Wintry weekend coming up, colder than usual this side of Xmas. So a visit to Arnold Bax The Tale the Pine-trees Knew (1931), particularly relevant after Martyn Brabbins’s outstanding Bax November Woods at the Barbican (Please read my piece Internal Landscapes here). There is no explicit programme, but Bax wrote about climbing a mountain in Ireland . "Anyone going up from the South the sea is hidden by the landward bulk of the mountain itself, so that when it bursts into view at a height of almost 2,000 ft, the sudden sight of the Atlantic horizon tilted half-way up the sky is completely overwhelming." Thus the chords in the introduction, one after another looming upwards, pausing briefly before continuing. As the ascent draws near, the pace speeds up, energized. A bright woodwind figure enters. Though the ostinato tread remains, it's now no longer dominant : elipticak string lines suggest spaciousness, small bright figures tantalize. The lively second theme fades into a quieter passage where horns echo, much as they do in mountains. More ascendant figures, now lighter, as the central section approaches. Excitement mounts : brasses call, timpani rush : grand crescendi, suggesting panoramic expanses, before the final section, where the chords gradually diminish in force, the pulse decelerating. A whimsical wind figure suggests something magical remains as stillness descends once more. So what is the "tale the pine-trees know?" This is no Strauss Alpensinfonie where the peaks extend way above the treeline and elements become hostile, nor a Sibelius tone poem where cosmic forces are unleashed. But neither is it comfortable scene painting. The ending is abrupt, open-ended, to the extent that David Lloyd-Jones checked the manuscript and Barbirolli's markings, repeating the first four bars of fig. 57 on his recording.
Tuesday, 11 December 2018
This recording begins with the John Dowland ayre for lute Flow my tears (1596),presented here by Stile Antico in a consort arrangement, the descending lacrimae motif recreated by the voices. Dowland, who became a Catholic while in Paris in his late teens, believed that his religion stood in the way of success at the Elizabethan Court, but was later employed by King James I. William Byrd, on the other hand, was favoured by Queen Elizabeth I, though he was recusant and had to tread carefully. His Cantiones sacrae of 1589, from which is taken Tristitia et anxietas, where semi-tonal inflections add richness and depth. Even more resplendent is Byrd's eight-part motet Quomodo cantabimus. As Matthew O'Donovan writes "that three of its eight voice parts (form) an ingenious canon by inversion was doubtless intended to reassure the outside world that music was alive and well amongst England’s persecuted Catholics", given that the English exiles had neither forgotten their faith nor their homeland. The esnsemble blends beautifully, so the harmonies seem to glow. Based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, the Lamentation of Robert White (1543-1574), could also allude to faith in times of turmoil. In this version, for five voices, the polyphonic textures evoke the sacred music of the Catholic Church. On the document which serves as source , there is a Latin inscription which reads "Wine and music make the heart glad". This could refer to the musical merits of the piece, but also act as cover for its coded religious meaning.
Richard Dering (1580-1630) was able to return to England in the last years of his life as organist to Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I. His Factum et silentium is a dramatic motet with strongly defined rhythms. An ecstatic performance responding to the text "A voice was heard, a thousand upon a thousand fold....Alleluia !". Peter Philips (1560/1-1628) spent most of his life in the Catholic Low Countries. His Gaude Maria virgo employs counterpoint, while in his Regina caeli laetare the voices are used in cadence, reflecting the influence of Gabrieli or Monteverdi. Stile antico is of course greatly respected for Renaissance and early baroque, but also ventures into modern territory. Huw Watkins’s The Phoenix and the Turtle (2014) was commissioned by Nicholas and Judith Goodison for Stile Antico. Shakespeare's poem describes the funerals of two birds : the dove symbolizing fidelity, the phoenix idealism that cannot be destroyed by fire. Could it be interpreted as a cryptic message ? Watkins's setting pits vigorous rhythms against slower passages, and ends in unison.
Sunday, 9 December 2018
orphaned young, forced by poverty to work in tea houses and/or brothels in Shek Tong Shui, the historic quarter of Hong Kong, where tea houses, theatres and restuarants were centred. The women sang and told stories : prostitution being only one form of entertainment. The area is now ultratrendy. Although brotels were banned in 1931, laws don't stop people doing.things. Fa was kept for a while by a patron, but didn't lose her ties with the other women. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China, taking Shanghai and later Guangzhou (Canton). Fa Yin-hun decided to contribute to the war effort and refugee aid by organizing 58 other songstresses in a singing competition, raising money from their clients. Shame on those men who couldn't do it themselves ! On 20th November 1939, Fa attended an opera where Ma Tse Tsang starred. He was an iconic figure who transformed Cantonese opera and culture : idolized by many to this day. Please read more about him a, his wife Hung Sin Nui and his worthy successor Sun Ma Tse Tsang on this site, using the search facility. That night, Fa went home and sent her maid out to get midnight snacks, which people often do. When the maid came back, she found Fa dying from ingesting opium. Taken to Queen Mary Hospital - then the most modern and advanced hospital in the region - she died, aged only 22. Why did Fa take her life ? She had prestige from her fund raising efforts, and had talent and good looks. In her suicide note, she wrote of despiar. Whatever she could or could not have achieved the circumstances of her situation stacked the odds against her.
Saturday, 8 December 2018
Unusual Christmas concert - songs, poetry and harp ! with Sarah Minns, Adam Best and Mary Reid at Stoke Newington Old Church
From Roger Thomas
Soprano Sarah Minns's message -- to very loosely paraphrase her introduction to this fascinating OperaUpClose evening concert (December 5) -- was that Christmas is coming, but let's not drown in schmaltzy Xmas musical fare but, rather, examine the season of "hibernations and awakenings". The themes were not followed so closely as to self-destruct but we got the picture. The chilly wet and windy weather helped, as did the venue: Stoke Newington's Old Church (now an arts centre), the only surviving church in London built in the Elizabethan era.
