Friday, 29 March 2019

Matthias Goerne : Schumann Liederkreis op 24, Kernerlieder

New from Harmonia Mundi, Matthias Goerne and Lief Ove Andsnes : Robert Schumann : Liederkreis op 24 and Kernerlieder.  Goerne and Andsnes have a partnership based on many years of working together, which makes this new release, originally recorded in late 2018, well worth hearing. It's a good companion piece to Goerne's Schumann Lieder with Markus Hinterhäuser, also from Harmonia Mundi, with settings of Lenau, Eichendorff and more esoteric poets (Please read more about that HERE). Goerne has been singing Schumann since his youth. He sang Schumann and Schubert in his earliest performaces at theWigmore Hall, London. The art of Lieder is so personal that it's not surprising that an artist's priorities might be performance rather than recording, so this is a good chance to capture Goerne's art on disc  His recording of Dichterliebe  with Vladimir Ashkenazy, released in 1998, remains a favourite.  I'm also very fond of his Schumann with Eric Schneider, with whom he recorded his groundbreaking Schubert Die schöne Müllerin. 



Heinrich Heine's subtle ironies inspired in Schumann settings of great quality: like Dichterliebe op 48, Schumann's Liederkreis op 24 is a masterpiece. With "Morgens steh' ich auf und frage"it begins on a note of hope, the piano line bubbling busily, expressing hope and impatience.  There are advantages to hearing this with Goerne's dark timbre. Lighter voices sometimes sound too innocent : the depth in Goerne's voice reminds us that not all dreams come true. Thus to the resolute firmness of "Es triebt mich hin und estreibt mich her" where Andsnes shapes the piano line with greater tension, and Goerne alternates confidence with tenderness, as if the poet is forcing himself to be cheerful.  This highlights the pathos of "Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen". the birds understand sorrow. Thus the piano line where lyricism is overcome by penitential stillness. In "Lieb' Liebchen" Heine connects the lover's heartbeat to the sound of a carpenter pounding nails into a coffin : a macabre image, hardly a promise of joy.  Again the haunted quality in Goerne's voice brings out inner meaning. The piano line in  "Schöne Wiege meiner Leide", lilts like a cursed lullaby, but the vocal line surges upwards, as if buoyed up by the same resolution that informed the start of his journey. The tenderness with which Goerne sings "Lebewohl, Lebewohl" suggests resignation.  But yet again, this might be a mask. The forcefulness of Andsnes's playing and the magnificence of Goerne's phrasing indicate much greater turbulence. With "Warte, warte, wilder Schiffman", this is a masterful interpretatiom.  We cannot hear the lovely "Burg und Bergen schaun herunter" without remebering what came before. The steady pace of "Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen" now returns, intensified, as if the coffin the carpenter prepared in "Lieb' Liebchen" is now being used in solemn procession.  "Mit Myrthen und Rosen" evokes images of flowers, symbols of Spring and of Love, but also of death.  Goerne's voice becomes gentle, as if purified.  If in life the poet hasn't found love, his art will live on. 

Justinus Kerner (1785-1852) was a Swabian medical doctor, interested in the wilder shores of therapy in his time, when ideas like magnetism, mesmerism and the occult weren't excluded. Imagine how he and his contemporaries would have embraced psychology!  Schumann's Kernerlieder op 35 (1840 is a true cycle, more than a  random collection of songs, and in recent years has come to be appreciated as equal to the other works of Schumann's Liederjahr. The cycle begins with the violent "Lust der Strumnacht", invoking storm, winds and heavy rain, through which a mysterious traveller makes his way. Listen to the savage "s" sibilants whipping the song forward to its adamant one-chord conclusion. Somewhere trapped inside the second strophe is the image of lovers snatching a golden moment - indoors - who want the storm never to end. "Bäumt euch, Wälder, braus, o Welle, Mich umfängt des Himmels Helle!" Already Schumann creates the almost schizoid extremes of mood that characterize the cycle. This turbulence gives way to "Stirb' Lieb’ und Freud" in which a man observes a woman transfixed by religious ecstasy. She's young but wants to renounce the world, to become one with the Virgin Mary. Beautiful as the image is, it's unnatural to the man, who now can never speak of his love. The tessitura suddenly peaks so high that some singers scrape into falsetto, which is why the Kernerlieder are more safely performed by tenors who can do the sudden tour de force transition with relative ease. Peter Schreier mixes purity with ardent protest - wonderful. It's more of a strain for baritones. Fischer-Dieskau recorded it only once, as did Hermann Prey. However, when Matthias Goerne, with an even lower timbre, sings it he shows how the contrast between dark and light is integral to meaning. The high pitch isn't merely a way of imitating the young girl's voice, but a cry of pain from a man in the shadows, seeing the girl illuminated by rays from a Heaven he can never attain. As the last notes fade, Schumann throws us back into the maelstrom..

In "Wanderlied", the protagonist enjoys golden wine (a recurring symbol in this cycle) but this moment of rest is soon blown away by the dynamic opening line, "Wohlauf! noch getrunken den funkelnden Wein!" Wherever he might find himself, he doesn't belong. Again, the minor key of 'Du junges Grün, du frisches Gras!' throws us out of kilter. The protagonist admires fresh shoot of grass, but he'd rather be under them than alive. The lyricism in the piano part is deceptive. Similarly, the rolling, circular figures in 'Wär' ich nie aus euch gegangen' belie the intense regret in the text. These two songs function like a prelude to the magnificent  "Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenes Freundes". The canon-like melody has a grandeur that raises it above a mere drinking song. It has an elegaic quality, suggesting an organ in a cathedral – linking back again to the mood of "Stirb' Lieb’ und Freud”. Its long lines demand exceptional skill in phrasing, for it ponders the mystery of the relationship between the living and the dead, and along the way reflects the composer’s love of “Gold der deutschen Reben!”– at these lines there is a touching modulation which is sustained through the grandeur of “Auf diesen Glauben, Glas so hold!” A spider has wound its web round the long-dead man's wineglass. Again, Schumann forces the singer's voice way up his register. suggesting heights and distances the living cannot reach. The very spookiness in this song elevates it to another plane. This song doesn't come at mid point in the cycle for nothing.

