Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead, aged 55, after a long battle.  It's obscene when someone so vital is cut down in their prime, with still so much to give.  He made a difference. He'll never be forgotten.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Stockhausen blasts Barbican ! Cosmic Pulses, Stimmung

Ed Chang's brilliant GIF on Stockhausen's drawings for Cosmic Pulses (For link, read below). 

Stockhausen lives again !  Cosmic Pulses and Stimmung at the Barbican Hall, London. Two pieces which need to be experienced live for maximum impact; and what an impact they made at the Barbican Hall !  Cosmic Pulses reaches outward : the performance space becomes an instrument to be played by sound waves. Stimmung reaches inwards : like incantation, the sounds release inner space.  Programming them together isn't easy and I had wondered what might happen.  But the Barbican rose to the challenge. Thrilling experiences !

Stimmung, conceived during the Summer of Love, 1968, deals with the concept of "coming together". The word "Stimmung" means convergence, the concept of disparate forces being drawn together.. Attunement through tuning forks !  Harmony is achieved through a process of distillation,  a series of 51 segments or "models" which can be arranged in different ways and like throwing dice, the sequence can fall in many ways. Within each segment there are some fixed points but also much room for choices made in the course of performance. This isn’t straightforwardly notated music by any means: Stockhausen gives basic templates, but within them, there’s great freedom of invention and the onus remains with the performers, whose artistic responses “create” the piece anew each time. Yet, personal as the artists' choices may be, the ultimate goal of Stimmung is to rise above ego, and seek a kind of transcendence through interaction.   Stockhausen specifies that the singers sit in a circle around a glowing globe that emits light, providing symbolic focus.   The singers sit on soft mats, wearing loose clothing, so their bodies relax : meta-yoga, where physical and mental flexibility go together. The segments create a formal patterns, which Stockhausen, in his meticulous way, specified in great detail.  Yet within the formula, there's improvisation. The lead singer leads, but listens, and sound passes from singer to singer.

Is Stimmung ritual magic ?  The names of deities surface quite clearly above the hubbub.  The atmosphere is reverential: perhaps the electronic sound effects represent some invisible spirit.  Years ago, I heard Singcircle do Stimmung  at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building in Oxford.  The performing space is small and cosy,  and the roof rises upwards like a steeple. Not unlike a wigwam.  As the singers did their thing I thought of Native American rituals, where people cleanse themselves spiritually by sitting together in claustrophobic smokehouses, seeking wisdom through meditation.  The singers on this occasion were Gregory Rose (director), Jacqueline Barron, Zoë Freedman, Heather Cairncross, Guy Elliott and Angus Smith.

Cosmic Pulses is the 13th of the planned 24 hours in Klang, Stockhausen’s visionary epic.  It's not opera, but definitely a theatrical experience.  Please read more about it and on Stockhausen on Ed Chang's website : Stockhausen - Sounds in Space.  Stockhausen's elaborate diagrams for Cosmic Pulses  are almost obsessively detailed but in practice, the specifications adapt to improvisation, depending on the physical qualities of the performance space.  No performance can ever be the same. 

I first heard Cosmic Pulses in 2008, soon after it was completed in the most extravagant performance space of all, the Royal Albert Hall.  There, in a cavern that seats 6000, with a huge dome, Cosmic Pulses had room to grow.  Massive light beams flying across the arena, whorls of colour and light thrown long distances and bouncing back. At the RAH surface aren't flat, but curved and ornate, thus refracting sound even further, dispersing it and forming new, complex patterns.  The Barbican Hall, being much smaller and shoebox shaped, doesn't offer such complexities, but the impact was powerful, concentrated in a relatively small place.  Again, patterns in sound. Long, direct explosions, spiralling emanations, waves that expanded and shrank. The show was thrilling - light sabres and swirly whorls.   But I kept hearing more than the visuals showed.Traceries of broken fragments  for example, bursting like machine gun fire: Towards the end these appeared in lines of dot and dash.  With Kathinka Pasveer doing the Sound Projection we had a wonderful ride. But what might Stockhausen have achieved had he more fully embraced computer aided design ?

 Please read my other pieces on Stockhausen.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Sorciers et sorcières - Magic at the Philharmonie

Sorciers et sorcières- theme of the spectacle at ther Philharmonie, Paris, screened live, now on demand here  thrillingly performed by  Les  Siècles et François-Xavier Roth.  Sorcerers and sorceresses  ! extra magic and mischief spiking up the potion : Robin Laporte, the actor as Master of Ceremonies, linking the music with dramatic narrative. Laporte stand to the side of the stage with his sorcerer props, green smoke bubbling from his cauldron as he intones phrases so seductive that we're almost hypnotized. At one point he chants spells, and the audience joins in. As his voice drops to a whisper, a solo violin plays a strange melody. The Philharmonie is in darkness, the music stands lit by lamps. An Ominous blue glow behind the orchestra.   Magic ! 

