Monday 30 July 2018

Rock solid in every way : Strauss Salomé, Salzburg

Strauss Salomé : Asmik Grigorian (photo Ruth Walz)

Richard Strauss Salomé from the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, a powerful interpretation of an opera which defies easy answers, performed and produced with such distinction thast it suceeds on every level.  The words "Te saxa Loquuntur" (The stones are speaking to you) are projected onto the stage.  Salzburg regulars will recognize this as a reference to the rock foundations on which part of the city is built, and the traditions the Festival represents. In this opera, the characters talk at cross-purposes, hearing without understanding. The phrase suggests that what might not be explicitly spoken might have much to reveal.

 Behind a gauze sceen, a madonna figure with lace veil and golden crown materializes, laying down her veil.  Dark figures appear, crushing the veil and crown underfoot.   Princess Salomé ( a sensational Asmik Grigorian) enters. "Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht!" sings Narraboth (Julien Prégardien, vocally recognizable even beneath the makeup), his lines repeating in different  patterns.   Dark swelling chords surge from the orchestra, Salomé puts on the veil and crown. Like the Madonna she's worshipped (by Narraboth) but later treated as a whore (by Herodes - John Daszak). Horns and trombones call from the pit, heralding the voice of Jochanaan (Gábor Bretz).

This staging (by Romeo Castellucci) manages to depict  the multiple levels in the opera as a coherent whole. Instead of depicting the dungeon as an underground cavern, it uses the simple device of a black hole projected onto the stage, from which Jochanaan emerges, first garbed as a mythic beast hardly visible against the blackness behind him.  The hole is nearly always present, breaking into the marble and mirror glass neatness of the palace. Later it will serve as a technical device disguising quick scene changes.  This is perceptive since the opera itself deals with the way Jochanaan's presence unsettles Salomé, and the way the subconcious intrudes into consciousness. Bretz holds aloft a circular object, like an opaque mirror.

Mirror images abound. Salomé speaks at Jochanaan with images of beauty proliferating in nearly every line, swiftly changing and moving, Grigorian singing with good rhythmic deliberation, almost as though she was already singing the dance of veils. As Salomé moves in on Jochanaan to kiss him, the orchestra wails in horror. "Du bist verflucht." sings Bretz, with malevolent force "Du bist verflucht, Salomé!"  Welser-Möst brings out the strident dissonace, brasses blaring and exhaling - not unlike over-excited human screams.  Then Grigorian dances, slowly, in time to the music, her legs exposed. It's explicitly erotic, though chaste.  Tubas and baleful bassoons announce the entry of Herodes and Herodias (Anna Maria Chiuri) and their retinue, stepping over Narraboth’s corpse, unperturbed. More characters at cross-purposes. "Hört ihr es nicht?" "Ich höre nichts"   Clarity in the singing makes the exchanges bristle with tension. This was particularly effective in the interaction between Herodes and the Jews and Nazarenes.  They too are "dancing" games of non-communication. When the voice of Jochanaan blasts through again, Bretz cuts through, firm and direct.

A monolith marked "Saxa" is shifted, revealing Grigorian, now in a silk shift, looking vulnerable.  But something has changed in her.  Her lines are now fierce, almost monotone, rising to maniacal savagery. Now she's seen in a circle, surounded by white liquid. No whitewash, not milk so much as the symbolism of the moon of which she sang before she encountered Jochannan "Ja, wie die Schönheit einer Jungfrau, die rein geblieben ist." Herodes grows more insistent, and the red paint, covering Daszak’s face like a mask, melts away, staining his clean white shirt.  "Ich will den Kopf des Jochanaan" sings Grigorian, her vouce rising to wild crescendo. Still, Herodes prevaricates, his lines disintegrated into horrified fragments.  Welser-Möst hold nothing back, defining the turbulence with its sharp brass alarums and thunderclaps of percussion.  Grigorian alternates between ferocity and tenderness,  searching lines reaching out, then receding into regret. A tour de force performance, made even more moving by the sensitive filming which picks up the emotion in her expressive face.  The dancing here is in the voice part and the music swirling around it: Grigorian embraces the headless corpse of the prophet, seated like a Babylonian statue, carved in stone.  "Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund", she sings against a luminous orchestral background which rises to strange, unsettling valediction.  And so Salomé dies, her head poking from a hole in the ground, as if on a silver platter.

This is a production of surreal, esoteric beauty, so full of subtle detail that it will, in time, reveal even more depths.  Kudos to the dramaturge Piersandra Di Matteo.  But it also reveals extremely high levels of musicianship, both in the singing and orchestral playing. Since it is co-sponsored by ORF, 3sat and UNITEL in co-operation with Wiener Philharmoniker and the Salzburg Festival, no doubt a DVD will be forthcoming. In which case grab it. 

