Sunday, 5 April 2020

Viruses don't discriminate : Mass with the Pope at the Vatican


Viruses don't choose people by who they are, what they  believe or how important they think they are. In time of pandemic all of us are equal.  The worst virus of all is hate.  Indeed, we might not be in this situation hadn't we been exploited politically in the first place. Pope Francis said Mass on Palm Sunday at the Vatican. Usually it's packed with worshippers who come from all over the world.  This year, only key celebrants, carefully spaced apart.  In crisis, we are all alone. But thanks to international livestream we can all participate, including billions who don't have to share the religion but appreciate universal basic human values.

In his sermon, the Pope addressed  the COVID crisis and its impact.  Jesus was betrayed by his own friends, which is much more hurtful than being persecuted by strangers.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, he faced up to mortality, and made his choice: to save others by giving up his own physical life.  "My God, my God, why have thou abandoned me?".  But he wasn't  abandoned, however hard it must have felt. The Pope specifically mentioned the heroes who are putting themselves selflessly in danger, for the sake of others.  In  Britain  where the National Health Survice is dependent on immigrants, and the descendants thereof, that means Muslims, and others too. So much for blaming minorites.  Many others sacrifice, too, like transport workers, delivery systems personnel, social carers, underpaid cleaners, and ordinary people whodse jobs may never come back. And sadly the vulnerable, with health conditions who can't get basic needs fulfilled.  It's easy to say, like Our Dear Leader Boris, that "every family should be prepared to lose someone".  Indeed the statistics behind the Herd Immunity model are bogus.

In the emptiness of that grand basilica, the fundamentals of faith spoke out even more clearly than  before. The architecture means nothing in comparison to simple sincerity. No offertory procession which does matter, but not in these circumstances. Instead, a frail old man in his 80's performing the ceremony itself, by himself : an act of humility.  Those acres of white marble are symbolic : purity, and great endurance.  That's what faith's about - any true faith.  When the Pope blessed the poor and the sick on Ash Wednesday, many went apoplectic. But why should he hide and save himself ? The Jesus he believes in gave himself that others might live. Miss that and miss the whole message of love and compassion.  This year Holy Week is more personal and vivid than ever before, as those who wish can follow Jesus on his journey from death to life.

 

Friday, 3 April 2020

Richard Tauber stars with Jimmy Durante - Forbidden Music !

Not an April Fool !  Richard Tauber statrs with Jimmy Durante in Land without Music aka Forbidden Music.  In a tiny principality somewhere in Mittel-Europa, the peasants make music all te time. The cattle in the field plough their furroughs unatteneded, whike the peasants make music - a farmer playing a (concert bassoon) and an old man in nightgown a horn.  Somehow the country exists in a time warp from the late 18th century - elaborate military uniforms for the rich, bucolic blouses for the poor.  Because the locals have other values, a bigger, more aggressive country threatens  to take them over. Princess-Regent Maria Renata (played by Diane Napier, Tauber's real-life wife) decrees music should henceforth be banned in Look-a , with severe penalties.  Since the film was made in 1936 the political parallels are obvious. This isn't just a comedy.

Jonah J Whistler, an American newspaperman, arrives in Look-a driving a horse-drawn carraige with his daughter Sadie. She wears early 19th century dimity, but she's utterly "modern" with her wisecracking repartee.   Since the secret police are cracking down on music, there's a mixup at customs. Jonah and Sadie's trunk has been swtched for a cache of musical instruments which include violin, balalaika, trumpet and much, much else.  "But I don;'t even know what a harpishord (sic) is" snorts Jonas.  Enter too,  Richard Tauber as Mario Carlini, a tenor with golden upper notes which he can extend almost to a scream, with a habit of bursting  into song at the oddest moments. The brigands are so impressed that they protect him from the secret police. Now that the people of Look-a have instruments again, they can organize concerts, just like dissidents getting together underground. While checking out the forest for  a meeting place, Tauber, who remains  Tauber whatever role he's playing, meets Princess Maria Renata and charms her, against her better judgement.

To cut a long story short, the son of the head of the Secret Police, Count Strozzi, falls in love with Sadie and she with him. when Tauber, Durante and the peasants are arrested and put into prison, Strozzi junior helps them.  From his cell, Tauber sings, so loudly that the whole principality can hear and join in. Revoution ! The population storm the gates of the prison and the musicians march out, heading the cheering masses. The scene is a fairly pointed take on the Solidarity Song sequence in Kuhle Wampe, which the Nazis didn't like, one bit.  So the princess relents and orders Look-a to make music its local industry.  Gold coins fill the coffers ! Music is OK, as long as it serves commerce and politics.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.  The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had beeen planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca, (much of this reviewed by me - please see links below). Hrůša, a close associate of Bělohlávek, conducted the Czech Philharmonic's memorial to Bělohlávek in September 2017 (Dvořák Stabat Mater). The performance of Dvořák Requiem on this recording was made in Spetember 2017 at the start of the Dvořák Festival in Prague, also in honour of Bělohlávek. Although Bělohlávek himself was only able to record the Dvořák Biblical Songs op 99 (with another Bělohlávek regular, Jan Martinik) this recording is effectively a monument to Bělohlávek, and a worthy successor to the rest of the Decca series. Hrůša's Requiem, capturing the full emotional intensity of that memorial concert in the Rudolfinium, Prague, where everyone on the platform and in the audience had personal knowledge of Bělohlávek and what he meant.

Requiems commemorate the dead, and for those who believe, encapsulate the central tenet of Christianity. Dvořák's religious beliefs were profound, shaping his Requiem as a testament of faith. The Kyrie, by far the longest part of the first section, is a funeral march, the pace measured and dignified.The strings create a reverential hush,  but one lit by luminous, transcendental light. This reflects the text :  "Requiem aeternum dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis". The promise of eternal light, even in the depths of anguish.  "Kyrie eleison" thus has context.  In the second Requiem aeternum, a solo emerges and the pace picks up : lines pulsate, as if in anticipation.  

The Dies Irae marks a transition : powerful chords underline a sense of violent change. A trumpet calls forth, the "tuba mirum spargens sonum" whose baleful sound heralds the Day of Wrath that marks the End of Time and the mass resurrection of all who have died. Thus the tenor part, with its prayer-like intonation, and the fierce outbursts from choir and orchestra. The plaintive Quid sum miser states that mankind is weak but salvation lies through "Rex tremendae majestis". With the Recordare, Dvořák's identity re-asserts itself in the loosely Bohemian personality inn the orchestral line, here highlighted by the sensitivity of Hrůša and this orchestra who understand it so well. The soloists, Michael Spyres, Jan Martinik, Ailyn Pérez and Christianne Stotjin form an ensemble like a garland.  With the Confutatis maledictus and the Lacyrmosa, (particularly beautiful singing and playing) this constant interplay of turbulence and tenderness creates inner momentum, intensifying a sense of forward thrust. 

This underlines the structure of this Requiem, the first part building up to the second.  With the Offertum, the bass part, haloed by harps and choir, suggests depth and profundity, the female soloists and tenor enhancing this new mood of confidence. "Sed signifer sanctus Michael reporesentet eas in lucern sanctum". Vigorous rhythms replace the funereal tread of the first Requiem Aeterum. the trumpet now introduces a Hostias where the soloists ring out pure and the chorus (Prague Philharmonic Choir) very well parted. With the Sanctus, yet another change. As this Requiem reaches its conclusion, its spirit transforms.  Even the Pie Jesu is affirmative, multiple voices together welcoming Eternal Rest.  This Agnus Dei is a wonder, the luminous textures of the first Requiem Aeternum now illuminating the singing and playing transcedent glory.  Delicately paced diminuendos create the image of heavenly peace. Truly "lux perpetua luceat eis". And truly Hrůša's Dvořák Requiem truly establishes the significance of the piece in our appreciation of the composer himself. 

