Wednesday 30 November 2016

Death or Liberty ? Gossec Grande Messe des Morts

François-Xavier Roth conducted François Joseph Gossec's Grande Messe des morts with Les Siècles and the Wiener Singakademie last week in Vienna, now broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Since Roth conducted an astonishing Berlioz Grand Messe des morts at the Royal Albert Hall, London, two weeks ago (please read my review here), this is a good opportunity to hear both Requiems by the same conductor, whose expertise in French repertoire is unequalled, as fluent in early music as he is in the contemporary avant garde, Roth's insights are always refreshing.

Gossec (1734-1829), a protégé of Rameau, was, in his own way, as innovative as Rameau was in his own time, and as Berlioz was to become in the future.  His Grande Messe, written in 1761, is a forward-facing, youthful work which, upon publication twenty years later, caught the spirit of a France on the verge of revolutionary change.  It's inspired by the spirit of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, all of whom were his contemporaries.

Gossec's Grand Messe begins with assertive, almost explosive chords, taken up by a livelier melody on pipes and fiddles. Berlioz's Grand Messe, with its mysterious, searching lines, seems almost "modern" in a kind of 20th century ambiguity. Yet Gossec isn't writing faux Petit Trianon s: he was a farmer's son in a time when many people had genuine rural roots.  The "folksiness" means something.  These  confident airs give way to a sophisticated Introitus in three parts, grave, allegro and largo, where voices weave intricate patterns, individual voices kept clear and bright.  The mood is vibrant.  The female soloists dominate (in Vienna, Chantal Santon-Jeffery and Anaïk Morel).  Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly at all, I kept thinking of Marianne, her breasts exposed, leading the nation to Liberty.  Peasant girl as antithesis to King and the Virgin Mary. Breaking the link between Church and State was a founding principle of the Republic. No wonder Gossec's Grande Messe captured the public mood. The deceased here will not die but will be remembered in glory.

"Requiem aeternum " and "et lux perpetua" aren't mere worrds, but inspire the two graduale that follow: uplifting choral pieces that move briskly. Berlioz integrates choir and orchestra with greater complexity but Gossec has brio.  While Berlioz's Dies Irae is hushed and sombre, Gossec's Dies Irae is angular, with a distinctive motif of sharply accentuated rhythms. His Tuba mirium blasts with the baleful force of massed trumpets, the "tuba" here referring to the Trumpets which will sound at the end of time, waking the dead.  Again, Gossec uses a solo voice, not a choir.  Because Gossec's Grande Messe evolves over no less than 24 parts, each sequence is relative short, and highly varied Some sections are for solo voice and orchestra, others for combined soloists and orchestra, others for choir and orchestra.  This diversity generates momentum and energy, which comes naturally to Roth and a period ensemble like  Les Siècles. No surprise that Gossec's Grande Messe is their speciality. They've been doing it for some time.The photo above comes from their performance in October 2013 at the Chapelle Royale in Paris, which was broadcast on French TV and radio. Rumour has it that it will be released on CD.  Definitely a must-buy since that performance is much more vivacious and spirited than the Vienna version.

After the Amen, a short break before the Vado et non revertar, an unusual interjection into a Mass, coming as it does from the pre Christian Book of Job, though it links to the idea of resurrection. The staccato patterns heard earlier (as in the Dies Irae), but with the Pie Jesu, the dead are granted rest.  Everyone's singing together again, and the final Requiem Aeternum draws everything together.  Berlioz's Grande Messe des morts  is grander in every way, reflecting a new era when Europe was on the cusp of a new urbanized, industrial era. Gossec's not too bothered about complex orchestration and large-scale forces so much as freedom of spirit.  Besides, his Grande Mess des morts harks back to the period that made modernity possible in the first place.

BTW, Gossec was not Belgian. Belgium didn't exist as an independent monarchy before 1830.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Cavalli La Calisto La Nuova Musica, Wigmore Hall

At the Wigmore Hall, London an outstanding Cavalli La Calisto, with La Nuova Musica,  La Nuova Musica enliven their work with the same adventurous spirit that one imagines would have motivated 17th century Venetian audiences.  Historically informed performance isn't merely a matter of avoiding vibrato, but of understanding the spirit  of the times. Venice in 1651 was an exciting place, the go-ahead centre of the Mediterranean world.  Opera itself was a "new" art, still evolving, and Venetian audiences were very sophisticated.  La Nuova Musica's La Calisto was vibrant with energetic verve a tightly-focussed performance, where the filigree intricacies could shine.  

La Calisto is mythological allegory, but the characters are defined with dramatic flair.  Calisto (Lucy Crowe) is a beautiful nymph, a handmaiden of Diana, (Jurgita Adamontyé) whose acolytes are sworn to virginity.  Giove, (George Humphreys)  tries to seduce her to no avail, until he disguises himself as Diana.  Calisto, having tasted lust, can't understand why the "real" Diana despises sex.  Everyone else is trying to seduce Diana, with no luck. Although the reason might be obvious to us now, I don't think we can rule out the possibility that the ancient Greeks didn't know, given their tolerance for same sex relationships.  Chances are, the point wasn't lost either on 17th century Venetians. . Like Cavalli's other operas, (Please read my piece Crazier than Jason, Cavalli's Elena)  gender bending and illicit love gave audiences a naughty frisson. Calisto talks about "Diana's kisses" to an older woman, played by a man  Endymione (Tim Mead) a counter tenor. manages to seduce the asexual Diana  For this, she's maligned for being fickle !  Giove as the fake Diana, learns from Endymione that Diana isn't as pure as he thought. Giove as Diana tries to seduce Calisto again but his wife Giunone (Rachel Kelly) won't have any fooling around and turns Calisto into a bear.

La Nuova Musica, conducted by David Bates, had perhaps the finest specialist cast in this country,  thus,wisely concentrated focus on the performance, not the staging. Thus we could enjoy detail, like the way different voices came together at the end of a line, hovering together before falling silent. We could also focus on the variety of musical invention, sometimes sublime and at other times, deliberately grotesque  I love the dance sequences. You could luxuriate in the sheer beauty of the singing and playing, delighting in details like the flourish of a harpsichord, seemingly wayward but very much integrated into the ensemble : the joker in the pack, perhaps, for La Calisto is funny: serious ideas tackled with irreverent wit. Listen here on BBC Radio 3 for approx 30 days.
Please also see my piece oin La Nuova Musicas's Cesti Orontea at the Wigmore Hall

Cavalli operas seem to need high standards. Although La Calisto is almost mainstream these days, I don't think anything but the idiomatic best does them justice.  There is a wonderful DVD  with René Jacobs  and Concerto Vocale, recorded at La Monnaie in March 1996. . Staging was by Herbert Wernicke, demonized by anti-moderns, but it's brilliant. The stage is small and claustrophobic, like the enclosed world of the gods. But the characters look out on stars, and rise up into the rafters borne aloft by pulleys.  Stars and spangles all over the costumes too : the image of "night" illuminated by wonder. 

