Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Mahler Symphony no 9, Daniel Harding Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Mahler Symphony no 9 in D major, with Daniel Harding conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, new from Harmonia Mundi. A rewarding performance on many levels, not least because it's thoughtfully sculpted, connecting structure to meaning. 

A graceful first movement, respecting the marking  andante comodo "comfortable pace". The harp and strings here have a mellow richness which enhances the gentle rhythmic pulse.  For "pulse" this is, suggesting the human body at rest, calmly breathing.  Gradually the palpitations build up towards expansive outbursts, as if invigorated by the flow of life.  When silence descends, marked by timpani ans strident brass, the effect is chilling.  The harp ruminates, and the steady pace resumes.  The music flares up again : tension, alarm and a spiralling descent into darkness, and a wall  of mournful winds and brasses. Yet again, though, steadiness prevails.  Celli and bassoons lead the way ahead. Harding shapes the flow by highlighting the fanfares, so the undertow can be heard without undue exaggeration.  Now, when relative silence returns, the mood is pure and calm: the  high, clear pitch of the woodwinds is exquisite, evoking, perhaps memories of summer, a typical Mahler touch.

Thus we are prepared for the second movement, marked "Etwas täppisch und sehr derb".(rustic, simple, earthy). Why Ländler in a symphony some still associate with death ? Ländler are danced by peasants who till the soil, who know that seasons change and that harvests return after fallow times. This movement is much more than folklore : it connects to the theme of change and rebirth that runs through so much of Mahler's work. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with gusto, Harding gauging their strengths.  There's humour here and impish high jinks. The spirit of Pan awakes !  Thus the lively leaps ans swirls, the flow of the first movement returning in exuberant form. The pace whips up, propelled along with force, yet once again, the dance returns, for dance, like Nature, moves in rhythmic cycles. The movement ends with a smile - a deft, pipoing little figure.

The Rondo in the third movement was vigorously animated. The pace is now near-frenzy, strings and winds flying free, though steady beat can still be heard in the lower voices.  Nonetheless, though the spirit may be wild, Harding doesn't lose shape. We hear the violin emerge, its way lit by harp.  In the tumult, the swaying palpitations of the first movement revive in burlesque parody.  Indeed, much of this symphony is like dance, motifs returning in guises. Two slow movements at each end, taken slow, encasing two fast-moving inner movements.

If the first movement was comodo, the last is stately, even majestic in its sweep. The strings take charge, lifting above and away from the orchestra, much in the way that birds take flight above the earth.  Their line shimmers, undimmed, though the sound is rich.  Bassoons moan,  suggesting depth, which intensifies the heights the strings are striving towards. The leader plays a keening, soaring line at a tessitura so high it's almost ethereal. The "pulse" of the first movement is back, now transfigured, no longer bodily but spiritual.  At the end, sounds  become so pure that they dissolve, as if beyond human hearing.

Although this was the last symphony Mahler completed, there is no evidence that he was contemplating his own death. From what we now know about his life, from the events of his life, and also from what we have of what was to be his Tenth Symphony, he wasn't just looking backward any more than in so many other of his works where death is vanquished by new life.  It is significant that when Harding, aged 20, was Claudio Abbado's chosen assistant in Berlin, he was given the Tenth to study, at a period when many conductors were still performing only the first movement.  Learning a composer back to front is not a bad thing, especially a composer like Mahler whose work forms  a huge trajectory from beginning to  to end, where an understanding of overall structure makes a huge difference.


Saturday, 17 February 2018

Rameau Maître à danser William Christie


Rameau : Maître à danser with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in the famed production at Le théâtre de Caen, from 2014,  still (just) available on Culturebox.  Notice, Maître à danser, not master of the dance but a master to be danced to: there's a difference.  Dance is movement, formalized into art.  Dance encapsulates the values of the baroque, where art meant civilisation, refinement over nature, orderliness over abundance.  Rameau was a music theorist as well as a composer, his music shaped by the values of his time. The pulse of dance invigorates his music, and informs its intricate patterns.  We can hear it animate the music. Now, fortunately, thanks to extensive modern research, we can also watch music being danced to, in stagings that reflect the spirit of the period.

In this performance, Christie presents Daphnis et Églé  (1753), written as a private entertainment for Louis XV and his court at Fontainebleau, after days spent out in the forests hunting for game. Context is relevant. It also commemorates the birth of a royal princes, and dynastic continuity.  The King wanted to be amused, but the show also had to flatter his image of power.  Thus both pieces present Happy Peasants, acting out simple, innocent lives, their peaceful idylls made possible by the benevolence of the King.   

Daphnis et Églé is basically a masque for dancing,  Daphnis (Reinoud Van Mechelen) and Églé (Élodie Fonnard), shepherd and shepherdess, are friends who gradually fall in love over a sequence of 16 tableaux.  Daphnis flirts with a stranger, singing a lovely air. Églé drags him away.  Cupid appears, with wings and a wooden bow and arrow.  Daphnis presents  Églé  with a bow. Later, heavily "pregnant, they embrace as happy peasants dance around them.  Van Mechelen and Fonnard are familiar names on the French baroque circuit. Fonnard's particularly pert and dramatic  and Van Mechelen has good stage presence. The first performance of this piece in 1753 flopped, apparently because the singers were duds. Fonnard and Van Mechelen are good. They're delightfully fresh.  But singing is only part of the dramatic whole, contrary to modern notions about the past.  There isn't much of a plot, and what narrative there is unfolds in stylized symbols. In the final sequence, Églé carries a doll, representing a new-born babe. Louis XV and his Queen, with their infant prince, would have been flattered.Contrary to modern assumptions, the singing, though beautiful, does not take precedence over all else.  Baroque values emphasized balance and natural order, ensemble not diva-ism.  Van Mechelen has a lovely passage "Chantez ! Chantez", garlanded by woodwinds that sing like birds, bringing "nature" into the proceedings, and the idea of natural purity. The long dance sequences, punctuated by simple percussion, emphasize the orchestra over the singers.  Indeed, the chorus has almost as much to do as the singers.   

