Saturday 31 December 2016

Happy Hong Kong New Year !

Happy New Year from Hong Kong where they know how to party ! Ten minutes of fireworks (countdown video is extra on another clip)

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Feral Varèse Arcana Andris Nelsons Berlioz Debussy

Edgard Varèse Arcana with Andris Nelsons and the Berliner Philharmoniker, from the Musikfest Berlin, available til 31/12 in the Digital Concert Hall.  Grab the chance !  Arcana (1925-7)is scored for massive forces-   roughly 120 players altogether,  68 strings, 20 woodwinds, 20 brass and a phalanx of percussionists playing 40 different instruments from timpani to castanets.  Every performance is a feat of logistics, so it doesn't get done as often as it should be.  It's also extremely visual : watching is very much part of the experience.  It's not every day you see rows of trumpets and trombones, some muted, some not,playing together, or 8 horns raised heavenwards. Arcana is big, but its bigness springs from its musical function. Arcana proceeds like a gigantic beast, its component parts articulated to move in stately formation, groups of instruments impacting on each other in constantly varying combinations. I've never quite been sure what Varèse  meant by its title, but I've often imagined it as a mythical creature brought to life by arcane spells and incantations. 

Compared to Varèse's more esoteric innovations,   most for smaller ensembles,  Arcana is relatively easy to follow since it's constructed like a series of variations with interlocking inner cells and permutations thereof.  Although it isn't by any means electronic, it functions like a machine, where different sections operate in parallel and together towards a common purpose.  Very much the Zeitgeist of the 1920's of Futurism and things to come.  Andris Nelson's approach is deliberately unhurried, allowing the monster to waken and walk at its own pace without being pushed. I get a kick from speedier tempi but Nelsons reveals the textures and colours.  Watch him beat the inaudible passages bar by bar showing how silence is part of the structure.  Instinctively, Nelsons half-crouched, like a feral animal, listening to the world around him before making a move. This was intuitive and almost certainly unconscious,  but definitely in tune with the spirit of Arcana and also with the Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune which preceded it. Consider the connections between the two pieces, and their elusive physicality.  Someone could do Arcana as ballet, though they'd need a big budget.  It would certainly lend itself to visual patterns and recurring images.

Nelsons' Berlioz Symphonie fantastique op 14, was thus coloured by being heard in conjunction with Varèse and Debussy. Symphonie fantastique is so dramatic that lesser conductors cheat by playing up the dramatic kitsch.  We've all heard this piece so often that it's easy to coast along.  Not Nelsons. He instead  emphasizes the intelligence in the orchestration.  Berlioz's genius lay in the way he could use instruments to create myriad textures and colours. He studied instruments for their own sake, and was open to new, innovative sounds like that of the saxophone.  Not really all that far from Varèse and his experiments with klaxons and ondes martenot.  Yet again, Nelsons emphasized the underlying musical logic and the finesse with which Berlioz built up his palette.  The Berliner Philharmoniker are so good that they can do refinement with natural, unforced élan.  Like a composer using the tools available to him, Nelsons knows this orchestra well enough to inspire them so they play as if the work were fresh and vivid.

Listen out specially for the quiet passages, like in the third movement, where the shepherd  listens to the gentle rustling of leaves and contemplates a moment of solitude. Gradually more complex feelings rush in, but to understand, we must listen attentively, picking up every nuance.  Shepherds, like animals in nature, listening acutely to the sounds around them : the faun again, the "creature" in Arcana  ?  Noisiness dulls the senses.  The Dream of the Night of the Sabbath was vivid because our minds had been cleared of detritus.  Listen to those crazed winds! Some audiences think music exists to serve the listener, and like conductors who deliver in that way. True artists, though, are more likely to think that they (and their audiences) exist to serve the music. Nelsons and the Berliner Philharmoniker belong in the latter category, most definitely. 

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Schumann, dramatist : Das Paradies und die Peri, Harding, Paris

Schumann Das Paradies und die Peri (Op 59) with Daniel Harding and the Orchestre de Paris from the Philharmonie de Paris, with Christiane Karg, Kate Royal, Gerhild Romberger, Andrew Staples, Allan Clayton and Matthias Goerne last week in Paris, now on This is an exceptionally interesting performance, because it reveals insight into Schumann's distinctive ideas on musical drama, eclipsed by the revolution Wagner wrought in operatic form. Das Paradies und die Peri premiered in Leipzig in December 1843, but  Die fliegende Holländer had premiered in Dresden in January the same year. Schumann might seem eclipsed, but he represents an alternative but perfectly valid approach to music as theatre with roots in Germanic traditions like oratorio and Singspiele. Harding's firmly assured yet refined perspective helps us appreciate Schumann on his own terms. This perceptive  Das Paradies und die Peri follows on from Harding's groundbreaking  Szenen aus Goethes Faust  and from his work on Schumann's symphonies. Eventually, the world will value Schumann as Schumann, not as Wagner manqué.  

Das Paradies und die Peri is also seminal because it shows the depth of Schumann's engagement with literary sources. Even for the son of a Leipzig bookseller, Schumann was exceptionally well read and up to date on the latest literary trends. Moore's Lalla Rookh developed the fashion for orientalist fantasy, which intrigued the Romantiker imagination, opening up new horizons  and  alternatives to  western European constraints. The Generic East implied unparalleled extremes, and emotions too wild for Christian convention.  Lalla Rookh is One Thousand and One Arabian Nights on acid. Moore was an opium addict, like Thomas De Quincey and, later, Charles Baudelaire. Nothing like a bit of dope to break inhibitions.  Nonetheless, the literary style of Lalla Rookh is itself utterly relevant. It is written in an exaggerated, verbose style so highly perfumed that it's almost unreadable now, but that was part of its original appeal. Exotic names and words pour forth in hallucinatory frenzy, creating a haze of soporific delights.  How thrilling these references to strange, obscure places, people and objects to readers who had no idea of the real East, or Asia or Africa for that matter.  It was enough that the words sounded wonderful, and, significantly, musical on their own terms."Lalla Rookh", incidentally,  means "Tulip Face" which  was a compliment in times when tulips were prized imports from distant lands. The very context is inherently theatrical, the drama living in the imagination of the audience. Perhaps these days we're too used to passive entertainment, like reality TV, to comprehend.

