Saturday, 20 October 2018

The Amazing Adventures of Leopold Stokowski

Stokowski and Vaughan Williams, 1956
Time to appreciate Leopold Stokowski, whose many merits are obscured by negative reactions to his flamboyant showmanship, his exaggerated Slavic accent and his willingness to have fun with music, making zany transcriptions and appearing with Mickey Mouse in Fantasia.  Toscaninni, no slouch himself at self-promotion, might have been sniffy, but rivalry sometimes plays a part in assessments.  I like Stokowski's transcriptions - at least he was honest, as opposed to conducting his own take on things.  And what's wrong with bringing millions of kids, all over the world, to classical music via Disney ?  At the moment, I am on a Stokowski listening kick, impressed by his dedication to music.  

The name "Leopold Stokowski" was absolutely authentic.  He was registered at birth as "Leopold Anthony Stokowski" in the district of All Souls in Marylebone in 1882,  His father was Kopernick Leopold Boleslaw Stokowski, a cabinet maker, and his mother, Anne Marie Moore,  was born in Northampton.  They seem to have been Church of England. Leopold was a choirboy and, after studying at the Royal College of Music, worked as an assistant to Sir Henry Wolford Davies at the Temple Church in the City.  In 1905, he moved to the US but didn't really lose his English roots, conducting more British repertoire than one might assume. He conducted Elgar's Symphony no 2 in Cincinatti in November 1911 - just six months after its premiere in London, conducted by the composer himself.  New music, hot off the press ! He also conducted the Enigma Variations, and Holst's The Planets, also new at the time, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast only three years after its UK premiere, when Walton still had the reputation of being avant garde.  All his liife, Stokowski was open-minded, and alert to what was interesting in musical terms, regardless of whether it was popular.   He was instrumental in bringing Charles Ives to prominence, conducting Ives's Symphony no 4, then considered unperformable, even by the composer himself.  He even arranged a nationwide broadcast . Imagine that happening on TV these days, in our supposedly enlghtened times when "intellectual" and  "creative"  are terms of abuse.  Later, his protégé, José Serebrier, recorded the piece in London, using Stokowski's principles of orchestral preparation.  Please read more HERE about the relationship between Stokowski and Serebrier, which endured until Stokowski's death. Just the account of how they met is fascinating. In many ways, Serebrier continues Stokowski's legacy.

At some stage, possibly under the influence of his first wife, the pianist Olga Samaroff, Stokowski adopted a "slavic" persona.  Samaroff was in fact born Lucy Hildenlooper in Texas, but in those days having an exotic background helped create careers. Whether real Russian or Polish people could see through the pretence didn't matter.  Nowadays such things would trigger counter-terrorist and money laundering systems.  By 1940, however, Stokowski was well established and able to tell the US census that he was British born, though he shaved five years off his true age.  Eventually, he moved back to Britain five years before his death aged 95. He's buried in East Finchley. 

Throughout his life, Stokowski remained interested in music that was innovative and stretched the mind.   Like so many other musicians - Debussy, Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, Messiaen - he wa fascinated by non-western form and travelled to Asia in 1927-8.  He spoke coherently about Asian music and conducted Aaron Avshalamov's Hutungs of Beijing (1931) in 1935, presumably having met the composer.  Although the piece describes cluster housing in old Beijing, it's not a cultural hybrid but western music with oriental spice, delightful, but not authentic.  About 25 years ago recordings were made of Avshalamov's major works, which I received from a friend who was a neighbour of the composer who returned to the US in 1947.  Much more adventurously, Stokowski conducted the work of Hidemaro Konoye (1898-1973). Konoye was a bona fide Prince, a scion of the Fujiwara Clan, which goes back 1500 years and is closely associated with the Imperial Household. His brother was Prime Minister of Japan.  Konoye trained in Europe, studying with Franz Schreker, Karl Muck and Erich Kleiber. He was a friend of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss, he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and founded the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo (now the famous NHK Symphony).  They made the first ever recording of Mahler's Symphony no 4 in 1930, one of the first to use the then new electric technology.So much for the idea that Mahler was unknown til the 1960's.  Stokowski conducted Konoye's Etenraku (1931) three times in 1935 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. What the audience and orchestra made of it, I don't know, as it is genuine gagaku music, orchestrated for western instruments. Gagaku was an aristocratic genre, heard mainly in court circles, never "populist".  But it is a fascinating piece, listen to a clip HERE, conducted not by Stokowski but by Ryusuke Numajiri. who's probably more idiomatic. Perhaps Stokowski knew Konoye who was extremely well connected. Stokowski conducted in Japan several times during Konoye's lifetime. Konoye, incidentally, was arrested and imprisoned by the US when he was leading a group of Japanese musicians back to Japan after the war, which they'd spent in Germany. Technically "enemy" though they weren't involved in atrocities.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Earth and Sky - Vaughan Williams Choral Songs - Albion

