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CLASSICAL ICONOCLAST
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"Tradition ist nicht die Anbetung der Asche, sondern die Bewahrung und das Weiterreichen des Feuers" - Gustav Mahler
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Sir Simon Rattle, photo; Oliver Helbig, courtesy Askonas Holt

Sir Simon Rattle and the  London Symphony Orchestra marked the opening of the 2018-2019 season with a blast.  Literally, for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new piece Donum Simoni MMXVIII was an explosion of brass - four trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba, bursting into the Barbican Hall. When Sir Harry makes a statement, he makes it big and bold !  Short as it was, this fanfare was more substantial than it might have seemed at first.  Like the composer himself, it was forthright and direct - no messing about.  Hence the gruff low timbres and pugnacious sassiness, punctuated by percussion, with woodwind interjection, and later a tuba solo. Characteristic Birtwistle quirks and earthiness.  Oddly enough the piece sounded like the way Birtwistle speaks in conversation. Since Birtwistle and Rattle have had a long relationship that goes back to the mid 1970's, Donum Simoni is personal, like an autographed portrait of the composer with an affectionate dedication to an old friend.

In a masterstroke of provocative but inspired programing, Rattle followed Birtwistle with Gustav Holst. Holst's Egdon Heath (A homage to Thomas Hardy) op 47 (1927) is rooted in the idea of timeless landscape.  Like Hardy's Wessex, Egdon Heath doesn't exist, though it feels as though it should.  Low rumbling harmonies, long, ambiguous string lines that seem to be hovering between tonalities: like mist above a heath.  Tempis speed up, but clear, long lines return and an anthem-like motif emerges : almost Elgarian in the way that it evokes time and place.  A single trumpet rang clear and the sounds dissolved into the ether around them. Though Rattle has built his reputation on new music, he has done a lot of Elgar and Sibelius. This Egdon Heath was a beautifully textured tone poem rich with feeling.  Rattle is making connections between Holst and Birttwistle, who creates imaginary landscapes, rough hewn from almost organic forces, merging past, present and future in co-existing layers.  Some may scream that Holst isn't "modern" but yes he was, in his own way. Rattle's gift for intelligent musical juxtapositions is one of his strengths, from which we can learn.

Rattle and Mark-Anthony Turnage have worked together for decades, too. Rattle premiered Turnage's Remembering 'in memoriam Evan Scofield'  with the LSO at the Barbican last year (read more here) and with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin. Turnage's Dispelling the Fears from 1994/5 is a much earlier work.  Trumpet players Philip Cobb and Gábor Tarkövi are principals of the LSO and the Berliner Philharmoniker respectively, so this performance was also a drawing together of past, present and future.  The two trumpets stalk each other in dialogue and at cross-purposes, connecting and disconnecting with the orchestra around them.  Though it is a serious work, there's wit in it too, which connected it, in turn, to Benjamin Britten's Spring Symphony.

Britten's Spring Symphony (1948) is big, flamboyant and bursting with good-humoured high jinks -  an excellent choice with which to open a new season.  Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra were joined here by soloists Alice Coote, Elizabeth Watts and Allan Clayton  with the London Symphony Chorus (Simon Halsey), the Tiffin Boy's Choir, the Tiffin Girls' School Choir and the Tiffin Children's Chorus (James Day).  The Spring Symphony is more than symphony : it is a piece of music theatre, where visuals count.   Here, the  youth choruses walked into the Barbican Hall and sang from the edge of the platform, up one aisle and on the stage itself.   Not quite as stunning as last year's Berlioz Damnation of Faust when Rattle and the LSO were joined by young singers who seemed to materialize everywhere (Please read more here).   But the difference lay in the music itself.  Cheerful as the Spring Symphony is, there's something very "English" about it, and its high spirits need a certain degree of discretion.  In terms of Britten's output it occupies a strange place. It's not Peter Grimes, but closer to another genre dear to Britten's heart : community music-making for the sheer pleasure of making music together. 

Thus the sprawling structure, four parts with twelve distinct sections, which together form a large, impressionistic portrait of Spring in its many manifestations. A Birtwistle "landscape" of sorts   If there's any symphonic predecessor, it might be Mahler's Symphony no 3 where summer rushes in with exuberant vigour.  Like the god Pan, artists don't follow rules : they create.  Thus the many different texts from various sources,  some medieval, some modern, and the variety of settings and styles.  Wisely, Rattle didn't try to homogenize them, but kept the separate parts distinct, so,each shone on its own merits.   A blazing "Shine out, fair sun !" set the mood. There are many Brittenesque elements in the piece which would be fun to isolate, and relate to, later works, but it is enough that the work as a whole flows naturally as a series of tableaux.  Lively performances : everyone having a good time.  whih is as things should be. Rattle, a consummate communicator, knows how to share his enthusiasm with performers and with audiences. A lot of fuss these days is made of grim-faced pious "music education" but this is how things actually work in the real world.  Note the final section "London to thee I do present the merry month of May".

