Sunday, 21 May 2017

Glyndebourne Cavalli Hipermestra - bizarre but pointed


Glyndebourne and baroque opera are almost synonymous. Indeed, the modern revival of interest in the baroque owes much to Glyndebourne and its values of eclecticism and excellence. Francesco Cavalli's Hipermestra was an ideal start to the 2017 season. Cavalli operas, like La Calisto and L'Oromindo, are so well known that they're almost standard repertoire, but Hipermestra is so obscure that this production is only the second since the original premiere in 1668.  With William Christie conducting (and acting) and Cavalli specialist Emőke Baráth singing the title role, this Glyndebourne first is unmissable. Get to it while you can.  Graham Vick's staging, with sets by Stewart Nunn, is audacious, but then, that was the spirit of the baroque age, when Europe was discovering new worlds, in every sense. Cavalli's penchant for sex, cross-dressing and double entendre make Hipermestra an anarchic riot.  Stay home if you're timid, but there's nothing timid about Cavalli.

The plot alone is so bizarre that only fools could mistake it for reality. A prophecy warns Danao, King of Argos, that he'll be killed by his son-in-law. His solution? To marry his 50 daughters to the 50 sons of his brother Egitto, and get the brides to kill their husbands on their wedding nights.  What Freud might have made of that, who knows?  Nonetheless the girls are so gullible that they widow themselves willingly, without question. Except for Hipermestra, who has the hots for Linceo, and he for her. Dad isn't pleased and puts her in prison.

Although the plot is implausible, music makes it art. The ensemble, nine members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, were seated in front of the stage, which was decorated with an arch of pink balloons.  The mass wedding at Argos is kitsch, but the music is not.   Quietly, a figure in white joins the team: William Christie dressed anonymous, conducting from the keyboard, in full view.  Throughout this production, musicians appear on stage, blending with the proceedings. Violinist alone, then with violist, then two theorbos of different kinds, and later, Christie himself arising from the stage machinery, interacting with the singers before scrambling down to the pit.  Integrating music with drama in this way is sophisticated, conceptually, but Glyndebourne audiences are sharp enough to understand that opera is theatre, not reality TV!  Musicians should be seen more often, for without them, opera would not be what it is.

Whatever Argos is, it's a place where extreme ideas are made possible by extreme power. Hence the oil rigs and ostentatious consumerist extravagance of the palace made possible by wealth, and the barbed wire that keeps people under control.  The allusions to Arab and/or Central Asian oligarchs may be offensive to some, but are aimed at the rulers, not the people they rule.   Thus is set the context for the wars that explode after Linceo escapes and takes his revenge on Danao, blaming Hipermestra.  Eventually, the whole region is destroyed. So much for wealth and power, when it is exercised by stupid people.  Linceo blames Hipermestra for infidelity,  Arbante and his minions stir confusing sub-plots,  Hipermestra wants to die and Linceo thinks she's dead.  Everyone making assumptions without checking facts.  That's the point of bthe plot and sub-plots: life is confusing if you don't stop and think, before jumping off (literaslly, in Hipermestra's case).

Hipermestra is a whole lot more relevant than one might assume.  The mayhem in the plot is a simile for what goes on in real life, even when people don't have 50 daughters and sons to marry off all at once. In the end, as in all good fairy tales,  everything works out, but a whole lot of people have been hurt in the process.  This is an observation that would not have been lost on Cavalli's original audience in times when monarchs had absolute power, without checks and balances.  Hipermestra is comedy, but also satire.

Emőke Baráth, as Hipermestra, is divine.  Most of the opera circulates around her, and she has the biggest role, and the longest monologue. As one of the other characters  remarks Hipermestra "goes on and on", but Baráth is so good that you enjoy every moment, though Cavalli takes his time to make a point.  Baráth is a good comic actress, singing a superb Helen of Troy in Elena (Il rapimento d'Helena) at Aix-en-Provence a few years ago.  Raffaele Pe sang Linceo, switching from lover to killer, and back.  Ana Quintans, a Glyndebourne favorite, sings Hipermestra's loyal maid Elisa.  Benjamin Hulett sings Arbante - yes, sex and violence are very Cavalli ! Renato Dolcini sings Danao, Anthony Gregory sings Valfrino. David Webb sings Arsace and Alessandro Fisher sings Delmiro/Alindo.  Special honours to Mark Wilde who sings Berenice, the camp but sinister drag queen.  It's not a comic role, though it has to be played for laughs. Berenice has gone through many husbands, however she/he disposed of them. Part witch, part victim, the part serves to remind us that in extremist power structures, women and the powerless (ie gay men) get kicked around and misused.  Cavalli had censors to fear. We don't, thankfully, as long as we have intelligent audiences like those at Glyndebourne, who appreciate that opera involves ideas, feelings, and creativity. .

and here's Claire Seymour in Opera Today : Danao is Libyan ! that explains the oil, and the despotism


Friday, 19 May 2017

Haydn, Veress : English Chamber Orchestra, Altstaedt


Josef Haydn (1732-1809 ) and Sándor Veress (1907-92) with the English Chamber Orchestra and Nicolas Altstaedt at King's Place, London.  (Listen for repeat broadcast)  Proof yet again, that music is music, defying pigeonholes.  Every good composer has his or own identity, but all create things worth listening to, whatever the genre.  Listening outside the box enhances appreciation.  Perfectly natural.

Hall One at Kings Place is without doubt the most elegant concert hall in London, small but classically proportioned and blessed with an extremely clear acoustic. The walls are lined with polished wood, apparently from a single source, which helps to even out resonance.  Here, everything sounds balanced, to the extent that minor problems in performance seem magnified.  But that burnished, mellow acoustic is so beautiful.  No surprise it's a good place to record in.  The English Chamber Orchestra, always polished, sounded wonderful, even on broadcast here.  