If anything, Schumann plays down the text so it flowers in his music.  The peri flits freely  between Egypt, Africa,  Syria "the land of roses", "Cashmere (Kashmir) and other places including "Peristan" (the land of Peris?) and ends up by the throne of "Alla" surrounded by lotus blooms.  but Schumann's music is thoroughly German. Some figures, especially in the choruses, evoke the sturdy rhythms of Der Freischütz or even Der Vampyr, but the general style is distinctively Schumann. The narrative develops not through "characters", as in opera, but through commentary, as in oratorio.  The story, as such, is more allegory than plot.  To achieve her goal, the peri must produce three miracles, each episode more symbolic than stageable. Thus the florid text is depicted in indirect speech and in abstract sound. The young hero, for example, in a fanfare followed by tenor (Andrew Staples) and choir, the flow caught in its tracks by the dour tyrant (Matthias Goerne, sounding more bass than usual)  The women's choir weeps : the tyrant lives, the hero dies.  The "action" proceeds through choir ("Sacred is the blood")  and orchestra, surging forwards.  The second Part opens with a depiction of the Nile, (tenor, mezzo, female voices) , the horns inn the orchestra piping out a theme which could come straight from Mendelssohn. Think magic, not historical Eygpt.  The horns add  melancholy gloom. The peri weeps tears for the suffering of humankind, evoked by the interplay of all four soloists.  Kate Royal sings of healing balms, and Christiane Karg of repose, cushioned in (possibly) narcotic perfumes : exquisite songs, separated by delicately muted trumpets, like extended Lieder - one thinks ahead to Schumann's Requiem.

The chorus "Schmucket die Stufen zu Allahs Thron" is glorious, the voices sparkling brightly: but still, the peri cannot enter Eden.  Thus the burnished darkness of "Jetzt sankt des Abends gold'ner Schei" (Goerne), broken briefly by the piercing brightness of the female voices. A haunting flute melody rises out of low cello murmurs, and Goerne returns: a quiet bass voice, singing of flowers, summer and the banks of the Jordan. Yet again, dramatic contrasts in sound. "Peri ! Oeri!" the chorus calls, shrilly, morphing yet again to bass baritone tenderness.  Yet again, resolution comes from the structure of the piece itself and its musical expression. The soloists interact, joined by chorus and orchestra, and the Angel emerges. Divine intervention! This is a part Bernarda Fink has done so memorably, that she's hard to forget, but Christiane Karg does admirably.  With a flourish, Das Paradies und die Peri ends with joyous tumult.  An uplifting performance, idiomatically refined and true to the spirit of Schumann and to the tradition that inspired him.  More to my taste than the several Rattle performances I've heard, yet also more "modern" than Gardiner and Harnoncourt, though I couldn't live without those.  Modern? Yes, for Schumann is modern, and timeless, even if the texts he uses might be alien to modern ears.  

photo Frédéric Désaphi

Sunday 25 December 2016

1916 Hanukkah Germans, Armenian Christians

German troops at the front 1916

Armenian Christians, Christmas 1916, in the midst of the Armenian Genocide
Read more HERE

Thursday 22 December 2016

Madama Butterfly - the grim original, Chailly La Scala

Puccini Madama Butterfly at Teatro alla  Scala, Milan, but not in the famous version, but the original so reviled at its premiere that it was immediately revised by its composer for a second premiere four months later on 28 May 1904, in Brescia, not Milan, the modern "standard" being the score published in 1907. The original Madama has never been lost, but has remained in the archives of Ricordi ever since.  Puccini continued revising the opera until 1920 : Riccardo Chailly included parts of that last revision when he conducted the opera ar La Scala in 1996.  The February 1904 version, which Chailly conducted this month at La Scala with Bryan Hymel, the Pinkerton of choice these days,   was broadcast live all over the world. Alas! I missed it having endured the appallingly awful Magic Flute (Adam Fischer/Peter Stein) but this "new" Madama Butterfly is available audio only on BR Klassik HERE.

Hymel is,  of course, outstanding, especially since, in the original, Pinkerton is unsympathetic, a callous cad, with no "regret" aria to redeem him and soften the narrative.  He also mocks the locals and calls them scum.  The beauty of Hymel's singing underlines the venality of the character he portrays.  The "love duet" is thoroughly creepy.  Such glorious music, such depraved morals.  This is infinitely closer to the way things were in an era when imperialism and racism went unchallenged.  All the more respect to Puccini for seeing past the "romantic" surface and through to the fundamental brutality in the story.  Please read my other pieces on Madama Butterfly, on Asian stereotypes and race issues by using the buttons at right and below.  Maria José Siri sings Cio-cio San. (Full cast list here)

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Brahms and Schiller : antidote to toxic 2016

Evening Scene with Moon (1801) Abraham Pether

As this horrible year draws to an end, Johannes Brahms Der Abend op 64/2 from the part song set Drei Quartette published in 1874, to a poem by Friedrich von Schiller. from 1776.  The "strahlende Gott", the radiant sun, is sinking  The piano plays one note at a time, like a heavy tread.   The fields  are parched, the horses pulling a cart are weary.  As the  sun sinks,so does the spirit.  Then a sudden vision :"Siehe, wer aus des Meers krystallner Woge" Almost in unison the four voices  spring to life, decorating the word "kristallner" so it shines.  The pace quickens.  "Rascher fliegen der Rosse", as if the horses sense refreshment. The godly Thetys beckons. Thetys was a Titan, the wild tribe who preceded the Greek Gods. Her signifier is water: the source of life, replenishing the parched (hence the reference to dried fields). She was mother of the Oceanides, the spirits of the Oceans whose tides control the earth.  The four voices, like horses, are energized, their lines well differentiated. The piano part prances, too.  Suddenly, "Stille halten die Rosse, Trinken die kühlende Flut." Now,

"An dem Himmel herauf mit leisen Schritten
Kommt die duftende Nacht; ihr folgt die süße
Liebe. Ruhet und liebet!
Phöbus, der liebende, ruht."

