Monday 31 December 2018

Fun New Years Eve concert - Lang Lang, Mariss Jansons

New Years Eve, enjoying the Silversterkonzert from Munich, with Mariss Jansons and Lang Lang and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks.   I should've been listening to Daniel Barenboim's all-Ravel concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker , like my pals did,  but it's New Year's Eve ! Not the time to be safe and sober.  What is wrong about having fun ? Some of us put enough into music year-round, that we can afford to party !  Like most New Year concerts, the programme was wide ranging and light hearted, a buffet with popular treats asnd more exotic fare.
The kick-off started, appropriately, with Leonard Bernstein Candide overture,  but Jansons and the BRSO showed their true mettle in Debussy's Clair de Lune, in the arrangement by Leopold Stokowski. Big, full bodied yet classy and stylish. Aha, a piano piece for large orchestra on a programme with a megastar pianist ! Witty good humour. Then a bit of Elgar, gentler, more personal  Elgar, closer to the composer's soul than public blockbusters.  Elgar's Wand of Youth Suite no 2 is marked op. 1b though it was completed for publication long after Enigma, Gerontius and Pomp and Circunstance.  The suites are compilations of some of Elgar's earliest works, some written to entertain children, but anyone, including adults can respond to the magic that is "the wand of youth".  Here we heard "The Wild Bears", a jolly piece which dances with vivacious freedom.  A joyous performance ! Sibelius, too, in the form of Kuolema from Valse Triste op 44, and Antonín Dvořák Slavonic Dance op 72/15. 
Xian Xing Hai, (middle) in Paris with Nie Er and other compsoers
Lang Lang joined Jansons and the orchestra for the andante to Mozart Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 21  KV 467.  The Herkulessaal in Munich is a tiny hall and Lang Lang usually plays very big halls indeed.  It might be fashionable in some circles to sneer at him because he's successful, but he learned his music the hard way, working his way up. So here we heard the "real" Lang Lang to some extent, playing for pleasure, adapting for the small hall and the more intimate vibe.  Without a pause, Jansons segued into Xian Xing Hai's Yellow River Concerto, the section "Ode to the Yellow River".  In the west, people just don't understand the role of Western classical music in China.  Interest was established fairly early on in China, enough so that it could support conservatories in Shangahi and Beijing from the early years of the 20th century.   Even now, it's normal for middle class kids to play piano and know the basics of classical  music, both western and Chinese.  Xian Xing Hai (冼星海, 905 -1945) was a virtuoso pianist but also studied composition and Chinese classsical music. Like so many Chinese intellectuals and modernizers he gravitated to Paris when it was the place to be in creative terms.  Japan invaded China in 1931, occupying much of North China. By the time Xian returned to Shanghai, the country was in turmoil.  Xian wrote the soundtrack for Ma-Xu Weibang's film A Song at Midnight (夜半歌聲) which is marketed as "The first Chinese horror movie" but much more sophisticated than a horror movie, with pointed references to the social and political situation and also to western classical music, to Beethoven and to Freedom.  Please read more about it HERE. When civil war broke out Xian headed to Yenan, following the Communists. There he wrote the original Yellow River Cantata,  (黄河大合唱) for orchestra, chorus and soloists.  Please read more about it here - it is a very good piece "more" than just music, it's a kind of expression of the soul of Chinese history, symbolized by the Huangho River, the cradle of Chinese civilization.   The Yellow River Concerto suite was created decades after Xian's death.  It's not nearly as good as the full cantata, but it is a vehicle for piano and orchestra, which is why Lang Lang played it here.  It's new to Jansons and the BRSO, so they didn't do it justice. 
 More mainstream was the Chopin Grande valse brillante op. 18, closer to what Jansons, the orchestra and Lang Lang usually do. It's not fair to sneer at Lang Lang because he's so famous. Pianists (and violinists) have always been "pop stars". Think Chopin and Liszt or Paganini.  Or Bernstein and Gergiev.  Lang Lang has inspired millions of ordinary Chinese to take up western classical music : imagine the same happening in other countries where people seem to take pride in despising "elitist" art forms.  Jansons has recorded Yūzō Toyama
(b 1931) Yugen, a suite for ballet, and here we heard the Men's Dance . Its use of percussion provides a strong foundation for the keening string legato  and flashes of brass : you can almost visualize these ideas translated for dance.
Back to more standard New Year's Eve party fare with Pietro Mascagni Cavalleria rusticana. Intermezzo, Johannes Brahms,  Hungarian Dance No 5 and the Prelude to  La Revoltosa by Ruperto Chapi (1851-1909) a bit of "Spanish" colour  to continue the "international" theme.  To conclude, the Finale to György Ligeti's Romanian Concerto, sneaking in a dose of modern for audiences who assume they might be averse to the avant garde. 

Sunday 30 December 2018

Wilhelm Stenhammar Symphony no 2 - Blomstedt and Lindberg, BIS

Two new recordings of Wilhelm Stenhammar Symphony no 2 in G minor op 34 (1911-15) one with Herbert Blomstedt and the Gothenberg Symphony, the other with Christian Lindberg and the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra.   Why two recordings from the same label, BIS, specialists in Scandinavian repertoire ? Even the booklet notes are identical.  BIS know their market, and know that two very different approaches will appeal to a more sophisticated audience than to those who still think Stenhammar is "unknown",  Neeme Järvi's recordings, from the1980's established the composer on an international level, followed by many others. So it's not at all a question of Blomstedt or Lindberg, but why.  For many,  Stig Westerberg's recording with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, from the late 1970's, is the benchmark against which all other performances of Stenhammar’s Symphony no 2 needs to be heard.

