Sunday 26 August 2018

Baroque in the Forbidden City

Imagine a TV show first screened on 19th July this year, yet already viewed tens of millions of times, sweeping across Chinese communities all over the world.  A historical saga, so dramatic that you get addicted, and can't stop watching even though it runs to 70 episodes each 45 minutes long. The Story of Yanxi Palace 延禧攻略 (2018) is sweeping Chinese communities all over the world.   Since the population of China itself is close to 1.4 billion, that's a mass market on its own.
A Manchu girl, Eng Wei, enters the Forbidden City in Beijing during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799). The basic story is familiar : the girl did exist, as did her amazing rise from servant to Empress (albeit posthumously), though the exact details vary with each re-telling.   This gives viewers context and gives artistic licence to creators.  Historical sagas are nothing new,  whether in Chinese literature or Chinese film, but this production is a sensation because it is done exceptionally well.   Full of incident and variety, the drama is fast paced, and emotionally involving since the characters are well defined. What's more, production values are sumptuous, way above ordinary costume drama -  real silks and hand embroidery, not the usual polyester machine-made stuff..  The sets don't look studio, and some scenes are in fact shot in the Forbidden City, whose sheer size and extravagance cannot be matched.  Even Shaw Brothers, in their glory days, could do nothing like this!

In the Qian Long period, the Chinese Empire reached an apogee . In one episode, the Emperor is having a party, and recives gifts from his concubines (chosen normally from aristocratic Manchu clans). One gift is an entertainment by a band of eunuchs playing western music on western instruments, which did, in fact, happen, though not exactly like this.  They are playing Bach, and the band includes saxophone, guitar and accordion !  The research the production team put into everything else went wrong here, but compared with the rest of the show it's no big deal.  One of the Imperial Concubines is a Beijing opera fan, with her own little theatre with good scenes of singing and music.  The main thing is that the Emperor and his ladies marvel at the novelty.  Though I chuckled at the idea of Bach being played with strange instruments, the concept itself isn't so far fetched.  There was a significant Jesuit community in Beijing, who served the Imperial Court, learning the culture and sharing western science and arts. Respecting the Chinese as equals : a far cry from the cannons and coercion policy that would later prevail.  Theree are plenty of books on the Jesuits in China, but much of the music they brought to and from, and made themselves, is not well documented.  Some manuscripts were hidden after the suppression of the order, not only in China but in Europe.

The best known recording is the Messe des Jesuites de Pekin, which recreates scores published in France between 1636 and 1661, recorded by Auvidis Astrée, with music by Joseph-Marie Amiot, Charles d'Ambleville, Simon Boyleau, and Téodorico Pédrini, some of the Jesuit musicians active in Beijing before that time.  The performers are Ensemble Meihua Fleur de Prunus and the choir of the Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris, directed by Francois Pichard, and XVIII-21 Musique des Lumieres directed by Jean-Christoph Frisch.  Western baroque meets Chinese orchestration.  These are liturgical works adapted for Chinese circumstances and Chinese musicians, presumably parishioners rather than professionals.  Some sound like Chinese chant, with accompaniment, some like western choral music of the time, with organ, period strings and Serpent, which gives an exotic feel.  In one piece, the choir chants in simple Latin, with Chinese wooden percussion and gongs, while the celebrant (presumably a Jesuit, trained to do so) sings.

Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun

From A E Housman's On Wenlock Edge, set by Ralph Vaughan Williams, "Clun" the last song, tucked away at the end when all the famous songs are over.  Some don't even notice ! But for me that is the beauty of the quiet, unassuming piece. It's not "about" phsical reality but something beyond this world.

Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places Under the sun.

In valleys of springs of rivers, By Ony and Teme and Clun,
The country for easy livers, The quietest under the sun,
We still had sorrows to lighten, One could not be always glad,
And lads knew trouble at Knighton, When I was a Knighton lad.

By bridges that Thames runs under, In London, the town built ill,
'Tis sure small matter for wonder If sorrow is with one still.
And if as a lad grows older The troubles he bears are more,
He carries his griefs on a shoulder That handselled them long before.

Where shall one halt to deliver This luggage I'd lief set down?
Not Thames, not Teme is the river, Nor London nor Knighton the town:
'Tis a long way further than Knighton, A quieter place than Clun, 
Where doomsday may thunder and lighten And little 'twill matter to one.

Friday 24 August 2018

Face your fears !

"Stop right there, monster, or I'll ..... strike a match !
Gold standard matches, from Shanghai, after 1933

Thursday 23 August 2018

Iván Fischer Enescu Bartók Mahler 4 Prom 54

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, BBC Prom 54 at the Royal Albert Hall, with Enescu, Bartók and Mahler with Anna Lucia Richter as soloist.  A provocative start to the programme with just the first movement (of 4) from George Enescu's Suite for Orchestra op 9 (1903), marked "Prélude à l'unisson".  Though the movement itself is short (9 minutes) it contains within itself the themes which the following movements will develop, returning in the end to a recapitulation of the beginning.  It is cyclic, and also an exercise in unison, the instruments in balance, suggesting a serene sense of natural order.  Fischer's choice was inspired, since it enhanced the impact of  Mahler's Symphony no 4 in G major to come, creating another mini-cycle, utterly appropriate given that Mahler's Fourth deals with the continuation of life on a different plane.   Fischer moved seamlessly from Enescu to Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936).  Patterns, again in the structure, where tranquility is balanced by staccato liveliness.  Good definition of the sub-sections in each movement, emphasizing the inventive variety : particularly attractive balances between the two groups of strings,  the darker voices contrasting well with the brightness of piano and celeste, and pounding percussion.  Bartók is in the lifeblood of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, founded by Fischer in 1983.  Arguably few ensembles do Bartók with as much idiomatic flair as this conductor and this orchestra, but even by their very high standards, this was a superb performance. Fischer was suffering from an eye disorder, but his powers were not diminished.
Plenty of gusto in Fischer's Mahler Symphony no 4, too, taking off with exuberant energy. The sleigh bells aren't there just as folksy decoration.  No cars in Mahler's time, so if you wanted horsepower,  horses were where it was at.  Trains might have been faster, but horses are living creatures, a significant image in a symphony which deals with life and physical enjoyment.