 How lovely Haydn's Cello Concerto no 1 sounded with this orchestra, in this performance space, specially designed for chamber music !  Nicolas Altstaedt was soloist and conductor, in the true spirit of chamber communality.  Elegant but lively playing : baroque music wasn't precious.  The vitality in this performance set the tone for Sándor Veress's Sonata for Cello Solo (1967).  Altsteadt was, of course, playing on his own, but the ambient atmosphere of chamber ensemble lingered: he didn't sound alone, though no-one else was playing.  Veress is a fascinating figure, who knew Bartók and Kodály, absorbing their interest in Hungarian folk music as an alternative to the Austro-German mainstream. These were turbulent times in Hungary, where many sympathized with fascism, and "modern" music was frowned upon.  In 1941  Bartók was able to emigrate, though  a move to America,. In 1949, Veress was able to defect, and escaped to Switzerland, though he had a hard time getting recognition.   Nonetheless, in exile, he influenced his students.  Heinz,Holliger's (S)irató , written in his honour, is part requiem, part protest, hence "irato" (irate) in the title and in the vehemence of the music. (Read more here)ydnThe idea of being alone, yet not alone, pervades Veress's Sonata for solo cello. The first movement is a dialogue, but with whom ?  The "other" may be invisible and inaudible, but is palpably present.  Long lines, like exhalations, sudden bursts of dynamic vigour.  The middle movement in contrast,is more subdued, the lines exploring space, so to speak. it's titled "monologue".  In the epilogue, Veress writes more complex lines, testing technique. Frenzied, zig-zag passages, culminating in a sudden burst of lyricism : perhaps the musical equivalent of a smile ? Who knows ? Altstaedt plays with warm and feeling.

Veress's Sonata for Cello Solo was the highlight of the evening, very modern music, and realized very well.  Before it, we heard Veress's Four Transylvanian Dances for String Orchestra,  This was written between 1944 and 1949, the year Veress went into exile. Traditional dance may be the starting point, but the music is highly individual: more Veress than folklore. You couldn't dance to this except in an abstract, modern style. The last movement, the Dobbantós, comes closet to traditional form.  With its intensely rhythmic patterns, it suggests  gypsy dance, the music of oppressed vagrants, making their way through mainstream society.  A man like Veress, who knew the folk roots of his region, would have no illusions that peasant music was "pretty". The members of the English Chamber Orchestra brought out the spiky angularity. The music moved as if driven by demonic forces : the Devil as fiddler, stamping his feet for emphasis.

The concert began with Haydn and concluded with Haydn, Symphony no 49  "La passione".  In King's Place, the acoustic makes a small ensemble sound larger and richer than it might otherwise, which added to the impact.  Elegantly poised lines, balanced restraint, yet infused by an undertow of feeling, high strings singing, lower strings giving ballast.  After having heard Veress,  one could not help but connect to a sense of understated sadness, bravely borne.  

Thursday, 18 May 2017

CédricTiberghien Saint-Saëns, CBSO Franck Rachmaninov


At the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Karina Canellakis made her debut conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Given that orchestra's knack for finding exceptionally good young conductors to liven up the stable, this concert deserved attention.  Canellakis was a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic's junior ensemble, the Orchester-Akademie, where she became a protégé of Simon Rattle, like Dudamel and others before. His agents, Askonas Holt, have taken her onto their books, which should launch her career very nicely. In 2014 she stepped in for Jap van Zweden in Dallas.  This concert with the CBSO is so far her highest-profile European gig, broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

César Franck's Le chasseur maudit is a show stopper, almost guaranteed to blast audiences out of their seats.  It's inherently dramatic. A fanfare of horns announces a hunt: but no ordinary, pastoral hunt.  Percussion rings out, suggesting the tolling of church bells in the distance.  This Sunday, though, the Huntsman's off to the woods instead, killing animals.  The tale goes way back in European folklore. Think, for starters, Goethe's Die wandelnde Glock, set by Loewe, and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and much else Gothic and demonic. Thus the piece ends with a loud sudden bang. It's not a rarity: I last heard it live barely 18 months ago.  It's effects come from its being pictorial: not a great deal of musical imagination needed. Thus it needs more punch in performance to compensate, and here needed more vivid character.

Another surefire crowd pleaser: Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances op 45, also vividly pictorial.  It's as if we see dancers swirl before us, as if in an elusive dream.  Certainly, in this performance the dreamlike quality prevailed,  but there are darker, more nightmarish depths to the piece.  That repeated pounding motif and its quieter echo, can be disturbing.  Towards the end of his life, Rachmaninov was looking back on a lost world, and a life spent in exile, sometimes in creative impasse.  The waltzes can seem haunted. The violin plays alone, for a reason.  The horns can be strident, and the winds can  be sinister.  But for all we know, Rachmaninov might have been writing to soothe himself. The CBSO is a such a good orchestra that it can convince whatever it does.  So, perhaps the fluid smoothness had purpose.  An undemanding though enjoyable performance. Picturesque music sometimes plays itself, though it works best when better thought through.

The highlight was Camille Saint-Saëns Piano concerto no.5 in F major Op.103 (Egyptian) (1896) with Cédric Tiberghien.  Much is made of the "Egyptian" aspects of the piece, since it was written in Luxor, but it is fundamentally an example of Belle Époque syncretism.  For men of Saint-Saëns's generation, European civilization was the height of progress, and that civilization encompassed the world.  Napoleon's conquest of Egypt differed from the British conquest of India, just as French and British colonialism followed different models.  The French fascination with "The East" was long standing : think Les Indes galantes, where the "natives" are Frenchmen in disguise.  Or Lakmé, or The Pearl Fishers.  

