Tuesday 31 December 2019

Silvesterkonzert Dresden Das Land des Lächelns Thielemann

Live from the Semperoper, Dresden, this year's Silvesterkonzert : Franz Lehar, extracts from Das Land des Lächelns with Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden and soloists Pavol Breslik, Jane Archibald, Erin Morley and Sebastien Kohlhepp.  Core Austro-German repertoire, or rather operetta, good natured and stylish.  Just right for New Year's Eve ! Just because it's party time that doesn't mean dropping standards to fit the fashionable market. Lehar's Das Land des Lächelns (Land of Smiles) is closely associated with Richard Tauber, so it's a star vehicle for a good tenor. In Pavol Bresik we have a singer who not only sing but can create Prince Sou-chong as a believable and human personality.

This makes a difference because the libretto is painfully dated : a part created to showcase white people in yellowface, as if real Asians were no more than caricature.  That genre was normal in the early part of the twentieth century, when imperialism and white supriority went unquestioned.  Implicit in the genre is the idea that races cannot mix, and that exotic aliens, despite their erotic frisson, are dangerous to "normal" people. That is just not acceptable today. Fortunately there's enough in the  operetta that it doesn't have to rely on kitsch stereotype. Bresik's Prince Sou-chong is an ordinary, decent man from a culture which Lisa and her friends don't have a clue about. In "Bei einem Tee à deux", we glimpse for a moment how two people can communicate. He knows more about tea than she ever will, so the balance isn't all in her favour.  Bresik is genuinely sexy : he doesn't need a bucketload of makeup in order to pretend to be what he is not. He comes over as a hunk most people would fancy.  He really does command the stage. That "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" is more than a Big Tenor Moment. Breslik makes it feel real. In the finale, when the song is repeated, he sings with sincere feeling. Despite the smiles Das Land des Lächelns is human tragedy behind a mask of insouciant good cheer. Smiling through tears, like so much of this genre. Anyone can feel that way, whatever their origins or background. 

Jane Archibald was a good Lisa, beautifully crested, and Erin Morley, (costumed like fake Japanese !) a sympathetic innocent.  Secretly, she loves Graf Gustav von Pottenstein (Sebastien Kohlhepp) but that love is doomed. Thielemann gets lively, animated playing from the Staatskapelle Dresden, bringing out the "orientalism" in the orchestration.  The "Chinesischer Hochzeitszug" is a bit of a gallop, but  then it should be. Lisa's rushing into something she doesn't understand, and Lehar is writing facsimile of music he doesn't understand, either.  But's its fun anyway. When you're sad, don't mope, but get on with things as if everything will turn out right.

Monday 30 December 2019

New Year's broadcast links !

Vienna Philharmoniker conducted by Andris Nelsons LIVE BBC TV2 on 1/1/2020 at 1015 and many other sources

Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann, Franz Lehár's The Land of Smiles - a bit of core Austro-German repertoire, done by those who do it well. Medici TV 31st December 1625 GMT

Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Kiril Petrenko - Berlin Phil's new market strategy ? Bernstein, Gershwin, Weill, Sondheim.  Digital Concert Hall, 31st December at 1600 GMT

La Fenice New Year's Opera Gala 

Thursday 26 December 2019

Peter Schreier dies at Christmas

Announced a few minutes ago in Dresden, the death of Peter Schreier after a long illness, aged 84. It is particularly ironic that he died on Christmas Day.  His Bach and Heinrich Schütz are of course basic fare this time of year, but he also loved singing more informal Weihnachtslieder and folk songs and used to do Christmas specials on German TV.  He took his Christmas seriously ! And now, perhaps, he's with the angels and with those who shaped the musical culture that shaped him. 

Born into a musical family in Meissen in July 1935, Schreier was singing at a very young age. Aged 8, he appeared on stage as one of the Three Boys in Die Zauberflöte.  Aged 10, he joined the Dresdner Kreuzchor. The city had been destroyed in the firebombing of February 1945, so the boys lived in basements. Butr so did everyone else. The Kappellmeister was Rudolf Mauersberger, a composer as well as conductor. Please read HERE about Mauersberger's Weihnachtszyklus  written in Decemeber 1944 to cheer the boys up in wartime.  It celebrates Christmas from the perspective of children. It's not yet another telling of the Bible story, which the choristers sang about all year round. Instead, it describes the Dresden Striezelmarkt, or Christmas fair, and the simple folk toys that children marvelled at before Christmas was commercialized. We can hear bells, cuckoo calls, and rhythms suggesting the movement of mechanical toys.

In response to the horrors of war, and the millions killed, Mauersberger wrote his Dresdner Requiem, first performed in the bombed out Frauenkirche, with the key alto part written specially for Schreier.  By spooky coincidence, that's what I've been listening to this season rather than regular Christmas fare.  This piece is closely connected with Schreier and the traditions he came from. It's about the mass deaths of millions in barbaric world conflict. The alto part seems vulnerable, but its purity shines out, a message of strength under desperate conditions. (I'll write more soon).  Mauersberger (1889-1971) shaped Schreier's career, supporting him in his transition to tenor after his voice broke.