For a moment, Schumann retreats into the relatively conventional "Wanderung", and the delicacy of "Stille Liebe", but notice how the soft, rolling figures from "Wär' ich nie aus euch gegangen" should keep us from being lulled. Thus, "Frage" emerges like a prayer: a miniature whose quiet tone disguises its key position in the cycle. The protagonist is now the one who is mediating on the stillness which the young nun and the departed friend have achieved. With "Noch" the pace slows deliberately, so the last phrase "in arger Zeit ein Herz mit Lust?" shines upwards.

The final "movement" in the Kerner Lieder begins with "Stille Tränen". It's not unlike "Stille Liebe", but much richer and more assertive. Goerne's voice opens out, the piano part is firm and resonant. The sleeper has woken from a night of tears, to a morning of heavenly blue skies. Is the protagonist starting to wonder "Dass du so krank geworden?". The final song is, to me, one of the finest in the repertoire. It is marked “noch langsamer und leiser” (than the previous song)., rising barely above a mellifluous, perfectly controlled half-voice, so one has to pay attention to every syllable. The poet rejects the comfort offered by nature, and affirms that only death will release him “…aus dem Traum, dem bangen, Weckt mich ein Engel nur.” The quiet lines, with the lovely slight pressure on “Engel”suggesting a caress. The invisible wings of an angel? Whatever the source of this mystery it offers kindness and the hope of ultimate release. Has the protagonist at last found that elusive inner repose Listen to the contemplative pace of the piano, each note separated by silence, like a heartbeat. What a contrast with the turbulent "Lust der Strumnacht" ! The cycle has come round full cycle.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Carl Loewe Lieder - Wigmore Hall RAM Song Circle

The Royal Academy of Music Song Circle presents the Lieder of Carl Loewe at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 2nd April (after the weekend).  BOOK HERE ! The singers are Frances Gregory, Olivia Warburton, Kieran Carrel, Paul Grant, and Thomas Bennett, with pianists Richard Gowers, Gus Tredwell and Leo Nicholson. Carl Loewe (1796-1869) was a contemporary of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Weber, Wagner, Robert Schumann - definitely someone we need to know to fully appreciate the richness of the genre.  Loewe's songs are up there with the greats.  Edward (1818) is one of the gems of the repertoire though it was his op 1 no 1, not bad for an early effort by a young composer.  It's interesting because it sits on the cusp of art song as we know it now, and ballads such as Beethoven's settings of English, Irish and Scottish folksongs. Early Romantics were fascinated by wild, "primitive" cultures that offered an alternative to urban "civilized" society. Think Lucia di Lammermoor !  The poem is Gottfried Herder, who wrote many adaptations of northern folk legend.  Edward walks in on his mother.

He's saturated with blood. "It's my hawk".  No, says Mum.  "It's my steed", blurts Edward.  But the truth comes out. He's slaughtered his father.  No explanation, whatsoever. Edward is the quintessential rebel without a cause, a desperado whom society cannot tame.  The concept continues to fascinate. The same tale resurrects in the Country and Western hit Knoxville Girl, where the psychosexual aspects are emphasized - Edward kills a girl, equally without reason. (Please read more HERE, with clips)

Another spooky apparition in  in Odin's Meeresritt op 118. 1851.

At midnight, a horseman in black armour summons a humble blacksmith to shoe his steed. "I have to get to Norway by  morning." Since they're in Denmark, that's a tall order. Then the horseman rides off into the skies, followed by twelve black eagles. The stranger is Odin, king of the Norse Gods,a prototype Wotan. Think Gurrelieder, where the King and his knights fly across the sky, terrifying peasants and Fools. The Romantic obsession with legend and mystery connects to sources in the subconscious.  Also in the RAM Song Circle programme are Loewe's Erlkönig, op1/3, very different to Schubert’s setting, but also very good. Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh (Wandrers Nachtlied), Ach neige, du Schmerzensreiche, Zum Sehen geboren, Meine Ruh ist hin and Die Lotosblume come from Loewe's op 9.  Loewe’s also had a whimsical side. His setting of Goethe's poem, Die wandelnde Glocke Op. 20 No. 3, is droll and wicked, at the same time !

During his long career, Loewe wrote over 400 songs, so no recital could ever be comprehensive. There are many recordings to choose from : Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey, Thomas Quasthoff, and Florian Boesch, whose more agile timbre brings out the magic in many songs where lightness of touch makes a difference. Years ago CPO did a complete Loewe series of nearly 30 CDs which vary from excellent (Prégardien etc) to less so, and the songs pop up regularly live. Please read about concerts in recent years, following the label Loewe below)  Even Jonas Kaufmann sings Loewe - he's on the recording of Loewe's opera Die drei Wünsche op 42, from 2000.  At that time, I got it for Hawlata ! It's a very enjoyable comic opera, closer to Singspeil and the operas of  Schubert and Weber than to "modern" opera like Wagner.   Loewe's chamber and piano music is also undergoing a revival, so this Wigmore Hall recital with the RAM Song Circle comes at an opportune time.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Don Carlos, Paris - Jonas Kaufmann star production


At last - Verdi Don Carlo from L'Opéra de Paris, with Jonas Kaufmann,  Elina Garanča, Sonya Yoncheva, Ludovic Tézier, Dmitry Belosselskiy, Ildar Abdrazakov, conducted by Philippe Jordan, 2017 directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski on arte.tv.  Highly recommended on all counts.  Absolutely wipes the floor on the Royal Opera House (Italian version)  production from 2013 (please read more here).  The more he sings Don Carlo, the better Kaufmann gets into the soul of the character. Here he's supported by a wonderful cast, and superb direction from Jordan and Warlikowski.  Note, I said "direction" from conductor as well as director, because opera is Gesamtkunstwerk : everything operates together to enhance the drama.  If it was just about singing, we wouldn't need opera at all, and line singers up doing scales for comparison.  Unfortunately it takes a bit of thought to figure out how and why a production works as a whole. So much easier not to think !  You can't expect perfection every time, and shouldn't, but this one fires on all cylinders.

