Friday, 18 October 2019

Remembering Márta Kurtág - a true artist and human being

Márta Kurtág has died.  Her relationship with György Kurtág was very much a partnership of creative equals. They were together for 73 years, working, playing and inspiring each other. Shockingly, wikipedia leaves her out of his entry !  She was a great pianist in her own right. Fortunately, we were privileged to experience  them together many times : the symbiosis between them was so strong, it was palpable. In recitals, they often played together, picking up on each other so closely it was as if they were two parts of the same whole. That chemistry seemed to impart to those around them, too. Many of their students became very close personal friends and colleeagues. What a warm, sympathetic person Márta was ! Her spirit will live on.

Hearing them play togeher was their performance embodied a lot about the Kurtág ethos of understatement. They would sit before a humble upright piano, just as if they were at home. No grandstanding. No grand concert piano, backs to the audience, expressing the essence of music, drawing the listener into that private inner circle, like part of the family.  Sometimes their arms would cross diagonally so each would be playing at the opposite end of the keyboard. The world has lost someone who understood what it is to be a true artist, and human.

Mark-Anthony Turnage Refugee, Allan Clayton Britten Nocturne

Allan Clayton, courtesy Maestro Arts
Mark-Anthony Turnage Refugee (for tenor and orchestra) with Allan Clayton, the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Gourlay, premiered last month now broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  Five movements, four with texts - Emily Dickinson These Strangers (1864), Benjamin Jephaniah We Refugees (2000), WH Auden Refugee Blues (1939) and Brian Bilston Refugees (2016). Five vignettes (the fourth movement is orchestral) together forming a diverse collage. For refugees are everywhere - human history is shaped by mass population movements of one kind of other.  Being a refugee is not normal but is the norm.

The first section (Dickinson) is brief - a single verse.  Brief orchestral fanfare raises the curtains, so to speak, for the Benjamin Zephaniah poem, (full text here). "I come from a musical place where they shoot me for my song". Turnage's settings is almost theatrical, for each verse is a drama encapsulating many tragedies. "Nobody’s here without a struggle, And why should we live in fear. Of the weather or the troubles? We all came here from somewhere.".  Auden's Refugee Blues is ore savage. Urban and urbane, showing that even in supposedly civilized societies, evil reigns. "Say this city has ten million souls,Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us"  Since Brexit, Britain has changed. Now all that matters is The Will of the People, a slogan Auden would have known all about.  Auden himself is attacked in some newspapers for being too arch and too intellectual.  So much for his being one of the greatest poets of 20th century Britain. Auden's lines curl languidly, but each word drips poison : elegant subversion, way above the heads of Brownshirts and their one track minds. Turnage's setting reflects the bluesy ambiguity that gives the poem such power ; jazz musicians, cabaret artists, gays, Jews, blacks, leftists, non-conformists, the Weimar Auden knew so well.  It's also natural Turnage territory, given his background.  (Oddly enough the poem was also set by Elisabeth Lutjens). The fourth movement sets no text, but no words are needed. This is Turnage's own voice, a tone poem which says what words cannot say. Bristling with nervous energy, it's pugnacious and irrepressible.  A mournful melody, with hollow percussion, introduces the final movement.  The mood is desolate, Turnage's setting almost post-apocalytic. Woodwinds wail, string sound hover like smoke.  In Bilston's poem people object to outsiders ("scroungers, we need to see them for who they really are"), but he is not on that side. Nor is Turnage. "Oh, do not tell me they have no need of a hand", sings Clayton, his pitch taken up by a cor anglais, ringing pure and clear.

Oliver Knussen's legacy lives on:  his influence on British music and musicians is profound. Knussen's  Songs without Voices (1991/2) . Songs without voices?   Their subtlety frees the listener is freed creatively to "hear" in the imagination, becoming part of the creative process.  For me, the quiet stillness of Fantastico (Winter’s Foil)  suggests the pale light of winter and the way one's breath become visible in cold air. I visualize the long outward reaching lines in Maestoso (Prairie Sunset) translated into long, horizontal vistas. In the third song Leggerio : The First Dandelion , the stillness is shattering. In the final song, Adagio: Elegaic Arabesques, the cor anglais leads, delineating elegant patterns.well thought programming.

Britten was an outsider too, escaping the facism sweeping Europe in his time : no-one really emigrates for fun. Fortunately he could return to his roots and destiny.  As a child, Oliver Knussen discovered Britten's Nocturne ( Op 60, 1958). Knussen must have been an unusually perceptive child, responding instinctively to musical undercurrents which many adults still can't comprehend. (the animal sounds probably helped).  The scope is ambitious - eight very varied settings by Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare - put together with structural cohesion that's panoramic in scale though scored for only seven instruments and soloist. The ensemble is unobtrusive, commenting on and extending the vocal line. The voice part itself seems to reflect the sounds of an instrument, twisting and shape shifting, like an exotic oboe or clarinet, weaving and curling. The effect is like a seamless dialogue between human and non-human sounds, absolutely of the essence in  texts that address strange, otherworldy concepts where things might not be what they seem to be.

"On a poet's lips I slept/Dreaming like a love-adept"  is just the starting point as we enter this phantasmographic journey "Nor heed nor see, what things they be;But from these create he can Forms more real than living man, Nurseling of immortality!" - the word "nurseling" twisting and turning, very different froim the cadence of normal speech. In the second song, we encounter the Kraken,  a monster that sleeps in the ocean depths in "ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep" until summoned by the bassoon, which lumbers and coils like the mythical beast, aroused. As he rises to the surface, wind instruments evoke "bubbles". But the kraken dissolves as he reaches light,. the last word "Die" is clipped, strangled mid-note.  The third song describes a young boy, alone beguiled by the night. The lines of the text curve, round and round : almost circular breathing for voice. The effect is claustrophobic.

"Midnight's bell goes ting, ting, ting, ting"  a pause betweeen each"ting" so the ensemble murmurs around it. Dogs howl, but the nightingale sings "twit, twit, twit" and the nibbling mouse goes "peep, peep, peep, peep". Britten plays with this text to enhance the individuality of each creature's expressiveness. The “mew, mew, mew” of the cats is plausibly feline, yet also surreal. Indeed, it  reflects the bizarre setting of the word "be-au-u-teous boy" in the previous song, suggesting that the doomed boy may be prey, to be hunted down.  Here this had me thinking of the young Knussen, and of the composer grown up, but still fascinated by "Where the Wild Things Are".

The fifth, sixth and seventh songs form an internal group. Ominous drumrolls introduce "But that night, when on my bed I lay", where the voice projects, like a trumpet, as if the protagonist were trying to be brave. The ensemble rises around him,with hard staccato chords. The final cry "Weep no more!" may be cried in vain. In the setting of Wilfred Owen, "She sleeps on soft last breaths" the drumstrokes are muffled like a heartbeat, a clarinet calling in the background.  The pace is steady,like breathing, but the voice and its wind counterpart curve long lines.  Peace is an illusion.  When the voice falls silent,  the ensemble continues, murmuring without words, "The Kind Ghosts" of Britten's title.   The Shakespeare sonnet "What is more gentle than a wind in summer" dances gaily, but what is Britten's intent? When the sleeper wakes, will the nightmare end ?  The ensemble surges, menacingly, the voice ending on a very high note, held as silence falls.  Britten's Nocturne is such a strange beast that interpretation is tricky.  Peter Pears's instrument wasn't beautiful but he intuited Britten's possible meaning.  The English tenor voice, which Britten understood so well, is unique in that it can express otherwise inexpressible undercurrents that lie hidden beneath the words and sounds. A most idiomatic performance from the Britten Sinfonia, Allan Clayton and Andrew Gourlay, capturing the claustrophobic inwardness that makes this masterpiece still so disturbing for some listeners. 

