Friday 29 June 2018

Schoenberg Gurrelieder : Salonen Philharmonia, Royal Festival Hall

Schoenberg Gurrelieder at the Royal Festival Hall, with Esa-Pekka Salonen, demonstrating how well the Philharmonia Orchestra has absorbed Schoenberg's idiom. A blazing performance, formidably dramatic, executed with stunning assurance.  Salonen has made his mark on the Philharmonia, through in-depth explorations of the 20th century repertoire he loves so well. After their first Gurrelieder with him in March 2009, I was at an airport where many of the players were talking excitedly about Gurrelieder and the way Salonen worked with them.   Musicians can be blasé (at least on the surface), but these players were genuinely enthusiastic. And they didn't know that I was listening in !

The deep surging undercurrents in the Prelude, lit by bright sparkling figures, seemed almost to vibrate.  Well-defined the strings, harps and horns introduced the dream-like mood, textures gradually build up in sweeping arcs, string lines swelling and heaving.  Perhaps Schoenberg had in mind Tristan und Isolde, or Siegfried's journey down the Rhine. Either way, vast cosmic forces are being invoked.. Or can we hear echoes of Verklärte Nacht writ infinitely larger ? Schoenberg then  introduces the mortals, King Waldemar (Robert Dean Smiith) and Tove (Camilla Tilling).   The parts are tricky to cast, since Schoenberg, in his youth, pits the singers against huge orchestral forces.   Yet voice along doesn't create a part.  Simon O'Neill, for example, doesn't have a pretty voice but more than compensates with artistry and insight.  Waldemar was anti-hero enough that he dares curse God : a Flying Dutchman of sorts. Dean Smith didn't quite have the heft or gift for characterization, so this Waldemar came across in milder form, though the music  around him roared with passion.  Tilling created a refined Tove,   her lines soaring gracefully, serving the part well.  Few Tove's are truly "wunderliche" but Tilling is attractive, as gentle as a dove. Tove is silenced, but the Wood Dove takes her place.

The Wood Dove, a much stronger personage than Tove,  is an Erda  figure, who sees all, and the mood is almost incantation.  .  Michelle DeYoung was ideal,  her rich timbre enhanced by sombre dignity.  The recurring line "Weit flog ich....."  rose forcefully from the surging undercurrents, bringing out the rhythmic flow.  Every good performances helps us think more about the music.  This time I was pondering how the Wood Dove's music might resemble Sprechstimme.  A pity that the "Herrgott ! Herrgott!" part didn't have quite the impact in the Royal Festival Hall as it could have. The front oif that stage sucks voices into the void even if you've got a voice-friendly seat.  On the BBC Radio 3 broadcast, Dean Smith's can be heard with better balance.  In the orchestra, however, the "Herrgott!" chords were magnificent, executed so they seemed to have a metallic quality, like hammerblows striking stone. 

A haunted, baleful  introduction to the final part, when the orchestra seemed to explode with the horror of the apocalyptic vision being described.  Trombones wailed, percussion rumbled, strings evoking a sense of wind and wildness. Waldemar and his doomed knights are riding theough the sky.  Another excellent cameo with David Soar's Peasant. The firmness in Soar's timbre suggested that even a doughty peasant can be so shaken that he must bolt his door and pray.  The Philharmonia Voices were augmented by the male voices of the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.In the relatively small space of the Royal Festival Hall, the impact could have been overwhelming, but under the direction of Aidan Oliver,  what came over was clarity, not sheer volume. Good articulation, the "Holla!"'s wild, the sudden descent into near silence  chilling.  Yet again, the orchestra set the scene. The strings surged, then opened out to strangely disturbing calm, the woodwinds adding quirky menace.   Despite the turbulence around him, Waldemar is alone.

Thus the spooky interlude before Klaus-Narr sings, cloaking the part with surreal horror.  Wolfgang Ablinger Sperrhacke is one of the finest "Character" singers in the business, so this cameo, like Michelle DeYoung's Wood Dove, was a major highlight.  Ablinger-Sperrhacke captured the strange, disjointed rhythms in the part extremely well, the "fool" easily the match of the orchestra.   Perhps Waldemar is the fool, still obsessed by ."Ich und Tove, wir sind eins", oblivious to his predicament.   Thus the brooding in the orchestra before the male choirs returned, textures subdued yet uncowed.  "Ins Grab! Ins Grab!"  A particularly good Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind,  tubas booming, let by high winds, with chamber-like delicacy in the playing.   The role of the Speaker is usually cast with a singer whose voice is past its bloom, but whose musical instincts are still strong enough to declaim with Sprechstimme intonation.  Some of the great singers of the past have done the Speaker so he/she feels like a ghost from the past, revived, like Waldemar and his Knights, a thoughtful insight. Barbara Sukova is an actress with musical nous,  whose voice is still fairly youthful, so her Speaker was different, closer perhaps to Klaus-Narr commenting on the spectres, as opposed to being one of them, which is perfectly valid.  A blazing Seht die Sonne! and the audience in the Royal Festival Hall went wild.  In orchestral terms, this was an outstanding Gurrelieder,  Salonen and the Philhrmonia delivering with insight and understanding. 

Wednesday 27 June 2018

Dangerous Liaisons - Dance and Music - OAE Lully Rameau

Dangerous Liaisions with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.   Joined by  Les Corps Éloquents (Hubert Hazebrouq, choreographer, Irène Feste and Romain Arreghini, the OAE surpoassed even their own high standards, demonstating the link between music and dance in the French baroque. More than 40 extracts, primarily from Lully and Rameau, were chosen to form a highly original compilation, unfolding in thematic sequence : Idyllic Delight, Seduction, a Ballet des Fleurs, Vexation, Loss and Despair, Frolics and Mischief, with Reconciliation, the happy ending.   It's quite an achievement to put together more than 40 disparate extracts so they flow together naturally, yet with much variety. Like Le Concert Royal de la Nuit, (more here) this cohered well, an excellent summary of style and content.   Much admiration is due to  the OAE's Principal Flute Lisa Beznosiuk, who curated this with the support of an OAE team and Hubert Hazebroucq, who choreographed the dancing in period style.  This was also an exercise in French declamatory song style, with period (not modern) pronunciation, so credit is due, too, to soloists Anna Dennis and Nick Pritchard.  Conducted by John Butt, the OAE were in vivacious form : a delightful two and a half hours which passed all too quickly.