We don't hear enough of Sarah Minns, one of London's most characterful, lively and versatile classical sopranos. The versatility was in full play here; no piano for this recital but harp, played exquisitely by Mary Reid, who had also prepared the harp transcriptions of the vocal works from piano or full orchestral scores. The Old Church cried out for Shakespeare and actor Adam Best was there to add the Bard's own words to Minns's Shakespeare-influenced songs, as well as other poems suited to the season and themes.
But first an aria ("O Sleep, why dost thou leave me") from Handel's Semele, with a libretto based on Congreve's (he -- not, as often believed, Shakespeare -- who wrote "Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast"). Charms indeed from Minns, but above all regret poignantly portrayed as the mortal Semele awakens to the realisation that her dream of the God Jupiter has faded -- only the beginning of her troubles.
In this first group, more regret at an aborted awakening as Adam Best read Emily Dickinson's poem "I thought the train would never come" (/How slow the whistle came/I don't believe a peevish bird/So whimpered for the Spring...) Then, from Minns, three of Aaron Copland's 12 settings of Dickinson poems: a forcefully expressed, soprano-apt "Why do they shut me out of heaven?" (/Did I sing too loud...); "The World feels dusty"; and "Heart we will forget him".
Before we moved into Shakespeare territory Mary Reid refreshed our musical palates with two of Marcel Tournier's evocative Images: the cool and calm of "Au Seuil du Temple" and the multicoloured fluttering of magical birds in "La Volière Magique" -- I expected Stravinsky's Firebird to fly in at any moment.
Shakespeare moved in with Hamlet: Minns sang Elizabeth Maconchy's beautifully simple setting of "Ophelia's Song", mourning the death of her father Polonius, its watery sounds perhaps foretelling Ophelia's own demise.
Then different approaches to Romeo and Juliet. Minns in bel canto mode made the most of Giulietta's lament from her balcony in Bellini's I Capuleti e I Montecchi ("Eccomi in lieta Vesta"). What's to be done to get Juliet out of a marriage she does not want? Adam Best took us back to Shakespeare where Friar Lawrence in Act IV Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet confidently expounds to Juliet his cunning plan to have her seem dead and thus escape her unwanted marriage and flee with Romeo. But as we in the UK know all to well these days, "cunning plans" engineered to leave marriages often go askew.
Before the interval, Mary Reid played "Improptu Cristatus" a work written for her by Thomas Chevis that had its world premiere in Ripon Cathedral on November 29 in a recital entitled Les Oiseaux. Podiceps cristatus is the great crested grebe, a water-bird noted for its elaborate mating rituals. On the harp, much frantic paddling, splashing and flapping of wings. And the low and harsh call of the male bird, which, Reid warned us, involved some harp technique that worried the Ripon audience who thought the resulting sound was a mistake.
The shorter second half took us gradually towards Christmas but also featured Elizabethan and older texts. Edmund Rubbra's "A Hymn to the Virgin" set a text from c. 1300 and was followed by Adam Best's reading of Shakespeare's Sonnet 43, which grapples with the paradox of seeing his lover more clearly with eyes closed or dreaming than in the light of day-to-day reality (When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,/For all the day they view things unrespected;/But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,/And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed....)
Then more Elizabethiana: Ivor Gurney's exquisite setting of John Webster's poem "Sleep" from the composer's Five Elizabethan Songs. Gurney's sparse scoring -- not a note too many -- worked just as well on the harp as the piano.
Two of Samuel Barber's 10 Hermit Songs ("The Crucifixion" and "The Desire for Hermitage") based on Irish monks' marginalia, took us back to the 8th to 13th centuries.
We were now on the way to a sophisticated Christmas. The two poems read by Adam Best that framed this final section were ironic, but respectfully so, prompting us to think of new angles on the Nativity. Joseph Brodsky's "Star of the Nativity" takes us to a realistic Bethlehem seen from a newborn's perspective but with Godly intervention (...from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end-the star/was looking into the cave. And that was the Father's stare.). Worth reading in full. For text, see here.) U.A. Fanthorpe's poem "I am Joseph" also takes an oblique view of the Nativity, with Joseph gently lamenting (I wanted an heir, discovered/My wife's son wasn't mine). But he's still deeply in love with Mary and will take things as they are (My lesson for my foster son:/Endure. Love. Give.) (For full text, see here.)
Mary Reid played the harp solo "Interlude" from Britten's Ceremony of Carols, for me distant church bells heard in a snowy landscape.
Max Reger's "The Virgin's Slumber Song", sung in the original German by Minns, draws on a text written in the late 19th century but has a folk-song down-to-earth reality. Mary is a real (loving) mother but is tired and dearly wants her baby to sleep (And soft and sweetly sings/A bird upon a bough: /Ah, baby, dear one,/Slumber now!). The exclamation mark is indicative; it's in the German text too. Mary is far from shouting at the baby, but is frustrated.
Finally, Sarah Minns sang some old favourites: Holst's "In the Bleak Midwinter; Franz Gruber's "Silent Night" (Minns invited the audience to join her in singing this); and Adolph Adams's "O Holy Night". Great work from the trio, with special praise to Sarah Minns for singing her whole lengthy and varied programme from memory, without any back-up scores in sight.
Friday, 7 December 2018
This is what "Romanticism" meant to those who lived in the early and mid 19th century, very different indeed from what "romanticism" has come to mean since the mid 20th century. This helps frame Les Nuits d'été with baritone rather than the more common version for female voice. Berlioz has been a strong presence in the history of Les Siècles virtually since the orchestra was formed. they featurev every year at the Berlioz Festival in La Côte-Saint-André. Roth established his Berlioz credentials early on, as assistant to Sir Colin Davis at the London Symphony Orchestra, and has also worked with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. "Berlioz", says Roth, "like other innovative orchestrators, brought out the best qualities of the instruments he had at his disposal at the time. He kept up with the latest developments in instrument making and, like a chef, was keen to use the right ingredient to season his musical recipe. It’s really exciting to encounter the original flavours of the instruments of his time because you realise almost instantly what these new combinations of timbres were". He adds "With Harold en Italie, things are much more complex: the viola is not a concertante soloist, as it would be in a Romantic concerto, but rather a musical character, a narrator, an actor in the story of Harold that is related to us. Berlioz invented a genuinely new role here in the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra. Roth often compares Harold en Italie to Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote "a symphonic poem with a principal cello which also seems to embody a character". Perhaps that was why Paganini was at first dismayed, since he had hoped for a vehicle for solo viola.
