Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Der Rosenkavalier BBC Prom 6


Glyndebourne's Der Rosenkavalier came to BBC Prom 6. I was at the premiere (read my review here), captivated by Lars Woldt's unusual but singularly perceptive Baron Ochs. What a pity the Baron Ochs of the media were more focused on whether Octavian was sexually attractive to them, "either as man or woman". Its not up to them. If Ochs is fooled, that's his problem.  (Read my analysis of the interpretation of the role HERE)

The first act of Der Rosenkavalier usually gets most attention because it's luscious. But Strauss satirizes convention and superficial appearances. In the final act, Baron Ochs is shown for the boor he is. It's Octravian who sets him up. At the very end of the opera, the Marschallin renounces her hopes and blesses the young lovers. Quite pointedly, Strauss suggests that wallowing in the past is not good. In the new lies the future.  After Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier might seem a stylistic step backwards, but don't be fooled. Strauss references Mozart but also throws in sly barbs at the Strausses of Vienna, who turned the Mozart ideal into banal pap. The famous tenor aria is cute, but it's commercial, a consumer product like new clothes and hairdos. Baron Ochs likes music, too, but the music he likes is barely above the level of pop.

Just as we should beware of sugar, we should beware of too much sugar-coating in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss's music and von Hofmannsthal's text savage mindless convention. Richard Jones respects the composers's intention far more astutely than the Ochsen of this world would ever comprehend.

At the Proms, the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier was not staged. Lars Woldt was unwell, replaced by Franz Hawlata, who sang Ochs for Andris Nelsons in Birmingham last month,. I've loved Hawlata since he was a colleague of Jonas Kaufmann in the stable at the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich.  Hawlata's voice is more resonant than Woldt's, more closer to the ox-like heft with which the part is often done. Although I missed Woldt's snake-like wiliness, hearing Hawalata was compensation enough.

Strauss's fondness for sopranos at the height of their fame but almost, not quite, past their prime ensures that the Marschallin is usually cast for a Big Name, thus ensuring box office attention. But strictly speaking, between the first act and the final scenes, The Marschallin doesn't really have much to do, though what she does is pretty remarkable. Kate Royal is a perennial favourite ith the Glyndebourne crowd, and perfectly adequate, but shes not in the ranks of, say, Schwarzkopf, Isoskoski or divas in their class. Still, shes beautiful, whether in evening gown or nude suit, and sang with a nice wry touch, accessing the spirit of the opera with intelligence.

In many ways, Der Rosenkavalier predicates on Octavian, who may only be 17 but has all the nerve and verve of a teenager who's just discovered sex (and cross-dressing). Again, Strausss' music poses a conundrum. Octavian is an extremely demanding part, interpretively as well as vocally. No 17-year-old could do it. Much better that a singer approaches it with youthful exuberance. Tara Erraught brings genuine freshness to the part, singing with sprightly agility. I like the roundness in her timbre, which suits the part. So what if Strauss mentioned that he'd like Octavian to be "willowy". His music suggests otherwise. Anyone familiar with Strauss should expect cryptic clues and contradiction. Erraught is only 27, so she's still to reach her full potential. One day, I suspect, she'll very good indeed. Certainly she impresses German audiences, who know a thing or two. In Birmingham, Alice Coote sang the role: Erraught isn't quite up to Coote's standard, but she could well get there, and deserves respect from those who care about music.

I wish I had been to Birmingham to hear Andris Nelsons conduct Der Rosenkavalier with the CBSO.  Everyone I know who was there loved what he did. Robin Ticciati has only just started his tenure at Glyndebourne. The premere I attended was in fact his first formal day on the job, so to speak. I loved his work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He's also a Glyndebourne insider, a regular conductor of  Glyndebourne Touring Orchestra.  In Der Rosenkavalier , Strauss throws challenges at conductors, too, to test whether they can grasp the tough-minded irony beneath the frothy sugar frosting.  That takes a feel for originality and even quirkiness, which is why, for me, Carlos Kleiber takes the cake. Ticciati has potential but he needs more self confidence.