From Albion Records, which specializes in Vaughan Williams, Earth & Sky, a collection of choral songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Over the years, Albion has produced, in connection with the Vaughan Williams Trust,  numerous collections of rarely heard works by Vaughan Williams, revealing the prodigious extent and variety in his music.  Most of the pieces in this set are original works, but others are settings of traditional songs. This is your chance to hear RVW's 1921 take on Way Down on the Swanee River (Old Folks at home)! Vaughan Williams adapts Stephen Foster's original text, creating a setting for unaccompanied male voices which emphasises the harmonic flow of voices.  Gone are the connotations of sentimentalized slavery, particularly in this performance, which rings with the very English diction of members of the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, directed by William Vann, who doubles as pianist.  Also in this group of folk settings is The Jolly Ploughboy which Vaughan Williams collected in Sussex in 1904, and would in 1949 adapt further in the cantata Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. The choppy rhythms of  The World It Went Well With Me Then (1934) and Tobacco's but an Indian Weed (1934) have a round-like character.  The latter song was originally based loosely on a text from 1699 when smoking was a novelty. Vaughan Williams' setting develops  harmonies which quiver, like rising smoke.  "The vapour's gone, man's life is done : Think of this when you smoke tobacco". Not so much a health warning before its time (1934) but meditation on the transcience of life, and thus very much in the hymn tradition.


Eight settings of Vaughan Williams' songs accompnaied by organ (Hugh Rowlands)  demonstrate the composer's background as the editor of the English Hymnal and organist. Five of these songs, though not written as  a unit, form a coherent group in this collection.  A Hymn to Freedom (December 1939) is a unison song, while England my England (1941) is scored for baritone  (Angus McPhee) and organ, the choir offering support and extra texture. The text is by W E Henley, whose poems George Butterworth set in Love Blows As the Wind Blows.  Henley died in 1903, before the First World War and the aggressive jingoism that was popular at that time, which Vaughan Williams, a pacifist, did not share.   The song "celebrates not Britain, nor yet its Empire but a heroic, altogether mythical England", as the booklet notes explain "Spouse-in-chief of the ancient sword".  The Airman's Hymn (1942) was rejected by Westminster Abbey on the grounds that there were no similar settings for the Army or Navy, which is a pity, since the song for mixed voices is lyrical rather than militarist, evoking the freedom of the skies.  "Old hearts are young again, young hearts keep high when we remember you, men of the sky".  Similarly this arrangement of  Land of Our Birth (1944) , employs the voices of children, giving the setting a youthful freshness.

Three Vocal Valses from the Songs of the Wrens (1896) is very early Vaughan Williams,  but is of interest because it shows where the composer was at at this time in his career.   The Songs of the Wrens  was a cycle of twelve poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson,  set by Arthur Sullivan in an attempt to write an English equivalent of the song cycles of Schubert and Schumann.   Though Vaughan Williams created the pieces for voice and piano, he specified SATB as opposed to solo voice, as if to distance them from Lieder. Though Schubert, Schumann and Brahms had also written part-song with piano accompaniment, Vaughan Williams' settings are closer to contemporary Victorian song than to European developments.  

Perhaps most charming and unusual are the Three Gaelic Songs (1954) for unaccompanied voices.  Running together at just over 5 minutes, they form a miniature song cycle with exotic, vaguely Gaelic harmonies, the women’s voices ascendent, the tenor doubling either bass or alto. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Janáček Glagolitic Mass, Sinfonietta and more Bělohlávek Czech Philharmonic

