Sunday, 18 October 2020

Harawi 12 years on


Gweneth Ann Rand sings Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi, with Simon Lepper, piano, at Wigmore Hall this evening at 7.30 UK time. A free live video of the performance will be available on the Wigmore Hall website for 30 days (with donations to Wigmore Hall funds welcome).

Anne Ozorio wrote a review of Rand’s (then Gwenerh Ann Jeffers) Proms performance of Harawi in 2008. (Please see here AND here). “Easily the best Messiaen singer of  her generation,” Ozorio wrote in another blog post.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

She had a lot to teach me – Remembering Anne Ozorio, Number 2

Music critic CLAIRE SEYMOUR (Opera Today) recollects the
phenomenal knowledge, writing skills and generous advice of 
Anne Ozorio, who would have been 69 today 
“I’m a large Eurasian, and I’ll wear something bright.  You won’t miss me!” Anne’s response when I asked how I might recognise her when we first met, at an evening recital at Wigmore Hall during 2008, was characteristically no-fuss and direct.  And, there she was when I arrived – smiling brightly, chatting vigorously, bustling among the other concert-goers in the foyer, many of whom recognised Anne and greeted her warmly.

Our paths crossed when I was asked to join the Opera Today team of music reviewers based in London.  Both of our lives had been driven by a passion for music: listening, reflecting, writing about musical performances, recordings and experiences.  But, in very different contexts.  Whereas my background had been a rather conventional ‘academic’ one and most of my writing undertaken for ‘scholarly’ purposes, Anne later told me of how her listening experiences, from her earliest years, had led her to a career in music journalism and broadcasting.  I still know little of Anne’s personal life and career.  But, I realised from our conversation that first evening at Wigmore Hall that – vivacious, witty, knowledgeable, her chain of thought quickly making connection across diverse fields – she had a lot to teach me.



Home from home: Anne Ozorio at Wigmore Hall on 23 November 2019. This was Anne's last of hundreds of visits to Wigmore Hall  - see this.
 (photo: Roger Thomas)   
 



One important thing that I learned was that there was not just one way of listening, evaluating and writing – and that by broadening and developing my own, rather entrenched, habits and style, I could gain new understanding and pleasure.  My own writing was, and still is, I fear, rather formal and painstaking.  Anne’s pieces – reviews, commentary, interviews – for Opera Today and for her idiosyncratic and eclectic blog, Classical Iconoclast, were dynamic, succinct, funny – sometimes quite satirically or pointedly so. – as well as incredibly well-informed.  Whereas I honed in on a detail and got stuck there, chewing over every inference and intimation, Anne skilfully brought together a wealth of such details – her quick ear and mind instantly absorbing and responding – and assimilated them within an almost impossibly diverse cultural and historical embrace.  There was never a single superfluous word.  The reader was hooked from the first pithy utterance.  Anne’s pieces were a kinetic kaleidoscope of knowledge, ideas and personal responses, brought together into a perfectly controlled form.  She taught me the importance of developing a personal voice that could present one’s opinions in an open-minded but confident way; of writing both for myself and for others; of seeing and appreciating the significance of the bigger picture.

She also showed me the practical ropes.  Back in 2008, Anne welcomed me warmly to the London team of reviewers, encouraging me through her generous praise but also suggesting that I might be more selective and pointing me toward things that she thought, invariably rightly, would be of particular interest and satisfaction to me.  I’m sure that this was partly to save me from my own workaholic tendencies.  But, more than this, Anne’s intuition and insight – about people as much as about the music and performances that we were sharing and discussing – were both sharp and sensitive.  Quietly but thoughtfully, she made sure that I had new opportunities; and, then, would just as unobtrusively offer some honest guidance – and probably a few warnings too! – to ensure that I was able to gain the most from them.  Preparing to conduct my first interview with a singer, at the Royal Opera House, I was pleased to receive an email from Anne with some honest words of advice, and a review of the dos and don’ts.  She combined a no-nonsense pragmatism with diplomacy and kindness, and I benefited enormously from her guidance.

Later, when her health made it more challenging for her to deal with all the daily chores of scheduling, emailing and organising on behalf of Opera Today, she suggested that I might like to take over some of her responsibilities.  I like to think I’m an efficient and reliable ‘administrator’, but there are unspoken traditions and rules in the world of classical music and here, again, Anne introduced me to them with foresight, tact and thoughtfulness.  Performers, box offices, media relations companies, artists’ agencies: they all like things done a certain way – often they all like things done a different way! – and Anne knew the ins and outs better than anyone.  She took me inside this world and showed me the workings.  I couldn’t have had a better mentor.

I enjoyed countless lively exchanges with Anne over the years: in person, at Wigmore Hall, at the Proms, at the Royal Opera House, in foyers, between the concert hall aisles, at press party gatherings after the show; and by email after events that we’d both enjoyed – or not enjoyed!  As time passed, and her health (though never the sharpness of her mind or pen) became a little less robust, she became a less frequent presence in the opera house or concert hall – though if there was something that she really wanted to experience, then Anne would be there.  And, if she couldn’t be, then the words flowed no less profusely, nor less productively and perceptively.  I used to read her regular reviews of the BBC’s radio broadcasts of the Proms concerts, and ruefully reflect on how much I hadn’t heard even though I’d been at the Royal Albert Hall the night before.

Problems with her eyesight and mobility were never going to stop Anne.  I never heard her complain.  In fact, the only comment I do recall her making about having to reduce her active concert-going was typically forthright: “I may not be able to attend the performance, but I can still hear the music.”  Anne began more regularly to write CD reviews, and a glance at the Opera Today archive will attest to the diversity of her cultural experience and the depth of her powers of integration and evaluation.

