Monday, 18 September 2017

Blazing Berlioz Damnation of Faust Simon Rattle Barbican


Blazing Berlioz The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girl's' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining.  An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.  If Simon Rattle can achieve such excellence in the cramped confines of the Barbican Hall, imagine how Britain's cultural life would be transformed if a world class concert hall with state of the art facilities were built.  The arts are central to the nation's economy and prestige. Britain cannot afford to slip.

As Rattle has said, the London Symphony Orchestra have the potential to do a lot more repertoire, given the chance. Berlioz The Damnation of Faust is an extravagant work. The stage was crowded with performers, and the volume projected into the shoebox that is the Barbican Hall  threatened at times to overwhelm.   On the BBC Radio 3 re broadcast and on the sound balance might be better, but the live experience was intoxicating, despite the acoustic.  Wisely, Rattle held his forces back, emphasizing instead the intricate orchestration  and textures that make this piece so exciting.  It is a sprawling drama, whose theatrical effects are embedded in the music.  In Berlioz's time audiences didn't need literal realism. They paid attention to the music. This performance was so vivid that the Barbican Hall seemed transformed as if by magic, as Berlioz's music came alive.

Faust, the old scholar, watches peasants dancing in the countryside. "Tra la la , Haha ha!" sing the chorus.  It is Easter. Spring has come. Nature blossoms. Christ has risen.  Dare Faust dream of rejuvenation ?    Bryan Hymel sang Faust, the rich, ringing warmth in his voice bringing colour to the role. Hymel then injected chill fear."Hélas! doux chants du ciel, pourquoi dans sa poussière Réveiller le maudit?". Faust is no fool : he already senses the immensity of what is to come.

A Faust as strong as Hymel needs an equally singular Méphistophélès.  Christopher Purves provided an authoritative counterbalance.  The expressiveness in Hymel's voice contrasted with the authority in Purves's voice and his purposeful enunciation. The way Purves sang "Ô pure émotion!" showed how Méphistophélès had sized  Faust up.   A strong Brander, too, in Gabor Bretz.  Though the part isn't big, it's important, for Brander is to the students what Méphistophélès is to Faust. The chorus sang lines that swayed from side to side, as drinkers do.  But an undercurrent of violence runs through the merriment. Purves sings the Song of the Flea but the drunks think it's funny.   In the Voici des roses, Purves suggested the thoughtful side of Méphistophélès.'s character:  low winds and strings evoking melancholy.  The devil is dangerous because he understands human sensitivity, and uses that to manipulate.  Perhaps Méphistophélès. is a kind of Oberon, for Faust is lulled into a dream by a magical flute melody, later taken up by the strings, and the songs of gnomes and sylphs.  A magical scene which owes much to Mendelssohn.

For Faust, a reverie of love. For the students, mindless delusion as they march off to war. Hymel's  aria "Merci, doux crépuscule! " was a star turn, beautifully articulated, glowing with feeling. The phrase "Que j’aime ce silence," glowed beautifully, followed by a deeply felt "et comme je respire Un air pur!"  The orchestra responded in kind, with transparently delicate textures.  When Méphistophélès. butts in, a violin plucks a banal ditty, like a student with a lute. But Faust is made of far finer stff, as is Marguerite.  Karen Cargill sang the Song of the King of Thule .with sincerity.  The song is a paean to fidelity, loyalty so stron g it defies death. Garlanded by viola and cellos, it's anothe moment of "silence" where Méphistophélès and the world canot reach.

Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust owes as much to Shakespeatre as to Goethe. In the magical Evocation, fireflies dance, piccolos playing bright figures augmented by darker hued winds and strings. Textures as transparent as these need this kind of definition There was humour, too, in the trombones and tuba,  which not every orchestra can carry off as well as the LSO.  Purves curled his tongue around the final words, with the menace of a snake, for now Faust and Marguerite have their encounter.  Hymel's "Ange adoré"  glowed resplendently, and his cry "Marguerite est à moi!." scaled the heights.  But the world intrudes, After fast paced exchanges, the lovers are torn apart.  The cross currents between soloists, choirs and orchestra were very well defined.

Then, back to solitude. Cargill's Romance showed her at her finest. matched by evocative clarinet.  Although some incarnations of Faust emphasize the God/Devil angles in the legend, Berlioz was very much a Romantic, for whom Nature was an alternative diety. Thus the importance of the Invocation. Hymel sang the aria Nature immense, impénétrable et fière, with such fervour it seemed an act of faith.  But Fast is doomed.  Méphistophélès and Faust set off on horses that fly through the sky, defying the laws of Nature.   Wailing woodwinds, and a frenzied pace in the orchestra, tensely plucked pizzicato.  The children's voices scremed "Ah!" and the tubas wailed pounding staccato, Now, Méphistophélès has little need for formal language. "Hop ! Hop!" screamed Purves. My flesh creeped, thinking of the "Hop Hop" at the end of Wozzeck.  The men's chorus walked on stage, among the orchestra, singing their demonic chorus : skat lyrics before the term was invented, interspersed with machine-gun staccato.  Are the demons the students and soldiers? That's one of the joys of non-staging : it makes you think.

"Hosana !" sang the  choirs at the back of the stage. Harps sggested angels, and the palpitating, ascending rhythms, the flapping of wings, or the image of water (as opposed to the fires of hell)   And then the children's choirs filed into the auditorium, illuminatingb the darkness with their high, pure voices.  Like a miracle !

