Sunday 29 April 2018

Hope and Glory - Elgar revisited

Elgar conducting Yehudi Menuhin, 1932
Blast from the past ! Revisiting Hope and Glory, a Portrait of Elgar first broadcast on the BBC in 1984, but utterly rerlevant today when the very concept of Englishness is being reworked by the media and populist politics.  "Play it like you've never heard it before" cries Elgar as he conducts Land of Hope and Glory, in the famous clip filmed in 1932.  Good advice for all musicians and listeners : don't rely on autopilot, always be fresh and alert !  Cut to Simon Rattle, aged 29 with a dark afro conducting the CBSO where Evelyn Glennie is a young percussionist.  Cut to Michael Kennedy, in his prime, deriding the "quite mistaken image" of Elgar  as "jingoistic, a tub thumper, all that kind of rubbish which we now know is not true".  "He wasn't a narrow minded Englishman" says early biographer Percy Young, "it is narrow minded Englishmen who think that he was a narrow minded Englishman".
Elgar was an outsider, a country boy without money or the usual chorister/Oxbridge connections.  In a way, though, being an outsider meant he had to be original.  Working at the asylum at Powick - a job no posh boy would have done - honed his skills.  (Please read what I wrote about Powick here). To prove the point, Nigel Kennedy plays a lively Quadrille from 1879.  Elgar's marriage was the making of him.  Alice defied class, religion and status because she believed in his genius : her influence cannot be overestimated, even now when the supposed background to what might have been the Third Symphony has been revealed.  Perceptively, Diane McVeagh calls the early years of their marriage Elgar's equivalent to university.  He was exposed to contemporary music yet sufficiently mature to find his own voice. It was Alice, too, who spotted the germ of what were to become the Enigma Variations.  Though Elgar became successful despite the class divisions of his time, he never quite lost a certain insecurity. As Jerrold Northrup Moore observes, Alice understood Elgar's chaste flirtations, which fuelled his creativity.   Diane McVeagh alludes to Elgar's deep seated insecurity about money as a symptom of something deeper, as if he feared that the inspiration which sustained him might dry up.  Enigma released a flood of great works, like The Dream of Gerontius,  a milestone not only in musical terms but in its subject matter.  Gerontius was thus, says Percy Young, an act of Catholic Emancipation and also "took Elgar into Europe, creating a new constituency for British music".
Michael De-la-Noy, who was acutely alert to the undercurrents behind the facade of the Establishment, explains Elgar's relationship with royalty and the delight with which he received honours. "Nouveau riche" says De-la-Noy, being bitchy.  But in a world where privilege still held sway, self-made men were still underclass, no matter how talented or successful they might have been, and needed symbols like medals.  In his own milieu, in music, Elgar could be truly himself.  “When he was with musicians", adds Kennedy, "he was in his kingdom and he felt secure".  "He had a melancholy temperament, he was very much alone, you can hear it in the music", says McVeagh, "but that's partly why his music reaches then hearts of so many people".
A@1"As he goes on, he becomes a more extreme composer and a more and more dangerous composer" says Rattle of Elgar's second symphony, "it is disturbing, not only in the moments when all hell is let loose.... but there's always something beyond the surface which leads you to believe there's something subversive happening".  In this context, the Cello Concerto is discussed. "What Elgar did,” says Northrop Moore, "was to use the extremities of the orchestra, top and bottom, leaving an immense canvas for the lonely solo voice to wander at will". The meaning, said Elgar "is a man's attitude to life".  When Alice died, Elgar's creativity might have died with her, though the traumas of the Great War took their toll, as with millions of others.  Elgar didn't dwell in the past.  He enthusiastically pioneered new recording technology, working with orchestras in the studio. "Nothing like that was seen in the commercial field" says Northrop Moore "until Stravinsky did the same thing".  Elgar also recognized young talent, conducting Yehudi Menuhin in 1932 (see photo above) On his deathbed, Elgar said of his sketches for a third symphony "If I can't complete them, somebody will . . . or write a better
one, in 50 or 500 years”. The words of a man who understood that music was greater than the ego of any one individual. 

Friday 27 April 2018

New Prince Louis, eh ?

Who is the new Prince Louis named after, huh ?  A gentle reminder to the rabid that The Battenbergs and Hesses were immigrants, too.  Not a drop of English blood til Diana.  The second, but also the lowdown dirtiest version of Louie, Louie. Please read the clip description for background.  Also see my post on the Kingsmen and Richard Berry from six years ago HERE.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Maytime - Parry in Gloucester and London

Sir Charles Hubert Parry was, arguably, the founder of modern British music. Elgar didn't teach, except by example. Parry was both composer and academic, with a direct influence on a whole generation of composers who were to make British music what it is today - Vaughan Williams, Holst etc. etc.  Parry was open minded and open spirited.  There is a lot more to his music than Jerusalem and pieces for church and state occasions.   Was Parry also the father of English song ? Please see my piece on Parry's English Lyrics. 

So in this centenary of his death, it would be nice to commemorate him properly. Two concerts coming up in the next few weeks.. First,  a gala evening concert at Gloucester Cathedral, Adrian Partington conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, where
the Gloucester Choral Society will be joined by the Oxford Bach Choir
and the Philharmonia Orchestra in a programme that begins with Parry's I was Glad includes Parry's Ode to the Nativity and ends with Jerusalem.  In between Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Holst's Hymn of Jesus and Ireland Greater Love Hath No Man.  This is part of a weekend celebration which will include a study day at Highnam House for true devotees.