Like Järvi, Blomstedt has been conducting Stenhammar most of his career, so any recording he makes is a snapshot of the many performances he's given over the years, and this live recording, from Decemeber 2013, is well worth hearing. When the symphony premiered in 1916, Stenhammar wrote that he had wanted to write "sober and honest music without showing off", a statement that deliberately places a distance between him and the excesses of  post-Wagnerian Romanticism, and sets him in the context of Sibelius and the aesthetic of "Northern Light" which revitalized Scandinavian art, literature and culture. Sibelius expressed the same spirit when he wrote of his Symphony no 6 in 1923, that he did not engage in "manufacturing cocktails of every hue (but) I offer the public pure cold water". Significantly, he dedicated that symphony to Stenhammar.

Blomstedt's approach to Stenhammar reflects these Sibelius connections.  While Blomstadt approaches the  principal theme of the first movement with relative restraint, placing more emphasis on what evolves later, Lindberg defines it with greater vigour, emphasisng its crucial role. In this way, Lindberg is closer to the marking "allegro energetico" and to Stig Westerberg who showed how the the motif is broken into component parts, then redeveloped, each variation prefaced by different instrument (woodwinds, horns and woodwinds). Though this motif resembles the folk song "Row, row to the fishing inlet", what might meant more to Stenhammar was the sense of forward thrust, not the folk melody per se. Westerberg and Lindberg capture the ever-changing moods of the movement with stronger definition, so the variations surge, like the ocean, sometimes ebullient, somtimes with more stillness.  Blomstedt  suggests smoother passage, the strings of the Gothenberg Symphony rich and full, like Sibelius in full flow.  Though the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra doesn't have the Scandinavian pedigree of Gothenberg, who premiered the symphony in 1916 and have had it in their repertoire ever since, they respond well to the innate personality of the music.

In the second movement, an andante, the significance of the quieter moments in the first movement are revealed.  Though the mood is subdued, much happens "beneath the surface", so to speak. This movement proceeds as a series of developments, as did the first. Westerberg observes this so perceptively that each variation has character, giving context to the reiteration of the central motif which re-asserts itself as the movement ends with an almost Beethovenian sense of purpose.  Blomstedt is particularly good here, the classiness of the Gothenbergers' playing comes to the fore. Stenhammar   called the scherzo movement "a gentle and sympathetic piece", where the trio dances in triple time. Blomstedt is more refined but Westerberg captures the gaiety and good humour, and Lindberg's players enter into the spirit. Lindberg, incidentally, has recorded Stenhammar Serenade and Excelsior! , also for BIS, which was well received. It doesn't matter what nationality the players are, if they have a conductor who is enthusiastic and understands the music.

The finale begins with a theme which is not so much slow as sostenuto, sustained, not still, which ascends to joyous outburst, from which the original theme in the first movement returns, gently but with authority, the themes alternating in double fugue.  Each of the sections has character.Stenhammar   called the cantilena in the middle "The heart's song brimming over".  Nontheless it is balanced by the lively vivace sections around it and a tranquillo. The movement ends not with bombast but with equanamity.  Structure matters, and balance, and a sense of musicality, not overwrought excess.  Virtues we need all the more in these times of ignorance.  A while back there was a campaign on the internet predicting an end to performances of Carl Nielsen, of all people! Notice the carefully shaped pizzicato in Blomstedt, restrained percussion giving way to expansive strings.  Lindberg overall is brighter and livelier though he takes a whole minute longer - never trust timings alone - and has a rather good violin leader, and warm-sounding brass. (Lindberg also works as a trombone soloist.)  Westerberg takes the prize, though, for depth of interpretation, particularly in the finale, where some inexpressible emotional depth comes through, past structural quality and fine playing.

So, Blomstedt or Lindberg ?  The answer is both, since each one offers a distinctive and valid approach.  Blomstedt might seem the safe answer but Lindberg is closer to Westerberg, and  is an interpreter to listen out for.  Unsurprisngly his recording is something of a hit in some Stenhammar circles. BIS pairs Blomstedt with Serenade in F major op 31 and Lindberg with Stenhammar's Musik till August Strindberg's "Ett Drömspell".written for a performance in 1916 which did not take place. Here it is heard in a concert version from 1970 by Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985), another great Swedish composer. It is an atmospheric work, strings reverberating in extended legato above the low rumbling of percussion winds and brass. An ascending figure introduces a new scene, where textures are brighter, but this is cut suddenly short by strident chords.  The figure returns, yet is confronted yet again by dominant chords which develop in a melody that evokes march or hymn.  Whizzing strings, whirring like wind, introduce the dramatic final section. A wall of sound (strings, brass, woodwinds) looms up suggesting a vast panorama before the final theme (led by harps and horns) suggests something mysterious and open ended.  Stenhammar's Symphony no 2 is so well known that it obscures much of Stenhammar's other music, which is also significant. I learned my Stenhammar from his many songs.  Again, it makes a difference to approach Stenhammar in the context of Scandinavian lietrature, art and culture. Please see HERE for my piece on Stenhammar's opera Gillet på Solhaug. 1893, one of the earliest Swedish operas, based on Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug .  

