Sunday, 31 January 2016

Korngold Die tote Stadt Vogt Nylund Eiche Marzena Diakun

Erich Korngold's Die tote Stadt in Paris last night. The principals, Klaus Florian Vogt, Camilla Nylund, and Markus Eiche have been doing this opera together for at least five years, in many cities and usually with Mikko Franck as conductor. The photo above comes from the production by Kasper Holten which is rather good. Those who've been following this cast on their progress of Die tote Stadt across Europe will have had a good idea of what to expect, and the performance delivered well. A very enjoyable evening!

Mikko Franck was unable to appear last night, so the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France was conducted instead by Marzena Diakun. The OPRF chose Franck as their chief conductor because he's wonderful. Together they're a formidable team.  Franck has chronic health problems, so they're also wise to support him with an an interesting alternative conductor in  Marzena Diakun  Read more about her HERE.   Die tote Stadt is a challenge to conduct, predicating as it does on an unsettling dichotomy between lush chromatics and something more disturbing.The music is so beautiful that it can hypnotise. Paul is a psychological vampire, feeding on necrophiliac obsession. But it's not healthy!  His friend Frank recoils in horror.  Perhaps it's significant that the roles of Frank and Fritz are taken by the same singer, for Marietta and the theatre troupe jolt Paul back into the real world.  It's not hard to read the undercurrents. Julius Korngold was a domineering father who perhaps expected to shape his son in his own image. Erich didn't rebel outright, but did his own thing resolutely, marrying a woman his father didn't like, and moving to America not as an exile but because he saw where his destiny might lie. Father and son jointly wrote the libretto for the opera, under a shared pseudonym, but it's pretty clear who holds the real balance of power. Paul goes forwards, not back.

A conductor can luxuriate in the luscious Old Vienna harmonies, but ultimately almost Expressionist tensions propel the music forward. We hear the bells of Bruges toll, ominously, as if the city and its traditions were falling down on Paul, as if to suffocate him. But the finale with its brave, bold cadences suggests that Paul is waking from the psychic fog that envelops his mind.  Diakun is good - she'd hardly have that job if she wasn't - and though she's no match for Metzmacher, Franck and others, she knows that Die tote Stadt isn't regressive, but modern. Please also see my other posts on Korngold, including Into the Soul of Erich Korngold, written just over seven years ago. 

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Gorgeous Georgia - gemlike Tbilisi Opera House

Tbilisi in Georgia knows the value of culture and of the arts.  The refurbished Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre looks like a fabulous jewel box, overflowing with treasures. Every surface seems ornamented with mosaics, frescoes, gilding and light. What's more the wonderfully Byzantine style is apparently uniquely Georgian,. The new theatre will be a monument to Georgian art and tradition that the whole nation can be proud of. This theatre literally puts Tbilisi on the map.

After six years of restoration, the Tbilisi Opera house opens tonight with an opera, Abesalom and Eteri,  by Georgia's greatest composer, Zacharia  Paliashvili (1871-1933),  after whom the theatre is named. The performance will feature leading Georgian singers, though not Paata Burchuladze who is taking a year off  from singing to do other things, and may possibly run for political office. Read more about Paliashivili and the opera HERE.   HERE is a link to more photos. 

 In contrast, British arts policy is defiantly reductionist. In the long term this meanness of spirit could strangle creativity, killing the goose that laid the golden egg that made Britain famous.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Gustav Holst's Falstaff - At the Boar's Head

John Tomlinson, Philip Langridge.  Felicity Palmer, Elise Ross and David Wilson-Johnson. the greatest English singers of their time, all still young and vigorously in their prime. An ideal way into Holst's At the Boar's Head (1925)  on BBC Radio 3 HERE.  The voices absolutely matter in this cheerful one-act opera, which springs from Shakespeare's Henry IV and in particular the scene at the Boar's Head tavern. Voices utterly dominate, since Holst was inspired by the text in the plays, which he read while enjoying the score of John Playford's The English Dancing Master and transcripts of folk tunes collected by Cecil Sharp. The words seem to come alive in his imagination. as though, as he said, the music replicated the plays. This context shapes the opera  which predicates on the interplay of different voices and on the syntax of speech. Thus orchestral links are minimal, and oriented towards sturdy dances. David Atherton and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra don't have a great deal to do but mark the lively counterpoint and pace.  But what wonderful singing - sharply articulated, lively, perfect diction and mastery of tongue-twisting lines, such as would have thrilled the audience of a play with incidental music.  The dialogue betweem Tomlinson's Falstaff and Langridge's Prince Hal is close to ideal.

"Bye the bye", Holst wrote to Jane Johnson, "Have you ever tried declaiming 'Shall packhorses  and Hollow pampered jades Which cannot go but thirty mile a day Compare with Caesars and Cannibals and Trojan Greeks  Nay, rather damn them with King Cereberus and let the welkin roar". But at the premieres in Manchester and Golders Green, audiences were not amused.  As Imogen Holst wrote "Listeners felt cheated, for as soon as they got hold of a tune, it woud be snatched away from them, and woven, with the utmost cunning, into a restlessly changing pattern that baffled the ear." yet Holst was following Shakespeare, if not to the letter but in the spirit of the play. "Not one syllable had been distorted", she wrote " from its natural rhythm and inflection for the sake of fitting in the tunes. And each word came through clearly, for the orchestration was so light that it resembled 'a succession of pin pricks!"  

Fortunately now we can listen to At the Boar's Head without expecting a musical, and appreciate it for what it is. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

NEW Luigi Nono : a Composer in Context

At last, the long-awaited publication of Luigi Nono: a composer in context, by Carola Nielinger-Vakil,(Cambridge University Press, 361 pp). Nielinger-Vakil is a leading light in Nono studies, having worked in the Nono archives and in Freiburg with André Richard, Nono's technological muse. She knows her subject extremely well!  Although I haven't read the book yet, it's bound to be a significant contribution to Nono studies.  For a taster. please read more HERE for chapter titles, a list of musical examples and a short extract. 

When I was 16 I turned on the radio, and out came these strange, haunting sounds, so distinctive that years later, when I formally heard La fabbrica illuminata, I recognized it right away.  Nobody told me that modern music was difficult or dangerous. I simply listened with open ears and an open mind.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Hommage à Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris

Hommage à Pierre Boulez at the Philharmonie in Paris, live last night, now online HERE. Though there are live performances, this is much more than a concert. There are readings from Boulez's writing, not only on music but on philosophy and the arts in general.  Boulez was a natural communicator: someone who read many of his works, not only the books but articles, etc, said that Boulez was a true intellectual, a man whose mind ranged over many disciplines, always analysing, questioning and developing original perspectives. We know Boulez the composer, the conductor, the teacher, the arts policy visionary, but Boulez as thinker is yet to be fully appreciated.  There's even a reading from one of his books on Paul Klee, whose work Boulez collected. Think about it. In Klee's paintings cells multiply in myriad shades and hues forming patterns and layers of colour and light. From The Impressionists to Debussy, from Klee to Boulez.....

There are also clips from the archives: interviews in which Boulez talks about Messiaen, René Char  and others. At  1.26, a joyous masterclass which shows how Boulez interacted with people on a personal level.  That's exactly what he was like, totally sincere and down to earth.  At a private party in Paris a few years ago, there was a performance of a difficult new work which required extreme technique from the soloist, who was very young. Imagine how he must have felt, playing in front of an auience of less than 100, with Boulez as guest of honour in the front row.  Later, I chatted with the young player in a curtained alcove off the main room. Then along comes Boulez, and quietly congratulates the young player, encouraging him and giving support. No witnesses, no cameras: total sincerity. After that you could have scraped the player off the floor.