Five days later, on 10/5, Partington brings the same forces to the Royal Festival Hall in London.  I was Glad and The Ode to the Nativity are on the programme,  and the same Vaughan Willliams but Holst and Ireland are dropped for Elgar's Cello Concerto witth Marie-Elisabeth Hecker.   Not that anyone minds hearing that piece at all.  I'll be at the Royal Opera House that night for the premiere of George Benjamin's new opera Lessons in Love and Violence.  But if anyone's going, either to RFH or Gloucester, please let me know.  There will be some Parry at the Proms too (Prom 17) , and one concert in the autumn at the Wigmore Hall, though in past years BBC Radio 3 has done all the symphonies and more.  Parry isn't Box Office Hot Stuff and big choral numbers aren't easy to produce.  So it's nuts to expect mass audiences  and wall to wall hysteria. But that's just as well.  Parry wasn't that kind of guy. Serious listeners can seek Parry out themselves, and listen, gradually absorbing his unique sensilibility. More on Parry and British music on this site and on my Hubert Parry Group on Facebook.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Matthias Goerne - Wolf Pfitzner Wagner Strauss - Wigmore Hall

Matthias Goerne and Seong-jin Cho at the Wigmore Hall, London, in a demanding programme - Hugo Wolf Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo, Hans Pfitzner songs,  Richard Wagner Wesendonck Lieder and Lieder by Richard Strauss. From Goerne we can always expect the unexpected, presented with musical intelligence, and Wigmore Hall audiences are well up to the challenge.  Since I last heard him live, Goerne's voice has grown richer and more burnished, without losing the tenderness at the top he's so famous for.   Astonishing mastery of nuance and phrasing, helped by a new ease of line.   Ironically, as Goerne shades closer to bass baritone than befiore, he can still deliver songs usually the preserve of female voice, so convincingly that you wonder why they aren't done more often this way.

To begin, standard Goerne territory, the Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo of Hugo Wolf.  He's done these often enough in the past, but this performance was something else.   Goerne shaped the lines with such authority that the phrases seemed sculpted from solid marble. The fluidity of line suggested the sensuality of Michelangelo's work, where fingers pressed on flesh seem alive even though the moment is frozen in time.  Formidable as these songs are, they are erotic though not in "love song" fashion.  Perhaps the love object is life itself . hence the profundity of the central song Alles endet, was entstehet with its steady dignity.

The darkness in Goerne's timbre brought out the drama in the six Lieder by Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949). Though in later life, Pfitzner was to embrace Hitler and the values of the Third Reich, these songs, written between 1888/9 and 1916, represent Pfitzner while still in relative youth, heavily influenced both by Wagner and the almost Expressionist Zeitgeist of the time. A good link between Wagner, Wolf and Strauss. 

Seong-jin Cho

These Pfitzner songs are expressive, with piano parts so elaborate that they feel scored for full orchestra, though only piano is present.  Goerne's pianist was Seong-jin Cho, a young concert pianist of great flair.  He won First Prize in the 2015 Fryderyk Chopin Piano competition.  Goerne has always liked working with concert pianists  (Brendel, Andsnes, Pressler and Gage, for starters). It's a different approach to the usual relationship between singer and specialist in piano song : riskier, but very rewarding.  Cho is assertive, with a very individual personality in his playing which brings out the best in Pfitzner's settings where the piano is more flamboyant than the vocal line.  Cho's pedalling rumbles and roars : dramatic introductions that set the stage for songs that want to be music theatre, figures flying across the keyboard adding commentary on text, and postludes that make the pianist protagonist as well as partner.  Pfitzner may not get the subleties in the Heine settings Wasserfahrt op 6/6 and Es glänzt so schön die sinkende Sonne op4/1 but wow, does he paint a thrilling picture !  Quieter songs like An die Mark op 15/3 (1904), Abendrot op 24/4 (1909) and Nachts op26/2 (1916) give the singer more of a chance to sing, and Goerne shapes them sensitively, bringing out the atmosphere in the texts.

Goerne has had Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder in his repertoire for around 15 years, and his interpretation has matured. While these songs are beautiful with female voice,  Goerne connects to the deeper undercurrents.  The dangers of sexuality !  Tristan und Isolde in a villa in 19th century Switzerland, the composer literally on the run from the ,police at home.   Thus the tension in Stehe still ! much tenser and  more troubling with a male voice which resonates with muscular physicality.  The headiness of Im Triebhaus lets Goerne's tone stretch with barely suppressed excitement before sinking into the pain of Schmerzen.  Goerne has been singing King Marke in concert, which added frisson given the context behind the Wesendonck Lieder.  Jonas Kaufmann sings these songs too, but the more obvious Tristan connection isn't nearly as disturbing as the idea of Marke or Otto Wesendonck watching what was going on.

Four songs by Richard Strauss - Traum durch die Dämerung op29/1 , Morgen ! op27/4,  Ruhe meine Seele! op 27/1 and Freundliche Vision op 48/1 (1900) were followed by Im Abdendrot from Vier letzte Lieder, forming an arc between early Strauss and Strauss nearing death, looking back on the past.  Though these songs are usually - but not exclusively - heard with female voice, they transpose well enough. In any case the emotions they deal with are universal, which a singer as good s Goerne has no trouble expressing whatsoever.  As so often in Goerne's ingenious programmes, this selection formed a mini-cycle.  The shadows of twilight give way to sleep and to dreams, refreshing the soul, for dawn and a vision of hope.  As the last notes of Freundliche Vision faded away, Im Abdendrot  returned us full cycle, to sunset.  

