Saturday 30 September 2017

Berlin glows: Barenboim Beethoven Staatsoper livestream

Berlin, gleaming gold in the autumn evening sunshine - Daniel Barenboim Beethoven Symphony no 9 in the open air, on the Unter Den Linden, part of the Staatsoper für Alle festival,  a gala marking the re-opening of the Staatsoper building after seven years’ renovation and improvements. Thousands of people (close to 10,000?) packed in the length of the boulevard and perhaps in the squares beyond, all paying rapt attention to a superb performance.  Barenboim conducted the Staatsoper Orchestra with René Pape, Burkhard Fritz, Diana Damrau and  Okka von der Damerau.  Barenboim conducted stylishly, the orchestra, looking relaxed, responding with verve.   As always, excellence sells itself !  A happy crowd, kids and old folk, there for the music, looking slightly embarrassed when the cameras panned on them.  This is what "music education" should be - no silly gimmicks.  Sadly, I don't think this could be done in the UK.

How astonished Beethoven would have been. "Alle Menschen werden Bruder,Wo den sanfter Flugel weilt".  Hundreds of thousands listening in, all over the world, wonderful music, presented without hype.This was modern technology used to maximum advantage without overkill.  Even the filming was good - the cameras picked up on tiny details like the elderly couple resting against each other, and the handshake between two of the singers at the very end.

And of course, Berlin itself. Once a provincial backwater, transformed in the Age of Enlightenment by Frederick the Great and his ancestors and successors, who are laid to rest in the  Cathedral crypt in elegant but simple tombs : "the Prussian spirit" with its values of integrity, piety and dedication.   At the other end of the Unter den Linden, the Brandenburger Tor, with its grand columns and Quadriga above. The great grandson of the architect, a relative of Henning von Treskow who was executed by the Nazis, observed wryly that the horses in the statue were placed so their metaphorical droppings would land on the heads of rulers who lost touch with reality.  And so the Quadriga has witnessed the comings and goings of despots of all kinds.  Not far away, either, the university named after Alexander von Humboldt who pioneered modern geography and natural science, and the Museuminsel with its amazing collections: relics from Egypt and Assyria through to paintings of the Romantic era, all part of an audacious vision of a cosmopolitan world.   Had Victoria not married Albert, where would London be? The livestream  will be rebroadcast soon on for 30 days. 

Friday 29 September 2017

Nordic Innovation : Philharmonia Salonen Kuusisto

An adventurous start to the Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017-2018 season with an imaginative mini-festival "Nordic Music  Days" curated in part by Esa-Pekka Salonen.  For this opening concert, darkness fell on the Royal Festival Hall, and from the gloom the Arctic Lights of the Aurora Borealis glowed in vivid colours  above the orchestra.  A wonderful introduction to a very creative programme.  Salonen conducted Sibelius Symphonies no 6 and 7, and two works new to London audiences, Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Aeriality and Daniel Bjarnason 's Violin Concerto commissioned for the soloist Pekka Kuusisto.  
Every Finnish musician has Sibelius embedded into their psyche.  Father figures are wonderful things, but you need to become yourself, just as they did in their own time.  Thus when Salonen returned to conducting Sibelius in his late 30's, he could approach the master with fresh perspectives.  Salonen's Sibelius can be bracing, as original and as uncompromising as Sibelius was himself in his own time.  Salonen's Sibelius series at the Barbican, many years ago, was a shock to some, but like clear, pure Arctic air, it was extremely invigorating.  
Sibelius famously compared his Sixth symphony to "pure, cold water" as opposed to the fancy cocktails popular in the 1920's. It springs, as if from some deep  source of primal inspiration.  Here, it flowed freely, the Philharmonia capturing its unique modal harmonies. Thorvaldsdottir’s Aeriality (2011) might also connect to Nature. Figures bubbled up from depths, breaking into sparkling outbursts.  My partner commented "Jón Leifs", the Icelandic Sibelius, who turned landscape into music.
Pekka Kuusisto is one of Nature's originals, too. His love for music is so intense that he communicates enthusiasm not only through his playing but through his personality.  The first time I heard him, he looked like Puck, and his personality  radiated musicality.  He introduced Rautavaara's The Fiddlers with great insight, explaining the role of fiddlers in Finnish culture, and demonstrated techniques. Kuusisto is what music education should be. One Kuusisto is worth a thousand pretentious suits dumbing things down.  Kuusisto genuinely loves what he does and that's what shines through.  
Bjarnason's Violin Concerto is also quite unlike the average violin concerto.  Kuusisto bows odd angles as if settling into some kind of symbiotic bond with his instrument. A pattern gradually emerges, but what are we hearing?  Wailing sounds, whistling, like the exhalation of a wind instrument connected to strings and bow. The woodwinds were playing, but Kuusisto was singing along !  In his black jacket, not unlike the costumes medieval fiddlers used to wear, it seemed as though an ancient figure had materialized on the RFH platform.  The piece seems to move in stages, almost like a ritual, the violin taking on different identities.  At times, Kuusisto played oddly grotesque sounds which defy description, from which snatches of melody start to coalesce.   Sculpting music from rough wood, I thought. Very organic! Using different techniques, Kuusisto seemed to transform his instrument into other, more esoteric instruments.  Sometimes, perhaps we heard a  lute, sometimes a kantele.  I swear I heard an erhu at the end. Overall, the piece flowed extremely well, as if a world of stringed folk instruments were playing together in strange unity.  

And thus to Sibelius Symphony no 7, a work so audaciously original that Sibelius, always hard on himself, might have found difficult to surpass.  It is monumental: wild and craggy yet meticulously structured.  A good performance, spoiled as it reached its climax by mindless premature applause.  