Ultimately, Saint-Saëns Piano concerto no.5 is far more than picturesque travelogue. It's not "light music". It's a work of  bold musical inventiveness and originality.  Perhaps that's why the piano part is so strong : the soloist as pioneer, very much the leader. Tiberghien faces the fearsome technical challenges : arpeggios fly with faultless confidence and elegance, and the frequent changes of imagery flow naturally.   Like the Nile, with its confluent tributaries!  Vaguely Arabic motifs blend into harmonies that are "modern" and European. Thundering passages suggest constant flux,with swirling diminuendos and passages of flamboyant brilliance. Nothing backward here, though the references may come from things remembered.  Tiberghien played with highly individual flourish.  Perhaps his enthusiasm invigorated the orchestra, who were playing at their best at this point in the concert.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Kathleen Ferrier Remembered - SOMM

Kathleen Ferrier Remembered, from SOMM Recordings, makes available on CD archive broadcasts  of British and German song. All come from BBC broadcasts made between 1947 and 1952. Of the 26 tracks in this collection, 19 are "new", not having been commercially released. The remaining seven have been remastered by sound restoration engineer Ted Kendall.  Something here even for those who already own the complete recordings.

Bruno Walter accompanies Ferrier in two Schubert and two Brahms songs.  Walter was a major influence on Ferrier, developing her style and repertoire and bring her to international prominence.  Reputedly, she was so overcome rehearsing for Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde that she wept inconsolably.  Perhaps it was that emotional directness that Walter recognized  that convinced him that the relatively unknown young singer had potential.  In these songs, recorded in the Edinburgh studios of the BBC, Ferrier's sincerity shines, though her delivery is more enthusiastic than refined.  But that was part of her charm. Walter responds in kind, his playing particularly free and invigorating.

Ferrier's recordings of Mahler's Rückert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder are classics, but on this disc, she sings Urlicht, from Mahler's Symphony no 2.  This recording was made on 28th September 1950.  The following year,  Ferrier sang the part with full orchestra  in the recording of the symphony with Otto Klemperer and Jo Vincent in Amsterdam.  Here she sings the version for piano and voice, so the closer focus concentrates attention on the voice and its distinctive colouring.  Her vibrato is used to evoke fragility, in keeping with the nature of the piece.  A worthwhile addition to the discography, since she didn't record this version for Decca.  This recording predates the Christa Ludwig recording of this version of Urlicht by 13 years.

Apart from one track on this disc - C Hubert Parry's Love is a bable op 152/3 with Gerald Moore -  all the other selections feature Ferrier with Frederick Stone.  Ferrier sang a lot of Schubert and Wolf,  her contralto richness is most effective in Brahms.  Her Sonntag op 47/3 here, recorded in December 1949, is particularly impressive. Although Ferrier found fame, she was, at heart, down-to-earth and unaffected, rather like the "Das tausendschöne Jungfräulein" standing by her doorway, innocently capturing hearts.  For this reason, perhaps, Ferrier is often most endearing when she sings traditional songs in the English language.  This remastering makes Parry's Love is a Bable bright and shiny!

On this SOMM disc, we have Edmund Rubbra's Three Psalms op 61, which Ferrier recorded for Decca with Ernest Lush, in performance with Frederick Stone, from 1947.  The piano settings are minimal, displaying the voice unadorned, suggesting private prayer.  In Psalm 150, Rubbra writes extravagant lines, which let Ferrier's voice fly exuberantly free. SOMM has also uncovered a special rarity: Maurice Jacobson's Song of Songs, quite probably the original recording, which has lain in the BBC sound archives long known but hitherto unreleased. The text comes from the Book of Solomon, and the setting makes clear reference to Jewish tradition. 




Saturday, 13 May 2017

Elgar, Bliss The Beatitudes Andrew Davis BBCSO Barbican


At the Barbican, London, Andrew Davis conducted the BBCSO in Elgar Enigma Variations and Arthur Bliss The Beatitudes.  A red-letter day for British music fans, because Davis  is a superb conductor of British repertoire.  His insights into Bliss's Beatitudes were thus eagerly anticipated. If anyone can make a case for the piece, it is he.  After an expansive performance of the Enigma Variations, I was expecting great things.  The Beatitudes is an ambitious work,  scored for large orchestra, soloists, choir and cathedral-scale organ, so an expansive approach would, in theory, breathe life into the piece. The background to the piece and its reception has been repeated so  many times that you could fill an entire review regurgitating the details without having to mention too much about the music.  In short, The Beatitudes was commissioned for the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962 and given top billing over and above Britten's War Requiem, the "other" commission.  For reasons still unexplained, it was discreetly shunted aside. The premiere took place in a nearby theatre and was not well received.

Whatever may have happened in Coventry in 1962, it simply isn't true that The Beatitudes was forgotten.  Shortly afterwards, it was performed in a proper Cathedral setting at Gloucester during the Three Choirs Festival, which alone should have ensured its reputation. Bliss conducted and the singing, being the Three Choirs Festival, must have been good.  Bliss also  conducted it himself at the Proms in 1964, another ultra high profile event, with no expense spared.  The BBC SO performed with the immortal Heather Harper, a host of choirs and of course the formidable Royal Albert Hall organ. This was commercially  released five years ago.  There have been other performances, including one at Coventry Cathedral a few years ago conducted by Paul Daniel.   The piece isn't a mystery waiting to be discovered.  Unfortunately, British music is schismatic. Many still can't forgive Britten for being an outsider.  All the more reasons then to engage with The Beatitudes  on its own merits, rather than just blaming its lack of success on fashion and taste.  Sixty years later, we should be mature enough to evaluate the piece on its own terms without pettiness and special pleading.  Bliss is an important composer, who created masterpieces like Morning Heroes. Read more about that HERE when Andrew Davis conducted it with the BBCSO at the Barbican.    