Saturday 26 November 2016

Gothic Schubert : Stuart Jackson Marcus Farnsworth Wigmore Hall

Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards. This recital will be one Lieder aficionados will remember for years.  For  19th century Romantics, death was a source of endless fascination,  much in the way that sex dominated the 20th century.  Many songs in this programme are early works, some written when Schubert was as young as 14, and give an insight into his youthful psyche. Like most teenagers, before and since, he was intrigued by "the dark side".  In a strict Catholic society, the Gothic Imagination gave a kind of legitimacy to dangerous, subversive emotions.  The whole Romantic sensibility was a kind of Oedipal reaction against the paternalism of neo-Classical values. In these songs, we can hear young Schubert rebelling against his father, connecting to what we'd now call the subconscious. In Ein Leichenfantasie D7 (1811) to a poem by Friedrich Schiller, a man is burying his son in a crypt. But why is the burial taking place in the dead of night.  The son has a "Feuerwunde" penetrating his very soul with "Höllenschmerz". This death was not from natural causes. Suicide was a mortal sin. Schiller's meditation on the reversal of the natural order is sophisticated,  the transits in the poem rather more elegant than Schubert's setting.  In  1811, he was but still a child, so his transits between ideas are less elegant than Schiller's, but the ideas are original, if not completely coherent.  Still, the song is an audacious  tour de force lasting nearly 20 minutes, an undertaking that calls for finesse in performance.  Eine Leichenfantasie exists in both baritone and tenor versions, though the former is better known, but it would have been asking too much of most audiences to hear both versions together in succession.

There were other sets of songs like Das war ich D174 a and b but the Kosegarten pairs, An Rosa I D315 (1815) and An Rosa II D 316 and the two  Abends unter der Linde D235 and D237 (1816) benefited from the greater variety in the settings.  The first Abends unter der Linde, for example, is more lyrical,  the second more haunted, with its reference to the names of the poet's deceased children. Hence the value of a tenor/baritone recital highlighting contrasts in related pieces.  There's clearly a good dynamic between Jackson and Farnsworth, which made the alternations flow together well. Their joint Lied (Ins stille Land) D403 (1816) was extremely impressive, the alternating voices capturing the lively flow of the music in typically Schubertian style, reaching "the land of rest" by vigorous images of movement, vividly depicted by Baillieu's expressive playing.  Even with two very different songs, Lob des Tokayers D248 (1815)(Gabriele von Naumberg) and Punschlied 'Im Norden zu singen' D253 (1815) (Schiller) the flow between voices was enhanced by a very genuine sense of conviviality between Jackson and Farnsworth. Sincerity does matter in a genre like Lieder, which is so intense and so personal.   

Sincerity matters, too, in strophic ballads like Der Vatermörder   D10 (1811) to a poem by Gottlieb Conrad Pfeffel, in which a son kills his father. "Kein Wolf, kein Tiger, nein, Der Mensch allein, der Tiere Fürst, erfand den Vatermord allein", which makes an emotional point, though it's not borne out in nature.  The text is maudlin. Having killed his father, the son wipes out a brood of fledgings whom he thinks were mocking  him. Such melodrama might call for overblown declamation. Instead, Jackson sang  sensitively: we must not laugh.  The piano part thunders obsessively, suddenly slowing into watchful near silence, suggesting that  the killer is insane, or at least as feral as the beasts of the woods.  Like Eine LeuchenfantasieDer Vatermörder  is a teenage piece without much finesse, but Schubert treats it seriously, and so should we.  This same emotional truth illuminated another pairing Der Einseidelei I and II,  D393(1816)  and D563 (1817) respectively. Both are settings of poems by Johann Gaudenz, Freiherr von Salis-Seewis, about hermits who live alone in nature: simple sentiments but not at all simplistic.  Jackson's phrasing was sensual yet pure, suggesting that the hermit's choice was riches indeed.  In Des Fräuleins Liebeslauchen D698 (1820) (Schlechta), a lovesick knight throws flowers to his ladylove. Jackson's naturalness of expression made us respect the knight, though his love might be in vain. 

Jackson and Farnsworth are among the most promising English singers of their generation. I first heard Jackson sing a few songs in a private recital when he was only 22.  Yet his voice is so distinctive that I immediately  recognized it some years later when he sang at the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition in 2011.  Since then, he's developed  extremely well, with a blossoming career in opera.  Having worked in Stuttgart, his German is also more idiomatic than most English singers. Marcus Farnsworth won the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation Song Competition in 2009 and appears in recital and on the BBC. James Baillieu is a well-known song accompanist and chamber player, who presented an 11-concert series at the Wigmore Hall last year.

This splendid programme, and performance, concluded with Schubert's Fischerweise D881 (1826) (Franz Xaver Freiherr von Schlechta) , a familiar favourite but rarely, if ever, heard with tenor and baritone sharing the honours. An inspired idea! The song moves briskly, with the piano playing jaunty rhythms "gleich den Wellen, und frei sein wie die Flut", which repeat in not quite matching pairs.  With two singers, you can also hear how this duality is also embedded in the vocal line.The voices interact, like oars, pulling together. In the final strophe,words like "Die Hirtin" and "schlauer Wicht" are separated more clearly than is often the case, but this further emphasizes the choppy "waves" in the piano part and the concept of the sea as a metaphor for life. Meanwhile, on a bridge, a shepherdess coyly pretends to fish. The fisherman isn't fooled.  "Den Fisch betrügst du nicht!"

This review also appears in Opera Today 

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Schubert as Goth : Wigmore Hall tomorrow

Tomorrow at the Wigmore Hall, an extremely interesting programme of Schubert Lieder with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu. WHAT A WONDERFUL RECITAL IT WAS ! REVIEW HERE. At the Wigmore Hall excellence is the norm, but this programme is adventurous, macabre but also an insight into Gothic taste.   Two ballads from 1811, ‘Leichenfantasie’ and ‘Der Vatermörder’, introduce each half of this programme, setting the scene for a very interesting traverse of  Schubert's "wilder shores".  In Leichenfantasie, a father is burying his son in a crypt. But why is the funeral taking place at night?  How did the son die, and why ?  Please also see my piece "Schubert's Anti-Father's Day Rant ")  In Der Vatermörder, a son kills his father. Why? Is the son insane?   And why is Schubert, aged only 14, fascinated with Oedipal impulses? Teenagers are morbid: hence Goths.  Schubert as Goth ? We're in for a jolly evening.

A fisherman sits peacefully on his rocking boat in In Der Fischer D225 when suddenly up pops a woman from the watery depths: "Who do you think you are! Killing my kids !" and drags the fisherman underwater.  Horror !  In comparison,  Grablied D218 is just a song about a burial mound. As one is apt to sing.  Even then two seemingly dreamy Abends unter der Linde D235 and D237 are sinister. As the poet sits beneath the linden tree he feels ghostly presences. "Ich fühle eures Atems Kuß, O Julie, o Emilius!"

You wouldn't want to be a Fisherman's Friend. In Fischerlied D351 and D5362, we learn how tough a fisherman's life can be. Of course, it ends in death.  Of course, one can escape through alcohol. Thus Lob des Tokayers D248 and Punschlied: im Norden zu singen D253 in praise of drink! On the other hand, though, fishing is honest labour.  In Fischerweise D881, we're reminded that "Doch wer ein Netz will stellen, Braucht Augen klar und gut, Muß heiter gleich den Wellen Und frei sein wie die Flut."  If you want to catch fish, you have to be clear headed and quick. Fishing is skill, not crafty ruse, like the shepherdess standing on the bridge, heartlessly flirting.

I booked this recital months ago on the strengths of the performers - Stuart Jackson is a great favourite. So Goth or not, this promises to be a stimulating experience.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

JFK and Igor Stravinsky

On this day in 1963, JFK was assassinated. How happy he seems here. A few moments later, Jackie would be crawling over the back seat of the limo, grabbing at fragments of his brain.  No one forgets where they were when they heard the news. I was at a school fun fair and suddenly everything went quiet, and people started going home. We thought Khruschev might  throw a nuke.  This time round, the Russians pull the strings and buy politicians to do their dirty work for them.  Some of the people JFK fought against, like the KKK, are back in again, too.

