Thursday 29 November 2018

Harmonia Mundi Debussy - FX Roth Les Siècles

The Harmonia Mundi Debussy series continues with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles, in Jeux, Nocturnes. and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. 

An extremely fine performance of Jeux, Roth and Les Siècles playing with the tightly-focused poise this piece needs in order to capture the energy of  strategy and exchange. In Jeux the game is, ostensibly, tennis. Or is it ? Two young people are fooling around, but suddenly a ball is thrown onto the court, changing the game. Strange, quivering chords, suggesting tension. Rays of brightness, throwing  the darkness into menacing contrast.  In musical
terms, this means constant flow between points, patterns crossing and recrossing, staccato contrasting with freewheeling liveliness. Like
Boulez, Roth marks the sense of "listening". The players on this court have to be alert and reespond. Perhaps the wild, tantalizing line represents the mysterious ball. Whatever, it has energy and purpose,
unlike the players when they came onto court.  At last a blaze of horns and rising energy in the music. Are they players being "illuminated" ? Suddenly, tantalizingly, the music ends. Instead of closure in the conventional symphonic sense we're left to think for ourselves. I love Jeux because it's open ended and "modern". There may be dangers ahead, the  understated wit in the piece suggests adventure, not doom.
  This performance is good because Les Siècles is grounded in the fundamentals of the baroque, where dance underpinned music : thus the importance of clarity, precision and physical energy.

In the Nocturnes, Debussy seems to illustrate a seascape. The movements have programmatic titles - Nuages, Fêtes, Sirènes - but as always, good music is more than literal depiction.  Waves keep changing shape and position, thus the concept of constant change, figures moving and shifting in myriad ways. In an ocean, motion is controlled by invisible forces, like tides and wind. Thus the concept of musical form which might suggest undercurrents and ideas behind surface appearance.   Roth and Les Siècles shape the first two Nocturnes emphasizing the intricate detail beneath the broad sweep, for these details are like the "brushstrokes" in painting.   But it is in the third Nocturne, Sirènes, where Debussy breaks in even more innovative form.  The women of Les Cris de Paris, vocalize, singing abstract sound instead of words. The shifting patterns, nuances and tones create the concept of a horizon that keeps moving and changing, with infinite variety. From these wonderful cross-currents and multiple textures, the borders of tonality are beginning to fade.

Though we hear it so often, it's bracing to remember that Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune broke new ground in 1889. Informed by a century of pschological insight, we can interpret the meaning of the central image. The fawn is a wild creature who acts on instinct, defying social restriction. Through symbolism Mallarmé could express emotions too dangerous to be openly expressed. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune grows from a tradition of allegory that goes back to the Greeks.  Debussy's music defies categories. Its chromatics stretch tonality, at once rich, yet clean and pure. Think of fin de siècle art with its curving forms, representing an aesthetic of freedom.  Like the fawn, the flute line moves and turns senusously, explicitly erotic. In Vienna, Freud had yet to formulate his ideas on dreams and the subconscious. In the French-speaking world, the symbolists (as early as Baudelaire) were already there.  François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles bring out the fundamental purity in the piece. Much of the beauty of the piece lies in its mysterious ambiguity and the multi-level interaction between the flute and lower-voiced winds, strings and harps. The flute represents Pan, the fawn his disciple. This in itself is symbolic, for in ancient Arcadia, lone musicians sing in landscapes where the rules of society do not apply.  Here, the flute stood out, highly individual, enhanced by but not overpowered by the luxuriant background, lush strings and resonant winds. Roth and Les Siècles are aware of the "classical" as well as modern allusions in this remarkable work : the horns are natural, gently muffled as if heard from a distance. An important reminder that the fawn will be hunted down and killed. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is not at all "romantic"  Beneath the exotic surface lurks danger.  The Prélude lends itself to dance because it flows gracefully, yet is also lucidly disciplined : keynotes of French style since Lully and Rameau. 
Please also see my review of  François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles in Ravel for Harmonia Mundi. and Pablo Heradas Casado Debussy with a Le Martyre de saint Sébastien but where Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is nowhere near as well performed as on this new Roth/Les Siècles disc. 

Schubert Unfinished - Concentus Musicus Wien, Florian Boesch

Schubert Unfinished (Aparté AP189) is the first CD Concentus Musicus Wien has recorded since the death of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who, in the course of countless musical voyages of discovery, had such a decisive influence on its musicians. The ensemble explores "uncharted territory" with orchestrations of Schubert Lieder by Johannes Brahms and Anton Webern, soloist Florian Boesch, with a new completion of  Schubert’s Symphony in B minor (D 759) compiled by Nicola Samale and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs.

