Saturday, 20 January 2018

Thoughtful Debussy series, Roth and LSO, Barbican

The London Symphony Orchestra's Debussy series with Chief Guest conductor François-Xavier Roth, at the Barbican, London, will be much more than "Debussy's Greatest Hits"  but a series that puts Debussy into context in a thought -provoking manner, typical of Roth's intelligent musical flair.

Tomorrow, 21st January, "The Young Debussy" with Debussy's Première Suite which he wrote  while still a student. The piece exists in manuscript but was was only prepared for performance in 2012 when Philippe Manoury orchestrated the final movement, Rêve.  Roth conducted the premiere with Les Siècles and made the so far only recording. The Première Suite  unfolds in four movements, Fête, Ballet, Rêve and Cortège et Bacchanale. Though the piece is very early Debussy indeed (1882-4) there are passages which suggest how the composer was going to develop.  It will be heard together with the overture to Wagner Tannhäuser, the suite of Massenet Le Cid and Lalo's Cello Concerto with Edgar Moreau, soloist. A big programme, but consider the connections and influences. 

On Thursday 25th January, four keynote pieces,  Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra (Cédric Tiberghien), Jeux and Three Nocturnes.  More provocatively, on March 25th, “Debussy and Beyond" demonstrating the influence of Debussy on modern music.  Boulez Livre pour cordes, Bartók Violin Concerto No 2 (Renaud Capuçon), Stravinsky Chant du Rossignol and a new work by Ewan Campbell.  

Last but certainly not least, not least, on Sunday 28th March,  "Half Six Fix" a one hour concert starting 6.30pm - Debussy La Mer and Stravinsky Chant du Rossignol.  Worth coming in to town for that alone and dinner later. Or, you could stay for the evening concert with the Britten Sinfonia and the Britten Sinfonia Voices, with Stravinsky, Gabrieli, Gesualdo, Mozart, Bruckner and Esa-Pekka Salonen's Concert etude for solo horn.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Haunted Winterreise : Mark Padmore, Kristian Bezuidenhout fortepiano

Schubert's Winterreise is almost certainly the most performed Lieder cycle in the repertoire.  Thousands of performances and hundreds of recordings ! But Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout's recording for Harmonia Mundi is proof of concept that the better the music the more it lends itself to re-discovery and endless revelation.  Padmore and Bezuidenhout present a very thoughtful Winterreise which, in its pristine lucidity, connects extraordinarily well to the spirit of the cycle. In a winter landscape, and in darkness, you may lose your path but snow reflects what light there is. Background sounds are muffled, but what you do hear is accentuated.  You may be cut off from the world, but you are enclosed within yourself.  Serious listeners know every note of Winterreise  but rarely experience it like this. This is an unusual Winterreise but so perceptive that it enhances our appreciation of the most familiar of all song cycles. The pianoforte may come as a surprise to audience attuned to modern performance practice, but it's leaner timbre works well with Winterreise, and especially in the critically important final song, "Der Leiermann.

The only real comparison is the iconic Christoph Prégardien's recording with Andreas Staier, released in 1997, still a classic. Winterreise devotees will need them both. Staier, one of the great fortepianists of our time, noted that, in Schubert's time, pianos were very different from  modern concert grands. Staier and Prégardien performed a great deal of Schubert together, developing an approach more sympathetic to the intimate, personal Liederabend aesthetic.  Schubert was himself a tenor, though of course the songs are performed in many different ways.  The main thing is to be receptive to interpretation and non-dogmatic. Since the timbre of the pianoforte  is more delicate,  the voice part needs to connect.   Like Prégardien, Padmore came from a choral background.  The English tenor style favours purity and clarity, yet also lends itself well to a kind of rarefied spirituality. Not all English tenors are "English tenors"; it's a particular style.  Like Ian Bostridge, Padmore can sing with an edge that intensifies darker undercurrents in meaning. In Winterreise, this is of the essence, for Winterreise is an inner psychological journey, expressed through stages describing physical landscape in almost allegorical terms. Even the destination remains a mystery. Thus the value of approaches which allude to levels in the music beyond text alone.

Fortepiano gives the introductory bars a tremble which suggests the nature of the chill that is to descend. The lower notes stride with purposeful definition.  Padmore's voice curves. "Fremd!", he sings, rolling the "r" so it flies forth.  The sharpness of his consonants in contrast with the ring of the vowels creates a tension which works well with meaning. The protagonist is entering unknown territory, suppressing his fears to journey on. For a moment, in "Der Lindenbaum", he can rest and reflect, and Padmore's voice grows more tender, and the fortepiano rocks gently.  But falling asleep under the supposedly narcotic scent of  linden blossom means death. In "Wasserflut", the vocal line rises and drops. Good phrasing , like "Fühlst du meine Tränen glühen, da ist meiner Liebsten Haus", Bezuidenhuit's fortepiano maintaining a steady pace.  In "Irrlicht", the  brightness of fortepiano and high tenor suggest the character of the will o' the wisp, flickering elusively, luring the unwary astray. In lines like "fühlst in der Still’ erst deinen Wurm, mit heißem Stich sich regen!" (in "Rast!"),  the word "Wurm" here, feels satanic, diverting the protagonist from his mission.

