Sunday, 7 February 2016

Christian Gerhaher Wolfgang Rihm Wigmore Hall

For their first of two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber devised an interesting programme - popular Schubert mixed with songs by Wolfgang Rihm and by Huber himself. 

Fortunately regulars at the Wigmore Hall get to hear superb Schubert all the time, so Rihm was an intriguing prospect. Rihm (born 1952)  is one of the greatest living German composers. His chamber music  has featured regularly at the Wigmore Hall and his orchestral music and operas have been performed in London and elsewhere in the UK.  In Germany, his songs are fairly well known, and there are several recordings, notably by Christoph Prégardien The score for Rihm's Six Songs from Goethe Lieder is available from his publishers Universal Editions. 

It would be pointless to draw comparisons between Schubert and Rihm because any decent composer is an individual addressing his own time. Rihm is far more creative. His  Six Songs from Goethe Lieder were an hommage to Wilhelm Killmayer (born 1927), another giant of modern German music. Prégardien is one of the great Killmayer interpreters. His recording of Killmayer's Hölderlin Lieder is outstanding,  a milestone in modern art song. Rihm sets lesser poems from Goethe, whose output was massive This serves to distance the songs from Killmayer's highly poetical mystical settings of Hölderlintemperamentally very different to Goethe. Some of these poems aren't even very good. "Was wir haben  was wir hatten ...und was ist's denm was wir haben." Goethe was not losing his marbles in his old age.

The translation pretties the poem up, missing  earthy wit. There are Killmayer trademarks in these songs such as the dense clusters that give way to  semi-silence, and lines suddenly rise upwards forming the text "Nicht ein Bild !" after "Worte sind der Seele". It's like a private joke between Rihm and Killmayer who have done so much to make us think of the abstract music which words alone can't always express. Six Songs from Goethe Lieder is geniai,warm hearted fun and deserves to be heard more often.

And thus the last song of this set,  Aus Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre
a poem from the 1807-21 version of Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre."Ein Wunder ist ein arme Mensch geboren" , which though dramatic doesn't attract many song settings. Again it's a very pointed private joke, it refers to a crazed man, wonderstruck by the moon, who wallows in morbid thoughts.  Hölderlin all over! Hearing Schubert's famous setting from Wilhelm Meister felt strangely routine.  

It probably didn't help that Gerhaher had contracted an infection,constricting his voice, as was mentioned several times during the evening. True fans would, I think. have preferred that he'd saved himself for Monday's higher-profile audience-friendly Schumann programme. In Rihm's setting of Goethe's long Harzeisse in Winter (2012), Gerhaher showed what he can do when he's more rehearsed.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Fabio Luisi leaves the Met for dream new job

Fabio Luisi will leave the Met, where he is Principal Conductor.  He's been named Music Director of the Opera di Firenze and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence's acclaimed spring festival. This is more than just another appointment. Florence is one of the main centres of Italian opera and both jobs have high prestige. Indeed, opera was created in Florence and Venice. in 2011, the city unveiled a striking new opera house and concert hall (More here)  

Luisi's new appointment was specially created for him and will potentially expand the role beyond conducting. The idea is to give Florence a greater international presence, reaching out to non-Italian audiences through tours abroad. Luisi's heart has always been in Italy. When James Levinne suddenly fell ill, Luisis came to the rescue at very short notice.  The Met him an offer he could not refuse, and at the time, there was speculation that, as Principal Conductor, Luisi would be in line to inherit Levine's mantle. Since Levine shows no signs of moving on, so Luisi is not renewing. In Florence, Luisi will be pretty much his own man, working with people whose views might be a lot closer to his own.  A win-win situation all round, for Luisi and for Florence.  
Luisi is currently Music Director at Zurich Opera, and will become Principal Conductor of the Royal Danish National Symphony Orchestra from 2017. He also guests extensively.  Read about his recent London Wozzeck HERE.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Chabrier L'étoile ROH - a French Fledermaus ?

Emmanuel Chabrier's L'étoile at the Royal Opera House: is it a French Die Fledermaus? Johan Strauus's operetta was a sensation in 1874, so perhaps it's not a coincidence that the two works have much in common.  Both predicate on mistaken identities, on people trying to be what they are not. Just as champagne features in Die Fledermaus, Chartreuse figures in L'étoile. Alcohol  releases inhibitions, anything can happen when you're drunk.

