Monday 29 December 2014

New Year Gala Dresden tonight Thielemann Netrebko

Perhaps the best of the New Year Galas coming up - Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden with Anna Netrebko, Pavol Breslik and Juan Diego Florez among others. LIVE on Medici TV, you might have to pay but it's worth it.

Sunday 28 December 2014

Kerstmatinee 2014 - Mahler, Jansons, Concertgebouw LINK

Live in the Netherlands on Christmas Day - now available on demand, online for a limited period on NP (Netherlands Public Broadcasting) - Mahler Symphony no 4, Mariss Jansons conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Anna Prohaska (perhaps the most ideal soloist for this piece at the moment).  FOLLOW THIS LINK. Kerstmatinees were a grand Dutch tradition for many, many years so it's wonderful to have them revived. Collections of them were issued on recordings, and became collectors' items. This performance is so sparkling and vivid - enjoy !

Operngala Juan Diego Flórez link

For fans,  Juan Diego Flórez ist zu Gast beim Münchner Rundfunkorchester. In einer festlichen Gala präsentiert der Startenor Arien von Bizet bis Offenbach.  One and a half hours, aria after aria , video, too!

Glyndebourne Hansel und Gretel ONLINE

Glyndebourne's Humperdinck Hassel und Gretel FREE online on demand via the Telegraph now til 4th January. BRILLIANT production ! High point of the season.

Saturday 27 December 2014

Tarzan with genius soundtrack Les Pêcheurs de Perles rare film

Georges Bizet Les Pêcheurs de Perles - a rare film version made for French TV in 1960.  Pearlfishers is notoriously difficult to stage because it's fantasy so exotic that it's hard to capture in believable visual images. Although it's supposedly set in Ceylon, the music (and indeed the plot) bears no resemblance to anything but French grand opera, so it needs to be taken with an imaginative  sense of unreality. Is it ideal, then, for film, which isn't constrained by the physical limits of staging?   Then, perhaps, we could enjoy the faux orientalisme done with the excess the music suggests.

Perhaps that's why Airs de France, a division of RFT (Radio Lyrique) attempted this Les Pêcheurs de Perles. It was filmed like a movie, so the cameras reach angles that couldn't be done in normal opera. There are luscious effects - real palm trees and greenery, realistic-looking mountain boulders for the cast to scramble on. A temple that looks ike a glorious  hybrid of Angkor Wat, South India and 19th century French architecture. Much more naked flesh on the natives than in the photo above, from an early stage production. The  overall effect is Hollywood extravaganza. Think Tarzan movies, with a better than average soundtrack. 

Unfortunately the technology wasn't as advanced as the concept. The cameras don't really cope with movement, which rather spoils the best moments, since the crowd scenes are well choreographed.  The principals stand around like they were made of wood, though their performances, while good, aren't really special enough to electrify proceedings. Lots of shots are out of focus and black and white film doesn't help. This is an opera that begs to be filmed in Technicolor, with  special effects! (remember the scene in the ENO Pearl Fishers where figures were seen "swimming"  suspended in the air spotlit in glorious greens and blues  That was the sort of magic Pearl Fishers can inspire.  Sadly, this film doesn't quite live up to its potential. When the village is torched  the flames are clearly faked, with sparks of diagonal light flashing with the leaden regularity of a malfunctioning bar heater.

Cast  : Léna Pastor - Leila, Michel Cadiou - Nadir, André Jonquères - Zurga, Charles Daguerressar - Nourabad., Chorus & Orchestra of the RTF Radio Lyrique conducted by Georges Derveaux

Friday 26 December 2014

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, East Berlin 1981

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the GDR in 1981, when the Deutsches Staastoper was in East Berlin.  This production premiered in May 1968, directed by Werner Kelch.  The film captures just one of numerous performances,  most of them conducted by Otmar Suiner and combinations of the same cast, usually headed by the great Theo Adam. The 1981 version features a very young-sounding David in  Peter Schreier (actually aged 46).  The quality of the singing evidently varied: this Walter, Spas Wenkoff, isn't that great. Yet, despite being a product of the conservative Communist East German regime, it must have been strikingly modern and innovative in its day. The GDR may have repressed poliitcal dissent, but it valued artistic ideals. It understood the meaning of the opera with its message of creative renewal and freedom (though it kept being revived).

The congregation in Act One sit in a darkened church, where we can just make out vaguely Gothic, semi-abstract shapes on the walls towering above. This background is oppressive, but so is the society in which Eva has been brought up. Significantly, this same set serves for the room in which the Meistersingers meet.  They look like they're boxed in, trapped in ancient mahogany. This interplay of solid, dark mass and brightness flows through the whole opera. Black and white, like the half-timber architecture of Nürnberg itself, woven into the whole production, but not merely for decorative effect.  Angles and shadows, subtle gradations created by different perspective: the meaning of the opera expressed visually.  Costumes are more or less medieval, but subdued - 16th century clothing technology didn't support the flashy kitsch that passes for medieval today.  Thus the visual emphasis falls on the apprentices in their black and white outfits, many of whom are played by young women, whose voices  make the choruses particularly perky. Spotlighting the apprentices is critical to interpretation, since it's they who are the future: still lively, rebellious, and not yet blinded by convention. Oddly, the principals all seem to have the same bouffant wigs and exaggerated stage makeup, but I think that's more the fashion of the time than anything else.

With a few minimal extra details, the same set  works for Act Two, where Walter, Eva and Sachs  face their dilemmas, and Beckmessser crawls out of the shadows.  The characters are "be-nighted" in every way. The Nightwatchman thus calls time on the chaos. Thus, when dawn rises on  Johannes Tag, the brightness and freshness feels invigorating.  Sachs's workshop is lit by the morning sun, adding a golden glow. A bright blue curtain adds colour. Strange angles and shadows still, since Beckmesser lurks to steal Sachs's manuscript.  When the curtain rises on the field of celebration, it's high noon.  Now the black and white seems healthy and clean. Gone forever the heavy woodwork. Instead, an open grandstand, through which air circulates. Three golden banners. Simplicity, naturalism, none of the oppressive overcrowding favoured by Otto Schenk and  Third Reich Bayreuth. East German socialists  knew only too well what mobs and mass rallies  could unleash. No flowery meadow needed: the gaiety in the orchestra is matched by the liveliness of the youthful Guildsmen, apprentices and young women in yellow skirts and white lace, dancing (not marching) merrily. Freshness, purity, renewal.  The Meistersingers enter, part of the community, smiling and approachable. Walther sings the Prize Song dressed in white satin, edged with black, like a true son of Nürnberg!

The notion of "traditional" versus "modern" production is nonsense. What really matters in opera is how well a production expresses the meaning of an opera. That involves some basic understanding of the music and what the composer might have meant by it. Some audiences, however, could not care less. They want preconceived expectations fulfilled, even if thiose assumptions run totally against the nature of the opera. "Regie" simply means "directed", in French as in German, without the implications in English of "regimentation". "Concept" merely means joined up thinking, putting ideas into broader context.  Wagner himself famously said "Kinder, macht neu". It was Cosima, with her obssesive personality,  and Winifred, with her friendship with Hitler, that espoused the idea of blind conformity to external values, at the expense of genuine engagement with the composer and his ideas. Does Wagner support Sachs or Beckmesser. ?  Does he support the individual (Walther) against the mob? Is Beckmesser right to cheat, lie and steal  to prevent new ideas and new art?  If even the Communist regime in East Germany could produce a Meistersinger like this, which respects Wagner's values, why do some - not all - modern audiences in supposedly democratic societies still not get what Wagner was about?