In "Der greise Kopf", Padmore sings the first lines with a lyricism that rings with flute-like grace,  emphasizing the deathly near-whisper of "Doch bald ist er hinweggetaut".  We are being prepared for the songs that follow, where the landscape becomes increasingly surreal, reflecting perhaps the psychic trauma the protagonist is facing.  This is where the unique quality of the English tenor style pays off, its archness suggesting anguish.  In "Die Krähe", a crow stalks the protagonist like a Doppelgänger : is it friend or foe ? In "Der stümische Morgen", Bezuidenhout's fortepiano growls ferociously, evoking the storm, both external and internal.  Padmore's voice rises defiantly, but the protagonist is up against almost supernatural forces.  Thus the turbulence in "Der Wegweiser" , pulling in different directions.  Even the graveyard offers no solace. In "Mut!",  notice the way Padmore marks the tremble in the word "herunter", while  Bezuidenhouit pounds as fiercely as a fortepiano can.  Now the protagonist challenges God himself. "Will kein Gott auf Erden sein, sind wir selber Götter!"  In early 19th century terms, this is almost blasphemy.  He looks up and sees three suns, a natural phenomenom that exists in certain climatic conditions, but he thinks they resemble three staring eyes.  Is the protagonist mad or visionary ? The hushed horror in Padmore's singing suggest both possibilities.

And thus to "Der Leiermann" the climax of the whole journey.  Bezuidenhout's fortepiano creates a sense of fragility, the notes sparkling the way light shines off heavy snow. Is this brightness an illusion, like the will o' the wisp ?  A large, strong piano might suggest an element of hope, but a fortepiano emphasizes vulnerability.  The colours in Padmore's voice turn pallid,  his tone dropping as if he's watching a ghost.  There are moments of light, where the voice rises like a flute, as opposed to the drone of a hurdy-gurdy. But note the steady deliberation, as if the protagonist was falling into step with the Leiermann's death march.  The last word "dreh’n?"  rings out like one last call into the void, and the fortepiano’s last notes shuffle, deflated.  Padmore and Bezuidenhout don't present an ordinary Winterreise, and some won't get it because it is different. But it does offers good insights, even in a market teeming with excellent performances.   

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Rattle 20th Century Masters : Janáček Carter Berg Bartók

One of Simon Rattle's great strengths is creating musically-intelligent programmes. This latest, with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, brought together the final works of four 20th Century Masters - Janáček, Carter, Berg and Bartók.  A few years ago, he conducted Schoenberg's Op 16, Webern's Op 6 and Berg's Op 6 together, showing the connection between Mahler and the Second Viennese School (horrible misleading term).  Rattle's programmes are more than the sum of their parts: they make you think.  They also de-mystify modern music  which is important. Every era was/is modern in its own time, and 20th century music has been around longer than almost anyone alive.  Music is constantly evolving and won't suddenly fossilize.

Sadly, there still are folks who believe that suddenly, overnight, Schoenberg imposed dodecaphony on the world. Such folk often think that Berg's Violin Concerto is a throwback to some ill-defined notion of "romantic" music.  That's musically illiterate nonsense on so many levels that it's shameful. Violins have an uncanny capacity to pull on the heart strings and the piece is very deeply felt.  But it's still modern. Listeners who can't get past the "Memory of an Angel" starting point aren't paying attention.  Berg was in the midst of writing Lulu, and was even personally more loyal to Schoenberg than most. The angel in question was Manon Gropius, whose family were very much in the centre of what was modern and up to date. And, like so much else in Berg, there are cryptic hidden messages, with darker, non-angelic subtexts.  Isabelle Faust has played Berg's Violin Concerto so many times that it's almost her signature piece.  Her approach is dignified, with the depth that comes with emotional maturity.  Genuine, sincere feeling, not the cheap sentimentality that sometimes surrounds reception.  Faust's playing has gravity, its poise informed by restraint, creating a tension which gets far closer to the soul of the piece.  The timbres are occluded, as if in shadow, textures disintegrating gently, as reality fades to memory. Tonality hovers on the point of breaking and then dissolves, when no more can be said.  The quote "Es ist genug", is a reference to Bach. No more can be said.  Berg, even at his most passionate, uses structure with the clarity of a mathematical mind. Puzzles and patterns are integral.  Faust's playing is extraordinarily beautiful because she understands the possibilities of expression that come by extending the borders of form.

Rattle prepared us for the modernity of Berg's Violin Concerto by prefacing it with the Overture from  Janáček's From the House of the Dead and Elliott Carter's Instances.  Carter's Instances was completed in 2012, premiered in Britain by Oliver Knussen. It was Carter's last work, written at the age of 103, ad probably wins the prize for "world's oldest composer composition". But how lively it is, and how inventive. Carter's "Late, late style", as he called it is freewheeling. At his age, he said, he didn't need to prove anything to anyone. For pragmatic reasons his late works are short and epigrammatic but no less inventive for that. In Instances, one can almost hear Carter grinning. 

Janáček's music, with its angular rhythms and quirky discords doesn't fit  into neat little music history stereotypes. Janáček probably didn't know, or care, what was happening in France, Germany and Austria , but like his contemporaries in the 1920's,  he was forging his own original and distinctive path.  When Boulez began conducting Janáček some years back, there were howls of rage from some quarters. But Boulez loved the music for its own sake and he had, in fact, been studying Janáček since the early 1970's.   Rattle forged his own career in modern music, bringing Szymanowski, for example, to public attention long before most anyone else.  Szymanowski might seem "romantic" to some, but his intense chromaticism connects to Debussy and to Bartók.

