Thursday 30 November 2017

Sakari Oramo Sibelius 4 & 6, Anders Hillborg

Sakari Oramo, Lisa Batiashvili, Stockholm. (Harrison Parrott)

 Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO continued their current Barbican Sibelius series with Sibelius Symphonies no 4 and 6,  with Anders Hillborg's Violin Concerto no 2, with soloist Lisa Batiashvili.  Oramo conducted the world premiere last October with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.  These days, major premieres are often planned with numerous performances planned in advance, so the fact that the piece had been done ten times in 13 months means not a lot in itself.  But Hillborg's second Violin Concerto is exhilarating : definitely worth the exposure. 

The piece begins with a remarkable frenzy of fragmented sounds, dazzling brightly, then retreating into gentle murmur as the violin emerges with long, sensuous lines.  The introduction is heard again, in more sophisticated form, when Batiashvili plays a passage where the bow moves swiftly at high pitch.  Interesting things too, in the next development, where the orchestra defines percussive figures.  Batiashvili played a cadenza that seemed wild but disciplined at the same time. Oddly enough I imagined  ancient drummers seated on the earth supporting a dancer : artists from another time and place haunting the formality of a modern concert hall.  Then the piece really took off.  Traceries and intricate, inventive passions, counterpoint and symmetry : a very rich mix. Swathes of sound from Batiashvili's violin alternated with passages of fast paced virtuosity.  Eventually the piece reaches sublimation. The violin sings at top pitch, the lines growing longer and more mysterious. Towards the end the "ancient" rhythms return and the music hurtles forwards with an outburst of energy. The "drums" pound and the violin part swirls like a dervish, lines sliding and twirling. A finale that began suggesting elegy, but suddenly disappeared, like magic.

Oramo's choice of Sibelius's Sixth and Fourth Symphonies added context to Hillborg's second Violin Concerto.   After Sibelius's magnificent Symphony no 5, his Symphony no 6 in D minor op 104 (1923) comes as a bracing reparative. hence the famous analogy of fresh spring water as opposed to fancy cocktails.   While the vernal quality of Sibelius's Third symphony derives from Nature and the Finnish landscape, the purity of his Sixth Symphony connects to more abstract sources   Always  acutely aware of what was happening in the rest of Europe, Sibelius reacted by returning to a mode which had little obvious counterpart abroad.  In some ways, the Sixth is "about" music, finely distilled and unsullied. Hence the Dorian mode with its suggestions of ancient music, whether Finnish or otherwise, harking back to a kind of primeval consciousness.  The orchestration is simple - strings and woodwinds,  "allegro" in every sense.  Adapting the analogy of fresh water, the music flows freely, elements moving and combining like the passage of a stream bursting from a powerful source.  Depth builds up with darker sounds, setting the mood for the figure with which the second movement begins.  Purposeful rhythms, contrasts between expansive gestures and primal simplicity. The unusual combination of rolling timpani and woodwinds might also suggest inspiration from sources before modern time.  In the final movement, Oramo shaped the "reverential" theme on the strings so it felt like a heartfelt anthem. 

And so the programme ended by going backwards, so to speak, to Sibelius Symphony no 4 in A minor op 63,  to a point in the composer’s life when he was preoccupied with dark thoughts.  Like the Seveth Symphony, the Fourth is shockingly modern in the way it sets out ideas without sugar coating or excess.   The themes have a craggy, almost monumental quality ; Oramo sculpted the solidity so firmly that the cello and strings motif  seemed to rise like mists. Thunderous timpani, but fleeting, scurrying figures hurried towards the theme heralded by horn calls   What do those expansive gestures and the imagery of horns signify ? Are we in a clearing between emotional mountains ? Open textures contrast with tense, repeated moments. There's something feral here as if the music is finding its way like an untamed beast. Hence subdued tones, and searching lines.  In the final movement, the "mountains" loom upwards again, but the marking is Allegro.  The  motif for single violin suggests that small figures will not be crushed.  The rushing figures seemed brighter than before, lit by "bells" . Horns and winds together: not alone.  The last moments were like an anthem of defiance.

Hillborg, Batiashvili and Oramo at the premiere of Hillborg's Violin Concerto no 2 (Harrison Parrott)

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Andrè Schuen - Schumann Lieder and Ladin Song

Schumann Lieder with Andrè Schuen and Gerold Huber  Note accent grave, not  agui. He's not French but Ladin, from the Dolomites in South Tirol. Remember, because he's very promising indeed and we should be hearing a lot from him.  He's still only 33, but the richness and  depth in his lower register is quite splendid. Nice definition, too.  Nice looks, which will help on stage ! I missed his Wigmore Hall recital last year but now he features on a BR Klassik concert, recorded last week in Munich.   Schumann  12 Lieder nach Gedicten aus Justinius Kerner op 35 and Fünf Lieder,op. 40 to start the programme and Schumann 6 Gedichte und Requiem, op. 90 to end, framing five songs in Ladin, of which more later.

Though Schumann's Kerner Lieder are a true cycle, in the sense that they're more integrated as a whole than might at first appear, they also pose challenges. Right from the start, in  Lust der Strumnach,  Schuen launches into the storm-tossed turbulence. "Regen schauert, Stürme brausen", he sings, defiantly, the darkness in his timbre bringing out the darkness that lies at the heart of this cycle. Almost schizoid extremes of mood characterize the traverse, notes lie very high and very low. This turbulence even rumbles beneath Stirb'  Lieb’ und Freud”in which a man watches a novice transfixed by religious ecstasy. The tessitura suddenly peaks so high that some
singers scrape into falsetto; very few can manage the sudden tour de force transition with relative ease.  Schuen is strained, but nearly all singers are, too : nothing wrong with that in principle, since this represents a scream of anguish. The woman is renouncing the world, the man condemned to living death.  In
Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenes Freundes', the canon-like melody has a grandeur that raises it above a mere drinking song. It has an elegaic quality, suggesting an organ in a cathedral – linking back again to the mood of Stirb'   Lieb’ und Freud. Its long lines demand exceptional skill in phrasing, for it ponders the mystery of the relationship between the living and the dead, and along the way reflects the composer’s love of “Gold der deutschen Reben!”– at these lines there is a touching modulation which is sustained through the grandeur of “Auf diesen Glauben, Glas so hold!”A spider has wound its web round the long-dead man's wineglass.  Again, Schumann forces the singer's voice  way up his register. suggesting heights and distances the living cannot reach.  but Schuen carries it off very well.

