Saturday 30 November 2019

Britten Peter Grimes - Skelton, Gardner, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Britten's Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall with Stuart Skelton, Edward Gardner conducting the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Exactly the same cast (except for the Boy apprentice) in London as at Bergen in May 2017. What an outstanding performance that was ! How does London compare ?

When "Sexy Ed" Gardner left the ENO for Bergen, many of his fans wept openly, but it was a wise move on his part, since, until that time, his career had been relatively insular. He needed to branch out, both in terms of international exposure and in terms of repertoire. And the Bergen Philharmonic, one of the oldest orchestras in Europe, needed livening up.  A match made in Heaven?

Bergen is sounding better than it has in years, much sparkier and classier, without losing a distinctive flavour.  The cast list was superb - possibly one of the best that can be put together at present - so no surprises there. But what impressed me even more was the Bergen Philharmonic. This Peter Grimes seemed to come to them intuitively: they don't at all have an "English" sound, but that's all to the good.   Though Britten was an Englishman through and through, his music is far too individual to fit pigeonholes.

This Peter Grimes sounded like a force of Nature, surging like a storm blowing across the North Sea. You could feel the pull of the ocean in this playing.  The Bergeners seem to connect  instinctively to how unseen forces might control destiny, just as nature controls tides, winds and waves. Seamen, like Grimes, understand these things, or they don't survive. Grimes doesn't survive, but what happens to him is more than the pettiness of a small provincial community. When he sails out alone, and tips his boat, he's offering himself in a kind of sacrificial atonement.  He may have been abused himself as a boy, forced into a trade he might not have chosen.  His music suggests that there's a sensitive, poetic side to his personality he may have had to repress, even had other choices been open to him.
Skelton's been singing the part so long and so well that  he can convey Grimes's personality in myriad nuances. But with the Bergen Philharmonic around him, it's as if the Furies themselves were swirling about him, invisible to us, but in his head.  His "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" was beautiful, but his long Act Three monologue was haunted, he and the orchestra observing the subtle, but important, changes as Grimes's mind begins to unravel. Now we know why Ellen Orford sets such store in knitting. She needs control, every bit as much as Mrs Sedley and Auntie do in their own ways. Ellen isn't as nice as she thinks she is.  Notice how Britten writes Grand Opera parody into her music, when she decides to shelter the child from Hobson the carrier. On some level, Ellen is a diva, a heroine in her own mind, trapped in a small town with no prospects, like everyone else in this claustrophobic community.  Giselle Allen sings well, but Ellen is, like Grimes, illuminated by the music around her. Because Peter Grimes was Britten's first mature opera, and probably Britain's first mature opera, too, it's tempting to think of it primarily as an opera.  But the orchestral writing is magnificent and highly inventive: not for nothing that the Sea Interludes work so well as stand-alone.  Britten knew the music of his time, and the operas of Alban Berg in particular, where orchestral passages shape the narrative.  In Peter Grimes, the orchestration is huge in comparison to Britten's later works, knitting  the opera together, in a sense.  The swells and surges are huge, but not significantly fulsome in the way that, say, The Flying Dutchman is cataclysmic.  Britten, being English, is too polite. Not all that many detect the way Britten used quirky humour to subvert convention.  But it's there, all right.

Please read my numerous pieces on Peter Grimes, and on  Gloriana HERE and on Albert Herring HERE. Britten is oblique : his targets don't know when they're being got at. Gardner "gets" Britten, so he brought out the undercurrents.  Perhaps there is prostitution in places like Aldeburgh, but it's pretty discreet.  The music in the pub echoes American dance-hall music, which Britten knew from his sojourn in America, and would have included for a purpose. Peter Grimes isn't really set in 18th-century or even 19th-century Suffolk, whatever the origins of the tale.  Auntie, her customers and her Nieces sell out, but Peter Grimes is the one character who doesn't lose his integrity, warped as he may be. Grimes doesn't do games. And so he has to die.

Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic players are magnificent in the big surging swells. Wonderful percussion, the timpani rumbling like thunder.  Thor, beating his hammer. And why not? The Vikings roamed the North Sea.  Their genes must be part of coastal DNA. Baleful horns, moaning bassoons.   But the quieter passages were even more revealing. Britten observed the world around him. We can hear "star" music andd delicate diminuendoes that glow like phosphoresence over the water at night, or the sparkle of light on a Sunday morning. Outstanding playing from the lead violist, who got a well-deserved curtain call on her own. Beautiful harp playing,and strings that kept together smoothly enough, while still sounding individual and lively, like the choruses, where the variety of voices adds vividness to the impact.

Sunday 24 November 2019

Wigmore Hall, Mahler, Schubert, Andrè Schuen, Daniel Heide

Photo: Roger Thomas
At the Wigmore Hall, Andrè Schuen and Daniel Heide in a recital of Schubert and Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückert-Lieder.  Schuen has most definitely arrived, at least among the long-term cognoscenti at the Wigmore Hall who appreciate the intelligence and sensitivity that marks true Lieder interpretation.  

Everyone has heard the Schubert favourites Schuen and Heide chose, maybe hundreds of times, but Schuen and Heide made them feel fresh and personal. An den Mond D 259, illuminted with subtle restraint,  Im Frühling D882, full-throated and free-spirited, Abendstern D806, gently contemplative. Schuen and Heide know how to programme, varying songs of introspection with exuberant outbursts like Der Musensohn D764.  The second half of the recital was even better : a particularly tender Sei mie gegrüsst D741 and Dass sie hier gewesen D775. Together they demonstrated Schuen's range, which effortlessly reaches the upper limits of baritone, to near-tenor brightness.  He's still young, but has huge potential - definitely a singer to follow. (Read more about him on this site) 