Anton Webern's orchestrations of Schubert Lieder date from 1903, very early in his career, and are of interest because they show how Webern approached the adaptations with restraint. They are faithful to the purity of Schubert's idiom, perhaps teaching Webern the virtues of understatement : nothing like the elaborations of Franz Liszt ! "Tränenregen" from Die Schöne Müllerin supports the vocal line with delicate strings, woodwinds and chamberpipe organ murmuring when the voice is still, replicating the refrain in the piano part.  "Der Wegweiser" from Winterreise is equally hushed, providing a contrast to Brahm's darker orchestration of Schubert's Memnon D541, to a text by Mayrhofer. Just as the character of a poem affects its setting, an orchestration should reflect the song.  Thus Brahms's orchestration of Schubert's Geheimes D719 is lighter and livelier. Goethe's poem describes playful flirtation, hence the good humour in Schubert's and Brahms's approach. "Ihr Bild" from Schubert's Schwanengesang is a setting of Heinrich Heine, also very distinctive. It draws from Webern almost funereal low timbred horns and brass, assertive but never dominating the vocal line.  Boesch rings out the final words "Und ach, ich kann es nicht glauben, Dass ich dich verloren hab’!" like a cry of anguished recognition, for the painting is all that remains of the beloved, who is dead.  The anthem-like solemnity of Webern's orchestration shows his sensitivity to the poem and to the song. It is one of the highlights of the whole disc.

Schubert's Gruppe aus Tartarus D583 sets a text by Friedrich Schiller, and is highly dramatic. Brahms's orchestration matches its forcefulness, ascendant figures with hunting horns and long trombone lines, and an almost Beethovenian climax, followed by brief, potent postlude. Schubert's tender Du ist der Ruh D776 is complemented by Webern’s graceful orchestration. 

Drafted in 1821, Schubert's manuscript for what is known as his seventh symphony exists in sketch form, with a melody line and bass and counterpoint underneath. All four movements of the 7th were drafted, but he only orchestrated the slow introduction and the first 110 bars of the first movement. setting the piece aside before working on his opera Alfonso und Estrella. There also exists an autograph draft of a complete third movement (Scherzo, D 759/3),with the opening bars orchestrated., to which Samale and Cohrs have added a brief trio to create a third movement. They also suggest that it is possible that the first entr’acte from Schubert’s incidental music to Rosamunde (D 797/1), dating from the same period, was intended to serve as the symphony’s Finale. This movement, lasting almost four hundred bars, is also in B minor, and it bears many noticeable similarities to the symphony. Indeed, there are motivic relations that link both the Scherzo and the entr’acte with the symphony’s first two movements. Over the past 150 years, there have been several attempts to complete this symphony.  This version, first performed by Concentus Musicus Wien in 2014 and conductor Stefan Gottfried is gracefully paced and good listening.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Bohuslav Martinů - What Men Live By, Jiří Bělohlávek Czech Philharmonic

World premiere recording from Supraphon of Bohuslav Martinů What Men Live By (H336,1952-3) with Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from a live performances in 2014, with Martinů's Symphony no 1 (H289, 1942) recorded in 2016. Bělohlávek did much to increase Martinů's profile, so this recording adds to the legacy, and reveals an extremely fine work.  What Men Live By is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Where Love, God Is (1885) though the composer borrowed the title from a different Tolstoy story.   At its first full performance, by students at Hunter College in 1955, critics heard it was "a profoundly Christian opera" but did not understand its context. That was not the composer's intention.  He wrote to  a friend in Brno comparing it to his earlier works based on medieval miracle plays, such as The Miracle of Mary , emphasizing that "it must not be performed 'pathetically' but joyously. That is why it is called an opera-pastoral. The text tempts one to adopt a serious and grave approach yet that was not what I planned. For me, it is a blithe work, and the listener must not perceive it as a religious moral (guidance) but has to feel joy".

It is also significant that The Miracle of Mary, written in Paris in 1936, reflected interest at that time among many composers, such as Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (please read more HERE), which Martinů would have known of, and Walter Braunfels's Die Verkündigung (Please read more HERE) which he would not have known, or even Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (1935-6).  At a time when Europe was facing the rise of extreme nationalism that used medievalism for legitimacy, Martinů and his peers’ adaptation of medieval form served a radically different purpose.  Therefore, it is a mistake to assume its lack of success was caused by its being deemed old-fashioned, when it in fact represents a significant thread in European music, which critics at the time might have missed.  In any case, by 1955, it could not have been lost on audiences that the composer himself was in exile and could not easily return to his homeland. What Men Live  By is simple, but not naive, a very sophisticated work despite its cheerful lightness: it’s a chamber oratorio sparsely but deftly scored, which benefits from Bělohlávek's sprightly touch.