But from thereon the operas diverge.  Die Fledermaus has a very dark subtext indeed: the sparkling fizz hides venom.  Read more about what I've written about it here and here, witha link to a brilliant Nazi era film on the theme. Perhaps  L'étoile has a dark side, but its surface shines - like a star - dazzling all before it.  Madcap zaniness is its raison d'être. Rather than read too much into it, sit back and enjoy.  

Lots of people in tonight's audience were guffawing so much they looked like their sides would split. No doubt it could be done as broad-brush slaptick, but I think I prefer director Mariame Clément's approach, which fits much better with Chabrier's music,  and its quintessental charm.  It also fits in with his piano and orchestral music. While Chabrier adored Wagner, the composers' temperaments were radically different. Wagner fulminates, Chabrier exudes good humour. Chabrier's light, brittle style reminds me of Poulenc, of Les mamelles de Tirésias and of the quirkier song cycles.  I hate using national labels, but there's something very French and down to earth in L'étoile, despite the craziness.   One doesn't lose proportion even when one's nuts. .

Ouf's kingdom exists entirely in the imagination.  Ouf, (Christophe Mortagne) decides that Siroco (Simon Bailey) will die right after him, and they are convinced that they'll both die if something happens to Lazuli (Kate Lindsey).  Superstition reigns, not reason or logic.  One moment Lazuli faces death, the next he's treated like royalty. Princess Laoula ( Hélène Guilmette) descends, literally, from above in a balloon. "Believe a man can fly" as they say in Superman comics.  Laoula and her parents Hérisson de Porc-Epic (what a name - François Piolino and Julie Boulianne) disguise themselves as tradesmen but what they're really out to buy is Ouf.  Ouf might be fantasy Persian, but becomes a Saudi Prince, and an Ottoman in a harem with hordes of Turks in white helmets as chorus.  Exotic Orientalism to wow the audience, event clad odalisques and a pool from which hot air rises (like the balloon, like the plot ). Lazuli tries to escape in a boat, seen here as a flat painted like a small cruiser complete with "waves".  He's lost at sea, brilliantly depicted by having the chorus, lit in the colours of the sea, toss a small boat in their arms. Of course it's not realistic! Realism would be contrary to everything L'étoile stands for. Two English-speaking characters add another dimension, and a monk clad in a white habit operates silently in nearly every scene. He's a Carthusian. Carthusians make Chartreuse. And thus the second act glows in eerie Chatreuse-y green, a huge bottle centre stage from which singers emerge and retreat.  Beer goggles, only posher.

Kate Lindsey's performance stole the show. She's the star of L'étoile, though singing all round was good, especially the ROH chorus, who revelled in the robust gusto of their parts,.  Although the ROH PR machine seems to be building something up for Mark Elder, the conducting was disappointingly unidiomatic. Musically, L'étoile is a series of numbers rather than anything coherent, so there really isn't any need to sound too refined.  More punchiness and pugnacious kick, please. The staging, designed by Julia Hansen, replicates stage design in Chabrier's time, with flats painted in cartoon like pastels, pushed in and out on panels.  Audiences then knew that theatre was the art of illusion.  "Realism" is a curse beaten into modern audiences who watch too much TV.  Claire Seymour will be writing a proper review in Opera Today. I had a lovely time - gosh it's fun not to have to think too hard for a change!

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Korngold Die tote Stadt Vogt Nylund Eiche Marzena Diakun

Erich Korngold's Die tote Stadt in Paris last night. The principals, Klaus Florian Vogt, Camilla Nylund, and Markus Eiche have been doing this opera together for at least five years, in many cities and usually with Mikko Franck as conductor. The photo above comes from the production by Kasper Holten which is rather good. Those who've been following this cast on their progress of Die tote Stadt across Europe will have had a good idea of what to expect, and the performance delivered well. A very enjoyable evening!

Mikko Franck was unable to appear last night, so the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France was conducted instead by Marzena Diakun. The OPRF chose Franck as their chief conductor because he's wonderful. Together they're a formidable team.  Franck has chronic health problems, so they're also wise to support him with an an interesting alternative conductor in  Marzena Diakun  Read more about her HERE.   Die tote Stadt is a challenge to conduct, predicating as it does on an unsettling dichotomy between lush chromatics and something more disturbing.The music is so beautiful that it can hypnotise. Paul is a psychological vampire, feeding on necrophiliac obsession. But it's not healthy!  His friend Frank recoils in horror.  Perhaps it's significant that the roles of Frank and Fritz are taken by the same singer, for Marietta and the theatre troupe jolt Paul back into the real world.  It's not hard to read the undercurrents. Julius Korngold was a domineering father who perhaps expected to shape his son in his own image. Erich didn't rebel outright, but did his own thing resolutely, marrying a woman his father didn't like, and moving to America not as an exile but because he saw where his destiny might lie. Father and son jointly wrote the libretto for the opera, under a shared pseudonym, but it's pretty clear who holds the real balance of power. Paul goes forwards, not back.

