Friday, 30 September 2016

Stravinsky Oedipus Rex Salonen Royal Festival Hall


Stravinsky Oedipus Rex, the culmination of Esa-Pekka Salonen's traverse through themes in Stravinsky with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall.  Sophocles' Oedipus Rex defines the very idea of Tragedy. Oedipus is cursed by Fate and cannot escape. He and those around him will be destroyed through no fault of their own.  Stravinsky captured the horror of Oedipus's predicament with music so uncompromising that, in comparison, The Rite of Spring seems almost folkloric.

Huge brooding chords, massive pillars of sound, like the pillars of some ancient oracle, towering over the performers, mere mortals, trying to express through art forces so powerful, and so cosmic that they defy containment. Perhaps that's why the texts are Latin, a dead language which no one actually speaks, but that carries the authority of time and ritual.  That mystery is of the essence.  Oedipus is the vector of cruelty beyond human comprehension.  Salonen certainly drew savage portent from the Philharmonia, the percussion pounding like frantic heartbeats, woods and brass exhaling and projecting like the panting lungs of a hunted animal. Ostinato with jagged edges that rip and tear at the heart.  The vocal lines are like incantation,  marching up and down the scale creating angular, disturbing stresses.

Much hangs on the Narrator, who speaks in the vernacular of the audience, and acts like a bridge between the "reality" of performance and the symbolic ritual in the drama. There have been many different kinds of Narrator in the ninety years since the piece premiered, some more effective than others. In this case, a staging by Peter Sellars, the Narrator was specifically identified as Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus and his mother/wife Jocasta. There are reasons for this, since Antigone features in those plays of Sophocles that survive, but I wonder if her portrayal here reflects Sellars himself, not Sophocles or Stravinsky.  Sellars's The Indian Queen was a bizarre concoction that had little to do with Henry Purcell and very little understanding of Latin American history, but was dominated by a narrator so irritating that whatever message was lost. Whoever Antigone is, the Narrator is neither self-obsessed nor hysterical.

There's nothing wrong in principle with changing things, but changes should be based on some basic comprehension of the original.  Case in point: Sellars's staging of György Kurtág's Kafka Fragments which turned good music into facetious soap opera.  Towards the end of Oedipus Rex spotlights were turned on the audience, which is all very well, but the whole point of Oedipus Rex is that the poor King was not responsible for his tragic fate, even if he died well.  . 

Perhaps this portrayal also sprang from Sellars wanting to connect Oedipus Rex with the Symphony of Psalms written three years after Oedipus Rex. Stravinsky used the texts of Psalms 38and 39, which deal with alienation, and Psalm 150, the Laudate Dominum.  Thus Antigone recites the psalms before the choruses sing. The play Oedipus at Colunus might justify this, but it does rather dilute the impact of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, as if its very audacity and modernity were too hard to take on its own terms. A pity, since the choral singing was of a very high standard indeed.. Katarina Dalayman sang a strong Jocasta and Willard White was a striking theatrical presence appearing in different parts of the Royal Festival Hall, his voice still commanding attention.  The choruses were the Orphei Drängar, the Ladies of the Gustaf Sjökvists Kammarkör and the Ladies of the Sofia Vokalensemble. They looked wonderful, too, moving in tight ensemble, as good opera choruses can do.

The photo at the top shows Stravinsky himself rehearsing  Oedipus Rex, which he then conducted at the Royal Festival Hall on 8th November 1965.  A tape of that is in circulation, definitely worth tracking down as it is superb. And the narrator then was Jean Cocteau himself, speaking with pugnacious, pungent Gallic flair.  Please also see my other posts on Stravinsky and on Salonen.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Salonen Stravinsky Philharmonia Myths Perséphone


Esa-Pekka Salonen's traverse through Stravinsky with the Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall is such a remarkable series that it should itself be commemorated, since it's much more than an ordinary series of concerts; it's a deeper analysis of the themes in Stravinsky's work. We've had Rituals, Tales (more here) and Faith (more here), and now, Myths, depicting Stravinsky as a man of the theatre in the widest sense of the word.  Apollon Musagète (1927), Orpheus (1947) and Perséphone (1934), all three examining the role of myth in drama.  