And so Rattle and the LSO concluded with Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra.  In 1940, Bartók was in a new land, where he hadn't settled  and became despondent.  Once he began writing, though, his mood lifted as if rejuvenated.  Although there are familiar "Hungarian" themes in the piece, it is not fundamentally nostalgic.  Bartók was looking back on his past, well aware of what was happening in the Europe he'd left behind, and of the right wing extremism in Hungary, whose government aligned itself with Hitler.  Rattle brought out the granite-like inner strength in the piece and the firm lines beneath the nostalgia. Perhaps Bartók was drawing on sources in his psyche that went much deeper than folkloric colour. The ethereal opening theme developed until it emerged with expansive confidence. The music seemed to oscillate, highlighting the more disturbing undercurrents in the work.  Rattle negotiated the constant flux in the work, tempi spiriting along as if propelled by winds of change.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Galina Ustvolskaya and the determined Nun

Galina Ustvolskaya and Reinbert de Leeuw, 2011

 Exclusive,first-person article on Galina Ustvolskaya on Andrew Morris's blog Devil's Trill. Please read it here - it's a significant addition to what we know of the reticent Galina Ustvolskaya and opens out new areas of research.   Ustvolskaya is coming out from under the shadow of Shostakovich. Whatever the nature of their relationship, Ustvolskaya's music is utterly distinct from his, so original and so uncompromising that it's unlikley she'll ever be as popular as he is. But what amazing music she wrote !  Read HERE about her Symphony no 3 Jesus Messiah, save us ! from the Berlin Musikfest with Valéry Gergiev and the Münchner Philharmoniker.

Whether or not Shostakovich compromised with the Stalinist regime, he managed to balance on the edge. Ustvolskaya wasn't sent to Siberia, but seems to have struggled on in a kind of external exile.  Perhaps her reputation for being a recluse protected her - she's not unlike many mystic visionaries in Russian history.  The integrity in her music comes from very deep sources, influenced by Slavic tradition, but also decidedly modern.  Her association with Shostakovich is misleading,  She's closer to Stravinsky and the "primitivism" of the Rite of Spring,  and to the brief explosion of modernity which flourished in the early years after the Revolution, and produced works like Alexander Mosolov's The Iron Foundry (1925-6)   Ustvolskaya's music even connects  to the fierce awkwardness of Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, and indeed to Messiaen's ground-breaking masterpieces like Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Follow this link HERE to a discussion of  Ustvolskaya, her place in Soviet music and her relation to Shostakovich.  Also, this excellent documentary, made when Ustvolskya was, at last, being valued for her own sake. She was nearly 90 when the film was made but her mind is sharp. She knows who Reinbert de Leeuw is and what he stands for.   

Perhaps someone should folow up on Sister Andre Dullaghan.  For example - what was her order, and which convent did she live in ?  Her manuscript and papers  may remain in the convent library.   Or the nuns might know what happened to her effects,  and put researchers in touch with her family, or someone who might know.  Two fascinating, independent women, who should be remembered.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Rousseau Le Devin du Village staged at Versailles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's opera Le Devin du Village, (1753) at the Petit Théâtre de la Reine at Versailles last July, now available on Culturebox.  Listening to opera audio-only is sterile and unnatural.  For Rousseau and his contemporaries the idea that any one aspect of opera could be cut out of context was anathema. Opera was meant to be enjoyed as part of social life, which at Versailles meant the aesthetic of the surroundings. The film begins as the camera pans in on the palace and its vast formal gardens. Versailles was more than a royal residence; it was and is the symbol of audacious vision.  The performance takes place in the theatre at le Petit Trianon, built for Marie Antoinette in 1780 where the opera was performed, capturing its intimate, elegant scale which is absolutely part of meaning. Like Versailles iitself, the opera encompasses in miniature the essence of the world beyond, Nature contained, distilled and civilized.  Yet paradoxically it's also a reminder that Nature cannot be tamed. The palace is ringed by ancient forests in which the King would hunt. He hardly needed to catch his own dinner : hunting was a ritual monarchs enacted for fun and fresh air, but also to display their dominance. Though Marie Antoinette wasn't to know what was coming, we do, and that knowledge does affect our appreciation.
It is also significant that Rousseau was a philosopher. Le Devin du Village is more than mindless entertainment in the modern sense.  For audiences of the Age of Reason, art was inextricably part of wider human experience. Without ideas, no art !  While baroque operas can be enjoyed on a very basic level, they are almost always allegorical, with concealed sub texts. At le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette had a farm but no way was she going to muck in with the peasants. Imagined Nature served a purpose, presenting an ideal that was probably impossible to attain.  The noble savages in Rameau's Les Indes galantes  weren't carefree. Theatre is not naturalistic : it is artifice, not reality.  We need to understand the real traditions of opera to detoxify modern notions of  "tradition" based on movies and TV.  The photo above shows a cloud descending from the heavens bearing a crown which Colette accepts, as if such things happened every day : a device that would enrage "traditional" audiences today.
The flats are clearly painted, the stage is empty apart from chairs for the singers to sit in when they're not in action. Gestures are stylized and the singers, dancers and musicians wear what was normal costume in court circles of the period.  Dance is integral to the whole aesthetic. Like the gardens of Versailles, dance is a formalization of nature, movement organized into patterns.  Baroque dance is structured, like athletics, employing the body into the whole concept.  Thus the large ensemble when most of the cast is on stage, together, carefully choreographed and vocally balanced.  Dance is pulse, and pulse the basis of music.  Separate the two and lose the plot.  It would be impossible and inadvisable to recreate the full baroque experience, but this production is a glimpse into what might have been. For the rest, we use our imaginations, based on what we've learned.  Les Nouveaux Caractères are conducted by Sébastien d'Hérin. The dancers are Le Compagnie d'Eloquents, choreograped by Hubert Hazebrocq. Singers are Caroline Mutel (Colette), Cyrille Dubois (Colin), and Frédéric Caton (Le Devin).  Historic staging by Jean-Paul Gousset.  It would be impossible to recreate the full baroque experience,  but in this staging we get a glimpse into what might have been, from which we can learn the foundations of French style.
Please read Reconsidering Rousseau's Le devin du Village : an opera of surprising and valuable paradox by Edward Green (Ars lyrica, 2007)  for a more detailed analysis of the score and ideas behind it.  Note his final paragraph : "Without exception, every aria in this opera is cast in a dance rhythm. In and of itself, this is evidence of a profound attempt on Rousseau’s part to reconcile individual and collective feeling. An aria is an opportunity for the assertion of individual feeling, and yet community is always implied, since a steady dance beat always implies the need to coordinate community. Thus, with a lovely equipoise of individual and communal singing – Colette alternating with the community as a whole – and in an infectious, swinging 6/8 meter, Le devin du village ends with the call : Allons danser!

