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 enclosed 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 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. "

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, Meissen, 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.