Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Thomas Adès : The Exterminating Angel ROH London

Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House, London,  reviewed in depth by Claire Seymour in Opera Today : The most detailed review so far !
The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf

The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf
he opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf
The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf
The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf
The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf
The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf
The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf
The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf
The opera’s score is an ingenious re-enactment of the past in the present. But, in this work Adès’s characteristically and remarkably skilful parodic eclecticism does more than remind us that our experience of music is filtered through our memory of past musical experiences - from medieval song to modernism; here, such musical echoes imply own our entrapment. So, in Act II the ‘Fugue of Panic’ layers snatches of Strauss waltzes - and Adès imagines the latter as teasing and taunting, ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’ - as the artifice of which the waltz is a symbol, and upon which the guests’ sense of propriety is founded, is exposed as illusory. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/04/the_exterminati.php#sthash.Qv0SpwEh.dpuf

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Mumbo Jumbo Mantras at the BBC Proms


What's really going on behind the scenes at BBC Radio 3 and at the Proms?  Before cheering the end of TV-themed Proms like DrWho, Cbeebies etc etc, let's look analytically behind the maudlin platitudes. So Alan Davey, head of BBC R3, has finally twigged that "new" audiences aren't necessarily Proms audiences?  What a revelation!  The "theory: that you get people into the Albert Hall and they see what it’s like and that it’s actually quite nice, and they come back for something else.” is mumbo jumbo mantra,  mindlessly repeated to numb dumb minds.

Since people go to the Royal Albert Hall all year round, for all kinds of events, why should they be afraid of the building?  That's supposition without substance.  It's not houses that scare the punters but perceptions based on falsehood, like "elitism" which the nonsense mantra stupidly reinforces.  The success of Proms in the Park should be evidence that people can have a good time with classical music, of a sort, whatever the situation, without downgrading core product?
 
Given that classical music can be accessed in more ways now than ever before, why should physical attendance be a prerequisite? Didn't someone at the BBC realize that they broadcast worldwide and online, or don't they tell each other ?  That is the "new" audience for classical music, potentially greater than ever before. But policymakers are trapped in the Stone Age of "bums on seats".  The government, and Arts Council England, are straitjacketed into geographical, small-scale thinking that bears little relation to reality.  All over Europe, orchestras, opera houses and concert promoters are wise to the fact that technology reaches bigger potential audiences. And audiences who have more choice are more sophisticated, less easily fooled by gimmick marketing. The way ahead is not dumb down but smart-up.  That's why top-quality new concert halls have been opened in centres of excellence like Paris and Berlin: the Philharmonie de Paris, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin,  and La Seine Musicale.  Even Hamburg, a little off  the beaten track, has raised its game with the Elbphilharmonie.  Some may gloat that we don't need a world-class concert hall in the UK. But culture is global industry: being Luddite is Little Britain blindness.

And why pick on the Dr Who and CBeebies Proms, which were so successful they sold out fast, providing income for other things?  Those were fun and surprisingly high quality, like the Science Prom a few years back. Nothing wrong with a populist tag, as long as the music is well chosen and well performed.  And that's where the new announcement shows its flaws.  Does someone, somewhere, like trash as long as it doesn't promote the BBC?

There arre plenty of non-BBC brand gimmicks this season.  A lot of Proms , even those with mainstream classical music, seem aimed at audiences who don't care much about music, and are easily fobbed off by big names and safe repertoire.  John Wilson, light music, film music, are all OK in small doses,  but not elevated to canonic status.  How will the "sensory" Prom work for people with disabilities when the Royal Albert Hall itself is not at all disability-friendly. A significant part of the core audience, many of whom have  who have dedicated a lifetime to the Proms, are now excluded because basic facilities are so inadequate.   Even the website's annoying. They've even killed the composer search section in the Proms archive !

The over-riding philosophy seems to be that whoever is making policy has neither faith in the core product, serious music, nor faith in the ability of audiences to discern the difference between trash and treasure.  This is absolutely not what Sir Henry Wood stood for. But the new Regime blithely uses his name for self-promotion and flogs the anodyne Ten Pieces mentality instead. Ten Pieces was a joke once: now it's too moronic to bear.  It's a symptom of the lemming-like rush towards mindless stupidity.

The real problem lies not with the Proms and the BBC but a whole cultural dumbing down, enshrined in Government policy towards the arts and towards the BBC. I've written about this many times over the years (follow the labels below on arts policy, BBC  policy, music education, etc etc).  The Elephant in the Room ? Political agendas, not economic reality.   The arts are a big part of this country's economic success and international status.  The arts aren't cheap because excellence is always hard to attain. But everyone benefits when a nation has a thriving arts culture.  The BBC and the arts do more for British prestige and foreign policy than goonish sabre rattlers and the cultivation of dubious allies.  Mess up the arts and mess up big time.  Witness the demise of the ENO and the denigration of London as a whole.  So what is really going on?

We live in an age of Trojan Horse Policies, everywhere and in many fields. People are manipulated into "taking back control"  while handing over control to vested interests whose concerns have little to do with good governance or even public benefit.  We need to face the fact that many would be delighted to see the BBC scrapped because it competes with private interests. But if private interests are so great, why are they so afraid of competition?  The idea that culture is part of civilization prevails:  the Royal Albert Hall stands as a monument to an enlightened age where policymakers had faith in the ability of ordinary people to progress through knowledge. Unfortunately, market forces operate for the benefit of whoever profits by fair means or foul.  Market forces can be manipulated, against the wider interests of the community.  Some ideals that we cherish, like public health, education, the arts and the environment,  need communal involvement.  When  market forces become mantra,  the minority profit at the expense of the majority. Market forces are a political construct, and not necessarily good for the wider economy. 

Monday, 24 April 2017

Bruckner dances ! Bartók, Debussy - Roth, LSO Barbican


François-Xavier Roth conducted the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in:Debussy, Bartók, and Bruckner. Roth has a flair for designing thought-provoking programmes that stimulate the mind as well as the spirit.  He's also a good communicator whose enthusiasm inspires listeners as well as musicians - no surprise he's now the LSO's Chief Guest Conductor.

All music is "new" in that good music is original. Hence the value of making connections that enhance the unique qualities of each work.  Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was a breakthrough. Though we hear it so often, it's bracing to remember that it was written 123 years ago. It defies categories. Its exoticism stretches tonality, its chromatics at once rich, yet clean and modern. Think of fin de siècle art with its curving forms, against chaste backdrops.  The Prélude lends itself to dance because it is sensuous, yet also lucidly disciplined.  You don't mess with dance or it falls apart. No chance of that with the LSO and Roth.