Thursday 25 December 2014

Christmas in Vienna 2014 LINK

The 2014 Gala Christmas Concert from the Wiener Konzerthaus was broadcast live on ORF TV this morning (Austria only) but is now available HERE on 

Alas, not in UK, though it's been possible in the past. No doubt it will appear on other sources.

"Des chants de Noël du monde entier sont au menu de ce concert de l’avent donné à Vienne. L’orchestre de l'ORF, dirigé par Sascha Goetzel, accompagne la Wiener Singakademie et les Petits chanteurs de Vienne, ainsi que quatre solistes : la soprano russe Vesselina Kasarova, la mezzo-soprano bulgare Natalia Ushakova, le ténor mexicain Ramón Vargas et le baryton polonais Artur Rucinski. Au programme : les moments forts du traditionnel concert de l’avent donné le 19 décembre au Wiener Konzerthaus. "

Weihnachtsoratorium online sehen und hören

J S Bach Weinachtsoratorium from Munich TV, still available to enjoy, on demand, internationally and online on BR Klassik HERE.

Weihnachten 1914

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Ernst Busch Alte-neues Weihnachtslied

Traditional German Christmas carol spiced up by Ernst Busch in his inimitable way. Much closer to the real spirit of Christmas than tinsel, big spending and drunken binges !

On hanget korkeat, neitosket

On hanget korkeat, neitosket ("How high the snowdrifts"}.  by Jean Sibelius, op 1/5 published as Viisi joululaulua, a collection of five songs in 1913, but originally written in 1901 for a Helsinki magazine's Christmas edition. The poet was  Willki Joukahainen (1879-1929)  a poet and journalist who would later become a minister of state when Finland became independent. The photo at right shows Ainola, Sibelius's family home, under heavy snow

Listen to the singing and use your imagination to figure out what the words might mean.  The purpose of the exercise is not to guess precise meaning but to respond emotionally to the effect the music has on you. That is all "listening to the music" means, not formal structural analysis or anything like that, but sensitivity to what is being communicated on a deeper level.  Useful life skill, too.

Finnish is a particularly expressive language because of the many vowel sounds which have to be spoken separately, not elided, creating a natural musical line. I don't know what the words in the song mean, but what I get from the music is the steady pace, like the natural rhythms of snowfall. The clear, high registers suggest, to me, the brightness of light on snow,, sunshine or moonlight. The quieter passages suggests to me the hush that envelops the countryside when snow muffles normal sound. This approach to music probably comes naturally to Lieder and orchestral audiences, but would also be useful to cultivate in opera, where music is part of meaning, not just soundtrack. Here is a link to the text, in Finnish, easily babel translated.

 Enjoy and have a peaceful moment!

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Macau home cooking Tacho

Authentic, traditional Macanese home cooking: Tacho, a winter stew made from different cuts of pork, ham and sausage. time consuming and filling, but soul food.  This recipe comes from one of the great ladies who've kept the Macau food tradition going through the diaspora.

2 pork hocks, cut into 2” cubes
Serves about 10 people
2 pork feet, cut into 2” cubes
5 center cut pork chops cut in half
10 pieces chicken 2” size
1 piece of salted pork 3x3 inches cut into 2” cubes
1 piece Lap Yuk cut into cubes
1 package Chinese sausage cut into 1 inch
1 head cabbage cut into quarters and cut quarters in ½
1 package fried pork rind
Boil pork rind once, rinse and set aside
In a big pot put in pork hocks and pork feet. Cover with water and boil
until soft, usually about 2 hours
Skim off all fat and residue that floats to the top
Lightly salt and pepper each side of pork chops and chicken. Add pork
chops to pot. Bring to a boil and then add chicken.
Once it comes to a boil again add the salted pork, lap yuk and Chinese
sausages and boil again
Lastly add your cabbage and pork rind. Bring to a boil.
Serve with rice and Balichão.

Monday 22 December 2014

What's happened to Christmas TV and Radio ?

What's happened to Christmas radio and TV? In years past there would be at least something vaguely musical, but this year zilch but for re-runs of the least musical Proms ever.  What does that tell us about the BBC? Admittedly BBC Radio 3 is doing re-runs of Schwarzenberg's summer festival, but the same artists and programmes feature at the Wigmore Hall in London anyway. Not all that long ago there'd always be something interesting, like the year there were TWO complete Wagner Rings. It's as if the BBC has finally given up any pretence of culture.

But the real scandal isn't the dearth of Christmas broadcasting but the total lack of vision in arts policy. Replacing real music with drivel like "Ten Pieces" doesn't spread awareness. Quite the contrary. Even non-classical music audiences aren't so stupid as to think that centuries of culture can be a few pieces chosen by backroom bureaucrats. Even pop music playlists show more verve. By driving away the existing body of listeners, and trivializing the genre so it looks dumb even to non-classical audiences, the new BBC will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Don't feed your dog alcohol or mince pies!

At a time when technology is changing the whole way culture (in the widest sense) is being delivered, it is frightening how little vision lies behind the new BBC. Things are changing so fast that even ideas like HD in cinemas has had its day. I've written a lot about the future of classical music and its possible new outlets, so it breaks my heart to read the level of sycophantic non debate in the press.  London is dominant in the arts for many good reasons. It just doesn't make business sense to wreck one of the few great industries this country can still be proud of. And it's an international industry, too, that does as much for the nation as foreign policy or diplomacy. But British bureaucrats don't do vision. Alas, with a new head of BBC Radio 3 with no experience in the industry and management that thinks in terms of Classic FM, we don't have much hope. Fortunately the future may well lie beyond big corporations and similar dinosaurs if they mess things up..

Sunday 21 December 2014

Christian Gerhaher Mahler Wigmore Hall

Star singer and star composer, a combination guaranteed to bring in the fans. Christian Gerhaher sang Mahler at the Wigmore Hall with Gerold Huber. Gerhaher shot to fame when he sang Wolfram  at the Royal Opera House Tannhäuser in 2010 (read my review here),  His "O du, mein holder Abendstern" was so sublimely beautiful that it seemed  to come from beyond the realms of reality. Wolfram is not so much a character in an opera as an almost divine symbol of  Knightly Virtue. But does the idealized perfection of Wartburg triumph over Venusberg?  Tannhäuser didn't think so, and Elisabeth chooses Tannhäuser.

Pertinent thoughts with a significant bearing on Mahler performance practice. Gerhaher began with Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden  Gesellen. Far too much emphasis is placed on their autobiographical content. Like a Geselle, Mahler is learning his craft, through well-made "apprentice miniatures" that will form the basis of his symphonies from the first to the fourth, with echoes beyond  He was experimenting with the aesthetic of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of poems and  ballads compiled from oral tradition by Achim von Armin and Clemens Brentano in 1805. The folk origins of this collection are significant, for they embodied early 19th century Romantic attitudes, not authentic "folk" tradition so much as reworkings by intellectuals for the fast-growing urban middle class. Mahler wasn't writing fake folk song but songs as themes  that will later be developed in sophisticated abstract form.

 Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen isn't a song cycle so much as a series of stand-alone songs, each of which illustrates an emotional state, from the energetic "Ging  heut' Morgen übers Feld " to the scherzo-like psychosis of "Ich hab'ein glühend Messer". A certain amount of detachment on the part of singer and pianist is reasonable, but Gerhaher and Huber didn't engage with the emotional changes. Gerhaher's pace was fractionally too slow, not perhaps enough for most to notice, but enough to keep voice and piano out of synch. Huber jumped in too forcefully.

A selection of songs based on Das Knaben Wunderhorn followed, including early songs from the  Lieder und Gesäng,e aus der Jugendzeit. Songs about children, but songs with a macabre twist, reflecting a very different attitude to youth than we hold today. After Bruno Bettelheim, we can't take fairy tales at surface value. Even the lyrical "Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz" describes a soldier who deserts his post and is executed. "Das irdische Leben" could deal with child abuse, or the fate of unrecognized talent, but by its very nature, it should express something.  Mahler returns to the theme in later works, so it must have had more meaning for him than Gerhaher and Huber brought to it on this occasion. Possibly Gerhaher wasn't well as he mopped his brow a lot, which is perfectly acceptable, especially at this time of the year. But no matter how beautiful a singer's instrument might be, artistry resides in the way it is played. To paraphrase Mahler himself, "the music lies not in the notes" but in the communication of ideas.

Kindertotenlieder marks a transition in Mahler's music leading away from the world of Wunderhorn towards more conceptual horizons. In many ways, this group of songs resembles a five-movement symphony, integrated by recurring motifs of dark and light,  rising to a transcendent finale, where the storm is vanquished, and the children "vom Gottes Hand bedeckt". In its own way not so very different from the redemption and transfiguration that marks works like Das Lied von der Erde. To reach this resolution, however, the poet has had to undergo extreme desolation.  Friedrich Rückert knew about death and anguish. In "Wenn dein Mütterlein" , he refers to gazing, not at the mother's face, but closer to the ground, where children should be. It's detail that could probably come only from lived experience. Dignity is in order, and restraint, but emotional truth is of the essence. As Tannhäuser might have said, good singing isn't everything.

 For an encore, Gerhaer and Huber offered a piano version of Urlicht from Mahler's Symphony no 2.  "Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!" .He is so rejected that even the angels want to turn him away. but that only strengthens his resolve. "Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!". At last, Gerhaher's voice took on more colour and more definition. An excellent encore. If only the rest of the recital had been as good.

photo credit : Simon  Jay Price

Saturday 20 December 2014

Fonógrafo - a poem about recording technology

A poem about the latest technology - phonographs! The poet is Camilo Pessanha ( 1867-1926) who left Portugal for Macau in 1894.  So chances are, he listened to phonographs, which reached the China coast almost as soon as they became commercially available in Europe. Pessanha went to Macau because he was  fascinated by the exotic mysteries of alien cultures. In Macau, he lived as a Chinese, learning the language, collecting art and even becoming addicted to opium. His art collection isn't that great and his poetry in Chinese not nearly as good as his poetry in Portuguese, but at least he tried, like quite a few intellectuals in his time. So perhaps it's no surprise that he was fascinatedd by the possibilities of sound reproduction.

Imagine someone hearing sound technologiy for the first time, pondering on what it might mean. Pessanha describes the voice of a comedy actor, declaiming to an audience. But the actor is long since dead, and the original audience too. The odour of the crypt, and of dust, enters the air. Change the record! Now a barcarolle, suggesting lilies floating on the water, and sensual dreams evoked by the "extática corola". The record changes again. Now, the sound of a golden bugle (clarim) suggesting daffodils greeting the dawn. Then, silence. The poet thinks of Spring, morning and the scent of violets.

I'm not sure if the poem was written in Macau, since Pessanha did return to Europe for short periods, although he made his home in Macau and is buried there with his son, with whom he scrapped.  (Just now, a kind friend said the poem was written in Macau in 1920.)  But the poem is nostalgic, connecting the phonograph's ability to preserve ephemeral moments in the past and make them seem fresh again.  Definitely a poem we should think about, now that we take recording for granted. The photo shows Pessanha in a garden in Macau with another poet, Wenceslau Morales, who went to live in Japan and studied Japanese. Pessanha is the one reclining on the deckchair, looking doped up. Those pots in the background would be Qing antiques now, and the furniture. But thanks to photography (Chinese studio) the poets, the dog, and the plants are preserved forever.

Vai declamando um cômico defunto. Uma plateia ri, perdidamente,
 Do bom jarreta... E há um odor no ambiente.  A cripta e a pó, - do anacrônico assunto. 

Muda o registo, eis uma barcarola: Lírios, lírios, águas do rio, a lua... Ante o Seu corpo o sonho meu flutua Sobre um paul, - extática corola. 

 Muda outra vez: gorjeios, estribilhos Dum clarim de oiro - o cheiro de junquilhos, Vívido e agro! - tocando a alvorada... 

Cessou. E, amorosa, a alma das cornetas Quebrou-se agora orvalhada e velada. Primavera. Manhã. Que eflúvio de violetas!

Friday 19 December 2014

Tales from the Crypt - Un ballo in maschera, Royal Opera House

Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House  - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding.  It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it. Although the designs may seem retro, it is as conceptually radical as  any minimalist "modern" production. What it demonstrates is that good opera lies not in external decoration  but in creative imagination.

This Un ballo in m,aschera also works extremely well because it places full focus on the singing. The drama unfolds through a series of showpieces, providing the singers with opportunities to display their skills. It's perfect for artists like Joseph Calleja  and Dmitri Hvorostovsky,  both of them highly charismatic personalities. They created Riccardo and Renato as convincing characters, but, perhaps even more unusually, ctreated a powerful dynmaic between themselves as artists.The bond between them felt personal and energizing, and went far further than  good singing. They seemed to be challenging each other with evident glee.  One star turn after another, carried off with exuberance.  Calleja's natural warmth suffused his portrayal of Riccardo, adding elements of good nature and good humour, which go a long way in overcoming the weaknesses in the plot. Calleja doesn't need to act in a naturalistic fashion: he makes you feel that under the costume beats the heart of a sturdy, ardent Maltese tenor.

This is very much a "singer's opera" so the other parts are strongly cast.  Liudmyla Monastyrska. sang Amelia, over whom Riccardo and Renato fall out. There isn't much character development for the part in the libretto, so Monastyrska fills it out with the feminine timbre of her singing.  Serena Gamberoni, as Oscar, Riccardo's page, was impressive. She replaced Rosemary Joshua, who is unwell, but has put her own individual stamp on the role, When Gamberoni sings the "laughter" passages, her voice sparkles with agility and energy.  Anatoli Sivko sang Samuel and Jihoon Kim sang Tom.  It's interesting how little background detail the score gives about the parts, but  Siv ko and Kim sang with such clear conviction that the roles had genuine conviction. They felt like parrallel versions of Renato and Riccardo. Marianne Cornetti sings Ulrica, a delicious part that must be fun to sing. .

