Monday, 23 July 2018

Heavenly choruses - Mahler Symphony no 8 Prom Royal Albert Hall


BBC Prom 11 Mahler Symphony no 8 in E flat major at the Royal Albert Hall, London with Thomas Søndergård conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and a huge cast.   the nickname "Symphony of a Thousand" wasn't Mahler's choice but the invention of promoters eager to market it as a showpiece.  In music, quality comes before quantity, so many performances scale down the numbers for the sake of the music.  But the Royal Albert Hall was created for extravagant choral spectaculars   In this vast barn of a building, it's possible to do things with Mahler 8 that couldn't be done elsewhere.  Most of the 6000 strong audience will remember this Prom for years to come.   For starters, the Royal Albert Hall is in itself a form of theatre: the dome, the atmosphere, the sense of communal anticipation and the sheer visual impact of seeing the choristers file into their places. All eight rows of the choir stalls were packed, with another row of singers above that still. Across the entire breadth of the hall, two rows of young singers dressed in white.  And right at the heart, the Royal Albert Hall organ  so majestic that it sustain the whole powerful experience.  

With its unconventional structure and eclectic meaning, Mahler's 8th still remains perplexing for many. Why are the two parts so different ? How do they work ? Nearly every good performsnce can offer insight.  Under Søndergård, the BBC NOW is at a peak  but the glory of this performance was built on the choral forces he had to hand - The BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Adrian Partington, chorus master), the BBC Symphony Chorus (Neil Ferris) and the London Symphony Chorus (Simon Halsey) with the Southend Boys' Choir and Southend Girls' Choir (Roger Humphreys). Halsey was chorusmaster of the City of Birmingham Orchestra and of the Berlin Philhramonic before his present post, and Partington,  one of the stalwarts of the Three Choirs Festival (which starts next weekend) has a conducted Mahler 8 before, at Gloucester Cathedral.  Thus the exceptional coherence in the singing : hundreds of individuals operating in unison, negotiating the swift changes with precision, keeping lines fluid and clean. In a symphony which predicates on images of illumination, this clarity is important.   Most impressive of all was the stillness these massed voices managed to achieve in the quieter passages.  Though the nickname "Symphony of a Thousand" predisposes listeners to expect overwhelming volume, the critical passages are marked by hushed refinement, the "poetical thoughts" of spiritual refinement. earing hundreds of voices singing quietly, tenderly and yet in unison was very moving.  They even synchronized turning their pages. 

The First Part of this symphony is based on an ancient latin hymn about the Pentecost. Divine fire descends upon the Apostles, inspiring them to go forth on their mission to spread Enlightenment.  Hence the  direct attack with which "Veni creator spititus!" was executed , creating an aural force field n which the soloists voices were embedded.  Though the soloists -  Tamara Wilson, Camilla Nylund, Marianne Beate Kielland,  Claudia Huckell, Simon O'Neill, Quinn Kelsey and Morris Robinson - stand at the front of the platform where they can be heard,  they are primus inter pares - first among equals - operating as an extension of the chorus and orchestra. In the Second Part of this Symphony,  Mahler was inspired by Goethe's Faust, where Faust is redeemed by divine grace. The soloists are named but they operate as stages in the transformation,: they aren't acting out roles as if in an opera.  Take the names too literally and miss the esoteric spirituality, where ego is sublimated for a higher purpose.  The variety in the voice types reflects human diversity,. I liked the balance between  O'Neill's earnest fervour and Kelsey's rich tone, anchored by Robinson's bass.  These parts also operate in musical terms suggesting movement upwards and downwards, on simultaneous planes, also pertinent to meaning.  The women's voices supply the Das Ewig-wiebliche, the "Eternal Feminine". this dichotomy between male and female, creator and muse, is central to Mahler's later work.  The chorus of Blessed boys operates in parrellel. "Wir werden früh entfernt von Lebenchören", They too, have been reborn by an act of faith, butnhow cheeky and childlike they are, like th child in Mahler Symphony no 4.

The vocal music in Mahler's 8th inevitably draws attention, and deservedly so. Thus the absolute importance of the silence that follows the ecstasy with which the first part ends. It represents a transition, bridging the two disparate parts, cleansing away what has gone before, settingb the scene for what is to come.  But in many ways, the whole Symphony pivots on the First Part of the Second Part where the orchestra alone speaks.  Søndergård approached it with restraint, letting the detail shine.  Pizzicato figures suggest tentative footseps entering the new territory evoked by sweeping strings, called forward by horn and flutes.  The Chorus and echo repeat the pattern, marking the transition.  Throughout the symphony,  deatails were respected, so individual instruments like flutes, celesta and harps could be heard despite the size of the forces around them.  Some conductors achieve much more luminous purity, but Søndergård made the most of generous choral resources at his disposal, which played to the strengths of the Royal Albert Hall.  

Please read more about Mahler 8 on this site, following the labels below. Lots more Mahler, too

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Prom 8 Discoveries - Morfydd Owen and lively Schumann


Morfydd Owen's Nocturne in D flat major (1913), at BBC Prom 8 at the Royal Albert Hall, should transform perceptions about Welsh (and British) music history.  Thomas Søndergård conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who premiered its first modern premiere last year, though this performance was far more accomplished.  Owen left some 250 surviving scores by the time of her death at the age of 26, of an extensive range including works for large orchestra, chorus, chamber pieces  songs and works for stage.  To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.  Though she was not part of the male English Establishment, Owen needs no special pleading.  Her music stands on its own merits, highly individual and original.  Her work was published in the Welsh Hymnal when she was 16, before she graduated from Cardiff and moved to London, where she moved in Bohemian, arty circles with the likes of D H Lawrence, Ezra Pound and Prince Yusupov, one of the conspirators who assassinated Rasputin.   A "new woman" she was also independent and had a second career as a singer, hence her fluency in writing for voice.  Unlike far too many supposedly "lost" composers, Owen's legacy was substantial. Her reputation doesn't rest on sentimentality or gender alone, but on the hard evidence of her music itself.

The Nocturne is sophisticated and highly original, which compares well with much else written at the time.  A mysterious woodwind melody calls forth, answered by the strings. The line is is illuminated by tiny bright woodwind fragments, before the main theme is developed into poignant song. Again the strings respond, lit by swathes of brighter winds and harps.  Highly atmospheric yet formally structured, this Noctune now eneters a second, more expansive theme which moves with great assurance towards a magnificent crescendo which suddenly shifts to more urbane, lively motifs. If this is a tone poem about night, it's not somnolent but filled with incident and detail.  Yet another theme develops, this time led by violin. gradually tension builds up : strong, assertive chords not quite ostinato lead to yet another theme, like a lyrical dance for solo woodwind, garlanded by strings and harps.  Such deftness of design, such precise orchestration, and such beauty. All packed into barely half an hour, but unhurried and clear of purpose.  