In the Romantic aesthetic, heroes are loners in a vast landscape, accentuating the monumental challenges before them. Berlioz's first movement is titled "Harold aux montagnes". Ominous figures loom up in the orchestra, ascendant lines stretching outwards. When Zimmermann enters, her line is quietly confident, garlanded by harp and winds. Just as the hero engages with the panorama, the viola engages with the orchestra : a good balance here, the soloist not ovewhelmed by larger forces. As Roth himself writes, "Harold’s melody seeks to bring out these specific timbres and rhythms, the grain of the sound. (And here the decision of François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles to use period instruments once again demonstrates its importance, its necessity.) superimposed on the other orchestral voices, and contrasts with them in tempo and character without interrupting their development". The movement ends with a sense of adventure. In the "Marche des pèlerins", the understated melodic line in the orchestra suggests the humility of pilgrims, singing as they journey. Thus the arppegiated chords, the viola beside the orchestra.
In the third movement, the use of period instruments brings out the distinctive timbres and rhytms of folk music in the serenade and saltarello. The dances become drama in the "Orgie des Brigandes". Brigands, like gypsies in 19th century folklore, represent "natural" forces, freedom versus inhibition, danger versus comfort. Thus the quicksilver energy with which Les Siècles brings this movement to life : even the quieter figure before the entry of the viola bristles with anticipation. A glorious coda !
Berlioz orchestrated Les Nuits d'été op 7 for different voice types, though they are usually done by female singers, so there is no reason per se why they can't be tackled by men ; tenors have done them fairly frequently in the past. On this recording, paired with Harold en Italie, a male voice extends the idea of a "hero" bravely venturing forth. In any case, Stéphane Degout has the range and finesse. Indeed, a stronger, deeper voice highlights the punching rhythms in "Villanelle", and brings out the erotic allure in the line "Et dis-moi de ta voix si douce :'Toujours'.” The resonance of Degout's timbre also works well with the more elaboarate orchestration of "Le spectre de la Rose", which includes prominent parts for cello, clarinet, flute and harp. Berlioz orchestrated "Sur les lagunes" for baritone, so the fit between voice and the flowing "water" sounds in the orchestra. A soaring "Ah ! sans amour s’en aller sur la mer !". "Absence" is followed by a very good "Au Cimetière - Clair de Lune" where Degout restrains the inherent power in his voice, suggesting mystery. A stylish "L'île inconnue", further proof that it is not so much voice type that makes these songs work, but artistry.
Wednesday, 5 December 2018
Gustav Mahler's Symphony no 5 makes a welcome addition to the growing series of Mahler recordings with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi. Harding has been conducting this symphony for years, with many orchestras, so hearing it with the unique sound of the SRSO offers insights that enhance understanding. This symphony has long been one of Harding's favourites, often combined in concert with Purcell or Rameau, emphasing its poise and structure.
The first movement is a Trauermarsch, hence the steady, measured pace. Mahler grew up in Iglau (Jihlava) where there was a military garrison where no doubt he would have been aware of soldiers in procession, even in times of peace. So this isn't a battlefield funeral so much as a funeral remembered through the prism of time, and as a symbol of the inevitability of death. Thus the trumpet call, trombones, horns and tuba in formation, strings and percussion behind. One of the strengths of this orchestra is that they sound like individuals in ensemble, not too polished, certainly not too rough, but "human". As the pace picks up, the strings, and winds scream, unleashing a torrent of protest, cut short by firm pounding chords. The march returns, more penitent than before, with a note of wistfulness which so often in Mahler means looking backwards on better times. Hushed drum beats and sweeping string lines, signalling change. The first theme returns, but the trumpet calls forwards, a courageous voice all alone. Harding observes the structure in the first movement so it feels coherent, a procession with a clear start, pause for reflection and return to base. I don't like listening to single movements out of context, but in this case, it's rewarding.
This brought out the connections between the second movement, marked Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz and the first. Both are in minor keys, and the "stormy" nature in the second is further moderated by the quieter central section, where the "sighing" reflectiveness from the first movement finds greater expression. Again, the mood is propelled forwards by turbulence: a nice tension in this performance between the looking-back (almost waltz-like) and the inexorable pulling ahead. Trumpets and other brass herald change, as the movement heads to expansive conclusion, though, just as in the first movement, solo voices have the last word.
The third movement marks another change. Now the mood is major and more assertive. One of the more unusual Mahler 5's I've heard in recent years was Jakub Hrůša and the Philharmonia Orchestra (read more here). That was perceptive, recognizing that Mahler never lost the Wunderhorn impulse : his work is too coherent, too "whole" to compartmentalize in simple terms. Harding brings out the earthy vigour in the scherzo. The introduction zips along, full of exuberance. There are dances - not just waltzes and Ländler but pas de deux between groups of instruments. On this recording, the dialogue between the solo violin and the other strings is particlarly well defined ; delicacy where it matters. In the middle section, the pace intensifies, with a "swaggering" theme that might suggest rustic dance with its connotations of fertility. But yet again, the trumpet calls forth, ushering in change. For a moment there is stillness, marked by a woodwind, before a brief final flourish.
