Saturday, 17 November 2018

Insights into Schreker's compositional processes

Franz Schreker Orchestral Works, from SWR with Christopher Ward conducting the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, new from Capriccio, continuing their Schreker series, which has so far covered the early operas and a good recording of Der Geburtstag der Infantin and Das Weib des Intaphernes. The disc includes important though less well known works like the Vorspeil zu einer grossen Oper “Memnon”, the mini-song symphony Vom Ewigen Liebe and the short but significant Vier kleine Stucke fur grosses Orchester. Together this collection forms a study of Schreker's compositional development, making this recording far more valuable than many, for anyone seriously interested in the composer and his time.


Ekkehard, Schreker's op 12 from 1902-3 is a symphonic overture. That no opera eventuated hardly matters : it's a tone poem on an operatic subject, a hybrid not unlike Richard Strauss's Don Juan, from the same period, though Schreker's individuality is detectable even at this early stage in his career. Based on a novel popular in the mid 19th century, Ekkehard tells the story of a 10th century monk from St Gallen, who is brought from his monastery as a teacher for a duchess, but falls passionately in love with her. Thus the grand opening chords, horn calls evoking the grandeur of the vision ahead. This theme alternates with a quieter motif which might represent the monk, or his awe at arriving at the palace. Thunderous timpani, crashing cymbals, brass fanfares remind us that the splendour the monk sees around him is built upon military might. A passage for organ, reflecting Ekkehard's true background, is soon overwhelmed by a fierce march, possibly a march into battle. Ekkehard's infatuation is doomed. The overture draws to a close with sadder, darker motifs as Ekkehard returns once more to the mountains. This overture deals with ideas that Schreker would go on to develop with greater sophistication in Der Geburtstag der Infantin and even in Die Gezeichneten : the use of medievalism as cover for modern concerns, the concept that true art isn't based on mass values and above all the contrast between exterior beauty and inner corruption.
The Phantastische Ouverture op 15 (1904) shows how Schreker, in his mid-twenties, was seeking orchestral possibilities from the starting point of drama. There is no programme to this overture. The opening motifs are drawn with ominous power, soon undercut by fast moving, fragmentary figures which hurtle forwards. A new motif emerges, also animated but more sustained, sweeping confidently to the conclusion, where bell-like peals herald exuberant chords.
With Vom ewigen Leben, Schreker has proceeded to different territory. This started as two songs for voice and piano, completed in 1922. Five years later, Schreker orchestrated them into a coherent whole. The texts come from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, used in German translation. The first section, "Wurzeln und Halme sind dies nur" is delicate, silvery percussion mirroring the soprano's high timbre, complemented by strings and restrained woodwinds. The silvery textures blend into the woodwinds of the second part, "Das Gras", where flutes and clarinets circle the soprano (Valda Wilson). This section is nearly three times as long as the first, with extended orchestral interludes. The sophistication of the orchestral writing makes this a true “orchestral art song” much greater than the sum of its parts.
Cinema was the new art form of the 20th century, growing from drama, opera and music. It was as if Wagner's concept of Gesammstkunstwerk had been made possible by new technology. The connections between music and film were clear. Silent films were accompanied by live performance. Many early art films, such as Berlin Symphony of a Great City (1927) used a musical framework on which to pin a non- narrative, semi-symphonic structure. Berlin was one of the most important centres of art film, where masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1921) were produced. It was natural that creative artists like Schreker would have recognized the connection between film and music . Like Alban Berg and others, Schreker understood the potential of cinema, and the significance of new sound technology. Indeed, Schreker and Schoenberg were in regular contact on the subject of music and film, and in January 1929, Schreker, a Director of the Berlin Academy of the Arts, became responsible for the music section of the new German Society for Sound and Vision. Hanns Eisler, Schreker's contemporary, wrote the first major theoretical work on music for film, and made a good living writing film music without sacrificing art.
Schreker's Vier kleine Stücke fur grosses Orchester (Four little sketches for large orchestra) (1930) is therefore a response by the composer to a new genre, not much different to the way he wrote overtures as experiments for opera. They should not be dismissed as “late works” simply because the composer died three years later, but as the work of a composer still brave enough to explore. Turning to film was not a diminution of his powers but rather a continuation of what he'd done before, but in a new direction.
Schreker's Vier kleine Stucke fur grosses Orchester demonstrates the way in which music could be used to advance drama and work with visuals. Each of these sketches is short but vivid, evoking a mood or emotion to intensify the images shown on screen. Dialogue in silent films was limited, for obvious reasons reduced to minimal intertitles, and voice technology still fairly primitive that “talkies” killed many silent actors, and early film music largely songs and interludes. Timoroso (marked zugend) is not timid so much as tentative, a curtain raiser promising wonders to come. Violente (marked hestig, ungestum) is flamboyant, its zig zag rhythms exotic, setting the scene for “oriental” adventure films so popular at the time. Incalzando (marked Eindringlich) casts haunting mystery, with lines that could adapt to a variety of situations where characters might need to pause for thought. Gradevole (marked Gefallig) alternates dance-like energy with serenity, which again could be adapted to different scenes. Emphatic timpani !
Just as Schreker's Vorspeil zu einer Drama (1913) led to Die Gezeichneten, the Vorspeil zu einer Grossen Oper (Memnon) (1933), Schreker's last completed work, might have been a working model for a truly “grand” opera. We shall never know. In Greek mythology, Memnon was a great warrior, a god king from Ethiopia (ie an outsider like so many Schreker heroes) who came to the aid of others but was killed. Thus exotic sounds, woodwinds imitating Arabic pipes set the scene, strings weaving sensually above a steady pulse which may suggest the tread of a camel caravan. The pace is broken by dissonant chords, ushering cross-currents of sound weaving in different directions. Dramatic, yet disturbing. Though harps introduce a calmer but still oriental mood. The “caravan” motif attempts to return, but is swept back by wild, flying turbulence, underpinned by undertones of almost brutal percussion. Dark, brooding colours emerge, against which lyrical moments seem plaintive, though they persist. Swirling themes, rising perhaps like dust off the desert or distant smoke, are undercut by ominous rumbling. Horns call, and the orchestra surges, before suddenly breaking off and falling silent. Given that this Vorspeil was written effectively in exile, when the Nazis were hounding out “degenerate” modern composers, Schreker didn't have a chance. Vorspeil zu einer Grossen Oper (Memnon) was premiered in March 1958 by Hans Rosbaud, champion of new music, for SWR in Baden-Baden so it is rather moving that SWR sponsored this new recording.
Please also read my other posts on Schreker and on the music of the Weimar period, including Walter Braunfels, Hanns Eisler, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Suppressed Composers, Weimar and other silent film etc etc