Thursday 27 December 2018

Si vous vouliez William Christie : Airs Sérieux et à boire vol 2

"Si vous vouliez un jour..." Volume II of the series Airs Sérieux et à boire, with Sir William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, from Harmonia Mundi, following on from  the highly acclaimed "Bien que l'amour"  Volume I. Recorded live at the Philharmonie de Paris in April 2016, this new release is as vivacious and enchanting as the first. Christie and Les Arts Florissants are already working on Vol III, and will be giving a recital at the Wigmore Hall in London on 29th January.  "Si vous vouliez un jour..." brings together airs de cour by Marc-Antoine Charpentier,  Étienne Moulinié, Michel Lambert and Sébastien Le Camus, "Having displaced the polyphony of the Renaissance chanson in the musical landscape of the day, the air de cour, with its clear melodic lines, simple form, and expressive possibilities, soon became an indispensable component of aristocratic entertainment and served as a musical platform for much of the poetry of the day, which ranged from courtly songs (air galant) covering the gamut of amorous states, to air de ballet (often framed as formal expressions of praise), by way of drinking songs (air à boire), devotional songs (air spirituel), and so on." writes Thomas Leconte in his programme notes.  The air de cour thus contributed to the rise of a sophisticated socio-literary culture which prized the musical equivalent of the art of conversation (bien dire), seen at its apogée during the reign of Louis XIII. With its vivid expressiveness, the genre was an important link in the chain of events leading up to the creation of French-language opera,. "The first attempts at setting French plays integrally to music" he continues,"– be they of courtly or pastoral inspiration, such as Les Amours d’Apollon et Daphné by Charles Dassoucy (1650), Le Triomphe de l’Amour by Marin de La Guerre (1654), and La Pastorale d’Issy by Pierre Perrin (1659) – consisted chiefly of juxtaposing several airs, loosely connected together by what would, in the skillful hands of Lully, become the recitative". 

This collection begins with the Petite pastorale H. 479 by Charpentier from around 1676, which is partly created by assembling pre-existing musical fragments, notably those taken from the prologue to Molière's Le Malade imaginaire (1673), interspersed with airs sérieux, and extended by instrumental ritornellos.  In this Petite pastorale, Alcidon and Lysander, (Reinaud Van Mechelen and Cyril Auvity) joust by exquisite singing, accompanied by harpsichord (William Christie). Hardly the weapons of "real" shepherds !  Pan (Lisandro Abadie) - the god of merriment -  unites them and they sing in unison "Laissez, laissez là sa gloire ! Ne songez qu’à ses plaisirs !"  Also included in this collection are all five scenes from his pastoraletta Amor vince ogni cosa, H. 492 for five voices which shows the impact of Italian cantata.

Étienne Moulinié (1599-1676) was an early master of the courtly air, inheriting older traditions, as evidenced by two airs de boire, Amis, enivrons-nous du vin d'Espagne en France, a cheerful part song for male and female voices and Guillot est mon ami (1639) where polyphonic style is adapted for decidedly non-religious purposes. It ends with gleeful laughter, a nod to its folk song origins. Moulinié's  Enfin la beauté que j'adore, (1624) is an air de cour reflecting troubadour style.  By the mid 17th century, the genre developed in different directions. The air galant became more personal,  morphing into the air sérieux, the art song of literary salons, where, as Leconte notes,  "the art of conversation was practiced according to the new codes of behaviour and courteousness which appealed both to the heart and the mind". The air sérieux favoured simple, strophic structure, almost ballad form, but much more refined and elegant : songs of love, longing and  emotional poise.  Vos mépris chaque jour me causent mille alarmes, by Michel Lambert (1610-1696) epitomises the style. A tender accompniment (violins, viola da gamba and theorbo) cradles the singer, the counter tenor Cyril Auvity) who sings expressively but without excess. Sans murmurer  from 1689, is a part song for three male voices, while Amour, je me suis plaint cent fois and J’aimerais mieux souffrir la mort  also include the female singers Emmanuelle Negri and Anna Reinhold, demonstrating the flexibility of the form. Laissez durer la nuit, impatiente aurore, (Anna Reinhold) and Oh ! que vous êtes heureux (Emmanuelle Negri) are airs by Sébastien Le Camus (c. 1610-1677), proving that, in 17th century artistic circles, lighter female voices filled a worthy role.

It's Elf !

Monday 24 December 2018

UNIQUE Christmas greeting from Uncle Nick

Utterly unique - a Christmas card drawn in the Prisoner of War Camp in Sham Shui Po, during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, sent to some of his family. The artist is Nick Jaffer,  Private, Service number 3177, in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, seeing action in Wong Nei Chong Gap, where 60% of some units were wounded or killed, including his brother-in-law, William Markham.  In 1943, he was shipped to Japan with many other prisoners and worked in a coal mine in Sendai.  He was born in Shanghai on 29th October 1908 to Abdul Hamoned Jaffer and Kulsoom Jaffer, who were"Chinese Parsees", Parsis who had been settled in China for many generations.  In the POW records held by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, he's listed as "Persian". This proved to be an advantage as the Japanese considered him technically Indian and gave his wife Indian rations, which were more generous than for Chinese people. Since she didn't eat Indian food, she swapped ghee and spices for extra rice.  His father died before the war and his mother died in the Red Cross Rosary Hill Camp for dependents of HKVDC POWs, during the occupation.  But at least she saw her grandson, born in 1942.  Prewar, he'd worked for Thomas De La Rue (security printers) and after the war worked for NCR in Singapore, when they still made cash registers.  He was a dashing man, very debonair and creative. That's why he was a Camp artist, constantly drawing, painting, and taking part in the social activities the prisoners organised to keep up their spirits.  The drawing above looks just like him ! He accumulated a huge cache of drawings, which were borrowed by someone in the 1960's and never retuned, which almost broke his heart.  He loved travelling, well into later life, and died in his 90's.  