Like a prologue to a drama, the OAE began with Lully's Overture from Le Triomphe de L'Amour , followed by six miniatures, four from Lully's Thésée (1675)   "Aimons tout nous y convie, on aime ici sans danger".  Notice the archaic language, which did mater, since it complemented the stylized, idealized sentiments in the text, and in this context reminded us that the world of the baroque needs to be understood on its own terms. Thus the dancing, very different to what we take for granted today.  Like the art of fencing, dance prepared young noblemen with skills much needed in Court cicrles : physical fitness, mental discipline, alertness to strategy and form and an awareness of elegant presentation.  Thus the stances - hands and feet held at angles, foot positions which would have developed formidable muscles, enabling the dancer to control his position until he was ready to execute swift, decisive changes.  The formal patterns of dance also reflected concepts of social and cosmic order, the individual functioning as part of an emsemble.

Hazebroucq's choreography is based on extensive archival research but also on the relationship between dance and music, so fundamental to the baroque aesthetic.  Lully didn't conduct with a staff for nothing : he was (literally) beating time, creating a percussive foundation for music that was made to be moved to.  Hence the vigorous rhythms and exuberance, at times reminiscent of military marches and fanfares. Period instruments pack an earthy punch, horns and percusssion evoking  instruments  from even more archaic times, complementing the baroque fascination with classical antiquity.  The stringed instruments, plucked or bowed, added variety and character, sometimes providing continuo, or embarking on flights of inventiveness.  Seeing the dancers move in close relation to the music enhanced understanding of the musical logic. 
Thoughtfully, this Liaisons Dangereuses (like the novel that is told in letters, not narrative), interleaved an extract from Lully's Les Noces de Village (1663),between the pieces from Lully's Thésée. Philinte and Climene are idealized shepherd and shepherdess, more personable than  the more stylised, abstract evocations of love in Thésée. This also served to show that court dance, even when inspired by pastoral fantasy, was not folk dance but far more sophisticated.  The second section, "Seduction",  combined extracts from André Campra's L'Europe Galante (1697) and Lully's Le Bourgeois Genthilhomme (1670),, the vaguely "Spanish" allusions adding exotic spice, to the dancing as much as to the music.   In the Interlude, a "Ballet des Fleurs" , the dancers enacted an allegory in which three figures interact as lovers and rivals, eventually finding reconciliation. This is an allegory in music, too, combining Gavottes and Airs sourced from Rameau's Les Indes Galantes and Lully's Atys (1676), allowing the dancers ample room for elegant, intricate pattterns of movement.  The section "Vexation" was based on Lully's Armide (1686), where the sorceress Armide tries to seduce Renaud.   Anna Dennis was particularly impressive in this splendid role with Nick Pritchard her foil,  dancers in black, the orchestra conjuring up a storm..

The section "Loss and Despair" began with the Prelude from Charpentier's Orphée descendant aux enfers (1684) setting the scene.  An extract from Lully's Ballet royal de la Naissance de Venus (1665)  prepared the way for Orpheus "Tu ne la pendras point, hélas, pour me le rendre"  and Proserpine's "Courage Orphée, étale ici les plus grands charmes", also from Charpentier's La descent d'Orphee aux Enfers depict the Underworld. But love itself does not die. Venus (Anna Dennis) sang "Amiable Vainqueur" from Campra's Hésione (1700), neatly connecting the Orpheus legend with a tragédie en musique  wth characters from other parts of classicl mythology.  "Love that is strong enough can "Désarmer le Dieu de la Guerre: le Dieu de la Tonnere" evoked by the wind machines, crashes of percussion and baleful brass in the orchestra.   After the tumult, fantasy and fun.  From Rameau's Platée (1745) a satire, and a parody from Jean-Joseph Mouret's Les Amours de Ragonde (1714) . In the former, the gods squabble, causing invertebrates and mortals to fall in unrequited love. In the latter, couples end up mismatched. Colin, who ends up wed to his would be mother in law sings mock peasant dialect "Je ne songeons qu'uà bien aimer, je rougirions d'être volage".  Warped humour, the opposite of idealized courtly love, but an opportunity to see the dancers imitate folksy jigs and "exotic" dances.  But all is resolved in the final tableau, Reconciliation.  Eglé and Mercury  sort out their differences in a dialogue from Rameau's Les Fêtes d'Hébé (1739) and Calatée, Mercure, Zoroaster and Amelite sort out theirs in Rameau's Zoroastre (1739).
Please also see

Rameau  Zaïs HERE. (Anna Dennis, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Rameau Pygmalion and Anacreon danced HERE (OAE, danced by Les Paisirs des Nations),
Rousseau Le Devin de Village HERE (Hubert Hazebrouque, choreographer)
and much else

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Happy Birthday, Claudio Abbado, 85

Happy Birthday, Claudio Abbado, who would have been 85 today - still young, still productive, still blazing new trails.  To celebrate, I'm listening to the Lucerne Festival performance of Mahler Symphony no 2, the stuff of legend !