Up in the heavens, night descends quietly, the smells of the night are fragrant, damp, refreshing. "Ruhet und Liebet!" repeated twice, for emphasis.  Beloved Phoebus (Apollo, the sun) rests and loves. What is Der Abend about? Perhaps it's about sleep, offering an escape from toil. Yet it could also be about Death, the sleep from which you don't wake because you've gone on further. About 20 years ago I went to the funeral of someone my own age who died young after a long struggle. I'll swear the song was being played!  Tactfully, I tried to ask. "Joni Mitchell" said someone. This year, as the world seems to be hurtling, hell bent, towards Armageddon,  it's tempting to think on Lethe. But better to stay, struggle and fight back.

Monday 19 December 2016

A British Christmas - in Paris!

An all British Christmas concert de Noël - but from Paris, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Mikko Franck.  Elgar, Britten and RVW, but also Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius and Victor Hely-Hutchinson.. If the BBC SO did a programme as ambitious as this, it would be a major event. But Radio France beat them to it. Aha! Britishness through a non-British prism! OPRF don't sound "English" but the music benefits from being performed "as" music, without baggage.

Adeste Fideles, or O Come, all ye Faithful, started the party, the first of four movements in A Carol Symphony (1929) by Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-47)  According to wiki, he died because he wouldn't turn on the heating in his office in the cold winter of 1947. Hopefully, his fellow workers didn't suffer. In contrast, Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912) an altogether more original work, not mere transcription, where the carols become part of a larger creation, with suggestions of medieval music and plain chant (baritone Marc Pancek). .  In Frederick Delius Sleigh Ride (no 2 of Three Small Tone Poems) Franck downplayed the obvious "sleigh bells" in the introduction, emphasizing the finesse in the abstract themes that followed.  This approach also enhanced Arnold Bax's Christmas Eve (1912 rev. 1921) , a tone poem with sweeping  lines that might suggest vast nocturnal landscapes, the opacity in the tutti lushness darkness lit by flashes of brass and light.

The youth choir of Radio France returned for several songs from Benjamin Britten A Ceremony of Carols op 26, 1942. Lovely, clear, piping voices with the purity Britten sought. If they had slight French accents, not a problem at all ! That brought out the sense of otherworldliness that makes such a difference in Britten interpretation. The adult choirs assembled Douce Nuit (Silent Night), followed by a new transcription of the carol for solo organ, magical and bizarre at the same time.  Then the Elgar part song, The Snow, op 26/1 1894, for choir, two violins and small orchestra.   More Elgar, "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations , here played with magisterial elegance.  An excellent choice, reminding me at least of Bax Christmas Eve and Delius and even Holst and Finzi.  Yet again, thoughtful programming, setting the scene for Britten's St Nicholas.(1948). The girl singing the treble part was lovely, as was the tenor (Christophe Poncet) and the full choir striking. Yet even in these grand moments, Britten doesn't really write in the British choral tradition but does his own quirky variation.

But it's Christmas, and party time ! So Vive le vent (Jingle Bells in French). Then the Hallelujah Chorus, written by a German, sung in English by a French choir, conducted by a Finn, who sang along, as did the Paris audience.  Proper Christmas spirit, and dare I say, proper European spirit, too.   Enjoy the concert HERE on - better than most things planned in UK this season

Saturday 17 December 2016

Black Britain - murder at RAM

"Sapphire - the sensational story of a girl whoi didn't belong". Basil Dearden's film from 1959 would be shocking today, especially in an increasingly divided society.  Filmed at the Royal Academy of Music, and at a jazz club in Charlotte Street. The students have changed, though. David Harris, a student architect, who has a scholarship to study in Rome, looks middle aged , though he's only 20.  The only hip thing about him is his duffle coat.  His girlfriend, Sapphire Robbins, has been murdered on Hampstead Heath.  The police break into Sapphire's room and discover she used to play records all the time "She was at the RAM!" says the landlady.  The cops assume she's been killed by a jealous lowlife from her double life. Then Sapphire's brother comes down from Birmingham. He's black.  "Are you her half brother?" ask the cops. "No" says brother.Sapphire was mixed race but passed for white in white society.

Sapphire was pregnant. "I've seen the autopsy" said her brother. He's a doctor.  "We'll find who I did it" say the cops. Dr Robbins isn't so sure. "When I was a boy", he says, "another boy touched me, and said 'nothing rubbed off ". But something rubbed onto him. Sapphire's landlady's scared in case word gets round that she rented rooms to blacks.  Even David didn't know Sapphire was black "until last week". A policeman visits Sapphire's GP. "Didn't you know she was....coloured ? You can always tell, you know". "Can you tell a policeman by his big feet?" says the GP.  The police track down Sapphire's black friends who say she started passing for white after being snubbed by someone who remarked "I see you like the junglies".  The jazz club owner says, sarcastically, "once the lilyskins hear the beat of the bongo, they can't hide". Even Sapphire's friends think Sapphire's black ex, Johnny, might have killed her.  He gets beat up by a white gang. Luckily - ironically - the cops arrest him.

Tensions in David's family.  His mother's worried. His sister, a bitch, snaps at her kids "Ask no questions and you'll get no lies". Wonderfully tight script which keeps up the tension without stop.  The racist cop says "These spades are trouble, send them back where they came".  If crimes could so easily be solved ! His inspector, though, doesn't agree. "Given the right atmosphere" her says "you can  organize riots against anyone. Blacks, Jews, Irish, evern policemen with big feet". Racist cop checks out Johnny's alibi and realizes he's in the clear.  David would lose his scholarship if he married.  Kaput to the family's ambitions. David snaps. Far from welcoming Sapphire, his family hate blacks.  The killer confesses ! But of course, it's Sapphire's fault for being black and uppity.  Brilliant film, utterly relevant today. Now at least, mixed race or any race, don't have to hide.

