Thursday 31 August 2017

Renée Fleming at the Proms Barber Nielsen Oramo

Prom 61 : Renée Fleming sang Samuel Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Strauss with Sakari Oramo conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (Konserthuset Stockholm), , in a programme that included  Carl Nielsen's Symphony no 2 "The Four Temperaments" and Andrea Tarrodi's Liguria.  Though the Nielsen was the highlight of the performance - done with great verve - BBC marketing played up the diva, whom most of the audience had come to hear. And rightly so, for Fleming is more than just a singer, she's a personality of such stature that any opportunity to hear her now should be cherished.

For me, the draw was Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 op 24 (1948), an astonishing beautiful piece which I love dearly. There's nothing quite like it.  It's a stream-of-consciousness reverie, heard through a haze of orchestration, evoking what it feels like to be young and protected, still within the embrace of loved ones.  It is high summer,in Tennessee, inn the cool of the evening after a long, hot day. "...It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars."  Note the melody with its sense of slow, rhythmic movement, as if the whole world was a cradle, rocking gently in the breeze.  Nothing much happens, and that's the beauty.  In the quietude, even the tiniest detail is lovingly observed, like the streetcar in this distance,  whose "iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten."

Time itself seems to slow down and compress. The moment is so precious that the text lingers on images, trying to make them last as long as possible.  Thus the sudden exaltations, with inventive non-words created spontaneously.  "..They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near.".   Eventually even the images shrink to their most instinctive essence. The poet is an infant again, the very idea of Self erased,nestledbackin the womb. .  "All my people have larger bodies than mine". But this nostalgia is doomed. The text takes on the semblance of prayer.  Time cannot stand still. These people will die. It's that sense of fragility and loss that makes Barber's Knoxville 1915 such a special piece.

This also makes it more difficult to perform than might seem at first.  The orchestration is deceptively simple - a  sensual woodwind melody, gentle strings, soft rocking rhythms, which need to be created with restraint yet deep feeling.   Received wisdom suggests that the singer should sound child-like, but I'm not so sure, for the protagonist is clearly someone who has grown old and learned what it means to lose what's closest and dearest.  Somehow the singer has to evoke both perspectives at once : artfulness, but without artifice.  There are many recordings, but very few get it right.  Better, I think, simple sincerity.  More than ten years ago, I heard a performance so self consciously over the top that I still shudder. (NOT Renée Fleming)  So  I'm so glad that Renée Fleming has at last commercially released a recording of  Barber's Knoxville Summer of 1915 (with Oramo and the RSPO) because the gap in the discography needs her.  Now, she's no ingénue and needs effort to project in the Royal Albert Hall. If that means sacrificing clarity of text,, for musical line, that's fine by me. She's  still good value.  She was on more familiar ground with the Transformation scene (Ich komme) from Richard Strauss Daphne.

Carl Nielsen's Symphony no 2 "The Four Temperaments" (Op 16, 1902)  describes the  four temperaments - Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine. An interesting companion  piece to Barber's Knoxville the Summer of 1915.   Nielsen, though, defines each mood with greater expansiveness. With glee, even.  One can imagine Nielsen's exuberant high spirits poking fun at people taking themselves too seriously.  There's a famous set of photos for which Nielsen posed, squirming and grunting, twisting his face in exaggerated emotion.  Please see my post here for more photos)  Sakari Oramo is one of the top Nielsen conductors around.  Indeed, he did the Nielsen symphonies as a group in parallel to a similar set around the same time as did John  Storgårds.  Both conductors are good because they have distinctively individual approaches which highlight aspects of the composer's idiom. Oramo's positive-thinking geniality works extremely well, especially in this symphony where each Temperament needs to be defined with almost anarchic humour.  Earthy playing from the Royal Stockholm players, with lots of mischevious spark.  Definitely the high point of the whole evening ! 

The Prom began with Andrea Tarrodi's Liguria, a world premiere, an atmospheric piece evoking the moods of the landscape or seascape around Liguria. Rich, full bodied sounds, moving on multiple levels at once, as dense and teeming in detail as the ocean is.  A central passage where clarinets, flutes and oboes dance together before lively percussion and pizzicato figures. In a third section, the pace and textures build up before detumesence in sparkling figures, lit by tolling bells.  A very well written piece that deserves to be heard again in a programme that gives it more prominence.

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Puppets? Yes! Wozzeck Matthias Goerne Salzburg

Alban Berg's Wozzeck  at Salzburg, with Matthias Goerne, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Vienna Philharmoniuc Orchestra, at last on  Goerne's done the role many times in the last 20 years or so, so his approach is authoritative, with searing intensity, so expressive that you almost flinch.  But flinch you should, since that's what makes for a good Wozzeck. When my son went to his first Wozzeck, he heard some in the audience chuckling. "What!" he gasped in exasperation, "If you can come out of this opera without feeling  disturbed, there's something wrong with you". For Berg's Wozzeck is the epitome of Expressionist Angst, a psychodrama that unfurls in multi-level complexity.  It is a howling scream of outrage against a system that dehumanizes and destroys all involved.  Not just Wozzeck, or Marie, but the regimented (in every way) world around them.   Everyone in this opera is a puppet of some kind,  manipulated by some unseen, invisible force beyond their control.

William Kentridge's production was created for the Haus für Mozart, a relatively small, performing space, which must magnify the impact.  On film, however, the physical darkness overwhelms. It's not easy to watch, but well worth the effort because Kentridge's reading is highly perceptive.  The abstraction of the set is disconcerting. It's as if we were within an infernal machine, where things are regulated by clockwork: odd angular planes, horizontals and diagonals, myriad tools and mechanisms.  The Captain is seen, taunting Wozzeck from above.  He's wearing a ceremonial hat and red uniform, his arms waving like a wound-up toy. Gerhard Siegel spat out the words "Haha! Haha!" with maniacal savagery.  So he's not being shaved?  Wozzeck (Matthias Goerne)  is seen bent over, grinding away.  Then you realize why the Captain's cloak is blood red.  Parallel realities, psychological truth.

Berg was writing at a time when psychological theories entranced the public imagination, and cinema was quick to capitalize on its ability to present multiple-level visual and emotional effects.  Berg, a keen movie goer,  incorporated new ideas into his score. The orchestral interludes operate like curtain changes, keeping the action swift even when drastic changes of scene are taking place.  Wozzeck exits whatever room he's been in with the Captain, into a maze of shadows, the path ahead of him narrow and skewed in zig zag form - an image which could come straight from a 20's silent movie.   Suddenly we're in the surreal world of the reed beds, where Wozzeck and Andres (Mauro Peter) are collecting reeds for fuel. The contraptions on their backs are the kind of baskets used by woodcutters in the past, which incidentally resemble straitjackets. Though we don't see the reedbeds, we sense they're there on either side of the narrow path, waiting to suck the men in and drown them. The orchestra growls ominous menace, timpani pounding, the gloom lit by will o' the wisps of high woodwind, suggesting surreal spirits.  Goerne's voice rises spookily from the darkness "Still, alles still, als wäre die Welt tot!"

The orchestra heralds another change of scene:  Marie is glimpsed, alone with her child, here seen as a puppet. And why not? Berg portrayed the child as nameless, unformed without a voice of his own, an observer of horrors who will quite possibly grow up to act out the dehumanization around him all over again.  The puppet wears a gas mask, and the puppeteer the uniform of a field nurse.  It's utterly relevant, since Berg experienced horrors in a military hospital during the First World War. The system was sick, the hospital palliative, not focused on cure.   There are many who object to the employment of a real child in the part, but there's something wrong with the kind of viewer who doesn't want a kid to witness sex.   Why not get angry about the fact that millions of kids grow up abused and neglected in reality all round us?  Perhaps Wozzeck grew up in such conditions. The cyclical nature of Berg's idiom makes it clear that cycles go on, unbroken, like the palindromes in the music.