From Decca, Janáček classics with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.  Given that Bělohlávek died in May 2017, all these recordings are relatively recent, not re-issues,  and include performances of two new critical editions of the Glagolitic Mass and the Sinfonietta Bělohlávek was the kind of conductor who always found fresh insights into what he did, no matter how familiar he was with the repertoire, so this set forms part of a series which commemorates the golden years of Bělohlávek's tenure with the Czech Philharmonic, which revitalized the orchestra as the foremost in its field.  Recent releases have included Smetana's Má vlast, perhaps the most powerful expression of Czech identity in music. (Please read my review here), and a monumental Dvořák Stabat Mater. (Please read my review here). 
Janáček's Glagolitic Mass (Mša glagolskaja) is heard here in the “September 1927” version edited by Jiří Zahrádka in 2011.  It does not of course supersede  the final, standard version of the piece.  All editions involve informed guesswork, right or wrong. Controversies can be valid : witness the on-going dispute about movement order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony.  Whatever the merits of rival editions, the September 1927 approach is distinctive and has its own merits beyond just demonstrating the composer’s working processes. The first edition of this version, by Paul Wingfield in 2008, revealed the raw potential behind Janáček's earliest ideas, and received enough performances to convince of its merits on its own terms.  Thus it cannot be dismissed as mere curiosity,  which is why Bärenreiter publishes it in two separate formats.  The first recording of the 2011 Zahrádka edition was made in September 2013 by Tomáš Netopil and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, just pipping this performance made in October 2013 by Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic, which is more assured in every respect.

Some time before Janáček wrote the work, the Papacy had made special dispensation for Mass to be said in Slavonic instead of in Latin as was the norm then. This was hugely symbolic since it gave legitmacy to Slavic independence at a crucial point in time. The Glagolitic Mass commemorates the ancient roots of Slavic culture, just as the Sinfonietta celebrates the birth of the modern Czech nation. The Glagolitic script dates from the 8th century, long before the Hapsburgs consolidated their grip on Bohemia. This Credo isn't about the "Catholic and Apostolic Church" so much as Janáček's faith in secular and national Resurrection.  Moreover,  "Glagolitic" masses were held in the open air, with trees instead of stone as buttresses, allowing large communities to come together in Nature and sing.  Of this piece, Janácek said: "My cathedral " was “the enormous grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…...the scent of moist forests my incense”. Hence the idea of freedom and liberation, which is closer to Janácek's intentions than to a religious interpretation.  This version of the  Glagolitic Mass is craggier, more dissonant and more abrasive, but may reflect the rough-hewn spirit of the early church, and its possibly pagan antecedents, which is relevant since Janáček, an atheist, chose to set a language that had disappeared for hundreds of years.

Bělohlávek's approach is spirited but unsentimental,  given the political background to Czech independence not only in Janáček's time but in the decades after his death. Freedom can't be taken for granted.  Bělohlávek and his orchestra lovingly shape the "Janáček:" signatures, star motifs and quirky whips of melody that leap out provocatively against dense, angular blocks of sound.  The theme  "Gospodi pomiluj gospodi pomiluj" rises first in the orchestra, then in the chorus.  Extremely precise singing from the Prague Philharmonic Choir and the soloists Hibla Gerzmava, Veronika Hajnová, Stuart Neill, and Jan Martiník, well experienced regulars in this repertoire, and in this piece in particular. The organ (Aleš Bárta) enters gradually, almost quietly, so whern it bursts forth in the Allegro, it feels wildly explosive, inspiring the orchestra and the chorus. The Credo (Vĕruju) bursts as if a mighty force has been biding its time.  Exquisite beautiful moments like the violins in the Sanctus (Svet) before exuberant rhythms return, rushing ever forwards.  This performance was recorded live at the Rudolfinium, hence the intense immediacy.

This Sinfonietta is based on the critical edition made by Jiří Zahrádka of the 1927 revision made by the composer, in an arrangement for reduced forces by Heinz Stolba.  Given that Bělohlávek made this in February 2017, it is probably a first recording. To quote the publishers, Universal Edition Wien,"the  motivation was to prepare a new reduced version to retain the festive effect of the fanfares at the beginning and end of the work, despite avoiding a separately positioned, additional group of brass instruments as prescribed in the original. In contrast to earlier reduced versions, in the present version all passages that were intended for the separate group of brass instruments in the original version are also entirely played by brass instruments. While a total of 25 brass instruments were required to perform the original version, in the present reduced version there are only 12. Moreover, two additional woodwinds were also cut down on, reducing the original number of wind instruments from 37 to 22, without significantly impacting the sonic result".  It is shinier and leaner, and would make a dramatic statement in smaller concert halls and on informal occasions. Perhaps it's pertinent to note that 2018 marks the centenary of the founding of the Czech Republic.  Though the piece was initially written to celebrate Czechoslovakia's military, it is as much about freedom and free spirits as about the military.  If the Andante depicting the Castle at Brno does not loom as magnificently as in the original, there are compensations. The piccolo and flutes are effervescent,  and the brass sounds cheerful.  The open-air freshness works well in the Allegretto : imagine the people in the streets celebrating, waving flags and being happy.

