Wednesday 31 October 2018

Britten Ballad for Heroes, Gurney Gloucestershire Rhapsody, Bliss Morning Heroes

W H Auden and Benjamin Britten
 Benjamin Britten Ballad for Heroes, Ivor Gurney Gloucestershire Rhapsody and Arthur Bliss Morning Heroes with David Temple conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Hertfordshire Chorus in Watford last week, broadcast on BBC Radio 3. An excellent programme since these pieces aren't as well known as they should be, though they are hardly unknown.

Britten's Ballad for Heroes Op 14, 1939  for example. When I first heard the piece seven years ago (Ilan Volkov BBCSO, Barbican) I didn't understand it, but gradually it's grown on me. The disparity between the poetry of W H Auden and the doggerel of Randall Swingler is a problem, but Britten uses it with a certain degree of irony. Auden is an intellectual : Swingler a man of action (a Communist) but not so good with words. Auden opposes fascism, while Swingler's solution is to fight with more violence. Yet they trundle along together, with unison chorus and marching orchestra  The contradictions in the piece provoke, just as the situation did. Therefore the piece is about a lot more than a simplistic conflict between pro and anti war. It should be noted that the Spanish Civil War ended in April 1939, with the triumph of the fascists and their Nazi allies, so the piece (which premiered at the end of April 1939) isn't about going to war so much as a realization that war alone cannot defeat the forces of evil.  The title is "Ballad for Heroes", not "Ballad of Heroes", for the cause the heroes fought for had been crushed so cruelly that  it was hard not to envisage the eventual triumph of Hitler, who enjoyed a lot more support, even in Britain, than some will now admit.  Despite the annexation of Czechslovakia, and the Nuremberg Race Laws,  Britain supported a policy of Appeasement.  When Chamberlain announced "Peace in Our Time"  there were many for whom the slogan rang false.  Appeasement, for better or worse, encouraged Hitler rather than curbed him, which is why so many despaired. It is unfair to fault Britten for leaving in April 1939 since Britain was at peace.  There are many ways of opposing war and the mentality behind it. War was only declared on 3rd September 1939 because Germany invaded Poland, not because of the regime itself. 

Thus the funeral march which runs through the Ballad for Heroes, with a solemn relentless tread. The chorus intones brief lines, alternating with the orchestra, replicating again the idea of  different forces being yoked together in common cause.  A mood of greater urgency and alarm is introduced by dizzy  figures in the orchestra (wonderful writing for winds) replicated in the wayward vocal line, Strident machine gun staccato, wild dissonance, surging lines lit by flashes of woodwind light.  "A world of horror!" Then suddenly the tenor (Ben Johnson)  emerges, uncovered and alone.  His lines curl and snarl with menace.  ""....and the guns can be heard across the hills like wa-a-aves at night". You could imagine his face contorting when he sings of "the stench of violence".   The vocal writing here is sophisticated, spiralling diminuendos, words stretched and twisted in a style Britten would use later, in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and much more.  "Hear, you numberless Englishmen, to remind you of the greatness here among you, fight for peace and for truth!" words rather cogent given the context of the those months between the annexation of Czechoslovakia and Austria, and the outbreak of war.  

Ivor Gurney's Gloucestershire Rhapsody was written between 1919, on Gurney's return from the battlefield, and 1920, shortly before he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, where he died 15 years later.   Although  it was generally assumed that Gurney's late works were incoherent and unplayable,  Gurney scholars Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables have edited them for performance, revealing their true value.  The expansive lines soar, with an almost Elgarian spirit. One might imagine Gurney inhaling the fresh, pure air of Gloucestershire,  and the exhilaration of being able to roam in his beloved countryside. So very different from the horrors of the trenches!  Gurney's doctors believed that he was better off in hospital, but, when a friend smuggled in a copy of a map, Gurney traced his old hiking routes with  his fingers, as if re-living what he had lost. This background is relevant, for this performance seems infused with a spirit of freedom, of endless open horizons and limitless possibilities.

