Friday 30 October 2015

Christoph Prégardien Wigmore Hall complete Schubert Songs

Another highlight of the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert Song series - Christoph Prégardien and Christoph  Schnackertz. The core Wigmore Hall Lieder audience were out in force.  These days, though, there are many young faces among the regulars, a sign that appreciation of serious Lieder excellence is alive and well at the Wigmore Hall.   Prégardien is a perennial favourite, who has been singing at the Wigmore Hall for at least 25 years. Prégardien's programmes are thought-provoking.  His choice focussed on Schubert's settings of Schiller and Mayrhofer, which are Prégardien specialities, but this time he included songs that are less well known, to stimulate the audience's appreciation of the composers craft.  Schubert set 44 songs to texts by Schiller,  of which three were  settings of Der Jüngling am Bache. His first, D 30, dates from as early as 1812.  Prégardian sang the version D192 from 1815. The brooks still runs cheerfully in the piano part, but now the more contemplative approach emphasizes Schiller's image of flowers crushed in fast-flowing waters, an allusion to impermanence and to unfulfilment.  The agile lucidity of Prégardien's timbre captures much of the whimsy of the first version, though the later song is more emotionally rewarding. Later in this Wigmore Hall series, no doubt we'll hear the third version, D 638 (1819), even more poignant. 

For a  moment, though, we remained in charm mode, with Schubert's settings of Ludwig Hölty (1748-1776).  Der Liebende D207 1815 recaptures the sprightly lyricism of the first version of  Der Jüngling am Bache. "Beglückt, beglückt, Wer dich erblickt", bright, sharp consonants, which Prégardien articulated so they sparkled. "Wem süsser Blick, und Wink und Nick Zum sussern Kusse winket". Utterly delicious.  Der Traum D218 1815 feels almost like folksong with its paired phrases suggesting the fluttering of a bird : "Mir träumt, ich war ein Vögelein".  Prégardien captured the lilting charm in the song with delicate but deft clarity.  The sentiments of Die Laube D214, 1815, is decidedly period. "Schauer wird durch meine Nerven haben" and "Wann ich auf der Bahnder Tugend wanke". But Pregardien's respect for the song as song gives it dignity. 

Thus were we prepared for more Schiller. Hoffnung D251 1815 is relatively straightforward compared with D 637, a darker and more beautidul setting of the same poem,. but it made a good transition to the Schiller ballad Ritter Togenberg D397 1816.  Again, the subject is rather "of its time". a knight, rejected by a maiden, goes on the Crusades where he "Schreckt den Muselmann". When he returns, the girl has become a nun. So the knight spends the rest of his life in a hut near the convent until the girl dies and becomes an angel. Strophic ballads aren't that easy to carry off but they are one of Prégardien's great strengths. He sang with direct, unfussy commitment, so the tale felt totally plausible. Context aside, emotions are universal.  

In his programme notes, Richard Stokes quotes Albert Einstein on Die Liebesgötter D 446 1816, to a poem by Johann Peter Uz, as "Anacreontic doggerel". "Cypris meiner Phyllis gleich, sass von Grazien umgeben....mich berauschten Cyperns Reben". Cypris's grapes have made the poem drunk. As a poem this is a howler.  The poet sees nymphs fleeing "mit leichtem Fuss allen Zwang betränkter Kettern flatteren von Fuss zu Fuss und von Blonden und Brünetten". Yer Prégardien makes the song feel right, though he smiled benevolently when singing the florid phrases. If we can take 18th century paintings of Classical Antiquity, we can perhaps take .Uz (1730-1796) on his own terms. In any case, the poem is more risqué than it seems since nymphs hang out with satyrs, and wine frees inhibitions. 

Prégardien and Schnackertz then paired Der Hirt D 490 1816 and Bei dem Grabe meines Vater D496 1816. Both deal with loss. In the first, the poet (Mayerhofer) looks at the tower where his beloved lives now that she's married. In the second, to a poem by Matthias Claudius, the poet mourns his father in conventionally dutiful terms.  Both settings are rather dispassionate, and don't draw from Schubert his finest moments, but we need to hear them to appreciate Schubert's work as a whole. That's the point of a complete song series. In that context, Schubert's songs to Mayrhofer shone all the more brightly.

Five more Schubert settings of Mayrhofer followed :  Der Alpenjjäger, D524 1817, Nach einem Gewitter D561 1817, Tröst  D671 1819, Nachstück  D D672 19, Nachtviolen D752 1822 and Alflösung D 807 1824, all of which Prégardien has performed many times in the past and still does with characteristic grace and intelligence. 

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Calleja Pape Opolais Boito Mefistofele Munich


My fascination with Faust never ends, fuelled again by Arrigo Boito Mefistofele at the Bayerische Staatsoper.  Joseph Calleja, René Pape, Kristine Opolais star - what more could one ask? But listen, too, to the superb choir , central to this version of Faust, and to the orchestra, conducted by Omer Meir Wellber.   READ HERE MY FULL REVIEW of bthe production.

In the Prologue in Heaven  the choir sing reverently, but suddenly the music turns quirky, running along with fast footsteps, a good way to usher in Mefistofele. René Pape is magisterial, absolutely confident. He's challenging God for the soul of Faust . How cheeky the childrens' choir sounds, even though they're singing pious homilies. Calleja, too, is in fine form, almost too luxuriantly Italianate to be an ascetic old scholar, but his singing shows why Boito revised the work for Bologna in 1875.  Calleja's lively tenor suggests the sensuality that Faust must have been repressing inside all his life . Calleja makes one wonder what turned the young Faust into a desiccated ascetic. His tragedy  might well have started long before we meet him in his old age. Calleja's bright, ringing tones also evoke the excitement which has motivated Faust's lifelong search for knowledge. No wonder he can't resist what Mefistofele might have to show him. In his dialogue with Margherita (Kristine Opolais),  Calleja nails,  and holds, stratospheric heights. Outsinging a great soprano takes some doing. The trio at the end of the scene sparks with tension : Faust and Margherita are swept up in the sharp, dotted rhythms that mark Mefistofele's music.