The five songs in Schumann's Fünf Lieder, op 40 are a test of Schuen's dramatic skills.  The first two songs, Märzvielchen  and Muttertraum,  are relatively gentle, but the third, Der soldat, is sheer horror.    A man loves another more dearly than anyone else in the world, But what's happening ? His friend is being executed.  The beloved isn't a girl but a man: and we don't know the full circumstances.  Psychologically, this is a disturbing song, despite the steady march pace.  In comparison even Der Spielmann Op 40/4  might seem conventional since it connects to ancient traditions. The set ends with Verratene Liebe , which dances merrily, but describes cosmic betrayal. The stars steal the lovers’ kisses and throw them away. Freudians might detect sexual anxiety.

South Tirol was once ruled by Austria, and now by Italy. History has not been kind, and tensions still run high. All the more reason that those who know and love Ladin culture need to preserve and promote it.  There are variant dialects, blending German, Italian and Ladin heritage.  Knowing Macau, and having Romansch-speaking Swiss friends, I can relate to that !  Many outsiders know some famous figures of the region like Luis Trenker (see more HERE) and Max Tosi, but there are many other significant figures.  

In this recital, Schuen sang three songs by Felix Dapoz (b 1938), Ben dante mile steres, A la net and Alalt al oi.  The first is strophic, almost prayer-like. The second is altogether more upbeat, with a jaunty piano line  and recurring refrain "Viva, viva Liberté!".  Nos salvans by Jepele Frontull is tender and nicely paced, and Salüæ dal frostì by Lipo Verginer, art song with echoes of folk song.   Schuen’s sincerity and obvious love for these songs and what they stand for, warms them and makes them beautiful in their own way.  I can imagine Schuen doing good things with Hugo Wolf Italiensiches Liuederrbuch

Schuen and Huber followed the Ladin songs with Schumann Sechs Lieder op 90.  The first song, Lied eines Schmeides , has gentle but purposeful rocking rhythms which work well with the Ladin songs.  In Die Sennin, Schuen again reveals a gift for lyricism. "Schöne Sennin, noch einmal" he sings, brightly, but his voice dims sensitively for the critical lines "Wenn dich Liebe fortbewogen, Oder dich der Tod entzogen."  One day, the girl will be gone, but the mountains will remain, remembering her songs.  We're being prepared for the melancholy in Der schwere Abend . In the Requiem, though, Schumann turns to elegy. Schuen's voice rises carrying the long, heroic lines.  Rolling figures in the piano part, but firm resolve in the vocal line. 

Andrè Schuen - photo Guido Werner 2017 Kunstler Sekretariat am Gasteig

Sunday 26 November 2017

London Sinfonietta Landmarks - Birtwistle Xenakis Matthews Rihm

Silbury Hill collage, from London Sinfonietta
 A great London Sinfonietta experience with Martyn Brabbins conducting Xenakis, Birtwistle, Wolfgang Rihm and Colin Matthews at St John's, Smith Square.  As the London Sinfonietta nears its 50th anniversary, it’s good to hear them presenting landmarks from their core repertoire.  Good music is always "Unfinished Business", revealing  more with each experience. Governments want to divest themselves of responsibility for education, forcing orchestras to change their focus. But excellence "is" education, and education doesn't just mean people who wouldn't normally listen to music.  Hopefully the London Sinfonietta will return to its pioneering roots and be proud of what they do.
Harrison Birtwistle's Silbury Air ( 1977/2003) is a case in point.  It's one of the great classics of the repertoire, inspired by Silbury Hill, a neolithic mound rising steeply above the flat plains of Wiltshire. In foggy conditions, it looms above the mist as if it were a strange alien entity.  It connects to other prehistoric land forms in the area, such as Avebury, Long Barrow and Stonehenge.  Building these  monuments may have taken millennia, constructed as they were without modern tools. Yet no-one knows who built them, or why.  "Unfinished Business", mysteries we may never solve.  Silbury Air is an evocation in musical form of many ideas Birtwistle has been developing over many years: layers of sound like geological strata, cells growing organically into denser blocks,  always moving.  Tiny percussive fragments (including harp and piano - Rolf Hind)  grew into a long seamless drone, with oboe, B flat clarinet and trombone.  Flurries of notes, building up patterns.  Temple blocks and metallic brass : lines swaying in characteristic Birtwistle waywardness.  Could we hear neolithic workmen hammering away ? And echoes of The Rite of Spring ? Textures thinned out : high strings and winds, surprisingly subdued, mysterious brass chords, percussion in various forms beating time.  Ticking sounds, too  - the passage of time - an elusive flute theme rising above.  Single harp chords. Hard to tell when sound merged into silence, but that, I think, is the point.

Organic growth, too, in Iannis Xenakis Thalleïn (1984)  The title means "sprouting"  Thus the sudden but sustained chord, exploding like a siren, high-pitched sounds rising upwards, rhythmic cells bubbling along. An exotic glissando that decelerated before rising up again - a tendril, unfurling and swaying. Further loops of sound (winds and brass), sparkling flurries and single notes plucked on piano and percussion.  The music moves through several distinct phases, ideas carried through and developed anew.  Dense textures alternated with stark staccato, evolving into florid glissando multitudes.  Percussion chords anchored wildly rhythmic figures.  Single chords along the keyboard danced with drums and strings.   Long wailing brass and  single chord percussion. The "siren" opening returned, in new form, with a strong brass line. Xenakis creates shapes with sound, shapes so inventive that they could be depicted in visual form.

As I listened to Xenakis, I thought of Boulez's many Notations,  reconfiguring and growing like a Mandelbrot, the very essence of life.  So it was good to hear Colin Matthews’ Contraflow (1992)  after Xenakis Thalleïn. Again, the idea of shapes spiralling and unfolding, with joyous proliferation.  It's "contraflow" in the sense of two forces meeting and merging. Colin Matthews is a major figure in British new music and very much a part of the London Sinfonietta heritage.

Since this concert was a sampler programme, we didn't get to hear the whole of Wolfgang Rihm's Chiffre-Zyklus (1982-6), which evolved from Chiffre I through a series of different instrumental groupings to form a traverse, though each section can be played individually.  Here, though, we heard Chiffres II (of X) subtitled "Silence to be Beaten" (1983). From near silence, a strident chord which breaks into zig zags, movement further propelled by rushing rhythms, capricious figures for winds and brass, alternating by piano beating time like a metronome.  Energetic blocks of sound which suddenly disappear into near-silence.  High-pitched sound, interrupted by thwacks of timpani. Further near silence, rumbling percussion, tense single keys crackling across the keyboard. The climax builds up in waves of varied detail.  A marching pace, led by brass calls. Gradually, the textures open out again: sighing winds, single notes on the piano, and silence returns.  What a ride!      