Furthermore, speed alone isn't important, since Mahler marked it "Bedächtig, nicht eilen" not mad rush but orderly but unstoppable progression.  A sleigh ride is a journey,  rather like the cyle of life and death. Thus the transition to the restrained second movement, elegantly defined.   At first the solo violin sings alone, then is joined by other instruments. Again, the symphony in essence.  Everyone dies alone, but hopefully becomes part of a heavenly community.   Some conductors bright out the  malevolence in the violin part, evoking the medieval dance of death.   In this case, however, the malevolence was understated, the violin, as a friend put it,morelike a village fiddler.  That's not a problem, given that many listeners conceive that this is a "happy" symphony, which iut isn't, really.  On the other hand, Fischer marked the chills in the strings so they felt like cold, cutting winds (sleigh-ride imagery again), and also the circular figures that follow, again emphazing cyclic change.  Gradually the movement subsides before the sudden blast of sound, underlined by timpani and brass, that marks what might be the transitional moment, whatever it might signify.  Richness and serenity returned,  clean, high-pitched vibrations emanating into the distance.

No break before the final movement, enphasizing the coherence of the symphony as a whole.  Anna Lucia Richter has a nice, pure tone, but also the sensuality that inspires the child's vison of a heaven full of nice things to eat.  Some commentators have wondered why the child is so decidedly un-spiritual, and questioned the images of killing.  The text, however, derived from oral traditions recorded in Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the book not the song collection), whose audiences would have made connections between the slain lamb and Christ offering himself as sacrifice, and to the children sacrificed in St Ursula's crusade.  In any case, the idea of famine and death can be a metaphor for artistic edeavour : an idea not lost on Mahler who connected Das himmlisches Leben with Das irdisches Leben.  I first heard Richter when she was only 21, singing Hugo Wolf with Christoph Prégardien who has a thing for nurturing young singers.  She had the pure tone that works well with Wolf, but also a feel for the wilder edges of Mörike's poetry. These talents paid off well in this symphony, where a similar dichotomy exists. Richter has come a long way and is now well established. She used to specialize in Mozart, and probably always will, so it was fitting that her encore was Mozart Laudate Dominum, with members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra singing behind her. 

Monday 20 August 2018

Thomas Dausgaard Proms : Nørgård Wagner Strauss Mozart Mahler

Per Nørgård

Proms 50 and 51 with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The first presented Mozart's Clarinet Concerto with Mahler Symphony no 5, a programme with no discernible musical logic, produced efficiently but without much committment.  It was interesting to hear the basset clarinet in the Mozart, played by Annelien Van Wauwe, once you got used to the lower, more austere timbre, but why not pair it with something that complemented it better ? If you're going to make a statement, do it properly. But I guess Dausgaard has do do what BBC Proms management wants, and this year, music is the least of their priorities.

Dausgaard's second Prom was far more rewarding,  revealing signs of a genuine musical mind behind the programme, pairing Wagner (Parsifal Prelude to Act One), Richard Strauss (Vier letzte Lieder) and Per Nørgård's Symphony no 3.  Although Nørgård is one of the most important modern Danish composers, and one of Dausgaard's specialities, his idiom is idiosyncratic and may perhaps seem to be beyond the kind of audience the BBC seems hell bent on placating, at the expense of developing musical awareness.  All the more reason to let a conductor who knows what he's doing present a programe that helps even those new to new music to appreciate what Nørgård might be about.

Parsifal meant so much to Wagner that he created a Festival around it.  Far more than just another drama, it deals with metaphysical concepts, expressed through highly sophisticated  music.   Thus the value of listening to it as a "pure" orchestral creation. Dausgaard shaped it so it evolved gradually,  refined textures leading into the famous brass fanfares (which incidentally seem to pop up in Mahler's First) and flowing back.  Mysterious yet also clean confident clarity.  Of course Nørgård isn't copying Wagner, but you might intuit where he's heading.  The connection to Richard Strauss is not "the great war", this year's tick box obsession with the Proms team.  The Vier letzte Lieder were Strauss's last works : the culmination of a lifetime's experience both musical and personal.  Like Parsifal, the Vier letzte Lieder deal with abstract ideas with a spiritual, but not specific dimension.  Thus the attention paid to orchestral textures and subtle transitions, and almost mystical atmosphere. Dausgaard let the final notes dissipate, evaporating into silence.  Whether Strauss is contemplating death or an unknown future, the music does not end with the last sounds.  Generally, I like Malin Byström but on this occadsion her vibrato was a bit lush, not to a fault, but not as attuned to what was happening in the orchestra.

Per Nørgård's Symphony no 3 (1972-75) is abstract "pure" sound based on a technique described as "infinity series" creating movement through shifting chromatic and diatonic scales, weaving intricate patterns, evolving and ever-changing. Like water, it flows and adapts to different situations.  Although Nørgård is unique, his concepts aren't all that far from other composers. Think Debussy La Mer, or Boulez Dérives I and II growing and morphing like an organic life form or Gerard Grisey and the "spectralists" finding infinite colour in micro tonality, and of course Hans Abrahamsen of whom I've written a lot on this site.  Dausgaard shapes Nørgård’s long shimmering planes of sound so they seem to unfurl and rotate. The strings elide, solo violin giving direction. Brasses add forward thrust, while delicate sounds create a sense of tintinnabulation: sounds blending into the inaudible.  In the second movement, the Allegretto, new patterns emerge ; sharper, more fragmented sounds, the London Voices and the National Youth Chamber Choir singing syllables which eventually stretch into near-melody. Sometimes the fragments come like a sudden shock then blend into chorale. Yet this is also "beautiful" music in the sense that the colours and textures generate something in the listener's imagination, even on a subliminal level.  Complex music doesn't have to be "difficult".  Dausgaard shows how it can be presented in proper musical context.

