Tuesday, 2 September 2014

West Wycombe Festival 2014 - why you need to go

The West Wycombe Festival is a festival organized  by musicians, for musicians and those who like music making in a serious but informal setting. That's especially important when it comes to chamber music. Many of  the people involved, like Festival Director Lawrence Power, are connected to The Nash Ensemble and regulars at the Wigmore Hall.  West Wycombe might be small and understated but musically it packs  a punch.  Everyone knows everyone, which is part of the ambience. Concerts take place in St Lawrence's Church, which isn't quite an average village church. St Lawrence is the patron saint of prostitutres, and the church was endowed by Lord Dashwood,who ran the Hellfire Club where posh hellraisers romped with prostitutes dressed as nuns. You can spend the day before a concert visiting the Hellfire Caves, whose entrance is close to the church. Alternatively, the village itself has authentic medieval buildings. You can stay overnight in the George and Dragon pub which is haunted. Very atmospheric place, great choice of local beers.And it's only an hour from London !

Monday, 1 September 2014

Electrifying Elektra Goerke Bychkov Prom

Electrifying Strauss Elektra at BBC Proms 59 = Semyon Bychkov, Christine Goerke. Amazing on radio asnd even more so live. Indeed, this was one of those rare occasions when you can say, in awe, "I was THERE!". The Royal Albert Hall is a huge barn of a hall.  Six thousand seats placed round a hollow space that rises upwards, culminating in a dome that used to suck up sound until they added those space-age acoustic baffles.  But there's nothing like a Royal Albert Hall Prom. The atmosphere is so intense that the excitement must communicate to performers. If they've not overwhelmed (understandably) they can be challenged to give the performances of their lives.

Yet, despite the size of the Royal Albert Hall, Semyon Bychkov conducted an Elektra so full of intelligent detail that the vast cavern of the building seemed to burst with colour and incident. The BBC SO aren't normally an "opera" orchestra, so perhaps they were responding to Elektra as dramatic orchestral music. Bychkov made the music move, almost as if it were an invisible demonic force. Agamemnon has long been dead, yet his ghostly presence hangs heavy over those he's left behind. In Charles Edwards' production (read my review here) the dead king hovers over proceedings like a shadow. Bychkov's intense, impassioned conducting suggests the psychic havoc the king must have unleashed in his time. Perhaps the savage, pathological genes Elektra and Orestes carry came from him  Their lust for revenge goes far beyond filial love. Maybe Clytemnestra killed him because he wasn't a nice man.

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Soon after Elektra starts singing, the "dance" theme  bursts out. Dance in this case is a form of madness. Bychkov conducted the circular rhythms so we could feel the obsessiveness percolate. Savage climaxes, the strings screaming and stabbing. The axe lies buried underground but "sings" through the orchestra. Strauss builds maniacal laughter into his music, and  even  the unearthly bright stare some schizophrenics exhibit. Woodwinds played sensually but with morbid undertones. Bychkov's ear for detail is musically informed but also psychologically true. Someone complained that the ROH production wasn't "palatial" or elegant. But for Strauss, and for Bychkov, this palace is a prison of the soul. Andris Nelsons was brilliant at Covent Garden last year, but Bychkov works with the dynamic of the Royal Albert Hall to bring out subtleties often missed, like the parody of waltz and "family values". In the final dance, Bychkov highlights the percussion,  with its intimations of the organized violence of a military society where women like Elektra (or Clytemnestra) can't act other than through men.The lushness of this instrumentation is deceptive. Like the palace, it's poisoned. The savage last chords made me think of Wozzeck.

