Wednesday 31 August 2016

Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony Prom 62 Northcott Mozart

Zemlinksy Lyric Symphony Prom 62, with Simone Young and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But first, BBC researchers should wake up and realize that this symphony is NOT rare! There are numerous recordings, and many performances, including Salonen and Jurowski in London in recent years, and many others which I haven't written about.  Even three previous Proms performances.  Perpetuating the myth that the Lyric Symphony is a rarity is counter-productive because it fools audiences into accepting mediocrity when there are so many excellent performances to explore. This symphony is such a masterpiece that it's shameful how clichés have got in the way of insight.

Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony was written in 1926-7, at a time of groundbreaking creative change.  That the texts come from  Tagore is no accident. Tagore was a literary superstar, at a time when western culture was more open to change and alien influences than ever before.  The Exotic East represented new, unknown frontiers . Zemlinsky was doing what Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel had done before him, and also drawing on a long-standing German fascination with Asia.  Tagore was popular in progressive circles because his rejection of materialism ran counter to the values of a a western world that had been shaken to its foundations by war and revolution.  Embracing Tagore's spirituality was a kind of liberation. By using Tagore as the basis of this symphony, Zemlinsky is doing more than adopting pseudo-oriental exoticism. Zemlinsky used a large orchestra, rich with colour and texture, not to look backwards.  The ending does not represent resignation. "Ich halte meine Lampe in die Höhe, um dir auf deinen Weg zu leuchten". I hold my lamp up high to light you on your way.  Zemlinsky, like the Prince, is looking forwards, toward directions unknown. 

The Lyric Symphony deals with love, but it is by no means a romantic symphony: the protagonist move on, and apart. The Alma Mahler connection is also very much over-rated.  So beware of heavy-handed "romantic" interpretations, more suited to Hollywood than to a key work of the 20th century.  Just as Zemlinsky recognized the clear-sighted non-sentimentality in Tagore's texts, so too should performance be based on clarity and intellectual precision. Anthony Beaumont, the paramount Zemlinsky authority, without whose work Zemlinsky studies would be nowhere, wrote in his analysis of this symphony that “often the singers are engulfed in a dark forest of orchestral filigree work. In performance, the score requires Mozartian grace and precision. For all its abandon, this music reveals its true beauty and power only if performed with discipline and cool headed restraint”. 

Simone Young's approach to Zemlinsky will no doubt be praised because it meets audience expectations, some shaped by unidiomatic performances and by the kind of clichés the BBC regurgitates.  But audience expectations are fatal to art.  A good conductor should work from the score, to find new insight, even though these days some audiences don't want change so much as processed consumer product. Young's Zemlinsky is straightforward, earthbound, without much connection to the originality of the piece. The BBC SO is far too good an orchestra to "engulf" the soloists as Beaumont warned, though at this Prom the soloists, Siobhan Stagg and Christopher Maltman, could have done with more cover from the "forest".  Maltman was not on best form, his voice not quite lithe enough to finesse the trickier passages in the part.   While the female voice in this symphony portrays a very young girl,  youth itself is not enough.  Siobhan Stagg is very young, her voice pretty enough but rather shrill at times. The Girl she's singing is made of such strong stuff that the Prince knows he's met someone who will surpass him.  Nonetheless, Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony is such a wonder that those who liked this Prom would do well to  listen further, to Chailly and to Eschenbach, and pray that Salonen does it again with good soloists. 

Baiba Skride was the soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No 5 in A major, K219, Turkish. Her  playing has personality, well suited to the quirky nature of the piece. Here the BBC SO shone, rising to Skride's agile enticements.

Throughout this Proms season, there have been odd mismatches between performers and repertoire,. Though Bayan Northcott's Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned for the BBC SO, is well within their natural territory, I felt it might need time to settle  It's a good piece with lots of interest, perhaps too much to absorb without many hearings, which hopefully it will receive. 

Monday 29 August 2016

Mordwand ! Bychkov Alpine Symphony Strauss Larcher

Devastating Strauss Eine Alpensinfonie Op 64 from Semyon Bychkov at Prom 57, majestic yet menacing,  as if inspired by the Mordwand, the "murder wall", pictured above, the north face of the Eiger, which has defied so many who've dared try conquering it.  This was an Alpine Symphony to defy those who don't understand Strauss or his self-deprecating good humour.  "It is a life journey", said Bychov on the re-broadcast, "It's deeply existential, it starts with one coming into the world, travelling through all the things that happen in one's life and then in the end, going back into the night and going into the next existence, whatever it is.... It is something that invokes very powerful images and deals with the entire spectrum of the human condition. For us on the stage it is like living a life in the span of fifty minutes or so.  It is full of tension, it is relentless. The 22 episodes succeed each other, but if one can unite them into one arch, uninterrupted, it gives the feeling of  a journey. It's full of joy, it's full of drama, pain, of suffering - it's everything"

Eine Alpensinfonie a Heldenleben? Mountains as metaphors for life, a subject on which I've written extensively (follow link below on mountains)  Bychkov's strong-minded Strauss could be a companion piece to Mahler's Symphony no 3, which Bychkov has also conducted extremely well.  The Alpine Symphony is shorter, but concise, the ideas more concentrated.   Even Bychkov's Mahler Symphony no 6 (read more here) was infused by this insight into the concept of landscape providing structure for metaphysical ideas.   In the "Nacht" episode, horns call us forwards, and cymbals crash. The "mountains" loom ahead, emerging out of the rumbling darkness into sunlight.   As Boulez used to say "Listen for the trajectory". No waffling here.  Bychkov leads the ascent with urgent, though not rushed purpose.  The lyrical segments use metaphors like forests and brook, but their value isn't merely scenic. The waterfall sparkles with life : the stream originates in a source high above, possibly from beneath the primeval glaciers.  Thus the bright sparkle in the orchestra, as if the music itself were infused by light, the wind instruments, literally suggesting wind, speed and  movement.

The "Erschienung" is a warning.  Elemental mountain spirits haunt alpine lore. In musical terms this introduces mystery, a reminder that getting lost in mountains can get you killed. The "meadows" of calm serve as a looking-back, a pause that highlights the arduous ascent. For a moment, we're rewarded with expansive vistas, the strings shining, the brass suggesting vast scale.  What is this "Vision"? Is it a panorama, or a glimpse of higher spiritual and artistic ideals?  But just as we think we've reached the high point, darker, more elusive elements enter.  In the mountains, storms can appear in sunny skies, as in life.  Bychkov shaped the quieter passages : single, sharp  bowings and pluckings carefully observed.  The timpani crash, the orchestra breaks out in tumult, though a tumult meticulously defined so its colours remain ferociously vivid.  Lose your wits in a mountain storm and you're dead. After the outburst, the music stretches again: elegantly but with affirmation.  Strauss includes celeste and organ for sonority, but also to suggest what might lie behind the transcendance. As Bychkov said, we don't know what lies ahead, but we are not really back at the beginning. though the diminuendos might evoke clouds and nightfall.  In this performance I kept imagining that I heard echoes of other works. including  Mahler 8, but definitely not direct quotes.  As in so many things, the wider your experience, the more you get out of life,  and the more you learn from your "journey", a message which does reflect the firm resolve of Strauss's conception.  Definitely not a "chocolate box" performance!  Bychkov's intelligence and clarity of vision made this an immensely rewarding traverse. 

At first, the connection between Strauss's Alpine Symphony and Thomas Larcher's Symphony no 2 "Cenotaph" might have seemed a stretch. Larcher lives in the Austrian Alps, apparently almost off grid, and much of his output  is mystically contemplative, like his Violin Concerto (more here), his Piano Concerto and his Die Nacht de Verlorenen (more here)  Larcher's Symphony no 2 grew from his anguish over the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, and the images of drowned children and fleeing migrants.  But don't expect a "programme" or any obvious signposts. Instead, it's a piece which deals with emotional response to crisis: shock, anger, frustration expressed through abstract sound. Thus the large orchestra and multiple voices,  complex cross-rhythms and density, a powerful repetitive theme which pounds fiercely, dissipated only by rising, sharp figures that then explode in an outburst of fast-moving flurries.  A hollow non-melody where the bow of a single violin skitters over wood is absorbed by the orchestra but then emerges once again, after silence.   Vividly angular lines, wind machines, dizzying changes of tempo. The insistent pounding repetitions seems to rise like an insane dance, then disintegrate into shards, followed by an odd but very beautiful quasi-minuet that breaks off after a few bars, then revives in the third  movement, a scherzo where the repetitions become fuller, and more circular.  The lone violin returns for a brief moment, followed hy low drones and then silence.  (Photo of Thomas Larcher above copyright Richard Haughton.)