Anne’s lifetime of musical memories, and her love of the art form, informed every piece that she wrote.  And, if it’s a cliché, then to suggest that the expanse, eclecticism and depth of her knowledge was ‘lightly worn’ is both true and captures nothing of the effortless sweep of Anne’s writing.  The title of her blog was apposite: she was indeed a radical, sometimes subversively so, and an individualist.  But she was also one of the most sincere, warm-hearted people I have known.  Many was the time when a small parcel would thud, unannounced, onto my doormat: a new book or CD recording that Anne thought I would enjoy.  My memories of Anne won’t fade: she was too full of life, fierce energy and passion, and kindness.  Generous, funny, intelligent, and indomitable.

More blogs soon Remembering Anne Ozorio

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Mr Wu and Beano — Remembering Anne Ozorio, Number 1


Anne Ozorio and her brother Joe at the Ozorio family mausoleum in Happy Valley, Hong Kong


Anne Ozori told me abou Mr Wu as we waited for a Barbican Hall concert on January 10, 2007. The next day I typed up from memory what she had  said. So it is not pure Anne Ozorio, but the next best thing. Anne said I would have loved Mr Wu. I can see why. By ROGER THOMAS

Anne Ozorio’s fathr was Joseph Maria Augusto Ozorio. (His Macanese nickname was Beano.) There has been a José (or Joseph or Joe) in every generation of the Ozorios since they started appearing in the Macau parish records when these were initiated at the beginning of the 17th century. Beano had a great friend in Hong Kong called Mr Wu. Mr Wu was an extremely rich, flamboyant businessman whose businesses included generic pharmaceuticals such as aspirin and the sourcing of medical supplies such as cotton wool. Beano was a senior government pharmacist.

Mr Wu was indeed highly flamboyant. He had a cowboy-style belt with a massive buckle that he liked to wear around town, going to the bank, etc (à la rhinestone cowboy). Except that the big stones set in Mr Wu’s belt buckle were scores of diamonds, not rhinestones.

Mr Wu had his rough side; he had connections with the “Green”as opposed to the “Red” Triads of Shanghai.“Yes I’ve had people killed,” he said, “you had to in order to survive, but I never killed anyone personally.” But he was also cultured. He was from a wealthy family in mainland China with a recorded history going back 800 years and had made a personal fortune before the Chinese civil war of the 1920s, the Japanese occupation and the communist revolution. His business interests in China included farms and vast tea estates. As a young man, he had studied the violin under several distinguished teachers. He was also a long-time school chum of one Zhou en-lai, later the People’s Republic’s founding prime minister and foreign minister.

Come the late 1920s there was civil war between the Communists and the Nationalist Kuomintang. But there was also internal civil war in Shanghai within Nationalist ranks involving the “Red” and the “Green” Triads. Despite Mr Wu’s links with Zhou en-lai, he refused to join the Communists and stuck with the Green faction of the Nationalists. With the defeat of the Japanese and the impending victory of the Communists in the late 1940s it was time for Mr Wu to retreat – to Hong Kong.

But before heading for the island, Mr Wu took a sensible initiative: he swallowed a large number of diamonds. So after going to the toilet in Hong Kong and cleaning things up, Mr Wu started his Hong Kong business career with a substantial amount of capital. Meanwhile, in China, Mr Wu’s businesses, including his tea estates, were expropriated by the Communists, but not for long. With the People’s Republic firmly entrenched in 1949, the Zhou en-lai connection kicked in. Mr Wu’s tea estates were returned to him. In later years, if you went to tea with Mr Wu in Hong Kong you were served the finest tea from his mainland estates.

Mr Wu was, as we saw, a trained violinist. And he had a piano in his office. What does a wealthy music lover with a violin background do? He sought out a very fine violin. For Mr Wu that meant a fabulously expensive 17th-18th century Guarneri. “Stradivarius violins are rubbish,” reckoned Mr Wu.

It is said that antique violins stored away permanently  lose their sound quality. They need to be regularly played. So Mr Wu engageed an Italian violinist resident in Hong Kong called (like the playwright) Dario Fo to regularly play in his office on the Guarneri. Beano was often invited to these sessions. And the Guarneri also came out from the vaults for public concerts at which Fo played. The high point of the evening was not so much the music as the arrival of the Guarneri with its armed guard.

Beano’s frriendship with Mr Wu was in part built on business. Beano, as Hong Kong’s chief pharmacist, realised that the colony and its people were being ripped off in the supply at inflated prices of generics such as aspirin and basic medical goods by the quasi-UK government agency the Crown Agents for the Colonies. This monopolistic intermediary supplied a wide range of inputs to the UK's Crown Colonies.

Mr Wu could source goods of equivalent quality much more cheaply than the Crown Agents. That included cotton wool out of China. As Mr Wu said: “Cotton grows in China; it doesn’t grow in Lancashire.”

The cotton wool contract agreed with Mr Wu by Beano led to litigation against the HK pharmacy department and Beano. The Crown Agents claimed a legal right to its monopoly trade. The case got through the Hong Kong courts and ended up in the final court of appeal for the colonies, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Triumph for Beano and the Hong Kong peope (and Mr Wu!). No such legal right exists, the Privy Council judges ruled

Anne Ozorio claimed there was nothing that could be construed as corruption in the Mr Wu/Beano relationship. But Mr Wu set Beano off on an antique-collecting path with the gift of a 19th-century green jade snuff bottle that Anne later owned for a while. And Anne, as a secondary-school pupil, became a crucial agent in Beano's quest for antiques. Anne got to know Mr Wu, who advised Beano that she could be of great help. “She knows all about Chinese history,” he said.

Anne started to frequent the antique dealers’ shops. The shop-owners were prepared to explain things to a young schoolgirl that they wouldn’t confide to a grown man. Soon, as they got to know her and her father, she was allowed to take items home “on approval” – a Ming vase here, a jade statue there, secreted in her schoolbag.

Later, university student Anne is rushing along the street to get to a History lecture. A vast chauffeur-driven limousine draws up. “Hello Anne,” says Mr Wu. “Get in the car. And why are you running?” “Because I’m late.” “And why are you late?” “Because I don’t have a watch.” “You silly girl. Come to tea with me tomorrow.”

