Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Sandrine Piau Si j'ai aimé - Orchestrated Mélodie

Sandrine Piau and Le Concert de la Loge (Julien Chauvin), Si j'ai aimé. an eclectic collection of mélodies demonstrating the riches of French orchestral song.  Berlioz, Duparc and Massenet are included, but also
Saint-Saëns, Charles Bordes, Gabriel Pierné, Théodore Dubois, Louis Vierne and Benjamin Godard.  Sponsored by Palazetto Bru Zane, Alpha Classics produced the ground breaking Saint-Saëns Mélodies avec orchestre with Yann Beuron and Tassis Christoyannis (please read more here) which has been described as the "opening of a Pandora's box ......(on) dozens, if not hundreds, of mélodies sublimely arrayed in sparkling orchestral colours (which) were slumbering on library shelves".

These mélodies reflect the renaissance of French poetry in the Romantic period, and of contemporary poets like Hugo, Gautier, Banville, Régnier and Verlaine.  The enhancement of verse by music created a new genre, taking art song from the confines of private salons to the concert hall.  Although grand opéra took centre stage, many composers found, in mélodie an expression of more subtle sensibility.  Given the predominance of grand opéra and of singers trained in that tradition, the vocal parts are more elaborate than they would be in a more inward form like German Lieder, but are exqusitely refined. These settings focus on voice, eschewing brass and percussion. "But how many nuances these composers coud obtain from this palette", writes Hélène Cao in her notes. "There is no oboe in Aimons-nous (Saint-Saëns) or Ce que dit le silence (Guilmant) .....the arpeggios of Saint-Saëns' Extase are provided by the harp, thus preserving the lightness of a pianistic texture that would have been weighed down by the use of bowed strings". Indeed, the harp is a distinctive feature in many of these mélodies, more lustrous and liquid,  closer to the human voice, and particularly to the female voice.

The delicacy of Piau's timbre in Saint-Saëns' Extase (Victor Hugo) is exquisite, almost trembling with ecstasy, the moment of intimacy in the text living vividly on in memory.  her vouce is agile, capturing the fluttering fragility in Papillons (Renée de Léché) where a pair of flutes duet, darker winds and strings adding texture.  The song ends abruptly, for butterflies die once the summer is over.  In Charles Bordes's Promenade matinale (Paul Verlaine) , the pace is leisurely, evoking a stroll in the morning sunshine. A horn is heard, illustrating "un chemin de gazonque bordant devieux aulnes", introducing shade, for the dreamer has lost the one he or she had loved. This connects neatly with the well-known Berlioz Au cimetière from Les nuits d'été.  In Jules Massenet's Le Poète et Le Fantôme, to an anonymous text, the vocal line stretches languidly, as the poet addresses a phantom, the soul of the poet's smiles, ie a memory of the past.  The voice of the harp mirroring the voice of the singer. The poem is strophic, its repeating patterns suggesting there will be no resolution.  Gabriel Pierné's Chanson d'autrefois, for chamber ensemble, is like a folk air, being based on the composer's set of childrens's piece Album pour mes petits amis. Théodore Dubois' Si j'ai parlé....si j'ai aimé (Henri de Régnier) is poised, "c'est ton ombre que je cherche". 

The upbeat rhythms of Berlioz's Villanelle from Les nuits d'été  mark a transition from songs of lost love to songs of desire and seduction. Théodore Dubois' Promenade à l'etang (Albert Semain) alternates restraint with exuberant outbursts, intensifying the tension of passion, the pond representing, perhaps, hidden depths. More butterflies in Louis Vierne's Beaux papillons blancs from Trois Mélodies op 11, this time fluttering happily in warm breezes, the vocal line circulating smoothly as the strings dance and sparkle.  In contrast, the sensuous promise of  Henry Duparc's Aux étoiles where violin and flute soar over a background of dark timbred strings. In Alexandre Guilmant's Ce que dit le silence (Charles Barthélemy), the contrast lies between the sweeping vocal part and the understated orchestral line with its quiet interjections. "Sans bruit, nous permet d'écouter ce que dit le silence". 

The repose of Saint-Saëns Aimons-nous (Théodore de Banville) merges into the serenity of Massenet's Valse très lente,  originally for piano, here scored for lyrical winds and strings. Saint-Saëns'  L'Enlèvement (Hugo) was written when the composer was only 13 years of age, but the woodwind melody has finesse. The grave movement from Benjamin Godard's Symphonie gothique op 23 is followed by the famous Plaisir d'amour, in a transcription by Hector Berlioz after a romance from the 1780's by Jean-Paul-Ègide Martini.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Joyous Messiaen From the Canyons to the Stars.... Oramo, BBCSO

Messiaen in Bryce Canyon

Prom 13, Olivier Messiaen Des canyons aux étoiles... (From the Canyons to the Stars...). Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. One day, I want to hear this outdoors, with the sky above,  surrounded by endless horizons. Sure, the sound quality wouldn't please nit-picking audiophiles, but those who love music might understand.  As the composer himself observed, when you are in a canyon, the only way to look is upwards, towards the stars.  In Paris, he spent much of his time in Saint-Sulpice, cramped up high above the nave in the organ loft.  In Bryce Canyon, Utah, he experienced a “cathedral” of another kind, where the vast stone walls of the canyon rose up like walls, enclosing space, but opened, roofless, to the skies. Direct communion with the universe and all its wonders!  Messiaen was a visionary, for whom all creation was a celebration of a God who made the universe and  its wonders.  From the Canyons to the stars.... is Messiaen's response, creating in music a panorama of sounds, textures and colours.

Messiaen's"canyon", isn't just a literal depiction of landcape, but a visionary communion with creation and its Creator. This is no minor achievement. From the Canyons to the Stars..... is nearly two hours long, a series of 12 individual sections, but together they form an epic journey.  Just as the colours in a landscape change with changes in natural light, the traverse is a reflection of the passage of time. "Man hasn’t been on this earth that long”, Messiaen said. "Before us there were prehistoric monsters, but in between there were birds". And before birds and dinosaurs, the geology of the Earth itself. The very character of From the Canyons to the stars.... is shaped by these concepts. The orchestra isn't huge. but each instrument is used for maximum effect. The smallest instrument in the orchestra, the piccolo, plays an important role, just as the smallest bird in a dawn chorus can be heard distinctively.