Coventry Cathedral was bombed during the wear, so it's rebuilding was a symbolic act of hope. Memories of the war were still fresh, so Britten was taking risks by not condemning Germans. But perhaps people then knew about war first hand, they realized that working towards peace is a much greater challenge.  The Beatitudes of Jesus, as recounted in the New Testament, address the basic concepts of Christianity. Tonight, the Pope reiterated these fundamentals at Fatima:  "Mercy, not judgement".  Fundamentalists who misconstrue "Blessed are the poor", maybe aren't Christian.  Bliss's Beatitudes presents texts arranged by Christopher Hassell interspersed with settings of seven poems, from the  Prophet Isaiah to 17th century poets like George Herbert to Dylan Thomas. This allows him to expand the scope, making more of the idea of conflict implicit in the Ninth Beatitude, "Blessed are you when men shall revile you", which could be interpreted as relevant to the idea of war though it in fact refers to persecution of the apostles and those faithful to a radical new faith.  Bliss connects the Sermon on the Mount to the Mount of Olives to Easter and to the Crucifixion.   Bliss's Beatitudes are thus a mediation on struggle, illustrated by the strident, almost dissonant music in the Prelude and the Voices of the Mob.  Contrasts are violently dramatic. Loud tutti climaxes but tiny figures (often strings or woodwind) flit past. The soloists (Emily Birsan and Ben Johnson) rise from the massed forces behind them.  The BBC Chorus in good form.  The Beatitudes has the ambience of a great epic saga, with a cast of thousands - what great film music this could have been, with moral absolutes in clear black and white!

Superb performances all round, good enough that it wasn't such a loss that the Barbican organ isn't as huge as, say, Coventry Cathedral's, But, in a way, I was glad that Davies focussed on the music itself, rather than going in for histrionic effects,  He's conducted another Beatitudes - Elgar's The Apostles.  That, too, was conceived on a grand scale with over a hundred choristers, many soloists and a big orchestra.  But perhaps the key to The Apostles (and to The Kingdom) lies in its connection to The Dream of Gerontius.which follows one man's journey from physical life to the life everlasting. In The Apostles the followers of Jesus are about to go into the world, alone, spreading the new gospel in hostile situations.  Hence the inherent contradiction  between their mission, and overblown Edwardian public declarations of Christianity.  Elgar is a master of large form, but his faith, in a loose, non-denominational sense, is fundamentally personal and humanistic.  Not for nothing did he write the Enigma Variations, with its cryptic humour and deliberately non-dogmatic warmth of spirit.  Please read what I wrote about Davis's Elgar Apostles with the BBC SO at the Barbican with Jacques Imbrailo in 2014.  Part of the reason The Apostles and The Kingdom aren't programmed non-stop is because their charms lie not in bombast, but in humility.

Bliss's competition wasn't Britten, but Elgar, and Elgar wins hands down.  The Beatitudes has good moments but it's no masterpiece. Jesus's Beatitudes stress simplicity and the meekness which comes from genuine humility.  The apostles got their reward in heaven, but earned it.  No sense of entitlement, nor self pity, victimhood, or bitterness. Resentments  are values of self, not selflessness.  Tonight, the Pope, who probably has more status than any of us, spoke of respect and compassion.  Though surrounded by thousands, with a big organization behind him,  he cut a frail, humble figure. Now there's a man who knows what The Beatitudes of Jesus mean.  

"Humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong, who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves"  Full text of the Pope's speech at Fatima HERE

Thursday, 11 May 2017

1031 pipe Bamboo organ from 1816

 
The Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas, now a suburb of Manila, built from 1816-1824 by Fr Diego Cera, the Spanish born parish priest.  This organ, built in late Spanish baroque style, has 1032 pipes.  For more technical detail, please follow this link to an analysis made by an organ specialist.  Good work !  Why bamboo ? Bamboo is a grass, which grows plentifully, yet it's also very strong, and properly treated can be one of the most resilient natural fibres.  Many things are made from bamboo from ships to houses and furniture, and of course musical instruments like xylophones. Woven it makes ropes and semi waterproof mats. The shoots are edible, and a staple of many cuisines.  Plus bamboo has a hollow centre, ideal for making pipes.
This region of the Philippines is subject to earthquakes, typhoons, and floods.  The combination of candles and matshed roofing common in Catholic churches in Asia before the 19h century meant that many also burned down, like Sao Paolo in Macau.  Please read my article The Ruins of St Paul - Japanese baroque.   The church at Las Piñas is built of local stone, though the roof is lined with bamboo poles laid side by side.  In the 1880's the building was hit by a series of natural disasters. 

 In 1975, the organ at last received a major restoration, each component shipped to Germany, repaired and reassembled, taking into consideration the warm, damp tropical climate it would return to. I can remember the fanfare which marked the organ's return to Las Piñas. The Bamboo Organ is now part of the tourist trail, as well as being part of a large and thriving community. The sound is distinctive, and the church hosts an annual music festival which has attracted international players.  At one time I had a whole collection of recordings on cassette (remember them ?)  A few clips below to illustrate: 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Sea - F-X Roth, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Debussy Ravel Britten Chin and Trenet


On the ocean !  and François-Xavier Roth reveals more of his many talents. Livestream with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, combining Britten, Unsuk Chin, Ravel and Debussy La Mer and, with a glorious twist, the original 1946 Charles Trenet La Mer sung by Roth himself!  From Roth, always expect the unexpected.  Not many conductors would have the sass to do this, far less to sing it themselves, but Roth can, and did it with such style that the song fitted perfectly well with the rest of the programme. Genre-blending with intelligence - no dumbing down here.