At tea the next day Mr Wu brought out two watches, a plain gold one and one studded with diamonds. You can have whichever you want, he said. “I’ll have the plain one,” said Anne. “I’d be scared that the diamond one would be stolen or I’d lose it.”

One day, Mr Wu told Beano that he had disowned his eldest son, who had gone to the US to study aeronautical engineering at MIT. Why? Because the boy had married an (admittedly rich) American woman. “I don’t want half-breed grandchildren,” said Mr Wu. “And what do you think I am?” said Beano, laughing. Beano was half Macanese, a quarter German and a quarter Filipino.

Another day, Beano received a sharp summons from Mr Wu. “Beano, come to my office straightaway.” Beano arrived to find a convoy of cars with armed guards and some mystery Americans on board. Beano was put in one of the cars and they drove to Hongkong & Shanghai Bank where they were taken down to the vault within the vault within the vault. The Americans were museum people from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC who had heard about an exquisite object of great value and had requested a viewing. Out came an amazingly carved jade statuette that was made for a Chinese Emperor. “No touching,” said Mr Wu as the Americans gasped in wonder. “We’d like to buy it,” they said. “No way,” said Mr Wu. “But you owe me money anyway – the insurers charged $85,000 extra cover premium for it to be allowed out of the vault.”

Mr Wu is now dead of course. As is his friend Beano – and Anne.Where’s the jade from the bank vault? Anne reckoned Mr Wu would have made arrangements for it to be sent back to China. Perhaps the Guarneri went there too.

More blogs soon Remembering Anne Ozorio

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Anne Ozorio 8 October 1951--22 August 2020

Anne Ozorio (right) with soprano Sarah Minns in 2011 

(photo: Roger Thomas)

Sadly, the owner of this blog, Anne Ozorio, died on 22 August 2020. A few days before she left us, Anne asked me to keep Classical Iconoclast alive. In no wayy can I hope to rival or replace Anne's broad-based expert writing – on classical (and some popular) music and opera, film (especially from China/Hong Kong and Weimar Germany) and Chinese/Hong Kong/ and Macanese culture and history. For a start I would like to tell existing and new readers more about Anne and her background, based on things she told me and somewhat random research we did together over the past 14 years. 

Coming soon, so keep checking the blog. And Anne's blogs from 2008 to 2020 will always be worth exploring.

Roger Thomas


Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Secrets of the Sahara - Le Désert and L'Atlantide


Secrets of the Sahara !  Two magnificent evocations of the Sahara and its seductive mysteries : Félicien David's Le Désert (1844) an ode-symphonique, and Jacques Feyder's film L'Atlantide (1921).  Both are long term favourites, but the soundtrack in the restored version of the movie is pretty banal, so I muted and played Félicien David's Le désert instead.  The combination worked extremely well !

Perhaps it's because the rhythms of Le désert so strongly resemble the rhythms of a caravan of camels marching single file through the desert. Scored for narrator, orchestra, tenor and choir, the piece unfolds at a steady pace, unhurried yet purposeful.  For thousands of years, caravans like these have crossed the desert : it is as if  the endless sand dunes (depicted by the strings) defy Time itself ; the tracks of the caravan erased as soon as the caravan has passed.  David lived in Eygpt from 1833-35 so the atmospheric exoticism feels drawn from lived experience. Le désert  was sensationally successful in its time, and was to influence the whole genre of French orientalism. If it isn't as well known today, other than to fans of the genre, this might be because it doesn't fit modern ideas of form. David wrote operas, but Le désert is neither opera nor conventional concert piece and requires fairly large forces which make it relatively tricky to programme. In David's time, this form was relatively common (think Berlioz) so it needs to be appreciated as such.  This means performances of a vey high and idiomatic standard.

David's depiction of the sound of Arabic/North African music aligns to sounds very different from the western tonal scale.  The role of narrator is fundamental, holding the piece together and giving it shape.  Dawns rise and nighgt descends : As darkness falls,  the tenor sings the exquisite "O Nuit!"(Hymne à la nuit), suggesting the night sky with boundless horizons. This song is a tour deforce for a very high tenor or countertenor in the tradition of Grand Opéra. By far the best recording to get is the one with Cyrille Dubois and Zachary Wilder, tenors; Jean-Marie Winling, speaker; Accentus, Orchestre de chambre de Paris, conducted by Laurence Equilbey from 2015.  The few copies left on the market retail over £50 so if you have it already, treasure it and accept no imitations.  Dubois's timbre is unique. His voice soars to stratospheric heights, then swoops downwards while remaining elegant. "Le chant du muezzin" resembles the call of a muezzin, carrying over great distances, calling the faithful to mark the start of a new day. Another reminder of the vast distances of the desert, and of the timelessness of experience. 

Eighty years forward to Jaques Feyder's film L'Atlantide,  innovative on many levels.  This, too was innovative, shot on location in Algeria in the desert, employing Algerians in major supporting roles and dozens of locally-recruited extras . No fake blacking up, and earnings for local people. the difference between French colonialism and other forms of colonialism, including Hollywood could not be more pointed.  The sand dunes themselves provide an underlying narrative, which no set of the time could imitate.  The scenery is authentic, too,  showing native villages as they were at the time, and spectacular mountain cliffs.  Even the indoor scenes were assembled on site, using regional textiles like carpets, combined with stylized designs reminiscent of the fashion for "primitive" alien cultures, that made the Ballets Russe so popular. To audiences in 1921, this must have been a revelation to people who weren't used to seeing foreign places in such deatail, or, indeed, to moving images.  L'Atlantide became a box office hit, also starting a trend for films set in exotic places, like The Sheik (1926) with Rudolph Valentino, and Pabst's 1932 remake of L'Atlantide starring Brigitte Helm, both made with assumptions that western values went unquestioned.