The range, too, is eclectic. Messiaen even created a new instrument, the geosphere, where actual rocks are placed in a flat drum  and shaken, the earth thus employed to make "earth sounds" in a concert hall environment. Earth sounds everywhere-the wind machine, the thunderboard,  tubular bells which suggest the flow of water, wooden blocks beaten together.  Sections for orchestra are balanced with sections for solo instruments: Nicolas Hodges (piano), Martin Owen (horn), David Hockings and Alex Neal, (xylorimba and glockenspiel). These unite the instrumental logic. The piano is a percussion instrument, the horn's sounds created by human breathing, the xylomarimba a percussion instrument whose sounds reverberate through tubes,like lungs, the glockenspiel a fragile predecessor of the piano. From the Canyons to the stars.... is big because its subject is big, but the foundations are strong, and logical. 

In the first part, starting with Le Désert the parameters are set out.  The brass carved out firm shapes, the piano (possibly representing man), was clearly defined, the sounds of the landscape swirling around.  Rhythms darted at odd angles, but were purposeful. Messiaen observed how birds move on the ground, confounding predators. Sometimes they creep quietly on the ground, but sudden fly off unpredictably. That’s how they survive. Thus the jerky changes of direction, and sudden leaps from activity to silence, large blocks juxtaposed against fast-flying fragments. Oramo handled the shape well, bringing out the originality that is so fundamental to Messiaen performance practice.  He has a good feel for the zany, quirky character in this music. His Turangalîla-Symphonie was wonderful because he doesn't tame the wildness. (Please read Sublimated sex in theTurangalila Symphony here).  He also gets the "technicolor" moments in Messiaen, as the climaxes in this performance showed.  Cedar Breaks et le don de craint ended with style, and Zion Park et la cité céleste.  even more expansive, concluded with such élan that it was clear what Messiaen meant : the glories of nature are a foretaste of the glories of Heaven.

Nicolas Hodges' solos captured the spirit,too. For a moment, time seemed to stand still, while the piano does a “display dance” like a bird showing off its plumage. Martin Owen’s horn seemed to be exploring the vast cavern of the Royal Albert Hall, repeating itself more quietly, as if from a distance. The glockenspiel and xylomarimba solos were expressive, like birds or animals from cover in the landscape of the wider percussion, treasured all the more because their appearances are so fleeting.

Albert Hall photos: Roger Thomas/Messiaen in Bryce Canyon: Yvonne Loriod

Thursday, 25 July 2019

No surprise ! Edward Gardner to head London Philharmonic Orchestra


No surprise ! Edward Gardner  confirmed as Chief at the London Philharmonic, replacing Vladimir Jurowski.  Welcome, though not "news", since it was only a question of time before Gardner found a new home in the UK.  Gardner has long been the Great Hope of British conducting, often compared to Simon Rattle.  He flirts like a star, too. It's part of the job! That's charisma.  He's not called "Sexy Ed" for nothing. But all that wouldn't matter, since he is an extremely good conductor and motivator.  He's done wonders for the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, who are an excellent orchestra, but he's put them firmly onto the international map.  Gardner's career has implications for the British music scene as a whole.  His background is solidly British, and he's done a lot of British repertoire, old and new. In fact, the first time I heard him conduct orchestral repertoire, in 2005, he conducted Walton's Symphony no 1, Sibelius and Julian Anderson.  Gardner's conducted the LPO before, and the CBSO, and the BBCSO and much else, and has recorded extensively, mainly for Chandos.  He was also Music Director at the English National Orchestra for nearly ten years. That, too, is a factor in his appointment because the LPO is the resident orchestra at the Glyndebourne Festival, where they do opera.  He was also chief of Glyndebourne on Tour before he joined the ENO. The LPO has done lots of opera unstaged, so he fits the bill.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Gloriously idiomatic ! Jakub Hrůša, Bamberg Symphoniker - Dvořák,Smetana Má vlast

Jakub Hrůša, Bmberger Symphoniker.  photo: Roger Thonas

The real First Night of the Proms 2019, for music lovers, Prom 2 with the Bamberger Symphoniker (Bamberg Symphonic Orchestra) conducted by Jakub Hrůša in Antonín Dvořák Violin concerto in A minor op 53 (1883), soloist Joshua Bell, and Bedřich Smetana Má vlastAt the start of this year's Prague Spring Festival,  always opened with Má vlast - Hrůša led the Bambergers in a rousing performance at the Smetana Hall. Not all Má vlast have been performed on happy occasions.  (Please read more here). If troubled times loom over Europe again, we need to honour the power of music to express national identity in a healthy, non-belligerent form.  

"Bohemian Rhapsody" is a silly title, which trivializes the strong-minded individualism that has shaped Czech history and music. Dvořák's Violin concerto doesn't follow rules. An emphatic introduction from the orchestra, from which the soloist almost immediately takes equal command. Dvořák's themes are strongly defined - nothing timid here. The freedom of the violin line is thus built on firm foundations. The themes are endlessly varied, always inventive, always adventurous, The warmth of Bell's tone enhanced the sense of freshness. Thus the dumka theme in the Adagio felt  poignant, a reflection perhaps on things past, (complete with the calls of hunting horns), before the Finale, in which the energy of the first movement returned resurgent. Hrůša, the Bambergers and Bell captured the sense of perpetual momentum that so often surfaces in Dvořák and, indeed, much music influenced by folk idioms, shaped as they are by the change of seasons on rural life, and the sturdiness of peasant character.  Renewal, regrowth - might this be what Dvořák was "really" writing about ?

The Royal Albert Hall is far larger than the Smetana Hall in Prague, but this added dimensuon to the rich, dark timbre that's often been associated with the Bamberger Symphoniker. In his three years at the helm, Hrůša has restored the Bamberger's distinctive style. How wonderful it is to hear such inspirational, committed musicianship.  Every player is of such a high standard that even small details give pleasure. Hrůša sets the tone straight away with Vyšehrad, the bedrock on which Má vlast is built. This refers to the castle on an outcrop on the river, reputedly the original settlement of the Bohemian people. The harps, positioned in pair on opposite sides of the orchestra, to emphasize their different functions, sounded beautifully liquid, suggesting the flow of the river, the source of fertility and life. Their music also references the instrument of an ancient bard who, in legend, played on the river's edge.  As the pace picks up, the river reaches full flow, the Bambergers responding to Hrůša, playing with idiomatic ebullience. Pure-toned, rustling strings,  surging torrents in the orchestra, played almost at breakneck speed, but meticulously defined.

