Tuesday, 22 May 2018

An alternative Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai

Everyone knows Schumann's ImWunderschönen Mai from Dichterliebe but what about Franz Lachner's setting of Heine's poem ? Lachner's setting pre-dates Schumann's and is a masterpiece in its own right.  Lachner (1803-1890) gets short shrift because he wasn't Schubert or Schumann, but why should he have to be ?  As Peter Schreier said: “You appreciate the peaks when you know the landscape". He wasn't an imitator, and their "influence" as such was generic rather than direct, though he knew both Schubert and Schumann personally.  Setting the same poems means not a thing ! Heine's so interesting that composers are still setting him today.  Lachner was part of the Schubertiade circle, though he was very young - six years younger than Schubert yet still significant enough to be depicted in the 1826 drawing by Moritz von Schwind, which shows Schubert at the piano with Josef von Spaun to Schubert's right and Johann Michael Vogl to Schubert's left. Lachner is the figure with his head bent, behind von Spaun. Lachner is also seen with Schubert in von Schwind's pen drawings in the vineyards at Grinzing.

Lachner's Im Mai comes from his best known song cycle Sängerfahrt op 33 (1831-2) and is an early setting of Heine's Lyrisches Intermezzo.  Lachner, who was still living in Vienna, wrote the cycle as gift to his fiancée Julia Royko. Sängerfahrt (Singer's journey) and Dichterliebe (Poet's love) ! Ten years later Schumann would write Dichterliebe as a wedding gift for Clara Wieck.  The choice of  Heine is interesting, too, since the poems are too ironic to be romantic. Unless your loved one gets wooed on tales of loss and tragedy.   In Lachner's Im Mai, rippling triplets in the piano part suggest  gentle movement - perhaps warm breezes ? The vocal line rises, as the sap does in Spring. "Da ist in meinem Herzen, Die Liebe aufgegangen".  The  sprouting buds and branches of blossom in the text awaken in Lachner a wonderful circular melody in the piano part. It is so beautiful - reminiscent of the melodies Beethoven and Mendelssohn used in order to evoke the countryside The piano seems transformed, as if it were an ancient folk instrument. There's nothing quite like this in the genre, not even the faint echo of hurdy-gurdy in Der Leiermann (though there's no connection between the songs or cycles). Or perhaps it suggests the lyre of some antique shepherd in an Arcadian landscape.  For Lachner and his contemporaries this would have evoked the image of Orpheus, this time successfully leading his bride back into Spring and life. The circular figures may also suggest the rhythm of Nature, and changing of seasons.  Lachner respects the simplicity of Heine's poem, with its understated strophic verses : too much artifice would spoil the purity.  After the second verse the piano part returns, drifting off gently, into silence.

In 1836, Lachner landed a powerful job as conductor of the Hofoper in Munich. He had direct access to the King, and influence on everything musical in Bavaria. Lachner was to Munich what Mendelssohn was to
Leipzig and Berlin. Nonetheless, today Lachner's relatively unknown, primarily because he wasn't Richard Wagner.When Wagner came on the scene, Lachner was pointedly retired. Nonetheless, he's fascinating as a kind of missing link, between the very early Lieder of Beethoven  and the songs of Brahms. His chamber music is fairly well known,  and there's now more interest in his songs. There are several recordings of Lachner songs, mainly from S
ängerfahrt op 33 but many others await discovery. Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier pioneered Lachner in a 1998 recording, presenting Lachner with Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte and the songs of Nikolaus von Krufft (which I love) . The use of fortepiano is perfect, adding a period refinemt to songs that do need elegance and a light touch.  There is only one full recording of Sängerfahrt op 33 by Rufus Miller, which was a courageous thing to do at the time, but unfortunately the performance isn't very good. Prégardien has contuinued to sing Lachner over the years, often different songs , and  Mark Padmore's recorded a few for Hyperion.  Angelika Kirchschlager also has them in her repertoire and has done them at the Wigmore Hall. 

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Dazzling Le Concert Royal de la Nuit - London Baroque Festival

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit with Ensemble Correspondances led by Sébastien Daucé, the glorious culmination of the finest London Festival of the Baroque in years on the theme "Treasures of the Grand Siècle". Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was Louis XIV's announcement that he would be "Roi du Soleil", a ruler whose magnificence would transform France, and the world, in a new age of splendour.  It was a statement so extravagant that it stunned the unruly Court into submission. As an artistic manifesto, it set out visions of what music, theatre, visual arts  and dance might achieve. From Le Concert Royal de la Nuit, we can trace the origins of the arts as we know them today, not only in France, but in European culture as whole, with implications so wide that they are still felt today.  Sébastien Daucé and Ensemble Correpondances made an acclaimed recording a few years back,  and have been performing it in semi-staged productions, with dancers. No wonder St John's Smith Square was almost sold out ! 

The original Concert Royal de la Nuit ran over 13 hours,from dusk to dawn, though there were breaks for feasting and rest.  For practical purposes, this version comes in four Veilles (Watches) and 67 individual parts, ending with a Grand Ballet, running around 2 1/2 hours. But what variety ! There are pieces for different groupings from soloist with orchestra to full ensemble, scenes of high drama and moments of quiet contemplation, marking the transition from night to day.   At the beginning, the beating of a single drum, a reminder that the pulse of music is rhythm, and that life itself marches to a rhythm that is greater than any individual.  Despite the glories that are to come,  pastoralism - and war - are never far away.  As King, Louis XIV represented idealized virtues of manliness and refinement, strength and benevolence.  The dances at court were structured displays,  and dance itself a form of physical fitness and mental discipline.  This idea of orderly logic would flow through to design, philosophy, and much more.