The Walpurgisnacht scene is demonic: sharp woodwind flurries suggesting hellfire, perhaps, or moonlight? Calleja and Pape sing in tight lockstep "Folletto ! Folleto!". The manic staccato theme is taken up by the chorus, which then switches to quiet whisper, while the orchestra  creates the sprightly "hellfire" motif, first in the woodwinds, then through the celli and basses. The brightness of Calleja's voice contrasts well with Pape's, whose voice grows darker and more malevolent now that Faust is his realm. The final chorus whips along with crazed energy: the witches are dancing wildly before the "flames" in the orchestra. "Sabba, Sabba, Saboè!"

Back on earth, Opolais sings  L'altra notte in fondo al mare and what follows with great emotional depth. Her Margherita is a woman steeled by suffering  When she and Calleja sing Lontano, lontano, lontano, they bring out tenderness and tragedy, beauty and pain. Opolais sings the Spunta, l'aurora pallida with such calm heroism that Calleja's O strazio crudel! tears at the heart.  Opolais's  purity contrasts pointedly with the singing of Elena  (Karine Babajanyan)   In the orchestra  we hear the exquisite harp sequence, setting the tone for the love  duet between Elena and Faust that will follow. The harmony, though, is but a dream. Faust is back in his study, dimly lit, as we might  imagine from the quiet murmurs in the orchestra. Perhaps the dawn is coming, though.  "Cammina, cammina" Mefistofele calls. This time, Faust fights back. Calleja sings with undecorated, but  heroic firmness. "Faust !Faust!"  Pape cries, but his prey has slipped from his grasp. The chorus returns, in full, glorious voice with orchestra in full glory. Even René Pape is no match.

This Mefistofele can be heard audio only on BR Klassik for a limited period - recommended ! It's good.  On 15th November, the full video will be broadcast on Details here.

Sunday 25 October 2015

Brahms Die schõne Magelone - Roderick Williams

Brahms Die schõne Magelone Op 33, (1861-8) at the Oxford Lieder Festival,on Tuesday, with Roderick Williams. Since this year's Oxford Lieder Festival focuses on poetry, and poetry in translation, chances are that Williams will be singing in English. This is ideal Roddy repertoire because he's such a direct, vivid communicator. That matters more than usual in Die schõne Magelone because its very form is florid romance. Although the song cycle is often performed with the spoken text Brahms included, I hope that, in Oxford, they'll be doing the text in translation, as it's integral to form and meaning.

Brahms chose fifteen songs and associated text from Ludwig von Tieck's Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence (1796)  a hybrid narrative where long passages of prose blossom  into poetry at critical points. This form is part of meaning, since the tale is a saga of troubadours, for whom song was an indicator of knightly  status almost as much as tournaments and jousting. Tieck's source was a French legend, first published in German in Augsburg in 1535. Tieck's many adaptations of "medieval" sagas were highly influential  because they fueled the fashion for small "r"  romanticism of an idealized society as an alternative to the realities of the 19th century.

The prose also puts context to the songs, which as poems aren't as strong to stand alone as, say, the songs Josef von Eichendorff included in his Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (1822-3) which were set as Lieder by Hugo Wolf. Interestingly, both of those literary works deal with the idea of a young man travelling to Italy - the "Dream of the South" so pervasive in the German |Romantic imagination., In Die schõne Magelone,  Graf Peter leaves home, inspired by song  and the vision of beauty he finds in Magalona the daughter of the King of Neapolis (Naples).  Read the full text in German  HERE and in English HERE   After many trials and tribulations, which include being captured by Turks, the lovers at last prevail.. If the story sounds familiar, think Torquato Tasso (1544-85) and Rinaldo. Or Weber Oberon, for that matter.

So in Die schõne Magelone the spoken passages of prose are fundamental. Indeed, a lot of the impact of a good performance lies in the way the text is recited.  This is literature, after all, the cadences and phrasings are a form of "music". Even if you don't know the words, they sound good and mysterious, and contribute a great deal to the atmosphere. It's not that hard to read a short synopsis before the recital and respond with the imagination. To leave the texts out, simply because English-speaking audiences don't care, panders to the dumbed-down, though it's fair enough in some situations. .An English translation is a reasonable compromise. 

Saturday 24 October 2015

Chailly Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra - Strauss Zarathustra, Metamorphosen and Till Eulenspeigel

Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra's Strauss series at the Barbican, London, was built around the theme "Richard Strauss as Storyteller".  At first that might seem odd, for surely a composer who wrote operas must "tell stories" ? But the theme was well chosen. Operas are by no means the only way in which abstract music can form  narrative story-telling.  Of course tone poems can be enjoyed for themselves as abstract music, but they attract value-added depth when appreciated with an awareness of their literary, folkloric and philosophic inspiration. Significantly, Strauss didn't write symphonies as such, but more heterodox, free-wheeling hybrids.

In the first concert in this series  (read my review here),  Chailly focused on early Strauss, such as Don Juan, popular because it's theatrical but undemanding, and Ein Heldenleben which is often misunderstood because it satirizes the very idea of bombastic heroism, typified by the cult of Bayreuth. Ein Heldenleben needs to be heard in context with Guntram, Feuersnot and even Salomé. Born into Munich music circles, Strauss could connect to a world which didn't deify Wagner. While Mahler could re-invent the symphony, and Hugo Wolf could become "The Wagner of the Lied", Strauss did his own thing.

Thus Macbeth  (Op 23 1886-8) opened the second concert. Written when Strauss was in his very early 20's it's interesting because the subject is so dramatic that it almost begs operatic treatment. Yet Strauss avoids the obvious, using sounds instead of words. He assumed his listeners knew Shakespeare well  enough that they could figure the plot out for themselves.  Thus, atmospheric murmurings and screams of violent brass. Witchcraft, murder and cosmic guilt, wrapped up with vaguely "Scottish" sounds  which reference the fascination the Highlands held for 19th century middle Europe, from Beethoven to Donizetti to Verdi.  Macbeth gave its audience the frisson horror movies would give later generations. It's over the top, but therein lies its charm. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra laid on the atmosphere in gorgeous technicolour, and, in the process, highlighted Strauss's irreverent sense of humour.