Friday 16 December 2016

Saariaho True Fire Gerald Finley Sakari Oramo BBC SO

Kaija Saariaho's True Fire, with Gerald Finley at the Barbican London, with the BBC SO with Sakari Oramo conducting.  Saariaho has produced masterpieces, like Orion (2002) a breathtakingly beautiful evocation of starlight and mystery, but occasionally has lapses like Adriana Mater. But her music is too distinctive to dismiss.  In True Fire  she breaks into new territory.  The characteristic washes of multi-tonal, multi-coloured oscillation remain, but darker hues prevail. intensifying the elusive danger that lurks within Saariaho's music, which is far too often overlooked.. True Fire has a dark soul, and is all the better for it.

Saariaho's regular muse is Karita Mattila, for whom she wrote Mirages, premiered in 2008 also at the Barbican, London.  True Fire is a companion pieces to some extent, being very different on many levels, Mirage making the most of Mattila's grand dramatic intensity, while True Fire  is more suited to Finley's baritonal hues.  He's been a Saariaho regular too, for many years. singing Jaufré Rudel in L'amour de loin when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted it in Helsinki more than ten years ago, the performance immortalized on DVD.  (Please read my review of the Met version ).  True Fire works as an exploration of Finley's timbre : colours and shadings again, and much variety in the setting.

This time the music is structured and channelled in a purposeful direction. Three "propositions", based on Ralph Waldo Emerson frame sections based on Seamus Heaney, a Native American lullaby and a text by the poet Mahmoud Darwish.  Introduced by the rumbling first "proposition" the section "River" flows strongly.   Words like "Thirst", "Night" and "River" are repeated in circular motion, "flowing, flowing". Strong currents in the orchestra, lit by fractured cells of sound which en masse sparkle with  light.  Gradually the flow subsides and Finley's voice rises to the top of his register, gradually fading.   The second proposition is particularly lush - bell-like sonorities, bright percussion, swathes of strings: "In silence" , Finley intones, barely above a growl.  Strange rocking rhythms in the Lullaby, a vigorous introduction moments of sparkling light. "In the west a dark flower blossoms, and now lightning flashes"  Again, circular forms . "Oh, oh, oh, my little one", repeating  like a set of mini-variations, the rocking rhythms taken up again in the orchestra -  hushed cymbals and gongs   In contrast "Farewell" began with hollow but carefully paced intonation  lit by short passages of orchestral complexity. "Don't wait for anyone, in the crowd", sang Finley with understated ferocity, consonants tightly clipped, the word "Narcissus" sharply sinister.  The last "proposition" is an extended diminuendo, voice and orchestra slowly proceeding towards an ending which glows, muted but forceful. What is the "true fire" in the text ? All may be fading around it but something remains firm and pure.

Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra at very short notice, receiving the score for the first time on Tuesday for Thursday evening's concert.  Fortunately he knows Saariaho's idiom well, and his rapport with the BBC SO is instinctive and strong. They've done a lot of Saariaho too, over the years. They know that this music works best when it flows naturally, like an organic form, without being pushed and pulled.  On the basis of this performance, I think True Fire is a keeper. It fits Finley like a glove, so he'll be able to sing it well for years to come, after which other baritones can enjoy its riches.   Before True Fire, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, and afterwards, Prokofiev Symphony no 5. well played but the real news is Saariaho. 

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln livestream Saint-Saëns

Adventurous livestream from the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln with conductor François-Xavier Roth, screened last night on the orchestra's own website. The orchestra's roots go back to the 15th century; it developed in its present form in the mid-19th century.  Mahler's Symphony no 5 premiered with the Gürzenich-Orchester, conducted by the composer himself.  (see my article here). Now it's reaching out to audiences that wouldn't otherwise be able to attend its concerts live. The livestream yesterday focused on Saint-Saëns  with the Dance macabre, the Concerto for piano and orchestra no 5  (The "Eygptian"),  and Symphony no 3 (The "Organ"). A very enjoyable concert, thoughtfully planned, and well executed. 

Technology has changed business economics. The age of youtube takes things still further. Of course there are many positives to youtube but it distorts the reality of performance,  narrowing horizons, creating self-selecting limitations and promoting the idea that musicians don't deserve to be paid for what they do.  Somehow, though, musicians have to adapt. The Berliner-Philharmoniker, among the first to embrace recording technology, pioneered digital streaming. Anyone, anywhere in the world can access Berlin.  While there are other platforms, orchestra-led broadcasting gives musicians control, and is far more representative of what orchestras actually do than depending on the rather artificial medium of of recording.  Many orchestras and opera houses livestream, some more successfully than others.   Perhaps the secret is to have something worth streaming on an international level.

The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln has something special to offer, if this initial livestream is evidence.    It's an extremely good orchestra, with distinctive character and an auditorium with a warm acoustic.  Another asset the Gürzenich also have is  François-Xavier Roth, who communiates his deep enthusiasm for repertoire with intelligence and panache.  He's done this programme before, elsewhere: finesse shows   Technically, the broadcast was understated, almost exactly like a normal performance, where the players file in unannounced and get on with what they do best - making music.  This is a tacit assumption that the audience is sharp enough to listen without having the blather that accompanies MET screenings and  the BBC Proms. Perhaps mass audiences need hype to get them wound up, but personally I like the intimate character of the Gürzenich and its emphasis on its musicians.  Broadcasts aren't cheap but they can be cheaper than cinema distribution, the curse of HD, and the caprices of big recording companies more into profit than art.  Gürzenich-Orchester marketing is good, and they know how to use social media to generate publicity  On the other hand,  strength lies in numbers, and most individual orchestras don't have the muscle to break into the world market - not everyone is the Berliner Phil !  Not every concert needs to be streamed, and publicity should be done more in advance.  But orchestra-led streaming might be the way ahead.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Magnus Lindberg Accused Anu Komsi Hannu Lintu

Finnish Independence Day last week was commemorated in a concert by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu, with Anu Komsi as soloist in Magnus Lindberg's Accused, which premiered in London in 2015. The broadcast, now available on, is an opportunity to reassess Lindberg's unusual work.  Accused (2014) is a series of scena based on factual documents, with extracts from an interrogation of people accused of political crimes. Mademoiselle Théroigne de Méricourt an aristocrat at the time of the French revolution, someone with a West German magazine in the Stasi controlled DDR,  and transcripts of the trial of Bradley (Chelsea) Manning  Factual documents (more or less) whose purpose is to prosecute. The voices of the accused are submerged.  By the very nature of these documents, personal human drama is subsumed in cold bureaucracy.  In Accused, we hear the process of justice or non-justice roll relentlessly. Happy endings and "stories" might be more entertaining, but there is a lot more to art than entertainment.