We don't, of course, see the ghost ship from the Flying Dutchman. But Laporte gets us in the mood, so when Roth and the orchestr let rip, it feels as though the ship suddenly looks up, threatening to invade our consciousness. Much more overwhelming than in the imagination ! Extracts from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Dukas The Sorcerer's Apprentice,  and Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre, vividly performed.   This was an afternoon perfrormance, only an hour long, and from audience noise in the background, there were kids in the audience, having as much fun as the adults. This is how to grow new audiences - give them excellence, without dumbing down. Laporte's texts were written by Amélie Parias, a specialist in contemporary theatre (in photo with Laporte and Roth). Possibly above the heads of some kids, but kids use their imaginations and think. Unlike some adults.  For that reason, this spectacle is specially recommended for anyone who thinks standard repertoire is boring. Boring isn't in the music but in the minds of listeners who have lost the sense of wonder that is the soul of creative imagination. Exactly the types that need a bit of magic in their lives. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

Stockhausen lives ! Barbican Cosmic Pulses

KarlHeinz Stockhausen lives !  For my review of Stimmung and Cosmic Pulses please read here. Two major Stockhausen events coming up. Cosmic Pulses and Stimmung at the Barbican on 20/11 and Trans and Tierkreis with the London Sinfonietta (Pascal Rophé) at the Royal Festival Hall on 6/12.  
Stockhausen needs to be heard live . His music was created to be experienced through all senses, each performances unique to the place in which it is re-enacted.  That's why Stockhausen Verlag CD's cost a fortune !  Fools they be who think he can be possessed like a consumer product.  Performances are created anew each time,  for whatever performance space in which it is re-enacted. Re-enactment, because a Stiockhausen event is a kind of group ritual  in which everyone participates, using their minds. Conceptually, Stockhausen means more than ever now, in a era when technology expands consciousness. It is not Stockhausen who is an anomaly, but the idea that music must be trapped on plastic in fixed formats. That's an aberration of the recording era.  Stockhausen reminds us that in all cultures, at all times, the message means more than the medium. 
In Cosmic Pulses, Stockhausen dispenses altogether with the idea of orchestra as fixed entity.  The performance space itself becomes "the instrument". Hence the term "cosmic pulses", since the sound desk emits pulses projected into space. As sound waves hit a surface, they refract and reverberate.   Stockhausen doesn't do movements in formal symphonic terms, but movement, in its purest form, is fundamental to his work.  Nothing stays still, except in terms of non-movement : even silences mark passage.  Imagine visualizing the sound waves as they bounce back and forth, often in patterns   At the Barbican, the sound desk will be managed by Kathinka Pasveer, Stockhausen's  muse and acolyte. What will happen, when she, too, travels to the stars ? New interpreters, new technology, adapting the principles further and further.  
This is the third Cosmic Pulses in London in about ten years.  The most recent was at the Roundhouse in 2013. In 2008, the instrument was the Royal Albert Hall, as big and as grandiose as halls can be. An extravaganza for sound desk !  For once, I wished that the blue mushrooms didn't  stop sound dissipating into the emptiness of the dome. Imagine, sound waves rising up, escaping through  the roof, dissipating into the air outside ! Do sound waves die or do they travel endlessly into space, imperceptible to human hearing   My late friend,  Michael Gerzon, who worked on psycho-acoustics , believed that the wonders of the universe have hardly been unlocked by modern science. That's the kind of creative, conceptual thinking he liked so much in Stockhausen. "In three hundred years", Michael said "we might come closer". 300 years before our time, Isaac Newton was still alive. 
Cosmic Pulses is the 13th of the planned 24 hours in Klang, Stockhausen’s visionary epic.  It's not opera, but definitely a theatrical experience.  At the Royal Albert Hall, darkness descended, the dome lit up by tiny lights, like stars – Royal Albert Hall as planetarium !  That Proms season opened with Messiaen Dieu parmi nous, when the 9999-pipe RAH organ blasted full force.  For a few moments we could have been in the presence of the divine, or whatever you might call something beyond normal..  Stockhausen was Messiaen’s student.  The Barbican Hall is much smaller, built with wooden floors and walls that absorb sound in a different way. The hall is also fan-shaped, wider than it is deep. For once, the upper galleries might be a good place to be, assuming that sound can travel without being blocked by the overhangs.  The Barbican has hosted other Stockhausen experiences, like Hymnen, (read more here) not quite as large scale as Cosmic Pulses but also thrilling.
Before Cosmic Pulses, Stockhausen's "greatest hit", Stimmung, with Singcircle, led by Gregory Rose.  The word "Stimmung" means convergence, the concept of disparate forces coming together through a process of being attuned.  Not for nothing it was conceived in the Summer of Love, 1968 ! It’s a series of 51 segments which can be arranged in different ways and like throwing dice, the sequence can fall in many ways. Within each segment there are some fixed points but also much room for choices made in the course of performance. This isn’t straightforwardly notated music by any means: Stockhausen gives basic templates, but within them, there’s great freedom of invention and the onus remains with the performers, whose artistic responses “create” the piece anew each time. Yet, personal as the artists' choices may be, the ultimate goal of Stimmung is to rise above ego, and seek a kind of transcendence through interaction.  I've heard Stimmung numerous times - it keeps coming round (pun !) , and also with Singcircle.  Should be good.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Uralte Wasser : Gesang Weylas Hugo Wolf

Du bist Orplid, mein Land!
Das ferne leuchtet;
Vom Meere dampfet dein besonnter Strand<
Den Nebel, so der Götter Wange feuchtet. Uralte Wasser steigen
Verjüngt um deine Hüften, Kind!
Vor deiner Gottheit beugen
Sich Könige, die deine Wärter sind 

You are Orplid, my land ! Shining in the distance, from the ocean rises your sunlit shores,  mists refreshing the cheeks of the Gods.  Primeval waters rise, rejuvenating around your hips, Child ! Before your Divinity kneel kings, who are your Guard of Honour. 