Friday, 12 January 2018

Earliest Mahler songs - Winterlied

photo : Roger Thomas

It's still winter and the skies are overcast. But look to  the trees, where the buds are forming, which will soon unfurl as leaves.  So to Winterlied, one of Mahler's Drei Lieder (Im Lenz, Winterlied and Maitanz im Grunen) from 27th February 1880. Winterlied is not a Wunderhorn song.  Just as he was to do with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Mahler wrote the text himself and dedicated the song and its companion, Im Lenz, to  Josephine Poisl, who lived in his hometown Iglau. He sent her flowers, but she wasn't too pleased. Soon after, she married another homeboy.  Mahler went on to Vienna, and to fame.  Though the songs (unpublished in Mahler's lifetime) aren't very sophisticated, they aren't bad for someone so young.  Besides, they were written at the same time as Mahler's first truly significant work, Das klagende Lied.

manuscript - click to enlarge

Über Berg und Tal
Mit lautem Schall 

Tönet ein Liedchen. 

Durch Schnee und Eis
Dringt es so heiß 

Bis zu dem Hüttchen. 

Wo das Feuer brummt,
Wo das Rädchen summt 

Im traulichen Stübchen. 

Um den Tisch herum
Sitzen sie stumm. 

Hörst du mich, Liebchen? 

Im kalten Schnee,
Sieh! wie ich steh',

Sing' zu Dir, Mädchen! 

Hat denn mein Lied
So dich erglüht
Oder das Rädchen? 

O liebliche Zeit
Wie bist du so weit! 

O selige Stunden!
Ach nur ein Blick
War unser Glück.
Ewig verschwunden! 


Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Ekho and Narcissist

It takes courage to pair Sibelius Luonnotar and Aare Merikanto's Ekho, as Sakari Oramo did with the BBC SO at the Barbican on 7/1/18.  Both pieces present fearsome technical challenges but Oramo and the BBCSO had a secret weapon in Anu Komsi, who can handle extremes of range and timbre, while also infusing her singing with warmth and meaning. Though Komsi sings with such assurance that she made the pieces flow with natural grace, they aren't at all easy; she's been singing them for a long time.  Experience shows ! This performance of Merikanto's Ekho was wonderful, much better than Komsi's recording with  Petri Sakari and the Turku Philharmonic. The BBCSO are a much more sophisticated orchestra, with a richer sound. And of course Sakari Oramo knows the singer and orchestra pretty well.   Since I've written about Luonnotar so many times over the years (Please read HERE) this is a good time to think about Ekho

After swimming in primeval oceans for 700 years (think amniotic fluid) Luonnotar called out, in agony to the god Ukko, who answered by sending a bird whose egg Luonnotar nurtured, from which the universe was born.  Ekho was a nymph, blessed with beauty of form and of voice.  But when she called out to Narcissus, he didn't care about anything but himself.  Although Merikanto's music seems lush - lots of glossy strings - it is also very much of its time.  Writing in 1922, Merikanto was well aware of the trends in European music around him. Ekho doesn't even pretend to be folkloric - it’s "modern" music, almost neo-classical, reflecting the clear sighted vision of a new world emerging from war.   Think of the clean lines of 1920's visual arts, and the gracious stylization of form that engendered.  The poem by Viekko Antero  Koskenniemi  (1885-1962) comes from the collection Elegioja.  In that context, Ekho is almost a New Woman, talented and emancipated   Lots of those in the 1920's, in Finland and everywhere else. Like many smart women, Ekho thinks she can reach out. But men like Narcissus could not care less.   

The sound of hunting horns and  ominous rumblings - Ekho is a nymph of the forest, but what,is her mission ?  Suddenly the line leaps upward "Narkissos, Narkissos — hu-huu, hu-huu! "  Almost a war cry. The orchestra rears up. Turbulence, then clearing away to quieter sounds, a pattern of call and non-response that repeats in different forms. Ekho calls again: "Narkissos, ma huudan, hu-huu, hu-huu!", the last word projected into the voice. Ekho is listening, but Narcissus isn't. Summer's ending (ie the end of fertility).  Komsi's voice lowers seductively , halo'd by strings, harp and melancholy violin, then rises again in a long, soaring arc. Near silence - you count the bars, listening and gradually, sounds return, shimmering like sound waves.  "Se mun kuoltuanikin soi ja soi" (It's my ringing and playing).  Liike an echo, the first line repeats, in muted form. "Koko yön minä yksin tanssinut oon ja kutsunut armasta karkeloon"  (all night, I danced alone). Dark sustained chords breaks.  Then silence.  Sibelius Luonnotar is grander, and more dramatic.  Merikanto's Ekho is compact, but just as tightly structured and haunting.  