The myth of Orpheus is so central to western culture that it has been retold in different forms for millennia. and for good reason : it deals with the inevitability of death, which defeats even love. Orpheus cannot bring Eurydice back, but his life continues, his mission to create music. Death defeated by art: a powerful concept.  Salonen and the Philharmonia began with Orpheus, created for Balanchine in Hollywood, but  Apollon Musagète is by far the more innovative. Greek theatre was austere - no fancy sets, no costumes, nothing to distract from the fundamentals of drama.  Indeed, Stravinsky thought of this as a " ballet blanc" where the dancers would be dressed almost identically in white, reminiscent perhaps of Greek robes.  Concentrated intensity: the focus on abstract expression through music and dance.  Apollon Musagète adapts the pared-down elegance of neo-classicism to the cool, clean lines of 1920's modernism.

Scored for 34 strings only, the palette is limited so the refinement of form is unclouded. This music is so precise that one hardly needs visuals. The first violin enters like a dancer, swooping and sweeping. The line is languid but elegant, defined with delicate decoration. The concept of physical movement is defined in the music itself. Curving movements, swooping and sweeping, diagonals, lines that break off to return again with fuller force. Trios and solos intertwine. The violins here are dancers, violas, celli and double basses their corps de ballet. As the music circulates, it becomes more and more rarified, shimmering with lightness, defying the concept of gravity.  Apollo and his muses elevate into infinity. This is "classical music" in the true sense, its austere grace closer to the spirit of antiquity as well as to the clean lines of 1920's aesthetic.  Strikingly modern yet eternal, at the same time.

Both Apollon and Orpheus were choreographed by Georges Balanchine, so the two pieces form a nice pair, though Apollon shone by far the brighter.  Superbly poised performances, and particularly well delineated long lines lit by sprightly figures. Easy to visualize flying footsteps and the graceful energy of dancers.

Stravinsky's Perséphone is an odd piece, part oratorio, part neo-classical, an odd mix very much a piece of the 1930's, a relatively underappreciated period in music drama.  Andrew Staples and Pauline Cheviller operate like chorèges, narrating and speaking for characters,  supported by orchestra, choruses and dancers.  Thus the idea of duality is embedded into the piece: reflecting shifting balances. Perséphone is the privileged daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility, but her promise is cut short because she's abducted into the underworld.  Thus the interplay of darkness and light, graphic writing and stylization, death and life. Salonen's lively touch animates the piece, so the orchestra acts as "chorus"   Listen to the mournful bassoon.  Recently I heard a performance of this work where the conducting  was moribund, so lifeless throughout that it was painful to listen to, which demonstrated the absolute importance of spark in the orchestra. What's the point of a piece about rebirth and renewal if the music remains frozen? Thank goodness for Esa Pekka Salonen, an instinctive Stravinsky conductor who understands the idiom!

In a piece like this, it's not enough to rely on surface appearances.  Instead, we could concentrate on essentials: the music itself.  Thus Perséphone connects to the austere concept of neo classicism as an abstract approach to art, rather than to literal theatre. Thank goodness we were spared cod attempts at comic-book staging.  Perséphone works on its own terms, as music, and needs musically authoritative interpretation.  Staples sang with authority, infusing his words with character, and Cheviller spoke as if every word meant something: enthusiastic and enraptured at times,  wistful and frightened at others. The Tiffin Boys Choir and the Philharmonia Voices were superb, creating the atmsophere and mystery, absolutely essential to meaning.  Salonen and the Philharmonia resurrect Perséphone from the dead. Spring returns! 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Provocative Die Gedanken sind Frei


   Professionally trained voices, which should be a clue

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Gatti Berlin Phil : French Modernism Honegger