Distinctively Czech themes run throughout the piece, notably in the introduction, which begins with a pipe organ, its melody taken up by pipes and then drums in jolly mock-medieval procession. Martinů's What Men Live By tells the story of Martin Avdejic, a lonely old cobbler who lives in a basement, where his window on the world allows him to see only the feet of those who pass by.  Ivan Kusjner sings Martin, his deep baritone suggests a down-to-earth working man. The chorus  (Martinů Voices) surround him with ethereal harmonies.  Martin has almost given up on life. A sorrowful solo violin plays, as Martin's lines are solemnly intoned, the choir repeating his words, like a response in church, the pattern reflected in the balance bewteen the two Narrators, Josef Špaček (spoken) and Jaroslav Březina (tenor).  A vision appears, embodied in the voice of the alto Ester Pavlů, who tells Martin that she will visit him the next day.  A very Bohemian sunrise, with horns, pipes and jaunty strings.  Zig-zag piano lines suggest the street outside Martin's workshop, full of busy people rushing past. Though he's waiting for his special visitor,  he welcomes in old Stepanovich  (the bass Jan Martiník) and gives him shelter from the snow.  Martin spots a woman (Lucie Silkenova) shivering in the cold, holding a baby.  Martin gives her a warm coat and cradles the child. "Surely it was He, himself, who sent me to you!", she sings. The chorus returns, singing as joyfully as pealing bells.   An old woman ( Ester Pavlů) is in the street, selling apples. A boy (Lukáš Mráček) playing harmonica (heard in the orchestration) steals one and runs but Martin stops work and chases him. The old woman wants to call the police. Martin asks the old woman to forgive the child, and she does. She once had seven children but now she's all alone. The boy then helps the old woman carry the sack and they walk off happily, to the sound of the harmonica.  A rustic chorale prepares us for the finale.  Martin goes to bed, disappointed but in the darkness he spots the people he'd met during the day. The alto and soprano join to sing the words of the Visitor Martin had been expecting. " In as much as ye have done to one of the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me,” the last two words haloed by the chorus.  The radiance in the last moments may suggest that Martin is borne up into Heaven.

Although What Men Live By might seem simple, Martinů emphasized the pitfalls of performing it without understanding its purpose. "The technical hurdles include the fact that the singer should not sing as is customary today (but) he should 'preach' and edify, striving to make the text moere expressive.  By and large these days, instead of a melody one hears something like uauauauaua, imbued with 'affection'" (possibly translation error for 'affectation'). "That would not be good", he continued. "It should be sung like a folk song devoid of pathos. I think that the text itself is beautiful and so it does not need to be in any way enhanced". Fortunately Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic understand the Bohemian folk sources so thoroughly that they capture the free-spirited vigour in the piece, as far as one can get from stuffy "churchiness".  The text is in English, written by Martinů himself, so Bělohlávek's soloists, not being native English speakers, have strong accents.  But this is is in fact an advantage, because their accents emphasise the fundamentally Czech nature of this music and also the non-realism which Martinů was trying to achieve. They are all top-rank experienced singers, not students, and understand the idiom properly. As I was listening, I thought of the stylization of medieval mystery plays, where directness of message mattered most, without any pretence of verismo and over-colouring. This also connects to the clarity of the orchestration, simple figures and single instruments used for maximum effect. On this disc What Men Live By is paired with Martinů's Symphony no 1 which is a good choice, since the symphony begins with a striking ascendant theme which complements the finale of What Men Live By.  As Aleš Březina writes in his notes, "it should be pointed out that the avant garde composers in interwar Paris, where Martinů lived and worked from 1923 to 1941, set up their own aesthetic criteria in opposition to Late Romantic music.....while in the USA, symphonic music enjoyed great popularity". Martinů, who had no income other than royalties from earlier work, was glad to accept a commission from Serge Koussevitsky. The composer had some difficulty in proceeding, but,  once he was satisfied with that introduction, the rest of the symphony flowed.  Bělohlávek conducted all the Martinů symphonies in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which are available on CD. He had planned to record them again with the Czech Philharmonic, but his illness intervened. On the basis of this performance, that series which never came to pass would have been outstanding.  Though here it is an add-on to the much rarer What Men Live By,  it is a recording to be cherished.

Monday 26 November 2018

Jade Plant in bloom

 When Jade Plants flower, they bring good luck. this one blooms, year after year. And it has brought happiness, too.