Daphnis et Églé works well when its slender charms aren't overwhelmed by excess opulence. Daneman's staging reflects this innocence, A simple cloth is held up on sticks to suggest  peasant theatre.  Alain Blanchot's costumes (organic dyed fabric?) show the shepherds and shepherdesses in what would have been normal 18th century costume for their class, ie "modern" for the time. Daneman has worked with Christie since their first Hippolyte et Aricie together some 20 years ago. 

This stylized simplicity is of the essence, since The King wanted to portray himself as father of his people, a populace too childlike and naive to object.  Little did he know what would happen in 1789!

 Françoise Denieau choreographed. Each of these danced sequences represent a different type of dance. Fans of early dance will enthuse about the finerMdetails, and the names of each type of dance, the arm movements and the position of feet.  Baroque dance stemmed from athletics aristocrats practiced to keep fit and to fence. It's more stylized than 19th century ballet, and, serves the music. It isn't over-elaborate, since the purpose of the piece was conceptual idealism.  It feels like hearing the score come alive. When the music takes precedence, there are some lovely moments.  The Three Graces appear, in skimpy flesh coloured chemises, their arms held in expansive gestures. A young man dances with them. I'm not sure "who" he represents, but his graceful agility is a joy to watch.  

I first heard Christie's  Maître à danser  live at the Barbican in 2014, soon after the Caen premiere, together with another miniature, marking the birth of a second young prince, who would become the ill-fated Louis XVI.  In London, I think we got a truncated version of the two pieces, but I can't remember exactly.  Please see my other posts on Rameau's Zaïs HERE. and on  Pigmalion and Anacréon HERE

Friday, 16 February 2018

Jonas Kaufmann Diana Damrau Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch


Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau, Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch, Goldner Saale, Musikverein, Vienna

Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau singing Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch with Helmut Deutsch at the Barbican Hall, London.  Despite astronomical prices, tickets will sell.  Not for Hugo Wolf, but for Kaufmann and Damrau, a good team for music like this. Unlike most of the concerts in the Barbican's Kaufman residency, this one is seriously interesting in musical terms.  Hugo Wolf will always be more specialist taste than populist, but this Liederbuch could be ideally suited to Kaufmann, whose sensually-charged, darker timbre should be pretty much perfect.  Wolf hasn't enjoyed mega profile celebrity status for decades. Kaufmann and Damrau's tour takes in twelve European cities, including Berlin, Vienna, London, Paris, Barcelona and Budapest.  Kaufmann and Damrau's Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch is significant, so chances are that a recording will eventuate. It will be cheaper than shelling out big for tickets/transport ! haha ! Besides THIS is where I went the night before, still high on it.

For the Italienisches Liederbuch, Wolf used texts by Paul Heyse, whose translations of Italian and Spanish poetry appealed to German-language readers, fascinated by "The Dream of the South" a potent theme in Central European aesthetics,  even before Goethe's life-transforming visits to Italy.  Wolf was born in Windischgrätz in what is now Slovenia. Though the family was German-speaking, Wolf's mother played the guitar and had Italian connections.  Dreams of the South cast a spell on Wolf, who would later go on to write the Spanisches Liederbuch and the opera Der Corregidor.  Significantly, though, Wolf never actually made it to Italy.  When his friend arranged for him to visit during his last, troubled years, he refused to go, aware perhaps that nothing could quite match the Italy of his imagination.  The forty-six songs in Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch form a panorama, each song an individual vignette.  Lovers pine for one another, thwarted by bossy mothers. Serenades, and songs about dirty old men dressed as monks ! Delicate songs of innocence, robust songs of flirtation, and songs of sheer wonder, like Schon streckt' ich aus im Bett die müden Glieder, where a man jumps out of bed to fill the streets with song.  But not just to one girl. "So manches Mädchen hat mein Lied gerührt, Indes der Wind schon Sang und Klang entführt." (many girls hear my song, even when it's been blown away by wind and noise). Images of sunshine, and of the night, of warmth and a sensibility very different to uptight Northern morality (and probably not much like strict Catholic behaviour, either.).

Each song is a miniature opera, telling a story, creating a mood. That's why I think these songs were made for Jonas Kaufmann.  His voice has a smouldering, sexy quality which suits the slightly louche nature of these songs.  His Italianate looks don't hurt, either !  As an opera singer, creating character with his voice comes naturally. Although these songs are Lieder, they aren't as inward or as intellectual as many Lieder can be, so they can benefit from a more impersonal approach as long as the touch is elegant enough not to overwhelm.  Although Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made so many recordings that the Italienisches Liederbuch is almost (not quite) associated with him,  the collection is also tenor territory.  Peter Schreier and Christoph Prégardien performed it many time, Prégardien sometimes adjusting the song order to group the songs into tighter units. So Kaufmann, with his baritonish richness could create the best of both worlds.