1 day ago |
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The young baritone Andrè Schuen is attracting a lot of interest among Lieder aficionados. A friend who heard him at the Schwarzenberg Schubertiade in August, and at the Wigmore Hall and Oxford Lieder Festival,  considers Schuen one of the most promising talents of the last few years.  Praise indeed from someone who has been listening for sixty years, and discovered Goerne and Boesch long before most.  This new recording, from Avi.music.de, features Schuen and regular pianist Daniel Heide in an all-Schubert programme.  Schuen's voice is highly individual, with a beautiful, distinctive timbre that makes him stand out.  But there's more to singing than a good instrument. Schuen has an instinctive feel for the way nuance shapes meaning, and innate musicality.  In a business where success can come from playing safe and sounding like someone else,  Schuen's unique voice and style is something to respect.  Though he has yet to mature (he's only 34), Schuen has tremendous potential and promise: if he develops into maturity at this level, he will be a force to reckon with. This Schubert set is a fairly typical collection of favourites, compiled to introduce a new singer to a wider audience, and it is very good indeed as such.  But I would also recommend getting Schuen's earlier recording with Heide, with songs by Schumann (Liederkreis op 24), Hugo Wolf and Frank Martin, which is even better and more unusual.  Rarely have Frank Martin's 6 Monologs from Jedermann sounded so good. There's also another set of Beethoven songs with the Boulanger Trio.    Together these three discs give a fuller impression of Schuen's talents and interests.  Please also read here about his Munich recital in November 2017."Ich komme vom Gebirge her".  Everyone knows Schubert's Der Wanderer D483, but Schuen makes it feel personal.  He comes from Bolzano in the Südtirol, and is fluent in Italian, German and Ladino.  That in itself means little, for we are all wanderers in the Romantic sense of the word. Indeed, perhaps even more so in this modern digital age where everyone's connected but not really connecting.  "Ich wandle still, bin wenig froh" sings Schuen with great depth, "under immer fragt der Seufzer, wo?"   In Fahrt zum Hades D526, Schuen's rich, resonant tones complement his ability to shape a dramatic line. He sings a lot of opera, and, though I haven't heard him in that, I imagine he's a very effective communicator.  The more lyrical An den Mond D259  brings out the warmth and tenderness in Schuen's delivery while Der Musensohn D764 demonstrates the crispness of his diction.  Totengräbers Heimweh D842 is beautifully phrased, as reverential as prayer. Schuen responds to the hypnotic piano figures singing with a sense of wonder, appropriately, since the gravedigger is seeing visions as he falls into the grave.   In Abendstern D806 the piano part seems to shimmer with surreal light while Schuen's singing shows well-modulated control : what is Mayrhofer suggesting in this elusive dialogue between poet and  evening star  ?  Im Frühling D882, to a poem by Ernsr Schulze, might also be more than it seems on the surface, for Schulze's relationships with women weren't quite right, but Schuen sings with sympathy and sincerity.  A rousing Wilkommen and Abschied D7676, at turns energetic and thoughtful, the changes of tempo and mood beautifully defined.  After writing this, I tracked down the BR Klassik documentary Der Stimme aus dem Gadertal.  I waas glad to see this, since Schuen is divinely good looking as well as talented; sometimes these things can go to a person's head. But the whole Schuen family are gorgeous and they also seem very well grounded.   When some people become celebs, it goes to their heads, but I don't think it will happen to Schuen. The house is simple and unfussy and the family seem to genuinely like being together. Dad helps Mum cook, and they all sing Ladin folk songs round the table.  I have friends on the Austrian side of the Tirol who did much the same thing, it's not that unusual.  Lots of music clips, of course, and extracts from Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven. Also a clip from Schuen's appearance in the title role of Hamlet in a new opera at Theatre an der Wien.  Yes, he can act as well as sing.  Enjoy the film HERE. 
4 days ago |
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From Hyperion, an excellent new Ralph Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus,  Elizabeth Llewellyn and Marcus Farnsworth soloists. This follows on from Brabbins’s highly acclaimed Vaughan Williams Symphony no 2 "London" in the rarely heard 1920 version. Although Brabbins has not hitherto recorded much Vaughan Williams, he is a superlative conductor of British music and of 20th century British music in particular, so the prospect of a new Hyperion series with Brabbins is intriguing.

