Thursday, 30 June 2016

Dante the opera, Palazzetto Bru Zane

Benjamin Godard's opera Dante rarely heard but causing quite a sensation.  In January this year, it was heard at the Prinzregententheater, Munich, and later at the Opéra Royal de Versailles, Paris, and broadcast throughout Europe.  What a delight!  This was the first performance odf a modern edition of the orchestral score, produced by the  Palazetto Bru Zane.

Godard (1849-1895), like many French composers, resisted Wagner and the cult of Bayreuth.  Dante (1890) is lyrical drama in the French tradition,  a fin de siècle descendant of Massenet, Thomas  and Gounod, though not  a precursor of Debussy, whose Pelléas et Mélisande was to premiere only seven years after Godard's early death 12 years later.   Dante and The Divine Comedy are so well known, there's no point rehashing them here. Godard's Dante , though,  is also interesting because it suggests a connection between Dante and Goethe's Faust.  In this Dante we can hear echoes of Gounod's Faust, of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust and even of Boito's Mefistofele: All are part of an interest in the Gothic Imagination and its fascination for the demonic and macabre beneath-surface lushness.  One might also consider Baudelaire Les Fleurs du Mal and the etchings of Gustav Doré, which I've used here.

While Godard certainly can whip up a beautiful storm, helped by the exceptionally good performance,  Véronique Gens is easily the finest specialist in late French Romantic repertoire,and brings the very tricky role of Béatrice to life with the lustrous timbre of her voice, and the poise with which she negotiates the range in the part.  No wonder Dante would go through hell for her!  Béatrice (and Gens) so dominate this opera that it would be hard to imagine a performance without the beauty of Gens's singing.  The rest of the cast is superb too. Edgaras Montvidas sings Dante, Rachel Frankel sings Gemma (Béatrice's friend), and Andrew Foster Williams sings the Shade of Virgil.  Ulf Schirmer conducts the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. All too often rarities like Dante are spoiled by mediocre, lacklustre performances  by conductors who rely on the fact that audiences don't have a point of reference, and fall for the safe and bland, which doesn't do the music justice. Godard isn't a genius, which is all the more why this performance is so good. Ulf Schirmer isn't the kind of conductor who gets away with things because he has no competition.  Everything I've heard him conduct is geared towards the specifics that make a composer individual.  Not all that many condutors have that gift. Palazzetto Bru Zane is to be congratulated on going for the best, without compromise.  This Godard Dante is being released on CD, An essential purchase, I think.

Please read the notes prepared by the Palazzetto Bru Zane, HERE. probably the best source so far on the composer and on the opera. I quote "Godard’s opera, composed in 1890, skilfully juxtaposes political developments – crowd scenes in Florence and the feud between Guelphs and Ghibellines – and the expression of medieval courtly love. In the opera Gemma, a young girl married to the protagonist out of duty and then abandoned, becomes the close friend of the beloved woman, Beatrice, of whom she is also the secret rival. The most remarkable aspect of this opera, though, is the insertion of a ‘Vision’, a kind of synthesis of the Divine Comedy set to music. Act three thus ranges between an imaginary Hell and Paradise, with sections bearing titles such as Apparition de Virgile Chœur des Damnés, Tourbillon infernal, Divine Clarté, and Apothéose de Béatrice . Godard here appears at the peak of his melodic inspiration and his overall compositional mastery, in a style that swings between Gounod and Massenet. The vocal quintet called for in the opera perfectly captures all the heroic and expressive potential of singers well-versed in Wagner and Verdi."

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

English Baroque Opera, St John's Smith Square

English Baroque opera at St John's , Smith Square, ready for booking now.  The English baroque style is unique, more "classical" than exuberant; southern forms, yet connected to contemporary theatrical values.  St John's, Smith Square, is a gem of British baroque architecture, an ideal place in which to enjoy English baroque music.

