Doundou Tchil
"We are here for the music and NOT the other way round !"
3221 Entries
Christa Ludwig  © Christian Brandstätter Verlag, Wien (Fayer, Wien).
Happy Birthday, Christa Ludwig ! Always perky, even at 90.  Let's party ! Bring out the champagne !  Above, when she was singing Dorabella. Below, her earliest recording, made in 1950, from Der Fledermaus, when she was singing Prince Orlovsky.
1 day ago |
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"That bloody Gluepot" railed Sir Henry Wood, annoyed by musicians who were late for work because they tarried too long at The George, on the corner of Great Portland Street, adjacent to the old Queen's Hall and near the BBC in Langham Place. The George attracted a close-knit crowd of composers, musicians, poets, artists and writers. It's still around, and thriving, though the clientele has changed, so it's fitting that its past should be remembered in this new recording The Gluepot Connection from SOMM Recordings.  The CD features music from John Ireland, Alan Rawsthorne, Peter Warlock, Atrnold Bax, Alan Bush, Elizabeth Lutyens, William Walton and E J Moeran, a few of the many who once thronged therein.  Andrew Griffiths conducts the a capella Londinium Chamber Choir.

The Full Heart is Peter Warlock's earliest choral work, dedicated to the memory of Carlo Gesualdo, an interesting choice of role model for the young Peter Heseltine who was but 21 when he sketched the piece.  The Gesualdo connection probably relates more to musical form, for the piece  employs finely parted chromatics, creating a rapturous work that seems to span centuries.  "O, my companions, Wind, Waters, Stars and Night". The text is by Robert Nicholls, invalided from the Somme, and later a socialite whose friends included Aldous Huxley.  Heseltine heard Frederick Delius's On Craig Ddu (1907) while still a student at Eton, and went on to champion the older composer.  The two pieces complement each other, though Warlock is more stylish.  Beautifully balanced singing from the Londinium Chamber Choir keeps texture clear and clean.  Warlock's The Full Heart is a stand out, on its own worth the price of the CD.

Warlock and Moeran were born in the same year, but had different backgrounds, Heseltine's influences more esoteric and international. He didn't like the John Ireland focus at the Royal College of Music and encouraged Moeran to develop further.  On this recording we hear Moeran's six Songs of Springtime (c. 1931) to poems by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  Warlock amd Moeran were close, and in this set Warlock's influence is clear : more polyphonic inventiveness built on Renaissance models, yet distinctively of its own time.  These Warlock and Moeran settings shine out out in comparison with the more conventional John Ireland songs, The Hills and Twilight Night. The Hills, written to mark the Coronation in 1953, to a poem by James Kirkup, is chastely hymnal, while Twilight Night

to a poem by Christina Rossetti, while Victorian, is rather more potent. Two people meet clapsed "as close as oak and ivy stand". They may never again meet "in the accustomed way" but that secret encounter is not erased.  Ireland's setting is straightforward, but the meaning of the text could hardly have been lost on the younger moderns, like Warlock and Moeran, in the more liberated 1920's.

Andrew Griffiths' erudite booklet notes give extensive detail on other habitués of the "gluepot", with so many cross-references that one could probably draw up a flowchart.  He quotes Michael Tippett on the "anti-Britten" clique at the George, ".... a cabal of composers who were trying to debunk Ben (Britten) or undermine his reputation.....they all had great chips on their shoulders and enetrtained absurd fantasies about a homosexual conspiracy in music led by Britten and Pears".  Bigots will always find excuses, hence the homophobia, but the real threat Britten posed was not his sexuality but the fact that his music didn't conform to the assumptions of what "British music" should be.  Frank Bridge opened his horizons to Europe, and WH Auden and Colin MacPhee to the world.  Britten was original, and successful, which created resentment.  Britten won the commission for the Coronation of 1953 with Gloriana, in which Queen Elizabeth I sees through sycophancy and status games. This didn't go down well with some, and for some Britten is still too "modern", though his influence has nurtured whole new generations of British composers and musicians.  Britten didn't do the Gluepot, but he is relevant in context.  He, too, drew inspiration from polyphony and Early Music, as any study of Gloriana will demonstrate.

