Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Monumental Dvořák:Stabat Mater Bělohlávek Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

The spirit of Jiří Bělohlávek, who died on 31st May, hangs over this new release of Dvořák Stabat Mater, though this recording was made in April 2016.  The piece was one of Bělohlávek's favourites,  and was played in his honour at the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's memorial to him at the Rudolfinium, Prague, last Sunday. Although Bělohlávek made at least three recordings of this cantata, this performance reflects a lifetime's devotion to Dvořák and to the cause of Czech music.  It is a monument,  profound and greatly moving.  

"Stabat Mater" refers to the image of Mary, contemplating  Jesus, dying on the Cross.  Intense anguish, yet also reverence,  The introduction to the long first movement begins with strings, winds and horns, their lines ascending heavenwards. The theme "Stabat Mater" emerges in the orchestra at an early stage, before the voices join in. The pulse suggests the pulse of a human body. Yet, despite the intense anguish of grieving, the movement is serene.Almost from the outset, we have been reminded of resurrection, the triumph of eternal life over death. Thus the repeating ebb and flow in the music suggests a process of gradual movement.  Structurally, the Cantata resembles a kind of sculpture, the long and important first movement providing a foundation for the nine subsequent movements, the last reflecting the first on a smaller scale.  This important first movement provides the foundation for the other nine shorter movements.  Dvořák, who was devout, may also have had in mind the Novena sequences of prayers said in private silence, often devoted to the Virgin Mary Thus the fundamental mood of this piece is devotional, even serene. We all know the Pietà of Michelangelo, and how the cool, pure strength of marble forms a bedrock over which fine details can be carved.  Bělohlávek's approach was sculptural, in the sense that he showed how form and structure expressed meaning.  Beautiful playing from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, who have this music's soul.  Monumental, yes, but very personal and moving.

The Rudolfinium, empty after Bělohlávek's memorial
These firm foundations illuminated the voices. Michael Spyres's tenor rang like a clarion : "Stabat Mater, dolorosa", soon joined by the womanly voices of Eri Nakamura and Elisabeth Kulmann.  Jongmin Park's bass added burnished ballast.  Gradually then the quartet and choir sections give way to more defined sections for choir or choir and soloists. The Prague Philharmonic Choir are excellent - a pity that Bělohlávek could not have brought them to London, though our own BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus are superb.  In the final movement, though, all voices are united, the orchestra with them.  "Quando corpus morietor, Fac, ut animae donetur, Paradisi gloria!". the chorale "Amen" a garland of glory.  Yet note the ending, where solo instruments again ascend upwards, the last "Amen" glowing with warmth.

Please see my tribute to Bělohlávek here with lots of links. 

Monday, 19 June 2017

Schubert, Wanderer - Florian Boesch Wigmore Hall

A summit reached at the end of a long journey: Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall, as the two-year Complete Schubert Song series draws to a close. Unmistakably a high point  in the whole traverse. A well-planned programme of much-loved songs performed exceptionally well, with less well known repertoire presented with intelligent flourish.

Boesch and Martineau began at the peak, with Schubert's Der Wanderer D493, (1816 Schmidt von Lübeck).  "Ich komme vom Gebirge her".  A deceptively simple phrase, but delivered by Boesch with great authority, for this song is the quintessential symbol of the whole Romantic revolution.   The song is itself a journey.  The resolute beginning gives way to desolation, then to the short, lyrical "Wo bist du, wo bist du, mein Geliebtes Land".  As Richard Stokes has written, the song "takes the form of a short cantata".  Boesch's flexibility allowed him to mark the transitions clearly without sacrificing the line.   In the last verse, his voice moved from firmness to despair, descending to ghostly whisper, so the last words rang out with anguished finality, connecting the last verse with the first. One of the most rewarding performances of  Der Wanderer I've ever heard, and I've heard hundreds.  