I don't know who created the image above, but it's brilliant !  We do live in an age where reality doesn't penetrate the minds of folks like Narcissus. 

Lightning hits handy conductor

How is it that conductors who are safe hands on the podium (not necessarily a compliment) aren't necessarily safe hands off it ?

The picture shows Michael Costa (1808-1888).  It's just a nice pic. No implication that he was "handy" or that his stick technique was a little too grabby.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wing to Wing, Karawane

Esa-Pekka Salonen, composer, the subject of  the Total Immersion Day at the Barbican, London, in December,which came at a busy time before Christmas, and coincided with Suomi 100 celebrations. Too muchn to take in all at once. Fortunately the Salonen concerts are now on BBC Radio 3 (link here). A great opportunity to hear Salonen's Wing to Wing (2004) again with Anu and Piia Komsi, for whom the work was conceived.  The Komsi sisters are almost mirror images of each other: both are coloraturas of unusually wide range and vocal agility. They have an instinctive closeness to each other which other pairs of singers can't quite equal. Symmetry is part of the concept of Wing to Wing, so the Komsis can probably do it better than anyone else.  I heard the UK premiere of the work at the Barbican in May 2006. Over the years, the Komsi sisters  have done it so many times that they've grown into it as naturally as if they were part of the organism.
"Wing to wing" is a sailing term  which describes the way sails can  be aligned to maximize wind flow. As the wind changes, the sails move. The interaction between the free flowing breeze and the flat surfaces of the sails controls the movement of the boat. The vessel is sailed by this interplay between nature and machine. Wing to Wing is an "architectural" piece because Salonen employs sound to create a structure within which natural forces can flow. Thus the flurrying lines which suggest the movement of wind, water and light, circulating through the structure, modifying, varying and constantly changing  The architect Frank Gehry's disguised voice is embedded into the music, adapted so that it becomes part of the "building". The Komsi sisters' voices soar and fly, suggesting the sound of seabirds flying in the open air, the percussion below them perhaps representing the urban landscape, often twining as if in spirals. Sometimes their lines are long and searching, as if probing the dimensions of space around them.  And sometimes, the turbulence clears and stillness reigns, sparkling repeated notes against clean, clear woodwinds, before we descend into sonorous depths.  Music as sculpture, almost as tactile as it is aural.  I've heard Salonen conduct Wing to Wing and also Jukka-Pekka Saraste.  Sakari Oramo is different to Salonen, but very good because he has an intuitive feeling for the inherent richness of the piece, and the BBCSO now seem to have it in their blood.
More symmetry and spatial awareness in Salonen's Karawane (2013-14) where the BBC Symphony Chorus joined the BBC SO. Here the symmetry is processional : vaguely exotic timbres, suggesting a caravan weaving its way through some strange landscape.  Steady rhythms give way to swirling chromatic textures. The voices sing rareified cadences that rise and fall, like the movement of caravans pulled by animals.  Tempi pick up, and playful staccato patterns emerge - choppy vocal fragments against pounding brass.  A violin materializes, playing a strange melody, like the song of a sad siren, lost in the desert.  Textures thin out and the pure sound of a flute calls as if into the distance of the night. Rustling sounds, timpani thud ominously and the voices are strange low murmurs which lead to more frenzied passages where the voices shout "Way !".  Ostinato exclamations in the orchestra, which build up in speed, like an engine jerking into action. Through these changes of pace and rhythm, Salonen progresses the piece so its component parts move as if in formation.    A glorious ending, swaying and waving in wacky waywardness. Conceptually strong and a good piece, yet sparkling with wit and good humour. 
Nicholas Daniel was the soloist in Salonen's Mimo II (1992) where the oboe "sings" with the winds and brass in the orchestra while the strings swirl round them. Slightly reminiscent of a Stravinsky ballet though the whimsy in the oboe part is quite distinctively Salonen. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Oramo and Komsi - Sibelius 2, 7 and Luonnotar Barbican

Perhaps the most intriguing programme in the whole Sibelius series with Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO at the Barbican, London. Three stylistic breakthroughs - Sibelius Symphony no 2 and Symphony no 7  and Luonnotar, with coloratura assoluta Anu Komsi, whose range and vocal flexibility is well suited to the piece. Luonnotar is always a tour de force,  but Komsi topped it off with Aare Merikanto's Ekho, yet another vocal challenge. Pairing Luonnotar with Ekho was daring indeed. Though the two pieces complement each other well, they are tricky to programme together, given the technical difficulties in the voice parts. But this conductor, orchestra and soloist have worked together so often in this repertoire that they can pull the feat off, and well, too.  They have been busy in recent weeks, with the Sibelius series (see below for links to my reviews of other concerts), with  Soumi 100 and with the Esa-Pekka Salonen Total Immersion at the Barbican which coincided with Finnish Independence week, in which the Komsi twins sang Salonen's Wing to Wing.  A lot to take on board at one time! Luckily, the Salonen Total Immersion is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this week.  More about Salonen to come.

So hearing Oramo conduct the BBC SO  in early Sibelius (Symphony no 2), early middle Sibelius (Luonnotar) and late Sibelius (Symphony no 7) brings out the connections between them and throws into higher focus the overall traverse of Sibelius output.The year after Luonnotar, Sibelius was to explore ocean imagery again in The Oceanides, whose Finnish title is Aallottaret, or "Spirit of the Waves", just as Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, tossed by waves.  Luonnotar also marks a rebirth of a kind for Sibelius after the difficult period from which came the dark Symphony no 4. Mahler's works form a huge, coherent whole, but so too do the works of Sibelius when presented with the intelligence that Oramo has brought to this series. 

Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, Mother of the Seas, who existed before creation, floating alone in the universe before the worlds were made "in a solitude of ether". Descending to earth she swam in its primordial ocean for 700 years. Then a storm blows up and, in torment, she calls to the god Ukko for help. Out of the Void, a duck flies, looking for a place to nest. Luonnotar takes pity and raises her knee above the waters so the duck can nest and lay her eggs. But when the eggs hatch they emit great heat and Luonnotar flinches. The eggs are flown upwards and shatter, but the fragments become the skies, the yolk sunlight, the egg-white the moon, the mottled bits the stars.

The orchestra may play modern instruments and the soprano may wear an evening gown, but ideally they should convey the power of ancient, shamanistic incantation, as if by recreating by sound they are performing a ritual to release some kind of creative force. The Kalevala was sung in a unique metre, which shaped the runes and gave them character, so even if the words shifted from singer to singer, the impact would be similar. Sibelius does not replicate the metre though his phrases follow a peculiar, rhythmic phrasing that reflects runic chant. Instead we have Sibelius’s unique pulse. In my jogging days, I’d run listening to Night Ride and Sunrise, finding the swift, "driving" passages uncommonly close to heart and breathing rhythms. It felt very organic, as if the music sprang from deep within the body. This pulse underpins Luonnotar too, giving it a dynamism that propels it along. They contrast with the big swirling crescendos, walls of sonority, sometimes with glorious harp passages that evoke the swirling oceans.

But it is the voice part which is astounding. Technically this piece is a killer – there are leaps and drops of almost an octave within a single word. When Luonnotar calls out for help, her words are scored like strange, sudden swoops of unworldly sounds supposed to resound across the eternal emptiness. These hint at the wailing, keening style that Karelian singers used. This cannot be sung with any trace of conservatoire-trained artifice: the sounds are supposed to spring from primeval forces. After the duck approaches in a quite delightful passage of dancing notes, the goddess expresses agony for its predicament. Those cries of "Ei! Ei!" – and their echo – sound avant-garde even by modern standards. The breath control required for this must be formidable. Singing over the cataclysmic orchestral climax that builds up from "Tuuli kaatavi, tuuli kaatavi!" must be quite some challenge. The sonorous wall of sound Sibelius creates is like the tsunami described in the text, and the soprano is riding on its crest.

Luonnotar is a complex creature, godlike and childlike at the same time, strong enough to survive eons of floating in ravaged seas, yet gentle enough to cradle a hapless duck. The singer needs to convey that raw primal energy, yet also somehow show the kindness and humour. The sheer physical stamina of singing this tour de force probably accounts for its relative rarity on the concert platform. Luonnotar swam underwater for centuries, so a soprano attempting this must pray for "swimmer's lungs". The last passages in the piece are brooding, strangely shaped phrases which again seem to reflect runic chanting, as if the magical incantation is building up to fulfillment. And indeed, when the creation of the stars is revealed, the orchestra explodes in a burst of ecstasy. The singer recounts the wonder, with joy and amazement: "Tähiksi taivaale, ne tähiksi taivaale". ("They became the stars in the heavens!"). I can just imagine a singer eyes shining with excitement at this point - and with relief, too, that she’s survived! As Erik Tawaststjerna said, "the soprano line is built on the contrast between … the epic and narrative and the atmospheric and magical".

In his minimalist text, Sibelius doesn’t tell us that  in the Kalevala, Luonnotar goes on to carve out the oceans, bays and inlets and create the earth as we know it, or tell us that she became pregnant by the storm and gave birth later to the first man. But understanding this piece helps to understand Sibelius’s work and personality. Like the goddess, he was struggling with creative challenges and beset by self-doubt and worry. Perhaps through exploring the ancient symbolism of the Kalevala, he was able in some way to work out some ideas: in Luonnotar, you can hear echoes of the great blocks of sound and movement in the equally concise seventh symphony

In each concert in this Oramo/BBCSO Barbican series, other composers have been included for comparison and contrast.  Now, at the end of the run we're looking ahead to the future. Aare Merikanto (1893-1956) was the son of  Oscar Merikanto (1868-1924), also a composer and a contemporary of Sibelius.  Please read more HERE about mid 20th century Finnish music (Susanna Mälkki/Helsinki Philharmonic in December).  Oramo conducted Aare Merikanto's Ekho (1922), and Komsi sang.  But enough for now, I'm knackered.  I'll write about that tommorow .when I have more time. And here is my bit on Merikanto's Ekho, as promised !

Other concerts in the Oramo Sibelius series with the BBC SO at the Barbican:

Finland Awakes ! Finnish centenary celebration

Sibelius 4 and 6, Anders Hillborg

Sibelius 3 Ravel Franck and Schmitt

Apples and Pears

And why not ? A family of traditional instrument makers somewhere in Germany around the turn of the century. 

Friday, 5 January 2018

Bohuslav Martinů - The Epic of Gilgamesh

New recording of the English version of Bohuslav Martinů's The Epic of Gilgamesh, from Supraphon, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck.  This is the world  premiere recording of the text in English. Martinů, wrote the original based on an English language translation which he disliked, for pragmatic purposes. "Nowhere would they sing my piece in Czech", he told his family in 1955.  He need not have worried.  Soon after, a Czech translation became available, which, to this date has been the standard version used in performance, with several fine recordings.  The piece is recognized as one of Martinů's key works and a part of Czech core repertoire. So what's it like hearing it in English ?