Schuen and Heide have often explored less familiar parts of the repertoire, like their outstanding Frank Martin Sechs monologe aus Jedermann so it was interesting to hear how they'd do Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which just about everyone has done, not always to best effect.  This is very much a young man's adventure, as it was for Mahler himself, setting out on his own journey.  Despite a slightly cautious start, understandable enough, Schuen soon got into his stride. Schuen's diction is agile, an energetic, even stride in his phrasing.  The poet sets out, upset because he's been rejected by a girl, but his love may have been little more than teenage fantasy. Almost immediately he is drawn to Nature and the world beyond himself.  "Ziküth, Ziküth" here rang strong and pure, as if modelled on hearing bird song ringing in the wild, for the bird symbolizes destiny - Siegfried , heading off down the Rhine, led by a wood dove in the forest.  Thus revitalised, the poet looks ahead. Schuen breathed into the phrase "Blümlein blau! Verdorre nicht!" making the words glow with wonder. Anyone who's seen gentians in Alpine regions, growing out between rocks,  knows exactly why they can feel miraculous. No surprise then that Schuen and Heide gave the second song Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld  such heartfelt vigour.  Flowing, decorative  phrasing in "Wird's nicht eine schöne Welt?Zink! Zink! Schön und flink! Wie mir doch der Welt gefällt!"Sparkling piano figures lead into a new, more serene mood, where lines stretch smoothly, held for several measures, as if basking in Sonnenschein.

With "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" the mood shifts, like sudden storm, descending on a mountain.   The dark resonance in Schuen's lower register highlighted the drama. But yet again, Mahler doesn't dwell on angst: the drama here is almost as if the poet were reminding himself to be angry - as teenagers do - when he has in fact moved on.  In the final song, Schuen showed the lyricism and tenderness in his timbre, which in many ways is even more impressive than the volume he can achieve when needed.  The Lindenbaum reputedly has narcotic qualities, that can intoxicate those inhaling the scent of its leaves and flowers. Perhaps the poet might die (as suggested in Winterreise) but for Mahler, the song is lullaby. Sleep can refresh and re-invigorate.  Schuen's style is direct, with clear-eyed focus, totally appropriate to this cycle.

Mahler's Rückert-Lieder are not a cycle, as such, and the sequence can be altered.  Schuen and Heide put the more overt songs of love together forming a miniature cycle of their own, followed by Um Mitternacht, in which the poet confronts mortality, and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, in which the poet comes away from the cares of the world. The Rückert-Lieder are in an altogether more sophisticate league than Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen,  but Schuen and Heide rose to the challenge. Their performance here was the highlight of the whole evening. Lovely as these songs are, loveliness alone means little. What impressed me most was the emotional maturity and artistic insight Schuen and Heide brought to this interpretation, which can elude some bigger-name celebrities.  A particularly beautiful Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft. Again, a Lindenbaum, whose scent is powerful, but invisible. Subtlety is of the essence : Schuen and Heide seemed to make the music hover, shaping lines without forcing them, Schuen breathing carefully into each phrase, using air itself, like an Äolsharfe. Vowel sounds surged, consonants softened. It is significant that Rückert's poem is almost minimalist, images suggested with as few words as possible.  Similar gentleness in Liebst du um Schönheit. Rückert's lines are again deceptively simple, almost childlike.  Schuen understands that less is more, allowing the song to reveal its purity as it unfolds.

Um Mitternacht thus operates as contrast, not only in purely musical terms, but also to emphasize meaning. If the poet dies, his dilemma is even more poignant if he had had a good life.  While the other songs are near-lullaby, Um Mitternacht is an anthem, ringing out with impassioned dignity, connecting the individual to the cosmos. "Um Mitternacht hab' ich gedacht Hinaus in dunkle Schranken."  All that separates life from death is the beating of  the heart, "ein einz'ger Puls". An image of fragile humanity, reminding us that all the powers of this world can come suddenly to nothing. As so often in Mahler, bombast is inappropriate.  Instead, humility and respect for something greater than the individual. "Herr über Tod und Leben Du hältst die Wacht Um Mitternacht!". Heide's lines are firm and steady : Schuen's voice rings with dignity and affirmation. Thus the logic of concluding with Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen : after the storm, the calm of  true wisdom. The protagonist isn't actually dead, but has learned that wasting time on pettiness is futile.  "Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel..... ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel, in meinem Lieben, in meinen Lied". This was an excellent performance, but in time, Schuen will develop and find even more in this group of songs.

Thus the logic behind the choice of encore, Urlicht, Mahler's setting of Nietszche, which he incorporated into his Symphony no 2, heard here in the version for voice and piano.  In the symphony it serves as a transition between the "worldy cares" evoked in the qoutation of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt in the previous movement and the resolution, the "resurrection" in the finale. "O Röschen rot!", an image of beauty that must, inevitably fade, Schuen's voice warming the "o" sounds, so they felt sensual, which occur again in the next phrase, but with a chill.  But this nadir of suffering is but a phase. Even angels cannot divert the supplicant from his/her goal. "Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!" Schuen sang with resolve, suggesting great inner strength.  God will light the way to "das ewig selig Leben!". 

Franz Liszt's S290, Morgens steh' ich auf und frage, a setting of Heinrich Heine, provided the second encore.  Again, a deceptively simple text, suggesting more than mere words, Liszt's setting more pianistic than Schumann's. Schuen and Heide are planning a complete series of Liszt Lieder, the first volume of which features all three versions of the Tre Sonnetti de Petrarca (Petrarca Sonnets).  Please read my review of that HERE.  

Saturday 23 November 2019

Britten Death in Venice, McVicar, Royal Opera House

photo: Catherine Ashmore, Royal Opera House

Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice in a new production by David McVIcar, at the Royal Opera House, reviewed HERE in Opera Today by Claire Seymour who wrote the book Benjamin Britten and his operas. The Royal Opera House isn't the ideal venue for an opera like Death in Venice, which is why it's usually done in smaller houses, as indeed most of Britten;s operas are, given their intense "inwardness".  Gloriana is the exception, not the rule, but even that work is infinitely better when it's understood as an opera-within-an opera,  its powerful message hidden from those who listen only on the surface.