"I want to explore the forms of our musical past under the light of the (musical and human) developments we have been part of during our lifetime"  Larcher wrote for the premiere this June where Bychkov conducted it with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra  "How can we find tonality that speaks in our time? And how can the old forms speak to us? These are questions I often ask myself. This piece is very much about different forms of energy: bundled, scattered, smooth, kinetic or furious."   This Proms season, there have been premieres which have been just awful as music ( Lera Auerbach), barely redeemed by good performance, and work ruined by conductors who think one  size fits all, regardless of genre (no names, but thank goodness one of these is moving on).  Bychkov doesn't conduct much new music, but here he showed what a real conductor can do when he cares enough about music to do it properly.  Larcher's Symphony no 2 is a keeper. If the BBC would programme good new music with good performances, instead of commissioning titbits  and populist crossover, audiences would realize what's really happening in the world. 

Between two pieces of non-programmatic work based on theoretical programmes, Richard Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder in Felix Mottl's orchestration, with soloist Elisabeth Kulman.  Pleasant enough but, for once, Wagner didn't eclipse all else.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Sensational chemistry ! Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla CBSO Abrahamsen Tchaikovsky

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra  in a truly sensational Prom 55 at the Royal Albert Hall, an occasion which those of us lucky enough to have been there will not forget. The CBSO is unique. Its members have an uncanny knack for picking relatively unknown conductors and growing with them.  They picked Simon Rattle as Music Director when he was 25, Sakari Oramo at 31, Andris Nelsons at age 30, and now Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, also 30.  This symbiotic relationship between orchestra and conductors makes the CBSO what it is: a very different dynamic from the usual way orchestras are run.  In each case the orchestra shaped the conductor as much as the conductor shaped the orchestra.  This close relationship - like family, some say - is fundamental to understanding the orchestra and, indeed, its conductors, who carry the CBSO imprint with them just as much as the orchestra developed duringn their stewardship. The CBSO is easily one of the Big Five in British music, and absolutely world class.  Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has a lot to live up to, but from this Prom, it's clear that she has what it takes.

Just as Rattle, Oramo and Nelsons are utterly individual and distinctive, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is very much her own person. She's so petite that the official BBC photographer had a hard time getting her in the frame, dwarfed as she was by all around her. But, as so often, looks mislead. Gražinytė-Tyla is an unusually athletic conductor, her face as animated as her body, yet every movement she makes is purposeful.  Her tiny hands flutter but communicate with such authority that the whole orchestra seems transfixed.  Excellence at the level the CBSO has reached doesn't come about by accident.  Good music deserves nothing less.

The Overture to Mozart's The Magic Flute sparkled: clean, shining brass, vivacious winds, strings whizzing along with manic brio. So expressive that the spirit of the opera - and its composer - seemed to materialize. Magical, yes, but also with diabolic fervour.  In the opera, Tamino is tested. Sarastro  is no cuddly father figure.  Thus the discipline in the CBSO's playing underlined the moral resolve that lies at the heart of the Singspiele, which is by no means a pretty bit of fluff.  Being a Freemason in Mozart's time was secretive and rather sinister. Gražinytė-Tyla's background lies in vocal music. Like Nelsons, she could achieve great things if she did opera.  To my delight, she announced plans on the radio rebroadcast for a concert performance of Mozart Idomeneo in a future CBSO season.

Hans Abrahamsen's Let Me Tell You was commissioned for Barbara Hannigan, who has performed the piece many times since its 2013 premiere with Andris Nelsons and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It's had so much exposure that it's become a celebrity star turn, which distracts from its considerable musical qualities.  Abrahamsen's greatest popular hit is ironically, a bit of an anomaly.  At roughly 35 minutes, it's longer  than all the vocal music put together that Abrahamsen has written in his long and productive career.  The words are those of  Shakespeare's Ophelia, who was torn between her love for Hamlet and her grief at the death of her father. As she sings, she falls into a brook and drowns.  Thus the long, limpid lines that suggest flowing liquids,  circular figures that suggest the vortex that will drag Ophelia to the depths   The ethereal qualities of Hannigan's voice give her singing an unworldly strangeness that is at once crystal clear and elusively opaque.   The voice is  disembodied, like the wind and brass instruments that form the core oif the piece. If Hannigan were an instrument she'd do circular breathing.  Sudden flights upward and turns of pitch. Syllables fragment and reform, like droplets of water reflected in light - wonderfully delicate textures created by harp, celeste, and percussion with tubular bells and tiny wooden objects scraped and beaten, making sounds like grasses blowing in the wind. Sounds of nature, too subtle and too elusive to identify.

Let Me Tell You is in many ways not a song sequence at all but another of Abrahamsen's intensely detailed soundscapes like Wald and Schnee.  "Music is pictures of music", Abrahamsen once said. "That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures - basically, music is already there."   In Let Me Tell You, Abrahamsen collaborated with Paul Griffiths, the author and music historian, whose books on modern music are still, after 30 years, still the best informed. In comparison, The Rest is Noise is Reader's Digest. For me, Abrahamsen's music is magical and full of wonder. The CBSO has a thing for Abrahamsen, too. Earlier this year, Ilan Volkov conducted Abrahamsen's  Left, alone. (read more here)

Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO concluded with Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4 in F minor. Everyone knows that, or thinks they do, which is why it's important to always keep listening.  The mark of a good conductor is whether he or she cares enough about the music to find something special about it. Routine performances can be the death of art. Tchaikovsky's Fourth is a highly dramatic work, almost schizoid in its juxtaposition of sweet lyricism and heartbreaking crescendi.  This was an exciting performance, but exciting because it blazed with the excitement that comes from excellence. I used to hang out with theoretical physicists who could wax ecstatic about elegant theorems.   There are many different ways of feeling emotion. I was thrilled by this performance, bursting as it was with vivacious joy and energy, all the more exciting because it was executed with such natural poise.

Bottom photo: Roger Thomas

Thursday 25 August 2016

Durch Mitleid wissend - Bayreuth Parsifal 2016

Wagner Parsifal at Bayreuth: always a place of pilgrimage. But would Wagner himself have prefered po-faced reverence or thought-provoking engagement?   Wagner didn't do "pretty pictures". Of all his oeuvre, Parsifal is the epitome of an ideas-opera, where abstract concepts are central to the action. It is a medieval mystery play, writ large.  But what abstract concepts?  Religiosity or true religion? Formula or genuine faith?  Parsifal has acquired a veneer of  religiosity because audiences assume that an opera with Good Friday music and semi-religious symbols must somehow be "Christian". Yet the theology of Parsifal is thoroughly unorthodox. The Grail concept pre-dates Christianity and lives on in legends with marginal connection to what we know of the Early Church. The Knights Templar did exist but were ruthlessly suppressed. And that's even before we get to Klingsor and Kundry.  Take Parsifal at face value, and miss its true challenge. 

Controversy! Parsifal with Muslims! Uwe Erik Laufenberg's new production for 2016 confronts received wisdom, so at first it shocks. But as with many new ideas, deeper consideration yields insight. The Knights Templar were a military order, created to drive Muslims out of the Holy Land.  So much for "Love thy neighbour as thyself".  Jesus wouldn't have been a part of this community. Connecting Parsifal to Islam is not nearly as scandalous as it might seem. In these times of hate, ignorance and intolerance, we need to rethink fundamentals and second-hand assumptions. Again and again, Wagner writes "Durch Mitglied wissend...."  ("Through Compassion, knowledge".) Images of water and purity, not bloodshed.  The Grail Community inhabit a desert, in every sense, bereft of replenishment.  Under this lovely marble dome, amidst rubble, they lie on stretchers, dying of thirst.  A light shines and a young boy appears, as does a realistic swan.  Kundry (Elena Pankratova) quietly cradles the living child, Gurnemanz (Georg Zeppenfeld) cradles the dead bird, raging at Parsifal (Klaus Florian Vogt).  A small detail, but one which speaks volumes.