But Nature remains present. Like the gardens which Louis XIV would layout at Versailles, nature is contained in defined formal patterns, but in the woods surrounding, nature runs free. A hibou calls (a small archaic pipe) marking the descent into night.  "Languissante clarté", the first Récit, in which The Night reveals herself, a showpiece for Lucile Richardot, who projected the long, flowing legato so it seemed to fill the hall like moonlight. Behind her, murmuring low strings, sussurating like creatures of the night.Richardot   has amazing timbre and range, her voice so expressive that she can "act" with her voice, though here she uses hand gestures reminiscent of those used in drawings of the original performance, an inportant consideration given that Le concert royal was meant to unify visual and aural art.  This was followed by pieces marking the passing of "Hours" (soprano and small groups) and vignettes depicting huntsmen, gypsies and peasants, all well characterized.

The shades of darkness descend in the second Veille, and Venus appears, risen fully formed from the sea. This is a pointed reference to Louis XIV, taking command at the age of 14, throwing off the authority of Cardinals and courtiers. Though the Three Graces sang the praises of Venus, the connections must have been obvious.  Thus choruses of Italians and Spaniards (rivals of the French) praise "unvanquished France", united behind the leadership of  Louis "Le plus Grand des Monarques", as Venus herself declared.  If the Moon symbolizes purity, Hercules symbolizes manly heroism.  The Third Veille is a panorama where countertenor, bass, and male and female voices interact with orchestral interludes, replete with dramatic sound effects (instruments suggesting wind and thunder). The contrast between countertenor and bass  was particularly vivid, performed here with great brio, the orchestra equally animated.  Greek Gods, witches and figures from Antiquity emerge but the real subject is clearly Louis the King. Venus and Juno have extended récits which acknowledge opposition but posit that a strong, benevolent ruler can triumph. The "love" here means love for an absolute King. Also extremely effective, the trio of male voices in the Chorus of Brooks and Breezes,  "Dormi, dormi, o Sonno, dormi".  The last Veille describes Orpheus's entry into the Underworld.  Hero as he is, he cannot defy the laws of Life and Death. Night symbolizes sleep, dreams and submission, to Fate, Time and Nature. Then Apollo appears, promising the retun of "mio figlio", the sun and Spring.

This set the context for the Grand Ballet, where Louis XIV himself appeared,  garbed in golden splendour as the Sun, his headress emanating rays of light."Depuis que j'ouvre l'Orient" the récit of Aurore - beautifully sung and phrased by tenor, "jamais si pompeuse et si fiere......Le Soleil qui me suit c'est le jeune LOUIS". The Chorus, representing the Planets hail the king. Now the orchestra burst forth with full enegy, percussion announcing the triumphal procession of the King into centre stage. The rhythmic energy of these orchestral interludes suggests that Louis XIV was an accomplished athlete - nothing wimpy about that dancing. Hercules and Beauty (baritone and soprano) united to sing of "Altro gallico Alcide orso d'affecto". Cosmic forces indeed! Glorious final chorus, "All'impero d'Amore hi non cederà, S'à lui cede il valore d'ogni deità". The effect must have dazzled the Court of Louis XIV, blinding them into silence. Le Concert Royal de la Nuit marks the start of music, theatre, dance and opera as we know them now, but also marked a turning point in French history.  Ensemble Correspondances have been performing Le Concert Royal  de la Nuit in staged performance, complete with dancers, in recent years (premiering in Caen), so let's hope a miracle happens and we might get to see it in London.  (William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have done a shortened unstaged version but with dancers). Until, then, give thanks and praise to Saint John's Smith Square and above all to the London Festival, of Baroque Music who had the courage to sponsor this remarkable series.  Support their committment and dedication !
Please also see:Painterly Charpentier : Histoires Sacrées 
Ensemble Correspondances Perpetual Night - Early English Baroque 

 Le Poème Harmonique - Lalande Motets - Majesté
Why we ALL Need to save St John's Smith Square  

Friday, 18 May 2018

Painterly Charpentier Histoires sacrées : London Festival of the Baroque

photo: Philippe Delval

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances, conducted by Sébastien Daucé,  at St John's Smith Square, part of the London Festival of the Baroque 2018.  This striking staging, by Vincent Huguet, brought out its austere glory: every bit a treasure of the Grand Siècle, though this grandeur was dedicated not to Sun God but to God.  Religion as theatre : and why not ?  Like the architecture and ornamentation in baroque churches,  devotional art served faith.  Although St John's Smith Square was built in the less florid Northern Baroque style,  Huguet's production transformed it, so it glowed.  It felt as if we had stepped into a painting by Caravaggio or Velázquez.