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Alphonse de Lamartine Le Vallon

JMW Turner : Mont Blanc, Val d'Aosta

Alphonse de Lamartine Le Vallon, a poem I've loved since I was a kid. Today I pulled out my old school textbook, Nine French poets : H E Berthon 1961, with a dustcover I made myself from a calender of Swiss lakes and mountains. It's still intact, though the pages are well worn and yellowed, scribbled all over with notes in tiny handwriting (and many doodles).  At school we learned to parse alexandrines, to analyse, and to translate as accurately and sensitively as possible.  Do kids still study like that today?  Certainly that book shaped me, instilling my love to this day for the Early Romantic.  Read the poem in its entirety HEREIt's too perfect to translate. Fastforward a lifetime, and it resonates even more. A few favourite verses : 

Mon coeur, lassé de tout, même de l'espérance, 
N'ira plus de ses voeux importuner le sort ; 
Prêtez-moi seulement, vallon de mon enfance,
Un asile d'un jour pour attendre la mort. 

Voici l'étroit sentier de l'obscure vallée : 
Du flanc de ces coteaux pendent des bois épais, 
Qui, courbant sur mon front leur ombre entremêlée, 
Me couvrent tout entier de silence et de paix...... 

La source de mes jours comme eux s'est écoulée ; 
Elle a passé sans bruit, sans nom et sans retour : 
Mais leur onde est limpide, et mon âme troublée 
N'aura pas réfléchi les clartés d'un beau jour.

La fraîcheur de leurs lits, l'ombre qui les couronne,
M'enchaînent tout le jour sur les bords des ruisseaux, 
Comme un enfant bercé par un chant monotone, 
Mon âme s'assoupit au murmure des eaux.......... 

J'ai trop vu, trop senti, trop aimé dans ma vie ; 
Je viens chercher vivant le calme du Léthé. 
Beaux lieux, soyez pour moi ces bords où l'on oublie :
L'oubli seul désormais est ma félicité. 

Mon coeur est en repos, mon âme est en silence ; 
Le bruit lointain du monde expire en arrivant,
Comme un son éloigné qu'affaiblit la distance, 
A l'oreille incertaine apporté par le vent......  

Mais la nature est là qui t'invite et qui t'aime ; 
Plonge-toi dans son sein qu'elle t'ouvre toujours
Quand tout change pour toi, la nature est la même,
Et le même soleil se lève sur tes jours...... 

Dieu, pour le concevoir, a fait l'intelligence : 
Sous la nature enfin découvre son auteur !
Une voix à l'esprit parle dans son silence :
Qui n'a pas entendu cette voix dans son coeur ?

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Time and Space : Holst, Vaughan Williams, Mary Bevan, Roderick Williams

Time and Space - songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams, with Mary Bevan, Roderick Williams, William Vann and Jack Liebeck, new from Albion, highlighting the close personal relationship between the two composers. As the label is an offshoot of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, its choices are eclectic rather than mainstream, but illuminate aspects of Vaughan Williams' life and work which might not otherwise be covered in mass market releases. While Albion's first collection "Heirs and Rebels" presented archive recordings of well known songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams, the choices on this recording places less familiar songs - some unpublished -  by each composer beside each other for comparison and also their settings of the same texts.

Holst's fascination with visionary themes can be glimpsed in "Invocation to Dawn", from Holst's Six Songs Op15 H68 (1902-3). This was the first of his settings of his own translation from Sanskrit.  It's contemporary with his The Mystic Trumpeter (1904 rev. 1912), and works like Savitri Op 25 and the Choral Hymns to the Rig Veda Op. 26 (1908-12). While neither Holst nor RVW were conventionally religious, the ardent vocal line and rolling piano part in this song connects to transcendental themes prevalent in that era.   Holst includes three settings of Thomas Hardy, "In a Wood", "Between Us Now",  and "The Sergeant's Song", which text Vaughan Williams also used in Buonaparty (1908), which can be heard on the recent "The Song of Love" album, also from Albion. (Please read my review here). Holst's version is animated, more attuned to the irreverent satire in the poem, with Roderick Williams at his idiomatic best.  The suppressed passion in "I will not let thee go", to a poem by Robert Bridges might remind some of Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, from 1904, though Silent Noon is by far the masterpiece.

A E Housman verses inspired Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge (1909), and also Along the Field (1925-7). These songs, set for high voice and solo violin (Mary Bevan and Jack Liebeck) are exquisite studies in minor key modality, so refined that they seem to hover in  mystical trance.  In "We'll to the Woods No More", the vocal line stretches, with seemingly little dynamic variation,  mirrored by the violin.  But perhaps that is the point : the mood is so elusive that the song floats away, like a ghost.  "Along the Field" develops the mystery. The plaintive vocal line suggests  plainchant, or possibly vespers, for the lovers will soon be parted by death. The leaves of the aspen tree know what lies ahead but cannot  speak. "And I spell nothing in their stir" sings Bevan with hushed deliberation. Even the relatively cheerful "In the Morning" is melancholy, and "The Sigh that Heaves the Grasses" drips with portent.   The violin part in "Good-Bye" is subtly discordant, picking up on the unspoken emotions of the lad so abruptly dismissed by the object of his affections.  The text of "Fancy's Knell" resembles "Clun" from On Wenlock Edge, though the wordier scansion of this poem doesn't invite quite such a strong setting. The set ends with "With Rue my Heart is Laden", also set by George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams' version even more aphoristic and enigmatic. Although these songs are usually heard with tenor, the silvery timbre of Bevan's voice, in my opinion, enhances their strange, surreal magic. This perfomance is so beautiful that it makes this recording an absolute must.

Two settings of A Cradle Song to a text by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one by Vaughan Williams from 1905, the other By Holst from his Op.16 H6 (1903-5) contrast with Vaughan Williams' Blake's Cradle Song (1928) , the composer responding to the greater complexity of Blake's poem. Holst's Four Songs Op.14, H14 (1896-98)  are fairly early works, setting poems by Charles Kinsgley, Henrik Ibsen and Heinrich Heine (both in English translation) and Robert Bridges.

Vaughan Williams' Bushes and Briars (1908), introduces the group of folk songs in this collection. Bushes and Briars is seminally important, since it was the first song the composer collected in the field, having heard it sung by a labourer in Essex in 1903. It's been performed hundreds of times in many forms, including by modern urban "folk", but here Roderick Williams brings out the sophistication of Vaughan Williams' transcription. The first verse is unaccompanied, as traditional ballad usually was, but the piano part develops it as art song, warmed by the natural sincerity of Williams' style. A memorable performance.  Vaughan Williams collected The Lark in the Morning (1908) in Essex, expurgating more ribald aspects of the original.  The Captain's Apprentice (1908) from a fishing community in Kings Lynn, was adapted into the Norfolk Rhapsody, on which the composer was working at that period.