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Beefcake ! Berlioz Damnation of Faust Barbican

My review of the Damnation of Faust with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra at the  Barbican is HERE

Berlioz The Damnation of Faust - Simon Rattle  - Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill,  London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican, London . Review HERE. Watch this space and read my other posts on Faust and his many incarnations - not just Berlioz !  (see labels below)

Friday, 15 September 2017

National Treasures : Simon Rattle LSO Elgar Birtwistle Knussen Adès

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the LSO. photo Tristram Kenton, courtesy LSO

"This is Rattle" the title of a ten-day Barbican festival inaugurating Sir Simon Rattle as new Music Director at the London Symphony Orchestra.  There's a lot more to being Music Director than conducting.  Rattle is a brilliant communicator whose enthusiasm fires up those around him.  He's the best possible ambassador for the LSO, the Barbican and for British music all round. This concert could mark an historic occasion.  Will Rattle revitalize the LSO and London, as  he transformed the City of Birmingham and its Symphony Orchestra ?  Will Rattle succeed single handedly in reversing the insular philistinism that's plaguing this nation?   In our celebrity-obsessed age, you need a celebrity to reach the masses.  If the new concert hall for London is ever built - and it should be  - somehow Rattle's role should be recognized. This inaugural concert of the new LSO and Barbican season might, in time, prove an historic occasion.

And now, to the music! An all-British programme proving that British music is alive and thriving.  When Sir Edward Elgar was "Britain's Greatest Living Composer", his music was often associated with Birmingham.  Rattle's Elgar credentials go way back  Thus the Enigma Variations, its cheerful geniality matching the occasion.  Once Elgar was "new music". But good music keeps evolving. Britain's "Greatest Living Composer" is now Sir Harrison Birtwistle, so original that his contemporaries, alive or not, don't come close.

Birtwistle's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2010-11) is classic Birtwistle. It operates on several simultaneous layers, moving in well defined patterns, proceeding with the deliberation of ritual magic. It also connects to Birtwistle's operas and music theatre. The soloist, Christian Tetzlaff, for whom it was commissioned, always hold centre stage, the orchestra acting like a  chorus.  A rumbling introduction, suggesting portent.  Almost immediately the violin spins into life - quirky, angular figures - characteristic Birtwistle zig-zags, lit by sudden explosions in the orchestra - high strings, then low winds, and an underlying pulse which emerges in bursts of ostinato.  Five "dialogues" in which the violin discourses with individual instruments.  Unlike Greek drama where the chorus comments on proceedings, the orchestra follows the soloist, interacting with the inventiveness in the violin part. Frequent exclamation points - a gong,  bell-like marimba like a laugh of recognition,  exotic sounds whose meaning may be unclear but significant, nonetheless.  Wild outbursts and delicate, wayward passages.  The violin sings at the top of its register, tantalizingly beyond and above the orchestra, which responds with groaning blasts. Inventive, richly rewarding and enlivened by Birtwistle's whimsical wit.  An excellent companion piece to Elgar's Enigma Variations: the pair should be heard together more often.

Simon Rattle's associations with Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adès are even closer.  Rattle premiered Adès's Asyla in 1995 in Birmingham and recorded it with the CBSO and later with the  Berliner Philharmoniker.  Indeed, he included it in his inaugural concert in Berlin in 2002.  The title "Asyla" refers to asylums, places of refuge as well as incarceration.  It's pertinent, since it's a piece of incessant variations. Inspired by techno music and the idea of repeated mechanical patterns, it channels obsession into energy. Though the famous third movement allegedly depicts swarming hordes bobbing up and down in a crowded nightclub, probably high on drugs, the same could apply to shamanistic dance, where shamans, often high on peyote, dance themselves into oblivion, thereby releasing their subconscious.  Asylum as escape and refuge, yet also dangerous.  Thus the grand Hollywoodesque climax, an ejaculation in many ways.  Asyla can be read as a series of variations, though, unlike Birtwistle and Elgar, these variations are tinged with insanity and desperation.   Adès's finest work feeds off this primal energy. Perhaps it needs challenge to keep the sparkplugs firing.  Some of his later work isn't as good as Asyla, or The Tempest, or America: a Prophecy, but he's still an important composer. 

Pointedly, Rattle included Oliver Knussen in his pantheon. Knussen has been a regular at the Barbican, so Rattle could hardly fail to acknowledge his role in promoting new music, in London, in Birmingham and at Aldeburgh.   But their relationship is closer than that : Rattle conducted Knussen when Knussen was barely out of his teens.  Knussen's Symphony no 3 (1973-79) takes its cue from Shakespeare's Ophelia, distraught with grief, singing "mad songs" in Hamlet For more background, please read the description  on Faber, who are Knussen's publishers.  The piece has been in Rattle's repertoire since CBSO days. It's a pity that the only recording of this work was not by Rattle, who reveals Knussen's Symphony in its full glory:  (Knussen's conducted it lots, too). It's an amazing work, at turns quirky, magical, demented and inspired. 

Knussen's Third Symphony is wordless, but its sinuous figures suggest curving, swaying movement, like a dancer turning in circles. Knussen has referred to its "cinematic" nature and "the potential relationship in film between a tough and fluid narrative form and detail which can be frozen or 'blown up' at any point." Without words, Knussen creates drama, in the shifting layers and tempi. Each permutation unfolds like a frenzied dance, or perhaps processional, given the size of these orchestral forces. The orchestra is huge - especially for a piece that lasts 15 minutes, but at its heart lie just three players, a sub unit of celeste, harp and guitar (alternating mandolin). Does that suggest Mahler's Seventh Symphony, and its strange Nachtmusik? Knussen and Mahler don't sound the least bit similar, but the comparison is fruitful, because both symphonies evoke contradictory responses. That's part of their enigmatic power.  Knussen's symphony "dances" with grave dignity, strong tutti chords suggesting fractured intensity. Darkness and blinding bright light. Yet at the heart, quiet, simple sounds suggesting the fragile human soul within.

A wonderful performance - let's hope Rattle and the LSO do it again, in tribute, for Knussen is very much "more" than a composer, just as Rattle is "more" than a conductor. Knussen's a towering figure in every way, who has done more than most for music in this country.  Because his energies have found so many outlets, he hasn't written as much as he might have, but almost everything he does write is top notch, top rank.

Among the many composers Knussen has nurtured is Helen Grime.  Appropriately, Rattle chose her for the the piece with which the concert began - Fanfare - from a much larger work still in progress.  Another excellent choice, linking the past to the future, proof that music in Britain is alive and well and deserves to thrive. 