Dvořák's Biblical Songs op 103 enhance the impact of the Requiem. The songs set texts from the Book of Psalms. The vocal line is dignified, even austere, emphasizing the enduring power of these verses which have inspired people for thousands of years. The orchestral line is restrained, letting the voice ring out with Biblical portent. Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic have the Dvořák idiom in their genes, bringing out the distinctive rhythms and character, which enlivens this performance without dominating. I'm very much taken with Jan Martinik, whose voice has natural richness and colour, and delivers with understated power. He worked very closely with Bělohlávek and the Národní divadlo and regularly featured in Bělohlávek's numerous concerts in London. Definitely a recommended recording, even though there is much competition. 

In this performance of Dvořák's Te Deum op 99 recorded by Hrůša in December 2018, the brass are bright and assertive, the rhythms confident and distinctively idiomatic. There are echoes of the composer's ninth symphony, but it is essentially a celebratory showpiece for large orchestra and massed voices, and presented here with great verve. The baritone is Svatopluk Sem, another Bělohlávek favourite and Národní divadlo regular, and the soprano is Kateřina Kněžíkov. Much is made of the high profile premiere in 1892, but the sad truth is that Dvořák was never paid.  When a cheque finally arrived, it failed to clear.  Oddly enough that fits in with the idea of a Requiem. No matter what worldly status might bring, at the end we all end up the same so what you believe might make a difference.

Please also see more about the Bělohlávek Decca series

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Prince Nico Mbarga and his Sweet Mother

A few years back  someone did a "life satisfaction" survey and Nigeria came out tops. Despite the poverty and disorder !  People chase material wealth but where do real values come from ?  Back in 1976 Price Nico Mbarga wrote Aki Special, an instant hit fusing  West African music from the time with traditional styles. His introduction expresses things which might explain how some people retain good values despite the chaos of  the world around them.

"This life is wonderful, but don't be proud because you have it, it comes from God" (ie fate)  "Almighty" he sings after a short pause "Pickin-o good-o, if you get, if you no gettem.... . "Money is good-o, money good-o, we know, if you get, but don't laugh, many people no get's...but if you no gets, make you no cry, first time is the best. Opportunity comes but once in this world. Who knows tomorrow, my friend? Nobody knows tomorrow...."

Prince Nico Mbarga (1950-1997) didn't make any money from his hits, not even from his Sweet Mother the all-time iconic African classic because the business model there is different.  Though records sell, they;re often pirated copies and artists don't necessaruily get royalties. Sweet Mother was played everywhere and adapted naturally into many cultures, since it captures the spirit of women who keep society going, no matter what. Strong women suffer, but they aren't selfish.  For sure women are oppressed and don't have equal opportunities, but their values keep the world going. In Africa, women do everytrhing - farming,  business, child care etc  and still somehow they carry on.  Prince Nico didn't live cocooned in luxury. Born in Ikom in Nigeria, he lived in Cameroon, where his father came from, at 17 was forced to leave start all over again in Nigeria, where his mother came from.  He stayed in Ikom more  or less permannetly, not being a model husband or father, but middle class western values do not apply to everyone.  At the age of 47, he was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Sweet Mother begins with a swanky guitar riff - very 70's ! - but the words are down home  traditional.  "Sweet Mother, I never forget you, the way you suffer for me - yeah, yeah. When I get get cry, my mother go carry me, she says, my pickin-o, stop, stop, so you no cry again-o".  "You can get another wife, you can get another husband, you cannot get another Mother, so "

A friend said. "Pickin-o means child in West African pidgin, and may come from the Portuguese pequeno. Prince Nico was very family oriented, so to him having children was maybe more valuable than having money."

 
Please read Sami Kent's article HERE,which is by far the best researched and informative of all, written by someone whose perspective is not western but African, which makes all the difference. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

My contribution to stopping COVID - Pappano, Britten, Vaughan Williams

As my contribution to not spreading COVID, knowingly or unknowingly, I refrained from going to what would otherwise have been a perfect programme for me, Antonio Pappano conducting Britten's Violin Concerto (soloist Vilde Frang, whom I've heard doing this piece before) and Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony no 6. at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra. But in times like these that's when background counts.  No concert ever exist in limbo. Context matters, absolutely. Pappano's programme is particularly relevant in these times, too, because both pieces deal with almost apocalyptic situations, so bleak that even the power of music cannot articulate.

Britten, like so many others knew all too well what the rise of Hitler meant for Europe. Our Hunting Fathers, his op. 8, was a specific response to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which dehumanized Jews, gays, intellectuals and "modernists". Indeed there are very specific references embedded in the text.  As a protest against cruelty and madness, Our Hunting Fathers is so powerful that it perhaps says more about listeners still who don't get it.  Franco's victory in Spain, supported by Nazi aeroplanes and strategists intensified that sense of despair.  For many, it was traumatic, as if European civilization was doomed.  Britten's Violin Concerto is a product of that period of intense despair.  The Violin Concerto was never meant to be easy listening. It takes moral courage to write a deeply uncomforting statement like this, and know it might never be understood.  Perhaps this is why it has only relatively recently entered its status in the canon of major works by a composer who thought deeply about society and the human condition.

From a hushed string introduction, the violin rises, against an understated but ominous background of percussion and brass. Despite the lyricism of the violin line, the idea of war lurks, with menace.  Hollow pizzicato suggest agitation.  The second movement has the character of nightmare scherzo, a battery of strings, brass and percussion battling with the violin, which remains detached.The tumult is shaped carefully, bringing out the huge, angular blocks of sound, booming bassoons,  spikey details in the strings, rumbling drums, creating contrast with the violin. In the cadenza, Frang has in the past lit up the dizzying diminuendo : not a defeat so much as a “tactical withdrawal".  In the passacaglia, descending notes from the brass moved in careful procession. Now the violin line is haunted by other strings, mumuring as if heard from afar. Eventually an anthem builds up, the brass no longer against the soloist, but leading forwards.  Tense, brittle figures suggested gunfire, but the violin remains uncowed.  A particularly full-throated tutti section,  almost a chorale, violin and orchestra united in common cause.  From the strings, a suggestion of guitars : the ghosts of the dead in Spain, rising again, led by the violin, marching quietly onward.

Vaughan Williams would not be drawn on what his Symphony no 6 might be "about", but that in itself suggests how difficult it was to express the traumas he'd witnessed.  Of his third symphony, he  explicitly stated that it was "wartime music", inspired by his experiences as a stretcher bearer in France. "It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted". Thus the sixth has no cosy title to throw the unwary off track. The onus is on the listener to listen sensitively, and understand the piece from within. To hear music as no more than sound is to deny emotion and humanity. Last year, Salonen conducted the introduction so the brass seemed to scream in a communal wail of anguish. The quieter "pastoral" themes on strings, woodwinds and harps felt haunted, swept away in the tumult.  In the second movement tension built up steadily, the three-note ostinato figure at first muffled, the cor anglais offering a moment of contrast before the relentless fusillade of brass and percussion. This  gives context to the saxophone solo in the scherzo, enhancing its strange, alien nature. Its jazziness is seductive, yet it suggests disorder, the breaking-up of safe structural certainties. The bass clarinet served as lament.  The final movement, with its ambiguous pianissimo, suggests not peace, but perhaps a numbness so great that even music cannot fully express. Unlike the third symphony, there's no room even for wordless voice. Muted flutes in unison, rather than the fanfare of brass with which the symphony began.