From the familiar to the much less familiar: Bartók Viola Concerto sz 120 with soloist Antoine Tamestit.  A bit of an orphan work,  revised and completed, perhaps to fit conventional taste. But the point is not whether one likes or dislikes a piece so much as figuring out how it works.  Oddly enough, I kept thinking of Gérard Grisey Les espaces acoustiques. Though the pieces are completely different, they both explore the character of the viola.  Hence the combinations: viola, then flutes and oboes, the viola suddenly strident, communing with trumpets, then horns.  There are elements of dance, Gypsy czardas, Scottish reels and even, possibly jazz.  Perhaps I thought of Grisey because Roth and the LSO prefaced Bartók with Debussy, priming me to think in terms of microtonal colour. "spectralism" to use the buzz word.  By this stage in his life, Bartók wasn't in a position to innovate, but we can get a glimpse of what might have been.

And so to Bruckner Symphony no 4. As so often the title "Romantic" is misleading.  It's not romantic in the sense of Hollywood and not even in the sense of Wagner.  Note the instrumentation, which is relatively limited.  Consider the use of horns and rustic imagery.  Aha! Bruckner's doing Weber Der Freischütz, or even Beethoven's Pastoral, even Smetana, in entirely his own way, of course. Thus the passionate tremelos and the sense of physical movement. Bruckner, dancing!  The relatively restrained forces of the LSO keep, the textures vigorous and lively. Very well suited to Roth's energetic style.  


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Shakespeare's Secret Twin REVEALED


 
Latest in my series of Secret Twins ! Previous matches - Benjamin Britten and Roderick Williams, Meatloaf and Bryn Terfel, Oliver Knussen and Claude Debussy, Harry Potter and Shostakoviuch and several ,more

English Bluebells

English Bluebells by Roger Thomas
In Spring, English woodlands turn sapphire, carpeted by bluebells.  Oddly, though, there aren't many poems which mention them. Perhaps they are too humble ?  I prize them, though, beyond many garden flowers, for they turn up year after year.  There is a poem, by Anne Bronte, but it's a bit twee for tough little b's like bluebells.  But here an extract:

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Formula saves the BBC Proms !


Formula saves the BBC Proms 2017!  This may be the beginning of the end for Sir Henry Wood's dreams of the Proms as serious music. Fortunately The Formula, perfected by much-maligned Roger Wright, is strong enough to withstand the anti-music agendas of the suits and robots who now run the Proms.  Shame on those who rely on formula instead of talent, but in dire straits, autopilot can save things from falling apart.  So, sift through the detritus of gimmick and gameshow to find things worth saving   (Read here what I wrote about The Formula)  In the long term this strategy will bring new audiences sold on strategy, not the quality of the product. Not at all the same thing.

Daniel Barenboim is a Proms perennial, for good reason, so we can rely on his two Elgar Proms (15 and 16 July) especially the Sunday one which features a new work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Deep Time, which at 25 minutes should be substantial.  Pascal Dusapin's Outscape on 19/7, 28 minutes, also substantial. Another "regular" Proms opera, Fidelio on 21/7, with a superlative cast headed by Stuart Skelton and Ricarda Merbeth, though Juanjo Mena conducts.  Ilan Volkov conducts Julian Anderson's new Piano Concerto on 26/7 , though the rest of the programme, though good, isn't neccesarily Volkov's forte  On 29/7 Mark Wigglesworth conducts David Sawer's The Greatest Happiness Principle.  On 31/7, Monteverdi Vespers with French baroque specialists Ensemble Pygmalion  

On 1/8, William Christie conducts the OAE in Handel Israel in Egypt and on 2/8, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists do Bach and my beloved Heinrich Schütz.  On 8/8 Gardiner returns with Berlioz The Damnation of Faust, with Michael Spyres. First of this year's four Mahlers is Mahler's Tenth (Cooke) with  Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (12/8).  Robin Ticciati, back with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on 15/8 with an interesting pairing, Thomas Larcher Nocturne-Insomnia with Schumann Symphony no 2.  

Throughout this season, there are odd mismatches between repertoire and performers, good conductors doing routine material, less good conductors doing safe and indestructible. Fortunately, baroque and specialist  music seem immune.  See above and also the Prom featuring Lalo, Délibes and Saint-Saëns with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles on 16/8   Perhaps these Proms attract  audiences who care what they're listening to.  Schoenberg's Gurrelieder on 19/8 with Simon Rattle, whose recording many years back remains a classic but may not be known to whoever described the piece in the programme "Gurrelieder is Schoenberg’s Tristan and Isolde, an opulent, late-Romantic giant."  Possibly the same folk who dreamed up the tag "Reformation Day" like Nigel Farage's "Independence Day" Nothing in life is that simplistic  The music's OK, but not the marketing.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO in Elgar Symphony no 3 (Anthony Payne) on 22/8   Potentially this will be even bigger than the Barenboim Elgar symphonies, since Oramo is particularly good with this symphony, which may not be as high profile but is certainly highly regarded by those who love Elgar.   On 26/8, Jakub Hrůša conducts the BBC SO in an extremely well chosen programme of Suk, Smetana, Martinů, Janáček and Dvorák.   More BBC SO on 31/8 when Semyon Bychkov conducts a Russian programme  Marketing guff seems to make a big deal of national stereotypes, which is short-sighted  These programmes cohere musically, but that's perhaps too much to expect from the new Proms mindset.

On 1/9,  Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Bruckner and Wolfgang Rihm.  An odd pairing but one which will come off well since these musicians know what they're doing They are back again on 2/9 with  Haydn "The Bear" and Mahler Fourth  which isn't "sunny" or "song-filled".  It's Mahler,  not a musical.  Gergiev brings the Mariinsky on 3/9 with Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich Symphony no 5.  Another huge highlight on 7/9 : the Wiener Philharmoniker, with Daniel Harding in Mahler Symphony no 6 - so powerful that nothing else needs to be added to sugar the pill.  For me, and for many others, that will be the real Last Night of the Proms   Party time the next day, with Nina Stemme as star guest.  

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Ghost of Sir Henry Wood? BBC Proms 2017


The 2017 BBC Proms Season, just announced, is a travesty, far adrift from the founding principles of the Proms, and indeed of the BBC itself.  Once the BBC stood for excellence, with its guiding principles to "educate, entertain and inform", the logic being that the public can tell good quality from bad, and value learning and self-development.  Now we have a Proms season whose priorities are not musical so much as an ad for a BBC that is itself dumbed down beyond recognition.  Will the ghost of Sir Henry Wood rise, like the Commendatore, to smite those who have despoiled his legacy?  

The First Night is only 70 minutes or so, so it won't tax the attention span. True, Igor Levit will play Beethoven, and Edward Gardner will conduct John Adams Harmonium, a big, if limited, blast. so it won't be bad.  But once we could expect more. Daniel Barenboim brings the Staatskapelle Berlin to "launch this year’s cycle of Elgar symphonies". Direct quote from the BBC Proms website. What Elgar symphonic cycle? One on Saturday, the other on Sunday. The Third, realized by Anthony Payne, is probably too outré for the new Proms market.  It's been pushed to the doldrums of late August. Thankfully, Sakari Oramo conducts: he does it well.  