Amfortas (Ryan McKinny), fortified, appears as Christ Crucified, with a crown of thorns, arms outstretched. Amfortas is the son of Titurel (Karl-Heinz Lehner) , a semi-supernatural figure, but mortal.  Titurel's disembodied voice booms from above the stage. But what do his words mean "Muss ich sterben, vom Retter ungeleitet?" If Parsifal the saviour, who is he who is his father?  Parsifal is fascinated by who his mother might have been, but isn't much bothered by his father.  Who is Klingsor, one wonders? Whether one believes that Jesus was God made man to save the world, that is the fundamental precept of Christianity.

It's not Muslims who could be discomforted by this approach to the opera, and understandably so, too. But Laufenberg's interpretation comes from the opera itself.  How does  Parsifal (first seen with a quiff) become entranced by the faith that the Grail Community believe in, even in their own flawed way?  I don't know how this is shown on stage, but in the film of the production, the long orchestral transit is illustrated by a depiction of the universe, with stars and planets: Extremely beautiful, very profound. Although the Parsifal bells are overwhelming, they fit wonderfully with this cosmic panorama.  The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra was conducted by Hartmut Haenchen. Amfortas enters a glowing, light-filled bath.  The Knights, dressed as monks,  partake of the chalice (a Grail), in which wine has been transubstatiated into the blood of Christ.  Yet there's something very spiritual about this scne, lit in silvers and pastels. The monks embrace in fellowship. Parsifal, sitting among them, absorbs the mystery. No wonder he spends the rest of his life trying to come back.

In Act Two, the "church" is transformed into an Islamic palace, the walls decorated with blue and white tiles, a pool in the background, a symbol of the Islamic concept of Paradise as a place with cooling water.  A figure dressed in white, his mouth gagged, sits while Klingsor (Gerd Grochowski) rages.  It's Amfortas, forced  into watching his past re-enacted. Klingsor, like so many demagogues, is obsessed by what he claims to hate. Against a background of crucifixes, he holds a crucifix and rants. Psychologically telling - Klingsor wanted to be like God, but is a loser.  His realm is delusion. The Flower Maidens are seductive, but they're not real.  Burkas (symbols of oppression) transform to semi nudity.  Just as the Grail Knights hate women, so does Klingsor, which makes Kundry's role in this opera so critical. Parsifal enters, as a commando: another provocative image these days when we see armed intruders of all types on the news.  As Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal, Amfortas and Klingsor watch from the shadows. Realizing how Amfortas received his wound shakes Parsifal to his senses.

The overture to Act Three is illustrated by a film of a pool, with palm fronds in a misty haze, a subtle but deliberate reference to Palm Sunday and what happens thereafter.  Is Kundry in hijab, or is her headcloth the kind many women the world over wear? Is Gurnemanz in monastic robes, or does his waistcoat resemble that of a man in the Middle East?  A gunman in black breaks in, but Gurnemanz welcomes him as a guest, for it is a Holy Day. The gunman plants a cross into the ground. It's the long-sought spear that caused Amfortas's wound.  Wonderful acting from Georg Zeppenfeld, who portrays Gurnemanz as a mellowed old man who cries at the thought of Titurel's death.  I was rather less convinced when the set opened out to a vista of forests and waterfalls, with dancing nymphs - the Flower Maidens made pure? - but in a production with many other good ideas  a misfire like this is forgivable.  In any case, Wagner;'s stage directions refer to to a Quelle, grasses and Blume auf den Auen.  Mitglied !

This tender, almost domestic interlude serves to highlight the power of the Mittag music. Through rising clouds we spot the visage of Richard Wagner with a wry smile, and then see a marvellously clear shot of a church bell, while the Parsifal bells ring out.  Then we're back with the monks. Amfortas opens Titurel's coffin, but all that's left is dust. "Mein Vater". "Ein Mensch, wie alle" as Gurnemanz had earlier described him. Parsifal brings forth the spear, diguised as a cross.  Vogt's voice rings forcefully, but clear and luminous,  haloed by the orchestra.   Vogt is wonderful, the Parsifal of our times. "Oh! Welchen Wunders höchstes Glück!", his voice rings up as he holds the spear, which he then places in the coffin.  Amfortas removes his cricifix and throws it into the coffin. You can see why many would be discomforted by this, even they could cope otherwise. The monks and other men join in - possibly Muslims, wearing tunics and caps - placing precious objects beside the spear. Literally "burying the hatchet". This, not baptism. or any specific Christian rite, is the Höchsten Heiles Wunder! Erlösung dem Erlöser! 

This new Bayreuth Parsifal might take some time to get used to, but it's well worth the effort since it's true to the libretto and to the deeper meaning of the opera.  It's not Christian. Mitglied is universal.  It also marks a new departure for Bayreuth, burying at least some of the bigotry of the past. 

Monday 22 August 2016

BBC Scottish SO Volkov : Grisey Mahler Mozart

Proms 46 and 48 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra making their welcome annual visit to the Royal Albert Hall, London. Since the BBC SSO is second only to the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the BBC stable of orchestras, these Proms were special occasions.  This year, they played  not with their usual Chief but with Ilan Volkov, Principal Guest Conductor, and Matthias Pintscher, Artist-in-Association.  Those familiar with these conductors would be on alert, since Volkov and Pintscher are both leading specialists in contemporary music. Hence the unusual programmes:  Grisey with Mahler and Mozart; Pintscher and Mendelssohn.

Volkov is passionate about Gérard Grisey, one of the most iconic figures in  modern music, who left work of strikingly original quality.  For more, read Liam Cagney's informative piece on Grisey here and lots more on this blog, if you click the label "Grisey" below.  Grisey himself described  Dérives (1974/5) as the movement of a boat, adapting to waves and currents, its trajectory identifiable by points of juncture between the small ensembles . "Ces différentes dérives reflètent une même intention : composer non plus l’objet, mais le passage d’un objet à un autre et son évolution. Ceci n’empêche nullement de contrôler la nature de l’objet sonore que l’on manipule, mais il ne prend son sens que dans le temps, inséré dans un contexte qui le définit. Le chemin parcouru est plus important que le véhicule." 

Dérives began with long, searching planes, tiny incidents in the background gradually coming into prominence. This sense of inner stillness operates on your mind much in the way that deep meditation releases you from the detritus of noise that passes for much of life. Gradually a rocking rhythm emerges, intercepted by a crashing sound, not sufficient to disrupt the calm equilibrium.  More  extended chords, so rarified they seem to flow into each other like liquids,  interjecting chords adding spiky definition.  The pace picks up suddenly, whips of angular sound,  then darker longer chords but the crystalline serenity continues, as if the orchestra were creating an invisible being levitating itself above the stage.  It is less complex than Les espaces acoustiques, written soon after, but the germ of the idea is already present. Wonderfully restrained, glistening playing The BBCSSO are second only to the BBC SO, but they're unique in smaller-scale, intense and esoteric works like this. I wish they'd do more.  Pity the Proms don't do justice to really fine music like this, but at least they bring Grisey to the attention of a mass audience.

While this performance of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder was more routine than rewarding, it concluded with Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, linking to Grisey's luminous Dérives.  Haunted still by thoughts of Grisey, I could not help feeling a frisson. Grisey's final masterpiece,  Quatre chants for fraîchir la seule  deals with a similar kind of ethereal transcendance.  The soloist was Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, whom I've heard only once before, she's quite young. 

Volkov and the BBC SSO concluded with Mozart's Mass in C minor, or rather a new completion thereof.  It's Mass-lite, breezy and youthful.  Baumgartner was joined by Louise Alder, Carolyn Sampson, Benjamin Hulett, Matthew Rose and the BBC Symphony Chorus.