Though each of the six symphonic poems that form Má vlast are unique, Hrůša never let slip the sense of architecture that is essential for coherent performance.  In Vlatava, the flow is lighter, more transparent, suggesting that the river (for which read, the nation) is constantly refreshed from mountain sources, growing in strength and volume as they pass through the land. Horns are heard, evoking forests, mountains, a population living connected to Nature. forests. The suggestions of dance created a sense of circular, swirling movement.  Hrůša understands the purpose behind the turbulence Smetana builds into this music: dance is energy, a metaphor for life and growth. The section Šárka is mythic and Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia's Woods and Fields) is descriptive, but in musical terms these serve to enrich the saga, much in the way that a river is fed from different streams and different sources.

In Tábor and Blaník, the depth of the Bamberg sound truly pays off.  The Bambergers may not be a Czech orchestra but with Hrůša, they understand what Má vlast means and why it matters, better than some. Tábor was a Hussite fortress, under siege and eventually defeated in violent massacres.  Thus the quiet, tense introduction, developed through brass and timpani, which grows bolder as the hymn emerges.  This is the Hussite anthem Ktož jsú boží bojovníci (Ye Who Are Warriors of God).  (Please read more here about Hrůša's perceptive views on the way the Hussite hymn has influenced Bohemian music ).  Massive, angular chords loom upwards, suggesting danger, and determined defiance.  The rocky fastness of Vyšehrad again, now called on in more danergous times. The Hussites may be no more, yet their spirit, like the spirit of the bard and of Šárka, remains steadfast.

As Tábor draws to a close, quieter chords glow, like embers in ash.  The buzz of strings and celli, intensified the sense of urgency,  rushing "footsteps" and angular chords, suggesting a population in upheaval, the horn and military pipes suggestions of war. 

In Blaník, there is a reference to St Wenceslaus, patron saint of Bohemia, who lived long before the Hussites, whom legend says. will return to save the nation in its hour of need.  Smetana was writing at a time when the Hapsburgs ruled: not quite as extreme asituation as 1938, 1948 or 1968, but still at a time of occupation.  Thus the riotous, lively finale suggests the spirit of freedom the river and its history represent will live again, joyful and revitalized. At the end, Hrůša shapes the majestic main theme again, so vividly that it seems that the spirit of the fortress in Vyšehrad stands eternally behind the Czech people, and indeed, all people who care about freedom and heritage. 
 
A demanding programme, and one which required almost superhuman stamina from the players as well as from the audience. But so worthwhile! Two encores, the Polka and the Furiant from Smetana's The Bartered Bride.  More circular dances ! not just because they're fun, but because they, too, show  the source of vigour from which Smetana drew inspiration.  This gloriously idiomatic  Prom 2 with Hrůša and the Bambergers is one that will live on in memory. 


 

Friday, 19 July 2019

Undemanding First Night of the Proms 2019


First Night of the BBC Proms 2019 ! The programme might have been a challenging start to the season - Antonín Dvořák The Golden Spinning Wheel and Leos Janáček Glagolitic Mass, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Chorus plus soloists, conducted by Karina Canellakis.  To kick off, a premiere by Zosha di Castri Long is the journey - short is the memory.
Dvořák's The Golden Spinning Wheel is a tale of ghosts and gruesome murder. A king goes hunting in the woods and meets a peasant girl, Dornička and wants to marry her.  Her stepmother and stepsister chop the girl to pieces, but a magician finds her remains. He creates a golden spinning wheel, whose song alerts the king to what's happened.  Dvořák's symphonic poem is based on a collection of Bohemian folk ballads by Karol Jaromir Erben, but the tale itself is ancient, with many variants. Think Brentano and von Arnim Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Mahler's Das klagende Lied, or Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande or even CinderellaDvořák's setting is remarkably graphic, almost cinematic. The king is represented by hunting horns and vigorous upbeat rhythms, Dornička by plaintive winds.  As the magician puts Dornička's bits together, her music comes to life again, high strings sparkling and lyrical. Lots of detail - "royal" trumpets, turbulent figures spinning (literally), stirring up alarm, the conclusion both serene and impudent.  There's a lot more to it than "dreamy" ! Because The Golden Spinning Wheel is so dramatic, it ought to be almost foolproof in performance.  The BBC Symphony Orchestra should know it, since they've done it before. When it's done well, it glows with warmth and vibrant vigour - Dornička, a force of Nature, cannot be extinguished.  Even in a fairly underpowered performance such as this one, its vivacity can't be dimmed.  Fortunately, it's new to the Proms, so something of its spirit might reach out to audiences who'd like to get to know it better. (well worth seeking out good performances)

Janáček's Glagolitic Mass has been done many times at the Proms, so whoever planned this programming might think it's OK to repeat the formula. At the Proms in recent years,  we've heard Boulez, Gergiev and Bělohlávek - all very different, each with something to say.  When Bělohlávek did it on the First Night of the Proms 2011, the performance was so intense that it seemed as if the roof might lift off the Royal Albert Hall. A pertinent observation, since "Glagolitic" masses were held in the open air, with trees instead of stone as buttresses, allowing large communities to come together. Janácek said: "My cathedral " was “the enormous grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…...the scent of moist forests my incense”. Hence the idea of freedom and liberation, which is closer to Janácek's intentions than to a religious interpretation.  If anything, the Glagolitic Mass represents a tradition fiercely independent from the mainstream. The Glagolitic script dates from the 8th century, long before the Hapsburgs consolidated their grip on Bohemia, so it isn't about the Church so much as Janáček's faith in secular and national Resurrection.  Glagolitic Masses can be craggy, earthy, ferocious, almost anything but not lifeless.

With the forces on hand this should, in theory, have been a good performance. The BBC SO, the BBC Singers and BBC Chorus know the piece, and the soloists, Asmik Grigorian, Jennifer Johnston, Ladislav Elgr, and Jan Martiník - are all good, Martiník in particular for this repertoire.  Grigorian was another reason I was so keen to hear this - she was a sensational Salomé with Welser-Möst in Salzburg (read more HERE). But a performance needs to be more than a sum of its components.  The Úvod held together, though it's more impressive as a statement of intent, like the foundation stone of a great edifice.  The Kyrie can be overwhelming, the large chorus intoning the cries "Gospodi pomiluj!".  Elgr and Martiník's voices rang out, like prophets from the ancient past. Janáček referenced  the missionaries Cyril and Methodius, who brought Christianity to Slavic lands.  He also wrote : "I hear......in the soprano solo a maiden angel, in the chorus our people. The candles are high fir trees in the wood, lit up by stars; and somewhere in the ritual see a vision of the princely St Wenceslas" Grigorian did not disappoint ! Peter Holder, at the organ, captured the right sense of zany energy. His Varhany sólo (Postludium) was electrifying.  In the Slava (Gloria) the massed voices were suitably hushed, capturing  a sense of mystery, and the Věruju (Credo) and Agneče Božij (Agnus Dei), gave all the soloists a chance to show what they're made of.  But where was the grand design ? What was the underlying thrust? The Intrada, which can be an emphatic outburst, felt like an after-thought.