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Natives and freedom - The Hurricane 1937

"A sense of honour in the South Seas is as about as silly as  a silk hat in a hurricane"  says Dr Kersaint to M. De Laage, the tyrannical governor of Manikura, a French colony in the South Pacific, who is "under the spell of honour and duty" and defines honour as the need to impose control on feckless natives. A ship arrives, bringing Mme De Laage, and Terangi, the First Mate, a born sailor who "kept hanging from the mast like a bird, with wings stretched for home".

The natives rush cheerfully aboard the ship to welcome the crew home, to the strains of Aloha Oe (read more about that song here). The natives, as the Doctor says, "are like birds who need to flock together in the breeze" The village celebrates the wedding of Terangi and Marama. Great shots of native girls in leis and Terangi's muscular bare chest.  Terangi and Marama set off in a dugout for an island honeymoon.  But Terangi smells a good wind: the ship sets sails again. In Tahiti, Ternagi and his friends are in a bar with loose women who smoke. Terangi plays with a mechanical hula doll with childish delight.  "Get up when a white man tells you!" sneers a drunk. Ternagi fells him with one blow.

But in colonies, fighting back is insurrection. The Hurricane's subtext was dangerous. Setting the movie in a French colony disguised the fact that the same brutal rules applied elsewhere, including Hawaii.   Or in the mainland US, for that matter.

Terangi is imprisoned. Being a free spirit, he keeps escaping and his sentence gets extended.   "Sixteen years in a cell with rats as companions".in chains, being whipped, doing hard labour., but Terangi remains unbroken.  He escapes again from maximum security, but inadvertently kills a guard. He steals a canoe and paddles 600 miles back to Manakura, navigating by the winds, braving storms at sea.  The local Priest takes him in secrecy to an island, where he's reunited with Marama and their child.

Back in Manakura, a hurricane is building up.  "Imagine Paris", says Mme De Laage, "civilizations don't do well in a hurricane"   The natives are restless : they know something, they're smiling.  Terangi's a legend, a symbol of freedom. De Laage finds out where he's hidden and sets off to capture him.  "You'll find a stronger authority than me in that storm!" cries the Priest. The hurricane hits Manakura.  People take shelter in the church, whose bells won't stop ringing in the wind. Fabulous cinematography - sheets of rain, flying debris, palm trees crashing, pounding waves. I've been in hurricanes. When I first saw this film on TV, it seemed realistic enough (to a kid).  

Terangi appears in a boat and the priest tells him to save those he can, who include Mme De Laage.  Eventually the church bell falls silent. But by then the church has been flattened, the priest and most of his parishioners killed. Terangi and his family wash up on a beach and light a fire. M. De Laage comes and rescues his wife. Terangi and his family escape in a war canoe.  De Laage spots it in the distance from his ship. "It's just debris" says his wife.

Given that The Hurricane was made in 1937, the director John Ford and producer Samuel Goldwyn really couldn't take risks with the authorities, so they probably needed to play up the pseudo-religious moralizing, which is pretty turgid. Overlook that, though, and the movie is daringly radical. It challenges racism outright, and the idea of rigid, relentless power structures.  Although  Ternagi and Marama are acted by white people in  brownface (Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour) and the characters they play are cardboard, the stereotypes aren't negative.  Compare The Hurricane to Typhoon, the 1940 Paramount movie shot in (then) glorious Technicolor and maximum special effects. There, the natives are no more than scenery and Dorothy Lamour's part serves only to offer glimpses of her body. Typhoon is  B movie crime flick set in the tropics. The Hurricane is much more, and would have been even better had Hollywood, and the West in general, been ready for something stronger.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Dvořák Festival Prague Stabat Mater - Opolais Kurukova Samek René Pape

Dvořák Stabat Mater, Prague  photo: Petra Hajska

Dvořák Stabat Mater keynote of the 2017 Dvořák Festival at the Rudolfinium, Prague. Emmanuele Villaume conducted the PKF Philharmonia, Prague, with the Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno (concertmaster Petr Fila) and soloists Christine Opolais, Jana Kurucová, Richard Samek and René Pape. Outstanding singing - even better than on the recent recording where Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Choir. (read more hereBělohlávek  founded the PKF Philharmonia Prague in 1992 after he left the Czech Philharmonic The two orchestras thus had parallel lives.  Bělohlávek never really left the Czech Philharmonic, and became Chief Conductor again in 2010, heralding a new golden age for Czech repertoire, both in Czechia and in the UK.  The PKF Philharmonia Prague continues to thrive.Bělohlávek remained Conductor Laureate. The PKF has a slightly different profile and leaner, lighter sound.  But both orchestras honour Antonín Dvořák, whose statue stands facing the Rudolfinium as if he were a guiding spirit.  

The surging, swelling motifs in the first movement set the affirmative tone. Though the term Stabat Mater refers to the Virgin's Mary's grief as a mother on the death of her son, in theological terms it's a contemplation on faith.  Dvořák's Stabat Mater is sorrowful, but ultimately uplifting: the devout believe in the resurrection of the soul.  Thus the surging thrust that runs through the piece, the choir entering with "Stabat Mater!" in hushed tones.  While Bělohlávek shaped the pulse so profoundly that it resonated like the rhythms of a human body, Vuillame has the edge with far better singers. Richard Samek, the tenor, was superb.  He impressed in   Bělohlávek''s Dvořák Requiem earlier this year (read more here)r   His voice has a Helden ring, yet conveys depth and tragedy : when he sang Dalibor in 2015, he created the complexity in the character.  (read more here). Samek's voice was well complemented by that of Kristine Opolais.  She's a brilliant Rusalka, the silvery clarity of her timbre enriched by tenderness and sensitivity.  The women she portrays in her roles end up suffering.  An inspired choice for a cantata about the Virgin Mary, whose son must die for the good of mankind.  .  
Further depth was supplied by the richness of the voices of Jana Kurucová and René Pape.  Kurucová is relatively young, but interesting, while Pape is of course a mega star: luxury casting for a cantata. He's magnificent, the authority in his singing adding depth to all around him.  This Stabat Mater is worth hearing for him alone, he's so good.   Excellent balance between the four soloists, and between the soloists and male and female voices.  The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno are very good indeed.  Bělohlávek's Dvořák Stabat Mater is better orchestrally and the singing was fine, but the singing in this performance is in a different league, making this a Stabat Mater to remember.   "Amen ! Amen !" the choirs and soloists sang in multi-layered filigree, while the textures in the orchestra softened to rapturous wonder. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Vision-free Last Night of the Proms 2017

