Monday, 15 December 2014

Mills & Boon Wagner ? MET Meistersinger


The Met's Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg broadcast HD.  I listened audio only on BBC Radio 3 (still available online). Last week, someone on the BBC said that Wagner wrote about myths and legends, but Die Meistersinger was "about love".   Has the age of Mills and Boon Wagner arrived? Just as there's a lot more to the Ring than galumphing Gods, there's a whole lot more to Die  Meistersinger  and indeed to Tristan und Isolde than potboiler romance. Most people, I believe, want to learn, but when  the media is a source of over-simplified trivialization, what will they learn?

The better a creative work, the more there is to learn. That could be the philosophy behind  Die Meistersinger,  a work which is as much about art and the making of art as "love interest". Eva and Walter spot each other as strangers.  Maybe it's love at first sight, but maybe more. Walter is an outsider, who believes in ideals but fits in nowhere. Eva is part of the Establishment but a woman can't participate as an equal.  But she can spot a true talent better than the Meistersingers with all their supposed authority. Johan Botha's voice is so exceptionally divine that the Meistersingers must have cloth ears not to notice. Yet for all their supposed wisdom, they're fooled by Beckmesser and would have kicked Walter out but for Sachs's intervention. Therein a parable for our times, when even the wisest believe what authority tells them.  Perhaps it's human nature to need  received wisdom and safe opinions, but this opera makes clear that true artistic breakthroughs come from those who, like Walter, do things differently. The Meistersingers set store on following masters. Walter learned from birds.  Beckmesser's a troll, more interested in destroying nascent talent than doing anything worthwhile himself. Maybe the system lets people like that rise to the top? Eventually Walter decides to stay in Nürnberg to perfect his craft, but fundamentally his nature as an artist stems from creating anew and from being true to himself.

Die Meistersinger is dominated by huge choruses. Each guild has its rules with which to control. Who would dare buck the guilds en masse but a Walter?  The Third Reich made a cult of Die Meistersinger idealizing the values of mob rule and conformity.  Who would dare dissent when 800 people are roaring their take on ""Heilige Deutsche Kunst" with their arms raised in diagonal salute?  As I listened to Michael Volle's firm, assertive Hans Sachs, I thought of  Wilhelm Furtwängler. What really went on in his mind as he conducted at Bayreuth in the midst of the maelstrom? Perhaps, like Hans Sachs, he bided his time quietly, not overtly bucking the regime, but offering music that subverts the anti-intellectual group-think that fears change. 

Hence the pivotal role of the Night Watchman.  Many years ago, Kwangchul Youn made his Bayreuth debut in the role.  He told me that the Night Watchman is a lone figure who intervenes when the townsfolk are rioting and restores sanity. Notice the bassoons and winds around the part.  It has an almost magical authority.  The Night Watchman is a warning against madness. Matthew Rose sang the role at the Met, bringing out its dignity. Beckmesser flaffs about (well characterized by Johannes-Martin Kranzle) but the Night Watchman is steadfast.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg supports many different approaches. Read HERE about the groundbreaking Salzburg Meistersinger, with Michael Volle, which developed the connection between Sachs and his art and between Wagner and his time. Maybe it's not entry-level, but anyone can learn. It's a very deep engagement with the ideas in the opera.  Compare the photo of the Otto Schenk production first heard nearly 30 years ago and the still from Bayreuth, 1943.  Tradition is all very well, but true art lies in fresh thinking.

PS If you want to hear the same production but with a REALLY good conductor, listen to the Vienna State Opera performance conducted by Christian Theilemann with Johann Botha and Falk Struckmann



Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Cardinall's Musick Wigmore Hall

Live at the Wigmore Hall - The Cardinall's Miusick, reviewed HERE in Opera Today by Claire Seymour :

"O Maria Deo grata — ‘O Mary, pleasing to God’: so begins Robert Fayrfax’s antiphon, one of several supplications to the Virgin Mary presented in this thought-provoking concert by The Cardinall’s Musick at the Wigmore Hall. 