No leaden boots - Rattle's Ravel Prom

Sir Simon Rattle's all-Ravel BBC Prom 48 was a highlight of the season. Rattle's Ravel is highly individual, alert to whimsy and adventure in the music.  Sparkling performances from the London Symphony orchestra.  Such animation and vivacity is of the essence in Ravel’s Ma M ère l’Oye, heard here in its full ballet version, rather than the better known suite.  Agility and fleetness of foot - no room here for leaden boots !  Magdalena Kožená joined her husband and his new orchestra in Shéhérazade, and later was part of the team in L’enfant et les SortilègesThe dimensions of the Royal Albert Hall are too vast for diaphanous magic, so I stayed home and listened to the broadcast, but my friends were present.  Here is Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today : Please read it in full.  Anyone can write, but not everyone can write well, mixing knowledge with analysis, bringing the experience to life. Listening link HERE

Saturday 18 August 2018

Elgar The Hills of Dreamland - orchestral songs

The Hills of Dreamland - Edward Elgar orchestral songs, new from Somm Recordings, sponsored by the Elgar Society.  Elgar's genius for oratorio, and large scale works for orchestra and voice somewhat eclipse his ventures in art song, apart from the masterpiece Sea Pictures, and the more recently acclaimed Fringes of the Fleet. Those who have treasured  SOMM's first collection of Elgar songs for voice  (with Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Christopher Maltmann, Neal Mackie and Malcolm Martineau) will seek this out, for they make good companion pieces. In any case, there are some real treasures here, such as  Elgar's Song Cycle op 59 which deserves greater appreciation. Heartfelt thanks to SOMM Recordings for bringing this back into the repertoire.

The first disc in this 2 CD set (offered at the price of one) features Elgar's Song Cycle op 59 and his Two Songs op 60 plus Pleading, The King's Way, Follow the Colours and incidental music to Grania and Dairmid.  The soloists are Kathryn Rudge and Henk Neven, with Barry Wordsworth conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra.  Elgar's Song Cycle op 59 was initially planned as a set of songs to texts by Gilbert Parker, a Canadian born novelist who was later to be knighted for services to Britain during the 1914-18 war.  "O soft was the song",  "Was it some golden star ?" and "Twilight"  are tender, and almost elegaic. They were written for a concert in memorial of A J Jaeger, Elgar's friend, whom he immortalized in the Enigma Variations.  Henk Neven's burnished timbre gives them personal, intimate warmth.  The cycle develops to a high point with "The Wind of Dawn", initally written in 1888 to a poem by Alice, before she and Elgar were married. In its original form it was a song for voice and piano.  In the bolder orchestration the strings surge, suggesting heaving passion, since the text is daringly erotic, for the era. The full orchestra rises to expansive crescendo, the mezzo (Kathryn Rudge) soaring above. It is a song worthy of Sea Pictures, and indeed, the imagery includes references to "the sea stream'd red from the kiss of his brow". A pity it was created after Sea Pictures had made its mark.  It would be interesting to speculate why Elgar concluded this cycle - for it is a cycle - with "The Pipes of Pan". the words are by Adrian Ross who wrote hits for musical theatre, though this text refers to Greek mythology.  But Pan is the god of fertlity and robust disorder,  a shepherd whom polite society cannot contain. Pan is a musician, too,who plays his pipes and enchants those who pay attention.  This song therefore connects to "The Wind at Dawn",  with its fulsome sense of adventure. Ever enigmatic,  Elgar could be making cryptic links between himself and his muse Alice, thus affirming the joy of life even at a time of sorrow.

More secret humour in the Two Songs op 60, poems purportedly by Pietro D'Alba, who was in fact young Carice's pet rabbit.  The words are Elgar's own, and whimsical, the compsoer claiming that they were folk tunes from "Leyrisch-Turasp, 1909", a place which doesn't exist.  Nonetheless, the fantasy gave Elgar a chance to write florid mock-Slavic drama, crashing climaxes blending with delicate expressiveness.

Pleading op 48 is a reverie which might suggest Richard Strauss in autumnal mood, but we're back to exuberance with Follow the Colours: a Marching Song for Soldiers  written for the Royal Albert Hall's Empire Day in 1908. The text, by a military officer,  is jingoistic,  but Elgar seems to relish the opportunity for high spirits. The deliberately four square rhythm evokes images of "Thousands, thousands of marching feet" stomping mindlessly in strict formation.  Thus The King'sWay isn't as banal as it might seem on the surface.  It surges forth with almost parodic expansiveness. "Let every voice in England say - God keep the way by night and day - The King of England's Way!"  But the poem - again by Alice, who must have had a sharper mind than she gets credit for, refers explicitly to the "newest street in London town - the Kingsway" which had recently been constructed. destroying much older parts of London in the process.

William Butler Yeats and George Moore collaborated on the play Grania and Diamid, a Celtic Revival tale of ancient Ireland. Elgar sets the Introduction with dark, brooding chords which suggest forests and mysterious forces. Hunting horns are complemented by harps, for this is an Irish, not a Teutonic Wagner saga.  "There are seven that pull the thread" is a keening song of mourning, with lush harps and strings, written for low female voice. It's Elgar, but he doesn't seem to have been much taken by it.

The second disc in this set features eleven songs for voice and piano (Nathalie de Montmollin, Barry Collett)  which have not previously been recorded.  They are enjoyable, but the first disc, with the orchestral songs, is the one to focus on.
Please also see my reviews of Hubert Parry Complete English Lyrics, also from SOMM HERE

Friday 17 August 2018

Onnee oi Esa Pekka Salonen

Onnee oi EP! ! Esa Pekka Salonen's 60 th Birthday celebrated in style livestream from the Helsinki Festival, marking its 50th anniversary. Party atmosphere - you don't need a word of Finnish to pick up on the obvious good humoured vibe !  At first you don't know what's happening. Strange sounds evolve from round the hall, gradually coalescing into form.  It's the Korvat auki Society for Contemporary Music, which Salonen had a hand in founding in 1977. An experimental piece by five young composers operating together and in contrast. the text's in Finnish,with no subtitles, but the message is clear "Onnee oi, E P !" which presumably means  "Congratulations, Esa Pekka !"
A cheerful programe too, starting with Heinrich Biber's Battaglia, paired with Ivan Moskolov The Iron Foundry. Three hundred years between them, but they share similar energy.  I don't kmow if either is basic repertoire for the Finnish National Opera Orchestra, but they were a great warm-up for Salonen's Pollux (2018).  In his notes for his publishers (Chester) Salonen has written "During the composition process of Pollux, I encountered a strange problem: my material seemed to want to grow in two completely opposite directions. Finally, I realised that these very different musical identities (I had referred to them as brothers in my sketches) would not fit into one cohesive formal unit, a single piece. They simply couldn’t coexist.