The Gluepot "cabal" Tippett mentioned centred around Constance Lambert, his wife Isabel Nicholas, who later married Alan Rawsthorne, William Walton, and Elizabeth Lutyens and Alan Bush   Most of these are represented in this collection, apart from Lambert who didn't write a capella choral work.   Rawsthorne's Four Seasonal Songs (1956). The title is slightly misleading, since three of the songs refer to Spring. More multipart harmonics applied to 16th century texts !  In Lutyens' Verses of Love (1970) to a text by Ben Jonson, long lines elide, sounds shimmering.  Walton's Where does the Uttered Music Go ? (1946) was written for the dedication of the memorial window of Sir Henry Wood in the Musicians Chapel in St Sepulchre's where Wood, as a boy, learned to play the organ.  This disc also includes the premiere recordings of Alan Bush's Like Rivers Flowing (1957) with sinuous lines, and Lidice (1947) commemorating the massacre in Lidice by the Nazis.  The mood is hushed, the lines swirling : a secular Requiem. 

Another Gluepot regular was Arnold Bax. His I sing of a maiden (1923)  has charm, but is eclipsed by his Mater ora filium (1921) a substantial (11 minute) masterpiece based on William Byrd's five-part Mass, beefed up for as many as 16 parts, embellished by what Griffiths calls "prodigious extremes of range" (cloaked in) "luscious, late Romantic harmony in myriad different textures". The voices of the Londinium Chamber Choir rise to the task, their voices glowing "Amen, Amen". It's as if a stained glass window were bursting into song !

3 days ago |
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Mighty Sparrow (photo Jeff Buxbaum)
Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco) satirizes Frank Sinatra. 

4 days ago |
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John Eliot Gardiner, photo Sim Canetty-Clarke

The start of a major Schumann series with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican: Schumann Symphony no 2 in C major op 61 (1847) and the Overture to Genoveva with Berlioz Les nuits d'été, soloist Ann Hallenberg. Gardiner is one of the great Schumann conductors of our time, so the LSO are right on the mark, choosing him to head their Schumann series, which began with this concert, continues on 15th March and into 2019.  A major series, whose importance cannot be overestimated.  Perhaps we can hear Schumann all the time, but rarely at this level of excellence.

Gardiner's  approach to Schumann is inspired by a deep understanding of the composer's aesthetic.  It's a mistake to assume that period-informed performance means period instruments  It has much more to do with understanding the composer's idiom and practices which might enhance performance dynamics. The LSO doesn't use period instruments, but achieves werktreue effects by other means.  The players didn't sit down to play but instead stood up throughout.  Immediately, you could hear  the difference.  You'd need cloth ears not to notice, even if you didn't know "why". Because the players were closer together, the sound was more concentrated, achieving volume without having to force the instruments, the sound projected from a few feet higher than usual,  intensifying the interaction between players and podium. Chamber-like sensititivty, in a large (ish) ensemble. The musicians could move freely, flexing their bodies naturally, without the rigidity that comes from sitting down. This flexibility flowed through to the music, which felt direct and spontaneous, textures bright and clearly defined.  Gardiner's Schumann is agile and alive, revealing the composer's true originality.

Gardiner preceeded Schumann's Symphony no 2 with the Overture to his opera Genoveva, which he began at around the same time as he wrote the symphony. The connections go deeper.  The original folk tale on which Genoveva is based dates back to the Middle Ages. Indeed it’s the basis of stories like Snow White, for in legend, Genoveva lived in the forest, protected by animals and by her virtue. Significantly, though, Schumann rejected the medieval concept, choosing instead to base his opera on Friedrich Hebbel’s more psychological drama, published only four years previously. Schumann wanted a “modern” take on the story. As Hebbel said “Any drama will come alive only to the extent that it expresses the spirit of the age which brings it forth”. The Overture sets the stage, introducing the themes that will be developed more fully in the opera. It's marvellous, but listen to how it zooms into a chorale, and then into the opera proper, rather like successive proscenia in a theatre add depth to a flat stage. Schumann's doing dramatic perspective with music.

Schumann's Symphony no 2 begins with another brass chorale, which  here came over without stridency, the "brassiness" muted and dignified, integrating well with the bassoons, winds and strings. How poignant the horns and winds sounded, evoking Nature, hinting at the deep sources of the Romantic imagination.  Moving from sostenuto to allegro, Schumann then creates a wild scherzo where notes seem to fly in fiendishly complex patterns, though the themes are sharply defined.  Schumann 2 is unusual, because it mixes serene passages with oddball quirks. The last movement is sublime, but it's undercut by the moody bassoon from the Adagio, which Schumann told a friend was when he heard his "half sickness" calling him. Yet he had a "special fondness"  for this strange melancholy , which infused even the happiest moments of his life. Who but Schumann could have written Dichterliebe as a wedding gift after having struggled so long to win Clara from her father?

