Thursday 31 January 2019

For Schubert's Birthday : Abendlied für die Entfernte

Schubert's Birthday today !  I'd planned to mark the occasion at the Wigmore Hall, but Julia Kleiter cancelled (get well soon !) and the prospect of driving up snow covered hills late at night was too much to contemplate. But for me, every day is Schubert's Birthday. So here's a gift in his honour, the song Abendlied für die Entfernte D856 (1825) to a poem by August Wilhelm Schlegel. 

Hinaus mein Blick! hinaus ins Tal! 

Da wohnt noch Lebensfülle; 

Da labe dich im Mondenstrahl 

Und an der heil'gen Stille.

Da horch nun ungestört, mein Herz, 

Da horch den leisen Klängen, 

Die, wie von fern, zu Wonn' und Schmerz 

(Gaze into the distance, gaze towards the valley, There lives yet the fullness of life,. Be revived by the rays of the moon,  in the holiness of peace.   My heart : listen undisturbed to gentle sounds that, as if from afar,  evoke joy and sorrow )

Wenn Ahnung und Erinnerung 

Vor unserm Blick sich gatten, 

Dann mildert sich zur Dämmerung 

Der Seele tiefster Schatten

Ach, dürften wir mit Träumen nicht 

Die Wirklichkeit verweben, 

Wie arm an Farbe, Glanz und Licht 

Wärst du, o Menschenleben! 

(When apprehension and memories gather before our sight,  growing misty in the twilight of the soul's deepest shadows. Ah, if we didn't weave dreamns with reality, how lacking in colour,  gloss and light would life be ?)

So hoffet treulich und beharrt 

Das Herz bis hin zum Grabe; 

Mit Lieb' umfaßt's die Gegenwart, 

Und dünkt sich reich an Habe, 

Die Habe, die es selbst sich schafft, 

Mag ihm kein Schicksal rauben; 

Es lebt und webt in Wärm' und Kraft

Durch Zuversicht und Glauben. 

(So the Heart is filled with hope, faithfully and with determination unto the grave, embracing bthe present with love, counting the blessings it has endowed itself which fate cannot take away. It lives and moves with warmth and diligence through confidence and faith)

Und wär in Nacht und Nebeldampf 

Auch Alles rings erstorben, 

Dies Herz hat längst für jeden Kampf 

Sich einen Schild erworben.

Mit hohem Trotz im Ungemach 

Trägt es, was ihm beschieden. 

So schlummr' ich ein, so werd' ich wach, 

In Lust nicht, doch in Frieden. 

(And if, in night and fog swirl around, and death intervenes, this Heart has long found, for every battle, a shield of defiance to ward off defeat. So I fall asleep, and will awake, not in pleasure but in peace) 

The strophic setting and sturdy piano accompaniment enhances meaning, for it emphasizes the sense of steady determination through which the Heart , the protagonist defies the inevitable fate that is death.  Because the Heart has heard " leisen Klängen" he has lived well and loved life so well that this fate sustains him and gives him peace even when he's lost the world, and only has distant horizons to gaze upon.  Schlegel's poem is deeply contemplative : a philosophy of life that overcomes mortality.   Thus we can gaze upon the statue of Schubert, on his 123rd birthday, as it stands, no doubt covered in snow this bitter winter,  and understand the significance of the text. 

Wednesday 30 January 2019

Hubert Parry chamber works : Hyperion

From Hyperion, Hubert Parry chamber pieces with the Leonore Piano Trio,  revealing an aspect of the composer's output that is relatively neglected, given the prominence of his choral and orchestral works.  This recording also highlights the influences Parry absorbed from a fairly early stage in his career, connecting his work to contemporary trends in wider European music circles.
The Partita  in D minor for violin and piano was conceived in early 1877, when Parry was on holiday in Cannes. He was invited to play (as a pianist) in a series of  concerts organized by Edward Guerini, an Italian violinist.  They performed a suite for violin and piano, based on a piece which Parry had written in 1872-3.  In 1886, it was revived as the Partita heard in a recital organized by Edward Dannreuther, who had taught Parry in the 1870's, and was very well connected in European music circles, introducing Parry to new influences.. Dannreuther hosted concerts at this home in 12 Orme Square, Bayswater, featuring the works of Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Greig, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. Dannreuther's son Hubert was named after Parry, who was his co-godfather, the other being no other than Richard Wagner, another close friend, who stayed with the Dannreuthers when he was in London. Edward's other children were suitably christened Sigmund, Tristan, Wolfram and Isolde. Hubert Dannreuther became a naval commander and was one of the few to survive the sinking of HMS Invincible at the Battle of Jutland in 1916,  which Parry commemorated in his The Chivalry of the Sea - a Naval Ode.  (Please read more HERE) ,

The version of the Partita heard on this recording is the version published in 1890.  It bears the influence of French baroque style,  flavoured with late 19th century pianism. The first movement, marked maestoso, is a  dialogue between violin (Benjamin Nabarro) and piano (Tim Horton), a curtain raiser for the courtly allemande, where the piano provides foundation for a lively violin line.  The courante is so vibrant that the music seems to levitate, violin and piano in equilibrium  The relative restraint of the sarabande is followed by two bourées fantastique brightened by dotted rhythms and a passepied en rondo.

Dannreuther (later to become Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music), was pianist for Parry's Piano Trio no 1 in  E minor at its first hearing at Orme Square in 1878.  Parry handles form with poise, balancing the instruments to great effect.  An  appassionato leads into an animated scherzo, contrasting with the particularly lovely  adagio, where the cello line (Gemma Rosefield) flows gracefully, and the trio comes together again in the allegro giocoso.

Exclusive to this recording is Parry's Piano Trio no 3 in G major, unpublished in his lifetime, edited and prepared for performance by Jeremy Dibble. The opening movement, displays the confidence of a composer who has found his identity, "dominated by an abundance of more extended, self-developing thematic material whose muscular diactonicism is especially characteristic of the composer", as Dibble writes.  The lyrical freedom of the capriccio shows equal assurance. Of the lento, Dibble writes, "There is much to remind us here of the inventive, commodious sonata processes which Parry had discovered in so many of his instrumental slow movements, the affecting phrases of the first subject, the composer's passionate use of suspensions, and the typically restive rhythmical momentum of the fluid secondary material". The final movement, marked allegro con fuoco, is unhurried but steady.

Monday 28 January 2019

Luminous Mahler Symphony no 3 : François-Xavier Roth, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

Gustav Mahler Symphony no 3 with François-Xavier Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, now at last on CD, released by Harmonia Mundi, after the highly acclaimed live performance streamed a few months ago. The Gürzenich Orchestra gave the world premiere of this symphony in Cologne on 9th June 1902, conducted by Mahler himself, who also conducted the premiere of his Fifth Symphony with the orchestra, in October 1904.  Though its personnel have changed, the repertoire remains close to the orchestra's core. François-Xavier Roth follows in the footsteps of Michael Gielen, who conducted the Gürzenich Orchestra and conducted Mahler with the innovative SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, where Roth was the final Chief Conductor.