Monday 23 April 2018

Valedictory Mahler 10, Tippett The Rose Lake - Rattle, LSO

Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra in Michael Tippett The Rose Lake and Mahler  Symphony no 10  (Cooke III performing edition) at the Barbican, London.   Mega mega high profile, advertised a year ago, livestreamed internationally and broadcast on the BBC.  Members of the LSO in white tie.  In the audience - Marina Mahler, grand daughter of the composer and Colin Matthews, one of Deryck Cooke's team. While still a teenager, Matthews (b.1946) was so interested in Cooke's work that he contacted him : the rest is history.  Interval features are usually time for tea, but Matthews is worth listening to as he sheds new light. The symphony will never, ever be "complete", and that is its fascination.  The challenge, in performance, is to present it with a sense of open-endedness and possibility.  Rattle took the last minutes sedately, for they are too precious to rush through, letting them breathe and rise, like the finale of Mahler Symphony no 9, dissolving into infinity.  Even more potently, he drew the connections between beginning and end - shrill strings reminiscent of the "death scream" against darker, warmer hues,  almost, but not quite resolving the duality in the first movement. In so many ways this duality is the heart of the entire work, but  poignantly, it hangs tantalizingly unfinished.  Very sophisicated, and very moving.
Rattle's Mahler springs from a very long British tradition, which goes back many decades.  As a music student, Britten bought Horenstein's 1927 recoirding of Kindertotenlieder and drove his friends nuts playing it over and over.  After 1933, the influx of emigrés - including  Bertholdt Goldschmidt - strengthened the connections. Rattle, like so many others, imbibed his Mahler from Walter, Barbirolli, Haitink, Horenstein etc. all of whom were active in Britain. Rattle's Mahler thus reflects a wider European tradition, as opposed to, say, the Bernstein mould.  From what we now know about Mahler,  this tradition better reflects the composer himself, which specially pertains to this last work.
The Adagio began with exquisite refinement : gossamer textures floated, the yearning string lines enhanced by the entry of a deeper, more resonant theme.  The horns break away, as if they're leading us further into the realms of Mahler's creative imagination.  Perhaps these two themes represent Mahler and Alma, his "ewiger weiblicher" Muse.  The relationship was central to Mahler's creativity, so background knowledge does impact on performance practice.  Rattle judged the duality with poised balance, but pointedly highlighted the fragile figure before the final return of the "Alma " theme, shaded by horns.  As so often in Mahler, equanimity even born from struggle, cannot last. When the "scream chord",was released a cataclysmic blast of near dissonance.  The allusions to alpine meadows returned, but muted, tinged with melancholy.
The swaggering Weltlauf  in the wild first Scherzo brutally mocked the refinement of the Adagio.  The world runs on, whether it suits us or not. No neurotic self pity here : not Mahler's style.  The rapid changes of meter and tempo were well defined, but not necessarily manic, which is no fault, since the movement ends with glorious, exuberant vigour, tautly defined, heralded by trumpets which in Mahler signify forward movement, not stagnation.   This time the dichotomy between themes feels dangerous, the throwing down of a creative gauntlet?  Far from being neurotic, Mahler was entering a new phase in life, and possibly new creative challenges.  The jerky figures in the strings, winds and brass felt deliciously wicked.   The Purgatorio is short but structurally important, linking the first and the more complex second Scherzo.  On the title page of the second Scherzo, Mahler writes “The Devil is dancing it with me! Madness, seize me … destroy me! Let me forget that I exist, so that I cease to be.” But a careful observer will note that Mahler then adds “dass ich ver ….” (so that I ….) and trails off without completing the idea. It’s a preposition, but this whole work is a kind of preposition, well served by Rattle's non-dogmatic touch.

A delicate yet quirky waltz circulates through this movement, in counterpoise to the demonic tensions. Significantly the lone voice of the violin is joined by other individual voices, including oboe, flute and bassoon.  Yet where was Mahler heading ? The brooding tuba heralded the heavy tread of the "Fireman's Funeral" in the Finale.   Alma and Mahler had watched the funeral, of a fireman from their hotel room.  Only Alma knew what that meant to the composer, so we can only speculate in musical terms.  Though there are many funeral marches in Mahler, this one's particularly chilling because it's so uncompromising, muted horns and trumpets, bassoons and tuba in solemn procession.  Yet a flute sang, its voice rising upwards : like a bird, like a soul, free of worldly constraints.  Though the tuba still mourned, solo trumpet led the orchestra forward, proceeding quietly but with the poise with which Rattle marked the first movement. The "death scream" returns, but now less strident, more integrated into the whole.  A wonderful performance, even by the standrds of the LSO at its best.   Though Ratlle has conducted numerous Mahler 10's,  this was one for the ages.

A remarkable programme, too, beginning with Tippett's The Rose Lake.  There's little connection between Tippett's The Rose Lake and Mahler 10, but  who cares ?  This performance was in itself mega high profile,  since it's not often heard live, which Tippett fans would have been anticipating all year.  Rattle has always been good at developing repertoire, and part of his remit as Music Director of the LSO is to promote modern British music.  Please read HERE about his keynote concert at the start of the season where he conducted an eclectic programme of  Elgar, Birtwistle, Knussen and Adès.  More to come !  Sir Colin Davis conducted the LSO in the first recording of the piece twenty-one years ago, and Richard Hickox conducted the BBC National Orchestra oF Wales in 2005.  Those versions very different, as was this performance with Rattle, which was easily up in the same league as Davis and Hickox, the LSO sounding revitalized, playing better than they've played in years.
Ostensibly, The Rose Lake is a video in music, inspired by Le lac rose in Sénégal, which Tippett visited in 1990.  As the angle of the sun changed, the colours in the landscape changed, a concept that translates well into a study of orchestral colour.  It was "a continuous five part composition, in essence a set of variations .....a song without words for orchestra", as Tippett wrote at the time. 

The sections with programmatic titles mix with sections where only tempo gives clue to meaning, the twelve short segments moving forward in sequence, suggesting the passage of time. Dense but lucid layers of sound as beautifully structured as mosaic. I thought of Birtwistle Earth Dances, but lighter and shining.  In the organic "earth forms" and especially in the bird sounds, I thought of Olivier Messiaen, who was also fascinated by radiant aural colour and keyed percussion.          

Saturday 21 April 2018

God Save the Queen and what she stands for !