Throughout this symphony there are oblique references to Bach and especially to Mendelssohn whose Midsummer Night's Dream music casts a magical glow on the Adagio.  The assertive, affirmative confidence of the final movement seemed to come straight from the spirit of Beethoven. 
Genoveva and Lohengrin both premiered in the summer of 1850. Wagner disparaged Schumann, as he disparaged Mendelssohn (Schumann’s hero). Since Wagner’s opinions were influential, Genoveva has been eclipsed, and most late Schuman undervalued because it doesn't fit the Wagner ethos  But  Schumann’s ideas on music and music drana stem from sources earlier than Wagner, and might have developed an alternative path had he continued writing after the age of 45.

Between Schumann's Overture to Genoveva and his Symphony no 2,  Berlioz Les nuits d'été op 7 (1841). Gardiner is also a great Berlioz conductor : remember his Damnation of Faust last year ? (read my piece here).  The immediacy of Gardiner's style adds punch to  the song cycle, enhancing dramatic tension.  Ann Hallenberg was a good soloist, not especially French, but in the context of a Schumann series, that's perfectly apt. 

This concert was also broadcast live, part of the LSO live initiative. This itself is news, since it enables the LSO to reach international audiences online who might not otherwise be able to attend concerts, even when the LSO goes on tour.  This particular concert seems to attracted less than the number who logged in for Bychkov's Mahler symphony no 2, but that's fair enough. Mahler is box office, while Schumann and particularly up-market Schumann is more esoteric. It will be interesting to see what the next live stream draws on April 11th (Mahler 10, Simon Rattle, Michael Tippett The Rose Garden)  The economics of livestream are hard to measure.  This concert reached about as many as would be seated in the Barbican, but will continue to attract viewers on Youtube for a longer period. The knock-on effect should also be felt in CD/DVD sales. Long term, streaming enhances the profile of the orchestra, and reaches a wider public.

6 days ago |
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Schubert Schwanengesang, D957 (1828) with Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall, London. Schwanengesang isn't Schubert's Swan Song any more than it is a cycle like Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise.  The title was given it by his publishers Haslingers, after his death, combining settings of two very differet poets, Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine.  Wigmore Hall audiences have heard lots of good Schwanengesangs, including Boesch and Martineau performances in the past, but this was something special.

Since Schwanengesang is not a song cycle, there's no reason why song order can't be altered.  Boesch and Martineau began with Liebesbotschaft, following it with Frühlingssensucht and Ständchen, forming a bouquet, where the songs complemented each other. This meant that Boesch could focuss on emotional finesse.  We're so used to good baritone performances that it's easy to underestimate the delicacy in these songs, but Boesch, despite the firmness in his timbre, achieves an almost tenor-like freshness, which is very moving. Martineau's opening notes in Ständchen floated gracefully : you could imagine the plucking of lute strings on a warm summer evening.  Boesch has an uncanny ability to sound much younger than he is, without sacrificing the poise that comes with maturity, but what was most impressive here was the way he conveyed the innate intimacy in the songs. The words were shaded as if they were spontaneous, private exchanges. Nothing "troubadour" here. Real lovers, real feelings.

Then in flew Abschied. A farewell so early in the journey? The vigorous figures in the piano part suggest speed and forward thrust. But a clue is hidden in the last strophe.  Not all the stars in heaven can replace "Der Fensterlein trübes, verschimmerndes Licht".  Boesch shaped the phrase deliberately. Beneath the blustery surface, we glimpse once again the intimacy we heard in the first three songs, and feel the loss more strongly. When Boesch sang the first line of In der ferne, "Wehe, den Fliehenden, Welt hinaus ziehenden", my blood ran cold. Suddenly it hit me why that line spans two rhyming phrases. The two songs Abschied and In der Ferne form a pair, one pretending denial, the other unmasked grief.  Thus the logic of grouping them with the turmoil of Aufenthalt and with Kreigers Ahnung, which in the Haslinger edition comes as the second song and here forms the end of the Rellstab settings. In Kreigers Ahnung, the poet is on a battlefield.  He's afraid, his heart heavy with foreboding. And what thought gives him comfort ? "Herzliebe - gute Nacht!", sang Boesch, his voice ringing first with tenderness, then with a kind of haunted resignation, the song quietly fades, and the poet falls asleep. 

