Saturday 31 August 2019

Handel Jephtha Prom - Richard Egarr, Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Handel's Jeptha at the Proms - this time with Richard Egarr and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.  read Claire Seymour's review HERE in Opera Today :

"In this swift and sometimes rather stern Proms performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and SCO Chorus, conducted by Richard Egarr, such moral and theological issues were essentially by-the-by; and, as Egarr strove for energy and momentum perhaps, too, some of the work’s human anguish was glossed over, and the emotional interaction between the protagonists in this tragedy-turned-triumph weakened. But, this was still a compelling account, characterised by superb choral singing and the direct communication of events by a well-matched and accomplished team of soloists.
I haven’t always found that Handel’s oratorios and operas ‘work’ well in the Royal Albert Hall: last year’s Theodora (also with a libretto by Morell), for example, was somewhat lacking in dramatic impact and propulsion. On this occasion, sensibly, what I described as the ‘exquisitely beautiful poise and sensitivity’ of the period-instrument Arcangelo was replaced by the more urgent, impulsive and vibrant sound of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - a sound which carried with more vigour, with punchy accentuation, strong dynamic contrasts and strikingly dark colourings at times, though Egarr ensured that the strings’ bowing was idiomatically stylish, and the tone did not lack Baroque bite."

Lots more - good analysis ! 

Friday 30 August 2019

Andrew Davis : British Prom - Hugh Wood, Elgar, RVW

An all-British Prom with Sir Andrew Davis, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. All three pieces are classics and also classic Andrew Davis territory, which he's conducted many times and has made memorable recordings of in the past - Ralph Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus and Edward Elgar The Music Makers.

Hugh Wood's Scenes from Comus Op.6, (1965), brought the young composer to fame. Inspired by John Milton's Comus : a Masque presented at Ludlow Castle 1634,  it's a large scale dramatic piece, for orchestra, soprano and tenor (here Stacey Tappan and Anthony Gregory). Andrew Davis made the first recording, also with the BBCSO for NMC way back in 2001.  A magical introduction - horns leading strings in an evocation of a dense forest. This might be the primordial forest, where subconcious desires are released : the source of so many legends from the Hexe Loreley to Pelléas et Mélisande and beyond.  Though the strings shimmer, the horns, with connotations of hunting, suggest violence.  The Lady is lost and calls for her brothers, but who are they, and who is she ?  The sounds of the forest overwhelm her, and Comus appears.  Savage dissonances, piercing brass, and rumbling undertones : what has he unleashed ?  "Venus awakes, unwakend love!" . His herioc declarations are met by an interlude of relative stillness, as if the forest, or nature were observing.  Flurrying notes, jerky rhythms, like the frightened heartbeat of cornered prey.  The pace picked up again, angular "running" staccato underlined by percussion, woodwinds flying forwards, then a return to mysterious, brooding strings.  This dynamic contrast suggest the opposition of two forces : strident fanfares interrupted by heavy ostinato.  A dark conclusion , lit by delicate winds. The soloists duet, their voices entwined, but the ominous timbre of bassoons, oboe and trombone suggest that something's awry. The winds sang again, the flute in very high tessitura, the piece concluding with a single note.

Hugh Wood (b 1932) is two years older than Harrison Birtwistle. Both share a fascination with English history and myth, and music as theatrical drama.  Though their work is very different,  there are connections.  Please see my piece on Hugh Wood's Epithalamion which Andrew Davis conducted in 2015. And of course, lots more on Birtwistle and modern British music.

 Elgar's The Music Makers op 69 premiered in July 1912, but had been long in gestation. Elgar knew of Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode when he was in his twenties, when he was isolated, scraping a living as teacher, organist and conductor of the very limited orchestra at Powick Asylum, not far from his home, with no obvious prospects. Thirty years later, his status solidly established, might he portray himself in this piece, just as he had portrayed his friends in the Enigma Variations, incorporating references to his own music, not so much for their own sake but because, as he wrote, they expressed "my sense of the loneliness of the artist".  Though this piece is not in the same league as the Enigma Variations, largely due to the turgid doggerel of the text, it captures levels of Elgar's personality which put the image of Elgar as Edwardian fuddy duddy to rest.  No-one believes that, anymore.

 Despite his success and acclaim, Elgar identified creativity with alienation. Artists are "dreamers of dreams, Wandering by lone sea-breakers, And sitting by desolate streams; World-losers and world-forsakers, On whom the pale moon gleams". The slow orchestral introduction gave way to a more forceful section, where the chorus burst forth "One man with a dream, at pleasure. Shall go forth and conquer a crown; And three with a new song's measure Can trample a kingdom down." The orchestra surged in full flow, but animato fades to più lento. Only halfway through did the contralto (Sarah Connolly) emerge, heralded by harps. "They had no vision divine foreshowing Of the land to which they are going" The music makers proceed towards uncharted territory with calm assurance. Yet again, tranquility gives way to con fuoco and back to lento. Ironically, it is the chorus, not the soloist, who sing of "dreaming and singing, A little apart from ye." as if isolation is still too uncomfortable to sing about without ensemble, despite the confident crashing chords in the orchestra and raised voices. A quiet transition to the finale, when the mood rose again, Connolly singing forcefully. "Great hail! " The artist shall "teach us your song's new numbers; And things that we dreamed not before: Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers, And a singer who sings no more." Though the soloist faded to stillness, the chorus continued to hold the line.

Ralph Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis was an excellent overture to a very good programme, masterfully executed. 

Thursday 29 August 2019

Ryan Wigglesworth Piano Concerto Prom - Stravinsky, Mozart

Ryan Wigglesworth (courtesy Groves Artists)
 More Ryan Wigglesworth at the Proms, and more Mozart, too. After Mozart The Magic Flute from Glyndebourne idiomatically played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, (review coming up soon), Wigglewsworth returned with the Britten Sinfonia in Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Wigglesworth's own Piano Concerto, a world premiere.

For his publishers, Schott, Wigglesworth describes his Piano Concerto. Please read the link for more. "The opening Arioso pits quiet, obsessive rhythmic figures against the piano’s brief chorale-like utterances. The argument becomes more contrapuntally involved, reaching a tentative climax, before dissolving back into the hazy mood of the beginning".  My response, probably coloured by listening to Mozart (always a balm in times of political insanity),  was to pick up on the sense of tension between classical elegance and nervousness : fast paced, jerky piano lines, almost en pointe (to borrow an idea from ballet).  In the Scherzo, "the piano weaves an insistent pattern of quick, cascading figures, oblivious to the short, sharp attacks of the orchestra". The piano seems to taunt the orchestra, who respond in kind before winding down to dream-like stillness. From this the Notturno emerges, as if released by the unconscious. It's simple but intensely evocative - piano, strings and harp - the melody based on Polish folk song, which Wigglesworth heard his sister-in-law singing, quietly, at night.  A timeless moment, transcending national borders, the piano and harp becoming partners, in contrast to the rivalry that went before. in the finale, "A brief battle between piano and orchestra is initially won by the latter, only for the piano to launch into an explosive cadenza. This traverses the movement’s two main themes before a crash from the orchestra freezes the music into a short recollection of the Arioso chorale. The piano, left alone, wanders to the concerto’s close." The soloist here was Marc-André Hamelin.