Owen's Nocturne reminded me of Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and even possibly of Stravinsky, whose work Owen would have known, given her interest in what was happening in Paris and Russia. Yet its serene confidence is highly distinctive : Owen most definitely had a voice of her own, though she was only 22 when it was completed.  BBC NOW should make this Nocturne part of their standard repertoire and explore more of Owen's unique and fascinating music.  Please also read my other two articles on Morfydd Owen  :  Talent has No Gender and Portrait of a Lost Icon.  (which is about the groundbreaking recording of her songs. Both include liniks to Tŷ Cerdd, pioneers of Owen's music and of other Welsh composers.

Unfortunaterly the BBC's obsession with artificial themes yet again obscured the music.  The tag "Youthful Beginnings" is pretty meaningless in itself, hence the need to include pieces by Lili Boulanger and early Mendelssohn and Schumann, which otherwise don't cohere as a programme.  Boulanger and Morfydd Owen were almost exact contemporaries and died young, but that's where the similarities end. Though Boulanger won the composition prize at the Prix de Rome aged 19 - no small achievement - she didn't leave as much as Owen did. Again, perfectly fair enough, everyone develops at different rates.  D'un matin de printemps and D'un soir triste are delightful if somewhat slight, but her reputation was bolstered vigorously by her sister Nadia and her followers.  These pieces are heard fairly frequently (last November with John Storgårds)  because programme planners need to fill agendas about gender.  Owen's music speaks for itself  regardless of reputation.

Bertrand Chamayou was the soloist in Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto no 1 in G minor, which was  balm to listen to. No special pleading needed.  Whatever his sex and age, Mendelssohn had a unique musical personality which makes his music distinctive.  Søndergård concluded Prom 8 with Schumann's Symphony no 4 in D minor, in the version dating from 1841. This was his glorious Liederjahre when a stream of masterpieces burst forth unstemmed. It's not the work of an immature composer, but rather of one who has so muchnto say that he needs to get it down quickly. This version instead of the better known 1851 revision has merit.  The orchestration is freer and more spontaneous, textures brighter and livelier.  Søndergård understood why it matters that the four movements flow one into the other. They're so full of inventive spirit that it would be wrong to hold them back to make them "neat".  Great energy, even moments of quirky humour.  Low brass and winds blast, almost in parody of stolid ostentation. A vivacious climax , wittily and succintly achieved.  This version of Schumann's symphony is hardly unknown but how refreshing and vital it felt in this performance! 

Friday, 20 July 2018

Balladen im Wandel der Zeit - traditional song and Lieder

From specialist Austrian label Gramola, founded in 1924, Balladen im Wandel der Zeit (Ballads in changing times) (Please click here to access) linking Lieder and traditional ballads.    Some Lieder are ballads, but not all ballads are Lieder.  The differences aren't clear-cut, but it's fascinating to ponder the connections. Lieder as through-composed art song developed not directly from folk song but from literary sources, generally the preserve of the educated upper and middle classes. These composers, poets and listeners were well aware of pre-urban tradition ; witness the success of Gottfried Herder, the Brothers Grimm and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the compilation of oral sources.   Like the taste for classical antiquity, this interest in folk tradition was idealized into new forms, such as Singspiele and operas like Der Freischütz.  The Lieder of Beethoven and Schubert represented progress, romanticizing the past, but looking forward.  Poets as great as Schiller and Goethe wrote ballads, as did many others. Not all were initially intended for musical setting.  Goethe's Der König von Thule, for example, was incorporated in Faust to demonstrate Gretchen's purity and faithful nature.  On this disc, Robert Holzer and Thomas Kerbl perform the setting by Schubert and also a version by Heinrich Marchner, whose operas like Der Vampyr and Hans Heiling, still popular today, draw on folk sources.  Schubert's Der König von Thule is so well known it doesn't need describing, but Holzer is worth hearing. His bass is firm, yet flexible, with a nicely noble ring.    Prometheus and Kreuzug are well served.  In Grenzen der Menschheit , Kerbl's pace is deliberate, allowing the line "Wenn der uralte, Heilige Vater, mit gelassener Hand aus rollenden Wolken....." to flow with magnificent sweep.  Marschner's version is more prosaic, the strophes repeated with relatively little development, but it's useful to know.  Holzer and Krebl also perform settings by Carl Loewe, Prinz Eugen, Odins Meerstritt and Die Uhr, and Robert Schumann's Die Beiden Grenadiere,  Brahms Verrat and Hugo Wolf's Der Feuerreiter, all of which tell stories as ballads so often do. 
More unusually, Die Ballade vom Bettelvogt by Wilhelm Weismann (1900-1980).  The text was collected by Brentano and von Arnim . It refers to gangs of wandering beggars roaming the countryside in the wake of wars.  The language is archaic. "Ihr Brüder seyd nun lustig, der Bettlevogt ist todt, erhängt schön im Geigen  ganz schwer und voller Noth" Weismann's setting captures the folksy feel yet also marks the changes in the tale with distinctively sophisticated changes. 
 
This disc begins, however, with with the drone of a hurdy-gurdy, played by Erberhard  Ktummer. Throughout Middle Europe, hurdy-gurdys and bagpipes were associated with folk tradition. References to them in "classical" music, from Winterreise to Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer have extra musical associations for various reasons.  Das Schloss in Österreich is a traditional air, each strophe repeating with occasional variation, the hurdy-gurdy providing plaintive commentary with bursts of rhythmic energy.  In an Austrian castle, filled with silver gold and marble, a "junger Knab" lies imprisoned, but his father can't raise the ransom to free him, so he dies.  But the father sings his ballad, reaching the world beyond.   The last ballad is Todenamt, also with hurdy-gurdy. It's an Austrian Burengesang from the 14th century. The tale is told through alternating verses. "Wachter trut geselle, trit her, ein wort zu mir. Ich hon min lieb verlornen das lied das klag ich dir!"  To no avail. "Mit ir schneewiessen hande macht sie im ein tiefes grab, mit iren heissen trächen si ihm den segen gab"  Fascinating music, unveiling a genre and a sensibility that would be rewarding to explore in greater depth

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Dido and Aeneas in the Mediterranean - Aix festival


Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (Dido et Énée) at the Aix-en-Provence Festival 2018 in a setting that confronts its Mediterranean context. Dido, a refugee from Tyre in what's now the Lebanon,found refuge on the coast of North Africa and founded the city of Carthage. Aeneas fled his homeland after it was destroyed by war. For Virgil and his audiences the saga was contemporary. The Roman empire was seaborne : Carthage was a place they knew.  Purcell's opera based on Nahum Tate's adaptation of Virgil was necessarily removed from context.  But modern audiences cannot, if they have any conscience, escape images of refugees on small boats at sea, or dying in the attempt.  So this staging at Aix is perfectly valid and extends impact.  Before the opera begins,  the singer Rokia Traoré, wrapped in a blanket like so many African refugees even today,  recounts the background. The text by Maylis de Kerangal descibes the perils and anguish of forced exile. Being a refugee in those circustaces is not an easy option.  Though Purcell's music accompanied her entry onto the darkened stage  when Traoré sings "Je suis Didon", she's accompanied by a North African n'goni ( a kind of  lute) Then she sings a chant.  Dido becomes a person, an individual with a past, not just a figure in a play.  Extremely moving.  
The opera proper begins when the cast file in onto a set resembling a pier in an anonymous port.  Anaïk Morel sings Didon,  Sophia Burgos her sister Belinda.  Tobias Greenhalgh sings Aeneas, and Lucile Richardot the Sorceress. The orchestra and choir are Ensemble Pygmalion, baroque specialists, conducted here by Vaclav Luks.  The director is Vincent Huguet, mentored by Patrice Chéreau.  A stylish performance well paced and expressive : nothing prissy about the baroque !  Enjoy it nhere on arte.tv.fr.
Please also see my pieces

