Monday 30 January 2017

Stéphane Degout : Poulenc Ravel Saariaho

Stéphane Degout (photo: Julien Benhamou)
Stéphane Degout at the Wigmore Hall, London, in Poulenc and Ravel with Cédric Tiberghien, joined by Matteo Cesari (flute) and Alexis Descharmes (cello) for Saariaho. Thanks to rain and traffic chaos, the house wasn't sold out, as it should have been, but those who attended were there because they can recognize genuine quality. We were well rewarded - excellent programme, delivered with idiomatic stylishness. Degout is one of the most distinctive voices of his type around, the ideal Pelléas, for example, and Tiberghien is a star in his own right, as well as song accompanist. Dream Team .

Poulenc and Apollinaire featured, starting with the much loved early songs from Le bestiare (1919) where serious thoughts are disguised beneath playful images. These songs are funny, but also wistful. "Est-ce que la mort vous oublié, poissons de la mélancholie? " So much for the image of the golden carp, cavorting in unthinking bliss.  Apollinaire's elegant insouciance acts like armour plating, protecting the soul from the cruelty of the world.  The door to the hotel in Montparnasse (1945) is decorated with plants that will neither flower nor fruit.  There are "raies sur lesquelles il ne faut pas que l'on marche" - thresholds that must not be crossed.  "O, bon petit poète un peu bête trop blond " . Degout shaped that wonderful short phrase, bringing out its ironic anguish. the poet is pretty, and means well, but will always be a tourist, living on the surface, never connecting to reality. There's much more to these songs than charm, Degout brought out their painful undertones. 

Degout and Tiberghien let Apollinaire himself speak, playing a recording of the poet himself reciting. A tiny fragment, preserved on grainy tape, a ghostly but powerful presence.  "Joy and Melancholy" said Degout, "what Poulenc liked in Apollinaire". Thus we listened to the Calligrammes (1948), epigrammatic miniatures that seem torn from greater dramas beyond our knowledge.  In Aussi bien que les cigales, the piano part evokes the stultifying heat of the Midi. where people seem hypnotized by complacency. "Que vous ne savez pas vous éclairer ni voir" sang Degout with a poignant mix of anger and sorrow.  Lest we, too, be lulled by these moments of direct confrontation, Degout and Tiberghien launched into the livelier Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire (1931)  and Banalités (1940). In photographs,  people pose and smile, masking whatever might really be happening. Apollinaire and Poulenc create snapshots, freeze framing human experience in tiny, concentrated fragments. It's up to the sensitive interpreter to develop them into wider scenarios.  Alors, Avant le cinéma, where the text plays with words like "cinéma", "ciné" and "cinématographie".   Degout paused, briefly, to highlight the irony.  "Aussi, mon Dieu faut-il avoir du goût"   ie, some folks don't care about what's really going on as long as they can be seen to have taste.  

Alexis Descharmes, the cellist, introduced Kaija Saariaho's Cendres (1998) for alto flute, cello and piano. Saariaho's aim in this piece was to create musical tension by "sometimes bringing the instruments as close together as possible in all compositional aspects (such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, colour), sometimes letting each of them express the music in their own most idiomatic way". The result is a well-balanced flow which generates colour and movement. The flute cries: is it the wailing of a wild bird  ? Elaborate patterns in the piano part, the cello part full of invention.  The piece is lucid, yet elusive by turns. Hearing Cendres in context with Poulenc and Apollinaire underlined the idea of listening simultaneously on different levels.  The joy of mixed programmes like this which stretch the listener's experience!   

Then, just as we began to appreciate the emotional sophistication of this programme, Degout and Tiberghien switched away, elusively, to Ravel.  Chansons madécasses (1925-6) made use of the same forces as Cendres, Degout singing withn the same ensemble, so Ravel seemed to evolve out of Cendres as if a strange, exotic creature was being conjured up by magic. Nahandove, "L'oiseau nocturne a comencé ses cris".  Delicious  sensuality, yet also a tease. Degout emphasized the menace in the second song Aoua!, where the innocence of the islanders is betrayed . "Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitants du rivage".  Promises poisoned by slavery and death.  Just as Poulenc ended Calligrammes with a warning about complacency,  Ravel ends with the image of an island girl who doesnt think about much beyond her immediate self.  In  Histoires naturelles (1906),  the peacock, the cricket, the swan , the kingfisher and the guinea-fowl are beautifully observed nature portraits, yet they share something in common with the creatures in Poulenc and Apollinaire's Le bestiare because they are also oblique comments on the human condition.  

Please also see my piece on Poulenc Apollinaire Les Bleuets

Saturday 28 January 2017

Decoding Chinese New Year

Today, the first day of the Lunar New Year, heralds the Year of the Rooster. Let's hope it's not  a cock-up like last year.  To bring good luck, people surround themselves with auspicious images, like plum blossom branches, tangerines, and calligraphy.  Symbolism everywhere !  Fish, fruit, boats and babies - all harbingers of prosperity.  But sometimes the symbolism can be more subtle, particularly in situations where being oblique is safer than being direct.

The poster at left shows infants carrying a jade object. It was made soon after the overthrow of the Qing Emperors in 1911.  The jade object is a ju-i, a sceptre carried by monarchs, symbolizing power.  The phrase "holding the ju-i" means taking responsibility.  So when the toddlers, symbolizing hope, hold the sceptre, the message is "celebrate the new Republic".  A hundred years ago, illiteracy was common, so learning was spread through folk arts like this, with symbolic meaning. New Year posters are a kind of narrative tracking  the dreams of ordinary people, mostly poor and disadvantaged. Fat kids mean there won't be famine, multiple babies mean that some, at least, will survive.  When little girls are depicted, as well as, or in place of boys, the message is the New Woman, a symbol of modern China and equal rights.  Later still, the infants are shown holding cars, spaceships and radios, new symbols of modernization and prosperity.  Of course there are propaganda elements, but for ordinary people such things meant hope. Nowadays people are so materialistic that they forget how things might have felt from the perspective of the poor.

Below a poster which I had trouble "reading" but which a friend decoded. This time the baby sits playing with valuable antique objects, way beyond the reach of humble peasants. Bonsai, porcelain, peonies, lap shek and ornate carved stands - the preserve of the rich and educated. The boy is playing with a tray garden, similar to Japanese symbolic gardens where the universe is depicted in simple sand and stone.  The kid has a red mark on his forehead, a Buddhist mark of good fortune.  What we're seeing then is a celebration of traditional cultural values.  But what's he got by his genitals (in peeing distance) ? As my friend pointed out, a car, a train and a helicopter, hidden among the pavilions.  What do these symbols mean, in this context ?  There were many good reasons for Chinese people to be wary of western and Soviet encroachment.  So perhaps the poster means, "Don't rush to discard your own heritage".

Sadly this poster must have been made before the Red Guards  demanded the abolition of all culture. "Smash the Olds" was their slogan, the denial of the past, and all learning, to serve the political agendas of their present.  "Alt facts" before the term was invented. Some things don't change, east or west. 

Friday 27 January 2017

Henry-Louis de La Grange, a heartfelt personal tribute

Henry-Louis de La Grange (26 May 1924 - 27 January 2017) 
Henry-Louis de La Grange died this morning. He was such a vivacious personality, so full of positive energy, that even though he'd been unwell for a long time, it just doesn't seem possible that he's gone.  His monument will be his encyclopedic scholarship on Gustav Mahler: a lifetime's  devotion in the service of knowledge.  Mahler interpretation would be in the dark ages were it not for HLG's insights into Mahler the man, his ideas and his influences. Yet HLG was also a Renaissance man, fascinated by many subjects, always open to new perspectives. Whole books could be written about him, and his family, yet HLG was always self-effacing. Despite all the honours around him, what meant most to him was receiving his honorary doctorate for services to others. There will be many public tributes, but for me, HLG was a very special person because he always cared about other people, no matter what their standing in the world.  His unselfishness and idealism made him what he was.