The Drum Major (John Daszak) fascinated Marie (Asmik Grigorian) and Margret (Frances Pappas) because he seems to embody another, more glamorous world than their own. Yet he, too, is a puppet, strutting and marching in formation.  Though Marie loves her child and tries to amuse him with songs, she can't break out of the pattern of inept parenting she probably experienced herself.   Goerne's voice with its rich depth suggests more warmth and basic decency than the role strictly speaking provides, but this household isn't Happy Families.

Kentridge's staging suggests how Wozzeck seems to live his life struggling between one box and another.  Goerne sits passively while the Doctor ( Jens Larsen) prods and pokes him in the name of crackpot science. "Ah....." sings  Goerne, his voice almost rising to falsetto, suggesting pain and muffled protest.  Interestingly, Marie cries almost as shrilly before she succumbs to the Drum Major.  Moments later, she's singing fairy tales, as if nothing's happened.  The puppet, however, expresses pathos, crumpling into immobility, like a child shutting out trauma.  The Doctor and the Captain converse, but they, too, are in a psychic hell of delusion. Officers, but still puppets acting out roles they can't otherwise fill.  In comparison, Wozzeck is sane. "Man könnte Lust bekommen, sich aufzuhängen! Dann wüsste man, woran man ist!" sings Goerne, but the Captain and doctor think it's a joke.

A momentary glimpse of another puppet-child, dressed in white like the Drum Major, marching while the men in the barracks carouse.  Yet again, Berg contrasts horror with mindless banality: boozy drinking songs and the cry of the Madman  (Heinz Göhrig) the first to sense blood.   Fabulous ensemble singing - Goerne's voice rising above the ghostly sounds in the chorus.  The confrontation between the Drum Major and Wozzeck is brutal, trumpets blazing, staccato percussion, like gunfire. 
Grigorian's tiny, her voice more shrill than most Maries, so in comparison with Goerne, she's like a fragile child.  He towers over her, like a father figure, a chilling image, suggestingb that both of them were brutalized, too, in the past.  Two tiny figures in a vast landscape oif abstract black and grey with flashes of red light, like thunder (in recognition of Berg's original stage directions). The "curtain" falls in a cataclysmic scream in the orchestra, horns ablaze.   But Goerne dominates, in every way, singing with exceptional character, better even than in the past.  "Das Wassser ist Blut ! Blut!"  The Doctor and Captain, yet again, retreat in denial.

Atmosopheric playing from the Vienna Philharmonic, decidedly "more" than a Strauss orchestra. Jurowski's years of experience as an opera conductor pay off well. The harsh dissonance and swirling strings scream horror, yet also elegy.  At last we see some semblance of scenery, but it's not natural. The pool shines, but it's surrounded by broken uprights. Is it a bomb crater filled with rain and mud?  Magnificent, malevolent video projections to match the intensity in the music. One screen shows a figure - neither male nor female - relentlessly walking.  Thus Berg ends with the song "Ringel, Ringel, Rosenkranz, Ringelreih'n!"  It is a round, yet another typically Bergian palindrome. The children's voices sound innocent but the message is sinister.  The puppet child rides a hobby horse, as mentioned in the libretto, but this time, it's made from a crutch.  The children's voices are heard from offstage. "Du ! Deinn Mutter ist tod!" they cry, cruelly. The puppet is truly alone trapped in his own dimension.  He listens, then bends his little head desolate and crestfallen.,  He may be made of wood, but he has more humanity than most of the other characters in this bleakest of operas.
William Kentridge | Stage director, Luc De Wit | Co-stage director,Sabine Theunissen | Stage sets,
Greta Goiris | Costumes, Catherine Meyburgh | Video editor, Urs Schönebaum | Lighting, Kim Gunning | Video operator

Matthias Goerne | Wozzeck, John Daszak | Drum Major, Mauro Peter | Andres, Gerhard Siegel | Captain, Jens Larsen | Doctor, Tobias Schabel | First Apprentice, Huw Montague Rendall | Second Apprentice, Heinz Göhrig | Madman, Asmik Grigorian | Marie, Frances Pappas | Margret
Salzburger Festspiele und Theater Kinderchor, Wolfgang Götz | Chorus director, Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, Ernst Raffelsberger | Chorus director

 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski | Conductor

Sunday 27 August 2017

Hussite Hymns - Jakub Hrůša Bohemian Prom

At Prom 56, Jakub Hrůša conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme on the theme of the Hussite Wars and their place in Bohemian culture - Smetana, Martinů, Dvořák, Janáček and Josef Suk. Pity the BBC publicity machine branded this  "The Bohemian Reformation", like Nigel Farage squealing "Independence Day" as if the fate of the nation was a movie.  The Hussite movement happened started a hundred years before the Luther Reformation. They were wiped out.  Jan Hus (1369-1416) was burnt at the stake and the religious ideas he espoused largely forgotten. But the movement became a cultural symbol, adapted to the growth of Czech identity. Hrůša's programme was much more than tub-thumping nationalism.  In any case, there's a lot more to national heritage than bombastic bullying. Hrůša's Prom was a sophisticated, musically literate  study of specific themes in Bohemian music history, and needs to be appreciated in musical terms.

Hrůša started with the Hussite hymn Ktož jsú boží bojovníci (Ye Who Are Warriors of God), the men of the BBC Singers singing without accompaniment.  Though we rarely hear the hymn as hymn, its tune is familiar.  Smetana used it in Má vlast, quoting it in the section Tábor which we heard here, the town of Tábor being a Hussite fortress.  Thus the quiet, tense introduction, developed through brass and timpani, which grows bolder as the hymn emerges.  Triumphant climaxes and the hymn theme surges. But as we know, the Hussites were annihilated.  Thus Blaník depicts the even earlier legend that St Wenceslaus, patron saint of Bohemia, will return to defend the nation.  Smetana, writing at a time when Bohemia was ruled by the Hapsburgs, drew connections between the tenth-century saint and the Hussites. The strong angular themes in Tábor return in even greater glory in Blaníkmassive drum rolls and crashing cymbals

In 1938, Czechoslovakia was annexed by Germany, with the implicit approval of Britain.  Bohuslav Martinů's Polní mše, H. 279 Field Mass (1939) was written for Czech exiles fighting with the French against the Germans. Thus the strange instrumentation, with brass and percussion employed to suggest the idea of performance in battlefield conditions.  Drum rolls, marching rhythms,  trumpet calls and a chorus of male voices. But also piano and harmonium and a part for baritone soloist beyond the scope of an average amateur.  Fortunately, in Svatopluk Sem, we heard one of the most distinctive voices in the repertoire. Sem is a stalwart of the National Theatre in Prague, well known to British audiences for his work with Jiří Bělohlávek who transformed the way Czech music is heard in this country.  Sem delivered with great authority, imbuing the words with almost biblical portent.  His text is based on poetry by Jiří Mucha, who was soon to marry Vítezslava Kaprálová. (please read more about her here  Her Military Sinfonietta (1937) would have worked well in this programme, though it doesn't include a part for choir.

In Martinů's Field Mass, the choir acts as foil to the soloist, voices in hushed unison, mass (in every sense) supporting the individual.  Though their music is relatively straightforward Miserere, Kyrie and psalm, this simplicity enhances the idea of mutual support, reflecting the relationship betweenpiano with harmonium, voices and soloists surrounded by atmospheric percussion and brass.  The version we heard at this Prom is the new edition by Paul Wingfield.

