paladins" fut incompris à son époque, cette comédie-ballet est pourtant un petit bijou d'autodérision et de cocasserie."

 Hippolyte et Aricie ~ Emmanuelle Haim , Concert d'Astrée

Handel Xerxes ENO

"Alice Coote’s Xerxes was superbly sung, covering the full range from the short lyric arias through the virtuoso bluff and bluster to the intense pain of the extended da capo arias. Coote has a very personal way with Handel and her performance was a very individual one. Musically she took her time over some things, but showed herself equally capable of bravura passagework. Similarly, in terms of character, she projected Xerxes’ changeability quite brilliantly. Her conception of Xerxes might be rather more flippant than some, but she certainly brought out the idea that living with him was very much living on the edge."

Read the full review here by Robert Hugill in  Opera Today

Chameleon woman Li Xianglan

Yoshiko Ōtaka 大鷹 淑子) died this week, aged 94, of a heart attack. Who was she, and why does it matter? Otaka was a glamour actress who starred in the film Shina no Yoru (China Nights) (1940), using her Chinese name  and identity, Li Xianglan. Nearly everyone knows the song from that film, albeit in its racist, bowdlerized version. Just as Otaka masde propaganda films for the Japanese invasion of China, she made propaganda films for the American occupation of Japan, under the name Shirley Yamaguchi.  A "Chameleon woman", because that's the way to survive in difficult times.

China Nights is so notorious in China, that its very mention still gives some people bad memories. I approached it with trepidation. Once you get over the propaganda aspects, though, it's not such a bad movie. You can see why it convinced many Japanese at the time that they were doing good for the Chinese by invading their country,, bombing and killing. Please read my analysis of the film here. "China Nights - totally politically incorect". 

In the film, Li plays a Chinese partisan who learns to realize that the Japanese are nice people who just want to civilize the Chinese. Needless to say, this didn't go down well with the Chinese. As a symbol of Japanese oppression, she was vilified. Just as she was about to be sentenced to death, it was revealed that she wasn't Chinese at all, but a Japanese who had been adopted by Chinese. So it wasn't treason by patrotism for the wrong side.  Sher moved to Japan wherte she made more movies and becamer a member of the Japanese parliament. Her life is thus a snapshot of turbulent times. A chameleon lady, who switched names, nationalities and professions (she wasn't all that good a singer either). She was a woman who survived because she had to be what the peiople around her expected her to be. Not really so different from millions of other women after all.  What is a stereotype, after all? Below, another of her famous songs, sung in Chinese, 


Tuesday 16 September 2014

Another conductor quits Vienna State Opera

Days after Franz Welser-Möst announced his  resignation from the Wiener Staatsoper right at the start of a new season, Bertrand de Billy has announced his resignation too.

De Billy said in an interview with KURIER-"Das Kapitel Staatsoper ist für die Dauer der Amtszeit von Dominique Meyer für mich abgeschlossen."  

"Noch in der selben Saison kehrte De Billy zurück ins Haus am Ring – für drei Vorstellungen von Gounods "Faust". Heute sagt der Dirigent: "Das Verhalten von Dominique Meyer hat gezeigt: Das war ein schwerer Fehler. Im Grund habe ich sofort danach geistig den Schlussstrich gezogen." Als sein Manager schließlich im Juli von Meyer informiert wurde, dass de Billy im Repertoire dirigieren könne, was er wolle, "aber die bereits fix abgesprochenen Neuproduktionen nicht, war dieses Gefühl bestätigt". De Billy: "Entweder will man jemanden am Haus oder nicht. Ich habe an der Staatsoper immer Repertoire und Premieren dirigiert. Mir war klar: Es hat für mich unter diesen Umständen an diesem Haus keinen Sinn mehr." Es tue ihm "furchtbar leid" um die Zusammenarbeit mit Orchester und Chor. "Aber man kann nur in einer Atmosphäre der Offenheit und Ehrlichkeit seine Leistung bringen. Es wird auch eine Zeit nach Meyer an der Staatsoper kommen."

 De Billy's much less diplomatic than Welser-Möst, but in both cases whatever the triggers might be, problems have been simmering for some time.

Dvořák Symphony no 8 José Serebrier

New Dvořák Symphony no 8 ! José Serebrier continues his highly esteemed Dvořák series. Read my review of his Dvořák Symphony no 9 (The New World)  and see why Serebrier's approach is so distinctive. Enjoy !

