Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Happy New Year 2014 Hong Kong Fireworks

New Year Fireworks in Macau- 15 min ago

Midnight Macau time - 4pm GMT

2013 - looking back

Not so much the highs and lows of 2013 but a guess at what the year might have meant. Anniversary years bring composers mass publicity but that's not necessarily a good thing. Mahler's anniversary turned him into Mahlerkugeln. Wagner, Verdi and Britten fared rather better, though. 

This year's BBC Proms will be remembered for Daniel Barenboim's concert performances of the Ring. This summer I did a Wagner Marathon - London, Salzburg, Bayreuth. Read more here for links to individual reviews, including Herheim's wonderful Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. True, there's been plenty of commercialized Wagner but he's a composer who resists too much dumbing down. Contrary to those who thought Verdi was ignored,the BBC has been doing Verdi all year. There's a lot of Verdi around (and some of it sounds the same - ha!). In any case The Royal Opera House and Salzburg did exceptional Les vêpres siciliennes and Don Carlo. And it was good to hear non-opera Verdi at the Proms and elsewhere. 

And then there's Britten. Russian and American audiences may think they've discovered him but there's a long, long way to go. Even in Britain, where Britten is performed and studied more than anywhere else, the composer is still an unorthodox, contradictory figure who defies simplistic stereotype. This year we've heard every single thing Britten wrote, including the juvenilia and discarded works. It's been an extraordinarily rewarding year. There is more on Britten on this site than anywhere else that's not Britten-only, so please explore. I reviewed four of the six or more War Requiems this year, and the wonderful Aldeburgh centenary performance, which was oddly ignored in the media. Knussen knows Britten musically better than most.

Opera-wise things have been stimulating, revealing a lot more about audiences than the productions themselves. Audiences scream because they want "historic" but when they get genuinely historically informed productions like Les vêpres sicilennes, Robert Le Diable and  La donna del lago, they can't recognize it. Some were outraged because the ROH  Nabucco favoured the ascetic, invisble God of Israel instead of graven images. Evidently, history got it wrong.

Excellent baroque this year, too, also demolishing myths against period-informed performance.  The baroque era was flamboyant, adventuresome and daring - should its music be the opposite Thankfully in Britain we're close enough to France and Germany where baroque practice is robust.  "If it's good enough for Bill Christie", said a friend of Glyndebourne's audacious Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie "It's good enough for me". 

Many good concerts this year but one I'll remember was Wolfgang Holzmair with Imogen Cooper, at the Oxford Lieder festival, doing Schubert's Mayrhofer songs (repeated at the Wigmore Hall). I was mesmerized by every note and every word, far too overwhelmed to write it up. Do not miss Oxford Lieder's Schubert Festival in 2014. Two extremely good recordings this year : Matthias Goerne's Eisler Lieder with Thomas Larcher, almost better than his game changing version with Eric Schneider, and Goerne's Erlkönig with Andreas Haefliger, seventh volume inn the DG Schubert series.  Read about their Wolf and Liszt concert at the Wigmore Hall to see why they are so exceptional.  I only review about half or a third of what I listen to, leaving out the very best, the very worst and stuff about which there's nothing specially worth saying. The joys of being independent !

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Shostakovich Bolt Ballet online

At last online, Dimitri Shostakovich's "lost" ballet Bolt , the famous Bolshoi production choreographed  by Alexei Ratmansky. The premiere in 1931 was greeted with vociferous opposition, and the ballet remained unknown until a complete edition was prepared for Gennady Rozhdestvensky to conduct in 1995. 
Bolt, Shostakovich's op 27a, is scored in eight movements, allowing the ballet to develop over a series of vignettes. Ostensibly, the ballet praises the discipline of a totalitarian state. Like soldiers, workers and athletes operate in well drilled formation like parts of a machine. Ratmansky adapts this to his choreography. The dancers move in tight units, their limbs jerking rhythmically like robots. In the second scene, the workers are exercising in a yard before starting work. A bureaucrat shouts "one, two, three, four" and their bodies obey. Viewed from above, the camera shows what the Bureaucrat sees - a neat, obedient ensemble. Close up (from the workers' level) we notice that one dancer gradually falls out of step. The music is lyrical, but in a mindlessly simplistic way, like folk song adapted as propaganda.  Sour trombones announce something more mysterious.  Swan Lake satirized?  The Rebel and shy girlfriend enact a tentative courtship, interrupted  by strident, violent brass and a formation of workers in red uniforms who obediently writhe in mechanical gestures as the men in white suits (the bureaucrats) beam with joy. Then, dancers in white uniforms. Have the inmates absorbed the values of the system? On cue, they shout slogans. Notice the stylized propaganda gestures - arms thrust upwards, earnest expressions.

The "hero" Koelkov relaxes with friends in a bar. Lovely opportunities for solo dancers to show their individual "personalities". The music seduces - jazz-like riffs, languid woodwinds. Femme fatale with gypsy roses in her hair looks on as Girlfriend in white enters, aghast. A bar room fight, and a thief.  Do, lowlifes believe "Property is Theft"?  A bolt is quietly produced. Then a magical interlude where the stage is dark, and lights shine like stars. The Bolt is thrown into the machine  Red smoke pours out as the dancers jerk and leap. The lights turn out to be searchlights, as in a prison yard, and the walls move into action. Night descends again, and out of the darkness, athletes appear dancing in bright costumes. Then, wonderful contraptions that look like battleships, complete with fake waves. Inside, a dancer, his or her movements constrained by the complex fusellage they have to carry. Everything in order, right.  Girlfriend dances to maniacally cheerful music., but her movements are violent. Madder still, a xylophone solo with rude trombone raspberries. When the Apotheosis comes, the stage is bathed in golden light. Trumpets announce the New Machine. The Red workers return, even more dehumanized in plastic suits with gas masks, dance a grotesque formation and head off on scooters. Are we in hell, and are the red workers demons? Whatever the first production might have looked like, that first audience must have realized how subversive the ballet really is, despite the "triumphant" finale., straight out of a totalitarian  state celebration. Perhaps the premiere audience got the irony and were disturbed.

Also watch the documentary here Bolt, avant garde kitsch which puts the ballet into context, connecting it to radical film and theatre of the period. Bolt was Ratmansky's first big success before he emigrated to the US. Will Bolt be done again at the Bolshoi  Will Ratmansky work again at this level, and in Russia?  Who knows? Perhaps it's the nature of good art to unsettle rather than to soothe. In 2006, the Marrinsky came to the Coliseum in London with four ambitious programmes - The Nose, conducted by Gergiev, a different version of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, and a trimmed down version of Shostakovich's The Golden Age which deals with a similar theme of athletes in a Soviet system. Gergiev didn't conduct and the piece sounded a mess, nothing like the outstandingly vivid recording of the complete ballet, conducted by José Serebrier.  Get it HERE. I'll write about that later when I have more time, because it's a good companion to  Bolt. The Golden Age is better as music, but Bolt is tighter in dramatic terms.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Martha Eggerth dies, aged 101

Merry Widow no more : Martha Eggerth died yesterday aged 101. Eggerth and her husband Jan Kiepura were the stars of Central European musicals and operetta from the 1920's onwards. Hear them sing Usta milczą (The Merry Widow) HERE. Affectionate warmth from him, gorgeously elaborate coloratura from her, and then they sing together cheerfully as she decorates the lines with manic trills. That good natured happiness was their trademark : it still shines today.