Zosha di Castri Long is the journey - short is the memory filled the slot assigned to "new music" at the start of every Proms season.  But a premiere doesn't always mean original.  This could have been commissioned to tick all the BBC boxes - big forces, lots happening to look at and admire, but rather studied and self conscious. Interestingb hat the press, cued by BBC PR, made much of the "historic" occasion", minimizing the rest of the performance.  Given that BBC Proms policy now seems driven by non-music values, and marketing hype (excruciating presentation), this whole First Night of the Proms 2019 probably went down well with the suits and their target audience, but doesn't bode well for music in the longer term. 

Gunshots fired at Royal Albert Hall ! Assassination attempt.


Gunshots fired at the Royal Albert Hall ! The broadcast of the performance was suddenly interrupted by a scream, then silence.  What happened ? The BBC made an announcement.. "We have to apologise to listeners for the delay in the broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall. An attempt has been made to assassinate the distinguished European diplomat  Monsieur Ropa, who was attending the concert."  Fortunately, the scream, from a woman in the orchestra stalls, distracted the gunman, whose shot deflected. Mr Ropa was not killed. With chilling sangfroide, the concert resumed, as if nothing had happened.

On the eve of the First Night of the BBC Proms 2019, (read my review here) a visit to the Royal Albert Hall as it was in 1934, when people in boxes wore top hats and tuxedos, with medals, and concert goers in the stalls wore fur coats and evening dress (white tie compulsory?). In Alfred Hitchcock's The Man who Knew Too Much, (available from the British Film Institute) we get to see the RAH as it was then.  The basic structure of stage and stalls hasn't changed much - a bit less cheerful then, maybe.  The circular corridor we know now, then opened onto curved doors, which led straight onto the street, where taxis conveniently lined up, waiting. The movie's also interresting because it shows how Hitchcock and his audiences were "European-minded". Jill Lawrence (played by Edna Best) is a champion sharp shooter who competes on the European circuit. She misses out when her shot is interrupted by a chiming watch, the significance of which is revealed later. Later, her companion is shot, while they dance, but as he dies in her arms, warns her of a plot, and tells her to get her husband Bob to retrieve a note (concealed in a shaving brush in his hotel room) and deliver it to the British Consulate. Meanwhile Jill and Bob's daughter Betty is kidnapped. Though Jill looks about 25, (she was 35), the girl looks 14! (the actress was 17).  So Bob doesn't dare inform the British authorities, either, though the Foreign Office knows what's going on.

Bob and his friend manage to penetrate the den where the assassins hide out, disguised as the Temple of a secret order of initiates who worship the sun.  A send up of the esoteriuc, spiritiaulist cults, so popular from Victorian times.  It's headed by a strange eccentric Englishwoman Nurse Agnes,  and an even stranger man called Abbott, played by Peter Lorre, newly escaped from the Nazis.  He didn't speak English at the time, so delivers his lines phonetically, which adds to the surreal situation. Bob and his friend join in the hymns, singing out of tune. The plotters aren't fooled and hold them captive.  Bob overhears Abbott telling Ramon, the assassin,  to fire when the performance reaches a specific climax. Luckily, there's a scuffle, and Bob's friend gets away to warn Betty, who heads to the Royal Albert Hall.  The music is pretty horrible, a pastiche which vaguely resembles RVW's A Sea Symphony but is suitably loud enough to hide the sound of gunshots.  Jill scans the auditorium, and, being a sharp shooter, spots the gun and screams, throwing the gunman off his target.  Just as, implausibly, Abbott's watch had thrown her off target in Switzerland, so Ramon won the tournament.  Jill follows Ramon to the hideout, followed by the police, who break in and shoot Abbott, when yet again, his watch beeps at an inopportune moment.

Because the plot centres around the device of using loud concert repertoire to conceal an assassination, Hitchcock needed a suitable piece of music which would not have been familiar to real concert goers, to keep them in suspense.  Arthur Benjamin was commissioned to write the piece which he named the Storm Clouds Cantata. It's a pastiche of the piece in the film, complete with high dramatic mezzo soprano and chorus. Since it runs less than 9 minutes, and requires fairly big forces, it's not the easiest piece to programme, except as a novelty.  In the early years of the 20th century, cinema was still a "new" genre, which many recognized as a potentially new form for "serious" art combining visuals, music and storytelling.  Even in the silent era, music was specially composed to be performed live while screening. (Please see my piece on Armas Järnefelt : Song of the Scarlet Flower 1919 HERE and on René Clair, Hanns Eisler, Eisenstein and many more.  Because the genre was so new, there was a learning curve, figuring out different ways to blend music with visuals.  By the very nature of film, narrative tends to take precedence, so music is usually employed, as in theatre, as incidental to drama. In rare cases, notably the works of Hanns Eisler, the music itself is integral to the development of concept.  That's why I have so much respect for Arthur Bliss's music for Alexander Korda's Things to ComePlease read more here.  Bliss knew the horrors of war first hand and was very much taken by the idea that war might be eradicated. His music wasn't incidental, but integral to the film, where long sequences are shot using state of the art cinematographic techniques, which forward the narrative in the expressionist terms which give the film so much of its power. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Monday, 15 July 2019