What comes over well in this tribute is a very palpable sense of personal loss. Most of the people here knew Boulez in some personal capacity. Not for them the nasty myths so many seem compelled to repeat. Thousands may want to believe the world was created in exactly 7 days,  but that doesn't make it true. Indeed, the hate directed at Boulez is a measure of his genius.  Mediocrity can't cope with true originality.

That the homage takes place in the Philharmonie de Paris is also significant. It is probably the greatest concert hall in the world, now, the pinnacle by which all others may be measured. It's more than the ulltimate performance space. It's a cité de la musique, supporting many activities including IRCAM, music schools, and a home to key orchestras, from the Orchestre de Paris to Les Arts Florissants to Ensemble Intercontemporain, which PB founded.  The Philharmonie, stands for excellence. If excellence is cereberal and elitist: so be it.  Boulez's legacy won't be measured in terms of those who copy him, but in those who dream like he did.  In Paris until end June, there's an exhibition about his life and works.

If the film is choppy, I think that reflects what the experience must have been like live. There would have been gaps in the performance to change the stage and show the video clips. But notice - no talking heads, no "experts". Boulez himself speaks ,through  his own words and music.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Berlioz meets George Antheil The Spectre of the Rose

Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance, orchestrated by Hector Berlioz, the music upon which Fokine created the ballet La spectre de la rose (1911) for VaclavNijinsky. But that's not all!   George Antheil re-adapted Berlioz re-adapting Weber for the movie Spectre of the Rose (1946). Antheil created the music for Ballet Mécanique, the brilliant Dadaist masterpiece created by Ferinard Léger. Antheil was at the heart of the Paris avant garde in the 1920's, hanging out with Man Ray, Stravinsky and pretty much everyone. For him, film was an art form, created by intellectuals for lively minds. Even in Hollywood, Antheil managed to connect with the adventurous and creative.  Lots on this site about Antheil, and on the other experimental and art film of the 20's and 30's.

The movie, Specter of the Rose (1946) was so quirky that there was no way it would have been a hit at the box office hit like so much else that Ben Hecht did.  Allusions to art and the arts community crackle all through the script: it's a highly crafted satire with killer bon mots. An elderly former ballerina sits knitting. She's importuned by a bankrupt promoter called Poliakoff, played by an actor called Chekhov, as the personification of High Camp. In this little world of losers who once had dreams, characters  sport fancy foreign names and speak with theatrical flourish, and repartees as sharp as in Marx Brothers comedy. There's a brilliant vignette when a hardboiled hack gets drunk and spouts philosophy (which is actually quite radical pointed, politically). "We lived in a poem" says Mme La Sylph.  Hence the story is built around the ballet La spctre de la Rose. where a young girl falls in love with the idea of art and imagines that a Rose has come alive. to dance with her.  The movie, however, morphs into murder mystery.  Did the principal dancer Sanine (played by an actor called Kirov!) murder his first wife in a fit of madness?  She died dancing on stage. Will he kill his new dance partner, his new wife Heidi.  

Against all odds, the company, on the verge of bankruptcy, becomes a hit. At the peak of success, Daniner and Heidi disappear and the show closes. Sanine has had a psychotic episode. "The rose has a thorn, the rose has a knife and dances around you till you die"  Sabine puts on his Rose costume and dances about the apartment in a mad scene, where Antheil's reworking of Berlioz/Weber explodes into mayhem. With a Nijinsky-style leap, Sanine jumps out of the window, to his death. Poliakoff , now broke again, goes back to tacky touring shows "with the trunks, the hair pulling and the mad love songs from Old Vienna", "It's better than begging" says Mme La Sylph.  Then you realize why she's a tricoteuse. The Specter of the rose is gallows humour.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Barbican 2016-2017 - Jonas Kaufmann 10 day Residency

Jonas Kaufmann will be Artist in Residence at the Barbican, London.  For TEN days, during February 2017, Kaufmann will give his first major performance of Wagner in London: with Karita Mattila and Eric Halfvarson in Act I from Die Walküre, with the LSO conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano.  Much more unusually, he will sing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder in the first half of the concert, and Strauss’s Four Last Songs, a work rarely performed by a tenor. The residency opens with a lieder recital with pianist Helmut Deutsch and also includes a public “in conversation” and a workshop session with Guildhall School musicians.
The Barbican's 2016-2017 series features three international orchestra residencies :

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam performs at the Barbican on 16 and 17 December. This residency will be the orchestra’s first London appearance with its new Chief Conductor, Daniele Gatti.  Two concerts featuring Ravel and Stravinsky alongside Prokofiev’s Violin
Concerto No. 2 with Lisa Batiashvili, Wagner, Mahler and Berg.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Mariss Jansons, who has said .   "For me, as a conductor, it’s like driving a Rolls Royce. The orchestra can cope with everything”. On  11 April 2017 their programme features Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1 Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Shostakovich’s Symphony No 1.  

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 31 March-2 April 2017. These concerts will be Alan Gilbert’s last UK concerts as the Philharmonic’s Music Director. The performances include the European premiere of a new cello concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen with Yo-Yo Ma. The NY Phil will also mark  John Adams’s 70th birthday with his Harmonielehre, Absolute Jest, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. 

From the Barbican's regular resident orchestras

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari  Oramo present showpieces including Messiaen's Turangalîla-sinphonie and the complete works of Varèse.  Lots more of course, since the BBC SO is so prolific  This season finds them giving world and UK premieres of works by Kaija Saariaho, Diana Burrell, Philip Cashian, Michael Zev Gordon, Nicola LeFanu, Wolfgang Rihm and Detlev Glanert. 
The London Symphony Orchestra, with Music Director designate Simon Rattle who will do a new staging of Ligeti’s Le grand macabre, directed by Peter Sellars. Rattle also brings us a Mark-Anthony
Turnage world premiere, Remembering; and a programme featuring Lang Lang. The LSO Artist Portrait spotlights Janine Jansen.  

The Academy of Ancient Music presents a  semi-staged production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. the first of a three-year Purcell opera cycle  The staging is directed by Daisy Evans with soloists including Mhairi Lawson, Iestyn Davies, Samuel Boden and Ashley Riches with narration by actor Timothy West. Also, Monteverdi’s Vespers, Jordi Savall makes his AAM debut and tenor James Gilchrist, who works regularly with the AAM, directs the ensemble for the first time in a programme featuring Purcell and Bach. 

The Britten Sinfonia focuses on Thomas Adès and Gerald Barry, and the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater. 

Massed Voices : Since Simon Halsey’s appointment as LSO Choral Director in 2012, the Orchestra’s choral programme has rapidly gained in scale and ambition and this season sees performances of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 2, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir (16 & 20 October); John Adams’s El Niño, conducted by the composer (4 December); Fabio Luisi conducting Brahms’ German Requiem (19 March); and Bruckner’s Te Deum, with conductor Bernard Haitink (28 May). 

Baroque goodies : Vivaldi Juditha Triumphans with the Venice Baroque Orchestra and a
stellar cast headed by Magdalena Kožená; Andreas Scholl and Accademia Bizantina performing sacred music from Neapolitan operas; The English Concert and Joyce DiDonato in Handel’s Ariodante; and Messiah with Les Arts Florissants.