In the adagietto, the strings creating textures that were mysterious, yet also warm. This is another dialogue, this time between the strings, caressing the harp, in tender embrace. as if in embrace. Willem Mengelberg described it as a "declaration of love for Alma" which is no doubt true, especially when the movement is done as a stand alone. But on a deeper level it connects to the love of life itself which pervades Mahler's work from beginning to end, Alma being muse and symbol of creative renewal. This wider interpretation links the adagietto to the rest of the symphony, following as it does the scherzo with its images of vitality, and the Trauermarsch and its companion, the second movement, with their images of death and forced change. These concepts are drawn together in the Rondo-finale where themes that have gone before re-surface, regenerated. While the symphony began with a march, it ends with a rondo, a lively dance, intertwning different elements in contrapunctual patterns. Horns, trumpets and woodwinds introduce the full-throated first theme. The boisterous spirit continues throughout. While this symphony was in the early stages of gestation, Mahler nearly died of a rupture. Thus it's perfectly reasonable to interpret it as a celebration of life itself : the vigour of the scherzo and the "love theme" of the adagietto both consistent with the concepts of renewal which run through all Mahler's other symphonies.
When Harding, aged 19, was hired by Claudio Abbado as his personal assistant, Abbado made him work on what would have been Mahler's Tenth symphony, which at the time, few others conducted. It was wise training because it taught Harding from the start to approach Mahler's work as a whole, from beginning to end. Harding's Mahler 10 (especially with Berlin) is outstanding. From that, and from his understanding of the grand span it grew from, we have this Mahler 5th with its keen appreciation of structure and form.
Monday, 3 December 2018
Charles Villiers Stanford The Travelling Companion, with the New Sussex Opera at Cadogan Hall. Good performances but less than ideal opera. "Stanford’s The Travelling Companion is melodious if not very memorable. One senses that Stanford had the weapons in his arsenal to produce an excellent opera but failed to get all guns firing at the same time. That said, the large audience at Cadogan Hall were loud-voiced in their praise and appreciation. We should be grateful to NSO for giving us the chance to hear this opera which undoubtedly has merits and appeal." Please read Claire Seymour's review here in Opera Today.
Sunday, 2 December 2018
Congratulations to José Serebrier on his 80th birthday ! He's a conductor who occupies a unique place, mentored by Leopold Stokowski and George Szell, always independent and open-minded. Please read more about him in this article here. A most interesting personality! So let's celebrate with this historic Gershwin Centenary Edition recording from SOMM where Serebrier conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Gershwin's An American in Paris, Three preludes and Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, featuring Leopold Godowsky III, Gershwin's nephew.
The public image of George Gershwin these days is coloured by his sucesss on Broadway and the use of his music in Hollywood, but in the 1920's Gershwin was part of the avant garde. The premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in February 1924 was attended by Stokowski, Rachmaninoff, Fritz Kreisler and Walter Damrosch, who was keen enough to offer Gershwin a commisson which resulted in the Piano Concerto in F, with Gershwin himself as soloist, in Carnegie Hall in December 1925. Gershwin was a true original, one of the first to appreciate jazz as serious music, incoporating the sounds of modern, urban America for the concert hall. George Antheil's Ballet méchanique (1926) was then known only in Paris. Edgard Varèse's Amériques (1921) and Hyperprism (1922/3) were pioneering works, way ahead of their time. Significantly, both were premiered by Stokowski in 1926, 1924 respectively, followed by Arcana in 1927, all this long before Copland and Bernstein. It is in that context that Gershwin's place in modern music is now being re-assessed. Please read more here about the University of Michigan Gershwin Initiative and the on-going new critical edition of his opus. .
Serebrier's interest in Gershwin and in American music goes back to his childhood. At the age of fourteen, he organized a concert of fellow music students, attended by the then President of Uruguay, a high profile event, covered in the newspapers at the time. Sereberier conducted Gershwin, Edgard Varèse and Charles Ruggles who even now are "new music". Too young to have formed preconceptions, the young players were carried away by Serebrier's enthusiasm. That freshness has rarely dimmed, as these performances indicate. Serebrier's Gershwin descends from "source" to speak, from an original approach to the scores themselves, not from the popular image. Thus this vivid interpretation of An American in Paris which captures the excitement Gershwin felt when he discovered Paris when it was the cutting edge centre of innovation. The introduction swaggers with the confidence of a young man on an adventure. Brashness gives way to galumphs (bassoons, tuba, trombones) the walking pace leaping with joy. In the second section a tentaive mood is soon brushed away by the exuberant theme led by different saxophones : a fanfare for the New World, the instrument itself invented a few decades before. The famous "Blues" motif curls sensuously, the strings around it expansive. Homesickness doesn't last long though: Paris has absorbed jazz on its own terms. Thus the sassy trumpets and saxophones, and the playful syncopation. When the "walking" theme returns, it is underlined by percussion. An animated final section, with crashing cymbals, and taxi horns (employed earlier by Varèse) and a bittersweet conclusion. The new edition of the score, premiered recently, is sharper, but on this recording, made in 1998, Serebrier gives the standard edition a very fine reading.
Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F is, in comparison, more conventional, though the distinctively Gershwinesque strings give it character. Serebrier brings out the spikey tension in the introduction, which is answered by the piano, (Leopold Godowski III) developing a smoother line. The second movemnent is a nocturne that grows more intense as it proceeds. Serebrier shapes the finale, marked molto agitato - con brio. so it seems to burst with suppressed energy. Alexander Glazunov was present at the premiere, in December 1928, Damrosch having sensed a Russian context to the concerto. But it is woth noting that Serebrier is one of the finest Glazunov conductors, and has recorded the complete symphonies with this orchestra, the Royal Scottish National, and with the Russian National Orchestra.
Gershwin's Three Preludes were originally planned as an extended series of piano pieces, of which only three were published. On this recording, we hear Serebrier's transcription for orchestra. The piano still dominates, the orchestra extending and enhancing the line. Serebrier is also a composer, whose first symphony impressed Stokowski so much that the older conductor invited the younger to join him as an Associate with the American Symphony Orchestra. Although Gershwin's Lullaby, written when he was only 20 for a Broadway comedy, is little known. Serebrier orchestrated it at the request of Leopold Godowsky III. The new orchestration respects the repeated phrases, colouring them without overpowering what is effectively a miniature. It is included in this recording becaause it reflects the lullaby in the second Prelude.