The lucidity of this performance should come as no surprise, especially to those who have been following Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln over the last few years, and not just in Mahler, though their recording of Mahler's Symphony no 5  is highly recommended.  The first movement of Mahler's Symphony no 3 is huge, almost a symphony in itself.   Roth grasps its internal structure, bringing out its formidable architecture. The opening theme is strongly shaped, creating the pattern of "peaks" (trumpets and trombones) and "valleys" which are very well defined, muffled trumpets and solo trumpet calling out into the distance, the strings and winds adding sweetness.  Roth emphasises the pattern with very quiet, muffled percussion, before the next sequence, where the trombones call, heralding the way ahead. This deliberation respects the marking "Kräftig. Entschieden" but also contributes to the interpretation of the symphony as a whole. From steady discipline, the symphony progresses : the apotheosis at its conclusion is reached only by a process, which includes struggle as well as moments of loveliness.  As if the goal were in sight, the pace speeds up towards the end of the first movement : turbulent excitement, hurtling forwards, winds, trumpets and trombones leading into the next phase,buoyed up   by cheerful, almost swaggering woodwinds.  If Mahler's entire output can be heard as one great symphony, its basic ideas repeated and developed, the first movement of  the Third Symphony is a microcosm in itself.  Mahler's original title for this movement was "Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In". Even without the label, it's clear from this performasnce what he meant : vigour and freshness.

The second part of Mahler's Symphony no 3 begins with a movement "tempo di minuetto", a dance between two partners, extending the pattern in the first movement, but also evoking the idea of dialogue that rises so often in Mahler, even up to the Adagio from what would have been his Tenth Symphony.  The dance element brings out the best in Roth, given his background in French repertoire, so strongly influenced by the patterns of dance and precision.  Elegance does count in Mahler and highlights the subtlety in his orchestration.  This pays off too in the third movement, where details like the quote from the Wunderhorn song Ablösung im Sommer ("Kuckuck ist tod!") aren't there simply for decoration.  In the song, summer is not over, though the cuckoo is dead, since the Nightingale takes over and "singt und springt, ist allzeit froh, Wenn andre Vögel schweigen".  As in so much of Mahler's work, death is not an end but a stage in a process, where death is defeated by new forms of life.  Thus the flutes and piccolos, giving context  to the posthorn. This is heard from offstage, invisible but powerful.  Does it suggest distance, or memory or future hope ?  The "kuckkuck ist tod"  figure returns, cheekily and leads the orchestra into another dance, whipped almost into frenzy, before the posthorn calls again, and the pace descends, like twilight into night.   Yet again, the resurgent pattern returns, with a finale of energetic affirmation, not defeat.

From brooding near silence (basses and celli), Sara Mingado, the alto, emerges, singing a text from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra: "O Mensch! Gib Acht!", her voice illuminated by motifs on violin and clarinet, which here sound non-western, which is quite approrpiate : this is no mainstream "Christian" symphony.  Something is gestating.  The misterioso of the fourth movement gives way to the joyous fifth movement, significantly scored for youthful, fresh-sounding voices. Mingardo is now haloed by the Women's choir of Schola Heidelberg and the youth choir of the Kölner Dom. The words "Bimm bamm" supposedly evoke the sound of bells marking celebration.

The forward thrust of the journey in the first movement is now drawing to resolution.  In the final movement, marked "Ruhevoll", lines stretch, as if reaching into distance: strings now dominant, winds adding depth, brass responding.  Exquisite playing from the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln : the refinement feeling almost luminous.  Here, too, the structure involves a series of stages, observed more carefully by Roth than by conductors who push too much towards the ending.  As in the first movement, purposeful progression matters, for the reward is worth the journey.  The tuba announces one transition, a flute another.  Very natural-sounding trumpets recall the Alpine landscape aspects of the symphony,  bringing echoes of past memories - and of the posthorn - together with hopes for the future.  Unity at last, the different sections of the orchestra in concert (literally) with each other.   Thus the deep feeling that grows ever more secure as the movement proceeds, culminating in the coda where the timpani pound, not so much MGM glitz but with the depth and conviction of a strong heartbeat.

Friday 25 January 2019

Armas Järnefelt : Song of the Scarlet Flower

Armas Järnefelt : Song of the Scarlet Flower, (Sängen om den eldröda blomman) from Ondine, marks the centenary of the filmn of the same name, and serves as a reminder of the importance of Nordic countries in the history of cinema. It is also a chance to hear the music of Armas Järnefelt , the long-term conductor of the Royal Swedish Opera, and a member of the Järnefelt family who played an important role in the development of Finnish nationalism. Järnefelt's father was General August Järnefelt,  who promoted the Finnish langauge. His brother Eero was a painter, and his sister Aino  married Jean Sibelius.

In the first decades of cinema, Scandinavian and Finnish film makers were in the vanguard, paving the way for masters like Viktor Sjöström, Carl Th. Dreyer and later Ingmar Bergman. Song of the Scarlet Flower, directed by Maurice Stiller (1883-1928) was a milestone in Nordic cinema history. Released in April 1919, it was an instant sensation, a box office success that was screened in 40 countries.   It was an ambitious project, the first full-length Swedish film to have music written specially for it.   Though Järnefelt was primarily a conductor, he had trained with Busoni and Massenet and composed, especially in the early years of his career.  Ondine has a set of Järnefelt songs in its catalogue, and  BIS has recorded some of his orchestral works, conducted by Jaakko Kuusisto, who conducts this new recording with the Gävle Symphony Orchestra, who made the seminal recording of Järnefelt's music in 1996, which includes two sections from The Song of the Scarlet Flower.  The score used here is reconstructed from what remains of Järnefelt's original score, discovered in 1988, augmented by Jaakko Kuusisto and Jani Kyllönen.
Järnefelt's experience as a conductor of opera gave him insight into the role of music in drama, but writing for film is very different from writing music as music.  "I had to build it up metre by metre, bit by bit" he said, "I received a list of the principaql scenes of the film and their durations, but that information proved to be quite wrong, as the film was screened at a much faster pace,and I was horrified to discover how poorly music and image went together.  I was obliged to shorten the score. Never in my life had I had to write music in such a way that I was forced to conform to the tempo of events - I, who am used to setting the tempo myself.  In the end, it all worked out". The film has been restored and was screened in 2017 but is not yet on DVD.