Perhaps that bedrock is why Schreier's Bach, Schütz and so  much else are so transcedent that they are almost divine. There are few Evangelists quite as intense and committed as Schreier's. He's not  bland, but totally earnest.  The message in these works is much greater than picture-book pretty.  He brought the same passion to his Mozart, Weber (the finest Max, a character torn between good and weakness). Wagner (truly demonic Mime) and much else. Even Janáček. That same commitment shaped his Lieder singing : always, foremost, meaning expressed through sound and nuance.  Because he cared so much about Lieder as communication, he could draw new insights no matter how often he sang something. Lieder is an inward, individual art, miss that and you miss the point.  His Schubert and Schumann are benchmarks, but he also championed other less well known composers. Schreier's Lieder, with its intelligence and sensitivity, shaped my entire listening career. Losing him is like losing a father figure. 

Schreier was a much loved regular at the Wigmore Hall for many years. At his farewell concert in 2003, pretty much the whole audience got up to greet him in the Green Room. The place was packed, but he noticed, behind all the crowds, a frail old lady who looked about 90 and walked with sticks.  Immediately he rushed up to her and led her in, sitting her in a seat beside him. "Thank you, dearest X, you have come from so far to see me!" he said, almost tears in his eyes. "For you, my boy (!) " she said, "I would travel any distance to see you again". All in German : I don't know the background, but the sincerity of feeling they had for each other was obvious.  That is the sort of person Schreier was.  He cared about things he believed in. Wildly successful and a fighter, but not a showbiz creation, Schreier was an artist of integrity, a man for whom sincerity and commitment were principles of faith.  

Wednesday 25 December 2019

Ivory Infant Jesus, 17th century Macau

The Infant Jesus, holding the world in his hands, carved in ivory in the 17th century.  Once ivory objects were made all over Asia and Europe from very early on. Since Africa and India were part of the East-West trade route, smaller religious figures
like these were common in Portuguese communities, all along the route. In Macau, there's a museum of baroque religious art, ivory, silver, gold reflecting the prosperity the city once enjoyed. This particular figure is in Macau, but it's carved in the "Indian" style, Goa being a major centre of religious art.  Japanese and Chinese ivory workers were also involved. Santos were also revered in private homes. My grandparents inherited an heirloom cabinet from the 18th century, big enough that the sons could crawl in to do the cleaning before Holy Days, as part of religious observance.  It was destroyed during the war.  Eventually my Dad started a collection but it was nowhere quite the same. Most of the figures were clothed in hand-embroidered silks and lace, but very few of those garments survived, especially since new garments were regularly made, as a sign of veneration. But the carving is so exquisite that it's a good thing that the figures are now displayed in their natural glory.

Here's a poem written in Macanese patua. Portuguese from Portugal can't follow the grammar or the vocabulary, since it borrows so freely from Asian languages.

Jesus pequinino

Justo ja nace

De frio tremido

Na nga cham di Belem

Filo Divino Di Virgem Maria

Vem-ca nos vai azinha

Vem-ca nos vai azinha

Vem-ca vai azinha adora nosso Rei

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, refugees. What was God trying to tell us ?

The Nativity, a painting by Lu Hong nian ( 陸鴻年) 1914-1989. Summoned by Chinese angels, shepherds are arriving at the cave in which Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus are taking shelter.  Mary and Joseph were refugees, fleeing persecution. The North China context is important. No cosy "western" fantasy here.   In Lu's lifetime, people all over China were refugees of some sort or other, displaced by war and suffering. No-one chooses to risk their lives to become a refugee. whatever the reasons.  Why did God deliberately chose to send Jesus to be born in suffering and hardship ? God could do anything he likes, but he was making a powerful statement. Too many miss the point, entirely.

In Lu's case, that Chinese context was especially important because he sought to connect Christian concepts to Chinese tradition and values. There's a huge body of art of this type, though Lu as an artist was way above the usual prayer book art we grew up with.  This approach goes way back to the first Jesuits who entered China,  respecting Chinese social mores and values.   A Jesuit in the Forbidden City, R Po-chai Hsia, OUP 2010 Meticulously researched, and the first to use original sources in Chinese, and written with genuine understanding of Chinese society and mores, it is pretty much essential reading. The same cannot be said of the more populist best sellers.  Lu's experiences as a Catholic are also relevant. Given the role of western involvement in China and Cold War politics, a minority church would not have beeen a priority. This painting was made in 1951, as Korea and China were drawn in almost as pawns in a wider geopolitical game.  For Lu, the experience of Mary and Joseph, persecuted, was only too real.

At this time of year, so many people think in terms of material excess. Rituals observed through gritted teeth, with everyone pretending to be happy for the camera. And some, alas, would turn Mary and Jesus away if they turned up seeking shelter.  remeberthe smash hit "Feed the world at Christmas" and the truly offensive chorus "Don't they know it's Christmas time?" As if the whole world was white and middle class and money replaced genuine compassion.  The rest of world does not exist to reinforce pernicious ideas of assumed superiority.  One year a charity called at my door. "I've already given", I said, telling the truth. "Well in that case, I DON'T wish you a happy Christmas" said the "Christian", in front of her kids and mine. That's why I make a point of supporting non west centric causes which all year round emphasize working with communities in their own society, supplying water, health, education so people don't have to become refugees in the first place.