HLG's father, Amaury de La Grange, was an early aviator and later a Senator who campaigned for aeronautical innovation. He was a minister in the French government in 1940, detained by the invading Nazis until 1945.  HLG's mother, Emily Sloane, was an American heiress, who threw herself passionately into the artistic milieu of early 20th century Paris.  HLG had a  photograph of a toddler in a sailor suit, hidden behind coats behind his bedroom door. "Man Ray", he said, "my mother commissioned this when Man Ray was unknown and penniless." The kid in the photo was HLG himself.  The family's chateau in the Nord was appropriately bequeathed by HLG's father, becoming in 1962 a pilot training school named after Amaury: the family believed in noblesse oblige, the idea that a person's true worth depends on how life is lived.  Returning to Paris after the war, HLG studied with Alfred Cortot (and became Cortot's executor). His Damascus moment, however, was hearing Mahler's Symphony no 9. From then on, Mahler, though not to the exclusion of other pursuits. Forty year later, the Mediatheque Musicale Mahler acquired the manuscript of the symphony.  It was kept in an underground storeroom, behind many iron security doors. A few of us were invited to view it. Everyone wanted to have a close look, but I held back. My reward was being above to see HLG's face light up with unalloyed bliss as the volume was brought out and the pages  opened.

HLG was a gregarious man, who made everyone feel special: that was part of his charm. But he was also a very private person, who didn't reveal himself easily. On HLG's 80th birthday, he was in his living room when his secretary, Anne, came in.with a phone. "I don't take calls here," he said.  "You will take this one," she said. "It's Elliott". Elliott Carter.  Next thing a jovial voice came from the other end of the line: "How are you doing, young man!"  Some years later, HLG wanted me to meet Elliott Carter so he wrote a letter of introduction, in the old fashioned way. Carter was surrounded by BBC big wigs etc. but he pushed them aside and kissed me heartily. "Any friend of HLG is a friend of mine!" A whole world of graciousness that seems lost today.

Although HLG was a celebrity, there were only 100 people at his 80th birthday party, not at all a big public bash, and these included his personal staff, including his cook.  Guest of honour was Pierre Boulez. They'd been close friends since the late 1940's even before Domaine Musicale days.  Boulez's Mahler came direct from source, long before HLG's books were published, long before Boulez's recordings were made. Neither man was given to surface appearances: both had that French thing for white-hot intellectual intensity, a trait which Mahler himself seems to have had too, even though he wasn't French.  Incidentally, it was at that party, over Le Chatelet. overlooking the Seine, where I caught an equally private side of Boulez. A difficult piece had been commissioned for the occasion, which required great technique. Afterwards, the young musician and I were chatting, half hidden in an alcove. Who should pop up but Boulez, making a point of congratulating the young player and offering encouragement.  No one else was there, but the player and me, we'll never forget.

So much more, but HLG was so private. But I owe him. Without his kindness and support I would not be doing what I'm doing today, in several ways.  He was a father figure to me and a mentor. Sometime back, I was invited to the Paris launch of Jason Starr's film For the Love of Mahler . I couldn't go and the DVD didn't play region 2. But  a dear friend got it for me, and I wept.  It's a wonderfully moving portrait of HLG, exactly as he was, someone so unique that there'll never be anyone like him again.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Aldeburgh Music Festival 2017

The roof at the Britten Studio, Snape

The 2017 Aldeburgh Music Festival marks 70 years of the festival, and 50 years at the Maltings. How time flies. Roger Wright has been Executive Director since September 2015, and management has gone from strength to strength.  This year, there's no Artistic Director as such, though there's a team for Artistic Planning. Snape is now a thriving centre with grand plans.

This year's keynote opera is Britten's A Midsummers Night's Dream, keynote of the first season at Snape, which premiered at Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall in 1960.  The staging will be directed and designed by Netia Jones, so look forward to an imaginative presentation.  Her staging of Oliver Knussen's Sendak operas, Where the Wild Things Are and Higgelty Piggelty Pop! were brilliant - read more about them HEREA Midsummer Night's Dream is magical, ideally suited to  transformation by lighting effects and video  illusion. This could well be the best Aldeburgh opera staging in years.    Soloists include Iestyn Davies, Sophie Bevan, and Matthew Rose.  Ryan Wigglesworth conducts. Tickets will disappear fast - Friends booking starts today, public booking on 7th February.  Don't wait.  On 22 June, there's a screening of the Hollywood film version with music by Erich Korngold, on which please read more HERE. 

La Voix Humaine (15th to 17th June), Poulenc's setting of Cocteau's monodrama, a tour de force for solo soprano, here performed by Claire Booth. Intriguingly, this will take place "in a private house near Snape", a suitably atmospheric setting, in a semi-staging by David Pountney. Another must! Again, please read more HERE.  Britten's "Vaudeville" The Golden Vanity, a morality tale about an outsider at sea, gets a rare outing on 17/6, heard with Britten's The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard  and other new shorts, performed by Camblata, young adult male voices of the National Youth Choir.

Countertenors and Benjamin Britten, who brought the voice type back into prominence. Andrew Watts features at this year's Festival, with Olga Neuwirth's Maudite soit la guerre, A Film Music War Requiem (UK premiere) with other Neuwirth pieces with the London Sinfonietta  on 10/6 followed by Hommage à Klaus Nommi, a "song cycle like no other – an anarchic, neon-lit encounter between Purcell, Weimar cabaret, bubblegum pop and The Wizard of Oz" and "A Countertenor Song Book" on 12/6 featuring works by Bach, Handel, Olga Neuwirth, Colin Matthews, Tippett, Torsten Rauch and Raymond Yiu.  More Neuwirth throughout this year's Festival, enjoy.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra visits Aldeburgh again, this time with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla in two conerts on 17th and 18th June - Beethoven 3, Stravinsky Petroushka, Tchaikovsky, Britten and Jorg Widmann. The man himself is playing clarinet (Mozart) with the Belcea Quartet on 10/6. Oliver Knussen's O Hotortogisu receives its world premiere on 23/6 with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, hopefully with Knussen himself at the baton, together with another new work by Harrison Birtwistle, Chorales from a Toy Shop, and pieces by Stravinsky and Jo Kondo.

Plenty of choral music this year, with Vox Luminis,  EXAUDI and others, including a programme with music by Nishrat Khan. The highlight could well be Vox Luminis Purcell King Arthur on 22/6.  As always, lots of baroque and early music, Lieder and piano music - Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Piotr Andrewski, Huw Watkins and others. The closing concert will be Britten Billy Budd, from Opera North, with Roderick Williams, Alan Oke and Brindley Sherratt.

Quicklink to the programme booklet HERE.

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Metzmacher Elbphilharmonie K A Hartmann Shostakovich

At the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg,  Ingo Metzmacher conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme that might have seemed innocent when it was planned but nowe is disturbingly prescient: Karl Amadeus Hartmann Symphony no 1 "Versuch eines Requiem" with Shostakovich Symphony no 11 "The year 1905", both completed at the height of the Cold War, but with very different perspectives.

The Elbphilhamonie broadcast this concert internationally, online, a harbinger of good things to come. Hamburg invested heavily in the project, realizing that its potential is far greater than for the city alone. While the Philharmonie Berlin is primarily a home for the Berliner Philharmoniker (though other orchestras use it), the Elbphilharmonie could be a game changer, affecting the whole demographic of the business.

