Wednesday 31 May 2017

Britten in Bergen : Peter Grimes, Edward Gardner

Benjamin Britten in Bergen with Edward Gardner conducting Peter Grimes with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra livestreamed from Norway.  Stuart Skelton, the Grimes of  choice these days, headed an ideal cast (details here) and singers from the Bergen Opera.  Is livestream the future?  Not everyone wants to watch opera in a cinema, and most serious listeners have good-quality sound systems linked to their home PCs.  HD is dead. Opera companies and orchestras can now find ways of presenting themselves direct to audiences beyond their physical location.  This livestream didn't repeat, because livestream isn't cheap, but the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is bringing Peter Grimes to Edinburgh this August. It should be the highlight of this year's Edinburgh International Festival, if what we heard tonight is anything to go by.

When "Sexy Ed" Gardner left the ENO for Bergen, many of his fans wept openly, but it was a wise move on his part, since until that time, his career had been relatively insular. He needed to branch out, both in terms of international exposure and in terms of repertoire. And the Bergen Philharmonic, one of the oldest orchestras in Europe, needed livening up.  A match made in Heaven?  Bergen is sounding better than it has in years, much sparkier and classier, without losing a distinctive flavour.  The cast list was superb - possibly one of the best that can be put together at present - so no surprises there.

But what impressed me even more was the Bergen Philharmonic. This Peter Grimes seemed to come to them intuitively: they don't at all have an "English" sound, but that's all to the good.   Though Britten was an Englishman through and through, his music is far too individual to fit pigeonholes.  This Peter Grimes sounded like a force of Nature, surging like a storm blowing across the North Sea. You could feel the pull of the ocean in this playing.  The Bergeners seem to connect  instinctively to how unseen forces might control destiny, just as nature controls tides, winds and waves.  Seamen, like Grimes, understand these things, or they don't survive. Grimes doesn't survive, but what happens to him is more than the pettiness of a small provincial community. When he sails out alone, and tips his boat, he's offering himself in a kind of sacrificial atonement.  He may have been abused himself as a boy, forced into a trade he might not have chosen.  His music suggests that there's a sensitive, poetic side to his personality he may have had to repress, even had other choices been open to him.   Skelton's been singing the part so long and so well that  he can convey Grimes's personality in myriad nuances. But with the Bergen Philharmonic around him, it's as if the Furies themselves were swirkling about him, invisible to us, but ringing in his head.  His "Now the Great Bear and Plieades" was beautiful, but his long Act Three monologue was haunted, he and the orchestra observing the subtle, but important changes as Grimes's mind begins to unravel.

Now we know why Ellen Orford sets such store in knitting. She needs control, every bit as much as Mrs Sedley and Auntie do in their own ways. Ellen isn't as nice as she thinks she is.  Notice how Britten writes Grand Opera parody into her music, when she decides to shelter the child from Hobson the carrier. On some level, Ellen is a diva, a heroine in her own mind, trapped in a small town with no prospects, like everyone else in this claustrophobic community.  Giselle Allen sings well, but Ellen is, like Grimes, illuminated by the music around her.

 Because Peter Grimes was Britten's first mature opera, and probably Britain's first mature opera, too, it's tempting think of it primarily as an opera.  But the orchestral writing is magnificent and highly inventive: not for nothing that the Sea Interludes work so well as stand-alone.  Britten knew the music of his time, and the operas of Alban Berg in particular, where orchestral passages shape the narrative.  In Peter Grimes, the orchestration is huge in comparison to Britten's later works, knitting  the opera together, in a sense.  The swells and surges are huge, but not significantly fulsome in the way that, say, The Flying Dutchman is cataclysmic.  Britten, being English, is too polite. Not all that many detect the way Britten used quirky humour to subvert convention.   But it's there, all right. Please read my pieces on Gloriana HERE and on Albert Herring HERE. Britten is oblique : his targets don't know when they're being got at. 

Gardner "gets" Britten, so he brought out the undercurrents.  Perhaps there is prostitution in places like Aldeburgh, but it's pretty discreet.  The music in the pub echoes American dance-hall music, which Britten knew from his sojourn in America, and would have included for a purpose. Peter Grimes isn't really set in 18th-century or even 19th-century Suffolk, whatever the origins of the tale.  Auntie, her customers and her Nieces sell out, but Peter Grimes is the one character who doesn't lose his integrity, warped as he may be. Grimes doesn't do games. And so he has to die.

Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic players are magnificent in the big surging swells. Wonderful percussion, the timpani rumbling like thunder.  Thor, beating his hammer. And why not? The Vikings roamed the North Sea.  Their genes must be part of coastal DNA. Baleful horns, moaning bassoons.   But the quieter passages were even more revealing.  Britten observed the world around him. We can hear "star" music and delicate diminuendoes that glow like phosphoresence over the water at night, or the sparkle of light on a Sunday morning. Outstanding playing from the lead violists, who got a well-deserved curtain call on her own. Beautiful harp playing,and strings that kept together smoothly enough, while still sounding individual and lively, like the choruses, where the variety of voices adds vividness to the impact.

Please see my other posts on Britten, on Norway, on Peter Grimes, Stuart Skelton  Roderick Williams and James Gilchrisdt etc by follwingbthe labels below

Monday 29 May 2017

Joan of Arc, they are calling you !

Today marks the 586th anniversary of the death of Joan of Arc, burned at the stake. This year also marks the centenary of the song Joan of Arc, They are Calling You, used in a Broadway musical. Presumably the show was patriotic, since the United States entered the First World War, on the side of the French, in April 1917.

The composer was Jack Wells, also known as John Barnes Wells (1880-1935), a tenor who appeared in music hall and on early recordings.  He was involved with the famous 1903 production of The Wizard of Oz, though in what capacity, I don't know. A composite recording is available on the market.  This Wizard of Oz is apparently a lot closer to the original L Frank Baum novel than the Hollywood movie with Judy Garland (one of my favourite films of all time).  As music, the song has references to the Marsellaise but sugared up. The song is too naive to represent the fearless Marianne.  Listen to that refrain "Joan of Arc ! Joan of Arc! ".As if she were a boulevardier ! The words are by Alfred Bryan and Willie Weston. The text is such doggerel, it would be offensive if the reality had not been so serious.  But then, that sort of sentimentality was popular taste 100 years ago, and the intentions were sincere.. Please see my numerous other posts on Joan of Arc  (Braunfels, Honneger, Dreyer etc) by clicking on the label Joan of Arc below.

While you are sleeping
Your France is weeping
Wake from your dreams, Maid of France !
Her heart is bleeding, are you unheeding,
Come with the flame in your glance !
Through the gates of heaven, with your sword in hand,
Come your legions to command.

Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc,
Do your eyes, from the skies, see the foe?
Don't you see the drooping fleur-de-lis
Can't you hear the tears of Normandy?
Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc,
Let your spirit guide us through.
Come lead your France to victory;
Joan of Arc, they are calling you !

Alsace is sighing, Lorraine is crying,
Their Mother France looks to you
Persons at Verdun, bearing the burden
Pray for your coming anew
At the gates of heaven, do they bar your way?
Those that passed through yesterday.

Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc........


Sunday 28 May 2017

Race, Religion and Whaling : Down to the Sea in Ships

Down to the Sea in Ships (1922, Elmer Clifton) is famous because it made Clara Bow a star, but it's even more interesting as a semi-historical document.  It's also a surprisngly subversive commentary on race, religion and hypocrisy.