Magnus Lindberg (b 1958) has a formidable body of work, almost entirely orchestral, chamber or instrumental, so Accused, for large orchestra and soprano, is something of a departure. It doesn't follow vocal writing conventions, but works, for me, anyway, more like a concerto, where impersonal forces are pitted against a single voice, always in opposition.  Lindberg writes in blocks of sound - it's not every day we hear a phalanx of piccolos and flutes, small, individual voices acting en masse.  No chance of concertante. That's not the nature of political suppression.  The vocal line isn't easy, it twists and contorts, trying to resist. Anu Komsi isn't an ordinary soprano, even by the standards of contemporary music. Her defiant coloratura scales extremes. Her lines are written to torment and torture.  Yet, if you listen carefully, the outbursts are underpinned by underlying technical control. There are staccato passages so tightly focused, that, for a moment, the orchestra pulls back, then attempts staccato of its own without the commitment of the singer.  After another vocal crescendo, the orchestra makes a strategic retreat into dark rumbling basses.  The innate beauty of Komsi's voice asserts itself in longer lines, reminding us that the person accused is far more complex than her accusers.  These little glimpses of the personality within shine out, despite the swirling tutti around her.  Komsi's voice drops to quiet, low keening, then into fragile, broken fragments, before surging fiercely yet again. Sotto voce mumbles suddenly switch to clear, bright cries. Perhaps because we're familiar with Bradley/Chelsea Manning, we can pick up on the contradictions in the character of Komsi's portrayal. For example the soaring lines that turn back on themselves even if the words being sung suggest the dominance of the orchestra (the military).  Komsi's fermininity matters, as it matters to Manning.  This final scena ends with an oddly beautiful fragility, Komsi's voice  defying physical limitations. A celeste, strings and harp suggest that Manning might draw a measure of  solace, knowing  that the world is looking on.

Accused isn't easy listening, but it's a warning that political suppression should never be normalized In his austere way, Lindberg makes the point that somethings cannot, and should not, be romanticized.  Were it not for those who fought for Finland's freedom, who knows what might have happened to the nation under Stalin.  Large parts of  Karelia were occupied by the Soviets, the native population ethnically cleansed. Think about that when you listen to En Saga and Finlandia, which framed this programme.  If the performances were rather routine, the pieces have been done so often that Lintu and his orchestra may have spent rehearsal time on Lindberg and on Helvi Leiviskä  Symphony no 3.  Leiviskä (1902-82)'s symphony dates from 1971. Pleasant enough, but not much to distinguish it from many other works apart from the composer's gender, which doesn't of course reflect in her music. Fair enough. But given that there are so many Finnish composers and musicians with much more to say, the piece was interesting rather than edifying. 

Sunday 11 December 2016

Kaija Saariaho L'amour de loin Met

Sixteen years after its sensational premiere, Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin reached the Met in New York . Listen here on BBC Radio 3 because on repeat you can cut out the mindless Met chatter. and focus on the music.  Orchestrally,  this was ace, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, one of the great specialists in contemporary music.  She's right up there with Nagano and Salonen, who set very high standards indeed.  Saariaho's music is spectral, based on multitonal washes of colour and minutely-defined intervals. It shimmers with light, seemingly transparent, yet blindingly elusive. Searching lines reach into space, cut by sudden flashes of brightness. Long undulating vocal lines suggest Arabic ululation, where sounds carry over long distances. This wavering, tentative legato also suggests medieval supplication, for whatever is happening here, is more spiritual than physical.  Delicate, bird-like textures and tinkling figures on harps and strings, evoke fragility.  This isn't love so much as the idea of love.  Is this a folie à deux (or three) where the characters function as perspectives in an act of wish fulfillment  ? This is one of those operas where meaning lies in abstract, impressionistic sounds. Do we hear medieval instruments behind the shine of modern orchestration ? Repeating figures induce hypnotic trance.  Imagination takes over from logic

Jaufré Rudel is a troubador/poet, for whom courtly love is more ideal than reality.  He sings about a woman so perfect that it seems she can't possibly exist, but it's enough that perfection can be glimpsed. Reality doesn't measure up.  Maybe he'd be fine singing alone, forever in France: certainly he has a loyal audience. Yet the Pilgrim identifies the beloved with Clémence, who lives far away in Tripoli, in Africa, across the ocean.  Is it madness ?  The "Moorish" exoticism in the music intoxicates like a  invisible narcotic fumes.  Love, after all, is an "altered state". But this is not Tristan und Isolde, where strong personalities are transformed by a potion to the horror of those around them.  Everyone in  L'amour de loin, even the Pilgrim and the choruses are complicit in delusion as if it were a communal act of creativity. When Jaufré dies before they can meet, Clémence curses God,  cadences leaping wildly upwards and down. But we're left wondering if these lovers would really find happiness other than in dreams.

It took me a while to adjust to Eric Owen's Jaufré. Although he sang nobly enough, the part suits a lighter, more agile voice, ideally Gerald Finley, with whom Saariaho has worked frequently. Indeed, Finley is giving the premiere of Saariaho's True Fire, (review here) a BBC commission later this week at the Barbican, London, with the BBC SO.  Susanna Phillips sang a penetrating Clémence, a better foil for Owens than a lighter voice like Dawn Upshaw, who was an ideal balance with Finley.  Tamara Mumford sang the Pilgrim rather impressively, adding depth to the role.  But kudos to the Met orchestra, who probably aren't too used to this kind of repertoire, but rose to the occasion with Susanna Mälkki's assured mastery of form.  