Sunday 23 December 2018

Festive Bach Christmas Oratorio : Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment SJSS

Festive Bach Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio) BVW248 at St John's Smith Square with The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Stephen Layton, with the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and soloists Anna Dennis, Helen Charlston, Gwilym Bowen, and Matthew Brook.  Wonderful to experience it at St John's Smith Square  at Christmas, once a baroque church, now one of the most celebrated of vanues for baroque and early music.  The lights of the chandelier were reflected in the window behind : a magical optical illusion. The auditorium was lit in gold and red.  During the performance a door was opened so light shone in from the back of the hall as well as from the front.  If this was an accident, it was a happy one.  Going home along the Thames by the Embankment increased the impact still further.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment  - who are incapable of doing dull - felt freer and livelier  in this joyfyul atmosphere.  A punchy opening : natural horns and drums creating a suitably rustic ambience. Christ was born in a stable, to a refugee mother fleeing from persecution   Forget that, and miss the whole point of the Nativity.  The audacity of the concept : God Made Man  ! "Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage" A miracle has happened. If we don't feel excitement, there's something wrong with us, whatever we believe, be excited.  Hence the value of period performance, where unsophisticated instruments are played with energetic verve,  creating music which, however divine, never loses a human touch.  The brighter, lighter textures of period instruments sparkle at faster tempi, further enhancing the sense of adventure. For singers, this means greater emphasis on diction and clarity.  For singers of the calibre of the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, this presents no problems.  You don't get to sing at this level unless you're very good, and most of these singers have come through top level youth ensembles. The Oxbridge style matters, too, giving the singing youthful freshness and enthusiasm that comes from the heart.  In Part II, "The Adoration of the Shepherds", the mood is more contemplative. Layton brought out gentler rhythms, evoking the rocking of a cradle :gentle rapture. "Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein, Mach dir ein rein sanft Bettelein".

The voices became hushed,  soloists blended into the chorus.

The Evangelist is a tenor (Gwilym Bowen), higher voices in the baroque are associated with heroes.  The "English tenor" Fach has its roots in the ardent rapture of the sacred oratorio, where sincerity is of the essence, beauty lies in the ideas being expressed not independent thereof.  The Evangelist is haloed by cello, bassoon and continuo.  The purity of the concept of the Nativity is further highlighted by the restraint of Bach's orchestration.  Soloists are supported with the addition of other instruments: oboe d'amore forr the alto, trumpet and extra violins for the bass.  The larger orchestra comes into focus when the voices are employed in larger combinations. In this performance, the occasion being Christmas, we heard Parts I, II and III with Part VI, where all four soloists participate, in accord with chorus and orchestra. Again, the mood is worshipful, but not subdued, despite the more restrained tempi, for the miracle of the Nativity has come to pass. 

Friday 21 December 2018

Glazunov Raymonda : Petipa, Gergiev, Mariinsky

This year's Mariinsky Ballet Raymonda, with Viktoria Tereshkina, conducted by Valery Gergiev on until February.  This is the full three act version of the ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1898, when he was eighty.  It was to be his last production, but it was the work throygh which Alexander Glazunov made his name. Though the version seen here is the 1948 re-creation by Konstantin Sergeyev, it's a glimpse into the world of late 19th century Russian ballet.  
Raymonda is a beauty courted by a Christian prince Jean de Brienne, but a Saracen, Abderakhman, enters the party.  Raymonda falls asleep and dreams of the Saracen.  Modern audiuences won't have a problem understanding the connectioin between dreams and the subconcious, or forbidden lust.  So Raymonda falls asleep and dreams she's been captured by the sexy stranger.  In the second act, Abderakhman declares his love and offers Raymonda wonderful treasures.  But this cannot be : Jean de Brienne kills the intruder, and Raymonda lives happily ever after in safe wedded bliss. Because this is a ballet, the story is told, not through narrative, but through a series of vignettes for dancers to do their thing, solo, in groups and in larger ensemble. Dance is "abstract" theatre !  Lots of opportunities for staged symbolism : scenes lit by moonlight,"arabic"set pieces, children, some dressed as blackamoors and  music to match, combining western lyricism (lovely solo violin doubling the prima donna).  "Dreaminess" is an illusioin. Though the dancers strike graceful poses, their feet are on the ground even when they perch en pointe or leap through the air.  Being a dancer means having muscles and physical stamina. Not for nothing many end up with injuries and retire young. Nothing romantic about that !  So the music allows for rest periods, for changes of pace and so on, and grand moments when the orchestra takes over, though the basic pulse remains firm and energetic.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Morfydd Owen the Biopic

Photo of Morfydd Owen, National Library of Wales
Morfydd Owen, the Welsh composer once a "Forgotten Icon", now justly respected,  with recordings like Portrait of a Lost Icon (please read more here) and the premiere of Nocturne at the BBC Proms (please read more here). Now she's a media celebrity, with a made for TV biopic in her honour, available HERE from SC4 in Welsh with English subtitles if you watch on BBC i-player.
The biopic seems aimed at general audiences with a focus on Owen's marriage to Ernest Jones rather than on her music.  The film is period romance, with a dark edge. Many marriages, especially at that time, were based on the abuse of power, and this was almost certainly not a match of equals. Morfydd is portayed as neurotic, on the verge of a breakdown, her last illness as much mental as physical.  Given that Jones was a colleague of Sigmund Freud, he would have thought in terms of penis envy and hysteria,  a"female problem" shifting blame onto the patient rather than the trauma.  So why would he marry a woman who clearly had public status and a career ? The circumstances of Owen's death are mysterious, and would probably now be investigated by the police and General Medical Council. Why did Jones to operate on his wife on his own instead of driving her to hospital ? Perhaps it was something more scandalous than appendicitis.  Jones was undoubtedly manipulative, but whether he was evil, we are in no position to know. The film accepts Freudian assumptions - Jones's point of view - while depicting him in a sinister light. 