Les Funérailles de Louis XIV (Pygmalion Ensemble) and

Perpetual Night - early English Baroque airs - Lucile Richardot Ensemble Correspondances



Gershwin restored to true greatness, Messiaen Prom 6




BBC Prom 6 - Gershwin An American in Paris (new edition) and Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie, two of the 20th century's most iconic pieces, with Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphont Orchestra. Wonderful programme, but pity about the BBC marketing, obsessed as usual with themes and non-musical targets, missing the music itself.  Sure, this is Leonard Bernstein's anniversary but the world didn't revolve around him.  Bernstein conducted the premiere of Turangalîla-Symphonie  but only by chance, and didn't like it, which may have spoiled its reception.  There's a difference between musical perception in Europe and in the US which goes back a long way.  Nadia Boulanger and Messiaen both taught in Paris but operated in different directions.  There are teachers who teach students what to think, and teachers who teach students to think for themselves  Boulanger inspired cult-like deference, while Messiaen's students developed in many different ways.Messiaen's   students wereore diverse, while Boulanger's were largely English speakers. Bernstein thus absorbed the values of Boulanger devotees like Copland, conducting new music though not the new music of Messiaen and his circles which included Boulez. Messiaen adored America and Boulez spent much time conducting there so it's ironic to ponder what might have been. 

When Bernstein conducted  the Turangalîla-Symphonie in 1948, it was way too far for some to grasp. One critic panned it for its "fundamental emptiness… appalling melodic tawdriness…..a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, a dance for Hindu hillbillies”. If ever there was music in Technicolor, this is it, complete with cinematic swirls of the ondes martenot which we now assocaite with horror movies, though for Messaien there were no such connotations.  .Sakari Oramo doesn't conduct a lot of Messiaen but his Turangalîla-Symphonie is wonderful because it seems to appeal to his exuberant spirit.  This symphony explodes with the sheer joy of being alive.  If it is oddball, that's good, because its energy embraces human experience in all its aspects. Why shouldn't serious music be blissfully happy ?  Please read my article Sublimated sex: Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie for more. This also describes Oramo conducting it, with the BBCSO at the Barbican in May 2017. This Proms performance was more sedate, though good, mainly because the emphasis was on Gershwin.  

And rightly so since Oramo was conducting the UK premiere of a revised edition of An American in Paris which restores its original verve and originality . The piece is so well known from the movie of the same name that we could forget how Gershwin himself would have conceived it.  In the heady days of 1920's Paris it would have been innovative and deliciously subversive. Taxi horns and jazz syncopation ! The risqué world of modernity blowing into the concert hall !  Thus the vigour of this performance where Oramo brought out the audacity and freshness so it shone anew freed from decades of perceived performance practice. It's so vivid that many will prefer An American in Paris in its more neutral Hollywood form. But that does not do Gershwin justice.  This edition (and this performance) restores its true context.  For more about the new edition, by Mark Clague,  please read HERE.  Like George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique (1922/4) it represents a time when Europe and America were truly together and in tune at the forefront of a New Age. Lots more on Antheil on this site, please search. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Le Jardin de Monsieur Rameau - Les Arts Florissants

Le Jardin de Monsieur Rameau with Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie, reissued as part of a series by Harmonia Mundi.   Like a garden, where different plants are combined for maximum display,  this recording is a bouquet of selections from Rameau, Gluck, Campra, Pignolet de Monteclair, and others, arranged to highlight the variety of 18th century form.  In this delughtful bouquet or sounds, well known perennials blend with relative rarities and dramatic colours alternate with the more discreet : an excellent introduction to the rest of the Harmonia Mundi series reissuing Les Arts Florissants recordings. This selection was first heard during the Rameau anniversary year when Les Arts Florissants  were joined by soloists  (Daniela Skorka, Emilie Renard, Benedetta Mazzucato, Zachary Wilder, Victor Sicard and Cyril Costanzo) from their academy, Le Jardin de Voix. Michel Pignolet de Montéclair's Jephté, (1633) was written a hundred and twenty years before Handel's oratorio on the same subject. The opera was based on a biblical text, at a time when the concept of combining religion and theatre was controversial.  Thus the Overture is surprsingly exuberant, the mood reinforced here by the air "Riez sans cesse!" with its jolly chorus, the orchestra singing along, repeating the melody, followed by a more decorous trio "du quel nouveaux concerts". where the woodwind consort sounds delightfully archaic.  Swiftly the mood changes back to more typical adventures in classical antiquity. Les Arts Florissants combine the well-known  "Quel doux concerts" from Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (1733)  (which Christie conducted at Glyndebourne), with "Quelle voix suspend mes alarmes" from Hercules mourant (1761) by Antoine Dauvergne.  This latter is lyrical yet elegaic, the strings in the orchestra sweeping gracefully decorated by woodwinds.

Religion  allegory and comedy ! The miniature Cantate rien de tout (the Cantata of Nothing at all" by Nicholas Racot de Grandval, pits mock elegance with wit.  The singer duets with flutes "Quoi!" she shouts then bursts into laughter and changes her tune (literally) into dance accompanied by bells like the bells on the shoes of a folk dancer.  The strings attempt to  restore decorum but to no avail.  "Aimiez-vous!" the singer cries and the orchestra wells up forceful chords.  Frilly trills and a short sharp ending "Rien de tout!"