Mariss Jansons - what's the real scandal ?

"Women on the podium are not my cup of tea" said Mariss Jansons, and the media exploded in indignation.  Of course sexism is wrong. But should we rush to judgement and launch lynch mobs ?   My first reaction : check the facts.  Classic FM fans flames for fun, which might be why many serious music people have no time for Classic FM. 

The original interview was in the Telegraph, written to mark the Royal Philharmonic Society awarding the conductor its Gold Medal in recognition of 40 years in music. The article is utterly straightforward and wide ranging until the penultimate paragraph of a total of 14, in which Jansons is asked about "the biggest change in conducting, the rise of women conductors".  Firstly that's not the "biggest change". Secondly this is what Jansons actually said: "Hmm, well…” Jansons pulls an embarrassed face, knowing he’s about to say something deeply politically incorrect. “Well, I don’t want to give offence, and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”  (link here but it's behind a paywall)

Jansons is unwise but evil he is not.  There are thousands of more devious and manipulative men in this world who are infinitely worse. In the grand scheme of things, poverty, exploitation and denial of basic human rights destroy  the position of women in society.   The weaker the men, the more it seems they need to put others down to get ahead. Sexism isn't smart : it's the language of losers with too much to hide.

Jansons has now issued a statement via his orchestra  apologizing for the "undiplomatic, unnecessary and counterproductive for me to point out that I’m not yet accustomed to seeing women on the conducting platform. Every one of my female colleagues and every young woman wishing to become a conductor can be assured of my support, for we all work in pursuit of a common goal: to excite people for the art form we love so dearly – music.”  Full link HERE. 

Whatever the reasons for his original comments, what matters is what he does, not what he says.  Much more shame sticks to those who'd exploit the situation for publicity and profit.  Most women  are busy enough, and good enough, not  to need that.  It's not gender that makes a good conductor, it's talent.

And prejudice happens all the time. In every walk of life a women has to be extremely good to get recognized at all. And the better and more talented a woman is, the more jealousy and resentment. Same applies to men, too.  The universal troll syndrome where anyone good has to be put down because "we don't like experts".   Unfortunately, Jansons’ comments appeal to the sort of men who resent change : the tip of a huge and toxic garbage heap.   Tackle that underlying sexism,  and no-one will be a  "a cup of tea".  It's not easy, so don't get sidelined. At least Jansons is musician enough to recognize excellence when he hears it.  He's not entirely wrong, either, about pushing young conductors too fast too soon.  There are some who are "marketing product", but many are genuine naturals whose flair and energy should be encouraged.   Everyone on their own merits. 

Thursday 23 November 2017

Hans Werner Henze : Orpheus Behind the Wire SWR Vokalensemble

Hans Werner Henze works for mixed voice and chamber orchestra with SWR Vokalensemble and Ensemble Modern, conducted by Marcus Creed. Welcome new recordings of important pieces like Lieder von einer Insel (1964), Orpheus Behind the Wire (1984) plus Fünf Madrigale (1947).  Calling these "choral" works is a misnomer, since Henze writes so well for vocal ensemble that the voices move as a unity and as individuals, like a parallel orchestra, voices interacting with instruments.
Such are the densities of vocal interaction in Orpheus Behind the Wire that Henze can dispense with orchestra altogether.  SATB form is stretched with such refinement that the voices are almost microparted, in 12 part a capella. The voices of the SWR Vokalensemble are so perfectly balanced that the singing seems to flow seamlessly,  the rich textures, enhanced with great depth. 

That sense of flowing movement is significant, for Orpheus Behind the Wire was created to be danced to.  Fluid movements, subtle changes which suggest constant evolution. This is music as Greek sculpture, form as clearly defined as muscles carved in marble, or the folds of garments on statues frozen mid-flow.  The progress across the five songs is formal, yet elegant and deliberate, as stylized as Greek art.  The text was written in 1978 by Edward Bond, and re-tells the story of Orpheus's journey to the Underworld in search of Eurydice with a modern twist : the idea of individuals caught up in situations beyond human control. Orpheus can never unite with Eurydice, but will forever remain alone and alienated from the world around him.  When Henze splits the four vocal groups into twelve individual voices, he unites meaning with musical form.

An otherworldy hum underpins the first song, What was hell like?, the vocal line shimmering on several levels. "No echo came from my music". The words “silence, silence" repeated like an echo spreading into empty distance.  Orpheus and Eurydice cannot travel together, but the physical death of one means the spiritual death of the other. Thus the long lines reaching out, but not connecting.  Undulating lines, where words are broken into particles and scattered, like dust in the wind, "silenced, silenced". This is deliberate irony.  The singing is pitch perfect and beautifully modulated but the sentences are hard to make out, for  this is the Underworld, where shadows deceive.  In Hades, meaning is shrouded. By breaking up the vocal line, Henze is using sound to capture the ambiguity. Like orpheus we must pay attention and feel our way.   Orpheus growsold, "more strings on this lyre than hairs on my head", but he is not free. Occasionally the men's voices dominate, but the mood is troubled.  At last, something stirs. "Pressed" the voices sing on an upbeat, "by the weight of the world".  Now tense, more anguished figures, a multiplicity of voices, their lines wavering in tumult.  The text draws hope that "somewhere the starving have taken bread/from those who argue the moral of guns/ in assemblies guarded by guns".  When the poor no longer shiver in rags, "Then I hear music of Orpheus, of Triumph ! of Freedom!". In the dense layers of texture, the exact words aren't easy to make out, but that might be for the reason that freedom is not yet at hand, meaning must remain occluded, secretive, literally "Behind the Wire".

In Lieder von einer Insel, Henze recalled his close friendship with Ingeborg Bachmann.  She wriote the poems in the summer of 1953, when the pair had escaped to Italy, symbol of the "golden South" celebrated by Goethe and so many other northerners before and since.   Bachmann's poems are sunlit, but haunted : "Schattenfrüchte fallen von der Wanden". Henze's setting is dominated by celli, trombone and double bass, long, keening lines that suggest darkness. The voices sing in unison, the range of timbres creating a rich lustre.  The double bass leads the celli into a solemn dance.  The central song, Einmal muss das Fest ja kommen, resembles a festive procession, led by trombone and portative, a small portable organ with connotations of the Middle Ages, extended by simple percussion.  The male and female voices separate, singing alternate lines, the vocal parts then alternating with instrumental. The effect of a medieval celebration. But what celebration ? perhaps a brief Carneval before a period of mourning. ?  "...die Krater nicht rühn!"    Henze sets the men’s voices in the fourth song almost as plainchant, the women's voice high and piping like choirboys. Whoever leaves the island cannot return unless rituals are performed. The mood is sinister : the trombone wails, the portative groans.  The final song is deceptively simple, though the images are apocalyptic. "es ist ein Strom unter der Erde, der sengt das Gebein". And we shall bear witness.  When Henze set Bachmann's poems, she still had ten years to live, but he knew the dreams they'd had were doomed.
Based on translations of early French poetry, Henze's Fünf Madrigales is a lively mix of mock medievalism and modernism. He was only 21, just emerging from a youth in which music had to conform to Nazi taste.  Although it's an early work, we can already hear Henze's distinctive personality in embryo. 