What kind of audience is this year's Proms aimed at?  Read the summary here.  Sure, it's good to have pop, light music etc. but not at the expense of serious music. One of the basic principles of marketing is to believe in what you're trying to sell.  Raise the bar, aim for excellence, and grow the market .Pitch below the lowest possible denominator, and kill whatever audience you already have while lowering standards and decreasing expectations.  If the primary product is music, then sell music,. All the gimmicky sales patter in the world won't make up for non-product.  If people really believe  Scott Walker is a "Godlike genius", good for them, but don't downgrade Beethoven.

Why sacrifice an existing market to try selling to another which might have completely different priorities?  Or perhaps that is the hidden agenda. The Far Right, the commercial sector, and vested interests have everything to gain from dumbing the BBC down. Sir Henry Wood believed that people were able, and willing to learn. Now, we live in an era where any kind of expertise is sneered at. Getting ahead means dismantling the edifices of advancement.  There's a whole lot more at stake than just the Proms and the BBC.

Fortunately, some of the principles of Proms planning remain, since they follow rules so simple anyone can master them.  Add a few big names - Haitink, Christie, Rattle, Salonen, Bychkov, Gardiner - and the punters will pay.  Bring in the BBC orchestras, most of which are good enough to do serious music and do it well enough without scaring the unwary.  Mark non-musical anniversaries like "Reformation Day" a term Martin Luther would have baulked at, then throw in music that has little to do with one of the revolutions in European history.  Hire famous foreign bands like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, whom everyone loves, and a few cheaper ones. Throw in a few blockbusters like Schoenberg  Gurrelieder.(Rattle 19/8) .and  Handel Israel in Egypt on 1/8 (William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), Bring along an opera (usually Fidelio which needs little staging) and import a ready-made from Glyndebourne and bingo! The formula works, like a well-oiled machine, running with minimal human intervention.

Thus, for those who actually like music  there are other good things to seek out. Hidden under the banner "Take a musical thrill-ride from the chaos of creation" on 19/7 is Pascal Dusapin's new Outscape. Look out too for Thomas Larcher's Nocturne-Insomnia on 15/8  New British works - David Sawer's The Greatest Happiness Principle on 29/7, and Mark-Anthony Turnage Hibiki on 14/8. Excellent younger conductors like François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles (16/8), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (21/8),  and Jakub Hrůša (26/8 - good programme).  Formula is all very well, and formula has saved the season  Read my picks HERE.  But eventually it will not be enough to rely on mechanical formula. It's all very well to meet political targets but long term, it is music that matters, not flashy marketing.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

NMC Brian Elias Electra Mourns

At the Wigmore Hall, Brian Elias's Oboe Quintet coincided with the release of a new recording of Elias's work from NMC Records, specialists in modern British music.

The title piece, Electra Mourns, won Elias a British Composer Award. It received its premiere in 2012, with the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Clark Rundell, with soloists Susan Bickley and Nicholas Daniel  for whom the piece was created. .  Electra mourns is a dramatic scena, with the stylized formality of Greek tragedy. Electra is alone, without hope, in hostile circumstances.   Bickley sings the long, keening lines expressing Electra's desolation. But Orestes is not actually dead. Daniel's cor anglais surrounds the vocal part, mimicking its curving lines. Voice and instrument in duet are heard against a backdrop of strings, punctuated by piano.  Functioning like Greek chorus, the orchestra comments, wordlessly, sharp angular outbursts suggesting alarm. High textures sear, like flailing whips.  Yet the cor anglais continues, unperturbed, its sensuous richness evoking elusive mysteries.   When the strings go still, its chords grow strong and clear. Electra listens.  Bickley's voice intones at the bottom of her range, then soars.    


Electra Mourns is enhanced by Geranos, from 1985, here performed by Psappha, conducted by Nicholas Kok, who first performed it in 2003. Both pieces take their cue from Greek legend but take on different form. Geranos is tightly constructed and taut, evoking the idea of dance as athletic discipline. The slow middle movement refers to a ritual dance of mourning.  The puzzles and mazes of Harrison Birtwistle naturally spring to mind, but Elias's style  is his own.  Sparkling textures (piccolo, strings, metallic percussion) illuminate the third and final movement.  Theseus was said to have danced on escaping the Labyrinth. Geranos ends with lucid, clear tones. A "geranos" is a crane, flying free.  

While  the texts for Meet Me in the Green Glen are by John Clare (1793-1864), Elias's setting is minimal, almost "Grecian".  Roderick Williams and Susan Bickley sing without accompaniment, their plaintive lines evoking timeless plainchant rather than quasi-folk song.  The unadorned beauty of the singing is enhanced by a slight echo effect, as if the recording was made in a silent chamber.  Perhaps the "Green Glen" is a tomb-like time warp. The poems refer to the past, to "Now" and"Hesperus, thy twinkling bray" that "tolls the traveller on his way that Earth shall be forgiven".  A fascinating mix of quiet and disquiet, utterly modern in spirit.  .

The five songs of Meet Me in the Green Glen (2009)  are followed by the five songs of Once I did breathe another's breath  for low voice and piano, premiered by Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside at the Ludlow English Song Weekend in 2012.  The texts are more disparate, and the cycle less coherent.  Ludlow began as a tribute to Gerald Finzi whose  affinity for Tudor and Stuart poetry few can match.  Roderick Williams, nonetheless, is superlative, with such a gift for communication that anything he sings is well worth listening to.   Electra Mourns is the third of NMC's Brian Elias recordings, and a good addition to the catalogue of British music.  


Monday, 17 April 2017

Unique ! Jonas Kaufmann Das Lied von der Erde

Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience.  This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.  A single voice in a song symphony created for two voices?  Not many artists have the vocal range and heft to sustain 45 minutes at this intensity but Kaufmann achieves a feat that would defy many others. Das Lied von der Erde for one soloist is a remarkable experiment that's probably a one-off, but that alone is reason enough to pay proper attention.

The dichotomy between male and female runs like a powerful undercurrent through most of Mahler's work.  It's symbolic. The "Ewig-wiebliche", the Eternal feminine, represents abstract concepts like creativity, redemption and transcendance, fundamentals of Mahler's artistic metaphysics.  Ignore it at the risk of denaturing Mahler!  But there can be other ways of  creating duality, not tied to gender.  Witness the tenor/baritone versions, contrasting singers of the calibre of Schreier and Fischer-Dieskau.  For Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler specified tenor and mezzo/alto, the female voice supplying richness and depth in contrast to the anguish of the tenor, terrified of impending death.  This is significant, since most of Mahler's song cycles and songs for male voices are written for medium to low voices, and favour baritones. Tenors generally get short-changed, so this is an opportunity to hear how tenors can make the most of Mahler.  .

