Thursday 27 June 2019

Berlioz, Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale - François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Jean-Victor Schnetz: Combat devant l'hôtel de ville, 1830
Berlioz  Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale, with François-Xavier Roth, and Les Siècles, continuing their Concert Monstre at the Pierre Boulez Salle of the Philharmonie de Paris. For Part One, "Blazing Liberté" please read my review here.  The two parts of the programme worked together well, the revolutionary visions of the first part reinforced by the solemnity of the second. Ideals are not won easily, and cannot be taken for granted.  The symphony was written in 1840, marking the anniversary of the July Revolution of 1830.  Just eight years later, the February Revolution of 1848 would change things yet again, ushering in the Second Republic.  
Berlioz's  Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale reflects older traditions than modern symphonic form.  It is a ceremonial march, scored for wind instruments and percussion, instruments which would have been used in military situations. Berlioz initially used the term "Symphonie militaire", adapting it for the occasion of the re-interment of the remains of those killed in the July Revolution.  Though members of Les Siècles remain seated, the instruments they play are mobile, and could have been carried and played while marching. Period instruments, with their more natural, earthy sounds, give performance a human touch, and underline the sense of forward movement that propels the symphony towards its glorious conclusion.  

The Marche funèbre flowed with a powerful, affirmative pulse, drumstrokes and the wail of ophecliedes to the fore, lower brass followed by higher winds, as if marching in military formation. The second theme, (flutes, oboes, clarinets) offered brief retrospective before fiercely dominant chords introduced the next section, bassoons, trombones, ophecliedes, marching at a pace that increases in depth and intensity as it proceeds, punctuated by steady drumstrokes, the surge crowned with the crash of cymbals. In the Oraison funèbre, a fanfare - nine trombones in phalanx - supported by horns and trumpets, the trombone soloist above them as orator, positioned so his instrument could call out as if into vast distance, echoed at times by lighter winds.  Fragments of Berlioz's unfinished opera Les Francs-Juges were used in this movement, so the "oratory" quality of the trombone solo may have its origins in music for voice.  The trombone may be wordless, but its expressiveness is deeply poignant.

The final movement, the Apothéose, rises seamlessly from what has gone before. A march picks up, now brighter and faster paced, a march of exuberant triumph.  Berlioz used the pavilion chinois, a version of the Turkish crescent, but more elaborate, with rolls of bells under a cap (shaped like a pagoda) to further concentrate the sound.  Most orchestras use simpler versions which aren't nearly so impressive. These instruments symbolized victory, the incorporation of foreign elements by conquest.  In this version of the symphony, Roth uses the option of a second orchestra, (the Jeune Orchestre Européen Hector Berlioz) addding string colour, expanding the symphony still further from military form.  Roth  also utilizes the choirs, who served so well in the first part ofthis Concert monstre.  The voices burst forth in unison, with such precision that the effect was explosive, like a canonnade in sound.  "Gloire! Gloire ! Gloire et triomphe!". Not for nothing is this finale an apotheosis, and in this performance it was positively ablaze. It doesn't last nearly long enough. Roth and his forces repeated it as an encore. 

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Liberté ! - Berlioz Concert Monstre - F X Roth, Les Siècles Part One

Berlioz Concert Monstre with François-Xavier Roth, and Les Siècles and a cast of hundreds, livestreamed from the Philharmonie de Paris (link here). "Concert Monstre" was the title of a concert Berlioz presented in 1844, where performers (over 100) outnumbered the audience.  Roth's Concert Monstre employs closer to 500, with two orchestras and six choirs but the acoustic of the Pierre Boulez Salle handles such forces well, even at full volume.  But this was a "Concert Monstre" in another sense, too,  since it was a grand extravaganza designed for maximum impact. In the first half, spectacular paeans to progress and liberty - L'Impériale, Chant de chemins de fer, Le Temple universal, topped by the Hymne Marseillaise. In the second half, the Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale.

"Du peuple entier, les âmes triomphantes ont tressailli comme au cri du destin !" - the choirs sang, getting L'Impériale (H129, 185) off with a blazing start. Ostensibly, the  text celebrates the revival of the imperial dynasty under Napoléan III, but this is an empire with roots in revolution : the real hero here is the French nation itself, and its people. This "Concert Monstre" was also hommage to Berlioz himself. Berlioz was literary : he loved words on the page as much as in the theatre. When he used text, it was often integral to his music.  The concert included spoken quotations from Berlioz's own writings, and commentary.  The speakers were clearly heard, again demonstrating the merits of the Pierre Boulez Salle. 