Like David's Le désert, Feyder's L'Atlantide employs cyclic narrative. A Frenchman (Lt Saint-Avit) is found wandering in the desert, maddened by thirst and bizarre visions.  Only towards the end do we realise  he's telling his tale back to front. Back to the beginning : he's invalided back to France under a cloud.  suspected of being involved with the mystery disappearance of his friend and mentor, Captain Morhange. Two years previously, a French expedition had been massacred  and the leader Lieutenant Massard had been captured.  Morhange and Saint-Avit approached the desolate mountains of Tidefest, taking shelter in a cave at the approach of sandstorm. Inside, they found insciptions in early Greek with the name "Antinea". Danger lurks. Their faithful guide is poisoned and they turn to a Tarqui from Haggar, Cegheir ben Cheik who suddenly appears, to lead them deeper into the caves below the mountains. Cegheir ben Cheik intoxicates them with hashish. He's smoking Lt. Massard's pipe.  The Frenchmen are catured and taken to the palace of Ahaggar. Both men are bathed, massaged and treated well but they don't know where they are, or why.  In the place’s archive, they meet a librarian who tells them that they are in the centre of Atlantis, ruled by Altinea, descendent of the first Atlanteans. He takes them to a tred marble room filled with solid gold sacrophagi and pins a name on the latest arrival "Lt. Massard", whom Morhange had seen jumping to his death. These are the husbands of Altinea, who die, insane, when she rejects them.  Only one has ever escaped and he made his way back, unable to break the spell. 

Altinea wants Morhange but he will not be seduced. Altinea is like a wild animal, slithering like a serpent, eyes always alert to her prey.  Those palpitations might have seemed erotic in a more buttoned up era, but to modern eyes, they're overacted. still, she must have titilliated the audiences  of 1921 who thought vamp was sexy. Why doesn't Morhange respond ? In France, he had decided to take holy orders as a monk, but the Abbott told him to return to Algeria first, to test his destiny. Hence the crucifix and beads (not a rosary) he wears, which is not standard uniform. To get revenge, she feeds Saint-Evit narcotic cigarettes and gets him to smash Morhange's skull with a silver hammer. Yet Morhange forgives him, as Christ did.  The original novel, by Pierre Benoit, would have appealed to audiences brought up on Catholic morality. Rejection makes Altinea mad with grief: she sees crucifixes shining everywhere and lets Morhange be buried according to his own religion.   Luckily for Saint-Avit, he's been befriended by Tanit-Zerga, Altinea's assistant, who wants to escape and return to her home  in Gao, from which she was taken in a raid by slavers. She arranges a camel, and the two make a plucky escape, aided by Cegheir ben Cheik.  In the desrt, though, their camel dies, and when they reach a well, it's dried out. Tanit-Zerga dies, with a mirage of Gao in her mind. Thus we return to the beginning, when Saint-Avit was found, lost in the desert.  But, like Morhange and others before him, the spell of Altinea haunts him, and he wrangles a posting back to the desert, knowing full well that he is compelled by some unknown, irrational force. 

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Two Pastorals : Beethoven Symphony no 6, Knecht Le portrait musical de la Nature

Two pastorals : Beethoven's Symphony no 6 "Pastoral" op 68 and Justin Heinrich Knecht Le Portrait musical de la Nature , with Bernhard Forck conducting the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, part of the ongoing Harmonia Mundi series where Beethoven's music is presented in thoughtful juxtaposition, geared towards listeners already familiar with the basics of Beethoven.  This recording examines Beethoven's Symphony no 6 in the context of pastoral traditions in European music, which evolved from the17th century and adapted to the Early Romantic aesthetic. 

Justin Knecht (1752-1817), a generation older than Beethoven, was an organist and composer who lived all of his life in Upper Swabia.  Knecht described Le Portrait musical de la nature as a "Tongemälde der Natur oder Groẞe Symphonie" (a tone painting in the form of a large symphony). In the first Allegretto, Knecht's written description suggests a scene where the sun shines, zephyrs blow, and brooks flow merrily through a valley where birds call, shepherds pipe and shepherdesses sing. An Arcadian idyll, embraced for centuries by painters, writers and musicians.  Knecht's  detaied commentary helps, since this movement describes tranquillity, its flow gentle and elegant.  The greater part of the piece - four of the five movements - address the progress of a storm. allowing for more spirited musical depiction.  In the second Allegretto, as Knecht wrote, "Der Himmel verdunkelt schnell", the sky clouds over and "der Donner grollt" presaging the storm to follow in the third movement where "der Bergstrom wälzt seine Wasser mit entssetzlichen Lärm" and gently subsides in the brief third Allegretto.  At last "Die Natur ist von Freude erfüllt" and idealized serenity is restored. 

It is known that Beethoven knew Knechts's theoretical writings, but there is no direct documentary evidence that Beethoven knew Knecht's Le portrait musical de la natureNonetheless,  Beethoven's structures are similar enough he may well have been aware of it.  But  Beethoven goes far beyond replication. In an era when symphonic form was relatively new, it was perhaps inevitable that Beethoven should respond to the pastoral genre by writing a "modern" symphony.  Beethoven's symphony is highly original.  He "provides a reinforcing counterpart to the underlying structure",writes Peter Gülke, and achieves "more concrete and radical programmatic effects  the murmuring brook, the trio of birds,  the character of the oboist of the village band who comes in too late several times  and its bassoonist who can only play three notes, the sudden thunderclaps...." Charming as Knecht's Le portrait musical de la nature is, Beethoven's symphony is altogther more sophisticated.  His landscape portrays the storm in the context of the lives of people who live in the countryside, the storm part of the wider cycle of Nature.  His titles refer to emotional states : "Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunftauf dem Lande", and "Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm". As Gülke says, the initial notes "come so close to the character of bird calls that it is only a tiny step to Nightingale - Cuckoo -Quail, in which Art and Nature finally become one."  Gülke also compares and contrasts the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, premiered together in the Vienna concert of 22nd December 1808.       

