Monday, 23 January 2017

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Wigmore Hall Fortepiano Schubert : Georg Nigl Andreas Staier

The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier.  Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song.  In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.  For this recital, he was joined by Georg Nigl, an Austrian baritone, who once was a soprano soloist with the Wiener Sängerknaben. Perhaps that background shaped Nigl's finely detailed approach, which suited Staier's restrained but expressive style.  In a programme focused on mainly early Schubert, the balance was nicely poised.

Early Schubert, though, isn't always showcase material, except perhaps to devotees, who relish it dearly.  Schubert's Andenken D99 (1814) will always be outshone by Beethoven's setting of  the same poem, though on its own terms it's a delicate piece of youthful innocence.  Nigl and Staier presented a set of six Schubert settings of Friedrich Matthisson (1767-1831) which Schubert set between 1813 and 1814, almost certainly being aware of Beethoven' settings of Matthisson.  Schubert's admiration for Beethoven knew no bounds, but, apart from Andenken, he was cautious enough to set poems other than those Beethoven chose. The  Matthisson songs Nigl and Staier performed included lively spook tales like Die Schatten D50, Geistenähe D100 and Der Geistertanz D116, but the rather more sophisticated poetry of Der Abend (Purpur malt die Tannenhügel.) D108 inspired a lyricism which clearly suggests Schubert's idiomatic style.

Georg Nigl, photo: Bernd Uhlig
The Matthisson settings were followed by six settings of Ludwig Heinrich Christoph Hölty (1748-1760), whom Brahms was to set so well. Schubert's Hölty settings include An den Mond D193, but here we heard the lovely Die Mainacht D194 (1815),  Frühlingslied D398 (1816), and Die Knabenzeit D400 (1816) where the instrumental line dances with cheerful vigour. Staier's playing was meticulously lucid, never over-dominant, and responsive to Nigl, who has an attractive voice but may have been unwell. He looked flushed.  We all get sick sometimes, and singers are no different.  
At moments his voice filled out well.  The words "Freud' ist überall" from Erntelied D 424 (1816) soared nicely, suggesting how Nigl might sound when on form.

With Abschied "Über die Berg zieht fort" D475 (1816) after the interval, Nigl's voice at last blossomed. The song is dear to him, as he said after the recital, repeating it with even greater poise as an encore.  The gentle cadences in this song revealed the richness of Nigl's voice at the lower end of his register. Staier shaped the delicate triplets and firm single chords with plangent finesse.  Staier's recording of Schubert's Mayrhofer songs with Christoph Prégardien , made in 2001, is still an essential choice for any Schubert lover, so it was interesting to hear him with Nigl, who, though a baritone,  has a lighter timbre than many.  Apart from Abschied and Nachstück D D672 (1819), Staier and Nigl performed Orest und Tauris D548 (1817) Erlafsee D685 (1817) and Beim Winde D669 (1819).  Staier also recorded Schubert Seidl settings with Prégardien, so it was a delight to hear him again, now with Nigl, in old favourites like Der Wanderer am Mond  D870 (18126) Das Zügenglöcklein D 871 (1826), Am Fester D878 (1826) and Irdisches Glück D 866/4 (1828). These late songs, though technically demanding, are also easier on the ear than some of the early songs, thus always welcome.  

Nigl and Staier concluded with two settings of Franz von Schober, Schubert's raffish companion, Genügsamkeit D143 (1815) and Schiffers Schiedelied D 910 (1827), the driving "ocean waves" in the piano part sounding rather livelier on fortepiano than they would on some keyboards.  Heavy pedalling makes heavy weather ! The singer shouldn't drown. Neither song is a masterpiece, though they are worth knowing. As a friend observed "Genügsamkeit" doesn't mean "contentment" but a double edged feeling of having "enough" to be happy with, though you wouldn't mind having more.

This review also appears in Opera Today

Friday, 20 January 2017

Simon Rattle LSO Turnage Mahler Barbican

This was no "ordinary" event! When Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Mark-Anthony Turnage and Mahler at the Barbican, a statement was being made, of much wider significance than the concert itself.  Consider the context.  Though he formally becomes the LSO's Music Director later this year, their association goes way back. Rattle is perhaps the greatest mover and shaker that British music has experienced since Sir Henry Wood.  His whole life has been dedicated to a love of music that goes beyond conducting, and reaches all aspects of cultural experience.