With its regular, repetitive lines, Der Pilgerweise D 789 (1823). can sometimes sound undistinguished, but Boesch and Martineau brought out its depths.  The pilgrim is a beggar who struggles on though "Thread after thread is torn from the fabric of his happiness". So why carry on? No mention of religious faith in this text, written by Schubert's raffish friend Franz von Schober.  Perhaps this pilgrim is the epitome of an artist, driven to create.  He's poor but has the gift of song. Boesch coloured the words with gentleness, suggesting quiet strength.   Rewarded be, those who hear the song so well interpreted.

In  Der Wanderer an den Mond D870 (1826, Seidl), Martineau depicted the steady tramping pace in the piano part, over which the vocal lines float with carefree lyricism.  In some ways, this song is the opposite of Der Wanderer.  In the context of this programme, we were looking backwards before moving forward.  I had wondered why Boesch's body language had become quite jaunty towards the end of Der Wanderer an den Mond.  This fitted the upbeat mood, but also proved a good introduction to An den Mond (D468 (1816,Hölty)  Provocatively, Boesch spoke a few words before starting. "What's this song about? Who,is dead, the girl, or the man?"  It's a curious poem, with an unidentified protagonist gazing down from the sky. Who is weeping on who's grave?  A stimulating approach. There's no reason Lieder should be grim and stiff. Perhaps this was a song Schubert played in the company of friends, enjoying themselves for sheer pleasure.  Two more happy songs: Der Zufriedene D320 (!815, Reissig) and Der Weiberfreund D271 (1815, Abraham Cowley, translated Ratschky).  The first concise and pointed, the second risqué.  From contemporary drawings, we can assume that Liederabend audiences were open minded.  Endless variety: the pious An Die Natur D372 (1815-6, Stolberg-Stolberg), with Bundeslied D258 (1815, Goethe). Schubert treats this as a drinking song, while Beethoven, setting the same text, makes connections to the drinking clubs of the time which fuelled political action. Thus Boesch and Martineau ended the set with Lacheln und Weinen D777 (1823, Rückert).  Laughter and tears - the landscape of Lieder is vast and varied.

Der Sieg D805, (1824 Mayrhofer) is an anthem, but its brave front is disguised by references to classical antiquity.  The protagonist has slain the Sphinx. The song  resumes in repose ("O unbewölktes Leben !") but the way Boesch sang the critical line "Und meine Hand - sie traf" haunted the peace with a sense of horror.  Two songs of Spring, Frühlingsglaube D686 (1820 Uhland) and Im Frühling with An den Schlaf D447 (1816, anon) and Abendstern D 806 (1824 Mayrhofer), beautifully articulated by Boesch and Martineau.

This set of songs was balanced by the final set, with Prometheus D674 (1819 Goethe) and Grenzen der Menschheit D716 (1821 Goethe) , powerful songs which Boesch can sing with authority, all the more moving because his approach can evoke more sensitive feelings. Limitations of mankind, for men are human, not gods.  Thus the unforced elegance of Boesch's An den Mind D296 (1819, Goethe and the tenderness in the two "motherhood" songs, Grablied für die Mutter D616 (1818 anon) and Die Mutter Erde D788 (1823 Stolberg-Stolberg).  It's surprising that this song isn't performed more often as it exemplifies many of the themes in this Wanderer journey.  The piano introduction is finely poised, suggesting slow footsteps "schwer und schwül".  In the moonlight, someone is being buried.  Diminuendos and a minor key, but the mood is "erhellt von sanfter Hoffnungn Schein"  Mother Earth holds us all.  Death does not triumph.   This concert was being recorded live. If it's released, this song will be one of the highlights.  Boesch and Martineau's encores were An den Mond D296 (Goethe) and Nachtviolen D752 (!824 Mayrhofer).