"Think not what your country can do for  you, but what you can do for your country".  Now, for some people, that very concept is meaningless. Now the object of power seems to be short-sighted selfishness and divisiveness. Clearing the swamp or legitimizing a cesspit?  JFK had his faults, but at least he cared about things other than himself.  His dreams were based on social conscience and communal responsibility.  How innocent those days seem now!  Will the spark JFK lit be now extinguished. In 1963, we were scared the world would end.  Fifty-three years later. we're closer to Armageddon than ever before. Below, Igor Stravinsky's response, to a text by W H Auden, conducted by Pierre Boulez, with Cathy Berberian.

Hurdy Gurdy Winterreise

Schubert Winterriese with a difference, with Matthias Loibner, master Hurdy Gurdy player.  At first i could hardly believe my ears, but the idea works !  Schubert and Wilhelm Muller would have known the sound of these folk instruments, so the references in the text and music are highly significant.  whoever the protagonist in Winterreise may be, he's probably educated though not rich. His journey into uncharted territory, following the spoor of wild animals can be read as a breaking away from society. And thus, the Leiermann,  Barfuß auf dem Eise ,Wankt er hin und her; Und sein kleiner Teller, Bleibt ihm immer leer. Against all odds, the Leiermann keeps going,the mechanical drone of his instrument  reflecting his dogged persistence.  Once the Leiermann might have played a piano., Now,an itinerant beggar, he grinds out a hollow tune. But at least he will not be silenced.  Below, a thoughtful article about Matthias Loibner's Winterreise with hurdy-gurdy, by Mitch Friedfeld:

"I finally took the plunge on possibly the quirkiest Winterreise out there, the one with soprano Natasa Mirkovic-De Ro and Matthias Loibner on...hurdy-gurdy.  Please review the last chapter of Ian Bostridge's book (reviewed here)  So, what did I think of it? Well, it does take some adjustment. To state the obvious, a hurdy-gurdy does not have anything near the depth of a piano, and that's just the point. There is a lot of fret-noise and clicking. If you're a purist about sound, you won't like that part. The tonality is very different, which is to Matthias Loibner's credit. The hurdy-gurdy's droning seems to emphasize dissonance rather than striving for harmony. The sound is bagpipe-like but don't worry, this is far from bagpipe music. Loibner's virtuosity will leave you agape. Mirkovic's diction and intonation are perfect, but I felt like she was walking on eggshells throughout. It sounded like she was afraid of missing a word or tone; too careful and not enough conviction. It feels like she's barefoot on the ice, indeed. After a few songs, I was ready to eject the disc in disappointment, especially after a weak rustling of leaves at Der Lindenbaum. But I stuck with it, Loibner's conception started to make more sense, and I have to say it really grew on me. I began to welcome the dissonances; it made me wonder if Schubert had heard such tonalities in his mind when composing D.911. The highlight of the disc was, not surprisingly, Der Leiermann. The highlight of the disc was, not surprisingly, Der Leiermann. So, bottom line : Should you buy it  ?  Definitely yes. Loibner has a vision and all of us Winterreise fans have to respect that."

Sunday 20 November 2016

Das Fest auf Solhaug - Ibsen bei Hugo Wolf

Hugo Wolf's Das Fest auf Solhaug (1890-91) was written for a Vienna production of Henrik Ibsen's Gildet paa Solhaug (1856). Wolf didn't take kindly to working on commission.  "I like the Ibsen play less each day... It is right honestly botched with damned little poetry. I don't know where I shall get the plaster from, with which to clothe in music this home-made carpentry".

Admittedly, Wolf was working from a German translation which may not have captured Ibsen's unique idiom.  Shorn of the inherent music in Ibsen's syntax, the plot may well  be awkward.  Margit is unhappily married to rich old Bengt. Margit's really in love with Gudmund, now an exiled outlaw, but returns to Solhaug.  Margit plans to poison Bengt so she can marry Gudmund, whom she does not realize has fallen in love with her gentle sister Signe, who has been promised by the King to Knut, a brute. Knut kills Bengt. The King learns that Gudmund wasn't a villain at all and lets him marry Signe.  Margit becomes a nun.

Wolf's Das Fest auf Solhaug languished in negativity until the original score was edited and published by Kalmus in 1987.  The first, and only, recording,released in 2006, with Helmuth Froschauer conducting the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln,with Günther Lamprecht as speaker. He's wonderful, and acts so well with his voice that he makes the work come alive, in the tradition of German spoken theatre.  In this version, prepared for performance by Christoph Schwandt, there is no dialogue. The cadences of spoken prose communicate, telling the story in a personal, believable way.  There are only two solo songs, for Margit and Gudmund, the rest scored for chorus and orchestra.  This "new" version of Das Fest auf Solhaug shows that it is much more than the set of three songs from the piece published in 1897.  I've long loved  the lyrical "Gesang Margits" for piano and soprano.  Did Wolf know Grieg's Solvieg's Song (1876)?  He despised copying, as true artists do, but perhaps it had a subliminal effect on his sensibilities. The orchestral version we hear here is something else, though.

Wolf set the scene for the play ambitiously. The orchestral prelude is grand, even panoramic, rising to a sudden crescendo then suddenly breaking off.  On this recording there is descriptive narration, but not dialogue, a good idea since the emphasis here is the music. .  Margit's song "Bergkönig ritt durch die Lande weit"  is intoned heroically, heralded by trumpets and horns, taking up the challenging thrust of the Prelude. The voice lowers with menacing portent,as if Margrit were a character in The Ring.  Perhaps Wolf did intuit the background to the tale,where an anonymous King pulls strings, trading his subjects off as if they were chattels.  "Bei Sang und Speil sind wir vereint" sing the chorus:  Solhaug is celebrating the anniversary of Margit's marriage to Bengt, but the mood is ferocious,more hunt than party,with large, pounding ostinato and the clash of cymbals,and trumpet calls. Now it is night, and the narrator tells us about Margit mixing poison. Gudmund sings , "Ich führ wohl ber Wasser" The mood remains truculent and upbeat, with a vigorous orchestral interlude, haunted by solo clarinet, perhaps symbolizing sinister intent. Swirling figures,interrupted by savage,sharp chords, then a madly merry dance.  The horns blast, and morning comes. And so ends the Fest at Solhaug. Bengt's dead, Knut's in trouble with the King and Margit ends up in a convent.  The choir sings in hushed tones, while the orchestra blasts forth in grand coda. Wolf's Das Fest auf Solhaug isn't half bad. We can imagine Wolf gnashing his teeth in exasperation. Perhaps we can feel his impatience. He'd rather be getting on with The Spanish Liederbook than writing mock medieval slush, which may come from the Vienna translation, which fortunately isn't easy to track down..   

Which is more than can be said for Hans Pfitzner, whose own  Drei Vorspeil zu Henrik Ibsens Das Fest auf Solhaug completes this disc.  The first and last Vorspeils are ponderous, taking nearly 20 minutes to say very little.  At least Hugo Wolf gives us a merry jape !  The middle Vorspeil, only 5 minutes, is livelier. Perhaps he's depicting a party of sorts.  But Ibsen and Wolf had a pretty good idea that the festivities at Solhaug were bluff.  Well played, though, even if the music isn't so good. I've been revisiting Das Fest auf Solhaug  as another musical version is released, Wilhelm Stenhammer's Gillet på Solhaug). The world premiere recording of Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet pa Solhaug, a significant contribution to Swedish music. Read review here.