In the late-medieval period, Christian thinking centred on the belief that the surest route to eternal peace was through the agency of the Blessed Virgin. Choral music repeated invoked her aid; in the Eton Choirbook she is frequently beseeched and, indeed, Eton College had been founded by Henry VI in 1440 as ‘The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor’. Yet, Tudor dynastic politics was never wholly absent from either the religious or cultural life of the age, as The Cardinall’s Musick under the direction of Andrew Carwood intriguingly revealed."

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Zender's unique Winterreise - Berlin Philharmoniker


Hans Zender's Schubert's Winterreise  can now be viewed in the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.  Notice the full title "eine komponierte Interpretation", an Interpretation, not simply an orchestration of the cycle for piano and voice. There's absolutely no way it's a substitute for the original, nor even an orchestration, but rather a meditation by a modern composer reflecting on his response to the most iconic song cycle of all. When it premiered, there were some who sneered,  but they'd completely missed the point. It's a work of art about a work of art, and a valid creative response. Indeed, I think the more you love a piece, the more you should be interested in new approaches. Liszt, for example, wrote elaborate improvements to Schubert. I don't think Liszt understands Lieder at all, but I listen because I like hearing a pianist's way of getting into the songs. I must have heard thousands of Winterreises, but still thrill to something original.  

Zender's Winterreise begins so slowly and quietly that you'd miss it if you weren't paying attention. We hear the sound of muffled footsteps, as if someone were trudging in deep snow.  The video shows us that the sounds are made by brushing metal sheets on the skin of timpani. Steady pizzicato heartbeats, and tense bursts on wind instruments, exhaling and drawing breath. Very physical. As the pace picks up, a familiar melody, but oddly mechanical. The protagonist is determined to keep going lest his feelings overwhelm him. Christian Elsner starts singing, normally enough, but suddenly, from "von einem zu den andern", his voice turns  metallic, words repeat and the orchestra whizzes into a manic march.  Just as suddenly, a switch back to normal with"Fein Liebchen, Gute Nacht" but now we know the lyricism is forced.

Winterreise is uncommonly pictorial music, the protagonist aware of his surroundings even in the extremes of grief. Indeed, his moods seem influenced by what he experiences around him.  Zender's music is graphic - including wind machines and guitar - but this is in keeping with the original. Indeed, Zender marks short pauses for contemplation. Years ago, at a Wolfgang Holzmair masterclass, Holzmair told us to listen, like an animal might, sensing which trail to follow. This is no passive, meandering journey. but purposeful. the protagonist learns from the crow, the graveyard, the three suns in the sky. Nonetheless, Zender's music is abstract enough that it's not mere illustration. Sudden turns, strange distorted sounds. Sometimes Elsner recites rather than sings, as if he's trying to pick up an invisible trail. It feels at once natural, personal and yet surreal.  The music throws you off-course, so you're as disoriented as the protagonist and  start thinking like him. The recitations also remind us of the literary background to the cycle: Wilhelm Müller is most certainly present here, for Zender's making a connection to "pathetic fallacy" and the way art interacts with experience.

I first heard Zender's Winterreise in 1994, conducted by Zender himself, with Ensemble Modern and Hans-Peter Blochwitz at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. The musicians moved around the auditorium, like the kind of wandering peasant bands that used to travel from village to village.  In this performance the members of the Orchestra Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker move, too, because it's part of the basic concept, but come and go and go as the music changes, physically changing texture.  Sometimes they're everywhere, sometimes, Elsner's almost alone. Given Simon Rattle's commitment to nurturing young musicians, he conducts them himself, instead of farming the job out. Zender's Winterreise is a marvellous "learning" piece because it's so inventive. Would that other orchestras learned to rethink what they do in such a creative way. It's a joy to hear Christian Elsner, too. A few years ago, he was everywhere but seems to have spent the last few years in Germany. His voice is still fresh and agile and he interacts well with the musicians.  Let's hear more of him!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Fidelio La Scala Barenboim reviewed


Beethoven Fidelio at the Teatro alla Scala Milan, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Musically superb: after hearing the BR Klassik broadcast live online, I was stunned. Now, having seen a copy of the video broadcast on RAI 5, I'm still stunned by the quality of the playing and singing but very disappointed by the staging.