This "open vista" approach to the Gloucestershire Rhapsody may connect to Gurney's own hopes for the future. Significantly, the piece starts with the same first bars as Richard Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra -  a dramatic opening, but with a twist.  Gurney deliberately wanted to counteract "The Prussians" and what they stood for. Understandable for a man who served throughout the war, though Strauss wasn't fond of “Prussians" either, being Bavarian. The horns give way to a pastorale evoking the Gloucestershire countryside, with its rolling hills and spacious panoramas.  To Gurney, past and present connected in seamless flow. The ghosts of prehistoric hunters, Romans, medieval farmers, depicted in a bucolic dance theme. "Two thousand centuries of change, and strange people".  An ostinato section suggests both the heavy march of Time and the men of Gloucestershire marching innocently to slaughter on the Somme.  Gurney said that what kept him going in the trenches was the thought of commemorating these men in poetry and music.  A short, chaotic "war" section then gives way to a beautifully expansive theme, which might evoke a glorious dawn after a night of horror. It's Elgarian in its glory, but also Gurneyesque.  In this new dawn, though time moves on, Nature returns, and possibly heals.  The recommended recording is on Chandos's CD British Tone Poems, conducted by Rumon Gamba.

Arthur and Kennard Bliss
Morning Heroes (1930) isn't neglected but performances are rare because it’s hard to pull off a symphony on this scale. Much depends on the narrator, who has almost as much to do as the orchestra. Fortunately  the narrator here was Samuel West who narrates on Andrew Davis' s recording with the BBC SO for Chandos. The title "Morning Heroes" comes from  the final movement where three different poems are quoted, Now, Trumpeter, For Thy Close (Robert Nichols), Spring Offensive (Wilfred Owen) and Dawn on the Somme (also Robert Nichols), which graphically describe the landscape of a battlefield, specifically the slaughter of the First World War in which Bliss and his brother Kennard served. Kennard, like millions of others, East as well as West, perished. Morning Heroes isn't a requiem in the religious sense but describes the experience of war in a direct and unsentimental way. War isn't a game, it's not “entertainment".  In these poems there's enough inherent drama to make a point without theatrical excess.

Morning Heroes starts with the Iliad, where the Trojan hero Hector returns as a ghost. The symphony begins with a long quotation describing Hector taking leave of Andromache, his wife. "Would you leave your children orphans, your wife a widow". The refrain in the chorus acts as a whip, goading the heroes to further sacrifice. Bliss follows this first movement with the turbulent "The City Arming". Are the populace so caught up in bloodlust that they forget
the human toll ? The third movement, "The Vigil", is based on Walt Whitman's  Vigil Strange I Kept of the Field One Night and his By the Bivouac's  Fitful Flame. Whitman's verse isn't easy to set as its flow doesn't lend itself to music. Wisely,  Bliss uses spoken narration, augmented by chorus, singing the lines so they seem to sweep like flames whipped by wind. Orchestrally, this is perhaps the most expressive moment. The brief return to the Iliad, which follows, is thus put into context, like a look back on values one might no longer share. When the final movement returns to graphic depictions of the Somme, the connection is made between wars long past and more recent. Resolution, of a sort comes, where the chorus sings, followed by a wonderful but brief figure for oboe, and a brief resurgence of the pounding motif from the beginning. Muffled percussion, muted brass, the mens' voices singing with restraint, as if heard from afar, the women's voices almost spectral.  Yet again the orchestra up, martial music cloaked with menace. Yet a wayward melody emerges and the voices grow stronger and at last, a measure of serenity at the end.    


Monday 29 October 2018

Superb Hubert Parry Symphony no 4 Rumon Gamba Chandos

From Chandos, Sir Hubert Parry's Symphony no 4 in E minor ,with Prosperine and movements from Suite Moderne. This performance, with Rumon Gamba conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, is outstandingly vivid, eclipsing Matthias Bamert's 1989  performance, also for Chandos, which remains the only other readily available recording of this symphony.  But what also makes it special is that it is Parry's original version, based on the score conducted by Hans Richter, Parry's great friend, on 1st July 1889.  This performance is so convincing that it makes a case for the original, which critics found too difficult to follow after the relatively sunny Third Symphony.  In 1909, Parry revised the piece extensively, retaining ideas from the first, second and last movements, composing much new material and replacing the original Scherzo in A minor with a completely new movement  in in G major.  We can only hope that Chandos will commission a recording of the 1909 version from Gamba in the future, to enhance the comparison.  Gamba isn't a conductor who courts celebrity, but he's an excellent musician who gets results that deserve celebrity status.