Stravinsky's The Fairy's Kiss was fashionably maligned in its time, not least thanks to Diaghilev's disdain for Ida Rubenstein, for whom it was commissioned, a celebrity but as a dancer nowhere near the standard of the Ballets Russe. It also didn't help that it was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinsky, who had followed her brother away from Diaghilev circles. Part of the Fairy's Kiss "problem" is the plot of the ballet, or lack thereof, but for Stravinsky himself  it was "an allegory of a man marked out from his fellows, unable to join in their life" : the role of an artist, whose destiny is to fulfil his gift, even if it means  being alone.  In 1928, that ideal was
pertinent to Stravinky, living in exile, surrounded by change. In Tchaikovsky, he  saw a quintessential outsider, forced to hide his true identity in a society where being out meant death.  In musical terms, this applied too to Stravinsky, not because he was reverting to Tchaikovsky, but because he didn't want to be constrained by style, or by market forces.  It's perhaps ironic that chreographers - Balanchine, Ashton, Macmillan, Ratmansky - have found more in the music than many listeners.

Rustling strings suggested the snowstorm in which the story begins, but typically Stravinskian winds delineated the narrative, leading onwards, then pausing tenderly.  Perhaps one might imagine a vulnerable infant who might otherwise die.  The pace picked up, winds and brass joining. Lively dotted rhythms, ideal for dancing to, outbursts of bassoon, flute and brass suggested a wild but cheerful procession, the horns adding a "peasant" touch.  The baby grows up happily enough in the village, as the music suggests, but on the eve of his marriage the fairy returns, disguised as a gypsy.  Tchaikovsky, who entered a marriage blanc, may or may not have intuited Hans Christian Anderson's dilemmas about sexuality, but for Stravinsky, this turning point seems more artistic than literal.  The music abounds with lively figures, ideal for dancing to, offering a choreographer many inventive opportunities. A single violin appeared, then a woodwind : two figures, one seductive, once youthful.   Eventually, a hush fell over the music, suggesting mystery.  Perhaps the boy is enchanted, as the Fairy claims him for her own. Not such a bad fate, for an artist. I have a weakness for Stravinsky's The Fairy's Kiss, a favourite of Vladimir Jurowski, who's done it many times, so I got a lot out of Wigglesworth and the Britten Sinfonietta, whose more chamber focus added to the sense of magic.

In the context of this Prom, Mozart's Concerto in E flat major for two pianos fitted in very well. Two soloists - Marc-André Hamelin and Ryan Wigglesworth - communicating with the orchestra.  Not  a foretaste of the Notturno in Wigglesworth's Piano Concerto, but thoughtfully connected. Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4, 'Mozartiana' continued the concept, which also infuses Stravinsky's The Fairy's Kiss

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Refreshing many languages - Harding, Orchestre de Paris Prom - Beethoven, Widmann, Schumann

Daniel Harding, Orchestre de Paris, photo : Frédéric Desphi
Prom 50, Daniel Harding and the Orchestre de Paris in Schumann, Jörg Widmann and Beethoven.  A good programme, showing the value of live performance : listening to repertoire, and making connections. These days when music comes packaged, it's all too easy to forget that performers are musicians who have something to say about what they do. Frustrating as the Proms may be these days, they keep the concept of live performance in the forefront : music isn't something to be heard only in controlled packages, cut off from the world.
In many ways, this was a typical programming from Harding and the Orchestra de Paris. Harding is  a great Schumann conductor,  not only of the symphonies but works like Die Paradies und das Péri (please read more here, which he conducted with the Orchestre de Paris) which is now so well established that it's quite a jolt to remember that it was only re-discovered in the late 1990's.  The Overture to Schumann's Genoveva, on the other hand is better known than the opera itself, because it works perfectly as a stand alone.  I've written quite a lot about Genoveva and other Schumann ventures into music for voice. Please see here my piece on my favourite Genoveva  (Masur, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester). This is relevant to this Proms performance because it shows the different ways in which this repertoire can be done.  To quote Hebbel, "Any drama will come alive only to the extent it expresses the spirit of the age". "Harnoncourt's Genoveva is also extremely good, both recordings valuable because they're so individual. Harding 's approach to the Overture was fresh and lively, capturing the spirit of wonder and adventure that was Romanticism.  Genoveva faces horrible challenges but is vindicated by her innate humanity. In the Overture we hear only the beginning but what a beginning it is, full of hope and expectation !  Harding made the music fly, shining with clear sighted energy.
Jörg Widmann's opera Babylon has been around since 2012, but here we heard Widmann's Babylon  Suite. Suites and Overtures differ, in that suites encapsulate the larger work, while Overtures indicate the direction in which the larger piece is heading.  Neat programming !  Not for nothing is the opera called "Babylon", the centre of the then known world, where its citizens built the Tower of Babel. God smite them down, scattering the people.  In the notes by Schott, Widman's publishers,, the composer "put the focus in Babylon on the chaos and the suffering in a world that is out of joint and on the realization of cocky people about the need of order in a heterogenic society. The music reflects this social diversity. The Babylonian confusion is for Widmann the basic concept of his composition. A variety of musical contrasts, simultaneity and layering but also diversity and cuts give the piece its form. In contrast there is the number seven, which orders and controls the musical system." How thrilled I was to read that, not knowing the suite before because I'd intuited that there was a strong underlying structure, a method to the madness teeming on the surface. So many different musical "languages" jostling together, creating mayhem -  the word "babble" comes from Babel. You could spend ages looking for each quote or near quote, but I'm not sure that's the point.  In fact I heard echoes of things that aren't there, like Varèse's Amériques.  That's the art of good music, it makes you think. Rather, the strength of Widnann's Babylon Suite is the way different "languages" co-exist, simultaneously, on multiple levels, going through changes almost by symbiosis. Much like the 24/7 world now, where all over the planet someone's talking though not everyone's listening. Widmann's Babylon Suite is a panorama, all the more coherent because it's  highly condensed.
So we were prepared for Harding's Beethoven Symphony no 6 the "Pastoral". That's a piece which has been heard so many times and in so many contexts, that it's part of world culture, known by people who don't know what western classical music is, but enjoy it when they hear it.  Because it's been done so many times, there are lots of valid ways of listening to it. Different performers, different "languages".  More fool those who are threatened by diversity - there is so much in this symphony that it doesn't dim with familiarity. Harding worked with the strengths of the Orchestre de Paris - clarity, elegance, lucidity - creating an account that felt fresh and exhilirating.  The first movement isn't titled "Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande" for nothing. The protagonist (not the peasants) arrives in the countryside and feels refreshed.  Sure, there's a storm but storms happen, as peasants who live close to Nature know only too well. So they survive, and give "cheerful thanks".  After a storm, the air is clear and the land refreshed.  What Beethoven - an early Romantic, don't forget - is celebrating here is not the storm so much as the power human beings have to overcome rough times and to emerge, liberated by joy.  Think about that and Harding's approach is perfectly idiomatic.