The brass fanfare sparkles, strong and bright, rather than brassy,  introducing the first line "Behold, the Sea! ". In many ways,  this symphony is a secular hymn to the sea and what it might represent, so the voice parts are integral to meaning. For a moment the orchestra sings on its own but the voices rise upon the crest, chorus and orchestra surging forwards together. A roll of timpani, and again the anthem "Behold the Sea!" repeated wave after wave.  The tide fades, introducing a new theme highlighted by rhythms that suggest shanty song. Hence the interplay between the first soloist and the chorus, "a chant for the sailors of all nations, Fitful, like a surge".  This call and response relationship also suggests sacred song.  The flags flying here include a special one "for the soul of man"......a spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death, Token of all brave captains and all intrepid sailors and mates". Though the influence of Debussy and Ravel is significant, the Sea Symphony is very much part of the English choral tradition, albeit in very sophisticated form.  After a brief lull, the music surges forth again, underlined by organ. The baritone returns, singing of the "pennant universal", the chorus and soprano repeating the words in concurrence.  Then, as so often in chorale,  the first verse returns, the soprano at first on her own, the theme elaborated by the baritone, chorus and orchestra together.

The second movement is introduced by mysterious low harmonies, setting the mood "On the beach at night alone".  Here, the organ is particularly resonant, the brass and low timbred winds calling out as if in hymnal.  At first the baritone is alone, but gradually joined by small than full chorus.  "All nations, all identities......This vast similitude spans them".  The voices and orchestra repeat the themes, like waves, rising and falling in volume and force.  Beautifully judged orchestral playing, the solo instruments heard clearly, before blending back into the whole, rather like stars in a night sky.   The fanfare in the scherzo movement was more tumultuous than the fanfare at the very start, for it describes the churning of waves "in the wake of the sea-ship after she passes" - wild but not "motley" given the precise definition in the music, which Brabbins kept sharply focused.

If A Sea Symphony is a journey. it is one which proceeds, like many journeys, looking backwards at turns, but ever forward.  Hence the final movement, titled The Explorers, where the ship appears to be taking off into unknown territory.  The scherzo movement operated like a Dies Irae, a monent of judgement clearing the way for a more esoteric future. "After the seas are all cross'd, ........The true son of God shall come singing his songs."  The mood is now altogether more esoteric, the first verse serene yet expansive with long lines that seem to stretch  and search. Shimmering strings echo the voices of the chorus, then joined by brass and winds, and later organ, repeat the harmonies.  After this long choral section, the symphony reaches a new stage. Farnsworth and Llewellyn lead the way ahead "fearlessfor unknown   shores on waves of ecstasy to sail". The solo violin defines yet another stage, with an element of peaceful bliss. Thus we are prepared for the section "O thou transcendent". Farnsworth's voice glows, the relative lightness of his baritone well suited to the luminous imagery in the text. In the finale, the energy and exuberance of the first movemen returns, invigorated "Away ! Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!"  Llewelyn rallies the chorus and the orchestra surges yet again. Sea shanty rhythms are heard again as the "ship" sets forth. The motif "Behold the Sea" is reprised before the very last section, but as the "ship" sails out of sight, silence gradually descends, as if some form of transcendence is achieved.  Brabbins's instinct for structure, honed from years of experience in modern music, pays off handsomely in this last movement, which unfolds with great coherence.  This A Sea Symphony feels like the herald of a new age, as indeed it was, connecting also to other 20th century music of spiritual yearning. 

As a bonus, this recording includes Darest thou now, O soul, a three minute miniature for unison voices and string orchestra, (a hymn with orchestra !) using the same Walt Whitman text which Vaughan Williams used in Towards the Unknown Region.  It is an excellent choice, complementing A Sea Symphony not only in terms of poetic ideas but also taking up the violin line near the end of the symphony.

6 days ago |
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Seventeen years since 9/11 and so much has changed, for the worse.  From the wreckage,  came messages of love. Instead, hate has seeped into public life, poisoning the system.  A moment to reflect on Charles Wuorinen, whose Cyclops 2000 was commissioned by the owners of Cantor Fitzgerald, an unusual alliance between high finance and the avant garde.

The name is a play on Cyclops of ancient myth, who had one giant eye and could only see straight ahead. Hence, it’s written on a single constant metre. The real drama, though, comes from what Cyclops does with his single eye, or rather what Wuorinen does, within the constraints of the metre. The music proceeds in fits and starts, jerking from side to side, switching from rapid tempo to moments of still contemplation. Textures vary : sometimes soloists pulling out from the ensemble, sometimes duetting and exchanging partners in further duets. This gives the piece a strong sense of movement, even though it rises from a simple, single line.  The disparate figures are drawn together so the piece moves forward like a quirky, joyous procession, all elements moving in relation to each other, always headed towards a goal.

Read into that what you will.  The premiere was in May 2001 in London, conducted by Oliver Knussen, which was recorded. I don't know if it's been done since. On 9/11, Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 employees outright. No one can count the full cost in terms of bereavement, PTSD, and  lives changed for ever.  Oliver Knussen is gone, too. The world is not a better place. 