Monday 23 December 2019

Christmas non-fare on BBC

photo: Jean-Christophe BENOIST [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

This year's Christmas schedule on BBC radio and TV is more meagre than ever, unless you really like animated cartoons.  Maybe that says something. Especially since the original Manchurian Candidate is being screened on BBC TV 2 at midnight tonight. That's the Cold War thriller from 1962, where men who were brainwashed by the nation's enemies come to realize that the bad guys have a much mor sinister plan.  Soon the whole nation will be brainwashed. Can movies become reality?  Be scared, be very, very scared.

At least we still have Carols from King's College, Cambridge, BBC TV2 24th December at 1700 hr. This will be repeated on 25th December on BBC Radio 3 at 1400.   King's College is magnificent. People visit year round, from all over the globe. It's in a league of its own. In musical terms no comparison to regular community church choirs, however loved they are.  King's is an institution that goes way beyond being religious. Being able to sing at this standard can get you fast tracked into Cambridge and set you up for life. Some alumni go on to careers in music, most go on to other things, but the experience of singing at this level, and in these surroundings is probably like nothing else.  The photo above shows what you see when you look upwards. It just happens to be the largest medieval fan vaulted ceiling in the world.

Saturday 21 December 2019

Cycling underwater, upriver

In a dream I was in modern day Macau in a tiny apartment. Below, in the street, was a pedicab driver ,looking for work. Usually they only carry tourists for short distances. "Take me to Califonia" I asked, naming a mall that long ago went bust.  Unperturbed, he pedals on but the pedicab turns into a bicycle and I'm riding pillion like people used to do all the time.  Suddenly, he takes a sharp turn at the Praya Grande and descends straight into the river; now it's built up but in the dream it’s waterfront, the water brown with delta mud and pieces of vegetation from upstream. How can two people cycle up against the flow of the mighty Pearl River, whose source is in the mountains of Yunnan  ? Beneath the water there's a solid path, invisible above but so firm and straight below that the bicycle doesn't even wobble, though the driver and me are immersed to our chests. So we proceed, untroubled, way up the delta, following the shoreline and ancient villages. Eventually we're back in modern Macau near the bus terminus by the Taipa bridge.  Miraculously, I wasn't in the least bit wet or dirty at all, despite wearing a long white cotton gown through the waters of the river, which are so brown and fertile that they support thriving farming and fishing communities. I offer to pay the driver  but he won't take anything, and disappears. What I've learned from this journey is greater than money can buy.  Nowadays people think they can just deny heritage as if it means nothing.  But without foundations, you're nothing.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Back to the Future - Aldeburgh Festival 2020

Exciting news about the 2020 Aldeburgh Music Festival.   Back to the future, in the sense that  the festival is returning to its roots, and to the musical ideals that Britten and Pears sought to achieve.  Aldeburgh is absolutely unique.  British music is like a grand river, into which flow many differnt streams and tributaries, which go on to fertilize creative fertility.  There are many different threads and traditions. Diversity, in all aspects of life does matter. That's why there are so many different music festivals. The Three Choirs Festival focuses on cathedral based, communal performing traditions.  Oxbridge College traditions, epitomised by King's College, are different, too, even different from other colleges. There are other regional and specialist festivals all round the country which encourage greater focus on whatever theme they dedicate themselves too.

The last thing Britain needs is a bland, all-purpose quango run by suits with non-musical agendas, catering for theme-park values rather than for musical quality. Aldeburgh's identity is unique. Right from the start, Britten and Pears believed in the concept that music doesn't have to be populist to be popular.  much of Britten's music was indeed written for the specifics of Aldeburgh and the region around it.  Had the Aldeburgh Festival existed in 1945, chances are that it woud have been heard there, too.  That emphasis on smaller, community based music making which brought forth Albert Herring represents anothrer Britten-Pears ideal that ordinary people are capable of responding to excellence without  compromise. The Aldeburgh Festival is just the high profile face of what the Britten-Pears Foundation stands for all year round.  Nearly every leading British composer has benefitted form the creative fertility that was Briten and Pears' dream.   So thank goodness after a few fallow years when Aldeburgh seemed to be turning into an outlet for BBC Radio 3, the 2020 Festival promises new hope.

Tom Coult's opera Violet, an Aldeburgh Commission,  has its world premiere starting 12th June. Coult is an extremely interesting younger composer, highly regarded by many.  Coult's  St John's Dance kicked off the 2017 First Night of the Proms . An exercise in perpetual motion and tempi, it was engrossing enough to hold attention, while being concise. Certainly better than some of the mindless pap the Proms assumes new music must be.  But beware! St John's Dance was a form of mass hysteria, where people kept dancing on, unheeding to their deaths.  With a libretto by Alice Birch, Violet promises to pack an even more subversive punch. "With the townspeople in crisis, can Violet finally escape?" Maybe this Violet's not shrinking anymore. Andrew Gourlay conducts the London Sinfonietta. Coult's Violin Concerto features in the 19th June concert, Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.