Holst made sixteen arrangements of folk songs, two of which we have here, The Willow Tree (H83/6 1906-8), and Abroad as I was walking (H83/1). Holst's Four Songs for Voice and Violin (Op. 35,  H132, 1916-17)  display a more "modern" sensibility. There are no time signatures."Bar lines are used for coordination purposes, but the length of each bar varies freely according to the melodic line", as stated in the uncredited programme notes.  Two settings of Walt Whitman's texts from Whispers of Heavenly Death form the basis of the songs Darest Thou Now O Soul. Holst's version H72, 1904-5) is declamatory, delivered here with dramatic flair by Roderick Williams.  Vaughan Williams' version, which he was working on at the same period, incorporating the text into A Sea Symphony. Here it is heard in a setting for solo voice and piano, from 1925. The unison version for voices and string orchestra - a hymn with chamber orchestra - can be heard on Martyn Brabbins' recent recording of A Sea Symphony. (Please read more about that here).

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Children of Troubled Times : not just history

Yuan Muzhi
Children of  Troubled Times (風雲兒女, 风云儿女) or more "children of the thunderstorm". It was a seminal film of its time,  galvanizing support for the war of resistance to the Japanese invasion.  The theme song, The March of the Volunteers, became so popular that it was heard everywhere, and eventually became the national anthem.  The composer Nie Er (聶耳) was a composer and musician, who died aged only 23 in a swimming accident while he was visiting his brother in Japan (war didn't stop Chinese intellectuals from learning about Japan).  When the film was released, in May 1935, Nie Er was still alive. He drowned in July that year. The film describes the awakening of social and political consciousness. It's not an entirely "historic" document, whatever your politics.  Nuts to the notion that Chinese people didn't need politics, which was an argument used to suppress democracy. 

It's also interesting because the star was Yuan Muzhi(袁牧之), matinee idol,actor, writer, director an intellectual. and director. He made Street Angel (馬路天使, 1937), perhaps the best known Chinese movie of the period in the west, which launched the career of singer Zhou Xuan. It's much more than a love story ! Please read my analysis of it here).  In Children of Troubled Times the opening credits roll with the March of the Volunteers playing, then a sudden discordant flashback to Shanghai, in darkness. Upper middle class domesticity : a rich man's daughter, Shi Yanshi, is playing the piano. Bored, she moves to the window where she looks into the next door apartment, where two men live : Xin Baihua (Yuan Muzhi) and Liang Zhifu (Gu Menghe). Both are refugees (though rich) from the North West, which the Japanese invaded in 1931. A folk song is heardfrom afar. The singer is Ah Fung, a poor girl, who lives with her elderly mother. They're refugees too.  Xin notates her song, but is attracted to Shi, whose portrait he sketches.Still, he looks after the welfare of Ah Feng, out of kindness. Xin goes to a glitzy nightclub, where he meets Shi, in evening dress, smoking. Her makeup's wild : drawn on eyebrows, high fashion then but on her like a caricature from Beijing operas. His friend Liang, however, is involved with the political underground, as is Ah Fung who gets an education and gets involved with student politics.  When she doesn't turn up at school, Xin goes out looking for her, but she's gone. Ah Fung sneaks back into Liang's apartment, which has been ransacked. He's gone - arrested by the police. As she leaves she steps on a painting of a phoenix which had been on the wall.
Meanwhile, Xin and Shi have married, enjoying a honeymoon on the coast in a fancy hotel.  Xin, though, is restless, following news of the civil unrest around them. They go to the theatre. In the first act dancers enact a strange tale where a man beats a woman down, but she rises back up and stabs him. Then a woman dressed in Lederhosen sings in front of an alpine landscape. Xin recognizes her - it's Ah Fung!  She visits his home in Shangahi, to learn that he's chosen a very different life. Xin gets a message that his friend Liang has fled abroad. At the port, the ship has already left.  Shi finds Xin, sitting on the shore, looking out to sea, looking desolate. A primitive goatcart wends its way up a steep hill. Ah Fung has returned to the North East, and sees her grandfather once more.  Images of the Great Wall and marching armies : self explanatory.  Back in Shanghai, Xin's increasingly restless. A letter arrives, a last farewell from Liang, now so far away. More images of war, bombardments, fleeing refugees. But where is Liang ? In the North East, partisans are building a fire.  Liang spots the picture of the phoenix and knows that Ah Fung must be near. Sure enough, there she is, with her grandad.  The Japanese mount an attack, but the partisans fight back, and the film ends as it began with The March of the Volunteers.  "Rise up! Rise up! Rise up!...march on! march on!" I'm sorry I don't get all of the levels, eg word plays, because I don't speak Mandarin and none of the prints I've seen have any kind of subtitles.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

O lieb! Lieder and Mélodie by Franz Liszt : Cyrille Dubois, Tristan Raës

O Lieb ! The Lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté.  Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well.  With these settings by Franz List, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt's approach to song.  Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert Lieder develop the piano part with greater elaboration than Schubert's originals where naturalness is of the essence. Liszt's own songs and Lieder reflect the the international circles he moved in and the more "modern" times he lived in. As Dubois and Raës explain, "Liszt’s ardour and expression resonate with the youthful nature of our duo, just as his music, so demonstrative and accessible, answers the tumult of our troubled times".

This is demonstrated in Die Loreley, second version, LWS273 (1841), to the poem by Heinrich Heine, and possibly one of the most beautiful Lieder ever written.  The structure is dramatic : almost an opera in miniature, the piano evoking the richness of an orchestra.  The first motif rises like an overture, the repeat softer, descending as if from some rocky height to the river below.  "Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten" his voice delicately restrained, so the words "Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten", are infused with a sense of wonder. Near-declamation turns to lyrical warmth. "Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt, Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein" the melody dances : the music evoking the flow of the river., complete with sparkling figures and the repeating phrase "Die Loreley".  On the short phrase "Im Abendsonnenschein", Dubois shapes the dramatic crescendo, expreessing the thrill the poet feels as he sees at last the lovely maiden combing her golden hair. The line "Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme" is repeated twice, each time with difference emphasis, a pattern that runs through the whole piece. Enchantment turns to horror, as the poet sees the sailor in his boat dashed upon the rocks. Rolling figures in the piano part descend, like engulfing waves. Tristan Raës low pedallin exudes menace.  After the tumult, an eerie calm.  Is this the spirit of the Loreley herself,  innocently oblivious to what has been done ? The song ends with the line "Die Loreley getan!" repeated, the last taken with tessitura so high that it seems to soar to the skies.

Dubois and Raës preceded Die Loreley with Liszt's Hohe Liebe (LWN18/S307, 850, Uhland), Jugendglück (LWN61/S323, 1860, Richard Pohl), Liebestraum O lieb (LW N18/S298, 1850, Freiligrath), Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage (2nd version, LWN16/S290-2, 1859, Heine), and Es rauschen die Winde (2nd version, LWN33/S294, Rellstab). With Vergiftet sind meine Lieder (LW N29/S289, 1859, Heine), its intensity belied by its compact duration, contrasting with the delicacy of Bist Du (LW N29/S289, 1859, Prince Elim Metscherskey). Die Zelle in Nonnenwirth (4th version, LW N6/S274-2, 1860, Furst von Lichnowsy), is a dramatic scena based on medieval legend.  Liszt's setting lifts it above its maudlin text, and Dubois gives it heroic ring. The very well known Ein Fichetenbaum steht einsam (1st version, LW N36/S309, 1860, Heine) is followed by Nimm einen Strahl der Sonne (LW N20/S310, 1860, Rellstab), and two settings of Liszt's friend Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Laßt mich ruhen (LW N55/S314, 1859) and In Liebeslust (LW N55/S314, 1859).  Der Fischerknabe (1st version, LW N32/S92-1, 1847) is one of three settings Liszt made of poems from Friedrich von Schiller's William Tell. Hence the spirit of full-throated freedom. Raës plays the piano line so it evokes "alpine" images - tinkling figures that might be cowbells or pure water in a mountain lake,  swelling forth, then precipitately descending.  One crescendo after the other in the voice part, posing no problems for a singer like Dubois whose technique is so agile. 