More high spirits with three airs from La vénitienne, a comédie-ballet from 1768, by Antoine Dauvergne. Cyril Constanzo sings the qdrunkard who dreams up a drama : the orchestra explodes with thunder and wind effects.  Gradually the drunk falls into a stupor the winds and strings singing mock lullaby. The theme continues with extracts from Gluck's L'Ivrogne corrigé (1760). Glorious sound effects in the orchestra - baroque taste was not genteel but audacious.  Expressive ensemble singing (punctuated by percussion) the low male voices delightfully "drunk).   These mini-scenes are mixed by pieces by Rameau on similar themes. Les Arts Florissants and Christie conclude with a combination of André Campra's L'Europa galante (1697)  and Rameau's Les fêtes d'Hébé (1739) both opéra-ballets with allegorical imagery.   More Rameau too with selections from Dardanus. First  the rousing "Hâtons-nous, courons à la gloire", the orchestra zinging with energetic buzz behind the heroic tenor.  Low strings and winds introduce the récit "Voici les tristes lieux", followed by "Mais un nouvel éclat" and "Les biens que Venus nous dispense" which prepares us for Les Fleurs from Les Indes Galantes where the voices twine together in graceful harmony.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Glyndebourne Prom : Pelléas et Mélisande, Royal Albert Hall

From the original production of Pelléas et Mélisande - note the pannelled walls


Prom 5 at the Royal Albert Hall - Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande from Glyndebourne.   This is an opera where meaning is deliberately elusive. That is the nature of symbolism : it can and should reveal different things.   Symbolism by definition means thinking beyond surface impressions.  The greater a listener's emotional and visual literacy the more he and she will get from the experience.   Without empathy you're not really alive. That's the story of Golaud's life. Even as Mélisande dies, he can think only of himself and no further.  Thus the challenge of  Pelléas et Mélisande.  There is so much in this amazing opera that you'd be mad to take it on surface appearances.   Should we be like philistine Golaud or like sensitive Pelléas ?  Alas, the Golauds of this world won't even get that question.   Please see my review Herheim Vindicated HERE I've written in some detail, but it deserves it.


Pelléas et Mélisande  is such an abstract opera that it lends itself to concert performances and semi-stagings, which is fine, but opera is music theatre, not "pure" music, though this opera comes closer than most.  An intelligent staging like Herheim’s adds immeasurably, if you pay attention.  Art exists to open up possibilities, to expand understanding. It's not a fixed consumer product assembled to meet customer specifations. Golaud finds Mélisande in the forest but isn't interested in anything but himself, and never learns. Allemonde is a microcosm of the world (that's why it's Allemonde) where the countryside is dying, like Golaud's arid soul.   But I was glad to,listen again at this Prom.  Orchestrally, Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra were less uneven than they'd been at the performance I attended when there were rough patches.   There were good moments, as there were tonight at the Royal Albert Hall. Perfectly acceptable, though not reaching the heights of true inspiration.

Again, Christopher Purves singing Golaud was superb. His timbre is strong, suggesting the brutishness in Golaud's personality, while also suggesting the terrified frustration that makes limited minds reject what they can't comprehend.  Making Golaud sympathetic is quite a feat but Purves pulls it off.   John Chest singing Pelléas and Christina Gansch singing Mélisande are good enough though not on the level of some of the greats who do these roles for houses with bigger budgets.  Chloé Briot as Yniold was a tad too womanly to sound like a terrified boy, though Herheim's staging develops the part quite well in relation to Mélisande and to the male/female aspects of the opera, which are often missed.  Good, reliable singing in the other parts and chorus.   Brindley Sherratt was also very strong, full of character. Arkel isn't so old that he's decrepit : steel still resides within. 

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Away with this Mad Brute !

 SOLIDARITY WITH LES BOCHES ET LES BLEUS
Stronger together in Europe, than torn apart

Friday, 13 July 2018

Light and illusion - First Night of the Proms 2018

The Proms at the Royal Albert Hall - brilliant photo by Daniel Curtis
An astonishing First Night of the Proms 2018 with 59 Productions, indubitably the stars of the second half of the evening, transforming the Royal Albert Hall into a pulsating blaze of coloured lights.  Fantastic theatre! As a community event,  it would be hard to beat, and it was great fun. The  young singers behind the orchestra will never forget the experience, and good for them, and neither will most of the audience. This is the sort of audacious flair that used to mark the BBC Proms in the Roger Wright era. This was a welcome change from the formulaic mindlessness that BBC Radio 3 increasingly descends to, where music is pushed aside in favour of everything else.  Has someone finally twigged that music is the goose that lays the golden egg ?  Starve it and you might as well succumb to Murdoch and Classic FM.
Anna Meredith's Five Telegrams was full of incident, the lights round the hall pulsating to big flashing chords and loud noises.  Sakari Oramo, with his customary good nature, gave the piece a good show, and the BBC SO seemed to be in party mode, so the performance was hugely enjoyable though I'm not convinced that it would have the same impact without the special effects it was created for.   Read more about it here.  Nonetheless, maybe at last there's someone behind the Proms who cares about music, as opposed to the tickboxes and targets management drones connect to.  The premise behind Meredith's Five Telegrams was the First World War which formulaic bots need to reference, willy nilly.  But the mind behind the programme was also musical.  
Before Five Telegrams, Ralph Vaughan Williams Towards the Unknown Region and Gustav Holst's  The Planets.  They're not connected just because they're part of the First World War theme show.  It's pure coincidence that they were written at that time. What they do represent is a change in musical thinking. "Darest thou, O Soul, Walk out with me towards the Unknown Region ?".  Quiet pizzicato footsteps  suggest tentative awakenings. Very quickly, though, the piece enters new territory. The boundaries of tonality start to stretch : Ravel and even Debussy seem to beckon Vaughan Williams forward. Though Charles Villiers Stanford is inevitably mentioned , RVW's true mentor would appear to be Hubert Parry, whose horizons were wider and more sophisticated.  Thus the music wells up with heartfelt new energy. "We float in Time and Space"   In the words of Walt Whitman, RVW seems to have found inspiration to head forth towards the future.
Holst's The Planets is good First Night material but, since it's ubiquitous, we might forget just how experimental it may have seemed when new.  Although the programmatic titles are so embedded in our reception, Holst initially planned to use non-descriptive titles. As has been said many times, Holst knew Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, which Sir Henry Wood conducted at the Proms in 1912.  The Planets, while conceived on an opulent scale, isn't symphonic but composite, each section with distinctive character.  It's "modern" on its own terms.  Everyone loves Jupiter, but in many ways, Neptune is the most eclectic, gradually dissolving and disintegrating.  Oramo paced Neptune carefully, drawing out its exquisite textures so it seemed to hover in the air . "We float in Time and Space" all over again, without words.  A very refined, intelligent performance.  Familiar as the suite may be, Oramo wasn't doing routine  but seemed inspired.
Pulling this whole First Night together, Oliver Knussen's Flourish with Fireworks, in tribute to Knussen, whose death this week is a loss to British  and modern music on many levels. Ollie was a monumental figure in every way. As Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who knew him well, said, he  "was driven by the same need for artistic authenticity and never conceded to the easier world of ego and glitter. His astounding ear and acute understanding of works allowed him a control ranging from the smallest details to the main structure; his gesture was of exemplary thrift; his interpretations were models of clarity, deeply dramatic with warm concentration. His colossal erudition led him to make programming choices dependent on an original and very personal musical vision, nourished by an insatiable curiosity and never based on personal career goals, which he overlooked. A great servant of the music of his time, he influenced generations of young talents through his teaching, whether as composer or conductor. His humility and self-effacement in favour of others were a manifestation of his selflessness and generosity."  Knussen didn't write down all the music in his head, but he gave so much to others that his legacy will live on. He packed more into 66 years than some people would in several lifetimes.  Flourish with Fireworks is typical Knussen - lively and concise. It opens up possibilities. Therefore, a very appropriate complement to Vaughan Williams and Holst .