An atmospheric account of Taras Bulba brings out the composer's Russian soul, but the loom is enlivened by characteristic Janácek feistiness - spiky staccato passages, and expansive open-ness which seems to connect the Prophecy of Taras Bulba to the strange visions of Mr. Brouček.  More connections to Svatopluk Čech with The Fiddler's Child, a modern (at the time) retelling of a folk legend.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

New Hans Zender Schubert Winterreise - Julian Prégardien

Hans Zender's Schuberts Winterreise is now established in the canon, but this recording with Julian Prégardien and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie conducted by Robert Reimer is one of the most striking.  Proof that new work, like good wine, needs to settle and mature to reveal its riches. I first heard Zender's Winterreise in 1994, conducted by Zender himself, with Ensemble Modern and Hans-Peter Blochwitz and didn't get it at the time.  How things have changed. That first recording is good, but this new one in many ways is better, since the work is familiar enough now that performers dare take chances and venture, like the protagonist in the cycle himself.  By no means is it Schubert's Winterreise but "eine komponierte Interpretation", a  composed interpretation.  A new work, not simply an orchestration of the cycle for piano and voice. There's absolutely no way it's an alternative to the original, but rather a meditation by a modern composer reflecting on his response to the most iconic song cycle of all.

Over the years there have been many performances of Zender's Schubert Winterreise, including Ian Bostridge's Dark Mirror, replacing the  rather corny march round the hall of the original with an infinitely more sophisticated staging by Netia Jones. (Please read more here). Alas, that production wasn't preserved for commercial release, but we can settle for this audio-only version, since Prégardien's singing is so vivid that the music seems to come alive.   This matters, for Winterreise is  uncommonly visual music, evolving in stages each matched with images from Nature. Years ago, at a Wolfgang Holzmair masterclass, Holzmair told us to listen, like an animal might, sensing which trail to follow. This is no passive, meandering journey. but purposeful, the protagonist alert to the slightest clues in his surroundings, reading the air, the way a wild animal navigates its territory.  Thus the long introduction in Zender : muffled sounds in the orchestra like footsteps trudging through deep snow.   You can't quite hear unless you're listening properly.

In Zender's Schubert Winterreise the psychic dislocation of the piece is even stronger, allowing an almost Expressionist approach : this is not standard Lieder by any means and cannot be judged in pure Schubertian terms.  Thus the spiky whirlwind in Die Wetterfahne, the strings blowing up a storm,  so the singer's lines expand as if billowed by the wind.  Prégardien's voice takes on an edge, very different from his normal plangent tones, which is perfectly appropriate in the circumstances.  In Gefrorne Tränen, he shapes the first strophe tenderly, in contrast to the ferocity of the words "Ei Tränen mein Tränen".  Similarly "die Blumen" in Erstarrung bloom, briefly before the chill sets in with a  hard "gestorben". Der Lindenbaum begins with beautifully archaic sounds  - plucked low strings and guitar - an idea further developed in Wasserflut by the horn (evoking hunting horn) and hushed Sprechstimme passages. In Rückblick, the saxophone's dissonance moves to sensuous allure, interrupted by trombones and bassoons. No "looking backwards" here.  Thus the shimmering tenderness in Irrlicht and Rast seems haunted, and icicles spike Frühlingstraum.  Prégardien alternates lyrical song with hard spoken prose.

A posthorn rings in Die Post, as if heard from a distance, perhaps in a nightmare, with rumbling percussion, creating striking contrast with the vocal line which stretches and soars  - like a posthorn. Very eerie, but perceptive, since in Die Krähe, a crow circles round the protagonist, who will eventually follow the Leiermann into the unknown.  In Wilhelm Müller's verse, there are many similar parallel pairings, such as the dogs and rattling chains in Im Dorfe, which appear again in Die Leiermann , which Zender brings out in his orchestration.  Warlike violence in Der stürmische Morgen where turbulent percussion alternates with delicate pizzicato, segueing into a waltz like Täuschung.   Echoes of church organ and funereal drums remind us that Das Wirtshaus marks the end for most mortals, but even here the protagonist cannot rest.  Crackling sounds, winds, drums  and pipes in Mut develop the warrior imagery heard earlier, for this courage is misleading.