Benjamin Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes set the scene.  The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln doesn't sound like an English orchestra, so it was a good experience hearing Britten in this way - sparkier, less buttoned down and stiff upper lip.  The timpani crashed, the church bells clanged, and the undercurrent in the tide motif pulled with a surge. Wild, dizzying angular lines: wonderfully quirky.  Englishman as Peter Grimes is, he is Everyman, his story universal.  This was "different" but perfectly valid, releasing the repressed "inner" Britten. This grows on you - enjoy the repeat broadcast.

Unsuk Chin's Le Silence des Sirènes premiered in 2015 at Lucerne with Simon Rattle and Barbara Hannigan.  This time the soloist was Donatienne Michel-Dansac, who made the piece an expression of zany humour, very much in the whimsical spirit of Chin's music. This also fits the edginess in James Joyce's text.  Michel-Dansac's voice calls, from a distance, before she emerges on stage.  This Siren seduces by the sheer variety of what she sings. She mutters, whispers, sighs, compelling attention.  Long, high-pitched ululations taunt the dissonant lines in the orchestra. When the Siren triumphs, her victim is dead.  Thus the hollow, sardonic laugh.

Another surprise - Ravel Une barque sur l'océan in its orchestral version, paired seamlessly with Debussy La Mer, which, incidentally was completed by Debussy when he was on holiday in Eastbourne in Sussex. Britten's North Sea coastlines can be bleak, but Eastbourne is closer to the expansive Atlantic and to France.  Not that it really makes a difference, since the sea of Debussy's imagination is an emotional, artistic response to the symbolism of the ocean - ever changing moods, depths, contrasts, driven by vast, invisible forces.  Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln were in their element: a very strong performance, and very rewarding.

Pity about the presentation, though, which apes the hyper-hip vacuousness that plagues BBC Radio 3 these days.  The presenter herself seems a rational person, who could probably develop a more rational style, more in keeping with the quality of this orchestra.    

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Matthias Goerne Schumann Einsamkeit


Matthias Goerne Schumann Lieder, with Markus Hinterhäuser, a new recording from Harmonia Mundi.  Singers, especially baritones, often come into their prime as they approach 50, and Goerne, who has been a star since his 20's is now formidably impressive.  The colours in his voice have matured, with even greater richness and depth than before.  If the breathiness that once made his style so immediate is gone, that's more than made up for by the authority with which he now sings. In this recording, the lustre of the voice combines with  Goerne's truly exceptional powers of interpretation: an ideal channel for a composer like Schumann, whose genius, surprisingly, is still underestimated.  Many of the songs in this collection come from the composer's later years, sometimes unappreciated because the style changes, heading toward new pathways.  Schumann was well informed, aware of new currents in cultural life. Certainly he knew Wagner, but Wagner and Schumann were probably heading in different directions.

Goerne has been interested in late Schumann for many years, and sang many of these songs in his concert at the Wigmore Hall in 2015 with Menahem Pressler, where the songs were presented in the context of late Schumann piano pieces.  Please read more about that here  because it is important to consider the songs in relation to the piano works so dear to Schumann's soul). This recording, thus, is a must for anyone genuinely interested in Schumann beyond the "greatest hits" for it shows how Schumann remained a creative force, despite encroaching illness, an illness that might possibly be better understood today, which might have extended his creative years.

Nikolaus von Lenau
Schumann's op 90, to poems by Nikolaus von Lenau, were written in August 1850.   Goerne and Hinterhäuser began with Mein Rose, the second song in the set, evoking the fragrance of love song which makes Dichterliebe an enduring masterpiece.  Goerne's voice, though formidably powerful, can also be remarkably tender.  The gentle lilt of Die Sennin suggests warm summer breezes wafting the herdgirl's songs down from alpine meadows to the valley. It's a song in which tenors excel, but Goerne captures its sunlit radiance.  Then Einsamkeit, where the mood darkens. Under the densely overgrown spruce trees, "Still hier der Geist der Liebe", deep, hopeless love. Thus we are prepared for Requiem, the seventh and last song in Schumann's op 90.  The Requiem sets a text by an anonymous poet, which is rather apt since the poem deals with the annihilation of personality that is death.  The piano part is soothing, the lines long and sedate, but Goerne's artistry brings out the undercurrent of tragedy that lies beneath the conventional piety of the text.

We remain in the pensive solitude of Der Einsledler op 83/3 (Eichendorff) , also from 1850, before looking back on the past with a few songs from Myrthen (Heine) op 24 from 1840, the glorious Liederjahre in which Schumann's genius for vocal music suddenly blossomed, inspired, perhaps by his marriage to Clara.  Die Lotousblume and Du bist wie eine blume are sensuous, Goerne's voice imparting tenderness as well as desire.  Provocatively, though, Goerne and Hinterhäuser interrupt the floral reverie with two Rückert songs, Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweint op 37/1 and Mein schöner Stern !"  op,101/4 from Minnespeil, a collection from 1849 for different combinations of voices, reminding us of Schumann's interests in larger vocal forms.  It feels as though a chill has descended upon the spring blooms. But Schumann's creative forces do not wither but change direction. The imagery in the songs on this disc switches towards wider panoramas. Nachtlied op 96/1, to the famous text by Goethe, is in Schumann's setting, much more haunted than Schubert's.  