A conductor can luxuriate in the luscious Old Vienna harmonies, but ultimately almost Expressionist tensions propel the music forward. We hear the bells of Bruges toll, ominously, as if the city and its traditions were falling down on Paul, as if to suffocate him. But the finale with its brave, bold cadences suggests that Paul is waking from the psychic fog that envelops his mind.  Diakun is good - she'd hardly have that job if she wasn't - and though she's no match for Metzmacher, Franck and others, she knows that Die tote Stadt isn't regressive, but modern. Please also see my other posts on Korngold, including Into the Soul of Erich Korngold, written just over seven years ago. 

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Gorgeous Georgia - gemlike Tbilisi Opera House

Tbilisi in Georgia knows the value of culture and of the arts.  The refurbished Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre looks like a fabulous jewel box, overflowing with treasures. Every surface seems ornamented with mosaics, frescoes, gilding and light. What's more the wonderfully Byzantine style is apparently uniquely Georgian,. The new theatre will be a monument to Georgian art and tradition that the whole nation can be proud of. This theatre literally puts Tbilisi on the map.

After six years of restoration, the Tbilisi Opera house opens tonight with an opera, Abesalom and Eteri,  by Georgia's greatest composer, Zacharia  Paliashvili (1871-1933),  after whom the theatre is named. The performance will feature leading Georgian singers, though not Paata Burchuladze who is taking a year off  from singing to do other things, and may possibly run for political office. Read more about Paliashivili and the opera HERE.   HERE is a link to more photos. 

 In contrast, British arts policy is defiantly reductionist. In the long term this meanness of spirit could strangle creativity, killing the goose that laid the golden egg that made Britain famous.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Gustav Holst's Falstaff - At the Boar's Head

John Tomlinson, Philip Langridge.  Felicity Palmer, Elise Ross and David Wilson-Johnson. the greatest English singers of their time, all still young and vigorously in their prime. An ideal way into Holst's At the Boar's Head (1925)  on BBC Radio 3 HERE.  The voices absolutely matter in this cheerful one-act opera, which springs from Shakespeare's Henry IV and in particular the scene at the Boar's Head tavern. Voices utterly dominate, since Holst was inspired by the text in the plays, which he read while enjoying the score of John Playford's The English Dancing Master and transcripts of folk tunes collected by Cecil Sharp. The words seem to come alive in his imagination. as though, as he said, the music replicated the plays. This context shapes the opera  which predicates on the interplay of different voices and on the syntax of speech. Thus orchestral links are minimal, and oriented towards sturdy dances. David Atherton and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra don't have a great deal to do but mark the lively counterpoint and pace.  But what wonderful singing - sharply articulated, lively, perfect diction and mastery of tongue-twisting lines, such as would have thrilled the audience of a play with incidental music.  The dialogue betweem Tomlinson's Falstaff and Langridge's Prince Hal is close to ideal.

"Bye the bye", Holst wrote to Jane Johnson, "Have you ever tried declaiming 'Shall packhorses  and Hollow pampered jades Which cannot go but thirty mile a day Compare with Caesars and Cannibals and Trojan Greeks  Nay, rather damn them with King Cereberus and let the welkin roar". But at the premieres in Manchester and Golders Green, audiences were not amused.  As Imogen Holst wrote "Listeners felt cheated, for as soon as they got hold of a tune, it woud be snatched away from them, and woven, with the utmost cunning, into a restlessly changing pattern that baffled the ear." yet Holst was following Shakespeare, if not to the letter but in the spirit of the play. "Not one syllable had been distorted", she wrote " from its natural rhythm and inflection for the sake of fitting in the tunes. And each word came through clearly, for the orchestration was so light that it resembled 'a succession of pin pricks!"  

Fortunately now we can listen to At the Boar's Head without expecting a musical, and appreciate it for what it is. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

NEW Luigi Nono : a Composer in Context

At last, the long-awaited publication of Luigi Nono: a composer in context, by Carola Nielinger-Vakil,(Cambridge University Press, 361 pp). Nielinger-Vakil is a leading light in Nono studies, having worked in the Nono archives and in Freiburg with André Richard, Nono's technological muse. She knows her subject extremely well!  Although I haven't read the book yet, it's bound to be a significant contribution to Nono studies.  For a taster. please read more HERE for chapter titles, a list of musical examples and a short extract. 