Because Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch depends so much on the interplay between the many different components in the collection,  in practical performance it needs singers who are  balanced enough to create a natural flow between their voices. Diana Damrau has done the Italienisches  Liederbuch before, so she's a known quality.  The girlish brightness of her youth has warmed to a  maturity,  better suited to this collection, where so many songs describe a worldly-wise woman with such confidence that she can chide her (many) lovers with mocking good humour.  Many of the "female" songs in this set reveal women as stronger personalities than men.  And as for Helmut Deutsch, he's so familiar to Lieder people that we can "hear" him, just thinking about him.

Wunderhorn-haunted Mahler 5 - Jakub Hrůša, Philharmonia

Jakub Hrůša (photo Pavel Heinz, for IMG)

Many have wondered, "How Bohemian was Gustav Mahler?". Mahler Symphony no 5 with Jakub Hrůša and the Philharmonia Orchestra paired with Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1 in C, op 15, with soloist Piotr Anderszewski at the Royal Festival Hall, London, might shed some light. Mahler grew up in German-speaking communities in what is now Bohemia/Moravia, so the question is valid.  Though German speakers dominated society in those times, and Bohemian received less deference, as a bright, sensitive child Mahler might have absorbed the sounds around him.  Although Mahler's Fifth Symphony is not a Wunderhorn symphony, it still carries the vigorous vernacular of the folk traditions captured in Brentano and Arnim's volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Hrůša brought out the robust spirit that animates the symphony. Far from being neurotic, this is a symphony that celebrates life in its variety. It begins with a Trauermarsch, a funeral march, in measured steps.  Growing up in a garrison town, Mahler would often have seen soldiers in drill formation. Hence the marking "wie ein Konduct".  Thus the baleful trumpet call, followed by trombones and tuba, and the steady pace. But almost immediately, something extra happened.  The fingerings on the basses brought out the "wood" in their instruments. Hollow sounds and very spooky, evoking the sound of skeletons marching through town in Revelge, the dead resurrected in macabre afterlife.  The high winds sounded like cries of anguish. It is also significant that Mahler experienced a dangerous illness before the completion of Symphony no 5.  He, too, had beaten death and could laugh in its face.  Hrůša's approach is interpretively valid, making connections between this symphony and so much else in Mahler,  even to the quirky, dark humour of Symphony no 7.  A chilling last chord, to press the point.

This symphony was first performed with the Rückert song Um Mitternacht. In the silence of the night the poet hears his heart and realizes its beat separates life from death.The angular phrasing with which the second movement begins, underlined by "heartbeats"of the timpani, suggested the pulse of a body.  The trumpet plays a dual role. It propels forward thrust yet also stands for a single player, and individual in a larger group. A humble soldier, the human face of an army : part of the Wunderhorn ethos. In the fanfare and storm-tossed passages that follow, the trumpet leads on.  Here, an exhilaration reminiscent of Mahler's Symphony no 1. But an "individual" emerges again in the violin, lyrical but distinctive.  The third movement moves from Scherzo to stillness. There are interlocking dialogues, between trumpet and horn, between horn and flute, solo violin and strings. This dynamic suggests variety : the proliferation of different stories in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, perhaps, but also in life itself.  Now the violin part dominates, leading into more mysterious territory. Winds call, and brass. Dense textures and shadows. The violins sang freely contrasting with angular brass, wooden percussion beating tension.  Are we hearing the sounds of the night, or the sounds in a dense forest? At moments, I felt as though the spirit of the Cunning Little Vixen had infused the symphony, enhancing it with the fertility and freedom which the Vixen symbolizes. 

Perhaps the Vixen lingered, too, in the Adagietto, with its natural, unforced tenderness.  The Vixen is a feminine presence, and "feminine" themes occur quite often in Mahler.  Hrůša placed the celli between the first and second violins and violas, so an almost imperceptible tremble added to the fragility of the moment.  As so often in Mahler, good times don't last, though as in Nature, new life replaces old.  Thus the vernal freshness with which the Rondo-Finale began, developed with warmth, creating the spacious, summery freedom we encounter so often in Mahler.  Here, the rustling strings and rumbling percussion evoked a sense of dense, healthy undergrowth. It's not for nothing that so much Central European mythology springs from an aesthetic in which the forest acts as symbol for the psyche.  With this firm foundation, the brass can call heavenwards. Mahler can conclude with vibrant flourish. The journey from death to life once again traversed, vigour refreshed and revived.  


Hrůša's approach to Mahler is inspired and perceptive. It's not often that structural connections are so well understood,and performance so earthy and vital.  This concert began with Beethoven  Piano Concerto no 1 op 15 with Piotr Anderszewski, well performed but with no particular relation to Mahler 5.  Beethoven Piano Concerto no 2 will be heard with Mahler Symphony no 1 on April 12th when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia with David Fray as soloist. Will, the connections reveal themselves then ?  .

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Kung Hei Fat Choy - Donald the Dog


Kung Hei Fat Choy !  Welcome to the Spring festival, start of the Lunar New Year, Friday 16th February, this year.   This is the biggest celebration of the year, when families get together from all over the country and the world. Everyone feasts. To attract good fortune for the New Year, people display flowers and fruit and "lucky" objects like calligraphy and brightly coloured ornaments.  Since this year is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac, a lot of the ornaments depict dogs. Whole stalls selling toy dogs - soft toys, balloons, dancing toys and stuff for kids. I even saw someone "walking" a toy dinosaur, with wheels in its legs.  Above, a Dog who's been on the streets in Shanxi province for quite a while.  Political commentary ? Aha ! Although people born in the Year of the Dog are generally loyal and trustworthy, those born as "Fire Dogs" in the more detailed 60-year zodiac have problems.  Like dogs, they obey and are controlled by others. They like money and comforts but don't manage them well.  And in matters of love, they are, well, like hounds.  Of course this doesn't apply to everyone, but..... !