This concert was mega-profile for many reasons. This was the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Remembering 'in memoriam Evan Scofield' , a joint commission between the LSO, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Turnage is one of the great British composers of our time, and also international, given his long association with the US and his interest in jazz.  Remembering was written about a promising young man whose life was cut short by cancer at the age of only 25.  Before he died, however, Scofield asked that those who survived him might have the adventures he missed out on. By scattering his ashes, those who loved him could travel with him where he could not have otherwise gone: imagination transcending the annihilation of death. A metaphor for creativity, whose results live beyond their maker.

Rattle and Turnage, when they were young
Remembering is a long way from the wildness of Greek and the audacity of Anna Nicole. It resembles Frieze, but may well mark a new period in Turnage's development. It's a very personal work, since the composer knew the dedicatee extremely well. Turnage and John Scofield, the jazz guitarist, Evan's father, collaborated on many projects, including Scorched in 2004.  Written in four movements, Remembering resembles a symphony. The first movement is fast and angular, with whips of jerky expression typical  of Turnage's funky jazz-influenced style.  Suddenly the pace speeds up and the movement ends abruptly.  Elongated lines mark the second movement, purposefully dragging as if it were possible to hold back time. Metallic percussion, the cool, pure chill of high flutes.   Quiet. ominous rumblings underpin the sharp protests in the scherzo, which cuts out abruptly, like the previous movements, its mood left hanging in the air.  Cello and viola duet in the finale. The pace is elegaic, deliberate, cut by a moment in which the orchestra suddenly flares up with sudden energy, before retreating into passages of great refinement and beauty.  Muted trumpets, elegant winds: ultimately the mood is transcendence, far from the jerky rhythms of the world. Two "hammerblows" struck on tubular bells.  The third is beyond our ken.

It was in context with Turnage's Remembering that the Mahler 6th performance which followed can be appreciated.  Audiences are used to listening from recordings, but musicians hear from the experience of concert performance.  Rattle has been conducting Mahler for forty years,  and was, indeed, instrumental in bringing Mahler to widespread public attention in this country. The LSO have also been playing Mahler since way back, under numerous different conductors.  On this occasion, Rattle and the LSO approached Mahler through the prism of Turnage's Remembering, which being new,  would have taken more rehearsal and study time.

This "Tragic" was tragic, but also non-tragic. The hammerblow didn't cut him short – yet – and he went on to greater heights.  Andante-Scherzo worked well in this performance, reinforcing the idea of memory.  The "Alma Theme" represents happiness, summer, nature, all those good things that make life worth living. When the chill descends, the iciness is all the more poignant, having looked back on what will not come again. A beautifully poised andante, the LSO playing with a tenderness that takes more skill tio achieve than big, noisy outbursts.  If music can be as sublime as this, it can never be extinguished, it lives on forever, whatever happens to the individuals playing it at any given point in time. Thus the grotesque absurdity of death which the Scherzo represents is but a setback on a longer journey. The fierce driving passages, and the wailing brass give way to a macabre dance,and eventually to much sparer figures from which the Alma theme can be perceived, before the screams start again.  The Finale didn't feel depressing, but why should it have to?  I liked the punch with which Rattle and the LSO concluded : more defiance than defeat. Things are not alright when someone dies, but if you know your Mahler, you know that the end is not the end.

Last week, Rattle and the LSO announced plans for a future which gives prominence to new British music. Given that London might miss out on a world-class concert hall, and that Paris and Berlin might supplant London as a centre for excellence, focusing on British music might be compensation, up to a point.  This season at the Barbican sees several premieres of new British work, Turnage's Remembering being the high-profile first.  But whether our politicians like it or not, classical music is a European thing, a  culture of such richness and depth  that it would be churlish to blank it out in favour of insularity.  As Rattle also said last week, the point is that London concert halls just don't have the capacity to do good music justice. It's not just a question of acoustics.  At the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall, players are squashed together like sardines. What the public doesn't see is that backstage working conditions aren't up to scratch, either.  Read my pieces on why we need a world class concert hall in London HERE. 