Born in Hungary before the First World War, Marta Eggerth was a megastar in 1930's operetta and musicals.  She appeared in Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán's Czardasfurstin, or Die Herzogin von Chicago  (read my review here).  She also know Franz Lehar, Robert Stolz and many others. In this photo, she's with Kalman and Lehar.  In 1936, she married the tenor Jan Kiepura and together they went on to even greater success. He was the Pavarotti and Domingo of his time, and more, ansd she the fairy-tale like symbol of beauty. Kiepura and Eggerth are also important to us now because they were artists who moved  freely between genres. No viciousness then about "crossover". Today they'd be pilloried  by media trolls. Thank goodness their work can still give us pleasure today !

In this article from the Washington Post, she talks about her life in the US. "I live in the present", she says.  Please also see my post from 2.12, "Bittersweet Polish Valentine" about the concert she and Kiepura gave on his return to Kraków in 1958. He was so popular that crowds gathered around the couple, welcoming them. Kiepura jumped onto a car and sang, impromptu. The article also contains a very rare link (off air) to the broadcast he gave on Polish radio at that time. Kiepura sing the Noel Coward song "Bittersweet", and Kiepura explains the text to the audience, who had not been able to hear English cabaret for many years.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Dresdner Kreuzchor Weihnachtszyklus 1945

Rudolf Mauersberger's Weihnachtszyklus first performed 15th December 1944.with the Dresdner Kreuzchor. Two months later, Dresden would be destroyed by British and American firebombs, flattening the historic old quarter of the city, one of the treasures of German culture.  Coventry doesn't compare. The boys of the Kreuzchor hid for shelter in a dark cellar nearby, not knowing what was going on outside, or if their families were safe. Mauersberger, their choirmaster, calmed them down by making them sing songs of faith. Can hymns have been quite so fervent, out of the mouths of children?

Mauersberger's Weihnachtszyklus is beautiful bercause it celebrates Christmas from the perspective of children. It's not yet another telling of the Bible story, which the choristers sang about all year round. Instead, it describes the Dresden Striezelmarkt, or Christmas fair, and the simple folk toys that children marvelled at before Christmas was commercialized. We can hear bells, cuckoo calls,  and rhythms suggesting the movement of mechanical toys. The choristers sing with real enthusiasm, all the more touching because many of these boys, one of whom is Peter Schreier,  had been huddled together as the bombs fell around them four years earlier.

Perhaps Mauersberger's Weihnachtszyklus fell out of favour in the DDR because it was a raw reminder of the war, and of lost innocence, but I think that is exactly why it should become part of the Christmas repertoire not only in Germany but elsewhere. Do watch the video, published by a Dresdner Kreuzchor source, because it includes photos from their archives, not seen otherwise. Every British youth choir "needs" to hear this.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas in Vienna 2013 viewing link

Angelika Kirchschlager, Ursula Langmayr (replacing Anna Prohaska), Luca Pisaroni and Joel Prieto in this year's Wiener Konzerthaus "Christmas in Vienna" broadcast (link here). This annual concert is a treasure because it's a complete antithesis to the formal stodge we normally get at Xmas, and also refreshingly different to the famous Neujahrskonzerts at the Goldenersaal at the Musikverein. You can also tell, by the number of women and blacks on the platform that it's the ORF Radio Symphonieorchester Wien not the Wiener Philharmoniker. The audience turns up in normal clothes, just as the shepherds turned up at the stable in Bethlehem.

The opening shots show the soloists and conductor Erwin Ortner put gifts under a simple Xmas tree,  while the boys of the Wiener Sängerknaben pretend to snatch them away. Of course it's staged - but it's good humoured and full of charm.  Musical values, though, are extremely strong. Bright trumpets announce Adeste Fidelis, soloists, choir and orchestra celebrating together. 

Angelika Kirchschlager is in her element. She always sings beautifully, but here she seems much more relaxed and spontaneous than she might be in a more pressurized recital. Maybe her children are listening, and she knows it.  When she and Luca Pisaroni sang Englebert Humperdinck Weihnachten, they gave the simple song the human, personal warmth it needs. The voices of the Wiener Sängerknaben rang out like angels as they stood in the golden balcony above the choir and orchestra. 

Glorious Bach, of course, (nice trumpet) but also Ariel Ramirez "Gloria" from Missa Criolla (12964) which combines South American folk instruments with conventional orchestra and singers. The folk musicians wear red ponchos - quite a showpiece - and Prieto sang with them in the small upper stage balcony. The piece suited Prieto well, and he sang with concentrated focus.  Pisaroni and Kirchschlager showed the comic side of their talents with "Baby, it's cold outside". They were classy, and stylish. Prieto and Langmayr duetted with "Let it snow". Neither can sing in English, but it didn't matter, they conveyed the mood. Then, Vienna's own contribution to the Christmas repertoire, Franz Xaver Gruber's Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. Magical ! Watch it again HERE.

Earlier today on Arte TV, a version of Monteverdi Poppea. Not the full Monty, but Rock Baroque. The very fact that European rockers can engage with Monteverdi is quite something. Anglo rednecks, I suspect, would sneer at the very thought. It wasn't my thing but it was good to hear that these musicians were prepared to engage with new/old ideas and create anew. More than can be said for many who think they know better. Later tonight, Marc Minkowski conducts Berlioz - should worth staying up for. 

photo : ORF Ali Schafler (not 2013)

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Weimar animation - The Star of Bethlehem

Strikingly modern image - but it's from 1921  It comes from Lotte Reiniger's film The Star of Bethlehem originally made in Germany but best known in the version below, produced in 1953, using the Glyndebourne chorus,  though they aren't listed in the credits. In the early days of film, artists were experimenting with many new techniques, from short stop animations (Meliés, Segundo do Chomo ) to posed shots of insects (Wladyslaw Starewicz), light shows (Walther Ruttmann) and sophisticated fantasy (René Clair) so it was perhaps natural that Reiniger, who worked in avant garde film circles, should turn to the German art of Scherenschnitte which had thrived in the 18th and 19th century, before photography took hold.

Silhouettes and puppets bridge folk art and sophisticated commercial performance. As a child, Goethe had an elaborate toy theatre where he acted out dramas of his own creation.  Silhouettes, puppets and street theatre have roots not only in German culture but also in Turkish, Chinese and Indonesian Wayang. Thus Reiniger's use of Scherenschnitte fuses tradition and modernity, folk tradition and high tech art. .

Lotte Reiniger's Scherenschitte are beautifully executed - look at the lace tracery on the angel's wings - but she adapts the form so the figures move, and can be posed like puppets, and animated for film.  The figures are black, so you see only the outlines: you fill in the magic with your imagination. Early 20th century audiences would have connected the images in this film with silhouettes they'd known from their own childhoods and responded to the magic of memory. Twenty-first century audiences, bombarded with a multiplicity of styles, would do well to ponder the simplicity of Reiniger's art, which uses naive form in a highly sophisticated, non-naive way to recreate a sense of mystery and wonder.