Four settings of Victor Hugo : S’il est un charmant gazon (1st version, LW N25/S284-1, 1844),.Enfant, si j’étais roi (2nd version, LW N24/S283-2, 1859), Oh! quand je dors (2nd version, LW N11/S282-2, 1859) and Comment, disaient-ils (2nd version, LW N12/S276-2, 1859), showing how Liszt was at ease with Mélodie and with Hugo's idiom. The last song, in particular, is beautfully balanced, Dubois bringing out its elegant, understated charm.

Liszt's Three Petrach Sonnets (Trois Sonnets de Pétrarque) (1st version, LW N14/S270-1, 1846) (S270/1 1842-6) are extremely well known, and here receive superb performances, making this recording a recommendation for admirers of the composer. "E nulla stringo, tutto l'mondo abbracio" sang Dubois. His poise is superb - this is how rubato should properly be used. He breathed into "i sospiri e le lagrime e 'l desio" so it seemed to well up from deep within.  Raës sculpted the piano line, as firm as marble. Surprisingly, Liszt only wrote two other songs in Italian.  Angiolin dal biondo crin (2nd version, LW N1/S269-2, 1856 Cesare Boccella) is a lullaby for Liszt's daughter Blandine, then 4 years of age, a little angel with blonde hair. The Marquis de Boccella was a family friend of Liszt and Marie d'Agoult.  Thus the tenderness and intimacy of Dubois' delivery, Raës' piano like an embrace.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

When satire becomes reality

"As I have said before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I've done before!)"

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Jacques Prévert Les feuilles mortes - art poetry, art song

photo : Flemming Christiansen 2008
Everyone loves the song "Autumn Leaves".  It's so famous that its origins are almost forgotten. The poem is by Jacques Prévert, set by Joseph Kosma.  Prévert was one of the great figures in French poetry in his time, and was also involved in the golden age of French cinema. He wrote scripts for Michel Carné, like Les enfants du Paradis, Le jour se lève, two classics whose quality trancends the genre of "movies" : films that are art in their own right.  Les enfants du Paradies help define me.  Prévert's poetry is so evocative that it also transcends cinema.  Prévert worked closely with Joseph Kosma, who studied with Hanns Eisler, who helped define music for cinema as art music in its own right, not just as sound track. Kosma  also worked with Jean Renoir : class ! Lots on Eisler on this site.  So now that autumn's setting in, a chance to indulge in the poem and the song it inspired.  This translation is much closer to the spirit of the poem than the usual English lyrics.

Oh, je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes,  Des jours heureux quand nous étions amis,  Dans ce temps là, la vie était plus belle,  Et le soleil plus brûlant qu'aujourd'hui.

(Oh how I wish that you would remember the happy days when we were friends. At that time, life was beautiful, and the sun more golden than today) 

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,  Tu vois je n'ai pas oublié. Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,  Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi, 
(The dead leaves were swept away by rakes, you see, I haven't fogotten.  Menories and regrets swept away, too)

 Et le vent du nord les emporte,  Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli. 
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié, 
La chanson que tu me chantais. 

(And the north wind carries them away  into the cold night, where they're forgotten.  You see, I haven't forgotten  the song you sang to me.) 

C'est une chanson, qui nous resemble,  Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais.  Nous vivions, tous les deux ensemble, Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais. 

(It was a song that was like the two of us, you who loved me, I who loved you. We lived, two of us together , you who loved me, I who loved you) (notice how Prévert repeats linese as if they would fade away if he didn't, as if he were holding on to the precious memory before it slips away) 

Et la vie sépare ceux qui s'aiment,  Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit.  Et la mer efface sur le sable,  Les pas des amants désunis. 

(Yet life separates those who love each other, so softly without making a sound, as the sea wipes away the footprints in the sand of lovers now apart).

Nous vivions, tous les deux ensemble,  Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais.  Et la vie sépare ceux qui s'aiment,  Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit.

(We lived, the two of us together,  you who loved me, I who loved you. But life separates those who have loved,  gently making no noise).

Et la mer efface sur le sable  Les pas des amants désunis...  (and the sea wipes from the sand the traces of those torn apart)

 Please also see my translation of Prévert's Barbara, in Kosma's setting HERE
Recommended recording : Francis Le Roux and Jeff Cohen,  Please see what else I've written on Kosma, French poetry, Mélodie and art song of the period.

The World belongs to Society

天下為公 (Tien ha wei kung) Under the skies, the people, or the world belongs to society.  In kindergarten we were taught about the First Emperor whose big acheivement was to unite the country.  But we were also taught, even then, that he burned the books of learning including The Book of Rites, from which this quotation comes. So as kids aged 5 we learned that morality and culture are greater than individual power. Confucian values are not a bad thing.  Two thousand years later Dr Sun Yatsen quoted the phrase : it's the background to his San Mun Ju I, the Three People's Principles :  民族主義, that the people even in a  nation with hundreds of different minorities, have values in common.  民權主義 the rights of the people to be part of governance, and 民生主義 the concept that government should serve the community.  Basically the message is : deny culture and history, you're in trouble.  Fifty years ago, the Red Guards attacked learning (and Confucius). Like the First Emperor, they didn't last. 

Friday, 4 October 2019

Franz Liszt Vor hundert Jahren - Kirill Karabit's Ode to Schiller

Franz Liszt : Vor hundert Jahren (1859) highlight of Kirill Karabits’ tribute to Friedrich Schiller.  In these modern times when the world seems hell bent on denigrating intellect, we neeed Schiller more than ever.  Schiller's importance in modern culture cannot be underestimated.  To him, even more so than to Goethe, we owe the philosophical framework of freedom and democracy. Vqalues that matter in increasingly authoritarian times. Full marks to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for having the courage to start their new season with this truly inspired programme : Hummel Freudenfest Overture, Liszt Kunstlerfestzug, Liszt Vor hundert Jahren and Richard Strauss Suite on Rosenkavalier.  Bournemouth raising the bar for all Britain : will other orchestras dare meet the challenge ?

Johann Nepomuk Hummel's Freudenfest (Overture for orchestra in D major (S148) is based Hummel's overture to Die gute Nachricht (op 61, S103) written to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, a collaborative piece with contributions from  Beethoven, Adelbert Gyrowitz, Georg Friedrich Treitschke and others. 1814 was a defining moment in German history. Germany then did not exist as a nation, but a conglomerate of 300 or so different territories.  The Wars of Liberation united thinkers, artists and activists across state boundaries. Thus was born the idea of Germany as a nation, inspired by the ideals of the Romantic Revolution, which owed so much to Schiller.  Please read my piece HERE on the Lützowsches Freikorps and their connections to Schubert, Beethoven and much more.  Hummel's Freudenfest flows with energy, light woodwinds flying above the orchestra : a military march, but fleet-footed and joyous. Quotations of the anthem God Save the Queen abound, Britain at that time being perceived as a bastion of democracy.

Friedrich Schiller
Franz Liszt Vor hundert Jahren combines poetry, philosophy, history, music and theatre. This kind of intellectual hybrid was popular at the time. Imagine Berlioz and Schumann without spoken narrative - so modern audiences just have to stop thinking only in present day terms.  The form goes back to the allegory dramas of the 16th and 17th centuries. As Stravinsky said "To be a good listener, you must acquire a musical culture.... you must be familiar with the development and history of music, you must listen". Don't sneer at what might be different to what you expect, but listen where things are coming from (Please read more here).  