This concert was also the first full concert-length live broadcast by the London Symphony Orchestra, which has done podcasts before but nothing quite as high profile as this. Through the Digital Concert Hall. which originated in the Rattle era,  the Berliner Philharmoniker reaches audiences anywhere, breaking down insularity, benefiting all who care about excellence.  Musician-led broadcasts are a good way forward, keeping profits in house and breaking the artistic dominance of third parties.  Perhaps equally important, audiences get to listen the way musicians listen, through whole concerts and in context.  Listen to the Rattle LSO Turnage Mahler concert on medici tv and on the LSO YouTube channel (which flopped out for part of the live broadcast).  

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Wigmore Hall Sunday Muriel Herbert songs

An opportunity to hear a very unusual programme this Sunday at the Wigmore Hall. The Royal Academy of Music Song Circle presents the songs of Muriel Herbert (1897-1983),  a composer of promise whose career was restricted by the circumstances of her life and times.  Tickets are still available, HERE.

Although Herbert was born into  a large, musical family, her father died when she was 12, leaving the family in poverty. Her mother fell into depression. Yet Muriel started writing music in her teens and was ambitious enough to get accepted into the Royal College of Music in 1917, then in the grip of Charles Villiers Stanford, a man not given to innovation or to female emancipation. In front of all the other students, Stanford made he play, from sight, a Beethoven piano concerto arranged for two pianos. These days that would be deemed intimidation. Luckily, Herbert knew the arrangement well. Then, as now, talent alone isn't enough : women have to be extra capable simply to be able to be allowed into consideration. After her brief, unhappy marriage ended, Herbert returned to England from France, but not to London and spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity.  Fortunately her daughter, the biographer Claire Tomalin, preserved her manuscripts. In 2008, Herbert's songs were recorded by James Gilchrist, Ailish Tynan and David Owen Norris. This is the CD to get, from which I've taken the biographical information.

The Academy Song Circle (Nika Gorič, Katie Stevenson, Nicholas Mogg, Michael Mofidian, Yi-shing Cheng and Michael Pandya) are performing a selection of Herbert's songs including the lovely How Beautiful is the Night (1918) to a poem by Southey. and the  set of Children's Songs which Herbert wrote in 1938, when her own children were young.   Playful songs, setting a popular contemporary poem : songs about tadpoles, Jack Spratt, gypsies. Escapism, or the multitasking of a mother who wanted to write music but had to earn a living and raise children on her own. Or memories?  While Herbert's mother was giving birth to her, the doctor played Schubert,  Brahms and Schumann on the piano in the parlour.  Herbert set modern poets as well as old , like Robert Bridges When Death to either shall come, (1923) which has an early 20's feel.  

The Academy Song Circle perform Herbert's songs in context.  One of her most beautiful songs  Renouncement,, a setting of a Victorian poet,  was written after Herbert fell in love with Roger Quilter, not realizing that he was gay.  How she must have idolized father figures!  The wistfulness in this song masks genuine, personal anguish.  Herbert met James Joyce in her youth, and set one of his poems too, which isn't on this programme. Quilter's own songs are heard somewhat to Herbert's disadvantage as they are major works, like Love's Philosophy and Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.  Several of Charles Villiers Stanfird's songs are also on this programme, showing that Herbert wasn't dominated by him. He had status, money and power. She didn't. But she did her own thing as best as she was able. 

Mozart 250 Classical Opera Wigmore Hall

Ian Page and Classical Opera reached 1767 in their Mozart 250 project, the ambitious series planned to cover 27 years of Mozart's music and influences. 1767 was the year in which the young Mozart began to write more substantial and ambitious work, so this programme at the Wigmore Hall, London, was a good taster for what is to come later in the series. Read Claire Seymour's review of the concert HERE in Opera Today.  

Coming up next, my review of the latest recital in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert song series,  with Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier

Monday, 16 January 2017

Visionary Der fliegende Holländer Kasper Holten

The Flying Dutchman confronts Daland : Johann Reutter and Gregory Frank, photo Heiki Tuuli, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent,  a thoughtful approach to the  deeper levels in the opera. Why is the Dutchman doomed ?  Why does he need the love of a woman to break the curse ?  Wagner without ideas isn't Wagner, and this opera is no sea shanty. Holten connects  Der fliegende Holländer to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even to Parsifal by bringing out sub-texts on artistic creativity and metaphysics.  And what amazing theatre this is, too, and very sensitive to the abstract cues in the music. .