Hubert Parry : Songs of Farewell - Quinney, New College Choir, Oxford

Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell are highlighted by the Choir of New College, Oxford, conducted by Robert Quinney, on Novum Records and receive very fine performances indeed. But the disc is also worth hearing because it places Parry together with Felix Mendelssohn, making the connection between Parry and the European mainstream.

The disc begins with Parry's Hear Ye, O my people ! Written some twenty years before the Songs of Farewell, it is solidly in the “Cathedral” style typified by Samuel Wesley, for massed voices. It was first performed by the Salisbury Diocesan Choral Association which could deploy up to 2000 singers. Initially the organ dominates with spectacular effect, but a solo quartet soon emerges, defining the line and leading the unison voices. A solo aria for bass “Clouds and Darkness” creates further focus. In contrast to the might that has gone before, “Behold, the eye of the Lord” shines with lightness, the purity further underlined by a youthful treble. The organ introduces the hymn “O praise ye the Lord!” drawing together the soloists, the choir and the magnificence of the New College organ (here played by Timothy Wakewell). The influence of Bach is detectable in the structure, showing the depth of Parry's understanding of wider European sacred music.

It's entirely apposite, therefore, to hear Mendelssohn's Sechs Sprüche in this context, given how Mendelssohn acknowledged Bach. Mendelssohn's oratorios and other works were received with such enthusiasm in this country that he is effectively a British composer by adoption. These six motets date from 1843-1846 and were written when Mendelssohn was Generalmusikdirector to the Hohenzollerns in Berlin, and reflect the Prussian pietist aesthetic. The songs are a capella, their beauty unadorned, so to speak, the blending of voices reminiscent of the early Lutheran Church, of Heinrich Schutz and even of Palestrina. Each motet addresses Christian themes – Christmas, New Year, the Ascension, the Passion, Advent and Karfreitag (Good Friday), and are readily adaptable for liturgical use.

Parry's Songs of Farewell can thus be heard in context, their contrapuntal clarity built on firm foundations. Though not entirely secular, they aren't religious in any restrictive sense, but reflect Parry's interest in ethical issues. "My Soul there is a Country", sets a 17th century text by Henry Vaughan. The “country” here isn't a nation in the modern sense, but a place beyond “foolish ranges” where grows “the flower of Peace, the Rose that cannot wither”. “I know my Soul hath Power” places moral responsibility on the individual. “I know myself a Man, which is a proud and yet a wretched thing”. “There is an Old belief” refers to the idea “old friends” shall meet again after death “Beyond the sphere of Time and Sin”. God appears in “At the round Earth's imagin'd corners”, to a text by John Donne, the vocal setting radiant, voices subtly and beautifully parted. “Lord let me know mine End” is poignant, given that by 1918, Parry's health was declining. He didn't live to hear the Songs of Farewell performed as a group at a memorial concert in his honour, at Exeter College Chapel with the combined choirs of New College, Christ Church and the Oxford Bach Choir, under Hugh Allen, Parry's friend and successor at the Royal College of Music.

As a bonus, Parry's Toccata and Fugue for organ in G major and E minor, from 1912, written for an organist who lost his right arm in battle in 1917 but survived. When Hugh Allen performed it at New College a few years later, he played with one arm tied behind his back. In this “intense, elliptical work, writes Robert Quinney in his excellent notes, “the advanced chromaticism and sometimes dense texture is reminiscent of the neo-Bachian form and harmony of Max Reger”. Just as there's a case to be made for Parry as the father of modern British music, he has a place in the wider European mainstream.

Please see my other posts on Hubert Parry, including


Parry Symphony no 4 - Rumon Gamba, BBCSO Chandos


Parry Twelve Sets of English Lyrics from SOMM Vol 1 Vol 2 and Vol 3


Parry Symphony no 5 at the Proms 2017


Parry and the Battle of Jutland

and much more

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Germans and Britons - Leipzig marks the End of the First World War

What real heroes did when it rained in the Somme

(For my piece on Vladimir Jurowski's inspired Eternal Flame concert for Armistice day, please read here)   From Leipzig Peterskirche, the Gedenkkonzert 100 Jahre Ende ertsen Weltkreig (Memorial Concert marking 100 years after the End of the First World War) - Max Reger, Rudi Stephan, Walter Braunfels, Gustav Holst, Ernest Farrar and Samuel Barber.  Alexander Shelley conducts the MDR-Rundfunkchor und MDR-Sinfonieorchester, broadcast via BR Klassik.  It's worth watching as well as listening, as the Peterskirche was bombed during the Second World War, remaining a ruin for many years. Appropriately the concert began with Max Reger's Totenfeier, a section from his incomplete Lateinisches Requiem Op. 145a. The word "Requiem" repeats, weaving through the orchestration like an unbreakable thread, expressing the idea of a funeral procession  