Wednesday 27 September 2017

Pie in the sky, when you die

Long haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat,
They will answer with voices so sweet
You will eat, bye and bye, in that glorious land above the sky, way up high
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky.
When you die. 

Merrily we roll along

Sunday 24 September 2017

Szymanowski Songs for tenor - We mgłach

Karol Szymanowski We mgłach (In the Mist)  Songs op 2. 5, 7, and 11 with Rafał Majzner  and  Katarzyna Rzeszutek  from Dux Recordings, in Poland, continuing their specialist series on Szymanowski which began with releases of his music for solo piano.   Majzner is a Szymanowski specialist. He has written extensively about tenor roles in Szymanowski's operas, roles which are often critically clues as to meaning.  Szymanowski's songs for soprano and

piano are very well known but his songs for tenor less so, making this

disc a must for anyone interested in this most unusual of composers. 

This recording is therefore a must for anyone into Szymanowski, but with one caveat : No texts, no translations.  Since the disc is aimed at Polish audiences, that's no big deal.  The rest of us need to do homework, but that's a good thing. English speakers are so insular that they need to make the effort to find out about Polish culture, history and intellectual life.  Some texts are available (ie Although there aren't any good translations, in a way that's good because it means employing listening skills - understanding the emotional content, responding to the sound of words and the shape of phrases. Active listening, not passive, involving the mind.  That's the way to learn.  (Help greatly welcomed !). Perhaps Dux Recordings could put the texts up on their website ?

The four sets of songs on this recording date from 1900 to 1905, at a very early stage in Szymanowski's career, when he was still a student.  Significantly, all are also settings of living poets, contemporaries of the composer.  Szymanowski began Sześć pieśni (Six Songs), his op  2, aged only 18.  Although the composer was to make his name as a cosmopolitan sophisticate, these songs show that his roots in Polish culture went deep. The texts here were by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (1860-1940) . Przerwa-Tetmajer was both a nationalist and modernist, given that Secessionism and Symbolism were forces for renewal, all over Europe.   Each of these poems is brief, but the imagery is so concentrated that meaning is left deliberately elusive.  The first two songs, in a minor key, are autumnal, but the strong piano part suggests resolve. In both songs, the image of a woman who may no longer exist. With the third song,  We mgłach (In the Mist) the vocal line curves mysteriously, like the mists and streams in the evening cool.  What's happening ? "Bez dna, bez dna! bez granic!" sings Majzner, (No bottom, no bottom, without borders!).  In dreams, the poet hears mysterious voices calling . In the last song, Pielgrzym, the line rises, swelling with hope. "Gdziekolwiek zwrócę krok, wszędzie mi jedno, na północ pójdę, czyli na południe", (Everywhere I turn, from the north I will go south)   Immediately one thinks of the Persian Song of the Night in Szymanowski’s Symphony no 3 and in the Shepherd in the opera Król Roger whose singing changes the King's life. 

Szymanowski's Trzy fragmenty z poematów Jana Kasprowicza op 5 1902 (Three Fragments from Poems by Jan Kaprowicz) are epigrams, short and succint.  Majzner's delivery is elegant yet emotionally expressive.  I can't find translations, but the songs are intriguing.  Łabędź (The Swan) op 7 from 1904, to a poem by Tadeusz Berent, is intense : whatever this swan might be, it's not serene.  

Most intriguing of all, Cztery pieśni (Four Songs) op 11  (1904-5) to poems b y Tadeusz Micinski (1873 - 1918).  A long piano line moves purposefully forward. The vocal lines form patterns, words repeated with different variations.  Something obsessive ?. "Straszą mnie widma i tajemne zbrodnie" (I'm scared of ghosts and secret crimes ?)  Majzner's voice rises in heroic exclamation.  What are these references to Druids and Thermopylae ? In the second song, we are in an enchanted forest, like a child afraid of fairy tales.  The vocal line elides, the piano part seductively leading onwards.   Are we in the world of magical fantasy, tinged with menace, a theme that runs so often through Szymanowski's other work ?  The pace quickens, alert with anticipation, for the sounds are seductive and the imagery rich.  When we reach the final song, Rycz burzo, the rhythms roll in full flow. Turbulent storms, wildly churning figures in the piano.  `References To Prometheus and the mountains of Pelion.Heroic   singing from Majzner, almost a Heldentenor.  Defiance. But the piano rumbles ominously and the song ends, in hushed minor. "cichy, bezkresny niepojęty ból!" (quiet, endless, inconceivable pain)

Hopefully, Dux recordings will continue their saga through Szymanowski's songs and other works 

Please see my other pieces on Szymanowski by clicking on the labels below.

Saturday 23 September 2017

Quickening - songs by Robert Hugill

Quickening - Songs by Robert Hugill is now out on Navona Records.  Hugill sets texts by well known poets like Ivor Gurney, A E Housman and Christina Rossetti, but gives them new life. With lively young singers like Johnny Herford and Anna Huntley, this is a disc worth hearing, though it might take some tracking down as it's not on the commercial bigtime..

Full marks to Hugill for confronting the "dark secret" of A E Housman !  In Housman's time, same sex relationships were illegal. A man's life could be destroyed were he to openly love his fellow man except in religious terms.  To Housman's credit, he was honest enough to confront his feelings.  Housman has probably been set by more English composers than any other poet, but most skirt around what may have been closest to Housman's heart. Prejudices don't die. A few years ago I met a man who claimed to have set Housman's complete works, but went hysterical when I mentioned gay love.