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Hubert Parry Choral Festival, Gloucester

The Gloucester Choral Society host a choral festival honouring Charles Hubert Parry on the 100th anniversary of his death.  Parry was perhaps the finest British composer in the generation before Edward Elgar, and, as Director of the Royal College of Music, helped shape 20th century British music, in particular the music of John Ireland, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Parry's Jerusalem is almost our National Anthem. But the song, like the poem by William Blake that inspired it, is all too often misunderstood. (Please read my piece on it HERE). Though born to privilege, Parry's sympathies lay closer to Blake's than to the Establishment. It's fitting, then, that the GCS Festival begins with a Come and Sing Workshop  led by Adrian Partington, where singers of all abilities will be welcome to sing Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens, and other pieces like Ireland's Vexilla Regis, Holst's Turn Back O Man and Vaughan Williams’sa Towards the Unknown Region.

On Saturday, 5th May,  a gala evening concert will be held at Gloucester Cathedral, where the Gloucester Choral Society will be joined by the Oxford Bach Choir and the Philharmonia Orchestra in a programme that begins  with Parry's I was Glad and ends with Jerusalem. Along the way, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis, Holst's Hymn of Jesus, Ireland's Greater Love hath no Man and Parry's Ode to the Nativity.  Earlier on, an afternoon recital with Ashley Grote, the noted organist, at St Peter's Catholic Church in Gloucester  with Parry's Chorale Fantasia on O God, our help in ages past, his Fantasia and Fugue in G and his Choral Preludes on Martyrdom and  Eventide plus organ music by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Ireland.  On Sunday,  Eucharist and Evensong at Gloucester  Cathedral will be celebrated with music by Parry,Vaughan Williams, and Howells

Perhaps the most unique event for true Parry devotees  will be the all-day study day on Monday 7th at Highnam, which isn't generally open to the public except by arrangement. Highnam House was built in the 16th century, and extensively restored by Thomas Gambier Parry, the composer's father, who built the Church of the Holy Innocents, a gem of Victorian architectural excellence. (There's a street named after him in Gloucester). Professor Jeremy Dibble , Parry's biographer and an authority on British music, will give a talk on Parry's choral music. There'll also be a recital, and an Evensong in the Church, which will include Parry's Magnificat and Nunc Dimmitus, Vaughan Williams's Antiphon and Parry's Chorale Prelude on Hanover.

More details here from the Three Choirs Festival website

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Life-affirming Smetana Má vlast : Jiří Bělohlávek

Prague Spring Festivals have always had more than musical significance, since they commemorate Czech nationhood.  In 1948, and again in 1968, they had political meaning.  Smetana's Má vlast , perhaps the most powerful expression of Czech identity in music, has opened the Festival for 65 years. Thus, when Bělohlávek conducted it in 2014, it represented much more than an opening of a new season.  Bělohlávek had returned to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra after the years of tension when he had been forced to resign. His passionate dedication to Czech repertoire helped restore the orchestra to its glories and to reaffirm the country's unique musical character.  Thus, in honour of Bělohlávek, who died suddenly in May 2017, Decca has released that legendary performance on C D, in pristine sound quality.  Bootlegs do exist, but they don't measure up.  But this release is a major event in terms of performance. It is outstanding, powerfully played and inspired by truly intense passionate commitment.

Smetana's  Má vlast has inspired numerous good recordings, so many that comparisons would be invidious.  It is such a remarkable piece that it repays serious listening, over and over again.  Like so many before him, Bělohlávek conducted Má vlast many times during his career, but  only the Supraphon recording from 1990 has been
commercially available. This new recording outclasses that, treasured as it will remain.  But recordings are only snapshots in time, and time moves on.   This recording thus captures an important moment in Bělohlávek's fertile later career, and in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's heritage.

The Vlatava is landscape, yet also a metaphor for Bohemian history.  The first movement of Má vlast is titled Vyšehrad referring to the ancient castle on an outcrop on the river, reputedly the original Bohemian settlement.  On this recording, the harps are played with particular lustre, beautifully lucid yet also firm and assertive, an important detail, since they represent an ancient bard, who lives on in the spirit of music.  The settlement still exists (Smetana is buried there) but time, like the river, moves onwards. Thus the harps also suggest flowing waters. By the time we reach the second movement Vlatava, the river is in full flow, constantly refreshed from mountain sources, growing in strength and volume as they pass through the land.  Horns are heard, evoking the past, and forests, and suggestions of dance, evoking not only folk tradition but also a sense of circular, swirling movement.  Hence the liquid pace  Bělohlávek achieves, energetic but graceful, and the repeating flourishes, leading to the expansive section, then slowing down then rising again, refreshed, significantly, by the harps.

The movement Šárka is mythic and Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia's Woods and Fields) descriptive, but in musical terms these serve to enrich the overall shape of the saga, much in the way that a river is fed from different streams and different sources.  Here the orchestra bristles with character. The triumphant march-like figures capture the defiant, amazon-like  spirit of the  female goddess, who will not be conquered.  Note the moaning bassoons, trombones and winds.  Bělohlávek defines the clean textures of the fourth movement with naturalness and ease, so when the horns announce the expansiveness in the middle section, the affirmation feels vigorous, but without malevolence. This prepares us for the darkness in the next movements,Tábor and Blaník.