Thus the Chant de chemins de fer (H110, 1850), a cantata for voice, orchestra and chorus, with tenor Julien Dran.  The text, by Jules Janin, expresses the exhilration of new technology, the coming of railways and the "merveilles de l’industrie". Berlioz wrote the piece very rapidly, taking time off from working on Le Damnation de Faust. Perhaps there are connections : just as Faust flies through the skies, trains carried people through the landcape at what were then almost unimaginable speeds.  Even more pertinently,  Goethe's Faust made his pact with Méphistofeles in order to gain knowledge which might save mankind. This creates a sub-context for the cantata, connecting it to Berlioz's interest in Saint-Simonian ideology, and to the idea of progress through an economic order based on industry.  To Berlioz, phrases like "Pour vous, ouvriers, La couronne est prête" would have had extra meaning. This intensifies the sense of excitement which Berlioz builds into the setting. The rhythms may replicate the chugging of motors and movement of wheels, but the strong sense of forward propulsion might also evoke the thrill of social revolution. One might even detect faint echoes of the Marseillaise. "Que de montagnes effacées! Que de rivières traversées! Travail humain, fécondante sueur!". In the strophe which mentions". The lines grow hushed, the choruses singing of spirits descending into tombs, as they greet the dawn of a new age. Thus the chorus repeats each word of the soloist : "La Paix ! le Roi! L'ouvrier! La patrie", with a fervour that's almost religious. On this happy day, the laurels go to the "Soldats de la paix, C’est votre victoire; C’est à vous la gloire De tant de bienfaits." The final strophe was delivered with almost explosive force, Dran's voice ringing out like shining clarion. 

In Le Temple universal (H137, op 28, before 1861)  Berlioz returns, towards the end of his life, to idealism. In this orchestration, by Yves Chauris, male and female choruses combine, reinforcing the concept that an enlightened Europe should unite, beyond frontiers, to embrace "Le grand hymne de notre liberté!"  An appropriate hymn for present times !  Roth is no fool : He has often shown courage when expressing his convictions. To press the point still further, Berlioz's orchestration for large orchestra, soloist and chorus of the Marseillaise (H 51a), written in the wake of the July Revolution of 1830.  What an experiece this must have been in the Pierre Boulez Salle ! Everyone standing who could - the orchestra, the chorus, the audience. When Dran sang the solo passage, the orchestra seemed to well around him. The Choeurs et orchestres des Grandes Ecoles,Choeur Sorbonne Université, Choeur de la Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris,Choeur CalligrammesChoeur des Universités de Paris, and Choeur InChorus (Chorus master Frédéric Pineau) were joined by informal singers in the choir stalls, ordinary people, some singing from memory, and no doubt a few in the audience.  That is what a Marseillaise should be about - drawing the people together. "Amour sacré de la Patrie, Conduis, soutiens nos bras vengeurs
Liberté, Liberté eg tes défenseurs ! Combats
avec tes défenseurs!".  At this point in history, it seems that the forces of freedom, liberty and genuine democracy are being destroyed, by technological manipulation,  intolerance, and pig-headed stupidity.  We need the Marseillaise. I played this over and over, loudly. My son popped in. "Wow!", he said "That's fantastic!"  

My review of Part 2 of this Concert Monstre when François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles do Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale  is HERE! Please enjoy

Saturday 22 June 2019

Under Hong Kong's Roof - madness in life, madness in opera

Under Hong Kong's Roof 香港屋簷下. On the surface, a family tragedy, but beneath the surface. "Under Hong Kong's roof",  sinister forces are brewing.  This film, from 1964, is one of Ng Chor Fan's (吳楚帆 ) masterpieces, in which he portrays the mental disintegration of a good man. It's also an allegory, a commentary on the "golden" years of Hong Kong when everything seemed perfect as long as you were cocooned from reality by privilege. As so often in Cantonese movies of the period,  it begins with shots of the city - the  central business district, its skyscrapers like fortresses of power.  Ng Chor Fan plays Chu Wai Yan, a businessman.  A luxury banquet has been arranged  to announce the engagement of Chu's daughter (Mui Kam Fung 苗金鳳 ) to Willy, the son of Tong Po Fat, who was once Chu's assistant but now an even more powerful businessman. The party is in fact a summit meeting of the rich.  The men are dressed in white tuxedos, the ladies bejewelled.  But as Yan Yan and her fiancé enter, the band is playing loud and discordant Chinese music. Something's not right here but no-one notices, even though the entertainment for the evening is a western-style dance band playing soothing tunes.