Friday 18 November 2016

Hartmann Simplicius Simplicissimus Independent Opera

K A Hartmann Simplicius Simplicissimuss with Independent Opera at the Lilian Baylis Studio this week, with Stephanie Corley, Timothy Redmond conducting the Britten Sinfonia. This was the first ever staging in the UK, and for a good reason. Simplicius isn't really an opera at all and much of its pungency derives from the fact that it's written with some Bavarian dialect.  Hartmann's source was H J Chr. Grimmelhausen,  whose book Der Abenteuerliche Simplicismuss (1669), is set in  the Thirty Years War, one of the defining traumas of German history, and indeed world history, since it was the first truly global war, acted out in South America and Asia as well as in Europe. "Anno Domini 1618 wohnten 12 millionen in Deutschland" quotes Hartmann in his introduction. "Da kam der grosse Kreig". Thirty years later, only 4 million remained.  In  Hitler's Proclamation to the German  People, he invoked twelve years of humiliation and two million dead to justify Nazi control. The myth of "The People" legitimized the Third Reich.  By reverting to  Bavarian dialect, Hartmann pointedly underlined that there was no single "German People", and that, in any case, the German past was bathed in blood.

Until now, there has been no English translation but this is no demerit. If non-Bavarians have to struggle with the text, that's a good thing since it makes a difference to enter into the arcane, folksy internal logic of the piece. It is not "our" world but a lost world we need to make an effort to penetrate. Though it portrays the past, Hartmann's Simplicius is in no way naturalistic. The "roles" as such operate as symbols. The narrative lies disguised in the music.  Its disjointed character and embedded references reflect a fractured society falling in upon itself. There are hints of Catholic chant, of Jewish song and of modern music, all things the Nazis despised, wrapped in quaint pseudo-medievalism.  Significantly, Helmut Scherchen, champion of new music, worked with Hartmann on  the concept.  Again and again, Hartmann's contemporaries like Braunfels, Schreker and Honegger (all of whom I've been writing about for ages) used history for subversion, not as dreamy romance.  Nazis glorified nostalgia. Sharp-minded composers saw through the bluff.  Hartmann's angular lines are meant to grate, not soothe.  Hartmann's Simplicius is didactic: Brecht's ideas on theatre adapted to music, "imagined theatre" as Henze called it, concepts of music drama still evolving today. Please read my piece on Beat Furrer's FAMA HERE.   

This has a bearing on performance, which is why I'm not at all convinced about naturalistic staging, whatever the period. A friend said of this Independent Opera production that the work might not have the cachet it has, had it been written ten years later. A perceptive comment, since it takes no brains to look back now on Nazi times. But there's a whole lot more to Hartmann's Simplicius than an anti-war narrative.  Hartmann's message is far more disturbing now that we may be entering troubled times where "the people" whoever they might be, are easily fooled by technological manipulation and demagogues without scruple. 

Simplicius is "Ein kleiner Bub bei den Schafen, kannte weder Gott noch Menschen, weder Himmel noch Hölle, weder Engel noch Teufel. Notice the pattern of opposite images, which flows throughout the opera. The text is set in rhyming couplets, typical of German tradition, and the music moves in a similar grave two-step. Simplicius is a "Holy Innocent", so pure he knows nothing of heaven or hell. In Tarot the Fool signifies someone who goes forth into the world without fear, facing danger but protected by his purity. Siegfried without the selfishness. Hartmann sets the part for high soprano though the role is male, to emphasize youth and innocence.

"Beware of the Wolf" warns the farmer. Wolf of course was Hitler's nickname, which he was rather proud of.  Simplicius doesn't know what a wolf is. so when the Landknecht  appears he thinks the Horseman is the vierbeiniger Schelm und Dieb the farmer warned about. "Weiss nit, Herr Wolf" cries Simplicius but the Landknecht attacks the farm and kills the Knän, die Meuder und das kleine Ursele (these archaic words give the piece a deliberate old-world air). A long passage describing the horrors of war, which ends with O armes geknechtetes Deutschland. Now Simplicius has wised up and heads into the forest where he meets a Hermit (another Tarot figure). The Hermit sings music like stylized monastic chant, wavering weirdly. He teaches Simplicius to sing Unser Vater (Our Father). Give us our daily bread". Simplicius, incorrigibly naive, asks auch Käs dazu? (and cheese, too?) Eventually the Hermit dies, leaving Simplicius to face the world alone. Provocatively, Hartmann writes into the death music an echo of the Kaddish.

After another powerful intermezzo,with swirling strings, plunging brass, evoking storms and storm clouds perhaps, Simplicius flies into the Governor's mansion. The soldiers boast of their tyranny and blaspheme. This chorus sound like drunken communal singing in a beer cellar, also a reference perhaps to the Nazis. This time Simplicius pipes up "that's no way to speak". "Can you hear the Mauskopf piepsen shouts the Governor. And of course, Simplicius's music is flute and clarinet. The Governor recites rather than sings, not Sprechstimme but something discordant, a lot like the speeches made where sense mattered less than sound. Some things don't change!  Then Simplicius speaks, at length. Words pour out at a shrill rapid pace, almost no time to take a breath. 
Simplicius harangues the listeners, without music to soften the effect. As she finds her strength her words are supported by drums. A militant but not military march?  And why?

Suddenly, Simplicius's voice rises in song. Es dröhnt die Stadt, es stapft daher, schäumende bitt're Jammersg'walt.  She's joined by the chorus, now representing farmers. The music suggests march: an unnerving reminder that the victims of war can easily become perpetrators of another.  The peasants sing "Ein gleich Gesetz, das woll'n wir han, vom Fürtsen bis zu Bauersmann" but they kill the rich folks anyway. Is this a revolt? The peasants simply stand and stare.  What's changed?  Darkness falls. Simplicius stands by the corpses. "Gepreisen sei der Richter der Wahrheit!"  The peasants hum quietly, wordlessly. Does this signify smoke or unthinking acquiesence? The Specher reminds us that by 1648, 8 million Germans were killed, nearly a quarter of the population at the time.  The music erupts in manic march. Is the cycle repeating?

Hartmann's Simplicius might well be something left unstaged, or minimally staged, since it is theatre of the mind.  In times when The People's Will takes precedence, maybe the mind, or the conscience preserves an individual, as Hartmann discovered in his "internal emigration".   I've written a lot on  Simplicius Simplicissismuss and on other works by K A Hartmann over the years, and also about other composers of the period. Please use labels below and at right.  Two recordings of Simplicius stand out : Heinz Fricke from 1985, and much better and punchier, Ulf Schirmer conducting the Münchener Rundfunksorchester with Camilla Nylund, Michael Volle, Willi Hartmann and Christian Gerhaher in 2009.  I have also heard Markus Stenz from Netherlands Radio, it's no match for  Schirmer and the idiomatic Munich style.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla : Mahler CBSO Birmingham

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Mahler Symphony no 1, Haydn Symphony no 6 and the premiere of Raminta Šerkšnyte's Fire.  Mahler's First is often a measure of a conductor, lending itself to many very different approaches.  Gražinyte-Tyla's Mahler 1 was striking. The first chords rang out confidently : nothing tentative here. Although the "growing shoots" in this symphony are fresh and new,  they spring from a life-force so powerful that they cannot be curbed.   While not rushing, the orchestra soon gets into its stride. By the time the pounding figures come we're definitely "on our way". When the flute called out, it seemed to glisten, shining as if moist with dew.  The phrasing in the next section was delicately defined, so lucid that a very minor fluff in the playing stood out more than it might otherwise, but no matter.  In Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, a finch calls out "Ei du, Gelt!". (Isn't it a lovely morning).  So the young man's been jilted, but he gets over it by going on a morning hike, engaging with nature.  In this performance, I was surprised how beautifully the idea of "bells" infused the notes - the bluebells in the text singing invisibly, like their scent in the sunshine. Thus,the first of many crescendi in the symphony, flowing naturally, and with joy.  "Ei du, Gelt!". The timpani danced merrily, a subtle suggestion of Ländler physicality.