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Don Giovanni Royal Opera House livestream


Mozart Don Giovanni  livestreamed from the Royal Opera House tonight., I was at the premiere in February 2014 and loved it. Kasper Holten's staging brilliantly mirrored Don Giovanni's,personality. - always on the move, always elusive, always half hidden even in plain sight. At that time the production was hard to grasp for some, but it’s now proved its worth.  This time round, Mariusz Kwiecień is back and as good as ever, with  a strong Leporello in Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, Pavol Bresik as Don Ottavio and Willard White as the Commendatore. Marc Minkowski conducted.

The filming, though, diminshes the production. Part of the in-house experience was the sense that the set was like Don Giovanni's mind, composed of many compartments, doors opening and closing everywhere, passages opening out then disappearing. What is reality?  What is illusion? Some of the constructs are physical, others projected onto the hard surface throughvideo, always changing, deliberately misleading.  Words and drawings appear then fade before you can pin them down. . Don Giovanni, all over.   So do not judge this production by the video, and go to a live performance if you can.   Though the images flash and flicker, the ending is unequivocal, though it's a variation onn the usual, and it's stunning theatre.   Please read below what I wrote about this Don Giovanni premiere  in 2014 and also read about Holten's Juan, HERE a movie adaptation of the Don Giovanni meme, not the opera as such but extremely good .

"The new Mozart Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House London is so innovative that it will take time to sink in fully. What is Don Giovanni but an opera that operates on many different levels?  Many will panic at the very idea of anything new. But Don Giovanni is so  rich that anyone, including the audience, who doesn't keep learning from it, will not do it justice. This production has so much

insight  that will enrich appreciation of the opera itself,  and of the process that goes into the making of opera. Kasper Holten has pulled off a great feat: this Don Giovanni could be rewarding for years to come. Indeed, I think we'll appreciate it even more once the initial shock effect wears off. Women's names appear on the backdrop, gradually developing into a torrent in tinier and tinier script. We are seeing the Catalogue unfolding before us. There are so many names that they become undecipherable, the identities of the women blurred. What sort of man keeps a catalogue of conquests?  What motivates such obsessional behaviour? Don Giovanni's relationships with women are mechanical, bringing no lasting pleasure. What is really behind his compulsiveness? This production is psychologically penetrating and exceptionally subtle. The images often suggest marble, a stone that seems soft to the touch but is enduring. Like women, perhaps, or like the Commendatore's statue.

Don Giovanni smashes a stone head but ends up trapped behind stone walls. Is he in the Commendatore's tomb or in some frozen womb?

This sensitive approach to the opera reveals itself in the multiplicity of visual images. This sensitive approach to the opera reveals itself in the multiplicity of visual images. The central structure , designed by Es Devlin, resembles MC Escher's etchings of palaces with staircases that lead nowhere, and buildings that reverse themselves in precise, but

irrational ways.  Like Don Giovanni's mind. He compartmentalizes his

emotions, locking them in a maze of subterfuge. He needs escape routes if only to escape responsibility for himself.  Perhaps he seeks challenge in order to prove himself? Gambling with the Commendatore is the ultimate dare. Leporello's scared but Don Giovanni is defiant. Suicide by Stone Guest?

Onto this structure, numerous images are projected, allowing exceptionally rapid changes of nuance and detail. Music develops  with every note and operates on many simultaneous layers. Physical stagecraft just can't compete. It felt as if we were watching notation dance and come to life. At one stage the singers are seen each in their individual vortexes, moving forwards while being pushed back by the force of the visual projections. We know it's video, but the image is so powerful that it expresses the force of the music and the psychic trauma the characters are going through.Luke Hall's video designs elevate projection into an art form. A hundred years ago, electricity transformed stagecraft : now we are heading into  a new doimension.Nicola Luisotti's conducting emphasized agility and brittleness. This wasn't a full-blooded Romantic interpretation, but something at once

late Baroque and surprisingly modern. How poisonously dissonant the fortepiano, harpsichord and cello continuo sounded! Don Giovanni was elegant though he used his grace for evil purposes. (Luisotti played the fortepiano).

Watching this Don Giovanni was stimulating because the visuals, for once, kept up with the constant motion in the music, which reflects Don Giovanni's obsession with

staying ahead of the game. This production elevates video into art form, much in the way that electricity transformed stagecraft a hundred years ago, yet it's also pertinent to meaning.  Don Giovanni is a master of

deception. Portraying his personality through tricks of light intensifies the sense of constantly changing illusion.  When Leporello hides, we can still just about see him, camouflaged in moving shadows. When the Stone Guest appears, he materializes as if from the very

structure of the building,  By this stage in the opera, the images are becing more recognizable, as if reality is starting to intrude on Don Giovanni's  consciousness. The Stone Guest stands above  the image of an eye, a reference to the all-seeing Eye Of God, often seen in Catholic symbolism,  and also in Freemasonry.  Normal physical staging could not produce this level of detail.

When Don Giovanni is drawn down to hell, he's seen trapped behind high walls that fill the whole stage area. All his life, Don Giovanni has survived by manipulating people. Suddenly, he's all alone. What can be more horrifying to someone like that to be alone and having to confront himself ? Being entombed alive is far more chilling than comic book hellfire. Moreover, he hears the Sextet, taunting him from a distance. The "happy ending" is sometimes unrealistic, like an add-on moral lesson. Here, it's incredibly poignant.

Part of the joy of this production was the way the visuals stayed as backdrop, allowing the singers to take prominence. The big set arias were given full prominence. In this production, Mariusz Kwiecień was very much the central character. His elegance suggested Don Giovanni

assumed his superiority as if it were his natural right.  As the net closes in on the character, Kwiecień sang with  vehemence verging on

demonic, without losing his innate poise.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Debussy : Heras-Casado Le martyre de Saint Sébastien, La mer

From the current  Debussy series on Harmonia Mundi, Pablo Heras-Casado and the Philharmonia  Orchestra with Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Le Martyre de saint Sébastien and La Mer. A stylish reading,  from a gifted young conductor and one of London's finest orchestras.  I first heard Heras-Casado when he was a student at a Pierre Boulez masterclass series in Lucerne, where he created such an impression that he went on to conduct orchestras like the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble Intercontemporain.  He's developed a solid reputation and a wide-ranging repertoire, so he's well worth hearing.   This disc, part of a set still in progress, represents good value.  In this centenary of the composer's death the series is worth investigating, since it includes many good musicians, covering the breadth of Debussy's ouevre. 

A poised reading of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune L86,  the flutes leading seductively, lower timbred winds, harps and strings providing lush background.  A good sense of flow, important in a piece which would inspire one of the most famous ballets of all time.  Lovely circular shapes in the strings,  evoking perhaps the movement of a faun langorously turning its body, horn, winds and harps adding detail. 