Rudi Stephan's Musik für Orkester in einem Satz (1910) followed. Stephan was killed in battle on 28th September 1915, aged only 28.  It's not a "war" piece, but its initial elegaic mood fits in well . Long , exploratory lines lead to wilder animation, trumpets and other brass calling forward.  Perhaps these are military, but perhaps not, since the instruments can signify different things in different times.  Elliptical lines : watch the trombone tubes moving back and forth. An extended inner section, hushed and mysterious, with muffled pulse, strings rising upwards, the top graced by clarinet, flutes and cello, delicate bell sounds for colour.  As the piece draws to a close the strings swell and a stange, angular melody emerges. It's whimsical yet also provocative, stimulating the orchestra into epressive outburst.  After a diminuendo, the temporary stillness gives way to more invention - whistling string lines, dizzy exuberance and emphatic final chords.  Not music of defeat or disillusion.  This isn't recycled retro but intelligent and highly original, reflecting the creative ferment of Secession Munich, and possibly the "modern" Germany of Weimar art and film and literature. Stephan is definitely on the radar in Germany. There are no less than three recordings of his opera Die ersten Menschen on the market.  It's so "Expressionist" that it's not easy to follow if you're expecting verisimo and washes of colour, but think in terms of Jungian archetypes, semi-pagan folklore and so on. Indeed, the spirit of Schoenberg Moses und Aron (1932) seems to be there in germ.  Imagine if Stephan had lived : he would have felt much common ground with Franz Schreker and Walter Braunfels.  

Throughout his whole career, Braunfels was obssessed by war and the causes of war. To reinterpret his passionate anti-militarism as soft centred "romantic" is a travesty.  Be careful which conductors you listen to. In this concert, he was represented by just one song  Auf ein Soldatengrab op 26 to a poem by Hermann Hesse, written in 1915. ".....Der Jugend wandelt licht in weiten Räumen und hört der Ahnen Chor aus dunklem Quell im heligen Berge träumen".  Please read HERE for more about Braunfels' Orchestral Songs and also look up "Braunfels" on the link below.   

Gustav Holst's Ode to Death (1919) blends voices and orchestra to create lush textures which suddenly ignite into crescendo. returning again to ethereal harmonies "Over the treetops I float thee along, over the rising and sinking waves, come lovely and soothing death, come with joy!". Harps and fine, bell-like tones in the orchestra suggest transcendence.  Ernest Farrar lived for a while in Dresden, not all that far from Leipzig,  so it was good to hear him represented here.   Like Stephan and Braunfels, Farrar was a soldier though he was killed only two days after arriving at the front.  His Heroic Elegy Op 36 was completed in 1916, before he went to war.  Unsurprisngly, it is a war piece, a slow march, lit by flares of intensity : not so much a funeral march biut the long hard slog of soldiers entering a  battlefield, hearing gunfire in the distance, the inexorable tread emphasized by pounding timpani.  The ending is striking - single phrases repeated with silence between, growing ever quieter til all sound disappears.  Samuel Barber's Agnus Dei, in the context of the First World War is something of an anomaly, being Barber's 1966 adaptation of his Adagio for Strings. No ostensible 1914-1918 connectioins here other than that the text used is the Agnus Dei from the Requiem Mass with the words "Dona Nobis Pacem", which just happens to fit.  Sure the Americans entered the war in 1917, but wouldn't it have been fitting to acknowledge the French or the Belgians, Russians or Italians ?   Debussy Berceuse héroïque is about the same length, though without choir, and carries the same message : that patriotism born of love is better than nationalism born of hate.   


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Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Eternal Flame : Jurowski for Armistice Day - Stravinsky, Janáček

Vladimir Jurowski (photo: Vera Zhuraleva, IMG Artists)
Photo: Roger Thomas
"The Eternal Flame", on the eve of Armistice Day with Vladimir Jurowski conducting Debussy Berceuse héroïque, Stravinsky Requiem Canticles and Janáček The Eternal Gospel with Magnus Lindberg Triumpf att finnas till with the London Philharmonic Orcehstra at the Royal Festival Hall, London.  A hundred years ago the guns fell silent. The First World War was a trade war gone global, but now we are faced with an even worse scenario: demagogues so malevolent that they make the warmongers of 1914 -1918 look innocent.  Today, the leaders of France and Germany embraced each other, signifying unity, not war.  Yet all around, there's a whole new tide of extremist nationalism, anti-democratic hysteria fuelled by greed and racism. When populist movements armed with  mind-control technology suppress all opposition, so much for "Lest We Forget".  

Driving through the rainstorm on the way to the South Bank this evening, the Embankment was flooded, so you could hardly make out where the road ended and the river began.  Utter despair. But in Vladimir Jurowski we have a haven of hope. His programmes are always thoughtful, his mind connected to higher ideals and principle.  Unlike politicians and the media who own them.  The concert started with Debussy Berceuse héroïque, premiered in October 1915, commissioned by the Daily Telegraph to show solidarity between the allies. There are quotations from La Brabançonne, the Belgian national anthem, which my partner knows well, with his background in racing bikes. The anthem expresses love (patriotism) but not aggression (nationalism). Thus Debussy set it as a berceuse, a lullaby, for piano. Here we heard the arrangement for orchestra, where harps introduce low voiced strings and winds.  It is ironic that the Daily Telegraph today stands for anti-European jingoism, not solidarity and certainly not civilised restraint.