7 days ago |
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To mark the start of the Wigmore Hall's 2018/19 season, Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau in a characteristically thought-provoking programme of songs to poems by Heinrich Heine, by Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt and Robert Franz.  From Boesch and Martineau, you can always expect the unexpected, but done with intelligence and insight. So I'll start with the end,  and the encore, which Boesch introduced as being like those endless but addictive Brazilian TV soaps where relationships go round and round forever.  Robert Schumann's Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen, standard repertoire, but rarely heard with such originality.  Heine's mischevious wit came to life as Boesch sang, his eyebrows arched in disbelief as he counted the different permutations on his fingers.
"Es ist eine alte Geschichte, 
Doch bleibt sie immer neu;
Und wem sie just passieret,
Dem bricht das Herz entzwei
".

But back to the beginning of the recital where Boesch and Martineau sang nine songs to poems from Heine's Lyrisches IntermezzoHad the point of the programe not been evident beforehand, the songs might have come as a shock, since these weren't the familiar texts to Schumann's Dichterliebe but settings by Robert Franz (1815-1892).  The two men were contemporaries.  Schumann praised Franz's first songs while he was a music critic for Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.  Hearing Franz's settings of the same texts that Schumann set highlights the difference in their compositional styles.  In Franz's Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (op 25/5 1870), the piano part is ornate, suggesting floral imagery, while Schumann's version emphasizes the declaration of love.  Schumann responds to the irony in Heine, whereas Franz softens the more sarcastic edges.  The strong definition of Schumann's Im Rhein from Dichterliebe (op 48, 1848) suggests the power of the river and cathedral, contrasted with "meines Lenbens Wildnis" : the poet hardly dares speak of lost love. In Franz's version, (op 18/2 1860), "die Augen, die Lippen, de Wanglein" glow radiantly.  The suppressed fear in Schumann's Allnächtlich in Taume gives way to sadness in Franz. Schumann represents Romanticism with its sense of individualism and the unconscious, while Franz represents Romanticism in more Beidermeier discretion.  Franz, like many other composers of the period, such as Carl Loewe or Franz Lachner, and many others, are important because they remind us of the many different seams in the Romantic imagination

Yet another strand of Romanticism, with an intermezzo before the songs of Franz Liszt, Schumann's Abends im Strand (op 45/3 1840) ; the very image of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich where tiny figures on shore watch ships sailing to unknown places.  Ardent figures in the piano part suggest excitement, and the vocal part rises wildly at the phrase "und quaken und schrei'en" before retreating from adventure to the gentility of the last verse  where "endlich sprach neimand mehr".

Boesch and Martineau continued with Liszt's Heine settings, including Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam (S309/1 1860), Du bist wie eine Blume (S287 1843-9). In Liszt's Im Rhein, im schönen Strome (S272/1 1840) the piano line depicts the rolling flow of the river, which gradually gives way to more sparkling figures illuminating the last verse which mentions the lost beloved, then ends in reassuring repeated motif.  Martineau shone, and Boesch's dignified phrasing added solidity.

The high point in this set was Loreley (S273/2 1856) in one of the finest performances of this song I can remember.  Liszt creates textures in the piano part which suggest the sparkling waters, the word "loreley" embedded  wordlessly, over and over.  The delicacy with which Martineau played showed why this song is so often performed by women. But Boesch has the skills to carry it off even more convincingly.  He sang the first verses with tender restraint, creating a sense of wonder : the protagonist is, after all, not the loreley herself but a mortal wondering why the tale is so tragic.  He sang the lines "die luft ist kühl" so quietly that a ghostly chill seemed to descend, and even negotiated the tricky sudden ascent to higher range on the word "Abendsonnenschien".  Martineau played the second phase of the song to bring out the lyrical, golden warmth with which the loreley seduces.  Boesch's voice seemed to glow on the words "Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet" growing with strength and volume, evoking the power of the "wundersame, gewaltige Melodie", leading logically into the next section of the song where the seamen  are seized "mit wildem Weh", and hurled to their deaths.   Rumbling turmoil in the piano part, Martineau unleashing the fury in the waves, enhancing Boesch's darker timbres as he sang, emphasizing out the menace and horror.  This created a wonderful contrast with the last section of the song, where the gentler melody returns, as the river becomes calm once more. Now not only the motif "loreley" repeats but whole phrases, gradually retreating into a serenity which we now know will last only until the next doomed sailor appears.

Boesch and Martineau capped this wonderful Liszt Loreley with an equally impressive Schumann Belsazar (op 57, 1840). They have done this song on numerous occasions, but this performance was exceptional, Boesch relishing the inherent drama but doing it with such naturalness that it didn't feel forced. Theatrical as the scene is,  Heine's telling of the story is human.  Martineau played the rippling figures evoking the high spirits of the party in the palace, the lines flowing like wine.  "Es kirten die Becher, es jauchzten die Knecht" sang Boesch with robust vigour.  This matters, for it is drink that makes the King bold enough to curse Jehovah. Boesch's timbre is elegantly regal and his words rang forcefully : "Ich bin der König von Babylon !" Martineau's piano spakled : a last moment of fizz before the mood descends into hushed fearfulness.  A sinister chill enetred Boesch's voice, his words measured and carefully modulated, his "t"'s as sharp as knives.  Great insight, for that very night Belsazar gets stabbed to death.