Sunday 25 August 2019

Gergiev, Mariinsky, Tchaikovsky Symphonies no 4 & 5

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra with Tchaikovsky Symphony no 4 in F minor op 36 and Symphony no 5 in E minor op 64 from the Mariinsky's own label.  Gergiev has conducted Tchaikovsky numerous times, often with interesting approaches, and with many different orchestras over a long period, but his rapport with the Mariinsky is very close. Together they've done Tchaikovsky so often that most of what they do is worth hearing. This performance is fairly well known, recorded at the Salle Pleyel in January 2010, it has been released on DVD and previously on CD together with Tchaikovsky's Symphony no 6, which is being re-released separately.  This new release is an opportunity to focus on the relationship between the fourth and fifth symphonies.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony no 4 was written in the same period as his opera Eugene Onegin.  An admirer sent him a love letter and precipitatively they married. The experience was a disaster : the composer allegedly attempting suicide to escape. Life reflecting art. This intensity comes through in Gergiev's bleak approach.  In the opening fanfare, the "Fate" theme is  defined with uncompromising forcefulness. Bright "daydream" figures ("daydreams") but overwhelmed by strident brass,  the "Fate" theme re-asserting itself with full force. In the second movement, an adantino, Gergiev finds tenderness, but here, too, the mood is tinged with melancholy. It represents memories now firmly in the past.  The oboe sings alone, surrounded by shadowy strings which surge with heartfelt pathos. With its array of strange images, the scherzo represents a puzzle. The composer wrote to Madame von Meck, that when the imagination is released, it runs untrammeled.  Thus the sense of liberation in the finale, the brass augemented by percussion and clashing cymbals, before the main theme returns, now assertive and defiant.  Gergiev is at his uninhibited best.

The first movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth is brooding, but gives way to a purposeful march,  which, introduced by clarinet and bassoon, opens out expansively, taking into its sweep various minor themes, before receding back into funereal hush.  Gergiev shapes the outburst before the conclusion with such power that the hush seemed poisoned, even baleful. The andante cantabile thus felt haunted, long, slow strings stretching, framing the horn solo, here beautifully done, at once wistful and serene. Clarinet and bassoon, and later strings, take up the melody, supporting before the "fate" fanfare wells up, underlined by timpani. Yet the melody, and the  horn, re-appear, and the orchestra surges once more before subsiding into silence.  Gergiev and the Mariinsky strike a good balance between glorious melody and the darkness around it. The brief Valse is an interlude, like the scherzo in the Fourth Symphony, whose apparent insouciance is cut short by the tense ostinato of the last chords. This serves to highlight the intensity of the finale, where the "fate" theme with its pounding, running figures lead the orchestra into grand surge, swelling and passionate.  Gergiev and his orchestra shape the brass chords firmly, electrifying their solemn portent.  In the triumphant march, these "fate" chords become integrated into the affirmative whole,  with a majestic fortissimo and fast paced presto.  No more funereal gloom : the final coda explodes with vigour. 

Saturday 24 August 2019

Petrenko, Berliner Philharmoniker, Beethoven 9 live from Brandenburg Gate

Live from the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate), Kirill Petrenko conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in Beethoven's Symphony no 9 to an audience of thousands. It's been just over four years since Peternko was appointed Chief Conductor but this is his first official appearance. Massive publicity, which is fair enough - the Berliner Philharmoniker was among the first to pioneer orchestra-led online performance. Now, it's fairly standard practice. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can listen in. The Berlin Phil is effectively everyone's "local" orchestra, bringing world class playing to anyone who wants to listen in.  This raises the bar for everyone - audiences, musicians  - but I think people respond better to upmarket than to dumbing down.  Live broadcasts are also increasingly important because they reset the balance in favour of musicians and music, in an era when the delivery of music, such as streaming, increasingly divorces product from performance. Music is a human art, made by human beings for other human beings.

Thus the value of mega-scale open air extravaganzas like this concert by the world-famous Brandenburger Tor, literally in the backyard of the Philharmonie.  Until 1989, that massive square was No Man's Land, covered in weeds and barbed wire.  The Brandenburg Gate is significant, too. With its grand columns and Quadriga above, it was built to commemorate the apogee of Prussian culture, which celebrated learning, enlightenment, the arts, science and business enterprise.  When the Nazis came to power bthat heritage was bastardized. The great grandson of the architect, a relative of Henning von Treskow, who was executed by the Nazis for taking part in the plot to assasinate Hitler, observed wryly that the horses in the statue were placed so their metaphorical droppings would land on the heads of rulers who lost touch with reality. And so the Quadriga has witnessed the comings and goings of despots of all kinds.  That symbolusm, in the context of Beethoven's Ninth, cannot be stressed enough. ""Alle Menschen werden Bruder,Wo den sanfter Flugel weilt".

And so the new season of the Berliner Philharmoniker should be celebrated on a grand scale : it represents the triumph of music and musicianship against the odds. A good season ahead - lots to look forward to. I'm less sure about the PR.  Deutsche Welle calls it "Petrenko Fever" thoughn that might be popular journalism.  Yet it shouldn't be forgotten that he wasn't the first choice  when the oircheestra originally sought a new Chief. They were so evenly divided between choosing Thielemann and Nelsons that they called off voting for several months. Suddenly, Petrenko's appointment was announced out of the blue. Orchestra members said that they'd been eager to work with him since he'd conducted them twice several years before. But since he's based in Munich and Berlin, it wouldn't have been hard to fit him in somehow. No-one turns down a gig with these Berliners.  Petrenko is good, but his reputation is largely based on opera.  Every new Chief brings something new to an orchestra. Karajan created it as a recording orchestra,  Abbado, a completely different personality, focused on musicians and musicianship. Rattle broadened the repertoire and did good outreach (the Digital Concert Hall happened in his era). So what will Petrenko bring that will be unique ?

Anyway, back to the open air livestream at the Brandenburger Tor . It's not a "first" as some media are saying. Barenboim conducted Beethoven's Symphony no 9 in 2017 outside the Staatsoper unter den Linden, to a crowd estimated at around 10,000.  The Brandenburg Tower is just at the end of Unter den Linden, so the idea wasn't original at all.  Open air concerts get done in many major cities - London included, when Trafalgar Square is packed out and London traffic comes to a standstill.   The Berliners have been doing open art at theWaldbühne for ages. No point in comparing performances, since the Berliner Philharmoniker is the classiest band in town and does orchestral all year round.   Very brisk tempi. Barenboim's concert started earlier in the day and was family-friendly, celebrating the city as much as the band itself,  Petrenko's aimed at a more formal concert-going audience which is fair enough. That's what the Berliner Phil does !

I hereby declare !

"I hereby declare I'm The Chosen One, the Messiah, King of Israel and King of North America (whatever Canadians might dare think)"

Thursday 22 August 2019

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - wit and subversion in Weinberg, Knussen and Elgar

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - photo : Isabelle Casez

Ever welcome, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra  Prom 46, - Mieczysław Weinberg's Symphony no 3  (op 45, 949-50, rev 1959),, Elgar's Cello Concerto(with soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason), Oliver Knussen's The Way to Castle Yonder and Dorothy Howell's Lamia.
Dorothy Howell (1898-1982) was born in Birmingham, so a fitting choice for the CBSO. Her Lamia  was premiered at the Proms by Sir Henry Wood in 1919, and repeated several timnes, as recently as 2010.  Quite an achievemnt for such a young composer - again proof that female composers weren't always "neglected" until the recording industry re-aligned repertoire to suit the mass market.  Even if you didn't know the mythological references, you can hear the "maritime" character of Lamia in the  swelling lines, surging and retreating like the tides. It's not La Mer or A Sea Symphony but a tone poem which many a better known composer of the time would have been proud of. 