Sunday 14 September 2014

ENO Otello - all the makings of a great classic

Verdi Otello at the English National Opera. Definitely worth seeing, especially when things have settled after the premiere. The set is so stylish that it would have been an overwhelming experience at the Royal Opera House with a top notch international cast and conductor and sung in Italian. Fundamentally, opera  costs money. Economies of scale are utterly  relevant.  It just does not make business sense to throw money at micro mini opera companies and pub opera, while squandering the existing body of experience we have inn the ENO and ROH.  This new ENO Otello is good, but how much better it would have been in a climate which recognizes that serious art needs serious support.

This Otello has huge potential, and should get the recognition it deserves. This beautiful set, designed by Jon  Morrell, is  extraordinarily versatile.  Sets as good as this take real expertise, and a genuine sense of creative vision.  Morrell's strong basic structure reflects the  drama itself,  where the characters are caught by unrelenting fate. Onto this bedrock, Adam Silverman's lighting designs are powerfully evocative/ We saw lightning strike, and discordant, disturbing switches of light and darkness. This storm suggests that cosmic forces operate behind the drama that is to follow. The same basic set adapts easily to depict the walls of an Italianate palace,  not in Venice but in Cyprus, a fortress. Hard marble elegance and crumbling paintwork, as one sees so often. Otello is a hero who has achieved great public honours,  but his success is a facade. Yet he's insecure. Iago destroys him by manipulating his inner weakness.

This staging is so expressive that it told the story with great effect and really needs to be revived, soon, perhaps even in  a bigger house with cast and conducting to do it justice. Edward Gardner is dearly loved  and even more popular now he's moving on. Read my "What Bergen means" HERE.  He's good but he's not necessarily an instinctive Verdi conductor. We shouldn't let our fondness for Sexy Ed make us forget that not everyone can be exceptional in everything.  Some very nice playing though: the Song of the Willow was poignant enough that my companion thought of the Shepherd in Tristan und Isolde.  Verdi needs more passionate extremes, perhaps even a sense of madness, especially in an opera about how a great man can be destroyed by irrational emotion.

An excellent Otello in Stuart Skelton. He had the force to evoke Otello's power, but not at the expense of sensitivity. Although it's no longer acceptable to stage Otello painted up like a Black Minstrel, we must never forget wny Shakepeare made Otello a black man. Against all odds, he's risen to power in a society ruled by powerful families who don't value outsiders unless they're useful. Cyprus is a fortified colonial outpost, not part of the metropolitan Establishment in Venice. The lightness in Skelton's timbre is good at creating the more sensitive side of the character. Skelton's Otello is a likeable man, with whom one can sympathize, but he's not quite demonic enough.  Otello is a tragedy because the character kills what he loves most. Otello  might be a seething cauldron of complexes, but Skelton's much too lovable to terrify, though he sings so well,  It's not face paint that makes a good Otello, but the way his personality is expressed.

The contrast between Desdemona's "whiteness" and her husband's "blackness" underlines the gap between them; a gap so deep that it's resolved in violence. Leah Crocetto looks the part, and has nice, round plummy tones. But there's a lot more to the role than niceness. Crocetto's singing was good, but more suited to concert performance. Good singing too from the rest of the cast, Allan Claytron's Cassio shone. Significantly, he wore a blond wig, which might be another reason for Otello's insecurity. Jonathan Summers sang Iago, and  Pamela Helen Stephen sang Emilia, his wife.  Peter Van Hulle  sang Rodrigo, Charles Johnston sang Montano and Barnaby Rea gave more to the small part of Ludovico than it usually gets.

All these relationships are important, and written into the music and libretto. David Alden is an excellent director, but the dynamic in the first two acts was relatively subdued, becoming much tighter in the third and fourth acts. In a livelier cultural climate, Alden could have done more with the veiled undercurrents in the drama, but these days short-term success dictates art.  David Alden is one of the grand old men of British theatre and opera. John Berry, ENO Artistic Director, presented Alden with an award marking Alden's thirty years at the ENO, starting witha Mazeppa a production that apparently had audience members fighting in the aisles.  The present obsession with small scale might leave us with nothing but pub opera, which might suit some. But for me, really good opera needs audacity and the resources to think big and bold.