L'amour de loin is Saariaho's masterpiece, where orchestral colour and meaning work together extremely well.  It's a beautiful piece which grows on you, if you let yourself luxuriate in its unique dream state.  I was a lot less convinced by Saaariaho's Adriana Mater in 2008, though it was magnificently conducted by Salonen, with Monica Groop who sang the title role in Paris and Helsinki.   The problem there was that the libretto, also by Amin Maalouf, bore little relationship to the music. Potentially, Adriana Mater could have been high drama : in a war zone, a woman has an illegitimate child but rejects the father because he's a weak willed brute.   Saariaho's dreamy water colour harmonies just didn't work.  Another Saariaho/Maalouf collaboration, Le passion de Simone (2006) was more effective. That was based on the writings of Simone Weil, and thus took a form closer to oratorio than to opera.   The orchestral writing was more austere (Simone starved herself to death),  relatively little singing and a prominent part for spoken narrator.   I  didn't go to Emilie (2010) also Saariaho/Maalouf. That was a one person vehicle for Karita Mattila, but caught the broadcast with Camilla Nylund. My review of L'amour de loin at the English National Opera, with Roderick Williams in 2009 is HERE.
Saariaho’s writing works best describing images like the ocean crossing, one of the most brilliant scenes in this production where light images are projected onto waving expanses of silk. It’s less suited to dramatic rationale. Jaufré and The Pilgrim debate endlessly whether he’s mad but the point’s already made in the music. Narrative meaning is further obscured by the distortion of natural rhythm and by dropping single spoken words into lines that are otherwise sung. Richard Stokes’s t
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Love, after all, is an “altered state” where logic doesn’t apply, particularly in the case of idealized troubadour love, where artistic indulgence is as much an impetus as the love object. No wonder Jaufré panics and becomes fatally ill when he crosses the sea to meet Clémence for the first time. Unlike Tristan und Isolde where strong characters are transformed by a potion, to the horror of those around them, everyone in L’amour de loin, even the Pilgrim, is complicit in the dream state, so intensity dissolves in romantic washes of chromatic color.
Saariaho’s writing works best describing images like the ocean crossing, one of the most brilliant scenes in this production where light images are projected onto waving expanses of silk. It’s less suited to dramatic rationale. Jaufré and The Pilgrim debate endlessly whether he’s mad but the point’s already made in the music. Narrative meaning is further obscured by the distortion of natural rhythm and by dropping single spoken words into lines that are otherwise sung. Richard Stokes’s t
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Friday 9 December 2016

Tracking down Blossoms in the Heart

Detective skills :  A photo of the Majestic Theatre, Nathan Road, in Hong Kong, which opened in 1928.  hence the art deco lines in the architecture, very typical of China in that period.  Quite classy! It showed first-run Chinese and western movies. Later when TV competed with movies and Chinese film became even more kung fu than before, the cinema became run down. Eventually it was demolished. Nowadays a flash new Novotel stands on the site, and the area is upmarket yet again.  The movie being shown  is 百花齊放 Blossoms in the Heart which dates the photo to July 1952. I tracked down Blossoms in the Heart, which was made by a small independent Mandarin-language company, Great Wall.  The star was a glamorous singer: Tong Chan  She later starred in the big budget Air Hostess with Grace Chang (Ge Lan) for MPGI studio. Lots on Grace Chang on this site including the timeless Wild Wild Rose (loosely based on Carmen and La Traviata but with social conscience). Please read more here. I can't track down the whole movie, but did find a clip,with its famous song. Below, the programme notes in English and Chinese.

Thursday 8 December 2016

London Sinfonietta : Hans Abrahamsen Simon Holt

Freezing fog on the Thames : suitably atmospheric weather for Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee with the London Sinfonietta at St John's Smith Square, where Abrahamsen's Schnee was heard together witrh Simon Holt's Fool is Hurt and Morgan Hayes' The Kiss.  The London Sinfonietta premiered Schnee as a two-part invention back in 2007, so this concert was a timely reminder that  musicianship is making music. Education programmes tick funding boxes, but, ultimately, excellence in itself "is" education.

Abrahamsen's Schnee is a tightly constructed perpetual motion machine, where ideas interact and regenerate in ever-transforming variations.  An MC Escher puzzle come alive and moving, propelled by its own inventive momentum.  The first famous chords beat quietly, like a metronome, giving shape to the idea of time. This steady beat runs throughout, ever-changing and sometimes subsumed in the flow, but provides a steady pulse. Abramhamsen's use of canon form intensifies the idea of recurring, reiterative  patterns. Imagine Mandelbrot diagrams coming to vivid life!  Schnee operates on several levels. Its intricate mechanisms are like puzzles operating in parallel. A friend remarked that Schnee felt like watching snow fall. But observe ; snow is water,  Nature's own recycling, uniting the oceans and sky.  Each snowflake is unique, and snowfall myriad individual particles operating together. Hence the title "Schnee"is no accident.

Schnee operates as ten canons in five groups, with three intermezzi at non-regular intervals : the first coming between Canons 2a and 2b. Recurring patterns are taken up by different combinations of instruments, and sometimes all together in free flow. I enjoyed the intimacy of this performance, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson. It was good, too, to hear pianist John Constable, one of the founders of the ensemble, which for me added another level to the ideas of time and space in perpetual motion.  Abrahamsen shot to overnight fame with Let Me Tell You (more here) on the basis of Barbara Hannigan's celebrity status, but quite frankly that piece is not at all typical of Abrahamsen's work. It's disturbing that some fans of LMTY don't actually listen to music.  A bit like assuming Valse Triste "is" Sibelius.  But Schnee will endure because it's infinitely better music, and much more distinctive. 

