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. "

Friday, 14 February 2020

On the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden - Dresdner Requiem - Rudolf Mauersbeger

Dresden Kreuzchor in the ruins of the Kreuzkirche, August 1945 (Bundesarchiv)

As dawn broke seventy-five years ago, the people of the City of Dresden woke to scenes of unimaginable destruction.  On 13th-15th February 1945, 1300 British and American bombers unleashed some 4000 tons of incendiary bombs on the City of Dresden.  Tens of thousands were killed outright, hundred of thousands more displaced, their lives changed forever.  Though the city was a transport hub, its destruction wasn't simply strategic. Its annihilation was symbolic.  Saxony represented German culture at its finest, not just Dresden alone but Leipzig, Freiburg and the  wider region. Architectural treasures, literature, history and music. Ultimately it wasn't just Dresden that suffered but world heritage. Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was a Dresdner, during the Thirty Years War, protected by the Court of Saxony.  Bach lived and worked in Leipzig : not for nothing that he was championed by Mendelssohn, who conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and by Robert Schumann, born in Zwickau.  Wagner was born in Leipzig and found early fame in Dresden. Richard Strauss was remembering the opera house and the Staatskapelle Dresden in his Metamorphosen. Many things we should not forget, but we remebering Dresden makes us value so much of what has been lost, not to be retrieved.

The number of first hand witnesses is shrinking fast. Peter Schreier died at Christmas.  During the war years, the boys were safe in lodgings outside the city but were, understandably, frightened. In December 1944, Rudolf Mauersberger (1889-1971), for decades the Kreuzkantor of the Dresdner Kreuzchor, wrote his Weihnachtszyklus so they could sing and cheer themselves up. Please read my article about Schreier and his importance in the continuation of vocal traditions which emphasize emotional and spiritual engagement : always more challenging, intellectually, than "market forces". Rudolf Mauersberger's Dresdner Requiem RMWV 10, 1947 revised 1961.  Mauersberger (1889-1971) was, for decades, a driving force behind the Dresdner Kreuzchor, deeply immersed in its musical heritage, so the Requiem is a heartfelt cry of anguish. I've been planning to write about it for years, but it's too painful, but maybe now I must confront it.  There are clips of Schreier singing the part in 1949 (see below) but the best known full recording was made in the Lukaskirche in October 1994, Matthias Jung conducting the Dresdner Kreuzchor.  The orchestration is deliberately spartan, in the Lutheran tradition, with organ and celeste and percussion (bells sounds, knocking wooden sounds, drum rolls), restrained trumpet and winds.. It was issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombings, with a dedication written by Roman Herzog, the President of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

Introducing the Dresdner Requiem is Mauerberger's Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst RMWV 4/1,part of the Chorzyklus Dresden, first perfomed in the bombed out ruins of theKreuzkirche in August 1945- see photo above, where the audience is standing, wrapped in heavy coats. "How lonely sits the city that was full of people.....From on high He sent fire into my bones He made it descend. Is this city, which was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth? "  On this disc, it's followed by a brief sound recording of the great bells of the Kreuzkirche ringing in their glory. Heard together, they're very moving.  The Dresdner Requiem proper starts in a relatively conventioibal liturgy - an introit, antiphon, psalm and antiphon, but the use of three choirs, one at the altar, another "echo choir", at a distance, and a third Hauptchor (tutti) for deeper resonance gives the piece spatial aspects which intensify meaning. Interplay is significant, too, between larger and small sub groups, and the plaintive alto soloist, between older and younger singers, suggesting constant change and spiritual searching.  In the Kyrie, the choirs call en masse for mercy but the Epistel introduces a more personal theme : "I heard a voice from Heaven saying.....Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord....that they might rise from their labours", echoed by the Graduale, where the younger, more ethereal voices ring out in their purity.