When this film was made whaling in tall ships was still an important industry, and many of the shots are authentic, shot with local whalers, who still practised their trade. This film is much more than a movie. The plot is melodrama, but plays out against a background which would be impossible to replicate today.  Though the story is set in the mid-nineteenth century (the Gold Rush is news), those times were living memory to many people 100 years ago. Just as Nosferatu (1921 - read more here) depicts a Germany of the recent past which was soon to vanish, So when we look at the whalers in their small boats, struggling with the ocean, we aren't watching stunt men, but men who really did know how to ride the waves.  There are shots where we can see whole herds of whales, and porpoises, swimming freely. Possibly not so easy to envisage today.  Down to the Sea in Ships is like a last, loving snapshot of a world we might reconstruct but can never experience. The best scenes, shot on the high seas, are grainy and not posed for dramatic effect, but they were made when motion picture technology was barely 25 years old.  Special credits then, to the two photographers, A G Penrod and Paul H Allen, "who, in small boats, stood by their cameras, at the risk of their lives, to film the fighting whales".  But there's even more to this film than meets the eye: its sub-texts on social issues are way ahead of its time. 

Down to the Sea in Ships was made by "The Whaling Film Corporation", specially set up for the purpose and shot in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the premiere took place. At the time, cinema wasn't dominated by big studios but by small independents, so this film is also a record of a film making model completely different to Hollywood, much closer to European art film of the period.  The director/producer was Elmer Clifton (1890-1949) who worked with D W Griffith, though in this film he shows a very different approach to movie-making.  

This film is not studio spectacular but direct engagement with Nature.  Nowadays there'd be warnings that "no real animals were harmed in filming". Not so in 1922. The massive sperm whale the whalers kill was probably a real whale.  No way the technology of the time was fancy enough to fake a whale like this. It fights back, flipping over one of the boats. The men fall into the sea but look as though they've done that before.  When the whale pulls three boats and their crews (weighing 6000 tons the subtitles tell us) the whale wasn't acting.  There are shots of blubber being stripped off the carcass, buckets filled with sperm and so on, lovingly captured in detail.  Presumably that's what happened : the whalers had to make a living and weren't paid much by the film company.  So if the filming is grainy, and the shots unposed, without the special effects we expect today, we shouldn't complain.  Although some scenes are clearly staged, technology of the time wasn't advanced enough to fake all that we see. The whaling ship, with three masts and nine sails, was almost certainly authentic. As the credits say "The brawny boatsteerer still throws the hand harpoon".  Though the hero is cast as boatsteerer, the man doing the job was evidently the real thing. 

It's interesting, then, hat the close knit community depicted is staunchly Quaker, though Quakers eschew killing.  I had a hard time squaring that with hunting whales almost to extinction, but I guess that's because we live in more enlightened times and don't depend on whales for fuel, bones and oil.  Quakers were whalers for economic reasons.  Captain Morgan is a retired whaleman, ramrod straight and unbending, and rich.  A bit of a tyrant too, who insists his daughter Patience cannot marry outside the faith or profession.  He's so uptight he complains that Patience's wedding shawl is "gay" because it has a fringe.  Being pig-headed is his downfall, though he doesn't live to find out.  For he's easily fooled.  Two men plot to steal his ships. One is Finner, a ne'er do well, the other is Siggs, from a "nearby city".

Siggs is seen dressed in Chinese clothes with Chinese antiques.  "You're almost white" says Finner.   Down to the sea in Ships is a whole lot less innocent than you'd expect.  Although race laws prevailed in the United States and elsewhere, not everyone was racist. Please see my piece  Broken Blossoms : Racist reversal the 1919  film by D W Griffith, Clifton's mentor, which subverts racist stereotypes and was banned in British colonies for fifty years as a result.  Griffith's Birth of a Nation presented the KKK in a good light, demeaning their victims.  But Clifton, who never made it big in Hollywood,  went on to make low-budget independent movies on difficult social issues. As in Broken Blossoms, and other films on race relations like The Cheat : racism and dishonesty (read more here)  fiendish orientals are defined as sex-obsessed maniacs, lusting for white women. The actor playing Siggs leers and grimaces, like a masked demon.  All Siggs has to do to pass as Quaker is wear a Quaker hat and talk thee and thou.  Is he mixed race, (in the 1850's) or is his race a ruse to justify titilliation? .And, in this film,  Finner is even more of a lecher, salivating over Dot,  Morgan's pre-pubescent  orphan granddaughter.  Later he attempts to rape her. (Dot and Finner in the photo below)

Dot is played by Clara Bow then aged 16 and chubby faced.  Captain Morgan cannot understand Dot, who was found floating on a raft when her parents' ship,went down.  Maybe she's not his at all.  She's a forceful whirlwind of a girl, more tomboy than lady, who hangs out with the labourers at the copper works and shamelessly pulls Jimmy's newly grown whiskers. Grandad grew rich from killing animals. Dot confronts men who tease a dog. She gets into fights. Eventually, she dresses as a boy to run off to sea when Jimmy signs on as a whaler.  Bow plays the part so well that she steals the show: the other actors are wooden in comparison.  And what a part it is, so unusual and so daring for its time.  Her more famous It Girl roles are tame stereotypes in comparison.

Patience is a wimp, who still plays with dolls, though she's at least in her 20's.  Siggs prevails on Captain Morgan, who,lets him court Patience. But Dexter, the Boy Next Door, returns from college and he and Patience fall in love. Finner gets Dexter shanghai'd on a whaling ship. Unfortunate term, given the racism in the depiction of Siggs, but a reminder that white men got screwed by a brutal system too.   Finner kills the master of the ship and takes control.  Dot, dressed as a cabin boy defends Jimmy when Finner fights him, and reveal she's a girl.  Finner gets caught molesting her and is locked in a cage. Dexter ends up becoming Boatsteerer, having earned the respect of the crew.  Having caught the big sperm whale (more innuemdo) the ship sails back to New Bedford. That very day, Patience is marrying Siggs, having promised her Dad on his deathbed to do so.  Dexter runs through a thunderstorm to the church, smashing a window, disrupting the ceremony and the decorum of Quaker propriety. Love prevails!  Next year Patience has a baby instead of a doll, and Dot cavorts in a flower strewn meadow with Jimmy. Along the way we see other vignettes of "real" life, like the Black ex-slaves of the Sea Islands, and Tacoma, Patience's First Nation maid, with an uncredited actress who clearly isn't white, and is dressed in Missionary Indian costume.

Thursday 25 May 2017

Sublimated sex : Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie, Oramo BBCSO

Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC SO in Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie at the Barbican,  yesterday. Sandwiched between Bernard Haitink's Mahler and Bruckner concerts this week, tickets didn't sell as well as they should have. Luckily, the  broadcast is on BBC Radio 3 With Cynthia Millar playing the ondes martenot and Steven Osbormne on piano, this was class.  How I wished I hadn't chickened out of the long commute and returned my tickets.  This is an extraordinarily "visual" piece: you can't know it if you haven't, at least once, participated in performance, even if you're just listening.  It's a communal event, like a Pagan Mass.  

One of Sakari Oramo's many strengths is his sense of humour, so this Turangalîla-Symphonie was wonderfully zany, capturing the crazy free spirits in the piece without losing the tension that keeps the whole, sprawling panorama together through ten sections, each clearly distinct.  A vivacious performance, the BBCSO on message and lively.  

The seeds of Turangalîla were planted when Messiaen and Yvonne  Loriod fell desperately in love, but, being strictly religious, they didn't sleep together til they married decades later.  Turangalîla-Symphonie, the fruit of their passion, is sex, sublimated in music. Not for nothing the two principal solo parts are written for ondes martenot and piano, the piece operating as a dialogue for two poles united in a dazzling landscape.  Boulez adored Messiaen, and vice versa, but this was the one piece that Boulez could not bring himself to conduct. "Brothel music", he quipped, which is true, for the piece is explicitly erotic.  Since Messiaen was Boulez's father figure, it must have felt like watching your parents at it. You know it happened, or you wouldn't have been born, but......