Doing Death in Venice at ROH involves re-thinking scale and perspective. At Covent Garden, McVicar can contrast the grandeur of Venice with its decay and corruption.  Nothing is grand in a city of plague! Aschenbach, the quintessential outsider, comes thinking he'll find inspiration, but it is the beauty of Tadzio that he's drawn to, and that eventually contributes to his death.  Deborah Warner's production for the Met and ENO was popular because it emphasizes the surface glamour, exactly the opposite of what Britten intended.  That says more about audience taste than about the opera itself.  So it's good to read Claire Seymour's analysis in full.

"The tremendous achievement of McVicar, his creative team and a superb,
extensive cast, is to simultaneously portray the mythical aura of the city
of Venice and present a disturbing portrait of a psychology laid bare. The
naturalism of the 1910s setting and the astonishingly detailed realism of
Vicki Mortimer’s designs are intruded by the surreal, the grotesque and the
demonic. The result for Aschenbach is catastrophic.

"McVicar, Mortimer and lighting designer Paul Constable exercise masterly
control of these two intersecting energies, capturing in form and flux both
the wretched reality and the mythic grandeur of Venice. A prevailing
darkness is punctuated by sudden illuminations of light. The golden glow
that greets Aschenbach when the Hotel Manager reveals the glorious view
from the window of his room, for a brief moment bathes the drama in hope.
But, elsewhere, for all the vivid colour that Apollo’s sunrays reveal, the
Lido often seems to shimmer with a secret sickness. When the vista opens to
reveal the glistening teal waters of the limitless sea, the easefulness
that the brightness offers is tempered by a thick, unmoving green glow. The
sky above is cloudless, but it is muted by a patina of soft grey or pink
flush.When Aschenbach arrives by gondola through the swirling mists, we can
almost smell the pungency - what he later describes as a “sweetish
medicinal cleanliness, overlaying the smell of still canals

Friday 22 November 2019

George Antheil re-assessed vol. 3 : "Zingareska" symphony, John Storgårds

The Chandos George Antheil series with John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic continues with Volume III featuring Antheil's Symphony no 1 "Zingareska" (1920-1922, rev 1923).  This series is important because it highlights Antheil's primary status as a composer of art music for concert performance. Indeed, he is infinitely better known as the avant-gardiste who created Ballet méchanique than for the music he later wrote in Hollywood.  Ballet méchanique is a seminal work, very much a part of the cultural and artistic renaissance that was Paris in the 1920's, and defines Antheil's whole career.  He started out as a composer of "serious" art music and continued as such until his death. His finest music for cinema was also written for  independent, often obscure, art-movie studios. Please read more about Ballet mécanique HERE and HERE and much else on Antheil elsewhere on this site.

With Antheil's Symphony no 1, Storgårds puts the focus directly on Antheil's early work, before he went to Paris, and places it in relation to later works like McKonkey’s Ferry (1948) and Nocturne in Skyrockets (1951), receiving its first recording here.  Antheil began what was to be his first Symphony when he was barely 20, but its originality and creative vision are remarkable for the period, particularly for a a man who was still a student.  It was inspired by sounds of the area in which Antheil grew up,"a deliberate abandonment of academic compositional techniques in favour of music driven bty emotional and atmospheric stimuli", as Mervyn Cooke writes in his notes.  Yet it is not a work of nostalgia, but incoporates new ideas and influences, including ragtime and circus music, and the music of Stravinsky, with special reference to Petroushka.  It epitomizes the two sides of Antheil's art : modern America and Europe, and draws them together.  The title "Zingareska" was not Antheil's, but one can hear why the heady eroticism of gypsy music would express the nature of  a free spirit like Antheil. 

A plaintive solo violin announces the beginning of the first movement, answered by darker, more ambigious winds and brass. The mood is nocturnal, evoking "the the fragrance of honeysuckle on the New Jersey night air" as Antheil wrote later, but also disturbing. Dark, ambiguous forces surround the Innocente of the violin and the pastoral woodwind theme that follows it. A section marked Volupté surges, suggesting passion, but the movement ends in sharp dischords and a Lamentoso.  Perhaps a clue might lie in that Antheil was intensely in love, but the girl's mother disapproved, and took her off to Europe. For Antheil himself, this was the impetus that led him to head there too, changing his destiny. In contrast, the second movement is wilder, more "primitive" in the sense of Stravinsky and early modern art.  Bold, robust chords lead to stillness from which a solo violin emerges, followed by clarinet. Darkness encroaches again, blown away temporarily by wild "ragtime" rhythms and angular striding steps.  The parts for winds and brass  are cheeky, almost cartoon-like in their defiance, to the extent that the orchestral players of the Berlin Philharmonic under Rudolf Schulz-Dornburg burst out laughing in rehearsal. Only the first two movements were premiered in 1922 on Antheil's suggestion.
The third movement, though, is poignant, percussion and strings creating a bell-like backdrop to the entry of the solo violin, which appears like a dancer, alone on stage. Petroushka, the puppet who is forced to wander but but has no home, setting the context for the ragtime and circus themes. Carnival may be fun, but masks hidden sorrow.  Hence the chill of the ending, and descending chords.  Is there resolution in the last movement, or more defiance ? The exuberant "ragtime" theme alternates with themes that are more haunted (exteneded wind choruses), and a section marked "sardonic"before a suddden, elusive coda. Antheil's teacher, Ernest Bloch, had such regard for the sympathy that he wanted Monteux to conduct it, and later, hearing that Antheil was penniless, helped him out financially. 