A brief respite with Mozart Violin Concerto no 3 in G major, with Christian Tetzlaff as soloist. It's not a showpiece stunner but served to divide Macbeth from the altogether more demonic extremes of Also sprach Zarathustra.  Throughout this series, Chailly placed Mozart in counterpoint to Strauss, rather than the perhaps more obvious Liszt, but it kept the focus on Strauss.

Also sprach Zarathustra (Op  30 1896) is so ubiquitous that every knows it from TV ads, movies and (apparently) gaming sound effects. But when a band like the Leipzigers play , you forget the clichés and hear the music as shocking as it might have felt when it was new and unknown. The first bars rumbled with menace. The famous fanfare whipped across the sound space. Definitely the "shock of the new", still startling after 120 years. The piece unfolds in three sections, like scenes in a narrative. Friedrich Nietszche's Also sprach Zarathustra was still fairly new, and notorious., Ideas like "God is Dead" and "Between Good and Evil" still have the power to shock.  Cinematic treatment doesn't do justice to this music nor to the radical ideas behind it. Chailly conducted to bring out the savage raw edges and almost psychotic waywardness, absolutely essential when one remembers where Nietzschean values, or their misappropriation, would lead. There are connections also to Wagner. Nietzsche lost his illusions about Wagner fairly early on, and Wagner had no qualms about denigrating him. So much for heroism and bombastic barrage. An understanding of Strauss's music reveals that Strauss had no delusions, either. 

An orchestra like the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester plays with such lustrous beauty that they brought out the deep irony in the dance sections. These dances aren't pastoral, but poisoned, possibly a reference to the cult of the Volk that would appeal to those who misused the Romantiker fascination with an idealized German past. Exquisitely beautiful playing from the Leipziger's first violin, graceful, enticing yet sinister, reminiscent of the Hero theme in Ein Heldenleben.  The idea of dance pervades Strauss's music. Salomé dances to trap John the Baptist (and her parents). Elektra dances herself to death after Orestes chops us their parents. Even in Der Rosenkavalier, we can detect the formality of dance in the elegant stratagems which the Marschallin and Octavian devise to trap the brutish Baron Ochs. Poise but purpose, as this wonderfully intelligent performances demonstrated.

For their final concert, Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra chose Tod und Verklärung, Metamorphosen and Till Eulenspeigel, with Mozart Clarinet Concerto K 662 (Martin Fröst).  Tod und Verklärung (Op 24 1888) is a young composer's meditation on death, not so much a farewell but an intuition of what might come through transfiguration. Pairing it with Strauss's late masterpiece Metamorphosen was poignant. By 1944, Strauss could see the dangers Nietszche warned of come to fruition. The Germany he believed in was being destroyed, not just by bombs but by bombastic fake heroism - the Triumph of the Will.  This time perhaps Strauss could not think transfiguration.  In a way, I am glad that, at the last minute, I couldn't get to the concert because this daring  juxtaposition would have been overwhelming. It would have been so depressing, in fact, that it would not have been wise to end the series, and Chailly's tenure, on such a sad note. Ending, instead with Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Op 24, 1895),  brought the Chailly/Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra series back to the beginning, like an elegant rondo.  Till Eulenspiegel was a prankster, a medieval Fool who overturns conventional power and order with cheeky, irreverent good humour  We're right back into the world of Ein Heldenleben, where Strauss undermines the very idea of heroism, power and authority.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Chailly Leipzig Gewandhausorchester Barbican Strauss Heldenleben

Riccardo Chailly conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in three concerts at the Barbican, London, featuring dramatic orchestral works by Richard Strauss. Highlight of the first evening was Ein Heldenleben Op  40 (1898).  At a time when Wagner was fanatically idolized by followers even more extreme than The Master himself, it took guts for a composer still only in his 30's to poke fun at the whole concept of heroism. Cosima  would not have countenanced such impudence at Bayreuth. With his self-deprecating good humour, Strauss undermined  19th century concepts of power and value. In his own way, Strauss was more radical than Mahler.  Now there's a provocative thought!

For my review of the rest of the Chailly Leipzig Gewanndhausorchester Strauss Zyklus see HERE. 

The Hero (represented by solo violin) embarks upon a mission.The references to Siegfried's Journey down the Rhine are clear - glorious, glowing strings   The famous "golden"  Leipzig sound, augmented by Chailly's ear for operas: a wonderful combination that may, if anything, blossom further when Andris Nelsons takes over from Chailly. Characteristically, Strauss undercuts this theme with delicate woodwind flutterings. Perhaps we're hearing the wood dove. But Chailly's musicians played with such definition that I felt that they were highlighting the vulnerability that so many bombastic heroes try to hide. The horns called, but heralded adversity rather than adventure, Chailly didn't hide the underlying dissonance, so the section "Des Helden Gefährtin"  felt more equivocal than  serene. A good insight. Perhaps Strauss was thinking how Siegfried dumps on Brünnhilde, the real hero of the Ring. Siegfried has no fear, but also little depth. Perhaps Strauss was also thinking of himself and  the  tempestuous Pauline de Ahna. His loyalty to her was also an act of quiet, good-natured heroism.

Bearing in mind this dialectic between public display and private good sense, The Hero's Battlefield takes on deeper meaning. Wonderful orchestration employed for maximum effect and played with passion by the huge orchestra: yet also telling details in and around it, like the trumpet solo and the descending "starlight" figures that might recall the woodwinds theme from before, or lead towards the resolution where peace, and perhaps wisdom may lie. Where, earlier, the celli murmured worshipful resonance, now they and the harps evoked a more sophisticated, complex mood.  Now, with the richness and character of their playing, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra demonstrated the true depth of meaning in this tone poem. The solo violin melody returned, confident and exqusitely beautiful, the full force of the orchestra supporting it. Real heroism , here : no costumes and hunting horns required.

 When Chailly started conducting Concertgebouw Amsterdam, there were voices of dissent because he was different to the conductors they'd had before, because he did "new music" and because his Mahler didn't sound like Mengelberg or Haitink. So? Donald Mitchell loved Chailly's Mahler, which is good enough for me.  I've learned a lot from Chailly's very individual approach. Chailly spent 16 years at the helm of the Concertgebouw, a fact which speaks for itself. When he moved to Leipzig, the chemistry was instant. Right from the start, their partnership felt perfect. The "Chailly era", which has lasted ten years now,will be remembered as legend.  In London, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is heard in this country often enough that they feel familiar, like a "house band"  Incredible luxury.