Somewhat less spartan instrumentation for Dvořák's Hussite Overture O67 (1883) though the hymn-like purity of the anthem  rings through clearly. The rough hewn faith of the Hussites doesn't support exaggeration.  Full crescendos and running figures, (piccolo and flutes) flying free from the fierce "hammerblows"of the hymn.  A glowing finale, from the BBC SO in full flow.   The pounding rhythms of  the Hussite hymn come to the fore in the Song of the Hussites  from The Excursions of Mr. Brouček to the Moon and to the 15th Century   Here the reference to the hymn is used for satire, contrasting the  morality of the Hussites with the depravity of modern life, represented by the feckless, drunken Mr Brouček. To conclude this huge, ambitious programme,

Josef Suk's Prague op 26 (1904), in a tribute to Jiří Bělohlávek who made the BBC SO one of the finest Czech orchestras outside Czechia.  (Please read my tribute to  Bělohlávek with many links to his London performances of Czech repertoire. ).The same goes for the BBC Singers who sing Czech pretty well.  The piece was written at a dark time in Suk's life, after the death of his wife Ottilie and father-in-law Antonin Dvořàk. It connects to Suk's Asrael Symphony (op 27, 1905)  and even to The Ripening ( op 34, 1912-7).  All three pieces deal with death, made almost bearable by faith, despite extreme grief.In Suk's Prague, the Hussite hymn makes an appearance as a symbol of something that lives on beyond temporal restraints., Suk seems to be surveying the city he loved, contrasting its history of struggle with his present.  Perhaps, as he looked out on the castle, cathedral and the Rudolfinium, he could position his sorrow in a wider context. People die, but cultures remain.   That's why I feel so strongly that the term "Bohemian Reformation" is a crock. There''s a lot more to heritage than simplistic nationalism.  Hrůša conducted Suk's Prague with such intensity, that the performance eclipsed all else in an evening filled with high points. 

Jakub Hrůša's belated Proms debut but he is one of the most exciting conductors around, full of character and individuality.  Though he's young, he's extremely experienced, and at a high level. In the UK, he's conducted at Glyndebourne and with the BBC SO and the Philharmonia, where he becomes Chief Guest Conductor next season.  He is a natural in Czech repertoire, and a possible successor to Bělohlávek, whose memorial he conducted in Prague, but he's also very good in other material. Definitely a conductor to follow. 

Please also read my article Smetana's role in the modernization of China   and many other posts on Czech repertoire, film etc.

Friday 25 August 2017

Wilhelm Killmayer, visionary, in memoriam

Wilhelm Killmayer died this week, just one day short of his 90th birthday.  Killmayer was utterly unique, even among the many inventive minds in music over the last 60 years.  Killmayer was deeply immersed in European culture, re-examining its soul and creating anew. Listening to Killmayer is like visiting a sanctuary, where the ur-sources of creativity flow pure and clean, endlessly refreshing the artistic imagination.  Think on that idea of an eternally clear fountain, springing from great depths, sparkling in the sunlight.  It captures the spirit of Killmayer's music.  "All that white!" a pianist once exclaimed, looking at a score. 

But as Killmayer said, "Silence liberates us.  It helps us to listen to
ourselves. Music can make us forget ourselves. It can also make us
become aware of ourselves

That's a very zen concept. In Chinese painting, blank spaces are an essential part of composition because they balance literal with imponderable, letting the viewers exercise their minds.  Killmayer's music is luminous,  transparent. and incredibly

beautiful.  It's radical because it's both challenging and intuitive, activating mind and soul.  Killmayer connects to the idealism of Ancient Greece, or rather the German Romantic  reinvention thereof. One of his heroes was Friedrich Hölderlin,  the poet and thinker who crossed boundaries to the extent that he ended up incarcerated at Tübingen in a tower that had been part of the medieval city wall,. He'd sit singing to the moon and writing poems so odd and so spartan that many thought him mad.  Yet Hölderlin's late period has perhaps been even more influential in the 20th century. Perhaps, in his isolation, that 19th century mystic speaks for the modern soul.  

Killmayer's two cycles, the Hölderlin-Lieder, (1986 and 1988) are an extraordinary achievement.  Like Hölderlin's fragments, the songs begin and end as if materializing out of the ether.  Some are little more than disconncted phrases or passages of prose which don't make logical sense though their poetic import feels profound.   Strange harmonies, extremely high, taxing tessitura, delicate matching of voice, solo instruments (flutes and piano) and string lines that stretch into space.  Lots of silence, when the music seems to hover unheard except in the mind of the poet. As he listens, we listen too, blanking out the detritus of mindless noise that is normal life.    

All this variety, lit by an immaculate but unworldy, unnatural glow,  The word "Greichenland",  for example, suddenly bursting forth, sung with exquisite rapture.  For as Hölderlin glimpses an unattainable, ideal vision beyond reality, we too can ponder a world beyond.  Killmayer's Hölderlin-Lieder are, to me, one of the truly great masterpieces of the 20th century, which is saying something, given that there was so much music then that it's still hard to process.  I turn to the Hölderlin-Lieder whenever I need to clear my head of muzak and refocus.  "Sonnenschien !" "Wahrheit".  And gosh, it's beautiful, once you get into its magical vibe.  Kind of like being in Ancient Greece with a solitary shepherd and his lute.  Or flute). So what if Killmayer isn't populist mass market ? Like  Hölderlin, Heine and Goethe, significant artists and intellectuals are often way ahead of their time.  

"A single note is very precious for me - like a crystal or a flower" . (Wilhelm Killmayer)

Wilhelm Killmayer was born in Munich and trained with Carl Orff.  His ideas on magical realism may or may not have come from Orff , though probably they were in Killmayer all along. Killmayer was also a man of the theatre, working with the Munich and Frankfurt opera and ballet houses.  Hence Yolimba, one of his greatest hits. Most of his work, however, is orchestral and chamber music, and for me, his art song to German poets.  So much to choose from ! A long and rewarding journey.  Killmayer's influence is substantial.  Wolfgang Rihm is his highest profile admirer, but there are many. But perhaps what I love most about Killmayer is his humanity. His work is informed by warmth and gentle humour, values not sufficiently respected in this age where might means right.   Orphaned at the age of six, at 66 Killmayer became the father of twins.  A lifestyle change if ever there was!  Killmayer took to the experience with characteristic goodwill. "I need to write more, now", he apparently joked.  Fortunately, he left us with a solid body of work to cherish and explore, though more of it should be recorded.  

Die Sonne glänzt, es blühen die Gefilde,
Die Tage kommen blütenreich und milde, 

Der Abend blüht hinzu, und helle Tage gehen
Vom Himmel abwärts, wo die Tag entstehen. 

 Das Jahr erscheint mit Zeiten
Wie eine Pracht, wo Feste sich verbreiten,

Der Menschen Tätigkeit beginnt
mit neuem Ziele,
So sind die Zeichen in der Welt,
der Wunder viele.

Friedrich Hölderlin , first song in Killmayer's Hölderlin-Lieder

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Prom Oramo Elgar Symphony no 3 BBC SO

Sakari Oramo,BBC SO.  photo :BBC

Sakari Oramo conducted Elgar Symphony no 3 in the performing edition by Anthony Payne, at Prom 51, with the BBC SO.  Big event, because Oramo is one of the great Elgar conductors,. Oramo was Chief Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra during the 150th anniversary of Elgar's birth. Since Elgar was so closely associated with Birmingham, this was no concert series, but a kind of pilgrimage, attracting the most intense of Elgar devotees. Oramo's performances were outstanding, so much so that he was awarded the first ever Elgar Society Award, despite strong competition. True Elgar fans, whose primary concern is excellence, not the nationality of the conductor.  So please, let us have no more from those who keep harping on about the novelty of a Finn conducting Elgar.  Elgar was championed in Germany before the First World War. A political, not musical eclipse.  Sibelius was championed in Britain very early on in his career, as were Janáček, and Dvořák  We need to get over thinking in insular terms.

Ten years on from those Birmingham concerts, Oramo is even more impressive, his intuitive grasp of Elgar's idiom enriched by maturity, enhanced by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, playing extremely well,  "as if to the manner born", not "manor", for Elgar was someone whom all can relate to.  Oramo brings out the warmth and humanity in Elgar, wonderfully life affirming and fresh.

Elgar did not write a "cycle" of symphonies, completing only two.  The Third is a realization of the sketches he left, elaborated by Anthony Payne, who lived and breathed Elgar so intuitively that this completion is as close as we're ever likely to get to what might have been.   A friend messaged me last night after the Prom. "When are they going to "Sir" Anthony Payne?" And so they should. Payne and his wife  Jane Manning are venerable presences in British music and deserve recognition.