Nina Stemme at the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2017. She was not the only one left open-mouthed by this year's Non-Event LNOP, which was as vision-free as most of the this year's season.  Formula works, to some extent. Stemme is such a megastar that even those who know zilch about music know who she is and that she does Wagner. So nil imagination  needed to make her do Brünnhilde while singing Rule Britannia. So no-one really goes to the Last Night for music. But Nina Stemme deserves better !  She's an artist not a cartoon.  A few years back, Roderick Williams did it in street clothes. That was infinitely more sincere and moving and more in the spirit of the anthem.  Dressing up is all very well, but it needs to be done with genuine flair and humour,  the way Juan Diego Florez did last year as Inca Prince and the skit on Paddington Bear as homeless immigrant. (Please read more here).  It's not Stemme's fault. It's the marketing philosophy behind the Proms these days that puts commercialism above music.

Formula is all very well and, thanks to formula, there were many good Proms this year, scattered around the crass detritus. Thanks to good performers who actually like music, not the suits behind formula.   How did the Royal Albert Hall get its name ?   The vision of a Prince who believed in excellence and learning.   Who created the Proms ? A man with vision who loved music and believed that ordinary people could appreciate serious music which wasn't dumbed down.   Instead, we're now locked into the "Ten Pieces" mentality, probably the worst case of moronic, musically illiterate goonishness ever. The first year, it was a gimmick but repeated and extended it's become a joke that's gone stale. Yet again, formula without vision.  Alan Davey  claimed "Don't apologise for classical music's complexity. That's its strength". So if he really believes that, why not act on it? For a start, the BBC should scrap the Ten Pieces groupthink and get rid of those behind it.

What makes the Last Night of the Proms so much fun is that it's when Prommers party.  Party, as in having fun, not party as in Party. As someone interviewed for the broadcast said "We Germans can't do that". They've seen where mass rallies and jingoism can lead.   Flag waving wasn't a LNOP tradition til fairly recently, and in principle, there's nothing wrong with it. But there's flag waving because you love your country, and flag waving as a form of passive aggression and intimidation. Again, hidden messages. Parry's Jerusalem arranged by Elgar, setting a poem by William Blake whose real meaning has been misappropriated.  Read more about that here. What's more, Parry's original version is more questioning than truculent. It might not go down well these days.\funny how

Funnyn how Nigerl Farage and his pals in the media are attacking those who handed out EU flags, while conveniently forgetting that Aron Banks, w2ho bankriolled Brexit and UKIP did the same stunt last year. 

What also makes the Last Night great is the sense of spontaneity and irreverence. This is why it responds so well to current affairs and social conscience.  The Conductor's Speech varies, but the best have been the ones which came from the conductor's heart.  That's why conductors need freedom. The job usually falls to the Chief of the BBC SO, the BBC's flagship orchestra, which works so hard all year around.  Sakari Oramo's a genial, engaging character, with integrity. No firebrand he.   But this year, he was reading a script so banal it sounded like it had been cobbled together by BBC management. All bullet points and mealy mouthed platitudes. Like the bit about women conductors. If the Proms really cared about women, why stick to one token conductor, moulded by Bernstein, whose speeches were self-promotion  as opposed to the common cause? Oramo is a good speaker because he's real.   Rumour had it that the political powers that be, in whose hands the BBC's fate lies, wanted to control the LNOP speech. And perhaps they did.

But if such politicians and those who influence them (to put it gently) were so secure in their beliefs, why would they feel threatened by Barenboim and Igor Levit?  We don't live in truly democratic times but in a world where those who control the media control minds and use their power to bypass parliamentary process and the very right to dissent.  Fact is, most people in the music business, and in the business world in general,  have experience dealing with the complexities  of the situation.  Regular Prommers, the ones who come all season for the music, not just for LNOP, often think on the same lines.  So why the fear? In a democracy, you live with alternatives, you don't suppress them.

Nice enough music, though the LNOP isn't really about music. Most memorable apart from Stemme's Liebestod, were Sibelius's Finlandia Hymn in the version made in 1941 with a text relevant to the war between Finland and Russia,  and Zoltán Kodály Budavári Te Deum with Lucy Crowe, Christine Rice, Ben Johnson (looking natty in a beard) and John Relyea.  Good stuff from the BBC Singers and BBC SO Chorus.   Much lesss edifying, though, tye pieces by Mlcolm SAargeant, w2ho was a great marketeer, and \John Adams, both of whom included to fulfill the obssession with formul themes, not for intrinsic musical value.

Many improvements this year in the physical management of the Proms, like not letting latecomers enter willy nilly, and exceptionally helpful ushers and security staff. The people at Door 9 in particular deserve praise, though praise from the public doesn't often get relayed down to the folks on the ground.  The presenters are less hyped-up, too, thank goodness, though some of the chat shows were dire. So many thanks to someone getting things as right as possible.  Hopefully those standards of excellence will apply in future to artistic policy and (dare I say) the Vision Thing.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Demon Dalmations !

Demon Dalmations ! Simon Rattle on the LSO season opener, The Damnation of Faust.

"“Every musician of my generation learnt about Berlioz from the LSO’s recordings with Colin Davis,” he says. “I remember being completely bowled over by their performance of orchestral extracts from Faust when I was about eight, and my sister quietly saying to me, ‘Actually, Simon, it’s the damnation of Faust, not the dalmatian.’ I’d assumed it was a story about a dog.”