Stunning singing, not only from the soloists but supports and chorus, unusually inspired because they seem to be thinking about why and how the drama works.  Perhaps this is what gives this production the edge : everyone' engaged.  Verdi's Don Carlo is a tragedy, human beings trapped in situations they cannot resolve, no matter how privileged they might be.  Not for nothing Don Carlo and Elizabeth de Valois meet in a forest. Freudian symbolism before Freud, extended by the images of horses frozen in immoboility, not living beings.  Don Carlo's collects cuttings from newspapers to learn where he's supposed to stand in the game. He wears a cricket top, but isn't yet a player.  This idea of games and strategems runs throughout the production, for very good reasons. Realpolitik rules, not  human feeling. Religion intensifies the rigidity : the church plays games with souls and minds. Everyone's forced into rules not of their own making. Hence recurring images of walls, some solid, some tantalisingly transparent, like bars in a cage. Prisons with pretty decor are still prisons.

From the libretto, we know that Elizabeth senses her marriage as death.  She can trust no-one, and must be constantly on guard. Hence the image of the women as fencers, dehumanized, forced to be constantly alert.  A typical Warlikowski meme but a good one. This is the backdrop to the relationship between Elizabeth and Don Carlos, underlining the tension and fear that suppresses their natural instincts.  Hence the sub plots with Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa : who dares stand up for the oppressed, and with the Princess Eboli, who misinterprets signals.  Philip II reads the signals right, but his solution, forced on him by the church, is extreme. Only in death can there be justice.  No surprise that the bust of Charles V looks aghast !  He's learned the hard way that mortal status means nothing.  The death of Don Carlos is depicted in a black and white film image like the newspapers he studied in his youth. (Please read my piece Psychological Thriller on Ernst Krenek's Karl V, a completely different opera, but with similar ideas)   

Thursday, 21 March 2019

The Will of the People must be obeyed !


This is what happens when you spout "The Will of the People" without actually know what it means.  A fraudulent campaign waged with utter disregard to anything but the delusions of those who seek to profit from mischief.  That's not "democracy".  Meanwhile a thousand sign-ups per minute to the Petition to Revoke Article 50 and Remain in the EU. But that doesn't count, does it ? 

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Christoph Prégardien Wanderer Tapestries

Christoph Prégardien Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall Thursday 21st March, in Normand Forget's arrangement for chamber ensemble with Pentaèdre, and Joseph Petric, accordionist.  This is an  arrangement for wind quartet and accordion, released on CD 10 years ago. Why do some people still go berserk at the idea of transcriptions ? Music has always stimulated creative respones. The idea that it should be standardized fixed product is only very recent, more to do with consumer expectations than to do with music or musicianship.  Winterreise in particular has attracted more arrangements than perhaps anything else in the repertoire.  There are Winterreise arranged for guitar, different types of chamber ensembles and even for hurdy-gurdy. There are stagings, adaptations and dance versions.   Prégardien's Winterreise with Andreas Staier on fortepiano is so good that it's an essential part of the discography.  Julian Prégardien's Hans Zender Schuberts Winterriese is a through-composed "new" piece not a transcription, also best in its class (Please read more here).

Gustav Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen  exists as song for voice and piano,  the songs further adapted and incorporated in his Symphony no 1. Arnold Schoenberg's arrangement for small ensemble, was created for the Society for Private Musical Performances (Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen) in 1920.  This was an organization of musicians for musicians, hence the title "private".  Musicians only, dedicated to the analysis of new works. Some 154 pieces were examined, the concerts being the fruit of these discussions.  Schoenberg's arrangement brings out the correspondances in the songs, showing how they form a true, unified cycle. This orchestration is restrained, expanding the piano line with subtle flourishes that suggest Spring and lightness.  This delicacy works especially well for tenor, particularly one like Prégardien, whose timbre is pure and clean, suggesting youthful vigour.  Prégardien's recording with Ensemble Kontraste on the disc Wanderer for Challenge from 2010 is wonderful  a must for any serious Mahler listener.  

Prégardien and Ensemble Kontraste also perform several of Wilhelm Killmayer's Hölderlin-Lieder II, which Prégardien has recorded in full. Hölderlin's verses are fragments - one no more than the phrase ".....wie Wolken um die Zeiten legt...." .which Killmayer sets with great transparency  lots of white on the page, I suspect. But that's the essence of the poems : horizons stretch beyond articulation. Pinning down meaning would restrict and demean.  Killmayer created two sets of Hölderlin songs, one for voice and piano, the other for small ensemble. The chamber version is exqusite.  The flute tessitura runs very high, soaring upwards, defying gravity.  A pervasive sense of rapture : the poet contemplating the mysteries of the universe, transcending the prison that is his tower.  Lower, sensual murmurings from clarinet, viola and cello  : single note passages  like celestial light.  Epigrammatic as these songs are, they evoke infinite possibilities.  "Greichenland" sings Prégardien, in clear, bright tones : Hölderlin transfixed by shining ideals, the richness of the ensemble behind him adding dimension.  Killmayer was a master of re-invention, expanding afresh the frontiers of Lieder.