Bampton Classical Opera starts the new season with "Diviner Comedies" on 13/9, pairing Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris,  "a  witty account of a celestial beauty contest"  with "the supremely lyrical  Gluck Philemon and Baucis, continuing  Bampton's, enterprising exploration of Gluck's lesser-known operas. Paul Wingfield will conduct CHROMA

Henry Purcell Dido and Aeneas on 29/9 with the celebrated La Nuova Musica, led by David Peter Bates. Major headliners - Dame Ann Murray will sing Dido and George Humphreys will sing Aneas.  Again, a very good cast. What's more, with typical adventurous La Nuova Musica flair,  this performance will be illustrated with dancers, choreographed by Zack Winokur. This should be one of the highlights of the season - book early !

Thomas Linley's Lyric Ode: on the Fairies, Aerial Beings and Witches of Shakespeare  features in Bampton Classical Opera's second concert on 15/11. A glorious piece,, vividly dramatic.  It's being paired with excerpts from Georg Benda's Singspeil Romeo and Juliet,which Bampton Opera did in 2007.  Gilly French conducts the Bampton Classical Players and  a cast that includes Rosemary Coad, Caroline Kennedy, Thomas Herford and James Harrison.

Another highlight! The Early Opera Company, conducted by Christian Curnyn, makes a welcome return to St John's on 18/11 with Handel's Serse HWV40 , this time with Anna Stéphany, Rupert Enticknap, Callum Thorpe and Claire Booth, among others.

Lots more, too. La Nuova Musica is doing Bach Mozart and Haydn in December.  And don't forget the famous SJSS Christmas season, which sells out fast because it's so much fun. For more details visit the SJSS . website HERE>

Monday, 27 June 2016

Halévy La Juive Bieito - too close for comfort post-Brexit

Fromental Halévy La Juive at the Bayerisches Statsoper, Munich last night - horribly, frighteningly pertinent to events this week - and last week, too,  when MP Jo Cox was murdered.  Yet already Farage claims "no shots were fired" in his adventure. Now it seems that the whole country has been murdered, too, poisoned by an eruption of dishonesty and sheer bloody-minded pettiness. This isn't "democracy" but a spilling out from the hell of the Universal Troll. In La Juive, everyone gets destroyed, whatever their faith, whatever their station.  

This production, by Calixto Bieito, pulls no punches. No comic-book costumes to distance us from the brutal message. These terrible things can happen anywhere, at any time and on all sides of the political spectrum.  No one is immune. Just as conductors have individual styles, so do opera directors. Bieito is the one to go to for insights on social issues. His Carmen (more here) highlighted the cruel objectification of women. His Aida reminded us that there are slaves in modern society : we  call them the underclass, especially if they're the wrong race.  And his Fidelio (more here)  was so powerful that audiences couldn't figure it out, though it was a lot truer to Beethoven than they realized.  Bieito shocks, but he does so for constructive purpose.

So we don't see a palace, but that kind of luxury can hide the brutality within? Instead we see hard "stone" walls and massive columns that lean down oppressively over proceedings, a subtle reference to the Gothic arches in the stage directions.   Roberto Alagna, singing Eléazar, looks anonymous, moving furtively, almost in disguise behind hat and dark glasses. As a hunted refugee would.  When he does start to sing, however, the glory of his voice asserts itself, conquering the grimness around him. Alagna is an idol but here he's a true artist.  Eléazar shines, not the "star".  He's a decrepit old man but what he represents is something finer than what the Emperor and Cardinal de Brogni stand for.  Aleksandra Kurzak sings Rachel,. She's dressed in green, so she stands out from the hard black and white around her. Green, too, symbolic of freshness and renewal.  When she's killed. a lot dies with her, including the Cardinal's soul.  John Osborn sang Prince Léopold and Vera-Lotte Böcker sang Princess  Eudoxie.   The simplicity of Bieito's set concentrated attention on the human drama , and on the music.  Bertrand de Billy conducted well, but the singers - especially Alagna - were able to dominate.  