From the first bars, Gamba's attack is forceful, emphasizing the strength of the Doric theme.  The  passage leads to nine other sections, which move swiftly ranging from animato to sweeping largamente, Gamba revealing the tight structure behind the restlessness and constant change in the long development. The brief intermezzo serves as a transition to the third movement marked Lento expressivo with a short interlude between the first and second sections.  Jeremy Dibble, who edited this version, describes its "lyrical pathos" thus : "The diatonic richness of the slow movement's first idea is classic Parry in its treatment of dissonance and sonorous string texture, and the falling sequences and double suspensions of its closing bars seem palpably prophetic of Elgar." (who, incidentally was in the audience for the premiere). "And while the light hearted second subject attempts to assert itself, it is the noble generosity and poetry of the first idea that prevails.". Parry may have amended the Scherzo but its freshness and dance themes led him to re-arrange it for piano duet.   The Finale is dramatic, working out the tension between dance and march, including  "an unexpected and arresting shift to D major at the centre".  The strong theme of the first movement returns in the Finale but the movement concludes with confident assurance. Parry would attach titles to the later revision to symbolize stages in search of self discovery.  His summary was to be "Finding the Way".

Hearing Parry's Symphony no 4 (1889) with three movements from his Suite Moderne (1886)  highlights the composer's progressive ideas.  Initially concieved in symphonic form, Parry uses an Idyll, a moderato in C major in place of a more conventional Scherzo. Yet Scherzo it is, a lively jest, hunting horns and dance figures alluding to Arcadia, followed by an even gentler Romanza as slow movement.  There's something stylishly "modern" (ie late Victorian) in its expansive self-assurance. Significantly, Parry was supportive of Elgar from a very early stage. These two movements were placed between a Ballade (not included here)  and a Rhapsody with three sections in seven and a half minutes, reminiscent of the long development in the first movement of Symphony no 4.  This complements Parry's only ballet Proserpine (1912) for orchestra and chorus, based loosely on a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley where maidens gather flowers in a sunlit meadow, unaware that Proserpine will soon be kidnapped and forced into marriage by Pluto, doomed to spend half the year in darkness underground. So much for Arcadian innocence !

Please see my other posts on Hubert Parry and on British music. Please join my Hubert Parry page on FB

Saturday 27 October 2018

Svatý Václav (St Wenceslaus) Czech icon in film

At the Barbican, Sunday 28th October, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the Czech Republic, a rare screening of the film Svatý Václav (St Wenceslaus), patron saint of Bohemia.  The film was a grand scale spectacular, planned to mark the 1000th anniversary of the assassination of the King on 28th September 935. Hence two national holidays 28th September and 28th October.  Given that the saintly King Vaclav symbolizes Czech identity in so many ways why did the film fall into obscurity, only to be revived fairly recently ? It's not easily available to buy, so catch the 2010 screening in Prague  (no translation -you have to pay attention !) with the original orchestral score by Oskar Nedbal and Jaroslav Křička,or go to the Barbican where it will be accompanied by singers and musicians from Cappella Mariana, the Prague-based early-music ensemble specialising in medieval polyphony.  