Sunday 24 June 2018

Rattle's Valediction : farewell as Chief in Berlin (listening link)

Simon Rattle's farewell concert as chief Conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker livestreamed Thursday,  now audio-only on Deutschland Kultur til 26th June. Mahler Symphony no 6,  chosen because that was what they did in their first concert together some thirty years ago. In the sixteen years that Rattle has been Chief Conductor , the Berlin Philharmonic has developed and grown.  They're sounding wonderful.  Harding has been doing Mahler 6 since he was in his early 20's and over the years, his approach has deepened. This "farewell" with the Berliners was a valediction.   Nuts to assume that this symphony is "tragic" because of its name tag The third hammer blow emphatically does not fall !  As nearly always in Mahler resolution is not defeat but a kind of liberation. 
Forcefulness right from the start, the marching pace confidently defined. From this the more esoteric theme emerged, strings suggesting new, distant horizons.  Dichotomy matters in Mahler, and Rattle gets the way the composer layers different concepts of texture and motion. Magnificent surge led by the strings, evoking warmth and perhaps, memories of a happy past, punctuated by the march.  Thus the quirky shrillness that creeps in, for the march is (like so much in Mahler) almost grotesque, since time does not stand still, however much we might regret.  The richness in the Berliner's playing emphasizes the beauty of life, enhanced by the "sparkling" near silence that follows and the return of the "horizons" theme and plaintive violins and winds.  A good sense of struggle between what the march symbolizes and the sassy freedom it attempts to suppress, and a vigorous conclusion to the first movement, intensifying the poignant tenderness of the Andante.  Many of the Berlin musicians are consummate soloists and Rattle highlights the finesse of their playing  This is a gorgeous orchestra, and Rattle makes the most of what they can do.  Shimmering, mesmerizing beauty, so lovely you could almost weep.  Yet deeper timbres take over, propelling the movement forward : alas, we cannot linger !  The last moments gleam, phrases stretching out like the last rays of a golden sunset before darkness sets in.
Thus the vigour in the scherzo with its "screams" and sharp outbursts against the surge.  Yet in the quieter passages, the pulse remains strong, the heartbeat regular.  When the elusive "dance" appears it's like a reiminder that better times haven't been in vain, even though the groaning basses and bassoons might demur.  Again, Rattle defines the themes well, bringing out their mysterious interplay.  Thus we can follow the logic of the trajectory,  where all the strands are drawn together in the Finale.  Every sound contributes to the whole, nothing wasted, nothing lost in this powerful conception, and withn the Berliners, everything works, perfectly. Everyone talks aboutb the hammer blows as they are sheer theatre, but the cowbells matter, too. As the "clouds" of darkness draw in, the pace slows so we can take in the enormity of what they might represent. Then suddenly the symphony ends with an emphatic flourish.  We might expect the finality of death but Mahler lets  the ending hang.  It's not "over" when it ends.
A wonderful performance and very individual.  An orchestra is a business like any other, and Rattle's leadership has built upon Abbado's legacy.  Karajan may have been made conductor for life, but that's not necessarily a healthy situation, for any organization.  Better that Rattle's built on Abbado's legacy, where musicians count, not just the boss man, and where the enjoyment of music for its own sake is fundamental, and open to all.  What  Rattle brought to Berlin was his enthusiasm and his sheer love of music, and a solid track record of orchestral development. (which is why London wants him so much).  . Every Chief symbolizes a new era, and in the last 16 years, the Berlin marque has expanded and grown.  What of the future ?


Thursday 21 June 2018

Seven Little Fooks

Seven Little Fooks (七小福)  a reference to folklore tales about seven kids who bring good luck.  In this case, a group of boys being trained in Beijing opera.  But they are refugee kids in a community of exiles : in the south, their northern origins don't mean much. Gradually they grow up and find work in Hong Kong kung fu movies. This is a film about their teacher, Master Yu Zhangzong, struggling to maintain his art in a world that doesn't care.  An exquistely filmed movie, sensitive to changing social nuances. Essential viewing, even for those who know only kung fu, since Chinese opera is the root from which martial arts grew. To understand kung fu, and Chinese culture itself, you need to know the world of Chinese opera. But this is also a very personal story, based on real people and real memories.  Clue : the eldest boy is nicknamed "Three Hairs". Translate that as Sammo and realize it's Sammo Hung who still carries his nickname though he's famous today. And who is "Big Nose" ? The now ubiquitous Jackie Chan, a bigger star than many in Hollywood.  In the movie Master Yu is played by the adult Sammo Hung,  who has won many awards, but must treasure this, since he's portraying the man who shaped him.  So Seven Little Fooks, (directed in 1988 by Alex Law Kai chui) is about real people, caught up in an era of unprecedented change. Evocative music by Lowell Lo Koon-ting.

It's December 1st,1962, when much of Hong Kong was stilll pre-war tenement, houses built on terraces, where people share communal spaces, like the neighbour, a tailor, who works in the yard and can't stand the sound of the kids singing.  A new boy arrives.  "Can I do cartwheels all day and not study?" he asks. "Then I'll sign for ten years!", he squeaks. His mother's crying,  but it's best for him, though the contract she seals with her thumb print (she's illiterate) is severe. If kids die in training, no questions asked.  That was the traditional way.  Notice the kid's name is Chan Kong-sang, which means Chan "Born in Hong Kong", marking his parents brief respite after 20 years of struggle in war-torn China.  He's now Jackie Chan.  And so the kids learn tthe basics of Beijing opera, as much physical fitness and gymnastics as opera in the western sense. That's why they neeed to start young to be flexible.  The school is very old style. The kids live communal and have shaved heads like kids in the North used to do. The local kids mock them, singing a rude song which the subtitles don't translate ("baldies, baldies, butter up your butts"). The kids give a performance but Big Nose fell asleep. The audience walks out "They've gone home to the radio" scolds Master Yu - the radio and big theatres being where top quality operas were done : small troupes can't compete.  So they get beaten with canes.  Mrs Chan comes to bathe the kids - no plumbing - and knows he's been beaten. But he says "Don't cry". Opera school is tough but the kids think they're freer than the ones in regular school, chanting by rote.   When Master Yu goes out the boys march into town to collect charity rice. On their way back they clash with the fancy kids and there's a brawl.   The taunt "Four eye'd boys, blind as turtles!" (meaning kids with glasses). Ponder that detail, it's important.  Wandering far from home, they need to get back by bus, but haven't any money so they con the driver and later escape without paying.  Watch them use their opera athletics to escape from the top deck !