Before that perceptive Ein Heldenleben, Strauss's Don Juan Op 20, written ten years before, which showed how far Strauss had matured, as musician and as a human being. Between very early Strauss and early Strauss, Mozart Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat major, K595, with Maria João Pires.  The piece is elegant; she played with grace. But don't mistake  her delicate touch for weakness. Diminutive but formidably assertive, Pires's playing style is decidedly heroic. 

Sunday 18 October 2015

Strauss Elektra Goerke Nelsons Boston Symphony Orchestra

Richard Strauss Elektra in Boston with Andris Nelsons and Christine Goerke. Goerke "is" Elektra, like no-one else. She inhabits  the character, using her voice to channel  Elektra's turbulent emotions.  Elektra rejects everything her mother stands for, even if it means going feral. The part is merciless,  driven by wild extremes. Animal-like mutterings give way to howls of frenzied rage.  Yet Goerke takes her cue from the music around her. Even in the frenzy of her final dance, when words fail, Goerke exudes regal dignity. This performance was outstanding, by far the most intense of the three Elektras I've heard her sing.

Let us pray that the Boston Symphony Orchestra finds a way to make the broadcast more widely available, because this will be a kind of landmark. Goerke was amazing, but she was challenged and stimulated by equally exceptional orchestral playing.   Goerke and Nelsons have worked together before, and have a kind of natural chemistry,which is quite unique. When they did Strauss Elektra at the Royal Opera House in 2013, word got round even in early rehearsals that something extraordinary was going to happen. Read my review here. When the production was first done five years previously, it was misunderstood, but Nelsons and Goerke made it work. Some thought the production had changed. It hadn't. Lucky for us, it is being revived, because it's good. Hopefully, we'll get Goerke again. Last night, after the Boston performance, I thought about putting on the Aix production (Salonen/Chereau/Herlitzius) but couldn't face it.

This performance also proved why the Boston Symphony Orchestra wanted to grab Nelsons and hang onto him against all comers.  Just as there is more to singing than making sounds, there is a lot more to conducting than waving a baton. Nelsons is inspirational because he genuinely loves music. As Claudio Abbado said, that kind of love motivates creative people and fires them up to do things that those motivated by hate can't comprehend.  Listen to this interview with Christine Goerke where she explains how she works, and how singers work with conductors. What a personality, down to earth and no fool.

This superlative Elektra showed that  the BSO can rise to the challenge of a conductor who is very different, and who can push them in new  directions. Their  basic technical standards have improved greatly since I last heard them in August. Read my review of their Mahler 6th at the Proms here. (I was a lot less scathing than some.) This Elektra shows what they can do when they go outside their comfort zone. It was even  more visceral than Semyon Bychkov's Elektra with the BBC SO, where Goerke also sang with Gun-Brit Barkmin as Chrysothemis. Read my review here.  Boston Symphony Hall is a smaller place than the Royal Albert Hall, which helps concentrate the impact.
Now that Nelsons is taking over the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the BSO will embark on a partnership with the oldest and possibly finest orchestra in the world.  This is an unprecedented deal, which raises the bar very, very high indeed. 

Thursday 15 October 2015

Penderecki conducts Penderecki, London Philharmonic Orchestra

It's always good when a composer conducts his own music, so when Krzysztof Penderecki conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Halll, it was an occasion.  In 1992, Witold Lutosławski conducted his then new Symphony no 3 (at the Newbury Festival, when that was cutting edge). I've regretted missing it ever since. Penderecki is no stranger in this country, where he's conducted mainly his own works many times, including at the Proms. But never take composers doing their own music for granted, even though sometimes the perspective of a conductor who feels less subjectively can be a good thing.

At 83, Penderecki is looking more magnificent than ever, much more striking than he did as a younger man.  He's so handsome in white tie and tails that  he looked like a quintessential maestro from central casting. Indeed, he looks even  more magisterial than he did when he was younger. "He looks like someone from the 19th century suddenly materialized" said a friend.  Penderecki's conducting style is unusual, his left hand striking repeating gestures marking the pulse, while the right remains largely immobile.  Perhaps he's left-handed ?

Penderecki's Adagio for Strings (2013), received its London premiere.  If it sounded familiar, it was. It's a transcription from the third movement, of  the composer's Third Symphony (1995). Penderecki has famously declared that musical innovation stopped in the 1970's so by that judgement, the Adagio might be third generation reiteration of sorts, pleasantly played, though, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Penderecki's Concerto for Horn and Orchestra "Winterreise", from 2008, also received its UK premiere.  The composer says that the piece has nothing to do with Schubert,despite the title. But why the title in the first place? Schubert's Winterreise is a study in alienation long before the concept was verbalized. Penderecki's concerto is a fairly straightforward concerto where soloist interacts with orchestra in much the way Schubert's protagonist interacts with Nature, while claiming to think only of himself. The horn is an instrument created to lead, in marches, in hunts and in fanfares.  I don't think you can be a horn players and a shrinking violet. The soloist, Radovan Vlatkovic, played with distinctive personality, engaging interest and revealing the many interesting figures along the journey.  The piece was written for him, and he makes it come alive.

Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) is the composer's "greatest hit". On one level, the whirring high-pitched strings scream like manic machines, suggesting the moment the atom bomb whizzed from the skies and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. In that sense, the piece sounds vaguely like Masao Ohki's Hiroshima Symphony (read more here)  However, Penderecki's piece was conceived as an abstract study of pitch and layering, the title added later. It's intense because the concept is strong, simple yet effective, its impact (sorry wrong choice of word) enhanced by the way audiences respond to the perceived subject.  It would make a good  introduction to, say,  Xenakis  Pithoprakta (1955), showing audiences that modern music isn't necessarily difficult or forbidding. There is far too much ill-informed cliché written about 20th century  music.