Things to Come - Arthur Bliss and Futurism

What will the next hundred years bring to mankind ?  Time to revisit the British cinema classic Things to Come, based on H G Wells' story The Shape of Things to Come which was a sensation in its time (1936) produced by Alexander Korda, directed by William Cameron Menzies, with music by Arthur Bliss.
In Everytown, which resembles Central London, it's Christmas. Crowds are rushing round fancy shops lit with new-fangled neon lights.  In the sound track, a choir sings the carol "God rest you Merry Gentleman" on the phrase, "May nothing you dismay", the brass fanfares scream and the pace slows to rigid march.  Newspaper headlines warn of war. At a family party, kids play with new toys while their elders discuss progress. "If we don't end war", says young Mr Cabal (Raymond Massey), "war will end us". "War stimulates progress" says his optimistic guest.  Suddenly, bells are heard, ringing.  Not for Christmas, though. Sirens sound, and gunfire. Everytown (and the Battleship Dinosaur) is being bombed.  The country mobilizes for war.  Diagonal shots, people running in different directions, rows of soldiers superimposed on one another.  Nothing new for those used to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927 - please read more here) and other futurist films, German, Russian, French and Italian.  Smoke, explosions, bombs, tanks, more aeroplanes together than could fly safely in formation, and poison gas. For Brits, who came to art film later, this must have been thrilling stuff.  Wonderfully discordant music - not what you'd associate with Arthur Bliss. Here's he's wildly uncompromising.  He had, after all, seen war up close. Bliss made a Suite based on the soundtrack, (see below) which premiered before the film was released. Clearly, he knew he was on to something good.
And so the war continues, (to 1970!) the city in ruins, the people reduced to primitive squalor. A  plague "like the Black Death of the Middle Ages" stalks the land. Fearing infection, the healthy turn on the sick.  A man has a car,  but no petrol. It's pulled by horses. Yet even that technology makes him a Chief  (Ralph Richardson) .  Suddenly, a machine lands, a new kind of aeroplane, manned by a man in a black futuristic costume. It's Mr Cabal. He's come from "Wings Over the World". Decades of war have destroyed civilization but WOTW,  "the Brotherhood of Efficiency, the Freemasonry of Science", technocrats pledged to save the world, based in Basra.  Prophetic yet ironic, since strategic control over oil supplies makes much machine-based technology possible. Think of what's happened to modern Iraq.  "We don't approve of independent sovereign states" says Cabal, though his utopia controls the sky (it builds aeroplanes) and seas.  The Chief plays along, helping Cabal, thinking machines will help him with the war, "The Peace of the Strong Arm.... we are warriors, not mechanics ! we have been trained not to think, but to die". Eventually, Cabal gets word to his people and they invade, using a gas that puts people to sleep without killing them, though the Chief drops dead. Thus the Brave New World of Progress, enforced by benevolent  technocrats.More long sequences of machines, production lines, the building of vast machines. Though it's not on the level of Metropolis, this is one of the best sequences in the film, and Bliss's music rises to the occasion - pounding staccato, wailing winds, ferocious brass. Not quite on the level of, say, Antheil's Ballet mécanique or Mosolov's The Iron Foundry or practically anything Varèse, but still....  Had Bliss done more of the same, one wonders where he could have gone. This would have served him well in the brave new world of the Festival of Britain and 1950's progress.
A hundred years after that fateful Christmas, the people of the world live in idealized luxury, under the ground.  Cabal's great-grandson Oswald now heads the Wings Over the World. In this new art deco Paradise there are plans to explore the Moon, using a "Space Gun" (No rockets on the horizon in 1936)  But some things don't change. "What is the point of progress? " cries a new Chief, the demagogue Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke),  his image emblazoned on gigantic screens, preaching to his followers in a chilling foretaste of modern media maipulation, "We demand a halt - the object of life is "happy living" ! ... Let this be the last day of the scientific age - Destroy it ! NOW!"  Whipped up by fear and strange rhetoric,  the crowd roars in assent. Inflamed, they move upon the Space Gun to destroy it and what it stands for, armed with bars of metal, bent on violence.  As the demagogue screams, the mobs march, swarming over the vast machine, like a horde of maddened hornets.  "Beware of the concussion"!" warns Cabal as the Space Gun is fired, to no avail. The capsule heads off towards the moon, in a beam of light. The will to explore cannot be extinguished, "For Man, no rest, no ending...", says Cabal, "til all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him are conquered. For if we are no more than little animals, we must snatch each scrap of happiness .... it is all, or nothing ! which shall it be?"As the screen fades, an unseen choir echoes his words "Which shall it be!" in ringing affirmation.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Dial Up Music - the future of classical


Once, music existed for its own sake, created by composers and performers to engage the mind and soul. Now it seems that the act of ownership takes precedence over all else. Does the future lie in Dail Up Music, created to suit buyer specifications ? Like ordering coffee to strict preconditions.  "I want X, Y, Z, X1, Y1, Z1 conditions to be met, OR ELSE !"  Blank out what the performer might have to say, and blank out the composer !  Blank out everything that doesn't concern the buyer.  Like culture, music history, other people, anything that gets in the way of Self. Ignore everything that makes music an act of communication and creativity.  And that includes the art of self examination. Soon we'll have an app that people can programme to produce what they want, regardless of the music.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Gerald Finzi - Stephen Layton, Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge

From Hyperion, Gerald Finzi choral works with the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Layton.  An impressive Magnificat (1952) sets the tone.  Finzi's values were highly individual : his religious views were more spiritual than dogmatic. This is not a liturgical setting, but a stand-alone, written for an American college choir. A dramatic organ introduction (Alexander Hamilton), leads to a series of choral and solo variations on the phrase "My soul doth magnify", garlanding the text with different colours. The processs repeats with other phrases, adding  texture, ending with the phrase "Forever, forever, forever..." held until it fades into  reverent hush. "The apparently rhapsodic freedom of the Magnificat is regulated by a technique whereby melodic contours either emerge as musical ‘anagrams’ of one another or give common prominence to certain intervals", writes Francis Pott, resembling a corymbus in botanical terms. "In musical terms, this meant that a seminal idea would be added to upon its reappearance, thus heading in a new direction after the initial element of repetition." David Bednall's Nunc dimittis (2016), included in this recording, is a homage to Finzi, created (with a Gloria, not included) so the Magnificat can be used in Evensong. 

Three miniatures that comprise Finzi's opus no 27 are heard here,  My Lovely One, God is gone up, and Welcome Sweet Sacrifice. The last, from 1951, is heard first, the tracery of the vocal parts echoing the patterns in the Magnificat. Here, the perennially popular God is gone up is augmented by brass fanfare, enhancing impact.  Continuing the imagery of  the Magnificat, Finzi's White-flowering Days, was part of "A Garland for the Queen", a collection of choral songs by different composers, premiered the night before the Coronation in 1953.  Thus the "garlanding", interweaving the parts into a cohesive whole. In Finzi's Seven Poems of Robert Bridges Op 17 (1935-7) Finzi adapted the first person singular character of Bridge's poems, which lends itself  to unison setting, to polyphonic expression.  The third song "My spirit sang all day" with its refrain "O my joy" is lively.  For Finzi, the word "joy" signified personal happiness. Joy Finzi meant more to the composer than anything else.  Any system of beliefs he held stemmed from the bedrock of their union. The last song "Haste on, my joys" tenderly balances major and minor keys, evoking from Finzi what Pott aptly describes as "an apt canonic rhythm whereby the upper voices seem to be perpetually nudging the lower ones along".  Gerald and Joy, in essence.