Kaufmann is a Siegmund, not a Siegfried: his timbre has baritonal colourings not all can quite match. Transposing the mezzo songs causes him no great strain.  His Abschied is finely balanced and expressive, good enough to be heard alone, on its own terms. What this single voice Das Lied sacrifices in dynamic contrast, it compensates by presenting Das Lied von der Erde as a seamless internal monologue. Though Mahler uses two voices, the protagonist is an individual undergoing transformation: Mahler himself, or the listener, always learning more, through each symphony.  Thus the idea of a single-voice Das Lied is perfectly valid, emotionally more realistic than tenor/baritone.  All-male versions work when both singers are very good, but a single-voice version requires exceptional ability.  Quite probably, Kaufmann is the only tenor who  could carry off a single-voice Das Lied.

With his background, Kaufmann knows how to create personality without being theatrical, an important distinction,  since Das Lied von der Erde is not opera, with defined "roles", but a more personal expression of the human condition.  This Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde  is unusually intense, since the person involved emphatically does not want to die.  The horns call, the orchestra soars, but Kaufmann's defiance rings with a ferocity most tenors  might not dare risk.  Wunderlich couldn't test this song to the limits the way Kaufmann does. Schreier, on the other hand, infused it with similar courage, outshining the mezzo and orchestra in his recording with Kurt Sanderling.  This heroic, outraged defiance is of the essence, for the protagonist is facing nothing less than annihilation. Twenty years ago, when Kaufmann sang Das Lied with Alice Coote in Edinburgh, I hated the way he did this song, as if it was a drinking song.  Now Kaufmann has its true measure, spitting out the words fearlessly, taking risks without compromise.  No trace whatsoever of Mario Lanza! This  reveals a side of Kaufmann which the marketing men pushing commercial product like the Puccini compilation will not understand, but enhances my respect for Kaufmann's integrity as a true artist.

After the outburst of Das Trinklied, Der Einsame im Herbst is reflective, with Kaufmann's characteristic "smoky" timbre evoking a sense of autumnal melancholy.  This is usually a mezzo song,  so at a few points the highest notes aren't as pure as they might be, though that adds to the sense of vulnerability which makes this song so moving.  Von der Jugend is a tenor song, though no surprises there.  If Kaufmann's voice isn't as beautiful as it often is,  he uses it intelligently.  The arch of the bridge mirrored in the water is an image of reversal. Nothing remains as it was.   In Von der Schönheit Mahler undercuts the image of maidens with energetic, fast-flowing figures in the orchestra. This song isn't "feminine". The protagonist is no longer one of the young bucks with prancing horses. He has other, more pressing things on his mind.  Der Trunkene im Frühling usually marks the exit of the tenor, recapitulating Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde.  Though there are tender moments, such as the bird song and its melody, the mood is still not resigned. Kaufmann throws lines forcefully : "Der Lenz ist da!", "Am schrwarzen Firmament!" and, defiant to the end with "Laßt mich betrunken sein!"

Jonathan Nott conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker. creating an atmospheric Abschied with muffled tam tam, woodwinds, strings, harps, celeste and mandolin.  Excellent playing, as you'd expect from this orchestra.  Just as the first five songs form a mini-cycle, the Abschied itself unfolds in several stages, each transition marked by an orchestral interlude.  The dichotomy now is not merely between voice types but between voice and orchestra: altogether more abstract and elevated.  This final song is the real test of this Das Lied and Kaufmann carries it off very well.  Now the tone grows ever firmer and more confident.  There are mini-transitions even within single lines of text, such as the beautifully articulated "Er sprach....., seine Stimme war umflort...... Du, mein Freund".  At last, resolution is reached. The ending is transcendant, textures sublimated and luminous.  The protagonist has reached a new plane of consciousness not of this world.  Kaufmann's voice takes on richness and serenity. He breathes into the words "Ewig....ewig" so the sound seems almost to glow.  Utterly convincing.  This isn't the prettiest Das Lied von der Erde on the market, but it wouldn't be proper Mahler if it were. It is much more important that it is psychologically coherent and musically valid.  Too often, interesting performances are dismissed out of hand because they are different, but Kaufmann's Das Lied von der Erde definitely repays thoughtful listening.

More scary Easter Bunnies


Sunday, 16 April 2017

Anti-nazi Ostersonntag - Hanns Eisler sets Brecht

Ostersonntag Hanns Eisler's setting of Bertolt Brecht's poem Frühling 1938, from Eisler's Hollywood Liederbuch.  Brecht opposed capitalist oppression  but his heirs enforce copyright to extreme lengths.  Fortunately, Eisler believed in the dissemination of Brecht's ideas, and in solidarity with the People. Eisler's song begins almost hesitantly, as if the feelings expressed are too painful to confront. The piano plays dotted rhythms,  pulsating tension and suppressed  anxiety.

"Today", the singer intones, "it's Easter Sunday." But a chill wind blows a sudden snowstorm, across the sea, covering the green shoots of Spring under a blanket of snow. An apricot tree stands in the garden, protected by the warm walls of the house. Will its buds be killed by frost?  The poet's son begs him to protect the tree . The words "younger son" are warmly shaped, in contrast to the frigid tension that's gone before.  The pace becomes more urgent.  The father had been writing a diatribe against the warmongers whose machinations threaten the whole continent, the island of calm, the people there and "my family", words again set with gentle warmth.  Eisler elides the last phrase,  with a dramatic descending curve, ending with the words "vertilgen muss"  half-spoken, half-sung, but sinister.  The edgy chords become stronger and more defiant.  Minor key, but major impact. Silently, father and son place hessian over the freezing buds.  Will the tree survive, will it bear fruit? The song ends inconclusively, the last figures on the piano repeating, hovering, unresolved.  The song lasts barely 90 seconds, yet encompasses vast stretches of time, place and feeling.  Like Brecht, Eisler was in exile, physically comfortable but vulnerable.  Poet and composer both in emotional "islands", trying to stave off the chill of what they knew was happening back home.

Eisler's Hollywood Liederbuch is an amazingly varied document of alienation and protest, the "Winterreise of the Twentieth Century", as Matthias Goerne, its finest interpreter, has called it.   Read more about Goerne and Eisler's Hollywood Liederbuch HERE, and about Eisler's Deutsche Sinfonie HERE. Lots  more on this site about Eisler, Brecht, Goerne, war and anti-facism.

The photo below is ironic, too.  In the early 20th century cars were a symbol of progress and faith in a future where machines would serve man. Thus cars were often depicted on greeting cards, especially at New Year. Although commercial cards were common, people often arranged for photographers to take bespoke greetings cards.   Private photography was only for the rich, then, and people would often pop into studios or hire a professional to commemorate special occasions.  So when these soldiers, at the front somewhere in the 1914-1918 war, posed together in a car, they were having a joke   Notice the "broken" bicycle.  Most of their families and friends back home would not have owned cars, so the novelty would have been even more exciting then than it is now. The original was shot in colour, too, even more impressive !