Reiniger and her husband, Carl Koch, were both closely involved with Weimar left wing circles. In 1933, they left Grermany, settling first in France, reaching England in 1949. Reiniger left her archive to the British Film Institute which has released a 2 DVD set of her fairy films. Read more here about how they've been restoring the original The Star of Bethlehem, painstakingly removing the desiccated cellotape that held the cardboard joints in place while filming took place. They are also replacing the long sequence of flying devils which were "considered so scary that they were cut from the American release". Some things, alas, don't change. From the stills in the article quoted above, those demons seem a crucial part of the whole. So perhaps the version below will be replaced by something less sanitized. Also recommended, a documentary made about Reiniger in1970, which is well worth the rental price of £1.

Monday, 23 December 2013

András Schiff "Why I won't perform in Hungary"

András Schiff on music, life and politics in a two part interview on BBC World Service starting at 1206. Note, it's the BBC World Service, not the usual big channels. The media in Britain seem to have given up on culture this year.  There's a write up here, too.

"Schiff cites the statue just erected in the centre of Budapest of Admiral Miklos Horthy, Hungary's wartime leader. He was, says Schiff, not a statesman, but "a war criminal", responsible for anti-Jewish laws, and overseeing the deportation of half a million Jews to Nazi death camps. Erecting monuments to the man is, he says, despicable.

"As to your question why I'm not playing my 60th birthday concert there," he says, with another laugh, "I don't even set foot in the country, not even as a private person." There is a counter-argument - that those opponents of the government, and the far-right, might draw succour from the appearance, in their country, of such a famous critic. Schiff is unapologetic, and matter-of-fact. "I have been threatened that if I return to Hungary, they will cut off both of my hands. I don't want to risk physical and mental assault.""

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Barcelona Berlioz Britten and more Xmas listening

Berlioz L'enfance du Christ The Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya's Christmas concert, live on medici.tv 

Good Xmas listening : not as vibrant and original as François-Xavier Roth with the LSO at the Barbican last week, but still worth listening to because it's done honestly. The tenor, Agustin Prunell-Friend isn't in the league of Yann Beuron (for Roth) but he's convincing. Listen again to Roth, Beuron and the LSO HERE for a few hours and read my review HERE

No Kulchur on British radio or TV this Xmas, apart from rebroadcasts of Barenboim's Wagner Ring from the Proms,. But tonight, three things were on at the same time, the Berlioz which repeats, and Britten Midsummers Nights Dream from the Met with three good singers in the key parts (Kim, Davies, Rose) but they could not rescue a performance that felt more like Angela Lansbury or Mary Poppins than Britten. How can anyone blame those who don't "get" Britten if that's ersatz ? It self consciously played up the superficial, "Britishness" and missed the fundamental lyricism and quirkiness. Disneyworld Britten, and not vintage Disney at that. It plodded, in concrete boots. Perhaps that's why I was so moved in comparison by the Barcelona Berlioz, which isn't a big deal but is genuine and sincere, which is far more important. Alas, I missed what sounds like an exceptional Poulenc Les Dialogues des Carmélites live from the Champs-Elyseés Paris with an almost ideal cast. Fortunately it's being rebroadcast, so I'll write about it later. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Wagner in Venice the "lost" Symphony

"On the evening of Christmas day in 1882, within the Apollonian halls of the “La Fenice” Theater, Richard Wagner led an orchestra formed by the teachers and students of the “Benedetto Marcello” Conservatory. On that night, he proposed some music which, until that time, had been never revealed. It was his last concert, but also a wish that finally came true: re-listening to the score, fifty years from its first performance, on the birthday of Cosima, his loving wife to which the event was dedicated and kept as a secret.  Wagner wrote the symphony at the age of 19 and lost track of the manuscript after having sent it to Felix Mendelssohn. Only in 1877 were certain instrumental parts found in an attic in Dresda within a trunk; Anton Seidl, the young assistant of Wagner at the time, re-composed the score in 1878 under the instructions of Wagner. This episode, which is not very well known, is the main topic of the documentary of Gianni Di Capua, produced by Kublai Film"

"....A cross-media work (it is, in fact, a documentary app for Android, iPhone and iPad and will soon become a theatrical work) which rediscovers new moments of the last Venetian stay of Richard Wagner and the relationship between the great German composer and the city which he most loved: Venice." Read more HERE.

And watch the documentary in full HERE. It's in Italian, biut easy enough to follow

Friday, 20 December 2013

What Primary School Orchestras can do

This is an orchestra masde up of primary school students - under twelve years old. The music was recorded in an open air concert beside an extremely busy main street. See the flyover in the background.  Hardly optimum conditions but gives an idea what even very young musicians can do when they're motivated. The secret I think, is that music is just embedded into the kids' activities, as fun. The second clip shows an even younger orchestra. Some of the kids barely reach over their marimbas but they are having a good time expressing themselves.


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Found the Grail! Parsifal Royal Opera House HD

What a difference HD makes! My initial misgivings about the new Wagner Pasifal at the Royal Opera House were transformed by the HD broadcast When its initial teething difficulties settle in, this production could be a keeper. The Royal Opera House needs a flagship new Wagner and this could be it. It's different, but it isn't nearly as wrong as some think.

Where's the Grail?  The answer, I think, lies in understanding the overall trajectory of Wagner's thought and music. In Das Ring des Niebelungen, those who pursue material treasures are destroyed.  Only when Valhalla goes up in flames and the foolish Rhinemaidens return the gold to Nature is the balance of the cosmos restored.  The Knights of Monsalvat turn the Grail into a fetish, imbuing it and the religious symbols around it with magical powers which have more to do with superstition than spirituality.  They haven't merely lost sight of the Grail, but of the whole purpose of religion. "He stood guard by God" they cry, when Titurel lies dead. But God doesn't need guards. He's God.Titurel  wants to defy nature and live forever. Ironically, once he's dead he'll be with his Redeemer, face to face. The Knights have ossified into a cult that denies women, sex and nature itself.

Would Jesus and his follwers, fleeing from the Romans, have used an ostentatios golden goblet at the Last Supper? In any case it's a hollow pot. So when a young boy emerges from the giant glass tube, haloed in white light, what's the problem?  "en heilig' Traumgesicht nun deutlich zu ihm spricht durch hell erschauter Wortezeichen Male; Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor; harre sein', den ich erkor." Only when the knights learn compassion, through the example of a Pure Fool, will they find their way again. The real Grail isn't an empty vessel but the promise of a Redeemer.

The Knights crowd round the boy and touch his wound. For 2,000 years we've become so inured to the blood ritual aspects of Christianity that we forget how shocking it is to have a religion based on lurid aspects of bloodletting and the weekly consumption of body parts.  The central image of Christianity is a man hanging from a Cross, blood pouring from his side. In some Catholic countries there are cults around realistic wax images of the dead Jesus. There are complex theological arguments justifying these things, but they're not really compatible with non-violence and compassion. So if audiences at Parsifal gasp at the sight of men fetishiziing blood, so well they should. All the more reason, not to obsess with a physical Grail but to focius on the metaphysics.Parsifal and Kundry atre a lot closer to what Jesus taught than the Knights ever were.

Although I sat in the most expensive seats for the live performance, I got a lot more out of the HD broadcast because the camera picked up close up detail. In any case, the first time you see a production, you can't take in everything.  This time round I was also struck by the delicacy of the colours. Only grey people see blank grey. Here we had tones of silver, dove grey, steel and marble, all truer to the ascetic macho culture of the Knights, who don't like women or dirty things til they are forced to "learn from the animals". Even the ritualistic hand gestures made sense. 