Also on this recording, Marcus Maria Reissenberger's arrangements for small ensemble of 14 pieces by Robert Schumann.  Reissbenberger's transcriptions are faithful to the basic piano line, the other instruments adding extra colour.  Also interesting is the way he mixes songs from  texts by Heine, Kerner and Eichendorff, (not all mega famous) with piano works, not in random order, but with a new logic. A tapestry woven from many threads.

 

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie - Staatsoper unter der Linden


Jean-Philippe Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie at the Staatsoper unter den Linden Berlin, staged last November, now on arte.tv. with Simon Rattle conducting the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.  When Hippolyte et Aricie was premiered in 1733, it was considered radically inventive.  Baroque tastes were extravagant. Louis XIV, Le Roi Soleil, and his successor, Louis XV,  epitomized the aesthetic: audacity, not gentility,
vigour, not timidity.  Rameau and his audiences were so well versed in classical antiquity that they didn't need character development in the modern sense, and had no problems with symbolism and stylization.  The plot, as such, is allegory as much as drama, more poetry than narrative. 

At the premiere last year, this production, directed by Artletta Collins, wasn't well received, critics judging by surface appearances. So there are mirrors, mists, shadows and beams of light ? That's pretty much part of the plot. Diana is the goddess of the night and of hunting (ie strategems),  Diana doesn't like sex so when her protégée Aricie falls in love,  Destiny has to intervene to ensure that Hippolyte and Aricie can get together and restore Natural Order.   Get that and everything else falls into place. The sub-plot of Phèdre and Thésée ties in with that too, since Phèdre's obsession with her stepson isn't natural, nor orderly.  So Ólafur Elíasson's sets and costumes look "space age" ?   Why not, when extraterrestial beings like Gods interact with men and women? fantasy and imagination, not literal realism.  Modern audiences, conditioned by TV, need to adjust to this very different approach to art, to appreciate it on its own terms.  When Glyndebourne did Hippolyte et Aricie with William Christie - someone whose Rameau credentials cannot be challenged - many complained because the production wasn't abstract enough. (Please read more about that HERE).  

Significantly, Collins, who directed, is also a choreographer, so this production reflected dance in the widest sense - movement, dancers moving in ensembles that shifted shape and patterns. Again, the principles in the plot and in the music itself, at once formal and free spirited. The dancers more or less occupied the background, creating a backdrop of ever-changing rhythm, while the singers dominated centre stage.    That baroque sense of unity and order prevails too in the way the singing seems to grow organically from the music. No leitmotivs as such ! Excellent cast - Anna Prohaska (Aricie), Magdalena Kožená (Phèdre),Reinoud Van Mechelen (Hippolyte), Gyula Orendt (Thésée) and Peter Rose (Pluton), with Simon Rattle conducting the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.  Prohaska and Van Mechelen were outstanding, their voices expressing personality.  Rattle and the Freiburgers  have good rapport: this orchestra has a very individual sound, which Rattle makes the most of.  I neither loved nor hated the visuals but they made a lot more sense than they got credit for.  But thanks to Rattle and the Freiburgers, and to the singers, this Hippolyte et Aricie came to life as music.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Haitink at 90 - Dvořák. Mahler 4, LSO Barbican

Bernard Haitink, Isabelle Faust, London Symphony Orchestra   photo: Roger Thomas
 Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, marking the conductor's 90th birthday, and his long association with the LSO and with London. This second concert featured Antonín Dvořák Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 (B.108),with Isabelle Faust with Gustav Mahler Symphony no 4 in G major.  Good companions ! Dvořák's Violin Concerto isn't a typical concerto, flowing almost like a series of variations.  But then Mahler's Symphony no 4 isn't typical either, progressing towards a final movement built on a song.  How well these two pieces work together, enhancing each other! This programme was as thoughtfully constructed as Sunday's concert with Mozart Piano Concerto with Till Fellner and Bruckner Symphony no 4  (Please read more here).

A superb Dvořák Violin Concerto, the orchestra alive from the first downstroke, from which the main theme quickly materialized. Here the effect was almost magical, the high, bright timbre of Faust's violin singing like a spirit of nature. Faust was playing with a freedom that imbued the piece with youthful freshness and vigour. More connections between the concerto and the symphony in which a child sings of heavenly pleasures.  Energetic rhythms contrast with lyrical, song-like lines, suggestions of folk dance adding pastoral flavour. I blissed out.

This Dvořák served as an overture for Mahler's Symphony no 4 setting the context.  Haitink proceeded with gusto, capturing the energy in the first movement.  Though sleigh bells feature prominently, this isn't a literal depiction of a sleigh in a wintry landscape.  Rather it is a metaphor for life. The sleigh bells aren't there just as folksy decoration.  A sleigh ride is a journey with a destination.  No cars in Mahler's time, so if you wanted horsepower,  horses were where it was at.  Trains might have been faster, but horses are living creatures, a significant image in a symphony which deals with life and physical enjoyment.  The first movement  connects inexorably to the last, where earthly life may be over, but heavenly life continues.  Haitink knows why speed alone isn't essential.  Mahler's marking is "Bedächtig, nicht eilen"  ie not mad rush but orderly progression.  Change is inevitable but we want to enjoy what we can, while we can.