Saturday 28 July 2018

Prom 17 - transcendental Parry, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Brabbins

Thunder and lightning above the Royal Albert Hall before Prom 17  with Martyn Brabbins conductingthe BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst.   Parry's Symphony no 5, the Symphonic Fantasia ,doesn't actually have much to do with the First World War, or Englishness for that matter. It's a brilliantly original work,  which should be appreciated on its own musical terms. Parry's place in British music, and European music, deserves far more attention.   The BBC's fixation with non-musical agendas reinforces cliché and shallow thinking to the detriment of the music itself.

Parry's Symphony no 5, the  Symphonic Fantasia, is a brilliantly original work, looking forwards yet built upon Parry's very deep knowledge of his musical antecedents.   In 1883, he had written of Schumann's Symphony no 4 that it "can be felt to represent in its entirety the history of mental and emotional conditions such as may be grouped around one centre.... the conflict of impulses and desires, the different phases of thought and emotion, and the triumph or failure of the different forces which seem to be represented all give the impression of ....being perfectly consistent in their relationship to one another." 

Thus Parry's symphony - for it is a symphony in four movements (allegro, lento, scherzo and moderato) - encompasses infinite variety in tightly structured coherence. The programmatic titles, Stress, Love Play and Now, are in themselves nothing new, but Parry marks the various sub themes and developments not with conventional German or Italian terms, but with words like "brooding", "pity" and "revolt" which allow interpretive freedom.  Its open-ended, free-spirited nature welcomes new performers, inviting them in, rather than imposing on them.  This matters,  since Parry held strong humanistic and ethical views.   Please read my piece on Parry's The Soul's Ransom HERE.  Some teachers teach students what to do, while others teach students how to think for themselves.  Parry was the latter type : more self effacing than the dominant Stanford and in the long term perhaps a greater creative influence on other composers.

Though Parry in this symphony was thinking back to Schumann and Brahms, the innovative nature of this piece harks to Carl Neilsen's Symphony no 2 "The Four Temperaments", and quite possibly more. It's intricate patterns of theme, recapitulation, development and elongation show, says Jeremy Dibble, "a forward looking attitude to modern structural procedures.  For this reason alone it merits a firmer place in the canon of cyclic works, and perhaps more important still it deserves to be more widely recognized as one of the finest and most assured utterances in British symphonic literature".  If anyone can make a case for Parry as a beacon of modern British music, it would be Martyn Brabbins, whose repertoire spans the late 19th and 20th centuries.   This was a powerful performance, very clearly thought through, much more coherent than when Siniasky conducted the piece at the Proms in 2010.  While  Adrian Boult and Matthias Bamert remain invaluable, Brabbins, with his alertness to the sophisticated inventiveness in the piece,  reveals new insights.

Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending is so extraordinary that even though we've heard it a million times, it still has the power to  astonish.  It's so moving that it always works, whatever the performance. Tai Murray, a former BBC New Generation artist, is technically gifted, shaping the long lines with great charm, suggesting the fragility of the lark.  But there is more to this piece than refinement. I would have preferred more emotional engagement, bringing out the heart rending sense of Sehnsucht of really great performances. Perhaps if we hadn't heard this piece so often we might not expect so much, but how could we live without it ?   But the magic of The Lark Ascending worked yet again : the Proms audience went wild with joy.   
With Hubert Parry's Hear My Words, ye People (1894) the organ loft lit up. The organist was Adrian Partington,  evidently enjoying the majesty of the Royal Albert Hall organ.   Just as impressive was  the BBC National Chorus of Wales, as focussed and as precise as they were in last week's Mahler Symphony no 8. Please read more about that here.  Though Parry wrote Hear My Words,  ye People for enthusiastic amateurs, with top notch singers like these, the anthems rang out with magnificent conviction.  The soloists were Ashley Riches and Francesca Chiejina.  This isn't an overblown extravaganza, but all the better for that as it shows the intimacy of Parry's style even when writing for choir, organ and (minimal) orchestra.  Gustav Holst's Ode to Death (1919) blends voices and orchestra to create lush textures which suddenly ignite into crescendo.  returning again to ethereal harmonies "Over the treetops I float thee along, over the rising and sinking waves, come lovely and soothing death, come with joy!".  Harps and fine, bell-like tones in the orchestra suggest transcendence.  