God Save the Queen, and long may she reign ! In her rests what is good about the monarchy - above the cheap sideshows of petty politics.  She's not hypnotized by Donald Trump's golden elevator ! Or by crawlers like Farage and May who'd sell out to please the media who control what the public thinks. It is ironic that, at a time when the very basis of democracy is being eroded by the likes of Cambridge Analytica and the Murdoch press, a monarch should stand for the rights of ordinary people.  Long may she reign and not give in to the crass and venal.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Tickbox Triumph - BBC Proms 2018

A fake antique ! An early postacrd revived as Shell ad in the 1970's.

Proms planners these days pride themselves on working by formula. This year, it seems, they're working by robot, planning by tick box, not musical input. Lots of good enough things, though none of the flair there once was.  The First Night of the Proms (13/7) will be wonderful - big choral and orchestral British masterpieces - with Ralph Vaughan Williams Towards the Unknown Region and Gustav Holsts's The Planets with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, the BBCSO and Sakari Oramo . Sure to be a rousing evening. But Anna Meredith's 59 Productions comes after the interval. It's only 22 minutes and so no matter how good it is, the concert's lop sided. But the boxes are ticked - British, women composers, new music, rather than thinking how best to present the music, as music.

The First Night for more challenging music will be Prom 5, with Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande , fresh from Glyndebourne.  Glyndebourne does things well, as music.  Pity the ethos isn't carrying through to the rest of the Proms.  The next night, another good programme, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, music so thrilling that it wows everyone, whether they like music or not, and with Oramo/BBCSO, it will be stunning. It's marketed with Gershwin An American in Paris, a valid connection but not the most inspired.  Personally I'm thrilled that Prom 8 (20/7) will feature Morfydd Owen's nocturne. Owen was an extraordinarily gifted Welsh composer, who died young, in 1918. (Please read what I've written about her here).  Music by young musicians is interesting, but a whole programme isn't necessarily the way to showcase them best.

Mahler's Symphony no 8, (22/7 ) with Thomas Søndergård and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with good singers, will be a big draw.  Mahler 8 is always something to experience. The tag "Symphony of a Thousand" was created by marketeers selling tickets for the premiere, not by Mahler himself.  It is a curse, conditioning audiences to root for quantity rather than quality, for excess, not spirituality or musical finesse.  

More British music on (27/7), Hubert Parry's Symphony no 5, with Vaughan Williams's Symphony no 6 and Holst's Ode to Death. It's the anniversary of Parry's death, get it ?  But it's a good programme and with Martyn Brabbins conducting this is going to be a Prom to remember.  One of my musts this year.  Two London Symphoniues (31/7) Haydn Symphony no 104 with Vaughan Williams Symphony no 2, Andrew Manze conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony.  August sees a parade of well known orchestras, conductors and repertoire. Many good things there, showing that music is alive and well in the real world of performance.  I'm keen on Per Nørgård, Bergen and Bychkov's Stravinsky. At least the Proms provide a platform for worldwide broadcast. 

Things liven up in September, the last week of the Proms when the mega stars arrive.  The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with Kirill Petrenko does Dukas, Prokofiev and Franz Schmidt on  1/9, then Richard Strauss tone poems and Beethoven Symphony no 7 on 2/9. The Berliners are everyone's "local band" thanks to Digital Concert Hall, but there's nothing like hearing them live.  Andris Nelsons returns on 3/9 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Bernstein and Shostakovich.  On 5/9, another "must", when John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestra Révolutionnaires et Romantiques in a Berlioz programme featuring extracts from Les Troyens and Joyce DiDonato sings La mort de Cléopatre.  Jonathan Cohen conducts Arcangelo in Handel Theodora on 7/7. 

Andrew Davis conducts the Last Night of the Proms on 8/9 with Gerald Finley as star turn.  Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens, Stanford Songs of the Sea and Roxanna Panufnik  Songs of Darkness, Dreams and Light plus the usual jolly fare.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Why we ALL need to save St John's Smith Square

Please help save St John's Smith Square ! Follow THIS LINK to see what's happening and why we need to do something.  I've made a donation already andf intend to do more.  Donations alone aren't going to fill the shortfall but they do matter because they are a statement of support.  We must give, in order to send a message to the powers that be.
Though there are several small to medium sized venues all round London, St John's is unique in that it already has a track record for enterprise and excellence.  St John's is unrivalled for baroque and early music, and has been a significant force, over the last 50 years, in the revival of well-informed interest in these genres. This isn't some obscure specialism.  British music and culture in general derive from the glories of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Where would this country be without Handel, Purcell, Blow, Arne and a host of others ? Denigrate the baroque and denigrate the finest flowerings of British culture, since modern British music derives so much from an appreciation of our baroque past. Where would Vaughan Williams, Britten and even Harrison Birtwistle and many others  be without their love of ancient music ?  And with music, much of the wider culture, such as poetry, literature and gistory that once made  Britain great.   SJSS isn't just for those who use it : if benefits the nation.   It's a heritage project in the widest sense.

St John's Smith Square proved its value while the Queen Elizabeth Hall was being renovated, offering a home for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta.   The place is flexible enough that it can support diffrent types of music and performance.  If the South Bank continues its policies of everything "but" serious music, we may yet need SJSS as a refuge.  Being small and flexible, it's a relatively cheap place to run without the management superstructure large places need to maintain.   The very fact that SJSS has survived so long is a testament to its virtues.  So why wreck what pretty much works ? The building can't be adapted for offices or posh housing, though there might be some who'd like that. 
Long term what needs to be done is support from the public sector, like it or not.  That means the Arts Council England, who now control funding for everything, not only the creative arts but museums, libraries, capital biulding projects, individual start ups and community projects.  Governments like that because it means they can offload responsibility  without being caught in the act.   But it's short sighted thinking.  The arts are an important part of the British economy. They are also part of the image of Britain as a cultivated nation with a heritage to be proud of. Mess that up and everyone loses.  What St John's Smith Square represents is British culture, and its unique tradition. That is not a minority interest, nor even a London thing.  It's the very basis of our heritage, whether or not the man in the street realizes it.  Everyone stands to gain from a national perspective.   For ACE shouldn't that be a priority ?