Vor hundert Jahren is music drama, unfolding as a series of tableaux, illustrating aspects of Schiller's life and works. The text by Friedrich Halm, an Austrian dramatist, was heard here in English translation by Richard Stokes. In the first scena, a processional march introduces a succession of artists. Not militarists, but artists and intellectuals !  The harp and clarinet melody, reiterated by strings and muted brass, suggested refinement, not brutality. The pace speeds up with mounting excitement, punctuated by percussion exclamation marks ! Germania (Sara Kestelman) recounts the horrors of the Thirty Years War, which tore German nations apart : millions were killed, some areas depopulated.  This apocalyptic horror is the context behind the dream of peace and unity. "Who shall save Germany's name and when its neighbours houses are ablaze?"  Poetry (Jemma Redgrave) prophecises that "self-inflicted sorrow" will be replaced by a "magic circle of love around the defiant hearts of (Germania's) children..... Salvation is a great human being is presently will greet my enraptured heart."  Horns and strings usher in the "Song of Destiny", a vision of hope embodied in the person of Friedrich Schiller, depicted in his simple cradle. "He shall live not long, but eternally" the Three Graces chanted in unison. "A master of words, a lone individual but yet an entire army". "The region that begot the Hohenstauffen and the Hohenzollern begot him too ....but Swabia has a mother's claim".  Schiller's Ode to Joy, in Beethoven's setting begins to grow and swell. 

Germania speaks of the struggles Schiller will face before he returns to Germany, purified. Another almost cinematic prelude sets the stage for the next phase in Schiller's journey to artistic maturity. Since the piece was meant to be staged, one can visualize a non-speaking actor playing Schiller striking heroic stances, surrounded by figures whom audiences in Liszt's time would have been able to identify.  Simon McBurney created a semi-staging for this performance : knowing his style, it would have been intelligent and well informed. Another interlude, alpine -sounding horns and cowbells suggesting Switzerland, and Schiller's hero, William Tell, whose bravery helped his nation to independence.  Its mountains and clear air were also symbols of the lofty ideals of the Romantic revolution.  The Ode to Joy swells up again in the orchestra. "Immortality!" says Poetry, "Let one phrase echo in every heart : He was a German and we are German!" A resounding coda. Liszt's  Vor hundert Jahren is fascinating as a missing link in the development of music theatre. Much more than a novelty, it captures a unique sensibility which modern audiences might not get at first, but could warm to if they appreciate its background.  

After the interval Richard Strauss's Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Karabits conducting a scintillating performance.  Subversion and freedom from authoritarian scam, disguised by elegant "silvery" light.  Even now many people don't get Strauss, and don't understand his self-deprecating humour : but he, too, was a revolutionary in his own way.    Listen to this most rewarding programme here for 28 days.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Stravinsky's Prophecy : Listening and hearing are not the same thing

"To receive music you have to open your ears and wait for the music: you
must feel that it is something you need...To listen is effort, just to
hear is no merit. A duck hears also."  

This brief quote from Stravinsky divides opinion, but that in itself is revealing.  But what can be so threatening ?  In many cases, the response has been to attack the messenger, anything rather than to think about what Stravinsky might mean. What raw nerve has Stravinsky hit here that should upset some people so ? If anything that proves why what he said then is only too relevant today. Listening is not the same as hearing.  Music is infinitely more than just sound. A duck can hear sounds but few ducks could sit through a Beethoven symphony processing it on many emotional and intellectual levels. To "receive" music involves "opening your ears and waiting for the music". The key word is "waiting" : letting the music unfold, allowing communication.  In normal conversation, you don't interrupt someone when they're speaking and impose your own preconceptions on what they can or cannot say.  You listen to take on board different perspectives and ideas.  Maybe that's why the idea of listening is so disturbing.  Too many people think the world revolves only around themselves and that no-one else can possibly have anything to say.

Stravinsky refers to subscription audiences who attend for non-musical reasons, and more pertinently to the mindset that comes from only receiving music from recordings.  It's not recordings that are wrong - Stavinsky was keen to conduct his own works - but the illusion that music exists in some kind of existential limbo. Music is an art of human communication.  Breaking that connection between listener and the wider world of human interaction deprives the art of listening from its fundamental purpose. As Stravinsky says, composers write because the music compels them.  As long as what they do is worthwhile in itself,  there always will be some who appreciate more than others.

That's where "effort" comes in.  Another word that infuriates ! But effort means differentn things.  For those who love something dearly, effort comes easy.  Stravinsky refers to being familiar with the culture of music, which anyone can pick up naturally if they listen enough.  All human beings develop with time and experience. No-one stays exactly as they were, thinking they know all that is possible to know.  "No-one can tell me what I don't already know !"  But maybe I'm wrong. If the dissociation Stravinsky refers to about receiving music in isolation held back in the era of mass produced music, that isolation now is even more pronounced.  Now it seems people live in sealed bubbles of self-absorbtion, glued to technology, cut off from normal human interaction.  This isolation gets harder and harder to break out of. Not a good thing for society and civilization.   

Music has the power to connect us to the world outside ourselves, to enhance communication, to widen our understanding of universal ideas.  Morever as we really listen, we learn a lot more about ourselves in the process. Music cannot be owned. "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."   Rich men in this case being those who rely on status, externals and processes. Because they have no humility and sense of others, they can't understand the message. Maybe we're heading to the era of Dial-up Music (read more HERE) where composers, and musicians  and music itself can be dispensed of altogether by hearers. That will be the triumph of hearing over listening.

Friday, 27 September 2019

Vladimir Jurowski : Britten (Julia Fischer), Tchaikovsky, Knussen LPO

Vladimir Jurowki and Julia Fischer with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing, March 2019

We'll miss Vladimir Jurowski when he moves on from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, after 18 years, 11 of these as Principal Conductor. Jurowski is a man who thinks deeply, creating programmes that are more than the sum of their parts, often venturing into repertoire off the beaten track.  This concert at the Royal Festival Hall brought together Oliver Knussen (Scriabin Settings), Benjamin Britten (Violin Concerto) and Tchaikovsky (Symphony no 6, the "Pathétique"

Knussen's Scriabin Settings (from 1978) have recieved many performances over the years, most recently at the Knussen Memorial at Aldeburgh in June. Based on Scriabin's late miniatures for piano for small ensemble, Knussen's arrangement extends the colours without sacrificing transparency. Despite the chamber-like forces, "Désir" hints at what massed strings might sound like : an intriguing whisper, stirring the imagination.  High, bright winds weave filigree patterns in "Nuances", leading seamlessly into "Caresse dansée" where the tones are darker and more sensual, leading to the livelier  "Feuillet d'Album".  In "Enigne" the flute danced brightly before the elusive conclusion. Though Scriabin is the muse, Knussen's Scriabin Settings are true Knussen territory : whimsical, open-hearted and aphoristic.