Saturday, 1 December 2018
Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. at the Barbican in Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony no 4 and Arnold Bax November Woods A good combination which had the potential to yield interesting insights in musical terms. So why does BBC Radio 3 management need to market this as "Remembering World War I" ? Neither piece has anything to do with war. Alas, BBC R3 seems hell bent on prioritizing non-musical agendas over music, to meet non-musical targets. Long term, this policy of dumbing down destroys real musical understanding. Better to treat audiences as adults who aren't afraid to think or listen.
Both Vaughan Williams's Fourth Symphony and Bax's November Woods are explorations of ideas that aren't so easy to put in prose : "internal landscapes" so to speak, that find expression in sounds and musical form. November Woods (1917) isn't about forests per se but forests as metaphors for emotion It's worth quoting Bax's (non-symphonic) poem Amersham, as the programme book does :
Storm, a mad painter's brush, swept sky and land
with burning signs of beauty and despair
And once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake,
And in our hearts tears stung, and the old ache
Was more than any God would have us bear.
Here the musical forces were in the fore, the orchestra voicing whatever inner storm Bax might have sought to address. The introduction seems to surge and strain, driven by fast-flowing strings, lit by flashes of woodwinds and harp, darkened by violas, celli, oboe and bassoons. A theme energes, first from cor anglais, then more boldly by horn and then oboe and cello : a duality which could suggest many things, but is part of the very conception. Themes cool and warm, creating flux, but there's no easy resolution. The coda was hushed, mysterious, open-ended. November Woods is much more "modern" than you'd expect, connecting in this sense to other works of the period.
|photo : Jules Barbieri|
More brass in the second movement, marked andante moderato, but this time more restrained, the strings of the BBCSO murmuring en masse, from which the woodwind line rose, moving ever upwards. A sense of unease : tense pizzicato creating a fragile though regular beat. The flute melody, exquisitely played, had a poignant quality: painfully alone but unbowed. Wildness returned with the third movement, brass pounding, trombones creating long zig-zag lines. For a moment the tuba leads a trio with grunting bassoons. The term "scherzo" means "joke" but the humour here is darkly ironic. This colours the sprightly theme which follows : it's not escapist. With the figure I called "My God and King" the overwhelming thrust of the first movement returns, angular dissonances flying in all directions, clod-hopping ostinato suggesting grotesque horror. Again, no resolution, no easy answers. Perhaps we can guess why RVW dedicated it to Bax.
The contrast with the intensity and sheer musical quality of Vaughan Williams's symphony put Cheryl Frances-Hoad's Last Man Standing into place. This is a big work, running as long as the symphony, and was served up with lighting effects, props and a shower of objects which might be poppies, and co-ordinated dresses for composer and text writer. The piece was specially commissioned to mark the 1914-1918 war. But there is a lot more to war than pretty images. Much of the problem lies in the text, 15 verses on aspects of life in the trenches, by Tamsin Collison. Frances-Coad's setting illustrates well but is more sound effects than music. Entertaining enough, and certainly not mentally or emotionally challenging. But war is not entertainment. and never should be trivialized. We know, or should by now know, what it was like in the trenches, but no sign here of any reflection or personal insight. The baritone soloist, Marcus Farnsworth, did his best, as did the orchestra, but this piece bore all the signs of music-made-to-order. Millions died and suffered in the Great War, which re-shaped the whole world. To what avail ?
Thursday, 29 November 2018
An extremely fine performance of Jeux, Roth and Les Siècles playing with the tightly-focused poise this piece needs in order to capture the energy of strategy and exchange. In Jeux the game is, ostensibly, tennis. Or is it ? Two young people are fooling around, but suddenly a ball is thrown onto the court, changing the game. Strange, quivering chords, suggesting tension. Rays of brightness, throwing the darkness into menacing contrast. In musical
terms, this means constant flow between points, patterns crossing and recrossing, staccato contrasting with freewheeling liveliness. Like
Boulez, Roth marks the sense of "listening". The players on this court have to be alert and reespond. Perhaps the wild, tantalizing line represents the mysterious ball. Whatever, it has energy and purpose,
unlike the players when they came onto court. At last a blaze of horns and rising energy in the music. Are they players being "illuminated" ? Suddenly, tantalizingly, the music ends. Instead of closure in the conventional symphonic sense we're left to think for ourselves. I love Jeux because it's open ended and "modern". There may be dangers ahead, the understated wit in the piece suggests adventure, not doom. This performance is good because Les Siècles is grounded in the fundamentals of the baroque, where dance underpinned music : thus the importance of clarity, precision and physical energy.
In the Nocturnes, Debussy seems to illustrate a seascape. The movements have programmatic titles - Nuages, Fêtes, Sirènes - but as always, good music is more than literal depiction. Waves keep changing shape and position, thus the concept of constant change, figures moving and shifting in myriad ways. In an ocean, motion is controlled by invisible forces, like tides and wind. Thus the concept of musical form which might suggest undercurrents and ideas behind surface appearance. Roth and Les Siècles shape the first two Nocturnes emphasizing the intricate detail beneath the broad sweep, for these details are like the "brushstrokes" in painting. But it is in the third Nocturne, Sirènes, where Debussy breaks in even more innovative form. The women of Les Cris de Paris, vocalize, singing abstract sound instead of words. The shifting patterns, nuances and tones create the concept of a horizon that keeps moving and changing, with infinite variety. From these wonderful cross-currents and multiple textures, the borders of tonality are beginning to fade.