Monday 16 April 2018

Christoph Prégardien Wigmore Hall

Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, welcomed return of the perennial favourite of Wigmore Hall audiences. Prégardien and Julius Drake began with Carl Loewe’s Der Nöck (op 129/2, 1857) one of the most lyrical Lied by any composer, in a genre rich with beauty,  to a poem by August Kopisch.  Beside a tumbling waterfall, a water sprite plays his harp, enchanting the torrent so it hangs suspended in mid air, the vapours forming a rainbow halo. Circular figures in the piano part suggest tumbling waters. Prégardien breathed into the long vowel sounds in the refrain so they rolled. The flowing refrain evokes both the song of a nightingale and of the harp, symbols of song.  But suddenly the magic is broken when humans draw near. The waves roar, the trees stand tall, and the nightingale flees, until it’s safe for the Nöck to reveal himself again.  Prégardien and Drake paired this Der Nöck with another setting of the same poem which is driving me crazy because I can’t identify it, though I can’t place without having to look it up.

So omnipresent is Schubert’s Erlkönig that Carl Loewe’s Erlkönig (Op 1/23 1818) might seem to pale in comparison.  But it really isn’t bad on its own terms.  Loewe emphasizes the word “Knaben”, which Prégardien sings sensually : perhaps Loewe understood the subtext better than Schubert did, even if the song isn’t a masterpiece. Loewe’s “true” Erlkönig in any case is Herr Oluf, or even Edward, both songs of disguised sexual anxiety.  Loewe also wrote another song, Der spaete Gast Op. 7 Nr. 2 to a poem by Willibald Alexis (Georg Wilhelm Heinrich Häring 1798-1871), an “alternative” Erlkönig. Read more about that here  

More spooky events in Robert Schumann’s Belsatzar op 57 (1846). This time the scene is a grand party in a palace, but an unseen hand writes a curse on the wall.  Prégardien’s singing was restrained, creating the drama is growing tension, holding back rather than bursting out. The last line was all the more chilling because it was delivered with understated calm. “Belsazar ward aber in selbiger Nacht von seinen Knechten umgebracht”.  A quick return to water spirits with Franz Liszt’s Die Loreley, S273 (1843).  Though Liszt is now established in the Lieder canon, his songs reflect his greater interest in pianistic expression.  Where Liszt write a lovely part describing the tumbling waves, the setting of the vocal line is rather more laboured.  Fortunately, Prégardien’s artistry injects convincing elegance.

Schumann’s genius as a composer to poets is demonstrated by his Liederkreis op 39 (1840) to poems by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, written the same year as his Liederkreis op 24 to poems by Heinrich Heine.   Two very different poets, two very different ways of settingb text.  Although Schumann, Heine and Eichendorff were more or less contemporaries, Eichendorff mined a vein more attuned to early Romantic values, where folk wisdom, albeit idealized, still  had much to offer.   Songs liie Waldesgresräch and Im Walde deal with mysteries of the forest, the forest being code word for what we’d now call the subconscious. Like all good Romantics, Eichendorff was an explorer. Songs like Fruhlingsfahrt and Der frohe Wandersman show that  Eichendorff was fascinated by wilder shores even while he praises domesticity. Though genuinely devout, his homilies are talismanic, for he intuits that creativity can be dangerous. An artist is driven by something greater than his own free will.  Happy Wanderer? No way.  Prégardien’s timbre is darker these days, but artistry grows with experience. 

Sunday 15 April 2018

Victorian Gender Benders

|Though many in this period were so innocent, these two may might have been having a laugh, without knowing what cross dressing is.

Saturday 14 April 2018

Andrew Davis - Elgar Spirit of England, Raymond Yiu The World Was Once All Miracle.

When Sir Andrew Davis conducts Elgar, it's always an occasion, but this concert  at the Barbican, London, was much more special than most.  Davis conducted the BBCSO in Elgar's Spirit of England, op 80  (1916), which captures the exuberant spirit of England at the start of the First World War.  This was the highlight of a well-conceived programme where the multiple connections between the pieces enhanced the whole. Spirit of England was preceded by Lilian Elkington's Out of the Mist (1921), a bleak reminder of what war really means.  The programme began with Elgar's Starlight Express (1916) a jolly jaunt for children, which may parallel the high spirits of adults who didn't realize where the war would lead, but also worked well with Raymond Yiu's The World Was Once all Miracle, bringing out its inventive personality, while anchoring it in tradition.   A hundred years separate Elgar and Raymond Yiu, but the spirit of creativity shines bright and true.

Elgar's Spirit of England is so powerful that it draws you into its glorious self confidence  even though we now know where jingoistic bluster can lead.  But for a moment we're spellbound by the sheer extravagance of the piece.  Drums roll, strings surge and the BBC Symphony Chorus explode.  Andrew Staples's voice rose heroically above the wall of sound. "Spirit of England, go before us !"    The orchestral writing sets a pulse which supports the chorus, where male and female voices sing alternating lines. This creates an interflow suggesting vast, turbulent forces. Staples shaped the magnificent line "We step from days/ of sour divison/ into the grandeur of our Fate", each key word meticulously articulated, the last word "Fate" ringing out like a clarion.  Staples’s enunciation was sharp, consonants crisp, much more idiomatic than the other three tenors I've heard in this piece in recent years. The English tenor style, at its best, brings out the edge in the language hinting at hidden undercurrents : what really is the unshakeable soul of "divinely suffering man"?   This does matter, since Elgar may well have seen the circumstances more acutely than did the populist poet.