Just as the Overture begins quietly with woodwinds, we encounter The Dutchman  (Johan Reuter)  in a contemplative mood.  He's in a studio, possibly a painter who makes portraits. A woman is lying on his bed. Model, lover or muse, we don't now, but as tempi increase, and the orchestra swells like the ocean, Reuter moves outside, exposed to the elements of the storm that is breaking.  Huge figures loom over him, suggesting storm clouds and crashing waves. Darkened figures scurry past, like the cross- currents in the score. Back in his studio, the Dutchman is confronted by female dancers, who writhe as the music does, tantalizing him yet pulling away.  The Overture reaches a crescendo, then decelerates.  We glimpse the private Dutchman, as Reuter's face contorts in agony. He's having a panic attack. Far more moving, and human, than Dutchman-as-Demon. 

Daland (Gregory Frank) and his crew have survived the storm unscathed.  Unlike The Dutchman, Daland is a public person, who likes status and wealth. Here, he's in what might be an art gallery reception, where the rich pose. They don't actually "do" art. Amidst this sophistication, the Steuermann's song seems unsettling, too sincere and too simple to fit in with the pretentious setting. But so it should be, for the Steersman (Tuomas Katajala)  represents earthier values. Significantly, in the libretto, Daland passes responsibility for his ship to the lowly sailor. "Gefahr ist nicht, doch gut ist's, wenn du wachst."  He doesn't realize that the Dutchman has quietly entered the party unnoticed.  Low winds and brass moan, and suddenly the Dutchman materializes and the crowd clears. "Der Frist is um", sings Reuter.  Gold means nothing. "Ew'ge Vernichtung, nimm mich auf!" with intense agony. The party crowd repeat the phrase, but still don't get the full import.  Daland thinks he's been through the same storm. If only he's paid attention to the music Wagner wrote around the Dutchman!  He doesn't even realize what he might be letting his daughter in for. The Dutchman brings out a portrait. Drums beat in the orchestra, but Daland's laying around with his i-pad, oblivious.

The women are seen spinning, their movements reflecting the circular figures in the music though their cheerful singing parodies the infinitely grimmer cycles the Dutchman has to keep repeating.  Pottery classes are middle class, producing nice objects, not necessarily functional, or artistic. Senta (Camilla Nylund) has her sights on greater things. She grabs the clay on her wheel and squishes it up into a shape that vaguely suggests a penis, reminding us that sexuality, in some form or other, is implicit in the true meaning of this opera.  Shen then dons a white painter suit and paints with huge, dramatic brush strokes as she sings her keynote monologue, without missing a beat or inflection in her singing: quite a feat.  The other women look on, uncomprehending. It's interesting how Wagner sets their chorus as quasi-religious chorale.  Nylund jumps bodily into the painting, getting dirty.  The women grab their bags, preparing to flee. Mary, (Sari Nordqvist), the only woman with individual flair, pays attention.  When Erik (Mika Pojhonen) comes with roses, he flinches.  Hes a land person not someone who faces the open seas.  The Steersman's song is exquisitely beautiful because he lives: Erik's music is sincere, but dreams are the only time he lives in the imagination.
Senta and the Dutchman meet, and gradually their music builds up towards intense passion. In this production, we see their connection grow as the Dutchman sees a painting Senta's created. He takes out his camera, in deep appreciation. The use of a revolving stage allows the action to flow, marking the subtle gradations in their relationship.  Eventually, the Dutchman and Senta end up, embracing tenderly in bed, but almost immediately the Sailors' chorus intrudes upon their dream  This time, the innocent song sounds frantic, the rhythm clipped with near ostinato violence.   Alcohol fuelled sexuality and fundamental antagonism between the living and the dead. This isn't a party in the normal sense.  Senta sleeps on, but the Dutchman has been through this before. The nightmare's coming back, as it does every seven years. The ghostly chorus surround the bed, their faces masked and menacing, flashing their phones, to blind the Dutchman. When he's encircled, they point at him accusingly.  This staging also emphasizes the way the Norwegian chorus parallel the chorus of the Dutchman's crew, and both adapt the Steersman's tune in brutal new ways.  The village women dance with the Dutchman, but their coldness has a Flower Maiden surrealism.  He tries to make sense by painting on them, as an artist does, but he's doomed, pursued by the singing, the music and the storm that's building up. Demonic lighting effects, sharp angles match visuals to music  Modern technology can whip up cosmic storms of truly metaphysical force.