Boesch and Martineau's re-ordering of the Rellstab songs makes sense, musically and in terms of meaning, bringing out depths in the material which can be overlooked in comparison with the more sophisticated Heine songs. No-one knows what Schubert might have done, had he lived longer.  How much more of Heine would he have set ? And would more Heine have developed him as a composer, in the way that Schumann was shaped by Heine ?  Boesch and Martineau paired Das Fischermädchen with Am Meer, but the connections are deeper than images of the sea, which in any case is a metaphor for emotion, which the Fischermädchen is right to fear.  The lilting lyricism of the first song gives way to the more disturbing  undercurrents of "Der Nebel stieg, das Wasser schwoll" in Am Meer.  Boesch's voice rose for a moment before receding backwards, like the ebb and flow of a tide.  The two pairs of strophes mirror one another.  Am Meer thus flowed into Ihr Bild, with its dark piano chords and penitential pace. Ihr Bild flowed into Die Stadt.   In both texts, the imagery is almost supernatural. In Die Stadt the piano line is almost impressionistic, a painting in sound.  Only in the last verse does the mood lift, "leuchtend vom Boden empor", Boesch's voice is suddenly defiant, but the mists descend again. 

Thus we were prepared for the final pairing, Der Doppelgänger and Der Atlas, first and last in the Haslinger Heine set and here heard in reverse order.  The pattern of sombre pace and short-lived protest that has gone before returns in Der Doppelgänger but hearing Der Atlas last restores the balance in favour of protest.  Martineau defined the piano part so it felt monumental, and Boesch's singing took on majesty.  Like the Doppelgänger, Atlas has lost what made him happy, and is doomed to suffer for eternity. He is cursed, but he is strong and will not crumble.   Boesch and Martineau's song order has musical and textual insight, and deserves great respect.  This is a refreshing new way of listening to a group of songs that otherwise can sometimes, in less capable performances, seem uneven.   Seeing microphones in the auditorium suggests that a recording will be in the offing, and well worth getting even if you already have rows of Schwanengesangs, or even  the previous recording Boesch and Martineau made for Onyx a few years back.  This unique performance is in an altogether different  league than most.

In the intermission before the Rellstab and Heine songs Boesch and Martineau did Grenzen von Menschheit D 716, Meeres Stille D 216 and Der Fischer D225 - which also form a mini-cyle of their own amd fit in very well with the songs that make up Schwanengesang.  At the very end, though, Boesch and Martineau found a way to incorporate Die Taubenpost, D 965 A, Schubert's setting of a poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl, which the publishers Haslinger added to Schwangesang but which has little connection, otherwise.  Boesch's face lit up in a broad grin, and he danced a cheerful shimmy before he started to sing, banishing the ghosts of loss and despair.  Yet again this made musical sense, since like Abschied, the carefree mood in Der Taubenpost belies its message : the dove's name is Sehnsucht, but, being a bird, it doesn't know what that means.   

7 days ago |
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Not my pic, but too good not to share.  Soup made of winter melon, mushroom and herbs, served in a carved, hollowed out melon, base made out of melon too. 
8 days ago |
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Scene from From the House of the Dead, Patrice Chéreau 2007
Leoš Janácek From the House of the Dead at  the Royal Opera House, London, last night, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth in a new production by Krzysztof Warlikowski.  Of course, some in the audience had to do their ritual booing. What did they expect?   Cuddly animals dressed as people? "Respect the Composer" is the mantra of the booing mob. It's probably too much to expect from them even a basic knowledge of this opera, but the least they could do is listen to the music.   Like an infernal machine, the repetitive rhythms hammer and pound until their pulse threatens to overcome your own.  A metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of a world where men (and women) are destroyed for no reason than the maintenance of order for the sake of order.  Respect the composer and his music, don't expect prettified feelgood.