The singing this time was still uneven, and at times a strain to listen to, as if some singers were aiming at targets rather than singing lines.  René Pape's voice, as before, stood out, and closeups cut out background detail. Again I was surprised how well Gerald Finley sang Amfortas, more as a frail human being than as a King. I even warmed towards Simon O'Neill. I'd still prefer listening to Botha or Kaufmann, but O'Neill can act and convey the anti-hero aspects of the role. He'd make an interesting bad boy Tannhäuser. Much more could be made of Kundry, too. Sexuality plays an important role in this opera (the Knight's chastity, Klingsor's castration and the attempted seduction of Parsifal) so I don't at all have an issue with the idea of Kundry asnd Amfortas doing what they did in the background. That's how Amfortas got his wound and what Parisfal managed to resist). Susan Chitty's designs are excellent from a stagecraft perspective, but the direction needs tightening up, and more thought given to the relationships between characters, their body language and questions of visibility on stage. There are quibbles like these in all productions, which is why they often premiere in out of the way places with second-string casts. Langridge's Parsifal will stand the test of time and improve as time passes and the shock value wears off.  It's infinitely better than the last ROH Parsifal which was "traditional" but comatose, and visually much more sophisticated than the Met Parsifal.

As for Antonio Pappano's conducting? I liked it even more second time round. Purists will howl, but there is something validly Italianate in the music in the Second Act, so alien as it is to uptight Teutonic values. Pappano also gets the sense of processional - when Amfortas comes on centre stage in the Third Act, the music wells up like a grand Verdian entrance, but we see Gerald Finley's Amfortas hobbling on a frame. Unlike Titurel, who dies because he can't see the Grail, Amfortas has figured out that fetishes are sham. So Amfortas is frail and needs help to walk, but he's a hero in his own way.

There are those who will object to this Parsifal on the grounds that it's not "tradition". But look what slavish attention to tradition did to the Knights of Monsalvat. Wagner's heroes alwaya "macht neu", sweeping away form for the sake of form to create new art and new ideas.

Please see my other posts on different Parsifals,  my review of the live performance at the Royal Opera House, and my article Religion versus Religiosity in Parsifal... .
 photos copyright Clive Barda, courtesy Royal Opera House

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Opera Rara Offenbach Fantasio

Opera Rara resurrects another interesting opera- Offenbach's Fantasio .With a good cast and a good conductor this might bring the piece into the mainstream. Read Claire Seymour's thoughtful assessment HERE in Opera Today.

".......Offenbach’s score contains many musical gems, but the overture gives little hint of the treasures to come. During the slow, mysterious introduction, Mark Elder, conducting without a baton, subtly coaxed some delicate playing from the instrumentalists of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The wide tessitura — gentle flutes aloft, unison celli below — and airy texture, together with the rather tentative melodic gestures, created an ambiguous, slightly unsettling tone, before the launch of a zippy allegro got the show on the road. But, the overall effect was rather fragmented."

"....The mood whipped up in the second act, though; for it’s here that the trademark Offenbach show-stoppers — offering both froth and charm, rapture and serenity — are to be found. And, it was also here that American soprano Brenda Rae’s star quality was revealed. 

Party or Piety? Berlioz L'enfance du Christ Barbican Roth

Hector Berlioz L'enfance du Christ makes a welcome change from multiple Messiahs, especially when François-Xavier Roth conducted the BBCSO at the Barbican Hall, London. This was one of the liveliest performances in recent years, animated by Roth's appreciation of Berlioz's quirky approach to the French idiom. Berlioz horrified audiences in his time with his bizarre, un-French vulgarity, so they were thrown off-balance by L'enfance du Christ which seemed relatively conventional. What irony! Berlioz's most conformist piece earned him more money in his lifetime than grand conceptions like Les Troyens. But is L'enfance du Christ really all that straightforward? 

For one thing, it predicates on Herod, not the infant Jesus. When the Three Kings told Herod of their discovery, Herod assumed that Jesus must have been some kind of subversion, a "new born King" who threatened Herod's worldly domain. That's how megalomaniac dictators think. Roth brought out the macabre in the Nocturnal March passages. Shades of Symphonie fantastique haunt Herod's nightmares. Christopher Purves sang Herod's arias with grim force. The first part of the oratorio is so vivid, that the angel's warning comes almost as an afterthought.  The Holy Family make a dash for it escaping the bloodbath that will fall on all other baby boys (not necessarily newborns). 

For the moment, however, Berlioz sticks to Bethlehem. The choral singing in the Shepherd's Farewell is suitably reverent, but the music in the overture to the Flight Into Egypt sparkled with inventive images. Do the rising figures suggest the endless skies above the stable ?  No simple "star motifs".  Yann Beuron sang the famous "Le repos de la Sainte Famille"  with clarity so we could hear the swaying line: the rocking of a cradle, or a presentiment of the dangerous  journey to come ?  His "Alleluia!" rang out firmly, echoed by the young choristers from on high, like angels. 

The Holy Family are refugees but L'arrivé à Saïs is fraught.The natives don't like immigrants, but one family offers shelter. Perhaps Berlioz was drawn to this aspect of the story because he, too, was an outsider, and knew that there were alternatives to the circles he lived in.  But more likely he enjoyed the opportunity to contrast vaguely medieval a cappella with exotic, "Arabic" forms. The Trio was exqusiite, the flutes dancing solemnly with the harp, just alien enough to suggest something quite beyond the experiences the Sainte Famille would have known. Beuron sang the Epilogue with the right mix of fragility and affirmation. Jesus will stay with carpenters, under cover, but one day he will come into his own, eclipsing Herod, Nazareth and indeed the world as Christians know it. 

L'enfance du Christ is described as a "meditation" but not in the sense of Messaien's Vingt Regards du l'Enfant Jésus (read more here). Messian contemplates a religious mystery. Berlioz gives us good music, which we can take at face value if we wish, but get much more out of if we know what he's into.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Wigmore Hall Charpentier, Theatre of the Ayre

Here's a link to Claire Seymour's review of The Theatre of the Ayre at the Wigmore Hall. 

"Never one to tread customary paths, Kenny and her performers took us down unfamiliar by-ways during this evening of music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, beginning with a series of French noëls, carols and dances. Sung from the gallery, gradually increasing in intensity and joy, the traditional Noël, ‘A minuit fut fait un réveil’ (At midnight they were woken up), swept into the instrumental ‘Guillo, prens ton tambourin’, in which Clare Salaman’s boisterous hurdy-gurdy established a mood of spirited abandon. 

"When one considers French music of the seventeenth century, the word ‘oratorio’ does not naturally spring to mind. However, Marc-Antoine Charpentier was not only the first French composer to write oratorios, he also composed a substantial number of them, both secular and sacred. Having travelled to Rome in the 1650s to study painting, Charpentier found himself changing tack; he decided instead upon a career in music, studying with Giacomo Carissimi who was maestro of the chapel of Sant’Apollinare at the German College of the Jesuits from 1630 until his death in 1674, and one of the early masters of the Latin oratorio."