How fortunate we are to have this realization.  It flows freely as if Elgar had become rejuvenated again after a long fallow period.  The introductory passage surged, full of expansive confidence, strong chords giving way to lighter, brighter passages before a typically "Elgarian" flourish.  Oramo brought out the contrasts between turbulence and serenity, suggesting ebullience in the face of despair. The warm-hearted scherzo, an allegretto particularly suited to Oramo's personal style,was well shaped, with an edge of disquiet creeping in, developed further in the third movement. This moved like a waltz, elegantly poised, but veiled,as if being remembered from the past.  Particularly lovely,sad strings. with just enough rubato to suggest the palpitations of the heart.  From this rose the woodwind theme, soaring upwards to a new,more expansive plane. But the mood darkened, underpinned by ominous timpani. Soulful surges,strings, brass and woodwinds together, leading into a section so refined that it seemed to shimmer in haze.  In the Finale, the mood of confidence returns in a march of sorts, with a firm tread, lit by cymbals..Though a sense of unease remains (single chords and a wavering melody) the movement ends affirmatively. Brass figures rise,joined by winds, and "Elgarian" richness in the strings,culminating not in fanfare,but in lingering glow.,with quietly tapping tam tam.   This is important, since Elgar didn't live to complete the piece. It should not end in certainity, but in ambiguity, as a mark of respect.

Before Elgar, Sibelius: Scènes historiques, Suite No. 1 and Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, with Javier Perianes.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Elbphilharmonie Worldwide LIVESTREAM all week

Elbphilharmonique Worldwide - livestream all week !

Sunday 27th August 20hr German time

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (founded 1879, fully orchestral 1907)

Aaron Avshalomov

Hutongs of Peking 

He Zhanhao, Chen Gang

Konzert für Violine und Orchester »Butterfly Lovers«

Dmitri Schostakowitsch

Sinfonie Nr. 5 d-Moll op. 47

Maxim Vengerov, Conductor Yu Long

Tuesday 29th August 20.00 German time

The Baltic Sea Philharmonic Orchestra "Waterworks"conduted by Kristjan Järvi 

Gene Pritsker

Water Possessed,  Afresh

Georg Friedrich Händel

Suite Nr. 2 D-Dur HWV 349 (Auszüge) / Water Music /

Charles Coleman


Philip Glass

Konzert für Violine und Orchester Nr. 2 »The American Four Seasons« 

Philip Glass

Aguas da Amazonia
(Arrangement: Charles Coleman)

Wednesday 30th 20.00 German time

Ingo Metzmacher conducts Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester

Messiaen Turangalîla-symphonie 

Thursday 31st August 20.00 German time

The Gershwin Project with the Ensemble Eterna Brugge

Friday 1st September 1900 hr  German time 

NDR Season Opening Gala Concert 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sinfonie Nr. 4 B-Dur op. 60

Ludwig van Beethoven Musik zu Goethes Trauerspiel »Egmont« op. 84

NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, 

Klaus Maria Brandauer narrator

conductor Thomas Hengelbrock


Katharina Konradi soprano

Víkingur Ólafsson piano

Beethoven or Gerald Barry ?

 Prom 50 should have been one of the top picks of the season, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.  Beethoven and Stravinsky......but Gerald Barry ?   Beware any composer who repeatedly compares himself to Beethoven. Even in self-parody, a joke taken too far stops being a joke, but a sad display of The Importance of Being Earnestly Self Important.  No doubt there will be many who'll fall over themselves being clever and flatter Barry for this latest jape (of many). But methinks, it's pretentious tosh. 

Barry's Canada was inspired by a spur of the moment thought, while being held up at an airport in Canada, which he equates with Fidelio, Beethoven, Idealism, Liberty, Oppression and so on, and throws in an extra lick about surveillance society to boot. Gee, clever !  Canada has nowt to do with  much at all unless you like slam bang wham and repeated words and phrases.  Once, Beethoven stood for something. Now in this post-truth universe where anything goes as long as you can get away with it, we get what we deserve.  Barry, not Beethoven.. Kudos to Allan Clayton and to the band, and  to whoever directs Barry's career.  But of course, what do I know?

H K Gruber used to play The Fool but Gruber was genuinely creative and maniacally inventive. Because he wasn't fooling himself. So the Prom audience and performers laughed. But now all laughs are what they seem. Thus perhaps the need for Beethoven-lite, a Symphony no 5 that breezed along merrily, and why not for a change? After Barry, Beethoven can't compete. Fortunately, in the first half we had Beethoven's Overture "Leonore" no 3 and Stravinsky Violin Concerto no 2 with Leila Josefowicz, expressively played. Her encore was Esa-Pekka Salonen's Lachen verlernt - Laughing Unlearnt - which playfully juggles repeated phrases, but which is genuinely witty.

Sunday 20 August 2017

Glorious Gurrelieder : Simon Rattle brings Schoenberg to the Proms

Prom 46, Schoenberg Gurrelieder with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon O'Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill, Peter Hoare, Christopher Purves and Thomas Quasthoff.  And three wonderful choirs - the CBSO Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus and Orfeó Català from Barcelona, with Chorus Master Simon Halsey, Rattle's close associate for 35 years.  No wonder tickets almost sold out as soon as they went on sale. Everyone in town seemed to be there. Thomas Quasthoff sat in the coffee shop, holding court with friends and fans. Simon Rattle got cheered when he came in  sight on the stage, still in street clothes, by Prommers who were already seated half an hour early. 

Gurrelieder is a spectacular so extravagant that, for maximum effect, it needs to be experienced in a performing space where the vast forces can let rip in all their glory.  Rattle has conducted it many times in many places,  but there's nothing like the Royal Albert Hall for sensational presence, so he was able to unleash the full forces of Gurrelieder without inhibition.  For Gurrelieder is meant to be overwhelming, Waldemar defies God, who wreaks cosmic vengeance. He and his men are doomed to spend eternity riding through the night in a hunt. The peasants (here a single symbolic figure) are terrified by the supernatural, but Klaus-Narr, being a Fool, can recognize the ghosts for what they are - cosmic forces, and the demonic power of Nature.

Gurrelieder starts with a rhapsodic prelude, string lines swelling and heaving, harps adding warmth, woodwinds delicate, naturalistic touches. The reference is probably Siegfried's Journey down the Rhine, for Waldemar is about to embark on a journey of destiny.  Like Siegfried, Waldemar spends his innocence hunting in the woods, where Tove is concealed.  Hence the Wood Dove, like the Wood Dove in Siegfried, an all-seeing avatar.  Dense forests, in Germanic culture, symbolize powerful, though sinister, primeval forces.  The subconscious, source of creativity and danger.   Gurrelieder is  song symphony of Wagnerian proportions.  Simon O'Neill, being a very experienced Wagnerian, brought dramatic authority to the role. Waldemar is no Tristan but a king who thinks he can throw curses at God. If anything, he's a Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail the seas forever.  O'Neill's Waldemar is an embattled soul, tormented and defiant, instinctively understanding the part.  Waldemar is not a Romantic Hero, but a man cursed, struggling against Fate. Thus the roles of Waldemar and Tove, though well written musically, aren't particularly well developed in  terms of psychological complexity.  For Schoenberg, they are figures in a landscape, who will become incorporated into Nature and nature legend around them.  Nonetheless, Eva-Maria Westbroek created Tove with great vocal depth,  and Karen Cargill sang the Wood Dove, a bird of darker portent than Siegfried's wood dove.

Schoenberg was only twenty-six when he wrote what was to become the First Part of Gurrelieder, but in the interim, he developed a highly original identity. In Part Two, the harps still sing, but the sweeping strings are broken by fearsome chords  which replicate the word "Herrgott! Herrgott!" which O'Neill sang with intense flourish.  Note the text, carefully.  Waldemar accepts his fate, but frames it as a creative destiny.   He chides God. "Das heisst Tyran, nicht Herrscher sein!". Like any earthly king, God needs Fools to keep him in order. Thus the significance of Klaus-Narr and of the Narrator, both figures who can see beyond events and guess significance.  In the years between the time Schoenberg began writing Gurrelieder and completing it, he developed a distinct creative identity. The true artist, as innovator, will often be alone, even vilified, but artistic integrity is paramount.  thus "Lass mich, Herr, die Kappe deines Hofnarrn tragen!".