(from an interview with the Times)

Friday, 8 September 2017

Shattering power - Mahler 6 Prom Daniel Harding, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Prom 72, Mahler Symphony no 6 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Harding conducting - an incandescent experience, igniting with such force that it seemed to sear itself into the soul.  Mahler himself said that the symphony "would pose riddles only to be solved by a generation which has assimilated and digested my first five symphonies". What might these riddles be?  This symphony causes controversy, much of it supposition and hearsay. Why the tag "Tragic"? Was Mahler really so superstitious that he thought a hammer blow might end his life. And the movement order - even if you know nothing else about the symphony you can sound smart screaming SA/AS.   So all the more reason we need to approach Mahler's Sixth on musical terms and value genuine insight.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra are outstanding, and their playing on this occasion seemed truly inspired.  Daniel Harding's Mahler credentials go back to his teens, when he was appointed by Claudio Abbado as his assistant and gave him Mahler's symphony no 10 to work on. A very wise move. Harding digested more than the first five symphonies. He assimiliated Mahler's output from beginning to end.  Moreover, with the Tenth there was then no received performance tradition: Harding had to find his own, original way. The Tenth is also a good way to start because it's unfinished: thinking in terms of open-ended possibility often stimulates insight.   Abbado was more than a great musician : he understood life. 

Harding has worked with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for many years.  He conducted the Tenth with the orchestra, a recording that still stands as a benchmark (though I rate even higher his later version with the Berliner Philharmoniker).   He's conducted Mahler's 6th several times, including with Berlin, but this performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was even better still: free spirited and seemingly spontaneous, often a sign that conductor and orchestra spark the best in each other.   They repeat their Mahler Symphony no 6 at KKL Lucerne later  this week in a hall whose acoustic picks up more detail than the Royal Albert Hall ever could.

The first movement, marked Allegro energetico, blazed from the start. Harding's attack was bracing, for the energyn here represents a battle, a battle for life against the inevitable march of time. Decisiveness matters on a battlefield: trust your instincts and don't flaff about.   The March rhythms were clearly defined, drum rolls and timpani done not so much with military precision as with a passionate sense of elation. The orchestra, like the protagonist,  relishes challenge.  Thus the flow between ferociousness and warmth.  Bright, lively textures in the strings livening the golden richness this orchestra does so well, contrasting well with the chill that creeps into the strings as the symphony progresses.  As so often in Mahler. the quiet moments are the most telling. The woodwind melody rose seductively, suggesting confident self-awareness. The cowbells connect to this theme because they're meant to be heard from a distance. They're elusive, the way that ideals are elusive. They may evoke memories of summers past, but quite possibly they are more than that. Cowbells reassure a farmer that his cows are not lost, even when they're beyond sight.  Interpretively, very significant.  When the march returned, the beat was quieter but with more frenzy in the strings and brass, the sense of impending horror felt almost overwhelming. But Mahler's little hints already indicate that something positive may survive after annihilation.

The Andante was exquisite: the benefits of an orchestra as good as the Viennese where every section is strong. The melody in the strings was so beautifully done it felt almost painful, but it should, for loss means more when what is lost was worth having. Yet the faint suggestion of dance implies circular movement - cycles of change. Consider the Auferstehn in Symphony no 2 and the Abschied in Das Lied von der Erde.  Whatever the "Alma" motif represents, it embodies the idea of an entity finding its own path.  Trombones and bassoons created a grotesque parody of dance, marking the return of the march.   Striking decelerating diminuendo and the woodwind line, escaping as if on tip toe.  A Scherzo that was magnificently wild - demonic by turns, yet spookiest when hushed, the brass muffled and sinister. When the Scherzo precedes the Andante, the effect is exhausting and works well with interpretations that place the symphony as a precursor of the agony of the 20th century, and so on. Andante first places more on the personal and on the connections with Mahler's metaphysics of life and rebirth.  If the answer was easy, there wouldn't be a debate. The current edition, sponsoreed by Reinhold Kubik of the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft states Andante first, the way Mahler performed it. 

Perhaps the clue to Mahler's "riddle" lies in the Finale?  The tuba broods ominously, bassoons call, but trumpets, as ever, lead forward, and harps create an image of heaven , either angels or the last movement of Symphony no 4.  The March resumes, Harding leading his forces full forward.  But the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra glowed  and the celesta added magic. The sound swelled, as expansive as the peaks of the Salzkammergut.  The size and variety in the orchestra is relevant, since large forces can melt into chaos unless purposefully managed.  To paraphrase Mahler, "an orchestra encompasses the world". Good minds, and good conductors, lead us ahead. 

Perhaps what Mahler is depicting here is a universal horizon, a panorama so great that it transcends the world.  So often I've written about what mountains symbolize in Mahler - journeys made in struggle, rewarded by peaks from which one might imagine heaven, or the glory of life itself.  In Mahler's Symphony no 3 the  craggy terrain becomes spiritual, the Finale ending with a glorious vision of endless possibilities.  In Harding's Mahler 6 with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Finale was exhilarating - wildness and ecstasy alternating, masterfully defined. The mood grew ominous, even cold, But does the hammer blow mean death or is it a way of saying "No! " to something ? From what we know of Mahler the man, he was rational not superstitious, though some of those around him were pretty gullible.  That final, catastrophic crash - with no hammer blow - was so powerful that  it knocked the audience breathless.  In many ways, it's more terrifying "not" to have simple solutions. Whatever happens next, we cannot know, but Mahler (via Harding and the VPO) made us pay attention.  Six thousand people clapped and stamped their feet in applause..