Wifried von der Neun
Goerne and Hinterhäuser then return to 1850, with the complete set of Sechs Gesänge op 89 to poems by a strange man who used the pen name of Wilfried von der Neun,  "Wilfred of The Nine", meaning the nine muses, no less. This was the glorified pseudonym, allegedly adopted in his early youth by Friedrich Wilhelm Traugott Schöpff (1826-1916) who made a living as a pastor in rural Saxony. The poems are pretty banal, far lower than the standards Schumann would have revered in his prime. However, bad poetry is no bar, per se, to music. As Eric Sams wrote "the inward and elated moods of the previous year mingle and  blur together in the new chromatic style in the absence of diatonic contrasts and tensions a new principle is needed. Schumann accordingly invents and applies the principle of thematic change....It is as if he had acquired a new cunning and his mind had lost an old one."  The songs aren't premier cru : Schumann with his exquisite taste in poetry must have had a bad day.  Nonetheless,  Goerne and Hinterhäuser give such a fine performance that definitely justifies the prominence given to therm on this disc.  Lesser musicians beware. Though not ideal, these songs are worth knowing because they demonstrate Schumann's willingness to explore new directions. Sams is the source to go for studying these songs, for he analyses them carefully, drawing connections in particular to Am leuchetenden Sommermorgen and Hör' ich ein Liedchen klingen in Dichterliebe.  Sams said "Schumann's memory is playing him tricks".

Moreover, this set was written close to the time Schumann wrote the superb Lenau set op 90 with which Goerne and Hinterhäuser began this recording.  This shows that Schumann's powers were not failing. Like most creative people he wasn't afraid to take risks.  It may be significant, though, that Lenau had some kind of mental breakdown in 1844, aged only 42, and spent the rest of his life incarcerated in an asylum.  This recording ends with Abendlied op 107/6 from Sechs Gesänge (1851–52) to a poem by Gottfried Kinkel.  The song is dignified, an exercise in balance and  refinement. Listen to how Goerne shapes the lines, flowing smoothly from very high notes to very low. The song demonstrates his range and technical ability, but even more impressively his grasp of emotional subtlety.  As night falls, the world sinks into darkness. But the stars appear "in Majestät". The poet hears "the footsteps of angels" and the advance of a golden, celestial chariot "in gleichen, festem gleise".  No wonder the song ends, not with gloom but firm resolve."Wirf ab, Herz, was dich kränket und was dir bange macht". Definitely not "alone" in Einsamkeit.  This song is so beautifully done, it's almost worth the price of the whole CD.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Cold Nights - a refugee saga


Cold Nights (寒夜) a novel from 1947 by Ba Chin (巴金) (1909-2005) describes the impact of the biggest mass migration in modern history, when tens of millions of  refugees trekked across China, refusing to remain under Japanese occupation, a saga of human endurance that needs to be appreciated in the west.  Ba Chin's famous trilogy Family, Spring and Autumn (1933-40) is a classic of modern Chinese literature, confronting the injustices of traditional feudal society.  Given the background, Cold Nights  is equally panoramic, though the family in this case is small.  Wong Man Suen  and Tsang Shu San are modern, progressive-thinking intellectuals who went to university and might have had careers ahead, had the war not intervened. Cold Nights is even bleaker than the Family Trilogy since it doesn't conclude with hope. Though Cold Nights is set in Chongqing, the seat of Free China, it was made into a Cantonese movie in 1955 by a cast and crew who were themselves refugees, who suffered similar traumas first hand.  Not at all a typical "war movie".  Tsang Shu San is played by Pak Yin, (1920-1987) while Wong is played by Ng Chor Fan (1910-1993) who in real life was the leader of the refugee film community exiled from Hong Kong. 

The film begins with an air raid, sirens screaming, people running terrified through crowed streets, shells dropping all round. Chongqing was subject to the most severe aerial bombardment, not surpassed until Germany and Japan were flattened a few years later, and the targets were civilian.  Wong Man Suen realizes that the bombs have hit his home, and rushes home to find the house empty.  Hundreds have been killed, but luckily his mother and son have escaped.  A flashback to the past : a much younger Wong wakes, alone in bed. A letter arrives. It's from his wife Shu San. After seven years of marriage, she's leaving him.  He thinks back still earlier, when he, she and their friends Tang Pak Ching and Mok Man Ying were college students, both couples deeply in love. They graduated, but while Wong was buying a wedding ring for Shu San, the city of Hangzhou was bombed. In wartime conditions, it took them months to travel back to Wong's home. Their son was born en route.  But Wong's mother was furious. Wong phones his wife at the bank where she works.  They meet in a smart café, where the windows are taped up for safety in bomb blasts.  "I'll have tea" he asks, "I'll have coffee" says she. The reason she's leaving is the way his mother has treated her.  "And you", she adds "have been ground down by her, too".  In the soundtrack we hear the song On the Songhua River, which refers to war, refugees and social disruption (Read more about the song here)

Wong meets up with his old university friend, Tang Pak Ching, also a refugee. Tang's wife had a miscarriage but couldn't get to hospital when the streets were blocked in an air raid. "She held my hand and cried my name", he sobs, And then she died. "This war, it's so cruel". The four college friends from former days are now three. Wong starts drinking. Shu Shan is disgusted that he's fallen so low.  She carries him home, though, but his mother blames her. In his delirium, Wong cries "I love you, Shu San, don't leave me". He's becoming ill (tuberculosis). She loves him, too, so she stays but his mother is worse than ever.  Shu Shan's still working at the bank - she's the breadwinner - and her boss wants her to move with him to Lanchow.  She tells him no, but Wong, not realizing that the boss has ulterior motives, urges her to go.  He goes back to his old office, but his colleagues treat him as a pariah because he's infectious. "But we've been friends five years" he cries. A friend arrives with some money his friends have raised as a gift. But he's been fired by the boss.  "In wartime, that's how things are" explains the friend.  But mother flies in a rage. Wong, in his grief, blames himself. He loves Shu San but has failed her. He's also failed his mum, who put him through school and looks after him and his child.

Wong gives Shu San a wedding ring - as he wanted to do years earlier, before things went wrong.  Ironically, she's leaving in the morning. She's brought a huge sum of money for medical bills, which she's got from her boss . She's resolved to move, though her heart is not in it.  She tells Wong it's only a short separation but he knows better. ""I will return, in a year, or two, or three, but I will return". "And I will wait", he adds. In the dawn, they part. They look at their child, sleeping beside grandma. "Tell her I don't hold a grudge". A tear rolls from the old mother's eyes.