Requiem : The Pity of War - Bostridge Pappano

"Requiem: the Pity of War with Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano.  The inspiration came from Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which Bostridge has done numerous times. Britten's War Requiem," he writes "seems to express in art Winston Churchill's notion of the 1914-18 conflict as the initiator of the 20th century's own Thirty Years War" since it spans the First and Second World Wars, blending the poetry of Wilfred Owen, poet of the trenches and the spirit of reconciliation that motivated the commission marking the  rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. Thus the quotation from Owen, "My subject is War, and the Pity of War". "How might one reflect the experience and significance of the conflict" writes Bostridge "in a song recital ?". The answer might be this excellent programme, with interesting repertoire choices and approaches to more familiar material. Bostridge and Pappano, whose partnership is long and fruiful, are doing this recital live at the Barbican Hall on December 5th. The recording, from Warner Classics, is now available, well produced with good illustrations.

Bostridge and Pappano begin with George Butterworth's Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, perhaps th best known English song cycle with a connection to war, given that Butterworth  was killed in the Somme in August 1916.  Housman's poems were published in 1896 : the war they pertain to might  be the Boer War, or colonial wars, but the connotations are not specifically military. They deal with more generalized concepts of youth and death, impermanence and loss.  Even though Butterworth collected folk song, a quasi-folk song approach doesn't necessarily apply.  Bostridge and Pappano demonstrate an art song approach, which may at first seem unsettling, but works on a more esoteric level  In "When I was One and Twenty" the last words "'tis true, 'tis true" are held open ended, suggesting possibilities beyond text. If the dynamic lines in "Look not into mine Eyes" are more extreme than usual, this emphasizes the unease that lies behind the poem : the lad "that many loved in vain" does not reveal himself, to anyone. "A Jonquil, not a Grecian Lad". "Is my team ploughing" feels decidedly supernatural.

This disc is worth getting, though for a superlative performance of Rudi Stephan’s song cycle Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied. Stephan was an extremely promising composer as his best-known works, the two Musik für Orkester in einem Satz attest, his opera Der ersten Mensch being a prototype of Expressionist music theatre.  The six songs in this cycle, to poems by Gerda von Robertus (1873-1939) inhabit a world much closer to aesthetics of the period when exoticism was heightened  by an awareness of the dangers of the subconcious.  The poems are terse aphorisms, Stephan's settings concise. The nearest equivalent might be Alban Berg's Altenberg-Lieder, also from the same period (1911-12) In "Kythera", "Der Rosen Düfte liebeatmend schwingen in welchen Weilen" while the sound of aoelian harps drifts from afar. The setting floats gently, held sotto voce.  In "Pantherlied" the piano line ripples, suggesting pent-up animal energy.  The text in "Abendfrieden" is little more than a series of broken phrases which Stephan uses to create a song so delicate that it seems to hover in stillness. This oscillation occurs also in individual words like "Sonnenfeuer" which need careful shaping, but Bostridge captures the right vulnerabilty.  "In Nachbars Garten duftet" describes a linden tree, which shivers "dammerlauschig kühl". Yet this is no pastoral. Lovers embrace, but why do the poet's eyes "overflow in burning pain"?  The song is as magical as a song by Hugo Wolf, but with a kick in the tail.  The mood of secrecy continues in "Glück zu Zweien" where "in the hubbub of the crowd, we found the silence of shared feeling".  The vocal line stretches and curls, twining like "Zwei Könige wir, die finden das Reich ihrer Einsamkeiten". Throughout this cycle, tension has been building up, which finds release in the final song "Das Hohelied der Nacht". Yet again Stephan observes the fragmented nature of the phrases,  using them to proceed rapidly to the last line "Du küsst es mir vom Munde", which rises like a cry of sudden triumph.  These songs are miniature masterpieces and are done reasonably often, but Bostridge brings out the inner musical logic better than anyone else, with his intuitive feel for meaning and the curling, curving timbre of his voice.  Incidentally,  Stephan died in strange circumstances. The night before he died, he could not sleep, surrounded by the agonized cries of the wounded all around.  In the early hours of the morning, he stood upright in his trench at Tarnopol in Galicia on the Eastern Front, and shouted  "Ich halte es nicht aus!" and was promptly shot by a sniper.  He was barely 28.  

From the sophistication of Rudi Stephan to the relative straightforwardness of Kurt Weill's Four Walt Whitman Songs.  Bostridge varies the marching rhythms in "Beat ! Beat ! The Drums" with articulation that twists in protest. If  "Captain ! My captain !" is a strophic ballad, "Come up from the Fields, my Father, there's a letter" is dramatic, delivered here with appropriate portent.  The military antecedents of "The Dirge for Two Veterans" are impeccable. Gustav Holst set this text ("The Last Sunbeam") in 1914, and it was also set by Vaughan Williams (in Dona Nobis Pacem).  Weill wrote these songs after Pearl Harbor, when the United States joined the Second World War.  Like Britten's War Requiem, they help this Bostridge and Pappano programme bridge two World Wars.   
Three songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn conclude the programme. Again, these are not folk songs, but art songs.  Significantly, the songs chosen here are ghost songs, which suit a singer who is a superlative Peter Quint. In "Revelge", skeletons march through a town at night, and "Der Tambourg'sell" is a death knell, Pappano's piano "drumming" as Bostridge's voice rises to near-scream before descending to the low rumble of the refrain "Gute Nacht".  Best of all, though, is "Wo die Schöne Trompeten blasen" where Bostridge and Pappano capture the spookiness that pervades the song even before the girl knows what's going on. She, too, will die before the year is over.