Many will buy this recording, though, for Le Martyre de saint Sébastien L124, a four movement orchestral suite.  The first tableau, Le Cour de Lys, begins with tentative stirrings, executed with clear precision. Something is stirring. Sonorous strings and winds murmur. Though Sébastien is a saint, the imagery is erotic. Debussy and his contemporaries were no prudes.  Turbulence in the Danse extatiquethe pace agitated yet languid, bright sharp chords shining. For a moment a dark, menaciung rumble before a glorious finale.  The strings elide nicely in the third tableau, The Passion, echoed by darker motifs.  At once a sense of forward thrust and sensual  response.  Particularly lovely winds, colours intensified by deeper, more mysterious undertones.  A new motif emerges, delicate, bright figures meeting somnolent overtones, winds and brass calling forwards.  A particularly beautiful final movement with well shaped long lines, strings shimmering against a hushed backdrop, culminating in triumphant blaze. 

Le Martyre de saint Sébastien here creates a bridge between the sensuality of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and the vigour of La Mer. Heras-Casado and the Philharmonia capture the variety and textures that give life to this piece : lines comprising multiple, ever-changing figures, always in motion.  The Dialogue between Wind and Sea flows exuberantly. A refreshing, open-air feel,  surgiung and subsiding.  There are dozens of recordings of this piece but this is reliable enough to stand on its own merits.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Vintage Audi - Parsifal, Pape, Kaufmann, Stemme


From the Bayerisches Staatsoper Munich, Wagner Parsifal with a dream cast - René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme, Christian Gerhaher and Wolfgang Koch, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, directed by Pierre Audi.  The production is vintage Audi - stylized, austere, but solidly thought-through. Audi, veteran of decades on the cutting edge of music theatre, knows what he's doing, even if what he does isn't flashy. So darkness and desolation greeted us on the stage. The Grail community is in trouble, desiccated like the skeleton in the corner beneath which Kundry shelters, a wild, lonely outcast.  Audi's focus on the main characters focuses attention on what they are singing about. Just as in Greek tragedy, there's little need for fancy decoration. In an opera like Parsifal austere is no bad thing, and abstraction will suffice.  This also means more room for the music itself which is hardly a minor distraction. In many ways it is the whole point of the drama, greater than the stars or scenery.  Without the music there'd be no opera !

René Pape is cloaked in black, Amfortas (Christian Gehaher) in white, with Kundry (Nina Stemme) in black/red moiré.  Lest we get caught up, too soon in simplicity, Pape and Stemme remove their "armour". (Lucky for them in this blistering heat)  So when the "Innocent Fool" Parsifal arrives (Jonas Kaufmann),  he's wearing a bizarre breastplate. Minor detail but don't dismiss it yet.  The Grail Knights are in heavy armour. But for what purpose ?  In their fortress they have no enemies to fight but themselves.  The orchestra wells up, magnificently, Parsifal bells booming. Of course Parsifal is impressed. But the children's choir sing of sacrifice. What is this blood ritual that's re-enacted without question ? Amfortas is suffering but the knights look on, but then remove their cloaks to reveal body suits.  Of course they're not "beautiful". It's easy to judge a  production by shocking images but whatb really matters is to figure out why.  Under their armour, they are human, capable of compassion. Though ugly, they are redeemable. Compassion is a greater gift than conventional beauty. As Parsifal wanders off, deep in thought, we should be thinking, too.

The reealm of Klingsor (Wolfgang Koch) is depicted through images of dead bodies, hanging upside down. Again, simple but effective.  The Flower Maidens are seen in fatsuits  Like the dead men, they are Klingsor's victims, creatures of his sick mind, created to trap and deceive. If we judge them on surface appearances we are buying into his game, treating women as objects to be consumed by men.  Besides, listen to their voices - seriously good casting here - Tara Erraught among them.  There is a lot of misogyny in Parsifal, such as the Knight's mistreatnent of Kundry, which needs to be addressed because abuse is the opposite of compassion.   Part of the reason the Grail community is in trouble  is its dismissal of women and the principles they represent.  Kundry, after all, "never lies" as Gurnemanz tells us right out, though the Knights malign her.  Though she's controlled by Klingsor, she's the vehicle through which Parsifal connects to his mother and awakens his conscience.  In this act, Stemme (as Kundry) looks lovely in evening gown and blonde wig, but her lines are forcefully delivered. She's too real to do mock-temptress.  And so the walls of Klingsor's kingdom are rent apart, his victory denied. Kundry reveals how she was cursed : I liked the personality in Stemme's performance.  And thus Parsifal's self-discovery, Kaufmann's voice swelling with magnificent resolution.

"Hier bist du an geweihtem Ort:da zieht man nicht mit Waffen her, geschloss'nen Helmes, Schild und Speer.". Mark those words from Gurnemanz. They explain a lot.  Parsifal creeps back to the Grail Community garbed in strange armour but disrobes, handing the spear - a neat, elegant cross, not a weapon. Instead of violence, bigotry and obsession with outward appearance, redemption comes through kindness.   The steel in Kaufmann's voice gleams, evoking the inner strength Parsifal has learned from years of wandering and searching.  Pape and Kaufmann can do no wrong in this performance, they pretty much steal the show.  As Parsifal baptises Kundry, the stage lights up : utter simplicity and purity, "Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön!". The textures in the orchestra open out, with clarity and ineffable sweetness. Kaufamnn's timbre became infused with tenderness.  .

Meanwhile the Knights are back in their formal black armour intoning their ritual dirge. Like Amfortas, they're still acting out guilt, blood sacrifice and immutable agony.  Christian Gerhaher sings a good enough Amfortas though somewhat one-dimensional.   Amfortas carries baggage, he's ridden with conflicts and should ideally be characterized with more sympathy. This is a pity, since Audi's clean, unfussy staging puts so much emphasis on the part.

Mission accomplished, Kaufmann stands with the chorus, one among equals and prays - not with this hands together but over his eyes.  Durch Mitglied wissend mitglied, empathy, kindness, - don't judge people by surface appearances but by what they might be inside.  Instead, listen ! And above all, the imperative of rising above self for higher purposes.  An excellent ending : the focus shifting from the mortals on stage to an abstract depiction of light, more spiritual than specific.  This reflects Wagner's stage direction "Lichtstrahl: hellstes Erglühen des "Grales".   So we don't see a literal dove flying around, but the meaning is clear. The orchestra has the last word, so to speak : we are in the presence of the sublime.
 

BREAKING NEWS? Oliver Knussen has died ?


Unconfirmed news just in, without corroboration, that Oliver Knussen is no longer with us. A shock, as he was awarded another honorary doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music on Friday.  So I hope and pray it isn't true. Ollie is a phenomenom - more than a composer, conductor, teacher - an all-round inspirational figure who makes things happen. A monumental figure, in every way.