When Turangalîla premiered in 1948, one writer  referred to its “fundamental emptiness… appalling melodic tawdriness…..a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, a dance for Hindu hillbillies”. He had a point. If ever there was music in Technicolor, this is it, complete with cinematic swirls of the ondes martenot.  These days, when we hear the ondes martenot, we don’t necessarily associate it with cutting-edge Varèse, but with Béla Lugosi. They don’t even make movies like that anymore. Not even B movies.   Perhaps Turangalîla suffers from having been premiered in the wrong time and place. In 1948, Messiaen was largely unknown in the United States, so Koussevitsky's commission was very high profile indeed. The premiere was given by Leonard Bernstein, who probably relished the Hollywoodesque extravagance of the piece. But there's a hidden background.  Bernstein was influenced, indirectly, by Nadia Boulanger, who thought music ended with mid-period Stravinsky, and even turned her back on him when he deviated from diktat.  She could not stand Messiaen: they operated rival salons, hers catering mainly to English speakers, his more liberal and "European".   Yvonne Loriod was originally a Boulanger protégé, but when she took up with Messiaen, Boulanger cut her dead.  So perhaps the world wasn't ready for Turangalîla  in 1948.

For Turangalîla-Symphonie is a shockingly modern work. If at times it seems to parody the idea of Romantic Music as defined by Hollywood, why not? Messiaen's values stemmed from medieval traditions of religious ecstasy, which gave 19th-century French Romanticism a particular flavour, different to Austro-German tradition.   Messiaen was not "doing Hollywood".   Like other Europeans emerging from the hardships of war and rationing,  Messaien was responding to the liberating idea of uninhibited exuberance. Turangalîla-Symphonie would have seemed like an explosion of blinding colour after years of repression. The sensuality also connected to long-standing French fascination  with exotic, non-European cultures.

Wild as the piece is, though, it is also sophisticated. Its complex rhythms need to be played with vigorous precision, so the textures stay vividly bright and clear.  In Messiaen, colour is essential.  The best performances I've heard have had a taut savagery that brings out the muscular energy in the piece. Bad performances are chemically coloured soup.  Fortunately, the BBC SO can let their hair down without losing their innate stylishness. Fundamental to this piece, and to Messiaen's work in general, is the powerful pulse, often expressed in craggy ostinato.   Geology in music, maybe: it represents a life force, nature itself and, for Messiaen, derived from God.  Thus Oramo shaped the crazy flights of wild abandon without losing sight of their place in the structure.  Messiaen didn't use the ondes martenot by accident: it's an instrument that plays with unseen forces of physics and sound.  The protagonists in Turangalîla-Symphonie  are ecstatic because they've found release. They wouldn't be transformed if they hadn't had something to be liberated from in the first place.

Lovely L'Ascension beforehand, too, demonstrating how far  Turangalîla-Symphonie propels Messiaen forward. 

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Transfiguration : Mahler Symphony no 9 Bernard Haitink, London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican

"Where words fail, music speaks"  These words were spoken by Gareth Davis, Chairman of the London Symphony Orchestra, before this performance of Mahler's Symphony no 9 with Bernard Haitink conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, at the Barbican Hall, London.  These words will be repeated over and over, for so they should be.  How can we respond, as decent people, to events like the bombing in Manchester? There are no quick-fix solutions.  But in uncivilized times, having faith in the power of higher ideals  may help, or at least offer the comfort of hope. We can, of course, listen to concerts with complete detachment, but emotional engagement adds to the experience. Our response to this performance could not but be coloured by events.

Because the Ninth was Mahler's last completed symphony, connections are often made with imminent death. Yet from first to last,  Mahler's symphonies chart transitions : from death to resurrection, from struggle to transcendence.  Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler's "true" ninth, quite explicitly connects death with renewal on a different plane of existence.  The "farewell" in Symphony no 9 is not annihilation but the journey from past to future.  Bernard Haitink has probably conducted more Mahler in his long career than most, yet he continues to develop.   Live perfomances are always "new", only recordings remain fixed, like specimens in a jar.   Eight years ago, he conducted this symphony with the same orchestra : the notes were the same, but the performances quite distinctive.

The gentle, palpitating motif at the beginning flowed into blazing, more expansive outbursts   A constant sense of shifting movement, bright horns and trumpets contrasting with the measured "footsteps" in the strings, echoed in the percussion.  The palpitating motif returned repeatedly, in different forms, ever moving forward.  Much is made of Bernstein's description of the motif as heartbeat, which is valid, and which is why it's so often referred to.  But abstract sounds can mean anything, depending on context.  From what we now know of Mahler's music and his personality, I think we can proceed towards a more open-ended interpretation, taking into account his interest in wider metaphysical ideas. In the next few days, we'll be seeing images of funerals - not only in Manchester, but, alas, all over the world. children die, and keep getting killed.  Whatever is at the root of this mindless attrition, thinking beyond self and more about others, might be part of the way forward.

Thus in this performance, the connotations were less militaristic march than purposeful traverse, as if the protagonist were trudging across mountains, toward a goal. Chills descended, nonetheless, but the melody leads on.  Hearing the violin and flute (Roman Simovic and Gareth Davis) in dialogue, I thought of Siegfried and the woodbird.

The second movement employs different dance forms. But why Ländler? Dance is physical movement, often in circles, with repetitions and small individual variation.  And why the marking  "Etwas täppisch und sehr derb"?  (rustic, simple, earthy). Perhaps the allusion is to nature and to fertility.  In Das Lied von der Erde, Nature does the work. In the Ninth Symphony, farmers toil.   Harvests mean plenty. In the violin perhaps we hear village musicians, sometimes local, sometimes journeymen.  But the rhythms are driven, with frenzy. all too soon winter comes and the ground lies fallow. Here the LSO, brilliant players, re-create the edgy, almost angular rhythms, which fade "into the mists", so to speak, of strings, harp and brass.  The palpitating figures in the first movement returned, in new variation, and the "march" pulled urgently forward, percussion crashing, brass ablaze.

The chill in the Rondo-Burleske was almost palpable, as if the strings were shivering.  Has frost cut down the harvest?   Dark bassoons murmured, the strings went quiet, yet again  from this desolation a melodic line (violin) arose, rising upward.  But the best was yet to come. The Finale was so refined that it seemed to come from another realm.   The high tessitura shimmered so beautifully that the music seemed bathed in ethereal light.  Upwards and upwards, the sounds levitated, counterbalanced by gentle diminuendos.  How does Haitink get players to hold lines with such poise and refinement? 
He knows the LSO well, and they love him in return.  It must be some kind of alchemy.  When they performed this Finale in 2009, I could hardly hold my breath for fear of missing a moment.  This time round, even more refined transparency. The music doesn't "end" so much as becomes rarified, transmuted onto another plane of existence, beyond what the human ear can comprehend.  If Mahler's Ninth is a symphony of death, something happens along the way, which leads to total transfiguration.  And so, back to the phrase "Where words fail, music speaks". Absolutely necessary in these times of hate and madness.

Photo: Roger Thomas

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Glowing recommendation - Curtis Symphony Orchestra Cadogan Hall, Friday

Osmo Vänskä conducts the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music
On Friday May 26th, Osmo Vänskä conducts the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute at Cadogan Hall, London. (Read more HERE, tickets still available ). T|he Curtis Institute of Music is one of the top music academies in the United States, with an extremely impressive track record : scholarship-based, it is open to all with talent.   Please read HERE how José Serebrier, aged 17, went to Curtis and met Leopold Stokowski.  