The music stills, for a moment, and the Dutchman wakes. Senta's still there, asleep. Has he broken the curse.  Erik enters, scolding, showing Senta clips of their happy past on his i-phone. .  For the Dutchman, the nightmare descends again. "Verloren! Ach! Verloren! Ewig verlornes Heil!" The Dutchman sets sail, in his mind. Everything's turning in dizzying circles: we see closeups of Reuter's face as if taken from a small handheld, projected across the entire stage.  "Du kennst mich nicht, du ahnst nicht, wer ich bin!". Reality disintegrates. Do we see the Dutchman shoot himself  We know he cannot die. But suddenly we're back in the art gallery, Senta is showing an installation she's made in which the Dutchman's last moments are preserved forever on endless tape loop.  Has the Dutchman sacrificed his dreams to save Senta? Or has Senta sacrificed herself, after all, to redeem him?  Nylund turns away from the crowd, and we see her, "as" Reuter, her features contorted in agony, as if her soul were disintegrating within.  Is the Dutchman free, or has the curse fallen on Senta in his place ? A tantalizing but brilliant ending, which suggests that being creative is a vocation, where vision matters. Sacrifice and redemption, through art.  Holten's  Der fliegende Holländer  is true Wagner.

Watch this production, conducted for the Finnish National Opera by John Fiore, on Opera Platform only until 17th February. When his Wagner Meistersinger reaches London, no doubt the hate mob will rise in fury, but Kasper Holten absolutely deserves respect for his integrity.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Why the City of London backs World Class Music Centre

The City of London Corporation has announced that it will fund the completion of the study into a business case for a new, world class centre for music in London.  This is the feasibility study that was in progress until last November when it was abruptly cut short by the government. The Corporation has pledged £2.5 million  towards the £5.5 million cost of the study, of which £1.25 million has already been spent.  A shortfall, but still a tiny proportion of the £80 million the Corporation spends each year on the arts in London. Why does the Corporation value this project?  Because the arts are a major part of the economy.  In a global market,  Britain needs to stay competitive or fall backward.

Opposition to the world class centre for music reflects long-term British resentment against London.  That reductionist philosophy is embedded so deeply into the Arts Council England's DNA that the organization isn't structurally capable of adapting to change, or of reflecting the realities of the business. Fact is, Britain is a  centralized country and always has been.  For a brief time in the Industrial Revolution, northern regions competed with London but the modern economy is now international.  A report released last year (read more here)  showed that in 2014/15 London generated almost as much tax as the next 37 cities, and contributes 30% of the entire tax income in the nation.  The imbalance can be changed by a political agenda that wrecks London, while hoping that the slack can mysteriously be taken up elsewhere.  Alternatively, policy makers could recognize that London generates income for the entire country, and in an international. technological world this isn't going to disappear overnight.

It's nonsense to suggest that a world class centre for London will only benefit London and tourists. Everyone wins when there is a centre for excellence that generates talent, earns income and raises the nation's profile. The arts are "foreign policy", more effective, in the long term, than guns and bombs.  The Victorians were making political statements when they built the Royal Albert Hall and the museums around it.  At the British Museum, one marvels at the Empire that ripped artefacts from Greece, Egypt and Assyria, and gets the implicit message. London's heritage is everyone's heritage, whether or not they go there themselves. And they can, if they care.

Technology is also changing the way the arts reach potential audiences.  Through its Digital Concert Hall, the Berliner Philharmoniker reaches anyone, anywhere in the world with internet access. Increasingly, other orchestras and opera houses are wising up to the potential of digital marketing. Even the Met is streaming its archives online. The day when record companies controlled things is over.  Now orchestras and opera houses can themselves decide artistic content and feasibility. Smaller organizations can co-operate to spread costs. Profits stay closer to source. When listeners can access the world,  geographic boundaries count for less, while opening up the market for diversity.  Orchestras won't all have to sound the same, to fit the old-style mass market, and repertoire can be less narrow.