Thus the desolation of Die Nebensonnen. Yet again, Zender integrates the songs so they complement each other. The quasi-hymn of Das Wirthaus flashes past before a surreal but striking introduction to the critical last song, Der Leiermann, which draws together many strands that have gone before.  This is where Zender the modern composer  meets Schubert and Wilhelm Müller, and the Romantic instinct for morbid psychology.  No hurdy-gurdy as such but a more surreal version thereof, with seductively lyrical tones that suddenly distort.  "Wunderlicher Alter" sings Prégardien with firm deliberation, as the music around him dissolves into strange chords that grow ever more powerful.  Where does the Leiermann lead ?  We do not know, but it sure feels intriguing.

If Russia should win.....

Given Russian interference in the democratic process all over the world, maybe Russia has won, by proxy, thanks to politicians willing to sell out to win election at all costs

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Gustav Holst Orchestral works vol 4 Cotswolds Symphony - Andrew Davis, Chandos

Sir Andrew Davis is of one of the greatest conductors of British music
in our time, and Chandos is a label that specializes in British repertoire.  This alone should make this new recording of Gustav Holst's orchestral works by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra indispensible. But it is also a signifigant milestone because it includes an exceptionally idiomatic   performance of  Holst's early Symphony in F "The Cotswolds", so convincing that it should at last give this piece the recognition it is due. This disc is valuable too because the programme is cohesive, linking Holst's very early works with later pieces that hint at Holst's wider interests which gave his work a distinct personality.  This disc is also part of  Chandos's long standing series of Holst orchestral works conducted by Andrew Davis, which further adds to its authority. Altogether, a release that's leagues ahead of the market.
Completed in July 1900 and premiered by the Carl Rosa Orchestra in which Holst played, the Cotswolds Symphony (op8 H47) was was not a success.  It would have been unreasonable to expect more from a composer who was barely 25, but there is much more to it than has been revealed in recordings made over the years.  Perhaps the secret is to understand it in the context of the composer and his place in British music.  Davis, like Sir Adrian Boult before him, has an understanding of the full span of Holst's music.  The opening Allegro con brio is free-flowing and confident, evoking Elgar, a composer with whom Davis is so closely associated.  Hence the idiomatic punchiness, and crispness of attack.  This introduces the famous second movement, the Elegy in memoriam William Morris. A tentative, but probing introduction evolves gradually, with suggestions of the more sophisticated Egdon Heath. It rises steadily to a cresendo that is dignified, yet deeply felt. The agitato section surges, like a march, punctuated by brass and percussion. The main theme flares up again, before discreetly receding.  The title "Cotswolds" is something of a misnomer,  suggesting touristy images of cottages, chintz and cream teas. But to Holst, an idealist and a thinker, William Morris was a radical with proto-socialist sympathies. The Arts and Crafts movement predicated on the idea of craftsmen working for themselves, not dependent on commercial capitalism.  This affects interpretation and performance.  Fortunately, Davis understands who Morris was and what he meant to Holst. No false sentimentality here but deep conviction, much closer to the spirit of the piece.  Thus the sudden change of mood in the Scherzo, and the return of the confidence in the Allegro now expanded in much fuller-throated orchestration in the Finale.  Holst's music marches forwards : it's not looking back.  Good use of brass and warm-sounding horns, like wind in the sails, propelling the music onwards.

The Cotswolds Symphony ends on similarly upbeat form as A Winter Idyll (H31 1897) begins.  Again, Andrew Davis's understanding of the idiom makes a diffrence. Winter here is an almost demonic force of Nature, sweeping all before it, craggy peaks and soaring vistas.  The main theme (trumpets and brass) repeats  and string lines swell, as if propelled  by the elements, turning on sudden, capricious points.  One could detect the influence of Nordic saga - Wagner, Grieg or even a hint of Sibelius, nine years Holst's senior.

Davis makes the point further with Holst's Indra (op 13, H66 1903),  a large scale tone poem inspired by Sanskrit literature.  Like so many of his contemporaries all over Europe, "orientalism" fascinated because it opened up new opportunities of tonal colour and form.   Indra breaks new ground, giving Holst a chance to explore a consciousness outside the western mainstream.  For all its lushness, Indra tells a violent story. In the Rig Veda, the god Indra (male) battles a dragon who has seized the rain clouds, throwing the land into drought, its people into ruin.  The brass fanfares are militant, suggesting perhaps the cosmic forces being brought to bear.  Like A Winter Idyll, Indra is a saga. Davis emphasizes the structure and colour - wonderful trumpet calls, dissolving into finer textures,  balancing the warrior with the mystic, bringing out the spirituality in the piece.