Allan Clayton and Mark-Anthony Turnage are featured artists this year. Turnage's Silenced is a song cycle receiving its wold premiere on 17th June,  to be heard with Steven Osborne in Britten's Piano Concerto. and Percy Grainger.   This concert is paired with another on 20th June, also Britten, Grainger, Janáček and a new work by Cassandra Miller. Clayton's seciond recital on 27th June features Britten, Michael Berkeley and Priaulx Rainier.  Other good concerts with Imogen Cooper (Mozart)  and lots of the early and baroque music which shaped Britten's outlook so strongly that they've always been a major theme in the Festival.

The really big moment everyone will book for will be Britten's War Requiem, on Sunday 21st June, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Allan Clayton, Florian Boesch and Tatiana Pavlovskaya. In the Maltings, Snape, the impact should be overwhelming. Ryan Wigglesworth conducting the Knussen Chamber Orchestra on 25th June is a classic Aldeburgh programme - Mozart, Elliott Carter and Messiaen.  Gala final concert on 28th June with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Britten Les Illuminations (Julia Bullock), Pictures at an Exhibition and another Turnage work, Frieze from 2012.

Monday 16 December 2019

Not so Gay Hussar - Emmerich Kálmán - Ein Herbstmanöver, Giessen

Brilliant Emmerich Kálmán Ein Herbstmanöver from the Stadttheater, Giessen in 2018, conducted by Michael Hofstetter now on Oehms Classics. Although it's tagged with the title "The Gay Hussars", that's a misnomer, which refers to an English language version made for New York. Kálmán's original was Tatárjárás, (1908) which roughly translates from Hungarian as "the invasion of the Tatars".   This is crucial, since the Hussars were outsiders, much in the way that the Tatars from Central Asia raged over Europe for centuries before. Like the Tatars, the Hussars were cavalrymen, often mercenaries, whose "otherness" represented wildness and freedom. In Ein Herbstmanöver, the German version first heard at the Theater an der Wien in 1909, the Hussars are partying in a palace, where women swoon over them. Being a Husssar symbolized sexual allure. But party hard, die hard.  Unexpectedly, the men are called to the battlefieldand the party's over. Just five years later, Hussar regiments were slaughtered : horses no match for modern weapons.  "Autumn" here has double meaning.  Although operetta seems light hearted, it's more a case of "smiling through tears". Think Die Fledermaus where pain and desperation are masked - literally - by extravagance and champagne. 

Like Singspiele before them, operettas were almost more theatre than opera, with extensive dialogue,  the repartée topical, witty and sometimes risqué.  This Ein Herbstmanöver from Giessen, also broadcast on German language TV, ran well over three hours in production, but the version for CD focuses on the songs, interspersed with snatches of dialogue as introduction.  The selection flows together well. The pace is racy, capturing the exuberant high spirits that define the genre.  Typical, too, is the sense of creative freedom. Operettas were often re-imagined for different audiences, libretti often adapted for new purposes.  So it's nothing unusual at all, that this version, used dialogue by Balázs Kovalik which might be too idiomatic to translate, and too extensive. It also includes the "Pumper-Duett" from Kálmán's Der Güte Kamerad (1911). The male bonding swagger in the text fits well, as does the idea of "Pumpern", Austrian slang that means "stark, angklopfen" (bang, bang,  keep knocking) - use your imagination to figure that out.  Kálmán's characters employ distince voice types - a mature soprano (Christiane Boesinger) for the Baronin Riza von Marbach, and an authoritative baritone (Grga Peroš) as Oberleutnant von Lörenthy, a lighter baritone (Tomi Wendt)for Wallerstein, the reserve cadet who doesn't like being a soldier, and a heroic tenor (Clemens Kerschbaumer) as Morosi, the virile Volunteer who steals the heart of Treska (Marie Seidler) whose father wants her to marry Lörenthy.  The plot revolves on upheaval. The castle belongs by rights to Lörenthy, but his father was bankrupted by Riza's deceased husband : Lörenthy lost his patrimony and the girl he loved, at the same time. He can't bear to join the party, nor even enter the castle.  Now his commanding officer, Feldmarschall von Lohonnay (Harald Pfeiffer) repeats the pattern with his daughter. This time, though, the world has changed.  Two old retainers, Bence and Kurt (Rainer Hustedt and Rainer Domke), character singers, recount the narrative.  The performances are clear and distinct, and the songs fit the personalities so well that it's easy enough to follow what's going on, with basic German. (synopsis provided, and plenty of photos). 

And the songs are so stylish that you can sit back and enjoy this Ein Herbstmanöver as a basic musical experience.  The Overture is lively, almost manic, with flourishes which might  suggest the galloping of horses or dancers, though the frenzied build up of tension is relentless, inescapably demented. The military trumpet and the suggestion of taps, imply that all will not end well.  Baronin Riza and her ladies are excited by the ball that is to come, and the men : thus the coquettish song, with undertones of waltz. The Marschlied von Marosi is a cheerful setpiece establishing Marosi's personality, getting everyone in party mood.  In contrast, the Lied von Lörenthy is melancholy, a "song to the moon", revealing the suffering Lörenthy has experienced over the years, though his career has prospered.  In bursts Wallerstein, grumbling and protesting : comic relief.  A brief spoken Melodram leads to a Soldatenlieder, where Lörenthy and his men sing of army life: big, punchy choruses ! With Seh ich dich Strahlen, Baronin Riza sings, accompanied by lush strings and harp. "Mein Leben is eigentlich vorbei" - despite her wealth, her life is really over, since she didn't marry the man she loved.  Lörenthy answers "Denkst du daran" ; perhaps Riza didn't dump him. The two are still a pair, after all these years.   