Saturday 20 August 2016

Janáček The Makropulos Affair Prom 45

Karita Mattila was born to sing Emilia Marty, the diva around whom revolves Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos). At Prom 45, she shone all the more because she was conducted by Jirí Belohlávek and performed alongside a superb cast from the National Theatre, Prague, probably the finest and most idiomatic exponents of this repertoire. For Emilia Marty is much more than a diva. She's the embodiment  of a universal life force that transcends time and place. Emilia Marty is one of Janáček's Dangerous Women (read more here) who live life to the full and change those around them, and who symbolize freedom. Yet, ultimately, freedom comes at a price.

The Overture opens like an expansive panorama. Belohlávek's generous style suggested warm, glowing colours, adding richness to Janáček's energetic rhythms, underlining the contrast with the claustrophobic litigation that's drained the Prus and Gregor clans for centuries. Tense, jerky figures in the orchestra. The lines of Dr Kolenatý (Gustáv Beláček) are long and ponderous; Mattila's timbre is lustrous, but she's astute enough to make Emilia Marty's short, sharp lines bristle, but suddenly softens gently.  She knows more about the forebears of  Albert Gregor (Aleš Briscein) than he does. Mattila's emotional range is as extensive as her vocal range: her singing was extraordinarily subtle. In the Second Act, Mattila manages to convey even more complex feelings. She's tender towards Baron Prus (Svatopluk Sem) and his son Janek (Aleš Vorácek). She understands what Emilia Marty must have felt when she sees how Kristina (Eva Šterbová), the aspiring young singer, fancies Janek. But there's still something in EM that drives men mad. "Ha ha ha", she laughs, as if she didn't care.

The point cannot have been lost on Janáček himself. whose best years came late.  Significantly, Count Hauk-Šendorf (Jan Ježek) is written for the same Fach as the protagonist in The Diary of One who Disappeared, which marked the composer's true creative breakthrough.  Hauk thinks Emilia Marty is the girl he loved 50 years before, a gypsy, an outsider beyond the pale of polite society. "I left everything behind,  everything with her".  The song cycle, the opera and the composer's private life are thus linked.  Kamila Stösslová, Janáček's muse but not mistress, was also a "chula negra" (a dusky beauty).  Hauk sings "It's an ugly business, being old" and wants to run off to Spain with Emilia, since making love keeps you young. Emilia packs her bags, but Hauk's doctor intervenes. Hauk's been insane since he lost his gypsy. Like Emilia, he laughs in hollow, mechanical tones, more tragic than funny.

This throws sinister light on the scene in which EM reveals her past, as Elian Macgregor, as Eugenia Montez, as Ekaterina Myshkin and as Elina Makropulos, whose father invented the potion that's kept her young for 337 years. That's the "Věc  Makropulos", the formula that disrupts the natural cycle of life. The opera ends with a kind of Mad Scene, where Janáček's music explodes into manic, yet oddly logical frenzy.  To EM, the explanation makes perfect sense.  Trumpets blare, the tuba howls, the strings whizz like demons. Emilia blasphemes.  "You believe in humanity, in greatness, in love!", she sings, "There's nothing more we could wish for!".  A small chorus (the men of the BBC Singers) appeared, singing responses in a parody of a Mass. Mattila's too good to screech but manages to show how EM unwinds, like a broken toy.  She wants Kristina to take the formula, and be famous. But Kristina is much too down to earth to fall for it.

Jirí Belohlávek was Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for many years, concurrently with his role as Chief of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, which he brought to London earlier this year for Janáček Jenůfa. (Read my review here.The BBC SO rose to the occasion for this Prom, welcoming Belohlávek with wonderfully lively playing. They learned much in their "Belohlávek Years" and haven't forgotten.  His rapport with his singers and players was almost palpable.  None of us will make age 337, but the message, as such, is not so much how long you live but how well you live. As Janáček wrote to Stösslová, after attending the Karel Čapek play on which the opera is based,  "We are happy because we know that our life isn't long. So it's necessary to make use of every moment, to use it properly". Belohlávek is looking frail these days, though his conducting is still full of fire. As I watched, I thought how wonderful it was to be able to hear him again. I hope he realizes how much he's appreciated!

This review with extra photos appears in Opera Today

Thursday 18 August 2016

Britten Untamed ! Glyndebourne A Midsummer Night's Dream

At Glyndebourne, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream,  in a performance so good that it was the highlight of the whole season, making the term "revival" utterly irrelevant.  Jakub Hrůša is always stimulating, but on this occasion, his conducting was so inspired that I found myself closing my eyes in order to concentrate on what he revealed in Britten's quirky but brilliant score.  Eyes closed in this famous production by Peter Hall, first seen in 1981?  The First Act takes place in dense forest, at night, when nothing is as it might seem. Do we see trees or projections thereof, or both?  What do the shadows conceal, even when the moon slips  fleetingly through clouds?  John Bury's designs are immortal because they are so abstract, and surprisingly "modern", though they ostensibly resemble the well-known Victorian painting by John Noel Paton - another reversal of visual imagery.  Since
Shakespeare's  A Midsummer Night's Dream operates on so many simultaneous levels, the one thing to be wary of is literal realism.

How Britten must have relished the opportunities to express in music what could not be said in words. Like Shakespeare, Britten was poking fun at a world that mistakes power for virtue and convention for truth. Theseus and Hippolyta –  ancient Greeks in Elizabethan costume  – sneer at the Mechanicals' play. But perhaps the joke is on them.  A Bergomask before bedtime might just have unforeseen consequences. Britten's Gloriana was long misunderstood by audiences who took it at face value. (Read my article : Gloriana : Britten's Mock Tudor).  A Midsummer Nights Dream, written barely seven years later, has an infinitely superior plot and the music is much more sophisticated, but there are parallels. And in A Midsummer Night's Dream there are levels which would have had personal resonance for the composer. 

Jakub Hrůša's conducting is so idiomatic that we can almost feel the caustic bite of Britten's humour, while also feeling the pain that lies beneath the surface.  Britten's score sparkles with variety.  Figures shape shift as swiftly as they are delineated, Elizabethan forms pop up from the endlessly elusive and very contemporary stream of consciousness   Hrůša doesn't smooth over the spikiness, but keeps the pace animated, so the orchestral playing seems to fly free, like the Fairies – the Elementals to the earthbound Mechanicals.  The moments of reverie glowed, the lower woodwinds and brass breathing ominous mystery. The London Philharmonic Orchestra seem to shine for Hrůša, even more than they usually do. Perhaps Hrůša brought insight from having conducted Rusalka and The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne in the past, two operas which also have close affinity with A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Hrůša seems to intuit how pertinent the variety in the score is to the meaning of the opera. Everything changes at the turn of a point, themes transform, like magic, nothing can be taken for granted. Because Hrůša  got such alert, taut playing from the orchestra, he could bring out the innate anarchy beneath Britten's elegantly defined orchestration.  Orchestrally, this was an exceptionally vivid performances, so strong that it will live in the memory.

The cast, acting as well as singing, were of an equally high order.  Matthew Rose first sang Bottom ten years ago. Now, he's matured and so has his characterization of the part, which will probably now be hard for anyone else to improve upon. Bottom is Everyman but no fool. Rose's voice carries authority, which is why his friends turn to him as leader. Even with the head of an ass, and his bottom in the air, Rose makes the part dignified and sympathetic. Rose creates the "donkey" wheeze in Bottom's lines sound so natural that, even in the palace in the final Act, a bit of donkey-ese breaks through irreverently.  Even his body movements worked in synch.  Equally strongly cast were the Mechanicals – David Soar (Quince), Sion Goronwy (Snug), William Dazeley (Starveling), Anthony Gregory (Flute) and Colin Judson (Snout). In ensemble, they were superb, singing and speaking as if to the manner born.  In the play, and in the opera they are much more significant than Theseus (Michael Sumuel) and Hippolyta (Claudia Huckle).