The Second Movement began gently, respecting the quotation "Auf der Straße steht ein Lindenbaum" from the last song of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  Reputedly, the scent of a linden tree is narcotic. The protagonist no longer worries, for all will be well. The music softens. "Alles, Alles ! Lieb und Leid, und Welt, und Traum".  But reverie is torn apart by sudden outburst.  Gražinyte-Tyla pushed the orchestra on, wildly wayward figures sweeping forth., giving way to more complexity.  Instead of Ländler, a much more sophisticated, mysterious waltz.  Again, the resolution is crescendo, horns and  trumpets leading the march forwards  The flickering, probing figures in the first movement resurface. The overall mood became darker, angular whips of sound suggesting tension. Gražinyte-Tyla carefully  shaped the run up to the final explosion, so it emerged gloriously, growing as a natural outcome from what had been building up before. A refreshing, invigorating performance,  clean without exaggeration, extremely well thought through.  

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are superlative musicians, but what makes them distinctive as an orchestra is their sense of individuality.  They instinctively manage to choose Music Directors who have similar flair. This orchestra doesn't get "directed" so much as it grows, symbiotically,  with the conductors it likes best. Thus the inspired choice of Haydn's Symphony no 6 (Le Matin) with which Haydn established his rapport with the orchestra of the court of
Esterházy.  This performance gave the CBSO players chances to sparkle, as individuals, cohesion coming, I think, from mutual communication. Plus, the concepts of dawn and light connected beautifully to Mahler 1 and the symbols of Spring and renewal therein. Perhaps that's why I was so drawn to the flutes and flying strings.

The programme began with a new work, Fire by Raminta Šerkšnyte, and ended with an encore from Jonas Švedas (1908-71), both Lithuanians, like  Gražinyte-Tyla herself. 

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Shakespeare in the late Baroque - Bampton Classical Opera

Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square.  "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory".  So wrote David Garrick in his  Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.  Fairies, nature spirits and the supernatural inspired the transition between the orderliness of the Enlightenment and the wild, revolutionary spirit of the Romantic Age.  This delightful yet thoughtful concert from Bampton Classical Opera  contrasted two pieces, both from 1776: Thomas Linley's Ode on the Spirits of Shakespeare and Georg Anton Benda's Romeo and Julietshowing how two very different composers responded to Shakespeare in their own, original ways.  

Georg Anton Benda (1722-1795)  was a member of a family well-connected to the German musical establishment.  His Romeo und Julie was a three-act "ernsthafte Oper" a Singspiele with prose text by Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter, who also adapted The Tempest.  Benda and Gotter subscribed to the principles of classical antiquity as perceived in their time, dramatic values that predicated on the unity of time, action and place. Thus Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was pared down, Benda's Romeo und Juliet focusing on the key characters. Bampton Classical Opera presented a half-hour version of Benda's original, revolving around Juliet (Clare Lloyd-Griffiths) and Romeo (Thomas Herford). Laura (Caroline Kennedy) duets with Juliet, and a single Capulet (Richard Latham) stands in for the feuding families. The choruses (as in Greek drama), sung by Cantandum, thus provide backdrop and commentary.  Lloyd-Griffiths, substituting at short notice for Rosalind Coad, was very well cast.  She has an attractive, bright timbre that captures Juliet's youth and purity.  In the recit and aria, Juliet is already contemplating death "I am trembling with such joy and with such fear....See, the moon turns pale...."

Thomas Linley (1756-1778) was part of the English theatrical and artistic establishment. His father was a famous actor; his sister, also an actress, was a muse of Thomas Gainsborough and married Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  Unfortunately Linley died so young that part of his mystique rests on what he might have been had he matured. Linley's A Lyric Ode on the Fairies, Aerial Beings and Witches of Shakespeare adapts a text by his teenage schoolmate, who also died young.  Its hyberbolic exaggeration  thus represent the enthusiasm of youth.  The Spirit of Avon (Clare Lloyd-Griffiths)  and Fancy (Caroline Kennedy) are memes in an allegory, not fleshed out-personalities as in Shakespeare or, indeed, most opera.  

Linley's Ode began with an overture, very much in a formal style, but more salon piece than Handelian public opera.  Gilly French conducted the Bampton Classical Players, on period instruments including harpsichord,  with antique horns and trumpets, positioned at each side of the stage.  The Englishness of the aesthetic came over well.  "O guardian of that sacred land, where Avon's wood-crowned waters stray" sang the chorus.  Though the Avon in question would be Stratford-on-Avon,  as there are references too to Arden, it may or may not be significant that the Linleys had connections with the Avon of Bath and Bristol.  Thus the Spirit of Avon (Lloyd-Griffiths) addresses Greek detiies advising them that "Shakespeare now demands your lays"  As the Spirit of Avon, Lloyd-Griffiths had more with which to demonstrate her range.  Lloyd-Griffiths is also interesting because she's very English, (though she may be Welsh) and The Spirit of Avon is a kind of Britannia.  English sopranos are a distinct Fach, an aesthetic that's much under-appreciated. Lloyd-Griffiths reminds me of Lucy Crowe. Caroline Kennedy, as Fancy, also has a bigger part, and used it well. Although the mood in the First Part of Linley's Ode glorifies Shakespeare's birth like a divine act (witnessed by Jove himself),  darker mysteries creep in. What to make of the "sordid wishes of the grov'ling crowd that chain the free-born mind"?

In Part II of Linley's Ode, the Fearful Observer (Richard Latham)  sings of the id-like world of the night where "with feeble cries the gliding spectres throng".  Linley responds to these sinister images with vividly dramatic figures, even spookier because they're conjured up with small ensemble and the timbre of period instrumentation.  French and her orchestra rose to the occasion, playing with animated vigour. But dawn breaks, and spells are broken.  The Spirit of Avon announces peace, since these horrors were created by Shakespeare's art.  "For who can wield like Shakespeare's skilful hand, that magic wand, whose potent sway the elves of earth,of air, of sea obey?"  Yet Linley's not just looking back. He sets the final lines with mischevious glee:  "Oh, give another Shakespeare to our Isle". 

St John's Smith Square is a gem of the English baroque: an ideal setting in which to experience Bampton Classical Opera in London. And much else, besides! SJSS is one of the hidden secrets of London's cultural life.  

This review also appears in Opera Today

Monday 14 November 2016

Berlioz Grande Messe des morts - F X Roth Royal Albert Hall

There's a place for Over The Top Berlioz, and the Royal Albert Hall, London was made for over the top. Berlioz Grand Messe des Morts op 5, 1837, is more grandiose than most requiems. Neither pious nor penitent, Berlioz's Requiem defies reticence. It packs a punch, and part of that punch is aimed against convention.  This performance brought out what made Berlioz so individual, very "modern" in his use of instrumental colour. The words may be religious, but Berlioz's God was, perhaps, himself.  That very audacity is what makes the Grand Messe grand. Conductor François-Xavier Roth did not stint on statement.  The BBC Symphony Orchestra stretched to the max: sixteen  timpani, ten pairs of cymbals,  twelve horns, four tubas, four bands of brass instruments and 18 double basses - dwarfing the usual most composers settle for.  Three large choirs: the BBC Symphony Chorus, the London Philharmonic Choir and the Crouch End Chorus and at the top, like a defiant angel, Toby Spence, whose clarion cut across the tumult before him.  In a small performance place, you'd risk going deaf.  Fortunately, the Royal Albert Hall is big enough to absorb the impact, and on BBC Radio3, the balance is even better.  Listen to the rebroadcast with speakers on loud.  