Though we hear it so often, it's bracing to remember that Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune broke new ground in 1889. Informed by a century of pschological insight, we can interpret the meaning of the central image. The fawn is a wild creature who acts on instinct, defying social restriction. Through symbolism Mallarmé could express emotions too dangerous to be openly expressed. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune grows from a tradition of allegory that goes back to the Greeks. Debussy's music defies categories. Its chromatics stretch tonality, at once rich, yet clean and pure. Think of fin de siècle art with its curving forms, representing an aesthetic of freedom. Like the fawn, the flute line moves and turns senusously, explicitly erotic. In Vienna, Freud had yet to formulate his ideas on dreams and the subconscious. In the French-speaking world, the symbolists (as early as Baudelaire) were already there. François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles bring out the fundamental purity in the piece. Much of the beauty of the piece lies in its mysterious ambiguity and the multi-level interaction between the flute and lower-voiced winds, strings and harps. The flute represents Pan, the fawn his disciple. This in itself is symbolic, for in ancient Arcadia, lone musicians sing in landscapes where the rules of society do not apply. Here, the flute stood out, highly individual, enhanced by but not overpowered by the luxuriant background, lush strings and resonant winds. Roth and Les Siècles are aware of the "classical" as well as modern allusions in this remarkable work : the horns are natural, gently muffled as if heard from a distance. An important reminder that the fawn will be hunted down and killed. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is not at all "romantic" Beneath the exotic surface lurks danger. The Prélude lends itself to dance because it flows gracefully, yet is also lucidly disciplined : keynotes of French style since Lully and Rameau.
Please also see my review of François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles in Ravel for Harmonia Mundi. and Pablo Heradas Casado Debussy with a Le Martyre de saint Sébastien but where Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is nowhere near as well performed as on this new Roth/Les Siècles disc.
Anton Webern's orchestrations of Schubert Lieder date from 1903, very early in his career, and are of interest because they show how Webern approached the adaptations with restraint. They are faithful to the purity of Schubert's idiom, perhaps teaching Webern the virtues of understatement : nothing like the elaborations of Franz Liszt ! "Tränenregen" from Die Schöne Müllerin supports the vocal line with delicate strings, woodwinds and chamberpipe organ murmuring when the voice is still, replicating the refrain in the piano part. "Der Wegweiser" from Winterreise is equally hushed, providing a contrast to Brahm's darker orchestration of Schubert's Memnon D541, to a text by Mayrhofer. Just as the character of a poem affects its setting, an orchestration should reflect the song. Thus Brahms's orchestration of Schubert's Geheimes D719 is lighter and livelier. Goethe's poem describes playful flirtation, hence the good humour in Schubert's and Brahms's approach. "Ihr Bild" from Schubert's Schwanengesang is a setting of Heinrich Heine, also very distinctive. It draws from Webern almost funereal low timbred horns and brass, assertive but never dominating the vocal line. Boesch rings out the final words "Und ach, ich kann es nicht glauben, Dass ich dich verloren hab’!" like a cry of anguished recognition, for the painting is all that remains of the beloved, who is dead. The anthem-like solemnity of Webern's orchestration shows his sensitivity to the poem and to the song. It is one of the highlights of the whole disc.
Schubert's Gruppe aus Tartarus D583 sets a text by Friedrich Schiller, and is highly dramatic. Brahms's orchestration matches its forcefulness, ascendant figures with hunting horns and long trombone lines, and an almost Beethovenian climax, followed by brief, potent postlude. Schubert's tender Du ist der Ruh D776 is complemented by Webern’s graceful orchestration.
Drafted in 1821, Schubert's manuscript for what is known as his seventh symphony exists in sketch form, with a melody line and bass and counterpoint underneath. All four movements of the 7th were drafted, but he only orchestrated the slow introduction and the first 110 bars of the first movement. setting the piece aside before working on his opera Alfonso und Estrella. There also exists an autograph draft of a complete third movement (Scherzo, D 759/3),with the opening bars orchestrated., to which Samale and Cohrs have added a brief trio to create a third movement. They also suggest that it is possible that the first entr’acte from Schubert’s incidental music to Rosamunde (D 797/1), dating from the same period, was intended to serve as the symphony’s Finale. This movement, lasting almost four hundred bars, is also in B minor, and it bears many noticeable similarities to the symphony. Indeed, there are motivic relations that link both the Scherzo and the entr’acte with the symphony’s first two movements. Over the past 150 years, there have been several attempts to complete this symphony. This version, first performed by Concentus Musicus Wien in 2014 and conductor Stefan Gottfried is gracefully paced and good listening.
Wednesday, 28 November 2018
It is also significant that The Miracle of Mary, written in Paris in 1936, reflected interest at that time among many composers, such as Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (please read more HERE), which Martinů would have known of, and Walter Braunfels's Die Verkündigung (Please read more HERE) which he would not have known, or even Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (1935-6). At a time when Europe was facing the rise of extreme nationalism that used medievalism for legitimacy, Martinů and his peers’ adaptation of medieval form served a radically different purpose. Therefore, it is a mistake to assume its lack of success was caused by its being deemed old-fashioned, when it in fact represents a significant thread in European music, which critics at the time might have missed. In any case, by 1955, it could not have been lost on audiences that the composer himself was in exile and could not easily return to his homeland. What Men Live By is simple, but not naive, a very sophisticated work despite its cheerful lightness: it’s a chamber oratorio sparsely but deftly scored, which benefits from Bělohlávek's sprightly touch.