 The dream combination in this Prom would have to have been Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor op 85 (1919) - evergreen music and a fresh new talent. Kanneh-Mason shot to fame when he played at the Royal Wedding, but he's good enough to merit the attention he's getting.  Though he's young, but then, so was Jacqueline du Pré! Intuitively, she responded to the bittersweet pathois in the piece, bringing out its emotional depth and dignity. Those who think Elgar was bombast and jingoism don't know their Elgar at all.  In the Cello Concerto, we can ponder why Richard Strauss thought so highly of Elgar. Both were men who revealed their innermost sensitivity to those who understand.  The richness of the CBSO enhanced the poise of Kanneh-Mason's playing: a fine performance, enlivened in the final movement and its assertive panache. 

There was purposeful insight behind that wit and whimsy. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra seem to have constructed this Proms programme around Mieczysław Weinberg's Symphony no 3  (op 45, 1949-50, rev 1959).  Not surprisng at all, since  Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO have made a speciality of Weinberg's music.  Their ground breaking recording of Weinberg's Symphony no 21 ("Kaddish") was recorded during an in-depth Weinberg weekend in Birmingham  with Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, who have done so much to promote the composer in recent years. That recording is an absolute must even to those for whom Weinberg is new. Please read more about that here because it is outstanding.

Nonetheless, Weinbrerg is hardly unknown. He was championed by Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Oistrakh and Soviet era conductors like Mvravinsky, Kondrashin and Barshai.  Seek and ye shall find! Chandos has made a whole series of good Weinberg recordings, including Symphony no 3 with Thord Svendlund, currently the market leader, though Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO might set new standards.  Originally drafted in 1949-50 the symphony came in conflict with the policies of the Stalinist cultural tsar, Andrei Zhadanov. "formalism" ie art music, was denounced in favour of music that suited the state - safe, conservative, "folkloric". By 1959, when he revised the piece, Stalin and Zhadanov were both dead, but Weinberg still had to tread carefully.  

The symphony is in four movements, beginning with an expansive, pastoral Allegro, a Belarussian folk melody creating a cheerful mood. which suddenly descends into a more ambiguous coda, perhaps a hint that not all here is sunshine and joy. A merry flute theme introduces the second movement, answered by pizzicato strings and wild, exuberant strings. The orchestra dances - circular flourishes, based on Polish folk dance, but yet again the flute broke free, leaping over the lower winds and percussion, the coda more restrained : the first movement in wilder form. The Adagio was quieter, long, searching lines, darker timbres giving the final section gravitas.  In the allegro vivace, the pattern of darker, more mysterious endings came to the fore.  No ambiguity here - peace is broken by a strident fanfare -"Soviet heroes on the march ? Horns and trumpets rang out, punctuated by percussion, but the whimsical wind theme would not be suppressed.  The symphony ends on an ostensibly upbeat note, but is Weinberg, as so often, disguisng individualism behind a happy smile? 

Thus the logic of Gražinytė-Tyla's pairing Weinberg Symphony no 3 and Oliver Knussen's The Way to Castle Yonder, connected to his opera Higgelty Pigglety Pop!  The opera starts with a Pig-in-Sandwich Boards offering ham sandwiches to those in the audience too young to appreciate the irony. The sandwiches also serve to keep the kids occupied when Jenny the Sealyham Terrier sings a long, sophisticated aria,wondering if there's "More to Life". Jenny cannot get a job in the Mother Goose World Theatre until she gets “experience” whatever that might be. Logic is the enemy of imagination!  Knussen fills the music with loony cross-references, like bits from Tchaikovsky and Mozart, barbershop quartets, brass bands evoking circuses. all woven into his distinctively intricate multi-layers. (please read more here about the production at Aldeburgh and at the Barbican)  Though Sendak wriote the book for children, the sensibility in it is anything but childish. Knussen, with his instinct for the surreal, and for dark humour, turns the book into an opera that adults can get lots from, if they try. Gražinytė-Tyla understands - Knussen, Weinberg and even Elgar have a lot more in common than meets the eye. 

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Simon Rattle's musical challenge : Koechlin, Varèse and William Walton

Sir Simon Rattle, photo : Doug Peters
Simon Rattle Prom with the London Symphony Orchestra, programmed with typical intelligence  - Koechlin, Edgard Varèse and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.  Disparate pieces that did work together in context, enlivened by a conductor with a genuinely inquisitive musical mind.  What does Charles Koechlin's Les Bandar-log op 176 (1939-40)  have in common with Edgard Varèse's Amériques ? and with William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast ?

Koechlin 's Les Bndar-log is a late work, writtn towards the end of the composer's life. Koechlin was bitter that the world had moved on, nearly 40 years after Debussy and Stravinsky. In Rudyard Kipling's poems, the monkeys of Bandar-log are scrawny  - brown - upstarts - put in their place by a bullying bear.  The racist implications of the piece are never far away. Koechlin's subtitle "the scherzo of the monkeys " isn't meant to be Disney-cute, it's a scherzo. Some composers of Koechlin's period blamed modernity on Jews, (Schoenberg and oddly enough Kurt Weill, who wasn't particularly modern), so the racist implications of the piece are relevant.  It's ironic that it's become the work by which Koechlin is best  known ! By placing it together with Varèse's Amériques, Rattle, with his gentle sense of humour, brings out strange similarities. Both pieces are composites, smaller units put together like a mosiac to form something bigger. Koechlin veers from style to style, waywardly, like monkeys move in the jungle.  Varèse builds blocks of shape as a cubist painter might do, adding vivid impressionistic detail, creating a virtual city in sound, full of life and incident.  Here, we heard the original 1921 version, with a larger orchestra, and extended percussion, which includes klaxon. For him, the modern represented hope, and his music has endured, its influence far-reaching. Amériques was effectivelyVarèse's opus one, and the work expresses the thrill of moving to a new continent, full of promise. Hearing the 1921 original is a reminder of how strikingly innovative the piece is, still fresh and vibrant after nearly 100 years.

Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1931) has been done numerous times at the Proms, including two First Nights, and for good reason. It's a blockbuster, the LSO augmented by Orfeo Catala, Orfeo Catala Youth Choir, the London Symphony Chorus and soloist Gerald Finley.  The setting is ostensibly Babylon and biblical, but Walton's approach was modern and secular.  It's a thrilling piece - long lines that zig zag and extend wildly, against thunderoyus timpani. The score is quasi Hollywood, maximizing excess, with brass bands thrown into the heady mix.  Biblical as its context may be, it's hardly pious, but very much a piece of its time (1931) when the jazz age still prevailed and the Bright Young Things partied like there'd be no tomorrow.  Long, zig zag vocal lines swaying exuberatantly, punctuated by timpani, heightended by brass.  Belshazzar's having a rave.  "Babylon was a great city" sang Finlay with solemn portent, enumerating the treasures: "...chariots, slaves and the souls of men". Singing with unbridled delight, the choir let rip, with great freshness.  "Praise thee !, Praise thee !"  But as we know, parties don't last forever.  Ominous sounds from the orchestra. The King sees a hand writing on the wall "Mene, mene tekel upharsim". The  "Hebrew" sound of trumpets. the choir emphasising the baritone's words with dramatic finality "Slain! Slain”. Then we're back to zany 30's celebration. "Hallelujah ! Hallelujah!" Flamboyant riffs give way to ecstatic swoons.  "And the Light of  e Lord shall shine on us".  Yet more ecstatic Hallelujahs. "Make a joyful noise!"  A wonderful, vivid performsnce: Rattle understands the modernity and freedom that makes this piece so much more than  yet another British oratorio. Most animated Belshazzar's Feast in years, and there's been lots of competition.