Katharina Thoma directed Richard Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos for Glyndebourne in 2013. Read my analysis here.  On a superficial level, this Un ballo in maschera and Ariadne auf  Naxos might seem very different, but Thoma is far too adept to be doing a sudden change of style. Ariadne auf Naxos is a satire on the making of an opera, juxtaposing the "reality" of the players and the opera they are contracted to take part in. In Un ballo in maschera, Thoma balances  the "reality" of cast and staging with  the way they are used to create performance. The acting is somewhat stlylised by modern standards, but that fits the meticulously archaic use of stage equipment. At one point, stagehands fold up the flats we've just been admiring: art and artifice at once.  This studied theatricality pays off brilliantly in the scene where Amelia goes to the graveyard to consult Ulrica, the soothsayer. This is a glorious bit of Gothic High Camp, with graves, urns, weeping willows and statues that come alive and dance.  Verdi's libretto was an adaptation of a play by Eugene Scribe. Hence the similarity to Scribe's libretto for Meyerbeer Robert le Diable. Horror movies entertain when they're so bad, they're good. Part of the fun is the frisson of implausibility.  After the performance, I bumped into someone whose taste in opera is impeccable. He was delighted: "Funny, yet not offensive". Thoma's Un ballo in maschera is a lot more subversive  - and thoughtful - than meets the eye. But is satire over the heads of the audience ?

Photos : Catherine Ashmore, courtesy Royal Opera House

Thursday 18 December 2014

Mozart La clemenza di Tito livestream today

Live from the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. Paris., Mozart La clemenza di Tito on here today
Kurt Streit!

Schubert Winterreise - Goerne Eschenbach

"This Winterreise is the final instalment of Matthias Goerne’s series of Schubert lieder for Harmonia Mundi and it brings the Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition, begun in 2008, to a dark, harrowing close." writes Claire Seymour in her review of Matthias Goerne's latest Winterreise with Christoph Eschenbach in Opera Today. "Goerne and his pianist, Christoph Eschenbach, are not melodramatic, but they are direct. Eschenbach plays with flexibility and responsiveness; the accompaniment is prominent, an equal partner on this journey through the austere winter landscape. And, however troubled the melancholy traveller becomes, the beauty of Goerne’s tone is never marred; the beguilingly sweet tone lures us into the bleak land, and we join the wanderer’s mesmerising descent into terror and isolation." Click HERE fot my review of the 2009 Wigmore Hall concert

Monday 15 December 2014

Mills & Boon Wagner ? MET Meistersinger

The Met's Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg broadcast HD.  I listened audio only on BBC Radio 3 (still available online). Last week, someone on the BBC said that Wagner wrote about myths and legends, but Die Meistersinger was "about love".   Has the age of Mills and Boon Wagner arrived? Just as there's a lot more to the Ring than galumphing Gods, there's a whole lot more to Die  Meistersinger  and indeed to Tristan und Isolde than potboiler romance. Most people, I believe, want to learn, but when  the media is a source of over-simplified trivialization, what will they learn?

The better a creative work, the more there is to learn. That could be the philosophy behind  Die Meistersinger,  a work which is as much about art and the making of art as "love interest". Eva and Walter spot each other as strangers.  Maybe it's love at first sight, but maybe more. Walter is an outsider, who believes in ideals but fits in nowhere. Eva is part of the Establishment but a woman can't participate as an equal.  But she can spot a true talent better than the Meistersingers with all their supposed authority. Johan Botha's voice is so exceptionally divine that the Meistersingers must have cloth ears not to notice. Yet for all their supposed wisdom, they're fooled by Beckmesser and would have kicked Walter out but for Sachs's intervention. Therein a parable for our times, when even the wisest believe what authority tells them.  Perhaps it's human nature to need  received wisdom and safe opinions, but this opera makes clear that true artistic breakthroughs come from those who, like Walter, do things differently. The Meistersingers set store on following masters. Walter learned from birds.  Beckmesser's a troll, more interested in destroying nascent talent than doing anything worthwhile himself. Maybe the system lets people like that rise to the top? Eventually Walter decides to stay in Nürnberg to perfect his craft, but fundamentally his nature as an artist stems from creating anew and from being true to himself.

Die Meistersinger is dominated by huge choruses. Each guild has its rules with which to control. Who would dare buck the guilds en masse but a Walter?  The Third Reich made a cult of Die Meistersinger idealizing the values of mob rule and conformity.  Who would dare dissent when 800 people are roaring their take on ""Heilige Deutsche Kunst" with their arms raised in diagonal salute?  As I listened to Michael Volle's firm, assertive Hans Sachs, I thought of  Wilhelm Furtwängler. What really went on in his mind as he conducted at Bayreuth in the midst of the maelstrom? Perhaps, like Hans Sachs, he bided his time quietly, not overtly bucking the regime, but offering music that subverts the anti-intellectual group-think that fears change. 

Hence the pivotal role of the Night Watchman.  Many years ago, Kwangchul Youn made his Bayreuth debut in the role.  He told me that the Night Watchman is a lone figure who intervenes when the townsfolk are rioting and restores sanity. Notice the bassoons and winds around the part.  It has an almost magical authority.  The Night Watchman is a warning against madness. Matthew Rose sang the role at the Met, bringing out its dignity. Beckmesser flaffs about (well characterized by Johannes-Martin Kranzle) but the Night Watchman is steadfast.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg supports many different approaches. Read HERE about the groundbreaking Salzburg Meistersinger, with Michael Volle, which developed the connection between Sachs and his art and between Wagner and his time. Maybe it's not entry-level, but anyone can learn. It's a very deep engagement with the ideas in the opera.  Compare the photo of the Otto Schenk production first heard nearly 30 years ago and the still from Bayreuth, 1943.  Tradition is all very well, but true art lies in fresh thinking.

PS If you want to hear the same production but with a REALLY good conductor, listen to the Vienna State Opera performance conducted by Christian Thielemann with Johann Botha and Falk Struckmann

Sunday 14 December 2014

The Cardinall's Musick Wigmore Hall

Live at the Wigmore Hall - The Cardinall's Miusick, reviewed HERE in Opera Today by Claire Seymour :

"O Maria Deo grata — ‘O Mary, pleasing to God’: so begins Robert Fayrfax’s antiphon, one of several supplications to the Virgin Mary presented in this thought-provoking concert by The Cardinall’s Musick at the Wigmore Hall. 

In the late-medieval period, Christian thinking centred on the belief that the surest route to eternal peace was through the agency of the Blessed Virgin. Choral music repeated invoked her aid; in the Eton Choirbook she is frequently beseeched and, indeed, Eton College had been founded by Henry VI in 1440 as ‘The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor’. Yet, Tudor dynastic politics was never wholly absent from either the religious or cultural life of the age, as The Cardinall’s Musick under the direction of Andrew Carwood intriguingly revealed."

Saturday 13 December 2014

Zender's unique Winterreise - Berlin Philharmoniker

Hans Zender's Schubert's Winterreise  can now be viewed in the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.   For my latest piece on Ian Bostridge and Netia Jiones Dark Mirror at the Barbican, click here.  Notice the full title "eine komponierte Interpretation", an Interpretation, not simply an orchestration of the cycle for piano and voice. There's absolutely no way it's a substitute for the original, nor even an orchestration, but rather a meditation by a modern composer reflecting on his response to the most iconic song cycle of all. When it premiered, there were some who sneered,  but they'd completely missed the point. It's a work of art about a work of art, and a valid creative response. Indeed, I think the more you love a piece, the more you should be interested in new approaches. Liszt, for example, wrote elaborate improvements to Schubert. I don't think Liszt understands Lieder at all, but I listen because I like hearing a pianist's way of getting into the songs. I must have heard thousands of Winterreises, but still thrill to something original.  