Based on a novel by Johannes Linnankoski, Song of the Scarlet Flower follows the adventures of a young man, Olof, a rebel  who joins a band of loggers, travelling the river from forests to mills.  He chases women, ruining one who becomes a prostitute in the city , but mends his ways and marries well.  The screenplay is set out in seven acts, as was common at the time. The first section "The First Flush of Spring" suggests youth and promise.  Expansive themes (shimmering strings) alternate with lively woodwinds. A vigorous leitmotiv emerges: possibly the young man heading into the world, folkloric references (violin imitating fiddle) evoking the countryside.  In "The Mother's Glance" a jolly mood gives way to a plaintive song for solo violin,  darker notes introduced by woodwinds, over repetitive angular rhythms.  The leitmotiv introduces "Learning Life", develops into cheeky dance and returns again with even more force.  This chapter apparently illlustrates a scene where   Oluf shoots the rapids. The central movement "A Young Man's Daring-do" is brief, but pensive, violin and woodwinds in duet.

With "Kyllikki" folkloric charm meets the "Olof" leitmotiv. Olof and Kyllikki want to marry but her father objects. Thus the brisk conclusion, with outbursts of timpani, the violins reiterating the leitmotif.  "In The Town" is a nocturne, pizzicato suggesting the ticking of a clock.  He's still chasing women as the waltz reference suggests.  But Olof meets his past, in the person of Gazelle, whom he seduced and abandoned. A chill descends. The pizzicato becomes so quiet that it feels haunted.  Suddenly the orchestra bursts forth - angular, discordant figures suggest Olof's horror and guilt.  Rumbling figures suggest Gazelle's suicide. When the Olof motif returns, it's quieter, chastened.  "The Pilgrimage" is introduced by high-pitched winds suggesting horn calls, and a hymn theme (chamber organ) suggests the churchyard where Olof's parents lie dead.   The hymn expands into a serene but affirmative section which may represent values Olof lost when he ran away.  It now shows him a way forward.  Bells ring out !  Having inherited his parents' wealth, Olof claims Kyllikki, and they marry.

Plenty more on this site about early film and music in film. Please explore and also see :
Victor Sjöström's Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage)
Rasmus Breistein's Brudeferden  i Hardanger,  (Bride oif Hardanger)
Carl Th Dreyer Vampyr
Feminist Finnish Jenůfa, Anna-Liisa 1922
and of course German, French, Chinese and other early film and experimental movies. Plus composers like Hanns Eisler

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Gergiev Marathon : Russians and Mahler, Elbphilharmonie

Where does Valery Gergiev get his energy ?  Two livestreams back to back from the Elbphilharmonie, both programmes hefty. Mahler Symphony no 4 together with Das Lied von der Erde - a combination most conductors wouldn't dare essay on the same night, let alone after the previous night's all-Russian concert - Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich Symphony no 4.  The players of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra must be exhausted.  Yet Gergiev looks calm and refreshed.

He has done Stravinsky's Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5, so often that it's almost his trademark. Please read my piece Lost No More about his premiere of the piece in St Petersburg in 2016 with the Mariinsky Orchestra. As he did then, he paired it with Rimsky-Korsakov's suite from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya.  This combination is important, given the connection between Rimsky-Korsakov and the young Stravinsky. Towards the end of Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre)  we might detect the last, long chords of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.  While Stravinsky spoke fondly of the Funeral Song, it's a transitional work rather  than a stand alone major work, so it does need to be programmed as intelligently as Gergiev does.  The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh is a much more sophisticated piece, its colours at once delicate and luscious. It's a Gergiev favourite, too, and  this performance was very good indeed.  This time, though, his main focus was Shostakovich Symphony no 4 in C minor op 43. Again, this is something Gergiev could conduct in his sleep if he wished but here he shaped it with the clarity it needs. Some conductors get away with clumsiness in Shostakovich because some audiences like noise and butchness.  But Gergiev delineated the more elusive passages, bringing out the finesse that lurks behind the surface brutalism.  If there is hidden meaning in this symphony, those wayward wind and horn passages might represent free spirits uncowed by the larger forces around them.

The real surprise, for me anyway, was the quality of Gergiev's Mahler on this occasion. To say he's hit or miss with Mahler is an understatement.  One of the most horrible Mahler 4's I've heard was Gergiev, but here he was good, alert to the vulnerability that is  so much part of this symphony, which sometimes makes it feeel threatening to some.  In the first movement, he captured the jaunty sleigh ride well, so it felt purposeful rather than random jollies.  Life is a sleigh ride, full of thrills, but eventually we all die, which is why it connects to the last movement.  Great restraint in the other movements too : the moment should not end too soon.  The soloist, Genia Kühmeier, stood behind the orchestra. The acoustic of the Elbphilharmonie seems to favour singers by spreading sound around them rather than blasting from behind. She was sensual rather than otherworldly but that's perfectly appropriate, given the joy the child takes in earthly pleasures.

Following Mahler 4 with Das Lied von der Erde takes guts, maybe foolhardy guts,  but Gergiev and the Müncheners pulled it off.  Skill there, plus stamina.  Some very good moments, especially the winds, with a decidedly "oriental" touch at times.  Andreas Schager sang the tenor part, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner the alto.  Schager's a very good Wagnerian, a born "stage animal" who inhabited the part psychologically, as good opera singers do.  If his voice sounded stressed at times, it didn't matter. The protagonist is supposed to be stressed, so terrified of death that he drinks himself into oblivion.  One of the best Das Lied von der Erde tenors ever was Peter Schreier whose edgy earnestness conveyed the full horror of his predicament.  Good balance between Schager and Baumgartner, her serenity an answer to his fears. 

Monday 21 January 2019

Designs revealed - new concert hall for London

Design concepts revealed for the new concert hall for London.   Main auditirium will seat 2000 in a wood-lined performance space. not unliike the Philharmonie de Paris and the Elbphilharmonie. Striking designs ! See more here and here. The bad news is that the £288 million it may cost will have to be raised from private donations.   Since the arts are an important part of the economy, you'd think responsible governemts would chip in ? But no, they happily shell out £14 million for ferries that don't exist but can be ordered like takeout pizza. So why not get funds off venture capitalists who profit by selling the pound short thanks to Brexit ?

Saturday 19 January 2019

George Antheil re-assessed : John Storgårds

To dismiss the music of George Antheil, without understanding its context, is unfair. John Storgårds makes a good case for Antheil with this recording, the second in his series for Chandos, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.  Antheil (1900-1969) moved to Paris in 1922, when it was the centre of the avant garde.  Everyone who could flocked to Paris, and its explosion of creative innovation, in art, literature, music, dance, cinema and social change. Antheil's Ballet mécanique remains an icon, its principles influencing the rest of his career.  Antheil's score, built around 16 synchronized player pianos, with sirens and aeroplane propellers for special effects, reflects in music concepts of modernity inspired by Futurism and mechanical activity.  Multiple processes happen independently, yet move together, as in a machine. Just as in the paintings of Ferdinand Léger, with whom Antheil worked, the passage of time is fragmented, frozen in motion, springing suddenly to life. Man Ray's cinematography operated like a kaleidoscope, fractured images forming and reforming in new patterns. It caused a sensation in Paris, but new York wasn't ready for it. After the rise of Hitler,  Antheil returned to the United States, where like so many other modernist exiles, he had to make a living writing for the movies. 