After this immensely rewarding first half of the recital came a selection of Schumann's Heine settings, including Die beiden Grenadiere (op 49/1 1840). vividly characterized and muscular, and three Lieder from Myrthen op 25 , Die Lotosblume, Was will die einsame Träne and Du bist wie eine Blume. showing Boesch at his sensitive best.  Trägodie (op 64/3 1841) a song in two contrasting parts. Lover elope in hope, but their dreams are doomed. The songs are neither Heine's nor Schumann's finest, so they depend more than usual on good performance. Boesch and Martineau did them so they felt like real people, rather than maudlin figures as in some less accomplished hands I've heard.  Boesch and Martinaeu gave a very good account of  Liederkreis (op 24 1840) with some extremely interesting high points.  Warte, warte wilder Schiffmann suits Boesch's masculine physicality, while Berg' und Burgen schau'n herunter brought out something even harder to achieve ; exquisite, well-defined nuance, for this is an almost bi-polar song and poem. A boat sails merrily on the sunlit river, but above loom mountains and castles, realms of death and night.  "Oben Lust, im Busen Tückern, Strom du bist der Liebsten Bild!"  In comparison, Mit Myrten und Rosen is full-hearted joy, though it, too, is haunted by a Heine kick in the tail, which Boesch and Martineau brought out with subtlety.  Liederkreis can often be the crowning glory of a recital, and this one was good, but the first half of this programme was so unusual and so brilliantly done  that this time, for a change, Liederkreis took second place.

10 days ago |
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ENO Studio Live at Wilton's Music Hall for Benjamin Britten Paul Bunyan in a new production.  Please read Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today. Nearly 80 years after it was written  this opera is still beyond the comprehension of many. Forget the folk story altogether : "From homespun culture manufactured in cities, Save us, animals and men"  W H Auden's not being arch.  If we don't see "homespun culture manufactured in cities" for the sham it is, we don't deserve anything more than fake and kitsch.  It's origins are more Weimar political cabaret, a genre which W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood knew first hand, and which Britten understood.  The nearest precedent is Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera. Paul Bunyan is not a musical. It is episodic because it depicts a society where attention spans aren't long enough to take on big ideas, or see the bigger picture behind the show.  Paul Bunyan is savage, biting satire, a wail of protest against materialism, vulgarity and the desecration of precious ideals.  Paul Bunyan doesn't appear in the opera for a very simple reason: he's a myth !  Larger than life, he represents an ideal that can never perhaps be attained.  It isn't about America at all, and attempts to present it one-dimensionally trivialize it, creating the very banality it so passionately abhors. The clumsiness of some of the musical writing in Paul Bunyan is in fact artistic licence. Parts of the piece sound corny because what they depict is corniness. Perhaps Britten is demonstrating the truth in Auden's phrase "From the accidental beauty of singalongs, Save Us, animals and men".