Gesang Weylas, Eduard Mörike (1804-1875).  In his student days, Mörike and his friends created visions of Orplid, a fantasy island in the South Pacific, rising from the ocean, shrouded in mists, which deposit life-giving moisture. A metaphor for creative renewal.  The island's remoteness is symbolic, too, for it exists in the imagination, its culture and history artistic invention. What little we know about it comes from fragments Mörike later used in his novel Maler Noten, started in 1830, published but never complete, continuing to inspire the poet to the end of his life.  Boxes within boxes. The Orplid themes occur in a play enacted by Noten the Painter and his friends, some of whom aren't true friends at all.  The novel deals with dreams, art, wandering, sexuality and betrayal. Everyone ends up mad and/or dead.  These themes connect to real events in Mörike's life. As a young man, he met a mysterious woman, whom he called Peregrina (a name which means wandering).  Possibly she was a gypsy, and seems also to have had some kind of religious mania.  She disappeared, leaving Mörike enthralled in abject fascination.  Thus the connections with Maler Noten where Noten is haunted by a mysterious curse : love and art, mixed with danger and delusion.

The introduction to Hugo Wolf's Gesang Weylas (1888) replicates the sounds of a harp,, an illusion to Classical Antiquity where gods moved among mortals in pristine landscapes.   The mood is noble : the voice rises on the word "land"as if a halo were glowing round it. Depth  and richness in the word "Uralte", the emphasis on "Ur", so ancient it's before recorded Time.  But emphasis on "Wasser" too, the life-giving force that continues, eternally.  "Uralte Wasser steigen". Three words in the phrases, each one significant, marked carefully.  The last king of Orplid is dead, bu the goddess Weyla, is eternal.  Even kings must kneel before "Deiner Gottheit" for Orplid, land and/or conceptual vision is greatest of all. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Celebrating English Song Roderick Williams SOMM

"Celebrating English Song" new from SOMM recordings with Roderick Williams, with Susie Allan, pianist.   George Butterworth's Six Song from a Shropshire lad, Gerald Finzi's Let us Garlands Bring and songs by John Ireland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, Warlock, Moeran, Quilter and Benjamin Britten.

Roderick Williams transformed English song with his gift for natural, direct communication.   He's one of the finest champions of the genre, ever.  Yet his legacy hasn't been preserved on recording at the level that it should be. It's scattered over many different labels, with varying production standards.  Often, the more specialized the repertoire, the finer the standards.. So thanks to SOMM for this recording, a fine sampler, pitched for listeners new to the genre, as suggested by the rather basic liner notes. Some choices, however, are more esoteric and ought to be flagged up for more attention

Butterworth's Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad is basic repertoire, which Williams has performed many times. His recording from 2010 with Ian Burnside is one which most fans of English song will already have in their collections.  Gerald Finzi's Let us Garlands Bring is another Williams staple, which he first recorded some twelve years ago.  It's good, though, to have recent performances in high-quality sound. The four songs by John Ireland, Great Things, In Boyhood, Youth's Spring Tribute and the iconic Sea Fever, also appeared on Williams’s recording from 2008, and the Vaughan Williams songs, Silent Noon and The Vagabond, also have earlier incarnations. Nontheless, it is good to hear recent performances, in good sound quality. As Williams's voice matures, it hasn't lost its unaffected freshness. In every new performance, the music lives, afresh.

Williams has long been associated with Ian Venables, so the two Venables songs, A Kiss and Flying Crooked, are a very welcome inclusion in this set.  A Kiss, from 1992, when Venables was in his 30's, is a setting of a Poem by Thomas Hardy that shows the influence of Gerald Finzi in its fidelity to text. Finzi set more Hardy poems than most, and Venables was closely involved in Finzi circles. Flying Crooked, to a poem by Robert Graves, is altogether more individual. It's a model of concise expressiveness.  In just over one minute, Venables replicates the "honest idiocy of flight" that is the movement of  a butterfly that "lurches here and here by guess/and god and hope and hopelessness".  Like the butterfly, the music doesn't fly straight but flips about capriciously. A wonderful sense of  freedom in the dancing notes in the piano part, executed with great delicacy by Susie Allan. The vocal part's a challenge, too. Williams’s voice soars and flutters playfully on the word "aerobatic".  Wonderfully cheeky, and refreshing. This recording should have new listeners rushing for Williams's recording of Venable's The Song of the Severn, or indeed Williams's Severn & Somme collection (also with Susie Allan) for SOMM in 2006, so good that it's still a classic.   