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead, aged 55, after a long battle.  It's obscene when someone so vital is cut down in their prime, with still so much to give.  He made a difference. He'll never be forgotten.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Stockhausen blasts Barbican ! Cosmic Pulses, Stimmung

Ed Chang's brilliant GIF on Stockhausen's drawings for Cosmic Pulses (For link, read below). 

Stockhausen lives again !  Cosmic Pulses and Stimmung at the Barbican Hall, London. Two pieces which need to be experienced live for maximum impact; and what an impact they made at the Barbican Hall !  Cosmic Pulses reaches outward : the performance space becomes an instrument to be played by sound waves. Stimmung reaches inwards : like incantation, the sounds release inner space.  Programming them together isn't easy and I had wondered what might happen.  But the Barbican rose to the challenge. Thrilling experiences !

Stimmung, conceived during the Summer of Love, 1968, deals with the concept of "coming together". The word "Stimmung" means convergence, the concept of disparate forces being drawn together.. Attunement through tuning forks !  Harmony is achieved through a process of distillation,  a series of 51 segments or "models" which can be arranged in different ways and like throwing dice, the sequence can fall in many ways. Within each segment there are some fixed points but also much room for choices made in the course of performance. This isn’t straightforwardly notated music by any means: Stockhausen gives basic templates, but within them, there’s great freedom of invention and the onus remains with the performers, whose artistic responses “create” the piece anew each time. Yet, personal as the artists' choices may be, the ultimate goal of Stimmung is to rise above ego, and seek a kind of transcendence through interaction.   Stockhausen specifies that the singers sit in a circle around a glowing globe that emits light, providing symbolic focus.   The singers sit on soft mats, wearing loose clothing, so their bodies relax : meta-yoga, where physical and mental flexibility go together. The segments create a formal patterns, which Stockhausen, in his meticulous way, specified in great detail.  Yet within the formula, there's improvisation. The lead singer leads, but listens, and sound passes from singer to singer.

Is Stimmung ritual magic ?  The names of deities surface quite clearly above the hubbub.  The atmosphere is reverential: perhaps the electronic sound effects represent some invisible spirit.  Years ago, I heard Singcircle do Stimmung  at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building in Oxford.  The performing space is small and cosy,  and the roof rises upwards like a steeple. Not unlike a wigwam.  As the singers did their thing I thought of Native American rituals, where people cleanse themselves spiritually by sitting together in claustrophobic smokehouses, seeking wisdom through meditation.  The singers on this occasion were Gregory Rose (director), Jacqueline Barron, Zoë Freedman, Heather Cairncross, Guy Elliott and Angus Smith.

Cosmic Pulses is the 13th of the planned 24 hours in Klang, Stockhausen’s visionary epic.  It's not opera, but definitely a theatrical experience.  Please read more about it and on Stockhausen on Ed Chang's website : Stockhausen - Sounds in Space.  Stockhausen's elaborate diagrams for Cosmic Pulses  are almost obsessively detailed but in practice, the specifications adapt to improvisation, depending on the physical qualities of the performance space.  No performance can ever be the same. 

I first heard Cosmic Pulses in 2008, soon after it was completed in the most extravagant performance space of all, the Royal Albert Hall.  There, in a cavern that seats 6000, with a huge dome, Cosmic Pulses had room to grow.  Massive light beams flying across the arena, whorls of colour and light thrown long distances and bouncing back. At the RAH surface aren't flat, but curved and ornate, thus refracting sound even further, dispersing it and forming new, complex patterns.  The Barbican Hall, being much smaller and shoebox shaped, doesn't offer such complexities, but the impact was powerful, concentrated in a relatively small place.  Again, patterns in sound. Long, direct explosions, spiralling emanations, waves that expanded and shrank. The show was thrilling - light sabres and swirly whorls.   But I kept hearing more than the visuals showed.Traceries of broken fragments  for example, bursting like machine gun fire: Towards the end these appeared in lines of dot and dash.  With Kathinka Pasveer doing the Sound Projection we had a wonderful ride. But what might Stockhausen have achieved had he more fully embraced computer aided design ?

 Please read my other pieces on Stockhausen.

Sunday 19 November 2017

Sorciers et sorcières - Magic at the Philharmonie

Sorciers et sorcières- theme of the spectacle at ther Philharmonie, Paris, screened live, now on demand here  thrillingly performed by  Les  Siècles et François-Xavier Roth.  Sorcerers and sorceresses  ! extra magic and mischief spiking up the potion : Robin Laporte, the actor as Master of Ceremonies, linking the music with dramatic narrative. Laporte stand to the side of the stage with his sorcerer props, green smoke bubbling from his cauldron as he intones phrases so seductive that we're almost hypnotized. At one point he chants spells, and the audience joins in. As his voice drops to a whisper, a solo violin plays a strange melody. The Philharmonie is in darkness, the music stands lit by lamps. An Ominous blue glow behind the orchestra.   Magic ! 

We don't, of course, see the ghost ship from the Flying Dutchman. But Laporte gets us in the mood, so when Roth and the orchestr let rip, it feels as though the ship suddenly looks up, threatening to invade our consciousness. Much more overwhelming than in the imagination ! Extracts from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Dukas The Sorcerer's Apprentice,  and Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre, vividly performed.   This was an afternoon perfrormance, only an hour long, and from audience noise in the background, there were kids in the audience, having as much fun as the adults. This is how to grow new audiences - give them excellence, without dumbing down. Laporte's texts were written by Amélie Parias, a specialist in contemporary theatre (in photo with Laporte and Roth). Possibly above the heads of some kids, but kids use their imaginations and think. Unlike some adults.  For that reason, this spectacle is specially recommended for anyone who thinks standard repertoire is boring. Boring isn't in the music but in the minds of listeners who have lost the sense of wonder that is the soul of creative imagination. Exactly the types that need a bit of magic in their lives. 