Davis's recognition of the spirituality in Holst shapes his approach to Invocation (Op 19 no 2 H75, 1911) for cello (Guy Johnstone) and orchestra.  Subtitled "A Song of the Evening" , the piece begins and ends sensa misura, allowing the soloist to float the line, so the piece moves freely through many smaller incarnations. Johnstone's tone is rich and sensual, evoking allusions to exotic, non-western concepts of sensuality. The obvious connection here is Holst's Lyric Movement for viola and orchestra, but there are links, too, to Holst's other mystical works, including Venus in The Planets, and indeed to works by other composers of the period, such as Szymanowski, whom Holst may not have known but who shared his aesthetic.

A Moorside Suite (H173, 1928), heard here in Holst's 1932 arrangement for string orchestra, was originally conceived for brass band.  The first section is boisterous, but the second, a Nocturne,is more mystical than most repertoire for brass band.  Although it's an interlude before the final March (con larghezza), it is a beautiful miniature, the solo violin line at once fragile and assured.   The Scherzo (H192, 1933-4)  is a worthwhile conclusion to this collection, connecting the early Holst of the Cotswolds Symphony with Holst shortly before his unexpected death,  when he was woirking on what might have been his only other orchestral symphony. Though it lasts but six minutes, it's inventive and covers a lot of material.  

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Um Mitternacht ! Mahler 5 - Andris Nelsons Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

Andris Nelsons : Photo Jens Gerber 2017

Andris Nelsons conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Gewandhausorchester Leipzig) in Mahler Symphony no 5 and Bernd Alois Zimmermann Nobody Knows de Trouble I've seen with Håkan Hardenberger, at the Royal Festival Hall in the first of two concerts marking the start of a five year assocaition between the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the South Bank.  The Gewandhausorchester are regular visitors to London (I first heard them with Kurt Masur) but wow, were they sounding good tonight. The dynamic between players and conductor was like electricity - nothing wasted, quick and agile. The tiniest flick of Nelson's fingers and the Leipzigers knew exactly what to do.  No messing about, no fluffed cues ! This is a virtuoso orchestra, yet so full of life and expression, and with Nelsons, there seems to be a real spark.  

Nelsons has of course conducted this symphony many times, but one of the many things I liked about this particular performance was the way he seemed to be building on the strengths of this orchestra and its unique heritage.  It made me reflect on how the Mendelssohn DNA in this orchestra creates the Leipzig sound - warm, dignified and extremely humane.  This is pertinent applied to Mahler because his music, far from being bombastic or hysterical, reveals itself best when approached with sensitivity.  Although this symphony requires a large orchestra, it operates like chamber music, where individuals pay attention to the others and every note, no matter how small, cointributes to the whole. In some ways, Mahler 5 works like a string orchestra writ large, brass and winds extending instrumental colour.  Trumpets lead, but the soul resides in the murmuring "heartbeats",  the lower-voiced strings which here seemed to pulsate like a living organism.   The celli were placed in the centre, violins and violas around them, basses behind, the winds mediating between the strings, brass and percussion.  This symphony connects to Kindertotenlieder, a song cycle with quasi-symphonic structure.  There are also connections to Um Mitternacht , another Rückert setting,  completed a fe3w months later.  "Um Mitternacht/Nahm ich in Acht/ Die Schläge meines Herzens."  Paying attention to something barely perceptible in the course of daytime bustle,  but heard most clearly in the stillness of night.  And note the final verse "Herr über Tod und Leben/Du hältst die Wacht/Um Mitternacht! "  Life is fragile, dependent on the beating of a small(ish) organ in the body.  It is also significant that the symphony was written not long after Mahler had had a near brush with death in 1901, when the symphony was in gestation.  All this is absolutely relevant to interpretation, and thus to performance.