That's why this SOMM release is so worthwhile. It connects the mainstream of English song to modern development.  Benjamin Britten's The Salley Gardens is a variant of a very old song indeed, as is The Ploughboy, but listen to how wittily Britten incorporates Schubert into the song.   The  rhythms suggest the ploughboy's physical energy but also hint at the manic nature of the lad's ambition.  Ploughboy, politician and crook !  Allan's top notes fly as the pedal pounds bumptiously.  The song also demonstrates how Williams can inject personality into his singing. As he sings "Whatever's good for me, sir, I never will oppose", his voice darkens.  For a brief moment the ploughboy is revealing his true, venal self, behind the mock-merry cheekiness.  In a similar vein, Peter Warlock's miniature, Jilian of Berry, where jolly melody hides deceit. The barmaid is generous, but her customers are cheats. Given Warlock's own propensity for drink and mischief , the song has deeper levels.

Three Ivor Gurney songs here, Black Stitchel, Lights Out and Captain Stratton's Fancy. illustrate a side of Ivor Gurney that has somewhat been obscured by the emphasis on his service in the war and its aftermath.   Edward Thomas's mud-stained manuscript for his poem Light's Out lies in the Imperial War Museum, since Thomas was killed at Arras a hundred years ago, but both poem and song are about much more than war.   "I have come to the borders of sleep, .....where all must lose their way, however straight....." Thomas’s syntax curls  past the lines as they lie on the page, tracing a wayward path which Gurney follows, with great sensitivity.  Something is coming to an end. Thus the minor key. and long, curving lines which Williams defines beautifully.  But where does the future, lie, if it exists? Gurney builds brief pauses after each phrase.  "To go into the unknown, ....I must enter...and leave...alone". The song ends, hovering, without resolution.   In contrast, Captain Stratton's Fancy, which connects to the vigorously upbeat mood of Sea Fever (both texts by John Masefield)  to The Vagabond and indeed to the boisterous Jilian of Berry.  The piano part marches, while Williams sings with mock heroism. "like an old bold mate of Henry Morgan".  Dutch courage?  Another song which displays Williams’s ability to be at once funny and profound. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Schumann Liederkreis op 39 Florian Boesch Wigmore Hall

Robert Schumann Liederkreis op 39 ((1840) with Florian Boesch and Justus Zeyen at the Wigmore Hall, London.  In Liederkreis op 39 Schumann sets the poems of Joseph von Eichendorff, so very  very different to Heinrich Heine, whose poems formed the basis of Liederkreis op 24.  Eichendorff was both idealist and pragmatist, an aristocrat who helped create the Prussian public system, the first and most comprehensive government school system, open to all, regardless of wealth or status.  One of the principles of Romanticism, derived from 18th century ideas, was the concept of the purity of Nature and of those who lived in harmony with it.

Joseph, Freiherr von Euchendorff

Though Eichendorff,  Heine and Schumann were contemporaries  - living poets being set by a living composer, "new" works" in every sense - Eichendorff's aesthetic harked back to earlier ideas of pastoral innocence. Liederkreis op 39 is beautiful because it harks back to an earlier period of innocence,  closer to the naturalism and sense of wonder captured in the folk-like wisdom of Brentano and Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Songs  like Waldesgresräch connect to the supernatural enchantment of Das klagende Lied, where the supernatural overlays human experience.  "Du weiss nichts, wer ich bin", sang Boesch, not imitating the voice of a maiden so much as expressing an innocent's frustration with mortals who don't understand.  The Lorelei has lived forever, but  the hunter hasn't a clue. This wonderful song hovers between two worlds.  Throughout the cycle, there's always something beyond, glimpsed yet not explicit.  In Auf einer Burg, an old knight has been waiting so long in his mountain fastness that he's  turned to stone.   Hence the minor key in ths song. Yet meanwhile, in the valley, peasants are getting married : life goes on and renews, though the knight might turn to dust.  The same theme arises in Im Walde, where the happy procession disappears   into darkness. ""und mich schauert's im Herzengrunde". Boesch's voice growled "Herzengrunde" , suggesting unspeakable horror. Though  Eichendorrff's world evokes the past it doesn't cling to it.  The cycle ends with Frühlingsnacht .The moon, the stars and the woods tell the poet that change is coming and, with it, new hope.  Whatever the poet may dream of, "Sie ist Deine, sie ist Dein". 

Like all good Romantics, Eichendorff relished the unknown. Songs of wandering were songs of alienation, a concept earlier periods had few means of articulating. But songs of wandering also remind us that there are worlds we don't know, which might be beyond our comprehension.   Nothing insular about Eichendorff, whose frontiers were of the mind.  Boesch was at his best in songs like In der Fremde ("Aus der Heimat hinter den Blitzen rot") and In der Fremde ("Ich hör' die Bächlein rauschen") with its haunting refrain "Ich weiss nicht, wo ich bin", bringing out the internal musical connections in this cycle, offten missed when it's done like a series of songs,  The refrain "Ich weiss nicht wer ich bin", for example, connects to the Lorelei's cry "Du weisst nichts, wer ich bin".  Though Eichendorff and his peers didn't use the vocabulary of modern psychology and alienation, they understood the concepts.  It was wonderful hearing Boesch singing Liederkreis op,39, but get the recording, just out on Linn Records. Please read more here. Though I wrote more about the Mahler songs, that's only because  Boesch has done lots of Schumann, and relatively little Mahler.