Matthew Rose, photo: Lena Kern
Matthew Rose, now one of the top basses in the industry, studied there at the beginning of his career.  He says "It's an event I highly recommend you to attend. As in, this is one of the greatest concerts you could hear all year.  'But what is this Curtis Institute?' I hear you cry! Well, it's probably the greatest music college on the planet. The place that probably trains more of the solo pianists, violinists, orchestral concert masters, principal clarinettists, Met Opera singers, composers, and conductors than any other institution in the world. From my time studying there alone, Lang Lang, Yuya Wang, and Jonathan Biss are at the forefront of pianists; the concert masters of Vienna Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Met Opera Orchestra, Minneapolis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony and soloists with every reputed orchestra. Juan Diego Florez is the most famous of the swaths of singers who have trained there; Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, Jennifer Higdon and some of the most adorned composers etc etc etc .  It is an amazing place."

Founded by Mary Louise Curtis Bok in 1924, on the advice of Leopold Stokowski, Curtis was formed to train the exceptional, exceptionally. A music school of 170 students, only enough instrumentalists for a full seating of a Symphony Orchestra, 25 singers, undergraduate and graduate, who train and perform 5 fully staged operas a year and a handful of pianists, composers, organists and conductors. A place where tuition is aimed at people reaching their own (world leading) potential in technical ability through the best teaching and then having the chance to utilize that in limitless performance opportunities, be it individually, orchestrally with the world's best conductors or in chamber music and opera. 

So one might ask "why have I never heard of this Curtis then?"  Rose adds "Curtis has existed only to train the exceptional exceptionally and hasn't had, until recently, an agenda to do anything else but that. A recent gift of $55 million from out-going chairman of the board Nina Von Maltzahn to specifically spread the word of Curtis and allow tours like this present one to happen has changed that". Curtis was initially housed in adjoining mansions on Rittenhouse Square, the sparkling jewel of Philadelphia's urban spaces. In 2011 a new Lenfest Hall more than doubled the footprint of the school, housing a world class orchestral rehearsal space, teaching rooms and all the amenities needed for youngsters embarking on the most demanding of professions.

"It is a remarkable place", says Rose, with enthusiasm. "I had the extreme fortune of attending Curtis from 1998 until 2003. I arrived as a complete novice with barely the ability to sing an octave and left experienced enough to join the Young Artists Programme at The Royal Opera, feeling completely ready, through my amazing education, to at least stand in the shadows of the world's great singers on that most amazing stage. My education was as thorough and comprehensive as I could ever imagine; singing lessons every week in New York with the best teacher I could choose (no faculty for voice, just limitless options), language and musical coaching with top professionals on a daily basis, singing roles in 21 operas, weekly visits to the Met, Carnegie Hall, and best of all, a free ticket to hear the fabulous Philadelphia Orchestra every Saturday evening. I went from someone who had barely been to a symphony orchestra concert, to someone ready to sing with those orchestras in five years. I feel so privileged to have had all this, and do you know what, it was all for free. Mrs Curtis Bok's initial endowment has grown and been supplemented by time, enthusiasm and massively generous and deserving support and philanthropy"

What a recommendation. For a very special experience,  try and get to the Cadogan Hall, London on Friday this week.  On stage will be 100 of the finest musicians you will ever hear, and the average age will probably be 20. 20 year olds playing with ability and commitment rarely heard. "Curtis really is amazing", says Rose, who knows what he's talking about ! 

Sunday 21 May 2017

Glyndebourne Cavalli Hipermestra - bizarre but pointed

Glyndebourne and baroque opera are almost synonymous. Indeed, the modern revival of interest in the baroque owes much to Glyndebourne and its values of eclecticism and excellence. Francesco Cavalli's Hipermestra was an ideal start to the 2017 season. Cavalli operas, like La Calisto and L'Oromindo, are so well known that they're almost standard repertoire, but Hipermestra is so obscure that this production is only the second since the original premiere in 1668.  With William Christie conducting (and acting) and Cavalli specialist Emőke Baráth singing the title role, this Glyndebourne first is unmissable. Get to it while you can.  Graham Vick's staging, with sets by Stewart Nunn, is audacious, but then, that was the spirit of the baroque age, when Europe was discovering new worlds, in every sense. Cavalli's penchant for sex, cross-dressing and double entendre make Hipermestra an anarchic riot.  Stay home if you're timid, but there's nothing timid about Cavalli.

The plot alone is so bizarre that only fools could mistake it for reality. A prophecy warns Danao, King of Argos, that he'll be killed by his son-in-law. His solution? To marry his 50 daughters to the 50 sons of his brother Egitto, and get the brides to kill their husbands on their wedding nights.  What Freud might have made of that, who knows?  Nonetheless the girls are so gullible that they widow themselves willingly, without question. Except for Hipermestra, who has the hots for Linceo, and he for her. Dad isn't pleased and puts her in prison.

Although the plot is implausible, music makes it art. The ensemble, nine members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, were seated in front of the stage, which was decorated with an arch of pink balloons.  The mass wedding at Argos is kitsch, but the music is not.   Quietly, a figure in white joins the team: William Christie dressed anonymous, conducting from the keyboard, in full view.  Throughout this production, musicians appear on stage, blending with the proceedings. Violinist alone, then with violist, then two theorbos of different kinds, and later, Christie himself arising from the stage machinery, interacting with the singers before scrambling down to the pit.  Integrating music with drama in this way is sophisticated, conceptually, but Glyndebourne audiences are sharp enough to understand that opera is theatre, not reality TV!  Musicians should be seen more often, for without them, opera would not be what it is.

Whatever Argos is, it's a place where extreme ideas are made possible by extreme power. Hence the oil rigs and ostentatious consumerist extravagance of the palace made possible by wealth, and the barbed wire that keeps people under control.  The allusions to Arab and/or Central Asian oligarchs may be offensive to some, but are aimed at the rulers, not the people they rule.   Thus is set the context for the wars that explode after Linceo escapes and takes his revenge on Danao, blaming Hipermestra.  Eventually, the whole region is destroyed. So much for wealth and power, when it is exercised by stupid people.  Linceo blames Hipermestra for infidelity,  Arbante and his minions stir confusing sub-plots,  Hipermestra wants to die and Linceo thinks she's dead.  Everyone making assumptions without checking facts.  That's the point of bthe plot and sub-plots: life is confusing if you don't stop and think, before jumping off (literaslly, in Hipermestra's case).

Hipermestra is a whole lot more relevant than one might assume.  The mayhem in the plot is a simile for what goes on in real life, even when people don't have 50 daughters and sons to marry off all at once. In the end, as in all good fairy tales,  everything works out, but a whole lot of people have been hurt in the process.  This is an observation that would not have been lost on Cavalli's original audience in times when monarchs had absolute power, without checks and balances.  Hipermestra is comedy, but also satire.

Emőke Baráth, as Hipermestra, is divine.  Most of the opera circulates around her, and she has the biggest role, and the longest monologue. As one of the other characters  remarks Hipermestra "goes on and on", but Baráth is so good that you enjoy every moment, though Cavalli takes his time to make a point.  Baráth is a good comic actress, singing a superb Helen of Troy in Elena (Il rapimento d'Helena) at Aix-en-Provence a few years ago.  Raffaele Pe sang Linceo, switching from lover to killer, and back.  Ana Quintans, a Glyndebourne favorite, sings Hipermestra's loyal maid Elisa.  Benjamin Hulett sings Arbante - yes, sex and violence are very Cavalli ! Renato Dolcini sings Danao, Anthony Gregory sings Valfrino. David Webb sings Arsace and Alessandro Fisher sings Delmiro/Alindo.  Special honours to Mark Wilde who sings Berenice, the camp but sinister drag queen.  It's not a comic role, though it has to be played for laughs. Berenice has gone through many husbands, however she/he disposed of them. Part witch, part victim, the part serves to remind us that in extremist power structures, women and the powerless (ie gay men) get kicked around and misused.  Cavalli had censors to fear. We don't, thankfully, as long as we have intelligent audiences like those at Glyndebourne, who appreciate that opera involves ideas, feelings, and creativity. .

and here's Claire Seymour in Opera Today : Danao is Libyan ! that explains the oil, and the despotism

Friday 19 May 2017

Haydn, Veress : English Chamber Orchestra, Altstaedt

Josef Haydn (1732-1809 ) and Sándor Veress (1907-92) with the English Chamber Orchestra and Nicolas Altstaedt at King's Place, London.  (Listen for repeat broadcast)  Proof yet again, that music is music, defying pigeonholes.  Every good composer has his or own identity, but all create things worth listening to, whatever the genre.  Listening outside the box enhances appreciation.  Perfectly natural.