Directed by Jan Stanislav Kolár, Svatý Václav is made in a cinematic style similar to Fritz Lang's saga Die Nibelung (1924) (Please read my summary here) so expect stylized acting and costumes, which in fact have their own non-naturalistic charm.  This suits the treatment, part based on historical fact, part on legend, which, given what Vaclav means to the Czech nation, is even more potent.  The film opens with a shot of a fortified castle on a hill : the home of King Bořivoj (played by the director himself) and Queen Ludmily who are baptised as Christians in 873.  As we know from Lohengrin, Christianity was by no means a given in that era.  While hunting in a forest, Prince Vratislav meets Drahomíra, who rides horses like a knight and throws spears like a hero. She's not a Christian but converts to marry him. When their son Vaclav is born, grandmother Ludmila snatches him away at birth and brings him up properly devout.  Vaclav and his brother Boleslav and sister Přibyslava grow up happily in the castle, built like a stockade from whole logs from the surrounding forests.  People dance, sing and trade with foreign merchants, but Vaclav likes praying before a cross of stone.  Even when he's helping in the kitchen, the boy prays so fervently that he burns dinner.  Not surprisngly Drahomíra, estranged from her children, plots revenge, and Ludmily is strangled to death, with her own scarf.  When he hears of his grandmother's death, Vaclav goes into action against the pagans, banging a giant cymbal as a call to arms. Panoramic shots of knights lined up on ridges above the plains, scores of footsoldiers running through valleys, trumpeters blowing horns that look like mammoth tusks.   

Vaclav also has to battle with Germans, led  by Heinrich der Vogler, whose helmet is emblazoned  with the black wings of an eagle, a metre high.  The Germans are fomidable - proper chainmail, bigger horses, but the Czechs hold their own.  Vaclav is injured, but survives. Eventually he captures Heinrich's son (rather effeminate, in this film) but instead of killing him, restores him to his father in exchange for peace.  The Czech knights are welcomed into the German court and presented with holy Christian relics.  Meanwhile Boleslav is plotting, aided by sympathisers of the old order and Drahomíra's old friend, the giant Košvan.  At a feast in the castle, pipers pipe and dancers make merry. Mead is poured from goblets, but Boleslaw plans to poison his brother. A blind harpist sings a ballad about a King showing his sons that a sheaf of staves cannot be broken, though each staff on its own can break.  When the King dies, the brothers fight and are themselves killed by enemies   Boleslav listens and pours away the poison.  Vaclav raises his chalice and prays.  He embraces Boleslav and leaves.  On the battlements, Vaclav stands alone, in th night breeze. Radmilo, Košvan's daughter, realizes that’s how saintly Vaclav might be. Boleslav is racked with anguish but doesn't stop Košvan's assassins from cornering Vaclav at the gate of the castle and killing him.  A storm blows up, so fierce that the killers are driven away. Vaclav's body rests in state.  Suddenly, the Drahomíra appears and weeps over the martyred Vaclav.  Boleslav is declared King but she blocks his path. "Matko!" he says (mother).  A glowing crucifix appears, like a miracle,  over Vaclav's corpse. Boleslav cries for forgiveness. (I think, I don't read Czech)  Svatý Václav is actually a very good movie, even without  the patriotic and religious context.  Definitely recommended.  

Please also see my other posts on cinema in this period, Czech and Weimar. For example:
 Erotikon - the drama Janacek didn't write
The White Plague - Hugo and Pavel Haas
and lots more on Hugo Haas's later work

Thursday 25 October 2018

Semyon Bychkov : Czech Philharmonic Orchestra international tour, London

Is the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra entering a new era ?  In London at the start of a new international tour,  Semyon Bychkov, new Chief Conductor, led the Czech Philharmonic in a concert featuring Smetana and Dvořák, with Alisa Weilerstein. This concert was very high profile indeed, attended by the great and the good, as if it were a state occasion, markingb the 100th anniversary of Independence. And indeed it was, since the Czech Philharmonic is unique, with a distinctive persona.  Part of the reason it is so unusual is because its traditions are rooted in Czech culture, from which Czech music has grown, as if language translates into music. The orchestra doesn't frequently tour : if you want to hear them other than on recordings or broadcast, you need to go to the Rudolfinium,  and absorb the whole context.  This, of course, isn't always practical,  and in a digital age, any orchestra's potential audience is world-wide.  So it's logical that the Czech Philharmonic should be reaching out.  Before Bychkov was appointed last year, the announcement stated that the choice would depend on "publiku, nahrávacím společnostem, zahraničním pořadatelům i k ministerstvu kultury".ie the public, recording companies, foreign organizations and The Ministry of Culture. Perfectly valid, since Czech culture and music is a vital part of world heritage.  The question is how this will affect the orchestra's core values and artistic soul. Whatever model the Czech Philharmonic adopts for its outreach should, accordingly, be individual, rather than borrowing from what might work for other orchestras. What we love about the Czech Philharmonic is the very fact that it is not polished or celebrity-focussed. The market should rise to its standards, not the other way around.