A series of quadrilles, dance songs before the Pumper-Duett and the Tanz-Duett Frauenherzen re-establish the macho atmosphere.  Yet the Serenade reminds us that there are broken hearts in the debris.  Not for long, though. the Kusslied, the Couplet Wallerstein and Walzer-Ensemble chase away doubt : mock hiccups in the vocal lines suggest drunken revelry.  With sneers the Himmel, Herrgott, mayhem breaks out - the music more manic than ever.  "Zigeunermusik", sneers Feldmarschall von Lohonnay as a gypsy violin plays around him. its melody growing ever wilder.  But  Lörenthy begs the gypsy to keep playing . (Robert Varady, soloist).  The Zigeuner (outsider) seems to liberate what has been repressed, too long.  Riza sings of the magic that is love. She and Lörenthy duet , repeating each other’s lines, haloed by harps and strings, before the full orchestra rises to glorious climax.  But the pounding of percussion suggests the pounding of heavy guns.  The chorus cry in frenzy "Gott in Himmel" as the men are called into action. Long, staccato vocal lines suggest gunfire. But the dance goes madly on, as the brass blares. A poignant finale.  The solo violin calls over the sound of distant cannon,  and Bence, the old servant, muses  alone, commenting on the upheavals he has witnessed.  But the choruses continue singing merrily as if oblivious.  

There has been a lot of Kálmán in recent years, some extremely good,  so the composer and genreshold be reasonably familiar. This Giessen version of  Ein Herbstmanöver is so lively, musically-informed and so idiomatic, that this is a welcome outing for this early work which brought him to fame in vienna. 

Sunday 15 December 2019

Alua - Macau's international Christmas pudding

Alua or Aluar, traditional Christmas delicacy in Macau. As the photo shows, it's now sold in shops as "Western style Nien Go", ie a variant of the Chinese New Year treat Nien Go (cake/pudding that marks the arrival of a new year). Both are made from more or less the same ingredients, glutinous rice, bing tong (slab brown sugar, either Chinese style or what was known as Jagari, from India), coconut milk, nuts, and sometimes lard or butter (Macau style). Heavy duty - you can only eat a sliver at a time, even when it's fried or steamed to soften it. An excuse to wash it down with lots of Chinese tea.  The surface texture was slightly greasy, and the colour usually dark brown, like the sugar, with almonds and extra coconut.  The treat is also supposed to have Indian origins, with Persian, Goanese and Malay versions as well, which isn't so surprising given that these were points on the trade routes between China and theWest from the 16th century.

Making Alua was hard work - the rice had to be ground down fine with mortar and pestle, and the mix steamed for ages. Families  that made it tended to make it in batches, which were then sold throughout the community. Certain cooks were famous, their wares highly sought after : they took bookings well in advance. Read more HERE.  The last time I ate alua was in Macau when I was a teenager, delicious batch from an elderly lady whose family had been making it each season for 250 years.  Calories and cholesterol weren't an issue then, since most of the year people lived on simple fare - vegetables, fish and rice, and religious Fast Days, and abstinence before Mass were strictly observed.  Christmas was a very big thing in the Macanese community because it reinforced Catholic identity, at a time when being a Christian was definitely a minority thing, and the Macanese with their mixed origins and influences, not part of mainstream Portuguese society.  When my Dad was a kid, many y still celebrated in the old Macau style - heaving tables of food, decorated with home made lace doilies and paper flowers, rows of oranges lining cupboards and shelves (oranges also being a Chinese symbol of happiness and hope). You didn't dare miss Mass, you prayed all week in front of the Nativity.  Lots of other festive dishes like giant meatloaf,  cakes and candies like Farté, cookies supposed to represent soft pillows for the Infant Jesus. Aluar represented the hard mattress (hardship) on which he was born, a refugee, fleeing for his life, something that was integral to our understanding of the meaning of Christmas, when God became man. No Coca-Cola Santa ! no commercial tack and excess.You can't in any case overdose on Alua, or your digestion will rebel. 

Macanese home cooking bears little to no relation to what's served in restaurants these days. Beware many of the cookbooks and "guides".  Even the BBC does Macau food, but the recipes are a joke. Things like African Chicken were invented in the early 1960's by professional chefs. Fortunately, families lucky enough to have hand written recipes from way back, are collectingm them and publishing them within the Macanese community.  Still, closely guarded semi-secrets.  HERE is an excellent and authentic community resource.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Vladimir Jurowski : John Foulds Dynamic Triptych, Shostakovich 11

“Revolution in the Head" strange title for the concert by Vladmir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London, featuring John Foulds’s Dynamic Triptych and Shostakovich Symphony no 11 "The Year 1905".  Jurowski's Shostakovich is always good, and he's done this particular symphony many times, but this performance was extraordinary - valedictory, tender, and intense committed. Frankly, we can never get enough of performances like this, and of Jurowski's characteristic intelligence and world-vision. I'll miss his short discussions which go way beyond the score, to the very essence of human creativity.