Hall One at Kings Place is without doubt the most elegant concert hall in London, small but classically proportioned and blessed with an extremely clear acoustic. The walls are lined with polished wood, apparently from a single source, which helps to even out resonance.  Here, everything sounds balanced, to the extent that minor problems in performance seem magnified.  But that burnished, mellow acoustic is so beautiful.  No surprise it's a good place to record in.  The English Chamber Orchestra, always polished, sounded wonderful, even on broadcast here.  

 How lovely Haydn's Cello Concerto no 1 sounded with this orchestra, in this performance space, specially designed for chamber music !  Nicolas Altstaedt was soloist and conductor, in the true spirit of chamber communality.  Elegant but lively playing : baroque music wasn't precious.  The vitality in this performance set the tone for Sándor Veress's Sonata for Cello Solo (1967).  Altsteadt was, of course, playing on his own, but the ambient atmosphere of chamber ensemble lingered: he didn't sound alone, though no-one else was playing.  Veress is a fascinating figure, who knew Bartók and Kodály, absorbing their interest in Hungarian folk music as an alternative to the Austro-German mainstream. These were turbulent times in Hungary, where many sympathized with fascism, and "modern" music was frowned upon.  In 1941  Bartók was able to emigrate, though  a move to America,. In 1949, Veress was able to defect, and escaped to Switzerland, though he had a hard time getting recognition.   Nonetheless, in exile, he influenced his students.  Heinz,Holliger's (S)irató , written in his honour, is part requiem, part protest, hence "irato" (irate) in the title and in the vehemence of the music. (Read more here)ydnThe idea of being alone, yet not alone, pervades Veress's Sonata for solo cello. The first movement is a dialogue, but with whom ?  The "other" may be invisible and inaudible, but is palpably present.  Long lines, like exhalations, sudden bursts of dynamic vigour.  The middle movement in contrast,is more subdued, the lines exploring space, so to speak. it's titled "monologue".  In the epilogue, Veress writes more complex lines, testing technique. Frenzied, zig-zag passages, culminating in a sudden burst of lyricism : perhaps the musical equivalent of a smile ? Who knows ? Altstaedt plays with warm and feeling.

Veress's Sonata for Cello Solo was the highlight of the evening, very modern music, and realized very well.  Before it, we heard Veress's Four Transylvanian Dances for String Orchestra,  This was written between 1944 and 1949, the year Veress went into exile. Traditional dance may be the starting point, but the music is highly individual: more Veress than folklore. You couldn't dance to this except in an abstract, modern style. The last movement, the Dobbantós, comes closet to traditional form.  With its intensely rhythmic patterns, it suggests  gypsy dance, the music of oppressed vagrants, making their way through mainstream society.  A man like Veress, who knew the folk roots of his region, would have no illusions that peasant music was "pretty". The members of the English Chamber Orchestra brought out the spiky angularity. The music moved as if driven by demonic forces : the Devil as fiddler, stamping his feet for emphasis.

The concert began with Haydn and concluded with Haydn, Symphony no 49  "La passione".  In King's Place, the acoustic makes a small ensemble sound larger and richer than it might otherwise, which added to the impact.  Elegantly poised lines, balanced restraint, yet infused by an undertow of feeling, high strings singing, lower strings giving ballast.  After having heard Veress,  one could not help but connect to a sense of understated sadness, bravely borne.  

Thursday 18 May 2017

CédricTiberghien Saint-Saëns, CBSO Franck Rachmaninov

At the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Karina Canellakis made her debut conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Given that orchestra's knack for finding exceptionally good young conductors to liven up the stable, this concert deserved attention.  Canellakis was a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic's junior ensemble, the Orchester-Akademie, where she became a protégé of Simon Rattle, like Dudamel and others before. His agents, Askonas Holt, have taken her onto their books, which should launch her career very nicely. In 2014 she stepped in for Jap van Zweden in Dallas.  This concert with the CBSO is so far her highest-profile European gig, broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

César Franck's Le chasseur maudit is a show stopper, almost guaranteed to blast audiences out of their seats.  It's inherently dramatic. A fanfare of horns announces a hunt: but no ordinary, pastoral hunt.  Percussion rings out, suggesting the tolling of church bells in the distance.  This Sunday, though, the Huntsman's off to the woods instead, killing animals.  The tale goes way back in European folklore. Think, for starters, Goethe's Die wandelnde Glock, set by Loewe, and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and much else Gothic and demonic. Thus the piece ends with a loud sudden bang. It's not a rarity: I last heard it live barely 18 months ago.  It's effects come from its being pictorial: not a great deal of musical imagination needed. Thus it needs more punch in performance to compensate, and here needed more vivid character.

Another surefire crowd pleaser: Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances op 45, also vividly pictorial.  It's as if we see dancers swirl before us, as if in an elusive dream.  Certainly, in this performance the dreamlike quality prevailed,  but there are darker, more nightmarish depths to the piece.  That repeated pounding motif and its quieter echo, can be disturbing.  Towards the end of his life, Rachmaninov was looking back on a lost world, and a life spent in exile, sometimes in creative impasse.  The waltzes can seem haunted. The violin plays alone, for a reason.  The horns can be strident, and the winds can  be sinister.  But for all we know, Rachmaninov might have been writing to soothe himself. The CBSO is a such a good orchestra that it can convince whatever it does.  So, perhaps the fluid smoothness had purpose.  An undemanding though enjoyable performance. Picturesque music sometimes plays itself, though it works best when better thought through.

The highlight was Camille Saint-Saëns Piano concerto no.5 in F major Op.103 (Egyptian) (1896) with Cédric Tiberghien.  Much is made of the "Egyptian" aspects of the piece, since it was written in Luxor, but it is fundamentally an example of Belle Époque syncretism.  For men of Saint-Saëns's generation, European civilization was the height of progress, and that civilization encompassed the world.  Napoleon's conquest of Egypt differed from the British conquest of India, just as French and British colonialism followed different models.  The French fascination with "The East" was long standing : think Les Indes galantes, where the "natives" are Frenchmen in disguise.  Or Lakmé, or The Pearl Fishers.  

Ultimately, Saint-Saëns Piano concerto no.5 is far more than picturesque travelogue. It's not "light music". It's a work of  bold musical inventiveness and originality.  Perhaps that's why the piano part is so strong : the soloist as pioneer, very much the leader. Tiberghien faces the fearsome technical challenges : arpeggios fly with faultless confidence and elegance, and the frequent changes of imagery flow naturally.   Like the Nile, with its confluent tributaries!  Vaguely Arabic motifs blend into harmonies that are "modern" and European. Thundering passages suggest constant flux,with swirling diminuendos and passages of flamboyant brilliance. Nothing backward here, though the references may come from things remembered.  Tiberghien played with highly individual flourish.  Perhaps his enthusiasm invigorated the orchestra, who were playing at their best at this point in the concert.

Sunday 14 May 2017

Kathleen Ferrier Remembered - SOMM

Kathleen Ferrier Remembered, from SOMM Recordings, makes available on CD archive broadcasts  of British and German song. All come from BBC broadcasts made between 1947 and 1952. Of the 26 tracks in this collection, 19 are "new", not having been commercially released. The remaining seven have been remastered by sound restoration engineer Ted Kendall.  Something here even for those who already own the complete recordings.