This made me think of the myth of the non-identical twins Castor and Pollux who share half of their DNA, but have some extreme phenotype differences, and experience dramatically different fates"......."My solution was to write two independent but genetically linked orchestral works. Pollux, slow and quite dark in expression, is the first of them. Castor, extroverted and mostly fast, will follow later.
Pollux has a ritualistic character, based on a mantra rhythm I heard some months ago during dinner in a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. A post-grunge band played on the background track, and I wrote down the bass line on a paper napkin not knowing exactly what it was and who the musicians were. I couldn’t get it out of my head, and decided to use a heavily modified version of it in Pollux. The pattern has been distilled to pure rhythm, and slowed down to less than quarter speed of the original.
Another source of material is a chorale (here wordless) based on the first lines of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Die Sonette an Orpheus):
Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!

O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr.
(There rose a tree. O pure transcendence!

O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear!)

I was very taken by the funny and surreal, Salvador Dali-like image of a tree growing out of the ear. The metaphor is far from obvious, but it is clear that Orpheus can unify art and nature by the sheer force of his song". Here, it was conducted by Alan Gilbert.  
Salonen himself conducted an un-named new work by Paula Vesala.  Harps strings and electronic keyboard introduce a song, more pop song than art song, but perfectly OK for a cheerful occasion like this.  Tributes followed from other artists, some sincere and one cringe-makingly corny. For shame ! Salonen deserves better. Then back to music, the way Salonen speaks best, with Ravel Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no. 1 and Modest Mussorgski: Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov.  Matti Salminen as soloist, no less ! Loved the casual, laidback ambience of this occasion. Salonen and Vesala sat on the edge of the stage, chatting.  I had no idea what they were talking about,  but it felt down to earth and intimate, like two kids wondering about the marvels of Nature and of music. Which is what it's all about, really. 

Wednesday 15 August 2018

The Song of the Phoenix : artistic integrity in tricky times

The Song of the Phoenix (2016)(百鸟朝凤) was the last film completed by Wu Tian Ming (吳天明), one of the seminal figures in modern Chinese cinema. Although the film is titled "The Song of the Phoenix" for western release, a more accurate translation of the title would be "A Hundred Birds and One Phoenix",which is more literary and also reflects what the film is about : the imperative of integrity, in art.  The film is a lovingly observed evocation of traditional rural life in  North China in times of change. Although the script is based on a novel by Xiao Jiang Hong, the name of the young apprentce is Yu Tian Meng (游天鸣) not so far different from Wu Tian Ming, who was exiled after the Tian An Men massacres, but allowed to return after the later reforms. "A Hundred Birds and One Phoenix " also reflects the aesthetic of the souna, the ancient blown instrument played by Old Master Jiao San Yie, who learned from many generations of masters before him.  The souna evokes the sounds of Nature, especially the cries of birds in the fields, reedbeds and mountains in the area, and thus has cosmological significance.  Thus its use in communal occasions, such as weddings and funerals, as well ss private reflection.
A father and son, from ther "Earth" village trudge up to Jiao San Yie's house in "Water" village. The father wants his son to learn the souna, but the Master isn't impressed, and the boy doesn't want to stay.  Father beats son in frustration. Son is furious, but comforts father when he falls and is hurt. Later, the Master says that was the moment he decided to take the boy on, since his actions displayed emotional depth and strength of character.  The Master makes the boy suck water up a long reed.  This trains lungs and mouth muscles, but it's also mental discipline.  Learning also involves living: helping in the fields, visiting family, marvelling at things like fireflies.  After many months the younger apprentice Lan Yu gets to actually play the souna, but Tian Meng doesn't. Dejected he returns home and overhears his father talking proudly of him, so he goes back to the Master. Eventually he starts to play, too. 

Part of the training means observing Nature, listening and learning from wild birds, imitating their songs on different sized souna.  Eventually the boys are able to follow the master's troupe, and learn the cultural context. At a rich man's funeral, the Master's eight man band is hired, but the master won't play the Song of the Phoenix for any price. it's only for persons of exceptional moral value, who are not necessarily the rich and powerful. At last the Master decides to appoint his successor.  before the assembled villagers, he explains.  In twenty years, he's trained many good players but technical skills are not enough.  A souna master must have the ability to move people : it is responsibility and heritage.  He holds up the golden souna handed down from master to master for six generations. It's more than 300 years old.  Then he hands his legacy to Tian Meng who's so shocked he can barely take it in.    Poor Lan Yu, who was technically the better player.  Artistry can't be measured by technique. Lan Yu later understands that Tian Meng got the accolade because he was a more determined personality. 

Tian Meng takes over the business of the troupe, leading the other (older) players.  They do a gig at the wedding of Tian Meng's schoolfriend, who's struck it rich.  The Master recounts days when the troupe would be given gifts like wine, and ceremonial chairs  But Tian Meng knows his hosts weren't interested in the music, only in money. Times are changing. Tian Meng's band plays at another wedding, where the family's so rich they hire a western band, electric guitar and pop singer. Tian Meng, supported by the Master, retaliates by playing a souna tune, but the western band drowns them out with the Radetsky March.  The local wide boys beat up the souna players and smash the Master's ancient souna.   there's no work now for traditional bands, and the players have gone on to other jobs. Even Tian Meng's mother scolds him and tells him to get a proper job.  Chief Dou of Fire Village dies . Though deaf in life, he wanted a souna band.  The Master shames some of the old troupe to return, because the dead elder was a war hero and good man, and starts to play the Song of the Phoenix, but stops because he's unwell. 