Benignly British - Last Night of the Proms 2014

Last Night of the BBC Proms 2014. Thousands were there, having fun, and thousands more at open air Proms all over the country. I was at Otello at the ENO – new production by David Alden. I'll write about that in a few hours, please come back – it was good! The real Last Night of the Proms was  a thrilling Beethoven Ninth with the Leipzig Gewandhaus (reviewed here)  So the Last Last Night of the Proms is Silly Season, a time to unwind and ham things up.

Sakaro Oramo in tails and a Union Flag waistcoat!  And Malcolm Arnold to set the right tone of doggedly British dottiness. The BBC Singers, The BBC SO Chorus, the BBC SO and conductor Sakari Oramo joined forces for Arnold's Peterloo Overture. "I felt again the passion of a great nation burning...the libertine philosophers no longer held sway, ". New words, methinks. At least Arnold had a sense of humour. Havergal Brian didn't and many others won't. 

I loved the BBC camera work, the scene shot from way up in the dome. Literally, "off the wall". Sakari Oramo hams things up with a demented grin. Wow, he's a natural TV persona. Some real music in the mix – Janine Jansen playing Chausson Poème with a straight face, and a rarity – Richard Strauss's Taillefer, a mini-oratorio about a peasant following William the Conqueror to "Eng-ger-land".  Strauss sending up Grand Oratorios and Mock Medieval Tradition.

Roderick Williams sang Rule Britannia. In recent years this feature of the Last Night has been camped up so much that there's no more room for novelty. Williams took a radically different approach. Previously he'd joked about waving a Jamaican flag. Perfectly reasonable – where would Britain be without West Indians and their descendants? At one stroke, the Proms would connect to millions of people otherwise excluded form the sometimes belligerant jingoism of the past. On the other hand, Williams is sharp enough to understand thast such a gesture might be patronizing, Much, much better that Williams chose sincerity, idealism and conviction.  His eyes shone. No gimmick, no jokiness, but absolute faith in,meaning  For me, one of the great things about Britain is that immigrants can become somebody, hard as it might be. That's what inclusiveness is really all about.

Sakari Oramo is  a natural party animal and born communicator. He takes his coat off to reveal  a Finnish flag on the back of his waistcoat.  But in his speech he addressed serious issues. "Music isn't just about knowledge and technical things, it's about love and appreciation.... Music is history, it's culture, it's a universal language to those who are open to it. It's science, it's geography, it's physical education. It develops insight. It's therapy for those who need it. Music is a wonderful high speed dual carriageway to the human mind and innermost emotions" 

Last year there was a big fuss because Marin Alsop was the first female conductor to conduct a Last Night. But so what? One person's self-congratulation means nothing when millions of women (and men) around the globe struggle simply to stay alive. Being a conductor is not only irrelevant in the wider scheme of things, but reinforces the idea of western supremacy, Far from promoting  feminism, it set the cause back,  This year's LNOP with its non-grandstanding,  gentle good humour could do a lot more in terms of bringing people together.

Saturday 13 September 2014

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra Beethoven 9 Prom London

The Last Night of the Proms is a wonderful party, but for music lovers the Real Last Night of the Proms is the night before, with Beethoven' s Symphony no 9. No music more symbolic of the Proms ethos than this wonderful symphony. This year, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra did the honours. This was a very special Prom indeed, for Leipzig's Beethoven tradition is even more glorious. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra has been doing Beethoven since Beethoven was "new music" and a living composer.

What a sense of occasion and what a rewarding performance! The famed "golden" sound of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra came vividly to life. Alan Gilbert was vindicated, too. I've heard this orchestra do this symphony twice live with Riccardo Chailly. Gilbert's approach was less dynamic, but he had a steady feel for the way the structure of the symphony builds up. Like a series of progressive waves, oddly enough like the "marches" in Mahler Second/Mvt 1, but much better defined here.  Gilbert's approach is quiet, rather than boisterous, but this in itself brings out the strengths of this orchestra. Such control from the double basses and lower strings - it's not at all easy to hold lines so long barely above the volume of a whisper. Incredibly beautiful. Wow, can the Leipzigers play! Muted, glowing, and full of meaning: Beethoven is slowly revealing a miracle, which unfolds from (controlled) chaos.