Friday 17 November 2017

Stockhausen lives ! Barbican Cosmic Pulses

KarlHeinz Stockhausen lives !  For my review of Stimmung and Cosmic Pulses please read here. Two major Stockhausen events coming up. Cosmic Pulses and Stimmung at the Barbican on 20/11 and Trans and Tierkreis with the London Sinfonietta (Pascal Rophé) at the Royal Festival Hall on 6/12.  
Stockhausen needs to be heard live . His music was created to be experienced through all senses, each performances unique to the place in which it is re-enacted.  That's why Stockhausen Verlag CD's cost a fortune !  Fools they be who think he can be possessed like a consumer product.  Performances are created anew each time,  for whatever performance space in which it is re-enacted. Re-enactment, because a Stiockhausen event is a kind of group ritual  in which everyone participates, using their minds. Conceptually, Stockhausen means more than ever now, in a era when technology expands consciousness. It is not Stockhausen who is an anomaly, but the idea that music must be trapped on plastic in fixed formats. That's an aberration of the recording era.  Stockhausen reminds us that in all cultures, at all times, the message means more than the medium. 
In Cosmic Pulses, Stockhausen dispenses altogether with the idea of orchestra as fixed entity.  The performance space itself becomes "the instrument". Hence the term "cosmic pulses", since the sound desk emits pulses projected into space. As sound waves hit a surface, they refract and reverberate.   Stockhausen doesn't do movements in formal symphonic terms, but movement, in its purest form, is fundamental to his work.  Nothing stays still, except in terms of non-movement : even silences mark passage.  Imagine visualizing the sound waves as they bounce back and forth, often in patterns   At the Barbican, the sound desk will be managed by Kathinka Pasveer, Stockhausen's  muse and acolyte. What will happen, when she, too, travels to the stars ? New interpreters, new technology, adapting the principles further and further.  
This is the third Cosmic Pulses in London in about ten years.  The most recent was at the Roundhouse in 2013. In 2008, the instrument was the Royal Albert Hall, as big and as grandiose as halls can be. An extravaganza for sound desk !  For once, I wished that the blue mushrooms didn't  stop sound dissipating into the emptiness of the dome. Imagine, sound waves rising up, escaping through  the roof, dissipating into the air outside ! Do sound waves die or do they travel endlessly into space, imperceptible to human hearing   My late friend,  Michael Gerzon, who worked on psycho-acoustics , believed that the wonders of the universe have hardly been unlocked by modern science. That's the kind of creative, conceptual thinking he liked so much in Stockhausen. "In three hundred years", Michael said "we might come closer". 300 years before our time, Isaac Newton was still alive. 
Cosmic Pulses is the 13th of the planned 24 hours in Klang, Stockhausen’s visionary epic.  It's not opera, but definitely a theatrical experience.  At the Royal Albert Hall, darkness descended, the dome lit up by tiny lights, like stars – Royal Albert Hall as planetarium !  That Proms season opened with Messiaen Dieu parmi nous, when the 9999-pipe RAH organ blasted full force.  For a few moments we could have been in the presence of the divine, or whatever you might call something beyond normal..  Stockhausen was Messiaen’s student.  The Barbican Hall is much smaller, built with wooden floors and walls that absorb sound in a different way. The hall is also fan-shaped, wider than it is deep. For once, the upper galleries might be a good place to be, assuming that sound can travel without being blocked by the overhangs.  The Barbican has hosted other Stockhausen experiences, like Hymnen, (read more here) not quite as large scale as Cosmic Pulses but also thrilling.
Before Cosmic Pulses, Stockhausen's "greatest hit", Stimmung, with Singcircle, led by Gregory Rose.  The word "Stimmung" means convergence, the concept of disparate forces coming together through a process of being attuned.  Not for nothing it was conceived in the Summer of Love, 1968 ! It’s a series of 51 segments which can be arranged in different ways and like throwing dice, the sequence can fall in many ways. Within each segment there are some fixed points but also much room for choices made in the course of performance. This isn’t straightforwardly notated music by any means: Stockhausen gives basic templates, but within them, there’s great freedom of invention and the onus remains with the performers, whose artistic responses “create” the piece anew each time. Yet, personal as the artists' choices may be, the ultimate goal of Stimmung is to rise above ego, and seek a kind of transcendence through interaction.  I've heard Stimmung numerous times - it keeps coming round (pun !) , and also with Singcircle.  Should be good.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Uralte Wasser : Gesang Weylas Hugo Wolf

Du bist Orplid, mein Land!
Das ferne leuchtet;
Vom Meere dampfet dein besonnter Strand<
Den Nebel, so der Götter Wange feuchtet. Uralte Wasser steigen
Verjüngt um deine Hüften, Kind!
Vor deiner Gottheit beugen
Sich Könige, die deine Wärter sind 

You are Orplid, my land ! Shining in the distance, from the ocean rises your sunlit shores,  mists refreshing the cheeks of the Gods.  Primeval waters rise, rejuvenating around your hips, Child ! Before your Divinity kneel kings, who are your Guard of Honour. 

Gesang Weylas, Eduard Mörike (1804-1875).  In his student days, Mörike and his friends created visions of Orplid, a fantasy island in the South Pacific, rising from the ocean, shrouded in mists, which deposit life-giving moisture. A metaphor for creative renewal.  The island's remoteness is symbolic, too, for it exists in the imagination, its culture and history artistic invention. What little we know about it comes from fragments Mörike later used in his novel Maler Noten, started in 1830, published but never complete, continuing to inspire the poet to the end of his life.  Boxes within boxes. The Orplid themes occur in a play enacted by Noten the Painter and his friends, some of whom aren't true friends at all.  The novel deals with dreams, art, wandering, sexuality and betrayal. Everyone ends up mad and/or dead.  These themes connect to real events in Mörike's life. As a young man, he met a mysterious woman, whom he called Peregrina (a name which means wandering).  Possibly she was a gypsy, and seems also to have had some kind of religious mania.  She disappeared, leaving Mörike enthralled in abject fascination.  Thus the connections with Maler Noten where Noten is haunted by a mysterious curse : love and art, mixed with danger and delusion.

The introduction to Hugo Wolf's Gesang Weylas (1888) replicates the sounds of a harp,, an illusion to Classical Antiquity where gods moved among mortals in pristine landscapes.   The mood is noble : the voice rises on the word "land"as if a halo were glowing round it. Depth  and richness in the word "Uralte", the emphasis on "Ur", so ancient it's before recorded Time.  But emphasis on "Wasser" too, the life-giving force that continues, eternally.  "Uralte Wasser steigen". Three words in the phrases, each one significant, marked carefully.  The last king of Orplid is dead, bu the goddess Weyla, is eternal.  Even kings must kneel before "Deiner Gottheit" for Orplid, land and/or conceptual vision is greatest of all. 