Louise Alder sang Sophie, more developed and richer  than Teodora Gheorghiu at Glyndebourne. Michael Krauss sang Faninal. Full cast list here. Sarah Fahie directed the Proms semi-staging. She directed movement in the Glyndebourne production, every gesture  expressing character. Definitely a director to watch out for.

photo : Tristram Kenton, courtesy Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Schubert Winterreise staged - Matthias Goerne


Schubert Winterreise with a difference! Matthias Goerne sang Schubert Winterreise with pianist Markus Hinterhäuser at the Aix en Provence Festival with a background of projected images designed by Sabine Theunissen, directed by William Kentridge. Not that there's much to direct. Goerne sings as he would normally, only occasionally turning to gaze at the scenery behind him. A perfectly valid approach, since the protagonist is acutely aware of his surroundings, even if he interprets them subjectively. Perhaps what happens is all in the protagonist's mind, but the richness of the imagery in the music and in the text suggests a typically Romantic interaction between Nature and inward emotion. A well-known baritone once told an audience to think of the "pictures" as Wegweiser, each song marking a distinctive, almost physical stage in the journey.

Staged Winterreises are nothing new. There have been many, even danced versions  but this new staging, premiered in Vienna in June, is one of the best because it makes us consider whats happening in our own minds when we listen.  There's nothing wrong in principle with staging Winterreise. It's so powerful that it demands emotional engagement. There's no such thing as clinically sterile listening. We all respond, each in our own ways, some more expressively than others, but respond we must.

Theunissen's images follow a stream of consiousness that flows alongside the music in a kind of counterpoint. Sometimes we see obvious figures like Der Lindenbaum, and Die Krahe, but then they morph into something more personal and esoteric. It doesn't matter what the images mean in a literal way. The images are predominantly archaic, referencing early 19th century manuscripts and lithos of trees and Germanic architecture. We see figures of men and women glimpsed briefly, as if someone is remembering snatches of a past. These figures don't need to be from the protagonist's memory. The act of listening is in itelf creative. All of us have buried memories.  If we're thinking about the protagonist's feelings of lost love, why shouldn't fragments of our own pasts pop up in our imaginations? Everyone of us will make different connections, but Theunissen shows us the way sentient people process their feelings and use the submerged data in their psyches.

Stream-of-consciousness images can operate on many parallel levels. Theunissen incorporates images of war and desolation, also perfectly valid for a listener living in modern times.  Indeed, the darkness in Winterreise almost predicates on images of death.  The scent of the Linden Tree reputedly has narcotic powers.  "Komm her zu mir, Geselle, Hier find'st du deine Ruh'!"  The protagonist can't rest under the tree. In any case, in winter, he'd freeze.  We see Der Lindenbaum morph into the horrifying The Hanging by Jacques Caillot, made during the Thirty Years War. In 2014, we cannot forget the start of the Thirty Years War of the 20th century, which  ran on with pauses until 1945.  Despite the horrors, somehow the world survived, if only to descend into further conflicts outside Europe.

Deciduous trees in winter are bare, but they carry in themselves the promise of rejuvenation.  Thus the protagonist forces himself even further into the wilderness, following the tracks of animals until he at last connects with another wanderer.  Theunissen's trees thus add to the interpretation of Winterreise. Does the protagonist go mad, or die or hallucinate the Leiermann?  Or does he find some form of painful wisdom? Winterreise is powerful because it's open to many different interpretations, as is all good art.

Every time we hear a performance, or even think about it, we're developing and refining the way we understand the piece.You don't have to understand every single frame in this Winterreise, but  its worth respect. When we're listening, we're doing something persobnal. No-one will ever have exactly the same take on anything. Even when we listento recordings, we hearb things differently because we ourselves are not the same as we were last time round.  After 45 years and hundreds of different Winterreisen, I'm still learning from different perspectives and interpretations. Some Winterreise stagings are so,literal as to be hardly worth the effort . This one, however, enhances the work because it deals with the very nature of creativity that inspired Wilhelm Müller and Schubert, and hundreds of thousands of performers and audiences since their time.  Arte and Medici TV will soon be showing the Aix performance online. The live show, which has also been heard in Amsterdam and in Germany, will also be done at the Lincoln Center in the fall.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Gergiev World Orchestra for Peace Prom 4

In the aftermath of  MH 17, it's hard to think of any ally of Vladimir Putin as an ambassador for world peace.  On the other hand, because I genuinely believe in freedom of speech, I can't condemn him for having opinions on subjects he's bound to know more about than I do. Plus, the Gergiev/Putin connection means support for the arts in Russia.

In any case, the grandiose title "World Orchestra for Peace" wasn't Gergiev's idea.  The orchestra was created by Georg Solti. The concept was idealistic and attracted much celebrity support. Musically, however, the orchestra has performed only some 20 times since 1995, four of which were at the BBC Proms.  It's good that musicians can get together from all parts of the world but that doesn't mean musical consistency,especially with players from 75 different ensembles whose styles don't necessarily mesh.  The Lucerne Festival Orchetsra (founded 2003)  is a summertime special too, but altogether in a different league in musical terms because all the players are on the same level of expertise, and work together regularly. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (founded 1999) probably does more for world peace than any other orchestra because it focuses on a specific conflict zone, and gives young musicians opportunities they would never otrherwise encounter.

Gergiev can be maddening as a conductor but he's almost never boring.  When he conducts repertoire that resonates with his soul, he can reach heights of brilliance. When he's forced to conduct material he doesn't like so much, he can be infuriating. His Mahler, in particular, is notorious for being Gergiev, not Mahler. So when he conducted Mahler Symphony no 6 at Prom 4, he achieved the feat of making the piece lifeless. It wasn't nearly as dull as his 2010 Prom with this same orchestra (also Mahler) but the sense of dutiful earnestness hung heavy. How I yearned for Gergiev when he's inspired, even when he's demonic, with an orchestra prepared to take risks and let rip.

Earnestness and duty hung heavily on Roxanna Panufnik's Three Paths to Peace. The short work (12 minutes) attempts to plait together the sounds of Islam, Christianity and Judaism;  the result was worthy, but vague. How does peace come about? When people's hearts and minds are focussed on pragmatic ways of ending specific problems. Think about what's happening in Gaza. Pretty music isn''t going to make a shred of difference. I quite liked Gergiev's way with Strauss's Symphonic Fantasia on Die Frau ohne Schatten , but like so much else on this evening, it wasn't quite the real thing.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

China Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms



Hearing the China Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall made BBC Prom 2 something unique. Listening as "pure music" is largely irrelevant: its real significance was that it acknowledged where the future of classical music might lie. In the west, audiences may be perceived to be in decline, but in Asia, nearly every middle class family puts faith in what Germans call Bildung: improvement through cultivation. In China, being educated is a principle of faith, honed  and polished through  thousands of years of civilization.  Not everyone could aspire to be a scholar but even the poorest peasants  respected learning. Western classical music is relatively recent in world history terms, but it fits perfectly with the Chinese sensibility

Western classical music has much deeper roots in China  than the clichés  promoted by BBC presenters.  Even in the 19th century, Chinese audiences listened to western music, just as they took on board western literature and art.  By the turn of the last century, there were enough Chinese musicians in China that western-style conservatories could flourish in Shanghai and Beijing. It's bracing to realize that the Juilliard School was founded in the same period.  It's important to recognize the difference between British and French colonialism. Chinese intellectuals of all types flocked to Paris, where orientalisme was respected and where the natives were interested in foreign cultures. Chinese musicians could feel right at home listening to Debussy, Massenet and Ravel. Going abroad was a rite of passage. Even those who couldn't afford travel were active.  The photo left was taken in the 1920's in Shanghai at a famous art school. Notice how the students have included their life model in the picture, a wry  reference to Degas.

It's simply not true that western classical music didn't exist in China until after the Cultural Revolution. On the contrary, the Cultural Revolution happened in part because extremists like Mao and Jiang Qing wanted to destroy class division.  Unlike Zhou Enlai, who studied in Paris, and many of the artists the Red Guards attacked, Mao and Jiang weren't cosmopolitan and resented those who were. The "Russian" influence on Chinese music came after 1917, when Russian musicians fled to China. It stopped abruptly in 1957 with the Sino-Soviet Split. Best, then, to think of western music in China as a continuum, cruelly interrupted by a few aberrant years of turmoil.

For their BBC Proms debut, The China Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Long Yu chose a programme balancing reliable warhorses like Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky with more adventurous fare. Haochen Zhange made his Proms debut, with Lizt's First Piano Concerto. Zhang is only 28, but promising enough for one to hope to hear him play again, and soon. Then, Qigang Chen's Joie Eternelle, a BBC Commission for Alison Balsom, who has played it in Shanghai and Beijing. It's based loosely on a theme from The Peony Pavilion, the exqusite Kunqu opera. (Read more about the opera HERE),  It's interesting because a trumpet is used to  navigate lines which might flow more naturally for flute or even violin. Chen was Messiaen's last student. Perhaps the delicate water-colour aesthetic comes from Messiaen. Certainly the piece reminded me of early George Benjamin. Non-Chinese listeners would probably  enjoy the orientalisme colourings.  Perhaps the pressure of being at the Proms  held the orchestra back somewhat. For their encores, they livened up immeasurably. They let loose with a transcription of a folksong for erhu, and a brilliant set of variations on God Save the Queen. Hilarious, unidiomatic but full of verve. Conductor Long Yu has been described as "China's Gergiev". If that's a compliment, it's barbed.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

BBC First Night of the Proms 2014 Elgar The Kingdom

  
Sir Edward Elgar's The Kingdom, First Night of the BBC Proms 2014. A magnificent start to the season, particularly one which commemorates 1914, the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Elgar dreamed of writing a trilogy of oratorios examining the nature of Christianity as Jesus taught his followers, using the grand context of the Edwardian taste. In The Apostles, Jesus sets out his beliefs in simple, human terms. Judas doubts him and is confounded. In The Kingdom, the focus is more diffuse. The disciples are many and their story unfolds through a series of tableaux, impressive set pieces, but with less obvious human drama. The final, part would hase been titled The Last Judgement, when World and Time are destroyed and the faithful of all ages are raised from the dead, joining Jesus in Eternity. The sheer audacity of that vision may have stymied Elgar, much in the way that Sibelius's dreams for his eighth symphony inhibited realization. Fragments of The Last Judgement made their way into drafts for what was to be Elgar's third and final symphony, which we now know in Anthony Payne's performing version. There could be many reasons why Elgar didn't proceed, but he may well have intuited the contradiction between simple faith and extravagant gesture.

In his excellent programme notes, Stephen Johnson describes The Kingdom "as a kind of symphonic 'slow movement', a pause between two much more monumental pillars. It doesn't exist on its own out of context, and can't really be judged as a stand-alone. Elgar's creative output declined after the First World War. Since we know the wars that followed, listening to this piece is even more poignant. The Kingdom is a fragment of a confident but doomed past. I also like The Kingdom because, like The Apostles, it portrays Jesus and his followers are down-to-earth ordinary men and women encountering events normal comprehension. They're not pious saints but simple folk with fears and insecurities, saved by faith.
 
Andrew Davis conducted the Prelude with sober dignity. The disciples are starting a journey that continues 2000 years later. Davis's tempi were unhurried, with just enough liveliness to suggest the excitement of hopes to come. There are familiar themes from The Apostles here, and lyrical passages, which Davis conducted with particular finesse. I watched his hands sculpt curving shapes, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded well. Nice bright horns, seductive lower winds. The long pauses with which Davis marked the different parts of the piece serve a purpose, but tended to break the flow. However, Davis masterfully contrasted extreme of volume and relative quietness, giving dramatic structure. 

When the combined forces of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the BBC Symphony Chorus entered, the effect was splendid. This is what good choral singing should be: lush richness yet brightened by sharp, disciplined diction, individual sections clearly defined within the mass.  These Christians march forwards but don't lose themselves  to the multitude. Unsurprisngly, the chorus masters were two of the best in the genre: Adrian Partington (of Three Choirs fame) and Stephen Jackson. 

The soloists were Erin Wall (Mary the Virgin), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mary Magdalene), Andrew Staples (St John) and Christopher Purves (St Peter). All are extremely reliable, and well experienced in large choral repertoire, and they delivered well. Staples, however, was unusually  expressive. His firm, animated tenor seemed to shine from the dense textures in the music around him. The Kingdom unfolds like a procession of tableaux, each savoured at a measured pace, so Staples provided welcome individuality.

Interestingly, The Kingdom focuses on female figures. The contralto (Wyn-Rogers)  has lovely recitatives and the soprano (Erin Wall) has the glorious"The sun goeth down".  The female choruses have good music, too,  and were very brightly coloured and lively. Davis highlighted the relationship between solo voices and instruments, such as the dialogue between Wall and the First Violin, Stephen Bryant. The Kingdom is a showpiece, not because it's flamboyant but because it's restrained.  More a prolonged recitative than an aria, but without recvitatives to hold the drama together, where would we be ? It's better, in many ways, to start the BBC Proms season with something esoteric than with something crude. 

This review also appears in Opera Today. Each year I cover around 40 Proms, so please keeping coming back. Please also read my other posts on Elgar, on Three Choirs, The Apostles, Caractacus, The Dreeam of Gerontius, The Powicj  musiuc and so on.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Prelude to Elgar The Kingdom First Night of the Proms

Edward Elgar The Kingdom at the First Night of the BBC Proms, hot ticket in more ways than one. My review is HERE.  I shall brave the heat of the Royal Albert Hall and make the pilgrimage. As I predicted before this year's Proms were announced The Kingdom is an ideal blockbuster with which to start the Proms season. Oddly enough it was last heard at the Proms in 1999, though it's been done 8 times since 1930. Andrew Davis conducted the BBC SO  then - it will be interesting to hear him conduct it fifteen years later  The Kingdom is big, grand and appeals to those who like pomp and circumstance. Absolutely the stuff to capture national pride and what Teddy Roosevelt, Elgar's contemporary, called "Viggah". As long as they don't really listen. Once I was scolded by an "expert" who knew everything because he'd heard of "Elgar's two symphonies". Heard of, not heard, methinks.

But I love Elgar because I intuit something very different in his music, something much more complex, even more contradictory. Like Benjamin Britten, Elgar reveals himself once you get past the mask that's been imposed upon him by his public status.

The Kingdom is a counterpart of The Apostles, about which I've written HERE. In The Apostles, Jesus describes the Beatitudes to his followers.  In The Kingdom, Jesus's followers are moved at Pentecost by the image of a dove, reminding them of  his message "Lo,  I am with you always, even unto the end of the world". Ideally it would be nice to hear The Apostles and The Kingdom together but that would be a logistical nightmare, and wear everyone out, listeners as well as performers.  So I'm thrilled about hearing The Kingdom tonight and hearing The Apostles again at the Three Choirs Festival this year in Worcester, Elgar's birthplace. There will be lots oif Elgar-related excursions and activities, as well as music. It does help to get The Spirit of Elgar via The Spirit of England, in the form of the places Elgar knew and loved. Long ago, I used to traipse round the Malverns, in the footsteps of Elgar, Gurney, Howells and so on, getting a feel for the landscape that inspired them. . Maybe I'll do the circuit again in autumn with its mood of melancholy.

As a taster for tonight's The Kingdom at The Proms two historic recordings, the first Elgar himself, the second, Isobel Baillie singing "The Sun goeth down".

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Remembering Lin Dai

Fifty years ago today, Lin Dai 林黛 committed suicide. She was 29 years old, at the height of her career. Her death sent shock waves through Chinese communities all over the world. It's hard to overestimate the impact.  I can still recall the sense of utter disbelief when the news broke.  Lin Dai seemed to have everything going for her. Her movies were guaranteed box office hits, artistically as well as commercially top notch. She seemed to radiate happiness whatever she did. On camera, she seemed to glow. Even in private life she was vibrant and charming. Why did she want to die?  There had been a trivial family misunderstanding but nothing to suggest suicide. She was given a proper Catholic funeral, since the bishop ruled that her death wasn't intentional. To this day, fans flock to give their respects at her pink marble tombstone. After  her death, her husband kept their room exactly as she had left it, with her hair in her hairbrush and her lipsticks on the dressing table. When he died a few years ago, the room was preserved intact in a museum.

Lin Dai was loved because she was much more than an actress. She was a symbol of the hopes of her era. When she died, it was as though those dreams were shattered. Lin Dai's father was a powerful politician in Guangxi, a province with a tradition of fiercely independent reformist leaders, among them  General Bai Chongxi (白崇禧) hero of the anti-Japanese resistance. The Japanese invasion created one of the biggest population upheavals in modern history. Millions of Chinese moved as refugees to the distant  western provinces of Guangxi, Sichaun and Yunnan. Later, the demographic upheaval reversed, and millions fled the Communists. In many ways, Lin Dai represented Brave New China.  She was making a fresh start in a new region and in an industry which played an important role in the modernization of China. In her first movie, 翠翠 Singing under the Moon (1953) she plays a country orphan, devoted to her grandfather. People could identify with her fresh, youthful optimism.

In 1957, Lin Dai was signed by Shaw Brothers Studios, bigger and more ambitious than any other Chinese (and many western) film studios. Shaw Brothers put Lin Dai in high-budget historical extravaganzas. far more sophisticated than anything she'd done until that time. In Diau Charn (貂蟬) her big breakthrough, she played a heroine who united warring kingdoms.  The Kingdom and the Beauty (江山美人) beat all box office records. Lin Dai plays the peasant girl who steals the heart of an Emperor in disguise. It's one of the best Shaw Brothers movies of all time. It's a shame that the company that bought the rights to Shaw's catalogue hasn't done much to make them better known. The Kingdom and the Beauty is so good that it could easily find a p;lace in international cinema. Lin Dai also starred in Beyond the Great Wall and The Last Woman of Shang, both released after her death. In Beyond the Great Wall, she plays a heroine who goes into exile to save her lover the Emperor and her country. These movies aren't ponderous, stultified costume dramas because Lin Dai plays her roles as convincing human beings. The shot above shows her famous pout, followed by a slow sideways glance that often bursts into a smile.

Lin Dai also made an opera-based movie, Madam White Snake (1962), but her singing voice was untrained, better suited to more light-hearted musicals,  and cheerful comedies like Les Belles, Bachelors Beware and Cinderella and her little angels and Love Parade, with an unusual story line based on fashion shows, for which she designed the costumes.  She was a "modern girl". Lin Dai's vivacious charm makes these films sparkle, but they're much better than similar films from Hollywood.  She was also a serous dramatic actress. In The Blue and the Black Parts 1 and 2, released after her death, she plays a brave woman whose life is damaged by war.

But the movie that makes Lin Dai immortal has to be Love Without End (不了情, 1961). This is a version of La Traviata. The heroine even retreats to a remote island in her last illness, where she's tended by a Catholic priest. Lin Dai plays a virtuous nightclub singer whose beloved faces financial ruin. To save him, she agrees to go abroad with a rich man, but gives her virginity to the boyfriend first. He doesn't understand, and walks out on her in an extremely moving scene where he skulks along a back alley while she watches from above. Eventually, he finds out that she sacrificed herself for his sake, but when he tracks her down, it's too late. Like Violetta Valéry, she dies. If only this film were readily available outside Region 3. It's one of the most iconic movies of Hong Kong in  that period, describing the values of its time. The title song is so famous that it's seared forever in the memories of those who were there.  It's not actually her singing voice,  but it breaks the heart.
 
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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

FREE Herbert von Karajan - today only


Herbert von Karajan died 25 years ago today. He was Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1966 to 1989. The Berliner Philharmoniker website now contains a section dedicated to his memory. In the Digital Concert Hall "you will find recordings of the Unitel company from the sixties and seventies, including Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World”, a Brahms cycle, Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 3, 6, 7 and 9 and the documentary Karajan – The Second Life."

"On today’s anniversary, these films as well as the recording of the memorial concert for Herbert von Karajan which took place in Salzburg cathedral in the summer of 1999 with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Claudio Abbado, are available free of charge. Further films with Herbert von Karajan will be released in the Digital Concert Hall into next year. During this time we will also talk to musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker about their memories of Herbert von Karajan and these conversations will be made available as a documentary"  Read more here

Further recording s will be released in the next few weeks, Altogether they will create an excellent one-stop archive. If you're already registered, log in and watch for free. If you're not already registered, you can register and enjoy, too. But just for today. It's definitely worth signing up because you get access to all the Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, year round, and all those in the archive. So we have to pay to participate, but that's fair enough. The arts cost money. For a reasonable fee, you get the world's finest orchestra (arguably) right in your own room, wherever you might live. Politicians grumble that classical music doesn't breach the masses. That's not true. You can't measure audiences simply in terms of filling halls.

Many in my generation were conditioned to hate Karajan for his politics and his style, just as trolls today hold extreme views on contemporary conductors. I don't do bandwagons, as anyone who reads me regularly will know. I really came to Sibelius through Karajan's chilling, almost demonic interpretations. Pity Adorno kept his ears closed.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Happy Birthday, Harrison Birtwistle !

HAPPY BIRTHDAY HARRY! Today is Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 80th birthday - many happy returns and many more good years ahead! May he thrive like Elliott Carter, always finding new challenges. Birtwistle is Britain's greatest living composer - no-one else comes near, by leagues.  Tonight, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting Gawain, Birtwistle's breakthrough opera. It's from the performance this May at the Barbican, which you can read about HERE. Read about the NMC recording HERE.

Fifty years ago, Birtwistle was one of the Manchester-based Young Turks who created British music in the wake of Britten and Vaughan Williams, the two disparate, discrete musical tribes in this country up to that time. The words "disparate" and "discrete" used correctly! The kind of word-game that Birtwistle loves to play. Alas, with the dumbing-down of language, that aspect of Birtwistle's art may well be lost to future generations. Birtwistle is audacious, but behind his affable mask lies an acutely precise intellect, occupied with  puzzles, games and conundrums. His music fascinates because it's alive with layers whirring away, operating on many levels at once, vivid detail growing as if they were organic life-forms.

Birtistle connects to Boulez, to Messiaen, even to Webern, and also to the complexities of the avant garde in Europe, yet his music seems to spring from some ancient source. When I listen to Birtwistle, I feel the earth move, in the sense that one might pick up on invisible magnetic fields under a calm landscape. Go to Avebury or Silbury at night, when the tourists are gone, and commune withthe souls of the ancients who built those mysteries. Listen to Earth Dances,  to Yan Tan Tethera. and much more and "hear" something so rooted in primeval mysteries that it can only be expressed obliquely through music. Birtwistle plays with time, mechanisms and myth - From Harrison's Clocks to the Maze of The Minotaur, a vast universe of ideas and sounds.

I've often wondered about what really happened when Birtwistle's Punch and Judy was heard at Aldeburgh. The story goes that Britten walked out in despair, alternatively that he went out for a drink. It's even been suggested that the rumour was played up to emphasize Birtwistle's notoriety. Maybe we shall never know, since Britten and Pears are long dead, but it hardly matters. Britten could read a score and he wasn't so stupid that he included things at Aldeburgh he didn't know about. The point, I think, is that music doesn't exist "for" a particular listener, but for itself. And Birtwistle fits with the Aldeburgh aesthetic better than most. Britten and Birtwistle, the two greatest names in 20th century British music.

More on Birtwistle on this site than almost anywhere else.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Il turco in Italia - Aix Festival


Rossini Le turc en Italie, Il Turco in Italia at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. a delicious approach to an opera that predicates on mistaken identities, fancy dress and good humour. The opera may have been written 200 years ago but its charm shines ever brighter in this lively staging directed  by Christopher Alden. Rossini's Prologue is very long but illustrates the themes to come: lively, upbeat frolics give way to a horn solo, at turns sensual and melancholy, interrupted by staccato outbursts from the rest of the opera. Rarely is abstract music translated so perceptively into visuals. The joyous, extravagant tutti in the orchestra suggests exuberance: we see a stage covered in minute abstract patterns, bathed in ever changing colours. But, like the horn, the central character is alone.

Prosdocimo (Pietro Spagnoli) is so fixated on writing something that  he doesn't notice the glories around him. His friend Don Geronio (Alessandro Corbelli) is frustrated too, by affairs of the heart. Luckily the gypsies arrive. Gypsies are outsiders.  They don't have to be garbed like escapees from a bad staging of Carmen. They represent people who don't conform to the rigidities of convention. So Zaida (Cecelia Hall) says she's an escapee from a Turkish harem. Selim the Turk (Adrian Sâmpetrean) turns up, but he's attracted to Geronio's glamorous wife Fiorilla (Olga Peretyatko) who fancies him, ignoring her husband nearby. As for Narciso (Lawrence Brownlee) he's living in dreams. So much for literalism. Il turco in Italie is art, not history. Prosdocimo is a poet, not a bean counter. The characters flirt: the art of illusion. Prosdicimo can magic up chairs.  Alden's lighting (Adam Silverman) magics up colours. Rossini's music magics up a wonderfully vivid storm. Conductor Marc Minkowski whips up the tempi, and the singers and chorus sing heady, windswept staccato.

Wonderfully punchy performance, electrified by sprightly, punching rhythms, lucidly enunciated. In the inn scne, Corbelli and  Sâmpetrean joust with rapier-swift passage work. The strings add exclamation points. Lovely detail: the inn is as colourful and kitschy as a pseudo-Turkish tea room, complete with plastic-coated tablecloths, which serve a purpose. As Selim and Geronio scrap, they push bottles back and forth, the bottles sliding in time with the music. Everything predicates on confusion. Stunning dialogue between Sâmpetrean and Peretyatko. Until now, Rossini doesnt give Narciso all that much to sing, but when Brownlee  explodes into Tu seconda il mio disegno, he reveals the intensity Narciso has kept hidden for so long. Earth shattering high C's.  Corbelli 's Geronio is a tour de force, sparkling with fire and agility. At last, even Albazar (Juan Sancho) gets to sing his heart out.

Magical  ensemble in the Masquerade scene, when the ship's mast is lit with golden lights, and Corbelli ascents its dizzy heights, expressing Geronio's pent-up rage.  This scene is crucial. When Fiorilla realizes what divorce might mean, Peretyatko's singing becomes impassioned, for she knows what Geronio is made of. If there had been good singing before, Peretyatko now brought down the house. Superb. And so the Poet Prosdocimo gets his inspiration. Poetry, and opera, is about human emotion.