Bruno Walter accompanies Ferrier in two Schubert and two Brahms songs.  Walter was a major influence on Ferrier, developing her style and repertoire and bring her to international prominence.  Reputedly, she was so overcome rehearsing for Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde that she wept inconsolably.  Perhaps it was that emotional directness that Walter recognized  that convinced him that the relatively unknown young singer had potential.  In these songs, recorded in the Edinburgh studios of the BBC, Ferrier's sincerity shines, though her delivery is more enthusiastic than refined.  But that was part of her charm. Walter responds in kind, his playing particularly free and invigorating.

Ferrier's recordings of Mahler's Rückert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder are classics, but on this disc, she sings Urlicht, from Mahler's Symphony no 2.  This recording was made on 28th September 1950.  The following year,  Ferrier sang the part with full orchestra  in the recording of the symphony with Otto Klemperer and Jo Vincent in Amsterdam.  Here she sings the version for piano and voice, so the closer focus concentrates attention on the voice and its distinctive colouring.  Her vibrato is used to evoke fragility, in keeping with the nature of the piece.  A worthwhile addition to the discography, since she didn't record this version for Decca.  This recording predates the Christa Ludwig recording of this version of Urlicht by 13 years.

Apart from one track on this disc - C Hubert Parry's Love is a bable op 152/3 with Gerald Moore -  all the other selections feature Ferrier with Frederick Stone.  Ferrier sang a lot of Schubert and Wolf,  her contralto richness is most effective in Brahms.  Her Sonntag op 47/3 here, recorded in December 1949, is particularly impressive. Although Ferrier found fame, she was, at heart, down-to-earth and unaffected, rather like the "Das tausendschöne Jungfräulein" standing by her doorway, innocently capturing hearts.  For this reason, perhaps, Ferrier is often most endearing when she sings traditional songs in the English language.  This remastering makes Parry's Love is a Bable bright and shiny!

On this SOMM disc, we have Edmund Rubbra's Three Psalms op 61, which Ferrier recorded for Decca with Ernest Lush, in performance with Frederick Stone, from 1947.  The piano settings are minimal, displaying the voice unadorned, suggesting private prayer.  In Psalm 150, Rubbra writes extravagant lines, which let Ferrier's voice fly exuberantly free. SOMM has also uncovered a special rarity: Maurice Jacobson's Song of Songs, quite probably the original recording, which has lain in the BBC sound archives long known but hitherto unreleased. The text comes from the Book of Solomon, and the setting makes clear reference to Jewish tradition. 

Saturday 13 May 2017

Elgar, Bliss The Beatitudes Andrew Davis BBCSO Barbican

At the Barbican, London, Andrew Davis conducted the BBCSO in Elgar Enigma Variations and Arthur Bliss The Beatitudes.  A red-letter day for British music fans, because Davis  is a superb conductor of British repertoire.  His insights into Bliss's Beatitudes were thus eagerly anticipated. If anyone can make a case for the piece, it is he.  After an expansive performance of the Enigma Variations, I was expecting great things.  The Beatitudes is an ambitious work,  scored for large orchestra, soloists, choir and cathedral-scale organ, so an expansive approach would, in theory, breathe life into the piece. The background to the piece and its reception has been repeated so  many times that you could fill an entire review regurgitating the details without having to mention too much about the music.  In short, The Beatitudes was commissioned for the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962 and given top billing over and above Britten's War Requiem, the "other" commission.  For reasons still unexplained, it was discreetly shunted aside. The premiere took place in a nearby theatre and was not well received.

Whatever may have happened in Coventry in 1962, it simply isn't true that The Beatitudes was forgotten.  Shortly afterwards, it was performed in a proper Cathedral setting at Gloucester during the Three Choirs Festival, which alone should have ensured its reputation. Bliss conducted and the singing, being the Three Choirs Festival, must have been good.  Bliss also  conducted it himself at the Proms in 1964, another ultra high profile event, with no expense spared.  The BBC SO performed with the immortal Heather Harper, a host of choirs and of course the formidable Royal Albert Hall organ. This was commercially  released five years ago.  There have been other performances, including one at Coventry Cathedral a few years ago conducted by Paul Daniel.   The piece isn't a mystery waiting to be discovered.  Unfortunately, British music is schismatic. Many still can't forgive Britten for being an outsider.  All the more reasons then to engage with The Beatitudes  on its own merits, rather than just blaming its lack of success on fashion and taste.  Sixty years later, we should be mature enough to evaluate the piece on its own terms without pettiness and special pleading.  Bliss is an important composer, who created masterpieces like Morning Heroes. Read more about that HERE when Andrew Davis conducted it with the BBCSO at the Barbican.    

Coventry Cathedral was bombed during the wear, so it's rebuilding was a symbolic act of hope. Memories of the war were still fresh, so Britten was taking risks by not condemning Germans. But perhaps people then knew about war first hand, they realized that working towards peace is a much greater challenge.  The Beatitudes of Jesus, as recounted in the New Testament, address the basic concepts of Christianity. Tonight, the Pope reiterated these fundamentals at Fatima:  "Mercy, not judgement".  Fundamentalists who misconstrue "Blessed are the poor", maybe aren't Christian.  Bliss's Beatitudes presents texts arranged by Christopher Hassell interspersed with settings of seven poems, from the  Prophet Isaiah to 17th century poets like George Herbert to Dylan Thomas. This allows him to expand the scope, making more of the idea of conflict implicit in the Ninth Beatitude, "Blessed are you when men shall revile you", which could be interpreted as relevant to the idea of war though it in fact refers to persecution of the apostles and those faithful to a radical new faith.  Bliss connects the Sermon on the Mount to the Mount of Olives to Easter and to the Crucifixion.   Bliss's Beatitudes are thus a mediation on struggle, illustrated by the strident, almost dissonant music in the Prelude and the Voices of the Mob.  Contrasts are violently dramatic. Loud tutti climaxes but tiny figures (often strings or woodwind) flit past. The soloists (Emily Birsan and Ben Johnson) rise from the massed forces behind them.  The BBC Chorus in good form.  The Beatitudes has the ambience of a great epic saga, with a cast of thousands - what great film music this could have been, with moral absolutes in clear black and white!

Superb performances all round, good enough that it wasn't such a loss that the Barbican organ isn't as huge as, say, Coventry Cathedral's, But, in a way, I was glad that Davies focussed on the music itself, rather than going in for histrionic effects,  He's conducted another Beatitudes - Elgar's The Apostles.  That, too, was conceived on a grand scale with over a hundred choristers, many soloists and a big orchestra.  But perhaps the key to The Apostles (and to The Kingdom) lies in its connection to The Dream of Gerontius.which follows one man's journey from physical life to the life everlasting. In The Apostles the followers of Jesus are about to go into the world, alone, spreading the new gospel in hostile situations.  Hence the inherent contradiction  between their mission, and overblown Edwardian public declarations of Christianity.  Elgar is a master of large form, but his faith, in a loose, non-denominational sense, is fundamentally personal and humanistic.  Not for nothing did he write the Enigma Variations, with its cryptic humour and deliberately non-dogmatic warmth of spirit.  Please read what I wrote about Davis's Elgar Apostles with the BBC SO at the Barbican with Jacques Imbrailo in 2014.  Part of the reason The Apostles and The Kingdom aren't programmed non-stop is because their charms lie not in bombast, but in humility.