Tábor was a Hussite fortress, under seige and eventually defeated in violent massacres.  Thus the quiet, tense introduction, developed through brass and timpani, which grows bolder as the hymn emerges.  This is the Hussite anthem Ktož jsú boží bojovníci (Ye Who Are Warriors of God).  Massive, angular chords loom upwards, suggesting danger, and determined defiance.  The rocky fastness of Vyšehrad in even more turbulent times. The Hussites may be no more, yet their spirit, like the spirit of the bard and of Šárka, remains steadfast. Bělohlávek builds up a firm structure, so the hymn theme emerges fragile but undefeated, faith representing the spirit of freedom. As the movement draws to a close, quieter chords glow, like embers in ash.  Delicious celli and strings, and a climax that's taken up, resurgent in the final movement Blaník.We still hear the rushing "footsteps" of the angular chords, but the mood here is quieter and more serene, as if something more eternal  exists half hidden from hearing.  The reference is to St Wenceslaus, patron saint of Bohemia, who lived long before the Hussites, whom legend says will return to save the nation in its hour of need.   Smetana was writing at a time when the Hapsburgs ruled: not quite as extreme a situation as 1938,1948 or 1968, but still a time of occupation.  Má vlast is inextricably linked to cultural context, but it also works in purely musical terms. As the riotous, lively finale suggests, the spirit of freedom the river and its history represent will live again, joyful and revitalized.

Go to bed, wake up gay !


Friday, 9 February 2018

The Grand Siècle, London Festival of the Baroque 2018


The Treasures of the Grand Siècle come to the London Baroque Festival in May. Curated by Guest Director Sébastien Daucé, this promises to be one of the most exciting events in town this summer. Anyone aware of Daucé's Le Concert Royal de la Nuit with Ensemble Correspondances (Harmonia Mundi) will know what to expect. Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was Louis XIV's  revolutionary manifesto, announcing the dawn of an exuberant new age. It was performed only once, on 23rd February 1653, in the palace of Petit-Bourbon in Paris : an extravaganza where the star was its subject : Louis XIV, the King of France.  It ran for 13 hours solid,  from darkness to dawn, dawn being, of course the return of the sun. Thus Louis revealed himself as the Sun King, his countenance bringing light to the nation.  He appeared, in the costume pictured right,  dressed as the sun, the centre of the solar system, the bringer of light and growth. The Sun King was taking command, not only of the Court but also of France, then the most advanced and sophisticated nation in Europe.

The influence of Le Concert Royal de la Nuit can hardly be overestimated : it marks the beginning of "modern" music, opera and ballet.  It is also a metaphor for the baroque spirit, which lives on in French style. Its audacity lies in its extravagant imagination, elegance restraining excess, technical achievement balanced by refinement, agility and energy.  And intelligence - the spectacle was designed by and for minds who understood the value of the mind as a source of civilization.   It evolves in four parts, comprising numerous scena and interludes, depicting the known and unknown world. Gods and Symbolic Deities mix with mortals and (glorified)  peasants, representing the multitudes whom Louis would rule over, in fact as well as in allegory.  Musicians, singers, dancers, acrobats, jugglers : the plethora of styles and skills reflected the diversity of the Empire and the scale of Louis's ambition, the abundance of human experience elegantly ordered into artistic form. No way could the original be matched today. But Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances have produced Le Concert Royal in a semi-staged edition., most recently in Caen last year. What they'll be able to do at St John’s Smith Square, I don't know, but it will certainly be an experience.  We'll have to use our imaginations, as Louis XIV did so long ago.  Before the performance on Saturday 19th May, Daucé will discuss the reconstruction of the 1653 spectacle, which exists in manuscripts and documents of the period.
The Spirit of the Baroque encompasses the whole world. Not for nothing it followed on from the Age of Discoveries, when Europeans encountered cultures very different from their own. Consider Les Indes Galantes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, implanting ideas of change and the innate dignity of mankind. At a stretch, the values that led to 1789 and to Napoléan ! The Festival, begins with Le Poème Harmonique on Friday 11th May and an anthology  exploring the influence of exoticism , featuring Le Ballet des Nations from Lully's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme  and works by Cavalli and Mouliniè.  Le Poème Harmonique (director Vincent Dumestre) excel in this genre : a concert not to be missed.  Then, on to Versailles with Fuoco E Cenere and "Paris-Madras"  with Le Concert de L'Hostel-Dieu where the music of Couperin is interleaved with an ancient Râga d'Inde Alaap, Jor et Jhala played on Indian instruments.

La Nuova Musica (Director David Bates) present Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice with soloists Iestyn Davies, Sophie Bevan and Rebecca Bottone on Sunday May 13th,  and on Tuesday 15th May, at Westminster Abbey, no less, James O'Donnell leads St James Baroque and the Choir of Westminster Abbey in Te Deums by Henry Purcell and Marc-Antoine Charpentier.  Normally these would be  highlights of the London Baroque Festival, though this year they face stiff competition.  At St George's, Hanover Square, hommages to Lully and Couperin.

Another major highlight, Charpentier Histoires Sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances and Sébastien Daucé, staged by Vincent Huguet.  This telling of the stories of three women in the Bible (Judith, Cecilia and Mary Magdalene)  represents the "Sacred theatre" tradition developed by the Jesuits, defying the prohibition on combining religion and theatre.  Yet again, the connection between art and intellect. This piece was first heard in Louis XIV's private chapel - no-one would have dared censure the King.  