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The "full" Edvard Grieg Peer Gynt

From the 1876 premiere of Grieg's Peer Gynt
 Edvard Grieg's birthday, a good excuse to listen again to Peer Gynt op 23 in the edition by Finn Benestad from 1988, which keeps the order of the composer's score from the premiere performance in 1876, omitting the cuts made in later performances, but including Grieg's fuller orchestration from the 1886 performances in Copenhagen.   The original play by Henrik Ibsen was a Lesedrama, a play meant to be read, as opposed to being watched on stage.  The full text apparently takes five hours to act out, plus another hour or so of music - quite tiring, I presume. But in book form, you can savour the ideas without pressure, reading back and forth. Peer Gynt is an allegory that doesn't exist in real time.  Ibsen was satirizing aspects of Norwegian mentality in the period when the country was a colony of Denmark. Life was hard : the peasants so poor that many did live, like Peer, in rags, scrambling to survive by using their wits. 

Peer uses his imagination to get ahead, but he's also a rascal who scams other people, especially women, and gets scammed himself, also by women.  Peer goes to North Africa, but at heart he's the same local yokel who hangs out with trolls, whose take on reality is defiantly perverse  Whatever the Bøygen is, he doesn't overcome it so much as scam his way past. In the end, he's back where he came from.  Solveig doesn't have much sense either. She still loves the scoundrel.  Not all so different from the Troll King who feasts on cow turds and ox piss, whether bitter or sweet "as long as they're our cow turds and ox piss".  Grieg's music is so wonderful that you can blissfully enjoy fantasies of fjords, mountains and goblins, but knowing the context is even more rewarding.

I first heard the "full" edition with dialogue in 2001 when Manfred Honeck conducted it with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, with Bo Skovhus, who stole the show, even from a star like Barbara Bonney.  In 2011, Marc Minkowski conducted the BBC SO at the Barbican Hall with Miah Persson,  Johannes Weisser and Anita Hallenberg.

There are numerous recordings of Grieg's Peer Gynt suites but extended versions  with text are few.   In 2005, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under  Ole-Kristian Ruud recorded the incidental  music with  dialogue in Norwegian. The following year, Guillaume Tournaire conducted the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande  in the world premiere of the Perroux edition, with texts in English translation.  Hearing the music in context is important, but once you've got the picture, so to speak, it's better to hear the words in Norwegian, since the language fits the music so well. 

The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande have much more stylish polish but the Bergeners are nicely down to earth. The Bergen singers and choir are clearly native speakers, which gives their singing natural verve. On the other hand,  the "Swiss" orchestra used a professional Hardanger player, using a traditional fiddle, as opposed to a violin. This electrifies the performance, giving it a wildness and crazy freedom conventional orchestras can't quite manage.   It shouldn't be too difficult for Bergen to one day record the piece again with an authentic Hardanger fiddle.  They're sounding particularly good these days with Edward Gardner, so maybe they should revisit the full Peer Gynt.
Please see my other posts on Grieg, Norway, Norwegian film and Ibsen by following the labels below. 

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Doming Lam - Hong Kong Music Series, St John's Smith Square

Doming Lam, from SCMP

Hong Kong music, and indeed most modern Chinese music, might be nowhere were it not for Doming Lam ( ), who features in the Hong Kong Music Series, the biggest celebration of Hong Kong classical music ever held in Britain.  Hong Kong is a dynamic, thriving and vibrant city whose cultural life reflects the cosmopolitan creativity that makes the place flourish, despite all odds. In in the west, people only know movies, and don't realize just how much more there is in Hong Kong arts. The Hong Kong Music Series presents five productions, four concerts and one opera, at various central venues in London from 7th to 28th July.  More details HERE

Doming Lam was born in Macau in August 1926. He studied in Toronto and Los Angeles (with Miklós Rózsa). Returning to Hong Kong in 1964, he soon became a leading figure, composing, conducting and promoting music in a city where performance is highly regarded.  With his engaging personality, he's a good communicator, almost a household name, which is more than can be said about many serious composers.  Maintaining an international presence, he's a Member of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) . He also has a section in Grove. Photo at left shows Doming Lam in  his  youth when he compered a popular classical music radio show. The keynote concert in the Hong Kong Music Series will be held at St John's Smith Square on 7 July (book HERE)   Titled  "Music Interflow", the programme  illustrates the dialogue between western and Chinese music.  Doming Lam's Three Night Songs of Li Bai  will be a highlight. It's a short piece for solo voice and piano, written in 1957, but marks a significant thread in Lam's development.