Christine Goerke has created so many Elektras in recent years that she probably owns the part these days. Her voice is richly resonant, shading into mezzo territory, which allows a remarkable range of emotional expressiveness. Elektra's a killer part, forcing the voice up to the extremes, torturing technique, but Goerke delivers. She's not afraid to let the role dictate the way she sings. When she recognizes Orestes, her voice rises to near-scream, then softens into tenderness. How long it must have been since Elektra felt safe enough to feel human kindness, Goerke's voice warms yet still carries memories of pain.  Through Goerke, we glimpse what Elektra might have been. At the Royal Albert Hall, Goerke displayed a new dimension to her artistry. She wasn't giving an "opera house" performance but enacting the role in such a way that she filled the massive auditorium, not with amplified voice but with amplified personality. Truly remarkable: in all these years of Promming, I can't remember any singer taking control of the RAH like this. She made an impact that felt strikingly personal, up close and human, as if the distance her voice carried meant nothing, and we were one-to-one with Elektra in her isolation.

This warmth in Goerke's voice was paralleled by Gun-Brit Barkmin's Chrysothemis. Little sister wants marriage and babies, not death   Yet the firmness in Barkmin';s timbre, and the assertive confidence in her delivery  brings out the underlying strength in the role. We need to hear more from Barkmin. ROH take note! Chrysothemis is no Barbie Doll image of womanhood. Although Justin Wray is creditted as stage director, there wasn't any evidence of directing (other than use of lighting) until the final scene when Goerke and Barkmin embraced each other. Subtle, but significant.

Much-loved Dame Felicity Palmer sang Clytemnestra, receiving much applause. Although her voice is beginning to show its edges, Palmer's experience in the role paid dividends. When she sang about her fears, she made the chaaracter sympathetic. Cold-blooded killers don't fear bad dreams or, for that matter, fall for toy boys.  Johan Reuter sang Orestes, with Robert Künzli as Aegisthus. Katarina Bradić , Zoryana Kushpler, Hanna Hipp, Marie-Eve Munger, Iris Kupke, Miranda Keys as the maids and their overseer, Ivan Turšić as a young servant  and Jongmin Park as Orestes' tutor completed a fine line-up.

Strauss Elektra Prom 59 - part ONE, part 2 follows

My review, as pronised, is HERE.  Richard Strauss Elektra, BBC Prom 53 – an amazing experience!  Semyon Bychkov, Christine Goerke, Felicity Palmer and a cast who could hardly be faulted.  Christine Goerke "is not one of those Elektras who start the opera as demented and raddled. From the opening she projected youth and a certain rapture in the vocal line. Only gradually did you come to realise that this young woman was unhinged. Goerke had a way of smiling to herself which told volumes. What was refreshing about her performance was that, though certainly a very big sing, she did not seem to need to attack every single phrase. There was some profoundly poignant moments and this was one of the most sympathetic Elektras I have heard in a long time."

Please read the full review in Opera Today HERE  I'll be writing too about the experience – for an experience it was! The Royal Albert Hall is a vast cavern, but Goerke filled it  so well that she made Elektra feel close up and personal.  Read my review here.Photo above shows Strauss at the premiere. Note costumes. That Clytemestra's not authentic period  Greek!

Operas we can hear in an opera house anytime, but this was no ordinary performance.  I loved the Royal Opera House production in September 2013 (which I reviewed HERE), and so did just about everyone else. I saw the previous  ones too, but 2013 was by far the best.  Goerke and Andris Nelsons, go figure. When this production is revived again, do not miss it as  it's very intelligent and very passionate, which is perhaps why some didn't get it in 2008.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Stemme's stunning Salome Prom 58

Stunning Nina Stemme Strauss Salome Prom 58.  Full review in Opera Today by Robert Hugill

"The problem with Salome (written in 1905), is that though premiered barely a century ago it dates from an era of different performing styles. Dramatic sopranos had voices which were more lithe, more narrow in focus. Orchestras were generally quieter, with narrower bore brass and gut strings, and the orchestral sound a lot less dense. Production values were more forgiving, Audiences didn't generally worry about whether the heroine looked 16. But early sopranos in the role would probably sound a lot younger, to our ears. Nowadays, both singers and directors frequently move the character into maturity."