The concert concluded with Shostakovich Symphony no 6 Op 54 (1939).reminding us that Penderecki has a reputation for conducting Shostakovich.  Again, the LPO played with great refinement. This week, Gergiev conducted the London Symphony Orchestra as its chief, for the last time, though hopefully he will still Guest. What would Gergiev, on a good day, have made of its wicked, ironic humour? I'm glad I heard Penderecki conduct again, but I think I'll now go listen to Lutosławski.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Cultural minefield - Daughter of the Samurai

There's just so much odd with Arnold Fanck's venture into Japanese cinema it's hard to know where to start, but that very strangeness yields insights into the way different cultures view each other  Fanck's Daughter of the Samurai was made about a decade after his masterpieces like The Holy Mountain (1926) and The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929)  By this stage in his life, Fanck wasn't "free". He had to do what the Third Reich wanted, or else. Compared with Leni Riefenstahl's films, like The Triumph of the WillDaughter of the Samurai is not a "Nazi" film as some suggest. On the contrary, it's film by a European who doesn't know much about Japanese culture, or Japanese cinema, but does know mountains.

Fanck created Bergfilm: poetic, esoteric movies filmed in the Alps, with actors and cameramen who did their own climbing, often in dangerous conditions, with little of the equipment climbers rely upon today. This sense of first person danger permeates the films. Fanck was a geologist who knew how mountains were formed  and how powerful they were. In Bergfilms, mountains are the real stars, towering majestically over all else, including the actors, auteurs and cameraman. The mountains are highly symbolic, connecting to the intellectual challenges of the late Romantic period. To call them "German westerns" is hopelessly superficial.

Daughter of the Samurai was largely shot in the studio, though there are wonderful shots of Mount Fuji, of terraced rice fields and snow-covered peaks,  showing that Fanck and his cinematographers still had an eye for the patterns of Nature. In this film, they also show shots of industrial processes and stylized dancers. They even respond to the rhythms of rice-planting : like mountain climbing , planting rice is repetitive and physically demanding, but worth doing for an ultimate reward.

The film was made in 1937, when Japan yet again invaded China. Germany and Japan became wartime allies since they had a common enemy: Russia. At the time neither was at war with the west. The Germans were happy to support Japan's invasion of China. Both countries wanted Lebensraum.  In Daughter of the Samurai, a Japanese man who speaks German and a German woman who speaks Japanese  meet on board ship. Teruo Yamato (whose name means "Japan") is played by Isamu Kosugi, a star and director in the Japanese film industry which was as sophisticated and active as anything in Europe.  Therein lies some of the tension in the background. In theory the film was a joint Gertman/Japanese venture, but the Germans won. Daughter of the Samurai is totally Eurocentric. It is not racist, because the Japanese are treated with sympathy, but not as equals. There are good shots of Japanese progress, eg modern buildings, fast trains, neon lights etc, but like most foreigners the film-makers fall back on clichés like cherry blossom and lanterns. Swastika flag and the Rising Sun flags fly together for a brief moment but that's about as political as the film gets. Perhaps the Germans  just didn't know how advanced the Japanese cinema industry really was, even then. The film isn't deliberately offensive, but it sustains colonialist ideas. No surprise that the Japanese weren't amused.

Setsuko Hara plays Mitsuko, Terou's dutiful wife. She too was a big star in  Japan and, like Kosugi, international in the sense that she travelled a lot in the west. Teruo's father is played by Sessue Hayakawa,  who emigrated to the US  and made his name in American movies. Had he stayed in Hollywood during the war years, he would have been interned in the notorious camps for Nisei, where thousands perished.  So it's ironic to see him in this film funded by the Nazi regime.  That's him in the photo above with Ruth Eweier, the German blonde whom Mitsuko  fears will take her husband away. Here's a good shot of the two women in a modern kitchen. A sophisticate like Hara probably had a western kitchen (she's still alive, aged 95) but you can understand the pointed cultural tension.

Being a daughter of samurai, Mitsuko decides to kill herself. Teruo, realizing what she's doing, jumps into his fancy car, driving on hairpin bends on a  cliffside. The road collapses round a lake. He then swims the whole way across, and climbs a volcano, burning his feet. Amazingly, he meets Mitsuko at the summit though she left their house and walked all the way, dressed in a kimono. Nonetheless, we get to see good shots of cliffs and mountains - traces of Bergfilm, after all.  Some scenes are quite spectacular. .The volcano erupts, destroying the Yamato farmhouse in the valley. Somehow, though, Teruo and Mitsuko survive. His feet are bandaged but she's in full Geisha regalia.  Unlike Fanck's gutsy heroine Leni Riefenstahl, Hara must revert to being an unrealistic "Japanese wife". You can understand why the Japanese director and crew, highly experienced professionals, were annoyed.

Now, it's time to offend the Chinese. Teruo and Mitsuko move to Manchuria, where they farm with tractors, since they're modern, unlike the Chinese peasants whose land they have occupied. Daughter of the Samurai doesn't set out to annoy, any more than many other films of the time, like The Good Earth, made in Hollywood in the same year, and a big hit with non-Asian audiences. These films just represent the way whites looked upon non-whites, which was how things were then. As long as we see Daughter of the Samurai in context, it's OK.

Monday 12 October 2015

The unique, the glorious Oxford Lieder Festival starts Friday

The Oxford Lieder Festival 2015 starts this Friday and runs until 30th October.  From small beginnings nearly 15 years ago, the Oxford Lieder festival has now grown to be the most important Lieder festival in this country.  Last year Oxford Lieder presented the first complete Schubert songs series (with some chamber music). This year the Wigmore Hall is doing a complete Schubert songs series, too. The two series complement each other well. The Wigmore Hall is, well, in a class of excellence  of its own, but Oxford Lieder's emphasis on repertoire exploration and performance skills builds a strong foundation for performers and audiences

I cannot overstate how much I value the Oxford Lieder Festival and what it has done for art song in this country.  I've been a Friend and supporter since the beginning, and watched it grow  and influence the way British audiences understand song.  there are many small festivals around now, but Oxford Lieder is the finest, pushing raising the bar upwards for everyone. It is totally unique, much much more than a series of recitals.