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra
Li Bai, who lived in the Tang period, was a scholarly poet who lived in solitude, eschewing worldly power.   Many of his poems dwell on Nature, specifically the moon.  He often wrote about wine, but drunkenness provided cover for the expression of deep emotion.  In traditional Chinese society, the scholar gentry were a distinct class.. Although many had careers in public service, they didn't necessarily have power or wealth, but had moral and intellectual authority.  Chinese classical music reflects these cultural values: music for contemplation and private edification.   Effectively, a chamber music ethos.  In the 19th century, Chinese audiences embraced western orchestral music. Conservatories were set up in Beijing and Shanghai. Read more HERE about Xian Xing Hai and  HERE about Ma Sicong, two important composers from the same southern delta region that Doming Lam comes from.  Guangdong culture is very distinctive: even the dialect is based on nine tones, difficult for non-native born to master.  The advent of large, western style orchestras stimulated the growth of large ensembles for Chinese music, generating a whole new genre.  Doming Lam writes music for western and Chinese orchestras, as well as synthesizing both forms anew.  He also writes large scale choral works. Read HERE for a list of his works, with links to scores and recordings.

Clarence Mak
The concert at St John's Smith Square on 7/7 includes works by Clarence  Mak, Lui Man Shing,  Tsui Wai-lam, Mailina Tsui and Chan Man Tat, music based on Chinese aesthetics, cognizant of western influence. The programme also includes works by Britten, Quilter, Bridge and Delius.  See the connections?  Chamber music and song - refined music for reflective individuals   Conducted by Lo King Man, the performers play western and Chinese instruments. The singers are Colette Lam and mezzo Carol Lin, who will also be singing in the opera Datong ; the Chinese Utopia at the Richmond Theatre on 27th and 28th July. Book HERE.  I'll write more later about the opera, and about the concert with Chinese opera in the Hong Kong Music Series.  Both deserve more time and space !  Besides, it's not easy to come to Chinese music, even modern Chinese music, without understanding the background and unique values.  Because the English-speaking world is west-oriented, it helps to understand alternative perspectives.  There is so much to discover!   To find out more, please follow the labels below to Chinese music, Chinese opera, Chinese movies, Chinese culture and history. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Shostakovich plays Shostakovich

Russia Day, but this year marked by a crackdown on protest and opposition.  So back to the dark days of 1941, with Shostakovich alone, without orchestra, playing an extract from his Symphony no 7.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Aldeburgh Festival - Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Mechanicals : photo credit Hugo Glendinning
The 2017 season of the Aldeburgh Festival began with Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Here's a review in Opera Today by Claire Seymour, author of The Operas of Benjamin Britten : Expression and Evasion 

Please read the article in full HERE. 

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Calypso General Election

In 2011, Parliament passed a Fixed Term Election law designed to block frivolous, costly electioneering.  So why another General Election? If the Referendum result was as binding and unshakeable as Brexiteers make out, what's there to prove?  To strengthen negotiations with the EU  at the price iof dividing the nation, stirring up hate and destroying the values that made Britain great in the first place?  There's a lot more to good government than politics. And a healthy democracy is not a one-party state.  So here's a look back at 1951, the snap election called after the 1950 election didn't secure a big enough majority for Labour.  Lord Beginner was an immigrant, who spoke patois and didn't have a posh education. But he took an interest in what was going on, and he took part.

"This is a Calypso about the General Election in Great Britain. Me, Lord Beginner, make this calypso in the style of the old minor calypso which we sing in Trinidad since many years ago"
General Election we had in Great Britain, caused a sensation. independents also Liberal. It was essential. Socialist was glad, Communists was sad, Conservatives did cheer at the results in Trafalgar Square.

Chorus :  But I was confused, waiting to hear the news. Me and Dorothy in the rain and the cold in the whole night Piccadilly. 