As always, much, much else !

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Berlioz Romeo and Juliet - Andrew Davis BBC SO Barbican

A foreunner of the Shakespeare 400 marathon to come, Hector Berlioz Romeo and Juliet (Roméo et Juliette)  Op 17 (1839)  with Andrew Davis and the BBCSO at the Barbican Hall.  An inspired choice! Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet defies categories. It is an orchestra-drama, a symphony where voices are part of the orchestral palette. The story unfolds in the vivid musical tableaux, like scenes in a play, but the critical sections are presented without words.  It's an opera without "roles" in the usual sense, pulled together at the end by a long, stunning passage for bass (David Soar).. The mezzo-soprano (Michèle Losier) Juliet has one big aria, and the tenor gets relatively little to sing at all.  Just as Mendelssohn wrote Lieder ohne Worte, Berlioz writes opera without words,

Shakespeare carried no cultural baggage for continental European audiences in Berlioz's time, so the composer could do pretty much his own take on the story, using the Garrick version of the play brought to Paris in 1827 by Charles Kemble, which  Berlioz attended and where he became infatuated with Harriet Smithson.  The picture at right shows Smithson and Kemble in a production in the 1840's. In an age before close-ups and amplification, theatre practice would have to have been more exaggerated than we're used to now. Perhaps Berlioz, a theatre critic, intuited that good orchestral writing had the potential to express feelings in greater complexity than most actors at the time were capable of.

Certainly, the exotic instrumentation would have been part of its appeal. Berlioz employed an ophicleide, which looks as weird as it sounds and adds a wayward malevolence.  The BBC SO, however, isn't a period instrument ensemble so Davis made the most of the flamboyant richness modern instruments can offer.  Big, lush strings, fabulously punchy brass, and even a saxophone, which Berlioz liked so much that he included it in his Treatise on Instrumentation and Modern Orchestration, avidly studied by Mahler and Strauss, who almost certainly didn't actually hear Romeo and Juliet, though Richard Wagner did. I'd forgotten that he'd seen it in Paris as a young man, though I immediately thought of him when hearing the theme in the Introduction that sounds strikingly similar to the motif  "Das Rheingold".

The Introduction reflects the turmoil that forms the background to the play. Turbulent cross-currents, a strange series of choral, solo and instrumental sequences create innate tension. The orchestra creates dance figures, suggesting the gaiety of the ball, and also more brutish themes, suggesting violence. For a moment, the turmoil is anchored by the bass, David Soar. Soar sang the same parts in Romeo and Juliet  at the Salzburg Festival in 2010, and his experience shows: a voice of great authority.  I first heard him as one of the Workmen in Wozzeck in October 2009. He's singing Quince at Glyndebourne this summer. Michèle Losier sang the extended mezzo strophe and Samuel Boden the magical Queen Mab scherzetto.

In the second of the seven scenes, Romeo is alone. This is the Garrick interpolation, which doesn't exist in Shakespeare. So much for the fuss about modern directors changing things! It's more traditional than some realize.  This  gave Berlioz a chance to write more contemplative music,  which is artistically correct, since it distances Romeo from the crowd around him and in  the Introduction. Wonderful oboe melody, evoking, even at this stage in the story, a sense of doom.  Even more beautiful is the Love Scene  where the lovers are depicted as horn and cello and flute and cor anglais, entwined in rondo-like embrace.  In the fourth  scene, Queen Mab, the Dream Fairy, Berlioz takes even more liberties, writing an extended scherzo, whose central significance in the overall design of the symphony suggests that, for Berlioz, enchantment played a greater part in the drama than Shakespeare would have given it.  It's interesting how the three entirely orchestral scenes (2, 4 and 6) are those in which much of the action takes place. Yet Berlioz doesn't need words, only orchestra.

Even in scene 5 Berlioz goes for dramatic truth rather than rigid adherence to Shakespeare's original, though it's based on Garrick. The funeral march allows the imagination to picture proceedings. We can hear the mourners sing, and quiet violin figures suggesting Romeo's hidden presence, waiting for the moment he can at last emerge. In Garrick, Juliet wakes up and then stabs herself when she finds Romeo dead.  A bit OTT perhaps but it makes for good music. Yet again, Berlioz's faith in his vision of the work asserts itself. While Garrick's version ended in the tomb, Berlioz reverts to Shakespeare again, and to the feuding families. The cross-currents of the Introduction revive,  but Friar Laurence intervenes. David Soar sang the long recitative and aria with majesty, for the part is written with such authority that the monk seems more like ancient prophet.  While the Duke couldn't change things, Friar Laurence can. He's got the better music! Maybe the Montagues and Capulets will start scrapping again, but for a moment, the BBC Symphony Chorus (augmented, I think) and BBC SO  made the ending totally  convincing.

Please also see my article on Andrew Davis :  Berlioz and Arhur -- Bliss Brothers in Arms. 

François-Xavier Roth LSO Wagner Berg Mahler 5 Barbican

François-Xavier Roth conducted the London Symphony Orchestra  in Wagner, Berg and Mahler at the Barbican, London,. All music is "modern": Monteverdi was new in his time, and Bach, and Wagner. Anyone who genuinely knows Roth's innovative work will know better than to expect  cliché.   This time Roth challenges assumptions in a short series the LSO calls "Beyond Romanticism: New Languages". Thus, this concert was a chance to hear Wagner, Berg and Mahler from new perspectives.

Wagner Parsifal in a concert hall, for example, and the Overture thereof, rather than a concert performance of the full opera. This was an opportunity to hear Wagner as symphonist, examining his music close-up, revealing its innate beauty.  The music seemed illuminated, as if glowing from within, the textures so transparent and so subtle that I thought of Debussy, whose credentials as a master of the modern are as great as that of the Second Viennese School.   Roth's approach suggests the "New Language" Wagner was creating in Parsifal, which also reflects the new beginnings Parsifal will bring to revive the Grail community.   Over the years, Parsifal has attracted pseudo-religious baggage. Please see my article Religion versus Religiosity.  Do we really want to end up like the monks whose fetish for ritual blinds them to the enlightenment that is Parsifal's mission   Roth's luminous textures might not please traditionalists, but his reading was perceptive , and absolutely true to the spirit of the opera.

Roth built his career on the firm foundations of the French baroque tradition. We forget that, in their time, Lully  was "new" and Rameau perceived as a dangerous radical. The connections between the baroque and the modern are very strong indeed, as are the implications for performance practice. Hence the inner discipline of Roth's style, reflecting an aesthetic that stems from Voltaire and Descartes.  It's not for nothing that Roth is the most intuitive interpreter of Pierre Boulez.  This intelligence informed this performance of Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs.  Camilla Tilling, the soloist, was one of Benjamin Zander's discoveries. She gave a good enough performance here, if a bit too  subdued. This wasn't a problem because the songs are so well known, we can live with hearing them as orchestral pieces for a change. Even though  there were infelicities in the playing at times, the LSO gave a thoughtful account, throwing emphasis on the orchestration.

Although Mahler Symphony no 5 is ubiquitous, that doesn't necessarily mean that we really know it. The better a piece is, the more open it is to fresh thinking.  Roth and the LSO began with an explosive, exuberant start, emphasizing the boldness of Mahler's concept. The trumpets sounded exuberantly, as if they were marching into battle. But that's part of the inner meaning of the symphony. It's scored for huge forces to lull the literal minded into thinking it's all excitement .  The real excitement, though, lies in its contradictions.