Superb singing, yet again. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir , the Leipzig Opera Chorus and  Leipzig Gewandhaus Childrens's Choir sing with the same rich resonance as the orchestra with which they  are associated.  The sound is something special. The London Symphony Chorus must have enjoyed working with them. Even better, the soloists. Dimitry Belosselskiy's voice rang out powerfully, commanding rapt attention in a packed Royal Albert Hall.  Steve Davislim equally impressive. I adore this singer, who can sustain phrases almost beyond human possibility, and make them float, seemingly without effort. We can't see his lungs but we can hear his total mastery oif technique. On this occasion he was putting his heart into his words: absolutely stirring, the clarity of his timbre shining, just like the brass behind him. Davislim's lyrical, too, creating the sense of quirkiness that worked extremely well with what was happening in the orchestra. To Beethoven Turkish troops with their pipes and drums, must have seemed wildly exotic. The Leipzigers , refined and lush as they are, defined the jaunty rhythms we've heard so often we take them for granted, without noticing why they're there.

"Deine Zauber binden weider,
was die Mode streng geteilt:
Alle Menschen werden Bruder,
Wo den sanfter Flugel weilt"

Absolutely, it matters that Beethoven is referring to exotic strangers, including them in the community. The word "Freude", (Joy) recurs repeatedly, but what kind of "joy" is it that intoxicates with such exhilaration? This joy has the power to break down divisons, even in war zones. For Beethoven, perhaps it was music. An orchestra epitomises that kind of shared commtment and focussed purpose.  
And so the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra showed its soul.  Leipzig has always had liberal political traditions. Felix Mendelssohn was one of its great conductors. When the Nazis pulled down Mendelssohn's statue from outside the Gewandhaus building, the mayor of the city tried to protest. In 1989, thousands of East Germans fled west, provoking a crisis in the DDR. The protests that started in the nearby Nikolaikirche, supported by Kurt Masur and many members of the orchestra, led to the overthrow of repression and the reunification of Germany.
A few weeks after that, the Leipzig Gewandhaus came to Oxford, to the Sheldonian At that stage, we still thought the Soviets might march in, as they'd done before, so the occasion was extremely charged, emotionally. 

On the Real Last Night of the BBC Proms this year, the mood was happier and more relaxed - Freude in every sense. How glorious it felt - orchestra, choirs, soloists, conductor all on the same page literally, performing their hearts out. The choruses wore red and black - pretty meaningful - and the instruments glowed gold, bronze and silver.  in the background  turquoise and sapphire lighting, and a beam highlighting the bust of Sir Henry Wood, who helped create the Proms. He's long dead, but if he could sing, he'd be joining in too!

Nowadays it's fashionable to call for the end of the BBC. Sure it does bad things, but where would we be without it? Consider.

Friday 12 September 2014

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra Mahler 3 BBC Proms London

(For my review of the gorgeous Leipzig Gewandhaus Beethoven 9 Prom  Gilbert redeemed please see here).  Because Riccardo Chailly was scheduled to conduct the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony no 3 at the BBC Proms, (Prom 73), tickets sold out within hours. All my friend could get were pricey seats in a box in the Grand Tier. The Leipzigers and Chailly are so good and their Mahler so distinctive that the cost seemed a good investment.  The acoustic in the Grand Tier really is good, though you can hear every cough and dropped booklet resonate around the building. Perhaps that's why I didn't feel entirely bad about Alan Gilbert replacing Chailly at short notice (Chailly broke his forearm). The sound quality meant that details were finely formed, and the very quietness in some passages indicated thoughtful engagement with some of the ideas in the symphony.

Like Mahler's First and Mahler's Seventh, the Third can take a variety of interpretations, from the black, haunted humour of Horenstein,  to the blazing sunshine of Abbado, to the vigorous mountaineering of Rattle, and the exceptionally poignant Welser-Möst at the Proms in 2005.  I also have a soft spot for Eugen Szenkar's  recording, made soon after the war with musicians who hadn't been able to play Mahler for 20 years. If you want a Mahler as street fighting man, that's worth hearing (and quite valid since Mahler's politics were leftist). My gut instinct is that Gilbert has something interesting to say, but perhaps not on this occasion and not with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. That's much more than can be said of some other conductors.