Mark Wigglesworth's conducting certainly played up the violence, and rightly so, since there's nothing cute about a society that needs gulags to keep people under control.  Luckily for me, I learned this opera audio-only, from the Vaclav Neumann recording, rather than from Mackerras, so I think of it in terms of the music first. The first time I experienced the opera live was when Perre Boulez conducted the production directed by Patrice Chéreau : a historic event in many ways, impossible to forget.  Boulez conducted with an unnerving intensity: red hot holds nothing back but ice-cold suggests invisible horrors too dangerous to contemplate. The tragedy of human suffering, so fundamental to Janácek's vision, grows ever more powerful in contrast.  From the House of the Dead is actually more humane than some assume. Janácek cared about people. As Chéreau pointed out, what really pervades the opera for him is its implicit humanity. Under the harshness and violence flows surprisingly strongly a sense of “compassion”, as he puts it, which runs like a hidden stream throughout the opera, surfacing at critical junctures. It is also totally non-judgemental. Neither murderers nor guards are held to account, they simply exist. Thus the famous phrase near the end, “he too was born of a mother”.

At a discussion session after the performance I heard in Amsterdam in 2007, someone in the audience (beware that type) asked Chéreau why he didn't costume the prisoners in orange, to protest Guantanamo Bay. Quick as a flash, Boulez said: "We are in Holland. In Holland, Orange is the Royal House". In a nutshell, the art of visual literacy : images mean different things.  Chéreau's prisoners could have been Everyman in their drab garb, in a set dystopian in its abstraction. The prisoners engaged in pointless, repetitive work (building a ship in landlocked Siberia) but it doesn't overwhelm the stage. Instead there's an explosion when the bags of waste paper the men have been collecting blow up and scatter all over the stage: Substance now, waste no longer.  This explosion coincided with a dramatic climax in the music.  In a single striking image, the message is that men who have been thrown away by society are not detritus, whether they can fight back or not.

"Coherence", said Chéreau that eveing so long ago, "between ideas, music and drama, is the basis of interpretation".  Stagecraft is not decoration : it is Gesamtkunstwerk, the drawing-together of different elements into a whole.  Audiences often go for shallow productions because they are bright and jokey, but that isn't necessarily "what the composer intended".  Warlikowski's production has a bit of everything.  His thing for vivid jewel colours against black and white usually works extremely well, though less so in this case.  Maybe ROH chose him to please the punters, so they can tell the difference between prisoners, guards and visitors (which, arguably, should be minimal, just as there often isn't much difference in real life).  Huge structures dominate, which is a good thing as they suggest overwhelming forces  intimidating small figures. It's a rather well-organized prison, probably not too remote, since there are a lot of outsiders here, including blow-up dolls. Presumably these suggest how society dehumanizes women, treating them as objects, which is perfectly valid and connects to the central idea that the men in this prison are "in the house of the dead".  ROH wouldn't have dared show real women getting kicked about, and in any case no-one "should" need the details.  London punters go berserk over two seconds of tit, glimpsed for a moment in an entirely appropriate context, so they can't be expected to understand that their own sensibilities are not more important than being moved by the suffering of others. The Prostitute (Alison Cook) as symbol, in bright-green hot pants cavorting chastely with the boys.  (Or not so chastely, given that she looks 14.) Nothing wrong with that image per se since prostitutes are the "prisoners" of a messed-up world.   Chéreau had the Eagle shot, but for a moment we glimpsed its glory. Maybe I missed Warlikowski's Eagle, but perhaps The Prostitute serves a similar function: she gets out alive.