Friday, 14 April 2017

Dvořák Requiem : Jiří Bělohlávek, BBCSO Barbican

Jiří Bělohlávek
Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jiří Bělohlávek, greatly loved Conductor Laureate of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, at the Barbican Hall, London.  Bělohlávek has done more than anyone else to promote idiomatic Czech repertoire in the UK, bringing outstanding performances of Janáček, Smetana, Dvořák, Suk, Martinů, and others, often with singers from  the Prague National Theatre.  Over the years, his bushy mane has faded, but his passionate spirit remains undaunted   If anything, his artistic stature has grown. This Requiem, with its understated, unflashy assurance, was very moving. (Later, I thought "Humbled in the presence of God", for Requiems represent the Catholic Funeral Mass.  If you're not humbled when you're dead, what the point?)

Bělohlávek's Requiem was authentic Dvořák, sincere, honest and firm of purpose. Thus the quiet, understated introduction, from which the voices of singers rose in hushed tones: "Requiem aeternam", eternal rest.  Large forces, yet great purity.  Bělohlávek defined the underlying pulse - quiet but steady.  The pulse grew stronger, and the pace, but still the textures were clear, the woodwind flourishes well defined  against the solemn progressions.  From this,  Kateřina Kněžíková's soprano rang out beautifully, bright at first then descending to  a rich, almost mezzo lustre, preparing us for the Dies Irae, where the pulse in the orchestra quickens and explodes in dramatic angular blocks. The voices of the choir took up the alarum before once again descending into silence.

Requiems are, by nature, a series of set pieces, but Dvořák builds alternating contrasts so deftly into this work that the flow is almost seamless. The trumpets call ("Tuba mirum spargens sonum") bassoons adding depth, muffled drum strokes maintaining pulse.Soloists alternate with istruments: Catherine Wyn-Rogers. James Platt and Richard Samek, particularly impressive.  From the tumult of the Days of Wrath to the purity of the Recordare, Jesu pie, where the voices of the four soloists intertwined.  Many churches have traditions of part song. Platt, being a bass, not a baritone, sang with a gravity that reminded me of gospel styles in black communities.  In 1890. Dvořák was yet to hear gospel music in America, but the rhythms of "Inter oves, locium pratesta" prepared him intuitively to respond.  Yet Dvořák quickly returns to more conventional large-scale ensemble, with the Lacrimosa,which ended  with dramatic flourish.

In the Second Part, The BBC Symphony Chorus responded to the livelier writing with alacrity : nice interplay between women's voices and men's. Very punchy playing from the BBC SO. Yet again, Dvořák changes tack for contrast. In the Hostias, austere winds and bassoons alternated with voices, and the chorus were hushed again.  The woodwind flourishes heard earlier return, garlanding the soprano.  Amid the jubilation of the Sanctus, simplicity resurfaced when Samek sang the words "Benedictus", preparing the way for the short Pie Jesu, where the silence of "eternal rest" is gently remembered, evoked in the fragile but lovely flute figures.  The steady pulse of the beginning returned like a heartbeat, but calmer now, in peace.  The Agnus Dei, and the Requiem ended in translucent calm.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Three Choirs Festival, Worcester 2017


Members booking has now started for the Three Choirs Festival, this year inn Worcester, in the heart of "Elgar Country". The first Cathedral concert on Saturday 22nd July will begin with Elgar (Great is the Lord),  and there will be, as always, the Dream of Gerontius (Roderick Williams) but its highlight, conducted by Peter Nardone, should be Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time, written in wartime, confronting  violence, in the belief that good can vanquish evil.  Benjamin Britten will be on the programme too (Four Sea Interludes) : not a composer normally connected with the Three Choirs, but included because the Festival reaches out to all.  Fundamentally, the Three Choirs Festival is Christian Communion, though you certainly don't have to be Christian to be welcome,  and this year's themes deal with issues of faith and hope in troubled times.

Thus Mendelssohn St Paul on the evening of Sunday 23rd July, where the forces of the magnificent Three Choirs Festival Chorus will be heard in full, magnificent glory, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Geraint Bowen.  In the days of the early Church, the faithful were oppressed. But Paul switched from persecutor to convert, remaining firm in his mission, even unto martyrdom.  Bach's influence runs powerfully through this oratorio. There are wonderful chorales, ideally suited to the Chorus, and strong, dramatic parts for the soloists, all built on an austere bedrock that connects to the concept of a radical new faith whose adherents were prepared to die for what they believed in. 

Even more rough-hewn and almost savage, Janáček's Glagolitic Mass on Wednesday 26th July. In early Czech tradition, thousands of worshippers would gather together to sing in communal affirmation. Janáček, an atheist,  who played organ in churches, aimed for something quite unorthodox. Thus his use of an old Slavonic dialect, rather than Latin.  His passion for the outdoors inspires the piece. "My cathedral ", he said, was “the enormous grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…...the scent of moist forests my incense”. I've written extensively about the Glagolitic Mass and its composer, please see HERE and HERE.    This evening's concert will also feature Torsten Rasch A Welsh Night and Richard Strauss Metamorphosen

"An English Farewell" for the final night of the season on 29th July, a superb programme with Gerald Finzi's Die Natalis with Ed Lyon, whom I should really like to hear in this piece as  he's very impressive.  Dies Natalis is transcendental, mystical and ecstatic by turns : utterly unique, and one of the quirkiest masterpieces in English music. Again, it's a piece I've written a lot about over the last 20 years. Please see HERE and HERE for example.  Lots more on Finzi on this site, too.  Dies Natalis addresses the miracle of birth, but Herbert Howells' Hymnus Paradisi addresses the horror that is death, particularly the death of a child.  Heard together, Dies Natalis and Hymnus Paradisi should be quite an experience.  One a star  turn for a soloist, the other a star  turn for choirs.  Please read HERE what I've written about Hymnus Paradisi in the past.  Also on the programme, Raloh Vaughan Williams's Serenande to Music, which will give sixteen singers a chance to shine.  The Philharmionia will be conducted by Peter Nardone.

But the Three Choirs festival is much more than  big Cathedral concerts.  Part of its appeal lies in the friendly, community atmosphere, where people come together for smaller-scale concerts, talks, events, excursions and meals. Literally, breaking bread and sharing in the spirit.   Choral Evensong every evening,  organ recitals (including Saint-Saëns Symphony no 3), early and Tudor music, premieres of new work, Shakespeare plays, a visit from the Choir of King's College Cambridge, and this year an unusual afternoon of Tudor Symphonies (with Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall's Musick).  .Visit the Three Choirs Festival website for more. 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Eduard Mörike - Karwoche


Eduard Mörike Karwoche (Holy Week)

O Woche, Zeugin heiliger Beschwerde!
Du stimmst so ernst zu dieser Frühlingswonne, 
Du breitest im verjüngten Strahl der Sonne
Des Kreuzes Schatten auf die lichte Erde, 

Und senkest schweigend deine Flöre nieder; 
Der Frühling darf indessen immer keimen, 
Das Veilchen duftet unter Blütenbäumen
Und alle Vöglein singen Jubellieder. 