Two long days there was announced in the parties with both majorities. It was said that the King was listening, so nothing was missing, traffic could not pass, Police had a task. It was the best election I'll say, proudly there til the break of day. At Piccadilly was a grand illumination, names went up in rotation. Some said, we will get more employment, others said better house rent. Balloons  went up too, I saw  red and blue,  for Attlee supporters draw, and for Churchill who won the war 

Get the recording from Honest Jons HERE. In fact, invest in the whole 6 CD set . Calypso was social commentary as much as entertainment.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

News from Prague

Česká filharmonie uspořádá v neděli 18. června Koncert k uctění památky Jiřího Bělohlávka. Ve Dvořákově síni Rudolfina zazní za řízení Jakuba Hrůši Stabat Mater Antonína Dvořáka, vůbec poslední dílo, které Jiří Bělohlávek s orchestrem nahrál. Vstupenky nebudou ve standardním prodeji, koncert živě odvysílá Český rozhlas Vltava a ve zpožděném přenosu také ČT art.

Czech Philharmonic will pay tribute to its late Chief Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek with a special performance of Antonín Dvořák's Stabat Mater, the last piece that Maestro Bělohlávek has recorded with the orchestra. The concert on 18 June will be conducted by Jakub Hrůša Conductor and broadcasted live by Czech Radio Vltava and CT art.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Andris Nelsons Leipzig Gewandhausorchester Mahler 6 listening link

Andris Nelsons outside the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra hall

Andris Nelsons, new Kappellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, in Mahler Symphony no 6, available here on MDR Kultur.  A powerful performance , full of vitality and insight. This orchestra is one of the oldest in the world, and easily one of the best, with a highly individual sound. Also a highly individual ethos - this was Mendelssohn's orchestra. When the Nazis wanted his statue pulled down, the then Mayor, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, defied the Nazis and paid the price. In 1989,Leipzig again stood for freedom, when the then Kapellmeister, Kurt Masur, led the orchestra in performances of Beethoven which helped topple the East German regime. You don't mess with Leipzig!  In the years after the fall of the DDR the orchestra, like so many institutions at the time, underwent a period of readjustment. When Riccardo Chailly took over in 2005, Leipzig was revitalized, eager to take off on a new era.  I remember their first keynote concert together (Mendelssohn)  and the sense of energy that was generated. 

This time round, only the evidence of an audio broadcast, but wow! a performance so invigorating and so electric that it could well signal even greater things to come.  With Thielemann in Dresden and Bayreuth and Nelsons in Leipzig and Lucerne, things are looking up.  I haven't got time to write the performance up in full, but suffice to say, this was an inspired approach, which captured the vitality in the piece, very much in line with what we know of Mahler the man and of the traverse of his symphonies as a whole. Sure it's "tragic", but without abundant life beforehand, would the loss thereof be so horrific?  Muscular, energetic playing, wonderfully together - tho' listen to the percussion thumping like a heartbeat.  Yet also the elusive, sensuous waltz, suggesting softer feelings and the haunted, ghost-like passages.  Altogether an intelligent performance, full of intelligent insight, and musicianship of the highest order.  The Leipzigers know what they want and do it perhaps better than anyone else.  With Nelsons, they're a dream team.  BTW, it's ridiculous to knock Nelsons for "doing too much". His schedule is no different to anyone else. Even in the past, conductors moved round, and some of the best weren't stuck to any one orchestra at all.   

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Musik der Reformation, done properly

The Reformation was a watershed in European history. But not simply because it divided the Christian church, which has always had divisions. It coincided with social change, hastened by technology. Without printing, would literacy have spread so fast? Nowadays we have almost universal literacy, but not wisdom.  Instead of knowledge, we get spin. People lie dead on streets all over the world, but we don't ask why.  So we get stuff like the BBC Reformation package.  People die when societies are divided : Nothing to celebrate.  So what a relief to turn this afternoon to Munich, to an afternoon recital of music from the Reformation broadcast live on BR Klassik.  The choir is the Windsbacher Knabenchor, a Bavarian choir founded in  1946 in the aftermath of another watershed in European history., conducted by Martin Lehmann.  The concert is only an hour long but well worth watching as it takes place in the Liebfraudom (the Frauenkirche) . The present building was completed shortly before the Reformation. It's huge and impressive but was almost completely destroyed by bombing during the last war. Think on that.