"Masterworks of French Modernism", the title of Daniele Gatti's concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Debussy La Mer, the key piece that opened new horizons, a magical work which, like the ocean keeps changing, revealing its depths in good performance. "God is in the detail" said Gatti in the interval interview, explaining how the arc of a performance is built upon many layers of detail.  The term "Impressionism" is a tag that's stuck because it does describe the idea of creating a whole made up of tiny cells of pure colour.  Impressionist paintings shocked viewers because they seemed to shine from within, because each stroke of paint seemed to glow with inner light.   Now, perhaps The Shock of The New has worn off with millions of reproductions on coffee mugs, t shirts and so onBut in music, every good performance is new, an original recreation in its own right.    Daniele Gatti is too good to do routine, and with an orchestra as good as the Berliner Philharmoniker, there was no way this performance would fail.  There are so many brilliant La Mers around that we've all heard better, but also even more that are infinitely worse, and that's something to be glad about in a world where mediocrity is increasingly prized over excellence. Not a "coffee mug" performance by any means, even if the real revelations on this occasion came in Honegger and Dutilleux.

Arthur Honegger's Symphony no 3 and Henri Dutilleux Métaboles have both been part of the Berlin Philharmonic's repertoire for some years. Simon Rattle conducted Métaboles as recently as 2013, with more or less the same musicians.  Although much of Dutilleux's best work lies in miniatures and chamber pieces, Métaboles  is scored for large orchestra.  It flows over five movements each wiuth a distinctive personality : not variations but a series of developments, characterized by meticulous detail - a kind of refined embroidery.  To borrow metaphors from painting, Pointillism, as opposed to Impressionism.  Gatti's approach is softer grained than Rattle's, which may be more authentic but which might appeal to the already converted than to those coming new to the composer.  There is a powerful Dutilleux lobby, so influential that it could demand chapters on Dutilleux in books about Messiaen.  A bit petty, since both composers are very different indeed, and there's no need to play silly status games. Better to absorb the music on its own terms.  A few years ago, I attended a Dutilleux recital at the Wigmore Hall (read more here). The composer, then aged 92, was present, enjoying himself hugely because Jan Pascal Tortelier's father was a close personal friend.  Afterwards, my friend and I had a long dinner, leaving close to midnight. And who should we see but Henri Dutilleux, walking back to his hotel around the block. We waved. He beamed.

Herbert Karajan conducted Honegger's Symphony no 3 (Symphonie Liturgique)  with the Berliners in 1969, so long ago that it's pointless to compare.  Whoever uploaded the performance to YT knew what they were doing by illustrating it with a drawing by George Rouault. Connections to painting again.  No pretty pointillism for Rouault : his work is marked by ferocious dark outlines, defining the images within . The colours in his famous series of paintings of Christ seem to glow like stained glass even though they are oppressed by savage framework, which is utterly appropriate.

Written in the winter of 1945/6, Honegger's piece deals explicitly with the horrors of war, and the challenges of a new era. The Dies Irae with its ferocious outcries, expresses anguish.  Rouault's suffering Christ, depicted in sound.   Honegger, being Swiss was a neutral in occupied France, but no less involved with what was going on around him.  The second movement, De profundis clamavi, is a slow, but not peaceful meditation. What must we do that to counter violence and hate ?  Slower, more amorphous figures, long lines that seem to float on a stream of mysterious detail.  Gatti's unhurried attentiveness works well: we cannot afford to gloss over these complexities. This is the dark soul of the whole symphony.  The movement concludes with intense outbursts from the brass, angular shapes against the horizontal keening in the strings. The last movement, Dona Nobis Pacem, doesn't, however, "grant us peace". Instead, it moves in the form of a solemn procession, lit with violent alarums from brass.  One could visualize a cortege marching at night,  the darkness broken by malevolent flames, whipped by turbulent winds. Obvious connections with Honegger's masterpiece Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher written in 1938, when Honegger was well aware of the threat posed by Hitler.  Joan of Arc stands up to invaders, but is martyred.  As the flames rise round her, though, she sees visions of saints and angels, and the voices who lead her return at last, taking  her up to heaven. Peace, of a sort, is achieved but only through confronting evil and suffering : no avoidance, no prettying up.  Honegger's Symphony no 3 isn't just a masterwork of modernism but a powerful document of how music can inspire the mind and soul.  Please read my other work on Honegger and especially on  Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher by following the links below and on the right.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Manic Depressive Schubert ? Der Musensohn