The Master has lung cancer, but it's too advanced to be treated.   People from the government want Tian Meng to go to Xian to record souna music for posterity. Coughing in pain, the Master insists that Tian Meng do so. So Tian Meng heads to the city and meets Lan Yu, who's now a construction worker, married to Tian Meng's sister.  Life's easier in town, but Tian Meng hears a lone souna player, begging for tips, and knows what he has to do.  When Tian Meng goes back, the Master is dead, buried in a mound grave.  Now, Tian Meng plays the Song of the Phoenix, the sound of the souna singing out from the grave site, over the mountain, into the valley and river which the Old Master had loved so dearly.   No-one is there to listen, apart from the Master's faithful dog (who used to carry meals to him as he worked in the fields) An incredibly moving performance.  The eulogy isn't just for the master but honours the whole souna heritage and the culture behind it. 

Monday 13 August 2018

Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem - Prom 41 Gardner, Elgar, Boulanger

Prom 41 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBCSO in Vaughan Williams' Dona nobis pacem, Elgar's Cello Concerto (Jean-Guihen Queyras) and Lili Boulanger .   Extremely perceptive performances that revealed deep insight, far more profound than the ostensible  "1918" theme   Neither Boulanger nor Elgar had direct experience of war, but, like all decent people with any conscience, they cared about what was happening around them, and could address the human impact of war.

Boulanger's Pour les funerailles d'un soldat is a grave processional, a far more mature piece than the miniatures she is usually represented by on programmes that stress her gender and youth, as opposed to her music.  A steady pace, drum rolls, the tolling of bells and rising frisson in the orchestra enhance the solemn choral backdrop. The strength of  Alexandre Duhamel's delivery added even more gravitas.  At the end, wordless sighs vocalized by the voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus.  This provided context for Elgar's Cello Concerto in G minor op 85 (1918-9) which, in some ways,  is am abstract funeral of sorts.  Jean-Guihen Queyras defined the first theme drawing out the richness, as if to savour it.  Gardner and the BBCSO reiterated the theme with sweeping expansiveness.  Theme and response repeat,  replicating the rising and falling figures which move like processional.  Queyras's tone was beautiful, suggesting the warmth of Elgar's vision, yet also pointedly poignant.  As so often in Elgar, confidence is undercut by an awareness that things do not remain the same forever.  Although Gardner's approach was not as full blooded as, say, Barbirolli, he conducted with refined sensitivity, which worked well with Queyras's sophisticated elegance.  The sudden changes of direction were nicely defined, enhancing the interaction between soloist and orchestra.  Though we've heard Elgar's Cello Concerto so many times, this approach was perfectly valid, and rewarding because it was slightly unusual.  For an encore, Queyras chose Dutilleux, one of the Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher, a brave choice in a place like the Royal Albert Hall where sensitive playing is usually drowned out.  But Queyras's mastery held the audience spellbound.

But the highlight of Prom 41 was, undoubtedly, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Dona nobis pacem, which Gardner approached with astonishing originality, bringing out the power in the message. Perhaps in modern times, we can better appreciate the visceral intensity.  Gardner also drew out the structural cohesion of the piece, and even brought out its cyclic qualities, which are themselves part of meaning.  Beware of over-emphasizing the use of different texts. (Think Elgar Sea Pictures, for example)  What matters is how Vaughan Williams draws together different strands of human experience into an integrated whole.  Sophie Bevan stood in the organ loft, distant but not too distant, a reminder that the organ and its restrained undertones pulse at the heart of this piece.  Bevan floated her lines so they penetrated the vastness of the hall, the exqusite purity of her tone reflected in the winds. Within moments serenity was shattered by savage chords, the pounding of timpani and the call of trumpets.  "Beat! Beat ! Drums" is a Dies Irae in all but name, the lines swirling and whipping like flames, swept by violent forces, the BBC SO and Chorus unleashing fury.

Neal Davies sang the Reconciliation, where the word “beautiful" is repeated, not only by the soloist but by the chorus. Beautiful, because "mine Enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead".  This is the core "anti war" sentiment, refuting the idea that war resolves things: in death, all men are equal. Thus the deliberate phrasing, where Davies parsed the sentence with pauses. "I draw near", he continued, approaching the intimate moment of the kiss, with reverence.  A violin melody singing alone, garlanded, like the soprano was earlier, by hushed chorus.  Thus a brief repeat of the Dona Nobis Pacem, plaintive and austere with a rumble of muffled drums as the Dirge began, its quiet , relentless pace suggesting the cortege described in Walt Whitman's text.  With the four strophes, the chorus burst out defiantly. "I hear the great drums pounding...and every blow of the great convulsive drums strikes me through and through".  This is vintage Vaughan Williams in every way, with its echoes of Symphony no 3,  the tag "pastoral" more ironic than literal.  The text, also Whitman, refers to "two veterans, son and father" who die together, buried in a double grave, statistically an unlikely image in modern warfare, but one which works in metaphysical terms, underlining relentless futility, where one war engenders the next.  No words needed in the orchestral postlude, from which Davies re-emerges as the voice of the Angel of Death; the words "Dona nobis pacem" now appear almost as screams of protest.  The swirling furies of the Dies Irae return, to a text from the Book of Jeremiah."There is no balm in Gilead".

Most dramatic of all was the final section. "O Man, greatly beloved" sang Davies with fulsome affirmation, followed by orchestra and chorus in a series of quotations from the Old Testament. Gardner defined the ebb and flow, intensifying the trajectory: If all things must change, there may be resolutions beyond the grave, and from war.  Thus Dona nobis pacem rang again, clean, pure and bright, Bevan holding the last words so they seemed to vibrate into eternity.
Photos: Roger Thomas

Friday 10 August 2018

Ao longo da viola morosa

Ao longo da viola morosa
Vai adormecendo a parlenda,
Sem que, amadornado, eu atenda
A lengalenga fastidiosa.
Sem que o meu coração se prenda,
Enquanto, nasal, minuciosa,
Ao longo da viola morosa,
Vai adormecendo a parlenda.
Mas que cicatriz melindrosa
Há nele, que essa viola ofenda
E faz que as asitas distenda
Numa agitação dolorosa?
Ao longo da viola, morosa...