This concert also showcased the hall's superb acoustic (read more here).  Anton Webern's Sechs Stücke für grosses Orchester op. 6 (1909) opened the concert. A large orchestra is needed, not for volume, but for extended palette.  Webern sought to express "Klangfarbenmelodie": myriad details of colour and tonality.  Hence the markings "sehr langsam", and "sehr mäßig", unhurried traverses that let the music unfold, revealing subtle shading.  Metzmacher's tempi were by no means slow, but meticulously well judged.  I hardly dared breathe lest the spell be broken. Exquisite playing: a single chord on  harp, muffled drumstrokes, a triplet on bassoon, all perfectly in place and in cohesion. The Viennese are taken for granted in standard repertoire, but here they were revealed as infinitely better musicians than popular cliché might suggest.  On the wide platform of the Elbphilharmonie, there's a lot of space between players, so they're not constrained by being cramped together. They can probably listen to each other for one thing. Sound moves ambiently with this extra "breathing space", quite a distinctive feature of this new auditorium. 

Gerhild Romberger photo Rosa Frank, Vienna Philharmonic

Ingo Metzmacher is the conductor of choice when it comes to K A Hartmann. He's recorded the complete symphonies and with such insight that it's essential listening for anyone interested, not just in Hartmann but also in his period.  Hartmann began this piece in 1936 as a response to the increasing madness of the Third Reich. The first movement is a miserere based on the poem I Sit and Look Out by Walt Whitman. "I sit and look out. upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame"  – men and women suffering, domestically and in war, and tyranny, a famine at sea where sailors cast lots as to who should be killed and eaten that the others might live a little longer.  Yet perhaps the true horror is that the poet can observe but not act. " I sitting, look out upon,/ See, hear, and am silent."  The soloist was Gerhild Romberger, whose powerful, dark timbre articulated suppressed anguish. She's one of the most interesting in her Fach, since she also conveys tenderness and sympathy.  In 2014 I heard her sing O Mensch in Mahler's Symphony no 3 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra,  truly plaintive, as if she were weeping for the death of the old world and giving birth to the new. Hartmann doesn't set every word in the poem, but his orchestration leaves us in no doubt what's happening. An explosive introduction, a fusillade of trumpets, trombone and percussion: horrors intruding on the isolation of the solo voice.

The second movement "Frühling" references Whitman's When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, mourning the assassination of Lincoln and the American Civil War, but the text is oblique, using the image of a falling star to express the idea of loss.  Hartmann's setting is even less wordy, avoiding Whitman's syntax, which is even trickier in German.  Despite the barrage of sound in the introduction and background, what stands out is the passage where the piano plays quietly, its fragile memory evolving into "starlight" in the strings and winds, the wavering line then taken up by soprano trumpets.  Violin and cello dialogue in the opening theme of the third movement, the piano mediating between them. Gradually, other sections in the orchestra join in – oboes, bassoons and tuba and the strings in succession. The tam tam crashes : reminding us that this relative harmony cannot last.

"Tränen " sings Romberger three times, reflecting the first line of Whitman's Tears.  "O, Wer ist dieser Geist?" she cries, and an apparition materializes in the orchestra, brass blaring, strings screaming, timpani crashing. Romberger's lines growling at the bottom of her register, rise suddenly to the top: she isn't fazed, but totally in control. Again, a quiet passage on piano introduces an unearthly mood. "O, Schatten!" sings Romberger with tenderness.  The shade seems stilled in the light of day.  Metzmacher shapes the long orchestral lines so they pulsate with ominous menace,  gathering strength to strike again.  The night falls. Romberger sings "Tränen", as if falling into hypnosis.  Muted bassoons  then screaming chords of alarm.

Muffled snare drums introduce the Epilogue, a prayer "Bitte", and a return to the apocalyptic traumas of the first movement.  Here the text comes from Whitman's Pensive on Her Dead Gazing, where Mother Earth looks upon corpses in the battlefield. No Valkyries, no Valhalla.  The vocal line is intoned, not lyrical, Sprechstimme, not song.  Then, suddenly, Romberger unleashes her full mezzo power. in a long wail of protest.  Her line becomes incantational again.  "O meiner Toten" she sings. Relentless, repeating figures in the orchestra, then a cataclysmic explosion, the echoes of which carry on into silence. I've written about Hartmann many times – search this site – because in so many ways he's more than "just" a composer but a prophet who intuited the trauma of existence and realized that music is can express human decency even in the presence of evil.  His Symphony no 1 (completed in 1955 towards the end of a long career) bears the subtitle "Versuch eines Requiem", towards a Requiem because the horrors aren't over, and may yet get worse than we can possibly imagine.  No time yet for the resolution of a requiem.  Much respect to Metzmacher, who knows Hartmann's music so well and why it is vitally important. Congratulations too, to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Elbphilhamonie for having the courage to do this piece when feel-good superficiality might be more popular.

Hartmann's Symphony no 1 and Shostakovich's Symphony no 11 were completed at about the same time in the mid 1950's, but the two pieces are radically different.  While Shostakovich had to be careful not to annoy the Soviets, he was a public figure, unlike the far more uncompromising Galina Ustvolskaya, who had to play along with the regime to survive. His Symphony no 11 is a public piece, which won him  the Lenin Prize and great popularity.  The subject matter is unashamedly patriotic, commemorating the year 1905 and the December Revolution which was suppressed but entered the political mythology of that Soviet State. There's nothing in principle wrong with propaganda music, but much of the appeal of this symphony lies in the way it plays on emotions to whip up excitement,  and the avoidance of doubt.  Metzmacher and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gave a suitably magnificent account, so vivid and full of drama that you could forget that, at heart, this is cinema music as opposed to, say, reflective art.   Is it a soundtrack to an invisible movie? Perhaps we're supposed to suspend judgement and thrill to the images of violence and turbulence.  But where do such feelings lead? After hearing Hartmann, it's not so easy to blank things out. 

Saturday 21 January 2017

Wigmore Hall Fortepiano Schubert : Georg Nigl Andreas Staier

The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier.  Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song.  In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.  For this recital, he was joined by Georg Nigl, an Austrian baritone, who once was a soprano soloist with the Wiener Sängerknaben. Perhaps that background shaped Nigl's finely detailed approach, which suited Staier's restrained but expressive style.  In a programme focused on mainly early Schubert, the balance was nicely poised.

Early Schubert, though, isn't always showcase material, except perhaps to devotees, who relish it dearly.  Schubert's Andenken D99 (1814) will always be outshone by Beethoven's setting of  the same poem, though on its own terms it's a delicate piece of youthful innocence.  Nigl and Staier presented a set of six Schubert settings of Friedrich Matthisson (1767-1831) which Schubert set between 1813 and 1814, almost certainly being aware of Beethoven' settings of Matthisson.  Schubert's admiration for Beethoven knew no bounds, but, apart from Andenken, he was cautious enough to set poems other than those Beethoven chose. The  Matthisson songs Nigl and Staier performed included lively spook tales like Die Schatten D50, Geistenähe D100 and Der Geistertanz D116, but the rather more sophisticated poetry of Der Abend (Purpur malt die Tannenhügel.) D108 inspired a lyricism which clearly suggests Schubert's idiomatic style.

Georg Nigl, photo: Bernd Uhlig
The Matthisson settings were followed by six settings of Ludwig Heinrich Christoph Hölty (1748-1760), whom Brahms was to set so well. Schubert's Hölty settings include An den Mond D193, but here we heard the lovely Die Mainacht D194 (1815),  Frühlingslied D398 (1816), and Die Knabenzeit D400 (1816) where the instrumental line dances with cheerful vigour. Staier's playing was meticulously lucid, never over-dominant, and responsive to Nigl, who has an attractive voice but may have been unwell. He looked flushed.  We all get sick sometimes, and singers are no different.  
At moments his voice filled out well.  The words "Freud' ist überall" from Erntelied D 424 (1816) soared nicely, suggesting how Nigl might sound when on form.