Friday 23 November 2018

Thursday 22 November 2018

Darkest Midnight - Songs of Winter - Papagena SOMM

Darkest Midnight : Songs of Winter and Christmas - an eclectic collection of acapella songs on the theme of winter - with Papagena, a delightful offering for the Christmas season from SOMM Recordings : so enjoyable that you could listen at any time of the year. With Papagena, there are “No props, no microphones, no gimmicks, just five stunning voices“ who “explore the wealth of music from medieval times to the present day”. Their programmes “defy pigeonholing, drawing richly on traditional folk music and women's working songs as well as classical repertoire and new work commissioned for women's voices, many arrangements made by members of the ensemble. This disc is a rewarding purchase, even if you don't mark the season as a religious festival, but appreciate winter as a time for wonder and good music for its own sake.

Don eiche ud im Beithil (I sing of a night in Bethlehem) is a traditional Irish song with a text by a 16th century Archbishop of Armagh. Here it is heard in an arrangement where the voices blend in radiant polyphony. The sopranos (Elizabeth Drury, Abbi Temple, Suzzie Vango) sing with the purity of trebles, while the altos (Suzie Purkis and Sarah Tenant-Flowers) add warmth and richness. Part lament, part ballad, Maria durch ein Dornwald ging (Mary walked through a wood of thorns) is ideally suited for women's voices, given that it describes the trials of the Virgin Mary, walking through a forest of thorns, which suddenly blossoms as roses because she's carrying the infant Christ – a sacred work song for women, from the Middle Ages ! How refreshing it is to hear the Christmas story told from Mary's perspective ! In Nowell, tidings true there be come new, the voices are accompanied by a simple drum, as medieval songs often were. The text honours “A clean maiden and pure Virgin”. The singing is so delicate that it seems to cast a glow. Exquisite stillness in O Jesulein zart, where the altos sing in rapt adoration, cradling the sopranos.

In John Tavener's setting of W B Yeats' A Nativity, the lines stretch, the unison clear and shimmering. The balance of voices in Shchedryk (Hark How the Bells) creates a refrain with the effect of silvery bells pealing in harmony. Ballulalow is an arrangement made for Papagena of a 16th century Scottish song itself based on a poem by Martin Luther. The main melody is surrounded, like a halo, by tones as pure and bright as light shining through stained glass. Then Papagena springs a surprise – a song by Joni Mitchell, The River, transformed as if it were a modern carol. The alto sounds like Joni Mitchell, only more sophisticated and refined, though she captures the feisty irony that is part of Mitchell's style. Det lisle banet (the Little Child) is a traditional Norwegian ballad that tells of a farmer who leaves a fox in charge of his geese. But the fox kills them. In compensation the fox must make “soulgifts” to the farmer's child. A strange, unworldly parable told with dramatic effect. A single drum beats, at first slowly, then more insistently, adding a note of tension to the women's voices which keen as if they were recounting a primeval saga. There is much to listen to on this recording, which is much more than “Christmas listening”.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

My Lord has Come - Christmas with Ardingly College - Stone Records

My Lord has Come – Christmas music from Stone Records with Schola Cantorum, Ardingly
College, Sussex, one of the earliest schools in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Church of England, with director Richard Stafford. Thus the inclusive character of the music on this recording. Stone Records Christmas offerings are usually a delight, usually livelier than much of the surfeit that floods the commercial market at this time of the year. Stone Records Christmas  offerings make gifts that keep on giving pleasure year after year. One of my favourites is Deck the Halls (A Swedish Christmas) Please read more HERE.

As befits the name “Schola Cantorum”, the choir are a youth ensemble, and the purity of their singing makes this collection a refreshing choice for the season. A maiden most Gentle is a variant of an ancient hymn, which Roman Catholics will instantly recognise as the Ave Maria. The English text is different, dispensing with the explicitly Marian devotion of “Immaculate Mary, Our Hearts are on Fire”, the emphasis changed to Mary's role in the Nativity, though the familiar refrain “Ave Maria” remains the same. Similarly, Bogoroditsye Dyevo is an arrangement of the sixth movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil based on the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox faith. Thus the “nocturnal” hush, where the dynamic level rarely rises above pianissimo : private reverence in communal situation. Closer to the Anglican mainstream, The Truth from Above which Ralph Vaughan Williams found in Hertfordshire and used in his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912). John Rutter'sarrangement of the traditional Appalachian song I wonder as I wonder employs a lilting melodic line for solo soprano, with supporting voices in lush harmony. 