Claude Le Jeune Le Printemps with Doulce Mémoire (Director Denis Raisin Dare)  on Friday 18th May at St John's Smith Square. Olivier Messiaen  taught the importance of this work as a foundation of French style, since it bridges early music and the baroque.  A wonderful opportunity to hear the whole work, performed by great specialists in the field.  Lots of other late evening and afternoon concerts and an all-day workshop on the art of building harmonic flutes !

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Jurowski : Stravinsky Firebird, Rimsky-Korsakov

Young Stravinsky, around the time he met Rimsky-Korsakov in 1902
Vladimir Jurowski's Stravinsky Journey with the London Philharmonic Orchestras took flight with The Firebird at the Royal Festival Hall. A spectacular performance, soaring to heights of glory. The Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature.  Jurowski inspires an explosion so dazzling that it was almost blinding.  Colours shone in myriad shades, sparkling like jewels lit with fire from within.  But beneath the splendour lies an undercurrent of sadness. The Prince, like Kashkey, cannot remain unchanged.  That blaze of resplendent gorgeousness comes at a price. Jurowski's Firebird is much more than a flying jewel box. Bold, bright and savage, it is informed by an awareness that happiness must be savoured to the full while it lasts   Inevitably, life ends. Flames turn to embers and ash.  Folk legends often have a core of moral truth: they are much more than pretty fairy tales.  One of Jurowski's great strengths is that he is a man who thinks. All good conductors think musically, but Jurowski is a philosopher of sorts, too, and spiritual.  He doesn't often conduct dancers, so his Stravinsky isn't as dynamically earthy and physical as, say, Gergiev's, but it has a  psychological integrity, which is just as valid, and just as rewarding.
There's also much more to conducting than waving a baton (or waving your arms). Gpood conductors make connections, enriching their programmes  to enhance the music they choose.  The Firebird is an outstanding piece but it didn't spring out of nowhere.  Jurowski conducted Stravinsky's "lost" Funeral Song (Chante funèbre) op 5  at the 2017 Proms when he had to programme it with  Shostakovich Symphony no 11, Britten's Russian Funeral and  Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no 1 in D to fit in with the BBC's theme-based strategy (read more here), so Stravinsky got short shrift. This time,  at the Royal Festival Hall, Jurowski was able to present the piece in proper context.  Musically, much more intelligent, and played with more committment, too.   When Gergiev conducted the modern world premiere at St Petersburg, he programmed it with Rimsky-Korsakov The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1907) and Stravinsky's The Firebird, enshrining bthe connections.  Please read my piece about that premiere : Lost no more : Stravinsky' s Funeral Song.  This time round, Jurowski made the same - inescapable - connection, while adding more early Stravinsky Scherzo fantastique and Rimsky-Korsakov's Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, with Alexander Ghindin.

Stravinsky's  Scherzo fantastique op 3 is a very early work, written in 1908 before the death of Rimsky-Korsakov in June that year, for whose funeral Stravinsky was to write the Funeral Song.  A neat and erudite connection, but also musically astute, since in the Scherzo fantastique, we can hear ideas in germination which will come to fruit in The Firebird. Stravinsky was already Stravinsky, though he owed his mentor so much.  Rimsky-Korsakov's early Piano Concerto in C sharp minor op 30 (1882) was inspired by and dedicated to Franz Liszt, and first performed with the support of Mily Balakirev. The piece honours both masters, incorporating a folk song theme from Balakirev and adapting it in a Lisztian manner, with "Polish" flourishes.  Ghindin seemed to relish the showcase passages, notes flying freely and vividly. Like a Firebird !. 
 

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Ecce sacerdos magnus - Elgar, SOMM

New from SOMM Recordings, Ecce sacerdos magnus, Edward Elgar music for chorus and orchestra, Barry Wordsworth conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Brighton Festival Chorus.  And so Ecce sacerdos magnus "we behold the great priest who, in his days pleased God" : a short piece for chorus and organ, from 1888, written for St George's, the church in which Elgar had been baptized, and where he followed his father as organist.  Elgar's Te Deum op 34/1  and Benedictus op 34/2 were first heard at Hereford Cathedral at the opening concert of the Three Choirs Festival in 1897.  The energetic introduction to the Te Deum brims with the expansiveness we now associate with the mature Elgar.  Searching chords herald the Benedictus, the voices of the choir building up texture, the higher voices particularly lucid. A stunning finale : "Glory be! Glory Be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost!", and a sudden, emphatic conclusion. Perhaps this confident spirit caused the then Hereford organist G R Sinclair to remark "It is very very modern, but I think it will do".

A more contemplative mood for O Hearken Thou op 64 (1911) a short Offertory anthem written for the Coronation of King George V at Westminster Abbey in 1911. Two Psalms, Great is the Lord (Psalm 48) op 74 (1912) and Give unto the Lord (Psalm 29) op 74 (1914), demonstrate Elgar's ability to give an individual touch to conventional form.  Great is the Lord is set with particular vividness.  The Brighton Festival Chorus define the swaying cross-currents in the choral line suggesting the "trembling" excitement that takes hold of the crowds in the vast City of God. No matter that the texts are less clearly articulated, since the chorus provides background for the solo voice that rises above it. "We have thought on thy loving kindness, O God".   Give unto the Lord ends with an almost theatrical climax.