Hugill, however, chooses four poems in which Housman makes veiled references about his unrequited love for Moses Jackson, and turns them into a cycle describing their relationship.  Hugill sets the line "He looked at me, he looked at me" with suppressed excitement, suggesting an intimacy which might lie behind an innocent gaze.  But Housman misread Jackson, who was so shocked that he left England, never to resume their friendship. Thus  the poem "He would not stay for me, and who could wonder?" is set with bitter brevity. "Because I loved you better than  it suits a man to say" is Housman's most explicit statement.  The piano part is deceptively lyrical at first. Then the poet imagines himself dead."The lad that loved you was one that kept his word."   The poem A.J.J. was dedicated to Jackson's brother, but the feelings therein could also apply to Jackson himself who also died young.  Hugill's setting of Housman's When summer's end is nighing (2016) written eight years after the Jacksdon cycle is a reflection on autumnal loss.

With Quickening, settings of six songs by Christina Rossetti, more melancholy brooding. Victorians got off on death. The mood is lightened by Rossetti's girlish femininity, so the poems are set for mezzo, viola and piano.  The Rossetti songs mark a welcome break from the gloominess that shrouds the texts on this disc, which Hugill respects rather too carefully. The cumulative effects can be offset by listening to the groups of songs at different stages. There are four songs set to texts by Ivor Gurney.  More unusually, Hugill sets three  poems by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, part of a Winter Journey which bears no relation with Winterreise, being a traverse through the times of a day in winter - Morning, Afternoon and Evening.   Williams's texts don't sing as naturally as Housman's do, and Afternoon is particularly wordy.  Normally respecting text closely is a good thing, but less so in this case.

Please see my review of  Hugill's  chamber opera When a Man Knows from 2011

Darwin depicted - Michael Stimpson Age of Wonder

Michael Stimpson Age of Wonders, new from Stone Records, with Maya Iwabuchi, Tom Poster and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Stuart Stratford.  Age of Wonders is a meditation on Charles Darwin, whose boundless thirst for knowledge led him to expand the boundaries of science. Darwin's epic discoveries changed the whole way we view the world.  Darwin's genius lay in his ability to synthesize knowledge  and develop theories based on empirical evidence.  Thus The Age of Wonders is a compendium of music and words, taken from Darwin's writings,  developed into an ambitious panorama which runs nearly 130 minutes. If the BBC still made music documentaries, it could be adapted for film, with visual images. Historic photographs and scenes shot in the present, perhaps the Galapagos, or the Natural History Museum. Intriguing possibilities, and truly in the spirit of Darwin's questing mind.

Age of Wonders begins with The Man who Walked with Henslow, a 20-minute reverie for violin and piano. John Stevens Henslow was a botanist and geologist, who, though a Churchman, believed in fact-based knowledge. He fired Darwin's taste for adventure, arranging his passage on HMS Beagle.  The violin poses questioning phrases, long lines that tantalize seductively. The piano answers, at first tentatively, in single chords, then leaping in excited figures, dancing with the violin.  Although Stimpson writes in his notes that it's based on early 19th century form, I'd venture not so, for the men involved were ahead of their time, and, in any case, swept away the certainties of the past. Darwin, inheritor of the spirit that inspired Goethe's scientific theories and the Romantic's explorations of the human soul.  In musical terms The Man who Walked with Henslow is very  modern though it uses conventional language, and is by the far the keynote piece, from which the rest of the material flows.  Very good it is, too, and would make a good stand alone. Superb playing by Maya Iwabuchi, well supported by Tom Poster.

From this evolves a String Quartet (The Beagle) in two movements, "Outbound" and "Inbound", which describe Darwin;'s journey on the Beagle. The first movement develops ideas from the earlier violin/piano piece, while the second describes a merry sailor's jig.  The section titled An Entangled Bank describes Darwin's home at Down House, Kent, and his work on the Origin of the Species, culminating in publication. Scored for string orchestra, it's brisk and busy, as was Darwin's life, no doubt.  From two instruments to quartet and at last to full orchestra with Transmutations, a four-movement development of previous material, now depicting what might be Darwin's  public life.
How one might depict the controversy into which Darwin was thrust for challenging the Bible, I don't know. Stimpson doesn't venture into dangerous waters, as Darwin did, but writes atmospheric figures that beg visual illustration.  He turns from music back to words with musical interludes. The late Robert Tear reads a passage from Darwin's autobiography.  Ruth Padel reads three of her poems on Darwin . At the end, Tear reads Sam Wilberforce's Lines written on Hearing that Professor Huxley had said that he did not care whether his grandfather was an Ape and Padel reads another of her poems, on Darwin's coffin.

Friday 22 September 2017

Simon Rattle's Stravinsky Saga LSO Barbican

In one Herculean, heroic programme, Stravinsky's Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite of Spring, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London. Rattle  believes in what he does and he does it extremely well.  Rattle offers a vision of what the arts might be in Britain if policies were predicated not in dumbing down but smarting up. This is how classical music should be presented, with verve, imagination and flair.  And excellence, without which "education" in itself means nothing. 
Something of Gergiev's tortured genius rubbed off on the LSO, even if his visits were brief and unpredictable. Rattle's been conducting Stravinsky since his youth - many in the audience grew uo with his recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's also conducted a lot of Stravinsky with the Berliner Philharmoniker.  This saga of a programme was a test of stamina. Rattle and the LSO must have been exhausted by the end.  In two and a half hours we traversed the revolution that changed modern music, ballet and modern art forever.  This performance was more than a concert. It re-created the exhilaration that Stravinsky and his contemporaries might have felt in those brief years when the Ballets Russe ventured fearlessly into the new and thrilling.