With Abschied "Über die Berg zieht fort" D475 (1816) after the interval, Nigl's voice at last blossomed. The song is dear to him, as he said after the recital, repeating it with even greater poise as an encore.  The gentle cadences in this song revealed the richness of Nigl's voice at the lower end of his register. Staier shaped the delicate triplets and firm single chords with plangent finesse.  Staier's recording of Schubert's Mayrhofer songs with Christoph Prégardien , made in 2001, is still an essential choice for any Schubert lover, so it was interesting to hear him with Nigl, who, though a baritone,  has a lighter timbre than many.  Apart from Abschied and Nachstück D D672 (1819), Staier and Nigl performed Orest und Tauris D548 (1817) Erlafsee D685 (1817) and Beim Winde D669 (1819).  Staier also recorded Schubert Seidl settings with Prégardien, so it was a delight to hear him again, now with Nigl, in old favourites like Der Wanderer am Mond  D870 (18126) Das Zügenglöcklein D 871 (1826), Am Fester D878 (1826) and Irdisches Glück D 866/4 (1828). These late songs, though technically demanding, are also easier on the ear than some of the early songs, thus always welcome.  

Nigl and Staier concluded with two settings of Franz von Schober, Schubert's raffish companion, Genügsamkeit D143 (1815) and Schiffers Schiedelied D 910 (1827), the driving "ocean waves" in the piano part sounding rather livelier on fortepiano than they would on some keyboards.  Heavy pedalling makes heavy weather ! The singer shouldn't drown. Neither song is a masterpiece, though they are worth knowing. As a friend observed "Genügsamkeit" doesn't mean "contentment" but a double edged feeling of having "enough" to be happy with, though you wouldn't mind having more.

This review also appears in Opera Today

Friday 20 January 2017

Simon Rattle LSO Turnage Mahler Barbican

This was no "ordinary" event! When Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Mark-Anthony Turnage and Mahler at the Barbican, a statement was being made, of much wider significance than the concert itself.  Consider the context.  Though he formally becomes the LSO's Music Director later this year, their association goes way back. Rattle is perhaps the greatest mover and shaker that British music has experienced since Sir Henry Wood.  His whole life has been dedicated to a love of music that goes beyond conducting, and reaches all aspects of cultural experience.

This concert was mega-profile for many reasons. This was the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Remembering 'in memoriam Evan Scofield' , a joint commission between the LSO, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Turnage is one of the great British composers of our time, and also international, given his long association with the US and his interest in jazz.  Remembering was written about a promising young man whose life was cut short by cancer at the age of only 25.  Before he died, however, Scofield asked that those who survived him might have the adventures he missed out on. By scattering his ashes, those who loved him could travel with him where he could not have otherwise gone: imagination transcending the annihilation of death. A metaphor for creativity, whose results live beyond their maker.

Rattle and Turnage, when they were young
Remembering is a long way from the wildness of Greek and the audacity of Anna Nicole. It resembles Frieze, but may well mark a new period in Turnage's development. It's a very personal work, since the composer knew the dedicatee extremely well. Turnage and John Scofield, the jazz guitarist, Evan's father, collaborated on many projects, including Scorched in 2004.  Written in four movements, Remembering resembles a symphony. The first movement is fast and angular, with whips of jerky expression typical  of Turnage's funky jazz-influenced style.  Suddenly the pace speeds up and the movement ends abruptly.  Elongated lines mark the second movement, purposefully dragging as if it were possible to hold back time. Metallic percussion, the cool, pure chill of high flutes.   Quiet. ominous rumblings underpin the sharp protests in the scherzo, which cuts out abruptly, like the previous movements, its mood left hanging in the air.  Cello and viola duet in the finale. The pace is elegaic, deliberate, cut by a moment in which the orchestra suddenly flares up with sudden energy, before retreating into passages of great refinement and beauty.  Muted trumpets, elegant winds: ultimately the mood is transcendence, far from the jerky rhythms of the world. Two "hammerblows" struck on tubular bells.  The third is beyond our ken.

It was in context with Turnage's Remembering that the Mahler 6th performance which followed can be appreciated.  Audiences are used to listening from recordings, but musicians hear from the experience of concert performance.  Rattle has been conducting Mahler for forty years,  and was, indeed, instrumental in bringing Mahler to widespread public attention in this country. The LSO have also been playing Mahler since way back, under numerous different conductors.  On this occasion, Rattle and the LSO approached Mahler through the prism of Turnage's Remembering, which being new,  would have taken more rehearsal and study time.

This "Tragic" was tragic, but also non-tragic. The hammerblow didn't cut him short – yet – and he went on to greater heights.  Andante-Scherzo worked well in this performance, reinforcing the idea of memory.  The "Alma Theme" represents happiness, summer, nature, all those good things that make life worth living. When the chill descends, the iciness is all the more poignant, having looked back on what will not come again. A beautifully poised andante, the LSO playing with a tenderness that takes more skill tio achieve than big, noisy outbursts.  If music can be as sublime as this, it can never be extinguished, it lives on forever, whatever happens to the individuals playing it at any given point in time. Thus the grotesque absurdity of death which the Scherzo represents is but a setback on a longer journey. The fierce driving passages, and the wailing brass give way to a macabre dance,and eventually to much sparer figures from which the Alma theme can be perceived, before the screams start again.  The Finale didn't feel depressing, but why should it have to?  I liked the punch with which Rattle and the LSO concluded : more defiance than defeat. Things are not alright when someone dies, but if you know your Mahler, you know that the end is not the end.

Last week, Rattle and the LSO announced plans for a future which gives prominence to new British music. Given that London might miss out on a world-class concert hall, and that Paris and Berlin might supplant London as a centre for excellence, focusing on British music might be compensation, up to a point.  This season at the Barbican sees several premieres of new British work, Turnage's Remembering being the high-profile first.  But whether our politicians like it or not, classical music is a European thing, a  culture of such richness and depth  that it would be churlish to blank it out in favour of insularity.  As Rattle also said last week, the point is that London concert halls just don't have the capacity to do good music justice. It's not just a question of acoustics.  At the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall, players are squashed together like sardines. What the public doesn't see is that backstage working conditions aren't up to scratch, either.  Read my pieces on why we need a world class concert hall in London HERE. 

This concert was also the first full concert-length live broadcast by the London Symphony Orchestra, which has done podcasts before but nothing quite as high profile as this. Through the Digital Concert Hall. which originated in the Rattle era,  the Berliner Philharmoniker reaches audiences anywhere, breaking down insularity, benefiting all who care about excellence.  Musician-led broadcasts are a good way forward, keeping profits in house and breaking the artistic dominance of third parties.  Perhaps equally important, audiences get to listen the way musicians listen, through whole concerts and in context.  Listen to the Rattle LSO Turnage Mahler concert on medici tv and on the LSO YouTube channel (which flopped out for part of the live broadcast).  

Thursday 19 January 2017

Wigmore Hall Sunday Muriel Herbert songs

An opportunity to hear a very unusual programme this Sunday at the Wigmore Hall. The Royal Academy of Music Song Circle presents the songs of Muriel Herbert (1897-1983),  a composer of promise whose career was restricted by the circumstances of her life and times.  Tickets are still available, HERE.

Although Herbert was born into  a large, musical family, her father died when she was 12, leaving the family in poverty. Her mother fell into depression. Yet Muriel started writing music in her teens and was ambitious enough to get accepted into the Royal College of Music in 1917, then in the grip of Charles Villiers Stanford, a man not given to innovation or to female emancipation. In front of all the other students, Stanford made he play, from sight, a Beethoven piano concerto arranged for two pianos. These days that would be deemed intimidation. Luckily, Herbert knew the arrangement well. Then, as now, talent alone isn't enough : women have to be extra capable simply to be able to be allowed into consideration. After her brief, unhappy marriage ended, Herbert returned to England from France, but not to London and spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity.  Fortunately her daughter, the biographer Claire Tomalin, preserved her manuscripts. In 2008, Herbert's songs were recorded by James Gilchrist, Ailish Tynan and David Owen Norris. This is the CD to get, from which I've taken the biographical information.