Paul Bunyan needs to be understood on its own terms and in the context of Britten's creative development.  It connects first and foremost to Our Hunting Fathers, premiered in May 1936, written when Britten was only 23, a work which still suffers from the hysteria unleashed against it in some quarters.  Our Hunting Fathers is a work of striking originality.  The text for "Hawking for the Partridge" is by Thomas Ravenscroft (1588-1635), Two other texts are anonymous, from the same period, and the rest are W H Auden , one adapted by him from an earlier source.  Like Elgar's Sea Pictures, there's nothing specially unusual in mixing texts, as Britten was to do in other works, including The War Requiem.  In the case of Our Hunting Fathers, the mock Tudor casing serves as a disguise for intense anguish.  Again, Auden's experiences in Weimar Berlin are relevant.  He knew only too well what the rise of Hitler meant, and where the conformity of mob rule and militarism could lead. Significantly, the cycle was completed after the Nuremberg Race Laws were promulgated (September 1935). Our Hunting Fathers represents one of the very few early protests against the Nazi regime.  Britten's pacifism ran deep, and from a very early age, and went far beyond his connection to Auden.  Paul Bunyan, like Our Hunting Fathers is cryptic code. The messages repeat in non-vocal works like the Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem. And in the less stellar Ballad for Heroes (read more here)
If Paul Bunyan isn't a hymn to kitsch Americana, what is it? In the opening chorus, the singers sing that the Revolution has turned to rain. Management/staff relations in the logging camp are better organized than in many real life businesses. Britten and Auden were well aware of Brechtian  dialectics and the political music theatre of their period, and this has some effect on the stylized, almost agit prop narrative. However,  Paul  Bunyan springs from a much deeper groundswell of pain and disillusion. Britten, Pears and Auden left Europe, hoping to find a new world uncontaminated by the strife of 1930's Europe. Britten's sojourn in America was comfortable, but he picked up on the darker sides of the America Dream. In Paul Bunyan, ancient forests are felled, the wood used for houses and railway tracks. "Progress" moves further west, and with it, conformity, gentrification and hypocrisy. "From patriotism turned to persecution, Save Us, animals and men". Peter Grimes and Billy Budd describe the fate of men who fall foul of bigots and mobs. Britten, Auden and Pears were well aware how J Edgar Hoover was hunting down "subversives". McCarthy's witch hunts would have come as no surprise. Like Peter Grimes, Paul Bunyan and Babe are too big for their boots in a world where pettiness rules.
So, what of the ENO Paul Bunyan ? Please read Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today HERE. As she says, it doesn't appear to deal with the savage irony that is so central to the piece.   Maybe the world still isn't ready for grown-up thinking.  It took the London media a long time to to get Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole.  Although Paul Bunyan was written for students, I think it either needs students with political nous and passion (no longer a given these days) or a professional cast and team.  It's not just the quality of performance that counts but the commitment behind it.  One Paul Bunyan that did work was the English Touring Opera production which came to the Linbury in 2014. Please read my review of that HERE.
11 days ago |
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Unsung Heroes : the Berlin Philharmonic on the move (photo: Roger Thomas)
Kirill Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker, Proms 66 and 68 at the Royal Albert Hall (plus another at the Cadogan Hall today).  An opportunity to ponder how the music business works.   From the media hype, you'd think Petrenko was a discovery. He's even being hailed as  the next Carlos Kleiber, which is a curious non-compliment if you actually know how screwed up Kleiber was.   From the hype, you'd also think he was unknown, which says more about the media than about the man himself. He was Chief at the Komische Oper in Berlin fifteen years ago and Chief at the Bayerisches Staatsoper and a regular at Bayreuth - hardly low profile.  In many circles, he was so unknown that many confused him with Vassily Petrenko and even Mikhail Petrenko, the singer.   You can't really blame audiences, since he hadn't recorded much and was, at the time his appointment was announced, almost non-existent on Youtube, though that changed overnight.The orchestra itself declared that they loved himn so much that they'd been waiting years to hire him again since his two performances some time back, which is odd since they could have scheduled something.  Petrenko is good, and sometimes extremely good (read about the Munich Parsifal HERE),  but we need to assess him for himself, not by the media image.
The same goes for any speculation about what the Petrenko era in Berlin might mean.  Just as in any business, chiefs are chosen for what they can do to develop the brand. Karajan made the Berlin Phil tops in the recording industry, Abbado's non-dictatorial style developed them as musicians, and created the panoply of assocuated orchestras.  Rattle's gifts as commincator opened up community-oriented outreach.   Though it's not unusual for the Berliner Philharmoniker to choose wild cards, as Karajan, Abbado and Rattle were in their time,  what matters is to think where the orchestra might be heading in future. Thus the photo above. Who are the unsung heroes who make an orchesatra move?  Not just the truck drivers but the organization as a whole, musicians, management and support systems, not just the star at the helm.
Petrenko's two Proms in London exactly replicated recent concerts in Berlin, the first of which was in April, the second on 24th August. (both available on the Digital Concert Hall).  The main difference is Yuja Wang's evening gown, a perfectly good reason to enjoy watching.  On Saturday I was at Prom 66 for Franz Schmidt's Symphony no 4 in C major, (1933) new to the BBC Proms perhaps but again, hardly unknown.  Indeed, Britain is one of the Franz Schmidt hot spots, since his friend, Hans Keller, was extremely influential in British music circles.  Schmidt's reputation has been plagued by trying to fit him into pigeonholes.  Listen to the interval talk on BBC Radio 3 where Eric Levi and Nigel Simeone, who know what they are talking about, demolish notions about Schmidt's place in music history.   If music is good on its own terms it doesn't matter what box it falls into: judging anything by arbitrary assumptions gets in the way of real listening.  Schmidt is not Mahler, nor Bruckner, he's himself.  That said, Schmidt's Fourth reminds me a bit of Berg's Violin Concerto, not because both were written in memory of a dead woman, but for their chromatic inventiveness.
The long, expansive lines seem to quiver, as if seeking out resolution from unnswerable questions. The lone trumpet  sings, plaintively, but with dignity, quiet percussion behind it, like footsteps in a funeral procession.  The theme is taken up and developed by solo cello,  the strings and winds behind it rising ever upward. The lines are expansively extended, as if the composer didn't want the thread to end, but is cut short by a fast-paced section, which briskly sweeps away what has gone before.  Now the instruments rush forth in tight, angular staccato, ending in flaring crescendo.  The cor anglais sings a long, mournful line, taken up and expanded by the strings and other winds, on this occasion sounding warm and somewhat serene, Then a last big surge in the orchestra before the trumpet re-appeared, ending with poignant suddeness.   Before Schmidt's Fourth, a rather straightfoward account of Paul Dukas's ballet La Péri, which could have been both wackier and lusher, and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no 3 with Yuja Wang, which was great good fun: a party piece before the funeral.
Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker rested up for the day while Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra did Mahler Symphony no 3 in the afternoon.  Please read my review of that HERE. Their Monday Prom, Prom 69, with Shostakovich Symphony no 4 which was even better! Pity it was paired with  a lesser work by Bernstein, though well played, with soloist Baiba Skride.  It's a pity that the BBC's obsession with tickbox themes has resulted in more Bernstein than anything else, espcially if you include the often uninformed commentary from presenters who seemed to be spouting party line.  But back to Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker for Prom 68 with Beethoven Symphony no 7 and Richard Strauss Don Juan on Sunday  night.  Utterly solid and reliable : an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic does not do anything less, ever.   Nothing wrong with that per se, but nothing revelatory either.  So one does wonder what lies ahead. 
14 days ago |
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With Prom 67, Andris Nelsons returned to the Royal Albert Hall, London with part of his old band, the CBSO Chorus and CBSO Youth Chorus, and  his current band, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in a superb performance of Mahler Symphony no 3 in D minor.  Like all organizations whose strength is the people within, orchestras need motivation and leadership.  The BSO sounds transformed since their last visit to London in 2015 (please read more here), and infinitely more alive than their previous visit eleven years ago. The brass and celli in particular sound rejuvenated.   Warming up for this Prom, I'd been listening to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra where Nelsons is now Chief Conductor, marvelling how the brass there sounds golden and resonant, rarely "brassy".  There's a lot of brass in Mahler 3 but it's not a symphony where brassiness or flash exists for its own sake. Nelsons understood why the brass sections matter and how they contribute to the whole symphony in context.  In any case, bringing some of the Leipzig glow to any other orchestra is quite an achievement.