It's against this background that Antheil's music needs to be heard.  His symphonies no 3 "American" and no 6 "After Delacroix" are true symphonies, not film music, but show the influence of techniques used in Ballet mécanique and in cinema.  Antheil's Symphony no 3 "American" is a travelogue, a collage of impressions inspired by Antheil's travels across America.  The first movement opens with an expansive fanfare. If it is a portrait of New York City, its energy might reflect the buzz of urban life, brief snatches of melody rising beneath its vigorous zig zag patterns. The andante movement apparently describes New Orleans : quieter, and more nostalgic, with darker undercurrents and a subtle suggestion of brass bands, culminating in a Marcia for high winds.  The heart of the symphony, though, lies in the third movement, a scherzo with the title "The Golden Spike". This comes from a score for a film about the Union Pacific Railway which Antheil was working on for  Cecil B De Mille, but the producer, alarmed about the strong nature of Antheil's music, re-assigned the work to the studio music department.  After this, Antheil worked mainly for independents, like  Ben Hecht, and smaller companies where he could write what he wanted, and cult classics like Dementia also known as Daughter of Horror (please read my review of that here) "I've saved a few flops in my time", he said, with more than a trace of irony.  

George Antheil in Hollywood, 1946

The starting point for Antheil's Symphony no 6 "After Delacroix" is Delacroix's painting "Liberty Leading the People" which shows Liberty leading the revolution of 1830.  Marianne (the symbol of France) is bare breasted - exposed and in danger - but fearless.  Strong chords loom up,  followed by rushing rippling figures.  But Antheil isn't illustrating.  Explicit quotes from The Battle Cry of Freedom, indicate that his concerns were closer to home, while remembering his roots in the "revolution" of Paris in the 1920's.  The symphony was premiered by Pierre Monteux in 1949, but received with incomprehension.  It was mauled by critics for sounding like Shostakovich, a rather unpleasant slur in McCarthyite times, given that Antheil had been writing revolutionary music long before Shostakovich, who wasn't in any case a party apparatchik. Why do modern critics still repeat reactionary clichés without listening or knowing the composer ? The other two movements don't sound remotely like Shostakovich.   The larghetto is moody and opaque, a curving, almost penitential line gradually morphing into  waywardness then continuing at a steady pace.  The last movement moves swiftly, subtle shifts of tempo building up to a riotous finale that ends with an exuberant flourish. 

Antheil's "American" credentials are authentic. In Archipelago (1935) a rhumba, he experiments with Latin American forms, splicing them together in highly individual collage. In Hot-Time Dance (1948), he packs multiple changing moods into a four minute epigram.  Antheil's Spectre of the Rose Waltz comes from his music for the film Specter of the Rose, made by Ben 1946.  The movie is way too intellectual to have been a box office hit. It compresses Berlioz, Carl Maria von Weber, Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Diaghilev into a tightly scripted plot that blends expresssionist horror with scathing wit. (Please read more about it here)  Again, there is a subtext, in that Antheil knew Stravinsky in Paris and could poke fun, while respecting Stravinsky as a composer.  Antheil's Spectre of the Rose Waltz spins round like a waltz, romantic on the surface, but solidly structured.   Far less populist and popular than many composers around him, Antheil's reputation is undergoing reassessment.  He's much closer to Edgard Varèse, George Gershwin, Charles Ives and Elliott Carter than to Aaron Copland, and deserves being taken seriously.  Thanks to John Storgårds and other conductors like Ingo Metzmacher, who also has him in his repertoire, George Antheil's time is coming.  there's lots about Antheil (and about experimental cinema) on this site - please explore !

Thursday 17 January 2019

Clara Schumann 200th Anniversary Festival, St John's Smith Square

Clara  Schumann 200th Anniversary Festival at St. John's Smith Square, London,  22nd - 24th February  : "a weekend of music and discussion on Clara Schumann – pianist, composer, wife, mother, friend, and muse.".  Clara  was a pioneer - one of the first "celebrity pianists" like Chopin or Liszt.  She toured Europe, drawing  large audiences wherever she went, so much in demand that she was effectively the breadwinner in the family. She organized her own schedule, bookings and what  today we'd call "management". And all this at  a time when women were expected to eschew public activity, and middle class married women in particular were supposed to stay at home. She certainly had enough children to keep her occupied, and Robert must have been hell to live with at times.

All the more reason to honour her, not merely as the wife of a great composer. Without her, Robert might not have produced the masterpieces of his Liederjahr, and much else.  Indeed, Robert and Clara as a pair were social pioneers, too, since Robert  supported her career and independence. Not many men were so progressive.  He also encouraged her to branch out as a composer. The Festival begins on Friday 22nd with a recital featuring Clara's complete works for voice and piano with Sophie Karthäuser, Alessandro Fisher and pianist Eugene Asti, who recorded the songs for Hyperion.  The recital,is preceeded by a talk by Natasha Loges, who is an excellent speaker : definitely recommended.  On Saturday 23rd Eugene Asti will lead a masterclass in Clara's songs for singer-pianist duos  from Oxford Lieder Young Artists. This should be high quality, a notch above many masterclasses. This scheme is an offshoot of the OxfordLiedervFestival, organized by Sholto Kynoch, with which Asti, Natasha and Stephen Loges have been connected for many years. 

Two further concerts on Saturday 23rd February.  "The Old Masters", (a term used by Clara to refer to the likes of Bach and Handel) juxtaposes Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C sharp BWV848 (a staple piece from Clara’s recital repertoire) with three of Clara’s own works from 1845, all performed by Gamal Khamis. The concert ends with another piece that nods towards the Baroque – Brahms’ Handel Variations Op. 24 (dedicated to Clara), performed by Mishka Rushdie Momen. In their early years of marriage, Robert and Clara devoted
considerable time to the study of fugue and counterpoint, notably Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier which Robert referred to as his “daily bread”.  The evening recital, titled "Clara and Robert" concludes with familiar numbers from Robert’s Myrthen, which he presented to Clara as a gift on their wedding day, and some Rückert settings from Clara and Robert’s joint opus. This progarmme includes Clara’s early Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann Op. 20. The second half of this concert follows a similar vein; Beethoven’s song cycle An die
ferne Geliebte
Op. 98
, with its longing for a distant loved one, precedes Robert’s Fantasy in C which includes a brief quotation from the Beethoven cycle, undoubtedly penned with Clara in mind.