Antheil's McKonkey's Ferry, from 1948, is a concert overture nspired by the image of George Washington crossing the Delaware in 1776.  It is dramatic, and patriotic, but as so often with Antheil, there can be other interpretations.  By this stage, the composer had been back in the United States for fifteen years, having been forced out of Europe by the rise of the Nazis.  Perhaps the aural images of  the ferocious snowstorm through which Washington battled give the surface triumphalism in this music more personal meaning.  The Capitol of the World (1953-55), a suite for orchestra from a ballet based on a tale by Ernest Hemingway, is also bittersweet. A waiter pretends to be a matador, but is killed, impaled by knives embedded on a chair representing an artificial bull.  So much for glorious fantasies about the bullring ! Do not be deluded by the flamenco flourishes and lively rhythms : this is tragedy, all the more painful because the subject is tawdry.  With The Golden Bird, (1921) we return once again to Antheil's youth.  Antheil was a virtuoso pianist, and this piece, originally for piano, which he himself orchestrated, demonstates his facility for exotic effects even at an early age.
In Nocturne in Skyrockets (1951) we glimpse the heights Antheil was capable of achieving. It is a tightly constructed yet almost magical miniature, with long, searching chords rising upwards, as if into the freedom of the upper atmosphere. Delicate spiralling notes suggest fireworks, sudden explosions of light in a dark sky, doomed to self-destruct. Yet for a moment, such beauty !   With this Chandos series,
John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic make a strong case for appreciating  Antheil at his best : a composer whose work stands comparison with Charles Ives and Edgard Varèse, in terms of the boldness of conception, but with an entirely individual and original personality.   Please also read my review HERE of the second volume in this series, with Antheil's Symphonies no 3 "American"and No 6 "After Delacroix" and much else about Antheil on this site.

Thursday 21 November 2019

Benjamin Britten in wig, squirming

On Benjmin Britten's 106th birthday, a photo from one hundred years ago. It's easy to spot the future composer - the kid in the silly wig.  He's playing Tom in a production of Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, staged by his pushy mother (the woman holding him).  Presumably this was twee, in the fashion of the day.  You'd be squirming, too.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Une soirée chez Berlioz - lyrical rarities, on Berlioz's own guitar

Une soirée chez Berlioz - an evening with Berlioz, songs for voice, piano and guitar, with Stéphanie D'Oustrac, Thibaut Roussel (guitar) and Tanguy de Williencourt (piano). The booklet notes by Bruno Messina, the Berlioz scholar, read like poetry,  evoking what an intimate evening with Berlioz himself might have been, in the company of those closest to him, making music for their own pleasure. "Ni festival, ni requiem, ni symphonie, ni opéra, mais une invitation à partager une soirée chez Berlioz et quelques impressions musicales, de celles qui ne font pas beaucoup de bruit mais qui s’inscrivent dans le cœur (comme ces inflexions “des voix chères qui se sont tues”) et qu’on porte longtemps avec soi…".  Though this soirée chez Berlioz is refined and lyrical, and can be enjoyed on its own terms, this recording includes many lesser known works, which enhance our appreciation of  the breadth of Berlioz's art, sensitively and beautifully performed. A must for true Berlioz aficionados.

Indeed, the instruments played here are not only period but  unique.  The guitar belonged to Berlioz himself, who used it regularly, and to Paganinni before him. The maker was Jean-Nicole Grobert, whom the composer knew well. Given its significance, Berlioz inscribed the guitar with his signature when he donated it to the Conservatoire de Musique. The piano was made by Ignace Pleyel and was used by Chopin, and is beutifully preserved. More technical details in the notes.

The evening begins with Plaisir d'amour. It is heard here in the 1784 original for voice and piano by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini. Berlioz liked it so much that he made an arrangement for voice and small orchestra, with flutes, clarinets, horns and strings. As a child, Berlioz enjoyed the tales of the poem's author, Jean-Pierre Florian.  Around 1859, he made an arrangement for voice and small orchestra but he would undoubtedly have heard and played the original for voice and piano. Williencourt's technique makes this Pleyel grand from 1842 sound as agile and delicate as a fortepiano. Viens, aurore and Vous qui loin d’une amante are settings of other poems by Florian in troubador style. Roussel's background in lute and early stringed instruments enhances his way with Berlioz's period guitar. Viens, aurore is a setting by Lélu (1798-c1822) and Vous qui loin d’une amante  a setting by François Devienne (1759-1803).

Berlioz's La captive is best known in its orchestral version H60 from 1848, but is heard here in Berlioz's adaptation for voice, piano and violincello (Bruno Philippe)  made soon after the first version for voice and piano, from 1832.  Seven songs for voice and guitar follow and three for solo guitar, interspersed with settings by Berlioz and Liszt.  These are well worth including since this rare opportunity to hear Berlioz's own guitar should not be missed. The timbre is distinctive, warmer and less strident than guitars made for different repertoire, particularly sympathetic to French style and to the elegance of D'Oustrac's voice.  These relatively unknown works also provide context for Liszt's L'Idée fixe LW A16b  an Andante amoroso "pour le piano d’après une mélodie de Hector Berlioz" making further connections between Berlioz and Liszt. Though Liszt generally preferred an Érard, this Pleyel is still closer to the instruments Berlioz knew so well, and appropriate for the the intimate feel of this "soirée chez Berlioz".

Also included are Liszt's transcriptions for piano (LW 205) of Berlioz's "Danse de Sylphides" from The Damnation of Faust, and "Marche des Pèlerins" (LW A29) from Harold en Italie Berlioz' Le Jeune Pâtre breton H 65C to a pastoral text by Auguste Brizeux (1803-1858)  a poet and man of the theatre who popularized the language and heritage of Brittany.  Hence, perhaps, Berlioz's use of the cor naturel, (Lionel Renoux), evoking the sounds of Breton lovers calling to each other over mountains and valleys, "semble un soupir mêlé d’ennuis et de plaisir". Berlioz's Fleuve du Tage (H.5) for voice and guitar is very early Berlioz indeed, written at the age of 16. The Élégie en prose H.47 for voice and guitar sets a translation of a poem by Thomas Moore and comes from Berlioz's Neuf mélodies irlandaises, op. 2, H. 38 .