Julia Fischer was the soloist in Britten's Violin Concerto op 15, 1938-9.  The introductory lines here were elegant, a brief moment of serenity before the agitato, where angular figures were underlined by percusion, suggesting gunfire.  Spain had fallen to Franco, supported by the Nazis. To an anti-fascist like Britten, and many others,  exile must have seemed the only hope for civilization.  The Violin Concerto is a scream of anguish, so intense that  it has affected reception.. It takes courage to write a deeply uncomforting statement like this.  Perhaps only now can we appreciate its place in the canon of major works by a composer for whom cruelty and the loss of innocence were moral crimes. While the second movement begins vivace, the mood is bittersweet, Fischer recognizing the importance of the tight, tense pizzicato contradicting the sweep of the strings. Fischer platyed the long, meandering lines with melancholy, intensifying the contrast with the turbulent animando, where brass and timpani dominate.  Nonetheless, the violin breaks free, true to itself,  fast paced passages flying at high tessitura, above the darkness around it :  hollow wood, the violin beaten like percussion, as if it were a folk instrument in a far away homeland, before a cadenza that soared above murmuring brass, the orchestra muted so it felt deliberately distant.  Jurowski delineated the passacaglia so it felt like an anthem, undaunted and austere, rising (like the violin) ever upward.  Thus fortified, the violin could reprise something of the confidence with which the piece began, Fischer playing with steady assurance, the orchestral strings like a chorale behind her.  From the orchestral strings, a suggestion of guitars : the ghosts of the dead in Spain, rising again, led by the violin, marching quietly onward. Listening to the Violin Concerto, perhaps we can already hear Britten confronting the fundamental bleakness of the human condition, from which there is little escape.

By pairing Britten's Violin Concerto with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Jurowski highlighted the more disturbing aspects of the symphony.  Because it's heard so often and sometimes receives performances that don't do it justice, the depth of its pathos aren't always done with the commitment that Jurowski brings to its interpretation.  Wonderful colours, too, in the orchestral playing, enhancing the complex, shifting moods.  The pulse in the third movement flowed with purpose, the march aspects defiant, like a march to the scaffold, undertaken without fear or regret.  In the final movement a surging undertow grew in power, long string lines stretching as though the composer wanted to savour them for as long as possible before silence descended. 

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Good Livestreams coming up ! -Rouvali, Jurowski, Gilbert, Harding,

Tonight -  Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra live from Gothenburg, Sweden.  Sibelius Pojhola's Daughter, Carl Nielsen Symphony no 4 and Magnus Lindberg Accused with Anu Komsi soprano. Rouvali is sensational  (He's the next Chief Conductor at the Philharmonia, London) - and this is an adventurous programme. Please read about Lindberg's Accused HERE when I reviewed the premiere in Helsinki, with Hannu Linttu and Anu Komsi. It's a very good piece ! No archive, but there will be a repeat broadcast from 25th Octber.  Rouvali made his Berliner Philharmoniker debut last week conductung Uuno Klami Kalevala Suite nos. 4 and 5, Ravel Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Alice Sara Ott) and Sibelius Symphony no 1,  available soon on Digital Concert Hall (it was wonderful).

Thursday 26th  - Alan Gilbert conducts Beethoven Symphony no 7, Enno Poppe Schnur (premiere) and Jörg Widmann Con Brio live at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg on arte. tv

Friday 27th 7.30  - Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra - Knussen: Scriabin settings for chamber orchestra
Britten: Violin Concerto (Juliua Fischer) ,Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 'Pathétique' live from the Royal Festival Hall. As Jurowski's long  residency as Chief of the LPO draws to a close, cherish and enjoy ! Notice - Knussen and Britten !

Saturday 28th 2000hr Daniel Harding conducts Mahler Symphony no 2 at Gasteig, live on BR Klassik. Soloists Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Okka von der Damerau 

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Die schöne Müllerin with fortepiano - Padmore and Bezuidenhout, Wigmore Hall

Icycles : Photo - LindyLoo Welsh

In Opera Today, Claire Seymour reviews Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuindenhout's Die schöne Müllerin at the Wigmore Hall : Not with pianoforte but with fortepiano.  Since Schubert himself composed on a fortepiano, the choice of instument has precedent.  Christoph Prégardian and Andreas Staier pioneed the combination in the early 1990's.  The shift in dynamics  works extremely well.  The fortepiano's timbre can suggest the sharp angularity of icicles, the blinding brightness of light on snow, and of course, the fragility that is at the heart of the cycle.  Grande luxe pianism is all very well, but the cycle means a lot more.

 "Standing at the centre of the Wigmore Hall platform, the grand fortepiano from the workshop of Christoph Kern (located in Freiburg im Breisgau in the Upper Rhine plain) was a beautiful sight to behold, its glossy chestnut-cherry colour wood gleaming with an elegant grain, its graceful curves evincing a quiet stylishness and assurance" .

"....If dynamic range is not one of the fortepiano’s strengths, then Bezuidenhout showed us that the instrument does offer variety, of timbre,
texture and colour. The softest passages were beautifully executed, with stylish discernment and detail. Moreover, the more rapid decay of the 
fortepiano’s tone seemed to become an integral expressive element. For example, the quaver-chords in the central section of ‘Am Feierabend’ were not only crystal-clear and light, but were followed by a distinct silence, the short rest evoking the slowing of the mill-wheel and the young man’s growing weariness, but also his unsettling self-doubts as he wonders if he can inspire love in the girl who has bewitched him. Similarly, at the close of ‘Danksagung an den Bach’, the gentle diminution of the postlude, with its delicate ornamentation, acquired an intimate, almost confessional, quality"

Please read the full review here in Opera Today

Please also read my review of Padmore and Bezuidenhout's Winterreise HERE.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

John Eliot Gardiner, LSO - Schumann, the Early Romantic

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Schumann's Symphony no 2 in C major, Op. 61 (1847) and Symphony no 4 in D minoir (Op 120) with the London Symphony Orchestra, now available on the LSO label. In the past few decades, there has been a sea change in the reception of Schumann's music, particularly of the later works and of the symphonies. Schumann died young, just as Wagner's reputation was in the ascendant, a factor colouring public reception. Imagine if Schumann had lived to counterbalance Wagner ?

In more recent decades, there has been a sea change in Schumann reception,  based on a greater appreciation of the composer's influences and the aesthetic of his time. This focuses on Schumann's individuality and true originality, his later works and the symphonies benefiting from more sensitive performance practice.  Gardiner's approach highlights the energy in Schumann, deriving from the values of individuality and freedom that characterized the Early Romantic period.  At the Barbican, Kristian Bezuidenhout. playing a pianoforte from 1837 by Sébastien Érard, with leather hammers covered in felt, very similar to the instrument Mendelssohn used, demonstated sounds that affected the compositional process.  "There is a textural topography to these instruments" he said "Every register has a characteristic voice....moving from bass to tenor, and above, where the piano sounds similar to the harp".  Hence the brighter, livelier textures, and "singing" lines, agility and flexibility that characterize the approach which Gardiner and more recent conductors value in Schumann.

Here Gardiner presents Schumann's symphonies framed in the context of his Overture to Genoveva (Op 81, 1850) which Schumann started writing in 1847, around the time that his  Symphony no 2 in C major (Op 61, 1847) was completed. The original folk tale on which Genoveva is based dates back to the Middle Ages. Indeed it’s the basis of stories like Snow White ! In legend, Genoveva lived in the forest, protecteda by animals and by her virtue. Significantly, though, Schumann rejected the medieval concept, choosing instead to base his opera on Friedrich Hebbel’s more psychological drama, published only four years previously. Schumann wanted a “modern” take on the story, possibly exploring a new form of music theatre, as he was doing with works like Die Paradis et das Péri and Szenen aus Goethe's Faust.  As Hebbel said “Any drama will come alive only to the extent that it expresses the spirit of the age which brings it forth”.  Gardiner creates the inherent drama in the piece and its very non-Wagnerian transparency.  The glowing colours build up like a chorale, then into the themes in the opera, before the final fanfare, in the way that successive proscenia in a theatre add depth to a flat stage.

