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It wasn't just Lorde who stepped on stage to collect the song of the year gong for Royals at the Grammys in January. Beside her was Joel Little, her co-writer. What had riveted so many about Ella Yelich-O'Connor's music was its vision the voluminous production, minimal aesthetic and precocious lyricism. As it soon became clear, this was the product of two minds.
It wasn't an auspicious start. When the Polish composer Henryk Górecki's Third Symphony, his "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs", was played for the very first time at a festival in France, it went down terribly. Appallingly, in fact. The senior French musician sitting next to Górecki, probably the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, the doyen of the international avant-garde, shouted: "Merde!" The critics called it "decadent trash" and "endless". Why? Because Górecki's repetitions of simple melodies and harmonies, and his setting of movingly "sorrowful" texts about motherhood and loss for solo soprano were heard as a sentimental, slushy sellout. Instead of modernist angst and objectivity, Górecki gave his audience heartfelt tunes and instant emotion. Stylistically speaking, his symphony must have sounded like a Cliff Richard number in the middle of a Slayer gig. Not good, in other words.
That was in 1977. But fast-forward 15 years, and the very same piece would become the most successful piece of contemporary classical music of all time precisely because of its easily appreciated melodiousness, and its slow, sorrowing soulfulness. Thanks in part to the airtime the work's second movement received from Classic FM, the 1992 recording of the 55-minute Third Symphony with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta sold 700,000 copies globally in a couple of years, and it's now notched up more than a million sales. Eat those stats, Pierre and the avant-garde!
Some years ago, a kindly editor asked me to review the latest novel by the celebrated American writer Richard Powers. Having attempted the first 30 or so pages numerous times, I eventually gave up and pleaded that I found the thing literally unreadable. But either Powers has mellowed since then or I have got a bit better at reading, because I had no difficulty in finishing Orfeo, and had quite some pleasure along the way.
Our protagonist is Peter Els, a 70-year- old composer, of some obscure renown among the cognoscenti. One day before the events of the novel's present-day timeline unfold, he reads about the DIY biology movement people tinkering with DNA in their garages and orders the appropriate equipment himself from the internet. Unfortunately, when the cops turn up for an unrelated reason, they become very suspicious on seeing Els's lifehacking toys. Then something happens and Els becomes a wanted man, a bioterrorist on the run.
Kirill Karabits's Prokofiev cycle promises to be a major reappraisal if its first instalment is anything to go by. The Third and Seventh Symphonies inhabit very different worlds, though both draw their material from stage works unperformed in Prokofiev's lifetime: the Third from The Fiery Angel, his now familiar operatic study of demonic possession; the Seventh from an aborted 1936 adaptation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Karabits argues that the Third has a logic of its own, unrelated to the opera, and maintains his case in a truly terrifying yet detailed performance that precariously balances formal tautness with atrocious emotional intensity. The Seventh, he claims, is "a very tragic work", which is pushing it, though his interpretation is unnervingly bleak. Both endings are included the original sad fade-out, and the upbeat revision though the disc is awkwardly tracked so that you can't choose one over the other: a minor quibble, though, with what is otherwise an outstanding achievement.
Provençal composer Félicien David (1810-76) is best known as a purveyor of fashionable operatic orientalism to the second empire, and Lalla Roukh (1862) was a big hit in its day. Based on the eponymous collection of tales by the Irish writer Thomas Moore, it deals with an Indian princess, who, en route to an arranged marriage to the king of Bukhara, falls in love with the minstrel Noureddin, only to discover at the end of her journey that he is, of course, the king in disguise. It all teeters on the edge of sentimentality, though the best of the music has great charm and, despite David's reputation, is less self-consciously exotic than the orientalia of, say, Bizet or Massenet. Noureddin's serenades, above all, make it a fine vehicle for a high lyric tenor, and are ravishingly sung by Emiliano Gonzalez Toro. Marianne Fiset is supremely elegant in the title role, and there are strong, sharply characterised performances from Nathalie Paulin and Bernard Deletré as the comic servants, Mirza and Baskir.
Fazil Say and Gianandrea Noseda are hard-hitting radicals when it comes to Beethoven and their recording of the Third Piano Concerto is one of most startling performances on disc. Mozart's influence hangs over the score, but this is very much a forward-looking account, epic in scale, darkly poetic, assertive to the point of aggression at times, and above all, revealing the work to be very much the equal in scope and intensity of the concertos that followed. The accompanying sonatas, however, are more equivocal. The combative opening movement of Op.111 is overwhelming, though Say's emphatic way with the subsequent variations won't be to everyone's taste. The Moonlight is more cohesive, but curiously disturbing: the first movement is bleak and austere rather than romantic and introspective, the finale eruptive in the extreme. The Concerto makes it essential listening, though, whatever you think of the rest.
"Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric," said the philosopher Bertrand Russell. "I am not eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of catfish," protested the perfectly normal poet Edith Sitwell, who just happened to dress in turbans and black velvet embroidered with gold lions and unicorns. In 1922, in her cut-glass accent, she performed a series of abstract poems through a megaphone protruding from a huge head painted on a curtain that concealed her and a seven-piece jazz band.
Eccentricity can certainly be a life force, a drive to be different, a restless river of creativity. But what defines such characteristics, and how can you identify them in song? The word comes from the Latin eccentricus, derived from Greek ekkentros, meaning "out of the centre". So that certainly points to those who move away from the conventional, make unusual decisions, express themselves in an unusual way, whether that across an entire song, or during just one particular moment within it. It may be in subject matter and lyrics, odd sounds or ways of playing, unconventional mixes, sounds or rhythms.
Carl Heinrich Graun (1703-57) is best known for a number of operas written late in his career when he was court composer to Frederick the Great of Prussia. His Easter Oratorio, however, dates from his time (1725-33) as assistant kapellmeister in Brunswick, beyond this, we know little about its genesis. Like Bach's Christmas Oratorio, it's a sequence of cantatas intended for liturgical use over successive days. The celebratory attractiveness of much of the music is offset by an antisemitic passage in the text of the third cantata, which renders it suspect. Arduous vocal writing, both solo and choral, suggests that Graun had impressive singers at his disposal. The challenges are variably met here: tenor Jan Kobow is at his limits in places, though there's a particularly fine contribution from bass-baritone Andreas Wolf. The choral singing is notably beautiful.
First performed in 1733, Deborah is among the earliest of Handel's English oratorios. Popular in his day, it has been neglected since, and scholars had questioned its originality on the grounds that Handel, an inveterate self-borrower, recycled too much previous material in composing the score. The argument ignores the extraordinary power the work generates in performance, as admirably proved by its revival at this year's London Handel festival.
A study of women in political and spiritual authority, the oratorio aimed at shoring up the regency of Caroline of Ansbach when her husband, George II, was away consolidating his power bases in Hanover. The prophet Deborah leads the Israelite resistance against a Canaanite army of occupation under the pagan general Sisera. Barak is the warrior she appoints as head of her troops, but she prophesies that it is to another woman, Jael, that Sisera will eventually fall.
The Scottish Opera may have found an experienced adviser in Thomas Allen, but they'll need money to fully realise its potential something which is not lacking at the Vienna Phil
A couple of operatic stories for your delectation, or possible consternation: first, that Scottish Opera have appointed Thomas Allen as music adviser, to "provide high-level input and advice on musical and artistic matters while the company continues the process of recruiting a Music Director". No doubting Allen's credentials especially in the light of his productions as a director for Scottish Opera over recent years or his sagacity and experience as one of the great singers and personalities of British operatic life, but the questions for Scottish Opera continue: how long is the search for a new MD going to take? Does this appointment mean that Allen is a de facto, European-style intendant, in charge of "musical and artistic matters", and therefore responsible for casting, choosing conductors and repertoire, while the company finds its musical future? Or will Alex Reedijk, Scottish Opera's embattled general director, have the final say? How much will Allen be able to challenge the company to up its game on stage, and does his appointment mean there's more money to realise some of his ambitions? And when it comes to the most obvious musical matters that need addressing, I hope that Allen will advise the company echoing the aims of Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, the music director who left the job less than two months into it last year that the company should at least have the ambition to reappoint some full-time musicians, such as a chorus or an orchestra, which are the foundations of any serious opera company.
Meanwhile, from another world of operatic largesse, the latest very rich and very famous recipient of classical music's biggest award, the $1m Birgit Nilsson prize, is the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the two previous incumbents being Plácido Domingo and Riccardo Muti. We'll have to wait until October to find out what the orchestra plans to do with the money. Incidentally, its president, Clemens Hellsberg, is the Austrian representative on the Birgit Nilsson prize's five-person international jury. He apparently "left the virtual room the moment the orchestra was nominated by another member and played absolutely no part in any of the subsequent deliberations", according to the British representative, the Daily Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen. The prize's press release says that although Hellsberg was a member of the 2011 jury, he "recused himself from the 2014 panel". But here's hoping the Vienna Phil will use the cash to establish a visionary music education project perhaps they will commission some independent research into music and gender that will result in a gradual but fundamental redressing of the orchestra's still overwhelmingly male culture, and begin to reorient the orchestra as a unique and treasurable if controversial phenomenon that belongs to the whole world of classical music, not just to the well-heeled audiences of festivals and opera performances (excluding the BBC Proms, of course). A million bucks should be able to achieve some of that, surely?
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