The other businessmen are gossiping. Though Tong and Chu go back to when they were both young, Tong's a dodgy character, and Chu's position is dodgy.  Chu's invited Mr Hong, a mutual a friend from youth, to the horror ofTong, since Hong is poor and old fashioned (a reminder that not everyone prospers). As Hong enters, the Chinese band appears again, also unnoticed. Somehow, couples are dancing....  Hong warns Chu that Tong is up to something bad but Chu doesn't believe it. Mysteriously, the guest of honour, Mr Yeung, the richest guy of all, doesn't turn up. Ominous. Suddenly, the glamorous singer of the band seems to be singing Cantonese opera. She looks her normal self but her voice becomes masculine, demonic, threatening death.

The banks have foreclosed on Mr Chu and his guarantors, Tong and banker Yeung aren't backing him up.  No matter how he begs, Chu is on his own.  Overnight, he loses his business and home.. The servants have to go. Many have worked for the family for years. "You can't swim back to your native village", says Chu, offering them money. But they demur, from a sense of loyalty.  The bailiffs arrive.  The furniture gets auctioned. An old oil painting, a portrait of Mr Chu, comes up for sale. It's shabby. No-one can understand why there's a sudden bidding war between a poor woman  (Mrs Lai, aka Tai Sum, ie "elder aunt", played by Lee Yuet ching 李月清) and a young merchant navy officer, Chiu Chung. Chiu was taken in by Chu when he was orpaned as a child. The old woman seems to know this, so she gives him the painting, and tells him where the Chu family  have moved to — a crumbling hovel in a squatter settlement.  Chiu Chung is shocked to see Chu, now dressed in traditional underclothes.  Chu smiles as if he's happy. "Eat a bowl of rice, turn it upside down". (a proverb). He recounts the story behind the painting. Years ago, he took pity on a vagrant who came begging for food. He never saw the man again but a few years later, the painting arrived.  Chu understood what the painting meant,to himself and to the man who painted it. Mrs Lai knows the story, too,which is why she spent thousands bidding for it. Who is she ? She says she's just an itinerant worker, moving from place to place but in this story, she's a force of unconditional goodness.

Willy Tong arrives at the shack to end the engagement. "This place is like a pigsty, it smells and you can't even reach it by car!" Yan Yan collapses. She confesses that she's pregnant.  Willy says it's Mr Chu's fault in the first place for pushing his daughter to marry money. Maddened with grief, Chu picks up a stick to beat Willy (who escapes with his chauffeur) and in the process, falls over and smashes his head. Chu's wife has a seizure.  Both are in hospital, but Mrs Chu dies of a heart attack.  Young Mr Chiu confronts the Tong family and gets beaten up by their thugs.  But he's the one who gets arrested ! When Mr Chu comes home, head bandaged, it's clear that his wounds go much deeper. He acts out scenes from an imaginary Cantonese opera, making dramatic gestures, swinging a stick like a sword, singing madly.  He runs into the main street where he goes berserk, smashing the fish tanks outside a restaurant. This, too, is a symbol on several different levels. Chu gets arrested and put into a psychiatric hospital. He doesn't recognize his kids, but mumbles the phrase "eat rice from a bowl, then turn it over".  Yan Yan gets evicted form the sqautter hut. She tries to kill herself, but miraculously Mrs Lai appears and stops her, slapping her in the face.  "Consider your dead mother, your sick father, your young siblings  and your unborn child!", she says, "what right do you have to put yourself above them !" A concept that might not mean much in the west but matters in traditional values.

Yan Yan goes into labour. At the same time Willy Tong and new girfriend go speeding in a sports car which crashes. Mrs Lai takesYan Yan, her baby and siblings into her home.  "You are our guardian angel".   So Yan Yan gets a job, singing in a nightclub - an interesting detail, since it was in a nightclub where her Dad had his first psychotic delusion.  Seaman Chiu tracks her down, orders Chinese tea - not alcohol - and asks to see her "You're crazy", says the waiter, "she doesn't talk to customers".  Chiu visits Mrs Lai's home in a squatter village, where all the neighbours crowd in, looking.  The younger kids have started school again, and Mr Chu is at last well enough to go home.  Again Mrs Lai intervenes, she says that Yan Yan and Mr Chiu should be "like ox and cow". What's that mean, say the kids.  Mr Chiu's been offered a management job on land paying $700, a fortune in those days. But all's not well, yet. The baby is called "Tong Tong" ie "sweetie" but as Yan Yan says, his past is as bitter as bitter gourd.  Yan Yan thinks no-one will marry a fallen woman, but Mr Chiu proposes. He's carried the engagement ring around with him for years. Suddenly, though the baby diappears.  He's been kidnapped by the Tong family, whose son survived the car crash but can't have children. the Tongs think they can get away with it since Yan Yan is "just a bargirl".  They announce the child as their own, though people gossip.  Mr Chu breaks into the announcement party, re-enacting the mania in which he becomes a character from opera, screaming, shouting and throwing things (see top photo) The Chus are ejected, returning home in a thunderstorm, crying for the lost child. Yet again Mrs Lai appears, the baby hidden under her coat. "If they can steal the child, I can steal it back!" . This time, the Tongs won't win. Mr Tong's been arrested for major fraud.  Mr Chu bursts out laughing.  "Who's crazy now" he says, "let's fill our bowls and eat again".