In Schumann's Symphony no 2 Gardiner shaped the brass, without stridency, the "brassiness" muted and dignified, integrating well with the bassoons, winds and strings. How poignant the horns and winds sounded, evoking Nature, hinting at the forest imagery so close to the heart of the Romantic imagination.  The Scherzo is particularly animated, notes seeming to fly in fiendishly complex patterns, though sharply defined.  A delicate yet purposeful Adagio, Gardiner bringing out details  which reminded me of the strange enchantment in Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream.  A brave, afffirmative last movement, undercut by the moody bassoon from the Adagio, which Schumann told a friend was the point at which he heard his "half sickness" calling him.  Nonetheless, the composer had a "special fondness"  for this strange melancholy, which infused even the happiest moments of his life. Wisely, Gardiner understands why serene passages mix with quirky moments : smoothing them out would diminish the personality in the music, and in the composer himself.

For Schumann's Symphony no 4, Gardiner chose the original 1841 version rather than the published version of 1851.  The first version was panned by critics at the time, while the revision, more audience-friendly, proved more popular.  Given Gardiner's emphasis on Schumann's originality, this was a wise choice.  The raw energy in this performance is thrilling - Schumann without censorship, so to speak.  In the first movement, andante moves swiftly to allegro, ending with emphatic punch, makingthe transition from major to minor in the Romanza even more unsettling. The oboe-cello melody may be a form of love song  since this was Schumann's Liederjahre, a period of happinesss and creativity, after years struggling to win Clara.  Here, it feels shaded by melancholy, echoes of  Dichterliebe mixing joy with anxiety, the violin melody offering tantalizing hope. In the Largo, magnificent long lines are briefly interrupted by brisk dotted rhythms, before low timbred brass signals change.  The dichotomy of long chords and brisk notes is resolved in a vivid Allegro vivace, which here marches, then hurtles exuberantly to a flourish.  In the live concert, Gardiner didn't pause between movements, so the symphony flowed freely, connecting themes giving shape to the whole, as inspired as Schumann must have felt in that year in which his creative powers surged without restraint. Gardiner has performed and recorded Schumann's symphonies many times,  and this latest release, with the London Symphony Orchestra shows how well they respond to his dynamic approach.    

Friday, 20 September 2019

Groundbreaking Hans Werner Henze - Das Floß der Medusa

Groundbreaking new recording of Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa. What happened at the premiere in 1968 is so well known that the story almost eclipses the music. When I read about it in the newspapers (remember them ?) I had never even heard of Henze, but vowed to find out more, so impressed was I, even then, by his integrity and refusal to dumb down. Much less impressed by those who were happy to support him to further their careers but dropped him when he became too "hot". As if they didn't know Henze's politics when they agreed to take the gig ?  If anything, we can connect to Das Floß der Medusa now with even greater committment because we've seen situations like this repeated over and over in modern times.  When I reviewed the production conducted by Ingo Metzmacher in a thoughtful  staging by Romeo Castellucci  (Please read more here), I got attacked by someone who said that refugees in the Mediterranean should be annihilated because they threaten the European way of life.  Ironic that, given that some people wouldn't have been born had their ancestors not found refuge. Henze's message doesn't dim but grows more prophetic.

This new recording of Henze's Das Floß der Medusa, conducted by Peter Eötvös, is ground breaking because the performance is, if anything, even more intense and powerful,and the all-important narration even more passionate. It has a savagery that might have upset genteel audiences sixty years ago, but which we can now appreciate, since we know only too well that the horrors Henze describes are only too real.  An essential recording, which doesn't replace the first (recorded at a rehearsal).  Please read Marc Bridle's well informed and analytical review here in Opera Today. 

"...There are many things about this performance which just sound “right” – the acoustic, the clarity of the choral divisions, the spatial mystery of the work’s vision which alternates between horror and pathos. One could argue that the acoustic does little to emphasise the impact of contrast between life and death as the choruses move across the stage – this is, in one sense, an unremittingly darker performance than the one Henze gave us. Eötvös does, of course, use Henze’s 1990 revision of the score, one which tones down some of more obviously Marxist chants such as “Ho! Ho! Ho! Chi! Minh!” and there is clearly room today to interpret this oratorio beyond the events of the decade in which it was written. I think some performances of the work can still sound uncomfortable, perhaps this one doesn’t.

Peter Stein’s narrator (often the most difficult role to cast) is exceptional, but given his background this probably isn’t a surprise. This is such a nuanced, beautifully crafted reading of Charon it’s hard not to be persuaded by the mythology of the character. There is something Sophoclean about it, a depth which Henze didn’t particularly get from Regnier.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Vaughan Williams : The Song of Love, Albion, Roderick Williams, Kitty Whately

From Albion, The Song of Love featuring songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams and pianist William Vann.  Albion is unique, treasured by Vaughan Williams devotees for rarely heard repertoire from the composer's vast output, so don't expect mass market commerical product.  Albion recordings often highlight new perspectives. This  release includes the famous The House of Life, with Kitty Whately, a mezzo-soprano, and songs in German and French, with Roderick Williams, probably the pre-eminent interpreter of English song.

Though the full cycle of The House of Life is now nearly always heard with male voice, even with bass-baritones, the premiere was given at the Wigmore Hall on 2nd December 1904, in the presence of Vaughan Williams himself, with Edith Clegg, a contralto, accompanied by Hamilton Harty. Some of the songs, to sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,  have texts that suggest a man addressing a woman, such as Love's Minstrels and Heart's Haven, but the others four are gender-neutral. Indeed, Silent Noon, one of the best loved of all Vaughan Williams' songs, lends itself particularly well to the female voice. The warmth in Whately's timbre enhances the image of high summer langour, where "hands lie open in the long fresh grass", the piano gently palpitating.  Whately breathes tenderness into the phrase "All round our nest, far as the eye can pass, are golden kingcups fields with silver edge"  One can almost feel the vista, and endless horizons.  But the "visible silence, still as the hourglass" cannot last. "Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragonfly hangs ......" Dragonflies die, their splendour brief and doomed. Whately's voice seems to hover, making the passionate final declartion ever more poignant. "O! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower". The final phrase "the song of love" (hence the album title) can be a little too high for some male voices, but poses no problems for a mezzo-soprano. Though the cycle is The House of Life, the texts deal with Death, often as a strange visitor, as in Death-in-Life, but the overall impact, given the understatement of Vaughan Williams' settings, suggests that happiness, and life, must be cherished while it lasts.

In the Three Old German Songs (1902) Vaughan Williams explored medieval German song, capturing an archaic nature rather different from folk song, German or English.  The setting of To Daffodils on this set comes from a manuscript found at Gunby Hall, which the composer visited regularly. This differs from the 1895 setting of Robert Herrick's poem in that the short lines ebb and flow from quietness to climax, much like Vaughan Williams' Orpheus and His Lute (1903),.  In the Four French Songs, from 1903-4, Vaughan Williams sets medieval French song, Quant li Louseignolz, for example rather than "Quand le Rossignol", a song with connections to knights who took part in the Crusades. Thus the studied "medieval" formality. Roderick Williams has no peer in English song, though his French is less idiomatic, but he's a natural communicator. Here, his delivery brings out the special qualities in these songs, with their stylized formality, very different from folk song and indeed from later French song. There may well be a connection between these songs and Love's Minstrels in The House of Life, with its "modern" take on medievalism.