In contrast to the first section "The Fourth of August", the second section "ToWomen" is more restrained.  While the tenor line was integrated with chorus and orchestra, it now stands almost alone.  Phrases like "like a flame" and "boundless night" fly upward from the line, Staples emphasizing them with flourish.  A melancholy violin passage introduces a much darker mood.   "For the Fallen" is funeral ,procession but proceeds forward with relentless surge, Davis marking the throbbing undertow in the orchestra. The choral line with its clipped, almost staccato tension, evoked, perhaps gunfire.  The woodwind figure, followed by low-timbred strings, was particularly moving.  "We shall remember them", sang Staples, his voice carrying above the chorus and orchestra.  "To the end, to the end, they remain".  Hearing Lilian Elkington's Out of the Mist before Spirit of England  intensified the sombre mood with which "For the Fallen" ends.

The title Out of the Mist refers to the heavy fog that hung over the Channel when the ship carrying the body of the Unknown Soldier arrived back in England.  Lilian Elkington's response in music, was dignified and elegaic.  The piece runs just under 8 minutes, but is ambitiously scored for large ensemble . It begins mysteriously : one can imagine the ship materializing in port, out of the mists, docking and unloading the coffin,which was then taken to Westminster Abbey, where it remains today. The Unknown Soldier is "home" at last, carrying with him , symbolically, the memory of millions of others who would never return.  Thus, Out of the Mist ends with transcendent brightness, as if the Unknown Soldier and the men and women he stands for are bathed in glory.  The BBC SO recorded this piece some years ago, but this performance with Andrew Davis was far more,powerful. (For more about Lilian Elkington, please read HERE)

Elgar's Starlight Express was written in the midst of war, but is cheerfully escapist. Life goes on and morale needs boosting.  The extracts chosen for this performance displays the liveliness of Elgar's writing. The music is genuinely free spirited, with no trace of condescension towards a youthful audience.  Elgar even quotes the Christmas carol, The First Noel, decorating it with bells and cymbalds. The soloists were Roderick Williams and Emma Tring.  Incidentally, I have never seen so many kids in an evening performance before, several as young as 7 or 8.  I counted more than 20, and that was just around me.

Elgar is the biggest gun in British music. That Raymond Yiu's The World Was Once all Miracle was able to stand up to such competition says something.  Perhaps that's because Yiu's musical personality is highly individual.  The World Was Once all Miracle unfolds in six sections like a puzzle book, each piece reflecting a different aspect of the life and work of Anthony Burgess.  Yiu's settings are delightfully perverse. "Sick ! Sick ! Sick !" sang Roderick Williams "sick of sycophantic singing".   Jerky, quirky staccato in the orchestra, percussion like exclamation points, almost lyrical flights of fancy, tiny sparkling figures and exceptionally witty writing for voice.  Williams has an unequalled gift for singing with a naturalness thatn communicates like conversation, yet can also shape phrases and colour words bringing out their intrinsic musical character.  Spooky chords in the strings set the mood for the song "For we were all caught in the shame of sleep".  Williams curled his tongue round words, relishing their flavour as sound.  "Forgive us untempered for the day", a play on prayer, against a backdrop of hollow metallic bells.  

Burgess's texts, with their oddball wordgames and images, lend themselves well to Yiu's style. The vocal line curves and meanders in "You were there, and nothing was said" where wooden percussion suddenly gives way to deep booming sound. The next song "I have raised and poised a fiddle" writhes, jokily mocking  the phrase "the music of the spheres". The orchestra then sounds at once exotic (like gamelan) and sleazy, like jazz.  "One looks for Eden in history, best left unvisited", sang Williams, "While the delicate filthy hand dabbles and dabbles, but leaves the river clean, heartbreakingly clean". The last song "Useless to hope to hold off" mimics nonchalant nightclub patter - echoes of bongo drums - then suddenly breaks off into tantalizing silence.  Raymond Yiu's music defies stereotypes, always playful, always elusive.  The World Was Once all Miracle has the advantage of being as concise as haiku, tightly constructed but hinting at greater mysteries.  Please read my piece Why I couldn't write up Raymond Yiu's Symphony til now here).

Photo: Roger Thomas

Thursday 12 April 2018

Stravinsky Perséphone, Thomas Adès, Barry RFH

Continuing the London Philharmonic Orchestra's Stravinsky Journey at the Royal Festival Hall,  Thomas Adès : Powder Her Face suite (new), Stravinsky Perséphone, and Gerald Barry's Organ Concerto.  Oddly enough, Stravinsky's Perséphone and Adès's Powder Her Face suite make good bedfellows. Both are unusual works for music theatre that don't fit into easy pigeonholes, both innovative in their own ways.

When  Adès's opera Powder Her Face premiered in 1995, its subject caused a sensation.  Last revived at the Linbury at the Royal Opera House in 2010, it deserves another outing, not only because it's musically inventive but because it encapsulates a vision of Britishness that still has the power to upset. Scandal, hypocrisy and venality - some things don't change.  In the suite, however, we can focus on the inventivenss in the music.  This version of the suite is apparently Adès's second. I haven't heard the first but this one's a full-throated (oops) approach which maximizes orchestral drama. Since the characters in the original opera were hard to swallow (oops again), the suite is in many ways Opera ohne Worte and works rather well.  Sophisticated London is evoked in the introduction - sharp, brittle figures giving way to sweeping lines which carry such force they sweep all doubts away.   A fanfare of sorts emerges - nightclub sleaze but done with stylish flair, a more melancholy melody whipping at the corners which eventually comes to the fore, acompanied by tinkling piano.  Circular figures emerge, then the sound of sirens. From silence emerges a sinister theme that coils upon itself in sweeping ellipse.  Prickly staccato again - tense and brittle (like the characters in the opera). These battle with the large, looming  trombone and tubas. Eventually the orchestra settles into wan detumescence, the woodwinds crying. Suddenly the music flares up - small horns calling, trombones wailing in ferocious fanfare. Towards the end, the "world" retreats, vast figures moving onwards, leaving a violin to sing, almost alone.  Frenzied staccato and winds screaming like whips, grunts from the brass. The glamour is gone, but the brutishness remains. Not  easy listening but emotionally true.