This symphony is not all blast and fanfare. Indeed, Mahler premiered it in Vienna’s Kleinen Musikvereinsaal, to emphasize its “Kammermusikton”. Thus Roth observed the changes of dynamic, from loud and forceful, to quiet but equally potent. It's chamber music, on a big scale, but chamber music in the importance of detail.  Mahler embeds within this symphony different units which function like miniature chamber ensembles. There are interlocking dialogues, between trumpet and horn, between horn and flute, solo violin and strings. The trumpet part is important, but it weaves in and out throughout, leading and tantalizing,  The timpani provide much of the low, rumbling undercurrent that flows throughout the symphony, but isn’t always appreciated, especially as they are played extremely quietly, easily lost in the mass of noisy performance.  The "storm" theme was well articulated, the low brass and winds working  together to  create the image of distant thunder, or a murmur of something undefined and imperceptible.

It's significant that Mahler nearly died in 1901, while this symphony was in gestation. Indeed, the symphony was first performed with the Rückert setting, Um Mitternacht. In the silence of the night the poet hears his heart and realizes its beat separates life from death. Rückert places his faith in God, but for Mahler, more deist than true believer, it’s more complex. The Trauermarsch in this symphony is counterbalanced by the passionate Adagietto and Finale, music of positive energy.   There was some rough abandon in the playing, but all to the good, I thought, since it underlined the contrasts.  Roth's conducting style is energetic - he has conducted Lully with a staff - and this gives his performances an earthy punchiness that's quite distinctive.  Not that he moves a lot - he conducts with both hands, as Boulez did. Anyone can read Roth's CV off Google, but he's a very individual conductor who has to be experienced live for full effect.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

10,000 voices Ode to Joy

Ten thousand voices in unison, singing Beethoven Ode to Joy.  A clip from the legendary concert in Sendai, Japan, on December 17th  2010, celebrating Beethoven's birthday. Genius logistics - imagine getting that many people together and running things smoothly. More importantly, though, this illustrated the meaning of the piece, the coming together of disparate people, united in harmony.  Not something to be denigrated.  Notice, no room for much in the way of audience, though - the choirs take up the whole football stadium. But the purpose of this mega-celebration was participation itself, a once in a lifetime experience of symbolic value. (full clip below)

And to prove the value of such an event look at the nasty comment below "What do they know about German culture and Music, Beethoven is from Bonn as am I, this music belongs to german people, u get yours"  Ignorance and hate always march together. Beethoven would have cringed. 

 Major l;ogistics, too, technically, aided by technology. The fashion for "Extreme singing" was huge in 19th century Europe, where 10,000-voice events weren't unknown. Since performances took place then in the open air without microphones and TV screens, the results would almost certainly have been less cohesive than this one, which I find quite moving. (Good bass, and a soprano who projects personality.)  Maybe 19th century audiences liked mass events for the sake of mass itself,   "Never mind the quality, feel the width". Being in the open air would have dissipated the music but helped the social side of things.


Sunday, 17 January 2016

Oramo BBCSO Butterworth Anna Clyne Elgar

Sakari  Oramo's Elgar credentials are beyond reproach. With the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, he led the Elgar 150th birthday celebrations, culminating in a stunning series of all three symphonies. He didn't win the Elgar Medal - even before Andrew Davis - for nothing. It was a pleasure to hear him conduct Elgar at the Barbican London this week  with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Oramo's traverse of Elgar's Symphony no 2 in E flat major (Op 63) was magisterial, emphasizing the broad sweep of ideas within.  Elgar referred to the piece as "a passionate journey of the soul". With magnificent assurance, Oramo created the motif that suggests the "Spirit of Delight" in the famous quote from Shelley. For a moment it seemed that this glorious serenity might never end, yet disturbing murmurs arose from the brass. What then do we make of the tension that built up with the bristling jagged rhythms?  Early audiences didn't know what to make of this most personal, and most enigmatic, of pieces.  It also heralds the long years ahead when Elgar wrote relatively little. 
Ostensibly,  Elgar was mourning the death of Edward VII. It would be too much to expect that he might, in 1910/11, have intuited the passing of an era. But modern audiences, with hindsight, cannot help but ponder. 

Whatever that "Spirit of Delight" might be, Elgar's elusive second symphony is  mediation on impermanance, especially in the context of the rest of this programme, which began with George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad Rhapsody. This, too, was written in 1911, when the confidence seemed beyond  challenge.  The  Industrial Revolution started in Britain. A prosperous and urbanized nation ruled the world - literally - through gunboats and trade. British writers like Wordsworth led the romantic revolution in Literature. Yet, while Germans had been exploring folk culture for a hundred years, British composer and intellectuals were just beginning to seek out forgotten oral tradition.  Georgina Boyes's book The Imagined Village (1993) explodes a few myths  about this period, and is essential reading.  Perhaps A E Housman's poems, and the novels of Thomas Hardy, reopened the long-lost mines of nostalgia. 

Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad Fantasy is based on Housman's poem When I was one and twenty, which Butterworth also wrote as a song for voice and piano, as did his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams.  The poem is pristine. Blossoming trees "wear white for Easter tide". But petals fall, and youth grows old. "No use to talk to me".  Oramo and the BBCSO performed it with grace,  capturing the mood of transient magic. There's no room for maudlin sentiment. Butterworth didn't know he was going to be dead in five  years. And, as Housman reminds us, Spring returns every year, whether or not we're there to witness it.  In any6 case, there['s a twist of humour in the piece. The protagonist isn't an old man. He's still only 22  Oramo's approach blended beauty with dignity, far closer to the spirit of the poem, and to Butterworth's music.

That Oramo and the BBCSO do Elgar and Butterworth well is a given. The revelation, on this occasion, was Anna Clyne's The Seamstress, receiving its UK premiere. It's based on a poem by W B Yeats, which tells of a seamstress who embroiders a coat with many colours and images, only to have it stolen. Clyne, British born but resident in the US, adapts the sounds of Irish fiddle playing, creating a keening, other-worldly palette that evokes the past yet is surreal enough to be entirely of the present.  The Seamstress unfolds in five parts, which Clyne calls "ballets" reinforcing the idea of movement and constant change.  The coat is lost, perthaps stolen, but its memory, and the creative urge behind it, remain unsullied. Clyne's The Seamstress is an exceptionally beautiful piece, worth listening to over and over on repeat broadcast.  Jennifer Koh's playing was sensuous and very expressive. An  utterly fascinating piece and performance, perfectly attuned to the emotional spirit of Elgar 2 and Butterworth.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Schubert's Fidelio - Die Freunde von Salamanka

Schubert's FidelioDie Freunde von Salamanka D326, 1815. Schubert was only eighteen when it was written, yet already it was his seventh-known work for stage. Although the spoken dialogues have long gone missing, the  nature of the piee is clear from the start.  The overture is rousing, with a distinctive, bold phrase which suggests adventure. "Die Sonne zieht in goldnen Strahlen, z ieht in Majestät einher." , the three friends, Alfonso, Diego and Fidelio, sing.