The Transitory marks even sterner stuff. "Es ist ein Kurz und mühselig Ding um unser Leben".  Our names will be forgotten  with the passing of time and no-one will remember anything we did, Our lives will blow over like the last vestige of a cloud...thus he who comes to his grave, comes not from it again.....Therefore I will not restrain my mouth, I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my will seek me, but I shall not be".  No maudlin comfort here but something infinitely tougher.  The Altarchor and Echochor offer a measure of relief, but first one must deal with grim reality.  In the brief Tod, the choirs  proclaim "Wer will Gott lehren, der auch die Hohen, richtet !". some die at ease, some in bitterness, but both turn to dust, consumed by worms. this is the context of the Evangelium, "Ich bin die Auferstehung und das Leben" the belief that conquers fear even in the flames of the Dies Irae.  Thus "nach dir streck' ich die Hände, zum Zerknirschten, Herr, dich Wende, o gib mir ein selig Ende!" and the peace that follows.  Yet the full force of retribution is yet to come. The section "Der Herr hat seine Hand gewendet", its portent fortified by percussion and brass, is particularly powerful,, its text is dramatically vivid : God has given full vent to his wrath and consumed by the foundations of a great city. Its towers are destroyed, the people crushed, selling treasures for food. Mankind offers nothing : only faith. does. For those who lived through Dresden and many other horrors, such images would have been all too real.

The intricate garland of  prayers, Sanctuses, hosannas and chorales which follow, build up gradually to a vision of divine redemption,  all the more glorious because they have been won after brutal struggle.  In the Vorspel and Chorale the congregation joins the choirs, all singing "Mit Jubelklang, mit instrumenten schön auf Chören ohne Zahl", the percussion ringing like muted church bells.  The Agnus Dei is heartfelt : faith isn't easy, it's achieved from deep within.  In the De profoundis the alto solo sings almost alone, the choirs hushed behind him. If God can hear this fragile voice, God can hear all.  The choirs and congregation join again for the finale Chorale,the organ leading. At last "Lass sie ruhen in Freiden. Amen". Not triumphant, not cocky but humble and sincere.  

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Triple A's - Mahler 9, Myun-whun Chung, Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam at the Elbphilharmonie

Life-affirming Mahler Symphony no 9 from Myun-whun Chung, conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, from the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg.  Triple run of A-Listers ! One of the best conductors around, one of the best orchestras heard in the wonderful acoustic of the Elbphilharmonie. The RCOA has probably done more Mahler than most orchestras, Chung is a Mahler specialist too  so excellence was to be expected,  but wow, was this good !  Really great musicianship at this standard challenges and stretches our appreciation of the music itself.  
There is never any one way to do good music so thank goodness there are musicians who care deeply enough about the music to approach it with such insight. The market for performances that fit listeners’ preconceptions will always be greater than the market for anything new but that's more to do with received opinion. These days many prefer C or D listers because they're less likely to get in the way of fixed certainties. So the more you listen and the more widely you listen, the less the likelihood of fixed positions.  And Mahler's music is so very much open to new possibilities and new horizons.  
Myun-whun Chung, credit Jean-Francois Leclerq, Askonas Holt
In this case, Chung's life-affirming interpretation, brimming with life and the love of life, proves that there is so much more to the symphony than the old cliché that M9 is only about death.  Maybe one day audiences will catch up on the amount we've learned about Mahler, the man and his music in the last 50 years. From the early songs and Das klagende Lied to the final stretches of what was to be the tenth symphony, a powerful life force surges, which cannot be defeated.  The second, third and fouth symphony address the world beyond and in the 8th and Das Lied von der Erde,  there are concepts of tranfiguration onto another plane. 
A wonderfully rich first movement, low timbred winds and brass lit by harps, and strings that move like gentle breezes - always  a sense of movement - andante commodo, an open hearted embrace of life and its diversity.  For a "pulse" this is, suggesting the human body at rest, calmly breathing.  Gradually the palpitations built up towards expansive outbursts, as if invigorated by the flow of life.  When silence descends, marked by timpani ans strident brass, the effect is chilling.

The harp ruminates, and the steady pace resumes.  The music flares up again, fractured angular shapes suggesting tension, alarm and a spiralling descent into darkness, and a wall  of mournful winds and brasses, and at last, a glowing coda, like embers yet undimmed. In Das Lied von der Erde, the poet fears death because he loves life too much to let go. enjoys life too much to leave it. Thus the gradual coming to terms, which also influences the first movement of the 9th, and its culmination, where the orchestra soars in an outburst of defiance. To really understand Mahler, it helps to think of the works as part of a continuum. 