Saturday, 14 March 2020

Defeating COVID-19 by human decency - Rattle, Berliner Philharmoniker

Simon Rattle (Photo : Doug Peters)
Disastrous as COVID-19 is, can we learn from it ? At the Philharmonie, Berlin, Simon Rattle conducted Berio and Bartók to an empty hall, streamed internationally free of charge. Inevitably sneers from those who still don't know there's a pandemic around, and above all, cannot understand the role of music in difficult times.  It wasn't just any concert : of course there was no encore or applause.  An empty house brings home the message : millions might suffer and die. We can't take life or anything else for granted. And even those who survive will be scarred. (and lose their livelihoods in the economic downturn).  Concerts are live experiences, influenced by circumstances around them. To dismiss the human side of communication is to dismiss the whole point of music.

As Rattle said, there are connections between Berio Sinfonia and Bartók Concerto for Orchestra.  Both deal with memory, and the multiple threads that influence the way composers and listeners absorb their response to life and to music.  Berio's Sinfonia covers a sprawling range of human experience, questioning the way we process  that experience in music.  It is such a seminal work that it gets done very often indeed, and most people know it well, but it's not at all easy to pull off properly. (there are some lousy ones).  It's a Rattle speciality. Of the numerous performances I've heard,  this was a high point : sharper and tighter, extremely focussed.  Berio's  singers were English, establishing the tradition of British-sounding accents, which is relevant because it distances the voices from the German, Italian and other influences in the work. The soloists Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart are "English" enough but also "musical" enough to fit in with the music.  Even if this wasn't a special event concert, this performance would be up there near the top.

Rattle's introduction to Bartók Concerto for Orchestra was typically understated but that made it all the more powerful.  In this world it's not all me, me  me.  Good peoiple don't fight over toilet paper and abuse strangers.  Possibly even worse than the virus is the way it's revealed how deeply entrenched xenophonia is in this world, so endemic that even seemingly normal peopleshow their evil side.

The performance is superb, as to be expected since he's done this dozens of times, but make the time to listen to what Rattle says.  In these times of crisis, this is utterly relevant; humanity and  empathy for others is all the more important. That's why msuiciands are sacrificng their livelihoods and carrers, so the virus doesn't spread. No-one should have to die because some people want to go out.

In 1940, Bartók was a refugee in a new land, cut off from his creative roots. He was despondent, and broke. He was unknown and unwell. Smasll boys used to tease him in the street, as small boys do, alas.  He became ill,  and might have died in obscurity like so many others in his position. Fortunately, Serge Koussevitzky cared about him, aranging that he be treated with  a new experimental drug then only available to military personnel. One man helping another : passing on the flame as in Berio's Sinfonia. The Concerto for Orchestra  was another act of kindness, since it gave Bartók an income and new inspiration.  

Once he began writing, his mood lifted as if he were rejuvenated.  Although there are familiar "Hungarian" themes in the piece, it's not fundamentally nostalgic.  Bartók was looking back on his past, well aware of what was happening in the Europe he'd left behind, and of the right wing extremism in Hungary, whose government aligned itself with Hitler.  Rattle understands the granite-like inner strength in the piece and the firm lines beneath the nostalgia. Perhaps Bartók was drawing on sources in his psyche that went much deeper than folkloric colour. The ethereal opening theme developed until it emerged with expansive confidence. The music seems to oscillate, highlighting the more disturbing undercurrents in the work, alternating with moments of expansive feeling.  Rattle negotiated this constant flux, tempi spiriting along as if propelled by winds of change. This concert's being repeated on the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall regularly, in the absence of regular programming. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

COVID 19 and music - the implications ? Gürzenich Orchester Köln


When the world seems headed for lockdown - at least in places where COVID 19 is being taken seriously,  what are the implcations for classical music ?  Overall the economic impact will be huge and long term too.  This is not the time for inciting race hate nor for scoring politicsal points.  Viruses happen, and mutate all the time - we're all on a learning curve. So respect science, not ill-informed media hysteria. Unfortunately COVID 19  has come at a time when anti-science barbarism seems to be taking over from basic common sense, and not just in medicine, politics and environmental change.

To a great extent  lockdown, limiting exposure and self-quarantine does work, as has been proved. As long as the basic infrastructure  operates, such as health services, transport networks, supply chains, etc, the world will not collapse into chaotic violence. .And that means people co-operating and working together to achieve the best pssible balance.  In classical music circles, venues are being closed, concerts cancelled, musicians laid off, with all the knock-on effects that brings. Many orchestras and opera houses work to very slim profit margins and freelancers don't get a safety net. In China, where millions are staying home, there's been a boost in streaming and broadcast. This keeps musicians paid, and keeps organizations afloat for when things get better. Plus, millions sitting at home, bored witless, have something different to listen to. In a country like China, where music is valued, that has the potential to grow audiences better than the dumbed-down marketing practices we see elsewhere.

As ever the Gürzenich Orchester Köln is way ahead with innovation. They're livestreaming too. Sure it's expensive, but it keeps things going. Last night I listened to them live  , with Sylvain Cambreling conducting and Antoine Tamestit as soloist in Berlioz: Les franc-juges, Charles Ives Three Places in New England and the highlight, Berlioz Harold en Italie, which Tamestit has done numerous times -  its basic core violist repertoire, and a speciality of the Gürzenich Orchester Köln.  Cambreling's been around forever too, very much a known quality. Top star attractions and free of charge too !  Listen again on the orchestra's YT channel for the repeat. So we're stuck with COVID 19 but thanks to technology we're no longer trapped in small-town isolation. Everyone can listen in and show support!



Sunday, 8 March 2020

Women in Music, on International Women’s Day

It's International Women’s Day which these year does matter more than ever, when the forces of small minded represssion are gaining power, all over the world, in many forms.  ears ago a young upstart advised me "Read more Feminist books". Uh? Like billions of others have done for millenia and are still doing today, I've learned the hard way. It isn't just about middle class western values.  Caring about people, as people, enabling them to have decent lives, these are the values that underpin the issues. And that's also why there's a backlash from those so insecure that their fragile egos need to be supported by hurting others. Real men don't need that.  At least half the world's population is female: We should be celebrating women who do what they do and their best, whoever they are.

But this is a music blog so I'll try to stick to music. We can, and should, be listening to women in music all the time.  It's impossible not to listen to musicians who are women : so many excellent soloists and ensemble players! It is an issue that sometimes they aren't paid the same as men, but they exist.   Making it to the top as a conductor or music director is tough, but that's tough anyway, and there's enormous nastiness in the business, not least of which comes from fans who don't actually listen.  It's about the music, not the ego of the listener. And there have been women composers for hundreds of years, not just in western classical music.  We need to know, and to keep learning. No bandwagon gestures, no instant fixes. No-one plays, writes or conducts with their anatomy, and that includes men. Only when gender is no longer an issue will we have reached common sense.

Picking out favourites  is invidious because good musicians are always themselves, and distinctive.  Over the years I've written a lot about a few special people, like Clara Schumann, whose greatest contribution was her pioneering role as a performer, travelling all over Europe, arranging her own gigs, transport, accommodation, publicity etc. at a time when there were few celebrity artists who supported themselves.  She's the equivalent of Chopin or Paganini, re-shaping the reception of classical music in the 19th century.  Yet still some think she needs promoting for the work she wrote to please Robert.  Hail thee, Clara, a working mother who was a breadwinner, who made Robert's career possible.