Three concerts on Sunday 24th February.  The first,  starting at 11 am, is "Clara and Brahms" and features Clara’s Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17 (her only piano trio) togetherwith one of her personal favourites – Brahms’ dramatic and turbulent Piano Trio in C minor Op. 101. Both works will be performed by the Busch Trio.  Felix Mendelssohn and his close friendship with the Schumanns (and Brahms) is celebrated in The Mendelssohn Connection in the afternnon. The tight-knit nature of this friendship group is reflected by the opening works – 2 Brahms settings of poetry by Felix Schumann (son of Clara and Robert, who they named after Felix Mendelssohn). The rest of the programme consists solely of works by Felix Mendelssohn – a selection of Lieder; his Lieder ohne Worte Book 5 Op. 62 for solo piano (dedicated to Clara), with its well-known Ein Frühlingslied; and, to conclude, the stunning Piano Four Hands in A MWV T 4 ‘Allegro Brilliant’ Op. 92, which Clara and Felix played together in Leipzig.Mhairi Lawson (soprano) joins Asti, Momen and Khamis.

The final concert begins with two pieces as a memento of Clara's friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim: firstly, Clara’s own 3
, one of her more frequently performed works nowadays; and secondly, the F-A-E Sonata which the composers dedicated to Joseph. This piece was first played through at a friendly get together by Clara and Joseph at Clara’s home. Both works will be performed by members of the Busch Trio. The Clara Schumann Festival ends with Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge, written towards the end of his life. The songs were first played to a group of close friends at a private gathering immediately after Clara’s funeral. After the cycle was published, Brahms sent a copy to Clara’s daughter Marie Schumann. Accompanying the score was a letter in which Brahms wrote: “…You will not be able to play through these songs just now because the words would be too affecting. But I beg you to regard them… as a true memorial to your beloved mother.” Brahms passed away 11 months after Clara. Stephen Loges sings, accompanied by Eugene Asti, with Omri Epstein and Mathieu van Bellen (violin).

Tickets available HERE, for individual recitals or weekend pass.

Hell in a handcart

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Between Mendelssohn and Wagner : Max Bruch opera Die Loreley

Max Bruch Die Loreley recorded live in the Prinzregenstheater, Munich, in 2014, broadcast by BR Klassik and now released in a 3-CD set by CPO.  Stefan Blunier conducts the Münchner Rundfunkorchester with Michaela Kaune, Magdalena Hinterdobler, Thomas Mohr and Jan-Hendrick Rootering heading the cast, with the Prager Philharmonischer Chor.  Bruch (1838-1920) may be best known for his Violin Concerto no 1, but this first ever recording of his full opera should broaden interest in his output as a whole. Bruch's Die Loreley is a very early work indeed, written between 1860 and 1863, and shows how the composer responded to the influences around him.  The text, by eminent poet Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884), was conceived for Felix Mendelssohn, whose music Geibel loved dearly. He so identified the text with Mendelssohn that he was reluctant to give Bruch permission to use the libretto. But Bruch (in an era before copyright enforcement) was not deterred.  The Mendelssohn connection is significant, because it shows the context in which the opera was written, which shapes the way in which the opera should be assessed.  Far from being retrogressive, Bruch was in tune with the values of Gernan music theatre, as represented by Mendelssohn, Carl von Weber, Heinrich Marshner (whose 1833 opera Hans Heiling addresses the Lorelei legend) and even Robert Schumann.  Though Bruch's Die Loreley  doesn't, understandably, have the astonishing originality of mid and late period Wagner, it can be heard as a young composer's response to the "new", heralded by Richard Wagner.

Immortalized by Heinrich Heine's poem Die Lorelei (1822) the Lorelei legend epitomizes the aesthetic of the early Romantic era, where Nature spirits inhabit idyllic landscapes where humans encounter extraordinary adventures.  Seduced by beauty, mortals meet their doom. The Romantic spirit wasn't "romantic", but haunted by a sense of death, mystery and inevitable change. In Heine's words, "Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten, Daß ich so traurig bin".

In Geibel's libretto, Leonore, (sung by Michaela Kaune), daughter of a ferryman who works on the Rhine, sings a love song for a hero of her dreams, as she sits on a rock above the river.  Hearing her voice, Pfalzgraf Otto (Thomas Mohr) becomes entranced, but he's due to be married the next day to Bertha the Gräfin von Staleck. Leonore is so pure that when she sings, she's accompanied by an angelic chorus who sing the Ave Maria.  Leonore lives in a world of the imagination, so Geibel introduces, for contrast, Leonore's father Hubert (Sebastien Campione), the boatmen and the vintners, busy at work on the river bank.  Bruch uses energetic, simple rhythms to suggest physical labour and stability, with choruses for men, women and combined voices. A procession passes by, bearing Gräfin Bertha (Magdalena Hinterdobler,) who is loved by the villagers for her kindness.  Banners fly, and presumably horses prance, suggested by jaunty march. 

Act II is short, but pivotal. A storm gathers and the Spirits of the Rhine rise up from the waters.; Surging figures in the orchestra evoke Mendelssohn, choral lines swaying wildly. Heartbreak has changed Leonore's personality. She calls on the Spirits to avenge her : they echo her words, leading her on. "Mein Herz versteine wie dieser Felsen!"  If she cannot have Otto, her heart will turn to stone.  She throws her golden ring to the Spirits and pledges herself to them if they'll enact a curse on the unwary. In Geibel's version, Leonore herself initiates the curse, and suffers for it., and the Spirits of the Rhine are both male and female. In Wagner's Der Ring der Neibelungen, the Rhinemaidens were innocents, tricked by Alberich, who placed a curse on the Rheingold.  But such is the nature of art : each approach to the legend inspires new  ideas.

In the Pflazgraf's castle, the wedding feast is being celebrated with cheerful choruses. A Minnesänger, Reinald (the veteran Jan-Hedrik Rootering, still in good form) sings of love and fidelity. Otto is terrified, but no-one knows why. Suddenly, Leonore materializes, singing the song of the Loreley. Otto can hold himself back no longer and claims Leonore, raving and starting a fight among the knights. The Archbishop (Thomas Hamberger) and priests accuse Leonore of witchcrafth and have her sent, in chains, for trial.  But she sings her defence so beautifully that all who hear it are enchanted. Otto still rages, and is excommunicated and driven away. Bertha dies of a broken heart.  In Hubert's village, the boatmen and vintners mourn her. Otto sits outside the church , hearing their hymns but still cannot escape the curse. He heads back to the rock where he first encountered Leonore , begging her forgiveness, but she's no longer of his world, her lines plaintive and keening.  "Zwischen dir und mir steht einfort eine dunkele Macht.  The orchestra surges, and the Spirits of the Rhine well up around her. Their curse is fulfilled, and they claim her for their own, the "Köningin vom Rhein". 