But what was Morfydd's side of the story ?  She was not naive, nor a natural victim.  She moved in avant garde circles, meeting D H Lawrence, Ezra Pound and Prince Yusupov, one of the conspirators who assassinated Rasputin, and was well aware of what being a "New Woman" meant.  It's possible that she married Jones not just for security but becasuse she was curious about the newness of his profession.  Her sultry "gypsy" looks were exotic. At 25, she wasn't marrying young like so many women did at the time. The biopic doesn't really develop Owen's personality and background. To have created the career in a male dominated hierarchy shows strength of chracater.  To have been a staunch churchgoer - and  a possibly what we'd now call a nationalist - among the fast set in London show that she wasn't afraid of being herself whatever others around her might do. Strong women do stay in abusive relationships but there's evidence that Owen realized early on that the marriage was a mistake.  She was probably more unsure than she seemed on the surface, but again, we have no means of speculation what might have been had she lived.

Though the film includes clips of Owen's music, the focus is more on the costume drama aspects of the tragedy.  But it would make a great difference if her music received more detailed attention.  Owen's music "was" her life.  Owen left some 200 surviving scores by the time of her death at the age of 26, a considerable output by any standards.  She was prolific, producing a wide range of works, including large orchestral pieces, chamber music, songs and works for piano, and works for the stage.  Even as a student, first in Cardiff and later in  London,  she was highly regarded. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.  Though she was not part of the male English Establishment, Owen needs no special pleading.  Her music stands on its own merits,highly individual and original.  Her work was published in the Welsh Hymnal when she was 16.

Unlike far too many supposedly "lost" composers, Owen's substantial reputation  doesn't rest on sentimentality or gender alone, but is based on substantial evidence.  Owen's connections in London gave her an entrée to what was happening in the arts on an international level - she heard Stravinsky, and knew about Debussy, Ravel and other developments.  Owen's Nocturne (mentioned here) is superb, as good as anything by other composers in Britain at the time, many of whom were much older and better placed than she was.  Ralph Vaughan Williams found himself creatively after he went to Paris, aged 37. What might Owen have achieved, if she'd lived longer and had the right opportunities ? One day no doubt we'll get a more developed portrait of Morfydd Oween, but until then, this biopic will raise greater interest in this most remarkable of women.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony - Andrew Manze RLPO

Andrew Manze Ralph Vaughan Williams series with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and choir for Onyx continues with A Sea Symphony (soloists Sarah Fox and Mark Stone) and The Lark Ascending (soloist James Ehnes).  Previous releases (Symphonies 2 and 8 in 2016,  3 and 4 in 2017, and 5 & 6 earlier in 2018) should leave listeners in no doubt that this is a significant series. Here we start at the beginning, with what is effectively the first symphony, premiered in 1910.  Given that Martyn Brabbins recorded A Sea Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for Hyperion recently, (please read more here) one might ask whether one should choose between the two. But such comparisons are meaningless: simple either/or judgements don't develop listening skills.  Every good performance has something of merit, whatever the pros or con.  Manze has by far the stronger soloists, though on balance, Brabbins offers more in terms of orchestra and chorus. We need them both. Be glad that we live in an age where we get variety !

If this A Sea Symphony doesn't begin with quite the dramatic spectacle it might, though the timpani roll and trumpets blaze, Manze compensates by emphasizing the undercurrents : the strings surge, suggesting the undertow from which the sprightly woodwinds emerge. This highlights the  "A Song for All Seas, All Ships". Mark Stone's rich deep baritone rings out. A truly vigorous  "Today a brief rude recitative" : the sailor here is a distinctive individual with the confidence to confront whatever may lie ahead, particularly appropriate in the context of the composer's career at that point.   Stone  captures the shanty rhythm in the line "a chant for the sailors of all nations, Fitful, like a surge".  This creates contrast with the soprano (Sarah Fox) and her more esoteric text, and the refined choral section that follows, so when the baritone returns, the chorale-like structure in the movement is revealed. If anything, Stone is even more impressive in the second movement, "On the beach, at night, alone" where subtle nuance is of the essence. Manze's restraint in the second movement throws the Scherzo into high relief : pounding figures, wild, scurrying lines, swirling strings . While Brabbins brings out the colours of Debussy and Ravel in Vaughan Williams,  Manze is rewarding in the Elgarian moments,  especially in the final movement, The Explorers, which has elements of the transfiguration in The Dream of Gerontius.
The first part of the final movement is reverential, but as the pace speeds up, it comes thrillingly to life. "Oh we could wait no longer! " sings Stone. Stone and Fox complement each other : very well-balanced and articulate, harps, winds and violin adding further illumination.  When Stone sings "O soul thou pleasest me", the warmth in  his tone suggests genuine delight.  This is significant, given that the baritone and soprano may represent earthly and spirtual forces at last united in harmony.  Thus the outburst of ecstasy on "O Thou transcendant".  While A Sea Symphony is secular, it may stem from traditions older and deeper than the poetry of Walt Whitman.  One wonders what Vaughan Williams might have done with Solomon's Song of Songs as a work for solo voices.