And Vítezslava Kaprálová, whi died aged only 25 yet left behind a considerable body of work.  From childhood, she came into contact with almost every big name in Czech music circles, so perhaps it was inevitable that she was something of a child prodigy. She started writing her own music from the age of 9 and entered the Brno Conservatory aged 15. She moved between Prague and Paris, developing a strikingly independent and original voice. She began conducting in her teens and worked with masters like Vítězslav Novák and Václav Talich. In her early 20's she was conducting the Czech Philharmonic and made a notable impact on her contemporaries, including schoolmate Rafael Kubelik. In 1938, aged 22, she conducted the BBC  Symphony Orchestra in her own Miliitary Sinfonieta (1937). Against the background of Nazi confrontation, it's quite a statement. Fierce, bright brasses suggest defiance, more lyrical passages suggest the endurance of more peaceful (possibly Czech)  values.. The tension between driving ostinato and themes of soaring freedom give the piece considerable sophistication. Perhaps we can even hear echoes of Janáček's Sinfonietta in the cheeky, rhythmic fanfare towards the end.  It may well be Kaprálová's humorous way of acknowledging quirky nationalist spirit.  Is the Military Sinfonietta "women's work" ? Of course not : it's a daring take on Janáček's Sinfonietta, by a young composer whose father was a Janáček specialist. She knew what she was doing. I've written a lot about her songs and piano works, which are a lot less famous.  (click on link below)

And then there's Rebecca Saunders, one of the best living British composers, which is saying something. Needs no special pleading : she's that good.  Plenty to find more about her on the net, and many opportunities to hear her music. Saunders  once described her method as being like looking at a sculpture from different angles, in different light, against different backgrounds. Yet Traces(2006,commissioned for Staatskapelle Dresden) operates on a much deeper level: hence the double basses, sounds as darkly sonorous as it's possible to get with string instruments,legato that curves and stretches and lifts off suddenly, to slide along from a different angle. It's like touching a work of art, "feeling" it intuitively. As a blind person might see, visualizing by instinct and emotion, surprisingly sensual.  In the second part,it changes tack. Sharper, brighter textures now, very high strings, though the same sense of sweeping curves, sculpting shapes in swathes of sound. It's like glissandi but created by a group of different individuals playing in such connection they move as a unit, stretching the palette beyond what a single instrument could do. Brass and woodwinds form similar blocks, so there's a sense of great forces rotating, revealing different aspects of sound as they move, leaving in their wake ripples of unpitched percussion. Towards the end the keening sounds stretch out, becoming so pure and clean the music seems to float into infinity.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Festival of Friendship : George Benjamin : A Duet and a Dream


George Benjamin conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 5 March, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, in Olivier Messiaen Le merle bleu and Benjamin Duet for Piano and Orchestra, Oliver Knussen Choral, Janáček Sinfonietta and Benjamin Dream of the Song. Interesting programme with obvious connections and some more provocative.

This concert celebrates that special bond between Benjamin, Aimard and Knussen, whose presence will be felt by many, and that of Messiaen, too.  Aimard was one of Messiaen's "sons", studying with Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod aged 12, so close to the composer he was like family.  Benjamin joined Messiaen circles when he was 16, hence their special relationship.  At Aldeburgh, and for decades before, Aimard, Benjamin and Oliver Knussen were stalwarts. I remeber an occasion when Knussen was driving Benjamin to London, waved off by friends saying "No stopping off at Little Chef on the way". Little Chef too is now long gone.

A very thoughtful choice as introduction, with Knussen's Choral (op 8, 1970-72). Choral isn't chorale, so much as an exercise in using instruments as vouces operating as a small choir.  It dispenses with high strings altogether. Four double basses march against counter processions of trumpets, horns and mournful trombones. Flutes and percussion cry out against the dirge. Eventually the different parts of the orchestra coalesce, not in unison, but in chorus.  More "chorus" in Messiaen's Le merle bleu No 3 from Book 1 of  the Catalogue des Oiseaux, written for Mme. Loriod.  Aimard would have heard her playing this, with the composer himself listening. He understands it thoroughly "from source". At Aldeburgh he performed the whole series at the right times of the day and night.  I woke in time  to greet the dawn chorus at 3 am. This consideration is important as it enhances the atmosphere, since Messiaen sought to recreate the whole environment from which the birds come. Le merle bleu is one of the more exotic sections,with scintillating moments of display, yet joyously natural, since birds sing from sheer exuberance.

More congeniality : Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra (2008) which Aimard premiered at the Lucerne Festival. Benjain has written "With its vast range and virtuosic capacities the piano is in its own right almost the equivalent of an orchestra. So this Duet is an encounter between two equal partners, partners whose capacities, however, diverge in numerous essential ways. The piano can traverse over seven octaves with the greatest ease and, with the help of the sustaining pedal, accumulate harmonies containing literally dozens of notes. These are feats with which no orchestral instrument can compete. And yet every note of the piano begins to die away immediately after being struck, a characteristic so different from the legato capacities of string and wind instruments. I have attempted to cross the divide between the soloist and the orchestra by finding compatible areas between them, specifically by dividing the piano into a few distinct registers with timbral equivalents in the orchestra. At the same time the piano remains an alien figure in the orchestral landscape and often treads an independent path through instrumental textures that can seem intentionally oblivious of it. The orchestra employed is somewhat reduced, above all by the absence of violins. A certain prominence is given to the piano's nearest relatives in tuned percussion and, especially, the harp".

Of the UK premiere in 2010, I wrote "It's a new departure for Benjamin, his first piece for piano and orchestra. Benjamin’s own notes describe it succinctly. “The piano has an enormous pitch compass and is capable of accumulating complex resonating harmonies, but each note begins to decay as soon as it it is sounded. On the other hand, stringed and wind instruments can sustain and mould their notes after the initial attack”. Thus Benjamin tries to find common ground, restricting the pitch range of the piano, avoiding the higher registers where decay occurs quickly. Percussion, harp and pizzicato create attenuated sounds that meet the piano on its own ground. The piano part isn’t elaborately flamboyant: rather it’s spare, single notes occurring in series, like flurries. It evoked the movement of birds – short, quick jerks expanding into flourish as they take flight. Duet for piano and Orchestra is a different kind of concertante, where soloist and orchestra don’t interact in the usual way, but observe each other, so to speak. Then, with a punchy crescendo, it’s over. Benjamin’s music often sounds pointilliste, like detailed embroidery, but here there’s sharpness in design, and clarity of direction. Piano and orchestra warily stalk each other's moves, so Duet is a kind of furtive, circulating dance."  Not all so different from birds calling out to each other.

Though the concerts ends with Janáček Sinfonietta  the big draw for me will be Benjamin's  Dream of the Song.  Benjamin uses texts from three poets, two of whom lived in Granada, the jewel of Islamic civilzation, where education, art and philosophy were honoured.  Samuel Hanagid (993-1056) and  Solomon ibn Gabirol (d. approx 1050) were Talmudic scholars but also fluent in Arabic, for this was a time when Granada was a haven of tolerance in a Europe plagued with prejudice. Benjamin's third poet is Federico García Lorca, the radical modernist  who was assassinated by fascist forces in Granada in 1936.  Songs silenced across the centuries: chances are that the "Dream" Benjamin is referring to is no reverie.