The sense of occasion seemed to inspire the LSO, who were playing with greater pizzazz and animation than they've done in a long time.  A superb Firebird, in its true colours from 1910.  The Suite is all very well but this full version allows the legend to unfold properly, displaying its true glories.  All music for dance respects the human body, turning physical limitations into art.  In The Firebird, dance literally takes flight, for the Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature.  As orchestral music  The Firebird is liberated, the music flying free.  A wonderful sense of portent in this performance, low winds moaning, harps and strings sparkling.  The finesse of LSO musicianship : every detail defined with crystalline clarity. A virtual jewelbox come alive, colours shining like gems viewed through light. Yet Rattle's instinct for drama enhanced the underlying sadness in the piece: the Prince, like Kaschchey the Immortal, cannot remain unchanged. Thus the seductive oboes and cors anglais and the mournful bassoons.  In The Firebird, Stravinsky was also paying tribute to Rimsky-Korakov's Kaschchey The Immortal and even to The Legend of The Invisible City of Kitezh.  so the piece is haunted. Please read my piece Lost No More on the connections between Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. 

Stravinsky's Petrushka tells a story couched in folklore terms, but it's also an allegory of ritual magic. The puppets aren't masters of their fate. They act out a timeless show of love and loss. Thus the stylized sequences, ideally suited for choreography : decidedly non-symphonic.  Yet Petrushka also works in oddly concerto-like form, the Petrushka theme on different instruments interacting with the orchestral whole. Petrushka outfoxes the Magician and rises from the dead.  Rattle shaped the piece carefully, showing how the "fragmented" structure  works as a kind of ritual procession. From Stravinsky to Messiaen, more connections than one might expect.   Vivid "Russian" images evoked by the colours in the orchestra.

And, at last The Rite of Spring. The journey from Kaschchey to the Twentieth Century is reached, through an invocation of primeval earth magic. The future glimpsed through prehistory.  Rattle shaped the huge angular blocks of sound so they felt like shifting tectonic plates, the cymbals crashing like lava exploding from the core of the Earth.  Yet even more impressive the elusive "vernal" theme that rises, organically, like a miracle from the chaos.  Listen again on BBC Radio 3.

Please see my pieces on the other major concerts in the LSO's This is Rattle series at the Barbican :
National Treasures : British Composers  Elgar, Birtwistle, Ades, Knussen and Grimes 
Blazing Berlioz : the Damnation of Faust

Thursday 21 September 2017

Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !

Max Emanuel Cenčić  (photo Anna Hoffmann)

Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !  And it's also the 35th anniversary of his first stage appearance, when he sang Der Hölle Rache kocht from Die Zauberflöte, aged only 6.  He went on to sing with the Wiener Sängerknaben, where he was a star soloist.  Aged 11 he was the boy soprano in Anton Nanut's cult classic Mahler Symphony no 4. (of which more below). I first heard him live when he was 17 - still a male soprano, his voice intact and unbroken, all the more moving because one knew it couldn't possibly remain so pure forever.  He was singing Schubert. The DOM pianist was salivating, which spoiled the performance.  But thanks to innate musicality, a good "instrument" and flawless technique, Cenčić remained a soprano by training his voice meticulously so it kept its freshness and agility.

Cenčić pioneered the modern Fach of male soprano, of whom there are now quite a few. In his 20's he retrained it again,to countertenor, opening up a much wider range of repertoire.  Now, aged 41, he's at the top of his profession, a megastar in the world of baroque, and perhaps the best Italianate countertenor in the business.  Cenčić's so good, and so charismatic, that he's pioneering the spread of that highly specialized genre. A true groundbreaker !   Congratulations, Max Cenčić, long may you reign !

Back to that Mahler 4  which remains unique to this day. Cenčić recorded it with Anton Nanut and the Ljubljana Radio Symphony back in 1991.  It was an interesting experience, since the final movement of the symphony, normally done by adult soprano, depicts a young child, singing in Heaven of the earthly delights of childhood.  I've written extensively about this symphony and its interpretation - please click on the label below.   In theory, why not cast a kid ?  But it's a difficult part and requires stamina, which is why it is almost always done by an adult. Cenčić struggles, and Nanut holds the orchestra back so it doesn't smother him. Doing M4 with a boy is thus a test, both of singer and of conductor, so it's pretty much given that it's almost impossible to pull off right.  Allowances have to be made. I love this performance because it sounds truly fragile and vulnerable,. The kid is dead, after all, and has suffered, which is why he gets excited about food.  For some people this vulnerability is distressing.  But that's why it's worth seeking out this performance.  We can focus on the sunniness of this symphony, but if we ignore the cruelty and irony behind it, we're missing out.   For that reason, I don't like  Bernstein's recording with a boy treble, because he sounds too "knowing", even a bit smug.  As far as I'ver been able to find out, Bernstein didn't give much in the way of musical justification.  No-one else has done so since, as far as I know.

But I would not dismiss the idea of a treble outright for that reason.    On 27th September, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is conducting Mahler 4 with a boy treble with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, part of a large and ambitious programme.  The British choral tradition is stronger than in  most countries, and  British trebles are its keynote. Kids win scholarships to posh schools and Oxbridge on the basis of their singing, like football players get to college in the US.  If a treble M4 is ever going to work, it needs an unusually good singer and a sensitive conductor.  The CBSO youth choir is way above average,so this sounds promising.  

Monday 18 September 2017

Blazing Berlioz Damnation of Faust Simon Rattle Barbican


Blazing Berlioz The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girl's' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining.  An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.  If Simon Rattle can achieve such excellence in the cramped confines of the Barbican Hall, imagine how Britain's cultural life would be transformed if a world class concert hall with state of the art facilities were built.  The arts are central to the nation's economy and prestige. Britain cannot afford to slip.