Manic depressive Schubert?  Der Musensohn D764 op 92/1, a case in point.  Listen to the pounding piano, Schubert's own instrument, through which he "spoke" without words.  Note the frantic, driven pace, the repetitive figures, tearing along as if driven by some unnatural, manic force.  Such rhythms occur frequently in Schubert. Babbling brooks, for example,  and merry strophic verses. But as any thoughtful reading of Die schöne Müllerin would suggest, the babbling is anything but cheerful.  Whether that brook is a malevolent force or simply a mirror through which the poet works out his  turbulent  emotions, the brook symbolizes something more complex than bucolic landscape.

"Durch Feld und Wald zu schweifen, Mein Liedchen wegzupfeifen,", "through fields and woods, I canter, piping my little song". Cantering, one foot lifted up, the other on the ground, like a prancing horse. Though the Muses' son doesn't stand still, his movements are controlled and purposeful, like the rhythm of dance. That's why "Und nach dem Takte reget, Und nach dem Maß beweget Sich alles an mir fort."  The idea of dance is, I think, critical, since the Muses were often depicted dancing together. The arts, united in communal expression.  Thus the pace of this song: fast, and sprightly, but not undisciplined or the dance will collapse into chaos. Although the tempo is fast, it evokes a steady pulse, the very pulse of life that reinvigorates Man and revives Nature after a hard winter.

Lovers are lolling under Linden trees (symbols of sleep and enchantment) but when the Muses' son passes by, presumably invisible, "Der stumpfe Bursche bläht sich, Das steife Mädchen dreht sich
Nach meiner Melodie". Note "stumpfe Bursche", a kind of bucolic oaf who acts by instinct.  The Muses' son is driven, his feet have wings. The piano evokes delightful diversions, but always returns to the basic, forceful mission. But is the Muses' son happy? The punchline "Den Liebling weit von Haus". He is the favourite son, but driven far from home.   Goethe knew Greek mythology well enough that the sons of the Muses didn't have happy fates.  It may or may not be relevant that this song was written in December 1822, when Schubert may well have become  aware that his health could not be taken for granted.

"Ihr lieben, holden Musen,Wann ruh ich ihr am Busen Auch endlich wieder aus?"  You dear, sweet Muses, when can I at last find rest in your embrace?  The dilemma of parental love : kids have got to grow up and find their way.  Some performances of Der Musensohn are  so swift that the piano seems in frenzy, driving the singer almost breathless  Manic, perhaps, but better that than anything too stolid, which misses the element of whirlwind dance.  Today a friend sent me an old favourite, where the bright, fleet-footed energy is balanced by Classical elegance. but does not disguise the existential sadness of the Musensohn's predicament.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Max Brand's Höllenmaschine


Some men are fossils from the day they are born,  but not Max Brand (1896-1980).  Here he is, in his 80's demonstrating his synthesizer, which he built in his 60's to create music out of abstract electronic sound, for which he wrote several abstract, electronic pieces,starting in his 60's.  The machine  was assembled and exhibited in Vienna, where it still exists, and is still played.  Electronic music would have come naturally to Brand, given his fascination with modernity and mechanical processes. His best-known work, the opera Maschinist Hopkins (1927), of which I'll write more later, typifies the spirit of the age, influenced by Futurism, jazz, film and experimental art.