Significantly Benjamin blends and combines the poems into a seamless flow.Strange rustling bell sounds and a cry that sounds like the call of a mullah; "Naked" sings the counter-tenor, the word broken into fragments but reiterated. An epigrammatic opening, opening out, like a window onto another vista. "The multiple troubles of man" The oboe calls out plaintively, its firm, clear sound probing outward as if searching across time itself.  In the central section, the countertenor's lines are haloed by a chorus of female voices intoning Lorca. the words don't really matter. In Andalusian art, images aren't representational but  myriad intricate patterns and colours, in Islamic tradition, epitomized by the Palace of Alhambra.

Thus Benjamin writes patterns of sound which serve the purpose of rhymes.  Brief images float into the foreground in typical Benjamin style "A girl in a garden" elides smoothly, to suddenly switch to terse staccato "tending her shrubs".  a transition built on pizzicato - suggesting the passage of time, perhaps, or splashing water, a concept fundamental to Andalusian metaphysical thought.  The women's voices herald a change of direction - bright, sharp and urgent. Then a brief pause, the silence almost imperceptibly interrupted by quiet tapping.  The male voice returns, singing strangely abstract semi harmony  "Written", the soloist sings but the sound is  magically clean and pure, shining all the brighter against a backdrop of a murmuring horn.  "The stars....." sings the countertenor,  and suddenly, sound seems to break off.  But perhaps that is the point ; the music, the "Dream of Song" does not die with its makers, however doomed their lives.

Benjamin's Dream  of the Song is a milestone. It represents a return to the meticulous craftsmanship of his work before Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin, though the operas are distinctively Benjaminesque.  Although it's written for small orchestra, it's  ambitious  compared with some of his earlier output, utterly assured and confident.



Saturday, 29 February 2020

A Ladin Saint in Imperial China

Father (later Saint) Joseph Freinademetz, seated, with fellow missionaries
From Abtei (now Badia) one of the five Ladin speaking communes in the Gardetal (now Val Badia), in South Tirol, to villages in China, Joseph Freinademetz, (1852-1908), canonized as a Saint in 2003. In 1879, he left Europe for Sai Kung, a fishing and farming community that was then part of Imperial China.  Many in the region never really took kindly to being handed over as part of a scramble for control by European countries after China was weakened in the first Sino-Japanese war. Another connection between the Südtirol and South China!  St. Joseph Freinademetz is still an example for the modern world, now rapidly disintegrating into racism and hysteria. But a true Christian should believe that all men are equal in the eyes of God. “The only language that everyone understands is the language of love” he wrote. "I love China and the Chinese. I want to die among them and be laid to rest among them.....In heaven I will be a Chinese.” In 1880, Father Freinademetz was sent to a much larger mission in Shandong (where this photo may have been taken), where he died, twenty eight years later, of typhus, in January 1908.

Tien Chu Tong, photo by Isaac Wong
Sai Kung was no backwater, even in the 19th century. The fishing community had links with other villages around Mirs Bay, further to the north, where Catholic missions were active from fairly early on.  To quote Catholic Heritage in Hong Kong "In 1864, the PIME priests, particularly Fr. S Volonteri and Fr. G Origo came along and started their evangelization and pasturing services amongst the locals. In 1866, 7 villagers were baptized in autumn by Fr. G Origo, while 33 members of the Chan family were baptized in Christmas by Fr. S Volonteri . Local Catholics donated a vacant site for construction of a chapel and school, dedicated to St. Joseph as their patron. In 1875, the villagers on the entire island were baptized".... "There were also three other active religious communities in Sai Kung during the same period, namely in Tai Long Wan, Che Kang and Shum Chung. Priests used to visit farmers and fishermen staying in remote village clusters to promote catholic faith and pastoral work." Father Freiandemetz regularly said Mass in Yim Tim Tsai, travelling by sampan or small junk.  He is commemorated in a statue in the parish church of St. Joseph's, (named after his patron saint) completed in 1890.  Though most of the villagers moved to the city or emigrated abroad (mostly to Ireland), its heritage is being preserved by the former villagers and the government. The Church is now a place of pilgrimage for Chinese Catholics. There are strict controls over building and restoration, to preserve as much of its former character. The saltpans, which gave the village its name still produce salt, sold as souvenirs.

Yim Tim Tsai played a role in my own life.  My father used to hike in the area, and built his own boat in our backyard in the 1950's so he could explore the area by sea. It's now a UNESCO designated Geopark, with unique geological formations, basalt cliffs and strangely shaped rocks, many of which you can't reach by walking and are too enlosed for larger vessels to approach.  when we were kids, we took it all for granted. We assumed all families snorkelled in coral reefs and kept live coral at home. Streng verboten today ! We used to visit Yim Tsim Tsai all the time. While my dad and uncle talked to the village elders, we'd play with the kids and dogs.  My uncle, who spoke Hakka,  told me that there was some connection too between the village and his father, who owned a boat (seized from the German Navy in 1914) and knew the area well.  By that time, a permanent priest was lived in the village. In this photo, taken early 1970, my Dad is rowing to the island with his eldest brother. Photo by fifth brother on a bigger boat.  My Dad used to go shooting pigeons in the woods that cover the hills on the island. He used to make the traditional Macau dish, game pie.  He's taking his brother, to go look. Notice the kids who know who they are, esp. the kid grinning !  Where is he now ? And notice what might be nappies on the small junk, which looks lived in. The pier is still there, modernized but recognizably the same. 

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Parvo Järvi, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

Parvo Järvi, NHKSO - photo Belinda Lawley
   
By Marc Bridle : Takemitsu, Schumann, Rachmaninoff: Sol Gabetta (cello), NHK Symphony Orchestra, Parvo Järvi (conductor) – 24th February 2020 

Does an orchestra have to be centuries old for its sound to be unique and definable? In many cases the answer is yes, but there are rare instances of twentieth century orchestras which have become recognisable for their sound – the Philharmonia for their woodwind, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks for that extraordinary blend of mellowness – and the NHKSO for the monumental richness of their strings. There is a particular quality to Japanese string playing, and no orchestra represents it better than this one.

Of the two symphonies the NHKSO are playing on their current European tour it is probably the Bruckner Seventh, which they played at their first concert in Estonia, which would have better impressed on us the sheer range of their strings. But it was evident in Schumann’s Cello Concerto, and ample enough in Rachmaninoff’s sweepingly romantic E minor symphony. Indeed, there was absolutely nothing understated about that performance: It may not have been overly lush, but it was heavy on dramatic impact and it seared in a way which is unusual in performances of this work. Robert Simpson’s 1967 assessment of this symphony as a work which “lapses into facile sentiment… collapses under its own weight… and drifts towards inflation” couldn’t have seemed more inappropriate, harsh or outdated as viewed through the prism of Parvo Järvi and his players.

Järvi is not a conductor who tends to hang fire in much of what he conducts; indeed, his tendency for dynamic tempos can benefit certain composers (Bartók and Shostakovich) but it can sometimes work against others (Richard Strauss and Mahler). In Rachmaninoff he is at the extreme end of the spectrum, especially when compared to two other live recordings the NHKSO made with other conductors, Yevgeny Svetlanov and André Previn. Svetlanov’s performance from September 2000 is the slowest, with an Adagio which stretches beyond 17 minutes; Previn’s, from September 2007, is typically mainstream for this conductor. There is a consensus that this Previn is his finest interpretation of the work; there is also a consensus the clarinet solo in the Adagio is particularly weak, an indication of some of this orchestra’s weaknesses. Järvi’s soloist, the hugely expressive Kei Ito, gave a performance as fine as any I have heard, an indication this orchestra can be a chameleon when it wants to.