When I was 16 I turned on the radio, and out came these strange, haunting sounds, so distinctive that years later, when I formally heard La fabbrica illuminata, I recognized it right away.  Nobody told me that modern music was difficult or dangerous. I simply listened with open ears and an open mind.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Hommage à Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris

Hommage à Pierre Boulez at the Philharmonie in Paris, live last night, now online HERE. Though there are live performances, this is much more than a concert. There are readings from Boulez's writing, not only on music but on philosophy and the arts in general.  Boulez was a natural communicator: someone who read many of his works, not only the books but articles, etc, said that Boulez was a true intellectual, a man whose mind ranged over many disciplines, always analysing, questioning and developing original perspectives. We know Boulez the composer, the conductor, the teacher, the arts policy visionary, but Boulez as thinker is yet to be fully appreciated.  There's even a reading from one of his books on Paul Klee, whose work Boulez collected. Think about it. In Klee's paintings cells multiply in myriad shades and hues forming patterns and layers of colour and light. From The Impressionists to Debussy, from Klee to Boulez.....

There are also clips from the archives: interviews in which Boulez talks about Messiaen, René Char  and others. At  1.26, a joyous masterclass which shows how Boulez interacted with people on a personal level.  That's exactly what he was like, totally sincere and down to earth.  At a private party in Paris a few years ago, there was a performance of a difficult new work which required extreme technique from the soloist, who was very young. Imagine how he must have felt, playing in front of an auience of less than 100, with Boulez as guest of honour in the front row.  Later, I chatted with the young player in a curtained alcove off the main room. Then along comes Boulez, and quietly congratulates the young player, encouraging him and giving support. No witnesses, no cameras: total sincerity. After that you could have scraped the player off the floor.

What comes over well in this tribute is a very palpable sense of personal loss. Most of the people here knew Boulez in some personal capacity. Not for them the nasty myths so many seem compelled to repeat. Thousands may want to believe the world was created in exactly 7 days,  but that doesn't make it true. Indeed, the hate directed at Boulez is a measure of his genius.  Mediocrity can't cope with true originality.

That the homage takes place in the Philharmonie de Paris is also significant. It is probably the greatest concert hall in the world, now, the pinnacle by which all others may be measured. It's more than the ulltimate performance space. It's a cité de la musique, supporting many activities including IRCAM, music schools, and a home to key orchestras, from the Orchestre de Paris to Les Arts Florissants to Ensemble Intercontemporain, which PB founded.  The Philharmonie, stands for excellence. If excellence is cereberal and elitist: so be it.  Boulez's legacy won't be measured in terms of those who copy him, but in those who dream like he did.  In Paris until end June, there's an exhibition about his life and works.

If the film is choppy, I think that reflects what the experience must have been like live. There would have been gaps in the performance to change the stage and show the video clips. But notice - no talking heads, no "experts". Boulez himself speaks ,through  his own words and music.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Berlioz meets George Antheil The Spectre of the Rose

Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance, orchestrated by Hector Berlioz, the music upon which Fokine created the ballet La spectre de la rose (1911) for VaclavNijinsky. But that's not all!   George Antheil re-adapted Berlioz re-adapting Weber for the movie Spectre of the Rose (1946). Antheil created the music for Ballet Mécanique, the brilliant Dadaist masterpiece created by Ferinard Léger. Antheil was at the heart of the Paris avant garde in the 1920's, hanging out with Man Ray, Stravinsky and pretty much everyone. For him, film was an art form, created by intellectuals for lively minds. Even in Hollywood, Antheil managed to connect with the adventurous and creative.  Lots on this site about Antheil, and on the other experimental and art film of the 20's and 30's.

The movie, Specter of the Rose (1946) was so quirky that there was no way it would have been a hit at the box office hit like so much else that Ben Hecht did.  Allusions to art and the arts community crackle all through the script: it's a highly crafted satire with killer bon mots. An elderly former ballerina sits knitting. She's importuned by a bankrupt promoter called Poliakoff, played by an actor called Chekhov, as the personification of High Camp. In this little world of losers who once had dreams, characters  sport fancy foreign names and speak with theatrical flourish, and repartees as sharp as in Marx Brothers comedy. There's a brilliant vignette when a hardboiled hack gets drunk and spouts philosophy (which is actually quite radical pointed, politically). "We lived in a poem" says Mme La Sylph.  Hence the story is built around the ballet La spctre de la Rose. where a young girl falls in love with the idea of art and imagines that a Rose has come alive. to dance with her.  The movie, however, morphs into murder mystery.  Did the principal dancer Sanine (played by an actor called Kirov!) murder his first wife in a fit of madness?  She died dancing on stage. Will he kill his new dance partner, his new wife Heidi.  