Britain embraced Czech music very early on. In 1884, Dvořák himself conducted his Stabat Mater and Symphony no 6 at the Three Choirs Festival. Janáček visited London in 1926, and re-dedicated his Sinfonietta in honour of Rosa Newmarch.  Only ten years later Vítězslava Kaprálová, aged only 22, was invited to London to conduct her own Military Sinfonietta with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a work which pays direct homage to Janáček, at a time when Czechoslovakia was being threatened by the Nazi regime. The bonds between Czechslovakia and British culture grow deep.  So it was a surprise that the start of this tour should take place in the Duke's Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, with a capacity of only 350, rather than, say, the Royal Festival Hall which seats 3000.  In the US, the Czech Phil is playing Carnegie Hall.  Nonetheless it was an opportunity for students of the RAM to join the Czech Phil on stage and play together : symbolic and educational value, reflecting Bychkov's position as Professor of Conducting, which he takes so seriously that he's conducted the RAM orchestra at the RFH. Thus a suitably festive Overture to Bedřich Smetana's Bartered Bride joyously free.
Bychkov began the Czech Philharmonic's 2018-2019 season in Prague with Antonín Dvořák's Symphony no 7 in D minor op 70, paired with Luciano Berio's Sinfonia but for the start of this tour, complemented it with Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B minor, Op 104 with soloist Alisa Weilerstein, who shot to fame when Daniel Barenboim chose her when he returned to Elgar's Cello Concerto, so closely connected to Jacqueline du Pré.  She's more mature now, and brings that greater refinement to Dvořák : well shaped legato, at turns sensuous and demure, well integrated with the orchestra around her.  The orchestra, though, stole the show, playing with the distinctive timbre that is their trademark : horns that call and breathe without being brassy,  strings that swell and vibrate with genuine emotion, winds that sing as freshly as forces of Nature.  The Adagio seemed to glow, the restraint of the cello enriched by the fullness in the orchestra, but the Finale impressed because it was so thoughtfully shaped.  

A rewarding Dvořák Symphony no 7 in D minor op 70. Again, the characteristic richness and depth of the Czech Philharmoniuc came to the fore : the idiom is in their DNA so to speak. Thoughg this is sometimes called the "London" symphony its impulses are altogether more personal. Interpretation grows through an understanding of the composer and his work as a whole.  Thus the Allegro maestoso unfolded purposefully, its stately progress defined with assurance. Dark as this symphony may be, it's clear-sighted, the destination never in doubt.  A heartfelt coda.  The Hussite hymn theme echoed in the second movement was subtle. It doesn't need over-statement, but it informs the Scherzo that follows the lyrical moments between.  The motif that resembles dance wasn't frivolous, but an acknowledgement of the rondo-like tightness with which the symphony as a whole is constructed.    A very strong Finale, arrived at through an understanding of the structural logic.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

SOMM Remembrance - Choral music by Ireland Holst Parry Elgar

From SOMM, In remembrance, marking the end of the 1914-1918 war, choral music with organ accompaniment by Ireland, Holst, Parry, Elgar, Fauré and Venables  with the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, conducted by William Vann. In pride of place, Sir C Hubert Parry's Jerusalem, so deeply embedded in the British national consciousness that it has taken on new life as an icon of popular culture, adopted and adapted to many different situations. The text, by William Blake, is visionary, but its meaning is subtle "And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills?". For Blake, writing in the Industrial Revolution, the answer was "not yet". "I shall not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem in Englsnd's green & pleasant land".  The piece was commissioned by an organization set up in 1915 to raise morale.   The version on this reciording is Parry's original, premiered at Queen's Hall in March 1916, with 300 volunteer singers accompanied by organ, (here played by Hugh Rowlands), not the more famous orchestration made by Sir Edward Elgar in 1922.  The emphasis in this version is on the unison choir, and the balance of male and female voices, an important consideration given that Parry was soon disillusioned by the growing jingoism of the Fight for Right movement and pointedly withdrew his support.  By then the song had been taken up by the Women's Suffrage movement, of which Maude Parry was a member. Parry was delighted, "I wish indeed that it might become Women Voter's Hymn", he wrote, "......and having the vote ought to diffuse a good deal of joy, too."