Meanwhile Master Yu and his friend Uncle Wah chat in a teahouse. They trained together as boys themselves, in Beijing. "Rain or snow, we'd get up early and train". For what ?  Few make it big in opera. Wah works as a stuntman and stand-in for stars.  Bruises and broken ribs "Thirty years of good luck, thirty years of bad" quotes master Yu. "And then you're dead" says Uncle Wah. To cheer him, Master Wu starts singing, in the middle of the tea house, and Uncle Wah  gets his dream, to sing again, for a public.  When Master Yu gets home, the Cantonese tailor confronts him because  the opera boys punched his kid.  Master Yu holds his ground and defends his kids. Tailor and Opera master swap insults : scholars are too weak to work, too proud to beg : actors are prostitutes.  Another witty retort not in the subtiles "Chicken piss!". But when the Lunar New Year comes, they all celebrate together. 

Gradually the boys grow up, doing shows in proper cinemas. They also discover girls. Big Nose tries to impress by rotating a pot on his head, but modern girls are more interested in guitar bands.  One day, the leader of a Cantonese female troupe asks for help, since Beijing boys are much better at gymnastics. Master Yu doesn't have modern social skills either. He wants to buy the female troupe leader a "western" birthday cake, but none of the traditional bakers do that. He has to travel all round town until he finds one. Alas, the inscription says "Happy 70th, Grandad!. So Master Yu can't read!  It's extremely bad luck, since the Grandad it was baked for died that morning..... Master Yu isn't the only one  not up with the times. The Tailor can't understand modern fashion. His son "borrows" for Big Nose  the fancy togs his Dad's made for western customers and the two go out together. But the girl prefers the nerdy tailor's son who can "sing Beatles" as the girl's kid brother says. "You Beijing opera types no-one wants". Big Nose goes back, dejected but he's missed a show. Sammo substituted for him, but Master Yu beats him for covering up Big Nose's disobedience and kicks him out of the troupe. Sinc it's been his life, he has nowhere to go.

But business isn't going well and the troupe is dissolved.  Sammo reappears crestfallen and is  welcomed by Uncle Wah.  Master Yu goes to Uncle Wah's movie studio to get work for the boys.  He's forced to cut up a group photo so their heads can go on the register. Uncle Wah, who has been working as a stuntman for years, is getting old and has too many accidents.  He blows his last chance and suddenly goes insane, climbing up into the roof space in the studio, mad with grief, re-enacting opera scenes. An amazing scene. Master Yu climbs up and starts to sing an aria from The Emperor and the Concubine, where the Emperor has lost his,kingdom, but his concubine remains loyal.   For a moment, Master Yu and Uncle Wah are back to be stars again, singing together. Uncvle Wah thinks he's an opera star again. then he's taken away in an ambulance.

Master Yu calls his boys together. He's spent 40 years in opera. Success or not, he's given it full committment.   The school is closed, the house is being demolished and the boys are starting out onn their own paths. so now he'll retire, abroad. He releases the tortoise he's kept for seven years to hold up his bed, feeding and watering it . Its back is strong and it it still knows how to walk.   Master Yu boards the ship, that's taking him away, forever.  "You persevered 40 years and so will we" says Big Nose. "Sammo look after them !" the master's last command.  When they're gone he looks at the gift they've left. A white paper fan with what look like scribbles. But when the folds are aligned the squiggles spell out 七小福, Seven Siu Fooks.  Below a photo of Master Yu who lived to a grand old age and his boys, now grown men.

PLenty moire on this site about Chinese movies, Chinese oopera and music, especially Cantonese. THis ius the only site in Englishwhich does these subjects from a wider social perspective.

Monday 18 June 2018

Haunted Arabia - W Denis Browne

W. Denis Browne (1888-1915),  as a schoolboy at Greyfriars, Leamington Spa.  This photo might sum him up better than the usual photos of him in uniform, for his last music was written in June 1914. Almost exactly a year later, he would be killed at Gallipolli.  In this photo his youthful spirit  is captured forever, gazing wistfully but unafraid.  Browne went on to Cambridge and later studied with Busoni. He heard Stravinsky, and was impressed enough by The Rite of Spring and Petrushka to embark on his own ballet, never completed.  Today he's best known for a handful of songs, particularly To Gratiana, Dancing and Singing to a poem by Richard Lovelace (1617-1657).  Though that song is well represented on recordings,  most of the other songs are less well served.  I wish there were better versions on record of Arabia, for example, Browne's last completed song, which I've heard live in much better performance.

Arabia is an adventurous piece which seems to reach out, exploring new musical territory.  The poem, by Walter de la Mere, describes "the shades of Arabia, where the Princes ride at noon, 'mid the verduous vales and thickets under the ghost of the moon". The piano part moves with mysterious deliberation, firm single chords separated by silence, allowing the voice to ring out. The idea  might be to suggest a voice reaching over vast expanses. Not expanses of desert, though, but a "vaulted purple" where "flowers in the forest rise and toss into blossom against the phantom skies".  Warm breezes seem to propel the second verse, "Sweet is the music of Arabia" each line infused by gentle, swaying rhythms.  The vocal line rises high, and the piano part changes, suggesting the plucking of "strange lutes" that "ring loud with the brooding silence of the night". Despite the beautiful sounds around him, the poet is haunted by someone, something others cannot see. "Stll eyes look coldly upon me, cold voices whisper and say "He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia, they have stolen his wits away". Not a romantic reverie ! Thus the jumbled images of moon and noon, of feverish, unhealthy imagination.  Ideal territory for the kind of English tenor who can express archness and horror behind luminous limpidity. Not straightforward at all. 