Look, too, at the choristers, so fresh faced that their innocence seems unsullied by the world. Yet in these faces, you can also imagine choristers of centuries past, when being a chorister was prep for a vocation in the church, not in music.  The programme begins with Martin Luther, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, written after he was excommunicated byn the Pope. It's a statement of faith, that God is a fortress stronger than schism, who will endure beyond the strife of human politics.  Yet the Frauenkirche is a Catholic Church, seat of the Archbishop of Bavaria, an important diocese, which produced Pope Benedict XVI.  Only 55 years ago, hearing Luther, or even Bach. in a Catholic Church was unlikely.  Thank God for Pope Paul XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.

The programme featured composers connected to Nuremburg, such as  Johann Staden (1581-1634), Caspar Othmayr (!515-1553), and Johann Erasmus Kindermann (!616-1655), and concluded with Pachelbel Gott ist unser Zuversicht und Stärcke.  The choir was supplemented by soloists Isobel Jantschek,  Yosemeh Adjei, Tobias Mäthger and Felix Schwandtke, a bass from Freiburg, who might be one to watch : he's very good.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Jiří Bělohlávek : tribute to the innovator and to the man

Jiří Bělohlávek, conducting Dvořák's Requiem in Prague, April, 2017
Jiří Bělohlávek died last night. He was only 71,  but such was his stature that his death feels like the end of an era. Indeed, he transformed the whole way Czech music is heard, and revealed the treasures of Czech repertoire to the world.  He was also a gentleman, with charisma and integrity.  Even though he didn't speak much English when he was appointed as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2005, he communicated his enthusiasm so effectively the BBC SO grew close to him.  As Chief of the BBC SO,  he had to give the traditional speech at the Last Night of the Proms., which he did three times. At first, he read from a script, but by 2012, he was so "at home" that he joked, ad libbed and interacted with the audience, like we were all part of a family. In retrospect, he seemed unwell, even then.

In the intervening years, Bělohlávek's bouffant mane disappeared, and he grew thin.  His pugnacious body language  gave way to frailty.  Yet his travails seemed to galvanize his musicianship.  On April 13th this year, he conducted Dvořák's Requiem with the BBC SO at the Barbican (read my review here).  He seemed fatigued, perhaps because he'd conducted it in Prague a few days before.  Yet he  was putting very deep feeling into the performance, so much so that the intensity was almost too hard to take.  Emotional truth is sometimes hard to take. Once the immediate impact  subsided I kept thinking and thinking about the music itself, and its meaning. That, not technical polish nor received tradition, is the sign of a truly great artist.  Everyone knows the recording with Karel Ancerl, but Bělohlávek reached into the true soul of the music   Last week, one of my friends had a presentiment  and checked Bělohlávek's schedule, to find that he'd cancelled concerts in May.  So perhaps that Dvořák's Requiem was Bělohlávek's farewell, though no-one quite expected it, a farewell to his two favourite orchestras and to audience who had grown to love him as if he were a personal friend. 

Through him, the BBC SO, the Barbican and London connected with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and with the National Theatre of Prague.  Bělohlávek reintroduced Czech opera and vocal music to Britain in Czech, revealing the pugnacious, vibrant quality of the original language, so essential to proper, idiomatic performance. This matters, since Britain was receptive to Czech music very early on.  Dvořák and Janáček wrote masterpieces for British audiences. Even Kaprálová premiered her work in London, where her friend and colleague Rafael Kubelik conducted at the Royal Opera House.  Britain discovered Czech music long before Mackerras, and rediscovered it again with  Bělohlávek  Who knows what might have happened had the communists not taken Czechoslovakia, forcing Kubelik into exile?  Read more HERE about  Bělohlávek's early career. Though Bělohlávek was assistant  to Vaclav Neumann, in many ways he was Kubelik's true heir. And Ancerl's, too, for that matter.