Zender's Winterreise begins so slowly and quietly that you'd miss it if you weren't paying attention. We hear the sound of muffled footsteps, as if someone were trudging in deep snow.  The video shows us that the sounds are made by brushing metal sheets on the skin of timpani. Steady pizzicato heartbeats, and tense bursts on wind instruments, exhaling and drawing breath. Very physical. As the pace picks up, a familiar melody, but oddly mechanical. The protagonist is determined to keep going lest his feelings overwhelm him. Christian Elsner starts singing, normally enough, but suddenly, from "von einem zu den andern", his voice turns  metallic, words repeat and the orchestra whizzes into a manic march.  Just as suddenly, a switch back to normal with"Fein Liebchen, Gute Nacht" but now we know the lyricism is forced.

Winterreise is uncommonly pictorial music, the protagonist aware of his surroundings even in the extremes of grief. Indeed, his moods seem influenced by what he experiences around him.  Zender's music is graphic - including wind machines and guitar - but this is in keeping with the original. Indeed, Zender marks short pauses for contemplation. Years ago, at a Wolfgang Holzmair masterclass, Holzmair told us to listen, like an animal might, sensing which trail to follow. This is no passive, meandering journey. but purposeful. the protagonist learns from the crow, the graveyard, the three suns in the sky. Nonetheless, Zender's music is abstract enough that it's not mere illustration. Sudden turns, strange distorted sounds. Sometimes Elsner recites rather than sings, as if he's trying to pick up an invisible trail. It feels at once natural, personal and yet surreal.  The music throws you off-course, so you're as disoriented as the protagonist and  start thinking like him. The recitations also remind us of the literary background to the cycle: Wilhelm Müller is most certainly present here, for Zender's making a connection to "pathetic fallacy" and the way art interacts with experience.

I first heard Zender's Winterreise in 1994, conducted by Zender himself, with Ensemble Modern and Hans-Peter Blochwitz at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. The musicians moved around the auditorium, like the kind of wandering peasant bands that used to travel from village to village.  In this performance the members of the Orchestra Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker move, too, because it's part of the basic concept, but come and go and go as the music changes, physically changing texture.  Sometimes they're everywhere, sometimes, Elsner's almost alone. Given Simon Rattle's commitment to nurturing young musicians, he conducts them himself, instead of farming the job out. Zender's Winterreise is a marvellous "learning" piece because it's so inventive. Would that other orchestras learned to rethink what they do in such a creative way. It's a joy to hear Christian Elsner, too. A few years ago, he was everywhere but seems to have spent the last few years in Germany. His voice is still fresh and agile and he interacts well with the musicians.  Let's hear more of him!

Thursday 11 December 2014

Fidelio La Scala Barenboim reviewed

Beethoven Fidelio at the Teatro alla Scala Milan, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Musically superb: after hearing the BR Klassik broadcast live online, I was stunned. Now, having seen a copy of the video broadcast on RAI 5, I'm still stunned by the quality of the playing and singing but very disappointed by the staging.

Fidelio is an opera of ideas, theatre of the intellect, rather than simple entertainment. Like it or not, Fidelio is a political opera. and needs passionate commitment.  In Barenboim, Fidelio gets an interpreter who truly understands Beethoven's passionate convictions. He's conducted Fidelio many times, in many different forms. This is an opera that can't be fixed in concrete, for its ideas live on, absolutely pertinent today. In 2009, Barenboim did Fidelio with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose members know more about political strife at first hand than most opera audiences. For that performance, Barenboim incorporated spoken narration, using texts by the late, great Edward Said, co-founder of the orchestra and the theorist behind its lofty ideals.

For the gala opening night at La Scala Milan. usually a  focus for political  demonstrations, Barenboim chose a different approach, though equally intelligent and strong-minded.  This time, his focus highlighted the opera in terms of the values and music of 1814. Beethoven had admired Napoléon as liberator and modernizer, but turned against him as tyrant.  Napoléon obviously wasn't the first or last autocrat who throw dissidents into dungeons. The Austrian regime in Beethoven's time almost certainly did so, too. Thus the libretto, set in 18th century Seville,  provides a disguise for its radicalism,  much in the way that Leonore's manly costume and wifely virtues provide a cloak for her intentions.

By choosing the 1814 version of the Overture, Barenboim firmly places Fidelio in context, and shows how radical Beethoven was as musician as well as thinker. Leonore II, less elaborate than Leonore III, brings out the aesthetic of the First Act, linking it to the music theatre and even Singspiele traditions of the time. Hence the importance of the spoken dialogue and the somewhat stylized series of set pieces where various combinations of singers participate. Some people don't like Fidelio, much in the way some don't like Zauberflõte,. but Barenboim shows how the First Act operates.  Each sequence is neatly defined, building up to a unified whole, as strong in its own way as the action-packed second act. Think Mozart or Haydn, rather than Verdi or Wagner. The drama lies in the dynamics of the delivery, spoken and sung.  The characters are at cross-purposes, but the singing is so precise and vibrant that their misapprehensions about each other come to life vividly.

With Kwangchul Youn as Rocco and Falk Struckmann as Don Pizarro, and later Peter Mattei as Don Fernando, we have a cast of of truly Wagnerian performers, each of whom brings exceptional authority to their parts.  Youn's Rocco is so strongly defined that the role becomes central.  Rocco is "king" in his prison, not a weak man but one with the potential to choose between good and evil. The tension between Youn's Rocco and Struckmann's Don Pizarro is so powerful that it adds depth and dimension. Florian Hoffmann and Mojca Erdmann turn Jacquino and Marzelline into strong figures, too, particularly when singing with Youn. The chorus sings in remarkable unison, perfectly drilled. That, too, has dramatic meaning. When the proletariat sticks together, there's hope.

Anja Kampe's Leonore is wonderfully wild and athletic, ideal for the part. Kampe's Leonore is a heroine who defies convention, yet is a real woman not a goddess, nor an ideological reconstruct of a man. Have there been many like her in the arts since Greek times? Klaus Florian Vogt is perfect - nice, warm-sounding and "human", which is so important to the meaning of the work. After the pounding, malevolent introduction to Act Two, his voice enters "How dark it is in here".  Simple words, but Vogt's voice expresses wonder and horror so great that you can feel the physical presence of the darkness and the magnitude of Florestan's imprisonment. Then, when he sings "Angel, Leonore, my angel"  you can visualize the apparition rising before him: a miracle has happened.  Vogt's Florestan is understated, so the character comes over as warmly personal and human. Again, this has dramatic meaning, reminding us that political prisoners are normal, vulnerable people, neither superhuman monsters nor deities. They suffer.

And what playing Barenboim gets from the Teatro alla Scala orchestra!  Tension, intensity and ecstatic release racheted up so high that I had to hold my breath or burst, emotionally. The audience must have felt the same way, exploding with bravi! as if their hearts could hold out no more.