The Academy Song Circle (Nika Gorič, Katie Stevenson, Nicholas Mogg, Michael Mofidian, Yi-shing Cheng and Michael Pandya) are performing a selection of Herbert's songs including the lovely How Beautiful is the Night (1918) to a poem by Southey. and the  set of Children's Songs which Herbert wrote in 1938, when her own children were young.   Playful songs, setting a popular contemporary poem : songs about tadpoles, Jack Spratt, gypsies. Escapism, or the multitasking of a mother who wanted to write music but had to earn a living and raise children on her own. Or memories?  While Herbert's mother was giving birth to her, the doctor played Schubert,  Brahms and Schumann on the piano in the parlour.  Herbert set modern poets as well as old , like Robert Bridges When Death to either shall come, (1923) which has an early 20's feel.  

The Academy Song Circle perform Herbert's songs in context.  One of her most beautiful songs  Renouncement,, a setting of a Victorian poet,  was written after Herbert fell in love with Roger Quilter, not realizing that he was gay.  How she must have idolized father figures!  The wistfulness in this song masks genuine, personal anguish.  Herbert met James Joyce in her youth, and set one of his poems too, which isn't on this programme. Quilter's own songs are heard somewhat to Herbert's disadvantage as they are major works, like Love's Philosophy and Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.  Several of Charles Villiers Stanfird's songs are also on this programme, showing that Herbert wasn't dominated by him. He had status, money and power. She didn't. But she did her own thing as best as she was able. 

Mozart 250 Classical Opera Wigmore Hall

Ian Page and Classical Opera reached 1767 in their Mozart 250 project, the ambitious series planned to cover 27 years of Mozart's music and influences. 1767 was the year in which the young Mozart began to write more substantial and ambitious work, so this programme at the Wigmore Hall, London, was a good taster for what is to come later in the series. Read Claire Seymour's review of the concert HERE in Opera Today.  

Coming up next, my review of the latest recital in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert song series,  with Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier

Monday 16 January 2017

Visionary Der fliegende Holländer Kasper Holten

The Flying Dutchman confronts Daland : Johann Reutter and Gregory Frank, photo Heiki Tuuli, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent,  a thoughtful approach to the  deeper levels in the opera. Why is the Dutchman doomed ?  Why does he need the love of a woman to break the curse ?  Wagner without ideas isn't Wagner, and this opera is no sea shanty. Holten connects  Der fliegende Holländer to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even to Parsifal by bringing out sub-texts on artistic creativity and metaphysics.  And what amazing theatre this is, too, and very sensitive to the abstract cues in the music. .

Just as the Overture begins quietly with woodwinds, we encounter The Dutchman  (Johan Reuter)  in a contemplative mood.  He's in a studio, possibly a painter who makes portraits. A woman is lying on his bed. Model, lover or muse, we don't now, but as tempi increase, and the orchestra swells like the ocean, Reuter moves outside, exposed to the elements of the storm that is breaking.  Huge figures loom over him, suggesting storm clouds and crashing waves. Darkened figures scurry past, like the cross- currents in the score. Back in his studio, the Dutchman is confronted by female dancers, who writhe as the music does, tantalizing him yet pulling away.  The Overture reaches a crescendo, then decelerates.  We glimpse the private Dutchman, as Reuter's face contorts in agony. He's having a panic attack. Far more moving, and human, than Dutchman-as-Demon. 

Daland (Gregory Frank) and his crew have survived the storm unscathed.  Unlike The Dutchman, Daland is a public person, who likes status and wealth. Here, he's in what might be an art gallery reception, where the rich pose. They don't actually "do" art. Amidst this sophistication, the Steuermann's song seems unsettling, too sincere and too simple to fit in with the pretentious setting. But so it should be, for the Steersman (Tuomas Katajala)  represents earthier values. Significantly, in the libretto, Daland passes responsibility for his ship to the lowly sailor. "Gefahr ist nicht, doch gut ist's, wenn du wachst."  He doesn't realize that the Dutchman has quietly entered the party unnoticed.  Low winds and brass moan, and suddenly the Dutchman materializes and the crowd clears. "Der Frist is um", sings Reuter.  Gold means nothing. "Ew'ge Vernichtung, nimm mich auf!" with intense agony. The party crowd repeat the phrase, but still don't get the full import.  Daland thinks he's been through the same storm. If only he's paid attention to the music Wagner wrote around the Dutchman!  He doesn't even realize what he might be letting his daughter in for. The Dutchman brings out a portrait. Drums beat in the orchestra, but Daland's laying around with his i-pad, oblivious.

The women are seen spinning, their movements reflecting the circular figures in the music though their cheerful singing parodies the infinitely grimmer cycles the Dutchman has to keep repeating.  Pottery classes are middle class, producing nice objects, not necessarily functional, or artistic. Senta (Camilla Nylund) has her sights on greater things. She grabs the clay on her wheel and squishes it up into a shape that vaguely suggests a penis, reminding us that sexuality, in some form or other, is implicit in the true meaning of this opera.  Shen then dons a white painter suit and paints with huge, dramatic brush strokes as she sings her keynote monologue, without missing a beat or inflection in her singing: quite a feat.  The other women look on, uncomprehending. It's interesting how Wagner sets their chorus as quasi-religious chorale.  Nylund jumps bodily into the painting, getting dirty.  The women grab their bags, preparing to flee. Mary, (Sari Nordqvist), the only woman with individual flair, pays attention.  When Erik (Mika Pojhonen) comes with roses, he flinches.  Hes a land person not someone who faces the open seas.  The Steersman's song is exquisitely beautiful because he lives: Erik's music is sincere, but dreams are the only time he lives in the imagination.
Senta and the Dutchman meet, and gradually their music builds up towards intense passion. In this production, we see their connection grow as the Dutchman sees a painting Senta's created. He takes out his camera, in deep appreciation. The use of a revolving stage allows the action to flow, marking the subtle gradations in their relationship.  Eventually, the Dutchman and Senta end up, embracing tenderly in bed, but almost immediately the Sailors' chorus intrudes upon their dream  This time, the innocent song sounds frantic, the rhythm clipped with near ostinato violence.   Alcohol fuelled sexuality and fundamental antagonism between the living and the dead. This isn't a party in the normal sense.  Senta sleeps on, but the Dutchman has been through this before. The nightmare's coming back, as it does every seven years. The ghostly chorus surround the bed, their faces masked and menacing, flashing their phones, to blind the Dutchman. When he's encircled, they point at him accusingly.  This staging also emphasizes the way the Norwegian chorus parallel the chorus of the Dutchman's crew, and both adapt the Steersman's tune in brutal new ways.  The village women dance with the Dutchman, but their coldness has a Flower Maiden surrealism.  He tries to make sense by painting on them, as an artist does, but he's doomed, pursued by the singing, the music and the storm that's building up. Demonic lighting effects, sharp angles match visuals to music  Modern technology can whip up cosmic storms of truly metaphysical force.