Combining A Sea Symphony and The Lark Ascending on one disc makes musical sense, the violin (soloist James Ehnes) taking up where the violin left off in A Sea Symphony.  In marketing terms, the sheer popularity of The Lark Ascending would  be persuasive, especially for those relatively new to the works.Brabbins’s   pairing of A Sea Symphony with the more unusual  Darest thou now, O soul, will appeal to listeners with more advanced musical interests.  Though The Lark Ascending is so beautiful that it's almost impossible to spoil, truly exceptional performances are not that easy to come by.  Ehnes, Manze and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra give a very good and satisying account.

Sunday 16 December 2018

Massacre at Christmas

On 25th December 1941, Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese. The Japanese had been at war with China on and off for fifty years.  For ten years they'd been sweeping through China : battle-hardened troops with a formidable military machine behind them.  Manchuria fell, then Shanghai, then Nanjing, then Guangzhou (Canton). British military strategists, to their credit, were realistic. They monitored what was going on, careful to preserve neutrality in the war between China and Japan, though they knew, as Churchill himself was to say, that there was "not the slightest chance " of  Hong Kong holding out.  Read Franco David Macri : Clash of Empires in South China (2012, 512pp)

The photo above was taken at the fort at Saiwan, overlooking the Lei U Mun strait, a few days before the first Japanese attack on 8th December (coinciding with Pearl Harbour).  It took four days for the Japanese to take the territory, seen in the hinterland. Notice how small the area is.  From this position, the men would have been able to watch the battle unfolding across the water and see where bombs were falling in town beyond. For a few days there was an impasse. A small island without resources cannot withstand a siege : no-one, not even the Japanese, wanted another Nanjing.  The war changed everything, for China and for Hong Kong : we're still feeling the effects today.  Many communities dispersed forever.  Hundreds of millions displaced : the biggest refugee crisis in modern times.  Millions and millions of individual tragedies. This is just one incident of many, many others, but it  is reasonably well documented since it was described in the War Crimes Trials in 1946-7.

In the photo we see the 5th AA unit of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. Notice the chair, for the British officer in command. Like so much else in colonial administration, Volunteer units were organised along racial lines. There were separate units for British  and Europeans, for Chinese and for the Macanese community. The 5th AA seems to have comprised a combination of men who for various reasons didn’t fit other categories, so most of these men knew each other socially from before the war. The week before the Japanese invasion began they had been on exercises with the other Volunteers in the New Territories, within sight of Japanese lines across the border.

At midday on Sunday 7th December, the local radio station broadcast the order for mobilisation. The 5th AA had to report for duty by 6pm that evening. Gunner John Litton drove Gunner Algernon Ho in his car. They lived next door to each other in Tytam, near the reservoir. Litton, though only seventeen years older, was in fact Ho’s uncle. Gunner Manuel Ozorio finished a family Sunday lunch, waving to his brother as he left, “Don’t worry, I’ll look after your friends!” His brother, being crippled, was unable to join up with the rest of their crowd, and envied them. Had he been able-bodied, he too would have shared their fate. While the fighting was in progress on the mainland, 5th AA was “shifted around other sectors, 2 days in Stanley, 2 days at Saiwan Fort”. Saiwan Fort was an old Victorian fort, a series of gun emplacements around a main building on high ground. It overlooked Lei Yu Mun Pass, the narrowest stretch of harbour, so close that the men could see across to the mainland with their field glasses. The hill opposite was Devil's Peak, scene of the bitterly fought last Indian stand on the mainland.  Then, on the night of 17th/18th December, a Japanese officer (a swimming champion) swam alone, across the bay, in darkness, to reconnoitre a suitable landfall. across the narrow strip of sea seen above, and the final onslaught began.

That night, unkniwn to the men in the fort, the Japanese landed in force, crossing the strait on small rafts and logs. They struck land at North Point, not far from where 5th AA were stationed.  Late on the afternoon of the 18th, the unit had received artillery fire, which continued without a break until late evening. It was an unusually dark night. Even had there been a moon it would have been obscured by the thick smoke from burning oil installations, and from ships blazing in the harbour. They could see light, from fires, in the direction of the city. Many of the men had homes and families in the vicinity of the fires, but had no way of knowing what was happening in the town.  And these were men with no illusions about what had happened in Nanjing and elsewhere. What they felt, as they sheltered from the relentless bombardment in the fort, has not been recorded, but one can speculate. These men still had the optimism of youth, and war might have seemed something of an adventure, for it was so different from their settled, sheltered lives. Brought up in a world where people still had faith in the British Empire, they may even have believed that somehow the Empire would come to their aid, perhaps in the form of reinforcements from China.  A Goumindang Army division was in the vicinity, but even if they'd have saved Hong Kong,  the political implications were controversial, to say nothing of the logistics.

At 2200 hours they heard shots from close quarters. This was the first indication some of them had that the Japanese had landed. Suddenly, a hand grenade was thrown in from the door, wounding two men. Some were able to escape at this point, including Sergeant  David Bosanquet, who was later able to escape Hong Kong altogether and go into Free China. Shortly afterwards, they heard some voices shouting “Surrender, Save you” in broken English. “Sergeant” George Bennett told his men to fix their bayonets and try to force their way out. Several men did get out, but three were killed on the spot. The men then went back into the tunnel below the main gun site where they had been positioned and shouted that they would surrender, and the Japanese told them to come out. Of the 40-odd men, and, intriguingly, some women, possibly servants (for this was Hong Kong where life without domestic staff was unthinkable), who had been in the fort that day, only 29 remained. They came out in single file.

