Sunday, 15 December 2019

Alua - Macau's international Christmas pudding

Alua or Aluar, traditional Christmas delicacy in Macau. As the photo shows, it's now sold in shops as "Western style Nien Go", ie a variant of the Chinese New Year treat Nien Go (cake/pudding that marks the arrival of a new year). Both are made from more or less the same ingredients, glutious rice, bing tong (slab brown sugar, either Chinese style or what was known as Jagari, from India), coconut milk, nuts, and sometimes lard or butter (Macau style). Heavy duty - you can only eat a sliver at a time, even when it's fried or steamed to soften it. An excuse to wash it down with lots of Chinese tea.  The surface texture was slightly greasy, and the colour usually dark brown, like the sugar, with almonds and extra coconut.  The treat is also supposed to have Indian origins, with Persian, Goanese and Malay versions as well, which isn't so surprising given that these were points on the trade routes between China and theWest from the 16th century.

Making Alua was hard work - the rice had to be ground down fine with mortar and pestle, and the mix steamed for ages. Families  that made it tended to make it in batches, which were then sold throughout the community. Certain cooks were famous, their wares highly sought after : they took bookings well in advance. Read more HERE.  The last time I ate alua was in Macau when I was a teenager, delicious batch from an elderly lady whose family had been making it each season for 250 years.  Calories and cholesterol weren't an issue then, since most of the year people lived on simple fare - vegetables, fish and rice, and religious Fast Days, and abstinence before Mass were strictly observed.  Christmas was a very big thing in the Macanese community because it reinforced Catholic identity, at a time when being a Christian was definitely a minority thing, and the Macanese with their mixed origins and influences, not part of mainstream Portuguese society.  When my Dad was a kid, man y still celebrated in the old Macau style - heaving tables of food, decorated with home made lace doilies and paper flowers, rows of oranges lining cupboards and shelves (oranges also being a Chinese symbol of happiness and hope). You didn't dare miss Mass, you prayed all week in front of the Nativity.  Lots of other festive dishes like giant meatloaf,  cakes and candies like Farté, cookies supposed to represent soft pillows for the Infant Jesus. Aluar represented the hard mattress (hardship) on which he was born, a refugee, fleeing for his life, something that was integral to our understanding of the meaning of Christmas, when God became man. No Coca-Cola Santa ! no commercial tack and excess.You can't in any case overdose on Alua, or your digestion will rebel. 

Macanese home cooking bears little to no relation to what's served in restaurants these days. Beware many of the cookbooks and "guides".  Even the BBC does Macau food, but the recipes are a joke. Things like African Chicken were invented in the early 1960's by professional chefs. Fortunately, families lucky enough to have hand written recipes from way back, are collectingm them and publishing them within the Macanese community.  Still, closely guarded semi-secrets.  HERE is an excellent and authentic community resource.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Vladimir Jurowski : John Foulds Dynamic Triptych, Shostakovich 11

“Revolution in the Head" strange title for the concert by Vladmir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London, featuring John Foulds’s Dynamic Triptych and Shostakovich Symphony no 11 "The Year 1905".  Jurowski's Shostakovich is always good, and he's done this particular symphony many times, but this performance was extraordinary - valedictory, tender, and intense committed. Frankly, we can never get enough of performances like this, and of Jurowski's characteristic intelligence and world-vision. I'll miss his short discussions which go way beyond the score, to the very essence of human creativity.

But why "Revolution in the head" ? Not the obvious connection with the insurrections of 1905, but  what they may or may not have foretold. A few years back there was a quiz through which you could figure out what type of revolutionary you'd have been at the time. It was so erudite and so detailed that the only people who got it would have been historians, but my goodness it was accurate !
What of John Foulds’s Dynamic Triptych op. 88 (1929)? Foulds has cult status and attracts exaggerated claims. Dynamic Triptych is readily accessible, as it deals with three basic elements of composition : mode, timbre and rhythm, each developed with playful inventiveness.  Even humour - listen out for the off the wall sound in the second section when the whole idea of timbre melts away, almost as ethereal as a theremin. The soloist here was Peter Donohue, with whom Sakari Oramo recorded the Dynamic Triptych with the CBSO fourteen years ago.