Friday 21 June 2019

Hubert Parry Piano Quartet and Piano Trio no 2 : Leonore Piano Trio

The Leonore Piano Trio continue their traverse through the piano works of Sir Charles Hubert Parry for Hyperion Records with  Parry's Piano Trio no 2 and the Piano Quartet in A flat minor.  This disc complemeents their first recording, with Parry's Piano Trios nos.1 and 3 and the Partita for piano and violin . (please read more here).  The Piano Quartet was completed in January 1879 and premiered soon after at the home of Parry's friend and mentor, Edward Dannreuter. Despite its complexities, it received many performances in the years therafter.. A critic of the time wrote that "It is something to have an English musician who is not afraid to obey the dictates of his inner conciousness, notwithstanding that by doing so he is sacrificing immediate popularity and critical approval".  In The Times, Parry's originality drew praise. "Of what special school Parry is a steadfast disciple needs not to be told.  He is no timid believer, but a proselyte through intimate persuasion".  
Parry's Piano Quartet in which the Leonore Piano Trio are joined by Rachel Roberts (viola), begins as if were overture, a Lento where sedate cello, viola and violin lines develop into a lively central section where piano leads the strings on inventive adventures, before subsiding into reverie.  "Rhythmically dynamic" Parry scholar Jeremy Dibble writes of the secoind movement. Of the second movement, Dibble writes that "it combines fugitive moments of melody with a relentless, acerbic energy." A "more euphonious waltz in the trio" (with delicate piano tracery) provides contrast before a concluding coda of "even greater demonic impetus".  In the Andante, the strings develop the piano melody in more tonally ambiguous manner, recapturing the sense of mystery with which the Quartet began. The Finale is highly dramatic, the vividness of the scherzo now channelled with assertive vigour. The piano introduces the second figure with its overtones of Wagner (specifically Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) . If Parry references Wagner, Brahms and Schumann, why not ?  By incorporating them into music distinctively his own, he is making a statement.  The coda functions, as Dibble says "as an apotheosis of the work as a cyclical whole" in that Parry reworks the ideas in the Lento with the "demonic" Scherzo "incorporated into the bravura display of the virtuoso-driven coda", which ends with exuberant flourish. 

Charles Villiers Stanford disliked Parry's Piano Trio no 2 in B Flat minor, from 1884, claiming that the first movement was "quite unintelligible" and the last "too restless and foggy in sound".  Stanford's views on Parry were somewhat coloured.  Nonetheless, this is the most ambitious of the three piano trios, running at 32 minutes, neatly balancing the substance of the Piano Quartet.  The Maestoso defines the subjects that follow with elegaic sweep, the allegro con fuoco bursting forth intense passion.  Parry's structure of this movement owes much to Brahms, but, writes Dibble, "the Schwung of his ideas - the fury of the first subject, the characteristic falling sevenths of the transition,  the poetry of the second subject , the unusual reverie of the development and the dreamlike conclusion in  B major - is more illustrative of Parry's Dionysian headiness than of his Apollonian rationalism".  The Lento expands the "poetry" of the second subject, piano, cello and violin in elegant poise, the richness in the cello evoking darker undercurrents, underlining the contrast with the Allegretto vivace, which zips along with spirited élan - there's even a hint of  stylish dance.  Parry's mastery of structural form is displayed in the finale, where the stateliness of the first movements is reiterated, the central section marked by a violin idea  that "subtly refuses to settle unequivocally in the tonic key of B minor" until the final section, where a coda con moto replaces the con fuoco that went before. Altogether a more substantial and satisying programme than the first release, though equally well performed.

Sunday 16 June 2019

Mieczysław Weinberg Symphony no 21 "Kaddish" Gražinytė-Tyla, Gideon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica

At last on CD, Mieczysław Weinberg's Symphony no 21 "Kaddish"  (op 152, 1991) with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica,  from the acclaimed live performance, part of the in-depth CBSO Weinberg series in November 2018. The symphony is a deeply personal statement. Weinberg witnessed the Holocaust first hand. He survived, though millions didn't, including his family.  Yet its musical qualities are such that they make it a milestone in modern repertoire.   Though the symphony does get performed and has been recorded once before, this performance is exceptionally idiomatic as it is made by the finest specialists in the field, Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, supported by Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, in top form.  With these impeccable forces, it is unlikely that this performance will be surpasssed for some time. This belongs in every collection, Weinberg-focused or not.