Monday 13 November 2017

Celebrating English Song Roderick Williams SOMM

"Celebrating English Song" new from SOMM recordings with Roderick Williams, with Susie Allan, pianist.   George Butterworth's Six Song from a Shropshire lad, Gerald Finzi's Let us Garlands Bring and songs by John Ireland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, Warlock, Moeran, Quilter and Benjamin Britten.

Roderick Williams transformed English song with his gift for natural, direct communication.   He's one of the finest champions of the genre, ever.  Yet his legacy hasn't been preserved on recording at the level that it should be. It's scattered over many different labels, with varying production standards.  Often, the more specialized the repertoire, the finer the standards.. So thanks to SOMM for this recording, a fine sampler, pitched for listeners new to the genre, as suggested by the rather basic liner notes. Some choices, however, are more esoteric and ought to be flagged up for more attention

Butterworth's Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad is basic repertoire, which Williams has performed many times. His recording from 2010 with Ian Burnside is one which most fans of English song will already have in their collections.  Gerald Finzi's Let us Garlands Bring is another Williams staple, which he first recorded some twelve years ago.  It's good, though, to have recent performances in high-quality sound. The four songs by John Ireland, Great Things, In Boyhood, Youth's Spring Tribute and the iconic Sea Fever, also appeared on Williams’s recording from 2008, and the Vaughan Williams songs, Silent Noon and The Vagabond, also have earlier incarnations. Nontheless, it is good to hear recent performances, in good sound quality. As Williams's voice matures, it hasn't lost its unaffected freshness. In every new performance, the music lives, afresh.

Williams has long been associated with Ian Venables, so the two Venables songs, A Kiss and Flying Crooked, are a very welcome inclusion in this set.  A Kiss, from 1992, when Venables was in his 30's, is a setting of a Poem by Thomas Hardy that shows the influence of Gerald Finzi in its fidelity to text. Finzi set more Hardy poems than most, and Venables was closely involved in Finzi circles. Flying Crooked, to a poem by Robert Graves, is altogether more individual. It's a model of concise expressiveness.  In just over one minute, Venables replicates the "honest idiocy of flight" that is the movement of  a butterfly that "lurches here and here by guess/and god and hope and hopelessness".  Like the butterfly, the music doesn't fly straight but flips about capriciously. A wonderful sense of  freedom in the dancing notes in the piano part, executed with great delicacy by Susie Allan. The vocal part's a challenge, too. Williams’s voice soars and flutters playfully on the word "aerobatic".  Wonderfully cheeky, and refreshing. This recording should have new listeners rushing for Williams's recording of Venable's The Song of the Severn, or indeed Williams's Severn & Somme collection (also with Susie Allan) for SOMM in 2006, so good that it's still a classic.   

That's why this SOMM release is so worthwhile. It connects the mainstream of English song to modern development.  Benjamin Britten's The Salley Gardens is a variant of a very old song indeed, as is The Ploughboy, but listen to how wittily Britten incorporates Schubert into the song.   The  rhythms suggest the ploughboy's physical energy but also hint at the manic nature of the lad's ambition.  Ploughboy, politician and crook !  Allan's top notes fly as the pedal pounds bumptiously.  The song also demonstrates how Williams can inject personality into his singing. As he sings "Whatever's good for me, sir, I never will oppose", his voice darkens.  For a brief moment the ploughboy is revealing his true, venal self, behind the mock-merry cheekiness.  In a similar vein, Peter Warlock's miniature, Jilian of Berry, where jolly melody hides deceit. The barmaid is generous, but her customers are cheats. Given Warlock's own propensity for drink and mischief , the song has deeper levels.

Three Ivor Gurney songs here, Black Stitchel, Lights Out and Captain Stratton's Fancy. illustrate a side of Ivor Gurney that has somewhat been obscured by the emphasis on his service in the war and its aftermath.   Edward Thomas's mud-stained manuscript for his poem Light's Out lies in the Imperial War Museum, since Thomas was killed at Arras a hundred years ago, but both poem and song are about much more than war.   "I have come to the borders of sleep, .....where all must lose their way, however straight....." Thomas’s syntax curls  past the lines as they lie on the page, tracing a wayward path which Gurney follows, with great sensitivity.  Something is coming to an end. Thus the minor key. and long, curving lines which Williams defines beautifully.  But where does the future, lie, if it exists? Gurney builds brief pauses after each phrase.  "To go into the unknown, ....I must enter...and leave...alone". The song ends, hovering, without resolution.   In contrast, Captain Stratton's Fancy, which connects to the vigorously upbeat mood of Sea Fever (both texts by John Masefield)  to The Vagabond and indeed to the boisterous Jilian of Berry.  The piano part marches, while Williams sings with mock heroism. "like an old bold mate of Henry Morgan".  Dutch courage?  Another song which displays Williams’s ability to be at once funny and profound. 

Sunday 12 November 2017

Schumann Liederkreis op 39 Florian Boesch Wigmore Hall

Robert Schumann Liederkreis op 39 ((1840) with Florian Boesch and Justus Zeyen at the Wigmore Hall, London.  In Liederkreis op 39 Schumann sets the poems of Joseph von Eichendorff, so very  very different to Heinrich Heine, whose poems formed the basis of Liederkreis op 24.  Eichendorff was both idealist and pragmatist, an aristocrat who helped create the Prussian public system, the first and most comprehensive government school system, open to all, regardless of wealth or status.  One of the principles of Romanticism, derived from 18th century ideas, was the concept of the purity of Nature and of those who lived in harmony with it.

Joseph, Freiherr von Euchendorff

Though Eichendorff,  Heine and Schumann were contemporaries  - living poets being set by a living composer, "new" works" in every sense - Eichendorff's aesthetic harked back to earlier ideas of pastoral innocence. Liederkreis op 39 is beautiful because it harks back to an earlier period of innocence,  closer to the naturalism and sense of wonder captured in the folk-like wisdom of Brentano and Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Songs  like Waldesgresräch connect to the supernatural enchantment of Das klagende Lied, where the supernatural overlays human experience.  "Du weiss nichts, wer ich bin", sang Boesch, not imitating the voice of a maiden so much as expressing an innocent's frustration with mortals who don't understand.  The Lorelei has lived forever, but  the hunter hasn't a clue. This wonderful song hovers between two worlds.  Throughout the cycle, there's always something beyond, glimpsed yet not explicit.  In Auf einer Burg, an old knight has been waiting so long in his mountain fastness that he's  turned to stone.   Hence the minor key in ths song. Yet meanwhile, in the valley, peasants are getting married : life goes on and renews, though the knight might turn to dust.  The same theme arises in Im Walde, where the happy procession disappears   into darkness. ""und mich schauert's im Herzengrunde". Boesch's voice growled "Herzengrunde" , suggesting unspeakable horror. Though  Eichendorrff's world evokes the past it doesn't cling to it.  The cycle ends with Frühlingsnacht .The moon, the stars and the woods tell the poet that change is coming and, with it, new hope.  Whatever the poet may dream of, "Sie ist Deine, sie ist Dein". 