On the radio, Donohue says that Foulds's' reputation as a composer of light music affected his reception, but Foulds's' World Requiem (1919-21) is hardly light music. More worrying is the idea that Foulds was eclipsed by Schoenberg and American composers, though Ives and Varèse then were marginal figures.  The fact is that composers had been experimenting with new approaches to modality, timbre and rhythm for quite some time.  As for the Orientalism that so inspired Foulds, that too was nothing new.  Orientalism isn't just about the orient but the promise of intriguing new ways of expression. In Germany, the Idea of the East inspired Goethe, Beethoven, Mozart and of course Mahler, Zemlinsky and others.  In France, contact with other civilizations influenced art, poetry, music to an even greater extent. In Italy, think Puccini, and in Russia, think Stravinsky. Even if one were to restrict comparisons only to British music, we have the examples of Gustav Holst, Samuel Colderidge-Taylor, Delius, Sorabji and Benjamin Britten.  And of course Ralph Vaughan Williams and others studying the modes of earlier western tradition.  British music isn't "pastoral" or insular, however much some might prefer it to be. Why blame Schoenberg (and Americans) when so much else was going on ? Foulds’s' Dynamic Triptych isn't that "strange" either when you consider what else was being written in the explosion of creative freedom of the 1920's and 30's. Perhaps Foulds’s' time will really come when he's appreciated not as an oddity but in the context of his time.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Baroque Odyssey - 40 years of Les Arts Florissants - Barbican review

Baroque Odyssey - major retrospective at the Barbican, London,  honouring Les Arts Florissants.  "This gala performance at the Barbican Hall celebrated those 40 years of performances and pioneering, taking us on a tour of the Baroque, starting in England and then hopping across to the Channel to conclude in France. With a flourish, Christie invited the three trumpeters (Guy Ferber, Gilles Rapin, Serge Tizac) of Les Arts Florissants and percussionist Marie-Ange Petit to welcome us with a vibrant, surging fanfare. The Sinfonia to Act 3 of Handel’s Atalanta introduced the rest of the instrumentalists, the violins (led by Hito Kurosaki) standing, the string sound beautifully tender and warm, and enriched by sweet oboes (Peter Tabori and Machiko Ueno) and dynamic theorbo (Thomas Dunford). Zadok the Priest was characterised by fluidity, as lovely long bow strokes swept the waves of harmony onwards, indeed almost seeming to catch out the Choir of Les Arts Florissants who leapt to their feet just in time for their stirring choral entry. Christie coaxes, rather than ‘conducts’: his performers clearly know what he wants and how to create it, and the ensemble camaraderie was plain to see", writes Claire Seymour.

Please read the FULL REVIEW HERE in Opera Today 

This concert and tour co-incides with the release of a special edition recording  by Harmonia Mundi

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Semyon Bychkov : Detlev Glanert Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

At the Barbican, London, Semyon Bychkov conducted Detlev Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch, commissioned for the 500th anniversary of the painter's birth,  and premiered in Sint Janskathedraal, 's-Hertogenbosch, in April 2016.  It was a huge public occasion, celebrating the rich heritage of the region. Bosch lived most of his life in 's-Hertogenbosch, which was part of the Duchy of Brabant, with a thriving economy that supported artists as well as merchants. Over the centuries, the area was a target for larger empires - the Dukes of Burgundy, then the Hapsburgs.  Bychkov's programme acknowledges the Flemish background, featuring choral works by Johannes Ockeghem (1410-25? to 1494), Thomas Crecquillon (1505 -1557) and Pierre de la Rue (1452-1518) with Andrew Griffiths conducting the BBC Singers.

Detlev Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch might be new to London but it was a huge hit, when the first recording was released in June 2017 with Markus Stenz conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which I reviewed at the time. Glanert's by no means unknown. He's been a Proms favourite for years. Please read my review of the Proms performance in 2019 HERE, with Bychkov conducting the BBC SO. 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 at the ENO, but sadly misunderstood,  (see more here and my review of the Frankfurt production Frankfurt here). Glanert and Bychkov have known each other from the days when Bychkov conducted WDR Köln, so it would be interesting to hear how he approaches the piece. 

Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch has all the elements for instant popular success.  It helps that the paintings are so much part of popular culture that everyone recognizes his images of extreme excess.  Bosch's people wear medieval dress, but their actions depict the subconscious, the Id and existential guilt in operation, centuries before the concepts of psychology found expression in formal language. Like Carl Orff's  Carmina Burana, Glanert's Requiem is highly dramatic music theatre, adapting the cataclysmic dreamscapes of Bosch's paintings into music of extremes as lurid as Bosch's images.  This Requiem unfolds in 18 episodes, rather like panels in a medieval triptych. This gives the piece structure, making it easy to follow. The teeming, sprawling  panoramas Bosch depicts could plausibly be depicted in sound, but that would probably be asking too much of most audiences. Like Bosch, though, Glanert's piece replicates extremes. Literally heaven and hell, for the premise is the judgement Bosch faces after death. 

Thus the standard elements of a Requiem Mass are interleaved with the Seven Deadly Sins. The acrid flames of hellfire whipping against the smoke of incense. A harsh Voice (David Wilson-Johnson, narrating) calls from above "Hieronymus Bosch!" Immediately we spring to attention.  Bells ring. Throbbing, rushing figures in the choral line, suggesting the doomed hordes we see in Bosch's paintings. The orchestral lines veer wildly, lit by screaming brass, the chorus screaming to crescendo.   Suddenly the forces fragment and, from the silence, a slow, low penitential intonation.  An abstract Requiem Aeternam, the choral line flowing ambiguously, in almost microtonal haze. like smoke.  In Gluttony the bass (the aptly named Christof Fischesser) sings of food, his lines circular and rotund. The text may be in Latin, but the meaning is clear.  The choir responds with the long, thin lines of an Absolve Domine. reinforced by Wrath with tenor (Gerhard Siegel)  and a Dies Irae which ends with a vivid orchestral flourish. Another demon, Envy, fights back. Soprano Aga Mikolaj's fluid, curving lines mimic the lines in the "heavenly" chorus - imitation is a sign of envy! But the serene  Juste judex prevails. 

But where are we? The organ solo (Leo van Doeselaar) lets rip with a frenzy that suggests a cathedral organ hijacked by Satan.  Despite the extremes of volume and tempi, the lines between heaven and hell are, tellingly, blurred. In Sloth, the soprano sings langorously, joined in sensuous duet by the mezzo (Ursula Hesse von den Steinen). Pride, Lust and Avarice appear, but the balance shifts towards the big guns : Full choir, offstage choir, and orchestra in increasingly full throttle : listen for the jazzy culmination of the Domine Jesu Christe. and the funky trumpet that heralds the Agnus Dei. With the Libera Me and Peccatum, we are in Carmina Burana territory, bursting forth in a blaze, the earthly chorus in raucuous flow, augmented by brass and percussion and the offstage chorus singing of lux perpetua.  Big forces. But is might right ? Glanert's Requiem ends In Paradisium, here the Voice from Above recites lines from the Book of Revelation. Apocalyptic visions, marking the end of the world and of time.  Now, when the Voice screams "Hieronymus!", he doesn't add a demonic epithet. With an unearthly low hum, the choir sings of the chorus angelorum that brings eternal rest.

Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch is a public piece rather than a work of inward  contemplation. Nonetheless, as with so much that Glanert writes, subversive humour lurks within. In this Bosch Requiem, Glanert again and again mixes grotesque with irony. Just as the vastness of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana appealed to Nazi taste, the vastness of  this Requiem veers on parody.  Will it be loved for its vulgarity or its irony? Just as the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch reveal the viewer, Glanert's Requiem reveals the listener.  In this case, I think it's the wamth of Glanert's vision, and his compassion for the quirkier aspects of human life, which Hieronymus Bosch himself  had no qualms about depicting.  In the 2 1/2 years since I first heard the piece, it's grown on me, a lot.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Mariss Jansons treasures now online

Plenty of good Mariss Jansons classic concerts online now, in memorial. 

Mariss Janson's last concert at Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Antonín Dvořák Symphony no 9, Saint-Saëns Symphony no 3 (from 22nd March 2019) Highly recommended !

Mariss Jansons with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 2012 with Nina Stemme. Strauss Don Juand and Wagner Wesendock-Lieder. Only available to 31/12/19 and in Europe excluding UK. Or use a VPN.

Mariss Janson's Brahms Requiem from the Lucerne Festival in 2006 This one's really good ! Do not miss.

Mariss Jansons last concert in Munich from 11th October 2019 - Strauss and Brahms' Symphony no 4.