Bliss's competition wasn't Britten, but Elgar, and Elgar wins hands down.  The Beatitudes has good moments but it's no masterpiece. Jesus's Beatitudes stress simplicity and the meekness which comes from genuine humility.  The apostles got their reward in heaven, but earned it.  No sense of entitlement, nor self pity, victimhood, or bitterness. Resentments  are values of self, not selflessness.  Tonight, the Pope, who probably has more status than any of us, spoke of respect and compassion.  Though surrounded by thousands, with a big organization behind him,  he cut a frail, humble figure. Now there's a man who knows what The Beatitudes of Jesus mean.  

"Humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong, who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves"  Full text of the Pope's speech at Fatima HERE

Thursday 11 May 2017

1031 pipe Bamboo organ from 1816

The Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas, now a suburb of Manila, built from 1816-1824 by Fr Diego Cera, the Spanish born parish priest.  This organ, built in late Spanish baroque style, has 1032 pipes.  For more technical detail, please follow this link to an analysis made by an organ specialist.  Good work !  Why bamboo ? Bamboo is a grass, which grows plentifully, yet it's also very strong, and properly treated can be one of the most resilient natural fibres.  Many things are made from bamboo from ships to houses and furniture, and of course musical instruments like xylophones. Woven it makes ropes and semi waterproof mats. The shoots are edible, and a staple of many cuisines.  Plus bamboo has a hollow centre, ideal for making pipes.
This region of the Philippines is subject to earthquakes, typhoons, and floods.  The combination of candles and matshed roofing common in Catholic churches in Asia before the 19h century meant that many also burned down, like Sao Paolo in Macau.  Please read my article The Ruins of St Paul - Japanese baroque.   The church at Las Piñas is built of local stone, though the roof is lined with bamboo poles laid side by side.  In the 1880's the building was hit by a series of natural disasters. 

 In 1975, the organ at last received a major restoration, each component shipped to Germany, repaired and reassembled, taking into consideration the warm, damp tropical climate it would return to. I can remember the fanfare which marked the organ's return to Las Piñas. The Bamboo Organ is now part of the tourist trail, as well as being part of a large and thriving community. The sound is distinctive, and the church hosts an annual music festival which has attracted international players.  At one time I had a whole collection of recordings on cassette (remember them ?)  A few clips below to illustrate: 

Wednesday 10 May 2017

The Sea - F-X Roth, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Debussy Ravel Britten Chin and Trenet

On the ocean !  and François-Xavier Roth reveals more of his many talents. Livestream with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, combining Britten, Unsuk Chin, Ravel and Debussy La Mer and, with a glorious twist, the original 1946 Charles Trenet La Mer sung by Roth himself!  From Roth, always expect the unexpected.  Not many conductors would have the sass to do this, far less to sing it themselves, but Roth can, and did it with such style that the song fitted perfectly well with the rest of the programme. Genre-blending with intelligence - no dumbing down here.

Benjamin Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes set the scene.  The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln doesn't sound like an English orchestra, so it was a good experience hearing Britten in this way - sparkier, less buttoned down and stiff upper lip.  The timpani crashed, the church bells clanged, and the undercurrent in the tide motif pulled with a surge. Wild, dizzying angular lines: wonderfully quirky.  Englishman as Peter Grimes is, he is Everyman, his story universal.  This was "different" but perfectly valid, releasing the repressed "inner" Britten. This grows on you - enjoy the repeat broadcast.

Unsuk Chin's Le Silence des Sirènes premiered in 2015 at Lucerne with Simon Rattle and Barbara Hannigan.  This time the soloist was Donatienne Michel-Dansac, who made the piece an expression of zany humour, very much in the whimsical spirit of Chin's music. This also fits the edginess in James Joyce's text.  Michel-Dansac's voice calls, from a distance, before she emerges on stage.  This Siren seduces by the sheer variety of what she sings. She mutters, whispers, sighs, compelling attention.  Long, high-pitched ululations taunt the dissonant lines in the orchestra. When the Siren triumphs, her victim is dead.  Thus the hollow, sardonic laugh.

Another surprise - Ravel Une barque sur l'océan in its orchestral version, paired seamlessly with Debussy La Mer, which, incidentally was completed by Debussy when he was on holiday in Eastbourne in Sussex. Britten's North Sea coastlines can be bleak, but Eastbourne is closer to the expansive Atlantic and to France.  Not that it really makes a difference, since the sea of Debussy's imagination is an emotional, artistic response to the symbolism of the ocean - ever changing moods, depths, contrasts, driven by vast, invisible forces.  Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln were in their element: a very strong performance, and very rewarding.

Pity about the presentation, though, which apes the hyper-hip vacuousness that plagues BBC Radio 3 these days.  The presenter herself seems a rational person, who could probably develop a more rational style, more in keeping with the quality of this orchestra.    

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Matthias Goerne Schumann Einsamkeit

Matthias Goerne Schumann Lieder, with Markus Hinterhäuser, a new recording from Harmonia Mundi.  Singers, especially baritones, often come into their prime as they approach 50, and Goerne, who has been a star since his 20's is now formidably impressive.  The colours in his voice have matured, with even greater richness and depth than before.  If the breathiness that once made his style so immediate is gone, that's more than made up for by the authority with which he now sings. In this recording, the lustre of the voice combines with  Goerne's truly exceptional powers of interpretation: an ideal channel for a composer like Schumann, whose genius, surprisingly, is still underestimated.  Many of the songs in this collection come from the composer's later years, sometimes unappreciated because the style changes, heading toward new pathways.  Schumann was well informed, aware of new currents in cultural life. Certainly he knew Wagner, but Wagner and Schumann were probably heading in different directions.

Goerne has been interested in late Schumann for many years, and sang many of these songs in his concert at the Wigmore Hall in 2015 with Menahem Pressler, where the songs were presented in the context of late Schumann piano pieces.  Please read more about that here  because it is important to consider the songs in relation to the piano works so dear to Schumann's soul). This recording, thus, is a must for anyone genuinely interested in Schumann beyond the "greatest hits" for it shows how Schumann remained a creative force, despite encroaching illness, an illness that might possibly be better understood today, which might have extended his creative years.

Nikolaus von Lenau
Schumann's op 90, to poems by Nikolaus von Lenau, were written in August 1850.   Goerne and Hinterhäuser began with Mein Rose, the second song in the set, evoking the fragrance of love song which makes Dichterliebe an enduring masterpiece.  Goerne's voice, though formidably powerful, can also be remarkably tender.  The gentle lilt of Die Sennin suggests warm summer breezes wafting the herdgirl's songs down from alpine meadows to the valley. It's a song in which tenors excel, but Goerne captures its sunlit radiance.  Then Einsamkeit, where the mood darkens. Under the densely overgrown spruce trees, "Still hier der Geist der Liebe", deep, hopeless love. Thus we are prepared for Requiem, the seventh and last song in Schumann's op 90.  The Requiem sets a text by an anonymous poet, which is rather apt since the poem deals with the annihilation of personality that is death.  The piano part is soothing, the lines long and sedate, but Goerne's artistry brings out the undercurrent of tragedy that lies beneath the conventional piety of the text.

We remain in the pensive solitude of Der Einsledler op 83/3 (Eichendorff) , also from 1850, before looking back on the past with a few songs from Myrthen (Heine) op 24 from 1840, the glorious Liederjahre in which Schumann's genius for vocal music suddenly blossomed, inspired, perhaps by his marriage to Clara.  Die Lotousblume and Du bist wie eine blume are sensuous, Goerne's voice imparting tenderness as well as desire.  Provocatively, though, Goerne and Hinterhäuser interrupt the floral reverie with two Rückert songs, Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweint op 37/1 and Mein schöner Stern !"  op,101/4 from Minnespeil, a collection from 1849 for different combinations of voices, reminding us of Schumann's interests in larger vocal forms.  It feels as though a chill has descended upon the spring blooms. But Schumann's creative forces do not wither but change direction. The imagery in the songs on this disc switches towards wider panoramas. Nachtlied op 96/1, to the famous text by Goethe, is in Schumann's setting, much more haunted than Schubert's.  