Photos: Roger Thomas

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Jurowski's Pillars : Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten Prom

Stravinsky and Shostakovich with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This Prom was typical of Jurowski's genius for intelligent, musically astute programming : Stravinsky's Funeral Song at one end, and Shostakovich Symphony no 11, two pillars,  with Britten's Russian Funeral as supporting buttress, with Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no 1 in D between them. When even Vladimir Putin worries about planetary catastrophe we should need to think how and why we got into a world where some people admire nutcases with nukes.

Stravinsky's Funeral Song was revealed in December last year in St Petersburg, where it had lain undiscovered for over 100 years.  For more background and its significance, please read my article Lost No More : Stravinsky Funeral Song.  Gergiev conducted that performance in a superlative programme connecting Stravinsky with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose funeral it marked. These connections are important, because the piece on its own is so short that its impact won't be appreciated out of context.  Gergiev linked it to Rimsky-Korsakov The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and to Stravinsky's The Firebird, a wonderfully unified concept, which Jurowski is doing too at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2018, in a slightly different programme. Mark your calendars.   Combining Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov is musically litterate and satisfying, but for this performance, Jurowski had to fulfil the rigid Proms diktats about dates and nationalism.

Before the Shostakovich symphony, though, Jurowski programmed Benjamin Britten's Russian Funeral (1936), which sets the hymn "You fell as Heroes" commemorating the massacres of the protesters of 1905, which Shostakovich was to incorporate into his Eleventh Symphony in 1957. Earlier this Proms season, we heard Britten's Ballad of Heroes, which has long been misunderstood because listeners can't get past the idea that being anti-war doesn't preclude protest in other forms. The ballad was written after the Spanish Civil War - it's not a call to battle, but a mark of respect for those killed and a protest against oppression. Please read my piece on it HERE.   Hearing Britten before Shostakovich in this context emphasizes the idea of universal struggle against oppression, wherever it might happen, or when. 

 Stravinsky's Funeral Song is about one man and highly personal, while Shostakovich's Symphony no 11 marks the death of multitudes. In 1905, people were massacred on the streets of St Petersburg. Twelve years later, the Tsar was overthrown for good.  Thus the scale of the piece, which not only marks the deaths of 1905, but also the end of Old Russia and the beginning of the New.  Thus the mute stillness of the First Movement "In the Square of the Winter Palace" with its ominous rumblings, and trumpet calls, which gave way to the the more abstract "soaring" theme, rising above the frozen ground, so to speak, as tension gradually rose with percussion defining a  staccato growl.  . Perhaps we can imagine the walls of the palace looming in the solid rising figures but these could also symbolize impenetrable forces of repression.Against these, the winds of change  blow when the strings fly into action, screaming in swirling, wayward lines.   Jurowski's sense of form keeps the scene in sharp definition.

Jurowski conducted with military precision,  contrasting the violence of the attack and the chaos it sliced through.  Thus the eerie silence from which the Funeral Elegy emerged : people are lying dead, but their voices will be heard above.  If anything, Jurowski's control was even more impressive here, allowing the strings and winds to wail, without compromising into insincere sentiment.  Utterly justifying  the connection between this symphony and Stravinsky's Funeral Song.  A magnificent finale, where the angular repetitions march forwards with ferocity.  Though Jurowski, by  nature, is a gentle person, he can be intensely passionate when he needs to be, as truly spiritual people often are.  Where once the soldiers marched on the people, the people now march forth in triumph.  Fanfares can be banal, but Jurowski's clear minded intelligence doesn't degenerate.  The heart of this finale isn't the noise, but the quiet cor anglais and bass clarinet themes. Eventually the Elegy returned, the tocsin bells tolling  clearly above the tumult.  the music breaks off suddenly - the struggle isn't over.  La lutte continua ! everywhere and at all times. Including the present.  

Between the two pillars and supporting buttress of Jurowski's programme, Stravinsky's arrangement of Song of the Volga Boatmen and Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No 1 in D with  Alina Ibragimova, ratherb diluting the overall impact, but that's the Proms for you.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Crossed wires? Proms downgrade the Vienna Philharmonic

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms ought to be top priority. One of the greatest orchestras in the world, and in Mahler, too,  with Daniel Harding , one of the most interesting conductors around.  So why has the BBC Proms Team shunted it aside by a whole hour to accommodate "The 2017 Winning poems inspired by Music in the Proms " ???  Strange priorities - not music. It's not even "about" poetry, which springs from inspired source but a game show - audience participation exploited to boost some management nerd's marketing targets. With all respect to those taking part, there is a world of difference between writing a poem about a  Prom and actually listening to music. Game show tactics to get people to listen to music? Top flight poetry, maybe but game  show spin-off?  Further evidence of the way BBC management downgrades music.  Why not put the poetry show at 630, so the music audience don't miss out if they turn up at 730 ?  Or put Andras Schiff at 845 instead of 930 so music lovers can attend both Proms, and still catch the bus home?

For years now, there's been no music on BBC Radio 3 after 10 pm, as if music people go to bed early.  Nuts ! By definition, concert goers are nightbirds. It;'s what we do.  Some of the most interesting music on BBC R3 is late night broadcast, which fortunately we can access anytime online. Now the BBC's talking about taking "slow radio" to a "new level"  Please read Catherine Bennett "Slow radio is a silly idea"one of the sharpest pieces Guardian culture's done in years   Analytical thinking, instead of the pap that passes for journalism these days. 

Sure, life is too frantic, but mindless vacuousness is not the answer. I loved Aldeburgh's Messiaen bird marathon last year  but that at least had a point. "Slow radio" as envisaged by BBC Radio 3 is mindless corporate muddlespeak taken to a new level   Ambient sound recordings do exist (I have some from my New Age years) but they're pointless unless you choose to listen, when you can't do stuff in the real world.  In any  case, good serious music can transport you to another plane very effectively indeed. Maybe BBC Radio 3 people should try it sometime, instead of chasing gimmicks and marketing fallacies. But after this year's Proms, I suspect that, while some at the BBC Proms Team like music, some at BBC Radio 3 do not. 

Rappelle-toi Barbara ?