You never quite know with a performance of this symphony where a conductor is quite going with it during its opening 20 bars – will it be Rachmaninoff, or will it be more like Tchaikovsky’s Fifth? The opening motto on cellos and basses suggested the former, while the echo of the theme on first violins followed in quick succession on the second violins – an echo that was achieved here by antiphonal strings – confirmed this impression. It was only Järvi’s treatment of this movement’s climaxes which somewhat muddied the waters – the first suggestion of the Dies Irae on clarinets and violas, the rampant timpani, the stripping away of romanticism in the violins, woodwind and horns slipping into brutality. This wasn’t a notably balanced view of the first movement by the end of it.

 The Allegro molto – perhaps not taken at that tempo – was riotous. If the virtuosity and precision of this orchestra is a given, in the past it has sometimes leant towards being mechanical and perfunctory. That is not the case today; this is a body of players who tends to exhibit an involvement with the music, and it was notable during this performance how often they swayed gently and moved with their conductor’s beat. But this was playing which often sounded robust and muscular – those massively powerful trumpets and trombones, the chasmic basses, the yawning clarinet, and yet how sudden the orchestra could plummet into the one bar of complete silence which is unique to this movement. If the Allegro molto sometimes veers towards moments of dialogue between its instruments this was not entirely convincingly done here. But there were sections – the fugue, the coda – which pressed the lyrical side of the music.

The Adagio – very slightly more measured than it had been in the broadcast of their performance at Suntory Hall on the 5th of February – was potent and vigorous rather than inclined towards romanticism. Järvi’s willingness to strip down the intensity of slow movements in some symphonies – a notable feature of his Mahler Sixth – can sometimes make them seem indelicate; indeed, one often wonders if Järvi isn’t looking backwards to a stricter view of romanticism but forwards to a leaner kind you find in works, for example, by Bartók. The clarinet solo here was undeniably beautiful, but it was a moment of lone expression, a voice sealed inside a chorus of strings which were stripped of all sentimentality. Clarinet and oboe solos, and the duet with the cor anglais, mirrored that long first solo, but how Järvi drove the climax, the pause at its close almost toppling into the beginning of the development. If there had been a particular vision here it was in striking a contrast between this movement’s ecstasy and its crests. Some conductors certainly make this music sound excessively rich; Järvi is not one of those, and this performance of the Adagio had a freshness of expression.

The beginning of the Finale felt more like Tchaikovsky than perhaps any of the previous ones had done; and the rest of it never really deviated from that. The thrust of this movement – an Allegro vivace – often felt it was bulldozing towards inevitability. The timpani which sounded as if it were on a parade, ascending triplets shooting like gunfire, hammering trumpets and drumming horns, cellos descending into the grave, pizzicato octaves on violins and violas that were explosive – all were symptomatic of an orchestra that would eventually be sucked into a vortex. And it was never less than stunningly virtuosic.

I think Järvi ripped much of the richness and glow from this Rachmaninoff and what we were left with was a diametric view of a symphony which was leaner on its romanticism and more inclined towards drama. This wasn’t a view of the work which addressed the symphony’s conventional opulence; nor was it one which saw it dripping in pigments and tints. It was undeniably high on drama, and a view of it which was convincing only if one could open one’s ears to the strikingly different impact we got.

Sol Gabetta, Parvo Järvi. photo : Belinda Lawley
Schumann’s Cello Concerto is in some ways an enigmatic work. It eschews both a conventional structure – although its three movements are distinct, they are played without a break between them – and it lacks the virtuosity of many cello concertos written during the same period of its composition. In another sense, it might not necessarily be a piece one would wish to play with an orchestra quite as powerful as the NHKSO.

What the work has in common with some of Schumann’s symphonies is a lyricism which is suggestive of lieder. The development section of the first movement is a substantial dialogue between the orchestra and soloist; the slow movement can sometimes appear in its poetic inspiration like a series of disconnected phrases; and there is even the hint of a duet with the soloist and principal cellist. Sol Gabetta showed considerable skill in navigating much of the concerto’s challenges. There was a femininity to her playing, a vocalisation to her fingering which understood the work’s inner voices. In her duet with the NHKSO’s cellist, Ryoichi Fujimori, the difference in tonal colour worked well. But there is also a strength and force to Gabetta’s playing which comfortably rose above the orchestra’s brawnier strings; and her meditative, sometimes contemplative interpretation of the work was projected rather than understated. If not an epic performance that relied on power (but then this work hardly needs it), it was one which easily contextualised the concerto’s emotional curves.

The concert had opened with Takemitsu’s How Slow the Wind. Based on an Emily Dickinson poem from 1883, it is his only piece for chamber orchestra, and certainly different in style and meaning to another setting of this poem by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov who had written the piece for soprano and string quartet.

It is probably wrong to interpret Takemitsu’s orchestration of the work as being more large scale than one expects it to sound in performance. Its strings (8-6-4-4-2), and the delicacy and restraint of the writing that Takemitsu gives to them, is never going to stretch the tone of the players – not even for a string section as rich as that of the NHKSO. If this often felt more like a Japanese version of Haydn it was because it largely was. The work is grounded on repetition – rather a lot of it – and it is a balancing act for the strings of any orchestra to make the length of the piece not outstay its welcome. The NHK strings had an elasticity of colour, a delicacy of sound, and an ability to shape-shift what came before and what came after. Some of the orchestration might feel a little odd, even perhaps cluttered – the cowbells, the variegation in percussion – a vibraphone and glockenspiel – a harp, a piano and celesta but this is an orchestra which is notable for its clarity and the way it can make textures distinctly separate. That is exactly what we got here under Järvi’s knife-like and precision conscious baton.

The only encore of the concert – unlike the luckier Estonians who had been given two, the other being Sibelius’s Valse Triste – was Heino Eller’s Kodumaine viis. A reminder of Järvi’s roots, that country’s Independence Day and the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s glorious string section it perhaps settled once and for all what makes this orchestra such a special instrument. 

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Force of Nature Theremin Concerto - Kalevi Aho

Carolina Eyck, theremin
On the centenary of the discovery of the theremin by Léon Theremin (1896-1993) Kalevi Aho's Acht Jahreszeiten, (Eight Seasons)  Concerto for Theremin and Chamber Orchestra (2011), with dedicatee Carolina Eyck and John Storgårds conducting the Lapland Chamber Orchestra.  Nothing movie-music spooky here ! Aho brings out the full musical potential of the instrument, and its unique "singing" qualities.  With a range of seven octaves it can reach beyond human capacity : Aho's Concerto combines the theremin with wordless vocalise, the soloist projecting into the air which the players maniulates and shapes with her hands to create patterns of sound.  The result is a fascinating blend of human and non-human, an important consideration given that the piece connects to the shamanistic beliefs of the Sami people of the Arctic circle. That's also relevant since the theremin is not played by touch, but shaped by moving the flow of air. Pitch is determined by the distance and movement of hands, and is extremely difficult to control. Thus the use of sliding glissando, and sudden silences, created by hands held close to the right frequency antenna.  Carolina Eyck, ,like her mentor, Clara Rockmore, developed new fingering techniques which help find the right starting pitch, allowing wider leaps between intervals and "trembling" vibrato.  "My Theremin Concerto", writes Aho, "always contains clear pitches or tonal anchor points  that the player can rely on".    