Brand didn't invent electronic music, though, as it was well in gestation even in the 1920's with Edgard Varèse who was experimenting with new sounds  in the 1920's and whose Poème électronique was the sensation of the World Fair in 1958, influencing Xenakis, Ligeti, Stockhausen  and a host of composers since.  Below a clip from a 2009 performance of Brand's Ilian IV (1974) played on Brand's own machine.



Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Art Song that became an icon : On the Songhua River

Billboards in North China in 1947 juxtaposing two realities: consumer fashion goods on one side, and an ad for the film On the Songhua River on the other.  Passers-by are rushing past. They don't know that Communism is just around the corner. The film On the Sungari River (the old westernized name for the Songhua) was made almost immediately after the Japanese surrender in North China, almost literally before the embers had finished burning on the battlefield, which gives the film a poignant authenticity few movies attain. It is certainly not to be dismissed as mere propaganda.  Real people lived in real times like this. We must not forget.

A young girl called Niu-er lives in a village, lovingly depicted by the camera. Suddenly strangers appear: soldiers on horses, brutalizing peasants into submission. It is September 1931, and the Japanese have invaded. Fourteen years of war will follow, tens of millions will become refugees, China will never be the same again. Niu-er's parents are murdered (the killing of the mother particularly distressing). The girl and grandfather flee, but soon grandfather dies, entrusting Niu-Er to a lad from their native area, "You're going to have to marry one day", says the old man "so make the most of it". Eventually Niu-er's husband finds work in Japanese-operated coal mines, under notorious conditions of slavery. This mineral wealth was why the Japanese invaded North China. The area is still the powerhouse of modern China's industrial economy.  There's an accident, many miners are buried underground.  Posters appear, inciting rebellion, but many of the peasant workers are illiterate. The guards break up the demonstration but the workers fight back, though they're helpless against guns.  Some of the miners, including Niu-er and her husband, escape into the snow, to be rescued by partisans. In the final scene, the partisan band walks along the Songhua River, no longer frozen but carrying floes of ice swiftly out to sea.

The film is based on an even more famous song "Along the Songhua River" (松花江上) an art song by composer Zhang Hanhui, (1902-46) Biography in film here, which immediately became a smash hit, immortalized now as a patriotic song, heard in many manifestations, and still extremely popular today. How many art songs enjoy that success?

" My home is on Songhua River in the Northeast. There are forests and coal mines. There are soybeans and sorghum all over the mountain. My home is on Songhua River in the Northeast. There are my fellow countrymen and my old parents. September 18, September 18, since that miserable day, September 18, September 18, since that miserable day, I've left my homeland, discarded the endless treasure. Roam, Roam, the whole day I roam inside the Great Wall. When can I go back to my homeland? When can I get back my endless treasure?"

Hence the chorus "September 18th, September 18th,"  a date engraved on the consciousness of many generations, being the start of the 1931-45 war.  Below two contrasting versions:

Monday, 19 September 2016

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Walter Braunfels Lieder Songs

When this concert of Walter Braunfels Songs was first broadcast on Deutschlandradio Kultur in 2011, it broke new ground. Eric Schneider is the pianist, with Marlis Petersen and Konrad Jarnot the singers.  Many thanks to Capriccio for making this available on CD, for this disc fills a significant niche in the discography.  For my review of Braynfels Or chestral Soings on Oehms (highly recommended) with Volle, Vogt and the Weimar Sraarskapelle please see HERE

Marlis Petersen possesses a voice that can handle the high, bright tessitura Braunfels was so fond of, and Konrad Jarnot is both blessed and cursed by the way his voice resembles Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's. Eric Schneider is an exemplary Lieder pianist. This disc is a must for anyone interested in Braunfels or indeed interested at all in the development of Lieder during the first part of the 20th century.  What lets it down, though, is the lack of context.  While Braunfels is hardly unknown, he is misunderstood.