 "The remarkable thing about Nina Stemme's account of the title role was the wonderful brightness and freshness that she brought to the vocal line. Singing with a lovely, fluid sense of line, this was a singer who really did link this music to the Strauss of the songs and the later operas. There wasn't a screamed note the whole evening, and she seemed to be able to encompass the whole role whilst preserving focus and flexibility. As Brünnhilde, Stemme does not have a huge voice compared to some of the Brünnhildes of the past, but this is an advantage as Salome.She both looked and sounded young. From the moments of her first entry (throughout she was off the book, and fully acted), it was clear that this was a petulant, selfish teenager. Salome's naivety and inexperience came out in Stemme's voice and her body language. It was wonderful to see and hear the way petulance gave way to desire and more; the typical teenager reaction of becoming obsessed with something you are not allowed to have." 

Read the full review here in Opera Today.
At left, Astrid Varnay's Salome in bra size 60LLL

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Triumphant Mahler 2 Harding Prom 57

Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall.  Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker, read more HERE) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed.  Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.

Pierre Boulez used to speak about the importance of trajectory, that is, the sense of direction that drives a symphony. Even the first bars zinged with purpose: Harding setting the trajectory in motion right from the start. When Bernard Haitink conducted this symphony at the Proms in 2006, he chose tempi so slow that it was hard for his orchestra to sustain the line, suggesting the approach of death.  Harding's tempi are less extreme, but equally purposeful.  He emphasized the inherent  tension between forward-reaching  lines and tight staccato, suggesting  that a powerful transformation is underway even in the presence of annihilation. Harding showed how Mahler's themes of transcendance and renewal were in place even at this point in his career.  The tension Harding creates suggests the power of what is to come, even when it's curtailed, temporarily, by death. If this is a funeral procession, it operates on many levels. The pastoral woodwinds might suggest happy memories of the past.  Quiet, purposeful pizzicato, like footsteps, lead into savage brass climaxes, creating the sense of hard-won stages on a difficult ascent. Perhaps we can already hear the "mountains" in Mahler's Third Symphony, rising ever upwards.

 Then the sudden, anguished descent into silence. The Luftpause which follows is very much part of meaning, "inaudible music" during which one might contemplate the finality of death. Harding sat on a chair, head bowed. Instead, the Royal Albert Hall ushers let in dozens of latecomers, totally destroying the moment of reverence. Someone needs to tell the staff that Luftpauses are not intervals.

The second movement  began with gleeful energy, leading into lyrical Ländler themes, which will recur again through many symphonies to come. Although this movement is marked "Nicht eilen", it should be leisurely rather than slow, for something positive is stirring. Perhaps we begin to hear the Pan theme for Mahler's Third, as summer marches in. Harding took particular care to bring out the life force in the third movement, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, an illustration of which stands in Mahler's composer hut.  Like Dionysius, St Anthony is drunk. Perhaps the song is used to indicate the futility of words, which is rather droll, since in this symphony Mahler begins to use voice as part of his orchestral toolbox.  Harding might be more taken with the inherent energy in the leaping figures which suggest the movement of fish, leaping upwards, and swimming away. Exuberant playing here, the passages undertaken with great agility.

Perhaps it's included to illustrate the futility of words, but the liveliness of the writing suggests energy and escape from the sombre mood of the first movement. Harding led his orchestra into a glorious climax: summer is marching in, underlined yet again by the exuberant Fischpredigt allusion to leaping fish. 

 Excellent use of offstage trumpets and trombones, even if some sounds went slightly awry. These sections aren't merely for show, since they illustrate cosmological meaning. Harding's musicians may have to run up and down a lot, but by doing so they literally connect earthly reality with the promise of Heaven. This isn't the "Resurrection" symphony for nothing.  Angels blow horns and trumpets, as do Alpine herdsmen and farmers. Mahler's making connections on all levels. Very possibly, we might think ahead to Mahler's Fourth with its cataclysmic burst of energy. What thrust Harding got from his players, trumpets leading! Processional footseps yet again, this time confident and assured. Having shown us how near we are to the summit, Harding and his orchestra descended once more into quiet reverence. The trumpet solo, calling from the highest reaches oif the Royal Albert Hall, seemed to glow forever, like a sunset. The hushed voices of the Swedish Radio Choir and the Philharmonia Chorus were so well blended that their impact was enhanced: an image of vast panoramas and repose, from which Christianne Stotijn's voice rose with dignity. 

Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du, Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!  Stotijn, Kate Royal, the choruses and orchestra united in a blaze of glorious sound. Crashing cymbals, the klang of metal on metal and a thunderous timpani roll cut short much too soon by an audience too excited to hold back any longer.

Please see my other posts on Mahler, especially Mahler 3 and also my many posts on the BBC Proms

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Red herrings - why the BBC drops new music

An article popped up in the Guardian just before 6 pm today, titled "Why does the BBC assume its audience won't like new music?" It deals with the fact that Harrison Birtwistle's Sonance Severance has been dropped from the BBC TV 4 broadcast of Prom 33. Hang on! Before jumping on the sackcloth and ashes bandwagon, try a bit of common sense.

First, Birtwistle's piece is only three minutes long, dates from way back and isn't a particularly crucial part of his output.  The really important part of this Prom broadcast is Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, a  significant milestone in modern music. Not knowing who Lutoslawski is, would be a much greater scandal.

Second, it's taken the Guardian a while to twig onto the story, which I first ran on 11th August, titled "Why the Proms musical apartheid on BBC TV?" The Guardian uses almost the same title, but my piece is more detailed. Read my article in full here. 

Third, let's think critically  If we really care about new music, we should be looking not at TV but at the new music being performed in the first place. BBC TV4 is a generalist channel,  it's not aimed at cutting edge. It's like blaming Aldi for not stocking Beluga caviar. TV coverage of the Proms this year hasn't been as good as it used to be for various reasons, but that's a separate issue.

If we're going to talk about new music, at least we could understand what new music is. The two composers Daniel Barenboim featured in his Prom were pleasant enough, but won't change music history. They deserve credit, but shouldn't be used as footballs in a game they're not  playing.  The real crux of the matter is why the BBC needs to programme music that's too  bland to be original.  I've written a lot about the poor quality of new music this season many times, so search this site. By dropping some of the "new" music from TV, the BBC is doing some composers a huge favour.

Why is this year's "new" music so dull? The Proms audience is the biggest audience in the world. The bigger the audience, the higher the number of those who think they can't cope with what they don't know.  Because the BBC (and the arts in general) are under attack for being "elitist", they have to conform.

The trouble with art is that it's created by artists, not marketers. I don't believe that audiences are necessarily anti-innovation.  But public opinion is shaped by the media,  by politicians who play people off each other and, alas, by an increasingly vocal minority who espouse the musical equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church. If we genuinely care about new music, the real issue we should be addressing is not red herrings like BBC TV4 but much wider issues..

Seoul Philharmonic shines Prom 55 Chung, Wu Wei

When Unsuk Chin's Šu (2009) for sheng written for Wu Wei premiered in London at the Barbican in 2011, it didn't work for me at all.  I wrote then  that "overall the music didn't develop the possibilities beyond the initial novelty"  of this remarkable instrument, and "Wu's playing is assertive and full bodied but I'm not sure how far he's stretched as an artist by this material"  (read my full piece here which has background on the sheng and on Wu Wei, the soloist). But at BBC Prom 55, when Myung-Whun Chung conducted the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, the piece was transformed. What a difference a sympathetic orchestra makes!

Chung and his orchestra intuitively understand the context.  Šu isn't so much a concerto in the usual sense as an orchestral expansion of the instrument.  Wu Wei plays a modern version of the ancient instrument, The "modern" Sheng is much bigger, often 36 pipes as opposed to the traditional 17. Playing so many reeds by fingers alone would be difficult, so modern Shengs are keyed for ease of operation. Range is bigger, volume is bigger, many more musical possibilities. Just as in the west, composers had to write new music for new instrumental and performance styles. There's a whole genre of modern Chinese music that's different from traditional folk idiom, but also from western form. Wu Wei's instrument  is so unique that it's inspired many composers to write for him. He's fascinating, exploring the myriad nuances and possibilties with such poise that one almost forgets how difficult the instrument is to play.