The music stills, for a moment, and the Dutchman wakes. Senta's still there, asleep. Has he broken the curse.  Erik enters, scolding, showing Senta clips of their happy past on his i-phone. .  For the Dutchman, the nightmare descends again. "Verloren! Ach! Verloren! Ewig verlornes Heil!" The Dutchman sets sail, in his mind. Everything's turning in dizzying circles: we see closeups of Reuter's face as if taken from a small handheld, projected across the entire stage.  "Du kennst mich nicht, du ahnst nicht, wer ich bin!". Reality disintegrates. Do we see the Dutchman shoot himself  We know he cannot die. But suddenly we're back in the art gallery, Senta is showing an installation she's made in which the Dutchman's last moments are preserved forever on endless tape loop.  Has the Dutchman sacrificed his dreams to save Senta? Or has Senta sacrificed herself, after all, to redeem him?  Nylund turns away from the crowd, and we see her, "as" Reuter, her features contorted in agony, as if her soul were disintegrating within.  Is the Dutchman free, or has the curse fallen on Senta in his place ? A tantalizing but brilliant ending, which suggests that being creative is a vocation, where vision matters. Sacrifice and redemption, through art.  Holten's  Der fliegende Holländer  is true Wagner.

Watch this production, conducted for the Finnish National Opera by John Fiore, on Opera Platform only until 17th February. When his Wagner Meistersinger reaches London, no doubt the hate mob will rise in fury, but Kasper Holten absolutely deserves respect for his integrity.

Saturday 14 January 2017

Why the City of London backs World Class Music Centre

The City of London Corporation has announced that it will fund the completion of the study into a business case for a new, world class centre for music in London.  This is the feasibility study that was in progress until last November when it was abruptly cut short by the government. The Corporation has pledged £2.5 million  towards the £5.5 million cost of the study, of which £1.25 million has already been spent.  A shortfall, but still a tiny proportion of the £80 million the Corporation spends each year on the arts in London. Why does the Corporation value this project?  Because the arts are a major part of the economy.  In a global market,  Britain needs to stay competitive or fall backward.

Opposition to the world class centre for music reflects long-term British resentment against London.  That reductionist philosophy is embedded so deeply into the Arts Council England's DNA that the organization isn't structurally capable of adapting to change, or of reflecting the realities of the business. Fact is, Britain is a  centralized country and always has been.  For a brief time in the Industrial Revolution, northern regions competed with London but the modern economy is now international.  A report released last year (read more here)  showed that in 2014/15 London generated almost as much tax as the next 37 cities, and contributes 30% of the entire tax income in the nation.  The imbalance can be changed by a political agenda that wrecks London, while hoping that the slack can mysteriously be taken up elsewhere.  Alternatively, policy makers could recognize that London generates income for the entire country, and in an international. technological world this isn't going to disappear overnight.

It's nonsense to suggest that a world class centre for London will only benefit London and tourists. Everyone wins when there is a centre for excellence that generates talent, earns income and raises the nation's profile. The arts are "foreign policy", more effective, in the long term, than guns and bombs.  The Victorians were making political statements when they built the Royal Albert Hall and the museums around it.  At the British Museum, one marvels at the Empire that ripped artefacts from Greece, Egypt and Assyria, and gets the implicit message. London's heritage is everyone's heritage, whether or not they go there themselves. And they can, if they care.

Technology is also changing the way the arts reach potential audiences.  Through its Digital Concert Hall, the Berliner Philharmoniker reaches anyone, anywhere in the world with internet access. Increasingly, other orchestras and opera houses are wising up to the potential of digital marketing. Even the Met is streaming its archives online. The day when record companies controlled things is over.  Now orchestras and opera houses can themselves decide artistic content and feasibility. Smaller organizations can co-operate to spread costs. Profits stay closer to source. When listeners can access the world,  geographic boundaries count for less, while opening up the market for diversity.  Orchestras won't all have to sound the same, to fit the old-style mass market, and repertoire can be less narrow.

Yet it's also imperative to recognize that excellence in the arts is generated when there is a large enough critical mass of talent concentrated together so creative people can stimulate each other. Poets can live as hermits, if they wish, but orchestral musicians, almost by definition, operate communally. Even more so with opera houses, where the creative community is even greater, and costs are contained by keeping people together. It's all very well to prioritize micro-mini ventures in out-of-the-way places, but reality is critical mass. All the technology in the world does not compensate for bringing people together in direct, personal contact. The bigger the group, the wider the creative horizons.  Excellence "is" education. I'ts all very well to suggest Birmingham or Glasgow or whatever, but fact is, London is where it's at.  Shakespeare needed to leave Stratford for London to do what he did.

This week, the Elbphilharmonie opened in Hamburg (read my analysis, not just a review,  here).  The NDR Elphilharmonie Orchester is good, though it's not mega-league.  But with the new hall, it's challenged to excel itself, and every orchestra that can will want to perform there, which will again raise the stakes. The city-state of Hamburg, a state of the German federation in its own right, had vision enough to realize that the arts are an important part  of the economy and of the wider community: an investment for the future on many different levels.  London's orchestras are very good indeed, but they're trapped in inadequate facilities. The acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican are only the tip of the iceberg. Berlin, Paris, St Petersburg and now Hamburg: what about London?  Someone seriously suggested that the British economy would survive Brexit by selling more tea, scones and jam, though such things can be made well elsewhere. Not rocket science!   But unfortunately that small-mindedness reflects the reductionist, self-destructive lack of vision that could suffocate the arts and the economy as a whole. 

Read this too Can post Brexit London survive as Europe's cultural and financial capital ?

Thursday 12 January 2017

Game changer ! Elbphilharmonie grand opening

Das Eröffnungskonzert der Elbphilharmonie, the opening concert of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. The building looms like a giant ship on a promontory on the harbour: a reminder of Hamburg's maritime and commercial heritage. The lower floors match surrounding buildings, while the upper floors and roof reflect the skie : an inspired concept in architectural terms.  But what really makes the Elbphilharmonie interesting is that it's a game changer in many ways, with the potential to transform the whole way the European music business operates.  

"Freude" said the grandees making speeches, which is significant, for great art is inspired by joy, not small=minded negativity. The creative genius of Beethoven stood  at the start and finish of this communal celebration, with the Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus op 43 and the sublime Symphony no 9.  In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to empower men, an act which symbolizes enlightenment. That's why the arts matter. They generate creativity and, with that, the enthusiasm that generates change in many things, including economic regeneration. This new hall is a landmark that could challenge the dominance of Berlin and Paris. Not for nothing, the concert honoured Johannes Brahms, Hamburg's native son, who lived in Vienna, but remained, at heart, solidly North German.  In Britain, we've no way to compete, since British arts policy favours micro-endeavour. The fact is, excellence needs vision, and commitment.  The long-term benefits to the nation are infinitely greater than can be measured in simple terms.  The drive that went into making Hamburg the major port that it is, is the kind of drive we need in the arts.

Thomas Hengelbrock and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester chose a programme that demonstrated what the new building can do. The platform, larger than usual, nestles surrounded by different tiers of seating, rather like Berlin and Paris, so sound resonates more evenly than in conventional coffin-shaped halls.  Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Photoptosis (1968) tested the acoustic to the limit. Scored for a very large orchestra, the piece can be very loud indeed, but here what struck me most was the richness of sound, not the volume. The big climaxes are carefully constructed, with myriad layers of detail, some so subtle they can get lost. Yet in this hall, even the most refined components can be heard and relished.  Suddenly, the hall was plunged into darkness, small rows of lights shining from the dense gloom like stars. The plangent strains of a Praetorius motet rang out, as if being heard across the centuries. In a split second, the 16th and the 20th century connected. Also, from an eyrie above the platform, the orchestra's principal oboe played Pan, from Britten's Six Metamorphoses from Ovid op 49. Philippe Jaroussky sang Italian baroque airs, accompanied by harp, from a position above the stage, the clear, pure beauty of his voice carrying effortlessly round the large auditorium., In one of the interval clips, he's seen testing the acoustic by exploring with his voice as he walks around.  Then, Messiaen and Wagner, sounding clear and crisp. What a joy it must be for an orchestra to play in these surroundings, especially as the off-stage facilities are luxe class compared to many less generous venues. The best orchestras will now want to visit Hamburg: this superb acoustic will lift the game for everyone. Read more HERE about the technical aspects that make the acoustics in the auditorium.