Big names for the parts where older voices work well like Willard W White as Alexandr Petrovic Gorjancikov, Graham Clark as Antonic the Elderly Prisoner.  Stefan Margita sang Luka Kuzmic, as he did in the 2007 run as did Peter Hoare, singing Šapkin.  Pascal Charbonneau sang an impressive Aljeja. Ladislav Elgr sang Skuratov and Johan Reuter sang Šiškov. Alexander Vassiliev sang The Governor. As always, House regulars like Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, Grant Doyle and the always-superb Royal Opera House Chorus were good and reliable.  Nice dancers, too, writhing and twisting their (very attractive) bodies, expressing what is suggested in the music but which ROH probably needs to censor for fear of punter wrath.  This production is not the best, but by no means is it the worst.  But there is not a lot you can do with London audiences who can't be bothered to find out about a composer or an opera beforehand and insist on kitsch and circus. Inevitably that means compromise, which is not good for art.
10 days ago |
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Muhai Tang and the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra have been touring Europe in a series coinciding with the Chinese Lunar New Year. Their concert at the Philharmonie de Paris is now online on the Philhamonie site.  This is serious Chinese classical music, extremely well done, light years ahead of the sort of kitsch you get on TV and in some movies. Chinese opera dates back some 700 years, pre-dating western opera. Traditionally Chinese music was chamber music for private self-cultivation or folk/popular music for entertainment.  Even opera orchestras were relatively modest, the emphasis on poetry, acting and singing.  Large-scale Chinese instrument orchestras are relatively new, going back around 100 years. But consider that western orchestral tradition didn't come into its own until the late 18th century, and the extreme cultural differences that had to be overcome, it's quite some achievement how distinctive Chinese classical orchestras can be.  All the pieces on this programme are modern works, adapting traditional themes and instruments, effectively creating an original new genre. Muhai Tang, like many of his players, is well versed in western music as well as in Chinese, which adds extra richness to performance.  So listen to this concert, and watch it, too, because the filming is musically well informed, with close up focus on playing techniques you'd never see so clearly in concert hall conditions.   You can focus on tiny, delicate sounds, like a single string reverbrating in near silence, and see instruments like the Chinese piccolo, triangle and snakeskin drums.

Appropriately, the programme began with Harmony, by Wang Yun Fei, featuring three Sheng players, followed by Wang's even more impressive Black Bamboo for long bamboo flute, pipa and erhu. The large flute has depth and volume, suggesting the gravity of bamboo trunks,  whose wood is so strong that it can be used to build ships and houses. The lightness of the pipa and erhu suggeest movement and flexibility, even a sense of gentle swaying movement, familiar to anyone who's ever seen bamboos bending in the breeze.  More imagery in Spirit of Chinese Calligraphy  (Luo Xiaoci, orchestrated by Xie Peng), with zheng soloist Lu Shasha. A small bamboo flute calls, introducing the zheng, this one with magnificent depth and vigour.   In the west, the term "calligraphy" means ornamental writing, but in Chinese culture calligraphy is an artistic form of expression. Brush strokes "speak": swift, sure figures moving rapidly across paper after a period of contemplation. Lu's playing is graceful and forceful, contrasted with the call of a small banboo flute.  My friend's mother's calligraphy was firm and independent, resembling kapok trees, whose strong lines and angles are majestic, and whose fleshy red flowers spring from bare branches. Spirit of Chinese Calligraphy is abstract, but you can hear the individuality and decisiveness in the flow.

During the Qin dynastic period (221-206 BC), a concubine sacrificed herself to give courage to her Emperor in wartime. This story of love and duty is so powerful that it's inspired literature and opera. Here we heard an adaptation for modern Chinese orchestra which captures the drama.  Its ferocity suggests the saga of non-stop warfare from which the first dynasty in recorded Chinese history emerged, and its majesty suggests the splendour of the imperial court and the love affair that led to tragedy.  Three main figures form the core : pipa, jinghu and large Chinese drum.  Around them the tumult of full orchestra, complemented by westen woodwinds, celli and basses.  The pipa often resembles the sound of a human voice, so its cry is plaintive against the turbulence.   More esoteric, Caterpillar Fungus (Fang Dongqing) arranged for an ensemble of mixed plucked strings including pipas, different types of zheng and qin (large moon shape bodied lutes). Percussive effects are made by beating hands on wood.  The fungus grows on caterpillars and kills its host, though it has curative powers for humans.  Part worm, insect and plant, it is mysterious. Thus the music is hybrid, with a character that could be adapted for western strings.

The Butterfly Lovers Concerto, based on one of the most famous legends in Chinese literature, was written in 1959 by He Zanghou and Chen Gang. Here we heard an adaptation for erhu with soloist Ma Xiao hu, which I think makes it sound more natural than the better known version for western violin.  The erhu duets with the western cello, the "lovers" who cannot meet until released from mortal life. The zheng suggest airborne flight, the Chinese flute the idea of birdsong.  Dancing Phoenix (Huang Lei) features the suona a high pitched horn. Soloist Hu Chenyun calls out, from behind the orchestra, duetting with a small mouth organ : song bird and strident phoenix in a forest of strings, winds and drums, until the souna takes off with a long protracted call, the orchestra strutting in its wake. Imagine if Messiaen had heard this !