Charpentier's Histoires sacrées has its roots both in sacred oratorio and in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages. Charpentier's audiences were well versed in biblical and liturgical texts, so they could appreciate these "stories" told with sophistication.  At the heart of this programme were three histoires - Judith ou Béthulie libérée H.391, Madeleine en larmes H.343 and Cécile Vierge et Martyre H.397, framed by a prelude (Ô Sacrement de Piété H.274), an interlude (Au parfum de tes onguents H.510) and a postlude (Sous l’abri de ta miséricorde H.28).  This formal structure connects the three central characters, each of them a strong woman : Judith  kills the Assyrian Holofernes who persecutes the Hebrews,  Magdalena sings of her love for Christ and St Cecilia is martyred because she will not renounce her faith.  Their stories are told through dramatic recitative, interpsersed with choral and instrumental commentary and spoken narrative.  While Judith's story is the most developed, with many sections and variations, the others have individual character.  Magdalena's relatively short song is introduced by the vocal interlude, which mentions "scented oils", thus enhancing, figuratively, her odour of sanctity.  The section about St Cecilia is bright and defiant, like the flames which devour the saint’s body, but not her soul. Towards the conclusion, the harpsichord, breaking from continuo, sings in joyous cadenza.  

Although the text was in Latin, the stories themselves aren't hard to follow, and the work as a whole is propelled by vibrant musical logic, flowing freely from superb performances by the whole Ensemble Correspondances team.  Modern performances of Charpentier's Histoires sacrées were pioneered some years ago by Gérard Lesni and Il Seminario Musicale but there is still much more in this rich vein to be discovered.  Sébastien Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances present these three histoires with flair, enhanced immeasurably by Vincent Huguet's production. Huguet, who worked with Patrice Chéreau, understands the innate human drama in these narratives, though they may be expressed in stylized form.  Large objects that resemble rockfaces, such as we see in 17th century depictions of biblical scenes, including symbolic olive trees.  The idea that painting, or art, should be "realistic" is actually quite recent, and didn't apply in Charpentier's time.  The simplicity of the sets also means that they can be moved quickly and quietly, without interrupting the flow of  performance.  Colours are added by lighting effects.  Thoughtfully, the designers made use of the configuration of the building itself,  using one of the high windows behind the stage to let light shine in "from above" as so often happens in devotional painting.  As daylight faded to night, nature itself became part of the narrative.  The singer's movements also reflected those in religious painting - hands raised and pointed, directing attention away from the singers as themselves to the stories being told.  Altogether a remarkable experience.  How fortunate we were that  Sébastien Daucé  has brought top quality, cutting edge performance practice to London.  

Please also see:

Le concert royale de la nuit : Ensemble Correspondances, London Baroque Festival
Ensemble Correspondances Perpetual Night - Early English Baroque 

 Le Poeme Harmonique - Lalande Motets - Majesté

Why we ALL Need to save St John's Smith Square 

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Der Rosenkavalier, with a twist - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment back at the Queen Elizabeth Hall tomorrow (17/5) with Der Rosenkavalier, but with a twist. Not the opera but the film suite.  What film suite ? Richard Strauss wrote for the movies ? Yes !  In 1926, Robert Wiene, who had directed The Cabinett of Dr. Caligari , made a version of Der Rosenkavalier with the enthusiastic support of Richard Strauss himself.   Dr. Caligari  pioneered the Expressionist aesthetic.And   there was Richard Strauss, if not quite in the vanguard, certainly sympathetic.  This should come as no surprise, since he wrote Salomé. Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Nuts to the notion that Strauss was sugar and cream.  Wiene’s film was screened at the Dresden Opera House, where the original opera itself had premiered fifteen years before, underlining the connection between opera and the new art form of cinema.  Wiene's Der Rosenkavalier wasn't an "opera movie" in any modern sense of the word. It wasn't a film of the opera but a work of art in itself, with the opera as starting point.  Works of art exist for themselves : there's no law that they have to set originals as given, any more than that art should be history.  Please also see my article from 2012, Gay Salomé the 1923 silent movie based on the Salomé storyn that inspired not only Strauss but many others. 

The plot loosely follows the novel from which Hugo von Hofmannsthal  derived the libretto, with extra scenes like the battlefield on which the Feldmarschall rides to victory and an opera bouffe in a small theatre, where the principals watch their dilemma being acted out. Obviously, the music for the opera would not fit. In any case, what would be the point in a silent movie? Instead Strauss wrote a new soundtrack, based on an orchestra of 17 parts, which mixed extracts from the opera with snippets from  other works  including Arabella, Burleske, Till Eulenspeigel and  Also sprach Zarathustra

He  threw in bits of Wagner and Johann Strauss for further effect. Strauss himself conducted the blend live while the movie screened. How would today's opera snobs react?  They take themselves too seriously, methinks, because the Silent Rosenkavalier is a heady cocktail of good film and fun. It captures the savage satire while dressing it up with visuals so frothy they border on excess. This in itself is a dig at the materialistic culture that values frills, yet turns fresh young women into commodities in a cynical marriage marketplace. Swoon at the wigs and acres of lace, but this is no costume drama.

The technical film values are very high, as one would expect from the director of Dr Caligari (full download here) and Genuine the Vampire (more here). Scenes are carefully planned so they seem like tableaux in some elegant object of art, designed to distract from the grubbiness around it.  The Marschallin's boudoir suffocates in luxury: one imagines that any man kept like this would lose his masculinity. For all her wealth, the lady isn't happy. She sighs and uses exaggerated gestures and poses: Wiene is satirizing popular theatrical excess. Baron Ochs wears embroidered silks but is a boor. He somersaults, arms and legs akimbo like a broken puppet. Later, when Octavian challenges him to a duel, he collapses  though he's barely been scratched. The camera pans close up on his face and then his mouth, wide as a grotesque sculpture. We can almost hear the screaming.