As Rattle has said, the London Symphony Orchestra have the potential to do a lot more repertoire, given the chance. Berlioz The Damnation of Faust is an extravagant work. The stage was crowded with performers, and the volume projected into the shoebox that is the Barbican Hall  threatened at times to overwhelm.   On the BBC Radio 3 re broadcast and on the sound balance might be better, but the live experience was intoxicating, despite the acoustic.  Wisely, Rattle held his forces back, emphasizing instead the intricate orchestration  and textures that make this piece so exciting.  It is a sprawling drama, whose theatrical effects are embedded in the music.  In Berlioz's time audiences didn't need literal realism. They paid attention to the music. This performance was so vivid that the Barbican Hall seemed transformed as if by magic, as Berlioz's music came alive.

Faust, the old scholar, watches peasants dancing in the countryside. "Tra la la , Haha ha!" sing the chorus.  It is Easter. Spring has come. Nature blossoms. Christ has risen.  Dare Faust dream of rejuvenation ?    Bryan Hymel sang Faust, the rich, ringing warmth in his voice bringing colour to the role. Hymel then injected chill fear."Hélas! doux chants du ciel, pourquoi dans sa poussière Réveiller le maudit?". Faust is no fool : he already senses the immensity of what is to come.
A Faust as strong as Hymel needs an equally singular Méphistophélès.  Christopher Purves provided an authoritative counterbalance.  The expressiveness in Hymel's voice contrasted with the authority in Purves's voice and his purposeful enunciation. The way Purves sang "Ô pure émotion!" showed how Méphistophélès had sized  Faust up.   A strong Brander, too, in Gabor Bretz.  Though the part isn't big, it's important, for Brander is to the students what Méphistophélès is to Faust. The chorus sang lines that swayed from side to side, as drinkers do.  But an undercurrent of violence runs through the merriment. Purves sings the Song of the Flea but the drunks think it's funny.   In the Voici des roses, Purves suggested the thoughtful side of Méphistophélès.'s character:  low winds and strings evoking melancholy.  The devil is dangerous because he understands human sensitivity, and uses that to manipulate.  Perhaps Méphistophélès. is a kind of Oberon, for Faust is lulled into a dream by a magical flute melody, later taken up by the strings, and the songs of gnomes and sylphs.  A magical scene which owes much to Mendelssohn.

For Faust, a reverie of love. For the students, mindless delusion as they march off to war. Hymel's  aria "Merci, doux crépuscule! " was a star turn, beautifully articulated, glowing with feeling. The phrase "Que j’aime ce silence," glowed beautifully, followed by a deeply felt "et comme je respire Un air pur!"  The orchestra responded in kind, with transparently delicate textures.  When Méphistophélès. butts in, a violin plucks a banal ditty, like a student with a lute. But Faust is made of far finer stff, as is Marguerite.  Karen Cargill sang the Song of the King of Thule .with sincerity.  The song is a paean to fidelity, loyalty so strong it defies death. Garlanded by viola and cellos, it's anothe moment of "silence" where Méphistophélès and the world cannot reach.

Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust owes as much to Shakespeatre as to Goethe. In the magical Evocation, fireflies dance, piccolos playing bright figures augmented by darker hued winds and strings. Textures as transparent as these need this kind of definition There was humour, too, in the trombones and tuba,  which not every orchestra can carry off as well as the LSO.  Purves curled his tongue around the final words, with the menace of a snake, for now Faust and Marguerite have their encounter.  Hymel's "Ange adoré"  glowed resplendently, and his cry "Marguerite est à moi!." scaled the heights.  But the world intrudes, After fast paced exchanges, the lovers are torn apart.  The cross currents between soloists, choirs and orchestra were very well defined.

Then, back to solitude. Cargill's Romance showed her at her finest. matched by evocative oboe accompaniment.  Although some incarnations of Faust emphasize the God/Devil angles in the legend, Berlioz was very much a Romantic, for whom Nature was an alternative diety. Thus the importance of the Invocation. Hymel sang the aria Nature immense, impénétrable et fière, with such fervour it seemed an act of faith.  But Fast is doomed.  Méphistophélès and Faust set off on horses that fly through the sky, defying the laws of Nature.   Wailing woodwinds, and a frenzied pace in the orchestra, tensely plucked pizzicato.  The children's voices screamed "Ah!" and the tubas wailed pounding staccato, Now, Méphistophélès has little need for formal language. "Hop ! Hop!" screamed Purves. My flesh creeped, thinking of the "Hop Hop" at the end of Wozzeck.  The men's chorus walked on stage, among the orchestra, singing their demonic chorus : skat lyrics before the term was invented, interspersed with machine-gun staccato.  Are the demons the students and soldiers?

"Hosana !" sang the  choirs at the back of the stage. Harps sggested angels, and the palpitating, ascending rhythms, the flapping of wings, or the image of water (as opposed to the fires of hell)   And then the children's choirs filed into the auditorium, illuminating the darkness with their high, pure voices.  Like a miracle !

Sunday 17 September 2017

Beefcake ! Berlioz Damnation of Faust Barbican

My review of the Damnation of Faust with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra at the  Barbican is HERE

Berlioz The Damnation of Faust - Simon Rattle  - Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill,  London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican, London . Review HERE. Watch this space and read my other posts on Faust and his many incarnations - not just Berlioz !  (see labels below)

Friday 15 September 2017

National Treasures : Simon Rattle LSO Elgar Birtwistle Knussen Adès

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the LSO. photo Tristram Kenton, courtesy LSO

"This is Rattle" the title of a ten-day Barbican festival inaugurating Sir Simon Rattle as new Music Director at the London Symphony Orchestra.  There's a lot more to being Music Director than conducting.  Rattle is a brilliant communicator whose enthusiasm fires up those around him.  He's the best possible ambassador for the LSO, the Barbican and for British music all round. This concert could mark an historic occasion.  Will Rattle revitalize the LSO and London, as  he transformed the City of Birmingham and its Symphony Orchestra ?  Will Rattle succeed single handedly in reversing the insular philistinism that's plaguing this nation?   In our celebrity-obsessed age, you need a celebrity to reach the masses.  If the new concert hall for London is ever built - and it should be  - somehow Rattle's role should be recognized. This inaugural concert of the new LSO and Barbican season might, in time, prove an historic occasion.  For my review of Rattle's Berlioz Damnation of Faust, click here.