Like all good Romantics, Eichendorff relished the unknown. Songs of wandering were songs of alienation, a concept earlier periods had few means of articulating. But songs of wandering also remind us that there are worlds we don't know, which might be beyond our comprehension.   Nothing insular about Eichendorff, whose frontiers were of the mind.  Boesch was at his best in songs like In der Fremde ("Aus der Heimat hinter den Blitzen rot") and In der Fremde ("Ich hör' die Bächlein rauschen") with its haunting refrain "Ich weiss nicht, wo ich bin", bringing out the internal musical connections in this cycle, offten missed when it's done like a series of songs,  The refrain "Ich weiss nicht wer ich bin", for example, connects to the Lorelei's cry "Du weisst nichts, wer ich bin".  Though Eichendorff and his peers didn't use the vocabulary of modern psychology and alienation, they understood the concepts.  It was wonderful hearing Boesch singing Liederkreis op,39, but get the recording, just out on Linn Records. Please read more here. Though I wrote more about the Mahler songs, that's only because  Boesch has done lots of Schumann, and relatively little Mahler.

Before Schumann';s Liederkreis op 39 Boesch and Zeyen presented four Schubert songs on themes of wandering, In Walde D708, Auf der Brücke D853, Der Pilgrim D794 and Der Schiffer D536. They also did five Hugo Wolf songs to poems by Eduard Mörike, Begenung, Auf ei altes Bild, Denk'es o Seele!, Schaflendes Jesuskind and Gebet.  One erotic, one supernatural, three ostensibly though not quite religious and one so disturbing that it’s in no category.  Justus Zeyen has played with Boesch before, but his style is loud, more suited to Quasthoff than to the subleties of Boesch. Nonetheless, he showed how the piano part in Liederkreis op39 is more spare than in Liederkreis op24, in keeping with the restrained sensibility of the poems.

Friday 10 November 2017

Für den Graben, Mutter, für den Graben.

Mutter, wozu hast du deinen Sohn aufgezogen?
Hast dich zwanzig' Jahr mit ihm gequält? 

Wozu ist er dir in deinen Arm geflogen,
und du hast ihm leise was erzählt? 
 Bis sie ihn dir weggenommen haben.
Für den Graben, Mutter, für den Graben.

 Junge, kannst du noch an Vater denken?
Vater nahm dich oft auf seinen Arm.
Und er wollt dir einen Groschen schenken,
und er spielte mit dir Räuber und Gendarm.
Bis sie ihn dir weggenommen haben.
Für den Graben, Junge, für den Graben. 
Drüben die französischen Genossen
lagen dicht bei Englands Arbeitsmann.
Alle haben sie ihr Blut vergossen,
und zerschossen ruht heut Mann bei Mann.
Alte Leute, Männer, mancher Knabe
in dem einen großen Massengrabe. 
Seid nicht stolz auf Orden und Geklunker!
Seid nicht stolz auf Narben und die Zeit!
In die Gräben schickten euch die Junker,
Staatswahn und der Fabrikantenneid.
Ihr wart gut genug zum Fraß für Raben,
für das Grab, Kameraden, für den Graben! 
Werft die Fahnen fort!
Die Militärkapellen spielen auf zu euerm Todestanz.
Seid ihr hin: ein Kranz von Immortellen -
das ist dann der Dank des Vaterlands. 
Denkt an Todesröcheln und Gestöhne.
Drüben stehen Väter, Mütter, Söhne,
schuften schwer, wie ihr, ums bißchen Leben.
Wollt ihr denen nicht die Hände geben?
Reicht die Bruderhand als schönste aller Gaben
übern Graben, Leute, übern Graben 
Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) 
Mother, for what have you brought your son up? What have you done for him in 20 years ? Why has he flown from your arms, and you've gently reared him?  Until he was taken from you to the trenches. Mother, for the trenches. 
Young man, can you yet think of your father? You father who held you often in his arms and gave you a penny to spend and played Cops and Robbers with you.  Until you were taken away from him, to the trenches, Lad, to the trenches.
Over by the French buddies lay the English worthies, mown down together man by man.  Old guys, men in their prime, kids, all in a single mass grave. 
Don't be proud of Orders and Medals ! Don't be proud of  wounds and of time !  You were sent to the trenches by the Junkers, mad governments and greedy merchants of war.   You're now food for ravens. For the trenches ! Comrades ! For the trenches !

Chuck out the flags ! Military bands are playing your Dance of Death. There you have a wreath of immortelles. That's the thanks you get from your country.

Heed the death rattle and the groans. Over there stand others, fathers, sons, trying hard, like you to scrape a living. Don't  you want to help, them ?  the hand of brotherhood is the finest gift. Better than graves, folks, better than graves.

Wednesday 8 November 2017

Julian Prégardien Schubert Songs Wigmore Hall

The Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert song series continued with Julian Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz, in a recital deferring from May.  Well worth the wait, because Prégardian is good, his singing enhanced by very strong musical instincts. In Lieder, sensitivity and musical intelligence are as important as voice. A good recital, is one where you come away feeling you've gone deeper into the repertoire thanks to the performer, as opposed to watching celebrity for celebrity sake.

Julian Prégardien has musical thinking in his genes, and it shows.  His father's voice is a divine  gift from God, but Julian, still only 33, has a gift for communication and, even rarer, an enthusiasm for music itself.  Hence the wonderful Schubert Im gegenwärtigen Vergangenes, an unusual work where the lead tenor's part is demanding enough for a top-quality singer, but the song works best as a quartet.  Prégardien's voice led, enhanced by the filigree created first as a duet with the second tenor Kieran Carrel - keep an ear out for him -  further developed by the entry of the two baritones, Phil Wilcox and Niall Anderson.  Schubert's multi-part songs are glorious : a pity they don't get more big-name singers and high-profile gigs. At the end of the recital, Prégardien was joined by Ben Goldscheider for Auf dem Strom D943 (1828, Rellstab). Valve horns were relatively new at the time, and Schubert's writing for the instrument tends to dominate the song, to the detriment of the voice part.