This Jerusalem is thus positioned between the words from the Bible, and a text associated with the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war.   In Greater Love Hath No Man, Johnn Ireland sets the crucial phrase for solo baritone (Gareth Brynmor John), "that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness". Ireland was writing in 1912, before the onset of war, when the sacrifice meant Christian sacrifice. Jesus died for all men (and women) regardless of place and time.  For the Fallen, reflects the way the message adapted after the impact of war.  The piece was written in 1971 by Dougas Guest (born 1916).  Though much of Laurence Binyon's original is belligerent, Guest, who served in the Second World War, sets only one verse, placing emphasis on the sombre, humbling line the words "We shall we remember them".

Sir Edward Elgar's setting of They are at Rest, to a text by John Henry Newman, is an elegy marking the ninth anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria, while O Valiant Hearts by Charles Harris, a friend of Elgar, is a postwar reflection on loss. I Vow to thee, My country is Gustav Holst's adaptation of Jupiter in The Planets as the anthem. Its serenity links earthly death with concepts of eternal life, on another plane.  Holst's Ode to Death is heard here transcribed for choir and organ (James Orford), as is Gabriel Fauré's Requiem in D minor arranged by Iain Farrington.   Ian Venables's Requiem Aeternum  (2017) completes the set, a timely reminder that death is a part of the cycle of life.
Please also see my review of Earth & Sky - choral works by Ralph Vaughan Willaims, also conducted by William Vann, for Albion Records.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Piotr Beczała - Italian and Polish Art Song Wigmore Hall

Piotr Beczała - photo Anja Frora
Can Piotr Beczała sing the pants off Jonas Kaufmann ? Beczała is a major celebrity who could fill a big house, like Kaufmann does, and at Kaufmann prices.  Instead, Beczała  and Helmut Deutsch reached out to that truly dedicated core audience that has made the reputation of the Wigmore Hall : an audience which takes music seriously enough to stretch themselves with an eclectic evening of Polish and Italian song.

The two parts of the programme reflected two aspects of Beczała's artistic persona. As an opera singer, he has sung in Italian, German, French,  Russian, Czech and Polish.  The Italian songs  he chose for this occasion showed the dramatic possibilities in art song - art song for opera singers, vehicles for technique and expressiveness.  The programme began with three songs from 36 Arie di stile antico by Stefano Donaudy (1879-1925), a Sicilian contemporary of Puccini's, which were taken up soon after publication by singers like Caruso and Tito Schipa.  Beczała's crisp diction made Freschi luoghi, prati aulenti sparkle, contrasting well with the darker O del mio amato ben. Followed by  four songs from 8 rispetti by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948). Although Ottorino Respighi wrote operas, he also composed a substantial body of orchestral and chamber music.  The songs on this programe thus represent an approach to art song which favours the more private, personal medium of voice and piano. The songs of Paolo Tosti (1846-1916)served as a bridge between Donaudy and Wolf-Ferrari and Respighi.