The transition to the second movement marked a new stage in the journey. Haitink defined the dance-like figures, making connections to the Ländler to come.  Another good reason for connectingb the symphony with Dvořák's Violin Concerto where the series of figures evoke dance. Though Mahler came from a German-speaking community, socially distinct from the Bohemians among which they lived, the influence of Czech forms on his music needs to be better understood, especially since as a conductor he conducted much Czech repertoire.  At first the solo violin sings alone, then is joined by other instruments. The leader doesn't use two violins for nothing (George Tudorache, Guest Leader).  Sometimes there can be more malevolence in the scherzo, the "Freund' Hein" imagery evoking the medieval dance of death.   In this case, however, the malevolence was understated but subtlety is no demerit : no mistaking the chill that sets in when the strings in the ensemble shiver, suggesting cutting winds (sleigh-ride imagery again), and also the circular figures that follow, again emphazing cyclic change.  The horns defined "winds" of change and a change of mood but the third movement, marked Ruhevoll,  is the real transition, a purgatory in which the issues of death are resolved into a more perfect "heavenly life".Thus the calm but determined pace and the repeated "waves" of sound.  Horns and winds here were impressive, coloured in Dvořák hues.  An excellent  climax, timpani pounding, horns blazing, the strings shining, the harps adding heavenly light, sustained woodwind lines calling out into space.  Whatever this represents, it is the transitional point in the symphony, claering away the past. Again, Haitink showed how it's not volume per se that counts but the hint that a new future awaits ahead
Haitink has probably conducted more Mahler than anyone else : not to know Haitink's Mahler is not to know Mahler.  His less-is-more conducting style eschews bombast, but is ideally attuned to the sensitivity that reveals Mahler's greatest depths.  There can be many ways of interpreting the final movement, but so much pivots on the singer.  The voice should be pure enough to suggest a child, though no child has the heft to sing with such power for roughly 15 minutes with barely a break.  The song expresses happiness so complete that it verges on ecstasy, but thius ecstasy has been won at the expense of tragedy. The child in the text is dead, whether killed by starvation, or from disasters like the ill-fated Crusade of St. Ursula   Singers with clear, high timbres can create the angelic aspects of the piece but physical sensuality is also part of the mix : "Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden," Das himmlisches Leben isn't an easy sing,  by any means.
Sally Matthews substituted earlier in the week for the scheduled soloist, Anna-Luisa Richter, who has been described as "a young Elly Ameling". Sally Matthews sang the soprano part in Haitink's Munich Beethoven Symphony no 9, in February, but the soprano part in Mahler 's Symphony no 4 is an altogether different prospect.  Up to this point, Haitink and the LSO had been creating a Mahler 4 of exquaite refinement and delicacy, but the singing here didn't connect.  This interpretation was more sturdy school hymn than divine transfiguration. Whatever the technical faults, what matters above all else is the expression of meaning. If being reborn on a more rarified, heavenly plane isn't exciting what then is the point of surviving death? Haitink has done many wonderful Mahler Fourths over the last 60 years. As a Mahler conductor, he is unique and greatly cherished. A pity then that this last section was so unsatisfying, leaving us hungering for what could have been.  

Monday, 11 March 2019

Refreshed and reinvigorated : Haitink at 90 - Mozart, Bruckner

Bernard Haitink, LSO 10/3/19 photo : Sylvia Haotong Wong

Bernard Haitink at 90 : honoured by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbicua, London: as honour for the audience, too, not only in the hall but internationally, online.  A true Haitink programme : Mozart Piano Concerto no 22 with Till Fellner, and Bruckner Symphony no 4.  Haitink was looking much less exhausted than he did in Munich (Please read more here) where he had conducted several concerts in a row : at 90, anyone deserves a rest !  Most people couldn't conduct like this, even in their dreams.   A truly classic performance, with the depth and sensitivity that are hallmarks of Haitink's style, where the music shines, not the conductor. Haitink channels the composer, inspiring his players to give of their best.

Absolute poise from Fellner, the richness in his playing adding sparkle, supported by the LSO. This is what "classical balance" means : equanimity, elegance, civilization. Virtues which in these venal, mendacious times we need to cherish all the more.  Not long ago someone said to me "No-one listens any more to Mozart and Bach". I thought, "No wonder trolls are taking over the world".   Haitink reminds us that sensitivity and intelligence are what make us decent human beings.  In that context, Haitink's Bruckner shone with the nobility one might associate with Beethoven, warmed by the humility that lies at the heart of Bruckner.  This symphony is like a cathedral : beautifully shaped and proportioned, with little personal quirks embedded, all dedicated in the service oif some higher power, whether that power is God, or music itself.  I'm noit 90 - yet - but I came away refreshed and reinvigorated.

Can't wait til Thursday when Haitink returns to the LSO with Dvořák Piano Concerto (Isabelle Faust, another Haitink regular) and Mahler Symphony no 4 (Anna-Lucia Richter, whose first London recital I heard at the Wigmore Hall way back when - she's proved her promise! I will write more about her Schubert CD Heimweh, shortly)

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Berlioz Requiem John Nelson, St Paul's Cathedral


Hector Berlioz Requiem (Grande Messe des morts) op 5 (1837) at St Paul's Cathedral, London, with John Nelson conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Philharmonia Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir with Michael Spyres, soloist.  This work benefits from being heard in a grand setting, and there can be few performance places quite as grand as St Paul's Cathedral,  Wren's masterpiece built to celebrate the renewal of London after the Great Fire.  But the very scale of St Paul's has its down sides.  We all carry memories of Colin Davis's Berlioz Requiem at Paul's, conducted shortly before he died, but it was heavily miked : his earlier recording was made in the much smaller Westminster Cathedral.  St Paul's doesn't get used for concerts too often, because its acoustics are hard to manage. You can't, for example, build sound deflectors into a historic  monument.