Last night someone who doesn't have prejudices about what opera "should" be, wondered why Bieito is considered controversial. A perceptive observation, since Bieito's approach  goes straight to the heart of the opera, no messing about.  This was an overwhelming experience, so strong in fact that I couldn't bring myself to write about it, in view of the events of this weekend.  But read Opera Traveller's account HERE. he says it so well.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Prophetic London Belongs to Me

A petty criminal, peruses the comics. "Easy Pickings", he thinks. But "easy pickings" and easy answers don't mean taking control.   London Belongs to Me now seems terrifyingly prophetic. The film begins in the London of 1938 : social change is already underway.   Once grand terraces are now multiple occupancy rooming houses, with lodgers who can't meet their rents, or feed their gas meters.  The landlady, Mrs Vizzard, lives in grand delusion, still dressed in Edwardian garb, her home cluttered as if in Victorian time warp.  A new lodger (Mr Squales) turns up. He's so unnatural that she thinks he's an actor. He is, but not quite in the way she thinks.  Mrs Vizzard  hosts seances for dodgy mediums who claim to commune with the dead and foretell the future. Think on that.

It's Christmas, and Mr and Mrs Josser, daughter Doris and Uncle Henry are having Christmas dinner.  Fellow tenant Connie fakes a faint to con a free feed.  The family discuss the Munich Agreement.  As he cracks a walnut, Uncle Henry says "If we don't wake up, Hitler will have us like this!"  "For goodness sake", says Mrs Josser, "Put on your paper hat and enter into the spirit".  Percy the flashy young spiv takes Doris to a dodgy night club, which gets raided. Percy escapes but Doris gets caught. But the policeman, Sgt  Bill Wilson, who takes her details, doesn't note them in the right place, because he fancies her.   Hoping to make enough money to start a business, Percy steals a car.  Spotting the police, he panics. The  ex-girlfriend who forced him to take her for a ride is killed, though it's not exactly clear how and by whom.  Even Mr Squales worries that he might have been involved, without "being himself".  . 

Mrs Vizzard learns that Mr Squales has been faking photographs of ghosts at seances, and kicks him out.  "I've no use for frauds and common adventurers".  Squales overhears Sgt Wilson order Percy's arrest and uses this to have a  trance "revelation" . When Percy is picked up, Mrs Vizzard is fooled all over again.  In prison, Percy has graphic nightmares. "I never did it!" he cries.   Mr Josser uses the money he's saved for a cottage in the country to hire a defence lawyer for Percy, even though he doesn't like the lad, because it's the moral thing to do.  Mr Squales turns up for the prosecution. It seems the girlfriend was killed by a "blow to the head" though she was hit by a passing car after falling out of  Percy's car.  Percy is condemned.  Won over by Mr Josser's generosity, Uncle Henry organizes a mission to save Percy, and raises a petition that gets so many names that it has to be carried to the Home Office pushed in a pram. Wonderful shots of the procession of protestors crossing Westminster Bridge in pouring rain !  Big Ben booms. It's 5 pm. Are they too late ? But the newspapers announce that Percy's been reprieved.  It's August the 31st, 1939...; what happens next ?  Air raid sirens. Mr Squales, now married to Mrs Vizzard, says the spirits tell him the war will soon be over. Mr and Mrs Josser are staying in London, despite the war.  They wouldn't leave Doris.  The film ends with a shot of Dulcimer Street. "They certainly are fine houses" says the narrator.  So are some of the people within.

London Belongs to Me was made by Sidney Gilliat in 1948. It stars Richard Attenborough, then aged 25 though he looks even younger.  It's long been one of the great classics of British cinema, but after the Brexit debacle, perhaps it means even more, now.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Vaughan Williams Weekend St John's Smith Square

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Friends Weekend at St John's Smith Square, a glorious three-day celebration of British music. This follows on the success of previous SJSS weekends devoted to Schubert and Schumann.  Curated by Anna Tilbrook, the RVW/SJSS weekend features The Holst Singers, James Gilchrist, Philip Dukes, and Ensemble Elata. The Weekend runs from 7th to 9th October, but get tickets soon as they will sell fast. There's no clash with the Oxford Lieder Festival which starts the following weekend, this year featuring Schumann.