Stephen Banfield, Finzi's biographer, described Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice as ‘intense, almost necromantic atmosphere, laden with incense’, very High Church, Anglo-Catholic in nature. After the unaccompanied Seven Songs of Robert Bridges, the organ introduction feels even more profound.   Finzi combines two poems by Richard Crashaw (1612-1649), after St Thomas Aquinas' Adoro te and Lauda Sion Salvatorum.  The mystery of the Eucharist is captured in the contemplative setting, where the choral parts are finely subdivided.  As in the text, lines overlap, evoking the concept of communion.  "Oh let that love which thus makes Thee, mix with our low mortality". The very high tessitura at this point might suggest the bell that signals consecration.  In the second section "Rise, royal Sion!" the spirit is fortified by "the living and life-giving bread".  Thus revived, the tenor part (Edward Cunningham) can come to the fore, soaring above the choir. "O soft self-wounding pelican whose breast weeps balm for wounded man".  Joined by the bass (Frankie Postles), and the choir, the piece reaches its resolution, with glorious decoration on the last "Amen".

Terrific, terrifying Garsington Britten Turn of the Screw

Ed Lyon (Peter Quint) and Leo Jemison (Miles) in Garsington Opera’s The Turn of the Screw. Photograph John Snelling
 "Terrific, terrifying" writes Claire Seymour, who wrote the book on the operas of Benjmain Britten.  "One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ if it wasn’t so sinister......."

"There are no ‘boundaries’: the interior and exterior of Bly diffuse into one another, trickling and infusing deceptively, like the waters of the lake that lap at the forestage shore, where Miles insouciantly sails his paper boat. The open space is, at first, sparsely populated - just a few abandoned children’s toys: a tricycle-rocking horse, a toy theatre, a hoop-and-sticks, the chalky remnants of a game of hopscotch. Innocent pastimes in which we see the children, Flora and Miles, indulge during the instrumental interludes in which the ‘screw’ theme is twisted ever tauter and tenser.  Progressively, though, the shadows deepen and stretch: illumined by guttering candles, a grand piano casts an imposing silhouette which dances disturbingly with the black forms of human figures, a school desk, as the shores of the lake shatter, and a black pool edged with crooked, crumbling paving stones forms: a stagnant, poisonous pit."

Please read the full review here in Opera Today   If only there were more reviewers who could write as informatively, and analytically as this. 

Monday, 8 July 2019

Mystic Trumpeter blasts Brexit bar on Beethoven - Three Choirs Festival


Grand finale to the end of this year's Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral  3rd August 2019, with Beethoven's Symphony no 9, with Adrian Partington conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Three Choirs Festival Chorus,  with soloists Ilona Domnich, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Andrew Staples and David Stout, paired with  Gustav Holst's The Mystic Trumpeter op 18 H 71 (104 rev 1912) and David Matthews's Stars. The Three Choirs Festival always ends with a big choral number, and they don't come much more profound than Beethoven's Ninth. For two centuries The "Ode to Joy" has been loved by millions, all over the world, possibly the most-performed choral piece on the planet.  Suddenly, on the orders of Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, it must be shunned. They turned their backs on the European Parliament when the anthem was sung, though presumably not on the money to be made from income, pensions, fringe benefits and lobbying.  Like playground bullies refusing to play except on their own rules.  When Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted in front of Hitler in 1942,  Heinrich Goebbels squirmed with inner rage because he knew what "Alle Menschen werden Brüder"meant.  Quietly Furtwängler was making a point since Hitler, who probably didn't understand but liked Beethoven's music.  Now it seems to have been decreed by Brexit supporters that , if thei party Leader doesn't like Beethoven, then no-one else should be allowed to hear it.  There are reports that activists have denounced its inclusion in the Three Choirs Festival (where it's been heard many times over the years).(Read more here).  The Will of the People must be obeyed even if that infringes on other people's rights ! Good for Adrian Partington and the Three Choirs Festival organization for standing up for common sense. And for Christianity, for that matter, since Christain communion is at the core of Three Choirs values. What would Jesus say ?

On pure musical terms (not that such things bother extremists) Beethoven's Ninth and Holst's The Mystic Trumpeter work extremely well together as a programme. Many connections, even if they don't sound the same (which is what Christian communion is about). Beethoven calls on "Freude, schöner Götterfunken Tochter aus Elysium", Joy, that spark of Divinity which brings mankind together in joyous celebration.  Holst's Mystic Trumpeter calls unseen from a vast distance. "Thy song expands my numb'd, imbonded spirit -nthou freest me, launchest me, floating and basking on Heaven's lake" "now pouring, whirling, like a tempest round me, now low, subdued...".  The trumpet calls, its melody echoed by the soprano, whose voice should shimmer with just enough vibrato to suggest cosmic ecstasy, as she follows leaving "the fretting world, the streets, the noisy hours of day" and finds serenity on another plane, the orchestral line expansive behind her as if it, too, were inhaling "grass, most air, and roses".  If  Beethoven included "Turkish"themes, Holst was inspired by Sanskrit concepts, though the text, from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, is equally mystic.  

In his second movement, Holst addresses "no other theme but love - . knitting, enclosing, all-diffusing love". Note the lines, tumbling, flowing, wave after wave, echoed by different sections of the orchestra, the distant trumpet calling still further.   The third movement is darker - drum rolls , trombones and bassoons "conjure war's wild alarums"...."Lo! mid the clouds if dus the glint of bayonets, I see the grim-faced cannoniers ....the crackling of  the guns".   Highly graphic, and dramatic. Beethoven wrote his Ninth when the Naploeanic wars were living memory.  Holst was writing in the tense years before the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, when the probability of war would hav been felt by many.   Holst's finale is a heroic outburst. though it employs cymbals, brass, timpani and strings in full force it is not militaristic.  Thus "exulting, culminating song" is a "Hymn to the Universal God from universal man".  The last section is intoxicated with bliss :"A reborn race appears - a perfect world......war, sorrow, suffering gone - the rank earth purged - nothing but joy!" Somewhere up in the Heavens, Schiller, Beethoven, Whitman and Holst are having a cackle at experts who think The Will of the People is more important than God.   At the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, Partington will also conduct David Matthews’s Stars, a new work. More connections - Matthews edited The Mystic Trumpeter for perfomance.   The notes, on the Andrew Davis recording with Susan Gritton as soprano, are by David''s brother Colin.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Strange Strauss Salomé, Bayerisches Staatsoper


A strange Strauss Salomé from the Bayerisches Staatsoper.  Salomé is a strange opera, whose meaning is elusive and defies easy answers. Strange isn't wrong per se. Sometimes strangeness yields great insight even if it might take a degree of insight to grasp in the first place.  In this case,  strangeness seems to have been done for its own sake, without much thought behind it.  For one thing, this Salomé started not with Strauss but with Mahler. A veiled man appears, apparently singing a song from Kindertotenlieder, though the tessitura is so high it's close to falsetto.  Is Pavol Breslik (Narraboth) singing or mouthing the song of an offstage singer ?  Perhaps Krzysztof Warlikowski wants to make connections between parents and children in the songs, generation conflict in Salomé and the offstage voice of Jochanaan, the idea doesn't fit, or go very far, and isn't developed in the rest of the staging. 