Stravinsky's Perséphone is part oratorio, part theatre, very much a product of the 1930's with its stylized neo-classical lines.  The tenor (Toby Spence) and narrator (Kristin Scott Thomas)  operate like chorèges, narrating and speaking for characters, supported by orchestra, and chorus (the Tiffin Boys' Choir). Duality is embedded into the piece, reflecting shifting balances. Perséphone is the daughter of the goddess of fertility, her promise is cut short because she's abducted into the underworld.  Thus the ritualized interplay of darkness and light, death and life.  I liked the contrast between Spence's austere delivery and Scott Thomas's softer, girlish style.  The orchestration is spare : piccolos, cors anglais, and strings (including harp), evoking the instruments of Greek theatre.  Contrabassoons moaned, as if in mourning.  As Perséphone re-entered the world and Spring returns, textures lightened and the voices of the children's choir rang out brightly.

Between Stravinsky and Adès, Gerry Barry's Organ Concerto.  There's no reason why music can't be humorous, but in this case, the joke was on everyone but the composer.  

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Saint-Saëns Mélodies avec orchestre - Beuron Christoyannis

Saint-Saëns Mélodies avec orchestra with Yann Beuron and Tassis Christoyannis with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Markus Poschner.  Though the songs for voice and piano have previously been recorded, this is the world premiere recording of the full orchestral versions, taken from a performance in Lugano in 2016 sponsored by Palazzetto Bru-Zane, champions in the promotion of French repertoire.   In this landmark issue, distributed by Alpha classics, nineteen of the twenty-five orchestral songs in the composer's catalogue are included.  Saint-Saëns was only thirteen years old in 1848 when he wrote L'Enlèvement, first for piano and voice, orchestrating it very shortly afterwards.  Aimons-nous was completed seventy years later, two years before the composer's death.  Though Saint-Saëns’ reputation has been based on his larger works, he had a lifelong committment to song.  This is particularly significant  given the dominance of Grand Opéra and symphonic works  in mid-19th century France. Berlioz's Les nuits d'été was initially composed for voice and piano, the orchestrations only completed in 1856.  Concert performances tended towards programmes of operatic arias or works for piano.

By orchestrating his songs, Saint-Saëns was making an artistic statement.  In 1876, he wrote "The Lied with orchestra is a social necessity. If such things were available, people would not always be singing operatic arias in concerts, which often make a pitiful effect in those surroundings".  As Sébastien Troester writes in his notes, "incongruous accents and faulty ceasuras and enjambments" could occur in popular works by composers whose native language was not French. Thus Saint-Saëns created orchestral song as art song as serious concert music, a synthesis of voice and symphony, building on the riches of French poetry.  Orchestral form also allows for exotic colour and sensuality,  making use, as Troester writes "of ancient modes, of ostinato rhythms that create a sensation of languor, of vocal melismas", distinctive and very Belle Époque.

The performances here are superb, the epitome of idiomatic style.  Despite its richness, the beauty of Saint-Saëns music lies in its purity.  The ornamenations exist to amplify ideas and structure.  Poschner and the orchestra keep, the colours clear. "Hollywood excess" is not the way to go   Elegance lies in articulation.  Beuron and Chritoyannis phrase and shape so that the words can be heard clearly, without exaggeration, but with natural, flowing flair.

Angélus, to a poem by Pierre Aguétant (1890-1940) begins with the tolling of a bell, followed by shimmeriung strings.  "Les clochers, souverains du soir", sings the tenor Yann Beuron, pacing the line with the deliberation of medieval chant. In the monastery, the monks are singing Angelus, and outside, the shepherds hear the sound on the air as if the wings of God were rushing past.   Similar frisson in the strings introduces L'attente (Victor Hugo) but here the pace is swift, barely able to contain excitement.  "Climb, squirrel, up the oak....  eagle, rise from your eyrie!"  In Rêverie (Hugo) phrases in each strophe are repeated, with slight variation,  the orchestra echoing the vocal line, the effect as lovers entwined.  Beuron's wonderful diction warms words tenderly: "Mon coeur, dont rien ne reste, L'amour ôté ! "

Extended orchestral colour pays off handsomely in songs like  La Brise from Saint-Saëns' Mélodies Persanes op 26 (1870) to a text by Arrmand Renaud (1836-1895).  Swaying string lines suggest exotic dance, against dance rhythms based on percussion and bells.  A clarinet suggests "oriental" woodwinds. The vocal line (Tassis Christoyannis)  equally agile, with long, curving phrases.  Similar felicities in Extase (Hugo) where the text itself repeats and changes in intricate patterns.   Woodwinds "mobile et tremblante" suggest the falling leaves in La feuille de peuplier (Mme Amable Tastu, 1795-1885).  A lilting woodwind melody lifts L'Enlèvement (Hugo)  raising the song to heights few composers aged only 13 could hope to achieve. Woodwinds again in Les Fées (Théodore de Banville  1821-1891)  suggest the movement of swallows in flight, as the vocal line soars upwards.   The vocal line (Beuron) in Souvenances (Ferdinand Lemaire 1832-1879) dips gracefully, garlanded by the orchestra.

Flutes and strings shimmer in Les cloches de la mer to a text by the composer himself, but a much darker, more dramatic mood emerges, the orchestra surging tutti, suggesting the depths of the ocean.  La splendeur vide from Mélodies Persanes op 26.  describes "un merveilleux palais" filled with jewels (vividly evoked by the orchestra), but the glory masks despair.  "Plus je suis tombeau", sings Troyannis, his voice descending to near whisper. The full orchestra surges again, horns ablaze, in Le pas d'armes du roi Jean (Hugo)  a long ballad where the singer (Troyannis) has to characterize the different figures in the poem, while marking the short, clipped phrases in the text.   