The combination of chamber orchestra, soloists and large orchestra is fundamental to structure and meaning. Embedding the ensemble and soloists within the orchestra shapes highlights individual voices against a wider background. In the apocalyptic tumult of the Holocaust, personal utterances must not be overlooked. This also extends  the forces Weinberg can bring to bear in this panoramic landscape. "It is hard to string this bow", said Gražinytė-Tyla of the interaction between ensemble and orchestra. "The reason is that long passages are dominated entirely by a solo voice and various chamber ensembles while the gigantic orchestral apparatus of almost 100 musicians sits on the stage" resurfacing at different points.

The Largo opens with  the plaintive sound of Kremer's violin, singing, poignantly, alone. Weinberg could be referencing many sources - the role of violinists in Eastern European culture, community fiddlers as well as trained virtuosi.  On an autograph manuscript, Weinberg quoted the title of Mahler's song Das irdische leben where a child cries out for bread, but is ignored, and dies. There are also quotes from Chopin's Ballade no 1 in G minor, op 23, further anchoring the Polish context in which Weinberg grew up. With muffled timpani, darker forces enter. There are moments when Kremer deliberately hardens the tone. But the violin soars upward, supported by the strings in the orchestra, before being silenced by a single, harsh drumstroke. The violin resumes reaching a very high tessitura above the steady pulse in the orchestra, before quietly subsiding as the orchestra shapes tranparent, ethereal textures. The Allegro molto shatters any illusion of peace. This is graphic music. Ferocious chords and turbulent cross-currents, interrupted by "gunfire" (percussion) and sudden, sharp outbursts of violence. The Largo is built around a chorale-like anthem.  Tense, quiet passages alternate with more expansive motifs.  Kremer's violin re-emerges, bold, klezmer-like figures taunting strident, low-voiced brass.  The Presto is manic, screaming alarums and  madcap grotesquerie. Yet Kremer's violin will not be stilled, its melody restrained but uncowed. As it fades, the Andantino rises, single notes plucked on violin, answered by the orchestra.  This section is exquisite, executed with great poise, a reminder of  civilized values.

In the Lento, the panoramic landscape of the Largo is redrawn. The violin is plucked, quietly, against a wash of high-pitched  winds - winds suggesting movement and change - bells ringing against ostinato discord, and a soprano voice is heard, singing a wordless plaint. The soprano is Gražinytė-Tyla herself, who trained as a singer and came from a music background.  She knows how to carry a line, and the purity of her tone fits perfectly with what the voice might signify.  The part is substantial and quotes passages that Kremer and the other soloists had played before.  At moments her voice deepens richly before soaring upwards before the piano (Georgijs Osokins), clarinet (Oliver Janes), violin (Kremer) and double bass (Iurii Gavryliuk) return, the ensemble raised from the dead, so to speak, reunited with Gražinytė-Tyla's song, growing with even greater affirmation than before. The symphony ends with a mysterious  glow in this extraordinarily sensitive performance.  This is a symphony of such multi-layered depth and subtlety that it rewards attentive listening.

Weinberg's Symphony no 2 op 30 (1946)  may have been written closer to the time the events described in Symphony no 21, but traumas like that need time to process. In any case, Weinberg had to contend with Stalin and the Soviet authorities. Written for string orchestra, the textures are lighter, Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the Kremerata Baltica so the lines flow gracefully. The part for solo violin dominates, leading the ensemble forth.  In the Adagio the violin takes flight. The higher strings follow but are met by a hushed section for lower strings. The Allegretto is lively : brightly poised and nicely defined.

Thursday 13 June 2019

Monumental Josef Suk : Asrael Symphony, Jiří Bělohlávek, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's tribute to Jiří Bělohlávek continues with Josef Suk's Asrael. a symphony for large orchestra in C minor, Op. 27 (1905-6) and Pohádka, Op. 16 (Fairy Tale). Bělohlávek conducted the Asrael symphony many times and recorded it at least twice,with the Czech Philharmonic in 1992 and with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Prague Spring Festival in 2008. This latest release was recorded at the Rudolfinium, Prague, in October 2014.  This Pohádka comes from a performance in October 2015. These give us Bělohlávek's most recent, and probably most mature takes on the music of Josef Suk, overshadowed to some extent in the west by Antonin Dvořàk and later by Leoš Janáček. As Bělohlávek demonstrates, Suk's music is distinctive and original, with great character.  Hopefully, the Czech Philharmonic will have in its archives tapes of Suk's Zrání, (The Ripening) op 34 (which Bělohlávek recorded with the BBC SO) since it is a companion piece to Asrael.