Viola Chinesa by
Camillo Pessanha (1867-1926)   Pessanha, a Portuguese poet, who lived
in Macau, acculturating as Chinese, though never fully integrated.  In
this poem he describes a "Chinese viola" playing a nasal yet meticulous
melody which lulls into strange reverie.  What is this "mournful
agitation"  ? Why are foreigners hypnotized by these strange
imaginings?  The poem was dedicated to Wenceslau de Moraes, Pessanha's
friend who lived the same dream, but in Japan, the two of them outsiders
wherever they went.   In the above photograph, Pessanha is dressed as a
Chinese peasant, while sitting in the gardens of the Villa Leitão in
Macau, owned by the Leitão family, once wealthy and powerful in that
city, now dispersed all over the world, the villa itself long gone.  The
photo below shows Pessanha and Moraes on a visit to Hong Kong in 1895.

Pessanha's descedants still live in Macau, and are related to the Jorge family, who are distantly related to my ancestors. One of the Jorges amassed a huge
collection of Chinese antiques, which covered nearly every inch of his
own villa. My grandmother, who visited often, said that real Ming  and Qing 
porcelains covered nearly every surface in the villa, all over the
walls, in even the washrooms.  In the 1860's, the Jorge family rescued
treasures looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing in the Second Opium
War.  They met the troop ships returning from the north, offering the
soldiers beer for the wonders they'd stolen.  The collection was photographed,
catalogued and printed in a book by Vincente Jorge, printed in 1940,
which I found in an antique shop and gave my father.  A limited edition,
the frontispiece hand painted in water colours (sprays of wisteria).  That
book is now lost, too, as is the Jorge collection, supposedly destroyed
when the ship carrying it out of Macau was sunk by pirates in the late
1940's .  The photo below shows the Villa Leitão c.1890, published by  a
family collaterally related to my own.  And so past glories, past dreams, disappearing into live for the moment, and to live well, while you can.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Lisbon under Ashes - rediscovered Portuguese Baroque

In 1755, Lisbon was destroyed, first by a massive earthquake, then by a tsunami pouring in from the Atlantic, then by fire and civil unrest. The scale of the disaster is almost unimaginable today.  The centre of the Portuguese Empire, with treasures from India, Africa, Brazil and beyond, was never to recover. The royal palaces, with their libraries and priceless collections, were annihilated. Some manuscripts survived in other cities,  suggesting the scope of the original collections, which went back centuries.  This recording, by A Corte Musical, led by Rogério Gonçalves, from Pan Classics,  gives us an insight to some of the music that was lost. The spirit of the Age of Discoveries invigorated the Portuguese baroque, stimulating a vibrant culture that almost uniquely embraced influences from all over the world. So lively and varied is this recording that even without the historic significance, it's a delight to listen to. 

Toquen as sonajas, by Gaspar Fernandes (1566-1629), was discovered in the Cathedral at Oaxaca, Mexico.  Fernandes was an organist working in Guatemala at a time when Portugal and Spain were briefly united under one king.  Accompanied by beaten percussion, the song is a round, the voices joining at different points to create lively rhythms. The words are simple : "Play the sonajas, sound the rebecs, and the Portuguese rejoice",  repeated in different patterns in three distinct phases.  A sonaja is a rattle, and a rebec a bowed string instrument, both known in medieval times, and connected to instruments in the Middle East and Africa.  

Olà plimo Bacião, an anonymous piece from a 17th century codex, was found in the monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra. It's decidedly not monastic, but a negrillo, a type of villancico  inspired by the "zente de Guiné" a term applied to all Africans in the Portuguese orbit.  The rhythms suggest dance, possibly of African origin, possibly too uninhibited for the chroegraphy to be preserved, as was apparently the usual case in this period.   A lively refrain "Gulungà, gulungà, gulungué, clap your hands, move your feet".   An interlude with the gentle plucking of a stringed instrument, introduces a more reflective mood, in which the voice parts describe  a beloved child,  ie Jesus "for he is our God, and with the the black Santo Thomé, he is our God".  

A vosa porte Maria was found in Madrid and Albrorada is an arrangement of a traditional melody from Tuizelo in northern Portugal. The former is plaintive and  prayer-like, a soprano leading the chorus of voices and instruments.  The latter  is a vibrant parlay where the instruments  interact, strings and winds over a strong rhythmic foundation. Làgrimas de Anarda is a sonnet by Manuel Botelho de Oliveira (1636-1711) one of the pioneers of Brazilian literature, taken from a book published in Lisbon in 1705. The original music is lost, so here it is used with a French melody of the period.  Another interesting combination is the Passacalha da triste vida, an anonymous 16th century villancico paired with  a passacaglia from an opera from the time of Monteverdi.  The oldest piece in this collection is Toda noite e todo dia, from a songbook compiled in the 16th century , discovered in Elvas in 1928.  The text deals with impossible love "Que do que não traz provieto, Lança mão a fantasia" (What does not bring benefit gives way to fantasy)   The lovely soprano line elides over jaunty rhythmic strings, and then is joined by the tenor, singing alongside, not in duet.  Tramabote is one of the earliest purely instrumental pieces from the Portuguese baroque.  Bayle dei amor resucitado is part of a vanished genre of early theatrical pieces with incidental music   Cupid is swooning from love, but damsels and handsome young men greet it, and all sing together "The swan which sings from the tomb promises the more from life, the more deceased it is". Also allegorical is Deseos sin esperança (desire without hope) by Frei Filipe  Madre de Deus,  a Lisbon born vilhuellist who worked in the Spanish court.