Perceptively, Roth began quietly, the massed voices of the choruses at first hushed, then bursting forth "Requiem ! Requiem !", then receding, enriched by the bank of basses and violas.  So many voices, yet so perfectly together, such crispness of attack, such unity!  This precision liberated the inner rhythms in the lines, so the phrases moved with athletic energy. The first fanfare shone with vivid brightness. The Introit ended with glorious tumult, yet Roth kept the colours clear: I thought of flags, flying, and bright, vivid colours undimmed.  The Dies Irae was suitably hushed: it's a feat to keep so many voices together in close formation, without sacrificing clarity. But Berlioz doesn't stay somnolent. "Rex! Rex! tremendae!" marked with pointed brass exclamation points. Yet again, Roth used volume purposefully, not for mere noise value.  Excellent tension between moments of high excitement and more reflective minor key passages, like the Lacrymosa, where the voices hovered, the interplay between male and female voices sustaining contrast.  Vast as the orchestral forces may be, Roth employed them deftly, underlining but not overwhelming the voices.  The grand brass gestures exploded, the timpani pounded, always in step with the musical line. Not noise for the sake of noise but remarkably cohesive, as a good processional should be.

"Domine, Domine". The Offertory sounded haunted, for at this point in the Mass  the souls of the departed seek deliverance. Now the orchestra takes the lead, the"voice" of God in deep, resonant lines that pulsate, the quivering figures taken up by the strings, purposefully, I believe, for this is an evocation of a heartbeat, as if each soul were one to one with the Creator.  Vast chords led by brass  introduce the Hostias.  Roth's assertive approach made me think of Messiaen, who could shape blocks of dense sound so they swell up, referencing the cataclysm at the End of Time in which the Earth will be rent asunder.

When Toby Spence's clear, firm tenor rang out in the Sanctus, I felt a shiver, remembering how fortunate we are to have Spence at all.  Unless one has faced the Chasm perhaps one doesn't appreciate the miracle of life.  Conventional religion doesn't have a monopoly on the feelings expressed. When Spence sang the "Glorias" his voice softened, deepening slightly, suggesting humility. The Hosannas rang out fervently.  Triumph over death is not a given, so rejoice  when it happens.  Again, the great planes of brass sounded forth, the "last trumpets" prophesied in the Book of Revelation.  Roth emphasized the silences through which the Agnus Dei proceeds: powerhouses of sound  alternating with stillness. The choirs sang reverently, for at this point in a Requiem Mass, one contemplates the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  Translated into non-Christian terms, this could mean sacrifice for higher spiritual ideals.  Hence the tenderness with which the choirs sang, and the deliberate, but not moribund traverse. As the timpani rumbled, we near a destination. This is what a Requiem is and should be:  a moment when we face mortality.  Perhaps there is redemption, perhaps not, but at least we've thought about what it might mean. All conductors employ silences at the end of performances. Sometimes it's cliché. François-Xavier Roth is an extremely intelligent and strong-minded personality.  He doesn't do things for show.  After this emotional and artistic workout, silence was a physical necessity. We couldn't otherwise return to the world outside. 

Saturday 12 November 2016

Beat Furrer FAMA London Sinfonietta

Photo: ; Markus Sepperer
Beat Furrer's FAMA came to London at last, with the London Sinfonietta. The piece was hailed as "a miracle" at its premiere at Donaueschingen in 2005 by Die Zeit: State of the Art New Music, recognized by mainstream media, which proves that the market for contemporary music lies with lively audiences. FAMA is music as theatre in the widest sense, operating on multiple levels.  In the last ten years, it's been performed many times, and there's a recording on Kairos. Experiencing it live, however, is essential  since it was created as an experience to be enacted live, for maximum impact. It's a multi-sensory immersion: participation is not passive.

Ostensibly, Furrer's text comes from Arthur Schnitzler's novel Fräulein Else, about a girl who likes a fancy life and makes money from entertaining men, but it would be a mistake if this were taken too literally. The narrative isn't straightforward. The opera begins in Latin. then flows into a stream of consciousness, where ideas constantly mutate. What "is" Else's story? We aren't told in straightforward narrative. We learn through induction, empathizing with the clues in the seemingly disjointed text,  and in the oblique imagery in the music.  As we learn in real life.  Significantly,  FAMA begins with a discourse from Ovid, Metamorphoses Book XII, in which Fama the goddess of Rumour intuits meaning by processing what she hears around herself.  What we knows, or think we  know, grows through interpreting impressions from a non-stop flow of data.

Sparkling bell-like sounds, voices intoning fragments, beautifully pitched but elusive, long  elliptical phrases in the orchestra shooting forth, patterns that move and draw back. The first two scenes in FAMA suggest teeming, vibrant happenings, just beyond our grasp.  "Ich höre das Feuer.....ich höre den Regen..... ich höre in meiner Erinnerung.....ich höre das Schweigen."  Then Else emerges, or rather Isabelle Menke intoning Else's words rapid-fire. The syntax isn't conversation, it doesn't communicate. It's an internal monologue, free associating, random thoughts from which we might, or might not, deduce who Else is. Perhaps Else herself is still figuring things out, asking questions, deducing, unsure.  The ensemble reveals little: barely audible  clicks and brushing sounds, as if the players themselves were listening and watching. As Else's  voice rises, tensely, the orchestra bursts into manic life: cacophony, cut through by long, clear metallic lines, replicated by the voice. It's as if the voice and ensemble were reaching out, feeling out to invisible walls,  gauging distance by sound waves.  High, clear notes, flutes and clarinets feeling the way, hesitating, interrupted by sudden flashes of percussion. Sounds come from all directions, often out of sight, often distorted. Else's voice sometimes seems to materialize in the air.  Piano sounds, accordion sounds, are heard as if from great distances across time.  Ticking sounds, sometimes percussion, sometimes bows sawn against strings in bizarrely mechanical fashion.  Every noise matters, no matter how subtle.

"Wie hübsch!" said Menke, with a demented smile.  "How cute it is to walk around naked"  Figuratively, she's watching  herself in a mirror wondering what others think, and what she should be thinking of herself.  The strings bow violent, mechanical angles, the brass blow mocking raspberries. The text describes how Else puts on a coat and walks naked through a hotel lobby. No-one knows.  Then, at first quietly, the sound of a contrabass flute takes over where Else's words end.  Contrabass flute: an instrument which looks so bizarre that just looking at it is an act of theatre.  It's huge, silvery and metallic but, full blast, it's like a siren, blaring menace and mystery.  This contrabass flute interlude is a magnificent coup de théâtre. The whole orchestra screams in response, then falls quiet as the contrabass flute, played by Eva Furrer, continued unchallenged, like a strange dancer, moving and singing with grave but bizarre beauty.