Unsuk Chin adds her characteristic panoply of eccentric instruments and jokey asides, but Chung fundamentally lets Wu Wei lead, so  Šu evolves like a solo work with embellishments.  Apart from ceremonial music, Chinese music wasn't orchestral  in the western sense  but closer to chamber forms. Chung understood the balance. in favour of soloist, allowing the main line to flow smoothly without slipping into the eddies.  Sheng legato is amazing, and Wu's masterful circular breathing creates wonders. Yet the instrument is also oddly percussive, so Wu can shape staccato riffs  and jerky rhythms.  This is modern music, and not uniquely Chinese, but greatly invigorating. For an encore Wu followed with an arrangement of his own, based on a traditional folk melody. Wu's variations on the basic melody displayed his instrument's versatility. Pipa or flute or voice might be more plaintive,  but the sheng is robust and confidently inventive.

Although the BBC is making a big deal about global orchestras this season, the Seoul Philharmonic is in an altogether more elevated league than many of the others. It's world class, so good that it can easily stand on its own merits, and should get the credit it deserves. Korean musicians  (and singers) dominate orchestras and opera houses all over the world. In Korea, classical music  isn't a niche but part of mainstream life and national identity. (Read my article on Jihoon Kim's Korean recital here).  Please also see my posts on orchestrations of Arirang.  Western politicians who complain that classical music is elitist should address the collapse of music education instead of slamming arts organizations that produce good work.  The German concept of Bildung applies in many Asian countries. English speakers just don't comprehend. With the large pool of musicians in South Korea, Chung is able to choose players of an unusually high standard.

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra don't quite have the panache of  Chung's other orchestra, the Orchèstre Philharmonique de Radio France, but what they do have is the sensitivity to create refined, diaphanous textures. This  La Mer sparkled.  Shimmering lustre, balancing the darker undercurrents.   This Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B minor, 'Pathétique' also impressed. Altogether a satisfying Prom with an orchestra we should hear more often (other than on recordings). 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Small nation seeks independence - Guglielmo Tell Edinburgh Festival

From Juliet Williams at the Edinburgh International Festival:

Usher Hall, Edinburgh 26th August 2014 sung in Italian by Teatro Regio Torino; conductor Gianandreo Noseda;  Dalibor Jenis, Guglielmo Tell; Angela Meade, Mathilde; John Osborn, Arnoldo; Mirco Palazzi, Gaultiero; Fabrizio Beggi,Melcthal; Marina Bucciarelli, Jemmy. William Tell's son; Anna Maria Chiuri, Edwige, William Tell's wife; Luca Tittoto, Gessler; Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, Ruodi; Luca Casalin, Rodolfo; Paolo Orecchia, Leutoldo

"The choice of this tale, Rossini's last opera, of liberation from oppressive rule by a larger country to the south east for the Edinburgh Festival as Scotland ponders the question of independence is perhaps apposite and has already been noted, for example in the Herald. This performance was also dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado, remembered in a moving introductory speech by festival director Jonathan Mills. 

This production had two great stars: Dalibor Jenis  (photo above) in the title role, and the music itself. Jenis excelled both vocally and in his stage presence as the baritone hero. His performance was for me the highlight of the show and was consistently excellent. John Osborn was good in the tricky role of Arnoldo. His lengthy aria opening the fourth and final act of the opera attracted lengthy applause. This is part of a well-performed scene in which the Swiss confederates rouse their strength to prepare for battle despite the capture of their hitherto leader, William Tell. Angela Meade as Mathilde gave a lovely performance in Act Three in her dialogue with Arnoldo as to their divided loyalties given that their love falls across the political divide of their respective countries. She came into her own in this scene, and in the closing scene of this act, where her tenderness towards William's son was clearly apparent. In a generally even cast, amongst the smaller parts Paolo Orecchia stood out as Leutoldo the shepherd. Rossini's energetic and likeable score, opening with the eponymous overture was played and sung with enthusiasm in Italian by Teatro Regio Torino's musicians and chorus. The big sound resounded in the Usher Hall's favourable acoustic in this concert performance, but the nature of the libretto cries out for staging, and it is a shame that touring the fully staged version to Edinburgh was not practical. It is an enjoyable production which whets the appetite to see this work again."