Jihoon Kim Recital, Royal Opera House

Jihoon Kim is shining proof that the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, London, develops singers into complete artists. rich, resonant bass is much admired. During his two years as a Jette Parker Young Artist in 2011/13 he was cast in a wide range of roles at the Royal Opera House, from Alessio in Bellini’s La sonnambula and Colline in Puccini’s La bohème to the Ghost of Hector in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. After completing the Programme, he was offered a one year contract as a Royal Opera principal, covering more than 50 performances in the current season - in fact, when he sings Stimme der Wächter on the first night of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten it will be his 100th performance on the main stage. 

In Verdi Les vêpres sicilennes, Kim’s Robert was so distinctive that  James Sohre wrote in Opera Today that “As one would expect at Covent Garden, all of the minor roles were polished and poised, but I particularly enjoyed Jihoon Kim as Robert. The ROH is right to place such confidence in him and to nurture a performer of such accomplishment and real individuality. His rolling, dark bass surely has a bright future”. Watching the HD broadcast of that production, I noticed how often Director Stefan Herheim used Kim at many critical points in the drama, far more often than the actual singing part required. Kim appeared many times in close-ups because he has presence, even when he was not singing.  

Particpants in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme have considerable professional experience even before they join the scheme. The programme polishes these skills so they learn all aspects of their profession. Coaching includes languages, musical style, interpretation, stagecraft, acting and movement. There is more to being an opera singer than singing alone. Because the programme focuses on practical performance skills, Young Artists give individual recitals, as well as participating in main house productions. Jihoon Kim’s recital in the Paul Hamlyn Hall in the Royal Opera House in December 2013was unique, however, because he sang Korean Art Song, a genre almost unknown in the west. 


Korean Art song or Gagok are songs composed in the Western form. Borrowing the melody of hymns from the end of the 19th century Gagok began in the 1920s, when Korea was occupied by Japan, and continues to flourish today. In South Korea, classical music is cherished and music education standards very high. The songs describe mountains, woodlands and the simple life of Korean peasants, celebrating national culture and identity, much as Grieg and Dvořák did in Europe. The lyricism in the music of Gagok expresses nostalgia, but also a more subtle sensibility. “Deep in the woodland” writes the poet Donghwan Kim, set by composer Wonshik Lim in 1942, “a spring never seen or found trickles secretly……I take a sip, returning home with pleasure, for the spring will remain my own, secretly”

“Another aspect of Korean Art Song”, says Kim, “is that it mainly consists of a lyrical melody (cantilena), which does not require a trained vocalization, to be sung easily by the general public.” Kim is modest, though, for some of these songs are technically sophisticated and benefit from his sensitivity to musical form. Dongsu Shin’s Dear Mountain (1983) is a particularly beautiful song, allowing Kim to showcase the range of colours in his voice. In Hoon Byeon’s Pollack (1952), fast paced, ever-changing rhythms suggest the movement of a fish frolicking in the sea before it gets caught in a net. Kim sang with agile flexibility and freshness, quite unusual in his fach. The fish is “ripped to shreds, my body may disappear but my name will remain, as Pollack, Pollack, I will remain in this world”. There is humour in the song, but also bitter irony. The very fact that Kim was able to express these complex feelings to an audience who did not speak Korean shows how well he can communicate : a valuable skill in opera. Kim could convey meaning so well that many in the audience could follow the spirit of the songs, such as the drinking song, without needing translations at all.

Kim sang some songs accompanied by pianist Jean-Paul Pruna. Pruna, who was a member of the Young Artists Programme in 2010/12, postponed his return to Holland for his current engagement with Reisoper in order to take part. Kim also built the programme to include performances on traditional Korean instruments, in order to show how modern art song connected to traditional form. Hyelim Kim played taegŭm, a transverse bamboo flute. She played Chʻŏngsŏnggok, a melody used in Korean court circles. It was transposed an octave higher in parts to maximize the distinctive buzzing articulation of the membrane within the instrument, which acts as a kind of sympathetic resonator. 

Hyunsu Song played the haegŭm, a two-stringed bowed string instrument. A percussion ensemble joined Kim and the other soloists for larger pieces, such as the three variations of Arirang. The Koreans in the audience started to clap in rhythm with the percussive pulse, underlining the changing shape and form. For westerners, who aren’t used to participating in classical music, this was quite an education. 

For an encore, Kim sang a lullaby his mother sang to him when he was a baby. Although he was so young, he responded to the emotion in the song and used to weep. “Maybe it’s the song that made me become a singer”, he said. The ability to feel and express emotion is perhaps fundamental to the art of song. Kim sang the song first sotto voce, barely above a whisper, conveying the idea of a song heard as distant memory. Then he sang it again with confidence. We could hear the boy grown into a man with a bright future. I was very moved. 

As an extra theatrical touch, Kim wore a hanbok, a spectacular silk costume, loaned by Somssimyoungga, the only luxury traditional company designing bespoke Korean garments. Kim thinks as an opera artist, who understands the importance of visual images. Kim also has exceptional organization skills, putting together the whole programme and people involved on his own initiative. Great attention to detail : at one stage, the bow of the haegŭm brushed too close to a microphone. Without missing a note, Kim bent over and fixed things. 

This was a unique recital, from an unusually promising young singer who has justified the faith the Royal Opera House has placed in him.

See the full review HERE in Opera Today.Photos copyright  Marco Godoy

Joseph Marx Hugo Wolf Wigmore Hall

The Wigmore Hall three part Joseph Marx song series began with a recital in which Simon Lepper combined the songs of Marx with songs from Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch. so they formed an imaginary narrative. Many years ago, at the Wigmore Hall, Amanda Glauert gave a scholarly analysis of the structure of Wolf's settings of Paul Heyse's poems on Italian themes, concluding that the songs could be performed other than in the published order. "At last!" someone in the audience quipped, "A use for the random play function on my CD player!"  But seriously, the songs can be arranged in many ways. Christoph Prégardien and Juliane Banse created a re-ordering based on general themes of hope and rejection. If Lepper's arrangement for three voices (Roderick Williams, Elizabeth Watts, Clara Mouriz) was a tad literal, the basic concept has strong precedents.

The narrative also served to enhance Marx's songs with the glow of Hugo Wolf's far superior settings. Wolf was more than 20 years older than Marx, and had ceased writing before Marx began. Temperamentally and artistically, the two men were worlds apart – Wolf a mercurial genius from whom exquisite songs flowed in manic bursts of extreme inspiration. Many of Marx's songs are attractive, and some have become part of the regular Lieder repertoire, but Marx is no Wolf. I discovered him while the first ASV recordings were being prepared, and have persevered since, but Marx fits more into the general background of early 20th century song. For this reason, he needs to be known. 