Magnus Lindberg's music is well known to South Bank regulars - there have even been Lindberg festivals in the past - so I expected much from this world premiere of his Triumpf att finnas till (Triumph to Exist)It has Lindberg characteristics, like firm structure, its seven sections well characterised, with a reprise of the beginning to form a satisfying canon, an observation worth remembering in context with Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles. The text is a poem by Edith Södergran (1892-1923), a Swedish-speaking Finnish poet,  written in 1916, during the Finnish war of independence, which she herself, living in Karelia, experienced first hand.  "Its meditation on the transcience of life is a defiantly positive  affirmation of the joy of existence" writes Lindberg , "the outpouring of one who refuses to submit to the hopelessness all round her."   Lindberg has written relatively little for voice, so it was interesting to hear how he uses the texts almost like incantation: vowels extended as if each were dotted with strings of umlauts. The performance suffered, though,  because the diction  of theLondon  Philharmonic Choir wasn't up to their usual standards. (They were fine, though, in Stravinsky and Janáček). Perhaps the cause was  the very newness of the piece and lack of rehearsal time :  I suspect it will grow as it matures.

Jurowski's journey through Stravinsky these last few years paid off handsomely with the Requiem Canticles. where the orchestra and choir were joined by soloists Angharad Lyddon and Maxim Mikhailov. Dating from 1966, it is late Stravinsky, but also surprisngly "modern" in the sense of being original.  Based loosely on a Requiem Mass, its seven sections move with deliberate formality, the inner structure sparsely but concisely defined.  The Dies Irae offers some form of emotional release, but otherwise the piece proceeds like a a funeral cortege, so painful that at times sounds fall silent, mirroring a kind of inner desolation.  The Libera me is a call for help without faith in deliverance. Is this a Requiem for a post-apocalyptic world, where there is no hope of redemption ? Given the current political situation, the performance felt unusually harrowing, a tribute to Jurowski's uncompromising clarity of purpose.  The Canticles are framed by a Prelude and a Postlude, both entirely orchestral, with an Interlude in the middle, providing foundation for the segments for voice and chorus which operate with different textures, like the wailing of mourners, though more disciplined.  Details, such as the trumpet calls and bells,  add colour, but only enough to throw the chiaroscuro gloom into relief.  Mikhailov's voice rang out forcefully, filling the hall. The London Philharmonic Chorus were on top form, as they usually are, every syllable well  articulated.

Janáček’s The Eternal Gospel was written around the First World War, when the destruction of the old order seemed imminent. This was a critical point in the Czech struggle for independence. The “Allelujahs!” here aren’t religious, but political,  much in the way the Glagolitic Mass isn't a Christian piece but something far more primeval. In The Eternal Gospel, there is an angel, but one which comes from the End of Time. The poem, by Jaroslav Vrchlický (1858-1912), is a "modern" take on Revelation, based on a 12th-century mystic's vision of the end of time when "wealth, all possessions, gold, jewels and fortune will turn to mire". It's incendiary stuff, attacking the "she-wolf of Rome". It even knocks Jesus, who "only stooped to man". Raising St Francis of Assisi above Christ isn't something a 12th-century monk would or could do. This is clearly Vrchlický's poem, not Joachim di Fiore, but an adaptation. It's uncompromisingly radical, way beyond piety or even nationalism. Janáček, passionately anti-clerical, could spot a cogent bit of blasphemy. The piece also represents a critical point in the composer's development. In 1917, Janáček was poised between his "old" style of writing and the breakthroughs he'd reach with The Diary of One Who Disappeared and what was to follow.

Vsevolod Grivnov sang Joachim of Fiore : a wonderful performance, ringing with conviction.  The high notes are meant to express strain, defeated by the protagonist's visionary fervour,  and are  no demerit whatsoever.  My benchmark is the recording with Benno Blachut, almost beyond compare, but Grivnov is good, holding the piece almost the whole 20 minutes. Andrea Dančová sang the Angel, but she had less to do, because Janáček isn't that interested in the angel, except as justification for the wilder sentiments expressed in the tenor part.  Though Janáček’s The Eternal Gospel is not "about" the 1914-1918 war, and has nothing to do with Armistice Day, its message perhaps transcends such things, reminding us that there are more important concerns than war-mongering, and the shabby non-ethics of populism and hate.  No surprise then that it is a Jurowski favourite, which he has conducted on quite a few occasions. 

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Elgar The Music Makers Spirit of England Andrew Davis, Chandos

Andrew Davis conducts Elgar The Music Makers and Spirit of England Op 80 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Sarah Connolly and Andrew Staples for Chandos, juxtaposing Elgar's private and public faces.