Fidelio is an opera of ideas, theatre of the intellect, rather than simple entertainment. Like it or not, Fidelio is a political opera. and needs passionate commitment.  In Barenboim, Fidelio gets an interpreter who truly understands Beethoven's passionate convictions. He's conducted Fidelio many times, in many different forms. This is an opera that can't be fixed in concrete, for its ideas live on, absolutely pertinent today. In 2009, Barenboim did Fidelio with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose members know more about political strife at first hand than most opera audiences. For that performance, Barenboim incorporated spoken narration, using texts by the late, great Edward Said, co-founder of the orchestra and the theorist behind its lofty ideals.

For the gala opening night at La Scala Milan. usually a  focus for political  demonstrations, Barenboim chose a different approach, though equally intelligent and strong-minded.  This time, his focus highlighted the opera in terms of the values and music of 1814. Beethoven had admired Napoléon as liberator and modernizer, but turned against him as tyrant.  Napoléon obviously wasn't the first or last autocrat who throw dissidents into dungeons. The Austrian regime in Beethoven's time almost certainly did so, too. Thus the libretto, set in 18th century Seville,  provides a disguise for its radicalism,  much in the way that Leonore's manly costume and wifely virtues provide a cloak for her intentions.

By choosing the 1814 version of the Overture, Barenboim firmly places Fidelio in context, and shows how radical Beethoven was as musician as well as thinker. Leonore II, less elaborate than Leonore III, brings out the aesthetic of the First Act, linking it to the music theatre and even Singspiele traditions of the time. Hence the importance of the spoken dialogue and the somewhat stylized series of set pieces where various combinations of singers participate. Some people don't like Fidelio, much in the way some don't like Zauberflõte,. but Barenboim shows how the First Act operates.  Each sequence is neatly defined, building up to a unified whole, as strong in its own way as the action-packed second act. Think Mozart or Haydn, rather than Verdi or Wagner. The drama lies in the dynamics of the delivery, spoken and sung.  The characters are at cross-purposes, but the singing is so precise and vibrant that their misapprehensions about each other come to life vividly.

With Kwangchul Youn as Rocco and Falk Struckmann as Don Pizarro, and later Peter Mattei as Don Fernando, we have a cast of of truly Wagnerian performers, each of whom brings exceptional authority to their parts.  Youn's Rocco is so strongly defined that the role becomes central.  Rocco is "king" in his prison, not a weak man but one with the potential to choose between good and evil. The tension between Youn's Rocco and Struckmann's Don Pizarro is so powerful that it adds depth and dimension. Florian Hoffmann and Mojca Erdmann turn Jacquino and Marzelline into strong figures, too, particularly when singing with Youn. The chorus sings in remarkable unison, perfectly drilled. That, too, has dramatic meaning. When the proletariat sticks together, there's hope.

Anja Kampe's Leonore is wonderfully wild and athletic, ideal for the part. Kampe's Leonore is a heroine who defies convention, yet is a real woman not a goddess, nor an ideological reconstruct of a man. Have there been many like her in the arts since Greek times? Klaus Florian Vogt is perfect - nice, warm-sounding and "human", which is so important to the meaning of the work. After the pounding, malevolent introduction to Act Two, his voice enters "How dark it is in here".  Simple words, but Vogt's voice expresses wonder and horror so great that you can feel the physical presence of the darkness and the magnitude of Florestan's imprisonment. Then, when he sings "Angel, Leonore, my angel"  you can visualize the apparition rising before him: a miracle has happened.  Vogt's Florestan is understated, so the character comes over as warmly personal and human. Again, this has dramatic meaning, reminding us that political prisoners are normal, vulnerable people, neither superhuman monsters nor deities. They suffer.

And what playing Barenboim gets from the Teatro alla Scala orchestra!  Tension, intensity and ecstatic release racheted up so high that I had to hold my breath or burst, emotionally. The audience must have felt the same way, exploding with bravi! as if their hearts could hold out no more.