Against all odds, the company, on the verge of bankruptcy, becomes a hit. At the peak of success, Daniner and Heidi disappear and the show closes. Sanine has had a psychotic episode. "The rose has a thorn, the rose has a knife and dances around you till you die"  Sabine puts on his Rose costume and dances about the apartment in a mad scene, where Antheil's reworking of Berlioz/Weber explodes into mayhem. With a Nijinsky-style leap, Sanine jumps out of the window, to his death. Poliakoff , now broke again, goes back to tacky touring shows "with the trunks, the hair pulling and the mad love songs from Old Vienna", "It's better than begging" says Mme La Sylph.  Then you realize why she's a tricoteuse. The Specter of the rose is gallows humour.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Barbican 2016-2017 - Jonas Kaufmann 10 day Residency

Jonas Kaufmann will be Artist in Residence at the Barbican, London.  For TEN days, during February 2017, Kaufmann will give his first major performance of Wagner in London: with Karita Mattila and Eric Halfvarson in Act I from Die Walküre, with the LSO conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano.  Much more unusually, he will sing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder in the first half of the concert, and Strauss’s Four Last Songs, a work rarely performed by a tenor. The residency opens with a lieder recital with pianist Helmut Deutsch and also includes a public “in conversation” and a workshop session with Guildhall School musicians.
The Barbican's 2016-2017 series features three international orchestra residencies :

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam performs at the Barbican on 16 and 17 December. This residency will be the orchestra’s first London appearance with its new Chief Conductor, Daniele Gatti.  Two concerts featuring Ravel and Stravinsky alongside Prokofiev’s Violin
Concerto No. 2 with Lisa Batiashvili, Wagner, Mahler and Berg.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Mariss Jansons, who has said .   "For me, as a conductor, it’s like driving a Rolls Royce. The orchestra can cope with everything”. On  11 April 2017 their programme features Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1 Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Shostakovich’s Symphony No 1.  

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 31 March-2 April 2017. These concerts will be Alan Gilbert’s last UK concerts as the Philharmonic’s Music Director. The performances include the European premiere of a new cello concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen with Yo-Yo Ma. The NY Phil will also mark  John Adams’s 70th birthday with his Harmonielehre, Absolute Jest, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. 

From the Barbican's regular resident orchestras

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari  Oramo present showpieces including Messiaen's Turangalîla-sinphonie and the complete works of Varèse.  Lots more of course, since the BBC SO is so prolific  This season finds them giving world and UK premieres of works by Kaija Saariaho, Diana Burrell, Philip Cashian, Michael Zev Gordon, Nicola LeFanu, Wolfgang Rihm and Detlev Glanert. 
The London Symphony Orchestra, with Music Director designate Simon Rattle who will do a new staging of Ligeti’s Le grand macabre, directed by Peter Sellars. Rattle also brings us a Mark-Anthony
Turnage world premiere, Remembering; and a programme featuring Lang Lang. The LSO Artist Portrait spotlights Janine Jansen.  

The Academy of Ancient Music presents a  semi-staged production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. the first of a three-year Purcell opera cycle  The staging is directed by Daisy Evans with soloists including Mhairi Lawson, Iestyn Davies, Samuel Boden and Ashley Riches with narration by actor Timothy West. Also, Monteverdi’s Vespers, Jordi Savall makes his AAM debut and tenor James Gilchrist, who works regularly with the AAM, directs the ensemble for the first time in a programme featuring Purcell and Bach. 

The Britten Sinfonia focuses on Thomas Adès and Gerald Barry, and the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater. 

Massed Voices : Since Simon Halsey’s appointment as LSO Choral Director in 2012, the Orchestra’s choral programme has rapidly gained in scale and ambition and this season sees performances of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 2, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir (16 & 20 October); John Adams’s El Niño, conducted by the composer (4 December); Fabio Luisi conducting Brahms’ German Requiem (19 March); and Bruckner’s Te Deum, with conductor Bernard Haitink (28 May). 

Baroque goodies : Vivaldi Juditha Triumphans with the Venice Baroque Orchestra and a
stellar cast headed by Magdalena Kožená; Andreas Scholl and Accademia Bizantina performing sacred music from Neapolitan operas; The English Concert and Joyce DiDonato in Handel’s Ariodante; and Messiah with Les Arts Florissants.

As always, much, much else !