The peasant (Christopher Purves) is horrified by the sight of Waldemar's Ghost Riders in the sky (complete with echoes of hunting horn).  His response is to hide, pray and bolt his door "noch Stahl und Stein, so kann mir nichts Böses zum Haus Herein!"  "Holla!" to all that.  The men's voices in the choirs sing a wild, rhythmic chorus, alternating explosive force with singing of hushed subtlety.  O'Neill sang Waldemar's "Mit Toves Stimme" so it rang out as an anthem: the  love that keeps Waldemar singing is like the inspiration an artists needs to create.

The music that introduces Klaus-Narr  is quirky but pointed, The Fool (Peter Hoare) is himself a ghost, serving his dead King in the same way that his king serves the God who doomed him.  Hoare let the lines curl round his tongue, spitting them out in line with the odd angular rhythms in the music. Waldemar will not be cowed.  Trumpets call, and hunting horns. Waldemar's still a huntsman and fighter who will  barge his way into Heaven. The huge chords in the orchestra return, but fade away, for dawn is about to break.  The Men's voices sang in dramatic hush as Waldemar's men sank back into the grave.  Rattle and the LSO created a haunting orchestral Prelude, settingb the tone for the entry of the Narrator (Thomas Quasthoff). Brooding somnolemce, eddies of quirky sound, like will o' the wisps illuminating darkness.   In many ways, the part is the heart and soul of the piece, for it's written as Sprechstimme, neither song nor speech, a device which Schoenberg was to make distinctively his own. This section is extraordinary, so unusual and so powerful that it leaves the listener stunned.  Quasthoff did the Narrator (and the Peasant) with Rattle in  Berlin in 2000.  Though he's long ceased singing, he can still act, and speak the part with a singer's ear for song.  It's quite a part. I will never forget hearing Hans Hotter do it way back in 1994, when he was already in his eighties.  And then the chorus exploded in that glorious "Seht die Sonne!"

This Prom was recorded for repeat online broadcast, and filmed for TV broadcast on September 3rd (BBC TV 4). 

This review also appears - with extra pics - in Opera Today

Photo: Roger Thomas

Saturday 19 August 2017

Inspirational Mahler Symphony no 2 Sakari Oramo BBC SO Prom

Prom 45 2017 - BBC SO, Sakari Oramo photo : BBC

Powerfully Inspired Mahler Symphony no 2 "The Resurrection", with Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO, soloists Elizabeth Watts and Elisabeth Kulman with the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Bach Choir,  Prom 45. Because we hear Oramo and the BBC SO so many times each year, we take them for granted.  But they are a formidably good band.  Yet here they surpassed even their normal high standards.  This was an extraordinarily moving Mahler 2. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Jiří Bělohlávek, the former Chief Conductor, who loved this orchestra and was loved by them in return.  Please read my piece Jiří Bělohlávek : a tribute to the innovator and to the man.  Bělohlávek last conducted the BBC SO a few weeks before his death, so this performance with Oramo felt unusually personal and sincere.  But it was also masterful, lively and spirited, with depth and insight, which is saying something,  since there are so many Mahler 2's around all the time, only the very finest, like this one, live on in the memory.
From the very first chords, it was clear that this would be nothing routine. The zing in the strings felt disturbing, even dangerous, for the symphony is a journey into unknown territory. Thus the ferocious tension, timpani, clashing cymbals and brass ablaze, alternating with long, keening string lines. reaching out into space.  Then into the funeral march with its steady tread, reminding us of humility. Life inevitably comes to an end, for all mankind, whatever their station.  But for a moment, we heard again the lyrical pastoral theme, like a distant memory.  This performance highlighted how the unrelenting march continued, quietly, in the background, despite the anguish around it.  Quiet, purposeful pizzicato, like footsteps, lead into savage brass climaxes, creating the sense of hard-won stages on a difficult ascent. It's interesting how Mahler contrasts powerful tutti with solo instruments: individuals clearly defined despite the overwhelming forces around them.  Yet again the march continued, the horns blowing eerily, full of incident and detail, but relentless, though the vigour with which Oramo marked the sudden, spiralling denouement showed such defiance that it felt as though the music was mocking death itself.
The Allegro maestoso harks back to happier times. It's warm hearted and human scaled (very Sakari Oramo). Delicate pizzicato footsteps and the ring of harps.  But repose doesn't last.  The third movement, marked 'In ruhig fließender Bewegung' flowed with vigorous expansiveness: no surprise that Luciano Berio used it in Sinfonia as a metaphor for life and for the continuation of creative imagination.  The BBC SO strings seemed to come alive : lissom playing, suggesting the fishes leaping out of water, their scales shining, unbothered by St Antonius's moralizing. "So there" shouted the timpani, for emphasis.  Again, Oramo marked the sudden denouement, from which sprang the anthem O Röschen rot!  Elisabeth Kullman's voice has a lovely, glowing timbre, well suited to expressing the light in Urlicht, for it is light that leads the soul onwards.
The brass fanfare was bright, too, but also sombre and quirky, almost like primeval instruments from ancient times.  Again the surging "footsteps", reinforced by lighter, dancing figures, before the fanfare returned.  The searching string chords, and wailing brass might suggest mourning, but they also mark the beginning of a new phase, as the march moved forward, purposefully. With a clatter of percussion and brass, and the crash of cymbals, the music rose to a glorious climax : woodwinds singing gleefully, the string lines expansive.  Have we reached a peak ? Again, Oramo highlighted the contrast between this glory and the massive, overpowering roll that follows, intense because it marks the Dies Irae, the Days of Wrath at the End of Time.  Now the march continued with tight but taut energy. Almost wild abandon, though the BBC SO players are far too good to lose momentum by not keeping together.  Yet again, the crescendi dissolved into pure, refined textures.   Penitent, reverent strokes of the harps, then the brass, from above and below, the latter earthier and more plaintive.  Two trumpets call out, stretching out into space, uniting Heaven and Earth. The woodwinds sang brightly, creating images of light and movement. 
The BBC Symphony Chorus and the Bach Choir  entered quietly, in hushed reverence. British choirs are astonishingly good, and we shouldn't take them for granted.  "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n Wirst du, Mein Staub,..."  Exceptionally lucid singing.  Trumpets called out, as if reaching beyond a horizon.  Just as the earthly and heavenly brass united,  Elisabeth Kulman and Elizabeth Watts sang together, the choruses encircling them like a halo of sound, joined later by high winds and strings.  Kulman sang "O Glaube" her voice resolute, "Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren! Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!"   Being born means struggle, but life is not in vain.  This resolution - resurrection -  is, it has been reached by inner strength and determination.  That's when an orchestra as good as the BBC SO shows its mettle. Its technical excellence inspired by intense, personal committment wrought miracles tonight.

Thursday 17 August 2017

Adventures in exotic worlds - Cédric Tiberghien, François-Xavier Roth Prom

Adventures in exotic worlds ! A vibrant Prom, with François-Xavier Roth, Cédric Tiberghien, and Les Siècles, in an unusually stimulating programme of music by Saint-Saëns  Délibes, Lalo, and César Franck. The French fascination with exoticism wasn't mere decoration. By absorbing alien sounds and values, French composers were able to explore new ideas.  developing a genuinely original synthesis which would transform the French aesthetic. From the expansive worldview of Louis XIV to Rameau, to Debussy and beyond  -  limitless exploration of new horizons and ideas

The music of Saint-Saëns is currently enjoying a revival.  François-Xavier Roth is a Saint-Saëns specialist - his father is the organist Daniel Roth - so it was good to hear the overture from Saint-Saëns' opera La princess Jaune op 30 (1872).  In this opera, a young man called Kornélis is obsessed with things Japanese. He experiments with opium and is transported to a fantasy land with a "Yellow Princess". Although the piece is entirely western,  Saint-Saëns shows an awareness of alien form quite remarkable in that the opera was written only two years after the World Exposition at Paris sensationally brought Asia to the West.  Recently, Roth conducted Saint-Saëns Le timbre d'argent written at about the same time as La Princess Jaune. a joint production between  l'Opéra-Comique, Paris and Palazetto Bru-Zane. (please read more about Le timbre d'argent HERE).  From Délibes Lakmé,  not The Bell Song which is so famous that it's even used on TV ads, but some of the ballet music.  It's possible that Délibes had an inkling of what Indian wind instruments may have sounded like, for the flute solo is decidedly un-western.  It's significant, too, that this was written for dancers, giving a firm rhythmic structure to the piece.