Olivia, Eusebia, and Laura need rescuing from the wicked Count Tormes. Eventually Fidelio leads the rebellion, wins the girl, and his friends their girls too,  and everyone's happy,  Jolly songs, with images of grapes and drinking.  nice ensembles for male, female and mixed voices. No attempt at local "Spanish" colour. We could just as well be in Vienna. The picture at right, drawn by Moritz von Schwind, shows Schubert with Franz Lachner asnd Ernst von Bauernfeld, making merry in a Weinstube,

Schubert  knew Beethoven's Fidelio well, but the connections are minimal. The images of sunshine, freedom and joy, and the chorus "Fidelio! Fidelio!" aren't conscious borrowings: no political undercurrents here, though some in Schubert's circle were radical. At least one was exiled, his career ended.  The teenage Schubert keeps his nose clean. The libretto was by Johann Baptist Mayrhofer, with whom Schubert was later to fall out. No trace of  morbid tragedy here, though. If the plot is familiar, it's a meme of the Romantic fascination with medieval and "southern climes". Later, Weber based his Die Drei Pintos on a similar threesome and, even later,  Hugo Wolf his Die Corregidor.

 Die Freunde von Salamanka is delightful, merry and jolly, full of delicious numbers, mostly part songs rather than solo arias. Some nice "alpine" figures, too. Not much of Spanish Salamanca here.   It's not especially obscure, though the best recording of all is so good that it puts all else into the shade. consider the soloists - Edith Mathis, Thomas Moser, Eberhard Buchner, Robert Orth and a very young Robert Holl. Theodor Guschlbauer conducted the orchestra and chorus of Austrian Radio. Although the music isn't difficult, exceptionally good performances like these make a huge difference.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Liszt and Loewe Lieder RAM Song Circle

The Ballads of Carl Loewe and Franz Liszt feature in the recital on Sunday 17th January (3pm) at the Wigmore Hall.  The Royal Academy of Music Song Circle is always worth hearing. The singers change from year to year, but they are good (as you'd expect from RAM) and enthusiastic. Just the sort of liveliness that suits Loewe and Liszt. 

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Boulez, Birtwistle and Max - the famed Boulez at 80 concert

Now available on BBC I player, the famous concert "Boulez at 80" where Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies all met together on stage at the Barbican, London, when Boulez was presented with a medal from the British Association of Composers. Birtwistle spoke of how he had, as a young man, seen Boulez’s score for Le marteau sans maître. He’d seen nothing like it before, and it became his “rite of passage” musically. Boulez was an “immaculately uncompromising” composer and conductor whose example showed the paucity of populist, surface-level music. “A concert hall is not a museum”, he added, for music like Boulez’s “propels us into the future”. Then Boulez, humbly and simply, went back to work.

Boulez and Birtwistle go way back: Boulez's recordings of Birtwistle, like Theseus Games, are the absolute benchmarks. Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies go back a long way too but for decades they weren't on the best of terms, though, subsequently, the huge revival of interest in Birtwistle has brought Max into the spotlight, too.

This film is also important for the interview at 53 minutes in where Boulez explodes some of the myths said about him (direct link here). He explains the context of the story about blowing up opera houses. This came from his frustration at the way opera houses were managed, where a conductor didn't know who the orchestral players or evern the cast might be. As he says, Mahler said much the same thing, and so does Christoph von Dohnanyi (more HERE). He also explains the famous quote "I sleep faster", which was a bon mot about how he managed to cram so much into his days. He didn't sleep 2 hours a night!  On ideologies "You have to find your discipline in order to break it. If you are constantly constrained by your discipline you become sterile. Ideologies are very interesting, at one point, when they are forging something, but when they are not forging something, when they are empty, then that is detrimental to your capacity of inventing"  It's pertinent that Boulez's own music soon went way beyond serialism, in no small part due to John Cage's ideas on chance. Boulez likes modertn music but that's not "ideology". There are composers obsessed with formula but not him.

Charles Hazlewood talks about discipline in conducting. Maybe because I am a composer", says Boulez, " I think the composer is more important than the performer.. not too much of an ego, simply that. But I try to understand what the composer is tryingb to say, and when you see how carefully he has written a score, then you try to be as careful as he was. So then I'm careful about the balance, the style, the  dynamic, the exactitude (which in the French meaning of the word has different connotations to English). On Le soleil des eaux, he speaks of the way he wrote the original before he became  estabhished as a conductor, but when he conducted it with the BBC in  the early 1960's he could  see, from a conductor's perspective , how it could be improved. As to his legacy  "I don't care, I won't be around!< he grins. "Each generation takes from its past and goes ahead."

In was at this concert, back in November 2005.  Look who else was in the audience ! I'm in frame, too, but a blurred dot. Everyone looks so young. Some are no longer with us. Below my notes then on Le soleil des eaux.

Le soleil des eaux was written in 1948, when Boulez was barely 23. Already, though, it shows his distinctive personality, and still sounds strikingly original some sixty years later. René Char was a surrealist, and a member of the French Resistance. These poems come from a post-war political protest and were published barely a year before Boulez set them. Here attention is on the voice, which leaps up the scale, and turns capriciously, like the goldfinch’s darting movements. Boulez observes nature clearly – Messiaen taught him well. [Elizabeth] Atherton was in her element now, gloriously. The high timbre suited her well and she shaped the languor of the lines. Drama is added with sudden flashes of orchestral interjection, which the vocal part complements. “L’homme fusille”, sings Atherton “cache-toi!” (man is armed, hide!), with emphasis on the urgent “cache-toi!”. The second song, La Sorgue, Chanson pour Yvonne, is a much larger work, its powerful imagery condensed into barely five minutes. 

 The piece starts with a delicate otherworldly weaving of wordless soprano singing, harp and vibraphone. Then the orchestra and large chorus surge in, with the power of a mighty river unleashed. The choral writing is so finely textured that individual voices spread across the spectrum. The idea isn’t that specific words should stand out, but rather the impressionistic effect of multi-layered sound. This really is vocal writing as instrumental, where the total image matters. It’s emphasised by the regular cries of “Rivière!” when the choir pulls as one, before relaunching into the flow. Also reversed is the conventional role of soloist: the soprano’s contribution is to soar over and around the massed voices, singing a line that is literally “beyond” words. Boulez chose this piece, seldom performed live because of its personnel demands, as his own tribute to the BBC Symphony and Singers, who have made it one of their specialities."

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Benjamin Appl Schubert Wigmore Hall

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs  series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware.   Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Being a BBC New Generation Artist guarantees high level coverage.  Careers are launched, though in some cases one wonders if marketability isn't part of success. Benjamin  Appl, though, is probably the real thing. Several of my friends, some of whom go to dozens of Lieder recitals each year, certainly think he has the potential.  He has a very good "instrument", to use a rather unpleasant term, as if voice exists disembodied.  Many successful careers have been based on sounding good, but in Lieder, the paramount virtue is Innigkeit, the expression of "inward" nuance, often subtle and complex. The Romantic revolution - upper case "R" not lower case - transformed European culture, and Lieder was part of the vanguard.  If Appl takes more risks and captures its spirit, he has the potential to be not just good, but great.

But what pressures that creates!  Appearing for the first time in a high-profile evening recital at the Wigmore Hall, with its formidable reputation, especially in place of Pisaroni, must be quite overwhelming. Sensitivity is essential in a good artist, but it has its downsides, too. Once Appl settled in, he seemed much more at home.  The gentle An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte  D 197 (1815), allowed Appl's singing to gently unfold, like the "heilig Säuseln" in Holty's poem, where the poet uses outward images to allude to feelings he can't articulate. It's possible that the lovers have been separated by death: these perfumed memories are spookier than they seem. The mood continued with  An den mond D193 (1815), a far more sophisticated setting of Holty. Nice pairing, which indicates that Appl knows what he's doing when he compiles a programme.