The scenes where the Men of Property and their lawyers work out the marriage contract are brilliantly done. Backgrounds dissolve into darkness, so the rococco filigree of the costumes and wigs frame faces whose features twist in angular contortion. Outside, in the garden,
gigantic gryphons five metres high tower over the party goers. In contrast, the actress who plays Sophie expresses her personality with
great sensitivity. Sometimes she looks like a nine year old, too naive to take in what's happening. Her jutting chin and turned up nose indicate her petulance.The rich folk cram into a tiny theatre in the Mehlmarkt to watch a play about "the Proud Father and his humiliation",
narrated in rhyming folk poetry. The Marschallin plans a masked ball. Great crowd scenes. Mystery letters direct Octavian and the Field
Marshal (straight from the battle) to meet a woman in the grotto of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. The last reel of the film is missing but the
inconclusive ending isn't a problem. We know what's going to happen. The last frame shows the little black boy, with his plumed turban,
drawing a curtain and gesturing silence. 
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is conducted by Geoffrey Paterson with Thomas Kemp as arrtistic director and Charlotte Beament, who will be singing Strauss songs.   The South Bank has been doing silent movies with sound for decades (Think Carl Davis) but this time the music is autentic original and there's no film, as such.  Use your imagination or watch the silent movie, which has been screened several times in recent years.  I wrote my article Rosenkavalier bei Caligari in 2014. But the OAE performance should make us think, about Strauss, and his interests in the avant garde and the idea of film as art form.  Me ? I'll be at St John's Smith Square for  Charpentier Histoires sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances, directed by Sébastien Daucé and Vincent Huguet.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Chiaroscuro Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice, La Nuova Musica

Gluck Orfeo ed Euricide, with La Nuova Musica, Iestyn Davies and David Bates at St Joihn's Smith Square, part of the 2018 London Festival of the Baroque.  Enjoy reading Claire Seymour's specialist review in Opera Today HERE. 

Monday, 14 May 2018

Gounod Saint François d'Assise - Laurence Equilbey

The world premiere recording of Charles Gounod's last oratorio, Saint François d'Assise,  with Laurence Equilbey, the Orchestre de chambre de Paris and Accentus chamber choir and soloists. First heard in March 1891, Gounod's Saint François d'Assise was thought lost for over a century until a manuscript was discovered in a convent in Auvers-sur-Oise. Sponsored by Palazetto Bru-Zane, and distributed by Naïve, this recording was made in performance at the Philharmonie de Paris in 2016.

"A dream crossed my mind to write a sort of musical triptych after the manner of the primitive painters", wrote Gounoid as he began Saint François d'Assise. "I would like the first of the two tableaux to be a musical represenation of Murillo's painting depicting the crucified Christ as He leans towards St Francis and puts his arm around him. The secvond tableau would be a transposition of Giotto's admirable painting The Death of St Francis in which he is surrounded by his friars."   Hence the character of this oratorio, at once simple and profound, reflecting the values of St Francis, who renounced worldly status  for vows of poverty and humility. The beauty of Saint François d'Assise lies in its quiet sincerity, its colours radiant but pristine.  It is a long way from Grand Opéra, but moving in its own way.  

The first section, La Cellule, begins calmly, with a pulse that resembles plainchant heard from a distance, the line gradually rising upwards and growing brighter.  From this arises the voice of the tenor, Stanislas de Barbeyrac. St Francis is alone in his cell, contemplating Christ. "Mon conurbation s'abîme", the orchestral line surging, as if in tune with the saint's heartbeat, or perhaps the flow of eternal,fountains, mentioned in the text.  Suddenly  a new theme appears, richer and firmer still, for the crucifix in the cell seems to come alive in the voice of the baritone (Florian Sempey). For the saint, this is a miracle. "Je ne suis plus à moi" but one with his God.   In the second part, St Francis is on his deathbed, the choir representing his fellow monks chanting in prayer. Long, elliptical  brass lines suggest chill, or perhaps a call from afar : quiet winds suggest the palpitations of a weakening heartbeat.  St Frqncis comforts his monks. "C'est la mort qui s'enfuit" Another chorus, this time representing angels, wafts the saint up to heaven.

Also on this recording, two hymns to St Cecilia, the patron of music, the first Gounod's Hymne à Sainte Cécile and Franz Liszt's Légende de Sainte Cécile.  Unlike Gounod's larger religious works, such as his Messe solennelle de Saint Cécile, his hymn is a miniature for solo violin (Deborah Nemtanu) and small orchestra with horns,  harps, winds and strings.  A lovely coda, where the violin line flutters delicately, haloed by the other strings.  Liszt's Légende de Sainte Cécile for mezzo soprano (Karine Deshayes) chorus and orchestra sets a poem describing the life of St, Cecilia, martyred in Roman times. Thus Liszt alternates mourning with sublimation, suggestions of early plainchant with "modern" idiom, the two strands flowing together as if in procession.    

Sunday, 13 May 2018

What's happening with Proms tickets sales?