The performances were spirited, if uneven. Roderick Williams, with his background in English song of roughly the same period, delivered well, but there were moments of odd intonation and unidiomatic German elsewhere. A pleasant enough recital, nonetheless. I'm looking foward to the next two recitals in the series where Simon Lepper will be joined by Angelika Kirchschlager (13/2)  and Christopher Maltman (27/6). Kirchschlager will be singing Marx with his contemporaries Strauss, Korngold and Alban Berg. It's  worrying that that concert is titled "Twilight of the Romantics" as if Romanticism (whatever it may be in real terms) suddenly stopped. Music history doesn't happen that way, whatever populist books might suggest. Real composers don't compose in rigid "schools". Marx fits in just as well with  composers like Hindemith, Max Reger, Schreker, Krenek and Pfitzner, who may not be as glamorously marketable as Strauss, Korngold and Berg but are worthy in their own way.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Gerald Finzi Dies Natalis Wilfred Brown

Now available on BBC Radio 3, Gerald Finzi's Dies Natalis op 8 (1939) in the historic first recording. Finzi's masterpiece was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in January 1940. The Finzis and their sons used precious petrol rations to drive up to London from Ashmansworth  for the occasion.  No M4 motorway then, and no lights because of the Blitz.  Think about that earlier England, quieter but tense, a winter under the shadow of war. That first performance featured a soprano, Elsie Suddaby, but soon became associated with the tenor voice, since Wilfred Brown, the Finzi sons' schoolmaster, sang it from 1952, conducted by Finzi himself. The recording the BBC is playing is the  first recording, made in 1963, where Wilfred Brown is conducted by Christopher Finzi, the younger son, then aged 29 and recently married to Hilary Du Pré. The recording is of historic importance because all those involved were so closely connected with the composer himself, who had died 8 years previously. It's not quite so definitive as a performance. Ian Bostridge's recording, made with Sir Neville Marriner and the Orchestra of St Martin in the Fields in 1997 is technically and interpretively far superior.  The Brown/Finzi recording, however, has a nice family-feel innocence and period charm which works well with the piece. Traherne's poetry, nonetheless, is quite cosmically surreal and benefits from Bostridge and Marriner's more complex approach.
Dies Natalis begins with an Intrada where themes to come emerge briefly. It suggests, to me, the swirling gases of the cosmos, before the Universe was formed. Dies Natalis deals with no less than the miracle of Life and Creation, so this interpretation is valid, since it suggests primordial growth and vast cosmic forces. I was a little surprised that the themes weren't as clearly defined as they could be, but that hardly matters, since the concept is so overwhelming. This sense of infinite space and time is important because the poet, Thomas Traherne, though Christian, was a mystic. Transcendentalism "transcends" traditional dogma. "Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness?" the poet asks. Traherne's Rhapsody is prose, but with strange syntax, which Finzi respects by setting it with unusual rhythms "I was a stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys: my knowledge was Divine!", the word "divine" jumping forth from the score, as if illuminated by unearthly glow.

Although there are references to Adam and to God, Traherne's surreal imagery bears little resemblence to conventional religious text. "The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never shall be reap'd nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting". Finzi's dynamic extremes emphasize the psychic extreme of the poet's imagination. They aren't there to display vocal gymnastics. In a  Wigmore Hall performance last year, Ailish Tynan's notes were pitched to extremes, at the expense of diction. We should be hearing meaning, not voice as such, but meaning in Dies Natalis is not easy to grasp. Calm stillness underpins the ecstasy, for the cycle repeatedly refers to sublimation over ego and the sense of self. "I saw all in the peace of Eden. Everything was at rest, immortal and divine".

From Rhapsody to Rapture. This cycle often works best when sung by a tenor, emphasizing the strange, unconventional spirituality. "Sweet Infancy!" does not refer to babies, but to the idea of birth. Perhaps for Finzi with his beliefs in organic farming and living in harmony with nature, it's a statement of faith in something more primeval, the very force of life itself. Finzi was way ahead of his time.

"When silent I, so many thousand, thousand Years beneath the Dust did in a Chaos lie, How could I Smiles, or Tears, or Lips or Hands or Eyes perceive " (Traherne's upper case). Most definitely this isn't a human baby, nor even baby Jesus. Long before science developed theories about the Big Bang and primordial soup Traherne intuited the idea of the birth of the cosmos. Dies Natalis explores new territory, completely alien to the certainities of the established Church. Indeed, the very idea of faith is challenged. Fundamental to this cycle is the sense of wonder, of seeing the world anew through absolutely pure, unbiased eyes. Even Jesus had a mission when he became Man. Finzi creates a Being without any consciouness other than the sheer miracle of existence. "A Stranger here, strange things doth meet, strange Glory see......Strange all and new to me, but that they MINE should be ...who Nothing was, That strangest is, of all, yet brought to pass". 

Lots more about Gerald Finzi on this site, please explore.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

All' mein Gedanken die ich hab'

All' mein Gedanken die ich hab' sie sind bei dir, from one of the earliest German song collections, the Lochamer Liederbuch (1450's). Above a version for voice and lute, close to the original. Below, Johannes Brahms, voice with guitar.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Jón Leifs Iceland BBC

On BBC this week, a specially-commissioned new "Composer of the Week" series made in Iceland in October, featuring Jón Leifs. It's really worth listening to, as the chances are usually nil of hearing anything as comprehensive as this on Icelandic culture and art music.
photo : Andreas Tille

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

What fuss? La Traviata La Scala Milan

Is scandal such a tradition at opening nights at the Teatro alla Scala Milan that the loggione are forced to boo for the sake of booing? Last week, at La Traviata, they booed Piotr Beczala for the first time in his career. He was so shocked he vowed not to return. Good for him! It's about time someone stood up to the kind of mob who think it's their right to treat singers like gladiators,.

Beczala has sung Alfredo so many times that it's highly unlikely he'd do anything so bad it would justify being booed. Though Beczala has been better, he's so good that he always gives good value. Daniele Gatti's conducting was straightforward if uninspired. That's no crime. This was the house that raged against Callas and was pro and contra Muti with a vengeance.

Being a thorough professional, Beczala's initial reaction was to wonder why.  Diana Damrau was cheered, so it can't just have been the production. He didn't "actually agree with the vision of my character by stage director, but I played it as good I could". No surprise in that either. Although Beczala's tastes are conservative, he has integrity. He triumphed in the "Ratpack" Rigoletto at the Met, transposed to Las Vegas. Dmitri Tcherniakov's La Traviata for La Scala was meek in comparison. For one thing, it wasn't really "modern dress". The set was traditional - casino with chandeliers, a country farmhouse, and a garret with big shuttered windows, as in the stage directions. The script also specifies the bottles of medicine around her. Annina has short red hair, but so what? The costumes were run of the mill evening dress, dull rather than shocking. Someone  wears a Red Indian headress, another has a blonde afro. Silly, but daft rather than maddening. These are the "gypsies" who crash the gambling party to entertain, so perhaps we can allow them tacky taste.The real problem with this production is that it's clueless.

Diana Damrau doesn't look in the least bit tubercular. But how could anyone sing the death arias if they really were on the point of expiring? Violetta and Alfredo play about in a kitchen. Again, what's the big deal;  they're doing a Petit Trianon out in the countryside, so why not? They're acting out a pastoral fantasy. When Germont (Zeljko Lucic) arrives, he's such a nice guy that Violetta knows where he's coming from. Damrau's healthy sturdiness suggest that maybe Violetta was once a girl from the countryside with simple values (hence the cooking). She's not a put upon victim or she'd never have risen to the top of her cut-throat profession.To her credit, Violetta can understand other people's perspectives, even if they're not her own.
The "Traviata" syndrome is certainly not confined by place and time.  Puccini's La Rondine deals with a similar theme. Even today, many families would be upset if their young son took up with an older ex-prostitute. Provincials like famille Germont are just more conservative than the racy folk Violetta hangs out with. Human  nature doesn't really change. There always will be people scared of what others will think, and people like Violetta who care about others more about themselves.Like most of Tcherniakov's work,  La Traviata isn't offensive except to extremists and those who boo for the pleasure of hating. But, apart from the singing, it's boring.