  Lux aurumque is by Eric Whitacre, who wrote that “If the tight harmonies are carefully tuned and balanced, they will shimmer and glow”. The version here of The Holly and the Ivy  is by June Nixon, employing the organ to create flowing scalic ideas, bare chords soaring to majors at the end. All Bells and in Paradise is John Rutter’s 2012 adaptation of the Corpus Christii hymn, and the SussexCarol here is a setting by Philip Ledger. Bethlehem Down, perhaps the best known “modern carol” of all had no sacred origin. It was written by Peter Warlock – an agnostic if not rather more – and his drinking companion Bruce Blunt, for a competition in the Daily Telegraph, and used the proceeds for non-pious purposes.

This is the Record of John is an Orlando Gibbons' anthem on the discourse between St John the Baptist and the Jews and Levites, expressed in counterpoint and cadential flourishes. Lully, lulla, Lullay is a modern setting of the Coventry Carol, gentle harmonies leading to soaring descant. To liven things up, Tomorrow is My Dancing Day, where the organ dances, clumsily, to the Cornish folk song, adapted in the 1960's and described then as “medieval Dave Brubeck”. Light hearted humour, just right for the season of goodwill and cheer.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Wolfgang Rihm Requiem-Strophen, world premiere recording Mariss Jansons

The world premiere recording of Wolfgang Rihm's Requiem-Strophen (2015/2016) with Mariss Jansons conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks with Mojca Erdmann, Anna Prohaska and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, from BR Klassik NEOS. Rihm is perhaps the most prominent living German composer, so his engagement with the Requiem form is significant, particularly as
he deals thoughtfully with the issues of life and death which any true requiem should address. This Requiem is secular but very spiritual and sincere, more so than many that just borrow the form. It is austere, yet lucidly beautiful, and deeply felt. It is strongly structured, fourteen sections in four parts with an epilogue, like an interlocking puzzle, with interconnecting themes and internal patterns. The orchestration is concise, nothing frivolous, nothing wasted.  The word “Strophen”means verses, but it's used here not just because the piece uses verse, but because this provides yet another level of meaning, reflecting the formal internal procession of the piece through different stages : a true Mass in the deepest sense.

Rihm's Requiem-Strophen begins, not with the blaze like the Angel of Death at the end of Time but with the cry of an oboe, a more “human” voice. Significantly, it is cradled by the two female soloists, singing not in unison, but in harmony. “The oboe never starts a sentence”, writes Brachmann, “it always answers, just as every Requiem is a reaction to that which is unalterable – a person, with whom we shared our life, is no more”. The oboe is also a reed instrument, wordlessly reflecting the parable from Isiah which serves as text in the Initial. “Omnis caro faenum” (All flesh is grass, and all, its loveliness is like the flowers of the field), which must die, but may set seed. This carries through to the rest of the First Part, where the oboe's low timbre is extended by the slow beats of muffled percussion – a funeral march - the chorus and later the soloists singing long chromatic lines, lit by calls from muted brass and a string instrument, being plucked in a deliberately unsettling discord. The Kyrie offers a note of hope, though it is brief and operates like a reiteration of the first section.

Three Sonnets from Michelangelo form the framework of the Second Part, In the first sonnet, bright sounding brass announce the entry of the bass soloist (Hanno Müller-Brachmann) singing of the inevitability of death. The text is Michelangelo, transcribed by Rainer Maria Rilke. This is a pointed reference to Shostakovich (Please see my piece on Shostakovich Sonnets of Michelangelo here). This requiem is ameditation, too, on artists and the role of art in a nihilist civilization that seems hell-bent on self-destruction. Thus the ominous murmurings in the orchestra as the Psalm (De profundis clamavi ad te Domine) begins, and the elliptical lines of the chorus,which stretch forth then break off suddenly yet keep returning, wave after wave. As the lines become firmer, individual instruments in the orchestra awaken and join in. This structure reiterates the words of the sonnet “Des Todes sicher, nicht der Stude wann, das leben kurz und wenig komm ich weiter”. The second Sonnett (“VonSünden voll, mit Jahren überladen”) begins with a sudden crash,soon retreating to a smooth string line behind the bass, intoning with intense depth, his voice rising very high on the words “….hin, Wo sich die Seele formt” as if trying to reach upwards. The last line “und mach ihr sicherer die Wiederkehr” repeats the ellipse employed before, which is further replicated by a reprise of the Psalm, this time again subtly varied, though the stop start rhythm is retained. Typical Rihm patterns within patterns ! Just as the Kyrie provided a bridge between the First and Second Parts of Rihm's Requiem, Sonnett II (“Schon angelangt ist meines Lebens Fahrt”) draws the Second Part together as a coherent whole, as well as leading into the Third Part.