Monday 19 August 2019

Bertold Goldschmidt - Beatrice Cenci, DVD Bregenz

Berthold Goldschmidt's Beatrice Cenci at last on DVD, from the Bregenz Festival in 2018, with Johannes Debus conducting the Wiener Symphoniker, directed by Johannes Erath, and sung in German translation. Some time after Goldschmidt's death, I found a trove of his recordings and those by other modern composers in a small local Oxfam. I bought as much as I could afford but told everyone. Suddenly, someone with more money than me swooped them all up. Later, talking to the composer Kalevi Aho, we deduced that the 200 or so CDs must have belonged to Goldschmidt himself since all the other composers were connected to his personal circle of associates. It may have been the clearance of his estate. Luckily, I did manage to grab what might have been Goldschmidt's own copy of Beatrice Cenci, with Lothar Zagrosek conducting the Deutsches-symphonie Orchestra, Berlin, from the world premiere in August, 1994.  Ian Bostridge sang the small part of the Page at the Villa Cenci orgy.

Goldschmidt's Beatrice Cenci recounts a real-life  scandal. Count Francesco Cenci, a renaissance nobleman, was fabulously rich, but violent.  Because he was so powerful, he got away with raping his teenage daughter, Beatrice, who was eventually beheaded for killing him. Though Goldschmidt and his librettist based their version on a play by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the story is universal, and sadly, all too relevant to our times. Too much can be made of Goldschmidt's connections with Weimar Germany, from which he emigrated aged only 33. He spent the next 60 years of his life in Britain. Beatrice Cenci is a work of its time, written for the 1951 Festival of Britain, when the concept of courage against injustice was recent memory.  Goldschmidt maintained that his music was not programmatic but rooted in relationships with people, and was particularly sensitive to the way that women were treated in patriarchial societies. "My works", he wrote "have always come about as an interchange with the feminine in all its facets.  That is the aura in which I compose".

In Goldschmidt's Beatrice Cenci, Count Cenci's arrogant sense of entitlement is compounded by all around him, from his servants to the Courts and to the Papacy. The introduction is brief, but magnificent, but as anyone familiar with Schreker and Zemlinsky, Goldschmidt's predecessors, will know, lush does not mean romantic. Almost immediately, sharp, tense chords intervene. Lucrezia’s (Dshamilja Kaiser) lines are shrill, rising high on the register, swooping downwards : an air of unsettled alarm. She's Count Francesco's second wife, not Beatrice's mother, but she knows he's a tyrant, and that wrong. Beatrice (sung by Gal James) at this stage has softer, less assertive tones. Bernardo (Cristina Bock), Beatrice's full brother, is also cowed, burying his head on Beatrce's lap. "Ours is an evil lot, and yet" sings Beatrice "let us make the most of it". The cry of abused children, everywhere.

Enter Cardinal Camillo, (Per Bach Nissen) whose lines swagger, rolling figures built into the part, coiling like a snake. He's covered up a murder for Cenci (sung by Christoph Pohl), both complicit in evil.  Pohl's baritone smoulders, yet has a lethal edge : the character's nasty business. Beatrice places her hopes in Orsino (Michael Laurenz) a young priest - forbidden terriotiry ! He's in love with her, so offers to help her.   At the Villa Cenci, princes and cardinals are replete after an orgy. Cenci sings "I too am flesh and blood and not a monster, as some would have me". Yet he proudly announces that he's killed all his sons. One was killed when a church collapsed on him, another knifed by a stranger, but Cenci's not bothered. More wine, he calls, and blasphemes. Even Cardinal Camillo says Cenci's insane, but Cenci threatens him, too.  Now Beatrice takes courage,  passionately begging the guests to save her from the palace. But Cenci isn't scared. Singing in a slithering tone he attempts to rape her again.

During the interlude, the open air stage at Bregenz is filmed, darkness lit by sudden flashes of light - hiding yet alluding to the unspeakable. Lucrezia finds Beatrice, who has gone mad, cradling a doll.  "I have endured a wrong so great that neither life nor death can give me rest - ask not what it is". The voices of stepdaughter and stepmother intertwine, suggesting other unspoken horrors (Lucrezia's quite young - the many adult kids are not hers.) Beatrice talks Orsini into hiring hit men, to free Beatrice from her father.  Count Cenci returns, but Lucrezia bars his way. On the Bregenz stage, Cenci wears a diamante penis, big enough that the audience far from the stage get an eyeful.  Quietly, Lucrezia slips poison into his wine, and he falls asleep. The hit men come but their job is done, and they throw the body down a wall.  Suddenly, Cardinal Camillo returns, surrounded by troops with a warrant for Cenci's arrest.  Concluding that Cenci was killed by Lucrezia and Beatrice, he has them taken off to prison.

Tolling bells introduce the final act. Bernardo and Beatrice are huddled together, Lucrezia with them. The henchmen Orsini hired give witness against Lucrezia, but Beatrice refuses to deny what has happened. "Say what you will, I shall deny no more". From this point, Goldschmidt's opera becomes more abstract, more "modern", psychologically true rather than literal.  A distant choir is heard. Cardinal Camillo says that the Pope has denied mercy. The sentence is death. Against the mysterious strains of an orchestral Nocturne, Lucrezia and Beatrice are seen, both crumpled like broken dolls. Beatrice now gets a chance to sing a "mad scene", which is more poignant than deranged. "Sweet sleep were like death to me....O Welt, Lebewohl", her words echoed by the orchestra.

A short but dramatic Zwischenspiel introduces the final scene. Carpenters are erecting a scaffold, the orchestra imitating their ferocious blows. An angry crowd gathers, and Lucrezia's clothes get ripped off (she's wearing a body suit, for the faint-hearted). Yet Beatrice is strangely calm. "Be constant to the faith that I though wrapped in the clouds of crime and shame lived forever holy and unstained". Those who want blood and guts will be disapponted as the women just fall dead. But Cardinal Camillo is moved. "They have fulfilled their fate, guilty yet not guilty, thus do evil deed bring evil, crimes bring forth crimes". He blesses them with a quiet Requiem Aeternum.  Bertold Goldschmidt's opera is wonderfully taut, more chamber opera than regular opera,  so I can imagine future productions that make the most of the claustrophobic atmosphere and the liberating release of death at the end, but this DVD - heard together with the often musically superior Lothar Zagrosek recording - should secure Beatrice Cenci its rightful place in modern repertoire.

Sunday 18 August 2019

Vladimir Jurowski Prom : Glazunov, and Russian goodies

Vladimir Jurowski - photo : Roman Gontcharov, 2017, courtesy IMG Artists

Vladimir Jurowski conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Rimsky Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Lyadov and Glazunov.  Prom 41 worked fine on purely musical terms - satisfying repertoire, by a conductor who excels in this music, though he'd typically spice up the programme with somthing more unusual for his regular Royal Festival  Hall audiences, who are more discerning than at the ROyal Albert Hall. When he moves on, he'll be greatly missed. So more's the pity that the BBC Proms team script prioritized the "Henry Wood novelties" marketing gimmick over and above the music and conductor. Henry Wood was a musician not a "brand". He would not have been amused that his name has been used in vain !