Unfortunately the insights and inspiration in the musical performance are badly let down by  insipid staging. Deborah Warner's forte is glossy glamour, but that's hardly relevant to Fidelio.  This is fashion shoot grunge, and dramatically inert.  It's not enough to dress the principals down. Designs have to contribute to meaning.  The prisoners are shown in various types of "normal" dress, which in principle might be valid, but the overall effect is to show them as street mob, rather than as oppressed, regimented prisoners.  This contradicts the disciplined power of the singing and dispels the idea that the prisoners, for all their diversity, have something to strive for. The "Sonnenlicht" chorus glows vocally, but the staging is a blurry mess.The "Freheit" chorus is sung with savage delirium - as it should be - but what's the point when the poor singers are wearing red hard hats and warm football crowd gear?  In an age when governments still practice torture and prisoners are still held in Guantanomo Bay and by ISIS, it's almost obscene to trivialize polticial persecution.  Audiences were enraged by Calixto Bieito's Fidelio with its harsh grid-form, multi-dimensional "prison" but that was a far more astute reading of the situation. (read more here). If we're not enraged by tyranny,  there's something very wrong.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Flowers of the Field - Gurney Finzi Butterworth RVW

"As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes", so goes Psalm 103. This new recording, Flowers of the Field  connects composers affected by the 1914-1918 war, but it's real significance lies in its featuring the world premiere recording of Ivor Gurney's The Trumpet and of Gerald Finzi's Requiem de Camera. 

Ivor Gurney was gassed at Passchendaele, and spent the last 20 years of his life in and out of mental  hospitals. The Trumpet was written in 1921 but remained unpublished and unperformed until 2007. Here we hear the edition reconstructed by Gurney scholar Philip Lancaster with full orchestration, which received its Three Choirs Festival premiere in 2010, which I was privileged to attend.  Read Philip Lancaster on the genesis of the piece HERE.  Gurney used a poem by Edward Thomas, killed in Arras in 1917, whose work he had set previously. The song begins with a resolute "Rise up! Rise up!", the City of London choir singing as one voice with forceful attack. It's a curious poem. Does the trumpet  refer to the trumpet of modern battle or to the trumpet that marks the beginning of the End of Time in the book of Revelation? Gurney emphasizes the word "Scatters" in the phrase "as the trumpet blowing scatters the dreams of Man".  Unlit stars, dew and the traces of lovers must be scattered in this strange new dawn. Percussion pounds, and the full orchestra surges. The choir cries out, unequivocally "Scatter it, Scatter it!". The clarity of the setting reflects the image of  "that clear horn"  and "the air that has washed  the eyes of the stars". No maudlin sentimentality here, but clear-sighted fervour. "Arise! Arise!" the choir sings. After Armageddon, the past will be erased, the dead will rise from their graves in a new era of hope.

Strictly speaking, the premiere recording of Gerald Finzi's Requiem de Camera was conducted by Richard Hickox nearly ten years ago, but in a different  performing edition by Philip Thomas, made in 1990. This version is edited and completed by Christian Alexander. Hilary Davan Wetton conducts the London Mozart Players with idiomatic depth.  The Reqiuem de Camera (1924) is an ambitious piece in  four sections. An orchestral prelude leads to an extended choral setting of a poem by John Masefield  "How still this quiet cornfield is tonight". The text doesn't explicitly mention context, but the original poem was titled August 1914. Although this is very early Finzi, we can already hear how he would go on to be influenced by images of English landscape and history, and the passage of time.  Wetton, who has conducted a great deal of English choral music, gets the City of London Choir to sing with nicely hushed tones: silence is of the essence.  The same mood of timelessness prevails in the section for baritone (Roderick Williams) and orchestra: "Only a man harrowing clods".  Finzi dedicated the work to Ernest Farrar, his tutor, who was killed on the Somme in 1918, but I think it's a mistake to overstate the idea that the Requiem connects musically to Butterworth or to Gurney (whom Finzi championed). It is far more relevant to assess its relevance to Finzi's own later work, and to his songs and choral pieces. It's not as sophisticated as Intimations of Immortality, but contains, in germ, the spirit of Finzi's future greatness.