For this grand opening gala, the whole Philharmonie building exterior became the backdrop for a spectacular light show. This, too, made a statement, since the light show would have been visible across the harbour. The Elbphilharmonie light show could become a feature of Hamburg's civic life, just like the way Hong Kong skyscrapers become a gigantic canvas for illuminations during the Christmas season (where the flat outside wall of the main local concert hall is the focus of a light show)  The arts aren't just for toffs. Involving the wider community outside the concert hall is a form of outreach and education without distracting from the main business of music making.  Indeed, excellence "is" education. It opens up ears and minds. 

This programme also featured Wolfgang Rihm, billed as"Germany's greatest living composer", though he couldn't attend so Hengelbrock raised a placard with Rihm's name on it , a nice humorous touch.  Rihm, Zimmermann and Rolf Liebermann, together with Mendelssohn and Brahms, Wagner and Beethoven: another point being made, that audiences can cope with diversity without having to be coddled. There are other halls in the new Philharmonie, better suited to smaller ensembles and chamber music. There's another concert on Sunday which will also be broadcast. Click on photo at right to see the building in cross-section. Yet another reason why the Elbphilharmonie is a game changer : It represents a new way of bringing music to audiences. HD was a start, but stymied because it depended on cinema distributors who didn't make enough money to promote it. But modern technology means that audiences can listen any time they want online, wherever they may be.  Investing in orchestra-led, or opera-house led  streaming means that those who make music get the full benefits of marketing, and also have greater control over artistic content.  Can record companies still control the market and create instant media darlings when there's good music around for those who care about quality as opposed to celebrity  No more provincial boundaries. And so the concert ended with the Ode to Joy, Beethoven 9, Bryn Terfel, Pavol Breslik, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, the NDR Choir and the Choir of Bayerischen Rundfunks.  "Alle Menschen wurden Bruder"!" we've heard that thousands of times, but this time it felt fresh and real.

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Imperial princes, building snowmen

Winter scene in the Imperial Palace, Beijing : click on the photo and move your cursor to enlarge to appreciate the detail. The original scroll was three metres tall, painted with meticulous detail.  It was painted by Giuseppe  Castiglione (1688-1766) aka Lian Shi Ning 郎世寧;. Castiglione came from an aristocratic Italian family but became a Jesuit missionary and was sent toi China , arriving in 1715. In line with Jesuit practice, he immersed himself in Chinese culture. Unlike other missionary groups, the Jesuits believed in winning hearts and minds, however long that might take rather than conversion by force.  Castiglione served at the courts of three emperors of the Qing dynasty,  the Kanghsi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. emperors. Using Chinese materials, Castiglione painted in a blend of Chinese and western styles. He did portraits of his emperors seated on their thrones in formal Chinese style, but also posed in more western ways. His portrait of the Emperor Qian Long for example, shows the monarch astride a horse, almost exactly as if he were Louis XV, his almost exact contemporary. Indeed of the two, Qianlong probably outshone Louis.  In the painting above, we see the imperial children, playing in the palace gardens, like kids would do anywhere. They're building a snowman. But being young princes, their snowman is a Chinese lion.

Monday 9 January 2017

Der fliegende Holländer Madrid Kwangchul Youn

Wagner Der fliegende Holländer from the Teatro Real in Madrid, with Kwangchul Youn as Daland, Samuel Youn as the Dutchman, Ingela Brimberg, Nikolai Schukoff, Kai Rüütel and Benjamin Bruns,  conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado, recorded live 23/12 and now on Culturebox, To read about the visionary Kasper Holten Flying Dutchman at the Finnish National Opera, please click HERE

The presence of Kwangchul Youn and Samuel Youn (not related) made this performance particularly moving. Kwangchul Youn is an Elder Statesman, a Wagnerian of commanding presence and great depth,  while the younger Samuel Youn represents the next generation.  In the context of this opera, this role reversal brought added piquancy to the inter-relationship between The Dutchman and Daland,  The Dutchman has roamed the seas for hundreds of years, and in the process has learned things no mortal should eperience. Daland, with his fixation on worldly goods, cannot comprehend the metaphysical.  What will happen to Daland after he loses his daughter, his greatest treasure?  Will he learn from the Dutchman that there are things in this world and beyond that matter more than status and success.  One measure of really good performances is their ability to generate deeper insight into the meaning of the opera.  Youn and Youn did this themselves by the dynamics between them without changing a word and without help from the staging.  That's true artistry, and it lifts this performance well above routine. 

It's a fallacy that performances need to be ranked: the vast majority are neither very very bad nor very very good  Only pseuds "need" to rank things. It's much more important to identify the good and less good within a performance.  This one was an interesting mix. Kwanchul Youn carried the show; Samuel Youn complementing him well,  There were some very good cameos indeed, especially Kai Rüütel as Mary, so distinctive that her voice alone commanded presence, though she was costumed in unflattering drabness.  She made me understand why Wagner, who didn't waste time on triviality,   made the part significant.  Mary is a leader, not a conformist, and protects Senta though Senta lets down the other women because she doesn't work  As I listened to Rüütel 's firmly assertive yet womanly singing, I thought of Mary and Martha in the gospel of St Luke.  Martha works hard, while Mary dreams.  But Mary focuses on spiritual ideals. When Senta (Ingela Brimberg) clings to the portrait  of the Dutchman, she hopes to save him from his fate, A rather bigger responsibility than spinning. In this production, Rüütel is seen polishing a light casing, then opening it uo to reveal a light bulb.  Such a telling detail!

This production, by Alex Ollé and La Fura dels Baus premiered in 2014 in Lyon, and bears the hallmark of the Fura dels Baus style. Massive structures, dwarfing the characters but providing dramatic visual impact, which in an opera like  Der fliegende Holländer is fundamental, for the Dutchman's ship is much more than a ship. It looms over the villagers like a malign presence. Like the storm it's a creation from hell, not a normal part of Nature.  Daland and his men are seen walking down an extremely steep ladder whose steps are so far apart they probably won't meet industrial safety standard.s The singers seemed to descend with uncertainity, and for good reason: they are in a dangerous situation. A compartment high above the stage is lit to reveal the Dutchman's crew, high above the mortal plane. 

In another typical Fura dels Baus touch, the designs by Urs Schönebaum and  Alfons Flores are monumental but simple, detail added by changes of light and video projections. These are ideally suited to an opera like this where scenes like the storm and the ghost ship are hard to stage by conventional means.  These waves, and the flashes of lightning, were so vivid that they were discomforting. Exactly as they should be, in dramatic terms. Some scenes were less successful, such as the depiction of the women in vaguely Indian or Middle Eastern garb. There's no reason why the action needs to take place in Norway, or Scotland, or wherever, but there's not a whole lot of point transposing it somewhere largely irrelevant except, perhaps, to bring in the idea of the women working on the beach, close to the sea like their menfolk.   The party scene worked rather better, since the singers and chorus "danced" with formalized gestures, the men  enacting movements like launching sails, and the women more fluttery gestures, like spinning.  In contrast, the ghostly sailors don't do anything: they just stand still, apart from one another, lit in mysterious blue.  Like Senta, separate from her peers, thinking, instead of working.

The final scene was particularly effective : demonic shifts of light and texture, obscuring normal boundaries of form,  the undulating sand dunes disintegrating in images of the sea, reflecting the turbulence in the music. Senta puts her hand into the sand, then covers her face in white, powdery paste so that she ends up looking like the Dutchman.  A wonderfully ambiguous ending: Senta's body seems to dissolve in the sea, if it is the sea, or something more demonic. Is the Dutchman redeemed, or is Senta's sacrifice in  vain?  Pablo Heras-Casado conducted enthusiastically. If the brass sounded a bit strange, and the percussion hollow, that worked well in connection with meaning.