Sunday 17 June 2018

Hommage à Gounod 200th birthday

Today marks the 200th birthday of Charles Gounod celebrated in Paris last night by Palazzetto Bru Zane. Look HERE at the programme ! and watch it again HERE on  Excerpts from many of his operas, and Olivier Latry performing an improvisation for organ.  Gounod's reputation has expanded greatly : so much more to him than Faust (which is pretty brilliant).  PLEASE READ THIS IMPORTANT PIECE FROM PALAZETTO BRU ZANE who have done so much to expand knowledge of the composer and his repertoire.  Please see also HERE my review of the most recent Gounod rarity, his last oratorio Saint François d'Assise.  A new recording of Gounod's mélodies is being released soon, which I'll write about shortly

Thursday 14 June 2018

Magical Ravel Ma mère l'Oye. Le Tombeau de Couperin - FX Roth Les Siècles

François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles Ravel Ma mère l'Oye, coupled with Le Tombeau de Couperin with Shéhérazade between them, latest in Les Siècles's Ravel series for Harmonia Mundi which began with their Daphnis et Chloé, so exquisitely beautiful that it remains by my desk for frequent listening.  This new disc focuses on two main works initially published for piano, but conceived with potential for orchestra. "To orchestrate, for Ravel" said Emile Vuillermoz, was to "exploit the colour of the istruments , to atch their timbres, to vary and nuance them down to the slightest detail, without ever losing sight of the overall balance". Ideal for Roth and Les Siècles whose forte is clarity and exqusite clarity, clean jewel-like sparkle enlivened by a feel for the passionate imagination that inspired the composer.  Ma mère l'Oye may have been written for children, but its magic is so strong that adults. too, can be drawn under its spell. With Roth and Les Siècles you don't get "kid stuff".  Indeed, the more sophisticated the players, and the more sensitive the listener, the stronger the sense of enchantment.

This performance of the full 1912 ballet version of  Ma mère l'Oye is almost too exquisite to be earthbound,  though it bristles with energy.  The first notes of the Prelude suggest the pipes of Pan, the switrl of flutes, the movement of some mysterious creature. Winds blow, and dizzying strings - spinning wheels - hypnotize us into reverie so we can dream, like the Beauty, sleep in the forest. More shivers and shimmerings, as the Beauty awakes to meet the Beast. the woodwinds sing,  and the lower strings growl : suggesting the Beast whose form is brutish but his soul refined.  In this mysterious realm (tender strings) lives too Le petit Poucet who is small and frail (birdlike woodwinds) but outsmarts the Ogre.  Magical harps, tremulous woodwinds evoke the even more exotic kingdom of Laideronette. Percussion in "oriental" patterns, as angular as the shape of pagodas, building up to elegant, though wistful melody.  Laideronette and her serpent friend are under a spell.  Roth and Les Siècles alternate slow and more agitated passages enhancing the flow. The Apothéose, in the jardin féerique is delicate, yet magnificent.

Thus to Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie (1898). Although this was to have been part of an opera,  Roth and Les Siècles bring out the tightness of its structure, demonstrating the strength of its design, as purposeful as a ballet. Though Stravinsky would not have known it (it remained unpublished until 1975),  this performance is so well-defined that the piece feels like a prototype for something Diaghilev might have considered for the Ballets Russe.

Roth values the importance of structure in French repertoire, evolving as it did from the baroque, where elaborations are built upon firm, disciplined foundations influenced by dance and formal patterns.  Thus Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, in his four movement orchestration, premiered in 1920. Thus the piece is as much an hommage to French style as a a series of memorials to Ravel's friends who died in the 1914-1918 war.  A vivacious Prélude, with the oboe as lithe and athletic as a creature of the forest (an unexpected link to Ma mère l'Oye). The dance origins of the Forlane are even more evident , a forlane being a folk dance form from Italy which Couperin adapted.  Hence the sprightliness, every "step" in the music sharply articulated and vibrant.  The Minuet is more formal but equally well  presented.  This is what period inspired performance means, not instruments per se but an understanding of repertoire itself.  The Rigaudon here is particularly impressive, combining elegance with boisterousness, and a tinge of sadness. Oboe and strings interact, two voices entwining like partners in a dance, or the two brothers Ravel knew, who went cheerfully to war and were promptly killed, by the same shell.  

Buddha behind Barbed Wire

Monday 11 June 2018

Outstanding Parsifal-aware Lohengrin Royal Opera House

Klaus Florian Vogt and Thomas J Mayer, copyright Tristram Kenton, Royal Opera House
Wagner Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House.With some of the finest Lohengrin, most experienced specialists in the business - Klaus Florian Vogt,  Andris Nelsons and Georg Zeppenfeld - this was guaranteed to be an overwhelming musical experience.   Outstanding richness and depth in the orchestra,  with the scene on the Scheldt materializing in the music with such dramatic power  that anyone, even the most anti-war, could believe, for a moment in what was later to be called the "First Reich".   Horns and trumpets blazed from all round the Royal Opera House building, most appropriately from the Royal Box itself, bringing a vast, invisible army into the semi-civilized confines of an opera house. "Für deutsches Land das deutsche Schwert! So sei des Reiches Kraft bewährt!". 