Elgar's The Music Makers op 69  premiered in July 1912, but had been long in gestation. Elgar knew of Arthur O'Shaughanessy's Ode when he was in his twenties, when he was isolated, scraping a living as teacher, organist and conductor of the very limited orchestra at Powick Asylum, not far from his home, with no obvious prospects. Thirty years later, his status solidly established,  might he portray himself in this piece, just as he had portrayed his friends in the Enigma Variations, incorporating references to his own music, not so much for their own sake but because, as he wrote, they expressed "my sense of the loneliness of the artist". Despite his success and acclaim, Elgar identified creativity with alienation. Artists are "dreamers of dreams, Wandering by lone sea-breakers, And sitting by desolate streams; World-losers and world-forsakers, On whom the pale moon gleams".  The slow orchestral introduction gives way to a more forceful section, where the chorus bursts forth  "One man with a dream, at pleasure. Shall go forth and conquer a crown; And three with a new song's measure Can trample a kingdom down."   The orchestra surges in full flow, but animato fades to più lentoOnly halfway through does the contralto (Sarah Connolly) emerge, heralded by harps. "They had no vision amazing.....no divine foreshowing Of the land to which they are going:" The music makers proceed towards uncharted territory with calm assurance.  Yet again, tranquility gives way to con fuoco and back to lento.  Ironically, it is the chorus, not the soloist who sing of "dreaming and singing, A little apart from ye." as if isolation is still too uncomfortable to sing about without ensemble, despite the confident crashing chords in the orchestra and raised voices.  A quiet transition to the finale, when the mood rises again, Connolly singing forcefully. "Great hail! "  The artist shall "teach us your song's new numbers; And things that we dreamed not before: Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers, And a singer who sings no more."  Though the soloist fades to stillness, the chorus continues to hold the line.
Elgar's Spirit of England  op. 80 (1915-17) is so powerful that it draws you into its glorious self confidence  even though we now know where jingoistic bluster can lead.  But for a moment we are spellbound by the sheer extravagance of the piece.  Drums roll, strings surge and the BBC Symphony Chorus explode.  Andrew Staples's voice rises heroically above the wall of sound. "Spirit of England, go before us !" The orchestral writing sets a pulse which supports the chorus, where male and female voices sing alternating lines. This creates an interflow suggesting vast, turbulent forces. Staples shaped the magnificent line "We step from days/ of sour divison/ into the grandeur of our Fate", each key word meticulously articulated, the last word "Fate" ringing out like a clarion.  Staples’s enunciation was sharp, consonants crisp, much more idiomatic than the other three tenors I've heard in this piece in recent years. The English tenor style, at its best, brings out the edge in the language hinting at hidden undercurrents : what really is the unshakeable soul of "divinely suffering man"?   This does matter, since Elgar may well have seen the circumstances more acutely than did the populist poet. A male voice captures an edge of anguish and pain, while female voices express the more conventional Boadicea approach.
In contrast to the first section "The Fourth of August", the second section "To Women" is more restrained.  While the tenor line was integrated with chorus and orchestra, it now stands almost alone. Phrases like "like a flame" and "boundless night" fly upward from the line, Staples emphasizing them with flourish.  A melancholy violin passage introduces a much darker mood.   "For the Fallen" is a funeral procession but proceeds forward with relentless surge, Davis marking the throbbing undertow in the orchestra. The choral line with its clipped, almost staccato tension, evoked, perhaps gunfire.  The woodwind figure, followed by low-timbred strings, was particularly moving. "We shall remember them", sang Staples, his voice carrying above the chorus and orchestra.  "To the end, to the end, they remain".

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Cultural Crimes

Chop Suey - a dish that doesn't exist in China. The word is a direct transliteration of 雜碎  which means miscellaneous left overs, randomly thrown together.  The story is that white folks approached Chinese railroad workers in California, wanting their food. So they got some. "What’s this dish?" . "Jaap sui".  The idea of CANNED leftover scraps is cultural  crime. Kind of explains some things.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Stanford Mass Via Victrix premiere, Partington, BBC NOW.

Charles Villiers Stanford's Mass Via Victrix, resurrected and edited by Jeremy Dibble, with Adrian Partington conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  This world premiere will get a lot of attention since Stanford has become fashionable in recent years, so it's sure to be well received.   Completed in December 1919, it is  inscribed with the Latin translation of a line from Psalm 66, "Transiverunt per ignem et aquam et eduxsisti in refrigerium",  which means "We went through fire and through water; But You brought us out to rich fulfillment.". Since Stanford and his contemporaries knew their Bible well, it is worth reading the psalm in full. (link here)  because the psalm is not a hymn of mourning but a song of triumph.  

Even more pointedly, the psalm is about power  that cannot be questioned.  "How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power. Your enemies shall submit themselves to You" And "He rules by His power forever; His eyes observe the nations;Do not let the rebellious exalt themselves".  Which is fair enough as God is omnipotent, but soldiers killed in battle, no matter how heroic they were, are men, not gods : they cannot be conflated in the same terms.  So savage was the 1914-1918 war that everyone had some connection to those who were killed, maimed or bereaved, and by 1919 it would have become obvious that the configuration of Europe was irretrievably changed. Many had been mourning for years. 

It is not enough to take this Mass at face value. The title is explicit "Via Victrix" - the "Way of the Victor".  This is no personal expression, but a public statement  taking pride in the idea that Might is Right.  Perhaps that's why the piece didn't fit the mood of those post-war years, when millions were numb with grief,  with no taste for the bullying belligerence that led to war in the first place.

Stanford's Mass Via Victrix is a Mass, more or less following the format established long before the Reformation.  Religion does not come into it as a means of musical expression : many composers who have written Requiems weren't devout and no doubt a good few were only Christian by social convention.  Stanford would certainly have known  Brahms German Requiem.  Because Msses operate in sequence they provide internal structure and colour.  Introits are processionals,  Dies Iraes are turbulent, Sanctus's are reflective, Pie Jesu's are plaintive.  And the ultimate goal is always the same : redemption.  Thus variations are built into any Mass, obeying the shifting liturgical balance.  Stanford follows the form faithfully, alternating outbursts of volume with moments of restraint.  Each section is elaborately orchestrated, maximizing impact and drama,  making the piece impressive. Ultimately, though, a Requiem recognizes that man is mortal, and that God alone brings victory over death.  Humility is of the essence !  Not that that has hindered some much loved Requiems, full of ego and show.  I don't think we should assume either way that bluster and piety are incompatible.  Stanford must have been very pleased with himself.  The assertive certainities of this Mass are comforting to live with in our modern world, which seems to be growing infinitely more divisve and extreme.  Perhaps the popular mood has shifted again, as it did in the years after 1918, and the time has come for a Mass Via Victrix, as long as you are on the right side.  As music, Stanford's Mass Via Victrix is rousing stuff,  easy to march along with, and should prove popular, triumphalist or not, though one should caution against calling it a major masterpiece.  Certainly, a performance executed with gusto, from Partington, BBC NOW and soloists Kiandra Howarth, Jess Dandy, Ruairi Bowen and Gareth Brynmor John. 