This was an excellent Mahler 3 because it was sensitive, respecting the subtitles which Mahler used as a kind of scaffolding as he built the symphony.  Notice those titles : "What the Flowers in the Meadow tell me", "What the Animals in the Forest tell me" and "What the Angels tell me". Flowers, animals and angels can't speak:  you have to listen on a much deeper level to understand.  Thus Mahler withdrew the "scaffolding" so audiences would have to pay proper attention.  In a world where muzak values are replacing music values, this is even more pertinent.

The first movement in itself is as long as some entire symphonies, but Nelsons understands the inner structure, which progresses in peaks and planes. Again and again, trumpets lead forward, percussion marking emphatic endings, yet the second theme emerged quietly, heralded by muffled timpani.  Very airy-sounding violin and woodwind figures lit the way for the return of the "march" theme, where trombones added darker colours.  Yet quieter details mattered, like the hushed diminuendo before the whirlwind of woodwinds,  livening the brisk marching pace.  Now,  sassy, sweeping brass made joyous entry.  "Pan awakes", revealing vast panoramas full of promise. The horn call, though, was more restrained, appropriately, for in the mountains, horns are designed to reach over long distances. Thus the solo violin, gentle pizzicato, and harps suggesting perhaps the human world beneath the horizon.  A well shaped "wild descent", and a moment to reflect before the next "peak"  where percussion and brass interacted : a march though not a funeral march other than in the sense of marking the end of the first stage in this journey.   Thus the muted "marching" celli and strings, and the expansive flourish that followed. 

After this invigorating first movement, the sweetness and delicacy of the second made complete sense.  Again and again in Mahler images of meadows in summer recur as symbols of happiness, won after struggle or remembered during struggle. Mahler was a man who hiked and biked and knew the rhythms.  A nice perky start to the third movement, the woodwinds imitating birdsong, a direct quote from the Wunderhorn song Ablösung im Sommer ("Kuckuck ist tod!") . The posthorn, heard from afar, might evoke many things, such as distance, or the inevitable change of time.  Yet no lingering, Nelsons keeping the pace exuberant, so the return of the distant posthorn felt  suitably poignant, the orchestra an afterglow before the finale, where the brass led a hurtling climax.

This set the mood for the mysterioso movement.  "O Mensch, gibt ach !" sang Susan Graham.  "What Man tells me", might be an eternal cycle of suffering and rebirth. "Tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!".  Graham's timbre is lighter than many others, some of whom bring out the Herculean Earth Mother depth in the song, but this works well with this more lively interpretation of the symphony, introducing the glorious highlight of the fifth movement.  Excellent interplay between the voices of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Youth Chorus, and Miss Graham, which reflects to some extent the interplay between brass and percussion in the first movement.  The Youth Chorus’s voices were exceptionally fresh, the bimm bamm's ringing with angelic purity.