Antonin Dvořàk, Suk's father-in-law and mentor, died in May 1904  after which Suk began writing the symphony. In July 1905, Suk's wife, Ottilie, died, aged only 27,  shortly after the birth of their son. Asrael was a way in which Suk sought to exorcise the shock of losing the two people dearest to him by challenging trauma through music. "Such a misfortune either destroys a man or brings to the surface all the powers dormant in him", he wrote, "Music saved me."

The symphony is built on two huge sections like the pillars of a monument.  This architecture is paramount. The first two movements, both andantes, represent Dvořàk, while the last two movements, both adagios, represent Ottilie.  A vivace forms a bridge between the first "pillar"  and the second.  Bělohlávek's definition of this structure intensifies impact, enhancing the emotional depth of the piece.  The first andante, begins mutely, as if the orchestra were numbed by grief.  Muffled timpani give way to strings, lines initially jagged but gradually absorbed by expansive developments involving full orchestra, which blaze into passionate crescendo before the poignant diminuendo.  The second andante, more austere and restrained, is shaped with deliberate purpoise. Individual isntruments - winds, trumpets, celli, bassoons, basses - lament against a chorus of strings. Every voice counts, as if the orchestra were singing a Requiem.  In the vivace, Bělohlávek's tempi are swft, emphasizing vitality, so the chill that sets in midway marks a turning point.  The vivace itself mirrors the two "pillars", the first part remembering past happiness, the second a reminder that loss cannot be reversed. When the pace picks up,  it is propelled by urgent momentum before it is cut off abruptly.

The second "pillar", written after the death of Ottilie, balances the first "pillar".  While the andantes that went before were solemn, the adagios that follow are gentler, reflecting the different personalities of Ottilie and her father.  Again, Bělohlávek emphasizes the symmetry in the structure. The first adagio, like the second andante, is restrained, mournful winds calling over a backdrop of low-timbred strings.   The solo violin melody may represent Suk himself, who was an accomplished violinist, as his grandson, the second Josef Suk, would become. It is answered by celli, possibly sugggesting a dialogue between Suk and his departed wife. Gradually the orchestra falls quiet, celli and violin singing together in intimate harmony. The second adagio, marked maestoso, reflects the andante sostenuto with which the symphony began.  Again, Bělohlávek captures the forward momentum beneath the turbulence.  After a brief respite, when the celli and violins interact one last time, the pace resumes with even greater force. Woodwinds pull the movement forward, answered by harps.  Only now do the big brass return, softened by winds, celli and horns. A melody on alto flute is answered by bass flute : warm, bright sounds rising heavenwards as the symphony reaches its conclusion. The mood is elegaic, comforting rather than strident.  In the Bible, Asrael is the Angel of Death, but that's not solely negative, the implication being  that the dead are beyond suffering, "happy with God".

Suk's Pohádka, (Fairy Tale), op. 16 (1899-1900, rev 1912) is a suite based on incidental music Suk wrote for a play about mythological lovers, Radúz and Mahulena. The first movement depicts an idyllic setting : an extended violin melody suggests pastoral bliss. The two inner movements contrast. In the first intermezzo, the lovers play with peacocks and swans, but in the second,the strings inject a note of foreboding, extended by low-timbred brass and winds, suggesting a funeral march.  Luckily,  love breaks the curse and the lovers are restored. The score harks back to Smetana and folkloric tradition, with a glaze of romantic colou. A lovely part for the violin leader. 

Monday 10 June 2019

Opera star endorses smoking

Opera Star endorses smoking ! A cigarette brand from 1928 (notice the round jar)  named after Mei Lan Fang, the Beijing opera star.  That was when smoking was trendy and modern. Thank goodness it's not now. (Big thank you to my friend who sent this)

Friday 7 June 2019

The Diary of One who Disappeared - Linbury

Leoš Janáček's The Diary of One who Disappeared is pretty much basic repertoire,  yet so intriguing that it invites thoughtful interpretation.  Ed Lyon's sung the part before, and he's good. What was "news" however was the staging. Nothing new about staging the piece - it's been done before and the Linbury is part of the Royal Opera House. Why do people still read the broadsheets ?  So it's a good idea to read a n analysis by someone who actually knows the work and its background enough to assess the performance.  Here is a link to Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today :
"....;.....At the close of van Hove’s realisation, the seated figure of Wim van der
Grijn reads and then burns his letters to Stösslova, dropping the flaming
pages into a waste-paper bin. His unfulfilled dreams now ashes, he climbs
into the small bed, presumably ready for death. But, The Diary
ends in defiance and hope, not despair. Originally the vocal climax came in
song 14, the height of Janíček’s desolation and hopelessness, “Oh what have
I lost!” But, Janáček’s revisions shifted the emotional peak to the final
song, which rises to a top C: “All that is left is for me to say goodbye
forever.” And, with a farewell to his father, mother and little sister,
“the apple of my eye”, Janíček departs: “Zefka is waiting for me with our
son in her arms!”