What I liked about Nelsons and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig's Mahler 5 was thus intimacy.  The symphony can be done as Big Blast Phil Spector Wall of Sound, which is of course exciting. But for me, anyway,  real excitement comes from understanding how the climaxes grow from the quiet moments where the focus is on tiny details, like the ping of the triangle, which on this occasion was every bit as powerful n its own way as the more obviously dramatic trumpet introduction, also beautifully played, echoed later by the other trumpets.  Collegiality matters in Mahler 5.  Like the human body, the music lives when its components work together.  And chamber music collegiality comes naturally to an orchestra like the Gewandhausorchester Liepzig.  At moments I felt I could hear the sound of individual players and instruments,  working together rather than absorbed into undifferentiated mass.  If a symphony should contain the world as Mahler said, this is what it might sound like. Much more hunman and personal !  In this increasingly polarized world, the last thing we need is Party Rally "excitement" in music. 

Like the beating of a heart, the Trauermarsch was neither hyper nor feeble, but steady and unostentatious.  A funeral march, but  disciplined, as one might hear in the kind of military garrison town such as Mahler grew up in. Not a flashy militarist procession !  Very deliberate, not long enoughtoi break the flow but just enough to catch the breath  - Um Mitternacht Hab' ich gedacht  hinaus in dunkle Schranken.  This emphasized the contrast with the Stürmisch bewegt section which followed, showing them as two connected parts of the same whole.  A lively Scherzo and then one of the most beautiful Adagiettos in a long time, so lovely that it was perhaps the highpoint of the evening. The harps sparkled, the strings shimmered : truly a hymn to love, though not  just in the sense of a Valentine for Alma as this section is sometimes marketed.   The love here is more transcendent : the love of life itself, a theme that flows through so much of Mahler's music like lifeblood, pumping through the heart.  The warmth and assurance that the Leipzigers do so well enriched this performance.  Yet again, consider the way Um Mitternacht concludes on a high, with a kind of mini-anthem.  Thus the Rondo Finale which pulls together the dfferent threads of the symphony, creating a sense of purposeful unity.  In short, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig trademark style,  unfussy but profound.

Nelsons has conducted Bernd Alois Zimmernann's Nobody Knows de Trouble I've Seen paired with Mahler 5  with the Berliner Philharmoniker since it features a stunning, jazzy trumpet part (Håkan Hardberger, too) as does the symphony. But the glow of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig is different from the shine of the Berliner Philharmoniker so this time, the combination didn't work as well.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Hubert Parry died 100 years ago today

C Hubert Parry, who died 100 years ago on 7th October, will be Composer of the Week on BBC R3 from Monday. Available online, internationally for 30 days. Events coming up soon

All day Parry at the Oxford Lieder Festival  on 19th October, with talks (Jeremy Dibble) , two concerts (James Gilchrist) and a chance to visit theParry archive at the Bodleian Library

New CD release :  Parry Symphony no 4 original version in new edition by Jeremy Dibble, with Rumon Gamba conducting BBC NOW, on Chandos

Lots on this site about Parry - use the label at right or below.  Please visit my Hubrert Parry Group on Facebook

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Judicial temperament

Times when politics makes you sick !  Judicial temperament once meant impartial objectivity.
Forget that, forget justice.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Two Philharmonia specials - Salonen, Valade

Hans Zender conducting from memory

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Wagner, Schoenberg and Bruckner with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall while Pierre-André Valade conducted the Philharmonia soloists at the Purcell Room in music by Hans Zender and Philippe Manoury,  Please read here what Marc Bridle said, in Opera Today

Monday, 1 October 2018

Poignantly human - Mozart The Magic Flute, Castellucci, La Monnaie

Mozart Die Zauberflöte at La Monnaie /De Munt, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, directed by Romeo Castellucci.  Part allegory,  part Singspeile, and very much a morality play, Die Zauberflöte is not conventional opera in the late 19th century style. Naturalist realism is not what it's meant  to be.  Cryptic is closer to what it might mean. It is thus ideally suited to Romeo Castellucci's intelligent, literate approach, with multiple layers of symbols, not all of which might be obvious at first, but become more rewarding with each viewing.  His sets are elegant but don't operate on appearance alone. Castellucci is a director for those who care enough about opera to make an effort to penetrate beyond the surface.  Those who want opera to be "pretty" can be content, but they'll miss out on the real depths.   Please read more about three of his recent productions Salzburg Salomé, Munich Tannhäuser, and Henze's the Raft of the Medusa.    Like composers, and conductors and artistes, good directors have a vocabulary of their own : the more you experience, the more patterns emerge.