O schweigt, ihr Vöglein auf den grünen Auen! 
Es hallen rings die dumpfen Glockenklänge, 
Die Engel singen leise Grabgesänge; 
O still, ihr Vöglein hoch im Himmelblauen! 

Ihr Veilchen, kränzt heut keine Lockenhaare!
Euch pflückt mein frommes Kind zum dunkeln Strauße, 
Ihr wandert mit zum Muttergotteshause,
Da sollt ihr welken auf des Herrn Altare. 

Ach dort, von Trauermelodieen trunken, 
Und süß betäubt von schweren Weihrauchdüften,
Sucht sie den Bräutigam in Todesgrüften, 
Und Lieb' und Frühling, alles ist versunken!

O week ! Witness of the Passion of Christ, you seem so grim in joyful Springtime. The sun's rays awaken new growth, but you cast the shadow of the Cross over the earth as it warms. 
You cast a silent shroud while Spring renews life all round.  Sweet violets waft their scent under trees laden with blossom, while birds sing songs of jubilation.    

Be still, you birds of the verdant meadow. Heed the muffled church bells ring. Angels are singing songs of mourning  Be still, you birds in the blue heavens ! 
Violets, don't display your lovely looks, or pious children will pick you for sorrowful wreaths.  You'll then be brought to the house of the Mother of God, and wither on the altar of the Lord.  

And there, intoxicated with tearful melodies, and suffocated by the heavy perfume of incense, you will seek your bridegroom in the vaults of the tomb. Life, and Spring , all forsaken !

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Mahler, Dramatist - Symphony No 8 Jurowski Royal Festival Hall

Curtain call : Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall.  Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics.  The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic.  This was no ordinary concert.  What it lacked in interpretive depth was made up for in being well performed, and more than compensated by the imaginative verve of the semi-staging and the way it highlighted structural ideas in this symphony.

Intriguing questions.  Why, for example, preface a two- hour symphony with the ten-minute Thomas Tallis  Spem in alium ? The motet is written for forty parts in eight groups of five voices, mirroring the five voice types of the soloists in the symphony.  Tallis's text refers to the "Creator caeli et terrae", while Mahler refers to the hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus" marking the Pentecost, where a divine flame appeared to the faithful, charging them with spreading the gospels to the world.  Six hundred years separate the Maurus hymn from Tallis, but in Mahler, the ancient past is re-created for modern times.  Thus a sense of primeval continuity, as if an Urlicht were descending upon those who perform and listen to the symphony.   Hardly had the singing faded when Jurowski led the orchestra straight into the symphony, without pause.  From exquisitely balanced unaccompanied harmonies to the explosive chords of the organ. The "Shock of the New" in every way, for Mahler's Symphony no 8 is unique in so many ways.  Thus anointed, we were prepared for Mahler's journey into new territory

This juxtaposition of Tallis and Mahler came perhaps from the concept "Belief and Beyond Belief" the theme of the LPO's year-long series. By no means are all beliefs Christian.  While the First Part of the symphony is shaped in the liturgy of  the past, the Second Part, despite its references to saints, is secular, based on Goethe's Faust and on a highly unorthodox blend of lust, sin, death and redemption. Gretchen wasn't a virgin, yet Faust is saved by her intervention.  Das Ewig-wiebliche, the "Eternal Feminine" for Mahler was entirely personal, and very much as odds with conventional morality.

Thus the logic in this case of inserting an interval between the First and Second Parts of the symphony, which otherwise should be sacrilege. The two Parts of the symphony are meant to be played together without a break, since the slow, quiet beginning of the Second Part acts as an important transition, a kind of "Purgatory" between one plane and another.  To split the two parts to make way for a drinks interval is musically inappropriate - Mammon polluting the Temple - the prerogative of philistines.  But in this performance,  the interval made sense, because it emphasized that the difference between the two parts represents a shift in metaphysics more profound than musical logic.  Context is everything, and hopefully audiences will be sophisticated enough to realize that this exception should not become the rule.

The name "Symphony of a Thousand" was not Mahler's idea, but a slogan created by the promoter of the premiere, who realized how the blockbuster aspects of the symphony could be marketed. Because of its sheer theatrical impact, this massive symphony will always be stunning. But as Mahler so explicitly states, the vast forces are bearers of "poetic thoughts", so powerful that they need ambitious expression. It's not spectacle for the sake of spectacle, not a circus for pulling stunts of sheer people management.  While volume may be exciting, quantity most certainly is not more important than quality.  Both times that I've heard Mahler's Eighth in the Royal Albert Hall, the results weren't convincing since the sound dissipated badly under the cavernous dome.

The Royal Festival Hall seats 2900, so a thousand players would be deafening.  Fortunately, Jurowski got around the problem by spreading the singers around the performance space, instead of concentrated in one focal point, deafening audience and orchestra.  Sometimes the choirs ranged around the side galleries, where they were heard clearly and to full effect.   Wonderful hushed singing, barely above whisper: in a symphony as big as this, that's something special.   When the choirs  were positioned behind the orchestra, they operated as individual units for the most part until the glorious finale.  What a pleasure it was to hear each group distinctly, as opposed to hearing them blended en masse.  Much respect for them, singing so well and so clearly, despite rushing about.  Incidentally, positioning the choirs in the side galleries resembled the "horseshoe" formation adopted in some early music ensembles  The soloists at first appeared in a line between orchestra and choirs. the "sweet spot" in the Royal Festival Hall acoustic. This lessened the strain : no-one forced to shout to be heard.

In the Second Part, the soloists moved positions much more than they do normally.  One expects the Mater Gloriosa to sing from on high like an angel, but the other singers moved around, too,  especially the women, and Matthew Rose remained surrounded by the orchestra, his deep bass carrying well over the sounds around him.  Choirs in motion, singers in motion, but not nearly as distracting as one might fear.  The Second Part of this Symphony was inspired by art to which modern perspective did not apply. Thus figures float about disconnected to the landscapes behind them, as oddly as lions behaving like lambs.  Similarly, Goethe's Faust depicts unnatural movement - flying through skies, ascension into heaven and so forth.  The textures in Mahler's orchestration suggest multiple levels and layers and interesting combinations of instruments and voice.  The symphony is constantly in motion. 

Throughout Mahler's Symphony no 8, images of light and illumination recur. In this performance, lighting effects (Chahine Yavroyan) were used to emphasize contrasts. Small lights, flickering above the music  stands, helping the players follow the page while the hall was in darkness.  Large  spotlights , highlighting groups of choristers as they sang. The Royal Festival Hall organ, usually hidden behind a screen, was fully open, lit in rich shades of sapphire, alternating gold, and towards the end, silver and iridescence.  The organist was James Sherlock.