Oxford Lieder connects performers and audiences in a very special way.  Most recitals take place in the Holwell Music Room  it has very small capacity, but that's part of its charm. When you're just a few metres from singers, the communication is intense. Good singers know the repertoire well enough that they can sing from the soul, so to speak. If you know the repertoire well enough not to bury yourself in the programme, you can communicate on an intense, personal and direct level. It's a challenge, since Lieder deals with deep emotions. yet there is absolutely nothing like it !  Some of the finest recitals I've ever participated in (for that's the right term) have been at the Oxford Lieder Festival, where it feels like you are one to one with some very great singers (and pianists) indeed.

This year's Oxford Lieder Festival spotlights "Poetry into Song". There are all-day study days on composers and on the relationship between composers and poets - a Fauré workshop this weekend, a Berlioz Study day next week, and recitals devoted to specific poets and composers, different languages and styles (including ballad). This is the sort of engagement that inspires good performance. Oxford Lieder is very strong on engagement and runs a superlative series of practical masterclasses and workshops. The whole Oxford Lieder Festival ethos is in depth and very thorough - but that's what Lieder deserves! No half measures. But the rewards are tremendous.

Please read this interview with Sholto Kynoch, Director (and pianist) of the Oxford Lieder Festival, in which he describes this year's programme to Robert Hugill in Opera Today. Please read in full!

Saturday 10 October 2015

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra 120th anniversary gala

The 120th anniversary concert of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is now available from CzechTV   on   All the musicians are wearing golden African daisies to mark the occasion -gold for happiness and warmth, the daisies bright but tough. Sunflowers would be too big and roses too delicate. The  programme honours masters associated with the Prague Philharmonic - Janáček's Des Spielmanns Kind, Ballade für Orchester, Suk's Ein Märchen Op 16 and Dvořák Slawische Tänze Op. 72

Janáček's Des Spielmanns Kind, Ballade für Orchester, from 1912, revised 1914, already exhibits signs of  the maturity that lay just ahead,  Janáček based the piece on a poem by Svatopluk Cech. whose novels were soon to inspire The Excursions of Mr. Brouček to the Moon and to the 15th Century (1920)  Although this piece is not written for voices, it recounts the story of a village fiddler who dies in poverty, leaving only his violin and his orphaned child. A fairly common meme in middle European folklore, with many  variations, some quite macabre. The violin often represents the Devil. In Janáček's music the violin leads the orchestra seductively, building up a tension undercut by the flowing violin line which is then taken up and varied by the winds - darker sounds, suggesting menace, which once again dissipates into the plaintive call of the violin. Then, characteristic Janáček descending triplets and the low voice of a clarinet. The fiddler's child is adopted by a village woman but this peace won't last. One night the woman dreams she sees the ghost of the fiddler by her bed. Next morning, the child and the violin have disappeared. Rushing strings introduce a new mood, which leads to a kind of elegaic calm. Father and son are together, again. There's not much of the Devil in this. It's nowhere near a Janáček opera, but harks back to other music of its time.

This point  was reinforced by hearing Josef Suk's Ein Märchen  (Pohádka) Op. 16  Originally written in 1897/8 as incidental music for a play by Julius Zeyer, it was adapted as a suite first performed by this orchestra in 1901, revised by the composer in 1912. Radúz and Mahulena and lovers. The first part  - again with dominant solo violin - is an atmospheric prelude for the striking "Game  of  Swans and Peacocks" - how the music prances and dances, ending with a flourish.  The Funeral Music in the third section flows with mysterious,undercurrents.  Jirí Belohlávek conducts it so it feels daring, and suitably disturbing.  The lovers have been cursed by Quenn Runa, an evil presence like the Devil in the Fiddler legends. In the dramatic Finale, the lovers triumph over death. Yet again, the solo violin leads. This piece isn't "folkoric" .  Suk's distinctive voice gives it depth and sophistication.  Drama by symphonic means.

This concert took place in the Rudolfinium,  where the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is based. Above the interior, below the statue of Antonin Dvořák, proudly facing the building. The Rudolfinium has withstood war and occupation. It's a shrine to the blossoming of Czech music and national spirit.  Belohlávek concluded this anniversary concert with Dvořák Slawische Tänze Op. 72 (1878-86).  Cheerful, lively playing. Maybe somewhere in the afterlife, the composer is beaming with joy.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Hear and SMELL Handel Acis and Galatea

Hear and SMELL Handel at St John's Smith Square on Monday 2nd November. La Nuova Musica, dedicated to ardent and vivid performances, will present  Handel Acis and Galatea in a performance that will bring a whole new dimension to the idea of "period authenticity".
"In Handel's time scents abounded - from animals, lack of public hygiene, both personal and civic, and from expensive perfumes used by wealthy individuals and establishments, including the church. An opera would have been intensely scented, both accidentally and on purpose", says
Sarah McCartney of 4160Tuesday, who is providing value-added period detail. "Posies drowned out the stench of the street; dried flowers and incense created a suitable atmosphere, the wealthy powdered their hair and clothes with costly iris root, and kept deterred fleas and moths with patchouli."

"The 21st Century is scent averse. Smell is probably the only sense which has less to do in the modern world than in previous centuries. We now revere cleanliness and the "natural" scents of fresh, natural fruits (which are usually made with synthetics for practical reasons). It's a very unusual age. Our default is no scent at all, and removing all trace of natural smell from our bodies. For that reason, we won't need to fight the overwhelming olfactory bombardment that the 18th Century would have brought with it. People generally assume that naturals are safer, but in fact it's the other way round. For this project I'm using pure synthetics to avoid even the slightest possibility of any kind of allergic reaction. Rather than aiming for an authentic 18th century fragrance – which 21st Century audiences would find completely intolerable – I have created three light background scents to alter the mood, literally changing the atmosphere. "

La Nuova Musica are fine musicians, so look forward to a good performance in the intimate atmosphere of St John's Smith Square. Excellent soloists - Ed Lyon, Katherine Manley, Christopher Purves, Rupert Charlesworth, and Nick Scott. And perfumed, too !  (note the allergy-free aspects).  For more details, check the SJSS site HERE.