Lots of chances coming up. Wonderful Guillaume Tell at Munich a few weeks back with Bryan Hymel hitting C after C after C and  Michael Volle as Tell. Pity about the dull production. Antonio Pappano is another William Tell specialist (wonderful Prom and CD). He's bringing Guillaume to The Royal Opera House London in July 2015. John Osborn and Gerald Finley.

Edinburgh International Festival : Commonwealth Strings

From Juliet Williams in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Festival Chamber series looks forward and back

Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings Op.47 Peter Sculthorpe: Sonata for Strings No.3 Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis Gareth Farr: Relict Furies for mezzo-soprano and double string orchestra Tippett: Concerto for Double String Orchestra Scottish Ensemble Commonwealth Strings Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano

The morning concert series in Edinburgh's Queens Hall usually features distinguished chamber musicians in small groups. Yesterday's performance saw a larger ensemble take to the stage, showcasing the talents of an international group of young Commonwealth players in an Antipodean-influenced programme. In between good accounts of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, they commemorated significant Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe who died earlier this month – his work was also performed by the Kronos Quartet here last week. The well-known Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis was taken at a very slow tempo, creating a new insight into this frequently performed piece, making it almost reminiscent at times of Arvo Part.

After the interval a new commission from young New Zealand composer Gareth Farr followed. Taking the theme of the centenary of the First World War his work looks at the anger and pain that those who survive, those who are widowed and those whose loved ones return permanently injured are left with. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was the soloist with large forces, also required in Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra which closed the programme. Whilst commemorating the Great War and the loss of a major influence, this event also looked forward to the talent and creativity of the young and outward to the talent in other parts of the Commonwealth as well as the traditions of our own country. Listening via the BBC iPlayer has the additional bonus of Kiri Te Kanewa's account of Songs of the Auvergene (extract) in the interval. 

Those of us who can't make it to Edinburgh  can hear no fewer than 15 EIF concerts on BBC Radio 3.  All chamber - opera, theatre and big orchestral works aren't included, but there have been some real treasures among the chamber concerts.  Bostridge/Adès, Anna Prohaska's Songs of war,  and Stéphane Degout yesterday. Most remarkable of all,  The Hebrides Ensemble  with a truly brilliant extended Stravinsky A Soldier's Tale. Graham F Valentine (pictured above) created a brilliant narration  which followed the metre of the music, yet was full of wisecracks and word plays, some so uniquely Scottish I coiuldn't get them. This narration was a work of art,, not mere "filller". I hope  someone's recorded it so it won't be lost. Would that we could hear more of Valentine in London.

I listened to the Commonwealth Strings concert too, quite pleased with Peter Sculthorpe's Sonata for Strings no 3.  Landscape music which evokes the vast open horizons of the outback. Sculthorpe reproduces exactly in sound, the way  flocks of Rodsellas and other types of parrot  suddenly take off from the trees in which they perch, screaming in unison. Often there will be a few thousand birds together. An amazing sight which you have to have experience to believe.  I's be very wary, however, of ascribing "Aboriginal" colours  to Sculthorpe's work.  Given what happened to the indigenous people of Australaia, plundering their heritage is a kind of cultural rape.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice Bejun Mehta

"This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta. The film is sung, played, danced and staged in a style not inappropriate to the day of the opera’s premiere in 1762 on the stage of the Baroque Theatre of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic—or in the theater’s wings, stairs and basement, doing service for Orfeo’s journey to the Underworld."

Read the full review HERE in Opera Today