Once there used to be a guy dressed as a clown outside the Royal Albert Hall selling black market tickets for  the Proms.  But what's happening now ? Every year there are some Proms that sell out fast, but this year it seems that quite a few have sold out within hours oif going on sale.  But go onto ticket agency sites, and there's plenty of choice. Try pulling up two windows - the Royal Albert Hall site and one of the agencies, and compare.  Take Prom 11, Mahler's Symphony no 8 which is bound to sell fast - gone within 2 hours. But 30 hours later, there are still 74 seats on one site..... Then try  a Prom less likely to sell, like, say, Prom 25 where there's a choice on the official site but "only" 64 left on an agency.  Or Prom 17 (British music) where only Rausing Circle was left early yesterday on the official site but quite a few left on agency (fewer now).  It also doesn't help that the ticket agency sites are designed to look a lot like the official BBC /Royal Albert Hall website.   Unfortunately, there are hundreds of seats which "belong" to private investors.  The original owners might have contributed to the Royal Albert Hall once, long ago, but now its a licence to print money from publicly funded services. Time to name and shame ?

Maybe the problem lies with whoever is holding back tranches for later release.  But why ? Not everyone goes to the Proms on spec on the day of the show.  Many travel from far afield (even abroad) and need to plan in advance.  Besides, how do we know when extra tickets are released ?  Why should potential purchasers be conned into thinking they "have" to pay exorbitant prices for third party tickets ? And disabled Prommers have hardly any choice at all.   If you can't even reach a seat, what's the point of discounted prices ?

So why not more transparency ?  Organizing a system as huge as Proms sales isn't easy.  But surely the BBC or whoever is behind sales ahould have a system where everyone gets a fair chance ?  As long as the BBC is funded by the taxpayer, tax payers need a fair go. 

Crochet Boys

Friday, 11 May 2018

George Benjamin Lessons in Love and Violence - Musically brilliant, dramatically inert ?

George Benjamin at his writing desk. Photo :Matthew Lloyd, courtesy Askonas Holt

Musically brillliant, dramatically inert ? First thoughts on the world premiere of George Benjamin's Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House.  Something wonderful happened when Bejnjamin teamed up with Martin Crimp the poet.  It's no accident that The Boy in Written on Skin was an illuminator, meticulously gilding and polishing his work to perfection.  And so he might have continued but for events unfolding around him.  A lot like George Benjamin himself !   Working with Martin Crimp unlocked something in Benjmain.  His first opera, Into the Little Hill was radically different from anything Benjamin - or indeed anyone else - had done before. It's an astonishing bizarre work, at once anarchic and disturbing.  As if arising straight from the subconcious it defies logic yet is highly intuitive and emotionally true. (Please read more here).  Written on Skin was more ambitious yet also slightly more conventional, following a vaguely realistic narrative.  Both operas deal with creativity and destruction, sexuality and repression, conflicts and pointless non-resolution.  In some ways, Lessons in Love and Violence continues the saga, through different characters    If anything, Benjamin's writing is even more assured and asssertive : daring crescendi, screaming chords, quirky combinations of instrumental colour that are more expressive than words alone could ever be.  But why does it feel like a remake of Written on Skin ?  

In Lessons in Love and Violence, we again have a dominant male figure bumbling his way ineptly through the lives of others, with horrific repercussions.  Based loosely on Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II, the opera reflects upon the relationship between Edward and Piers Gaveston,and the court around them. As The King  (Stéphane Degout) sings the first scena, ."Money... money...money", a symbol of something more in this intensely psychological  approach to the drama.   Fathers dictate what should happen to sons, kings dictate what should happen to subjects, sons become Kings themselves and so the cycle of love and violence continues.  The first scene is dominated by an enormous tank of (real) tropical fish, swimming aimlessly in an unnatural environment.  A metaphor for life in this kingdom ?  The tank must weigh several tons, and is being slowly rotated by stage machinery at the Royal Opera House, which has often been used extremely effectively.  But it is extraordinarily extravagant as stage prop. For such a relatively obvious statement, the expoense is way out of proportion.  But perhaps that is the point : ludicrously extreme solutions for problems that coul;d be resolved in other ways.  Crimp's libretto doesn't define what "entertainment" the Queen will witness at the end of the drama. But we know what is supposed to have happened to Piers Gaveston.  (and those who don't, will have nothing on which to vent their self righteous indignation).

Benjamin constructs Lessons in Love and Violence as a series of tableaux, divided by orchestral interludes which serve as "curtains" separating each section. These provide a formal structure,  and operate as commentary, expressing more through abstract music than can be said in the text.    Benjamin's writing in these interludes is even more impressive and sophisticated than in the scenes themselves, where he is constrained to some extent by the need to write for voice.   In the interludes, he creates astonishing orchestral colours, varied and tantalizingly elusive.   Low timbred brass and winds howl and growl, lines rising forth, grasping out into nothingness. Two off stage harps plus what sounds like a zither sing sad exotic songs.  At other moments strange sounds emerge, deliberately throwing you off track, like the twists in the plot.  With a story like this, you're supposed to feel ill at ease and uncertain.  Bows are beaten against wood, augmented by unpitched percussion, creating "primitive" effects, which intensify the rising sense of tension and violence as the narrative draws to its gruesome end.  Lessons in Love and Violence would work extremely well as symphony and might well be best heard semi-staged.  I would love to study it audio-only to better appreciate its depths. 