A vigorous second movement, marked "Etwas täppisch und sehr derb".(rustic, simple, earthy). Why Ländler? Ländler are danced by peasants who till the soil, who know that seasons change and that harvests return after winter. This movement is much more than folklore and quaint kitsch, connecting yet again to themes of change and rebirth that run through so much of Mahler's work.  Earthy in that sense doesn't necessarily mean crude, especially when considered in the context of the interpretation as a whole. There's humour here, not grotesque per se. Pan awakes, bringing life !  The pace whipped up, propelled along with force, yet once again, the dance returns, for dance, like Nature, moves in rhythmic cycles.  Poise, more so than turbulence is of the essence.This idea of change and renewal informed the third movement, written in rondo form. A chill seemed to descend with the wild, almost manic figures, the "burleske" mocking any ideas of simple comfort.  Has frost cut down the harvest?  Dark bassoons murmured, the strings went quiet, yet again  from this desolation a melodic string line arose, rising upward. (The violist looked exactly like my father, which for me added poignancy).  Chung captured the sense of forward movement - the trumpet line like a horn in the Alps, resonating from peak to peak. Great walls of sound, looming like cliffs, yet tiny details, like the triangle clearly audible.

In the final movement, Chung again brought out the sense of flowing movement, the "rondo" of the changes of seasons and the passage of time. Thus the growling low brass, as if sounds were coming from the bowels of the earth, while high, string tessituras evoked something more transcendant.  The orchestral Leader (who looks like young Brahms) delineated his line so it seemed to shimmer, weightlessly.  Many of these players would have worked with Bernard Haitink, legendary for the spiritual transparency he could bring to this symphony.  When the warm surge that characterized Chung's first movement returned, the idea of cyclic change felt reaffirmed.  The idea of differences reconciled in the figures for oboe and flute, moderated by harp, and the magnificent coda, where the strings en masse rang out in glowing chorale, leading the orchestra onward, ever forward.    Please listen here, it's wonderful. 

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Beethoven channels Walter Scott's Scotland

Ruins of Melrose Abbety - photo 1878
Between 1809 and 1816, Beethoven wrote dozens of arrangements of folk songs and folk-like material from Scotland, Ireland and Wales for the Scottish publisher George Thompson.  Sunset (or Der Abend: Die Sonne sinkt ins Ettrick Thal) comes from from Beethoven's 25 Scottish Songs Op 108/2 (1818) to a poem by Walter Scott, (yet another Beethoven contemporary) The Weary Change (The Sun sets upon the Wierdlaw Hill).  For the Early Romantics, Scotland suggested an idealized image of societies where people lived close to Nature, as yet untamed by civilised convention. When Mendelssohn visited, he travelled, sometimes alone by foot - no tour guides or organized trips, no hotels, no-one to translate from Gaelic to German. For someone from his background, this might have been the equivalent, perhaps, of visiting an alien planet where almost nothing is quite familiar, but which provides unending stimulus and fascination. Nothing safe or connentional.  For Walter Scott, native Scotsmen represented a past that had to be redeemed by making the Scots more middle clas and "English", but European Romantics liked Scotland for what it was. (Please see my piece on Rossini La donna del lago).

Beethoven's setting of Sunset replicates Scott's delight in semi-archaic syntax and references to Scottish history, which may or may not be lost on modern listeners, but that very strangeness I find adds to the mystique. This affects interpretation to some extent. There are many very good performances by native English speakers, but I'm particularly fond of performances by non English speakers who approach the songs as music, pronouncing the exotic words so the sense of mystery is enhanced.  How did "Wierdlaw Hill" get its name and what is the "holy fane of Melrose rise in ruin'd pride". Even the syntax is strange. Yet Beethoven's phrasing makes sense : all the singer has to do is trust the score, not tidy it up. Notice how subtle Beethoven's setting is : as realization sinks into the poet's mind, strings are plucked, rhythmically, like faint heartbeats. Thus do the "minstrels" reply to "The harp of strain’d and tuneless chord".