Although it's cold and Wong is sick, he goes out, to the café where he and Shu San had been together. "I'll have tea" he tells the waiter "and a coffee, for her".  But there's no-one there. The Songhua River song is heard again, quietly.  Another air raid. We see fighter planes  anti-aircraft guns, wardens and refugees.  Wong sees his old friend Tang Pak Ching in the crowd, but his friend cries "Tang Pak Ching is dead". His mind has gone, maddened by grief.  Bombs rain down and Tang is killed before Wong's eyes.  Eventually, the newspapers announce, the war is over.  A big parade in the streets, with lanterns, drums, firecrackers  and a lion dance.  The procession passes Wong's house but by now he is so sick he's almost delirious.  He gasps "Shu San" and collapses.

A rickshaw arrives. Shu San has come home.  But a neighbour tells her that Wong died, on 3rd September - the day Peace was declared.  The neighbourhood buried him locally.  Shu San sits at Wong's grave sobbing. She's worn his ring all the time she was away "Why didn't you wait for me ?". It's now the 100th day since Wong's death, so grandmother and child have returned to the grave for ceremonies.  Forgiveness: all three will return to the native village.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Edgard Varèse Total Immersion, Barbican

On Saturday at the Barbican, London, there'll be an Edgard Varèse Total Immersion : a major retrospective, augmented by a talk, a film and a reconstruction of Varèse’s Poéme électronique.  This is the third big festival featuring Varèse in recent years, following on from the excellent Total Immersion on Xenakis at the Barbican in 2008  (read more here) and the  Varèse 360˚ weekend, at the South Bank in 2010 (read more here), plus other performances of individual works over the years.  In his lifetime,  Varèse was a cult figure. Now he's practically mainstream.  The time has come, for the "First Wild Man of Music".

The film will be The One All Alone, Frank Scheffer's documentary from 2009, including  interviews with Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman,  Riccardo Chailly and Prof Chou Wen-Chung who worked closely with the composer and produced performing versions of incomplete pieces.  The installation of  Poème électronique.is important, too, because it makes concrete, or rather non-concrete, Varèse's ideas on the confluence of all sensory experience.  Written for tape, it was a pioneering moment in the development of electronic music.  Through multiple images, aural, visual and atmospheric, Varèse hoped to create a universe spanning space and time. In 2008, the Barbican recreated Poème électronique.as closely as possible to the original in 1958, at the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair, where the performance took place in a structure specially designed for the occasion by Xenakis,who was then best known as an architect.  Sound operating in many dimensions, structurally held together in myriad,intricate patterns.  Poème électronique is unique, and an excellent key to understanding the music of Xenakis's and Boulez. Read more here about Xenaki's designs for realising this piece. 

The evening concert in the Barbican Hall will be conducted by Sakari Oramo, with the BBC SO, the BBC Singers and Alison Bell.  Featured are the "big" works, Arcana, Nocturnal, Étude pour Espace, Déserts, Tuning up  and  Amériques.  The afternoon concert in Milton Court with the Guildhall New Music Ensemble features Un Grand Sommeil Noir, Offrandes, Hyperprism, Octandre , Intégrales , Ionisation, Density 21.5  and Dance for Burgess. Though Varèse is extremely influential, his output isn't huge, so the two concerts, cover nearly all he wrote, except alas, the amazing Equatorial.  The two benchmark recordings are the sets by Pierre Boulez and Riccardo Chailly, quite different yet both authoritative, though I keep returning to Boulez who brings out the quirkiness in the music more.incisively.  

Arcana is the biggest of Varèse's works, and relatively accessible.  It's scored for massive forces-   roughly 120 players altogether,  68 strings, 20 woodwinds, 20 brass and a phalanx of percussionists playing 40 different instruments from timpani to castanets.  Every performance is a feat of logistics, so it doesn't get done as often as it should be.  It's also extremely visual : watching is very much part of the experience.  It's not every day you see rows of trumpets and trombones, some muted, some not playing together, or 8 horns raised heavenwards. Arcana is big, but its bigness springs from its musical function. Arcana proceeds like a gigantic beast, its component parts articulated to move in stately formation, groups of instruments impacting on each other in constantly varying combinations. I've never quite been sure what Varèse  meant by its title, but I've often imagined it as a mythical creature brought to life by arcane spells and incantations.

Even more thrilling, Amériques, featuring klaxon and dramatic percussion effects - a collage of found sound and formal,  which represented a breakthrough in modern music.  Pretty shocking, considering it was first written between 1918 and 1921.  I don't know if Oramo and the BBCSO will be doing Déserts as a multi media event, though I hope so, since when I've experienced it before: the link between visuals and sound can be very rewarding.  The afternoon concert isn't as high profile but the music is superb. I'm particularly fond of Ionization, Octandre, and Intégrales. 





May 4th then and now


On May 4th 1919, people believed that progress came from education. Now ignorance is a badge of pride. Getting ahead means the suppression of knowledge. No longer it is "what we can learn" but confining the source of knowledge to a limited range of approved opinion.  Now the way to get ahead is false information, disregard for learning.  All over the world, in all societies, and in all fields,  Red Guard tactics triumph.  Burn books ! Smash intellectuals ! Even in so called democracies, the Will of The People gets abused. (the photo above shows students of Peitai (Beijing University)  calling for the modernization of China through the dissemination of education via the arts and literature)


Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Howard Skempton - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner NMC Roderick Williams

Another hit for NMC, specialists in modern British music: Howard Skempton The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with Roderick Williams and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Martyn Brabbins. This recording breaks new ground, its appeal reaching beyond  new-music circles.