If Capriccio really wants to bring Braunfels to wider audiences, they need to provide enough background for listeners to appreciate why Braunfels and his songs for voice and piano are worth listening to.  The lack of translations to texts isn't a major issue, since most people interested in Braunfels and in Lieder are reasonably fluent in German. Capriccio is a budget label so we can't really expect much in the way of notes, but generalities, even if well meant, don't amount to much.  Informative notes do make a difference. If recording companies cared about what they do, they'd realize that properly researched notes are part of the marketing process.  The more buyers get from a CD, the more likely they'll buy more. Listeners shouldn't have to do all their own background work, especially in repertoire that needs cultural context. 

On this disc, there are eight sets of songs, organized by opus numbers, and 41 separate tracks. Quite a lot to take on board. However, they're more or less arranged chronologically, starting with Braunfels's Op 1 Lieder (1901). Braunfels was 19 when he wrote these songs, so don't expect much in the way of genius. But they do shed insight on the literary and artistic impulses that would shape the composer's whole outlook. These texts come from the George-Kreis, the fanatical and secretive sect around Stefan George. George obsessed about the German past, as if it were a sacred mission against the modern world.  Imagine the Grail Community on uppers. Beneath the romance, however, lay extremism.  Although George attracted good minds, like the Stauffenbergs and the teenage Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he also galvanized minds like Heinrich Himmler.  Although George didn't actually align with the Nazis - he died in 1933 - he was antisemitic, which makes one wonder why some of his followers, like Karl Wolfskehl, and Walter Wenghöfer, whose poems are set here, were Jewish. A curious toxic mix, but one that might have taught Braunfels to be wary of narcissism,  totalitarian values and the abuse of medievalist hogwash.  From Braunfels op 1 to Der Traum ein Leben and Heilige Johanna. 

Thus to Braunfels's Fragmente eines Federspiele op 7 (1904), Fragjments from a feather game, meaning a concoction of lightness and charm, like playing with feathers.  Here Braunfels's thing for writing tricky high tessitura, the voice of a Nightingale, which means so much in Die Vögel. Each of these songs describes a bird - bullfinch, swallow, siskin, even a hoopoe - songs of chirpy litheness, effeverscence and spontaneity: the freedom of birds in nature.  If there are antecedents, they might lie in Hugo Wolf, but to me they are characteristic of Braunfel's whimsical humour, and like very little else written in this period.  But like Braunfels's Mozart Variations  and, indeed, the Magic Flute aspects of  Die Vögel, this disc includes a second set of Federspiele, nine songs, including goldfinch, turtledove and lark.  Braunfels's Federspiele are airy, but he's no airhead.

Braunfels's op 4, Sechs Gesänge (1905) are settings of poems by Hölderlin, Hebbel, Hessel and Goethe, finished off with sturdy ballads from Clemens and Brentano's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, all rather more typical art songs  of the period in which they were written and rather well crafted for a composer still in his early 20's.   Much more strikingly original are Braunfels's settings of Shakespeare, Musik zu Shakespeares Komödie Was Ihr wollt op 11 (1908).   A long piano introduction sets the scene for  text, spoken in English ; "If music be the food of love, play on....." This is followed by three Leid des Narren, each song charming, yet also funny, for fools and knaves are not so far apart, as the witty low figures on the piano suggest. 

Two of Goethe's Egmont poems,  Klärchen's songs,  Freudvoll, leidvoll and Die Trommel gerüret follow. Both were set by Beethoven: Braunfels's versions, form 1916, are his own. Braunfels's Nachklänge Beethovenscher Musik op 13 provide thoughtful contrast.  A version of An die Parzen op27/1 follows, but is not a patch on Braunfels's full orchestration on the Oehms Classics disc of Braunfels Orchestral Songs which I reviewed HERE. partly because the textures are finer, but also because Jarnot is no match for Michael Volle  Then, fast forward from 1916 to 1932, and two of Braunfels's last songs of the Weimar period, the Zwei Lieder von Hans Carossa op 44/1 and /2.  Marlis Petersen's soaring timbre brings out the starlight  magic and moonlight in these refined miniatures: birdsongs and feather games, in darkening times.