Although there are so many Beethoven Sixths on the market, this recording is well worth attention because the performance, by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, is that of a specialist ensemble with a strong background in 18th and early 19th century repertoire.  They have just released a new recoring of Beethoven's Symphonies 1 and 2. (There are other recordings of Knecht but they're not nearly as well performed).  Period-informed performance does make a difference with Beethoven, and especially with the unique aesthetic of Symphony no 6.  Period instruments  highlight the "pastoral" delicacy in the orchestration. This free-spirited lightness of touch evokes the simplicity and purity inherent in the idea of a population living in harmony with Nature. There is a strong underlying sense of pulse, that feels as natural as breathing.  Because there is no sense of rush, details can be lovingly savoured, without pressure. Natural horns and simple percussion sound as they might have been heard in countrysides where people depended on Nature for sustenance, where hunting and harvests depended on understanding their connection to the natural forces around them. Clear, pure winds, sprightly strings and more than a slight touch of cheerful good humour. Even the storm, vividly portrayed, does not need to be heavy handed or brutal : the countryside survives, refreshed.   Beethoven's Pastoral is no disembodied, idealized landscape but one which evokes the spirit of life.                                                                                                                                                                      Please also see my review of Beethoven Symphony no 9 and The Choral Fantasy, also in this Harmonia Mundi series,  with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester.                                                                                                              

Friday, 3 July 2020

Freiburger Barockorchester, Heras-Casado : Beethoven Choral Fantasy and Symphony no 9

Beethoven Symphony no 9 "Choral" in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy   in C minor op 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.  In this Beethoven anniversary year, it is good that there are ventures which probe more deeply into the composer and his music. The year started with reconstructions, in full performances concerts throughout Europe, of the concert of 22nd December 1808, in honour of the composer, in Vienna which included the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, concluding with the Choral Fantasy providing a grand finale, Beethoven himself playing  the piano part.  Perhaps it says something about the stamina of modern audiences that some could not understand the ambitious scale of the programme. The Choral Fantasy is in many ways the embryo of  Beethoven's Symphony no 9,  now an anthem of hope and unity, all over the world.

Although the Choral Fantasy wasn't successful at the 1808 concert for many reasons, it is hardly a neglected work. The Adagio begins with a substantial section for solo piano, for this is very much a piece for piano, supplemented by orchestra and voices.  The familiar "Ode to Joy" motif is introduced first by the piano, then elaborated by different sections in the orchestra.  A concerto, in effect, the piano very much part of the evolution of the whole. Not for nothing is the Choral Fantasy in the repertoire of many fine keyboardists.  Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano is complemented by the Freiburger Barockorchester, whose period sensibilities enhance finer textures and a "personality" in the approach which feels more intimate and direct, very much in keeping with the idea of individuals interacting as individuals, gradually building up towards communal expression.  Just as in the Choral Symphony, the choir and vocal soloists in the Choral Fantasy enter only in the final Allegro, which has been purposefully reached as a result of what has gone before.

The character of these performances make this new recording a strong recommendation even in a market saturated with Beethoven Ninths. The vivacity and vigour of the Freiburger Barockorchester works extremely well with this symphony, given its fundamental message. "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" was a radical concept in the context of its time, when authoritarian regimes were giving way to new ideas, which included the freedom of the individual, and the right to tolerate self-determination.  It is significant that Beethoven replaced the text used in the Choral Fantasy (by Christoph Kuffner) celebrating the harmony of Nature where "Nacht und Stürme werden Licht" with the even more explicit Friedrich von Schiller Ode to Joy.

Beethoven's Symphony no 9 perfectly captures the revolutionary spirit of the Romantic era, and of the ideals Beethoven held so deeply.  What would Beethoven, Schiller and their contemporaries think of modern societies where such values seem to be in retreat ?  While this symphony is expressive with the full blast of a large modern orchestra and massed voices,  the Freiburger Barockorchester, with their appreciation of the more intimate soundworld of Beethoven's time, also bring out the human scale and personal warmth in this symphony. The power of this piece lies in the way Beethoven uses individuals to create a greater creative whole.  The Freiburger Barockorchester have also recorded a superb Beethoven Leonore (the 1805 version of Fidelio) with René Jacobs, livelier and more spirited than John Eliot Gardiner, emphasizing the originality of Beethoven's writing for the two female roles, who are much more developed than in the 1814 version. It is essential listening. The Freiburger Barockorchester have recently released a new recording of Beethoven's Piano Concertos no 2 and 5 "The Emperor" also with Kristian Bezuindenhout and Pablo Heras-Casado.

The superb playing of the Freiburger  Barockorchester is enhanced by Heras-Casado's direct, vivid style, and by the quality of the soloists,  Christiane Karg, Sophie Harmsen, Werner Güra and Florian Boesch.  Their voices are exceptionally well-balanced, and operate in consort with each other, which is also part of underlying meaning. Not a weak link here, as is sometimes the case with lesser performances.  The choir is the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, also very rewarding. 

Monday, 29 June 2020

Glyndebourne magic at home - Ravel L'enfant et les sortilèges

L'enfant et les sortilèges - Teapot (François Piolino) Child (Khatouna Gadelia) Chinese Cup (Elodie Méchain) Credit Simon Annand
 Glyndebourne at home, minus the garden. Champagne and strawberries optional. But a glorious chance to experience once more the magic of Ravel L'enfant et les sortilèges, in the Laurent Pelly production.  In L'enfant et les sortilèges, the world is seen through the eyes of a child, still full of wonder, too young to be locked into rigid assumptions : innocent, yet still  aware that there might be darker forces lurking just beyond.  This isn't an opera that can be approached literally, with the judgementalism that some adults might prefer.   Pelly, however, captures its elusive delicacy, where magical thinking co-exists with an awareness that harsh reality will eventually intrude, even on the pure in spirit.  "L'enfant et les sortilèges" said Pelly, "lasts about 45 minutes, but has the depth of an opera of three or four hours".This production's timeless, endlessly refreshing. What a joy it is to experience its freedom again via Glyndebourne streaming, especially in these times when it seems that the world seems bent on self destruction.