Carol or non-carol ? Warlock Bethlehem Down

A Christmas carol written by a practising druid to a text by an alcohol-inspired poet  Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down (1927) is part of the modern choral repertoire proving that hymns  and carols don't have to be ancient to be good. I love this because the singing is so fresh, honest and direct.  Peter Warlock and Bruce Blunt were drinking companions, and broke. The Daily Telegraph was offering good money for a new Xmas carol. So Warlock and Blunt duly obliged. Since then, Bethlehem Down has been sung with pious devotion, sometimes missing the irony in the text and the circumstances of its genesis. My favourite performance is by the Choir of Somerville College, Oxford, conducted by David Crown. It's way above all else, because the singing is so fresh and energetic, far truer to the spirit of the composer and poet and, indeed, to the meaning of Christianity, burdened as it is by conventional piety. More details HERE.

"When He is King we will give Him the Kings' gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes," said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her firstborn on Bethlehem Down.
Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight,
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.
When He is King, they will clothe Him in gravesheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.
Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close huddled oxen to keep Him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold."

(Bruce Blunt)

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Recherché Baroque wins best opera poll

What's the most interesting opera broadcast of the year? French channel Mezzo tv has taken votes and is re-screening the winners.  The winners are:

Handel Alessandro (25.6%) (Orcestra Armonia Atenea, Max Emmanuel Cencic, George Petrou)

Vinci Atarserse (22.9%) (Concerto Koln. Jaroussky, Cencic, Diego Fasoles)

Offenbach Contes de Hoffmann (9.7%) (Liceu. Stéphane Denve, Laurent Pelly) 

Baroque, and recherché baroque at that! Countertenor bliss! Polls like this don't mean a lot as anyone can vote and the electorate is self selecting, but the results reflect Mezzo's French market.
Watch at the times given here - this isn't a channel that repeats or does VOD.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Hung Sin Nui has died

Hung Sin Nui (紅線女) has died. Her passing is a huge event, for it represents the end of a glorious era in the development of Cantonese culture.  Cantonese culture is quite distinct from the culture of other regions of China. It's feisty, inventive, droll and pugnacious. It's not for nothing that China's revolutions start in the South and the world is populated with migrants from the region. Hung Sin Nui was one of the most important Cantonese opera singers of her time, but also played straight roles in costume as well as modern dramas.  There's no rigid barrier between genres in China.. She was also a passionate advocate of Cantonese culture and progressive values. The characters she played were independent minded woman with personality, role models not only for women but also for men in a rapidly-changing society. Hung Sin Nui heroines aren't passive : they think and feel and act ! 

Hung Sin Nui was a stage name, chosen for meaning. "Hung" means red : for happiness, prosperity and art.  "Sin" means thread, implying the refinement and strength of silk, which can be woven in endless filaments. "Nui" mean girl, a bit anonymous, but suggests universal experience. "Red" ironically has another connotation. At the height of her fame, in the 1950's she left Hong Kong and returned to Guang Zhou (Canton) as a statement of faith. She suffered in the Cultural Revolution but her ideals weren't dimmed. She promoted Cantonese opera and culture and kept the arts alive.

Born in the Shun Tak area, from which so many opera stars emerged, Hung Sin Nui began performing at 16. Very soon after, she married Ma Tse Tsang (馬師曾), the biggest star of the time,who created modern Cantonese opera. Read Virgil Ho's book "Understanding Canton, rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Era (buy it here), Hung Sin Nui was Ma's muse, but also a star in her own right, making many films on her own. When a good account of the development of Cantonese opera and culture in the second half of the last century gets written, Hung Sin Nui will feature greatly.

So much material to choose ! But I've picked a short, funny piece from the film The Judge goes to Pieces (審死官)from 1948 (see the full film here). Hung Sin Nui plays the wife, who saves a pregnant woman who is escaping a murderous family. In the short clip below, she does a tour de force of Cantonese Sprechstimme. The story is comic but with deeper implications. The married couple (the husband played by Hung Sin Nui's real life husband Ma Tse tsang)  are childless and unhappy, but by helping a stranger they are rewarded. The baby inherits his father's estate, and Ma Tse Tsang's character ends up being made a judge.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Invisible Theatre : Georg Friedrich Haas In Vain London Sinfonietta

The London Sinfonietta are back on form with Georg Friedrich Haas's In Vain, with conductor Emilio Pomàrico.  Not in vain ! At last, seriously good serious music performed with the verve the London Sinfonietta was famous for.  In Vain  dates from 2000, but has entered the mainstream. Simon Rattle conducted it with members of the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2013, proving that sophisticated music can communicate with non-specialist audiences.  Tonight's concert is being rebroadcast by BBC Radio 3 on 14th January, but it's a piece that really needs to be experienced live.

Haas's In Vain is Invisible Theatre, no less. Just as we got used to complex, sparkling sounds, the auditorium was suddenly plunged into total darkness. This is no gimmick.  We're so used to 247 visual stimuli that it comes as a shock to the senses. "Darkness isn't nothingness", to paraphrase the composer. Suddenly, you feel thrown back in time before houses, traffic and electricity. This might be how our ancestors experienced nature in its awesome might. Gradually your eyes adjust and you see how dense darkness is, like a physical presence. Then you realize you can "see" tiny fragments of colour, as blind people sometimes do. Bereft of visual signposts, we listen more intently, just like blind people develop stronger aural skills.  How do the players follow each other, far less follow notes written on paper  The music becomes eerily intuitive. Trombones blare long, exploratory tentacles out into the void, as if feeling their way. Rich resonant sounds seem to emerge out of the kind of primordial soup from whence the universe was created. Distorted horns, metallic percussion, suggest hunters and cow bells. Haas grew up in the mountainous Voralberg where nights can get very dark indeed, and people navigate by sound. We are also not listening merely to sound, but processing what we hear.  Do the bright, microtonal harmonies suggest stars.  Or are we listening to the pulse of the planet itself?

As a boy, Haas lived near electricity pylons which emit unvarying signals. "Natureton is not natural tone", says Haas. Throughout In Vain, there's an inner pulse, which barely varies. The sound is vaguely electronic, yet it's partly achieved by "natural" instruments  Accordion, harp and double bass function as continuo. Quite eccentric, but it works. Strings and winds play tiny fragments of sound which oscillate higher and higher in pitch, then gradually descend downwards again,. Metallic sounds, like gongs, cymbals and bells crash against the line, and tempi spin recklessly, but the basic vibrations are so strong that your body follows it intuitively. I "read" the Buddhist chant o-mi-to-fu, but everyone else will have their own interpretation. One could, perhaps, imagine stars in the sky and great geological forms. Yet there is also darkness in the conventional sense in In Vain. There is something malevolent in those metallic sounds, which looms encroaching upon the free-flowing fragments of brightness.

"People in the street don't think, 'what lovely microtones!' when they listen" said Haas, meaning that we respond emotionally on many different levels.  There are no words and no singers in In Vain but it is invisble  theatre because it communicates by sound and operates on the psyche.