The image above shows Handel's organ on the Royal Opera House stage. Handel came to work at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1735. Photo belongs to the Royal Opera House archives

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Rossini La Gazza Ladra Pesaro

Rossini La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), the grand opening opera at this year's Pesaro Festival  now available on BBC Radio 3.  Donato Renzetti conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Communale di Bologna. Fans of Nino Machaidze will be thrilled - she sings Ninetta, the heroine, unjustly accused of theft but brave enough to withstand villains and face death.  Machaidze's voice is "moist" in the best sense of the word, naturally fluid and and refreshing,. She negotiates the phrasing and decoration with elegant grace. The rest of the cast is good too - Alex Esposito  sings Fernando, her crooked deserter father. Listen out, too, for the combinations of male voices. Lovely, tight ensembles. (cast details on the link).This is also worth listening to because the speaking guest is Francesco Izzo,who knows what he is talking about ! and he's a good communicator. Here is a link to Izzo's book Laughter between Two Revolutions - Opera buffa in Italy 1831-1848. 

Damiano Michielleto has directed Rossini  at Pesaro several times - La  Cenerentola, La scala di seta,  Sigismondo, and this revival of La gazza ladra, first seen in 2007. He has also directed productuons at La Scala, Theater an der Wien and Salzburg, mostly Italian repertoire. Chances are, he knows his métier,better than the London press who savaged his  Guillaume Tell at ROH because he dared to respect Rossini's own stage instructions about the humiliation of women in war. What were they expecting, Walt Disney?  Please read my piece Audience back Gesler, not Tell   What's wrong with audiences who are more upset by two seconds of tit but not the idea of a sadist regime which forces a man to shoot at his own son?

That scandal distorted any real analysis of the opera,and of the deeper ideas in the production.  One critic, known for his own nastiness, screamed against the gala new production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, which the Royal Opera House is presenting at Christmas. If he doesn't want to go, I'll take his ticket thank you, even though I've already purchased one, the high cost offset by fairly cheap Chabrier L'Etoile and Haas Morgen un Abends  Intrigued by what Michielleto might do with Cav/Pag, I did the unthinkable. I actually watched and listened to as much as I could  All performances are someone else's point of view. In normal life, we communicate by listening to people whether we agree or not.

La gazza ladra opens with a gorgeous, lively overture. Sure, we could watch the orchestra, but some would complain about that, too. In Michielleto's staging, we see an adolescent playing with silvery tubes. Is he/she putting together a kind of puzzle ? The plot is so convoluted that you can understand how an innocent might wonder at the proceedings. Later the silver tubes become a backdrop which adapts to whatever action is going on.  Do the silver tubes suggest the stolen cutlery (which, we discover at the end has been present all along). The tubes turn over and become tunnels, perhaps even a cathedral looming high? Why should visual images only have to represent one thing? Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant. One feels the tail, the other the trunk. But neither "get" the elephant.  

Each of the two acts is monumental, and in the second, the stage is dominated by a walkway above which the chorus parade in judgement. Given the importance of their music, not at all a bad idea. I'm less sure about the rain and water, but maybe that's the presence of nature, in a drama otherwise tied up with "indoor" ideas of possessiveness and material values. The adolescent watches, as a magpie might, bemused. The contrast is telling. Magpies like shiny things but they aren't avaricious. Now maybe we can understand why Michieletto uses young people, like Jemmy in Guillaume Tell to bring out a fresh perspective and sense of imagination. Without imagination, what is art ? 

So I'm glad I'm going to the Royal Opera House Cav/Pag double bill. Consider what those operas mean and why they get done at Christmas when the idea of "peace and goodwill" might be relevant. 

On Thursday 8th October, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting Rossini La gazetta live from Pesaro. It's a satire on newspapers. Hahaha!

Monday 5 October 2015

Hangmen also die! Fritz Lang, Brecht and Hanns Eisler

Reissued last year on DVD in a restoration by the BFI, Fritz Lang's Hangmen also Die!. (1943).  Lang worked with Bertolt Brecht on the script, which loosely recounts the reprisals that followed the assasination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May 1942. The score was written by Hanns Eisler. The producer was Arnold Pressbuger.  Some of the actors were émigrés, too.  In theory,  the co-operation of so many Weimar exiles could have made the movie quite something. The film isn't quite a masterpiece though it's good and gripping. Its value lies in its political significance. It ends with the word "Not" held on screen for several moments. Does this mean "Not" as in German? Could be. But the words "The End" follow, reminding the audience at the time that the Reich was still in power, and that the struggle against Hitler must continue.

Although Hanns Eisler received one of his Oscar nominations for the soundtrack, there isn't a lot of music in this movie, which is fair enough. The subject is grim, the mood too tense for background diversion. Eisler writes a stirring introduction, heard as the camera pans over mock-up scenes of Prague. When his music does enter, it's atmospheric. In the scene in a restaurant, the music suggests dance music, though it comes over slightly distorted. No-one is really in the mood for dancing when hostages are being taken and suspects hunted down. Later there's a scene when arrested people are taken off in trucks to their deaths. It's oddly clean and antiseptic: it's Hollywood, after all.  The final screenplay used wasn't echt Brecht or Lang. The men start singing a maudlin rhyming song which ends with the cry "No surrender!". It's a far cry from Solidaritätslied but could be the kind of song ordinary people might sing, which is part of the purpose behind making the movie, which was to inspire the masses. Luckily, there's plenty of really top notch Eisler elsewhere.

By Hollywood thriller standards, Hangmen also Die! is a  movie that keeps you on your toes. I first saw it as a teenager, fascinated by Weimar and its aftermath though I didn't yet know who Hanns Eisler was, but I vividly remember the atmosphere.

Saturday 3 October 2015

Devastating Wozzeck Fabio Luisi Zurich Opera Leigh Melrose

Zurich Opera brought Alban Berg Wozzeck to the Royal Festival Hall, London . Fabio Luisi conducted Philharmonia Zurich and a very good cast in a concert performance. With all pretence at staging removed (apart from natural good acting)  we could focus on the sheer musical audacity of Berg's writing, and pick up on the processes the music employs to create the drama. Wozzeck describes  a whole community caught up in  insane delusions. Wozzeck is at the vortex,  but his story began long before, and will certainly continue.