Scads on France Musique on Mariss Jansons

Probably plenty more if you search., there was a concert from St Petersburg, (not YT, which is full of pirates) which seems to have been pulled. It was somewhat unusual, it was a celebration when Janssons was honouring Temirakov. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Vaughan Williams Symphonies 3 & 4 Martyn Brabbins Hyperion

Latest in the Hyperion series, Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphonies no 3 and 4, with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in late 2018 after a series of live performances. Following on from  A Sea Symphony (read more here)  and A London Symphony, this series is proving to be a major contribution to the discography. Vivid, thought-through performances, immensely rewarding.

In this Vaughan Williams Symphony no 3, the introduction to the Molto moderato seems to vibrate as if from within. Deliberately ambiguous textures, constantly shifting and unsettled. Despite the poignant  violin, (which might suggest The Lark Ascending) this is not complacent.  As Vaughan Williams himself wrote, "It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted."  The oboe and cor anglais intensify the irony, for these instruments remind us what the fields of France might have been before they became battlegrounds.

The horn solo with which the Lento movement begins further reinforces the battlefield connotations, at once a reveille and and Last Taps. Gradually lines stretch forward, but the landscape is still haunted by the ambiguities of the first movenment , the panorama seen, as it were behind smoke and rain.  The trumpet cadenza, played without valves sounds deliberately hollow, as if blown not quite in tune by an ordinary foot soldier : too much polish would not work. Yet more irony, since it takes considerable skill on the part of a trained professional to achieve such results.  The ascending tessitura suggests gradual change of perspective, upwards into another realm. Does the trumpet here foretell the Last Trumpet at the End of Time ?  In the third movement, bright figures suggest freedom.  They introduce the vigourous, earthy dances of the scherzo, which may or may not signify the music of earlier times with which Vaughan Williams was so familiar. But are these dances bucolic or brutalist ?  This symphony operates on many different levels.

In the final movement, Vaughan Williams employs a human voice, (Elizabeth Watts) albeit one singing ethereal wordless vocalize.  If the trumpet at the end of the second movement signifires the Last Trumpet, the voice here might signify angels, but not neccessarily. Perhaps it’s a reminder that some things are beyond human comprehension and may never be bridged.  Elizabeth Watts' timbre is pure and unworldly, with just enough warmth to suggest some tantalizing form of comfort. Her voice echoes from afar, for distance matters : there is a dividing line between this world and whatever may or may not lie ahead.  The re-entry of the orchestra  brings us back to earth. There are echoes of the dances in the scherzo, of the high string tessituras and wind instruments, now embellished by harp and celeste.  The expansive, searching lines now rise with greater fullness than before, yet recede into near-silence. The voice continues, alone.

Of his Symphony no 4 in F minor, Vaughan Williams told Sir Henry Wood, "I don't like the work itself much but it is undoubtedly a very fine piece". Good music "exists" by its own creative volition : it's not manufactured to preconceived specifications like a consumer product.  As the composer was later to write "I do think it beautiful...because we know that beauty can come from unbeautiful things". 

Brabbins shapes the introduction so it seems to explode with fierce but controlled force.  Although this fanfare might seem shocking, it does connect to other aspects of the composer’s work.  At times I was reminded of the figure in the Antiphon in Five Mystical Songs "The Church with psalms must shout....My God and King ". Vaughan Williams, who knew the Bible and Messianic traditions, understood the concept of forces so powerful that they cannot be constrained.  Pounding ostinato, trumpets (again, Biblical significance) ablaze, trombones and tuba add depth.  The theme isn't meant to be soothing. It could reflect the "terrible beauty" from the Book of Job Ch 37, 17-22, though there is nothing religious about this symphony. The references merely serve to indicate that a cataclysm of some sort is being unleashed.

More brass in the second movement, marked andante moderato, but this time more restrained, the strings of the BBCSO murmuring en masse, from which the woodwind line rises, moving ever upwards.  A sense of unease : tense pizzicato creating a fragile though regular beat. The flute melody, exquisitely played, has a poignant quality: painfully alone but unbowed.  Wildness returns with the third movement, brass pounding, trombones creating long zig-zag lines. For a moment the tuba leads a trio with grunting bassoons. The term "scherzo" means "joke" but the humour here is darkly ironic. This colours the sprightly theme which follows : it's not escapist. The swaggering thrust of the first movement returns, angular dissonances flying in all directions, clod-hopping ostinato suggesting grotesque horror.  The Finale is "con epilogo fugato" : no easy resolution, no easy answers.  Given Brabbins' grounding in modern and modern British music, his approach to this symphony is particularly interesting, full of insight and freedom. intuitively executed.