Sunday 8 January 2017

Barbican Spring programme picks

At last, green shoots of Spring emerging from the gloom. The Barbican Spring schedule offers plenty of hope

First off from 13-15 January, Simon Rattle conducts György Ligeti Le Grand Macabre, with the LSO and a strong cast headed by Peter Hoare as Piet the Pot. I love Ligeti's quirky music and enjoyed the ENO production by Alex Ollé and Las furas del Baus back in 2009  Read more here   That was the one with the giant woman whose body "was" the stage.  Le Grand Macabre is as frustrating as it is inventive, so staging it takes some doing  But I'm not sure what Peter Sellars will do to it  No doubt it attracts the mega-trendy crowd as it's selling fast though very expensive. (ROH balcony prices)  On 19/1, however, and just as high profile, Rattle is conducting  Mahler Symphony no 6 together with the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Remembering 'in memoriam Evan Scofield'.  This is a keynote concert, which will also be streamed on the LSO website, a wonderful development, since it brings the orchestra to the world

Another British music world premiere the next day, 20/1, Philip Cashian's  The Book of Ingenious Devices, conducted by Oliver Knussen, together with Strauss Macbeth and Elgar Falstaff  An intriguing programme in true Ollie style – will Cashian's piece have Shakespearean connections?  Huw Watkins is the soloist so presumably it's a piano concerto of some sort. A big theme this season is "Russian Revolutionaries",  so plenty of Shostakovich, but more unusually, Galina Ustvolskaya's Symphony no 2 with the Melos Ensemble at LSO St Luke's on 21/1  That weekend, a Philip Glass Total Immersion with better choices than some recent Total Immersions.

All ears and eyes alert for Jonas Kaufmann's four-day residency at the Barbican at the beginning of February That's been sold out for months, so let's hope he will be well enough   Wagner, Strauss (Vier letzte Lieder, nach!)  he's also doing an "in conversation".  Sakari Oramo with the BBCSO and Antonio Pappano with the LSO, both interesting non standard programmes, and Daniel Harding with the LSO on 15/1 with Rachmaninov Symphony no 2 and another Mark-Anthony Turnage premiere,  Håkan with dedicatee Håkan Hardenberger as soloist.

Yet another British composer premiere, Nicola LeFanu's The Crimson Bird for soprano (Rachel Nicholls) and the LSO, conducted by Ilan Volkov on 17/2 and  a Detlev Glanert premiere on 3/3 with Oramo and the BBC SO.  An extended Nash Ensemble residency at LSO St Lukes (lots of RVW chamber music)  and Andreas Scholl on 14/3  Then two concerts with Fabio Luisi on 16th and 19th March I'm opting for the second, with Brahms's German Requiem

François-Xavier Roth starts another After Romanticism series on 30/3 with the LSO - Debussy Jeux, Bartok Piano Concerto no 3 and Mahler Symphony no 1. Then a three-concert series with the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert - John Adams, Mahler, and the European premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Cello Concerto.  Janine Jansen, Murray Perahia and Mariss Jansens with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and a keynote Dvořák Requiem on 13/4 with Jiří Bělohlávek, the BBC SO, the BBC Symphony Chorus, Brindley Sherratt, Richard Samek, Jennifer Johnston and Katerina Kněžíková   Then Easter is upon us!

Friday 6 January 2017

Nothing Venture - Surreal Nostalgia England 1948

Nothing Venture, NOT "nothing ventured". What is a "nothing" venture ?  Perhaps the title is meant to be ironic, since the film is a  fantasy. An old man is writing, correcting his words as he goes "It was a lovely day in June, when three boys, funnily enough  named Tom, Dick and Harry were walking across the sand between Penforth and Bywater, looking for adventure"  Out of nowhere the boys pop up. "We heard you were writing a new book and thought you'd like to include us in it again".  So this is a surreal world which exists in the imagination, as if frozen forever in time. So much for the sentimental nostalgia, laid on with a shovel.  It's not reality, even though it resembles an idealized England that a fortunate few were lucky enough to experience, for a time. This film was released in 1948 by British Lion and Elstree Independent, and made in Viking Studios of Kensington. None of which now exist  But boys of a certain vintage will swoon, transported back to childhoods long past. Delicious escapist dreams!

Tom, Dick and Harry were acted by "The Artemus Boys", Philip, Peter and Jackie, who may or may not have been brothers, since they don't look genetically related, and speak with wildly differing  accents  One is  definitely northern, with vowels as wide as the horizon, though the story is set somewhere on the south coast (Penforth and Bywater don't exist in the same vicinity). But Tom, Dick and Harry cycle off on gearless bikes, through a quaint old town, through fields and  up steep hills, to a tower with a view over several counties, approached through Norfolk Island pines   The boys overhear some men discussing "the Boss"  Just as villains in Enid Blyton are easy to spot because they're not white, these men must be villains because they drive a big car. What are they doing in this remote spot?  Is Michael, a "flatfoot" in a trench coat on their trail?  If so, why is he whistling loudly so all can hear ?  Fortuitously, a lady gets knocked off her horse and Michael drives her and the boys back to her place, Diana's extremely wealthy, and a horse breeder, but she and Michael, rather too posh to be a cop, hit it off "This isn't going to turn into a love story? says one of the boys squeamishly.

Michael, Diana and the boys head off to SoutHEMpton (Diana's accent),stopping off first in a fancy hotel,with a dance band. The two older boys wear tuxes They can''t order food – the menu's in French.  The younger boy gets a job as a busboy to spy on the villains, who are staying in the hotel. Next day, they're down at the docks, where the Queen Mary is docking. Great scene, artistically shot, with music that sounds like parody Elgar though it's the best part of the whole soundtrack  The villains are smuggling a secret weapon. The stiff upper lip earnestness is a satire on the militaristic mindset left over from the war that's just ended, but lives on in "boy's magazines". Hence big words are spoken syllable by syllable with histrionic exaggeration.  Diana doesn't turn up at a race meeting but her horse box does. She's been kidnapped by the villains, one of whom has "ways of making people talk", because he ran a concentration camp during the war (I kid you not!)  Diana's Dad is a scientist who knows secret inventions. Luckily one of the boys followed the horsebox and scribbles a clue in chalk for the others to find   Diana and Dad head to a secret underground chamber beneath the tower   Daddy blows up the secret weapon and Diana embraces Michael. "It did turn out a love story after all"  The author reappears "Good bye old chaps, perhaps we'll meet again" The boys are sen walking back towards the horizon at the beach, whence they came.

The Artemus boys made one previous film The Great  Escapade in 1947 for the same director, John Baxter, with a script by the same writer, Geoffrey Orme, and then seem to have disappeared   Perhaps they're still around, in their 80's but they'll remain forever young in Nothing Venture.. The eldest boy  had star quality, and was very personable.  Baxter and Orme had rather longer careers, Orme writing a segment for Dr Who, in the 60's.  I loved Nothing Venture because of its tongue in cheek good humour, and the shots of a lost England,where people cycle through quaint countryside, and class divisions are entrenched, though the Artemus boys, Diana and Michael break down stereotypes  The music was by Kennedy Russell, who wrote for film. Extra ! A genealogist friend ran a search and found that there haven't been any people named "Artemus" in the UK since the mid 19th century. So, clearly a stage entity.  Pity, it would be nice to know what became of them, esp the bright one. (Subsequent thinking : Artemus is almost certainly a fake name because the boys aren't brothers and two of them clearly aren't thespian material. So who was the talented one ? Someone who can act liie should have been in movies. Compare photos of Richard Attenborough in his youth. Think about it !)