Roth has conducted Saint-Saëns' Concerto for piano and orchestra no 5  (The "Eygptian"), numerous times with different orchestras, but hearing it here with Les Siècles and Cédric Tiberghien, also a passionate advocate of the piece, was a special occasion, made even more unique by the use of a period piano, an 1899 Bechstein, with a remarkably agile, almost bell-like voice. As Tiberghien says in the BBC Radio 3 rebroadcast, in this piece a modern concert grand would sound "ugly".  Certainly, this performance revealed the fragile beauty in the piece which is so  important to interpretation. Although it was written in Luxor, where the composer went on holiday, it is fundamentally an example of Belle Époque syncretism : Fantasy Egypt, not reality, an Egypt where the present is coloured by dreams of the past.  For men of Saint-Saëns' 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 difference between French and British attitudes to colonialism affected music history : much more integration on many levels between the colonies and metropolitan France.

Ultimately, Saint-Saëns' Piano concerto no.5 is not picturesque, and not "light music" to be kitsched out with fake palms and camels. It's a work of  bold musical inventiveness and originality.  Tiberghien faced the fearsome technical challenges : arpeggios flew with faultless confidence and elegance, making the frequent changes of imagery flow naturally, like the Nile Delta, with its confluent tributaries, building up a panorama of great richness and detail.  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.

This is where the period piano and orchestra proved their value.  Saint-Saëns' Piano concerto no.5  isn't "about" Eygpt but about the experience of being in  place where you're only in temporary sojourn : tourists enjoying luxury, dreaming of a past that colours the present.   Hence the idea of fragility, so beautifully evoked in this lively yet delicate performance. The pyramids are evidence that even great pharoahs aren't immortal (except in legend). All too soon, the tourist will be gone,  notice the brisk, no nonsense ending!  Back to daily reality.Tiberghien   made the piano sing, almost like an Arabic string instrument, its plaintive voice much more in keeping with the flutes and other winds, and the horns and trumpets.  This piano wasn't a heavy-handed colonial barking orders at the natives, but one prepared to speak to the orchestra in terms of respect and familiarity.  A truly exquisite performance, spakling with light, but with great depths of insight. 

Tiberghien's encore solo was the Debussy Prelude for piano La Puerta del Vino L123/3, a reverie on Moorish Spain, nicely hushed and intimate.  Then, making the most of this unique combination of period piano and orchestra, the Prom continued with César Franck Les Djinns inspired by a poem by Victor Hugo about supernatural spirits in an Islamic fantasy.  Elaborate figures in the piano part, matched by inventiveness in the orchestral writing.  A strong sense of movement, the piano moving in and out from the orchestra, suggesting the sound of bells. Are the Djinns flying amongst clouds ? We use our imaginations and wonder.

Namouna (Suites Nos. 1 and 2) (1881) comes from Lalo's ballet based on a poem by Alfred de Musset.  More supernatural spirits in Near Eastern fantasy !  Here, Roth and Les Siècles demonstrated the variety of their instruments.  Each of the ten sections depicts a scene, coloured by different sounds. Three sets of percussion - the "bass" with large side drum, the "baritone" with  wider, flat drums and the "tenor" beating a tambour whose sound can be adjusted by tightening the strings that hold the leather to the wood.   Timpani are thrilling, but these very individualistic voices sing with a warmer, more subtle tone. Plus they don't blast away other instruments, At one point the sound of a triangle rang out loud and clear.  Then to the blockbuster : the Bacchanal from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila   so theatrically exotic and so famous that it's become synonymous with "oriental" music  in popular culture. What energy and what fun ! Ideally suited to Roth's sense of humour.

Roth's a born communicator, who has been known to sing to his audience! (read more here), and often speaks to them.    When the Orchestra of SWR Freiburg Baden Baden was on the point of being disbanded, Roth made an impassioned speech at the 2015 Proms  in support of his players and the orchestra's traditions. This time he spoke about this Proms programme and the way music can break down walls between cultures. And thus the encore, a French arrangement (by Felix Roth, son of the conductor) of Get Lucky a song about America by Daft Punk with castanets and maracas, sassy and breezy and full of fun.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

Bubbling brew : Turnage Hibiki, Prom Ravel Debussy Kazushi Ono

Mark-Anthony Turnage Hibiki (2014) at the BBC Proms, with Kazushi Ono and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sally Matthews, Mihoko Fujimura, the New London Children's Choir and the Finchley Children's Music Group, preceded by Debussy and Ravel Piano Concerto in G major with Inon Barnatan, so beautifully played that even someone like me, more into voice and orchestra, could throroughly enjoy.

Ono conducted the premiere of Turnage's Hibiki in Tokyo in December 2016 with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra of which he is Music Director.  Hibiki is a substantial work for large orchestra, two soloists and childrens' choir. According to the publishers Boosey & Hawkes, it "offers consolation after loss – whether from war, earthquake or tsunami". That's a tall order, almost impossible to fulfil.  Consolation is trivial band aid in the face of such extreme horror.   It's meaningless unless we reflect on the causes of catastrophe and resolve that such things should never, as far as possible, happen again.

Numerous Japanese writers, composers, film makers and artists have reflected on and examined the issues arising from war and nuclear annihilation.  Indeed, you probably can't be an East Asian  intellectual and not ponder 150 years of war and traumatic social change, not only in Japan but in China and the rest of Asia.  Masao Ohki's Hiroshima Symphony, written only 7 years after the bombs fell, is graphically descriptive (read more here) . Ikuma Dan's Hiroshima Symphony (1985) is even more sophisticated.  It's an important piece of world significance. Please read more here)

There's no reason why western composers shouldn't engage with these subjects. We're all part of humanity.  But it's difficult to approach specifically Japanese aspects without an understanding of the cultural, social and historical background.  Mark-Anthony Turnage is good on music with social conscience. Once I got over the shock value of Anna Nicole, I grew to love its insights into consumer-obsessed society and the degradation of those who buy into the scam. Read more HERE  But Anna Nicole is a western icon, and Turnage likes Americana. That doesn't necessarily mean he can't write about other cultures, but I'm not sure how to take Hibiki. Does it penetrate much beneath the surface? Is it enough to address the many long-term implications of Fukushima simply by repeating the name over and over? I'm no composer but I'd rather that the music itself spoke, not the words.  No disrespect to Turnage. Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem had so little to do with Japan that he really should not have compromised himself by taking the money.  It would probably take a Beethoven or Bach to write something truly transcendant. "Consolation" isn't enough.

Kazushi Ono did Turnage's Hibiki more than justice. From the BBC SO he drew some very committed playing. They don't do as much Turnage as they should and this is a bit more than typical Turnage, so all honours to them.  Hibiki unfolds over seven sections, like a postcard book..  But Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn't actually lead to Tohoku or the Tsunami or to Fukushima.  Natural disasters aren't man made or specific to any one country.  Nuclear power on its own isn't evil, it's misused and abused. As anyone who's ever watched Japanese movies should know.  See my piece on Godzilla and the Tsunami,  The seven parts together don't cohere. This weakens the impact of the whole and undercuts the claim that it's an act of consolation.  Wisely, Ono marked the breaks with long silences, so each section can be heard alone, without a thread.  Unfortunately, substantial parts of this year's Proms audiences are obsessed with clapping any chance they get. They don't care enough about music to pay attention and listen.