Saturday 16 November 2019

Liszt Petrarca Sonnets complete - Andrè Schuen, Daniel Heide

An ambitious new series focusing on the songs of Franz Liszt, starting with all three versions of the Tre Sonetti del Petrarca, (Petrarca Sonnets), S.270a, S.270b and S.161  with Andrè Schuen and Daniel Heide for Since no complete edition of the songs exists apart from the Alexander edition for Breitkopf and Härtel in 1919-21, this may be more than an ordinary completist series. There could be as many as 145 variants, with questions of classification, since Liszt did not not assign opus numbers. This recording seeks to highlight the connections between Liszt's three settings oPetrach’s ts 47, 104 and 123.  Recorded in the Marküs -Sittikus Saal in Hohenems, these are performances of great sensitivity, as we'd expect from Schuen, and Heide. Andrè Schuen is easily one of the more promising young baritones around, and one whose genuine love for repertoire leads him to in-depth performances of more eclectic material. He recorded an outstanding Frank Martin Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann as well as Schumann, Beethoven and Wanderer, an excellent collection of Schubert Lieder. Please read more about that HERE and HERE.  At the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 23rd November, Schuen and Heide are giving a recital of Schubert and Mahler (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Rückert Lieder). Be there ! I grabbed tickets months in advance. 
Liszt's first settings of the Petrach sonnets date from 1842-6 while the second settings were completed between 1864-1882. Composed decades apart, these are far more than simple "variations" but thoroughly thought-through new works, showing the evolution of Liszt's approach though time.  The order of songs is also transposed. In the first Sonetto 104, (Pace non trovo) is declamatory, each verse clearly separated by a piano interlude. The line "equalamente mi spiace morte et vita" rises with operatic flourish, before a hushed ending, marked by two assertive chords on the piano for emphasis.  The second Sonetto 104, better reflects the brief phrases in the poem, which flow in succession, building up tension towards the line "né mi vuol vivo, né mi trae impaccio" expressing the poet’s frustration. The line "in questa stato son, donna, por voi" is all the more moving because it expresses love, tenderly complemented by a gentle piano postlude. 
In the first Sonetto 47 (Benedetto sia 'l giorno), the mood is gentler, suggesting the purity of the beloved.  Elaboration is focussed on the third strophe "Benedette le voci tante" where phrases are repeated, adding lustre to the name "Laura", which Schuen projects with glowing awe. The second setting of this sonetto is even more sensitive, Liszt's attention even better attuned to the scansion of Petrarch's flowing phrases,  "'l giorno, e 'l mese, e l'anno, e la stagione, e 'l tempo, e l'ora, e 'l punto", which are all connected, since they underline the meaning of the poem.  Schuen's perfect diction underlines the melodious nature of the text.  Only in the line "E le piaghe, ch'infino al cor mi vanno" is there a hint of the pain the poet is going through.  With such subtlety,  Liszt has no need to decorate the third strophe : its impact comes from the sincere, direct expression of emotion.  This makes the final strophe even more moving, as it gradually decelarates into quietude.  For the poet, nothing matters but the beloved : "Ch' è sol di lei" sings Schuen with deep feeling, "si ch'altra non v'ha parte". As the song subsides, the word "benedette" is intoned, like a prayer. 
An extended piano prelude introduces the first setting of Sonetto 123 (I' vidi in terra), the genly rocking melody taken up in the vocal line. The beloved is now a memory,  "par sogni, ombre e fume". Though there are differences in the two settings for voice and piano, the focus is now on the poet, alone. For Liszt as composer, such personal expression would have favoured the piano. Given that the versions for solo piano from Années de Pélerinage, Année II (Italie) S 161 no. 4 to 6 were written shortly after  the first settings of the songs for voice and piano, S 270a, it is natural that the resemblances are strong. The popularity of the pieces for piano thus derives from the emotional power inherent in the songs, even shorn of text.  Hearing all three sets together enhances understanding of their context and the role they play in the development of Liszt's oeuvre.  Paradoxically, this also means a greater appreciation of the later set, known as S 270b,  but much more mature, subtle and  sophisticated than mere variation. 
Appositely, Schuen and Heide conclude this first volume in the Liszt Lieder series with Liszt's setting of Victor Hugo, Oh! Quand je dors, S 282, here in the second version, completed in 1859.  Many of Liszt's songs are standard repertoire, but the time has come for a re-evaluation of all the songs, in context.  Recently, Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës presented Liszt Lieder together with his Mélodies in the French style, demonstrating how original Liszt was, a composer "beyond boundaries", so to speak. Please read more about that HERE.  This recording with Schuen and Heide is even better, so good that it should be essential listening for all.  

Thursday 14 November 2019

A Baroque Christmas Harmonia Mundi - Charpentier Pastorale de Noël

A baroque Christmas from Harmonia Mundi, this year's offering in their acclaimed series. Great value for money - four CDs of music so good that it shouldn't be saved just for Christmas.  Bach's immortal Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 with René Jacobs,  and seasonal works by Corelli, Buxtehude,  Schütz, Rosenmüller and othersThe prize here, though is the Pastorale de Noël by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with Ensemble Correspondances, with Sébastien Daucé, highly acclaimed on its first release just  a few years ago. Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances are among the finest of many very specialists in French baroque. Please read here about their Le Concert Royale de la Nuit, their recreation of the extravaganza with which Louis XIV dazzled his Court. They have also focussed on Charpentier and in particular the Histoires sacrées (Please read more here), which have roots both in sacred oratorio and in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages.  Their performances are outstanding : paragons of the art, presented with stylish flourish. This set is worth purchasing for this superlative Charpentier. 
Charpentier's patron was Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, an independent woman whose tastes were freer and more informal than those at the royal Court.  In the Pastorale sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, H. 483, Charpentier adapts the pastoral style into a work of piety, somewhat unusual at the time. Between 1684 and 1686 he created three versions, with different second parts, all of which are recorded together for the first time on this disc.