Friday 7th at 7.30 : The Holst Singers conducted by Benjamin Nicholas launch the festival on Friday evening: Parry I was Glad, Stanford Beatoi quorum via, W Lloyd Weber, Howells Requiem, Holst Nunc Dimittis, and RVW's Lord thou hast been our refuge

Saturday 8th at 1 pm :  RVW Songs of Travel, Elgar Salut d'amour, Frank Bridge Oh, that it were so, Rebecca Clarke Passacaglia, Quilter : Go, lovely Rose, Bantock Hebrew Melody, Ivor Gurney Ludlow and Teme

Saturday 8th 4 pm : The Folk Connection  Quilter I will go with my father a-ploughing, Percy Grainger : Molly on the Shoree, RVW : Along the Field, Six Studies in English Folk Song, Winter's Willow and Linden lea, Rebecca Clarke : I'll bid my heart be still, Grainger: Handel in the Strand.

Saturday 8th at 7.30 : The Spiritual Realm  RVW : Rhosymedre, Four Hymns, Orpheus with his lute, Sky above the roof, Silent Noon, Piano Quintet, Finzi : Til the Earth Outwears, Elgar : Chanson de matin, Chanson de nuit (photo above Finzi and RVW, courtesy Finzi Trust)

Sunday 9th at 11.30 : The Shadow of War : Bliss Elegaic Sonnet, Ireland The Darkened valley, Butterworth : Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, Elgar : Piano Quintet

Sunday 9th at 3 pm : The Shadow of War II : Ireland ;The Soldier, Blow out, you bugles, Spring Sorrow, Elgar : Sospiri, Gurney: Severn Meadows, Lights Out, Sleep, In Flanders, By a Bierside, Howells : Elegy, RVW : On Wenlock Edge

James Gilchrist Sally Beamish premiere Wigmore Hall

James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at the Wigmore Hall, London, with  Sally Beamish's West Wind.  Gilchrist has been one of the most determined advocates of English song, almost from the beginning of his career.  Although his core repertoire is built on solid foundations of Handel, Purcell, RVW, Britten, and especially Gerald Finzi of whom he is a great exponent, Gilchrist has always made a point of promoting composers who should be more in the mainstream, like Hugh Wood, Lennox Berkeley and John Jeffreys and others whom he's performed live but not recorded. .  By commissioning Beamish, one of the most prominent British composers for voice, Gilchrist is again making a valuable contribution to British music.

Beamish's West Wind is based on Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, which everyone knows as a poem, but which has hardly ever been set to music, at least not in full.  English poets dominate world literature - Shakespeare, the Restoration poets, Wordsworth, Keats - but this heritage is hardly reflected in music. History might explain things. The Industrial Revolution transformed British society, making it more urban and centralized than was the case elsewhere in Europe.  British and continental European strands of Romanticism were very different, in ways too complex to describe here.  Furthermore,  the British choral tradition was so strong that other forms of music making didn't get much attention.  Perhaps the very nature of English Romantic poetry is relevant.  The style is fulsome and elegaic, lending itself to oratorio rather than to art song. It's significant that Hubert Parry was one of the first to create art song from English poetry.  Read here about the ground breaking series of Parry's songs to English texts from Somm Records  (Gilchrist, Roderick Williams and Susan Gritton.)

Rolling, circular figures introduce Beamish's West Wind , the voice entering from a distance as if it were being blown in by the "pestilence stricken multitudes".  Soon, though, the voice asserts itself.,  Gilchrist sings the words "Cold and low.....the corpse within its grave". A slow, penetrating chill descends, but, like the wind, the music changes direction, at turns capricious, then still, then rushing forth.  The third section is particularly beautiful. Delicate piano figures lead into curling, keening vocal phrases that seem to hover in the air, "Lull'd by the coil of his crystalline streams".   In the lower register of the piano, perhaps we can detect sonorous "lungs". Suddenly lightness returns. "If I were a dead leaf", Gilchrist sings, almost unaccompanied, suggesting fragility.  His touch is delicate, yet perfectly poised. The phrasing suits his voice. Gilchrist has the strange esoteric timbre of a typical English tenor, but also direct, almost conversational  naturalness.  From vulnerable sensitivity to the ferocity of the last poem. "Make me thy lyre" Gilchrist growls at the bottom of his timbre. Now Tilbrook's playing flutters weightlessly, like falling leaves.  "Scatter, scatter, scatter" Gilchrist sings, each word on a slightly different level.  "O.. O...O " he sang, mimicking the sound of wind, the word "Wind" pitched and held  so high that it floated, rarified, into air.