But why "Revolution in the head" ? Not the obvious connection with the insurrections of 1905, but  what they may or may not have foretold. A few years back there was a quiz through which you could figure out what type of revolutionary you'd have been at the time. It was so erudite and so detailed that the only people who got it would have been historians, but my goodness it was accurate !
What of John Foulds’s Dynamic Triptych op. 88 (1929)? Foulds has cult status and attracts exaggerated claims. Dynamic Triptych is readily accessible, as it deals with three basic elements of composition : mode, timbre and rhythm, each developed with playful inventiveness.  Even humour - listen out for the off the wall sound in the second section when the whole idea of timbre melts away, almost as ethereal as a theremin. The soloist here was Peter Donohue, with whom Sakari Oramo recorded the Dynamic Triptych with the CBSO fourteen years ago.

On the radio, Donohue says that Foulds's' reputation as a composer of light music affected his reception, but Foulds's' World Requiem (1919-21) is hardly light music. More worrying is the idea that Foulds was eclipsed by Schoenberg and American composers, though Ives and Varèse then were marginal figures.  The fact is that composers had been experimenting with new approaches to modality, timbre and rhythm for quite some time.  As for the Orientalism that so inspired Foulds, that too was nothing new.  Orientalism isn't just about the orient but the promise of intriguing new ways of expression. In Germany, the Idea of the East inspired Goethe, Beethoven, Mozart and of course Mahler, Zemlinsky and others.  In France, contact with other civilizations influenced art, poetry, music to an even greater extent. In Italy, think Puccini, and in Russia, think Stravinsky. Even if one were to restrict comparisons only to British music, we have the examples of Gustav Holst, Samuel Colderidge-Taylor, Delius, Sorabji and Benjamin Britten.  And of course Ralph Vaughan Williams and others studying the modes of earlier western tradition.  British music isn't "pastoral" or insular, however much some might prefer it to be. Why blame Schoenberg (and Americans) when so much else was going on ? Foulds’s' Dynamic Triptych isn't that "strange" either when you consider what else was being written in the explosion of creative freedom of the 1920's and 30's. Perhaps Foulds’s' time will really come when he's appreciated not as an oddity but in the context of his time.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Baroque Odyssey - 40 years of Les Arts Florissants - Barbican review

Baroque Odyssey - major retrospective at the Barbican, London,  honouring Les Arts Florissants.  "This gala performance at the Barbican Hall celebrated those 40 years of performances and pioneering, taking us on a tour of the Baroque, starting in England and then hopping across to the Channel to conclude in France. With a flourish, Christie invited the three trumpeters (Guy Ferber, Gilles Rapin, Serge Tizac) of Les Arts Florissants and percussionist Marie-Ange Petit to welcome us with a vibrant, surging fanfare. The Sinfonia to Act 3 of Handel’s Atalanta introduced the rest of the instrumentalists, the violins (led by Hito Kurosaki) standing, the string sound beautifully tender and warm, and enriched by sweet oboes (Peter Tabori and Machiko Ueno) and dynamic theorbo (Thomas Dunford). Zadok the Priest was characterised by fluidity, as lovely long bow strokes swept the waves of harmony onwards, indeed almost seeming to catch out the Choir of Les Arts Florissants who leapt to their feet just in time for their stirring choral entry. Christie coaxes, rather than ‘conducts’: his performers clearly know what he wants and how to create it, and the ensemble camaraderie was plain to see", writes Claire Seymour.

Please read the FULL REVIEW HERE in Opera Today 

This concert and tour co-incides with the release of a special edition recording  by Harmonia Mundi

Sunday 8 December 2019

Semyon Bychkov : Detlev Glanert Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

At the Barbican, London, Semyon Bychkov conducted Detlev Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch, commissioned for the 500th anniversary of the painter's birth,  and premiered in Sint Janskathedraal, 's-Hertogenbosch, in April 2016.  It was a huge public occasion, celebrating the rich heritage of the region. Bosch lived most of his life in 's-Hertogenbosch, which was part of the Duchy of Brabant, with a thriving economy that supported artists as well as merchants. Over the centuries, the area was a target for larger empires - the Dukes of Burgundy, then the Hapsburgs.  Bychkov's programme acknowledges the Flemish background, featuring choral works by Johannes Ockeghem (1410-25? to 1494), Thomas Crecquillon (1505 -1557) and Pierre de la Rue (1452-1518) with Andrew Griffiths conducting the BBC Singers.

Detlev Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch might be new to London but it was a huge hit, when the first recording was released in June 2017 with Markus Stenz conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which I reviewed at the time. Glanert's by no means unknown. He's been a Proms favourite for years. Please read my review of the Proms performance in 2019 HERE, with Bychkov conducting the BBC SO. Detlev Glanert was one of Hans Werner Henze's few students. Like Henze, Glanert's very prolific - 11 operas, including Caligula which has been staged at the ENO, but sadly misunderstood,  (see more here and my review of the Frankfurt production Frankfurt here). Glanert and Bychkov have known each other from the days when Bychkov conducted WDR Köln, so it would be interesting to hear how he approaches the piece. 

Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch has all the elements for instant popular success.  It helps that the paintings are so much part of popular culture that everyone recognizes his images of extreme excess.  Bosch's people wear medieval dress, but their actions depict the subconscious, the Id and existential guilt in operation, centuries before the concepts of psychology found expression in formal language. Like Carl Orff's  Carmina Burana, Glanert's Requiem is highly dramatic music theatre, adapting the cataclysmic dreamscapes of Bosch's paintings into music of extremes as lurid as Bosch's images.  This Requiem unfolds in 18 episodes, rather like panels in a medieval triptych. This gives the piece structure, making it easy to follow. The teeming, sprawling  panoramas Bosch depicts could plausibly be depicted in sound, but that would probably be asking too much of most audiences. Like Bosch, though, Glanert's piece replicates extremes. Literally heaven and hell, for the premise is the judgement Bosch faces after death. 

Thus the standard elements of a Requiem Mass are interleaved with the Seven Deadly Sins. The acrid flames of hellfire whipping against the smoke of incense. A harsh Voice (David Wilson-Johnson, narrating) calls from above "Hieronymus Bosch!" Immediately we spring to attention.  Bells ring. Throbbing, rushing figures in the choral line, suggesting the doomed hordes we see in Bosch's paintings. The orchestral lines veer wildly, lit by screaming brass, the chorus screaming to crescendo.   Suddenly the forces fragment and, from the silence, a slow, low penitential intonation.  An abstract Requiem Aeternam, the choral line flowing ambiguously, in almost microtonal haze. like smoke.  In Gluttony the bass (the aptly named Christof Fischesser) sings of food, his lines circular and rotund. The text may be in Latin, but the meaning is clear.  The choir responds with the long, thin lines of an Absolve Domine. reinforced by Wrath with tenor (Gerhard Siegel)  and a Dies Irae which ends with a vivid orchestral flourish. Another demon, Envy, fights back. Soprano Aga Mikolaj's fluid, curving lines mimic the lines in the "heavenly" chorus - imitation is a sign of envy! But the serene  Juste judex prevails. 

But where are we? The organ solo (Leo van Doeselaar) lets rip with a frenzy that suggests a cathedral organ hijacked by Satan.  Despite the extremes of volume and tempi, the lines between heaven and hell are, tellingly, blurred. In Sloth, the soprano sings langorously, joined in sensuous duet by the mezzo (Ursula Hesse von den Steinen). Pride, Lust and Avarice appear, but the balance shifts towards the big guns : Full choir, offstage choir, and orchestra in increasingly full throttle : listen for the jazzy culmination of the Domine Jesu Christe. and the funky trumpet that heralds the Agnus Dei. With the Libera Me and Peccatum, we are in Carmina Burana territory, bursting forth in a blaze, the earthly chorus in raucuous flow, augmented by brass and percussion and the offstage chorus singing of lux perpetua.  Big forces. But is might right ? Glanert's Requiem ends In Paradisium, here the Voice from Above recites lines from the Book of Revelation. Apocalyptic visions, marking the end of the world and of time.  Now, when the Voice screams "Hieronymus!", he doesn't add a demonic epithet. With an unearthly low hum, the choir sings of the chorus angelorum that brings eternal rest.

Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch is a public piece rather than a work of inward  contemplation. Nonetheless, as with so much that Glanert writes, subversive humour lurks within. In this Bosch Requiem, Glanert again and again mixes grotesque with irony. Just as the vastness of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana appealed to Nazi taste, the vastness of  this Requiem veers on parody.  Will it be loved for its vulgarity or its irony? Just as the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch reveal the viewer, Glanert's Requiem reveals the listener.  In this case, I think it's the wamth of Glanert's vision, and his compassion for the quirkier aspects of human life, which Hieronymus Bosch himself  had no qualms about depicting.  In the 2 1/2 years since I first heard the piece, it's grown on me, a lot.

Saturday 7 December 2019

Mariss Jansons treasures now online

Plenty of good Mariss Jansons classic concerts online now, in memorial. 

Mariss Janson's last concert at Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Antonín Dvořák Symphony no 9, Saint-Saëns Symphony no 3 (from 22nd March 2019) Highly recommended !

Mariss Jansons with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 2012 with Nina Stemme. Strauss Don Juand and Wagner Wesendock-Lieder. Only available to 31/12/19 and in Europe excluding UK. Or use a VPN.

Mariss Janson's Brahms Requiem from the Lucerne Festival in 2006 This one's really good ! Do not miss.

Mariss Jansons last concert in Munich from 11th October 2019 - Strauss and Brahms' Symphony no 4.

Scads on France Musique on Mariss Jansons

Probably plenty more if you search., there was a concert from St Petersburg, (not YT, which is full of pirates) which seems to have been pulled. It was somewhat unusual, it was a celebration when Janssons was honouring Temirakov. 