"The first part of the pastorale is imbued with solemnity", writes Daucé. "The protagonists evoke the condition of humanity, permeated by sin, violence, darkness and death, and, in this state of extreme wretchedness, call for a divine sign bringing light, peace, justice and redemption.". The exquisite balance of voices in the ensembles suggests rapture, and the restrained power of the soloist in "Ecoutez-moi, peuple fidele" suggests emotional authority. Charpentier's instrumental writing is equally meticulous, marking the "contrast between the tenuousness of the recitative and the plenitude of the chorus, and above all of the device of silence".  The instrumental interlude that is the "Simphonie de la Nuit" marks in many ways the spiritual core of the first of the two parts of this Pastorale. A sublime "Paix en terre" completes the first half : voices and instruments in glorious harmony.

The second part of H.483 is a series of vignettes illustrating the Nativity scene.  Particularly attractive is the section "Cette nuit d'une vierge aussis pure que belle", the countertenor line lambent and clear, haloed by female voices. All three second parts follow the same pattern but each section within is different. In version H.483a,"We encounter the naïve and folklike elements which the first part of the work had completely avoided", writes Daucé. "Here the musical gesture draws on the same popular imagery with which painters and designers have always depicted the Nativity scene."  Especially imporessive is "Heureux bergers" for tenor with ensemble. This version ends joyously, voices accompanied by pipes, strings and percussion. "Faisons de nos joyeux cantiques", "Menuet de la Bergère" and " Ne laissons point sans louanges".  There are just four sections in the second part of version H.483b. "Le Soleil recommence à dorer nos montagnes" is contemplative, introducing a more reverential character.  The infant Jesus is addressed as  "Ouy Siegneur" framing the last section which is along as the first three sections put togerther, for it celebrates the "Source de lumière et de grâce".
Also included on the Ensemble Correspondances disc is Charpentiers' Grands antiennes de O de l'avent, (1693) ten anthems, each beginning with the word "O" on the veneration of Advent.

The best -known piece on this set will be Bach's Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium) BWV 248  with René Jacobs conducting the RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik  with soloists Dorothea Röschmann, Andreas Scholl, Werner Güra and Klaus Häger, all then at their prime. Recorded in 1997, this performance evokes the spirit of early 18th century Lutheran piety.  In modern times, we're overwhelmed by commercialized Christmas kitsch and consumerist excess, and the banality of the seasonal music that comes with it.  All the more reason then to turn to performances like this which reflect the real values of Christmas, and the promise of hope in dark times.  Strong stuff, but necessary.  The fourth disc on this set is a collection of pieces by Corelli (Concerto Grosso), Johann Rosenmüller, Buxtehude, Heinrich Schütz (Heute ist Christus geboren, Concerto Vocale/René Jacobs), Louis-Claude Daquin, Domenico Zipoli, and Claude Bénigne Balbastre from performances recorded between 1976 and 2004.

Monday 11 November 2019

Christmas at St George's, Windsor

Christmas at St George's Chapel, Windsor, with the Choir of St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, James Vivian, organist and conductor. New from Hyperion, this continues their series of previous recordings with this Choir.  The College of St George, founded in 1348, is unusual in that it is a Royal Peculiar, a parish under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch. The Choir of St George's Chapel comprises twelve lay clerks, who live within Windsor Castle, and  twenty choristers drawn from St. George's School nearby. St George's is a close-knit, residential community, providing services at daily office throughout the year : effectively the Queen's own chapel and choir.

This recording takes us through three important seasons in the liturgical calendar - Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.  Each section is planned in a sequence connecting the past to the present. William Byrd is represented three times - Vigilate for Advent, Puer natus est nobis for Christmas and Ecce Avenit for Epiphany,  serving as a pivot between the modern Church of England, the Reformation and the church before that.  The melody Creator of the Stars and Night used in the Vespers on the four Sundays in Advent, dates from the seventh century, heard here with a text from Victorian times. The cantor is Simon Whiteley. The polyphony of Byrd's Vigilate rings out beautifully in this Chapel, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.  Orlando Gibbons’ This is the record of St John, from the same period, connects to the new Anglican tradition. Both are complemented by Joseph Rheinberger's "Rorate caeli" from Neun Advent-Motteten op 176 (1893)  for four-part chorus.  Michael Finnissy's Telling (2008) sets an anonymous 16th century text."Man stands in doubt, but seeks about, where they mayest him see". Finnissy comments on the final chord of the refrain, on its "mystery, ambiguity and even irrationality". After all, a miracle has happened beyond normal understanding. "Must carols be fluffy and sentimental?", he asks. No qualms in the jolliness of  Arvo Pärt's Bogoróditse Djévo, from 1990 but already a Christmas  classic.  In an acknowledgement of other threads of the British choral tradition, A Tender Shoot by Otto Goldschmidt who founded the Bach Choir in 1875. If it sounds familiar, it's because it's a variation of the hymn to the Virgin Mary,  Es ist ein Ros' entrsprungen in English translation. John Gardner's Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (1966) is another modern classic, where the organ, usually solemn, does a jerky "dance".

Christmas here begins with Puer natus est nobis, twice, first as plainsong (Ben Alden, cantor), then in William Byrd's version, from his Gradualia Book 2, (before 1607), Alden being joined by two altos and the choir, the parts forming a tracery as elaborate and beautifully structured as the ceiling above the choir stalls in St George's Chapel.  "On Christmas night, all Christians Sing", is heard here based on the song collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in May, 1904, near Horsham, hence the title The Sussex Carol. The text was first published in the 17th century but its origins may go back even further.  Here it is heard in an arrangement by Philip Ledger from 1986, where the sound of pealing bells is evoked in the voice parts and organ.  "Minuit, chrétiens, c'est l'heure solennelle", Adolphe Adam's Cantique de Noël is here heard in the original, Nicholas Madden singing in fairly idiomatic French.  This isn't carol so much as art song, given that Adam wrote grand opera (Le postillon de Lonjumeau), audiences of the time expecting performance standards equal to what they might hear in the opera house.  Madden's voice rings clearly and carries well, supported by the organ.