In the palace, the courtiers lounge about like zombies, their body language stylized. They smoke and grasp tiny vials, whose purpose will be revealed later.  Some sort of erotic connection between Hérodias (Michaela Schuster) and the Page (Rachael Wilson), which makes you wonder about the dynamic between mother and daughter, but distracts from the obvious kinkiness of Herodes' (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) feelings from Salomé. (Marlis Petersen). This is a dysfunctional family, in dysfunctional times,  but caricature isn't the way to go.  Jochanaan (Wolfgang Koch) crawls out from the floorboards  A truly Wagnerian apparition. "Heisst ihn herkommen, auf dass er die Stimme Dessen höre, der in den Wüsten und in den Häusern der Könige gekündet hat" delivered with baleful portent. The horns that introduce this passage and the timpani with which it ends are there for a purpose. Perhaps that's why Warlikowski emphasises Salomé's sadistic streak.  She's rewarded for her cruelty by Johannan's curse but the masochistic bitch (not the singer) likes it.  Is he making connections between Wagner, Strauss, and Hitler?  Such connections may or may not be valid but here there's so much going on that they can't be developed beyond superficial shock level. Strauss's opera is much more nuanced, more sympathetic to female sexuality and suffering,  and doesn't lose sight of the fact that Salomé, like Elektra, might not be what she becomes had she not been abused herself.

The banquet in the palace is staged, the guests lined up one side of a long table, an obvious parody of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, though the connections are dubious. Sure, Christ and his apostles were Jewish, but what does that imply ?  Does a smell of anti-semitism cling to this staging  where cynicism overides humanity ?  Herodes  justhappened to be Jewish : Strauss's opera is about people, not Judaism itself. The introduction to the first dance was gorgeously played- exotic, seductive, elusive.  The dance itself rather more predictable - Salomé in white lace embracing a dancer in a skeleton suit.  As if to distract attention further, a multi coloured backdrop  dominates the scene, with pseudo-medieval figures like lion and unicorn, which might please audiences who want colourful decor at all costs, but isn't really relevant. Any "beauty" in this scene is delusion. When the head of Jochannan is delivered to Salomé, in a box, Petersen alternates sensuality with sharp, brittle flutterings.  Now, for the trick ending. the final scene takes place in another busy, crowded backdrop. Jochannan's back, fullyl restored, having a cigarette with the crowd. Nabbaroth's back, too, holding a gun. Later he hands out treats, like at a party.  What is in those little vials ? Cyanide ? Strange I can cope with, but this confounds me.  Warlikowski generally is a good director but this time he seems to want to channel Barrie Kosky.  Not a good thing ! Wonderful playing though, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, who is, I think, better at opera than in orchestral work. 




Saturday, 6 July 2019

Howells : An English Mass, Cello Concerto, Stephen Cleobury

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge has played a role in the evolution of British music,  This recording honours this heritage and Stephen Cleobury's contribution in particular by focusing on Herbert Howells, who transformed the British liturgical repertoire in the 20th century.

Paul Spicer, who knew Howells well and has championed his music over the years, writes "cathedral music in the Anglican tradition was still haltingly recovering from the doldrums of the Victorian period when standards of performance were often lamentable". As an organist in Gloucester, Howells understood that tradition, but studied at the Royal College of Music in London with mentors like Charles Stanford and Hubert Parry, and imbibed the revival of interest in Tudor and earlier liturgical music. Howells often cited Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis as an influence. "All through my life", he said, "I’ve had this strange feeling that I belonged somehow to the Tudor period not only musically but in every way".

When Howells was appointed organist at St. John's, Cambridge, he gained access to the resources the university could provide, stimulating an outpouring of new work.  The Te Deum from 1944, written for King's College, would eventually become part of the Collegium Regale, now known affectionately as "Coll. Reg." Here, it provides a jubilant prelude to Howells' An English Mass, with the Magnificat (in an orchestration by John Rutter) providing a glorious postlude.

This framing enhances the originality of Howells' An English Mass.  Long contrapuntual lines give the Kyrie a brooding, probing quality. The voices are subdued : the quiet ending feels deliberately ambiguous.  "I believe in One God" sings the soloist, unaccompanied, but how far is this a cry of confidence ? The answer may or may not lie in the Sanctus, defined by an assertive, almost exotic  woodwind figure. The instrumentation (flute, oboe, timpani, harp, organ and strings) designed for performance in a small place, adds to a feeling of tense confinement, so the long vocal lines offer a glimmer of hope.  This is reinforced in the Benedictus, with two soloists - wonderfully plangent, as if they belonged in earlier centuries where faith went unquestioned. They are supported by a semichorus, so well parted that the voices seem to shimmer. The final note, in unison, is held for several bars, enhancing the tiny figure for oboe at the end. With the Agnus Dei, a mood of supplication returns : O Lamb of God, with its connotations of sacrifice.  A harp joins the strings, a hint that heaven may be in sight.  "While still highly dissonant", writes Spicer, the Gloria, is exuberant, particularly effective after the restraint that went before.  Now the organ adds powerful affirmation. The final section is distinctive, the tenor reiterating the firmness in the Credo, the choir intoning"Amen". 

If the English Mass highlights Howells's approach to faith, his Cello Concerto might reflect the tragedy that shaped his outlook, from which came the Hymnus Paradisi.  The first movement, completed  in 1937, is monumental, almost twice as long as the other two movements. Coincidentally, the cellist, Guy Johnston,was once a King's chorister.  Christopher Seaman conducts the Britten Sinfonia. "While the movement could be considered a theme and (continuous) variations", writes Spicer, "there are also two large arches to the form where he builds on each successive variation to create a major climax, which then gradually dies away to a central passage of relative calm and stillness; the whole arch-process is then repeated again, this time with greater intensity as he compresses the early variations". The cello enhances Howell's extended lines, so they seem like long-held breaths.  The cello functions like a giant lute, bowed as well as plucked, intensifying the sense of timelessness and melancholy. The concerto wasn't fully completed by Howells. Spicer describes the process in which the piece was prepared for performance. For this reason alone, this recording is significant, since Howells considered the Threnody among his finest, most personal works. It received its premiere in 2016 at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. The second movement is remarkable,combing strong, dark motifs against moments of string refinement , the cello 's long, resonant lines rising plaintively above.   The finale is more angular and energetic, with "a childlike sense of fun".  "Overall, the restless tension and richness of aesthetic seem to match Howells the man so well" says Spicer, who should know better than most,  "transforming the concerto into a soliloquy on grief and the associated mixed emotions".