At one stage, one of the survivors saw a Japanese whom he took to be an officer because the man had a long Japanese sword. It made an impression on him, because that was the first time he’d seen a Japanese sword; he would see many in the years to come. The men were then taken to a pillbox several yards away. One of the Japanese took a pack of cigarettes from someone and smoked them while he searched the prisoners. The Japanese had torches, but didn’t use them. Perhaps the light from the cigarettes was sufficient in that small and very crowded pillbox. Fountain pens, watches, even belts were stolen. Only a few of the Japanese took part in the search. Afterwards, they sat smoking while the others guarded their prisoners with fixed bayonets. Two or three hours passed. It was well after midnight when the men heard a shout.

Gunner Chan Yan Kwong, one of the survivors, describes what happened next. “A semi circle was formed by the guards obstructing the doorway. A loud voice in English was then heard saying that we were free and could leave the pillbox, one by one. However, we were all bayoneted… the bayonet just scratched my abdomen from left to right and the point came out from my clothes, struck my wrist, causing great bleeding”.No more than seven Japanese were involved in the actual bayoneting, though Chan sensed that there were others watching nearby. Gunner Martin Tso Him Chi was perhaps the fifteenth man to come out. Only then did he realise what had happened to the men who had gone before him. Bayoneted across the abdomen from his stomach to his chest, he lay pretending to be dead. He said he thought the sentries were by then tired so they were not as thorough as they might have been earlier. He could see in the light from a fire from a burning ship in the bay the bodies of his comrades: Gunner Kwok Wing Chueng, Gunner Poon Kwong Kuen, Gunner Algernon Ho, Bombardier T N Lau and Gunner Tsang Kai Pan. He saw the last man to be killed, Ting Ping Kwan, try to avoid being bayoneted by pushing up his arms and legs, but Ting died, too.

Then the Japanese came up and battered the bodies with rifle butts and threw them into a pit near what had been their kitchen. Tso, who had been covered by his comrades’ bodies, managed to roll down the slight slope so he fell against the kitchen wall. Tso and Chan lay, separately, among the bodies, listening to the sound of dying men “crying out for God, mother and water” as Chan described, but they thought that the guards were still around. Chan thought he saw soldiers stationed on the horizon. Only later he discovered that they were straw effigies. Gradually the groaning stopped. Tso said that he managed to survive by crawling out to get water and picking biscuits from the ground. He moved a corpse to cover himself when he got back to position, since he didn’t know where the Japanese might be. After several days Chan heard the sounds of looters coming to comb the battlefield, so he crawled to the dugout, hid and removed his uniform. As he was about to leave, he heard a sound from the pit and whispered “Is there anybody alive?” Only Tso answered.

Tso and Chan made their way home. Chan lived in Shaukiwan, not far from the site of the massacre. Tso lived in Causeway Bay a few miles farther on, but on the way home he met a party of Japanese and was forced to do coolie work. The next day, in pain and weak, he made his way to a Catholic church in Shaukiwan where Reverend Father Shek dressed his wounds and looked after him.

Studying a list of the men who were killed at Saiwan sheds light on the community they came from. The survivors, Tso and Chan, had studied at Diocesan Boys School, an old Hong Kong institution, together with many of the men who were killed – the bodies they saw were not strangers but men they’d known since childhood, with whom they’d played cricket and football. Tso escaped into Free China and became a banker in Guangzhou after the war. In this second photo, see him in his nice western suit.  But he's standing by the pillbox where the massacre took place. He's not posing : it's an official photograph taken by the investigators ofvthe War Crimes Commission.  After the trial, Tso took the relatives of some of the men who had been killed back to the site for private mourning. This was an act of courage and kindness on his part, as it was the first time he had been back, alone.  One of those relatives, Eric Peter Ho, brother of Algernon Ho and nephew of Henry Litton, told me years later how Tso was so overcome by emotion that he could hardly proceed. Tso died young, but left a very talented son who later won a scholarship to study in the US.

A few of the other men, remembered : Debonair Ernest Fincher had been famous for cricket and swimming parties. Algernon Ho, known to his intimates as “Algy” had that summer graduated from university, and was working as an accountancy trainee at Wong, Tan & Co, the only firm of Chinese chartered accountants in Hong Kong at the time. Litton, Ho, William Edward Broadbridge and Andrew Zimmern (all related) were members of prominent and talented Eurasian families who played an important part in Hong Kong affairs. Peter Ulrich, (third photo) a charismatic and athletic German Eurasian, had been the outstanding pupil of his graduating year, winning academic honours for La Salle, a new, but innovative, Jesuit school. He had in fact started teaching there.  He was such an exceptional character that people were talking about him in awe for decades. After the war, his parents were living in Bangkok.  Ozorio and Francis Oswald Reed were Macanese who’d grown up in Kowloon Docks, occupied by the Japanese, and later carpet bombed by the Americans in 1944-5, so flattened that you could stand at the shore and look through to the horizon on the other side. Only one of the large Reed family would survive the war. Gunner A Bakar was probably of mixed Chinese and Indian ancestry, his family long-term Hong Kong residents.  Chan Yan Kwong, who was 20 at the time of the massacre, went on to become a merchant after the war and remained in Hong Kong. The scars from his wound remained for the rest of his life. He displayed them in court when he gave evidence in the war crimes trials after the war.
Ernest Paterson, whose mother was Spanish, was an undergraduate at Ricci Hall, Hong Kong University. His face smiles out at us from a photograph of the University Science Club, taken  a few weeks before. On one side next to Ernie is my Dad, aged 20. They were best friends. My Dad had been crippled in his teens, which is why he could not be a Volunteer like his brother and friends, but ironically that saved his life. On the other side of my dad is Stanley Ho, who would later become the billionaire gambling tycoon of Macau ! and behind them is Oswald Cheung, later SOE, the first Chinese Queen's Counsel, and Member of the Legislative and Executive Councils.  Of the whole group  only Stanley Ho is still alive. This fourth photo comes from David Matthews and Oswald Cheung : Dispersal and Renewal : Hong Kong University During the War Years, 1998, 508pp)