Unfortunately the insights and inspiration in the musical performance are badly let down by  insipid staging. Deborah Warner's forte is glossy glamour, but that's hardly relevant to Fidelio.  This is fashion shoot grunge, and dramatically inert.  It's not enough to dress the principals down. Designs have to contribute to meaning.  The prisoners are shown in various types of "normal" dress, which in principle might be valid, but the overall effect is to show them as street mob, rather than as oppressed, regimented prisoners.  This contradicts the disciplined power of the singing and dispels the idea that the prisoners, for all their diversity, have something to strive for. The "Sonnenlicht" chorus glows vocally, but the staging is a blurry mess.The "Freheit" chorus is sung with savage delirium - as it should be - but what's the point when the poor singers are wearing red hard hats and warm football crowd gear?  In an age when governments still practice torture and prisoners are still held in Guantanomo Bay and by ISIS, it's almost obscene to trivialize polticial persecution.  Audiences were enraged by Calixto Bieito's Fidelio with its harsh grid-form, multi-dimensional "prison" but that was a far more astute reading of the situation. (read more here). If we're not enraged by tyranny,  there's something very wrong.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Flowers of the Field - Gurney Finzi Butterworth RVW

"As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes", so goes Psalm 103. This new recording, Flowers of the Field  connects composers affected by the 1914-1918 war, but it's real significance lies in its featuring the world premiere recording of Ivor Gurney's The Trumpet and of Gerald Finzi's Requiem de Camera. 

Ivor Gurney was gassed at Passchendaele, and spent the last 20 years of his life in and out of mental  hospitals. The Trumpet was written in 1921 but remained unpublished and unperformed until 2007. Here we hear the edition reconstructed by Gurney scholar Philip Lancaster with full orchestration, which received its Three Choirs Festival premiere in 2010, which I was privileged to attend.  Read Philip Lancaster on the genesis of the piece HERE.  Gurney used a poem by Edward Thomas, killed in Arras in 1917, whose work he had set previously. The song begins with a resolute "Rise up! Rise up!", the City of London choir singing as one voice with forceful attack. It's a curious poem. Does the trumpet  refer to the trumpet of modern battle or to the trumpet that marks the beginning of the End of Time in the book of Revelation? Gurney emphasizes the word "Scatters" in the phrase "as the trumpet blowing scatters the dreams of Man".  Unlit stars, dew and the traces of lovers must be scattered in this strange new dawn. Percussion pounds, and the full orchestra surges. The choir cries out, unequivocally "Scatter it, Scatter it!". The clarity of the setting reflects the image of  "that clear horn"  and "the air that has washed  the eyes of the stars". No maudlin sentimentality here, but clear-sighted fervour. "Arise! Arise!" the choir sings. After Armageddon, the past will be erased, the dead will rise from their graves in a new era of hope.

Strictly speaking, the premiere recording of Gerald Finzi's Requiem de Camera was conducted by Richard Hickox nearly ten years ago, but in a different  performing edition by Philip Thomas, made in 1990. This version is edited and completed by Christian Alexander. Hilary Davan Wetton conducts the London Mozart Players with idiomatic depth.  The Reqiuem de Camera (1924) is an ambitious piece in  four sections. An orchestral prelude leads to an extended choral setting of a poem by John Masefield  "How still this quiet cornfield is tonight". The text doesn't explicitly mention context, but the original poem was titled August 1914. Although this is very early Finzi, we can already hear how he would go on to be influenced by images of English landscape and history, and the passage of time.  Wetton, who has conducted a great deal of English choral music, gets the City of London Choir to sing with nicely hushed tones: silence is of the essence.  The same mood of timelessness prevails in the section for baritone (Roderick Williams) and orchestra: "Only a man harrowing clods".  Finzi dedicated the work to Ernest Farrar, his tutor, who was killed on the Somme in 1918, but I think it's a mistake to overstate the idea that the Requiem connects musically to Butterworth or to Gurney (whom Finzi championed). It is far more relevant to assess its relevance to Finzi's own later work, and to his songs and choral pieces. It's not as sophisticated as Intimations of Immortality, but contains, in germ, the spirit of Finzi's future greatness.

On this disc we can hear Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody for Orchestra and, more of a rarity, the complete Ralph Vaughan Williams An Oxford Elegy, with Jeremy Irons as narrator. The Oxford Elegy is based on a poem by Matthew Arnold about a scholar who runs away to learn from gypsies.  He could be any man who disdains academia for real life experience: I don't think we should make too much of its connection to Oxonians who went to war, since it was written 1946-9 in the wake of a much more gruesome war.  Oddly enough, its connection to George Butterworth isn't mentioned in the booklet notes, a surprising omission in a compilation based on 1914-18. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams were so close that RVW might have not developed as he did without the influence of Butterworth, who pushed RVW creatively, and for whom RVW dedicated his Symphony no 2 "London" in 1913.

Please see my numerous other posts on Gurney, Finzi, Butterworth and RVW (use labels below)

From Admiral Jellicoe, Happy Christmas NOT

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Swedish Xmas from Stone Records

Stone Record's Christmas discs  are always a delight but this year's offering is unique. Deck the Halls, with Susanna Andersson and the Little Venice Ensemble. Imagine yourself at a house party, where some of the young European musicians based in London, (relatively far away from home) celebrate by performing together. The joyous energy on this disc is bound to chase away chills and bring good cheer. Expect surprises!

Standards like Deck the Halls  and Silent Night are livened up in new arrangements by Bjõrn Kleiman (b. 1978) of the Little Venice Ensemble, who have been holding annual Christmas festivals in Little Venice, London, for some years.  Thus they bring to this "house party"  a merry mix of spontaneity and professionalism. Kleiman not only plays (piano and violin) but is also the recording engineer and editor.  The sound quality is so clear that you get the impression of actually being in the same room as the musicians: having fun. Gentle humour, too. We hear reindeer snuffle snuffle before Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride. Anyone who's encountered real reindeer up close will be thrilled. Real reindeer have personalities, unlike the fakes we see in shopping malls this time of year.

Susanna Andersson is the soloist. She's done Blonde at Garsington Opera's  Die Entführung aus dem Serail (more here), The Baby in Oliver Knussen's Higgelty Piggelty Pop (more here) and George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill (more here). Here she's having fun, adding vibrato to In the Bleak Midwinter so you can feel the shivering cold.

There are chamber arrangements of Bach and Brahms, with organ, and  Hollywood favourites like  Gene Autry's Here comes Santa Claus, and  Have yourself a merry little Christmas, complete with retro noises evoking the era of 78's.   Best of all, though, are the arrangements of Swedish songs, old and new.  Bereden vag fõr Herran is an old Swedish advent hymn, arranged in a folk-tune version arranged and played by Karin Norlén. I did a double take: Norlén makes the viola sing like a Nyckleharpa, a Swedish fiddle with a unique low, droning character.  Two hymns by women : Nu tändas tusem julesjus, (Emily Kõhler (1858-1925)  and Bethlehems Stjärna (Alice Tégner 1864-1943), both first  arranged by Anders Öhrwall and arranged for chamber forces by Kleiman.