Given the connection between Geibel and Mendelssohn, it's almost impossible not to hear echoes of Mendelssohn in Bruch's score, though it's clear that Bruch was responding to Wagner, with echoes  of Tannhäuser, and to much else popular in the period.  Giebel's libretto for Die Loreley is superb, so well written that Bruch can set each scene to catch the atmosphere. The Grand Scene of the Spirits, which forms the Second Act, is quite an achievement for a composer in his early 20's.  Though the opera is not a major milestone, it is well worth hearing as part of the evolution of German music theatre in this period.  Stefan Bunier and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester give a rousing account, which probably won't be improved upon for some time, since the opera was only recently revived in full.  A good cast all round.  Kaune and Mohr are particularly impressive, she at turns meek and ferocious, malevolent and wistful, epitomizing the complexity of Leonore's character. Mohr's clear tenor rings as though Otto were a hero, which he is, in a way, since he was cursed through no real fault of his own. 

Saturday 12 January 2019

Off on adventures ! François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles, all Berlioz livestream Paris

Livestreamed from the Philharmonie de Paris, François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles in an all-Berlioz programme featuring Berlioz Harold en Italie, with Overtures from Benvenuto Cellini, from  Le Carnaval Romain op 9, and Béatrice et Bénédict and the sections "Roméo seul" and "Grande fête chez Capulet" from Roméo et Juliette op 17

A Romantic Harold en Italie op 16 H68 1834 in the true sense of the term "Romantic". Roth and Les Siècles capture the aesthetic of the early 19th century when wild dreams, adventure and concepts of freedom and individuality transformed European culture.  The modern use of the term "romantic" is a dumbing-down of the Romantic vision : we need to re-engage with what Romanticism was to appreciate Berlioz and other composers of his time. That is what "historically informed performance" really is : not instruments per se but performance practice that grows from an understanding of a composer and his influences.  In the case of Berlioz, this is particularly important since Berlioz was fascinated by new instrumental colours. His Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes - note the word "modernes" was published at around the same time as Harold en Italie was written, so Les Siècles use instruments from the time in which Berlioz was working.  The result is brighter, cleaner, less "polluted":  Byron and his hero Harold travelling in landscapes still unexplored and unknown.  Roth, his orchestra and Tabea Zimmermann the soloist, make Harold en Italie feel fresh and new, as it might have when it was new.

"Berlioz", Roth has said, "like other innovative orchestrators, brought out the best qualities of the instruments he had at his disposal at the time. He kept up with the latest developments in instrument making and, like a chef, was keen to use the right ingredient to season his musical recipe. It’s really exciting to encounter the original flavours of the instruments of his time because you realise almost instantly what these new combinations of timbres were........"With Harold en Italie, things are much more complex: the viola is not a concertante soloist, as it would be in a Romantic concerto, but rather a musical character, a narrator, an actor in the story of Harold that is related to us. Berlioz

invented a genuinely new role here in the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra."

In the Romantic aesthetic, heroes are loners in a vast landscape, accentuating the monumental challenges before them. Berlioz's first

movement is titled "Harold aux montagnes". Ominous figures loom up in the orchestra, ascendant lines stretching outwards. When Zimmermann enters, her line is quietly confident, garlanded by harp and winds. Just as the hero engages with the panorama, the viola engages with the orchestra : a good balance here, the soloist not overwhelmed by larger forces. The movement ends with a sense of adventure. In the "Marche des pèlerins", the understated melodic line in the orchestra suggests the humility of pilgrims, singing as they journey. Thus the arppegiated chords, the viola beside the orchestra.

In the third movement, the use of period instruments brings out the distinctive timbres and rhythms of folk music in the serenade and

saltarello. The dances become drama in the "Orgie des Brigandes". Brigands, like gypsies in 19th century folklore, represent "natural"

forces, freedom versus inhibition, danger versus comfort. Thus the quicksilver energy with which Les Siècles brings this movement to life :

even the quieter figure before the entry of the viola bristles with anticipation.

Roth and Les Siècles have recorded Berlioz Harold en Italie with Tabea Zimmermann, recently released by Harmonia Mundi  coupled with an equally individual  Les Nuits d'été op 7 with baritone Stéphane Degout. (Please read more here).

At the Philharmonie de Paris live, to highlight the sense of"things to come" Roth and Les Siècles presented Harold en Italie with a group of Overtures from Benveuto Cellini, from  Le Carnaval Romain op 9, and Béatrice et Bénédict . Curtain raiser after curtain raiser!  Then "Roméo seul" and "Grande fête chez Capulet" from Roméo et Juliette op 17.All performed with Roth's characteristic zest.  A programme that made me think about Berlioz as innovator and man of the theatre in every sense. Music can be thrilling as drama even when it's not attached to an opera or larger work. As an encore,  Roth and Les Siècles concluded with the Hungarian March from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust op 24, for which Zimmerman sat in with the orchestra’s violists. Catch the livestream on the Philharmonie de Paris website until June 2019.

Friday 11 January 2019

Wickedly idiomatic Carl Nielsen - Rattle, LSO Abrahamsen

Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in Sibelius Symphony no 7, Hans Abrahamsen's Let Me Tell You (with Barbara Hannigan) and Carl Nielsen Symphony no 4 .  Rattle has conducted one of the finest Sibelius 7th's on record, and done it live numerous times, so no surprises expected : this was good, but the real fun was yet to come.
Rattle conducted Hans Abrahamsen's Let Me Tell You better than most of the many who have conducted the piece over the last few years, which is saying something, since it's been done so often and by so many.  Just as  Sibelius was cursed by the popularity of Valse triste at the expensen of his more substantial work, Let Me Tell You has become the curse of Abrahamsen.  Contemporary music for those who don't like contemporary music !  At roughly 35 minutes, it's longer than all the vocal music put together that Abrahamsen has written in his long and productive career.  It's good enough but not typical of his greatest work.   Let Me Tell You was created as a vehicle for Barbara Hannigan, so it fits her voice so well that she could be singing it well into later years.  Not that there were any problems here : she's nailed it so perfectly that she hardly needs to do much more.  The fans have come for her,  and her persona.  Rattle, on the other hand, made the orchestra sing , revealing the beauty in the music itself. : shimmering, liquid lines that flow and circulate, wrapping round the voice.  this l;oveliness is poison : Ophelia kills herself by drowning, throwing herself into the vortex of a stream.  Syllables fragment and reform, like droplets of water reflected in light - wonderfully delicate textures created by harp, celeste, and percussion with tubular bells and tiny wooden objects scraped and beaten, making sounds like grasses blowing in the wind. Sounds of nature, too subtle and too elusive to identify, reminiscent of Abrahamsen's greatest works like Schnee and Wald, though Hannigan takes precedence.   "Music is pictures of music", Abrahamsen once said. "That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures - basically, music is already there."   In Let Me Tell You, Abrahamsen collaborated with Paul Griffiths, the author and music historian, whose books on modern music are still, after 30 years, the best informed. In comparison, The Rest is Noise is Reader's Digest.
The revelation of the evening was Rattle's appoach to Carl Nielsen's Symphony no 4 op 29, The "Unextinguishable"  (Det Uudslukkelige). This, too, is a staple in Rattle's repertoire, but this performance was inspired.   The sharp attack in the opening bars contrasted with the lyrical first theme, zig zag chords introducing a more vigorous theme, produced here with a swagger, followed by quieter figures, like prancing footsteps. Sassy, expansive figures against moodier passages, exuberance underlined by percussion, winds and brass.  I thought of the series of photographs Nielsen was so proud of, where he grins and grimaces and hams up for the camera (see more here).  The Four (and more) Temperaments ! Just when we're getting into Nielsen's zany vibe, he slips into an elusive mood.   If the symphony deals with the concept of life inextinguishable, it is presented in infinite variety, though the same basic ideas evolve and proliferate, like units in Mandelbrot diagrams,  Nielsen anticipating later composers, even Boulez. The third movement, marked poco adagio quasi andante, wasn't a leisurely stroll, but purposeful.  Woodwinds called, and the strings sprang back to life.  Rattle drew forth an almost bluesy quality from the orchestra which was prescient, given that, even in wartime, one might sense a future where new influences might enliven the mix.  For a moment dark forces emerged :  percussion like gunfire, brass screaming tension, but gradually these gave way to joyous conclusion.  Nothing sentimental or escapist about this despite the vaguely MGM drum rolls. That wasn't Nielsen's style, quirky and defiant as he was. Wonderful, precise playing from the LSO who respond to Rattle better than they do for nearly anyone else.