Rappelle-toi Barbara  ?
 Il pleuvait sans cesse sur Brest ce jour-là
Et tu marchais souriante Épanouie ravie ruisselante
Sous la pluie Rappelle-toi Barbara
 Il pleuvait sans cesse sur Brest Et je t'ai croisée rue de Siam
Tu souriais Et moi je souriais de même

Rappelle-toi Barbara Toi que je ne connaissais pas
Toi qui ne me connaissais pas
Rappelle-toi Rappelle-toi quand même jour-là
N'oublie pas

Un homme sous un porche s'abritait
Et il a crié ton nom Barbara
Et tu as couru vers lui sous la pluie Ruisselante ravie épanouie
Et tu t'es jetée dans ses bras

Rappelle-toi cela Barbara Et ne m'en veux pas si je te tutoie
Je dis tu à tous ceux que j'aime Même si je ne les ai vus qu'une seule fois
Je dis tu à tous ceux qui s'aiment Même si je ne les connais pas

Rappelle-toi Barbara N'oublie pas Cette pluie sage et heureuse
Sur ton visage heureux Sur cette ville heureuse
Cette pluie sur la mer Sur l'arsenal
Sur le bateau d'Ouessant Oh Barbara

Quelle connerie la guerre Qu'es-tu devenue maintenant
Sous cette pluie de fer
De feu d'acier de sang
Et celui qui te serrait dans ses bras
Est-il mort disparu ou bien encore vivant

Oh Barbara Il pleut sans cesse sur Brest
Comme il pleuvait avant Mais ce n'est plus pareil et tout est abimé
C'est une pluie de deuil terrible et désolée
Ce n'est même plus l'orage De fer d'acier de sang
Tout simplement des nuages Qui crèvent comme des chiens
Des chiens qui disparaissent
Au fil de l'eau sur Brest
Et vont pourrir au loin Au loin très loin de Brest
Dont il ne reste rien.

Poem : Jacques Prévert, set by Joseph Kosma

Clip below from the CD Joseph Kosma Chansons with Francois Le Roux and Jeff Cohen Decca 2000, reissued in 2016. Orevert and Kosma collaborated many times in art film - Les Enfants du Paradis, no less.  Kosma studied with Hanns Eisler, hence his interest in intelligent music for film, and art song.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Prokofiev's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution - Gergiev Prom

Sergei Prokofiev's  Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op 74,  with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. One Day That Shook the World to borrow the subtitle from Sergei Eisenstein's epic film October : Ten Days that Shook the World.  Prokofiev's Cantata was dynamite in many ways. It's an explosion of sound so overwhelming that it needs to be detonated in a performance space as vast as the Royal Albert Hall for full effect. It was also dynamite  because it was modern in musical terms, while purporting to celebrate increasingly regressive Soviet values.  For a while, the Revolution espoused progressive ideas like futurism and modern art,  Eisenstein was probably able to get away with radical innovation ten years after 1917. Twenty years later, Prokofiev was not so lucky. His Cantata was suppressed until Prokofiev and his nemesis Josef Stalin had died, ironically within days of one another.  Now, a hundred years after the Revolution, we can perhaps assess its impact on Russia and the world.  And with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra and Choir, we probably had the best possible interpreters.  

Eisenstein's film, made ten years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, depicted ten critical days in the struggle, starting with the return of Lenin, culminating with the creation of a new Soviet government dedicated to ideals of peace and equality.  Prokofiev's Cantata unfolds in ten sections, highlighting themes in the revolution, some with explicit texts, others in more cryptic orchestral form. Prokofiev prefaced the Prelude with a quote from Marx and Engels A Communist Manifesto, "A Spectre is haunting Europe, the Spectre of Communism".  Marx and Engels, though, were writing in 1848 when communism was no more than theory.  Prokofiev, on the other hand, had personal experience of what a communist revolution could mean.  One wonders if he's praising the system or hinting at something darker.   

In the second section, the choirs intone "Philosophers have simply explained the world in different ways. The point is to change it". Another equivocal statement that can be read in different ways. Perhaps the setting hides a clue to meaning. Male and female chorus members sing lines that overlap one another,  propelled by strict rhythm like the pounding of machinery.   Rising anthems in the orchestra suggest patriotic pride, but they're cut apart by an Interlude with jagged angles, and ominous crashing percussion. Perhaps we're in some huge, infernal machine.  In the section titled "Marching in Closed Rank", the voices in jerky lockstep, the rhythms are even more pronounced, highlighted with crashing cymbals and brass.  The text quotes Lenin,"...we are singling ourselves out as a special group who have chosen the path of struggle, not the path of compromise". 

Yet Prokofiev follows this with a tiny Interlude of  haunting quietness before the voices return, the women apart from the men.  The revolution has started but its outcome is by no means certain.  Thus rushing, frantic figures, passages where the singing is so fast that, with less articulate voice, the line might collapse. Psychologically true: Trumpets call, metallic bells are beaten. We even hear the hint of ships' bells underlining the reference to "Kronstadt, Vyborg , Revel" (where the Navy mutinied).  We even hear the wail of a klaxon - a touch of Edgard Varèse? Though it's probably a natural response to the images of machinery and violence.  The suggestion of gunfire hangs heavily over the orchestra.

Victory, at last? The women's voices sing a serene hymn, whose sweeping lines mihght evoke traditional hymns of harvest.  The men's voices join in.  ""The machinery of oppression has been toppled". Yet still Prokofiev paints mechanical processes into his music - the regular tread of machines and processes, the singers clapping their hands in joyless rhythm, the percussion section stamping their feet.  A single voice rises from within the closed ranks of the men's choir.  "We need the measured tread of the iron battalions of the proletariat". The combined choirs sing a secular hymn of unquestioning obedience to Lenin and his values.  The words quote Stalin, whose loyalty to Lenin might not have been as pure as the text suggests.