And now, to the music! An all-British programme proving that British music is alive and thriving.  When Sir Edward Elgar was "Britain's Greatest Living Composer", his music was often associated with Birmingham.  Rattle's Elgar credentials go way back  Thus the Enigma Variations, its cheerful geniality matching the occasion.  Once Elgar was "new music". But good music keeps evolving. Britain's "Greatest Living Composer" is now Sir Harrison Birtwistle, so original that his contemporaries, alive or not, don't come close.

Birtwistle's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2010-11) is classic Birtwistle. It operates on several simultaneous layers, moving in well defined patterns, proceeding with the deliberation of ritual magic. It also connects to Birtwistle's operas and music theatre. The soloist, Christian Tetzlaff, for whom it was commissioned, always hold centre stage, the orchestra acting like a  chorus.  A rumbling introduction, suggesting portent.  Almost immediately the violin spins into life - quirky, angular figures - characteristic Birtwistle zig-zags, lit by sudden explosions in the orchestra - high strings, then low winds, and an underlying pulse which emerges in bursts of ostinato.  Five "dialogues" in which the violin discourses with individual instruments.  Unlike Greek drama where the chorus comments on proceedings, the orchestra follows the soloist, interacting with the inventiveness in the violin part. Frequent exclamation points - a gong,  bell-like marimba like a laugh of recognition,  exotic sounds whose meaning may be unclear but significant, nonetheless.  Wild outbursts and delicate, wayward passages.  The violin sings at the top of its register, tantalizingly beyond and above the orchestra, which responds with groaning blasts. Inventive, richly rewarding and enlivened by Birtwistle's whimsical wit.  An excellent companion piece to Elgar's Enigma Variations: the pair should be heard together more often.

Simon Rattle's associations with Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adès are even closer.  Rattle premiered Adès's Asyla in 1995 in Birmingham and recorded it with the CBSO and later with the  Berliner Philharmoniker.  Indeed, he included it in his inaugural concert in Berlin in 2002.  The title "Asyla" refers to asylums, places of refuge as well as incarceration.  It's pertinent, since it's a piece of incessant variations. Inspired by techno music and the idea of repeated mechanical patterns, it channels obsession into energy. Though the famous third movement allegedly depicts swarming hordes bobbing up and down in a crowded nightclub, probably high on drugs, the same could apply to shamanistic dance, where shamans, often high on peyote, dance themselves into oblivion, thereby releasing their subconscious.  Asylum as escape and refuge, yet also dangerous.  Thus the grand Hollywoodesque climax, an ejaculation in many ways.  Asyla can be read as a series of variations, though, unlike Birtwistle and Elgar, these variations are tinged with insanity and desperation.   Adès's finest work feeds off this primal energy. Perhaps it needs challenge to keep the sparkplugs firing.  Some of his later work isn't as good as Asyla, or The Tempest, or America: a Prophecy, but he's still an important composer. 

Pointedly, Rattle included Oliver Knussen in his pantheon. Knussen has been a regular at the Barbican, so Rattle could hardly fail to acknowledge his role in promoting new music, in London, in Birmingham and at Aldeburgh.   But their relationship is closer than that : Rattle conducted Knussen when Knussen was barely out of his teens.  Knussen's Symphony no 3 (1973-79) takes its cue from Shakespeare's Ophelia, distraught with grief, singing "mad songs" in Hamlet For more background, please read the description  on Faber, who are Knussen's publishers.  The piece has been in Rattle's repertoire since CBSO days. It's a pity that the only recording of this work was not by Rattle, who reveals Knussen's Symphony in its full glory:  (Knussen's conducted it lots, too). It's an amazing work, at turns quirky, magical, demented and inspired. 

Knussen's Third Symphony is wordless, but its sinuous figures suggest curving, swaying movement, like a dancer turning in circles. Knussen has referred to its "cinematic" nature and "the potential relationship in film between a tough and fluid narrative form and detail which can be frozen or 'blown up' at any point." Without words, Knussen creates drama, in the shifting layers and tempi. Each permutation unfolds like a frenzied dance, or perhaps processional, given the size of these orchestral forces. The orchestra is huge - especially for a piece that lasts 15 minutes, but at its heart lie just three players, a sub unit of celeste, harp and guitar (alternating mandolin). Does that suggest Mahler's Seventh Symphony, and its strange Nachtmusik? Knussen and Mahler don't sound the least bit similar, but the comparison is fruitful, because both symphonies evoke contradictory responses. That's part of their enigmatic power.  Knussen's symphony "dances" with grave dignity, strong tutti chords suggesting fractured intensity. Darkness and blinding bright light. Yet at the heart, quiet, simple sounds suggesting the fragile human soul within.

A wonderful performance - let's hope Rattle and the LSO do it again, in tribute, for Knussen is very much "more" than a composer, just as Rattle is "more" than a conductor. Knussen's a towering figure in every way, who has done more than most for music in this country.  Because his energies have found so many outlets, he hasn't written as much as he might have, but almost everything he does write is top notch, top rank.

Among the many composers Knussen has nurtured is Helen Grime.  Appropriately, Rattle chose her for the the piece with which the concert began - Fanfare - from a much larger work still in progress.  Another excellent choice, linking the past to the future, proof that music in Britain is alive and well and deserves to thrive. 