As Oberon, Tim Mead's high, sharp timbre dripping malevolence, reversing the more usual baroque stereotype of counter tenor as hero.  He towered over Kathleen Kim, as Tytania.  Good visual casting, reflecting the power play between them. Kim, though was no submissive. She sang forcefully and with élan – no surprise that she's a Glyndebourne favourite.  Oberon's hair was styled in two peaks, resembling the ears of an ass. Wonderfully subtle touch.  The lovers, Lysander (Benjamin Hulett), Hermia (Elisabeth DeShong), Helena (Kate Royal) and Demetrius (Duncan Rock) were also well cast, DeShong creating Hermia's feisty, strong-willed personality with particular definition.

But Puck is the agent of insurrection, upon which the plot turns, and particularly symbolic for Britten himself.  Puck is not a singing part, but  David Evans stole the show, quite an achievement for an actor stepping in at short notice,  into a part that's so demanding that it's notoriously difficult to cast.   Britten dreamed that it could be played by a young athlete whose voice was beginning to break: a changeling between two worlds, a Britten innocent on the cusp of corruption.  Tadzio, with a voice. And what a voice! Evans is cheeky and shrill like a boy, yet also rebellious and assertive like somone passing into his teens, though he looks younger. He also projects with great force, while respecting the curious rhythm in the text.  Evans runs up and down stage, sailing into space on a guy rope, popping in and out of the scenery, without missing a note.  Did Britten identify with Puck, who could get away with things a nice, obedient boy like Young Ben could not?  And yet Puck is a tragic figure, not so much because he doesn't belong but because his freedom cannot last. Will he be sucked into Oberon's sick games? Evans will grow up, but this moment of glory will live with him for the rest of his life.

This review appears in Opera Today


photos : Robert Workman, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Sunday 14 August 2016

Poetic Thoughts : Mahler 8 Chailly Lucerne Festival

The 2016 Lucerne Festival opened with Mahler Symphony no 8.  Mahler's Eighth celebrates a powerful life force, the spirit of creativity itself, pulling together images from diverse sources. Thus it epitomizes the ideals that led Claudio Abbado to found the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, where the finest musicians from the best orchestras in Europe join together in communal harmony. Claudio  Abbado and Riccardo Chailly were very close, and now Chailly carries on Abbado's ideals. Wherever Abbado might be now, his spirit hovered over this performance. This was an extraordinarily thoughtful performance culminating in ecstatic serenity, accessing "the peace that passeth all understanding", absolutely relevant to what the symphony might mean. Listen here on (all areas)

Although Mahler's Eighth is known as "the Symphony of a Thousand" the title wasn't Mahler's but a marketing slogan invented by a concert promoter. But quantity is not quality. At Lucerne, the orchestra and soloists were supplemented by 222 choristers , arranged in six rows across the width of the hall, the Tölzer Knabenchor along the sides. Voices and orchestra were well balanced, allowing much greater freedom of expression. The boys choir can often get lost in an uproar, but here their relatively small but important role came through clearly. This matters. "So far I have employed words and the human voice to express only with immense breadth", Mahler wrote specifically of this  symphony, "But here the voice is also an instrument used not only as sound but as the bearer of poetic thoughts".  Poetic thoughts, some so delicate that they can be overwhelmed in interpretations that stress volume over  artistry. No chance of that here. In Chailly's Mahler 8, every voice has its place in the grand scheme of things, a concept absolutely in tune with he concepts behind the symphony.

And what concepts! This symphony often confounds because  it's so unorthodox. The First Part is relatively straightforward, being based on a hymn believed to have been written by Rabanus Maurus,  Archbishop of Mainz (c780-856) which describes the anxiety Jesus's disciples felt after Jesus had gone on ahead. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven upon them in the form of holy flames, inspiring them to go forth into the world, spreading the Gospels.  Throughout his oeuvre, Mahler deals with death, but seeks resolution in some form of eternal life.  Thus the symbol of the Pentecost as a metaphor for divine inspiration and continuity, and by extension, the mission embraced by a truly original, creative artist.

"Veni Creator spiritus".and "Accende lumen  sensibus": images of light and fire illuminate this music. Chailly's clarity let the colours shine unsullied, absolutely essential to meaning. Only technical excellence can produce freedom as exhilarating as this. Everyone on message, singing and playing as if divinely inspired yet in complete harmony. This unity matters, since the concept described in the text applies to all creation. The inspiration was so strong that it seemed to Mahler "like a vision" which struck him "like lightning", making him write so quickly that the notes seemed to fly onto the page as if they were dictated by some unknown force.  Chailly's tempi were brisk, reflecting thus sense of urgency, but were not so driven that they obscured contrapunctual detail and the cross-currents that  give the music depth.

The singing was equally ardent.  Many of this cast are Mahler veterans, like Mihoko Fujimura and Peter Mattei (who was on Gielen's second M8 recording and on Chailly's with RCOA). Andreas Schager is less well known, though he's been a very distinctive Siegfried.  Here, he sang with fervour, giving his parts great character.  The other soloists, all superb, were Ricarda Merbeth,  Juliane Banse, Anna Lucia Richter, Sara Mingardo and Samuel Youn.  For me, they're all like old friends, so hearing them together, singing with obvious enjoyment, gave added meaning to the experience. Some members of the orchestra are spotted smiling too, caught by a camera crew who knew when and who to highlight.

The pause that binds together the two Parts of the symphony was marked with dignity, for out from this silence rises the slow movement  which is in many ways the heart of the symphony.  It marks the transition, a transition so esoteric that its meaning can't be expressed through text.  Although the big choral flourishes catch more attention, this section shows the true measure of a conductor.  Chailly's textures here reflected a sense of wonder and mystery.. Absolute refinement and attentiveness. In liturgical terms, this replicates the moment in the Catholic Mass during which the congregation meditates upon the Consecration which symbolizes the union of God and mankind.  Hence the delicate but firm woodwinds and strings, and hushed, reverential voices. This section also refers to the moment in Goethe's Faust when Mephistopheles thinks he's won Faust's soul, but is thwarted by angels who scatter rose petals from Heaven, marking the beginning of Faust's redemption.

Bergschluchten. Wald. Fels, Einöde. (mountain gorge, forest, cliff, desert), Mahler wrote on the manuscript on the Second Part, a direct reference to the scene in Act Five of Goethe's Faust, which describes a bizarre landscape inhabited by anchorites, complete with tame lions who pace about stumm-freundlich (placid and peacefully).  Anchorites are hermits who live alone in the wilderness, but are so close to God that they can tame savage beasts.  Again, a clue to what the symphony might mean: the disavowal, of earthly games of domination and greed, sublimated in idealized transcendence.  Medieval art wasn't fussed about literal realism. Figures inhabit surreal perspectives, sometimes even hovering over the ground, defying gravity and rational logic.  In musical terms, such perspectives, however, work perfectly well.  Thus we have Pater Ecstaticus auf and ab schwebend (soaring up and down). Later the angels lift Faust’s soul and they fly off in der höheren Atmosphäre. There’s movement everywhere, which Mahler translates into music that soars and flies ever upwards in different levels.  Thus the off-stage trumpets, the organ way above the platform and the Mater gloriosa singing from on high.

Yet for Mahler, as for Goethe, redemption comes through Das Ewig-Weibliche that draws us heavenward, as the Chorus mysticus tells us, the Eternal Feminine, embodied in the Mater Gloriosa, the “Jungfrau, Mutter, Königen, Göttin”  thus dialogue between "masculine" and "femninine" runs through so much of Mahler's post-Wunderhorn work  but few conductors highlight it the way Chailly does. He highlights the interplay between outburst and delicate detail, between combinations like piccolo and harmonium, timpani and harp.  Perhaps this dichotomy represents Mahler and Alma, perhaps not, but Chailly is unusually sensitive to this aspect of Mahler's work.  A few years ago, Chailly conducted Mahler's Symphony no 10 , creating the duality in the first movement with such grace that it drove some listeners crazy; but that reflected I think more on the misogyny of some listeners than on the performance itself.  In Symphony no 8 with its message oif equanamity, union and creative rebirth, that graciousness and sensitivity is paramount.