The combination of this L'enfant et les sortilèges, from 2012, with Pelly's much earlier L'heure espagnole underlines the freshness of Pelly's conception.  In  L'heure espagnole the adult figures are cynical, as inhuman and as inhumane as the clocks Torquemada surrounds himself with. Machines can be controlled to suit. Torquemada's a classic case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, where process means more than goal, the need to regulate a mask for existential anxiety.  Concepción thinks she can escape by playing men off against each other, but she, too, is operating on clockwork. Everyone in  L'heure espagnole is trapped in an infernal machine they don't even recognise : no-one's happy, or innocent.

The 2012 Glyndebourne cast was brilliant - Stéphanie d'Oustrac and Kathleen Kim, for starters ! Altogether unforgettable !  Please see my original review from the premiere  and also my interview with Laurent Pelly.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

The New Babylon - Kozintsev, Trauberg and Shostakovich

Dimitri Shostakovich's first film score, for the 1929 film by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon). The film makers were part of a co-operative known as FEKS (the Factory of the Eccentric Actor) that thrived on the daring new possibilities offered by film as an artistic medium,  thriving on futurism and the avant garde. The subversive spirit of the 1920's squeezed into political orthodoxy.

Like the film makers, Shostakovich was young and idealistic : this was his first commission for the movies. (the score to be played live at screenings). Cinema was a truly innovative art form, in that it appealed to mass audiences who might not otherwise have been drawn to “art”.  By the standards of the day, The New Babylon was daring. By working on it, the youthful Shostakovich was right in the centre of what was artistic avant garde in Soviet terms. He didn’t have the relative luxury composers in the west had, of conducting and teaching. He needed the movies to make a living. What is intriguing is how much film influenced the development of his music.  Thus the brassy militaristic marches, interposed by manic crowd scenes, chreographed to highlight excess and abandon.

The film celebrates the Paris Commune, dutifully showing images of downtrodden workers, capitalist degenerates, effete officers, healthy peasants and other stereotypes. The plot is simple: the downtrodden rise up against the system with some vague idea of “getting rid of the bosses” but are soon crushed by the military. The acting is banal. The heroine uses one pained expression for every purpose. It’s a relief when she suddenly falls out of the plot, her place taken by a minor actress who really can act, so much so that her personality seems to enliven the screen, even if she’s long dead and forgotten.


This being a propaganda film, the plot doesn’t bear analysis. One moment the washerwomen struggle with weariness. Once they’re told they’re free they suddenly wash with such hysterically manic vigour they get soaked through in the process. If only it were that simple….. The climactic scene is one where the communards and the bourgeoisie face each other in a stand-off. Of course the communards are supposed to be expressing contempt for the depraved ways of the capitalist class, proving their moral superiority and ultimate victory. Perhaps it’s the bad acting again, but the distinct impression I got from the scene was that the actors playing the communards would much rather have been enjoying sinful hedonism.  Perhaps the film was banned because it portrayed the degenerate capitalists with too much glee. They may be a drunken lot with rotten teeth, but they sure seem to have a good time. At least they get to do it in satins and lace. Indeed, the decadence is portrayed with such historical detail that in one brief shot, I’ll swear I saw why the Can Can was so scandalous! Mixed messages, then, in this film.


Shostakovich's score is a delightful riot of witty set pieces, such as the Marseillaise and variations thereon, Can Can music and a maudlin Tchaikovsky piano solo to match the onscreen scene where a communard plays an instrument consigned to the barricades. Moreover, there are obvious “scenery” effects, such as gunshots, the trundling of carts, cannonades and so on. Subtle this isn’t. Someone somehow managed to edit film and music in such a way that they are perfectly synchronised.  When I first saw the restored fim, back in 2006, I wasn't too impressed by the cinematography, but re-watching after all these years, I appreciate it a lot more for what it is.  We're all puppets, the film seems to suggest, caughtup in situations beyond our control.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Keeping live music alive - Royal Opera House live from Covent Garden


Lots to listen to this weekend : Live from the Royal Opera House, London, from the Rudolfinium Prague with Simon Rattle conducting the Czech Philharmonic and Magdalena Kožena, Britten from Aldeburgh,  Britten on Camera documentary on BBC TV 4, plus the LSO tonight (John Eliot Gardiner, Mendelssohn) plus much more.

"Doing our best to re animate the spirit of this gorgeous house" says Antonio Pappano in the introduction. And the ROH is glorious - it's heartbreaking to see it empty and its grand traditions silenced for the forseseeable future. That is WHY we need concerts like this, to remind us of what we might lose forever, if we don't take this crisis seriously.  Most musicians are freelance : they can't suddenly end up on the dole or get jobs filling boxes at Amazon. Like athletes, they need to keep training to keep their skills.  All that expertise gone to waste. The Royal Opera House is the second largests arts employer in this country, after the BBC, and contributes greatly to the economy. It is significant that far too many music fans do not recognize the role of live performance in keeping music alive.  Typical sneers on the net from "music lovers"- "we don't do live in my neck of the woods", "too many classics around already", "We only need Youtube" and most shameful of all, "We don't need professional musicians, amateurs are enough".  We're not just up against a pandemic and financial disaster but up against music fans who can't even comprehend the role of live performance in music-making.  

Above all, live performance is a communal activity, which constantly regenerates artistic growth.  The ROH is huge, not particularly suited to chamber recitals, but at least the company is making an effort, not, like the South Bank, giving up and closing down while keeping governments grants. So we might have to pay £4.99 to view later ROH concerts, but so what ? We should all be doing something to help.  In recent years, the notion that everything should be free is delimiting experience and poisoning growth.  The ROH website (as always) is full of petty complaints but it's not hard to access the concert (which starts a few minutes in) and remains online for repeat listening  There is a certain amount of echo at the beginning of the film before the mikes adjust by the time the performance starts.  Louise Alder sings Britten On this Island, and Toby Spence sings Butterworth A Shropshire Lad, and Gerald Finlay sings Mark-Anthony Turnage Three Songs  and Finzi Fear no more the Heat of the Sun.   The pianist is Pappano himself. For opera regulars, "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet The Pearl Fishers, an opera that's notoriously difficult to stage, and Handel "Tornami a vagheggiar" from Alcina.