Appl was accompanied by Jonathan Ware, who has worked with Appl (and Pisaroni) before. He's very assertive, even forceful, which can be a good thing. He challenged Appl, pushing him to give his best.  The pace was, at times, quite frantic, but well judged. In Der Musensohn D764 (1822), the son of the muses flies along swiftly, like the turbulent winds of early Spring, awakening the world. Yet the Musensohn is driven by forces greater than himself.  "Wann ruh' ich am Busen, auch endlich weider aus? ". Last week, in his recital of Eichendorff settings at the Wigmore Hall,  (Read my review here) Appl was accompanied by Graham Johnson, the doyen of Schubert accompanists, but the partnership between Ware and Appl might be more stimulating in the long term.

Viola D 786 (1823) made a good contrast to Erlkönig D328 (1815). Goethe and Mayrhofer were very different poets. Viola, a long strophic ballad, can be rather twee, with its images of flowers talking to one another. But consider its deeper meaning. Those that come out before their time deserve respect. The song works best when performed with equal daring.  Appl and Ware followed this with another good pairing, Totengräberlied D 44 (1813) and Totengräbers Heimweh D842 (1825), the latter a masterpiece. Read more here.  It's a song so strong that it can support a far more powerful interpretation than it received here.  That's a direction in which Appl should be heading.
Appl and Ware then performed a selection of classics: Der Wanderer an den Mond D870 (1826, Seidl), Abendstern D806 (Mayrhofer), Der Wanderer D489 (1816 Schmidt von Lübeck) and Nachstück D672 (1819 Mayrhofer) . Schubert's finest songs worked their magic.

A version of this review appears in Opera Today.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Boulez Mass

Announced in the French press: "Un hommage sera rendu jeudi à 16H00 en l'église Saint-Sulpice à Paris au compositeur et chef d'orchestre français Pierre Boulez, décédé mardi dernier à 90 ans à Baden-Baden en Allemagne, a annoncé lundi sa famille." 

Below, a clip from Messiaen's Le Banquet celeste, played by the chief organist Marcel Dupré, a contemporary of the composer.  I don't know whether there  will be a full  Mass or a memorial, but I suspect it will be a Mass, and it's a good place to remember  StTrinité is smaller and won'tfir enough people. Pierre Boulez.  Please see my post on the relationship between Messiaen and Boulez, and the church of Sainte Trinité.

St. Sulpice Paris Pipe Organ Dupré Plays Messiaen by DeliaStephens

Monday, 11 January 2016

Camping out with Franz Schubert

Before Benjamin Appl's  Schubert recital at the Wigmore Hall tonight, a bit of fun.  Franz Schubert at the movies!  That's Richard Tauber on the left, playing Schubert in "Blossom Time",  a 1934 British musical which bears little relation to what we know about the composer. The film is itself based on an earlier German film (and operetta) with apparently even less factual content.  I haven't seen the notorious Blossom Time since I was a kid but even then I thought it was odd. Tauber, one of the great tenors of his time, loved doing crossover and made many strange quasi-musical movies, including one with Jimmy Durante, which is surprisngly good  (READ MORE HERE).

Because Blossom Time was an English movie, Tauber sings and plays the piano at the same time, like Mrs Mills: the performances, have  camp theatrical final flourishes, and the piano is clearly being played from a distance!  Blossom Time was remade in 1946  apparently with even more liberties taken.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Star Wars Pelléas et Mélisande - Rattle

Simon Rattle brought Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande to London tonight, at the Barbican Hall instead of the Philharmonie, Berlin, and with the LSO instead of the Berliner Philharmoniker.  This new production has been called the Star Wars Pelléas et Mélisande because there are columns of light, like the light sabres. That's not inappropriate since the opera is in a sense a cosmic battle between avatars.

The opera deals with real emotions, like insecurity and jealousy, but the situation is anything but realistic.  Who is Mélisande? Why does she go from man to man, repelled by them yet submissive  Is she human at all, or a projection of the fantasies of those around her? The emotions this opera deals with are real enough but Allemonde is a dream state rather than reality. What is Allemonde? Is it a kingdom or a state of mind? Yniold is scared of the starving peasants, but why is he out on  his own playing with a golden ball?  The tower, the pool and the impossibly long hair are all symbols of sexual portent. The contrasts between debiltating heat and suffocating darkness suggest psychological responses to physical states.  For all we know, Allemonde is the subconscious, and we are the blind men. 

So, in principle, no objection to Pelléas et Mélisande as Star Wars. Peter Sellars' semi-staging was designed around the performing space that is the Philharmonie, making use of the wide wings around the main stage, and using the different levels to depict the unsettling  heights and depths in the narrative.  Centre stage, Magdalena Kožená and Christian Gerhaher lie on a black plinth which serves as pondside and tower. Gerhaher and Gerald Finley climb an unsteady angle lit in green light when they descend into the caverns beneath the castle.  The Philharmonie and the Barbican, however, are very different structures, so the Berlin staging can't really be replicated at the Barbican. The acting can, though it was a problem since it consists mainly of stylized gesture.  Close up it bordered on ham acting, which these singers would not otherwise do, since they're all natural stage animals. Maybe Sellars thinks the characters are drugged? Again, in principle, this is fine, reflecting the stylization inherent in the plot, but  I didn't like it.

Maybe the idea is to enhance the  sense of non-reality so we can focus on the music? Although I haven't listened to my old tapes of Rattle's earlier performances of Pelléas et Mélisande, this time I felt the pace seemed drawn out, as if the languors in the text were affecting the orchestra. Still, the Berliner Philharmoniker doesn't ever play badly, and it was good to listen to the details of colour and light.   Those who oppose a world-class concert hall for London need to hear what a difference a really good hall makes.  The Barbican just isn't Philharmonie class.  Rattle is most certainly not thinking in terms of vanity project but common sense.

When Rattle conducted Pelléas et Mélisande in Berlin ten years ago, with Simon Keenlyside in his prime, the performance was wonderful, much better than at the Royal Opera House.  This time around, Gerald Finley sings Golaud as he did before, his voice darker and possibly closer to Golaud's gruff personality. Magdalena Kožená sang Mélisande as she did in Berlin in 2008 and Christian Gerhaher sings Pelléas, somewhat disengaged. Perhaps the roles are supposed to be that way, but a bit more engagement might have livened things up. I don't like the current fashion for  Kožená-baiting, reminiscent of the hate campaigns against Callas and Schwarzkopf.  She's not in their league but she's not bad. Mélisande sits a little too close to Lulu for her, but she's done amazing Martinu Juliettas.  Bernarda Fink sang Geneviève and Franz Josef Selig sang a sprightly Arkel.  I bought a ticket to the Barbican when they went on sale last year, but didn't go at the last moment.  Much as I love the LSO and the Barbican, I want to remember the Philharmonie and the Berliner Philharmoniker. 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Boulez Mahler 2, informed by Messiaen

Pierre Boulez stands, in silence, after the conclusion of his Mahler Symphony no 2  at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in 2005.  Look at Boulez's expression. The music hasn't ended simply because the notes have faded away.  the symphony ends gloriously but victory hasn't been reached without struggle.  Der Mensch liegt in größter Not! Der r Mensch liegt in größter Pein!  Not even angels can turn the soul away from God. Boulez's approach in this performance, with the Staatskapelle Berlin, is steely, craggy and utterly determined.  He understands the significance of the first movement and the stages through which the soul goes on its journey. A quiet but intense reading, absolutely true to the composer and to his work as a whole entity.