The second part of the programme focused on Beczała's Polish roots. Throughout his career, he has made a point of promoting Poland's rich musical heritage.  He sang The Shepherd in Karol Szymanowski's Król Roger in the 2003 Warsaw production, and has also done many of the composer’s songs for male voice.  For this Wigmore Hall recital Beczała chose Szymanowski's Sześć pieśni (Six Songs), his op  2, completed when he was still a student, aged 18. Significantly, all are also settings of living poets, contemporaries of the composer.  Although Szymanowski was to make his name as a cosmopolitan sophisticate, these songs show that his Polish identity went deep. The texts here were by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (1860-1940) . Przerwa-Tetmajer was both a nationalist and modernist, given that Secessionism and Symbolism were forces for renewal, all over Europe.  Each of these poems is brief, but the imagery is so concentrated that meaning is left deliberately elusive. The first two songs, in a minor key, are autumnal, but the strong piano part suggests resolve. In both songs, rise the image of a woman who may no longer exist. With the third song,  We mgłach (In the Mist) the vocal line curves mysteriously, like the mists and streams in the evening cool.  What's happening ? "Bez dna, bez dna! bez granic!" sings Majzner, (No bottom, no bottom, without borders!).  In dreams, the poet hears mysterious voices calling . In the last song, Pielgrzym, the line rises, swelling with hope. "Gdziekolwiek zwrócę krok, wszędzie mi jedno, na północ pójdę, czyli na południe", (Everywhere I turn, from the north I will go south)   Immediately one thinks of the Persian Song of the Night in Szymanowski’s Symphony no 3 and in the Shepherd in the opera Król Roger whose singing changes the King's life.  

Mieczław Karłowicz (1876-1909) and Szymanowski were influenced by the Young Poland movement, a literary and artistic aesthetic not dissimilar to the Secession in Munich and Vienna, but with specifically nationalist elements.  Pointedly, Beczała and Deutsch paired the early Szymanowski songs with Karłowicz's settings of poems by the same Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer . Indeed, both set the same text,  Czasem, gdy długo na pół sennie marżę (Sometimes when long I drowsily dream) which describes a strange, disembodied voice, heard in a dream. "I do not know if this is loive, or death, that sings" .  The piano part in Karłowicz's version is particularly sophisticated, suggesting perhaps Liszt or Chopin, though the style is distinctiely fin de siècle.  In Na spokojnnym, ciemnym morzu (On the calm, dark sea)  (op3 no 4 1896) the poet imagines sinking into oblivion. "Let me revel in Nothingness".  In recitals, reading the text while listening is not a good idea. You might get the words, but you cut yourself off from nuance and musical truth. Much, much better to concentrate on singer and pianist and use your intuition. Because Beczała and Deutsch are so very good at what they do, intuitive listening was surprisingly accurate.  The moody piano part suggested strange dissonance, and the edge in Beczała's voice suggested psychic anomie. The stillness in  W wieczorną ciszę (In the calm of the evening) (op3 no 8) is ominous.  Again, the poet disassociates from the world. perishing "in the dark emptiness".  The Przerwa-Tetmajer texts are so surreal that they evoke very fine expression from Karłowicz.   Ironically, the composer died young,  killed while skiing in the mountains.

Also from Karłowicz's op 3 are the songs Przed nocą wieczną (Before eternal night) and Zaczarowana królewna (The Enchanted Princess) settings respectively of Zygmunt Krasinski and Adam Asnyk, receiving relatively more straightforward treatment from the composer, but as evocatively performed by Beczała and Deutsch. Beczała has appeared in several Polish operas, including Stanisław Monicuisko's Halka and Straszny dwór  (The Haunted Manor) - please read about that here.  After the intensity of the very beautiful Karłowicz songs, the Monicuisko songs were rather more down to earth.  Monicuisko (1819-1872) reflected an earlier aesthetic than that of Karłowicz : more nationalistic, closer to Smetana than to the world at the turn of the 20th century.  Thus robust songs about sweethearts and spinning wheels, complete with atmospheric piano figures, and Polna różyczka so vividly sung by Beczała  that it was instantly recognizable as a setting of Goethe's Heidenröslein, without needing translation.  Then  Monicuisko's Krawkowiaczek (The Krakow Boy) who fools around but loves only Halka.  For an encore, another wonderful Karłowicz  song The Golden years of Childhood.  "It's my favourite" said Beczała : almost as well crafted as the Przerwa-Tetmajer songs but warmer and cheerier.

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, and desrevs similar respect.

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 Schuberts 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 Schuberts 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