The first two sections are named after Iwate and Miyaga, two of the areas hit by the 2011 Tsunami.  Blocks of sound bubble in the first movement, in jerky ostinato with nice jazzy trumpet calls, high pitched winds and swathes of strings. Oddly cheerful! A long ominous wail marks the start of the second section, suggesting perhaps the flow of the waves rolling onto land. No-one will ever forget the footage caught on film or the frightening silence, broken only by crushing debris.  The timpani pound, brasses wail and the orchestra plays a long line of multiple fragments and layers.  Fearsome growls and the sound of a bell.   There certainly is scope for a piece in which music could translate the idea of multiple fragments and layers of density, flowing and churning in different sequence, but Turnage can't develop the concept in the space of a few minutes.

The third section "Running" represents a poem "Mother Burning" by Sou Sakon which describes the poet running from flames. But the mother, following behind, is engulfed.  Rapid fragments of words and sound, the two soloists singing lines that intersect rather than connect.  Turnage's thing for percussion and screaming brass is used to good effect, the vocal lines more choppily employed: but that's what happens when you're running for your life and can't take long breaths.  The childrens choirs sing an adaptation of a Japanese children's song similar to "Twinkle, twinkle Little Star" The English accents of the young singers, singing in Japanese, add a surreal touch, more poignant than if they were singing in a language they'd normally speak.  The melody is taken up by the mezzo, Mihoku Fujimura, a much welcome regular visitor to the UK.

Suntory Dance , the central movement, makes a striking diversion from the threnodies before and after.  It's also the best section, so good that it could act as a stand-alone concert piece.  Here, Turnage's facility for strong brass and percussion comes to the fore: quirky, wayward rhythms, angular blocks and more busy, bubbling figures from which the idea of "dance" might come.  I don't know why "Suntory", which is the name of the concert hall and of the company that financed it.  They manufacture alcoholic drinks, and one of their big brands is named Hibiki, "Japanese Harmony". The piece is so lively that it could be an  anthem for the company, used in encores and social occasions. So much for the BBC translation that Hibiki just means  "beautiful sound".

After this interlude, darkness returns. Brooding timpani and moaning brass, string lines shining with metallic edge. Lovely woodwind passages: Fujimura sings lines from texts from Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, a  Bunraku drama from 1703. It's such a classic that it's been adapted for cinema, its tale of doomed love a recurrent meme, though what connection this has to Hiroshima or to the Tsunami, I don't know.  Much has been made in the publicity material for Turnage's Hibiki about the Mahler connection, but frankly I cannot hear any resemblance to Das Lied von der Erde,.  But the real subject of Das Lied von der Erde is Mahler himself, and his metaphysics  The orientalism in that piece reflects the original poems Mahler used and adapted for his own purposes. And in any case, they weren't Japanese but Chinese.  No doubt much will be made of this in the media by those who don't really know Das Lied von der Erde.  Double-dose cultural appropriation.

The final section, for orchestra and children's voices, is swirling abstraction, the word "Fukushima" repeated, almost mechanically.  Turnage's Hibiki is good listening but it  doesn't really hold together. The parts are greater than the sum, aside from the vivacious Suntory Dance.   That's excellent, and parts 1, 2 and 4 work well together musically, but parts 3, 4 and6 are weak : No fault of the performers, though.  It's not nearly near the level of Turnage's Remembering : in memoriam Evan Scofield, a work of heartfelt sincerity. (Read more about that HERE)

Sunday 13 August 2017

Mahler 10 Schubert Dausgaard BBC SSO Prom

Thomas Dausgaard (Credit: Thomas Grøndahl)
Thomas Dausgaard, new Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with two Unfinished symphonies, Schubert Symphony no 8 Unvollende, and Mahler Symphony no 10.  Uncompleted symphonies always fascinate because they open out tantalizing prospects.   This Prom was interesting because it focused on possibilities. Since we'll never know how the symphonies might have been completed, we listen differently, keeping things open-ended. 

Though neither Dausgaard nor the BBC SSO are new to the Proms, it was their first Prom together in this new season.  Interesting potential, there, too. Dausgaard's less of a showman than Runnicles was, closer, perhaps to Ilan Volkov who was (and is) a thinker, something to value in these times.
Unfinished symphonies help us focus on the music, and on the composer.  The curse of a review system is that performances are judged by the number of stars they get in a review, rather than by how such judgements are arrived at. We get locked into like/dislike instead of analyzing why we think the way we do.  Most performances have something to offer, pro and con: ultimately what counts is what we've learned from the experience.

Deryck Cooke's third performance version remains the standard because it reflects years of immersion in Mahler's work and creative processes. Everyone seems to want a shot at "completing" what would have been Mahler's Tenth symphony, but many aren't worth the effort.  Better, I think, to listen in depth to Cooke,  which brings out the inventiveness that makes Mahler so challenging. In a way this is a schizophrenic symphony,  the duality in the first movement contradicted in the second two. What it's not, though, is a death symphony.  If anything, it deals with light and transfiguration, as in nearly all the other symphonies.  When it was written, Mahler was about to embark on a new stage in his career, possibly even more radical than his past. This affects interpretation.  Where was Mahler heading, and what was he taking with him from the past?

Dausgaard and the BBC SSO created an elegant Adagio, the shimmering opening strings enriched by a richer response.  The celli and basses were positioned in the centre of the orchestra, flanked by the winds, brass to one side, percussion on the other.  Interesting, since the lower strings are in many ways the heart of this movement, whatever it might mean. If the duality represents the composer and his "ewiger weiblicher" muse, the lower timbre might represent the composer himself.  The pace picks up and "scream chords" blazed.  The ending (harps, strings and high winds) was drawn out carefully, opening outwards, not closing in.

The brisk figure that opens the first Scherzo breaks tranquility still further. The strings attempt to recreate the poise of the Adagio but the horns blast it away. I'd like to hear Dausgaard take more risks, even making it more grotesque, for Weltlauf loosely translates as "world running", the world hurtling on its way, mocking the idea that things can never change.  Like Purgatory in theology, the Purgatorio is short but transitional.  On the title page of the second Scherzo, Mahler writes “The Devil is dancing it with me! Madness, seize me … destroy me! Let me forget that I exist, so that I cease to be.” But a careful observer will note that Mahler then adds “dass ich ver ….” (so that I ….) and trails off without completing the idea. It’s a preposition, but this whole work is a kind of preposition, open ended because it isn't complete.  Dausgaard made more of the dreamy waltz that circulates through this section, though, suggesting that the dialogue in the Adagio continues, though it has changed.   Mahler wrote of the Fireman's Funeral in the Finale.  "Only you [Alma] knows what it means".  So it means something, even if we'll never know exactly what.  Here the funeral march solidity wasn't strongly defined though the more delicate "footsteps" were nicely done, leading to the drumstrokes and brooding brass and woodwinds. The resolution that follows ascended slowly upwards, the strings shimmering, the horns calling as hunting horns do. Or the trumpets of angels.  Who knows?  But Mahler isn't standing still.

Every performance teaches you something about the music, and the perspectives from which  it is approached.   Dausgaard's good on detail, carefully building up textures. The piccolo could be heard, even surrounded by tubas, the flutes best of all.  He's less strong on destination.  I prefer more incisive M10's, with stronger forward thrust, where a sense of trauma intensifies the power of the Finale, but this performance was satisfying enough to make me hope for more from Dausgaard and the BBC SSO.

Listening to Mahler's Unfinished after Schubert's Unfinished was also rewarding. While Mahler left plenty for Cooke, Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers to work on, Schubert's manuscripts leave little trace of what might have been.  For all we know, Schubert might have  had other things to do.    The two movements are fairly similar. but we're left hanging.  Nonetheless, what  we do have is so lovely, it hardly matters.  But we cannot avoid the fact that Mahler had every intention of completing his manuscript, nor dismiss the substantial material he did leave behind.