Beamish's West Wind is quirky, underlining the disturbing undercurrents in a poem ostensibly about Nature, but too malign to be a "nature poem". I kept thinking of  Peter Warlock's The Curlew, another cycle well suited to Gilchrist's style.  I also remembered Gilchrist's  Die Schöne Müllerin. There are hundreds of recordings, but his stood out out from the competition because it was an interpretation derived as if from clinical observation of the miller's psychology.

In this Wigmore Hall recital, Gilchrist and Tilbrook included songs by Mendelssohn,and Liszt and Schumann's Liederkreis op 39. Eichendorff's poems are less overtly ironic than Heine's, which formed the basis of Schumann's Leiderkreis Op 24.  but are perhaps closer to,the spirit of the very early Romantic period. After hearing this performance, I've decided to grt Gilchrist's recent recording of the Schumann song cycles on Linn.

photo credit Chase Management

Monday, 20 June 2016

Offenbach Le roi Carotte - perfect for post-truth politics

At the International Opera Awards this spring, Jacques Offenbach Le roi Carotte. and deservedly so. What a discovery!  Le roi Carotte is a wildly anarchic satire, whose message is only too relevant now, in our era of "post-truth" politics where demagogues and their followers think winning is everything. The production was a sensation at its premiere at the Opéra National de Lyon on 12 December 2015. It was broadcast on France Musique, French and German TV, the BBC, and elsewhere but in the UK it seems have have raised nary a ripple of interest.  Judging by the incomprehension with which Chabrier's LÉtoile was received in London this February (read more here) maybe one could conclude that London audiences don't get opéra bouffe, or they'd have realized that King Ouf's very name springs from the word "bouffe". In other words, puffed up, wicked, lively, as delicious as whipped creme.  

Offenbach's original, first heard in 1872, was an over the top extravaganza of 22 scenes, singing, dancing, music and comedy sketches, lasting more than six hours, which definitely wouldn't go down well with modern audiences.  Bouffe and operetta aren't quite the same thing. This new edition was prepared by Laurent Pelly, a man of the theatre who knows the genre extremely well, and indeed specializes in French theatre and opera. Remember his Ravel  L'enfant et les sortilèges at Glyndebourne?  Read an interview with Pelly here.  Pelly has directed a lot of Offenbach : La belle Hélène  Les conte's d'Hoffmann (twice) , La Périchole and La Duchesse de Gérolstein 

Le roi Carotte is magnificent on its own terms, but a bit of background doesn't hurt. The Overture, for example, though it's pure Offenbach, has the panache of the military choruses in Gounod's Faust. This may be no accident, since going to war meant less to Goethe than it did to Gounod whose audiences gloried in Napoleon III and victories in the Crimea. When Le roi Carotte premiered, the irony would not have been lost on Offenbach's audiences, who only the previous year had witnessed the Prussian invasion and the Paris Commune.  In Le roi Carotte, the drunken student chorus is even more prominent, complete with staccato riffs to which beer mugs can be rhythmically beaten. Hedonism rules! But "Don't knock it" sing the chorus : it can all evaporate in an instant.  

Le roi Fridolin XXIV is broke and must marry Princess Cunégonde for her money.  There's a wonderful vignette, in which a crafty student, Robin-Lauron, plots to rip off Fridolin and his remaining assets (weapons).  Indeed, all the set pieces are full of character, sharply defined.  Robin-Lauron discovers Rosée-du-soir, princess of Moravia, who has been imprisoned for years by the witch Coloquinte  The pair sing a duet "Roule, petit boule" , so even if we don't have a clue why they're there, the scene is delightful.  The witch is tricked by greed into conjuring up Le roi Carotte..... 