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Vaughan Williams Symphonies 3 & 4 Martyn Brabbins Hyperion

Latest in the Hyperion series, Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphonies no 3 and 4, with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in late 2018 after a series of live performances. Following on from  A Sea Symphony (read more here)  and A London Symphony, this series is proving to be a major contribution to the discography. Vivid, thought-through performances, immensely rewarding.

In this Vaughan Williams Symphony no 3, the introduction to the Molto moderato seems to vibrate as if from within. Deliberately ambiguous textures, constantly shifting and unsettled. Despite the poignant  violin, (which might suggest The Lark Ascending) this is not complacent.  As Vaughan Williams himself wrote, "It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted."  The oboe and cor anglais intensify the irony, for these instruments remind us what the fields of France might have been before they became battlegrounds.

The horn solo with which the Lento movement begins further reinforces the battlefield connotations, at once a reveille and and Last Taps. Gradually lines stretch forward, but the landscape is still haunted by the ambiguities of the first movenment , the panorama seen, as it were behind smoke and rain.  The trumpet cadenza, played without valves sounds deliberately hollow, as if blown not quite in tune by an ordinary foot soldier : too much polish would not work. Yet more irony, since it takes considerable skill on the part of a trained professional to achieve such results.  The high, ascendant tessitura suggests gradual change of perspective, upwards into another realm. Does the trumpet here foretell the Last Trumpet at the End of Time ?  In the third movement, bright figures suggest freedom.  They introduce the vigourous, earthy dances of the scherzo, which may or may not signify the music of earlier times with which Vaughan Williams was so familiar. But are these dances bucolic or brutalist ?  This symphony operates on many different levels.

In the final movement, Vaughan Williams employs a human voice, (Elizabeth Watts) albeit one singing ethereal wordless vocalize.  If the trumpet at the end of the second movement signifires the Last Trumpet, the voice here might signify angels, but not neccessarily. Perhaps it’s a reminder that some things are beyond human comprehension and may never be bridged.  Elizabeth Watts' timbre is pure and unworldly, with just enough warmth to suggest some tantalizing form of comfort. Her voice echoes from afar, for distance matters : there is a dividing line between this world and whatever may or may not lie ahead.  The re-entry of the orchestra  brings us back to earth. There are echoes of the dances in the scherzo, of the high string tessituras and wind instruments, now embellished by harp and celeste.  The expansive, searching lines now rise with greater fullness than before, yet recede into near-silence. The voice continues, alone.

Of his Symphony no 4 in F minor, Vaughan Williams told Sir Henry Wood, "I don't like the work itself much but it is undoubtedly a very fine piece". Good music "exists" by its own creative volition : it's not manufactured to preconceived specifications like a consumer product.  As the composer was later to write "I do think it beautiful...because we know that beauty can come from unbeautiful things".
Brabbins shapes the introduction so it seems to explode with fierce but controlled force.  Although this fanfare might seem shocking, it does connect to other aspects of the composer’s work.  At times I was reminded of the figure in the Antiphon in Five Mystical Songs "The Church with psalms must shout....My God and King ". Vaughan Williams, who knew the Bible and Messianic traditions, understood the concept of forces so powerful that they cannot be constrained.  Pounding ostinato, trumpets (again, Biblical significance) ablaze, trombones and tuba add depth.  The theme isn't meant to be soothing. It could reflect the "terrible beauty" from the Book of Job Ch 37, 17-22, though there is nothing religious about this symphony. The references merely serve to indicate that a cataclysm of some sort is being unleashed.

More brass in the second movement, marked andante moderato, but this time more restrained, the strings of the BBCSO murmuring en masse, from which the woodwind line rises, moving ever upwards.  A sense of unease : tense pizzicato creating a fragile though regular beat. The flute melody, exquisitely played, has a poignant quality: painfully alone but unbowed.  Wildness returns with the third movement, brass pounding, trombones creating long zig-zag lines. For a moment the tuba leads a trio with grunting bassoons. The term "scherzo" means "joke" but the humour here is darkly ironic. This colours the sprightly theme which follows : it's not escapist. The swaggering thrust of the first movement returns, angular dissonances flying in all directions, clod-hopping ostinato suggesting grotesque horror.  The Finale is "con epilogo fugato" : no easy resolution, no easy answers.  Given Brabbins' grounding in modern and modern British music, his approach to this symphony is particularly interesting, full of insight and freedom. intuitively executed.

The bonus on this recording is the premiere of Saraband, taken by Brabbins from an unpublished manuscript. This brief cantata, for voice, chorus and orchestra, with David Butt-Philip as soloist, sets lines from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, describing Helen of Troy. Drafted in 1913-14, but not completed, the work was set aside by other pressures of work. Even in embryo, it's an interesting work which bears the mark of the composer at this fertile stage in his career.

Mariss Jansons, aged 10, with conductor Dad and Svatoslav Richter

Arvids Jansons, with Mariss in short pants, aged 10. The pianist is Svatoslav Richter.  The value of music education early in life !  In this case music education at the highest, hands-on level. Early exposure to the idea that the arts are a fundamental part of civilization.  Some, these days, live the mantra "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun!", since they already know all there is to know.  Their loss.