On this disc we can hear Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody for Orchestra and, more of a rarity, the complete Ralph Vaughan Williams An Oxford Elegy, with Jeremy Irons as narrator. The Oxford Elegy is based on a poem by Matthew Arnold about a scholar who runs away to learn from gypsies.  He could be any man who disdains academia for real life experience: I don't think we should make too much of its connection to Oxonians who went to war, since it was written 1946-9 in the wake of a much more gruesome war.  Oddly enough, its connection to George Butterworth isn't mentioned in the booklet notes, a surprising omission in a compilation based on 1914-18. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams were so close that RVW might have not developed as he did without the influence of Butterworth, who pushed RVW creatively, and for whom RVW dedicated his Symphony no 2 "London" in 1913.

Please see my numerous other posts on Gurney, Finzi, Butterworth and RVW (use labels below)

From Admiral Jellicoe, Happy Christmas NOT


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Swedish Xmas from Stone Records

Stone Record's Christmas discs  are always a delight but this year's offering is unique. Deck the Halls, with Susanna Andersson and the Little Venice Ensemble. Imagine yourself at a house party, where some of the young European musicians based in London, (relatively far away from home) celebrate by performing together. The joyous energy on this disc is bound to chase away chills and bring good cheer. Expect surprises!

Standards like Deck the Halls  and Silent Night are livened up in new arrangements by Bjõrn Kleiman (b. 1978) of the Little Venice Ensemble, who have been holding annual Christmas festivals in Little Venice, London, for some years.  Thus they bring to this "house party"  a merry mix of spontaneity and professionalism. Kleiman not only plays (piano and violin) but is also the recording engineer and editor.  The sound quality is so clear that you get the impression of actually being in the same room as the musicians: having fun. Gentle humour, too. We hear reindeer snuffle snuffle before Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride. Anyone who's encountered real reindeer up close will be thrilled. Real reindeer have personalities, unlike the fakes we see in shopping malls this time of year.

Susanna Andersson is the soloist. She's done Blonde at Garsington Opera's  Die Entführung aus dem Serail (more here), The Baby in Oliver Knussen's Higgelty Piggelty Pop (more here) and George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill (more here). Here she's having fun, adding vibrato to In the Bleak Midwinter so you can feel the shivering cold.

There are chamber arrangements of Bach and Brahms, with organ, and  Hollywood favourites like  Gene Autry's Here comes Santa Claus, and  Have yourself a merry little Christmas, complete with retro noises evoking the era of 78's.   Best of all, though, are the arrangements of Swedish songs, old and new.  Bereden vag fõr Herran is an old Swedish advent hymn, arranged in a folk-tune version arranged and played by Karin Norlén. I did a double take: Norlén makes the viola sing like a Nyckleharpa, a Swedish fiddle with a unique low, droning character.  Two hymns by women : Nu tändas tusem julesjus, (Emily Kõhler (1858-1925)  and Bethlehems Stjärna (Alice Tégner 1864-1943), both first  arranged by Anders Öhrwall and arranged for chamber forces by Kleiman.

There are songs by Percy Grainger and Max Reger, but the discoveries on this disc are two modern songs, Koppången (Per-Erik Moreaus b 1950) and I Bethlehem (Jerker Leijohn (1956-2009) Koppången is a lyrical folk-inspired song about nature and faith. I Bethlehem is a contemporary art song, in the repertoire of Håkan Hagegård, arranged here by Kleiman for soloist, strings and organ. A wonderful song, which really should be better known. It describes shepherds at the nativity, reverent with wonder at the miracle they behold.  Exquisite and beautifully sincere., with nice part for violin.  There's a lot of new music written in Scandinavia and Finland, quite lost to the English-speaking world.  This song is so good that it's worth the whole price of purchase. Get the CD direct from Stone Records here or from the usual dealers.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Fidelio live from La Scala Milan Barenboim