Thus the luxuriant conclusion, in which triumph is achieved without violence; redemption reached through love, not dominance, affirmation, not neurosis.  This Second Part proved the wisdom of  the size and spacing of the choruses (Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Orfeón Donostiarra, Latvian Radio Choir, Tölzer Knabenchor).  Because the sound was thoughtfully spread across the auditorium, the singers could sing naturally, without undue force, thus exemplifying the idea of angels and innocents, purity trouncing demonic forces.  " Gloria ! Gloria!" for good reasons.  The finale connected extremely well with the final chorus in the First Part.  This performance probably wasn't "Mahler 8th for beginners" because it emphasized the "poetic thoughts" Mahler referred to rather than the "Barnum and Bailey" (Mahler's own words) aspects he so feared.  The technical excellence of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and the singers allowed a performance of genuinely inspired insight : freedom doesn't come from free for all but from a mastery of the forces at hand.  Conducting Mahler 8 is no joke. This Lucerne performance, with Chailly wasn't "big blast" but extraordinarily beautiful, revealing the true brilliance of Mahler's vision. Ultimately, I think, a performance should be assessed in terms of what fresh perspectives it reveals in a familiar work.  In this case that revelation opens up whole new levels of insight.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Thunderstorm the opera Shanghai comes to the ENO

At the Coliseum,  home of English National Opera, Thunderstorm.  The opera is based on the play  Thunderstorm, (雷雨) by Cao Yu ( 曹禺, 1910-1996)  which is an iconic classic of modern Chinese literature, so influential that you need to know it to understand modern Chinese culture. So catch the opera, which the Shanghai Opera House is bringing to London from 11th August. The first night is nearly sold out downstairs but there are three other performances.  The opera reflects the spirit of the play ,which depicts a Chinese household in a time of social transition. This is not a traditional Chinese opera, but, like the play, a "western" piece with music that's recognizably Chinese but acknowledges other influences including modern Chinese song, a distinctive genre which flowered at the time the original play was written, and thus is very much relevant to the meaning of the opera.  In China, the division between high art and popular culture isn't as entrenched as it is in the west, since all "modern" art was cosmopolitan, reflecting  social change.

The opera, written by Mo Fan in 2000,  which is on DVD though in a different production, also reflects the original play with its clean "art deco" aesthetic, so evocative of China in the period up to the time of the Japanese invasion.  Zhou Puyuan, the patriarch, has made his money in mining, the "growth industry" of the period, facilitating industrial change. In feudal China, opening the earth and building railroads, ie modernization, challenged superstition. Thunderstorm is thus an allegory of early modern China.  Hence its immediate and enduring success and its significance. Photo at left is the playwright Cao Yu at the time the play was written.

There have been at least four film adaptations. The first, made in 1938, only five years after the premiere of the play, made by Hsinhua Studios in Shanghai, is a masterpiece in its own right. The remake in 1984 is also extremely good, and includes English subtitles.  There is also a version from 1955, starring the teenage Bruce Lee. This colonial-made version downplays the radical aspects of the drama,  a self-censorship which is in itself rather telling, though the reasons for this are beyond the scope of this short post.  The fourth film version, also in Cantonese, from 1960,  isn't quite as good.

Why "Thunderstorm"? The action takes place in oppressively hot weather, evoking tension and foreboding. The Zhou family live in a grand western-style mansion. Rich as they are, they don't own the house, and have moved many times, each time taking with them the ornate and over-cluttered furnishings.  Hint! This is a symbol of the malaise that affects the family.  In contrast, the young maid Sifeng is innocent and eager, and, as the original stage directions make clear, voluptuous and fecund. Thus the youngest son of the family, Zhou Chong, is drawn to her and wants to split his school fees with her so she can get an education.  Sifeng and and Chong represent the "New China" – vigorous and full of hope.  Sifeng's father, Lu Gui, warns her that the house is haunted. He'd heard voices in the living room, and  Mrs Zhou, Fanyi, (Chong's mother) is a reclusive neurotic.  But is her illness physical?  Something is very not right in this house. There's trouble at the mines, too. The workers are on strike.

Zhou Puyuan thinks Fanyi can be cured by traditional medicine. She knows better. She's desperately unhappy because she realizes that her stepson, Zhou Ping, who is almost  the same age as herself, wants to leave the house.  Fanyi and Ping had a brief affair, but now Ping is in love with Sifeng. Fanyi knows something Ping doesn't know, though. She invites Sifeng's mother, Lu Shiping, who lives far away, to visit.  Why would the mistress welcome a servant? Why does the servant recognize the furniture? Who is the beauty in the old photograph Zhou Puyuan keeps in his study?  And why is Lu Shiping so angry that her daughter is working in this household?

Zhou Puyuan and Lu Shiping both lived in Wixi when they were young. Zhou  asks if she knew where his first love was buried.  Zhou has never got over his first love, but can't recognize her standing right in front of him. She's grown old and careworn. She was thrown out of the Zhou family by Zhou's father, a conservative for whom a marriage across social classes breached rules of propriety.  Zhou Ping is Shiping's son, but he doesn't know.  Zhou Puyuan also doesn't know that Shiping had a second son by him, born after she was thrown out.

Trouble erupts at the mines. The strike leader confronts Zhou Puyuan.  Zhou Ping defends his father but little does he know, he and the strike leader are full brothers.  Sifeng and her father know that the striker, Lu Dahai, is Shiping's son, so they leave, too.  The thunderstorm erupts outside, but no raincoat or umbrella can keep anyone safe in this deluge.

As thunder crashes and lights up the dark, Ping and Sifeng announce that they're eloping.  Sifeng is already pregnant. Lu Shiping reacts with horror. History is repeating itself, and in this case, compounded by incest.  Sifeng runs out into the storm and is struck by lightning, Chong follows and dies, too, and Ping shoots himself in despair.  A house divided by injustice cannot stand, shameful secrets cannot remain unexposed.  If we don't learn from history, we are lost. Although the story is melodramatic, it';s not hard to appreciate why it had, and continues to have, such powerful appeal.  When my school produced the play in the 60's,  it shocked many, not because of the incest and infidelity but because of its deeper social and political meaning.  Although  the play wasn't translated into English until 1958, Chinese audiences knew what it was all about, and why it was important.  .

Tuesday 9 August 2016

Blazingly relevant Mahler 1 - Salonen, Schoenberg Dutilleux

Prom 32, Best Prom of the Year so far, Esa- Pekka Salonen conducting Mahler,  Schoenberg and Dutilleux  with the Philharmonia Orchestra.  An exceptionally good performance, even by the high standards we've come to expect from this orchestra with a conductor who has stretched and developed them over the years. Superb playing, but also superb programming, typical of Salonen's intellect.   Everyone does Mahler  Symphony no 1 these days but how many conductors would dare  present it in the context of Schoenberg A Survivor from Warsaw and Dutilleux The Shadows of Time ?

Of all Mahler's symphonies, the first allows for the greatest range of interpretation. The way a conductor approaches it can reveal as much about himself as it might about the composer.  Salonen's Mahler 1 dazzled with blinding brightness, but with purpose. In Beethoven Fidelio, the prisoners are suddenly let out from the dungeon into the sunlight, and sing the glorious chorus O welche Lust, in freier Luft den Atem leicht zu heben ! It's glorious, but also tinged with defiance. The prisoners know, and we know, they aren't going to escape, but for one wonderful moment they defy the darkness and raise their voices.  Florestan is  "Der Edle, der für Wahrheit stritt" (the noble spirit that strives for Truth), but the prisoners are, too, in their own way.