The presence of microphones in the hall suggested that a recording or broadcast may be available at some stage. All live performances have something extra: this Jurowski/LPO Mahler Symphony no 8 was unique, an experience never to forget.

Soloists were : Judith Howarth, Anne Schwanewilms, Sofia Fomina, Michaela Selinger, Patricia Bardon, Barry Banks, Stephen Gadd and Matthew Rose. Choirs were the London Philharmonic Choir, the London Symphony Chorus, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Tiffin Boys' Choir.

This review also appears in Opera Today
Please see my 11 other posts on Mahler Symphony no 8 by clicking on the label below

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Mahler 8s I have known and loved

Vladimir Jurowski conducts Mahler Symphony no 8 with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall.  READ MY REVIEW HERE.  Time to reflect on M8's past!  Organizing the logistics of performance are daunting, so Mahler 8s don't come along as often as other symphonies, but live M8s are by no means rare. Indeed  there was a Mahler 8 at the Royal Festival Hall only two years ago, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia.  For some reason that concert wasn't as heavily promoted as the Jurowski concert has been this time round.  "South Bank Mahler" is a strange beast, conjured up by hype and the South Bank management's downgrading of serious music - even their website's a nightmare to navigate.  That might fit in with the dumbing down of government arts policy, but it isn't necessarily a good thing, because it creates false expectations.

Mahler's 8th has been cursed from birth by false assumptions that it should be a "Symphony of a Thousand", that quantity is better than quality, that volume matters more than art.  In any case, the Royal Festival Hall couldn't physically accommodate 1000 musicians or everyone's hearing would be damaged. .

Twice, I've heard Mahler Symphony no 8 live at the Royal Albert Hall which is big enough, but the results haven't been worth the effort. Once I heard it live in a sports stadium in Paris which seats 8000 (see more here). That, surprisingly, was a good experience because the crowd was relaxed, having a good time. No illusions about music as status symbol!  The whole thing was being filmed, and there were screens round the stadium so people could see the musicians close up.  They were having a whale of  time, too.  The sound was amplified, but properly done, so the music wasn't lost. That concert was a one-off, never to be repeated extravaganza.  Extremely enjoyable, because the atmosphere was so cheerful. Later, when I heard the tapes and saw the film, they proved that it wasn't a bad musical experience, either

Two years ago, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia did M8 in the RFH. I wasn't convinced that some in the audience were really listening since there were problems with one of the choirs and some of the soloists. What a relief it was when Salonen and the Philharmonia got to the long, hushed section at the beginning of the Second Part!  Holding the vast forces of M8 together is a challenge. Twice, I've heard performances go awry because the choirs came apart. Once, the First Violin saved the day, leading the orchestra while the conductor (Daniele Gatti) brought the choirs back in line.  Even Bernard Haitink had problems, in the notorious performance where Dame Gywneth Jones's voice cracked and then went progressively into meltdown. No one's fault! Jones was the diva of her day, and very, very good.  She struggled on until the end and probably has never lived that down.
Mahler rehearsing his Symphony no 8

I've also been to a M8 where the choirs were astonishingly good, compensating for a non-idiomatic orchestra (oddly, the same band that did so well for Salonen). That was at the Three Choirs Festival last year in Gloucester Cathedral. The choirs at Three Choirs are a phenomenom, arguably the best large-scale choral ensemble in the world. They sing together, and in their own Cathedrals all year round, and inherit a tradition of excellence that goes back 300 years. No way is there any comparison with other choirs, no matter how good.  That M8 was truly memorable. Read more about it HERE.  

Another interesting thing about Mahler 8 is that it is not operatic, though it employs multiple voices.  The various "names" don't sing "parts" or really interact. Mahler, and Goethe before him, were inspired by medieval paintings where modern perspective doesn't apply. Exquisitely detailed figures stand proud of one-dimensional landscapes. They don't interact, like roles in an opera. Mahler's Eight is a symphony, employing voices to extend the instrumental palette.  The structure is bizarre, but that, too, reflects the idea of unworldly non-realism. 

Good music should stretch the soul, always opening out new possibilities. Otherwise why listen?  Even when you're listening to a recording, when the sound is fixed, you yourself are different to what you were the last time you heard it.  Revelatory isn't a word to be used lightly, but the two most revelatory performances  I've ever heard expanded my understanding of the music, the composer and of myself.  Of all the many M8s Ive heard, these two stand out. Both are game changers, so might come as a shock to anyone who thinks they know everything there is to know. But these two are immensely rewarding, for they engage with the spirit of creative illumination that runs so powerfully through this symphony. Light, illumination, the coming down of divine wisdom through creative growth.

Pierre Boulez, with the Staatskapelle Berlin at the Philharmonie, Berlin. Prof Henry-Louis de La Grange was in the audience, and wrote the notes to the recording, made a few days later at the Marienkirche.  Read more about that performance HERE.   

Riccardo Chailly, with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.  The M8 that Claudio Abbado never got to conduct. The more I listened to it, it felt like a mystical experience of great emotional depth.  Truly in line with the "Poetic thoughts" which Mahler was referring to.  Read more about that performance HERE.  


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Walter Braunfels Ulenspiegel on DVD

For the first time on DVD, Walter Braunfels' opera Ulenspiegel is now available. Braunfels's op 23 received its premiere in Stuttgart in November 1913. Two world wars intervened. Braunfels's Ulenspiegel was not performed again until 2011, as part of the Gera Festival.  An audio recording is available of that performance, conducted by Jens Tröster. This new DVD comes from the Linz Festival in 2014, and is conducted by Martin Sieghart, known for his recordings with the Bruckner Orchester Linz.

Braunfels' Ulenspiegel is based on Uilenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak, by Charles de Coster (1867), which Braunfels would have known in the German translation published in 1910. Coster was a child when Belgium became independent from the northern Netherlands.  Coster understood the tensions that led to the 1830 revolution. Coster's Ulenspiegel does not follow the Ulenspiegel of medieval tradition, popular throughout northern central Europe. Instead, Coster quite pointedly turns Ulenspiegel into a hero of the Dutch wars of independence from Spain, and pits Ulenspiegel against the Duke of Alba, whose draconian policies of suppression inflamed revolt.  As a French speaker and a Catholic, Coster would have been well aware of the irony. In the 17th century, the Dutch fought off Counter-Reformatioin  Spain.  In 1830,  Dutch Protestants  opposed Belgian (and Catholic) freedom.

This background is fundamental to understanding the opera.  Braunfels knew Richard Strauss Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895). Like Coster before him, Braunfels' Ulenspiegel was a completely different personality, clothed in medieval disguise.   The "merry pranks" here have purpose. Even at this early period in Braunfels' career, the underlying rationale behind his music is clear.  All his life, Braunfels  opposed militarism and fascism.  This is vital to the interpretation of his music.  His lush orchestrations are not in the least "romantic" in Hollywood terms. Rather, Braunfels is a Romantic in the true spirit of the revolution which transformed European culture, forging individualism and self-determination. Ulenspiegel escapes prison but there's no happy ending.