Eagerly awaiting live broadcast of Beethoven Fidelio from la Scala Milan... My Full REVIEW IS HERE.Klaus Florian Vogt, Anja Kempe, Peter Mattei, Falk Struckmann, Kwangchul Youn and of course Daniel Barenboim

EXCEPTIONAL performance!  Electrtifying, vivid, alert. Fantastic ensemble work, executed with such precision and conviction. Wonderful singing and playing. If this doesn't get onto DVD/CD it would be a loss to civilization. The sound quality on BR klassik was crystal clear, adding hugely to immediacy of the performance. Illegal uploads already on the usual channels but nowhere like the professionalism of BR klassik.

Some people don't like Fidelio, much in the way some do not like Zauberflõte. but Barenboim shows how the First Act of Fidelio connects to other German music theatre traditions of the time and shortly thereafter. Each sequence is neatly defined, building up to a unified whole, as strong in its own way as the action-packed second act.  Klaus Florian Vogt is perfect - nice, warm sounding and "human" which is so important to the meaning of the work. After the pounding, malevolent introduction to Act 2 his voice enters "How dark it is in here".  Simple words, but Vogt's voice expresses wonder and horror so great that you can feel the physical presence of the darkness and the magnitude of Florestan's imprisonment. Then, when he sings "Angel, Leonore, my angel"  you can visualize the apparition rising before him: a miracle has happened.  Anja Kempe's wonderfully wild and athletic; ideal for the part. Leonore is a heroine who defies convention, yet is a real woman not a goddess, nor an ideological reconstruct of a man. Have there been many like her in the arts since Greek times?

A particularly good set of ensemble pieces, where everyone is firing together and interacting. .Florian Hoffmann and Mojca Erdmann turn Jacquino and Marzelline into strong figures. The trio with Kwangchul Youn's Rocco is superb. What a wonderful set of gentlemen (and baddies) with Kwangchul Youn, Falk Struckmann's Don Pizarro, Peter Mattei's Don Fernando,  A trio of Wagnerian proportions, another insight on the part of whoever cast this production. and the choruses, together to a man, drilled to almost military discipline. There's hope when the proletariat sticks together !

And what playing Barenboim gets from the Teatro alla Scala orchestra!  Tension, intensity and ecstatic release racheted up so high that I had to hold my breath or burst, emotionally. The audience must have felt the same way, exploding with bravi! as if their hearts could hold out no more.  So much for the silly notion that instant applause is bad.These bravi were heartfelt and much more genuine than the fake silences after performances that are now in fashion. One of the most horrible perfomances I've ever heard  was followed by a long, pretentious silence, an inept conductor striving for effect. Sincerity is what counts, not what other people think.  This must have been one of the finest moments in Barenboim's conducting career, when everything came together perfectly. His heart must have been bursting too. Applause absolutely deserved.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Analyzed not demonized - Tristan und Isolde Royal Opera House


Wagner Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House, first revival of the 2009 production – one of the first to attract widespread hostility even before the curtain rose on the first night. Modern costumes seems to attract extreme hatred. But does the meaning of a great drama lie in fancy external trappings? Tristan und Isolde is immortal because it is universal, based on a legend which in itself has developed over the centuries. Wagner used his creative imagination.  Have we lost the ability to think, feel and dream that we cannot cope with  opera unless it is as literal as TV costume drama?  Throughout the opera, we hear the pulse of the oceans, and can imagine the pull of the forces of nature and fate that operate beyond what we see on the surface. So, too, should we approach Tristan und Isolde as a work with such depth that it would be against the very nature of art to deny its many different levels of meaning.

Isolde is a captive, a trophy of war turned trophy wife. She's inside an elegant structure, but trapped, away from the elements of nature in which she once thrived as a practitioner of powerful healing arts. King Marke's court celebrate victory with a feast. Isolde walks out, to be alone. She does not belong in that milieu. Throughout this staging, directed by Christof Loy and designed by Johannes Leiacker, curtains and flat walls define the divisions between different worlds. For all the bustle of court, the key protagonists are alone, figures who don't thrive by conforming to social mores. Tristan would seem to have everything: he's a hero, loved by most, who might have a happy future, but that's not what he wants. The stark divisions of the set emphasize this anomie; strong planes and angles overpowering the figures on stage, throwing their predicaments, literally, into sharp relief.