Today, listening after Boulez's own death this week,  what struck me is the relationship this performance  has to Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Mahler isn't writing about the death of one man but about mankind's search for meaning.  Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum refers to the End of Time, when an angel shall sound a trumpet asnd the earth will be rent asunder. Cataclysmic stuff, bringing from Messiaen music that's almost geological in its cragginess - no strings, only percussion and winds, Boulez's interpretation  is informed by his knowledge of Messiaen and perhaps, too, by his own formidable knowledge of music history. When the trombones blast, and the distant trumpets are heard, we think of the Angel of the Book of Revelation,  as Mahler almost certainly did,  and when we hear the piccolo details, we can figure better what they might mean. Obviously my appreciation of this performance is informed by my fascination with Messiaen and with Et Exspecto resurrectionum mortuorum and the Quartet for The End of Time. Read some of what I've written before HERE and HERE.and much more.

But my response is also affected by thinking so much this week about Boulez and Messiaen.  They had a bond like father and son, which ran even deeper than many real-life father and son relationships. A few years ago, someone made a snide, nasty remark about Boulez disliking Turangalîla-and falling out temporarily with Messaien.  It was the usual silly notion of Boulez as demon. Pierre-Laurent Aimard was present and hit the roof.  Aimard, who was Messiaen's "second son", said he'd heard about it direct from Messiaen himself. Since when do fathers and sons always agree? Messiaen used the term Tuer le père which simply means that you can't grow up unless you stand on your own feet.  Messiaen knew Boulez's abilities and wouldn't have dreamed of holding him back. The scrap didn't last. Soon after, Boulez heard that Messiaen was looking for a balofon. Messiaen found one and carried it, as a surprise, up to the organ loft at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité where Messaien played every day. Messiaen was so happy he had tears of joy even when telling Aimard about it years later.  Creative minds aren't constrained: copying is a mark of mediocrity.  Healthy relationships are not threatened by fear of change.  And so Messiaen and Boulez will continue to enlighten us long after they are gone|

Libety or Tranny ?

Sums up lots about extremist haters and their grievances

Friday, 8 January 2016

Boulez - the last interview

Pierre Boulez - the last interview,  early in 2014.  "Are programmers risk averse?" asks the interviewer. "They are too shy, much too shy" answers Boulez. "If you insist on too narrow a repertoire, the audience becomes passive. But when you give a piece that is provocative, well written but provocative and interesting, then youy don't have to fear the reactions of the audience.  On the contrary!  The audience will maybe say 'Ah ! I have heard that. I was shocked and I don't understand what the composer means, but maybe....' I think, to have this provocation, and this doubt inserted into programmes, that is important". 

Doubt? The very concept of doubt no longer has meaning these days. For Boulez, culture meant being open to possibilities.  All too often, the less someone knows the more certain they are that no-one else can know. That's why Boulez is dangerous. He thinks. I cannot use the past tense for a man so mentally and creatively alive.   Boulez didn't suppress anyone who wasn't already suppressed in themselves.  Since opinions are controlled by wide market forces, society itself creates suppression. It's nuts to project that resentment  onto someone who represents the opposite  of groupthink. Doubt is the antidote to mindless assumptions, to demagogue groupthink. No wonder so many defer to supposedly Holy Writ. Doubt and provocation, the engines that drive the eternal quest for wisdom and knowledge, growth and renewal. If that's scary, so then is the whole concept of civilization.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Pierre Boulez - a personal tribute

Tributes pour in all round for Pierre Boulez, who died on Tuesday after a long illness. So many wonderful tributes - Paul Griffiths (thank goodness) in the New York Times,  Le Monde,  Roger Nichols in the Guardian, the Telegraph, the LSO,  France Musique and many others - more to come, no doubt. These are the best informed.  

There's also an all day broadcast from France Musiquevideo of Répons with Ensemble Intercontemporain on,  and a selection of videos on 

So what I'll add is something you won't get anywhere else - personal, first-hand memories.

I was at the last concert in the Pli selon pli tour with Ensemble Intercontemporain in 2011 at the Royal Festival Hall. Boulez looked fragile, ashen: I thought he was exhausted after doing 20 concerts in the space of a month. He kept changing his glasses, and finally gave up, conducting by instinct.  He knew each of those musicians well enough that he could hear them, and they knew him well enough that they could figure out what he wanted. If, at times, the performance seemed tentative, it was extremely moving because we could feel the rapport betwenn conductor and orchestra . That night I stood outside in the rain, waiting as the players went back to their hotels, or for dinner. Boulez didn't show but I was glad because I thought he needed a rest. As it turned out, that was the last concert he ever conducted.  I much preferred the original recording with Christine Schafer, whose voice  was more ethereal and magical, but I'm so glad I was there.  Read more here

In Berlin in 2007, Boulez conducted Mahler Symphony no 8 at the Philharmonie (my review here),  a powerful performance that really brought out the meaning of the many references to light and enlightenment. Accende lumen sensibus! The difference between a good conductor and a very, very good conductor is that he can access meaning.. Here's what i wrote in 2009. It was such a performance that its memory will live with me forever.

At Aldeburgh, Boulez was giving a masterclass on Incises for Piano, Sonatina for Flute and Piano when a busload of daytrippers popped in. They'd come for the Bach Masss later that evening but for some reason had arrived hours too early, so they sat in on Boulez.  To welcome them, he chatted about the early post war years and how hard it was to get hold of musical scores. They could relate to that, since they were mostly his own age. That explained why he was so into the 12 tone system in those years. ,It wasn't "ideology" just something that stimulated him. They'd been so deprived during the war that they were catching up on years of drought.  In his youth, Boulez conducted Rameau. He knew his Bach. So the Bach Mass crowd were won over. They stayed for the class and for the performance. They liked the man and were prepared to hear what he had to say. None of that bigoted prejudice we get too much of now.

The most touching moment wasn't public at all. We were at a private party in Paris, where a young clarinettist played a difficult new work that involved a lot of circular breathing and flawless technique. The player was young. It was the biggest gig of his lifetime. Only 100 people in the audience but Boulez was Guest of Honour, seated right in front.  Afterwards, I chatted with the young player. We weren't in the main room, but in a kind of alcove off the side. Who should join us? Boulez, who had made time to seek out the young man. "You're good" he told him, and gave him words of encouragement. No-one was present, it was entirely personal and sincere. The player was speechless. I almost had to pick him off the floor. 

Boulez was a man of integrity and taste, for whom art was  paramount, not self.  Of course he was cerebral but what's wrong with that?  He was deep. He didn't do "emotional diarrhoea" . So what if others didn't get him, and projected their hang-ups on him ?   He was his own person.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Open Up the Royal Opera House

The Royal Opers House Open Up project starts in May. Plans were announced ages ago and now, a new section on the ROH website gives more detail. Open Up addresses the use of space within a historic site hemmed in on one side by the Covent Garden Piazza and on the other by Bow Street.