There are songs by Percy Grainger and Max Reger, but the discoveries on this disc are two modern songs, Koppången (Per-Erik Moreaus b 1950) and I Bethlehem (Jerker Leijohn (1956-2009) Koppången is a lyrical folk-inspired song about nature and faith. I Bethlehem is a contemporary art song, in the repertoire of Håkan Hagegård, arranged here by Kleiman for soloist, strings and organ. A wonderful song, which really should be better known. It describes shepherds at the nativity, reverent with wonder at the miracle they behold.  Exquisite and beautifully sincere., with nice part for violin.  There's a lot of new music written in Scandinavia and Finland, quite lost to the English-speaking world.  This song is so good that it's worth the whole price of purchase. Get the CD direct from Stone Records here or from the usual dealers.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Fidelio live from La Scala Milan Barenboim

Eagerly awaiting live broadcast of Beethoven Fidelio from la Scala Milan... My Full REVIEW IS HERE.Klaus Florian Vogt, Anja Kempe, Peter Mattei, Falk Struckmann, Kwangchul Youn and of course Daniel Barenboim

EXCEPTIONAL performance!  Electrtifying, vivid, alert. Fantastic ensemble work, executed with such precision and conviction. Wonderful singing and playing. If this doesn't get onto DVD/CD it would be a loss to civilization. The sound quality on BR klassik was crystal clear, adding hugely to immediacy of the performance. Illegal uploads already on the usual channels but nowhere like the professionalism of BR klassik.

Some people don't like Fidelio, much in the way some do not like Zauberflõte. but Barenboim shows how the First Act of Fidelio connects to other German music theatre traditions of the time and shortly thereafter. Each sequence is neatly defined, building up to a unified whole, as strong in its own way as the action-packed second act.  Klaus Florian Vogt is perfect - nice, warm sounding and "human" which is so important to the meaning of the work. After the pounding, malevolent introduction to Act 2 his voice enters "How dark it is in here".  Simple words, but Vogt's voice expresses wonder and horror so great that you can feel the physical presence of the darkness and the magnitude of Florestan's imprisonment. Then, when he sings "Angel, Leonore, my angel"  you can visualize the apparition rising before him: a miracle has happened.  Anja Kempe's wonderfully wild and athletic; ideal for the part. Leonore is a heroine who defies convention, yet is a real woman not a goddess, nor an ideological reconstruct of a man. Have there been many like her in the arts since Greek times?

A particularly good set of ensemble pieces, where everyone is firing together and interacting. .Florian Hoffmann and Mojca Erdmann turn Jacquino and Marzelline into strong figures. The trio with Kwangchul Youn's Rocco is superb. What a wonderful set of gentlemen (and baddies) with Kwangchul Youn, Falk Struckmann's Don Pizarro, Peter Mattei's Don Fernando,  A trio of Wagnerian proportions, another insight on the part of whoever cast this production. and the choruses, together to a man, drilled to almost military discipline. There's hope when the proletariat sticks together !

And what playing Barenboim gets from the Teatro alla Scala orchestra!  Tension, intensity and ecstatic release racheted up so high that I had to hold my breath or burst, emotionally. The audience must have felt the same way, exploding with bravi! as if their hearts could hold out no more.  So much for the silly notion that instant applause is bad.These bravi were heartfelt and much more genuine than the fake silences after performances that are now in fashion. One of the most horrible perfomances I've ever heard  was followed by a long, pretentious silence, an inept conductor striving for effect. Sincerity is what counts, not what other people think.  This must have been one of the finest moments in Barenboim's conducting career, when everything came together perfectly. His heart must have been bursting too. Applause absolutely deserved.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Analyzed not demonized - Tristan und Isolde Royal Opera House

Wagner Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House, first revival of the 2009 production – one of the first to attract widespread hostility even before the curtain rose on the first night. Modern costumes seems to attract extreme hatred. But does the meaning of a great drama lie in fancy external trappings? Tristan und Isolde is immortal because it is universal, based on a legend which in itself has developed over the centuries. Wagner used his creative imagination.  Have we lost the ability to think, feel and dream that we cannot cope with  opera unless it is as literal as TV costume drama?  Throughout the opera, we hear the pulse of the oceans, and can imagine the pull of the forces of nature and fate that operate beyond what we see on the surface. So, too, should we approach Tristan und Isolde as a work with such depth that it would be against the very nature of art to deny its many different levels of meaning.

Isolde is a captive, a trophy of war turned trophy wife. She's inside an elegant structure, but trapped, away from the elements of nature in which she once thrived as a practitioner of powerful healing arts. King Marke's court celebrate victory with a feast. Isolde walks out, to be alone. She does not belong in that milieu. Throughout this staging, directed by Christof Loy and designed by Johannes Leiacker, curtains and flat walls define the divisions between different worlds. For all the bustle of court, the key protagonists are alone, figures who don't thrive by conforming to social mores. Tristan would seem to have everything: he's a hero, loved by most, who might have a happy future, but that's not what he wants. The stark divisions of the set emphasize this anomie; strong planes and angles overpowering the figures on stage, throwing their predicaments, literally, into sharp relief.

Hence the shadows. Throughout the opera, Wagner emphasizes contrasts between darkness and light.  Since shadows are created by darkness and light, they are a far more subtle expression of music and meaning than costumes can ever be. The lighting (Olaf Winter) spotlights the singers and throws their shadows back against the hard walls in silent rebellion against larger, impenetrable forces.  Sometimes the shadows are huge, compelling attention. Sometimes they shrink, sometimes they interact with the shadows of other members of the cast. The shadows suggest emotional states which words cannot express. Tellingly, they often reflect details in the orchestra. In King Marke's court, Tristan and Isolde are shadows of themselves and what they might have been. Wagner said "Kinder,  macht neu". How fascinated he might have been with the power of technology to open out deeper levels of meaning.

Nina Stemme dominated the stage even when she wasn't singing, Stemme's persona is so strong that she can create Isolde as a force of nature.  In the beginning of the First Act, where nothing ostensibly seems to happen, the intensity of Stemme's singing  evokes the bitterness of her predicament. She intones with barely suppressed force, as if the pulse of the ocean itself were surging beneath the smooth surface. Stemme's Liebestod was impressive because it was understated. While showpiece Liebestods are wonderful, Stemme reminded us that it is the music, and the pulse in the orchestra that really matters, not grand diva ego.  As she sang, her voice rose with firm, genuine conviction.  Will she live or die? Like Brünnhilde,  she triumphs because she's found moral truth. Around her body, a golden light rises. It doesn't obliterate the shadows beyond, or the poignancy of the situation, but reminds us that Isolde is human, which makes her apotheosis all the more moving.

Stephen Gould was an excellent choice as Tristan. Ben Heppner's Tristan in 2009 was unusual in that Tristan wasn't portrayed  as comic-book hero but as a man ravaged by demons in his soul.  Tristan has been an action man all his life, but when, as he's dying,  he finally opens out to Kurnewal, he sings of the tragedy that's haunted him even before birth.  In a sense, this is his Liebestod, and he sang extremely well. Like Heppner, Gould has physical presence, suggesting strength developed through years of trial, but Gould's voice is in better condition. Pretty boys might look cute, but they aren't necessarily right, if we're sensitive to the score. Like Stemme, Gould  impresses because he's solidly in the part, rather than flashy. His voice conveys genuine, complex emotions. I've been an avid fan since he sang Paul in Korngold's Die tote Stadt. (read more HERE)

In the sense that vocal perfection isn't everything, John Tomlinson's King Marke worked as dramatic portrayal. His voice may be in shreds, but perhaps Marke is much older than we assume. If Tristan is ravaged by inner demons, Marke is ravaged by time.  I winced when Tomlinson missed notes, but that added to the sense of overwhelming tragedy. I due Foscari worked for me (read more here) because Domingo was singing the role of an old man facing fate. Quite moving, in the circumstances.