Although Schnee was the big draw, many of us loyal London Sinfonietta fans came for Simon Holt's new work Fool is Hurt (2015). Holt is one of the most original and distinctive British composers. Although the concert didn't follow the order on the printed programme, it was obvious from the very first chords of Fool is Hurt that this was Simon Holt and could not be anyone else. The title comes from a chance remark in a Fellini film, but it's a reference to the Holy Fool, a meme which pops up throughout European culture: an innocent who finds his own way or doesn't but stands for unsullied integrity. In that sense, Fool is Hurt is vintage Holt, a descendant of Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?  Witness to a Snow Miracle and Centauromachy.  Although the Fool in a tarot deck plays a flute, I've often "heard" it as a piccolo, more vulnerable and simple, as the Fool symbolizes. The piccolo is small but its plaintive way, it's surprisingly strong. Michael Cox's piccolo soared heights way above the dark murmurings of the rest of the ensemble, the clarinets moaning malevolence.  They'll never "get" what the piccolo, and the Fool, mean.  

Incidentally,when the London Sinfonietta premiered Abrahamsen's original Schnee in 2007, they paired that with Simon Holt's Sueños, a song cycle with the ominous portent of a black and white Buñuel film, where elusive melodies for flute and viola floated above earthy orchestration featuring accordion and guitar.  Fool is Hurt is a much more sophisticated piece, even quite elegant in its own individualistic way.  It appealed a lot to me because it feels very personal: really good composers, like Holt and Abrahamsen, don't need bluster to prove a point.  

More patterns of time and form: the programme began with a memorial to the late Paul Parkinson, who did much for new music in his work with the British Council.  His Movements from Wind Quintet (1978) were very much of their time, and music is a continuum.  Morgan Hayes Overture :The Kiss (2016) is part of a series of short pieces totalling altogether 20 minutes  Hayes writes that the "kiss" here is "an extended instrumental technique  which occurs in the chaconne-like section ", clarinet and viola leading sections that correlate.  

Please see my other pieces on Hans Abrahamsen, Simon Holt and the London Sinfonietta by using the labels at right and below.  For Abrahamsen's Left, Alone (with the CBSO) see HERE.

Sunday 4 December 2016

Swedish opera : Stenhammar's Ibsen Gillet på Solhaug.

Gillet på Solhaug. Scenbild ur Kungl. Operans uppsättning från 1908. (Musikverket)

 The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammar's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history. Well worth shelling out for, since  Gillet på Solhaug is good listening and the new critical edition, by Anders Wiklund, should establish a reputation for early Swedish opera. Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927),  like most musicians of the time, studied in Berlin and Florence, but worked primarily in Sweden. As a composer, he is extremely well known  for his songs, chamber music and piano works. Gildet på Solhaug, completed in 1893, was his first formal opera. It premiered at the Hoftheater Stuttgart in 1899 and at Stockholm Opera in 1902.  

Gillet på Solhaug begins with a brief introduction not a formal overture, and moves almost immediately to the core of the drama. At a drunken party, Knut Gaesling, a notorious thug, spies Signe, a delicate maiden, and swears he will marry her. His friend, Erik fra Haegge,  agrees, so as far as Knut is concerned the deal,is done whatever Signe might think. Marriage as horse trading. Knut hasn't reckoned on Margit, Signe's strong-willed older sister. In a long and moving soliloquy "Vel var det, han gik", she describes herself: The bride of Solhaug, wealthy but so desperately unhappy she longs for death.  The part is written for a mezzo with good lower resonance, suggesting Margit's inner strength. As Knut sneers, Margit should have been a priest. Signe is written for high soprano, suggesting innocence, the music around her skipping innocently.  Seven years before, Margit and Gudmund Alfsøn had pledged their love. Now he's an outlaw and she's married another man.  Margit tries to hide her feelings but the music says what she can't, but with a clean, pure chastity that fits her character. Gudmund's a harpist: Stenhammar lets his music sing.  

In the second act, the feast at Solhaug is in full swing, drunken guests carousing to the sounds of  Hardanger fiddle, scored for modern orchestra. Stenhammar’s background in writing for voice, choir and orchestra comes to the fore, providing an ironic backdrop to the action unfolding. Knut's machinations are brutal,Gudmund's declaration of love for Signe is thrown into chill perspective. But Margit dominates above all.  Her lines are grave and dignified.  The purity of Margit's line expresses something deep in her soul.  What a pity the English translations are risible. "How should I quiver my magic lay"("Hvor skulde jeg kvade" in Danish, "Wie woll't ich singen" in German) and "I'd fain fling it down to the neckan hard by" ("Skaenke den til nøkken dernede"). Margit's mixing poison. 

A long, mysterious passage, with low woodwinds describes the night scene, when the guests depart.  Suddenly, the pace accelerates. High winds and brass and a swooping string diminuendo suggest alarm.  What is happening in the darkness  ?  In I morgen så drager vel Gudmund herfra, lit by mournful bassoons, Margit sings of a child born blind, whose sight is restored by witchcraft. But the magic can't last: the child falls blind again, but this time with the pain of knowing what he's lost.  In contrast, Bengt's bluff, crude music underlines Margit's torment.  Though they've been married three years. he still thinks he's done her a favour because she once was poor. He's only saved from drinking the poison when news arrives from outside. Knut's defeated, Gudmund's won favour with the King and will marry Signe. Bengt lives, but Margit can't go on. Her final aria "Skaemennede engel, fromme og milde" is powerful :  better to renounce the world than endure a living death.   Wonderful, shimmering string textures, Gudmund and Signe join in with wonder, and a choir in reverent, clean tones, sings about rays of light, emanating from Heaven.  Although photos of early stagings show elaborate furnishings and  sets. Margit's story is, fundamentally, one of renunciation. Hence the purity of Stenhammar’s setting. Wagnerian or Verdian excess would not work quite so well. Margit, for all the intensity of her passions, is essentially a country girl whose instincts lie with purity. 

This performance was conducted by Henrik Schaefer with the Symphony Orchestra of Norrköping and Choruses, recorded in August 2015 in connection with Swedish Radio. Matilda Paulsson sang Margit, Karolina Andersson sang Signe, Per Håkan Precht sang Gudmund, Fredrik Zetterström sang Bengt, Erik Lundh sang Erik and Mathias Zachariassen sang Knut.  Definitely a recommendation! Please also see my piece on Hugo Wolf Das Fest auf Solhaug HERE, where Wolf;s incidental music is blended with a very good modern narration, very much in the spirit of 19th century German story telling drama.