In this sense, Mahler's first symphony is an exuberant break for freedom,  a statement of intent. The very first motif shone, and the trumpets rousing the orchestra to life.  Nothing somnolent in this awakening : alert, tight focus.  Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld : Mahler is striding, confidently out into the world.  The tiniest details were marked with clarity : an important observation since in the grand scheme of creation, all forms have their place. Consider that if you're a prisoner about to be extinguished.  You're not overlooked.  Confidence, but not brashness :  "Nicht zu schnell"  but striding forth with firm footsteps.  The Ländler section danced gracefully, a lovely contrast to the invigoirating brass figures that cut off with the haunting "funeral march"  apparently suggested by Moritz von Schwind's How the Animals buried the Hunter  Death fells the hunter, and power structures are reversed.  The theme Auf der Straße steht ein Lindenbaum. These quotations from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are important and Salonen knows why they count. The image of a linden tree might seem sweet, but its perfume reputedly had supernatural powers. Fall asleep under a Lindenbaum and you may never wake up. Salonen created sensuous textures, but kept the pace flowing. What a mix, sorrowful drones, graceful waltz figures and the tread of footsteps, fading away, tumultuous crescendi and  reflective themes. Mahler is looking backwards and looking forwards, in a sophisticated way.  Sometimes this complexity can be muddied, but the Philharmonia are such good players that they can define the different textures with absolute clarity.  How that final fanfare blazed, glowing all the more forcefully because it connected so well to what had gone before. Strengthened by the spirit of Wunderhorn, Mahler can set off on his mission, whatever obstacles he might face.

"I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years – the forgotten creed! ! David Wilson-Johnson, the narrator, spoke in Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, with which the Prom began.  As the prisoners are facing death, they spontaneously remember what the prayer stands for.  They may be killed but their spirit will not be extinguished. Like the prisoners in Fidelio but in much worse circumstances. Gas chambers and in freier Luft den Atem leicht zu heben ,a juxtaposition too horrible to contemplate.  But confront such things we must or they could happen again.   Salonen is a brilliant Schoenberg conductor and the Philharmonia Voices and orchestra did the piece justice.  Salonen is also an admirer of Henri Dutilleux The Shadows of Time, which he has conducted many times.  The piece also refers to war and specifically the deaths of children like Anne Frank.  Salonen again understood the importance of lucid texture in the piece, letting its multi-coloured harmonies shine undimmed.

Mahler Symphony no 1 is heard very often - often "too" often - but Salonen and the Philharmonia made it feel utterly different, new and relevant. I'm not going to forget this experience in a long while.

Sunday 7 August 2016

On Chosen Hill Gloucester, with Gerald Finzi

On Chosen Hill,  in Churchdown outside Gloucester, in summer.  Chosen Hill is one of those "power spots", like Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury, which seem to have the power to draw out positive energy.  Perhaps they connect to sites of prehistoric cosmology, to leylines or force fields or whatever; they seem charged.  For me,  it's a kind of "sacred site" with its connections to music and creativity.  Nearly every evening, Ivor Gurney used to trek up Chosen Hill from the city of Gloucester five miles below. You can still hike the path up through the wooded slopes he might have used: it's too steep to build on, and rather overgrown, but safer for walkers than  using the road for cars.  

Chosen Hill isn't really just a hill, but  a hill reconstructed as a mound during the Bronze Age, possibly a fort or site of religious significance, commanding a panoramic vista over the plains and estuary.  At its summit, the Normans built what is now St Bartholomew's.  Once I visited when the slope beside the church had collapsed in a  landslide.  The church was cordoned off, "Danger" signs warning people to keep away from the crumbling cliff.  When you're young, you think you're immortal, so I climbed over,  peering precariously over the buttress and looked at the exposed foundations.  Now the area is restored, and safe, and there's even a bench where you can sit and look out towards the ocean, but on this last visit, I got stuck on the steep grass verge where you're not supposed to walk. Luckily, I was saved – ordinary people can be guardian angels when they are in the right place at the right time.

In the early 1920's, shy, repressed city boy Gerald Finzi visited the Cotswolds for the first time. He met up with Detmar Blow and other arts and crafts types, who introduced him to exotic things like yoghurt and alternative living.  In the 1930's Finzi and his wife Joy, who knew herbal lore, set up Ashmansworth (near Newbury)  as a haven of natural self-sufficiency.  Decades later, when  Daniel Barenboim visited Jacqueline du Pré (Hilary Finzi's sister), he was horrified  by their hippie ways!

But first, back to Chosen Hill.  Below the church is a tiny cottage, low slung, almost invisible from the road. On New Year's Eve, 1925, Finzi went to a party there.  At midnight, the guests came outside, into sharp frost, the night sky filled with stars, and "heard bells ringing across  Gloucestershire from beside the Severn to the hill villages of the Cotswolds". Stephen Banfield, Finzi's biographer, calls this the "hilltop epiphany", for it released in Finzi a surge of original music. This was the inspiration for In Terra Pax and Nocturne whose sub-title is in fact New Year's Music, filled with bells and joy. Finzi needed an impetus to find himself and something happened that night under the stars. "I love New Year's Eve," he told a friend later, "Though it's the saddest time of the year..... a time of silence and quiet". And soon after asked himself "must knowledge come to me, if it comes at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and no longer by the familiar process (of reading other's work)?" ie,  Finzi was learning to trust his own artistic instincts.

Chosen Hill remained so dear to Finzi that in 1956 he took Ralph Vaughan Williams up the steep hill.  Presumably they drove in Finzi's big 50's car, since RVW was 83.  There are several photos of the two composers taken that week outside Gloucester Cathedral, where they were attending the Three Choirs Festival. The new tenants of the cottage in the churchyard had young children who were suffering from some childhood malady. Finzi's  immune system was weak, as he had cancer. He caught the children's illness, and three weeks later died in the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.  For Finzi, Chosen Hill marked a beginning and an end.  For me, being there this summer was also a kind of pilgrimage.  How blessed I felt! Please read my review of Mahler's Symphony no 8 at Gloucester Cathedral, highlight of this year's Three Choirs Festival. 

Photos: Roger Thomas

Friday 5 August 2016

Nightscape with Dog : Knussen, Reinbert de Leeuw

In Prom 26, Oliver Knussen conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Reinbert de Leeuw and Brahms. Knussen was a teenager when he first met de Leeuw. They have much in common, both specialists in contemporary music, extraordinarily good interpreters of other composers' work, to the extent that they themselves have had to put writing on the backburner. Both have also headed the Aldeburgh Festival. But as we know, when Knussen writes, he writes so well that he creates remarkable work. So news of Reinbert de Leeuw's biggest work in many years was eagerly anticipated.

Reinbert De Leeuw Der nächtliche Wanderer  is based on a poem by Friedrich Holderlin  It's very different to the poet's earlier, elegaic visions of idealized Classical Antiquity, but heroic nonetheless in its intensity and depth. It's worth quoting in its entirety since like most of his poetry the meaning and syntax are so intense that they are almost impossible to translate.

Hu! der Kauz! wie er heult,
Wie sein Furchtgeschrei krächt.
Erwürgen - ha! du hungerst nach erwürgtem Aas,
Du naher Würger, komme, komme.

Sieh! er lauscht, schnaubend Tod -
Ringsum schnarchet der Hauf,
Des Mordes Hauf, er hörts, er hörts, im Traume hört' ers,
Ich irre, Würger, schlafe, schlafe.

( Huuu, howls an owl, whose terrifying screams, strangle and squeeze the life from Ajax, the the hero in Greek mythology.  And nearby circles the Shrike, another nocturnal bird of prey.  Notice the syntax, umlaut u's one after another, as if the speaker is choking.  Yet "Komme, Komme" Maybe the poet sunconsciously wills it? See! He (Death) laughs, sneering, encircling the snorting heap (ie the body). As the heap is murdered it hears, it hears, in a dream hears. I go mad. Shrike, sleep, sleep.   It's not, I think a poem about insomnia or a grimmer Der Wanderer an den Mond,  but a gruesome mix of death and insanity. Again, notice the syntax and relentless repetitions. )

De Leeuw Der nächtliche Wanderer begins with the sound of a dog, barking in the distance : a warning.  From a background of low, rumbling sounds, a viola emerges, tentatively probing its way. As the chords stretch, they're illuminated by flashes of sparkling light.  A sense of circular movement yet also of stillness. Muffled drums beat and the large string section creates an elliptical swirl of sound.  Small quiet sounds, deliberately elusive, contrasting with the broad sweep in the strings and rising, angular figures in the brass, themselves interrupted by clicking sounds. In this dream, how the sounds are made is less material than what we might think they are.   Tension mounts. Bells call out, tolling with hollow hardness. 