A section marked "Symphony" follows - flying figures, trumpets and flutes leading forward, the suggestion of pipes and drums, then a semi-pastoral melody, the strings singing as if they were describing fields of corn and a bumper harvest.  But grim ostinato intrudes: the timpani growl and the orchestra flies off again in frantic tension.  Perhaps in this extended section, with its sophisticated textures and inventive contrasts, Prokofiev is expressing that which cannot be voiced in a totalitarian society.  The choirs return, singing in unison, men alternating with women, singing a chorale to words by Stalin, praising the Constitution of the Soviet Union. But in a totalitarian state, constitutional procedures don't guarantee a thing. You could end up in a gulag, as Lina Prokofiev discovered.

So is Prokofiev's  Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution glorious propaganda? And, if so, for whom and for what purpose? In musical terms it's a lot more sophisticated and subtle than the blatantly crude texts suggest.  Was Prokofiev playing a dangerous double game? We may never know, but the Cantata is a lot more than kitsch  

Prokofiev's Cantata received its first public performance in 1966.  The following year, the Soviet Republic marked its 50th anniversary with a reissue of Eisenstein's October: Ten Days that Shook The World. A new soundtrack was added, specially written by Dimitri Shostakovich. It';s thrilling stuff,. These thoughts absorbed me while listening to  Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra perform Dimitri Shostakovich Symphony no 5 in D minor, written at the same time as Prokofiev's Cantata  This was a wildfire hit with the regime, rehabilitating him in their good books.  Throughout his career, Shostakovich played cat and mouse with the system, not always in the best interests of his music.   This performance was so good that Gergiev rehabilitated it for me: it's not usually my favourite., but this was good.  Gergiev's  also a champion of the music of Galina Ustvolskaya.  Initially, she was in Shostakovich's inner circle but eventually their paths turned apart.  Ustvolskaya's music was so uncompromising that it compromised her status in society.  Who knows what Prokofiev would have made of her?  The Prokofiev that might lurk within this Cantata, that is. Keeping Prokofiev and Shostakovich apart,  Tchaikovsky's  Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major with soloist Denis Matsuev.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Animal instincts : Gatti RCOA Mahler 4 Haydn Prom

Daniele Gatti, Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam, credit Annedokter

 Danielle Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam  with Haydn Symphony No. 82 in C major, 'The Bear' and Mahler Symphony no 4 at Prom 66 at the Royal Albert Hall.  A combination which enhanced both parts of the programme.  A lively, agile Haydn bringing out its warm hearted humour.  Two hundred and fifty years ago, people thought bear dancing was entertainment. Wild animals tamed and controlled by man!  Nowadays, we realize that the wild animals were the men and the bears victims of torture.  Since bears can't actually dance, the music they danced to was  bucolic. Hence the Dudelsack (bagpipes) with its earthy drone. A top-flight composer, writing for rich folks, (who probably laughed at the peasants, too)  and now, a top-flight  orchestra playing for the Proms. What irony!  But better that than reality.

And so to Mahler's Symphony no 4, the last true Wunderhorn symphony,  which connects to a world long past, where barbarism against people was normal, even admired. It's often assumed that this symphony is cheerful and sunny, and in some contexts it does work very well that way. But beneath the bucolic charm, there's horror. Elftausend Jungfrauen zu tanzen sich trauen, Sankt Ursula selbst dazu Lacht. But St. Ursula caused the death of 11,000 virgins, who followed her in a Crusade across Europe. Most never got to the Holy Land, and even if they had, for what purpose? More irony - sainthood and delusion, the message still relevant in our supposedly more enlightened times.  But it's OK ! the dead kids are singing in Heaven, and there's lots to eat. The animals, like the children,  are happy to die. Wir führen ein geduldig's, Unschuldig's, geduldig's, Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod.  (Please see my article Why Greedy Kids in Mahler 4) 

Mahler, Mengelberg and Diepenbrook, 1904

The interpretation of the final movement in this symphony has a bearing on performance, though there are many possible ways of doing it. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam have been doing it since 1904, when it was radical New Music. Yet music is endlessly reborn anew in each performance - different players, different listeners, always something new to discover.  That's yet another hidden message embedded in Mahler's Fourth Symphony.  Das himmlisches Leben  connects to Das irdische Leben, where a child starves because its mother keeps promising to feed it, but doesn't.  And so the dilemma of being an artist with integrity, who creates whether the public gets it or not.  Mahler's sympathies lie with the artist..  

Fortunately some listeners do get it.  Gatti's approach to the symphony is refined but purposeful, never losing sight of the ultimate goal. Bedächtig. Nicht eilen and In gemächlicher bewungen. Ohne hast :  No need to rush, but rather linger in the present, or more accurately, perhaps, in memories of a sunnier past.  Because good things will end. Just as in  Mahler's Symphony no 2, we linger as long as possible, resisting the inevitable. Gatti doesn't drag though, and his pace is sunlit. The Ländler rhythms suggest folk music, peasants - and peasant children - dancing. The RCOA can do rustic with elegance. For all we know, to a Dudelsack or similar middle-European instrument : nothing sophisticated.  Mahler pushes forth with the theme for solo violin, a reference to Freund Hein, the Fiddler whose presence leads to Death.  The Pied Piper, like St Ursula, leading the innocent to doom.  Thus the macabre scordatura tuning.  In deliberate contrast, the third movement, marked Ruhevoll, was particularly well defined. The cataclysmic final section, with its blazing trumpets, timpani and cymbals resolving back to the gentler theme highlighted with harps was good too, preparing the way for the all-important last movement.  

The soloist here was Chen Reiss. A pleasant voice, on the lighter side, which often works well in this part.  though it's not essential, since it can support quite  a lot of sensuality, which is important, since the text refers to earthly, earthy pleasures, like red meat.  It has been done extremely well by heftier voices and even by mezzos.  Gatti and the orchestra supplied the humour. Wonderful "animal" noises like the bleating of sheep and the wailing of oxen.  The orchestra also supplied the colour and drama - sharp, focused playing, reminding us that the knife-like edge is never far away, even in this pastoral vision.