Yet it's also imperative to recognize that excellence in the arts is generated when there is a large enough critical mass of talent concentrated together so creative people can stimulate each other. Poets can live as hermits, if they wish, but orchestral musicians, almost by definition, operate communally. Even more so with opera houses, where the creative community is even greater, and costs are contained by keeping people together. It's all very well to prioritize micro-mini ventures in out-of-the-way places, but reality is critical mass. All the technology in the world does not compensate for bringing people together in direct, personal contact. The bigger the group, the wider the creative horizons.  Excellence "is" education. I'ts all very well to suggest Birmingham or Glasgow or whatever, but fact is, London is where it's at.  Shakespeare needed to leave Stratford for London to do what he did.

This week, the Elbphilharmonie opened in Hamburg (read my analysis, not just a review,  here).  The NDR Elphilharmonie Orchester is good, though it's not mega-league.  But with the new hall, it's challenged to excel itself, and every orchestra that can will want to perform there, which will again raise the stakes. The city-state of Hamburg, a state of the German federation in its own right, had vision enough to realize that the arts are an important part  of the economy and of the wider community: an investment for the future on many different levels.  London's orchestras are very good indeed, but they're trapped in inadequate facilities. The acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican are only the tip of the iceberg. Berlin, Paris, St Petersburg and now Hamburg: what about London?  Someone seriously suggested that the British economy would survive Brexit by selling more tea, scones and jam, though such things can be made well elsewhere. Not rocket science!   But unfortunately that small-mindedness reflects the reductionist, self-destructive lack of vision that could suffocate the arts and the economy as a whole. 

Read this too Can post Brexit London survive as Europe's cultural and financial capital ?

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Game changer ! Elbphilharmonie grand opening

Das Eröffnungskonzert der Elbphilharmonie, the opening concert of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. The building looms like a giant ship on a promontory on the harbour: a reminder of Hamburg's maritime and commercial heritage. The lower floors match surrounding buildings, while the upper floors and roof reflect the skie : an inspired concept in architectural terms.  But what really makes the Elbphilharmonie interesting is that it's a game changer in many ways, with the potential to transform the whole way the European music business operates.  

"Freude" said the grandees making speeches, which is significant, for great art is inspired by joy, not small=minded negativity. The creative genius of Beethoven stood  at the start and finish of this communal celebration, with the Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus op 43 and the sublime Symphony no 9.  In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to empower men, an act which symbolizes enlightenment. That's why the arts matter. They generate creativity and, with that, the enthusiasm that generates change in many things, including economic regeneration. This new hall is a landmark that could challenge the dominance of Berlin and Paris. Not for nothing, the concert honoured Johannes Brahms, Hamburg's native son, who lived in Vienna, but remained, at heart, solidly North German.  In Britain, we've no way to compete, since British arts policy favours micro-endeavour. The fact is, excellence needs vision, and commitment.  The long-term benefits to the nation are infinitely greater than can be measured in simple terms.  The drive that went into making Hamburg the major port that it is, is the kind of drive we need in the arts.

Thomas Hengelbrock and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester chose a programme that demonstrated what the new building can do. The platform, larger than usual, nestles surrounded by different tiers of seating, rather like Berlin and Paris, so sound resonates more evenly than in conventional coffin-shaped halls.  Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Photoptosis (1968) tested the acoustic to the limit. Scored for a very large orchestra, the piece can be very loud indeed, but here what struck me most was the richness of sound, not the volume. The big climaxes are carefully constructed, with myriad layers of detail, some so subtle they can get lost. Yet in this hall, even the most refined components can be heard and relished.  Suddenly, the hall was plunged into darkness, small rows of lights shining from the dense gloom like stars. The plangent strains of a Praetorius motet rang out, as if being heard across the centuries. In a split second, the 16th and the 20th century connected. Also, from an eyrie above the platform, the orchestra's principal oboe played Pan, from Britten's Six Metamorphoses from Ovid op 49. Philippe Jaroussky sang Italian baroque airs, accompanied by harp, from a position above the stage, the clear, pure beauty of his voice carrying effortlessly round the large auditorium., In one of the interval clips, he's seen testing the acoustic by exploring with his voice as he walks around.  Then, Messiaen and Wagner, sounding clear and crisp. What a joy it must be for an orchestra to play in these surroundings, especially as the off-stage facilities are luxe class compared to many less generous venues. The best orchestras will now want to visit Hamburg: this superb acoustic will lift the game for everyone. Read more HERE about the technical aspects that make the acoustics in the auditorium.