The opening erupts in the cry "Gilgamesh!" chorus alternating between soloist. group against individual.  Gilgamesh was all-powerful, but an oppressor  Martinů, who spoke good English,  was right about the clumsiness of the translation.  "To the appeal of their waiting, Goddess Aruru gave ear. She fingered out of clay......Enkidu made she, a warrior"  Jan Martiník sings the bass part. He's the only native Czech speaker in this cast, and possibly the youngest soloist. Because the text is so archaic, his (very) slight accent works well, since it emphasizes the stylized non-realism central to the work, and indeed to its origins. Yet Martiník also manages to nuance his singing with emotion. As he describes Enkidu, the wild man, finding human solace, his voice softens.  The music changes, flurries on harp suggest the flowing of water, the bringing of life to the desert from which Enkidu came.  The choral part (Prague Philharmonic Choir) is lit by searching lines in the orchestra.  The soloists don't portray individuals : the flow between choir, orchestra and individual voices progresses the piece structurally. Gilgamesh and Enkiddu end up in epic struggle, the choral lines moving back and forth until the dramatic breakthrough.           
Andrew Staples sings the tenor part, demonstrating the unique artistic qualities of the English Tenor voice type. He makes the awkward, jerky text curl and bristle with sinister tension. "When  I entered the House of the Dead, the Queen of the Underworld, she saw me, she lifted her head, she saw me...."  Although the other soloists (Lucy Crowe and Derek Welton) are good, the "personality" of the voice type hints at extra levels of meaning, making this English version worth listening to.  Enkidu lies dying, and Gilgamesh, now his friend, grieves. Welton's last lines are followed by tiny broken fragments in the orchestra. The choir comments, male and female lines crossing and combining with the fluidity of waters in a river.
The final section, the Invocation, begins with vaguely "Babylonian" rhythms. An unearthly, high pitched "O!" wails from time to time (Lucy Crowe), her cry linking the disparate segments.  Tension builds. Gilgamesh enters the Temple of Enlil searching for the dead Enkidu. The orchestra pulsates savage ostinato, developing into a tumult of windswept frenzy.  Suddenly, the sound of single bells. For a brief moment, the two interact, as if in embrace. The baritone (Welton) asks about the afterlife. The bass (Martiník)  can only say "I saw, I saw", expressed with great feeling.
The Epic of Gilgamesh has come down to us in broken fragments : we don't know the whole story and cannot understand the full cultural context.  It's enough that we can glimpse it through the archaic symbolism of Martinů's music. The quality of singing in this performance (particularly the English tenor) makes it worth hearing, though the narration (Simon Callow), while suitably theatrical overpowers the purity of the music.  Thus I'd dare say that the Czech text should remain  unchallenged.  Whether it's better than the English translation or not, I do not know, but the richness and depth of Czech language recordings is far more rewarding, in particular the recording by Belohlavek, also with the Prague Symphony Orchestra and also for Supraphon, nearly 20 years ago.  In marketing terms, some might assume you need an "international" style, but quite frankly,  the pungency of Czech is unique, and brings out the true punch in Martinů.  

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Thielemann swings ! Silvesterkonzert Dresden