Since the ROH is also the home of the Royal Ballet, Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales dance the world premiere of a new pas de deux, choreographed by Wayne McGregor to Richard Strauss Morgen! , Louise Alder singing the Lieder.  Listen to McGregor describe why the arts must not be left to desiccate by default.  "And tomorrow the sun will shine again (Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen)  And that support needs to be coming from listeners like ourselves.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Roderick Williams - defeating cultural apartheid in Lieder, Wigmore Hall


Roderick Williams sings Schumann Frauen-Liebe und Leben at the Wigmore Hall with pianist Joseph Middleton, highlight of an unusual programme Williams calls "Woman's Hour" because it features Lieder that highlight the lives of women.  As Williams says, Lieder aren't necessarily gender-specific, but works of imaginative expression.  So composers and poets were male, but that didn't stop them from caring about how women might think or feel.  The idea that songs should be rigidly classified as male or emale is cultural apartheid, a regressive demeaning of the very values of humanity that Lieder, and indeed the whole Romantic movement, stand for.

Towards the end of the last century, Schumann's Frauen-Liebe und Leben came in for flak from some Lieder fans, thereby ruining it for female singers who risk being attacked for being "anti-feminist" if they like it.  But surely serious Lieder fans should have known better.  Nineteenth century women may not have had equal opportunities but they were human beings with feelings, and even  now, women who chose love and marriage are not traitors to their sex.  Hating Frauen-liebe und Leben says more about the haters than about the music.

Adalbert von Chamisso (1781-1838) was a progressive by the standards of his time, a man of the world and open minded, and a friend of Madame de Staël who was no Handmaid's Tale.  In these poems, Chamisso describes a young woman as she matures and develiops her identity. She becomes strong enough to handle being on her own.  Schumann, too, was not repressive. He knew that Clara was the top celebrity pianist of her time, forging a career without the support of managements and modern PR teams. She'd fought her father in court for the right to marry. Not the sign of a shrinking violet.  She was the breadwinner, continuing to work long after Robert's death. Though neither she nor Robert knew it at the time, Frauen-liebe und Leben was almost prophetic. Schumann's setting is delicate but it's not "effeminate", but rather reflects tenderness and intimacy.

When Matthias Goerne did a programme with  Frauen-liebe und Leben and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder some audiences went apoplectic, but again that says more about themselves.  It's always easier to hate something different than take it on board.  He did this programme at the Wigmore Hall in 2006 where audiences in general know what Lieder is about and aren't threatened by any deviation from recieived wisdom. He revealed the innate beauty of these works, and the fundamental dignity of human expression.  If Lieder fans (or self styled Lieder fans) can't cope with that,  they desreve to stick with kitsch and schlock.  

Williams and Middleton extended to programme with Lieder by Schubert and Brahms, also portraits of women with feelings and minds of their own, and Clara Schumann's Liebst du um Schönheit, which is pleasant enough but proves the case that some women can decide for themselves where their true talents lie. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Night Mail 1936 - Art and covert socialism


Available now on BFI player, Night Mail, the pioneering documentary produced by the General Post Office film unit released in February 1936.  It's fairly unique, a factual documentary about train services,but it's lifted out of this into the realm of art, by its sensitivity to the subject. Real railwaymen and postal workers, not actors : nothing faked. It's an idea that connects back to the futurism of the 1920's and 1930's and even further back to to William Morris's concepts ideas of art and socialism as continuum.  Mail sorters are seen putting letters into pigeonholes : repetitive rythmic movements which streamline the process, their movements almost balletic.  Then, look at the trains themselves - engines puffing, pistons moving, travelling in orderly, organized lines across the country.  Much more than mundane mechanical process ! Even the sound of steam rushing through the chimneys and the banter of the workers sound like music. The Postal Special is so efficient that letters and parcels posted in one area can be sorted and bagged on the train within half an hour.  On this orderly efficiency, rests the prosperity of industrial Britain.  Night Mail was created to boost the morale of low paid workers, but also as public relations. On this orderly efficiency rests the prosperity of industrial Britain.

Night Mail is "industrial poetry" so it's perfectly apt that it should end with poetry and music.  W H Auden's poem captures the rhythms of  machines and men, working in unison, while opening out to the world beyond - letters of every kind, from all over the world, communicating human stories of every kind.  Th very young Benjamin Britten picked up on this context, his music replicating the lines of the text to brilliant effect.  Produced and directed by Harry Watt and  Basil Wright,  this film is also influenced by Alberto Cavalcanti who had made Rien que les heures (Nothing but time) - a day in the life of Paris, from 1926,  not unlike WaltervRuttman's Berlin : Symphony of a Great City (read more here). Very much in the spirit of futurism and creative modernity.  Sadly, some things don't change. Cavalcanti was poised to head the GPO film but was cut off as he wasn't British. He returned to his native Brazil, then returned to Europe, East Berlin and France.

Friday, 5 June 2020

People or pianos ? Good for Yuja Wang !

Yuja Wang (Photo : Julia Wesley)
On her Facebook page Yuja Wang has spoken out on the image of a piano trashed in the protests after the murder of George Floyd #blacklivesmatter :

"Pianos will continue to be crafted with love and care, music will be shared to unite and uplift people during this time of crisis, and stores will be rebuilt, through the hard work and generosity of their communities. What we can’t rebuild or replace, however, are human lives. Those are the most precious thing of all, and we must safeguard the lives of people whose voices aren’t being heard."

"Human expression takes many forms. It has to, especially when marginalized voices are not being acknowledged, and are met with hatred and judgement. I hope you will look at this powerful image and recognize everything that it is trying to say to us."
 