Three "Landscapes",  The Silk Road (Jian Jiping), Moonlit Lughou Bridge Before Dawn (Zhoiu Ziping)  and Wedding Celebration from Tan Dun's Northwest Suite, the first and last spiced up with regional colour, such as the evocation of Muslim music,  are eclipsed by the middlepiece  where shifting textures and tempi create a sophisticated tone poem.  Long serene lines mark the beginning, flowing string figures suggesting the movement of water and a thousand years of traders approaching Beijing.  Drums and cymbals announce a wilder, freer section whose zig zag lines could suggest the sounds of Beijing opera.  The theme then develops into a majestic swaying  crescendo broken by plaintive solo erhu, played by the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra Leader. Then suddenly it breaks off, in silence. (The attack on the Lughou Bridge marked the start of the 1931-45 invasion when tens of millions were killed and made refugees. )

Liu Changyuan's Lyrical Variation for the orchestra is even more sophisticated : a deep throated flute sings a long melody agaisnt a backdrop of quietly brushed percussion.  The western double basses play  distinctively "Chinese" sounds which merge seamlessly into the Chinese strings.  A very strong sense of structure, percussive blocks alternating with keening legato (Chinese brass and winds).   Erhus, being small, can play dizzying fast tempi. Members of the orchestra shout echoing the drums. Near-cacophony, from which another strong, swaying rhythmic line emerges   Kong Zhixuan's Flying Bees displays the virtuosity of Chinese instrument technique :  Rimsky-Korsakov's The Flight of the Bumblebee at manic speeds, changing direction and volume non-stop.  What might seem mad frenzy is in fact very carefully paced precision. Ding Long's erhu leads the orchestra : sheng, ruan, qin and a single small muffled drum join in.  Almostjam session   syncopation, played with the ease that comes from true mastery.After that dynamism, a return to more "traditional" chamber music arranged for large orchestra, in Huang Yijun's Blooming Flowers and Full Moon.  Muhai Tang gets the Paris audience to beat time : the rhythmic pulse of Chinese music is never far away. Western composers would do well to study Asian music, which offers its own aesthetic, with a structure based on rhythm and intervals, and a surprising amount of inventiveness.  Oddly enough, Tang often looks like Beethoven, if you can imagine Beethoven beaming and benevolent.   (Please see my piece on Debussy and the influence of gamelan at the Philharmonie recently, and my other pieces on Chinese music, film, culture and history, following the labels below).
12 days ago |
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Elsker Hverasndre (The stigmatized, or Love one Another), a silent movie about pogroms in Russia, made in Germany in 1922, by Danish director Carl Th Dreyer with a mainly Russian cast, still frighteningly prescient 100 years later. Hanna-Liebe Segal grows up in the ghetto of a Russian town on the Dnieper.  For some reason her mother sends her to a Cristian school, which is odd since her older brother Jakov was cursed by their father for converting after he moved to St Petersburg and got "Russianized". When Hanna grows up she falls for a student revolutionary, Sasha, so she, too, heads off for St Petersburg.  She lives with a Jewish family since her brother is  passing for Russian.   Jakov, a successful lawyer, recognizes secret police infiltrators among Hanna's friends, one of whom is Rylowitsch, who seems to hate everyone, Jewish, radical or Christian. After smashing the progressives, Rylowitsch poses as a mad monk, whipping up fear. "The Tsar is signing your land over to te Jews!"  You'd think that might be a logical reason for dumping the Tsar, but instead, the peasants kiss icons of the Tsar and kill Jews instead.  Then, as now, populist mobs are easily manipulated. Jakov goes back to the village when his mother dies and sees a ghost in a prayer shawl, walking through doors.  Though he's a Christian, sincere enough to wear a cross, the mob kills him, too.  The village goes up in flames, many are killed. Hanna's revolutionary boyfriend returns, and the pair head off for the Polish/German border.......  Everyone's screwed when mobs run loose. Could a film like this have been made in Russia at the time ? And will such things happen again, to different communities, in different times and places ?  Though the pace is slow and stylized, there are many good moments here. The ghetto scenes were filmed in a studio in Berlin, but based on real places in the ghetto in Lublin.  Brother-in-law "Red haired Abraham" operates a machine that rocks the cradle while he works across the room.  Mama Segal lays out her daughter's trousseau though Hanna has no intention of settliung down.  The scenes in St Petersburg are in some ways even more poignant because they aren't artificial sets but real furniture and furnishings, new at the time, antique now. The family Hanna lodges with owns a keyboard iunstrument with no apparent backboard, unless it's built into the wall. Above the keys is a depiction of a lyre which must stand 2 metres tall.  A world that's  gone. Or does history repeat ? Plenty of Rylowitschs around, though they don't pretend to be monks.  Please see my other posts on early film and on Carl Th Dreyer, using the label below, including his Der Vampyr and The Passion of Joan of Arc.