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Why walls don't work

 What's left of the Jade Gate Pass on the Great Wall of China

Photo by Raki Man 2011

Sunday 6 January 2019

Brain-free Smetana Die Verkaufte Braut - Bayerische Staatsoper

Bedřich Smetana Die verkaufte Braut (the Bartered Bride) livestreamed by the Bayerische Staatsoper.   German language versions of this opera have been around for over 100 years, andd some have been very good indeed.  So no reason to dismiss this on language grounds.  With a strong cast headed by Pavol Breslik, Günther Groissböck, Selene Zanetti and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke this should have been a treat !  Deprived of real music during the Christmas-New Year season, I was so looking forward to this.  The singing was fine, especially the principals, and Tomáš Hanus is a good conductor.  But this was disappointing because of the production, directed by David Bösch.  This is the sort of vision-free mishmash that happens with the new fashion for performance that doesn't make us listen or think.  But it would give pleasure to those who take delight in knocking all productions on principle, without really engaging with what a production might have to say about the music. So we end up with the worst of worlds, a production that doesn't stimulate thought but reinforces non-thought. 
Nothing wrong with setting the scene in an industrial farm : that's the premise behind the opera, that people can be sold and bred like animals.  Those who think in such terms have ugly minds, so if the set was prettied up, it would only weaken the drama.  The key, I think, is to take the cue from the music - listen to that Overture ! Of course Smetana uses speech patterns and roughly "folk" allusion, but what makes the music work with the drama is its energy and vigour.  Farmers grow crops, they live in tune with Nature or they don't survive. Fertility means renewal : people get married to propagate.  Marie's love for Hans is natural genetic selection.  Hans, an outsider, represents hybrid vigour, while Wenzel's probably inbred.   Love and fidelity do matter, but   no smart farmer can ignore practical things. Hans turns out to be rich after all.  And fertility, in humans, means sex. hence the thrusting, spiky rhythms in the music and its bouncy liveliness.  Making the erotic elements in the opera more explicit would not bea mistake  , even if modern audiences aren't grown enough anymore to deal with it.  A really strong orchestral performance can create the right atmsphere. Hanus is good enough but wasn't really on fire.  I enjoyed listening to the main singers - Breslik's naturally sexy, Groissböck a born actor and Ablinger-Sperrhacke one of the finest character singers in the business.   But something is wrong when you get distracted by the live pig snuffling about in the background, presumably gobbling treats hidden in the clutter on stage.  Or maybe that's a metaphor for fashionable taste. 

Friday 4 January 2019

Britten Hymn to St Cecilia and love that dares speak its name : RIAS Kammerchor

Benjamin Britten Choral Songs from RIAS Kammerchor, from Harmonia mundi, in their first recording with new Chief Conductor Justin Doyle, featuring the Hymn to St. Cecilia, A Hymn to the Virgin, the Choral Dances from Gloriana, the Five Flower Songs op 47 and  Ad majorem Dei gloriam op 17. This new release extends RIAS Kammerchor's engagement with British repertoire, established when  they recorded Britten's Sacred and Profane together with songs by Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Stanford, with former Chief Marcus Creed in 2013.  This new collection is particularly valuable   because it focuses on works Britten wrote at a formative period in his  career which even now is relatively unexplored. 

Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia op 27  is one of the classics of modern choral repertoire. It's not an "easy sing", lines and parts interwoven in inticate patterns.  This hymn had great personal significance for Britten, who was born on St. Cecilia's Day.  It is relevant that this was while he lived abroad : its connections to English polyphonic tradition show where his heart truly remained. St Cecilia was a singer who was matryred for her faith, hence the symbolism implicit in the text, by W H Auden.

"Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions/
To all musicians, appear and inspire/
Translated Daughter, come down and startle/
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

This refrain repeats through the three sections of the piece, and are sung in unison, underlining its meaning.  Auden extends the imagery to include Aphrodite, rising full-formed from the sea, and a more obscure reference (possibly from Dante), "around the wicked in Hell's abysses/The huge flame flickered and eased their pain."  Britten picks up on this for the scherzo section, where bright, short phrases flicker, like flames, in quick succession.  The hymn is as much for all artists in times of persecution as it is for the saint, given that Britten was acutely aware of the impact of Nazism on composers and others in the Europe he'd thought he'd left behind. The final section is characterized by "o" sounds and vowels, which resonate, like bells, an aural image emphasized by the sudden descent into solo parts, evoking sacred form.  The RIAS Kammerchor perform Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia so it flows fluidly, the parts so well balanced that they blend without losing clarity.

Britten wrote his Hymn to the Virgin at the age of sixteen, revising it in his early years at the Royal College of Music. Nonetheless it is not juvenilia, but a sophisticated use of double chorus, one singing in  English, the other responding in Latin, creating an echo effect as if the past were resurfacing in the present. In the final verse, the parts divide, singing the text together.

This recording is also valuable because it features the Choral Dances from Britten's Gloriana. The opera is sadly still  misunderstood, and the dances in the Second Act come in for criticism, so hearing them  on their own as a sequence shows their merits. This also demonstrates their role in the opera, which is not to further the obvious drama between Eliuzabeth and Essex but to focus on the Queen and her subjects, and the national interests that made her give up Essex for England. The good folk of Norwich are a symbol of the nation, and their loyalty is genuine. This fits in, too, with Britten's core beliefs in the value of local community : at Aldeburgh, he did more for community music theatre than anyone since the Renaissance.  In contrast, the courtiers who surround the Queen are sycophants and hypocrites.  The courtiers may sneer at the peasants, but the Queen recognizes sincerity. Presumably the new Queen Elizabeth got the message. She was personally fond of Britten  and gave him her support, much to the chagrin of those who thought him an outsider.