He would have beamed, though, at the performance - especially the Glazunov, vividly executed.  Again, the stupidity of the BBC Proms team's obsession with fake firsts and non-musical tickboxes. Don't they keep up withn the world outside the Proms ? Glazunov, who died in 1936, was big decades ago, and the more recent revival's been around a good 25 years. Lots of recordings to choose from, too, so there's never really been a drought.  Jurowski conducted Glazunov's Symphony no 5 in b flat minor,  op 55 (1895), popular and sccessible because it fits the image of  Russian music as music for the stage and ballet. The subtitle "heroic" expresses it aptly - plenty of nationalist colour, not a lot of introspection. Jurowski, whose forte is sensitive reflection, emphasized the structural logic behind the drama. A darkly brooding first movement, setting the scene perhaps for the "Russian soul" of public imagination.  Wisely, Jurowski focussed on the panorama,  long,expansive lines, unfolding like endless horizons. The quality of the LPO playing highlighted details - excellent smaller-unit sections clearly defined. This sharp focus gave the scherzo character - fast passages spiking up the cheerful main theme. The andante was thus framed in context - a calm walking pace threatened by dark, ominous chords.  This gave context to the final moveemnt, an allegro, but with powerful, assertive purpose - it's not marked "maestoso" for nothing, it's the culmination of a journey through the earlier movements.  Jurowski conducted the animato conclusdion with vigour - the top lines (winds, strings) flying triumphantly over darker undertones (brass, lower strings).  Glazunov's Symphony no 5 works perfectly well on its own terms. There's no need to keep referring to its perceived resemblance to other composers. That's lazy thinking - all composers are influenced by others. The skill lies in appreciating what a composer does on his own terms.

Jurowski has conducted Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov and Rachmaninov numerous times, so this Prom was enjoyable, although only a fraction of what he can do given more programming choice.  A delightful Rimsky-Korsakov Mlada Suite, its ballet origins giving it energy and colour.  I  liked the way Jurowski and the LPO created the physicality in the ostinato passages - dancers' feet landing on the ground after cheerful dancing. Alexander Ghindin was the soloist in Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor (original version, 1891). Three pieces from Anatoly Lyadov, whom Jurowski has done a lot of in the past, Baba-Yaga, Kikimora and From the Apocalypse. A nice safe programme redeemed by excellent performance. Musicians winning out, despite the suits of BBC formula. .

Saturday 17 August 2019

Queen Victoria's 200th Birthday Prom - Mendelssohn, Fischer, OAE, Hough

BBC Prom 40, marking the 200th annivesary of the birth of Queen Victoria,with Ádám Fischer and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and Mendelssohn, Piano Concerto no 1 in G minor (Stephen Hough) and Symphony no 3 "The Scottish", with Arthur Sullivan's suite on Victoria and Merrie England and a set of songs by Prince Albert himself (Alessandro Fisher, tenor).  An apposite reminder of how much British music and culture owes to the friendship betwen the Queen, the Prince Consort and Felix Mendelssohn. Victoria was the only heir of a large family of princes more prone to profligacy than cultivation. Being young and isolated, she might have been easy prey for the rich and powerful, married off to someone more interested in his own fortunes than to the fortunes of her country.  Luckily, in Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, she chose a man with a background as illustrious as her own, and even more fortuitously, a man enlightened by the ideals of the Romantc sensibility, who believed that culture was fundamental to progress, and that education and the arts are as valuable to a nation as economic growth.  Imagine if she'd married a gammon! Her horizons, like his, were European, and forward-looking, and she knew good music. In the Giclée print above, she's seen admiring Albert at the organ (with Mendelssohn looking on) "playing so charmingly, clearly and correctly that it would have been credit to any professional". 

To emphasize the difference between the early Victorian era, when Victoria and Albert were together, and the late period, when Albert was long gone, Fischer and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment began the Prom with Arthur Sullivan's Victoria and Merrie England - ballet suite No 1. Two very different artistic sensilibilities indeed. The ballet was very popular in its time (1897), full of colourful scenes and dances. The Queen and her family attended but times had changed.  It's jolly, almost a throwback to popular entertainment : comfort music for the satisfied middle classes, with references to an idealized past, with dutiful patriotic references. The world of the early Romantic period with its soul searching and idealism is very far away. 

In contrast, Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto no 1 in G minor , Stephen Hough playing an 1856 Érard commissioned for Victoria and Albert who used it regularly when they made music in private.  The sound is very different to the sound of a modern concert grand. The leatrher hammers are encased in felt, the registers brighter, more "singing" than pounding. The keys are narrower, requiring lighter, more agile performance technique. Earlier this year, Kristian Bezuidenhout used a slightly earlier Érard when he played Mendelssohn's  Double Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Strings with Sir John Eliot Gardiner (please read more here),  demonstrating how the instruments Mendelssohn used influenced his compositional development.  Since Stephen Hough doesn't normally play early instruments, his approach wasn't as fluid as a specialist like Bezuidenhout, but Fischer and the OAE supported him with verve. I quite liked the tension between piano and orchestra.  The five Lieder by Prince Albert : Gruss aus der Ferne, Standchen, Gruss an den Bruder, Aus Wilhelm Meister and  Lebewohl were far more conventional, composed as they were for private performance, albeit by somewhat above average amateurs. The soloist was Alessandro Fisher.  

With Mendelssohn Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 56 (Scottish), Fischer and the OAE returned to the almost symbiotic relationship betwee The Queen, Prince Albert and Mendelssohn.  Compared with his privileged upbringing in Berlin, Scotland must have been primitive wilderness, in a era before tourism, without mod cons. But that was the attraction. To early Romantics, Scotland symbolized an escape from the constraints of respectable civilization, where Nature challenged mankind, liberating creative imagination.  Mendelssohn knew Scotland long before Victoria did. His influence may have helped shape her later love for the country and the freedom it represented.  The first movement began with a hush, evoking the mystery that ruins evoked in the Romantic psyche. The pace picked up, with ebullience : nothing meek about the Romantic sense of adventure. The moments of calm made the "storm" in the allegro un poco agitato loom up impressively. Perhaps those soaring chords might also suggest mountains : Fischer certainly didn't stint on intensity.  "Outdoors" freedom in the second movement with its suggestions of energetic Highland dance, ending with figure suggesting hunting horn : a nod to the forests of Middle Europe. Fischer's Adagio was firmly sculpted ; suggesting strength and deliberation, contrasting well with the more feminine melody which might signify Mary Queen of Scots or some doomed heroine. The final movement began briskly,  the brightness of the OAE sound gloriously vivid. "Vivacissimo" gradually becomes "molto assai". What might this signify? The manic energy faded to an anthem, where strong figures again rang forth, now with exuberant triumph.  Blazing finale!  

Thursday 15 August 2019

Lucerne Festival livestreams coming up!

Complete list of livestreams direct from the Lucerne Festival with Riccardo Chailly and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra !

Opening Concert Friday, 16 August | 18.30 | KKL Luzern, Concert Hall LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA Riccardo Chailly conductor Denis Matsuev piano Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 | Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (Orchestral version) |Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44

Symphony Concert 1 Saturday, 17 August | 19.45| KKL Luzern, Concert Hall LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA Riccardo Chailly conductor Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

Symphony Concert 4 Thursday, 22 August | 20.45| KKL Luzern, Concert Hall LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA Yannick Nézet-Séguin conductor Dmitri Shostakovitch: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 

Symphony Concert 21 Sunday, 8 September | 18.30 | KKL Luzern, Concert Hall Orchestra of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI Riccardo Chailly conductor Jacques Zoon flute Lucas Macías Navarro oboe Alexander Mosolov: The Iron Foundry Op. 19 Bruno Maderna: Grande Aulodia for flute and oboe solo with orchestra (Swiss premiere) Arnold Schoenberg: Five Orchestra Pieces, Op. 16 version for large orchestra from 1909 Wolfgang Rihm: Dis-Kontur for large orchestra (Swiss premiere)

Monday 12 August 2019

Semyon Bychkov Prom : Detlev Glanert, Mahler 4

                                                                                                      Photo: Roger Thomas 

Prom 33 at the Royal Albert Hall, with Semyon Bychkov conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Detlev Glanert and Gustav Mahler Symphony no 4.  Bychkov and the BBC SO are always reliable, so this Mahler 4 should have been safe.  Glanert's been a Proms favourite for years - 9 individual works since 1995. So no surpises there, either. But sometimes safe is not enough. How I longed for something to ignite, to lift the performances from routine to what they could have been!