For more detail about a fraction of Bělohlávek's concerts in recent years 

Autumn Elegy: Mahler Das Lied von der Erde
Janáček : The Makropulos Affair Prom
Janáček Jenůfa Royal Festival Hall
Czech Philharmonic 120th anniversary concert, Prague
Smetana Dalibor : BBCSO Barbican
Dvořák The Jacobin 2012
Janáček Glagolitic Mass Prom
Mahler 8
Martinů Juliette, Magdalena Kožená
Janáček  : The Excursions of Mr Brouček
Janáček : Osud

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Britten in Bergen : Peter Grimes, Edward Gardner

Benjamin Britten in Bergen with Edward Gardner conducting Peter Grimes with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra livestreamed from Norway.  Stuart Skelton, the Grimes of  choice these days, headed an ideal cast (details here) and singers from the Bergen Opera.  Is livestream the future?  Not everyone wants to watch opera in a cinema, and most serious listeners have good-quality sound systems linked to their home PCs.  HD is dead. Opera companies and orchestras can now find ways of presenting themselves direct to audiences beyond their physical location.  This livestream didn't repeat, because livestream isn't cheap, but the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is bringing Peter Grimes to Edinburgh this August. It should be the highlight of this year's Edinburgh International Festival, if what we heard tonight is anything to go by.

When "Sexy Ed" Gardner left the ENO for Bergen, many of his fans wept openly, but it was a wise move on his part, since until that time, his career had been relatively insular. He needed to branch out, both in terms of international exposure and in terms of repertoire. And the Bergen Philharmonic, one of the oldest orchestras in Europe, needed livening up.  A match made in Heaven?  Bergen is sounding better than it has in years, much sparkier and classier, without losing a distinctive flavour.  The cast list was superb - possibly one of the best that can be put together at present - so no surprises there.

But what impressed me even more was the Bergen Philharmonic. This Peter Grimes seemed to come to them intuitively: they don't at all have an "English" sound, but that's all to the good.   Though Britten was an Englishman through and through, his music is far too individual to fit pigeonholes.  This Peter Grimes sounded like a force of Nature, surging like a storm blowing across the North Sea. You could feel the pull of the ocean in this playing.  The Bergeners seem to connect  instinctively to how unseen forces might control destiny, just as nature controls tides, winds and waves.  Seamen, like Grimes, understand these things, or they don't survive. Grimes doesn't survive, but what happens to him is more than the pettiness of a small provincial community. When he sails out alone, and tips his boat, he's offering himself in a kind of sacrificial atonement.  He may have been abused himself as a boy, forced into a trade he might not have chosen.  His music suggests that there's a sensitive, poetic side to his personality he may have had to repress, even had other choices been open to him.   Skelton's been singing the part so long and so well that  he can convey Grimes's personality in myriad nuances. But with the Bergen Philharmonic around him, it's as if the Furies themselves were swirkling about him, invisible to us, but ringing in his head.  His "Now the Great Bear and Plieades" was beautiful, but his long Act Three monologue was haunted, he and the orchestra observing the subtle, but important changes as Grimes's mind begins to unravel.

Now we know why Ellen Orford sets such store in knitting. She needs control, every bit as much as Mrs Sedley and Auntie do in their own ways. Ellen isn't as nice as she thinks she is.  Notice how Britten writes Grand Opera parody into her music, when she decides to shelter the child from Hobson the carrier. On some level, Ellen is a diva, a heroine in her own mind, trapped in a small town with no prospects, like everyone else in this claustrophobic community.  Giselle Allen sings well, but Ellen is, like Grimes, illuminated by the music around her.