Hence the shadows. Throughout the opera, Wagner emphasizes contrasts between darkness and light.  Since shadows are created by darkness and light, they are a far more subtle expression of music and meaning than costumes can ever be. The lighting (Olaf Winter) spotlights the singers and throws their shadows back against the hard walls in silent rebellion against larger, impenetrable forces.  Sometimes the shadows are huge, compelling attention. Sometimes they shrink, sometimes they interact with the shadows of other members of the cast. The shadows suggest emotional states which words cannot express. Tellingly, they often reflect details in the orchestra. In King Marke's court, Tristan and Isolde are shadows of themselves and what they might have been. Wagner said "Kinder,  macht neu". How fascinated he might have been with the power of technology to open out deeper levels of meaning.

Nina Stemme dominated the stage even when she wasn't singing, Stemme's persona is so strong that she can create Isolde as a force of nature.  In the beginning of the First Act, where nothing ostensibly seems to happen, the intensity of Stemme's singing  evokes the bitterness of her predicament. She intones with barely suppressed force, as if the pulse of the ocean itself were surging beneath the smooth surface. Stemme's Liebestod was impressive because it was understated. While showpiece Liebestods are wonderful, Stemme reminded us that it is the music, and the pulse in the orchestra that really matters, not grand diva ego.  As she sang, her voice rose with firm, genuine conviction.  Will she live or die? Like Brünnhilde,  she triumphs because she's found moral truth. Around her body, a golden light rises. It doesn't obliterate the shadows beyond, or the poignancy of the situation, but reminds us that Isolde is human, which makes her apotheosis all the more moving.

Stephen Gould was an excellent choice as Tristan. Ben Heppner's Tristan in 2009 was unusual in that Tristan wasn't portrayed  as comic-book hero but as a man ravaged by demons in his soul.  Tristan has been an action man all his life, but when, as he's dying,  he finally opens out to Kurnewal, he sings of the tragedy that's haunted him even before birth.  In a sense, this is his Liebestod, and he sang extremely well. Like Heppner, Gould has physical presence, suggesting strength developed through years of trial, but Gould's voice is in better condition. Pretty boys might look cute, but they aren't necessarily right, if we're sensitive to the score. Like Stemme, Gould  impresses because he's solidly in the part, rather than flashy. His voice conveys genuine, complex emotions. I've been an avid fan since he sang Paul in Korngold's Die tote Stadt. (read more HERE)

In the sense that vocal perfection isn't everything, John Tomlinson's King Marke worked as dramatic portrayal. His voice may be in shreds, but perhaps Marke is much older than we assume. If Tristan is ravaged by inner demons, Marke is ravaged by time.  I winced when Tomlinson missed notes, but that added to the sense of overwhelming tragedy. I due Foscari worked for me (read more here) because Domingo was singing the role of an old man facing fate. Quite moving, in the circumstances.

Sarah Connolly sang a surprisngly youthful Brangane, a nice counterpart to Stemme's energetic Isolde. Iain Paterson sang Kurnewal, Ed Lyon sang The Sailor, Neal Cooper sang Melot, Graham Clark sang the Shepherd, and Yuriy Yurchuk sang the Steersman.  Antonio Pappano conducted. His Wagner is often Verdi infused, but this time nicely poised to reflect the blend of elegance and sorrow in the opera. .