This recording is completed by Howells' Paean, Master Tallis's Testament and Three Rhapsodies op 17 with Stephen Cleobury on the King's College organ. Altogether a significant contribution to the Herbert Howells legacy.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Aldeburgh tribute to Oliver Knussen - Britten Nocturne

Oliver Knussen : photo Clive Barda

Oliver Knussen and Aldeburgh : indelibly connected.  Knussen's presence hovers forever over Aldeburgh.. Like Britten, Knussen started young,. At the age of ten, he was introduced to Britten who was impressed by the lad's interest in adventurous music. Knussen was instrumental in carrying on the mission of Britten and Pears,  under the mantle of the Britten Pears Foundation which provides support for composers and performers.  This is Britten's true legacy : bringing together creative minds in a supportive environment, stimulating the development of generations of musicians.  The Aldeburgh Music Festival is just a two-week celebration of work that goes on all year round.  Knussen dedicated so much to helping others that his own career as composer was sidelined, but his legacy lives on, too, in the way the Britten Pears Foundation has shaped modern music.  This is the heritage that's being honoured by the creation of the Knussen Chamber Orchestra (professionals working together with students ), who gave the first of two concerts at this year’s festival in Knussen's memory., conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth (one of many Britten Pears Foundation beneficiaries).

No single concert could ever do justice to Knussen and the depoth of his interests, but this was a good introduction.  From Knussen's Four Late Poems and an Epigram of Rainer Maria Rilke, (1988) the song Gong, where the unaccompanied voice flows like a solo instrument, at once exotic and elusive.  The word "gong" rings each letter resonating, the way the sound of a gong continues to reesonate after the initial stroke has ended.  A perfect memorial to Knussen and his altruistic ideals. Claire Booth sang. Like Jane Manning, who commissioned the piece, Booth worked closely with Knussen and understands his idiom. It flowed seamlessly into Stravinsky's Septet (1953) for seven instruments - three blown instruments (clarinet, bassoon and horn)and three plucked (violin,  viola and cello), a piano moderating and supporting the groups. This connected to Knussen's Scriabin Settings (1978) which adapt Scriabin's late miniatures for piano for small ensemble, extending the colours without sacrificing transparency : very "Knussen" too,  one composer listening to another with respect.  Then  Toru Takemitsu's How Slow the Wind (1991). Knussen and Takemitsu were very close, both sharing an appreciation for precisely formed miniatures - almost haiku - where light shines through delicate washes of colour.  This is music based on nuance : selflessness achieved through sensitivity.  Takemitsu's influence in Knussen inspired Knussen's O Hototogisu (2017) which employs a fairly large ensemble (23 players plus two soloists) yet has the feel of something intimately observed. In this case, the sound of the hototogisu, a Japanese cuckoo, symbol of spring but also of the next world.  Poignant, given it was Knussen's last complete work before his sudden death last summer.  The flute (Karen Jones) sings alone, unaccompanied except for restrained percussive effects, as if it were being heard, unseen, in natural surroundings. Other atmospheric sounds create an ambiance from which the soprano (Claire Booth, the dedicatee) sings, her voice chirping and trilling,  like a bird.  More "atmospheric" percussion - single notes, low rumbling lines - entice the flute - hitherto facing away from the ensemble - to interact with the voice, which develops long, keening lines in imitation of the flute.  Profoundly beautiful.

This concert ended with Schubert Symphony no 5, Schubert being one of Britten's favourite composers -  but for me the highlight was Britten's Nocturne ( Op 60, 1958) with soloist Mark Padmore, which inspired Knussen as a child.  What would a child know of  the mysteries of the night, especially of the subconcious and metaphysical ? But Knussen must have been an unusually perceptive child, responding instinctively to musical undercurrents which many adults still can't comprehend.  This is a  difficult piece and highly unorthodox. The scope is ambitious - eight very varied settings by Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare - put together with structural cohesion that's panoramic in scale though scored for only seven instruments and soloist. The ensemble is unobtrusive, commenting on and extending the vocal line. The voice part itself seems to reflect the sounds of an instrument, twisting and shape shifting, like an exotic oboe or clarinet, weaving and curling. The effect is like a seamless dialogue between human and non-human sounds, absolutely of the essence in  texts that address strange, otherworldy concepts where things might not be what they seem to be.

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Sunshine, mists and magic : Mein Wagen rollet langsam


From Heinrich Heine Buch der Lieder 1827, this lovely song by Robert Schumann Mein Wagen rollet Langsam op142/4 (1840) from Vier Gesänge .

Mein Wagen rollet langsam 

Durch lustiges Waldesgrün, 

Durch blumige Taler, die zaubrisch 

Im Sonnenglanze blühn.
 

(My carriage rolls along slowly through the glorious green of the woods,through flower-stren valleys that bloom, like magic in the sunshine)
The poet's sitting in a horsedrawn carriage, not a horsecart, he's not a farmer. So he can daydream and nod off.  The piano sparkles, as if enchanted by the "magic" in the sunny haze. Suddenly, the pace changes. It becomes hesistant, as if the horses are plodding, maybe up a steep slope.

Ich sitze und sinne und träume, 

Und denk' an die Liebste mein; 

(I sit, and ponder and dream and think of my beloved) . 

Da grüßen drei Schattengestalten 

Kopfnickend zum Wagen herein. 

(Outside the windows, three shadowy spirits rise up to greet me, shaking their heads.

Sie hüpfen und schneiden Gesichter, 

So spöttisch und doch so scheu, 

Und quirlen wie Nebel zusammen,

Und kichern und huschen vorbei. 

(They hop, and pull faces, at once mocking yet elusive, and twist themselves (quirlen) so they disappear into the mists (which have suddenly materialized) and cackle and slip away. The lines seem so smooth and lyrical that the vision passes almost unoticed. In the long postlude the piano sparkles again, as if the interruption were just a dream. Or not - maybe the poet's been spirited away, too. Below,  the wonderful André Schuen with Daniel Heide.