In complete contrast Mariniculas to a text by Brazilian poet Gregorio de Matos (1636-1696), published in 1668, which describes a glamorous rascal who makes ladies swoon,  but who was "such a flaming faggot, he never looked at bonnets, finding the best undergarmnets in his pants". And more ! "empurrado por umas Sodmas no ano de tantos em cima de mil". Such a text might have stayed hidden in print, but here is used with a gay (in the old sense of the word) melody found in an archive in Coimbra.  Another early song, Entre os parasismos graves, entwines male and female voices singing of "saudade infelice" before the cheerfully upbeat Dime pedro, por tu vida by Manuel Correea (1600-1653) from one of the oldest musical codices in Latin America.  Wonderfully expressive percussion and jangly rhythms suggest indigenous influence of some kind. The singer is dancing in order to seduce, and presumably succeeds, as she's joined by a tenor. A short, sassy refrain "eh, eh eh !" punctuates the end of each verse. Exuberantly vivid.

A Corte Musical, led by Rogério Gonçalves,who  compiled and researched this collection and also plays bassoon and percussion. Tthe singers are Mercedes Hernández and Alice Borciani, with David Sagastume (alto) and Daniel Issa (tenor). 

Monday 6 August 2018

Comic book shallow Lohengrin, Bayreuth

photo : Bayreuther Festspiele : E Narwath
 When Piotr Beczała jumped in for Lohengrin at Bayreuth, I breathed a sigh of relief. If Roberto Alagna couldn't be bothered to learn the part for the highest profile Wagner mecca in the world, he should stick to other things. Though there were a few moments when his voice sounded pushed - hardly surprising since he jumped in at short notice - Beczała is a natural Lohengrin, with the right purity and ping.  He's at least thought about who Lohengrin might be, which ought to be the starting point of any production.  Why is Lohengrin so touchy about revealing his identity ? If he believes in love, should't he at least acknowledge Elsa's need to know who she might be sleeping with  "If" might be the operative word. Lohengrin carries cosmic baggage.  Beczała created a "human" Lohengrin, ethereal and sublime, but also a man with conflicts.  Wagner poses questions : it's up to us to figure out possible answers.  Alas, this production, directed by Yuval Sharon, goes out of its way to avoid depth of thought or understanding.

Is Wagner without ideas Wagner at all  ?  Sharon gives us comic book shallowness, cutesy visuals that resolutely defy anything more than surface engagement.  Lohengrin isn't a fairy tale. Though parts of the plot are fantasy, the drama unfolds against a background of tension and metaphysical disintegration. King Heinrich comes to Brabant to mobilize Christendom against the barbarians of the East, and Ortrud represents a tradition even older than Christianity.  Replace that with faux-medieval costumes, origami collars and cartoon psychology and reduce the opera to picture book emptiness.   Blue light does not in itself tell the story, even if it fulfils the modern diktat that opera should above all be pretty to look at in isolated stills. How can  Lohengrin be merely "beautiful" when horrific cosmic forces  are being unleashed all round  ? 

Christian Thielemann's conducting is divine, but even with a good cast,  he's not a magician. We now live in times so bombarded by TV-realism and audio-only listening that we may have lost the art of visual literacy.  Visual literacy is like poetry.  Just as music is more than the markings on page, you have to engage with the oblique and ambiguous, one way or another. there's never any single answer.  Refusing to think in the first place is no answer at all.   As in poetry, meaning reveals itself slowly, and evolves.  Modern audiences, used to judging things from single images, like photos, are conditioned to think like Beckmesser, marking their slates as fast as they can, without really paying attention.  Sachs was different.

So we see Elsa (Anja Harteros) with moth wings on her back ?   Of course she's vulnerable, but she's a lot more than anonymous cipher.  What's that coil behind her ? If Sharon is suggesting Elsa's a bug drawn to bright light, it's an image that doesn't go very far and isn't developed.  So we see swords embedded in the ground. Vaguely phallic, but there's more to Lohengrin than sex.  On the 3Sat broadcast, we could see Telramund (Tomacz Konieczny) and Ortrud (Waltraud Meier), lit up against the darkness, which might either have been a comment on their situatiion or a chance to get away from the cutesy staging.  Ortrud is an unsympathetic part, especially in contrast to Elsa. But there;s a lot more to it, which Meier in her prime might have made more of.  Here, she's fine to listen to, but she doesn't inhabit the part as she she would have done in the past, and isn't helped by the non-directing. Harteros is a fine Elsa, but why the grey wig. Images should hint at something, not merely exist as decoration. Why is a guy painting in oils before the entry of the Herald ?   Another possible image that goes nowhere.  Even more telling, Georg Zeppenfeld's King Heinrich, so well characterized in the recent Royal Opera House Lohengrin (please read more here), seemed sidelined in Bayreuth.  Butterfly wings appear on Ortrud and also on Lohengrin, for no apparent purpose.  the insect imagery seemed a direct steal from the Neuenfel's rats Lohengrin, which was much better thought through. (Please read more here)

Wonderful orchestra and chorus for the wedding scene, but I couldn't understand the brightly coloured pillars.  You don't need to get everything at once, and good stagings can take a while to digest, but this baffled me.  The coils again   The rope might signify the ties that bind, but as we know, this isn't a marriage that will last, and the violence against women in this opera doesn't come just from Lohengrin, but more so from the people of Brabant.  Thank goodness again for Beczała singing sublimely, clear, ringing tones warmed with sincerity and tenderness. Magnificent orchestral, playing for the scenee of the banks of the Scheldt, but comic book staging again, complete with cardboard cut-outs.  Later Lohengrin's sword becomes a thunderbolt and Lohengrin shows Elsa a box with a light, by way of explainging who he is.  The feeble electric coil/moth imagery again !  It's cute, but delimiting. Then little brother Gottfried wanders in, a green Lego figure against Elsa's orange and the blue all round.  This Lohengrin should be popular with audiences who prize fairy tale prettiness but arguably that isn't what Lohengrin, or Wagner, for that matter, might be about. Thank goodness, all the more,  for Piotr Beczała, Thielemann and the rest of the cast for saving the show.