In the opera, the Choral Dances also underline the fundamental role of English tradition in Britten's music.  This structure is reminiscent of earlier form, and shows Britten's understanding of style.  The first three dances are a masque within a masque. "Time", "Concord" and "Time and Concord", moving from liveliness to serenity to joy.  The women's voices of the RIA Kammerchor sing "The Country Girls", while the men sing "Rustics and Fishermen", and come together again for the "Final Dance of Homage", here beautifully parted.

Britten's Five Flower Songs op 47 (1950) sets poems by Robert Herrick, George Crabbe, John Clare and an anonymous folk song.  Britten creates a bouquet, bringing together colours in varied combinations. "To Daffodils"  is swift, for daffodils don't linger, while "The Ballad of Green Broom" alternates doughty rhythms with longer, lighter lines, men's voices for the wood, womens for leaves, so to speak, the song ending with a witty flourish.  In "The Succession of the Four Sweet Months" (Herrick) the parts define each month. The parts combine in "Marsh Flowers", strong colours spread along lines that end in a sudden upbeat, and in "The Evening Primrose" stretch the lines so they descend slowly into slumber.

With Ad majorem Dei gloriam (AMDG) we return to Britten from roughly the same period as Ballad of Heroes op 14, the Violin Concerto op 14 and Young Apollo op15, all of which did not receive much attention until later years.  In the case of the Violin Concerto, now regarded by many as a masterpiece, the reason may be that it expressed despair so intense that Britten could not yet process.  The reason for the suppression of AMDG may have more to do with the fact that the solo SATB version can't achieve the colour  a larger ensemble can bring to it.  But there are deeper undercurrents here, too. The texts are by Gerald Manley Hopkins. What drew Britten to these poems of extreme mystical devotion ?  Since Catholic Emancipation wasn't achieved until 1829, and the order itself was suppressed until around that same time,  Jesuit principles of intellect and independence threatened more conservative minds.  Furthermore, Hopkins' poetry was not published until after his death, a sign of humility before God.  Hopkins may have been, for Britten, the quintessential artist as outsider, who endured suppression for the greater glory of his Art.

These songs are difficult to perform, but RIAS Kammerchor carry them off extremely well.  Again, the fine balance between voices creates a lustrous sheen which enhances a mystical sense of rapture. In "Prayer I" ("Jesu that dost in Mary dwell") the voices unite for the last line "To the greater glory of Thy Son : Amen", the last word extended, like a prayer.  Even more beautiful is "Rosa Mystica", where the male voices chant, as if at Mass, the women's voices dancing above the steady pulse of prayer.  The women's voices take up the chant with greater elaboration.  Britten sets "God's Grandeur" with brisk pulsating rthyms from which outbursts of energy emerge, like shouts of joy.   With "Prayer II", a hushed, contemplative mood returns,  the flow of the lines illustrating the image of a fountain linking God and Man. When the men sing "I repent of what I did", the line stands out, emphasizing humility. "O Deus, ego amo te" is a tender love song ; for Hopkins, the object being God, for Britten, perhaps someone human, The word Amen stresses the first syllable so it explodes like a shout.  The Jesuit order was founded by soldiers, and organized on quasi-military lines.  Hopkins writes unorthodox marching rhythms into his poem "The Soldier", which Britten respects, starting with the ejaculatory "YES!" (in capitals in the original poem) For Hopkins, the poem is a celebration of vigour in imitation of Christ.  But Britten, and readers of A E Housman, may read other connotations in the line ".....séeing somewhére some mán do all that man can do,
For love he leans forth, needs his neck must fall on, kiss, And cry ‘O Christ-done deed!".

If man is the image of God, kissing a man cannot be a sin.  In this context, the final song "Heaven-haven" may be a love song, too, and to someone quite specific.  The text is simple and direect, Britten's setting calm, with no fear of the "Love that dare not speak its name" in the words of Lord Alfred Douglas.  Imagine the rage of homophobes and those jealous of Britten and Pears in an era when homosexuality was illegal.  Britten may not have published the songs, but he didn't destroy them, aware that some day they would be understood as a testament.

Wednesday 2 January 2019

New Year in Vienna and the Elbphilharmonie Fledermaus

On New Year's Day, Johann Strauss Die Fledermaus live from the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, Manfred Honeck conducting the NDR Elbphilharmonie Ochestra, in a stylish semi-staging  by Michael Struminger and Renate Martin.  This is what good semi staging should be, making the most of resources to hand, creating a unique perspective.  The acoustic patterns on the vertical surfaces are replicated in the patterns on the costumes.  The hall at the Elbphilharmonie  rises in multi layers around the main platform, with smaller areas where singers can move between, depending on the action,and can be heard without getting muffled.  The hall "transforms" seamlessly from boudoir to party to prison, a concept which is pretty much central to the meaning of the opera.  Swift changes of scene are of the essence. Think about it - everyone's scamming, pretending to be what they're not. They're locked into farce but they get out, just as quick. Alcohol muddles the mind but releases the unconscious.  Die Fledermaus is satire, and savage satire at that, by no means Schlagobers schmaltz. 

Honeck keeps the music zipping along, too. The last thing you want in Die Fledermaus is ponderous Sitzfleisch ! Honeck also brings out the punch beneath the surface fluff, keeping tempi tight.  The dialogue was snappy - quickfire puns and cracks, visual jokes, switching from German to French and to English, too, for the occasion.  The cast included Bo Skovhus (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Michael Nagy (Dr Falke), Astrid Kesssler (Rosalinde),  Katharina Konradi (Adele), Adrian Angelico as Prince Orlovsky, - singers who can speak and act as well as sing.

This broadcast was the third performance, the second on New Years Eve when so much else was going on - Berlin, Munich, Leipzig, Venice - and of course fireworks and parties in the real world outside.  Not much that I know of in Dresden because the boss man there was in Vienna, conducting the Vienna New Year Gala.  That has never been a concert in the normal sense, but a party. Complaining that it's not sober enough is to miss the whole point, and to complain that Christian Thielemann was too sober on top of that is just plain nuts.  The Gala follows the Opernball : waltzes, polkas, and czardas are dances, and dances (and marches) are for fairly large groups of people who need to keep more or less together so the ensemble doesn't collapse in chaos.  Again, a metaphor for society and for Viennese society in particular.  Dance "is" discipline, you can't flop about and be fuzzy.  All the better that Christian Thielemann understood the music and its background and kept things punchy, not floppy.