The chorus sing Rilke's Der Tod ist groß wir sind die Seinen in what is effectively a Libera me. This first section of the Third Part contains a strophe within a strophe, the choral part interrupted by a dramatic interlude executed with spartan simplicity – sinle notes of hollow, beaten percussion, repeated in succession before the chorus returns, not singing but chanting the word “Libera me”, and then, after a silence interrupted briefly by percussion, the blunt words “de morte”. Nothing else – no “aeterna”. Where does the liberation in this Requiem come from ? The female soloists (Erdmann and Prohaska) who were largely silent during the Second Part return in the Lacrimosa, their lines intricately intertwined. The Missa pro defunctis surges through Rihm's Requiem-Strophen like an underground river, resurfaces as a reminder that, however new the music, what it represents is beyond time. Thus the Sanctus, the holiest point in any Mass, where Rihm weaves the text in elaborate patterns, single words and parts of words repeated creating depth of texture. “Hosanna in excelsis” emerges in a blaze of chromatic radiance, even though it follows the pattern of stop and start that is the pulse of this requiem. “Der Tod ist groß“ returns too,accompanied by percussion, alternately full throated and quietly hollow. Rihm's Requiem-Strophen reaches its conclusion in the present, so to speak, with a Fourth Part that begins with a Lacrimosa based not on liturgy but on Der Tod, a poem by Johannes Bobrowski published in 1998. This poem, like the Rilke poem, was quoted briefly in the First Part of the piece. This Lacrimosa is scored for the two female soloists,yet again singing complex cross-harmonies, this time with an extended interlude for orchestra and choir, where turbulent chords replace the hollow percussion in the First Lacrimosa, This interlude surges forwards, wiping away what has gone past, preparing the way for the Lacrimosa of the Missa pro defunctis intoned, in Latin, by Müller-Brachmann. His final “Libera me” rings out before he falls silent and the voices of the choir ring out around him, like an angelic chorus. At last, in this Agnus Dei, the protagonist has found peace, of a sort. The words “Dona nobis Pacem” are divided into fragmented patterns, but warmed by the refined writing for voice, the words have radiance.

Is there an afterlife in Rihm's meditation on life and death ? His Requiem-Strophen concludes with an Epilog, using the text of Hans Sahl's poem Strophen, published in 2009. The poem itself is elliptical, phrases repeated with slight variation, so it lends itself perfectly to Rihm's approach. “Ich gehe langsam aus der Welt heraus in eine Landschaft jenseits aller Ferne”…..and what I was and am and will stay forever, “zeht mit mir ohne Ungeduld und Eile, als war ich nie gewesen oder kaum”.(Go with me without impatience as if I had never been or hardly was). The soloists are in repose, but the choir sings on, serenely, and the orchestra rises to new heights. The ebb and flow and stop start pulse remains, its significance revealed. The pulse of an individual human body might cease, but others continue to beat and will do so in bodies as yet unborn. Rihm, like Schoenberg before him, has always acknowledged his appreciation of Johannes Brahms, whose German Requiem is an obvious model, though Rihm's idiom is uniquely his own. Rihm's Requiem-Strophen is therefore much more than a generalized Requiem but also a tribute to artists, poets and composers who have gone on before, and an inspiration for creative minds in the future.

It's worth getting this recording on disc rather than online, because the CD includes an almost poetic essay CD by Jan Brachmann on the philosophy behind it,describing Rihm's discussions with George Steiner. “Intellectual” should not put anyone off, even in these days when critical thinking is treated as thought crime : all sentient human beings should have the capacity to listen and learn. Nonetheless, it is not at all difficult to approach Rihm's Requiem-Strophen on a musical and emotional level.

Monday 19 November 2018

Hubert Parry : Twelve English Lyrics vol III SOMM

SOMM Recordings Hubert Parry Twelve Sets of English Lyrics vol III with Sarah Fox, Roderick Williams and Andrew West, brings to a conclusion what has been a landmark series, demonstrating how Parry established English Song as a distinct art form, different from German Lieder and from French Mélodie, and indeed from other Victorian song. By extension this also serves to highlight Parry's unique role in British music history. Britain has strong literary traditions : composers like Purcell worked with playwrights like Dryden. British audiences were receptive to Handel because he wrote for the theatre. His oratorios, like Mendelssohn's, connected to the role of music in British religious culture. Hence the predeliction for vocal music and for choral music in particular. British music is music for voice, either declaimed or sung. The situation isn't dissimilar to France or Italy where sacred music and opera dominated, and even in Germany and Austria, symphonic music in the modern sense didn't take root until the 18th century. So much for the myth of Das Land ohne Musik ! 