Distinctively Czech themes run throughout the piece, notably in the introduction, which begins with a pipe organ, its melody taken up by pipes and then drums in jolly mock-medieval procession. Martinů's What Men Live By tells the story of Martin Avdejic, a lonely old cobbler who lives in a basement, where his window on the world allows him to see only the feet of those who pass by. Ivan Kusjner sings Martin, his deep baritone suggests a down-to-earth working man. The chorus (Martinů Voices) surround him with ethereal harmonies. Martin has almost given up on life. A sorrowful solo violin plays, as Martin's lines are solemnly intoned, the choir repeating his words, like a response in church, the pattern reflected in the balance bewteen the two Narrators, Josef Špaček (spoken) and Jaroslav Březina (tenor). A vision appears, embodied in the voice of the alto Ester Pavlů, who tells Martin that she will visit him the next day. A very Bohemian sunrise, with horns, pipes and jaunty strings. Zig-zag piano lines suggest the street outside Martin's workshop, full of busy people rushing past. Though he's waiting for his special visitor, he welcomes in old Stepanovich (the bass Jan Martiník) and gives him shelter from the snow. Martin spots a woman (Lucie Silkenova) shivering in the cold, holding a baby. Martin gives her a warm coat and cradles the child. "Surely it was He, himself, who sent me to you!", she sings. The chorus returns, singing as joyfully as pealing bells. An old woman ( Ester Pavlů) is in the street, selling apples. A boy (Lukáš Mráček) playing harmonica (heard in the orchestration) steals one and runs but Martin stops work and chases him. The old woman wants to call the police. Martin asks the old woman to forgive the child, and she does. She once had seven children but now she's all alone. The boy then helps the old woman carry the sack and they walk off happily, to the sound of the harmonica. A rustic chorale prepares us for the finale. Martin goes to bed, disappointed but in the darkness he spots the people he'd met during the day. The alto and soprano join to sing the words of the Visitor Martin had been expecting. " In as much as ye have done to one of the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me,” the last two words haloed by the chorus. The radiance in the last moments may suggest that Martin is borne up into Heaven.
Although What Men Live By might seem simple, Martinů emphasized the pitfalls of performing it without understanding its purpose. "The technical hurdles include the fact that the singer should not sing as is customary today (but) he should 'preach' and edify, striving to make the text moere expressive. By and large these days, instead of a melody one hears something like uauauauaua, imbued with 'affection'" (possibly translation error for 'affectation'). "That would not be good", he continued. "It should be sung like a folk song devoid of pathos. I think that the text itself is beautiful and so it does not need to be in any way enhanced". Fortunately Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic understand the Bohemian folk sources so thoroughly that they capture the free-spirited vigour in the piece, as far as one can get from stuffy "churchiness". The text is in English, written by Martinů himself, so Bělohlávek's soloists, not being native English speakers, have strong accents. But this is is in fact an advantage, because their accents emphasise the fundamentally Czech nature of this music and also the non-realism which Martinů was trying to achieve. They are all top-rank experienced singers, not students, and understand the idiom properly. As I was listening, I thought of the stylization of medieval mystery plays, where directness of message mattered most, without any pretence of verismo and over-colouring. This also connects to the clarity of the orchestration, simple figures and single instruments used for maximum effect. On this disc What Men Live By is paired with Martinů's Symphony no 1 which is a good choice, since the symphony begins with a striking ascendant theme which complements the finale of What Men Live By. As Aleš Březina writes in his notes, "it should be pointed out that the avant garde composers in interwar Paris, where Martinů lived and worked from 1923 to 1941, set up their own aesthetic criteria in opposition to Late Romantic music.....while in the USA, symphonic music enjoyed great popularity". Martinů, who had no income other than royalties from earlier work, was glad to accept a commission from Serge Koussevitsky. The composer had some difficulty in proceeding, but, once he was satisfied with that introduction, the rest of the symphony flowed. Bělohlávek conducted all the Martinů symphonies in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which are available on CD. He had planned to record them again with the Czech Philharmonic, but his illness intervened. On the basis of this performance, that series which never came to pass would have been outstanding. Though here it is an add-on to the much rarer What Men Live By, it is a recording to be cherished.
Monday, 26 November 2018
"Requiem: the Pity of War with Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano. The inspiration came from Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which Bostridge has done numerous times. Britten's War Requiem," he writes "seems to express in art Winston Churchill's notion of the 1914-18 conflict as the initiator of the 20th century's own Thirty Years War" since it spans the First and Second World Wars, blending the poetry of Wilfred Owen, poet of the trenches and the spirit of reconciliation that motivated the commission marking the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. Thus the quotation from Owen, "My subject is War, and the Pity of War". "How might one reflect the experience and significance of the conflict" writes Bostridge "in a song recital ?". The answer might be this excellent programme, with interesting repertoire choices and approaches to more familiar material. Bostridge and Pappano, whose partnership is long and fruiful, are doing this recital live at the Barbican Hall on December 5th. The recording, from Warner Classics, is now available, well produced with good illustrations.
Bostridge and Pappano begin with George Butterworth's Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, perhaps th best known English song cycle with a connection to war, given that Butterworth was killed in the Somme in August 1916. Housman's poems were published in 1896 : the war they pertain to might be the Boer War, or colonial wars, but the connotations are not specifically military. They deal with more generalized concepts of youth and death, impermanence and loss. Even though Butterworth collected folk song, a quasi-folk song approach doesn't necessarily apply. Bostridge and Pappano demonstrate an art song approach, which may at first seem unsettling, but works on a more esoteric level In "When I was One and Twenty" the last words "'tis true, 'tis true" are held open ended, suggesting possibilities beyond text. If the dynamic lines in "Look not into mine Eyes" are more extreme than usual, this emphasizes the unease that lies behind the poem : the lad "that many loved in vain" does not reveal himself, to anyone. "A Jonquil, not a Grecian Lad". "Is my team ploughing" feels decidedly supernatural.