"Pan erwacht: Der Sommer marschein ein", Mahler described the huge first movement in his original drafts. Pan, the god of wild open spaces, mountains., music and sexual danger. Perhaps the "marches" here aren't literal, pastoral rather than urban or  military, but what matters is the progression of ideas giving rise to a relentless series of forwards movements.  Mahler worked on this symphony in the Salzkammergut, where valleys and lakes are hemmed in, almost claustrophobically, by huge mountain ranges. Mahler, a keen hiker (and rider of early mountain bikes)  would have understood mountains as challenges to be conquered in the brief Alpine summer. The First Movement can be read as a panorama of peaks, each opening out to new vistas, pushing towards a resolution that might ultimately be spiritual transcendance. Thus the "panpipes" in the horns and the winds, and the significance of off-stage brass: something invisible is pulling the symphony, and the listener ever higher and further away from an earthly plane.

When Chailly conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra the fit wasn't quite so good, because the Amsterdam orchestra had its own great Mahler tradition. But when Chailly moved to Leipzig, to conduct the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with even older traditions (though not in Mahler),  the magic worked perfectly right from the start, vindicating Donald Mitchell's high praise for him. The Leipzigers are famed for their warm, golden sound, which fits perfectly with Chailly's strengths. I hate using national labels but they might explain why the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Alan Gilbert don't have quite the same chemistry. Throughout the First movement of this Prom, it felt as though the Leipzigers had their own approach to Mahler (nurtured by Chailly) while Gilbert is an American conductor.

The all-important brass entries seemed odd, as if the players were following some instinctive volition, rather than following Gilbert. His signals were pretty straightforward, but these players are so good they can almost conduct themselves. Gilbert didn't define the "marches" or the mountains" quite as monumentally as they can be done. Rather, he stressed the quieter passages, as if creating an aubade of aural texture. This is perfectly valid for it connects to the idea of dawn and regrowth : the hunter dies, but the animals go on. Gilbert's attention to detail brought out the bird song and hushed, chirping sounds in the undergrowth. Those kukkuks, the flute melodies,  the hushed murmuring strings  and hints of Mahler song: very Des Knaben Wunderhorn. I kept thinking of Messiaen. The formative years of Gilbert's career were spent in Lyons, where Nagano laid the foundations of another distinctive European tradition. But Gilbert works in New York, where he has to blend in with expectations there.  So Gilbert falls between different stools, so to speak. But he's much more interesting than many other conductors. I suspect, one day, he'll find his niche and get the respect he's due.

Gerhild Romberger
As the performance continued, the match between conductor and orchestra tightened. There were many very good moments , especially in the Misterioso, and the final section blazed with warmth and a sense of fulfilment. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is so wonderful that just letting them get on with what they're good at would have worked better in a high-profile gig like the Proms. But full credit to Gilbert for trying to do his own thing, Maybe he will, soon, and shake up an orchestra without the sumptuous stature of the Leipzigers.

The most perfect part of the evening for me was the singing. It usually is, but this singing was wondrous. Gerhild Romberger was superb: not flashy, but self effacing and all the more convincing for that. She let the rich resonance of her voice command attention, and it filled the vast barn that is the Royal Albert Hall. Her "O Mensch" felt truly plaintive, as if she were weeping for the death of the old world and giving birth to the new. The eerie woodwind twining around her voice sounded like an instrument from the ancient past.  The Leipzig Opera and Gewandhaus Choir (women's voices) and Leipzig Gewandhaus Children's Choir (delightful Bim-bams) provided support almost as lustrous as the great orchestra they work with so well.

NEW DELIGHTED to report that Beethoven Symphony no 9 went extremely well!  I've heard Chailly conduct Beethoven 9 with this orchestra twice live. Brilliant! Alan Gilbert isn't Chailly but he's vindicated. Excellent sense of build-up in the first movement, pinpointing details which will emerge later in the symphony. How do the double basses play as quietly as that?   A freer and more sponatneous performance altogether - Gilbert and the Leipzigers meshing together well.  Orchestras at this level know what they are doing when they choose a conductor. Dimitry Belosselskiy magisterial in the bass part. Steve Davislim astounding - he can string phrases out without seeming to need space to breathe.  As he sang, I noticed how the jauntiness of his part was matched by the jauntiness in the music around him. The "Turkish" pipes and drums, perhaps? If I have time I'll write more.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Yannick Nézet-Séguin dirigiert Bartók und Mahler