Of the many recordings, my particular favourite is Andrè Schuen with the Boulanger Trio. This set's interesting too because the songs are so well chosen, showing how Beethoven adapted similar figures into different songs, so the songs are connected by a cohesive thread.  Anyone with time on their hands could probably check the scores for greater detail, but it mkes for a very satisfying whole.  Wonderful singing - such reesonant depth and subtle nuance. Buy the CD on or amazon and attend the recital at the Elbphilharmonie on 20th February (details here)   Please also read my other posts on  Andrè Schuen esp his recent Liszt Petraca Sonnets.  And now, here's the text of Scott's poem :
The sun upon the Weirdlaw Hill, 
In Ettrick’s vale, is sinking sweet; 
The westland wind is hush and still, 
The lake lies sleeping at my feet. 
Yet not the landscape to mine eye
Bears those bright hues that once it bore; 
 Though evening, with her richest dye, 
Flames o’er the hills of Ettrick’s shore.
With listless look along the plain, 
I see Tweed’s silver current glide,
 And coldly mark the holy fane 
Of Melrose rise in ruin’d pride. 
The quiet lake, the balmy air, 
The hill, the stream, the tower, the tree,-
Are they still such as once they were? 
Or is the dreary change in me? 
Alas, the warp’d and broken board, 
How can it bear the painter’s dye! 
The harp of strain’d and tuneless chord, 
How to the minstrel’s skill reply! 
To aching eyes each landscape lowers, 
To feverish pulse each gale blows chill; 
And Araby’s or Eden’s bowers 
Were barren as this moorland hill.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Beethoven Prometheus, Opferlied and Symphony no 3 - Ben Gernon, BBC Phil

Ben Gernon (photo : Jane Hobson, courtesy Intermusica)
A good all-Beethoven concert  with Ben Gernon conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra live from Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (listen here). Worth hearing for many reasons. Gernon very  good, indeed. With Gernon as Principal Guest and Omer Meir Welber as Chief Conductor, the BBC Philharmonic needs a breath of new life after a period in relative doldrums.  In this Beethoven anniversary year, there will be dozens of concerts, but not many programmes as interesting as this.  Beethoven Symphony no 3 in E flat, 'Eroica'  - yes ! But also the full The Creatures of Prometheus Op 43 (1801) and Opferlied, Op 121b (1824) for soloist (Jennifer Johnston) and chorus (The Manchester Chamber Choir).  The last two played first, creating background to the symphony.

Prometheus stole fire from the gods to enlighten mankind. Enlightenment in every sense : Apollo the god of the arts and his muses, and Dionysius, the god of wine and creative freedom to counerbalance Zeus, the symbol of authoritarian order. The ballet is structured in two acts, of which the second loosely introduces the muses of music, theatre, literature, history, dance and tso on, "The creatures of Prometheus". Now that it seems the world is becoming increasingly fascist,  it might help to remember that rulers like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin  saw the arts as a reflection of their own glory, ignoring the humanity and diversity of true creative endeavour.  For Beethoven, Napolean was first a liberator, then a tyrant. If only modern political followrs had the guts to realize that they can be wrong.  Napolean, unlike some tyrants, did leave a heritage, like the decimal system. Or maybe the tyrants of today don't care about anything "foreign" and that Prometheus was wrong.

Beethoven's Opferlied underlined the impact. The text is Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831) an almost exact contemporary of the composer, both of them exposed to the same social and cultural upheavals of the time. Matthisson's writings tended towards philosophy, tinged with post-classical idealism. Possibly his best know poem today is Adelaide,  which Beethoven set as a Lied as his op 46 around 1796, when he was working on the original draft of Opferlied (WoO126) for solo voice and piano, revised in 1801-2.  There are more connections than one might think at first. In Adelaide, the poet is wandering lone and forlorn, Adelaide perhaps no more than a figment of his imagination inspired by visual images like mountains and valleys, the swaying of branches and nightingales. Then the final strophe. All is bathed in seemingly light-hearted pastoral sweetness, but the meaning is clear. Whoever, or whatever Adelaide might be can only be revealed after death :

Einst, o Wunder! entblüht auf meinem Grabe
Eine Blume der Asche meines Herzens.
Deutlich schimmert auf jedem Purpurblättchen:


This version for soloist, chorus and orchestra heard here is better known, was completed almost a quarter of a century later.  This version fits the nature of the text better, because it's more formal and heroic than a Lied.

Die Flamme lodert, milder Schein
Durchglänzt den dunkeln Eichenhain
Und Weihrauchdüfte wallen 
O neig' ein gnädig Ohr zu mir
Und laß des Jünglings Opfer dir,
Sei stets der Freiheit Wehr und Schild! 
Dein Lebensgeist durchatme mild Luft, Erde, Feu'r und Fluten!
Gib mir als Jüngling und als Greis
Am väterlichen Heerd,O Zeus,
Das Schöne zu dem Guten.