The words "Else, Else, Else" are projected onto the walls. A point is being made, visually, though the words are barely heard, the voices of Exaudi singing pure sound, materializing as if in dream.  The effect was both magical and sinister.  We don't know what happens to Else, but we could hear the swirling tumult in the orchestra. Walls of sound crashed around us, giving way to uncanny chords resonating in near silence. The contrabass flute led a section that seemed almost fugue-like in its grave but quirky dignity.  Else returned briefly. Her last words were "Adresse bleibt Fiala". Whatever that's supposed to mean, I do not know, but the effect was powerful, and lingers tantalisingly in the mind.  FAMA is more focused than Furrer's earlier Hörtheater Begrehen, first released on DVD in 2008, which also deals with multi-level concepts of time, space and sound.  Thus FAMA  lends itself well to semi-concert performance, as we enjoyed at St John's, Smith Square. Although we didn't see the cool, blue walls of the original, the plot. such as there is, predicates on a kind of mental imprisonment.  The gold and burgundy of St John's,  with its elegant chandelier, suggested the outward luxury of Else's profession, which could take place anywhere, not just in the Dolomites.  The drama, and the genius, of Furrer's FAMA is that, through art, we may have come closer to understanding what goes on in Else's soul.

Thank goodness for the London Sinfonietta, returning to their roots in cutting-edge repertoire.  For a while, they seemed caught up in sponsor-pleasing "education", but good work is, in itself, educational.  Any orchestra can do education, but what the London Sinfonietta does is new music better than anyone else.  This FAMA will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at an undisclosed date, but make sure you book for the next London Sinfonietta concert at St John's,Smith Square on December 6th when they'll be doing Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee, with Fool is Hurt, a new work by Simon Holt.

This review also appears in Opera Today.  

Thursday 10 November 2016

Chillingly prophetic - A Face in the Crowd

"Bible-reading, pork chop eating, just plain folks".  When The People, whoever they may be, place their faith in "demagogues in denim", they aren't taking control but handing it over.  Populism is the Triumph of Id over reason.  If the Fuhrer cheats on tax, wouldn't "we" do too?  If he attacks women, he's just reinforcing what "we" take as normal. Under the cover of The People's Will, any evil becomes aspiration.  Bullying may be successful, bit it's wrong.  Mass movements are not democracy.  Real change only comes when the fundamentals of society change. Misogyny is a symptom.  How can any system change if it's based on fundamental ideas of inequality and lack of respect for others? When people internalize self hate and think it's OK, it's like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Sixty years ago, Elia Kazan predicted the Triumph of Trump in his film A Face in the Crowd.(1957).  Lonesome Rhodes - note the impersonal name - plays "Mama Guitar" which he loves more than any woman because it's subservient and can be controlled.  People love his songs because they seem earthy. "Plain folks" identify with his homilies of home and hatred.  Lonesome becomes a star on the country music circuit.  When he sneers at advertisers, his public love it because they think he's a symbol of freedom. But he's a natural born manipulator, whose only interest is in himself.  He knows how to sell, even if what he sells is illusion: Vitajex pills that do nothing but make buyers feel they're empowered and virile.  As he rises upwards, his speil gets bigger. Eventually he gets into politics.  "Daniel Boone didn't get no welfare", so poor folks don't need support..... Far from being empowered, Lonesome's fans will empower those who exploit them. The movie is frighteningly prescient: phrases in the script pop up in populist movements everywhere. Kazan, a leftwing intellectual, might have been just the kind of uppity outsider "plain folks" don't like, but he understood that mass populism is by no means just small-town America.  Lonesome is Hitler, Stalin or Mao, disguised as Good Ol' Country Boy. Intellectuals don't come out clean, either, because they, too. are seduced.  Watch this movie, and listen to every word.

A Face in the Crowd is brilliant, but falls flat in its happy ending. Lonesome is exposed when his cynicism is revealed live on air, and his fans get mad. and his game collapses.  In real life, as we've seen, people seem to take pride in being selectively gullible. No matter how blatantly they're abused, they take it without demur. Turkeys for Christmas. No matter how evil the Fuhrer, it's OK as long as he is One of Us. Political pundits will analyze Brexit, Trump and other movements, but I suspect the roots lie in wilful ignorance, in a kind of mass collusion. Lonesome has a machine which plays applause when there's no audience.  Lonesome's platform is mass media, which reflects whatever is fed into it, not necessarily the truth, whatever that might be.  A metaphor for those who live in cyberspace where reason doesn't intrude.  Unless change comes from genuine respect for other people, it remains an empty slogan.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

The Gates of Hell

Have the Gates of Hell opened?  Have we reached the End of Time?  Has The Universal Troll triumphed again ?

Tuesday 8 November 2016

In Dark Hours, Karl Amadeus Hartmann

Whatever happens this November 8th, we are in for disturbing times. In Britain, we should be remembering The People's Court where judges dutifully carried out The Will of the People. Democracy is not the Triumph of the Will, nor the Rule of the Mob.  Farage is calling for mass marches on Parliament and/or the Courts of Law. Pitchforks and firebrands may not be so far away.  I could post pics of the Nazi People's Court, but I'm just so sick of fascist aggro that I won't. 

At times like these, we should draw faith from those whose lone voices withstood the tide, no matter how isolated they were. As always, Karl Amadeus Hartmann to the fore.  I've written extensively about him in the past. In Gesangsszene, he writes about the collapse of capitalism and civilized society. Read more here.   In Simplicius Simplicissimuss, he uses medievalism as cover for a savage indictment of war and false fuhrers.  Read more here and here.  And thus to Hartmann's Symphonische Hymnen written in 1943, when things must have seemed very dark indeed.  It is part of a triptych, the Sinfoniae drammaticae which was published in 1975, having been hidden among Hartmann's effects during his lifetime.  Symphonische Hymnen begins in turbulence, with sharp angular chords, like shards of glass in an explosion.  Fleet-footed figures swirl, as if tossed in a maelstrom. Violent pounding ostinato: but from which a delicate theme arises.  The line wavers : at the lower registers, it's firmly assertive rising again from a brief, violent interruption.  Gradually the solo line is reinforced by strings. As the piece progresses the angular chords return, this time dissipating into low, growling rumbles, brass accentuated by timpani.  A slow, quiet passage. Are we in the heart of the beast ?  The winds lead us slowly forward. A crash of cymbals and more low rumbling. The orchestra explodes again, but this time with frantic energy, ellipses on brass, whipping figures in the strings and a kind of staccato dance, which gives way to surprisingly beautiful moments of quasi-melody.  Do we hear metallic bells  what are these flurries of circular sound. The "dance" returns, wilder and more exuberant.  Sudden ominous silence, from which marching ostinato figures emerge. Whatever these may mean, the piece ends with manic flourish. 

Monday 7 November 2016

An inhabited Landscape : Ivor Gurney

 "An inhabited landscape", Ivor Gurney and his sensitivity to the human landscape around him, past and present. He was observer of the human legacy of place and time.  Philip Lancaster, Gurney scholar, gives a lecture at the British Academy HERE,  He describes Gurney's inspirations and motivations, with illustrations from readings from Gurney's poems and performances of Gurney's songs. Although the sound quality isn't good, the lecture itself is excellent, so persist, because this is a very significant contribution to Gurney studies. The lecture also sheds light on why Gurney went to war and what it meant to him. New material here, too.  For example, Lancaster goes into detail about Gurney's late work, with its epic vision.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Erkki Melartin : world premiere recordings

This recent release of works by Erkki Melartin  (1875-1937) from Ondine, with Soile Isokoski and Hannu Lintu conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, will further enhance the revival of interest in Melartin's music which has been building up in the last twenty years.  Melartin's work has been extensively researched, revealing rarities like the three pieces on this disc: the tone poems Traumgesicht and Marjatta and the ballet The Blue Pearl. "Whereas his symphonies are firmly rooted in the Germanic tradition", to quote an article in the Finnish Music Quarterly, these works "show his orchestral writing in a more colourist and virtuoso light. It would appear that working with a freer form inspired him to bolder stylistic experiments in the 1910s in particular."