In Vaughan Williams's Symphony no 3  the "Pastoral"  winds and bassoons murmured, as dark and impenetrable as smoke, a rather apposite image since the piece was written after RVW's experiences in the trenches, collecting bodies from fields which should have produced crops.  A  violin melody wafted upwards. Like the Lark it ascends, but its ascent seemed haunted. The natural trumpet in the second movement sounded deliberately hollow, like a trumpet blown by an ordinary soldier, perhaps not quite in tune.  A horn repeats the motif : the last Post meets the last Trumpet at the End of Time. What might the robust dances in the scherzo represent ?  Perhaps this is a threnody not only for those killed in the trenches but for an innocence that cannot return.  Francesca Chiejina’s voice materialized from high up in the balcony, which in the Royal Albert Hall is very far away indeed.  This is important because it creates a sense of distance.  Whatever the soprano might signify, the sound should be otherworldly.  That's why the song is mysterious vocalize. I don't even think it's meant to be an angel or anything quite so comforting, but a reminder that there are things  that are beyond human comprehension and distances that can never be bridged. 

But what of this Proms audience  ?  Even in the expensive seats, people were fidgetting, not paying attention, behaving as if they were at home in front of their TVs.  Some walked out, even after Hear My words, ye People and the Ode to Death.  Why weren't they paying attention to serious subjects and seriously good musicianship ?  Therein lies the danger of marketing music as consumer disposable.   Eventually audiences assume that as long as they've paid for something, they don't need to make an effort to put anything of themselves into the equation.   Maybe what we need is marketing that respects the art it is supposed to serve.  [Since writing this, I've heard from people who weren't able to attend because the Prom sold out almost immediately. All the more it's a shame that those who did get tickets didn't care enough about the music. The ones walking out after the choral pieces were cheerfully heading off to the pub. So much for the music and indeed for the subject ].

Please also read Robert Hugill in Opera Today

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Ahead of Prom 17 Hubert Parry Symphony no 5


Hubert Parry's Symphony no 5 at Prom 17 Friday, along with Vaughan Williams and Holst.   PLease read my review HERE and Robert Hugill's HERE.  There's so much more to this programme than the usual clichés about the First World War.  Just as there's much more to Parry than Jerusalem and sound tracks to royal events. So what if Parry died in 1918 ?  What matters is his influence on British music,which runs deeeper than some expect.  For one thing, Parry was not insular, but had an outlook which embraced continental European music.  Please come back for my review of Prom 17, but some background on Parry's 5th (courtesy of Jeremy Dibble's seminal biography).

Parry's Symphony no 5 connects to Schumann's Symphony no 4 which we heard earlier this week in the 1841 version Brahms preferred.  Since Parry respected Brahms so much, when Brahms died, he wrote a private and very moving tribute.  Schumann's original "fourth" symphony was written in 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 much to say that he needs to get it down quickly.    "The important fact", wrote Parry in 1883 about Schumann 4 was "the work can be felt to represent in its entirety the history of mental and emotional conditions such as may be grouped around one centre.... the conflict of impulses and desires, the different phases of thought and emotion, and the triumph or failure of the different forces which seem to be represented all give the impression of ....beingperfectly  consistent in their relationship to one another." Thus Parry's preferred title Symphonic Fantasia

The titles of each movement, Stress, Love, Play and Now might mean different things to different people but had symbolic significance to a composer who cared deeeply about ethical and intellectual issues. Thus the complex but highly organized patterns of theme, capitulation and development. Some themes have titles like "brooding thought", "pity" and "revolt", like leitmotivs, but are defined by subtle tonal variations.  "The elongated capitulation", writes Jeremy Dibble, "is decidedly Lisztian" and "the complex cyclic procedures"  (in Schoenberg's .... Kammersymphonie published 1912) "shows a fascinating affinity with the processes in Parry's Symphony".  Though it was unlikely that Parry knew this, it is all the more reason that it's remarkable how Parry "shows a forward looking attitude to modern structural procedures" adds Dibble. "For this reason alone it merits a firmer place in the canon of cyclic works, and perhaps more important still it deserves to be more widely recognized as one of the fineset and most assured utterances in British symphonic literature"

Thus the real programme in Prom 17, not "greatest hits" so much as British music on the verge of a new era.  RVW's "Pastoral" isn't pastoral, and The Lark Ascending is pretty amazing, even if we've heard it a million times.  Please also read my analysis of the secret programme behind the First Night of the Proms where the BBC's obsession with non-musical themes was trumped by deeper musical undercurrents.  Please also visit the Hubert Parry Group on Facebook

Monday 23 July 2018

Heavenly choruses - Mahler Symphony no 8 Prom Royal Albert Hall

Photos Roger Theomas

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 Chorus 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 chorus master of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and of the Berlin Philharmonic before his present post, and Partington,  one of the stalwarts of the Three Choirs Festival (which starts next weekend) has 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 that 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. Hearing hundreds of voices singing quietly, tenderly and yet in unison was very moving.  They even seemed to synchronize 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 spiritus!" 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 Huckle,  Joélle Harvey, 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 parellel. "Wir werden früh entfernt von Lebenchören", They too, have been reborn by an act of faith, but how 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,  details 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 much to 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
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 !

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.