More mock medievalism in La cloche (Hugo) where Beuron floats the last line "dans le ciel" so it dissolves into silence.   This prepares us for the fluttering delicacy of Papillons (Renée de Léché) where a pair of flutes duet, darker winds and strings adding texture.  The song ends abruptly : butterflies die.  Thus Pliante (Tastu), (1918) with strong chords of dark portent.  "Ô monde !  Ô vie ! Ô temps!".  In contrast, though written in the same period, Aimons-nous (Banville) where lovers embrace, peacefully, in death.  In Au cimetière again from Mélodies persanes the two groups of strings are plucked, then bowed, suggesting the beat of a pulse and sighs of breath.  The mood is hushed, yet enraptured. To conclude, Danse macabre op 40 but with a difference.  This was originally written for voice and piano in 1872,  then revised for violin and orchestra.  Here, voice, violin and orchestra come together.  It's a treat !  Christoyannis sings  "zig-a-zig-za-zig le mort en cadence".  Violin and voice locked in sinister dance.  Méfistofeles having a laugh.  Truly "et vive la mort et l'egalité!

Monday 9 April 2018

Frösöblomster - Peterson-Berger's blooms of Frösön

Gloomy outside, in this unending winter, but summer inside with Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Frösöblomster Book I, II and III with Olof Höjer, in the recording made in 1990 at the Malmö School of Music where Höjer (born 1934) taught at the time, and released soon after by The Swedish Society, who also issued the complete piano works of Peterson-Berger in four other volumes, also with Olof Höjer.  Pretty much definitive ! Though Frösöblomster is so well known,  there are few other recordings that come close.  The cover photo shows Peterson-Berger in his old age, with his beloved cat Kurre, outside his home "Sommerhagen", on the island of Frösön, by the shore of the Lake Storsjorn in the Jämtland. Peterson-Berger is wearing a white summer suit, making the most of the northern summer.  His home is simple, built to withstand harsh winters.

This context is relevant for the spirit of the island impacts on the music in Frösöblomster.  Nationalism in music is a dangerous game to play, because stereotypes are for shallow thinkers. But when Peterson-Berger was writing in the 1890's, composers all over Europe were finding their own identities in music, and in doing so, created music that went on to shape cultural heritage. The  "Nordic Light" that shaped Scandinavian art, music and literature has a clarity and ruggedness that reflects natural, surroundings - think light on snow, vast open spaces, clean waters - yet technical artistic standards are paramount.  Frösöblomster  might seem simple but it takes great skill to write with such lyrical purity.  

Peterson-Berger ciompleted Frösöblomster Book I in 1896, before he turned 30.  Thus the exuberance of Rentrée and its skipping rhythms.  Sommersäng is perhaps the best known Peterson-Berger piece of all; it positively glows.  Höjer's playing brings out its expansive warmth, as if the piano were a conduit for summer breezes and sunshine.  In Lawn Tennis, the line bounces back and forth with energy. Even if you didn't know the title, you'd recognize the form. Not for nothing the langorous Till rosorna is followed by Gratulation, a brisk gavotte.  Höjer's pedal bending and "dipping" with good humour.  In Vid Frösö kyrka we return to something more enduring than dance. The solemn melody is hymn-like and austere : the reference is to the Old Church in Frösö which stood for 800 years til, it burned down two years after Peterson-Berger immortalized it in song.  This adds a tinge  of sadness for us today, though at the time the composer was writing, he wasn't to know.  This colours I skymningen (Dusk) and Hälsning (Greeting), though Peterson-Berger probably paired them to suggest the passage of time, which is perfectly appropriate.  

Frösöblomster Book I was a huge success, making Peterson-Berger's name as a musician.  In Frösöblomster Book II, completed just four years later, "considerably less public oriented", as Höjer states in his notes  Nonethelss it is a very fine work of maturity. With Solhälsning (Sun Greeting) it commences  "in a most radiant C major with a polonaise of almost orchestral power". The two following works Jämtland and Längt hort skogarna (Far away in the Forest), Vågor mot stranden (waves on the beach) and Minnen (Memories) are miniature tone poems.  More abstract but even more impressive, Vid Larsmäss (On St Laurentius's Day), at once sophisticated and deceptively innocent.  

Frösöblomster Book III appeared fourteen years after Frösöblomster Book II, during which time Peterson-Berger wrote his major symphonies and operas, and left town to live permanently on Frösön.  The new volume  represents his  "striving towards 'simplicity, ' toward 'the rugged material beauty of the grey primeval rocks'  has borne rich fruit", says Höjer, quoting the composer himself, writing in 1915.  The pieces in this volume  take their cue from the landscape, but connect to a more abstract landscape of inner emotion.  In Förspel (Prelude), the mood is expansive, not unlike Rentrée, but this time the rhythms are more assertive. Peterson-Berger isn't going on holiday, he's going to his spiritual home, literally, Intäg i Sommerhagen.  Perhaps we can hear echoes of the past, but also, in Landskap i aftensol (Landscape in the afternoon sun) a sense of contentment, and perhaps wry good humour, if Folkhumor is any guide. Vild marken lockar (theWilderness calls) is powerful, like a rockface from which one might gaze into the distance.  At Frösön lies the northernmost Viking Rune stone : thence forward, wilderness. Under asparna (Under the Aspens) is a gentle idyll, before the reflective Om mäng är (In many years).  In 1914, Peterson-Berger was 49, not old by the standards of the time, but he had a lot to look back on.  Whatever Frösöblomster Book III may represent, it is as much a metaphor for the blossoming of life as it is a portrait of the flowers of Frösön.

Sunday 8 April 2018

Bizen Woodcutter

 A Japanese incense burner in the shape of a woodcutter. Bizen ware, 18th century,  notice the "metallic" glaze.  It belonged to my father, one the favourite pieces in his collection.  Because he couldn't get proper incense after he emigrated, he made his own from scented woods and oils.