Melartin's Traumgesicht op 70, 1910, was performed seven times then lay forgotten for more than eighty years.  It's a compact piece, where ambitious ideas are condensed in tight focus, intensifying their impact.  This "Dream Vision" is a vividly painted tableau. The richly sweeping strings set the pace, building to expansive crescendi that might evoke a panorama of endless possibilities. But the crescendi crash into turbulence, cleared away by gentler, minor key melodies, led by woodwind.  Perhaps this dream takes place in a metaphorical dense forest, with clearings for reflection and changes of direction.  Large forces give way to a solo violin, leading the orchestra further. Washes of colour, lit by tiny, whip-like figures, reminicent of Sibelius and his evocations of snow and wind. 

Soile Isokoski has been singing Melartin for decade :  her Soumeni suloksi disc from 2000 remains one of the finest introductions to Finnish art song, and with all respect to Karita Mattila, Isokoski has probably done more for Finnish song since, perhaps, Aino Akté, for whom Melartin's Marjatta (op 79, 1914) was commissioned.   Marjatta is based on the final canto in the Kalevala, where  Väinämöinen orders Marjatta's new-born son (fathered by a lingonberry!) to be put to death, but is thwarted when an old man appears, baptising the child, declaring the child the new King of Karelia.  Väinämöinen's old ways are no more and he skulks away, vowing one day to return, but leaves a kantele "for the children of Suomi". The connection  between Marjatta and Sibelius Luonottar (1913), also commissioned for Aino Akté.  Luonottar describes the creation of the universe, Marjatta the end of the mythical saga. The connections are so obvious that it's more than likely that Melartin was positioning himself directly in relationship to Sibelius. Marjatta shimmers with the sounds of cuckoo song, emphasizing springtime and renewal.  Fluttering figures in the strings suggest winds, or new growth.  Flutes, violins and celesta combine, creating a delicate, fragile mood of hope. The warmth of Isokoski's singing suggests that this new Karelia will prosper.  At the end of Marjatta, Melartin gives the singer one grand climax heralded by trumpet calls.  But how one longs for the truly extraordinary genius of Luonottar and its ferociously imaginative challenges!  Musically, there's no comparison.  Perhaps Marjatta is a follow-on from Melartin's opera Aino (1912) which I remember from way back, though I haven't listened to it for a while.

More cuckoo songs in Melartin's The Blue Pearl, Sininen helmi,  op 160, premiered 1931. In the South Seas, a princess is captured by an octopus who wears a blue pearl in his crown.  Eventually, she's rescued by a prince, but not before we get blissfully lyrical music: sparkling piano passages, harps, flutes, and very high violin tessitura. On this recording, we have eight numbers from the first two acts of the three act original, which probably don't give a sense of narrative but work perfectly well as miniature tone poems, and display a lighter, more lucid Melartin than the early symphonies, or perhaps the existing editions/recordings thereof suggest.  

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Perfumed Schumann Der Rose Pilgerfahrt

In Robert Schumann's Der Rose Pilgerfahrt op 112 , one can swoon. A rose falls in love and wants to become human. But she cannot be what she is not, and sacrifices herself, rewarded by being wafted to heavenly bliss on a  cloud of angels. Die Frühlingslüfte  bringen den Liebesgruß die Welt". Beidermeyer images, yes, but beautiful.  Once we get past the cynicism the last 150 years have forced upon us, perhaps we can escape into idealized fantasy, and become intoxicated with the heady perfumes of Der Rose Pilgerfahrt., refreshing ourselves for the moment in innocence and purity.

In Schumann's choral works, older traditions hybridize, flowering in new form. Was Schumann developing a new approach to music drama, nipped in the bud by Wagner's revolution in opera? What might have been had Schumann not fallen ill and died young? Der Rose Pilgerfahrt isn't as ambitious as Das Paradies und die Peri (more here and here), Genoveva (more here) and Szenen aus Faust, but it's worth knowing as a bridge connecting song, oratorio and music theatre.  While  Das Paradies und die Peri is exotic, fuelled by Persian legend and vaguely religious heroism, Der Rose Pilgerfarht is simpler, a Märchen, or fairy tale.

"Johannis war gekommen. der Erde Hochzeitzstag": images of spring, rebirth and fertility.   Elves dance in sprightly chorus. Delicate, dotted rhythms, with just enough kick to brighten the night-time darkness.  The Queen of the Elves warns the Rose that: one cannot want what one is not, but transforms the Rose into a young girl, who wakes, alone, in a meadow. Rejected by the first humans she meets, the Rose wanders into a graveyard where an old man is digging a grave for a miller's daughter. Yet the choir aren't mournful. The chorus is quite earthy: "Wie Blätter im Baum, wie Blumen vergeh'n". Nature's way, death and regrowth.  Now we hear solemn brass and woodwinds, for the Rose is homesick. Magical, sparkling chords: the Chorus of Elves sing "Hoff' nicht auf Glück, komm' zurück !"  She can't hear, though. She's found  a new home. She resembles the  dead miller's daughter so closely that the family take her in as their own. Everyone's happy. calm, joyful music, bucolic folk-like dance though, refines: Schumann doesn't do crude.  The tenor part is so lovely that he could be singing Lieder.  But echoes of Der Freischütz surface. A men's chorus, illustrated by hunting horns, sings of the forest, and the supernatural aspects of the tale. Who is this strange Rose-child, and where did she come from? A Lorelei in reverse  ?

The narrative continues, the alto (the Queen) describing events as they unfold, followed by bass,  alto and soprano and choir : different "voices" describing events as they unfold, from different musical perspectives.   Max, a huntsman, falls in love with The Rose and she with him. They marry, and  in a year, as the tenor tells us, economizing on scene changes, they have a lovely baby son.  He thrives, but the Rose knows she cannot stay.  She leaves a rose, "ihr ebenspfand, und gibt's dem Kindlein".  Grateful for having had such happiness, she hands on to her child a symbol of eternal protection. "Zun End ist mein' Pilgerbahn". Her pilgrimage was to experience love and happiness. Having found it, she's obliged to go home, as pilgrims do.  She's been human for over a year, not bad for a bloom.  The poet, Moritz Horn, who sent Schumann the text after having heard Das Paradies und die Peri, wanted a maudlin ending. Schumann, who knew Paradies better than Horn did, wasn't having that. Der Rose Pilgerfahrt thus ends with a gorgeous chorus of angelic voices. Magical, gossamer textures, more Fairy Land and elfin than angelic in the usual religious sense of "angels".  Schumann, via Mendelssohn, has come a long way from oratorio. 

There are at least five recordings, but my go to's are Frühbeck de Burgos from the 1980's and Christoph Spering from1998.   Frühbeck de Burgos conducted the Düsseldorfer Symfoniker and choir, a nod to the fact that the piece premiered in Düsseldorf in 1851, with Schumann himself as conductor. Obviously not the same personnel, and with modern instruments. Frühbeck de Burgos's soloists were Helen Donath, Brigitte Fassbaender, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Gedda and Thomas Moser.   Lovely, sumptuous sound, and great singing.   Christof  Spering conducted Chorus Musicus Köln and Das neue Orchestre with Camilla Nylund, Rainer Trost, Andreas Schmidt and others.  Spering's sound is lighter and brighter, which suits the piece well.  He recorded it twice but I haven't yet heard the more recent piano song version though it features Christoph Prégardien. There's also a recording which apparently features  Jonas Kaufmann, uncredited,  in the chorus.