So, to quote his Songs for Sue "Is it true, dear Sue....."  The question is followed by silence, as if
an answer were expected, but we know it will never come. It’s poignant without being maudlin. With shrill   staccato, the piece opens, xpressing tension, but the orchestration flows tenderly, in circular figures towards a kind of calm stasis. The rounded figures felt like abstract depictions of an embrace. This image reflects too in the intimate instrument doublings. This isn't so much a group of separate songs as a curving arc of sound and feeling. Silences, here too, are part of the structure, like white spaces in a watercolour, extending the music into the imagination. As a meditation on someone loved who has passed beyond the physical, these voids are not empty, but charged with memory.Indeed, there is an almost Ligeti-like stillness in the orchestration,the unadorned vocal line subtly enhanced by hollow, metallic and otherworldly sounds which express a sense of desolation. The poem, by Emily Dickinson, is full of corny lines like “as quiet as the Dew – she dropt as softly as a star”, but Knussen shapes the line with dignity.

I cannot believe, I do not want to believe. So if it isn't true, at least Ollie will know how much he is loved. There is more on this site about Ollie and the music he loved than in most places, so please follow the labels below for more

Friday, 6 July 2018

Vindicated ! Herheim Glyndebourne Pelléas et Mélisande - screw the Golauds!

Christina Gansch, Christopher Purves, John Chest : Photo Richard Hubert Smith

At Glyndebourne for Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera that operates on many levels at once.  Symbolism, for goodness sake, not literalism !  Towers, tunnels, pools, movements upwards and downwards. Sex, obviously, but also violence and disorder rumbling not far below the surface.  Blinding heat and impenetrable darkness,  extremes that mirror and contrast.  In a dense forest (itself a symbol) Golaud is out hunting (killing animals).  Why is a man of his position alone in the middle of nowhere ? And who is Mélisande, and what's she doing?  Debussy's music is ambiguous yet beguiling, tonally elusive, leading us ever deeper, til we're almost as hypnotised as the characters acting out the mystery.  Nothing in this opera is straightforward, so it's ideally suited to a director like Stefan Herheim, whose forte is multi-levelled  detail.  This Pelléas et Mélisande  deserves careful attention, since it's psychologically perceptive and, like so much of Herheim's work, explores concepts of art, repression and creativity.  It's as good as anything that might be seen in a bigger house  and ought to be on DVD for repeat listening.

Usually all we see of the Organ Room at Glyndebourne is the window, which appears right stage. Now we see it from a different perspective,  modelling the logic of the narrative.  But it's a mistake to assume that this production is "about" Glyndebourne and the Christie family. Like so much in the opera, appearances are deceptive,  designed to divert the unwary. So, for starters, get past the obvious symbolism.  The family business is theatre: they know that art is not reality TV.  Getting too caught up in the Glyndebourne allusion is a mistake. Herheim likes the 19th century from whence came Romanticism. Remember his Parsifal for Bayreuth ? Just as Pelléas et Mélisande is not a shallow opera,  Herheim's production is anything but superficial.  In the first scene, deep chords emerge from the orchestra, as resonant as an organ.  The huge upright pipes dominate the stage, but are they a symbol for Golaud (Christopher Purves), the big man in Allemonde, who thinks mainly in terms of his own organ and needs. Again and again, Mélisande (Christina Gansch) says "Ne me touchez pas!" but he's not a guy who connects to anyone but himself, like so many one-dimensional bullies.  From purely practical considerations, the organ serves a structural foundation, as did Hans Sachs’s desk in Herheim's Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  (Please read what I wrote about that HERE

Assume that Mélisande is meek and mild, and you're on the wrong track.  She's the supposedly passive vector whose presence unleashes havoc all around her.  Like a Lorelei, she's an elemental spirit, perhaps as old as Time. Herheim combines beginning and end : Mélisande's "body" is seen on her deathbed, while she sings. Past, present and future converge. The baby is cradled by others, implying that the cycle will be reborn. "C'est au tour de la pauvre petite.", as wise old Arkel (Brindley Sherratt)  will sing at the end.  So it's no problem seeing the dead Pelléas moving or the dying Mélisande singing as she once was, in the forest.  That "is" the story.  

It's also a mistake to assume that  Pelléas et Mélisande means just Pelléas and Mélisande.  Golaud and Pelléas (John Chest) are brothers with the same roots, but are mirror opposites, interacting with Mélisande in their different ways : not inseparable. Herheim's focus on Golaud is important because it connects to the deeper psychological levels in the opera.  Though warned, Golaud brings Mélisande to Allemonde where she awakens in Pelléas feelings that are at once child-like and dangerous.  It's no accident that Pelléas and Mélisande see three blind men by the grotto.  His first comment is telling. "Oh! voici la clarté! ".  Then "ce sont trois vieux pauvres qui se sont endormis... .. Pourquoi sont-ils venus dormir ici?"   There has been a famine in the countrysiude, but perhaps there's been an emotional famine in the palace, from which Pelléas might now be waking.  The images of drought and clear water, oppressive sunshine and darkness, noon, and damp, underground caves in the libretto and in the music are there for a reason.  Herheim suggests this by showing the blind men as empty easels, on which Pelléas seems to be painting invisble pictures, mirroring the portraits of the past on the castle walls.  Is Pelléas a prototype artist, who can see what philistines like Golaud cannot see ?

Golaud puts Pelléas's eyes out so he "becomes" a blind man.  Destruction is Golaud's way of expressingn what he cannot articulate.  Listen to the brutal menace in the music. We see Golaud sodomise Yniold. That's what bullies do. They think in power, humiliation and self-gratification. The organ, again.... Herheim uses a soprano (Chloé Briot) in the role, partly because sopranos are easier to cast than trebles, but also because this connects to violence against women in macho society. This is also in the score. In this production the women who come to Mélisande on her death bed look like Victorian maids, but they may well represent ancient female rituals attending birth and death.  When Yniold's hat falls off, revealing her long hair (like Mélisande's), we recognise her as part of that alternative culture.  That's why Golaud cries out on the appearance of the women "Qu'y-a-t'il? Qu'est-ce que toutes ces femmes viennent faire ici!".  He ought to be able to recognize regular castle staff, but these he cannot comprehend.  Casting an adult women also moderates the horror an audience might feel imagining a real child getting raped.  But it isn't just women who are Golaud's targets.  Significantly, he leads Pelléas into the caves beneath the castle, damp and dark, like vaginas. When Yniold goes looking for his ball he spots Pélléas lying blind - silenced - on stage, his bottom raised upwards, facing the audience and lit by a spotlight.  "Oh! cette pierre est lourde..." sings Yniold.  Yniold can't find his ball, and even the sheep are still. "Berger!" he cries "Pourquoi ne parlent-ils plus:?"