Secular adventures, starting with  Spanish Serenade op 23 (1892)  based on a play by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, The Spanish Student.  Cue for cheerful music, evoking guitars, student songs and gypsy dancing. A nice entree to the ever popular Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands op 27 (1895).  Richard Strauss's home turf, but here heard through the filter of a Victorian Englishman and his wife.  These are Edward and Alice's "holiday snapshots": vignettes of cheerful peasant song and dance with a background of colourful mountain scenery.

As a bonus, a short clip from Haydn's Harmoniemesse Hob XXII :14 from an early  radio broadcast by the Munich Cathedral Choir where the Benedictus is taken at a slow pace, illustrating possible connections with Elgar's Ecce sacerdos magnus

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Mahler 8 Harding Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berwaldhallen


From the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, a very interesting Mahler Symphony no 8 with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (livestream archived here).  The title "Symphony of a Thousand" was dreamed up by promoters trying to sell tickets, creating the myth that quantity matters more than quality.  For many listeners, Mahler 8 is still a hard nut to crack, for many reasons, and the myth is part of the problem.  Mahler 8 is so original that it defies easy categories.  To understand it, we need to listen in terms of Mahler himself, ditching the baggage of preconception that's piled up, blocking closer evaluation.  What is M8 about, and how does it fit in the context of Mahler's work as a whole ?  "Veni Creator spiritus !" and  "Accende lumen sensibus". Come, spirit of creation,  arise, light of sensibility.  Mahler makes it pretty clear that these ideas matter for they are embedded in the music as well as the text.  Throughout Mahler's entire oeuvre, he develops ideas of transformation and creative renewal.  Ignore that and ignore the whole point of his music.  We need to ditch the idea of Mahler as Party Rally bombast. Sure, the orchestra's big, and there are five soloists and four choirs, but that's the irony. As so often in Mahler, it's the quiet moments that are most personal and significant : the moment when the individual comes to terms with the cosmos.

Structurally, Mahler's Symphony no 8  throws conventional listening off-balance.  Conceptually, the symphony is radical because it contradicts straightforward assumptions.  The two  parts don't seem to connect, there's no narrative and the voices do not represent "roles" but function as much more abstract extensions of the music and the ideas within it.  And that silence at the beginning of the Second Part gets misunderstood because it is silence, which minds attuned to blast and noise cannot comprehend.  Though I'm a voice person, over the years I've come to realize that the silence,and the quiet introduction that follows, is the true soul of the symphony.  Like the Consecration in a Catholic Mass, the most important part of the ceremony comes when the singing and praying stop, and the mystery of transubstantiation takes place. You don't need to believe that God becomes one with mankind, or even in God, but the idea of miraculous transfiguration is so powerful that it is a metaphor for Creation itself.  "Veni, creator spiritus".

Daniel Harding's Mahler 8 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is immensely rewarding, particularly if you know Mahler well.   It is also an ideal performance for those who don't "get" Mahler 8 otherwise. Because the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm isn't a great monster of a hall, it favours a much more intimate atmosphere.  Everyone is up close together : it feels as if everyone knows everyone, which is important since music is meant to be heard in the company of other people   On the video, the cameraman pans over the chorus which is annoying if you're following the soloists, but that makes  sense, when you think of the performance as an expression of the community In so many ways, the Eighth is Mahler's secular Mass where a multitude come together for a communal purpose which is fundamentally private.  Thus the significance of the silvery  chord in the beginning of the second part, which almost exactly replicates the bell which announces the beginning of the miracle of Consecration.  As so often in Mahler, details count, like the piccolos, the triangle, the glockenspeil, the celesta and the mandolin, which as in Mahler Symphony no 7 may represent the lute of a solo musician serenading unseen and unknown.  Here they can be heard clearly, instead of being overwhelmed by big blasts of sound.  The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra has a lovely, mellow sound which suits the idea of "light". The warm glow of benevolence, rather than the blinding glare of, say, searchlights and interrogation.

The soloists were Hanna Husahr, Lise Lindstrom,Susanne Bernhard, Karen Cargill, Marie Nicole Lemieux, (one of my favourites), Simon O’Neill, George Humphreys,and ShenYang. They always get listed because they are soloists, but what matters most is the ensemble and the way they interact with the orchestra and each other. Like the anchorites in the painting that apparently inspired Goethe's vision, they are embedded in the landscape.  The choirs were Swedish Radio Choir, Eric Ericsons Kammarkör, Mikaeli Kammarkör, St Jacobs Kammarkör and the Barnkör. I liked their singing a lot because it felt spontaneous, rather than over-polished: very much a coming-together of good, ordinary people who care about what they do.  The children's choir  were delightful : so nice to see kids behaving naturally, as kids should, their eyes shining with wonder.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

From the Heart of a Loafer

Sam Hui and Rebu, his wife. photo : Adam Wright
Sam Hui : From the Heart of a Drifter 許冠傑 - 浪子心聲, one of the great classics of Cantonese pop.  A modern day hit song, but one that makes me think of  Chinese poetry.  The idea that life is transient is deeply embedded into the psyche of Hong Kong people.  Everyone there is a descendant of a descendant of a refugee, or someone escaping bad conditions, dreaming of better. Some make it, some don't. Indeed, some have gone from destitute to millionaire and back. No cushion of privilege for most.  Nowadays people take things for granted, but things in the past were never easy.  Sam Hui  is the epitome of the Hong Kong spirit.  He became a megastar while in his teens, with a western style rock band. Yet he didn't, ever, forget his roots. He's had massive success but his heart is grounded in proper Chinese values.  He was very well educated, and a graduate of HKU whichn in those days was the only university in town and highly elite.  Always aware of the world around him, he has moral integrity.  He had social conscience long before it became safe to do so. He didn't sell out, even when camping up as Elvis !  As long as your heart is pure, bad things cannot bring you down.
It's hard to tell what's real and what's fake,

By nature, people aren't what they seem.