Before Schumann';s Liederkreis op 39 Boesch and Zeyen presented four Schubert songs on themes of wandering, In Walde D708, Auf der Brücke D853, Der Pilgrim D794 and Der Schiffer D536. They also did five Hugo Wolf songs to poems by Eduard Mörike, Begenung, Auf ei altes Bild, Denk'es o Seele!, Schaflendes Jesuskind and Gebet.  One erotic, one supernatural, three ostensibly though not quite religious and one so disturbing that it’s in no category.  Justus Zeyen has played with Boesch before, but his style is loud, more suited to Quasthoff than to the subleties of Boesch. Nonetheless, he showed how the piano part in Liederkreis op39 is more spare than in Liederkreis op24, in keeping with the restrained sensibility of the poems.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Für den Graben, Mutter, für den Graben.

Mutter, wozu hast du deinen Sohn aufgezogen?
Hast dich zwanzig' Jahr mit ihm gequält? 

Wozu ist er dir in deinen Arm geflogen,
und du hast ihm leise was erzählt? 
 Bis sie ihn dir weggenommen haben.
Für den Graben, Mutter, für den Graben.

 Junge, kannst du noch an Vater denken?
Vater nahm dich oft auf seinen Arm.
Und er wollt dir einen Groschen schenken,
und er spielte mit dir Räuber und Gendarm.
Bis sie ihn dir weggenommen haben.
Für den Graben, Junge, für den Graben. 
Drüben die französischen Genossen
lagen dicht bei Englands Arbeitsmann.
Alle haben sie ihr Blut vergossen,
und zerschossen ruht heut Mann bei Mann.
Alte Leute, Männer, mancher Knabe
in dem einen großen Massengrabe. 
Seid nicht stolz auf Orden und Geklunker!
Seid nicht stolz auf Narben und die Zeit!
In die Gräben schickten euch die Junker,
Staatswahn und der Fabrikantenneid.
Ihr wart gut genug zum Fraß für Raben,
für das Grab, Kameraden, für den Graben! 
Werft die Fahnen fort!
Die Militärkapellen spielen auf zu euerm Todestanz.
Seid ihr hin: ein Kranz von Immortellen -
das ist dann der Dank des Vaterlands. 
Denkt an Todesröcheln und Gestöhne.
Drüben stehen Väter, Mütter, Söhne,
schuften schwer, wie ihr, ums bißchen Leben.
Wollt ihr denen nicht die Hände geben?
Reicht die Bruderhand als schönste aller Gaben
übern Graben, Leute, übern Graben 
Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) 
Mother, for what have you brought your son up? What have you done for him in 20 years ? Why has he flown from your arms, and you've gently reared him?  Until he was taken from you to the trenches. Mother, for the trenches. 
Young man, can you yet think of your father? You father who held you often in his arms and gave you a penny to spend and played Cops and Robbers with you.  Until you were taken away from him, to the trenches, Lad, to the trenches.
Over by the French buddies lay the English worthies, mown down together man by man.  Old guys, men in their prime, kids, all in a single mass grave. 
Don't be proud of Orders and Medals ! Don't be proud of  wounds and of time !  You were sent to the trenches by the Junkers, mad governments and greedy merchants of war.   You're now food for ravens. For the trenches ! Comrades ! For the trenches !

Chuck out the flags ! Military bands are playing your Dance of Death. There you have a wreath of immortelles. That's the thanks you get from your country.

Heed the death rattle and the groans. Over there stand others, fathers, sons, trying hard, like you to scrape a living. Don't  you want to help, them ?  the hand of brotherhood is the finest gift. Better than graves, folks, better than graves.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Julian Prégardien Schubert Songs Wigmore Hall

The Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert song series continued with Julian Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz, in a recital deferring from May.  Well worth the wait, because Prégardian is good, his singing enhanced by very strong musical instincts. In Lieder, sensitivity and musical intelligence are as important as voice. A good recital, is one where you come away feeling you've gone deeper into the repertoire thanks to the performer, as opposed to watching celebrity for celebrity sake.

Julian Prégardien has musical thinking in his genes, and it shows.  His father's voice is a divine  gift from God, but Julian, still only 33, has a gift for communication and, even rarer, an enthusiasm for music itself.  Hence the wonderful Schubert Im gegenwärtigen Vergangenes, an unusual work where the lead tenor's part is demanding enough for a top-quality singer, but the song works best as a quartet.  Prégardien's voice led, enhanced by the filigree created first as a duet with the second tenor Kieran Carrel - keep an ear out for him -  further developed by the entry of the two baritones, Phil Wilcox and Niall Anderson.  Schubert's multi-part songs are glorious : a pity they don't get more big-name singers and high-profile gigs. At the end of the recital, Prégardien was joined by Ben Goldscheider for Auf dem Strom D943 (1828, Rellstab). Valve horns were relatively new at the time, and Schubert's writing for the instrument tends to dominate the song, to the detriment of the voice part.