And who is Arkel? Is he a benign figure of authority, or is he implicit in the slow devitalization of Allemonde and its ruling house ?The desiccation   didn't happen overnight. The ancestor portraits on the castle walls look down, impassively, a bit like Arkel himself.  After all, Arkel is quick to comfort Golaud. Mélisande doesn't judge him either, but she may well know that she's the Lorelei he tried to possess.  And Geneviève (Karen Cargill), the Doctor (Michael Mofidian), Shepherd (Michael Wallace), and the factotums in the castle ? Extremely good ensemble work, the groups of actors operating in unison, not as individuals. Bullies win when in systems where no-one stands up to them. Christopher Purves and Brindley Sherratt provided the ballast in this cast, two very strong personalities, mirroring and contrasting with each other.  Glyndebourne singers and choruses are much better than most country house and seasonal productions  but the economics doesn't run to some of the international megastars who often sing Pelléas and Mélisande.  Robin Ticciati conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Nichilas Jenkins directed the Glyndebourne chorus.  If the orchestral playing was more raucuous than refined (apart from the key flute, harp and woodwind parts which symbolize Mélisande) that didn't detract too much.  Herheim and his dramaturge Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach created an unusually perceptive Pelléas et Mélisande which really needs to be seen again so its insights and details might better be appreciated. 

And as for the ending ?  Actors dressed  as a Glyndebourne audience wander into the room, like tourists gaping, oblivious of the psychic drama that has taken place, Utterly obtuse, like critics who can't see beyond their own egos.  The whole point of this opera is the questions it raises.  Symbols exist as clues to meaning, but meaning will always elude those who don't think.  In general Glyndebourne audiences are sharp - I overheard a group baying blood against Brexit - but the London media are a pack of Golauds.


Pelléas et Mélisande deals with uncanny events and layers of reality and non-reality. Srrangely enough, that's exactly what happened to me and my partner when we attended.  We arrived early and could hear Brindley Sherratt practising his scales from somewhere high above. Wow, did his voice carry ! He's been unwell, but being a pro, he soldiers on.  Basses who can act with their voices go on til they reach old age. Sherratt certainly has character, and Arkel benefits from  Sherratt's personality.  Each year, I count the sheep on the hills above  Glyndebourne. This year's heatwave has turned the fields white, revealing the chalk beneath the surface.  No grass, no sheep grazing. Just like the heat which paralyzes Allemonde. "Where are the sheep?" my partner said.  Quick as a shot "Maintenant ils se taisent tous..."  Driving back after the show on the B2192 to Lewes, our car was hit by a deer who jumped suddenly into the road. We had no time to brake or react, and couldn't stop because there was so much traffic, going too fast on the bends.  The deer might have ben hurt but it darted off. Our car had a bump : not a minor impact. But why did the deer jump, heading towards the wall on the other side of the road with a  steep cliff below ?  Who knows why, anymore than Mélisande materializing suddenly in the forest.  Perhaps Golaud is right  "Ce n'est pas ma faute". What is "la verité, la verité" ?



Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Véronique Gens Wigmore Hall, Gounod, Massenet, Duparc, Hahn, Offenbach



Véronique Gens is a much-loved regular at the Wigmore Hall, generally focusing there on Mélodie and Chanson, despite her formidable reputaion in more esoteric French repertoire.  Will London ever be ready for full  Belle Époque opera ?  Or even full Baroque opera ?  In France she's the doyenne of French style.  Gens starred in Niobe, regina di Tebe and La Calisto at the Royasl Opera hopuse but we don't really get enough of her live.  (Thank goodness for recordings !)   So we're lucky to have her at the Wigmore Hall with regular pianist Susan Manoff.  Gens is sounding as fresh and lustrous as ever : a gorgeous recital, perfect balm for a sticky summer evening. 





Gens and Manoff began with Gounod, whose 200th birthday is celebrated this year, with lots of new performances and material.  Listen specially to the opera Dante (more here) sponsored by Palazzetto Bru Zane, and for a briefer sample of her opera tableaux, listen to her wonderful collection Visions (HERE) and its companion Néère, with familiar Duparc, Hahn, and Chausson mélodies.   Gens and Manoff began with a spirit of adventure, the breezy Gounod Où voulez-vous aller? the last lines lit with coloratura ebullience. Subdued refinement in Le Soir, quietly fading to silence, and  lovely piano line in O ma belle rebelle.  In Gounod Sérénade the piano line ripples while the voice creates decorative trills evoking the sound of possibly Alpine calls.  "Ah! Dormez, dormez ma belle... dormez dormez toujours!" It's a berceuse, setting a text by Victor Hugo, the music cradling the lines in gentle,rocking motion.  Gosh, how I love this song, which is, fortunately,  a Gens staple which she's done many times. A poised Mignon and an exuberant Viens, les gazons sont verts, almost literally breathing fresh air. 

Another serenade, in Lamento by Edmund, Prince du Polignac was sensual, like a serenade on a lute, with the air of something alien and exotic, possibly a guitar, evoking romantic Southern climes. The last line, though is the punchline, the timbre suddenly dropping on the words "un ange amoreux". It's a love song for someone dead, in "la blanche tombe,

Où flotte avec un son plaintif

L'ombre d'un if
?" The text is Théophile Gautier. 
Massenet's Chant provençal describes a girl so pure she doesn't know her charms.  The piano part protectively with its tinkling brightness shields Gens's delicate vocal line. True innocence is harder to portray than extravagance but Massenet makes it sound effortless.  And thus to Massenet's Élégie, where simplicity gives way to almost operatic declamation.   Good programming : the songs in this section heard together form a coherent arc, complemented by Massenet's Nuit d'Espagne, which picks up the idea of lute/guitar serenade. 

After the interval, Henri Duparc and Reynaldo Hahn, representing a generation later than Gounod and Massenet,. Duparc's Chanson triste, La vie antérieure and Extase all beautifully expressed by Gens and Manoff who have performed them together many times.  But in the context of this evening's recital, what stood out was Lamento, where Duparc sets the same Gauthier text that inspired Edmund Polignac, but chooses different stanzas.  Duparc doesn't need mock guitar serenade, since he focuses more on the mournful meaning of the poem.  Gens declaimed with elegant dignity, Manoff  creating the dark, rumbling piano lines.  Good programming is important! Someone recently told me that he hated concerts because he couldn't concentrate solely on what he wanted to hear, but yow ! That's the whole point of a recital, putting things together in a way that enhances them all.   

Three songs from Reynaldo Hahn Le rossignol des lilas, Mai, and Les cygnes, ideally suited to the innate purity of Gen's style, With Infidélité and Rêverie she could display more depth and richness of tone.  As always fidelity to meaning makes all, the difference. Gens understands why the emotions in the poem (Gautier) are understated rather than overt.  A change of mood to conclude, with  songs from Offenbach's Six Fables of La Fontaine, La laitière et le pot au lait, Le rat de ville et le rat des champs, La cigale et la fourmi and for the first encore, Le corbeau et le renard.  Offenbach  replicates la Fontaine's long almost prose like lines, lively phrasing bringing out the sting in their tales.  Gen's gift for precise diction and clarity paid off handsomely.  For a second encore,  Gabriel Fauré's Le rose d'Ispahan, one of the loveliest songs in the entire canon, deliciously fragrant in this performance.  A third encore : Reynaldo Hahn's Néère.