Brabant is in turmoil, but only part of a wider struggle of cosmic proportions.  Heinrich der Vogler might have been a real person but Lohengrin is opera, not history.  For Wagner, Lohengrin isn't "just" a war story but the continuation (in advance, given that Lohengrin came before Parsifal) of a struggle between pseudo-Christianity and demonic forces.  If Lohengrin descends (somehow) from Parsifal, then Ortrud and Telramund connect to Klingsor and Kundry, their sexes reversed.  Hence the paranoia that underlies this opera and its strange, mystical resolution. And in times of extremist hysteria, the individual is suppressed. Elsa needs a super-hero, but when she gets one, he turns out not to be quite the man of her dreams.  The people of Brabant are conformists, easily swayed. Not so different from the modern world.  So it's nonsense to call David Alden's production "updating" or even semi-Third Reich. Grandiose manias, grandiose buildings and monotone masses have gone together since the dawn of history.

Thus the Prelude, conducted by Andris Nelsons with sublime purity, so the sounds seemed to shimmer with ethereal light. If Nelsons can do richness, he's even better at creating subtle atmosphere. Gradually, the mists give way to light, and the drama can begin. The King listens to Telramund's accusations and Elsa's strangely inert defence. But  lo ! Alden's staging (sets Paul Steinberg, video Tal Rosner, lighting Adam Silverman) creates the entry of the Saviour (for that is what Lohengrin is).  Huge, dark ripples projected over the stage suggested the movement of waves, concentric circles stretching outward, with flashes showing the wings of a large flying bird.   In this opera, it is not the swan boat per se that counts, but the imagery of water, and the theological connotations thereof. Again, think Parsifal.  The pettiness and intrigure of Court wiped clean away by the appearnce of the champion.

Significantly, Lohengrin is first seen with his back to the audience, his voice projecting to the back of the stage, intensifying the sense of mystery.  This is an interpretive insight, for Lohengrin isn't here "for" Elsa but for an unknown higher purpose.  Veiling Klaus Florian Vogt's magnificent voice in this way also serves to stress the character's innate humility. Unlike kings and intriguers, Lohengrin is above petty power games.  When Vogt turned round, his voice grew with the strength that comes from absolute confidence. "Ein Wunder ! Ein Wunder!" indeed.  Vogt has done Lohengrin so many times over the last 20 years (including with Nelsons)  that his voice should be familiar to all, but yet again, I was astonished by its flexibility and beauty.  Almost superhuman purity, so natural and unforced that it seems to come from within., not merely from technique. This is true artistry. Vogt is a Lohengrin for the ages: How blessed we are to hear him. 

Lohengrin spares Telramund, who confronts Ortrud, who set him up in the first place. The relationship between Ortrud and Telramund suggests the relationship between Klingsor and Kundry, this time the dominant partner female rather than male (though Klingsor isn't male any more). Ortrud is the last of the ancient house of Radbod, Telramund drawn to her by his greed for power, though he blames her when he fails. They  are important characters, not quite as secondary as they might seem, so deserve the attention they are given in this production.  Thomas J Mayer is a good Telramund, and  Christine Goerke is a magnificent Elektra amongst many others: particularly good in roles where the character is strong and proactive, if misunderstood.  Ortrud is forced by fate into dangerous measures.  We're not supposed to like Ortrud but Goerke develops the part so we can sense the woman behind the monster, sensuality behind piercing steel, her voice her sword.  Elsa always takes centre stage, but Ortrud is a far more complex personality, and needs singers like Goerke who can express the depths in the otherwise thankless part.  To some extent, sexuality is involved, as so often in Wagner.  Telramund had wanted to marry Elsa, but married Ortrud instead, and sex is very much part of their alliance.  But more pointedly, why does Lohengrin, a pure knight, want to marry ? The big bed, the wedding songs etc hint at the procreative purpose of marriage. Maybe it's convenient that Elsa asks the forbidden question  and needs to know who he really is. Like his father, Lohengrin doesn't follow through but returns to his higher mission.  Gottfried, the true heir of Brabant, will arise again at the end of the opera, resurrected from the non-dead without much explanation.

The entry into the bridal chamber was introduced with such vitality by Nelsons and the ROH Orchestra that the staging, for once, did intrude. With music as gloriously performed as this, there was no need to distract by having actors run in between the seats. In the orchestra stalls, where we were seated, it was annoying and would probably have been missed by anyone further above.  Jennifer Davis sang Elsa at short notice in place of Christina Opolais (who's getting divorced from Nelsons). In the Second Act, she showed her mettle, singing with more volume and colour than she had in the First Act. While she doesn't have the depth of, say, Annette Dasch or Anna Netrebko, two fairly recent Elsas with robust personalities, she's still young and will develop over time.  In this Third Act, in the bridal gown, Davis's good looks expressed the part impressively.  Vogt looked genuinely protective, the luminosity of his singing taking on warmth andmasculine  tenderness.   As Elsa became more petulant, Lohengrin became more alarmed, and in Vogt, we could hear heartfelt regret.  Telramund breaks in - symbolically breaking the hymen in this staging - Lohengrin impaling him on his sword, handed to him by his bride. (Lest anyone query the imagery, it's in the plot).

Significantly, Wagner immediately moves the action back to  the armies assembled on the banks of the Scheldt, the conflict between East and West taking precedence over personal tragedy.  Earlier above I described the phenomenal impact of the musical introduction to this scene.   Nelsons led the orchestra with such intensity that the musical logic carried all before it. Whatever questions may be embedded in the plot,  "Wir geben Fried und Folge dem Gebot!", just as Wagner intended.   Intensity of a different, otherworldly kind, when Lohengrin explains what is about to happen. Vogt has sung "Im fernen Land" many times, and, if anything, his delivery glows with maturity. We forget that it's a "hard sing" testing range and heft, but Vogt illuminated it as if transfigured., yet still tinged with human suffering. The conjuction of Lohengrin, Parsifal and Christ may be theologically way off beam, but in Wagnerian terms, it's perfectly apt.  The King in this opera isn't a fighter, but a judge, almost a Pilate figure, hence the excellent characterization by Georg Zeppenfeld, delivering with real authority. No glitz and gold, but a man of depth.  Notice, neither Wagner's Heinrich nor Lohengrin are men of impulsive violence. Toward the end, Vogt walked quietly to the back of the stage.  Gottfried appeared, and Nelsons ended the performance with a magnificent final coda.