Whatever the final movement may signify, its long lines stretch into the distance : the strings and brass doing what the post horn did earlier but now present directly within the orchestra.  The jaunty march at the beginning of the symphony gives way to what might seem serenity, but may be  more complex.  Again the brass lead the orchestra into crescendo, suggesting that the march remains, operating as a pulse behind the swathes of orchestral colour.   The brass again called forth, percussion crashing : a wonderful moment of near silence from which the solo voice of the violin sang clean and clear.  The finale an anthem of confidence, repeating like the march that went before, and ending with emphatic timpani-led tutti.

And here is the finest review I've read anywhere in years ! Marc Bridle, the best in the business ! Please follow THIS LINK
15 days ago |
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Imagine a TV show first screened on 19th July this year, yet already viewed tens of millions of times, sweeping across Chinese communities all over the world.  A historical saga, so dramatic that you get addicted, and can't stop watching even though it runs to 70 episodes each 45 minutes long. The Story of Yanxi Palace ???? (2018) is sweeping Chinese communities all over the world.   Since the population of China itself is close to 1.4 billion, that's a mass market on its own.
A Manchu girl, Eng Wei, enters the Forbidden City in Beijing during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799). The basic story is familiar : the girl did exist, as did her amazing rise from servant to Empress (albeit posthumously), though the exact details vary with each re-telling.   This gives viewers context and gives artistic licence to creators.  Historical sagas are nothing new,  whether in Chinese literature or Chinese film, but this production is a sensation because it is done exceptionally well.   Full of incident and variety, the drama is fast paced, and emotionally involving since the characters are well defined. What's more, production values are sumptuous, way above ordinary costume drama -  real silks and hand embroidery, not the usual polyester machine-made stuff..  The sets don't look studio, and some scenes are in fact shot in the Forbidden City, whose sheer size and extravagance cannot be matched.  Even Shaw Brothers, in their glory days, could do nothing like this!

In the Qian Long period, the Chinese Empire reached an apogee . In one episode, the Emperor is having a party, and recives gifts from his concubines (chosen normally from aristocratic Manchu clans). One gift is an entertainment by a band of eunuchs playing western music on western instruments, which did, in fact, happen, though not exactly like this.  They are playing Bach, and the band includes saxophone, guitar and accordion !  The research the production team put into everything else went wrong here, but compared with the rest of the show it's no big deal.  One of the Imperial Concubines is a Beijing opera fan, with her own little theatre with good scenes of singing and music.  The main thing is that the Emperor and his ladies marvel at the novelty.  Though I chuckled at the idea of Bach being played with strange instruments, the concept itself isn't so far fetched.  There was a significant Jesuit community in Beijing, who served the Imperial Court, learning the culture and sharing western science and arts. Respecting the Chinese as equals : a far cry from the cannons and coercion policy that would later prevail.  Theree are plenty of books on the Jesuits in China, but much of the music they brought to and from, and made themselves, is not well documented.  Some manuscripts were hidden after the suppression of the order, not only in China but in Europe.

The best known recording is the Messe des Jesuites de Pekin, which recreates scores published in France between 1636 and 1661, recorded by Auvidis Astrée, with music by Joseph-Marie Amiot, Charles d'Ambleville, Simon Boyleau, and Téodorico Pédrini, some of the Jesuit musicians active in Beijing before that time.  The performers are Ensemble Meihua Fleur de Prunus and the choir of the Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris, directed by Francois Pichard, and XVIII-21 Musique des Lumieres directed by Jean-Christoph Frisch.  Western baroque meets Chinese orchestration.  These are liturgical works adapted for Chinese circumstances and Chinese musicians, presumably parishioners rather than professionals.  Some sound like Chinese chant, with accompaniment, some like western choral music of the time, with organ, period strings and Serpent, which gives an exotic feel.  In one piece, the choir chants in simple Latin, with Chinese wooden percussion and gongs, while the celebrant (presumably a Jesuit, trained to do so) sings.
23 days ago |
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From A E Housman's On Wenlock Edge, set by Ralph Vaughan Williams, "Clun" the last song, tucked away at the end when all the famous songs are over.  Some don't even notice ! But for me that is the beauty of the quiet, unassuming piece. It's not "about" phsical reality but something beyond this world.

Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun,Are the quietest places Under the sun.
In valleys of springs of rivers, By Ony and Teme and Clun,The country for easy livers, The quietest under the sun,We still had sorrows to lighten, One could not be always glad,And lads knew trouble at Knighton, When I was a Knighton lad.
By bridges that Thames runs under, In London, the town built ill,'Tis sure small matter for wonder If sorrow is with one still.And if as a lad grows older The troubles he bears are more,He carries his griefs on a shoulder That handselled them long before.
Where shall one halt to deliver This luggage I'd lief set down?Not Thames, not Teme is the river, Nor London nor Knighton the town:'Tis a long way further than Knighton, A quieter place than Clun, Where doomsday may thunder and lighten And little 'twill matter to one.
23 days ago |
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