Therein, though, lies the problem.  Though the structure Benjamin uses is beautiful, like a series of miniature paintings in an illuminated album, it is also stylized and creates a sense of emotional disengagement.  It's as if we're observing specimens from a distance :the idea of fish in fish tanks, again. Nothing wrong with stylization, per se.  It was a feature of Greek tragedy, and is relevant to the wider implications of this tragedy, too. Thus the vocal lines are semi-abstract too, reflecting Crimp's background as poet. Some charcaters are fully fleshed, like The King (Stéphane Degout) and Gaveston (Gyula Orendt) and Mortimer (Peter Hoare), helped by very strong performances, by singers who are also instictive actors.  The role of Isabel, the Queen, might well have been written expressly to suit Barbara Hannigan, who sang The Woman in Written On Skin.  The part of Isabel  makes the most of Hannigan's ability to project coloratura lines. At times she sounded like a soprano clarinet with an extended range.  Something to marvel at, though the character itself isn't specially developed.  The Woman in Written on Skin at least found her identity. "I am Agnès" she cried, "I am not a child!"  Maybe Isabel is a plot device, a foil to the other characters.  Still, having Hannigan on board ensures the success of this opera,  and adds variety in an otherwise all-male cast. There are small roles for other women (one of them particulary striking)  and for younger singers, like Samuel Boden as the  King’s son.

Staging a stylized opera is a specialist genre in itself. Unlike verismo, where letting it all hang out is a good thing, in stylization, less can be more. At times, Lessons in Love and Violence seems to teeter on the edge of Pelléas et Mélisande.  It's as if the starving peasants Yniold spots outside the castle have breached its defences.  Benjamin's music broods and seethes with barely suppressed violence.   It can't be easy to reconcile stylization with  angry crowd scenes, but I'm not really sure about Katie Mitchell's direction. There are very good moments, such as when the younger actors move  in slow motion, suggesting the passage oif time. Almsot like a silent movie !(Movement director Joseph Alford). But there's a little too much stage decoartion for its own sake, large portraits, big beds, bookcases etc.  (designs by Vicki Mortimer).  Perhaps it's not Mitchell's fault. London audiences seem to need lots to look at so they don't have to think.  The enormous fish tank disappeared after the second section.  It almost stole the show, so removing it removed a distraction from Benjamin's drama in music.  Benjamin himself conducted  which made the music even more special. 

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Abundant riches coming up, London

After a drought with relatively little to listen to, this week is packed with abundant riches.  Tonight, the premiere of George Benjamin's new opera Lessons in Love and Violence. You can't really trust advance publicity (remember the furore of sensationalist negativity from the Times before Written on Skin?) but Lessons in Love and Violence seems closer to Written on Skin than Into the Little Hill    Please read HERE and HERE about Benjamin's earlier operas, plus ore about his usic onn this site. Because I'll be at the Royal Opera House tonight for the premiere, I'll be missing the Hubert Parry concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

Friday is even busier.  Treasures from Le grand Siècle at St John's Smith Square and elsewhere, marking the start of bthe most ambitious London Festival of Baroque Music in years. A fabulous chance to hear French specialists bring the world of Louis XIV to London. Do not miss ! Please- read more HERE HERE and HERE.   Jonas Kaufmann at the Barbican would otherwise be my choice, but he's no competition to the original Sun King.  It's a pity that a genuine talent like JK has a following that sometimes like celebrity more than music.  For art song cognoscenti, Andre Schuen at the Wigmore Hall on Friday, too.  Read more HERE about a truly interesting new talent - this week's wild card, a definite recommendation if there wasn't so much else on at the same time.

Saturday - Glyndebourne ! A new production of Madama Butterfly. Though this opera means a lot to me personally for many reasons (follow the label Puccini on the right for more), I don't think  Glyndebourne would risk anything really penetrating for the start of the season. I'm not going to miss Pelléas et Mélisande though, especially directed by Stefan Herheim.  It's repeated at the Prioms but Herheim is special, way above the heads of some, but so is rthe opera, alas.  Saturday also sees more at the London Festival of Baroque Musicand much else, besides.  

Sunday - Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall - in Prokofiev Seven they are Seven and the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the Revolution, please read HERE and HERE  for more. Plus Pekka Kuuisto!  More baroque, too, and of course lots more round town. 

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Majesté : grands motets de Lalande, Le Poème Harmonique

Majesté,  a new recording by Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre, of music by Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726)  from Alpha Classics. Le Poème Harmonique are regular visitors to London, appreciated for the variety  of their programes. On Friday this week, (11/5) they'll be at St John's Smith Square as part of the London Festival of Baroque, with a programme titled "At the World's Courts". Since the theme of this year's London Baroque Festival  is Treasures from Le grand Siècle their concert will naturally include music from the court of Louis XIV, such as Lully and Charles Tessier, but with typical Le Poème Harmonique flair will focus on the French fascination with turqueries, works evoking Turkey, Arabia, China and beyond. The origins of Orientalism, which would bear fruit with Rameau Les Indes Galantes and much more.  