Detlev Glanert

Detlev Glanert was one of Hans Werner Henze's few students. Like Henze, Glanert's very prolific - 11 operas, including Caligula which has been staged in London, (see more here and my review of a performance in Frankfurt here) and numerous other works, including the fairly recent Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch. Please see my detailed review of that here, which will be useful since that, too is coming to the Barbican on 4th December, with Semyon Bychkov conducting the BBCSO, part of a Total Immersion Day into Glanert's career. (Please see more here). That's the real reason behind this Proms programme - not because Einsamkeit is connected to Mahler.  Not at all - read the poem ! One of Glanert's things has been his adaptations of other composer's works - oodles and oddles of them, not all straightforward orchestrations. Some have been much more original works, like his early Mahler Skizze, a zany"joke" combining different themes from Mahler. He has often reorchestrated Schubert, many of these miniatures featuring in earlier proms over the years. Glanert's Einsamkeit is based on Schubert's Einsamkeit D620 (1818), a long ballad to a poem by Franz Joseph Mayrhofer, with whom Schubert had a curious relationship. Morose and possibly mentally unstable, Mayrhofer had few friends and eventually committed suicide, so the poem is oddly prophetic. Please read the text here on, with translations.  If poems could be bipolar, this might be one, with its repeating first lines, and extreme contrasts betwen verses. The piano part in Schubert's setting swings from vehement to eerily insouciant, with obssessive pedalling throughout.  The text is a prayer to a deranged God, the pentitent doomed to eternal self-torture.  In theory, this could have been adapted to a scena of great dramatic presence. But it's very much a "masculine" poem, so why set it for soprano?  Perhaps some sopranos could make it suitably demonic, but not Christina Gansch, who was under strain, unable to compete with the orchestra.

Rather more convincing, Glanert's Weites Land ('Musik mit Brahms' for orchestra) . "Immediately recognizable points of departure are the first four measures of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony with its characteristic alternation of a descending third and ascending sixth. Both intervals are woven into the texture time and again, until the surprising conclusion" wrote a German critic at its premiere in 2014.  Again we have Glanert's feel for heady contrast, here effective because it's not tied to text but to abstract atmosphere: Perhaps a sense of wide, open horizons, where land meets sea and sky?

Bychkov and the BBC SO have done loads of Mahler over the years, separately and together, so it could be taken as given that this would be a decent Mahler 4. It didn't, of course, reach the heights of Bernard Haitink's Mahler 4 with the BBC SO earlier this year at the Barbican - please read my review here - but perhaps nothing could. Haitink's in an altogther more elevated league. So I wasn't too bothered and enjoyed the performance well enough, though I could not understand why some of the Royal Albert Hall audience needed to clap wildly between each movement - something to do with the hands when the mind's not engaged.  Wisely Bychkov didn't allow even the shortest break between the third and final movements, and held his hands aloft for the longest time at the very end, sending a clear message to the audience : pay attention!  A decent reading, if nothing very memorable. Glanert was the real reason for this Prom, but Mahler sells, especially Mahler 4 which many still think is "sunny" and light.  But, as with Haitink's M4, the performance was let down by the singing. Gansch is very young and not all that experienced, which is not necessarily a bad thing, if you realize that the text describes a child's vision of heaven.  There are many different ways of interpreting and perfoming this part : child-like delicacy, sensual enjoyment, melancholy mixed with joy. But it does need a singer who can put more into it. Many more senior singers would think twice about singing Mahler 4 in the same programme as a demanding new work like Einsamkeit, but Gansch isn't yet well enough established to stand up to management pressure.

Friday 9 August 2019

Otaka BBC NOW Huw Watkins and Rachmaninov

Tadaaki Otaka, photo: Masuhide Sato, courtesy Askonas Holt
Huw Watkins The Moon at the Proms, Tadaaki Otaka conducting BBC National Orchestra of Wales, tyhe BBC National Chorus of Wales and the Philhamonia Voices.  It's real music, thank goodness, not made-to-order to fit BBC obsessions with non-musical targets. To prepare, Tōru Takemitsu's Twill by Twilight, a very good choice since it worked  with Watkins’s The Moon.  The programme, however, didn't at first seem to cohere. The Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor and Rachmaninov's The Bells on the surface bear little relation to the refined sensibility of Takemitsu and Watkins, but Otaka's performance showed why the two parts combined : bell-like sounds, obviously, but also more, of which, please read below.
Watkins is so well known that he hardly needs an introduction. And neither does Takemitsu, revered by many, including Oliver Knussen. Watkins has established a strong track record, as performer as well as composer.  Read his bio here from Schott,  his publishers. The Moon is a new venture in the sense that he's done lots of work for orchestra and chamber ensemble, but relatively little large scale work for chorus and orchestra. "Inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing this year, my
new work for chorus and orchestra uses favourite poems by Percy B.
Shelley, Philip Larkin and Walt Whitman to explore the sense of wonder we identify with the moon and space. The piece tries to capture our experience of viewing the moon from Earth, and is also somehow about looking back at us here on Earth from above
."  Bright, face-moving rivulets of sound - winds used to good effect - , introduce and illuminate the first choral section, where text is set so the words are occluded, in darkness, so to speak, suggesting mysteries. If the setting also evokes ancient hymnal, that, too, is reasonable : man has always revered, and feared, the unknown. I liked the way the highest voices in the choir "took off", so to speak, ascending over the mass. In the central orchestral interlude, bell-like percussion  and clear-toned winds created atmosphere, but there's more to this piece than impressionism. Forceful, dominant chords suggest the power of invisible forces - the moon may be distant and small but it controls the tides of the oceans on Earth. The music waxes and wanes, pulsating with a steady flow.  Zig zag figures (strings) dart : liveliness against a darker background. The instrumentation includes celeste, glockenspiel, and organ, for deeper resonance.  An attractive part for piccolo!  The chorus returned, in full force, before subsiding, slowly to hushed silence. As the voices faded, shimmering, magical bell-like sounds animate the orchestra. An affirmative coda - voices and full throated orchestra, in union.
In Rachmaninov's The Bells op 35, it's not just bells that ring out.  Oleg Dolgov's tenor rang out, magnificently, immediately establishing that the piece is about human beings, at different phases of life, the bells ringing out changes.  Natalya Romaniw (not Romanov, as the BBC had her down) is actually Welsh. She's regal, though not royal, and  a good choice for Otaka and the BBC NOW.  I have no idea how fluent her Russian is, but she sang with great clarity : a strong, operatic performance, bringing out the undercurrents of heroism that infuse the piece, which possibly meant more to Rachmaninov and his appreciation of Russian history than it might have to the poet Edgar Allen Poe. The third movement, The Loud Alarm Bells with its rousing choruses and high drama belong to a distinctly Russian sensibility.  In the last movement, the bells tolled with funereal gloom, for now the bells are iron, mournful and full of portent. Iurii Samoilov's baritone had the near-bass timbre this section needs to come over well.  The BBC NOW didn't need to have a "Russian" sound, Otaka drawing from his players brighter and more magical, even fairy tale lightness, which does, in fact, connect to Russian genres much better than heavy handed noise for its own sake. hence the connection between Rachmaninov, Takemitsu and Huw Watkins!  And so to the fantasy world of Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor.