The flames glow, embers glimpsed through dark groves of oak trees which have symbolic significance in German mythology. The fragrance of burning oak lingers. Bend a gracious ear towards me and honour the sacrifice this young man gave for you (the flames are the funeral pyre of a dead hero). The hero is the highest, best regarded, forever the Defender and Shield of Freedom.  his spirit lives on through the air, earth, fire and flood.  Give to me the young man than the grey heads of your fatherly armies, O Zeus, the Beautiful for the Good).

The narrator is a Valkyrie-like heroine, which is why it suits a female singer with Wagner credentials. Though Wagner wasn't yet on the horizon, the ideas he imbibed hark back to the wars against the Romans, and their embodiment in German mythology.  This prototype Brünnhilde is echoed by a reverent chorus and orchestral parts dignified by restraint. 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Mendelssohn Elijah at the Barbican - Oramo, BBC SO

Today is my hero Felix Mendelssohn's 211th birthday. Normally I'd translate a Lieder text, but much more fun to look forward to Friday's concert at the Barbican Hall, London, when Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO in Mendelssohn's Elijah, with soloists Elizabeth Watts, Claudia Huckle, Allan Clayton, and Johan Reuter, and the BBC Symphony Chorus.  Book here - good seats still available.
Droughts, deserts, false gods, angels, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and a firestorm. Plenty of drama in the Bible. Perhaps what drew Felix Mendelssohn to Elijah was the personality of the prophet himself. Mendelssohn's St Paul was written to please his father, but Elijah springs from much deeper sources. Christians may have monopolized the oratorio, especially in this country, but fundamentally Elijah reflects something even deeper in Mendelssohn's spirit. Although he was a devout Lutheran, never did he deny nor denigrate his Jewish roots. Elijah's God isn't Jesus but the stern God of the Old Testament. Though the heritage of Bach and Handel is clear,  Mendelssohn's personal stamp is even stronger. Elijah is a remarkable statement of faith, depicting a man whose beliefs are made all the stronger by opposition. This gives the oratorio an undercurrent of grit and draws from the composer some of his most passionate, powerful music.

The first performances were given in Birmingham in 1846 and London in 1847, firmly establishing Mendelssohn as part of British choral tradition, appealing to middle class choral societies and to  dissenting and non-conformist movements rather than to High Church tastes. The Queen and her German consort, Prince Albert, gave the royal stamp of approval.  Mendelssohn could not be challenged whatever the aristocracy and Established Church might have preferred. Perhaps we can even trace some of the roots of Catholic Emancipation from this period. Because this Elijah goes back to the essence of Mendelssohn's beliefs, it's strikingly "modern" in the sense that it confronts dilemmas we still face today, like identity, faith and integrity.

In the Bible, Elijah is a wild man of the desert who stands up those who worship Baal, who seems to represent consumption and corruption. The orchestra connects to Elijah's spartan nonconformity, and thus has more authority than more elaborate instrumentation. Conducting this many singers at once is difficult, but here they were so well drilled, no-one fluffed an entry. Perfect co-ordination, but even better, total commitment and enthusiasm. When the people call out to Baal, their calls are met by silence. Blocks of male and female voices alternate and interweave."Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty Land!", the voices sing. Mendelssohn builds into the wild cross-currents images of wind and rain, thundering into parched ground.  There are so many exquisite passages, it's hard to pick out the most beautiful. "He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps" for example, where the words "slumbers not nor sleeps" repeat in lovely tender patterns. Such delicacy from such a huge chorus. And the glorious apotheosis of the final "and then shall your light  shine forth", ablaze with glory, for Elijah has ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot.

Although the five soloists naturally take the foreground, it's the magnificent background of the choruses that make Elijah the monument it is. These are the "people of Israel" after all, for whom Elijah sacrifices himself, so it's utterly appropriate. Poised between soloists and massed choir are sub-groups like the double quartet, the quartet and an exceptionally good  trio. "Lift up thine eyes to the mountains", this group sings "whence cometh help".  Elijah's recitatives, "It is enough, O Lord" and "O Lord, I have laboured in vain" can show Elijah as human and vulnerable, rather "English" and understated. Johan Reuter, who will be singing the part, is Danish but has been singing in Britain for many years. Not that it really makes a difference - he's good.