This new recording, however, focuses on music Lalande wrote for the Chapelle Royale at Versailles, where he officiated for more than 40 years, producing 77 grands motets for the Messe du Roi.  Since the monarch was Louis XIV,  religious ceremonies glorified not only God but his temporal French equivalent, a consideration to take into account given the relationship between the Papacy and the French court.  On this recording Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique present three of these grands motets, Deitatis Majestate, Ecce nunc benedicte and a Te Deum

The earliest of these, Dietatis Majestate, dates from 1681 before Lalande took up his posts at Court.  As Thomas Leconte writes, it "unfolds in a single majestic sweep from a succession of récits mostly for vocal trio or quartet, and grand choral sections regularly punctuated by instrumental interludes".  Ecce nunc Benedicte  (1683) is a setting of Psalm 133 and may have been used on feast days. It is "at once grave and festive". Vocal ensembles alternate with elaborate choruses. At its heart is a récit, "in noctibus extollite", where the soloists, are shaowed by an instrumental récit, high voices entwining against a backdrop of low timbres (bassoon, low-pitched winds and strings).  The Te Deum was performed and revised many times, becoming a regular repertoire for Le Consort Spirituel, created to provide Paris with music during Lent when non-religious music was proscribed.   The version used here is based on an early manuscript, retaining various revisions made over time, enabling modern performers to understand the evolution of performance practice.  It is an impressive piece , each short section flowing elegantly into the next.  "Tu Rex gloriae, Christe", the organ singing along with the voices. But the last lines "Et rege eos et extolle illos unique in aeternum" could apply to,other potentates as well, and are set with suitably glorious flourish.  Le Poème Harmonique  and Vincent Dumestre are joined by soloists Emmanuelle de Negri, Dagmar Šašková, Sean Clayton, Cyril Auvity and Andre Morsch with Ensemble Aedes (led by Mathieu Romano). .  

Monday, 7 May 2018

Sad songs of the Li People

黎歌 - Song of the Li People (also known as Farewell Song)  - an award winning film from 2011, which honours ethnic diversity in China.  The first scene is straight ethnology, shot from real life.  An elderly Li woman in traditional dress sings a traditional song.  The film then cuts to the sound of a man singiung a traditional call, which echoes across mist covered mountains and rivers   How beautiful that scenery is ! The Li people inhabit an autonomous region around Guangxi and Hainan on the tropical coast of south west China.  Although they are believed to have migrated from further east in ancicent times, they have a distinct language and culture.  To this day, there are just under 2 million , though many, like others in China, have migrated to larger cities. This movie is thus a record of Li culture and of social change.  Though the pace is sedate, that allows lots of music and shots of scenery, which are very much part of the story - beautiful cinematography.

A small boat putters along the river  It's operated by A Dong, a village youth. Though it's the prefered form of transport for the locals, the outside world is not so far away.  Danmei scrapes a living selling tack to tourists  but she's such a good singer of traditional Li song that she's sought out by Lao He, an ethnomusicologist. Life in the village isn't easy and many villagers have already gone to work in the city. Danmei is reluctant. "In Guangzhou", she says, people "despise those who can't speak Cantonese".  Rather topical. Danmei uses a laptop to look up Guanzhou , but her friend, who's lived there and grown hard, says "No matter how nice it is, it's not our place". Nonetheless, Danmei and A Dong plan to elope and look for work.  They haven't enough money but he buys her an "expensive" dress in the nearby small town.

In the big city, things aren't much easier. Lao He's song and dance ensemble has funding problems.  Should they stick to traditional styles or adapt  to popular tastes ? Would selling records raise income ? To cover recording, Lao He invests his savings on the stock market but loses everything.  The Ensemble gives a concert for a factory, all the workers lined up in polite attendance. The boss makes Danmei an offer : he'll finance the troupe if they do what he wants to market them.  So they get gigs in glamourous hotels, but with audiences who don't really care. They're dispirited, but what can they do ?  The rich man offers to make Danmei "queen of Li song" making records in Beijing for the mass market. She wants them produced by ensemble member Qianhong,  who is talented but impractical - he spends all his free time playing computer games in games arcades. He's reduced to singing pop songs in nightclubs.  The ensemble's gradual disintegration is played out against a sensitive portrayal of the city - shops selling "Coconut King" local cigarettes, buildings planned for ventilation in a hot climate without air conditioning, the ensemble's living quarters with pot plants in the alleyway.  A Dong, who has followed Danmei all along phones her but her line's busy.  Danmei stands with Lao He on  a beach, looking out to the ocean. They're very far from the Li River.  Lao He's moving to Beijing, as far as you can get from Li country. Danmei takes up the rich man's offer and runs his "cultural company". In the last scene, she's being chauffeured in a fancy car along a freeway somewhere on the Guangxi coast.  A beautiful film, made by the Guangxi/Hainan Film Production Studios. Fantastic music, too. The film has Chinese and English subtitles. But if you spoeak Manadrin, an extra bonus ! As the closing credits start, there's a series of interviews with Li musicians. 