Whirling, rushing figures, then silence broken by dull thuds.  This quiet interlude is surprisingly beautiful, suggesting not just the moon but the infinite darkness beyond. This time, the viola emerges  playing a kind of melody which I found poetic and very moving.  This time the melody continues, its tessitura rising higher and higher til it suddenly breaks over, hovering in a sense beyond our ears.  Then, from the quietness, flashes emerge and oscillating figures. Do we hear distant trumpets playing in cacophony?  The BBC SO play with deftly defined detail so the different directions in the score aren't muffled into mush. Frantic tumult: a panic attack in music, yet deftly, carefully orchestrated and performed.  

Cymbals crash: are we in the the throes of a death struggle ? Distorted moans from the strings.  More thoughtful contemplation, from which a disembodied man's voice emerges, whispering the text of the poem  The orchestra surges to life, sprightly dancing figures and animated swirls of sound, woodblocks and searching chords. This time, though, the mood is more confident. When the bells ring this time they sound present and bright, and the woodwinds play a passage that reminded me of the viola melody., especially when joined by the strings evoking the passage with rising tessitura.  Perhaps De Leeuw's wanderer has woken, wiser? 

De Leeuw's  Der nächtliche Wanderer reminds me of Der Leiermann in Winterreise,which heralds change, but one which is elusively equivocal. Der nächtliche Wanderer is intruguing because it's so evocative and repays thoughtful listening. . 

Preceding De Leeuw, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op.83 with Peter Serkin, another Knussen buddy. Another big beast, and nicely done. When Knussen first met de Leeuw, Knussen looked like the young Debussy. Now he resembles Brahms. But this Prom will remain in the memory for De Leeuw and his Der nächtliche Wanderer.

Thursday 4 August 2016

George Butterworth 100 years ago today

One hundred years ago today, George Butterworth was still alive. On 5th August 1916, his body lay dead on a battlefield in the Somme.  He was leading a party of men on a sortie up Munster Alley, when  shortly before 4.45 am on 5th August 1915, he was shot in the head. The best authority on Butterworth remains Michael Barlow's biography "Whom the Gods Love" and this is the one to get. Barlow's book is an invaluable source, much of it  drawn from family letters (now in Oxford)  and material at Cecil Sharp House. Curiously, though, there's little in his book on Butterworth's war record, since he relied on papers collected by Butterworth's father.  So 15 years ago, I went to the War Office archive thinking his details would be easy to trace. Then  I hit a brick wall. No Lt. Butterworth! No wonder Barlow was stymied

Next step, then, was to go to the list of medals, which are meticulously documented.  There, I found that Butterworth had enlisted as "Kaye Butterworth!"   He'd only been awarded one Military Cross, not three, but that's still an important achievement since MC's are not handed out except in exceptional cases.  Although I didn't have time to access the main regimental records, which aren't in London, I did find the original War Diary of Butterworth's Regiment. War diaries are moment to moment records of what was happening in battle, written down verbatim as the action was happening.  They're sent to higher command behind lines so the generals can follow what's happening on the front line, while action is still in progress. In 1914-18 field communications weren't what they'd be today. Sometimes these diaries are written on scraps, sometimes in pencil and sometimes they're stained with mud and darker substances.  And here is what I found :

2.53 sent following message to Lt Butterworth at B Company "Send a strong bombing platoon up Munster Alley to hold and block". Note owing to our artillery shelling our front line Lt Butterworth cannot have received this message until after 3.45 am
3.40 received from Lt Clarke "we must have reinforcements at once...the men I have got are being kept there by revolvers". 3.41 gave Lt Batty message for Lt Butterworth to reinforce Munster Alley with one platoon at once.
4.19 Forward observation reported that our party at Munster Alley was being heavily bombed but we were apparently holding our own. 4.43 (Brigadier sent 25 men from another unit to relieve)
4.45 Lt Butterworth killed.
Casualties 5th August : Lt G S Kaye-Butterworth, Lt N A Target killed, 2nd Lt Rees
and Batty wounded. Other ranks : 4 killed. 18 wounded, 3 shell shock, 5 missing. 
(Note: the unfortunately named Lt Target featured in the Diary many times. He seems tto have been a charismatic fellow who had been awarded a Military Cross in June. He was much admired by the Brigadier and the man who wrote the diaries. Butterworth would have known him too.)
Plenty on Butterworth on this site, please explore.  Including

A Jonquil not a Grecian Lad - Butterworth Songs (Roderick Willliams)  

The  photo at the top shows the officers of the 13th Durham Light InfantrThe man circled is supposed to be Butterworth.It's possible since we know the Kinora films and Morris dancing stills that Butterworth was short and self effacing. Below, Butterworth second from left, in 1912.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Sublime, spiritual Haitink Mahler 3 Prom

Bernard Haitink conducted Mahler Symphony no 3  with the London Symphony Orchestra at BBC Prom 18 on Friday, available audio  and video on BBC4 TV.  I couldn't be present live since I was at Gloucester for the Three Choirs Festival Mahler Symphony no 8 (read my review here)  Repeat broadcasts are a boon especially with Haitink because he doesn't do "instant gratification" but rewards thoughtful concentration.  In a career spanning over 60 years, Haitink has probably conducted more  Mahler than anyone else, and with orchestras that have long Mahler credentials, like the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam, which Mahler himself listened to when Willem Mengelberg conducted, over 100 years ago.  Haitink has authority: in London, we've been lucky enough to hear him conduct several times a year, with the LSO and with the Royal Opera House – so often indeed that he feels like part of the family.  Yet even though he's conducted so much over so many years, he nearly always finds something new to say. Never take Haitink for granted! His Mahler carries authority.

Mahler's Symphony no 3 unfolds like a spiritual journey across a vast terrain. A friend perceptively observed that this performance was "not a young man's Mahler" but something much more unusual – a wise, mature traversal born of a lifetime's engagement with Mahler and his music on a very deep level.  It carried authority.  The LSO horns called out, projecting into the vast expanses of the Royal Albert Hall. I thought about the Salzkammergut, and the mountains of the hoher Dachstein range which tower about the Attersee, on whose shores Mahler spent summers, working in a "composing hut" by the edge of the water. Scale counts, but it's not the size of the orchestra that counts, nor the length of the symphony that matters, but context, the bigness of vision.

What matters is the way Mahler evokes  the power of Nature through powerful blocks of sound, which rise like mountains, drawing the listener ever upwards.  Haitink understands the "hiking pulse" in the steady pace which suggests purposeful footsteps and strength. No neurasthenic neurosis! Mahler was a hiker and mountain biker, who understood the physical discipline involved. Just as you can't do mountains ill prepared, you can't do music without first mastering the basic discipline of respecting the score and its execution.  Thus the firmness of Haitink's conducting, honed by experience. The snare drums rattle and the brass breaks free, but notice the taut control and the quiet rumble of concentration: greater peaks lie ahead. The trombones evoke mountain horns, whose sound is meant to carry across vast distances in space.  The "hiking pulse" in the violins sets the tone for the expansive exuberance to come. The moments of warmth  were particularly moving: as if  Haitink was reflecting on happy times. Yet this was much more than a sunny, open-air interpretation. We can't stop in the "meadow" with the flowers, however sweet they might be.  Lovely dialogue here between then "earthly" instruments and the "celestial" off-stage flugelhorn.  Pan rushed in with anarchic vigour.

Sarah Connolly sang the haunting "O Mensch". Take heed, for the woodwinds curl and twist around the voice evoking the images of death, pain and night in the text. But the solo violin enters, connecting to the fifth movement where the women of the London Symphony Chorus and the Tiffin Boys Choir sing of angels and of celestial bliss. For all the "Nature" elements in this symphony, for Mahler, the spiritual is never far away.  The Finale was proof of Haitink's concept - emotions as deep and as complex as this can't be expressed with surface bluster. Haitink's wise, calm confidence is powerful because it is sincere: it's grown almost organically from a lifetime of experience. When the timpani boom and the strings shine, we have reached a destination beyond mortal ken.