The subtitle "the Eight Seasons" refers to the seasons as experienced in the arctic circle, where winters are long and harsh. People living in close harmony with Nature are much more sensitive to subtle changes, if only for survival, and are much more alert to the elemental forces around them. Thus "Harvest", still warmth but growing cold, to "Autumn Colours", to "Black Snow, to "Christmas Darkness", to the storms of "Winter Frost","Crushed Snow", and "Eisschelmeze", the Melting of Ice in very early Spring,  and the brief magic of the "Midnight Sun".  At times, the theremin makes swooping sounds that might suggest the migration of birds, or turbulence in the upper atmosphere, images as invisible as the air with which the instrument operates. Sometimes violin answer, sometimes hushed winds, reinforcing the idea of human response to the forces of nature. Eyck's wordless vocalise adds mystery, especially in "Christmas Darkness" with its sense of wonderous contemplation.  In "Winter Frost" a storm blows up the theremin in its element, wailing and switching directions with wild exuberance, then grardually subsiding.  In harsh climates the first signs of spring are heard before they can be seen,often in the cracking of ice and the flow of streams beneath the snow. Thus the magical personality of "The melting of the ice",the theremein singing gaily.  In "The Midnight Sun", the piece ends in E flat,  just as the cycle began with in "Harvest", reinforcing the concept of seasons as part of a cycle of Nature which lasts eternally.

The same disc also contains Kalevi Aho's Concerto for Horn and Chamber Orchestra (2011) with soloist Annu Salminen.  Here the soloist moves to different points in the performance space, creating a sense of spatial openness.  It' very good, but Aho's Theremin Concerto steals the show with its sheer beauty and originality !



Friday, 21 February 2020

Magnificent Mahler Symphony no 2. Jakub Hrůša, Philharmonia Orchestra

Photo: Roger Thomas

Visceral and intense Mahler Symphony no 2 ("The Resurrection") with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall with Camilla Tilling, Jennifer Johnston, The Philharmonia Chorus.  How lucky I was to attend with friends who between us have clocked up hundreds of performances of Mahler's Second over the last fifty years.  Proof that the better a piece is, the more there is to discover. Every good performance yields insights : in a market now oversaturated with safe and predictable, it's a joy to hear an approach that derives fresh from the score itself, rather than from market expectations. 

With his foundations in Czech repertoire, Hrůša doesn't do "routine" Mahler. I heard him do Mahler in 2017 when he conducted Mahler's Symphony no 4 with the Czech Philharmonic, then again in 2018 when he conducted Mahler Symphony no 5 with the Philharmonia. Please read my article "How Bohemian was  Gustav Mahler?" HERE. With this Mahler Symphony no 2, the answer is that Mahler was Mahler, drawing on roots far deeper than "just" the Austro-German tradition, addressing universal human issues with highly individual and original passion.  As in most of Mahler, there are extremes in this symphony,  but they're not there just for effect. They serve a purpose. What can be more extreme than the contrast between death and life ? Death is shocking, and it is final, whether or not you believe in resurrection in any conventional sense.  But Hrůša appreciates what Mahler might have meant. The  Klopstock hymn Mahler quotes offers "Unsterblich Leben!....Wieder aufzublüh’n, wirst du gesät! Der Herr der Ernte geht Und sammelt Garben Uns ein, die starben.". This image of regrowth and renewal as part of the cycle of Nature pops up again in Mahler : "Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen! Ewig... ewig...

The first movement was inspired in part by the funeral of Hans von Bülow, who Mahler venerated.  Yet it begins with a great burst of energy. It needs this kind iof emphasis, since it's is a herald of what is to come.  Haitink has taken this movement very slowly, focussing on the way a body shuts down gradually before oblivion, a very good insight indeed.  A funeral march is processional, but its destination is never in doubt. No-one ever gets away ! Hrůša maintains a steady pace, but makes clear the figures in the background that propel the movement - lines that fly in sequence, strings sometimes bowed, sometimes plucked, pizzicato like running footseps, always flowing. Not for nothing did Luciano Berio incorporate Mahler's Second into his Sinfonia, making connctions with a river, fed by many tributaries, flowing into an ocean, refreshed again by rain. Another image of the cycle of Nature. Hrůša's Allegro maestoso is "Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck", the dignity all the more moving because it carries in its flow a sense that passage is not in itself an end. That final rushing descent into the abyss had a powerful kick, echoing in the silence of the Luftpause. Hrůša and the orchestra knew that it's there to signify the silence of oblivion, purgatory before resurrection. Pity the RFH audience thought it was time for a coughing epidemic. 

The unrushed Andante acted as a foil to the urgency of the Allegro. Although much is made of the Ländler aspects, these too exist as part of the wider concept, for peasants live in harmony with the seasons and with the cycle of natural change. Though peasant dances can be crude, it doesn't follow that performance needs to be crude, so Hrůša's emphasis on the vernal aspects of this movement renminded us that even in dark times, things happen under the earth which will eventually bear fruit.The third movement again brings contrast, which Hrůša magnified when the cymbals and timpani, centred in the middle of the platform, exploded into life. I nearly jumped out of my seat, but that was fine. Mahler knew what he was doing when he wrote this shockingly bold introduction. This schrezo quotes Mahler's song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt. Like Dionysius, St Anthony is drunk, preaching to fish who hear but do not actually listen. Perhaps the song is used to indicate the futility of words, which is ironic, since in this symphony Mahler begins to use voice as part of his orchestral toolbox.  On the other hand, though, the fish represent a life force much more powerful than mankind.  Their actions speak louder than pious prayers.  Hrůša was particularly effective evoking the fluid energy in the leaping figures which suggest the movement of fish, leaping upwards, out of their natural watery environment, scrapping exuberantly, being true to their natuures, and swimming away, free. A glorious climax: summer is marching in, references to Pan, Dionysius and Mahler's Symphony no 3. But yet again, though a sudden wild diminuendo at the very end, gongs reverberating. Urlicht (here with Jennifer Johnston) is a cry of anguish, much like the agony of childbirth. For indeed, this is a turning point in the symphony. Like childbirth, there is a purpose to suffering "Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen! Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!". 
 
The extremes inherent in this score can be overdone, but not on this occasion.  In the all-important final movement, Hrůša had thought through the dynamics of the Royal Festival Hall and in the orchestra.  The doubles basses sat just behind the harps, together magnifying impact : the darker sounds like the earth, the brighter sounds like heaven.  Magnificent rolling percussion, swept by turbulent strings, as another march develops, this time an irrepressibly energetic march, the brass sassy, bells ringing in celebration. For all we knoiw this might be the march of the life force exemplified by the fishes, hence the cheeky screams from the lower woodwinds, and the defiant, swirling figures, the sudden diminuendo and the wailing trombones, their chill turning to more sublime, otherworldy figures from which the phrase "Das himmliche Leben" emerges,with woodwind calls. 

The offstage brass ensemble was seated outside the auditorium, just outside the Green-side door,  invisible but with just the right degree of audibility. Usually in this hall, they get put into a box, often the Royal Box but the effect is often too strident.  This also allowed the finer details, like the delicate woodwinds and pizzicato to shine clearly. Later, when the offstage brass returned, the horns stood above the orchestra to the left of the conductor, while the trumpets stood to his right, spreading the balance with much better effect. The importance of spatial elements can't be stressed enough - this is "a symphony that contains the world", past, present, future.  Every instrumental voice matters, just as every mortal who has ever lived or died. At last the voices are set free, the soloists, Camilla Tilling and Jennifer Johnston, leading the choir. Though the diction of the choruses wasn't ideal, I'd much rather hear them sing with musical intelligence like this, the reverence better integrated with the soloists and orchestra.  In any case, they echo the words the soloists sing, and this symphony is so well known that most people know what the texts mean. When the male voices cried out "Bereite dich zu leben!" everything came together in magnificent climax.  