The bonus on this recording is the premiere of Saraband, taken by Brabbins from an unpublished manuscript. This brief cantata, for voice, chorus and orchestra, with David Butt-Philip as soloist, sets lines from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Fautus, describing Helen of Troy. Drafted in 1913-14, but not completed, the work was set aside by other pressures of work. Even in embryo, it's an interesting work which bears the mark of the composer at this fertile stage in his career.

Mariss Jansons, aged 10, with conductor Dad and Svatoslav Richter

Arvids Jansons, with Mariss in short pants, aged 10. The pianist is Svatoslav Richter.  The value of music education early in life !  In this case music education at the highest, hands-on level. Early exposure to the idea that the arts are a fundamental part of civilization.  Some, these days, live the mantra "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun!", since they already know all there is to know.  Their loss.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Mourning Mariss Jansons

Mariss Jansons has died, aged only 76.  "An era draws to a close" as BR Klassik has announced.  "Es war diese glühende Intensität, die das Musizieren von Mariss Jansons so unverwechselbar machte. Sein Leben war von rigorosem Arbeitsethos geprägt, von unermüdlichem Partiturstudium und schonungsloser Selbstdisziplin." (He had a glowing intensity that made his musicianship distinctive. His life was marked by a rigorous work ethic, tireless score study and relentless self-discipline".
Jansons wasn't flashy, he wasn't vulgar and he didn't pander to popularity.  He was motivated above all by music and his love for his art.  His mother was an opera singer, but, because she was Jewish, she bore him under harsh conditions in hiding in Riga in 1943. Her family didn't survive.  His father Arvid Jansons (1914-1984) conducted the Riga Opera. Latvia was soviet bloc, so in Cold War times, he also worked in Leningrad, with Mravinsky and Sanderling.  As a small child, Mariss grew up immersed in opera and ballet . He’d pull his shirt up as if he was wearing a frock coat and play at being a conductor. "Bücher waren meine Partituren,ein Stück Holz mein Taktstock. Ich war total begeistert von diesem Beruf", he said. (Books were my scores, and a little wooden stick my baton). Later in life, he'd mentor many others, including Andris Nelsons. I cannot comprehend the hostility that has surfaced in some circles after the news of Jansons' death.  So what if he's not known in all corners of the earth ? Better that his passing gives those who missed out during his lifetime a chance to find out more.
Jansons was such a familiar figure that it seemed as though he was part of the fabric of our listening experience.  We seemed to hear him all the time, in many places. So many concerts, so many recordings !  Currently, I'm listening to his Mahler Symphony no 3 with Oslo Philharmonic, released just weeks ago.  Most attention goes to Jansons's mainstream work, but he was also a champion of more unusual repertoire.  Here is my review of Jansons conducting the world premiere of Wolfgang Rihm, probably Germany's greatest living composer.  Sadly appropriate in the circumstances.

"....Is there an afterlife in Rihm's meditation on life and death ? His Requiem-Strophen concludes with an Epilog, using the text of Hans Sahl's poem Strophen, published in 2009. The poem itself is elliptical, phrases repeated with slight variation, so it lends itself perfectly to Rihm's approach. “Ich gehe langsam aus der Welt heraus in eine Landschaft jenseits aller Ferne”…..and what I was and am and will stay forever, “zeht mit mir ohne Ungeduld und Eile, als war ich nie gewesen oder kaum”.(Go with me without impatience as if I had never been or hardly was). The soloists are in repose, but the choir sings on, serenely, and the orchestra rises to new heights. The ebb and flow and stop start pulse remains, its significance revealed. The pulse of an individual human body might cease, but others continue to beat and will do so in bodies as yet unborn. Rihm, like Schoenberg before him, has always acknowledged his appreciation of Johannes Brahms, whose German Requiem is an obvious model, though Rihm's idiom is uniquely his own. Rihm's Requiem-Strophen is therefore much more than a generalized Requiem but also a tribute to artists, poets and composers who have gone on before, and an inspiration for creative minds in the future."