Saturday 3 December 2016

Lost no more : Stravinsky Rimsky-Korsakov Gergiev Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg  This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work. It was a sanctification of the city of St Petersburg itself and its role in shaping modern music.  Hence the speeches on the broadcast, and the sincere emotion shown on the faces of the musicians of the Mariinsky Orchestra as they listened. A male wind player's lower lip wobbled.  A harpist leaned her head on her instrument, to hide genuine tears. We don't often see hard-boiled professionals like that, but the sense of occasion must have been overwhelming.

Stravinsky's Funeral Song was written when Stravinsky heard the news of the death of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in June 1908. Rimsky-Korsakov was Stravinsky's teacher, mentor and close friend: the sorrow Stravinsky must have felt was channelled into the piece, completed in a very short period, and premiered in January 1909. Akthough Stravinsky remebered it fondly, the manuscript was thought lost, until, by chance, renovations to the Mariiinsky's old building in 2014 revealed a cache of uncatalogued papers which included 83 orchestral parts used in the first (and only) performance.  Read Stephen Walsh's account here and listen to Natalya Braginskaya before the broadcast). The parts had lain, unnoticed through the Revolution, after which the city was renamed Leningrad, and subject to one of the most brutal sieges in modern history. Stravinsky's Funeral Song survived the Tsars, the Nazis and the collapse of Communism: Stravinsky's modernism wasn't popular with Stalin. By honouring Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov together in this way, Gergiev, the Mariinsky and the city of St Petersburg are making a powerful statement

Stravinsky's Funeral Song (Chante funèbre) begins with ominous dark chords. It's a slow march, the gloom lit with rustling strings and figures that seem to leap sharply upwards in protest against the gloom.  A solo French horn outlines a melody. The full orchestra joins in, and the music rises almost to crescendo before falling back. Prostrate, but not defeated. The strings surge and a group of horns take up momentum.  A hushed, mysterious near silence, bassoons, double basses, and full flow is restored.  The timpani rumble, and strange lingering chords repeat. Intense anguish, then a very short return to peace, of a kind, with the harps and low winds murmuring.

Though Stravinsky's Funeral Song is short, it's very rich.  Stravinsky's clearly thinking of Rimsky-Korsakov's great orchestral dramas. Thoughtfully, Gergiev preceded it with the Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya , which premiered in the Mariinsky in February 1907, with the same conductor who did the Funeral Song two years later . The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya is an astonishing piece, illuminated with intense colours and vivid imagery.  It describes an idealized city in Old Russia, which, when attacked by the Tatars, is saved by a mystery fog which makes it invisible, though its bells, prancing horses and pipes can be heard,  tantalizingly, in the distance above the lakes and forests.  Do we hear Kitezh in the last, lingering chords of the Funeral Song? The piece is something of a Gergiev trademark, for he's championed it passionately for years. It was a sensational hit when he conducted it in London in 1994. You need the full work for maximum impact, but in this concert, the Suite worked fine, and the performance was intensely moving.

Think on the swirling, lustrous motifs that depict the magic fog that conceals the Invisible City.  then think of Stravinsky's The Firebird, which premiered in Paris in June 1910.  In The Firebird, Stravinsky quotes Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchey the Immortal (1902) which premiered in St Petersburg in 1905.  Indeed The Firebird incorporates two separate legends into one ballet with great effect.  In Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchey an ugly monster has a daughter who holds the secret to his death. She’s just as cold as he is but she falls in love. Kashchey’s music is shrilly angular, evoking his harsh personality as well as the traditional way he’s portrayed, as a skeleton, the symbol of death who cannot actually die. The Storm Knight, on whom the plot pivots, is defined by the wild ostinato. The most inventive music, though, surrounds Kashchey's daughter Kashcheyvna. When she sings, there are echoes of Kundry. Harps and woodwinds seem to caress her voice, so when her iciness melts, we sympathize.

Stravinsky's Firebird inhabits an altogether different plane. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s music embellishes the vocal line, Stravinsky’s floats free. It “is” the drama. Music for dance has to respect certain restraints, so it’s necessarily quite episodic, but Stravinsky integrates the 21 segments so seamlessly that the piece has lived on, immortal. The Firebird is a magical figure which materializes out of the air, leading the Prince to Kashchey’s secret garden. Unlike the ogre, the Prince is kind and sets the bird free. He’s rewarded with a magic feather. This time the Princess and other captives are liberated by altruistic love. It’s purer and more esoteric, and Stravinsky’s music is altogether more abstract, imaginative and inventive. Yet again, the "characters" are defined by music.  The solo part for horn, for example, plays a role in the music like that of a solo dancer. Textures around it need to be clean as they were here, so its beauty is revealed with poignant dignity. 

Although Gergiev has conducted The Firebird so often  he could almost do it on autopilot, on this occasion his focus was so intense that the performance was extraordinary. When Gergiev is this good, he's better than anyone else.  Absolute finesse, the Mariinsky playing barely above the point of audibility, but with magical lustre, then exploding into the wild, demonic passages with the energy and precision of a corps de ballet. Mournful bassoons, exotic clarinets, celli and basses plucked  pizzicato like a choir singing vocalise.  Once again, we're in a magical dimension like the fog that lifted Kitezh beyond mortal ken.  The "Firebird" theme returned, richer and deeper than before, but how does the piece end ?  With strong, emphatic chords repeated again and again. Like in  the Funeral Song, like The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.  Presenting the three pieces together almost seamlessly, Gergiev revealed their connections, and the inner artistic logic that linked the two composers together.   An outstanding experience. Enjoy and marvel : the concert is available on demand for approx 88 days on medici tv.   Please see my numerous other pieces on Stravinsky by following  the link "Stravinsky" below and on the right.

Friday 2 December 2016

State of the art Mahler scholarship

An interview with Renate Stark Voit of the Internationalen Gustav Mahler Geschellschaft on what's happening in Mahler studies HERE.