If you like this, you might like Frühlingsglaube the movie 立春 where a singer loves schubert so much that she wants to dedicate herself to art. Things don't work out so easily, but she finds her vocation in another way. 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Vivaldi Orlando Furioso - Teatro la Fenice

Vivaldi Orlando Furioso from Teatro la Fenice in Venice, conducted by Diego Fsolis, directed by Fabio Ceresa with a cast led by Sonia
now on Culturebox. On an enchanted isle in the middle of nowhere,  where Alcina reigns, Medoro loves Angelica, Ruggerio loves Bradamante, but they get mixed up  and scrap among each other. Alcina is part goddess, part witch, her rival Astolfo the only one who can stand up to her. No wonder Orlando goes mad ! But in the end, all is magically resolved. Vivaldi's audiences  knew Ariosto and his predecessors, the Greeks, well enough to
appreciate that art is not pseudo-reality so much as meta-reality, where
men and mythic figures interact in all too human ways in decidedly
non-human situations.  Vivaldi's audiences went to the opera to be thrilled and challenged and,
indeed, titillated.  In the world of art, the only logic that applied was emotional truth : ergo, the laws of church and state could be tested (within limits).  Orlando Furioso is a play on outward appearances and delusion.  If there's a message it's not to take things too literally.
Not, for exmple, the gender bending, not unusual in the genre for many different reasons. The sole soprano, Angelika (Francesca Aspromonte) is an innocent not nearly as complex as the other characters. And what a character Orlando is!  He's is a warrior hero who gets thrust into anti-hero mode, ideal for a singer as spirited and as experienced as Sonia Prima who has can bring out the full range of Orlando's personality. That mad scene is a tour de force which Prima carries off so conviningly that it feels both real and unreal at the same time, in the best sense.  He's still a leader and a man of action, though he loses control for a while when he's under a spell.  Medoro and Ruggerio were originally cast for castratos, but now taken by countertenors, here Raffaele Pe and Carlo Vistoli.  Bradamante, the woman disguised as a soldier, is Loriana Castellano and Astolfo is Riccardo Novaro, a bass. Alcina (Lucia Cirillo) is a contralto/mezzo part, signifying Alcina's  decidedly feminine sexuality while also hinting at the demonic side of her personality. Modern
audiences have different expectations, but in baroque times higher voice
types signified good guys, whatever their actual gender, while bass
voices signified darker portent. Vivaldi gives all the singers
extended sections in which to display their virtuosity, and also imprint their individuality on the listener.  They're all gorgeous in their own way !

Splendid production, too  The staging is simple  A giant clamshell provides the focus, a hint at mythology. Like Venus, Alcina arises from the sea. Her magic is love, her costumes decorated with roses, and petals fly at her bequest  Her handmaidens are both female and male, some warriors dressed as women, in keeping with the plot. Changes of scene are wrought by lighting effects, transforming the golden palace into craggy nightscape, and  the green forest where Orlando meets his fate.  Spectacular effects, through simple means, reflecting the limited staging of Vivaldi's age with modern technolgy.  Even better, the detail in the Personenregie. Every gesture, every movement  evokes the personality of the role, and/or the music.  And best of all the artistic rigour behind it : such  elegance grows absorbing the idiom and values of the era, not from sticking on Hollywoodesque excess.  The strange animal in Alcina's kingdom is a creature who seems to have stepped out ofd a baroque drawing, with the body of a horse and the head of a night bird : highly symbolic, clearly  a stage prop, not meant to be naturalistic. 

Friday, 4 May 2018

Schubert's star struck suicide song ?

J M W Turner : A Study in light

Franz Schubert Der liebliche Stern D861 (1825)  starts out simply enough. Short repeating figures in the introduction : do these suggest the twinkling of stars ?  "Ihr Sternlein, still in der Höhe". The pattern within that line repeats in the next: "Ihr Sternlein, spielend im Meer" So far so good.  Or is it ? The stair is in the heavens, but its image is  reflected upside down in the lake. Then the punchline:

Wenn ich von ferne daher 

So freundlich euch leuchten sehe, 

So wird mir von Wohl und Wehe 

Der Busen so bang und so schwer

(When I, from a distance, see you sparkling so cheerfully, you make my heart grow tense and anxious)

Es zittert von Frühlingswinden 

Der Himmel im flüssigen Grün; 

Manch Sternlein sah ich entblühn, 

Manch Sternlein sah ich entschwinden; 

Doch kann ich das schönste nicht finden,

Das früher dem Liebenden schien.

(Shivering Spring breezes from the Heavens  chill the water-soaked meadow. any times I've seen little stars twinkle like flowers. Many times I've seen them fade. So I can't find that most beautiful one that once shone for the one who loved it)  Again, notice the repeating patterns. Something's not right ! Why "one" star out of millions ?

Nicht kann ich zum Himmel mich schwingen, 

Zu suchen den freundlichen Stern; 

Stets hält ihn die Wolke mir fern!
Tief unten da möcht' es gelingen, 

Das friedliche Ziel zu erringen!
Tief unten da ruht' ich so gern!

(I can't fly up to Heaven to seek that joyful star. Clouds get in the way, trapping me.  Deep below I'd like to find that joyful goal, deep below that's my scene)

Was wiegt ihr im laulichen Spiele, 

Ihr Lüftchen, den wogenden Kahn? 

O treibt ihn auf rauhere Bahn 

Hernieder in's Wogengewühle! 

Laßt tief in der wallenden Kühle 

Dem lieblichen Sterne mich nahn!

(Why do the breezes play around, rocking my boat ? Sending me to rougher waters, even into a whirlpool !  As the cold waters swell round me, will I find that darling star beside me ?)

So what is this song about ? The central concept is reversal - everything in opposition, everything upside down. The little star is happy but the lover is not : spring breezes chill and send the barque into dangerous waters.  Hence the obsessive, almost demented piano part and phrases that keep repeating, not always in balance.  This instability may or may not reflect the instability of the poet Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817) : how much Schubert knew about Schulze's private life I do not know.  Schulze didn't commit suicide though, dying young but of natural causes.