Because Parry's songs specifically address English art poetry, they mark a departure into new territory which would later be developed by composers like Vaughan Williams and others who sought out folk tradition and by by composers like Finzi, who addressed Tudor, Stuart and Restoration poetry. Notice Parry's term “English Lyrics”, focussing on English as a language. Parry's outlook was progressive, alert to contemporary European influences, which is no demerit, given the extremely high quality of 19th century Austro-German music. Effectively, he was the father of modern British music. Please read more here about Volume I in this series (settings of Shakespeare and 17th and 18th century poets) and about Volume II (where Parry sets poets of the 19th century, close to his own time, not unlike the way that Schubert, Schumann and others set Goethe and Heine.

My heart is like a singing bird dates from 1909, and was written for the soprano Agnes Hamilton Harty, (wife of the pianist Hamilton Harty). The lines fly and soar - like a songbird - and Sarah Fox's clear, lyrical singing does it justice. The text is Christina Rossetti's A Birthday. Extending the imagery, The Blackbird, If I might ride on puissant wing and A Moment of Farewell. The first is relatively straightforward but its very simplicity evokes the folk song adaptations that became popular in the Edwardian period. A Moment of Farewell, (to a poem by John Sturgis) however is more sophisticated with an elaborate, rolling piano line, (pianist Andrew West) evoking the “buoyant emotion” of a “bird flying far to the ocean”. With The Sound of Hidden Music, Parry is writing art song as fine as any German composer’s. The piano introduction flows elegantly, almost caressing Sarah Fox's lines. Although the poem, not specially adept, is by Julia Chatterton, unknown today, Parry's response lifts it well above the ordinary. The memory of “things of life that touch the heart are things we cannot see” warm the spirit in winter. It was signed on his 70th final birthday in 1918, inscribed with the words “Slowly and with deep feeling”. This was to be his last birthday, and final completed song. There is some evidence that he did not think he would live out the year, and indeed, he died some months later.

Just as Schubert set poems by people he knew, Parry chose poems by friends who meant a lot to him, which tells us much of his humane and caring personality. Nine of his seventy-four English Lyrics (eight included in this collection) are settings of John Sturgis, Parry's classmate at Eton and fellow student at Oxford. Like Parry himself, Sturgis was able to switch to art from business. Through the Ivory Gate describes a vision of a dead boyhood companion. “No friendship dies with death”, sings Roderick Williams, whose style of direct communication makes the song feel personal. A Stray Nymph of Dian, another Sturgis setting, describes a Grecian nymph, and draws from Parry a more declamatory approach. A Girl to her Glass is flirtatious, while Looking Backward is not melancholy – not a Parry characteristic – but thoughtful. Grapes is boisterous, as befits a paean to Bacchus. “Grapes, grapes, grapes beyond all measure!” sings Williams with good humour.

Alfred Perceval Graves, an Inspector of Schools, was well known in Victorian times. “I am weaving sweet violets, sweet white violets” sings Williams in A Lover's Garland. Parry's setting is elegant, reflecting the classical reference to “Heliodora's brow”. At the Hour the Long days Ends in lesser hands than Parry's might have veered close to parlour song, but he treats it with dignity. Graves's poem The Spirit of the Spring, with its references to Taunton town and archaic words like “maund” (a unit of weight) is quaint in an artificial way – he was no Housman or Hardy – but Parry, like Schubert, could elevate less than ideal verse with good musical setting.
The rather better poetry of Langdon Elwyn Mitchell inspired Parry to greater heights. Nightfall in Winter captures a sense of enveloping darkness. The piano plays single notes in succession, suggesting the steady coming of night, cold and frost. “The clouds obscure the sky with gloom”, sings Williams, his voice rising upwards for a moment before settling back into somnolent mood. Mitchell also wrote the text for From a City Window, one of Parry's best-known English lyrics. “I hear the feet below”, sings Sarah Fox, as West plays the bustling piano part, “(which) go on errands bitter or sweet whither I cannot know”. A long pause, for rumination before the second verse, “A bird troubles the night” evoking “vague memories of delight”. Another, shorter, pause before the final strophe “And the hurrying, restless feet below, on errands I cannot now, like a great tide ebb and flow”. A strikingly modern song, with its urban context and sense of unknown possibilities, the bird a symbol of longing yet disquiet. Although Parry's Twelve Sets of English Lyrics have been recorded before in various forms, this series from SOMM is a landmark because it presents the complete collection, together with good notes and good performances, establishing Parry's role as the pioneer of modern English song.

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.   


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.