".....when marginalized voices are not being acknowledged and are met with hatred and judgement"  Think on that. The vicious abuse aimed against her for saying that abolutely proves the case.  Racism is endemic ; indeed you could argue that some sections of western society would collapse if they didn't have targets to hate, whatever the target might be.  Right wing extremists are only the tip of the iceberg, (or rather inferno).  Their values tap into a mindset that runs so deep that even supposedly decent people who vomit at DT & Co happily accept the way his agendas have permeated.  Too many Uncle Toms, too. It's the whole Cold War mentality of good guys versus subhuman bad guys, the "good guys"  assuming the moral imperative, however much double standards might apply.  Yuja Wang knows first hand how petty minded and vicious some people can be. So all the more her courage deserves respect.

If pianos are more important than the millions of lives damaged and lost through racism,  that says something about society.  True artists use their instruments to create something more sublime than material things.   In any case, what kind of artist uses white painted pianos, anyway ?

Sure, mass gatherings in times of pandemic are not a great idea for infection control.  But racism is even more contagious than COVID and it kills even more.   strange, usn't itbhow the same poeple who believe in their freedom not to respect disease limitation suddenly advocate it when other people are concerned.   Like the woman who claimed to be a feminist because domestic violence has spiralled during lockdown. As if domestic violence would disappear overnight if lockdown stopped? Or the man who complained because he's isolated for weeks, so therefore no-one else should be out demonstrating, yet doesn't complain about yobs who cheerfully ignore anything other than their own needs.  #onlymylife matters 

Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Proms as Covid Supernova ?

Does some of the London media want a supernova of COVID infections this year ? The BBC Proms this year will respect safety guidelines, switching from live concerts to recordings, with the prospect of some live events at the end of the season.  Perfectly sensible, considering that the capacity of the Royal Albert Hall is well over 6000, squeezing that many people together (with impacts on public transport) would be a recipe for disaster. This virus isn't going away anytime soon, but what do some people care ? In these circumstances, what kind of person could "enjoy" endangering musicians, audiences and service personnel ?  Yes, we need to keep live music alive, and save thousands from bankruptcy but not at the cost of killing people.

In any case, the BBC has so much in its archives that there should be enough to keep classical music lovers happy, even if it's not the same  as good live performance. But for years now, the Proms have gradually shifted the balance away from classical music.  So the Arron Banks crowd, for whom the Last Night of the Proms is politics, not music or even fun, can celebrate.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Zemlinsky Die Seejungfrau - Jurowski Concertgebouw Amsterdam

Alexander Zemlinsky Die Seejungfrau with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam Orchestra in 2013 on the RCOA streaming site (link here).  Jurowski has conducted Die Seejungfrau with numerous orchestras so many times that he's pretty much the main man when it comes to the piece these days.  Since the score was thought lost until 1984, there really isn't any "performance tradition", though many learned it from Ricardo Chailly's 1994 recording. Jurowski's enthusiasm for the piece has helped to make it now one of the most popular of all Zemlinsky's works. So it's worth listening to the commentaries before the concert starts.

Jurowski conducts the most recent edition, compiled  by Zemlinsky specialist Anthony Beaumont, who has  studied Zemlinsky and his contemporaries (including Ama Mahler) and is probably the main researcher in this field.  Approaching Zemlinsky without access to Beaumont's experience is like trying to swim without water - an apt a metaphor for Die Seejungfrau who loses her identity when she's on alien ground.  This edition reinstates the Sea Witch sequence, which is pretty much fundamental to interpretation, connecting the tale of the mermaid to much more sinister, supernatural forces. This "Little Mermaid" isn't cutesy Disney but a sister of the Sirens,  who lured sailors to their deaths. This Mermaid is all the more cursed because she isn't a serial killer who kills on autopilot, but a person with deep emotions, who is forced to destroy the man she truly loves. One can imagine what psychological levels that might imply.

Knowing the background to any work gives the music extra poignancy. The disturbing, mysterious first movement of Die Seejungfrau came from a sketch for a symphony about death, but the piece as we know it  was written in February 1902, weeks before Alma deserted Zemlinsky to marry Gustav Mahler.  In the second movement,  which portrays a ball at the underwater palace of the sea creatures, some notes are reversed, inextricably linking the mermaid's tragedy to the joys of others who accept what they are meant to be. The mermaid  sees the image of a prince, who is so alien to her world that she  longs to be like him, instead of herself.  A storm arises, sinking the prince's ship – no missing this. As the mermaid walks on shore with painful human feet, she treads in pain, and the music deliberately drags. The mermaid is forced to have her tongue cut out and never sings again. For a musician, giving up creative expression is particularly cruel.  Zemlinsky identified with the mutilated mermaid : like her, he could never be what he was not. Fortunately, he turned his anguish into art, sublimating trauma  through works like Der Traumgörge and Der Zwerg until the transcendance of the Lyric Symphony in which renewal takes over from the past. (please see my piece on Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony HERE)

This is what I wrote about Jurowski's Zemlinsky Die Seejungfrau with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2016, some years after the RCOA concert:

Jurowski captured the menacing depths in the introduction. Small, sparkling figures served to highlight the sinister gloom. The violin melody suggests the upward movement of the mermaid swimming upward: the LPO playing with energetic sense of purpose. Jurowskiu didn't bask too long in the sunshine. the urgent, almost violent theme which might represent the prince as huntsman churned up dissonance. Already we know this fairy tale will end in death. Jurowski and the orchestra delineated the churning undercurrents. Frequent turbulent contrasts between lyricism and violence. Jurowski didn't steer clear of the innate ugliness lurking within. The two-minute Sea Witch passage unearthed and edited by Anthony Beaumont makes a difference, intensifying the violence and the ultimate tragedy. Jurowski's background as opera conductor helps greatly, too, for he emphasizes the inherent drama in the orchestration. Jurowski's Die Seejungfrau is an opera where the orchestra sings for the characters. It's vivid in a cinematic way without being maudlin or sentimental. Descending diminuendos prepare us for the final confrontation. Jurowski lets sounds surge forth, yet holds it back, creating extreme tension. The LPO play with such richness that you could feel the intensity of her loss. Had she had legs instead of a fishtail, she might have been a princess, but in her sacrifice, she finds Isolde-like transfiguration.