Back in the palace, Cunégonde meets the stuffy courtiers. But who should march in but Le roi Carotte and his vegetable minions.  The court is horrified: the orchestra playing strange sounds that could come from Berlioz.  But Coloquinte the witch "conducts" from above, and the court fall over in mindless adulation.  "A bas Fridolin!"  the chorus cries. The Carrot is King.  Fridolin calls on his forebears. Ghostly knights in armour march in, singing a parody of Gounod's Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux.  "How dare you invoke your ancestors", they scold, "roi sans vertu qui les bravais jadis".  Fridolin consults a magician, Kiribibi, who sings an aria about politics, Talleyrand and a fickle public.  Fridolin and his friends are magicked of to Pompeii, "la ville de la morte" . More spooky music, more references to Faust.  Like the hedonistic students, the citizens of Pompeii sing of bread and wine. Fridolin and his companions con the Pompeiians  by invoking railway trains!  I kid you not, this is in the score and libretto  Growling ostinato, high flutes suggesting wind, whistles and speed. "La locomotive, coursier infernale, encore captive, s'ébrante le signale". The railway symbolized progress : Berlioz and Heine wrote about them, too.  The music is so vivid that the staging doesn't need to show trains. Instead a depiction of Vesuvius is wheeled in, spouting smoke.  Like a locomotive.....

Meanwhile back in the palace le roi Carotte is besieged by sycophants and salesmen - from Persia no less - but being down to earth, he prefers soup to silks.  Fridolin and Cunégonde meet. "Moi! Toi?  haha haha " they duet, the orchestra laughing along.  Coloquinte appears and sends Fridolin, Robin-Lauron and Rosée-du-soir underground in puffs of smoke, the journey described by the orchestra, playing in darkness. Here, insects rule.  "Gloria nobis", they sing as they educate Fridolin and friends about their underworld. The bugs swarm upwards.  Coloquinte can't cope.  Le roi Carotte and his radish knights get sick.  "Ça,  Le Stratège ", to use bugs to weaken veg! Crops fail, prices rise and the populace in the market place revolt.  At last they call the king a carrot. Kiribibi stands astride a barricade of vegetable crates and sings of Liberty.  The people recognize the sounds of an approaching army.   Fridolin is restored. Le roi carotte doesn't go to the guillotine. He's shredded in a vegetable press.

An exceptional opera, an exceptional production and a very good cast, details here.  Chances are it will never come to the UK, but let's hope it will be appreciated on DVD.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Aldeburgh why I woke before dawn for Messiaen

In the reedbeds around Snape, Aldeburgh, Pierre-Laurent Aimard played Olivier Messiaen Catalogue d'Oiseaux to greet the dawn chorus. RSPB Minsmere, whose photo this is,  is one of the finest nature reserves in the UK, home to nearly 6,000 species.  The Alde River estuary is virtually untouched in many places, it's an area of outstanding beauty, and a haven for year-round residents as well as migrating species.  Aimard's Catalogue d'Oiseaux is  a metaphor for what the Aldeburgh Music Festival stands for.  Long may it be protected from exploitation and vested interests. Long may it stand for pristine excellence.

Messiaen was a deeply spiritual person, so for him birds were part of God's creation. Not for nothing that his great opera was Saint François d'Assise, the humble saint who embraced simplicity and talked to the birds.  (Read more about the opera here)  And so I am up with the birds, too, with darkness outside, listening quietly. An incredible haven of peace in a world that's become insane with extremist delusion.  This morning Aimard played Le Traquet stapazin (black-eared wheatear), La Bouscarle (Cetti's warbler) and Le Traquet rieur (black wheatear)  Never mind that these aren't the exact same birds at Aldeburgh. Messiaen's music is music, transcribing and adapting the spirit of the  birds.   It's 5 am now, and the music is over, but I'm going outside to sit in the garden for a bit. The sun's not quite out yet. It will be cold. But it's so beautiful.

BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting all four of Aimard's Catalogue d'Oiseaux concerts live (and on demand) plus other features on connected themes. Next concert 1pm, then 730pm and 11pm. Link HERE.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Aldeburgh Knussen Berg Butterworth Bray

Aldeburgh and Oliver Knussen, so closely connected that it's always an occasion when Ollie conducts the BBC SO at Snape. Ostensibly, the theme of this programme commemorated the First World War, but frankly it didn't need an artificial angle. In true Britten, Aldeburgh and Knussen tradition, this concert was forward looking and adventurous, working very well on its own musical terms.

Britten and Aldeburgh have always been outside the mainstream of British tradition, so Elgar isn't heard much here, and the oratorios and major works don't suit the Maltings.  Bach, however, is an Aldeburgh staple, since Britten passionately believed in links between the baroque and the modern.  So for a change, Elgar's transcriptions of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in C minor.  Bach often gets tellingly transcribed in every era,  so transcriptions offer a glimpse into the transcriber's style.  Elgar's Bach is stately,  an ocean liner rather than a doughty skiff. Not top-notch Elgar but pleasant enough. It served, however, to magnify the originality of George Butterworth to whom Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated his Second Symphony, an acknowledgement that, without Butterworth's vision, RVW might not have achieved so much so soon. Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad is based on the same Housman sources that inspired both Butterworth and RVW's wonderful song cycles. RVW orchestrated his songs, but Butterworth created something entirely new for his orchestral Shropshire Lad.   You can recognize echoes of the songs, but the whole is a quasi-symphonic work in its own terms, sophisticated ideas expressed with clarity and originality.  Because Knussen doesn't do mainstream "English" music, he approached Butterworth without baggage. This Shropshire Lad sounded remarkably fresh. Definitely not "cowpat school", but a contender for inclusion in the new age of music that was fast developing all over Europe at the time the piece was written.  What might British music have been had Butterworth survived the war?

With this imaginative Butterwoth still resonating in the mind, Gary Carpenter's Willie Stock didn't have much chance. Even on relistening to the broadcast, it's a work that is wonderful in concept, though less so in execution. Willie Stock was an ordinary soldier, killed in the trenches, so Carpenter adapts popular song of the time, deconstructing and fragmenting the tunes, just as the men in the trenches were blown to bits.   It's  thoughtful, and one feels close to poor Willie Stock but it might be best heard as part of a documentary, rather than a concert piece.

Elliott Carter's Sound Fields replaced at short notice a Carter work for baritone and orchestra. Sound Fields was born when Knussen and Carter were having lunch together at Tanglewood in 2007.  Since Carter wrote so well for string quartet, it’s surprising that this is his first work for string orchestra. Yet, despite the larger numbers involved, it’s diaphanous, a gently wavering sequence of chords. A single chord is played by twelve sub-groups in the orchestra, achieving  startling density by simple, elegant means. Sound Fields is slow and smooth, the chords gradually enfolding out of each other. It starts with slow timbred cello, evolving towards a simpler, barely audible final chord, also cello, that seems to evaporate into nothingness. All in barely four minutes.

Charlotte Bray is an Aldeburgh regular, and good, so her Stone Dancer was eagerly anticipated. It was inspired by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's Red Stone Dancer  (1913-14)  when western art was learning from non-western "primitive" art. Picasso, Braque, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and more. Thus the figure of a dancer, whose métier is fluid movement, depicted as solid, inanimate object. What comes over, though, is physical presence and strength.  Thus Charlotte Bray's Stone Dancer moves in a series of smaller movements, each held long enough that we feel the force behind the ideas before moving on.  This reminded me a lot of Rebecca Saunders's  monumental sculptures in sound, which come vividly to life in performance.  British music is most certainly alive and well, without a whisper of twee.