More bells in Mykola Leontovich's The Carol of the Bells, an arrangement of the Ukrainian folksong Schedryck, heard here in English translation. Another Philip Ledger arrangement of a traditional carol, I saw Three Ships is followed by an arrangement by David Briggs of Away in the Manger. "I wrapped the original melody up in a post impressionist harmonic language, saturated in garlic and one or two other exotic, succulent herbs!".  It is a delight, Briggs’ background as an organist spicing up the organ part so it glows with rich warmth.  In contrast, the sparkling voices of the young choristers of St George's enliven The Seven Joys of Mary arranged by William Whitehead.
Just as the introit to Christmas in this collection began with plainsong and Byrd,  Epiphany is marked by Ecce Avenit, first with cantor Ben Alden, then with the full blown polyphony of William Byrd. West Gallery music, usually simple metrical psalm, originated in smaller parishes in Georgian times. The term "West Gallery" refers to the practice of placing choirs in a gallery on the west side of the chapel, facing the altar but behind the congregation. Their relative informality fell out of favour after the rise in popularity of organs and more organzied religious practice in the 19th century.  In Under the Greewood Tree, Thomas Hardy describes this social change in rural Dorset. West Gallery hymnal would have been even more remote from the perspective of high Victorian Windsor, so it's good to hear how the Choir of St George's Chapel enjoy singing A Gallery Carol, from Dorset, in an arrangement by Reginald Jacques. The background to Bethlehem Down is even more irreverent. Neither Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) nor Bruce Blunt, who wrote the text, were religious. They wrote the hymn for a newspaper competition to raise money so they could indulge in alcohol.  Nontheless, the hymn was an instant hit, and remains a favourite to this day. God moves in mysterious ways.  This most rewarding collection concludes with an exuberant flourish. Nowell Sing We was commissioned for the 2014 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in York Minster. The composer is Matthew Martin (b. 1976) Director of Music at Keble College, Oxford.  It's a heady mix blending Latin and English texts, in a spicy cocktail of sound, the organ wild and free, before a sudden, conventional coda.

Thursday 7 November 2019

Henry Purcell : King Arthur new edition Paul McCreesh Gabrieli Consort

The Gabrieli Consort : photo Andy Staples

A new edition of Henry Purcell's King Arthur by Paul McCreesh and Christopher Suckling from the Gabrieli Consort and Players.  "The editorial problems are many", writes Claire Seymout in Opera Today. "There is no manuscript of Dryden’s 1684 libretto and no reliable source for Purcell’s music: scholar Curtis Price has noted that instead we face ‘a confused assortment of more than sixty manuscripts and miscellaneous publications, none of which includes the complete music’.

When no music exists for songs which are printed in Dryden’s text, we cannot know if Purcell’s music is sadly lost or if he chose not set the lines in question

....;This new edition reflects their evolving interpretation and performance practice. Some text has been repositioned or. reworked; musical insertions have been made, in some places in response to gaps or ambiguities in the original sources, elsewhere to compensate for the absence of the spoken dialogue, or to provide fitting conclusions tthe acts and masques. Inconsistencies in the various manuscripts have been considered as performance, rather than ‘scholarly’, issues: McCreesh explains that ‘Our singers, like Purcell’s, would naturally grace their lines with rhythmic alterations and melodic extemporisations’, thereby rendering the question of which textual variant is ‘correct’ moot. Having examined contemporary sources, the decision was made to perform choruses and dances without continuo; the songs are accompanied by harpsichord, theorbo and guitar, without a string bass line.Please read the full, detailed review of the Gabrielli Consort's concert at St John's, Smith Square in Opera Today.

I've been enjoying the CD and it really is as good as the review says ! Highly recommended ! 

Tuesday 5 November 2019

Magic Bullets - Weber Der Freischütz, Equilbey Insula Barbican

From an early production of Der Freischütz 1822

Magic Bullets Carl Maria von Weber Der Freischütz, Laurence Equilbey conducting the Insula Orchestra and Choeur Accentus,  and soloists at the Barbican, London.  Weber's Der Freischütz Op. 77, J. 277 is a seminally important work, a milestone in music history, and represents a turning point, too, in wider European cultural history. Without Weber and Der Freischütz, music, not just opera, might
not be as we know it today. No Der Freischütz, no Wagner, no Berlioz, no Schumann, no Mahler.  Moreover it's a key document of the Romantic era and its revolutionary impact on culture, the arts, society and so much more.  Misunderstand Der Freischütz and misunderstand the 19th and 20th centuries !  A few years back some smalltown critic declared that if he didn't know it, ("it only has one tune!") it can't have been important. That says more about those who think that getting a press pass makes them somebody.  If they need to bring a friend to help, they shouldn't be doing the job. One of the messages in  Der Freischütz is that there's no such thing as a magic bullet.

In German speaking countries Der Freischütz is pretty much basic repertoire, and elsewhere in Europe, it's extremely well known. The classic recording was conducted by Carlos Kleiber, no less, and it was a favourite of Colin Davis who conducted it at his very last performance at the Barbican.  What's significant about this latest Barbican performance is that Equilbey, Insula and Accentus are specialist par excellence in French repertoire and aesthetics.  Though Der Freischütz does benefit from an understanding of the German context, there's no reason why it can't be approached from a different perspective.  Plenty of forests in France, plenty of hunting societies, plenty of upheavals in society.  Hector Berlioz was so inspired that he did an adaptation in French with a text he wrote himself.  It's very good - John Eliot Gardiner conducted it in London not all that long ago, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment marked their 30th anniversary with the German Der Freischütz and Mark Elder.  Indeed, a lighter, brighter period-informed style can connect better to Weber and his aesthetic than a more interventionist approach.