Cast and conductor made this a memorable experience, but the production itself will be worth reviving because it’ss well thought through and true to meaning. Infinitely more  conducive to inspired performance that the old production where the singers were trapped in dalek suits. 

Saturday 9 June 2018

Les Arts Florissants : An English Garden

At the Barbican, London, Les Arts Florissants conducted by Paul Agnew, with soloists of Le Jardin de Voix in "An English Garden" a semi-staged programme of English baroque.   The term "garden" here refers to two of Sir William Christie's passions, music and gardens, and to the concept of baroque gardening, bridging nature and art.  Baroque gardens turned landscape into theatre, combining art and nature for maximum impact. 
Les Arts Florissants has for several seasons created "gardens"  where  music and song are arranged, like bouquets, to delight the senses.  This "garden" brought together the beauties of the English baroque, with highlights from Purcell,  Locke, Gibbons, Handel, Arne, Ward and Dowland.

Like a formal themed garden the programe was set out in two distinct parts, "The Mystery of Music" and "A Night of Revels". The scene was set by The Curtain Tune, an instrumental prologue to Matthew Locke's The Tempest (1674) an early English semi-opera adapting the spirit of Lully and Moliere to British theatrical tradition.  This Tempest was loosely based on The Tempest of William Shakespeare, where Nature, magic and art come together in glorious mayhem.  As the orchestra played, the singers entered the hall,  hidden in darkness, their voices ringing  out clearly.  Placing the two parts of Orlando Gibbons The Cries of London at the start and end of this "garden" gave it structure, but the choice was inspired.   Gibbons depicts the sounds of London, market traders calling out their wares "Hot apple pies, hot, Hot pippin pies, hot. Fine pomegranates, a rope,,,white cabbage, white young cabbage".  Each brief cry follows its own rhythm and the interplay between these simple calls creates intricate polyphony. "Low " society transformed into "high" art.  Thence to Handel "O the pleasures of the plains" from Handel's Acis and Galatea , Purcell's If music be the food of love Z379 and Thomas Tomkins' Music Divine.

Lest all be gracious artifice, Thomas Arne's The Singing Club, a nod to the English taste for communal singing.  It's humorous - a good singer singing about a singer who can't sing too well.   Then a return to fantasy, with Handel and Purcell songs about music and the muse St Cecilia.   The songs also showcased individual instrumental colour - flutes, lutes, pipes and violins, paired with complementary voices. From Thomas Arne's The Fairy Prince, "Now all the air shall ring"  came the rousing final chorus "God Save the King!" Though Arne gave us our national anthem, the king in this case wasn't George III but the king of Fairyland, since Arne's masque  is an adaptation of Ben Jonson's Oberon, itself an adaptation of Shakespeare. One singer waved the Union Flag . I closed my eyes for a moment to concentrate on the music, but suddenly the whole audience burst out in a roar of spontaneous applause. The singers were also waving the flag of the European Union, and the audience loved it ! British culture connects to Europe. Were it not for Handel, Mendelssohn and many others, where would British music be ?  And the flags were perfectly appropriate, since the kings of Arnes's time came from Hanover.

Pealing bells ushered in the "Night of Revels"  with "O let the merry bells ring round" from Handel's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato.  Two Purcell songs about Night  and dreams "See, even night herself is here"  and "One Charming Night" from The Fairy Queen Z629 and John Ward's Come, sable night.  Sophie Daneman's semi-staging created great atmosphere. A singer herself, she's worked with Les ArtsFlorissants  for some years, creating sensitive semi staging.  Here she had the singers carry lights in the darkness, so we could see as well as hear  the patterns of interaction.  Night, though, isn't just for sleep.  Thus the group of songs for merriment, starting with "In these delightful,pleasure groves" from Purcell's The Libertine, or the Libertine destroyed Z600, followed by "Welcome black night"  and later "Cease these false spirits" from John Dowland's A Pilgrim's Solace which is about, to put it coyly, married love.  Two Bacchanals from Purcell (Z627 and Z360) release unruly spirits.  Men are pitted against women in Purcell's 'Tis women makes us love Z281. "Tis women makes us love, 'tis love that makes us sad. 'Tis sadness makes us drink, and drinking makes us mad!" Delivered, of course, with great panache.  Then the  famous "Fairest Isle, all isles excelling" from Purcell's King Arthur or the British Worthy Z628, soothing and graceful.  Night leads to morning and three songs of dawn from Handel and Purcell  Then, back we are to London at the break of day, with the bustle of market traders and callers in Part 2 of Gibbon's The Cries of London.
This well-planned Garden of Delights came to life with Paul Agnew leading Les Arts Florissants. 

Part of the Les Arts Flo mission is the nurturing of youthful talent : hence Le Jardin de Voix, the academy for young singers, whose soloists gave vivacious performances. Some are very promising and deserve a good future. Their names - Natasha Schnur, Natalie Pérez, Eva Zaïcik, James Way, Josep-Ramon Olivé and Padraic Rowan.