Christof Loy's original direction has been modified in this revival, unfortunately cutting out some very good ideas. For example, the erotic undercurrents have been toned down and with that much of the undercurrent of danger which so alarmed audiences five years ago. But Tristan und Isolde predicates on the background of male violence. Tristan has to be a warrior because that's  what's expected of him. Kurnewal treats Isolde and Brangane badly because they are women. Audiences may not like that, but the ideas are in the score. If only the Royal Opera House had the courage to restore the original, much tighter, vision.

photos : Clive Barda courtesy Royal Opera House

Friday, 5 December 2014

Le vin herbé Frank Martin's anti Wagner Tristan und Isolde

Wagner Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House Friday, and the re-release  of the 1960 recording of Frank Martin's Le vin herbé: a good time to consider Martin's oratorio profane as an alternative to the extremes of Wagnerian excess.  Martin, a Swiss national, could hardly have been unaware of what was happening in Germany, and of the Nazi appropriation of Wagner. Le vin herbé represents a completely different antithesis to the Tristan und Isolde cult and to the aesthetic of Third Reich Bayreuth.

Martin had been reading Le roman de Tristan et Iseult, a 1900 romance by French medievalist Joseph Bédier.who based his work on early French sources of the legend, striving to "eradicate inconsistencies, anachronisms, false embellishments,and never to mix our modern conceptions with ancient forms of thought and feeling". By "modern", Bédier meant 1900, when Bayreuth's version dominated public taste. Martin's Le vin herbé is restrained, the very simplicity of its form connecting to the aesthetic of the Middle Ages.
 
Martin doesn't write pastiche medievalism though.  Le vin herbé is scored for chamber choir and orchestra, so the palette is clean and pure, "modern" in the sense that Martin was writing in the late 1930's, when many French and German composers used medieval subjects as metaphors for modern times. Martin  used dodecaphony to open up and refine tonality, and add subtle lustre and mystery.  The role of the choir is important. Just as in a Greek Chorus, the choir comments on events, creating distance from the frenzied fevers of the  herbal concoction which Tristan and Iseult imbibe. In a departure from medieval form, the choir sings in unison, not polyphony, so the words they sing are part of the drama rather than decoration for decoration's sake. Soloists sometimes sing alone, sometimes with the chorus, and chorus members sing solo parts. It's as if the voices emerge and retraet into background tapestry.

There are only eight instruments in the orchestra, all strings with contrabass and piano. Just as the voices emerge from the choir, solo instruments emerge from the opera at critical  moments -the contrabass and celli reinforcing  Tristan's part. The cantilenas for solo violin are exquisite, operating as an ethereal extra voice, commenting without words. The piano provides a measured counter to the fervent, passionate heartbeat when the strings surge in unison, marking the moment when Iseult and Tristan drink the potion and fall in love. Martin was working on Le Philtre before he even received a commission for the full work.

Tristan and Iseult are joined together in a drugged state, beautiful but ultimately fatal. They run off to live in the forest of Morois,where King Marke find them but spares them. Tristan escapes and after three years in a foreign land marries the evil Iseult of the White Hands. He's injured in battle  by a poison-tipped lance. Now the piano tolls like a bell, and the violin melody soars as if it were stretching across the seas in search of Iseult, mounting frenzy in the orchestra and chorus, and Iseult bursts in with a wild "Hélas ! chétive, hélas !",  the strings swirling around her turbulently.  Tristan is dead but Iseult lies down by Tristan "body to body, mouth to mouth".  We don't get a Mild und Liese, but there's some mighty fine writing for the orchestra and other voices. In an Epilogue,the choir sets out the moral of the story,  perhaps when the effects of the drug wear off, Tristan and Iseult find the true meaning of love. "Puissant-ils trouver ici consolation contre l'inconstance,  contre l'injustice, contre le dépit,  contre le pein, contre tous les maux d'amour"

Le vin Herbé is very different from Martin's larger scale works like Golgotha and Der Sturm, but it is an insight into an important but neglected period in music history. Understand Le vin herbé and you get a key into Poulenc, Honegger, Hartmann, Orff, and Braunfels.  It also connects to the literature and visual arts, including film, of the time. I discovered Frank Martin by sheer accident, hearing Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (1942/3) another "medieval" piece with a modern twist.  Please read my other posts on Wagner Tristan und Isolde,  especially "More tradition than meets the eye" and THIS about the Christof Loy Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House. There's much more to the opera than fake medieval costumes.Think about characterization, and the characters as human beings in a dramatic setting.