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Bartók and Mahler 1. Enjoy the broadcast video HERE. Gil Shaham  is the soloist in the Bartók Violin Concerto No 2. The orchestra is the BR Symphonieorchester

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Haitink 60th Jubilee Mahler 4 broadcast RFO not RCO


Last night, Bernard Haitink conducted Mahler Symphony no 4  to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his debut as a conductor. It's ONLINE NOW, in full video ! Listen soon because it won't be up long. Mahler 4 is very close to Haitink's heart, so this is a wonderful performance,. But it's even more poignant because, on this very important occasion, he's conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. He's been associated with them for many years, of course, but they aren't the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. Haitink began conducting the RCO in 1957 so it really was a major shock when he suddenly quit on the very eve of his 85th birthday. Read how the story broke HERE (in Dutch). Haitink nooit meer bij Concertgebouworkest  (Haitink will have no more to do with the Concertgebouw)

Haitink felt that thr RCO management wasn't treating him with enough respect, so he decided never to play for them again. It wasn't a spur of the moment decision but had been building up for some time, as these things usually do. What was unusual, though is how Haitink went public. Usually all sides are cagey, speaking through lawyers and agents in mutually agreed terms. 

Haitink's been around long enough that he can rest on his laurels. Although some click baiters claim they know why Franz Welser-Möst quit the Vienna Staatsoper, nothing in fact has been revealed. I wasn't that surprised, as the Vienna Staatsoper has had a chequered past and in recent years it's got quite boring. But we should show more respect for condutors who place artistry above all. In this increasingly pusillanimous world, ruled by petty short-term values, we need conductors who stand up for what they believe in.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

The Cleveland Orchestra Welser-Möst Brahms Proms London

The Cleveland Orchestra, with Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, made a most welcome return to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.  Are the Clevelanders the best orchestra in the United States today? Their two Proms certainly made the case. Superlative finesse and poise, generated by genuine musicality.  The classical music world is international these days. Thanks to the internet, anyone, anywhere can listen to the best on offer. Orchestras can't rest on their laurels but must offer something unique. The Cleveland Orchestra is world-class, thank in no small part to Welser-Möst and his exacting standards. When orchestras and opera houses are imploding all round, Cleveland should be proud of what it has.

Classical elegance, too,  in the way the two programmes dovetailed : Brahms Symphonies no 1 and 2, preceded by Brahms Academic Festival Overture and Tragic Overture. Classical elegance is a much underrated virtue. Far too often  noise, bluster and commercialized tat substitute for well-crafted sensitivity. Welser-Möst and the Clevelanders evoke an aesthetic very much attuned to the values of 19th century Austria. This Brahms Symphony no 1 in C minor, op. 68 reminded me of Mozart, such was its freshness and clarity. This approach gives Brahms greater respect than the usual clichés about Beethoven. Brahms was very much an original in his own right, not Beethoven manqué. Such was the purity of this performance that I thought of Brahms the composer of chamber music, songs and works for piano. The larger themes thus felt like a natural development, a totally Brahmsian resolution, as personal as Ein Deutsches Requiem or the Alto Rhapsody. The ghost of Wagner towers so heavily over European music that it's salutary to hear Brahms as the pure soul of German and Austrian tradition. Perhaps that was the point of starting with the  Academic Festival Overture. Brahms, with his droll, down-to-earth groundedness, isn't Wagner or Beethoven, but himself.  [One of the big wars in music history was Wasgner versus Brahms. Maybe Wagner won since so many now expect to hear Brahms with a Wagner flavour. But Brahms  entire symphonic output adds up to one Wagner opera, and Wagner's non opera output pales in comparison with Brahms. All the more treason .that Welser-Möst's Brahms deserves respect]
Welser-Möst and the Clevelanders created Brahms Symphony no 2 in D op 73 with a similar sense of style. Brisk, agile playing created a sense of freedom  - no buttoned-up regression here!  The darker timbres in the second movement  suggested sensuality or mystery, rather than malice, adding nice resonance to the final movement's heady con spirito. Glorious brass playing - Cleveland's famed showpiece is alive and well.  What wit to pair this symphony with the growling Tragic Overture. creating a vivid contrast.  In August (Prom 53)  Iván Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Brahms Symphonies no 3 & 4.  Usually Fischer is very impressive, but that performance sounded oddly subdued, almost as if Brahms was being submerged under the weight of much later performance practice.  Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Oirchestra presented Brahms with much greater flair, showing why Brahms's originality stunned Arnold Schoenberg, one of his greatest admirers.