This disc is worth getting, though for a superlative performance of Rudi Stephan’s song cycle Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied. Stephan was an extremely promising composer as his best-known works, the two Musik für Orkester in einem Satz attest, his opera Der ersten Mensch being a prototype of Expressionist music theatre. The six songs in this cycle, to poems by Gerda von Robertus (1873-1939) inhabit a world much closer to aesthetics of the period when exoticism was heightened by an awareness of the dangers of the subconcious. The poems are terse aphorisms, Stephan's settings concise. The nearest equivalent might be Alban Berg's Altenberg-Lieder, also from the same period (1911-12) In "Kythera", "Der Rosen Düfte liebeatmend schwingen in welchen Weilen" while the sound of aoelian harps drifts from afar. The setting floats gently, held sotto voce. In "Pantherlied" the piano line ripples, suggesting pent-up animal energy. The text in "Abendfrieden" is little more than a series of broken phrases which Stephan uses to create a song so delicate that it seems to hover in stillness. This oscillation occurs also in individual words like "Sonnenfeuer" which need careful shaping, but Bostridge captures the right vulnerabilty. "In Nachbars Garten duftet" describes a linden tree, which shivers "dammerlauschig kühl". Yet this is no pastoral. Lovers embrace, but why do the poet's eyes "overflow in burning pain"? The song is as magical as a song by Hugo Wolf, but with a kick in the tail. The mood of secrecy continues in "Glück zu Zweien" where "in the hubbub of the crowd, we found the silence of shared feeling". The vocal line stretches and curls, twining like "Zwei Könige wir, die finden das Reich ihrer Einsamkeiten". Throughout this cycle, tension has been building up, which finds release in the final song "Das Hohelied der Nacht". Yet again Stephan observes the fragmented nature of the phrases, using them to proceed rapidly to the last line "Du küsst es mir vom Munde", which rises like a cry of sudden triumph. These songs are miniature masterpieces and are done reasonably often, but Bostridge brings out the inner musical logic better than anyone else, with his intuitive feel for meaning and the curling, curving timbre of his voice. Incidentally, Stephan died in strange circumstances. The night before he died, he could not sleep, surrounded by the agonized cries of the wounded all around. In the early hours of the morning, he stood upright in his trench at Tarnopol in Galicia on the Eastern Front, and shouted "Ich halte es nicht aus!" and was promptly shot by a sniper. He was barely 28.
From the sophistication of Rudi Stephan to the relative straightforwardness of Kurt Weill's Four Walt Whitman Songs. Bostridge varies the marching rhythms in "Beat ! Beat ! The Drums" with articulation that twists in protest. If "Captain ! My captain !" is a strophic ballad, "Come up from the Fields, my Father, there's a letter" is dramatic, delivered here with appropriate portent. The military antecedents of "The Dirge for Two Veterans" are impeccable. Gustav Holst set this text ("The Last Sunbeam") in 1914, and it was also set by Vaughan Williams (in Dona Nobis Pacem). Weill wrote these songs after Pearl Harbor, when the United States joined the Second World War. Like Britten's War Requiem, they help this Bostridge and Pappano programme bridge two World Wars.
Three songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn conclude the programme. Again, these are not folk songs, but art songs. Significantly, the songs chosen here are ghost songs, which suit a singer who is a superlative Peter Quint. In "Revelge", skeletons march through a town at night, and "Der Tambourg'sell" is a death knell, Pappano's piano "drumming" as Bostridge's voice rises to near-scream before descending to the low rumble of the refrain "Gute Nacht". Best of all, though, is "Wo die Schöne Trompeten blasen" where Bostridge and Pappano capture the spookiness that pervades the song even before the girl knows what's going on. She, too, will die before the year is over.
Friday, 23 November 2018
Thursday, 22 November 2018
Darkest Midnight : Songs of Winter and Christmas - an eclectic collection of acapella songs on the theme of winter - with Papagena, a delightful offering for the Christmas season from SOMM Recordings : so enjoyable that you could listen at any time of the year. With Papagena, there are “No props, no microphones, no gimmicks, just five stunning voices“ who “explore the wealth of music from medieval times to the present day”. Their programmes “defy pigeonholing, drawing richly on traditional folk music and women's working songs as well as classical repertoire and new work commissioned for women's voices, many arrangements made by members of the ensemble. This disc is a rewarding purchase, even if you don't mark the season as a religious festival, but appreciate winter as a time for wonder and good music for its own sake.
Don eiche ud im Beithil (I sing of a night in Bethlehem) is a traditional Irish song with a text by a 16th century Archbishop of Armagh. Here it is heard in an arrangement where the voices blend in radiant polyphony. The sopranos (Elizabeth Drury, Abbi Temple, Suzzie Vango) sing with the purity of trebles, while the altos (Suzie Purkis and Sarah Tenant-Flowers) add warmth and richness. Part lament, part ballad, Maria durch ein Dornwald ging (Mary walked through a wood of thorns) is ideally suited for women's voices, given that it describes the trials of the Virgin Mary, walking through a forest of thorns, which suddenly blossoms as roses because she's carrying the infant Christ – a sacred work song for women, from the Middle Ages ! How refreshing it is to hear the Christmas story told from Mary's perspective ! In Nowell, tidings true there be come new, the voices are accompanied by a simple drum, as medieval songs often were. The text honours “A clean maiden and pure Virgin”. The singing is so delicate that it seems to cast a glow. Exquisite stillness in O Jesulein zart, where the altos sing in rapt adoration, cradling the sopranos.
In John Tavener's setting of W B Yeats' A Nativity, the lines stretch, the unison clear and shimmering. The balance of voices in Shchedryk (Hark How the Bells) creates a refrain with the effect of silvery bells pealing in harmony. Ballulalow is an arrangement made for Papagena of a 16th century Scottish song itself based on a poem by Martin Luther. The main melody is surrounded, like a halo, by tones as pure and bright as light shining through stained glass. Then Papagena springs a surprise – a song by Joni Mitchell, The River, transformed as if it were a modern carol. The alto sounds like Joni Mitchell, only more sophisticated and refined, though she captures the feisty irony that is part of Mitchell's style. Det lisle banet (the Little Child) is a traditional Norwegian ballad that tells of a farmer who leaves a fox in charge of his geese. But the fox kills them. In compensation the fox must make “soulgifts” to the farmer's child. A strange, unworldly parable told with dramatic effect. A single drum beats, at first slowly, then more insistently, adding a note of tension to the women's voices which keen as if they were recounting a primeval saga. There is much to listen to on this recording, which is much more than “Christmas listening”.