Thankfully, the revolving doors on both sides will go. They slow down entry and exit.  The Bow Street facade will be enlarged and glazed over, to make more space inside. it's good that they're improving the Bow Street entrance.   It's a primary point of access, so it would be extremely inconvenient to force patrons into the overcrowded Piazza area, when they might avoid it altogether. The ROH doesn't necessarily cater for the tourist and busker crowd! Intelligent use of wasted space on Bow Street and a nice new terrace above. Hopefully there will be more places to sit when waiting, though I appreciate that nonticket holders can colonize them, the way the old Box Office toilets became public use.

More urgently, there'll be a revamp of the Linbury Studio Theatre, which is so cramped that it's a no-go area for many. Like the Sadler's Wells Theatre it was built for dancers. Which is fine if you're under 30 and as flexible as a dancer. Most of us aren't. The seats in the present Linbury are so cramped that they drive away patrons who might otherwise enjoy being part of the audience. The industrial metal fittings will go, too, to be replaced by more acoustic-friendly wood.  Hopefully capacity will be improved, too.

More controversial is the suggestion that part of the Ampitheatre terrace will be enclosed to extend the restaurant. But isn't Covent Garden already packed with restaurants? What will a few extra covers add? And at what cost to opera-goers   If ROH restaurant goers don't like mixing with hoi polloi who go for music, that's their problem. Unfortunately, the rich expect privileges, but not all of them are actually opera lovers and many won't turn into donors.  In any case giving in to that kind of donor is dangerous. One of the mantras in arts admin is the idea that cafés are more important than performance space, hence the idea of turning the Coliseum foyer into a sandwich shop.  It's a silly short-term notion, into which companies are forced because funding bodies don't understand that the cost benefits of art don't lie simply in balance sheets.

Benjamin Appl Eichendorff Lieder Wigmore Hall

Eager anticipation for Benjamin Appl's recital with Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall , since Appl is one of the most promising young singers around. Being a BBC New Generation Artist automatically rockets any performer to star status, though some have appealed more for their looks, youth and marketability than for their talent. Appl, though, is one of the genuine discoveries. He has real potetial.

For his Wigmore Hall recital, Appl sang an interesting programme of settings of poems by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1853). Taken out of context, some of Eichendorff's poetry might seem simplistic, as the BBC continuity suggests, but Eichendorff was a highly influential thinker whose ideas shaped the spirit of the Romantic era. Nature, for the Romantics, wasn't an escape into Disneyesque fantasy. but an affirmation of elemental forces beyond the control of conventional ordered civilization.  Eichendorff's respect for pure, unspoiled Nature also reflected his spiritual beliefs.  Eichendorff was a devout Catholic, a member of a minority in the Prussian state.  As a social reformer,  Eichendorff was a progressive who revamped the Prussian education system, making it more open to all. Most definitely not a small "r" romantic daydreamer ! Throughout his writings run  deep themes like spirituality, tolerance and respect for humble yet genuinely noble values. How I wish this programme had included Verschweigene Liebe, one of Eichendorff's most magical poems, with its refrain that clarion call of the Romantic age, "Gedanken sind Frei!"

Much better, I think, a recital that deals with a single poet in relative depth than the usual sampler programmes that demonstrate a young singer's vocal range rather than his or her understanding of the underlying principles of the repertoire. Appl began with three Schumann Eichendorff settings Frühlingsfahrt (Op 45/2)  Der Einsiedler (Op 77/1) and  Der frohe Wandersmann Op 83/3).  
In  Eichendorff's Fruhlingsfahrt, two sturdy youths set forth, both striving for lofty things. One finds happiness in simple things. The other is seduced by the sirens of the deep and ends up a shattered wreck. Both Fruhlingsfahrt and Der frohe Wandersman show that  Eichendorff was fascinated by wilder shores even while he praises domesticity. His homilies to God are talismanic, for he intuits that creativity can be dangerous. An artist is driven by something greater than his own free will.  Happy Wanderer? No way.

Graham Johnson's accompaniment was steady rather than spectacular, giving Appl decent support.  Appl's voice is naturally interesting. . I've heard very vivid singing from him before, full of character and intelligence, so I hoped he'd take more risks with less-familiar repertoire.  The Mendelssohn Eichendorff settings are delicately refined and need expressiveness to bring out the innate strength beneath the surface elegance. Appl's Pagenlied moved thoughfully from noon-day meadow to evening serenade, and his Nachtlied responded to the liveliness in the paino part, and the text. Truly  "Will keiner mit mir munter sein?".  Wanderlied  burst with vigorous spirit.
It was good, too, to hear Brahms's settings of In der Fremde and Mondnacht for a change isntead of Schumann, for they illustrate the differences between the two composers. Schumann's settings are effervescent,but Appla and Graham Johnson showed how Brahms's more down to earth approach gives them solidity.  More characteristically "Brahmsian" were Parole and Anklänge, which reminded me of Brahms's Liebeslieder Walzer. Perhaps the more "folksy" element in the poems appealed to the composer, who wasn't as acutely attuned to literature as Schumann was.
Similarly, I suspect that Hans Pfitzner's appreciation of Eichendorff shaped his settings of the poems.  Fortunately, Appl and Johnson did not start their Pfitzner set with Der Gartner, written before 1896, and published in 1899.  Alas, it's leaden,  its heaviness bearing little relation to the subtle ideas in the poem. Pfitzner is far better suited to poems like In Danzig (from1907)  in which Eichendorff describes the city under moonlight.

"Dunkel Giebel, hohe Fenster,
Türme wie aus Nebel sehn.
Bleiche Statuen wie Gespenster
Lautlos an den Türen stehn."
Pfitzner's murky tone-painting colours the scene as if it were a painting from Caspar David Friedrich so effectively that it captures the discreetly hidden punchline embedded within the text :"Nur des Meeres fernes Rauschen.Wunderbare Einsamkeit!"  Typically of Eichendorff this portrait of the city is psychological rather than purely physical.  The poem dates from 1842.  Eichendorff almost certainly knew Heinrich Heine's mysterious Die Stadt, and Pfitzner must have known the masterpiece setting thereof.  Similazrly, Pfitzner's setting of Zum Abschied meiner Tochter describes a physical situation, the autumnal images in the poem nicely translated into sound, Yet again, though, Pfitzner underestimates the horror in the final strophe, disguised by mechanical images: 
"Die Gassen schauen nochnächtlich,
Es rasselt der Wagen bedächtig –
Nun plötzlich rascher der Trott
Durchs Tor in die Stille der Felder,
Da grüßen so mutig die Wälder,
Lieb Töchterlein, fahre mit Gott!

Probably no other composer set Eichendorff as brilliantly as Hugo Wolf (though I wouldn't, couldn't be without Schumann).  Wolf was so intent on expressing poems through music that he called his songs "poems", and wrote in bursts of frenzied inspiration.  Appl and Johnson could have devoted a whole recital to Wolf's Eichendorff songs, but they chose just five - Nachruf; Das Ständchen; Der Musikant; Der Scholar; and Der Freund. Perhaps they knew we'd heard these so many times that we'd be more interested in Mendelssohn, Brahms and Pfitzner for a change, and put their best efforts into creating their best performances there.  Appl does have the voice, and the intelligence, to do great things. I'd like to hear him be more daring, connecting to the intensity inherent in this poetry. I think he's got what it takes, but he needs to take risks.  The Romantic Revolution broke boundaries: we should heed its audacity.