Luisi's Wozzeck felt like a tightly twisted knot, building up tensions that reflect the maze-like inner complexities in the score,  What a viscerally physical performance! The orchestra played like athletes, very strong men (and women) pulling the knot tighter with spirited, energetic playing, prickling with suppressed violence. "Eine Apoplexia cerebri" sings the Doctor (Lars Woldt), terrifying the Captain (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhake). Our brains could explode at any time.

In the very first scene, Wozzeck (Leigh Melrose) is shaving the Captain. "Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam". The orchestra zings with the sharpness of a razor.  We know what will happen to Marie. Even more trenchantly, Luisi brings out the details that connect this indoor scene with the wild moor. Wozzeck and Anders (Mauro Peter) are harvesting reeds, another mechanically repetitive process, but Wozzeck sees visions of mushrooms. Luminous string playing, suggesting the surreal unnatural glow. The moon hangs heavily throughout the opera,  aurally present, though only Wozzeck can see it. The Doctor makes Wozzeck eat only beans. The trombones emit bursts of flatulence. The Doctor goes apoplectic when Wozzeck can't contain his natural impulses. "O meine Theorie", Ablinger-Sperrhacke sang with demented glee, spitting out the final word "Unsterblich", so it cut like a knife.  Theories, controls, regulation: the hallmarks of OCD. Luisi showed how the larger scenes with chorus are not "pastoral". The music moved with a kind of mechanical madness. These peasants are dancing like puppets on strings, their minds dulled with alcohol. No wonder the Drum-Major (Brandon Jovanovich) seems, to Marie (Gun-Brit Barkmin), like a vision of finer things. But Luisi makes sure that the music around the Drum Major is pointedly bombastic. Luisi particularly excelled in the scenes where the chorus, soloists and orchestra were all involved, all playing on slightly different levels - subtly but unnervingly discordant.

Leigh Melrose sang Wozzeck with a day's notice. Like Ablinger-Sperrhacke, and Woldt, Melrose is one of the great character singers in their voice types. This makes a huge difference in a role like Wozzeck, whose lines are muted, as cowed and repressed as the character himself. Wozzeck isn't even an anti-hero, he's been so brutalized that he's almost more animal than man. Singing Wozzeck isn't like singing any other role.  Christian Gerhaher was originally scheduled to sing the part. No-one will ever forget Gerhaher's first Wolfram, which glowed with divine purity. Significantly, Elisabeth chose Tannhäuser. Was Wagner making the point that there's much more to art than beauty? "Wir arme Leute"  sang Melrose, in one of Wozzeck's few moments of articulation,  "Wenn ich ein Herr wär', und hätt' einen Hut und eine Uhr und ein Augenglas und könnt' vornehm reden, ich wollte schon tugendhaft sein!"  But poor folks like Wozzeck pee on walls.  Melrose has an instinctive understanding of Wozzeck's almost feral inability to conform to social niceties. His grittiness created a Wozzeck that worked well with Luisi's approach to the opera.

In the final scenes, Berg creates invisible curtains of sound that conceal what we might see on stage, but speak powerfully in abstract sound. Wozzeck is silenced, but  the orchestra screams in outrage. The Doctor and the Captain recognize the sounds as groans, but do not respond. The children tell Marie's son that her body is lying in the open. He can't respond, for his is a silent part. What little we do glimpse of him  lies in what Wozzeck sings about him, and the way the child cowers to escape trauma.  Consider that, when the children go back to their games. "Hopp hopp, Hopp hopp", as if nothing has happened. If you can leave a good Wozzeck unmoved, you become sucked into the cycle of cruelty, like the Doctor, Captain and the cruel children.

This review will appear in Opera Today. Performance photo : Belinda Lawley

Thursday 1 October 2015

Independent Opera is back ! Biedermann and the Arsonists

The Independent Opera Company is back !  Once it was the adventurous, lively company that did great opera on a shoestring budget. Remember their Orlando, their The Sofa, and their Pelléas et Mélisande, all directed by Alessandro Talevi ?  Look up the label below for links. These were wonderfully imaginative stagings, full of energy and colour, making a virtue of tight budgets.   Look, too, at the singers who worked for them then. Independent Opera haven't really been away, since they've been quietly funding and training young talent.

To mark their 10th anniversary, Independent Opera is doing a full new staging, of Šimon Voseček's Biedermann and the Arsonists, first heard in the Neue Oper Wien in 2013, in a new translation by David Pountney.  The production runs 14. 17 and 19th November at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler's Wells. Good singers including the incomparable Leigh Melrose.
"What would you do if a pair of suspicious-looking strangers enter your home uninvited and then ask for shelter? Would you throw them out? Call the police? Would you try to be diplomatic and avoid a physical confrontation? These are the challenges put before an audience in Biedermann and the Arsonists. The stable domestic world of the Biedermanns, a respectable, prosperous couple, is destroyed because of their inability to combat the serious threat posed to their home and local community. Blind fear, social embarrassment, middle-class guilt and moral paralysis all combine to drive Herr Biedermann and his wife towards compromising with and ultimately submitting to this new power that has infiltrated their home."  (more on Independent Opera's website)

"Though a composer fully-certified in the current pur et dur school of Viennese contemporary music, Voseček‘s opera is human and warm, lending new dimensions to Biedermann’s character throughout his journey from upstanding citizen to accessory to arson. Musically, a combination of empathy and urgency was created through Voseček‘s stunningly beautiful instrumentation choices: three clarinets (two doubling bass clarinet); three trombones, one tuba; two percussionists; one violin and three celli. Well performed by the Amadeus Ensemble-Wien, we heard warmth from keening, sliding trombones and open, dissonant intervals in the celli and low brass. The clarinets provided urgent material in their altissimo range, whining very, very quietly in quarter tones about the danger lurking in the living room. The chorus of three sang almost exclusively in tight chords, differentiating them from the rest of the vocal material, which alternated between angular and smooth lines as the text required.

This quote comes from a review of the Neu Oper Wien production HERE. Please take time to read the whole review, it's a model of intelligent music writing.

In London, we'll be getting a new staging, by Max Hoehn.  but below is a video clip of the Vienna production. Musically interesting, way in advance of most of what we're used to in the UK.  Will UK audiences dare rise to the challenge ? I hope so.