Im gegenwärtigen Vergangenes is based on one of Goethe's Hafiz poems from the West-östlicher Divan. Hence the theme Bilder aus Östen, highlighting the perfumed sensibility of Goethe's invocation of exotic, distant lands of imagination, an aesthetic particularly suited to lithe-toned tenors.  Prégardien and Schnackertz began with the rar(ish) fragment Mahomets Gesang D549 (1817) following it with Versunken D715 (1821)  where the piano part trills circular figures,  as if, through the music, the poet is running his fingers through someone's curly locks.  Prégardien brings out the flirtatious intimacy in the song, often lost in more formal "Germanic" baritone approaches. Perhaps the text might apply to fondling a child, but it could equally describe foreplay.  Friedrich Rückert was even more of an orientalist than Goethe, and also translated Asian texts. His volume   Östliche Rosen (1822), a response to the West-östlicher Divan. was his first of many forays into exoticism.  Sei mir gegrüsst D741 (1822) with its lilting tenderness expresses feelings that could apply in any culture.  The person being greeted is lost, but  "zum Trotz der Ferne, die sich, feindlich trennend"  the poet reaches out. Thus the gentle, rocking refrain. The tenderness in Prégardien's delivery suggests lullaby, a caress in music.  Similarly, the unforced expressiveness in Prégardien's Dass sie hier gewesen D775 (1823), another Rückert setting where subtlety is of the essence. 

A beautifully phrased Am See D124 (1814) led to four settings of Johan Peter Uz (1720-1796).  Die Nacht D358, Gott im Frühlinge D 448 and An Chloen (fragment) D363, and Der gute Hirt D449,  all from 1816.  In a complete song series, someone has to draw the short straw, but Prégardien and Schnackertz gave the rather slight songs good treatment. For Uz, the shepherd in Der gut Hirt was clearly Jesus. For Schubert, the shepherd could be a generic Romantic shepherd. The piano part suggests elegant repose, with a typically Schubertian undertow.  The alternating lines in the vocal part are fetching, too, sometimes soaring expansively, sometimes quietly reverent. 

Hearing Schubert's Uz settings with his settings of Mayrhofer demonstrates the way Schubert responded to personal relationships as much as to poetry.  Prégardien and Schnackertz brought out the  delicacy of Geheimnis D491 (1816) which needs an intimate touch - it's about a secret, after all, a whisper, not a shout.  In Schlaflied D527 (1817) the vocal line rocks from high to low, taxing the singer. Prégardien, fortunately, made the flow even, so it felt natural, like the movement of a cradle.   Prégardien has a gift for  songs that need sensitive treatment. He negotiates the changes, letting the line flow illuminated by an understanding of what the words mean, even when the texts aren't particularly distinguished. Lieder is poetry. If words had no meaning, the songs wouldn't be Lieder.  The challenge ius to grow an interpretation from within.

Then to the challenge of Atys D585 (1817) and Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren D360 (1816) much more sophisticated songs, which gave Prégardien more opportunity to show dramatic power. These songs were/are his father's speciality: Prégardien père will never be equalled, nor should he be. Julian Prégardien gave the songs a personal touch, which I appreciated, for Lieder is about the individual and the way he or she reaches an audience.  Being the child of someone so good and so well known is a double-edged sword. You grow up in a musical environment but you have to face pressures of expectation which other young singers aren't burdened with.  To stand on the stage at the Wigmore Hall, scene of so many Christoph Prégardien triumphs, must be daunting indeed.  That takes guts.  Prégardien fils is very good and deserves to be respected for himself.  Though he's still young, Prégardien has already forged a substantial career. 

For his encore, Julian Prégardien sang Nacht und Träume D827 (1825, Matthäus von Collin), beautifully and masterfully executed, the long lines stretching expressively. I thought I saw a tear run down Prégardien's face, which someone else confirmed.  We were touched.  Nice to see a singer, not as an instrument, but as a human being. 

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Thoughts are Free ! Mahler Lied des Verfolgten im Turm

"Die Gedanken sind frei!", the rallying cry of the Romantic revolution !   The text was first written dowen in the 12th century by the troubador poet Walter von Wogelweide (whose artistic descendant is Walter von Stolzing). There are other variants from around the same period, suggesting that the song was already part of oral tradition, spread presumably by students, travellers, and journeying Gesellen.  Notations were made and published later, from the 18th and early 19th century.  A true "folk" song, which fitted well with the spirit of Romanticism and its values of identity, individualism and love of Nature.  Please read my several pieces on the Lützower Freikorps and the poets and composers inspired by them HERE HEREand HERE   Effectively just about everyone, from Goethe to Beethoven, to Schubert, Weber and Mendelssohn and beyond.  And in very different ways, their heirs Wagner, Brahms and Mahler.  

Mahler's song Lied des Verfolgten im Turm quotes Die Gedanken sind Frei word for word, and also uses the same tune. Whether there's any documentary evidence, he almost certainly would have known the soing. The connections inescapable :

"Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

"Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker 
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei!"

Mahler used a variant text as published in the volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn, published by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in 1806, which tidies up the folksy background, as was so often the case in the 19th century.  In 1806, you could still end up as Florestan.  In the original version, the mood is subjective, the protagonist imagining himself in prison.  In Brentano and Arnim, the mood is direct : the protagonist is safely incarcerated, identified as "The Prisoner". In the original, there is a verse in which the singer refers to one form of escapism : girlfriends and alcohol.

"Ich liebe den Wein, mein Mädchen vor allen,
sie tut mir allein am besten gefallen.
Ich sitz nicht alleine bei meinem Glas Weine,
mein Mädchen dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!"

Brentano and von Arnim modify this earthy humour by dividing the text into two parts, one for the Prisoner, the other for the Maiden. The girl thus becomes a protagonist in her own right. But  now her function is diversion, not support. Basically "let's just party!" Mahler's setting underlines the difference, setting the lines with flirtatious lyricism.

"Im Sommer ist gut lustig sein,
Auf hohen wilden Bergen;
Man ist da ewig ganz allein,
Man hört da gar kein Kindergeschrei,
Die Luft mag einem da werden."

The Prisoner isn't fooled, however, and neither is Mahler. His song ends on the resolute. The old anthem returns, bold and free. 

"Und weil du so klagst, Der Lieb ich entsage, 
Und ist es gewagt So kann mich nicht plagen!
Stets lachen, bald scherzen; 
>Es bleibet dabei,
Die Gedanken sind frei !"

I've used the picture above because it perfectly captures the humour in the song. The Gedanken are depicted as folksy cherubs, rather cheeky, somewhat grotesque. The angel represents the Spirit of Liberty which inspires thoughts of freedom.  She's not a girlfriend and she's not trying to divert the Prisoner from his dreams.