Fortunately, for this performance, the best sound engineers in the business were on hand.
The recording, made for Idéale Audience, available for a short time on medici.tv, sounds so good that you wouldn't know what St Paul's can sound like. Indeed, the recording makes the most of the echo, so sounds resonate across great distances, with maximum effect.  The filming, directed by Sébastien Glas, also makes the most of the sense of occasion, with long shots panning from high above, emphasizing the sheer grandeur of the performance space. For that, you can forgive the fact that technology contributed a lot to what we hear. Of the several Berlioz Requiems in recent years, thanks to the setting, this recording takes the prize for atmospheric impact. Visuals matter, because any decision to use St Paul's Cathedral means making the most of the spatial aspects of the performance.  Those chandeliers are a feature of the Cathedral : not to highlight them would be a lost opportunity.  As a man of the theatre, Berlioz would have appreciated the importance of visual effect.

Nelson's pace was reverential, giving prominence to the religious origins of a Mass. Good blending of choral voices : hushed and suitably penitential.  In the Dies Irae, the Berliozian personality in the piece emerged more clearly.  In the darkness, the off-stage brass ensembles were invisible, but there was no mistaking their dramatic impact.  The on-stage brass players responded, standing not seated, again maximizing the connection between forces known and unknown, which after all is what a Requiem is about.  Centre stage, the row of percussionists projected an ominous roar. An understated Quid sum miser contrasted with the Rex tremendae, the filming enhancing the sense of movement. The singing in the a capella Quaerens me was particularly effective, the voices joined in the Lacrimosa by percussion and brass. The string playing that marks the beginning of the Domine Jesu Christe came over clean and clear, the choruses intoning quietly in the background, the orchestral "voice" developing well. With the Hostias, a more Berliozian character returned - powerful brass chords, like trumpets at the End of Time. The tenor part in the Sanctus sits uncomfortably high, so even Michael Spyres was challenged at first, but he projected very well : the sound carrying out into the vast space around him, the choirs following in his wake. Spyres's Glorias pealed gloriously, like bells, and the Hosanas in the choruses rang joyously. With the Agnus Dei, Nelson returned to the reverent hush with which the Requiem began.  Since St Paul's Cathedral operates as a church (it's not just a tourist site) it was utterly appropriate that this sedate approach to the Requiem should reflect the spiritual aspects of the piece.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Michael Gielen is dead


Michael Gielen  (1927-2019) : one of the true greats has gone, aged 91. Gielen was the opposite of the "celebrity" conductor type so popular with the mass market, not only in our times. He didn't court the media or produce "the right notes in the right place" for the glib listening market.  His motivation was music . "Erstens kann man nichts anderes, zweitens liebt man es, und dann muss man es hart erarbieten" he said, explaining his relationship to what he conducted.  (First, the imperative that is music, gives you no other choice, second, you must love it and then you have to work hard to do it right).

Though Gielen was superb in core 19th century repertoire, he was also passionate about the music of the 20th century. He was critical in bringing composers like Franz Schreker and Bernd Alois Zimmermann into the mainstream. He inherited the mantle of Hans Rosbaud at SWR, enhancing its identity as an orchestra with the courage to be open to new music. Not for nothing was he followed by Sylvan Cambreling and François-Xavier Roth. Thus the integrity of Gielen's work, reflecting his intelligence and deep understanding of the music he loved so much.  From Gielen, I learned a lot, not only in terms of repertoire but in his open-minded originality. 
 

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

George Benjamin Ensemble Modern Into the Little Hill

Ensemble Modern
George Benjamin and Ensemble Modern at the Wigmore Hall with Anu Komsi and Helena Rasker in Benjamin's Into The Little Hill. There have been many George Benjamin Days at the Wigmore Hall (also featuring this piece) and  Ensemble Modern are welcome regulars in London   But this was a historic occasion since Benjamin's Into the Little Hill was written for Ensemble Modern, who gave the world premiere in Frankfurt in November 2006, conducted by Franck Ollu, with Anu Komsi and Hilary Summers.  For me, the highlight was hearing Anu Komsi singing it live.  Though other singers, have done the part well, Komsi is much more than just a singer.  She's a phenomenom, a true coloratura with an unusually wide range and the agility to use her voice in the service of Benjamin's fiendishly tricky score, where extreme changes of register and technique continuously contort and challenge. That, in essence, is what Into the Little Hill is about. The tale predicates on the idea that nothing is safe, or can be what it might seem.  It is a horror story so surreal that it invades your subconscious.  It represents a turning point in Benjamin's career : after years of writing meticulous, near pointillist miniatures, Into the Little Hill surged into life in a matter of months.  Benjamin's collaboration with Martin Crimp unleashed a rich new vein of creativity which has led to Written on Skin, the biggest hit in modern opera, and Lessons in Love and Violence.  To my mind, though, Into the Little Hill, with its deliberately claustrophobic atmosphere, remains the masterpiece. It needs to be heard in cramped spaces like the Wigmore Hall for full effect.

Into the Little Hill starts before it begins, with almost inaudible rustlings before the screaming starts "Kill them ! They bite". At this point, the singers are together, representing a mob. Thus the chilling "Kill, and you have our vote". Into the Little Hill is much more than nursery tale. As we know now, Pied Pipers are running the world.  Rasker's monologue (describing the Minister) is undercut by ominous rustlings in the orchestra.  "Kill them ! They bite" screamed Komsi, Rasker joining in.  Pairings develop and change throughout the piece : two violins (one doubling mandolin), two violas (one doubling banjo), two cellos, two horns, two trombones, a prominent bass flute, alternating piccolo, sometimes paired with double bass, a cimbalom and an array of exotic percussion.  Instruments and singers trapped in schizoid lockstep, clouded by opaque non-harmony.  Balances shift. The contralto dominates at first, but the soprano (as The Stranger) sings a seductive tune "I charmed my way in...  with music I can open a heart as easily as you can open a door... with music I can make death stop, or rats scream"  Komsi stretched the word "rats", drawing out the vowel so it moved swiftly, as rats do, at once suggesting innocence and malevolence. "But the world - says the Minister - is round" sang Rasker, but Komsi's lines continued to fragment, perfectly pitched shards of sound that ripped any illusions of comfort: strings became weapons, bows beaten against wood, plucking, tense sounds, the winds gasping in outbursts.  