 Because Peter Grimes was Britten's first mature opera, and probably Britain's first mature opera, too, it's tempting think of it primarily as an opera.  But the orchestral writing is magnificent and highly inventive: not for nothing that the Sea Interludes work so well as stand-alone.  Britten knew the music of his time, and the operas of Alban Berg in particular, where orchestral passages shape the narrative.  In Peter Grimes, the orchestration is huge in comparison to Britten's later works, knitting  the opera together, in a sense.  The swells and surges are huge, but not significantly fulsome in the way that, say, The Flying Dutchman is cataclysmic.  Britten, being English, is too polite. Not all that many detect the way Britten used quirky humour to subvert convention.   But it's there, all right. Please read my pieces on Gloriana HERE and on Albert Herring HERE. Britten is oblique : his targets don't know when they're being got at. 

Gardner "gets" Britten, so he brought out the undercurrents.  Perhaps there is prostitution in places like Aldeburgh, but it's pretty discreet.  The music in the pub echoes American dance-hall music, which Britten knew from his sojourn in America, and would have included for a purpose. Peter Grimes isn't really set in 18th-century or even 19th-century Suffolk, whatever the origins of the tale.  Auntie, her customers and her Nieces sell out, but Peter Grimes is the one character who doesn't lose his integrity, warped as he may be. Grimes doesn't do games. And so he has to die.

Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic players are magnificent in the big surging swells. Wonderful percussion, the timpani rumbling like thunder.  Thor, beating his hammer. And why not? The Vikings roamed the North Sea.  Their genes must be part of coastal DNA. Baleful horns, moaning bassoons.   But the quieter passages were even more revealing.  Britten observed the world around him. We can hear "star" music and delicate diminuendoes that glow like phosphoresence over the water at night, or the sparkle of light on a Sunday morning. Outstanding playing from the lead violists, who got a well-deserved curtain call on her own. Beautiful harp playing,and strings that kept together smoothly enough, while still sounding individual and lively, like the choruses, where the variety of voices adds vividness to the impact.

Please see my other posts on Britten, on Norway, on Peter Grimes, Stuart Skelton  Roderick Williams and James Gilchrisdt etc by follwingbthe labels below

Monday, 29 May 2017

Joan of Arc, they are calling you !

Today marks the 586th anniversary of the death of Joan of Arc, burned at the stake. This year also marks the centenary of the song Joan of Arc, They are Calling You, used in a Broadway musical. Presumably the show was patriotic, since the United States entered the First World War, on the side of the French, in April 1917.

The composer was Jack Wells, also known as John Barnes Wells (1880-1935), a tenor who appeared in music hall and on early recordings.  He was involved with the famous 1903 production of The Wizard of Oz, though in what capacity, I don't know. A composite recording is available on the market.  This Wizard of Oz is apparently a lot closer to the original L Frank Baum novel than the Hollywood movie with Judy Garland (one of my favourite films of all time).  As music, the song has references to the Marsellaise but sugared up. The song is too naive to represent the fearless Marianne.  Listen to that refrain "Joan of Arc ! Joan of Arc! ".As if she were a boulevardier ! The words are by Alfred Bryan and Willie Weston. The text is such doggerel, it would be offensive if the reality had not been so serious.  But then, that sort of sentimentality was popular taste 100 years ago, and the intentions were sincere.. Please see my numerous other posts on Joan of Arc  (Braunfels, Honneger, Dreyer etc) by clicking on the label Joan of Arc below.

While you are sleeping
Your France is weeping
Wake from your dreams, Maid of France !
Her heart is bleeding, are you unheeding,
Come with the flame in your glance !
Through the gates of heaven, with your sword in hand,
Come your legions to command.

Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc,
Do your eyes, from the skies, see the foe?
Don't you see the drooping fleur-de-lis
Can't you hear the tears of Normandy?
Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc,
Let your spirit guide us through.
Come lead your France to victory;
Joan of Arc, they are calling you !

Alsace is sighing, Lorraine is crying,
Their Mother France looks to you
Persons at Verdun, bearing the burden
Pray for your coming anew
At the gates of heaven, do they bar your way?
Those that passed through yesterday.

Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc........