Monday, 29 June 2015

Rossini Guillaume Tell and Guglielmo Tell


 Rossini Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House, London. Antonio Pappano conducts. He's sublime in Italian repertoire (even when it's in French) and this is one of his great favourites. Tonight he'll be conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra, so it will be good to hear how this compares with his other band the Orchestra dell'Accademia Santa Cecilia with whom he conducted the devastatingly good Guillaume Tell at the Proms in 2011.  Their recording is one of the must-hears although the sound quality is a bit flat.  (There are bootlegs of the Prom around, and no doubt of the Accademia Santa Cecilia's other performance.)  At the Royal Opera House, Pappano's using the same principals as he did before - John Osborn, Gerald Finley, Malin Byström. This will be the third different Guillaume Tells this year, which started with the truly amazing Bryan Hymel performance in Munich -- unimpressive production, alas).

William Tell is an icon because he was an ordinary rustic who stirred things up and beat off the Austrians. To this day, the Swiss do things their own way. Perhaps geography helps. You can't easily invade the Alps or subdue a peasantry that knows the mountains. For Schiller, Wilhelm Tell  showed how ordinary people could resist tyrants. For Rossini, too, perhaps. Part of Italy was ruled by Austria, so there was a limit as to how explicit he could be. What I enjoyed about Pappano's Proms performance was the sense of nature and wide open spaces. Antonio Pappano conducts with expansive brio, bright dynamics and sparkling tempi. Rossini is painting wild, untamed landscape into his music. Panoramic vistas, winds, storms on lakes, impenetrable forests and, again and again, the image of the sky, symbolizing freedom.

"William Tell, William Tell, gone from the land he loved so well, William Tell, William Tell, William TELL ! of Switzerland"." The first opera chorus most people have sung, even if they think it's the Lone Ranger. Aged 2, I got bit by a dog, for climbing on its back and pulling up his collar, shouting "Hi ho Silver !" Can't blame the dog. The things one does for art.

There's a lot more to William Tell than the Overture. It's interesting to think of the less well known Italian version, Gugliemo Tell. Here is a complete download with libretto http://www.operatoday.com/content/2009/05/rossini_gugliel.php  (alternate libretto link HERE) Guglielmo Tell, Rossini, live broadcast January 1954, RAI Rome.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Benjamin Aldeburgh London Sinfonietta Birtwistle Knussen

At Aldeburgh, George Benjamin, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Birtwistle, Knussen - a veritable roll call of big names in contemporary music in modern Britain.In some ways, it was a bit of history, too, since the three major British pieces are fairly early, but have connections with the London Sinfonietta.

Harrison Birtwistle's  Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum ("a perpetual song of mechanical arcady") was a London Sinfonietta premiere, conducted by Birtwistle himself in 1978. Like a Klee painting, it's built from six basic "mechanisms" which fracture and regroup to form 22 blocks. Each is distinct, some punctuated by percussion, others by dark splats of brass. Each tableau is heralded by a high horn call.  Benjamin's precision allowed individual cells to be heard clearly, as if illuminated, creating an aura of perpetual motion. The piece sparkled, much like the way brushstrokes in an Impressionist  painting let light shine through.  The craggy, zig-zag rhythms sounded gloriously wayward, and the sudden ending bristled with a lively twist.

Benjamin loves Oliver Knussen's Songs without Voices (1991/2) . It's easy to hear why. The exquisite delicacy of these pieces lends itself well to Benjamin's refined sensibilities. Songs without voices?  Because they aren't tied to any specific text, other than the brief title, the listener is freed creatively to "hear" in the imagination. The listener becomes part of the creative process.  For me, the quiet stillness of Fantastico (Winter’s Foil)  suggest the pale light of winter and the way one's breath become visible in cold air. I've never seen open plains, but I could visualize the long outward reaching lines in Maestoso (Prairie Sunset) translated into long, horizontal vistas. In the third song Leggerio : The First Dandelion , I could hardly breathe for fear of shattering the stillness  One could read the original poems (Walt Whitman) but I think the pieces work better as more abstract conceptua, so every listener will have a different experience. In the final song,  Adagio: Elegaic Arabesques, the cor anglais leads, delineating elegant patterns.

George Benjamin's At First Light was premiered by the London Sinfonietta in 1992, with Simon Rattle conducting. The piece was inspired by JMW Turner's painting Norham Castle at Sunrise, an early modern "abstract" painting  Benjamin has said, "A solid object can be formed as a clearly defined punctuated musical phrase". A short, brisk opening dissipates into extended silence.A second movement full of incident - something's stirring! This unfolds into a final movement where long, continuous harmonies interweave.

This concert at the Britten Studio mirrored the concert Benjamin conducted at the Maltings, both ending with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whose Ravel Piano Concerto in G major in the earlier concert was the impassioned highlight of an oddly lacklustre evening, which began with a soggy Wagner Siegfried Idyll and included Benjamin's very early A Mind in Winter with Claire Booth as soloist. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra are very good indeed, so it was a relief to hear them back on form the next night with François-Xavier Roth. Read my review of that concert HERE. Tom Coult's Beautiful caged thing sounded like early Benjamin, too, but then he's young and a Benjamin pupil.  But it's good that new work by young artists gets heard at Aldeburgh. That was Britten's objective. Saed Haddad's In Contradiction for two cellos and ensemble was more engaging, contrasting ideas and blocks of sound in a tight, energetic structure. Haddad was a Benjamin pupil more than ten years ago, and has found his own, distinctive voice. If Aimard's Ravel was good, his Ligeti Piano Concerto was even better. He traversed its lively, zany high spirits with joyous delight. Aimard has performed most of the key modern works for piano, and knew most of the composers personally, including Ligeti. We are very lucky indeed to have him at Aldeburgh. 
It is set in three movements: in the short, opening one, superimposed fanfares burst into hazy, undefined textures. After a pause the extended second movement follows, itself subdivided into several contrasted sections, full of abrupt changes in mood and tension. The concluding movement arrives without a break, and progresses in a continuous, flowing line illuminated with ever more resonant harmonies. - See more at: http://www.fabermusic.com/repertoire/at-first-light-761#sthash.q7E7q1ka.dpuf
A ‘solid object’ can be formed as a punctuated, clearly defined musical phrase. This can be ‘melted’ into a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound. There can be all manner of transformations and interactions between these two ways of writing. Equally important, however, this piece is a contemplation of dawn, a celebration of the colours and noises of daybreak. - See more at: http://www.fabermusic.com/repertoire/at-first-light-761#sthash.q7E7q1ka.dpuf
A ‘solid object’ can be formed as a punctuated, clearly defined musical phrase. This can be ‘melted’ into a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound. There can be all manner of transformations and interactions between these two ways of writing. Equally important, however, this piece is a contemplation of dawn, a celebration of the colours and noises of daybreak. - See more at: http://www.fabermusic.com/repertoire/at-first-light-761#sthash.q7E7q1ka.dpuf
Elegiac Arabesques) Songs With
Elegiac Arabesques) Songs With

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Don't Change Your Husband

It's 1929. Chinese viIlagers carry vegetables to market, suspended on long poles, traditional style. They have to hurry to grab a good pitch. An old lady stumbles behind. Suddenly, she's hit by a fancy modern car, even though the road is empty. The owner, a smart young man in western clothes, coming home from an all-night bender, tells the driver to move on, regardless. A peasant helps the old lady up, commiserating: "The rich is always like that". With this little vignette, a remarkable movie begins.

Don't Change Your Husband 情海重吻  aka Kisses Once was made by the Great Lilium Picture studio. It was one of several Shanghai studios making films for Chinese audiences, dealing with issues of social change and modernization in the Republican period, Republican as in Chinese Republic, post 1912.  Chinese cinema reflected the aspirations of a nation struggling to progress from feudal stagnation towards a better world.  Very much in the Weimar spirit, although the challenges, in China, were even more extreme. Even the studio name "Great Lilium" is nationalistic, since the lily is one of the symbolic flowers of China, and regrows after lying dormant in the earth.

This film deals with the lives of very wealthy people indeed, who own cars and live in huge, fancy mansions decorated in sophisticated art deco. Even the older generation lives well - look at the props! Proper antiques, elaborate blackwood funiture, scroll paintings and embroideries , the high style of the prosperous merchant class. There was so much of it around then that the studio didn't need to use replicas.

The camera shifts to Shanghai, where workers flock like ants into western-style office buildings. Almost immediately, we see Wong Chi Ping, (Lynton Wong 王乃東) get fired for being late (a significant detail). That's no big deal to him because he's reasonably well off. .Look at his home with its Directoire and French tapestries!  However, the maid finds a letter which implicates his wife in an extra-marital affair. Next, we're in the home of Chen Mong Tien,  "a dissipated youth",  (actor Tang Xinyiu 湯天綉), who often played a womanizer and sophisticate.

This time he's snared Mrs Wong, played by Lee Ya Ching (李霞卿 1912-98) who came from a prominent Cantonese family who supported Sun Yat-sen. They'd have personally known some of the 72 Martyrs killed by the Qing. From the age of 14, she was making movies,  part of the Cantonese clique  who helped set up the Shanghai film industry. Her film name was  Lee dan-dan (which means "little bomb")  a reference to her infant role in the Revolution of 1912). She played the maid to the heroine of The Romance of the West Chamber,  the seminal blockbuster based on the famous Chinese classic, made in 1927 by the Father of Chinese Cinema, Lee Man-wai (read more here).

Lee was a horsewoman and one of the first women aviators in China, though not the only one (look up Hilda Yen)  a stunt flier, who fell into San Francisco Bay and survived, and who raised funds for China during the Japanese War.  A meme of amazons runs through Chinese film and culture - women who shoot guns, ride horses, use whips and cross dress, often the spoiled daughters of warlords. Don't Change Your Husband was somewhat risqué in that Lee played an adulteress who gets divorced. Shortly after the film was made, Lee married a Chinese diplomat, educated at the Sorbonne, and lived with him in Geneva (League of Nations) but divorced him not long after.

In   Don't Change Your Husband , the wife demands a divorce so she can be with wastrel lover Chen. The two mothers face each other off, beautifully acted. The papers get signed in a lawyer's office, but the wife breaks down in tears. Then, as now, the lawyer grins, having made a handsome profit. Wastrel Chen wants ex Mrs Wong to smoke, drink and party around. There's a shockingly daring scene when she takes off her qi pao in front of him (and the camera) to put on a tarty new dress. But she isn't happy: she doesn't quite trust Chen. Meanwhile the ex is miserable, and looks lovingly at her wedding photo (where incidentally she's wearing a white veil, which is not traditional Chinese dress but a fashion adopted after Sun Yat Sen married Song Ching-ling in a western wedding gown).  This is a silent movie, so the actors don't articulate in words.  There's a long sequence in which Chi Ping smokes a pipe and looks morose. We guess his thoughts.

Now for some really spectacular scenes in the opulent mansion that is ex-Mrs Wong's family home. It's her father Mr Xie's birthday, and a huge party is being held - look at the lanterns, the feast, the acrobats, and the musicians, one of whom is a male singer, dressed as a woman, which was the norm then when women didn't go on stage. These are amazing sequences from an ethnographic point of view, utterly authentic because it was just as easy to use real musicians as to hire actors to play musicians.  Mrs Xie, knowing that her daughter is still pining for her ex, concocts a ruse to bring Wong to the party. Ex-Mrs Wong asks boyfriend to go, and he storms out of his home in a rage. Overwhelmed with grief she takes an overdose.

Amazingly Mr Xie doesn't know about the divorce because he's been away at his lumber mills way out in the interior. He blames his own wife for the mess. Mr Xie goes to Mr Wong to ask him to see the daughter "I'll never have that Chen for a son in law". Older Mrs Wong stands up for her rights, a character as pugnacious as Lee Ya -ching in real life. The families return to Wong's relatively humble villa. The two mother sit resolutely back to back. Mr Xie says sagely: "We. must forget the past, but hope they (the young couple) will come to an understanding with a bright future." When ex Mrs awakes, she's so upset that she runs to the river and tries to drown herself. We can tell by the shape of the sails on the junks that the river is somewhere near Shanghai. Mr Wong chases after her and holds her in his arms. "I know you are repentant. It makes me love you all the more."

Is this a simple melodrama? Clearly mother-in-law Wong doesn't forgive,  and Mr Xie's forbearance suggests he's a saint.  But this is a very well acted (and designed) movie which tells us as much about modern China and its changing values.  Enjoy the film below. You might also like The Orphan, HERE with different cast but also about the clash of modern and feudal values (also with fantastic visuals). Both with bilingual subtitles.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Garsington Opera Death in Venice Britten


Garsington \Opera's Britten Death in Venice reviewed in Opera Today by Claire Seymour, who wrote the book -literally - on the operas of Benjamin Britten


"The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin's mesmerizing Tadzio. It's impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadzio should be or look, but - despite his blond curls - which like some of the visual vignettes allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears's Aschenbach fell victim, Boutin's physical maturity and strength and sheer brazenness foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann's text formulates a theory relating beauty to man's spiritual and intellectual purity : beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption, where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like, not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter".
Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpufv
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf
The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. - See more at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/06/death_in_venice.php#sthash.eYpW12uH.dpuf

Monday, 22 June 2015

Kirill Petrenko Chief Conductor Berlin Philharmonic


Kirill Petrenko has been named Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. A surprise, to those who know who is he (as opposed to those who mix him up with Vasily and Mikhail, who is a buddy of Kirill but not of Vasily).  It's also a surprise because Petrenko has only conducted Berlin three times, the last time being in 2012. The choice was made, according to the publicity material, because the orchestra loved working with him and were eager to have him back as soon as possible. But Petrenko is based in Munich, hardly a major commute to Berlin, and his Munich schedule, even allowing for Bayreuth, isn't so onerous that he couldn't have fitted something in during the last three years. The Berliner's schedule is tight too, but is it really that tight that they couldn't fit him in if they liked him so much ?

Moreover, he's primarily an opera conductor. Perhaps the Berliners want to move more in that direction, as they have been doing so under Rattle, and the two main contenders for Chefdirigent were Andris Nelsons and Christian Thielemann, true masters of the genre. He's no Furtwängler either. There are dozens of conductors who can make an orchestra feel good and sound good, but Berlin is already one of the best in the world: It doesn't need ego massage, quite the contrary. Rattle brought exceptional gifts of communication and outreach from his years of experience in Birmingham. The situation doesn't apply in |Munich, which has in some ways become a duller place since Nagano left. So why Petrenko?  To most of the world, he's a blank sheet, and will be loved precisely because he's not a Nelsons or Thielemann. Safe is fine, and usually popular, but it's not quite the same as artistic vision.  A blank sheet is easiyto remodel to suit a brand image. The repackaging has already started, for better or worse.

Schubert's anti-Fathers Day Rant


Franz Schubert's Anti Father's Day Rant  ? Leichenphantasie D7  (Corpse Fantasy) to a luridly Gothic poem by Schiller :

Mit erstorb'nem Scheinen 
Steht der Mond auf totenstillen Hainen
Seufzend streicht der Nachtgeist durch die Luft
Nebelwolken trauern, Sterne trauern Bleich herab, 
wie Lampen in der Gruft. Gleich Gespenstern, 
stumm und hohl und hager, 
Zieht in schwarzem Totenpompe dort 
Ein Gewimmel nach dem Leichenlager
Unterm Schauerflor der Grabnacht fort. 

(In dying light, the moon rises over deathly-silent groves, ghostly night-spirit's wails float through the air.  Dense mists mourn, stars pale in sorrow like lamps descending into a tomb. Ghosts, silent, hollow and gaunt. watch the deathly march of mourners behind the coffin draped in mourning crepe for the night burial) Schubert's setting is slow and deliberate, imitating the slow tread of the pall bearers, Yet every now and then, the vocal lines leaps upward, like a scream.

Unsteadily walking on crutches an old man follows the cortege. In the silence, he hears the word "Father" come from his dead son's mouth. "Son" ! he thinks in his heart. Twice, the line Eiskalt, eiskalt liegt er hier im Tuche (Ice cold, ice cold, he lies here in his shroud) reminding us that the son is dead. The father reminisces about his son's youthful promise. Mutig sprang er im Gewühle der Menschen,Wie ein jugendlich Reh. The song grabbed life with the energy of a roebuck, as proud as a stallion.  Sparkling figures in the piano part suggest the joy this herrlichen Jungen gets from being alive. Yet something's not quite right .Klagen ertränkt' er im Goldener Reben, Schmerzen verhüpft' er im wirbelnden Tanz. Schubert decorates the word "Goldener" but why does a lad like that need to drown his sorrows  ?  But now he's Gramentbundner, in Walhallas Ruh!, buried under grass, in Valhalla's Rest. Schubert infuses the word Valhalla so it sparkles., and the word "Ruh! ends in sudden silence. 

Wilder, darker chords remind us that the boy, his father and friends will meet no more in life Wiedersehn dort an Edens Tor! (to meet again at the gates of Eden) Nimmer gibt das Grab zurück. What the grave takes it does not give back.

Yet there's more to this song than 19th century death fantasy. Why is the young man being buried at night  ?  and with no mention of Christian rites ? Death's no fun, but why the air of horrified doom  ?  Did the lad kill himself, the ultimate mortal sin  There are hints in the text about chasing girls, and also, possibly something less publicly acceptable. Da wir trunken um einander rollten, Lippen schwiegen, und das Auge sprach (then we drank and rolled about together, lips silent but eyes speaking)  Maybe that's why the father is so shattered. Even if the hint of high jinks is non sexual, the implication is that the son is reproaching his father from beyond the grave. Schubert was only 14 when he wrote this song,.  It's 1811, his opus 7. Thousands of teenagers before and since have rebelled, and admonished their parents by doing themselves in. "You'll be sorry when I'm gone". But they don't get a chance to retract. Maybe the teenaged Schubert, who scrapped with his Dad, identified with the boy. Schiller's poem, on the other hand, raises other issues.

I've heard two exceptionally intelligent performances of this long and difficult song. Goerne sang it as part of a programme about father/son conflicts.  Prégardien included it on his disc of Schiller settings. It's part of a series of settings of Goethe, Schiller and other poets, and essential listening.   Both Goerne and Prégardien have done it at the Wigmore Hall.



Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Curse of the Lieder Recital


What is the curse of the Lieder Recital? Are the performers feeling unwell (singers "are" their instruments)? Or someone coughing? Or an unanswered phone? Such things can be accidents. The real curse of a Lieder recital is when audience members keep their noses in the programme. Of course poetry counts. Composers wouldn't be writing song if they didn't want to communicate the meaning of a poem. But composers write music. Words and music cannot be separate. Burying your nose in the programme means you're not really listening.

So what if you don't know the song? Get the gist of the text by reading up beforehand, then listening to how the composer interprets meaning by developing the musical setting.  In song, words and music cannot be separate. What really matters is what the composer thinks about the poem, not what the reader thinks.  Good poems inspire multiple interpretations,. In any case, how can anyone who doesn't know a song, or a poem, or a language, think they can automatically know everything simply by reading? It's the curse of Fast Food thinking. There's no need to digest a song in one gulp. Many Lieder fans savour favourite songs over the whole course of their lives. Quickfix is a sign of arrogance, as if the consumer can get everything first time round, like consuming a product. As in all things, learning takes time.

Lieder recitals are also interactive. Performers communicate. It's horrible to sing or play when the audience isn't paying attention . Performers need feedback to give their best: you can't blame them if they freeze because they know the audience is more interested in reading the programme than relating to the performance? Why sing or play when no-one's interested  Live recitals are not like recordings. Each performance is very different, even if the singer has done the same material 1000 times. Some folk should just stay at home with a CD. Eventually that will kill the art altogether, which thrives on human interaction.

Much better to read the text beforehand, to get the general spirit. Don['t worry about exactitude. Poetry isn't like that. Listen to the performers, absorb the music, react to their body language. But above all, listen. What does the composer bring out in a poem? How does that make you feel? That emotional engagement is the start of good listening. You can get it all wrong but at least you've learned to listen and feel.

One very good exercise I recommend is listening to new songs in a language which you don't understand. Then you are focusing on the song and the ideas it generates. The more you listen, the more you learn . Real understanding comes through that process, not just from print.

Above, an engraving of Franz Liszt. Notice how the audience are listening intently. It's a piano recital - no singer - but chances are they'd be paying attention anyway. Even the kid is alert.  That is how people were in the 19th century, much more formal than now. These days, it's fashionable for people like Alex Ross and his followers to say it's OK to clap, wander around and generally act up in performance. In some things maybe, and in some cultures. By all means spontaneous reactions like clapping something genuinely surprising, but serious listeners pay attention, because that's what good music deserves.  Listening is about caring about what other people think. A good lesson for life in general.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Brilliant pairings : François-Xavier Roth Mahler Chamber Orchestra Aldeburgh

François-Xavier Roth's concert with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival will probably be the highlight of this year's festival. That the print media ignored it speaks volumes about the London press. Roth is one of the most exciting conductors of his generation because nearly everything he does is musically astute and well informed. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra is a superlative ensemble, and with Roth they achieve great heights.  Absolutely this was the concert to go to. Fortunately the BBC recognized the significance and recorded it for broadcast, still available HERE.

Roth is a fascinating conductor because his background lies both in baroque and in new music,  He has conducted Lully, using a staff like Lully did, but without mishap, giving physical emphasis to the underlying rhythm and liveliness in the music. Roth's musical intelligence generates great energy and insight.  Read more here about some of the connections between French baroque and new music. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra  is part of the network of orchestras founded by Claudio Abbado,. Standards are exceptionally high.  It's an exclusive network that includes the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival. Musicians are chosen individually for the quality of their work. Because they work together a lot, they know each other well. But they're fresh and fluid because they work with different orchestras, within the network and beyond. No fossilizing here!

The programme was eclectic. This was Roth's debut at Aldeburgh. He loves it as the regulars do because it promotes new music in context with what's gone before, exactly as Britten himself  wished.  The Overture to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro exploded into life, reminding us how audacious Mozart must have sounded when he was writing "new music". Figaro the servant will outwit his master. Subversive stuff in a era when authority could not be challenged. Rarely can it have been performed with such vivacious energy. But that's the joy of hearing it in a mixed performance, with a chamber orchestra. They can put everything into the moment without having to save themselves for the rest of the opera, knowing that the audience can figure Figaro for themselves.

Hearing audacious Mozart prepared us for the inventiveness of Luke Bedford's Wonderful Two Headed Nightingale.  The connections are deep. Bedford uses the same instrumentation as Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. The purity of concept enhances the intricate interrelationship between the violin (Matthew Truscott) and viola (Joel Winter) and the orchestra. The title refers to the conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy, who became singers, escaping a lifetime of slavery or freak shows through their music. As a piece of "pure" abstract music Wonderful Two Headed Nightingale works well  because the dialogue between the soloists is reflected  sensitively in the orchestra, suggesting intricate patterns of harmony and non-harmony. Like conjoined twins, the soloists have to co-operate, yet their voices are - literally - very different. The violin line soars and moves with graceful ease, at times flying so high that it seems to dissipate into the stratosphere, like "a lark ascending". The viola supports it, but , more earthbound, discreetly demurs. playing chords that prod and provoke. Altered tuning adds to the sense of mystery. The "voices" are echoed by pairs of oboes and horns - more "conjoined twins" adding haunting, almost mournful texture, reminding us that the twins' situation would only end in death and silence.  It's an exquisite piece, utterly original and distinctive, fast becoming part of the canon. 

The connection between new music and the baroque was further emphasized with Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin. In 1919, this was new music too, even more radical than Ravel's original version for piano. In many ways, it's more "baroque" in spirit , for the delicacy of the orchestration mimics a harpsichord, Couperin's own instrument. Under the baton of a baroque specialist like  François-Xavier Roth, the dance elements seem liberating, the oboe part seductive, like a lithe dancer. The strings played with such grace that the notes seem to dissolve into sheer light: an approach very close to much contemporary music.


George Benjamin loves Le tombeau de Couperin., for it fits well with the pointillist refinement of his own style.  Benjamin's  Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra diverges from much of his earlier work, in that its last movement goes for maximum impact, with huge gongs placed antiphonally, encircling the rest of the orchestra in their embrace. Yet, tellingly, the percussion did not overwhelm: loudness for its own sake is for boors.  I was sitting barely three metres away, yet could hear musicality, not noise.  Sensitive playing!  The combinations of flugelhorn, euphonium and contrabassoon (good to see Gordon Laing again)  evoke a sense of strangeness, lightened by bright, bell-like percussion and pizzicato.  One could imagine the sounds of a forest, birds in the canopy, rustlings in the undergrowth below, through which one progresses with purposeful deliberation.

Schubert's Symphony no 5 reiterated some of the themes of what went before, the pairing of instruments, the values of purity, and even the audacity of Mozart, which so appealed to Schubert, who was only 19 when he wrote the piece. Far from being "minor" it's Lieder ohne Worte, where discipline of form enhances expression, ideal for a Liederabend of chamber musicians.  The Mahler Chamber Orchestra responded with grace, the playing so lyrical that one could dream of dancers. Roth gets such brightness and energy from this orchestra that it's hard to believe that it's the first time he's worked with them in public. They seem an ideal fit, in the Abbado and Daniel Harding spirit, though Roth is a quirkier character. Great hopes for the future!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

François-Xavier Roth, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Aldeburgh Festival

François-Xavier Roth conducted the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on the second of their concerts at the Aldeburgh Festival.  The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, founded by Claudio Abbado, is one of the finest in the world, connecting to Abbado's network of elite orchestras which include the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Seriously influential, with exceptionally high standards. They don't come to Britain nearly enough so their visit to Aldeburgh was truly a major occasion. François-Xavier Roth is one of the most interesting conductors around too, a brilliant fit for the ideals of excellence that these orchestras stand for. An absolutely unmissable experience, thankfully recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Please read my review of the concert HERE.

Roth's background is in baroque. He founded Les Siècles, the brilliant, innovative period ensemble whose performances sparkle with the energy and wit that epitomizes the French baroque spirit. He conducts a great deal of new music, too. His Boulez is exceptionally good. Boulez's legacy is safe in Roth's hands. Baroque and New Music, one might ask? But the connection is very strong indeed. French baroque music,  especially Rameau, was inspired by dance. Hence the physical exuberance of the genre, with its energy and life-affirming vigour.  Dance rhythms are precise for the simple reason that dancers move in formation,  interacting with each  other in  formal patterns, even when they incorporate individuality. Think about formal French gardens of the period, with their clear outlines and intricate forms. Nature seems to be contained, yet it's utterly present. Birds fly free overhead, and within the neat hedges we see an orderly glimpse of natural surroundings beyond the walls.  Thus precision and clear definition are absolutely a part of French style, translating into music. A good orchestra - especially a chamber orchestra - operates as a tightly knit ensemble. The more intricate the steps, the greater the need to observe clear lines, or the kinetic energy is lost. What would modern music sound like if microtonal complexities were reduced to haphazard blur? Accuracy, clarity and precision are fundamental to good performance.  Emotions can be expressed through intelligence, guided by insight into the composer.

Aldeburgh has always been a place for new music. Britten wasn't part of the conventional British world.  He valued the idea of creativity , and the idea that music could forever be born in new forms and styles. Make no mistake, Aldeburgh is, and always was, a place where new music thrives. The best British composers of our time, have found support in Aldeburgh, and through the lively spirit of the Britten Pears Foundation. It's no accident that Britten was fascinated by early music and the baroque. He wasn't alone. Over in Paris, Messiaen taught his students the importance of clarity. In a dawn chorus, thousands of different birds sing, but each bird has its individual voice, which shouldn't be lost.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra's programmes at Aldeburgh were suitably eclectic. No thinking in little boxes here, but an embrace of  the spirit of creative adventure that's at the heart of really good, original music.  So imaginative indeed, that they deserve being written about in more depth than I can do here. So listen to the BBC broadcast and be blown away, and come back to this site later when I come back from today's trip to Aldeburgh.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Harrison Birtwistle The Corridor The Cure Aldeburgh

Harrison's Birtwistle's The Corridor and The Cure at the Britten Studio at Snape, Aldeburgh, also coming to the Linbury Studio Theatre in London in July. Six years separate the operas, but in many ways they are two interlocking parts, typical of Birtwistle's fascination with puzzles.  Both pieces  employ the same combination of players - two voices, violin, viola, violoncello, clarinet, flute and harp. Both are inspired by Greek archetypes, and deal with cosmic issues of life, death and creative regeneration. Together, they could inspire a much deeper exploration of the inventive maze that is the source oif Birtwistle's imagination. In theory, anyway.

This new production of The Corridor dispensed with the dancers who shadowed the singers in Peter Gill's production in 2009.  Because the piece was new then the dancing confused and distracted though it was valid in principle, dance being very much part of meaning. This time, it was much easier to focus on the sheer beauty of Birtwistlle's writing, and of David Harsent's poetry, bot lucidly evoking the stylized elegance of Greek theatre.  This time Mark Padmore  and Elizabeth Atherton (Orpheus and Eurydice) emerged from an abyss behind the musicians of the London Sinfonietta, moving slowly along a slope. Orpheus is trying to  lead Eurydice out of the Underworld. Orpheus passes effortlessly through. Eurydice hesitates and is lost. The action, such as it is, operates within a compressed moment  in which Eurydice relives her wedding day and her death.

The music unfolds in a progression of frames, suggesting parallel concepts of time. Orpheus's music moves forwards. Eurydice's lingers, savouring what remains of memory, but her long lines draw her back, like ropes or sinister tentacles.  Further games with time: Eurydice can foresee the future, including  Orpheus's death, when he's torn apart by Meniads, but she herself can go no further. He stands in the light, in greenery (symbolizing fertility). The harpist plays behind him: for the harp signifies Orpheus's lute.  He's a musician, and his art is creative life. With a last heartfelt cry, Padmore sings "Eurydice", or rather speaks the name with minimal ornamentation, emphasizing his desolation.

The Corridor runs roughly 45 minutes, as does The Cure, separated by an interval of around half an hour. Chamber opera predicates on concision, ideal for the Greek antecedents of these micro operas, so the long interval was ominous, but that's not in itself a problem as audiences, especially at Aldeburgh, are laid back and receptive. Medea (Atherton) stands in  a green circle which might suggest her isolation as well as her occult powers., with a volcano behind her, and moons above. Visually this is stunning.  Lots of bright jewel colours and activity to watch, frequent transformations wrought be lighting.  Comic book cuteness, which is not irrelevant when we remember the harsh primary colours and deliberate stereotypes of Birtwistle's Punch and Judy or Down by the Greenwood Side.  But, just as dancing obscured the first The Corridor , the visual high jinks in this The Cure overwhelm the music. It's almost certain to appeal to those who don't actually like Birtwistle's music. They'll have plenty to enjoy without actually having to listen.. 

Unfortunately, the big story about this production will have been missed by those who went out for a drink in the interval.  Not everyone does, and nor should they have too, since space is at a premium in places like The Britten Studio and the Linbury Theatre. I was told that apparently the production team had threatened not to continue the performance unless people got out.  Unfortunately, many people believed this and left reluctantly.  So much pressure was put on the audience that by the end, only ten or so people held out, calling the bluff, some in corners or standing against the wall.  Audiences at Aldeburgh are generally music people rather than opera people so maybe they accept what opera people would see through.  But they're also so "British", too polite to complain even when they're upset. There's no way to quantify what they really feel. 

The reasons given were a combination of supposedly artistic values. "It's Royal Opera House Policy", I was told. No it is not. Even when there's a double bill of different operas at the Linbury, no one is forced to leave  Because Aldeburgh is primarily a house for chamber opera, there have been numerous double bills there, without any problem. Remember Benjamin's Into the Little Hill, paired with Luciano Berio's Recital 1, where stage preparations were integrated into the performance, or the Oliver Knussen Sendak double bill,, Where the Wild Things Ate and Higgelty Piggelty Pop, both with much more complicated staging. Or even the first The Corridor, paired with Birtwistle's Semper Dowland, semper dolens. at the Britten Studio. In any case, The Corridor and The Cure are so similar that they'd work even better with only a short pause.   

The idea that audiences shouldn't observe stagework is also specious. All theatre is illusion. No one's fooled. People can decide for themselves. Some are even interested in stagecraft.  Indeed, since stagecraft is an art form in itself, the better audiences understand how it works, the better. What would Benjamin Britten have thought, with his committment to practical opera  making?  

The Aldeburgh Festival is dearly loved and supported because it has an ethos of treating audiences well. The staff often go the extra mile to be nice. Audience members are potential friends - and Friends - so it makes no sense to treat  people harmlessly sitting in a hall with resentment.  Artistic judgements are all very well, but the Aldeburgh Festival has a duty of care towards its audiences. Thus, I believe that they'll stand up for that and not be pushed into wrong positions.