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has named Christian Thielemann as conductior of the 2019 Vienna New Years Concert.  All the more reason Thielemann's Silvesterkonzert with the Dresden Staatskapelle.  He's done similar repertoire at the Dresden New Year's Eve concerts for years. Come 2018/2019 he'll be nipping back and forth, but one thing for sure, he'll be interesting.  Dresden Silvesterkonzerts don't always follow the same formula.  This year's concert marked the centenary of  UFA GmbH, the conglomerate behind the German film industry.  Yet the concert was more than music from the movies. Outside Germany, UFA is associated with the Nazis, who took it over in 1933. With the rise of Far Right extremism all round the world, it might be safer to steer clear. But it's far braver to confront the past, warts and all.  If we don't learn from the past, we'll make the same mistakes. 
With some trepidation, I approached the programme. But the UFA situation is far more complex than simple black and white. Deliberate pun on the technology behind Weimar film. For UFA was associated with some of the finest art movies ever made, and with directors like Fritz Lang and F W Murnau.  Goebbels wasn't the first to realize that film could be used for mind control.  Witness the wave of Soviet films like October (more here) which are works of art but also propaganda.  When the Nazis came to power, the studios churned out stuff like Jud Süß which I confess I haven't been able to watch for more than a few minutes. And hundreds of Africans and Roma were forced to work in slave conditions.  But  UFA made over 1000 films in this period and not all can be condemned.  The gradation between art and the abuse of art is a dilemma we need to confront, if we are to learn. 
Thielemann began with Erich Korngold's main theme and love scene from Captain Blood.  Korngold  didn't work at UFA but his music epitomizes what we'd now call "Hollywood Style" but like so many in Hollywood, he was European. Chances are he would have followed Max Reinhardt to the US whatever the circumstances, but by remembering him we also honour those who did not have a choice  Theo Mackeben remained in Germany, writing operettas and film scores, but  he knew Brecht and Weill, having conducted the premiere of Die Dreigroschenoper.  Angela Denoke sang his song Frauen sind keine Engel, not as politcial as Weill but certainly racy.   Hans May went into exile, but to Britain, not Hollywood, where he was part of the then-thriving British film industry.   Daniel Behle sang May's Heut ist der schönste Tag.  The show stopper, though, was Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt made famous by Marlene Dietrich. Elisabeth Kulman looked the part in a silvery gown, but vocally she's a lot stronger than Dietrich and could sing the "cadenza" arrangement.  The song comes from Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel  (1930) starring Marlene Dietrich.  The real star of that film was Emil Jannings, who'd established a career in Hollywood silent film.  He "reverse migrated" back to Germany. After 1933 he made movies for UFA on historical subjects, which in the circumstances had political overtones. Was he nationalist or Nazi ? Does nationalism necessarily lead to evil things ?
The Dresden Staatskapelle musicians morphed into dance band for fox trots, setting the mood for songs by Werner Richard Heymann, two from Die Drei von der Tankstelle (1930). The songs have an almost Schlager-like gaiety.   Saxophones and guitars turned the Staatskapelle into jazzband, with Daniel Behle hamming up stylishly in top hat and tails.  A moment for contemplation, though, with melancholy torch songs by Michael Jary, sensitively sung by Elisabeth Kullman.  Jary was a jazz musician, a genre the Nazis despised, but managed to scrape a living writing film scores for UFA. More songs by Mackeben , Friedrich Hollaender and Robert Stolz, "the luckiest man in the world" who made and lost several fortunes in the theatre. Winding up old, penniless and stateless in Paris, he was about to be imprisoned as an enemy alien, when he was saved by a beautiful 19-year-old heiress,who fell in love with him at first sight and became his (I think) sixth wife. They went to Hollywood where he made another fortune in movie music before returning to Dahlem and then Vienna (read more here).
Altogether a delicious concert,  played with total conviction, the material treated as serious music, not just "movie music".  One of the finest classical,orchestras in the world, letting their hair down without dropping a note.  When Christian Thielemann swings, he swings like a natural!  Thielemann and the orchestra had much more substantial music to work with in Georg Haentzschel's Große Suite in sechs Sätzen zu Münchhausen from one of the most extravagant movies UFA ever made, József Baky's Münchhausen (1943).  Goebbels gave UFA an unlimited budget. The Grand Canal in Venice, no less,  was closed off for the filming.  Thousands of extras were employed, including, alas, African prisoners of war and German-born men from former colonies in West Africa.  Münchhausen travels to the palace of the Grand Sultan, where the Turks are comic and the eunuchs camp. That's fairly benign by the standards of the time and not only in Nazi Germany, one should emphasize.  The Black men are dressed in silks, as slaves.  One wonders what was going on in their heads ?  At least they were - relatively - safe and many survived.  This is such an amazing movie that I'll write more in depth later.  Like the Wizard of Oz, it's fantasy but with quietly subversive political undercurrents,. The script was by Erich Kästner, definitely not a Nazi.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Why the Vienna New Year Concert matters

The Wiener Neujahrskonzert, the Vienna New Year's Concert 2018 with the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Riccardo Muti, for the fifth time - he's much older now than when the photo above was taken, but you're only as old as you want to be.  Muti was on good form, clearly enjoying himself.  Spontaneity is the spirit !  Like champagne, the Vienna formula works best when it's served fresh with wit and gaiety. Some years, it's fallen flat, and you think "not again" and then, like this year, it sparkles again.  The Wiener Philharmoniker parties, too. All year round, they play "serious" repertoire, but on New Year's Day, they make merry with Strauss (Johann I and II, not Richard !), with marches, waltzes and ventures in operetta.  But Vienna is "more" than music, it's the world's biggest New Year's Eve Party.

All over the world, millions join in the festivities.  When the concerts started, Vienna was the capital of an Empire.  Now it commands a new position as flagship of classical music for many who wouldn't otherwise listen at all.  Not by any stretch of the imagination is it typical concert fare and it does not represent what happens the rest of the year. But so what if some of those listening think all concerts are like this ?  The Vienna New Year's Concert fascinates because it's a symbol. It presents western culture as something glorious, thrilling and fun, which all can enjoy. The spirit of Empire, reprised : nothing wrong with that since it's not backed by military might.  So why not celebrate Vienna itself, and its heritage ?  Now the world's sinking into small-minded reductionism, it's a good idea to remember that the idea of nation state isn't compulsory.  Can we dream of a world without borders, where all can participate as they wish ? As long as it’s not enforced by the barrel of a gun, physical or mental. Remember what happened to the Hapsburgs in 1918.

Since the New Year's Concert is not an ordinary concert by any means, it's perfectly valid to present it on an extraordinary scale.  Music, especially music like this, is communal, meant to be heard live, involving all the senses. The audience might not dance, but they know about the New Year’s Ball, and about the waltz tradition.  They dress up to enhance the sense of occasion.   Hence the flowers, bringing scent and countryside into the city in mid-winter.  New Year means hope and renewal, and the return of summer. Miss that and you miss the whole darn point of the New Year Concert !
The Neujahrskonzert represents much more than music. Vienna itself  (and Austria) is the star !  Thus the shots of the city in its splendour.  This year, we get to see architectural treasure, in greater close up than we could walking round as tourists. As we hear the Tales from the Vienna Woods, we see them, briefly, and see close-ups of the zither being played, an important detail for those keen on how music is made.  Music doesn't exist in isolation. It's the product of many influences, and, as we listen, we (in theory anyway) might be opening our minds to the richness of human endeavour.  Vienna brings to millions all over the world, the experience of live music "in the round", in its true context. For that, we should celebrate.

Please also see Thielemann Swings !  Christian Theielemann's Silvesterkonzert in Dresden, which matters because he's doing Vienna next year

Prosit Neujahr 1918