Sarah Connolly sang a surprisngly youthful Brangane, a nice counterpart to Stemme's energetic Isolde. Iain Paterson sang Kurnewal, Ed Lyon sang The Sailor, Neal Cooper sang Melot, Graham Clark sang the Shepherd, and Yuriy Yurchuk sang the Steersman.  Antonio Pappano conducted. His Wagner is often Verdi infused, but this time nicely poised to reflect the blend of elegance and sorrow in the opera. .

Christof Loy's original direction has been modified in this revival, unfortunately cutting out some very good ideas. For example, the erotic undercurrents have been toned down and with that much of the undercurrent of danger which so alarmed audiences five years ago. But Tristan und Isolde predicates on the background of male violence. Tristan has to be a warrior because that's  what's expected of him. Kurnewal treats Isolde and Brangane badly because they are women. Audiences may not like that, but the ideas are in the score. If only the Royal Opera House had the courage to restore the original, much tighter, vision.

photos : Clive Barda courtesy Royal Opera House

Friday 5 December 2014

Le vin herbé Frank Martin's anti Wagner Tristan und Isolde

Wagner Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House Friday, and the re-release  of the 1960 recording of Frank Martin's Le vin herbé: a good time to consider Martin's oratorio profane as an alternative to the extremes of Wagnerian excess.  Martin, a Swiss national, could hardly have been unaware of what was happening in Germany, and of the Nazi appropriation of Wagner. Le vin herbé represents a completely different antithesis to the Tristan und Isolde cult and to the aesthetic of Third Reich Bayreuth.

Martin had been reading Le roman de Tristan et Iseult, a 1900 romance by French medievalist Joseph Bédier.who based his work on early French sources of the legend, striving to "eradicate inconsistencies, anachronisms, false embellishments,and never to mix our modern conceptions with ancient forms of thought and feeling". By "modern", Bédier meant 1900, when Bayreuth's version dominated public taste. Martin's Le vin herbé is restrained, the very simplicity of its form connecting to the aesthetic of the Middle Ages.
Martin doesn't write pastiche medievalism though.  Le vin herbé is scored for chamber choir and orchestra, so the palette is clean and pure, "modern" in the sense that Martin was writing in the late 1930's, when many French and German composers used medieval subjects as metaphors for modern times. Martin  used dodecaphony to open up and refine tonality, and add subtle lustre and mystery.  The role of the choir is important. Just as in a Greek Chorus, the choir comments on events, creating distance from the frenzied fevers of the  herbal concoction which Tristan and Iseult imbibe. In a departure from medieval form, the choir sings in unison, not polyphony, so the words they sing are part of the drama rather than decoration for decoration's sake. Soloists sometimes sing alone, sometimes with the chorus, and chorus members sing solo parts. It's as if the voices emerge and retraet into background tapestry.

There are only eight instruments in the orchestra, all strings with contrabass and piano. Just as the voices emerge from the choir, solo instruments emerge from the opera at critical  moments -the contrabass and celli reinforcing  Tristan's part. The cantilenas for solo violin are exquisite, operating as an ethereal extra voice, commenting without words. The piano provides a measured counter to the fervent, passionate heartbeat when the strings surge in unison, marking the moment when Iseult and Tristan drink the potion and fall in love. Martin was working on Le Philtre before he even received a commission for the full work.

Tristan and Iseult are joined together in a drugged state, beautiful but ultimately fatal. They run off to live in the forest of Morois,where King Marke find them but spares them. Tristan escapes and after three years in a foreign land marries the evil Iseult of the White Hands. He's injured in battle  by a poison-tipped lance. Now the piano tolls like a bell, and the violin melody soars as if it were stretching across the seas in search of Iseult, mounting frenzy in the orchestra and chorus, and Iseult bursts in with a wild "Hélas ! chétive, hélas !",  the strings swirling around her turbulently.  Tristan is dead but Iseult lies down by Tristan "body to body, mouth to mouth".  We don't get a Mild und Liese, but there's some mighty fine writing for the orchestra and other voices. In an Epilogue,the choir sets out the moral of the story,  perhaps when the effects of the drug wear off, Tristan and Iseult find the true meaning of love. "Puissant-ils trouver ici consolation contre l'inconstance,  contre l'injustice, contre le dépit,  contre le pein, contre tous les maux d'amour"

Le vin Herbé is very different from Martin's larger scale works like Golgotha and Der Sturm, but it is an insight into an important but neglected period in music history. Understand Le vin herbé and you get a key into Poulenc, Honegger, Hartmann, Orff, and Braunfels.  It also connects to the literature and visual arts, including film, of the time. I discovered Frank Martin by sheer accident, hearing Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (1942/3) another "medieval" piece with a modern twist.  Please read my other posts on Wagner Tristan und Isolde,  especially "More tradition than meets the eye" and THIS about the Christof Loy Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House. There's much more to the opera than fake medieval costumes.Think about characterization, and the characters as human beings in a dramatic setting.

Thursday 4 December 2014

In support of Kyung-wha Chung

So  Kung-wha Chung told the parents of a tetchy child: "Maybe bring her back when she's older" and the media explodes as though the violinist was a triple-headed monster. Chung is not the first musician to object to coughing and other disruptions during a performance.  Some have even stopped playing until the audiernce settled down. Thomas Quasthoff would regularly berate audiences until his concerts became more performance art than performance. So whats new?

Chung hasn't been able to play for ten years due to injury. Much more was hanging on this concert for her than any ordinary recital. Of course she would be tense. In the circumstances, anyone would be tense. What's wrong with a bit of human kindness?   She was wrong to have snapped at the parents rather than at all the others who were coughing, but she was addressing a genuine and very important issue. Performers are not machines,who must deliver whatever the circumstances. Audiences owe it to themselves, and to artists, to respect those who perform. The concert hall should not be treated like your own living room and the performer as a servant who must obey.

Should Chung's comeback be derailed because some journalists are more interested in a story than in music?  Imogen Tilden in the Guardian seems to think it was a form of child abuse: perhaps the article was irresponsible clickbait since most of the comments do not support her. It's plain nonsense to suggest that Chung didn't want children to listen; she herself and many of her generation grew up with classical music as background. Even in London, many children go to concerts, and are often better behaved than adults.  If the child at the Royal Festival Hall was miserable, surely the parents should have noticed? I've missed gigs because my children weren't happy. Forcing culture on an unhappy child is cruel. It's not the parents' fault either but the media misconception that culture is easy, even when you're small, tired and hungry. As Chung said, bring the child back when it's able to cope. Besides, what example does nasty journalism set? That it's OK to harass one performer and not others? That it's OK to treat performers like chattels?  And what about compassion?   I do not support the bullying of  Kyung-wha Chung, but respect her for her courage.