Cheung Wing Yee, Poon, Litton, Reed, George Donald Stokes, Tsang and Joseph Nelson Wilkinson left wives and young children. The only man truly alone was Edgar Wallace Bannister, who had long left his parents, far away in England. With these men died a microcosm of the pre-war Hong Kong world they’d known. These men were among Hong Kong’s best and brightest, the hope of their communities, and, in one dark, moonless night they were destroyed.

Those who carried out the massacre were never identified. They weren't officers, and it wasn't a premeditated crime but basic thuggery. In the confusion of the battlefield, it was impossible to tell for certain which unit was where at the time.   More than twenty years ago, I decided to find out for myself what had happened, and uncovered the war crimes file in the National Archives at Kew.  In the file, there was an envelope, sealed since 1947. But the story was more or less public domain, since it had been reported in the newspapers, Trying to open the envelope, I inadvertently tore it, since it was securely bound into the file. No one had opened the envelope, or set eyes on the photograph, for nearly sixty years. I felt most truly humbled, but it genuinely felt like someone was willing me to be the person to lay eyes on the documents after so many years.

List of men in 5th AA battery listed as killed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Sgt 3834 Edgar Wallace Bannister, 28

Gnr 4571 A Bakar

Gnr 2235 William Edward Broadbridge, 34

Gnr 4134 Chan U Chan

Gnr 4840 Cheung Wing Yee

Bdr 4225 Ernest Francis Fincher

Gnr 4239 Algernon Ho, 21

Gnr 4317 Kwok Wing Chung,

Gnr 4186 Leung Fook Wing, 26

Gnr DR/53 John Letablere Litton, 38

L Bdr 4505 Lau Hsin Nin

Gnr 4198 Manuel Heliodoro Ozorio, 24

Gnr 4861 Ernest Manuel Paterson, 18

Gnr 4188 Poon Kwong Kuen,

Gnr 2798 Francis Oswald Reed, 28

Gnr 4798 George Donald Stokes, 31

Gnr DR/9 William E. Stone

Gnr 4189 Tsang Ka Pen

Gnr 4614 Albert Ulrich, 24

Gnr DR/72 Peter H. A. Ulrich, 25

Gnr DR/31 Joseph Nelson Wilkinson

L Bdr 4268 Andrew Zimmern
Altogether it is believed that about 28 men were killed in this incident, including several men from 7th AA Battery, Royal Artillery, who were temporarily assigned to the unit.
L Bdr George Bennett, 26

Sgt Reginald Edmund Coughlan

L Bdr Kenneth Henry Macdonald

Gnr William Rhoden

Gnr George Robert Ward

Friday 14 December 2018

The Tale the Pine-trees knew

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

Stile Antico In a Strange Land - Elizabethan composers in exile

"In a Strange Land" - Elizabethan Composers in Exile, new from Stile Antico on Harmonia Mundi, featuring the works of English composers forced into exile during the Reformation. "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill."  These verses, from Psalm 137, provide the text for William Byrd's Quomodo cantabimus, and serve as a reninder that the composers featured, John Dowland, William Byrd,  Peter Philips, Robert White and Richard Dering, had to adapt to situations where the connection between State and Church put them in a position where their faith could be challenged.

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

Prostitute as Cultural Warrior

花影恨(Fa Yin-hun) (1917-1939) was the flower name of  Zhu Xiu shen (朱秀珍) (Chu Sau Chun)
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 l
ife ? 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.  
Fa's grave is situated on a hillside, facing northwest, towards the Pearl River and Guangzhou. To this day, it's still swept and visited. Once there was a vase inscibed with words from her famous song 塘西名姬 (Tong Sai Min Ji - Song of the Western district (Shek Tong Shui)  Her story, and that of the many other women in her profession has inspired novels,TV shows and films, including Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1988) about which I've written here.  Please also read about Su Xiao Xiao (So Siu Siu, 蘇小小) who lived in the fifth century AD , another child sold into entertainment, whose talent and moral fibre has inspired poets and artists ever since. See my piece "First and Greatest Traviata of them all" HERE. Below, two useful clips. The first which has English subtitles, describes the area and times, with Fa Yin-hun's song sung by a male singer. The second has the song in orchestrated form, with lots of photos of her life. 

Saturday 8 December 2018

Unusual Christmas concert - songs, poetry and harp !

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.

Photos: Roger Thomas

Friday 7 December 2018

Berlioz : Harold en Italie, Les Nuits d'été - Roth, Zimmermann, Degout

Hector Berlioz Harold en Italie with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles with Tabea Zimmermann,  plus Stéphane Degout in Les Nuits d'été from Hamonia Mundi.  This Harold en Italie op. 16, H 68 (1834) captures the essence of Romantic yearning, expressed in Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage where the hero rejects convention to seek his destiny in  uncharted territory. 

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

Revealing Mahler Symphony no 5 - Daniel Harding

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.