Im gegenwärtigen Vergangenes is based on one of Goethe's Hafiz poems from the West-östlicher Divan. Hence the theme Bilder aus Östen, highlighting the perfumed sensibility of Goethe's invocation of exotic, distant lands of imagination, an aesthetic particularly suited to lithe-toned tenors.  Prégardien and Schnackertz began with the rar(ish) fragment Mahomets Gesang D549 (1817) following it with Versunken D715 (1821)  where the piano part trills circular figures,  as if, through the music, the poet is running his fingers through someone's curly locks.  Prégardien brings out the flirtatious intimacy in the song, often lost in more formal "Germanic" baritone approaches. Perhaps the text might apply to fondling a child, but it could equally describe foreplay.  Friedrich Rückert was even more of an orientalist than Goethe, and also translated Asian texts. His volume   Östliche Rosen (1822), a response to the West-östlicher Divan. was his first of many forays into exoticism.  Sei mir gegrüsst D741 (1822) with its lilting tenderness expresses feelings that could apply in any culture.  The person being greeted is lost, but  "zum Trotz der Ferne, die sich, feindlich trennend"  the poet reaches out. Thus the gentle, rocking refrain. The tenderness in Prégardien's delivery suggests lullaby, a caress in music.  Similarly, the unforced expressiveness in Prégardien's Dass sie hier gewesen D775 (1823), another Rückert setting where subtlety is of the essence. 

A beautifully phrased Am See D124 (1814) led to four settings of Johan Peter Uz (1720-1796).  Die Nacht D358, Gott im Frühlinge D 448 and An Chloen (fragment) D363, and Der gute Hirt D449,  all from 1816.  In a complete song series, someone has to draw the short straw, but Prégardien and Schnackertz gave the rather slight songs good treatment. For Uz, the shepherd in Der gut Hirt was clearly Jesus. For Schubert, the shepherd could be a generic Romantic shepherd. The piano part suggests elegant repose, with a typically Schubertian undertow.  The alternating lines in the vocal part are fetching, too, sometimes soaring expansively, sometimes quietly reverent. 

Hearing Schubert's Uz settings with his settings of Mayrhofer demonstrates the way Schubert responded to personal relationships as much as to poetry.  Prégardien and Schnackertz brought out the  delicacy of Geheimnis D491 (1816) which needs an intimate touch - it's about a secret, after all, a whisper, not a shout.  In Schlaflied D527 (1817) the vocal line rocks from high to low, taxing the singer. Prégardien, fortunately, made the flow even, so it felt natural, like the movement of a cradle.   Prégardien has a gift for  songs that need sensitive treatment. He negotiates the changes, letting the line flow illuminated by an understanding of what the words mean, even when the texts aren't particularly distinguished. Lieder is poetry. If words had no meaning, the songs wouldn't be Lieder.  The challenge ius to grow an interpretation from within.

Then to the challenge of Atys D585 (1817) and Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren D360 (1816) much more sophisticated songs, which gave Prégardien more opportunity to show dramatic power. These songs were/are his father's speciality: Prégardien père will never be equalled, nor should he be. Julian Prégardien gave the songs a personal touch, which I appreciated, for Lieder is about the individual and the way he or she reaches an audience.  Being the child of someone so good and so well known is a double-edged sword. You grow up in a musical environment but you have to face pressures of expectation which other young singers aren't burdened with.  To stand on the stage at the Wigmore Hall, scene of so many Christoph Prégardien triumphs, must be daunting indeed.  That takes guts.  Prégardien fils is very good and deserves to be respected for himself.  Though he's still young, Prégardien has already forged a substantial career. 

For his encore, Julian Prégardien sang Nacht und Träume D827 (1825, Matthäus von Collin), beautifully and masterfully executed, the long lines stretching expressively. I thought I saw a tear run down Prégardien's face, which someone else confirmed.  We were touched.  Nice to see a singer, not as an instrument, but as a human being. 

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Thoughts are Free ! Mahler Lied des Verfolgten im Turm

"Die Gedanken sind frei!", the rallying cry of the Romantic revolution !   The text was first written dowen in the 12th century by the troubador poet Walter von Wogelweide (whose artistic descendant is Walter von Stolzing). There are other variants from around the same period, suggesting that the song was already part of oral tradition, spread presumably by students, travellers, and journeying Gesellen.  Notations were made and published later, from the 18th and early 19th century.  A true "folk" song, which fitted well with the spirit of Romanticism and its values of identity, individualism and love of Nature.  Please read my several pieces on the Lützower Freikorps and the poets and composers inspired by them HERE HEREand HERE   Effectively just about everyone, from Goethe to Beethoven, to Schubert, Weber and Mendelssohn and beyond.  And in very different ways, their heirs Wagner, Brahms and Mahler.  

Mahler's song Lied des Verfolgten im Turm quotes Die Gedanken sind Frei word for word, and also uses the same tune. Whether there's any documentary evidence, he almost certainly would have known the soing. The connections inescapable :

"Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

"Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker 
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei!"