Catellucci's approach to Die Zauberflöte  is illuminating on many levels, a term which has more meaning in this case than usual, since illumination is a concept at the core of Freemason beliefs. Freemasons are "The Sons of Light", light meaning enlightenment, self-awareness and understanding an individual's place in a community.  Members undergo rites of initiation, facing challenges as they rise within the hierarchy.  Until very recently, secrecy was also part of the Freemason ethos, further emphasizing the concept that wisdom comes not as an automatic right for everyone, but only to those who make the effort to seek it out.  Elitist perhaps, but that kind of elitism is no bad thing.

Thus the Overture is played over a dark set where a man faces a single line of light and tries to grasp it. Other men appear, in strange non-human regalia, with a sheet of coloured cloth. It's evidently a reference to something, though one I don't get, which is part of the fascination of Castellucci productions : you don't need to know everything first time round, which in itself is the beginning of wisdom.  The darkness remains, but now is backdrop to props and costumes of lustrous whiteness: singers and actors move like dolls in an elegant music box, seen through a haze of fine gauze.  Roccoco elaboration against classical formality.  For more detail on the set, which is as beautiful as icing on a wedding cake, please see HERE.  he singers move in symmetrical patterns, suggesting at once the intricate layers in the plot and the idea that the characters’ fates are controlled by forces beyond their control.  The moon, the sun, the movement of planets in the universe and the traverse of time. Lots of feathers, too, evoking nature and the birds, and Papageno (Georg Nigl) whose job it is to trap and kill.  In Die Zauberflöte the Queen of the Night (Sabine Devieilhe) pits her wits against  Sarastro (Gábor Betz) and his confrères. Men versus women, an undercurrent that runs through the piece, which Castellucci, with his appreciation of the "Eternal Feminine", knows how to develop.

Thus the interlude between the first and second acts, separating the silvery night from golden day.  At first, the impersonal "song" of machines : three women are seen using breast pumps. Real women, who lactate.  the contrast between this intimate act of selfless nurturance and the hollow drone of the machine makes a point.   As the real music starts the milk is poured into a long tube - the tube which represented light right at the beginning.  This makes sense connected  to Sarastro's aria "O Isis und Osiris" which follows, which is an invocation to protect those starting out on their journey ahead. Castellucci then inserts spoken dialogue which also should not shock, since dialogue is part of the Singspiele tradition.  Women and men on two sides of the same stage, costumed as androgynes.   As they tell of the challenges they have faced in their lives, they become individual, with personalities and backgrounds.  Compelling testimonies about coming to terms with blindness and disfiguremernt. Many of these speakers are in fact real people, not actors, and they've faced challenges most of us may (hopefully) never meet.  So anyone in the audience who can't face these brutal truths therefore fails the challenges placed before them.  "We have passed through the Night. We are very close to freedom".  So don't anyone dare knock this scene or sneer at their courage, and Castellucci's decision to let them speak. The reason the dialogue is in English is, I think, because the speakers come from different countries, but are united by experience - another concept important to this drama.

More gold - more "light"- but androgyny still prevails, since enlightenment is not yet achieved. Georg Nigl's robust Papageno provides comic relief, of a sort, but the silvery tomes that accompany his song suggest the silvery tones of the night.  For much the same reason, the Three Knaben represent immaturity.  They have the innocence of birds, for they have not experienced challenge.  Tamino (Ed Lyon) and Pamina (Sophie Kärthauser) will, however, grow up in the course of the time as they face their destiny. Different couples - professional singers and amateur speakers - are seen interacting together, coming to "know" each other and themselves.  More symmetry still, and almost painful vulnerability.  A blind woman lets herself be touched, respectfully, by men whose hands are maimed : she has learned to trust, not to judge.  Would that more audience dared the same ! Then another surprise - the Narrator (Dietrich Henschel)! He finds himself alone.  "I am not myself, but still myself.  I have crossed another horizon", he says  "But I have you, silvery light, victorious over fire".  He calls out the individual names of the non-professional speakers, who surround him, some of whom are burns victims.  "You are the truth for me - you re-assure me".  Thus the bird-like freedom and innocence of the Papageno-Papagena duet that follows and the joyous ensemble, where all are united, women and men, Night and Day, mortals and (possibly) immortals.  "Heil sei die Geweihten! Ihr dräget durch Nacht!.....Es siegt die Stärke und Krönet zum Lohn die Schönheit und Weisheit mit ewiger Kron".  A fine cast all round, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, worthy of the challenges of this visionary yet powerfully human production.  Those who can cope with challenge can catch it here on