Der Freischütz was first performed in 1821, just seven years after Napoleon's defeat.  Many in the audiences in early performances would have had direct personal experience of  the wars and their impact on German-speaking lands, and a background knowledge of the Thirty Years War and its impact.  Romanticism has nothing to do with being "romantic" in the modern sense of the word   Its ideals galvanized European thought, especially in Germany which hitherto had been a diverse conglomeration of 300 states.  This period saw the growth of solidarity between German-language speakers, whatever their region. Nationalism then was a progressive, unifying force.  This interest in the past  wasn't about the past but a way of using the past to validate new ideas like national identity and the role of the individual. Thus the interest in German folklore, in Brentano and von Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, in the poetry of Gottfried Herder and even the concept "Gedanken sind Frei" (Read more here)  the individual as opposed to mass authority. From the Romantik sprang the revolutions of 1848, all over Europe, not just Germany. Understanding this context is fundamental to appreciating Der Freischütz

Der Freischütz portrays an idealized vision of the German past, where hunters provide sustenance  and live (more or less) in harmony with Nature.  But remember that forests can be dangerous places. Not for nothing are they a symbol of the unknown, and of the unconscious. Read Simon Schama: Landscape and Memory (2004), Jeffrey Wilson The German Forest (2012).  And, for that matter Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment.  Disney sanitized our appreciation of fairy tales as folk psychology, and infantilized meaning. Absolutely resist the idea that Der Freischütz should either be sentimental or kitsch.  The people in this opera inhabit a world where danger and loss is never very far away.  Max, a humblejunior huntsman, wants to marry Agathe, the boss's daughter, but in this rigid, hierarchical society he has no chance of challenging the social order. To win Agathe, he has to do a deal with the Devil, whom Samiel represents.  If Max escapes in the end, it's only because Caspar pays the price and Prince Ottokar intervenes as deus ex machina. It's a near thing. Agathe could have been killed and Max executed for murder.  

Weber's music is exquisitely beautiful, as if it were, like the magic bullet, deflecting truth from those who can't handle reality.  Magic Bullets are not a solution. Indeed, this opera can even allude to the dangers of quick-fix nationalism and instant expertise. Utterly relevant in modern times.  When we listen to Weber's hunting horns and rousing choruses, we should think about what's being hunted, and why. The music is ravishingly beautiful because it emphasizes the beauty of life, refreshed by the connections to Nature that hunting for food depends on. But killing is a bloody business, it's not pretty and it's not sentimental 

 Because I was suddenly taken ill the night before, my partner went alone (too late to give away the spare). Veteran of many Freischützs, he appreciated Equilbey's approach, and had a wonderful time. "Superbly done. Great orchestra and singers and a subtle, simple semi-staging ,including a brilliant dancer/acrobat as an omnipresent Samiel, writhing about like a lizard or creeping like a wolf. And all the dialogue - no nonsense of messing about with it.". Fortunately, Equilbey, Insula and Accentius have been touring Europe with Der Freischütz and will be releasing a new recording in the near future. A must, I think.

Saturday 2 November 2019

Strong and dignified : Berlioz Requiem Pablo Heras-Casado, Orchestre de Paris

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Orchestre de Paris, the choir of the Orchestre de Paris and the orchestra of the Conservatoire de Paris, in Hector Berlioz Requiem (Grand Messe des Morts) (streamed here on together with Witold Lutosławski Musique funèbre à la mémoire de Béla Bartók.  Heras-Casado is fast becoming the kind of conductor who doesn't just conduct extremely well, but also finds distinctive insights into the music he conducts. He did a superlative recent Manuel de Falla CD with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, for example, which applies that orchestra's virtuosity to de Falla, bringing out the verve and audacity that animates the music. Flamenco isn't soft or wimpy - its very discipline makes it electrifying.   Now we can hear why Harmonia Mundi only issued Granados Goyescas and not El amor brujo from the recent Josep Pons BBC SO concert. Many years ago, when Heras-Casado was very young, he appeared in one of Boulez's masterclass videos.  We can't judge from short clips, but evidently Boulez. who heard a lot more,  appreciated him. Boulez was right !

Combining Berlioz and Witold Lutosławski on this programme from the Philharmonie de Paris emphasized how innovative Berlioz was in his own time.  By no means is the Lutoslawski an add-on. It enhances the Berlioz Requiem, not that it needs enhancing, but adds to the overall impact of the experience.  There has been a lot of excellent Berlioz this year, and several Berlioz Requiems this year, some very good, some less so.  But Heras-Casado stands out. Again, Heras-Casado works with the strengths of the orchestra and choruses, adapting the clarity and commitment of the style. A lucid interpretation, shining with intelligence. Berlioz was flamboyant,  but beneath that, his mind was sharp and highly original.  After the refined Introit, the Dies Irae emerged with dark, ominous majesty. Tight, precise rhythms, underlining the tense pitting of one choral section against the other, creating a sense of division and anxiety. Thus the explosive release in the fanfare where the combined chorus blazed, underpinned by rumbling brass and percussion, evoking thunder, voices rising like the spirits of the dead. With dignity, for the dead will not go unvanquished.  Plaintive single instruments like cor, and the tenderness of the Lachrymosa.  Our sympathy is with humble human souls, now lost to death, the rising brass and percussion underlining depth of feeling.

The Domine and the Hostias mark a transition, like an Offertory in a Mass, when the host is consecrated, bringing God into the community, reminding believers why Jesus sacrificed for man.  The soloist is Frédéric Antoun, who's very impressive. A pity that Berlioz didn't give the tenor more to do, but the part, though relatively small, is critical : Antoun's voice rings out powerfully, above the hushed chorus, his timbre shining, as if surrounded by light.  On the video, Antoun is shown spotlit, standing alone, above the orchestra and choirs.  Now the Requiem enters its destination:  glorious Hosana, in excelcis, the chorus interacting like the pealing of bells, Antoun's voice ringing divinely. "Behold the Lamb of God", that's what the Agnus Dei means. Thus the hushed reverence in the choruses and the long, clear chords in the orchestra, with baleful undertones, penerating into the distance. Berlioz may not have been devout, but he knew that religion can be a form of theatre.  The conclusion isn't triumphalist, but comtemplative, like a reflection upon the miracle that has occured.  Heras-Casado's approach is deeply committed, strong minded and assured : very much cognizant of what a Grand Messe des Morts should be.