Mahler used a variant text as published in the volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn, published by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in 1806, which tidies up the folksy background, as was so often the case in the 19th century.  In 1806, you could still end up as Florestan.  In the original version, the mood is subjective, the protagonist imagining himself in prison.  In Brentano and Arnim, the mood is direct : the protagonist is safely incarcerated, identified as "The Prisoner". In the original, there is a verse in which the singer refers to one form of escapism : girlfriends and alcohol.

"Ich liebe den Wein, mein Mädchen vor allen,
sie tut mir allein am besten gefallen.
Ich sitz nicht alleine bei meinem Glas Weine,
mein Mädchen dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!"

Brentano and von Arnim modify this earthy humour by dividing the text into two parts, one for the Prisoner, the other for the Maiden. The girl thus becomes a protagonist in her own right. But  now her function is diversion, not support. Basically "let's just party!" Mahler's setting underlines the difference, setting the lines with flirtatious lyricism.

"Im Sommer ist gut lustig sein,
Auf hohen wilden Bergen;
Man ist da ewig ganz allein,
Man hört da gar kein Kindergeschrei,
Die Luft mag einem da werden."

The Prisoner isn't fooled, however, and neither is Mahler. His song ends on the resolute. The old anthem returns, bold and free. 

"Und weil du so klagst, Der Lieb ich entsage, 
Und ist es gewagt So kann mich nicht plagen!
Stets lachen, bald scherzen; 
>Es bleibet dabei,
Die Gedanken sind frei !"

I've used the picture above because it perfectly captures the humour in the song. The Gedanken are depicted as folksy cherubs, rather cheeky, somewhat grotesque. The angel represents the Spirit of Liberty which inspires thoughts of freedom.  She's not a girlfriend and she's not trying to divert the Prisoner from his dreams. 

Sons of Chapaev

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Storgårds : Mahler 4, Boulanger Jolas Barbican

John Storgårds conducted the BBC SO at the Barbican in Mahler Symphony no 4, paired with short pieces by Lili Boulanger and Betsy Jolas. Lili Boulanger died aged only 24. How she would have developed had she lived longer, no-one will ever know. Boulanger's output isn't big enough to fully justify the posthumous reputation promoted by her sister Nadia. Nadia herself was so strong that the gap intensified between her students (largely English speakers) and those of Olivier Messiaen, whose students went on to very diverse careers, a divide still felt today. Eventually Nadia will be understood in context, and Lili appreciated on her own merits. D'un soir triste and  D'un matin de printemps, written towards the end of her life, are slight pieces but have charm. Perfectly apposite in relation to Mahler's Symphony no 4 with its evocation of souls whose voices were cut short before their time.

Unlike Lili Boulanger, Betsy Jolas has reached 91, and has a substantial output, primarily chamber, many miniatures.  Histoires Vraies (2015) is a relatively substantial piece: a concerto for two soloists,  Håkan Hardenberger and Roger Muraro, and orchestra. The title refers to "true stories", talks of ordinary life, hence the idea of two soloists in dialogue with each other and with the wider ensemble. The orchestra provides a chattering backdrop . Nice langorous lines from Hardenberger's trumpet, imaginative sparkle from Muraro's piano.  The overall effect is intimate, rather like overhearing a conversation in a busy boulevard café. Nothing radical whatsoever, and rather timeless: the world is going by, but we live on in the moment. Which, in itself, is no bad thing.

In London, we have four world-class orchestras and others in town and further north, plus numerous specialist ensembles of all kinds.  Plus of course, we regularly get most of the big European orchestras, who are within easy reach even when they don't play here live.  But we shouldn't take that luck for granted. Our "home band", the BBC Symphony Orchestra, is really very good: we just hear a lot of them and get blasé.  This Mahler 4 with John Storgårds surprised me. When the BBCSO are good, they're very, very good.

Of the four high-profile Mahler 4's in recent weeks (Gatti, Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam; Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, CBSO; and Jakub Hrůša, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra) (Please read my descriptions HERE HERE and HERE), four very different approaches.  All valid and enlightening. Storgårds brought out the pulsating energy in the first movement.  You could feel the horses pulling the sleighs. The snow doesn't hold them back, as they surge forward.  Vitality in this first movement is important because  it provides structural balance to the final movement.  Furthermore, it connects  physical life with the simple physical pleasures that the child delights in, even after death.   The resonance in the BBCSO strings a reminder ofv the darkness that is never far away even in this most sunlit of Mahler's symphonies.  That resonance came even more strongly to the fore in the second movement where the brasses and winds called sour warnings, and the First Violin  created the duality between the "earthly" violin and its "demonic" counterpart.  