Anu Komsi , photo : Uupi Tirronen
The First Interlude is a transition, the bass flute a sorcerer pulling the strings behind the dialogue between The Mother and Child.  The depth of Rasker's voice suggests authority, subtly undermined by the flute and by Komsi's lines that stretch like unanswerable questions, syllables twisting and shattering   Komsi's personality also contributes : her child-like innocence convinces, yet her high pitches carry a whiff of dangers to come. Her voice also takes on the colourings of the instruments in the orchestra : suggesting a descent into a world where nothing can be what it seems.  The Second Interlude is even more noctunal, quiet horns and trombones muted, suddenly exhaling when the mutes are pulled away.  "Each cradle rocks empty - each cage-like cot":  sounds rock back and forth,  more dirge than lullaby.  Komsi's voice now glowed with almost surreal brightness.  "Streams of hot metal, ribbons of magnesium, particles, particles of light".  The Mother doesn't get it, but the Child delights . "Our home is under the Earth, with the angel under the earth, and the deeper we burrow the brighter his music burns".  In the past, I've enjoyed performances where the soprano and contralto are relatively close, but Komsi shows how the soprano part defies easy interpretation : Is the child purer than the adults around her ? Or a force of something much less easy to pin down. What is this "music" that seduces people from where they think they belong and what lies ahead ?  Komsi's part and her singing suggest that her role represents something elemental: a force almost beyond mortal comprehension.  The depth in Rasker's singing presented a perfect foil.  In the very elusiveness of Crimp's text lies its depth, and inspires the wonder of Benjamin's setting.

The programme began with Cathy Milliken's Bright Ring, a lively piece with much incident, and Christian Mason's Layers of Love, very well structured and designed - very interesting instrumental pairings. a good choice in the overall programme. Even more pointedly in the context of  Into the Little Hill.  Luigi Dallapiccola's Piccola musica notturna (1954/1961), a lyrical nocturne, where sinister shadows hover, almost imperceptibly.

 

Monday, 4 March 2019

Norwegian tragedy in wartime Shanghai

Evolving mysteries - a Norwegian, Fritz Eugen Thoresen, a Captain in the merchant marine, whose ship at sea was captured by the Japanese Navy.  In prison he suffered greatly and died in tragic circumstances.  Fritz Eugen Toresen Fød 1884-06-15 var ombord på den allierte Britiske SS, Shinhwa da han ble tatt til fange og sendt til den japanske fangeleieren på Amay . Han ble syk i slutten av juni og døde i Shanghai 15 august 1944. A colourful life, but such a sad end.

It started so differently. Fritz's father's family came from Norderhov and his mother, Anna Larsson (born 31st May 1860) from Andebu or Tønsberg.  Fritz was born 15th June 1884, second of seven children, three of them ending up in China.  In 1905, he joined the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs, an organization which belonged to the Chinese governemnt but which was run mainly by foreigners. He was stationed in Lappa near Macau,  but very soon after quit to go back to sea, based in Amoy (Xiamen), a very large port on the east coast of China. In the Norwegian national census of 1910. he's still on the way up the naval hierarchy, listed as"styrmann" (First Mate), visiting his widowed mother and siblings, after five years abroad.  Two years later his younger brother Thorbjørn would also go to sea, on a wooden ship with sails, which got shipwrecked off the coast of Australia, where he was rescued by aboriginals, and lived among them for a while.  Fritz Eugen was also a Freemason, initiated Corinthian Lodge, Amoy 9 Sept 1911, then Northern Star Lodge of China 10th June 1913 and later at Newchwang, Manchuria.  By 1919 he is Grand Master of the Lodge at Amoy, usually dominated by Englishmen. By 1939, he was a Captain employed by Wallem & Co, a very big shipping company, which still exists today, and presumably captained large vessels.  He made his will at this time, aged around 55, which was the age Europeans usually retired in China.

Fast forward to December 1941. Fritz Eugen is captain of the SS Shinhwa  which sails out of Shanghai on 6th December.  This was a much smaller ship,  owned by a man who was nowhere in the same league as Wallem & Co.  The Captain who should have sailed this voyage died of a sudden heart attack, so Fritz Eugen took over at short notice. Two days later Japan declared war on Britain and the US, attacking Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong. On 9th December, the Shinhwa is captured by the Japanese navy and Thoresen is forced to take it to Amoy. Ironic timing - leaving port in peacetime, sailing into war.  The Shinhwa was owned by a man called George Lewis Shaw, half Japanese, half Scottish, from Fuzhou. Though Shaw and his son also married Japanese women, Shaw supported Korean Independence from Japan. (Please read more here).  So the Japanese Navy had reasons for seizing the ship and throwing its crew into a naval prison.  Fritz Eugen probably wasn't involved in Korean independence. China and Japan had been at war since 1931, and there was a bad effect on trade, and shipping. The Shinhwa was on a long-term wartime charter to the British government though in what capacity, I can't find.  It probably flew a British Red Ensign - another reason for the Japanese seizure. Certainly Thoresen is listed on the memorial to merchant seamen lost in the service of the British at Tower Hill, London.  In theory, this would have meant that compensation would have been due to Thoresen's dependants but Shaw objected : there's correspondence on file where he denies responsibility.  That's how I found letters from Fritz Eugen's brothers and sister to the Norwegian consulate in China,  all in Norwegian except for the brother who went to New York and writes in English, American style. Thoresen is also listed on a memorial in Oslo to Norwegians who died abroad in wartime, but I don't know if there's anyone left who knew him.