Frederick Septimus Kelly's Elegy for Strings, In Memoriam Rupert Brooke provided an interesting counterpoint : achingly poignant and sincere, the smaller ensemble and tight orchestration allowing  intimacy.   Although Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin may have been included in this programme to extend the war memorial aspect to France, the piece is more than a set oif portraits of departed friends.  It is every bit as much a homage to French style, and to the vigour of the dance forms defining it.  The programme began with Ernest Farrar's Rhapsody No 1 "The Open Road" , Op 9 (1908). Ostensibly the connection is that Farrar, who was killed in the Somme after having survived Gallipolli, was a student of Stanford, but so was practically everyone else. Farrar's piece is very original,  imbued with a free-wheeling spirit.Vaguely  Scottish cadences suggest wide open spaces,  away from constrained civilization.  What might Farrar have gone on to had he lived ? Would he, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, have continued his musical adventures exposed to the brave new world of Ravel et al ?


Monday, 5 November 2018

Wilfred Owen, Dunsden Green - a personal memoir


Wilfred Owen died 100 years ago, but his poetry has made him immortal.  But what shaped Owen's personality, and his singular art ? Unlike Siegfried Sassoon, who recognized Owen's potential when Owen was a gauche nobody, Owen didn't come from an elite background.  Owen's parents were not well off, not poor but not secure. After many years moving from place to place they ended up in a two-up two-down Victorian terrace, now facing a downmarket shopping mall on a rough estate.  Nonetheless, for years the tenants hung hanging baskets outside, a display so colourful that the houses were a local landmark.  Owen's parents and sister are buried in All Saints Church in Dunsden Green, (pictured above) a few miles away, where Owen served as lay assistant to the Vicar from 1911 to February 1913.  That connection must have meant a lot to them.  Inside the Church, there's a memorial plaque on the wall in Wilfred's honour. 

Owen himself might not have been quite so genteel. Though the Vicarage where he stayed was luxurious (it's a local landmark, too), many of the people of the parish were desperately poor, living in overcrowded hovels, employed seasonally, often insecure. Disease speads quickly when people are overworked and underfed.   Owen used to visit  these tenements and must have been well aware of the contrasts between the Vicar's life and the lives of those in his parish.  Whenver he had the opportunity, he'd walk miles into town, visiting a bookshop for "modern" literature, different fare no doubt to what was in the vicar's library.  The route he walked is pretty much as it was then, despite the traffic. Until recently, you could still see painted signs on buildings advertising hay and coal.  The hovels are now renovated,  some of them weekend homes for the rich from London. The thatched pub at Binfield Heath, which Owen would have known, but was probably not allowed to visit, dates from 1300 and served travellers taking sheep and cattle to market. 

On 15th October 1912, one of the villagers, John Allen, set off to a new job in Maidenhead :  a  step up in the world, away from rural slums.   Full of hope and anticipation, the family loaded up a horse cart with their belongings and set off to their new life.   On the way to Playhatch, the road becomes extremely steep : even in a modern car, you notice the gears change.  A huge sofa - a status symbol - shifted and tipped the cart over, killing Mrs Allen and her daughter. The Allens are buried in the chucrhyard at All Saint's, too. Owen assisted at the funeral. This shook whatever faith Owen might have felt in the church, and in the social order.  It compounded an emotional crisis, which he resolved by getting as far away as possible, to France, where he had no connections.  And so,Owen's distinctive personality was moulded, long before the trenches and the Somme.  Below, the  poem he wrote about the Allens's tragedy,  Deep Under Turfy Grass. 
Deep under turfy grass and heavy clay 
They laid her bruisèd body, and the child 
Poor victims of a swift mischance were they, 
Adown Death’s trapdoor suddenly beguiled.
I, weeping not, as others, but heart-wild, 
Affirmed to Heaven that even Love’s fierce flame 
Must fail beneath the chill of this cold shame. 
So I rebelled, scorning and mocking such 
As had the ignorant callousness to wed 
On altar steps long frozen by the touch 
Of stretcher after stretcher of our dead. 
Love’s blindness is too terrible, I said; 
I will go counsel men, and show what bin
The harvest of their homes is gathered in.
But as I spoke, came many children nigh, 
Hurrying lightly o’er the village green; 
Methought too lightly, for they came to spy
Into their playmate’s bed terrene. 
They clustered round; some wondered what might mean 
Rich-odoured flowers so whelmed in fetid earth; 
While some Death’s riddle guessed ere that of Birth. 
And there stood one Child with them, whose pale brows 
Wore beauty like our mother Eve’s;whom seeing, 
I could not choose but undo all my vows,
And cry that it were well that human
 Being
And Birth and Death should be, just for the freeing 
Of one such face from Chaos’ murky womb, 
For Hell’s reprieve is worth not this one bloom.
 

The real end of the 1914-1918 war

 100 years ago, sailors in the German Navy mutinied against the Kaiser.  Another Revolution begins. The 1914-1918 war didn't end in "victory" but in collapse.