This review also appears in Opera Today.  Please also see my review of Julian Prégardien and Teatro del Mondo : Orpheus : Songs, madrigals and arias from the 17th century and lots more on Les Arts Flo and Frech baroque on this site

Photo: Roger Thomas

Monday 4 June 2018

Schütz : Auferstehungshistorie - La Chapelle Rhénane

Heinrich Schütz : Auferstehungshistorie and Musicalische Exequien from La Chapelle Rhénane led by Benoît Haller. La Chapelle Rhénane built its reputation on Schütz, with four of its original eight recordings dedicated to the composer.  This acclaimed series is now being re-issued by Christophus Records, with new recordings planned for 2019.  Schütz (1585-1672) was born one hundred years before J S Bach. He studied with Monteverdi, and is a link between the Italian and German baroque. He lived through the Thirty Years War, perhaps the most savage conflict Europe experienced before the 20th
century. Millions were killed, entire regions devastated. Although Schütz worked in relative safety for the Elector of Saxony, the world around him had been in turmoil since the Reformation. For Schütz, comfort was not a given.  Schütz founded what is now the Staatskapelle Dresden but he didn't have job security. When he fell out of favour at court, he became destitute. His family died young. He lived on alone until the age of 87, which in those days was like being Methuselah.

The beauty of Schütz's music lies in its spirituality, inspired by the austere piety of the early Lutheran faith.  The Auferstehungshistorie, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, op3 SWV 050, was written for Easter 1623, sixty years before Bach was even born. The brightness of the singing in this La Chapelle Rhénane performance accentuates the purity of expression that makes this work so moving.  Benoît Haller sings the Evangelist, his voice light and flexible, interacting well with the other singers emphasizing the polyphonic texture of the work.  This highlights the fine balance in groups with a combination of voices, for example the voices singing Jesus. Good variety, too, in the part for Kleophas and his companions, their lines interweaving rhythmically.  In the section "Die Elfe zu Jerusalem versammt", six voices, male and female, interact, emphasizing the unity of voices singing the words of Jesus "Friede sei mit euch!". The Conclusio draws together the whole ensemble, the word "Victoria!" repeated with joyous enthusiasm.

From the Resurrection to a funeral, with Musicalische Exequien op 7 SWV 279-81 (1635/6) for Schütz's patron Henry, Count of Reuss-Gera.  A single voice intones "Nacket bin ich von Mutterliebe kommen",  other voices and instruments then cradling around it. This is followed by three other sections, "Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt", "Unser Wandel ist im Himmel" and "Under Leben währet siebenzig Jahr", forming between them a cycle from birth to death, tenor leading in the beginning, basses towards the end, the finale for whole ensemble.  A motette separates the first and second parts, forming a bridge between the reflections on life in the first part and the acceptance of death im the last. The mood in this Canticum Simeonis is solemn yet serene, for "Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herren sterben".     

Friday 1 June 2018

Flaming June - Lohengrin and more!

Summer is at last upon us !  The big, big event is Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House starting Thursday 7th.  Klaus Florian Vogt is the Lohengrin of choice these days.  He and Andris Nelsons have done Lohengrin in the past, including at Bayreuth.  Word from those who have been in on things suggests that they're on top form. This should be memorable ! Nelsons could have been a cert for Bayreuth, Berlin and Lucerne but missed out by leaving Birmingham too early.  Fortunately for us, and him, Lucerne and Leipzig are hardly small time.  Luckily, conductors have a long shelf life so good things lie ahead.  Kristine Opolais was to have sung Eva, but she and Nelsons are getting divorced, so Elsa von Brabant will now be taken by Jennifer Davis, a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme 2015–17. But Christine Goerke is making her role debut as Ortrud, which is thrilling. Every performance brings out something new in an opera. A very strong and dynamic Ortrud could bring out the demonic levels in this opera. Ortrud is the Klingsor of Lohengrin ! and the part is much bigger. Thomas  Mayer sings Telramund, and   Georg Zeppenfeld - another reliable Wagner stalwart - sings Heinrich der Vögler.  This is a new production, directed by David Alden with a set by Paul Steinberg, so expect strong lines.  There is a lot more to Lohengrin than kitsch ! The costumes for the last production were a joke, so heavy and dalek-like that they must have been torture to move around in : singers need to feel comfortable to do their best, so treating them as props instead of people is not conducive to art.

At the Barbican on Monday 4th June, Franco Fagioli sings Vivaldi with the Venice Baroque Orchestra (Gianpiero Zannoco), which should be splendid, and on Friday 8th  Paul Agnew  conducts Le Jardin des Voix and Les Arts Florissants in a programme devised to "paint the whole landscape of English song, from the Tudor court to the Georgian era. Music by Dowland, Gibbons, Purcell, Handel and Boyce". Major Bach weekend coming up 15th to 17th June with John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. Bach cantatas, motets, sonatas and more, with soloists Isabelle Faust, Jean Rondeau and Jean Guihen-Queyras.

At the Wigmore Hall, Sunday 3rd June, Shakespeare and Music with Anna Prohaska and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Georg Kallweit) - settings of Shakespeare by Purcell, Dowland, John Blow and Matthew Locke. On Tuesday 5th June, Stéphane Degout sings Fauré, Brahms and Schumann (Kernerlieder).  On Monday 11th, Collegium Vocale Gent bring an all de Lassus programme.  Ian Bostridge, Christine Rice and the interesting young cellist Edgar Moreau coming up, too.  He's doing Franck, Poulenc and Strohl.  And of course, Imogen Cooper on 26th June.

At the South Bank. standard warhorses, Fauré Requiem, Symphonie Fantastique etc with reliable conductors like Jarvi and Dohnanyi.  The real star events are at the end of the month. On 26th, Dangerous Liaisons with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - " the sounds of Versailles, blending elegant French dance from the court of Louis XIV with greatest hits of French music from the era." in semi staged,  performances with DANCE of music by Lully, Charpentier, Clérambault, Destouyches and Rameau.  Then on 28th Schoenberg Gurrelieder with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia, which was brilliant when they did it in 2007 and should be even better now. This I booked a year in advance.  Seats still available in the rear stalls, but that's OK. Gurrelieder is loud, sound won't get sucked away under the balcony overhang.

In previous years the month of June meant, for me, Garsington Opera and the Aldeburgh Festival. Garsington is still going strong but Aldeburgh has become as stale as BBC Radio 3. What's the point of going any more, especially if the music is better in London ?