13 days ago |
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Latest release in the Münchner Philharmoniker initiative making its archives available on CD : Mahler Wunderhorn-Lieder and the Adagio from what would have been Mahler's Tenth Symphony, with Michael Volle, and Christian Thieilemann conducting.  Michael Volle is one of the finest singers in his Fach, and one of the stars of the Bayerisches Staatsoper. Since Volle hasn't recorded a great deal of Mahler, this is is a valuable addition to the discography.  His performance here is assured. His rich baritone is well-defined, and his delivery informed by an understanding of genre and context. 

On this recording, Volle is singing fully orchestrated versions of twelve songs. The original Des Knaben Wunderhorn texts published by Brentano and Arnim in 1806, were collected from oral tradition, and reflect an aesthetic even earlier than Lieder.  Late nineteenth century composers did not set out to replicate folk song, but Mahler's settings are informed by a perception of a pure world fast receding into the past.  With his Swabian background, and awareness of South German dialects, Volle expresses the charm of songs like Wer hat dies Liedlien erdacht  and Rheinlegendchen so they feel natural and unforced. "Büble, wir!", he sings, characterizing the couple in Verlorne Müh! with dignity : they may be rustic, but they deserve respect.  Lied des Verfolgten im Turm is, ironically, the only song in which Mahler borrows directly from folk melody, qouting the original in full, though following the textual changes Brentano and Arnim adopted to tone down its inherently rebellious anthem "Die Gedanken sind frei". Volle reinforces the message, biting his consonants so they cut, his timbre rising with impassioned power. 

But the finest moments on this recording come with songs like Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,  true through-composed art song, even more haunting with full orchestra.  Quiet knocking at the door awakes a woman from sleep. She sees her lover, and welcomes him in. A nightingale sings. But horns are heard, calling as if from far away.  Echoes from the battlefield, "die grüne Haide, die ist so weit!"  The woman, too, must die that the lovers can re-unite. In Der Tamboursg'sell, the percussion beats the ominous death march, the brass wailing behind. Volle's voice rings out defiantly "Gute Nacht!", but the soft beating of drums remind us that the drummer boy is no more. 

Here the song flows seamlessly into Urlicht, a thoughtful pairing, since in Mahler's Second Symphony, Urlicht marks the  transition from funeral march to the "resurrection" of the Finale.  Volle sings "O Röschen rot!" breathing into the words, adding depth.  But the violin marks another transit. "Ach, nein !" sings Volle, with urgency, The sould will not be turned away "Ich bin von Gott, und will wieder zu Gott!". A third transit, in which Volle's voice softens, illuminated by the light of "das ewig, selig Leben!".  

Thus we are well prepared for the Adagio of what would have been Mahler's Symphony no 10.  Hearing the Adagio on its own in this context is surprisingly effective : you don't miss the rest of the symphony as you might otherwise.  Gossamer textures float, enhanced by the entry of a deeper, more resonant theme. The horns break away, as if they're leading us further onwards. The alternating themes develop it into a complex shifting between polarities, circling each other, interweaving rather than firmly connecting.  This might, or might not be a reflection on Mahler's relationship with Alma, whose bname is written into the manuscript. But if the Adagio is a looking back on the past, that also connects it, in purely musical terms, to the duality in so many songs in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the richness drawn from the many vignettes within.  Perhaps Alma didn't want the symphony to be heard in full because she wanted to preserve the nostalgia of the Adagio, much in the way that the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony can be interpreted.  But what to make of that shattering cataclysm at the end ?  Another good reason for hearing the Adagio with Des Knaben Wunderhorn, where cheery songs mix with songs of abject horror.  Although Thielemann didn't do much Mahler with the Münchner Philharmoniker, what he did do is very perceptive.
14 days ago |
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