Sunday, 4 November 2018

Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress : Jurowski LPO

Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, latest in Vladimir Jurowski's Stravinsky series at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  Given that Jurowski's Rake's Progress at Glyndebourne is a classic, this semi-staged concert performance was an excellent opportunity to revisit the piece, focusing more acutely on the opera as music. This was an excellent performance, orchestrally, bringing out the restraint in Stravinsky's orchestration,  not so much "neo-classical" as baroque. The harpsichord (Helen Collyer) was positioned between orchestra and soloists, reinforcing baroque sensibilities and the notion of opera as moral allegory.  Although W H Auden wrote the libretto, his reference was Hogarth's series of paintings The Rake's Progress (1732-4), and the series of etchings printed for mass circulation in the following years, from which David Hockney drew his inspiration for that iconic Glyndebourne production. Thus the stylization in the opera, playing with many concepts on many levels, at once black and white yet ambiguous.  Auden's text is elegantly convoluted, its literary eloquence deliberately masking the horror in the story, so those who'd prefer not to think past the hard, brittle surface may come away thinking that it's arch comedy.  And laughs there are, but not always nice. What might seem moral just might not be : everyone in this opera is compromised in some way, apart from Baba The Turk, who is, significantly, the outsider.

Matthew Rose reprised the role of Nick Shadow as he did in 2011, adding also the Keeper of the Madhouse, which was a wise choice, since arguably, Nick Shadow, like the Circus Master in Alban Berg's Lulu , pulls the strings in a zoo where people are animals.  Toby Spence sang Tom Rakewell, with Sophia Burgos as Anne Trulove, with Clive Bayley reprising the part of her father.  Andrew Watts, standing in  at 24 hours notice as Baba the Turk, almost stole the show, however, with a camp but extraordinarily sensitive interpretation of the role.  Kim Begley sang Sellem the Auctioneer and Marie McLaughlin sang Mother Goose. The stage platform was arranged so that the orchestra and chorus (London Voices) were close to the back wall, leaving a lot of empty space in front, to give the singers room to move (rather than teetering over the edge as is usually the case). But this, combined with the surprisngly non-capacity audience, muffled the singing to some extent, to the disadvantage of the less-dominant voices. Rose carried the performance through most of the First Act, but Watts's entry seemed to galvanize proceedings.   Perhaps the echo in the hall worked against clear diction, other than from the principals , as some in the audience complained, which was a pity since Auden's texts are poetry, to be savoured even without Stravinsky's coiling lines, stretched vowels and spiralling cadences, oddly reminiscent of Benjamin Britten, whose work Stravinsky must have known by 1951.

Tom's descent to debauchery is conventional enough - shades of Faust and Mephistofeles here, and in the card game towards the end, of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, and even sly allusions to Tannhäuser and Venusberg - all of these part of the cavalcade unfolding on many levels and many forms.  But where does Baba The Turk fit in with this Faustian adventure ? What kind of creature is she/he and how does she/he change the narrative ?  She/he's first heard of when Nick Shadow shows Tom a broadsheet from a travelling show she stars in.  He's aghast but Nick taunts him "For he alone is free, who chooses what to will and wills his choice as destiny".  So  Tom marries her to prove he's free, but ends up more tied than before.  Although the role is often taken by a woman, (Patricia Bardon, who was originally scheduled, has done the part very well many times before), having a countertenor adds extra frisson, in addition to underlining the baroque connections.  Baba's a bearded lady, and exotic as all "Turks" are supposed to be.  Watts appeared, spotlit and veiled,  mincing in stilettos, transforming the opera and performance.  Wonderfully, flamboyantly androgynous ! 

Everyone else in these proceedings scams everyone else in some way, even Anne Trulove, whose "love" isn't truly altruistic since she plays games of social convention.   But Baba's on the level, giving up fame and fortune for a wastrel like Tom.  All the others treat each other like commodities: Sellem the Auctioneer might sell objects, but these objects are symbols of lives gone wrong, people making money from the misfortunes of others.  Even Baba becomes an object. "Old wives for sale".   Tom winds up in the madhouse, babbling about Venus  (Tannhäuser and creativity in the guise of woman). The opera resolves, like Don Giovanni, with a moral, where the main characters tell what they've learned.  " All men are mad; all they say or do is theatre" (Baba)  and "Beware, young men who fancy you are Virgil or  Julius Caesar : Lest when you wake, you are only a rake". (Tom). And even Nick Shadow who acts like he's in control, but isn't. "Many insist I do not exist. At times I wish I didn't". 

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Polish Independence BBC SO - Elgar Paderewski Szymański Lutosławski


Celebrating Polish Independence Day in advance, Paderewski, Szymański and Lutosławski with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michał Nesterowicz at the Barbican and on  BBC R3. To start, Edward Elgar's Polonia  op76 (1915), a statement of hope, written at a time when Poland didn't yet exist except as part of the Austrian and Russian Empires. It blends themes from Chopin and Paderewski in a mix of grand orchestral music, mazurkas and marches with quotations from Mazurek Dąbrowskiego, the Warszawianka and other Polish patriotic songs. Though Polonia might not be Elgar premier cru, it's a showpiece, good for occasions like this, reminding  us that the  connections between Britain and Poland go back a long way. In this wave of post-Brexit racism, we must recognise that Poles are not "the enemy" but very much part of the community.  Thousands of Poles escaped to Britain, either from pogroms in Russia or from other suppression, after 1914, after 1939 and since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Polish immigrants are the biggest European minority in this country, and form the backbone of the economy in all sectors.  British music has been enriched by Poland, not just through greats like Chopin and Liszt but by the integration of composers like Szymanowski,  Lutosławski, Panufnik and others into the DNA of modern British performance practice.
Elgar's Polonia was dedicated to Ignacy Jan Paderewski so fittingly, it was followed by Paderewski's Piano Concerto in A minor op 17, premiered in 1889 by Hans Richter, who was close to Elgar and to Parry.  The soloist here was Janina Fialkowska.  A dramatic opening gives way to an allegro at times expansive and serene, the piano's rippling figures complemented by emphatic chords in the orchestra.  The second movement is romantic, with  lovely parts for violin and cello. The finale is rousing.  Like the composer himself,  it's appealing, though maybe not material for virtuosic celebrities. Like  Polonia it is a gesture which needs to be heard.
A meatier second half, with Paweł Szymański (b 1954) Fourteen Points-Woodrow Wilson Overture,and the biggest modern Polish composer of all, Witold Lutosławski.  Szymański's piece, a new commission, is a meditation on the ideas in Woodrow Wilson's visons of a newe age in the aftermath othe old order.  The 13th section refers to the creation of an independent Polish nation.  This music is not literal by any means, taking themes and re-arranging them in more open-ended ways.  It is thoughtful music, not showy, but rewards attention for those with minds open to possibilities.  A good opening for Lutosławski's Symphony no 1 which evolved gradually in stages in wartime conditions.  During this period the whole world seemed in upheaval. The symphony feels like a search, exploring new territory, the first movement tense and hostile, even though it's marked allegro guiosto.   Despite the circumstances in which it was created, the symphony is clasically shaped in four movements, the orchestration precise and beautifully detailed. An excellent performance from Michał Nesterowicz and the BBCSO.  (please see here for my piece on Lutosławski's Derwid songs)