Wednesday 13 September 2017

Natives and freedom - The Hurricane 1937

"A sense of honour in the South Seas is as about as silly as  a silk hat in a hurricane"  says Dr Kersaint to M. De Laage, the tyrannical governor of Manikura, a French colony in the South Pacific, who is "under the spell of honour and duty" and defines honour as the need to impose control on feckless natives. A ship arrives, bringing Mme De Laage, and Terangi, the First Mate, a born sailor who "kept hanging from the mast like a bird, with wings stretched for home".

The natives rush cheerfully aboard the ship to welcome the crew home, to the strains of Aloha Oe (read more about that song here). The natives, as the Doctor says, "are like birds who need to flock together in the breeze" The village celebrates the wedding of Terangi and Marama. Great shots of native girls in leis and Terangi's muscular bare chest.  Terangi and Marama set off in a dugout for an island honeymoon.  But Terangi smells a good wind: the ship sets sails again. In Tahiti, Ternagi and his friends are in a bar with loose women who smoke. Terangi plays with a mechanical hula doll with childish delight.  "Get up when a white man tells you!" sneers a drunk. Ternagi fells him with one blow.

But in colonies, fighting back is insurrection. The Hurricane's subtext was dangerous. Setting the movie in a French colony disguised the fact that the same brutal rules applied elsewhere, including Hawaii.   Or in the mainland US, for that matter.

Terangi is imprisoned. Being a free spirit, he keeps escaping and his sentence gets extended.   "Sixteen years in a cell with rats as companions".in chains, being whipped, doing hard labour., but Terangi remains unbroken.  He escapes again from maximum security, but inadvertently kills a guard. He steals a canoe and paddles 600 miles back to Manakura, navigating by the winds, braving storms at sea.  The local Priest takes him in secrecy to an island, where he's reunited with Marama and their child.

Back in Manakura, a hurricane is building up.  "Imagine Paris", says Mme De Laage, "civilizations don't do well in a hurricane"   The natives are restless : they know something, they're smiling.  Terangi's a legend, a symbol of freedom. De Laage finds out where he's hidden and sets off to capture him.  "You'll find a stronger authority than me in that storm!" cries the Priest. The hurricane hits Manakura.  People take shelter in the church, whose bells won't stop ringing in the wind. Fabulous cinematography - sheets of rain, flying debris, palm trees crashing, pounding waves. I've been in hurricanes. When I first saw this film on TV, it seemed realistic enough (to a kid).  

Terangi appears in a boat and the priest tells him to save those he can, who include Mme De Laage.  Eventually the church bell falls silent. But by then the church has been flattened, the priest and most of his parishioners killed. Terangi and his family wash up on a beach and light a fire. M. De Laage comes and rescues his wife. Terangi and his family escape in a war canoe.  De Laage spots it in the distance from his ship. "It's just debris" says his wife.

Given that The Hurricane was made in 1937, the director John Ford and producer Samuel Goldwyn really couldn't take risks with the authorities, so they probably needed to play up the pseudo-religious moralizing, which is pretty turgid. Overlook that, though, and the movie is daringly radical. It challenges racism outright, and the idea of rigid, relentless power structures.  Although  Ternagi and Marama are acted by white people in  brownface (Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour) and the characters they play are cardboard, the stereotypes aren't negative.  Compare The Hurricane to Typhoon, the 1940 Paramount movie shot in (then) glorious Technicolor and maximum special effects. There, the natives are no more than scenery and Dorothy Lamour's part serves only to offer glimpses of her body. Typhoon is  B movie crime flick set in the tropics. The Hurricane is much more, and would have been even better had Hollywood, and the West in general, been ready for something stronger.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Dvořák Festival Prague Stabat Mater - Opolais Kurukova Samek René Pape

Dvořák Stabat Mater, Prague  photo: Petra Hajska

Dvořák Stabat Mater keynote of the 2017 Dvořák Festival at the Rudolfinium, Prague. Emmanuele Villaume conducted the PKF Philharmonia, Prague, with the Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno (concertmaster Petr Fila) and soloists Christine Opolais, Jana Kurucová, Richard Samek and René Pape. Outstanding singing - even better than on the recent recording where Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Choir. (read more hereBělohlávek  founded the PKF Philharmonia Prague in 1992 after he left the Czech Philharmonic The two orchestras thus had parallel lives.  Bělohlávek never really left the Czech Philharmonic, and became Chief Conductor again in 2010, heralding a new golden age for Czech repertoire, both in Czechia and in the UK.  The PKF Philharmonia Prague continues to thrive.Bělohlávek remained Conductor Laureate. The PKF has a slightly different profile and leaner, lighter sound.  But both orchestras honour Antonín Dvořák, whose statue stands facing the Rudolfinium as if he were a guiding spirit.  

The surging, swelling motifs in the first movement set the affirmative tone. Though the term Stabat Mater refers to the Virgin's Mary's grief as a mother on the death of her son, in theological terms it's a contemplation on faith.  Dvořák's Stabat Mater is sorrowful, but ultimately uplifting: the devout believe in the resurrection of the soul.  Thus the surging thrust that runs through the piece, the choir entering with "Stabat Mater!" in hushed tones.  While Bělohlávek shaped the pulse so profoundly that it resonated like the rhythms of a human body, Vuillame has the edge with far better singers. Richard Samek, the tenor, was superb.  He impressed in   Bělohlávek''s Dvořák Requiem earlier this year (read more here)r   His voice has a Helden ring, yet conveys depth and tragedy : when he sang Dalibor in 2015, he created the complexity in the character.  (read more here). Samek's voice was well complemented by that of Kristine Opolais.  She's a brilliant Rusalka, the silvery clarity of her timbre enriched by tenderness and sensitivity.  The women she portrays in her roles end up suffering.  An inspired choice for a cantata about the Virgin Mary, whose son must die for the good of mankind.  .  
Further depth was supplied by the richness of the voices of Jana Kurucová and René Pape.  Kurucová is relatively young, but interesting, while Pape is of course a mega star: luxury casting for a cantata. He's magnificent, the authority in his singing adding depth to all around him.  This Stabat Mater is worth hearing for him alone, he's so good.   Excellent balance between the four soloists, and between the soloists and male and female voices.  The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno are very good indeed.  Bělohlávek's Dvořák Stabat Mater is better orchestrally and the singing was fine, but the singing in this performance is in a different league, making this a Stabat Mater to remember.   "Amen ! Amen !" the choirs and soloists sang in multi-layered filigree, while the textures in the orchestra softened to rapturous wonder. 