Once I lived in a dangerous time where one political group was trying to jam the other's radio transmissions. One night there was a curfew and the city descended into silence. At 3 am I heard strange oscillations booming across the park, with fragments of vaguely recognizable sound, like broken voices. Later I was told that it was something to do with bending soundwaves. I don't know the science but it was am amazing experience and the memory flooded back when I heard  Haas's In Vain.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Oxford Lieder Schubert Project unveiled

The 2014 Oxford Lieder Festival will feature every song Schubert ever wrote alongside a host of his other works. Bringing Schubert’s Vienna to Oxford in a dazzling feast of music, art, theatre, food & drink, this three-week festival is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to immerse yourself in the master of song and his world.

Get involved with our sponsor a song scheme (take part from just £25 a song), find out about the array of international artists appearing in the festival and plan your trip to Oxford for this extraordinary celebration of Franz Schubert. Below, a specially-commissioned video featuring Erlkõnig, based on the silhouette figures used so often in Schubert's time.

Read more on the Oxford Lieder website 

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nelson Mandela

For Nelson Mandela, who showed love conquers where hate corrodes.

Mark Padmore Michael Tippett Wigmore Hall

In the first of four concerts at the Wigmore Hall featuring the music of Michael Tippett, Mark Padmore joined the Heath Quartet in a recital which included Boyhood's End.

If the jury is still out on Tippett, Boyhood's End  (1943) is a masterpiece. It sets a marvellously written poem by W H Hudson (1840-1922). Hudson grew up in South America, where he spent an idyllic childhood roaming  largely free of adult supervison.  Plants and birds are meticulously observed, as if the act of describing them might bring them back to life, in a far grimmer, conformist England. The lines are long, almost prose-like. Hudson wants to lie back, gazing at the sky "peopled  with millions and myriads of glistening balls of thisteldown, ever floating by" The words impose a structure onto the piece which Tippet observes, restricting the piano part (James Baillieu) so it's minimalist enough not to disturb the magic. Padmore carried the prose line convincingly, so that it felt like conversation, yet expressed the circular musical line, which turns and twists, as if  Hudson is examining objects through an imaginary microscope. Padmore sang each word with careful deliberation. Hudson is fighting against transcience,, trying to recapture a past forever lost, "To gaze and gaze, until to me they are living things, and I, in an ecstasy am with them, floating in that immense shining void!"  The final word suddenly lifts upwards, as if severed. Padmore didn't soften the shock.  It's meant to hit you in the ear and make you feel Hudson's pain.

Perhaps the reason why Boyhood's End works so well is because Hudson's  unselfconscious innocence imposes discipline on Tippett's normal verbosity. In The Heart's Assurance (1950), Tippett sets five poems by three poets, which in itself would pose no problems for most composers. Perhaps Tippett tried to express too much with too few resources. The piano line churns about ostentatiously: the vocal lines struggle to keep up. "Oh never, never  never trust your pride of movement". Tippett forces as many notes into each word as he can. That's fine in theory, but the effect is clumsy, the way a stutter overtakes communication.  In "The Dancer", the convoluted phrasing might suggest dance, and the piano part is attractive. But even  singers as good as Padmore can't disguise the choppiness. The studied artiness of  "Remember your Lovers" might impress, but for me it creates emotional distance, understandable given that the songs were written to mark the death of Tippett's closest female friend. Britten did emotional distance too, but with far more fluency.

The Wigmore Hall  retrospective is built around Tippett's five string quartets, performed by the Heath Quartet, who won the Royal Philharmonic Society's Young Artisrs Award. At this recital, they played Tippett's String Quarter no 1 (1934, revised 1943) and String Quartet no 3 (1945, revised 1975)  The latter has clearly discernible shape, and a good variety of invention. The Heath Quartet imbue it with youthful high spirits. The next recital in this series is 17th January, Padmore will join the Heath again, with Steven Osborne and Craig Ogden.

Jihoon Kim Unusual Concert Royal Opera House

Jette Parker Young Artists at the Royal Opera House are always among the best but Jihoon Kim is unique. Get to his lunchtime recital on Monday 9th in the Paul Hamlyn Hall to hear why. Tickets here,  Kim has presence, he's the Young Artist Principal and gets higher-profile roles. On the HD broadcast of Verdi Les vêêpres sicilennes, I noticed how often Stefan Herheim used Kim at many critical points in the drama, far more often than the actual singing part required. Kim sang Robert, a French soldier, but appeared many times in close-ups because he has presence. He can sing with authority but also project individual personality. 

"As one would expect at Covent Garden, all of the minor roles were polished and poised, but I particularly enjoyed Jihoon Kim as Robert. This promising young singer is a Jette Parker Principal artist, and ROH is right to place such confidence in him and to nurture a performer of such accomplishment and real individuality. His rolling, dark bass surely has a bright future."  wrote Jim Sohre in Opera Today about Verdi Les vêpres sicileinnes. (read more here and here)

The Monday recital is special because Kim is performing classical Korean music with a speciually chosen ensemble of Korean music specialists. In this recital Kim is going to sing every song with piano (Jean-Paul Pruna) and for some songs will add the traditional Koran instruments. "Some of the songs are composed as western style and some are traditional Korean music adapted for western Opera technique. So the audience can feel the Korean rhythm, Korean melody and Korean scales from the songs" he adds, "The audience should be able to see and feel what we are singing about. The traditional way to sing and Operatic style is totally different so I want the audience to know exactly what is going on without changing to much".

 Have you ever noticed how many Koreans get into world-class orchestras and opera houses? That's because music education standards are extremely high. Classical music is taken seriously. Children learn music along with reading, writing and arithmetic. They develop good ears. Talented people get opportunities and respect.

But Koreans also take their own classical tradition very seriously. There is a system of "Cultural Treasures" where various art forms are designated special heritage status. Artists are given support and privileges, so their skills will be handed on to future generations. There's a similar "National Treasure" programme in Japan but nothing like it in the West.

Kim has assembled a group of top Korean instrumental players, some of whom have come direct from Korea for the recital. They will be playing instruments like the Taegum, Haegeum, Kkwaenggwari,  Buk, Janggu, and Jing. If you don't know what these are, this is your opportunity to find out and hear top-class trained Korean classicists play them well. All will be wearing traditional costume.

 Kim's hanbok will be a spectacular silk costume, made by Somssimyoungga, the only luxury traditional company designing bespoke Korean garments. This will in itself be a work of art. Look at their website !

This is an extremely enterprising venture, as not many singers trained in Western classical style are educated in traditional forms. Listen out for the unique phrasing, rhythms and techniques of non-Western music.

Although there's a lot of ersatz Asian music around, this will be the real thing, so don't miss the opportunity. The influence of non-Western music on Western music is shamefully underestimated. Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen and Britten developed their styles from Japanese asnd Indonesian music in particular. Korean instruments are different to Chinese and Japanese instruments (some of which I've written about on this site). This is a whole new sound world, not to be missed. When I was a student, one of the visiting fellows was a member of the Japanese Imperial Household, seriously big deal. He had an entourage. He was an economist, but one evening, he gave a recital of unaccompanied ritual song. The Japanese students listened in awe because that music is never heard outside court circles. (it was OK to do it in a private party in Oxford). I've never heard anything like that since, and have never forgotten. So get to the Paul Hamlyn Hall on Monday : and learn. Composers especially - imagine the possibilities!

More if you're interested :
The story of Arirang, The Sheng and the Sho, Quqin Master and many others under labels like unusual instruments,  Chinese music, Chinese opera and individual composers (seee list at right) This is one of the few genuinely multicultural sites on the web
photo of Jihoon Kim, c Bill Cooper 2012