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Shostakovich Michelangelo Songs : Goerne, Honeck, Finnish Radio Symphony


Manfred Honeck conducted the Finnish Radio Symphony (Radion Sinfoniaorkesteri) in Shostakovich Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti op. 145a (Matthias Goerne, soloist) and Mahler Symphony no 1 livestreamed on Finnish Radio's Areena HERE. Goerne has been singing these Shostakovich songs for years, most recently in the voice and piano versions (with Andsnes, Schhmalcz and Trifonov) so it was good to hear him sing them again with full orchestra, which he's also done, and in the full eleven-song version.

Brooding strings and percussion introduced the first song Istina (Truth) in which Michelangelo states the need for an artist to have integrity, whatever his lords or patrons might prefer to hear. The authority in Goerne's delivery, his timbre as solid as the rock which Michelangelo the sculptor turned into art.  Thus the contrast with the sensuality of Utro (Morning), where the poet describes his lover's golden tresses, garlanded by flowers. Michelangelo's sculptures are so vivid that they seem to pulse with life. Fingers press, making indentations on the marble as if it were living flesh.  Beneath the smooth surface, these sculptures seem to throb as though muscles and blood vessels throbbed within.  thuis the exclamation "What, then, would my arms do" inviting the viewer/listener into the physical experience.  A flute introduces Lyubov (Love) suggesting intimacy, elusive piping figures suggesting lightness, even whimsy, in contrast to the darkness in the vocal line.  Beauty grows when it unites with the heart, and becomes immortal.  Michelangelo, being an artist, lives eternally in the works he left behind.  And so to the expansive long lines in Razluka (Separation) which express distances, in time and in space. The poet cannot live without love, and dies, leaving the memory of his devotion as a pledge. Goerne's voice softens to tender near sotto voce, as if cherishing the miracle of creation, the last phrase held so it floated into stillness.

In Gnev (Wrath) the mood changes, and the orchestra seems to flare up : violent chords, with sharp edges, trumpets, bassoons and trombones : a very masculine rage, ideally suited to the ferocity Goerne can express when needed. The text refers to the way Christ's message is distorted and abused. Chalices are turned into swords and helmets and Christ's blood sold like a commodity in the marketplace.  And thus to Dante, whose visions of heaven and hell inspired great literature, but who was forced into exile, "for his splendour blazed too brightly for common eyes", as Goerne declaims in the next song Izgnanniku (In exile), the curving vocal lines lit by metallic percussion, timpani and baleful low brass and strings.  The orchestra swells, then falls silent around the singer, and surges again like a chorus.  Goerne sings the last line tenderly : "No  man equal, or greater was ever born".  Christ and Dante, visionaries, persecuted for what they believed in. The sharp dissonances in Tvorchestvo (Creativity) suggest hammerblows : the sculptor doggedly chipping away. Alarums and crashing cymbals, shining brass and winds, and metallic bells, suggesting the triumph of art over base material.  In Night (Noch') Strozzi marvels at a statue: can the angel be stone, if she seems asleep ? A somnolent postlude to Stnerf (Death), where the strings seem to pulsate, like a human body at rest, trumpets calling as in nightwatch.  In Bessmertie (Immortality), the poet reflects. Through what he has created, the artist lives on, his art inspiring those who understand his work.  The piping flute duet of Lyubov (Love) returns : love is a force of life, brightly carrying on the torch.  Goerne's voice grows firm and full, buoyed up by conviction. Powerful chords in the orchestra, a moment of stillness broken by staccato suggesting the hammerblows in Tvorchestvo (Creativity).  Since Goerne hasn't recorded Shostakovich's Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti this performance from Helsinki with Honeck should be treasured.  As a bonus, there's an interview with him on the broadcast where he speaks about the piece. 

An enjoyable Mahler Symphony no 1 from Honeck and the RSO. What a good orchestra this is ! There are connectiond that could be made between Shostakovich Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Mahler's First Symphony. Indeed Goerne has a programme in his repertoire which deals specifcally with the connections between Mahler's Early Songs and this particular set of Shostakovich songs. Please read more HERE, it's good.  For example, the idea of Titans, which gets sneered at because the tage was not used by Mahler himself. But Mahler and his contemporaries knew their classics better than modern audiences do. They would have known about the race of Titans who were very strong, but venal, and were supplanted by proper Gods. Base material turned into art, just as Michelangelo would have done.  Not in this performance though which emphasized the Spring like aspects of the symphony and its youthful spirit