Thursday 6 June 2019

Squandering the heritage of D-Day

What does D-Day comemorate? It opened a new front in the struggle against Hitler and led to the collapse of his regime.  The reason I've picked the photo above is not to trot out insincere homilies, like certain public figures but to show respect for the millions who suffered, all over, not only in battle, not only in 1939-45.  If we really care about the past, we need too learn from what went wrong in the first place.  The photo above swept the media a few years ago, and was used as a scare tactic, with the slogan "Why am I alone here? " to manipulate people by guilt. The photo was in fact  taken in St Petersburg in 2007 by Alexander Petrosyan.  He wasn't abandoned : the streets are lined with people in support.  The man was old, struggling to keep up with his comrades ahead of him. (Please see here for the snopes fact check).   How easy it is to twist public opionin ! As Hermann Göring is alleged to have said at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials "All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in every country". Whether or not he actually said that, I don't know but it does address the way people can be fooled into rash action, often against their best interest.  But have we learned ? As world leaders gather to mark D-Day, fact is that some of them came to power exactly because they figured a way of fanning hysteria and hate.

To honour the millions who died, we need to think about the causes of war in the first place. 1939-45 was in many ways a continuation of 1914-1918, which itself was a rematch of 1936-7, 1870 and 1807-1814, and possibly more.  In 1945 the difference was that people realized that one way to avoid war was for people to work together for peace.  From this grew Nato and eventually the European Union.  The last 75 years have seen a cessation of hostilities longer than Europe has seen in centuries. That doesn't mean that there won't be conflicts, but it's still better than war.  Instead we now have populism which thrives on mass hysteria. Not long ago there was an attempt to  make Christians think there was a "war on Christianity". It turned out that that was being spread by right-wing extremists, including the AfD. They were resurrecting a meme popular in the Cold War.  Then, the targets were Communists, but extremists have no scruples : their targets can switch at any time.    Good people need to stick together to stand up to rising extremism of all kinds.  Divide and Rule works, all too well.  Instead we have a world where the tactics that got Hitler to power are getting people into power who might make Hitler seem small fry. Modern technology could mean  media manipulation on a scale greater than we can imagine. The stakes are higher, too.  The evil have everything to gain by playing people against each other. But like turkeys voting for Christmas, the masses are easily fooled.  . Please read the article in the New York Times by Roger Cohen "The Donald thinks D-Day is all about Him"

Monday 3 June 2019

Fantastique Lélio Berlioz, F X Roth Les Siècles, Paris

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and Lélio together, as they should be, with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles livestreamed from the Philharmonie de Paris (link here).  Though Symphonie fantastique is heard everywhere, all the time, it makes a difference when paired with Lélio because this restores Berlioz's original context. Opus 14 and 14b are meant to connect. Indeed, Lélio can be heard as an extension of the Symphonie fantastique, since together they reflect an intensely creative period in his development. The  symphony, subtitled  Épisode de la vie d'un artiste ... en cinq parties flows naturally into the Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie, mélologue en six parties. The first part addresses annihilation, the second part revival through creative art, and, heard together, they have symmetry.

When the symphony isn't treated as a stand-alone, there is an impact on interpretation.  Roth and Les Siècles use instruments of Berlioz's period to better reflect the colours Berlioz would have used.  This gives a more naturalistic, genuinely "Romantic"(big R) warmth to the performance. In "Rêveries", diaphanous textures herald the idée fixe, which here flowed with ardent purpose, establishing the  dichotomy between poetic ideals and obsession that gives this symphony such power.  Four harps and shimmering strings introduce the waltz. This moment of serenity contrasted with darker timbres, might indicate that happiness may be elusive. The "Scène aux champs" is pastoral, but haunted by more poignant undercurrents. An exquisitely played cor anglais, echoed by unseen oboe : dichotomy again, suggesting that happiness might be beyond reach.  Thus the "March au supplice" grows from what has gone before.  The steady march is well defined, the Idée fixe leading waywardly forth.  An atmospheric "Songe d'une nuit du sabbat". Ophecliedes may reference funeral processions in Berlioz's era, but the ominous grotesques, swirling strings and ringing bells also indicate supernatural malevolence. The demonic forces of Goethe's Die erste Walpurgisnacht  are not so very far away.  Romanticism, with its instincts for what we'd now call the subconscious, marked a breaking away from the unquestioned order of the Ancien Regime.