Sunday 5 August 2018

Hiroshima - the scarier scenario we face today

Seventy three years ago today, a bomb fell on Hiroshima.  Many official reasons why, such as ending the war and saving the lives of POWS. Whatever, the war did end and Japan is not militarily aggressive.  But consider the Bomb in wider geo-political terms. Who was the enemy who needed to be stopped.  Soviet troops occupied Eastern Europe, including Germany and Austria.  What was to stop them pouring into North China and Japan ? Tensions between Russia and Japan went back long before the first Russo-Japanese war in 1904-5 when the Japanese decisively crushed the Russian Navy at Port Arthur and at sea.  Amazing,considering that Japan had been feudal and rural barely 50 years before, and that the Russian fleet was state of the art, as powerful as the British Navy. 

Territories like Sakhalin are still disputed today. So what was to stop a Russian surge against defeated Japan, thus threatening the US, Britain and the whole balance of power in the Pacific ?  Not for nothing did the US send thousands of elite Marines to North China after 1945.  Ostensibly, they were there to supervise the withdrawal of Japanese troops and support the Goumindang Government. But North China was a stronghold of the Chinese Communist Party who were dependent on the Soviet Union.   At least the CCP had the sense to split with Russia as soon as they could (1957)

Wars are not waged by direct means alone. Another lesson we can learn from Hiroshima, and one scarily relevant today.  With Putin, we see an upsurge in aggression not just through coventional means, as in Syria, but by technology and its ability to reshape the way we think. Destroying democractic societies from within, spreading fear and ignorance, controlling key stooges to overthrow their own heritage, the masses easily persuaded.  Why bother with bombs when you can use "the people"against themselves?


Thursday 2 August 2018

Hubert Parry : Invocation to Music

At the Three Choirs Festival today,  Hubert Parry Invocation to Music (1895). Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Three Choirs Festival chorus and soloists Katherine Broderick,  Mark Le Brocq and David Stout.  The concert begins with Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens , so well known that it hardly needs an introduction: with the Three Choirs Festival chorus, it's sure to be very good indeed, especially in this context. Also on the programme,  Parry's Symphony no 5, the Symphonic Fantasia,  which featured in Prom 17 - please read more HERE and HERE. So a few words about the Invocation to Music a grand "Ode in Honour of Henry Purcell" to use its official subtitle, written to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Purcell in 1895.

A splendid orchestral introduction to Parry's Invocation to Music, long string lines rising to crescendo, seguing into joyful processional.  "Myriad voiced Queen ! Enchantress !  of the air!" sing the choir ; magnificent rich textures, voice types clearly defined and separate. "Chained in unborn oblivion drear, thy many-hearted grace restore unto our Isle, our own to be ! And make again our Graces three"...... "Return, return to merry England, return, enchantress, myriad voiced Queen!" The text, by Robert Bridges is somewhat turgid - Parry wasn't terribly keen - but perhaps we can intuit what this Purcell revival meant to the late Victorian age, with its confidence and sense of imperial grandeur.  Thus the intertwining of choral parts and orchestra may be designed to form a garland in music.

Parry valued Purcell highly and ensured that his students did, too. But apart from the introduction, Parry's Invocation isn't so much "about" Purcell as about the ethical and moral mores of Parry's time.  Delicate woodwinds announce a more contemplative mood for the second section, "Thee, fair poetry" for tenor solo, decorated by murmuring orchestra.  Images of the countryside abound, but this landscape is strangely haunted, living in nostalgic memory rather than the present. "Only awhile the distant sun from hidden villages around, threading the glades and woody heights is borne of bells that dong the Sabbath morn"   This song is also a memorial to Parry's schoolfriend George Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, whio died young while the Invocation was being completed.  George was also  the brother of Parry's wife Maude, but that's another story.  Thus the very private tenderness: not at all a grand public statement, despite being embedded in an elaborate whole. One of the reasons why I'm so fond of Parry.  Though he wrote music for official occasions, there's often something humble and human if you listen more carefully.
Almost immediately, Parry switches back to "public mode" with the chorus "The monstrous sea" . Churning , monumental lines, trumpets calling forward, describing the "the orphaning waters wild and wide", sunken ships, a castle studded coastline  and the moon, which controls the tides.  "in the twinkling smile of  his boundless slumber, to the rhythmm of oars....when the waters have glowed with blood, and hearts have laughed in then fight"....O Muse of our Isle, to thee, to thee !".  Whether Bridges was connecting 17th century England to Victorain naval power, I don't know : the main thing is that, for Parry, a highly experienced sailor, this music heaves and surges like the sea and whatever that might represent.  From this maritime imagery, the soprano and tenor duet "Love to love calleth" might seem to echo Tristan und Isolde.  Hardly any composer anywhere in Europe was immune to Wagner, even those contra, so Parry can hardly be blamed for being aware of what was happening around him. All 19th century composers referenced German and Austrian musical tradition and built upon it : it would have been hard for any good composer to be isolationist.  Parry's approach was individual : more understated than florid, gentler and more humane.  Thus the Dirge for bass solo, "To me, to me, fair Goddess, come!" mourning again, possibly a hidden reference to George Herbert, though the section is dramatic and valedictory "Lament ! Lament, for when thy Seer died no song was sung".  A final strophe with valedictory orchestral depth as the bass intones "We ne'er arise to see... our tears as dew".
The seventh section "Man born of desire" is the longest and perhaps the most elegaic.  The chorus begins with hushed mystery but arises, accompanied by trumpets, in contemplation of the possible meaning of life.  "(Man) striveth to know, to unravel the mind, that veileth in horror to vanquish his fate.... no ill shall be...whence he came to pass away...umade, lost for aye, with things that are not".   As the Invocation draws to its cyclic conclusion, a more upbeat mood returns. Soprano, tenor and bass join the chorus for the ninth section "O enter with me the gates of delight"". Awakening from the "terror of night" the protagonists have reached "everlasting day".  "Night hath unlocked the starry heaven for thee, the sea, the trust of his streams.......and death has no sting for beauty undying".  As in the introduction, the different voices interwine gracefully.   Music, thus invoked, brings new life.  Infused with confidence, chorus andorchestra  triumphantly celebrate "O Queen of sinless grace" (meaning Music, not a temporal Queen) which shall "with a myriad voiced song go forth.... with the joy of Man in the beauty of Love's desire". 
Please see my other posts on Parry, especially the reviews of his English Lyrics CDs from SOMM