And so to Alban Berg's Three Piece for Orchestra Op 6 from the same period as Gaudier-Brzeska's sculpture.  Again, the idea of dance and physical forces expressed through music.   In the first "piece", the Praeludium, the orchestra growls, as if invoking primitive powers. The central piece is even called Reigen referring to dance.  Ländler and waltzes appear fleetingly, caught up in the swirl of the larger flow, as if the orchestra was like time itself, pulling things along in its wake.  Thus the wild finale, where dance figures coarsen into march: the idea of movement made brutal   Knussen and the BBCSO defined the sparkling touches in the piece so well that the contrasts with low winds, wailing brass and timpani felt savagely disconcerting.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Brudeferden i Hardanger Fiddles and film

Tomorrow at the Aldeburgh Music Festival is Hardanger Fiddle Day. Julian Anderson's Ring Dance for two violins (1987) will be heard at the Jubilee Hall, together with pieces played by Hardanger fiddle master Sivert Holmen.  The Hardanger tradition comes from the mountains of western Norway.  In rural areas, social occasions like weddings  brought isolated communities together,  thus helped shape regional culture. Hardanger fiddlers played for dances: thus the strong rhythmic beat and repeated patterns.  Hardanger music is joyful, even athletic - some forms of Norwegian dance resemble acrobatics. Yet Hardanger music is also plaintive, with an overlay of keening melancholy. 

That curious blend of youthful vigour and sorrow pervades Brudeferden  i Hardanger, a film from 1926, directed by Rasmus Breistein, who was himself a country fiddler and later learned the Hardanger style. The film is based on at least one novel, but also explicitly connects to one of the most famous paintings in Norwegian art, Brudeferd i Hardanger, (1848) by Tidemand and Gude. The painting shows a boat sailing down a fjord, surrounded by mountains. On the boat is a bride leaving home for a supposedly happy future.  In the film, there's a shot in the film which almost exactly replicates the painting.  Presumably those who watched the movie made the connection.

Breistein's film, though, starts out first with another scene in which a boat carries a family, forced by poverty to emigrate. Marit refuses to go with her parents, but runs up the mountainside, watching the ship head out to sea. The family look back, grimly, at the mountains, not knowing what will lie ahead. Marit stays because she's secretly in love with Anders. Anders is leaving, too, but gives Marit his mother's Sølje, a traditional wedding brooch.  She assumes he'll marry her but four years pass without a word.

Next we see a bridal procession, the Brudeferd. The soundtrack, added when the film was restored, features Hardanger fiddle played by a named master, though otherwise the music is mostly Grieg.  It's a big wedding, with at least a dozen boats, being rowed down the fjord, fancier than in the painting. The bride is rich, wearing a jewelled crown, and elaborate traditional dress. Wonderful shots of the wedding party, with  the women in starched aprons and headresses.  Hardanger embroidery ? Hardanger fiddlers, of course. But who is the bridegroom ? Marit gets Anders alone and scolds him for marrying money.  Marit quits her job in the house of the judge and goes to work with a crofter in the mountains.  Loyal Tore, who has loved her all along, finds her and takes her back to Skjralte, his big farm in the valley.

Many years pass, and Marit is now a rich old widow. Look at her embroidered finery now !  She's still wearing Anders's mother's Sølje. But she's bitter, her mouth hard, like a scar.  Anders has fallen on hard times. His wife's money is gone, and the once rich bride is forced to peddle small goods to scrape a living.  Cruel Marit humiliates the woman, who eventually dies.  Fate, though, intervenes. Marit's daughter Eli falls in love with Anders's son Bérd. When her mother throws her out, she goes to live with him and old Anders in a humble hut. Another country dance, another Hardanger fiddler. Marit's son Vigleik gets drunk, goes to Anders's hovel and beats the old man up. Eli takes Anders back to Skjralte to recover, Vigliek flees to America, and Marit nurses Anders back to health.

The film is beautifully shot, lingering lovingly on things like spinning wheels, bucket making, rustic houses furnished sparsely, some with simple painting on on the walls. and the laying of hay to dry on branches set in the ground.  The acting is good, too, much better than in most silent film.  The restoration is so good that  details are given in full at the end, deservedly so.  Brudeferden i Hardanger is an even more beautifully made film than Troll-Elgen  (which I wrote about here) though Marit is an unsympathetic piece of work.  In the photo below, we can see the simple, portable cameras Breistein's crew used, shooting on location in the open countryside.