Samuel Taylor  Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner intrigues because there's nothing else quite like it in English verse. Though its tone suggests ancient saga, its subject was unequivocally modern, in the sense that it caught the Zeitgeist of the Romantic era's fascination with the "Gothic". The Mariner breaks unspoken  rules and kills the Albatross. He and his shipmates are cursed, dying of thirst though there's "water, water everywhere" around them.  Two centuries later, the Rime still haunts. The Mariner's journey is a descent into the darker unconscious. Like the wedding guest, we "fear thee, ancient Mariner! I fear thy skinny hand!"

Howard Skempton's setting grows from the ballad so symbiotically it seems a "living thing". The vocal part reflects the strange obsessive nature of the text, which draws the listener in as if hypnotized.  The cadences rise upwards and down, at a pace which suggests a hard march. Coleridge began the poem while hiking on the moors.  Roderick Williams is a remarkable narrator, capturing the demented undercurrents in the verse. The lines run like a form of Sprechstimme, not recitation, yet not quite singing. This nightmare does not let a voice take full flight. Williams has a gift for natural, direct communication, without theatrical histrionics. He makes us sympathetic to the Mariner as a mortal man, which makes his fate all the more tragic.

The voice is accompanied at first only by the cello, legato drawn drone-like, as if it were some ancient, primitive instrument, or, indeed, a force of nature, like a sinister wail.  The cello carries the music for a while, until other voices join in in subtle combinations. The double bass quietly murmurs, suggesting sinister depths.  The viola leads the violins, an aptly quirky reverse of "natural order". When the ship is becalmed -- "As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean" -- the music hovers almost imperceptibly, as if listening out for a breeze. When things change, the piano and other players create a tumult.  When the visionary figures appear, the high violins at last take flight.  Coleridge  writes movement into his lines, which Skempton translates into abstract sound.  We listen, as if spellbound, to the strange, unworldly atmosphere.  Maurice and Sheila Millward, who suggested the setting and commissioned the piece, had insight. Skempton's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a remarkable work which needs to become part of the canon of British music.

Like an earworm, this music burrows into your subconciousness.  The cadences in the text haunt the music, reflecting, perhaps, the tides of the ocean, and the pulse of the human body.  You're mesmerized, absorbing the surreal atmosphere so it seems almost natural. Though you're hypnotized, almost against your will, you keep listening, fascinated by the detail and inventiveness concealed within the relentless pulse.  The wedding guest must have felt the same way! It's a tribute to Skempton's skill that his music adds greatly to the effect of the poetry, enhancing its effects without overwhelming its strange personality.


On this disc, Skempton's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is paired with Only the Sound Remains, taking as a starting point an idea from Edward Thomas's The Mill Water.   The mill is gone, and its sounds have fallen still.  Yet "In calm moonlight, Gloom infinite, The sound comes surging in upon the sense:".  Thus there's no need here for a voice part: the orchestral sounds evoke the sounds that once might have been heard, though the men and machines who made them are now long gone.  John Fallas's booklet notes for NMC explain further. "Skempton's pervasive but pervasively disguised/transformed nine-note scales are the secret code generating everything, from the spare, angular counterpoint into dramatic minor chords or sudden outbreaks of warm, major key consonance". The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in particular is a tour de force, not at all easy to perform, so treasure this recording. It will become a classic.


Monday, 1 May 2017

Manipulating the Reformation - political bias at the BBC?


From St John's Smith Square a very good concert marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, with soloists Mary Bevan, Robin Blaze, Nicholas Mulroy and Neal Davies, with the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and Clare Baroque, conducted by Graham Ross. Works by Bach and Mendelssohn and Martin Luther himself, but also by non-believers like Brahms and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Excellent programme and performances.  But far less admirable was the deliberate political bias with which the BBC packaged the concert and indeed, the whole concept of Reformation.  

The Reformation was a revolution in European history, definitely worth commemorating.  But it was not "Martin Luther's Reformation" as if he dreamed it up on whim.  Christianity always was schismatic, but this break succeeded because social conditions were changing.  The development of printing, for example.  Intellectuals like Erasmus and Linacre were changing attitudes.  When Luther posted his 95 theses on the doors of the church at Wittenberg, he was not starting a new religion. The Reformation took off because it was politically expedient, and exploited as leverage by kings and princes. We should mark the Reformation, but we should also see it in the wider context of cultural change, rather than as a calculating power grab. 

So why does the BBC package the Reformation as "a Brexit Moment"? A stupid comparison, demeaning to religion, and to the millions who have died for their faith on all sides.   AN Wilson says that "Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom." which is true to some extent, but disregards the Pax Romana which brought civilization to the tribes of the north. Or perhaps some people don't want to be reminded of the Sack of Rome by "barbarians" and the dark centuries of ignorance that followed ?  "Breaking Free", indeed. 

For centuries after the Reformation, Europe was torn apart by wars, using religion as an excuse.   There was no universal consensus, nor should there have been, since society isn't monolithic, except through  repressive coercion.  Democracy is an ideal which recognizes that no-one has to think the same thing. Otherwise there wouldn't be a need for representation and discourse, or checks and balances against abuses of power. Absolute control is the opposite of democracy. Leaders who fear opposition become dictators.  There is a difference between winning elections and good governance.

The sad fact is that the media can manipulate opinion, thereby destroying the fundamentals of democratic process. An institution as big as the BBC can't help but have some bias, but when bias becomes so pronounced, it no longer reflects the fact that not everyone thinks the same way, nor should have to.  That is why the BBC needs to be more scrupulous, since it should be responsible to the nation as a whole.  British identity draws strength from concepts like fairplay and tolerance, even diversity.  Values that reflect Jesus's teachings : "Love thy neighbour as thyself". These tenets are the fundamentals of democracy.  Will the BBC be able to stand up to political and commercial pressure? For the sake of this nation, I pray.