This concert will be broadcast internationally, online on BBC radio3 on Monday, 9th March

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Beethoven seance - Aimard, FX Roth, Gurzenich Orchestra


Raising the spirit of Beethoven in a musical seance "Nothing but Freedom", with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, François-Xavier Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. As always, Roth's flair for programmes creates an experiece that inspires the mind and imagination.  Beethoven's passion for  freedom played no small part in shaping his music, the "new music" of his time.  If we could contact him now, what would he feel about the state of civil liberties today, even in supposedly "democractic" countries ? Would he, in turn, connect with how his values continue to shape music in a very different world from his own.  Of course you don't get answers in a seance, but as music, this was interesting food for thought.  Roth, Aimard and the orchestra are touring the programme over Europe, with a visit to London's Royal Festival Hall on Friday 21st February. The concert was also livestreamed from Köln last week.

An introduction that was "spooky" in the sense that it was quiet, the notes of Beethoven's Bagatelle in C, Op.119 No.7 (Allegro, ma non troppo) rising upwards, Aimard raising Beethoven before us. From this a completely new work arose : Isabel Mundry's Resonances, unknown to most of us,which was maybe the point - we're entering new territory, where strange sounds and rustlings gradually merge to create  a mysterious new landscape.Whirring sound, swathes of brass and high pitched winds : a sense of turbulence, punctuated by thwacks of percussion. Wherever this might be it's not airhead but then neither was Beethoven.  Listen to this Beethoven Piano Concerto no 3 "The Emperor" Aimard playing with intensity and verve, Roth whipping a performance full of punch.  Beethoven has returned to life !

The house lights dimmed. From the darkness, Aimard played fragments of the Vivace moderato from Beethoven's Bagatelle in  A minor, Op.119 No.9. and the Allegramente from the Bagatelle in A, Op.119 No.10 and the Bagatelle in B flat, Op.119 No.11 (Andante, ma non troppo). But what are the strange chords that follow ?  Francesco Filidei's Quasi una bagatella for piano and orchestra responds.  There are distinct sections, the first wild, the second paced with greater deliberation, Aimard playing with poise and dignity- single notes: lots of "listening" between orchestra and soloist. The final section is quirky, adventurous with a wry sense of playfulness.  Percussion includes the clapping of hands. There's a dialogue, of sorts, going on here. Beethoven via Aimard and Roth, reply with the Beethoven  Adagio sostenuto from Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.27 No.2 (Quasi una fantasia - Moonlight).  How sublime those famous motifs feel. Beethoven may or might not get this music but maybe he can figure where it's coming from.  Helmut Lachenmann's Tableau  (1988) emerged framed by fragments of Mundry and Beethoven. Sheer theatre ! then a reminder of another composer who valued freedom so much that he killed himself in despair, Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Photoptosis, from 1968, is an ambitious piece for large orchestra, teeming with detail, some figures fragmentary, others developing further, like individual voices heard in a tumult. A dense, heavily populated landscape of multi-layered sound.Betthoven, I think, would have "got" this.





Saturday, 15 February 2020

Reinbert de Leeuw 1938-2020, renaissance man

Reinbert de Leeuw has died, aged 81. He was something of a renaissance man, interested in many things, always eager to contribute for the greater good. He'll be remembered for his kindness  and unselfishness. Much more than a "recording artist", he was a presence in music circles almost without parallel. De Leeuw was never a one-man band. He was so busy helping others that he didn't find enough time for his own compositions.

From the mid 1960's, he was part of the Schönberg Ensemble, the powerhouse of new music where so many composers and musicians came together from all over Europe.  De Leeuw knew everyone and put the right people in touch with each other.  He taught a lot, influencing whole new generations of composers and performers.  In 1974, he became its public face as chief conductor, and continued after its merger with the equally innovative ASKO Ensemble in 2008.  It's almost impossible to overestimate the influence of these ensembles on the reception and indeed the creation of new music. Nor was it "just" music - De Leeuw understood the social implications of works like Louis Andriessen's De Staat, so much a symbol of its time and its values of common endeavour.  As a specialist in modern music he conducted many other orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, and was a leading peesence in festivals like the Holland Festival and the Dutch National Opera.  Yet, above all, he will best be remembered for the support he gave to others. For example, he played a pivotal role in reviving interest in the music of Galina Ustvolskaya, too radical and individual to be fully appreciated in the Soviet Union. At last, aged nearly 90, she found interpreters who understood her!  (See link to the documentary here).

In recent years, De Leeuw's own music has had something of a revival,too. He's had two high profile Proms, featuring his Abschied (1973) and Der nächtliche Wanderer  from 40 years later. Of the latter, I wrote in 2016 :"Der nächtliche Wanderer begins with the sound of a dog, barking in the distance : a warning.  From a background of low, rumbling sounds, a viola emerges, tentatively probing its way. As the chords stretch, they're illuminated by flashes of sparkling light.  A sense of circular movement yet also of stillness. Muffled drums beat and the large string section creates an elliptical swirl of sound.  Small quiet sounds, deliberately elusive, contrasting with the broad sweep in the strings and rising, angular figures in the brass, themselves interrupted by clicking sounds. In this dream, how the sounds are made is less material than what we might think they are.   Tension mounts. Bells call out, tolling with hollow hardness. "

"Whirling, rushing figures, then silence broken by dull thuds.  This quiet interlude is surprisingly beautiful, suggesting not just the moon but the infinite darkness beyond. This time, the viola emerges  playing a kind of melody which I found poetic and very moving.  This time the melody continues, its tessitura rising higher and higher til it suddenly breaks over, hovering in a sense beyond our ears.  Then, from the quietness, flashes emerge and oscillating figures. Do we hear distant trumpets playing in cacophony?  Frantic tumult: a panic attack in music, yet deftly, carefully orchestrated and performed.  Der nächtliche Wanderer begins with the sound of a dog, barking in the distance : a warning.  From a background of low, rumbling sounds, a viola emerges, tentatively probing its way. As the chords stretch, they're illuminated by flashes of sparkling light.  A sense of circular movement yet also of stillness. Muffled drums beat and the large string section creates an elliptical swirl of sound.  Small quiet sounds, deliberately elusive, contrasting with the broad sweep in the strings and rising, angular figures in the brass, themselves interrupted by clicking sounds. In this dream, how the sounds are made is less material than what we might think they are.   Tension mounts. Bells call out, tolling with hollow hardness. 


A quiet interlude is surprisingly beautiful, suggesting not just the moon but the infinite darkness beyond. This time, the viola emerges  playing a kind of melody which I found poetic and very moving.  This time the melody continues, its tessitura rising higher and higher til it suddenly breaks over, hovering in a sense beyond our ears.  Then, from the quietness, flashes emerge and oscillating figures. Do we hear distant trumpets playing in cacophony?  Frantic tumult: a panic attack in music, yet deftly, carefully orchestrated and performed.  

Cymbals crash: are we in the the throes of a death struggle ? Distorted moans from the strings.  More thoughtful contemplation, from which a disembodied man's voice emerges, whispering the text of the poem  The orchestra surges to life, sprightly dancing figures and animated swirls of sound, woodblocks and searching chords. This time, though, the mood is more confident. When the bells ring this time they sound present and bright, and the woodwinds play a passage that reminded me of the viola melody., especially when joined by the strings evoking the passage with rising tessitura.  Perhaps De Leeuw's wanderer has woken, wiser? De Leeuw's  Der nächtliche Wanderer reminds me of Der Leiermann in Winterreise,which heralds change, but one which is elusively equivocal. "