Saturday 12 August 2017

Peer Gynt - naked Charlton Heston, aged 17

Long before Ben Hur, Charlton Heston as Peer Gynt ! Charlton Heston, aged 17, in the surprisingly sensitive film based on Ibsen and Grieg's Peer Gynt.  The film was made in the summer of 1941 as a school project  at New Trier High School in Willamette, where Heston was a student.  It was filmed in the woods in Illinois and Wisconsin, where thousands of Norwegian immigrated during bthe 19th and 20th century.  At one time, there were more Norwegian newspapers in that part of America than there were in Norway.  So the film doesn't need much in the way of sets, using the landscape as it was.  Real mountains, valleys and forests and rivers that can pass for fjords.

The actors were students, most of whom can't act, but look healthy and enthusiastic.  Kids then didn't do dope, TV or computers.  Their faces are so fresh, they don't look like they've ever worn makeup. Although the film is clumsily made, that very naivety suits the story much better than something more sophisticated.

It's also good that the film was shot without spoken dialogue.  The actors' mouths move, without sound, like in a silent movie. Even this is a plus, because it adds to the sense that the story exists in a strange, eternal world  outside time and place, where trolls live, and from which Peer can escape predicaments as if by magic.  The sound track, a recording of Grieg, was added after filming.  The recording quality is horrible, but I quite like the clumsiness because it fits the gaucheness of the film and the primeval nature of the story.  I have watched with the sound off, while playing a CD, but that doesn't work.

Enjoy the village wedding, and the march of the trolls, with their crude costumes and lumpy dancing.  The Bøygen though, was made for the movies. A disembodied head appears ,wobbling in front of dark curtains. He speaks - with an American accent !  Heston is, unquestionably, the star. After all, Peer Gynt lives only for himself ! The camera lingers lovingly on his face and body. He's often seen with his chest oiled up, his features lit so he resembles a  Greek God.  He's so beautiful that you can see why Peer is so much in love with himself. (Heston has a slight , ironic smile, he knows it's only a movie).  The crew were amateurs, too, though the director, who also wielded a camera, David Bradley went on to a proper career in Hollywood.  He was also one the cameramen : maybe we can tell, since some angles and frames are very inventive, while others are shot without much imagination.

Nice dressing up games in the Desert scenes, shot on a beach, the women in bikinis, the "Arabs" playing home made instruments.  No sound, of course, leave that to Grieg.  When sound does again intrude, it happens when Peer grows old and hears Solveig's Song (badly sung, in English).  Please also see my other pieces on Grieg and on Peer Gynt . HERE is a link to my description of the two main recordings of the incidental music with added text. Ole-Kristian Ruud and Guillaume Tournaire. Time for a new one, I hope.

Friday 11 August 2017

Lise Davidsen Luonnotar steals whole Prom ! Storgårds BBCPO

At the BBC Proms, Lise Davidsen stole the show with a spectacular Sibelius Luonnotar. op 17 (1913). Luonnotar is a life force exploding with such intensity that its spirit seemed to spring from the depths of Sibelius's soul, materializing in his score.  At the time it was written, Sibelius was at a crossroads. With his Fourth Symphony he was reaching towards new horizons but hadn’t quite come to terms with their implications. He was approaching uncharted waters and the prospect was daunting. As before, he turned to the ur-source of Finnish mythology for inspiration.
Luonnotar was written for, and premiered by the great Finnish soprano Aino Ackté.  Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was another early champion. When she sang it in Helsinki in 1955, she was moved to say that it was the "best thing she had ever done in her life". There is a clip of this performance but sound quality is poor. Schwarzkopf had guts: until then, most sopranos steered clear of this piece unless they were Finnish (a beautiful language, but tricky to sing) and weren't bothered about the strikingly modern savagery in the part.

Lise Davidsen's Luonnotar was mightily impressive.  Her voice is magnificent, floating the strange modulations in the line with well-judged poise, projecting the keening forward lines so they seek out the furthest corners of space.   Voice as tsunami ! Her Luonnotar is very, very strong, for Luonnotar is the mother of creation itself, forged from struggle.  Davidsen is only 30, so she still has a way to go, but she could well be one of the really great voices of our time, a worthy successor to Söderström, Isokoski and Mattila.  Recently she astonished audiences at Glyndebourne with her Ariadne : definitely a singer to watch.

Luonnotar is the Spirit of Nature, Mother of the Seas, who existed before creation, floating alone in the universe before the worlds were made "in a solitude of ether". Descending to earth she swam in its primordial ocean for 700 years. Then a storm blows up and in torment, she calls to the god Ukko for help. Out of the Void, a duck flies,looking for a place to nest. Luonnotar takes pity and raises her knee above the waters so the duck can nest and lay her eggs. But when the eggs hatch they emit great heat and Luonnotar flinches. The eggs are flown upwards and shatter, but the fragments become the skies, the yolk sunlight, the egg white the moon, the mottled bits the stars. This was the creation myth of the Karelians who represented the ancient soul of the Finnish cultural identity
.The orchestra may play modern instruments and the soprano may wear an evening gown, but ideally they should convey the power of ancient, shamanistic incantation, as if by recreating by sound they are performing a ritual to release some kind of creative force. The Kalevala was sung in a unique metre, which shaped the runes and gave them character, so even if the words shifted from singer to singer, the impact would be similar. Sibelius does not replicate the metre though his phrases follow a peculiar, rhythmic phrasing that reflects runic chant. Instead we have Sibelius’s unique pulse. In my jogging days, I’d run listening to Night Ride and Sunrise, finding the swift, "driving" passages uncommonly close to heart and breathing rhythms. It felt very organic, as if the music sprang from deep within the body. This pulse underpins Luonnotar too, giving it a dynamism that propels it along. They contrast with the big swirling crescendos, walls of sonority, sometimes with glorious harp passages that evoke the swirling oceans.

The last passages in the piece are brooding, strangely shaped phrases which again seem to reflect runic chanting, as if the magical incantation is building up to fulfilment. And indeed, when the creation of the stars is revealed, the orchestra explodes in a burst of ecstasy. The singer recounts the wonder, with joy and amazement: "Tähiksi taivaale, ne tähiksi taivaale". ("They became the stars in the heavens!"). I can just imagine a singer's eyes shining with excitement at this point - and with relief, too, that she’s survived! As Erik Tawaststjerna said, "the soprano line is built on the contrast between …the epic and narrative and the atmospheric and magical".

In his minimalist text, Sibelius doesn’t tell us that  in the Kalevala, Luonnotar goes on to carve out the oceans, bays and inlets and create the earth as we know it, or tell us that she became pregnant by the storm and gave birth later to the first man. But understanding this piece helps to understand Sibelius’s work and personality. Like the goddess, he was struggling with creative challenges and beset by self-doubt and worry. Perhaps through exploring the ancient symbolism of the Kalevala, he was able in some way to work out some ideas: in Luonnotar, I can hear echoes of the great blocks of sound and movement in the equally concise and to the point Seventh Symphony. The year after Luonnotar, Sibelius was to explore ocean imagery again in The Oceanides, whose Finnish title is Aallottaret, or "Spirit of the Waves", just as Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, tossed by waves. The Oceanides, written for a lucrative commission from the United States, is a more popular work, and beautiful, but doesn’t have quite the unconventional intensity and uniqueness of Luonnotar. One of the things that fascinates me about Sibelius is the way he envisions remarkable new territory, yet pulls back as if overwhelmed by the force of what lies ahead.

Prior to that stunning Luonnotar, John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestara in  the suite from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt (of which I've written HERE) and HERE where Davidsen sang Solveig's Song Under Storgårds, the BBCPO sounds thrillingly alive. In Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor op 129, their support for soloist Alban Gerhardt was superb, almost palpable, as if in symbiosis.  To conclude, Paul Hindemith Symphony "Mathis der Maler".  A garagantuan programme, pretty hard to pull off by any standards. I could write volumes but I'm all wrung out.