The Linz production of Braunfels' Ulenspiegel took place in the Tabakfabrik, a disused factory. Hence the post-industrial set. Ulenspiegel and his friends are underclass.  The caravan they live in reminds us that mobility, physical ot social, is denied to the "peasants" of modern society.   There is nothing pretty about situations where the privileged can exploit the gullible with promises of Heaven, bought through Indulgences.  If the performance space is bleak, it fits meaning. Moreover, the Israel Chamber Orchestra are visible at all times, reminding us that opera is theatre, and music is art.

The version of the score used here is an arrangement for chamber orchestra by Werner Steinmetz (2014) which makes performance more practical and requires a smaller chorus.  The essentials are retained. If anything, the percussion sounds even more hollow and ominous echoing in the open space of the Tabakfabrik, and the winds sound haunting. Though textures are less rich, they feel hardier - more "Dutch" than "Spanish".

Although the EntArte Opera Choir sing well,  the relatively small ensemble doesn't quite give the impact of a vast force in uproar. On the other hand, the focus is greater on individual parts.  Marc Horus sings Ulenspiegel, capturing the prankster's rebellious spirit. When Ulenspiegel's energies are channelled purposefully, he becomes a genuine hero, rather than fool  as hero.  On film, we can also focus on detail. Close-ups are rewarding.  Ulenspiegel's father, Klas, sung by Hans Peter Scheidegger, is vividly characterized, though the role is killed off fairly early in the plot.  Christa Ratzenböck sings a strong Nele, Ulenspiegel's foster sister and lover.

This DVD is welcome, but you do also need the  Tröster.CD version from 2011 for the full score. Neither performance is ideal, so I hope the opera gets done again soon, with better resources and an understanding of Braunfels'  idiom, on the level of Lothar Zagrosek's Die Vögel, (1997) so outstanding that all others pale before it. Ulenspiegel is a good opera, but what we really need is a decent recording of Der Traum ein Leben  which was done in Bonn not long ago. the only recording on the market is so badly recorded that it's unlistenable.

Please also see a few of my other reviews of the works of Walter Braunfels:

Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs vol 1 Hansjörg Albrecht
Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 2 Hansjörg Albrecht

Salzburg Braunfels : Medievalism as modernity (Jeanne d'Arc)
Walter Braunfels : Jeanne d'Arc, Szenen aus dem Lebem der Heiligen Johanna

Gothic Resistance Fighter : Walter Braunfels Die Verkündigung 

Walter Braunfels : Fantastiche Erscheinungen eines Thema von Hector Berlioz
Walter Braunfels : Lieder

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Pappano prevails : Royal Opera House 2017/2018


The Royal Opera House 2017/2018 season details are out, a wise blend of old and new.  It's very much a Pappano season. Some years back, Pappano was delegated repertoire which he does best, and revivals.  Now he's conducting all the prizes with little competition, save for Andris Nelsons in a new production of Lohengrin in June/July 2018.  Nelson's Lohengrin at Bayreuth was exceptionally inspired, so no way would ROH miss out on a package that includes Klaus Florian Vogt,  Kristine Opolais and Christine Goerke: a dream team.  Jakub Hrůša will be conducting a new Carmen, and Marc Minkowski, Michele Mariotti and Christian Curnyn will be conducting specialist repertoire. Placido Domingo is conducting a few performances of Tosca, but that's for the fans. The new Director of Opera, Oliver Mears, can't match Pappano's prestige and experience.  Since he's only been in the job a month, and seasons are planned years in advance, this is most certainly not "his" season.  Pappano's position at ROH is now supreme. 

The new seasons starts on 11/9 with a production of La bohème in a new staging by Richard Jones with several different casts, with some very good names among them.   Megastars in the new Rossini Semiramide, 19/11 to 16/12 - Joyce DiDonato,  Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, and Daniella Barcellona.  Seriously classy! This will almost certainly sell out fast, and deservedly so.  A new Bizet Carmen, at last, and thank goodness, 6/2-16/3/18. Good casts, though the budget probably went for Barrie Kosky, whose thing for cheery surfaces makes prurience palatable to audiences who go mad when sex is taken seriously.  No chance of that in Krzysztof Warlikowski's staging of Janáček's From the House of the Dead (7-24/3/18) , with a decent cast, but a conductor whose work so far is unidiomatic whatever he conducts but who is heavily promoted by Sony.  So many strong reasons why Lohengrin (7/6 -1/718) could be the highlight of the season - brilliant cast and conductor - and a new production by David Alden.

George Benjamin's Lessons in Love and Violence receives its world premiere (10-26/5/18)  conducted by Benjamin himself. As with Written on Skin, the libretto is by Martin Crimp and the staging by Katie Mitchell. The cast includes Barbara Hannigan and Stéphane Degout.    Outside the main house, the ROH will also be  presenting the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Coralline at the Barbican Theatre and a work so new it doesn't yet have a name, by Tansy Davies.

At the Roundhouse, (10-21/1/18)  a new production of Monteverdi The Return of Ulysses, conducted by Christian Curnyn and staged by John Fulljames with a very good cast - Roderick Williams, Christine Rice, Susan Bickley, Samuel Boden, Andrew Tortise and Stuart Jackson.    This year's ROH concert performance will be presented by Opera Rara:  Donizetti, L'Ange de Nisida conducted by Mark Elder with Joyce El-Khoury heading the cast.

Kasper Holton has left the Royal Opera House at the end of his contract, but his five-year tenure has left a positive legacy. The greater emphasis on new works and new venues, for example, but also the core repertoire he directed. The vindictive hysteria of the booing mob hijacked attention, poisoning any chance of rational analysis. In the new Zeitgeist, be it politics or art, the mob knows everything and all else must be suppressed. But opera is art, and art means learning. Without learning, civilization die.s

Perhaps common sense will prevail. Damiano Michieletto's Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci is back (29/11-13/1/18). Please read my review of the premiere HERE.  It's extremely good and well thought through, though the raging mob, still inflamed by seeing two seconds of tit in Guillaume Tell might have been too worked up to notice. Seeing that Cav and Pag again will be one of my priorities: highly recommended.   I also want to attend Les Vêpres siciliennes again.  Bryan Hymel! Like so much in Verdi, the plot predicates on concealment : things aren't supposed to be blatantly obvious.  Please read my review of that premiere HERE.  I'm also going to Holten's Don Giovanni (29/6-17/7/18) because it's a production that deals extremely well with the ideas of sudden change and illusion that make Mozart's opera so richly rewarding. So Holten used modern technology instead of painted flats? Someone told me he couldn't keep up with the action. Perhaps he didn't really know the opera.  Please read my review of the premiere HERE.