Wednesday 7 August 2019

Dalia Stasevska Prom : Weinberg Cello Concerto

Dalia Stasevka (photo Jarmo Katila, Harrison Parrott)

Prom 25 for Dalia Stasevska and for Mieczysław Weinberg's Concerto for cello and orchestra op 43 (1948, revised 1956), with soloist Sol Gabetta.  Weinberg's Cello Concerto is fairly well known, performed very early on by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and  Mstislav Rostropovich.  That it's new to the Proms is in itself no big deal. Weinberg's music is almost culty these days, but has often recieved performances that are more worthy than worthwhile, but this performance was good. More below and pleasee read my piece on the outstanding Weinberg Symphony no 21 "Kaddish" with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica HERE.  

Dalia Stasevska was recently appointed the next Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, her first appearances with them at the Barbican Hall in October this year and in April 2020.  That's a very high profile appointment indeed, and a leap upwards from what she's done to date, so a lot was hanging on this Proms debut.  Given that Jean Sibelius Karelia Suite op 11 (1893) is so stirring that it should be a surefire success, I was probably expecting too much. This was a little too  routine, the Alla Marcia a little tentative. Perhaps the best of Stasevska is yet to come. 

On to Weinberg's Cello Concerto . I'm not sure why Stasevska (at least in the broadcast interview) needs to justify this by saying "it's not at all avant gardist". It wasn't meant to be, and what's wrong with liking the piece on its own terms ?  The long first movement is ruminative, its pace funereal, with a steady tread.  Above this background, Gabetta's cello weaves a plaintive line that seems to stretch into space before descending into darker undercurrents. The orchestra picks up the "searching" expansive theme, but the cello continues, as if determined to do its own thing. In the moderato, the tension between cello and orchestra was more marked, though again the cello distances itself from the mass : Gabetta's instrument has character ! The first allegro is marked by angularities in the orchestral part which grow increasingly dominant, but from which the cello  remains defiant - rapid fire lines that spring ahead, until, towards the end, it takes precedence again, with an almost lyrical melody, possibly tinged with melancholy : Gabetta's bowing in the final moment is richly resonant, increasiungly refined and ultimately transcedant.  As in so much Weinberg, lyricism is more than lyricism: context is never far away.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 6 in B minor, 'Pathétique' is, like Sibelius Karelia Suite, another certain crowd pleaser.  If anything, we've heard it so often that  it would be more than unusual if this performance had been a revelation, but this was pleasant enough for a Proms outing. 

Monday 5 August 2019

John Storgårds Modern Impressionism - Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Tarkiainen

John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Prom 22, with Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Outi Tarkiainen's Midnight Sun Variations. Storgårds kept up standards at the BBC PO during a  fallow period under Juanjo Mena, so it was a bit of a surprise to see he didn't get get named Chief Conductor. Fortunately, Omer Meir Wellber is pretty good, as his Haydn Creation Prom last week demonstated - I loved its flair ! Storgårds remains Chief Guest at the BBC PO. The orchestra was sounding very polished and alert.  

A good Rachmaninov Isle of the Dead. Though this piece is often described as "romantic" it's more Romantic, in the sense that it connects to concepts of Romanticism - symbolism, the unconscious, alternative reality.  Rachmaninov knew the series of illustrations by Arnold  Böcklin, made in the 1880's , depicting an island rising from the sea. Its cliffs are so steep that nothing quite like this can exist in nature : Landscape painting, this is not, by any means.  This is the Island of the Dead, perhaps on the river of Lethe, as in ancient myth, through which the dead are rowed b y a mystery boatman.  The island is uninhabited : the white shrouded figure is en route to the Underworld.  Böcklin’s image was inspired by a dream. Any Freudian will note : images of death, and rebirth together, and a sense of inescapable doom. Storgårds's approach emphasized the mood of strange foreboding.  In the quiet rhythms, one might imagine oars, steadily making their way through the waters,  and in the sudden swell of the strings, the cliffs looming above, the descending figures a reminder that life is fragile.  Though the surfaces in the rock like, Storgårds focussed on the shifting textures rather than the architecture, creating the piece as an almost-impressionistic wash of colours and strange harmonies. It's worth remembering that Rachmaninov was a contemporary of Claude Debussy and of Stravinsky. 

In the context of this particular Prom, though, the connections included Sibelius, particularly his Symphony no 4, with its brooding darkness. After the previous night's all-Sibelius Prom (please read more here) Storgårds conducted the London premiere of Outi Tarkiainen's Midnight Sun Variations. The publishers Edition Wilhelm Hansen Copenhagen quotes the composer that the work is "about the light in the arctic summer night, when the northern sky above the Arctic Circle reflects a rich spectrum of infinitely-nuanced hues that, as autumn draws near, are once again veiled in darkness; when Europe’s biggest and most unpolluted wildernesses, the tundra and dense coniferous forests mystified by Jean Sibelius in his last large-scale work, Tapiola (1926), are bathed in countless shades of light. The work begins with a sparkling ray of sunshine: the orchestra radiates and rises, playfully traces its round and goes back to the beginning again. Solitary wind solos soar above the orchestra, softly proclaiming the peace of the summer night to answering sighs from a horn. A new beginning finally emerges in the strings: a chord beating with rugged primitive force that fills the whole space with its warmth. This sets off a pulse of constantly remixing chords that ultimately fires the whole orchestra into action, until the strings break away, ascend to the heights and impart maybe the most important message of all". 

Although it's inspired by landscape, this is as much inner landscape as external. I liked this piece because it works as music on its own terms, from within, rather than created from preconceived concepts.  Undulating swathes of sound, evoking spatial distance, layers of detail, providing texture and colour.  I thought  of Kaija Saariaho, but Tarkiainen's palette is closer to the natural colours of Lapland, than to Paris.  Life there must be simpler and more down to earth.  The swathes of sound swirl, evoking perhaps a sense of parallel reality, where past and present, seen and unseen might co-exist.  At eleven minutes Midnight Sun Variations does not outstay its welcome, a mistake some composers make when they're trying too hard. I like this spareness,like the fragility of life in a tough climate. A surprisingly good companion for Rachmaninov  Isle of the Dead

Shostakovich's Symphony No 11 in G minor 'The Year 1905' is a public piece, which won Shostakovich the Lenin Prize. The subject matter
is unashamedly patriotic, commemorating the December Revolution which was suppressed but entered the political mythology of that Soviet State.
There's nothing in principle wrong with propaganda music, but much of the appeal of this symphony lies in the way it plays on emotions to whip up excitement,  and the avoidance of doubt.  With its vivid images, it feels like the soundtrack for a movie.  on closer listening, though, it's as much atmospheric as belligerent. Storgårds approaches it as a tone poem, emphasizes the subtler aspects. Muffled drums, long, flowing lines that could be anything - gunsmoke, the earth,  the Russian "soul", whatever, but effective on purely musical terms. Impressionism on a grand scale . A perceptive approach, different from the technicolor extremes some still associate with Shostakovich, but ultimately more rewarding.