With Buonaparty (1908) Roderick Willliams is back on home ground, his delivery animated, crackling with character. This is one of Vaughan Williams’ only two settings of Thomas Hardy's poems though, as we know from his Symphony no 9, he knew Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles and the evocations of Wiltshire and Wessex.  Perhaps the composer didn't warm to Hardy's other values. Gerald Finzi, who did understand Hardy's irony and lack of deference, set more Hardy than anyone else. Finzi's setting of Hardy's Rollicum-Rorum quite explicitly satirizes populist war mongering.  Roderick Williams' Finzi settings of Hardy are essential listening, not only for the dynamism of his performances, but for what he reveals of Finzi's feel for Hardy as iconoclast.  RVW's Buonaparty was intended though not used for Hugh the Drover. It's robust, with a jolly refrain, but not specially perceptive.

With The Willow Song (1897), followed by Three Songs from Shakespeare (1925), Kitty Whately sings some of Vaughan Williams’ settings of Shakespeare. This version of Orpheus and His Lute is  almost neo-classical, its refinement more subtle than the better known earlier version.  With The Spanish Ladies (1912) and The Turtle Dove (1919-1934), Roderick Williams returns to classic Vaughan Williams, the first based on a sea shanty, the second on an old ballad collected by the composer from a traditional singer's performance at the Plough Inn, in Sussex in 1904 . These set the context for Two poems by Seumas O'Sullivan,The Twilight People (1905) and A Piper (1908)  published in 1925, when the composer was working on Riders to the Sea. O'Sullivan was the pen name of James Sullivan Starkey, a Dublin journalist. The plaintive lines may reflect Vaughan Williams' knowledge of Ireland, through the prism of W B Yeats and J M Synge.  Whately and Williams conclude with two duets based on German folk songs, in English translation, Think of me and Adieu.  Though Albion recordings cater to a very specialized market, this set is very well planned and performed : a good introduction for those wanting to delve deeper into Ralph Vaughan Williams and the sources of his inspiration.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Transcendent Simon Rattle : Messiaen Éclairs sur l’Au-delà, LSO Barbican

Sir Simon Rattle conducted Messiaen Éclairs sur l’Au-delà with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, London, an even bigger occasion for some than the previous night's season opener, an all-British gala featuring Emily Howard, Colin Matthews and William Walton. (Please see Robert Hugill's review here). Rattle's British music credentials are very strong indeed. He's close to Matthews and has done lots of Walton. (Please read my review of Rattle conducting Walton's Belshazzar's Feast with the LSO just a few weeks ago). Rattle's committment to Olivier Messiaen is even stronger. British audiences took to Messiaen very early on, to the extent that he's influenced British music (think George Benjamin)  and Rattle was one of the first to bring Messiaen's larger scale works to mass attention. He conducted Éclairs sur l’Au-delà when he was with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (his recording is one of the better ones, bar Myunwhun Chung, both eclipsing by far Zubin Mehta's prosaic approach). Later he did Éclairs sur l’Au-delà with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  Quite probably Éclairs sur l’Au-delà  is a Rattle signature piece not only because he likes doing it but because he understands Messiaen's unorthodox sensibility. With Messiaen, you need to share Messiaen's wonder at the miracle of life, and value the humility (and humour) behind the majestic extravaganzas.

Not for nothing does the traverse begin with the Apparition du Christ glorieux where long brass lines stretch as if into infinity. Rattle makes them glow : think of the rays of light which illuminate images of Christ risen from the dead.  Literally, lightning over the world. To a practicising Catholic like Messiaen, that's the central message of faith : "For God so loved the world he gave his only-begotten Son". Hence the shimmering but steady pace, firmly defined, without sentimentality. This section is amplified by the two which follow, La constellation du Sagittaire and L’oiseau-lyre et la ville-fiancée. One evokes the constellations in the universe, with powerful chords whose metallic resonance suggests great distances and things not of this earth, preparing us for the lively dance of the lyrebirds. Messiaen's use of birdsong is not novelty, but rooted firmly in his core beliefs about the cosmos. Birds, he said, descended from dinosaurs, and have been on this planet longer than man. The thousands of species attest to the variety of evolution.  Jerky, quirky figures, darted at wild angles : the movement of birds, closely observed by an man who spent his life learning from them - yes, learning, for Messiaen was humble. To him, even the smallest  and most vulnerable creatures had value because they reflected the Creator's love for the pure and fragile. Rattle understands the freedom and originality in this music and the way it transcends conventional form. Messiaen's students were taught to think for themselves and to create, not to be tied to rigid formulae.

In Les élus marqués du sceau, referring to the Book of Revelation and its prophecy of survival in the Apocalypse. Nothing triumphalist here, for Messiaen or for Rattle. Swirling textures with bittersweet details. The serenity of Demeurer dans l’amour suggests redemption to come.  Nothing "romantic" in this love, for it is divine love, between mankind and a higher power.

The fanfares of  Les Sept Anges aux sept trompettes represent the seven angles with seven trumpets who appear at the End of Time, when the earth is rent asunder.  Wooden, hollow, metallic sounds, thudding percussion, crashing gongs. Rattle understands the conection between Éclairs sur l’Au-delà  and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, another work which he has conducted memnorably many times.  (Please read my review of one Rattle performance, though I've written extensively on the piece). This gives context to the next section, Et Dieu essuiera toute larme de leurs yeux.  From near silence, the sound of birdsong in the winds, and rustling vibrations in the strings.  (Remember the symbolism of birds to Messiaen). A vaguely hymn-like anthem on horns was cut across by the liveliness of the solo flute, sparkling with freshness and freedom.  The birds in this section refer to the idea of evolution, dinosaurs being reborn as birds. A tender, loving performance by the LSO principals.

After this interlude, Messiaen returns to the heavens with Les étoiles et la gloire, in their majesty, and then back to the birds with Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de vieFrom the lowest timbres in the orchestra came brighter outbursts, exploratory figures growing in confidence, cheered by tiny bird-like figures in the winds and percussion (songs and darting rhythms).  Typically Messiaen zany exuberance.  The reference in Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de vie is to the image of Christ and the Tree of Life, filled with birds : an image of growth and renewal, shelter and abundant life.  Again, humour, with a  slightly comical passage, which may perhaps represents the ghosts of clumsy dinosaurs, now born again.

With the drama of Le chemin de l’invisible, the symphony continues on its journey. And a symphony it is, despite its eleven sections which together form a traverse towards a resolution.  Angular, wild rhythms, like the movemnts of many birds rushing en masse, fanfares and long, circular arcs suggesting ebb and flow. Rattle doesn't lose sight of the destination. The lush textures were propelled by a sense of movement, unrushed but untoppable. Éclairs sur l’Au-delà was Messiaen's last major work, written as he approached the end of his life. This affects interpretation : miss this and miss the whole point.  Ever a realist, Messiaen understood mortality, but, imbued by faith, he contemplated the future. Unlike Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum which ponders the fate of mankind, Éclairs sur l’Au-delà is personal : a man facing what is to come to all, no matter how exalted. That's why I like Rattle's Messiaen, because  it's human scale, and humane. Le chemin de l'invisble ends with a crash but leads to Le Christ, lumière du Paradis, with which Éclairs sur l’Au-delà  began.  Full cycle, alpha and omega. This structure matters, given Messiaen's faith.  No-one wants to die, everyone worries about the unknown and leaving those one loves, but Messiaen drew comfort from the idea that death is not an end but a kind of rebirth, and union with God.  In the serenity of this final section, the long lines evoked eternity, horizons without end. The LSO strings seemed to shimmer with a preternatural glow, Rattle always aware of the transfiguration that would have meant so much to the composer.  Whatever ones' own beliefs, this is powerfully spiritual, and Rattle's approach deeply convincing.