Sunday 10 September 2017

Vision-free Last Night of the Proms 2017

Nina Stemme at the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2017. She was not the only one left open-mouthed by this year's Non-Event LNOP, which was as vision-free as most of the this year's season.  Formula works, to some extent. Stemme is such a megastar that even those who know zilch about music know who she is and that she does Wagner. So nil imagination  needed to make her do Brünnhilde while singing Rule Britannia. So no-one really goes to the Last Night for music. But Nina Stemme deserves better !  She's an artist not a cartoon.  A few years back, Roderick Williams did it in street clothes. That was infinitely more sincere and moving and more in the spirit of the anthem.  Dressing up is all very well, but it needs to be done with genuine flair and humour,  the way Juan Diego Florez did last year as Inca Prince and the skit on Paddington Bear as homeless immigrant. (Please read more here).  It's not Stemme's fault. It's the marketing philosophy behind the Proms these days that puts commercialism above music.

Formula is all very well and, thanks to formula, there were many good Proms this year, scattered around the crass detritus. Thanks to good performers who actually like music, not the suits behind formula.   How did the Royal Albert Hall get its name ?   The vision of a Prince who believed in excellence and learning.   Who created the Proms ? A man with vision who loved music and believed that ordinary people could appreciate serious music which wasn't dumbed down.   Instead, we're now locked into the "Ten Pieces" mentality, probably the worst case of moronic, musically illiterate goonishness ever. The first year, it was a gimmick but repeated and extended it's become a joke that's gone stale. Yet again, formula without vision.  Alan Davey  claimed "Don't apologise for classical music's complexity. That's its strength". So if he really believes that, why not act on it? For a start, the BBC should scrap the Ten Pieces groupthink and get rid of those behind it.

What makes the Last Night of the Proms so much fun is that it's when Prommers party.  Party, as in having fun, not party as in Party. As someone interviewed for the broadcast said "We Germans can't do that". They've seen where mass rallies and jingoism can lead.   Flag waving wasn't a LNOP tradition til fairly recently, and in principle, there's nothing wrong with it. But there's flag waving because you love your country, and flag waving as a form of passive aggression and intimidation. Again, hidden messages. Parry's Jerusalem arranged by Elgar, setting a poem by William Blake whose real meaning has been misappropriated.  Read more about that here. What's more, Parry's original version is more questioning than truculent. It might not go down well these days.\funny how

Funnyn how Nigerl Farage and his pals in the media are attacking those who handed out EU flags, while conveniently forgetting that Aron Banks, w2ho bankriolled Brexit and UKIP did the same stunt last year. 

What also makes the Last Night great is the sense of spontaneity and irreverence. This is why it responds so well to current affairs and social conscience.  The Conductor's Speech varies, but the best have been the ones which came from the conductor's heart.  That's why conductors need freedom. The job usually falls to the Chief of the BBC SO, the BBC's flagship orchestra, which works so hard all year around.  Sakari Oramo's a genial, engaging character, with integrity. No firebrand he.   But this year, he was reading a script so banal it sounded like it had been cobbled together by BBC management. All bullet points and mealy mouthed platitudes. Like the bit about women conductors. If the Proms really cared about women, why stick to one token conductor, moulded by Bernstein, whose speeches were self-promotion  as opposed to the common cause? Oramo is a good speaker because he's real.   Rumour had it that the political powers that be, in whose hands the BBC's fate lies, wanted to control the LNOP speech. And perhaps they did.

But if such politicians and those who influence them (to put it gently) were so secure in their beliefs, why would they feel threatened by Barenboim and Igor Levit?  We don't live in truly democratic times but in a world where those who control the media control minds and use their power to bypass parliamentary process and the very right to dissent.  Fact is, most people in the music business, and in the business world in general,  have experience dealing with the complexities  of the situation.  Regular Prommers, the ones who come all season for the music, not just for LNOP, often think on the same lines.  So why the fear? In a democracy, you live with alternatives, you don't suppress them.

Nice enough music, though the LNOP isn't really about music. Most memorable apart from Stemme's Liebestod, were Sibelius's Finlandia Hymn in the version made in 1941 with a text relevant to the war between Finland and Russia,  and Zoltán Kodály Budavári Te Deum with Lucy Crowe, Christine Rice, Ben Johnson (looking natty in a beard) and John Relyea.  Good stuff from the BBC Singers and BBC SO Chorus.   Much lesss edifying, though, tye pieces by Mlcolm SAargeant, w2ho was a great marketeer, and \John Adams, both of whom included to fulfill the obssession with formul themes, not for intrinsic musical value.

Many improvements this year in the physical management of the Proms, like not letting latecomers enter willy nilly, and exceptionally helpful ushers and security staff. The people at Door 9 in particular deserve praise, though praise from the public doesn't often get relayed down to the folks on the ground.  The presenters are less hyped-up, too, thank goodness, though some of the chat shows were dire. So many thanks to someone getting things as right as possible.  Hopefully those standards of excellence will apply in future to artistic policy and (dare I say) the Vision Thing.