Wifried von der Neun
Goerne and Hinterhäuser then return to 1850, with the complete set of Sechs Gesänge op 89 to poems by a strange man who used the pen name of Wilfried von der Neun,  "Wilfred of The Nine", meaning the nine muses, no less. This was the glorified pseudonym, allegedly adopted in his early youth by Friedrich Wilhelm Traugott Schöpff (1826-1916) who made a living as a pastor in rural Saxony. The poems are pretty banal, far lower than the standards Schumann would have revered in his prime. However, bad poetry is no bar, per se, to music. As Eric Sams wrote "the inward and elated moods of the previous year mingle and  blur together in the new chromatic style in the absence of diatonic contrasts and tensions a new principle is needed. Schumann accordingly invents and applies the principle of thematic change....It is as if he had acquired a new cunning and his mind had lost an old one."  The songs aren't premier cru : Schumann with his exquisite taste in poetry must have had a bad day.  Nonetheless,  Goerne and Hinterhäuser give such a fine performance that definitely justifies the prominence given to therm on this disc.  Lesser musicians beware. Though not ideal, these songs are worth knowing because they demonstrate Schumann's willingness to explore new directions. Sams is the source to go for studying these songs, for he analyses them carefully, drawing connections in particular to Am leuchetenden Sommermorgen and Hör' ich ein Liedchen klingen in Dichterliebe.  Sams said "Schumann's memory is playing him tricks".

Moreover, this set was written close to the time Schumann wrote the superb Lenau set op 90 with which Goerne and Hinterhäuser began this recording.  This shows that Schumann's powers were not failing. Like most creative people he wasn't afraid to take risks.  It may be significant, though, that Lenau had some kind of mental breakdown in 1844, aged only 42, and spent the rest of his life incarcerated in an asylum.  This recording ends with Abendlied op 107/6 from Sechs Gesänge (1851–52) to a poem by Gottfried Kinkel.  The song is dignified, an exercise in balance and  refinement. Listen to how Goerne shapes the lines, flowing smoothly from very high notes to very low. The song demonstrates his range and technical ability, but even more impressively his grasp of emotional subtlety.  As night falls, the world sinks into darkness. But the stars appear "in Majestät". The poet hears "the footsteps of angels" and the advance of a golden, celestial chariot "in gleichen, festem gleise".  No wonder the song ends, not with gloom but firm resolve."Wirf ab, Herz, was dich kränket und was dir bange macht". Definitely not "alone" in Einsamkeit.  This song is so beautifully done, it's almost worth the price of the whole CD.

Sunday 7 May 2017

Cold Nights - a refugee saga

Cold Nights (寒夜) a novel from 1947 by Ba Chin (巴金) (1909-2005) describes the impact of the biggest mass migration in modern history, when tens of millions of  refugees trekked across China, refusing to remain under Japanese occupation, a saga of human endurance that needs to be appreciated in the west.  Ba Chin's famous trilogy Family, Spring and Autumn (1933-40) is a classic of modern Chinese literature, confronting the injustices of traditional feudal society.  Given the background, Cold Nights  is equally panoramic, though the family in this case is small.  Wong Man Suen  and Tsang Shu San are modern, progressive-thinking intellectuals who went to university and might have had careers ahead, had the war not intervened. Cold Nights is even bleaker than the Family Trilogy since it doesn't conclude with hope. Though Cold Nights is set in Chongqing, the seat of Free China, it was made into a Cantonese movie in 1955 by a cast and crew who were themselves refugees, who suffered similar traumas first hand.  Not at all a typical "war movie".  Tsang Shu San is played by Pak Yin, (1920-1987) while Wong is played by Ng Chor Fan (1910-1993) who in real life was the leader of the refugee film community exiled from Hong Kong. 

The film begins with an air raid, sirens screaming, people running terrified through crowed streets, shells dropping all round. Chongqing was subject to the most severe aerial bombardment, not surpassed until Germany and Japan were flattened a few years later, and the targets were civilian.  Wong Man Suen realizes that the bombs have hit his home, and rushes home to find the house empty.  Hundreds have been killed, but luckily his mother and son have escaped.  A flashback to the past : a much younger Wong wakes, alone in bed. A letter arrives. It's from his wife Shu San. After seven years of marriage, she's leaving him.  He thinks back still earlier, when he, she and their friends Tang Pak Ching and Mok Man Ying were college students, both couples deeply in love. They graduated, but while Wong was buying a wedding ring for Shu San, the city of Hangzhou was bombed. In wartime conditions, it took them months to travel back to Wong's home. Their son was born en route.  But Wong's mother was furious. Wong phones his wife at the bank where she works.  They meet in a smart café, where the windows are taped up for safety in bomb blasts.  "I'll have tea" he asks, "I'll have coffee" says she. The reason she's leaving is the way his mother has treated her.  "And you", she adds "have been ground down by her, too".  In the soundtrack we hear the song On the Songhua River, which refers to war, refugees and social disruption (Read more about the song here)

Wong meets up with his old university friend, Tang Pak Ching, also a refugee. Tang's wife had a miscarriage but couldn't get to hospital when the streets were blocked in an air raid. "She held my hand and cried my name", he sobs, And then she died. "This war, it's so cruel". The four college friends from former days are now three. Wong starts drinking. Shu Shan is disgusted that he's fallen so low.  She carries him home, though, but his mother blames her. In his delirium, Wong cries "I love you, Shu San, don't leave me". He's becoming ill (tuberculosis). She loves him, too, so she stays but his mother is worse than ever.  Shu Shan's still working at the bank - she's the breadwinner - and her boss wants her to move with him to Lanchow.  She tells him no, but Wong, not realizing that the boss has ulterior motives, urges her to go.  He goes back to his old office, but his colleagues treat him as a pariah because he's infectious. "But we've been friends five years" he cries. A friend arrives with some money his friends have raised as a gift. But he's been fired by the boss.  "In wartime, that's how things are" explains the friend.  But mother flies in a rage. Wong, in his grief, blames himself. He loves Shu San but has failed her. He's also failed his mum, who put him through school and looks after him and his child.

Wong gives Shu San a wedding ring - as he wanted to do years earlier, before things went wrong.  Ironically, she's leaving in the morning. She's brought a huge sum of money for medical bills, which she's got from her boss . She's resolved to move, though her heart is not in it.  She tells Wong it's only a short separation but he knows better. ""I will return, in a year, or two, or three, but I will return". "And I will wait", he adds. In the dawn, they part. They look at their child, sleeping beside grandma. "Tell her I don't hold a grudge". A tear rolls from the old mother's eyes.

Although it's cold and Wong is sick, he goes out, to the café where he and Shu San had been together. "I'll have tea" he tells the waiter "and a coffee, for her".  But there's no-one there. The Songhua River song is heard again, quietly.  Another air raid. We see fighter planes  anti-aircraft guns, wardens and refugees.  Wong sees his old friend Tang Pak Ching in the crowd, but his friend cries "Tang Pak Ching is dead". His mind has gone, maddened by grief.  Bombs rain down and Tang is killed before Wong's eyes.  Eventually, the newspapers announce, the war is over.  A big parade in the streets, with lanterns, drums, firecrackers  and a lion dance.  The procession passes Wong's house but by now he is so sick he's almost delirious.  He gasps "Shu San" and collapses.

A rickshaw arrives. Shu San has come home.  But a neighbour tells her that Wong died, on 3rd September - the day Peace was declared.  The neighbourhood buried him locally.  Shu San sits at Wong's grave sobbing. She's worn his ring all the time she was away "Why didn't you wait for me ?". It's now the 100th day since Wong's death, so grandmother and child have returned to the grave for ceremonies.  Forgiveness: all three will return to the native village.