MGM timpani in the finale of the third movement, followed by lustrous strings and harps. Cataclysm followed by repose, a transition that signifies renewal on a new plane.  The soprano, Susanna Hurrell, is pleasantly youthful. Light, bright voices here remind us that the child didn't live long enough to become fully formed. Thus the tragedy, as the orchestra strikes up, the BBCSO in full, vibrant flow. Hrůša's soprano, Marta Reichelova, is possibly even younger, but her cheeky enthusiasm created the part vividly. Gatti's soloist, Chen Reiss, is more experienced though rather neutral, but I liked the innocence of Hurrell.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Orchestre de Paris 50th Birthday Party - Berio Sinfonia flows free

The Orchestre de Paris, with Daniel Harding, click to enlarge -it's worth  it

Hugely ambitious concert marking the 50th anniversary of the Orchestre de Paris. The finest concert hall in the world,  and one of the finest orchestras too,  with new Chief Conductor Daniel Harding, and a programme showcasing the connections between sound and space.  Berio's Sinfonia, "a symphony that contains the world"  created so it constantly renews and adapts whenever it's performed anew.  A metaphor for the creative force that is music !  The concepts that make Berio's Sinfonia so innovative apply too to György Ligeti's Poème symphonique pour 100 métronomes, to Jörg Widmann's Fantasie, to Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and to Debussy La Mer.   To assess this vast programme in conventional terms would be to miss its very purpose.  The Orchestre de Paris and the Philharmonie are astute, not stupid.  These works are hardly obscure.  Music doesn't have to be locked into straitjackets of form. Like the river that flows through Berio's Sinfonia, it flows onwards, absorbing many influences, fertilizing new areas, bringing renewal and rebirth.  As Berio explained, "One of my aims was to use the orchestration as a respectful and loving instrument of investigation and transformation". 

It's no accident that Berio references Mahler's Symphony no 2, with its themes of death and resurrection, and specifically to the movement in which the song  Des Antonius von Paduas Fischpredikt  resurfaces wordlessly, in orchestral guise.  Numerous other references, too, such as to Don, the first movement of Boulez's Pli selon Pli ( which means fold upon fold, ie, endless layers and permutations)(Read more HERE)  "Don" means gift, so this is like a gift  from one composer to another. What has gone before shapes what is to come, but absolutely central is the idea that music never ends.  Numerous other references, some musical, some cultural, some explicit, some so cryptic that they only reveal themselves on careful listening.  "For the unexpected is always with us!" a phrase that acts like a signpost in the vocal parts. Berio also experiments with levels of time, blending references to the past to the present and future.  "Keep going, keep going" and later "Stop!" but the music propels ever forward.

Thunderbolt ostinato, screams of protest.  London Voices supplied the archly Anglo tones that appealed to Berio's quirky sense of humour. So what if some audiences don't get everything, all at once ?  St. Anthony kept preaching to the fish, though they didn't listen and kept scrapping. 

 Berio also wrote music that would grow to fit each performance space. In the Philharmonie, the Sinfonia swelled to fit the vast space, where the acoustic  is so fine that it doesn't dampen fine detail. This time the whispers in the voice parts could be heard, imperceptibly, and tiny figures in the orchestration weren't lost  Though Berio uses a large orchestra, big blast is not the way to do this piece.  Harding builds up the layers of colour and texture so they shine . Much in the way Impressionist painters kept their brush strokes clear.  Thus the elegant symmetry of the programme, balancing Berio's Sinfonia with Debussy La Mer. Both pieces are impressionistic in the way details are built up without being muddied, individual cells kept clean and vibrant. La Mer was revolutionary because it marked a sea change in style. It thrives best when conducted like this, where the energy flows freely.  For French orchestras La Mer is a signature piece : the symbol of modern French style.  

In Sinfonia, Berio also makes references to Ligeti and specifically to Atmosphères.  Perfectly logical then to follow Sinfonia with Ligeti's Poème symphonique where 100 metronomes tick, each in slightly different ways. Ligeti's playing with time, and measures of time : the principles of music, where his "players" are usually the means by which music is regulated. More quirky humour ! In a long concert like this, it gave the regular orchestra a rest while the audience worked. If they understood, which they probably did since it's quite a well known piece. Again, proof that music exists in many forms ! Thus Widmann's Fantasie for solo clarinet, heard in March this year at the opening concert at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. The Paris Philharmonie is a much bigger space, but the piece adapted well,  as if the sound of the clarinet were moving around the hall, reaching out into its distances. If anything, I much preferred this new spatial dimension. It makes the piece intriguing, as if the instrument were exploring and responding to its environment.  Like shepherds of Ancient Greece, playing flutes whose sound carries over vast spaces.  Another connection to the themes in Berio's Sinfonia.  

Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, another hybrid form, blending the form of ritual religious music to orchestral style, at once ancient and modern.  It also combines orchestra with choir (the Choir of the Orchestre de Paris, Choirmaster Lionel Sow).  The ideas in Berio's Sinfonia again, but with the unmistakable austerity that would mark Stravinsky's later style. Huge blocks of sound, hewn as if from a rockface, yet moving forward with slow but monumental pace.  Stravinsky, Berio and Debussy, three very different composers but each creating new form.   In contrast,  Jörg Widmann's  Au cœur de Paris written for the orchestra's 50th birthday. It's a party piece,  tumbling different clichés of Paris together in merry profusion.  Yet another nod to Berio and his sense of humour ! 

Listen to the concert here (available for the next six months)