Who will share with you in good times,

But also share when water drips from the roof ?

Like a simple frog deep in a well,

dreaming of fame and fortune,

Full of hope, unaware of difficulty.
Who knows when golden houses can turn to hovels ?

If life destines something for you, it will happen in the end

If life destines it not to happen, there's no point begging otherwise. . 

When thunder roars and lightning strikes,

There's no need to be afraid

As long as your conscience is clear and your heart is just,

We are like the sand in the sea

There's no use in feeling bad

We can see the sunset in the sky above.

Fame and fortune can vanish like the mist

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Schubert's Birthday, Wigmore Hall : Angelika Kirchschlager


At the Wigmore Hall, Schubert's birthday is always celebrated in style. This year, Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake, much loved Wigmore Hall audience favourites, did the honours, with a recital marking the climax of the two-year-long Complete Schubert Songs Series.  The programme began with a birthday song, Namenstaglied, and ended with a farewell, Abschied von der Erde.  Along the way, a traverse through some of Schubert's finest moments, highlighting different aspects of his song output : Schubert's life, in miniature.

A beautiful Namenstaglied D695 (1820), where the lines rock gently, almost more lullaby than Lied.  it was written for one of Schubert's friends, Josefine Koller,  who wanted to sing it to please her father.  Not many singers can do artistry without artifice, but that genuine sincerity is one of Angelika Kirchschlager's great strengths.  She can create youthful freshness like no-one else with the agility and purity of her timbre, yet can also warm that sweetness with a promise of innocent sensuality.  In the context of those times, it was accepted that child-like beauties would grow into women, hopefully fulfilled by love. In reality, of course, things don't always work out right, so even happy Lieder can be haunted by a sense of unease. Thus Frühlingsglaube D686b (!820, Johann Ludwig Uhland)  All things change, but, importantly, "Das Blühen will nicht enden". So have faith in Spring, for change is also endless renewal.  In Geheimes D719 (1821, Goethe), a young person learns that love isn't easy, but in Im Frühling D882 (1826) the artist yet again finds solace in hope. Ironically, that song sets a text by Erst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817) whose obsessive love for two sisters wasn't romantic, as the love existed only in his mind.  Bei dir allein ! D866 (?1828, Seidl), Lambertine D301 (1815 anon) and Am Bach im Frühling  D361 (?1816, Franz von Schober) combined well, as did the next set Ganymed D544 (1817, Goethe), Wiegenlied D489 (1816 anon). But with In der Mitternacht D464 (1816 Johan Georg Jacobi), a sense of doom intrudes, preparing us for Erlkönig D328 (1815, Goethe) that masterpiece of Gothic horror. Since it sits fairly low, it's usually the preserve of male voices. Kirschschlager, however, made it work, since, for a change, we could hear it from the perspective of the terrified child.

Schubert himself blossomed early, reaching peaks early in his youth, dying before autumn set in.  Gesang der Norna D832 (1825, Walter Scott) and Romanze zum Drama Rosamunde D797/3b (1823 Helmina von Chézy) connected to other genres Schubert was interested in,  followed by more classic Lieder.  Songs like Suleika I D720 (1821 Goethe) and Suleika II D717 (1821 Goethe) are Kirchschlager specialities, which suit her ability to create girlish charm tinged with tragedy. Her self confidence renewed, she sang with the warmth and sincerity that is her forte. Wigmore Hall Schubert Birthday concerts are far too high profile to cancel unless you're in extremis, which Kirchschlager was not. But Wigmore Hall audiences know Kirchschlager so well, and have heard her so often over the years, that we appreciate what she does. Singers are not machines. We understand the Liederabend ethos. Singers are singers, not machines. In Schubert's time, people didn't demand CD perfection, they cared about the singers as human beings. It's the Liederabend ethos.  Kirchschlager and Drake rewarded us with  classics like An den Mond D259 (1815 Goethe),  Der Jüngling an der Quelle D300 (?1815 Johan Gaudenz von Salus-Seewiss), and  Der Wanderer an den Mond D870 (1826 Seidl).

Finding joy in art, Schubert seems to have made light of his troubles,  but we cannot help but ponder what might have been in his soul.  Listening to Der Unlückliche D 713 (1821 Karoline Pichler) we can perhaps glimpse intimations of something beyond conventional Romantic morbidity.  Yet the song responds to gloom by speeding up and pushing forwards: "Du hast geliebt", and later "Zerrissen sind nun alle süssen Bande". At moments, Drake's pounding forcefulness serves good purpose.  In Lied des Florio D857/2 (!825, Christian Wilhelm von Schütz), we return to calm, "erst mit Tönen sanft wie Flöten".  But this sleep is poisoned.  Here Kirchschlager was at her peak again, with beautiful timbre and phrasing.  The recital ended with Abschied von der Erde D829 (1826) The text comes from a play, Der Falke, written by teenage poet Adolf von Pratobvera von Weisborn as a gift to his father.  Strictly speaking it is not a Lied at all.  The voice part is declamed, not sung, against a piano backdrop. As the last song in the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series, it's an extraordinarily moving moment. We remember that Schubert died in his prime, his voice silenced before its time, the piano lingering to remind us of its loss.


This review also appears in Opera Today