For this grand opening gala, the whole Philharmonie building exterior became the backdrop for a spectacular light show. This, too, made a statement, since the light show would have been visible across the harbour. The Elbphilharmonie light show could become a feature of Hamburg's civic life, just like the way Hong Kong skyscrapers become a gigantic canvas for illuminations during the Christmas season (where the flat outside wall of the main local concert hall is the focus of a light show)  The arts aren't just for toffs. Involving the wider community outside the concert hall is a form of outreach and education without distracting from the main business of music making.  Indeed, excellence "is" education. It opens up ears and minds. 

This programme also featured Wolfgang Rihm, billed as"Germany's greatest living composer", though he couldn't attend so Hengelbrock raised a placard with Rihm's name on it , a nice humorous touch.  Rihm, Zimmermann and Rolf Liebermann, together with Mendelssohn and Brahms, Wagner and Beethoven: another point being made, that audiences can cope with diversity without having to be coddled. There are other halls in the new Philharmonie, better suited to smaller ensembles and chamber music. There's another concert on Sunday which will also be broadcast. Click on photo at right to see the building in cross-section. Yet another reason why the Elbphilharmonie is a game changer : It represents a new way of bringing music to audiences. HD was a start, but stymied because it depended on cinema distributors who didn't make enough money to promote it. But modern technology means that audiences can listen any time they want online, wherever they may be.  Investing in orchestra-led, or opera-house led  streaming means that those who make music get the full benefits of marketing, and also have greater control over artistic content.  Can record companies still control the market and create instant media darlings when there's good music around for those who care about quality as opposed to celebrity  No more provincial boundaries. And so the concert ended with the Ode to Joy, Beethoven 9, Bryn Terfel, Pavol Breslik, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, the NDR Choir and the Choir of Bayerischen Rundfunks.  "Alle Menschen wurden Bruder"!" we've heard that thousands of times, but this time it felt fresh and real.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Imperial princes, building snowmen

Winter scene in the Imperial Palace, Beijing : click on the photo and move your cursor to enlarge to appreciate the detail. The original scroll was three metres tall, painted with meticulous detail.  It was painted by Giuseppe  Castiglione (1688-1766) aka Lian Shi Ning 郎世寧;. Castiglione came from an aristocratic Italian family but became a Jesuit missionary and was sent toi China , arriving in 1715. In line with Jesuit practice, he immersed himself in Chinese culture. Unlike other missionary groups, the Jesuits believed in winning hearts and minds, however long that might take rather than conversion by force.  Castiglione served at the courts of three emperors of the Qing dynasty,  the Kanghsi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. emperors. Using Chinese materials, Castiglione painted in a blend of Chinese and western styles. He did portraits of his emperors seated on their thrones in formal Chinese style, but also posed in more western ways. His portrait of the Emperor Qian Long for example, shows the monarch astride a horse, almost exactly as if he were Louis XV, his almost exact contemporary. Indeed of the two, Qianlong probably outshone Louis.  In the painting above, we see the imperial children, playing in the palace gardens, like kids would do anywhere. They're building a snowman. But being young princes, their snowman is a Chinese lion.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Der fliegende Holländer Madrid Kwangchul Youn

Wagner Der fliegende Holländer from the Teatro Real in Madrid, with Kwangchul Youn as Daland, Samuel Youn as the Dutchman, Ingela Brimberg, Nikolai Schukoff, Kai Rüütel and Benjamin Bruns,  conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado, recorded live 23/12 and now on Culturebox, To read about the visionary Kasper Holten Flying Dutchman at the Finnish National Opera, please click HERE

The presence of Kwangchul Youn and Samuel Youn (not related) made this performance particularly moving. Kwangchul Youn is an Elder Statesman, a Wagnerian of commanding presence and great depth,  while the younger Samuel Youn represents the next generation.  In the context of this opera, this role reversal brought added piquancy to the inter-relationship between The Dutchman and Daland,  The Dutchman has roamed the seas for hundreds of years, and in the process has learned things no mortal should eperience. Daland, with his fixation on worldly goods, cannot comprehend the metaphysical.  What will happen to Daland after he loses his daughter, his greatest treasure?  Will he learn from the Dutchman that there are things in this world and beyond that matter more than status and success.  One measure of really good performances is their ability to generate deeper insight into the meaning of the opera.  Youn and Youn did this themselves by the dynamics between them without changing a word and without help from the staging.  That's true artistry, and it lifts this performance well above routine. 

It's a fallacy that performances need to be ranked: the vast majority are neither very very bad nor very very good  Only pseuds "need" to rank things. It's much more important to identify the good and less good within a performance.  This one was an interesting mix. Kwanchul Youn carried the show; Samuel Youn complementing him well,  There were some very good cameos indeed, especially Kai Rüütel as Mary, so distinctive that her voice alone commanded presence, though she was costumed in unflattering drabness.  She made me understand why Wagner, who didn't waste time on triviality,   made the part significant.  Mary is a leader, not a conformist, and protects Senta though Senta lets down the other women because she doesn't work  As I listened to Rüütel 's firmly assertive yet womanly singing, I thought of Mary and Martha in the gospel of St Luke.  Martha works hard, while Mary dreams.  But Mary focuses on spiritual ideals. When Senta (Ingela Brimberg) clings to the portrait  of the Dutchman, she hopes to save him from his fate, A rather bigger responsibility than spinning. In this production, Rüütel is seen polishing a light casing, then opening it uo to reveal a light bulb.  Such a telling detail!

This production, by Alex Ollé and La Fura dels Baus premiered in 2014 in Lyon, and bears the hallmark of the Fura dels Baus style. Massive structures, dwarfing the characters but providing dramatic visual impact, which in an opera like  Der fliegende Holländer is fundamental, for the Dutchman's ship is much more than a ship. It looms over the villagers like a malign presence. Like the storm it's a creation from hell, not a normal part of Nature.  Daland and his men are seen walking down an extremely steep ladder whose steps are so far apart they probably won't meet industrial safety standard.s The singers seemed to descend with uncertainity, and for good reason: they are in a dangerous situation. A compartment high above the stage is lit to reveal the Dutchman's crew, high above the mortal plane. 

In another typical Fura dels Baus touch, the designs by Urs Schönebaum and  Alfons Flores are monumental but simple, detail added by changes of light and video projections. These are ideally suited to an opera like this where scenes like the storm and the ghost ship are hard to stage by conventional means.  These waves, and the flashes of lightning, were so vivid that they were discomforting. Exactly as they should be, in dramatic terms. Some scenes were less successful, such as the depiction of the women in vaguely Indian or Middle Eastern garb. There's no reason why the action needs to take place in Norway, or Scotland, or wherever, but there's not a whole lot of point transposing it somewhere largely irrelevant except, perhaps, to bring in the idea of the women working on the beach, close to the sea like their menfolk.   The party scene worked rather better, since the singers and chorus "danced" with formalized gestures, the men  enacting movements like launching sails, and the women more fluttery gestures, like spinning.  In contrast, the ghostly sailors don't do anything: they just stand still, apart from one another, lit in mysterious blue.  Like Senta, separate from her peers, thinking, instead of working.

The final scene was particularly effective : demonic shifts of light and texture, obscuring normal boundaries of form,  the undulating sand dunes disintegrating in images of the sea, reflecting the turbulence in the music. Senta puts her hand into the sand, then covers her face in white, powdery paste so that she ends up looking like the Dutchman.  A wonderfully ambiguous ending: Senta's body seems to dissolve in the sea, if it is the sea, or something more demonic. Is the Dutchman redeemed, or is Senta's sacrifice in  vain?  Pablo Heras-Casado conducted enthusiastically. If the brass sounded a bit strange, and the percussion hollow, that worked well in connection with meaning.