Between the Brahms pieces at these two Proms, the Cleveland Orchestra played Jörg Widmann, Flûte en suite  and Teufel Amor. Widmann is very well known in London, as composer, clarinettist and brother of Carolin Widmann the violinist. Flûte en suite was written for the Cleveland Orchestra's principal flute, Joshua Smith. It's delightfully whimsical, allowing Smith to display his virtuosity, while maintaining good-natured common sense - a very Brahmsian touch. Widmann plays with the idea of Bach counterpoint, balancing soloist with orchestra. At the end, Bach takes over, with a direct, extended quote from Bach's Badinerie, as if Bach has won through after all. In lesser hands, the joke might fall flat, but Smith and the Clevelanders understand the humour.  Widmann's Teufel Amor unfolds with darker portent. It's filled with brooding incident, narrating a story without words. A good new direction.

[Further to a private discussion, I think Brahms symphonies aren't "box office" esp not without the accretions of saccharine syrup many people expect.  Furthermore two matching programmes might make artistic good sense but audiences don't necessarily want art. The Clevelanders might have nmade more money doing Copland or whatever but I respect them for choosing artistic good values]

Monday 8 September 2014

English Sprechstimme : Walton Facade Prom

Calling Facade: an Entertainment the creation of William Walton is a bit unfair. The music in the piece comes primarily from Edith Sitwell's bizarre texts where meaning is subservient to the strange syntax and rhythms of the spoken word.  In this version of Facade, Walton's contribution serves as understated background   Everything in Facade predicates on the text, which isn't illustrated like song, and not even sung or spoken in a normal way, but in a kind of English Sprechstimme.

Everything rests on the innate musicality of the Speakers. At the Cadogan Hall in Proms Chamber Music 8 we had Dame Felicity Palmer and Ian Bostridge. They were a formidable partnership, She a Grand Dame with plummy tones that express the type of English Grand Dame whose like we may never see again. He, immersed in Britten (who adored Sitwell) and the wilder shores of British imagination. Facade isn't spoken, like speech. It's declaimed so the very nature of language is inverted  as musical form. There's something so deep and so hidden in Facade that that it's very title is a hint. "Jai'seul la clef de cette parade sauvage". Sitwell's inspirations might have been Rimbaud and Apollinaire, though she's not quite as incandescant. She's English,  after all, and more genteel. In early performances, the performers hid behind a curtain painted with a Grecian face, transmitting the words through a hole, rather like a Grecian oracle. Or, one might dare say, like the Wizard of Oz through an emerald palace. The speakers spoke through a Sengerphone, as pictured above, which would have further disguised and dehumanized the voices. That's Edith Sitwell herself in the photo. 
Bostridge did poems where extreme agility and rapid fire diction create jaunty staccato. Crisply defined word endings, sharp "d"s and "t"s, delivered deadpan: Sitwell didn't want soppy sentimentality. Yet Sitwell's Neue Sachlichkeit masked great sadness. An abused, awkward child, she hid behind strange costumes and affectation, as if the mask - the facade - of eccentricity could mask the pain within. Bostridge's perfect poise let just enough of Sitwell's singularity through so we could feel the person behind the arch cleverness. What a coyly secretive language English can be. Bostridge ever so subtly emphasized the silent "h" in words like "when" and "where" Even the way he clipped words like "room" to "rhum" as repressed,  upper class Englishmen still do, suggested meaning beyond the obvious play on words. 

Dame Felicity did poems where longer lines allow words to pop up like images in the subconscious. Once could analyze the words, like people do with Bob Dylan lyrics, but it's better I think to focus on the play of sounds within words, and the deliberate dissociation of fractured images. Hence the exoticism,, which constantly throw the listener off track. There are images of Spanish grandees ("mouldy" men with young brides) and Cockney couples whose accents Palmer mimics with great verve. We're in the world of Rimbaud's Les Illuminations, though Walton's music is far less inventive. In this version of Facade, Walton's contributions are subtle: jazz riffs on saxophone, which would have seemed much more daring and avant garde in the early 1920's then they do today, and sultry woodwinds. Even the Hornpipes suggest images hidden from plain view. And oh, that gorgeous Sir Beelzebub where both speakers and the orchestra dance in mock heroic glee. 