Roth's observant approach to structure pulls together the underlying architecture in the Symphonie fantastique, which is particularly relevant when the symphony is heard together with Lélio.  Significantly,  the narrator (Michel Fau) is alone as Lélio begins, the orchestra silent. This is an existential cry of anguish., delivered by Michel Fau with appropriate drama, even capturing the semi-musical cadences in the text.  For Berlioz, the narration was fundamental to concept.  Declamation would have come naturally to Berlioz and his contemporaries, who discovered Shakespeare, albeit in the theatrical adaptations that were then the norm, even in England.  Moreover, a good narrator like Michel Fau captures the semi-musical cadences in the text, which further links words with music . Lélio is, significantly, a composer.  While this is not Sprechstimme by any means, leaving out the narration, or using performances without the distinctive punch of proper French diction, diminishes the impact.  "Dieu! je vis encore... Il est donc vrai, la vie comme un serpent s’est glissée dans mon cœur pour le déchirer de nouveau? " This is an existential cry of anguish.  Yet there are explicit references to the symphony. "Ce supplice, ces juges, ces bourreaux, ces soldats, les clameurs de cette populace, ces pas graves et cadencés tombant sur mon cœur comme des marteaux de Cyclopes.."  In this dark night of the soul, Lélio speaks of the vision "avec son inexplicable sourire, conduisant la ronde infernale autour de mon tombeau!..."

The narration is so closely integrated into the structure that, in the "Ballad of the Fisherman" (based on Goethe's adaptation of Hamlet), Lélio's friend, Horatio (Michael Spyres) sings a lilting song about a nymph while Lélio meditates on life and art.  The serene song connects to evoke the watlz in the Symphonie fantastique. Again, the text references music : "Une instrumentation sourde... une harmonie large et sinistre... une lugubre mélodie... un chœur en unissons et octaves... semblable à une grande voix exhalant une plainte menaçante pendant la mystérieuse solennité de la nuit..."   In the Chœur d’ombres, the choir (the National Youth Choir of Scotland, chorus master Christopher Bell)  sings of death, punctuated by pounding drums - another funeral march, all the more poignant because the voices are fresh and youthful. Yet Lélio's words are truculent.  Calling on Shakespeare, he resolves to head to Naples and join brigands.  In Romantic terms, the South represented freedom and wildneess, the sun versus the moon, images Goethe employed so well. An artist cannot conform but must find himself through creativity.  In the "Chanson de Brigands" the baritone (Florian Sempey) leads the chorus in raucous adventure.  On the video transmission, the chorus members put their arms round each others shoulders and move,  expressing the energy in the orchestra. Can Lélio dare hope ?  "Je me vois dans l’avenir, couronné par l’amour".

After a brief silence, the orchestra now comes into its own : beautifully limpid harps, seductive woodwinds.  Now the tenor represents Lélio, singing the imaginary voice of the composer, off-stage. then even Lélio falls silent, as the orchestra creates the magic that is "Sounenirs- La harpe éolienne" where the orchestra extends the sound of the harp with winds and strings, evoking the sound of an aeolian harp, where Nature plays, vibrating through breezes.  The pastoralism of "Scène aux champs" now idealized and perfect. Lélio resolves to find new life through art. "Allons! que les esprits chantent et folâtrent! que la tempête gronde, éclate et tonne!......SHAKESPEARE me protège!". The "Fantaisie sur " La tempête " de Shakespeare" is Lélio's redemption. The chorus sing"Miranda! Miranda", and the orchestra creates the storm - both physical and supernatural - that drives her to the island where Caliban is marooned. The pounding rhythms of the idée fixe in the Symphonie fantastique return, transformed, flowing with even greater energy.  Until this point, Berlioz employed the orchestra with restraint. Now, in this exhilarating climax, we hear why he needed a full ensemble, supported by choir.  Lélio listens, and cries "Encore! Encore, et pour toujours!...".

Roth, Les Siècles and the voices give such an idiomatic, inspired performance that Lélio's words seem addressed to them "votre exécution est remarquable par la précision, l’ensemble, la chaleur; vous avez même reproduit plusieurs nuances fort délicates. Vos progrès sont manifestes; je vois que vous pouvez aborder maintenant des compositions d’un ordre beaucoup plus élevé que cette faible esquisse."
When (not if) this gets to CD/video, it should set a new benchmark in Berlioz performance practice. til then, listen again on the Philharmonie de Paris website.

Lang Lang marries in Versailles

Shattering the dreams of millions, Lang Lang announced his marriage on Weibo.  Apparently, he and Gina Alice Redlinger have been an item for some time. She's a German born pianist with a Korean mother. They sure look happy !  Big bash in the palace at Versailles. Article in South China Morning Post.