Even though, as a Norwegian, Thoresen was neutral, he was treated badly : at this stage he may have contracted the tuberculosis that was to kill him later. On 1st July 1942, he was released to return to his home at apartment 7A, 25 Rue du Consulat in the French concession in Shanghai where he'd been living for 5 years. The registration document above is the certificate issued by the Shanghai municipal authorties in 1944, the "33rd year of the Republic of China" and gives the same address, in Chinese, and also a transliteration of his name in Chinese "Tung Lei Sun". He has a dependent, Tito Livio Rozario, a student, born 1924, parents deceased, though his will dated 1937 mentions only his siblings.

In the 1920's and 30's Shanghai had been one of the world's largest cities with a population greater than New York. It was a manufacturing and financial centre, with international trade.  In 1937, the Japanese captured it, causing an exodus of refugees and prosperity. It didn't recover until quite recently. Living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai was extremely difficult, for everyone, Chinese or foreign.  Jobs were hard to come by, and without an income it would have beeen difficult to make ends meet, especially in a wartime situation. Though Fritz Eugen had quite considerable savings, they ran out or could not be assessed, since British banks were sealed off when Japan and Britain went to war.  He survived on loans from the Swedish consulate pledged against his stocks and shares.  Basically, he was close to destitute.  Fritz Eugen's sister, Ruth, married to Shelton (English? and, it seems, another sometime Maritime Customs employee) was also in Shanghai (106 Ferry Road) but she wasn't well either and died in 1946.  Their brother Thorbjørn was interned in a camp in Hong Kong where at least he had regular food, but not much. He, too, died in 1948. He rests in a Hong Kong cemetery, the only Norwegian surrounded by thousands of graves with inscriptions in Chinese.



By February 1943, Fritz Eugen was so unwell that he had to see a doctor, but by this stage both his lungs were affected. Health care was not free - if you were poor, you had no choice. "He refused to go hospital and insisted on being treated ambulatorily", wrote his physician, (Dr B. Meyerowitz) and deteriorated quickly.  "In March, he consented to go to the Shanghai General Hospital, here I treated him until April when a bed in the first class  of the Tuberculosis Ward of the Victoria Nurses Home became available.” He remained there until the summer of 1943, when, in an improved condition he discharged himself contrary to the physician's advice".  In September 1943, he contracted a fungus infection of the right hand. "On this and on several other occasions, the gravity of his position was pointed out to him and attempts were made to induce him to return to the hospital.  He did not agree before March 1944, when his general health and the general findings of his lungs showed a sudden deterioration. he was admitted to the Shanghai Municipal Hospital, re-transferred to the first class ward of the Victoria Nurses Home,  where the lung specialist of the City of Shanghai took charge of his treatment again. An improvement of his condition could not be effected. The patient succumbed to his disease on the 15th August 1944".  ("First class" in this context doesn't mean luxury. It just meant that it was westernized standard better than available to ordinary Chinese.)

Clearly, Fritz Eugen could not afford medical treatment, and was realistic enough to know that he would not survive.  But what choice did he have ?  The photo at the top shows him in February 1944, looking gaunt and unwell : in the last picture, taken only a few years earlier, he doesn't look too great. With a brother and sister in China in difficult situations and relatives in wartime Norway, Fritz Eugen must have faced his fate alone. There is no way we can mitigate the bleakness of his position.  Until this time last year I didn't even know his name.  But purely by chance a friend came across a mention of him in a merchant navy archive, and from there, things started to emerge.  So Fritz Eugen isn't forgotten after all.

Happy Birthday, Bernard Haitink

Happy 90th Birthday, Bernard Haitink, loved by all !

Friday, 1 March 2019

Ghost Story : Der Schildwache Nachtlied

Another ghost story from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection of Brentano and Arnim in the version adapted by Mahler for his song Der Schildwache Nachtlied.  The sentry is determined to do his duty because so many depend on his vigilance.  But he hears a mysterious voice :
 "Ich kann und mag nicht fröhlich sein;
Wenn alle Leute schlafen,
So muß ich wachen,
Muß traurig sein."


"Ach Knabe, du sollst nicht traurig sein,
Will deiner warten,
Im Rosengarten,
Im grünen Klee."


"Zum grünen Klee, da komm ich nicht,
zum Waffengarten
Voll Helleparten
Bin ich gestellt."


"Stehst du im Feld, so helf dir Gott,
An Gottes Segen
Ist alles gelegen,
Wer's glauben tut."


"Wer's glauben tut, ist weit davon,
Er ist ein König,
Er ist ein Kaiser,
Er führt den Krieg."


What's happening ? The sentry's doing his job even though he's not too happy about it. So what is this voice he's hearing ?  Is it a ghost, a memory or his subconscious? He's stuck in the "Garden of Weapons" and must deny the "Rose Garden" and the meadow of green clover, which might symbolize home, or freedom. The voice reminds him, though, that the Kaiser isn't all-powerful.  In the battlefield, anything can happen : only God decides.  But the sentry tries to blank out alternatives. Three times he repeats what controls him : King, Emperor, war.  Notice how Mahler uses major and minor to contrastb the voices, underlining the "military" with drumbeats and horns.But suddenly, something happens. Is the sentry confronted by an enemy ?  Or is the voice an expression of his subconcious longing for freedom ?  
Halt! Wer da? Rund! Bleib' mir vom Leib! 

Then a brief interlude.

"Wer sang es hier? Wer sang zur Stund'?
Verlorne Feldwacht
Sang es um Mitternacht.
Mitternacht! Feldwacht!"


Whatever has happened, the sentry is no longer among the living. He's gone.  As so often in Mahler, being dead isn't the end. What's left of the sentry is his ghostly song, echoing his worldly orders "Midnight ! Sentry! "