Before Walton's Facade, members of the Nash Ensemble, conducted by John Wilson, played Shostakovich's Four Waltzes (Op 97c) in a transciption by L Atovmyan. Delightfully cheery and cheeky.

Sunday 7 September 2014

Bach St Matthew Passion Rattle Berlin Prom

Peter Sellars's Bach St Matthew Passion Prom with Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker can't have been anyone's top pick of the season because it's been done so many times and in so many places since first produced five years ago. There's a DVD and a relatively recent performance on the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall with much the same cast as we had in London.In principle, there's absolutely no reason Bach Passions should not be staged.  Strict Lutherans didn't do theatre, but theatre is very much part of Christian tradition. Latin  Masses were mystical, artistic experiences. Modern masses put the emphasis back on what Christianity means, rather than thrills like flowers, statues and incense.

There's also no reason why Bach Passions shouldn't be reinterpreted in new terms. That said, it depends on what  the new terms are. I'm no fan of Peter Sellars's self-indulgent, often maudlin stagings which say more about him than about the music he's staging (which is fair enough).  Since I've seen the production several times I wasn't going to rush out to the Royal Albert Hall.  This isn't Sellars's worst. It's  relatively austere and moving in a simplistic way, which  might appeal to some. A friend did, however, go last night.  Here's his review ! 

Saturday 6 September 2014

Stravinsky Rachmaninov Rattle Berlin Phil Prom

Surprisingly symphonic - Igor Stravinsky's Firebird (L'oiseau d'or) with Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker. BBC Prom 64. What a pleasure it was to hear this familiar music played with such elegance and grace! Although The Firebird was written too be danced to, this performance was a reminder that it is also very fine pure music.  Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker dispelled memories of the more raucous suites, concentrating instead on the inherent beauty of the piece. Strictly speaking, music for ballet needs to follow the human body, and the physical capacities of dancers. As an orchestral piece, the music moves in a very different way because instrumental musicians spread the effort between them. With Rattle and the Berliners, The Firebird could breathe on its own, revealing its strange, exotic mysteries at its own pace.

Rattle preceded Stravinsky's Firebird with Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances (1940) which wasn't actually written to be danced to. The Symphonic Dances are an exercise in memory. Rachmaninov was re-imaging the Russia of his youth through the splendour of the ballet. Quite probably the work could be choreographed, but its pulse is fundamentally symphonic.

While Rachmaninov re-images Russian ballet, Stravinsky's Firebird was written for the Ballets Russes. By pairing the two pieces, Rattle emphasizes the Firebird's fundamentally orchestral origins. Six years ago to the very day, Vladimir Jurowski conducted this full Firebird at the Proms, pairing it with Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Kashchey the Immortal. (more here)   Rattle's Firebird dances, but with abstract sounds. The "dancers" are instruments, who create impressions of dance in the imagination.

The strings pivoted en pointe, percussion suggested bright, golden colour. The Berliners are such good players that they make the music move as if it were a physical force, sliding and turning with exquisite grace.  While Jurowski's Firebird emphasized the savagery of Russian myth (ie the ogre), Rattle's Firebird emphasized its idealistic magic. The woodwind melodies rose sensuously from a swathe of shining strings: exotic, mysterious and seductively tantalizing. This Firebird  flew free from the original fairy tale, soaring onto an altogether more elevated, esoteric stratosphere. The woodwind and violin  melodies sounded exquisitely poignant: so perfect in its beauty that it broke my heart, knowing that it couldn't last.

Rattle didn't need to milk up the inherent drama. The Berlin Philharmonic are so good that they respond well to understated conducting.  Rattle isn't Gergiev. That's not a value judgement, since both their approaches are valid. Rattle's dynamics aren't extreme, but they're atmospheric, creating a Firebird of great sensitivity and depth. When the woodwinds theme returned for the last time, warmed by strings and harps, it felt like a kind of apotheosis, a transcendance Mahler would have been pleased with.

Listen to Rattle and the Berliners  in this same programme in their 2014-15 season opener on the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.  The Prom performance is more relaxed but equally enjoyable. Such is the magic of the Proms and the Royal Albert Hall!

For their encore, Rattle and the Berliners played the Intermezzo from Puccini Manon Lescaut,the opera they performed at Baden-Baden (reviewed by me here)